Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tangled up in Blue

When Annie and I visited the MoMA, she pointed at Yves Klein’s Blue Monochrome (above, from 1961) and declared it her least favorite work in the place. Annie’s not alone. Born April 27, 1928, Yves Klein’s monochrome works, all done in his famous “own” color, International Klein Blue, rank high up there on the “I can do that” and “That’s not art” lists. Klein’s importance lies not in his technical skills but in the thought behind his art. Whereas Kazimir Malevich worked with white and black to plumb the depths of spirituality in his monochromatic Suprematism, Klein found a sense of infinity and even fun in his blue worlds. After studying Rosicrucianism and Eastern religions, Klein brought a personal sense of Zen to his art, combining the emptiness of the void with the purity of sensory appreciation found in color. “All facts that are contradictory are authentic principles of an explanation of the universe,” Klein once wrote, trying to explain the dual nature of his monochromes that are simultaneously empty and full. “Truly, fire is one of these principles, essentially contradictory, one from the other, since it is both the sweetness and torture that lies at the heart and origin of our civilization.” By painting his troublesome monochromes, Klein truly played with fire, holding a torch to the traditions of art while also shedding new light on how to see the world.

Klein used both traditional brushes and “living brushes” to create his works, which he called Anthropometries (one example above). Klein would often “paint” his works by applying paint to the nude bodies of young women and then orchestrate their movements on the paper. In 1960, Klein created a multimedia monochromatic, Zen moment when he conducted The Monotone Symphony. As a crowd of a hundred people watched and listened, Klein led a group of ten musicians playing a single note for 20 minutes as three nude women rolled in paint poured on a huge sheet of paper. Klein combined the showmanship of Salvador Dali with the philosophical depth of Marcel Duchamp. Which of those two poles—Dali or Duchamp—Klein favored more, however, is in the eye of the beholder.

Klein himself staged a performance piece for the photograph Leap Into the Void (above, from 1960). Working without a net, Klein himself leaps from a wall and appears headed towards certain injury on the hard street below. Klein claimed that the photo proved he was capable of flight, making the Space Race going on at the time superfluous. By jumping into the clear, blue sky, Klein physically acted out what he wanted us to all do imaginatively with his monochromatic paintings. “Malevich was actually standing before the infinite,” Klein once said of his predecessor. “I am in it.” Sure, anyone can paint a plain blue canvas, but how many people can say that they’ve lived in it?

Yankee Ingenuity

As comfortable on a baseball diamond as he was in an art studio, Edmund Tarbell epitomized the spirit of the Ten American Painters group he helped found with Robert Henri and others. Born April 26, 1862, Tarbell’s Impressionist works such as In the Orchard (above, from 1891) seem out of place with the group later known as the Ashcan School. While William Glackens, John Sloan, and others depicted the grittier side of turn of the twentieth century America, Tarbell painted the more cultured circles he and his family inhabited, while still keeping his common touch. In the Orchard certainly gives an Impressionist feel, but it’s a feel felt second hand, perhaps through the works of Tarbell’s contemporary, John Singer Sargent, who knew several Impressionists personally and transmitted their style across the Atlantic when he came back to America in search of portrait commissions. Whereas French Impressionism distills a decidedly old tradition of landscape in a new mode, the Americanized Impressionism of Tarbell reflects the new American vocabulary of vigorous living, including the “New Woman,” whose freedom and vivacity are epitomized here in the person of Tarbell’s wife holding court at the center of the painting.

I find Tarbell interesting because of the way he could incorporate so many different elements into his art. Henri’s philosophy of painting what you know and love in the here and now certainly informs all of Tarbell’s painting, but the style in which he depicted that reality borrowed from many sources. Tarbell’s Impressionist works appeal to many, but he was versatile and talented enough to paint more photographically as well. New England Interior (above, from 1906) shows Tarbell’s love of Vermeer. You could almost mistake it for a Vermeer if not for the clothing and furniture. In Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (my review here), Ruth Bernard Yeazell shows how the idea of Vermeer and Dutch painting as a specific type of realism influenced novelist in the nineteenth century. I would argue that Tarbell combines the realism extolled by Henri with that proposed by Vermeer and arrives at a fascinating synthesis that is both contemporary and traditional.

We associate the Ashcan School mainly with the boxing paintings of Glackens or the street scenes of Sloan, but Tarbell offers a different strata of society in Preparing for the Matinee (above, from 1907). As with New England Interior, this painting shows the influence of Vermeer, but it also gives us a slice of the life of leisure and entertainment the Ashcan artists examined as so wonderfully presented in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ exhibition Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925 (my review here). As American society finally found time to have fun and enjoy the prosperity it had wrought, Tarbell and others captured not only the visuals of that transformation but the energy behind it. Tarbell’s Yankee ingenuity in bringing so many disparate elements of art to his personal vision of American life parallels the Yankee ingenuity that made his native New England and all of early twentieth-century America an exciting place to be.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Parade’s Gone By

Thanks to a friend who’s obsessive when it comes to the work of Andrew Wyeth, I recently got to see a never-released short film done in the mid 1970s by director King Vidor called Metaphor, in which Vidor receives a fan letter from Wyeth and travels from California to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania to visit Wyeth and discuss the connection between Wyeth’s art and Vidor’s 1925 film The Big Parade. (Costars Renée Adorée and John Gilbert appear above in a still from the film). The film only exists publicly on a DVD that was distributed by a French film magazine. Tag Gallagher in his “How to Share a Hill” explains far better than I can the cinematic ties between the painter and director, but I had to share some of my own reactions to seeing the film, which, as Vidor himself says, may be the first time a major artist acknowledged that a movie had influenced his art.

Wyeth appears so rarely on film that any footage is fascinating, but this work is doubly interesting because he’s in the position of the fan, totally in awe of King Vidor. N. C. Wyeth took 8-year-old Andy and the rest of the clan to see The Big Parade when it came out in 1925 on a big screen in Wilmington, Delaware. In the documentary, Wyeth brags that he’d seen The Big Parade over 180 times in his life. (Since Metaphor is easily 30 years old, that number most likely tops 200 now.) Wyeth clearly connected with the story of a young man (Gilbert) enlisting for World War I against the wishes of his sweetheart, falling for a young French girl (Adoree) while deployed, wounded in battle (losing a leg), returning home to find life after “the big parade” to be unsatisfying, and then returning to the French girl he’d left behind and true love. In that reunion scene, Gilbert comes limping over a hill very similar to that Wyeth painted in Winter 1946 (above). When Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, first saw the film, she pointed out the similarity to Wyeth and it dawned on the artist that many of his works had been subconsciously influenced by the movie. (Betsy’s appearance in Metaphor may be the only existing footage of her speaking about her husband’s art.) The fact that the images from The Big Parade lingered in Wyeth’s vast visual subconscious and bubbled up unawares in many of his works gives us just a tantalizing glimpse into the way that his mind works when creating art.

Even Wyeth’s most famous work, Christina's World (above, from 1948) “borrows” from that hilltop scene in The Big Parade to an extent. When I began watching Metaphor, I was prepared to learn that Wyeth was a fan of silent films. (I’m a big fan of silent films myself. The title of this post alludes to Kevin Brownlow’s great book on the subject. I’m in the middle of a personal Louise Brooks film festival thanks to Netflix.) It became clear after a while, however, that Wyeth wasn’t a fan of silent films but of this one particular silent film. When Wyeth asks how the special effect of Gilbert’s missing leg was achieved, Vidor answers that Lon Chaney, Sr., the great silent film actor and master of early makeup effects, helped them, but the name doesn’t seem to register with Wyeth. I might be wrong, of course, and reading Wyeth’s expression wrong, but his lack of enthusiasm over hearing that name in contrast to his squeals of delight over every other revelation by Vidor leads me to think that Wyeth connected with this one film and never, ever let go. The associations with his late father N.C., the ostensible “subject” of Winter 1946, who first took Andy to see the movie, and then with Karl Kuerner, Sr., a former German World War I soldier, who posed for some of Andy’s greatest portraits, sometimes in uniform, made this film a permanent part of Andy’s psyche. Each repeated viewing simply reinforced those associations. The lack of a soundtrack added to the film’s power in that Wyeth could provide his own internal soundtrack as he drank in the visuals.

As silly as it may sound, this link between Wyeth and The Big Parade reminded me of the origin of the Batman character. For those of you who aren’t comic nerds like myself, Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed after seeing The Mark of Zorro. Associating their death with that movie, Bruce vows to become a caped hero himself, eventually coming up with the Batman persona. Wyeth obviously doesn’t fight crime, but the power of cinema to cling to the senses and intertwine with emotions is the same in both cases. Wyeth himself has claimed that Winter 1946 marked the beginning of his real career as an artist. It does in the sense that it commemorates his late father while simultaneously declaring his stylistic independence. In addition, it marks the beginning of Wyeth’s use of the amazing transformative power of his visual memory, taking those “stills” from The Big Parade locked away in his memory and using them to create his own artistic vision. Wyeth indeed “shares” this hill, as Gallagher asserts, but he also makes it uniquely his own.

[Many thanks to my friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) for providing me with a copy of this “bootleg” documentary and for discussing the film with me, thus helping me shape my thoughts about it.]

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Whole New World

When the Taliban destroyed the amazing giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, the world mourned the loss of a great, if little known cultural landmark. Few researchers had ever ventured into that region of war-torn Afghanistan. After American forces invaded post-9/11, scientists could finally analyze that site and discover what lay in the caves behind the giant statues. Those scientists now report finding in the caves paintings (shown above and below) dating from the fifth to the ninth century AD that were done in oil, centuries before Europeans “discovered” the technique of oil painting in the fifteenth century. It apparently took this long for them for the necessary experiments to be performed to establish the composition of the paintings, which are in bad shape from the passage of time, exposure to the elements, and exposure to the iconoclastic vandalism of the Taliban, but the evidence is clear.

All the standard histories of the development of painting state pretty confidently that oil painting began in Europe in the fifteenth century, replacing previous techniques of applying pigment using egg or glue prepared from animals. All those histories now need to be rewritten. In America, this story is getting some play, but not nearly as much play as I think it merits. Western civilization wants to believe that they invented everything, leaving “backward” Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in the dust. This story really crushes that narrative, which most people with any understanding of the Middle East’s contributions to mathematics and science or Asian achievements in technology and exploration didn’t accept anyway. The fact that such a landmark of civilization happens first in Afghanistan, the home of our ostensible “enemy,” and was most likely painted by Silk Road artisans bringing the technique from China, another “enemy,” albeit one heavily investing in America right now, hurts those who see everything as a contest for supremacy. It is literally dis-Orienting in the sense that we have “lost our East” (the original meaning of disorient). Personally, I see this as a great opportunity.

We now know that the first face painted in oil belongs not to Jesus Christ in fifteenth-century Europe but to the Buddha (above) in seventh-century Afghanistan. You can see this as some kind of race with winners and losers, if you want to, but I see it as proof of the power of other faiths and other cultures to match and even surpass Western culture in terms of development. We may have “lost our East” in terms of the failed fiction we chose to believe, but we can re-Orient ourselves to the truth through this revelation. The first step to peace may be an acceptance of the value of these other cultures, thus curtailing the dehumanization and debasement vital to finding the energy to wage war on another part of the world. Ironically, the Taliban’s destructive actions at Bamiyan may have provided the key to their ultimate downfall. I say all this knowing that the chances are slim that such a cultural turning point can have a larger impact on American society, which has made an idol out of historical and cultural ignorance, but I prefer to keep hope alive. Thinking that some good could come from the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas seems so very Zen. Buddha (and Jesus) would be pleased.

Bird Watcher

Growing up in the city, I thought that anything other than a pigeon was an exotic bird. Now that I live in the suburbs, I get a little more avian variety, but nothing like that found in the works of John James Audubon, the father of bird watching in America. Born April 26, 1785 in Haiti on his father’s sugar plantation, Audubon, the illegitimate child of a French naval officer and his mistress, spent most of his youth on the fly, forced to flee to France after a slave rebellion and then forced to move to America when conscription into the Napoleonic Wars loomed. His peripatetic ways perhaps helped form his early affinity for birds. "I felt an intimacy with them,” Audubon once said, “bordering on frenzy must accompany my steps through life.” Illustrations such as that of the Bald Eagle from Audubon’s landmark Birds of America (above, from 1827-1838) have made Audubon the most famous naturalist-illustrator in English. In addition to showing these creatures in great detail, Audubon took pains to paint them as if alive, such as showing the Bald Eagle feasting upon a fishy meal. The eye of the decapitated fish almost seems alive with regret at the sad turn of events.

Audubon actually began his nature trek in the Philadelphia area. After Quaker women nursed him back to health from a bout of yellow fever he caught upon entering America, Audubon traveled to his father’s farm west of Philadelphia. In his travels, he may have seen Charles Willson Peale’s museum of natural history and Peale’s many paintings of wildlife modeled on stuffed birds and animals found in the museum. Soon, Audubon himself was catching, killing, and stuffing birds for his watercolors. Whereas Peale and others were content to paint the outward appearance, Audubon sought to recreate the bird as it was in life, as in his painting of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (above, also from from Birds of America, 1827-1838). These woodpeckers ravage the bark of the tree dramatically, perhaps more voraciously than in real life. Audubon realized that his subject, as fascinating as he himself found it, needed to be “sold” to the public.

When Audubon assembled his Birds of America, he arranged the plates to accentuate the contrasts in drama of different works, looking at them more as art than science, although there certainly was a scientific value in his work. Birds of America consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species. Using engraved copper plates measuring 39 by 26 inches, Audubon brought birds such as the American Egret (above, from Birds of America, 1827-1838) into the homes of those wealthy enough to afford his book. Because of the individual beauty of each of these works, part of which comes from the life and death drama of eat or be eaten, such as the egret eyeing its dinner crawling before it, most copies of Birds of America have been torn apart into the single pages. Some thieves working in rare prints have torn pages out of rare library copies of Birds of America and hidden them on their person. Audubon’s realistic approach to nature and nature’s creatures helped inspire a whole legacy of artistic bonds between American artists and the world around them.

Wild Kingdom

Few artists have captured the power and beauty of savage beasts like Eugene Delacroix. Born April 26, 1798, Delacroix painted inspirational scenes of the struggle for freedom such as 1830’s Liberty Leading the People and brought the exoticism of the Orient to France in works such as 1828’s Death of Sardanapalus. However, I’d like to focus on how Delacroix viewed the king of the beasts in works such as Tiger and Lion (above, from 1828-1829). There’s certainly a great eye for realistic detail, but what separates Delacroix from those merely copying nature is how he dramatizes it. The almost human cast of the eyes of the tiger and lion as they circle one another, each looking for an opening to strike, speaks as much of mankind’s bloodlust as any animal instinct. Oddly, Henri Rousseau saw this painting exhibited at the Paris Salon and patterned the kindler, gentler animals of his paintings after Delacroix’s anthropomorphized bestiary. As revolution raged in Delacroix’s Europe, however, it was difficult for the politically engaged artist not to believe that it was truly a jungle out there and to populate his art accordingly.

My favorite Delacroix lion appears in his 1841 watercolor above. The freedom and speed of watercolor as a medium permitted Delacroix to convey that same sense of movement and unbridled energy. I’ve always thought that Delacroix’s big cats address the tension of William Blake’s Tyger, Tyger even better than the poet’s own illustration. It’s also fascinating to me to consider that as Delacroix paints these creatures inspired by his experience of revolution and war, Edward Hicks is in America painting his Peaceable Kingdom series of doe-eyed lions laying down with lambs in a pacifist paradise. Looking ahead to future conflicts, I see some connection between Delacroix’s animals and those of Franz Marc, who similarly captured the power and tension embedded into the fabric of the tiger as a physical manifestation of the boiling pressures that soon would explode in the form of World War I.

I used to laugh at some of Delacroix’s later animal images, such as Lion and Alligator (above, from 1863). Some of the combinations reminded me of monster movie match-ups like Mothra versus Godzilla. In Lion and Alligator, the tiny reptile doesn’t stand much of a chance against the cruel claws ready to tear it apart. As much as I try to read this work politically, I can never decide if the lion represents the people, tearing into the cold, reptilian heart of royalty through revolution, or if the lion represents the established power, crushing the hopes of the little people struggling to be free. At the very least, it’s an image of inequality, a vast departure from the more evenly matched tiger and lion of 1828. Perhaps Delacroix had wearied of the battles strewn across his life and saw wars for what they essentially are—the bane of the voiceless caught in the crossfire—which is as true in nineteenth century Europe as it is in the twenty-first century Middle East.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Take Two

Alex turns two this weekend. Annie and I can’t believe that our little baby has become such a little boy so quickly. (That’s “the Alex” above in his “Easter/going to my first wedding reception the week after” outfit, complete with clip-on tie.) Like I said last year for his first birthday, Alex is truly our masterpiece, albeit a work in progress. His language explosion really stunned me, going from a handful of words (mostly involving cars) to a flurry of words on a variety of subjects ranging from Elmo to the The Wiggles to (you guessed it) cars. Part of me wants him to remain this snuggly, silly, curious, affectionate little monkey forever. But another part of me wants him to get older soon for me to teach him how to play basketball, play catch with in the backyard after dinner, run a 5K with someday (as his pace and mine slowly approach one another), and, of course, appreciate and make art.

Alex picks up a crayon now and then to scribble on the big sheets of paper we tape to his plastic table. It’s not Pablo Picasso, but it’s not Cy Twombly, either. He’s been playing around my old portable easel I use for painting watercolors and drawing pastels, but seems more interested in the fancy snaps and hinges. I remember drawing constantly as a kid, and then drifting away from it as I got older and other interests commanded my time. I never had anyone show me how to draw, so when I wanted to get better, I didn’t know how. Frustration set in and I moved on. It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I really got the itch to draw again sought some instruction through classes and books. I want to introduce Alex to the joy of drawing. If he doesn’t find it interesting, that’s OK. I want him to follow his bliss. But I also want him to experience a taste of all these great outlets for his imagination, including drawing and painting, before he decides it is or isn’t for him. (Including play acting, as Alex was doing with his cowboy hat [above].) We’ve got a rule in our house that that you’ve got to try a bite before you decide you don’t want to eat something. If Alex waves a new food away, we don’t force it on him. We try again on another day, until we’re sure we don’t like it. Following that rule, I’ve become a sushi lover, something I’d never even try before. Alex is only two, but we want him to take as many “bites” out of life as possible, because you’ll never experience the full flavor of living any other way. Every child deserves that chance. Every adult does, too.

Angel in the Sun

I’ve had July 1st circled in my mental calendar ever since I read (and reviewed {ADD LINK} ) the catalogue for the Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Washington is too far for us to travel, but when the show comes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Independence Day Weekend, we’ll be sure to go up to New York City sometime that Summer to see it. Born April 23, 1775, Joseph Mallord William Turner ranks high among the great “must see” artists for me. He’s been called everything from the last Romantic to the first Impressionist, but for me he’s simply the greatest artist England has ever produced, the finest painter of the early nineteenth century, and the greatest watercolorist who ever lived. Superlatives all, and easily challengeable, but it’ll be hard to convince me that Turner (shown above in the youthful Self Portrait of 1799) doesn’t live up to each and every one.

When Annie and I went to London, I had to see the Turner Gallery at the Tate Britain and the great Turners at the National Gallery, London, including Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway (above, from 1844). It took some painful prioritizing, particularly in giving little time to the great William Hogarth collection at the NG, but I managed to see the Turners the way he wished them to be seen, in situ at the museums he imagined them displayed in after his death. No other artist bequeathed such a mother load of art on his country as Turner did after his death. Seeing more of his work at the Met will make memories of London all the sweeter.

Aside from the great art itself, I find Turner fascinating for his amazing confidence. He was good, and he knew it well. Everyone else did, too, or they soon did. During the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy, Turner would make a grand show of “Varnishing Day,” a day shortly before the opening of the exhibition to the public and the judges during which artists could varnish or touch up their works. While nearby artists would add a little shimmer to their works, Turner would come in and virtually repaint his works on the spot, adding brilliant color that would outshine the works hung nearby and totally demoralize his fellow painters. (S.W. Parrot’s 1846 painting of Turner on Varnishing Day appears above.) One year, John Constable stood nearby and added a little color to some flags in a painting as Turner stood behind him, silently watching. The next day, Turner painted a brilliant red buoy on a seascape that blew Constable’s coloring away, packed up his brushes, and left without a word. “He has been here,” Constable said, “and fired a gun.” When it came to dueling, nobody got the best of Turner.

There’s something magical about Turner’s art. His Angel Standing in the Sun (above, from 1846) provided the title for one excellent biography, in tune with this magical aura surrounding Turner that, unfortunately, discounts the hard work and hard thinking that went into his works. Constable, again the foil of a Turner anecdote, reportedly once said to Turner, “I do not see nature that way.” “Ah,” Turner reportedly replied, “do you wish that you could!” Turner could draw something as photographically accurate as anyone else alive, or paint a canvas so thick with impasto that you feelt like you’re slogging through the fog, rain, clouds, or heavy waves. If you’re in New York City between July and September, drop in to the Met. Even if you don’t see the way that Turner did, you’ll find you wish you could.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the Ground Up

When the people of Russia began their experiment in Socialism in the early twentieth century, they literally sought to build the world anew. Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution inaugurated an architectural revolution led by men such as Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin's Tower (above), designed to be a Monument to the Third International (aka, the Comintern), epitomizes the brand of architectural constructivism Tatlin and others patterned after the Constructivist art of Alexander Rodchenko and other Russian artists. Tatlin’s Tower, if it had been built, would have risen higher than the Eiffel Tower, surrounding work spaces shaped like a cube, triangle, and sphere with a network of iron, glass, and steel. In Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde, writer-producer-director Michael Craig and Copernicus Films examine the concrete results and unfulfilled promise of that exciting time in architecture in Russia when all the rules of building were being rewritten as fast as the rules of society.

The same faith in the power of technology to forge a better life for all that marks all of early Soviet society marks the architecture of the time. Architects saw the old forms as “imprisoning” people yearning to be free. The same almost reckless experimentation seen in the innovative painting of Matisse and Cezanne in France and in Russia’s own Kandinsky helped inspire architects to think outside the boxy structures of the past. Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist art and it’s almost messianic desire to transform the world drove architects to reevaluate the role of geometric forms in the designing of living and working spaces. Melnikov’s Rusakov-House of Culture on Strominka Street (above, from 1927-1929) exemplifies this use-centered approach to building, keeping the needs and desires of the people inside as a central focus. Classical ideals fell by the wayside as architects designed using space and volume as their materials rather than stone, freed by the technical innovations of steel and glass. Buildings were now “living sculpture,” created not for the bourgeoisie elite but rather for the people. Architecture now interacted with people on an unprecedented scale, achieving a social relevance in such public works as Melnikov’s cultural center that helped generate a new sense of community.

Melnikov often worked, as he put it, “at the very edge of the possible,” but a surprising number of his “impractical” designs were actually built, including many multi-story parking garages in Moscow that alleviated the growing parking crunch as more people moved to the city and more automobiles hit the streets. (An example of one of those garages, featuring staggered entrances, appears above.) Although many of these buildings seem impractical fantasies today, they addressed many of the pressing needs of the day with such features as huge public kitchens in which meals could be prepared for the fast-growing population of workers. These architects often worked hand in hand with industry to create functioning factories that still left the individual worker empowered. Ample archival footage of these workers amidst huge, whirling machinery gives a sense of the thrilling energy of those places at the time, which became secular cathedrals to technological progress and the hope of a better standard of life for everyone.

Recognizing that those incoming workers needed a place to live, Melnikov addressed the need for cheap, efficient housing as well. Picturing a series of interconnected cylinders, in keeping with the geometric, Constructivist credo, Melnikov tried but failed to get his solution to the housing crunch built. Determined to prove his design’s feasibility, Melnikov build a home for himself following that idea. Melnikov, who was also a painter, appears above painting in the great living cylinder of his home, bathed in the light streaming through the series of decorative yet functional diamond-shaped windows climbing up the walls. This period of architecture marks a great cognitive leap in the ways buildings were imagined that rippled through all world architecture and continues to influence builders today. Melnikov’s willingness to “experiment” on himself and his own home shows just how personally committed and engaged these architects were in the mission to build this brave new world.

Craig’s film brings the spirit of innovation and community driving these people at this time vibrantly back to life. By showing a computer animation of a painting by Malevich transform into an architectural blueprint and then into a three-dimensional model and, finally, the real-life building, Craig bridges the same gap between art and architecture that these Tatlin, Melnikov, and others had to bridge. As with his other film I’ve reviewed, Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Avant-garde, Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde bristles with a kinetic energy thanks to the quick pace of the insightful narration and the endless parade of juxtaposed archival footage of the time and photography of the buildings that still stand today. Looking at many of these buildings today, a little worse for wear, it would be easy to pass judgment on them as failures because of their link to the broken promises of Socialism. However, as with the Rodchenko film, Craig resists editorializing on the political ideology and maintains a laser focus on the art and the architecture. By ignoring what never was, Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde wonderfully presents what could have been.

[Many thanks to Michael Craig and Copernicus Films for providing me with a review copy of Architecture and the Russian Avant-Garde and for the images from the film.]

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not Fade Away

Is it “better,” as Neil Young suggested, “to burn out than to fade away?” When you look at the two greatest artists of the Abstract Expressionist school, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, you can weigh the possibilities. Pollock died relatively young in a drunken car accident. Born April 24, 1904, de Kooning lived much longer and sadly slipped into the slow oblivion of Alzheimer's disease. Of all the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was perhaps the most charismatic—handsome (Val Kilmer played him in Pollock), funny in an English as second language kind of way, and devoted to his friends, which included Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, and the rest of the gang from the infamous Cedar Tavern, watering whole of the 1950s New York art scene. In 1981, de Kooning painted Pirate (Untitled II) (above), which shows some of the traces of his glory days of the Woman series but a definite softening and simplifying of his style, still based on gesture and movement yet no longer as brash and confrontational. Was this the way de Kooning wanted to take his art, the direction his illness was pushing him towards, or both?

Four years later, de Kooning painted a Triptych (above, individually named, from left to right, Untitled V, Untitled II, and Untitled IV, from 1985) for St Peter's Church in New York. The thick colors no longer appear. Instead, only the gestures remain. Some critics see de Kooning’s late work as a dialogue with other great artists, from his friend Arshile Gorky to modernist influences such as Kandinsky and Picasso. Again, de Kooning’s condition may have contributed to both the simplification of his gestures (as his dexterity waned) and his look backward. Alzheimer patients often develop a great sense of nostalgia for the past, longing to cling to their memories at the moment they become the most slippery. Emotions rise closer to the surface as well, making the memory of Gorky’s own painful end seem present despite being decades in the past.

de Kooning’s disease and his paintings during that period touch me for personal reasons beyond their obvious beauty. My family has a history of Alzheimer’s, a tradition I hope to evade. I remember visiting my grandfather in a nursing home with my father and having him mistake me for my father, unaware that the middle-aged man beside him was his son. Questions remain as to whether de Kooning actually painted such works as Untitled (above, from 1988), but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that they’re the works of his brush and not fakes perpetrated by others, however much they differ from the rest of his work. These last works turn to pastel colors—simple, pleasing color arranged in broad, simple strokes. In that sense, they are childlike in their honesty and openness, much like an Alzheimer patient stripped of all their memories and, thus, identity and left with only the core of who they are. de Kooning’s late works show the core of who he was as an artist and a person, free of all the bravado and posturing. I like to imagine that looking at them I get a glimpse not only into the mind of the artist but into the mind of my grandfather and all those who are afflicted by this disease.

Outwardly Uninteresting

Richard Diebenkorn’s “life is really more a career than a biography, like that of a successful academic. It is an exemplary life, but not an outwardly interesting one,” Arthur Danto once wrote. “It is an exemplary life because of its absolute commitment, as if the decisions to remain in California and to stay within a single and evidently deeply fulfilling marriage were so many ways of keeping distraction at bay.” Born April 22, 1922, Diebenkorn commits the unpardonable sin of living a happy, uncomplicated life in the same place with the same partner, free of the dramatic controversy that makes all history, especially art history, so juicy. After returning from his service in World War II, Diebenkorn studied art under the G.I. Bill, eventually developing a unique style equal parts Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse. His Man and Woman, Seated (above, from 1958) shows the influence of his two predecessors, as if characters from a Hopper painting had somehow been transported to the world of Matisse’s color. In many ways, Diebenkorn is a West Coast version of Andrew Wyeth–inextricably linked to a specific place transformed through a unique way of seeing.

Diebenkorn continued to paint landscapes and the figure in a continually evolving Matisse-esque style throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His Cityscape I (Landscape No. 1) (above, from 1963) may be the best of these colorful landscapes, which captures the vibrancy of the California sunlight. Diebenkorn’s devotion to Matisse actually gained him a visit to USSR on a Cultural Exchange Grant from the U.S. State Department to see the then rarely seen Matisses in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum. That sneak peek truly put Diebenkorn over the top in terms of painting in an abstract, yet Fauvist-colored style. I love this period of Diebenkorn’s work because it really strikes a lyrical note, full of pure pleasure in color and form free of all the angst of the Abstract Expressionists and the showiness of the Pop Art crowd.

By 1967, Diebenkorn pretty much gave up on depicting the human figure. His landscapes became more and more abstract, veering toward Color field painting. In that year, Diebenkorn began painting his Ocean Park series representing his surroundings in California abstractly. Twenty-five years later, the series had grown to 140 paintings, many of which were variations on the same theme of flat planes of color arranged in new and interesting ways, such as Ocean Park No. 54 (above, from 1972). Obviously, you can’t “see” any recognizable part of Ocean Park in these works, but you can “feel” the easy, breezy California lifestyle in their pastel colors and pleasing arrangements. Diebenkorn’s work and life are truly uneventful, but in a good way. The consistency and workmanlike devotion of his career add up to something as significant as the meteoric rise and fall of other, more well-known names, and prove that self-destructiveness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

“I’m in a constant interrogation,” Salvador Dali told an interviewer in 1965. “Where does the deep and philosophically valid Dali begin, and where does the looney and preposterous Dali end?” I remember asking myself the same question while walking through the PMA’s Dali exhibition in 2005. Full of memories of my favorite painting by Dali, 1931’s The Persistence of Memory, I stopped short in front of a painting I had never seen before—The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (above, from 1952-1954). What was this all about, this revisiting 20 years later of one of his signature Surrealist pieces? Was this deep philosophy or shallow showmanship? Could it be both? In The Dali Renaissance: New Perspectives on His Life and Art after 1940, edited by the PMA’s own Michael Taylor, those questions and many more are raised and, if not answered, deeply and respectfully pondered in papers originally presented at a symposium held during the 2005 Dali show focusing on the post-Surrealist Dali so visible and so degraded and, perhaps, so misunderstood in relation to the Dali of melting clocks, boiled beans, and crawling ants. Taylor and colleagues help untangle the convoluted web of Dali-esque “logic” after 1940 that wove together old-time religion with new-age nuclear power as part of a larger mission to save not only painting (with the help of Leonardo da Vinci, no less) but the world itself, with such unlikely helpers as Franco, Mao, and Marilyn Monroe.

Reading through the excellent papers of this collection is like listening to a baroque fugue —familiar themes arise again and again, fall into the blender of artistic logic, and emerge as a whole new form of reality. In that sense, they approximate the mind of the maestro itself. Taylor neatly encapsulates this wild abandon with his title “The Dali Renaissance.” Taylor places at the center of these discussions “the idea of rebirth and regeneration that became a recurrent theme in [Dali’s] writings, paintings, and performances after the outbreak of World War II, which had forced him to flee Europe for the safety of the United States.” When the United States inaugurated the atomic age by using atomic bombs against Japan, reality itself disintegrated. Whereas many, including Dali’s former Surrealist cohorts, turned away from a nuclear-age future, Dali rushed headlong to embrace it, combining it with his newfound turn to Christianity and coining the phrase “nuclear mysticism.” In works such as The Madonna of Port Lligat (above, from 1949), Dali demonstrated the “artistic possibilities of nuclear physics” that Taylor recounts in his essay on Dali’s 1952 Nuclear Mysticism Lecture Tour. “Instead of the disintegration of matter, we have the integration, the reconstitution of the real and glorious body of the Virgin in the heavens.” In “Holy Toledo! Saint John of the Cross, Paranoiac-Critical Mysticism, and the Life and Works of Saint Dali,” Jonathan Wallis analyzes the growing identification by Dali with the mystic Saint John of the Cross, culminating in Dali’s 1960 claim to be the saint reincarnated. Whereas Henry Adams famously contrasted the power of the Virgin Mary versus that of the dynamo, following the line of dualist Cartesian reasoning of mainstream Western civilization, Dali takes those two poles—god and science—and forces them together, jolting his art into a whole new realm of possibility. The result is, of course, shocking.

Perhaps the finest efforts to rehabilitate Dali’s post-Surrealist reputation come in those passages that take his dizzying logic seriously (or as seriously as Dali himself would allow). “My father today is Dr. Heisenberg,” Dali announced in 1958. “It is with pi-mesons and the most gelatinous and indeterminate neutrinos that I want to paint the beauty of the angels and of reality.” In “How Dali Learned to Stop Worrying about Surrealism and Love the Bomb,” Gavin Parkinson demonstrates how all the Surrealists avidly followed the interwar advances in physics of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Louis de Broglie. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, only Dali maintains his “nuclearphilia” and a “mood of curiosity, excitement, and optimism.” The Three Sphinxes of Bikini (above, from 1947) celebrate rather than condemn the nuclear testing conducted by the United States on the Bikini Atoll. While Dali reacts positively and, more importantly, quickly to the nuclear age, the Surrealists hesitate, stunned by events, and react negatively and slowly. Again, the speed of Dali’s mind to forge these associations, however tenuous and questionable, simply confounded contemporaries as well as us today. Dali freely threw around terms like “pi-mesons” and “neutrinos,” but his familiarity with those terms proves that he read widely, if not deeply, and engaged the issue when others would or could not.

Where Dali’s memory may never be rehabilitated is in the field of his fascination with dictators, dating all the way back to 1939’s The Enigma of Hitler up to his frequent meetings with Franco from 1956 through 1975. Elliott H. King’s “Little Black Dress, Little Red Boo: Dali, Mao, and Monarchy (with Special Attention to Trajan’s Glorious Testicles” takes on the hairy (and hair raising) Dali-esque approach to Maoism. (By the way, academic symposia often lead to unofficial contests to see who can write the most outrageous title. King wins.) In his Mao Marilyn (above, from 1967), Dali conflates the utopian dreams of Mao’s Cultural Revolution with the “realism” of Warholian Pop art’s celebration of American popular culture and icons such as Marilyn Monroe, which Dali saw as emulating God’s divine realism in the initial moment of creation. Trajan (and his testicles) drop into the mix as the beginning of “historical naturalism,” specifically through Trajan's Column. If you have a headache reading all that, you’re not alone. In Dali’s defense, the full extent of Mao’s atrocities was unknown until 1976. However, Dali fell hard for dictatorships, which he saw as the modern equivalent of monarchy, which Dali saw as the hope of a new world order. “Twenty death sentences are surely more economical than a civil war,” Dali once said in defense of Franco’s tactics, conjuring a chilling calculus in the name of a greater good.

Dali’s nostalgia for the days of kings parallels his medievalist mysticism as well as his call for a return to Old Master technique in painting. Using da Vinci as his example, Dali saw modern painting as a failure and, as David Lomas writes in “’Painting is dead—long live painting!’ Notes on Dali and Leonardo,” “tried to fill the resultant vacuum by a renewed emphasis on traditional painting skills.” In The Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer's “Lacemaker” (above, from 1954-1955), Dali reimagines Vermeer’s Lacemaker as a series of rhinoceros horns, a reimagining actually captured step-by-step in an unfinished film that King describes in another essay. During this period, Dali often presented works in progress, hoping to convey a sense of the effort behind such works. Dali, however, didn’t separate himself wholly from modern art, noting artists such as Yves Klein and Willem de Kooning for their approaches. As Taylor remarks in his opening essay, Warhol himself learned self-promotion at the feet of the master while Dali lived in New York City. In such passages, as well as in the closing interview with Amanda Lear and Ultra Violet, two of Dali’s assistants, Dali comes across as simultaneously more involved and less capitalistic in his later years. “Gala was Avida Dollars,” Ultra Violet says, linking Dali’s wife and Andre Breton’s caustic jibe at Dali’s commercialism. “It was not Dali… Gala is responsible for Dali’s success, and his failure…” In such comments lie the seeds of a whole new evaluation of Dali, the man, the artist, and the media phenomenon.

Despite originating as an academic symposium, the essays in The Dali Renaissance are thoroughly accessible and enjoyable, but require some work by the reader to appreciate fully the artist and his work. Tackling the maddening twists of Dali’s logic is no small task, and they follow along with a minimum of academic jargon. The authors write with a sense of respect for late Dali, who sorely needs some, but also with the maestro’s sense of fun. In The Dali Renaissance, we peer into the mind of the post-war Dali and find a vast network of beliefs that go far beyond dollar signs.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a copy of The Dali Renaissance: New Perspectives on His Life and Art after 1940.]

Monday, April 21, 2008

American Beast

When young American artist Alfred Maurer met Henri Matisse in 1904 at Leo and Gertrude Stein’s salon, he knew the direction of his art had been changed forever. Born April 21, 1868, Maurer’s father, who had been an artist for Currier and Ives, pushed him in the direction of lyrical realism akin to that of William Merritt Chase, under whom Maurer had studied in the late 1890s, and Whistler, whose style Maurer had aped time and again. Seeing Matisse’s work, however, led him not to ape Matisse but to turn into a “beast” himself, i.e., one of the Fauves (French for “beast”). Maurer’s Fauve Landscape (above, from 1907) demonstrates how Matisse’s bold color and line freed the young American from all the constrictions of his training. When the mainstream art world still looked at Fauvism and Cubism as forms of mental illness, Maurer recognized their greatness and, more importantly, brought them to America for the first time.

Living in New York in the same studio as his father, Maurer soon found like-minded artists to help him promote his new way of painting. Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen's 291 gallery held exhibitions of Maurer’s avant-garde work along with that of John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Marsden Hartley. When the organizers of the landmark 1913 Armory Show, which introduced modern European art to mainstream America, searched for Americans to compare with masters such as Matisse and Cezanne, they picked four works by Maurer. Maurer’s Still Life (above, from 1919) shows a mix of his Cubist and Fauvist influences, taking apart the pieces of the still life yet representing them in the bold lines Matisse made famous in his works. Such success eased the fears of Maurer’s father, who feared that his son would never amount to anything in art.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Maurer continued to evolve, sponging up more and more European modernist influences. In works such as Two Girls (above, from the 1920s), the baroque grotesqueness of Germany’s New Objectivity, especially that of Otto Dix and George Grosz, seems to be on display. You can even see a touch of Amedeo Modigliani in the elongated necks of the two women. In many ways, Maurer was an ambassador of many of the cutting edge trends of European art, accepting them as his own and translating them into an American idiom. Unfortunately, after a long illness and difficult surgery, Maurer’s pain increased when his beloved father passed away at one hundred years of age. Unable to cope, Maurer took his own life two days later. Today, Alfred Maurer gets lost in the footnotes of modern art history, condemned as a poor copyist of the European masters. If nothing else, however, Maurer deserves credit for believing in his own eyes and recognizing greatness in others when he saw it.

Model Student

Édouard Manet must have seen something special in Eva Gonzales to take her on as his only true student. Born April 19, 1849, Gonzales came from a cultured family. Her father wrote novels and her mother played music. Despite that cultured background, Gonzales had to model for Manet and several other Impressionists before gaining entry into their circle. Once initiated, however, Gonzales proved a quick study. Her painting A Box at the Théâtre des Italiens (above, from 1874) shows her sister Jeanne and husband Henri Guérard in a pose similar to Manet’s The Balcony, which showed Manet’s other female protégé Berthe Morisot and her husband, Manet’s brother Eugene. Like Morisot and many other women artists, Gonzales painted many scenes of friends and family, restricted by the mores of the time from the more outrageous subjects Manet and others depicted. Gonzales Box differs from Manet’s Balcony in her inclusion of a musical or theater theme, something close to her heart considering her family history in the arts.

I remember seeing one of Gonzales’ seascapes pushed off to a far corner of the PMA’s 2004 exhibition Manet and the Sea. I’m not sure if it was her Plage de Dieppe vue depuis la falaise Ouest (above, from 1871), but it was something similar. Again, she copies Manet to an extent, but differs as well. Manet’s marks his seascapes with strong narratives—men rowing in boats or ships in rough seas. Gonzales, however, paints from a distance, allowing the haze of the sea air to blanket over the scene. It’s tempting to ascribe the difference to gender, but I think there’s definitely a softer feel to her work that approaches Whistler in some ways. Whistler, too, found wallspace in the Manet and the Sea exhibition, but much more prominently than Gonzales did. Looking back, it seems like it would have been quite easy to move Gonzales’ works without anyone noticing.

Gonzales’ Morning Awakening (above, from 1876) shows how far she moved away from the influence of Manet and his dark, Velázquez –inspired style. There’s a great gentleness to this picture that, for example, Manet’s Olympia, for all its greatness, lacks. Again, I hesitate to label Gonzales as softer and gentler for fear of falling for all the old gender roles, but such labels seem truly to fit in with what she attempted and achieved. Gonzales exhibited her work annually at the Paris Salon, testifying to her acceptance among contemporaries. Sadly, Gonzales died in childbirth when only 34 years old, less than a week after Manet himself died. Because of that short life and relatively short oeuvre, Gonzales usually falls to the second or even third tier of Impressionists. What she could have done with years of maturity and motherhood under her belt is a question that will never be answered.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Love on the Rocks

There are so few works by Leonardo da Vinci in the world, that when you have the chance to see one, you’ve got to take it. I remember the mad dash at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, a hyped build-up that no masterpiece could survive. Seeing his Virgin of the Rocks (above, 1505-1508) at the National Gallery in London, however, was a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience. Born April 15, 1452, da Vinci seems even more of a magical figure today than he did to contemporaries such as Giorgio Vasari, who called the master “marvelous and divine, indeed” in his life of Leonardo. Standing before the Virgin of the Rocks, you feel as you are there in the peaceful bucolic setting with the sainted figures, drinking in the serenity. Such masterpieces transcend time and place, but also frustrate us in their rarity. Like so many geniuses, da Vinci excelled at whatever he did, but found that fluency came so easily that he rarely had the staying power to complete the task at hand.

“[T]here was such a power of intellect that whatever he turned his mind to he made himself master of with ease,” Vasari writes of Leonardo. “In erudition and letters he would have distinguished himself, if he had not been variable and unstable. For he set himself to learn many things, and when he had begun them gave them up.” The only work by da Vinci in the entire Western hemisphere is his Ginevra de' Benci (above, from 1475) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was the first da Vinci I saw in person. After seeing so many of the works in reproduction, I was unprepared for the tiny painting in reality. The Mona Lisa’s diminutiveness similarly shocks at first sight. Whereas Michelangelo, himself a famous procrastinator and abandoner of incomplete works, managed to finish off some works on a grand scale, Leonardo leaves us with only these tiny works. Leonardo surpasses Michelangelo in versatility, of course, mastering the sciences like few others then or since, but his seemingly boundless potential borders on the infuriating when you add up the physical results.

Despite all we think we know about Leonardo’s life, there is so much more we don’t know. Perhaps only Shakespeare comes close as a historical cipher upon which people love to paint their theories. Da Vinci’s John the Baptist (above, from 1514) is reportedly modeled after one of his students, Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, but better known as Salai, Italian for “little devil.” Salai’s youthful beauty allegedly blinded da Vinci to his faults, which included repeatedly stealing from Leonardo. Leonardo painted and drew Salai over and over during the thirty years they spent together, leading many to believe that they were lovers. (Another theory that Leonardo was a hermaphrodite adds a different spin on this painting.) Is Salai Leonardo’s “dark lady of the sonnets”? As much fun as it is to speculate on the personal lives of artists, reading backwards from their works to their biography, especially gap-ridden bios such as those of da Vinci or Shakespeare, in the end we need to see the works for themselves. Leonardo giveth, and Leonardo taketh away, but what he gives us, however paltry, has helped shape art and culture in immeasurable ways.