Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Annie, Alex (shown above), and I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I apologize for the light to nonexistent blogging over the past few months. School and family have left me little time to indulge in the pleasures of blogging. Our family has also had to deal with the passing of my Father-in-Law, making 2009 an especially sad year for us. However, 2010 brings the promise of a new life into our family in the form of another son due in March. Also, I will be returning to blogging, but not as a rank amateur but as a paid professional for Big Think. I'll be thinking bigger than ever, so please come by and read along again with me on art, the universe, and everything starting January 1st. More details to follow, but for now hug the ones you love and take lots and lots of pictures. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Close Shave

Sidney Goodman. Night Vision, 1993-94. Charcoal and pastel on paper. 60 x 52 inches. Collection of Joseph and Patricia Connolly.

“While art is not always an emotional enterprise, it is absolutely consumed with life and death matters for [Sidney] Goodman,” writes Mark Rosenthal in the catalogue to Sidney Goodman: Man in the Mirror, “as if he, upon a time, dedicated himself to the dangerous mantra of Eros-Thanatos.” In the exhibition of the same name at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Goodman’s life and death obsession comes across in 60 drawings and watercolors in mostly black and white with the occasional touch of stunning color. Perhaps no other work encapsulates the Eros-Thanatos theme as neatly as Night Vision (above, from 1992-1994), which pairs figures of love and death on the page as closely as in life. As curator Julien Robson points out in his essay, Night Vision and other works display Goodman’s exploration of the theme of the classical sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons, in which serpents sent by the gods strangle a priest and his sons for sniffing out the ruse of the Trojan Horse. “Illuminated in the flash of the artist’s imagination,” Robson continues, “the combination of material drawn from observation and memory is synthesized into a form that has a dream-like discontinuity that co-mingles the real with the imaginary.” A teacher at the PAFA since 1979, Goodman teaches us art history with a twist by throwing the classical, baroque, symbolist, and figurative traditions, along with many others, into the blender of his vision. Looking at Night Vision, you recognize Fuseli, Blake, Goya, and others, but you never lose sight of Goodman.

Sidney Goodman. Child Near Source, 1987-88. Charcoal and pastel on paper. 35 x 44 inches. Collection of the artist.

Robson believes that Goodman’s move from the suburbs to Philadelphia is a key to his art. “In this transition the task of expressing the tensions of a listless existence gave way to a vital engagement with the passions and a reinvigorated investigation of the self,” Robson writes. Reversing white flight, Goodman hurled himself and his family into urban existence red in tooth and claw rather than wallow in the enervating safety of the ‘burbs. Child Near Source (above, from 1987-1988) originates from a photograph of one of Goodman’s children standing beside a tree in Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia. The expression on the child’s face as he looks back at his father or mother captures just how alien nature feels to him—a stand-in for the modern disconnect from life’s sources. The vulva-esque opening at the base of the tree stump adds a sexual dimension, as if the child wishes to return to the womb but wants to know how. Goodman makes use of candid photographs of his wife and children in many of the works in the exhibition not as sentimental fodder but as a springboard to deeper messages. “Goodman’s wit… unearths a residue of ambiguity that transforms these pictures from simply being meditations on domestic bliss into visually puzzling studies of familial relationships,” Robson remarks.

Sidney Goodman. The Birthday, 1988. Pastel and charcoal on paper. 90 x 61 inches. Collection of the artist.

In The Birthday (above, from 1988), Goodman poses his son as a devilish child, complete with horns thanks to a pair of birthday hats, cavorting in his “birthday suit.” Even in such childish themes Goodman manages to mix the everyday with both sex and danger. For Goodman, violence is childish and even cartoonish. In Mickey Watches, a leering Mickey Mouse witnesses the brutal beating of a man. A small drawing of The Three Stooges helps the viewer draw the conclusion that violence is both grotesque and comic in the baroque sensibility. It is in many of these depictions of violence that Goodman employs sparing yet stunning use of color. “So thoroughly is his work an art of black and white, especially in drawing,” Rosenthal writes of Goodman, “that it explodes when pastel suddenly appears.” Flashes of red representing bloodshed flame out from the image and burn into your memory with their selectiveness more than any painted bloodbath possibly could. I walked through the exhibit right after viewing Elizabeth Osborne: The Color of Light, another PAFA exhibition (my review here) running at the same time just downstairs from the Goodman show. Both teachers at the PAFA and both great artists in the figurative tradition, Goodman and Osborne demonstrate the entire gamut of emotions that color, either liberally flowing or selectively dripped out, can achieve. Each exhibition is moving by itself, but the combined effect will quite literally knock you off your feet.

Sidney Goodman. The Artist's Mother II, 1994. 47 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches. Charcoal and pastel on paper.

Goodman excels at manipulating imagery and motifs for different effects. In Night Vision, the Laocoön reference calls upon ideas of Eros and Thanatos. In The Artist’s Mother II (above, from 1994), the Laocoön tendrils reach out again as harbingers of death, but the passionate violence of eros gives way to the tenderness of agape as the tendrils extend to embrace rather than strangle the artist’s mother, who was dying at the time. The tree limbs serpentine around the elderly woman’s body as if accepting it back into nature, returning her to the mysterious source that mystified Goodman’s son in Child Near Source. Goodman draws his mother with the frizzy hair and chubby features of reality leaning against the wheelchair that became her final means of conveyance and conveys her as stunningly beautiful and alive at the very moment she is dying. As with the drawings and paintings of his children and wife, Goodman rejects the conventional definitions of beauty and redefines them as reality viewed intensely and imaginatively. His wife Pam shown sleeping or combing a child’s hair is not a fantasy woman but a real woman with all the flaws and perfections real women claim as their true charms.

Sidney Goodman. Man in the Mirror, 1987-88. Charcoal and pastel on paper. 22 x 30 inches. Collection of Malcolm Holzman.

Goodman also repeatedly turns his eye to himself. A series of works showing the artist shaving called Man in the Mirror (one above, from 1987-1988) jokingly presents the mundane reality Goodman faces each morning. The receding hairline and broadening features that come with age are an honest man honestly looking at who and what he is. I think of Thomas Eakins’ warts-and-all 1902 Self-Portrait as a precursor of Goodman’s self-portraits, and I’m sure Goodman is aware of Eakins, too. Funny enough, Eakins’ portrait shows the signs of a poorly performed shave, but Goodman’s works all demonstrate his gift with the blade. Goodman cuts close to the skin in his art and shows us what lurks beneath while spilling as little blood as necessary. In this black and white hall of mirrors, such dabs of blood always remind us of the human passions flowing beneath.

[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Sidney Goodman: Man in the Mirror and for the images from the exhibition.]

Monday, August 31, 2009

School’s in Session

For the August Art Poll By Bob, in recognition of our annual trek to the New Jersey shore for fun, sun, and surf, I asked, “Which of these classic paintings of sunlight lights up your life the most?” The “Van Gogh effect” took control again as Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (1889) edged out Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (1952) and Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) 16 to 15. Henri Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) and Edvard Munch’s The Sun From the Oslo University Aula Decoration (1911-1916) tied for fourth with 11 votes each. Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun (Woman before the Setting Sun) (1818-1820) snuck past J.M.W. Turner, The Angel, Standing in the Sun (1846) 10 to 9 for sixth place. Frida Kahlo’s Sun and Life (1947) with 6 votes, J.M.W. Turner’s Regulus (1828-1837) with 5 votes, and Michelangelo’s Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1511) with 4 votes rounded out the field. You know it’s a tough battle when Michelangelo comes in dead last. Thanks to everyone who came out of the shade and voted.

For the September Art Poll By Bob, I’m going with a back to school theme that honors the artists who were also great teachers of art. As I learn to become a teacher myself, I find myself respecting the profession even more. For this month’s poll I’m asking, “Which of the following great artist-teachers do you wish you could have studied with?”:

Jacques-Louis David (Self-Portrait, 1784)

Thomas Eakins (Self-Portrait, 1902)

Robert Henri (Self-Portrait, 1903)

Wassily Kandinsky (Gabriele Münter’s Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky, 1906)

Paul Klee (Self-Portrait, 1911)

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, 1785)

Michelangelo (chalk portrait by Daniele da Volterra)

Charles Willson Peale (Self-Portrait, 1822)

Raphael (Self-Portrait in The School of Athens, 1511)

Rembrandt (Self-Portrait, 1661)

I would be happy to have sat at the feet of any of these great teachers of art and life. Please feel free to suggest other great artist-teachers that I may have missed in the comments. Remember that teacher who changed your life and vote for one of these great teachers of art!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Knife Thrower

Surrounded by the rising fascist movement in Italy in the late 1920s and 1930s, the painter Pietro Annigoni played the role of the rebel artist to the hilt, sometimes literally. With his fellow bohemian artists, Annigoni (above, in a 1946 Self-Portrait) would get drunk on wine in bars, fire pistols, challenge others to fencing duels, and sometimes even throw knives. Legend has it that Annigoni once even tossed a blade towards an uncooperative model. As penance, Annigoni would cut his own left forearm with a knife as a reminder to be good. In Annigoni: Portrait of an Artist, you find yourself cut by the intensity of Annigoni’s vision for art, which combines the Renaissance figurative tradition with a full comprehension of the horrors of the twentieth century. Called one of “The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen” by film critic Richard Crouse, Annigoni: Portrait of an Artist is finally available on DVD for all art lovers to see perhaps the greatest art documentary they’ve never seen but also to discover the greatest artist of the twentieth century they’ve never heard of.

The film relies heavily on Annigoni’s own words from his diaries, which reanimate the soul of the artist as much as his paintings. Annigoni recalls his family’s moving to Florence and that city’s “imaginary reality” as the turning point of his life. The art of the city literally intoxicates him. Choosing the artist’s life, Annigoni enrolls in the Accademia di Belle Arti (Firenze) hoping to follow in the Renaissance tradition but soon recognizes that the academy, too, has turned its back on its history in pursuit of modernism. For Annigoni, modern art represented a “chaotic disintegration” that separated art from the symbolism found in nature. Such separation seemed a “tragic loss of love for life” that Annigoni could not bear. Instead, Annigoni painted his world as he felt the Renaissance masters would, but not in slavish devotion. “Only people who know nothing about art believe that a style is repeatable in a different age,” Annigoni countered. After watching Hitler, Mussolini, and the destruction of Europe during World War II, Annigoni could not possibly paint Raphael-esque angels. Instead, the unreal “reality” of Annigoni’s Sayest Thou That This Is the Man? (above, from 1953) spoke to the facts of modernity in the language of the past as only an atheist who confessed a “nostalgia for god” could. Looking at paintings by Annigoni of the post-war period reminded me of the great films of the post-war Italian cinema. Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 The Bicycle Thief, Federico Fellini’s 1954 La Strada, Michelangelo Antonioni ‘s 1960 L'avventura , Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 Accattone, and many other films feature the same haggard faces of the Italian people descended from their Renaissance ancestors yet arrived upon a seemingly different planet.

Annigoni found the look for many of his painted characters in the faces of the refugees of World War II still roaming the streets of Italy, just as Michelangelo saw saints and Madonnas in the visages of beggars and whores. Despite painting the powerless so often, Annigoni soon found his talents sought after by the powerful. After his 1956 Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (above), Annigoni became the most pursued portraitist of his time. Yet, as Annigoni’s student Michael John Angel recounts, people came to Annigoni “to be made into an Annigoni”—with all the beauty of his technique yet also all the sadness of his worldview. The youthful knife thrower switches to a silent slipper of stilettos in these portraits. Even the regal Queen Elizabeth II looks wistfully into the distance, as if Annigoni had infected her with his memories of Italy’s agony during their sittings. It is in these paradoxical portraits that the paradox of Annigoni rises closest to the surface of his art. A lover of life who bemoaned modern art’s rejection of life itself, Annigoni could be cynical and pessimistic just as intensely. In many ways, modern art simply portrayed the larger descent into darkness that all of humanity was in the midst of. A trip to the United States in the 1960s to paint some portraits exposed Annigoni to the full force of American commercialism and vanity, confirming his bleak view of the future perhaps once and for all.

Annigoni cast the conflict between his style and modern art often in biblical terms. Modern art was a “poisoned fruit” that could never tempt him, regardless of profitability. In Sermon on the Mount (above, from 1953), Annigoni paints himself on the peak with his back turned to the viewer as he preaches to the faithful. As one commentator in the film says, the wealthy chose Annigoni, but Annigoni chose the beggars. To the very end, even in soaring church frescoes, Annigoni retained the common touch, the human link, that made his art meaningful to him and continues to make it meaningful to us. For those who knew or studied with Annigoni, the man still lives today as vibrantly as the colors of his paintings. To hear students or students of students speak his name, you’d imagine Annigoni was more myth than man. Yet, Annigoni: Portrait of an Artist never fails to show the man who could hurl a knife at your ear one day and then paint an image that could pierce your heart the next as anything less than magnificently human.

[Many thanks to Stephen Smith for providing me with a review copy of Annigoni: Portrait of an Artist. A short clip from the film is available on YouTube here.]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Eye Openers

[Thomas Eakins’ birthday, July 25th, passed while I was on hiatus. This is me catching up.]

Whenever I start up my trusty laptop, I’m greeted with the image of Thomas EakinsThe Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) (above, from 1871). Annie once asked me what famous painting I’d like to own and I told her that I wouldn’t mind seeing Mr. Schmitt gracing our home. The next time I fired up my computer, I discovered that Annie had set up Eakins’ painting as my background. It’s a great eye opener early in the mornings to remind me of the beauty in the world, the greatness of art, my hometown of Philadelphia, and, most importantly, the beautiful woman with whom I’ve linked my life. I’ve read pretty much everything of significance written about the greatest artist Philadelphia’s ever produced. In fact, the evolution of my view of Eakins can serve as a microcosm of my overall relationship with art history. The Lloyd Goodrich myth of Eakins as the great American artist who put principles over profitability has now given way to a more realistic and more human view of the artist as a principled artist and man who still had to support his family and play by some of the rules of the game. The ruthless realism Goodrich proposed in works such as The Champion Single Sculls now gives way to the idea in Alan C. Braddock’s Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity (reviewed here) that Eakins had an agenda in his art to present his home grounds in the best possible light.

As much as I hate Henry Adams’ Eakins Revealed for the Freudian hate frenzy that it is, Adams does begin, however loosely, from many of the character flaws of Eakins before amplifying them into pathologies. Goodrich sainted Eakins to fulfill his own mission of elevating American artists the same way that he saw French art historians writing fawning hagiographies of their own national artists. To present the weaknesses of Eakins as a person or even as an artist could reflect back badly on American art and defeat the whole purpose of Goodrich’s quest to create an American art history to challenge the art histories of centuries-older European countries. When I look at the photo of Eakins at about 40 years of age (above), I see a man who realizes fully who he is and just how far his temperament and talents will take him. Finding myself reaching that same place chronologically in life, I’m heartened by the intensity and conviction in Eakins’ eye. It’s not easy to look into a mirror and accept what you see. There was a lot that Eakins could have recognized and rejected, but to do so would be to cast away many of the same impulses that made him the artist and teacher he was. The look in Eakins’ eye is an eye opener for anyone standing astride that magic number of 40.

I still find it hard to believe how close Philadelphia was to having Eakins’ masterpiece, The Gross Clinic (above, from 1875), sold away. That near sale, however, may turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it opened the eyes of the community to what may be the single greatest painting in American art history sitting right under its collective nose. Every year, the University of Pennsylvania selects a book for its reading project as a way to “unite” the university in musing on one work. This year, Penn has chosen The Gross Clinic as its topic, the first time they’ve ever chosen a painting. The project website (note some access limited to students only) guides students not only in understanding the history and meaning of the work but also such nitty gritty details as the work’s strange conservation history. I envy those young students for the communal art history experience they’re about to have. Penn should be commended for looking in its own backyard for a topic that ties together so many great things about Philadelphia. Penn and the City of Philadelphia have had a contentious relationship for many years and The Gross Clinic might finally provide the connections to heal the disconnect that has festered for so long. Cynics might argue that today’s students won’t bring Eakins into their hearts, but I’ll bet on the artist that opened my eyes any day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


[Andrew Wyeth’s birthday, July 12th, passed while I was on hiatus. This is me catching up. I couldn’t let Andy’s birthday pass on by unnoted.]

When Michael Jackson passed away this past summer, I found myself thinking of the story I had heard of the King of Pop meeting painter Andrew Wyeth, who passed away last January. Maybe it was the closeness of their deaths. Maybe it was my imagination trying to picture what the two men would have in common to talk about. I’m not sure if they ever met, but I think the conversation would have eventually swung around to childhood and memory. MJ named his mansion complex Neverland, after Peter Pan’s place where little boys never grow up. Even into his nineties, Andy Wyeth had that little boy lost quality. The photograph above, showing Andy musing upon the landscape of his beloved Chadds Ford as he presses his hand against the farm window screen, shows how the old man could always get lost in the memories of his childhood. Michael Jackson used his money and surgery to turn back the hands of time. Andrew Wyeth used the power of his vision and the grace of his painting techniques to recapture time over and over again. In many ways, Wyeth’s present was a perpetual replaying of the past.

Photos and home movies exist of young Andy Wyeth playing the lead role of Robin Hood, with the neighborhood children, including many African-Americans, cast in the role of the Merry Men. Many of those children grew up with Andy and appeared in portrait after portrait as time passed but part of them always stayed the same. Not only did the woods of Chadds Ford provide the perfect Sherwood Forrest, but costumes were also freely available, thanks to the prop collection of Andy’s father, N.C. Wyeth, who illustrated tales of Robin Hood (above). Andrew Wyeth himself never painted the characters of his childhood, perhaps out of fear that it would be too close to his father’s work. Andy’s style of painting was 180 degrees different from that of N.C.’s for multiple reasons. But whenever you look at any painting set in Chadds Ford, it’s hard not to imagine little Andy dressed up as the devil may care thief hiding behind the next tree.

It’s been seven months since Wyeth’s death. After the initial mourning and memorials, the recognition of Wyeth’s achievement has slowed and, perhaps, stilled. The privacy he yearned for in his later years has become inertia on the part of the estate that should be opening up doors into his work rather than closing them. For me, the most enduring legacy of Andy Wyeth will be his sense of fun, even when his works strike the deepest and darkest notes. Wyeth’s Snow Hill (above, from 1987), painted when he turned 70, shows a collection of characters of his paintings frolicking like children in the snow around a May pole. The danse macabre becomes a joyful celebration of life, even when nature itself sleeps under the winter’s cold. If you follow the streamers down to each character, you’ll find that one streamer leads to nothing, suggesting that the artist himself invisibly joined the party. It’s time for Andy to come out of the shadows and reappear as the life of the party he truly was.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Paging Mr. Pynchon

I have to say that I was taken aback when I first saw the cover art (above) for Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice. The novel, which I just finished, is excellent and, at 370 pages, rather “light” for Pynchon in terms of sheer words but as weighty as ever with deep thoughts and cosmic wit. Pynchon riffs on the noir conventions of the private investigator but with a neon-colored, drug-altered twist in placing the PI in California around 1970, during the peak of the Charles Manson-inspired paranoia and the beginning of the end of the 1960s hippie culture. The dime store quality of the artwork could easily trick someone not recognizing Pynchon as one of the highest of highbrow novelists into thinking they’ve picked up a run of the mill “beach read.” I think Pynchon himself would enjoy playing that little joke on an unsuspecting reader, so maybe that’s the reasoning behind the cover art. I, however, have another suggestion for a cover, perhaps for the second edition.

Pynchon creates a landscape of pure paranoia—the straights fear every hippie is a Manson-in-the-making ready to murder them in their beds, while the hippies fear the straights are trying to kill them off by more “officially sanctioned” means. Peter Saul’s The Government of California (above, from 1969) visually captures the public madness of that place and time, setting the ominous mug of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California but already setting his sights on the highest office, in a place of prominence. If Manson is the monster under the bed for the straights in Inherent Vice, Reagan is the monster ready to spring out of the closet for the hippies. The acid colors and twisted forms of Saul’s art mesh perfectly with similar effects Pynchon achieves in his psychedelic prose.

If anyone out there knows how to get in touch with the elusive Mr. Pynchon, please pass on my idea for a second edition cover. If Mr. Pynchon himself is reading, please feel free to drop a line in the comments. To confirm that you’re the real deal, please attach a recent picture, too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Body Consciousness

Elizabeth Osborne. Renae, 1992. Oil on canvas; 60 x 72 in. Sylvia and Norman Salvat.

“In what ways can a contemporary artist show the myriad ways in which the figure relates to, reflects, is shaped by, and engages with the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of its environment?” Robert Cozzolino, curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, asks in Elizabeth Osborne: The Color of Light, the catalogue to the PAFA’s exhibition of Elizabeth Osborne’s stunningly colorful yet still figurative-focused work. First a student at the PAFA and now an instructor there since 1963, Osborne embodies the figurative tradition of the PAFA that stretches back to Thomas Eakins yet reaches forward throughout the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries in nodding towards abstraction’s explosion of color without losing sight of the human form. Osborne’s body consciousness of, as Cozzolino puts it, “refus[ing] to perpetuate the false dichotomy of abstraction versus figuration” allows her to link the human form with abstraction in works such as Renae (above, from 1992). In Renae, the woman’s red hair flames against a dark background symbolizing her dark mood, while the mauve wall on the left stands as pure abstract color and texture. Osborne strives for the best of both worlds and finds it over and over again.

Elizabeth Osborne. Color Field, 2000. Oil on canvas; 52 x 72 in. Dr. Janice T. Gordon.

When Osborne graduated from the PAFA in 1958, Jackson Pollock’s ghostly influence still dripped across the American art scene. Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. Later, offshoots of Ab Ex such as Color Field painting kept a tight grip on the “new academy” of what was acceptable contemporary art. Osborne looked to artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns for a way to remain contemporary yet still true to her training. “From both of these artists,” Cozzolino writes, “she learned ways to incorporate suggestive traces of the body without relying on realist imagery.” In Color Field (above, from 2000), a ghostly female silhouette appears in the pale blue block of color among an almost abstract arrangement of colored shapes that, when visually reassembled, compose the artist’s studio. Alluding to the Color Field painters with her title while simultaneously clinging to the human body, however spectral, Osborne playfully pokes the abstract artists while changing the rules of their game to suit her purposes. “Clearly composed and impeccably designed, Osborne’s compositions filter the intensely observed world through her judicious adaptations of late-modernist strategies, including minimalism and color field painting,” Cozzolino says in praise of works such as Color Field. Seen in person, Color Field strikes the viewer as what Mondrian might have done if he’d just cut loose.

Elizabeth Osborne. The Bridge and I, 1992. Oil on board; 60 x 72 in. Mr. and Mrs. Harry C. Jones, III.

The daughter of an architect and wife of another, Osborne keenly understands the power of modern architecture. Color Field is just one example of abstraction as architecture. In The Bridge and I (above, from 1992), Osborne sets her self-portrait in her Philadelphia studio with the Benjamin Franklin Bridge behind her. Osborne’s birth father designed that bridge, so it stands in for the absent father in a way that both signifies and obscures him. The bridge “bridges” Osborne to her father, yet can never replace him. “Osborne’s eye for the order and open, liberating qualities of modernist architecture bears an uncommon sensitivity,” Cozzolino concludes. In works such as The Bridge and I, Osborne manages to achieve the subtle shades of emotion modern art often accesses through color, yet also taps into the symbolism of bodies (including her own) both present and absent. That connecting “and” of the title suggests union, but Osborne stands alone, with a chilling swath of cobalt separating her from her father’s design. The scarf slung about her self-portrait’s neck alludes to the cold loneliness of the arrangement.

Elizabeth Osborne. Lux I, 2008-09. Oil on wood panel; 44 x 30 in. The artist, courtesy of Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.

Osborne, however, is more than just a figurative painter taken to a new, modernist level. “Landscape and the observation of natural phenomena,” Cozzolino writes, “have inspired Osborne to distill her subjects closest to abstraction.” Lux I (above, from 2008-2009), one of a series of similar works showing the light of a sunrise or a sunset approaches abstraction yet still remains linked to the American Luminist style of Frederic Church and others. Although Cozzolino never raises the name of Rothko, I couldn’t help but think of the tortured Abstract Expressionist, who also looked at Luminism and brought it into modern times. Standing before the three Lux paintings, I felt revitalized, energized, happy, whereas Rothko’s works depress and/or befuddle me with cosmos-sized riddles. Unlike Rothko, you can still imagine the real world in Osborne’s Lux paintings—the sunrise or sunset experienced with a loved one—whereas Rothko ultimately leaves us crushingly alone—dwarfed by the universe. In a way, the body appears even in near-abstractions such as Lux, except that the body in question is your own.

“Perpetually aware of the deep history she has at her back, looking over her shoulder in the studio, she continues to push the limits of her craft and explore the unknown realms of representation,” Cozzolino says in praise of Osborne, whom he has known in an “extended conversation” since 2004. This close affinity allows Cozzolino to make such statements with informed affection rather than baseless corniness. Osborne really is in a fight with the figures of the past, many of whom worked within her living memory. The brawny, brawling boys of the days of Pollock still muscle out much of American art since the middle of the twentieth century, to the sad exclusion of many deserving artists, particularly women. Like Grace Hartigan, Elizabeth Osborne stands toe to toe with giants and earns her time in the arena.

[Many thanks to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for providing me with a review copy of Robert Cozzolino’s Elizabeth Osborne: The Color of Light and for the images above from the exhibition.]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Something Old, Something New

One of the great things about the internet is that it can bring the whole world right to your lap, or laptop. Nothing can replace the experience of standing before the work of art itself, but the online experience is the next best thing when time, place, and economics are all mitigating factors. I recently came across two great internet resources for art lovers from the Courtauld Institute in London and The Louvre in Paris. The Courtauld Institute has amassed a fine collection of films of their small but powerful collection on YouTube. You’ll be amazed at the masterpieces, such as Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (above, from 1882), in their collection. I’ve only been to London once and didn’t get a chance to visit the Courtauld, but I’ll be sure to place it on my itinerary if I ever get back.

Philadelphia loves to show off the fact that more works by Paul Cezanne live there than anywhere else on earth, including France. But the Courtauld boasts the finest collection in all of England, including Cezanne’s The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (above, from 1882), which the PMA had to borrow for its Cezanne and Beyond exhibition earlier this year (my review here). In addition to Cezanne, the Courtauld owns impressive works by Rubens, Degas, and many others. What the Courtauld loses in size, it more than makes up for in impact. All of these videos convey the intimacy of the museum. I especially love how the videos put the curators front and center, talking up the art without talking down to the viewer the way that so many other art-related videos do, at least here in America. The Courtauld’s YouTube channel is a year old, so it’s hardly new, but the variety of videos they offer is not a “time waster” as so much of YouTube can be, but time well spent.

The Louvre’s collection, the greatest in the world, is certainly something old, but now we English-speaking, non-French speaking art lovers can enjoy it in a new way with the institution of a full English version of the Louvre’s database, Atlas. As someone who does not parley vous Francais, I found it frustrating to navigate the Louvre’s online system in French. Now, I can easily find such gems as Lorenzo Bartolini’s bust of Napoleon I (above, from 1805), which was sculpted and later cast to stand at the entrance of the Louvre during Napoleon’s reign. The cast itself sits in the Louvre’s immense storage, but you can see it online, now in English. All 30,000 works of the Louvre are now only a few clicks away for the English-speaking audience, along with the curator’s explanatory texts in English. I’ve been to the Louvre, but going once is never enough. I don’t know if you can ever go enough. The English version of Atlas is now the passport for all those linguistically challenged Americans, myself included, who can’t make it to the City of Light regularly.

There are simply so many rooms and so many objects at the Louvre that you can’t possibly enjoy them all. I don’t recall seeing the French chess piece from the 1100s (above) showing Adam and Eve, but the new English-version Atlas allows me to virtually stroll from room to room and see all these little gems at my leisure. Art teachers in America should bookmark Atlas and direct their students there for education and inspiration. It’s the field trip of a lifetime for free.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Your Moment of Zen

Tom Killion, Mt. Tamalpais From Mill Valley Marshes, 1980 (9 x 12)

Part of the fascination of Japanese prints is that you envy the Japanese way of living with nature and wish you could somehow import that Zen into your own life and national culture. Artist Tom Killion and poet Gary Snyder’s Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints from Heyday Books offers a Japanese import that we can unashamedly use to transport our souls out of the drudgery of American capitalism run amok. Marrying Killion’s Japanese-inspired woodblock cuts (above and below) with Snyder’s Zen-infused verse, Tamalpais Walking guides us to the foot of Mount Tamalpais overlooking the teeming Bay City area and makes us feel that we’re actually there, ascending the peak with them. “We who bestow names, who imagine the world from within our human selves,” Killion writes, “what meaning shall we give this beautiful place?” The simplicity of Killion’s images and Snyder’s words opens doors through which we can venture and give our own personal meaning to this place, which resides as much on the Pacific Coast as in the imagination of anyone who reads this book.

Tom Killion, Bolinas Ridge to Duxbury Point, 2004 (14 x 18.5)

In 1965, Snyder, along with fellow poets Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen, founded a circumambulation route around Mount Tamalpais that could be completed in a single day. Snyder had roamed about the mountain since 1948 and wove many of his experiences there into his poetry. In his poem “Hills of Home,” Snyder writes:

to see your own tracks climbing
up the trail that you go down.
the ocean’s edge is high
it seems to rise and hang there
halfway up the sky.

Snyder’s essay in Tamalpais Walking, titled “Underfoot Earth Turns,” tenderly caresses the land with verbal imagery. Walking among the “strict and thoughtful old trees,” Snyder has come to see Tamalpais as “no longer just a playground or a gateway, but a temple and a teacher, a helper and a friend.” In the end, Snyder asks, “Did we make up that great space, or did it make us up?” Snyder’s soulful appreciation of Mount Tamalpais mirrors that of many great visual artists who find infinity in a single spot, such as Cezanne and Mount Sainte-Victorie or Andrew Wyeth and Chadds Ford. I couldn’t help but think of Thoreau at Walden Pond when reading of Snyder’s obsession with the mountain, especially in the way that both Thoreau and Snyder strive to wake the sleepers around them to the beauty without and within. “If you look, you’ll find a way,” Snyder writes of Tamalpais and, by extension, life.” “A path, a trail, an old road… it’s about discovering mobility, independence, choice, and places to hang out in the underbrush. It’s about getting there on your own two legs.” Snyder declares independence from the American rat race and encourages us to slow down, look around, and live, too.

Tom Killion, Mt. Tamalpais From Above Green Gulch (Coyote Ridge), 2002 (13 x 19)

Just as Snyder presents Tamalpais as a poetic microcosm of what America can be, Killion presents Tamalpais as a microcosm of American history, both good and bad. Tamalpais, the “sleeping lady” of the Bay Area, took it’s name from the local Miwok tribes. When Europeans settled the area and drove the Native Americans out, they kept the name of Tamalpais. The German immigrants who arrived in the 1880s and became the largest immigrant group in the area at the time transplanted their European hiking culture to Tamalpais and searched every inch of their new prize. Some of the earliest conservationists sought to save Tamalpais’ pristine beauty. “An American Wordsworth will one day come to sing these noble trees,” conservationist William Kent predicted in 1908. Killion traces the long line of poets leading up from the mid-19th century to Kenneth Rexroth in the 1930s to Snyder and the Beats of the 1950s and 1960s. Painters and photographers, most notably Ansel Adams, also brought their art to Tamalpais. Sadly, in the 1940s, Tamalpais witnessed the persecution of the local German population and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Killion aptly positions Tamalpais as a wise witness to all these glories and tragedies in American history.

Tom Killion, Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County, 1996 (11.5 x 17)

Killion takes his rightful place among the great artists who have paid homage to Mount Tamalpais with his insightful and inspired images. Only eight years old when he first hiked Mount Tamalpais in 1961, Killion has studied its sides ever since. The art of Hiroshige and Hokusia, the twin towers of classic Japanese printmaking, inspired the young Killion to follow a similar approach to his personal peak. Killion’s 1975 book 28 Views of Mt. Tamalpais directly referenced Hiroshige’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji without slavish devotion but, instead, true homage. The Zen spirit of Hiroshige and Hokusai comes through clearly in works such as Killion’s Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County (above, from 1996). The single light shining through the window of the mountainside home hints at the human presence surrounding Tamalpais while simultaneously conveying how the dark, brooding shape dwarfs mere humanity. Killion’s works always stand in awe of nature. “Just a mountain,” Killion writes ironically of Tamalpais, “but fixed in the imagination of a city.” Killion’s art fixes Tamalpais panoramically into the imagination of anyone who can be open to the love and spirit behind them.

Tom Killion, The City From Mt. Tamalpais, 1979 (5 x 7)

Killion and Snyder’s art forms pair together like the perfect wine and food, composing a nourishing meal for the shrinking soul. “May we all find the Bay Mountain that gives us a crystal moment of being and a breath of the sky, and only asks us to hold the whole world dear,” Snyder prays as a closing benediction to readers of Tamalpais Walking. As much as Killion and Snyder and so many others hold Mount Tamalpais dear, the real message of Tamalpais Walking is for us to “hold the whole world dear” and find our own mountain to stand upon and see the world and ourselves fully, perhaps for the first time.

[Many thanks to Heyday Books for providing me with a review copy of Tom Killion and Gary Snyder’s Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints and for the images from the book.]

Friday, July 31, 2009

Here Comes the Sun

For the July 2009 Art Poll By Bob, I got scientific and asked, “Which of these science-related works of art make you wish you had paid more attention in high school lab?” In a runaway, Joseph Wright of Derby's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) nearly lapped the field with 17 votes. Albrecht Durer's Melencolia I (1514) and Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic (1875) tied for second with 9 votes each. Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man (1487) came in fourth with 8 votes. William Blake's Newton (1795) won 5 votes to edge out Jacques-Louis David's Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife (1788) and Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower (1920-1924) with 4 votes each. Charles Willson Peale's The Artist in His Museum (1822) with 2 votes and Thomas Eakins' Portrait of Professor Henry A. Rowland (1897) and Charles Willson Peale's Exhuming the First American Mastodon (1806) with 1 vote each rounded out the field. Thanks to everyone who participated in my art experiment.

For the August Art Poll By Bob, to celebrate our annual trek to the New Jersey shore for fun, sun, and surf, I’m asking the following, “Which of these classic paintings of sunlight lights up your life the most?”:

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun (aka, Woman before the Setting Sun) (1818-1820)

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun (1952)

Frida Kahlo, Sun and Life (1947)

Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904)

Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1511)

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1872)

Edvard Munch, The Sun From the Oslo University Aula Decoration (1911-1916)

J.M.W. Turner, The Angel, Standing in the Sun (1846)

J.M.W. Turner, Regulus (1828-1837)

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (1889)

So, put on your shades, slather on some sunscreen, and vote!