17 April 2019

When the Wind was Green


When the wind was green at the start of spring
When the wind was green like a living thing
It was on my lips and its kiss was fair
You were there

When the wind was red like a summer wine
When the wind was red like your lips on mine
It caressed my face and it tossed my hair
You were there

The came the fall and all of love
came tumbling, stumbling down
Like leaves that lost to frost and found
They were flying, crying
In a brown wind dying

But the winter's come and we both should know
That the wind is white like the swirling snow
And we'll never see all the wonderful things to be seen
When the wind was green.
 - "When the Wind was Green" by Donald Henry Stinson

Some songs don't stand the test of time.  They are of their time and should be allowed to stay there.  Some jazz songs manage to stand the test by shedding their lyrics, a skin no longer needed that sets the music itself free to metamorphose as new generations of musicians take its measure.  And then there is a type of song that I have held close, since I was very young and then as a jazz radio programmer, where I got the kick of doing something about it.

I have wanted to write about When the Wind was Green for a long time  but shirked the responsibility of doing so because it feels presumptuous to elaborate on lyrics that stand so beautifully on their own.  Originally composed as an instrumental by Donald Henry Stinson with lyrics added for vocalist Chris Connor's debut album, the conceit around which the lyric layers its images suggest other worlds than that of a love song.

When the Wind was Green was recorded in  1950 by the David Rose Orchestra.  Chris Connor recorded the first vocal version in 1956 on her debut release, the first jazz album from Atlantic Records.  Founded in 1947 by the Ertegun brothers, Nesuhi became the president and Ahmet the A & R (artists and repertoire) man.   His confidence in the smoky-voiced Connor, led to pairing her with pianist  John Lewis, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Milt Hinton, drummer Connie Kay, and a ten-piece band led by saxophonist Zoot Sims, all jazz royalty, then and now.

I first heard the song on a 1995 RCA Victor cd When the Wind was Cool from Dominique Eade, a tribute to Chris Connor and other cool jazz singers.  Eade's was a well-traveled childhood. Born in London, England, her father was an Air Force officer and the family moved fequently.  After spending her teenage years in Germany, Eade studied English at Vassar College and then attended the New England Conservatory of music. A singer who played both piano and guitar, Eade arranged several of the songs for her major label debut.  She also had her share of illustrious accompanists including tenor saxophonist  Benny Golson  and vibraphonist Steve Nelson.  A vocalist of uncommon agility, Eade can encompass toughness and intimacy in a single interpretation. Her most recent release is Open from Sunnyside Records (2017).

Donald Henry Stinson published his songs under several pseudonyms, even representing himself as a duo on the credits for When the Winds Was Green.  Information about Stinson is sketchy but the best resource online is Discogs.

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015) was an America artist whose paintings belong to the style Color Field.   I was delighted to fin that Tableau vert waspainted in 1952, of the period when Stinson was working on his song.

Image:
Ellsworth Kelley - Tableau vert (Green Painting), 1952, oil on wood, Art Institute of Chicago.

09 April 2019

A Lesson from Abstraction: William Palmer's Autoroute



In William Palmer's Route 5 - Morning abstraction does not conceal so much as reveal a new viewpoint: this is how landscape looks from the road, from a car.   It is, coincidentally, how farmland looks from the air.   Agriculture may be the oldest profession but the automobile has existed for the blink of an eye, historically.  Palmer's choice of the panoramic view seems exactly right for his subject, suggesting movement and his choice of purple, complementary color to green, an apt choice  to suggest passing clouds reflected on the ground.

The origins of this particular route date from the post-glacial age.  First as narrow foot paths trod by the Mohawk and Iroquois peoples, then as trails for horses and oxcarts to carry European settlers westward.  When traffic reached a critical mass, New York State turned the roads over to speculators and the era of the turnpike toll road began.

By 1793 the Mohawk Turnpike reached from Albany to Utica where the Genesee Turnpike continued through Central New York (now known as Route 5).  With the arrival of the Erie Canal  in 1825 and the railroads in the 1850s, turnpikes became poor investments for speculators  fell into neglect.  With the invention of the automobile, rutted paths and corduroy roads had to be replaced by hard surfaces.  A new east-west toll road was proposed in the 1940s and the first section of the New York State Thruway opened in 1954 between Utica and Rochester.

You may not know his name but the imprint of William C. Palmer (1906-1987) is all around  the art world of  upstate New York.  Palmer was the first professor of studio art at Hamilton College in Clinton and the founder of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute School of Art at Utica where he served as director from 1941 to 1973.  His murals  grace post offices from Massachusetts to Iowa and hospitals in Queens; his paintings are in the collections of the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and, of course,  Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.

Palmer studied at the Art Students League in New York  with Thomas hart Benton and then learned fresco painting at L'Ecole des Beuax-Arts in Fontainbleau.  He returned from France in 1927 to earn his living by painting murals for the WPA Arts Project during the Depression in New York.  President Franklin Roosevelt choose a Palmer painting Manhattan from the Jersey Meadows for the White House art collection; it is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.  After his retirement Palmer lived in nearby Clinton, NY until his death.  The moods and atmosphere of the upstate countryside were often the subject of Palmer's late semi-abstract landscape paintings and Route 5 - Morning is among Palmer's best.

Image:
William C. Palmer - Route 5 - Morning, 1949,  oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Uiica, NY.

01 April 2019

Mariano Fortuny: The Perfect Moment:






































From the corner where you sit,
Look out at the light,
The grass and trees and mossy
Stone in the arbor

That measures time in the sun,
And the water lilies, tufts
O f dream on the motionless
Water of the fountain.

Above you, the translucent
Folds and pleats of the leaves,
The pale blue of the sky,
White clouds.

A blackbird sings
Sweetly, as if the voice
Of the garden were to speak to you.
In such a still hour

Use your eyes well, look
As if you gently touched
Each thing.  You owe thanks -
For such pure calm

Free from pleasure or pain -
To the light, for soon.
It will go, as you will.
In the distance you hear

The deceptive treed
Of time, moving
Toward the winter. Then
Both your meditation and this

Garden you contemplate,
Transfixed by the light,
Must lie down in a long
Sleep, mute and dark.
 - "A Garden" by Luis Cernuda from Selected Poems, translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons, Berkeley, University of California Press: 1977.

The longer you look at this seemingly modest painting the more amazing it becomes.  Cecilia de Madrazo is a portrait of the wife of the artist, recording a quiet moment of domestic life - but with what panache. The clarity of the composition is breathtaking: the woman sits facing left with a chair and the curving line of a tall potted rose bush bracketing her figure. Her white blouse as the setting for her head is muted in contrast the artfully executed billows of her striped skirt, evidence of Fortuny's masterly draftsmanship. The background is rendered in delicate washes of watercolor;  Fortuny was the pre-eminent water-colorist of his day.  The richness of a small perfect moment is captured, lest we overlook life's sweetness in our hurry from one moment to the next.

In August 1874, three months before he died, Mariano Fortuny wrote, "Now I can paint for myself, the way I like, as I please...It is what gives me the hope of showing myself as I really am."  The Spanish artist and his family were spending the summer in Portici, a beach town near Naples when Fortuny contracted malaria.  He died in Rome from a stomach ulcer that hemorrhaged.  Mariano Fortuny y Marsal (1838-1874) was only thirty-six years old but he was already an artist with an international reputation, his works in museums and private collections across Europe and North America.  His admirers sensed that he was on the brink of doing some great new thing when he died.  Today his reputation has been overshadowed by that of his son Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871-1949), a Venetian textile designer but a renewed interest in Spanish art is the occasion for another look.

His contemporaries adored Fortuny's work, Vincent Van Gogh and the Americans John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins notable among them.  Pablo Picasso, a fellow Catalan, admired Fortuny for patriotic reasons as well.  Fortuny was a collector of art and fearlessly hung his collection in his studio, interspersing works of the past with his own  to create a personal aesthetic environment.

Mariano Fortuny  was orphaned at the age of six and thereafter raised by his grandfather who supported the boy's artistic talent through a small stipend from the local church.  Antonio Bassa, a silversmith and painter of miniatures taught Fortuny the value of thoroughness in art.  His grandfather accompanied him to Barcelona where Fortuny began his formal art studies in 1852. Then, in 1858, he won the coveted Prix de Rome, an award that changed his life.

In Paris, center of the art world in the late 19th century and home to a growing and influential bourgeoisie, Fortuny achieved fame.  Writer and critic Theophile Gauthier's praise of Fortuny's work  opened doors to the young Spaniard,  leading to an exclusive contract with the renowned art dealer Adolphe Goupil. Fortuny had recently married Cecilia de Madrazo, daughter of the director of the Prado on Madrid and together they made an impressive couple.

The bourgeoisie fell in love with Fortuny, the scholarship boy from Tarragona, a self-made artist who rose from humble beginnings to achieve worldly success.  In his good fortune they saw their own values reaffirmed, their social virtue in allowing  him to succeed validated their conformism and negated their narrow-mindedness. The grandson of a cabinet maker was lauded by the international art world as a complete artist -  his virtuosity with oil paint revealed new ways to portray light on canvas, his agile draftsmanship was the foundation for his self-assured handling of watercolor that renewed the medium in Spain, France, and Italy, and his compatriots considered Fortuny the finest intaglio print-maker since Goya.

Popularity had its drawbacks: Fortuny grew tired of painting the formulaic orientalist works that were all the rage at the time, work that he found increasingly shallow.  And if we look at those pictures now we can  see his wisdom that they  were blocking his development as a painter.  Fortuny also felt hemmed in by  very narrative that made him so attractive to many patrons.  With some relief, the couple moved to Granada in 1868 where they settled in the Washington Irving Hotel at the Alhambra.  The importance of the Alhambra in garden history would be  hard to exaggerate. For Fortuny it was truly a heaven on earth.

The gardens of Spain are richl in history, combining designs from ancient Persian and Roman gardens with more recent Islamic additions from the time of Moorish Spain and Andalusia.  The 'paradise garden' is organized around a central axis with paths radiating out in the four cardinal directions. Sun and heat, the basic elements of the Spanish climate, are tempered by the coolness and humidity of fountains and watercourses.  Fortuny painted it all with clarity and spontaneity, no small feat.  You have only to compare his work with that of another Catalan painter Santiago Rusinol (1861-1931) whose vivid landscapes are relatively stiff and unconvincing.

Fortuny's late landscapes are anything but stiff, they brim with light and color. Beach at Portici, unfinished at the time of his death, was so highly regarded that it was hung prominently in the American Pavilion at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Alexander Turney Stewart, a New York collector, had purchased the painting in 1875, knowing it a work in progress.  The concentration of detail in the background trees and beach juxtaposed with the free brush work of the foliage in the foreground could hardly be improved on for overall effect.  The wall nicely defines the space around the human figures enjoying their leisure on a sunny day.  An unusually large painting for Fortuny, its relatively broad canvas provided scope for his extraordinary capacity for expressing the beauty of the ordinary.


In the United States Fortuny's paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Walters  Art Museum in Baltimore, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Hispanic Society of America in New York City.

The poem "A Garden"  is exemplary of Luis Cernuda's writing.  For him, the natural world was indivisible from the human perceiving it, not anthropomorphism but something more subtle.  In the same fashion, the speaker in the poems, the "I," was Cernuda the observer, not the ego.
Luis Cernuda (1902-1968) was the most cosmopolitan of modern Spanish poets; he immersed himself in the French surrealist poets, the English Romantics by way of Goethe, and American literature.  Cernuda was born is Seville but moved to Madrid, the center of Spanish literary culture.  By contrast, the Catalan city of Barcelona where Fortuny had gravitated as a young man was the birthplace of modern Spanish art.

Social life in early 20th century Spain was a melancholy spectacle,  constricting, valuing conformity above all other values.  Cernuda could be fearsome in his denunciations of the bourgeoisie, as in these. lines from "Remorse in Black Tie:" ("A gray man walks the foggy street./No one suspects.  An empty body,/ empty as plains or sea or wind:/ Harsh deserts under unrelenting sky.")

Cernuda lived  most of his adult life in exile, a poete maudit, whose songs went unheard in the wilderness. Solitary, anti-religious, and homosexual, Cernuda preached against the church while employing their own symbolism to mock them.   He rejected their rigid morality in hope of a more organic one. I hope this taste of the flavor of Cernuda's work encourages readers to search out his poetry.

Fortuny:a retrospective was held at the Prado in Madrid from 11/21/2017 to 02/21/2018.

Images:
1. Mariano Fortuny  - Portrait of the artist's wife Cecilia  de Madrazo, 1874, watercolor and gouache on blue-ish paper, British Museum, London.
2. Mariano Fortuny - Young girl in the garden of the artist's studio - Granada, after 1868.
3, Mariano Fortuny - The Beach at Portici (unfinished), 1874, Meadows Museum, Dallas.

25 March 2019

Refugees: Antoni Clave


Scenes of puzzlement and distress are often captured with the simplest artistic tools - crayon, pen or pencil, and paper.  Reflecting on this eighty year old work by a now forgotten Spanish artist I find its poignancy sadly familiar.  Without the title to guide us, we recognize these people as refugees; their self-protective postures and worried faces tell us so.  The downward-slanting lines tell of a rainy night that drains the color from their faces and their clothing and the hazy neither-here-nor-thereness of the pastels supplies an inspired correlative to their uncertainty.   What awaits them is as mysterious to us as it is to them.

In February 1939, the Spanish artist Antoni Clave fled from his home in  Barcelona to escape the  carnage of the Spanish Civil War.  Unfortunately, soon after he crossed the border Clave was detained at a military camp  near Perpignan in southern France.  While Clave cooled his heels waiting and hoping to be released he turned his tools, pastels and ink, to record daily rounds of the keepers and the involuntary guests at the camp. After his release which was arranged by the future curator of Perpignan's Museum of Fine Arts, Clave moved to Paris.

Antoni Clave (1913-2005) had a long artistic career that began in swirls of baroque detail and was gradually stripped of ornamentation, becoming simpler and more modern, eventually arrived at pure abstraction.  Beyond painting he began to work with stage and costume design, and was nominated for two Academy Awards in 1952 for Art Direction and Costume Design. He died at Saint-Tropez at the age of ninety-two.

For more about Antoni Clave ( a bit of a rough translation from the French)

Image:
Antoni Clave - The Exodus, 1939, pastel and ink on paper, private collection, courtesy of Musee Hyancinthe Rigaud, Perpignan.

18 March 2019

Rosemary In Thought: Raphael Soyer






































"If art is to survive, it must describe and express people, their lives and times. It must communicate."
      - Raphael Soyer

A deeply unfashionable sentiment at times, yet it served Raphael Soyer well.  Early in his career as a painter he received acclaim for his detailed, sensitive portrayals of unemployed women and men struggling to keep their dignity and feed their families after the stock market crash of 1929.  When abstract expressionism triumphed in the post-war years, Soyer's art went out of style.  Nevertheless, he continued his explorations of the many faces around hi, particularly artists and writers of his acquaintance.

With that in mind, who is Rosemary?  I haven't been able to identify her but Soyer's portrait and its title indicate his interest in the process of thought.  Her eyes focus inward, distinct from averted away from the artist and, by extension, the viewer.  It's unlikely that she is thinking about her current occupation as sitter.   Her pursed lips and arched brows suggest a satirical bent to her thoughts.  Her crossed arms portend the possibility of dark clouds resulting from any conclusion.  Although she wears ordinary street clothes and sits on a straight- backed chair she wraps herself and the artist also wraps her in dignity.  This portrait is, if it has anything in common with photography, an exercise in time-lapse vision.  Brown, blue, and grey colors that predominate in the portraits of women by the British painter Gwen John (1876-1939) are used by Soyer to effect a similar subdued atmosphere.  As the son of a Hebrew scholar, Soyer was raised to value  signs of human ratiocination.

Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) was one of six children; both Raphael and his twin brother Moses would grow to become artists.   Born in provincial southern Russia, the family was forced to emigrate in 1912 as turmoil engulfed pre-Revolutionary life for poor Jews.  The family emigrated to the United States where they settled in the Bronx.   He studied art at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League, and later taught at both institutions.  He chose to paint in a realistic and humane style even when abstract expressionism was the reigning orthodoxy in the New York art world.

Raphael Soyer - Rosemary in Thought , 1975, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of American Att, Washington, D.C.

12 March 2019

An American Cezanne


The spirit that suffuses this portrait of a young boy by  Henry Lee McFee is that of Paul Cezanne.  McFee (1886-1953) was an American artist whose works are included in the collections of major museums although his name has faded unjustly, I think, with the passing decades.  The Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York alone, are joined by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery, the Cleveland Museum - and the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, where Boy is currently on display.
  
Although we think of landscapes of Aix-en-Provence, Cezanne painted some memorable portraits  including Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair (c.1877), now considered a milestone of modernism.

The quiet intimacy of this painting derives as much from the harmony of its elements as it does  from the eye contact between sitter and artist.  In reproduction McFee's careful use of glazing techniques is not easy to discern but makes its contribution based on his study of European art generally. The boy looks sweetly solemn and there is something noble in the vulnerability of his young face and his good clothes.  A pensive sense of occasion emanates from his posture.  That harmonious coloration that unites the  boy, his clothing and the chair he sits in and the wallpaper behind, support the emotional weight that, in a more conventional portrait, would be borne by the sitter.   This is the balance that Cezanne's portraits struck so forcefully,the innovation that caused McFee to credit Cezanne as the influence on his own style.

McFee was born in St. Louis and moved to Woodstock, New York in 1908 to study landscape with the Tonalist painter Lowell Birge Harrison.  He soon began to work independently with Andrew Dasburg who became his lifelong friend and his guide to European art, from the Renaissance to Cubism.  An inheritance allowed McFee to pursue his studies but by 1937, as the Great Depression dragged on, he was compelled to take a series of teaching positions that brought him to southern California, where he influenced a generation of students at the Chouinard School and Scripps College.  McFee died of pneumonia in Altadena in 1953.  An impressive artist with a restless temperament, McFee's exhibited that same restlessness in his personal life.  After being married to Aileen Fletcher Jones for twenty years, he ran off with her niece Eleanor Brown Gitsell in 1936.

Image:
Henry Lee McFee - Boy, 1932,  oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica.
2. Paul Cezanne - Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, c.1877,  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

03 March 2019

Poemtrees


For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.

A colony of allotments
uphill into the fall.
Dead leaves swept
into heaps.
Soon - on Saturday -
a man will
set them alight.

Smoke will stir
no more, no more
evening closes
on the colors of the village.
And end is come
to the workings of shadow.
The response of the landscape
expects no answer.

 -  poems from "Poemtrees".in Across the Land and Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Ian Galbraith, New York, Random House: 2006.

John Ruskin annointed him  heir to the great British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, when Hercule Brabazon Brabazon accompanied the illustrious critic on a sketching tour around Amiens and Somme in northern France during the summer of 1880.  A generation younger,  John Singer Sargent saw  Brabazon's work as startlingly modern.

Hercules Brabazon Sharpe was born in Paris to Irish parents in 1821.  When Hercules was eleven, the Sharpe family relocated to a home in Sussex.  He studied mathematics at Cambridge and, like many aspiring painters before and since, he earned the wrath of his father  - and a reduced allowance - by refusing to read law.  The young man managed to get himself to Rome where he studied art and music happily and eventually changed his name to Hercules Brabazon Brabazon.   Apparently he began to paint seriously in his forties and although he considered himself an amateur water-colorist, Ruskin was the first to say not so.  Later Sargent would aver that it was Brabazon who inspired his own interest in watercolor.  Brabazon died in 1906 and his work is included in several galleries in England, and also the collection of the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) was a German writer who emigrated to England and taught at the University of East Anglia until his death in an automobile accident.  Sebald had been suggested as a future Nobel Literature laureate before his untimely death.

Image:
Hercules Brabazon Brabazon - Autumn, Sussex, c. 1850-1906, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

26 February 2019

"I am out with lanterns"

"I took at the time a memorandum of my several senses, and also of my hat and coat, and my best shoes - but it was lost in the melee, and I am out with lanterns, looking for myself."
   -  Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Holland, around 20 January 1856

Like Emily Dickinson, the Japanese women portrayed in Taisho art were out looking for themselves in the world. What world is this, we may ask. 

Taisho was the art of in-between, sandwiched between the days of Commodore Perry and World War II.   It attracted little attention in the West  until Leonard Lauder donated his impressive collection of Taisho postcards and prints to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a successful exhibition  The Art of the Japanese Postcard in 2004. 

In the 1920s Japanese artists had a love affair with influences from  western art:  the exaggeratedly long lines of  Art Nouveau  and the streamlined aesthetic of Art Deco (that last an anachronism that only came into use when Bevis Hillier wrote a book with that title in 1966).  

Caught between strict norms dictating female behavior and the pull of modern popular culture, Japanese women styled their conflict between traditional Japanese behavior and modern insouciance.  Their ambivalence was reflected in Taisho art, its kimono-wearing bobbed-haired women and even its inanimate objects - electric light cords hanging from paper lanterns.  We may chafe at the limited opportunities available of office work, shop clerking, or waitressing but for the women dubbed modan gaaru these were doors opening toward the fresh air of freedom.  

Kaichi Kobayashi (1896-1986) was a remarkably sophisticated and worldly designer from Kyoto who began making wood block prints during the Taisho period (1912-1926), so named for the Emperor Taisho.  Kaichi Kobayashi was not alone in drawing impossibly reed-tall women; he had numerous counterpoints in western art, especially in Vienna.

Image:
Kaichi Kobayasha  -  "Woman Standing near Lamp Post" from the series Deserted Street Lanterns, Taisho, early Showa Era, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

18 February 2019

A Little Seamstress


"Fashions are changing in the sphere.
Oceans are asking wave by wave
What new shapes will be worn next year.
And the mountains, stooped and grave,
Are wondering silently range by range
What if they prove to old for change.

The little tailors busily sitting
Flashing their shears in rival haste
Won't spare time for a prior sitting -
In with the stitches, too late to baste.
They say the season for doubt has passed.
The changes coming are due to last."
 -  "A Change of World" by Adrienne Rich, New York, W.W. Norton: 1951

Adrienne Cecile Rich was just twenty-one when W.H. Auden chose her first book for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. What Auden had to say about Rich's poems sounds similar to a superficial assessment of the desirable attributes of a good seamstress when he described them as being "neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them."  Some have dated Rich's political consciousness and her feminism to her third collection Snapshots of a daughter-in-law published in 1963; I detect it right here at the beginning.

I like to think that Vuillard's little seamstress is as subtly revolutionary as Rich's poetry.  The Nabis (nabi is the Hebrew word for Prophet) came together in 1890s Paris to begin the revolution that gradually revealed abstraction as the root of all two dimensional art.   Their art was representational but it took an unexpected turn toward pure design.   We understand major changes backward through time.  The young girl bent over her sewing emerges out of a decorative background that, in other works by Vuillard, would dominate or even imprison the human.  We can only guess at what she might be thinking; Vuillard probably didn't have a clue.  But from our vantage point we can see around the next corner and know change is coming.

Image:
Edouard Vuillard - The Seamstress, c.1893, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

11 February 2019

Travelers in the Desert


The last nights of the year,
            kind, departed spirits return
to Encantado as stars,
    meander
           down dark streets and hallways
                       peer into windows,
congregate around cribs
           again leave glowing glints
of themselves;
      intertwine with our dreams,
shine on bare boughs,
            pines, and cactus spines.

 - "Encantado" by Pat Mora, from Encantado: Desert Monologues, Tucson, University of Arizona  Press: 2018.

On paper one easily draws a line with a ruler and pencil." - Jose Salazar Ylarregui, 1851, on drafting a national boundary between the United States and Mexico

What seemed at a distance to be a featureless wasteland turns out to be a readable landscape to the people who are its familiars.  At night the sky is so dark that stars loom overhead like portents waiting to be read. Although the desert border is arbitrary and difficult to pin down on the ground, generations of border dwellers have regarded the inhospitable terrain as a barrier in itself.   A different kind of line was drawn in 2016 to designate Bears' Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah, the cultural home and sacred landscape of  the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and Ute peoples.

Encantado's obvious precursor is Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.  Published in 1915, it was a collective biography of an imaginary town modeled on Masters' home town in Illinois.  Pat Mora is a child of the southwestern desert, born in El Paso, Texas in 1942, whose parents had immigrated from northern Mexico.   Masters tells his tale through epitaphs given by the dead themselves in the local cemetery; Mora through the overlapping voices of a small town peopled by travelers in the desert.

Not surprisingly, Mora's people of the borderlands are a varied lot.  Some are outsiders like Tuan, a refugee artist from Saigon and Fumio, whose entire Japanese family was in interned in California in during World War II.  The lifers include Lydia, newly widowed, who encapsulates her bereavement: "I buy a potato, to practice cooking for one."  Or Jose, a sign painter childhood memories of blossoming:  "I learned English and how to sweep my school  When other children ran out laughing - I delivered newspapers, but a teacher gave me a pencil, a tablet."  And there is Raul, a retired lens grinder of eyeglasses although lacking in formal education, who muses deeply: "A big man always working, and then: nothing.  Bored, I started wandering away from my body."  Death does make an appearance in Encantado, personified as "Reluctant Death" who  whispers to the living when "it's time."  No voices from beyond the grave here
  
For further reading;
1. Encantado: Desert Monologues by Pat Mora, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.
2. Voices From Bears' Ears by Rebecca Robinson,  photography by Stephen Strom, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 2018.

About the artist:
Ynez Johnston (b.1920) is an artist from California who has lived in Meixco and traveled to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.   Her work combines narrative with abstraction and her own imaginary lands and creatures, human and otherwise.

Image:
Ynez Johnson - Travelers In the Desert, 1956, watercolor drawing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

07 February 2019

The Stars Hang High


"In the light of the moon, near the sea, in the isolated places of the countryside, one sees, all things take on yellow shapes, indecisive and fantastic." -  from Songs of Maldoror by Comte  de Lautremont, translated by JL. 

Night has been a source of wonder and speculation to artists, a subject so vast that it begs  to be pondered.  Are we immersed in the universe through darkness or do we become deatched from it?  Or both?  Nocturnal journeys under the moon and beneath the stars can induce a sense of vertigo in this "kingdom of the indistinct."   A visual vocabulary that draws on abstraction is certainly well-suited to this subject.

Peter Doig painted The Milky Way  when he was still a graduate student at the Chelsea School of Art.  "At the time I rode my bike every day to Chelsea along the Embankment and was looking a lot at Whistler's quick washy paintings which often had a small figurative element.  The stars themselves came from a star chart of one of my fellow students.  They represented the Milky Way in November which is when I painted them in."
Doig's Milky Way is a masterpiece of indirection.  The reflections in preternaturally still water show  a world where earth has disappeared, become liquid.  Trees and stars both clump and separate in their reflections.  Doig shows us the vastness of the universe in that night sky by placing a young girl adrift in a canoe at the center of the image.



Vincent Van Gogh wrote in 1888, "Often the night seems more richly colored than the day."  Jan Sluijters, agreed with his Dutch compatriot on the evidence of Maanacht IV.  It was at the turn of the century and more than a decade after Van Gogh's death that his work become known to a generation of younger artists who seized on night as a subject for their radical new style.  On his way home from travels sponsored by his Prix de Rome, Sluijters passed through Paris in 1906 and took Fauvism home with him to Amsterdam.   The red halo around the moon in Moonlight illuminates a landscape where everything solid appears to be red-hot.  Oddly enough, I recently saw a photograph of a sunset landscape with water with these same colors.  Who can say definitively that this vision is unrealistic?    At the time he painted Moonlight in 1912, Sluijters was a prominent avant-garde painter who inspired Piet Mondrien whose fame would outpace his own.  

Henri Michaux wrote a poem to explain (!) or obfuscate The Prince of the Night.

"Prince of the night, the double, the gland
of the stars,
from the seat of Death, from the useless column, from the supreme
interrogation.

Prince of the broken crown, 
of the divided Kingdom, of the wooden hand.

Petrified prince in the panther dress.
Prince lost.
 - "The Prince of the Night" , translated by JL





Henri Michaux grew up in Brussels and,  after moving to Paris in the 1920s he would denounce all things Belgian in his background. He became quite the explorer of unusual outposts, visiting Argentina and Uruguay, and even writing a book sort of about Ecuador (1929).   His refusal of public appearances and interviews  and even awards gave an impression of an artist fleeing his public.
Disdaining to attach specific meanings to his works, Michaux did his best to repel the attempts of others to impose them.  He made art in very controlled ways to reach an uncontrolled ends.  Ripples of orange, red, blue and even green flow across a black paper background in Le Prince de la Nuit.  Using black as his background color rather than the customary white was another of Michaux's deliberately provocative but inscrutable choices.  It is possible that the royal purple of the throne is  its only decipherable element.
So full of contradictions and prolific in both words and images, it comes a no surprise that the Michaux Archives in Paris are vast, they contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman might have said.

Thanks to Tania for reminding me of  nocturnal paintings by Leon Spilliaert and William Degouve de Nuncques, two Belgian artists.

Images:
1. Peter Doig (b. 1959) - The Milky Way, 1989, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.
2. Jan Sluijters (1881-1957) -  Maanacht IV (Moonlight) 1912, Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands.
3. Henri Michaux (1899-1984) - Le Prince de la nuit (Prince of the Night), 1937, Pompidou Center, Paros.

01 February 2019

Edna Andrade: Art & the Mathematics of Nature


Recently the paintings of Hilma af Klint have been on exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, revealing the Swedish artist as a, possibly the, pioneer of abstraction in modern art.  Heretofore, af Klint has been not unknown but her reputation has definitely flown under the radar.   Her international debut took place in 1986, forty-two years after her death, in a group exhibition The Spiritual in Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Just as we can look at her work with fresh eyes, so we may be ready to see the geometric abstractions of American artist Edna Andrade (1917-2008) as more than a soft version of Op Art.

The similarities between the two artists are hard to miss.  While af Klint found in geometric forms,  such as the golden mean and the Fibonacci spiral, evidence of an esoteric divine cosmology, Andrade came to use mathematical proportions in her work as emblems of rhythms in nature.  Various symbolisms may be attached by viewers to the orbiting moons in Ahmet Hello and the cross at the center of Space Frame (at left).  They are, of course, commonly used signs in many different cultures.

However the impact of the paintings is related to their size; af Klint's canvases typically tower over viewers whereas Andrade's square images are typically 50 x 50 inches and the rectangles are similarly sized.  Bold describes af Klint's intent while Andrade's works invite a more intimate experience.

Op Art burst into the limelight with the Museum of Modern Art's 1965 exhibition "The Responsive Eye."   Andrade was not one of the artists included in the reputation-making show.  Nevertheless,  dealers began to take an interest in her work. Andrade later said of the name Op Art: "It's too simple.  It seems to refer too directly to the physiology of the eyes.  It fails to suggest that we are exploring the whole process of perception."  

Andrade's geometric works emanate a serenity that suggests motion and stillness at the same time.  This could describe the dynamic that is visible in a bridge so it is an apt comparison for the art of the daughter of a civil engineer.  There is more to see than dizzying kinetic energy, although she could do that too.  

Andrade said that she turned to abstract painting for the homeliest of reasons.  She was married and teaching school which left her with short periods of time to work on her art.  By working with grids she was able to create a pattern that she could then work on in small amounts as time permitted.  Andrade compared her way of painting to the traditional arts women have practiced is sexist societies such as knitting and needlepoint.  In the 1970s Andrade exhibited with Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, two artists who worked with Pattern & Decoration, a movement that celebrated arts traditionally practiced by women. 

Read more about Edna Andrade at Locks Gallery.

Images:
1. Edna Andrade - Ahmet Hello, 1967, oil on linen, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
2. Edna Andrade - Space Dream, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
3. Edna Andrade - Turbo - I-65, 1965, oil on canvas, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia.
4. Edna Andrade - Twilight Wave, acrylic on canvas, 1973, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia


25 January 2019

Now They Tell Us: Fede Galizia's Delicious Still Life






















At this remove, I don't remember the name of the painter was who was credited with creating the modern still life in my art history studies.  What I do know is that it wasn't Fede Galizia (1578-c.1630) or any other woman because that was an all but unthinkable idea four decades ago.  Now we know better thanks to the researches of many pioineering women, including Judy Chicago who memorialized Galizia in her magnum opus  The Dinner Party and  historian Linda Nochlin.  What Nochlin wrote about the  photographic clarity of Galizia's portraits is equally true of her still lifes, that they are "unfiltered by idealizing conventions or the artist's own personality."

Until the Renaissance, paintings were usually based on religious or allegorical themes with inanimate objects playing a subsidiary role as symbols underlining its themes.  With the introduction of mathematical perspective by Leon Battista Alberti, objects were seen as enticing subjects in themselves.  It was not that objects changed their appearance but rather that  artists changed their minds about what verisimilitude looked like.  

What keeps this gorgeous picture from looking stiff is the trajectory created by the placement of the jasmine, drawing the eye on diagonal paths across the canvas.   With an indeterminate background and a light source that emanates from slightly above the level of the table, the eye needs direction and Galizia provides it subtly and surely.  The velvety texture of  peach skin and its tactile roundness seems to swell with a sensuous tumescence in contrast to the sheerness and hardness of glass The enameled skin of the pears and the porousness of the cut half pear contributes to this image of the pleasures of the sensuous world. 

A glass compote remained unknown until the late 20th century when the art critic and Galizia biographer Flavio Caroli authenticated it.   Since then the painting has been exhibited publicly, for the first time in 1994.

"It is a small panel..
Image:, 
Fede Galizia - A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces, and a grasshopper, 12 x 17 in., private collection, U.S., courtesy of Sotheby's, NYC.

21 January 2019

Landscape with Farmstead


A fence running along a road beside a farm, a small mill in the distance; it doesn't sound unusual in any way.  Take a drive in the country and you will pass similar scenes.  But this rendition is peculiarly satisfying and you do not need to know that it was  painted by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn in the 17th century to be enjoy it.

So much gets conveyed with a minimum number of strokes.  Take the fence beginning in the foreground  and curving back toward the farm house: with thick brush strokes the artist outlines it in rich strokes but then changes his instrument to wispy pen scratches.  By this means, he creates an impression of depth and perspective that your eye, once persuaded, follows into (rather than say, upward on the paper) the distance where the farm house sits.   

The soft rose wash that covers the entire scene gives it a soft effect that has led to the longstanding alternative title Winter Landscape.  Ant yet - the row of trees that forms a windbreak in the flat landscape is full of foliage.  Those blank roofs may not be covered with snow after all.  They may be rendered featureless by the daylight.

Rembrandt is known to have made a series of pen and ink drawings of rural scenes around the time he executed Landscape With Farmstead (1650).  Their spontaneity underlines rather than undercuts his mastery of the medium.  They also foretell the artist's increasing use of detail in painting, but that is another story.   Minor works in Rembrandt's catalog, their retain a freshness and immediacy, these mementos of his rambles through the countryside  around Amsterdam.  

A poem of plural rural seasons seems an apt accompaniment to Landscape With Farmstead.  British poet Philip Larkin grew up in Shropshire, a county of flat lands and fertile soils in the English Midlands, not so far removed from the maritime climate of the west Netherlands.

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly tumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

  -  "First Sight" by Philip Larkin from The Whitsun Weddings, London, Faber & Faber: 1964

Image: 
Rembrandt - Landscape With Farmstead,  brown ink, brown wash, black chalk on laid paper, prepared with light rose-brown wash,  2 5/8 inches by 6 5/16 inches, Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

17 January 2019

Kay Walkingstick: Face of Stars


"I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars,
and know anything of meaning,
of the fierce magic emerging here.
I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past,
and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars,
in the shifting pattern of winds."
 - Joy Harjo from Secrets From the Center of the World, Tucson, University of Arizona Press: 1989.

Creation stories are all about beginnings but the reverse is not necessarily the case.  For millennia, the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa knew about each other's existence but not about the Americas, and vice versa.  They believed they were the whole world and their creation stories were based on the information they had,inaccurate though it often was.  All that changed in 1492; thanks to a ship colliding with an island that wasn't supposed to be an island,  the known world doubled as its two halves met and were forced to acknowledge the other's existence.

Metaphysical reflections are the stuff of Kay Walkingstick's art.  What might seem a decorative fresco-style painting becomes an Edenic garden because of the presence of two unexpectedly cropped human figures who appear to be dancing. The orange and blue colors recall an early Walkingstick piece Hudson Reflection VI (1973) where the colors appear as patterns reflected in water, suggesting the appearance of camouflage. Walkingstick knows we associate camouflage with subterranean military maneuvers but she likes to me remind us that camouflage is an invention of natural genius, rather than the sole property of humans.  On trips to Italy, she noted similarities between Greco-Roman frescoes, with their flat surfaces made of natural materials and her native heritage.  She borrowed ftom them a new material: gold leaf.  As she assimilated new techniques into her work, the core elements  would remain history, the body, the natural landscape.

Born in 1935, she grew up in Syracuse,NY, the daughter of S. Ralph Walkingstick, and Emma McKaig. Her father was a Cherokee from Oklahoma and her was descended from Scots-Irish immigrants.   Art was a family affair; two of Kay's uncles were artists.  Her older  brother Charles became a commercial artist and her sister, a ceramicist.  As for Kay,  "I've grown up thinking this [art] was a viable thing to do.  I've always drawn."

When Walkingstick arrived in New York City in the late 1960s, abstract expressionism was being challenged by new forms of representation and performance in the arts.  Although most of them were men, Walkingstick was undeterred in her determination to work and have that work be seen.  It was not what the public expected from a native American, namely postcard images of southwestern deserts.   Again, unexpectedly, it was the gorges near Ithaca, NY, where Walkingstick was teaching at Cornell University when her husband died suddenly in 1989, that spurred her to explore new forms she had seen abroad.  She put diptychs and triptychs to use in novel ways,  sometimes combining sculpture and painting in a single work.  Included in a recent exhibition  at the Munson-Williams- Proctor Art Institute in Utica,, NY  titled "Mythology in Contemporary Art" was a diptych by Walkingstick from their permanent collection,  Danae in Arizona Variation II (2001).

Image:
Kay Walkingstick -  ACEA V, 2003, gouache and gold acrylic on paper,  collection of the artist, courtesy of American Federation of Arts.

11 January 2019

A Romance of Ferrara


A small city of some 100,000 in northeastern Italy, Ferrara is one of the unforgettable places on the map of 20th century literature thanks to Giorgio Bassani. His works, known collectively as Il Romanza di Ferrara (The Novel of Ferrara), were published between 1958 and 1972, and just recently reissued in one handsome and newly translated volume.

"A relevant character, and by no means a minor one .... Ferrara, the city within whose bounds the events of those lives unfolded...." - excerpt from "Down There, at the End of the Corridor" by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italian by Jamie McKendrick

Ferrara, the settlement of a restless region, whose ancient origins are uncertain, possibly Roman, or Etruscan, or Byzantine.    Located in the Passa Badana, a low-lying delta of the Po River,  the climate is humid and the river has regularly delivered disastrous floods along with fertile soil to the region.  The old city walls survive, making an almost unbroken circuit around the city, topped by a broad tree-lined way that is popular with walkers and bicyclists.    The walls protected the residents from invaders for centuries but served to imprison the Jews of Ferrara in the interwar world.  Indeed, the walls and the riverine mists are prominent features in the lives of Bassani's characters.  

An important city during the Renaissance, its center was dominated by a cathedral and a castle.   The Ducs d'Estes were pioneers of enlightened town planning and the local cardinal was a patron of the great poet Torquato Tasso  Although its political power and influence declined over centuries, Ferrara remained prosperous.

The Jewish population of Ferrara, 700 out of 120,000 inhabitants, were prominent in civic life and politically engaged, like Bassani's father, a doctor.  Early on the Jews, like their Catholic neighbors, supported Fascism but, by the latter half of the 1930s, that position had become untenable as the movement's racist tenets marked their community as undesirable, leaving them isolated and completely alone.  Almost imperceptibly, their beloved city had become a redoubt of the Blackshirts.  The dislocation and involuntary solitude of Bassani's Ferrarese characters turned out to be the singular experience of personal life in the 20th century.

Bassani co-wrote Anontioni's 1953 film I Vinti (The Vanquished0.
Vittorio de Sica filmed Bassani's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in 1970.
Giuliano Montaldo filmed Gli ochialli d'oro (The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles) in 1987.

For further reading:
The Novel of Ferrara by Giorgio Bassani, translated from the Italisn by Jamie McKendrick, New York, W.W. Norton: 2018,

Image:  Luigi Ghirri -  "Palazzina Marfina d'Este - Ferrara, De Primi Fine Art, Lugano.

For more about Luigi Ghirri go here and here.

05 January 2019

A Dream of the Open Road


"Cosmonauts of the autoroute, like interplanetary travellers (sic) who observe from afar the rapid aging of those who remain subject  to the laws of terrestrial time, what are we going to discover at camel speed after so many trips in airplanes, subways, and trains?"

They decided to call themselves "freeway-istas."  Their mission was simple, to load up their Volkswagen camper van (nicknamed Fafner after the dragon in Norse mythology) and take a trip from Paris to Marseilles on the AutoRoute du Sud, a limited access highway with tollbooths.  They had done this before, achieving a travel time of about ten hours.  Now, they proposed to stop at each rest stop (sixty-five of them in all, at a rate of two per day) making the trip in thirty-three days, all the while without leaving the freeway.  It was an experiment in reversing the speed that is the purpose and attraction of the modern highway.

"Parkingland is beautiful: it is ours, we are free within it, and we love it," they reported in their journal. Yet it was separated from private properties by fences. When Fafner's water pump broke they resorted to tarot cards for automotive advice.  Their dual solitude seemed to positively attract visitors.  Their only constant connection with the world at large was their dashboard radio.

They were Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop, two writers who had married in 1981 and their slightly surreal expedition began in May of 1982.  They knew they would write a book about their adventures so they took tongue-in-cheek scientific notes as they went.

Cortazar was born in a suburb of Brussels in 1914 while Belgium was occupied by the German army.  His mother moved with him to her native Argentina when Julio was six.  Cortazar emigrated to France in 1951 where he wrote most of his books and lived until his death in 1984.  He is best known experimental novel was Hopscotch (1963) whose chapters can read either in the order they are presented or in any other order the reader chooses.  His story Blow-Up was made into a sensational  film by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1966,  His story "The Southern Thruway", also about the AutoRoute du Sud,  influenced Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film Week End.

Carol Dunlop was born in Quincy, Massachusetts  in 1946; she moved to Montreal where she married and gave birth to a son, Stephane Hebert, who illustrated Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.  In the 1970s Dunlop's  published  books included both fiction and nonfiction,  La solitude inachevee (1976) and Melanie dans le miroir (1980). Dunlop and Cortazar shared a strong commitment to political action, traveling to various countries, including Poland and Nicaragua.  Six months after completing  Autunauts of the Cosmoroute  Dunlop died: Cortazar died in February 1984.  This charming memento of a happy marriage is their memorial.


Pavel Pepperstein (b.1966) is a Russian artist and writer who was born in Moscow where he founded a group he called Inspection Medical Hermeneutics in 1987 with two other artists.  If the idea of storytelling  through of blend of semiotics and psychedelia sounds indigestible, not to worry.  As you can see,  Ppperstein's auto-dream El Lissitzky's Autosttrada in the Alps shows his admiration for the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s, the self-styled Suprematists. His work has been compared to that of Saul Steinberg for its use of the line style of handwriting in images as well as in words. As for the elusive Pepperstein, he salls himself a "psychedelic realist" - whatever that may be.  Only a brilliant draughtsman can pull this off.    In 2014 Pepperstein was awarded the Kandinsky Prize, Russia's highest award for contemporary art.

For further reading:
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: a timeless voyage from Paris to Marseilles by Julio Cortazar & Carol Dunlop, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, with drawings by Stephane Hebert (1983), Brooklyn, NY, Archipelago Books: 2007.

Image:
Pavel Pepperstein - El Lissitzky's Autosttrada in the Alps, 2017, Nahodka, London.

Read more about Pavel Pepperstein - Calvert Journal

27 December 2018

Iguana and Fox: Leonora Carrington


"Darling stop being philosophical it doesn't suit you, it is turning your nose red."
  - Leonora Carrington, excerpt from The Hearing Trumpet (1976)

In the magical world of Leonora Carrington, humans and animals change places, try on each other's outfits; it is a world where metamorphosis is a cinch.  I should note here that Carrington often referred to herself as a "female human animal."  The tree decorated with red berries and white lights lends Iguana and Fox a festive air.  A half woman wearing the head of an iguana and a half man/ half fox regard each other over its ornamented top.  Is that a plum pudding she offers in her left hand and  a snowball she grasps in her right hand?  This may be Carrington's version of regional Mexican folklore that she delighted in using in her work or it may be one of her own creations, a feminist archetype for our times.  

Leonora Carrington (1917 - 2011) was an English-born artist who made Mexico City her home.  There she made a series of tapestries with assistance from an Aztec family of serape makers.  Although best known for her surrealist paintings, Carrington was exposed to the beauty of woven cloth by her father, a successful textile maker.  She is also credited as a founder of the women's liberation movement in Mexico.

It is easy to dismiss surrealism as little more than a series of jokes with its pipes that are not pipes and its  bowler hat-wearing gentlemen caught in incongruous situations but the traumas and  the dislocations in the wake of the First World War (although no one knew it was only the first at the time) were enough to make a person refuse the reality that was given in favor of one that was self-created.

Image:
Leonora Carrington - Iguana and Fox - for Edward James, c.1948-1958, Estate of Leonora Carrington, NYC.

20 December 2018

O Tannenbaum





















It is good to be reminded that a Christmas tree can also be a humble sign of hope and joy.   This photograph by the eminent American Walker Evans (1903-1975) is an instant color print and a fitting civic tribute to the joy that the beautiful evergreen fir tree conveys during this holiday season and throughout the winter.  By the way, tannenbaum is the German word for fir tree.

Image:
Walker Evans - Hanging Christmas Tree, 1973, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

13 December 2018

From an Old House at Vetheuil: Joan Mitchell


La grande vallee XIv, painted in 1983, comes closer than any other painting by Joan Mitchell that shows her affinity with Claude Monet.  Like the Frenchman, who eliminated the horizon and the sky in his series of water lily paintings, Mitchell chose to orient her foliage paintings in an indeterminate space of her own construction.  The longer we look at them, the harder it is to decide whether this is nature viewed close-up or viewed from a distance through half-closed eyes. Also, like Monet, she created mural-sized paintings of nature, no more or less abstracted than the Frenchman's nymphees.

An inheritance from her mother in 1962 enabled Mitchell to purchase an old estate northwest of Paris. A large stone house was surrounded by two acres of gardens and trees with a view a the Seine.  The romance of the site was enhanced by other small structures on the property; Claude Monet had lived in one from 1878 to 1881.  Mitchell made a studio for herself in one that had a lookout over the water.   "I became the sunflower, the lake, the tree," Mitchell told Juidth Bernstock.

Originally Mitchell moved to France when she began a relationship with French abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.  The relationship lasted from 1955 until 1979 but was far from harmonious.  Riopelle was already married and the father of two young daughters.  He was also France's pre-eminent abstract artist, something that must have chafed at Mitchell, a superior painter in every way, who found herself demoted to the status of 'artist's wife', a humiliation similar to that suffered by Lee Krasner when she was married to Jackson Pollock.  Looking at Riopelle's work today it is hard to believe his imitations of abstract expressionism awed the French public.  The most charitable interpretation I can make is that the French had not yet had many opportunities to see what the Americans were doing after World War II.

"There are those fleeting moments, those almost 'supernatural states of soul,' as Baudelaire called them, during which 'the profundity of life is revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself for one.  The scene becomes its symbol.' " - Irving Sandler, 1957

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at just such a connection.  It was those moments when she experienced "supernatural states of soul" that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

The affectionate mood that permeates Tilleul (The Linden Tree) is an intimate portrait of a tree, one that produces exquisite lime blossom tea. Broad strokes of cobalt and inky black alternate with shafts of chartreuse seen through a lavender haze.  Are Mitchell's paintings abstract landscapes or some specially lyrical abstraction?  Does it really matter to their success? I think not.

"There are those fleeting moments, those almost 'supernatural states of soul,' as Baudelaire called them, during which 'the profundity of life is revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself for one.  The scene becomes its symbol.' " - Irving Sandler, 1957

Unlike many of her fellow abstract painters who denied any resemblances between their pictures and the natural world, Mitchell occasionally hinted at just such a connection.  It was those moments when she experienced "supernatural states of soul" that drew her to the luminous landscapes of the French Impressionists.

Joan Mitchell was forty-seven before she had her first solo museum exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse in 1972.  "My Five Years in the Country"  based on works she had done at her home Vetheuil, France preceded her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum by two years even though Mitchell had lived in New York City since 1949 and participated in the landmark show "Ninth Street Show" in 1951 with Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, and Jackson Pollock.

In her final years Mitchell continued to work on her large canvases, several of which are now in the Musee nationale d'art moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris.  despite undergoing two surgeries for advanced cancer.  She died on October 30, 1992 at her home in Vetheuil at age sixty-seven.

Images:
1. Joan Mitchell - La grande vallee XIV, 1983, 2.8 m x 6 m,  Pompidou Center Paris.
2. Joan Mitchell - Tilleul (Linden Tree), 1976,  2.4 m x 1.8 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.
3. Joan Mitchell -The good-bye door, 1980,  2.8 m x 7.2 m, Pompidou Center, Paris.