Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"The world of proximate things. . .exists for Cézanne as something to be contemplated rather than used." Meyer Schapiro

How about just a little more time spent thinking about Cézanne this morning before dismantling the still life of apples and oranges in my kitchen to make lunches? It's astonishing to me that once you have a new way of looking at things you can see so much more. Above is Still Life (1883-87).

Art historian Meyer Schapiro talks about the contemplative, detached stance that Cezanne takes and how that can be seen his approach to still life:

Cézanne's still life is distinctive through its distance from every appetite but the asthetic-contemplative. The fruit on the table, the dishes and bottles, are never chosen or set for a meal; they have nothing of the formality of a human purpose. . . .Rarely, if ever, do we find in his paintings
, as in Chardin's, the fruit peeled or cut; rarely are there choice objets d'art or instruments of a profession or hobby. The fruit in his canvases are no longer parts of nature, but though often beautiful in themselves are not yet humanized as elements of a meal or decoration of the home. (Only in his early works, under Manet's influence, does he set up still lifes with eggs, bread, a knife, and a jug of wine.) (p. 14 - 15, Cézanne, Meyer Schapiro)

Here's Still Life with Apples (1895-8). He's right, don't you think? These are objects to arrange, explore, depict in color to create volume, and so on, not to eat
for lunch.

Not at all what Chardin was up to - here's Still Life with Plums (1730).

What's fascinating to me is that Cézanne's contemplative, aesthetic approach to the world of objects extends to his portraits as well. Here's Card Players (1890-2). Off to the kitchen to cut up that real fruit. Please tell me what you think. . . .

Monday, April 26, 2010

Came across an excellent book by art historian Meyer Schapiro. (By the way, his NY Times obit is worth reading.) Does it matter that his take on Cézanne was published more than 40 years ago? I don't think so:

"The objective world isn't just represented - it is recreated through strokes of color. The world he creates is colorful, varied and harmonious. . . it is a creation of the mind of the painter who is making us aware of a decision of the mind and operation of the hand. In this complex process. . . like the effort of a philosopher to grasp both the external and the subjective in our experience of things, the self is always present, poised between sensing and knowing, or between its perceptions and a practical ordering activity, mastering its inner world by mastering something beyond itself. (Cézanne, Meyer Schapiro, Abrams, 1965)

Okay, this is starting to explain things for me. This "practical ordering activity" of Cézanne's has him deciding to tilt tabletops and fragmented solid forms. Schapiro explains further:

To accomplish this fusion of nature and self, Cézanne had to create a new method of painting. . . He loosened the perspective system of traditional art and gave to the space of the image the aspect of a world created free-hand and put together piecemeal from successive perceptions, rather than offered complete to the eye in one coordinating glance as in the ready-made geometrical perspective of Renaissance art. The tilting of vertical objects, the discontinuities . . .contribute to the effect of a perpetual searching and balancing of forms. (p. 10)

Reading Schapiro, it's clear that Cézanne did not sit in his studio and cook up a new approach to painting and then set out to make masterpieces in this style. He searched, and experimented, and looked to try different ways of composing what was in front of him, different ways of ordering the world, "an order arising from mastery over chaotic impulses. . . "

It gets easier to see what Schapiro was talking about once he compares Cézanne's work to Monet's.

In Monet's The Beach at Sainte-Adress, the painting is divided into large areas of land and sea, and the colors in Monet's share a similar value and intensity. There is an airy feeling about Monet's and a gray tone unites it.

Below is Cézanne's Bay from L'Estaque. Schapiro points out that the division between the land and sea receives greater emphasis, the contrasts are heightened through the use of such strong colors, and the treatment of shapes is different.

The triangles of sea and land are more strongly connected as shapes that interlock. There is a weight to the sea. Monet's inclusion of small things which attract the eye and interrupt the large forms give the sense of a passing moment, where Cézanne's approach is to emphasize "the grandeur of the scene."

Seeing these side by side, what Schapiro is saying makes sense to me: there is drama, solidity, and weight in Cézanne. Not what Monet was after at all. What do you think? Does this make sense?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Weird coincidence - my book is open to a page with André Derain and I'm ready to write something about his work and the encouragement he received from his dealer, Ambroise Vollard. But in my scattered Friday morning mindset I decide to check email first, and there is a link sent by my friend Beth. And it's about the works of Derain and others that will be auctioned by Sotheby's. Many have not been seen in decades. Click here for the complete article from Here's an excerpt:

The extraordinary trove of treasures was discovered in 1979 in a bank vault at the Société Générale in Paris. The works had been deposited there during 1939, soon after Vollard’s death, by Erich Slomovic, a young Yugoslav and associate to Vollard to whom the dealer had consigned the works. Soon after depositing the works, Slomovic fled to Yugoslavia where he died at the hands of the Nazis at the end of 1942. As a result, the contents of the vault remained untouched for 40 years. On 21st March 1979, the bank was permitted under French law to open the vault and to sell any contents of value in order to recoup some 40 years of unpaid storage fees. As a result, the collection was consigned for a sale to be held at Hotel Drouot in Paris in March 1981. The announcement of the sale, however, was swiftly followed by legal challenges as a result of which the sale was cancelled. Those challenges now finally resolved, the works will now be sold by agreement among the legal beneficiaries of the Vollard Estate and will finally make their long-anticipated appearance on the market at Sotheby’s sales in London and in Paris in June.

Here is La Tamise et Tower Bridge (1906), with the kind of intense colors Derain and fellow student Maurice de Vlaminck experimented with. Dealer Vollard suggested Derain go to England to see what this approach might yield in those environs.

Lately I've been spending more time thinking about those 4 corners and how to play them - he's got interesting stuff going on in all of them, doesn't he?

Your eye
just moves from one place to another - And who would try those two red boats to the left of the Tower Bridge? But they work as one unit, anchoring the space, I think. Looking at the water where those two boats touch the surface, he's chosen more moderate tones of soft blue and ochre; they seem really important to calming down the effect, don't you think? Otherwise the painting would just be screaming at you.

Get your paddles ready. Here's one from the long-hidden cache, Arbres a Collioure (1905), ready for auction:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who was Fateh al-Moudarres? A diplomat? Pulitzer-prize winning author? I think it's kind of awful that I can name dozens of American artists but would be hard pressed to name artists from any Middle Eastern countries. Somehow I feel sure that educated people in the Middle East could easily name artists both here and there.

Above is the oil painting Wedding in the Kalamoon Mountains, (1977) one of his most well known works. He was also a sculptor, poet and novelist, studied in Rome and Paris, taught in Damascus where he influenced many Syrian arti
sts, and died in 1999.

Below are two untitled gouaches on wooden board (1966) by al-Moudarres, a Syrian artist:

A lot of his work was inspired by icons, ancient symbols and traditions. I don't know about you, but I like the scratched surface, with those the colors from the underpainting coming through. Evidently, he rarely used writing in his work, but in this piece appear the first words from the Qur'an Chapter 108 - "Surely we have given thee abundance."

Having experimented with combining any kind of figuration with abstraction, I know how hard it is to integrate the two successfully. One element often winds up looking tacked on or just not inevitable and necessary. These just seem right to me. What do you think?

(For the British Museum's brief bio, see this link.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Came across an interesting interview with Luc Tuymans, the Belgian painter, in the February issue of Art in America.

I think it's always tricky to try to have your paintings carry any kind of political or cultural meaning, but in my humble opinion, he succeeds where so many others either state the obvious or go for something gimmicky.

He has a retrospective on right now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the show will travel to Dallas, Chicago, and Brussels.

After exploring WWII themes that grew out of his exploration of family members' involvement on opposite sides of the war, he turned his atten
tion to a wide range of subjects, including governments and power, violence, cultural influences. Above is Secretary of State.
While the title of this painting is just what it describes, he chose her image as part of a larger show called "Proper" about various aspects of the Bush administrations, its people and its policies, going at them indirectly.

"Like Colin Powell, Rice had adapted to racism in order to succeed. She had learned to be composed, determined, proper."

Also included in the retrospective are "two distinct but surprisingly related bodies of work, one about the Jesuits ("Les Revenants" 2007) and the other about Walt Disney's dreams ("Forever" 2008). Tuymans says:

I didn't come from the right social layer, but in Belgium the power structure has deep roots in the Jesuit system. And whatever one may think abo
ut them, they've been important for image-building in the West - just think of Rubens and the Baroque. Both the Jesuits and Walt Disney were involved with crazy utopian schemes based on taking fantasies and turning them into entertainment. But the consequence of instrumentalizing fantasy is that you delete its content, everything that makes it exciting.

I'm not sure that I'm following every thread here, but, he goes on to explain that his assistant came upon some old pictures on the Web that showed the opening day of Disneyland. Tuymans was interested in using photos that revealed all that was not utopian, sentimental, and sunny, so he worked with images of the things that went wrong, including a gas leak in the Alice and Wonderland ride and a problem with a collapsing tu
rtle float in the Light Parade. He painted both. Here's the float painting, called Turtle:

As you can see, he leaves a lot of room for the viewer to see what he/she wants to see. "I have to degrade the image, to make holes in it, 'leap holes' you might say, because what stimulates me most in an image is inconsistency." (p. 81)

I like this open-ended approach to image creation. One critic admitted he always sees a wedding couple when he looks at Turtle. I have to think that would be just fine with Tuymans. What do you think?

(By the way, this link will connect you to an article about Tuymans.)

Friday, April 16, 2010

More Chardin

I'd rather ignore the dishes in my kitchen in order to look at a few more of Chardin's. Above is A Glass of Water and a Coffee Pot. (c. 1760)

I didn't know that Proust loved Chardin, too, but now I see why that should not be surprising.

"You have already experienced it subconciously," (Proust) wrote, "this pleasure one gets from the sight of everyday scenes and inanimate objects, otherwise it would not have risen in your heard when Chardin summoned it in his ringing commanding accents." (p. 215)

As Michael Kimmelman puts it in The Accidental Masterpiece, Chardin's style was "extravagant understatement."

Over and over Chardin returned to pots, pans, onions, and eggs, finding something lovely and harmonious in the simple, homey objects. "The art historian Michael Baxandall has pointed out how, by causing viewers to linger over his various little objects, Chardin was subtly devising works that have multiple points of focus, and thereby expressing contemporaneous theories about how we do not take in complex space all at once but instead piece together the accumulated perception of different colors and shapes." (p. 218) Here's Still Life with Jar of Olives.

What do you think? Does this make sense?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Michael Kimmelman's book, The Accidental Masterpiece, On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, is one I pick up from time to time, and always find something to think about. Above is Soap Bubbles.

Every great painter is great by his or her own terms, Antoine Watteau's terms differeing from Gustave Courbet's, Jacques-Louis David's from Wassily Kandinsky's. Chardin was as great as any artist by the terms he set for himself, which were incredibly narrow: for almost his whole career, spanning half a century, nearly every minute of it spent in Paris, Chardin focused on what was not much farther than three or four feet in front of his nose. . . .Chardin's people are maids and schoolteachers and wives, absorbed and inward turning, oblivious to us. Their absorption becomes the emotional essence of the work. (p.215)

He feels they are not the same as Vermeers, bathed in light, kind of other-wordly figures. Rather these people are real and solid, not so ethereal. What I didn't notice at first is that the compositions are relatively spare; every detail is not included. This seems to contribute to the serenity of the works.

As far as Kimmelman is concerned, Chardin had absorbed the philosophies of the times, understanding Locke and Newton. Kimmelman says critics have pointed to the paintng, Lady Taking Tea, as proto-modern "because the figures in them seem so completely absorbed in what they are doing, modernism exulting in the inward-looking autonomy that defines pure abstract painting". So perhaps the painting "is not just a picture of a woman drinking tea but a a mediation on our perception of a woman dringing tea. . . it's a picture about seeing, in other words." (p. 217)

What do you think?

More on him in the next post, I think. I'm interested in learning more about how Chardin influenced Cezanne and delighted Proust.

My daughter is always pestering me about my subjects, saying, how about doing a teapot? So far, no teapots.

Monday, April 12, 2010

I wish I still lived in LA, because I would definitely want to go to the reception this Thursday night at the Andrewshire Gallery on Wilshire Blvd. My former teacher at Otis, Franklyn Liegel, will be part of an exhibition called Mind Game. At left is a detail from Clandestine Gaudi, a piece that will be in the show.

As you can see, he works in collage and assemblage and creates richly layered pieces. Some of these are from previous exhibitions. (These blue pieces are posted on this blog spot called Said and Done.)

You can see that he does not limit himself to simple rectangles. In class, we experimented with all kinds of canvas combinations, including diptychs with panels of uneven sizes. At left is Barcelona Dwelling. This and more pieces are posted on the Art Center site (where he also teaches).

I've had a number of teachers who are able to help with technique, but most can only show you how they paint. Franklyn was the only teacher who seemed to be able to help each student start finding his/her own style, and the first to help me realize how important it is to immerse yourself in images, to look and look, until you see what it is you respond to.

Do you say "break a leg" with an art opening? Probably not. So, thank you and congratulations, Franklyn.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Kids are on school break so there's less time for posting - I will punt by posting some recent paintings by an obscure painter living in the NW - me. Here are several I've been working on for the Urban exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum Gallery coming up. Do they look suitably urban?
This is Work Zone:

This last is Front Window/Monorail. Maybe they all would benefit from provocative, cool titles, of which I have none. . .

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe there is nothing more abstract than reality." Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi is in the business of subverting the conventions of seeing. It makes perfect sense that he loved Cézanne, who had a related desire to strip things down, to see them again as if for the first time. Morandi shares Cézanne's acute attentiveness and desire to lift off the veil of convention from visual experience, but there is in Morandi something belated, something beyond the present moment that is not found in Cezanne. The very last paintings in this show are almost like afterimages: those blots of shape and color and light that remain even after you have closed your eyes to the things themselves. In these last works, the relations between objects and empty space, between solid form and air, between the edge of one thing and another are persistently questioned. (from Mysteries of the Rectangle, Siri Hustvedt, p. 131)

I've liked Morandi ever since my Franklyn Liegel, my teacher at Otis, brought a book with Morandi still lifes to class. But of course I've never been able to figure out why I liked them. Hustvedt does seem to devote the time to looking at art. (She talks about her 11 year-old daughter coming to the museum with drawing paper, knowing that they'll be hunkering down for hours in the gallery, in this case the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery in Venice.)

Anyway, Hustvedt overhears a bewildered man who enters yet another room ahead of his wife, and turns to call to her, "More bottles!" Then comes the wife's reply, "I told you. They're all the same." They're right, but Hustvedt is interested in figuring out what it is Morandi is seeing.

Above is Still Life with Yellow Cloth (1952). She does a much more complete job of untangling all the possibilities explored in Morandi's work, but for this short space, I'll mention what I found most compelling. What she is struck by is the relationship between the shapes, how a symmetrical object has become asymmetrical on the canvas. Other critics have wondered if his still lifes seem to resemble Italian cityscapes, with their earth tones, their architectural look, their horizon lines. She seems more intrgued by the soft lines of hard objects, the way the lips of some of his bowls wobble and bend like the cloth nearby. In this painting, she points out the black shadow area between the brown bowl and the white jar, and how the light illuminating this group of objects would not be strong enough to create such a black, black shadow. It's as though he's created another shape with that shadow that stands on its own - because he's interested not just in the things, but in the spaces between them. (p. 123)

As a painter who has been interesting in a reductive approach, I was struck by this comment as well: "He did not feel that by reducing the numbers of the objects he painted, he reduced the range of his vision. On the contrary, the very narrowness of the field became the vehicle of his liberation. This is a modernist position. As for Giacometti, as for Beckett. . . reduction opened up possibilities that inclusiveness did not have. From a few things, you get everything." p. 132

Is this making sense? What do you think?

(P.S. to Julie - what is the name of the novel on Morandi?)

Monday, April 5, 2010

"When am I going to turn blond?" Carolyn, my black-haired daughter, when 4.

"Up until then, I had not considered that a black woman could be considered as a goddess of love and beauty. Even I took the classic European ideal for granted." p. 14*

I came across these words of painter, photographer, and printm
aker Kerry James Marshall in a book that surveys decades of work through the year 2000. (Marshall teaches at the University of Illinois.) Here is Blue Water Silver Moon (1991), acrylic and collage:

There's something so graceful and beautiful about that pose. I like that her head almost blends in completely with the upper edge of the image. And those circles - why do they work so well? Describing another painting, Marshall talked about the challenge of maintaining a sense of dimension while trying to make his figures as flat as possible. To get that density, he said he sometimes painted the black figures as many as eight or nine times, trying to find as many combinations of warm and cool blackness as he could, "to make them breathe more." (p. 90)

Below is Voyager (1992), with its themes of birth, death and journey.

Marshall often likes to combine elements of history and references to contemporary culture in his work. It's hard to see the detail because some of it is so light, but the name of the boat, the Wanderer, was evidently a luxury schooner that was refitted in order to transport slaves. The last slave crossing from Africa to Georgia was made by this ship in 1858.

"The male figure is fugitive, largely obscured by the sail, while the female sits prominently in the ship's prow, garlanded with roses. The work is embellished with delicate line drawings derived from Afro-Cuban nsibidi and anaforuana signs and symbols used in religious ceremonies. . . .Haitian vévé symbols. . . and medical illustrations of embryos." (p. 15)

I'm sure you noticed the nsibidi right off the bat - actually I had no idea what all these symbols were. I need more obvious clues, like the skull at the bottom.

This last one is Bang (1994). In the book, Marshall talks about the irony of the African American experience of holidays, and how it seems to him that it is Black people who seem to celebrate the holidays most vigorously, barbecuing on the 4th and so on.

(There's an interesting short article about the controversy this painting caused when the curator of an insurance company's collection (Progressive Corp.) hung this painting near the cafeteria in the Cleveland headquarters. The artist came to the site to discuss and defend his work. Click here for more on this.)

Do you know his work? What do you think? I usually resist work with political or social themes somewhat reflexively, but I am drawn to his with their layered imagery and visual complexity.

* Kerry James Marshall, text by K. J. Marshall, essay by Terrie Sultan, conversation with Arthur Jafa, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's Good Friday, I have dinner for 16 to plan for on Sunday, and I've done absolutely nothing beyond making a list and pulling a few weeds in the yard. So I think it might be wise to simply post a few of these portraits by not-so-heralded Cecilia Beaux, contemporary of Sargent and just imagine some of these folks are on their way.

At left is Sita and Sirita, (1893). Who does she look like? I think the answer is Emily Blunt, at least around the eyes. Here's a close-up:

This is Ernesta (Child with Nurse) 1894:

Here below is the Last Days of Infancy (1883-85). The subjects are her sister and her nephew. If you do not have guests coming and/or are have a much tidier house, you might want to click on this Last Days link to read more about how this painting was entered in the Paris salon exhibition and led to the beginning of Beaux' international fame. (Doesn't Cassatt have a similarly posed portrait? Found it - see at the very bottom, it's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878.)

An entirely different approach with Cassatt - maybe this is the after Easter relaxation pose: