Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:24:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Modern Art – Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Ida O’Keeffe: Sister Act Wed, 24 Oct 2018 23:10:19 +0000 Continue reading ]]> An exhibition and new research shed light on the life and work of Ida O’Keeffe, sister of Georgia and an under-recognized modernist painter.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown, oil on canvas.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Creation, date unknown Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme II, circa 1931–32 Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, Variation on a Lighthouse Theme IV, circa 1931–32 Alfred Stieglitz, Ida O’Keeffe, 1924

Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the best-known names in American modern art, maybe the best-known. Her sister Ida, on the other hand, is one of the least well-known. Only now, almost 60 years after her death, is her achievement as a painter and printmaker even beginning to be recognized in the world of art history. Instrumental in that reclamation process is an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art titled “Ida O’Keeffe” Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” Organized by Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the DMA, it runs from November 18, 2018–February 24, 2019. Canterbury and her team followed every available thread, piecing together the fragments of a life that was often difficult and that in some ways still remains opaque. Beyond considering her art in detail, the exhibition’s catalogue is also the first biography of Ida O’Keeffe, which is appropriate given that the reasons why her art slipped into obscurity have a great deal to do with the circumstances of her life and her relationship with her famous sister.

Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1889, two years after Georgia. She was one of five O’Keeffe sisters, and there were also two brothers. In this large, competitive, culturally ambitious, and financial insecure family, Ida stood out as particularly independent and self-willed. She showed an early interest in drawing, coupled with talent. When she was 13, the O’Keeffes moved to Williamsburg, Va., where she went through high school, after which she attended some summer school courses at the University of Virginia, including drawing. From 1913–17 she taught drawing in elementary schools in rural districts of southwestern Virginia. When the U.S. entered World War I, Ida moved to New York, where Georgia and two of the other sisters were living, to study nursing and thereby help the war effort. This led to a somewhat intermittent career in nursing over the next decade.

It wasn’t until she was over 35 years old, in 1925, that Ida took up painting and decided to become a serious artist. Her inspiration came at least in part from seeing Georgia’s career take off, as well as from the time she and her sisters spent with the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz—Georgia’s dealer, mentor, and eventually husband—at his summer home in Lake George, N.Y. Stieglitz flirted heavily with Ida, which made Georgia jealous and Ida uncomfortable. But he did recognize her skill at flower arranging, which she eventually transformed into floral still life painting. He also introduced Ida to a circle of artists and writers including the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and the critic Paul Rosenfeld, whom she came within a hair’s breadth of marrying.

In 1927, after about two years of dedicated painting, Ida had her first exhibition, in a group show of mostly women artists organized by Georgia at the well-named Opportunity Gallery in Manhattan. In order to avoid any appearance of nepotism, she dropped her surname and was listed in the catalogue as “Ida Ten Eyck.” The works she showed, which were straight-ahead realist still lifes for the most part and not particularly modernist in style, received some good notices, including one in the recently-launched New Yorker. But it was when she enrolled in the art program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1929 that she truly came into her own as a modernist painter.

Ida’s teacher there was Charles James Martin, who had been a student of Arthur Wesley Dow. Martin espoused “essence rather than form” and “interpretation rather than faithful representation,” although he also emphasized the importance of geometry. After graduating in 1932, Ida spent time on Cape Cod, and there she encountered a subject that would serve as the basis for her most highly regarded body of work, the Lighthouse Series. The Highland Light at North Truro was built in 1797 and is a piece of New England history, but Ida, in a personal artistic breakthrough, made it into a beacon of modernism. Of the seven paintings she made of the lighthouse, only the first (now lost) was a literal depiction. In the rest, she recast the straight lines of the structure as curves, made the beams of light emanating from it seem as solid as the building itself, and took one maritime iconographic element—such as a seagull or a fish—and embedded it into the composition in a completely organic way. For colors, she used only black, white, blue, and yellow.

She explained her thinking as follows: “I developed the other pictures in an abstract way, experimenting with the power of color. With each progressive lighthouse, new colors and compositions were introduced, each one becoming more radiant in color and more complicated in composition.” She may also have used the method of Dynamic Symmetry, a system based on the Fibonacci series or “golden number” that was propounded by the Yale art professor Jay Hambidge during the 1920s and became quite influential. A fascinating chapter of the catalogue, by Francesca Soriano, is devoted to a computer analysis of the Lighthouse series that superimposes the geometric patterns of Dynamic Symmetry on the paintings, showing how well they fit.

The 1930s and ’40s were the high point of Ida’s career as an artist, during which she exhibited fairly widely. She painted in a variety of modes—modernist floral still life, American Scene-style regionalism, and even full abstraction, as in Creation, an astonishing work that synthesizes two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes and a palette of swirling, blending colors. Unlike her sister Georgia, however, she was never able to make a living from her art. Throughout her life, she cycled between nursing, teaching, writing, and painting, never achieving financial security. She moved around the country 13 times in search of work, eventually settling in Whittier, Calif., and this lack of stability also made it harder for her to gain traction as an artist. After her death in 1961, some of her works became lost; some ended up in thrift shops, and one of the great Lighthouse paintings was found at an antique flea market in Glendale, Calif.

The authors of the catalogue title their concluding section “If Only She Had Had a Stieglitz,” referring to the decisive effect that Stieglitz’s advocacy of Georgia’s work had on her career. By contrast, they write, “Ida’s life proves that exceptional talent and ambition don’t necessarily ensure success and acclaim for an artist.” In that era, for a woman artist in particular success in the art world could be very difficult indeed, and Ida may have had some personal traits, such as her tendency to sacrifice her own needs for those of others, that further hindered her progress. But her work that survives will now have a life of its own, and this exhibition should do much to open people’s eyes to a valuable and enduring contribution to modern art.

By John Dorfman

Fighting for the Future Wed, 29 Aug 2018 17:00:21 +0000 Continue reading ]]> At the dawn of the Soviet era, in a revolutionary art school in the city of Vitebsk, two different visions of modernism struggled for dominance.

Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”,

Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”, 1920, woodcut with watercolor additions

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) David Yakerson, Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” Marc Chagall, Anywhere out of the World El Lissitzky, The Fire Came and Burnt the Stick, Had Gadya Suite (Tale of a Goat) Vera Ermolaeva, Design for Futuristic Opera “Victory over the Sun”, Lazar Khidekel, Suprematist Composition with Blue Square

In the conclusion to his 1902 monograph The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century, Alexandre Benois—painter, stage designer, writer, and founder of the influential movement and magazine World of Art—gave his assessment of the state of art in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century and what he imagined might follow:

“Generally speaking, all art of our time lacks direction. It is very vivid, powerful, full of passionate enthusiasm, but while being entirely consistent in its basic idea, it is uncoordinated, fragmented into separate individuals. Perhaps we only imagine this, perhaps the future historian will see our general characteristics in perspective and will outline our general physiognomy. But for the time being, this cannot be done; any unsuccessful attempt would be pernicious because it would create a theory, a program, where, essentially there should not be one. Moreover, it is quite probable that the future will not be on the side of individualism. Most likely a reaction stands on the other side of the door.”

Benois’ prediction for the future of art in Russia turns out to have been eerily prescient. After the Revolution of 1917, new approaches to art would explode in the country, with competing factions battling on canvas and in theoretical texts. Indeed, art, particularly painting, toward the end of the 19th century had already seen major changes and the growth of factions, some Russophile and others influenced by modernist developments in Europe. After the Revolution, though, with the a new utopian society in its nascent stage, fundamental questions arose about the function of art and its possible utility. What had been merely theoretical before began to take on a new social and political reality. Movements such as Suprematism, Constructivism, Rayism, and others would attempt to utilize the revolutionary energy and potential of the historically unprecedented situation. Artists and theorists would vie for dominance in texts until, as Benois predicted, this multiplicity of approaches was quashed and art was given a state-mandated form with the final, official imposition of Socialist Realism in 1932.

The post-Revolutionary moment of radical possibility, however short-lived, was a vital one. This relatively short span of time presented a laboratory for new ideas not only in painting, sculpture, design, architecture, and literature but in the organization and dissemination of art education as well. Collectivist ideas were applied to art education, and citizens (the definition of which was newly expanded under protelatarian rule to include Jews) who hitherto would not have been able to study art, now had the opportunity.

Painter Marc Chagall, a Russian-born Jew who had left his homeland to study and work, was elated and intoxicated by the new freedoms the revolution promised. Newly married and enjoying full citizenship, Chagall’s optimism is evident in his 1917–18 oil on canvas Double Portrait with Wine Glass, in which two figures, a man and a woman (presumably Chagall and his beloved wife Bella), one on the other’s shoulders, stand tall, smiling and toasting the new world with an angel close overhead.

After being appointed the Fine Arts Commissar of the Vitebsk region, Chagall seized the moment and established the The People’s Art School in his native city, where local citizens, many of whom were Jewish, could receive art education under the tutelage of established artists free of charge and with no age restrictions. It was to be the realization of a beautiful collectivist dream of art for all and for the good of all, with students and teachers, in some instances, taking their work to the streets of Vitebsk, decorating the town with the “new art” and leaving some inhabitants scratching their heads. The story of the The People’s Art School was not a Chagallian fairy tale, however, but a tragedy of sorts. The school’s fate mirrors that of the avant-garde in Russia, where idealism and ideology would confront each other, and pedagogical and artistic antinomies would sow the seeds of eventual collapse.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris is helping to bring the story of the The People’s Art School, somewhat recently excavated from the avalanche of time, to a wider public by presenting “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” at the Jewish Museum in New York (September 14–January 6, 2019). The show which was organized by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum, allows visitors the chance to learn about Chagall’s idealistic venture through a selection of 120 works and documents made possible by extensive loans from several American and European institutions as well as collections in Minsk and Vitebsk.

Jewish Museum curator Claudia Nahson has been collaborating with the Centre Pompidou to bring the show to New York for over a year, and she explains, “A year and a half ago I was actually working on an exhibition on Pierre Chereau. We received many loans from the Pompidou, and I was in constant in contact with them. I heard about the show and this sounded like a really interesting exhibition for us. It’s an exciting moment, brief but important, that hasn’t been talked about much.”

Of particular rarity and interest are those of the school’s students (some of whom were as young as 15 or 16 years old) which will be seen for the first time by many visitors. The bulk of the show, however, presents the work of the school’s illustrious faculty—Marc Chagall (represented by some 30 works), Kazimir Malevich (showing for the first time at the Jewish Museum), and El Lissitzky. The works by these visionary artists, seen in conjunction and counterpoint, help to illustrate the theoretical, pedagogical, and formal tensions that would characterize the school’s utopian project and ultimately, be its undoing.

Chagall brought in Malevich and Lissitzky as faculty members at the newly formed school, and as Centre Pompidou curator Angela Lampe points out, “Chagall knew he was playing with fire by bringing together figurative and abstract artists.” Chagall was no theorist; his approach was intuitive and individualistic. He believed in the passion and freedom of the Revolution, but, in a sense, lacked a concrete ideological agenda. Lissitzky was an artist whose work Chagall held in high esteem, and beyond that, the two men were friends and both had boyhood connections to Vitebsk. Lissitzky accepted Chagall’s invitation to teach at The People’s Art School, and with Lissitzky’s help, Malevich, Lissitzky’s former teacher, was persuaded to come to the new school as well.

Malevich and Chagall had shown work together in exhibitions before the Revolution, including a show organized by Alexandre Benois under the auspices of his World of Art group. In their respective approaches to the theory of art, however, there was a wide chasm separating the two—namely, Chagall had little, and Malevich had theory to spare. Chagall’s work was often fantastical and folkish, playful and personal, but Malevich’s approach was vastly more abstract and dense. Of his own system of Suprematism (the name seems to say it all), he wrote, “I am only free when—by means of critical and philosophical substantiation-—I can extract a substantiation of new phenomena from what already exists.” His was not exactly a “go with the flow” approach.

Lissitzky, a photographer, designer, and architect, was torn between Chagall’s intuitive, figurative creations and Malevich’s radical Suprematism, which extolled the use of geometric forms almost exclusively and a limited color range. The school’s students, many of whom were quite young, gravitated toward the more structured and theoretically concrete classes of Malevich and Lissitzky, and as Lampe observes, “The students were grateful for this structure and base of theory.” Chagall’s intuitive yet classical approach was based on his own memories and dreams and nurtured by his time in Paris and association with other visionary artists. It ultimately, proved too “old fashioned” and nebulous for the students, many of whom were encountering “fine art” for the first time. “These very young students maybe lacked the internal richness that Chagall could draw from as an adult,” says Lampe, and as result, Malevich gained a group of enthusiastic followers. By 1920 it seems that Lissitzky had found his allegiance as well, writing (presumably exploiting the recently invented “shift lock” function on typewriters), “AFTER THE OLD TESTAMENT THERE CAME THE NEW—AFTER THE NEW THE COMMUNIST—AND AFTER THE COMMUNIST THERE FOLLOWS FINALLY THE TESTAMENT OF SUPREMATISM.”

After Malevich’s ascension within the school, Chagall would leave in 1920, and Malevich and Lissitzky would continue on the path of Suprematism, staging exhibitions in Vitebsk and major Russian cities. By 1922, however, the state began to eliminate artistic movements that did not serve the ideological agenda of the party, Socialist Realism was “on the other side of the door,” and soon the school was defunct, having produced only a single graduating class. The People’s Art School would be lost to history for a time, another shining Camelot that had risen and fallen in the gloriously optimistic revolutionary fervor between 1917 and 1922.

The history of the school caught the attention of Lampe, who hoped to bring this fascinating and edifying moment in the history of art to an audience beyond academics and historians. Nahson worked closely with Lampe to bring the Jewish Museum’s iteration of the exhibition to fruition on a somewhat smaller scale but with some new works on loan from local American sources. Some of the exhibition’s most exciting revelations are works by less-known students and faculty of The People’s Art School; the work of artist David Yakerson (who came to the school at the age of 22) is particularly interesting and illustrative. Yakerson’s move from modernist figuration to Suprematism is emblematic of the school’s shift, and two works seen side by side, his 1918 Sketch for the Composition “Panel with the Figure of a Worker,” on paper with watercolor and ink, and his 1920 pencil and ink drawing Suprematist Composition (Walking Robot) tell the tale. The figures in the former are rounded and folkish, their scale symbolic, the colors cool, moody pastels—in a sense, Chagallian. The Suprematist work created only two years later under the influence of Malevich is a dense maze of geometric shapes, interconnected, forming a mechanical, futurist action figure.

Drawings and paintings like these by faculty and students including Lazar Khidekel, Nikolai Suetin, Il’ia Chashnik, Vera Ermolaeva, and Yehuda (Yury) Pen, help fill in the space between the theories and approaches expounded and the work that resulted. These works make clear that the bridge the school sought to build from reality to utopia was bifurcated, Malevich’s fork passing through the material and Chagall’s through dreams. The destination, however, was in many senses the same. “Utopia is by definition no-place,” says Lampe, “but for a short time, maybe, in Vitebsk Utopia may have found a place.”

As art seems to isolate itself more and more in the logic of its own industry and market, where trends and movements appear somewhat cut off from the world at large and art schools nurture individual practice with only a veneer of utility or political engagement, “Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918–1922” presents an alternative. The moment that reaches out through history to us is a moment of radical and crucial political art that sought to change the way people lived for the better, and to give form to a new way of life that promised, for the first time in history, true freedom and equality. For a span of four years in Vitebsk, theories and practices wrestled, students and teachers were challenged, and the very purpose of art was thrown into question. For Chagall, Lissitzky, and Malevich, at The People’s Art School during those four precious years, the only thing at stake was everything.

By Chris Shields

Modernist Material Wed, 29 Aug 2018 16:22:17 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at the Corning Museum of Glass explores the role of glass in early 20th-century Viennese design.

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937”

Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Designed by Emanuel Josef Margold, Vase with Lid Designed by Oswald Haerdtl, Candy Dishes, designed in 1925 Designed by Josef Hoffmann, Tableware Set of Nine Blown Vessels Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” Installation view of “Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937” Designed by Adolf Loos, Vase with Birds

Deeply embedded in the Vienna modernist movement is the notion that applied art could be designed, crafted, and appreciated as fine art. To the designers and craftsmen of the Vienna Secession and Wiener Werkstätte, objects made for everyday use were not to be ghettoized as “low” art. Instead, they thought that applied art objects, with their recurrent presence in users’ lives, could imbue the mundane with beauty and meaning.

Otto Wagner, who became the chair of the special school of architecture at the Vienna Academy of Arts in 1894, wrote in his influential 1895 book Modern Architecture that contemporary architecture and art could create new or evolved forms if they were developed in response to new materials, uses, and human demands. The Siebener-Club (Club of Seven), a group that included Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and several of Wagner’s colleagues and students, was formed with this idea in mind. The Vienna Secession, a spinoff of that group, emerged in 1897, taking inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement in England while focusing on the development of a sense of modernity that was expressly Viennese (the group famously designed every detail of the interiors of Vienna’s striking Café Fledermaus).

In 1903, Hoffmann and Moser started the Wiener Werkstätte, a workshop and artists’ collective that focused on the applied arts. A 1905 pamphlet about the workshop summed up its genesis: “The limitless harm done in the arts and crafts field by low quality mass production on the one hand and by the unthinking imitation of old styles on the other is affecting the whole world like some gigantic flood…It would be madness to swim against this tide. Nevertheless, we have founded our workshop.”

This thinking extended to glass, which became, theoretically speaking, a vessel for the progressive concepts of the Viennese modernists. Ironically, artists looking to explore ideas with the medium had tradition on their side: fine glass and glass craftsmanship were long established in the North Bohemian provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both through arts and crafts schools and manufactories. With elevated quality and skill endemic to the region, glass was popular not only as an art form unto itself but as a favored design element of Viennese architects and artists. Wagner labeled glass “modernist material,” and for the modernists working in Vienna, firms like J. & L. Lobmeyr and E. Bakowits Sohne acted as commissioning retailers, helping create and sell new forms of this ancient medium.

“Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937,” an exhibition that is on view at the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) in Corning, N.Y., through January 7, explores the moment when glass became modern in early 20th-century Vienna. The show, which is a tripartite effort between the CMoG, the MAK in Vienna, and the LE STANZE DEL VETRO in Venice, had runs at the Austrian and Italian museums prior to its move stateside.

Many of the works in the show come from the collection of the MAK. Founded in 1864, it is the second-oldest museum of decorative arts in the world and the progenitor of the University of Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule), a hub for the cross-section of art, architecture, and glassmaking. The MAK gives the show not only 100 pieces but also a bird’s-eye-view perspective, explains Alexandra Ruggiero, Assistant Curator at the CMoG and the curator of the museum’s version of the show. “The MAK has been around since before this period, so they were collecting directly from these artists and manufacturers in real time.” Similarly, J. & L. Lobmeyr, which is still active today, has loaned several pieces of glass and artists’ drawings from the period, giving insight into the design and fabrication process at the time.

The CMoG’s iteration of the exhibition includes some 170 works, 50 of which are additions from its own permanent collection. Loans from a private collection of period works—furniture, textiles, metalwork, etc.—create context and ambience for the glass pieces. “Our audience here isn’t as familiar with this period as they are in Vienna,” says Ruggiero. “There, you can easily see examples of this style of architecture and design, but here we wanted to set the stage for this movement and show how these pieces would be displayed together.”

One standout of the show, a tableware set of nine blown vessels designed by Hoffmann for the Wiener Werkstätte in 1916, comes from the CMoG’s collection. With their spare decoration and striking blue coloration, the mold-blown glass pieces seem almost a precursor to abstract art’s geometric fields of color. Hoffman, who studied with Wagner, excelled at prioritizing form and stripping away extraneous detail.

Another showpiece of the CMoG’s collection is Vase with Birds, a 1916 piece manufactured by Joh. Oertel & Co. and Glasfachschule Haida (Novy Bor). A cylindrical vase that flares to the rim, it is an example of colorless glass that is mold-blown, enameled, stained, and polished. It features an intricate pattern with black birds at the top and columns of yellow spirals and bells toward the base. The interlocking shapes of its decoration, which are at once energetic and restrained, bring Klimt’s work to mind.

Jardiniere, a piece designed by Urban Janke and manufactured by J. & L. Lobmeyr in 1912, showcases the Bronzit decoration style. Hoffmann developed Bronzit, which involved the application of a black or brown coating with a metallic sheen to the glass surface, in 1910. Its motifs married thick geometric forms with vegetal patterns. In Jardiniere, a piece in the MAK collection, a heavy geometric pattern is broken up by animal figures. Developed by Janke and Heinrich Jungnickel, two members of the Wiener Werstätte, Bronzit pieces with animal figures such as this became quite popular.

In Vase with Lid, a cut and cased glass piece designed by Emanuel Josef Margold and manufactured by Carl Schappel, the marriage between the applied arts and architecture in Vienna seems particularly clear. “This piece really ties traditional glass-making techniques with the new aesthetics of the period,” says Ruggiero. “It has such a an architectural quality with its pagoda-shaped lid.” The piece’s roof-like top seems to point upward into a new era of design.

By Sarah E. Fensom

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