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Painters' Table Blog
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. Of course one can learn this just from observation, if one looks 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. Of course, 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 of course. 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.”
Sam Cornish, editor of Abstract Critical, the UK based website dedicated to abstract painting and sculpture, recently posted that the site will stop publication. This is sad news to anyone interested in abstract painting and sculpture. Since January 2011 the site has published thoughtful, long-form reviews, opinion pieces, and videos.
While quality content is crucial to the success of any site, a regular publishing cadence is also important. Abstract Critical had both, a fact which made me and many others regular visitors. While commenting has been integral to blogs since their inception, Abstract Critical cultivated an atmosphere conducive to debate. While they may not quite have achieved a Cedar Bar of the internet, they succeeded more than most blogs in fomenting discussion of all sorts, from the bitingly critical to friendly banter exchanged amongst frequent commenters.
Sam Cornish and Robin Greenwood are to be particularly commended for their efforts to make Abstract Critical a vital source of criticism and discussion around the topic of abstraction. Not only did both contribute a significant amount of writing to the site, but their efforts to spur conversation around the articles (no small task) was and is greatly appreciated.
Although no new content will be added, existing articles will remain online. The Abstract Critical Twitter account will also remain active and The Brancaster Chronicles, an ongoing series of transcribed studio visits, will also continue to be published as a new site.
Cornish’s last post to Abstract Critical featured some of his favorite articles from the site. Since Painters’ Table has featured many pieces from Abstract Critical I thought I would contribute fifteen recommendations of my own. This selection only scratches the surface of what is available at Abstract Critical, but any of the articles below constitutes an excellent launch point for perusing this resource.
Best wishes to the Abstract Critical team and thanks for a job well done.
Robin Greenwood considers the dual (and competing) roles of paint as both a material and as a "designator and articulator of form and space."
A group studio visit with painter Anne Smart: Sam Cornish comments that several of Smart's paintigns "seem to have ... almost a natural light. There is a sense, not of a representational painting, but of light that you might experience."
Gary Wragg reflects on the late paintings of Joan Mitchell. For Wragg, Mitchell's last paintings express "a feel of an embrace and exuberance, a generosity and love of the outdoors, of air, light and being enveloped…”
Reviewing Paul Klee: Making Visible at Tate Modern, Ben Wiedel-Kaufman notes that Klee “developed a searching engagement with the world – in its social, material, mythological, expressive and private manifestations – alongside a radical approach to the formal elements of picture making. It is a fusion that seems worth rescuing from both formalist and Marxist accounts.”
Emyr Williams reviews the exhibition Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary, Margate writing: "The two artists are represented by paintings and watercolours. In fact, water is one clear link between them: the way it carries colour, extending its reach into the corners, lapping against the edges, the bleeding and flowing of pigmented washes, suggestive of form or simply evocative of place as felt experience.”
Mark Stone argues that the image and the being it communicates is missing in contemporary abstract painting: "...we abstract painters have been more concerned about eradicating visual confrontation with being/images. We are more comfortable with warped re-presentations of style. We prefer the documentation of our painting processes over the depiction of visual things.”
In a video interview, Robin Greenwood talks to painter Frank Bowling about his life and his work. Bowling remarks: "What we inherited from the first generation [of abstract expressionists] was the freedom to apply the paint in any which way you want, pouring it, spilling it, dripping it … It was a kind of exhilarating thing."
Painter Alan Gouk muses on the ways Manet has influenced later painters. Gouk concludes: "Manet emphasises that the continuity of painting, the continuity of value in life, is made apparent if the artist finds and holds on to his own mode of vision, trusting his own eyesight and his 'convictions of taste,' influenced as they inevitably will be by the passing show, and the march of 'history'.”
Robin Greenwood writes about a 2012 exhibition of paintings by Gillian Ayres. He notes: "One of the things that struck me looking at these paintings is how little they make one aware of a picture plane; how very unflat they are; how very un-graphic in every sense; and yet, how true to the integrity of the painted surface. The spaces herein are not wrought out of illusionistic ambiguities, but from plastic certainties."
Patrick Jones reflects on Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The biggest surprise for this painter from the Matisse show were the surfaces of the paintings. They were amazingly distressed, with cracking, scratching, gouging and much obvious changes of form... Matisse was always possessed of a remarkable raison d’être, was engaged in meaningful and purposeful action over many decades, dispelling any reputation as a nervous ditherer.”
Robert Linsley explores the idea of improvisation in relation to abstract painting. Linsley writes: "Improvisation does not mean pulling art out of thin air. It is a congerie of techniques that enable the possibility that the new will appear… Improvisation is more akin to normal living than it is to flights of virtuoso artistic skill. And yet, great improvisers usually are virtuosos, it’s just that they have set their own standards of skill. It turns out that skills are best learned in the act of creation."
Interview with painter Sophia Starling who remarks: "I became interested in what abstract painting could be, so I developed this process where the support, the paint and the material all have equal weight, they are all as important as each other. Most painters use the support and material to create a surface on which they will create their painting; whereas I wanted the material, the structure and the support to make up the composition of the painting."
Video studio visit with painter Vincent Hawkins where the artist discusses his recent works on "cardboard and oval-shaped supports." Hawkins notes his interest in "releasing some of the forms out of the constriction of the edge and trying to release it into the environment rather than containing it within the edge of the format of the the rectilinear surface… I also wanted to make something of very meager means..."
Sam Cornish considers the work of painter Gary Wragg in relation to provisional painting. Cornish writes that Wragg “avoids heroic, definitive or authoritative statements, who posits a vision of art which is as circular, or perhaps labyrinthine, as it is progressive. In all these senses he is provisional, almost with a capital P. Where Wragg differs – or at least the most crucial of the many ways in which he differs – from those artists gathered under Rubinstein's rubric is in his evident and overriding belief in art, and in abstract art, as a place of meaningful and compelling visual experience."
Ashley West writes about Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park paintings. West recalls his first exposure to Diebenkorn's paintings at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1991: "A door was opened and it dawned on me that here was an approach to painting that was both measured and free – on the one hand the geometric structure was alive, dynamic, felt, and on the other the freedom of brushwork and colour was intensified through containment. These paintings were rigorous in their abstraction and presence, while expressing a sublime feeling for landscape."
Yearning Upwards, Painting Trees, curated by Emily Berger, is on view at The Painting Center, New York, from September 2 - 27, 2014.
A closing reception will be held Saturday, September 27 from 4-6 pm. A panel discussion entitled "The Subject is Trees" will begin at 4:30pm. It will be moderated by Emily Berger. Participants include Ryan Cobourn, Fletcher Copp, Michael Goodwin, Kerry Law, Doug Holst, Patrick Neal, Marilyn Turtz, Sue Post, Rachael Wren and Neil Plotkin.
Painters' Table (PT): In the current London Review of Books, John Barrell reviews a show of works by the Welsh landscape painter Richard Wilson. The show curators, as Barrell notes, argue that Wilson’s great leap forward was “to turn away from painting ‘invented compositions’ of the kind preferred by Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet, in favour of views of real places.” Although not every artist in Yearning Upwards, depicts “real places,” it seems this statement might well address a common desire among the artists, perhaps especially the more abstract painters, to once again return painting from a more conceptual state to one more connected to nature.
Emily Berger (EB): At the "Subject Matter in Abstract Painting" panel last week at Melville House, which ran concurrently with the Karen Schifano show I also curated, there was a lively discussion on this issue. My personal feeling is that I alway respond to painting abstractly - not paying much attention to ostensible subject matter, but instead focusing on the space, line, form, and color - the language of painting. I was always drawn to abstract work and wanted to paint abstractly. I never really wanted to go out and paint what I saw, although I sketch a little and do photograph. But "nature filters in" - someone said that. I feel like my work is a distillation or paring down of thought and sensation, especially of what I see or remember and search or long for in the world.
PT: This is not a “pure” landscape show, you have included a deliberate mix of artists whose approaches range from plein-air to near geometric abstraction, and yet all are undeniably involved with landscape, in particular the image of the tree. You also curated Nature Abstracted at The Painting Center in 2004, another show that investigated the influence of the natural world on abstraction and vice versa. Is this an ongoing concern of yours - does it come out of your own painting?
EB: Yes, there is a connection to my work (the black and white gelatin silver prints in the catalog are mine). If you look on my web site you will see a lot of photos of trees and in the work a connection to nature - air, light, light and dark, the tree as grid (Mondrian), first architecture - providing a roof, a horizontal and a vertical, and the ideas of "seeing through" and layering. All these things apply to and come from nature, including the gesture...but they are abstracted. I’m not always sure how nature gets in and is expressed but I know it is.
PT: In his catalogue essay for Yearning Upwards, Neil Plotkin makes a case that painting a tree is akin to riffing on a jazz standard in that the “standard offers the opportunity to consider a familiar subject from a different point of view.” His observation made me realize how much the selection of a novel subject has become the dominant standard of originality in the last half century. Subject matter often matters more than its interpretation in contemporary art, but this show demonstrates the opposite can be true.
EB: It's the interpretation that counts. Of course this particular subject, trees, is so fertile, it lends itself to metaphor, human identification, and even anthropomorphism; Doug Holst said the tree is a visual manifestation of the human soul.
PT: It strikes me that the artist statement for any work in the show could simply be: “I paint trees.” There’s something refreshing about the fact that no further context is necessary to access the work because trees are universally understood; as a result, the particular dialogues between artist and subject stand out. Even though a simple statement could describe all the paintings exhibited, the resulting works are diverse. - none of these artists could be confused with another in the show.
EB: In all these painters in the show I found that quality of yearning and concentrated feeling around the idea of a tree, even as they are all very different one from another. In a recent interview, British painter Frank Auerbach mentions that Lucian Freud did a version of Constable's Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree. Auerbach says, "I remember him talking about the Constable and saying what a good idea it was. I had never thought about a tree trunk being an idea". He also talks about a painting being "an enchanted vision or a lived through reality". I think a successful painting is both.
Why a tree and not something else? The tree has everything - all the formal qualities we painters love to tangle with - layering, light and shadow, linearity, mass, variety of shape, color and form, texture. Whether it is seen as a flat shape, part of a grid, a three dimensional solid, in shallow or deep space, as one or many, paired, or single – it is a stand-in for the human, a being we project ourselves on. It lives and dies, it is strong and vulnerable, it stands up and falls down. And then, of course, we know we need trees to live - pretty basic. Without them we die. The painters in this show love trees.
In a new video from Lamka Films, Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann interviews artist John Bunker about his work on the occasion of two recent London exhibitions: Six Fugues, curated by Sam Cornish at Westminster Reference Library and Ram Raiders, Snake Charmers and Rope Burns at Unit3 Projects.
Bunker comments that collage
"tends to be driven, historically, as... a domestic thing, a personalized thing... There's that side to it. And then of course you have the other side to it, which is the side I'm more attracted to, which is this intense relationship to the picture plane - that you're breaking it up, you're inverting things, you're turning things 'round.. these different speeds of attack that come into a work. You isolate a gestural piece of painting. You take it away from the happy places it's always lived and you put it somewhere that it doesn't belong automatically. But, then you find these new relationships between these... incongruous things."
"For me [the work] has to be a visual, sensuous experience before anything else. But, I find that sensuousness from the materials around me and I'm determined to bring them into a relationship with the picture plane, with paint, with the history of painting."
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Brenda Goodman: Paintings is on view at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, New York from July 17 until August 10, 2014.
In Brenda Goodman's recent works, completed after her move from Manhattan to the Catskills, she continues to explore powerfully personal narratives animated by a visual language that moves that moves freely between abstraction and representation. On the occasion of her exhibition at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, Goodman graciously agreed to discuss her recent work with Painters’ Table. -- Brett Baker
Painters' Table (PT): Equating the materiality of paint with that of the body has always been present in your work, but in several of your new works – such as Red Branch (2014) – painting and body seem united as never before in a metaphor of process. The life of the paint (its material journey) and the life of the body (also a material journey) become one.
Brenda Goodman (BG): An interesting observation. The thing is, I don’t make those kind of distinctions. Ever since I was a student over 50 years ago, I have been in love with oil paint and the sensualness of it. I have experimented throughout my whole career with various tools and additives to express my emotional life in the paint. Sometimes, for example, my self portraits are painted very thin and built up in thin veils of glazes and other times I felt they should be thick and raw. And that goes for my abstractions and my figure/abstract paintings as well. I love playing thin and thick, bold and subtle, off each other. But most important, this is not an intellectual process. I use the techniques and materials that FEEL right for any given painting. I guess I’m just one of those artists who puts it on and takes it off until it feels right. In the case of Red Branch, there was another painting that I didn’t like so I covered it with white. Because of the original painting, there was a ghost image in the white and I began to pull it out until the shape in the current painting emerged and the piece grew from there. That sort of intestinal shape goes way back to work I did in the 70’s but when it pops up in recent work, where other more recent shapes do as well, it always surprises and pleases me, because the thread of who I am is always there.
PT: Although your work as a whole has been categorized as expressionist, you’ve engaged with a surprising and inspiring range of stylistic approaches, as well as the entire abstract/figurative continuum. Can you talk about how your approach to a painting or a new group of paintings evolves?
BG: My work almost always comes out of something that is going on in my life. In the 70’s I used symbols to express myself—they were usually abstracted shapes that represented someone or something to me and I would create a narrative around the symbols. I did that for many years but then wanted to let the work break open and not be as controlled so for the next several years I did large abstract paintings that I couldn’t fully explain but were very freeing. But then, after a while, I longed for that more personal emotional connection and in 1994 I began a series of self-portraits that expressed a negative feeling I had about my body. What was good is that some of the abstract elements of the previous work carried into the new self-portraits. This began my serious interest in combining abstraction and figuration. In 1995 I did a series called “A Song for My Mother,” where I finally felt I’d successfully integrated the figure and the abstract in my work. Then in 2004 I had a need to paint myself more naturalistically. Being very over weight, I found beauty in the forms but also I felt quite exposed and vulnerable. I also found a way to incorporate the canvases and stretchers in my studio as abstract elements in these paintings.
PT: Your previous group of paintings portrayed the figure inhabiting an interior space - often a self-portrait in the studio. Discussing those works in a 2007 interview, you talked about wanting your work to be very open about how personal experience and emotional content were presented. Your new vocabulary of forms is more abstract – bodies are now represented by parts of bodies – in many works the body is presented as an integrated image/action. What prompted this shift back towards abstraction and how did the experience of making overtly figurative works in recent years affect these new paintings?
BG: The new work is pushing the abstract and geometric more—suggesting the body rather than representing it. It’s all a continuum. I haven’t let go of anything. I’ve just added more elements, more challenges.
PT: Can you say a bit about scale? Some of the paintings in your current show at John Davis are very small - 6 x 8 inches. Are these examples of studies or are they conceived of as standalone works?
BG: Scale. I love playing with scale. Scale of elements within the paintings and scale of the individual paintings. Ever since I was a young artist I went back and forth between small, medium, and large paintings. And because I have done this for so long, the shift in scale is not hard. After finishing the large paintings for the show at John Davis, I began a series of small oil on paper pieces from 6 x 8 inches to 10 x 10 inches. A teacher told me a long time ago that there should be power in a small painting and intimacy in a large one. That was great advice.
PT: Painterly is a term most often associated with a general “love of paint” and primarily addresses painting as a positive force. Clearly your work is painterly and there’s an evident pleasure in the process of painting. Yet, it seems to me that your paintings don’t shy away from another aspect of painterly feeling - that painting can be a difficult, exhausting process for both body and mind. In your works this emotional duality feels present in the paint itself.
BG: It is certainly true that my work is painterly, in the sense of loving and exploring materiality of paint itself. But as I said before, I have always used this materiality as a way of expressing emotion, both personal and emotion related the reality of being human. My work often walks the line between humor and horror. Duality exists in almost all my work, even these newest paintings that are more upbeat than some of my earlier work—there is still that dark element lurking, Sometimes that dark element fills the whole painting and IS the painting which was the case 4 years ago when there was a tragic death in our family. But I needed to paint those feelings. It wasn’t hard or exhausting—it was sad and necessary to communicate. The only time painting is difficult and exhausting is when my will and ego are holding onto something in the painting that is blocking its completion. Then I have to let go and surrender, and once I do, the painting finishes itself. But that abyss is very dark until the letting go begins.
PT: Every artist faces the challenge of what to paint and how, but many also concern themselves with how their work engages the "narrative" of contemporary art. You don't seem distracted by this, rather, you have things and experiences to paint and you concentrate on the many ways you can understand them and know them better by painting them. There’s a richness that comes from the self-granted freedom to pay close, sustained attention to what is personal. Ultimately, do you think that by scrutinizing the immediate, universal issues can be addressed more authentically?
BG: I think you describe how I feel quite well, Brett. I am always aware of what’s happening around me in the art world but from day one my work has been about my own personal journey, though they are never just about me and my story. I don’t set out to address universal issues but I recognize that my issues are not just my own but are shared. All the experiences I paint such as loneliness, rejection, love, death, relationships, the body—and even humor and joy—come straight from my heart and people feel that in my work. There is no wall between me and my paintings. That makes them authentic and I am very proud of that.
Stephanie Pierce: Wake at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, New York, on view from May 28 – June 29, 2014.
Painting communicates most completely when its visual presentation also awakens our other senses. The unseen sensation in painting is most often touch, but can also include sound, as in the works of painter Stephanie Pierce, currently on view at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects. In her paintings, thousands of highly varied marks rise into place, each notation of light rustling gently against the next.
Although the mass of Pierce’s subjects is often consumed by light, her accumulated attention to the sights and sounds of her surroundings creates its own density.
In reproduction, Pierce appears to repeat similar shard-like marks. In person, however, no two marks are the same. Her touch ranges from brushy and barely washed to scraped and masked; often many subtle touches contribute to each discernable shape. Extreme painterliness that doesn’t call attention to itself is rare, but in these paintings physical effect, not painterly incident, grabs our attention.
The duration and intensity of observation in Pierce’s work recalls Giacometti, except there isn’t a hint of absurdity present here, nor is there any obvious urgency. Instead, she approaches the ‘impossible’ task of capturing nature with lucid patience – a consistent, unhurried focus.
The bending of space in Pierce’s series of window paintings initially recalls the sweeping, curved perspective of Rackstraw Downes’ extreme horizontal views, yet Pierce operates within a more standard and often vertical rectangle. Rather than a slow, sweeping vista, here the result is a light-spilling shimmer. Pierce’s awareness of contemporary and historical models never impinges on her own sensibility, she simply adapts techniques and approaches, present and past, to her own ends.
Though Pierce’s paintings result from many months of careful observation, the overall effect is a complete sensation of place at a particular moment. The viewer experiences the buzzing, informed quietude of her pictures directly. That, in and of itself, is a refreshing accomplishment.
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