Archive | April, 2013

Painting of the Day

17 Apr

Edvard Munch, Evening on Karl Johan Street, 1892

William Powell Frith, The Railway Station, 1862

William Frith’s The Railway Station is one of the most famous and popular modern crowd scenes in 19th century painting. It was painted just thirty years before Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Street, and yet it seems a world away in style and mood. Victorians were very curious about the great industrial cities that were springing up around them, and they could view them with a mixture of emotions, ranging from enthusiastic delight in the bustle of the streets, to fear of the dangerous unknown, the poor and desperate. Frith’s academic masterpiece removes all the fear of the modern crowd, showing how a gathering of nearly a hundred people can be clearly read, each of its figures having a distinct personality and particular role to play in the drama.

A man sees to his dogs, three Victorian women in white enjoy a conversation, a mother kisses her son goodbye and – should we be fearful of crime – we can even see two officers arresting a thief. The city was a place to see life’s theatre, Frith insists, a place to delight, not to alarm.

For Edvard Munch, by contrast, the city epitomizes the horrors of modern life – the faceless, malevolent crowd, our feelings of loneliness and fear. Rather than pick out personalities in the crowd and show them from a comfortable distance, Munch’s Evening on Karl Johan Streetdepicts an anonymous mass with vacuous stares and grim expressions, figures who push toward us as if to attack. Munch once said that there were times, walking on the street, that he felt like turning around and going home, overcome with the feeling that he might meet someone he would dislike. Thus the gloomy crowd is a reflection of his own inner turmoil – a turmoil only made more acute by the indifferent crowd. He communicates his anxiety not only through the faceless figures, but also through his highly personal style. Putting aside the high finish and detail of Frith’s academic style, he adopts a loose and open brushwork that adds distortion and points to his own emotions. The one reprieve from the claustrophobic press of figures is a thrust upward to the sky – perhaps the only route to an escape.

Painting of the Day

16 Apr

Gerhard Richter, ‘Abstract Painting (809-3)’ 1994

Abstract Painting (809-3). by Gerhard Richter (born 1932). Oil on canvas, 1994. Currently in the collection of the Tate Museum, London.

Notes from tate.org.uk:

From the mid 1980s, Richter began to use a home-made squeegee to rub and scrape the paint that he had applied in large bands across his canvases. This spread the paint over the surface and integrated the various colours with each other. In the 1990s the artist began to run his squeegee up and down the canvas in an ordered fashion to produce vertical columns that take on the look of a wall of planks. ‘Abstraktes Bild (809-3)’ is typical of these paintings. One effect of the use of the squeegee was to create a blurring of one area of colour into another – similar to the blurring in Richter’s earlier photo-paintings – so that one has the feeling of looking at an out of focus image, that lies tantalisingly beyond decipherment.

In the early 1960s Richter was exposed to both American and British Pop art, which was just becoming known in Europe, and to the Fluxus movement. Richter consistently regarded himself simply as a painter. He began to paint enlarged copies of black-and-white photographs using only a range of greys.

The evident reliance on a ready-made source gave Richter’s paintings an apparent objectivity that he felt was lacking in abstract art of the period. The indistinctness of the images that emerged in the course of their transformation into thick layers of oil paint helped free them of traditional associations and meaning. Richter concentrated exclusively on the process of applying paint to the surface..

As early as 1966 he had made paintings based on colour charts. Although these paintings, like those based on photographs, were still dependent on an existing artefact, all that was left in them was the naked physical presence of colour as the essential material of all painting.

All vestiges of subject-matter seem to have been abandoned by Richter in the paintings that he began to produce in 1976. Even these supposedly wholly invented paintings retained a second-hand look, as if the brushstrokes had been copied from photographic enlargements.

The extreme variety of Richter’s work left him open to criticism, but his rejection of an artificially maintained consistency of style was a conscious conceptual act that allowed him to investigate freely the basic principles of painting.

My comments:

The mark-making of Richter is so similar to this one classmate of mine in my Foundation Drawing Class, so we brought up Richter in our class recently. I’d only vaguely heard of Richter before so I decided to investigate him a bit and feature him on the blog. Robert Storr, who is a Swarthmore alumnus and was the head of the Department of Painting and Drawing at the MoMA for 10 years, is quite the expert on Richter, curating an important exhibition about him for MoMA and writing a book on him as well. So this artist seems connected to Swarthmore in a number of interesting ways.

A remarkable thing about Richter that not all artists share is that his oeuvre has a wealth of diversity, perhaps as a consequence of a long artistic career that hasn’t yet ended. This painting comes after several decades of him being in practice, and his abstract paintings are the ones I like the most based on my cursory perusal of his paintings on the Tate’s website and on theartstory.org.

I also find it interesting that Richter used squeegee brushes to paint this canvas, because coincidentally my art professor was suggesting to me that I could use the very same brush to paint a painting that I’m working on which will be very large.

But I particularly like this painting because it manages to make a garish yellow, a dull grey, and an icy blue–three colors that normally wouldn’t look all too beautiful together–actually appear quite in harmony and beautiful with each other. The effect of Richter’s method of applying paint to canvas also gives a really appealing, attracting textural quality to the painting. I wonder what the texture would look like in real life. If the canvas is actually really smooth, then Richter managed an amazing feat of creating a vivid illusion of texture. But even if the painting really does have the tactile texture that the brushwork implies, it’s still a fantastic accomplishment.

As I’ve said before on this blog, all kinds of painting, no matter how facile they may appear, are extremely difficult to produce. Even paintings like Richter’s in which there is no figure, just color and line, it is incredibly hard to produce that kind of mark and make the paint overlap in the way it does. It requires so much more patience and thought than one would have guessed, including me.

Gallery

Art of the Day: Photographs of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

14 Apr
Link

Link to Interesting Article: Church of the Hagia Sophia will be converted into a mosque

12 Apr

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Mosque-conversion-raises-alarm/29200

244-mu-jp-new-haglia-02

Above is the link to an article about a recent legal battle in Turkey that resulted in their courts deciding that the church of the Hagia Sophia, which is a museum at the moment, illegally occupied right now by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism that maintains it as a museum and should be converted back to a mosque, since that is what it became when Sultan Mehmed II first turned the church into a mosque after his conquest of the Empire of Trebizond in 1462, the empire in which the church is located. Some worry that this means the actual Hagia Sophia is next.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand I’m really worried because the Hagia Sophia is an unbelievable architectural wonder, and I (perhaps selfishly) would hate to see all the art in it and the architecture of the building itself be changed to make it into a mosque. On the other hand, in terms of property rights maybe the muslims really do stake a claim to it. This problem is very hard to imagine as if the shoe were on the other foot; that is, as if I found out that my church had been turned into a mosque and contained important historical Islamic art. Would I want that art covered up and turned back into a church? My impulse is to say no, because there are literally millions of churches and we could always go somewhere else. I really do feel that way, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m being self-serving for my side of the argument. I wonder if this sounds culturally insensitive or something, but I don’t understand why they have to have every single mosque. Why can’t they enjoy the building for the art it possesses just like everyone else, and worship somewhere else?

Painting of the Day

12 Apr

Dispersion. by Julie Mehretu (born 1970). Ink and acrylic on canvas, 2002. In the collection of Nicolas and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, New York.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

While many African artists are primarily influenced by their own culture and traditions, others–especially some who no longer live on the continent–seem entirely removed from African stylistic influences and yet still express the search for a new African identity in revelatory ways. Their experiences of movement, accommodation, and change often become important elements in their art making and form an additional basis for the interpretation of their work.

Julie Mehretu is an eminent example of this kind of artist. Born in Ethiopia in 1970, but having lived as well in Senegal and the United States, and now in New York City, Mehretu makes large-scale paintings and wall drawings that exude intense energy. Her works speak not only to her own history of movement and change, but also to the transnational movement of myriad others uprooted by choice or by force as they create new identities in this increasingly turbulent period of globalization and change.

The underpinnings of her intricately layered canvases are architectural plans of airports, passenger terminals, and other places where people congregate and pass through during their lives. Layered and at times obscuring these architectural elements is an immense inventory of signs and markings influenced by cartography, weather maps, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, tattooing, graffiti, and various stylized forms suggesting smoke and explosions borrowed from cartoons, comic books, and anime. Occasionally architectural details such as arches, stairways, and columns reminiscent of Durer or Piranesi can also be discerned. The ambiguous reading of the paintings as either implosion and chaos or explosion and regeneration gives the works visual and conceptual complexity. Mehretu explains  that she is not interested in describing or mapping specific locations but “in the multifaceted layers of place, space, and time that impact the formation of personal and communal identity.” Mehretu’s concerns echo those of other contemporary African artists whose identification with the continent becomes increasingly complex as they move from Africa and enter a global arena.

My comments:

I really like this painting because it looks pretty abstract and random, as random as a Jackson Pollock painting, but in fact it is very deliberate and made up of a rainbow of various cultural artifacts from societies all around the world. I’ve never seen this painting in person, but I bet that this inclusion of so many elements would be easier to appreciate if one saw the painting in real life. Her inclusion of such a variety of symbols is quite clever, and to me this is where contemporary art has value and becomes relevant to society rather than just being snotty and esoteric, where it so often ends up. I feel that a lot of contemporary is all about making fun of society and often reveals the pretentious, snooty character of the artist, and I find it pretty off-putting because as a viewer it always feels like the artists are making fun of me and other people in my community, assuming that we do not have as much intelligence as them. So they use art to prove their superiority to us rather than to express things that everyone can understand or empathize with in an ingenious and beautiful way. But this is what Mehretu does, and it poses some interesting questions about the cultural direction of humanity as a whole.

These questions are even more apt today than they were in 2002 when Mehretu painted this work because the world is even more globalized today. This globalization is evident everywhere, even in art history textbooks. In the sections of the textbook that cover non-Western art, art from earlier time periods has zero Western influence and reveals completely different and fascinating conceptions of aesthetics, beauty, and just about everything regarding how people live and think. But in these same sections when they present art being made closer to the present in the 20th and 21st centuries, there is dramatically more Western influence, and the artists’ work is effectively indistinguishable from Western contemporary art. So it would seem that eventually, all art is going to be informed by the dominant cultural traditions of the world, and the Western ones will probably be dominant for at least a long while so it’s safe to say that art from non-Western places will look more and more Western. Art that looks “non-Western,” such as African tribal masks or Aboriginal sculptures, will slowly but surely become extinct. What does this mean? Would it be forced and artificial for us to try to preserve non-Western cultures and their art, if we do this without keeping these cultures stuck in poverty as they so often are? Is it possible to provide them the same opportunities for economic development without having to make them give up their artistic traditions? Is it even a goal we should have, or should art just always be responding to the times? I’m really not sure, personally, because I don’t want to sound condescending like I feel like a have to be a nanny for other peoples’ cultures, and I don’t even though if they care about preserving their cultural traditions; I don’t even know if they value their art in the exact same ways we do. Overall it’s a very interesting discussion to have and I’ll be curious if I ever see it appear in the art world.

Painting of the Day

10 Apr

Image

Black on Gray. by Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Oil on canvas, 1970.

Notes from theartstory.org:

Highly informed by Nietzsche, Greek mythology, and his Russian-Jewish heritage, Rothko’s art was profoundly imbued with emotional content that he articulated through a range of styles that evolved from figurative to abstract.  

Rothko’s early figurative work – including landscapes, still lifes, figure studies, and portraits – demonstrated an ability to blend Expressionism and Surrealism. His search for new forms of expression led to his color field paintings, which employed shimmering color to convey a sense of spirituality.  
  Rothko maintained the social revolutionary ideas of his youth throughout his life. In particular he supported artist’s total freedom of expression, which he felt was compromised by the market. This belief often put him at odds with the art world establishment, leading him to publicly respond to critics, and occasionally refuse commissions, sales and exhibitions.
 
My comments:
I don’t really like Rothko’s work in general because its expressive effect seems to be very dependent on the external conditions surrounding the work. For example, in the Philips Collection they have a Rothko room that is very small with walls that are only slightly taller than the paintings, and on all four walls in this room there is a Rothko painting. So you are overwhelmed by them and it does make for a quite moving experience. But I kind of feel that art should only seem expressive in certain situations; if an artwork is truly good, I feel like it shouldn’t matter how it’s hanging. You could argue that the space in which an artwork hangs is actually part of the artwork as well and to change that space from what it should be would be equivalent to changing one color in the painting from the original. This still doesn’t convince me, however, because Rothko didn’t build the rooms in which he intended for his art to hang, which were small apartments. If you would argue that the space is part of the art, then the artist is responsible for making that space also.
With that said, I actually love this particular Rothko painting because, although Rothko insisted that his color field paintings weren’t landscapes, this one reads like a landscape to me in which we as viewers are standing on the surface of the moon and gazing out into the black abyss of space. When I think about the painting this way instead of as just two colors juxtaposed, it becomes exponentially, dramatically, more moving to me.
 
But this brings me to another conversation we had in my art class yesterday. Our professor told us about how he made this painting of an adolescent boy jumping off a swing and his colleague Michael Cothren (my art history professor) saw the painting and said that the boy looked like a Christ figure. Another colleague of my studio art professor said that he saw some homosexual tensions in the painting. Now my studio art professor wasn’t thinking of these meanings at all, but does that mean that the interpretations of these two colleagues are incorrect? I asked my studio art professor this question, and he said that they aren’t incorrect and are in face important contributions to the study of art. This doesn’t gel exactly with what Cothren told me last semester when I wrote a paper on Rogier van der Weyden’s painting of the Crucifixion and I attributed meanings to it that the artist probably wasn’t intending. Cothren told me that it was incorrect because it didn’t gel with historical context; I was attributing a Protestant interpretation to the painting several decades before the Protestant Reformation began. I felt pretty embarrassed by the effort because I had really wanted to do well on the paper, so maybe I’m trying to justify myself now. But it’s interesting how an art professor versus an art history professor answered that same question of the validity of discerning meanings independent of the artist differently. Maybe this is really a question of the role of the art historian versus the art critic and that’s where the discrepancy in their answers lies.
That’s also interesting because it reminds us that art historians aren’t supposed to be deciding what artwork is good, but what was significant in the development of art in human history. Often good art is also art historically significant, but not always. So I guess the answer is that when you are writing art history, you stick to facts because you are writing history. If you want to assign personal meanings to artwork, then you are playing the role of an art critic, which is a very significant role in modern art history but is not historical fact itself.
 

Painting of the Day

10 Apr

 

D’après la Marquise de la Solana

D’après la Marquise de la Solana. by Brice Marden (born 1938). Oil and wax on canvas, 1969. Currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

Notes from Guggenheim.org:

In the increasingly theoretical New York art world of the 1960s and 1970s, painting was displaced in favor of sculpture in a new mode that privileged concept over material, idea over sensory quality. When painting did appear, the prevailing aesthetic called for pristine, monochromatic surfaces that appeared to have been untouched by the artist’s hand. Brice Marden departed from these stylistic strictures in search of something more emotionally charged and personal. His early single-color panels reconcile the stringent subtractions of Minimalism with his more expressive impulses as a painter. Upon close inspection, Marden’s matte canvases, layered with thick encaustic (his characteristic oil-and-wax technique), reveal the marks of the palette knife, the subtle ridges in the viscous material inflecting each panel’s uniform color and opacity with impressions of the painter’s working process. This evidence, along with the artist’s anachronistic tendency toward the lyrical, is what distinguishes his work from that of his Minimalist contemporaries who rely on a cool industrial quality.

Although Marden’s paintings are non-objective, he often draws upon specific people, places, or other works of art as sources. Inspired by the austere palette of the Spanish masters Goya and Zurbarán, his early paintings achieve a brooding gravity through subtle, low-key color combinations. D’après la Marquise de la Solana is a response to Goya’s portrait of the Marquise, which Marden saw in the Louvre. His translation of the 18th-century figure into the language of reductivist abstraction is a potent distillation of the color, light, and mood in Goya’s original. Delicately worked panels of olive-taupe, gray, and peach succinctly paraphrase the Marquise’s elusive expression and dainty poise amid a grand romantic landscape.

An unparalleled sensitivity to color as an expressive means is a defining characteristic of Marden’s art. The five paintings in the Grove Group series, begun in 1973, were inspired by an olive grove on the Greek Island of Hydra, where the artist has spent time. Marden, who sees art as a “trampoline into spirituality,” refers to these as “high-intensity paintings,” intending his use of light and color to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Color associations are usually detectable only through Marden’s evocative titles; the two-toned composition of Grove IV is a response to the shimmering shift in color from the dark tops to lighter bottoms of the windblown leaves of olive trees.

Portrait of the Countess of Carpio, Marquesa de la solana. by Francisco de Goya (this is the painting mentioned in the notes above)

My comments:

Color field paintings, a genre to which Marden’s painting above belongs, is one that uniquely poses interesting questions about what makes Art “good” and special. Many people will look at the painting by Marden above and dismiss it, saying, “My kid could have painted that.” And that’s probably true. If one was patient, he could probably mix together the right colors, use a straight edge, and paint this same canvas with almost if not identical results. In Marden’s case, he did have a special technique that he used which involved encaustic, but this is not a secret recipe that he made up on his own, so a pedestrian in the artistic sense could probably learn how to use encaustic and still achieve something that looks very similar to Marden’s results. One counterargument that I’ve heard against the notion that because of its lack of requiring great skill is that “Well maybe your kid could make that painting, but the point is that he didn’t and the artist thought of the idea first,” implying that aesthetic value at least partly comes from an artwork’s ingenuity or originality. But this would imply that art has to present an idea that is completely new in some way, and how much art actually does this? Even in the case of Marden, he was inspired by Goya to paint his painting. Other modern artists who made supposedly radically inventive paintings also often express how they were inspired by past artists. And even for those artists who claim that they eschewed past artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, his art is only interesting in reference to past art; without it, it wouldn’t make sense and would actually fall quite flat. Furthermore, this counterargument seems to encourage valuing art based on its shock value, which in my opinion debases the value of art and makes it seem no better than reality television, whose specious but real cultural capital is based on pulling people in with shocking acts and intrigue. And not only do I not want art to have no more meaning than that; I also think it really does have infinitely more meaning.

So does color field painting really stand the test of time and have value as art that is independent of its originality or how much it surprises us? I’ve never seen this painting in person and it is obvious from this computer image that the real thing would look very different, since we know it was painted partly with encaustic and has a textural element to it. That would effect its expressive-ness. But going by my personal definition of what makes the best art (which is the art that is the most honest and true in its expression of whatever the artist was intending; the best art makes a clear expressive statement), I think this painting actually does have substantial merit because using just colors without drawing any figures or trying to create the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface, it still conveys the same mood as the Goya painting–that sort of calm mellowness, a demure understated quality that you sense in the woman depicted by Goya. It basically achieves the same level of expression as Goya but with deliberately less image elements.

This reminds me of a discussion we had in my studio art class today. We discussed what adding the human figure to a painting does, and many students agreed that it adds a whole narrative element to it. Even in paintings where there is not a human figure but merely the suggestion of one, such as a painting that had a single shoe in it for instance, still possess, some say, more narrative power than paintings which are wholly separated from any narrative. This would probably include abstract paintings such as Marden’s. Does Goya’s painting have more narrative than Marden’s? I guess so; it does make you wonder about what that woman was like. But I think that abstract paintings often make you think more than representational paintings do because you don’t have the recognizable visual cues that we use in real life to move through our world and which also help us understand a painting. Since abstract paintings don’t give us this “crutch” of sorts, we often as art appreciators have to work harder to see what the artist is saying between the lines-pun intended.

 

 

Painting of the Day

8 Apr

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975)
City Activities with Subway, from America Today, 1930–31
Mural cycle consisting of ten panels
Egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels with a honeycomb interior. Belongs to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Notes from metmuseum.org about this recent acquisition, which was donated by the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company:

Benton (1889–1975) created the ten-panel mural cycle in 1930–31 as a commission for the third-floor boardroom of the New School for Social Research in New York City. Referring to sketches he made during his travels around the U.S. in the 1920s, Benton initially executed nine of the panels, which were first seen by the public when the International-style building designed by Joseph Urban at 66 West 12th Street opened on New Year’s Day, 1931; he completed the tenth panel later. The mural cycle filled the four walls of the 30-by-22-foot boardroom. Figures of farmers, coal miners, steelworkers, architects and builders, doctors and teachers surrounded viewers, representing a cross-section of American life. In 1986, American art scholar Lloyd Goodrich remarked that Benton “took the whole face of America and tried to make a work of art out of it….It was a new technique completely in mural painting, of actually taking reality and making mural art directly out of it.” Although Benton received no fee for the commission, America Today established him as his era’s leading American muralist. Its success provided the impetus for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural programs of the Great Depression.
In announcing the acquisition, Mr. Campbell stated: “This is a momentous gift to the Met and to New York City. AXA Equitable’s exceptional gift brings to the Museum both a great work of art and a significant cultural landmark, one that forged a new American idiom in the visual arts. It will certainly play a key role in our ideas about modern art at the Met.”
While discussing AXA Equitable’s decision to give Benton’s great painting to the Metropolitan Museum, Mr. Pearson noted: “America Today embodies the very spirit of America and its technological genius. Above all, the mural is a monumental tribute to the American worker, and as such, we felt it was the right moment to make a gift of it to the American people, in keeping with AXA Equitable’s commitment to preserve the masterwork’s legacy for future generations.”
Sheena Wagstaff, Chairman of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum , added: “This extraordinary gift greatly enriches the Museum’s narrative of 20th-century American art. It is a work of immense scale and significance, and represents a uniquely American brand of modernism that condenses the spirit of the Jazz Age, anticipates Regionalism, and holds a fascinating and deeply ambivalent relationship to avant-garde European movements as well as to the Mexican mural movement. In addition to presaging subsequent Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, its full blown presentation of American culture includes remarkable allusions to industrialization, race relations, and social values.”
When America Today is installed at the Metropolitan Museum, its original spatial arrangement will be recreated so that the mural cycle can be viewed as Benton conceived it.
The Mural’s History
After more than 50 years at the New School for Social Research in a room used first as the boardroom and later as a classroom, America Today was not receiving the physical protection or public attention it deserved. In 1982, the school announced the sale of the mural cycle to the Manhattan art dealer Maurice Segoura, with the condition that it would not be re-sold outside the United States or as individual panels. But the work proved difficult to sell as a whole and the likelihood increased that the panels would be dispersed.
America Today was acquired by AXA Equitable (then Equitable Life) in 1984, after efforts on the part of then-Mayor Edward I. Koch and others to keep it intact and in New York City. Two years later, after extensive cleaning and restoration, America Today was unveiled to critical acclaim in AXA Equitable’s new headquarters at 787 Seventh Avenue. When the company moved its corporate headquarters again in 1996, to 1290 Avenue of the Americas, America Today was put on display in the lobby. There it remained until January 2012, when the company was asked to remove it to make way for a renovation. The removal triggered AXA Equitable’s decision to place the historic work in a museum collection. Curators Pari Stave, on behalf of AXA Equitable, and H. Barbara Weinberg, on behalf of the Met, were instrumental in moving the project forward.
“This is an example of a dynamic civic partnership between AXA Equitable and the Metropolitan Museum, both venerable institutions with connections to New York City that date back to the mid-19th century,” said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. “Thanks to AXA Equitable’s civic leadership, we’ll be able to preserve an important part of our collective cultural legacy. This act is an affirmation that private and public institutions can work together effectively to ensure New York City’s position as a world financial and cultural capital.”
Former Mayor Koch—whose administration’s efforts in the early 1980s to preserve the mural and keep it in New York City have now been made permanent through the gift to the Metropolitan Museum, and who in recent years has worked at 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where the mural has been on view in the lobby—added: “I have had the pleasure of years of exposure to Thomas Hart Benton’s mural—America Today—seeing and appreciating it every morning when entering my office building. Now millions visiting the Met will have that joy.”
To share company history with the America Today mural, AXA Equitable invites the public to visit www.axa-equitable.com/axa/benton-mural.html.

America Today
America Today was Thomas Hart Benton’s first major mural commission and the most ambitious he ever executed in New York City. It remains his best-known work.
Not wishing to work in true fresco directly on the wall—as José Clemente Orozco elected to do for his concurrent commission in the New School’s public dining room and student lounge—Benton painted off-site on panels that were to be installed in the boardroom after they were completed. He availed himself of a loft that Alvin Johnson, the school’s director who had commissioned the mural cycle, obtained for his use on the twelfth floor of a nearby building; constructed wallboard panels reinforced by 1-x-3” pine cradling; glued onto the surfaces heavy linen and primed it with seven coats of gesso and two layers of Permalba (a commercial composite oil paint) to create a smooth, white, plaster-like surface; and applied an under painting of distemper (pigments mixed with water and a glue or casein binder) and a final coat of egg tempera (dry pigments mixed with egg and water), a venerable medium of the old masters with which he was eager to experiment. He then enriched the color in some of the darker areas with transparent glazes of oil paint. Finally he treated the murals with a coat of natural resin varnish and a thin layer of wax, producing an almost luminous, eggshell-like surface. Here and there, he attached to the murals straight and curved molding segments covered with aluminum leaf. These helped to organize the complex narratives and to separate the scenes. As Benton scholar Emily Braun noted: “Like a Gershwin tune, the murals evoke a jazzy rhythm syncopated visually by the jaunty silver bolts of the moldings.”
Informed visually by Benton’s characteristic stylized realism, America Today celebrates the development of new technology and of workers in all regions, from the farmers whom the artist knew as a native Midwesterner to steelworkers and construction crews engaged in building modern cities. Instruments of Power, the central and largest panel, faced the viewer entering the boardroom. Occupying the south wall, it extended almost from floor to ceiling and was bracketed by two windows that looked out onto the life of the city. Devoid of human presence, Instruments of Power announced Benton’s passion for the Machine Age by juxtaposing icons of modern industry and transportation, including a rushing train, an airplane, and a dirigible. These and other forms declare that industry and technology will thrust America into the future.
The other three walls of the room were also lined with large panels, but unlike Instruments of Power, these contained figures that crowded the viewer on all sides. The varying scale at which Benton portrayed these figures is typical of his style: some are life-size and loom over the viewer and each panel contains at least one immense, iconic figure. On the west wall were three panels (beginning closest to the door): Deep South, Midwest, and Changing West. These focused on the principal agricultural regions and the West, included vignettes of labor by prosperous and poor, white and black citizens, and underscored the evolution of farming methods from antiquated to modern. On the east wall were three panels (beginning closest to the door): City Building, Steel, and Coal. These distilled activities from the industrial East Coast and included some of the cycle’s strongest social commentary in figures such as an exhausted coal miner. On the north wall, flanking the door, were two panels depicting urban life: City Activities with Dance Hall and City Activities with Subway. Here the settings ranged from speakeasies to movie houses and sleazy dance halls to Wall Street and the dramatis personae—more numerous than in any of the other panels—ranged from boxers to strippers to Salvation Army singers. The tenth panel, an over-door, which was installed between the two urban scenes, was entitled Outreaching Hands. “It wasn’t clear there was a Depression until I was almost finished,” Benton said later, “so I put that breadline over the door.”
Executed before the effects of the 1929 stock market crash and the seriousness of the Great Depression were fully understood, America Today is imbued with the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. This is apparent in the scenes’ kaleidoscopic variety, their surging, cinematic vitality, and the invitation they offer to read them in sequence, crosswise, or around and across the room. Benton scholar Henry Adams described the room as “an all-enveloping visual sensation… unlike anything achieved in American painting.”

My comments:

In its crowded, busy style with very muscular figure types (even the women in the painting have muscles, a refreshing departure from the chubby nude or frail and rail thin women that you usually see in art), this painting is very much in the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, where life was prosperous and very fast-moving, even by American standards. That’s what history tells us at least. I obviously never lived during the 1920’s, so I don’t know how much this is exaggerated. But I really like this mural cycle by Benton, an artist I’d never heard of before my Modern Art class today. This version of a celebration of modernity, which is distinct from its European somewhat-parallel futurism in that it celebrates the people and their way of life rather than the machine, is much more American, perhaps explaining why it appeals to me much more than the cold, truly heartless machine aesthetic of the Futurists. The Futurists supported the World Wars and Fascism; they were a pretty scary bunch. But Benton’s art celebrates the things that are uniquely American, especially in American cities: the fast pace, the hard work ethic, the harmony of people of different backgrounds living together, it’s all here.

Art of the Day

5 Apr

Teve Tupuhia. Tattooed in 1980 by Samoan Lese li’o.

Notes from Stokstad and Cothren’s  Art History, 4th Edition:

The art of tattoo was widespread and ancient in Oceania. Tattoo chisels made of bone have been found in Lapita sites. They are quite similar to the tools used to create the decorated Lapita pottery, suggesting some symbolic connection between the marking of the pottery and of human skin. The Polynesians, descendants of the Lapita people, brought tattooing with them as they migrated throughout the Pacific. As they became isolated from each other over time, distinctive styles evolved: Spirals became a hallmark of the Maori facial tattoo (moko), and rows of triangles became prominent in Hawaiian designs.

The people of the Marquesas Islands, an archipelago about 900 miles northeast of Tahiti, were the most extensively tattooed of all Polynesians. The process of tattooing involves shedding blood, the most sacred substance in Polynesia. In the Marquesas, the process for a young man of high social rank began around age 18; by age 30 he would be fully tattooed. Because of the sacredness and prestige of the process, some men continued to be tattooed until their skin was completely covered and the designs disappeared. Marquesan women were also tattooed, usually on the hands, ankles, lips, and behind the ears.

The process was painful and expenseive. Though women could be tattooed with little ceremony in their own homes., in the case of both high-ranking men and women, special houses were built for the occasion. The master tattooer and his assistants had to be fed and paid. At the end of the session a special feast was held to display the new tattoos. Each design had a name and meaning. Tattooin was done to mark passages in people’s lives and their social positions, and to commemorate special events or accomplishments. Some tattoos denoted particular men’s societies or eating groups. Especially for men, tattoos showed their courage and were essential to their sexual attractiveness to women.

Tattooing was forbidden in the nineteenth century by French colonial administrators and Catholic missionaries, and died out in the Marquesas. Beginning in the 1970’s, tattooing underwent a resurgence throughout the Pacific.

My comments:

Why do Western cultures frown upon tattoos so much? Why are they associated with untrustworthy, incapable people? Why is it not acceptable to work in a prestigious business setting with tattoos? Is it simply for the distraction?

Painting of the Day/ New update

4 Apr

IMG_0869

Wine Glass. by Zoe Wray (born 1994). Acrylic on Canvas, 2013.

Haha, yes so this is by me. But I’ve updated my Foundation Drawing page, with a post on the last chapter of our class in which we’re now working with acrylic paint instead of charcoal. Check it out!

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