Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gee's Bend Quilts

I hope that every artist who complains about their day job and how little time they have to make art saw the Gee's Bend quilts that have been travelling around the US the last three years. And then I hope that all those complaining artists just shut up. Like me. I've had my comeuppance.

Probably enough has been said about the quilts already, and anyone with half a finger on the pulse of the art world knows about it. The press release says, "Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with the Tinwood Alliance, Atlanta, the exhibition has been on a three-year, coast-to-coast, twelve-venue tour since its premiere in Houston in the fall of 2003." I saw the show at the de Young a few weeks ago. It closes today. I believe this the final venue. I have to thank Mel Prest for mentioning it to me several times.

Now, here are some people who I would think have good reason to complain about their day jobs. Farmers and fieldworkers, raising families in poverty, geographically cut off from opportunity and resources- who has time to be creative? And yet their faith in family, God, hard work, and consistent and continual making resulted in beautiful and very moving objects that have shifted from functional bedcovers to concrete, visual, transcendent objects that are innovative testaments to the handmade and communal.

I found this show tremendously moving, not only because of the circumstances in which they were made. For a museum exhibition, it's not enough to be moved by these circumstances. Certainly, art objects made in a difficult situation can tell us valuable things about the people and their times, but for the object to be aesthetically powerful requires something more. And it seems the women of Gee's Bend found that.

Of course, I was moved by the story of how these quilts were made, and I was especially moved that the quilts are made in spite of a day's work, often in the company of others. I found it especially interesting that a functional product- something so functional in the circumstances in which it was used that it could even barely be called craft- which implies hobby and decoration- could be elevated to art object. This is part of what I found both humbling and inspiring.

But there's more. These quilts are truly handmade- hand cut, handstitched- and while many utilize various traditional patterns, these often have little twists and interruptions in them, while many others eschew pattern and have a feel of improvised compostion, more modern collage than historical symmetric structure. Up close you can see the stitches, the fabric frayed by washing and use. But stand back, and they feel composed by a commanding and experienced eye capable of setting up rhythm and contrast, tension and surprise.

I often read press releases for exhibitions in which So-and-so's art plays with some crap notion of this assumption or that received idea or another that questions and challenges our assumptions about this or that miniscule thing that results in a paradigm shift to some other imagined nothing. Geez, they're pretentious and cliched at the same time.

But in the Gee's Bend show here are some genuine questions about where art comes from, how it's made and for whom, who makes it, art's origins and place in daily life. That's powerful stuff, and there is a real challenge to our assumptions. This show does it in broad daylight with no theoretical sleight of hand, and with a mimimum of contextual and historical knowledge required. It's just so plainly and visibly beautiful and bold. It makes me want to say lame predictable things like "celebration of the spirit," and "triumph over adversity."

It's too obvious a connection to talk about the quilts in relation to geometric abstraction- they're just different animals with a different purpose. In fact, I think it's a waste of time to make a competition between the quilts and painting. They are about different things, and anyone with a pair of eyes knows that immediately. I see these as closest to Korean wrapping cloths called bojagi, which are also made using fabric scraps.

The closest art connection I keep making is to Rauschenberg, and his reuse of materials, especially fabric. Compostionally, feeling-wise, there seems to be something shared in how things are arranged, a sensitivity to color and pattern, to the use of found materials. I'm thinking not only of Rauschbenerg's combines, but also his cardboard pieces.

But even still, this is a fruitless comparison. I really brought up Rauschenberg to make another point. There is his famous quote, "Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)" I think that for the Gee's Bend quilters that gap doesn't exist at all. There is no split. The quilts and their making are part of a greater whole- the lives of their makers. This seems unusual to me these days. It is especially unusual for art, which often seems disconnected from life's dailyness. Partly, it is unique, I think, because of the medium itself- fabric and thread, which are ordinary and domestic materials that anyone is familiar with- and because these quilts are originally functional objects; most contemorary art does not have these origins. The quilts were intended to be part of everyday life. The quilters and their families are the primary, original audience, and the primary users. There seems to be no gap between the maker, the intended object and its use, and people who use it. This wholeness is also unique because these quilters defied tradition by not settling into historical patterns, but instead used their eyes to compose and make, working by hand and responding immediately to their materials, learning from and working in the company of each other, day after day over the years. It's remarkable to see how these objects, made for a specific use in a particular place, can now function as powerful art objects for a much larger, more diverse audience.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Miami: My Report, Your Musings

Chris, I look forward to your comments about the Gee's Bend Quilts, Ruth Asawa's sculpture and Joan Mitchell's painting, but given that there's been a lot of blog talk about the arts fairs in Miami last week--including your own perceptive observation on Edward Winkleman's site and an e-mail we shared last light--I wonder if you wouldn't mind detouring briefly to the fairs. Just to recap our conversation, you commented about the lack of critical coverage of the artwork in the fair, and you wondered about the long-term effect these fairs will have on artists' careers, as well as how the fairs affect an artist's day-to-day artmaking. These are interesting issues. Would you talk about them a bit for our blog?

One of the things that interested/scared/shocked me is that I heard several dealers say they were thinking about closing their galleries, or moving to much smaller quarters, and using the fairs as their primary art-selling venues. This presupposes they can get into the fairs they want to be in (there's a lot of competition for booths, and for every dealer who gets into the venue of her/his choice, there are probably two or three others who don't). Actually, a few dealers are already going this route. There's one Parisian dealer, Vanessa Suchar, who bills herself "la galleriste sans galerie"--the gallerist without a gallery--and there's a Washington dealer who works out of an office but who has strong visibility at the fairs. What does THAT mean for us as artists?

I've posted below an excerpt from the Miami coverage on my blog so that our readers can click on and get a sense of the event.

Imagine Costco on steroids and filled with art. Now throw in a carnival atmosphere, tradeshow commercialism, museum reverence, fashion attitude, and the frenzy of Filene’s Basement when the bridal gowns go on sale. Add sublimely beautiful contemporary paintings, modern masters from the secondary market (like Ad Reinhart from his pre-somber period in three booths), big-ass sculpture, inventive installations, cartoon imagery, and some rice and beans (I’m not kidding). And, hey, why not include the oversize figure of a man performing a physically impossible scatological function? Like the blind men describing an elephant, no one perception comes close to describing this event but together they create a pretty good picture of this behemoth of a show.

Lucia Madriz: Money Talks, floor installation of rice and beans, dimensions variable, at Jacob Karpio Galeria in Art Basel Miami Beach. Below: birdseye view of ABMB at the Convention Center.

And when you've had enough of this Miami talk, I'm all ears about Gee's Bend, Asawa and Mitchell. I won't bring up Miami again. Until next year.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Speaking in Tongues

Jeepers, Joanne, that last post was a doozy. Of course, I am looking forward with great anticipation to the Marden show coming to SFMoMA in February. I have the catalog, and when I look at the listing of pieces in the catalog certain works are specified as NY, SF, or Berlin only, and a large number of works will be in SF exclusively, so it looks like it will be larger show here. I hope there are lots of drawings, and I would prefer an installation that mixes the paintings and drawings rather than separating them, as the NY installation does.

I expect that the Marden show will be on the fourth floor, where we saw the Kiefer show together. Those galleries had some walls removed for the Matthew Barney show this past summer (pfft!), so there is wide open space and long walls, which serve the Kiefers currently there so well, and I presume will serve Marden well, too.

Thinking back to the Kiefer show, Heaven and Earth, I keep bouncing off of Twombly and Serra. Part of it is color (narrow), and part of it is size (large) and scale (large things feeling intimate, large things feeling human). With Serra the connection is very much about material and about the plane- Serra's flat weathered surfaces (real and natural) and actual physical spaces, and Kiefer's painted crumbling surfaces (representation and artifice) and depicted deep spaces- there is a similar operation of providing the viewer a space, locating the body, Serra like architecture, Kiefer as illusion.

With Twombly there is a color and material connection, but the most immediate is a use of history, story, narrative, and poetic language, and Kiefer connects with that. In each of these three artists there is a grandeur and ambition. The space they fill is cultural, social, political. It is interesting that Serra's corner splash of thrown lead was revealed in the company of Kiefer, and it's a shame the museum didn't take the opportunity to hang nearby the majestic, juvenile, rich, pre-literate, architectural, "speaking-in-tongues"1 blackboard-like surface with white-scrawled-loops Twombly that it acquired in 2000 and has not shown in two or three years2 (see a bad JPEG).

I also think that it is a terrible shame that SFMoMA has not made what I think is an obvious connection between the Kiefers and the many Clyfford Stills that it owns. The current directorship and curators seem to have no interest in the nearly thirty paintings that Still himself gave to the museum. It's a missed opportunity. There is an analogous ambition and poetic subject, though different pictorial and strategic approach, between these two artists. Both painters' surfaces make for a tactile, shallow painted space, but pictoriallly there is a deeper space. Still's geologic, landscapish images- wall faces, canyons, empty areas- engage the viewer in ways similar to Kiefer's images, by acknowledging the viewer outside the painting's plane and allowing a space for the viewer on either side of this inside/outside boundary, even though Still's images are unpopulated, and Kiefer relies on artifacts of humans- architecture, plowed fields, historical contextualiztion of the world through human-constructed systems. Anyway, history overlaps, and the museum snoozes, and it's a lost opportunity to draw connections between artists from different periods with different approaches, different images, and, at least outwardly, apparently different intentions.

I expected to feel oppressed by Kiefer's dense, knotty surfaces, very limited color, and the excessive use of single point perspective. Instead, I was wowed. This is a terrific show.

On this same fourth floor the wonderful Eva Hesse retrospective showed in 2002, and I think it has to have been one of the smartest, most moving, and surprising exhibitions at SFMoMA since its move to the new building. It was amazing to follow Hesse's innovations and development, to see how inventive she was in developing a unique language and use of materials, and how she redefined, clarified, and expanded the possiblities of sculpture. Amazingly, I think she was a rare combination of classic form (say, Henry Moore's biology and archaeology), process (Giacometti's construction and Arp's happenstance), and conceptual (Duchamp's notion of the found and decision). Her accomplishmnet is especially amazing when considering that she did it before dying in 1970 at age 34(!); the pace at which she worked, the development she accomplished, and the impact of her work, is akin to Van Gogh.

In the coming days I want to talk about three things I (Ann and I) saw at the de Young last Saturday: the Gee's Bend quilts, Ruth Asawa, and five Joan Mitchell paintings from her estate on loan hanging in the large open lobby. What an afternoon that was!

I titled this post "speaking in tongues" simply because I needed a title and in this entire post that might be the most unexpected bit in talking about art. But I also think there is an aspect of glossolalia to art that I welcome- it's exuberant and ecstatic, spontaneous and inspired, it doesn't or rarely makes sense although it does stand for or mean something, it's in reponse to something external made internal, it's unique and unplanned, it's in the moment, though it can occur again, and it happens within a tradition, history, or framework.

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[1] I say "speaking in tongues" because, as it's well known, of course, much of Twombly's line wobbles back and forth between writing and drawing, and many of the blackboard paintings with rows of white looping lines can be seen as pre-literate or emerging-reader writing, where the writer is using the conventions of writing- connected figures in uniform rows- but hasn't yet learned the alphabet and the symbol system of writing to represent words. Not that Twombly is pre-literate, but his "writing" is more connected to the pre-verbal, or non-verbal experience of full-on visual perception. The "speaking in tongues" reference is alluding to the question of what Twombly's "writing" might sound like. Looking at a row of loops in one of the classic Twombly's might read it literally as "oh oh oh oh oh...," or phonetically as "oooooooh," or physically as "ai yi yi yi yi," or "wow wow wow wow wow...," or "er er er er er...," or some other repetitive sound that is evoked in guttural response to the physical experience resulting from visually following the loops of Twombly's marks. The SFMoMA Twombly is full of dense, overlaid scrawls that make a different sound, perhaps one like white noise.

[2] From the San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 2000:

Twombly's "Untitled, 1971" is the first work in SFMOMA's collection by this major American painter. It's one of the artist's classic ``blackboard'' paintings, composed of swirling white and gray scribbles and graffiti-like gestures on a field of black. The painting, which has a seven-figure price tag, was purchased from the artist's private collection with money from an anonymous Bay Area donor. Made with oil-based house paint, wax and crayon on canvas, the work is one the largest by Twombly, 72, who lives in Italy.

"The acquisition of this exceptional Cy Twombly painting fills a major gap in the museum's collection of postwar abstract art," said SFMOMA director David Ross.

Friday, November 24, 2006

New York's (Extended) Minimal Moment

It seems we've both put "Two Artists Talking" on the back burner this past month. But finally--after much travel and a number of group shows, which you can read about in my own blog--I'm back. Before I jump into my topic, I want to say how much I enjoyed meeting up with you in San Francisco on November 9. Next time, one of us should take a camera to record the event, don't you think?

Manhattan is enjoying an extended minimal moment this fall. Although it’s been over half a century since reductive work made its first appearance, Minimalism’s "Greatest Hits" (and some current favorites) have been, and are, playing all over town. Is there something in the ether that has provoked a spate of related shows at the same time? Or, as in fashion, is it simply a cycle whose time has come round again? Whatever the reason, there has been a lot of Minimalism to see—and this is not an oxymoron.

Eva Hesse: Sculpture
Eva Hesse’s long-overdue retrospective, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, curated by Elizabeth Sussman and installed at the Jewish Museum this summer (May 12-September 17), seems to have been the catalyst.

Installation view of Eva Hesse: Sculpture at the Jewish Museum, New York City, May 12-September 17, 2006

The Jewish Museum, located on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile, is no MoMA—there’s just one large U-shaped gallery and the ceiling is too low. Still, this was the institution that made a commitment to showing Hesse’s oeuvre after the Whitney backed out a few years ago. I was grateful to see this work in one place. As an art student in the late sixties, I remember seeing Hesse’s work around town and periodically after that at MoMA until the work’s fragility required it to be archivally sequestered. Here, it’s everything I remember and more. (And by the way, this is the same museum that hosted the Joan Synder retrospective last spring. Kudos to this museum for looking beyond the Pale Penis People—apologies, Chris, no disrespect to you personally; I’m using Robert Hughes’s phrase).

Eva Hesse: Repetition Nineteen III, cast resin, 1968

Hesse, as you well know, used non-beautiful materials—modest conventional stuff like twine and rope; industrial stuff like fiberglass; and at-the-time archivally untried stuff, like latex and resins—to effect her reductive and repetitive, and largely translucent, forms. Hesse’s great works are here: the 19 cast fiberglass vessels of Repetition Nineteen III (1968) in curatorially organized disarray; the protuberant grid of Schema (1967-1968); the multiple box-like segments of Sans II (1968); the stuffed latex and canvas panels of Aught (1968); the wall-like curtain of Expanded Expansion (1968); the latex-dipped sheets of Contingent (1969) and more.

Eva Hesse: Aught, stuffed latex and canvas, 1968

Eva Hesse: Sans II, cast resin, shown in a segment, top, and in full installation, 1968; (segments have gone to various institutions and private collectors)

Eva Hesse: Schema, cast latex with movable elements,1967-1968. The hemispherical elements look as if they were cast from a handball. Their placement is ordered but not perfect, and each element rests unattached on the flat latex surface. This is a floor sculpture; you can see it in the tiny installation picture above

Eva Hesse: Contingent, 1969

Perhaps because she intentionally left the trace of her process, including imperfect shapes and the impression of her own fingertips, her sculpture is as maximal as Minimalism can be—formally reductive but still resonating with Hesse-ian energy. Am I anthropomorphizing her work? Maybe. But her process—the dipping, casting, rolling, stitching, knotting, repeating; low-tech construction and the evidence of her hand—is so much a part of her work that it’s impossible not to “see” her still in the work.

Many of her two dimensional works and some of her sculptures have a decided textile reference. Her four-part Aught--latex on the front, canvas on the back and stuffed with some kind of textural material--reads not only as sculpture but as blankets or quilts. The latex and fiberglass sheets in Contingent hang like, well, sheets, though Hesse herself said something like, "It’s really a painting hung in another material than a painting." Hesse worked early in her career as a textile designer, and that might account for the way she connected her particular dots—her use of thread, twine and rope; the sheets of latex--or it may be my own background (I am the granddaughter of tailors) that sees those connections.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that time has not been kind to the sculptures. Conceptually they are as strong as they always were, but structurally they are old before their time, the latex having become yellow and brittle with age. See the difference between Expanded Expansion when it was first made in 1968 and more recently. (The paintings and works on paper appear to have aged better.)

Hesse standing in front of Expanded Expansion in 1968 or sometime in the late 60s, above; a more recent shot of the work, which has yellowed (and become brittle) over time

While the work has aged, Hesse will always be pictured as a round-faced woman in her early 30s. The exhibition includes black-and-white--and voiceless--Super-8 footage from that time showing her working in her studio. Hesse never lived long enough to grow old. Born in 1936 in Hamburg, she died of a brain tumor in New York in 1970 at the age of 34. (It comes as of a shock to realize she would have been 70 this year.)

The show is over, but the museum has produced a catalog, Eva Hesse: Sculpture, and there are a number of additional good books on the artist.

Elemental Form
Working our way geographically down Fifth Avenue, we come to Elemental Form, an impressive survey from the Sixties and Seventies at L&M Arts, up through December 9. L&M Arts is located in a 19th century (I’m guessing) townhouse in the East Seventies. For this show it's a something of a "Dia: Upper East Side." Hesse is here, as is Agnes Martin, Jo Baer (three women out of the 22 artists), and the usual suspects: Andre, Judd, LeWitt, Mangold, Marden, Sandback, Serra, Stella, Ryman and others.

There are 38 works by these 22 artists installed on two floors. The work represents everything we have come to expect of Minimalism and of these artists, in particular a reference to the grid, reductive imagery, and the repetitive elements within it. Sandback's sculpture is reduced to the simplest of lines (in blue)—two straight, two curved--defining a volumetric arc in space.

To see reductive work in what was built as a home with attention to architectural detail is at once distracting and compelling. The arabesque banister of a curving staircase, visible behind a line of four small Agnes Martin grids, brings those grids into graphic regimentation—until you go up close and see her pencil measuring marks and a slight tremulousness of line. I liked those changing relationships; it’s something you don’t see in a conventional white-box gallery. And maybe it’s because of the reductiveness of the work, but I started to see echoes of those forms in the architectural details of the gallery. The pinstripes in Stella’s T-shirt-shaped painting (Luis Miguel Dominguin II, 1960; how else do I describe that shape?) followed the form of the canvas: the notch at the "neck," the extension of the "sleeve". The echo was in the cornice moulding around the large doorway between rooms. Did the curators see that when they were installing? It was distracting, but maybe I'm just making an obsessive connection, in which case, never mind. But this is kind of funny: the HVAC grills and registers, all grids and clean horizontal slits, have never looked so of a piece within any other installation I can recall.

There’s not a lot on the gallery’s website, but the PDF press release includes images by Brice Marden, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt. The PDF format didn’t allow me to cut and paste the images, so check them out for yourself at

Better still, there’s a catalog, "Elemental Form," with an essay ("Sufficiency") by Robert Storr. Contact the gallery for price and mailing specifics. (

Minimalism: On and Off Paper
A few blocks farther downtown at Vivian Horan Fine Arts was another show, Minimalism: On and Off Paper, in another townhouse, with many of the same players. The focus here was on paper, in a salon-style installation, and there were four new artists included: Richard Tuttle, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Morris and Anne Truitt (yes, I’m counting; she’s only the fourth woman in a group of over two dozen). Truitt’s sculpture, Twilight Fold, a 72 by 12 by 12" column in light sage green, uninflected by any markings, was a welcome addition to the exhibition, not only because of the sex of its maker but because of the way it held the space, a sentinel of structure and dimensionality surrounded by the multitude of two-dimensional work.

As for the work on paper, I particularly liked a grouping of LeWitt, Hesse, Martin and Mangold hanging cheek by jowl. I’m at a loss to talk more about this work because of the lack of images to show you (there was no catalog, and the gallery has only an Artnet website, and work from this show was not on it). The show ran through November 17.

I can tell you that while there I ran into my friend Marietta Hoferer, a contemporary Minimalist, who makes coolly elegant white-on-white work with strapping tape on paper. Here, take a look.

Marietta Hoferer: White 7 (detail), white artists' tape, pencil on paper; full size is 38 by 38", 2004. Hoferer's show, Fieldwork, is at the Kentler International Drawing space in Brooklyn through December 16. For more information:

Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings

Now we take a leap 40 blocks farther down Fifth Avenue to arrive at the Museum of Modern Art and Brice Marden’s retrospective. You wouldn’t describe his recent work—those gloriously complex skeins and tangles—as minimal, but his early monochrome panels in oil and wax are as divinely reductive as an Om.

I’m going to focus on his early paintings, the monochrome wax paintings, because the later ones are not the focus of this entry. The wax-and-oil paintings are sublimely beautiful—subtle, chromatically deep—compelling you quietly but forcefully into the experience of seeing. Part of what makes them so compelling is their materiality. They are richly substantive, but the color is flat. Simultaneously you're seeing into them and looking at their surface. The tension of surface and depth keeps you traveling visually on and within the picture plane. (This is true of his later work as well, so although the image changes, the formal intent seems rather of a piece.)

For those of you who have a specific interest in encaustic, these paintings are not encaustic. Marden himself has said in a technical statement, "…oil remains the primary binder as opposed to encaustic where the wax is the binder." The early work was done in this combination of mediums because Marden wanted a uniform flatness. "That’s the reason I started using wax, to get a flat surface so you could read the colors specifically," he tells Michael Duffy, Moma’s Conservator, in Plane Image, the catalog to the show.

What I like about these paintings—the earthy dun of Nebraska, the sky-and-water referents in The Grove series, for instance—is that they are distilled to the essence of things. Again, I’m at a loss here, because I can’t access the MoMA website (does anyone else have this problem?) and so it’s pointless to talk about specific works without being able to show them. But I can show you one, which I gleaned from elsewhere (and which in reproduction is nowhere as beautifully blue/gray/green as the original):

Brice Marden: Grove Group IV, oil and beeswax on canvas; two panels, overall 72" by 9', 1976

As for the drippy edge at the bottom—which seems like such an honest way to deal with layers of paint on a surface (something I like in Marioni’s work, too)—I pulled this anecdote from a recent interview with Jeffrey Weiss (an art historian and head curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art) in the October Brooklyn Rail, the complete text of which you can access here:

"Jasper [Johns] had this penthouse/studio way up on the West Side. I remember asking him about the drips on the bottom of his paintings: ‘How come you do that?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, you get near the bottom and you’re bending over, and you get a little tired and… It was a very Jasper kind of answer. I was very impressed by that so I, in my own way, try to allow the drips shown at the bottom of my paintings and they really were influenced by him."

Now that "they’re-not-encaustic" is out of the way, I will tell you what I gleaned from the audio tape in terms of his using wax to make these paintings--and if you go, get the tape, because you hear the artist talking about his work. (Also, you can get an artist’s annual membership for $25, a good deal considering that the one-time entry is $20. It’s not widely publicized, but if you show up with something to prove you’re an artist—an exhibition announcement or the like—you’ll get the lower-price membership.)

Marden used an old refrierator door as his palette, on which he had a hot plate with double boilers. In a coffee can he had a mixture of one part beeswax with four parts turpentine (I’m not advocating hot turpentine, just reporting). As he worked, he’d dip his brush into the molten wax mix and then into the paint and apply it to the canvas. Once the canvas was covered, he went back over it with a small cooking spatula "to basically erase he brush." He added, "It’s a very handmade surface."

Looking closeup, I can see that the wax-and-oil surface (which, unlike encaustic, was never particularly stable because it was neither wax-based nor oil-based, but an odd hybrid of the two) reveals its vulnerability and age in a couple of unsettling ways. There are scuffs and gouges, and a few instances it appears that an elbow or round-edge object has hit the canvas, creating concentric hairline cracks. But if you look at a Mondrian you'll see hairline cracks too. Perhaps, as with Hesse's work, we need to accept (within reason) the effects of time and handling.

Though I’m not talking here about the work that comes next, I urge you to see it. Those carefully meandering lines with their ghostly pentimenti—some markings smack up against the picture plane, others deep within it—merit deep looking of their own.

The newest work at the end of the show is a rather simplified version of these tangles: two six-part paintings, each about seven by twenty-four feet, that use the Roy G. Biv palette minus the "i." ("I don’t understand indigo, so I left it out," he said in the audio tape.) Rather than reductive, they just seemed simple.

My disappointment here was in direct counterpoint to my elation in seeing his work on paper installed on the third floor. Here, in graphite, charcoal and beeswax were individual and serial works with the darkest of grays, the subtlest of grids, the most nuanced of permutations from sheet to sheet. The work is controlled, meditative, formal. Themes are repeated, ideas circle around one another, planes are segmented according to the artist’s systems of order. Not to sound corny, but the work in total felt like an extended meditation.

Many of these works date from the Sixties when Marden was in graduate school at Yale. These works were contemporaneous with Eva Hesse’s. Seeing them completed my own viewing experience of the exhibitions I’ve noted here, bringing it full circle from past to present back to past. Thus it was a slightly odd sensation to walk back out onto 53rd Street 40 years later.

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Chris, as a postscript, Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings is coming to SFMoma, from February 17 to May 13, 2007, where it will be larger than it is in New York. I know you'll visit the show and I'm interested in your observations about it. And of course there's interesting reductive work in San Francisco--I'm thinking specifically about the work of John Zurier, who's based there and whom you know--so perhaps Mimimal's extended moment will extend longer still, at least between Two Artists Talking.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Far Back and Afield

Returning to an earlier conversation about looking back and afield:

I receive several emails a day from e-Flux, a subscription service that sends out press releases for exhibitions all over the world. I get many I don't care about, but it's a great service because it's astounding how many exhibits are going on all of the time all over the place, plus it's the best way to be alerted to things I do care about but didn't know was happening. It's also the best way to read some of the most astoundingly asinine curator's statements with tremendous convenience. And it's also the best way to see who is hot, at least among curators- when you see Liam Gillick's name in at least one press release a week over a few months, you kind of wonder if he's really that great, or whether he's really cute or a great partier. I have no idea. Anyway, at the very least perhaps it's the art version of staring at the cover of People and Us while standing in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Maybe almost a couple of months ago I received an announcement for a soon to open show called High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975. The press release says:

High Times, Hard Times not only captures a tumultuous period of political and social change, but also reflects the impact of the civil rights struggle, student and anti-war activism, and the beginnings of feminism in the art world. Painting is the one element usually left out of this complex narrative, remembered only as a regressive foil to the various new mediums. But this version of the story greatly oversimplifies the situation, effacing painting that earned a place among the most experimental work of the moment, very much in sympathy with the era’s radical aesthetics and politics...

Artists in Exhibition
Jo Baer, Lynda Benglis, Dan Christensen, Roy Colmer, Mary Corse, David Diao, Manny Farber, Louise Fishman, Guy Goodwin, Ron Gorchov, Harmony Hammond, Mary Heilmann, Ralph Humphrey, Jane Kaufman, Harriet Korman, Yayoi Kusama, Al Loving, Lee Lozano, Ree Morton, Elizabeth Murray, Joe Overstreet, Blinky Palermo, Cesar Paternosto, Howardena Pindell, Dorothea Rockburne, Carolee Schneemann, Alan Shields, Kenneth Showell, Joan Snyder, Lawrence Stafford, Pat Steir, Richard Tuttle, Richard Van Buren, Michael Venezia, Franz Erhard Walther, Jack Whitten and Peter Young.

I instantly ordered the catalog, and I'm glad I did.

In 1976 I was attending a local community college, trying to figure out if I was going to go into journalism or art. Or something else. The short story about that is that I just kept doing what interested me and I did the art thing. It was like it was never really a question. I just followed myself.

Dan Christensen: Pavo, 1968, Acrylic on canvas

I was a lousy student, and I still am, in the sense that I've never liked going to class, never liked the assignments, and have always learned best on my own, even if it takes my three times the amount of effort to learn something on my own. And I didn't want to learn about art by practicing perspective and making color charts. I liked drawing the figure, and I liked the studio classes because I could come late and leave early and do all of my work at home without anyone else around.

Once I discovered Abstract Expressionism, at age 18, and about twenty years too late, I found it hard to be engaged by much else except for the Bay Area figure painters like Diebenkorn and Park. But that's another story to tell, about how long it took me to not see art as a bunch of file drawers and a timeline, but rather as a large amoebic thing where painters from all eras have so much in common. And I had to figure that out on my own, too. But I did manage to figure out something about NY painting of the 60's and 70's, and it wasn't until I started thinking about High Times, Hard Times that I realize what an impact painting of that era had on me.

Somehow in that first year of college I figured out that the library had periodical stacks. I was already checking out books, but I didn't really know how to use a library and I didn't know anything about the treasure trove of material there. I can't recall how I figured it out, but I think I accidentally stumbled on the stacks while looking for one section in the library.


I did what lots of art students did (do they still?): when I discovered the back issues of art magazines I started poring over them- Artforum, Art in America, Arts, Art News, Studio International, Kunst. There must have been others. And I started from the present day working backwards. And then I figured something else out- lots of books and articles in magazines have footnotes. If I was reading an article about Frank Stella in Artforum that referenced a Donald Judd review of Stella in Artforum five years earlier I could go read that. It was like reading a dialog. Amazing.

Beginning with 1976, I started working backwards through the magazine into the mid-sixties, reading articles and reviews. And when I saw the press release for High Times, Hard Times it just hit me- I know all of those artists, I like that work, and come to think of it, much of that stuff has been pretty important to me, even up until today. Steir, Gorchov, Tuttle, Benglis, Fishman, Young, Baer, Palermo- I think about that stuff. Work that might seem less relevant to me- Pindell, Loving, Lozano, Christensen, Schneeman- no, no, that stuff is great. All of that had a great imprint on me, and it comes out of a very interesting period that the catalog for the exhibition makes clear- political unrest, drugs, music, civil rights, assassinations- these events are part of the landscape of my adolescence. These events have had a significant impact in shaping how I see the world and what I expect of it, and the art of this period included in this exhibition, which has been somewhat forgotten or ignored, has also had a similar hand in this.

I'm really happy that this work is getting another look now. I think much of what it deals with is still tremendously relevant, and probably still not fully digested and understood. And I'm really happy that these artists, some of whom have not been much in the public eye for sometime, are getting a second chance.

There is much more to say about this topic, How Far Back and How Far Afield Do I Look?- this is just a taste.

I've made 265 drawings this year as of today

I'm not really the sketchbook type. I start a sketchbook with the intention that, this time, I'm going to really take it seriously, really use it as a place to record ideas, develop motifs, think and track my development. But I go a few pages, set it aside, and then typically don't get back to it. I have lots of half-full sketchbooks going back years. I'm just not that organized, I guess.

I really admire, and envy, artists that work out their ideas in sketchbooks of notebooks. Some just record impressions, jot down titles, or keep their hand limber by constantly drawing. Some track their work, or work through and iterate ideas in an almost academic way. I recently visited an artist who actively uses a notebook in a way that it becomes almost a visual and written record of his inner life as a painter. Recently, I've been reading Pia Gottschaller Palermo: Inside His Images, and she examines some sketchbooks Blinky used to develop the series of paintings on aluminum, the final large body of work he was working on in the last couple of years of his life. They are impressive.

I was in Mauai a couple of weeks back for a few days, and I took a sketchbook with me and three pens- black, blue, and red. Late at night I scrawled a bunch of drawings continuing the motif I'd been using for the Bojagi and Ornette paintings, and I did a bunch more on the flight home. I keep meaning to get back to these, but since I've been home I haven't used the sketchbook except to scan all of the drawings and post two a day on my weblog.

I have posted on my weblog everyday since around 2002 (I think I missed five days in 2005, and have a perfect record so far in 2006). The weblog is my real sketchbook and notebook, the place where I record things that I don't mind being public. It is the only thing like a sketchbook that I have used consistently in my entire life, and it's something I find easy to do. I like the archive aspect of it, and that it's searchable, and the fact that it is public holds me accountable, at least to myself and my policy of posting something everyday. I have known for a very long time how integral my weblog is to my art life, or really, to my life life.

If I set for myself the project of posting not only an HTML drawing but a scanned drawing to my weblog I'm sure I would use a sketchbook religiously. Scanning and uploading an image takes more time, and I suppose that's why I haven't committed myself to that project, yet, but it is something I'm thinking about. I had thought recently that 2006 has not be a very productive year for me in terms of art, but then I counted in my head and realized I've made seventeen paintings, and two of those consisted of four panels each. Not bad, really. But I have not completed any works on paper- finished drawings- this year, which surprises me since so much of what I made during 2005 were drawings. Perhaps I need that drawing-a-day project. I respond to the project model.

I have lamented out loud a few times that I am not getting much work done. One friends reminds me, well, but what about the HTML drawings- you're making a drawing everyday. And I realize, yeah, that's right, why am I not counting those? Today, October 22, 2006, is day 265 of this year. That means I've made 265 drawings this year as of today. That's pretty good.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

In the Field

You ask how far afield I look, not just how far back.

Everyone has objects and images that resonate for them. These are some of the things that reverberate in the art I make (you won't see them in my art, but their vibrations are in there):
. Pieces of tile that I picked up on a beach on Ischia, worn smooth from the action of the waves. They've been on a small glass plate in my library for years, next to...
. an amateur postcard-size scene of the Faraglioni--the big rocks off the island of Capri that jut high up out of the water—which I picked up on my first trip to the island. An elderly grandmother was selling these little paintings, in oil on what looks like balsa wood, that were made by her grandson, an art student. Maybe that was a scam and I was a gullible tourist, but nonna or no, the woman had some resonant locals scenes to sell.
. That little scene is next to a small photograph I took of the interior of the Pantheon (the classic light-pouring-through-the-oculus image), which is next to a commedia dell'arte mask from Venice, from my first trip there in 1985 when the lira was so low in relation to the dollar that I, a poor painter, felt rich enough to buy objects to take home.

What these objects have in common, aside from being visually and tactilely interesting, is that I acquired them on my first trip to Italy in the early 80s. Every time I see them, which is almost every day, they remind me of the newness of the experience. It's easy to get jaded after living so many years and taking so many trips, and those little pieces remind me of the joy of seeing something for the first time, and by extension, the joy of seeing old things anew. And of course there's the sense memory of that time and place, so they're firing a lot of neurons for me.

(By the way, that light-pouring-through-the-oculus shot is very similar to the one on the cover of a new magazine, Culture and Travel, edited by Michael Boodro and directed by James Truman, both late of Conde Nast, and published in New York by the people who give us Modern Painters magazine. Have you seen it?)

I also have a collection of round vessels--pots and baskets from Mexico, South Africa and Thailand, on stands (set Brancusi-like, one interesting shape atop another) on carved Ghanian stands and tiny Chinese tables, and an American dovetailed oak box that probably held someone else's treasure. The interaction of each vessel on its stand, and the vessel/stand in relation to the others is endlessly interesting to me. When I see them, I also reconnect to a show of Brancusi sculpture I saw in Paris some 15 years ago at the Pompidou. You could get so close to the sculptures that your breath almost fell on them. Connecting to Brancusi always makes me think of how how this artist, wanting to be in Paris to make art but having no money for travel, walked there from Romania. Walked! And a little bit of that burning desire is kindled in me when I see my vessels on their stands.

Mostly, though, I don't own the things that reverberate. In my previous post I talked about quilts and baskets along with some specific paintings from other times and places. I don’t like to get too caught up in the high-low of esthetic expression, especially considering that the "low" is often work made by women.

What do I get out of it? Well, there's the cultural connectedness I feel to humanity--the same impulse that I have to smear pigmented goo on a prepared surface was felt by the cave painters right around the time of, oh, the discovery of fire.

And then there are purely sensory experiences make my life richer. When I go to another city on business, what I do is look at art, because that’s my business. When I go on vacation, I look at art beause that’s my pleasure. Indeed my business and my pleasure are so intertwined that there is no distinction between them, at least in terms of seeing. One thing I can say is that the act of seeing is surrounded by other equally strong sensory perceptions. When I’m walking to the Louvre, I might notice the light at the end of the day; or entering the Accademia in Venice, I might notice the humidity in the air. At the Museo Archeologico in Naples, one of my favorite museums, I enter looking for the statue I love most in the world, knowing I will sit quietly with it for a while, connecting with it in a spiritual way, and then go eat pizza—the authentic stuff— afterward in Spaccanapoli, the old part of town, and then sit in the quiet Cloister of Santa Chiara.

Diana of Ephesis (aka Ma Rhea, aka Diana the Hunter, aka Artemis) personification of strength, creation, life, who was worshipped in Asia Minor before the Christian era. She entered the Christian religion as Mary. She is life size, just under six feet tall, carved of pinkish alabaster, with a cast bronze head and hands. In the folds of her gown she carries animals. On her torso she is weighted down with multiple breasts, though her ethereal presence makes her appear as if she is levitating. Museo Archeologico, Napoli.

So aside from the pleasure of seeing, what I get out of looking at paintings, or art in general, is a general sense of sensory well being—emotion, spirituality, smell, taste, all tied up with what I have seen, where I have been, who I am. And, I don’t know if this is true for "civilian" tourists, but as an artist, the act of taking pictures, and seeing through the lens and recording what I have seen—and lately, Photoshopping what I have shot-- deepens the sensory experience.

Am I an artist because I am a sensory junkie? Isn't that why people get addicted to drugs--because the high is so great, and then their bodies become so dependent on the high that they need the drug just to stay normal? Or am I a sensory junkie because I'm an artist? Maybe we can talk about this topic more in a bit.

But in the meantime, talk to me more about seeing far and wide.

Friday, September 29, 2006

How far back do I look, or, How far afield do I look?

How far back do I look? Very. Now that I think about it, a few weeks later after asking you the question, Joanne, I'm wondering if a better question isn't, "How far to the side do you look? What's your field of vision? How good is your peripheral vision?"

A few stories. It's all about art.

I've kind of had it with pro sports. I haven't really been a sports nut anyway since I was about fourteen. But I do like sports. I especially like baseball. And once upon a time baseball really was a pastoral sport. For the spectator, at the game, the action was compact with spaces in between, and long breaks between innings. It's a game you give your attention to in little bits, and between pitches and innings you can comment to your companions, gaze over the crowd, look up at the sky (where instead now flies an airplane trailing a huge banner for a local auto dealer).

But now, and for some time, you go to a game and there is constant entertainment. It's loud all the time. You're never alone with your own thoughts. It's pop entertainment. You really are a spectator far removed from the action because of the artifice surrounding the game: it's harder to hear the crowd; the amounts of money involved are insane; the demographic of the players is far removed from the demographic of the fan. It's basically show biz, but less predictable- they really are playing, though it's not very playful.

Instead, I see much more of the game when I watch college or high school ball. My favorite is to watch women's college softball- intense, fast, high level playing. Even at the high school level the game is fun to watch- the game itself is more open, more porous, closer to an ideal of baseball. There's no money involved and less racket. The pace of the game is more natural because there are fewer distractions to assure me I'm getting my money's worth. But the players still want to do well- they want to win, they want the attention, there's always the dream that some scout is out there.

Somewhere in here is an idea about purity and purpose, about the potential to do something for itself, and for oneself, and for the team. Sometimes you watch a game and things flow- a double play, a player's swing, a beautiful duel between the pitcher and batter, or a moment of blind, intuitive movement of a body in space that turns out absolute, as in the picture of Willie Mays above making the famous over-the-shoulder catch.

Sometimes you see a painting and there are parts where you can see that the painter was in a groove, what Ron Gorchov called, "hallucinatory and difficult to explain." I like seeing that, and even more so, I like experiencing that. I am always looking for that, and it's possible to see it in all kinds of art, even in art that may not really be what one favors. That's the periphery I'm interested in. I am not opposed to, for example, the Leipzig painters, John Currin, Takashi Murakami, and so on... these are names that might go on some people's hit lists, we all have them. But I am not terribly interested in art that wants to act all big league, and tries to distract me with issues and entertainment.

A few years ago I was in the optometrist's office waiting for an eye exam. There were a couple of large paintings on the walls, pastel colors, pictures of little blonde children out in nature, under trees. And they were kind of not so good, but they had enough going on where they were bumping up against being competent.

Rather than read Time or Sports Illustrated, I'd rather stare at paintings. And after a minute I noticed they were signed with the same last name as the optometrist. Turns out, his wife is the painter. And I kept looking.

I realized after a couple of more minutes of looking that these paintings were actually quite ambitious, at least compositionally, and the drawing was good enough not to interfere with the painting as a unit. They'd almost just about be passable at one of those wine and art festival things that the Chamber of Commerce likes to put on before Labor Day where women can wear their white dresses and men can wear their polo shirts and khakis and people can come out and see their friends and have a glass of chardonnay and feel cultured and civic minded. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The wait at this particular office, to which I'd been a few times, can be a little long. That's part of why I don't go there anymore. This particular wait was close to half an hour. I just looked at those paintings, and gave them time, and got involved, and saw how the artist had to get involved, too. I saw her drawing problem, and got attuned to her palette, which although kind of predictable was also very consistent, and really got into her brushstrokes, and how she put on paint. And I could see that, despite the shortcomings of her subject, the predictable colors and the sentiment implied, that this artist was trying to seriously deal with these paintings. I realized that paintings which I wouldn't ordinarily give the time of day to still had a lot to offer if I'd just give them time. And I remember thinking, well, this is kind of like watching little league. The level of play isn't as high, but the game is still there, and I like the game.

Go somewhere where there is a folk art tradition. You're a tourist, and you want to buy a sample. You're going to a central market where you're going to buy a piece of pottery. A painted plate. Let's say you're going to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta, and you decide to buy a plate, something that you know kind of gets knocked out in production. And you know looking through stacks of these plastes that some of them are painted better than the others. There's a better touch, a nicer line, a little finesse at the end of the stroke, something a little more bold and confident, a feeling that the person who painted it really has a conceptual and physical grasp of the surface of this plate and how to decorate it. I like that.

My grandmother was very supportive of my artistic inclinations. She bought me oil paints when I was eleven, the same day she took me to the Oakland Museum for the first time, during which three things happened.

A: The Oakland Museum has a typical Mel Ramos painting- a nude playmate type astride a brown bear. Certainly, for an eleven year old, I was curious about the nude. And my grandmother didn't want me looking at it. But I knew it was a painting, and that's what really interested me. I don't think she understood the difference, but I did, and I saw, besides his basically puerile subject, that there was some paint going on there. That was a moment.

B: I saw real abstract paintings for the first time. We're talking around 1968, so what I would've seen at this particular museum would've been SF Bay Area AbEx (Still, Corbett, Francis, Hassel Smith, maybe Lorser Feitelson) extending back through to California Surrealism (Helen Lundeberg, blanking on other names) and further back to a kind of late Cubism (Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lucien Labaudt). And throw in a minimalist kind of thing, like John McLaughlin, a personal favorite. I dug it.

C: After the visit my grandmother took me to a paint store with an art section (RIP Standards Brands paint store) and bought me a set of oils and some canvas paper, and I made my first abstract painting at her house. She would've liked a nice still life, some flowers, but she didn't say so. I liked the paint; it was difficult, but it was a start.

When I paint, I often think back on A, B, and C, and all the other similar experiences and odds and ends in my periphery that have been about looking and paint.

I will write more about the question of how far back do I look, and what has been important to me.

Too Weaks (but I got Ornette!)

Huh? What happened? Did I fall asleep for two weeks? Am I Rip Van Winkle? Did aliens take me away, and then dump me off today, and now I don't know where I've been? Where did the time go? The last thing I know, I make a post "Stay tuned...", and the next thing, here it is two weeks later. Wha'happend?

Day job. I blame my day job. I work full time at a university. And not only do I have a full time day job, I have a new full time day job, with more responsibility. Lot's more. It's not that my days are that much longer, but instead it's the mental energy the job takes that has amped up, and I am woefully behind in all correspondence. I find I am simply not having extra brain power to be verbal all the time. I feel the need to shut off the verbal, which, for a visual artist, is a good thing to do.

So, I still have time to shut off the verbal. I manage to make an HTML drawing everyday at Look, See. And I have managed to make a small series of four paintings in the past week. They are each titled "Ornette", numbered I-IV. One of these, the orange one, is soon to make it's way across the Pacific to Tokyo for a little group show called Suitcase. More about that soon.

Ornette I-IV, 2006, acrylic and Rust-oleum aluminum on clear acrylic on linen with aluminum tacks, 12 x 10 inches each

"Ornette" refers to Ornette Coleman, who recently said, "Right now, I’m trying to play the instrument,” he said, “and I’m trying to write, without any restrictions of chord, keys, time, melody and harmony, but to resolve the idea eternally, where every person receives the same quality from it, without relating it to some person ("

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stay tuned... and Ron Gorchov

Joanne- I am super busy (aren't we all?) and have not had time to have a clear mind to sit and think and write and respond. But I will.

In the meantime, consider Ron Gorchov with Robert Storr and Phong Bui in the Brooklyn Rail; it's good to see him getting a show at P. S. 1 and the attention he deserves. I remember first seeing a painting of his around 1978 or 1979; it was so good- loose and direct and almost simple, but looking unlike anything else, and feeling very much like a thing unto itself, complete.

Bui: You mean you don’t have a puritanical work ethic like most good Americans?

Gorchov: I hope not. My paintings are mostly made from reverie, and luck...

Storr: ...I wanted you to talk about what it is that makes letting go of a painting so hard, or that makes knowing where you are in the process so difficult to ascertain.

Gorchov: The biggest problem I had with letting paintings go was the feeling that there was an expense to getting a fresh canvas. And if I could make this painting as good as I could make it and keep going with it, however long it took. It’s not rational; I ruined painting after painting to get to a better one. Then I realized that I couldn’t make a painting incrementally better. If you could make it one percent better, maybe, but who cares? A painting has to evolve. With all respect to Myron Stout, I’m not that kind of an artist. Lately, I’m alone in my studio, after the preliminary marks indicate the limits of the elements, I only get one chance. I test the colors that I want, mix them, get the right brushes. I talk to myself—that form will be eight strokes; this form will be 3 strokes—and paint goes down. The next part is hallucinatory and difficult to explain. A decision will be made about adjustments later. Or it will be renovated. Or it feels perfect and can’t be changed.

BATON, 1986
oil on linen
49-1/2 x 37 x 7-1/2"

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Looking: How Far Back, At What, Why

Chris, you ask how far back I look, what I look at, and what I get out of it. The short answer to your first question is that once I leave the 20th and 21st centuries, I look as far back as there's art.
But the more specific answer is that I like Italian early Renaissance painting, particularly Sienese, not so much for the narrative--though
it's endlessly fascinating to see how flat pattern integrates with the beginning of perspective and how the stories are told with the drama of spareness punctuated by detail--but for the color. The particular luminous opacity of tempera on panel, the juxtaposition of colors, and the colors themselves--pink! coral! lime green!--and the veils of translucency, and the gilding.

Simone Martini: tempera and gold on panel, 1328. Sienese, just as Gothic is giving way to the Renaissance

Some of my favorite painters from that time and place are Sano di Pietro, Giovanni di Paolo, Sassetta, and the Master of the Osservanza. (Don't you love how that anonymous painter is not called "anonymous" but given an honorific for his talent and connected to the church where his work is located? He could easily be called the Master of the Coral Hue).

Above, Master of the Osservanza: St. Anthony Tempted by Gold, tempera and gold on panel, 1440. Below, Giovanni di Paolo: The Creation of the World and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, 1445. Sienese.

Color aside, I guess I'm drawn to these two paintings in part because of their degree of abstraction--though I realize I'm looking at them with 21st century eyes. The di Paolo painting, in particular, rocks me to the core every time I visit it at the Met (at the spectacular Lehman Wing). Here, before Copernicus (b. 1473), before Columbus sailed off the edge of the earth and returned to tell about it, di Paolo conceived of a universe in abstract terms. I'm not a historian of art or anything else, but I think some planets had been identified by the mid fifteenth century, and that Dante had already put forth his idea of the Celestial Wheel, but here we see di Paolo's visual conception of the universe as one compact Big Bang.

I also love miniature painting from Mughal India and elsewhere in which that tradition was practiced. (I have visited the Morgan Library many times to see illuminated manuscripts, and I'm remembering a show at the Lorenzo di Medici library in Florence in which the manuscripts were encrusted with gems. Gilding the lily for sure.) Here, too, it's the color. But also the scale. Well, the relation of the colors within the scale, and in relation to the scale. These are things I think about in my own painting, too.

Portrait of a Woman, Mughal India; gouache on paper, Jahangir period, app 1605; 4" high

Farther back, I like to see the Fayum portraits. The Met has five beauties, of which Eutyches, below left, is one. The portraits, which are about life size, are the earliest surviving examples of encaustic painting. Even before I started working in wax, I used to stop by the case in which the portraits are housed. These are portraits of real people, people who looked the artist in the eye as they sat, knowing they would live again in the great Egyptian afterlife and in the meantime remain young forever in their likeness of wax on panel. The Fayums, named after a Nile Delta oasis near where many of the portraits were untombed, were painted in a roughly three-hundred-year period around the cusp between BC and AD, the product of Greco-Roman Egypt. After a sitter's death, the portrait was placed in the wrapped mummy above where the actual face would be, to look out into the world of the great beyond. Talk about multiculture: Greek colonists living in Roman-controlled Egypt, creating portraits to be placed on mummy casings for traditional Egyptian burial rites. I believe the Fayums are the earliest extant paintings made on a portable ground.

From left: Eutyches, at the Metropolitan museum of Art, New York; Isidora at the Getty, Los Angeles; Woman at the National Gallery, London

You realize I'm just scratching the surface here. I might also add Artemisia, not only as a strong painter but as a model of strength against adversity. Giotto, who with the Middle Ages at his back, opened the picture to more a dimensional space.

Changing centuries, I also like stuff we would call "ethnic" --Amish and African-American quilts (a la Gee's Bend); Navajo and Hopi textiles; the sculptures of Kuan Yin and mandalas from throughout the East, the Islamic Wing at the Met with its integration of textiles, pottery, caligraphy and architecture.

Clockwise from left: Vajrayana mandala, Mongolia, 19th century; Amish quilt, Lancaster, Pa., 1930's; Zulu telephone wire basket, contemporary; Lola Petway, Bars, 2004, Gee's Bend

Can we make a conceptual leap from di Paolo's universe to the one depicted by the mandala? And a visual one to the mandalas of the basket and Amish quilt? Can we connect the quilts to geometric abstraction from the Sixties to now?

I feel like those actors at the Academy Awards who have to name everyone who ever made a difference in their lives. My agent, my manager. I love you all.

So, what do I get out of all this? As an artist, I find it humbling that what I do, what artists in general do, is pretty much exactly what artists have done throughout history. We daub pigment onto a prepared surface, we handle clay, we stitch cloth, hammer metal, sculpt wood. I know there are 20th and 21st century mediums that don't have the same lineage, but the urge to express, to create, to make manifest is the same urge that the cave painters must have had. So, I guess it's connecting culturally to a world that is not just of this place and to a time that is not just of the present.

Shall we pursue this thread for a bit? Tell me more about what you like to look at.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

How far back do you look?

Joanne, how far back do you look at paintings? Who/what is important to you? What do you get out of it?

You know, you'd think it would be safe to assume that painters like to look at all kinds of paintings from all eras and cultures. You'd think that painters are looking at the paint and the painter's moves, seeing into and beneath the surface, gliding across the surface, right there surfing along with the painter, really feeling along and reading the paint (but not necessarily mixing metaphors, as I just did). You'd think the painters are looking at all paintings as things to learn from, sure, but also looking at paintings, even something four hundred years old, as things that are now and alive.

Now, I don't mean to be judgmental, but I'm not convinced that all painters are as open as that. I may be wrong (there's a very good chance that I'm wrong) but it seems to me- and this is based on some observation, and hearing others talk- that lots of painters just don't suck everything they can out of paintings when they look at them. It seems that they don't feel part of a lineage that is right under their feet, that is a lifeblood that should move up into them and energize them. In particular, it seems to me that a lot of contemporary painters- contemporary artists- don't look very far back, and mostly look at work that is connected to their own. They have a narrow vision. And they tend to stay in the modern period, some even only the 20th century. I don't know- does that ring a bell?

But you and I have been talking for awhile now, and I think we both look at lots of stuff. I think we're pretty open, have a lot of influences, know a fair amount of history. I'd like to talk about this idea, about how I look at 400 year old Chinese painting and how much I get out of it. I'll do that in another post.

So I'm just wondering- how far back do you look? And besides painting, what else do you look at?

Incense burner with design of mountain retreat
by Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743; Chojiyamachi workshop)
Japan, Edo period, 1712–ca. 1731
Buff clay; cobalt pigment under transparent glaze; gold lacquer repairs
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1898.440