Archive | June, 2013

Art of the Day

28 Jun

Franklin’s Footpath. by Gene Davis (1920-1985). Painted Road, 1972. Was in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Biographical notes from wikipedia.org:

Gene Davis (August 22, 1920 – April 6, 1985) was an American painter known especially for his paintings of vertical stripes of color, and was a member of the group of abstract painters in Washington DC during the 1960s, known as the Washington Color School.

Davis was born in Washington D.C. in 1920 and spent nearly all his life there. Before he began to paint in 1949, he worked as a sportswriter, covering the Washington Redskins and other local teams. Working as a journalist in the late 1940s, he covered the Roosevelt and Truman presidential administrations, and was often President Truman’s partner for poker games. His first art studio was in his apartment on Scott Circle; later he worked out of a studio on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Davis’s first solo exhibition of drawings was at the Dupont Theater Gallery in 1952, and his first exhibition of paintings was at Catholic University in 1953. A decade later he participated in the “Washington Color Painters” exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, DC, which traveled to other venues around the US, and launched the recognition of theWashington Color School as a regional movement in which Davis was a central figure. The Washington painters were among the most prominent of the mid-century color field painters. Though he worked in a variety of media and styles, including ink, oil,acrylic, video, and collage, Davis is best known by far for his acrylic paintings (mostly on canvas) of colorful vertical stripes, which he began to paint in 1958. The paintings typically repeat particular colors to create a sense of rhythm and repetition with variations. One of the best-known of his paintings, “Black Grey Beat” (1964), owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum reinforces these musical comparisons in its title. The pairs of alternating black and grey stripes are repeated across the canvas, and recognizable even as other colors are substituted for black and grey, and returned to even as the repetition of dark and light pairs is here and there broken by sharply contrasting colors.

In 1972 Davis created Franklin’s Footpath, which was at the time the world’s largest artwork, by painting colorful stripes on the street in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the world’s largest painting,Niagara (43,680 square feet), in a parking lot in Lewiston, NY. His “micro-paintings”, at the other extreme, were as small as 3/8 of an inch square.

Sun Sonata by Gene Davis.

For a public work in a different medium altogether, he designed the color patterns of the “Solar Wall,” a set of tubes filled with dyed water and backlit by fluorescent lights, at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Davis began teaching in 1966 at the Corcoran School of Art, where he became a permanent member of the faculty. His works are in the collections of, among others, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

He died on April 6, 1985 in his hometown of Washington, DC.

Q & A with artist Michael Bell

24 Jun

A few months ago, I did a 9-day series of Paintings of the Day on the “Ticket to Ride” series of paintings by artist Michael Bell. Here are the paintings in the series, going from top to bottom in order:

The Transfer - Michael Bell “The Transfer”

Room Service - Michael Bell “Room Service”

The Ring - Michael Bell  “The Ring”

“Never Look Back”

Getaway Car - Michael Bell“Getaway Car”

Unfinished Business - Michael Bell“Unfinished Business”

The Meadows - Michael Bell“The Meadows”

Check In, Check Out - Michael Bell“Check In, Check Out”

The N and the R - Michael Bell “The N and the R”

He recently contacted me and offered to answer some of the questions I asked on the blog regarding both the specific paintings and the philosophical questions they raised about art in general. Below are my questions and his responses:

Q. In the fifth painting of the series, “Getaway Car,” there is a
prominent human face on the left side of the painting. What does this face
represent/symbolize?

A. Ah, the taxi driver looking into the taxi’s rear view mirror…let me
address question 2 first, which will also answer this one…it will make
more sense if I do.

Q. Why did you choose to paint a frame around the main part of the
composition of the third painting, “The Ring,” as well as the first
painting, “The Transfer?”

A. I actually began each of the nine paintings in the series by blocking in a
frame with paint, not exactly sure why I was doing it at first, but it
became an unconscious decision that came into focus as I decided to only
leave the frame in completely in “The Transfer”, “The Ring”, “Never Look
Back” and “The N and the R” (Works, 1, 3, 4, and 9).  This became a
symbolic homage to the process behind the paintings, which involved
collaging together flashbacks from events torn from my memory and
reconstructing them into a cohesive narrative.  It also served two other
subtle purposes: 1) They could aesthetically become linked to the look of
old polaroid snapshots in shape, and 2) they helped me separate two of the
main characters present in the story.  The works with the frame are all
about the girl, while the other works introduce the “hitter” (a hitman),
which is the prominent human face (the taxi driver) on the left side of
“Getaway Car”.  He’s also present as the figure to the left peering into
the trunk at you, the viewer, in “Unfinished Business” in Work 2 “Room
Service” (the one you seemed to like a lot), “The Meadows” and “Check In,
Check Out”, which is the same room now all cleaned up as in work 2, “Check
In, Check Out.”  I like to think of the 3rd character as being “the
audience.”  I did enjoy working with the frame to add in text, drips,
shadowing, to break up the space, place clues and also play with the
perspective.  Oh, and the water splash in “Check in, Check Out” you
mentioned in your blog – it’s symbolic of emotions about to erupt, and it
becomes another common thread throughout the narrative, which, as you
correctly put it, is meant to be viewed together to tell a much larger
tale although each work is also meant to be able to stand on its own
(which is much different than narratives written as chapters in a book).

I used myself as the model for those figures, sometimes working from life
as well as reference photos I’d take for the paintings.  The reason for
nine works was another metaphor to symbolize “nine lives”.  The paintings
also play off one another in other unique ways.  For instance, the first
painting is like a mirror image of the last painting and the second
painting is purposely the same room as the second to last painting.

Q. What inspired you to paint this series?

A. That’s a loaded question.  On the surface it’s about a woman on a subway
platform, traveling to destinations in her mind as she awaits her train.
In the end, I left it up to the viewer’s interpretation whether she never
left the station, whether the series all took place in her mind, whether
it’s foreshadowing all that is about to happen, or whether it actually
happened and the order of works was intended just to mislead and confuse.
Beneath the actual surface, the series is really about murder, and each
painting went through a series of so many changes there’s actually
paintings underneath paintings, like for example in “The Ring.”  It began
as a busy subway platform, then I added in two lovers embracing, then
eventually I painted everyone out of it and left the phone dangling off
the hook.  I felt, like the series, that millions of people have
contemplated thoughts on these platforms so the energy of the people would
be there, even when the station is at its quietest – like the calm before
the storm.  The series is about contemplating and going through with
murder and more specifically, how it could go down, would it right a
wrong…it was my way of “thinking out loud on canvas” as a way of dealing
with a series of tragic betrayals – giving them a constructive as opposed
to a destructive voice.  It was such a huge part of mine and my wife’s
life for a time that I felt it necessary to “work them out” on heroic
sized canvases.  This became my first large-scale series of paintings at
that point in my career, and I chose a square to symbolize the
larger-than-life sized feelings we both had, in addition to feeling
“boxed-in” to a situation contemplating ways out.  It eventually led me to
writing my first screenplay, “Ticket to Ride,” inspired by the paintings.

Q. You’re quoted on your website as saying about TTR that “I want the
viewer to become my accomplice, to own the moment, reinterpret the scene
as if it
were their own and construct their own narratives.” Are you of the opinion
that it is appropriate or better that viewers attribute their own meanings
to artworks rather than necessarily considering the artist’s intent? Where
does the true meaning of an artwork come from, in your opinion?

A. I believe it’s important to involve the viewer.  When I first saw
Caravaggio’s “Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes” at the Walters
Art Museum in Baltimore they purposely hung the larger-than-life sized
painting high enough that you felt as though if you stood in front of the
painting you would catch his severed head in your hands if the painting
were to come to life.  Everyone that looks at art brings their own point
of view into it, which naturally comes from their own experiences.  So why
leave them out of the equation.  I leave my work open to more than one
interpretation.  I’m ok revealing my own intentions, but I definitely
wouldn’t discount or shoot down what someone else sees in my paintings.
That’s the beauty of art.  It connects on emotional levels and in primal
ways that precedes language, so pictures can also create universal
conversations.  Any artist that tells you they’re just creating “art for
art’s sake” and they don’t care what the audience thinks is full of shit.

Q. It’s often said about books that they are at least somewhat
autobiographical on the part of the authors. Do you think that art can be
autobiographical on the part of the artist, and if so, is the TTR series
at all autobiographical for you?

A. I think all art is autobiographical.  It tells the viewer what we’re
feeling at that moment, what we’re interested in or who we’re interested
in, and what we want to have a conversation about with the world.  Even if
it’s non-representational.  For instance, in Jackson Pollack’s outpouring
of his soul into his expressionistic splatter paintings… While I can’t
remember specifics from one work of his to the next, I do know what a
“Jackson Pollack” painting looks like.  And in being able to associate
with his style, it tells me about him as a person.  I think if you look at
all my work closely enough you will know a bit about me as a person, or at
least what I want you to know.  It shows it’s face in Rembrandt’s
extremely candid and descriptive self-portraits, and in Eric Fischl’s
entire body of work from his early psycho-sexual suburban life paintings
to his more recent portraits series.  So yes, my TTR series is
autobiographical.  All my works inject that realism into them.  In my
latest series “Seven Scars” ( http://mbellart.com/scars.htm )  for
instance, it is an actual series of autobiographical narrative paintings
based on the life of Mob Wife Toni Marie Ricci.  And while it’s “her
story” I was painting about, I wouldn’t be able to paint it with any
authenticity if I couldn’t relate to it and have “lived it” on some level
in my own life already.  Those paintings were created entirely from my
point of view, based on conversations her and I had, but ultimately, I was
her “viewer” injecting my own take on her truths “visually” for the
public.  I also included myself in some of those paintings, like in the
one with the gun to her head in Scene 4. Now that I finished those works
I’m returning to the easel to complete my “Carnevale Italiano” paintings,
which are actually linked to my TTR paintings as a “prequel” series.
They’re at http://mbellart.com/prequel.htm and are also very
autobiographical.  It’s me as a young artist in the series, and it
features my best friend Dominic Capone in a few of the paintings, who just
happens to be Al Capone’s Great Nephew.  I’m finishing these paintings,
which I’m planning to debut on Dominic’s new reality tv show that’s airing
this Fall called “the Capone’s.”

Q. What is your definition of art?
A. Art, for me, is a constructive way to give form and meaningful expression
to an internal experience (to help express what life throws my way, and to
either de-construct or re-construct memories or events to help put them
into their proper context).  It’s a way to learn more about myself.  I
think, generally speaking, the definition of all art is self-expression on
some level, which could take form through our subject matter, the way we
interpret or re-interpret it, the way we work with our chosen mediums
right down to the way we choose to present our art to the public.
Everything matters.  And ultimately, art matters.

Painting of the Day

21 Jun

Udnie, Young American Girl. by Francis Picabia (1879-1953). Oil on canvas, 1913. Currently on view at the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Francis Picabia set out on his artistic adventure at the outset of the twentieth century–an exciting time for modern French painting. Not happy to settle with one particular style, from 1902 to 1908 Picabia drew from several influences. Experimenting first with Impressionism then Fauvism, he constantly pushed the boundaries of his art, until he found a brief resting place in 1911 with Section d’Or–a group of painters who, fueled by the questions posed by Cubism, began to move the pictorial plane in new directions. Following a trip to New York, where he worked on what he called “abstractions” or “pure paintings” no longer enslaved by reality–Udnie, Young American Girl seems to take what Cubism offers and toys with it. Dancing curves reminiscent of a female frame mark a softening of Cubist forms, while Picabia’s palette–infused with vivid blues and greens, hints of copper, and metallic steel–breaks free from subdued Cubist colors. This playful interpretation of Cubism became known as Orphism. Udnie is thought to have been inspired by a ballerina. Strangely, in Picabia’s bid to escape reality, the bounds to this work seem set by its title. But “Udnie,” perhaps an anagram of “Nudie,” has a distinct erotic overtone which is seen later in more overtly sexual works such as I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie. From 1913 to 1919, Picabia embraced the Dada movement, traveling again to the United States to disseminate its ideas, which influenced Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Conceptual art.

Additional notes from theartstory.org:

Once known as “Papa Dada,” Francis Picabia was one of the principle figures of the Dada movement both in Paris and New York. A friend and associate of Marcel Duchamp, he became known for a rich variety of work ranging from strange, comic-erotic images of machine parts to text-based paintings that foreshadow aspects of Conceptual Art. Even after Dada had been supplanted by other styles, the French painter and writer went on to explore a diverse and almost incoherent mix of styles. He shifted easily between abstraction and figuration at a time when artists clung steadfastly to one approach, and his gleeful disregard for the conventions of modern art encouraged some remarkable innovations even later in his career, from the layered Transparency series (c.1928-31) of the 1920s to the kitsch, erotic nudes of the early 1940s. Picabia remains revered by contemporary painters as one of the century’s most intriguing and inscrutable artists.

In the 1910s, Picabia shared the interests of a number of artists who emerged in the wake of Cubism, and who were inspired less by the movement’s preoccupation with problems of representation than by the way the style could evoke qualities of the modern, urban, and mechanistic world. Initially, these interests informed his abstract painting, but his attraction to machines would also shape his early Dada work, in particular his “mechanomorphs” – images of invented machines and machine parts that were intended as parodies of portraiture. For Picabia, humans were nothing but machines, ruled not by their rational minds, but by a range of compulsive hungers.
Picabia was central to the Dada movement when it began to emerge in Paris in the early 1920s, and his work quickly abandoned many of the technical concerns that had animated his previous work. He began to use text in his pictures and collages and to create more explicitly scandalous images attacking conventional notions of morality, religion, and law. While the work was animated by the Dada movement’s rage against the European culture that had led to the carnage of World War I, Picabia’s attacks often have the sprightly, coarse comedy of the court jester. They reflect an artist with no respect for any conventions, not even art, since art was just another facet of the wider culture he rejected.
Figurative imagery was central to Picabia’s work from the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s, when he was inspired by Spanish subjects, Romanesque and Renaissance sources, images of monsters, and, later, nudes found in soft porn magazines. Initially he united many of these disparate motifs in the Transparency pictures (c.1928-31), complexly layering them and piling them on top of each other to provoke confusion and strange associations. Some critics have described the Transparencies (c.1928-31) as occult visions, or Surrealist dream images, and although Picabia rejected any association with the Surrealists, he steadfastly refused to explain their content. Picabia always handled these motifs with the same playful and anarchic spirit that had animated his Dada work.
Picabia learned early on that abstraction could be used to evoke not only qualities of machines, but also to evoke mystery and eroticism. This ensured that abstract painting would be one of the mainstays of his career. He returned to it even in his last years, during which he attributed his inspiration to the obscure recesses of his mind, as he had always done.
Picabia did much to define Dada in Paris and New York, and his reputation as one of the movement’s father figures has stayed with him. But it is perhaps the spirit that the movement encouraged in him – his anarchic spirit and his disrespect for conventional abstract modern art – that has yielded his greatest legacy. It is this spirit that shaped the Transparency series of the 1920s and the erotic nudes of the 1940s, both of which have proved hugely influential – the former on artists such as David Salle and Sigmar Polke, the latter on figures such as John Currin. When many artists thought abstract and figurative art should be separated, Picabia seemed to combine them. When others felt that the nude should remain a noble subject, he debased it. Picabia seems to have had a light-hearted and often cynical attitude to art-making, and while this put him at odds with many of his more serious peers, it is this attitude that seems so resonant to contemporary artists who not only have less faith in art’s ability to change the world, but also have an attitude to museums and galleries that sways between the tolerant and the skeptical.

My comments:
 Although I’ve always admired and loved abstract art, even I underestimated how difficult it is to make abstract paintings, even though it wouldn’t appear on the surface that they call for a high amount of technical skill in the way that Rembrandt or Vermeer’s portraits displayed. Through the studio art class that I took this past semester, however, I discovered that creating just about any image on canvas is extremely difficult. What makes it difficult is that it takes a high degree of imagination even to make a deceptively simple pattern of shapes in a way that is aesethetically harmonious and expressively genuine on the canvas. It’s so difficult to use all the formal elements in a way that creates an object of beauty, even if that object has no recognizable ties to objects in the real world. So I admire what Picabia has done here even though it is abstract and didn’t require him to translate three-dimensional objects (such as faces for instance) onto a two-dimensional surface.
On a separate note, I don’t know how I feel about Picabia’s cynical attitude to art-making that he certainly was not alone in having during the time that he lived. Many people continue to have that cynical attitude today. I don’t think that art necessarily calls for a cynical attitude, and I think that there’s a possibility that it is not art itself that Picabia is cynical towards, but the people of the art world who make it, sell it, and consume it. Picabia reacted to this by using art as a way to thumb his nose at the people he probably felt tarnished art’s identity, but in my opinion this only made Picabia and other members of the Dada movement look bitter and as if they were holding on to grudges forever. Instead of using art as a way to draw attention to its abusers by making fun of them, I think it would have ultimately lead to more beautiful art being created if instead the Dadaists had devoted themselves to creating what they thought would be the most beautiful art possible. Because sometimes, hearing about how artists like Picabia were secretly trying to mock the viewers of his art offends people who did take art seriously and were more on his side than on the side of those who didn’t truly appreciate art but rather used it as means to other ends. Dada art mocks everyone who looks at it, not just those who are the intended objects of his mocking. This unfortunately turns even more people off to art that would have been necessary, which is always a shame.

Painting of the Day

20 Jun

Goldsmiths at Work. Artist Unknown. Painting on Wall, 1411-1375 BC. Located at Tomb 181, Valley of the Nobles, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Egypt.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Goldsmiths at Work is a fragment of a wallpainting from the tomb of Ipuki and Nebamun who were craftsmen and sculptors who worked in the royal necropolis at Thebes during the reign of Amenhotep II. The eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt–often combined with the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties under the group title “New Kingdom”–was a time of great artistic flowering in ancient Egypt. Ipuki and Nebamun were involved in the royal building projects of the New Kingdom. Despite Nebamun’s modest title of “scribe and counter of grain,” he artfully prepared his own burial tomb to be shared by Ipuki, combining their skills to make a tomb as equally well crafted as any of the nobles’ tombs surrounding it. At least one wall of these tomb chambers was reserved for celebrating the work of the deceased. Goldsmiths at Work portrays eleven craft workers engaged in various activities from the initial weighing of gold to the creation of gold objects. Gold was used to decorate temples dedicated by the pharaoh, and was placed alongside the kings in their tombs for use in the afterlife. Goldsmiths at Work is an elegant portrayal of work, with many hands animated in diverse actions. It also provides important historical information about ancient Egyptian workshops, and the high degree of skill required by goldsmiths. Nebamun and Ipuki, who were possibly brothers, or related through marriage, are two artists who cannot resist providing an intimate portrait of their vocation, and of the artistic process at large.

My comments:

I thought since I mostly post Modern and Contemporary artworks on this blog, I would pick a work from another of my favorite eras of art history: ancient Egypt. What I love about ancient Egyptian art is that it intricately and beautifully weaves together every facet of life and devotes it to only one goal, to prepare humans’ burial tombs for a peaceful, enjoyable and endless afterlife. In fact, their art makes it seem as if the ancient Egyptians did nothing but prepare for their afterlives. But were their lives really this singularly focused? If one examined all the art that is produced in the United States today, it would reveal that we are pretty strange and wildly complex. It would be hard to make generalizations about American culture through its art, other than that we clearly enjoy freedom of expression. I would hazard to guess that the ancient Egyptians were much more complex, and didn’t think about their afterlives all of the time, but since the only art that we still have comes from the ancient Egyptians’ burial tombs, all of their art is a reflection of that sector of their lives. Which is somewhat sad, because it would be so interesting to see more sides of ancient Egypt.

Even so, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians were serious about the afterlife. Their painting style is incredibly distinctive; I think even the person who knows the least about art would be able to recognize ancient Egyptian as such. I wonder why they chose the simplistic, technically inaccurate (in terms of how human anatomy actually operates) figure types for all of their portrayals of people. Is it really true that they were not skilled enough to create anything more nuanced and detailed? Is there a way to ever find this out?

Painting of the Day

17 Jun

La Condition Humaine. by Rene Magritte (1898-1967). Oil on canvas, 1933. Currently on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Rene Magritte was born in Lessines, Belgium. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels, he worked in a wallpaper factory and was a poster and advertisement designer until 1926. Magritte settled in Paris at the end of the 1920s, where he met members of the Surrealist movement, and soon became one of the most significant artists of the group. He returned to Brussels a few years later and opened an advertising agency. Magritte’s fame was secured in 1936, after his first exhibition in New York. Since then, New York has been the location of two of his most important retrospective shows–at MoMA in 1965 and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992. La Condition Humaine is one of many versions Magritte painted on the same theme. The picture is emblematic of the work he produced in Paris during the 1930s, when he was still under the spell of the Surrealists. Here, Magritte executes a kind of optical illusion. He depicts an actual painting of a landscape displayed in front of an open window. He makes the image on the painted picture match perfectly with the “true” landscape outdoors. In doing so, Magritte proposed, in one unique image, the association between nature and its representation through the means of art. This work also stands as an assertion of the artist’s power to reproduce nature at will and proves how ambiguous and impalpable the border between exterior and interior, objectivity and subjectivity, and reality and imagination can be.

Additional notes from theartstory.org:

Surely the most celebrated Belgian artist of the twentieth century, Rene Magritte has achieved great popular acclaim for his idiosyncratic approach to Surrealism. To support himself he spent many years working as a commercial artist, producing advertising and book designs, and this most likely shaped his fine art, which often has the abbreviated impact of an advertisement. While some French Surrealists led ostentatious lives, Magritte preferred the quiet anonymity of a middle-class existence, a life symbolized by the bowler-hatted men that often populate his pictures. In later years, he was castigated by his peers for some of his strategies (such as his tendency to produce multiple copies of his pictures), yet since his death his reputation has only improved. Conceptual artists have admired his use of text in images, and painters in the 1980s admired the provocative kitsch of some of his later work.

Magritte wished to cultivate an approach that avoided the stylistic distractions of most modern painting. While some French Surrealists experimented with new techniques, Magritte settled on a deadpan, illustrative technique that clearly articulated the content of his pictures. Repetition was an important strategy for Magritte, informing not only his handling of motifs within individual pictures, but also encouraging him to produce multiple copies of some of his greatest works. His interest in the idea may have come in part from Freudian psychoanalysis, for which repetition is a sign of trauma. But his work in commercial art may have also played a role in prompting him to question the conventional modernist belief in the unique, original work of art.
The illustrative quality of Magritte’s pictures often results in a powerful paradox: images that are beautiful in their clarity and simplicity, but which also provoke unsettling thoughts. They seem to declare that they hide no mystery, and yet they are also marvelously strange.
Magritte was fascinated by the interactions of textual and visual signs, and some of his most famous pictures employ both words and images. While those pictures often share the air of mystery that characterizes much of his Surrealist work, they often seem motivated more by a spirit of rational enquiry – and wonder – at the misunderstandings that can lurk in language.
The men in bowler hats that often appear in Magritte’s pictures can be interpreted as self-portraits. Portrayals of the artist’s wife, Georgette, are also common in his work, as are glimpses of the couple’s modest Brussels apartment. Although this might suggest autobiographical content in Magritte’s pictures, it more likely points to the commonplace sources of his inspiration. It is as if he believed that we need not look far for the mysterious, since it lurks everywhere in the most conventional of lives.
My comments:
Whereas the last few paintings I’ve posted here gravitate towards the expressionistic side (I mostly commented about those paintings in terms of their formal qualities, especially how the artists used paint and color), Magritte is an artist that is more focused on ideas rather than forms with his work. This painting, with a title as broad and all-encompassing as “The Human Condition,” illustrates a fundamental tension that arose with the advent of Modernist painting: whether art should be judged on how well it imitates nature (as it had been from Classical antiquity until the Modern era) or something else. Modernism’s long series of artistic movements (starting generally with Impressionism) all offer different alternatives to that goal of art, for imitation of nature. Magritte, it seems to me, saw art’s purpose as a way to reveal truths about the world that control the way the world works and drives people’s behaviors all while amazingly remaining unclear and illusive to our conscious awareness. As he once said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”

Painting of the Day

14 Jun

Orange and Black Wall. by Franz Kline (1910-1962). Oil on canvas, 1959. Currently on view at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Franz Kline described his paintings as “situations,” and believed that good art accurately conveyed the emotions of its creator. His best known works are monumentally scaled abstract canvases that retain a visible residue of the highly physical process behind their creation. Though Kline claimed that these works reference specific places, they do not seem guided by any objective logic. Like the works of fellow action painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Kline’s paintings appear to be a spontaneous, muscular translation of the artist’s will into material form. Kline typically worked in a monochromatic palette of black and white. The addition of bold, thick streaks of color in Orange and Black Wall adds yet another dimension of vitality and dynamism to the finished work. The black lines appear to form an Expressionistic grid, out of which the orange, green, and red spill. Despite the lack of a clear division between figure and ground, the painting never becomes static. It resounds with an array of potential emotive origins and so invites constant speculation as to its meanings. Kline’s dramatic life has only fueled his iconic status–he struggled for years to find success as a portrait and landscape painter, rose rapidly to international prominence in the 1950s when he began painting in pure abstractions, then died of heart failure in 1962, only fifty-one years old and at the height of his fame. As a public figure, he reflects the “celebrity artist” phenomenon that pervaded the mid-twentieth-century American art world.

Additional notes from moma.org:

Kline’s first academic training was at Boston University from 1931 to 1935 and in London at the Heatherley School of Art from 1937 to 1938 as an illustrator and draughtsman. Two main tendencies emerged at an early stage that would later develop into a powerful contribution to the ‘gestural’ trend withinAbstract Expressionism. Numerous small graphics, sketches and oils and the mural series Hot Jazz (Norfolk, VA, Chrysler Mus.), painted for a New York bar in 1940, reveal an interest in translating animated subjects into quick, rudimentary strokes. Kline admired and found inspiration in a wide range of artists notable for their fluency in handling paint, including Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Sargent and Whistler. By contrast, an inclination to compose in terms of simplified areas was derived from academic training and perhaps also reflected Kline’s memories of his native Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region, with its stark scenery, locomotives and similar massive mechanical shapes to which the titles of his later abstract images sometimes referred. Nijinsky as Petrouchka (1948; Cedarhurst, NY, Mr and Mrs I. David Orr priv. col., see Gaugh, 1985 exh. cat., p. 66) and similar canvases marked the climax of this representational phase with their combination of vigorous brushwork and an angular substructure. But against the context of contemporary New York painting a move towards abstraction was inevitable.

In 1946 Kline began to generalize his subjects into series of lines and planes, which produced the semi-abstract mosaic of broad facets influenced by Cubism found in The Dancer (1946; priv. col., see Gaugh, 1985 exh. cat., p. 74). During the next three years a very dynamic and fluid handling emerged, revealing the impact of Bradley Walker Tomlin, Gorky and especially the black-and-white abstractions of de Kooning. From these artists Kline evidently saw that his oil medium was capable of a calligraphic freedom and that the vestiges of figures and objects could become those rapid marks, halfway between ciphers and pure brushstrokes, that collide together in the shallow space of Untitled (c. 1948; Washington, DC, Hirshhorn). Studies in ink on paper simultaneously reinforced Kline’s sense of black and white as terse equivalents and allowed him to develop small emblematic compositions, usually based on a flurry of interlocking curves and gridlike vectors. When de Kooning enlarged some of these drawings c. 1948 as part of his own work using a Bell-Opticon projector, it affirmed Kline’s growing awareness that the sketch could be expanded to dramatic effect. In this process the rawness, spontaneity and crude design associated with a small-scale sketch assumed a monumental frisson once the dimensions of Cardinal (1.97×1.44 m, 1950; New York, priv. col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 253) were reached. This and comparable canvases comprised a one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York in October and November 1950, which established the artist as an innovator, partly on account of the sheer austerity of a style that did not change significantly again until the end of the decade.

The works in the Egan show of 1950 therefore demonstrated an idiom which could be continually explored and regenerated. In Cardinal and its successors great bands and wedges of black paint form a rough grid, sometimes varied by the inclusion of loops or arcs, which appear to defy the actual canvas limits, thrusting inexorably beyond its confines. Kline characterized this provocative instability as ‘the awkwardness of “not-balance”, the tentative reality of lack of balance …’, although in fact such images were composed with some care; the many sketches done on telephone directory pages chart a search for configurations that unite the impromptu and the monolithic. The exceptional economy of certain compositions, such as the rectangular motif in Wotan (1950–51; Houston, TX, Mus. F.A.), prompted frequent speculation about the influence of oriental calligraphy, yet Kline denied such links. Instead he acknowledged that his vocabulary was sufficiently elemental to evoke the known or the recognizable while avoiding any literal references: ‘There are forms that are figurative to me…. I don’t have the feeling that something has to be completely non-associative as far as figure form is concerned.’ The allusions can perhaps be read as harsh rectilinear silhouettes of New York itself, as well as the mechanical presences of the artist’s youth in Pennsylvania. Moreover, even the handling of black and white can be interpreted as emotive, since the enamel paints create textural conflicts that reiterate the struggle of forces on the picture’s surface. Kline fostered intense tonal contrasts, often working at night under strong light, and his use of housepainter’s brushes strengthened this aura of immediacy; tiny splatters or inflections accompanying the black wedges enhanced their explosive velocity. In the later 1950s such paintings as Requiem (1958; Buffalo, NY, Albright–Knox A.G.) added a third type of work to his repertory, by allowing the previously clearcut monochrome divisions to merge into a more complex chiaroscuro, the emotional tone of which Kline may have had in mind when he mentioned in an interview in 1960 the ‘brooding quality’ of certain ‘impending forms’.

In common with several other Abstract Expressionists, such as de Kooning and Rothko, Kline sought in the later 1950s to maintain a stylistic development. One result was a sequence of exceptionally large works, executed from 1959 to 1961 and known as the ‘wall paintings’, that echo the monumentality of later paintings by Clyfford Still or Robert Motherwell, with their almost panoramic horizontal sweep. Another decision, to introduce a full range of colour, proved more significant. Some black-and-white paintings had already retained traces of sombre hues, but now Kline returned to the strident palette that he had largely eschewed since the later 1940s, as in the clashing green, red, and purples of King Oliver (1958; New York, Mr and Mrs Donald Grossman priv. col., see Sandler, 1970, p. 254). At best, these accents amplify a frenetic verve in this final period. However, the colour planes occasionally seem rather superfluous, and at the time of his death the direction of Kline’s art was unresolved. Nonetheless, his influence on the second generation of gestural painters was substantial, and his works comprise some of the most imposing achievements of Abstract Expressionism.

My comments:

Since Kline is so well-known for his black and white paintings, and since he made so many of those, it came as a surprise to me to see a Kline painting with color. But the color that Kline has added to this painting adds a very interesting dynamic to it. Indeed, the painting does seem to possess more action, more velocity, more energy. I wonder how Kline decided which colors to add and how he would apply them to the canvas. Was it completely random, or did he plan it from the beginning? Based on how gestural the brushstrokes are, it makes me think that they would have to be somewhat random, but perhaps it was all planned. I’m not really sure in general how action painters like Kline, de Kooning, and Pollock painted, whether it was with chance or with deliberateness. Either way, it’s clear that all of these artists are incredibly talented. I personally like Kline’s work the most out of those three artists. They are not the only action painters out there, but they are three of the major ones so that is why I mention them. Anyway, it’s also interesting that the title of this painting only includes two colors when there are many more used. If someone just heard the title of this painting without seeing the painting itself, he or she would probably expect to see something much more dichromatic than the actual painting. I also wonder how Kline starts these paintings, and which color he lays down first. It’s a bit difficult to tell just by looking at the painting. Anyway, the relationships between the colors is what really makes this painting dynamic and interesting. Even though it looks like a technically easy painting to make, it would in fact be very difficult to create a painting that actually has color relationships that are in sync and in harmony.

Painting of the Day

14 Jun

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel. by Marie Laurencin (1883-1956). Oil on canvas, 1923. Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris, France.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

In 1923, the French artist Marie Laurencin was working on the costumes and sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When she met the fashion designer and perfumer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, they were both designing costumes for the same company’s Le Train Bleu. Laurencin was already a well-known set designer when Chanel asked the artist to paint her portrait. The woman who would come to epitomize “chic” for the next century was only just establishing herself at the time of the sitting. The Chanel suit, which would forever alter the way women dress, was introduced to the public in 1923, the year Laurencin painted this portrait. Laurencin was to become a popular society portraitist of contemporary women, including Helena Rubenstein and Lady Cunard. In this painting the headstrong couturier sits in a sensual, dreamy daze with her Pomeranian puppy in her lap. The puppy brings forth images of lap-dogs sitting in courtesans’ and dowagerss arms in portraits of previous eras. Chanel is depicted in an erotic state of undress, with one shoulder of her draped gown falling off her arm and exposing her chest. The soft, curving, fluid lines, smoky colors, and languid mood are typical of Laurencin’s work, but when Chanel viewed the result, she decided that it did not look sufficiently like her and rejected the portrait. Laurencin was friends with Apollinaire (with whom she lived for several years), Picasso, and Braque, and, although she exhibited with the Cubists, her work does not reflect that movement.

My comments:

It’s interesting that Chanel rejected this portrait because it did not look enough like her. If she is judging the portrait based on how realistic it looks and that’s what she meant by it “looking like her” rather than something a little more esoteric like capturing her personality, then it surprises me how someone who was so forward-looking in the fashion world could be so bound to the past in the art world. It just goes to show how conventions die hard. I really like this portrait personally, and if someone had made a portrait of me and it looked like this, I would have certainly taken it. I really didn’t see it as an erotic portrait, however, like the person who wrote the description above sees it. Yes, the woman is half nude, but nude women appear so often in art that it doesn’t surprise me anymore and I don’t automatically assume it’s erotic. I don’t see the woman’s expression as particularly sexual either; it looks more forlorn than sexual. I’m kind of jumping around here, but I was also wondering the reason for the bird that’s just above the figure’s right shoulder. Trying to imagine the painting without the bird reveals that it does somewhat add a nice balance to the composition, but I wonder if it has any symbolic significance. Anyway, I chose to post this painting because I really loved the colors, which are blended beautifully. Taking a studio art course this semester taught me how difficult it is to blend colors. The artists make it look so much easier than it really is. Even if you aren’t trying to blend paint to give a realistic or naturalistic effect, it is extremely difficult to blend paint in a way that is simply aesthetically pleasing. I hope that when I take Oil Painting next semester I will improve at this skill.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Marie Laurencin before. I really like her style of painting; it is infinitely better than that of Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt in my opinion, yet they are much more well-known than she is. Why that is, I have no idea.

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