Contemporary Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 09 Jul 2019 01:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Contemporary Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Intriguing Tropics Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:01:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A traveling exhibition showcases the diversity of contemporary art from the Caribbean.

Edouard Duval-Carrié, Lost at Sea / Perdido en el mar, 2014

Edouard Duval-Carrié, Lost at Sea / Perdido en el mar, 2014, mixed media on aluminum, 96 x 144 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Edouard Duval-Carrié, Lost at Sea / Perdido en el mar, 2014

The nations of the Caribbean are incredibly diverse in culture, ethnicity, and language, but they have in common a 400-year legacy of slavery and colonialism as well as a complex and conflicted set of ties to Europe and the U.S. A traveling exhibition now on view at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington ambitiously attempts to discern some commonality among the various modes of visual creativity deployed by artists from the 21st-century Caribbean. “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago” (through September 8) is curated by art historian Tatiana Flores and was organized by the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., originally for the massive multi-exhibition event “Pacific Standard Time LA/LA,” in 2017. Since then, it has gone on the road, making stops at the Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, the Portland Art Museum, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.

The exhibition features over 80 artists with roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba (this island alone accounting for an astonishing 25 percent of the total), Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Aruba, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and St. Vincent, working in media including painting, installation art, sculpture, photography, video, and performance.

The title of the show (and the accompanying scholarly catalogue, edited by Flores and Michelle A. Stephens), while not the most euphonious, does indicate a strong conceptual focus. “Relational Undercurrents,” in evoking the currents flowing beneath a body of water and the connections among the islands in it, signals what the curators call an “archipelagic paradigm.” While the Caribbean is not technically an archipelago, the term is meant metaphorically, as a way to stress the islands’ links and combat the sense of isolation with which they have traditionally been viewed. For Flores and Stephens, the Caribbean is “a geo-material and geo-historical assemblage of sea spaces and sea islands” in which they discern “unexpected mirrorings and inevitable unities,” unities that the artists themselves are conscious of. Today’s globalization has enhanced the archipelagic nature of Caribbean culture.

The exhibition is divided into four themed sections, titled “Conceptual Mappings,” “Perpetual Horizons,” “Landscape Ecologies,” and “Representational Acts.” The works in “Conceptual Mappings” challenge the colonial projects of map-making and border-drawing; “Perpetual Horizons” showcases works that deal with the fixity and luidity of geography; the works in “Landscape Ecologies” take on the centuries-long history of environmental exploitation and destruction in the region; while those in “Representational Acts” deal with issues of the individual and community, self-depiction, gender, race, class, and sexuality.

Cuban artist Marianele Orozco’s Horizontes / Horizons (2012) merges several of these themes into one powerful image, like many of the works in “Relational Undercurrents,” a photograph. It presents an imaginary horizon, with sky and clouds above and below, instead of land, a woman’s head and outstretched arms, seeming to form an island with a rise in the center beaches sloping down to the water’s edge. By identifying the human body with the land, Orozco portrays a Caribbean island as a place in which a new kind of humanity was formed from indigenous and European elements. The serenity of the work belies the fact that the bodies and the land were both brutally exploited but proudly proclaims the vitality and self-determination of contemporary Cuba and, by extension, the Caribbean as a whole.

Barbadian artist Ewan Atkinson’s Empire from the Series Starman Visits (2009) uses a combination of photographic transparency and lightbox to superimpose a superhero-like figure composed of glowing lights enclosed by a human form in outline over a dilapidated theater’s façade. Could the stars within the Starman’s body be the islands of the Caribbean? Is this a visitor from another world entirely, vivifying the post-colonial decay with the power of the imagination?

Not surprisingly, many of the works on view in “Relational Undercurrents” depict the sea, whether realistically or symbolically. In Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié’s Lost at Sea (2014), part of his “Imagined Landscapes” series, a sole human figure floats in the water, hemmed in by land. It is as if all the islands of the archipelago have merged together, and the plant growth, gray with shadows, is so dense as to be frightening. Venezualan Ricardo de Armas’ photograph Viernes, 14 de Agosto, 10:30 a.m. / Friday, August 14, 10:30 a.m. (2010) intriguingly gives views simultaneously above and below the water’s surface, as if as a direct illustration of the show’s theme of underwater links. On the other hand Dominican artist Fermín Ceballos’ Aislamiento / Isolation (2005) could be seen as representing the fragmentation that the outside world has imposed upon the various Caribbean islands; in this photography we are shown an island so tiny that it is just a big rock, with a single human dwelling perched on top, surrounded by brilliant blue ocean. Haitian artist Roberto Stephenson’s 2007.07.16 09:04:57 – Lac de Péligre, département du Centre 18.921258° – 72.0043 97° > SE from the series Peyizaj takes a more reportorial approach, giving an aerial view of the seascape in a way that subtly suggests the archipelago concept.

The more human-oriented works in the exhibition express more intimate sides of Caribbean life. In Haitian artist Didier William’s Dancing Pouring, Crackling and Mourning, a 2015 acrylic and collage on wood, two black figures are partially revealed, partially concealed by a textile with Vodoun imagery and what looks like a flayed skin made of bark. The dance-like movements and mysterious quality of the imagery give the work a feeling of ritual and suspension of time. Puerto Rican photographer Miguel Luciano’s Amani Kites, SmART Power, Kenya (2012) is a joyous revelation of childhood’s exuberance, set not in the Caribbean itself but in Africa, from which the ancestral roots of the Caribbean diaspora grow.

By John Dorfman

Judy Pfaff: Controlled Chaos Wed, 29 May 2019 22:23:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Judy Pfaff’s boundary-breaking installations and multimedia works balance wild exuberance and carefully planned structure.

Judy Pfaff, Scopa #1 (sette bello), 1988

Judy Pfaff, Scopa #1 (sette bello), 1988, Mixed adhesive plastics on mylar graph paper, 35.25 x 47 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Judy Pfaff, Quartet 2, 2018 Judy Pfaff, Moon Tail Beta, 2018 Judy Pfaff, Tivoli—>Tisbury (A Romance), 2017 Judy Pfaff, Notes on Light and Color, 2000 Judy Pfaff, Scopa #1 (sette bello), 1988 Judy Pfaff, Gu, Choki, Pa, 1985

Stepping into a Judy Pfaff installation can be an overwhelming experience. A forest of imagery both abstract and figurative, natural and artificial, seeming to swirl and press against the walls and ceiling, surrounds the viewer, transforming him or her into a participant. The diverse shapes and textures of Pfaff’s compositional elements, the mixture of 2-D and 3-D elements, and the riots of color make her installations into essays in sensory overload, a quality that could be chaotic were it not for the artist’s attention to form and structure. This carefulness lurks below the surface—in a manner of speaking, because there is no one surface to these works—but it is there, making Pfaff’s architecturally-scaled installations essays in controlled chaos, or perhaps uninhibited order.

Not all of Pfaff’s art is installation-based; she also makes paintings, prints, multimedia collages, and three-dimensional wall pieces. A 1988 wall piece of hers is titled Horror Vacui, and the Latin phrase alluding to nature’s abhorrence of a vacuum could well be a description of Pfaff’s busy, dense aesthetic in general. While charting various paths ahead, her work is very much an outgrowth of the period in the 1970s when artists began to tire of the chilly restraint and severity of Minimalism and reintroduce such seemingly long-forgotten traits as bold color, figuration, and gestural mark-making. As the art critic Kim Levin expressed the mindset in 1979, “All the words that had been hurled as insults for as long as we could remember—illusionistic, theatrical, decorative, literary—were resurrected…. It was defying all the prescriptions of Modernist purity. [We] were finally bored with all that arctic purity.” This was not only Post-Minimalism but Postmodernism, and Pfaff was one of the moving forces.

In a 1982 interview, Pfaff described herself this way: “I’m at war with conventions. I’m against what’s expected, what’s safe.” She came by this scrappy attitude naturally, as the product of a tough background who had to carve out her own road in life. She was born in London in 1946, into an England wounded, exhausted, and economically drained by six years of war. Her father, a Royal Air Force pilot, deserted the family, and her mother emigrated to Canada, leaving Judy with her grandmother, a seamstress in the poor East End section of the city. When Judy was 10, she went to join her mother in Detroit, and at 15 she left home to marry a man by the name of Pfaff who was a military pilot—like her absent father. Discovering an interest in art, she managed to get herself into Washington University in St. Louis, where she majored in fine art, and then to Yale’s MFA program. At Yale, she studied painting with Al Held, who became a lifelong mentor of hers. In Held’s boundary-breaking 3-D abstractions, in which colored cubes, tubes, globes, and lines swirl through an illusionistic space, one can see a strong influence on Pfaff’s art. Some passages in her installations almost look like Al Held paintings translated into real space. Another influence was Frank Stella, who began with the flattest of flat art but at the beginning of the ’70s surprised everyone by causing his paintings to project outward from the frame and the wall.

Pfaff graduated from Yale in 1973, and the next year she had her first show in New York. It was at Artists Space, the not-for-profit gallery founded by critic and art historian Irving Sandler and Trudi Grace that launched several major careers—not only Pfaff’s but those of Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. Sandler recalled being shocked when Pfaff arrived to create her installation on site and began by chopping holes in the gallery’s pristine white walls. This first foray into room-filling installation art, titled J.A.S.O.N.-J.A.S.O.N., was conservative by Pfaff’s later standards, in fact rather austere in its nearly monochrome scheme and in confining itself to just a few simple materials like plaster, sheet metal, lights, paint, wire, and wood. As she evolved as an artist, Pfaff would grow more and more exuberant in her constructions, not only in terms of materials—she expanded her repertoire to include such things as fiberglass resin, Lucite, Mylar tape, colored plastics, and chicken wire—but in the way she would gather together and mash up a wide variety of art-historical references, ranging from Cubism to Kurt Schwitters’ Merz constructions to Alexander Calder’s structures, Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String, Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages, Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing machines, Arte Povera, Piet Mondrian, and Abstract Expressionist painting.

The connection to Ab-Ex is especially important. Like Jackson Pollock’s, Pfaff’s work is heroically scaled and action-oriented; it has a quality that Irving Sandler, in a major essay titled “Judy Pfaff: Tracking the Cosmos” (2003), called “theatricality.” For the participant-viewer standing within it, a Pfaff installation can seem like a theater, a space within which dramatic action occurs. They can seem like action paintings so energetic that they have leapt off the walls. In describing her working methods, though, Pfaff tends to use cinematic rather than theatrical analogies: “I structure my work more the way films are put together; it’s like quick splices and dissolves in films, particularly those of the Russian avant-garde [such as] Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. You don’t know exactly why, but when you’re in the work you get excited, even panicked by the structuring of the scene.”

The word “structure” is key here; even if Pfaff’s work can often look and feel wild, it is always the product of painstaking planning, not to mention extremely detail-oriented and technically challenging fabrication, much of which she does herself in her massive, barn-like studio. She has said, “There is much structuring even though my work looks casual. It’s totally structured even to a fault.” This careful attitude eventually made Pfaff unhappy with the impermanence of the installations, which were destroyed after the exhibitions were concluded. In the late ’80s, she sought out commissions for site-specific permanent installations, and also evolved a hybrid form of wall-relief, in which many of the qualities of the room-filling installations could be achieved in a portable work that can be mounted on a wall. In her permanent commissions, Pfaff of course has to contend with the inbuilt nature of the space she is given, which to some extent dictates the nature of the artwork. In making Notes on Light and Color (2000), at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Pfaff had to work with a semicircular wall. To her it suggested the retina of the human eye, so she went in an optical direction, creating an installation that is calmer and quieter than most of her works. Luminous colored discs seem to float amid hourglass-shaped sculptural elements, drawing viewers’ attention to the process of seeing.

While Pfaff’s work is very urban, drawing inspiration from the manic intensity and visual complexity of modern everyday life, she also includes nature, but in a way that does justice to the way we experience it in the post-industrial age. It is noteworthy that Pfaff was included in the recent traveling exhibition “LandEscape,” dedicated to the wide range of contemporary-art responses to landscape. She has made extremely powerful use of natural elements in a 2017 installation, Tivoli—>Tisbury. Named for the Hudson Valley town of Tivoli, N.Y., where she has her studio, and Tisbury, England, where it was installed, it mingles medieval cathedral architecture, colorful structures that recall a Renaissance orrery, and actual trees with elaborate root systems penetrating into rock.

Recently Pfaff has been making flat or nearly flat works that combine aspects of collage, assemblage, and photographic imagery. Earlier iterations of her flat-art approach involved encaustic painting augmented with ink, collaged photographs, and even burn marks; the latest ones use digital imagery (drawn from source photographs of the urban scene) and break the boundary of the traditional frame by allowing certain elements to “poke” out of the expected rectangle. Pfaff’s “Quartet” series from 2018 is a dizzying four-part essay in visual density, layering one space on top of another, frames within frames, filling each with so many colors, shapes, and allusions that it dances on the ledge of confusion without falling into the abyss.

She has also recently made pieces, mainly abstract, using oil stick and encaustic over vintage paper from India or old Chinese-American documents; the fact that these have handwriting and other previously-created marks on them allows the artist to create a sort of historical and cultural palimpsest. From a formal point of view, they represent other ways of creating a complex, multivalent effect that allows a nominally flat work to have more dimensions than two.

Pfaff’s art, in all its phases, embraces the messiness and chaos, visual and otherwise, of modern life, without letting it be a cause of anxiety or despair. Whether in her gigantic installations or in small sculptures, wall works, paintings, and collages, she finds the joy and pleasure in our crazy world and channels it straight into the amazed viewer, who is more than just a viewer.

By John Dorfman

The Light Is Back On Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:24:33 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Paris has definitively re-emerged as a major venue for contemporary art.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912, oil and gouache on wood. 32.2 x 39.8 cm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982 Georges Mathieu, Composition, circa 1970 View inside the Georges Mathieu exhibition at Galerie Templon Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912 John Armleder, Suigei, 2018

I arrived in Paris as a foreign correspondent four decades ago, in the midst of a bitter debate over the newly inaugurated Centre Georges Pompidou. Controversy swirled about the museum’s architecture—the building by Renzo Piano, Richard Rodgers, and Gianfranco Francini was unfavorably compared to a derelict factory—but equally acrimonious was the thought that so much space was needed to display postwar art. And when record crowds streamed into the building, the local press insisted that most visitors were American tourists—in other words, people of questionable cultural taste.

It’s good to recall those antediluvian times when considering the recent, unexpected emergence of the City of Light as a leading torchbearer for contemporary art. The building blocks of this turnaround are the collectors large and small, the path-breaking gallerists, and finally, the impressive privately and publicly owned spaces that are drawing astonishing numbers of viewers.

So let me begin with an example of the less-known contemporary art lover who is helping to propel the phenomenon. Jean-François Keller, 60, inherited an impressive Old Master collection from his father, owner of a textile business. But on a visit to New York in 1995, he had an aesthetic conversion while viewing a Piet Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “Suddenly, I realized this is the kind of art I want to collect,” he recalls.

Keller began to frequent the Paris galleries that were sprouting up between the Centre Pompidou and the Marais neighborhood. He was fortunate to connect early on with Galerie Lahumière, a pioneer in contemporary art. The owner, Diane Lahumière, recognized in Keller the symptoms of so many other recent converts among her compatriots. “Contemporary art came quite late to Paris, and French collectors needed time to absorb it,” she says. “But once that happened, they have gone about collecting with enthusiasm. And some want to acquire only works from artists of their own generation.”

That was Keller’s case. He focused on young, relatively unknown Europeans. “Sometimes I was one of the first to discover an artist,” he says. “And sometimes I made mistakes. But it’s exciting to take risks.” Nowadays, he’s confident enough to invite friends and others to his home to display and discuss his acquisitions. He is increasingly asked by museums around Europe to lend works from his collection. His commitment to contemporary art became irrevocable. “One day I began to think: ‘Why am I keeping my Old Masters?’” recalls Keller. “And I sold them all.”

While today nobody disputes Paris’s emergence as a focus of contemporary art, that wasn’t the case at the turn of the new millennium, when Anne-Claudie Couric, a gallerist, returned to Paris. She had moved to New York in the early 1990s because she was enamored with contemporary art but saw no future for it in Paris. Then in 2002, she surprised her friends by agreeing to become executive director of Galerie Templon, a leading Parisian gallery, a post she still holds today. “People told me there was still nothing happening here,” recalls Couric.

But she sensed that a new appreciation of contemporary art was stirring. The Centre Pompidou put on more provocative exhibitions. Regional initiatives by the government aimed at stimulating interest in late 20th-century art were finally bearing fruit, as the opening of smaller provincial museums and local galleries attested. With the lifting of legal restrictions on auction houses, sales of contemporary art boomed at the local outposts of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Paris very quickly developed a deep, large base of collectors,” says Couric. “And they buy from Parisian galleries—unlike London, where most of the clients are foreigners.”

French collectors also became less secretive. Traditionally, collectors feared that disclosing their art holdings might lead to tax audits. But over the last 20 years, well-known entertainment figures like actor Alain Delon and director Claude Berri lent out their collections to museums. They were followed by entrepreneurs, particularly in the fashion business, who not only showed their collections but built museums and exhibition spaces to display contemporary art.

In 2002, the Galerie des Galeries opened at the upscale department store Galeries Lafayette. This year, it was joined by Lafayette Anticipations, a contemporary art and performance space in a former 19th-century industrial building in the Marais. Next year, the luxury goods billionaire François Pinault will put his vaunted contemporary art collection on display at a private museum in the Bourse de Commerce building near the Louvre.

But for now, pride of place among the Parisian private museums belongs to Pinault’s great rival in the luxury business and art collecting, Bernard Arnault, whose architecturally startling Fondation Louis Vuitton was inaugurated in 2014. Designed by Frank Gehry in the shape of a deconstructed ship with a dozen glass sails, the museum is berthed in the Bois de Boulogne on park acreage with a 55-year lease. Afterwards, the museum will be donated to the city of Paris.

The use of public parkland by a private entity would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But there has been a retreat by the French state as financier and arbiter of the arts, due partly to budget cuts and also because of the rise of deep-pocketed private collectors like Arnault and Pinault as purveyors of contemporary art. “Private museums are more flexible and pay in advance to borrow and insure collections,” says Suzanne Pagé, artistic director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton and former director of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Pagé isn’t at all surprised that fashion entrepreneurs have leapt to the forefront of contemporary art as collectors and exhibitors. “Although they are not artists, they are involved in creative work,” she says. Partly to emphasize this point, one of the highlights at the museum last year was a selection of modern art from the collection of the early 20th-century Russian fabric magnate, Sergei Shchukin, with whom Arnault identifies both as a businessman and collector.

The Fondation then followed with an exhibition of some 200 works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, ranging from Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso to Jasper Johns and Cindy Sherman, which ended this past March. Attendance for both the Shchukin and MoMA exhibits soared past one million. Those attendance marks will probably be shattered by the current blockbuster exhibitions of 120 works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and 100 works by Egon Schiele, on view in tandem through January 14, 2019. Between special exhibitions, Arnault displays portions of his own contemporary holdings. The most recent show from this permanent collection, which closed August 27, included works by 29 artists, among them Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Dan Flavin, and Takashi Murakami.

The Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, is yet another testament to the transformation of Paris into a center for contemporary art. Jennifer Flay, the New Zealand-born director of FIAC, took up her post in 2003, on the fair’s 30th year of existence. She recalls the headline on a leading art magazine’s cover about FIAC: Birthday or Burial? “And it was absolutely the truth,” says Flay. “FIAC was a mess.” At the time, the fair existed literally on the margins of the art world. It was held in a sprawling trade exhibition space at the Porte de Versailles on the southwestern outskirts of Paris. Traffic roared on the freeway over the roof. Flay remembers that the art stands were hemmed in by a lingerie trade show.

That was then. FIAC, which ran this year from October 18–21, is held in the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais and spills into the streets in stands between those two regal art venues. Among the 200 or so participating galleries, about two thirds are European. After the French, the Americans are the largest contingent and include the usual heavyweights—Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper—along with smaller upstarts from Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Los Angeles, and other markets.

“Even people who cannot afford to collect—students, office employees, young families with children—come to FIAC to see what’s new,” says Templon director Couric. “Paris has become more confident about contemporary art. We no longer feel overwhelmed by the power of the Americans.” At the time, her gallery had on exhibit the latest works of Jim Dine. He may have been born in Cincinnati, but he has the good sense to now live and work in Paris.

By Jonathan Kandell

Deeper into the South Thu, 28 Jun 2018 18:22:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A current exhibition celebrates the vibrant women artists of America’s South.

Ida Kohlmeyer, Rondo #2, 1968

Ida Kohlmeyer, Rondo #2, 1968, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Betsy Stewart, Bioverse No. 3, 2011 Dusti Bongé, Circles Penetrated, 1942 Shawne Major, Eating Cake, 2008 Jacqueline Humphries, Red and White Abstraction, Untitled #3, 1995 Marie Hull, Pink Morning, c 1960 Ida Kohlmeyer, Rondo #2, 1968

“I’ve been working with this collection for over 11 years, and I know it well,” says Bradley Sumrall, Curator of the Collection at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. “And just by getting to know it, I noticed it had a really strong collection of female artists.” The Ogden Museum’s founding donor, Roger Ogden, had an affinity for women artists, Sumrall explains, and he was aware that Southern art in particular has a lot of strong female voices. The New Orleans-based museum is currently staging “The Whole Drum Will Sound: Women in Southern Abstraction” (through July 22), a show that draws primarily from these rich holdings.

Several iterations of female-centric museum shows have popped up around the country as of late. Some more recent ones have been spurred on by the MeToo movement, others by the notion that many works by female hands in museum collections have been under-seen by the public. That women artists have been marginalized and underserved in art history and the art world at large is resoundingly and shamefully true, and thus seemingly any reason to promote these artists is a good one. But nevertheless it’s important that these exhibitions not feel like gimmicks, or worse, cheap gestures meant to fix inequality in one fell swoop.

Sumrall is fully aware of the delicacies of staging such a show, and has developed the exhibition with them in mind. “Initially I said ‘I hate to do a women’s art show—these aren’t women artists, these are artists,’” says the curator. “I didn’t want this to be seen as me defining a ‘feminine aesthetic’—I’m not sure there is one and I’m certainly not the one to define it, but I was reading the French author Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity, from which we take the show’s title, and I wanted to put a quote from it out in front of the exhibition to show that we’re just celebrating strong voices—these aren’t ‘women artists,’ they’re not purely ‘abstract,’ they’re not just regional artists, they’re strong, important voices.”

The quote from Maalouf that Sumrall refers to reads: “A person’s identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.”

One of the pillars of the exhibition—and of abstraction in the South—is Dusti Bongé, a Biloxi, Miss.-based artist. The show features the force-field-like geometric abstraction Circles Penetrated (1942, oil on canvas) and the sultry, totemic Swamp at Midnight (n.d., oil on canvas), which lives on the abstract side of the street but saunters towards landscape. Both were gifted to the Ogden by the Dusti Bongé foundation. Bongé is an interesting example of the South’s interaction with Abstract Expressionism, a primarily Northern phenomenon that shifted the art world’s center to New York from Paris in the middle of the 20th century. She moved fully into the style in the 1950s, after flirting with Surrealism throughout the ’40s. During this period, Bongé, who remained in Biloxi raising a son alone after her husband, Arch Bongé, a Nebraska “cowboy artist,” died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in the mid-1930s, began showing at the famed Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. She had her first solo show at the gallery in 1956 and was represented by the dealer for some 20 years.

The Summit Group—the trio of Bess Phipps Dawson, Halcyone Barnes, and Ruth Atkinson Holmes—were exposed to Ab Ex at the Southwest Texas Junior College in Summit, Miss., in the early 1950s. Their instructor, Roy Shultz, brought the tenets of the movement to their classroom in rural Mississippi, sparking a new sense of freedom in the practices of the three artists. About this time, Dawson is quoted as saying, “Roy Shultz absolutely captured us. His enthusiasm for abstract expressionism spilled over on all of those who came in contact with him…Roy encouraged us to experiment. It wasn’t long before we had abandoned magnolias and shacks. We were doing daring new pieces and expressing ourselves for the first time in our lives.” Roger Ogden collected works by the three artists, and they are prominently featured in the museum’s exhibition. Standouts include Dawson’s Red Glow (1959, oil on masonite), an energetic study in color, Holmes’ intricate and textural Dégagé (1950, mixed media on board), and Barnes’s minimal Variation #1(1955, oil on canvas), an incredibly bold and arresting canvas that would be at home in a collection of Rothkos.

Mark Rothko, as it turns out, plays an interesting role in the exhibition. Ida Kohlmeyer, whom Sumrall calls “the queen of New Orleans art,” let Rothko use her garage as a studio while he was staying in the Louisiana city in the 1950s. The two were close, and his influence, as well as Hans Hofmann’s, helped shape what would become a dreamy, almost spiritual, style of abstraction. Rondo #2 (1968, oil on canvas) is a highlight of the Ogden’s show. The mandala-like work blends Rothko’s color fields with the mystic, visionary style of the early abstractionist Hilma af Klint.

The Dallas-based contemporary artist Sherry Owens, who has worked with many materials but is widely known for her sculptures with crape myrtle wood, has a special place in the exhibition. Heavily influenced by the self-taught Abstract Expressionist sculptor Clyde Connell, Owens made several pilgrimages to visit the late Louisiana artist—a relationship that plays out in the Ogden’s show. “Owens went and sat at the feet of her master Clyde Connell,” says Sumrall, “but she’d never shared a wall with her.” Setting out to change that, Sumrall encouraged one of the museum’s patrons to purchase a specific piece of Owens’ work, Mother Nature Throwing Up Her Hands (2017, crape myrtle, baling wire, paint, dye, and wax), for the Ogden’s collection. “‘This is our role,’ I told the patron,” he says. Owens’ piece joins Dancer and Dancer No. 4 (both 1985, cedar, hydrostone, wax and ink) by Connell.

The South’s strong tradition of self-taught art is highlighted in the exhibition not just by Connell, but also by Minnie Evans. The South Carolina artist used pencil and crayon to draw visions she believed came from God and the lush foliage she saw while working as the gatekeeper of the Airlie Estate, a public garden. Work by Evans is juxtaposed with that of Shawne Major, a formally trained Louisiana artist who uses found objects and references quilt-making to create a unique vernacular style. Major’s Eating Cake (2998, mixed media), a dense patchwork of glittering trinkets, melds the energetic cacophony of a Pollock canvas with the materials of a crafter’s supply closet.

Lynda Benglis’s Minerva (1986), a bronze, nickel, and chrome sculpture that manages to seem heavy and extraordinarily delicate at the same time, take pride of place in the show, as does MaPo Kinnard’s metallic, biomorphic ceramic Stormy (circa 2015, oil on bisque fired ceramic). Dorothy Hood’s Florence in the Morning (circa 1976, oil on canvas), a moody work with fields of poured color that seem to sink into the canvas, is joined by Marie Hull’s Pink Morning (circa 1960, oil on canvas), which features thick swaths of dripping paint.

The exhibition also includes work by Vincencia Blount, Lin Emery, Margaret Evangeline, Cynthia Brants, Shawn Hall, Jacqueline Humphreys, Valerie Jaudon, Bonnie Maygarden, Anastasia Pelias, Betsy Stewart, Ashley Teamer, and Millie Wohl. It certainly weaves together a patchwork of artists, their stories, and their communities.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Bo Bartlett: American Stories Thu, 24 May 2018 21:49:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Bo Bartlett brings the narrative painting tradition up to date, merging the historical with the personal.

Bo Bartlett, Homeland, 1994

Bo Bartlett, Homeland, 1994, oil on linen, 134 x 204 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Bo Bartlett, Open Gate, 2011 Bo Bartlett, OutRider, 2018 Bo Bartlett, The Whale, 2017 Bo Bartlett, Homeland, 1994 Bo Bartlett, The Dowry, 2005 Bo Bartlett, The Gatherer, 2009

Bo Bartlett is an American realist painter, rooted in figurative traditions from his own country—Wyeth, Rockwell, Eakins, Homer—and from Europe, going back to the Renaissance. Unlike many contemporary artists who work in a realist mode, he doesn’t trade in postmodern irony, and his is not an appropriation art. Bartlett uses classical visual language to tell stories. Some are personal and some are public, or at least have a public aspect. In fact, Bartlett is one of the few contemporary painters to work in what used to be called the Grand Manner, large-scale, epic depictions of dramatic events that deploy the entire arsenal of academic art—elements of figure painting, portraiture, landscape, and still life all combined in one stage-managed scene. However, unlike the Grand Manner canvases of the 18th and 19th centuries, Bartlett’s “history paintings” don’t tell one official story. Rather, they are open-ended, and the artist has said that he wants viewers to engage with them imaginatively and not hold back from reading their own meanings and stories into them.

Take, for example, Homeland, a massive work from 1994 that measures 17 feet in diameter. A group of people depicted life-size, presumably refugees of war, are riding in the back of an open military truck across a wide-open, typically American landscape. The way the truck is rendered, most of it lies below the bottom edge of the canvas, so that at first glance it might almost seem to be a boat lying low in the water. That is, of course, intentional, because the figures are packed tightly together in a manner reminiscent of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, one of the most iconic American history paintings. A girl standing in the front, supported by a cloaked man, takes the place of George Washington, and the pieces of white cloth streaming from the hands of some of the figures suggest the flags and oars in Leutze’s composition.

Bartlett acknowledges the similarities, but adds that it has other art-historical sources, including Eugénè Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. “I threw it all in there, but it’s not an intentionally postmodern game. It’s not meant to be an homage or a pastiche. Dreams and real life were sources, too. I put all my best friends in the back of the truck—my therapist, my minister, musicians I knew, everybody in my life.” The inscription on the side of the truck, “IGN 5594,” encodes Bartlett’s birthday, and the “IGN” is an enigmatic “personal insignia” that occurs in many of the artist’s paintings and that he declines to explain.

Some of the figures in Homeland are wearing a timeless sort of garb that could be anything from Biblical to early American, while others are wearing the clothing of today. The overall effect is to make the narrative transcend time, so that it could represent any journey—heroic, beleaguered, hopeful—that any viewer could imagine himself or herself being a part of, along with his or her community. This timeless, archetypal quality pervades Bartlett’s oeuvre; his single-figure paintings are usually portraits of his family and friends, and yet the figures, who are not named in the titles, perform symbolic, ambiguous roles. Often, they turn their faces away from the viewer, which accentuates the impersonal nature of the image. Sometimes one element in a painting suffices to lift it out of the realm of the everyday. In Homecoming (1995), the bonfire behind the high-school football players and their girlfriends is just a little too big, on the verge of going out of control, suggesting the invasion of this primal American scene by uncanny, overwhelming forces.

In Hiroshima (1994), another of Bartlett’s large-scale history paintings, the destructive force of fire is present in its absence; what we are seeing is the moment before the atomic bomb struck. The three figures, two adults and a child, stand in a peaceful farm’s field; one looks up, as if seeing something up above. The sky glows a smoky pink, which is a real sunset but also, because of what we know, an anticipation of the deadly illumination that is about to occur. The figures are Japanese, but this could easily be an American farm, a farm anywhere in the world.

Growing up in Columbus, Ga., the son of a furniture-maker, Bartlett was exposed to art only through mass media. “If it wasn’t on the cover of Time or Life, I didn’t know about it,” he recalls. That meant Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Picasso, and occasionally Dalí or Magritte. Traces of all these artists’ influences can be found in Bartlett’s work, but especially the first two. As a child, Bartlett was slow to speak but quick to draw; he was constantly sketching what he saw around him, using line to communicate his perceptions. His mother, who worked for a medical journal, used to show him anatomical illustrations in the hope that he would take up that line of work. After high school graduation, though, he was down to three choices—a circus clown, a preacher, or an artist. He chose art, and immediately set out on his own for Florence.

Part of the reason he chose Florence was that during high school he had read Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. In the novel, Asher, a young Hasidic boy growing up in Brooklyn, is powerfully drawn to art, but it is forbidden to him because of his religion’s aversion to image-making. In the end, he breaks away and goes to Florence to pursue a career as a modernist painter. Bartlett, who grew up in a devout Protestant community (which didn’t ban art but regarded it with some suspicion), deeply identified with Asher, whose imaginary portrait he painted decades later. In Florence, Bartlett ended up studying with a fellow American, Ben F. Long IV, who took him on as an apprentice in fresco painting. Long was part of the circle of Pietro Annigoni, a contemporary Italian artist who aligned himself with the Renaissance tradition. Bartlett says it was in Florence that he “really learned to draw, pretty much alone but under great tutelage.”

Back in the States, he went to Philadelphia, where he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the standard-bearer of a great American figurative tradition dating back to Benjamin West and continuing through Thomas Eakins. Bartlett also spent time at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he got to do some dissection work. “I actually cut up bodies,” he recalls. “Not only do you learn where all the insertions go, you really discover what life is by spending enough time with what the opposite of it is.” In this respect he emulated Eakins, whose famous painting The Gross Clinic is a paean to anatomical science.

For a long time, Bartlett was a peripatetic student, picking up influences everywhere he went. A traveling scholarship to Copenhagen acquainted him with the work of Vilhelm Hammershoi, and the lone female figures, sparse rooms, and open windows of Bartlett’s contemplative interiors, such as Dreamcatcher (2006), clearly show a debt to the late 19th-century Danish painter. The Wyeth influence is visible throughout Bartlett’s career, in the rural landscapes and farmhouses and in the ambiguous implied narratives.

Bartlett became close friends with Andrew and Betsy Wyeth, but by a circuitous route. In 1976, when he moved to Pennsylvania after returning from Europe, Bartlett, with the courage of his 19 years, opened up the phone book and cold-called his idol, arranging a visit to Chadds Ford. When he got there, Andrew was out (“probably off painting Helga,” Bartlett quips) but Betsy was in; confronted by the shaggy-looking young man, she was uncertain who he was and sent him away. “I scared her; I looked a bit like Rasputin,” says Bartlett. “I felt sort of jilted. I was young, I went back to Philadelphia and studied with Nelson Shanks instead. Many years later, the Wyeths called me, and we hit it off and were best friends.” In fact, Betsy eventually asked Bartlett, who studied filmmaking as well as painting, to make a documentary about her husband. “From studying film I learned so much about lighting,” says Bartlett. “Mise-en-scène is the starting point for me and has always been a big part of the way I organize my painting. So many things I learned in film school I’ve been able to translate into painting.”

Like Wyeth, Bartlett found inspiration in the Maine landscape and spent many years traveling back and forth between Maine and Philadelphia. Recently, he has reconnected to his hometown of Columbus, setting up the Bo Bartlett Center on the campus of Columbus State University. The Center is partly a museum for Bartlett’s own work, including rarely-seen mural-sized paintings, as well as other artists’ work, and partly an educational and outreach organization that will be working with local schools and mental health facilities to give support and guidance to students who are interested in painting and drawing. Among the works by Bartlett that will be accessible to the public are sketchbooks and archival materials that shed light on the artist’s growth and work process.

Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the Center will also feature music, film, and lectures by visiting artists. It is housed a former cotton warehouse on the Chattahoochee River that has been redesigned by architect Tom Kundig of the Seattle-based firm Olson Kundig, with 23-foot ceilings and clerestory windows that allow daylight to illuminate the artworks. Its director is David Houston, formerly Chief Curator of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Director of Curatorial at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Master classes at the Center will be taught by Bartlett himself, as well as by visiting artists.

Bartlett likes to start his lectures with a quotation from a novel by one of his favorite writers, Robertson Davies: “Let your root feed your crown.” He says, “It means to paint your life. Let it run up through you like a tree that’s flowering and blossoming. It all comes from being true to your temperament and existence and where you’re from. If you do that, your work will be true to all your DNA and your experiences, it will be real and true and original. That’s what I charge my students with.”

By John Dorfman

T.C. Cannon: Cannonical Works Thu, 26 Apr 2018 01:14:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Peabody Essex Museum kicks off a traveling retrospective of T.C. Cannon, a seminal figure in contemporary Native American art.

T. C. Cannon, On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967, posthumous edition, about 1988–89

T. C. Cannon, On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967, posthumous edition, about 1988–89, hand-painted etching (after 1971 drawing).

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) T. C. Cannon, woodcut; Collector #3, 1974 T. C. Cannon, Waiting for the Bus (Anadarko Princess), 1977 T. C. Cannon, His Hair Flows Like a River, 1973 T. C. Cannon, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1975 T. C. Cannon, On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967, posthumous edition, about 1988–89

The work of one of the most interesting, visionary Native American artists of the 20th century is being celebrated with a exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. “T.C. Cannon: On the Edge of America” (through June 10), which will go to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla., and the National Museum of the American Indian after closing at the PEM, is the first traveling retrospective of Cannon’s work since 1990. It includes over 30 major paintings (out of a total of around 50 that the artist completed before his death in a car crash at the age of 31 in 1978), supplemented by drawings, woodblock and linocut prints, poems, and musical recordings. Together, the nearly 90 works on view reveal a masterful painter and a voracious mind fully engaged not only with his own Native American culture and history but with the diversity of mainstream American culture as it went through the transformative turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s.

Cannon is best known for vibrantly colorful canvases that portray American Indians both as they were in traditional times and as they are now—sometimes within the same picture. With a strong component of satire and humor, his paintings juxtapose traditional imagery with the contemporary scene, and his Indians are conflicted figures who seem to inhabit two worlds, sometimes incongruously or awkwardly but always with pride and verve. Cannon himself did originate “on the edge of America”—he was born in a small farming community in southern Oklahoma, the son of a Kiowa father and a Caddo mother, and was given the Kiowa name Pai-doung-u-day (meaning “one who stands in the sun”) and the English name Tommy Wayne Cannon (though he would be known later on as “T.C.” rather than “T.W.”).

After graduating from high school in 1964, he went to Santa Fe to attend the Institute of American Indian Arts, which had been founded only two years before and was funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. In high school, Cannon had attracted attention for his drawing skills; here he was exposed to the Euro-American art tradition as well as to a Native American artistic renaissance that was getting underway. One of Cannon’s teachers was Fritz Scholder, a pioneer of the new sensibility in Native American art; Cannon’s work bears certain resemblances to Scholder’s—its emphasis on portraiture and its satirical take on mixed identities. But it is also very strongly influenced by non-Native art, especially Matisse, whose color ideas and compositional schemes are sometimes clearly visible in Cannon’s work. In fact, Cannon’s Collector #3 (1974) is an out-and-out homage to the French modernist master; a bare-breasted Indian odalisque reclining on a Navajo rug in wallpapered room, with artistic attention duly lavished on the textiles. Other important influences were Van Gogh and, from his own era, Robert Rauschenberg.

In 1966, while still in school, Cannon made a splash with his painting Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues, which showed a Navajo man juxtaposed with two small portraits of themselves in the foreground. The figures are wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes, which gives them a contemporary air. On the wall is written the word “Dineh,” the Navajos’ word for themselves. This painting is considered to have kicked off the New Indian Art movement.

In 1968, as the art world generally joined in the counterculture’s rejection of the U.S. war in Vietnam, Cannon, inspired by the Kiowa warrior tradition, enlisted in the Army and spent a year as a paratrooper in Vietnam; for his service in the Tet Offensive he won two Bronze Stars. He was disillusioned by his experiences there and channeled those feelings into his work, which was verbal and musical as well as visual. In a song lyric intended as a companion piece for Mama and Papa, he sang, “well i’ve been out there where the v.c. [Viet Cong] stay/i write home most every day/it don’t seem to ease my pain at all/‘cause i long for the sand and the piñon trees/sheep manure up to my knees…/oh mama, papa’s got those blues again/oh mama, papa’s got the shiprock blues again.” A drawing in the show, On Drinkin’ Beer in Vietnam in 1967, shows two Indians in uniform, each with a Plains warrior-style feather in his hair.

After his return home, Cannon resumed his career, rising to higher and higher heights in the art world. In 1972, he was invited by the National Collection of Fine Arts (now part of the Smithsonian) to do a joint exhibition with his old teacher Scholder, to be called “Two American Painters.” The show was wildly successful and went on a world tour, and then New York dealer Jean Aberbach bought most of Cannon’s work right off the museum walls and signed him to her gallery.

Success didn’t spoil Cannon, and throughout the ’70s he produced ever-more-complex works. In his incredible Epochs of Plains History (1976–77), Cannon encompassed myth, history, and present-day life into one panoramic canvas and put it all into cosmic context by bookending the composition with super-sized, symbolically enhanced images of the moon and sun. A rainbow, a bald eagle, a legendary white buffalo, and figures from a Plains ledger-style drawing compete for attention with warriors from a wolf society and brightly-clad figures from past and present. At the far right is a contemporary Indian in jeans, Western shirt, cowboy hat, and sunglasses, who bears a strong resemblance to a self-portrait Cannon did in 1975. In that painting, Self-Portrait in the Studio, the similarly-clad artist sprawls in a chair, relaxed but somehow confrontational, with a picture window framing a mountainous desert landscape in back of him, an expensive-looking Southwestern rug beneath his feet, and pictures from his collection on the wall. Here is the confident Native American artist-collector of today, surrounded by the symbols of his art and his success. It was all to be cut tragically short just a few years later, and who knows what Cannon would have gone on to produce, what thoughts he would have expressed about the changes in the Native American world and the art world that have taken place since then? He may have been born at the edge of America, but by now it should be clear that T.C. Cannon belongs at the center.

By John Dorfman

Uncommon Clay Wed, 28 Mar 2018 23:01:42 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Contemporary ceramic artists combine craft tradition with boundary-pushing creativity.

Brian Rochefort, Sadiri, 2017

Brian Rochefort, Sadiri, 2017, stoneware, earthenware, glaze, glass, 18 x 17 x 16 in., Private collection courtesy the artist and Van Doren Waxter New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Arlene Shechet, Reverb, 2017 Katsuo Aoki, Predictive Dream LIV, 2016 Brian Rochefort, Sadiri, 2017 Francesca DiMattio, Boucherouite I, 2017 Takuro Kuwata, Tea Bowl, 2017 George Ohr, Very tall, mottled two-handled vase, 1895 Peter Voulkos, Early Abstract Ceramic Vessel, 1958

Punk ceramicist Takuro Kuwata fits quite nicely into the world of contemporary art. His works are mysterious, both visually and technically. They hold the secret of the artist’s methods within them (Kuwata does not completely reveal the techniques he utilizes to achieve his unique results), finding a clever, rhyming dimension in a medium that often took the form of vessels and containers. The young Kuwata studied with masters of classical Japanese ceramics, but his works represent a mutation of the traditional into a new, hybridized state that learns from the past while embracing the experimentation, and sometimes chaos, that progress requires. “He is playing off of very traditional ceramic practices,” says Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of New York’s Salon 94 gallery, “but he goes to huge extremes. There is something in his work that is a kind of magic work, which everybody knows happens in the kiln, but they don’t know how it happens. So there’s an alchemy with his work that people are amazed at and a secrecy of how he achieves his results.”

Indeed some of Kuwata’s works explode in the kiln, the result being an almost Futurist freeze-frame of violent action as well as a postmodern document of object as record of its own making. There are elements of Kuwata’s work for both the eyes and the mind to chew on. A porcelain, glaze, pigment, and steel Tea Bowl from 2017, featured in a current exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, seems to melt before the viewer’s eyes like pink ice cream, unstable and soft yet holding its form. Its appearance is far from the slick and gleaming surfaces of many ceramic works.

Contemporary ceramicists such as Kuwata are keeping alive a craft practiced since humankind got into the business of making things out of the materials that constituted their physical world. Ceramics are maybe the most fundamental of all humanity’s physical, intellectual endeavors—a direct transformation of raw earth into something new born of human hands and the human mind.

These artists’ sculptural works however, position themselves at a unique crossroads of design utility and fine art. Ceramics might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “contemporary art.” However, one of contemporary art’s most iconic works, Judy Chicago’s mixed media installation The Dinner Party, places ceramics in a privileged place. This feminist masterwork celebrates and problematizes ceramics’ historical identity as craft or “women’s work.” The fine and laborious craftsmanship associated with the medium, as well as its basic utility, seem at first glance anathema to the heavily conceptual and didactic works that are considered under the rubric of “contemporary art.” However, once the fundamental nature of the material and process are taken into account—its balancing of the historical and the experimental along with its three-dimensionality and uniquely tactile character—the ceramic works of today begin to appear right at home on the cutting edge.

In fact, ceramics have been on the cutting edge of American art for several decades now. Jeffrey Spahn, a Berkeley, Calif.-based specialist in studio ceramics, cites Peter Voulkos and John Mason, two key ceramicists who started out in the 1950s, within the context of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mason showed at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, which was at the forefront of several important art currents of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Spahn says, “It’s only now, in the new millennium, that the fine-art world is recognizing that ceramics was part of that mix right from the very beginning, that it was and always will be part of the fine arts.” In the past decade, rising prices in the market have reflected that recognition; in December 2017 at the Phillips auction house in New York, a piece by Voulkos—who Spahn says “has always been considered the leader in contemporary ceramics”—sold for a record-breaking $915,000.

At the art world’s top international fairs, visitors may encounter contemporary ceramic works from New York’s Jason Jacques Gallery. These fairs, with their high volume of visitors and collectors, have helped introduce the gallery’s artists and their works to a wider audience. “We participate in about a half dozen fairs internationally,” notes director Jason Busch. “Some of them are art fairs, some of them are design fairs, and some are more a combination of the two and have a historic element, like the Winter Antiques Show in New York or TEFAF in Maastricht. But we’re participating in Frieze in New York, and it’s one of the best contemporary art fairs in the world. There’s certainly clay that finds its way there, but we’re really proud to be a gallery that really focuses on clay and ceramics.”

Jason Jacques offers some ceramics by late 19th-century French masters such as Ernest Chaplet and Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, as well, but the focus is on contemporary works. Some of the offerings may be accompanied by a hefty price tag. Contemporary ceramic works however, offer an entry point for beginning collectors looking to enter the market. “We’re selling things that are in the six-figure sums, but there’s plenty to buy for less than $50,000,” Busch points out. “Of course, we want to be able to promote artists, and raising their reputation also means prices tend to rise, as well, but we help to nurture those careers and give them the exposure they really need—at the gallery, at the art fairs, potentially even with a museum exhibition, and we’ve been a part of all three.” This approach helps foster an environment that benefits emerging artists by giving them greater visibility and collectability, and collectors who are looking to buy something that fits their budget.

In the gallery’s recent show, “In Focus: Eric Serritella,” the artist makes a telling statement about the medium and its deep connection to the natural world. The works on display are large-scale ceramic sculptures of weathered logs and birch trees, creating a frozen forest in the gallery space. There is something magical and pointed about earth or clay being transmuted into a representation of another natural, living thing. These sculptures have a simple, philosophical beauty. The ceramic birches evoke a Taoist perspective on the relationship between the parts and whole that makes up all things, and the inevitable, illusory changes that constitute what we see as “form.” Earth becomes wood in the heat of the kiln and under the pressure of time, but in the end, the exhibition points to a single, indivisible one which produces endless manifestations.

The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Regarding George Ohr: Contemporary Ceramics in the Spirit of the Mad Potter” (through April 8), creates a bridge between the work of the self-professed “Mad Potter” of Biloxi, Miss., and the current avant-garde of contemporary ceramicists. Ohr’s experimentation and innovation with clay forms at the turn of the 20th century have led some to see his work as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionist movement, and artists such as Kuwata and the late Betty Woodman can be seen as his spiritual successors. The museum’s show presents 24 of Ohr’s works (some on public display for the first time) along with a cross-section of contemporary ceramic works by artists including Ron Nagle, Gareth Mason, Brian Rochefort, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, building a bridge from Ohr, the legendary iconoclast, and his boundary-pushing work to the artists of today. Like Ohr, many of these walk a tightrope, keeping the knowledge held in tradition alive and in practice, while dismissing or and reinventing it when their vision necessitates something new. The balance is fascinating, bringing forms to the very edge of visual coherence and physical stability.

Ohr’s fired and painted clay Tall dark incised vase (1895–circa 1900) stands like an alien plant form waiting for an unsuspecting insect to land. The greens and dark brown are veined and pervade what might be called the “stem,” yet the base is almost Near Eastern in its cupola shape and symmetrical perfection. The work is a vessel pulled straight from the imagination, strange and yet at the same time conforming to some inner sense of form. Ohr’s fired and painted clay Very tall, mottled two-handled vase (1895–circa 1900) also appears to live. Its handles do not conform to the rule of symmetry, and the because of this, the work seems to grow and stretch before our eyes. There is a pull to the shape, a visual elasticity that is an almost perfect illusion of stretching.

More and more contemporary ceramicists continue to emerge today. “Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Michael Frimkess were virtually disregarded in the art world eight years ago, and now they are some of the most highly collected,” says Jayson Lawfer, the director of Chicago’s The Nevica Project, a gallery specializing in ceramic works. “Branan Mercer is a potter who makes simple and exquisite forms. Lauren Mabry makes simple forms with painterly surfaces that find themselves in the craft and fine art collections. New Zealand potter Aaron Scythe is doing some exciting functional works that really cross traditions and have a heavy influence from his extensive training in Japan.”

The world of contemporary ceramics appears to differ from the contemporary fine art market at large, to some extent. “The widely noted ceramic market differs because it is particularly based on craft and technique.” says Lawfer. “The fine-art market does not care about the kiln firing, the amount of grog in the clay or the glaze layers you apply. They care about the piece as a concluded creation.” The history folded into each ceramic work sustains its connection to its heritage but may not appear to the naked eye of most viewers. This is what constitutes the unique double life of contemporary ceramics—they are wildly sensual, visually exciting tactile objects, but each new creation stems from a learned set of traditions and processes that lend them their immense value as art objects. This is the magic of contemporary ceramics—the mingling of the past and future, the visible and the invisible.

By Chris Shields

Out of the Shadow Mon, 29 Jan 2018 21:17:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> One of the great innovators in “allover” painting, Lee Krasner eclipsed her own career in order to advocate for that of her husband, Jackson Pollock.

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries

Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries, circa 1960–61, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner papers, circa 1914–1984, bulk 1942–1984. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Lee Krasner, Sun Woman I, 1957 Portrait of Lee Krasner by Paul De Vries Lee Krasner, Another Storm, 1963 Lee Krasner, Fourteenth Street, 1934 Lee Krasner, Portrait in Green, 1966 Lee Krasner, Seated Figure, 1938–39

Lee Krasner’s Another Storm (1963) is nearly 15 feet wide and therefore big enough to justify her claim to a place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, those maestros of the expansive canvas. Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and of course Jackson Pollock—Krasner’s husband until his death in a car crash in 1956—were among the Abstract Expressionists who abandoned the easel painting to work at a scale that verges, often, on that of the public mural. When the Museum of Modern Art sent selection of the paintings on an eight-city tour of Europe in 1958, critics were shocked by their sheer size. As a Spanish critic noted, one of Pollock’s canvases were only able to enter the Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporaneo, in Madrid, after the main doorway had been enlarged.

Among the 17 artists included in this show, the only woman was Grace Hartigan, a member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Krasner, who had found her distinctive variant on the style before the end of the 1940s, was unrepresented. She did, however, lend two of Pollock’s paintings to the exhibition, earning herself an acknowledgment as “Lee Krasner Pollock.” Even now, she is sometimes seen more as Mrs. Jackson Pollock than as a painter in her own right and a major contributor to the development of the first genuinely American art movement.

Krasner made the first of her “Little Image” canvases in 1946. With their small, flat forms deployed in rows, these come very close to qualifying as allover paintings—that is, they exchange the thrusts and counter-thrusts of a traditional composition for an expansive and potentially infinite field of imagery. Though the term was first applied to Pollock’s airy webs of dripped and spattered color, his brushwork had begun to imply alloverness several seasons earlier. Krasner’s “Little Image” paintings were strikingly original responses to these implications. She and Pollock stood as equals on the frontiers of pictorial possibility. If their equality is rarely noted it is in part because, toward the end of the 1940s, she set aside her own career to advance his. This was an extraordinary sacrifice, for Krasner was among the most promising painters in the New York art world of that era.

A Brooklyn native, she was born in 1908 into a family indifferent to art. Her interest in drawing and painting appeared early and yet, when quizzed by an interviewer in 1964, she could not account for it. Nonetheless, she believed that she would become a painter, and chose to study at Washington Irving, in Manhattan, the only New York high school that offered a major in art. Upon graduation, she enrolled in a women’s art program at the Cooper Union, the celebrated art and science institute on Astor Place. After several years, she went uptown to study at the National Academy of Design. The curriculum was doggedly conservative at all three schools. Only after long semesters of foundation work and drawing from plaster casts of ancient statues were students permitted to paint from living models. Krasner excelled at none of these disciplines, yet she persevered and eventually found her way into the present—not in the classroom but in exhibitions where she first saw the paintings of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso. and Georges Braque.

Her exposure to modernist art was, as she said, “like a bomb that exploded.” In the wake of this shock, art “came to life in some magical way.” Living in Greenwich Village now, she was primed for a place in the classes taught by Hans Hofmann, a German émigré and a painter with roots in the Parisian avant-garde. Invited in 1931 to teach in the United States, the rise of the Nazis persuaded him to stay. Settled permanently in New York by mid-decade, Hofmann opened a school on West Eighth Street, in the Village, and became a mentor to several generations of American painters. One of Hofmann’s best students, Krasner absorbed his belief that painting is not a discipline to be learned but a set of formal possibilities to be reinvented nonstop.

As a young Hofmannite, Krasner was at the center of Manhattan’s downtown art world—a milieu inhabited by such figures as Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and John Graham, a painter and visionary impresario. Toward the end of 1941, Graham asked Krasner to lend work to a show of American and French painters he was organizing for the McMillen Gallery. The names of the participating artists, which ranged from Matisse and Picasso to de Kooning and Stuart Davis, were all familiar to Krasner, with one exception: Jackson Pollock. Puzzled, she tracked him down in his Eighth Street studio, invited herself in, and, as she said on many occasions, was “completely bowled over.” Soon they became a couple and Krasner took on, step by fateful step, responsibility not only for Pollock’s troubled life but for the advancement of his art, which in 1947 had surged into new territory. His drip-and-pour paintings had no precedent in the history of Western art.

Shy when sober and unmanageable when drunk, Pollock had no talent for art-world politics. Convinced of his importance, Krasner took on the task of persuading critics and dealers to take him seriously. Peggy Guggenheim was her greatest challenge and most significant early success. An American heiress who had immersed herself in the Parisian avant-garde, Guggenheim returned to New York soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1942, she opened Art of This Century, a gallery on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. At the urging of Krasner and others, including Marcel Duchamp, Guggenheim gave Pollock a solo exhibition; and not so much urged as badgered by Krasner, she loaned the couple enough money to buy a house on Fireplace Road, in Springs, a small settlement at the Eastern end of Long Island. Krasner hoped that, away from the Cedar Tavern and other Greenwich Village hangouts, Pollock would stay sober and focus on his art. For three years, her hope was realized, and it was during this time that Pollock broke through to his mature work.

Due in part to Krasner’s advocacy, Pollock became the subject of contending theories by Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, the two most influential art critics of the era. Asked in 1950 to select three of the six artists to represent the United States in that year’s Venice Biennale, Alfred Barr, of the Museum of Modern Art, chose Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock. The previous year, Life magazine had shown Pollock posing in front of a recent drip painting. Above, a banner headline asked, “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”—a question prompted by the art-world buzz Krasner had done so much to generate. She helped in the studio, as well.

Talking in 1969 with the critic and biographer B. H. Friedman, Krasner recalled that Pollock would sometimes crop a canvas and, as confident as he felt when slinging his colors, wasn’t always sure how to take this irrevocable step. “Sometimes,” said Krasner, “he’d ask, ‘Should I cut it here? Should this be the bottom?’ He’d have long sessions of cutting and editing, some of which I was in on, but the final decisions were always his.” By making herself so important to Pollock, in the studio and in the larger world, Krasner eclipsed her own career. That she did so willingly should not, however, obscure either the intensity of her ambition or the significance of her achievement. Her version of the allover image is among the most powerful to emerge from the first generation of Abstract Expressionists.

At Hans Hofmann’s school, Krasner mastered a curriculum derived from modernist precedents: Cubist structure merged with Matissean color. His sensibility tinged by mysticism, Hofmann spoke of art as a high road to “the Real”—a concept he never explained, though his visionary writings suggest that it was an avant-gardist painter’s variation on the Platonic ideal of transcendent Truth. There is no sign that Krasner responded to this thread in the complex fabric of Hofmann’s teaching. She was bent chiefly on learning how to make a painting “work,” as New York artists were beginning to say in those days. This was a formalist approach, and Krasner’s command of her strictly pictorial options prepared her to understand, as few others did, Pollock’s achievements.

During the mid-1930s, Krasner painted cityscapes with a faint—one might say, carefully measured—tinge of Surrealism. Later in the decade, the formal lessons she learned from Hofmann inspired elegantly structured quasi-abstractions. Then she met Pollock and put his career ahead of her own. Yet she never entirely stopped painting. The “Little Image” paintings appeared and, after them, a series of experiments that Krasner found unsatisfactory and destroyed. She was a ruthless editor of her own work. As the 1950s began, she launched the first of her collage paintings. Invented by Picasso and Braque, collage brings with it the small scale and compositional devices of early Cubism. Krasner freed herself from this historical baggage by expanding the size of her paintings—she was working now on immense lengths of canvas unfurled across the floor—and by dismissing all traces of traditional composition. From this rejection of art-historical precedent emerged the fully realized alloverness foretold by the “Little Image” paintings.

Since the early Renaissance, Western painters have worked to reconcile disparate forms in balanced compositions. When they succeed, their images are not only harmonious; they also rest comfortably within the frame. When Krasner, Pollock, and other painters in New York dispensed with the machinery of the well-composed picture, their works were often seen as chaotic—fields of disorganized imagery devolving into a meaninglessness infinite. Yet the absence of an overarching composition does not necessarily produce chaos. In Krasner’s allover paintings, each form prompts the appearance of the next, generating a field held together by localized incidents of order. Rather than resolving forms into harmonies, stable and enclosed, she creates images that remain open and filled with energies that take them, in the sympathetic viewer’s imagination, far beyond the limits of the frame. Like Pollock and other allover painters of their generation, she charges her imagery with the optimistic openness of American space.

Pollock’s allover paintings assert his grandly idiosyncratic gesture. Still gives alloverness a dark, heavy, almost geological feel, and Newman built his open structures from an austere geometry. By startling contrast, the lines and blots and spatters of Krasner’s allover painting have an unmistakably floral quality. Yet there is nothing delicate, nothing conventionally feminine, about her allusions to petals and stems and leaves. Some of her paintings are quiet. Some are raucous. All of them draw us into zones of pulsing, organic energy. Her imagery is not feminine but female, as challenging as it is seductive, and heroic not only in ambition but also in its impact.

Nonetheless, to be a female artist is to be hindered. When feminist protest disrupted the 1970s Whitney Annual, Krasner had no patience with those who argued that the art world had gotten over its gender biases. Any women who says that she faces no discrimination should, declared Krasner, “have her face slapped.” By then she had been given a retrospective by the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, and in 1978 she was finally accorded her rightful place alongside Pollock, Rothko, and the others in Abstract Expressionism: “The Formative Years,” an exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, at Cornell University. In the decade before her death in 1984, Krasner received a full measure of honors, awards, and exhibitions. She had become, at last, a fully recognized member of her generation. Yet her fierceness never abated. It is there to be felt even in her most subtly painted canvases.

By Carter Ratcliff

James Rosenquist: Below Zero Tue, 28 Mar 2017 21:36:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> James Rosenquist’s art eschews purity to reach an eye-popping clarity.

James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light,

James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light, 2001, oil on canvas, 90 x 144 in. © 2017 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of the artist

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) James Rosenquist, The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light James Rosenquist, Time Machine Illustrated James Rosenquist, Time Stops the Face Continues James Rosenquist, F-111 James Rosenquist, Voyager–Speed of Light,

In 1978, James Rosenquist made a painting from three fragmentary images: a close-up of clasped hands, one female and the other male; a portion of an automobile, possibly upside down; and a cropped view of chinaware sitting in a suds-filled sink. Called The Facet, this painting seems suitably named until a question occurs. Why “facet” in the singular? Doesn’t the artist show us three facets or fragments or aspects of his subjects? Throughout his career, which began in New York in the early 1960s, Rosenquist has made paintings from unexpected, sometimes startling juxtapositions of images displaced from their places of origin and, in the process, deprived of their original unity. A monochrome painter might emphasize a single aspect of a color. A Minimalist sculptor might try to focus our attention on the singularly planar aspect of a geometric form. But Rosenquist’s paintings congregate several aspects of several things—or of many things. What, then, does he mean by calling this canvas The Facet?

Perhaps he is being ironic. Or perhaps he offers these three fragments as an isolated facet of some larger whole. We can’t know with certainty about this or any of the other mysteries that fill Rosenquist’s oeuvre. According to the title of a painting from 2001, The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light. Where in this dazzling play of layered, flickering, interwoven form is the stowaway hiding? Imagining for a moment that the stowaway is a surrogate for the artist, we could ask: as he peers out, is he seeing the speed of light itself? Or has his peering somehow attained that incomprehensible speed? Ever since Piet Mondrian and other geometric abstractionists of the 1920s began numbering their canvases, painters have often seen titles as intrusions on the exclusively pictorial nature of their medium. By contrast, Rosenquist’s titles give language a lively role to play in shaping our responses to his imagery.

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1933. His aptitude for drawing emerged early and, during his high school years, was sufficiently developed to win him a scholarship to the Art Institute in Minneapolis, where his family had settled in 1941. At 19, he enrolled in art classes at the University of Minnesota. Encouraged by one of his teachers, a veteran avant-gardist named Cameron Booth, he applied to the Art Students League, in Manhattan. Awarded a tuition grant, Rosenquist studied at the League for a year, starting in 1955. During summer vacations from college, he had worked with a sign-painting crew in the Midwest. Now he found work painting billboards. By the end of the ’50s, he had become the head painter at the Artkraft-Strauss Sign Corporation. And he had gotten to know Claes Oldenburg, Chuck Hinman, and other young artists in downtown Manhattan.

Paying the rent on various Manhattan lofts with proceeds from his commercial work, Rosenquist struggled, on his own time, with the challenge of inventing an original style of abstract painting in a time dominated by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Then, as the 1960s began, he suddenly merged the parallel but incompatible paths he had been following. Hey! Let’s Go for a Ride (1961) juxtaposes a soft-drink bottle with a smiling face. Transposing advertising images from a billboard to a stretched canvas, Rosenquist crops and layers them with such jolting verve that he loosens their representational moorings. To put it the other way around, as critics of the period often did, these bluntly rendered representations read almost as abstractions. This collision of the figurative and the non-figurative brought Rosenquist into the first rank of the Pop artists, alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. By the mid-’60s he had achieved the status of a major figure in the history of American art. Nonetheless, the “Pop” label never adhered very firmly to Rosenquist, and as the years went by it became clear that his art is too inventive, too expansive, to be confined within any stylistic category.

Appearing in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and in the same moment as the blank geometries of Minimalist art, Pop was a defiantly explicit return to figurative art. Moreover, it held its representational mirror up to a world of commercial imagery that had, for the most part, been excluded from serious art. Like Warhol and other Pop artists, including Tom Wesselmann, Rosenquist made subject matter of corporate logos, advertising layouts, and familiar household items. Yet he did not join these contemporaries on their collective trek to the realm of immediately recognizable imagery. His path to the familiar took him through the “zero,” the “nothing,” that he saw in abstract art.

Consciously disinclined to theorize, Rosenquist proceeds by intuition. To understand his aesthetic, we must join him in the realm illuminated, fitfully, by metaphors and anecdotes like the one he told in 1987 about a visit, years earlier, to an exhibition of paintings by a veteran abstractionist who had studied with Hans Hofmann. A leading practitioner of Abstract Expressionism, Hofmann became toward the end of his career an advocate of “pure painting” uncompromised by any reference to the world beyond the edges of the canvas. Not all his students accepted this dogma of purity but the painter in Rosenquist’s story did, so he was chagrined when Hofmann stopped by his show and, pointing at a painting, asked, “What’s that there? It looks like Popeye to me.” Continuing the story in his own words, Rosenquist said, “And there was Popeye. He had a pumpkin head, a stick body, big feet, hands, and it was supposed to be totally non-objective painting. Only colors.” Seeking the “zero” of non-objectivity with pure color, the painter had been unable to keep a cartoon character from making a ghostly appearance in the pictorial space “below zero.” And it was this space, Rosenquist realized, that he wanted his images to occupy.

What Rosenquist means by “painting below zero” is clarified by his recollections of painting billboards. Up on a scaffold, at arm’s length from an image at the scale of architecture, he knew he was painting figuratively—“These huge cheeks,” for example, which were “twenty-five feet across.” But all he could see was an expanse of paint that “looked like the Sahara”—in other words, empty. High above the city’s streets, he had arrived at the place “below zero” where the distinction between abstract and representational imagery blurs or disappears. In a statement from 1966 Rosenquist favors abstraction, saying, “most of my pictures are about nonobjective art, although that does not mean they look non-objective. I use objects for the benefit of the viewer, to relate space and color.” There are faces, automobiles, and allover expanses of spaghetti in his paintings only because viewers need to anchor themselves in the familiar as they sail, speculatively, into vast spaces defined by color relationships. To block the notion that an aspiration to purely pictorial color lurks in his art, Rosenquist has stated, “I am not interested in purity.” He is interested, rather, in “clarity.”

Clarity, one might ask, about what? For the artist’s comments about the non-objectivity of his art are difficult to reconcile with his comments on F-111 (1964–65). Named for a fighter jet, this multi-paneled painting, 86 feet wide and 10 feet high, is a panorama of jarring motifs, military and civilian: a hair dryer, the spaghetti mentioned earlier, a mushroom cloud, an automobile tire, the fuselage of the jet plane, and more. Several interviews from that time make it clear that Rosenquist assembled this seething jumble of images as an argument that war production, ramped up for the Vietnam war, had joined with a flourishing domestic marketplace to set loose a real-life jumble of destructive forces. This social-political statement had a powerful impact not only in America but in Europe, where F-111 was widely shown. Nonetheless, its imagery still has the power to take us “below zero,” to a virtual place where both figurative and non-figurative readings are not only possible but compatible. Far from an exercise in pictorial purity, F-111 has a message—one that its formal power intensifies. As for the painting’s clarity, it could perhaps be said Rosenquist found a way to be clear about the roiling ambiguities that turn F-111 and other paintings from this period into unbounded fields of meaning, much of it disquieting.

Throughout the 1960s, Rosenquist elaborated his complex clarities with imagery that recalls the “Sahara” he traversed as a billboard painter. Colors are bright and usually matte. The motifs that migrate to his art from the television screen and the pages of mass-circulation magazines have forms and textures reminiscent of mid-20th-century photography. As the play of figurative–non-figurative continues into the following decade, the look of Rosenquist’s paintings changes slightly. Highlights become sharper and outlines display a new crispness. A smooth gleam replaces the matte textures of his earlier work, as if he were deploying the latest, most sophisticated technology. Elegantly placed passages of blankness appear and, as the 1970s begin, open onto immeasurably deep spaces.

In the ’80s, these spaces often fill with scatterings of stars and other astronomical phenomena, even as quotidian things—strips of bacon, nuts and bolts, tubes of lipstick—proliferate. And Rosenquist invented an extraordinary new way to layer his paintings. Early in the 1970s, he had begun to divide his time between studios in New York city and Florida, where, as Sarah Celeste Bancroft has noted, the artist was inspired by the saw-tooth fronds of palmetto trees to give zigzag edges to certain motifs—women’s faces and tropical flowers, primarily. The serrations are so deep that, when one of these images is placed over another the effect is of crosshatching or even weaving. Thus the interlacing of the abstract and the representational takes on a new complexity, and does so again as the millennium approaches. Photographing objects in a cylinder of reflective metal and transferring the results to canvas, Rosenquist produced the gleaming intricacies of Voyager-Speed of Light (2001) and Time Stops the Face Continues (2008). In these paintings, abstraction predominates until one learns to see—or at least glimpse—identifiable objects in the sinuous flow of high-keyed color.

The outrage that prompted Rosenquist to paint F-111 has persisted. With its emblems of American fecklessness and Middle Eastern spirituality, The Xenophobic Movie Director or Our Foreign Policy (2004) registers his horror at this country’s excursion into Iraq. Yet political commentary has evolved in recent seasons into the visionary tides that surge through such paintings as Multiverse You Are, I Am (2007). Speaking for himself and all the rest of us, the artist once said, “Trying to figure out where you float, that’s always the question.” Immersion in Rosenquist’s sprawling fields is like immersion in the world’s—indeed, the universe’s—flow of energy, and it is always a surprise when you figure out, if only for an instant, where the swift currents of his imagery have taken you.

By Carter Ratcliff

Images Copyright 2017 James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photographs courtesy of the artist.

David Hockney: Here’s Looking at You Tue, 24 Jan 2017 23:43:45 +0000 Continue reading ]]> David Hockney, a perpetual student of art history, throws everything he has at the still-unsolved problems of perception and representation.

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 83 1⁄2 x 119 1⁄2 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) David Hockney, A Lawn Being Sprinkled, 1967 David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy David Hockney, Garden 2015 David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) David Hockney, 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon

“The history of pictures,” David Hockney wrote recently, “begins in the caves and ends, at the moment, with an iPad. Who knows where it will go next? But one thing is certain: the pictorial problems will always be there—the difficulties of depicting the world in two dimensions are permanent. Meaning you never solve them.”

As Tate Britain’s retrospective (“David Hockney,” February 9–May 29) shows, Hockney may have looked at modern problems from more perspectives than any living artist. Over six decades, he has worked with fax machines and photocopiers, computer graphics and digital drawing apps, Polaroid snappers and video cameras, and of course the iPad, too. Yet Hockney has also attacked the monocular authority of the camera and the one-point perspective theorized by Alberti and Brunelleschi and returned repeatedly to the fundamental practices of drawing and painting, as well as the traditional formats of landscape and portraiture.

“The fox knows many things,” wrote the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, “the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1953, when Hockney was a teenager at school in the northern English town of Bradford, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously observed that Tolstoy had the convictions of a hedgehog but the nature of a fox. Hockney has addressed the problem of perception and how to represent the charge of human emotion that it carries, with the deep and sometimes prickly conviction of a hedgehog. He has answered it with the ingenuity of a fleet fox, often with a lightness that can be mistaken for levity and a distance that can be mistaken for coldness.

Hockney found fame and freedom amid the pools and palms of his mid-’60s Californian paradise, but he comes from a colder clime. Hockney is a gay man from Yorkshire, in northern England. In 1959, he arrived at London’s Royal College of Art speaking with a provincial accent at a time when class snobbery was still acceptable, and as a gay man speaking a coded language at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. From the camp comedy of A Rake’s Progress (1961), his satiric account of his first trip to New York, to the spiritual landscape of Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon (1998), Hockney has derived liberation and inspiration from America, but his painterly sources remain mostly European. Walt Whitman may have influenced Hockney more than Edward Hopper.

The tension between foreground and deeper space in Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon recurs in Red Pots in the Garden (2000), a Matissean excursion into the English sublime. Similarly, Hockney’s persona remains that of the Yorkshireman abroad: sharp-eyed in intimacy and distant in irony, high-minded in aspiration and honest in labor, and always determined to do it his way. The speed and skill with which he went his own way still impress.

In 1960, Hockney discarded a brief and unhappy experiment with Abstract Expressionism, discovered a model in Picasso—the century’s great confounder of the hedgehog-fox antagonism—and synthesized a distinctive figurative vocabulary from contemporary British and French influences. In 1962 Hockney exhibited alongside contemporaries including R.B. Kitaj and Allen Jones in the group show “Young Contemporaries.” Careful to distance himself from Pop Art, he titled his four contributions Demonstrations of Versatility. Another pair from that year were titled The Marriage of Styles. The assimilation is so accomplished that it becomes almost mocking. The element of challenge can only have been intensified by Hockney’s candid subject matter, which he defiantly called “homosexual propaganda.”

In Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10PM), W11 (1962) Dubuffet’s naivety collides with Pop, as two men, their genitals replaced by tubes of toothpaste, fellate each other’s Colgate. In Domestic Scene, Notting Hill (1962), a naked man stands behind a clothed, sitting man who may or may not know the other man is there. The sinister expressionism and patches of bare canvas of Francis Bacon meet the bedsit paranoia of a Joseph Losey film. A Rake’s Progress (1960–61) an early excursion into the history of English painting and a souvenir of Hockney’s first excursion to New York, replicates Hogarth’s narrative sequence but spoofs its morality tale, turning a sermon into a series of saucy postcards.

With similar boldness, Hockney created a visual identity for Los Angeles after his arrival there in 1964. “There were no paintings,” he recalled. “People then didn’t know what it looked like.” When he saw a freeway under construction, he thought, “Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am!”

Evelyn Waugh, who was not impressed by California, observed that when Aldous Huxley went west, he changed not just his address but also his mind. Hockney’s Los Angeles is less a terrifying Piranesi prison than a liberating dreamscape—an artificial paradise in which, Gauguin-like, erotic forms are woven into bright patterns amid the sharp edges and rectilineal structures of office blocks and low-rise residences. The artificiality of the patterning is overt, advertised by the implausible perfection of the abstract architectural forms, the impossibly tight rhythms on the surface of the swimming pools, and the strip of bare canvas that runs around the image, creating a border like that around a staged photograph. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967), the water is not water in the realist sense so much as it is photo-realist. Hockney had been using a Polaroid camera as an aide-memoire since 1964 and bought a 35mm Pentax in 1967. The recession of the garden lawn is flat. The liquid to whose dispersal the eye is drawn is paint itself.

In A Bigger Splash (1967), the sky, the building, the pinkish concrete that surrounds the pool and the surface of the pool itself are all built from flat planes. A spindly pair of palms stand completely still, unnaturally smooth and rigid against the turquoise sky. The windows reflect a scene of equal tedium—more glassy square buildings and a few more noncommittal palm trees, all in shades of gray. Everything enhances the laboriously modest, affectlessly perfect acrylic brushwork that catches the movement of the splash. Is this an ironic rejection of the demonstrative splashing of expressionism, an argument for the understatement of personality? Or is the disappearance of the diver beneath the water an existential lament, like the multiple dives of Burt Lancaster as he searches for the traces of his lost youth in The Swimmer (1968)?

These are not actual places and people, even when they are identifiable people and real buildings. The buildings are shown in their Platonic form, without car parks, neighbors, or dirt. The fall of sunlight onto the water in the pool is represented by symbolic patterns from Dubuffet. The acrylic is applied with smooth dispassion, as though everything is under glass. Yet people live and work, swim, and have sex in these unnatural boxes of light: the naked man by the pool patterned with Bridget Riley squiggles in Sunbather (1966), the elderly collector with her zebra-stripe sun lounger in Beverly Hills Housewife (1966–67), the invisible sick people who must be hidden behind every window in the blank-eyed Medical Building (1966), where the lone luxuriant palm in the foreground sprouts in a pastiche of good health.

In Hockney’s revolt against abstraction, the senses break up the grid of forms. In Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966), the naked young man drags himself upwards, out of the grid of water. The imagination rearranges reality, with one eye on erotic satisfaction and the other on the history of art. In The Room, Tarzana (1967), Hockney’s boyfriend Peter Schlesinger lies on his stomach, wearing a white t-shirt, a pair of dirty white socks, and a pair of pale white buttocks. The pose has been compared to Boucher’s Reclining Girl (Mademoiselle O’Murphy) of 1751 and Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching) of 1892. The bedroom interior is derived from an advertisement for Macy’s department store, circa 1967.

The Room, Tarzana, with its controlled light effects and carefully staged interior, and Hockney’s simultaneous experiments with painting from photographs initiated a phase of increased naturalism. At the same time, the male nude, the white-buttocked symbol of sexual freedom, started to appear less often, to be replaced by a focus on intimate relationships. The plashing of sprinklers and pool water gave way to awkward silences, and tensions as unresolvable as the problems of two-dimensional representation.

Hockney had already identified the potential for psychological and structural drama in the double portrait. As early as The Last of England? (1961) he had imagined Ford Madox Brown’s heterosexual emigrants as himself and an imaginary “doll boy,” exiled by homophobia. The sequence of double portraits that he painted after 1968 are really triple portraits, in which Hockney is the third presence, and the viewer placed in his position.

Where Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach distort and damage the human form, Hockney insinuates himself into a domestic relationship. Often, one member of the couple faces Hockney. The other is in profile, and often depicted as less certain of his position in the relationship. In Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968), Isherwood is so serene that we can barely make out his expression. Bachardy looks across and frowns, as if Isherwood is not listening, or is more interested in Hockney. In American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman) (1968), Marcia faces the viewer proudly, but the subdivision of the space makes Fred look as if he is in a viewing cabinet, and as inert as a stuffed animal.

The use of one-point perspective, a device associated with religious art, intensifies the imbalance of power, and gives the revelation of a couple’s secret an annunciation-like significance. In Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott (1967), Geldzahler sits in a halo of light befitting a major art dealer, but it hardly matters whether Scott is on his way in or out. In My Parents (1977), it is Hockney’s mother who gives her attention to the viewer. While his father is distracted by an art monograph, Hockney inserts himself into the marital scene and catches himself at it, by showing himself in a mirror. It could be a scene from that other master of camp Yorkshire irony, Alan Bennett.

Yet naturalism, Hockney decided, became a “trap.” He escaped by Picasso’s method, in which the fox’s various paths always start from and return to the hedgehog’s question. For the last four decades, Hockney’s shifting approaches—the grids of Polaroid photographs that form a multi-perspectival temporal image, the photocollages that trace an event across time, the video recordings of dancers and jugglers at work, the processing of Cubism through the camera lens—have circled around the same question as Secret Knowledge, his scholarly examination of the use of optical devices in Western art, or his regular reversion to the classic formats of line drawing, portrait, and landscape.

The object of Hockney’s study remains human perception and its representation. The painter of light on surfaces likes to quote Auden’s long poem, Letter to Lord Byron: “To me Art’s subject is the human clay.” His demonstrations of versatility and his marriage of styles are ways of working the clay, of bringing the history of art to bear on new technologies of vision and creation. The history of pictures can be assembled into a linear sequence of past styles and closed schools, but the making of pictures occurs in a kind of eternal present. Technology changes the terms of the pictorial problem, but not the permanent difficulty of its resolution. As a modernist eclectic, Hockney is the most traditional of radicals and the most radical of traditionalists.

Following Picasso’s death in 1973, Hockney created the prints The Student—Homage To Picasso, in which Hockney, portfolio in hand, approaches a statue of Picasso; and Artist and Model, in which Picasso sits across the table from a nude Hockney. Here, Hockney is Picasso’s model, naked before the eye of the artist who will remake him as an image. Picasso is Hockney’s model, the image of the tradition to be emulated. In the process, Hockney, who to this day describes himself as a “student” of art, becomes the model student whose loyalty and diligence will be rewarded by inheritance. It is a double portrait and a triple relationship, in which the process plays out before our eyes.

By Dominic Green