Abstract Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Wed, 29 May 2019 22:31:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/cropped-artandantiques_red_icon-32x32.png Abstract Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com 32 32 Frank Bowling: The Possibility of Paint http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/05/frank-bowling/ Wed, 29 May 2019 00:27:36 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6700 Continue reading ]]> The Guyanese-English artist Frank Bowling is getting a long-awaited retrospective at Tate Britain.

Frank Bowling, Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989

Frank Bowling, Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989, acrylic paint and resin on canvas, 1780 x 1360 mm;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Frank Bowling, Ziff, 1974 Frank Bowling, Cover Girl, 1966 Frank Bowling, 2017. Frank Bowling, Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989 Frank Bowling, Iona Miriam's Christmas Visit To & From Brighton, 2017

Painter Frank Bowling was thought of, by some, as an artist of the Caribbean diaspora because of his Guyanese heritage and subsequent immigration to Britain. His friend and Royal College of Art classmate, the painter David Hockney, because of his whiteness is thought of as an artist who likes to paint pictures of his pool. Bowling lamented the pigeonholing he and his paintings have experienced in a 2012 interview with Courtney J. Martin for Frieze. About these early experiences, Bowling says, “I was not allowed to explore the paint possibilities. Every time I did a group of pictures, it had to be nailed down within this black dilemma or Caribbean dilemma. It could not be taken as art qua art; it had to be socio-political or socio-anthropological. All of those disciplines kept getting in the way of my effort to be a painter, so I had to be constantly on the move.” And on the move he has remained.

In his painting and in his thought Bowling is both expansive and rigorous. His long career is marked by innovation and experimentation in the service of expressing his own uniquely human experience. Sensitivity and careful attentiveness to his own memories and sensations fill his canvases, from phantom images of his mother’s general store to the spectral continents of his masterful “Map Paintings” to colors that seem to radiate the heat of his early childhood. To this day, the 85-year-old artist is still working and challenging himself technically and physically. He has however, finally, and deservedly, attained an important goal in his life and career. In a 2014 interview with Nadja Sayej for ArtSlant, Bowling was questioned as to whether his then-current exhibition in Stockholm at the Spiritmuseum was the “big show” he had been waiting for. Bowling responded, “This is a really good show and I’m really grateful to the Swedes, but the big show I’m waiting for is a proper survey of my achievements in somewhere like the Tate.” Now, five years later, it’s happening.

Tate Britain will present “Frank Bowling” from May 31 through August 26. The retrospective presents Bowling’s work in its full breadth, from the figurative to the abstract, with a myriad of technical and conceptual approaches along the way. In a sense, Bowling is coming home. When he arrived in London from New Amsterdam, Guyana, at the age of 15, the city quickly became his home. After military service, Bowling developed an intense interest in painting and entered the Royal Academy of Arts on the suggestion of a friend. Bowling’s interest in painting was new, but the desire to express himself was not. Bowling saw writing as his medium prior to his transition to painting. His desire to give his experience form, previously realized through the written word, was transmogrified into paint and gave his images sensory poetics which continue to mark his work.

Early works such as the figurative 1966 acrylic, oil paint, and silkscreened ink on canvas painting Cover Girl, will introduce Tate visitors to the “impurity,” even at this relatively early stage, of Bowling’s approach. The painting combines figurative painted elements, Pop art screen printing, and washes of color. The audacious collage approach is one that appears uniquely suited to writers who step into the sphere of images. Bowling’s writerly beginnings give his work a formal edge, a freedom, and a refreshing boldness when it comes to materials and plasticity. Technique and material are not prescriptive; rather, they submit to the artist, making possible his or her personal expressions and idiosyncrasies. Cover Girl uses a collection of techniques to convey an unutterable sense of memory, sensation, thought, and symbolic intimacy unique to Bowling. In the foreground stands a woman. Behind her lies a broken horizon reconstructed from the colors and shapes of the flag of the newly independent Guyana. This horizon gives way to shapeless colors, and in the center sits the silkscreened ghost of a building: his mother’s general store. The painting is part portrait, part mysterious work of personal symbology. The complexity and density of thought and technique create a richness that is at once ambitiously commanding and honest about its own contingent subjectivity. Personal and political history meet and mingle, and each leaves room for the other’s significance.

In the painting Mirror (1966), Bowling’s tendency toward poetic narrative is fully evident. The canvas is filled with figurative objects and subjects which carry personal significance for Bowling: his soon to be ex-wife, the Royal Academy’s circular staircase, and an Eames chair. What emerges in paint is as much a literary mode as an imagistic one. The collection of swirling reminiscences recalls the shifting temporal and spatial constructions of a stream-of-consciousness novel, where space and time collapse into a new subjective truth made expressible through expanded form. The colors and lines blend and bleed, and beginning and end are seemingly in flux. The painting manages to capture something particular about consciousness, namely that a momentary state of mind can be experienced as totalizing and infinite.

Later in 1966, Bowling made his way to New York. During this time, while he was in the company of artists such as Larry Rivers and Melvin Edwards, his work took a further step away from the figurative elements of his earlier paintings. Bowling integrated new approaches, most notably by utilizing the epidiascope, introduced to him by Rivers, which projected opaque images by illuminating objects from above with a bright light. From this new discovery would emerge the “map paintings.” These largely abstract works contained ghostly silhouettes of the continents of Africa and South America, traced from images projected by the epidiascope. The works resembled Color Field paintings, but the figurative geographical elements are unmistakable. These works served to illustrate what Bowling was concurrently expressing in print. During the late 60s and early 70s, Bowling served as an editor at the now defunct Arts Magazine. Bowling’s time as editor came at a critical moment for the Black Arts Movement. Bowling articulated a perspective wherein the black artist could be politically engaged but this engagement did not foreclose or define formal possibilities or the preeminence of paint. It was not in the representation of black faces that black art found expression but in the black artist’s process and in the artist’s “black experience”, and in Bowling’s words, “experience has no literal meaning.”

The “map paintings” earned Bowling a 1971 show at the Whitney. After this, he would take his plunge into complete abstraction. The artist was hesitant at first and wondered if abstraction was open to him. It was critic and Ab-Ex champion Clement Greenberg who dispelled this apprehension, telling Bowling, “There is no no-go area” when it came to this kind of art. During the mid-1970s, Bowling produced his “pour paintings,” in which paint was poured from the top of a vertically oriented canvas. The results are beautiful and strange. The background of the 1974 acrylic on canvas Ziff resembles the soft, washed-out layers of some of the “map paintings,” wherein Bowling would layer his paint and remove it with water to achieve a streaky record of color. In the center of this soft bed of washed-out color, though, is an explosion of purple, orange, and white dripped paint caught in action. In Ziff and other poured paintings, Bowling was able to capture his process, finding the image in the act of painting and defining the act of painting as his image. Soon after their exhibition though, Bowling stopped showing his “poured paintings.” He was restless.

In the early 1980s, Bowling would push the boundaries of his practice even more, incorporating acrylic foam into his canvases. His paintings grew structurally and texturally. Found objects made their way into them. The line between sculpture and painting intrigued the artist. The boundary-pushing he saw in artists like Ornette Coleman drove him to expand his practice further. Bowling has continued in this vein up to today. The 2017 acrylic paint and plastic objects on collaged canvas painting Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To & From Brighton is a canvas filled with the remnants of washed-out colors and bright sculptural obtrusions, bisected by a line of organized colors. The work evinces Bowling’s continued belief in the expressive power of paint.

Ultimately, the key to Bowling’s work is found in the man. The freedom offered by abstraction merely opens the door to the personal and intimate in the artist’s work. Bowling becomes his own frame, and this framing enables a resultant particularity imbued with a deep humanity based in experience. Bowling’s focus is the possibility of paint, but it is expressed through the man and his experiences. As the artist told Courtney J. Martin, “My poured surfaces didn’t billow like Rothko’s. Mine billowed like the kind of heat haze that you get in Guyana in the middle of the day. The sun is so hot that the water evaporates, rises and stays still: it is just there. You get a kind of heat haze that is almost impenetrable. If you go outside, you have to go out into the water. I felt those things about these pictures. I had to open it up.” Bowling succeeded in doing just that. Now, the Tate, an institution the artist has enjoyed a long and supportive relationship with, is opening the full career of Frank Bowling, an artist with a unique devotion to the expressive power of paint, to the world.


By Chris Shields

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Agnes Pelton: The Thinning of the Veil http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/04/agnes-pelton/ Tue, 30 Apr 2019 04:44:53 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6627 Continue reading ]]> Agnes Pelton’s otherworldly symbolic abstractions go on view at the Phoenix Art Museum before touring the country.

Agnes Pelton, Future, 1941

Agnes Pelton, Future, 1941, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Agnes Pelton, Sand Storm, 1932 Agnes Pelton, Future, 1941 Agnes Pelton, Departure, 1952 Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1933

When Gilbert Vicario arrived at the Phoenix Art Museum three years ago, one of the first things he did was walk through the institution’s galleries. Vicario, who was previously on staff at the Des Moines Art Center, had become the Selig Family chief curator at the Arizona museum and wanted to familiarize himself with the collection he would be working with. It was in the American galleries that he made a discovery. Hung between works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Florine Stettheimer was a painting by Agnes Pelton, an obscure American modernist painter who was completely unknown to him. “She immediately got my attention,” says Vicario. “I thought, ‘Wow, who is this person?’”

Vicario’s meet-cute with the Pelton painting would become the first step in the long process of organizing “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” an exhibition currently on view at the Phoenix Art Museum. “It all came together the moment I saw the painting on the wall—literally,” says Vicario. “I can always go through moments of doubt, but good artists and exhibition ideas tend to stick in my head, and in this instance I knew I had to dive in.”

The exhibition, which puts more than 40 paintings on view, is the first survey of Pelton’s work in over 23 years. After it closes in Phoenix on September 8, it will travel to the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Palm Springs Art Museum in California.

The show will likely be a revelation to many museum-goers, and Pelton is poised for her own Hilma Af Klint moment. Like the Swedish visionary abstractionist, who is the subject of a blockbuster Guggenheim exhibition that will be in the final weeks of its celebrated run at the time of this publication, Pelton is a woman artist whose work was both pioneering and under-recognized by the art world at large. And as with af Klint, a mystic whose occult spirituality informed her revolutionary abstract compositions, Pelton’s interest in esoteric subjects such as Theosophy, Agni Yoga, and numerology is reflected in her ethereal paintings.

Pelton was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1881. Her family moved briefly to Basel, Switzerland, before settling permanently in the United States in 1888. She attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and was included in the historic Armory Show of 1913 but ultimately eschewed the mainstream art world and moved to Cathedral City, Calif., in 1932. She would stay there until her death in 1961.

Pelton began what the exhibition describes as her “symbolic abstractions” while in New York in the mid-1920s. But in Cathedral City, a Coachella Valley town wedged between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, the entirety of her painting practice, which included landscapes and portraits in addition to her more abstract work, took on a more defined shape. Pelton’s more conventional desert landscapes became a fixture of her oeuvre, supporting her financially and gleaning comparisons to O’Keeffe (they both painted the desert, but they also shared a teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow). “Pelton writes about how she found deep satisfaction in her landscapes, almost as much as in her abstractions,” says Vicario. “She painted a lot of smoke trees, and there’s something magic about them.”

Magic as the landscapes may be, they are not a part of “Desert Transcendentalist.” Instead, Vicario focused on the symbolic abstractions, a series of glowing orbs, glittering skies, atmospheric horizon lines, and liminal veils of color. Painted over the course of several decades, some of these works feel like compositions of pure ethereal light and shadow with no terrestrial referent, like the haunting Mother of Silence (1933, oil on canvas). Others feel powerfully linked to nature, seeming almost like offerings being made to the earth, like the luminous Sand Storm (1932, oil on canvas). Others still are like landscapes of the mind, making manifest interior beliefs, like Departure (1952, oil on canvas), which feels reminiscent of Hindu Tantra paintings. The series, though by no means conventional, is nevertheless grounded in the visual language of Modernism, making its overt spirituality all the more spellbinding.

Pelton was briefly involved with the Transcendental Painting Group (TPG), which was founded in Santa Fe in 1938 by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson. The short-lived group (it disbanded in 1942 due to World War II), used the principles of non-objective art as a launch pad for conveying spiritual truths. Like Pelton, members of the group were interested in the occult, particularly in Theosophy, a movement founded by Russian writer and mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 19th century, and Eastern mysticism. Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter, peace activist, and proponent of Agni Yoga, a practice that considered fire to be a guiding force, was important to both Pelton and the TPG.

Though Pelton’s work seems closely aligned with that of the group, her involvement with the TPG may have been historically over-emphasized. “Even now people will make reference to Pelton being influenced by the group other than the other way around,” says Vicario. “Through letters, Jonson, whom she was in contact with as early as 1933, was trying to woo her to be the honorary president of the group.” The artist frequently sent work to New Mexico to be shown in the TPG’s exhibitions, though she never attended a show. In fact, says Vicario, Pelton would send Jonson installation instructions for her work that were in colored pencil and drawn to scale. Vicario discovered examples of these late into the project, when combing through the archives of Margaret Stainer, a scholar who published a book on Pelton in the late 1980s. “We put these instructions in a case in the exhibition,” says Vicario. “Three of the paintings she illustrates are included in the show, but we don’t know where the other ones are.”

Though the symbolic abstractions are now considered Pelton’s calling card, they were hardly catalogued, and many were lost to time after the artist’s death. Of the 100 works she painted in the ongoing series, only about 60 are known. “She had no family and never married,” says Vicario, “so some works were probably destroyed and others probably ended up in resale shops—that continued up until this last year.” Things began to change in February 2018, when Fires in Space, a 1938 painting that is featured in the Phoenix show, came up for sale at an auction house in Hudson, N.Y., with an estimate of $4,000–8,000. It sold for a redemptive $276,00, easily setting an auction record for the artist.

The presence of Pelton’s work in several museum collection underscores that she is not an entirely unknown artist but a largely unseen one—something Vicario knows all too well. “Somehow, I recently discovered that there was a Pelton in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center—and I worked there for six years and never knew,” says the curator. “The painting never left the basement; she was never allowed to hang in the gallery.” This is not atypical, Vicario says. “There’s a lot of museums that own Peltons and they never get installed.” Since it moved to its new location, the Whitney has been showing the two Peltons in its collection, Untitled (1931) and Sea Change (1931), which has widely increased the artist’s visibility. (A pair of socks picturing Untitled is even for sale in the museum’s gift shop.)

Pelton’s process often involved meditation. Suddenly, or sometimes overnight, something would appear to her and inspire a painting. Though she was careful and assiduous when plotting out works, often making notes about colors and ideas, she didn’t work in theories. “In the early abstractions there’s a very pure sense of light and vibration that gets tempered later on with her interest in the horizon line,” says Vicario. “Moving forward it becomes the anchor for her paintings, as if they’re grounded in a stage set.” The sci-fi landscape-esque Future (1941, oil on canvas), which comes to the show from the Palm Springs Art Museum, is a prime example of the horizon stabilizing Pelton’s composition.

The latter portion of the Phoenix exhibition showcases her multifarious depictions of a glowing orb. This section will include the arresting Light Center (1947–48, oil on canvas), which features an ovoid force field of glowing energy at its center. Of the orbs, Vicario says, “That was her way of trying to understand the afterlife—the idea of going through the light to the other side.”


By Sarah E. Fensom

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Oliver Lee Jackson: Paint People http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/03/oliver-lee-jackson/ Sat, 30 Mar 2019 00:32:56 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6581 Continue reading ]]> In the work of Oliver Lee Jackson, enigmatic figures enter and explore a colorful abstract realm.

Oliver Lee Jackson, No. 5, 2018

Oliver Lee Jackson, No. 5, 2018 (3.24.18), 2018 oil-based paints on panel, overall: 72 x 96 in., framed: 74 x 97 x 2 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting (11.4.10), 2010 Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting (8.10.03), 2003 Oliver Lee Jackson, Painting (7.25.03), 2003 Oliver Lee Jackson, No. 7, 2017 Oliver Lee Jackson, No. 5, 2018 Oliver Lee Jackson, Triptych, 2015

Oliver Lee Jackson’s potent, explorative gestural abstraction often shares the canvas with humanoid figures. Punctuating or delineating—or even serving as vessels for—passages of abstraction, the figures are removed from a figurative world, as if out of time. They instead seem to occupy a tumultuous space of mass, motion and energy that reverberates outside of narrative.

Jackson has said that these humanoid figures are not people. “He has often corrected me when I’ve been in the studio and said, ‘I like this figure or that one,’” says Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. “He has often said, ‘These are not figures, we are figures.’” Cooper, who is the curator of a new exhibition at the NGA that explores Jackson’s recent work on canvas, notes that in the past Jackson has used the term “paint people” to describe the figures, as a way to point to their material construction. “These are figural presences,” says the curator. “They’re often recognizable and they’re addressing us in some way, but it’s important that viewers not forget that they are paint and other materials—this is important to Jackson, because materials are so important to him.”

Jackson’s figures’ non-human status is notable. If they are purely material—typically, but not always, paint—then they are no different than the rest of his mark-making on canvas. They then dispense with an anthropocentrist view, which privileges the human as “subject” and nonhuman matter as “object,” or in the case of Jackson’s work, the representation of figures over non-figurative passages. In object-oriented ontology (or OOO as it sometimes called), a radical sense of realism is created wherein the human is not more important or real than any other phenomenal object. As a rejection of correalationism, an aspect of post-Kantian philosophy that posits that there is no reality beyond human cognition and thus all objects are subject only to the effect they have on us, OOO allows a more egalitarian way of seeing. In Jackson’s work, this way of seeing would treat a canvas as a totalizing experience, not one led by its humanoid figures or under the jurisdiction of the figures’ imagined experience or cognition; material and form could commingle on a non-hierarchical basis.

When figuration—particularly in the form of humanoid figures—butts into a conversation spoken in the language of abstraction, it can be seductive to view it as a sort of Virgil leading the viewer toward understanding. Repeated figures—a figure playing a horn, a figure wearing a hat, a figure pulling a cart—occur throughout Jackson’s body of work, making it all the more seductive to imagine them as characters in a narrative. With their repeated representation, these figures can seem to form their own sort of hieroglyphic language, possibly guiding the viewer to a message. Though a narrative might not be what they are hinting at, it doesn’t mean they aren’t communicating with the viewer—they are equipped with messaging capability. “These figures are very meaningful—I know they are,” says Cooper. “If there’s something that keeps coming up, it’s coming from a pretty deep place, but it’s open to us to figure out.”

What is perhaps so exciting about Jackson’s work is that it need not be viewed through the lens of a philosophical position like OOO or pure narrative; it conforms to neither pole. His figures, woven deeply into his purely abstract passages, emerge and recede—sometimes seeming to embody a pivotal role that addresses the viewer directly, other times seeming only like a sweep of paint among others, but always exactly as they should be. “Everything is deployed to give a kind of single effect for each painting,” says Cooper.

“Oliver Lee Jackson: Recent Paintings,” which is at the NGA through September 2, puts 25 paintings by the artist on view. A rousing glimpse into his work, the show is also an ode to how indefatigable Jackson is. It features only canvases from the last 15 years, but the St. Louis-born, Oakland-based artist, who is now in his 80s, has been making art for more than half a century. His oeuvre encompasses painting, printmaking, and sculpture. However, these distinctions are often blurred, as many of his works, even those on canvas, incorporate a large variety of materials.

“Oliver is still doing a lot of sculpture and printmaking,” says Cooper. “I agonized about including sculptures in the show, but in the end I narrowed in on a focus of the paintings.” Through this slice of recent canvases, spread over three galleries, Cooper was able to create an intense portrait of Jackson’s practice. Says the curator, “Instead of doing a sampler—a little of this and a little of that—I thought it would be more powerful and interesting to use the amount of space to go into depth on a body of work.” This body of work exhibits quite a range of materials, says Cooper: pieces of collage material, oil paint, oil stick, watercolor, chalk, and charcoal, among others.

Cooper and Jackson worked together a little over 15 years ago, on an exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museums that was an experimental examination of the intersection of contemporary art and music. But Cooper had been aware of Jackson for decades. “I had first encountered his work on the cover of a record by a St. Louis musician, Julius Hemphill—I was probably in high school at the time,” says Cooper. Jackson and Hemphill, the late jazz composer and saxophone player, had both been part of the Black Artists Group (BAG), a multidisciplinary artists collective that emerged out of St. Louis in the 1960s and worked across theater, music, dance, poetry, and the visual arts. There, Jackson developed a close connection to music and jazz musicians. At Harvard, Jackson created six paintings, while Marty Ehrlich, one of Hemphill’s disciples, recorded music.

Jackson made some of the earliest paintings in the NGA’s show shortly after the Harvard exhibition. A series of square works from 2003, feature a flowing, almost calligraphic approach to watercolor. Painting (7.25.03) depicts what appears to be three huddled bodies, loosely articulated by sweeping, elegant brushstrokes. Above the figures float three orange forms that almost become squares but seem stuck floating in an amorphous flux. In Painting (8.10.03), Jackson’s inky marks have become more cacophonous. Stretches of thinned, very wet-looking paint cloud a rabble of curving, pulsating lines. Through this crowd, one seems to catch a glimpse of a man in a hat emerging from the surging throng. “These give just a beautiful sense of what Oliver can do with materials,” says Cooper, “and what he can do with gesture.”

The show is not organized chronologically, and Cooper notes that 12.15.04, “an extraordinary knockout large horizontal painting,” will be one of the first viewers see. The canvas, which took much of the 2004 to make, is an excellent example of how Jackson intricately intermingles abstraction and figuration. In this work, the figures are nearly imperceptible at first, but slowly they can be seen rising from the center, pushing into what feels like 3-dimentional space. The viewer watches them from above, as they appear to be squatting or kneeling or drumming amidst a world of pulsating abstract forms. “It may not be in your first reading, but once you start to catch on you see a lot of figural presences,” says Cooper. “There’s a great balance between the abstract and the figurative reading.”

In Painting 12.3.10, working again in a square format, Jackson returns to his inky, wet strokes of a few years prior. Thicker and more tumultuous, they seem to swim and swerve along the surface. In Painting (11.4.10), color takes center stage, as a gradient of pink rises to its top, dotted by wisps and clouds of abstract passages. No. 7, 2017 (7.27.17), a highlight of the show, also brings color to the forefront. “It’s dominated by this mass of orange paint,” says Cooper. “It’s almost hard to deal with—it’s not a color you see too much in the history of art.” Mired in the shocking, Tang-colored orange is a mass of figures, some vibrating forward into space, others seeming to collapse downward.

Several of the works in the show are as recent as last year. One work from 2018, Triptych (applied fabric, mixed media on panel), is a standout of the exhibition. In the piece, shapes of bright color gyrate against black figures and each other, creating a sense of abstract rhythm and suggesting a rhythm of moving bodies. “This one is really beautiful,” says Cooper, “and a little more legible—one can think of the figures dancing or running across the panels, or can think of more violent associations, but Jackson wants the work to speak for itself, draw people in, and have its effect on the viewer.” Cooper also notes that though Jackson calls Triptych a painting, the work is composed primarily of felt, a material Jackson has also used in the past. “To me, this is part of Oliver’s genius, that he can respond to so many different materials.”

In No. 5, 2018 (3.24.18) (oil based paints on panel), another work from last year, hits the viewer immediately with the intensity of its line and color—its bold yellows, oranges, pops of blues, pinks, and grays, and inky blacks. But the work is one of slow revelations. Confronted by its embedded figures and rigorous examination of space, the eye becomes utterly lost within the field as if mystified; an unfamiliar, yet sturdy logic emerges, but nothing can be grasped for long.

Cooper says that Jackson sees his newer work as part of a continuing evolution. “I think for me personally,” says the curator, “I see a kind of daring that was always there but is sort of naked now: there’s more directness than ever, more improvisation on canvas, more soliciting of what might be seen as ugly, and an intensity of colors and textures.”


By Sarah E. Fensom

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: The Last Master http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/02/tsukioka-yoshitoshi/ Wed, 27 Feb 2019 00:54:29 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6510 Continue reading ]]> As the 19th century drew to a close, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi gave classic Japanese woodblock printmaking a sunset burst of glory.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Demon Omatsu Murders Shirosaburõ in the Ford, 1885

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Demon Omatsu Murders Shirosaburõ in the Ford, 1885, color woodcut on two panels (diptych), 13.125 x 17.6875 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, A Noh Actor as the Warrior Kamasaka Chõhan on a Night with a Misty Moon, 1886 Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Demon Omatsu Murders Shirosaburõ in the Ford, 1885 Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Heian Poet Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight, Subduing the Bandit Yasusuke with His Music Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Fujiawara no Ariko Weeping Over Her Lute, 1886

The life of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92), the last great master of the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition, was almost as lurid and macabre as the images the artist created. Struggles with depression and poverty, as well as multiple ill-fated love affairs, haunted his career like one of the terrible creatures from his famous series, “New Forms of Thirty-Six Ghosts “(1889–92). The tragic figure cut by Yoshitoshi, that of the tormented romantic, has its own particular resonance with a shadow world of art and artists in Japan. The lives of 20th-century counterculture writers Osamu Dazai and Yukio Mishima, whose lives ended in suicides slow and fast, respectively, and avant garde saxophonist Kaoru Abe, who died at 29 leaving behind only a library of live recordings, seemed to follow a similar downward trajectory, in which a string of endless calamities was colored by violent explosions of creative brilliance.

Decades earlier, through this same stubborn mix of passion and madness, Yoshitoshi and ukiyo-e persevered as the Edo period gave way to the Meiji and the world and the nature of images changed rapidly. Cheaper and easier printmaking methods imported from the West, along with the new medium of photography, killed the market for classic color woodblock prints. Indeed, the seething, nearly pornographic violence of some of Yoshitoshi’s most infamous works, which include gleefully graphic murders, horrific battle scenes, and worse, have been attributed to Japan’s violent collision with technology and modernity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Yoshitoshi’s work, personal angst and the fury of the past lash out at the present with linework so razor-sharp it draws blood. Implicit (and explicit) in Yoshitoshi’s work is a characteristically Japanese refusal to submit—to meet imminent defeat with violence, which the final master of the disappearing art form poignantly dramatized through images of honorable suicides and samurai fighting to their last breath. His subject matter of demons, gore, and crime may ultimately distract from the true violence at the heart of Yoshitoshi’s work, a violence more Hegelian than Grand Guignol—that of the past in mortal combat with the present.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Yoshitoshi: Spirit and Spectacle,” which opens on April 16 and runs through August 18, steers clear of the standard emphasis on the artist’s personal struggles, instead choosing to focus on his place in a rapidly changing world and the myriad of external factors that helped shape his output. The master’s paintings and woodblock prints are presented in the context of the markets, publisher’s requests that guided them, and technical innovation–a relatively novel phenomenological approach in assessing an artist whose character seems to loom so large. If this new methodology weren’t enough, the show also calls into question the pervasive characterization of Yoshitoshi’s work as overwhelmingly

gruesome and tawdry. Pulling from the museum’s own collection of nearly 1,200 prints by the artist (the largest collection outside Japan), less-known aspects of Yoshitoshi’s work are emphasized through a carefully chosen selection of over 70 images. Rare early works, including triptychs depicting a fireman’s parade (1858) and a devastating fire (1878), help to illustrate the evolution of Yoshitoshi’s career and practice in full, presenting him as both radical innovator and disciple of tradition.

Yoshitoshi brought his unique stylistic expressiveness to a wide range of historical and contemporary subjects, and within many images we find the tension between the old and the new. A three-panel color woodblock print from 1881, The Giant Twelfth-Century Warrior-Priest Benkei Attacking Young Yoshitsune for His Sword on the Gojo Bridge, is an excellent example of a common ukiyo-e subject given explosive new life by Yoshitoshi. Benkei was a nearly unbeatable warrior monk of Japanese folklore who was said to be part demon. In Benkei’s most famous exploit, he roamed the streets of Kyoto intent on accumulating 1,000 swords by defeating their owners. After collecting 999, Benkei encountered the famous young samurai Minamoto no Yoshitune. The two heroes dueled at Gojo bridge, and Benkei was finally defeated, thereafter becoming Yoshitune’s retainer.

Yoshitoshi’s depiction of the battle is a marvel of composition that seems to prefigure the widescreen samurai epics that would fill the screens of Japanese cinemas throughout the 1950s and ’60s. The compactness and acrobatic intensity of the figures, as well as their radically divergent spatial coordinates, also demonstrate Yoshitoshi’s great influence on manga, particularly on Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s wildly popular Lone Wolf and Cub series. Yoshitoshi’w prints foreshadow that series’ iconic interpolation of action into moments of intense stillness. The hulking figure of Benkai is crouched on the far left of the triptych, and far to the right Yoshitune is airborne. The placement of the figures bisects the work diagonally, creating a unique visual excitement. At the center of the work, though, is the moon, large and full, evoking stillness in the heat of battle. Placed at the center of the composition, it freezes the action, giving the moment of combat a philosophical resonance. The profession of samurai was accompanied by a strict code of conduct which incorporated aspects of Zen Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and Shinto. So although this is a scene of action, Yoshitoshi draws our attention to the fact that it is not a mere fight but rather a moment of actualization for the warriors, in which skill, mind, and spirit coalesce into a singular manifestation of bushido, the way of the warrior.

The exhibition’s high point is the 1883 color on panel triptych The Heian Poet Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight, Subduing the Bandit Yasusuke with His Music. In this composition, widely considered to be Yoshitoshi’s masterpiece, the dynamic between action and stillness moves beyond the juxtaposition of foreground and background and into the picture’s narrative. The scene depicts the famous musician Fujiwara no Yasumasa in a field at night, eyes closed, playing his flute. Crouched in the grass to his left is his estranged brother, Kidomaru, who, initially intent on stealing Yasumasa’s golden robe, has become mesmerized by the sounds of the instrument. The squatting figure of Kidomaru is filled with a muted potentiality, while Yasumasa, standing erect against a powerful wind, is the picture of serenity. In the triptych’s left panel the moon, one again large and full, looks down on the scene—the third member of an ethereal nocturnal trio.

The composition is bold, and Yoshitoshi takes care to create an exciting path for the eye beginning at the moon, down the figure of Yasumasa, and once again upward toward Kidomaru, whose leg enters the center panel just enough to link all the elements. Yoshitoshi’s rendering of this scene—popularized in kabuki theater and earlier ukiyo-e interpretations, including one by his mentor, the ukiyo-e master Utagawa Kuniyoshi—is detailed, with the windblown grass receiving the same attention as the human figures. The exaggerated bodily proportions and facial gestures of earlier renderings are gone, replaced by a density of figure and a more naturalistic perspective. With Yasumasa Playing the Flute, Yoshitoshi creates harmony between stylization and relatively realistic representation. The scene moves beyond kabuki, giving this particular piece of folklore new life and bringing the past into the present, albeit with a ghostly touch.

Beyond Yoshitoshi’s achievements in composition and realism, his pioneering tendencies extended into his choice of materials, as well. Aniline inks commonly used in flexographic printing entered Japan from the West, allowing Yoshitoshi to fill his images with brilliant colors. In the color woodcut The Filial Daughter Chikako and the Moon after a Snowfall at the Asano River, from “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” (1885), Yoshitoshi uses vibrant color to place the flowing garments of Chikako in stark contrast with the muted blues, whites, and grays of the landscape. Chikako’s body is rendered with Yoshitoshi’s characteristic compact physicality—her legs raised as she dives into the icy waters below. The composition, now vertical, maintains the artist’s three-figure triangulation, with Chikako, two cranes, and the moon inviting the eye to move in a seemingly endless trip from one element to the next and back again. Again, action is frozen in time, Chikako’s presumably fatal fall suspended for eternity. The masterfully rendered image transforms myth into moment and tragedy into beauty. Try as he might, though, Yoshitoshi could not stop the clock from striking midnight on ukiyo-e.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition allows visitors to witness a major turning point in the history of image making. Yoshitoshi’s doomed project of permanently resuscitating ukiyo-e may have failed, but the impact of his work continues to this day. With Japanese animation, or anime, gaining widestream appeal, the influence of Yoshitoshi can be seen in any number of the hyper-stylized TV shows and movies, where time appears to stop as contorted, expressive figures move through space. Ultimately, Yoshitoshi’s fight with the new Japan, radically altered by its fateful opening up to the West, was not fought in vain. The artist’s enduring influence proves that the future of Japanese popular images, and indeed of global animation and comic aesthetics, belonged to him.


By Chris Shields

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Sean Scully: Memory of Land and Sea http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/02/sean-scully/ Wed, 27 Feb 2019 00:26:28 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6518 Continue reading ]]> In his latest exhibition, Sean Scully depicts land, sea, and sky with eloquent simplicity.

Sean Scully, Human Too (installation), 2017

Sean Scully, Human Too (installation), 2017, oil on aluminum.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sean Scully, Landline Far Blue Lake, 2018 Sean Scully, Human Too (installation), 2017 Sean Scully, Land Sea Sky, 1999 Sean Scully, Landline Orient, 2017 Sean Scully, Untitled (Landline), 2016

Gazing out to sea, dreaming of a better life in a new country: This is a memory that lives in the minds of countless immigrants, and among them is the Irish-born artist Sean Scully. For so many recent migrants, memories of the sea are likely fraught with fear and anguish. But for Scully, who immigrated to the U.S. from the United Kingdom in 1975 and has become one of this country’s most important contemporary abstract artists, those memories are different—poetic, melancholy, romantic.

It’s these memories, as well as others from different times and landscapes, that are currently on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. The exhibition “Sean Scully: Landline” (through May 19) includes paintings, pastels, drawings, and sculptures that refer to the natural environment—both sea- and landscapes—through horizontal stripes or “stacks.”

This touring exhibition, which began at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., marks the first occasion on which works from the “Landline” series have been shown in U.S. museums. The series premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2015, says Patricia Hickson, the Wadsworth’s Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art. “‘Landline’ refers to landscape and seascape, so Venice was the perfect setting to highlight that series. In addition, he also included works from his ‘Doric’ series, which focuses on the built landscape. Venice combines all of those things—it has that beautiful built landscape that rises from the water, so presenting those two bodies of work in that setting was quite magical.”

The pieces in the Wadsworth exhibition are chosen from that expansive Venice Biennale installation and will interest viewers not only for their evocation of place and memory but also because they mark a distinctive departure for Scully. As a young artist in the 1970s, he was deeply influenced by Minimalism. He produced monochromatic paintings, as well as highly geometric compositions featuring lines, squares, and triangles in a multitude of colors. Yet as his work evolved through the years, it became more complex—one might feel that the compositions were being fitted together like building blocks, Hickson says, more like wall sculptures, in a sense, than paintings.

With “Landline,” Scully is returning to something much simpler: the horizontal line. “This is a kind of filtering down to something very simple in concept,” says Hickson. “I find it to be a very brave body of work, because it’s become so simple—it’s such a departure from the trajectory of his work.”

This brave, simple body of work has its origins in two photographs from 1999, both taken by Scully. Land Sea Sky is one of the images, and it depicts a view of the ocean from the coast of England. The various elements—land, then sea, then sky—rise through the photograph in horizontal bands. There’s little depth to the photo; instead, it feels flat, unusual. It’s easy to see how this view of the land and sea has been translated into the abstract expressions, the stripes on canvas, that fill the Wadsworth’s galleries.

But it’s hardly only the coast of England that features in the “Landline” series. Scully has always been an avid traveler, and many of these works refer to specific landscapes, and specific places. There’s Landline Zacatecas, for example, which depicts Scully’s memory of a view from Zacatecas, Mexico, in warm reds and oranges, punctuated by bands of black and gray-blue. There’s Landline Field, a series of greens both bright and dull, interrupted by yellow and black. Landline Far Blue Lake is a stack of blues, rising from a base of deep blue and black. The canvases are uniformly painterly, filled with the emotional, expressive brushstrokes that Scully is known for. “You can get lost in these paintings,” Hickson says, noting that many are large-scale. “They really envelop you, like you’re standing in front of a beautiful seascape.”

Scully’s titles are representational, leading the viewer to an understanding of what the artist is depicting. In this way, the works themselves become a kind of link between the abstract and the figurative—a link between Scully’s memory of a landscape or seascape and the real, tangible place. While the pastels and drawings follow a pattern similar to that of the paintings, the three sculptures that are included in the show offer a striking contrast. Constructed of stacks of aluminum coated in bright automotive paint, these sculptures are bright and sharp—nothing like the lush pastels or warm paintings. “For him, I think it was a way to work in this same series and just switch gears and present the idea in a very different way,” Hickson says. “They’re very clean, industrial, slick, as opposed to the paintings, which are full of emotion.”

Visitors to the museum will see one of these sculptures before they even walk in the door. 30, named for the number of aluminum layers it contains, is a multicolored installation that sits on the museum’s front lawn, facing the street. Once inside the gallery, viewers will see another sculpture, also multicolored, and one in varying tones of blue. Both are an imposing nine feet tall.

There’s a final element to the exhibition, however, that adds greatly to the richness of this multi-faceted show. Hickson and her team have hung quotations from Scully throughout the galleries, contextualizing some of the works and hopefully enriching the viewer’s experience of them. “He’s a beautiful writer,” Hickson says. “We’re including these quotes to help bring the work to life, and open a window into the artist’s thoughts.”

As the latest opportunity to view works by a highly significant abstract artist, “Sean Scully: Landline” has much to offer aficionados of abstract art. But there’s far more to enjoy here, and for anyone—not only those versed in the language of color and line. The show is also a deeply personal look into a man’s memories and experience with the natural world. “A lot of this work is about his past, when he was a young man looking out to sea,” Hickson says. “It’s a very romantic notion.”


By Elizabeth Pandolfi

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Arthur Osver: The Inner Landscape http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/01/arthur-osver/ Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:06:22 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6425 Continue reading ]]> Formed as an artist in the crucible of American industrialism, Arthur Osver journeyed into realms of abstraction to find a unique way of seeing and painting.

Arthur Osver, S.E.X.Y., 1995

Arthur Osver, S.E.X.Y., 1995, collage and oil on canvas, 53 x 54 in. Reproductions courtesy of the Estate of Arthur Osver and Ernestine Betsberg

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Arthur Osver, G.P. 10-72, 1972 Arthur Osver, Red Ventilator, 1945 Arthur Osver, S.E.X.Y., 1995 Arthur Osver, Paestum, 1955 Arthur Osver, Grand Palais, 10-70 (2), 1970

In Bernard Malamud’s 1969 comic novel, Pictures of Fidelman, Bronx-born painter and aspiring writer Arthur Fidelman travels to Italy to continue researching his life’s work—a fresh critical perspective on Giotto—and reinvigorate his painting practice. From the moment he arrives he is beset by a series of particularly Italian calamities including con games and desperate romantic entanglements. Along the way, his manuscript is stolen, his painting gains new life, and he questions just about every long-held belief regarding decency and sanity that a person possibly could.

Fidelman’s agony makes for great comedy, but there is something achingly true about his radical shift in perspective. In a far less salacious manner, the modern American painter Arthur Osver (1912–2006) underwent a similar fate. In 1952 Osver, whose paintings consisted mainly of moody industrial cityscapes, won the Prix de Rome and traveled to Italy to continue his work. For Osver, whose paintings seemed to hinge on a deep familiarity with and immersion in his chosen subject—the secret life of American industrial forms—the trip resulted in a crisis. As with Fidelman, however, not every crisis leads only to tragedy; in Osver’s case, it led to a new way of painting.

In the new book Arthur Osver: Urban Landscape, Abstraction, and the Mystique of Place, edited by Angela Miller and just published by the Kemper Museum of Washington University in St. Louis, this break provides a line of demarcation that helps structure the story of Osver’s life on canvas. The book, which is the first to cover Osver’s 75-year career in full, comprises two essays, one focusing on the artist’s earlier works in the urban landscape mode and one detailing the abstraction and material experimentation that followed. These texts, coupled with a wealth of beautiful reproductions and a lengthy interview with Osver, provide a much-needed resource on the artist.

The Chicago-born painter’s early works contained a touch of the surreal, and his strange landscapes drew comparisons with the psychologically potent proto-Surrealist work of Giorgio de Chirico. These tendencies mixed with his knack for capturing and synthesizing what he had seen, as powerfully exemplified in the 1945 oil on on masonite painting Red Ventilator. The central focus of the image is the machine, which stands like a prehistoric beast with neck and legs stretched unnaturally long. The open pipe which serves as the ventilator-beast’s face is a simple black oval. The sky behind the central figure is aqua blue, adding to the dreamy unreality of the image. At the heart of the painting, though, is a mundane vision of modern terror, not in the social or political sense but through a subjectively human frame. The magical-realist tendency in Osver’s work of this period captures something urbanites regularly take for granted—that we are surrounded by monsters. Here, in a flash of atavistic fright, Osver finds an effective place where the mind and the external world can meet on canvas in the expression of psychological truth.

Perception was key for Osver, and despite his move toward abstraction, he was dubious of dispensing completely with visual referents and critical, at a point, of his abstract expressionist contemporaries. Even when not painting figuratively, his images were composites of things he had seen. This was particularly true of his time spent in Long Island City. After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago and spending time in France, Osver and his wife Ernestine Betsberg (a painter as well) moved to New York. Originally the young couple lived in Manhattan, but as Osver regularly commuted to Queens, he began to perceive an affinity between his native Chicago and Long Island City’s urban visual character, and he and Ernestine relocated there. Osver recalled, “We lived in Long Island City for eight years. They were the most productive years of my life. I’ve never done as much work. And things began to happen. I won a number of prizes. I got a Guggenheim fellowship that was renewed. I eventually ended up with a Prix de Rome [from the American Academy in Rome]…. I left Long Island City, and my life has never been the same since.” In 1960 Osver accepted an offer to teach at Washington University and remained in St. Louis for the rest of his life.

His initial act of seeing in New York would continue to provide the mental raw material for his images throughout his career, and during that period Osver was taking a major step that would lead toward his eventual move into abstraction. As the artist biked around New York, his eyes took in an ever-changing collection of architectural and industrial forms. When engaging with the canvas, what Osver produced was a mental montage of sorts, creating unreal yet experience-based visions. “There was nothing that was specifically this bridge or that building or that rooftop,” he later said, “but they were a composite of all of the bridges and rooftops and buildings that I had seen…. What I did during those years in Long Island City was to take a lot of 35 mm shots of the elevated structure, railroad yards, junkyards, barges along the river. I’d look at these, project them, and try to arrive at some sort of distillation of this material.”

Even when the slow and thoughtful approach and consistent philosophical underpinning of Osver’s painting is considered however, the break that took place in the 1950s is undeniable. Arriving in Rome, Osver was no longer bullied by the hulking metal and dingy buildings he knew perhaps too well, and his work moved further toward abstraction. Intimate knowledge of his subject, gained from time spent in his native Chicago and in Queens, was replaced by an almost purely formal reckoning with an alien landscape freshly perceived. “I didn’t have quite the involvement in that subject matter that I had with the American city. I couldn’t get into it as much. It was a little for me like being on top of it instead of under it and within it.” Osver recalled. “ When I look back at the paintings I did just before leaving America and the paintings that I did in Rome, I feel that … the American paintings had more intensity. And I think that … was due to the fact that, as I said before, they meant more to me.”

When viewing the paintings of this period, the lack of intensity is apparent, but what replaces the brooding, personified structures of his earlier work, is an equally substantive lightness. In the 1955 oil on canvas painting Paestum, the grimacing ventilators which animated Osver’s earlier works are gone. What remains is pure form, but even Osver’s formal and technical approach has changed. Along with narrative, hard edges have disappeared. There is now a matrix of colors and strokes, thoughtful and even tentative, woven together without clear seams. While lightness prevails, there is also a sense of agonizing precision in the painting’s muddy shafts of gold and sparse strokes of cool blue. Paestum is not magic. There is real human drama to the painting’s uncertainty, and Osver’s earlier melancholy, which found expression in his oppressive subjects, narratively, tonally, and symbolically, takes root in his painstaking process. As Osver remembers it, “I began unconsciously to move into a more formal awareness of what was taking place. In other words, if I wasn’t that concerned with capturing the essence of a particular structure, I then would ask myself what was I concerned with. And I began to see more clearly that I was concerned— as I always had been, but I hadn’t seen it as clearly—with the language of form, with color, shape, mass, line, everything that goes to make up the abstract elements of a painting.” Ultimately, the painting stands as a unique record of discovery and hard-earned, reflective success.

With the oil on canvas painting Love Garden (1956), Osver’s lines grow stronger and representation begins to slowly creep back in. There is a hint of space created by the leaf-shaped forms Osver piles one atop the other—never enough to give real depth, but enough to tease the presence of a subject. The work transitions from pink to red, and the earlier tentativeness of Paestum gives way to an aggressively determined struggle. Some of Osver’s greatest successes during this period result from a seemingly naked engagement with process, both formally and intellectually. The paintings from his time in Rome, while arriving at a beautifully poised place, seem to scream “damn it!” along the way, as the artist fights to subdue his gift for seeing.

The oil painting The Tall Red, from 1959, seems to arrive at a temporary armistice between landscape and pure abstraction, resolving the palpable frustration sensed in Osver’s Rome-period works. The large-scale work immediately strikes the viewer as an aerial view looking down at collection of red-topped buildings. The dark blue that fills the spaces between adds to the illusion of depth. The longer we look, however, the more this perspectival vantage point disappears, and the large shafts of red free themselves from any role in spatial representation. The effect is almost an optical puzzle that brilliantly straddles the line between three and two-dimensionality. In this painting Osver reduces the representation of space to its most basic elements, paring the illusion down to such an extent that seeing is no longer a burden but a choice.

In the 1970s Osver would embark on an ambitious project that would help further the reconciliation between his abstract and landscape tendencies. This series of abstract works based on Paris’ Grand Palais highlight the artist’s mental pastiche approach and his longstanding concern with structures. In the oil on canvas Grand Palais 10_70_2 (1970), Osver achieves harmony with an image that has both architectural contour and two-dimensional action. The eye runs up and down the canvas, following lines and getting caught in circular dead ends. The colors shift from red to green and back again, imperceptibly at first. On closer examination the transition is quite abrupt, making Osver’s control of movement and composition all the more impressive. What is most beguiling about the image is its refusal to identify itself as detail or vista. With Grand Palais 10_70_2, Osver’s careful attention to his evolving process, coupled with his ability to draw on a mental cache of images, results in a unique form of abstraction, akin to Cubism freed from perspectival moorings, and set loose in memory.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Osver continued to paint intensely, in addition to teaching, and his work continued to develop. In addition to making new paintings, he reworked some of his old industrial-themed canvases in a more abstract way. In the ’90s, he added collage to create mixed-media paintings that include elements of Pop imagery and typography. The St. Louis years saw a transition to near-complete abstraction, but in Osver’s late works, motifs from his New York phase return, in new guises.

By Chris Shields

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Edna Andrade: The Geometry of Perception http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/01/edna-andrade/ Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:05:45 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6433 Continue reading ]]> Edna Andrade’s art transcends the “Op” label, revealing her fascination with mathematics, psychology, and the inner workings of nature.

Edna Andrade, Mariposa, 1983

Edna Andrade, Mariposa, 1983, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 66 in, Images copyright the Estate of Edna Andrade courtesy of Locks Gallery

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edna Andrade, Turbo 1-65, 1965 Edna Andrade, Temple, 1986 Edna Andrade, Space Frame D, 1965 Edna Andrade, Mariposa, 1983 Andrade with Emergence I, 1969. Edna Andrade, Twilight Wave, 1973

“I feel as if I didn’t take charge of my life until I was middle-aged,” recalled the American artist Edna Andrade. A late bloomer, Andrade only began to create the work she is known for when she was in her 40s, after divorcing her husband in 1960 and taking a job as an art teacher. But she was no latecomer to art as a pursuit. When she was only 17, the Virginia native came north to Philadelphia to study at the storied Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and while she was still in her 20s she became an art teacher at Sophie Newcomb College, the women’s division of Tulane University in New Orleans. Andrade was painting in a style influenced by Surrealism and by the intensely figure-oriented pedagogy of PAFA and had yet to truly find herself as an artist. But before she could do so, marriage and the start of World War II combined to put her creative career on hold for almost 20 years.

Born Edna Wright in Portsmouth, Va., in 1917, she was the daughter of a civil engineer, and the complex truss structures of the bridges he built are clearly visible in some of the Op Art abstractions she painted decades later. Her husband, C. Preston Andrade, whom she met in Philadelphia and married in the summer of 1941, was also a man who built things—an architect. During the war, both spouses found work commensurate with their special skills, he with the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics and she with the OSS, where she designed instructional documents and maps, working in a unit headed by Eero Saarinen. The simple, bold graphics of these projects were also an important ingredient in the crystallization of Andrade’s mature painting style. (She also worked on propaganda films with John Ford.) After the war, she went to work with her husband in his architecture firm, where she played the role of drafting assistant. While the work of those years was essentially unfulfilling and self-erasing, she absorbed important lessons from it that she later put to creative use. “A lot of the precision that came from that sort of drawing stayed with me,” she recalled. Overall, she felt that her marriage was stifling her potential and sapping her energies, and later described herself as “a very unliberated housewife” in the ’50s.

Liberation came with the divorce, although that also imposed on Andrade a need to support herself financially. When she was hired as a teacher at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1960, not only was that problem solved but a creative breakthrough took place that was precipitated by the very act of teaching. In acquainting her students with the basic building blocks of form, color, and geometry, Andrade suddenly felt freed from the constraints of her own conservative art training at PAFA, whose realist-figurative tradition had weighed heavily on her in terms of self-expectation and led to a sort of blockage. All of a sudden, Andrade found herself using form and color directly, abstractly, and with a sense of freedom. During the ’30s and ’40s, she had become familiar with the formalist writings of Paul Klee and Josef Albers, and these theories had percolated within her until she was ready to use them. Now, almost overnight, she had become an abstract painter.

The turn to abstraction also had something to do with the experience of work for women in a sexist society, and with Andrade’s own personality. She pointed out that because of her obligations as a wife and a worker, she did not have the ability to work on a painting for long stretches at a time, and therefore she gravitated toward a method of working that was founded on grids, so that she could plot out a pattern and then fill it in bit by bit, pausing when she had to and returning to it when she could. She related this modus operandi to knitting, needlepoint and other skills that were typical of women’s work in many societies. Extending the argument, she stated that her work was therefore bound to be more emotionally restrained than the dramatic, poetic gestures of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock. “I had such a limited amount of time that I had to invent a way to paint that didn’t just…depend upon my mood,” she recalled. “Something that was more like a program than a spontaneous expression of feeling.” She also strove to make her art impersonal, in the sense of not being an expression of her personality, by such means as the elimination of visible brushstrokes.

Andrade’s abstractions from the early and mid-1960s are highly precise, geometrically intricate, and rich in bold contrasting colors. What she was aiming at was achieving dynamism. In one of his Bauhaus lectures, Klee had spoken of motion as “the root of all growth,” and Andrade knew from her studies of color theory that contrasting hues placed next to each other in repeating, rhythmic patterns could convey a sense of motion. She was moving in her own life, and the images she was making at the time appear to be constantly on the move, as well. Some of these works, such as Color Motion (1964, a screen print rather than a painting), Radiant Ellipse (1965), and Turbo I (1965) function very much as Op Art typically does, producing an illusion of pulsation that leads to an almost hypnotic receptivity. Others are more serene, conveying the kind of dynamic tension of motion-within-stillness that characterizes a structure such as a bridge or building. Geometric 4-63 (1963), in bright colors, and Space Frame (1965), in black and white, both exemplify this latter category of quasi-industrial abstractions.

In the late ’60s, Andrade found a different way to express motion, not through powerful lines of force emanating from a center, as in the Op works, but in a way that diffuses the motion all over the painting, so that the eye itself moves all over without being made to stop in any one place. For example, in Emergence II (1969), Andrade fills a grid with tiny circles divided into white an gray halves. The circles are all at different orientations, giving the sense of seeing a sequential or comic-strip depiction of a wheel rotating. This is a clever updating of the Futurist strategy of showing all states of a movement simultaneously.

Op Art became wildly popular with the Museum of Modern Art’s show “The Responsive Eye” in 1965, which cemented the reputations of Bridget Riley, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Victor Vasarely, and several others. Andrade was not included in that show, because at the time it was being organized, she did not have gallery representation and was unknown to the curator, William Seitz. Conversely, the work of the Op artists was more or less unknown to Andrade, who had been working in isolation. Andrade benefited from “The Responsive Eye,” in the sense that the exhibition, which got a tremendous amount of press, increased the art market’s appetite for optically oriented abstraction, and dealers starting showing interest in her. In 1967 she got a solo show at the East Hampton Gallery in Manhattan. The reviews were not especially warm, though; New York Times critic John Canaday damned Andrade with faint praise, describing her work as a lower-energy version of Riley’s. Andrade herself resisted the Op label, on the grounds that her art aimed at doing far more than tickling the optic nerve. The very term “Op Art,” she told an interviewer at the time, “could be the kiss of death. It’s too simple. It seems to refer too directly to the physiology of the eye. It fails to suggest that we are exploring the whole process of perception.” Andrade was also out of sympathy with Minimalism, which was associated, at least in the art media, with Op.

Andrade’s concerns actually went far beyond the process of perception. Her interest in geometry was not strictly formalistic; she believed in the symbolic value of the basic shapes, in almost a Platonic sense. She was also very attuned to the intersection of art with science. In the 1950s she befriended Lancelot Law Whyte, a Scottish physicist and philosopher who was interested in patterns in nature and how they can be related to the human mind, which studies nature. Whyte led Andrade to gestalt psychology and the archetypal psychology of Carl Jung. With Jung she shared an interest in mandalas, the symmetrical geometric designs that are used as aids to meditation in various Asian traditions and find echoes in the West. Andrade studied the color theories of Chevreul and Goethe, as well as the mathematical proportions occurring in nature, such as the Fibonacci number or “golden section,” which underlies the patterns of spirals and many other rhythmic natural phenomena. She wrote, “My work intends to celebrate the order and energy inherent in natural structures. From a few basic themes of growth, a few systems for fitting parts and filling space, nature generates her rich variety of forms. She teaches me geometry and I borrow shapes and colors, symmetries, rhythms and ratios from her.”

These ambitions, lofty as they were, never led Andrade into Olympian attitudes. She was always attracted to the humility of crafts: “I feel a kinship with the anonymous artisans of the past who painted pots and tiles, wove baskets and carpets, stitched vestments and quilts,” she wrote. “They send me precious messages without words.” In the 1980s, inspired by the tile work she saw on a trip to India, she made acrylic on canvas paintings and screen prints such as Temple (1984) that exploit the graphic and color possibilities of tessellation. In addition to making screen prints of some of her Op images, she also collaborated with a toy company to render them as jigsaw puzzles. Andrade’s interest in “ancient traditions” of craft put her in sympathy with the Pattern & Decoration movement of the late ’70s and ’80s, which, in a feminist spirit, celebrated culturally diverse textile arts that have traditionally been considered “women’s work.” While she was not part of the movement, Andrade did exhibit with some of its prominent members, such as Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro. From 1971 on, Andrade was represented by Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, where she lived and worked until her death in 2008.

Her interest in nature became more clearly visible over time. In the ’70s she made dark, nearly monochrome acrylic paintings that seem to depict the night sky filled with vibrations of cosmic energy, like sine curves. Other works are based on linear elaborations of the color spectrum. In the ’90s, Andrade made a dramatic change, doing graphite drawings and oil paintings of rock formations that she observed along the Maine coast. For the first time in half a century, she was painting figuratively again, but this time without any sense of being beholden to someone else’s concept of how it should be done. With their painstaking attention to every crevice and contour, these late works are on the same quest as her abstract geometrical works—for attunement with nature and all her mysteries.


By John Dorfman

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The Big Picture http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/11/met-abstraction-exhibition/ Fri, 30 Nov 2018 03:13:47 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6357 Continue reading ]]> The Met’s exhibition of monumental abstraction places disparate works in dialogue with each other—and with the viewer.

Louise Nevelson, Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–77

Louise Nevelson, Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–77, painted wood, mirror, 355.6 x 607.1 x 457.2 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Louise Nevelson, Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–77 Mark Rothko, No. 13 (White, Red on Yellow), 1958 Isamu Noguchi, Kouros, 1945 Franz Kline, Black, White, and Gray, 1959 Jackson Pollock, Number 28, 1950

When Randall Griffey, a curator of modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, answered the phone, I was pleasantly surprised. On the other end of the line was a person who sounded a bit harried. His New York City commute had been a rough one, but, nonetheless I could hear the excitement in his voice when we began to discuss the museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera,” which opens December 17 and will remain on view indefinitely. “I’ve been at the Met for five years” Griffey told me, “and much of that time has been working with the collection. Fifty percent or more of my time is spent digging into the collection, which I love.” To hear him speak of the Met’s impressive holdings conjures an image of an academic who has traded his dusty old books for a life of adventure.

The adventure Griffey is embarking on combines challenging the canonical history of abstract art with an attempt to refresh and reimagine the Met Fifth Avenue’s Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, which has remained largely unchanged since it opened in the 1980s. “A little bit of the genesis for the exhibition,” Griffey says “came from my desire to work with and think about the postwar period and the museum’s collection dovetailing with a desire to refresh the second floor.” The period Griffey refers to heralded a tectonic shift for painting. The exhibition opens with a well-known quote from painter Barnett Newman, which gives voice to the spiritual and formal crisis that fueled artists’ retreat from traditional representation. “In 1940, some of us woke up to find ourselves without hope—to find that painting did not really exist. Or to coin a modern phrase, painting … was dead. The awakening had a exaltation of a revolution. It was that awakening that inspired the aspiration—the high purpose—quite a different thing from ambition—to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before. It was that naked revolutionary moment that made painters out of painters.”

Griffey is quick to mention, however, that this somewhat mythologizing explanation is by no means sancrosanct, and “Epic Abstraction” in many ways presents currents that push against it. The word “epic” almost ironically acknowledges the long-prevailing “great man” narratives of modern-art history, but in Griffey’s words, “it goes far and beyond the textbook Ab-Ex narrative, and it’s an opportunity to promote the strings of our collection.” He states in no uncertain terms that the exhibition “goes beyond the textbook canon of heroic dead, white men.” Visitors will marvel at large-scale works by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko while also experiencing paintings by less-known artists and global luminaries such as the Japanese painter Kazuo Shiraga, the self-taught African American artist Thornton Dial, Latin American abstractionist Carmen Herrera, and Hungarian painter Ilona Keserü Ilona.

The works on view are large in scale, and “Epic Abstraction” intends to rhyme their size with the scope of the ideas and themes they address. Images of bodies and landscapes may be largely absent from many of the paintings and sculptures presented, but they are replaced by less tangible, yet critical, subjects that speak to the de-realized nature of contemporary life, ranging from time to existential concerns to politics. The political and social dimensions emerge as much from inclusion and juxtaposition as from content. Works are interspersed and given new contexts and opportunities for new dialogues. The goal of this approach is to enable a refreshed excitement for works that may have passed too far from the realm of experience into the realm of history and understanding. “I never assume the visitors are coming for an art history lesson.” says Griffey. “They are coming here to have a new and different experience that is immersive and meaningful to them.”

Some of the show’s most exciting moments emerge from its most disparate visions. From the imposing presence of Louise Nevelson’s 1964–77 masterwork Mrs. N’s Palace (the installation’s centerpiece), which evokes the production design of Ridley Scott’s Alien reassembled as potent mindspace, to the humble power of Thornton Dial’s 2008 sculptural painting Shadows of the Field, the range and quality is both crucial and intended to impress. “This is meant to be crowd-pleasing to some extent,” admits Griffey, “because the works are simply jaw-dropping.” While the cross-cultural and cross-temporal dialogues the exhibition welcomes are far reaching and signifiant—from American Ab-Ex painter Cy Twombly to Philippines native Alfonso Ossorio to Chakaia Booker—there are also gleeful details. In the exhibition’s first room, visitors will encounter a Pollock that boasts visible footprints alongside a work by Kazuo Shiraga, an abstractionist with an interest in esoteric Buddhism who went to such lengths as to paint with his feet in order to circumvent his own conscious intent. Small, winking connections such as these are almost “Easter eggs” in an exhibition that is meant both to reignite the excitement critical to these massive works and to challenge certain calcified narratives.

It might be difficult not to be starstruck while standing in the same room as Pollock’s iconic 1950 oil on canvas Autumn Rhythm, but this is not necessarily an unwelcome response, according to Griffey. The show embraces the familiarity and power of its best-known works while also working to offer a chance to see anew. Griffey hopes the exhibition invites visitors to hold both things in their minds at the same time as he has. In the current social and political climate, this necessary experiment seems more important for America than ever.

By Chris Shields

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Al Loving: Flight to Freedom http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/10/al-loving/ Wed, 10 Oct 2018 16:50:02 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6271 Continue reading ]]> From hard edge to soft fabric, Al Loving’s abstract creations explore the farther reaches of perception and emotion.

Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970

Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970, acrylic on canvas , 228.6 x 264.2 cm., signed and dated, verso. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Al Loving, Untitled, 1975 Al Loving, New Morning #2, 1991 Al Loving, 55 Fair Street ACK #1, 1999 Al Loving, Spatial Collage #3, 2004 Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970

Throughout his career, Al Loving maintained that he was an Abstract Expressionist. Whether working with paint, fabric, paper collage, or mixed media, he saw his work as an ever-evolving project creating new dimensions and possibilities for personal expression. At first glance, Loving’s hard-edged abstract paintings of interlocking cubes from the 1960s might appear as anything but personal. The cube, however, held special significance for the artist, and finding new iterations of the form and, through it, new possibilities for abstraction became his chosen path for personal and artistic growth and exploration—not unlike Kazimir Malevich with his square-based Suprematism.

Loving explained, “I didn’t know what to paint. At the end of my graduate school year I went back and started painting a box, or square canvas, maybe three feet by three feet. I would just draw a square in the middle of that with the paint brush. I would proceed to paint the square, the inside of the square and the outside; it was an Albers square. I decided I would paint the square until I could no longer paint squares.” Like Giorgio Morandi’s bottles, with each new creation the cube became imbued with Loving’s essence, the work a record of his technical and intellectual reckoning with the form and thus with himself as an artist. The artist saw no contradiction between abstraction and autobiography.

Loving’s artistic trajectory began in a seemingly more representational vein, as he painted scenes from his own life and experience. He struggled to find his mode of expression, vacillating between abstraction and representation. An early work pictured his wife “conking” her hair. Conking was a particularly significant hair trend among African Americans from the 1920s through the 1960s. The conk hairstyle (derived from congolene, a hair-straightening gel made from lye) involved chemically straightening naturally kinky hair. Black musicians such as Louis Jordan and Little Richard were known for their shining conked pompadours. The process is sometimes described as a painful one, and this attempt to achieve straight, Caucasian-like hair, seems to reflect the strain and discomfort of cultural adaptation endured by many African Americans. In the late ’60s, the conk would be rejected and pointed to as an oppressive tool of internalized cultural domination, and black Americans would move toward allowing their hair to grow naturally, as a political, stylistic, and cultural expression.

Like hair, art was grappling with the idea of what black expression was. Articles from the ’60s and ’70s in art publications attempted to define “black art,” and Loving’s staunchly abstract work resisted overly simple definition. Born in Detroit in 1935, Loving studied painting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and became associated with the Once Group organization, alongside icons like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. In 1968, Loving relocated to New York City, and his association with the Once Group and its iconic alumni allowed him entry into the New York art world. In 1969, he famously became the first African American to have a one-person show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Alvin Loving: Paintings.” Loving remembers, “I said to Dick Van Buren, my downstairs neighbor, ‘Dick, how come the Whitney Museum wants to give me a one-person show when I’ve only been here 10 months?’ He said, ‘Don’t ask questions. Do the show.’” The exhibition featured only six works—four large assemblages of shaped canvases, and two cube-shaped canvases, including Three Solid Questions. The painting embodies the spirit of Loving’s endeavor, seeming to unfold before the viewer’s eyes with a slow and pensive deliberateness, at one moment seemingly simple and at the next glance a complex hall of mirrors reflecting alternate ways of seeing the cube. Color, also an important element for Loving, is employed both for illusionist effects and expressive beauty—warm gold, cool blue gray, and hard green lines. The work is a collection of visual ideas; it thinks out loud.

This whirlwind of success could threaten to overshadow the work at its center. Loving’s paintings, however, were technically brilliant and compositionally impeccable. He was an unapologetic abstractionist, carrying on a tradition that followed from his teacher Al Mullen and Mullen’s mentor, the great theorist of abstraction, Hans Hofmann. Loving saw Hofmann as a towering figure: “I felt [Hofmann] was the artist who had to be transcended in order to make a contribution to the history of art,” he said. Loving was also an admirer of M.C. Escher’s visual puzzles, and his own work dealt in similar spatial illusions, emptied of Escher’s representational content and set free to function as pure visual games. When viewing Loving’s two-dimensional cubes, visual pleasure is paramount. His paintings are breathtakingly elegant and yet mind-bendingly complex experiences that bring together the eye and the intellect.

Throughout his career, Loving’s work was exhibited widely in the United States and collected by prestigious institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The National Gallery of Art. The artist was the recipient of his share of solo shows at galleries such as June Kelly and at institutions such as The Studio Museum in Harlem, but none was to rival his groundbreaking Whitney solo show in prestige and visibility.

By the time that show was mounted, however, Loving had already begun to “hate” hard-edged abstraction. The interlocking two-dimensional planes that had filled his canvases would soon emerge into three-dimensionality, but in a new, softened state. In the 1970s, the artist began to construct works using pieces of fabric, at first painted and later dyed. The initial spark of inspiration came after Loving’s daughter spilled paint on an unstretched canvas. Seeing the potential of this moment, he tore countless canvases into shreds and began recombining them, not unlike the work of the Italian-American artist Salvatore Scarpitta, who was also using canvases liberated from their wooden frames.

The abstract hanging sculptures that resulted were inspired in part by Loving’s encounter with quilts at the Whitney’s exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts” and by fabric works by contemporaries such as Alan Shields, Sam Gilliam, and Richard Moch. In these sculptural works of material abstraction (which the artist still considered Abstract Expressionist), Loving would employ his preternatural knack for composition to organize long strips of fabric into collections of layered planes. Loving was engaging with form in a new way, with works inhabiting a strange space between two-dimensional abstraction and three-dimensional sculpture. These new works appeared to not only bring Loving’s earlier creations into three-dimensions but to deconstruct them, as well, adding just a hint of visual chaos. The precise lines that created the artist’s canvas cubes were now exploded and reassembled, stacked upon each other like so much lumber awaiting its mission.

Loving’s fabric works (and his paper collage works to come) bring to mind John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” (a term coined by jazz critic Ira Gitler to describe the saxophonist’s unique improvisational style). Coltrane’s technique of rapidly moving from high to low notes at intervals sometimes outpacing even 16th notes, created new dimensions of sonic texture. These innovations appear to be given physical form in the long bars of colored fabric which Loving composed with a similar combination of daring and precision. Coltrane and Loving were simultaneously working from tradition while deconstructing it, one musically, one pictorially. Both artists however, saw the heart of their work as expression, or as Coltrane would put it, “feeling.” In Loving’s fabric sculptures, feeling was more evident than previously, the materials allowing for a sensual warmth that his radically geometric canvases seemed to lack.

The approachability and warmth of Loving’s fabric works would continue through his next formal evolution. The artist began to produce large-scale paper collages, which would herald a new freedom and spontaneity. Composed of torn cardboard assembled and glued into intensely complex, large compositions, these works represent a meeting place between his soft, hanging sculptures and his harder-edged earlier paintings. Some of the works of this period measure as much as nine feet across and function, similarly to his hanging fabric works, as both sculptural relief and painting. Gravity, however, has been taken out of the equation, and the artist’s cardboard shreds are allowed to find a variety of directions besides straight down. Never before had Loving had so much access to compositional immediacy. There had always been a barrier before, whether it was the brush or the sewing machine. With these new works, composition seemed as simple as tearing and gluing, the result being a direct line to Loving’s compositional acuity. Here the textural and visual density of collage was combined with an experienced artist’s precision and instinct unfiltered, and the overall effect was quite personal. In his 1974 New York Times appraisal of Loving’s new work, Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “Indeed, he has titled this packed and sprightly new work with the names of friends: “Paul”, “Roger”, etc. And one might say that it is on a kind of first-name basis with the viewer. There is a colloquial mood to its use of an abstract visual idiom—not descending to slang, but eschewing formal precisions in favor of the mixed, flowing tones and stresses of conversation.”

Loving would continue his collages, and as spiral forms found their way into his compositions, some speculated on a connection to African artistic inheritance. On the occasion of the 2004 solo exhibition “Lighter than Air” at Chicago’s G.R N’Namadi Gallery, critic Bridget Goodbody would go as far as to use the term “funkadelic” in describing Loving’s work. It would seem that as Loving grew as an artist and a man, black cultural heritage and experience would come to bear more and more on his work in obvious ways. He would explore more organic forms with connections to the natural world, and eventually even return to the cube, which had defined his early artistic identity. Looking back over Loving’s career, one gets the sense of growing confidence and comfort with himself and his work, the early struggles with the square giving way to a total mastery of the expressive potential of abstraction.

The search for “blackness” in Al Loving’s art seems to be the bogeyman haunting much of the critical writing about his work. It seems akin to the hunt for President Obama’s birth certificate—a pursuit that says more about the art establishment than the artist. Nevertheless, one theme recurs through the various forms of Loving creations: There is the need to break free of the bonds of two-dimensionality, whether through illusionistic spatial effects in painting, sculptural wall hangings, or paper collage and to push the expressive capability of abstraction as far as possible. What unifies Al Loving’s career is a pursuit of something the tightly-framed, privileged view of white America can scarcely appreciate or conceive of: freedom.


By Chris Shields

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A Writer’s Wordless Visions http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/09/victor-hugo/ Sat, 29 Sep 2018 13:52:48 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6226 Continue reading ]]> The artwork of Victor Hugo is revealed at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867

Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867, brown ink and wash and white gouache on paper, 17.2 x 26.4 cm.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867 Victor Hugo, Silhouette de château illuminé par un orage (Silhouette of a castle struck by lightning), circa 1854-57 Victor Hugo, Silhouette de l’Ermitage (Silhouette of l’Ermitage), circa 1855 Victor Hugo, Taches (Stains), circa 1875 Victor Hugo, Souvenir d’un burg des Vosges (Souvenir of a castle in the Vosges), 1857

Some of the most astonishing and advanced artworks of of the 19th century were created by an amateur, part-time artist—Victor Hugo. Famous in France and throughout Europe for his poetry and epic novels such as Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), Hugo was also a passionate practitioner of ink-and-wash drawing, which he pursued privately, with no desire to make a name for himself as a visual artist. (In fact, he was concerned that his drawings might encroach on his literary reputation.) It was not until 1888, three years after his death at the age of 83, that any of his drawings were exhibited in public, although he occasionally allowed prints to be made from a few of them.

Delacroix admired his work and claimed that if he had wanted to, Hugo could have been the greatest artist of his age. Baudelaire, a fellow writer who was also deeply attracted to the visual arts (as a critic), wrote of Hugo, “Our poet is the king of landscape painters.” And Théophile Gautier wrote that Hugo “excels at combining, in his somber and fierce fantasies, the effects of the chiaroscuro of Goya and the terrifying architecture of Piranesi.” While Hugo’s drawings are clearly rooted in the aesthetics of the Romantic movement, to our eyes they look remarkably contemporary. With their bold use of form and texture, some of them seem to prefigure 20th-century abstraction, like the late works of Turner.

The Hammer Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles is now giving American viewers a rare opportunity to appreciate Hugo’s drawings. “Stones to Stains: The Art of Victor Hugo,” which opened on September 27 and continues through December 30, exhibits more than 75 drawings and photographs spanning the artist’s career, loaned from major European and American collections including those of the Maisons de Victor Hugo, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Musée d’Orsay, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Morgan Library. Curated by the Hammer’s Cynthia Burlingham and Allegra Pesenti, this exhibition is the first to focus on Hugo’s drawings since a show at the Drawing Center in New York in 1998. It is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Burlingham, Pesenti, and Swiss independent scholar Florian Rodari and a chronology by Matthieu Vahanian, curatorial assistant at UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.

Despite the fact that he devoted far more time to writing than drawing, Hugo produced a vast visual oeuvre of over 3,000 sheets. It seems that doing them was therapeutic for him, a retreat into a purely visual, contemplative realm after the effort of writing. Although he drew throughout his life, his greatest volume of production was between 1848 and 1851, when he all but gave up writing in favor of spolitical activity in support of the revolutionary liberal cause of that period. After the failure of this cause and the accession to power of Napoleon III, Hugo was exiled to the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey, where he spent the years 1852–70; this time was also a particularly fertile one for his drawing practice.

Hugo was inspired by the rocky landscape of the islands, as he had been earlier by the human-hewn stones of Paris’ architecture. His more realistic drawings include dramatic, moody images of castles, cathedral spires, cityscapes, and the famous Eddystone lighthouse. One drawing from 1866, of a staircase leading up to a barred window inside a Guernsey lighthouse, makes clear why Gautier compared Hugo to Piranesi; the image, though not of a prison, strongly suggests the Carceri of the Italian master. The window glows with the light of freedom yet unattained, and one thinks of the years Jean Valjean spent in jail in Les Misérables. Another consistent theme in Hugo’s drawings is water, which held multiple meanings for him—power, mutability, destiny. It also had a tragic connotation because of his daughter Léopoldine’s accidental death by drowning in the Seine in 1843, at the age of 19. This event forever changed Hugo, and for several years thereafter his depression was so severe that he could barely write. One memorable sheet in the exhibition, made in 1867, shows a huge wave curling, cresting, and foaming, over the inscription “Ma Destinée” (“my destiny”).

Water is, of course, also the medium of Hugo’s drawings, in the form of the ink washes, mostly brown, that he employed to make them. In his use of wash, and, in fact, all his techniques, Hugo took the maximum liberty, completely indifferent to academic conventions and public taste alike. He would let the pooling of the ink-and-water mix on the paper create its own shapes; this process is what led to the seemingly unprecedented abstraction of Hugo’s works on paper. Sometimes he would fold the paper to create a Rohrschach-like blotting effect. These drawings he called his taches (stains). He would add texture with impressions made with his fingertips or with objects such as leaves or bits of lace, and sprinkle graphite powder over the drawing. Further departing from traditional methods, he made extensive use of stencils that he cut himself to create irregular forms; one of the most memorable of these depicts a castle on a rocky crag in silhouette, almost dwarfed by jagged shapes overhead that look like black lightning bolts. Hugo’s wild, untethered experimentation with techniques and materials, making the fullest use of the medium’s expressive possibilities, marks him as a proto-modernist and proto-abstractionist.

Unlike the modernists who came on the scene a half-century later, Hugo had no particular doctrine to promulgate or mission to accomplish. If anything, the artistic spirit in his drawings, as in his writings, is Romantic. His most abstract drawings are passionately expressive of the power of spirit and nature, with a pervasive dark atmosphere that is almost Gothic. And in keeping with the rapid growth of scientific knowledge during the 19th century, some of Hugo’s drawings go beyond earthly nature to embrace the cosmos, such as his otherworldly tache images of the planets and the moon. “Poets have invented a metaphorical moon, scientists an algebraic moon,” wrote Hugo. “The real moon is halfway between the two. That is the moon my eyes beheld.”


By John Dorfman

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