David Ebony interviews Michelle White and Bradford A. Epley, co-curators of the recent exhibition Barnett Newman: The Late Work at The Menil Collection, Houston.
White comments: "In the late works, compared with the better known earlier paintings—of the 1940s and ‘50s—changes in the way he treated the painted surface are readily apparent. A lot of earlier works are more painterly. He applied many layers, and established a sense of atmosphere. There’s a rich complexity in the layering you can see in paintings like Ulysses (1952), with its layers of blue pigments. A big part of what happened from 1965 on is that he began to use acrylics instead of oil paint. The color in the late paintings is flatter, more solid and saturated. And the overall design is more boldy graphic."
Bunker writes: "... the ‘Black Pourings’ that are the throbbing dark heart of this exhibition. Crude materiality and brooding imagery seems to be answering something very different but equally ‘… deep seated in contemporary sensibility.’ Pollock’s ‘gothic- ness’ that had always disturbed Greenberg re-emerges to assert its power. But these black works have gained some kind of momentum, some new kind of febrile and focused intensity. They seem to be an attempt at extreme synthesis rather than meticulous refinement; a synthesis of personal obsessive renderings of the fragmented body, that had always lay hidden in the ‘all-over’ works, combined with, and intensified by, the technical innovations he had made while working upon the drip-based paintings."
McNay writes: "it might be suggested that his lack of direct contact with the canvas meant there was no intermediary between it and the content of his mind – his canvas could be said to be at one with his mind. Even these seemingly chaotic paintings were the result of careful consideration, however. Pollock would often stand and contemplate his progress, and he spoke of the need to 'get acquainted' with the work and the importance of not 'losing contact' with it. For me, there is an absolute serenity to his contained chaos."
Ashberry observes: "The relation of [Mitchell's] painting and that of other Abstract-Expressionists to nature has never really been clarified. On the one hand there are painters who threaten you if you dare let their abstract landscapes suggest a landscape. On the other hand there are painters like Joan Mitchell who are indifferent to these deductions when they are not actively encouraging them. Is one of these things better or worse than the other, and ought abstract painting to stay abstract? ... What then is the difference between, say, Joan Mitchell’s kind of painting and a very loose kind of landscape painting? ... Is this then figurative painting, and if so what is the meaning of the term Abstract-Expressionism? The answer seems to be that one’s feelings about nature are at different removes from it. There will be elements of the things seen even in the most abstracted impression; otherwise the feeling is likely to disappear and leave an object in its place. At other times feelings remain close to the subject, which is nothing against them; in fact, feelings that leave the subject intact may be freer to develop, in and around the theme and independent of it as well. This seems to be the case in Girolata—for once the feelings were a reflection of the precise look of the creek, or cliff, or whatever; nevertheless it is this reflection rather than the memory it suggests that remains the dominating force of the painting."
Sassoon writes: "Like the best painting from cave art onwards, Still’s work is as alive and raw as if made today. His characteristic lightning shapes are a bit like the flashes that follow on the heels of Superman. They direct the eye, they activate the composition; actually they are the composition. They suggest a rip or wound in the skin of the paint, something damaged or hurt, while at the same time opening a window of light and color in the otherwise emptiness or murky impasto of the canvas. Still must have gone through countless gallons of black. Either pessimistically or optimistically, the rips and flashes seem to reveal an intimacy and vulnerability, creating a touching counterpoint to the bravado and strong ego that the work communicates — if you are open to being touched by it."
Yau begins: "Robert Motherwell didn’t believe that Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse were figures to be overthrown. Instead of trying to triumph over them, he was convinced that he could expand upon their innovations. Moreover, he felt that if he tackled the same issues that they wrestled with, he could achieve something that was all his own. This was his big gamble, but, to my mind, it paid off. Instead of reacting against these European masters, a rebellion that surely propelled a number of postwar American artists to jettison the paintbrush along with drawing, spatiality, and composition, Motherwell regarded Picasso and Matisse as cornerstones to build upon."
Riley writes: "The great critic and curator Robert Pincus Witten once observed that 'Poons instrumentalizes chance (the very hallmark of Abstract Expressionist painting).' The value of that felicitous expression is particularly suited to [the painting] Book of Minutes, which changes course both gesturally and chromatically innumerable times on the way from edge to edge." Riley notes that "[a]lthough acrylics have been around since the 1940s ... Solomon has a claim to being one of the earliest adapters for his type of expressionist surface. He certainly is one of the technical innovators when it comes to aerosol spraying—viewers will see blooms of fine mist in several of the works in the show. The technique for applying these blooms, which he called 'dropping paint in layers from above,' was part of the legacy of his camouflage work in the military."
Keane writes that "the show offers uninitiated visitors a chance to discover an American artist who redirected techniques of twentieth-century vanguard painting into a form of portraiture that is as much about the rhythms and processes of human recognition as it is about the diverse characters who were her subjects... her ability to paint this glimpse may explain her paintings’ intentional 'absences,' as discussed by critic Ann Eden Gibson. Gibson claims, in her penetrating essay, that Elaine de Kooning deliberately and variously integrated into her portraits incomplete features and implicit cognitive gaps. According to Gibson, she did so to generate an invisible, evocative vortex of sorts in each portrait, within which (as Roland Barthes claims happens in portrait photography) three human subjectivities can merge in a visual continuum – that of painter, sitter and viewer."
Sultan writes: "There is so much life in these drawings; they don't stay still politely, but have a continuing pulsing energy. The drawings remind me of the looser forms of Asian calligraphy, which require many years of study in order to have the knowledge to use free brushwork... I see a similar sensibility in the Lyric Suite drawings and the Open series, with their forms inhabiting large spaces, floating within them. There is a great respect for the ground plane and its strong presence; the artist's entry into it is as collaboration, not dominance."
Edited by artist Brett Baker, Painters' Table highlights writing from the painting blogosphere as it is published and serves as a platform for exploring blogs that focus primarily on the subject of painting.