Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Criteria for Abstract Art: Image vs. Text, Part IV


Can we discuss abstract art without resorting to text? Is there a way to see a painting without being blinded by the artist’s biography or the work’s appraised (monetary) value? Are we able to make a fair judgment, based only on the image before us, and come to a determination about a painting’s artistic worth? 

We need to avoid some rather familiar descriptive terms; I use them, too, words like “energy” or “intrigue” or “artistic intention” or “finesse.”  But these are not objective terms, are they? One person’s “energy” is another’s “confused mess.” How can we escape the emotional and often divisive nature of subjective terminology?

There aren’t too many truths that we could all agree upon, but here are some terms that might help us avoid our tendency to become arbitrary. Let’s think about: color, line, surface texture, form(s), composition, process and method, space, symmetry (presence or absence), and, when relevant, historical context or influence (Cubism, for example, or Op Art). 

Now take the two paintings I presented you with, here, on February 26th, and we can work with each of the two, using these terms to try and investigate the work on its own terms.

First,


 Color: prevalent, from bright yellows in the background to red, green and blue overlays. There is a softly painted, not-quite-“squared” grid painted in black, echoed by thin marker lines. Some forms have black edges. The final layer seems to be drips of color, mostly deep blues and pure white. Color is a big part of this painting.

Line: broad, soft strokes for a grid, and smaller grids in thin marker lines echo the bigger grid from center to lower right. The dripping paint forms a line with its color. Two forms upper right are outlined in black marker.  There is a kind of script or faux signature at lower left.  Except for the broad grid, line seems less important than color here.

Surface texture:  the paint seems in places to have soaked into the canvas, and there is a bit of bare canvas at bottom right.  The paint layers are thin, with the only build-up coming from a collaged typed square near the center and the poured or dripped paint lines, which appear to have been the final layer.

Forms: At top right, the grid comes over the bottom yellow layer; some thin grids follow in lower right.  There is one white triangle center left, but all the other forms (except two that are outlined, top right) are organic, rounded, with no clear outline and no apparent reference to known objects.  Or: there may be one green feather coming up from the lower left. The splatters create forms, too.  The meeting of the grid and these organic forms seems to provide most of the focus for the painting.

Composition:  this category overlaps with Forms, above, but the composition also seems to be centered in the painting’s upper two-thirds. The lower part of the painting is spare, nearly a blank canvas.  This forces the eye upwards to the yellow colored ground.

Process and Method: (see Surface Texture, above) Actual brushstrokes are not obvious, except for the soft grid. Soaking and dripping seem to dominate otherwise.

Space: (see Composition, above) Despite the heavy paint application, there is enough blank canvas and enough yellow to offer plenty of room here for the eye to move.

Symmetry (or its absence):  Generally not; the composition is off-center, the bulk of the painting moves towards the top of the work.

Historical Context or Influence: Mixed: this is a post-Pollock, post-Frankenthaler work, but seems to be in a world of its own.

Now, let’s look at the second painting:


Color:  Subtle browns and grays, with shadings of black and whites; outlining and over-lining in blacks and whites.  Color does not seem to be a major preoccupation here.

Line: Line seems dominant in this work.  Almost all of the lines curve, with only two short vertical straight lines in the right half, and many of the lines are outlines, either for painted figures or for figures not otherwise made visible.

Surface Texture: Uniform, with no apparent paint build-up or collage.

Forms: Organic, mostly, with forms that look like test tubes or glasses and bottles, and there is one possible breast and one possible bottom.  The forms overlap, and seem more in this painting than in the first to refer to real objects, but those objects have been rendered unclear and ambiguous.

Composition:  All-over. There is no concentration of images in one spot rather than another; the paint and lines are applied equally across the space. Attention is paid here (more than in the first painting) to edges; the forms here begin to fade all around the edges of the work.

Process and method: As with the first painting, the brushstrokes are not obvious here. The lines dominate.  It would appear that the colors of grays and browns were set down first, perhaps from a sketch, and then the black and white lines were applied.

Space: The forms as outlined overlap and leave very little un-painted, un-accounted for space.  The painting fills the canvas almost completely.

Symmetry:  The artist seems to be working with symmetrical forms; some of the curves echo one another or invert one another. There is almost an upper-lower, left-right symmetry, but it is just off, which means it calls attention to itself as a composition.

Historical Context or Influences:  This is a more important category for this painting than for the first. The work seems very tied to the colors and overlapping shapes of Cubism, and may also refer to the dream-like forms of Surrealism.

Overall, while these two paintings are very different, it is not possible to raise one over the other, for me, simply by concentrating on the paintings themselves.  One does not seem, even after study, to be “better than” the other. If we were to stand before the two in a gallery, questions of scale and application of paint and true color, none of which we can refer to here, might sway the balance.  But I think it is a very interesting question. I would like to know what you think. The first painting is mine, from the mid-1990’s, and the second is an early (1945) Mark Rothko, titled “The Rites of Lilith,” and it is now owned by his daughter. 

Image vs. Text. Let me know.





Sunday, February 26, 2012

Image vs. Text, Part Three: In Which We Try to Establish Some Criteria for Abstract Art

I have been looking at the “image vs. text” question (see posts from January 20, 25, 31 and February 8). I find that what is lying just underneath what I have said, is this: “text” over-determines matters in the art world. And it is empowered in this way because we do not trust “image” without its accompanying (nemesis) “text.” When we see the image -- alone -- we have no way to determine whether or not we should care about the painting in front of us.  Without text, we are down to the old joke, “I know what I like.”  Without text, it’s all up for grabs. 

Text shows us the way to paint, where to attend art school, who our mentors and influences should be, who ought to be shown and sold in a premiere gallery, what to acquire for our museums, what interests collectors, even what we might be saying when we are in front of a work of art.  Without text, it’s all totally arbitrary, floating, unfixed.  Text gives us authority and a fixed, mostly scrutable art world.  But what nobody says, out loud, is that text is flawed. The world, as the term ukiyo-e would tell you, is floating. Consider the case of the art forgery.

There are four ways to authenticate a painting: provenance; scientific testing of the materials; fitting the work in question into the artist’s oeuvre; and “a connoisseur’s eye” (Patricia Cohen, “An Art Trove’s Authenticity Goes to Court,” The New York Times online, February 12, 2012).  A court case has surfaced over paintings “by” Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Jackson Pollock, Giacometti, and Barnett Newman.  Over a period of ten years, a Long Island dealer brought first one, then two, then more paintings to the Knoedler Gallery; none of the art came with the usual papers, but that didn’t seem to matter. Over time, the gallery and the Daedalus Foundation and the National Gallery of Art (and even the artist Frank Stella) examined the lot and pronounced them to be genuine. But, soon, the Motherwell pieces, titled as if they belonged to his “Elegy to the Spanish Civil War” series, came under scrutiny for problems with “signatures and styles,” and the Daedalus Foundation shifted its opinion: these were now deemed forgeries, and all the paintings acquired from the little-known Long Island dealer were called into question. The Knoedler Gallery has closed; they say the closure is not due to this case (see the article and photographs: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/02/22/arts/design/20120222-fake-paintings-compared.html?ref=arts ).  As paintings become more and more valuable -- Christie’s has recently, across three separate auctions, sold three Motherwell Elegies, at prices ranging from $2,144,000 to $2,919,500 – artists, auctioneers and galleries find that the desire to forge works and the resulting need to authenticate has created a little fear and trembling. The Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board dissolved in 1996. The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, faced with lawsuits, is no longer accepting new pieces to either include in the catalogue raisonnĂ© or to (literally) stamp with DENIED.

But the four methods of authentication all deal with text and not image. The provenance is all text: first, the labels from the back of the canvas indicate the date the work was painted, or where it was exhibited, and then the papers, testifying to the original acquisition, past ownership and sale prices, previous dealers’ evaluations, perhaps a note from the artist or the biographer.  None of the pieces at Knoedler came with any of this.  The collector had acquired the pieces directly from the artist, it was said, or from the artist’s own dealer; they had been in storage.  It was said.  When the pigments were tested, the researchers found paints not yet in use at the time the work was created. Not a problem, the dealer said, the artists were given the newest sample pigments to try; it happens all the time (Cohen). More text. Then, the third method of authority, fitting the work into the artist’s other series: simple. Works are uneven, but each series, each new piece, will share characteristics with previous or concurrent work; the titles would take care of any doubts.  And, last, the connoisseur’s eye; we now know what happened there -- every eye was fooled.  

It was Plato who said that if we knew what we were looking for, we would be all the more able to see it [“Suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by some one to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to some one else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger --if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser --this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune” The Republic, Book I].  If we are looking for and expect authenticity, because authenticity excites us, we will find it.

If, on the other hand, a painting called “Untitled, 1950: After Jackson Pollock” appeared at your local coffeeshop, hanging between the comfy chairs, looking just like a Pollock, but the artist’s name was, say, mine, and the sale price was listed as $650, there wouldn’t be a problem.  If you liked it, and you had the $650, fine. But if you were paying $300,000, as the gallery did, or $3,000,000, as a collector did, for an “undiscovered” Pollock with the simpler name “Untitled, 1950,” then you’d want the Jackson Pollock signature -- and the provenance. You’d want the text.  And mine wouldn’t have any text … in fact, worse, it would be trading on Pollock’s lifetime of text.

And everyone in the art world trades on text, because text creates “value” for a painting.  It is the only way we know to create value. It is also the only way to create the canon of artworks, the chosen few that we love, and teach, and discuss, and visit in museums. There are no objective criteria that guarantee that the beauty, or ugliness, or power, or authenticity that we see in a painting is … “real.” 

But it is still beauty, or ugliness, or power, or authenticity, isn’t it, if we see it?  I have walked through painting studios at a college and seen a fabulous thing, in progress, by a twenty-year-old; but she doesn’t have any text yet.  Intrinsically, the work is beautiful, to me; I like the application of the paint, the subject matter, or lack of it, the figure-ground blending … but extrinsically, outside of itself, out there in the world, the painting has no value at all.  If she ships it through the mail to her great-aunt in Brixton, she can only insure it for the value of the materials.

Outside of the monetary value, is there any other reason to go straight to text? I could argue that when I am standing in front of Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, I like to think of her walking from 27, Rue de Fleurus to Picasso’s studio in the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre.  I like to think of the painter and his subject speaking in broken French over eighty or ninety sittings, and wonder about the influence they exerted on one another during the time it took to make the painting. I would like to see how many faces of Stein there were before Picasso crossed out the last one and replaced it with a mask.  Part of a painting’s value is its history, the fact that the text confirms that this is, in fact, the painting based on an Ingres, the painting where we can just see Picasso’s brushstrokes at the edges of the chair, this is the painting that was wrapped up in Paris and driven by Stein and Toklas over to the Ain for safe-keeping during World War II.  Text can ensure a kind of romance.

But.  Is there any way, at all, that we can establish a way of SEEING that is based on ... SEEING? We can try. Look at the two paintings below. One was painted by someone with an acre of text, the other with, perhaps, a window-box full of text.  Draw up some criteria to judge them.  See which one engages you, but be prepared to explain why. On my next visit, I will talk about some ideas of my own for discussing image and tell you which painting … is which.







Friday, February 17, 2012

Repeatedly Painting Closed Worlds, or Inventing Open Worlds: What is Abstract Art For?


“An original author always invents an original world …. There is no such thing as real life for an author of genius: he must create it himself and then create the consequences.”
 --Vladimir Nabokov on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Nabokov’s observation about one of Austen’s more controversial novels applies to artists as well.  No artist, no author, wishes to produce a work that has already been written or painted; “make it new.” I want to talk for a bit about what this means for abstract artists. For the purposes of playing with “original worlds,” I am going to pare down all the possibilities inherent in abstract art for a moment. I will divide the practice of creating abstract art into a choice of painting either closed or open worlds. Bear with me.

Representational paintings present the viewer with a battle, or a nymph and satyr, or encourage us to linger over the breakfast coffee cups or the delicate pinks of a rose, but the abstract artist is not re-presenting. Abstracts offer forms and colors to us … for the first time. This is the attraction of what I am calling the closed method: these painters draw geometric shapes, straight lines and repeated verticals and horizontals, not coffee cups, not armor, and not even their contours, in order to propose a different space to their audience.  A new space.  Josef Albers said that he felt that “abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I prefer to see with closed eyes.”  Here is an Albers painting, “Homage to the Square: Terra Caliente”:


 There is no organic shape or line here, no delicate shading, and we could even call into question one of the most basic ideas of painting, figure against ground. While there are no straight lines in nature, Gertrude Stein (reputedly) said, Albers has given us several.  The squares reverberate; their colors move. Albers painted many “Homage to the Square” works, always adjusting the color and the squared forms. The titles alone call into question what we think we know; a homage is to …a person, isn’t it?  Agnes Martin said, in “The Untroubled Mind,” in her Writings, that

Then I drew all those rectangles
All the people were like those rectangles
they are just like grass
That’s the way to freedom ….
These paintings are about freedom from the cares of this world
from wordliness ….
Art re-stimulates inspirations and awakens sensibilities
that’s the function of art  (p. 39)

We are to be re-moved, waked up, re-imagined by this art.  Here is a Martin, from 1961, called “The Islands”:


 Paintings by Agnes Martin do not reproduce well in photographs. It isn’t possible, here, to see the careful pencil lines or to trace the slow movement of a brush from the beginning of a line to its end.  Seen in person, close, paintings by Martin are not only about different space, but about time, the time it takes to paint them, the time it takes to take them in. Because the works are so plain, so repetitive, so apparently “easy,” a roomful of Martins is very calming. Agnes Martin had begun her painting life in New York, in the full glare of the Abstract Expressionists. Early works of hers, now mostly destroyed, show her finding her way, but very much in the wake of others. Martin even stopped painting for a long period of time, until she arrived at this new way of painting, a way of working that is hers alone (just as Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons belong only to her, or e.e. cummings’ treatment of the poetic line will never, it seems likely, find an heir).  

It isn’t the “shock of the new,” but the “seduction of the new” that pulls painters in. More recently, the Damien Hirst spot paintings -- completed largely by his studio assistants -- are introduced by Hirst this way: “When I first painted them it was this brand new thing and I felt immortal in a way. The time was right. We were fucking dancing on the tables, changing the rules, nothing could stop us …. The spot paintings were definitely conceptual art. There’s an optimism to them which is amazing” (interview with Anthony Haden-Guest, January 10, 2012, www.galleristny.com). Here is a Hirst, “DL-P Chlorophenylalanine Methyl Ester,” 1998:


New … like the dots of Georges Seurat, these dots push and pull.  Hirst’s assistants had been making color and placement choices, “anything not to make a decision,” Hirst says (in the interview with Haden-Guest) but he did eventually take those rights back and planned the works, for maximum impact, one assumes.

The reason that I am describing these works by Albers, Martin and Hirst as “closed” is that there is no more to be done.  Every square is complete and framed, every line is finished, every dot is painted.  There isn’t any erasure, or softening of effect. It’s all there, planned, complete, conceptually perfect.  And there’s a good deal to be said for that -- I like Martin’s work, in particular – but there is a small problem with working this way now.

Rosalind Krauss wrote, in The Originality of the Avant-Gard and Other Modernist Myths, that “Perhaps it is because of this sense of a beginning, a fresh start, a ground zero, that artist after artist has taken up the grid as the medium within which to work, always taking it up as though he were just discovering it as though the origin he has found by peeling back layer after layer of representation to come at last to this schematized reduction … were his origin, and his finding it an act of originality. [And yet] …. The modernist grid is, like the Rodin casts, logically multiple: a system of reproductions without an original” (pp. 160, 162).  So these works are not … new.

What of the other category I have mentioned, the “open” painting? Here, I won’t give you several examples, just one, of a really powerful artist from Ireland: Patrick Graham.  (His solo show is now in San Francisco, at the Meridian Gallery, through April 14, 2012, and then moves to American University in Washington D.C. and will be shown in the fall at the Saint Louis University campus).  We saw the paintings and drawings (installed in the three stories of a beautiful Victorian mansion near Union Square) last week.

I should mention that Graham does -- often -- employ at least one straight line in his work. As a child, “I had a sense of being rooted” in Monaghanstown Bog in County Westmeath, Graham says. “I would look up at the sky with the larks hanging there, and then back down to earth in a great circular sweep …. I used to strip off and lie on the bog, feeling a sensual belonging to it. That meeting of earth and sky -- that horizon appears in all my paintings, locking everything together” (catalogue, p. 15).  Here is my husband’s favorite work from the show, “Deposition: Study 7,” from 2010 (all images are courtesy of The Meridian Gallery, San Francisco):


 There isn’t a straight line here, exactly, just the lining-up of the three central forms and the stretched-out figure of a man creating the sense of line among them.  The space is mostly white, with delicate tracings of pencilled-in forms (a pyramid or roof, something that looks like a table, lines and some scratches that are indeterminate) and phrases, bits of meaning, in two places on the painted board.  In an essay focusing on Graham’s iconography, Jarrett Earnest says that he sees these “tiny graphite specks” as “creating an ominous sense of pestilence or a dense invisible presence, like a ghost” (catalogue, p. 72).  Well, that “ominous sense” is certainly possible, although I did not see this work as prefiguring death or despair. There may be a ghostly presence, as I was certain that I saw a painting underneath, something painted out; this “Deposition” leaves you wondering.  The title is ambiguous, as well; is someone giving evidence (for himself? or against someone?) or is something simply being laid down … to rest? To think?

One of the characteristics of an “open” painting like this is its indeterminacy; interpretations will vary.  Samuel Beckett, in speaking of his novel How It Is,
said that meaning is “a rumour transmissible ad infinitum in either direction.”  And rumour, like meaning, can be rather unreliable -- particularly when it might run in two directions at once.  Earnest has reviewed statements by Graham, and notes that “Graham stresses that all his work is strategically unfinished, that it is left open.  Openness -- to receive, to listen -- is an unfixed state of transition” (catalogue p. 56).  The openness means that the works seem to be “in transit.” They have not arrived at their final stages; we get the feeling that nothing is pre-determined. Unlike the paintings we looked at above, based on the grid, where movement comes from color placement, which tricks the eye, so that a dot of a certain color seems to leap past another, here, the movement must be contemplative. The movement, the sustained interest, must be supplied by the viewer.

“Open” also means imperfect. Graham has stated that he found himself, at a young age, accomplished, “a self-conscious possessor of gifts that focused a kind of attention on me that I simply didn’t know how to deal with” (catalogue, p.80).  He needed to begin again in a world of sturdy shapes; like Matisse, Graham isn’t delicate. His bodies are flattened and not entirely in the frame. Look at  “The Artist, the Woman,” from 1983-4, a painting that is 72 ½ “ square:


The dedication is to David Bomberg, the British painter whose early work was geometric, Cubist, Futurist, but whose time in World War I trenches changed his work completely to expressionist figures and landscapes.   The figures dominate only the upper half of the painting with torso and head and blue veils or clouds; the lower half, here, is the more “open” half.  Why this dedication, here? Why the energetic brushstrokes and bubbles? Is this earth or water? The interesting thing here is that we don’t need to know.  We can simply see the arrested face of the woman, the cancelled-out face of the artist (looking rather like a Francis Bacon).  The horizontal and vertical lines here seem to be holding the figures in, so they don’t simply fly off into space.  Intriguing, and totally open to interpretation.

My favorite of all the works on show is the painting (the title says drawing, but it seems … more than that implies) here, called “The Lark In the Morning: Reworked Drawing, 1994,” and it is 31 7/8 x 44 1/8 inches. This is one of two works with the same title, but this is the one I really love:


 The rose-colored (male? female?) nude on the right seems to be in a calm, quiet space, where the nude (male? female?) on the left is in the midst of scribbling, re-painting, lines, marks (including two x’s) and cliffs or smokestacks… a riot of disparate images.  Or perhaps it is the person on the right who is bereft, and the one on the left in the midst of happy energy. What’s wonderful about this kind of art-making is that it’s still open, like a landscape.

Patrick Graham said: “the landscape has influenced my work right up to the present, particularly the low horizon; and that great vista where you can encounter space, and figures in it, in all kinds of ways….  Silences. No conversations. A looking-in, rather than a lived experience. That ‘looking-in on things’ has stayed with me: a self-contained art” (catalogue p. 44). What Graham has done is to create his own “original world” and the “consequences,” for us, are that we have a new -- truly new – landscape to lose ourselves in.  And we are very grateful.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Text is Evil, Text is Good: "Image vs. Text," Part Three


Antoni Tapies’s work is difficult to find outside of New York, Barcelona and other cities in Europe; and yet, he is a well-known, influential, and powerful figure in the art world. Why is no-one here  mourning him as they did Twombly, Frankenthaler, and Rauschenberg?  

I have been suggesting (see posts from January 20 and 31) that text -- the long CV, the degrees, the artist’s statement, the wall labels, the gallery’s own press releases -- defines what we then see as “fine art.”  What is said, that is, becomes more crucial than what we see, which seems to me the wrong way around.  In its way, I have been saying, text is … evil.  It reinforces the power of writing and speech over the line and the color and the form of art.

But there may be room for text to be a force for good, to actually help us catch up to what we should see and know. Tapies is one such case. His text could be very helpful (he’s got it -- just consult any biography or obituary for his full story, his honors, his influence) but it is running a bit behind.  We Americans, for whatever reasons, just have not been paying attention to his bio; so, in the absence of knowing his text, we have to fall back on what we should fall back on-- our own sight.  And yet here, on the West Coast, his work can only be seen (at least in public collections) at MOCA in Los Angeles, and the Serge Sorokko Gallery in San Francisco where, yesterday, there were two Tapies etchings on the wall. Here is a photograph of one of the etchings from 1985, from the gallery’s website, named “Llull-Tapies (1038)” – and yes, those are handprints:


 Tapies -- even in death -- eludes Americans living outside of New York. It could be that he doesn’t lend himself easily to text, to being easily categorized. He lived in New York for a time, tried surrealism, and then developed his own voice in a body of work that includes etchings, paintings, and constructs (sculptures, but not quite sculptures, Rauschenbergian, really).  He is fearless with materials, and his paintings and etchings (I haven’t seen the sculptures except in photos) seem to me to open up blank areas of the canvas or paper or to build up the work outwards to the viewer.  Tapies said of his process that “As I go along with my work I formulate my thought, and from this struggle between what I want and the reality of the material -- from this tension – is born an equilibrium.”  The works have great power, even when -- as in the case of these etchings -- they are small, 14” x 20”.  Tapies’s closest artistic relative is probably Cy Twombly, but he is less about color than Twombly (there are fewer bravura flashes) and Tapies seems more interested in clusters of material and in scattered, but somehow overlapping, forms.  We stood for a long time in front of the etchings, talking with the poised and friendly gallery assistant about Tapies, Barcelona, and being in the presence of art.  Later that morning, we ran into three men visiting from Barcelona (looking for good Chinese food) and talked to them about Tapies and the headlines about him in Spanish papers.  They were well aware of his-- text.

Why is Tapies so unfamiliar to us? I would have said that he has pretty formidable text. Maybe it is not the right sort, and that is the reason for his (relative) obscurity. Can we suggest that text, when it is working for the artist, when it is the right sort, narrows the field and provides the necessary codes for entry?  How else (I can hear judges who work with residencies and competitions say) can we be certain this artist is, well, one of us?  My husband cites poetry competitions that ask for degrees and prizes awarded, up front; there is no blind reading.  How else would we know?  But I would argue that text doesn’t guarantee anything, and it does narrow the field.  Don’t we want to see all the horses run?  Tapies said his artistic goals were clear: “the artist has to make the viewer understand that his world is much too narrow; he has to open up to new perspectives.”  Stand in front of a painting and ask yourself about … image … and open when the image moves you to. That’s all we ask.  I think that Tapies has text that works for “good” for him in Europe, but works for “evil” here.  It’s a draw.

Finally, in our explorations, there was no more Barcelona or Tapies to be had, and we began to try out new places.  The “stuff” vs. “fine art” divide (see January 20 entry) concerns us, still, when we walk into a gallery … will we even be welcome?  As non-buyers?  And then we were met with unbelievable kindness … and it made me think of Wallace Stevens … all we need is “one thing”:

If the rejected things, the things denied,
Slid over the western cataract, yet one,
One only, one thing that was firm …
One thing, remaining, infallible, would be
Enough! Ah! douce campagna of that thing!
Ah! douce campagna, honey in the heart …
Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed
                        --from “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard”

“One thing.” We were only looking to feel a little more at ease in an art world that sometimes seems too absorbed in … text. We walked into the Meyerovich Gallery that shows, as a matter of course, Picasso, Matisse, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, and Frank Stella.  I had seen the postcards in the lobby and felt I needed to see Stella and Frankenthaler; it had been a long time.  We told the gallery owner that we were an artist and a poet, and that we were looking for inspiration … and were not able to buy. Alex Meyerovich did not seem at all perturbed. The gallery was quiet, and so he talked to us freely about meeting his artists, knowing their families, and then he pulled long, smooth storage walls out to reveal a Stella here, a Frankenthaler there, another Stella (“which did you like better?” he asked). Meyerovich obviously loves and understands art and his artists. A sold Motherwell rested on one wall; we discussed the merits of Elizabeth Murray and Frank Stella (Stella wins, for him, but I have the hope that someday, their canvases will merge).  These were fine Stellas (go to the gallery itself or to his lush website to see them): big, bright, layered paintings embedded with collages and drawings.  So here was a case of “good” text: Stella met all the demands of his considerable reputation.  I can still see these paintings in my mind, which is pretty much my test for good work; it follows me around.  If I were buying, I thought, I would buy these.  

And then a smaller triptych caught our attention, by a local artist named Matt Phillips, who works mostly in monotypes. Here is a similar one from Meyerovich Gallery’s website, called “Traveling Along,” from 2009, a collage/monotype measuring 15” x 22”:

Phillips may not have quite as much text as the other artists in the room, but he didn’t need it, because his very strong work won the gallery owner’s confidence, which was followed by a place on his walls. Phillips is known in other places, of course, but very few images can hold their own in the midst of abundant good text like Motherwell’s, Frankenthaler’s, Stella’s … The image was “a thing affirmed,” as Stevens says.  Matt Phillips was a welcome discovery -- as was the generosity of the gallery owner.  This was a case of text and image … where image won every time.

Friday, February 3, 2012

For Eduard Manet, for Helen Frankenthaler: on Renewing a Painting Passion

I read an article called "What Paint Does," by Robin Greenwood, in Abstract Critical (16 January 2012).  Greenwood argues for a new awareness of abstract art; we must look at the artists we love with some purpose, or else risk simply "re-inventing" everything that abstraction has already accomplished, both successes and failures. Greenwood writes: "If ... perish the thought ... I were to offer advice to an abstract painter starting out today, I would suggest they copy the artist they most admired until they got somewhere near to competing with them, and then move on to someone better; and so on, till there was no-one left and they themselves were the best of all (I'm an idealist)."

Well, I was looking to start again... the odalisques in abstract landscapes are a complete series on their own, now, and ... what's new?  And I thought about all the artists I most admire. I have consciously worked from the starting point of David Hockney, in a series of landscapes in 2003, and I un-consciously have leaned on Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, and Kandinsky.  But I had never tried to look at Helen Frankenthaler's work from the perspective of how it was really feasible, in part because I thought she would be, like Gertrude Stein or e.e. cummings, an act impossible to follow. But I really thought that Greenwood had made a wonderful suggestion, and so I looked at a catalogue of Frankenthaler's work that I have, called East and Beyond. In his essay, John Yau shows us, at one point, that Frankenthaler took an Édouard Manet painting, "Fish (Still Life)," (which is 28 7/8" x 36 1/4") from 1864 as a starting point:


Here is Frankenthaler's, painting, completed in acrylic on canvas, 71" x 115," in 1981:


We can see the spaces and light that both paintings share. John Yau writes the essay for this catalogue and he says "a point-to-point comparison ... would ultimately miss"  Frankenthaler's pursuit here, which he says is "the desire to grasp that which remains elusive," memory, the fact that "the world is constantly appearing and vanishing" (24).  That may be true; but artists, when pressed, are unwilling to say too much about the point of their work.  I looked at these two paintings and thought that this would be a way in to Greenwood's prescription.  So I started, with two 30" x 30" wood panels. I took photographs after each stage of the painting I was making; I won't give you all of them, but here are a few on the way to my "somewhere near to competing with" the Frankenthaler:


This was the first shot over the bow -- it was really fun for me -- burnt umber with burgundy and yellow ochre, acrylic paint thinned down with water and glazing liquid and spread with bits of an old pillowcase. It became an effort of my full body, walking around the painting, with each additional layer, pursuing the Frankenthaler pursuing the Manet, which was a photograph in an open book in a corner of the studio floor:

Black and purple wash over the top to get at some of Frankenthaler's and Manet's fabulous blacks, then, skipping forward a few sessions:

More yellow ochre, then white, permanent green middle and pthalo green and white, then thalo green and glaze.  More blacks to right. Then, two steps later:


Cerulean blue hue, more green, more whites, yellow ochre with raw sienna and burgundy. Now, for the final picture, which I got to stages later, after throwing white paint, adding yellows and oranges and details of red, green, browns, pouring, and scraping and pouring the whites:


Now, this isn't precisely the same as the Frankenthaler. And yet it was so luminous, and so balanced, and so much fun.  Now, I decided, I had to try and make the painting my own. "Seize the glimpse," Robert Motherwell said, and then "the ethic lies in erasing that glimpse." So here I go, erasing, scraping away with sandpaper, and adding some white and lighter hues:


Then, layers of more paints, more scraping:


One of the things that is emerging is three horizontal spaces, which I did not want to encourage. So I went into the painting with brushes and scrapers and splashes. Another idea that emerged from looking was that there were no straight lines or geometric shapes here, as there aren't, generally, in Frankenthalers, but I wanted them, and so I added a triangle in the lower right:


Now I am liking the light here, but there needs to be more surface and we need some pencil and drawing here, too. We had gone for a walk along the Alameda shoreline, and the boats, balconies, rocks and scattered birds gave me the last few images here:


I think this is to Frankenthaler as she was to Manet; I am calling it "E.M. and H.F. Walk on the Beach in Alameda."