Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Thu, 24 May 2018 21:50:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 M.C. Escher: Impossible Possibilities Thu, 24 May 2018 21:50:30 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The eye-popping, mind-bending art of M.C. Escher goes on display in Brooklyn.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, lithograph.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere M.C. Escher, Three Words M.C. Escher, Stars M.C. Escher, Day and Night M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands M.C. Escher, Relativity

On June 8, the largest exhibition of the work of Dutch 20th-century printmaker M.C. Escher ever mounted in the U.S. will open—not in a museum but in a huge converted warehouse on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park waterfront called Industry City. Over 200 works will be on view, in an exhibition curated by Mark Veldhuysen, longtime curator of the M.C. Escher Foundation Collection, and Federico Giudiceandrea, an Italian tech executive and one of the world’s top Escher collectors and experts. The show, titled “Escher: The Exhibition and Experience” (through February 13, 2019), is produced and organized by Arthemisia, an Italian company that has staged some 500 exhibitions since 2000.

An unconventional venue is fitting for an Escher show, since Escher himself never really fit into the mainstream art world during his lifetime (1898–1972). He didn’t have a retrospective until he was 70, and throughout his career he pursued his own aims and developed his own technique without particular regard for the directions the rest of the art world was taking. Nonetheless, some of his preoccupations—mathematics, visual paradox, distortions of space, and enigmas—were not at all alien to the modernist avant-garde, although his style of work—rigorously precise and polished printmaking with an Old Master feel—definitely was. In any case, Escher’s work has continued to delight the mind and eye of viewers around the world, including many who have no knowledge of modern art. Escher’s work has this universal appeal because it brings fundamental philosophical concepts to vivid life.

The son of a well-known civil engineer, Maurits Cornelis Escher studied decorative arts and printmaking with the Dutch Sephardic Jewish artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, a proponent of Art Nouveau. In 1922 Escher visited Italy, which greatly impressed him; he ending up staying there from 1923 to 1935, only leaving after the increasing harshness of the Mussolini regime made it unbearable for him to remain. The woodcuts Escher made in Italy are more naturalistic than the brain-teasing, mathematically-driven images he is most famous for, but there is a certain commonality between the bodies of work. His views of the Italian hill towns are vertiginous, the convoluted spaces handled in such a way as to make them look almost like physical impossibilities.

It was Spain rather than Italy that set Escher off in the direction of the really impossible impossibilities. In 1936, the tiles on Moorish buildings such as the Alhambra in Granada and La Mezquita in Cordoba got him thinking about tessellation, in which interlocking, asymmetrical geometrical elements are endlessly repeated to fill up a space without any gaps or overlaps. Escher’s absorption with this phenomenon reached the point of obsession; he wrote of being actually unable to tear himself away from working on it. One of the seven themed sections of the New York show is devoted to tessellation and the revolution it produced in Escher’s work. Usually, Escher engages in illusionistic tessellation, in which the shapes gradually transform into other shapes as they work their way across the composition. For example, in Regular Division of the Plane, a woodcut printed in red ink, a basic checkerboard pattern eventually becomes a pattern of interlacing birds and then flying fish. In Day and Night, the checkerboard pattern of farmers’ fields as seen from the air similarly morphs into two flocks of birds, one black, one white. Metamorphosis, a very long panoramic, multicolored woodcut, takes the concept to its ultimate development, joining together multiple spaces and even genres of art under the rubric of tessellation.

The illusions for which Escher is best known involve manipulations of space, or rather our perception of space, that make our eyes believe that something is real while our intellect, simultaneously, is telling us that it cannot be. In Relativity, notions of up and down and side to side are subverted in a gravity-defying way. The image, which is square, is equally valid no matter how it is oriented. In Belvedere, the perspective of the building depicted is off, such that two structures that are apparently at right angles to each other nonetheless line up as if they were parallel. As in many of Escher’s works, fantasy architecture is the backbone of the composition, and the buildings and the little figures that inhabit them suggest an Italian Renaissance of the imagination, a dream-world based on the Italian scenes that Escher imprinted during the time he spent living there.

One of Escher’s most indelible images is the lithograph Drawing Hands. Here we have a restatement of the chicken-and-egg paradox, with each hand drawing the other into existence, going from mere outline into fully-shaded illusionistic three-dimensionality. Whether one thinks of it as a meditation on creativity or as a sort of optical Zen koan, once seen, this work is hard to forget. In works based on reflections, Escher found distortions of space ready-made, in the way polished curved or spherical surfaces render an image. Hand with Reflecting Sphere is an eloquent self-portrait in which the artist’s hand is the only part of his body that is directly seen; his face and torso, as well as the room he occupies, are all magically encompassed, by way of reflection, in the metallic globe the hand is holding.

In keeping with the populist appeal of Escher, the “Experience” part of the exhibition provides play areas, scientific experiments and interactive, walk-in environments that are intended to help visitors understand and more fully experience the artworks. “Immersive photo booths” will allow visitors to place themselves inside some of Escher’s scenes, and a “relativity room” will confound normal ideas of size and scale. There will also be a section devoted to work that Escher did on commission for clients, such as bookplate designs and visiting cards, and one called “Eschermania” for works created by others—including comic books, advertising images, and record sleeves—that were directly inspired by Escher.

By John Dorfman

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle Thu, 26 Apr 2018 00:39:29 +0000 Continue reading ]]> René Magritte’s genius was to subvert our assumptions and even undermine art itself, while bringing joy and delight.

René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943

René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943; oil on canvas;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) René Magritte, The Listening Room, 1952 René Magritte, The Happy Donor, 1966 René Magritte, Son of Man, 1964 René Magritte, The Enchanted Domain I, 1953 René Magritte, The Fifth Season, 1943 René Magritte, Personal Values, 1952

With his bowler-hatted men, green apples, and ubiquitous cloud-dotted blue skies, René Magritte is an almost comforting figure in the modern-art pantheon, a familiar, if slightly bizarre friend whom it is always good to see again. He would probably be gratified by that, for notwithstanding his revolutionary ideas, Magritte considered the providing of pleasure and delight to be one of his—and art’s—most important goals. On the other hand, since he also believed discomfort to be a hallmark of the experience of true art, he didn’t hold back from providing that, as well—and never more so than when he radically changed his style at the beginning of World War II, after a decade of producing Surrealist work.

In Nazi-occupied Brussels, Magritte launched what he termed “sunlit Surrealism,” followed by his “vache” paintings, bodies of work that were both greeted with immediate and utter incomprehension and derision. Critics labeled them wrong turns at best, if not signs of waning powers or simply “bad painting.” Even today, the works from this period, which lasted until the late ’40s, have a hard time finding appreciation. However, an exhibition opening this month at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) aims to make sense of them in the context of Magritte’s thought and to show how they led to the final, and arguably greatest, phase, in which he flew free of Surrealist dogma to achieve a completely original and personal art. “René Magritte: The Fifth Season” (May 19–October 28) brings together some 70 works to present a portrait of the artist in transition.

The exhibition takes its name from a 1943 painting, The Fifth Season, which exemplifies Magritte’s “sunlit” style, basically a deliberately debased imitation of Impressionism, especially that of Renoir. Here Magritte combines heavy pseudo-Renoir brushwork with two of the characteristic tropes of his earlier work—frames within the frame and men in hats. The paintings within the painting, carried under the arms of two men, are executed with the same kind of brushstrokes as the primary scene; one is a dense forest landscape, while the other is just a blue sky with clouds in it. Both motifs are typical of Magritte’s 1930s paintings, but painted as if someone else had done them. The anonymous-looking bowler-hatted bourgeois gentlemen about to pass each other are like Magritte’s omnipresent alter-egos, yet different.

What the artist seems to have been doing here is to deconstruct himself, to try and make himself disappear, as a painter. And yet he is not exactly disappearing into Renoir’s identity; the paint handling in The Fifth Season is an absolutely inept parody of Renoir rather than an homage. As SFMOMA curator and show organizer Caitlin Haskell writes in a catalogue essay, “…the capriciousness and mindless patterning of the brushstrokes suggest that they convey almost no reliable information. There is no trace of their maker’s temperament, feeling, or disposition.” By using a transparently fake style, Magritte was removing the last traces of the artist’s “hand,” or personal imprint, from the work, similar to what Marcel Duchamp was after with his “an-art,” or non-art, or even Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “artless art.” Haskell argues that with sunlit Surrealism, Magritte “broke the brushstroke as an expressive tool, bypassing the transmission from an eye and hand of a sensing subject to the eye and mind of a sensing viewer.”

Magritte was always interested in showing how vision is not to be trusted, and his subversion of the art of painting itself was a natural extension of this project. “Everything we see hides another thing,” he told an interviewer in 1965, two years before his death. “We always want to see what is hidden by what we see, but it is impossible.” Exploring the problem of picturing, paintings such as The Human Condition (1933) and Where Euclid Walked (1955) depict a canvas on an easel that seems to blend with the “real” scene in the background, and our eyes make the assumption that what lies behind the canvas matches what is painted on it. But that need not be the case. Magritte’s method is almost the reverse of trompe l’oeil; instead of trying to convince us that something unreal is real, he makes us question our vision and suspect the “real” of being unreal.

Such tactics tend to make viewers uncomfortable, as Magritte well knew. He wrote, “A picture which is really alive should make the spectator feel ill, and if the spectators aren’t ill, it is because 1) they are too insensitive, 2) they have got used to this uneasy feeling, which they take to be pleasure…. Contact with reality (not the symbolic reality which allows social exchanges and social violence) always produces this feeling.” But paradoxically, Magritte also believed that giving pleasure was one of art’s highest goals: “I feel it lies within us, who have some notion of how feelings are invented, to make joy and pleasure, which are so ordinary and beyond our reach, accessible to us all. It is not a question of abandoning knowledge of objects and feelings that Surrealism has given birth to, but to use it for purposes different from the previous ones, otherwise people will be bored stiff in surrealist museums just as much as in any others.”

In his “vache” paintings, Magritte did for (or to) Expressionism what he had done for Impressionism in sunlit Surrealism. The almost crazed exuberance of the vache works, which definitely come across as kitschy or even grotesque, was intended to inject a dose of joy back into Surrealist art, which Magritte felt had become ossified or “crystallized.” But even here, the ambiguities remain—is it really pleasure, and if so, of what kind? One of the “sunlit” works in the SFMOMA show is titled Seasickness (1948), and its rough-around-the-edges technique and wild color palette might well induce in the viewer some of that queasy feeling that Magritte had spoken of. Certainly the effect on the collector market was not salutary, and by 1949 Magritte had suspended these experiments and resumed the line of development that he had started before the war, again painting with his characteristic precision and eye for the uncanny and the paradoxical.

In his late work, from the 1950s and ’60s, Magritte comes into his own as a post-Surrealist artist, working completely from within, intent on solving, or at least posing solutions, to the problems he cared about. Gone are the obvious shock tactics, like the boots turning into feet or vice versa (The Red Model, 1935), and the language games (The Treachery of Images [This Is Not a Pipe], 1929). The art that emerged, as if reborn, from the crucible of the “bad painting” years is beautiful, lyrical, yet still undeniably weird and downright aggressive in its attempt to make us question the relationship between our senses, our minds, and the world we find ourselves placed in.

In his one notable series from the ’50s, Magritte depicted ordinary objects blown up to enormous size, literally filling the rooms they occupy. In Personal Values (1952), a giant shaving brush, bar of soap, and drinking glass are placed in a domestic interior that would be claustrophobic if not for the fact that its walls are painted like a sky with clouds, which seems to open up the space and even make it unclear where interior ends and exterior begins. Other works in the series do a similar thing with natural objects like a rock (The Anniversary, 1959) and an apple (The Listening Room, 1952). Perhaps these paintings are Communist-inspired spoofs of the bourgeoisie; after all, when consumer goods are swollen beyond normal proportions, they cease to be useful or even usable. On the other hand, Magritte’s playing around with scale and with the interior/exterior dichotomy could be seen as yet another way to expose the arbitrariness of our perceptual habits and the illusory nature of their results. Interestingly it was Personal Values, rather than a grotesque vache piece, that made Magritte’s dealer, Alexander Iolas, feel physically ill, prompting the response from the artist quoted above. Iolas’ sick feeling was more metaphysical than aesthetic in origin.

In his series “L’Empire des Lumières” (The Dominion of Light), Magritte again deployed the cloud-studded skies he had been developing for years, but this time in a weirdly depopulated urban setting. The paradox here is the coexistence of natural and artificial light. While the skies are daylight skies, the streets and trees below are shrouded in a thick darkness that is broken only by a solitary street lamp. Again, the accuracy and reliability of human vision is called into question—when we see or think we see, by what light are we seeing? And who made that light?

In the late Magritte, the bowler-hatted figures that cropped up in his earlier paintings come to center stage, and it becomes increasingly clear that they are stand-ins for the artist, or even abstracted self-portraits. Just as he made his own painting style disappear in the pseudo-Impressionist works, now he makes himself disappear—into faceless anonymity (as the bowler-hatted man is seen from the rear or with his facial features obscured, say by an apple floating in front of it) or even, during the mid-1960s, into absolute transparency, when the figure becomes an outlined aperture through which the archetypal sky can be seen. This auto-vanishing act is the culmination of the magician’s decades-long, ever-varying stage act.

Magritte’s work, though visually expressed, can seem more like a practice of philosophy than of art. He was using art to penetrate behind visual experience into the mind and then beyond the mind, to what he called the “amental.” In a 1946 manifesto titled Surrealism in the Sunshine, he wrote, “The notion that the amental exists is the only notion we can have concerning the amental.” However, he felt that we need to press on anyway: “We must go in search of enchantment, revealing the unknown quality in each object presented with unambiguous delight.”

By John Dorfman

To Be Precise Wed, 28 Mar 2018 22:43:52 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Precisionism, a style of art that embraced the mechanical, flourished in 1920s and ’30s America.

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 81.9 cm

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Gerald Murphy, Watch, 1925 Morton Livingston Schamberg, Painting (Formerly Machine), 1916 Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931 Charles Sheeler, Rolling Power, 1939 Charles Sheeler, Upper Deck, 1929 Clarence Holbrook Carter, War Bride, 1940

While technological progress has always aided art, it was really only in the 20th century that it became a subject for art. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution in England, artists for the most part spurned the “dark Satanic mills,” as William Blake put it, opting instead for a range of escapist strategies from neo-Romantic landscape to neo-medieval Pre-Raphaelitism. But as the Industrial Revolution gave way to a true Machine Age and technology pervaded the lives of most people, artists began to engage seriously with it. In the United States between the two World Wars, a modernist style developed that came to be called Precisionism, not only for its portrayal of precision machines but for the machine-like precision that many of its proponents adopted in their technique. Although there was never a formal group by that name, and although the artists varied in their attitudes toward technology—some celebrated it, while others approached it with ambivalence—there is enough in common between them and their works for the term to make art-historical sense.

Precisionism in all its forms is on display in a massive exhibition that opened at the end of last month at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art” (through August 12), the first large-scale show devoted to the movement in 20 years, gathers together over 100 paintings by artists including Charles Sheeler, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Charles Demuth, alongside related photographs, prints, industrial-design objects, and ephemera. The aggregated effect of this material is to show Precisionism’s connections not only to the urban and rural American scene but also to the Art Deco style and the European avant-garde. As a tour of the exhibition makes clear, the umbrella term Precisionism—which was originally used by the critic Louis Kalonyme in a New York Times piece in 1927 but didn’t really take hold until the 1940s, after the style itself had lapsed—covers a very wide range of artistic, cultural, and emotional responses to technology.

Of all the artists in the show, Sheeler is the one most closely identified with the label “Precisionism.” Born in Philadelphia in 1883, he studied painting with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then, during a stay in Europe in 1909, absorbed both Cubism and the dry, precise style of the Early Italian Renaissance. Back in the States, he found it impossible to earn a living as a painter and therefore took up commercial photography. In the late 1920s Sheeler got a commission, through a Philadelphia advertising agency, from the Ford Motor Company to take pictures of its River Rouge factory near Dearborn, Mich. The 32 photos that Sheeler ended up submitting frankly glorified Henry Ford’s industrial ideas, finding an almost timeless beauty in the relentlessly time-efficient assembly lines churning out the affordable Model Ts that put the nation on wheels. To his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, Sheeler wrote, “What wouldn’t I give for the pleasure of showing you through this unbelievable establishment. It defies description and even having seen it one doesn’t believe it possible that one man could be capable of realizing such a conception…the subject matter is undeniably the most thrilling I have had to work with.”

Off the clock, Sheeler was inspired to paint the same scenes he photographed, turning the black and white into color. The resulting works epitomize the Precisionist style, with their clean, straight lines, idealized atmosphere, and absence of human figures. Classic Landscape (1931) somewhat simplifies the forms in the corresponding photograph, giving them an abstract quality. The railroad tracks define a vanishing point and give the composition depth, while the vertical orange silos provide a center. With its cool light emanating from outside the frame, the picture has an almost De Chiricoesque feel. Like the Italian metaphysical painter, Sheeler is aiming for a 20th-century version of Greco-Roman classicism. In this Classic Landscape, there is no visible landscape, and no people, either; just architecture and sky, and the vapor from the smokestack blends into the clouds above. Instead of the air of Dearborn, we could be breathing the unattainably pure air of an imaginary Athens.

Classic Landscape was purchased by none other than Henry Ford’s son Edsel, in 1932, which was a clear indication that Sheeler’s work was experienced by viewers as an unmitigated celebration of American industry and its practices. Other paintings by the artist, if somewhat less rhapsodic than the River Rouge series, still revel in the machined surfaces of their subjects; for example, Rolling Power (1939) is an quasi-photorealist treatment of the wheels and undercarriage of a railroad car. Nearly monochrome, in shades of brown, it could almost be a technical illustration, except for the little puff of steam that emanates from one of the valves, representing, perhaps, the “ghost in the machine.” Clearly, this is a loving portrayal of the product of man’s ingenuity.

While Sheeler has been accused of whitewashing or at least glossing over the sins of Ford and other industrialists, it was not only pro-capitalist artists who fell for the allure of the machine. The photographer Paul Strand, a lifelong radical leftist, used an Akeley motion-picture camera for his filmmaking work (including the path-breaking imagist documentary Manhatta, on which he collaborated with his close friend Sheeler) and was so enthralled by the beauty of the camera itself that he exhaustively photographed its various parts with a still camera. Ralph Steiner, a socialist activist and a member of the left-oriented Film and Photo League in New York, paid a similar homage to a bank of high-voltage power switches in a 1930 photograph, which is in the de Young exhibition.

In fact, enthusiasm for the machine was very much a part of anti-capitalist culture. In the Soviet Union, the Constructivists, such as El Lissitsky and Alexander Rodchenko, extolled technology as a means of bringing about better conditions for the proletariat, while happily incorporating mechanical imagery into their artworks. The “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in Weimar Germany also adopted a somewhat machine-like approach, which embodies, if not a starry-eyed view of technology, then at least a desire for order and rationality after the chaos of World War I.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibition is the way it relates Precisionism to Dada—not a movement that one normally associates with American boosterism. In 1915, the Franco-Spanish artist Francis Picabia made a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, titled Here, This Is Stieglitz Here, in which he depicted the perfectionistic photographer and art impresario as a bellows camera and tripod with the word “ideal” perched on top. While partaking of the typical waggish humor of the Dadaists, the portrait is also a meticulously, indeed precisely, rendered image of a piece of modern technology, and the idea of identifying a human being with a machine is very characteristic of a number of different strains of social thought at the time. For the Dadaists, the dehumanizing effect of machines on society was something to be viewed with the gimlet eye of satire, to be accepted with philosophical ambivalence rather than embraced.

Marcel Duchamp comes into the equation here; residing in the U.S. in 1917 and participating in the New York Dada group, he was part of the Arensberg circle and friendly with Sheeler. As early as 1911, he had adopted a “machine aesthetic” that is on full display in Nine Malic Moulds (1914–15), a replica of which is in the de Young show. This piece, a study for his magisterial The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), melds human and mechanical traits in its nine enigmatic figures. Duchamp’s readymades, most of which were originally industrial objects, also can be considered within the artistic climate which gave rise to Precisionism. With Duchamp, the emphasis is on irony and an almost fatalistic acceptance, amounting to embrace, of man being subsumed by the machines he has invented. Duchamp’s machine aesthetic involves a preference for cold, rational precision over emotive art and for what he called “an-art” (or non-art) over art.

Another important early Precisionist is Morton Livingston Schamberg, an under-recognized Philadelphia-based artist who produced some strikingly original work. He and Sheeler were best friends, and his premature death in the flu pandemic of 1918 was a terrible blow to Sheeler. Schamberg’s Painting (Formerly Machine) (1916) is a diagrammatic-looking cross-section of an imaginary machine, which the artist apparently found interesting more for graphic reasons than because of any real-world functionality. It could even be seen, like Picabia’s camera, as a portrait. Schamberg, who was also friends with Duchamp, participated in some Dada experiments, including photographing the readymade God (1917), a curved length of plumbing pipe, in collaboration with Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

There is plenty of wonderful work in this exhibition, much of which is more noteworthy for its sheer graphic power than for any sociopolitical subtext. Gerald Murphy, who after an intense and short-lived artistic career became the general manager of the Mark Cross luxury goods store, painted striking works that portray ordinary domestic mechanical objects. His Watch (1925) looks like an exploded view of a pocket watch, except that the works seem to overflow the bounds of the watch case to penetrate to the corners of the composition, and according to horological experts, the mainspring is depicted as broken. Elsie Driggs’ Queensboro Bridge (1927) is reminiscent of Futurist painting, using shafts of light to make the bridge look like it is in motion and vibrating with energy. Driggs, one of the few women Precisionists (O’Keeffe also experimented briefly with the style), apparently also shared the Futurists’ passion for aeronautics. Her 1928 Aeroplane is a portrayal of a Ford Tri-Motor, an all-metal plane that made Ford the biggest manufacturer of commercial aircraft in the world.

With one foot in the avant-garde world of Dada, Futurism, and Cubism, Precisionism had the other one firmly planted in the American Scene. The forward-looking attitude had a way of shading over into a more nostalgic point of view, as if the artists were tiring of the relentless pace of modernization. Or perhaps it was just that precision could be found in older things as well as newer ones. In Kitchen, Williamsburg (1937), Sheeler lavishes the same kind of attention on the pots and pans and furniture of a 19th-century rural interior that he gave to the industrial design products of his own time. George Ault started out working in a hard Precisionist mode; in 1937, fleeing personal demons, he left New York City and settled in Woodstock, N.Y., where he painted what he saw there in a style that is more classic American realist. In his January Full Moon (1941), there are elements of Precisionism that carry over into this timeless country scene. The barn, shown as a black silhouette, is reduced to the most basic modernist geometric shapes, its sharp edges bounded and defined by the snow and the electric-blue sky.

In its own time, Precisionism met with mixed reviews from art critics. Some praised it, either for its “technical refinement” or its “true, American, Puritan” qualities, while others called it “soul-less” and “afflicted with anemia.” Almost 80 years after the movement came to a close, we can appreciate Precisionism with fresh eyes, not least because we live in an era that is equally obsessed with new technology and its effects on society—albeit a kind of technology that is far harder to depict in oil on canvas.

By John Dorfman

It’s Alive Mon, 29 Jan 2018 21:17:26 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Tate Britain examines how British artists of the 20th century represent human life in their work.

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015

Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015, oil, pastel on linen, 1092 x 1651 mm.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Cecily Brown, Boy with a Cat, 2015 F.N. Souza, Two Saints in a Landscape, 1961 Francis Bacon, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 Lucian Freud, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 Paula Rego, The Family, 1988

In an often-quoted interview with David Sylvester, the celebrated Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon said, “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.” The response came to Sylvester’s prodding about the correlation between the artist’s depictions of hanging carcasses of meat and crucified human figures. Bacon, side-stepping a bit, instead discussed how the human body—he cites, for instance, a Degas pastel in the National Gallery, London, that articulates the top of a woman’s spine and x-ray photographs—can look rather similar to the meat found in a butcher shop. He added that the slight protrusion of the women’s spine in the Degas pastel (After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890–95) makes the viewer “more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body.”

One of the most arresting aspects of Bacon’s own work is just that—the vulnerability of his figures and their bodies. Bacon’s figures suffer trauma and mutilation; they are twisted and shuffled around; they shriek and shout with open mouths. The experiences and the suffering his figures seemingly undergo are representative of the ancient Greek concept of pathos as defined by Greek philosophers even before Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The viewer is moved emotionally by what seems to be a plea from these figures and feels a deeply—yes, almost ancient—human response to their plight. This is made perhaps most clear with Bacon’s repeated portrayals of crucifixions—in which a body suffers and it is understood, in a historical sense and in the sense of the viewer in a gallery, that others look on.

When Bacon recreates the textural material of the human body in paint he showcases the vulnerability he saw in the Degas pastel. This perceived vulnerability has the ability to create an intoxicating horror in the viewer. If our bodies are so pliable and putty-like and our feelings are so primal, then are we not at any time susceptible to agony and mutilation? Or worse, to the soulless state after death when our body parts are little more than the carcasses Bacon referred to? It is this vision of the human body that the goriest horror films succeed in imparting—one that Bacon’s paintings can certainly share.

The portraits Bacon painted of his close friends are similarly celebrated for expressing a sense of vulnerability. Bacon painted his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, who also famously portrayed the realism of the human body in paint (Freud painted Bacon, as well). The German-born British painter said, “I want the paint to work as flesh does.” In Freud’s work the paint lusciously recreates skin, musculature, fat, bone structure, and hair. In the 1950s, he set his focus on portraiture, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 1960s that he began creating the works for which he is best known: full-scale nudes. Freud’s treatment of the nude human body marries the detail of Renaissance studies with the personality of modern portraiture—balancing a sense of intimacy with the sitter and a cold, almost clinical look at the human physique. In favor of honesty, Freud’s nudes lack the mythological, otherworldly, or idealized qualities of the nudes that populated art history from the Classical period through the 19th century, and at times even lack a sense of dignity. Instead, Freud’s figures portray how harrowing and yet how banal it can be to inhabit a human body.

Capturing humanity in paint is the subject of “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life,” an exhibition that opens at the Tate Britain on February 28 (through August 27). Using Bacon and Freud as anchors, the show will examine the portrayal of the human experience in art and provide an expansive picture of figurative painting in the 20th century, particularly in Britain. The exhibition features some 100 works by artists such as Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj, Leon Kossoff, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and many others.

Through examining the careers of Bacon and Freud, two of the most revered artists working in Britain during the 20th century and also famous drinking buddies, the show reveals what ties their work together and what separates it. One major difference is their process. Freud worked from life, with his models typically making large time commitments to sit for him. His studio, which frames the sitters in his work, serves as both a stage and a subject for his paintings. The repeated use of his studio as setting also brings awareness of Freud’s physical presence in it—it seems vital to remember that the sitter and Freud were occupying the same space and that the view we have of the model was Freud’s view. In Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, a 1996 painting in the show, Sue Tilley, a frequent subject of Freud’s in the 1990s, is seen draped in a chair. Her face, overcome by sleep, is scrunched into her hand—a position perfected by most of us in an airplane seat. Freud himself seems very close, looking on silently, as a birdwatcher or biologist might watch a sleeping species of interest. Behind her, crouching lions can be seen on the motif of a carpet—the kings of the jungle seeming so inferior to this larger, more majestic animal.

Freud’s portrait of fellow British painter Frank Auerbach (Frank Auerbach, 1975–76), also features a rather close, intimate view. Freud depicts the artist on a downward angle from the crown of his head to the top of his green t-shirt-clad chest. Freud’s brush delights in every detail of Auerbach’s face—emphasizing the thinning of his hair, the tonal disparities of his skin, the furrows of his brow and cheeks, and the teeth-grinding scowl of his mouth. The painting captures what appears to be a moment of anxious frustration or intense concentration—the type of moment we typically have alone. For the viewer, it feels like a rare and intrusive look at man’s face and state of mind. Freud’s presence, which hovers over Auerbach and the painting itself, simultaneously exposes and soothes the other artist.

Unlike Freud, Bacon used photographs as a starting point for his paintings. Of this process Bacon said, “What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance.” Bacon frequently used the work of friend and Vogue photographer John Deakin for his paintings. Deakin, who was in the habit of photographing the figures of the mid-century Soho art scene, such as Freud, Auberbach, and Eduardo Paolozzi, also took portraits for Bacon on commission, including the source material for Bacon’s 1963 Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and the 1969 work Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Deakin’s photograph Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (circa 1966-67), which was commissioned by the painter, was used to create one of Bacon’s most celebrated paintings, Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967). Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, a 1966 painting in the exhibition, also depicts the inimitable Rawsthorne, a painter, designer, and model for Picasso and Giacometti.

Works by other members of Bacon and Freud’s circle also appear in the show. Auerbach’s 1967–68 painting Primrose Hill is a highlight. The oil on board work is essentially an abstract landscape, inspired by Auerbach’s frequent visits to the park at Primrose Hill in north London. The artist compiled an excess of 50 working drawings for the painting, made during all four seasons and all different times of day and night. Working on it daily for over a year, Auerbach fell into the nearly incessant process of scraping paint away and adding more. The result is a pan-season, pan-weather, pan-hour, expressionist rendering of life, both observed and lived.

The show isn’t limited to a single generation of artists. Walter Sickert’s Nuit d’Été (circa 1906), for instance, with its chilly portrayal of a female nude sprawled on a bed, is a perfect precursor for viewing Freud’s work. Sickert, a member of the Aesthetic movement and student of James McNeill Whistler who is thought by some conspiracy theorists to have been the serial killer Jack the Ripper, painted a series of nude women in sparsely decorated, cheap London bedrooms. Unlike the intimacy of Freud’s work, Sickert’s paintings are dark, distant, and even a bit menacing at times (perhaps there is something to those rumors?).

The exhibition also features several paintings by women artists. Paula Rego’s The Family (1980), depicts a group of figures in action within a bedroom setting. A man, dressed in a grey suit, sits on the edge of an unmade bed, his cuff and jacket being fussed over by two women—perhaps a maid and his wife, or his wife and older daughter. A girl, who is presumably a young daughter, looks on from several feet a way, standing in front of an open window. In the corner near the bed sits a Portuguese retablo depicting St. Joan and St. George slaying the dragon, while on a chest below it, an image of Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Stork is illustrated.

Cicely Brown’s 2015 oil and pastel on linen Boy with a Cat quickly brings Renoir’s ghostly 1868 nude The Boy with the Cat to mind. However, Brown’s chaotic, reclining nude takes from de Kooning’s work the sense of forms appearing within abstraction, and it is oddly exhilarating to watch the faces and bodies of cats emerge and recede in the painting as one looks at it. The artist sops up the machismo of Abstract Expressionism only to wring it out as one would a wet washcloth. What’s left is an engrossing, erotic work that surges with energy and playfulness.

Another more recent work in the show and a painting in the Tate’s collection is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s 10 pm Saturday (2012). Yiadom-Boakye, a London native of Ghanaian descent, looks to the historical European tradition of portraiture but paints largely fictional characters. Born of her imagination, her figures are typically placeless and timeless and are left susceptible to the interpretations and readings of the viewer. 10 pm Saturday shares with many of Bacon’s portraits a dark, vacuum-like background. Yiadom-Boakye’s figure stands in profile, looking side-eyed past the viewer over his own shoulder. Wearing a red and white striped shirt and black pants, he seems so familiar and yet he is a man who has never lived.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Mexico Mystique Mon, 30 Oct 2017 21:25:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A new exhibition at the Smithsonian reveals the intimate connection between Mexican modernist Rufino Tamayo and New York City.

Rufino Tamayo, New York seen from the Terrace

Rufino Tamayo, New York seen from the Terrace [Nueva York desde la terraza], 1937, oil on canvas, 20.375 x 34.375 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Rufino Tamayo, Academic Painting Rufino Tamayo, New York seen from the Terrace Rufino Tamayo, Seashells Irving Penn, Rufino Tamayo (2 of 2) Rufino Tamayo, Familia

In 1920s New York, Mexico was hot. While our southern neighbor had long been little more than a few shopworn stereotypes in the minds of most Americans, the Mexican Revolution of 1911–20 had generated a burst of enthusiasm for the vibrant new political and artistic culture that was being created there. The so-called Mexican vogue in the U.S., which lasted until World War II, was given a huge boost by Mexican artists who lived and worked in New York and got commissions to practice the new Mexican form of mural art in the city. The highest-profile of these pioneer expats was Diego Rivera, followed by José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, collectively known as Los Tres Grandes (the Big Three).

But there was another great Mexican artist living and working in New York during that time, Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991). Not a muralist but an easel painter, he was a quieter, perhaps less self-promoting figure than the others, and his international reputation didn’t really begin to build until the 1940s. Starting on November 3, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will broaden the discourse around this artist by presenting “Tamayo: The New York Years.” Running through March 18, 2018, the exhibition will display 42 major works to tell a double story—one about the influence the city had on the artist and the other about the influence the artist eventually had on the international art world via the New York School, otherwise known as the Abstract Expressionists.

Tamayo first visited New York in September 1926, for an extended stay of nearly two years. He was coming off a recent success in Mexico City, where he had mounted his own solo show in a vacant storefront and received major critical acclaim. The Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida wrote, “He is hardworking, studious, investigative, attentive to the problems inherent to the plastic arts, and, above all, perfectly receptive to his own self.” Most tellingly, Mérida observed that Tamayo had invented “a Mexicanism without the picturesque.” This comment was a clear, if somewhat veiled, reference to the muralist movement, which relied heavily on the glamour of exotic depictions of Mexican “local color” while using techniques that were almost wholly European. In Mérida, Tamayo found a kindred spirit, for he himself was out of patience with the muralist approach. In her essay for the show’s catalogue, E. Carmen Ramos, the Smithsonian’s curator of Latin American art, writes, “Tamayo embraced notions of arte puro,
or pure art, which circulated in some Mexican avant-garde artistic circles that championed artists’ individual, rather than sociopolitical and collective, approaches to modern Mexican art. His aesthetic position led him to vocally contest—both in Mexico and the United States—the work of the muralists, which he rejected as folkloric and nationalist paintings of Mexican subjects rather than Mexican painting.”

Eventually, Tamayo would arrive at what he called “a new modality in Mexican painting,” but in 1926 that was years away. He was still finding his direction, and his original plan was to go to Paris. Since that was financially impossible, he chose New York instead, traveling with a musician friend, Carlos Chávez, and settling in Greenwich Village, then at the height of its bohemian fame. When he arrived, Tamayo spoke no English, but that didn’t stop him from rapidly inserting himself into a number of creative communities—one of Mexican intellectuals who hung out at the midtown bookstore run by poet Juan José Tablada; one of American artists who lived near Tamayo’s apartment in the Village, including Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, Raphael and Moses Soyer, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi; and a circle of art dealers and impresarios including Walter Pach (who had organized the 1913 Armory Show), Carl Zigrosser of Weyhe Gallery, and future gallerist and Surrealist promoter Julien Levy, then working as an assistant to Zigrosser.

Among the Mexican intellectuals was the writer and artist Miguel Covarrubias, who was already becoming well known as a caricaturist. Covarrubias introduced Tamayo to the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, Frank Crowninshield, a passionate collector of African tribal art. Crowninshield saw a close kinship between African art and Mexican indigenous art, which contributed to his enthusiasm for Tamayo’s work and led him to write the catalogue text for a solo show that Tamayo had at the Art Center in New York in 1928. That was a nice piece of promotion for the young artist, but it was somewhat patronizing and inaccurate, relying on an essentialist racial dialectic to interpret Tamayo’s work. Since Tamayo was of Indian descent, Crowninshield opined that his work showed a “racial spirit” and was “not from the teachings of any master.” Covarrubias, a member of Mexico’s white upper class, was eventually to write an important book about the culture of the Zapotec Indians; his friend Tamayo was a real Zapotec Indian. However, he was by no means an untutored primitive. In Mexico City, he had trained at the conservative Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes and then taught art in primary schools using the drawing method established by the pioneering art theorist and educator Adolfo Best Maugard. And much of what Tamayo knew about Pre-Columbian art came not from his ancestors but from a stint drawing objects in the collection of the National Museum of Anthropology.

Armed with this background (though not unwilling to play along with the Yanquis’ desire to see him as an embodiment of Indian folk traditions), Tamayo set about visiting all the museums in New York and gorging on classic European and modern art. He also saturated himself in the living museum of New York itself, sketching and painting scenes that caught his imagination, such as Coney Island. One painting in the Smithsonian show, though made during Tamayo’s second, much longer stay in New York (1936–1950), conveys the impression the Brooklyn amusement park made on him. Carnival (1936) is a wild congeries of roller coasters, Ferris wheels, flags, and gaudily costumed performers all superimposed on each other in space-negating fashion so that color and expression are all. As Ramos points out, Coney Island reminded Tamayo of entertainment spectacles from back home, and the combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity made for an exceptionally strong painting.

This synthesis between elements the artist brought with him and elements he found in New York or through New York shows up again and again. Seashells (1929) is a still life that juxtaposes disparate objects, some natural and some industrial, in a manner similar to that of Stuart Davis. It also owes something to the paradoxical incongruities of stillness created by Giorgio de Chirico, whose work Tamayo first saw in New York and admired greatly. Academic Painting, with its references to the tools of European classical art, is particularly Chiricoesque. Influences from Picasso, Braque, and especially Matisse also came into Tamayo’s work during the late ’20s, again due to his exposure to their work in New York museums and galleries. This openness of Tamayo’s led to some critical misunderstanding, with one reviewer calling him more of a colorist than a nationalist.” But Tamayo’s national qualities were more subtle and required no direct quotation of traditionalist subject matter. For example, New York Seen from the Terrace (1937), gives us an inspiringly panoramic view of the city, but instead of the usual gray, the skyline is imbued with patches of vivid red against a pea-green sky, and two luscious-looking watermelon slices lie on a table in the foreground. This is New York with a transfusion of Mexican soul.

In the late 1930s, Tamayo’s star began to rise as American critical opinion, even among those who admired Mexican art, turned against the muralists, who had come to seem bombastic and passé. A critic for the leftist journal Art Front wrote that Tamayo’s art “soars above the work of most of his compatriots” and that his “is the most lyrical voice to come out of that country.” It appeared that Tamayo’s more apolitical, aesthetically oriented agenda was coming into its own. In the early ’40s, American museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Phillips Collection started acquiring his work, and he started becoming a celebrity of sorts. In 1947 Irving Penn took his picture for Vogue as part of series on figures who were helping turn New York into the world’s new cultural center.

At this point, Tamayo began to be an influencer of American art. The New York School artists, who were just then crystallizing what would come to be called Abstract Expressionists, found inspiration in Tamayo’s fresh, individualistic approach to traditional materials. Like him, they were interested in Native American myth, symbolism, and graphic methods, and like him they had little interest in deploying these elements in anything like a literal fashion. Although he personally had little connection with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, his works were frequently shown alongside theirs in exhibitions. Gottlieb in particular was seen as having an affinity with Tamayo. In a 1945 article, Barnett Newman wrote, “Tamayo and Gottlieb are alike in that, working in the free atmosphere of the art tradition of the School of Paris, they have their roots deep in the great art traditions of our American aborigines. This artistic synthesis has permitted them to produce works that are making a powerful imprint on the art of our times, both in America and in Europe. Only by this kind of contribution is there any hope for the possible development of a truly American art, whereas the attempts of our nationalist politics and artists, in both South and North America, have failed and must continue to do so.” This was vindication not only for Tamayo’s art concepts but for his insistence that to come to its highest fruition, art had to free itself of politics.

Tamayo would always remain a figurative artist, though, and in statements made in later life he distanced himself from the Abstract Expressionists. His art was never one for coteries or movements, and after he left New York permanently in 1950, he and his wife settled in Paris rather than in Mexico. Nonetheless, he never forgot the crucible where his art was formed, and he was proud to say, “New York made me.”

By John Dorfman

Photorealism: Upon Reflection Wed, 28 Jun 2017 22:39:37 +0000 Continue reading ]]> There’s a lot more to Photorealism than meets the eye.

John Salt, Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972

John Salt, Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Robert Cottingham, Radios, 1977 Robert Bechtle, ’73 Malibu, 1974 John Salt, Albuquerque Wreck Yard (Sandia Auto Electric), 1972 Charles Bell, Gum Ball No. 10: “Sugar Daddy,” 1975

It seems counterintuitive that paintings that offer a directly representational approach to their subjects should cause such critical confusion. A review of a 1992 Photorealism show at the Whitney Museum, “Six Takes on Photo-Realism,” by critic Vivien Raynor in The New York Times pointed out the fact that it took a figure of multidisciplinary adventurousness the likes of Roland Barthes, by way of critic Thomas Albright, to provide an adequate critical frame through which to analyze the movement and its dually obvious and elusive nature. Barthes’ writing on the New French Literature (more commonly known as the nouveau roman), a movement which also sought to reproduce the surface of things without prejudice or authorial emphasis, is invoked in an attempt to critically engage with seemingly objective Photorealist images. Due to their human parentage, Photorealism’s meticulous reproduction of empirical reality can’t help but capture feelings and ideas and—like the mysterious, interior mazes of the nouveau roman’s greatest theorist and author, Alain Robbe-Grillet—be haunted by the ghosts of the human machines that translate and create them.

The title of the new exhibition “From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y. (August 6, 2017–January 21, 2018), puts into words the chain of perceptions and actions that led to the creation of the dazzling works on display. Like the works themselves, the title alludes to the human artist (a nameless collection of perspectives and affects) at the center of it all whose vision and labor permeates them, enveloping the images in an invisible presence, hovering always just out of sight. Photorealism is, in this sense, a re-humanizing of photography’s seemingly objective, direct apprehension of reality, a human naming of the new world of machine-made images and reality through the artist’s labor of reproducing it.

The Parrish’s latest show brings a new dimension to Photorealism, an arguably critically under-interpreted and underappreciated subset of postmodern painting of the 1960s which grew out of Pop Art’s engagement with popular culture as subject matter and process art’s focus on materiality and privileging of “how it’s made.” The show features 73 works by some of the movement’s best-known figures, including Chuck Close, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, and Audrey Flack, representing the genre’s usual slant toward large-scale representations of gleaming metal and glass. The show originated, however, not in these big, glossy, oil-on-canvas paintings but in the over 30 works on paper which are also on view.

Curator Terrie Sultan explains how a chance encounter with a wall filled with watercolor works by Photorealists inspired the show: “The Parrish collection has many realist paintings, modernist still lifes, and landscapes. One thing missing from that conversation, however, is Photorealism. While visiting Louis Meisel, the dealer who invented the term Photorealism and a longtime friend of the museum, I came across a whole wall of watercolors by Photorealists, and most of these had never been seen before.” These works from Meisel’s collection provided an opportunity for Sultan to place Photorealism in its unique place in the history of painting, at the crossroads of representation and the avant-garde, while also displaying works on paper that transpose the technical, conceptual, and philosophical approach of the movement into a different set of materials.

Sultan says, “I wanted to be able to show these works in the context of the Photorealist paintings people know.” By exhibiting works such as Goings’ 1981 watercolor on paper Still Life with Check, which provides what seems to be a more intimate detail of the artist’s larger diner vistas in another more delicate and luminous set of materials, and Close’s 1973 graphite and watercolor on paper Nat-Horizontal/Vertical/Diagonal, a watercolor iteration of the artist’s head-on neo-pointillist portraits, the fluidity of the movement’s approach becomes apparent. Photorealism emerges as more than a one-trick pony tethered to a particular scale and a particular set of materials.

The intimacy of the small-scale watercolors adds another dimension to the picture of Photorealism. Seeing works from the movement on this scale—an experience quite different from the impressive technical spectacle of larger works—brings the human element into focus. The immediacy of these works, in contrast to the time-consuming, heavily process-based nature of the large-scale oil on canvas works, also helps dispel the idea of there being a manufactured, “paint-by-number” method behind Photorealist paintings. “People really misunderstood what these artists were doing, the paint-by-numbers criticism being a major factor in the often dismissive attitude toward them,” says Sultan, “but that’s not what was it was; it’s not that easy.”

Many of the large works were made from traced projections of photographs on canvas, but not all. “Several of them worked in the old-fashioned way, by making a grid on the canvas, the way Chuck Close did,” Sultan says, going on to explain how Close would come into his studio every morning and paint the squares of the grid he had laid out, remarking, with a small laugh, how this approach helped to prove the old adage, “90 percent of success is showing up.” This seemingly demystifying approach to painting does involve taking a step away from the notion of the tortured soul splattering itself all over the canvas in a moment of “pure” inspiration, without planning and discipline. But that does not mean that the individual technique of a particular artist is not part of the nature of the work. A work by Close and a work by Estes differ not only in composition and content (two factors that provide part of Photorealism’s modernist genealogy) but also in brushwork. For all its seeming negation of painting, Photorealism is very much about painting, only under a new paradigm.

The place of paint in Photorealism becomes even more apparent when looking at the watercolors. The opportunities afforded by these works on paper held an appeal for the artists, aside from any question of scale. “Almost all of them said one of the reasons they were attracted to the medium of watercolor was its luminosity,” says Sultan. This concern with watercolor’s particular character evinces something that might not be apparent at first glance in the highly finished oils of the Photorealists—that paint and its materiality is of paramount importance. The rendering of reflections on metal, glass, and chrome that oil paint facilitates with its own reflective quality, is a major characteristic of Photorealism.

In Goings’ 1993 oil on canvas Miss Albany Diner, the viewer’s eye moves from one representation of reflected light to another. From the plastic surface of the diner’s counter to the glass dome that houses a bundt cake to the curved panels of the ceiling reflecting a Pepsi logo, each encounter between light and surface has its own character, which Goings recreates by utilizing oil paint’s own sheen. Wheel of Fortune, a 1977–78 oil on canvas work by Flack, also provides a collection of reflections that cause the viewer’s eyes to dance. The occult-tinged still life, which recalls some of the tongue-in-cheek dabbling in fatalism, fortune-telling, and the trappings of the supernatural in both the nouveau roman and French New Wave cinema—most notably in Agnès Varda’s film Cléo From 5 to 7—contains not one but two mirrors. One reflects a partial view of the objects on the display; the other, however, is filled entirely by light. These twin mirrors metaphorically communicate the complex and optically fundamental nature of the relationship between light, vision, and the creation of images that Photorealism takes as its very foundation and focus.

In Estes’ 1987 oil on canvas Hotel Empire, the use of light and reflection, rather than filling the the entire canvas with points of interest and bravura technical application as in Miss Albany Diner, places reflection quite literally to the side. On the leftmost edge of the painting, the entire scene is reflected in a pane of glass, which is by far the most exciting and intriguing place for the eye to land. The placing of the reflective surface at the side of the composition rather than in the center, as in the direct compositions of many Photorealist works, has a poetic aspect. The world goes on, people cross the street, cars sit parked along the sidewalk, and the blue sky is tranquilly dotted with white, cotton-ball clouds, but for the artist, the perpetual outsider in often self-imposed, yet necessary, exile, the scene exists as pure light, a reflection of the world.

Light is the tool of both painters and photographers, and Photorealism addresses this affinity through its choice of subjects. However, as the title of the show makes clear, the lens and the machinery of photography are also of great significance. Digital photography is pushing Photorealism into even more mind-bending territory through its ability to capture images with hereto unparalleled speed, immediacy, and ease. As Photorealist painters create works painted from digital photographs, the complex and illuminating relationship between the technology of art and its human element, their disjunction and symbiosis, becomes even more apparent and fascinating.

The idea of a human being using digital machines to capture images unique to the optical and processing capabilities of the technology leads us to ask where the boundary between the human and the machine is at this point in time and where it will be in the future. The digital camera unlike the analog cameras of the previous era, which merely took impressions, is both an eye and a mind, not only collecting but translating. The artist, in this sense, becomes a type of cyborg, seeing through a privileged technological eye which captures visual information and light, translates it into digital information, and then reassembles it into an image once again, a series of pixels that strangely echo Chuck Close’s grids.

The Photorealists have implicitly been in dialogue with this human–machine conundrum since the inception of their heavily process-based, photography-inspired, and contingent movement began. Digital photography, however, takes this ontological artistic puzzle even farther, bringing us one step closer to asking, in the words of the counterculture science fiction visionary Phillip K. Dick, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” In our case, though, the question becomes, “Will artists paint what only machines can see?”

By Chris Shields

Phil Dike: Oceanic Feeling Thu, 25 May 2017 20:17:24 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum examines California watercolorist Phil Dike’s intimate relationship with the sea.

Phil Dike, California Holiday

Phil Dike, California Holiday, 1938, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Phil Dike, Family at Low Tide #10 Phil Dike, Rocks Below Corona Phil Dike, Spear Fishers, Phil Dike, Elysian Park Phil Dike, California Holiday

The California artist Phil Dike was born in Redlands, Calif., and attended the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, where he would later teach along with his lifelong friend and fellow artist Millard Sheets, before leaving for New York, where he studied with George Luks. Later he departed for France and studies at the American Academy of Fontainebleau. Through his travels, Dike expanded and refined his craft in a way seldom seen or expected today, adding new ideas and techniques to the toolbox he used to create his exuberant watercolors. Ultimately, Dike found himself drawn back to the West Coast and to the sea, his lifelong fascination and inspiration, and working for an iconic California company—Walt Disney Studios.

Dike worked as an background artist on the beloved masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and as a color consultant on the south-of-the-border, Bing Crosby-inspired The Three Caballeros (1944) before leaving the company. His most impressive, and idiosyncratic, contribution, however, is the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sequence in the groundbreaking, but initially unsuccessful, Fantasia (1940). Dike worked on the majestic “Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria” sequence, as well, but it is in the Bach “Toccata” sequence where his unique vision is most apparent. It begins with a conductor stepping to up to a podium; he strikes up an orchestra which plays furiously, silhouetted in black against dazzling reds and blues. This literal interpretation of Bach’s piece gives way to a more abstract series of moving images, of possible landscapes and colorful waves, gracefully choreographed to swell and crash in a painted ballet. It’s easy to imagine Dike as the conductor stepping up to a podium at the edge of the sea, directing the waves to and fro, adding his own touches of bright color and gleefully orchestrating the ocean into an abstract dance, of the kind that appears in some the painter’s finest work.

This summer the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, Calif., will give visitors access to a privileged point of observation from which to look out over Dike’s ocean-inspired work with its exhibition “Phil Dike: At the Edge of the Sea.” The show, which runs from June 25 through September 24, includes 60 works, some of which have never been seen before, spanning roughly seven decades from the 1920s through the early 1980s. Dike’s work throughout this time span flowed through various styles and approaches with a fluidity which recalls his great muse, the ocean. From the impressionistic 1938 oil on canvas California Holiday, which appeared in Life magazine and recalls Georges Seurat’s 1886 masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte in its perfection of composition and vivid depiction of human happiness at the sea shore (Dike opting for a wider vista and rockier coast), to his later abstract paintings, such as the metaphysically potent and mysterious Wave Echo (1972). This later abstraction seems to express the deeply intimate relationship Dike forged with the sea. In its reduction of its subject to color, movement and shape, elements Dike had mastered through years of study and practice, Wave Echo approaches a Zen aesthetic. In the striking watercolor, the ocean is seen with no precondition of knowledge or experience. The moon, the sky, and the waves are obviously painted by an artist with a deep relationship to his subject but with the feeling of a first meeting and sight with new eyes. This work and others of the period are collectively referred to as Dike’s “Wave Series” and represent the artist’s most deeply philosophical reckoning with the sea.

Dike was a major artist in the California regionalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s and spent his life in teaching and painting images of the sea provided by his beloved native state, and the bounty that resulted is staggering in its stylistic diversity and thematic consistency. A work like the 1954 oil on canvas Blue Cove recalls Picasso in its primitivism and geometry, but again the ocean unites it with Dike’s previous work and the work to come. The same can be said for the wildly impressionistic 1965 mixed media on canvas Afternoon Harbor Light, but there is something that makes this work stand out from the others. It depicts a figure in a room looking through a window to the ocean below. There is a melancholy here that is rare in Dike’s paintings, a feeling of disconnection. There is a barrier between the figure, with its back facing the viewer, and the ocean, and although we cannot see its face, we know it is not smiling. The ocean for Dike is the source of life and joy, and inspiration and a companion. As we look at his colorful, ever-evolving oeuvre, we see that the sea is not simply a subject, but a guiding principle and source of strength and hope.

By Chris Shields

Carol Rama: Outside the Institution Thu, 25 May 2017 20:14:15 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Carol Rama’s cool and controversial work comes to New York.

Carol Rama, Spazio anche più che tempo

Carol Rama, Spazio anche più che tempo [Even More Space Than Time], 1970 Rubber tire collage on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Carol Rama, Spazio anche più che tempo Carol Rama, La Mucca Pazza Carol Rama Carol Rama, Appassionata, 1941 Carol Rama, Opera n. 18 Carol Rama, Epifania

That the largely underappreciated Italian artist Carol Rama’s work has recently gained a wider audience than ever before is certainly true. However, the notion that she has been plucked from the dank, treacherous fringes of the international art world has its complications. Rama, who died in 2015 at 97, was mainly self-taught, but for the six decades that she spent creating art in her native Turin, she enjoyed inclusion among the city’s literary and artistic cognoscenti, consistent gallery representation and exhibitions, and cult-figure-like status. The artist, who is known both for her delightfully deviant figurative works and her suggestive, corporeal abstractions, was also the administrator of her own myth—that of a brash and plucky loner who has brushed shoulders with death and insanity (she is often quoted as saying, “I didn’t have any painters as masters, the sense of sin is my master”). It seems Rama—now in death more popular than ever—stood on a threshold, blurring the lines between genres, between fame and obscurity, and between her art and her life.

The New Museum has staged the first New York museum survey of Rama’s work and the largest exhibition of her work in the United States to date. “Carol Rama: Antibodies” (through September 10) features 150 paintings, objects, and works on paper from the 1940s onward. Massimiliano Gioni, Edlis Neeson artistic director of the New Museum, says, “Rama anticipated so many conversations that are relevant in America today—especially about gender, sexuality, and ownership of bodies. She’s been talking about these things since the ’40s.” The show, which will colonize the second floor of the museum, goes on view alongside exhibitions of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kaari Upson, and Elaine Cameron-Weir—all a fraction of Rama’s age (Upson, the oldest, was born in 1972).

For many art lovers in America, the show is not an introduction to the artist or her work but a first-time face-to-face meeting. Gioni says, “People have heard of her and she has a cult status, but there haven’t been many occasions to see her work. This show is both a revelation and a confirmation.” Gioni, who spoke with Art & Antiques before the opening of the exhibition, said there was palpable anticipation within the institution leading up to the show. “When we started unpacking the work at the museum, everyone—from the installers to the registrars—were extremely excited.”

An international retrospective, “The Passion According to Carol Rama,” ran throughout Europe (Barcelona, Paris, Finland, and Dublin, as well as Turin) during 2015–16, helping to cement Rama’s reputation outside of Italy. But numerous other shows of the artist’s work have been held in major European cities throughout the 2000s, including those at Rama’s gallery, the Berlin-based Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie, bringing the work to younger eyes. Speaking to a reporter for Artnet, Michele Maccarone referred to the 2008 solo show of Rama’s at Maccarone Gallery in New York—one of the rare occasions to see her work in the U.S. aside from a retrospective that traveled to the ICA Boston in 1998—as “the punkest shit in town.” In September 2016, Lévy Gorvy Gallery announced its representation of the artist in the U.S. and the U.K.

Gioni worked at the 2003 Venice Biennale when Rama was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement and was the Biennale’s artistic director in 2013 when Rama’s work was featured alongside that of Paul McCarthy and Robert Gober in a special section curated by Cindy Sherman. Rama has shown at the Biennale several times—in 1949, 1950, 1952, and 1956, and in a solo show nearly four decades later, in 1993. This year, her legacy with the prestigious event continues, with the show “Carol Rama, Spazio anche più che tempo” running concurrently with the 2017 edition—and the New Museum’s show—at the Palazzo Ca’ nova. That exhibition, which is organized by the Archivio Carol Rama, puts 30 works on view. “Rama made so many amazing works,” says Gioni, “that there can be two simultaneous shows and they don’t conflict.”

Rama was born in 1918, a year after her parents returned to Turin following six years in Argentina, where they were migrant workers. Rama’s father, an inventor, opened a factory that made car and bicycle parts based on a model he patented. Notably, several of Rama’s pieces, such as Movimento e immobilità di Birnam [Movement and Immobility of Birnam] (1977) and Sortilegi [Spells] (1984) feature bicycle tires that look almost like innards. Throughout the ’20s, the factory and family—she recalls her father singing opera around the house—prospered. After the stock market crash in the U.S., the business was put in jeopardy and eventually closed. In 1942 her father committed suicide. Though Rama often cites the poverty resulting from the factory failure as the cause of his suicide, Gioni notes that some suspect that her father killed himself due to closeted homosexuality.

In Rama’s early teens, before her father’s death, her mother checked herself into a mental hospital. It was while visiting her mother there that Rama found her artistic voice, and she began “doing some coarse drawings,” as she put it. What resulted were grotesque, brutal, and sexually charged watercolors, such as Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni) [Passionate (Marta and the Rent Boys)] (1939) and Dorina (1940), featuring male nudes with multiple phalluses or a woman with a snake coming out of her vagina. Works like Appassionata [Passionate] (1939), which features a female nude in red high heels sitting in a wheel chair, and Appassionata [Passionate] (1941), which shows a female torso on a crude metal bed (the red heels arranged below), depict the stark furnishings of the asylum. These paintings illustrate mutilation, perversion, decay, and dementia. Yet despite their subject matter, the drawings have a strange tenderness. Rama often uses light pinks to color skin and shows tongues curling from her figures’ mouths like pieces of rosy grosgrain ribbon (Rama said the tongue was her favorite body part). She crowned her figures with laurel wreaths, as if to present her characters as gods and goddesses or to acknowledge the pagan precursor to Italian Catholicism, which presented suffering and sexuality in a different context. Rama, who felt that her anguish and sense of personal tragedy was the catalyst for her art, also clearly loved and identified with the figures she found in the mental hospital.

In 1945, the police immediately censored Rama’s first solo show at Galleria Faber in Turin. Not long afterward, Rama turned to abstraction. She began creating odd, geometric canvases, with spindly lines, orifice-like shapes and pieces like fragmented body parts. In the ’50s, she briefly joined Turin’s Movimento Arte Concreta, her only tie to a group (other than her life-long connection to writer Edoardo Sanguineti) during her career. Throughout the ’60s, her foray into abstraction continued, often with the addition of found objects. Contessa [Countess] (1963), a rather menstrual oil on canvas, features animal claws, and Le tagliole [The Traps] (1966), an enamel on canvas in different shades of gold, features animal hide in a fox-like shape (Rama’s mother briefly worked as a furrier). Another anatomical piece, L’isola degli occhi [The Island of Eyes] (1967) uses plastic eyes amid synthetic resin and enamel on canvas, while Maternità [Maternity] (1966), a very red and very vaginal work, is punctuated with plastic eyeballs that register as beads of wetness from a distance. “One of our arguments in the show,” says Gioni, “is that even the abstract works carries anatomic memories.”

After the curator and critic Lea Vergine included examples of Rama’s early watercolors in the influential 1980 exhibition “The Other Half of the Avant-Garde,” Rama enjoyed a renewed popularity and returned to figuration. Seduzioni [Seductions], a 1984 work on paper, features frogs—a favorite theme of Rama’s–and several nude figures—one in particular looks remarkably like the Venus of Willendorf. Here, Rama returns to the lust and disgust of her teen years.

Rama, who maintained a reputation for isolation, actually counted Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Man Ray, and Picasso as friends—she had pictures of herself with several of them hanging in her studio and home. For Rama, the myth of disconnection from other artists, society, and normalcy was as key to her persona as a certain brashness in interviews and her works themselves. “The mythology around the artist is very much a part of her, and her constructed character is very much present in part of her work, but we don’t want to fetishize that and we don’t want to construct this illusion that you can’t appreciate her work without that,” says Gioni. “But hearing her voice, metaphorically, is so important, so besides the captions that are typically accompanying works at museum shows, we also have her own writing and her own text to illustrate her works.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Into the Mystic Mon, 22 May 2017 21:12:08 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Salon de la Rose+Croix, a magical, mystical proto-modernist art event of the 1890s, is recreated in an eye-opening show at the Guggenheim.

Jean Delville, The Death of Orpheus

Jean Delville, The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort), 1893, oil on canvas, 79.3 x 99.2 cm.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Jean Delville, The Death of Orpheus Charles Maurin, The Dawn of Labor Carlos Schwabe, Poster for the first Salon de la Rose+Croix Jan Toorop, The New Generation Fernand Khnopff, I Lock My Door upon Myself

In the Paris of the 1880s and ’90s, some strange figures strode the stage of culture, and none was stranger or more eye-catching than the mysterious being who called himself Sâr Merodack. He was inclined to go about his business dressed in the sort of floor-length purple robes that might clothe a king of mythology, and his topiary-like bush of hair and pointed beard were trimmed in a fashion reminiscent of an ancient Mesopotamian ruler. That was in keeping with his self-given name—“Sâr” means leader in Hebrew and Assyrian, while “Merodack” was likely adapted from Baladan-Merodach, a Babylonian king. The name his parents gave him was Joséphin Péladan. Born in Lyon in 1858, the son of a devoutly Catholic journalist, the future Sâr failed out of two Jesuit colleges and in 1882 moved to Paris, where he established himself as a novelist, literary critic, and art critic.

He also became an enthusiastic student of the occult. One of his novels, Le Vice Suprême (1884), dwelt on the Rosicrucians, a supposed group of ageless initiates, spoken of in Europe since the early 17th century, who guided the world in secret and preserved mystical doctrines for mankind’s benefit. This book found its ideal reader in a figure only slightly less outré than Péladan, the Marquis Stanislas de Guaïta, an opium-addicted poet from an Italian noble family who was converted to occultism by reading the novel. The two men became close friends and studied together to increase their knowledge of magic, the Kabbalah, and the Tarot. Before long, they decided to found a secret brotherhood of their own and teamed up with a well-known occultist and author, Dr. Gérard Encausse (known to readers as “Papus”) to start recruiting members.

This group, which was launched in 1888, was called the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix (Rose-Cross). As such bodies are prone to, it fell victim to schisms, and in 1891 Sâr Péladan split with de Guaïta and formed a new entity, more explicitly Roman Catholic traditionalist and with himself as sole chief, called the Catholic and Aesthetic Order of the Rose-Croix of the Temple and the Grail. The addition of the word “aesthetic” is telling; while the internecine squabbles of warring occultists may seem merely risible at a distance of more than a century (and in fact were also risible at the time, fresh meat for newspapermen who wrote mockingly of the “War of the Roses”), Péladan’s order ended up having a major impact on the development of modern art.

In 1892, Péladan decided to do something more public than a secret order could—he extended his hitherto-covert brand by organizing an art exhibition, to be called the Salon de la Rose+Croix. In typical 1890s style, he put out a manifesto that aggressively stated the artistic tenets of the project. It read, in part, “Art is man’s effort to realize the Ideal, to form and represent the supreme idea, the idea par excellence, the abstract idea, and great artists are religious, because to materialize the idea of God, the idea of an angel, the idea of the Virgin Mother, requires an incomparable psychic effort and procedure. Making the invisible visible: that is the true purpose of art and its only reason for existence.”

Trim away the Catholic religious language, and Péladan’s statement sounds almost avant-garde, as if he were anticipating the creation of abstract art, an art of ideas rather than an art of naturalism. But since it was still the 19th century, the group of artists the Sâr invited to participate in his Salon weren’t abstractionists, they were Symbolists—painters of mythical creatures, androgynes, femmes fatales, scenes of horror, and other decadent delights. Some, such as Georges Rouault, Fernand Khnopff, Jan Toorop, Jean Delville, and Félix Vallotton, are now famous names; others are more obscure, such as Alexandre Séon, Armand Point, Rogelio de Egusquiza, and Pinckney Marcius-Simons. The first Salon, backed by a wealthy collector and artist (and Rose+Croix initiate), Count Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, and hosted at no less a venue than the Galerie Durand-Ruel, was a sumptuous affair that attracted a great deal of media attention. Émile Zola attended, as did Puvis de Chavannes, and for once, Péladan found himself being taken seriously by the media. Over the next five years there were five more Salons, none of which achieved the positive reviews of the first one, but Péladan, firmly entrenched in his role of art impresario, soldiered on, in the process showing some truly great art.

An exhibition opening at the Guggenheim Museum in New York at the end of this month showcases about 40 works that were exhibited in the six editions of the Salon, along with documents and printed ephemera that chronicle this cultural moment. “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897,” which goes on view on June 30 and runs through October 4, is curated by Vivien Greene, the Guggenheim’s senior curator of 19th- and early 20th-century art, with the help of curatorial assistant Ylinka Barotto. The show is accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Greene, independent scholar Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, and NYU art historian Kenneth E. Silver.

One of the hallmarks and greatest strengths of Péladan as a curator-impresario was his openness, which seems at odds with his doctrinaire nature as a religious leader. He wrote that “for the Salon, the word foreign did not exist,” and accordingly he cast a wide net throughout Europe, not just France, in his search for visionary talent. Also, there is great artistic diversity in the Salon’s roster of contributors. While some, such as Séon—who portrayed Péladan himself in full Sâr regalia, with a background of interlaced roses and crosses and recurring images of an Assyrian lion-sphinx (a painting on view at the Guggenheim)—bought into Catholic Aesthetic Rosicrucianism without reservation, most were more independent in their mystical quests, and a few, most notably Vallotton, were not mystical at all.

Vallotton, a French Swiss, was primarily a printmaker who specialized in fine-grain monochrome woodcut, was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e, and often worked in a naturalistic vein. He was introduced to Péladan by Schwabe—who created the killer poster design for the first Salon—and Péladan provided Vallotton with the opportunity to display his woodcuts publicly for the first time. Vallotton himself seems to have been slightly nonplussed by his inclusion in this ethereal company, and in an article he wrote for a Swiss art magazine spoke critically of the Sâr’s inconsistency as a curator. It is possible that part of Vallotton’s appeal for Péladan lay in the fact that he had made woodcut portraits of several cultural figures of importance to the Symbolists: Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Richard Wagner (Marcius-Simon, the only American-born participant in the Salon, eventually moved to Bayreuth to work as a full-time set designer for Wagner). A Vallotton print shown at the first Salon, Le Beau Soir (1892), which depicts a man looking across a body of water toward the sun setting behind black mountains, could easily be interpreted either naturalistically or mystically.

Jean Delville, on the other hand, was an easy fit with the Salon’s official manifesto. The Belgian artist met Péladan during a trip to Paris in 1887 or 1888 and as a result abandoned Realism for Symbolism. He participated in four out of the six Salons. One of his most striking works is The Death of Orpheus (1893), which shows the Thracian musician-magician’s severed head floating in the water, framed by his lyre. While according to the Greek myth Orpheus’ head continued to utter prophecies after his death, Delville’s Orpheus has fallen silent, though he seems to be more in a trance than dead, with an eerie light transfiguring his face. That face is said to have been based on that of Delville’s wife, evincing the Rose+Croix belief in the spiritual importance of androgyny (a belief, it might be noted, that peacefully coexisted with an absolute ban on female participation in the Salon). The entire painting is drenched in a blue-green tone that is strangely prevalent among the works in the Salons; this cold color, often deployed where it is not natural, in particular on human flesh, seems to represent morbidity, abnormality, or otherworldliness, depending on the emotional climate. Schwabe’s poster, appropriately enough, is two-color only, blue and white.

Fernand Khnopff, also a Belgian, specialized in the enigmatic, a trait he shares with the modernist generation, though he deployed it differently. I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1893), one of his greatest works, was exhibited in the second Salon. Khnopff’s debt to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (an earlier group of mystical-minded seekers after artistic authenticity) is evident in the female figure’s features and her long reddish hair, as well as in the pseudo-medieval details of the room. The painting’s title (given in English) comes from a poem by Christina Rossetti, sister of the PRB’s co-founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The architecture of the room is indecipherable, if not spatially impossible, and the flowers could symbolize either impermanence or wickedness. The head of the woman is almost twinned by the marble head of Hypnos, the god of sleep and dreams. The whole composition could be saying that by retreating into one’s room, a private space designed for contemplation, the artist communes with the imagination in a non-rational manner. Whatever the interpretation, Khnopff’s works met with the wholehearted approval of the Sâr, who called the artist “the great argument of my thesis, in defense of the ideal.” The two men’s association began back in the mid-1880s, when Khnopff designed the frontispiece for Le Vice Suprême.

Other artists in the Salon (and in the Guggenheim show) demonstrate the coexistence of mystical religion with proto-modernist technique. French painter Henri Martin’s Young Saint (1891) presents us with a rural French girl in a veil standing in a field; she might be Joan of Arc or Thérèse of Lisieux. Her head is encircled by a thin gold halo in the style of the quattrocento. However, the overall style of the painting is heavily influenced by Divisionism, and the young saint seems to exist in a limbo between the Middle Ages and the twilight of the 19th century. Dutch artist Jan Toorop’s The New Generation (1892) combines a bizarre profusion of imagery in a magical forest with a realistic portrait of a child (the artist’s daughter), an image of the Buddha, and railroad tracks and telegraph poles. Péladan disliked this painting, but it was included in the first Salon and nicely encapsulates the Janus-faced nature of Symbolism, looking back to a world of myth, religion, and magic, and forward to modernism.

As Kenneth Silver points out in his catalogue essay, there is a definite connection between abstract art and spiritual thought, and many of the key figures of avant-garde modernism, such as Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and even Marcel Duchamp, were indebted to mystical and occult writings. None of the artists included in the Salon de la Rose+Croix ever achieved true abstraction, and Péladan’s traditionalist outlook deplored the kind of leftist radicalism that inspired so many of those who made 20th-century art. Nonetheless, the Rosicrucian impresario and many of his artists continued the 19th-century experiment, which began with the Pre-Raphaelites, of looking forward by looking back, and in their quest for an “ideal” in art that would be independent of the senses and untethered from the mundane, they helped prepare the way for what was to come.

By John Dorfman

Honoré Sharrer: Rara Avis Mon, 22 May 2017 21:11:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Honoré Sharrer’s paintings, which are at once enchanting, humorous, and political, take center stage in a touring exhibition.

Honoré Sharrer, Mother Goose

Honoré Sharrer, Mother Goose, 1960, oil on canvas, 26.5 in. x 37.5 in.;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Honoré Sharrer, The Play Honoré Sharrer, Afternoon on the Beach Honoré Sharrer, Afternoon of the Satyr Honoré Sharrer, Annunciation Honoré Sharrer, Mother Goose Honoré Sharrer, Reception

At a relatively young age, the painter Honoré Sharrer was embraced by the art world. She won a national art prize in her teens and went on to study at Yale University (though she only stayed for a year). When she was 24, the prominent critic Lincoln Kirstein donated her painting Workers and Paintings (1943) to the Museum of Modern Art. Throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s, Sharrer’s work was featured in several important group shows, such as MoMA’s “14 Americans” (1946), the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Nineteen Young Americans” (1950), the Kirstein-curated “Symbolic Realism in American Painting” (1950), a solo exhibition through M. Knoedler & Co. of her polyptych work Tribute to the American Working People (1946–51), and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “The New Decade: 35 American Painters and Sculptors” (1955). Sharrer’s colorful canvases, with their unique blending of Social Realism and Surrealism, established the artist early in her career as a new American voice.

Today, Sharrer’s work is not particularly well known (though, it should be noted, it is in the collections of many of the top institutions in the country). The narrative of postwar American art has typically overlooked figurative modernists, and Sharrer has been one of the many artists of her period cast aside by the art world’s seemingly insatiable thirst for male-dominated abstraction. The rediscovered mid-20th century female artist, another favorite art-world narrative (see this issue’s article on Carol Rama) and a category Sharrer can also fit into, has brought many incredible women artists to the fore as of late but also serves as a bitter reminder of the cruelty of the past and of the unfairness that still bubbles below the surface of the present. Sharrer was also a part of another group—she was a leftist and a “fellow traveler” of the American Communist party. Her political views held sway over her work and were undoubtedly a major reason why that work, as well as that of her colleagues, was increasingly marginalized during the Cold War.

Yet whatever context Sharrer might be put in, her work rewards a close look—both with her own era in mind and through the lens of contemporary politics and culture. A traveling exhibition of her work, “Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer,” gives museumgoers an opportunity to take that close look. The show, which features some 45 paintings, comes to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) this month (June 29–September 3) after a stint at the Columbus Museum of Art, its co-organizer. It then travels to Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Mass., in September.

The exhibition also includes works on paper, lithographs, aquatints, photographs, and drawings—some studies, others independent works. At PAFA, this section of the show will be expanded, with the addition of some 40 or 50 drawings, many never before seen. “As an art school and art museum we love to explore process,” says David R. Brigham, PAFA president, CEO, and acting museum director. “Sharrer’s was a very interesting one because she clipped from magazines, newspapers, took a lot of photographs, and made a lot of drawings. That multi-source type of approach is a major part of our exhibition.” Sharrer maintained a vast visual archive as reference material for her detailed compositions. Associated Press images and magazine clippings from publications like Paris Match and Time were kept on hand, as well as—according to the introduction written by Sharrer’s son, Adam Desmond Zagorin, to the exhibition’s catalogue—taxidermied birds on loan from Montreal’s natural history museum and nude snapshots of Sharrer’s neighbor, a young housewife.

Sharrer’s process and image sourcing bring Pop Art to mind. Though her work was certainly imbued with social and cultural phenomena and could take on a satirical tone, it always kept a foot firmly planted in the socially engaged art of the 1940s. Sharrer, its not surprising to learn, was a friend of George Tooker’s. “There were some commonalities within their work,” says Brigham, “The technical interests were similar—their slow output, their mass undertakings, the biblical undercurrents, and the interest in Northern Renaissance painting.” The Social Realism of Mexican Modernist artists such as Diego Rivera can also be detected in her work, with its scrutiny of government fat cats and business moguls.

Sharrer was born into an affluent family. Her father was a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Army, and her family lived in several cities in the U.S., as well as in Paris and the Philippines. Sharrer graduated from a private high school in La Jolla, Calif., where she was chosen as queen of the May Day Festival—an ironic occurrence considering that May Day, though a WASPy tradition, was adopted by Communists and Socialists in the 19th century as a day to celebrate workers. During World War II, Sharrer worked as a welder and was briefly married to Arthur Weld, a leftist merchant marine who was active in radical politics. Around this time she also contributed several articles and illustrations to a Bay Area Communist newspaper. She relocated to New York in 1943, and was divorced by 1944 (she married Perez Zagorin, a prominent historian, in 1947). She worked as a welder in a shipyard in New Jersey, and there’s evidence that she was still doing so while beginning work on Workers and Paintings (1943).

That painting, a pivotal work in Sharrer’s early career, was created as a study for a mural competition at the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Mass. It did not win but was given honorable mention. The oil on board piece depicts working-class men, women, and children situated in a line, with a cityscape behind them. To the viewer they present several framed paintings—Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) and Picasso’s Girl Before the Mirror (1932), as well as works by Brueghel, Daumier, Millet and Rivera—for the most part, artists known for their dignified depictions of the working class. John Ashbery, years after the painting joined the collection of MoMA, described it as “a collaboration between Norman Rockwell and the brothers van Eyck.”

Tribute to the American Working Class (1946–51), Sharrer’s most celebrated work, takes much of what she was doing in Workers and Paintings and expands it. Brigham says, “These early works are very concrete, very specific, based on journalistic images, and very precise.” The polyptych is an altarpiece to the working class, with a smiling middle-aged man in a cap, red button-down shirt, and brown work pants standing in the center of its central panel in a contrapposto pose like a saint or mythic hero. Behind him, various figures—mostly in work clothes—and images of factories and gears peek through the open windows of a deep green-colored house like tabs on an advent calendar. To the right and left of the central panel there are two smaller panels stacked on top of one another. On the left a scene of a country fair and the parlor of a modest home; on the right a farm scene and an art classroom in a public school. Each panel has numerous figures, and each has dignity, bounty, contentedness, bouts of exuberance (i.e. a man clicking his heels while balancing a rooster on his head and holding a basket of eggs, a boy doing a handstand), and displays of practical and vernacular skill (such as sewing and cooking). The polyptych, which was acquired by the Sara Roby Foundation in the 1950s and given as a gift by the foundation to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1986, took Sharrer five years to complete. A protracted process was typical of Sharrer. “She identified with labor, and painting was labor for her, with works taking her months if not years to create,” says Brigham.

Reception (1958), another important work of Sharrer’s, also took years to complete. The painting marks a transition in her work and her life. In 1955, after Sharrer’s husband lost his job teaching at Vassar because of his politics, the family (her son was two years old at the time) moved to Montreal, where Zagorin took a job at McGill University. The family stayed in the Canadian city until 1964. Meanwhile, Sharrer’s work became less focused on lifting up the American working people, and more centered on a critique of the hysteria surrounding Communism and radical leftism in Cold War America. Of this period, “Reception is the key work, directly taking on McCarthy and the rich and powerful,” says Brigham. At first glance the painting depicts a rather dignified scene. Men—and a few women—in formal wear crowd a salmon-walled room in the French style, many of them engrossed in conversation. Among the guests are Cardinal Francis Spellman, Claire Booth Luce, J. Edgar Hoover, and Senator Joseph McCarthy, all major proponents of the oppressive constraints on left-minded artists and intellectuals. Throughout the room various species of birds perch—on the chandelier, the tables, guests’ hands and heads—completely unnoticed.

After Reception, Sharrer’s work changes yet again. Brigham says, “From there, the work becomes increasingly more surreal and almost Mannerist. She’s using exaggeration and odd juxtapositions, shifts of scale, and everything is presented in a sort of abstract way.” Brigham cites Good Friday (1970–75), in which a family in their Sunday best walks past the feet of a crucifix. “Over to the right hand side are two days mating,” says Brigham. “It’s showing the holiest of holy days and the most normal act of procreation.”

For the next few decades, Sharrer built a visual lexicon throughout her paintings with repeated imagery. There are countless small dogs, cooked turkeys on plates, and bent pieces of silverware. Tabletops, tablecloths, knives, bits of food, and floral arrangements abound, creating mock domestic settings even in non-domestic locations, as in Meat (1974), Before the Divorce (1976/99), Susanna and the Eldest (1981) and Spring and the Estes Brother (1985). Birds perch amongst the scenes as if to expose the folly of humans (typically men), as in Five Men and a Parrot (1997) and Young Man Standing on the Fountain (1988). In paintings such as St. Jerome (1967) and The Play (1997), owls, in their wisdom, sit above the action.

One prevalent theme is Sharrer’s use of the female nude, as in Afternoon of the Satyr (1989) and Roman Landscape (1990). Her take on the female body is at once Classical and provocatively realistic. She paints pale and curvaceous female figures, reminiscent of Rubens, with the type of sturdy thighs that would send R. Crumb into a panic. Yet, her use of dimpled skin, provocative and awkward poses, and contrast with the other imagery in the scenes rips the figures away from a mythic or sexual context, shining a light instead on the way women are seen in society.

Many of Sharrer’s paintings of this period are slyly funny—though Sharrer wasn’t going for the cheap laugh but rather a deeper satirical commentary. Brigham notes that Melissa Wolfe, the curator of American art at the Saint Louis Museum of Art and a co-curator of the exhibition, describes Sharrer as having a “slant view.” “We don’t want to diminish her by just seeing the jokes in her work,” says Brigham. “The slant view, the absurdity, is where Sharrer drives a wedge into power and into gender inequality. That’s what the force of the work is.”

By Sarah E. Fensom