Abstract Art – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 05 Feb 2019 18:04:04 +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 Arthur Osver: The Inner Landscape http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2019/01/arthur-osver/ Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:06:22 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6425 Continue reading ]]> Formed as an artist in the crucible of American industrialism, Arthur Osver journeyed into realms of abstraction to find a unique way of seeing and painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Shields

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

Edna Andrade, Mariposa, 1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By John Dorfman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Shields

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

Al Loving, Septahedron 31, 1970

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Chris Shields

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

Victor Hugo, Ma destinée (My destiny), 1867

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By John Dorfman

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From Beyond http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2018/09/hilma-af-klint/ Sat, 29 Sep 2018 13:52:32 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=6230 Continue reading ]]> Hilma af Klint’s pioneering abstract art, born of spiritual visions, goes on view at the Guggenheim.

Hilma af Klint, Untitled, 1920

Hilma af Klint, Untitled, 1920, from On the Viewing of Flowers and Trees (Vid betraktande av blommor och träd), watercolor on paper, 17.9 x 25 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Hilma af Klint, Group I, Primordial Chaos, No. 16 (Grupp 1, Urkaos, nr 16), 1906-1907 Hilma af Klint, The Ten Largest, No. 7., Adulthood, Group IV, 1907 Hilma af Klint, Group IX/SUW, The Swan, No. 17 (Grupp IX/SUW, Svanen, nr 17), 1915 Hilma af Klint, Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (Grupp X, nr 1, Altarbild), 1915 Hilma af Klint, Untitled, 1920

In 1947, an eccentric book appeared under the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, titled Mona Lisa’s Mustache. The author, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, was fairly well known at the time as a furniture designer who created a sort of Art Deco version of the ancient Greek style. With Mona Lisa’s Mustache, he embarked on a second career as a critic-provocateur. The book, written in a tone that combines humor with hysteria, is a relentless takedown of virtually all modern art from Gauguin to Surrealism and of the curatorial program of the Museum of Modern Art in particular. Equating avant-garde art with magical thinking, Robsjohn-Gibbings portrayed its creators as would-be witch doctors who sought to control the minds of the public through their art. He also facilely equates modern art with fascism, going so far as to blame it for the recently concluded World War.

While Robsjohn-Gibbings’ arguments are in many ways absurd and misguided, with his singular focus he managed to put his finger on something that all the other critics had missed—that despite its reputation as secular, scientific, and anti-traditional, modern art owes a tremendous debt to mysticism and the occult. Today this is accepted as fact, because art historians over the past few decades, sifting the evidence without bias, have documented and explicated the extent to which occult beliefs and systems such as Theosophy were essential to the conceptions of pioneers including Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and many of the Surrealists.

However, one pioneer, a Swedish woman artist named Hilma af Klint, was left out of the picture, from Mona Lisa’s Mustache until quite recently, for reasons that have more to do with social and market forces that with the nature of her work. Painting feverishly in 1906 and 1907, inspired by visions she had had during spiritualistic séances and meditation sessions, af Klint created what are probably the first abstract paintings, predating Kandinsky’s by around four years. But she hid her light under a bushel, refusing to show her work and stipulating in her will that the paintings not be seen by the public until 20 years after her death and that they never be sold. While af Klint was a trained artist who started out painting in a late-19th-century Scandinavian realist style, she created her truly original works more as a mystic than as an artist; that is to say, she painted them not to make a splash in the art world but to enlighten humanity—at such time when she deemed it ready to accept the message. Her paintings, she said, belonged not in an art gallery or even a museum but in a temple. Since af Klint was one of the most self-effacing of people, these claims were, for her, not grandiose pretensions but simple statements of fact.

Af Klint died in 1944, at the age of 81, leaving behind around 1,200 paintings in her studio. In 1966, her nephew Erik af Klint, a naval officer, and his son Johan “awoke the works from their imposed twenty-year rest and photographed them,” as Johan af Klint puts it, beginning the process of bringing them to public attention. In 1972, having failed to interest an institution in taking on the task, the two men created the Hilma af Klint Foundation, which has shepherded the artist’s oeuvre ever since. In 1986, a few of her paintings were included in a massive show at LACMA, “The Spiritual in Art,” where they excited some discussion, but it was not until 2013 that a major monographic exhibition was mounted, which commenced at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and toured in northern Europe. Now, a full view of af Klint’s visionary art is at last coming to the United States, with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” which opens on October 12 and continues through February 3, 2019. More than 160 works will be on view, mainly from the crucial period of 1906–20 in which the artist made the startling abstract paintings for which she will be remembered.

The Guggenheim is a particularly fitting venue for such an exhibition, because it was founded in the 1930s as a repository for exactly the kind of “non-objective” (or geometrically abstract) painting that af Klint espoused. Its original curator, Hilla Rebay, was herself a Theosophist who envisioned the museum as a shrine consecrated to life-transforming art. Unlike af Klint, though, Rebay was an extremely plugged-in networker who was intimately associated with Kandinsky, the Blaue Reiter group, and many other important artists. But she did not know af Klint, and therefore the Swedish artist was not part of the narrative of abstractionist innovation propounded by the Museum of Non-Objective Art, as the Guggenheim was known at the time. So there is poetic justice in a Hilma af Klint retrospective being staged by this particular museum, and as the curators note in the show’s extensive catalogue, the Frank Lloyd Wright design of the building does indeed suggest a ziggurat-like temple similar to the one af Klint imagined when she contemplated the future home of her ahead-of-their time visions.

Af Klint’s experiments in abstraction grew out of the activities of a group of women artists who called themselves “The Five.” Beginning in 1896, meeting each Friday, af Klint and her four friends would conduct séances, or what would be called channeling sessions today, in which they believed they entered into communication with otherworldly, wise beings whom they called the High Masters. One of the activities of The Five was automatic drawing and writing (later to be beloved techniques of the Surrealists), and it was through this means that they received the messages. The Masters suggested that a temple eventually be built, and af Klint came to believe that she in particular was being entrusted with the task of creating paintings to decorate it. A series of panels in tempera on paper mounted on canvas that she made in 1907, known as “The Ten Largest,” are over nine feet high, big enough to command attention in any building.

These initial efforts broke completely with af Klint’s artistic training, and she felt that the paintings were being done through her rather than by her. Right from the outset, the works eschewed figuration in favor of geometric shapes, lines, and bold colors. Many of them resemble diagrams, as if af Klint were creating schematics of the cosmos beyond Earth or of psychic processes behind the eyes. In her paintings, unlike in some forms of abstraction, three-dimensionality is not absent; spheres intersect with planes, lines, and circles, and space seems to hum with a glowing, vibrating energy. They convey a sense of being in the realm of Platonic forms, in which pure thought is made visible.

The only elements of figuration are occasional allusions to architecture, as when a series of rectangles of diminishing size suggest a rainbow-colored pyramid or staircase, surmounted by a refulgent sun, in Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece (1915), or to celestial objects such as the Saturn-like spheres in the series “Group IX/UW, The Dove” (1915). Another departure from pure “non-objective” painting in af Klint’s work is in the inclusion of letters and astrological and other occult symbols, giving the paintings the feel of diagrams from alchemical books of the Renaissance—an era in which science and magic frequently overlapped. On the whole, as the curators observe, af Klint’s work can seem just as scientific as mystical, and her meticulous style has something in common with the kind of technical drawing that was being developed by Swedish naturalists at the time to record their observations.

In 1908, af Klint met the Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, who advised her to rely less on High Masters and find the source of inspiration within herself, her higher Self. From this point on her work became less “automatic” and more intricately conceived. Steiner, himself an explorer of the regions in which science and mysticism meet, had a great influence on af Klint in the years that followed, and in her wandering life she spent a good deal of time at Steiner’s center in Germany, called the Goetheanum. But she had no contact at any point with her fellow explorers in the realms of abstract art, and so her work, brilliant and beautiful though it is, was destined to grow in isolation and remain unknown until the promised future, which now, in the early 21st century, appears to have arrived.


By John Dorfman

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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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