Art & Antiques Magazine For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Tue, 05 Feb 2019 18:04:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Art & Antiques Magazine 32 32 Pierre Bonnard: Warm Color Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:07:37 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A sweeping exhibition at the Tate Modern reintroduces Pierre Bonnard as a great painter of the 20th century.

Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915

Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915, oil paint on canvas, 730 x 1064 mm;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pierre Bonnard, Window Open on the Seine (Vernon) (Fenêtre ouverte sur la Seine (Vernon)), 1911-12 Pierre Bonnard, The Garden (Le Jardin) , 1936 Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room in the Country, 1913 Andre Ostier, Pierre Bonnard, 1941 Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915

In 1911, Pierre Bonnard bought a flashy car. The French painter was entering his mid-40s, and he had experienced nearly 15 years of success in the art world. In the previous year alone he had shown in several cities throughout Europe, completed four panels for pianist and woman-about-town Misia Sert, and started a triptych for Russian collector Ivan Morosov. The Renault 11 CV, which Bonnard had painted pale yellow, was an uncharacteristically ostentatious purchase for the notoriously shy artist but, it could be argued, a well-earned one. So was the small home in Normandy he purchased—“Ma Roulotte” as he called it—which was in Vernonnet, close to Vernon and Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, which he frequently visited.

But there’s a stereotype about men who buy flashy cars in their mid-40s (though in these early days of motoring it may not have crystallized yet). And though it may be a leap to claim Bonnard was going through a mid-life crisis, he was definitely undergoing a change during this period. He had entered the Parisian art world of the 1890s at the height of Post-Impressionism. A member of the group Les Nabis, he and comrades like Édouard Vuillard and Félix Vallotton created a cutting-edge style of painting that melded the graphic, decorative elements of Art Nouveau and Japanese prints with cues from late Gauguin and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. But by 1910, as Cubism and other movements like Abstraction and Expressionism were captivating the avant-garde, the work of Bonnard and Les Nabis, though still appreciated for its beauty, had begun to feel old-fashioned. Reflecting on the period when Cubism, and later Surrealism, swept into the studios and salons of Paris, recalibrating the direction of painting, Bonnard would say that he, Vuillard and Vallotton “found themselves suspended in mid-air in some way.”

In 1912, reinvigoration came not through a zippy automobile (though probably it helped) but through a shift in his approach to painting. Bonnard gave himself over to an exploration of color that manifested on canvas as an exuberantly sensory, almost sublime experience. In still lifes and domestic interiors, his mastery of color and light imbued the objects and spaces of daily life with emotion and intensity. Lest he become entirely swept away by color—a tendency Bonnard himself acknowledged—he launched headlong into an indefatigable drawing practice. His sketches served as the genesis for his large-scale paintings, which he developed slowly over time, often working on several at once. Memory served as his primary source material, and he painted objects—often his own; figures—often his wife; and interiors—often his home—from recollection. As a result, his compositions grew less and less literal, his perspectives more disorienting, and his work more spectral. The paintings from this second period of Bonnard’s oeuvre seem almost like a collection of dreams.

“Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory”, a sweeping exhibition that opened late last month at the Tate Modern, focuses on Bonnard’s output between 1912 and his death in 1947. The show makes the case that the work from this period cements Bonnard as a great 20th-century painter with modern sensibilities. It is an important point to argue, as Bonnard’s reputation has been under scrutiny for decades. Pablo Picasso said, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does,” and insisted he wasn’t “really a modern painter.” Shortly after Bonnard’s death, Christian Zervos, the Greek-French art critic, who was close to Picasso, famously wrote the scathing article “Pierre Bonnard: Is He a Great Painter?” in his magazine Cahiers d’Art. The question in the article’s title was answered in the negative and it shaped a long-held view of Bonnard’s work—that he was either a painter who held on to Impressionism far too long, or worse.

In 1910, before Bonnard changed his work or bought his car, Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and high priest of the early 20th-century avant-garde, also called Bonnard’s modernity into question. “I like Bonnard’s painting very much. It is simple, sensual, witty in the best sense of the word,” he said. “It is true that my taste in general leans towards more ambitious painters, toward painters who are straining towards the sublime in plasticity.” What the Tate exhibition posits is that Bonnard was in fact an ambitious painter, though perhaps not in the same way Picasso or the nameless foils to which Apollinaire was referring or any other great artists of the early 20th century were.

The Tate has been advocating “slow looking” in the lead-up to its exhibition, which puts 100 important works on view. Bonnard’s paintings warrant close examination to be fully grasped, the museum insists—a potentially harrowing assignment for the ever-shrinking attention spans of museum-goers today. But Bonnard’s paintings really do merit meditation, if not to adjust to their flurries of intense color than to discern surreptitious objects and emotions. In Dining Room in the Country, a 1913 oil on canvas that comes to the exhibition from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, objects, figures, even shadows and light take a while to appear to the viewer. Its colors—the reds and oranges of the walls, the light blues of the door that are washed with the iridescent yellows and greens of the outdoor light, the verdant greens of the landscape seen through the window and doorway—seem to vibrate off the canvas, overcoming the eye at first. Its perspective, flattened in the style of Japonisme, make it hard to notice the two cats on the dining chair and armchair, and the curtain behind the shutter that flows to the ground in an intricate web of shapes that look like cut-outs melting into each other. The figure, Bonnard’s wife, Marthe, does not fully register at first. Clad in a tomato-colored top, she leans on the opened window from the outside. It is through Marthe that we can feel Bonnard in the image. When her gaze meets the viewer’s casually, if a bit crabbily, it registers that she is looking at Bonnard and that we inhabit his view. “Are we done yet?” she seems to ask, which is funny because Bonnard would be painting from memory, not a staged sitting. The interior’s forms—the ovoid table, the rectangular door, the squared window—coalesce in a sort of geometric dance, opening out to the landscape, an Eden of Impressionist brush strokes. If the interior and Marthe are Bonnard’s memory, the landscape is another: the memory of what painting was in late 19th-century France.

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said Picasso “had no tenderness”—that’s how he described the Spanish artist’s dislike for Bonnard. Though Bonnard’s domestic interiors and portrayals of Marthe do at times exude tenderness, they are often cut with a sense of strange familiarity, or melancholy, or even fragility. Marthe, whom the artist met in 1893 and with whom he stayed until her death in 1942, appears in over 300 of Bonnard’s works. She serves as a conduit at times, interjecting humanity or acting as a sort of mirror or guide, and other times appears as just a part of the landscape, a figure around the house.

Bonnard became known for his depictions of women bathing, with some of the most famous picturing Marthe in or around the bathtub, as in Bathing Woman, Seen from the Back (circa 1919), Nude Bending Down (1923), and Nude in the Bath (1925). The Bath (Baignoire [Le Bain]), a 1925 oil on canvas, is in the Tate’s collection. It shows Marthe lying in the bath, from above. Though she would have been in her 50s at the time of its painting, Marthe is depicted as a young woman, her fair skin and soft body seemingly tinged blue with bathwater. As she cranes her neck slightly in the curvature of the tub, her gaze projects forward, hitting, one imagines, her feet, which are only partially pictured. Though at first the intimacy of the image may impart a sense of tenderness, there is also a sense of sorrow. Marthe was known to spend hours in the bathroom, a habit that has led scholars to posit she suffered from tuberculosis (water therapy was used as a popular treatment) or spells of anxiety. Her position in the bath, coupled with the removal of the tub’s edges has often elicited a comparison to a body lying in a tomb. Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain), was painted over 10 years later (1936–38) but also has then sense of a body lying in state. Marthe, though her dark hair is more of a rust color, has the same young body—even the curvature of her stomach and her navel look the same. Offering a wider view of the bathroom, Nude in the Bath, is awash in glittering, intricate color. The deep marine blue of the floor’s tiles mix with flecks of gold, and evening light paints the walls of the room orange, violet, and yellow.

Among these familiar images in the show, are two that are rarely shown: A Village in Ruins near Ham, painted in 1917, and The Fourteenth of July, painted in 1918, providing different views of World War I. The exhibition marks the first time the paintings have been together in the United Kingdom since they were painted 100 years ago. It is rare to see Bonnard handle subject matter that has a sense of social or political bearing, but the two works, with their views of both battle and celebration, reveal the impression the war made on the artist.

During World War I, Bonnard was 47 and thus, like Matisse, Vuillard, and other artists of his generation, too old to serve on the front lines. Instead, Bonnard joined Missions d’artistes aux armées, which took artists to conflict zones in order to capture the imagery of war. Bonnard was stationed in Somme, and his painting A Village in Ruins Near Ham showcases the destruction he saw in nearby Ham. His canvas shows the town razed to the ground, dotted by a line of soldiers whose bodies form an intricate chain. A Red Cross vehicle is seen in the background, adding to the sense of hopelessness. By contrast, The Fourteenth of July, shows bodies massed together in a thick, jubilant quilt, while magic and merriment seem to float in the air. If A Village in Ruins Near Ham pictures something so dismal as to almost seem beyond death, The Fourteenth of July depicts life at its most lively. The painting showcases revelers on Bastille Day. Bonnard, placing his perspective in the heart of the action—in between dancing and hugging bodies and flickering lights—creates a perspective that seems unfixed, almost constantly in motion. Faces, though static on canvas, twirl, shout, appear and disappear. Everything is stretched and abstracted. It is, as Apollinaire might say, “straining towards the sublime.”

By Sarah E. Fensom

Bauhaus Centennial: Two Schools of Thought Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:07:03 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In honor of the Bauhaus’ centennial, Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum showcases its expansive collection of Bauhaus-related works.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25

Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25, brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Herbert Bayer, Design for a Multimedia Trade Fair Booth, 1924 Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany, 1926 Lucia Moholy, Bauhaus Masters Housing, Dessau, 1925–26 László Moholy-Nagy, A 18, 1927 Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set, 1924–25 Wilhelm Wagenfeld, Table Lamp, 1924

Harvard University’s relationship to the Bauhaus can be traced back to three grad students. This triumvirate—Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg, and John Walker—started the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art in 1929 and showed forward-thinking work by artists such as Buckminster Fuller. In 1930, the group put together an exhibition of contemporary German art, and later that year, a show of the Bauhaus—the first exhibition in the United States of work from the revolutionary German art school. “It wasn’t huge, but the group got loans from important galleries in New York, and Lincoln Kirstein wrote a small catalogue for it,” says Laura Muir, the research curator for academic and public programs at the Harvard Art Museums. The exhibition traveled to New York and Chicago and caught the attention of Charles Kuhn, the curator of Harvard’s Germanic Museum—now the Busch-Reisinger Museum—and a supporter of the Society. In the wake of the exhibition, Kuhn began collecting contemporary German art, with a focus on Bauhaus works.

The Bauhaus was founded in 1919 with the intention to promote collaboration between fine art, design, architecture, and craft. Though it had an indelible influence on the arts, it was only open for 14 years before its closure in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi regime (it was thought to be a hub for communist intellectualism). Like many of his colleagues, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus’s founder and first architect-director, fled Nazi Germany. After a brief period in London, Gropius joined Harvard’s department of architecture in 1937, serving as the chair of the Graduate School of Design until 1952. Kuhn developed a relationship with Gropius, which lent direction to the curator’s timely reinvention of the Germanic Museum after World War II. The change was necessary: for one, the museum had been started with a collection of plaster casts and Kuhn wanted to shift its focus to original work, but perhaps more pressingly, German art was understandably out of fashion at the time. “As you can imagine, people weren’t so keen on Germanic culture, but right around this time Kuhn began the Bauhaus collection,” says Muir. “The Bauhaus represented something so expansive and modern—it was the perfect initiative for that moment.” Within a few years a call was put out for donations, and by the mid-1950s, there were 10,000 works in the museum’s Bauhaus collection.

Today, the Busch-Reisinger Museum has an enormous cache of 32,000 Bauhaus-related objects in its holdings. It serves as the museum’s core, and a selection of its pieces is always installed in its galleries. In 2016, Harvard Art Museums created The Bauhaus Special Collection, an online resource that serves as an ever-evolving digital catalogue for a collection too big for a comprehensive physical catalogue.

This year, to mark the centennial of the Bauhaus’ founding, the Busch-Reisinger Museum is harnessing the expansive spirit of its digital archive and adapting it for the gallery setting. “The Bauhaus and Harvard,” which opens at the Busch-Reisinger on February 8 and runs through July 28, features some 200 works by 74 artists. Though still a distillation of the museum’s vast holdings, the show is meant to create a broader view of the Bauhaus’ philosophies and its artists’ output. “When you look at the exhibition history of the collection, it’s been about 50 years since we’ve looked at the collection as a whole,” says Muir. “So the Centennial is a really good moment to focus on this collection in its entirety and look at it with fresh eyes.”

The exhibition opens with a gallery devoted to the Bauhaus’ pedagogical practices. Says Muir, “We were devoted to the idea that first and foremost the Bauhaus was a school—which is of course pertinent to us.” The school’s faculty included such esteemed artists as Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Bartning, and Herbert Bayer, and began with the Vorkurs, an intensive course that introduced fundamental design principles. The gallery features examples of student exercises that showcase the Bauhaus’s revolutionary approach, focusing on color, form, shape, even sound. They are rarely seen because, being on paper, they are extremely photosensitive. One of the last galleries in the show features work that acknowledges the Bauhaus’ influence in the United States, for instance, Untitled (BMC.121, Exercise in Color Vibration and Figure Background), an exercise produced by celebrated sculptor Ruth Asawa in 1948–49 under the tutelage of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Throughout the exhibition, the archive’s depth will be used to expand upon familiar works. Muir cites an installation of Marcel Breuer’s celebrated Club Chair (B3) (designed 1925, manufactured 1929–32, nickel-plated steel tubing and modern canvas) in the show’s second gallery, which is devoted to the domestic interior. Ads by Herbert Bayer, as well as fabric samples from the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop, and photographs by Lucia Moholy, Moholy-Nagy’s wife—materials that are rarely on view because of their light sensitivity—give context to the chair. This gallery also showcases practical decorative art pieces like Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Coffee and Tea Service: 5-Piece Set (1924–25, brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures) and Table Lamp (1924, transparent glass, opaline glass, mercury-silvered German silver, and silvered brass), which underscore the Bauhaus’ utopian project of designing a new world with objects that blended design, technology and functionality.

A section of the show devoted to the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop not only emphasizes some of the Busch-Reisinger’s strongest holdings, but also gives recognition to members whose voices might not have been as loud in the past—in short, the school’s women artists. “Throughout its history, we’ve had a lot of exhibitions devoted to this collection, but they’ve surrounded a lot of the same familiar male figures. We want to show the contributions of the women artists,” says Muir. In this section, Gunta Stölzl’s Tapestry (1922–23), an exploration of Modernist form and color in cotton, wool, and linen fibers, sings, as does Design for a Rug (1927, black ink and watercolor over graphite with drawn and cut paper additions on off-white wove paper) by Anni Albers.

The photographs of Moholy, another woman artist who has been predominately overlooked, are a through-line of the show. In the past, many of them were credited to Walter Gropius, because they featured his architecture. Her images, which depict everything from student exercises to artworks, decorative pieces, interiors, and architecture, give perhaps the most visceral sense of the Bauhaus’s culture and output. Muir says, “It was her vision that helped shape the vision of what the Bauhaus was.”

The exhibition’s final gallery is devoted to the Harvard Graduate Center, which Gropius designed with his firm The Architects Collaborative. Opening in 1950, it became the first modernist building complex on the university’s campus. The Center, says Muir, has never been the focus of an exhibition. The section will feature examples of artwork and studies commissioned for the building, such as Herbert Bayer’s Verdure (1950, oil on canvas), which was until recently undergoing conservation, and decorative pieces such as the plaid bedspread Anni Albers designed for the Center’s dorm rooms.

In a sister exhibition at Harvard’s University Research Gallery, “Hans Arp’s Constellations II,” the 13-panel relief of the same name, which was commissioned by Gropius for the Center, will be on view. Constellations II was first installed on the walls of a popular dining hall in Harkness Commons (now the Caspersen Center), but, in perhaps a rare convergence of Bauhaus and Animal House, had to be raised above table height in 1958 due to damage. They have since been moved and, recently, conserved.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Arthur Osver: The Inner Landscape Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:06:22 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Formed as an artist in the crucible of American industrialism, Arthur Osver journeyed into realms of abstraction to find a unique way of seeing and painting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Chris Shields

Edna Andrade: The Geometry of Perception Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:05:45 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Edna Andrade’s art transcends the “Op” label, revealing her fascination with mathematics, psychology, and the inner workings of nature.

Edna Andrade, Mariposa, 1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By John Dorfman

Arms and the Man Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:05:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Met puts a cache of rare decorative English firearms on view for The first time.

Pair of Flintlock Pistols

Gunmaker: Samuel Brunn, silversmith: Michael Barnett, Pair of Flintlock Pistols, British, London, 1800-1801

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Pair of Flintlock Pistols Detail of a pair of Flintlock Pistols Detail of a Pair of Flintlock Pistols Barreled Turnover Percussion Pistols Cased Flintlock Target Pistol

When John Byck first joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Arms and Armor as Assistant Curator three years ago, one of his first tasks was to identify areas of the department’s collection that could benefit from further research. While digging through the collection, he came across a remarkable find: a group of about 30 British firearms from the 18th and early 19th centuries, all in storage, that had not been critically examined since they entered the Met’s collection almost a century before. What’s more, many of them were highly significant—either very rare pieces or of exceptional quality. Byck had found his next project.

“I read every book I could find on the subject,” he says. “And while I was recataloguing the firearms, I found that many had these exciting stories to tell.” To track down these stories, Byck made several trips to the United Kingdom to visit archives and private collections. The result of this research and analysis is the exhibition “The Art of London Firearms,” the first U.S. museum show to examine the topic. It opened on January 29 and will remain on view through January 29, 2020.

The guns in the exhibition were all made by a small group of gunmakers on the outskirts of London, beginning around 1780. These craftsmen were in fierce competition with one another to attract commissions from wealthy customers, and this situation produced a level of artistry and refinement previously unknown in the flintlock firearm. This time period therefore not only resulted in higher-quality decoration but also in the first development of a truly English style of firearm.

With so many impressive examples of British firearms from this time period, one of the first questions Byck approached was how to determine the gun’s quality. “In order to understand where they fall on the spectrum of quality, as is true of any artwork, we have to look at the best examples and determine what those markers of quality are,” Byck says. “What type of embellishments do they have? How beautifully are the barrels made? Are the stocks finely finished? What motifs are commonly featured on royal firearms? Are the pieces still in their original cases, with original finishes?” The pieces in the Met’s collection were made for presentation or sport and were considered functional works of art in their own day, just as they are now.

In addition to the decorative elements, provenance was another highly important factor in Byck’s examination of this collection—and this was something that could really only be thoroughly researched through travel. One of the pieces that was most rewarding for Byck was a cased set of four-barreled percussion pistols made by gunmaker James Purdey in 1831, purchased by the Met in 1935. “When I found these pistols, I knew they were important, but I didn’t know exactly why. So while I was in London, I had the chance to visit Purdey’s archive, and in that archive I found these pistols,” Byck says. He discovered the original owner, the date of purchase, and the price paid for them—which revealed that they were the most expensive pistols Purdey had made up until that point, 30 or 40 years into his business. What’s more, Byck found that the purchaser was the 4th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, an influential politician at the time whose archives still survive. By visiting that archive, Byck was able to reconstruct almost the entire story of the pistols’ commission.

Another significant piece is a pair of flintlock pistols made by Samuel Brunn. Decorated with extremely fine silver mountings, they were most likely made for the Prince Regent. “They’re arguably the finest Neoclassical British firearms in the world,” Byck says. Yet another standout is a target pistol made by Robert Wogdon and John Barton for Prince William Frederick, 2nd Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. The pistol has an elegant curved stock and long barrel, with minimal embellishment.

In addition to displaying these items, many of which have never been on view before, “The Art of London Firearms” includes other pieces to help contextualize the guns. One of those was an extremely exciting find. “I found the tradecard for the artisan who made one of the firearms,” Byck says. “It’s very beautiful, and very rare. The card is one of those ephemeral pieces of art—it’s amazing that it survived. I’m very excited to be able to unite one of our star pieces with this really extraordinary trade card.”

By Elizabeth Pandolfi

Whole Cloth Mon, 28 Jan 2019 17:04:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Wolfsonian’s latest exhibition brings the history of Italian textile design from Genoa to Miami.

Design drawing for a rug, 1947

Design drawing for a rug, 1947, for MITA’s Rug Competition for the T8. VIII Triennale, Milan Antonia Campi, designer, tempera and graphite on paperboard.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Panel, Mulinello [Whirl], 1957 Tapestry, Flauto magico [Magic Flute], for the Eugenio C Design drawing for a rug, 1927 MITA Factory, Genoa Nervi, 1940 Design drawing for a rug, 1947

“Made in Italy.” Which other three little words, almost always placed in a hidden, unassuming location on a variety of artistic and agronomic products, have come to hold such strong cachet worldwide?

In fact, none of the artworks on view in the eponymous exhibition at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in Miami Beach includes that evocative phrase (and the “Made in Italy” mark was not put into place until 1980). But none of the masterpieces here would even require such a moniker. Their Italianness, both in their quality and in their artistic composition, needs no regulated stamp to be understood. “Made in Italy: MITA Textile Design 1926–1976,” organized with The Wolfsonian’s sister institution, The Wolfsoniana–Palazzo Ducale Fondazione per la Cultura in Genoa, celebrates the artistic output of the Manifattura Italiana Tappeti Artistici (Italian Artistic Carpet Manufactory), an enterprise that, for 50 years, espoused the finest Italian craftsmanship and newest textile technologies in all their modernist furnishing and sartorial glory. Curators Silvia Barisione, Matteo Fochessati, and Gianni Franzone present MITA’s contributions in the history of textile and carpet production, situating the company at the forefront of the Italian avant-garde, from Futurism to Abstract Expressionism and even a bit of Pop.

Established in 1926 by the industrialist and entrepreneur Mario Alberto Ponis in Nervi, a suburb of Genoa, MITA was in many ways ahead of its time. Ponis envisioned a business that functioned as a hands-on factory as well as a place for artistic experimentation and learning. His friendships with many members of Italy’s cultured circles led to the company’s first collaborations with artists, drawing on Italian artisanal traditions while embracing the spirit of mechanized production. This marriage of art and industry would irrevocably change the Italian design landscape until the firm’s closure in 1976.

Ponis collaborated early on with an impressive roster of painters, designers, and architects, including the Rationalist architect Mario Labò, the architect-designer of the Novecento movement and Domus editor Gio Ponti, and the Futurist artist Fortunato Depero, whose textiles and carpets had already earned him accolades at the 1925 Exposition in Paris. Depero’s 1927 drawing for a carpet produced by MITA would have made a particular impact with its fiery colors and explosive forms. Depero pared down the geometry to a deceivingly simple two shapes and four colors, but the dynamism matches and arguably even exceeds that of its cousins being produced in France at the same time, like Sonia Delaunay’s textiles, which Depero no doubt saw when in Paris. Testifying to MITA’s initial artistic success, Depero’s Futurist colleagues Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Giacomo Balla even purchased rugs from Ponis. Shown alongside three colorways of this rug design are period ceramics, illustrating the modernist Gesamtkunstwerk in interior decorating during the 1920s, and Depero’s famous bolted book, which, in wonderfully Futurist fashion, was finished with hardware so as to damage the books shelved next to it, and which included a dedication to Ponis.

Seggioline (Chairs), produced in 1935 from a drawing by Gio Ponti, is a playful pattern of tiny, repeating stylized chairs, which refer to his work as an industrial designer. Ponti not only created rugs and textiles for MITA but also frequently visited Ponis’ factory and included their products in Domus’ pages, a practice of familial promotion that he would continue throughout his tenure at the magazine. “You won’t find in Ponis the master artisan,” Ponti later wrote, “but rather a man who, without speculative address and with intelligence, plays an important role … [as] mediator between creators of fabric and architects.”

In the 1930s, Ponis worked with Rationalist architect Luigi Carlo Daneri to design the new and ultra-modern MITA factory, itself an ode to French modernist architecture with its flat roof and ribbon windows in the style of Le Corbusier. Inaugurated in 1941, the factory was quickly closed and refitted to produce helmets, life jackets, and emergency food bags.

In the postwar period, at a moment when Italy sought to find an artistic and industrial identity that could help reinvigorate the economy, MITA reopened and its production expanded to include tapestries, limited-edition and one-off artist panels, yard goods, and even scarves, to compete with the new wave of high-end Italian textile manufacturers like Fede Cheti and the Manifattura JSA, who shared some designers with MITA, including Ettore Sottsass, Jr. Sottsass’ abstracted kaleidoscope of hues, along with sculptor and ceramicist Antonia Campi’s rhythmic inversions of polymorphic shapes and lines, comprised MITA’s winning entries for the rug competition at the VIII Triennale of Milan in 1947.

During the 1950s and 1960s, MITA added to its ranks artists like Eugenio Carmi, Enrico Paulucci, Gio Pomodoro, and Leo Lionni (best known for his children’s book illustrations), to name just a few. Unlike other Italian fabric manufacturers who commissioned artists, though, Ponis smartly branded MITA’s goods as standalone works of art, even signed with the artists’ names, whether in printed ink or color, or woven into the tapestries. These one-of-a-kind works helped MITA to establish itself internationally, in regular showings at the Triennali after 1947, as well as by participating in the landmark 1950 touring exhibition in America, “Italy at Work: Her Renaissance in Design Today.” In 1951 at the IX Triennale, Italian artist textiles were exhibited for the first time. Among the invited companies was MITA, whose works included those by painters Carmi and Paulucci.

On display at The Wolfsonian is Carmi’s Mulinello (Whirl, 1957), exhibited in 1959 at the Fundación Mendoza in Caracas. A rumination on Italian abstract expressionism in neutral tones, Mulinello could rival the works of the Americans at that moment, both in its composition and scale. At the X Triennale in 1954, MITA focused its attention on one artist—and one work, as the title of the exhibition made clear. The Mostra del Pezzo Unico (Exhibition of the Unique Piece), featured Favola (Fable), a monumental tapestry by Emmanuele Luzzati, best known today for his theater designs and book illustrations. Favola depicts a myriad of characters from the uplifting fairy-tale worlds Luzzati created through his illustration and stories, drawing as much from postwar optimism and a need to escape Italy’s recent war-torn past as from its more distant theatrical past in the form of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Perhaps most telling of the company’s mid-century success are MITA’s commissions “at sea” to decorate the luxury ocean liners Andrea Doria (which sank in 1956), Eugenio C., and Leonardo Da Vinci. MITA’s work for the three vessels aptly recalls Gio Ponti’s summation of these cruise ships as “floating art galleries.” Among the stars of the Wolfsonian show is another of Luzzati’s tapestries, Flauto Magico (Magic Flute, 1966); Russian-German artist Michael Rachlis’ tapestry design; and Paulucci’s Gabbiani (Seagulls, 1960). Luzzati chose cool, aqueous tones and forms that suggest not Mozart (although the operatic reference was no coincidence for the seasoned stage designer) but rather the seaweed and coral glimpsed in underwater exploration, an appropriate reference given the tapestry’s original home in the Eugenio C.’s first-class dining room. The circa-1952 tempera sketch by Rachlis for the tapestry in the Andrea Doria first-class reading room is all that survives, but one gets a sense of the artistry in wool paired with a maritime decorative program. MITA produced Paulucci’s design for a silk scarf, fittingly featuring seagulls, as a giveaway for the inaugural voyage of the Leonardo da Vinci, which was built to replace the Andrea Doria. (In the 1960s, silk scarves were a fashionable means of promotion that was particularly favored by corporations, from pasta producer Prince to furniture giant Knoll.) Luzzati also produced a scarf, Cabo San Roque – Cabo San Vicente (circa 1960), an advertising freebie in association with the Spanish shipping company Ybarra Line.

In 1987, designer Andrea Branzi wrote that it was the “incredible fabrics” produced in Italy after the war that had brought Italian design “out of the doldrums of rationalism”—perhaps despite the Rationalist theories on which Ponis founded his business and its aesthetic, and with which Daneri had designed the factory—and “onto the hottest beaches of post-industrial culture,” a harbinger of the soon-to-come postmodernism. Branzi’s words are brought to life at The Wolfsonian thanks to MITA, the innovative vision of Mario Alberto Ponis, and the avant-garde compositions of the artists he employed. “Made in Italy” is a rare chance to see, outside of that country, the important products of a design great.

“Made in Italy” is on view through April 28, 2019 at The Wolfsonian–Florida International University in Miami Beach.

Turner and Constable: Figures in a Landscape Sat, 01 Dec 2018 01:18:45 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The contrasting approaches of two great masters of English landscape painting, Turner and Constable, are showcased in a new exhibition at the Clark.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Wolf’s Hope, Eyemouth, circa 1835

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Wolf’s Hope, Eyemouth, circa 1835, watercolor and gouache over graphite, with scraping, on cream wove paper, 4.13 x 6.5 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rochester, circa 1793 John Constable, The Houses of Parliament on Fire, 1834 John Constable, Willy Lott’s House, circa 1812-13 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Saumur from the Île d’Offart, with the Pont Cessart and the Château in the Distance, circa 1830 Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Tower of London, circa 1794 Joseph Mallord William Turner, Wolf’s Hope, Eyemouth, circa 1835

In an early watercolor, the celebrated English landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner (often referred to as J. M. W. Turner) portrayed a view of Rochester, a city in Kent. The city is known now, as it was in Turner’s time, for its eponymous cathedral and castle—the former housing the second-oldest diocese in England and the latter sporting one of the best-preserved keeps, or fortified towers, in England or France. Yet in the circa-1793 work, Rochester, the famous cathedral and castle fade, quite literally, into the background. Turner’s view fronts a row of cargo ships and workers carrying lumber on their shoulders, while the urban center and its medieval masterpieces glint behind them on the horizon. Here, Turner favors the kinetic energy of the contemporary over the majestic inertia of the antique, the now over the then.

Turner, known as a painter of breathtaking views and extraordinary weather, also had a knack for representing daily life. Not entirely unlike the seas and storms that course with violent energy through such masterpieces as Clair Pier (1803) or The Wreck of a Transport Ship (circa 1810), his calmer vistas are often punctuated by figures or buildings that look busy and lived in. These additions help create the sense that Turner’s scenes are in the midst of happening, even though many of his views and subjects were in fact amalgamations of places and people he saw throughout his extensive travels or read about in literature.

John Constable, Turner’s peer and fellow master of the landscape, also imbued his canvases with the figures and buildings of contemporary 19th-century life. An Englishman who never left England and an avid painter en plein air, Constable rigorously recreated the people and places he saw in person. Often studying his subjects from several different angles, he could manifest them on canvas with a sense of knowing familiarity. A native of Suffolk, Constable famously painted the landscapes of Dedham Vale, an area surrounding his home that is now often referred to as “Constable Country.” “I should paint my own places best,” he wrote a friend in 1821, “painting is but another word for feeling.”

The significance of human figures and built environments in the paintings of both artists takes center stage in “Turner and Constable: The Inhabited Landscape,” a new exhibition that goes on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., on December 15. The exhibition makes use of the 200 oil paintings, sketches, works on paper, and prints in the Clark’s Manton Collection of British Art. Amassed by the collector Sir Edwin Manton and gifted to the museum by the Manton Art Foundation in 2007, the collection explores 19th-century British art in depth.

“We wanted to show the richness of the gift, especially in works by Turner and Constable, and we also wanted to interpret the collection anew,” says Alexis Goodin, curator of the show. The exhibition was also an opportunity to showcase how the pieces from the gift fit in with those collected by the institution’s namesakes, Sterling and Francine Clark.

When it came to developing a theme for the show, there was much to choose from. But as Goodin notes, with so much about these artists having already been explored, the curator looked for inspiration close to home. “The idea of the ‘inhabited landscape’ was inspired in part by where we are in the world,” says the curator. “The museum is situated in this natural space, surrounded by trails and mountains, with a nearby farmer’s cows grazing on a hill behind us—I think these artists would have appreciated it here.”

It stands to reason that Manton himself would have, too. Born in 1905 in Essex County, a mere 20 miles from “Constable Country,” Manton moved in 1933 to New York, where he helped develop the American International Group. When he began collecting art with his wife Florence, Lady Manton, it was British work that captivated him. Goodin says, “Manton’s collecting habits were rooted in nostalgia.”

Considered one of the best collections of British art assembled in the last 50 years, Manton’s cache consists of works by Turner and Constable, as well as Thomas Rowlandson, Thomas Girtin, Richard Parkes Bonington, Samuel Palmer, John Martin, and William Blake. A group of landscape drawings by Turner and Constable’s predecessor Thomas Gainsborough now on view at the Clark (14 of the 16 are from Manton’s collection) showcases the collector’s appreciation for the vistas of home. The works portray the woodlands and heath of Manton’s native county and the mountainous Lake District of Cumbria. Though Gainsborough was known as one of the leading British portrait artists of the 18th century (and for being the nemesis of Sir Joshua Reynolds), here

he captures the characteristics of the countryside. Adept at a variety of media, he uses graphite, chalks, ink washes, watercolor, and oil paints on toned papers to capture the foliage, cottages, and pastoral figures of the region. Constable, notably, was an admirer of Gainsborough’s. Of the older artist’s paintings he said, “On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes and known not what brings them.”

Central to Gainsborough’s work was a reliance on the observation of nature, a practice similarly important to Constable’s process. “His subject matter grew out of his existence in the Stour Valley, where he was always looking at familiar places and the people who inhabited them,” says Goodin. “He was trying to depict a naturalistic view of where he lived, and he wanted to show how well he knew and understood it.”

Constable had cultivated this practice even before he was formally trained as a painter. As a youth, he embarked on sketching trips in the Suffolk and Essex countryside. “The sound of water escaping from mill dams…willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things,” he wrote. Even during his time at the Royal Academy, he would return from London during the summers to paint, sketch, and, as Goodin puts it, “store up ideas for the winter”.

Constable’s The Wheat Field (1816, oil on canvas), a highlight of the Clark’s exhibition, features an expansive view of a valley in Suffolk. A sumptuous depiction of summer, the painting juxtaposes the rich gold of wheat ready to be harvested with the lush greenery of nearby trees and grasses and the pale tonal whites of a pleasantly cloudy sky. Adding to the scene are the field’s workers, a mix of different classes working together, including plowmen cutting the wheat, reapers bundling it, and gleaners collecting grains. Constable, who spent that summer painting outside, wrote his fiancée in August 1815, “I live wholly in the fields and see nobody but the harvest men.”

Though Suffolk remained his favorite subject, Constable did travel around England and paint or sketch other places. The exhibition features Salisbury Cathedral from the West (July 23, 1829, graphite on cream wove paper), a lively sketch with a figure fishing in the foreground and the gothic Salisbury Cathedral standing regally in the background, its spire projecting skyward. Constable’s friend the Bishop John Fisher lived in Salisbury, and the town became a frequent subject of the artist’s. The cathedral in particular served as an ongoing inspiration, becoming the subject of Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds (circa 1828, oil on canvas), a gift to Fisher that is now in the Frick Collection, as well as several drawings from varying perspectives in the Clark’s collection.

In Yarmouth Jetty (circa 1822–23, oil on canvas), a view of the water at the seaside town in Norfolk, a luminous sky takes center stage, but Constable’s propensity for using figures as scenery is evident with a small red-capped boy on the beach with a cart and a horse. Osmington Village (1816–17, oil on canvas), a loan from the Yale Center for British Art, depicts the rolling hills of the quaint Dorset village where Constable and his wife spent their honeymoon. Leading with a view down a dirt lane, figures sparsely dot the landscape, suggesting whom one might meet along the way.

Unlike Constable, Turner, a London native, was an avid international traveler. Though he was a very private person socially, “for him the world was more fluid,” Goodin says. “He traveled extensively, he loved the Alps and the Rhine River, visiting Scotland and Wales, which informed his work.” However, the curator notes, “A lot of his land and seascapes were probably invented. He pulled ideas out of what he’d seen and created dynamic scenes that we can’t quite place.”

One that toes the line of being “place-able” is Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, an 1840 oil on canvas and another highlight of the show. During this later era of his career, Turner spent a lot of time at Margate in Kent. There, he studied and painted the coast as it was affected by different weather patterns and different times of day. This resulted in the creation of dozens of oils and watercolors. The present example is a vortex of color devolving almost entirely into abstraction. In the seascape, abstracted though it is, one can still make out a group of darkened figures on the beach at the bottom left.

In Saumur from the Île d’Offart, with the Pont Cessart and the Château in the Distance (circa 1830, watercolor and gouache with pen and black and brown ink over traces of graphite on blue wove paper), Turner, as in Constable’s The Wheat Field, portrays several types of workers working simultaneously. Here Saumur, a town on the Loire River in west-central France, bustles with activity, as washerwomen lay laundry out to dry in the sun and men load cargo onto barges.

The painting also showcases Turner’s aptitude for imbuing architecture with character. The Tower of London (circa 1794, watercolor over graphite on cream wove paper), an early work that served as a preliminary watercolor for an engraving that appeared in The Pocket Magazine on January 1, 1795, is another example. In this depiction of the infamous prison from across the ship-dotted Thames, the tower seems to gleam proudly at the viewer. Turner’s portrayals of architecture would become much more mirage-like toward the end of his career. In the 1854 watercolor Brunnen from the Lake of Lucerne, Turner blasts the canvas with rosy light, so that the buildings at the edge of the lake and the mountains behind it become obscured, seemingly fading before one’s eyes. Meanwhile, the figures in the foreground, standing on and rowing small boats, go about their work.

By Sarah E. Fensom

The Woman Sorcerer Fri, 30 Nov 2018 04:17:15 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In Mexico, a massive retrospective reveals the magical world of Leonora Carrington.

Leonora Carrington, Snake Bike Floripondio, 1975

Leonora Carrington, Snake Bike Floripondio, 1975, oil on canvas, 59.5 x 80 cm. © 2018 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Leonora Carrington, Green Tea (La Dame Ovale), 1942 Leonora Carrington, The Chrysopeia of Mary the Jewess, 1964 Leonora Carrington, Iguana and Fox (For Edward James), 1948-1958 Leonora Carrington, Snake Bike Floripondio, 1975 Leonora Carrington, El baño de Rabbi Loew, 1969

At the time of her death at the age of 94 in 2011, Leonora Carrington was the last survivor of the original generation of Surrealists. Born in England, she had lived in Mexico City since 1942, when she fled Nazi-occupied Europe along with many of her fellow Surrealists. Always enamored of the marvelous and the magical, in Mexico Carrington connected deeply with that country’s indigenous myths, integrating them into her work. Over time, she became accepted, despite her foreign birth, as a Mexican artist. And while she entered the art world under the aegis of Surrealism and stayed true to its inspiration, she was too independent to adhere to Surrealist orthodoxy.

Carrington’s work is figurative and narrative, and the stories she tells belong to the realm of dreams, visions, and symbols. So it’s fitting that the retrospective now on view at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO), in Mexico, is titled “Leonora Carrington: Magic Tales,” and it marks the first time her work has been revealed in all its aspects—painting, drawing, sculpture, theater design, playwriting and fiction, all spanning a period of more than 60 years. Comprising 223 works loaned from public and private collection in Mexico, the U.S., and Europe, the exhibition was curated by Tere Arcq and Stefan van Raay and organized by the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in collaboration with the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Fundación Leonora Carrington A.C. The last in a year-long series of events commemorating the centennial of the artist’s birth, the show runs through February 3, 2019.

Born in 1917 to a nouveau riche family in Lancashire, the father a textile tycoon, Carrington rebelled early and often. As her biographer (and cousin) Joanna Moorhead relates in her 2017 biography, The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, at the age of 18 the future artist was presented to King George V and Queen Mary as a debutante; long afterward, she recalled the tiara she wore that day as “biting into my skull.” After two years of being pushed into “society,” she had to escape. The escape route presented itself serendipitously at a London dinner party in 1937, where Carrington found herself seated next to, of all people, the German-born Surrealist artist Max Ernst, 26 years her senior. They fell in love immediately and traveled together to Europe, settling in Paris.

He called her “the Bride of the Wind”; she said, “everything I learned in art and life I learned from Max.” He introduced her to the circle of Surrealists, including André Breton, who called her “the woman sorcerer” and encouraged her to study magic, alchemy, astrology, the Tarot, and the I Ching, occult subjects that would become a major influence on her paintings and writings. In the chaos of the Nazi occupation of France, Carrington and Ernst were separated, and in 1940 she had a psychiatric crisis that landed her in a mental hospital in Spain. After leaving the hospital, she decided that she needed to separate herself from Ernst in order to achieve artistic and personal independence.

While in Spain she married a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, with whom she fled fascism in 1941, first to New York and then Mexico City by the end of 1942. A year later, Carrington and Leduc divorced, and in 1946 she married Imre “Chiki” Weisz, a Hungarian-born Jewish photographer who had once been Robert Capa’s darkroom assistant. Through Weisz, she connected not only with Judaism—see, for example, her painting El baño de Rabbi Loew, which depicts an imagined scene involving the wonder-working 16th-century Prague Kabbalist who made the Golem—but with another expatriate community of artists and unconventional thinkers. Among these were the painters Wolfgang Paalen and Remedios Varo, the poet Benjamin Péret, the photographer Kati Horna, and the filmmakers Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The 1940s and ’50s were a time of major creative achievement and career success for Carrington. In 1945 she befriended the English collector and arts patron Edward James, a major supporter of Surrealists including Salvador Dalí. James got her her first solo show, at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York in 1948. The next year, Carrington read Robert Graves’ new book The White Goddess, which was a life-changing experience and a major influence on her work. Graves ambitiously attempted to excavate a world before patriarchy when goddess worship and reverence for women’s powers were the basis of culture. Graves’ thoughts may not have been entirely news to Carrington; her 1942 painting Green Tea (La Dame Ovale) looks very much like a portrait of the White Goddess herself.

Carrington began painting scenes of female figures engaging in magical rituals or acts of prophecy. Alchemy, described by its adepts as “child’s play and women’s work,” featured prominently in this iconography, as in The Chrysopeia [i.e., gold-making] of Mary the Jewess (1964). Sometimes in Carrington’s work, alchemy is identified with the archetypally female task of cooking, the alchemical laboratory becoming a humble kitchen. In these as in most of Carrington’s painting, the figurative elements are presented in an uncanny, abstracted space whose dimensions and illumination are unlike those of this world. Another major source of inspiration to Carrington was the animal kingdom, with which she identified intensely, almost shamanistically. The painting Iguana and Fox (1948–58)—dedicated to her patron Edward James—in which the animals are portrayed as having humanoid bodies and two-legged stances, is typical of this aspect of her work.

Mexico, often considered to be inherently Surreal due to its magical mixture of cultures and everyday marvels, was the perfect environment for Carrington’s artistic development, and she felt that her Irish-Celtic background resonated with the Pre-Columbian myths of Mexico. Ironically, the Mexican muralists came to reject Surrealism for political and nationalist reasons, and that had ramifications for Carrington when David Alfaro Siqueiros saw to it that a mural commission she had won from Mexico City’s National Medical Center was cancelled. However, she eventually did execute a mural for the Mayan Room in the Museum of Anthropology, titled The Magical World of the Mayans (1964). Drawings and studies for this mural are on view in a special section of the exhibition.

The exhibition also has sections dedicated to Carrington’s political and feminist activism beginning in 1968, her fiction writing, and photographs of her and her circle. As a writer she is best known for the novel The Hearing Trumpet (published in 1970 though written earlier), which combines visionary fantasy and social satire, but she also wrote plays and short stories. Her first story, The House of Fear, was published in France in 1938 with collage illustrations by Max Ernst. Among the photos on view are ones by Chiki Weisz, Kati Horna, and Lee Miller, another Surrealist-influenced woman who began her artistic life as a “muse” and quickly outgrew the role to become an artist.

By John Dorfman

Ansel Adams: Western Expansion Fri, 30 Nov 2018 04:04:28 +0000 Continue reading ]]> A show at the MFA Boston looks at the influences on and of Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, about 1937

Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, about 1937, photograph, gelatin silver print.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Ansel Adams, Pine Forest in Snow, Yosemite National Park, about 1932 Mitchell Epstein, Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California, 2007 Ansel Adams, The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942 Ansel Adams, Monolith -- The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927, print date: 1950-60 Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, about 1937

Before Ansel Adams famously photographed Yosemite National Park, there was Carleton E. Watkins, a New York-born photographer who decamped to San Francisco in 1849 during the Gold Rush. Instead of finding gold, Watkins became one of the earliest and most important American landscape photographers. He started out as an apprentice to Robert Vance, a pioneering daguerreotypist, and quickly began making money shooting mining estates. He shot Yosemite in the summer of 1861 with a steroscopic camera and a mammoth-plate camera, which used 18-by-22-inch glass negatives. His sweeping panoramic views of what was then known as the “Yo-Semite Valley” showcased the region’s breathtaking waterfalls, mountains, gigantic trees, and wilderness. At the time, it was largely untraveled, and most viewers had never seen Half Dome, Cathedral Rocks, and El Capitan before Watkins’ photographs.

In fact, Watkins is generally credited with Yosemite’s becoming a national park in the first place. In the 1860s, while the country was in the throes of the Civil War, logging and mining companies were eyeing Yosemite’s rich resources. As the story goes, California Senator John Conness, who owned a cache of Watkins’ work and told Congress that Yosemite was home to “perhaps some of the greatest wonders of the world,” showed several photographs to President Abraham Lincoln. A year later, in 1864, Lincoln signed a law granting the land “in the granite peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains” to the state of California to be “held for public use, resort, and recreation…inalienable for all time.” Predating both the National Park System and Yellowstone, it was the first act by the Federal government to preserve land for the public.

With a credit like this—and praise from leading artistic voices of his day such as Albert Bierstadt and Ralph Waldo Emerson—it’s surprising that Watkins and his photographs aren’t better known. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is partly to blame, as it destroyed Watkins’ studio and the lion’s share of his negatives (the quake also threw a then four-year-old Adams, a San Francisco native, into a wall, damaging his nose). A 1975 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by the photography curator Weston Naef is largely credited with launching Watkins’ work back into the public eye. However it should be noted that Adams, who described Watkins as one of the “great Western photographers,” was well versed in the older artist’s work, often retracing his steps in Yosemite. He put several of Watkins’ photographs in “Photographs of the Civil War and the American Frontier,” an exhibition he curated for the Museum of Modern Art in 1942.

Adams’ influences, and the artists influenced by him, is the subject of “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” an exhibition that opens at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on December 13. The show, which runs through February 24, puts Adams’ work on view alongside that of his 19th-century predecessors and 20 contemporary artists.

Just like one of Watkins’ or Adams’ panoramic photographs, the show provides a sweeping view of the American West and how its wilderness, inhabitants, and environment have changed.

Among the works representing 19th-century pioneers of government survey and expedition photography is Watkins Mount Starr King and Glacier Point, Yosemite, No. 69 (1865–66), which captures a serene clearing in the park near Mount Starr King, a symmetrical granite dome, and Glacier Point, a popular overlook point. The photograph’s rich textures and crisp clarity make it easy to forget that to get the shot on his photographic expedition Watkins wrangled over a dozen mules and carried 2,000 pounds of equipment and flammable chemicals. Another highlight is Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Falls (about 1887, albumen print) by Frank Jay Haynes. With its sharp contrast between black and white and bold lines, this work would be at home among the work of the Modernist photographers. Haynes, who first visited Yellowstone in 1881, obtained a photographic concession inside the new National Park at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1884. Henceforth he became the park’s unofficial official photographer, returning every year until his death and capturing all of the sites with a mammoth camera. It wasn’t uncommon for Adams to replicate these artists’ exact views in his own photographs, effectively reinforcing iconic images of the national parks.

Photographs such as The Sangre de Cristo from Marshall Pass (after 1879, albumen print) by William Henry Jackson and Heaipu, Navaho Woman (about 1879, albumen print) by John K. Hillers provide contemporary views of the 19th-century West. The former pictures a locomotive speeding through the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and the latter portrays a Navaho woman surrounded by and wearing traditional weavings.

The work of Adams that populates the show is some of his most iconic. It comes from the Lane Collection, one of the largest and most significant gifts in the MFA’s history (some 6,000 photographs, 100 works on paper, and paintings). Traversing the breadth of American modernism, the collection features work by Charles Sheeler (his entire photographic estate of 2,500 works, to be exact), Edward Weston (nearly 2,500 works), Arthur G. Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and John Marin—most of whom were peers and friends of Adams’s. The collection boasts 500 photographs by Adams, making it possible for the museum to examine and reinterpret the artist’s oeuvre from seemingly endless angles.

Works like The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1942, gelatin silver print), seem to owe a lot to Adams’ 19th-century forerunners. Much like Haynes’ Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Falls, the image’s winding body of water, gleaming like polished silver, cuts a sharp contrast to the darkened trees that surround it. The snowy tops of the Teton mountains on the horizon display a crispness that even outdoes Watkins, as their jagged peaks appear to poke into the wispy clouds. Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park (about 1937, gelatin silver print), a view of a snowy Yosemite valley, could be a shot from Watkins’s portfolio.

Monolith—The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park (1927, print date 1950–60, gelatin silver print), another famous image in the show, comes from his pivotal 1927 portfolio “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras”. Using a Korona view camera with glass plates and a dark red filter, Adams captured the image with the only plate he had left on his excursion to Yosemite. Adams said of the photo, which portrays a side view of the park’s famous granite dome, “I had been able to realize the desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.”

Works such as the famed Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941, print date 1965–75, gelatin silver print) and Grass and Burned Stump, Sierra Nevada, California (1935, gelatin silver print) feel entirely modern. The former juxtaposes the modest buildings of the unincorporated community of Hernandez with a grand, expansive sky overhead. The latter is purely Modernist, with its rich textures and zoomed-in composition. Photographs like the 1930 Cemetery State and Oil Derricks, Long Beach, California, which depicts industrial towers in the distance over the shoulder of a marble funerary statue of an angel, seem to herald postmodern photography.

A Western graveyard is the subject of Bryan Schutmaat’s Cemetery, Tonopah, NV (2012, archival inkjet print). The photograph depicts a cemetery in Tonopah, a mining town in the Nevada desert. As in Adams’ photograph, equipment from mining activity is visible behind the graves, which date to the first decade of the 20th century, a prosperous time for the town. Mitchell Epstein’s Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California (2007, chromegnic print), another contemporary work in the exhibition, shows the intersection between nature, recreation, and industry. It captures a view of a golf course, which is positioned in front of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in the Altamont Pass of the Diablo Range in Northern California. The wind farm was one of the first in the United States, with its earliest wind turbines being established in the area in the early 1980s by Fayette Manufacturing Corporation on land owned by Joe Jess, a cattle rancher. Some of the contemporary works in the show riff on traditional landscape photography. Catherine Opie’s Untitled #1 (Yosemite Valley) (2015, pigment print), for instance, provides a beautiful view of a Yosemite waterfall blurred and overexposed.

Other contemporary artists in the exhibition include Trevor Paglen, Abelardo Morell, Binh Dahn, and Victoria Sambunaris. Mark Klett, who is also featured in the show, created an entire series that marries historic landscape images by 19th-century photographers with those of the 20th. In one work that Klett made with Byron Wolfe, View from the handrail at Glacier Point overlook, connecting views from Ansel Adams to Carleton Watkins (2004), the artist creates an even more panoramic view of Yosemite with a contemporary image of the park, layered with those taken by both Adams and Watkins. They fit together quite well.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Moving to the Center Fri, 30 Nov 2018 03:46:14 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The art of Central America, long left out of the story of Latin American modernism, is getting new attention due to the efforts of two determined U.S. dealer-researchers.

Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962

Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962, oil on canvas;

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Alejandro Aróstegui, Estrella fugaz, 1995 Omar d’Leon, Las devoradoras, 1962 Rafa Fernandez, Me busco, 2016 Benjamin Cañas, Scarce offering, 1980 Benigno Gomez, sin título / untitled

Central America is world-renowned for its Pre-Columbian art, but when it comes to modern art, the region has long been overshadowed by its neighbor Mexico as well as by South America. No discussion of Latin American modernism, however, can be complete without taking into the account the vibrant, culturally diverse creations of the six Central American countries—Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. For North Americans—as for the global art world in general—knowledge about Central American modern art has been hard to come by, but a just-published book by two U.S. dealers and researchers, Mark Morgan Ford and Suzanne Brooks Snider, is about to make an important difference in that regard. Ford and Snider, who are partners in Ford Fine Art in Delray Beach, Fla., are launching their bilingual, lavishly illustrated volume, Central American Modernism/Modernismo en Centroamérica, at Pinta Miami, the Latin American art fair held at Mana Wynwood from December 5–9.

Ford, an entrepreneur and investor who has published many books on business strategy under the pen name of Michael Masterson, became fascinated by Latin American art because of a chance visit to the Southern California gallery of Bernard Lewin, a dealer and one of the most important collectors in the field (before his death in 2003, he and his wife donated over 2,000 works to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Initially focusing on Mexican artists, Ford was intrigued by the blending of influences in Latin American modern art—Native American cultural background, European classical traditions, and European and North American avant-garde modernism—and began putting together a collection of his own. He had business ventures in Central America and connected with Snider, who had lived in Costa Rica for several years and already had an interest in Central American art. Together, they conceived the idea of using their access to the region to promote and sell Central American modern art in the U.S. However, they soon found that the idea was more difficult to execute than they had expected.

While there are many great artists from Central America, the region has few museum holdings of modern and contemporary art and a small number of reputable commercial galleries. Much of the best modern art is in the private collections of wealthy families or in corporate art collections, most of which belong to banks. About eight years ago, Ford and Snider decided that in order to foster an international market for Central American modern art, it was necessary to spread knowledge about that art. In the course of their research, they found that there was no book that took in the art of the region as a whole, and so they decided to write one themselves. In order to do that, they needed to become deeply versed in the full range of Central American art, which entailed multiple trips to the countries to visit collections; interview historians, museum directors, dealers, collectors, artists, and artists’ families; and collect documents and photographs of artworks.

Despite the daunting nature of the task, Snider found the experience to be very rewarding. “What was good was that in every single country, I was welcomed,” she recalls, “because I was there on a mission to make the art of their country known. In homes—sometimes modest, sometimes elegant—always, always, people greeted me graciously.” Commenting on the differences among art-viewing opportunities in the various countries, she says, “El Salvador has a beautiful museum, the Museo Forma, where you can see the work of their masters. In Honduras, on the other hand, you have to go to a bank, and in Nicaragua they take the artwork from the rich and put it into government collections that they rarely let you into.” Eventually, Snider and Ford succeeded in buying enough Central American art to start the gallery in Delray Beach and another in Nicaragua. More recently, they’ve expanded the business by opening another gallery in Coral Cables, Fla.

Central American Modernism/Modernismo en Centroamérica reveals that the modern art of the region tends to reflect the political and social character of each country. The Pre-Columbian heritage is especially important in Guatemala and El Salvador—in the former, artists inspired by Maya art and architecture created monumental facades and bas reliefs for public buildings, while in the latter, indigenous myths transformed into modernist imagery instilled sense of the surreal. In Costa Rica, printmaking and sculpture were the most popular art media (think of the international fame of the sculptor Francisco Zúñiga), while Honduran art was informed by the nation’s ongoing search for a distinct identity. In Nicaragua, artistic modernism was closely tied to literary modernism, due to the influence of the late 19th–early 20th-century poet Rubén Darío, the founder of the school of Spanish poetry called modernismo. And in Panama, the U.S.-built canal has been a powerful presence, both literally and figuratively, in the nation’s modern art.

Central American modernism was born when local artists traveled to Europe and brought back what they had learned from avant-garde artists and critics there, combining these influences with indigenous iconography and themes from their national history. The European influence was key as far as modernism was concerned, because art instruction in Central America at the beginning of the 20th century was extremely conservative. For example, Nicaragua, as Snider and Ford point out in their book, was culturally isolated due to political instability, and through the 1930s, artists there adhered to late 19th-century standards that were an inheritance from colonialism, concentrating on realist landscape, portraiture, and still life.

The career of the Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida is emblematic of the formation of a distinct Central American modernism. After availing himself of the few artistic advantages the capital of Guatemala City could afford, in 1910 the young Mérida went to Paris. He stayed four years, during which he made the acquaintance of Picasso, Mondrian, and Modigliani, as well as of Mexican modernists who had preceded him there, including Diego Rivera and Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo). Having absorbed the lessons of Cubism and the School of Paris, Mérida returned to Guatemala, where he became deeply interested in indigenous art and culture—an interest that reflects the general orientation of the modernist avant-garde toward “primitive” art from various world cultures. In Mérida’s case, as with most Central American artists, that inspiration could be found at home, not in a museum of African and Oceanic tribal art, as for, say, Picasso. For Mérida, it was also a very personal quest, because he himself was partly of Mayan descent. He integrated indigenous materials into his art in a quite different way from that of Rivera and the Mexican muralist school; he did not just depict iconography and historical episodes but transformed them graphically according to the lessons of modernist abstraction that he had learned in Paris.

Mérida’s career prefigured the pattern followed by others, but modernism was later to arrive in the other Central American republics. The Nicaraguan artist Rodrigo Peñalba returned after two decades spent in the U.S., Mexico, Spain, and Italy, and became head of Nicaragua’s Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1948. He encouraged his students to integrate local subject matter and imagery with modernist formalism and academic traditionalism, and from this unique mixture evolved what is now known as Nicaraguan modern art. One of Peñalba’s students was Armando Morales, who went on to become the country’s most famous artist, internationally. Another of his students, Omar d’León, was not only an artist but an art impresario who founded a gallery in Managua, Museo Galería 904, that served as a meeting place for artists during the 1970s, in the years of the Sandinista revolution, which dramatically altered the Nicaraguan art world, promoting monumental, mural-oriented work.

Another Managua gallery, Galería Praxis, also had a major influence on the country’s art. Founded in the 1960s by the artist Alejandro Aróstegui, it was inspired by a concern for the working class and radical politics in general; the associated group of artists who called themselves Praxis took as their motto “action, dynamism, and a permanent state of restlessness.” Praxis was quite effective at getting foreign critics and art historians, including the New York Times’ John Canaday, to visit Nicaragua and see the artistic revolution for themselves.

The works found and brought to the wider public by Snider and Ford are extremely diverse in both style and subject. They range from the classic European-style abstraction of the Honduran Benigno Gómez to the more indigenously derived abstraction of the Guatemalan Rodolfo Abularach, the folkloric style of d’León, the expressionism of Peñalba, the bold graphics of the Costa Rican printmaker Francisco Amighetti, the brightly colored surrealism of the Salvadoran Benjamin Cañas, and the cave-art-inspired effects of the Panamanian Guillermo Trujillo. What they all share, though, is a uniquely Central American openness to influences from within and without, and the creativity to integrate those influences in a powerfully emotional art.

By John Dorfman