Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cleaning the Slate

William Glackens, A Headache in Every Glass, 1903–1904, Charcoal and watercolor heightened with white gouache on cream wove paper, 13 1/4 x 19 1/2 in. (33.7 x 49.5 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.170

“We’ve come together because we’re so unlike,” wrote Robert Henri in a May 1907 press release for the Macbeth Galleries show in February 1908 that would forever link him and the other seven artists in that show as The Eight. Later, thanks to the socially conscious work of some of those artists, The Eight became known under the less-glamorous label of The Ashcan School. Certainly works such as William GlackensA Headache in Every Glass (above, 1903-1904) left a strong impression, creating new headaches for a group too diverse for any label beyond a simple number. For almost a century now, the label of Ashcan has been hard to rip away. In The Eight and American Modernisms, Elizabeth Kennedy of the Terra Foundation for American Art tries to pull The Eight from the ashes of art history and clean up not only their reputation but blow the dust off of the lasting effect those artists had on American Modern art in the years after the 1913 Armory Show that allegedly tolled the death knell for The Eight as an influential force for American art. If conventional art history etched a tombstone for The Eight, the years would read “1908-1913.” “This exaggeration of the rapid ascendancy and demise of The Eight’s contribution to a nascent American avant-garde obscures a far more complex tale,” Kennedy writes in her introductory essay, “for each artist experienced a successful professional journey that defies group labeling, with its implication of a single unifying ideology or a static artistic outlook.” The Eight and American Modernisms raises The Eight from the grave and confirms that reports of their early demise were greatly exaggerated.

Robert Henri, Figure in Motion, 1913, Oil on canvas, 77 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. (196.2 x 94.6 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69

From the moment you look at the cover of The Eight and American Modernisms and behold Henri’s 1916 Betalo Nude, you know that this isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) idea of The Eight. The grime of gritty realism gives way to the symphony of tones and color in that nude, just one of the many nudes that The Eight painted during their heyday and long afterwards. As both artists and teachers, Henri and John Sloan were especially “dedicated to the representation of the human figure as the vehicle for portraying their expressive ideas,” writes Kennedy. Henri’s 1913 Figure in Motion (above), painted the same year that Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 wowed crowds at The Armory Show, responds to European Modernism without slavishly following it. “Experimental painting of the nude model in the studio was one of the theoretical strategies that some of The Eight continued late into their careers,” Kennedy explains, but never at the expense of losing their own personal vision. “It is necessary to pierce the core, to get at the value of a movement and not be confused by its sensation exterior,” Henri said of his reaction to new art movements. It is this “dedication to individualism in art, writing, and teaching” on Henri’s part that “fostered American modernism” argues Sarah Vure in her essay on Henri.

George Luks, Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park, c. 1918, Oil on canvas 30 3/16 x 36 1/8 in. (76.7 x 91.8 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.87

Kennedy and her cohorts do their best to individualize each of The Eight and allow them to stand alone rather than force them to stand together. Perhaps none of these individuals was so “individual” as George Luks. “Sometimes you wonder over his versatility,” a New York art critic wrote of Luks in 1920, “a character actor, a low comedian, even song-and-dance man, a poet, a profound sympathizer with human misery, and a human orchestra.” In her essay on Luks, Judith Hansen O’Toole links Luks with Henri, calling both “passionate humanitarians seeking to forge a new artistic expression that was truly American and of their own time.” Luks’ Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park (above, c. 1918) brings the World War I home front home while portraying “realism” with color and vibrant style. Such paintings by Luks, who resisted the “social realist” label for himself, laid the groundwork for the social commentators of the 1920s and 1930s. Luks painted portraits of coal miners not only because they struck him as interesting subjects, but because they reminded him of the miners he’d known during his childhood in Pennsylvania coal country. “Making art was their life,” Kennedy writes of The Eight in her introduction, “not merely the practice of their profession.” Luks lived and painted with passion and was found dead at 67 in the doorway of a speakeasy in 1933 after losing in a brawl. Each of the essayists in The Eight and American Modernisms beautifully breathes life into their subject and integrates living and painting to the point that they become one again.

Ernest Lawson, Brooklyn Bridge, 1917–20, Oil on canvas, 20 3/8 x 24 in. (51.8 x 61.0 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.43

After reading these essays, you come away with a sense of The Eight as a truly pivotal group in the trajectory of American art history—the link that connects the past with the future. Trained by American Impressionists John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, Ernest Lawson brought Impressionism to the big city. Essayist Jochan Wierich sees Lawson as the heir to the American Romantic tradition of the Hudson River School as much as an heir of European Impressionists. “Lawson demonstrated to his contemporaries how the art of landscape could survive and refashion itself as an expression of modern life,” Wierich writes, in works such as Brooklyn Bridge (above, from 1917-1920), which “combine pastoral tradition with urban reality.” The grit and grime of the Ashcan School label disappears in such transcendent and transformative works. Lawson builds a bridge between Thomas Cole and Edward Hopper that continues a tradition without chaining any one artist to a single style. Both conservator and innovator of the American tradition in art, Lawson and the rest of The Eight retained the elusively definable “Americanism” of art without closing eyes to possibilities from abroad.

Maurice Prendergast, St. Malo, after 1907, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 15 1/8 x 22 in. (38.4 x 55.9 cm) Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.121

In her essay specifically on Maurice Prendergast, Kennedy uses the greatest exception to ideas of The Eight to “prove the rule” of their uncategorizable diversity. Prendergast stood as the “only member of The Eight whose reputation grew more favorable in [The Armory Show’s] immediate aftermath,” Kennedy explains. Suddenly, oddball works such as St. Malo (above, from after 1907) seemed not so odd in the context of Post-Impressionism. Sadly, it took the affirmation of artists from overseas to free viewers to accept Prendergast’s unusual style. The Eight and American Modernisms looks to free viewers to accept these artists as individuals and then, again, as a group of artists united in the same goal of furthering American art and contributing to American society in their own diverging ways. “The Eight’s simultaneous recognition of non-representational art as a valid expression of contemporary art styles while refusing to embrace the authority of abstract art as the only ‘true’ vehicle for modernity encouraged other American artists to insist on the integrity of their own creative ideas,” Kennedy concludes. In other words, The Eight accepted other artists on their own terms and asked for nothing less for themselves. The failure of that courtesy costs us a clear picture of how vital these artists and their philosophy was to the beginnings of modern art in America. The Eight and American Modernisms rescues The Eight from the ignoble dustbin of art history and washes away the smear of Ashcan School for good.

[Many thanks to The University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of The Eight and American Modernisms and to the Terra Foundation for American Art for the images from the catalogue above.]

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fat Bottomed Girls

Oh, you gonna take me home tonight?
Oh, down beside that red firelight?
Are you gonna let it all hang out?
Fat bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go round.

—From “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen

Beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder, especially ideals of female beauty, which vary by culture and era. These ideals of the past appear in the works of artists throughout time. The seventeenth-century in Europe must have been the era of the fat-bottomed girl judging by the works of Peter Paul Rubens, whose voluptuous vixens live on in the modern-day adjective “Rubenesque.” Born June 28, 1577, Rubens always had an eye for a girl with some meat on her bones. In Venus at a Mirror (above, from 1615), a decidedly non-waifish goddess admires her plump face in a mirror while presenting her broad back and ample rear to the viewer. A black woman attends to Venus on the right, a familiar trope of portraits examining beauty personified that Edouard Manet riffs on in the black handmaiden of Olympia. Sadly, the contrast between the black woman and the white goddess reflects the racism of the period, which could only find beauty in European tones. In modern day Hollywood, where slender Kate Winslet is seen as “Rubenesque,” Rubens’ Venus would be judged enormous, maybe even obese.

In the 1620s, Marie de' Medici, the queen-mother of France, commissioned Rubens to paint two allegorical cycles now known as the Marie de' Medici cycle to commemorate her life with the late Henry IV of France. One of those paintings, Rubens’ The Arrival of Marie de' Medici at Marseilles (above, from 1626), shows the young queen disembarking from the ship that had brought her from her native Florence, where she married Henry IV by proxy. A helmeted, blue-caped embodiment of France greets Marie on the gangplank. Beneath them, three buxom Nereids stand with Poseidon and other mythological sea figures that protected the new Queen on her voyage. Marie de’ Medici may be the intended center of attention, but the Nereids upstage her with their beauty, nudity, and fluidity. The rolls of their flesh roll like the waves themselves, making the sea goddesses seem to move even when standing still. By contrast, Marie seems statuesque in a bad way—cold, lifeless, and literally bloodless. There’s little promise of passion in the proxy marriage between Marie and Henry judging from this picture.

Rubens first wife died in 1626. Four years later, he married a voluptuous 16-year-old beauty named Hélène Fourment. Hélène became the muse of Rubens last years. She modeled at least one, and perhaps all three of the full-figured women in Rubens’ The Three Graces (above, from 1636). Granted, Rubens painted male figures who could use a gym membership, too, in works such as Bacchus (1640), but clearly Rubens’ ideal womanly figure was a full one. I guess it stands to reason that an artist with such a vigorous, omnivorous approach to life and art would admire women who also grabbed all the gusto they could. Rubens art does nothing by half measures, including portraying the female figure. Many primitive cultures worshiped a full-figured female type as the embodiment of fecundity. Despite being surrounded by the trappings of European civilization, Rubens “Rubenesque” ladies embody the fecundity of the primitive drives of his prodigious imagination.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Oh, Behave

Mike MyersAustin Powers character spoofs the days of “Swinging London,” when outrageous behavior was the norm, but his outrageousness isn’t far from the real deal. In the middle of that swinging time was one of the most intriguing and fun artists of the twentieth century—Peter Blake. Born June 25, 1935, Blake was born just in time to soak up the teen-targeted popular culture of post-World War II Britain. Combining such “low brow” pop with “high brow” fine art technique and history, Blake created such works as Got a Girl (above, from 1960-1961). The faces of teen idols such as Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson appear in a band across the top above a series of red, white, and blue chevrons that recall the work of Blake’s American contemporary Kenneth Noland. Just as America imported to England young hunks through movies and music, it imported the latest trends in abstract art, such as Noland’s pieces. Blake binds the two imports together and creates a pastiche of cultures clashing. By putting Elvis et al. at the top and Noland on the bottom, Blake flips the idea of “high” versus “low” on its head. Blake would take this pastiche style to its greatest extreme in his design for for the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which mixes history, literature, art, and music together in a dazzling, ground-breaking display.

In addition to celebrating stars who “got the girl” in Got the Girl, Blake “got” his own girl in Tuesday (above, from 1961). Two photos of the actress and early 1960s teen sex symbol Tuesday Weld appear above the simple banner of “TUESDAY.” Blake plays off of the instant, one-name name recognition of pop culture and modern media in broadcasting the actress’ first name. Tuesday in many ways is the companion piece to the male stars of Got a Girl. To Blake’s male perspective, the young male stars blend together in their similar hairstyles and chiseled features. In contrast, Tuesday Weld strikes the male viewer as unique and special. If Blake had been a woman, the two compositions might have been reversed. Blake again places a Noland-esque abstract arrangement of color beneath the pop culture reference, but I wonder if Blake also alludes here to the celebrity-celebrating boxes of Joseph Cornell. Cornell, also a omnivorous consumer of all strata of culture, created semi-shrines to Lauren Bacall and other starlets of the 1940s. The boxlike arrangement of Blake’s Tuesday leads me to believe that he’s having a little fun in “borrowing” Cornell’s style while modifying it to his own taste and time.

Blake has become a revered figure in British art, but that doesn’t mean that the old lion’s been tamed. In The Meeting, or Have a Nice Day, Mr. Hockney (above, from 1981-1983), Blake plays off of Gustave Courbet’s 1854 The Meeting, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. Blake recasts artist David Hockney as Courbet and himself and Howard Hodgkin as the fawning patrons. Blake and Hodgkin seem out of place in their heavy clothes, but Hockney, the transplanted British artist in his new California habitat, wears informal, seasonal clothing. Behind the artists, Blake places all the stereotypical accessories of California living—palm trees, garish advertising, and beautiful blondes on roller skates. Blake is one of my favorite artists of the twentieth century for his incorrigible yen for mixing up the history of art with the pop culture of the time with equal respect for both worlds yet a sense of overall irreverence. You have to respect a man who grew up never growing up.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Private Dancer

"Different men are moved or left cold by lines according to the difference in their natures,” wrote Robert Henri. “What moves you is beautiful to you." Born June 24, 1865, Henri found women dancers moving in their beautiful, graceful movements and bodily freedom. Henri and the several other of The Eight artists found the modern dance style of Isadora Duncan especially intriguing. (John Sloan painted a portrait of Duncan in action in 1911.) Throughout his career, Henri painted many dancers, but one dancer—Betalo Rubino—captured his imagination the most as a model. From 1909 up until at least 1916, the dark eyes and hair of Betalo provided the perfect focal point for Henri’s explorations into color. Henri’s 1909 Salome remains for many the pinnacle of his career, or at least of his dancer and dancing works, but he continued to move past the colorful drama of that work and seek out new combinations. Unlike Degas, perhaps the most obsessive painter of dancers ever, Henri always paints the dancer as an individual rather than as a type. Degas’ dancers are beautiful in design, but you never feel that they are alive. In contrast, Henri’s Betalo the Dancer (above, from 1910) almost vibrates with life. The vigorous brushwork gives the sensation of movement, as if Betalo herself were suddenly caught unaware by our entrance and just turned to face the viewer.

Betalo proved to be an ideal model for exotic dress. Her athletic dancer’s physique and pretty face enhanced the exoticism of the costumes in works such as Dancer of Dehli and Dramatic Dancer, both done in 1916. In that same year of 1916, Henri painted Betalo several times in the nude. In the version above, Henri surrounds the pale-skinned, dark colored beauty with blues, grays, and whites. Like Whistler in works such as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl (1898), Henri approaches abstraction in the composition of pure color compliments and contrasts but remains in the figurative tradition through the centering theme of the nude. Betalo must have seemed like a godsend of a model to Henri in her amazing versatility. A living, breathing example of chiaroscuro, Betalo exuded the drama around which Henri could experiment in color with full freedom. Betalo’s natural grace in motion comes across in Henri’s ability to paint her lounging but simultaneously raising herself slightly from the couch, as if anticipation of something or someone.

In the painting of Betalo nude above, also from 1916, Henri surrounds his private dancer with pinks and greens. As with the blue-gray nude above, the colors around her become echoed in her pale skin. Just as the dancing costumes clothed her in other paintings, the colors around Betalo “clothe” her in these nude paintings. There’s also that same sense of movement in Betalo’s reclining pose, as if she’s right at the moment of lifting herself into a new position. I doubt Betalo could hold such a suspended pose for long, but Henri tried to work quickly to get a sense of the essence of the moment. “Do it all in one sitting if you can,” Henri said of capturing the spirit of a model. “In one minute if you can. There is no virtue in delaying." For Henri, speed and movement were more virtuous than meticulous detail. Henri’s nude paintings of Betalo Rubino and other women around 1915 and 1916 present them as vital, alive, confident women rather than passive objects receiving the artist’s gaze. For many feminist critics, female nudes represent the repressive patriarchy of art history. I agree for the most part. However, Robert Henri’s nudes express rather than repress the fullness of womanhood and present the private dancer to the public eye in all her glory.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Man Without a Country

Although Henry Ossawa Tanner rose to prominence as the first great African-American artist, in the minds of many of his contemporaries, he always remained exactly that—an “African-American” artist and not just an artist. Born June 21, 1859, Tanner painted to escape from the prejudices of his time, but still found prejudice in the American art world. “I was extremely timid and to be made to feel that I was not wanted, although in a place where I had every right to be, even months afterwards caused me sometimes weeks of pain,” Tanner wrote in his autobiography. “Every time any one of these disagreeable incidents came into my mind, my heart sank, and I was anew tortured by the thought of what I had endured, almost as much as the incident itself.” Tanner’s very presence and talent challenged the mindset of his time. In The Banjo Lesson (above, from 1893), Tanner paints an older black man teaching music to a child in a warm and exceedingly human fashion. It lacks the burlesque of Thomas EakinsThe Dancing Lesson, another scene of African-American culture being transmitted. As Alan C. Braddock points out in Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity (reviewed here), Eakins puts into paint the ideology that held African-American culture as less sophisticated than white culture. A photo of Abraham Lincoln reading with his son Tad in the upper left-hand corner of The Dancing Lesson illustrating the perceived culture gap. Even Eakins, Tanner’s teacher, fell prey to this prejudice. Perhaps thinking of the Lincolns in Eakins’ picture, Tanner paints the two generations of African-Americans in a way that recalls that picture of white father and son reading, a possibly defiant gesture for the quiet Tanner. Tanner painted The Banjo Lesson in 1893 while briefly revisiting America. Unhappy with racial conditions in the United States, Tanner moved to France in 1891 and lived there for the rest of his life.

Although Tanner’s lauded as the first great African-American painter, few of his paintings deal with race. The Banjo Lesson and a few others are actually the exceptions in his career. Tanner’s The Annunciation (above, from 1898) is actually more representative of his body of work. Using his wife as a model for the Virgin Mary receiving the angel telling her that she’s going to give birth to the messiah, Tanner creates a scene of simplicity and realism that strikes at the heart of the humanity of the scene rather than plasters piety over it. I’ve looked at this painting many times in person at the PMA and always come away touched by the depth of feeling and faith it conveys. Depicting the angel as simply a brilliant light, Tanner resists the urge to bring the heavenly down to earth through illustration. It was this great faith that allowed Tanner to go on despite racial prejudice. France must have seemed like a great oasis to him. When artists of the Harlem Renaissance such as William H. Johnson traveled to Paris in the 1920s in pursuit of a better racial climate and new art experiences, they sought out Tanner as a pioneer and a pattern for their own careers.

Tanner never returned to America. Sadly, it took many years for him to gain any recognition in his homeland. In 1996, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton oversaw the purchase of Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (above, from 1885) for the White House’s Green Room, making it the first artwork by an African-American artist to become part of the White House’s permanent collection. It was a fitting way of bringing Tanner “home,” in that rather than force the label of African-American artist on him with one of his images of black culture, the Clintons chose instead a landscape that could have been painted by anyone with great talent, regardless of skin color. Tanner had finally found the racially blind acceptance that he had looked for all along.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Wright Stuff

I had the pleasure of staying earlier this year at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, which bears many of the marks of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, although his involvement in the project is questioned. What can’t be questioned is the fact that Wright (shown above in 1954) left an indelible mark on American architecture during his long career. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Wright’s death and the opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Rizzoli, The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the Guggenheim have joined forces to publish three impressive books that celebrate the work of the master from different angles. Individually, these works shed light on Wright sometimes in small details, but, like the man himself, when assembled together, these works stack up into giant ideas and, perhaps, unrealizable ambitions. Anyone who knows the man and his work will find themselves captivated once again. Those who do not know Wright will discover the stuff of dreams—specifically, the American dream.

In Frank Lloyd Wright: American Master, 350 color photos taken by Alan Weintraub featuring over 100 discrete works by Wright provide a sometimes dizzying display of the architect’s diversity and longevity. For $30 US, this collection offers a remarkably comprehensive collection of images of all of Wright’s major projects at a reasonable price. Wright built over 500 buildings, so a work covering all of them would cost, and perhaps weight, as much as a small house. The photos dwarf Kathryn Smith’s introductory text to the sections, but Smith makes up in quality what Weintraub covers in quantity. “Like Picasso, Einstein, or Freud,” Smith writes, Wright “was a rare individual who permanently altered the fundamental way we perceive our world.” Smith deals in superlatives, but the terms seem apt when supported by the photos. Like most great artists, Wright remains an enigma surrounded by more questions than answers as we learn more about him. “In the end,” Smith concludes, “these very paradoxes and contradictions that make him so difficult to compartmentalize are what give him such lasting appeal.” Looking at Weintraub’s photos of the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, I found myself transported back to the place itself and fondly recalled the feeling of working and sleeping within a piece of art itself. Through this economical volume, people who have never had the chance at that feeling can at least press their noses against the windows.

In Frank Lloyd Wright, The Heroic Years: 1920-1932, Bruce Brooks Pfieffer concentrates on the lean years that tested Wright’s mettle and, rather than ruined him, forged him into an even greater artist and visionary. “My husband seemed to thrive on hardships,” Olgivanna, Wright’s third wife, recalled of that time. In that tumultuous decade, in addition to the “Great Depression” that plagued all of American society, Wright personally dealt with the death of his adoring mother in 1923, the death of his mentor Louis Sullivan in 1924, the (second) destruction of his Taliesin studio-home by fire in 1925, continued troubles with his second wife Miriam Noel until her death in 1930, and his descent into debt while trying to rebuild Taliesin. After the loss of Taliesin in 1926, Wright works with permanent home or studio for the rest of these “heroic” years. Despite these setbacks, Wright persevered. “He indeed seemed destined to be an architect who was not accepted by the world around him,” Pfieffer writes of Wright. “Yet that never defeated him, and he continued with ever-present optimism to continue creating buildings that rank among the most important works realized in his long career.” The greatest accomplishment of this period must be Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Completed in 1923, The Imperial Hotel that same year withstood the magnitude 7.9 Great Kantō earthquake that leveled the rest of Tokyo. Like the Imperial Hotel, Wright withstood each earth-shattering event and seemingly stood even taller in the aftermath. Pfieffer is clearly a fan, but you can’t help but join along when trial piles on trial. In 1930, after years of darkness and no hint of a bright future ahead, Wright said in a lecture, “Keep your ideal of honesty so high that you will never quite be able to reach it.” That unreachable aspect of Wright’s work comes across in the many incredible illustrations and plans that fill Pfieffer’s book, many of which are for unrealized projects. A selection of Weintraub’s photography showing realized projects of this period appears in The Heroic Years, but it is the buildings that were never built and remain pure thought and imagination that appeal even more in their sheer potential. Pfieffer picks 1932 as the end of Wright’s trial by fire because that is the year Wright opened the Taliesin Fellowship, a school for architects in which Wright hoped to spread his gospel of democratic architecture to the next generation. In 1932, the private Wright became the public Wright for the rest of his days, thus committing himself to changing the world one design at a time.

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward picks up where The Heroic Years leaves off. The catalogue to the Guggenheim exhibition of the same name, From Within Outward concentrates on the public Wright—the builder of houses of worship such as Beth Sholom Synagogue, museums such as the Guggenheim, community centers such as the Marin County Civic Center, and suburban planning projects such as the uber-democratic, near-utopian Broadacre City. “Wright’s goal was nothing less than the reinvention of the built environment in order to promote our development as individuals, enhance and enrich the social rituals and patterns of our lives, and encourage meaningful reengagement with the world around us,” Margo Stipe explains in her introductory essay, “all of which are particularly timely and worthy of our attention today.” From Within Outward presents not a retrospective of a dead figure but rather the still-living spirit of a visionary whose vision is still applicable today. Stipe points out that the then 90-year-old Wright told a television interviewer in 1957 that he’d change the country if he could only live another fifteen years. Wright had only two more years of life in him, but From Within Outward resurrects the man and his plans five decades later with more vibrantly alive illustrations of both plans completed and never begun. In his essay on Wright’s sacred spaces, Joseph M. Siry writes, “Wright created a space for the whole community to see and know itself.” Through grand designs for what America could be, Wright, that great romantic dreamer of architecture, holds up a mirror to modern America “to see and know itself” and, more importantly, wonder what it could be.

Of all the unrealized plans in these books on Wright, those for Greater Baghdad (above, from 1957-1958) captured my imagination the most. “Wright’s culminating work in Baghdad elaborated his ideal of the spirit (that sense of interior he traced to the philosophy of Lao-Tzu) in space (a continuous flow), liberating human imagination, action, and interaction,” writes Mina Marefat in her essay on the Baghdad plans in From Within Outward. Within the planned opera house, Wright placed a statue of Aladdin. “We will find all the magic of ancient times magnified,” Wright explained of this touch. “Aladdin’s lamp was a symbol merely for Imagination. Let us take this lamp inside, in the Architect’s world.” Reading these three books on Wright injects the magic of Wright into our hearts and imaginations, allowing us to reengage with the world around us and, ultimately, freeing us from the dreary offices and apartment buildings of our lives to find new spaces that spark our minds and feed our souls. Wright’s magical dream for Baghdad never became a reality, but the true message of Wright’s life is that sometimes dreams can be more real than the deadening reality around us.

[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with review copies of Frank Lloyd Wright: American Master, Frank Lloyd Wright, The Heroic Years: 1920-1932, and Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward.]

Monday, June 22, 2009


In his 1955 memoir titled It’s Me, O Lord, Rockwell Kent wrote, “There is a deeply satisfying finality about land’s end. Gone is that everlasting urge the island traveler feels to journey on and on; there are not further peaks to beckon you; you have attained the absolute.” Born June 21, 1882, Kent remains in many ways the American equivalent of England’s William Blake—a bold visionary who expressed ideas of the absolute in words and pictures. Kent’s And Women Must Weep or Shipwreck, Coast of Ireland (above, from 1927-1928) captures this sense of the absolute power of nature while simultaneously depicting the place of humanity within it. Kent studied under both Robert Henri and Abbott Thayer, two of the most spiritually oriented artists in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Henri believed deeply in vitalism and Kent clearly shared that same faith in an electric force in the universe far greater than any individual being. Kent is best known for his amazing illustrations in black and white for such classic works as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which was only rising to status as the Great American Novel when Kent illustrated a 1930 edition. As much as I love Kent’s graphic work, I think he gets even more cosmic in color.

Nudism and the cult of the body reigned in Europe in the first few decades of the twentieth century, but I’m not sure if Kent took that as his source for works such as Recumbent Nudes with Ringed Sun (above, from 1914). It’s entirely possible that Kent simply arrived at this image by extending the Romantic and Transcendentalist philosophy to the human body itself, unashamedly nude before the nourishing sun. Heliotherapy, also known as sun or light therapy, may be the source of the ringed sun baking the bodies beneath. Regardless of whether Kent subscribed to those particular cures, he did believe that freedom of the mind and soul could cure anything. For Kent, the good fight was always the fight against oppression, which won him the honor of being a target of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. An incurable traveler, Kent visited all kinds of peoples and studied their cultures closely, which allowed him to see clearly the bare truth that we’re all human beneath it all.

As fascinating as Kent’s sense of the beautiful side of the absolute is, his sense of the sublimely terrible side fascinates me even more. Kent’s House of Dread, Newfoundland (above, from 1915) shows a naked man leaning against a house built on a cliff’s edge as a crying woman leans out of a window above. The sense of dread created by the ambiguity of the situation reeks of the most dreadful works of Edvard Munch. A member of the golden age of American illustration, Kent knew the power of images to tell a story. Here, Kent tells the other side of the story of the absolute, the one fragile humanity doesn’t like hearing. Kent built a similar home on a rocky peak in Monhegan Island, Maine, that is now owned by Jamie Wyeth, grandson of another great American illustrator, N.C. Wyeth. Jamie’s style resembles that of his grandfather more than that of his father, Andrew Wyeth, so he understandably felt a kinship with Kent both artistically and spiritually. After several decades of obscurity thanks to the hostile political climate of the 1950s, Rockwell Kent has been reconnected with the body politic of art history and reminded it that it has a soul, too.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Left at the Altar

To make the grand churches of medieval Europe even grander, and to focus the altar as the true center stage, the greatest artists created works on commission to celebrate those holy spaces. Along with Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden created some of the greatest religious images of the Netherlandish school between his birth sometime in 1399 and his death on June 18, 1464. Weyden’s Deposition (above, from 1435) captures the imagination in several ways. First of all, its sheer size (over six feet tall and nearly 8 feet wide) dominates the altar area. Secondly, the colors of the nearly life-sized figures’ garments strike us with their brilliance almost six centuries after they were first applied. Finally, our eye begins to unravel the fugue of movement enacted by the figures. Each figure plays out some small narrative that adds up to the total effect. Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary, seem to fall in tandem—he clothed in only his marble-like skin and her in a brilliant blue gown of intricate folds. Saint John pulls Mary to the left while Joseph of Arimethaea pulls the dead Jesus off to the right, perhaps echoing the act of the protective doors of the altarpiece opening to reveal this central scene. The action is as high keyed as the color, but there’s no sense of frenzy. Rather, everything seems carefully orchestrated, like different voices all singing at once in a scene from an opera. Or, more aptly for the time, each character “sings” a theme in the great polyphony of action just like the polyphonic music played in the cathedral around it.

The Deposition is the earliest work attributed to Weyden, who would have been in his mid-30s at the time. No work can be conclusively linked to Weyden through documentation. Only traditions tell us that he painted The Deposition and other works, such as the Crucifixion Triptych (above, from 1445). The common theme that drives art historians to attribute such works to Weyden is the signature color, energy, and composition. Weyden unifies all three pieces of the triptych by extending the landscape left and right, although the central scene can easily stand on its own. Mary Magdalene, on the left, and Saint Veronica, on the right, literally stand in the wings, painted on the reverse of the doors normally left closed to protect the central crucifixion panel. The Crucifixion Triptych is less crowded than The Deposition, but there is still a great sense of balance within the interplay of the figures. Christ physically and theologically centers the work, while the women in the wings balance one another out as if they were standing upon a great scale with the cross itself as a fulcrum. My favorite part of this work is the dark little angels in the distance, flitting in the air like musical notes and rhyming with the ends of Christ’s loincloth dancing in the breeze. Again, Weyden demonstrates great musicality in this work, but, in contrast to the active contrapuntal themes of The Deposition, we “hear” here a more restrained, somber adagio.

In The Last Judgment Polyptych (above, from 1446-1452), Weyden uses the multiple doors to visually drag us down to Hell or rise with us to Heaven. We begin in the center, where the risen Christ sits in judgment. Moving to the right, we progress deeper and deeper into the darker ranges of Hell itself. Unlike, say, in the works of Hieronymus Bosch, who paints after Weyden, we see little of Hell’s horrors here. Moving to the left, however, we ascend to the realm of the elect. Weyden elects to accentuate the positive in this depiction of the Last Judgment, which would literally unfold before the eyes of viewers as the doors of the fifteen panels were opened one after another. Weyden painted this polyptych for a chapel for a large hall for the poor and the sick. Just as Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece inspired patients suffering from skin diseases to bear their burden like Christ bore his cross, Weyden’s Last Judgment inspired patients to accept their suffering as the path to greater glory in Heaven. I like to think of the great unfolding of the multiple panels of this polyptych as an unfolding of the church’s “arms” to embrace these unfortunate souls who found little reward on Earth. In this installment of the “soundtrack” of Weyden’s art, you might hear a joyful chorus doing their best to be angelic in singing a song of praise and, through that praise, consolation for humanity.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Calling All Angels

The idea of war as a thrilling, almost religious force is often associated with men, but it was a woman, Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, who created one of the first visionary works of art celebrating World War I. Born June 16, 1881, Goncharova has been dubbed by some as one of the "Amazons of the avant-garde" and, like her mythical namesake, didn’t hesitate to join the fray when nationalist heat reached fever pitch in 1914. Goncharova’s print A Christ Loving Host (above, from 1914) belongs to a suite of fourteen prints she titled Mystical Images of War. Russia and many other countries in the Great War saw it as an opportunity to wage holy war in the name of their faith (with God, of course, “on their side”). Led by the Russian Minister of Religion, the Russian Orthodox church worked with the Russian military to persecute Jews, Muslims, and Catholics in Russia and neighboring areas such as Poland and the Ukraine. Whether Goncharova was aware of this persecution is unclear, but there’s nothing unclear about her faith in the justness and even holiness of the Russian cause in the war as she places angels literally on the shoulders of soldiers marching into war. The simplicity of these prints illustrates their public nature as they were meant to advertise to the public why they needed to support the war if they wanted to be part of the “Christ-loving host,” too.

The Order of the White Eagle is a Polish medal of honor, but the Russian Tsars adopted the white eagle as a symbol for themselves as well. In another of her Mystical Images of War, Goncharova depicts The White Eagle (above, from 1914) swooping down and defeating a darker, more sinister bird in metaphorical combat. Adopting a totem animal such as the white eagle is part of Goncharova’s plan to use the myth and folklore of Russia itself to add symbolic weight to her modernist techniques. The slashing lines of her birds’ wings and talons convey a sense of the violence and speed of the fight. There’s a great sense of energy in this print, which is meant to thrill the viewer and incite participation in the war. The beginning of World War I in Russia saw a renaissance of the popular print broadside form known as the “lubki.” Although Goncharova works in the rarified air of the fine arts, her Mystical Images of War simultaneously get down in the streets with the people, whipping them into a frenzy to become avenging birds of prey as well.

Goncharova was well aware of the art movements prevailing in Europe at the advent of the war. In 1912, she exhibited with Der Blaue Reiter in Germany and corresponded with Kandinsky. She painted many works similar to those of the Italian Futurists that resembling the work of Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla. Goncharova’s Angels and Aeroplanes (above, from 1914) may be the most Italian Futurist of the Mystical suite, pairing the heavenly with the hellish instruments of war. She called her brand of Futurism Rayonism for the stylized rays radiating out in the images as well as radiating out a message to the masses of war and technology as a hope for the future. The angels’ wings spread out in Angels and Aeroplanes both in a protective fashion and to echo the wings of the planes, as if the planes were God’s instruments on Earth. Aside from being a fascinating document of the Russian avant-garde, Goncharova’s Mystical Images of War is a rare work of fine art celebrating war done by a top-notch artist rather than a propagandist hack. For someone as intelligent and sensitive as Goncharova to be swept up in the apocalyptic war mania, the impulse to call all angels into the service of her country’s cause must have been irresistable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cracking the Code

As the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition Cezanne and Beyond proved earlier this year, Paul Cezanne sired many artistic “sons,” including equally influential artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Cezanne’s family tree spreads far and wide and includes many “daughters,” as well, including the Portuguese artist Maria Elena Vieira da Silva. Born June 13, 1908, Vieira da Silva began her studies in Lisbon, Portugal, but by her teens was already in Paris studying with the likes of Fernand Leger, who had his own “Daddy” issues with Cezanne to deal with. Maria soon took the lessons of Cezanne and extended them in her own way, as so many followers of Cezanne have. The atomization of reality that Cezanne approached in his depiction of mountains and still lives becomes almost total in works such as Vieira da Silva’s Dance (above, from 1938). Her approach falls between several different movements while brushing up against them. The approach is Cubist without rendering the subject totally unrecognizable. Cezanne-like colors remain, but the geometry of the shapes predominates over the subject matter itself. Especially in works such as Dance, there’s a sense of movement, yet that movement comes from a geometrical pattern rather than from the near-biological shapes of Futurism, which animated Cubism, which came out of Cezanne. Vieira da Silva mothers this incestuous blending of styles into a style uniquely her own.

The idea of Viera da Silva’s art as a kind of code to be decoded comes across most clearly in The Chess Game (above, from 1943). The checkered pattern of the chessboard extends beyond the table not only to the players themselves but also to the very landscape itself. All of reality becomes a game to be played and comprehended by the intellect and the imagination in tandem. Vieira da Silva would have loved The Matrix films. Surrounded by all the different theories of modern art swirling around Europe in the first half of the twentieth century (half of which Picasso created or improved), Vieira da Silva rose above the individual codes and got metaphysical. Maria’s meta-code of pure plane geometry may be the purest homage to Cezanne himself, who was always wary of theorizing and preferred to view his personal vision as exactly that, a personal vision of the world captured in art. Vieira da Silva resists all these influences without ignoring them in holding onto her own creative personality. She painted The Chess Game not only while these art movements squared off against each other, but also while nations waged the “great game” of World War II for nothing less than world control.

Vieira da Silva spent the war years back in Lisbon, but she returned to her second home of Paris in 1947, living there for the rest of her days. Her Paris (above, from 1951) renders her beloved adopted city as another kind of code. The city itself remained fractured at the time, still rebuilding after the war. The colored windows of the buildings resemble the checkerboard world of The Chess Game. Without the title, it would be impossible to guess what Vieira da Silva is painting here. With that clue, however, our minds search the lines for the edges of buildings and the streets lined with cafes and homes. Vieira da Silva invites us to crack the code she sets up and discover the same Paris she discovered over the course of her life. In 1956, Vieira da Silva became a French citizen. In 1966, the French government awarded her the Grand Prix National des Arts, making her the first female recipient. In 1979, France named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Step by step, over the years, Vieira da Silva drew herself deeper into the maze of French culture and art, becoming one, if not “The One,” with the puzzle that is Paris.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One of the Boys

Is there any more macho American art movement than Abstract Expressionism? Just say the phrase and an image of hard-drinking and living artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning shouting opinions over liquor served at the Cedar Tavern comes to mind. What’s missing from that picture of men being men in the rough business of modern art is the very real presence of women, especially one woman—Grace Hartigan. In Grace Hartigan: Shattering Boundaries, an Amici Films documentary created and produced by Alice Shure and Janice Stanton, Grace Hartigan reclaims her place at the table with the boys club. Shure and Stanton recreate the smoky atmosphere of the time and recover the role Hartigan played in that movement. Both an artistic and a feminist statement, Grace Hartigan: Shattering Boundaries shows how one woman broke through the glass ceiling of the art world in the most masculine and hostile environments imaginable.

In many ways, the Cedar Tavern became Hartigan’s university. Hartigan had viewed one of Pollock’s earliest drip painting exhibitions and contacted Pollock to express her appreciation of his work, which was still poorly understood in the mainstream art world. Pollock invited Grace to visit him and Lee Krasner. (Pollock even baked an apple pie for the occasion.) Grace later met de Kooning through Pollock. de Kooning then invited Grace to join the Cedar Tavern circle, where she met poets such as Frank O’Hara and other artists such as Franz Kline. Kline and Hartigan eventually became lovers, but it was Grace’s relationship with O’Hara, who appealed to her Rilke-quoting side, that was deeper and more lasting. Although estranged for several years in the 1960s, Hartigan and O’Hara reunited in 1966, shortly before O’Hara’s tragic death. Hartigan painted Frank O'Hara (above, from 1966) soon after his death as a remembrance of their time together and the close ties of the Cedar Tavern days. Through Hartigan, the film emphasizes the supportiveness rather than the competitiveness of the Abstract Expressionist community. Their shared poverty due to no sales united them against the rest of the art world, even as figures such as John Cage and Dylan Thomas briefly wandered through their closeted world. Grace herself modeled nude for other artists at 95 cents an hour to stave off hunger. Thanks to Hartigan, we see the “softer” side of Abstract Expressionism that the macho men never revealed.

But, as the interview footage of Hartigan clearly demonstrates, she was no softie. Making her way in the boys’ club of art took great courage and sacrifices. To “pass” as a true, manly Abstract Expressionist, Grace even exhibited under the name George Hartigan in 1953 (above), something that she greatly regretted later. Through curators and art historians, the film examines with great insight the paradox of a woman painter trying to paint in a “masculine” style while remaining feminine and not losing the perspective of her gender. Hartigan’s Months and Moons, painted in 1950, connects the menstrual cycle with the lunar cycle and injects a female presence into the Abstract Expressionist school. Recounting this amazing balancing act, the filmmakers recover a lost side of the Abstract Expressionist movement while taking care not to reduce Hartigan to “just” a woman painter. From beginning to end, they stress how Hartigan never failed to be “a painter’s painter” who was the only woman to appear in such seminal 1950s exhibitions as Twelve Americans and American Painting.

Why then, do we not know the name of Grace Hartigan as easily as that of Pollock or de Kooning? Certainly gender played a big role, but Hartigan’s choice to leave New York City after marrying and move to Maryland divorced her from the heart of the art world. Hartigan’s New York Rhapsody (above, from 1960, the year she left) displays the affection she had for her home, but the true love of Winston Price drew her to a new home, where she continued to paint and began to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art. One commenter explains how this physical separation was compounded by irate New York dealers intent on ruining Hartigan’s reputation as revenge for her leaving. Free of the long shadows of the New York art scene, Grace continued to grow as an artist, copying Old Masters paintings in a self-administered art history education and later incorporating pop culture imagery into her work that won her the title “Mother of Pop Art,” despite the fact that she hated the label.

Perhaps the most enjoyable section of the film involves interviews with Hartigan’s students, who laugh as they recount her ominous silences while judging their work but always return to the theme of her equal parts toughness and fairness. Grace ran a gauntlet of alcoholism, her husband’s mental illness and eventual death, her own suicide attempt, and crippling hip problems and came out the other end with her Matisse-like painterly qualities intact in works such as Another Birthday (above, from 1971). The filmmakers portray Hartigan as such an indestructible force that it’s hard to believe that she passed away shortly after the film was first screened. “In painting I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos,” Hartigan once wrote. Even into the twenty-first century, Hartigan continued to look for sense in chaos, painting in response to the 9/11 attacks Angels over Manhattan, in which she imagines the angels of Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire saddened by the carnage. Grace Hartigan’s legacy has found two angels in Shure and Stanton, who have traced the (il)logic of Hartigan’s disappearance from art history and returned all the color and bravura of the artist’s person and work to center stage. Both a touching tribute and a feminist manifesto, Grace Hartigan: Shattering Boundaries breaks up the old lies and builds up a new truth.

[Many thanks to Microcinema for providing me with a review copy of Grace Hartigan: Shattering Boundaries.]

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taking the Sacraments

In the late 1630s, Cassiano del Pozzo commissioned Nicolas Poussin to paint seven works based on the Baptism, Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Born June 15, 1594, Poussin brought his characteristic intellectual approach to these paintings, looking for the perfect historical and theological setting upon which to stage each of these works. The idea of somehow abstractly depicting these everyday miracles never would have occurred to Poussin. Today, only six of the original paintings still exist, with Penance lost in a fire in the early nineteenth century. In Confirmation (above, from 1637-1640), one of the remaining del Pozzo commissions, Poussin selects the church of Sant'Atanasio dei Greci in Rome, which was built for Rome’s Byzantine citizens after the patriarch of Constantinople permitted them to receive the Catholic-style sacraments. As a young boy is anointed, another boy holds the pascal candle used on Holy Saturday, the evening before Easter, when the Catholic church receives new souls into its body on Earth. Poussin picks the exact time and place at which the preeminence of the Catholic Church is confirmed by its acceptance by another culture. The boy, the sacrament itself, and the very church are confirmed simultaneously in a mystical triple play.

The main knock against Poussin, if you can call it that, is the cool, almost cold logic of his works. You don’t get any sense of religious fervor from his Confirmation. The painting casts light but no heat. It’s as if Mr. Spock were to pick up a brush. But like Spock, Poussin does allow his “human” side to show at times. Although most of the other del Pozzi sacramental paintings share Confirmation’s cool, Poussin’s Baptism (above, from 1642) turns up the heat a bit. The classic Poussin landscape, all full of convincing depth and weight, supports rather than overwhelms the figures, as it can in other works by Poussin. Poussin painted Baptism among the last of the del Pozzi group but works with a freer, more imaginative hand than in works such as Confirmation. Instead of the meticulous detail and pointed allusions of Confirmation, Poussin uses the moment at which John the Baptist pours water over the head of Jesus. Rather than dazzle with a construction of his own making, Poussin uses the time-honored theme of Jesus’ baptism to show off his painter’s heart rather than his painter’s brain. Poussin sets the stars of the show off center, to the right. Instead, he places others just baptized or waiting their turn, just as Christians even today await their turn to have their sins washed away. Through that move, Poussin connects the past with the present and finds the true meaning of the sacrament.

In 1644, Paul Fréart de Chantelou commissioned Poussin to paint a series on the seven sacraments for him. Rather than copy the first set for del Pozzi, Poussin followed the cue of the Baptism scene he painted last. Of this second set, Poussin’s Eucharist (above, from 1647) is the most moving. The darkness of the scene is positively Caravaggioesque. The disciples gather around Christ and the dim light in the center and eat the bread just offered. Off to the left, Judas makes his escape to set the betrayal in motion. da Vinci’s Last Supper may be the iconic standard of this theme, but Poussin’s take breathes and lives in a way that da Vinci’s two-dimensional depiction does not. Poussin makes the darkness of the room tangible as we visually probe deeper to discern the faces and expressions of the disciples. The huddled nature of the figures arranges them in a much more casual and realistic way than da Vinci’s “group photo” look. Again, Jesus is slightly off-center, but not as off-center as in the Baptism painting. The very nature of the Eucharist demands that Jesus remain the focus, but Poussin allows the disciples to share the limelight here, thus making them stand in for Christians today who reenact that Last Supper in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Perhaps Poussin needed to work out the thoughts teeming in his brain before he could engage the sacraments fully with his heart.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Of the many problems that I had with Raul Ruiz’s 2006 film Klimt (reviewed here), which starred John Malkovich as Gustav Klimt, perhaps the biggest obstacle to my enjoyment was the portrayal of Egon Schiele by Nikolai Kinski, son of the great German actor Klaus Kinski. Nikolai plays Schiele like Klimt’s Renfield, following the lead of the character from the original Bela Lugosi Dracula film. I’m going to give Nikolai the benefit of a doubt and assume that he was following the director’s wishes to channel Peter Lorre, since the rest of the film suffers from equally poor actors’ motivations. Born June 12, 1890, Schiele has always suffered from the stigma of being an outsider. Self-portraits such as the 1912 one above don’t help his case. Many people accept these self-portraits at face value. Nikolai Kinski almost seems to mimic the self-portraits, especially with the continual eccentric hand poses, as if that’s how Schiele went around all day. Because of his liberated views towards sexuality and intense artistic style, Schiele found himself an outcast in his day, accepted by only a handful of kindred spirits such as Klimt. But even today, almost a century after Schiele’s death, he remains an outcast in the art world, an oddity of such remarkable power that we almost can’t seem to look at him directly.

Schiele was an oddball, don’t get me wrong. The drawing of Gerti Schiele in a Plaid Gown (above, from 1909) is remarkably beautiful, but when you learn that Gerti was Schiele’s teenage sister, it’s hard not to get a creepy feeling. Perhaps I’m revealing my own prudishness, but Schiele pushed the sexual envelope well into the danger zone, landing himself in jail on one occasion after watching a judge burn his artwork right there in the courtroom. The violence Schiele does to the human body in his depiction of it reminds me of how Matthias Grünewald tortured the body of Christ in his Isenheim Altarpiece. Grunewald served as a Germanic artistic hero for many German and Austrian artists at the beginning of the twentieth century—a “modern” artist painting five hundred years before them. Like his contemporaries, the Expressionists, Schiele enacts upon the human form the same violence he sees besetting humanity as part of the modern condition. Yet, Schiele resists painting pure angst. The plaid gown barely covering Gerti’s lower half is beautiful in design and execution. Schiele saw past the angst and recognized the beauty of life. It was this vision that allowed him to see past conventional mores and depict the beauty in body and soul of his young sister.

Who knows what direction Schiele would have gone had not the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic took his life at 28 years of age just days after claiming his wife Edith’s life. Living with Edith brought love and stability to Schiele’s life for perhaps the first time, despite the call of World War I. Edith gave Egon someone and something to return to. Schiele’s Embrace (above, from 1917) epitomizes the romanticism of this final stage of his career. To achieve a bird’s eye view in this work and others, Schiele sometimes mounted a ladder when sketching from live models. In Embrace, it is as if heaven itself looked down upon the lovers and gave its blessing. The sheets upon which they lay radiate out like a sun. The folds crackle with the energy of the couple’s passion. Many people read disease or death in how Schiele portrays the human body, but I see a plastic type of electricity flowing through the limbs. Arms and legs become conduits for power they can’t contain. When Edith died, it was as if life had pulled the plug on Schiele. He lost all will to fight on without her. For the three days he waited for death to reunite him with his love, Schiele sketched Edith from memory, as if he could resurrect her through art itself.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Correspondence Course

One of the reasons that modern art has left much of the public behind is the sheer weight of the theorizing that has gone into so many movements. The importance of a blank canvas buttressed by a manifesto leaves even some interested parties bewildered. What, then, should we make of the theory-less theorist—William Baziotes. Born June 11, 1912, Baziotes painted in a Surrealist style and frequented Abstract Expressionist circles with Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell, but he resisted easy categorization. In 1947 he confessed his theoretical agnosticism in an essay titled, “I Can’t Evolve Any Concrete Theory,” a shocking admission in an age when Clement Greenberg and others wrung theoretical juice from everything at hand. Baziotes takes his cue from French Symbolist poets such as Charles Baudelaire. Yet, unlike other artists, such as Gustav Klimt or Edvard Munch, Baziotes leaves easily recognizable forms such as the human body behind. Instead, Baziotes subscribes to Baudelaire’s idea of “correspondences” in which all natural things are equal to the point that anything can symbolize a vast number of things. Baudelaire writes in the poem “Correspondences,” “Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance/ In a deep and tenebrous unity, / Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day, / Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.” Baziotes translates Baudelaire’s mystic ideas into paint in works such as The Flesh Eaters (above, from 1952), in which biomorphic forms that look natural but resist identification interact to generate a narrative built by each viewer from the depths of their own imagination. The Flesh Eaters of the title can be cannibals, Polyphemus the cyclops eating Odysseus’ crew, or a larger metaphor for humanity’s self-consuming desires run amok. The possibilities, like nature, are endless.

Baziotes worked extremely slowly, completing only one or two works during his prime years in the 1950s. While Jackson Pollock stepped on the gas and dripped his way to fame and infamy, Baziotes applied the brakes, quietly mediating over his works before allowing himself to begin the act of painting itself. "I want my pictures to take effect very slowly,” Baziotes claimed, “to obsess and haunt." Baziotes’ Dusk (above, from 1958) haunts through its elusiveness. The dusky pink shape and trailing ribbons of green, blue, and white are all that interrupt the pensive grey background. While teaching and painting in New York City, Baziotes frequented the Greek sculpture and pottery collections. Of Greek descent himself, Baziotes may have identified with the classical forms on multiple levels. The lines in Dusk resemble on one level the cracks in ancient vases they wear like the proud scars of millennia. Longing to replicate the eternalness of nature itself, Baziotes evokes the next best thing in terms of human creativity—the oldest and most lasting forms remaining. In many ways, Baziotes’ Dusk is his version of KeatsOde on a Grecian Urn. Both conclude that "’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ —that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

As with the work of Robert Motherwell, I see a lot of Zen in Baziotes’ painting. In the same vein, I also sense a lot of Jung in Baziotes’ approach. In works such as Aquatic (above, from 1961), Baziotes looks to tap into what Jung called “the collective unconscious.” Again, the forms look like something we’ve seen in reality but Baziotes’ skews them just enough to make them seem dreamlike. In Aquatic, Baziotes becomes an artist of the floating world, riding the currents of his unconscious with the faith that his audience will meet him on the same high seas. As with the connection to ancient sculpture in Dusk, Aquatic connects back to the primordial sea, the source of all life on Earth. Baziotes titled this work to make the sea link clear, but I think the imagery itself would eventually lead most onlookers to that watery source. I began with the idea that Baziotes was theory-free and then proceeded to drop the names of Baudelaire and Jung to impose theory on him once again, whether Baziotes wanted to or not. Strip away all these ideas and even the titles of the works, however, and you still find yourself drawn to them as if called by something instinctual. It’s unfortunate that Baziotes’ art is often swamped by the bigger names of American art in the 1950s, but the intentional timelessness of his works gives them a “patience” that still may one day be rewarded.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Nothing to Lose

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,
Feelin’ good was easy, lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

—From “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster

It takes a lot of self-confidence to paint yourself as a kind of madman. The basic premise of Jay A. Clarke’s Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth (my review here) is that Edvard Munch adopted the persona of a disturbed man for both artistic and commercial reasons. Munch, like many other artists of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, followed the cue of the original artistic madman—Gustave Courbet. Born June 10, 1819, Courbet initiated a second “birth” with the Self-Portrait also known as The Desperate Man (above, from 1843). Courbet, of course, like Munch, had full command of all his senses. Armed with the knowledge that no publicity is bad publicity, Courbet courted controversy and positioned himself at the center of the Parisian art world for all to see. “I am the most arrogant man in France,” Courbet proclaimed and set out to prove it. Behind that arrogance, however, lay great talent—the “steak” behind the “sizzle.” What separates Courbet and Munch from the masses of self-promoters is that they always had the goods to back up the marketing.

In 1869, Courbet announced, “I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty.’” Courbet isolated himself from all ties, yet never separated himself from the mainstream so far that his works lost all profitability. Like Edouard Manet would do just a short decade later, Courbet lived both in and outside the academy. Manet continued to paint in a mostly academic style, yet his subject matter broke new ground. Courbet broke new ground in turning the relationship of the artist and the patron on its head. In The Meeting, or "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet" (above, from 1854), Courbet paints himself meeting two prospective clients. Their styles of clothing clearly demarcate Courbet as the poor bohemian standing before wealthy patronage. Yet, the patronizing is done by Courbet. The two men on the left doff their hats before him, like royalty. They address him first, rather than the other way around. Courbet clearly paints himself in the position of power, owner of a higher authority thanks to his artistic skills. There’s a great sense of democratic values in this painting in that Courbet suggests a meritocracy based on talent to supplant the previous hierarchy based on wealth and nobility. Courbet wrests the title from those in power and crowns himself king.

As I said, Courbet never lacked for confidence, or for the talent to back up his boasts. In The Wave (above, from 1869), Courbet puts aside brushes and moves paint around purely with palette knives, as if he could channel the very forces of nature through the power of his own will. Renoir so loved this work that he surfed the same turf a decade later in his own freeform version. To get such brilliant effects from gesture, those gestures need to be totally uninhibited, free of all hesitation. The Wave shows Courbet at his most self-assured, a king in his own artistic kingdom. Renoir and others aspired to that level of self-confidence to armor themselves against the blows of critics as Impressionism gained favor with the public. Courbet led by example. Paradoxically, his example taught others that you need to find your own way and not follow the example of others. Just as Courbet belonged to no school, there is no school of Courbet imitators slavishly mimicking his works. People who understood the true Courbet knew that the best tribute to him was to be as confident in your art as he was in his.