22 December 2011


When I first saw Michale Schuyt's photograph of the Jantar Mantar, a celestial observatory built at Jaipur, India in the 18th century, I was reminded of Georgia O'Keefe's Ladder To The Moon.  With its seemingly random placement of stone stairways  the observatory looked like a collection of movable gateways waiting for the planes to land.  It looked surreal, rather than what it was, the embodiment of scientifically calculated star-watching posts.   In fact, stairways to the stars

When Karl Marx wrote "everything that is solid melts into air"  he wasn't thinking  about stairs but he could have been.  A stairway is a structure built to solve the problem of ascending and descending in space, something the human body is not well equipped to do.  I think of Marcel Duchamp's scandalous 1913 painting Nude Descending A Staircase and then its 1952 recreation by the photographer Eliot Elisofon.  Once you get past the initial recognition of the joke, you notice how awkward the real moving person appears.

In terms of physics, a staircase is a lever or a treadmill. that multiplies energy.   While Superman can leap tall buildings in a single leap, the rest of us can only reach such heights with a sustained expenditure of energy.  The aunt of Frenchman Jacques-Henri Lartigue seems to have mastered the "leap" decades before Superman.

Oskar Schlemmer's Bauhaus Stairway  displays the co-ordinate geometry of Descartes in action.  Just as the mathematics of multiple variables is encapsulated in Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola's design  of a stairway with a curvilinear sluice way running down its center. at Villa Lante in Bagnaia.  The effortless cascading water is a contrast with the energy required to walk up the stairs. 

When the gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler wanted to measure the intelligence of chimpanzees during World War I, he built a staircase.  Then he placed a bunch of bananas at the top and waited to see what the chimps would do.  

According to Aristotle, the stairway represented the divine order of the universe.  In their metaphysical ambition to link heaven and earth, the early Mesopotamians melded the stairway and the spiral when they created their legendary ziggurat. The  double helix staircase at Chateau de Chambord,  its design attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, is a puzzle ( how can you see another person on the stairs but not meet them face to face?).

Clerics and all manner of royal personages have deployed stairways in  grandiose ceremonies and  buildings.  The same impulse appears in modern popular songs with such titles as Stairway To The Stars, Stairway To Paradise, and Stairway To Heaven.   Aspects of worship or pilgrimage are often associated with climbing, as in a Jacob's Ladder.

A stairway implies the magic and mystery of the transitory,  the idea of ascending toward the invisible with all its attendant symbolism.  A spiral or helix stairway could be energy frozen in time and space, like freezing water.  The seven white stairs and the seven millstones of Sevres combine layers of symbolism in marmoreal tranquility.
A neglected stairway is a melancholy sight, its disrepair suggesting better times have gone by.  Moss sets into the cracks as ivy curls around the trees in Valenciennes's  watercolor.  Even the light seems to be in retreat.

A century after Valenicennes, a grand staircase at Parc de Sceaux near Paris, as photographed by the recent immigrant Andre Kertesz, is the image of desertion.  No footsteps have disturbed the wind-blown leaves from their resting places, no broom or rake has tidied them.  A stairway, and a grand one at that, it commands respect for human ingenuity as it reminds us of the flux at the heart of existence.

1. Georgia O'Keeffe - Ladder To The Moon, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.
2. Eliot Elisofon - time-lapse photograph of Marcel Duchamp descending a staircase - NYC, 1952, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
3. Jacques-Henri Lartigue - My Aunt, 1906, Association des Amis de J.-H. Lartigue, Paris.
4. Oskar Schlemmer - Bauhaus Stiarway, 1932,  Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
5.  Carlo Ponti -  Palazzo Contarini della Scala, c. 1850s, National Galleries of Scotland.
6. Kokkei Shinbun Sha, publisher - Worshipers Going To the Oku No In From Ehagati Sekai, 1907, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
7. Bernard de Jongghe - The Seven White Stairs And The Seven Millstones, 1990, Cite de la ceramique, Sevres.
8. Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) -   A Cobblestone Stairway Covered With Moss, undated, Louvre Museum, Paris.
9. Andre Kertesz -  Le parc de  Sceaux in Autumn, 1926, Mediatheque, Paris.

17 December 2011

Crossing The Bridge To Abstraction And Back: Janet Fish

"There are no such things as still lives." - Erica Jong, from Fruits & Vegetables, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1970

Definitely not in the paintings of Janet Fish.    For almost half a century, Fish (b. 1933) has executed compositions of extreme complexity while at the same time using even the brightest colors to create illusions of transparency.  Equally dazzling displays of glass and shrink wrap suggest the comfort of an artist who encountered Pop Art early on.  The works in her first solo exhibition in 1971 sold out before the show opened.  Even people who don't recognize the artist's name have seen her iconic images of canned fruits and massed bottles of Smirnoff vodka or Kraft dressing.

 Fish has said that she turned to the painting of still life as a bridge between representation and abstraction.   When she was a student at the Yale School of Art in the early 1960s, abstract expressionism was a weighty orthodoxy, enforced by New York critics and difficult for young artists to ignore.  Representation was considered old-fashioned, abstraction equaled progress, and the arts post-war were about progress just as  much as business was.  "Progress is our most important product" was the official motto of General Electric, after all.  Fish recalls that "I told a cold look at the product - all hot air and mirrors - it didn't mean anything to me.  It was a set of rules."

Luckily for Fish, one of her first mentors was Alex Katz,  who painted the way he wanted to and encouraged Fish to find her own way, too.  Unable to get an academic position after graduation because of her gender,  Fish moved to New York City where she existed on a series of odd jobs to support her painting.  "My mother had as much influence on my career as any of my instructors did - probably more," Fish told a reporter in 1982, alluding to her determination. 

 "To alter the color is to change the feeling," according to Fish, so her turn to more delicate, abstemious use of color suggests  new interests.  For an artist whose work is described as distinctly American, her use of objects from Japan is notable.   In Dragon Kite the plate, the bag and the tablecloth are covered with scripts that are part of the composition while maintaining their discrete existences   Like Orange Pink Green  and other  recent works, color is still important although it is used sparingly.
For Fish, whose early training was dominated by academic arguments, it may be perverse to suggest that her newer paintings bring to mind an argument from the 19th century academies of Europe, but here it is.  Is drawing primary or does a painting need color to be successful?  The best answer is that there is no answer, a Zen koan.   Maybe this is the message of the Dragon Kite.

Quotes are from the essay Janet Fish by Judith Stein, D. C. Moore Gallery: 1998.
Images by Janet Fish, from the D.C. Moore Gallery in NYC unless otherwise noted.
1. Dragon Kite, 2007.
2. herb Tea, Smith College Museum of Art,  Northampton, MA.
3. Dishes from Japan, 2003. 
4. Orange Pink Green, 2003.