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Painters' Table Blog
Nicolas de Staël at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison Avenue, New York, on view from May 2 - 31, 2013.
In the United States, an eerie silence surrounds the work of Russian painter Nicolas de Staël. His name is rarely, if ever, recommended to or cited as an influence on an American painter. The first reason for his relative absence from the American consciousness is simply bad timing. As Eliza Rathbone explained in 1997: "The very fact that [de Staël] began to achieve fame and recognition during the same years as the New York School was establishing its reputation on native soil, made a challenging environment for the work of an artist steeped in artistic culture and traditions of France." 1 The romantic image of the New York School remains powerful today. Struggling inwardly in a studio on 10th Street continues to capture the imagination of young American painters more than painting light and heat on a beach in Antibes.
Perhaps the main reason de Staël’s reputation has languished in recent decades, though, is the inaccessibility of his work. The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. has been the only reliable venue to see de Staël’s paintings in the last half century. After regular showings in the 1950s, only four other shows of de Staël’s paintings - in 1963, 1965, 1990, and 1997 - precede the small, but well-selected show of his works now on view at Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s Madison Avenue space.
The general neglect of de Staël is a missed opportunity for American painters because his work is so generous in its ambition. His paintings are expansive. “True painting,” he wrote, “always tends towards all aspects, that is to say, towards the impossible sum of the present moment, the past, and the future.” 2 De Staël refused to neuter painting by adopting prevailing modernist dogmatism. He would not allow his work be classified as either abstract or figurative. He sought what he described as “what lies between the two.” 3
One moment de Staël seems an abstract painter uniquely attuned to the physical world and another he seems an observational painter with an uncanny command of the abstract elements of painting. Which of these he appears to be may change according to viewing distance from a specific painting and the duration spent looking. Agrigente (1953), the most striking and active painting in the current show, initially appears to be an abstract painting loosely influenced by landscape. This painting changes, however, before your eyes into a carefully observed, specific view. The unreproducible orange of the sky doesn’t hold a spatial plane the way it would in an abstract painting - as a wedge of space - rather it conveys the infinite, and does so as convincingly as any blue ever has. The same orange, cut with nearly imperceptible additions of red, holds both discrete middle and foreground spaces in the picture. In this painting, de Staël’s color is not color, it is light and heat as they travel across space. The effect can only be experienced in person.
Just as De Staël’s color is not about color, his visceral surfaces aren’t about paint. The surprising variety of paint application - thick and thin, brushed and trowelled on, horizontal and vertical marks - always describes natural forces and movement. In Paysage Méditerranée (1954) his brush and knife conjure a brisk gale. In the adjacent Fleurs dans un vase bleu (1953), thick slabs of paint create the sensation of spinning. The optical effect is like a time lapse video of flowers blooming. The effect intensifies as you approach the painting.
The mutability of De Staël’s paintings is impossible to describe, it must be seen. If you visit the exhibition, have a seat on the bench in the main gallery. Start with Paysage, La Ciotat (1952) and turn slowly clockwise, spending time with each painting until you reach Collines à Agregente (1954). The paintings will appear differently on each turn.
At the moment of De Staël’s rise to fame, The New York School overpowered the art world. Many of its most prominent painters redefined painting as an introspective art form. Radical though this shift was, it also paved the way for painting to privilege the verbal over the visual. Fifty years later, contemporary paintings often spring from predetermined words and ideas; they do exactly what the artist claims they do, nothing more. When we lose a painter like De Staël, we lose a valuable example of the intensely visual. Paintings like his defy the verbal. They need to be seen - especially in America.
Subject Matter of the Artist: Robert Goodnough, 1950-1965
Edited with an Introduction by Helen A. Harrison, Foreward by Irving Sandler, Soberscove Press
Subject Matter of the Artist: Robert Goodnough, 1950-1965, a new book published by Soberscove Press, is a time capsule of sorts. It unearths a lost primary source, penned by a significant artist, one that sheds first-person light on some of the most iconic artists of the New York School. It also conveys, through the enthusiasm of its author, a palpable sense of the excitement of a painter consciously aware he is in the midst of a significant avant garde moment.
Irving Sandler, in the foreward, describes the ethos of this moment (1949-1950) and its influence on Goodnough. It was a “lively avant-garde ferment,” Sandler writes, “in which [Goodnough] was introduced to the latest and most vital art and ideas, and all the fresh options in contemporary art.” (p.9)
As a graduate student and protege of Tony Smith at NYU, Goodnough embraced these ideas. He sought out avant garde painters, not only making the acquaintance of key artists of the New York School, but also visiting their studios and interviewing them for a research paper. This important, nearly unknown piece of writing, titled Subject Matter of the Artist: An Analysis of Contemporary Subject Matter in Painting as Derived from Interviews with those Artists Referred to as the Intrasubjectivists, is the centerpiece of this new collection.
Goodnough is known primarily as a second generation Abstract Expressionist, the generation that included Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Sam Francis, and Norman Bluhm among others. He also penned the seminal ArtNews article, “Pollock Paints a Picture,” a first hand account of Jackson Pollock’s novel drip painting technique (also included in this new volume - along with an interesting new revelation about that text).
Pollock, we learn, was not the only important painter observed and interviewed by Goodnough. In Subject Matter of the Artist, he turns interviews with key icons of the New York School, including William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, and Willem de Kooning, into succinct, individual prose portraits. Historical and technical anecdotes from these portraits flesh out our understanding of these artists at the very moment they are making their mark on the history of painting.
In one interview, Rothko admits an initial aversion to visual art and discusses his relatively new effort to “eliminate any distracting awareness of paint by applying his colors without texture.” (p.47) In another, Goodnough offers a summary of Newman’s observation that “the act of painting and the bringing into existence of an art object are one and the same process. In music, a diagram is first created, then it is played on an instrument. The painter plays his instrument while he is creating it.” (p.53)
The interviews reveal shared ideas among these artists, yet opposing views also emerge, supporting the notion that the New York School was not as much a shared vision of a school of like-minded artists as an ethos arrived at through a variety of artistic motivations. Gottlieb, for instance, tells Goodnough that painting is “not only a matter of colors and shapes on canvas, but images made visible and integrated” (p.58) while Baziotes gives a contradictory statement, remarking that “reference to existing objects is not particularly helpful in contemporary painting.” (p.44)
It is this issue of subject matter, “an understanding of what is involved in approaching painting with no reference to existing objects” (p.42) that is Goodnough’s focus. His thesis resurrects for a 21st century audience the term “intrasubjectivism,” introduced in 1949 by José Ortega y Gasset to describe a non-objective painting approach. (p.42)
This approach, editor Helen A. Harrison explains, “lies at the core of what was then being defined as the new American painting, although many artists would replace ideas with even more subjective stimuli such as experiences and emotions. The artist was liberated from representation, but also unmoored from it.” (p.17)
It is clear the intrasubjectivism Goodnough explored as a writer informed his painting as well. Though he painted more and less overt subject matter throughout his career, he always seemed to privilege an improvisatory approach. As Goodnough recalls in a 1958 statement that concludes the current volume:
“the domination of the object to be looked at, always saying that a certain line should go in this direction or that, a red had to be here and a blue there because that was the way it was on the model, began to be limiting...” (p.75) Goodnough never accepted limits in his painting, embracing in his own work what he describes as the “feeling in the best work of American painters of the ‘wild’ which has been the heritage of this country.” (p.76)
Goodnough’s writing, newly presented in this book, allows the reader to feel the the excitement of being part of a small group of New York artists discovering and exploring entirely new territory in painting. To read his account is to be there the moment (characterized by Harrison) that American “wildness” succeeded French “finish,” as New York replaced Paris as the center of the art world.
Subject Matter of the Artist: Robert Goodnough, 1950-1965, Edited with an Introduction by Helen A. Harrison, Foreward by Irving Sandler, will be available from Soberscove Press May 15, 2013.
SHIFTER and Soberscove Press will hold a joint book launch, celebrated through a series of short artist presentations entitled Proposals for an Impractical Education. Speakers include: Corin Hewitt, Riley Duncan, Valerio Rocco Orlando, Adelita Husni Bey, Abdullah Awad, Tyler Coburn, Jesal Kapadia, Brian McCarthy, Malene Dam, A.K. Burns and Steven Lam.
The event will take place May 11, 2013 from 5-7pm at Parsons, 25 East 13th Street, 5th Floor (NYC).
Carrie Moyer: Pirate Jenny is on view at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY from January 26 - May 19, 2013.
The following video, produced by the Tang Museum, shows painter Carrie Moyer at work in the studio. She describes her process, which begins with small black and white collages, and discusses her influences - including Miro's The Farm (1921–1922) and paintings by Christian Schad and Alexej von Jawlensky. She also talks about how she arrived at her current body of work:
"In 2007, I had a show called The Stone Age. I knew I wanted it to deal with abstraction but I also wanted it to have forms that referred to the body. And because I had this association with goddesses and archeology, those forms made it into this body of work. Now, seven years later, the space in the paintings has changed a lot even though some of those strategies remain. Now, the space in the paintings is totally opened up, but I actually feel like this work is true to who I am and how I want to affect people."
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An exhibition of new paintings by Halsey Hathaway is on view at Rawson Projects, Brooklyn, New York, from April 6 – May 19, 2013. The gallery conducted an interview with the artist on the occasion of the exhibition and has graciously allowed Painters' Table to post the conversation below.
Rawson Projects (RP): First, can you discuss how the paintings are constructed? What I find particularly interesting about them is that they are made in layers over a dyed canvas. Each layer reveals the one beneath it. What appeals to you about this method versus a more traditional painterly approach?
Halsey Hathaway (HH): The paintings always start with plans for how I will execute them. The forms are predetermined, and the color in its own way as well. The paintings in the show are all constructed with four layers on top of a dyed canvas, two stained and two thickly painted opaque layers. For each layer, the painting is completely masked off and I draw, cut out, and paint in the form for that specific layer. That being said, I never have a clear idea of how the painting will look once finished. The specifics of the painting, how the form and color interact, play out in the process and reveal themselves only when everything is completed.
RP: Color is obviously very important to your work. A lot of artists have been fascinated with color throughout various periods in history. What draws you to experiment with color, and do you think how artists relate to color has changed over time?
HH: The space and light that color creates in painting is, I feel, the strongest reason that painting was the earliest art form and is still relevant today. With the computer monitor being our main focus in the past fifteen years or so, our experiences of color has changed dramatically. The majority of our visual encounters involve colored light being projected at our retina. Surely this has and will continue to change our experience of color and will affect how I go about using color.
RP: The paintings often give the impression– in some more than others– of a figure or apparition of a figure? Is this intentional? If so, what interests you about this response from the viewer?
HH: I want to address the unique oscillating spaces that painting can inhabit and how that interacts with our subconscious. The accumulated forms build up to a space that can be seen both as figure and as void, intentionally allowing the work to change with each viewer’s own subjectivity. I felt the need to approach painting from a more Epicurean position, where our senses provide us with the only truths. As our senses are unique to our selves, and our subconscious response is often evolving, it is inherent that there will be multiple and contradictory truths.
RP: Finally, the paintings are hung rather low to the ground, and each canvas employs a 2:1 scale. What role does the scale play in the layout of the works? In other words, does the scale somehow precipitate the composition? Does the scale and relationship to the space reference any specific historical practice in painting?
HH: I chose the 2:1 ratio for its strong verticality and its figurative presence. I wanted the scale to relate to our real physical being. I needed the paintings to exist, not just as things to look at, with space we could imagine easily passing our bodies through, but as an entities we need to navigate ourselves around.
An exhibition of new paintings by Halsey Hathaway continues at Rawson Projects, Brooklyn, New York, through May 19, 2013.
Al Held: Alphabet Paintings is on view at Cheim & Read, New York through April 20, 2013.
Al Held's paintings of the early to mid 60s are now on view at Cheim & Read. In them, he abandons the physical monumentality previously achieved through the accretion of heavy layers of oil paint in favor of a more visual, graphic monumentality. This graphic monumentality comes from vigorously painted architectonic arrangements of letterforms painted on near-mural scale canvases.
Held denied a metaphorical interest in the letters; nevertheless, the pictorial device of singling out initials for monumental treatment has precedent, most notably in Celtic illuminated manuscript painting, where the scale and lavish decoration of the initial letter alert the reader to the import of the text that follows. Through their intricate design, these "initials" require concentration and pull the reader into a meditative state. They also function as visual thresholds opening outward and inviting the reader to consider the sacred worlds beyond the boundaries of the page and of earth, itself.
In much Abstract Expressionist painting of the 50s, notably paintings by Rothko and Newman, expanded abstract visual fields reflect the viewer's gaze, conjuring an awareness of self. John Yau, however, recently noted that the forms in Held's early 60s paintings, such as The Yellow X, extend beyond the picture plane, creating an awareness of the environment beyond the canvas edge. "Extending off the painting’s physical edges," Yau writes, "the X is simultaneously skewed and stable, conveying a space that hints at a realm beyond and behind the picture plane."
Making paintings that pointed outward, thresholds onto the physical world, was a stated interest of Held's. He accomplished this through drawing, as described by Yau, and also through color. Held himself noted, in a 1975 interview with Paul Cummings, that he was interested in "'taxicab' colors, loud, crass" - the colors of the city.
More of Held's and Cummings' discussion of the "Alphabet" paintings is below:
Excerpt from: Oral history interview with Al Held, 1975 Nov. 19-1976 Jan. 8, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Al Held (AH): "I was very much against that whole "flatness", the whole Greenberg thing of flatness and wanted to break the picture surface... There has been a constant theme there of wanting to advance that space, wanting that space I always rejected that whole notion of the picture surface as being crucial. But I would spend lots and lots of time on one edge, for instance. But the only way one could do that would be to invent a subject that wasn't simply an abstract theme. A specific subject that this thing --
Paul Cummings (PC): How do you differentiate between subject and theme?
AH: Well, now I'm using the words loosely. I just simply meant by that, thematically, stylewise the circle and the square, that the subject be specific, that it really have a very, very specific relationship. It wasn't an example of a notion or an idea; that is, it took on its own meaning, it had its own concreteness.
PC: Was that what the letters of the alphabet meant, you know, the "A" or the "I" or whatever it was?
AH: Right. They were geometric; they had the advantage of being geometric and clear. I wanted that clarity. But they also had the advantage of having -- it wasn't the literally presence, it wasn't the literal meaning that it took on a configuration that was acceptable. That's not the proper way to say it. . . You could relate to it as a form. The "A" --
PC: You mean the history one has of looking at the letter "A" in printed and various ways?
AH: No, it wasn't literal in the sense that I wasn't interested in the history of the letter "A" and how it moved from one thing to another. I was more interested in simply using it as a generalized abstract image that then I could make very, very specific. But it wasn't an eccentric form. What I mean by "acceptable" is that you didn't have to wonder what that was.
PC: So you didn't use the Cyrillic alphabet, for example.
PC: You could see it was a "D" or an "I" or an "A".
AH: Right. But then beyond that you can grasp the configuration. But then I had no desire to have any kind of real literal subject. Somebody once asked me whether I used all those letters because they are the letters in my name in a kind of egocentric. . . And thinking back on it, I have used an "A", I've used an "L", I've used an "H" and an "E". I've used all the letters in my name.
PC: A "D".
AH: But it was not a conscious thing at all. I have used "X"'s too. But the point I'm making is that they were used for formal devices to make something very concrete, they weren't used for literal purposes.
PC: Now one of the other things about those large paintings is that the colors changed enormously from the early ones.
PC: Was that because of the colors available in the Liquitex?
AH: That. And also the reaction to that show and also wanting the "taxicab" colors, loud, crass. And also in those days there was a great deal of talk between myself and George Sugarman about contrast of forms, of lots of contradictory forms, a multiplicity of forms. It's like this painting here, it's got a geometric shape there in red and it's got the I-Beam and it's got the yellow stripe and it's got a wave. It's got a juxtaposition of different elements in the same painting and the semantics of that kind of using disparaging forms. But that evolved out of that very quickly in the sense that I remember saying to myself: well, if I can paint a crowd _______ can't I paint one person. You know, that kind of thing.
PC: Thinking of the painting in that vein, did you have a hard time keeping it together when it was evolving? By that I mean would, say, the wavy section jump out or pull back?
AH: That's what all the struggle was with all the colors and the drawing, to keep that thing together, under tension in the relationship. They weren't simply signs or symbols placed there like --
PC: The surrealists --
AH: Right. There had to be some kind of structure to pull them all together. That's why all the time was spent on finding the right color weight. That's what all those color wights are really all about, keeping things together, keeping the relationships together, keep it under tension so it wouldn't jump out and become a whole bunch of potpourri. But there were lots and lots of notions like that. It's hard to remember all the ideas you were so excited by because they're sort of like left behind. But they're not really left behind, they're sort of like part of an iceberg but only the things you're concerned with now. Those things I've already absorbed and they're part of me. And I've left them. I sometimes theorize that what an artist really talks about are the thing he's can't do.
Margaret McCann interviews painter Megan Marlatt on the occasion of the recent exhibition Megan Marlatt: Substitutions for a Game Never Played at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond, Virginia.
Margaret McCann (PT): What does the title of your recent show, “Substitutions for a Game Never Played,” at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond VA, reveal about your sense of play in art-making? Jung said, “… play [belongs] to the child, [appearing] inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.”
Megan Merlatt (MM): Jung is correct, and as the oeuvre of my toy work grew, so did my empathy toward child’s play and similarities between that world and the artist’s. I became interested in the “anima” in “animation”…what makes dead matter come alive, how do both the child and the artist imbue life into seemingly inanimate objects?
PT: Large piles of toys gathering dust don’t speak well of our consumerist culture, and my inner hoarder feels slightly ashamed looking at them, but then they also reflect Baudelaire’s statement that “Is not the whole of life to be found [in a great toyshop] in miniature - and far more highly colored, sparkling and polished than real life?” Are the paintings also about pure pleasure?
MM: Yes, and I hope viewers have the same conflicting feelings - both damned and seduced by our plastic consumption. Admittedly, my first response to the toys was that of a visual artist; they were colorful and their forms were smartly engineered and enjoyable to paint and draw. But I’ve always been interested in the human condition and how social issues effect art making, so I couldn’t avoid that most of this stuff was wasteful junk. The more I collected and piled the toys up, the more the paintings began to speak to me of a mass, cultural vertigo…a dizziness of too much stuff, too much stimulation, too much information, too much plastic. Mass consumerism doesn’t just produce masses of junk, it can rob us of our sense of preciousness.
Yet I’m not above being seduced myself, and ironically, plastic can evoke a sense of preciousness, in that inevitably I’d pull from the wreckage a toy from my childhood, or one so well crafted one couldn’t help designating it ‘special’. As I’d paint these individually, as portraits, they turned out to be the ones through which I began to feel the meaning of child’s play in the artist’s studio.
PT: How important is 'degree of difficulty' for you? Paintings like “Venetian Red Riding Hood” show mastery – skillful but non-fussy drawing, clever manipulation of light, beautiful color, and an expressive handling of paint. Their ambition (50+ figures) reminds me of the technical virtuosity academic history painting placed on multi-figure compositions. Can toys be people, too?
MM: Well, I have been painting for a long time, and I’m aging, and life is short – so I feel my efforts are worthy of ambitious instead of half-hearted ones. My intention involves blurring the lines between genres, so that still lifes can read as landscapes, portraits, history painting, etc. But as gravity pulls the toy piles downward over time, and as the toys appear to move during close observation, jiggling in the corners of my eyes as I turned to find the right color on my palette, the blurring continues; I wind up painting 'un-still lifes’. Toys are so 'loaded' culturally and emotionally they can substitute for many things.
PT: You create great color harmonies, despite Roland Barthes’ lamentation that “toys are made of a graceless material... plastic...has an appearance at once gross and hygienic; it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.“ Does your painting plastic objects with plastic paint (acrylic) say something about the alchemical power of painting? Does the bright color of acrylic paint relate to the unnatural color of the toys better than oils?
MM: Absolutely. My first toy paintings from 2004 were in oil, because I hated acrylic paint. Its crappy stuff that’s difficult to mold into illusionistic space - no flow, just sticks to the canvas. I wanted to kill the guy who invented it until I realized how perfect it was for the material realism I’m after: In the same way that Van Gogh’s paint in “The Potato Eaters” is as dirty as the dirt on the potatoes, or that Wayne Thiebaud’s paint in his cake paintings is laid on like thick icing, my paint needed to flatten out like a big plastic Tonka truck that melted on a heater, so the motif and the material became one. Nothing paints plastic better than plastic; I couldn’t get their toxic colors with oils. I begin the paintings in acrylic and finish them in oils in an alkyd medium.
PT: The seductive, cool, blue light of “Dark Eros and the Moonramp Walkers” helps conjure up a vision of the magical landscapes we can recall making with dolls and toys as children. But its realism appeals to adult awareness of our obsession with war games.
MM: I always loved the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show for that reason…those politically charged jokes for adults (if they were paying attention) that harmlessly flew over the heads of the kids enjoying the cartoons. A painter friend of mine interpreted my paintings as an amassing of evildoers who want to destroy my life, and heroes who want to save it – so a personal rather than global war. The paintings become very different for me when the color is limited. The toys are more somber, their structures highlighted as a result of the lack of color. The Dark Eros in this particular painting refers to that strange tiny toy in the bottom left corner of the pile. He’s got a silver suit on like a space man, but he also has wings and Cupid’s bow and arrow…so what he’s supposed to be?
I like that ambivalence of toys, which is only made stronger by the fact that I haven’t watched TV in twenty years. So I don’t know the ‘official’ narrative behind many of the toys I paint. I once picked up a yellow character biting his nails while sweating profusely, and thought, “Wow, this toy is having an anxiety attack!” - which I liked, so I painted its portrait. I only found out 3 months later that it was SpongeBob Squarepants, and 2 years later finally saw an episode on a friend’s TV set.
PT: We seem to be living in an un-heroic age, when traditional ideals of masculine action a la The Great Man Theory suffer a dwindling arena outside sports and warfare. Does your painting’s title “Men” reflect that?
MM: Painting dolls, issues of gender and feminism stand out - not a bad thing; I enjoy being a part of both. But while a toy can be many things, a doll’s role is limited in play with her. In setting up a mass of ‘male dolls’ in “Men,” I realized they had a far wider variation of body type and ‘professional’ associations than their female counterparts, either baby dolls for young girls to play “Mommy” with, or skinny fashion models for young girls to dress up. The male variety included muscle men, chubby construction workers, cowboys, rubbery neon smileys and even dictator types.
PT: The verisimilitude of the weighty toy piles dominates from a distance, but close up the active paint textures contradict it - realism gives way to abstraction, and solidity to atmosphere. I can’t help being reminded, in the face of so much toy-waste, of Marx and Engels’ view that capitalism makes “all that is solid melts into air”. The anarchist Emma Goldman said, “Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colors will people [be interested] …the people are a very fickly baby that must have new toys everyday.” Do you at least hope that after people see your paintings, they might consume less?
MM: Wonderful quotes! Someone once said of my paintings that the child who these plastic toys are made for would become bored with them very quickly, yet the toys will barely decay, and will be around long after the child is grown and dead.
PT: In places, drips frankly assert modernist flatness. And mark, texture, and color dramatically interplay in rhythmic logic, creating visual gestalts that read abstractly.
MM: I love both realism and abstraction, and for paint to behave like paint. Achieving illusionism doesn’t mean you have to be tight. The painting is many different paintings, depending on where you stand in relation to it. It can be a theatre, in that there is an audience and actors on the stage. But where the audience sits still and the performers move on stage, in a painting the actors sit still on the painting’s stage, and the audience moves in and out of it. From across the room it’s a different painting than from 6 inches away, so the painting changes as one walks towards it, and I like to provide my audience with a different act at each stage of their approach. So, yes, some things that may appear realistic from afar morph into abstraction as they come near - Chuck Close is a master at this, as are Goya and Turner.
PT: Your smaller gouache works don’t form space so much as revel around the picture plane, engaging in lyrical, taxonomic pleasure. They feel more innocent, like the lighter side of fairy tales before a rude awakening.
MM: Working from observation, sometimes I really get tired of gravity. I mean really, does everything always have to be tied to that damn plane - that tabletop? During the 90’s, my work was influenced by both scientific illustrations and manuscript illuminations. Their visual languages, instructional charts and diagrams, shared a common purpose, since both science and religion try to explain the Universe. The new gouaches are a partial return to that work involving my own inexplicable ‘explanations’ of the universe. The curator of “Substitutes...” saw the small toys in these pictures, wrapped in individual colored forms, like small toys enclosed in a hand. This was insightful, as that is how I painted them, held in my hand, not relying on gravity to stand up. So maybe they do convey a more child-like experience.
PT: How do you know when a painting is finished?
MM: It has to feel alive. In choosing special toys from my piles and setting them aside for portraits, I began to understand the parallels between how a child animates a toy and how an artist animates a painting. Inspired by Philip Guston’s view of Rembrandt’s self portraits - in them “the plane of art is removed. It is not a painting, but a real person – a substitute, a golem…” I endeavored to paint my puppets the way he saw the Rembrandts. The toys ‘sat’ for me and I painted them as if they were real; if I did not paint them “right”, they would be static, flat and illustrative. Only after many hours, layers, mistakes and corrections would they come alive…and then they were finished.
PT: The 20-foot tin-pressed ceiling of your studio, and the trains occasionally rumbling by on the track out back, create such a romantic and capacious creative space. Your charming town is close enough to your job (as University of Virginia painting professor) to stay on top of your duties, but far enough away to keep your head clear for art. Some years back the painter James McGarrell wrote an article about life as a non-New Yorker, when living there was more necessary for any artist.
MM: If you have set up a good situation in your life to make art, then creating the work is probably 90% of success. The rest is a song and dance we have far less control over…. recognition, success, sales, fame. All I can really control is whether or not I am going to have a quality life that allows me to do the thing I love the most. I love my studio and I notice that when people visit it, they love it too. But the isolation of a small town can get a little too much; there are probably more people in one high-rise Brooklyn apartment building than here, and making all this work without anyone seeing it can feel like singing into a paper bag. So I’ll take the train to DC for a day or New York for the weekend, go to artist residencies, travel, and regularly show.
I like to think my world isn’t defined by any geographic boundaries - and really, when you are painting, you’re “up there” anyways. And social media, websites and blogs keep me in touch with artists and art events, which helps break my isolation, and fosters networking and participation in an art community of interesting people who all like to share their interests. However, it’s a big-city assumption that there is nothing to do in a small town, and there can be plenty of isolation in Midtown Manhattan. There are plenty of demands on my time that can keep me from studio bliss.
PT: You always have your students read Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” – how would that influence their understanding of your paintings?
MM: I utilize observation as a diving board into a pool of all sorts of painting possibilities that toy with realism. My favorite part of the book is when he talks about how Disneyland exists to make us think everything outside of Disneyland is real – so it makes them question reality. Like Robin Williams said, “Reality - what a concept!”
An exhibition of works by Alan Uglow is on view at David Zwirner, New York, on view from February 19 - March 23, 2013.
The current exhibition of work by the late Alan Uglow (1941-2011) at David Zwirner highlights the way Uglow's abstract paintings engage with each other and the viewer to create subtle, shifting apprehensions of flatness and illusion. Uglow acknowledged interest in such interactions in a 1991 interview in BOMB, telling Alain Kirili how, when installing his own work for an exhibition, he found that:
"two pieces ended up being one piece, attracting one another across the room. They were like bodies, in a way, but it really brought the spectator into the piece; that was the reason why they had to be opposite one another."
In the current show, perhaps the most compelling of these interactions occurs between two works on canvas of the same size, Standard #8 (Blue), 1994 and Portrait of a Standard (Blue), 2000. By pairing the first - an abstract painting whose flat forms are schematic and derived from markings observed on a soccer field with the second - a silkscreened canvas depicting a nearly identical painting photographed at an angle, Uglow creates a visual experience charged with the potential of both abstraction and representation.
Reviewing Uglow's work in 2010, painter Joan Waltemath described her experience of viewing two similar pieces:
"In the next room, a large “Standard #23 (grey)” from 1998 stands against one wall on hardwood blocks, an aspect of Uglow’s installation that serves to enhance the object quality of the painting. On an adjacent wall, “Portrait of a Standard #3 (silver)” (2000), a photo-silkscreened version of a standard piece angled to the plane of the canvas, also stands on little hardwood blocks. The canvas and blocks provide information about qualities of the object that are missing from the silkscreened image, while the angled image of the photo-silkscreen exhibits properties that are both similar to and different from those of the painted object. Light reflecting off the silver silkscreened bands jumps out from the image at certain vantage points, and at others nearly disappears, but the implications of the artist’s position, as embedded in these works, require thought. Object and image are so fitfully intertwined in this constellation, any attempt to separate them becomes labyrinthine and begs the question of what it means to do so."
Like all painting, Uglow's work can only truly be experienced in person, however, the video below, produced by the gallery, provides an online sense of these characteristic shifts between "object and image" Waltemath describes.
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Hilma af Klint: A Pioneer of Abstraction is on view at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through May 26, 2013.
The subject of a rare retrospective exhibitinon at the Moderna Museet, Hilma Af Klint was a pioneering abstract painter and one of the most enigmatic artists of the 20th century.
In the following video, Gertrud Sandqvist gives an informative, in depth lecture on the visionary painter. Sanqvist draws on unprecedented access to the artist's work and journals in her presentation of Af Klint's life, career, and spiritual approach to art. Working outside the European avant garde, Af Klint's abstract paintings pre-date the first abstractions of more well known modernist painters. This development is all the more striking because, as Sandqvist notes:
"[Hilma Af Klint] had no relationship to any other avant garde circles, being completely isolated in Stockholm at that time… her imagery is very, very similar - close to what later Malevich, Mondrian, and Kandinsky... were developing... [the] first abstract work that she was making was in 1907, two years before Kandinsky."
Sandqvist notes that the rediscovery of Hilma Af Klint's work began in earnest at the 1987 exhibition The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That it took decades for her work to appeal to the public would not have surprised Af Klint according to Sandqvist:
"Hilma Af Klint's work was… esoteric, that means it wasn't shown during her lifetime. She herself in her last will said that this is 'for the future,' this is the message for humanity for the future."
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The following video, produced by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, is in Swedish, but provides an excellent visual overview of the Hilma Af Klint exhibition.
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I first met Trent Miller when he was my seat-mate on a plane traveling to Madrid in 2003. A group of painters, all Boston University MFA painters and alumni, were planning to spend a week perusing the Prado, Reina Sofía, the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, and the surrounding towns. During the course of the flight and the following week, Miller and I discussed common interests from poetry and the films of Tarkovsky to the great Spanish painters: Goya, Velasquez, El Greco, and Picasso. We have kept in touch sporadically over the last decade, a period in which Miller has continued to develop his highly-complex and personal vision through paintings and drawings in which the observed world and that of the imagination harmoniously coexist.
Miller’s paintings render the abstraction/observation divide irrelevant as one becomes convinced, looking at his paintings, the artist does not distinguish between the two. The two modes are equivalent, and the viewer may wander between them at will.
Miller recently agreed to share his thoughts on the last decade of painting and his new work, now on view in the exhibtion Trent Miller: Spindrift and Tether on view at James Watrous Gallery, Madison, Wisconsin through February 24, 2013.
PT: Many of the structures in your recent paintings feel specific, as if you were painting particular structures, rather than variations on a theme. The painted forms even feel like they inhabit specific spaces in specific locations. Do you paint from a real model, from your imagination, or do the structures in your paintings come out of the painting process?
TM: All of these paintings are coming from my imagination. I’ve been using this same tent/birdcage/scaffolding type structure for the past three years, and it continues to crop up during the painting process. The more I paint it, the more I see it around me in anything from birdcages to grain silos. I usually start with a field of color and then build layer after layer alternating between lines and larger areas of color. Over time, a particular structure with its own personality starts to take shape. I feel like each evolves into a very particular structure in a specific location, but the spaces and locations are completely imagined. This is what fascinates me: the ability to create an entirely new world in paint that references the world in which we live but in the end only exists on these canvases.
PT: Your drawings are often overtly figurative yet your recent paintings, however strong the implied figuration, are resolutely abstract. Can you talk a little about how your drawing and painting practices interrelate?
TM: I’ve been making these strange little (14”x11”) charcoal on paper drawings for the past fourteen years. For much of this time, they have been very representational—with figures, interiors and exteriors—although they have moved more toward complete abstraction at times. I always joke that when I draw, I’m like a guy in a cave with a stick. I just sit down and see what emerges on the page. The drawings tend to be more intimate than the paintings, with mysterious little narratives. Painting for me is a different thing: it’s a much slower process and maybe more like making a feature-length movie as opposed to taking a photo. In recent years, this longer process has continued to point me toward these resolutely abstract images. I’ve tried to force the drawings and paintings into each other, but this is always a mistake. Interestingly, the more I let go of trying to make them relate, the more they start to inform each other. The drawings start to have bits of abstract shapes and lines in them, and the paintings start to have more landscapes and nods to the figures in them. When you see them all together in a show, really interesting relationships start to emerge.
PT: Do you draw from paintings, or vice versa?
TM: I occasionally do tiny pen sketchbook drawings from paintings, but I don’t really do charcoal drawings from the paintings. I’ll also sometimes directly reference a charcoal drawing as I’m working on a painting, but it’s pretty rare. However, many of the images for the paintings and charcoal drawings start as tiny doodles on scraps of paper. I do a lot of these during meetings, while on the phone, or during other tasks when I can’t really think about what I’m drawing. It’s amazing what appears when you let your mind and hand wander in different directions.
PT: In a recent statement you declare a metaphorical solidarity with the self-taught artist Emery Blagdon, who made sculptures he called “Healing Machines.”
TM: I first saw Emery Blagdon’s work in a show at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 2008, and the experience was life-changing. When I walked into the room that contained everything Blagdon had ever made, it felt like a wave of energy hit me. The more I looked, the more transfixed I became. I walked out of that room in a bit of a daze, overwhelmed and thrilled by the mystery of Blagdon and the Healing Machine. I love the term “healing machine,” and I love the somewhat shamanistic idea of the power of the object for healing. (Note: Emery Blagdon: The Healing Machine is on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through January 2014.)
PT: There is a deep feeling of narrative in your work and yet a narrative never explicitly emerges. Interestingly, hundreds of narratives seem possible in any one of your paintings, from your earlier studio view paintings, like Novgorod Moon (2006) to more recent works such as Another New World (2011) and Dredgers and Drifters (2011).
TM: I love that there seem to be hundreds of narratives possible. I think It all boils down to the idea of mystery. I love the mystery of certain paintings, of certain movies, of certain songs. It’s the mystery that keeps it interesting to me. I’m not talking about work that is overly obtuse, rather work that feels like you can almost figure out the story, but something still feels a little off. The deeper you dig, the more questions you have. I’m drawn to pieces that have a particular mood but a very open-ended narrative. This is the kind of work that sticks in my head for years, and this is the kind of work that I hope to make.
PT: In 2011 you had an exhibition titled “Ten Years of Painting,” referring to the decade that had past since you came out of graduate school. Can you talk about this time a bit? In hindsight was it valuable to reflect on this period? Do you feel differently about your work moving into the next decade?
TM: Since finishing grad school in Boston, I’ve lived in Tivoli and Hudson, NY and now Madison, WI. Each geographic move shifted the work in a new direction. Some of this is the strain of the actual move and the settling back into a new studio and life. I’ve been in Madison for seven years now, and I’ve had my current studio in my backyard for five years.
I’m really glad I did the Ten Year show. In doing this, one of the biggest surprises for me was to find that things had actually changed less than I thought. I felt like some of the work was so different, but once it was all up I was pleased to see the similarities between the earlier studio view paintings and the more recent abstract paintings. The markmaking, the paint handling, the shapes were consistent throughout all the work. I was happy with how well some of the older work held up. It was also a nice way to draw a line and say “OK, I did that. Now what?”
Looking at the future is always a little strange because as soon as you set a course, something else pops up to send you in a new direction. I do really feel like the paintings are in control, and will give me new directions if I look hard enough. I see this new world of healing machines, water, and THEY as something that I can explore for many years.
Jay DeFeo's reputation as an imporatant painter was established before the eight year period (1958-1966) in which she poured her entire vision and energy into a single work -The Rose. Perhaps the most mythic of the great Abstract Expressionist paintings, The Rose rivals masterworks by Pollock, Still, or Rothko. In 1959 DeFeo refused the invitation to exhibit The Rose in Dorothy Miller's 16 Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, choosing instead to work on the painting for seven more years.
DeFeo remarked at the time:
"Only by chancing the ridiculous, can I hope for the sublime." 1
In 2003, curator Marla Prather succinctly captured the scope of DeFeo’s commitment to the work:
“[DeFeo] was twenty-nine years old when she began the painting, turned thirty-seven the year she completed it, and reached forty before she began making art again... After 1974, then the painting was encased in plaster, she never saw the work again...” 2
The two videos below are part of the Voices and Images of California Art series produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the first video, Bruce Conner discusses the development of The Rose. Conner famously documented the removal of the painting from DeFeo's apartment in his 1967 film The White Rose.
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The Rose, is a near perfect union of image and physicality. Ironically, the overwhelming physical nature of the painting caused it to vanish. The work languished in storage for decades, until The Whitney Museum rescued, restored, and exhibited the work in 2003. The second video discusses the eventual rescue and conservation of 2300 pound painting.
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Posts about painting, interviews with painters and occasional updates on changes to the Painters' Table website.