I don’t mean when artists work. I mean… how. I would like to propose two categories, ways of thinking about the way art is made: DAY or NIGHT. (I like the way these seem like opposites, but as Keith Richards wrote in his song “Slipping Away,” it’s “First the sun and then the moon. One of them will be around soon….”)
This morning there was a clear silver-blue cloudy light over the Bay, the basic white light that alerts us all: it’s time to get to work. Some artists work best in this bright light of day and find stability, continuity, a kind of plotline managed through repetition, a plan approaching a blueprint.
SFMOMA has been exhibiting the notes (and lots of other things, but it is the notes that got me) of Buckminster Fuller. He wrote a brief definition of STABILITY on an index card: “A necklace is unstable. The lengths of the beads in a necklace do not change. Only the angles between them change. Stability refers only to angular invariability.” Surrounding this quote were endless cards with formulas and diagrams. We could probably find other ways to define stability, but stay with this idea, this single idea, just for a moment. And then think about painters who have chosen to work with “angular invariability.” The bright light of day and of persistence, image(s) seen in the mind, a sketch in full bloom, played large on canvas. Ellsworth Kelly, for example, in this painting, “Il Cerf Volant,” looked for a particular “fit” of image and space:
Kelly said of his work that “I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space …” I hear a formal declaration here. As a painter, I see this as Kelly describing a path, a path followed in painting after painting. Agnes Martin, even more clearly, insisted that she did not begin a painting until she saw it first, entire, in her mind; here is her “Friendship,” from 1963:
Daylight, the repeated gesture, each line a familiar presence, but each its own presence. Martin said that her works were really about “innocence,” and there is a kind of innocence in her following each gesture with another just like it until the work is completed. You can trace her progress; we can see the time she took.
As we visited galleries in San Francisco, I found several artists who follow this architectural structure as they paint. One artist, who marks over graph paper, Indira Martina Morre, says she uses the images she sees on computer screens: “Dots, circles, lines, crosses, arrows, … networks … departing onto canvas where it all disintegrates to become a psychological map, to become a hand-made document of a presence in time, to become a mark” (artist’s statement, http://indiramorre.com). Here is one of her works representative of those we saw at K. Imperial Fine Art, this image from her site:
The characters Morre chooses are carefully delineated; the soft paint around them diminishes the contrast between each mark and the “screen” or background here…. The fading towards the bottom gives you a sense of perspective from across the room. Morre says: “Rendering perfect, utilitarian, and timeless signs by hand is a consequence of my desire to access an imperfect, contradictory, time-bound being on the other side of a screen” (artist’s statement on her site). This “rendering” takes considerable forethought and time, just as Agnes Martin’s did. Another artist whose marks add up is Teo Gonzalez at Brian Gross Fine Art; here is his “Untitled #618” from 2012 (the photograph is from http://www.briangrossfineart.com/artists/tgonzalez:
We can see calm and perfection here; time, the time taken to create the work, slows and passes. From a distance Gonzalez’s work, like Morre’s, takes on a softness, but, also like Morre’s paintings, Gonzalez’s paintings change subtly when viewed close-up: we can see the surface bristle and shimmer with each little mark, as we can see here in my "detail" photo:
Judith Foosaner, also at Brian Gross, repeats motifs, here by stopping and starting with forms that seem torn and re-grouped from a precision die-cutter. Here is my photograph of “Breaking and Entering #17," 36” x 72” collage and acrylic on canvas:
This seems to me to echo Picasso’s “Guernica,” in its majesty and its carefully-blocked spaces. Here is a detail:
There is a steady movement here, a planned progress, that has then been deliberately undercut in the tough light of day.
A different kind of daylight comes about in Patrick Wilson’s “Slow Motion Action Painting” at Marx & Zavattero. Here is his 17” x 17” painting “La Estrella,” photographed by Alanna Yu:
If the painted surfaces appear to be coming at you online, wait till you see them in person. We first thought the work was painted on layered supports and pieces of angled mirrors, but they are not; the works are simple layers of paint, glass-smooth and softly-graded color across some parts of a piece, rough and bumpy in other sections. Here is another, “Mixed Greens,” (30” x 72,” my photograph):
This is a light-of-day, blueprint painting. Here is what Wilson says about his process: “I am a painting junkie. I am a slow motion action painter, trusting my gut and my eyes. My paintings are intuitive, built one shape, one color, one line at a time. They are meant to be experienced at a leisurely pace. I am in pursuit of beauty, but well aware that pleasure is the more likely outcome. Pleasure is good too” (from the gallery website, http://www.marxzav.com/artist.php?id=10). He says his work is intuitive, which would lend it spontaneity, and perhaps that’s the way it seems to him – but to me, this looks as though no brushstroke could move out of its planned space.
“Pleasure is good.” And with that thought in mind, let’s move to the next group of artists.
I have been reading the new edition of A Farewell to Arms, which includes drafts and several endings Hemingway considered for the novel; here is an excerpt from the novel (that remained): “I know that the night is not the same as the day; that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day because they do not exist…” (p. 216, Scribner Edition, 2012).
We tell ourselves stories about these “things of the night.” They go bump. Sometimes we paint or write these “things.” Rauschenberg wrote that he “always felt a little strange about the fixedness of a painting” and if you look, you might perhaps see what we can call the night-time of his works: the shifts, the shadows, the objects, the sweep of the brush, the partial print of a photograph all conspire to suggest working in the moment, without the help of a blueprint. Here is Rauschenberg’s “Prize,” a lithograph from 1964:
The work is filled with chances taken, with creating in the moment. Alberto Giacometti said that "When I make my drawings ... the path traced by my pencil on the sheet of paper is, to some extend, analogous to the gesture of a man groping his way in the darkness." Here is Giacometti’s portrait of Jean Genet:
The portrait “cannot be explained” logically but has its power because of its freedom. I found three artists whose work is on show in San Francisco whose lines and paints are not coming from the precise light of day, but of this un-fixed night. Marilyn Levin at Toomey Tourell dazzles with “Morning Offerings” (my photo):
The dripping gold, both banner and airy light -- that gold wouldn’t have its power if not for the layers beneath it and the power of chance, of accident. The way the gold paint has congealed in spots, remained soft and unlined in the round line of “tassels” at the bottom, the way Levin has managed to conjure the feeling of night receding, it’s all gorgeously tumbled together. The power that stems from these layers does not seem like the result of a clear plan to me. This power comes from experimentation, taking chances, working with the materials, but letting the hyper-self-critical faculties of day go on vacation for a few hours. This is the gesture or footprint that falls and is not taken back….
Lora Fosberg’s work is at Jack Fischer. She has a series of paintings in gouache, collage and wax on panel called “The Miracle of the Actual.” These are humorous, ironic, skilled (“she has a fine way with line,” says the gallery owner) and yet the works I want to talk about somewhat different. Fosberg has taken a large, heavy German world atlas from the early twentieth century as her canvas, and sketched in many of the pages (175 drawings, roughly), and these works collectively are called “The Way of the World.” Here is the cover, from the gallery’s website:
This studied collage is in the mode of “careful,” and would fit nicely with the “day” works above. But not so once we page through the book. There we can see Fosberg’s inventive and knowing hand pulling together threads that, as I see it, she isn’t sure of until they land on the paper. These seem to be freer, looser, drawings that show her hand leading her brain. One drawing shows logging trucks pulling across an index, sandwiched under “INHALT” and above “Sud Und WestEuropa.” My favorite is the four Eiffel’d power-towers apparently installed at (the) “Nordpol”; here is that double page, again from the gallery website:
Visit the gallery and leaf through the book with the owner. These are delightful innovations, and make great use of the contrast between the maps and labels and Fossberg’s inked overlays. The Jack Fischer gallery also has a promising show coming up in August by the artist Lauren Dicioccio (see her “cross stitch into found book”: http://www.jackfischergallery.com/artists/lauren_dicioccio/index.htm). (Probably a “day” artist).
One last “night” person; here is Reed Anderson at the Gregory Lind Gallery, “To All a Good Looking Stranger” (66” x 72,” acrylic, block cut and collage on cut paper, taking up most of a wall; this photo is from http://gregorylindgallery.com/artists/anderson):
And, smaller, but very similar, “Lady Faces,” acrylic on cut paper, 29” x 27,” (photo also from the gallery site):
What I love about these works is that Anderson has given us precision and spontaneity, certainty and the unknown, clean cuts and awkward drips. He has cut the scallop shapes cleanly and created these mapped planes, yet they are against a border of un-carefully-muddied thick paper…. These are good images to end with, because they combine the planning of the first group of painters with considerable devil-may-care, a kind of Hemingway bravado… who else would cut paper and lay in geometric shapes and create something that looks as though it ought to be set carefully on a side-table in a drawing room, and then allow drips and footprints and coffee stains around the perimeter, doilies and warts all in one? Anderson neatly pulls together both categories of day and night.
“First the sun and then the moon, one of them will be around soon…”