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Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 27, 2015 - January 10, 2016.
“O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.” –Ahab
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Roman, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French. These cultures all developed uniquely mannered still-life traditions that so codified the cultural gestalt of each that the works carry associations far beyond visual culture into political, economic and religious history. What about American still-life painting? Have we ever witnessed a stylistic zenith in which our culture’s most critical ideas were codified in the still-life? Are there American painters who captured the cultural zeitgeist the way our greatest novelists and musicians have? Do we have a Zurbarán, a Chardin or a Cézanne? These questions, and many more, come to mind while viewing The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, an ambitious, scholarly show that traces American still-life painting back to its roots at the birth of our society.
Audubon to Warhol gathers the works of nearly one hundred still-life painters, spanning two centuries, and separates them both chronologically and thematically into four groups: Describing (1795-1845), Indulging (1845-1890), Discerning (1875-1905) and Animating (1905- 1950). These categories give the show some structural support, and help one navigate a sea of images, each of which offers a compelling glimpse into American cultural history.
Our early still-life painters worked from one of two imperatives: a scientific approach to describing discrete natural elements as faithfully as possible, or the more painterly approach of rendering entire scenes illusionistically. Both approaches have their roots in European painting, but a triumph of the show is its suggestion that these modes of working were distinctly American, too.
The first mode is of artist as naturalist, rendering nature faithfully so as to gain a better understanding of it. The second is of artist as magician, conjuring life in paint with a vaudevillian sleight of hand. Such masterful facility motivated the work of Raphaelle Peale, the most accomplished son of Charles Wilson Peale, scion of America’s First Family of painting. Raphaelle’s twin “deceptions”— Venus Rising From the Sea—a Deception (1822) and Catalogue Deception (1813)—open the show. Both paintings play with the illusionism of depiction, and one cannot help but be drawn into their world. Venus Rising is a kind of painter’s pun, showing a white linen cloth hanging from a bit of ribbon. The cloth, rendered with absolute naturalism, covers most of a painting of what promises to be a lovely nude. Under the cloth’s bottom edge a creamy white foot stands on tiptoe. Above it an arm reaches up to tease out a mane of flowing blonde hair. It’s a witty painting. The absolute realism of the cloth and knowledge that we’ll never see what lies beneath it connect the work to the very beginnings of the still-life genre in ancient Greece.
Equally good is the work that stems from the scientific imperative, introduced here by a magnetic pairing of drawings by John James Audubon and Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe’s Rattlesnake Skeleton (c. 1804) shows in minute detail every vertebra and delicate rib of the snake’s body as it stretches over two long sheets of creamy paper. It is as if the snake sits before us in the bright light of the lab, perfectly preserved for study. Audubon’s Pennant’s Marten is depicted in full flesh and blood, snarling in a menacing crouch. It is one of a handful of Audubon drawings in the show, each of which renders its subject in life-like detail.
Fascinating as they are, the drawings of Latrobe and Audubon seem equally suited to the natural history museum as the art museum. Such is the chief delight, and paradox, of the show: both strains of early American still-life—Audubon’s scientific realism and Peale’s painterly illusionism—seem, in the context of western art history, less like “art” and more like “history.” It’s a nagging feeling that begins with the early works and persists right on through to the exhibition’s end. Viewing one painting after another, nearly one hundred in all, one can’t shake a growing suspicion that the works on view are but a fringe player in a larger drama of cultural identity.
From the mid 19th century to the early 20th, the periods covered here under “Indulging” and “Discerning,” the strictly scientific imperative evaporates and painterly illusionism is employed in the service of still-life-as-metaphor, a Victorian formulation in which every element of a composition has clear symbolic meaning in the culture at large. Severin Roesen’s Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest (1853) is a lush picture of a vase bursting with exotic flowers. Each would have conveyed a particular message to the painting’s viewers. Painted to provide the focal points and conversation pieces for America’s increasingly opulent homes, the Victorian strain of symbolic still-lifes is perhaps the closest we get to a unified still-life language. But such painting is also a kind of feint, communicating in a system of recognizable symbols, and in so doing subverting true cultural fluency in painting.
It was such a culture that gave us William Michael Harnett’s After the Hunt (1885), a hyperrealist depiction of dead game hanging alongside the instruments of their demise: hunting bugle, rifle, powder horn, hat, water jug, etc. It’s an impressive work, but imagining it hanging alongside contemporary French painting at the Paris Salon—for which it was painted—one is not surprised to learn that the reaction to the painting was chilly. It must have been regarded as a curious anachronism indeed. Upon its return home, the painting found a more appreciative audience after being purchased for display in a lower Manhattan saloon. Its story is instructive. Over a century after the colonial painter John Singleton Copley shipped his work to London to curry the favor of its Royal Academicians, American painters were still trying to prove their chops in the cultural capitals of Europe.
So were we always a step off beat: describing, indulging, and discerning yet never arriving at a fully mature visual art form? Our literature at this time was leaps and bounds ahead. “Moby- Dick” was a contemporary of Roesen’s Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest. To Melville, the exhaustive descriptions of marine life that characterize the novel were never meant to stand alone. In cataloguing all known facts and legends of the whale, recounting all descriptions of whales in literature and depictions of whales in visual art, and in describing whaling as he had experienced it before the mast, not once does he miss an opportunity to tie his observations back to the habits of men. It is here that the imperatives of the naturalist and the magician are wed, in an art for which the acute description of a Latrobe is but a building block of a larger existential narrative. Hence Ahab, on the deck of his ship, reveling in the “linked analogies” of man and nature when his mate sights a ripple of breeze on the water.
“Animating,” the final section of the exhibition, covers the first half of the 20th century, in which the wave of European modernism reached American shores and changed our imperatives once again. The thrust of this part of the exhibition is to demonstrate how artists absorbed and responded to the mechanical age, illustrated more literally by some (Charles Sheeler, Rolling Power (1939)) than by others (Patrick Henry Bruce, Stuart Davis).
Of greater interest than these, however, is a picture by Georgia O’Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby (Deer’s Horns, Near Cameron)(1937), which depicts a deer’s sun-bleached skull and antlers floating in front of a distant mountain range. The most powerful and poetic image in the show, it hums with a symbolic charge. If, by dint of an absolute faithfulness to nature, Audubon convinces us of the viciousness of a snarling marten, O’Keeffe has us believing just as strongly that she found her subject as she painted it, levitating above the desert floor. In Latrobe’s hands, such antlers might be rendered clinically against a stark white ground. In Harnett’s, they would be but a prop in a highly orchestrated mise en scène. For O’Keeffe, they are part of a place, inseparable from and meaningless without the context in which she paints them. It is this relationship of object to space that is unseen elsewhere in the exhibition, and it points to what has been missing all along. The painting opens a window into that truly great genre of American painting, the landscape, allowing light and air into the exhibition for the first time.
O’Keeffe’s painting points us back to where the show begins, with questions of how American identity has manifested itself in our visual culture. The uniquely American theme of place, as evidenced in all our great literature, and much of our popular music and film, is largely precluded by the formal structures of the still-life. Full of natural elements, our still-lifes are above all characterized by their very un-naturalness. From the clinical isolation of Latrobe’s rattlesnake to the contrived illusionism of Roesen’s flowers, the most earnest efforts toward realism in our still-life painting seem to have pushed us further from a truthful engagement with nature.
It is O’Keeffe’s painting that reminds us of the American landscape, our biggest, most reliable and most fitting muse. So did we have a Chardin? No, but we had O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, and Church and Cole and Bierstadt, and a list of pioneering landscape painters that defined our country from its very beginnings. In the end, the greatest value of this fascinating show might be a reminder that place, not things, has always defined us as a nation, and that engagement with that great theme has given us much of our lasting and most important art.
This Thursday, October 15, I am pleased to participate in a discussion with fellow artist and blogger Sharon Butler and artist and UNCG professor Barbara Campbell Thomas titled Building on Maud's Legacy: Place and Being an Artist. The discussion will take place at 6:00 pm at the Weatherspoon Art Museum Auditorium in Greensboro, North Carolina and is one of several events to accompanying the exhibition Remembering Maud: A Selection of Her Paintings at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, on view from September 24 - November 8, 2015.
The conversation will center around alternative career strategies (including blogs) open to artists today, including those who live outside major art centers. These strategies are the manifestation of what Donald Kuspit noted, in a 1977 essay, “technology … has obliterated the meaning of regionalism.” 1 This subject is inspired by Maud Gatewood, an artist who lived nearly her whole life in North Carolina, a fact that often led her to be labeled a “regionalist” painter despite an ambitious and critically successful career far beyond her home state. Even in the early 1950s, when Gatewood was a student, the “regional” distinction was becoming less meaningful.
Coming of age as an artist in that period, Gatewood benefitted from contact with some of the greatest artists of the day, many of whom travelled to North Carolina to teach at Black Mountain College. Gatewood did not attend Black Mountain, but nonetheless, she received critiques from both Philip Guston and Franz Kline. She also travelled to Europe, where she briefly studied with Oskar Kokoschka.
Although Gatewood remained in the south and painted “southern” subject matter, she was keenly aware of trends in Minimalism, Pop Art, and postmodernism. She wed her deep interest in subjects close to home with an affinity for the “coolness” of pop-art. In Gatewood’s words: “Creating a good painting is like walking a tightrope. You’ve got to make the thing work, but almost not work, to get that teetering sensation.” 2
1 Donald Kuspit, "Mythical Regionalism and Critical Realism," Contemporary Art/Southeast, Apr-May, 1977 as cited in Robert Hobbs, Maud Gatewood: Re-visions, p. 13.
2 Hobbs, p. 11.
John Hoyland: Power Stations Paintings 1964 –1982 is on view at Newport Street Gallery, London, from October 8, 2015 – April 3, 2016.
A symposium entitled Colour, Emotion, Non-Figuration: John Hoyland Revisited will be held at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London in February 2016. The deadline for symposium proposals is November 16, 2015 and organizers are interested in proposals from artists as well as writers and art historians.
For the inaugural show at Damian Hirst's Newport Street Gallery, the artist has curated a show of paintings by the late John Hoyland. The works, painted between 1964 and 1982 are from Hirst's own collection. In a recent video interview with the Royal Academy's Tim Marlow, Hirst notes: "Threre's a massive difference between owning a painting and visiting a painting... you just have a deeper relationship with it if you walk past it everyday." Hirst also expresses his admiration for the immediacy and complexity of Hoyland's color.
In a 1978 interview in Artlog magazine, Hoyland himself spoke of pursuing ever more complex relationships of color and form. He remarked: "I’ve felt for a long time – about 15 years – that painting can only go forward by becoming more complex. When it all boils down, I’d like to make simple paintings, but I don’t think you can just go for simplicity. You’ve got to put in all these other things that are on your mind too, just to see what emerges, what comes to the forefront. You’ve got to put in all this turmoil, all of one’s ideas. There’s no easy way to make it simple. You can’t go back and emulate Rothko’s late paintings. It has to be complex, it is something artists have got to work through. ... Newman, Rothko, Still and the rest of them. Marvellous as their paintings were they didn’t really give one any room to go into in painting: they opened up the door for minimal art and even conceptualism, but for painting they seemed to close the door. I think Rothko is a really good example of an artist who painted himself into a corner. So I felt – as a young painter – that one had to re-examine the basic things, in the way that the sculptors were doing. At that time most American artists were saying that these were old-type European preoccupations. Maybe so, but the reason Hofmann was so influential was that basically he was an old-type European artist, stuck with those values. He was the guy who really set about complicating the surface again, dealing with illusion again, with the plasticity of paint, using a full chromatic range, using all these things that had been eliminated from painting by the second generation of American artists."
The full interview is available at the John Hoyland website. In addition to the conversation between Hirst and Marlow, the video below shows several closeups of the surfaces of Hoyland's paintings.
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In a new video by Molly Davies, Pat Steir discusses her work while painting in her Vermont studio.
Steir addresses both her use of the drip as image:
"The idea of pouring the paint of the waterfall paintings was to use the icon of abstract painting, which is a drippy brushstroke, and make that abstract icon make an image all by itself. And that's what it did, it made an image of the waterfall... "
and painting as performance:
"The performative aspect, especially of the splash up paintings, is extreme. It's really a dance. It's really a ballet. And the picture is the record of the movement. It's a direct record of the movement."
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I’ve been writing these September round-ups for a few years now, and I’ve almost always prefaced them with some note of astonishment at the sheer amount of abstract painting I was seeing in the galleries. I usually followed that with a reminder of just how little of it there was in the 90s and most of the naughties. But I’m making a few little changes starting now.
Painting has been back in the limelight long enough that those reminiscences are starting to become distant memories, war stories of a kind that make my painter friends under 40 glaze over – what the hell do they care about the days when everyone thought Matthew Barney was God and the Biennial was a series of video booths that resembled a peep show? Like my young friends who didn’t live through that, I’m just going to look back on it with a shrug, if at all.
The other small change is that I want to discuss some painting that isn’t strictly abstract. I’ve been seeing more loopy figures and semi-abstractions that interest me, and it just makes sense to broaden the discussion – it’s all painting after all.
So without further ado, here are some of the painting exhibitions that stood out from the crush of openings in NYC in September:
I’ve never counted myself a fan of Dana Schutz, so I was quite surprised to discover that her show at Petzel was my favorite of the month. My memory of her Young Art Star period consists of muddy paint and cut canvas – grad school stuff – but the big, lush, confident paintings in the Petzel show fly in the face of those recollections to such an extent that I’m not sure if I remembered wrong or she got an awful lot better. She can make lightning-like strokes that don’t turn the color to mud, then slow things down with cubist hatching, then render in the manner of Manet. The structure throughout the show is fundamentally cubist, which is to say the four sides are trying to convince all of the motifs to correspond to their rectangularity, but the pictures are no retro history lesson - she’s done her homework, but turned it into something her own. The compositions are organized not only around their goofy figures, but around blocks of similar color or value, which form a matrix somewhat apart from and parallel to the ensemble of characters and props. This is especially evident in Swiss Family Traveling, in which the crazy quilt of color zones evokes Bonnard.
More kooky figures can be found alongside colorful hard-edge abstractions in Jaqueline Cedar and Nate Ethier’s two-person exhibition at Brian Morris Gallery and Buddy Warren Inc. (this is one place). I puzzled for a long time as to why this pairing worked so well – on paper, Cedar’s playful dreamscapes and Ethier’s high-key geometry would seem a rough match. But not unlike Dana Schutz, Cedar’s paintings’ rectangular edges have a kind of gravitational pull which yank her figures into a semi-perpendicularity. Within that soft grid, lightning bolts, arrows, and knives fly around obliquely, setting things in motion and speaking to Ethier’s carefully placed diagonals, especially the pointy ones. My two favorite pictures in the show were also the ones that I thought complemented each other best. Cedar’s Time in Thinking shows a nervous looking woman in a kitchen with nervous looking cabinets. She’s holding a knife but other daggers of the mind float in the air along with what are presumably the arms of an intruder. The whole picture exists in a soft atmosphere of light grey and white save for the beam of the flashlight she holds, which is a singing, stinging lemon yellow. Those knives find their corollary in the especially impressive Hike by Ethier. Opposing triangles in bands of saturated color are overlapped with a transparent herringbone pattern of brick shapes, all of which are wading in a sea of yellow at the bottom of the picture. Don’t even try and distinguish foreground from background, just let your eyes float through it.
In Terry Haggerty’s new show at Sikkema Jenkins, his signature ribbon motifs are placed on aluminum supports that extend out from the wall. This crafty bit a gamesmanship brings another level of play to his work; his curling bands have always visually eroded the solidity of the walls upon which they hung, but the new pictures accomplish this while also breaking the pictorial glass that ordinarily separates the viewer from the illusion. My only complaint is that the lighting should have been adjusted in such a way as to control and minimize the shadows – these paintings (?) are at their best when it takes a minute to figure out what’s real and what’s fictive. There were also flat pictures on shaped supports in the show, including a room full of small two-color paintings that were especially wonderful - Haggerty has always handled big scale confidently, but he can make it happen at a modest size as well. The mask-like Pragmatic Hold seemed to be looking back at you as it retreated into the wall.
Stephen Maine, who currently has a solo exhibition at Hionas Gallery, has been quietly working out a language of process-driven abstraction for a number of years, experimenting with various methods of applying acrylic paint that defy easy identification – the pictures sometimes look like photos or photographically derived silkscreens, other passages resemble x-rays, some look like they were eroded by acid or exploit the resistance of oil and water. The resulting enigmatic images are the most prominent aspect of these all-over compositions, but the real glue is the color. Some are in tightly controlled, narrow value ranges – the light ones look backlit and the dark ones look spooky. Some are in colors that self-consciously clash in a loud-shirt, op sort of way. Each color grouping has its own emotional content, strongly influencing the kind of information that paint application supplies – pictures made with the same process might evoke a summer day or an MRI of a brain depending on the palette. The real stars of Maine’s new show are the two enormous paintings in the front room: P15-0701 and P15-0720. At an outsized scale, they begin to lose their identity as the result of a painting process and take on the attributes of natural phenomena – like landslides or cave interiors.
Gabriele Evertz’s work represents a life-long passion for the interplay of color. In the past, her paintings were most often laid out in repeating cycles, but in her current show at Minus Space, she takes a new approach to her signature vertical banding, making color decisions in an improvisational way as opposed to the systematic methodology of previous series. The results are impressive – the pictures visually oscillate between reading as flattened patterns, bevels and chamfers, and hollows with cast shadows. They have a spiritual relationship to Gene Davis, not only because of the vertical bands, but because they continue to surprise as you scan them left to right – just when you think you have a handle on their logic, they subtly shift. Evertz departs from Davis in two significant ways; first, in her continual use of sequential greys with their attendant illusion of optical “fluting,” and also with the long diagonal subdivision of her vertical bands – some of the stripes are not stripes at all, but attenuated triangles, which subtly reference both perspective and motion. I liked every picture in the show, but my favorite was Intensification (Come Closer), in which three clusters of highly saturated stripes were separated by two columns of pale tints – the picture seemed to be inhaling and exhaling as the eye moved across.
I don’t like to make readers suffer my prose in excess of 1500 words, so very briefly:
From his thumbprint pictures to his more recent blob-and-hot-dog paintings, Chuck Close’s gridded work has always resembled the kind of mosaic one sees in witness protection videos or Japanese porn movies, even though he never actually painted them to look like a strictly digitized grid. In his current show at Pace, however, the paintings actually resemble internet thumbnails clumsily manipulated in Photoshop and then blown up to a huge size. I loved them. If you like op and color field painting, run don’t walk up to D. Wigmore Fine Art, where there’s a solid show of 60s hard edge painting. Gene Davis’ Royal Veil from 1971 was a showstopper, and the three Paul Reed canvases were nice surprises from a seriously under-recognized figure. Besides being a process-driven painter himself, Stephen Maine along with sculptor and significant other Gelah Penn have organized a show of process-oriented painting and sculpture at the Fiterman Art Center at BMCC. The show is called Dipthong and features a boatload of interesting work (the gallery is enormous) but the highlights for me were two paintings by Anoka Faruqee and four by Michael Brennan – both are artists I have a huge amount of respect for. Dan Christensen was given a mini-retrospectives at Berry Campbell – it was uneven to be sure, but those swirling spray-gun paintings are killers, and Dorado from 1968 is worth the trip. Frank Stella was also given a mini-retrospective around the corner at Kasmin. There were a lot of his big weird things, and no black or aluminum paintings (oh, well) but Flin Flon from 1970 was impressive, and much better than I remember that series being – it’s important never to make any serious judgments of painting based on reproductions.
New York City
Dana Schutz: Fight in an Elevator is on view at Petzel Gallery from September 10 - October 24, 2015.
To the Edge: Jaqueline Cedar and Nate Ethier is on view at Brian Morris Gallery and Buddy Warren Inc. from September 9 – October 11, 2015.
Terry Haggerty is on view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. from September 10 through October 17, 2015.
Stephen Maine: New Paintings is on view at Hionas Gallery from September 9 - October 4, 2015.
Gabriele Evertz: The Gray Question is on view at Minus Space from September 12 - October 31, 2015.
1960s Hard Edge Painting is on view at D. Wigmore Fine Art from September 10 - November 10, 2015.
Dipthong, curated by Stephen Maine and Gelah Penn, is on view at the Fiterman Art Center at BMCC from September 29 - Novemeber 14, 2015.
Dan Christensen: A Retrospective is on view at Berry Campbell from September 17 – October 17, 2015.
Frank Stella: Shape is Form is on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery from September 10 - October 10, 2015.
Eating Painting, curated by James Biederman and Lisa Taliano, is on view at 308 at 156 Project Artspace (156 5th Avenue, Suite 308), New York from June 25 - August 15, 2015. The show features works by James Biederman, Cora Cohen, Ben La Rocco, Gerard Mossé, Fran O’Neill, Judy Pfaff, Lisa Taliano, Russell Roberts, and Thornton Willis. Eating Painting presents works that embody painting as an immersive sensory experience - the “consumption of paint as color and substance.” Special thanks to James Biederman for granting permission to reprint his catalogue essay below.
by James Biederman
The multiplicity of the senses and mind mingle in the vaporous state of being. The alertness of the eye opens the door to the pictorial and questions the unknown spacecraft. We hover above, waiting and searching for a point of entry: a safe place to land to begin our exploration. Set adrift amongst the foreign terrain, we float and turn to regain our lost gravity. There is no past, no history. I am center to this world, this tumbling of thoughts and sights. Somehow my feet have lost their grounding. The painter’s presence has entered my being. I enter the painting. I enter the painter. It is now. It is present. The light and dark, the quickness and slowness, the exactitude and amorphous, the overwhelming sense of colors and feelings: where am I? We are falling without weight nor gravity to pull or stop our spinning and turning and going inside out with no ups nor downs.
The thunder of chattering voices and noisy terrestrial things has left a vacuum of silence. The colors appear from drops of dew, blinding yellow and burning red colliding with orange and shattering down purple all smashed and pushed against the emptiness of forever’s ever and nothing’s nothing.
I see and desire and want and feel, it is there but not, steps away, always away, a little too far. The cavities of cells filter the thoughts. No thoughts. Not before. Not then. Only now before it goes away.
Quickly, now, the time, the madness of slowness, let go of handles and hooks, we are looking and eating a painting or two.
- James Biederman, May 2015
Brett Baker: Recent Paintings at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York, on view from February 19 - March 28, 2015.
I would like to invite Painters' Table readers to the opening reception for an exhibition of my recent paintings at Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York on Thursday, February 19, 2015.
Thank you for supporting Painters’ Table - hope to see you all at the show.
From the press release:
The Elizabeth Harris Gallery is pleased to announce an exhibition of recent paintings by Brett Baker. This will be the artist's second exhibition with the gallery. The show will be up from February 19 to March 28, with an opening reception for the artist on Thursday, February 19 from 6 – 8pm.
Baker’s abstract paintings have an intense materiality and sense of exploration. In each work, dense accumulations of vertical and diagonal strokes of oil paint organize in tightly packed rows. Each mark relates to the next through subtle transitions of close valued color ranging from bright, saturated hues to more muted earth tones. Mark and color, woven together, compress the roughly hewn surface into a unified image.
Although the physicality of paint and an insistent grid are constants, Baker’s most recent paintings reflect the artist’s increasing interest in how perception deepens the spatial and expressive potential of abstraction. Notations of local color and suggestions of observed light sourced from the artist’s studio surroundings undermine and “deform” the grid at various intervals. The resulting points of tension disrupt the picture plane, crumpling the surface into a continuous, spatial fabric. Baker makes abstract visual language more concrete by reestablishing its relationship to the natural world, yet he does so through its defined vocabulary so the paintings never relapse into description.
The artist writes: “It is the reality expressed through painting that moves me: the breeze that structures Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party; the ‘scorched... blistering heat’ of Van Gogh’s orange; space without distance in Soutine. Greenberg lamented that Soutine’s painting was ‘more like life itself than visual art.’ I understand what he means, and that is exactly where I would like to be.”
In a recent response to the work, Addison Parks observed: “These are wonderful paintings! Thatched. Thatcher. Channeling Monet haystacks, van Gogh wheat. Great texture, the troughs of paint, furrowed, loaded, the way they build, the way they break free, shifting the narrative from north south east west and slanting toward a horizon. Marching. Beating out rhythms. African drums. Really sumptuous and beautiful to behold. Fields and forests of color like embers.They have something of the atheist about them, the atheist that is also a stargazer, and therefore maybe more believer than believer. It also comes through in the paint. Each stroke a kind of hopeful order, making room for deviations, an affirmation in a crazy mixed-up world.”
Brett Baker earned an MFA in Painting from Boston University and his awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition to being an artist, he is the editor of Painters’ Table (painters-table.com), an online painting magazine and he also writes frequently about art. His recent subjects include Pat Passlof, Chaim Soutine, George Braque, and Nicolas De Staël.
Stanley Whitney: Team Colors is on view at Team (bunglow), Venice, CA from January 11th – February 22, 2015. The following short piece was written in May 2013 in response to Whitney's exhibition Other Colors I Forget at Team Gallery, New York.
Stanley Whitney: Care of the Brush
There are some artists for whom formalism appears effortless. Their formal rigor, while apparent, dissolves quickly before your eyes into something natural and lifelike. Stanley Whitney is one of these artists. He sets forms in motion and they maneuver themselves into place.
Whitney may work hard in the studio to achieve the ease exuded by these works, but they feel free even when their color and compression suggest dissonance or cacophony. Their abstraction feels familiar rather than distant.
The bold simplicity of Whitney’s paintings is disarming, and they speak to the liveliness that the simple act of painting can invoke. In his paintings, working within given parameters towards a novel resolution feels fresh again and this freshness comes from clarity and the courage to commit to an essential concern - in this case color.
Any painter knows how difficult and how dizzying the world of color can be. Whitney himself recalled seeing “10,000 shades of orange on the street” in India. Limiting the palette is the time-honored method used to reign in the unruliness of color, to subjugate it and task it with reproducing mundane retinal experience; yet Whitney lets color loose and trusts it will organize under the care of the brush. “In a Manet,” he has said, “I might look at what the white in the dress is doing. He changed the touch, and it’s a cloud.”
Whitney’s paintings speak the language of abstract expressionism but also tell us something about vision. His color is an amalgam of colors seen, tested not by theory but by what exists in the world. Real color is fleeting and often missed or lost in speed and distraction; we see in grays more than we realize. Whitney’s abstractions remind us of the sumptuousness that surrounds us, then propel us back out into the world to see it for ourselves.
Brett Baker - May 2013
In a the video below, Peer Eriksson interviews Stanley Whitney in his New York studio.
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The following essay was written by David Rhodes for an exhibition of paintings by Andew Seto on view at Galerie Vidal-Saint Phalle, Paris from January 8 - February 11, 2015.
In the early 1900s, painting underwent something of a bifurcation. In Paris, Picasso and Braque broke with post Renaissance conventions and radicalized anew the concept of pictorial space. They retained connections to the perceived world and at the same time sought a meditation on the visual language of painting. By arranging angled planes in a shallow pictorial space using a restricted palette, they succeeded in presenting a frontal picture plane that also included multiple points of view, thus opening painting conceptually and formally to further invention and to what became known as abstraction. By 1931 a loose affiliation of artists in Paris, calling themselves Abstraction-Création, followed the innovations of cubism in the direction of abstraction in opposition to André Breton’s Surrealist’s. Leo van Duisburg’s Composition VII (The three graces), 1917 and Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition (Blue rectangle over purple beam), 1916, for example, had evinced a geometric painting that Picasso and Braque, after their Cubist experiments, choose not to pursue in returning to figuration.
By the 1970s in New York, some artists including Mary Heilmann, Terry Winters, Carroll Dunham, Bill Jensen and Stephen Mueller, were finding the situation of purely phenomenological formalism constricting. In introducing mark making and metaphor these artists reclaimed aspects and implications of earlier moments in the development of abstraction and were able to avail themselves more fully of the discoveries made during Cubism’s heyday. Andrew Seto’s paintings are consonant with this attitude and gain in richness from such a productive impurity. The amalgams Seto explores are exactly placed to move however he desires, each painting relating to and informing the next. There is a high degree of focus in finding images that provoke sublimity and bathos whilst remaining somatic and corporeal.
Rigor Mortis, 2014, features a solid looking, yet apparently animated, vertical motif that resists stasis in its awkward twisting accumulation of faceted planes despite the very physical application of greens and blacks. The structure appears to both insert itself into and exist in front of, a pale ground. This ground, if seen as such, is undermined as independent from the figure for two reasons. One, because of an equally physical approach in its painting and secondly, because glimpses of the same colour as the ground and pale spots of other colour partially integrate the structure with the ground. Ambiguities multiply – the form is like an imaginary sculpture, perhaps anthropomorphic and semi-abstracted, or a plant. The title itself suggests a stasis after life – the physical fixity though, is not an imaginative one – long after the painting is finished, it remains visually active – each viewer finding alternative readings, dependent on their particular context. In these ways Seto’s paintings remain open and avoid definitive interpretation.
Another painting that references a state of repose with its titling is Rest Assured, 2014. It also has a range of colour, like Rigor Mortis, associated with nature, here in shapes that could also be seen as elements of a still life. Characteristically, the painting bares a build up of paint from a succession of changes – some corresponding to previous compositional moves, others to establishing the composition as it now appears, process and mark making vie with each other. The repetitions that often appear, typically never become a complete field, always remaining variegated. Shapes stack, subtly overlap and abut, implying growth and accumulation, the curves and diagonals establish a lager outline and suggest a dynamism that though it is now at rest, could have continued. The physicality as is usual in Seto’s paintings, is hard won, not facile – the balance precise. A reddish brown can be seen under the olive green that the black contours spread across, indicating that colour, as well as shape, undergoes much revision and transformation during the course of painting. A dark light of slow contrasts rather than sharp steps of brightness define the atmosphere.
A dirty white tessellated network of lines touch only the bottom side of At Last, 2014 evoking three dimensions despite being almost incised into a knotty, thick and tonally contrasting surface. In multiplying inexactly the small planes created by the direction of the lines raise issues of imperfection, which could easily be either of an organic, or a mathematical provenance. The abraded pattern produced, engages spatiality and references the non-narrative abstractness key to late modernism, take for example, Brice Marden’s post monochrome paintings. Seto’s approach is syncretic in re-introducing figurative elements and expanding metaphorical and allegorical concerns, all without sacrificing abstraction’s non-narrative materiality. The curved ridges of the dark ground, unatuned as they are to the lattice like drawing, resist any simple elegance and add to the already somatic quality of the painting. Contradictions such as this interest Seto. As anomalies only possible in painting, they can carry philosophical thinking forward by means inherent in painting as a specific medium.
In Smobservation, 2014, a slanting linear armature runs transversely corner to corner, italicizing Mondrian’s familiar format and referring obliquely to, as the mark making is openly gestural, Suprematism. Raoul de Keyser comes to mind, another artist who similarly eschews the categorical limitations often times placed between abstraction and a depiction of things seen. The model of reality that results incorporates imagination and observation, allowing a hybrid image to occur that is closer to experience than language mediated approaches, as touch and sight are retained, as well as thinking and the subsequent forming of words. Small dabs of paint semaphore flickering points of light and seem to work as detail in both a decorative way and as repetitions of the overall structure at another scale, smaller in this case. Perhaps what is implied is the possibility of growth or maybe a simple miniaturization. It could be a system of branches or a grill, a remembered aspect of nature or urban fabric, or it could as easily be a sign or a topographical schema. The grey crisscrossed is as difficult to pin down, is it concrete, fog or cloud? Certainly, it is assertively paint.
Oculus, 2014 – oculus denotes a circular opening in a dome or wall and is taken from the Latin for eye – comprises a recessive space hewn through a matrix of white that interweaves figure and ground, disturbing notions of what came first or last and so moving the temporality backwards and forwards in time. What is denotative and connotative is also combined and shuffled back and forth – the surface facticity of painting with ideas of reflection and shadow in a prismatic space.
Seto’s paintings never completely disavow the natural world for a purely intellectual one, existing instead as an open means of representation situated somewhere between. Traditional qualities already found throughout painting’s long history are cited and made available to be expanded, thus side stepping any formal or prescribed methodologies. The painting language is forged using a vocabulary that endeavours to reflect and explore present day concerns, both personal and aesthetic.
Pat Passlof: Paintings from the 1950s is on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York from October 16 - December 20, 2014.
Panel Discussion: A panel discussion presented in collaboration with The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation will be held at the gallery Thursday, December 4 at 6:00 pm. Panelists will include: Raphael Rubinstein (moderator), Geoffrey Dorfman, Louise Fishman, Ruth Miller, Michael Walls, and Karen Wilkin.
A must-see show of early works by Pat Passlof is on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, New York through December 20. Organized in conjunction with the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, this exhibition charts the earliest years of Passlof’s career from her studies with Willem de Kooning to her first exhibitions at the historic, artist-run March Gallery on Tenth Street. Passlof’s paintings from this period tell the story of a talented, audacious painter coming of age during a legendary decade of New York painting.
Passlof began the decade as a student, and one cannot discuss her paintings of the 1950s without addressing the influence of her teacher Willem de Kooning. After seeing an exhibition of de Kooning’s work at Charles Egan Gallery, Passlof sought his instruction, first at Black Mountain College and later as a private student in New York. 1 Tasked with “tightly rendered still lifes,” 2 Passlof embraced abstraction on her own as “a form of insubordination.” In her own words, she “took to abstraction like a feather to wing” rapidly adopting (and mastering) her teacher’s incisive, whiplash drawing style and his ability to evoke complex spatial architectures while maintaining the integrity of the picture plane. 3 Although the earliest paintings in the show find the young Passlof actively learning from de Kooning’s example (Asheville (1948) and Woman, Wind, and Window II (1950) come to mind), they are utterly fearless in their execution; one senses the student challenging the master at his own game.
The full and open nature of even her most youthful pictures also suggests that Passlof absorbed de Kooning’s belief in a cultured, holistic view of painting. “Spiritually I am wherever my spirit allows me to be,” he wrote in 1951, “and that is not necessarily in the future.” 4 This sense of the timeless nature of art seems to have stayed with with Passlof who consistently challenged her own gift for gestural abstraction against works of the past, and an insistent (if veiled) attention to the world around her.
Passlof later became an influential teacher in her own right. Her reflections on making the difficult leap from student to independent artist shed some light on her early experiences as a painter:
This shaping and changing can be seen in Passlof’s work throughout the 50s. Scanning the gallery one sees how she thoroughly explored her mentor’s influence, then left it behind. Many paintings from the early to mid decade read as abstracted still lives. One senses the artist testing those “tight” still lives assigned by her teacher against her growing knowledge of gestural abstraction. The paintings never look simply “abstracted from,” rather they seem to be free explorations of possibilities. A long look at Coliseum (1955) suggests that its development may have moved both towards and away from representation. In paintings such as Pas de Quatre (1952) forms feel solid even as their specific identities are in flux. In another untitled painting, individual forms fuse entirely into the language of paint. A Soutine-like urgency emerges.
Both Ionian (1956) and Spire (1958) are readable as studio interiors. In them one sees her pitting the all-over gestural approach of Tenth Street painting against the color and light of Matisse - or is it the other way around? Either way, her effort is heroic, resulting in visually dynamic pictures. An open window spatially anchors each painting, hinting at Passlof’s burgeoning contemplative vision. This outward-looking tendency in her work separates her from many New York School painters including her husband Milton Resnick, whose use of paint, though similar, was more meditative and inward in nature.
In Passlof’s large works from 1958-9, the referential quality of her brushstrokes and a particular, dappled light confirms her interest in sources outside the paintings. Although the window is gone in Lookout (1959), Stove (1959), and Promenade for a Bachelor (1958), the paintings are suffused with natural illumination. In a later interview Passlof remembered that the demolition of the “El” in the late 50s flooded the neighborhood with light. 6 The artist also fondly recalled the story of a pigeon that frequented her studio via an open window. One day the bird flew into the painting that would become Promenade for a Bachelor. Passlof promptly cleaned off the bird and continued the painting, retaining the bird’s energy and movement in brushstrokes that hover and float. 7
In all three of these pictures, there is a palpable sense of lifting. Gallerist Elizabeth Harris notes that Passlof often spoke of courting this sensibility, referring to it as “aspirational space.” This rising space feels particular to Passlof. Breaking from the lateral expanse in much Abstract Expressionist painting, its precedents include the spaces inhabited by El Greco’s flickering saints, Tiepolo’s spiraling heavens, even the upward gaze of Guido Reni’s Magdalenes. An “X” hovering at the top right of Stove, recalls the crossed forms (and placement) of the angels in Titian’s Europa and anticipates Resnick’s late X-space paintings.
It is interesting to note that as Passlof’s palette changes, a lighter, more lyrical touch appears in Resnick’s work of ‘58 and ‘59. So clearly sourced from the light filtering into her studio, Passlof’s paintings of this period suggest the influence here was hers.
In addition to the almost cinematic presentation of a young artist’s development from student to professional, this exhibition (as Raphael Rubinstein notes in the show’s catalog essay) also provides an invaluable, focused view into the world of Tenth Street painting. An American Montmartre, the Tenth Street milieu remains, nonetheless, relatively opaque. In the presence of Passlof’s paintings, however, one can slip into a daydream visit to the March Gallery. There is a day-in-day-out sense of discovery and wonder in Passlof’s 50s paintings, an ethos that bears out the hazy romantic view of an era that produced so much celebrated American painting.
And yet, this heroic decade of painting was primarily the realm of heroes, not heroines. Female artists including Passlof were marginalized. She noted that women artists, even respected ones, were still expected to be “nestmakers.” 8 Despite her obvious ambition, Passlof admitted she never thought of a career for herself until she was asked to participate in the March Gallery. 9
Her work, however, defied this marginalization. Painting with strength and authority, she challenged the achievements of her male counterparts as much as she respected and incorporated what she learned. For all their visible influence, her quest for her own vision was aggressive and vital at every turn. Passlof never submitted to influences, she owned them. In doing so, she set herself on the path to becoming a significant painter of the New York School.
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