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Painters' Table Blog
Leon Kossoff: London Landscapes is on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York from November 5 - December 21, 2013.
In a new video produced on the occasion of his exhibition London Landscapes, painter Leon Kossoff discusses his work and approach to painting. The artist remarks that the experience of painting is:
"all about space and movement and light, and every time you look you see something different, you experience some thing different... In the end all the differences amount to a sort of presence. For me it's a process of going on drawing, just going on drawing until something happens, and then you realize that you can start painting... not being able to do it is part of being able to do it..."
Discussing the central importance of observation to his process he adds:
I can't help it, the visual, seeing things turns me on... I go out into the street in the morning and suddenly my mood has changed completely because I see just a few trees."
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David Rhodes: Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery, New York, on view from September 8 - October 13, 2013.
David Rhodes’ exhibition Schwarzwälde at Hionas Gallery on the Lower East Side is a potent reminder that paintings are invitations to reflect and, at their best, transcend their own means.
At first glance, Rhodes’ paintings are darkly hermetic. Their minimalist clarity and completeness are forbidding, and the viewer cannot find a point of entry. Indeed, Rhodes’ canvases seem to shout Stella’s dictum “what you see is what you see.” Yet, after a few moments, they suddenly open outward.
Using a severely limited vocabulary - raw canvas, thinly stained black acrylic paint, and carefully taped edges - Rhodes creates an unbounded experience. His paintings are full of nuanced perception and keenly invoke of the legacy of modernism.
Rhodes’ paintings embody minimalism’s factuality, employ the techniques of color field painting, and evoke the existentialism of the New York School. The fractured unity of each composition recalls Cubism. All this Rhodes accomplishes without forgoing image - perceiving a forest, here, is a leap, but not a big one. The paintings’ kinetic effect is similar to that of moving through deeply wooded space - close, dark forms passing in and out of one’s field of focus.
Berlin-based Rhodes doesn’t reference just any forest, however, he chooses der Schwarzwald, the Black Forest. A place of legend, the Black Forest beckons to the intrepid, not the faint of heart. Within, unknown dangers lurk, but also untold treasures; it is a place of realized visions, of magic. Perhaps the most potent reading of Rhodes’ recent work is a symbolist one. In his hands, the language of late modernism does not celebrate a definitive aesthetic; rather, it suggests the possibilities of painting. With minimal means, Rhodes paints a total experience - both the forest and the trees lie in wait for the viewer.
What may well turn out to be the best painting show of the season, See It Loud: Seven Post-War American Painters, opens September 26 at the National Academy Museum in New York. The exhibition features works by Leland Bell, Paul Georges, Peter Heinemann, Albert Kresch, Stanley Lewis, Paul Resika, and Neil Welliver, all painters who pursue(d) an expansive painterly vision in an era defined by increasingly reductive approaches in art. Paul Resika describes their shared ethos: "we used to call it plasticity," he comments, "plastic imagination, that's the only way you can understand painting, without that you're just talking about styles; plasticity is the great quality - movement, nothing flat, nothing dead."
Although these artists have long been heroes to many painters, they have never received the broader critical attention they deserve. As a group (which also included Gabriel Laderman, Louis Finkelstein, and Louisa Matthiasdottir among others), they refused to accept the conclusions of previous generations, each choosing to re-work their way through the whole history of painting. In a video interview for the current show, Resika notes how he took landscape, rather than abstraction, as his starting point. By addressing the issues of painting in his own way, he recalls: "I eventually became a modern painter again."
Three videos below, produced by Ben Tudhope for the show, provide an excellent introduction to the exhibition as well as more in depth features on Paul Resika and Stanley Lewis.
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The Edge and a Little Beyond is on view at SOIL Gallery, Seattle from September 5 through September 28, 2013. The show features paintings by Valerie Brennan, Lorri Ott, Jamie Powell, Susan Scott, Julie Torres, and Maria Walker.
Curated by Julie Alexander, the show "brings together six abstract artists whose work pushes out the edge of the painting, playing with the basic structure of wood supports and stretched canvas... The work, verging on sculpture, clearly comes from a painter's mind. These six artists, through abstraction, both work within and challenge the perimeter of the painting, pushing beyond the boundary and entering the viewer's space. They do it with a personal mark-making that values joy and uncertainty." Alexander agreed to discuss curating the exhibition with Painters' Table. -- Brett Baker
PT: The exhibition installation feels free and loose, “beyond” traditional alignment and presentation. Was that an intentional nod to the theme of the show or an on-the-spot reaction to how the works interacted with one another and with the space?
JA: Both. I knew I wanted to do a modified salon style but as the install progressed it was apparent that some of the work belonged on the edges of the space. It started with Susan Scott’s corner painting titled, Shy Painting. It was one of the first pieces hung. In looking for the right corner, it created a pull across the room that helped form the rest of the installation.
PT: The works all share an affinity for transgressing the traditional rectangular format and an intense engagement with the materiality of painting - the support as well as the paint itself. There is, however, a tremendous variety of touch in these works, the paint is stained, poured, troweled, and brushed. It seems like touch animates the relationships between the works.
JA: That is so true and I’m glad you mention it. In the press release I say that they all engage in “a personal mark-making that values joy and uncertainty.” Beyond wanting to show work that challenged the painting’s edge in a variety of ways, I wanted to show work that I refer to as crude abstraction - work that values personal mark-making, contradiction, and failure. These 6 women, especially Julie Torres and Jamie Powell, also remind me to look for joy.
PT: Each of these works present themselves in three dimensions. Despite the elements of relief in each work, they remain paintings. What, in your opinion, keeps these paintings from becoming sculptures?
JA: That is a complicated question. I could say it is because they each have a painter’s mind which I think is a useful statement since we all paint from our minds (the biology of it, the world view of it). I also think it would be great to try and unpack that thought a bit more; how painting enters “real” space with various transition points. There is the surface of the painting, the edges, the wall, and the “real” space you live and breathe in. These 6 artists each activate the edge and wall in aggressive and aggressively particular ways, bringing the painting into “real” space. But, to remain painters, they each need to be very surface oriented. Lorri Ott, without any support but the pour, creates an object that is clearly about paint and its constructed surface. Maria Walker, very sculptural in Blue Bird, is still very much about paint and surface. Valerie Brennan, who among this group is doing the more traditional rectangle, is a great example of how the edge creates a transition with the surface almost (but not quite) thrust into our “real” space.
PT: As a painter/curator, did the theme of the show come out of concerns in your own work?
JA: The theme for The Edge and a Little Beyond definitely came out of my concerns as a painter. The painting’s edge is where most of my attention eventually goes. If the edge doesn’t work, the painting is dead. It also defines the painting as a three dimensional object in the world and negotiates between the 2 and 3d, the culturalized “magic” place of the 2d painting and the more “real” 3d space of the viewer. I was interested in bringing a group of artist together who explore these transitions in various ways. But the elephant in the room is how the edge contains meaning. The surface may state meaning but the edge holds it. For me, bringing together work that both activates the edge and works within crude abstraction is secretly the start of a discussion on meaning.
Zachary Keeting: Recent Paintings is on view at Giampietro Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut from September 6 – October 5, 2013.
I recently spoke with painter Zachary Keeting over email as he was preparing to install his exhibition at Giampietro Gallery. We discussed his new paintings, in which energetic process and subtle observation collide, generating dynamic, abstract worlds. The resulting works evoke the beauty, emotion, order, and mayhem that lie just below the surface of everyday experience. -- Brett Baker
PT: Visual complexity seems to be a constant your work. Over time, however, it appears the main source of that complexity has changed from the interplay of more discrete, carefully invented forms to forms defined through an increasingly physical painting process.
ZK: I would say a desire for complexity has been a constant. I see the world as an incredibly complex place, a baffling / gorgeous / brutal environment. Over the years, I've increasingly attempted to emulate that richness in the pictures, to participate in it.
When I was younger, I was completely overwhelmed by the variables of painting. I adored Modernism for its bravery, but I was only able to take it on bit-by-bit, incrementally. I took touch right out of the equation. All the surfaces were consistent, so were the edges. Everything was opaque all the time. My starting point was nutty, idiosyncratic design.
I was trying to get a lot into each piece - nervousness, claustrophobia, longing - trying to depict disparate, overlapping ideas simultaneously via razor-sharp accuracy and jigsaw logic. I'm proud of this stuff, but I can't imagine ever making work like this again. The past ten years have been a deliberate attempt to change as a person. Become more porous. Let in greater portions of the world, its flux and struggle, and have the paintings join me for the ride.
PT: In your most recent work, the fluid addition and subtraction of material seems to have reached a fever-pitch. The collateral damage that happens as forms collide with one another seems to play a large role in determining the final image.
ZK: I'm still careful laying out shapes / orchestrating compositions, but the edges and interiors have changed completely. I'm still masking off areas: before to contain color clarity, now to contain mayhem. I'm cordoning off zones to differentiate temperament. I'm much more forgiving of slippage. It has to occur at this point. The pressure is completely different too. I'm punching, scraping, shaking, blotting, pouring, staining. It is, however, the same damn acrylic.
I want crosscurrents, contradiction, anatomical corners, and multi-part harmony. Something limber.
PT: Are these paintings the sum of destructions?
ZK: Strangely enough, and this may sound incredibly corny, but I still think of the images symbolically. I've always attempted to sort through personal experience / human interactions / conversations, by retreating to my room and moving paint around. The picture above (from 2000) is definitely an attempt at orchestrating thoughts and occurrences, mostly inchoate desire, into a satisfying picture. The more recent picture (above, from 2013) may not have the nameable components, but it's broken up in very particular ways, and I hope the resulting image breathes in the same air you and I share. Is it destructive? There is a lot of blotting and erasure going on, a lot of boundaries being transgressed. The kind of thinking up top - blues and pinks partially wiped away - does pour down and contaminate the base. I hope it feels true.
PT: A lot of gestural abstraction relates closely to landscape but your paintings evoke human experiences - intense battles and struggles, either violent or passionate; interactions occurring so close together that only part of what is happening can be perceived.
ZK: I wonder if it's the gestural linear elements that keep these pictures locked in a human scale. I do have a size limit. The biggest paintings I've been making recently are 54 x 54 inches. I sometimes amp it up to 66 x 54 inches if I'm feeling particularly brawny, but I'm not that strong and I need to manhandle them.
PT: This size picture (54 x 54) certainly makes the most of the arm-scale gesture which relates to the body. But, for me, the human scale of the paintings has more to do with the fact that in many of them, massive shapes dominate large areas of the paintings and push smaller, more complex areas of painterly incident out toward the edges. The paintings have very active foreground spaces - and subtly shifting depths of field within these spaces. The resulting image feels very present - the action is right there in front of you.
ZK: I strategize on an easel, figure out where things needs to go, build up wet grounds, then lay the paintings down flat. Stoop to conquer as Helen Frankenthaler used to say. I table the canvases, rock them back and forth like a marble maze.
All of the recent gestural marks were made in an observational manner. I've been sharing a studio with Christopher Joy, and his sculptures are all over the place. They give me a lot to look at. They're embedded with hundreds of tiny decisions, lots of anatomical curves, naturalistic anomalies. They're rich and gnarly. I've been using them as still-life objects, things on which to rest my eyes while my hand cuts loose.
PT: The gestures in your paintings do feel like they are on the cusp of description - they describe but don't name. There is a lot of drawing in these pictures; the linear elements aren't just linear, they are true contours, moving both in-and-out and side-to-side in particular ways. There ends up being a kind of illusionism without the illusion.
ZK: I've made many paintings over the years that were completely invented. From start to finish I looked at the canvas. Some were suggestive of landscape, others hinted at figuration, but everything came straight from my imagination. I remember striving for complexity - for life-like complications - by adding facets, adding colors, adding decisions.
But I'd have to say, keeping your eyes on something else while working through a composition kicks up the complexity quick. Or keeping your eyes closed… have you seen those amazing de Kooning drawings?
PT: Yes, his "eyes closed" drawings are really interesting to consider, because in those works he retains the ability to convey spatial information through his mastery of materials. Even though his sight is literally closed off, the variation of pressure he applies to the charcoal and the relative length of his gestures creates a believable space.
ZK: I let my eyes wander to things inside, things outside. I bring as much specificity as possible to these planar forms and their placement. They're my springboards. I want them to be just as animalistic as the gestures. They receive spills, are troweled, are heavily blotted. These zones are the wet grounds into, and around which, the action takes place. I make several moves a day - sometimes scattered across separate canvases, sometimes all on one. The pictures are built up and torn down incrementally.
For a few years there, I worked exclusively on paper, struggling to incorporate speed into the pictures. In 2010, I started crumpling up tin foil and placing it around the studio. It held a shape, had dazzling hypnotic surfaces if I dropped it in a sunbeam, and was far too complex to draw accurately with a loaded, soppy brush.
There wasn't any content in the foil for me, it was simply a daydream prompt, an eye holder. The piece below was partially triggered by this daydreaming. I wasn't really after naturalistic depiction, but physical release. Bodily freedom.
PT: De Kooning said something similar about the blind drawings, that he had images in his head but closing his eyes allowed for more surprising results - the goal was more freedom.
ZK: I set up fearful situations for myself. I carefully work on large areas of flat pristine color, make sure the shapes and edges are impeccable, build things I'm really attached to, the kind of stuff I don't want to kill… and then, with knots in my chest and with great speed, I bring observational drawing into the mix. Fear of ruin is a motivational force. These set-ups, more often than not, are only partially successful. Only small sections of each calligraphic move possesses any vitality. I conceal those parts that seem routine, cowardly, stylish. So, much of the overlapping is erasure.
PT: A grisaille palette seems to be creeping in in the most recent work, sometimes with some residual color. What prompted the change in palette?
ZK: It was a difficult summer, and things felt grey. Yanking color out of the equation is something I rarely attempt. It seemed risky.
PT: Through your video blog, Gorky's Granddaughter, you've visited the studios of many artists. How has that kind of intense dialogue with so many artists affected your painting? Do you see GG as part of your studio practice, or is it a separate endeavor?
ZK: They're superimposed like the brushstrokes. They bleed and contaminate one another beautifully. If I think about it... and I try not to… Gorky's Granddaughter is an insanely extroverted project. I've never done anything like it in my life. Making paintings is completely private. It's whiplash moving from one to the other.
This gets back to your original question of visual complexity. When visiting studios I never know what to expect. Sure I've seen jpegs online, but artists are always presenting us with new stuff, experiments. And what are the appropriate words to use? It's easy to get all turned around. There's a reaching out, an opening up, a lot of listening. I hadn't anticipated this when we started, but each artist changes me slightly. It's been incredibly nourishing. I try to hold all of this complexity in my head, and in my heart.
These paintings are - in some ways - depictions of that nourishing jumble, the ricochet of my mind, what happens after the talking.
Joanne Freeman: Three Chords is on view at the University of Maine Museum of Art from June 21 - September 21, 2013.
Although Joanne Freeman’s paintings are austere in their means, they nevertheless communicate with vivid clarity. In her recent work, a richness of color, specificity of light, and a languid sense of movement arise naturally from the painting process. As noted by curator George Kinghorn, in his introduction to Freeman's current exhibition Three Chords, the “forms that inhabit these canvases (several of which are elegantly shaped) create dynamic interactions—the hard-edged thickened lines quiver, rotate, stretch and sag.” Freeman and I recently discussed her new work via email. -- Brett Baker
Painters' Table (PT): Looking at your recent paintings, I'm struck by both the reductive formal language in the work and how that language refuses to remain self-referential. The paintings seem to immediately point outside of themselves, if not to specific things, then towards familiar spatial experiences and physical forces. Are these qualities byproducts of the painting process or are you responding to specific visual input, either directly or from memory?
Joanne Freeman (JF): The reductive formal language is my structure. By creating boundaries and limiting choices, I'm able to amplify whatever qualities are represented. I assign a lot of importance to visceral responses and am less interested in content and literal analyzation. I am wary of consciously using too much self-referential language as it seems to show up anyhow, often uninvited, in the studio practice. I'm pretty aware, when I paint, of the historical precedents I'm referencing and the language of modernism, in both two and three dimensional form. I go back and forth borrowing and riffing on it. Specifically, though, a large influence on the language of the recent paintings was inspired by a trip to Otranto, Italy that I took during a residency with the Bau Institute. I was blown away by the shadows and light on the white facades of the buildings. Isolated colors against this backdrop became incredibly intense. The less-is-more quality became really apparent, and I became obsessed with the variations of white and the positioning of color against it.
PT: The specificity of Adriatic light where the darkness of shadows turns to color is certainly evoked in the work, as is the languid movement of shadows in heated air. I think that's when painting gets really interesting, when the language you develop in the studio draws you to a natural equivalent expression. The work itself allows you to see more intensely.
JF: It's an interesting dance between the sights and sensations experienced in the external world and your vision in the studio. One informs the other as you're drawn back and forth between what you're seeing and what you're creating. I remember sitting one night, watching the light go down over the harbor. Some of the fishing boats had a singular small light that sat on top of the mast. As it got darker, all you could make out was the thin line of the mast with a small circle of light atop. The circle was slowly and quietly swaying back and forth. As the sky darkened, the image became more and more isolated and abstracted, until finally it was just a line and a dot. The power of the image came not from it's vibrancy but rather its humble simplicity.
PT: Your description sounds beautiful, and speaks, I think, of a kind of observation that is natural to an abstract painter. Being uniquely attuned to abstraction enhances the appreciation of a complex scene coalescing into its essential elements - you see the "more" contained in the "less."
Another thing that stands out in the current paintings, and your previous work as well, is your investigation of non-rectangular formats. What led you to use shaped supports?
JF: As you have stated, I am also interested in the physical force or presence of a painting. I want my paintings to be read as wholes, where the color, line, and form coalesce. The circular lines in my paintings are made from the sweep of my arm. Their proportions are therefore dictated by my own body proportions. Generally I sweep from one edge of the canvas to the other. Simply put, the exterior shapes of the canvas sometimes mimic and engage with the internal shapes of the paintings, adding to the idea of the painting as an object and questioning notions of two and three dimensional space. I like the duality and absurdity sometimes present when pretty rigid language comes up against a spontaneous gesture.
PT: The supports themselves feel spontaneous and gestural.
JF: I like that, although the supports are measured and planned out beforehand, the curved edges do undermine the right angles. I've been told by viewers that they haven't noticed the odd shape of the canvas right away. I like this ambiguous reading of the form, it pits one’s expectations against what is actually there. The circular canvas, All is not what it seems, suggests a target, minus the actual focal point, with the interior lines reiterating the edge. The supports of the diptych, Three Chords, create an arch with a center support and the interior lines slightly off balance.
PT: It's true, I don't think the shaped canvas was immediately apparent to me either. Even though one knows the painting surface must be planned beforehand, the shape of the supports feel gestural because they seem to respond to the gesture, mark, and shape they contain. This gives the internal forms an added sense of force, as if their presence affected the space around them enough to shape it. Most often in shaped painting it feels the other way around, the marks just bounce against a predetermined area or succumb to it as a kind of mould.
JF: Yes, although I'm interested in the painting as a whole I do not want the interior composition to just repeat the shape of the exterior but rather to remain independent and engage with it. The supports are just one variable on a list of many that influence the paintings. My process, though guided by structure and formal language, is really spontaneous. I work on more than one painting at a time, each informing the other, and begin by laying down a stroke, which then determines the next and so on. I have a vague outline of where I'm going, which quickly dissipates with the first set of marks. After that, I'm really in the moment reacting to the preceding stroke and color. At some point, I begin to see where it's all going and maybe an end point, but usually the bar keeps getting raised on different days with different viewings. Color is the wildcard - as much as you think you know it has a mind of its own, and when you lay it down it can lead you to unexpected places.
PT: Your show is titled Three Chords, which nicely relates the pared down means in your work to the pared down means of a folk singer. The press release offers the example of Bob Dylan. For me, Springsteen's album Nebraska also comes to mind. In these musical examples and in your work, the expressiveness of the whole far exceeds the expected sum of its parts. The title Three Chords, however, also made me think of Hans Hofmann's discussion of visual art in musical terms. In his essay The Search for the Real he writes:
"The relative meaning of two physical facts in an emotionally controlled relation always creates the phenomenon of a third fact of a higher order, just as two musical sounds, heard simultaneously create the phenomenon of a third, fourth, or fifth. The nature of this higher third is non-physical. In a sense it is magic. Each such phenomenon always overshadows the material qualities and the limited meaning of the basic factors from which it has sprung."
JF: I think abstract art lends itself to these comparisons with music. The tendency to read a painting literally does not endear itself to abstract language and sound. Through the title of the show, Three Chords, I am comparing the simple structure of a song to the simple structure of a painting. The quote by Hans Hofmann is a beautiful description of this process. His comparison of two musical sounds heard simultaneously creating a third is a great metaphor of how a painting builds. For me, the higher third or magic he describes is when the painting begins to take control, causing me to become the viewer, leading me into the unknown.
Listening to music as a kid was paramount in forming my early identity. The music that you listened to became code for who you were. It also marked a time when innocence and energy fueled inspiration. My paintings also form my identity. They are my memories, my experiences and my spirit. Hopefully they also share some magic.
DeShawn Dumas: Future Primitive was on view at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in Greenpoint from May 31 - July 14, 2013.
Like others working at the boundaries of their discipline, DeShawn Dumas often finds inherited categories inapt. His paintings include little paint; he plays with the plane. He prefers materials that possess troubled pasts in addition to their aesthetic qualities. The results are layered. From even a short distance, small print disappears behind screens. Take it as an invitation.
Dumas has a BFA from Indiana University, an MFA from Pratt, and is a year away from earning a Master’s of Science in Critical Theory and Art History at Pratt. I sat down with Dumas at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in Brooklyn on the heels of his extended solo exhibition.
Cameron Brinitzer (CB): How do you relate to this collection?
DeShawn Dumas (DD): It’s the most cohesive endeavor I’ve ever completed. I’m not a unified individual. I’m made up of disparate interests, ideologies, perspectives. So, even though they are similar in shape, scale, size, and material, they are extremely diverse.
I think one of the most important tasks facing the artist is to investigate the self and see what’s really in there; to reify the hidden corners of your personality. For me, that has meant realizing the diversity within myself. Comprehending this internal difference can create a unity that doesn’t demand harmony, but is complex enough to encapsulate the various aspects of my psyche. That’s the sort of cohesion this exhibition has.
CB: Do you refer to these pieces as paintings, vehicles, or both?
DD: Initially, I referred to them as a form of painting, painting in parentheses. As time went on and I made more, and I thought about my intentions and the historical connections that I was interested in, I came up with the term vehicles. I like vehicles as a term distinct from painting because even though they deal with the principles of painting – line, transparency, opacity, color, shape – their intention is connected to the Vedic tradition, a tradition that I know very little about but seems to know about me.
Sri Yantras are graphic symbols for the universe that were constructed for meditative purposes, to get the individual in touch with the macro and micro. I was initially drawn to them because of their rotation. They have this movement in them that I was captivated by; I would stare at the computer screen for long periods of time, entranced. I thought, Wow, this is better than any sort of visual experience I have when I go to museums.
I also have a regard for manual labor and art’s relationship to the machine, which, in some ways, aligns my work with Russian Constructivists who hailed the death of art and its rebirth as industry. Constructivist art had a utilitarian component; it was a movement that engaged the external, or what lies outside of “fine art.” That’s one historical precedent I’m engaging when I get these aluminum and galvanized-steel frames manufactured. I took some of the frames to an automotive shop to get painted. So, I put painting in parentheses because I’m trying to deemphasize painting. It sounds negative but by deemphasizing it I’m really trying to extend it. To extend something is essentially to go beyond it.
My interest in car culture and my spiritual susceptibilities are present in my work. I’m interested in these as tools that can be used to focus attention. Vehicle seemed like a good word to suggest my intentions.
CB: So they are intended then, in one way or another, to move the viewer?
DD: That’s something that I feel is really important for art. I think people come to art for different reasons. Some come to art for a sort of ritualistic self-representation of their cultured identity. I believe others come to art for an experience, for something they can “use.” I want to give those people something emotional, something seductive, something fraught with tension, something pleasurable. So, yeah, the idea that the viewer is moved or invigorated is paramount for me.
I think art is about energy. It’s not about the didactic, it’s not all about tradition, it’s not about beauty, and it’s not about taste. It’s about energy.
When you stand in front of my works, I want you to have a powerful sensation. I want you to feel a presence, almost as if a person was looking back at you. I don’t want my paintings to be rarefied.
CB: In terms of materials, The Way lists spray paint and automotive paint, Black Balled lists automotive paint, and NutraSweet and The New Jim Crow #1 and #2 list spray paint. There is no paint in The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth, The Unity of the Spectacle, Madonna for Crenshaw, or Danger Donna. Why do you locate yourself in the milieu of painting?
DD: The objects that I’m making are in conversation with painting, those formal principles that have concerned painting. But, most importantly, with painting there is an encounter with the wall and the object on the wall. There’s a sensation that this thing is outside of normal relationships, normal reality; it’s more in your mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to painting, and I think that’s the ultimate power of painting, or the resilience of painting. Reality can be so mundane.
Materials usually dictate the way art looks. If you go back to the Renaissance, people painted in tempera. When oil paint came out, it had this new ability to convey a vividness and shine that you just couldn’t get with tempera. I believe vinyl and fiberglass screens allow for a new form of expression that you can’t get with oil paint or acrylic.
CB: With whom are you in dialogue?
DD: One movement that I am always dealing or struggling with is American Conceptual Art. I’m always trying to get information into my work. Not didactic information. The information in my work is intransitive, like an intransitive verb – an action that has no object. I’m not telling you where to take this information, but I am telling you that I’m concerned with these ideas of origins, history, eschatology, theology, industry.
The other two movements that I’m always coming back to are Minimalism and Pop Art. Minimalism engaged with industry, getting things fabricated, taking the artist’s hand out of the production of art, while still making reference to the institution or structure that made the work possible. From Pop Art, I draw ideas about the profane, the graphic, and the magic, grace, and glamour of the commodity. These are things my work engages.
CB: Are there any artists with whom you identify?
DD: Sam Gilliam is somebody who changed my concept of art. I saw a retrospective of his at the Corcoran in twenty-o-six and he was doing these draped fabrics. These draped, tie-die fabrics hovered over a room with this weightless quality; and then you had the shadows these objects created. They had a theatricality to them that I appreciated. Steve Parrino and David Hammons as well.
CB: When did you make the paintings/vehicles for your exhibition, Future Primitive?
DD: I made The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth in January of twenty-thirteen. I made The Way in May of twenty-thirteen. I made The Unity of the Spectacle mid-March. I made Black Balled in May as well.
They diverged immensely from the work that I was doing last March, last January, and last May. My turning point came in the summer of twenty-twelve, when I decided to make a piece that I didn’t like. I said, I’m gonna make a piece that’s not me, and that was actually the piece that was exhibited in Chelsea last December. The piece was green; therefore, I didn’t like it. I had never used green in any of my work. But it was an interesting painting. Because I separated myself from it at the very beginning, I was able to go beyond myself.
That piece did not have the space that these have, but it did approach the overlaid quality these have, where geometric qualities exist alongside the organic or bodily qualities of the drape and fold. That piece brought me here.
CB: Can you describe the process of making a piece?
DD: It’s usually a lot of carrying shit. You know, getting coffee grinds from Starbucks, going to the grocery store to get flour and sugar, going to the hardware store to get nails and staples, or wood and steel supports, or chains. Then, I’ll go into the city to get vinyl off Canal Street and up to the fashion district to get fabric. I always buy too much and never get what I need, so there’s always repetition.
I usually start all of that around two [PM] and I’ll make the final migration to my studio around eight or nine [PM]. I like working off hours, when it’s not nine-to-five. During the day, I feel like there are so many other consciousnesses around, awake, hustling, bustling, that I can’t get beyond that energy. I like working when people are asleep, or in leisure. So I work from, like, ten [PM] to six or eight [AM].
Since these are really structured paintings, a certain amount of work has to be completed before another aspect of the painting can be started. I’ll stretch the canvas over the frame, which will ultimately be the substratum of the piece, and things will float above it. I usually place a reflective surface over that, which replicates the white of the gesso.
From there, it just depends. It’s a lot of adjustment and readjusting things until they click. It’s a lot of trial and error, actually. I’m hoping that as I move forward I’ll be able to lessen my mistakes, my do-overs, my trips to the store.
CB: How flexible are you when you’re working, as regards whatever you have prefigured? Do you try to stick to your original idea for a piece?
DD: I let the mistakes or the chance occurrences that happen in the production of my art guide the production of my art. Paintings don’t work when I stick to my intentions. It’s always letting go, giving up, losing, failing. There is a lot of failure in all of these. But, failure usually creates something and the destruction of my idea usually creates something else.
I’ve painted over and destroyed a lot of paintings. I never really feel close to anything, especially in my work. It’s easy for me to let go now that I understand there’s nothing to hold on to.
CB: How do the four smaller pieces fit into the show?
DD: They were made with less forethought and less planning. Because they’re smaller, I was able to make something with less detail, so they are very direct. But they’re connected to what I’m doing with the larger pieces; in fact, they might be a better example of what I’m attempting to do, as far as bringing different materials and different histories into my work.
For instance, NutraSweet and The New Jim Crow #1 and #2 are ready-made panels that I doused in packets of NutraSweet, burned with a torch, and then wrapped in organza fabric, which has these lines. This lined pattern has been a mainstay for modernism, whether it be Frank Stella, Morris Louis, or any number of modernist painters. But I wanted to point out an evocation of bars with my title, The New Jim Crow.
With the privatization of prisons, starting in the 1980s, incarceration became an avenue to make profits. Jail has become a place where black bodies that aren’t going to be integrated into the system can still be used to make money. Aspartame was approved by the FDA in 1981. It had been banned for two decades because of the harm it caused rats. It has been linked to high cancer and obesity rates, and it’s used in a lot of diet products.
By naming it NutraSweet and The New Jim Crow I’m trying to point to the idea that this overprocessing of our food is essentially a way to make money, or to open up a new space or market that can be capitalized; and, I’m aligning that with the idea that the black body has always been segregated from the American social and finds in the prison complex a space where it can still be segregated but can also be profitable.
CB: How do you think living in New York City has affected your art?
DD: I realized that layers are a way to create space while sitting in a Starbucks in Washington Heights, near my home at the time. I was sitting in Starbucks, looking out the window. They had their transparent logo on the glass, so I was seeing through the logo, and then I was seeing people walk by me, and then I would see people walk by them going the other direction; then I could see the street, and then I would see other stuff going on. I don’t think I would have learned the intensity that overlapping gives without coming to New York.
CB: Would you characterize this as a pivotal period in your own artistic development?
DD: I wouldn’t say this is a climax because it’s lifelong. For me, it’s about trying to understand the stories I tell myself to rationalize what I do, and the stories that society tells itself to rationalize what it does or has done. My work is always going to be a dual critique: of myself first, and whatever surrounds me second. It’s this idea of trying to observe myself observing; and, while I’m doing this second degree observation, knowing that I am in the milieu of whatever I might be critiquing. There is nothing that I critique that I am not also a part of; that I do not participate in.
CB: Do you consider yourself a professional artist?
DD: What does it mean to be a professional? If it means to make a living off what you do, then no, I’m not a professional. But, if you consider a professional as someone with a certain attitude, a certain aptitude – I think what I’m doing will have to be considered historically at a certain point. I’m deeply engaged in the system or tradition of painting, but I’m recoding it for the 21st century.
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945 at The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., on view from June 8 - September 1, 2013.
Conversations about about Cubism most often begin with Picasso, but none can exclude Georges Braque, his quiet and more hermetic co-inventor. Though overshadowed personally by Picasso, Braque played an unquestionably important role in developing modernism; he was a lesser participant in Fauvism before making his most significant contribution as a Cubist and as the inventor of papier-collé. Yet it could also be said that as significant as these achievements were, they were tightly bound to group aesthetics, and never entirely his own. Braque was well aware of this, recalling that his Cubist paintings were “anonymous... there was no need for them to be signed.” 1 Only in his paintings after World War I did Braque’s individuality emerge.
The title of the current Phillips Collection exhibition, George Braque and the Cubist Still Life, would suggest it reinforces the art historical need to legitimize Braque through his association with Cubism. Instead, the paintings on display confirm that Braque’s “second career” may, in retrospect, constitute his greater legacy.
Leaving the technique of “little cubes” behind, Braque continued to build on the language of Cubism - primarily its complication of space. He sought what he called a “manual” space” that embodied the “rapport [that] exists between [objects] or between them and myself.” This notion was born of what Braque described as “the yearning I have always had to touch things and not merely see them.” 2
The Phillips’ own great The Round Table (1929) opens the exhibition surrounded by smaller yet equally impressive still life canvases from the 1930s and 40s. Scanning the room, one gains an immediate understanding of what “tactile space” means. The objects in each canvas pulse with a sensitivity to physical pressures within the natural world. The paintings are full of distortions, yet these distortions feel right because they cue an awareness of our own perception of physical forces.
Four large, oblong paintings dominate the next gallery. Originally commissioned by art dealer Paul Rosenberg, they are reunited here for the first time. It’s interesting to see a site-specific suite, but the paintings lack, as commissions will, the true visual and technical adventurousness of studio paintings. They will send the viewer back to the first gallery to admire works such as Fruit Dish and Fruit Basket (1928). One of the best examples of Braque’s commanding and sure draftsmanship in paint, this picture throbs with the intensity of complete intellectual engagement. The Rosenberg paintings, by comparison, feel more rote and contain rather too many of Braque’s painterly effects - the faux green marble of The Napkin Ring (1929) being the most obvious example. These effects call too much attention to themselves - displayed rather than deployed in response to the needs of the paintings.
The third gallery houses what may be Braque’s most bizarre and exuberant canvases, primarily from the 1930s. The room is loud, even joyous, and the works are cacophonous symphonies of extremes. Braque’s palette in these works plays highly saturated oranges and reds against dusty pinks, salmons and pale grays. His drawing features both jagged and languidly contoured forms. Most striking are the surfaces - extreme examples of Braque’s method of adding sand to his paint. The sand’s heavy grit creates a surface that both reflects the ambient light and deepens that within the painting. In combination with the gentle outlines and washes with which he paints the objects, the sand creates a surprising fullness of space, as if seen through dust illuminated by broad beams of light. In paintings such as Fruit, Glass, and Mandolin (1938), Braque has managed a prescient, all-over painting that also operates as atmospheric perspective. This is characteristic of Braque’s approach, in which he collages techniques to better evoke the visible world in all its complexity.
Following a corridor displaying ephemera and the painting Still Life with Pink Fish (1937), the coloristically tamer fourth gallery shows Braque in complete command of his vision with several masterful canvases including The Gueridon (1935).
By the last gallery, there is a palpable sense of a new, manmade force acting on Braque and his objects - the onset of the second World War. His tables serve up overt religious symbols including blackened fish and a chalice. His incandescent yellows and oily blacks evoke the sickly illumination behind a blackout curtain. Skulls appear, looking much like the palettes that lay near them. In the Studio with a Black Vase (1938), a skull sits turned away; its sutures rendered realistically. Their zig zagging forms mimick the colorful yet increasingly fractured space of the painting even as they mock its lively luminosity. To the left, Mandolin and Score (The Banjo) (1941) offers a more playfully depicted palette, painted as part of a musical instrument - yet the lurid color suggests a mournful song, and the table is draped in red, sharp forms.
Despite these visual clues, Braque’s work was criticized due to its seeming lack of politics. Overt political engagement was seen as a highly desirable component of avant-garde art. Contemporary works such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Joan Miró’s The Reaper (1937) were obvious protest paintings. In both cases the artists adopted specific political events as subjects. In contrast, Braque’s subject matter remained unchanged; he continued to paint studio still lives. His inclusion of traditional vanitas elements hinted at but did not rage against the grave events at hand. Such subtlety was seen by many as an indication that Braque was out of touch with both society and the direction of modern art. Even those who praised his work cited its “offensive calmness.” 3
Any notion of Braque’s indifference erodes in the presence of these paintings. Standing before them, it’s clear Braque approached the world war dead on and with open eyes. He concentrated on what was close at hand, venerating through scrutiny what would be hardest to replace, the commonplace. His finished works are elemental arrangements of familiarity governed by balance and order. They are an antidote to the willful tearing down of homes and cities Braque saw around him.
Only after the war ended did Braque’s paintings begin to change. He began to include more expansive interior spaces. These new paintings would culminate several years later in his great “Studios,” some of the most deeply developed visual tableaus in 20th century painting. Sadly, no examples of the “Studios” are included in this exhibition, but fascinatingly complex paintings such as The Billiard Table (1944-52), begun just after the liberation of Paris, are. They hint at the greatness still to come.
It is hard to make it through this exhibition without being waylaid by one or more paintings, even within a single gallery. Any number of Braque’s paintings could sustain and renew a viewer’s interest for a lifetime. This quality of renewal, the sense that simple subjects can be generous, that they contain more and different experiences to reveal, is more scarce in painting (and in life) than many care to admit.
Painting is a conversation, and talking about the future always involves new ways of discussing the past. As inspired by our canonized masters as we may be, we must recognize when their influence begins to hold us back as much as it once spurred us on and look beyond the old heroes to previously unrecognized or overlooked models.
Over email this past week, painter Dana Gordon and I discussed this notion and our mutual opinions of two overlooked painters, Nicolas de Staël, whose work I wrote about recently, and Camille Pissarro. The visual generosity that underpins their work stands in stark contrast to the reductive tendencies in painting of the last 150 years. That, perhaps, is one clue to their relative obscurity.
Looking at Gordon’s website, I discovered he had written several persuasive articles on Pissarro. His 2005 review of the exhibition Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 appeared in the journal Commentary. In the review, titled “Justice to Pissarro,” Gordon argues that the juxtaposition of Pissarro’s and Cézanne’s works, often views of the same motif, both differentiates and highlights the special qualities in Pissarro’s approach. Whereas Cézanne’s reductive visual system began to replace illusion with flatness, Pissarro’s acute interest in the abstract nature of painting, Gordon notes, was never achieved at the expense of “tremendous depth... fullness, warmth, and solidity.”
Might reviving painters like Pissarro illuminate an alternate path for painting in the 21st century? At the very least, they deserve another look. I couldn't agree more with Gordon’s assessment and conclusions and am happy that he has generously agreed to allow “Justice to Pissarro” to be republished below. -- Brett Baker
Justice to Pissaro
by Dana Gordon
For over a century, the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) has been considered the father of modern art. His ascendancy, which began around 1894, had a tidal influence on the development of the avant-garde, leading to both abstraction and expressionism, commanding the fealty of Picasso and Matisse, dominating the standard narrative of the development of modernism through the late 20th century, and lingering today.
But things did not always look this way. For most of the late 19th century, it was not Cézanne but the painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who was revered as the greater master, and as one of the most influential creators of modern art. Thanks to the twists of history, however, Pissarro’s reputation subsequently ebbed to the point where he came to be recalled, often dismissively, as a vaguely important and skillful landscapist among the Impressionists and, dimly, as the first great Jewish modern artist.
Over the past quarter-century, in a quiet countermovement, Pissarro’s significance has been revived. Essays and exhibitions, including one at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1995, have shed new light on his achievement, suggesting in particular that Cézanne’s own career would not have been possible without the precedence of Pissarro. Recently abetting this trend has been a vibrant and informative show organized this past summer by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and now on tour [please note this exhibition took place in 2005 - ed.].
From 1861 until the mid-1880’s, Pissarro and Cézanne carried on a deep artistic and personal in- teraction that had a determining effect on the future of art. This interaction is the subject of the exhibit now on tour. But despite its many virtues, the show does not by itself illumine the full story of the Pissarro-Cézanne relationship, or of Pissarro himself; nor does it really make clear how to appreciate the latter’s work. Most cultured eyes still see early modern art, including Pissarro’s, through a Cézanne-derived screen, and a whole understanding of the modernist movement in art follows from this perception.
Is it right? As far back as 1953, the abstract-expressionist painter Barnett Newman complained that the Museum of Modern Art, the temple of modernism in art, had “dedicated itself” to the proposition that Cézanne was “the father of modern art, [with] Marcel Duchamp as his self-appointed heir.” In so doing, Newman declared, the museum was perpetuating a “false history.” There is much to Newman’s charge.
Camille Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean, a child of middle-class Jewish merchants originally from Bordeaux. Schooled in Paris from 1841 to 1847, he went back to the island to enter the family business, but eventually sloughed off his family’s expectations to go draw and paint in Venezuela. He returned to Paris for good in 1855, followed not long afterward by his parents.
In 1860, Pissarro began a liaison with Julie Vellay, his mother’s cook’s assistant. They married in 1871, had eight children, and remained together until Camille’s death in 1903. The relationship cost him a large part of his mother’s affections and financial support; as a consequence, most of Pissarro’s adult life would be a dire struggle for money. But his open and defiant commitment to Julie was an early example of the personal and artistic independence for which he became known. It also provided a kind of shelter for his friends Cézanne and Monet and their paramours during the family storms caused by their own pre-marital liaisons.
After the mid-1860’s, Pissarro took up residence in small towns just outside of Paris, where living was less costly and his favored rural motifs lay nearby. He made frequent trips into the city, often staying for days, but many artists also came out to visit and work near him—most notably Claude Monet for six months in 1869-70 and Cézanne and Paul Gauguin in the 1870’s and 80’s. Of Camille and Julie’s children, several became artists themselves, most prominently Lucien, the eldest son. Pissarro’s letters to Lucien offer a trove of insight into a painter’s life and into the history of 19th-century art.
Pissarro was twenty-five when he returned to Paris from the Caribbean, already an experienced landscape painter and free of the stultifying conventions of the French academies. During the late 1850’s, he sought out his great predecessors in French art: Corot, Courbet, Delacroix, and others. Influenced by them, but never a disciple, he integrated what he learned into his own vision. At the same time as Edouard Manet, Pissarro developed a new approach emphasizing the full, direct response of the artist to the nature in which he exists.
Pissarro’s significance was recognized early on by his peers—and fitfully by officialdom. In the 1850’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, international “Salon” exhibitions offered the only hope for commercial success and acclaim in France. But admission was controlled by adherents of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, whose teachers held to a petrifying methodology. Vanguard artists had to deal with the Salons or, somehow, without them.
One of Pissarro’s unorthodox landscapes was accepted for the 1859 Salon, where it was noted appreciatively by the critic Alexandre Astruc. In 1863, his participation in the Salon des Refusés—a protest against the official Salon—made him anathema, but his work was so strong that it was nevertheless accepted for the Salons of 1864, ’65, and ’66. In his review of the last of these, Emile Zola, the great novelist and art critic, and a supporter of the avant-garde, wrote about Pissarro: “Thank you, Sir, your winter landscape refreshed me for a good half-hour during my trip through the great desert of the Salon. I know that you were admitted only with great difficulty.” In the same year, the painter Guillemet would write, “Pissarro alone continues to produce masterpieces.”
These early responses indicate clearly enough that Pissarro was creating something unusual. In fact, he was inventing abstraction, the ingredients of which he had gleaned from his precursors. As early as 1864, he was using elements of landscape as abstract designs, making lines and shapes be lines and shapes as well as representations of objects and scenic depth.
The “winter landscape” to which Zola referred, Banks of the Marne in Winter, was one of these works. Included in the MOMA show, it is full of the abstraction Pissarro was inventing. The trees on the left of the painting are an essay of lines, the houses on the right make up a play of triangular and trapezoidal shapes. The entire lower-right quadrant is a kind of “color-field” painting, concerned with the communicative powers of color and brushstroke independently of what they depict. The smudges of paint on the far right, standing in for houses, declare that smudges of paint carry qualities of beauty in their own right.
In addition to conveying a view of nature, and in addition to being visual essays made up of lines, colors, and forms, Pissarro’s paintings were an expression of his own ideas and feelings. That is, the way he painted—his brushstrokes, his “facture”— made the viewer aware of the emotions of a specific person at a specific moment in time. In the avant-garde of that era, there was, indeed, a great deal of interest in the expression of the self in art. Terms like “temperament” and “sensation” were gaining currency, particularly in descriptions of Pissarro’s art. As Zola would write of him in a review of the 1868 Salon:
The originality here is profoundly human. It is not derived from a certain facility of hand or from a falsification of nature. It stems from the very temperament of the painter himself and comprises a feeling for truth resulting from an inner conviction. Never before have paintings appeared to me to possess such an overwhelming dignity.
In the late 1860’s and early 70’s, Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley, and Pissarro worked, in Pissarro’s words, like “mountaineers roped together at the waist.” In 1869 they painted along the Seine, engaged by the colored shapes presented by the water’s reflections. The resulting works, especially Renoir’s and Monet’s, are justly famous as among the first fruits of Impressionism. As for Pissarro’s role in that movement, it has been sadly obscured by the fact that nearly all of his paintings from that time are lost. An estimated 1,500 pieces, 20 years’ work, were destroyed in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war when the Prussians occupied his home. (He and his family had managed to escape to London.)
Monet has often been represented as the genius of Impressionism, and a genius he certainly was. He was also the instigator of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Nevertheless, in a review of that show, the critic Armand Silvestre could refer to Pissarro as “basically the inventor of this painting.” One can see why.
Because of Monet, Impressionism came to be thought of as an art of color and light, an art in which structure and composition played lesser roles. But Pissarro’s Impressionist landscapes and townscapes of the 1870’s are a different story. Justly celebrated for their observation of light, color, and atmosphere, and for the natural appearance of the people and places in them, these commanding, lyrical works also extend the artist’s exploration of structure and composition. The “process of visual dissection” one observes in these paintings—the phrase is Christopher Lloyd’s, in his 1981 monograph Camille Pissarro—is Pissarro’s particular triumph, and it makes Monet’s paintings, beautiful as they are, look picturesque and simplistic by comparison. Not for nothing did Zola insist that “Pissarro is a fiercer revolutionary than Monet.”
And Cézanne? For over 20 years, from the time they met in 1861, he sought and received Pissarro’s advice and help. The young Cézanne, awkward in art as in person, was ridiculed in Paris—but not by Pissarro, who, perhaps seeing something of himself in the impolitic frankness of the younger man’s work, recognized his unusual talent immediately and never faltered in his support.
The two became close friends; by the early 1870’s, Cézanne was so eager to work in Pissarro’s company that he moved near him. That they influenced each other is beyond doubt. “We were al- ways together!,” Pissarro wrote of those years, when the volatile Cézanne’s attachment was intense. In particular, Pissarro’s obsessive approach to work, to mining his own vision, helped Cézanne to release his blocked personality, showing him how emotional content would come on its own and allowing him to channel his anxious energy into the formal problems of painting.
From Pissarro, Cézanne learned abstraction, the expressive little brushstroke, emphasis on form rather than sentiment, and how to make form with color and without outline. Frequently, the two artists painted the same view at the same time; a number of the resulting pictures were hung next to each other at the MOMA show, giving the viewer an extraordinary “you are there” sensation. In the mid-1870’s, Cézanne began a long seclusion in Aix, near the Mediterranean, removing himself from the Paris scene almost entirely. From there, in 1876, he wrote to Pissarro, “It’s like a playing card. Red roofs against the blue sea.” He was acknowledging that he was painting the roofs, walls, and fields in Aix as flat, abstract forms dominated by shape and color, as Pissarro had painted ten years earlier.
During the long years prior to Cézanne’s breakthrough, Pissarro provided virtually all the exposure for his work. He encouraged the merchant Père Tanguy to show Cézanne’s work at his paintshop-gallery, and urged collectors and artists to see it there. Later he convinced a new art dealer, the soon-to-be-famous Ambroise Vollard, to give Cézanne the 1895 show that made his name.
Later in life, Cézanne said that “Pissarro was like a father to me: he was a man you turned to for advice, and he was something like le bon Dieu.” It is possible that Cézanne was somewhat intimidated by this divinity. At MOMA, Pissarro’s awesome Kitchen Garden of 1877 was hung next to Cézanne’s painting of the same subject in the same year, The Garden of Maubuisson. Cézanne’s version has its beauty—but, when seen with the Pissarro, it feels like a sketch, a few notations of musical ideas. By contrast, the Pissarro has the force of a great symphony.
Around this time, Cézanne’s technique was evolving into repetitive arrangements of strokes. This so-called “constructive-stroke” technique was implied in many earlier Pissarro paintings as well, including, in the MOMA show, The Potato Harvest (1874) and, explosively, L’Hermitage in Summer, Pontoise (1877), an astonishing composition dense with essays of brushstroke and the poetry of color planes. But, except for a few paintings explicitly experimenting with Cézanne’s technique (three from 1883-84 were in the MOMA show), Pissarro never really adopted it, preferring instead to give individual meaning to every moment and stroke in the composition.
To be sure, Cézanne’s marks add up: every spot in his mature painting is oriented toward the frontal impact of the whole, with the overall tension of the surface creating the sense of flatness that carried so much influence in the later development of abstract art. In the viewer’s perception, everything in a Cézanne painting pushes forward, all the marks of paint moving together like lattice-work. This forward push of the thin, pulsating surface came more and more to be the dominant note in Cézanne’s paintings. But it was achieved at the cost of his own declared wish “to make out of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums.”
Cézanne acknowledged this cost, writing that “coloring sensations force me to produce abstract passages that stop me from covering my whole canvas or from pushing to the full delineation of objects.” In other words, he could not complete the paintings as scenes or as recognizable objects because he had already completed them as compositions of purely visual events. His use of techniques of abstraction richly enforced but did not get much beyond the impression of overall flatness.
Pissarro’s paintings, by contrast, have tremendous depth. They invite you in; you can enter and breathe and look around both the abstraction and the depicted scene, as if taking a tour of the artist’s thought process. (In this connection, it is especially instructive to compare two paintings included in the MOMA show, Pissarro’s intricate The Conversation  with Cézanne’s House of the Hanged Man .) But Pissarro’s fullness, warmth, and solidity are not what later painters got from the early abstract artists, or what became the accepted taste of the 20th century. Instead, they got Cézanne’s flatness and assertion of color, often without the high quality of painting that made Cézanne’s own work so convincing.
“Pissarro was possessed of a remarkable eye that led him to appreciate the genius of Cézanne, Gauguin, and [Georges] Seurat before all other painters,” wrote Françoise Cachin, the director of the Musées de France, in 1995. This is very true, and it applies to more painters than she named.
Gauguin was Pissarro’s protégé for many years, and his mature work, seemingly very different from Pissarro’s, is full of the latter’s inventions. Vincent van Gogh, the troubled genius who arrived in Paris in 1886, also spent time with Pissarro, learning from him that, as he would later write, “you must boldly exaggerate the effects of either harmony or discord which colors produce.” Vincent’s brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, was another Pissarro enthusiast, whose death in 1891 dealt a blow to Pissarro’s commercial hopes.
Nor were Gauguin and Van Gogh the end of it. In the mid- to late-1880’s, Pissarro would be accused of aping the neo-Impressionism and pointillism of the much younger Seurat and Paul Signac. But Pissarro did not follow them, he led them. Although Seurat certainly had his own sensibility, all of his work’s stylistic attributes can first be found in Pissarro: the color theory, the tightly compacted strokes, the way the dots of paint coalesce into abstract patterns, even the stiff hieratic figures. One can trace, in specific paintings, what Seurat learned from Pissarro, even as Pissarro went deeper into the human spirit and saw farther into the future.
In the 1890’s Pissarro developed a new aesthetic density in his complex cityscapes, figure paintings, and landscapes. These, although less well known today than his earlier landscapes, made a strong impact, most notably on Henri Matisse (1869- 1954). The meeting in 1897 of this struggling young painter, who would rightly come to be considered the greatest artist of the 20th century, with the living embodiment of painting’s long journey in the 19th moved Matisse to tears. He came away likening Pissarro to the long-bearded figure of the prophet Moses as sculpted on the Well (or Fountain) of Moses, a well-known Gothic masterpiece in Dijon.
Pissarro was indeed a Jew with a long white beard and a biblical mien, and Matisse was hardly the first to liken him to Moses. But Matisse may have been thinking less of the figure and more of the fountain—of Pissarro as a living source, with a flowing generosity of spirit. He certainly saw in Pissarro an exemplary survivor of a long, difficult life dedicated to art. If, later on, when Pissarro was no longer so esteemed, Matisse spoke less of him and more of Cézanne, in 1898 he was frequently in the apartment Pissarro had rented to paint his views of the Tuileries. Pissarro was Matisse’s master, present in his work in many ways, including some later attributed to Cézanne.
Pissarro was also still a presence in 1900-01 when Pablo Picasso entered the Paris art world, and his touch and his inventions can be seen both in the dense little brushstrokes of the classical cubism associated with Picasso and Georges Braque and in the flat, colored planes of later cubism. Many later painters, too, including those who sought an abstraction free of the constrictions of cubism, carried a Pissarro gene, whether or not they were aware of it.
Testimonies to Pissarro’s unique character have come down to us through personal recollections and through his interactions with other artists. Though not shy about his own work, he was neither a raging egotist nor a pushy self-promoter— two useful personas for an artist. He was generous in sharing his insights and, as we have seen, unself ish in the support he gave to others. “The first thing that struck one in Pissarro,” Ambroise Vollard observed, “was his air of kindness, of delicacy, and at the same time of serenity.” Thadée Natanson, editor of La Revue Blanche in the 1890’s, recalled him as “infallible, infinitely kind and just.” In the phrase of Christopher Lloyd, whose writings have contributed greatly to the revival of Pissarro, he played an “almost rabbinical role” in French painting.
Unfortunately, history finds personality an easier subject than art, and Pissarro’s personality has on occasion been invoked either to diminish or, conversely, to justify his work, in both cases with a distorting effect. At one point, for instance, his long-lived enthusiasm for anarchism was held against him. (“Another mistake of Pissarro’s in which is manifest a certain pretension to socialist political activity,” wrote a critic in 1939, deprecating a pastel of peasant women chatting under a tree.) In our own age, by contrast, his anarchism has counted for him: thus, in a 1999 essay, the influential Marxist art historian T.J. Clark committed pages of exotic political exegesis to a pointless effort to attach Pissarro to far-Left politics. In fact, the painter stood foursquare against the usurpation of art by politics or any other cause. “The art that is most corrupt,” he maintained, “is sentimental art.”
And then there is Pissarro’s Jewishness. Did it, perhaps, play a role in the eventual eclipse of his stature? Though he did not participate in religious formalities, Pissarro never dissimulated his Jewish identity—to all appearances, he enjoyed it. But anti-Semitism was rife in all social classes in the France of the 1860’s and later, despite the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion instituted under Napoleon I. By the 1890’s, when France had become a republic, there were anti-Semitic riots during the panic over anarchism, and then the Dreyfus affair.
The avant-garde was itself tinged with anti-Semitism. Cézanne took the side of the anti-Dreyfusards. Both Degas and Renoir—old friends and admirers of Pissarro—disparaged him in anti-Semitic terms, and worried about being associated with him. Here is Renoir, in 1882: “To continue with the Israelite Pissarro, that taints you with revolution.”
Still, one can make too much of this. Anti-Semitism does not appear to have been the main determinant in the avant-garde’s view of Pissarro. He was, to say the very least, accepted as one among them. Indeed, it is possible that some of Pissarro’s contemporaries considered his Jewishness an important and positive element in what he brought, both to the art of painting and to the art of human existence. In likening Pissarro to Moses, the giver of the law, Matisse and others were undoubtedly paying tribute not only to his new way of seeing but to his way of living—moral, responsible, whole. Whatever complex of factors explains the ebbing of his reputation, his Jewishness seems to have played, at most, a minor role in it.
Since 1980, much of the writing on Pissarro has implicitly conceded his primacy—but not his preeminence. “It sounds almost as if Cézanne was borrowing Pissarro’s eyes,” observes the MOMA catalog in discussing one of the exhibit’s paintings. Or again: “Every work produced by Cézanne at that point  appears to refer to an earlier painting by Pissarro.”
This diffidence—“almost as if,” “appears to refer”—is altogether misplaced. Many of Pissarro’s great contemporaries considered him the greatest of them all, and anyone looking today for the true sources of modern painting can find them most wholly and harmoniously present in him. Just as Barnett Newman was right in 1953 to decry the “false history” that holds Cézanne to be the father of modernism in art, Cézanne himself was right in maintaining, “We are all derived from Pissarro.”
Ying Li: Recent Paintings, Eve Aschheim: Recent Paintings at the New York Studio School, on view through July 20, 2013.
Street Figures: Simon Carr Drawings, Michael Putnam Photographs at Tom and Jerry’s, New York, on view through June 30, 2013.
Two recently opened downtown exhibits bring together artists with much in common, as well as contrasts that, when seen together, allow for deeper appreciation of their respective works.
The New York Studio School gallery is presenting recent paintings by Ying Li and Eve Aschheim. Both midcareer artists based in New York City, Aschheim makes elegant abstract canvases of lines and neat, angled shapes. Li is presenting works in the Ab-Ex tradition of messy gestural abstraction, landscapes made en plein air created with the attack of an action painter, trees and fields reduced to broad strokes of heavy paint. Both artists reveal their working methods here, Aschheim leaving pencil marks, sandpaper scratches, taped edges and under-painting, Li dripping, scraping and squeezing out whole tubes of paint.
Like Li’s landscapes, Achheim achieves a sense of light and atmosphere in her geometric abstractions. Blue Before Orange (2012), combines an icy, overcast blue-grey on the left with an aqua-colored rectangle on the right. Against this background, long orange and indigo lines, placed like pickup sticks or lantern poles in a Kanto festival, make for a compelling image. Steel and Soaking (2013), contrasts dark, inky purple triangles against a white ground, nicks and scratches here and there revealing multiple layers of color beneath the smooth, white surface.
While Aschheim makes studio paintings, Li battles the elements, working outside, moving huge amounts of oil paint on large canvases, even in the dead of winter. Winter Lilies of Hanover #2 (2012), made during a residency at Dartmouth College, has lovely muted oranges applied with a 4-inch-wide housepainter’s brush. Runny drips of turpentine, thick blobs of paint and even the cap to a paint tube have made their way into this no-holds-barred landscape. An oil paint meringue, Wintry Maple at Night (2008-09) has paint as thick as the canvas it’s on. Here the arbor of a tree in the foreground frames a maple in the distance, a moody scene.
‘Street Figures,’ a two-person show at Tom and Jerry’s on Elizabeth Street, pairs Simon Carr’s sketchbook pages and Michael Putnam’s photography. Putnam, a native New Yorker, has travelled widely for photography projects, including a series of images chronicling small-town movie theaters and ‘Sleep,’ a book of photos capturing public dozing in countries around the globe. Here Putnam stays local, taking close-up pictures of the city’s scarred asphalt surfaces. Carr, a New York City-based painter, is an old-school artist, sketchbook always at the ready, drawing with a heavy graphite line and adept hand to capture an urban environment alive with inspiration.
Carr’s 14 drawings, made on subways and at city parks, are mixed together on the wall with Putnam’s 12 photographs of pavement. Capturing drips, spills and cracks, Putnam’s essentially abstract black and white photographs have similarities to Carr’s drawings in composition and tonal structure, in one pairing a sidewalk’s cracks uncannily echoing Carr’s loose graphite lines. And the drawings and photos here are the same size, causing a double take as viewers look for figures in Putnam’s pictures; a pothole looks like the Venus of Willendorf.
A handful of Carr’s sketches here depict subway riders absorbed with their smartphones. But Carr’s works are not sanctimonious, the characters in his drawings expressing humanity even as they tune out. Carr quickly gets down poses begging to be painted. Likewise, Putnam’s close-ups of the city’s walkways are like modern fossils, footprints and oil stains beautifully preserved, both artists eternalizing a fast-changing world.
In these two-person art exhibitions, it is both similarity and difference that makes for rewarding shows, distinct artistic visions informing and enhancing the other.
Ying Li: Recent Paintings, Eve Aschheim: Recent Paintings is on view through July 20, 2013, New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, New York, NY, 212-673-6466, www.nyss.org
Street Figures: Simon Carr Drawings, Michael Putnam Photographs is on view through June 30, 2013, Tom and Jerry’s, 288 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY, 212-260-5945
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