Abstract Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Wed, 29 Aug 2018 17:05:44 +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 A Good Fit http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/08/john-chamberlain/ Wed, 29 Aug 2018 17:05:44 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6167 Continue reading ]]> John Chamberlain found his own art materials where no one else was even looking and assembled them as a poet assembles words.

John Chamberlain, Papalote Goliad, 1974–75

John Chamberlain, Papalote Goliad, 1974–75, painted and chromium-plated steel, 170.2 x 232.4 x 325 cm. THE CHINATI FOUNDATION, MARFA © 2018 FAIRWEATHER & FAIRWEATHER LTD/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS)

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) John Chamberlain, Divine Ricochet, 1991 John Chamberlain, Hillbilly Galoot, 1960 John Chamberlain, Papalote Goliad, 1974–75 John Chamberlain, PEAUDESOIEMUSIC, 2011 John Chamberlain in his studio, 1964 John Chamberlain, The Hot Lady from Bristol

On January 5, 1960, just as the Sixties dawned, John Chamberlain had his first solo show. The 10 sculptures on view at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York were all made from a startlingly new material, or at least, a material new to art—crushed and twisted fragments of automobile bodies, still with their original industrial paint and chrome trim. Salvaged from junkyards, the pieces were intricately fit together to make up complex abstract forms. Each sculpture was multicolored, the various paints either clashing or complementing each other, or both. Some suggest exotic flowers blooming or the intricate folds of drapery; some spread outward while others reach upward, lightly balanced on a tiny base.

Critics didn’t quite know what to make of these astonishing objects. Were they three-dimensional versions of de Kooning’s canvases? Were they some kind of commentary on America’s disposable car culture? Budding minimalist and part-time art writer Donald Judd saw deeper, noting especially the use of color in Chamberlain’s works, diametrically opposed to the monochrome tradition of both pre-modern and modernist Western sculpture: “The paint is folded into the convolutions of the metal and is unquestionably integral to the work,” Judd wrote in Arts Magazine. “Colored sculpture has been discussed and hesitantly attempted for some time, but not with such implications.”

The implications would unfold over time, as Chamberlain went through various phases of experimentation with materials and techniques. But the essence of his art was in place from the beginning and can be understood under two aspects—collage and material innovation. Chamberlain joined the modernist project of creation by combination, following Braque, Picasso, Schwitters, and many others, but he was quite indifferent to established ideas about which materials were appropriate for art and almost as indifferent to modernist rules about formalism and purity. “I’m basically a collagist. I put one thing together with another thing,” he told an interviewer in his typically blunt way. “I sort of invented my own art supplies. I saw all this material just lying around against buildings and it was in color, so I felt I was ahead on two counts there.” Chamberlain used automotive steel as raw material purely for its plastic and chromatic qualities, without any intention of alluding to the romance or danger of the automobile. Chamberlain considered himself an Abstract Expressionist, and indeed the sculptures are completely abstract. Their component parts are like-wise abstracted, their previous history stripped away.

Chamberlain was born in Rochester, Ind., in 1927, the son of a tavern keeper. His passion for industrial metal showed early; as a boy he was fascinated by aviation, building model airplanes and learning to fly his father’s 1931 Curtiss-Wright plane. After his parents divorced, Chamberlain moved with his mother and brother to Chicago, where he had his first experience of art, seeing Van Goghs at the Art Institute. After dropping out of ninth grade, he hit the road for California in hopes of getting into the movie business. He didn’t make it all the way there and instead ended up in Phoenix, Ariz., where World War II caught up with him. In September 1943 he enlisted in the Navy, at least partly to avoid vagrancy, and served aboard an aircraft carrier in the Pacific and in the Mediterranean.

Returning to Chicago after the war, Chamberlain felt the need to start a career and decided on hairdressing and makeup artistry, which he studied with financing from the G.I. Bill. It seems like an odd choice for the famously macho wild-man artist, but while he may have been motivated—as some have suggested—by the belief that it would help him pick up girls, one can also see a certain commonality between shaping hair and shaping sculpture.

By 1949, Chamberlain was taking classes from an artist named Lucretia Malcher, who lived near the salon where he worked, and around that time he made his first sculpture, a cat carved from a bar of Ivory soap—even then, he was finding his own materials.

In 1950, he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where, he later said, he got more out of the art on view in the galleries than from the instruction in the classrooms and studios. A friend and recent graduate of the school, Joseph Goto, stimulated his interest in welded metal sculpture.

In 1952, Chamberlain left the Art Institute after an argument with a professor who gave him a low grade on a paper in which Chamberlain compared certain Indian architectural columns to nude human bodies, with an emphasis on how the bodies seemed to fit together. This incident is very telling about Chamberlain, not only in reference to his anti-authoritarian personality and sometimes difficult nature, but because the notion of the “fit” became the key to his whole artistic method. The metal elements of the sculptures he would make less than 10 years later were not crushed together; they were crushed before being assembled and then carefully, lovingly put together with an intricacy that is Chamberlain’s signature. “It’s all in the fit,” he would say again and again over the years. And for him, the analogy with the human body was deeply felt: Among his saying were “The assembly is a fit, and the fit is sexual,” and “The sexual decision comes in the fitting of the parts.”

After the Art Institute, Chamberlain continued to support himself by styling hair, while making welded metal (non-automotive) sculptures and trying to get some recognition. A break came in 1954, when one of his pieces was chosen by Robert Motherwell for inclusion in an exhibition at the Institute of Design, Chicago, for which Motherwell was a juror. A few months later, a former classmate from the Art Institute persuaded Chamberlain to enroll at Black Mountain College, the famed Bauhaus-derived modernart incubator in the mountains of North Carolina. At Black Mountain, Chamberlain discovered poetry, studying with such greats as Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. From them, he learned how to combine words in new ways that subvert standard meanings and challenge logical thought.

One text that had a strong influence on Chamberlain there was “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry,” an essay by the early 20th-century Bostonian art historian Ernest Fenollosa, edited and posthumously published by the pioneering modernist poet Ezra Pound. The essay relates the meanings of Chinese characters to their pictorial aspects, and this got Chamberlain thinking about English words and letters in visual terms and about combining them in ways that appeal as much or more to the eyes as to the mind. This kind of thinking played into Chamberlain’s later penchant for giving bizarre and baffling titles to his works, choosing the words for the way they looked on paper or emphasizing sound over meaning. These titles—such as Coo Wha Zee, Hillbilly Galoot, and WETSTARESCORT—are not descriptive of the works or even of the circumstances of their making. Instead, they are a form of inspired, non-linear wordplay that parallels the physical process of creating the sculptures. The titles are as abstract as the works themselves. For Chamberlain, the lesson of Black Mountain was that he could be like a modernist “language poet” with his “art supplies,” innovatively combining them—fitting them together—much as Olson and Creeley (who became a longtime friend of the artist) did with words. Chamberlain, speaking of his sculptures in HEAARTBEAT, a documentary film that his stepdaughter Alexandra Fairweather made about him not long before his death in 2011, said, “All the parts are to be assembled. And they can be assembled just the same as though they were words. Words fit together; so do these.”

In 1966, Chamberlain decided to move away from found automotive steel and explore other materials, out of curiosity and in order to challenge himself. At the time, he was spending time in Southern California, where his steel pieces were resonating with friends such as Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Billy Al Bengston and with the Light and Space and Finish Fetish movements. While staying with the gallerist Virginia Dwan in Malibu, Chamberlain hit on the idea of using polyurethane foam to make sculptures, twisting and tying the pieces to give them form. These small foam works were easy to make quickly, almost “instant sculpture,” and the work process contrasted refreshingly, for Chamberlain, with the laborious nature of assembling and welding steel. In 1969, he used foam to make large-scale works called “Couches,” some of which were as much as six feet in diameter. These were intended to be participatory: “The couches are pieces of furniture that excite a particular kind of attitude about posture, and create multiple seating arrangements at the sixth-grade level,” said the artist. “The couches have to be large. They’re also catchalls, whether for you or your friends, your money, dumping your pockets, magazines, newspaper, clothing, sheets, blankets, pillows.”

During his “laboratory period,” Chamberlain also worked with brown-bag paper, which he painted with watercolor, crumpled, and then coated with resin to preserve the shape. (These “brown paper bag sculptures” recall a bar trick the artist was known for, crushing cigarette boxes in distinctive ways and handing them to friends, many of whom kept them.) He also worked in plain, unpainted galvanized steel and transparent or translucent synthetic polymer resin, both of which he twisted and folded in ways that suggest Classical drapery. In keeping with his Black Mountain background, some of Chamberlain’s experiments from the Sixties didn’t have to do with sculpture at all. One project, never fully realized, was called SniFFter and was described as “an olfactory-stimulus-response environment involving more than one hundred odors” with names such as “mother’s milk,” “Rembrandt painting,” and “photographic fixer.” He also shot some 16mm films and created a slideshow titled Witches and Warlocks, composed of some 900 found images shown on seven projectors and with a soundtrack of readings by John Cage.

In 1974, Chamberlain made a crucial decision—to return to working in automotive steel, but with a difference. Now, instead of finding pieces of car bodies and just using them, he stripped pieces from particular parts of vehicles, such as van roofs, creating long strips of metal which he painted himself and fit together into structures that have a finer-grained feel than his previous steel works. In the 1980s he was using sheets of polished steel, bending them and exploiting the reflective properties of the metal to create an optical kind of “fit.” As early as the 1960s Chamberlain had begun working with aluminum foil, which he wrapped around wadding to create a characteristic forms resembling curving tubes that flare at the ends. Over the following decades he continued to be interested in foil, and in 2007 he started making large-scale works in this medium.

Chamberlain remained extremely active as an artist right up until his death at 84, working out of his studio in Shelter Island, N.Y. Among his last works were a set of nine-foot-high ink-on-canvas “Pictures” made from specially processed, colorized, and juxtaposed photos. The artist took these hallucinatory images with a Widelux, a vintage-looking panoramic film camera that he had been using since the late 1970s. It employs a unique method in which the lens rotates past the film frame instead of the photographer having to pan the camera. In his Widelux photography, Chamberlain literally shot from the hip, making the pictures without bringing the camera’s finder to his eye. The results are typical Chamberlain: disparate elements are combined into one image in a way that defies visual and narrative logic, though there is often an autobiographical element, with the artist and his surroundings included in the picture. Exploiting bright light sources and reflections, as well as the Widelux’s omnivorous ability to squeeze a range of moments into one image, Chamberlain created a kind of distortion that fascinatingly transposes his concept of “fit” into a new medium.


By John Dorfman

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Signs and Wonders http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/08/tony-berlant/ Wed, 29 Aug 2018 16:12:45 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6157 Continue reading ]]> Whether in his collage-based art or in his activities as collector/scholar/curator of ancient artifacts, Tony Berlant is penetrating into hidden levels of meaning.

Tony Berlant, Backyard, 2018

Tony Berlant, Backyard, 2018, tin collage on plywood with steel brads, 57 x 72 in. IMAGE COURTESY KOHN GALLERY

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Tony Berlant, Haven, 2003 Tony Berlant, Western Addition, 2009 Tony Berlant, Backyard, 2018 Tony Berlant, Self, 2018 Tony Berlant, The Cracked White House, 1967

Anyone unfamiliar with the tin-collaged oeuvre of Tony Berlant could be forgiven if they walked past his sprawling Santa Monica, Calif., studio compound and assumed that this multi-level live-work space was home to some kind of bustling furniture atelier, or simply a never-ending, NIMBY-baiting construction project. But those allowed into Berlant’s cacophonous inner sanctum, at least this summer, happened upon the source of the ruckus: a team of assistants feverishly, though precisely, hammering snippets of curated metal signage—some of it salvaged, but most of it produced from tin that has been digitally painted with photographs taken by the artist —onto plywood. Berlant’s source

photos, which number in the thousands, are kept in piles and in crates labeled with depictions of everything from “Guns/Animals” and “Sassy Ladies” to “Surf” and “Trains/Tractors/Cars.” Once Berlant selects a photo he wants, he traces the image on mylar, preparatory to it being transferred to the metal surface. The result of all this effort is a body of autobiographical collages that comprise “Fast Forward,” Berlant’s first show at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles, his new dealer after 33 years with L.A. Louver Gallery.

“What makes sense to me now is to make things you’d like to keep,” says Berlant. “That’s the simple way of putting it. If you really want to keep it, then you know it’s good—it’s worth making because it’s satisfying.” Berlant, a towering figure with the gait of a retired football player, strikes a slightly imposing figure that he tempers with a measured baritone, mostly used to deflect conversations away from himself or his practice. “When you’re making collages or assemblages, things fall apart if you glue them, and I like the noise, I like hammering it,” he says.

Born in New York in 1941, Berlant came to Los Angeles at the age of five. After graduating from UCLA in 1961, he went on to earn master’s degrees in painting and sculpture at the university in 1962 and ’63. Although Berlant had already used metal as an art medium, a disused store with old signage that was going to be torn down provided him with inspiration to make a new kind of work. On the store’s façade, Berlant discovered a layer cake of signage—a Chesterfield ad on the front of the display and four rusted signs beneath it going back decades. First he photographed them, and then he began snipping and hammering the signs into collage.

These works quickly drew the attention of top collectors and curators, who exhibited them in shows at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, between 1962 and 1966. Berlant’s early-established signature technique of collaging metal elements onto flat surfaces and three-dimensional shapes (such as houses, cubes, and Classical temples) has remained at the center of his art, though he has also made architecturally-inspired sculptures.

A trio of these architectural pieces, exhibited in the mid-’60s at the Whitney and at the James Corcoran Gallery in L.A., is finally getting a permanent home at the Château La Coste vineyard near Aix-en-Provence, France, after decades of being kept “in the dark in cheap storage with grass growing over them,” as Berlant puts it. “I could have sold the stainless steel one many times, but I wanted to keep all three together, which was kind of impossible,” says the artist as we walk through the vaulted office adjoining his collage studio. He shows me a maquette of the three building-sized sculptures, which will be sited on a hillside above the vineyard with some help from the architect Frank Gehry, a longtime friend of Berlant’s. The hillside also contains ancient archaeological remains, discovered within the last year, from when it was an ancient Roman vineyard.

“When your heroes embrace you, it gives you a green light to go ahead,” says Berlant. While the new projects are clearly intended to help cement his legacy, they are both very personal. He uses the word “personal” often as he shows me through his second-floor residence, where his work is displayed alongside rare pieces by idol-friends such as Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Ed Moses, and Chris Burden, who is known for his intensely personal and political performance and public sculpture. Among the images on the metal wall works in the Kohn exhibition are photos the artist took of his wife, Helen, the view from his office, and one of 48 Polaroids of Berlant by Andy Warhol, taken in the early ’70s.

Though Berlant considers his practice more in line with that of “manipulative collage workers” like Joseph Cornell, Kurt Schwitters, and Robert Rauschenberg than with Pop artists like Warhol, he acknowledges that when he was starting out as an artist, in his mid-20s, he was significantly influenced by the Pop movement. In 1963 he was included in “Pop Art USA” at the Oakland Museum of Art, one of the first exhibitions of Pop Art.

In addition to his art practice, Berlant has long been a “fanatical collector” of Native American art and artifacts. In the mid ’60s, he left UCLA, and to replace the lost income from teaching, he began dealing in Navajo blankets. Eventually, he counted among his customers many of the top artists in New York, including Warhol, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden.

Berlant’s obsessions grew to include Mimbres pottery from southwestern New Mexico—functional bowls dating back to around 850–1150 A.D. that were meticulously decorated with paints made from carbon and hematite and used for culinary and funerary purposes—and the hand tools of early man, prime examples of which are scattered throughout his second-floor residence. He pulls a Neanderthal-crafted hand axe from a velvet lined drawer. Depending on which scholar you ask, this alluringly sculptural tool dates back 300,000 to 500,000 years. Berlant explains, “People are driven neurologically to make this shape, and these were made for almost two million years.” His interest in ancient artifacts has grown into a scholarly and curatorial second career, culminating in a book, First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone, co-authored with the anthropologist Thomas Wynn, and a traveling exhibition of the same name, which debuted at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas this past spring and is tentatively scheduled to travel widely.

These “first sculptures” aren’t the only objects to lure Berlant away from the studio and into the roles of archaeologist/writer/curator. His involvement with Mimbres pottery inspired him to become one of the founding members of the Mimbres Foundation, a conservancy group with which he has conducted copious research. In collaboration with Evan Maurer and Julia Burtenshaw, Berlant came out with another book, Decoding Mimbres Painting: Ancient Ceramics of the American Southwest and an accompanying exhibition that is currently on view at LACMA (through December 2).

The scholarship not only singles out blue-chip Mimbreño artists (such as the so-called “Rabbit Master”) for their styles but also asserts that the imagery on the vessels was a result of days-long hallucinogenic ritual experiences induced by a substance harvested from the seed pods of the psychoactive datura flower. “Many of the depictions on these bowls are abstractions of the datura flower and other psychoactive plants,” says Berlant. Speculating as to why the Mimbreños punctured the bowls, he says, “When you hallucinate, you see a big, white, glowing tunnel, and when you’re seeing this form it’s turning, so there’s a conflation of the flower and the spirit portal, the opening. I think puncturing the hole in the portal is a way of your spirit going into the portal and onto the other side.”

One point of intersection between the ancient art that fascinates Berlant and his own work is the idea of shape-shifting. Just as neolithic stone carvers and Mimbreño potters saw shapes in the mind’s eye that are not literally there—whether due to imagination or pharmaceuticals—Berlant invites the viewer to see new things amid the endlessly complex assortments of images and texts he collages together. Among the pieces on view at Kohn are some that feature photographic collages of contemporary street imagery and prehistoric-hand-tool imagery across one side and galaxies of tin-snipped letters across the opposite side. “They’re really like two paintings that are put together,” says the artist, “so it’s more like a sculptural experience, where you see one half and then the other.” Looking at these works, images and associations seem to cohere and disappear, only to be replaced by others equally valid. The essence of Berlant’s aesthetic quest, he says, is “to make what is invisible and strongly felt, seen.”


By Michael Slenske

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A Gentleman and an Artist http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/07/charles-green-shaw/ Tue, 10 Jul 2018 01:36:13 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6122 Continue reading ]]> In the period before Ab Ex, the multitalented Manhattanite Charles Green Shaw was a powerful advocate for abstract art in America.

Charles Green Shaw, Biomorphic Seascape, 1936

Charles Green Shaw, Biomorphic Seascape, 1936, oil on board, 12 x 16 in. © The Estate of Charles Green Shaw

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Charles Green Shaw, Nautical Position, 1940 Charles Green Shaw, Signal Man, 1942 Charles Green Shaw, Moon Walk, 1940 Charles Green Shaw, Biomorphic Seascape, 1936 Charles Green Shaw, Untitled (Intersection Trapezoids), 1936

To be an abstract artist in the U.S. between the two world wars was to tread a rocky, lonely path. The modernist avant-garde had a hard enough time finding acceptance on these shores, even after the path-breaking Armory Show of 1913, but even by the 1930s abstraction was still seen by American critics and art audiences as basically a European affair. In 1936, when the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr. mounted an exhibition titled “Cubism and Abstract Art,” hardly any of the more than 100 artists was American. Outraged, a number of the “réfusés” got together and formed American Abstract Artists (AAA). One of that organization’s founding members, Albert Eugene Gallatin, a wealthy artist and collector, had been exhibiting abstract art from his own collection under the rubric of the Gallery of Living Art, which was located in a study center at New York University, on Washington Square. In the wake of the MoMA show, Gallatin expanded the project and renamed it the Museum of Living Art, with the implication that it would, if not rival MoMA, then at least fill in the substantial gaps left by the latter’s curatorial program. The only artist to get a solo show at Gallatin’s gallery was a close friend and colleague named Charles Green Shaw.

Shaw was a writer as well as a painter, and he lent his considerable polemical skills to the defense of the abstractionist cause. He was also independently wealthy and well-connected socially. After harshly criticizing MoMA for its myopic view of the American art scene, Shaw was promptly invited to join the museum’s advisory board, where he remained for about five years, until 1941. He confidently asserted the right of Americans to be creative in a mode of art that may have been pioneered in Europe but innately knew no nationality. In 1938, Shaw published an essay in the AAA yearbook, “A Word to the Objector,” in which he spelled out his principles of abstract art.

“Art, since its inception,” wrote Shaw, “has never depended upon realism. Why, one cannot help wondering, should it begin now? Art, on the contrary, is (has been, and always will be) an appeal to one’s aesthetic emotion and to one’s aesthetic emotion alone; not for the fraction of a split second to those vastly more familiar emotions, which are a mixture of sentimentality, prettiness, anecdote, and melodrama.” As to how “aesthetic emotions” could be successfully appealed to, Shaw explained that “honest painting, regardless of its representational or non-representational merits, embraces certain patent fundamentals. One seeks, for example, rhythm, composition, spatial organization, design, progression of color, and many, many other qualities in any aesthetic work.”

In his own art, Shaw worked in two main modes, which might best be described as linear geometric abstraction and biomorphic abstraction, with a definite preference for the former. Early on in his career he arrived at a conception that he termed the “Plastic Polygon,” in which a polygonal figure, often irregular, would be divided into overlapping, interlacing rectangles of different sizes and colors. To the extent that these paintings suggest any “objective” subject matter, it is the jagged skyline of Shaw’s beloved New York. The paintings are completely flat, without any illusionistic space; the effect they have on the viewer is similar to the loss of distinctions of depth that occurs when seeing clusters of buildings from a distance. The term “plastic,” while today it connotes nothing but a manufacturing material, was used by Shaw and other art writers at the time to mean the pure graphic elements of visual art, as distinct from the representational or narrative elements. In abstract art, the plastic aspect takes over completely. An abstract-art journal to which Shaw contributed, edited by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, the wife of Hans Arp, was titled Plastique.

Shaw’s biomorphic-style pieces bear a distinct resemblance to the those of Hans Arp, whom he befriended while on a visit to Paris in 1935 and from whom he purchased some works. He also emulated Arp by making carved and painted wooden constructions in box-like frames, which use shallow relief to add a three-dimensional quality. One of the most charming of Shaw’s efforts in this vein places four abstract shapes, which could be birds spreading their wings, on top of a rich blue background. A reddish circle could easily be the sun. Another amplifies the effect of the Plastic Polygon by taking it one step closer to actual architectural construction.

There is this tendency in Shaw’s work toward frank acknowledgment of materiality, quite at variance with the ethereal, otherworldly nature of much early abstraction, such as the mystical “non-objective” school represented by Wassily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay, and their followers. He was not seeking access to a Platonic realm of pure ideas; his works were very much of this earth—on occasion he even added sand to his paint to create a gritty texture. In 1936, shortly after the MoMA contretemps, Shaw co-organized an exhibition at Reinhardt Gallery in New York of five abstract artists—himself, George L.K. Morris, John Ferren, Charles Biederman, and Alexander Calder—and coined the term “Concretionists” for the little group because he felt that their works were indeed concrete and that the word “abstract” gave the wrong idea by suggesting that the art lacked physical reality.

Shaw came to art relatively late in life. He didn’t start painting until he was 34, and within just a few years he was showing his work at New York galleries. During the ’20s he was known as a journalist, doing humor and social-observation pieces for arch publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Smart Set. He counted among his friends such literary luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken, Anita Loos, and George Jean Nathan. Cole Porter was a close friend since college days—both were members of the Yale class of 1914.

If anyone was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, it was Shaw. His family inherited a generous portion of the Woolworth’s department-store fortune, and he was brought up in the cosmopolitan Manhattan world that he would later chronicle for the magazines. A tall, elegantly dressed figure, Shaw seems like the archetypal “urban sophisticate” from a ’30s movie, and throughout his life he maintained the same gracious, un-bohemian bachelor lifestyle. His Park Avenue apartment was filled with his own work and with his collections of modern art and folk art. He was especially proud of his collection of cigar-store Indian figures, which was photographed by André Kertész for Town and Country in 1946. Because of their shared upper-class background, Shaw and his friends and fellow artists George Morris, Suzy Frelinghuysen, and A.E. Gallatin would be known to posterity as the “Park Avenue Cubists”—although the “Cubist” part is a bit of a misnomer.

Although he had drawn caricatures, which occasionally were used as illustrations for his articles, Shaw did not apply himself seriously to art until he enrolled in Thomas Hart Benton’s figure-drawing class at the Art Students League in 1926. In 1928, he interviewed Ashcan School master George Luks for a magazine profile, which led to him joining Luks’ art class and working nearly full-time in his studio, where Luks would critique his efforts. During this period, Shaw was constantly visiting galleries and museums in New York and wherever he went, soaking up contemporary art in particular. In the early ’30s he traveled extensively in Europe, basing himself in London and Paris, seeing shows, collecting art, and meeting artists and critics. The culmination of this feverish activity was the breakthrough in 1933 when Shaw created the Plastic Polygon and became a full-fledged practitioner of abstract art, a creator of that which he had long admired.

Shaw was a man of many talents, not just painting and journalism, and it seems as if no sooner did he become interested in a subject that he would produce something worthwhile in that line. In 1937, he saw an exhibition of posters by E. McKnight Kauffer at MoMA and almost immediately came up with an idea for a poster for Wrigley’s chewing gum, which he made and pitched to the company. It was never made, but Shaw eventually designed posters for the Red Cross and the War Bonds drive during World War II, as well as for numerous art exhibitions. Also in the 1940s, he became a children’s book writer and illustrator, encouraged by his friend Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight, Moon. His 1944 book It Looked Like Spilt Milk introduced children to biomorphic abstract forms in the context of an entertaining tale. He got very interested in collecting antique playing cards, tarot cards, and game boards and used them, along with old tobacco boxes and textile fragments, as collaged-on elements in objects he called montages. Though he never exhibited his montages publicly, he installed them from floor to ceiling in his apartment and gave them to friends as gifts. From the ’50s until his death in 1974, Shaw dedicated himself increasingly to writing poetry, publishing several collections.

One of Shaw’s biggest enthusiasms outside of painting was photography, which he took up in the mid-’30s. Camera in hand, he prowled the streets of New York looking for evidences of the earlier strata of city life. In this pursuit he paralleled the efforts of contemporaries such as Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, who sought out the quirky, half-forgotten sights of the rapidly modernizing metropolis. In 1938, Shaw published a book of his photographs with accompanying text, written by him, under the title New York—Oddly Enough. The forward describes it as “a selection of relics, of remaining shops and dwellings in unpretentious side streets, of that vanished 19th-century town, skyscraperless New York.” The jacket of the book shows a montage or collage of Shaw’s photos, arranged within the outlines of imaginary Art Deco-looking apartment buildings and office towers, against a bold yellow and blue background. The effect is almost like a Plastic Polygon, shapes within shapes, a palimpsest of urbanism in the mind’s eye of the artist, a true lover of old and new New York.


By John Dorfman

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Charles Arnoldi: Problem Solved http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/05/charles-arnoldi/ Thu, 24 May 2018 21:46:27 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6031 Continue reading ]]> Charles Arnoldi’s intricate career is traced in an exhibition at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

Charles Arnoldi, Group Think, 1996

Charles Arnoldi, Group Think, 1996, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Charles Arnoldi, Group Think, 1996 Charles Arnoldi, Soft Ice, 1989-90 Charles Arnoldi, Untitled, 1981 Charles Arnoldi, Untitled, 2018 Charles Arnoldi, Welfare, 2011

Throughout his five-decade career, celebrated Southern California artist Charles Arnoldi has approached abstraction from seemingly innumerable angles. He has experimented with line, shape, and color through wood and sticks, through acrylic and oil paint on canvas and linen, through copper and aluminum, through ink, gouache, pencil, charcoal and tape on paper. He has based series around potatoes, windows, and eclipses; he has created non-representational work inspired by Hawaii and the 15th-century rock formations of Machu Picchu—and this list doesn’t approach being exhaustive. And yet, regardless of the various elements that come and go in his work, Arnoldi’s series lead into one another like stops on a languid train ride—in order for the train to move forward it must pull through each successive, scenic station. In an interview with the Santa Fe Arts Journal last year, Arnoldi touched on his evolution elegantly, saying, “In abstract painting, an artist invents a problem and solves it.” For Arnoldi, just as one problem is seemingly solved, another becomes apparent, necessitating and inevitably leading to a new technique for visual problem-solving.

Part of what can make a museum retrospective so powerful is its ability to provide a bird’s-eye view of an artist’s metamorphosis. “Charles Arnoldi: Form, A Fifty Year Survey,” a current show at the Bakersfield Museum of Art in Bakersfield, Calif., does just that. The show, on view through January 5, 2019, includes over 50 works, including more than 20 large-scale paintings and sculptures. Each of these larger pieces represents a unique body of work, beginning with Arnoldi’s celebrated stick constructions and chainsaw wood relief paintings of the 1970s, and leading up to his most recent work, the aforementioned Machu Picchu series. Works on paper make up the difference; this section of Arnoldi’s oeuvre includes drawings and prints that are highly experimental, complete works in their own right, and preliminary sketches that served as exercises for larger pieces. It is through the works on paper that the viewer feels the machinations of both Arnoldi’s problems and his solutions.

Arnoldi was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1946, but he arrived in Southern California—the region with which he is most closely identified—in 1965. A stint at the Art Center in Los Angeles ended quickly, the environment far squarer than one might expect of California in the late ’60s (the male students, it turned out, had to wear ties). After transferring to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1968 and spending eight months there, Arnoldi decided he was done with formal education. The dress code at the Art Center notwithstanding, this period was an extremely exciting time for California art. Minimalism and the Light and Space and Finish Fetish movements were challenging postwar art’s definition of abstraction. Artists such as Larry Bell, John McCracken, and Robert Irwin were creating works that manipulated the onlooker’s point of view through light, mass, and, in many cases, the use of plastics and industrial materials. Arnoldi got in on the act, using lacquer and Plexiglas to create Untitled (1969), one of his earliest works. However, his breakthrough involved a much older, more natural, yet still revolutionary material: wood.

In the 1970s, Arnoldi began creating wall-mounted works in which he essentially drew with sticks. Found in the woods and stripped of their bark, the sticks were pieced together by Arnoldi on his studio floor. The stick drawings, such as the sparse Untitled (1971) and the denser, diamond-like Untitled (1973), though largely flat, suggested three-dimensionality through their composition, not unlike Cubism. Several drawings in the show, rendered in gouache, watercolor, and pencil, show Arnoldi playing with the possibilities of the sticks as clean, rigid lines. As Arnoldi began experimenting with painting the sticks various colors, the sense of depth only increased. He also began liberating the already-sculptural works from the wall, creating full-fledged sculpture, as with the minimal Television (1971, enamel on sticks). With the colorful and cacophonous 1980 sculpture Second Chance, a highlight of the show, Arnoldi captures the rambunctious energy of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists (not surprisingly, viewing this work in New York inspired Arnoldi to go to art school).

Arnoldi’s work was guided into the ’80s by happenstance: when foraging for sticks, he came across discarded pieces of wood that had been cut by a chainsaw. Inspired, he picked up the chainsaw himself, carving texture and line into small blocks of wood. These carvings became wall-mounted wood sculptures that were painted with tonal passages of hotly colored acrylic paint. In Untitled (1982) and Untitled (1981) of this period, a totemic, almost ancient quality in form and texture meets the distinctive geometric lines and day-glow coloration prevalent throughout the visual culture of the ’80s.

As the decade went on, Arnoldi went bigger in scale and experimentation. The show features many sterling examples of large-scale chainsaw-carved works, achieved by layering several sheets of plywood and strategically cutting into them. In these pieces, Arnoldi really plays with negative space, creating cut-out passages in the wood and around its edges. Here, paint is also a casualty of the chainsaw, and it seems to seep from the wood and bleed into it. White Knuckles (1987), though one piece, feels like a Pangaea of disparately colored, geometric shards of wood. Arnoldi’s “Sticks II” series saw a return of his sticks, but not to the minimalism of his earlier work with them. These decidedly maximalist works were as dense as any Ed Moses grid painting, featuring passages of sticks thickly layered on plywood to form shapes and patterns. The result was work that seemed rustic, yet cleanly abstract, with the textural dimensionality of sculpture and the presence of a large-scale oil on canvas. The sticks suggest vibrant action and seem to leap off the wall, and in Scorched Pistons (1988, acrylic, modeling paste and sticks on plywood) Arnoldi creates movement with both passages of sticks and bright color, in a work that is so electric it seems to have its own force field.

Works like Soft Ice (1989–90, oil on canvas) mark Arnoldi’s jump headlong into painting at the end of the ’80s. Like the “Sticks II” works, Soft Ice seems to pulse with a current of energy. Arnoldi’s brushstrokes also seem to take on the thin, piecemeal nature of his sticks, an effect that in turn elucidates how apt a conduit the sticks truly were for paint. But Soft Ice, with its blurred quality, seems to find Arnoldi reveling in the use of pigment on canvas. Free from the straight lines and angles of the chainsaw and sticks, Arnoldi uses curvilinear forms for the first time during this period, creating works such as Deep Breath (1990, oil on canvas) and Miracle Spread (1992) that, like de Kooning’s late work, feature thick, gestural curves. Throughout the ’90s, Arnoldi spent time in Hawaii, creating richly hued works that push the curved forms of tropical flora and fauna into abstraction. Group Think (1996), a highlight of the exhibition, pivots into his “Organics” series and seems almost to zoom into the Hawaii pictures, enlarging their bulbous, colorful shapes and piling them on top of one another.

Since the turn of the century, Arnoldi has created nearly 15 series of work. Some, like “Ellipses” and “Windows,” have a similar zoomed-in look, with form and color stretching in large, sometimes layered, swaths across the canvas. The “Arcs” series, made towards the end of the 2010s, features half-ovals in rectangular fields. Arnoldi pulls and drags the paint, seeming to create distinct views of the same image. In Backbone (2007, acrylic on canvas), a dynamic curve of black paint on stark white seems to be examined at different angles, as if looking at a disorienting collage of photographs from the same shoot. In “Medals,” a simultaneous series, the artist harkens back to the ’60s, with an updated look at Minimalism and experimentation with materials. Various shapes in aluminum or copper are joined together to create sculptural wall-mounted pieces. The results, as with Untitled (2005), are vibrant works that seem at once deconstructed and like combinations of blocks.

Throughout the 2010s, Arnoldi’s series took him in all different directions: he returned to chainsaw works, made paintings that recreate the hectic, linear patterns of “Sticks II,” and delved into entirely new series. Works from a 2013 painting series simply titled “Paintings” are densely packed with layers of straight, multicolored strokes, mimicking his sticks in paint. In a 2015 series, also under the moniker “Paintings,” geometric shapes in solid colors seem to pop out from the canvas. In Victory (2015, oil on linen), a standout of that series, thin, colored lines form a sort of support system for blocks of color, producing an illusionistic three-dimensional effect. In “String Theory,” a 2016 series, the artist returns to curvilinear forms. He paints continuous loops of color charged by the movement of his wrist, elbow, and shoulder. In these paintings, the whirling dervish-like energy of Arnoldi’s gestures jumps out at the viewer immediately. But as in works like, Slide Bite (2016, oil on linen) with its hot oranges and reds and cool blues, color is of paramount importance. As with all of Arnoldi’s works, his facility with color generates pieces that set a mood, having almost a mind-controlling effect. Struck by the intensity of his work, the viewer is often lulled into Arnoldi’s illusionary abstracts, not realizing how the artist’s control over line, shape, and color is controlling his or her point of view.


By Sarah E. Fensom

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Dalí & Duchamp: Brothers Under the Skin http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/03/dali-duchamp-exhibition/ Wed, 28 Mar 2018 22:54:16 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5879 Continue reading ]]> The friendship of Dalí and Duchamp is explored in an exhibition at the Dalí Museum in Florida.

Salvador Dalí, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938

Salvador Dalí, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Salvador Dalí and Edward James, Lobster Telephone, 1938 Salvador Dalí, Christ of St John of the Cross, circa 1951 Salvador Dalí, Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938 Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917/1964 Marcel Duchamp , Bicycle Wheel, 1913

Salvador Dalí and Marcel Duchamp would seem to be a study in contrasts. Dalí was flamboyant and publicity-mad, while Duchamp was secretive and reclusive. Dalí constantly and compulsively made work throughout his life, even agreeing to do advertisements and logo designs, while Duchamp retired from art in 1923 to devote himself to chess instead. Dalí polished his illusionistic painting technique to the utmost, while Duchamp is most famous for conceptual works, especially his “readymades” or recontextualized found objects. Nonetheless, the two modern masters had more in common than is apparent at first sight and in fact were good friends and mutual admirers. This kinship is celebrated and documented in a large-scale exhibition now on view at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., through May 27. “Dalí/Duchamp, ” the first show ever to pair the two artists in this way, was shown last fall at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which co-organized it with the Dalí Museum.

As the scholars Dawn Ades and William Jeffett, curators of the exhibition and author-editors of the accompanying catalogue, put it, both Dalí and Duchamp were essentially conceptual artists who privileged the idea over the material aspects of the work of art. They also shared a love of subversive humor, a strong focus on the erotic, a fascination with science and mathematics, and an interest in games. Much as their actual work and habits differed, these commonalities ensured a deep friendship, which was surprising or even off-putting to some who knew them. The avant-garde composer John Cage, a friend of Duchamp but emphatically not of Dalí, recalled that during summers they spent in Cadaqués, Spain, Duchamp “was friendly with Dalí. Isn’t that strange? … I was astonished to see that Marcel took a listening attitude in the presence of Dalí. It almost appeared as if a younger man were visiting an old man, whereas the case was the other way round.” (Duchamp was born in 1887, Dalí in 1904.)

Both artists had connections to Dada and Surrealism, with differing levels of commitment. Duchamp participated slightly in the New York branch of the Dada movement, and his submission of Fountain (1917), his inverted-urinal readymade, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917, was his main Dada act. Bicycle Wheel (1913), though originally created as an amusing piece of décor for his Paris studio, also became a readymade and fit into the Dada concept. (Both works are on view in the St. Petersburg show.) Later, in the 1930s, the Surrealists admired Duchamp and courted him, but he refused to join their movement. Dalí, on the other hand, was at first an enthusiastic Surrealist, and his “paranoiac-critical method”—a visual system for making connections between disparate things, exemplified by his Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938), on view in the exhibition—was embraced by André Breton and his acolytes as a valid Surrealist technique. And Dalí did make some bona fide Surrealist objects, such as the iconic Lobster Telephone (1938), co-created with his English patron Edward James. Eventually, though, Dalí broke with the Surrealists, ostensibly over his tacit support for the fascist Franco regime in Spain. In any case, neither Dalí nor Duchamp was a joiner by nature.

In an essay on Duchamp published in Art News in 1959, Dalí praised his Mona Lisa-with-a-mustache readymade, L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) by saying that it “can be taken quite adequately as the epitaph of modern painting.” He meant this very much as a compliment; Dalí certainly did not see himself as a modern or modernist painter. Neither did Duchamp. Early in his art practice (one can’t really say “career” when speaking of this remarkable man) he painted in a mode that could be called Cubist or Futurist; his epoch-making Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) is the best-known example. Another is The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), a tour de force of oil painting in which two chess pieces are abstracted, broken up, and beset by dehumanized and baffling forms. Dalí took this painting’s title as the title of his Art News piece, which makes sense in light of his admiration not only for this work but for Duchamp’s concept of “an-art.” Duchamp coined this term and preferred it to “anti-art,” because even in his early, technically polished paintings he was trying not to oppose art and the role of artist but to transcend or even nullify them.

And in his very different way, so was Dalí, according to the writers of the catalogue of this exhibition. He shared with Duchamp an aversion to the exclusively “retinal” quality of much modernist art, its insistence on purely visual experience. While Dalí’s art, unlike Duchamp’s, never stopped using the medium of oil paint and its body of traditional techniques, he insisted that his work could not be understood in purely visual terms and that he was really painting ideas. Both men produced elaborate texts to accompany their works, without which they believed the works could not fully be comprehended. As Duchamp became more conceptual in his practice, the texts could almost replace the work itself, or could be construed as instructions for creating and re-creating the work (in fact, many of the Duchamp pieces on view in this exhibition are later re-creations). That is not the case with Dalí. Nonetheless, both artists rejected the visually-driven approach taken by artists from the Impressionists down to the Abstract Expressionists in favor of something more cerebral and essentially conceptual.

These connections and interpretations are thought-provoking and fascinating, but they are not apparent upon viewing the artworks themselves. The selection of works from both artists on view in St. Petersburg is impressive—three of the Dalí paintings, Christ of Saint John of the Cross (circa 1951), Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach (1938) and Two pieces of bread expressing the sentiment of love (1940), have never been seen at the Dalí Museum before, and a 1991–92 version of Duchamp’s nine-foot-tall mind-bending enigma The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) will certainly stop any viewer in his or her tracks. However, to really appreciate the connections between the works, one must read the comprehensive essays published in the catalogue.


By John Dorfman

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Mark Tobey: A Quiet Master http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/11/mark-tobey/ Thu, 30 Nov 2017 07:48:22 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5722 Continue reading ]]> Mark Tobey transformed the fluid lines of Eastern calligraphy into a unique style of abstract painting.

Mark Tobey, The Void Devouring the Gadget Era, 1942

Mark Tobey, The Void Devouring the Gadget Era, 1942, tempera on board, 21.875 x 30 in. (55.56 x 76.2 cm).

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Mark Tobey, Threading Light, 1942 Mark Tobey, The Void Devouring the Gadget Era, 1942 Mark Tobey, Untitled (Sumi Drawing), 1957 Mark Tobey, Window,1953

In 1929, Mark Tobey exhibited a few recent paintings at Romany Marie’s Café Gallery in Greenwich Village. Romany Marie’s was a bohemian hangout far from the posh galleries on Manhattan’s 57th Street, and Tobey’s show would have faded into oblivion long ago if it had not somehow managed to attract the attention of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The founding director of the recently inaugurated Museum of Modern Art, Barr was energetic and adventurous and—most important of all—had a good eye. By including Tobey in a 1930 exhibition titled “Painting and Sculpture by Living Americans,” he launched one of most notable careers in the history of 20th-century American art.

Nothing in Tobey’s early life foretold a notable future. Born in Wisconsin in 1890, he moved with his family to Chicago three years later. His father, a carpenter and building contractor, carved animals from stone—a weighty material very different in spirit from the ethereal refinement of his son’s mature style. Young Mark attended the school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but there is no evidence that his exposure to the Institute’s extremely conservative curriculum had much effect. Leaving after two years, he found work as a fashion illustrator, first in Chicago and then in New York, where he settled in 1911. Branching out, he became a portraitist. By 1917 he was proficient enough to attract the attention of the Knoedler Gallery, which exhibited a selection of his charcoal portraits.

In 1921, Tobey traveled cross-country to Seattle, the first of a series of journeys that would take him, eventually, to Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. At the Seattle campus of the University of Washington, he met a student named Teng Kuei, who pointed him toward the Chinese calligraphy that would have profound influence on Tobey’s understanding of what painting is—or might become. During the mid-1920s, Tobey traveled to Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein, and on to Spain and Greece. His appetite for non-Western penmanship having been whetted in Seattle, Tobey studied Arabic and Persian writing in Beirut, Haifa, and Constantinople.

Before he left New York, Tobey had met a painter named Juliet Thompson. A friend of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and visionary philosopher, Thompson was also a convert to the Bahá’í faith, which was founded in the mid-19th century on the belief that all religions, like all people, are of equal value. Devoted to the ideal of a unified world, members of the faith are anti-nationalist and implacably pacifist. While having his portrait painted by Thompson, Tobey read some Bahá’í literature. Impressed, he visited the Green Acre Bahá’í School in Eliot, Me., and became a member of the faith.

Though the connection between, say, Catholicism and Italian painting in the 16th century is clear, such links are not as trustworthy in the modern era. What, for example, does Jackson Pollock’s teenaged enthusiasm for the teachings of Krishnamurti have to do with his drip paintings of the late 1940s? In Tobey’s case, however, his Bahá’í faith at the very least meshed with the spirit of his art and may well have shaped it. The Bahá’í belief that all people are equal has as a corollary the equality of all cultures, an idea that finds in echo in Tobey’s openness to the world’s various styles of calligraphy. And an equalizing energy flows through his paintings, creating a luminous mesh of intertwined forms.

An artist who wants to make the scene is well advised to show up, a maxim lost on Tobey, who was forever departing for parts unknown to denizens of the New York art world. Traveling to Devon, in Southwest England, in 1931, he taught at the Elmhurst Progressive School, taking time out to supply the school with frescoes and induct one of the faculty members into the Bahá’í faith. From England he visited Mexico, France, and what was then known as Palestine. A few years afterward, he visited Teng Kuei, his former student, in Shanghai and, near the Japanese city of Kyoto, studied calligraphy at a Zen monastery. By 1935, Tobey was back in Seattle, where the city’s Art Museum mounted his first major solo exhibition. It was on this occasion that the world got its first extensive glimpse of his “white writing.”

Though many of art criticism’s standard phrases are more than a little awkward, “white writing” makes a good if not a perfect fit with Tobey’s quietly shimmering imagery. Strictly speaking, his thin streaks white paint are brushstrokes, yet they perform none of the brushstroke’s usual tasks. They neither generate an image of an object in pictorial space (as in realist painting) nor do they convey some personal attitude or quality of feeling (as in, for example, Abstract Expressionism). Closely spaced and often connected by angular zigs and zags, Tobey’s marks seem at once precise and utterly spontaneous. Filling the surface of a canvas edge to edge, his “white writing” creates a web one would call dense if it were not so airy. Filled with subtly modulated space, Tobey’s paintings are unquestionably pictorial, as are the marks of his brush. These works are in no sense written. Yet one senses in their linear inflections the artist’s lifelong immersion in calligraphy, and that justifies to some extent the critics’ talk of “white writing.”

During the 1940s, the Willard Gallery was one of the few in New York to show work by members of the contemporary American avant-garde. Tobey’s first exhibition at Willard was in 1944, and he showed there almost yearly until the late 1950s. Among the painters drawn to Tobey’s work was Pollock. Impressed, he wrote to a friend that Tobey, seen in Manhattan as a West Coast artist, proved that New York was not “the only place in America where painting (in the real sense) can come thru.” This remark joins with the similarities between the two painters to raise the question of influence. About the time that he first encountered Tobey’s work, Pollock began making the allover paintings that led, toward the end of 1946, to the drip paintings that vaulted him to art-historical prominence. Did Pollock learn alloverness from Tobey? Possibly he did, though all we can know with any certainty is that his flung and spattered colors have a flair, a pictorial drama, that Tobey deliberately avoids. When asked about the subject of his webs of color, Pollock said that “every good painter paints what he is”—a self-centered response at odds with the temper of Tobey’s imagery. The equalizing impulse that evens out the latter’s fields of “white writing” carries over to his relationship with his audience. Tobey does not address us with the bravura of the maestro. His mastery is quiet, drawing us into the subtly varied rhythms of implicitly infinite fields of incandescent white.

By the end of the 1940s, the Abstract Expressionists were proclaiming a postwar triumph. With a series of spectacular breakthroughs on the pictorial front, they had moved the capital of the avant-garde from Paris to New York. Tobey did not stay in town for the celebration, which went on until the early 1980s, when New York was suddenly flooded by German and Italian painting and the city’s dominance came to an end. In 1951 he accepted Josef Albers’ invitation to serve as a guest critic at Yale’s School of Art. That same year, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco, presented a retrospective of his career. The Parisian Galerie Jeanne Bucher gave him a solo exhibition in 1955, and three seasons later he was the recipient the International Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale—the second American to have been so honored. The first was James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

By then, Life magazine had singled Tobey out as the leader of the Northwest School, a group of painters that included Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan. Far from the art-critical rhetoric and quickening art market of New York, these artists responded to the landscape in the vicinity of Seattle, especially the shores of Puget Sound, with paintings that transform natural forms into symbols of ultimate things—birth, death, regeneration. If American art has a mystic wing, it is to be found here, in images that reiterate the paradox of Tobey’s painting: in transcending the self, each of these artists developed a thoroughly individual style.

Tobey, however, never locked himself into a single mode or manner. Constantly varying his “white writing,” he invented a seemingly unlimited variety of intricately interwoven forms. On occasion, his “writing” wasn’t white but vividly red or a vibrant blue or found its way to some gorgeously unnamable color as his marks merged into textures that evoke life at the cellular level. After studying Japanese drawing in the 1950s, he set aside paints and brushes to experiment with thrown ink. In works on paper from this period, he comes as close to calligraphy as he ever does. Always, he continued to experiment, staying true to his belief that “search becomes the only valid expression of the spirit.” For it is only through unending search that the spirit stays alive.

With his partner Pehr Hallsten, Tobey settled in Basel, Switzerland, in 1960, and lived there for the rest of his life. An exhibition of his paintings went on view at the Museum of Modern Art in 1962. There was another at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1966 and, the following year, a full-scale retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. And the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts organized yet another retrospective two years before the artist’s death. Once he arrived at his aesthetic maturity, Tobey was never neglected. Moreover, his “white writing” has long been recognized as a major contribution to the evolution of abstract painting. Still, he does not assert his presence—his ego—through his art in the manner of Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other Abstract Expressionists. Though there is something heroic about Tobey’s diffidence, it has often taken him out of the spotlight.

From the late 1990s until recently, only the Reina Sofia, in Madrid, had staged a major exhibition of his work. Then, in 2016, Tobey was included in “Abstract Expressionism,” a sweeping survey seen at the Royal Academy in London. This was an audacious inclusion, for it redrew the historical map to provide a place in New York’s first homegrown art movement for a painter who, as Pollock noted more than six decades ago, was not a New Yorker. And last year the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice offered “Mark Tobey: Threading Light,” a survey that began in the 1920s and continued through every stage of the artist’s career. Indifferent to the wars of style, Tobey never considered for moment going in any direction but his own. Thus his paintings never looked dated, and they look as new now, two decades into the 21st century, as they were when they were fresh from the easel.

From the late 1990s until recently, only the Reina Sofia, in Madrid, had staged a major exhibition of his work. Then, in 2016, Tobey was included in “Abstract Expressionism,” a sweeping survey seen at the Royal Academy in London. This was an audacious inclusion, for it redrew the historical map to provide a place in New York’s first homegrown art movement for a painter who, as Pollock noted more than six decades ago, was not a New Yorker. And in 2016 the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice offered “Mark Tobey: Threading Light,” which traveled, this past November, to the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where it will be on view through March 11, 2018. Beginning in the 1920s, the survey continues through every stage of the artist’s career. Indifferent to the wars of style, Tobey never considered for moment going in any direction but his own. Thus his paintings never looked dated, and they look as new now, two decades into the 21st century, as they did when they were fresh from the easel.


By Carter Ratcliff

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Hans Hofmann: Drawing an Outline http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/06/hans-hofmann-exhibition/ Wed, 28 Jun 2017 22:35:04 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5420 Continue reading ]]> A current exhibition shows the importance of works on paper in Hans Hofmann’s long and lauded career.

Hans Hofmann, Bird Flight, 1943

Hans Hofmann, Bird Flight, 1943, colored crayons and black felt-tip pen.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Hans Hofmann, Bird Flight, 1943 Hans Hofmann, Ambush, 1944 Hans Hofmann, Figure, 1949 Hans Hofmann, Construction, 1948 Hans Hofmann, Untitled, circa 1945

The German-born painter Hans Hofmann’s first exhibition in the U.S. was exclusively of drawings. The show was held in 1931 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Hofmann was in town for the second consecutive summer, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, at the behest of former student and Berkeley art professor Worth Ryder.

At the time, Hofmann, who would become a towering figure of postwar 20th-century abstraction, hadn’t painted much of anything in over a decade. After leaving Paris right before the outbreak of World War I—a quick flight, which left much of his early work in France, never to be reclaimed—the artist established his school, the Hans Hofmann Schule für Bildende Kunst, in Munich in 1915. Teaching, a pursuit that would help define not only his work but also his legacy as an artist, consumed Hofmann, and painting took the back seat.

The introduction to the catalogue of the 1931 show was almost apologetic, according to Diana Greenwold, the associate curator of American art at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the current host of “Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper” (through September 3). “Here they have Hofmann, a master colorist, but these are all black and white works on paper,” she says. Yet the group of drawings that were on view, a mix of portraits, interior figure studies, and landscapes from Saint-Tropez and other places, provided a clear window into Hofmann’s life and inspiration at the time. Roughly a quarter of the drawings had been made in California, where Hofmann was a fish—albeit a happy one—out of water. “In California,” says Greenwold, “he falls in love with the landscape. It’s so different than what he was used to in Europe.” Greenwold notes that in California Hofmann got his first car. “You see him exploring the landscape in a different way—he’s driving around and finding vistas in the Berkeley hills and then drawing them.”

Throughout his career, Hofmann’s works on paper, a less-known aspect of his oeuvre, serve as roadmaps to his location—be it geographical, ideological, or stylistic. At times, these works mirror his paintings; at others, they become the majority of his output, as they did during the 1920s. He uses a wide variety of media to create landscapes, figures, self-portraits, interiors, and full-blown abstractions that are not studies but completely realized works in their own right. “These aren’t preparatory sketches for him,” says Greenwold. “With works on paper, throughout his career Hofmann is working through the most important questions about abstraction and figuration, about color, and about space and line.”

As in his painting, when working on paper Hofmann declines to restrict himself to a signature style of image-making. Instead, he tastefully wades through the many movements bubbling to the surface of modern art, creating a body of work that is both experimental and unmistakably personal.

“Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper,” which is co-curated by Karen Wilkin and Marcelle Polednik, presents a chronological survey of Hofmann’s output on paper. The show was first mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville at the University of North Florida. There, with a bit more exhibition space, the museum mounted some 80 works. At its current incarnation at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), the show narrows to around 60. “It was definitely tricky,” says Greenwold about decreasing the size of the show, “but we retained the chronological story, showing the various media Hofmann uses on paper and key works and key moments in his career.”

The earliest works in the show date to the 1910s, and though there are early watercolors, most are black and white pen and ink (it’s important to note, as mentioned above, that much of the artist’s work from this period was lost). “He’s using pen and ink because of its practicality,” says Greenwold. “He’s moving around a lot.”

Drawing seems to be a natural byproduct of Hofmann’s travels. Untitled (St. Tropez), an ink on paper landscape from 1929 that bears some of the lingering influence of the fledgling Fauvist and Cubist movements he discovered when in Paris from 1904–14, was created while teaching a course in Saint-Tropez. Pen and ink drawings from his time in California bear a similar sense of quick documentation. Several of these, such as Untitled (Windshield) (1930–32), are framed within the windshield or rearview mirror of his car.

Hofmann, who settled in New York in 1933, established his Eighth Street School (alumni include Lee Krasner, Wolf Kahn, Red Grooms, Robert de Niro Sr. and many more), adding a summer session in Provincetown, Mass., in 1935. In Hofmann’s works on paper from Provincetown, “super-saturated color,” as Greenwold puts it—be it crayon or watercolor—makes a big splash. There, as in California, Hofmann seems transfixed by the unique landscape and architectural elements of his locale. Dr. Brichta’s House, for instance, a cheerful mixed media on paper from 1943, represents a house and its yard as a modernist confection charged with energetic color.

Hofmann’s drawings from the ’40s reflect his pioneering experimentation with abstraction on canvas. Ambush, a richly colored 1944 oil on paper featuring dribbles and drips of red paint—a technique known later as the calling card of Pollock—heralds Abstract Expressionism. Untitled (1943), a tempera, transparent watercolor, crayon and ink on paper, makes use of the Matissean palette Hofmann so deeply admired, with creature-like figures bearing a playful jauntiness akin to those of Miró. Figure, a gouache on mat board from 1949 and Construction, a 1948 ink and oil on paper mounted on board, predate Hofmann’s famed “Slab paintings” by nearly a decade. Though certainly different from this series of paintings, with their bold, pulsating rectangles of vibrant colors, both drawings incorporate blocks of thick color, which exert themselves on the paper.

Self-portraiture is prevalent among Hofmann’s works on paper—much more so than in his painting practice. One piece in the show, a watercolor on paper, Untitled, Self-Portrait (circa 1941), portrays the artist from the chest up, abstracted with geometric passages and swaths of paint. A black scribble emerges atop his head, denoting an endearingly unruly tuft of hair. “He’s really free and playful in his works on paper,” says Greenwold. “With the self-portraits, for instance; to my knowledge he doesn’t have these in paint.”

The show features a beautiful selection of Hofmann’s later works on paper. Untitled (1965), a mixed media piece with sparse passages of color that appear pressed upon the paper, was made when Hofmann was in his mid-80s (he would die the following year). The work is elegantly pared down, the colors both soft in tone and softly applied. His forms are lightly creased as if from a rubbing or an impression taken from one of his paintings.


By Sarah E. Fensom

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Stanton Macdonald-Wright: Visual Haiku http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/02/stanton-macdonald-wright-prints/ Tue, 28 Feb 2017 21:05:07 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5122 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s late printmaking work shows how the pioneering abstract painter was influenced by Japanese art and literature.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, An Old Pond, a Frog Leaps in the Sound of Water,

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, An Old Pond, a Frog Leaps in the Sound of Water, color woodcut on paper, portfolio 20/50, 1966-67, 18 x 21 1⁄2 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, An Old Pond, a Frog Leaps in the Sound of Water, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, In the Hand the Firefly Makes a Cold Brilliance Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, Basho: A cloud of Cherry Blossoms: A Temple Bell – is it from Ueno? Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, Departing Spring Hesitates in the late cherry blossoms Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Haiga Portfolio, After Issa, Stony River rippling...

The American artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright shares credit with Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Delaunay, Frantisek Kupka, and Hilna af Klint as one of the founders of abstract painting. Though his level of fame now falls well below theirs, in the early years of the 20th century he and his fellow countryman Morgan Russell—both living as expatriates in Paris—explored uncharted territory with a unique brand of color-based abstraction. Called Synchromism, it was an ambitious attempt to map color theory onto music theory, and in practice it yielded works that resemble rigorous rainbows. When Macdonald-Wright and Russell held the first Synchromist exhibition, in Munich in 1913, they became the first artists in the world to publicly show abstract work.

At the time, Macdonald-Wright, aged only 23, garnered as much attention for his arrogance and rhetorical excesses as for his art. In the spirit of the age, he and Russell printed up manifestos that defined and defended their artistic philosophy while also viciously attacking the efforts of rival artists. These bumptious, overheated attempts to promote Synchromism actually ended up damaging its reputation. In 1915 Macdonald-Wright left Paris for New York and shortly thereafter returned to Southern California, where he had grown up.

While Synchromism as a movement came to an end after just a few years, Macdonald-Wright continued to evolve as an artist. He allowed more figuration into his work (an element that had existed in some of the original Synchromist paintings), drew inspiration from the California landscape, and developed a deep interest in Asian art and culture. In 1937, on his first trip to Japan, he examined early manuscripts of haiku poetry and became an aficionado of the genre, making it a ritual to read haiku every day. This enthusiasm led him to haiga, the Japanese art of haiku illustration. Haiga are ink paintings with a similar sensibility to that of the poems, usually painted by the poets themselves, in many cases on the same piece of paper as the haiku itself.

Eventually Macdonald-Wright grew dissatisfied with the traditional haiga style and decided to try his own approach. The result was a series of 20 paintings that became the basis for a series of 20 woodblock prints using Japanese techniques that he made in 1966–67 with the technical assistance of the American-born printmaker Clifton Karhu, who lived in Kyoto. The complete set of prints is now on view at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., in an exhibition called “Stanton Macdonald Wright: The Haiga Portfolio” (through May 29). The set, one of an edition of 50, is contained in a Japanese-style box and is accompanied by sheets of text with English translations of the haikus illustrated and an explanatory text by Macdonald-Wright. Museum director Malcolm Warner says, “What prompted us to do this show is that his estate were kind enough to donate this portfolio to us just last year, and we wanted to get it on the walls as quickly as possible.”

Japanese haiga, like the poems they are based on, are very simple, even minimalist—sometimes just a few strokes of the brush to suggest the subject matter of the verses—and the use of color is usually very sparing. Macdonald-Wright’s haiga are denser and more complex, and, unsurprisingly, much more vibrantly colored. The first print in the sequence illustrates the most famous haiku of all, by Basho: “An old pond, a frog leaps in—the sound of water.” Macdonald-Wright’s illustration is a tour de force that reincarnates Synchromism with ukiyo-e techniques. The frog—or rather its leap—is rendered as a chain of interlocking shapes, mostly triangles. Warner compares this element of the print to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. As the frog strikes the pond, it generates a vertical splash and concentric circles of waves that Macdonald-Wright depicts as interlocking rings of color that create new colors are they cross and re-cross each other. With its vigorous energy, this bold print has a decidedly Futurist feel, as do several others in the series.

Some of the plates are more contemplative and Japanese-style. For example, number 9 in the series illustrates the poet Buson’s “Sunbeams slant on the riverbank and cold rain falls from a floating cloud.” Here Macdonald-Wright gives us a landscape split in two by a sun-shower, the refraction of the trees, grass, and hills through the atmosphere rendered as a sort of pixilation of the colors. Number 6, based on Basho’s “On a journey ill, my dreams wander over the withered moor,” depicts the dreams in the poem as floating puffs of color—blossoms or fireflies. “As an artist committed to abstraction,” says Warner, “Macdonald-Wright was attracted to the task of picturing abstractions, things that don’t have a physical appearance, like wind or the sound of temple bells, which are elements in these haiku.” Some of the prints, however, are strongly figurative, such as number 18, which illustrates Shiki’s “In the hand, the firefly makes a cold brilliance.” In this print, a pair of hands, drawn in ukiyo-e style, take up most of the space, while the firefly itself is not directly visible; only its light is shown. Even in the most figurative of the Haiga Portfolio prints, there is always at least one mysterious light phenomenon that takes the viewer back into the realm of abstract modernist optics.

The elderly Macdonald-Wright, still possessed of the grouchy energy of his combative younger self, wrote in the portfolio’s explanatory text, “Perhaps for the men of these early days, the haiga achieved its ambition [to complement and complete the poem], but in my opinion there are few haiga, if any, that are more than academic pictorial expositions, sometimes able, often incompetent.” He wanted to go beyond mere illustration to convey the psychological impact of a haiku, its power to bring about in the reader “a sort of ‘satori,’ namely a sudden realization inclusive both of the mind and of the body, an immediate shock-effect motivated by a subject matter that is an everyday event, even a commonplace one, but one that through poetic genius is seen as of great significance.” The modernist avant-garde of which Macdonald-Wright had been a charter member also sought a “shock-effect,” to be achieved by making viewers suddenly see the world in a new way. By way of justifying his own version of haiga as an attempt to do greater justice to the poems than the Japanese artists had, Macdonald-Wright wrote, “I have attempted to pictorialize these haiku psychologically and thus complete the verses by making the illustrations as modern as the verses will always remain.”


By John Dorfman

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Objective: Non-Objectivity http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/11/rolph-scarlett-art/ Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:03:47 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4974 Continue reading ]]> Rolph Scarlett joined the quest for a pure art so independent of the everyday world that it couldn’t even be called “abstract.”

Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382)

Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382), circa 1943, oil on canvas, 23 1⁄4 x 30 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0018) Rolph Scarlett, Reach Rolph Scarlett, Untitled (RS0382) Rolph Scarlett, Surreal Landscape

Long before the Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, bringing modern art to the masses and putting its stamp on the skyline of New York, there was another Guggenheim museum. It was called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and while it didn’t carry the family name, it was wholly funded by Solomon R. Guggenheim, heir to a mining fortune, art collector, and late-in-life convert to high modernism. Unlike the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting did not reside in an eye-catching structure designed by an icon of American architecture; during the 15 years of its existence, from 1939 to 1954, it moved around town, occupying several inconspicuous-looking buildings. And unlike the second Guggenheim, the first wasn’t bent on omnivorously gathering the best of what the 20th century could offer in the way of art. Instead, it was a hyper-focused institution whose mission, as defined by its director and guiding spirit, the German-born artist and critic Hilla Rebay, was to passionately advocate for a particular strain of modern art—geometric abstraction.

The artist with the most works in the museum’s collection was the Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky, the dean of non-objective art and a master theoretician, author of On the Spiritual in Art and From Point and Line to Plane, which are among the formative texts of modernist art. The second-most represented was the German artist Rudolf Bauer, a member (along with Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Marc Chagall) of the avant-garde group Der Sturm and founder of his own, self-named museum in Berlin. He had 350 works in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The third-most represented—and the only non-European in the bunch—was the Canadian-born American artist Rolph Scarlett, with 60 works. Today, both Scarlett and Bauer are less known, while Kandinsky is fixed in the firmament. This disparity, while reflecting the quality and originality of their work to some extent, is also due to the vicissitudes of cultural history and the mechanics of marketing. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, Scarlett’s star was high, and even after the closing of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting and the mothballing of much of its collection, he continued to be a vigorous creator of abstract art until his death in 1984 at the age of 95.

Scarlett’s paintings from his classic period are perfect embodiments of the concept of non-objective painting. They consist of geometric shapes—circles, triangles, lines, spirals—interlaced or free-floating and placed within a luminous, almost conceptual space that is somehow neither flat nor three-dimensional. The colors tend to be very bright and vibrant, and Scarlett made full use of the principle of complementary colors, creating an overall impression of opposing yet harmonious forces. Throughout his career, Scarlett worked in several styles, almost all of them non-representational, but he recalled, in interviews done late in life (published in 2003 as a book written in collaboration with the artist and writer Harriet Tannin, the administrator of his estate, titled The Baroness, The Mogul, and the Forgotten History of the First Guggenheim Museum) that “non-objective geometrical…is the most difficult method of painting I have undertaken. The problem is to create an organization from a few geometrical elements that is alive in color and form, with challenging and stimulating rhythms, making full use of one’s emotional and intuitive creative programming yet keeping it under cerebral control…”

Scarlett’s geometrical paintings rigorously eschew any reference, no matter how tangential, to the natural world. Unlike, say, Cubism or Futurism, non-objective art does not take figurative elements and transform or distort them; in fact, Rebay insisted on the term “non-objective” rather than “abstract” because the latter term implies that the forms in question have been “abstracted” from things seen in the external world. Non-objective painting, on the other hand, is, quite literally, without an object, built from a vocabulary of pure shapes and colors. Rebay argued that non-objective art is the most creative kind of art, because it comes directly from the artist’s mind and inner vision, unlike art that depends on what nature happens to place in front of us.

In Kandinsky’s and Rebay’s theories—strongly influenced by Platonism and Theosophy—forms and colors inhabit an eternal, spiritual universe. For Rebay in particular, the purpose of non-objective painting was to bring spiritual enlightenment and transcendent peace, and therefore educating the broad public to appreciate this art was a quasi-religious endeavor. Scarlett, however, felt that art did not need mysticism. Rebay, he recalled, “would look at Bauer’s or Kandinsky’s work and read something spiritualistic into it. Kandinsky did that too. It was a mistake. The main thing is not mysticism or metaphysical phenomena, it’s esthetics: order, form, color, and rhythm.”

Scarlett was born in 1889 in Guelph, Ontario, to a family of moderate wealth and early on decided that he wanted to be an artist. At 14 he quit school to take up painting, but his father, worried about his future, stepped in and apprenticed him to an uncle who owned a jewelry shop in Guelph. For the next four years, Scarlett worked there and learned the jeweler’s craft, an education that stood him in very good stead in later life. For although he rarely made enough money from selling paintings to support himself, he was always able to make money by finding commercial applications for his artistic skills and vision—as an industrial designer, theater set designer, and jewelry designer whose pieces resemble works of abstract sculpture.

When he was 18, Scarlett was finally able to leave his job and go to New York, where he stayed for the better part of four years, earning his living by working in the jewelry business and studying briefly—in 1908 and 1909—at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Luks. When World War I broke out, he was back in Guelph, and though he was rejected for military service, he contributed his design skills to the war effort, helping to make munitions at the Massey-Harris Company (owned by the family of fellow Canadian modernist painter Lawren Harris, who would later become a friend of Scarlett’s in New York). During these years Scarlett painted figuratively, making some Cubist-influenced landscapes that resemble those of the German-born American painter Oscar Bluemner and cityscapes reminiscent of the Italian-American Joseph Stella.

Scarlett’s breakthrough into abstraction took place in 1923, sparked by a brief chance meeting with none other than Paul Klee. This took place in Geneva, where Scarlett had traveled on behalf of the Moser Watch Company, for which he was doing some design work. The president of the company gave a dinner party at which both Scarlett and Klee were guests. After the meal was over, Klee was passing the time by making abstract geometrical drawings on a sketchpad. Scarlett noticed and mentioned it to a fellow guest, who told Klee about the Canadian’s interest. Klee graciously handed the pad to Scarlett, encouraging him to add his own patterns to the drawing. “I scribbled a little,” Scarlett recalled, “but didn’t seem to get anywhere. On looking closer, I realized that his scribblings had a definite design, while mine were utterly meaningless….When I got back to my hotel room that evening I dug up every scrap of paper I could find and scribbled until four in the morning. That was the moment I left the world of realism completely. It changed my life.”

Back in the States, Scarlett moved to Toledo, Ohio, for another design job. While there he submitted a pastel piece in the Futurist style to a juried show at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1926. The work, titled Static, was, in the words of a critic for the Toledo Blade, “an attempt in primary pastels to describe ocularly the blasting torments of the electrical interference which regularly assails the ears of radio enthusiasts.” This artistic synesthesia became a recurring theme in Scarlett’s work, and he often spoke of the equivalence of painting and music, using terms such as tone and rhythm to describe the effects he was after. And the technological aspect of Static is in keeping with Scarlett’s industrial experience, which continued to be visible in his work even after he stopped working as an industrial designer. In fact, a good number of his paintings, non-objective though they may be, look like they could be diagrams of cosmic machines, with wheels turning, gears meshing, and belt-drives spinning.

Scarlett spent most of the 1930s in Southern California and New York, where he spent a good deal of time on designing sets for plays, musicals, and films. Surviving gouache drawings for some of these designs show that he was bringing expressionistic and abstract concepts to this work, creating very bold avant-garde looks. His designs for a 1929 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Pasadena Playhouse were photographed by Johan Hagemeyer, who taught Edward Weston how to use a large-format camera. The eerie, constructivist cityscapes Scarlett created for this play, he said, took him “further into the non-objective world,” even though he “didn’t realize it at the time.”

By 1938, Scarlett was back in New York, where he was soon employed designing an installation for the Bakelite Company’s booth for the 1939 World’s Fair. At the same time, his wife did him a major career favor by sending a portfolio of some of his paintings and drawings to Hilla Rebay. Rebay had risen in the art world since she met Solomon Guggenheim a few years before. Guggenheim commissioned her to paint his portrait, and she infected him with her enthusiasm for non-objective painting. (She may also have become his lover, although the exact nature of their relationship is difficult to ascertain. Certainly they had an intense friendship and association that yielded practical results and no small amount of controversy.) Up to that point, Guggenheim had mainly collected Old Masters.

Rebay—whose full name was Baroness Hildegaard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen—had emigrated to the U.S. in 1927, having already acquired some fame in her native Germany and in Paris as an abstract painter. A strong personality, she was persuasive and passionate but also given to outbursts and the breaking off of relationships. When she saw Scarlett’s work she immediately took him under her wing, promoting him, buying his work, and giving him a position as a lecturer at the newly-founded Museum of Non-Objective Painting. She also introduced him to Bauer, who had recently arrived in the U.S. after being released from a Nazi concentration camp, to which he had been sent for persisting in making “degenerate art.” Bauer and Scarlett became great friends, but the relationship was shattered about a decade later by a lawsuit filed by the ever-litigious Baroness against Bauer, her one-time protégé and romantic partner.

Rebay’s imperious nature, doctrinaire pronouncements, and ambiguous relationship with Guggenheim led to her downfall after Guggenheim’s death in 1949. The tycoon’s family, his wife in particular, resented her presence in his life and influence in the art world, and when plans for the Guggenheim Museum were drawn up, most of the collection of non-objective was exiled to storage, and Rebay was ousted. While these developments spelled trouble for Scarlett’s career and reputation with posterity, he himself was not overly unhappy, because while he appreciated her patronage and admired her energy, he disliked being controlled and bullied (Rebay would sometimes mark corrections in chalk on Scarlett’s canvases, which he would promptly ignore). Starting in the 1950s, Scarlett’s work took a turn away from the hard-edged geometric style, becoming looser and more expressionistic. Some paintings resemble biomorphic abstractions, while others are non-objective but more like crystalline refractions and explosions of light than like pure Euclidean geometry. Occasionally, figuration appears, in the form of cartoonish human figures or animal forms such as birds emerging from a tangle of abstract forms. For a brief time in the early ’50s, Scarlett engaged in drip painting à la Pollock. In the late ’60s he returned to his geometric non-objective style with renewed vigor, creating works as energetic and captivating as those of the ’40s.

Recently, Scarlett’s work has been rediscovered. In the mid-1990s, the Guggenheim deaccessioned a number of works from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting collection, including some 30 Scarletts. These went on the market and stimulated interest from collectors and made it possible for galleries to mount important exhibitions. In 2011 Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco did a comprehensive retrospective titled “Listen With Your Eyes.” With the help of shows like this, Scarlett can now be appreciated for himself, not as the exemplar of a movement. The Rebay influence ended up having a a boomerang effect, with a downward force after her eclipse that was nearly as strong as the buoying she gave her artists when she was in the ascendancy. In a broader sense, the facile identification of Scarlett’s work with the dogmas of non-objectivity led to their being marginalized after that school of art came to be perceived as a side road of the highway of modernism. But now that the art-historical dust is settling, we can see his work for what it is, the unique creation of a multi-talented, visionary man of the machine age.


By John Dorfman

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Out of Frame http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/09/sam-gilliam-paintings/ Wed, 28 Sep 2016 20:57:35 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4809 Continue reading ]]> By folding, creasing, and ultimately draping his canvases, Sam Gilliam brought color abstraction closer to the viewer than any artist before him.

Sam Gilliam, Back, 1970

Sam Gilliam, Back, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 103 x 144 x 4 in. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, Photography: Lee Thompson

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sam Gilliam, Bursting, 1972 Sam Gilliam, Change, 1970 Sam Gilliam, Helles, 1965 Sam Gilliam, Back, 1970

In 1962, when Sam Gilliam arrived in Washington, D.C., the leading avant garde presence was the Washington Color School—a group of artists working in the color field style. Gilliam, who had finished his MFA at the University of Louisville in Kentucky a year earlier, relocated to the nation’s capital to unite with Dorothy Butler, a recently hired reporter for the Washington Post and the woman he planned to marry. Though the Washington Color School painters got their name from the title of a 1965 show at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, they had been active since the late ’50s. Characterized by bold stripes of saturated color, the canvases of the Washington Color Painters were equal parts vibrancy and precision. In 1962, however, Morris Louis, a leading figure of the group, died, and Kenneth Noland, though he remained an integral part of the Washington scene, had moved north. A younger generation of painters, with Gilliam chief among them, began to show at the influential Jefferson Place Gallery, reshaping the visual art of the city.

Gilliam, who had set up a studio in a carriage house above a garage, had his first solo show in 1963. There, he met Thomas “Tom” Downing, a student of Noland’s, who along with Louis, Noland, Howard Mehring, and Gene Davis would represent the Washington Color Painters in Clement Greenberg’s seminal 1964 traveling exhibition “Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Gilliam recognized Downing from an article he saw in the paper and asked him what he thought of his show. Meeting Downing would prove to be a major turning point in Gilliam’s direction as a painter. Downing teased Gilliam, who was painting figurative art inspired in part by the California School at the time, saying that his work gave the impression that Gilliam was scared to paint. Gilliam, charged by Downing’s advice that he should paint “real” paintings, cast figuration aside.

In the following years, as Gilliam became more closely aligned with the Washington Color Painters, his work became more reflective of their style. Using the Magna acrylic resin paints popular among the group, Gilliam created canvases washed with monochromatic fields of color divided by diagonal stripes and triangular forms. Though they were responses to the hard-edge geometric paintings of Downing and Noland and the strict tenets of Color Field painting, Gilliam’s works differentiate themselves with their subtle blending of colors and softer, lyrical sensibility.

The 2013 exhibition “Hard-Edge Paintings 1963–1966,” his first with Los Angeles-based David Kordansky Gallery, put works from this era of the artist’s career on view. The show, which was curated by contemporary artist Rashid Johnson, served as a reintroduction of this series to the greater art world. Works such as Blue Let (1965), a canvas washed with a Pan Am-esque blue and a myriad of multi-hued stripes, or Helles (1965), an off-white canvas spangled with colored stripes of staggered thickness, find Gilliam working within a paradigm of material and color that would serve as a jumping-off point for his subsequent work.

After the stripe paintings, Gilliam began experimenting with manipulating the canvas—folding and creasing it—before the paint could dry. Taking it off the stretcher, Gilliam would work his paint into the canvas on the floor, allowing pigment to pool in the canvas’ folds and thin at its creases. Referred to as Beveled-edge paintings or Slice paintings, these works, which Gilliam would stretch on a beveled canvas after the paint had soaked in, pushed past the boundaries of Noland’s pour techniques.

In a video interview with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gilliam describes Light Fan (1966), an early painting from this period: “Light Fan is…kind of a color architecture. The color is put on chromatically; there’s a dark color, there’s a green color, there’s an ochre color, etc., that goes across to have a flow.” Says Gilliam, while closing his eyes, “Even though it was gestural, even though it had structural moments, it became unified in terms of the wetness of the paint. Light Fan was very significant because it was the springboard to real sculpture—to real sculptured painting.” Where color field painting took color as its central subject, Gilliam’s paintings of the late ’60s examined the sculptural qualities of the canvas, color, and paint itself.

If Light Fan was “color architecture,” the series of paintings Gilliam unveiled at a 1969 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art questioned the architecture of a painting in general. Gilliam was asked by friend and curator Walter Hopps to show alongside fellow D.C. artists Rockne Krebs and Ed McGowin in a show appropriately titled “Gilliam, Krebs, McGowin.” Hopps, who was the newly appointed director of the Corcoran, created gallery spaces with 20-foot ceilings. Gilliam was assigned the upper floor of the atrium—a 30-by-60-foot space that Gilliam would need to paint bigger paintings in order to fill. It was while trying to hang the painting Niagara for the show in his studio that Gilliam happened upon what would become his signature. One side of the canvas drooped off the wall and onto the floor.

Gilliam began draping his canvases, allowing them to hang, sag, and fold, Effectively turning two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional objects, he eliminated the frame, the formal geometry, and changed his paintings’ relationship to the gallery wall. With no literal precedent in the art-historical canon, Gilliam’s drape paintings seem akin instead to the marble-etched folds of the vestments, which adorn the Three Goddesses of the Parthenon’s east pediment, or floor-skimming window treatments. They also present the viewer with a familiar material reality, an unusual feat for abstract art, which casual viewers, as has been incessantly lampooned since the ’50s, so often find alienating. The 1969 show at the Corcoran was met with high praise. Paul Richard, the Washington’s art critic at the time, described it as “enormously important.” D.C. art critic Ben Forgey, when conducting an interview with Gilliam in 1989, said, “I’ll never forget, and I’m sure many people will never forget, the drape canvases the first time we saw them in the Corcoran.” In 2005 the Corcoran gave Gilliam a show of his own, a full retrospective.

“Green April,” Kordansky’s second exhibition of Gilliam’s work, which closed this past July, focused on Gilliam’s beveled-edge and drape paintings. The majority of the pieces in the show had never been exhibited before. Green April (1969), the monumental beveled-edge piece from which the show gets its name, is over 20 feet of subtle, luminous gradations of seafoams and aquas, which bring to mind a marine fantasy or crinkled cellophane. Green April is described in the gallery’s release as sharing both the panoramic scope and ethereal luminosity of Monet’s Water Lilies. Crystal, a 1973 drape painting, has a brighter palette, with a similar seafoam alongside oranges, yellows, reds, and pinks. It hangs closer to the wall than some of Gilliam’s more sprawling hammock-like drape paintings. The piece bears a mesmerizing talismanic quality, which could be due in part to its name or to the fact that it resembles an enormous cloak. Existing outside of the literal and figurative framework of painting, Crystal seems to exist more freely within a shared space with the viewer.

Gilliam, who is in his 80s now, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi—the birthplace of Elvis. He moved with his parents and seven siblings to Louisville during childhood. There he took to drawing early and decided he wanted to be a cartoonist. He grew up near a fairground where there was a circus, which he often attended—an influence perhaps on some of his tent-like drape paintings. At the University of Louisville, where he received his bachelor’s degree, he studied art and worked as a fellowship student at the library and art library. There he immersed himself in the books that professors used to compile their lectures. After college, he joined the ROTC and was stationed in Japan—a woodcut studio near his base, galleries, and art stores kept him busy. During graduate school, one of his professors, Carl Crodel, who was from Munich, claimed to know Paul Klee—a major influence on Gilliam—and thought Miró, who it is said was the first to use a paint pouring technique, was the last important artist. With Downing, Gilliam frequently took the bus to New York to see art shows. In fact, every interview with Gilliam emphasizes the importance of the museum or gallery space, to the point that it seems that looking at art is as central to Gilliam’s practice as painting.

After the revelation of his drape paintings, Gilliam was featured in the American pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale. The following year, he made Autumn Surf, a drape made of 150 yards of 15-foot-wide polypropylene for the San Francisco Museum. In 1975, Gilliam installed a series of drape paintings titled Seahorses on the side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of a program sponsored by The United States General Services Administration. The canvases—two of which were 30 by 90 feet, the other four 30 by 60 feet, were attached to bronze rings, which adorn the museum’s building. An installation at the Brooklyn Museum was held the following summer. During the ’80s and ’90s, Gilliam took quite a few commissions for installations or public art. A primarily-colored fan like polychromed aluminum and steel hanging sculpture was installed in LaGuardia Airport in 1996. He built a piece above the tracks of the Davis Square Subway in Cambridge, Mass., and created installations in Germany, Chile, and Korea.

While Gilliam has been exhibiting regularly in D.C. for the past few decades, his work is still not as well known and appreciated as it ought to be. Recent shows with Kordansky and acquisitions by MoMA and the Met, however, have shined a well-deserved spotlight on multiple periods of the artist’s work.


By Sarah E. Fensom

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