Monday, May 31, 2010

I'm just not clever enough to tie in Memorial Day with some work with war imagery.

Even though I've lived in Washington state for a total of almost 13 years, I feel as though I barely know the names of the leading artists here, many of whom are still alive and painting. While thumbing through a book on NW painters I came across George Johanson. Apparently, when his left Seattle he was only 17. He came to the Portland Museum Art School from Seattle in 1946 on an art scholarship awarded by Scholastic Magazine. Aside from trips to Paris, Mexico and time spent studying in New York, he never really left, teaching for 25 years at the Museum Art School and developing a career in painting and printmaking.

I've never really gotten too excited about Surrealism, so when I read that he felt drawn to it, I thought, hmmmm, oh well. But look at this above- isn't it colorful and interesting? (The seam down the middle is from the book's spine.) I really like the st
rong use of negative space, the bent perspective, the repeated curves, unexpected colors. What do you think?

Here are two more and they seem to be coming more from an abstract expressionist interest, don't they? This is Western Exposure:

Trying to identify just what it is that I like about these. Maybe the combination of very small and very large, strong simple shapes, maybe the foreground figures that are just suggested.

This is Mirror Window. Below it is one that's from a gallery exhibition this year, called Nude with Mirror. (Here's a link to the Mark Woolley Gallery in Portland, as well.) What do you think?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I've always liked the chalkboard-like paintings of Cy Twombly without really understanding what it was that drew me in.

In a book that does an interesting job of choosing writers to talk about artists, Philip Hensor (The Spectator and other British newspapers) discusses Twombly's work and offers his view that "obliteration is always intimately connected with writing in Twombly. . ." (p. 137, Writers on Artists, DK Publishing, 2001)

The writing is "on the teasing edge of legibility; but falling off that edge, rather than clinging on. . . They are not the writing of a teacher communicating with his class. . . to borrow a phrase from Barthes, the degree zero of his paintings, which wipe out meaning like a classroom duster, which obliterate writing s
o thoroughly while evoking it. . ."(p. 137)

I think I agree with Hensor that Twombly's paintings are more powerful when they do not bear too explicit a meaning. Here is the Hero and Leander triptych.
In the first, Leander drowns.

In the second and third, only the waves
after the drowning are depicted.

The dark area of the second must be the spot where he went under. Hensor feels the third is the most beautiful; it's kind of hard to get a feeling for the sense of open space and merging of sea and sky in the third one when the image is small on the screen here.

In any case, I think maybe Hensor is right that more "backstory" doesn't really add to this; the interest in his work draws from its inexplicable nature, don't you think?

The Untitled piece at the top is from 1967. This Hero and Leander group dates from 1984.

He is still working and painting at age 82, taking his work in new directions.

This last, The Rose (2008) is from a show last year in London at Gagosian Gallery. He works big, so this would cover a large space on the wall. Have you seen his work in person?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sometimes a work of art is so familiar you don't really look at it very closely, and then when you do, you realize you never really looked at it that carefully in the first place.

Reading Kirk Varnedoe's A Fine Disregard, I came across an interesting essay on Rodin's Burghers of Calais. He's a little hard to summarize because he always supplies quite a lot of background and context, but I'll do my best:

Varnedoe says that Rodin did nothing to hide the artificiality of his art. Joint lines show and marks of modeling are not hidden in any way. He often made up scores of "spa
re parts" he used to put together figures: hands, feet, knees, etc. "Such physical, literal instances of sculptural fragmentation and repetition in Rodin negated basic conventions of wholeness, illusionism, and narration.. . In one way of thinking, it is precisely this split between content and form that makes Rodin's work modern.

With the Burghers of Calais, Rodin took a medieval story familiar to all schoolchildren of the time, of how six citizens volunteer to be sacrificial hostages to an English king in order to end of long, wartime seige. As Varnedoe explains, "Dissatisfied with the old conventions of summing up such a story in one hero or rhe
torical gesture, he decided that, to get at the truth of what happened, the monument should treat all six equally. To do that, he tried to "imagine the moment of commitment when the victims prepared to march out to what seemed certain death, decomposed the even, conceptually and practically, into the smallest bits." (p. 133)

"He studied not just every man, but every arm, every hand, and even every finer, as an individualy entity, in order to build up an atomized repertoire of discrete units of expression."

Making sense so far? So he has this "lavish palette of recombinant possibilities" and what does he do? Something strange. I never noticed this til now, but two of the figures have the same head, and a third has that same face, only slightly altered. The same fingers appear on several figures, and when Rodin put the whole thing together he did nothing to try to link them by gestures or glances. They are also all sitting on different bases, but their heads are all level (when a more common set-up would have been a pyramidal arrangement).

Varnedoe makes his case that Rodin's decisions stem from his conception of the meaning of this event. These are people caught in various stages of unresolved inner struggle, trapped in private agonies of regret, isolated from one another as they search their minds. But the recurrent parts, suggest that these victims are also part of a collective, and so interchangeable and similar in certain ways. Of course the monument also calls to mind the struggle between the sense of public duty at war with the individual's own private will. (p. 138-9)

As usual, Varnedoe has a LOT more to say, but I think this is enough to get a feeling for his thoughts on how artists play with possibilities, in this case fragmentation and repetition, and from this trying out of forms in new contexts, find new ways to model the world.

I guess maybe all these plastic Polly Pocket and Barbie parts on the floor here at home could find new uses, but new meaning? Not so sure about that.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I don't think it's always wise to look for the personal details of someone's life to show up in an artist's work, but it's kind of tempting with Artemisia Gentileschi. (No, she was not a butcher or anything. . .who's that contemporary chef/author, Julie of Julie and Julia fame, the one who wrote a book about butchery?)

Here's Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612-21). Apparently this portraitist and painter of religious scenes depticted this as many as six times. According to Dr. Robert Belton (Art, p. 248), Gentileschi was trained by her father and heavily influenced by Caravaggio. She follows his lead with strong lighting and a deep, black background.

Here's Caravaggio's from 1598, and what some critics have called a rather hesitant, squeamish Judith shrinking a bit from the task. Her maid looks rather up in years, especially compared to the stronger, younger maid in Gentileschi's version. In Art, Belton mentions an additional reason for the artist to focus on such a gory scene; as a 19 year-old Gentileschi claimed she was raped by one of the artist's in her father's workshop.

If you don't recall the Biblical story, here's a summary. In the Old Testament, the Jewish widow, Judith, saved the city of Bethulia from siege by the Assyrians by adorning herself and venturing into the enemy camp to gain access to the Assyrian general, Holofernes. He invited her to a banquet intending to seduce her, and while they were alone at the feast, Judith took advantage of Holofernes' drunkenness to decapitate him, and returned to Bethulia with his head in a sack. The Jews saw Judith as a virtuous heroine, but Klimt portrays her as a Viennese femme fatale. (from Wet Canvas)

It does seem as though you're yanked into the present day with Klimt's version. It's just arresting in its power, don't you think? You are drawn instantly to that face, but when you take a second to see those fingers, the picture has even more impact. Honestly, though, I don't think I would have looked at Klimt's as carefully if I hadn't seen Gentileschi's and Caravaggio's first. What is your reaction?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sometimes I'm casting about for an artist to talk about and find one really close to home - my friend Christopher Harris creates his art with a pinhole camera - these are long exposure photos made with a lens-less camera. They have a moody, intriguing blurred quality that takes them away from realism toward Rothko country (that's kind of to the north of Marlboro country, minus the carcinogenics). As he explains, "His landscapes and seascapes are meditations on transcendence, a quality Americans have associated with the West for two hundred years."

His latest series will be exhibited at Lisa Harris Gallery in Seattle beginning June 3rd. They are part of his Skagit Series focussing on twilight views of abandoned boats, winter trees, and other shapes barely visible in the fading light. (You'll have to go in person; I have no images yet to post.)

Above is Canola Field. This was taken in Nez Perce County in Eastern Washington.

And here's Rodeo, taken with a small, pocket-size camera, left intentionally with this grainy, scratched look. I'm not sure why, but I seem to prefer images that require some scrutiny, that are not easy to assess with a quick glance.

I really like the movement and the spontaneity of this one. Living in the Northwest, I think gray has become my favorite color by default or osmosis.

I like the way pinhole photography magically reduces the world to its simplest elements of color and shape. I don't know enough about it to figure out how many decisions are still left for the artist. Do you know?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I've had this Klimt book for ages but never really bothered to read it, preferring to just leaf through and skip the text.

The other day while the girls paddled around the pool at the health club I took a few minutes and learned a few things about the progression of his work.

At left is Portrait of Fritza Riedler (1906). I don't know about you, but it always seems interesting to me to trace the trajectory of an artist's work.

Here is the Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstien.

This is thought to be a transitional work between the rather traditional kind of portrait he'd created with Portrait of Sonja Knips. As Maria Constantino points out in Klimt, at first glance the portraits don't bear much resemblance to each other, but each does have the same triangular composition as well as "a certain tension, expressed. . through the hands." I had not noticed those hands, but they are indeed clenched, not very Sargent-like, lacking those soft, loose brushstrokes.

One of the more interesting things Constantino points out is the halo/crown kind of decoration Klimt creates around Fritza Reidler's face. She suggests the idea for this came from Klimt's study of Velasquez (apparently on display in Vienna at the time). Remember that Lady Gaga hairdo on Maria Theresa of Spain (1652-3)? You'll have to scroll back up to see the decorative treatment Klimt creates around the figure's head in the first two portraits on this post. Just jumps out at you.

I worry so much about avoiding any kind of borrowing of other artists' ideas, but here's another instance of taking an idea, and carrying it in a new direction. Alfred E. Newman and I should relax.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Clipped an article about Frank Auerback so long ago I cannot find it in my not-so-organized studio. He came to mind after looking at those highly-textured Joan Brown paintings of last week. (I saw one recently at SAM here; the pigment must have been nearly an inch thick.)

Anyway, I have no idea how Auerbach voted in the recent election, but he certainly must have seen plenty of rounds of governmental musical chairs over the decades. Although not quite a household name here, is well known in Britain for his rich surfaces and his penchant for building up and scraping off layers to get what he's after.

This is Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Squa
re (1952). I love those colors, so hard to make rich and not dull and drab. What do you think?

He found his first painting subjects literally right at his feet. He recalled the time after World War II when the English were rebuilding the vast sections of London that had been bombed out during the Blitz:

London after the War was a marvellous landscape with precipice and mountains and crags, full of drama… and it seemed mad to waste the opportunity and not to take notice of the fact that there were these marvellous images… all around one”.

There was, Auerbach says, “a sense of survivors scurrying among a ruined city… and a sort of curious freedom… I remember a feeling of camaraderie among the people in the street”. For Auerbach, the sense of survival must have seemed particularly profound. He had been sent to England from his home city, Berlin, shortly before his eighth birthday and the outbreak of war. Both of his Jewish parents were killed in the concentration camps and Auerbach made London his new home. (from the Courtauld Gallery bio)

This painting was his first, painted when he was only 21 years old, entitled Summer Building Site (1952). Evidently he labored over some paintings so long that the buildings had been completed and opened for use by the time he finished his work.

He studied art at St. Martin's as well as the Royal College of Art in London. His later works include portraits of friends as well as cityscapes. He is still living and working in London at nearly 80 years old. Pretty inspiring, don't you think?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Since spending time with Joan Brown's paintings, I've been looking at some of another Bay Area Figurative artists work - David Park. (He was one of the earlier group that included Bischoff and Diebenkorn; Joan Brown was considered part of the second generation.) At left is Bus Stop (1952). That small figure to the left of the word "coach" just holds those two areas together like a staple, doesn't he? I like the simplicity, the limited palette, the occasional curve to break up the verticals. What do you think?

Here's one you could go see if you're anywhere near the Hackett Freedman Gallery. It's called Nude with Striped Rug.

This one seems to have a whiff of Matisse about it, doesn't it? Also makes me feel a little better about my hips. . .maybe time for the gym.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

This is a self-portrait by Joan Brown, one of the second generation of Bay Area Figurative painters. I have a tattered magazine copy of this hanging near my easel; it's hard to tell here, but the eyes are very interesting - different colors.

I like her use of color, strong negative shapes, that sort of chopped off shoulder.

Why is this Green Bowl (1964) so appealing to me? Maybe it's the texture, the two shades of brown inside the bowl, the wandering edge of the bowl . . .it does seem to be a descendant of Cezanne's aesthetically, doesn't it? Has that same interest in things as objects to co
ntemplate rather than to use.

I think sometimes you can go nuts trying to search around for just the right subject, but Brown painted her family, household objects, and sometimes included symbols that held meaning for her. One more - obviously had a sense of humor. Take a look at this one called People and Eye Trees in the Park in Madrid (1961).

Sadly, she died at only 52 in an accident in India that happe
ned during the installation of one of her art pieces.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Quick - how long ago was this painted? 5 years ? 50 years? 90 years?

Well it's a John Marin from 1926 Mt. Chocorua #1.

Not many major artists of the day were working in watercolor, I don't think. (Sargent comes to mind, but he died in 1925.) After studying art in Philadelphia, in 1905 he left for Europe and stayed for six years, no doubt taking in the work of Cézanne, the Cubists, and the Fauvists.

A few important connections made a difference is his work becoming known. Stiegletz learned of him thru fellow photographer Steichen, and the former exhibited Marin's work in his studio and made introductions for him to others in the art world. Art collector Duncan Phillips was taken with his work, describing him as both an impressionist and an expressionist, "because he could capture a moment and location as well as his subjective response to it." (from Phillips Collection bio)

Marin is quoted as saying: Painting is like golf; the fewer strokes I paint, the better the picture. And that's the trick isn't it . . .which strokes?? Takes a lifetime to figure it out!

Above is Brooklyn Bridge (1912).

Here's another from this series, also 1912, that I like even better with its strong diagonals and sense of movement, a feeling for the high energy city and the structures being built.

His use of line is so good, isn't it? Doesn't seem tacked on, but absolutely right and necessary. What do you think?