Friday, July 27, 2012

San Francisco: The “Angular Invariability” of Day or “Groping in the Darkness” of Night?

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,  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

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,  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”: (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

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…”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"Too Olympian"? or, Use Your Words, Dammit: What is the Effect of "Gerhard Richter Painting"?

I recently saw the film “Gerhard Richter Painting” with my son and his fiancée in Los Angeles; it is still showing through the summer in some cities. I urge you to see it or, failing that, find and go to see his newer work, the big abstractions.  My husband and I just visited the Hess Collection in Napa, again, and saw “S.D.I. 1986” (painted in 1993, 126” x 157 ½”):

“S.D.I.”  is really made up of many paintings: on the left lower border is a soft, smooth abstract (of the sort I was being taught to paint in the early 70’s, “no visible brushstrokes, uniform color, please”) where Richter has placed black, grey and red angles against a gentle blue. Then there are the layers, moving left to right, rough strata, scraped, with the interaction of paints and new combinations of colors, each new formation captured as it dried. The horizontal lines mark the artist’s movement, while the vertical red and yellow columns, holding their own, seem to refute it.

Smooth agreement or jagged layers: Richter’s critical reception also splits just this way, neatly into two.  One camp, the smooth-agreement people, simply review the film, positively, offering a paragraph or so of amiable enthusiasm.  The best remarks from this group are true observations, and were written by Kenneth Baker (The San Francisco Chronicle, posted May 3, 2012) and Alissa Simon (Variety, posted online 9/19/11).  Baker says that “the film’s second portrait subject is Richter’s studio … immense …. The viewer finally experiences it the way the painter must: as playroom, as production site, as hideout and as prison.” Perfect.  The huge, clean, white, silent studio is filmed with Richter moving through it (mostly immaculate himself, in creased slacks) with the occasional presence of the two assistants or a gentle question from the director, Corinna Belz.  And it is clear that Richter alternately has fun, works very hard, looks for calm or isolation in the studio, or feels trapped by a painting that will not work.  Alissa Simon notes that the film is “intelligently assembled,” and is an “intelligent pic,” (she is writing for Variety) with a “sparsely modernist score” assisted by “birdsong from the garden.” The film disturbs the process as little as possible: even the birdsong goes on despite the lights and cameras. Here is a still from the film’s website:

But these brief critiques of the film offer little insight into or discussion of Richter’s work.  The second camp, critics who do write about Richter’s paintings, all seem to offer us one point of view: jagged layers.  Richter’s painting is dismissed as one thing after another, changeable, un-categorizeable. He is seen as relentless, an unfeeling, forward-moving painting machine, emotion-less, merely an “industry.”   The fact that Richter rejects inclusion and labels irritates people who like them.  The lack of an attempt, on the part of the painter, to seduce the critical world leads the critic to spurn the non-seduction with a nasty review.

The most thorough essay on Richter’s work that I have seen falls into this angry camp. In its defense, the essay is, at least, a real attempt to sum up his legacy.  T.J. Clark gave us “Grey Panic” (The London Review of Books,, posted 17 November 2011). It is ostensibly a review of the Richter retrospective, “Panorama,” at the Tate Modern (last October through this January).  This is a review that deserves attention, because it appears to recognize Richter’s massive achievement and influence (the Tate show is a “great event,” he assures us), but, really, Clark undercuts Richter’s artistic efforts, first in a kind of code and then … openly.

Clark approaches the retrospective by first praising, at some length, a concert he had attended two nights before: Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli , and his feeling that the music he had heard that night represented the “last intransigence of modernism on the wing.”  Now, that description sounds so lovely and seductive, but “intransigence” is … negative . Had Clark written “the last obstinate note of modernism on the wing,” the intention behind this juxtaposition of Boulez and Richter would have been a bit less poetic. That “thud” we hear, the clash of the end of modernism with Richter’s body of work, should set us up nicely to read on.  

The “Grey Panic” of the review’s title refers, in Clark’s view, to Richter’s work of the 1960’s, the “mostly monochrome oils done from photographs.”  Clark feels that Richter’s softened and neutered palette here is not any kind of definitive answer to the problem of painting vs. photography [oh, were we looking for that?], and that, in fact, “the drawing away of chroma is a figure for a general lapsing out of spatial (and therefore social) relationship.”  Clark goes on to say that Richter has a “fundamental, and persistent, sense of his own time” [which sounds like a good thing] but goes on to say that painting is, for Richter, “essentially a way of keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  I think, first, that “drawing away of chroma” isn’t really the way to describe Richter’s grey work.  Perhaps Clark does not know that grey paint is mixed by combining opposing colors on the wheel: red and green, or yellow and purple, or blue and orange -- the opposite, then, of “drawing away of chroma.”  And, next, Richter told an interviewer (Irmiline Lebeer) that “space in painting …. doesn’t exist. It’s a false problem” (Gerhard Richter Writings 1961-2007, d.a.p. press, 2009, p. 81).  Two dimensions, whatever they might offer, are never three -- I thought that was a modernist tenet? Perhaps we have not heard the death knell of modernism just yet. Richter is not worried about space. But I do believe that he is worried about “his own time” and the “society” he lives in; he is hardly “lapsing out.” Look at Richter’s “Miland: Dom” (Milan Cathedral) from 1964 (from the artist's website; this may not have been in the Tate show, but it is representative of the “grey” 1960’s work):

This is still a kind of extension of modernism, I think. One feels that the “Grey Panic” is not Richter’s, but Clark’s.  “Grey does the work of mourning,” Clark says.  “It and the blur stand for dirty, but also sterilized, secrets.”

Clark continues: “the big colored abstracts [that] emerge in the following decade … make no sense unless they are seen against this background of grey panic.”  Clark ends the review in a kind of unlovely series of personal reactions to the work: the paintings offer only “heavy impenetrability” and “parody.” Any kind of “vividness for Richter, if it comes, will have to have falsity written deep within it” and Clark says of one of the works of the 18 October 1977 series that it “brings on (in me) a feeling of utter impotence and incomprehension” and that this “nihilism” is “too Olympian.”  [The series -- 18 October 1977 -- was based on photographs of the German Baader-Meinhof Group, who kidnapped and killed their targets; three of the four were captured and later found dead in their cells. It was never made clear whether their deaths were caused by suicide or murder.] Here is a painting from that series, from MOMA’s collection:

I don’t know; this does not seem at all “too Olympian” to me.  And maybe “utter impotence and incomprehension” in response to paintings about Baader-Meinhof is really appropriate.  I don’t see “deep falsity” here; I see a very human face, presented for scrutiny.  Richter said in 1981 that that “I want pictorial content without sentiment, but I want it as human as possible” (GRW, 119).

Can the film do anything to change the minds of people like Clark, who believe that Richter has broken modernism through “parody” and “Olympian” indifference??

I think it can.  This artist is no parodist. “Gerhard Richter Painting” shows us that he keeps just five or six postcard-size reproductions above his work table.  One is a chipped statue of a nude woman, seen from two angles: “The scarring is brutal,” he says.  Another picture shows a tree painted by Courbet, which I think might be this, “The Oak at Flagey”:

He keeps these works, he said, as a kind of motivation; they are works that have moved him. Another of the pieces was a drawing by Picasso, a woman’s head, that looked something like this “Head of a Woman” from 1933:

Richter carefully traces the “deformed, squashed” features, tracing them and marveling at the imperfections.  The one documentary photograph on his wall is a picture of Nazi soldiers at a concentration camp, behind a pile of naked dead bodies and wafting smoke from a fire.  The bodies will all be burned, it is clear, and Richter points to the men smoking and talking in their long dress coats: it looks “so normal,” he says. 

Perhaps Clark is right: Richter does have a “sense of his own time,” of his own country’s history, and perhaps his paintings are a way of “keeping that sense from overwhelming him.”  He tells the film’s director that the 18 October 1977 series was “very difficult,” but that “doing it makes you feel good.”

The “doing” of painting is what this film is, in essence, about.  The noise of the squeegee he uses to scrape paint across canvas seems enormous; the sound of the artist’s movements in his studio has been amplified.  The first shots of Richter at work show him straining with the big squeegee, but then stopping, looking, and going over minute details with a delicate paintbrush. “They do what they want,” he says of the primarily neutral-colored paintings in these first shots. “I planned something very different … very colorful.”  Here is a still from the film’s site, showing the massive squeegee:

The film shows Richter preparing for a show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York; Goodman comes to visit during the filming to discuss the hanging of the show.  We see tiny, perfect models of each work hanging on tiny perfect walls. The film also brings in some older photos and films; one movie dates from 1966, and in that film Richter says that “Painting is another form of thinking.”  Yes.  And Richter does all the thinking.  His two assistants do not paint.  They mix paint, clean up, and worry. For these larger abstract works, the paint has to be “clean” so that the only “grooves” come from deliberate movements by Richter, so the assistants stir the paint -- only white, back, red, ultramarine and yellow, no earth tones, they say -- with an electric stirrer and strain it through … cheesecloth?  (They mention that the photo-based realistic works merely needed tube paint).   We see Richter working on several canvases.  Sometimes the squeegee is dragged with great force, completely crossing the canvas, and other times the artist uses only a small, light gesture.

He shows us disappointments; “I don’t know what to do next,” he says, of a painting that he dislikes.  If they make it past the point where he thinks they might be finished (“When I feel it’s right, then I stop”), then, he explains, still, paintings sometimes only look good for a couple of hours, or perhaps a day or two.  If they last longer than that, they are hanged on white walls in a portion of the studio that looks like a gallery; if they make it there, they can make it anywhere, he must reason.  But my son was stunned when Richter approached a painting that seemed to our audience perfect, and pulled a canvas-high squeegee across the length of it.  Gone.

He obviously was concerned about painting before a camera: “Painting is a secretive business,” he says, “between being caught and being seen, something you do in secret and then reveal in public.”  But we get to know a lot about him, through this film, and it’s clear that, as he says in GRW to an interviewer, that art is “the highest form of hope” (488).   I will leave you with an abstract from 2009, taken from Richter’s site, from 2009, the time of the filming: