Search results for 'michael bell'

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.

Advertisements

Painting of the Day

26 Feb

 

 

 

Check In, Check Out - Michael BellThe N and the R - Michael Bell

Check in, Check Out (top painting) and The N and the R (bottom painting).by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008-2010.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“Check In, Check Out” is the eigth of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that is a mirror image of Scene 2, “Room Service”, only the hotel room is completely cleaned up now.  Each painting ranges from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

In the end, the littered hotel room scene from Work 2 is mirrored with an empty hotel room scene in Work 8. The final scene (Work 9) brings the viewer full circle to the same Femme fetale on the subway platform in Work 1, to make us wonder, “Was this all just a dream or a foreshadowing of events to come?” On some level – visually and psychologically – every scene shimmers with unreality from one painting to the next like pieces to a puzzle or clues to a crime, only Bell’s work compels the viewer to participate in the ambiguity of the drama.

My comments:

I’m showing two paintings today because frankly I’m ready to move on to some new works. But the narrative ends on a disquieting note. As viewers we feel confused about whether what we just watched was real or imagined or foreshadowed, and it is ultimately an unsatisfying story. Since it was implied in the 6th painting that we the viewers were the ones who died, it’s now ambiguous as to whether we are actually dead or alive (within the narrative, of course; obviously we’re still alive). So why make a completely mysterious story? It may be an allegory for Bell’s opinion that art is open to interpretation and that there is no set answer about any artwork. We discussed this very question in my Art History first-year seminar last semester, as we tried to figure out where the truth about a painting comes from. Does it strictly come from the artist’s intentions, and as critical analyzers of art we should be concerned with discovering the artist’s intention? But if the subconscience exists, is it valid to analyze paintings based on what we think the artist’s inner psyche may be revealing? Or does an artwork’s truth come not from an artist’s intent, but from how it interacts with viewers, in which case an artwork will have a different but valid meaning for every viewer?

After having a few art history classes now and working on my own art, I do find that art reveals things about yourself that you may not have been thinking about. But I also know that having art historical knowledge makes an experience of an artwork so much more richer and learned. So I think there is a combination of both artist’s intent and artist’s inner psychology in developing a cogent interpretation of an artwork. But I also think that really coming up with a plausible reading of the artist’s subconscience can only come after studying that artist very deeply. There’s no way the first-time Picasso viewer would be able to understand the inner feelings of Picasso better than the scholars who have studied him for their entire lives. People might talk about the virtue of “virginal” eyes that are untainted by years of looking at so many artworks and how this is a fresh perspective that makes no assumptions, but I am of the mind, based on my own experience of remembering what it was like to know nothing about art and see it versus knowing what I do now (which isn’t a lot but still much more than I did before), that more experience with art ultimately trumps less experience.

Painting of the Day

25 Feb

The Meadows - Michael Bell

The Meadows. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2009-10.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“The Meadows” is the seventh of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

Work 7 (The Meadows) takes us to the ominous marshes of the New Jersey Meadowlands. It’s there where we’re left with an unsettling landscape of an abandoned Taxi Cab, its trunk popped open in the marshes against the backdrop of the New York City skyline at daybreak.

My comments:

Not much has happened in the narrative since the last painting, where we watched the woman and taxi cab driver staring at us, the viewers, in the trunk of the car. In this painting, the dramatic cropping of the car leaves us with a giant cliff-hanger. What is in the trunk, if anything? Where did the woman and taxi driver go? Did they just abandon this car in the meadow? At this point in the story of these paintings, The Meadows appears very sinister and creepy, but I don’t think it would if I had seen it by itself without seeing any of the other paintings.

 

Painting of the Day

23 Feb

Unfinished Business - Michael Bell

Unfinished Business. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2009-2010.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“Unfinished Business” is the sixth of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

In Unfinished Business we’re taken to the ominous marshes of the New Jersey Meadowlands where the Italian Femme Fetale from Scenes 1, 4 and 5 and the artist (the Taxi Driver from Scene 5) are seen peering into the trunk of the Taxi at us, the viewer.

My comments:

As the narrative develops in this series of paintings, it becomes more ominous, more creepy, and more abstract. This painting is, in my opinion, the creepiest painting in the series, both in its style and in the implications of its narrative. The style of the painting, which I admire because I can’t tell how the artist could have done it, makes the image look as if we’re seeing it through shattered glass. This brings up the question of whether this shattered glass is all over us as the taxi driver and woman look at us in the trunk of the taxi. This makes me wonder why it is us in the trunk of the taxi. It sort of implies that we are the person who has been murdered and that the woman and the taxi driver are now looking at our dead body in the taxi trunk. It’s a very scary twist that reminds me of that movie “The Sixth Sense,” where the protagonist doesn’t understand why he sees dead people and then realizes that he is dead himself.

Painting of the Day

21 Feb

Getaway Car - Michael Bell

Getaway Car. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008-9.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“Getaway Car” is the fifth of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

Getaway Car follows our Italian Femme Fetale into an Off-Duty Taxi at night (Getaway Car) with the artist using himself as a model in the mirror self-portrait.  Rips and tears into the canvas also represent psychological rips in the characters’ psyche.

My comments:

Even when artists don’t make self-portraits, an artist can’t help but let at least some of their personality come through the finished artwork. When artists do paint self-portraits, that self-expression is elaborated further. Since the artist has now directly put himself into this narrative series of paintings, it makes me wonder how much of this story expresses the artist’s life or identity. Because although many artists are quite egotistical and/or arrogant, I don’t think they make self-portraits without seriously thinking about it. In the PAFA women artists exhibition I visited a few weeks ago, their section of the show on self-portraits noted that many artists say that they make self-portraits only because it allows them to save money on a model and it’s more convenient. While artists are certainly often poor and could use the saved money, I suspect that sometimes they choose to make self-portraits because they feel compelled to express certain aspects of themselves at certain times.

So how does the artist play into this narrative, because the image demands that we have an explanation for the large human face that watches both the viewer and the getaway car. Does the face as a character in the narrative know what the woman did? Is it supposed to be some sort of metaphor for God, watching everyone? Or is the artist just relating himself to the woman character, because he has gone through what she went through emotionally or literally?

Painting of the Day

20 Feb

Never Look Back - Michael Bell

Never Look Back. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge. “Never Look Back” is the fourth of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

In Never Look Back our Italian Femme Fetale contradicts the title by doing exactly what the title suggests she not do, as she glances back at a White Surveillance Van in the alley.

My comments:

This painting looks remarkably like drawing to me due to the use of clearly visible, well-defined lines, especially in the figure of the woman. The fact that she’s looking back despite the maxim in the title reminds me of the Bible story of Lot’s wife being transformed into a pillar of salt when she does not obey her husband’s instructions to not look back at the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. This painting doesn’t really reveal if there are consequences to the woman looking back. I wonder how this fits into the narrative of the story as well. The interesting thing that I’m coming to realize about these narrative series of paintings is that they are individualized enough to stand alone as their own narrative artwork. This is quite different from novels: if we just read individual chapters of a novel, it wouldn’t really make too much sense, or it would leave loose ends or seem as if it was missing something. With these paintings, if I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t expect any of these individual paintings to be a small part of a larger sequential series.

At the same time, this painting does have many cliffhangers in it. We still have yet to see the face of the woman fully frontally, which preserves and intensifies her mystery. At this point she is still generic enough for us as viewers to really be incapable of assigning any psychological or personality characteristics to her, or any kind of substantial identity. The surveillance van that she watches drive away from her is also a big mystery. Did she just talk to the driver and the painting shows them parting, or did she hide from it and is emerging from her hiding spot once she felt the coast was clear? What is her culpability in the apparent murder that has taken place, as the second painting in the series, Room Service, would suggest?

 

Painting of the Day

19 Feb

The Ring - Michael Bell

The Ring. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“The Ring” is the third of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform awaiting her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

In Scene 3, “The Ring” the subway station is flooding with an avalanche of water symbolic of an extreme emotional outpour as an emergency phone dangles off the hook.

My comments:

So coming back to the 9-part narrative paintings that I started last week, this painting seems a bit unrelated to the first two paintings that I’ve posted so far. It appears that the series revolves a lot around the subway in New York City. There’s also the sense that a murder is occurring since there’s a lot of emotional turmoil evoked in all the paintings and there was an actual smoking gun in the second painting. So is the murderer trying to use the subway to escape? Is the woman in the first painting the murderer, the victim, or a witness?

Interestingly, Bell has framed the main part of his composition within a frame that he drew within the canvas, filling up the outside of this frame with the blurry paint as well as the dripping lines. It’s interesting to me personally because in my studio art class, we’ve been instructed to draw a frame on the paper we use and limit our artwork to this inside of this frame, rather than use the edge of the page as a frame. This has required us as artists, therefore, to consider how to treat this frame and use it for the overall effect of our artpiece, which is something I’ve never considered since paintings usually extend to the edges of the canvas because the artist would cut away any extra canvas that they didn’t want to paint on. But Bell includes the rest of the canvas, and this peripheral element becomes as much a part of the artwork as the main subject. It would now seem strange to see the artwork without this decorated “frame” of sorts that surrounds it.

Painting of the Day

16 Feb

Room Service - Michael Bell

Room Service. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008.

Notes from wikipaintings.org:

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“Room Service” is the second of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work.

Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform in Scene 1, “The Transfer” as she awaits her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

In Scene 2, “Room Service” we enter a dimly lit hotel room with a smoking gun and lit cigarette positioned on a table next to a half-eaten breakfast at daybreak, suggesting a hitman as the second character introduced into this nine part narrative.

My comments:

This is one of my favorite paintings in the nine-part series, and since I’m working on a still life for my studio art class this week I’ve been thinking a lot about still lifes and so I think it appeals to me for that reason as well. I love the way the artist has let the paint sort of drip in lines under the table. Looking at it, it’s hard to tell whether he actually painted the entire line or just let the paint fall. What’s cool about this painting is that even though it’s obvious that it is not a photograph, the way the artist has painted it has really turned it into an artwork while still preserving its display of the artist’s technical skill in drawing real life objects. Even though this is a very macabre subject matter, Bell uses a lot of light in the image, a kind of light that reminds me of what comes in through the window on rainy days. I’m also curious in this painting as to what that splash-like piece is that is peeking out from under the plate at the corner of the table.

Painting of the Day

16 Feb

The Transfer - Michael Bell

The Transfer. by Michael Bell (born 1971). Oil on canvas, 2008. 

Notes from wikipaintings.org: 

In “Ticket to Ride” Michael Bell created a cinematic painting series as a journey through one woman’s harrowing search for redemption, only nothing inspires redemption quite like revenge.

“The Transfer” is the first of nine large-format mixed-media paintings that range from emotionally-driven portraits as allegories reminiscent of dramatic film-stills to dark, ambiguous hotel room scenes and metropolitan landscapes on 60″ X 60″ canvases overlaid with mixed-media subway maps painted into the background of each work. Bell’s narrative strategy is for the viewer to question how much of Ticket to Ride is just a dream, and how much is rooted in reality. Its major movement is the journey taken by an Italian Femme Fetale that begins on a New York City subway platform in Scene 1, “The Transfer” as she awaits her metaphorical “train” and her journey continues — painting by painting — like a roller coaster ride through her mind.

My comments:

Using several paintings to spell out a narrative is not a completely new idea, but it doesn’t happen all the time. Two series of narrative paintings that I can think of right now include the series of paintings depicting Jesus’ life by Giotto in 1304-6 for the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, and the four paintings done by Jean-Honore Fragonard called the Pursuit of Love. But both of these narrative series rely on stories that actually occurred or are just simply part of human culture. Neither of them really requires the artist to be a creative writer as well. But Michael Bell’s fascinating narrative series of nine paintings does rely on the artist’s narrative and artistic imagination. He is wielding words as much as he wields paint with these artworks. This is the first painting in the series, and for the next eight days I’ll post each of the paintings in the narrative. 

Bell’s paintings are very haunting and unsettling. It’s almost too disquieting to think about them for too long. He has a very interesting way of mark-making, similar to that of an illustrator. It’s interesting how he has the woman figure’s very large head just float there, as if separated from its body. 

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.


%d bloggers like this: