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Painters' Table Blog
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.
In a new video by Carol Saft, painter Katherine Bradford discusses her recent "shelf" paintings on view at Arts+Leisure, New York from November 15 - December 14, 2014. Bradford remarks that the shelf element developed out of an interest in developing the "sense of weight and gravity" in her work.
The gallery materials note that "as is always the case with [Bradford's] work, the real subject is invariably paint itself, in all its multi-hued, crusty, clunky, gooey, crumbly, smeared and expressed glory. Her shelf paintings reference the horizons and brute forms of Philip Guston as much as the armature and palette of Howard Hodgkin, and the distortion and nautical humor of Malcolm Morley; her palette blows hot and cool but her signature playful line and irreverent charm shine through consistently in every piece."
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John Walker: Recent Paintings on view at Alexandre Gallery, New York, from October 2 - November 15, 2014.
Tomorrow (November 15) is the last day to see an exhibition of recent paintings by John Walker at Alexandre Gallery, New York. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you should. On view are the latest in Walker’s series of plein air sketches and abstract landscapes.
An ostensibly abstract painter, Walker has been painting the same spot in Maine for years, revitalizing abstraction through intense, prolonged immersion in nature. He has dirtied abstraction up with mud and salt air, exposed it to the rain, snow, and frigid wind. And with incredible results - never have abstract shapes been infused with such particular light and material specifics. Walker’s forms exist at a particular time on a particular day.
In each of the seven large paintings on view, Walker has distilled the major landscape forms he knows so well. Insistent, gestural jags dominate five of the canvases, merging the shimmer of light on water and the perpetual motion of the tides into a pure painterly energy.
In Drift (2014), a figure 8 of light that suggests the reflective rim of a tidal pool, is overlaid with abstract horizontal and vertical shockwaves colliding like currents. The pattern is reversed in the adjacent picture, Brake (2014), suggesting a reverse flow out towards a brilliant yellow sky. A blue band at the bottom of the painting suggests the much gentler action of water lapping the shore.
Abstracted as they are, each painting is anchored by its horizon and an observational accuracy. In Island (2014), a true “dark sky” is evoked, dark enough for Walker to paint the color of the stars.
Any attempt to paint the Maine landscape inevitably raises comparisons to the work of painters such as Marsden Hartley and John Marin. Yet, Christopher Crosman, in his essay for the show, rightly identifies in this body of work a more significant dialogue with Matisse.
Crosman identifies a coloristic and rhythmic precedent for Walker’s new paintings in Matisse's The Conversation (1908-12). True, but the relationship with Matisse goes further, Walker’s mood and method of construction also recall Matisse’s meditative Goldfish and Palette (1914) and The Piano Lesson (1916), both in the Museum of Modern Art.
To better understand the depth of the conversation Walker’s new work has with Matisse, it is worth quoting art historian Jack Flam at length. His commentary on Goldfish and Palette could describe almost verbatim a similar effect of any of Walker’s new large paintings:
Compression. Loneliness. An “ensemble of signs” rendered with élan. Light transformed into vibrating visual polarities. A “fluctuant articulation of forms.” We need only change the still life references to those of landscape and Flam’s analysis applies to Walker’s paintings of Seal Point.
I believe it is also worth considering the achievement of these paintings in relation to Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series. Diebenkorn also paid close heed to the example of Matisse, but more importantly, he worked toward an art of pure abstraction sourced from observation. The light in the Ocean Park paintings is distinctively the light of Santa Monica, specific to the place the works were painted. Likewise Walker’s paintings, even at their most abstract, are characterized by an observational accuracy and attentiveness to place. The azure sky Walker observes in White Reach #2 (2014) blazes with a piercing northern glare. The abstractions of both Diebenkorn and Walker proceed from and profit by sensory overload.
Walker has stated that his original attraction to painting the tidal cove was that it was the place “where all the rubbish comes in.” 2 It is a place of action, of change, a constant influx of information. This influx of information is what Walker brings to abstract painting. Paintings like the cove are places of constant renewal. More than just a metaphor, his subject begs a question we as painters should all ask ourselves: is there enough stuff washing into our own paintings, not simply stuff off the mind, but stuff moved by the much greater force of nature?
What sets Walker's "abstract landscapes" apart from others’ is that he pushes abstraction and perception equally hard; he allows them to grapple openly, each at full strength. The riskiness of Walker’s attempt to make a painting reverberate between the ruthlessly abstract and well-seen is clear, but so are the rewards. His work makes a convincing argument that painting can have it both ways, which is to say that the total potential of painting can still be employed to achieve a unified whole.
When I look around I see much abstraction that has become overly cerebral, or else influenced by distracted experiences of the world. Many insist that these are the only true experiences of our time, the only true things left to paint. But John Walker’s paintings remind us that other experiences of the world still exist, and can be painted. His canvases remind us we only need to walk outside and look around to find them. It is possible, and perhaps vital, to get away from the machines and the media, even escape from the studio. Painting is not just in the head. Artists have bodies that exist in space, legs on which to walk about. They have arms that reach out, skin that prickles in the biting cold, eyes that can be dazzled by the cobalt illumination of Maine in full sun.
The Jewish Museum hosted a recent panel discussion What’s at Stake for Abstract Painting Today – and Where Do We Go from Here?. The panel, moderated by Bob Nickas, included painters Joanne Greenbaum, Philip Taaffe, and Stanley Whitney.
Moderator Nickas addresses what he sees as the ill-effects of the contemporary art market on the quality of contemporary painting, "de-skilled" abstract painting in particular. The artist panelists comment on this, primarily by offering thoughtful insights into the experience they seek through painting. Although each has a slightly different take, they all touch on the themes of authenticity and painting as a worthy, and a necessarily lifelong pursuit.
Greenbaum comments: "I feel that it's my responsibility to at least try to move abstract painting along... Every time I make a painting I really try and make it new for myself... sometimes the new materials I've been using dictate how that painting comes along, sometimes I try to start a painting in different ways... I have a vocabulary and a language that I work with over and over again but it's always changing."
Whitney notes that today "there's a lot of things called 'painting,' there's not one thing called painting... I personally... am still involved with Cézanne. If you're really involved in the tradition of painting and you really want to get involved in the depth of painting that's one thing... [but] now painting is opened up to a lot of [other] possibilities... I've been lucky that I painted long enough and people were interested, but I took a long time to make those paintings, and I felt that was something I wanted to do, and needed to do, as a painter... but I don't know if economics, if the world now allows that... it's very difficult now to paint... we move fast, and painting doesn't move like that. Painting's something totally different. The way you get knowledge from painting is a very special, very slow thing."
Taafe comments: "I'm very idealistic in my approach... and I expect a lot from artists and from a painting. It's very clear to me after having seen so much over all these years, when a painting is delivering something or not. If you can see the journey that the artist has been on, that they've come back with a certain evidence and you want to feel that and interact with it. I believe that painting should be involved with conveying knowledge and emotion and beauty and all kinds of poetic, intellectual energies. I expect that." Later, he adds that young artists need "to figure out what the culture needs ... instead of what the market needs... How do we give something to the visual landscape, to the development of history? ... What is the culture going to benefit from?"
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Editor’s Note: Thank you to Dana Gordon for providing this remembrance of two great artists - George Sugarman and Tony Smith. Reading Gordon’s account, it is also interesting to see the visual conversation the young painter had with these two sculptors. The echoes of that dialogue are also evident in Gordon’s most recent paintings which will be on view at Andre Zarre Gallery, New York from November 11 - December 6, 2014 (Reception, November 13, 6-8 pm).
I worked for Tony Smith as his studio assistant for about a year and a half in 1968-69. I also worked for the sculptor George Sugarman, for a few months in 1967. I met Tony and George when I went to graduate school in art at Hunter College.
Though I was a painter then as now, I was very interested in George Sugarman's use of color in three dimensions, in sculpture. I was making paintings in three-dimensions. The main thing I remember from him as a teacher is that he emphasized that your artwork is the answer to the question you pose in embarking on it, "what is art". This stayed with me for quite a while.
George liked some drawings of mine, of odd colored shapes in a row. They looked like some sculpture he had done. He also told me, when I was looking for a studio, that Brice Marden was moving out of his studio on Cherry Street. But Marden wanted too much key money (I had none).
Working for George was hard. His big rounded forms were made by laminating many layers of thick lumber into bulky crude shapes and then cutting away at them. Immense clamps and tubs of white glue were omnipresent. I spent the day using power tools to carve and sand huge slabs of glued-together sugar pine board. I developed a lifelong aversion to sawdust.
The pieces would become more finely formed and sanded but showing the lines of the glued-together wood, then these would be covered in white primer paint. When a piece was nearly finished, a big swath of colored shape on one curved plane or more would appear in the loft space.
His studio was on Greene Street just below Houston. In those days, before it was called Soho, the neighborhood's streets were clogged with belching, loading and unloading trucks. The lofts themselves would fill with air pollution, if you left the windows open during a weekday. George had a big empty loft. Twenty feet wide, half a block deep, very high ceilings, windows at both ends. Classic. Worn wood flooring running parallel to the length of the loft, emphasizing its length. George had it sanded light and shined it. The two long uninterrupted walls were a sooty white; maybe with a little tinge of blue.
Nothing hung on the walls. Two or three large sculptural forms, easily seven feet tall, in progress, sat poised about equidistant along the middle of the room.
There was something zen-like about the way the environment was so completely given over to one thing, making and looking at his sculpture. There was nothing but these forms in the big loft space. Tools were not left lying around. Indeed they were wrapped up carefully in their cords, shipshape, just like in the Navy, in which George had spent WWII.
In the back of the loft against the windows there was a tight space used for something akin to living, or maybe just relaxing. A rumpled bed, easy chairs, a wooden table, some items jammed into shelving, a curtain hiding some other things. The windows were old and dirty, but light came in them, as they weren't blocked by another building.
There were few visitors when I was there; mainly the critic Amy Goldin came by once in a while.
George could be voluble, but taciturn as well, switching on and off. He liked to refer to his friend Ronnie Bladen quite often. He told me of his friend David Weinrib, a New York artist who hated to leave town. When Weinrib finally did acquiesce to a respite in the country, once he got there he couldn't stand it after a few hours and went right back to the city.
George struck me a bit as a tough but sensitive working class type of guy - with brilliant insights about sculptural form, which he deeply understood - and I had the feeling that he was something of an eccentric loner. He wanted his work to be beautiful as well as intelligent and deep. He pronounced the word "byoodee-ful", not beautiful.
George Sugarman's sculpture was a pretty big deal in the 1960s and 70s. Its highly visual development goes deep into the abstract possibilities of sculptural expression in unique and important ways, in a search for pure and complex expression in abstract form.
Working for Tony Smith was a different experience entirely. I made drawings - sketches and mechanical working drawings - and cardboard models for his pieces. Sometimes he would just tell me about a piece he had in mind, just orally describe it, and I would draw it. Other times I had to make dozens of little three-dimensional cardboard modules, tetrahedra and octahedra. He would tape these together into unpredictable shapes that you never would think are made up exclusively of (what I call) abstract expressionist drawing in a tetrahedral/octahedral space lattice. Then I would make models of these in careful scale to send to industrial fabricators.
Tony also paid me twice as much as George did, $5 an hour instead of $2.50.
To get to Tony's I didn't walk from the East Village to Soho. Tony lived in the Oranges in New Jersey then. I could take the Hudson Tubes, i.e., a PATH train, either to Newark or to Hoboken. If I took it to Newark, Tony's wife Jane would pick me up. If I went to Hoboken, I took a clickety clack train from the old Erie Lackawanna terminal out to Mountain Station. Then a longish walk up a steep wooded suburban hill.
We worked in one of his two houses in the old settled, leafy suburbs. Though not far apart, the two houses were in two different towns and I could never remember whether they were East, South, or West Orange.
Tony lived and worked in a huge red-brick Georgian mansion that he had recently bought with a down payment his friend Barnett Newman had given him. The house had big beautiful front and back yards, dark green lawns with old trees - a towering old spreading, yard-filling beech tree he particularly loved, and squirrels he hated. The house itself was nearly empty of furniture. His daughters, the elder Kiki and the younger twins Annie (Seton) and Bebe, lived in another house nearby - the beautiful old shingle-style house Tony himself had grown up in. His devoted wife Jane was a presence in both houses. Despite the old suburban location, both houses had a bohemian tinge. Inside the shingle style house, the walls showed years of unrenovated wear. And in the Georgian, the sparse furnishings were basically limited to a huge, treasured grand piano of Jane's, an elegant ebony dining set, a large drafting table in the basement, and a bit of necessary bedroom furniture upstairs. Plus a few artworks. No frills or froufrou. There was a big garage in the back, in red brick to match the house. It was filled with a pile of big black-painted pieces of plywood, the disassembled sides of full scale mock-ups of his sculpture. Also piles of things, like used milk cartons or egg crates - everyday containers he re-purposed as modular forms for building sculpture ideas. At this time, in the house and out, there were only a few, literally two or three or four, pieces of completed Tony Smith sculpture, of different scales, mostly small.
Tony liked to tell the story of how he got the house. When it was for sale, it was still full of the old long-time owner's furniture. The furniture and decoration were old fashioned, to go with the Georgian architecture, expensive and elaborate, and filled every room. It was so impressive, that no one thought they could afford the house, so the price came down, and Tony got it.
Physically, Tony looked robust, with grey and white curly hair, and searching eyes that were inset and a little bulging at the same time, magnified by his glasses. His white/pink skin could be florid or pallid, sometimes both. He was a proud Irishman, and soft spoken and gentle of approach. He spoke with a delicately demonstrative turn of the wrist and palm this way or that. He was dogged by illnesses then. And illness had been a characteristic of his childhood: part of his lore was an oft-told the story of having TB as a child and being quarantined to a small cabin in the backyard - of the very house his family lived in now. Yet illness was not part of his persona that I could see; he was a bright character.
Jane Smith was patrician - tall and slim and had the most cultured voice and manner imaginable. Both Tony and Jane were extremely genteel, kind, and personable. Before having a family with Tony, Jane was known as Jane Lawrence, an operatic singer and actress, which explained the presence of the grand piano in the mansion, and the occasional reference to their friend, Tennessee.
When I arrived in the morning Jane would immediately offer me breakfast. It was so politely and perfectly offered, I felt like I would be an ingrate and an oaf if I refused it.
Tony slept late and I often had to wait for his instructions before working. So I sat with my breakfast and waited. Part of my job was to sit and chat with him while he had a little breakfast (perhaps it was a vodka) after he woke up and came downstairs and before he was ready to get to work or greet visitors. I was often ill at ease during these passages of time because I didn't think I could say much of interest to him. Still, he liked to talk to me and he sensed that I understood him, which I thought I did.
Smith was very generous. He was known to help his friends whenever he could. This included job recommendations - for the always precious college teaching job artists usually needed. He had old friends and admirers on faculties all over the place. Once he recommended me to his friend Peter Fingesten to teach drawing at Pace College. Another time a couple of years later, I received a letter out of the blue offering me a job in the art department at Michigan in Ann Arbor. Though no one ever told me of the connection, I found out that two old friends of Tony's from New York in the 40s and 50s, Gerry Kamrowski and Bob Iglehart, were on the studio faculty there.
Generous though he was, he told me in no uncertain terms, never give away your art. And yet, in the years I worked for him he gave a friend of mine an old wood sculpture that had been rotting in the yard of the old house, and a drawing. The latter he drew as we watched and then he gave it to her. I guess the rules were different for flirting.
Mostly, his big newly acquired house where we worked was empty and quiet. But occasionally an important visitor made his way out there. I recall meeting Sam Wagstaff, the curator and major patron who (avant Mapplethorpe) gave Smith's career a big boost. Donald Droll, Tony's New York-based dealer came out more than once. And someone in elegant European tailoring came about a commission from the Banque Lambert for its famous collection; perhaps it was the Baron Lambert himself, or his curator Pierre Apraxine.
Tony's good friends included Mark Rothko. One day I was detailed to take Tony's car, a new white Volvo station wagon, and bring Mark Rothko out from the city for dinner, to which I was invited as well. I picked Rothko up at his studio. This was a cavernous, exquisite old carriage house, on East 69th Street between Lexington and Third. I arrived in early evening. It was already dark out. The door was opened by his assistant, Oliver Steindecker, the same unlucky fellow who two years later found Rothko's lifeless, suicided body in the bathtub of this house. At the time I picked him up, Rothko was working on very large paintings, easily accommodated by the cathedral-like space of the carriage house; indeed, the paintings were almost dwarfed by the space. The space was dimly lit, though I don't know if this is the way he worked. As I recall, the space was hexagonal or octagonal, possibly square (like a cube), definitely not rectangular. It's back in hazy mythical time for me. It felt something like an ancient Byzantine church. The interior walls were a shiny light beige brick. I drove Mark, his wife Mell, and their young son, whom they called 'Topher, along with a friend of mine out to New Jersey.
Also joining us for dinner was Theodoros Stamos, Stemi, as they called him. Stamos was a famous ab-ex painter in the 1950s, his reputation somewhat fading in the late 1960s. A little later, he was one of the executors of Rothko's estate and was, along with the Marlborough Gallery (a hugely influential gallery in those days, which showed Stamos) and others, implicated in defrauding the estate in a massive scandal that colored the artworld in the 1970s. But in 1968-69 they were all friends.
So we sat down to dinner, me and my friend, Tony and Jane, Mark and Mell and Topher, and thickly-mustachioed Stamos. Across from me on the wall behind the table hung a sizable, beautiful bluish-grey gauzy painting by Jackson Pollock, another close friend of Tony's, then but a dozen years gone. A dozen years past was a long time for me then, but probably not for Tony. I felt the ghost of Jackson Pollock hovering in the dining room; maybe Tony did too.
Jane hosted the elegant, simple, precise dinner; there was no help or staff. Alas, I do not remember any of the conversation. Maybe it wasn't memorable. As a 24-year old new artist sitting among the gods, I found it difficult to contribute to the conversation, though I was included in it - they didn't comport themselves as gods. And Rothko, sad to say, was already, and clearly, a black hole of depression, emanating a pall from where he sat.
Around 1980 a book was published that gave a detailed account of the sordid fraud and trial of the Rothko scandal, "The Legacy of Mark Rothko," by Lee Seldes, which I read avidly as soon as I could get my hands on it. In the early 1980s, I was showing my paintings at the Ericson Gallery, owned and run by Takis Efstathiou. Takis occasionally showed work by his fellow Greek, Stamos. Early one evening I walked in, and sitting there was Stamos, unmistakeably weighed by the heavy aura of the very villain and fool, in the dark story limned by Seldes. It was eerie. Yet another early evening not long after, I walked in and sitting their was Rothko's last assistant, Oliver Steindecker, the one I met when I picked up the Rothkos for dinner, the one who found Mark's body. Very eerie.
A couple of years after my dinner with Rothko, I was working at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Tony came out to work on a piece he was commissioned to do at the University of Hawaii. We spent a day together. Tony was a vodka alcoholic, the kind who could drink it all day long and remain apparently lucid. It was quite amazing. I drove him around the island from 11 AM to 10 PM, showing him the beautiful and unusual forms of land, flora, and water. During this time he consumed eleven double vodka and tonics. There was little change in his demeanor. I sipped drinks along with him, to be polite and to be at least a little on the same plane of perception. But of course I had to drive. And I didn't have anywhere near the same capacity for alcohol.
Smith had the reputation of something like an Irish bard. He liked to recite parts of Finnegan's Wake from memory. He was an avid storyteller, especially stories that had to do with art. Some became almost legendary, like his famous story about driving on the unfinished New Jersey turnpike at night and seeing the two massive, endless, gently curving, raised strips of pavement as a wholly new kind of aesthetic experience, a new kind of art. Interestingly, he didn't try to imitate this specifically in his art; but he wanted to create the kind of experience he had there. And he combined it with insights from his other life experiences of workings in three dimensions: e.g., he had worked as clerk of the works for Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an enthusiast of Buckminster Fuller; he had studied with Moholy Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. His father ran a foundry that made the hydrants for much of New York City. But painting was a big influence on his work, too, via the abstract expressionist painters who were his friends.
Tony had hired me because I could draw the pieces he would describe or sketch. He also liked that I had some experience in common with him, though I had come by it maybe 20 or 30 years later. I came to know and love Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, while I grew up near it in Chicago, and I thought of studying at Taliesin. I knew Fuller's work and ideas, which were very hip in the 1960s. And I had spent a year in graduate school at what had started out as the New Bauhaus, the Institute of Design (ID). The school's building was a great monument of modern architecture designed by Mies van der Rohe. At ID I studied photography with Aaron Siskind, who Tony knew from the New York art world 20 years before, and with Arthur Siegel, whose every second or third sentence was Moholy this or Moholy that.
On occasion Tony spoke about Pollock, whose work and life - though he was already in art Valhalla - wasn't as thoroughly over-examined then as it is now. Tony colorfully described times he spent with Pollock, whom he always referred to as Jackson. They got plastered together and Pollock then painted. And Tony made comments about the paintings as they developed. At least, these were the stories, which I saw no reason to disbelieve.
Geometry can be found underlying all, or nearly all, the forms in nature. One learns this from D'Arcy Thompson's book "On Growth and Form," a favorite of Tony's, and from Jay Hambidge's "Elements of Dynamic Symmetry," another favorite of his. You can learn this just from observation, if you look intently enough. No form in nature is a perfect example of the geometry it is a case of, but when you average the many examples of one form - many examples of the skeletal structure of a bird's wing, or the arrangements of leaves on a stem, or cellular or atomic forms - you get the perfection we normally ascribe to man-made geometry. And all man-made geometry is natural, because we are nature.
Looking at things this way, there really is no difference in kind between geometric and biomorphic form.
Tony Smith's artistic expression was based in something like this perception. He decided to represent our given "amorphous" space that we live in (the blank canvas, the empty space that precedes a sculpture) as a three dimensional space grid or lattice. For his sculpture, the type of lattice was sometimes made up of right angles, but usually was the more complex and productive tetrahedral-octahedral space grid, based in equilateral, 60-degree triangles, and forms that logically cutting these could generate. He would imagine as if this lattice defined or contained all possible form and movement in the space. Form could only follow the lines and angles of it. But within this constraint, he drew freely. Like an abstract expressionist - but keeping to the rules of the grid space. Thus his forms are unpredictable, but all can be seen as precisely sitting in the chosen grid, with no part not fitting. In most of the sculptures this is not obvious, but it is there.
The space grid or net appears in art, and in life, in many ways. Maybe more obviously in the digital and Internet age than before. It is usually full of impure parts, curves, and lack of true repetition, until it gets improved for some use or other. In art, the netting in Pollock's painting that results from the palimpsest of free drawing is a good example. I suspect Smith combined his intimacy with Pollock's process with his own passion for architectonic form.
Life in Death: Still Lifes and Select Masterworks of Chaim Soutine, curated by Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow was on view this past summer at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.
The 1950 Chaim Soutine retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was arguably the most influential museum exhibition of that decade. Numerous artists, including Willem De Kooning, Jack Tworkov, and Milton Resnick, found in Soutine's paintings the “qualities of composition" and "attitudes towards paint" they were wrestling with in their own work. 1 Perhaps more importantly, Soutine connected their concerns with the tradition of western art, something particularly important to de Kooning. 2
Despite his clear impact on New York School painters, art history has been especially two-faced when it comes to Soutine; nearly every critic of his work feels obligated to gush about his unparalleled abilities before pointing out that Soutine’s achievements were the wrong ones at the wrong time. What Soutine stood for – the power of painting to derive essential truths through direct contact with nature – was at odds with modernism, which increasingly privileged artifice and irony over nature. Reviewing the 1950 MoMA show, Clement Greenberg observed (solemnly and with the utmost regret) that Soutine pursued an expression “more like life itself than visual art.”
Although museums like MoMA (who not long ago deaccessioned a Soutine painting) may be severing their ties with Soutine, Chelsea galleries have given viewers and opportunity to see his work in recent years. This past summer, a modest, yet riveting selection of paintings by Soutine was on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery. The Kasmin show not only highlighted the artist's feverish dedication to “sensations-in-paint,” (Andrew Forge) but also helped clarify the artist’s distance from, and perhaps disdain for, the artistic approaches of his contemporaries and the succession of ephemeral movements that comprised modern art.
With brush in hand, Soutine charges headlong at the world; he is willing to risk being overwhelmed. His intensity is ultimately overrun by the reality he seeks, but he stands his ground just long enough to create a moment for us to see things as they are.
This intensity was particularly evident in the Kasmin show in Landscape at Céret (c. 1922-23), in which Soutine succeeds at holding his own in the midst of an uncontrollable, whirling nature. There's no composing in this picture, no balancing of elements - there is simply the rush of paint, a direct response to the ordering attention of the eye. The entire composition of Table with Skinned Rabbit (c. 1923) is ordered by the struggle of flesh in a twist of decay that warps and strangles everything around it.
In Hare with Forks (c. 1924), Soutine indulges in an obvious metaphor for his own obsessive approach. He, like the forks, is a type of predator, ready to tear open the reality before him to see whether the nourishment of a greater reality exists beneath. The melodrama of the motif is relieved by the variety of attack and completeness of realization. Up close the roving brushwork is a gestural map of visual attention; from a distance, the exactitude of the spatial description echoes the plight of the subject, the table cloth is stretched to its limits in sympathy with the hare.
Although no painting in the Kasmin show disappointed, several pictures faltered in comparison to the best works for various reasons. The extra wide format of The Rainbow, Céret (c. 1920), for example, proves too expansive a surface to apply to, or receive pressure from, the forms within. Likewise, the passage of red, intended to hold the left foreground, fails to provide chromatic structure. Yet the painting has spectacular moments: the ravine between two houses on the right plunges, squeezing space, and the light-filled clearing near dead center surprises in the clarity of its spatial hollow.
Soutine also seems less engaged with more standard still life arrangements, such as Still Life with Fruit (c. 1919), than he does when painting dead animals. He is at his best in works such as Plucked Goose (1932–33) and Two Pheasants on a Table (c. 1926). He clearly finds his true purpose in pathos. When Chardin paints a dead fowl, we feel the brokenness of its form as if we could reach out and touch it. When Soutine does the same, we feel the brokenness even more vividly; we clutch the limp, fading warmth as if we ourselves had done the breaking (we must then wonder how we might feel about that).
Hung in the darker back gallery are the earliest and latest paintings in the show. The former, Landscape with Donkey (c. 1918), shows Soutine working through a more geometric structure informed by cubism. The lively undulating foliage seems to call on him to renounce the cubist trope of the red roofs, one can almost hear nature whispering in his ear to do away with the ridiculous “little cubes.” A small red donkey anchors the left bottom corner of the painting signifying, perhaps, both the ineptitude of more intellectualized approaches to painting and a longing for a return to simple basic instincts.
If Soutine’s late paintings (as is often argued) are products of diminishing intensity, Maternity (1942) fails to make that case. The nervous mother stares blankly, overwhelmed by the shock of her new responsibility. Her child is splayed across her lap, a malleable, tenuous form that may either thrive or slip away. The paint of the woman's lap surrounding the child reads as shadow but also emphatically remains a swath of paint. This inchoate potential clearly weighs on the mother. She is paralyzed, it seems, with the realization that, having given birth, she is now also charged with forming a life. While the mother is rendered in warm tones, the child in her care is illuminated by the coldness of fate.
The shifting light that filtered through the skylights at Kasmin gallery was a fitting reminder of the vital, yet fleeting quality of life that Soutine attempted to grasp. One sees that Soutine achieved the “slipping glimpse” that informed and inspired the work of de Kooning. It was during the run of the 1950 Soutine retrospective that de Kooning threw himself into the painting that would become Woman I (1950-52). One hopes that more than a few contemporary artists who visited the Kasmin show are similarly energized and moved, perhaps, to once again create art that is “more like life.”
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