21 October 2016

Charline von Heyl: What Was She Thinking?

"I love combining things that don't want to go together until they make a new image." - Charline von Heyl to Diane Solway, 2013.

I had managed to miss the paintings of Charline von Heyl even though the German artist has lived in the United states for more than two decades and works at two studios, one in Brooklyn and another in Marfa, Texas.    Her style, if you try to pin it down, contains elements of collage, drawing, and painting.    Dynamism is what all her works have in common.  Von Heyl is one of several current Abstract Expressionist painters who have burst the cool confines of its originators in favor of a more eclectic vision that might not have happened without the high spirits of Pop Art.  It's a bit like Hegel's dictum - thesis, antithesis, synthesis. 

So, although I have no idea what von Heyl was thinking when she created Howl last year, I know what I thought when I looked at it.   And maybe you will look at this and have similar thoughts.  Let a thousand interpretations bloom!

To read more about Charline von Heyl, visit Artnews.
Image: Charline von Heyl, Howl, 2015, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

15 October 2016

Jim Dine: The Multi-Colored Bathrobe

"The canvases are the size of me with my arms out." - Jim Dine to Constance Glenn, 1983.

I was standing in the art storage stacks at the museum the other evening along with my classmates as we looked at the largest woodblock print any of us had ever seen.   Jime Dine's Bathrobe may not be larger than life in a technical sense but it was larger than any bathrobe I have ever worn.

"Describe not the object itself, but the effect it produces," wrote the French poet Stephane Mallarme.   Nietzsche was the more direct when he famously declared "God is dead."  But it was Mallarme (1842-1898), in his guise as critic, who developed the idea of art as the replacement for religion.   You can love modern art and sidestep Nietzsche but you can't avoid Mallarme; his ideas are either illustrated or  refuted by artists who have come after.
Take the Abstract Expressionists, who denied there were any romantic elements in their works,  ignoring the emotional and spiritual elements viewers admired in their canvases.  Think of the shimmering layers that appear when you gaze for several minutes at a Mark Rothko painting.    Pop artists of the 1960s, whose cool appraisal of ordinary objects, seemed to sacralize them as much as satirize them confound Mallarme's discrete categories.  What of  artists who need to portray the object in order to get to the effect it has on them?

Jim Dine (b.1935)  was a young artist from the Midwest who first attracted attention in New York, the center of the postwar art world, in 1959 when he participated in several Happenings, a type of chaotic performance art that signaled a change of mood from  somber expressionism to something like bacchanalia, Dine has always said that drawing is, for him, the basis of all art, even his sculptures.  Eventually, he was no longer satisfied by what he saw as awkward and inept drawing by the Abstract Expressionists.   In the 1960s Dine fit in with Pop artists with his images of real life objects like hammers and paintbrushes; teh difference was that, as Dine put it, the objects gave him "a vocabulary of feelings."

Dine began to use the bathrobe in 1964 as a form of self-portrait, and he has made dozens and dozens of them since.   Stretching a paper or canvas or, in this case, a piece of wood, to human size has underlined the intimacy he finds in this everyday garment.   Alan Solomon, an art historian, understood this when in 1967 he called Dine " a hot artist in a cool time."

This Bathrobe from 1982 is work of mixed media.  It is a fourteen color woodcut (you can count them for yourself,) with black paint used for the outline.  Standing next to Bathrobe I felt those black lines move on that rigid surface, like so many motions of putting on and taking off, the lineaments of a personal relationship. 

Jim Dine - Fourteen-color Bathrobe, 1982, Schaefer Art Galleries, Syracuse University, NY.

08 October 2016

Secret Panda Haven

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
 - excerpt from "Inversnaid" by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1881) 

The mountains of southwestern China are certainly wild and wet; in photographs they are lapped by rivers of mist.  Sichuan the name of the province that means the land of the four rivers, is the place where the Himalayas drop down toward the river basin.  Rugged and remote, it has long held tight to its secrets, its variety of plants and animal species unknown to the larger world.    But, every now and then, for two thousand years, those who made the difficult journey to Sichuan returned with stories of marvelous, elusive plant-eating animals. 
Panda is the Nepalese word for "bamboo-eater."   The giant panda is a bear; the red panda is either a cat or a raccoon, a question that has remained since  Frederic Cuvier saw his first red panda in 1825.  Then, in 1868, another Frenchman,  Armand David, arrived at a village in Sichuan  to teach at a Jesuit school there.  What Pere David learned there made him famous, identifying  and classifying hundreds of plants, birds, and animals.  Thanks to him, the gerbil and the giant panda entered our world.  He was  also a pioneer in the study of animal geography, a discipline that has contributed to bringing back the giant panda from the brink of extinction.  For a long time after Pere David brought word of the panda back to France, they called it" Pere David's bear."
We did not mean to endanger pandas, we admired their gentle habits but we encroached on their territory, cutting down the trees where they carved out their birthing dens and turning the land to farms, driving them ever higher into the mountains, where it was colder and less hospitable to bamboo.  What wondrous lines might another Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, have given us if he had been to the haven of the giant panda?

1. Henri Milne-Edwards - Folio, plate 50, Ursus melanoeucus, female, c.1869-74,  French National Museum of Natural History, Paris.
2.  unknown artist - Butterfly among the flowers, c. 16th-17th century, India, Louvre Museum, Paris.

02 October 2016

Francoise Gilot: A Portrait Of the Artist As a Young Woman

"A touch of red, how nice,why not a little more of the same, and then it is too much!  All the more reason to go on adding more and more.  It is good to exaggerate, to go beyond, to pursue the extreme limit of what is suggested by the pictorial imagination." - Francoise Gilot, in Francoise Gilot Monograph 1940-2000, Lausanne, Editions Acatos: 2000, p.26.

No equivocation here: I love this painting. 
Francoise Gilot was twenty-two when she painted this self portrait.  She would not meet Henri Matisse for another three years but his importance to her work is already evident.  She had learned  lessons from Matisse's use of color;  the orange dress and blue beads  draw the eye upward to the face, modeled in blue-green and pink-purple.   The white  lines take the place of shading, function  also as a bright colo.

At its extremities, fear of content led modern artists to disdain portraits and this helps to explain why Gilot's unapologetic ambition looks so fresh today.  There is no amount of aesthetic criticism that nullifies the essence of a portrait: it is a meeting of minds: the artist and the sitter and (if these two are one and the same)  the artist and the viewer.   Women have been taught to be exquisitely sensitive to the moods of others and also long excluded from life drawing classes.  These two things could cancel each other out but women have excelled at portraiture during the last century and critics have begun to reconsider artists as various as Cecelia Beaux< once dismissed as a society painter and Alice Neel, whose portraits as nude men were once labelled as "satires." ?

She was twenty-one when she met the Great Artist; he was sixty-one.  She was beautiful; he was famous.   He knew how lucky he was; then he forget. They had so shared much in common; both of them had been precocious artists born to bourgeois families.  The difference was that when he displayed artistic talent, his family supported him in every way.  When she told her father that she intended to be an artist, he beat her and then disowned her. She was still the spirited woman who had attracted him, who laughed at his petulant moods but he was cruel, abusive, and unfaithful.   She was the only woman who ever left the Great Artist.  She left because he drained her energy; she could only paint when she was away from him.  He told her that, without him, she would be no more than a footnote to the story of his life.  He was wrong, but he must have regretted bringing up footnotes when she published her biography of life with the Great Artist.  He sued to prevent its publication but it became a bestseller, drawing back the curtain on his mythic reputation. 

To read more: Francoise Gilot, Life With Picasso, New York, McGraw Hill: 1962.
Francoise Gilot - Study for a Self Portrait, 1944, private collection, courtesy Sotheby's.

27 September 2016

Notes From the Art Of The Print: Fannie Hillsmith

It sounds like a dream come true, and it is.  When a wealthy private university with several art galleries and a collection of 45,000 works of art decides to offer a Humanities  course to the general public at severely reduced tuition, You can believe I was right there to enroll.  Yes, a course in art history includes lectures and slides and class discussion.  But this class offers special opportunities.  Firstly is that each week after we have looked at slides of Rembrandt, Durer, Goya, and Piranesi - so far - we adjourn to the Schaefer Gallery's print room to examine (feast our eyes) on the real things.  Also, rather than writing a term paper, we attended a national  print fair this past weekend and each of us will recommend a print for the gallery to purchase, to be paid for with our tuition.

My first choice (first, only in the order of my posts here) is Garden Plan (1946) by Fannie Hillsmith, a work she created during her first year at Atelier 17, an artists' workshop in Greenwich Village.  Hillsmith went on to make other versions, adding abstract washes of color in green and purple overlaid on this structure.  The title is straightforward: it is the plan Hillsmith designed for her small city garden, as seen from a window above - a birds' eye view.  On second look, what emerges is Hillsmith's witty take on plant life, her use of exclamatory lines familiar from New Yorker cartoons. 

A taste for Cubism  emerged during the four years at Atelier 17, years where she worked side by side with Joan Mrio, Yves Tanguay, Jacques Lipschitz and other emigres from  A Europe at war.  Hillmsith took the fractured planes of Juan Gris, a favorite artist, and turned them in American images, with tongue in cheek.  A folded newspaper was renamed the New York Times and the wine bottle, a standard feature of Parisian cafe scenes, was replaced by an earthenware jug (in Molasses Jug, 1949) or sometimes a martini glass.

Atelier 17 had been the French brainchild of an English artist Stanley William Hayter.   Hayter set up shop on the Left bank in 1927, attracting Picasso, Mrio, Changall, and other artistic luminaries of the day to his workshop.  As a master of etching and engraving Hayter was able to turn their drawings into prints, with all the potential, aesthetic and commercial, that implied.  

Moving the school to New York in 1940 to escape the war, Hayter established himself with a new generation of artists.   Ninety-one of the approximately two hundred artists who enrolled there were women, making Ateleier 17 unusually supportive to women.   What the Atelier offered women was a place to experiment with abstraction and also personal imagery, away from the muscular postwar world of Abstract Expressionism.    Names like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko may be more familiar to us but  Hayter would look back to the experience and say that the work of these famous men was a lot less impressive that that of the women.  Indeed, the work of women like Fannie Hillsmith pointed toward the flowering of women artists in the 1970s and beyond.

Fannie Hill Smith was born in Boston in 1911; her grandfather Frank Hill Smith, a painter, had been one of the founders of the Boston Museum School, where Fannie studied painting for four years.  She changed the spellling of her last name to Hillsmith, to avoid the association between her name and the 18th century erotic novel Fanny Hill.  After Graduation, she moved to New York where she gravitated to the Art Students League.   In New York, Hillsmith encountered avant garde art - and she liked what she saw.  Even before she joined Atelier 17, she had exhibited her work at Peggy Guggenheim's Art Of This Century Gallery on West 57th Street.  Her career has long and productive; she continued painting up until a few months befor her death at the age of ninety-six in 2007.

1. Fannie Hillsmith - Garden Plan, 1946, intaglio print, Susan Teller Gallery, New York City &  Jersey City.
2. Fannie Hillsmith - The Little Table, 1950, oil/tempura and sand on walnut,  private collection
3. Fannie Hillsmith - Molasses Jug, 1949, oil painting, Susan Teller Gallery.

21 September 2016

Merikokeb Berhanu: An Ethiopian Artist Today

"I want viewers of my work to hear what the images have to say through their own power.    Sensation can be experienced through elements of art.   The life we are passing through...the complexity and density of what surrounds us....all elements push me to think and paint.   And let my perception be crystallised through visual elements as a form of language." - Merikokeb Berhanu (source ARTLabAfrica)

It comes as no surprise that the artist gives no titles to her paintings but instead identifies them by year and in their order of composition (e.g., the painting above is "untitled XI, 2013").  The first things an outsider notices about Berhanu's work, and also that of some of her contemporaries,  are stylistic similarities to Cubist and Expressionist art. "Untitled XIV, 2013" immediately reminded me of Egon Schiele's work, especially his landscapes, made as they are of layers of pattern.    The Austrian Schiele (1890-1918) painted his landscapes during the last six years of his short life, at a time when the arts of Spain and northern Africa countries were being imitated wholesale, or as Europeans thought improved on.  What was the tradition of centuries to the Ethiopians was considered na├»ve by outsiders: bright saturated colors, abstract forms, patterned backgrounds.  But in short order  they were appropriated as the elements of European modernism.

Although its location near the Red Sea has made Ethiopia an important trading route and meeting place for millenia, its culture has remained self-contained for most of that time.   Not surprising in a country where dozens of ethnic groups and more than seventy languages had contributed to the mix.  For westerners Ethiopian art can be hard to see.  While thousands of Ethiopian art works are displayed in museums around the world, their creators have remained  unidentified;  it was not customary for artists to sign their works and the foreigners who purchased them seemed not to care.  Art itself is a more expansive idea there than in western societies with their distinctions between ideas of art and craft, distinctions that fall away in a culture with a wealth of beautiful objects as part of everyday life.  When Ethiopian art is include in world art histories it is usually the paintings made for Ethiopian Orthodox churches, easily understood in western terms (Christianity was introduced there in the 4th century).  An example of that holistic conception at work in Berhani's painting is apparent in "untitled XI, 2014" where a human figure is holding a typical woven coil basket.  So important is basketry in Ethiopian life,  from the utilitarian to the aesthetic and even the sacred, that young women are expected to produce a collection of baskets as part of their dowry.

Merikokeb Berhanu (b.1977) is an Ethiopian artist who studied at the National Academy of Fine Art in Addis Ababa.  After graduation she became one  of the founders of Nubia Studio, a studio space and art gallery that promotes contemporary art.  Berhanu has exhibited her paintings in France and Germany, as well as in the neighboring countries of  Sudan and Uganda. 

Images: Merikokeb Berhanu, Addis Fine Art, Addis Ababa.
1. untitled XI, 2013.
2. untitled XIV, 2013.
3. untitled XI, 2014.
4. untitled V, 2014.
5. untitled XIII, 2016.

14 September 2016

Alexander Benois: The Philosopher's Admonition

In this watercolor by Alexander Benois we see two men strolling in the sunlit  gardens at Versailles, one a courtier and the other a philosopher.  The philosopher is  dressed in turquerie, an imitation fo Turkish style that first became popular in western Europe during the 16th century; the fad is now part of what we call Orientalism, pastiche of Ottoman culture.   From their attire we can infer that the monarch in residence at the Royal Court was named Louis, whatever his number.

I thought of Benois as I read the poem “Comic Opera” by the late W.G, Sebald.   Unlike most of Sebald’s extensively annotated poems (often the notes run to more words than the poems themselves) this one came into English with no notes at all.    But it does read as though Sebald might have seen The Last Promenades of Louis XIV (1897).   The “newly lapsed century” Sebald writes is the time when Benois made the drawings in what I like to think of as his Rococo-revivalist style.   Whether or not the erudite German knew the Russian’s work, it seems likely that Benois the art historian knew that among the Sun King’s mistresses was one Marquise de La Valliere, a student of philosophy who loved the works of Aristotle and Descartes.

Alexandre Benois was fascinated by Versailles, judging by the six hundred plus drawings, watercolors, pastels, etc. that he devoted to the subject during the decade between 1897 and 1907.   Benois visited Versailles for the first time in 1897, painting a series of watercolors The Last Promenades of Louis XIV. When Diaghilev saw the Promenades  drawings at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow later that year, he sensed the theatrical possibilities in this 19th century Russian interpretation of 17th century France.  But it was not until ten years later that the two staged their first theatrical collaboration, the ballet Le Pavilion d'Armide with a libretto by Benois that drew on his pictures of Versailles.

The program enlists the turqueries
of a newly lapsed century
a potpourri of bells and symbols
orchestrated obscenities
Masked players swell
the plot in a green theater
their true faces overwritten
Rather than greater virtue
the happy ending proposes
more trivial vies
The hedges rustle with applause
and the bygone ladies
of the court return
below the lawns
Back to reading
 - "Comic Opera" Across The Land And Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald,  New York, Random House: 2011.

Benois had arrived in France in 1896, having graduated three years earlier with a law degree in St. Petersburg.   He  was now busily engaged in avoiding its practice by trying out the life of a painter in Paris.  Increasing political unrest among the Russian peasantry had been  left behind but it, and Benois's knowledge of the events of 1789, cast a shadow over his  Versailles.    Below, a frail Louis XIV is being wheeled out to view his gardens and fountains;  over the Sun King's head, the clouds are overtaking the sun.

What was at the root of this infatuation with Versailles?  Did the sweeping parterres, the gilded statuary, and the empty royal chateau remind him of the vast Palace Square in St. Petersburg?   Did  tales of Peter the Great building his royal city over a  swamp offer a mirror image of the Sun King building his  waterborne court in a town where water had to be pumped in rather than drained out?   Maybe something like a stage was what Benois needed to unleash his imagination.  After all, his grandfather had been the architect who designed the great Russian theaters, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.  And Louis XIV, assuredly a man who made no small plans, had intended  Versailles to be the stage for a continuing pageant, its subject the splendor of his reignAround almost any corner along an allee, the royal gardens provided spectacles of statues and fountains (sometimes both a once)  depicting scenes from  Greek and Roman mythology for the entertainment  of visitors.  Everything at Versailles was staged  but it was the audience rather than the players who moved about. From the palace terrace, Versailles, Paris, and ultimately all of France was  a stage for the King's power.

For both Benois and Diaghilev, the attraction to all things Euuropean was strong; for his part. Diaghilev denounced contemporary Russian art as "one big slap in the face of Apollo."  So they founded the magazine  Mir Istkusska (World of Art) in St. Petersburg to promote the new.  From its first issue in November 1898, the magazine caused a sensation.  A frequent contributor to the magazine was Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, about whom there is more here. After the Russian Revolution Benois served as curator of paintings at the Hermitage Museum but in 1927 he settled permanently in Paris where he died in 1960. 
As for those cubist novels I haven't a clue what Sebald had in mind.   I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about this.
Alexander Benois – The Philosopher's Admonition,  1907, Pompidou Center, Paris. 
       Alexander Benois  - The King’s Promenade, no date given,  Pompidou Center, Paris.