28 February 2021

Dusty Springfield: Being Great Isn't Always Easy

Dusty Springfield that's a pretty name

It even sounds like a game

In a green field hobby horses play the game when it's May

Pink and paisley skies shining n green eyes

A magic pin wheel

Flowers in her hair

Dusty Springfield

Silver star shine over crystal waters

Petal pretty as a pearl

What a pretty girl.

s fall from her glance

Flowers sparkle

With a dew of morning, feathers float from her dance

Suddenly the song's the thing

Fill your cup, come to the spring

And you'll stand so still

You'll feel the thrill

 -  "Dusty Springfield" words & music by Jim Council, Blossom Dearie, & Norma Tanega

On March 2 it will be twenty-two years since Dusty Springfield died.  Widely regarded as the greatest British pop singer of the 20th century, but still underrated according to her peers. Elvis Costello: "(I)t's one of the greatest voices in pop music, without doubt. And I don't really think she's ever got credit for that because people concentrate on the icon aspect of it. You know, the hair and the eyelashes and the hand gestures."

Springfield's career still inspires: she was a woman who made the life she wanted from the life she was given.  At the beginning of her solo career in 1963 Springfield hid that she produced  her records, fearing the public would react negatively to a female singer who took the credit. The music business seemed agreed that female singers did not know what was best for them, that there needed to be a man in charge.

Born Mary O'Brien in suburban London, she attended a Catholic girls' school where she  played field hockey in spite of severe nearsightedness.  The sisters at St. Anne's didn't see much of a future for the plump redheaded tomboy but Mary was determined: "I just decided, in one afternoon, to be this other person who was going to make it."  She bleached her hair and developed a unique style of makeup, believing that looking like a different person would help her become that person.  Her teenage nickname Dusty ,combined with Springfield, the name of a vocal group founded by her older brother, completed the transformation.

Finding her voice apart from the Springfields  began in 1962 while the group was en route to Nashville to record an album. During a stopover in New York City Dusty took a late night walk when she became transfixed by a song piped over a loudspeaker at the famous (motto: "I found it at the Colony") Record Store on Broadway at 52nd Street. The song was "Tell Him" by the girl group the Exciters.  Springfield later described the experience: "The Exciters sort of got you by the throat ... out of the blue comes blasting at you "I know something about love" and that's it." You can trace a direct line to Dusty's first solo hit "I Only Want To Be With You" in November 1963

Soon she was meeting the songwriters who would contribute so much to the Springfield songbook.  Dusty met Carole King at the Brill Building where King and her husband Gerry Goffin wrote their hits in a small studio. "(S)he was this little thing with lots of hair and I thought "my God, all this music comes out of you."  On another song-hunting trip to New York, Dusty flew over for a day to have dinner with Burt Bacharach: from that trip she brought back "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself."

Since her death in 1999, it has become known that Dusty Springfield's romantic relationships were with  other women, a subject she avoided discussing publicly during her lifetime for fear it would destroy her career. 

Norma Tanega (1939-2019) was a Native American singer-songwriter who came to England in 1966, where shea met Dusty Springfield.  The two lived together in Kensington for five years. During that time Tanega wrote several evocative songs for Dusty -  No Stranger Am IThe Colour of Your Eyes  English lyrics for Nana Caymmi's Bom Dia (Morning), Midnight SoundsEarthbound GypsyGo My Love (released posthumously, with melody taken from J.S. Bach), and English lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim's La Strada do sol (Come For A Dream).

Tanega told an interviewer that Dusty had once explained that she conceived of singing as a river with two currents, one for the notes, one for emotion. "She [Dusty] would always know when the emotion would drop off and that's when she would stop and start again. The emotion and the tone had to mesh. People said that she didn't know her own ability, how good she was. She knew her ability alright, that's why it had to be perfect. She knw how to ride that river better than any other raft in the business."

Springfield's affinity for black American music ran deep.  She described her June 1964 stint performing with Martha & the Vandellas at the Brooklyn Fox Theater as  "the biggest thrill of my life,"  To have persuaded her British label to allow her first two albums to consist of mostly cover version of black songs was a daring move at the time. Springfield had embarked on a tour of South Africa in December 1964 that...After performing before an integrated audience in Capetown the singer was reprimanded and deported.  The affair caused a scandal back home where artists who had enjoyed lucrative tours of South Africa condemned her refusal to perform for segregated audiences because it made them look unprincipled, which they were. 

Madeleine Bell (b.1942) appeared in Black Nativity: A Gopel Song Play by Langston Hughes when it debuted off- Broadway in 1961.  Although the initial run was not long its impact and influence was ...  Bell came to England with the review and at a New Year's Eve party in 1963 she met Dusty Springfield.  The musical relationship that developed between the two was one of several such between church-trained African American vocalists  including Gloria Jones and Doris Troy who, along with Bell would work as Springfield's backing vocalists beginning with In the Middle of Nowhere, recorded in March, 1965.  The call and response between the lead singer and the backup singers made for a close interaction that was energizing to the material in a way British audiences were not accustomed to.  

Blossom Dearie (1924-2009) composed song tributes to artists she admitted - Hey John about her excitement on meeting John Lennon, Sweet Georgie Fame for the British jazz singer and Dusty Springfield. Dearie had often mentioned Springfield as bein one of her favorite singers.

And yes, that was her real name.  Dearie is a name that goes back to 13th century Britain; her father was of Scots-Irish descent and her Norwegian mother called the girl Blossom. Dearie was born in East Durham, Albany County, New York. She moved to Paris in 1952 where she formed a successful jazz vocal group, the Blue Stars. 

In the early 1960s, Dearie began to appear in London jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's, where she recorded two popular live albums. It's possible that Springfield heard Dearie perform there: Springfield's tastes were eclectic stretching from rhythm and blues to jazz to Brazilian music and even standards and folk music. Both singers performed songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Springfield recorded a song associated with Dearie - Sweet Lover No More. Their voices were as dissimilar as chalk and cheese; Dearie's a light, girlish soprano and Springfield's  a dusky contralto.

For more: Let's Talk Dusty


1. Dezo Hoffmann - Dusty Springfield at San Remo Song Festival in front of Savoy Hotel, January  1965.

2.  unidentified photographer - Dusty Springfield in the late 1970s.

21 February 2021

Off The Coast Of Reality: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer's Venice

Delicate and wispy, evocative,  characterized by poesie, a potent combination of poetry and mystery: that's a good definition of pastels. Dry pastels are made of ground  pigments with gum arabic acting  as a binder.  The medium has been used since the Renaissance; it entered Europe by way of the trade in minerals.  In the 15th century Venice was a republic built on trade, the place where Europeans and Asians with something to sell would meet. 

Artists experimented with those minerals, making colored crayons from Chinese Cinnabar to produce vermillion, Russian malachite  for an intense green and, most precious of all, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan that produced a profound blue never seen before that was named ultramarine.  Levy-Dhurmer used that blue to good effect for the night sky that is the  backdrop for a bravura display of fireworks, seen here raining down from unseen heavens.

Venice is a city where the ephemeral nature of all things is always apparent. Solid objects are twinned with their. reflections,  restless and shimmering, in the Venetian canals. Like Stockholm which is built (mostly) on a chain of islands, Venice comprises more than one hundred marshy islands off the Italian  mainland. 

Originally settled when the Roman Empire collapsed,  refugees fled to the mudflats of the Veneto which offered a natural hideout.  The local fishermen taught them to navigate the byways of the lagoon and the islands.  A city whose fortress was the sea  inspired a unique architecture that combined elements of Byzantine, Moorish, and Gothic (seen here in the lancet arches of the Doge's  Palace).   The short-lived painter known as Giorgione (1477 ?- 1510) was a master of elusiveness: to this day the meaning of his small oeuvre remains an enduring mystery.  He was the emblematic artist for this liminal world. 

Image: Lucien Levy-Dhurmer - Feu d'artifice a Venise (Fireworks in Venice), date unclear, pastel, Pettit Palais, Paris.

13 February 2021

Norman Lewis: On The Path To Abstraction

Words don't adequately express my delight in the figure of the little in the striped dress playing the trombone, the trombone that is longer than she is tall. Part of the fun of lookin at Jenkins Street Band is in picking out the musicians and their instruments. I see a cornet player, a trumpeter, and a saxophone player wearing a wild checked jacket. That could be another musician wearing the polka dotted bow tie or it could someone holding a collection box.

During the 1940s the painter Norman Lewis was moving from the social realism he had practiced in the 1930s toward the new thing: abstraction.  Doubtful that overt commentary would bring about change and believing that "The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development,"  Lewis used gestural drawing (seen here in Jenkins Street Band from 1946) to make the transition. You can almost hear the improvisational playing of these street musicians through  the ease and freedom of line in Lewis's drawing.  

Street bands were a common sight in Harlem where Norman Lewis grew up.  The child of immigrants from Bermuda, Lewis (b.1909) was always keen on art but the family's resources went to Norman's older brother's music lessons. Saul Lewis would eventually play with the Count Basie and Chick Webb bands. Harlem in the 1920s was a mecca for the well-to-do (white) downtown crowd lured by the hot new jazz. that played in storied venues like the Cotton Club and Small's Paradise.  But there was no shortage of music on the street, of locals who wanted to play and those who wanted to listen. You didn't need to have money to hear music in Harlem.

To read more about Norman Lewis

Hear more Street Music here.

Image: Norman Lewis - Jenkins Street Band, 1944, oil on canvas, Smithsonian Museum of Art, Washington, DC.

06 February 2021

Altered States: Claude Cahun


We think of assemblage as an art form of the 1960s but  Object by the French artist Claude Cahun dates from 1936. Typically her assemblages were ephemeral and made only to last long enough for her partner Marcel Moore (given name Suzanne Malherbe) to photograph them. Object is the only three dimensional work that still exists as Cahun created it. 

Nothing Cahun used in the making of Object was left in its original form. A painted tennis ball became  the tilted eye. For the surrealists the eye symbolized  inward-looking, made popular by psychoanalysis. Cloud-shaped white wood hovers behind someone's real brown hair that Cahun glued on.  A hand that  originally belonged on a department store mannequin appears to have written the words on the yellow board.

The words written on the yellow base are their own an assemblage. "The Marseillaise is a revolutionary song, the law punishes counterfeiters with forced labor." (English translation)  The first is a slogan used by the anit-Fcsist Popular Front, winners of France's 1936 legislative elections, the second is warning that appears on Belgian currency.  The references are ambiguous;  Cahun was dissatisfied with the Surrealists for their lack of political involvement  and questioned the commitment of the Popular Front groups

Cahun (1894-1954), whose given name was Lucy Schwob, took part in two Surrealist exhibitions the year of Object, one in Paris and the other in London.  She was also one of many who attracted the ire of the irascible Surrealist Andre Breton. She created her works for herself and had no interest in fame.  Lost from view after her untimely death, Cahun's work was only rediscovered in the 1990s by a generation  who found simpatico in her fluid identity. "Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me."

Image: Claude Cahun - Object, 1936, wood, paint, tennis ball, hair and found objects, Art Institute of Chicago.

27 January 2021

Serendipity: Honor Titus & Tateishi Harumi

Separated by thousands of miles, almost a century, and different art histories, these two paintings present a  charming commonality. 

Two young people are relaxing together on the grounds of the Brand Library in Glendale, California.  The Brand is no ordinary public library; it is a center devoted to music and the visual arts and the man in the picture is the artist who painted it, Honor Titus.

The young African-American artist Honor Titus (b.1989, Brooklyn, NY) exemplifies what critic Holland Cotter has in mind when he encourages artists to explore several media, to not put boundaries around their imagination but to bring several "spices" to the table.  Titus brings his experience with punk rock music, poetry, and acting, to his painting  So it seems apt that his painting reminds viewers of the Nabis, a group of late 19th century French artists, who embraced a capacious and expansive definition of art that included decorative screens, murals, theatre sets, posters, and book illustrations.  Titus shares their disregard of  straight-laced categories.

Two young girls relax in a flower-dotted field, their poses are informal  - one dressed in a middy blouse rests on her elbows while the other sprawls casually.  Together they present a picture of modern Japanese womanhood, self-possessed and at ease in the world.

Tateishi Harumi (Hariyoshi), was born in Saga Prefecture, Japan in 1927. He first studied Western-style oil painting in Tokyo when he was nineteen;  apparently he disliked the smell of oil paints so he apprenticed at a studio where he practiced Nihonga, a refreshed version of the traditional Japanese style in painting.

Harumi was one of the major figure painters of the Showa period in Japan. His specialty was  bijinga or the painting of beautiful women, long a prominent theme in Japanese art. Unlike his predecessors, Harumi's interest focused on  modern customs, "those things that come from within..." (the Director of the Mejuro Gajoen Museum).  

Harumi died in Kanagawa prefecture on April, 27,1996 at the age of eighty-five.

1, Honor Titus - Grounds of the Brand Library, (Glendale) - 2020, oil on canvas, Timothy Taylot Gallery, NYC.
2, Tateishi Harumi - Clover, 1934, colored ink on paper, Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

20 January 2021

Amedeo Modigliani: Something About This Picture

You can't get much closer to Italy when you're on the French Riviera than Cagnes-sur-Mer. Maybe this was part of the attraction this particular village held for Modigliani. It was here that he painted Cagnes-sur-mer during the last year of his life.

If this painting by the Italian Amedeo Modigliani looks unusual, there are reasons. The artist renowned for his portraits painted just three or four landscapes. Was he not attracted to the genre or was it that, like sculpture which was his first love, he could not make his lining from it? Another reason is the shape of the canvas; this elongated vertical shape is commonly used for portraits although nude figures are often portrayed horizontally to allow them the better to display themselves to the viewer. Landscapes are often depicted horizontally and seascapes are also horizontal, further elongated to encompass the breadth of the sea.  Or we could look at this picture as the portrait of a tree.  There is a Modigliani landscape Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes (also painted in 1919) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.  Some delicate, atmospheric brushwork cannot disguise the awkwardness of that arrangement whereas in the painting here the tree in the foreground is perched on a knoll overlooking the houses in the little valley. Colors seem bathed in Mediterranean light,  light familiar to what Modigliani experienced during his childhho in Livorno. 

Renoir had moved to Cagnes in 1907 after he developed a painful case of rheumatoid arthritis. Modigliani wanted to meet the older artist and Renoir's neighbor Anders Osterlind, also an artist, arranged at Renoir's far, one evening.  The two should have had a lot to talk about;  both artists painted so many female nudes and yet the evening was a failure.  Renoir, the ageing master was proud of his paintings, going so far as to tell the young artist that after he finished each nude he stroked the buttocks on the canvas for days. With his patrician background Modigliani found the old man vulgar.

Renoir died in December of 1919 at the age of seventy-eight.  Modigliai outlived him by only fifty-three days, dying on January 24, 1920 from tubercular meningitis at thirty-five. 

Image - Amedeo Modigliani - Cagnes-sur-mer, circa 1919, oil on cnvas, private collection.

13 January 2021

Early Renoir: Revolution Is On The Table

Renoir is not one of my favorite painters, no matter how long the list gets he does not make it. The later the works the less I find to admire in them, especially the nudes which seem voyeuristic. But there are exceptions in Renoir's early work, like The Luncheon, painted in 1875. Just the year before the artist had participated in the first Impressionist exhibition, the one that had earned this loose-knit group the  derisive nickname from critics.

As a picture The Luncheon is a combination plate; the wainscoting and the wallpaper in the background of the restaurant where the young couple sit have been drawn in a detailed and realistic manner while a revolution is taking place on the table where they are seated, belying the quiet mood.

With colors but no lines Renoir's bravura verisimilitude recreates solid physical objects out of light.  That silver soup tureen turns out, on close inspection to be composed of the three primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) with white supplying the reflective sheen of silver.  Next to it the baguette is rendered in broad strokes of red an yellow. And that splash of green sits atop the wine bottle like a cork. The diagonal axes formed by the knife and the baguette and the position of the table keep the riotous colors from spinning into space.

Even more evanescent is the appearance of the wine glasses.  Renoir conveys the look and feel of the glasses with tiny strokes of bright white against a sheer silvery veil; we see the tablecloth and the man's blue sleeve refracted through the glass.  Dabs of pinkish red are the remains of the wine itself, colorful yet clear. 
And what of the reflected light that seems to be coming from an unseen window at the right edge of the canvas?  There are shadows cast by  the baguette and the man's hand resting on the table. And there are dabs of light (more white paint) on the bread knife and on the  knife the young woman grasps in her hand.

The Paris of  Renoir's. youth had doubled its population in a mere two decades from 1850 to 1870. With such rapid growth there were bound to be social upheavals and changing mores. Renoir had a nose for the new modern pleasures, a heady combination of boating, bathing, and flirtation that took place on Sundays at cafes along the Seine.  The most famous and definitely the one most-painted was La Grenouille  (The Frog  Pond), what the French call a gangette -  a floating bar.  In 1869 even th Emperor and his wife ventured out to see what made it a hot spot.  The straw boater hat hanging on the empty chair signals that The Luncheon is one of these Sunday outings.

The son of a tailor, Renoir had learned to draw using his father's marking chalk - the feathery, flickering brushstrokes. At thirteen Pierre apprenticed at a porcelain workshop where he soaked up a taste for decorative colors. The brushstrokes made possible by the ferule, a flat metal sleeve constraining the bristles,  revolutionized painting, making those quick, agitated strokes possible. Plus  imagination and daring and bravura technique.

Image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon, 1875, oil on canvas, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

06 January 2021

The Power of Art: Ben Shahn When We Need Him

Image: Ben Shahn - Breaking Reaction's Grip, offset lithographic print, 1946, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.

05 January 2021

Winter Rains

"I don't care how God-damn smart

these guys are: I'm bored.

It's been raining like hell all day long

and there's nothing to do."

 - "At the California Institute of Technology" by Richard Brautigan, January 1967

Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) is remembered today as a novelist, and an experimental one at that, but he began his writing career as a poet in the 1960s.  Brautigan was appointed  Poet in Residence for the spring semester in 1967 at the California Institute of Technology.  As you can tell by reading this poem, he was not favorably by impressed by the weather in Pasadena.  An odd sentiment for someone who came from Tacoma, Washington. But rain in winter seems more depressing somehow than spring rain; the earth stays inert and dull looking. The palette Richard Haines uses for Winter Rain is drab, with only touches of blue and yellow to underline the vertical displacement that figures seen through rain take on.

Rain is one of several subjects  Vincent van Gogh painted over and over, as though the subject was inexhaustible, as it was for him. There are van Gogh rain paintings that I would do without.  His shoes were another favorite subject and I have linked to my earlier post about Vincent's love of books  and the ways he included them in paintings.

The arrangement of the figures in Winter Rain comes from  the years Richard Haines worked on  W.P.A. mural projects during the 1930s.

Richard Haines (1906-1984) was born on a farm in Iowa and began working as an illustrator for  greeting cards and calendars before formally studying art at the Minneapolis School of Art.  While there Haines became interested in painting murals ( a popular medium in early 20th century America), winning a scholarship that took him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1933.  Moving to Los Angeles in 1941 to work in an aircraft factory, he stayed after the was ended to teach at the Chouinard Institute of Art and later headed the painting department at the Otis Institute.  His work itself as well as influence on his students.is evident all around the city.

Image: Richard Haines - Winter Rain, before 1948, watercolor and charcoal, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

01 January 2021

From An Old House In Belgium: Vincent van Gogh

"Art is the highest form of hope." - Gerhard Richter. This New Year think of Vincent van Gogh's search for hope. 

In 1878 van Gogh came to the Borinage, a coal mining region in southern Belgium, where he had been assigned to minister to the people of  the village of Cuesmes. At twenty-five, Vincent's trajectory in life seemed to be heading determinedly downward. The eighteen year old who had shown such promise as an art dealer at the prestigious firm of Goupil et Cie in Paris erred by  revealing his wealthy clients his candid opinions of the works he was selling. He liked to read so he tried his hand at bookselling in Amsterdam but ignored potential customers.  Then, thinking he could  follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a minister, Vincent only succeeded in putting his parishioners to sleep.  And so he was consigned to the lowest work the church offered, as a missionary to the poor coal miners of Cuesmes.       

Persuading an elderly miner to take him down into the mines, van Gogh entered a living hell, a bee hive of cramped chambers where entire families labored  because women and children were smaller than the men, and could navigate the narrow passages more efficiently.  Emile Zola's masterpiece Germinal, published in 1885,describes their plight in harrowing detail while Misere au Borinage, a famous documentary made in 1933,  showed how little had changed since  van Gogh's time.

While conducting bible studies in the homes of the miners, van Gogh was stricken by their squalid living conditions.  He became obsessed with the desire to share their plight, giving away his clothes and food and even going so far as to give up bathing so that his skin would be permeated by the grime that the miners could never  seem to wash off. Vincent's identification with the  suffering of others lacked boundaries and so it would be, sometimes, with ruthlessness. The same Vincent was capable of killing a  butterfly the better to paint it. 

When a church official named Rochedieu (means Rock of God - a name fit for Pilgrim's Progress!) came from Brussels on an inspection tour, he was horrified by van Gogh's condition and sacked him on the spot. Losing yet another job when he yearned to give of himself to others devastated Vincent. (It was the inability of his French-speaking superiors to spell van Gogh correctly that led the artist to refer to himself as Vincent.

Van Gogh had been living in a little miner's house where he retreated in despair for a year.  It took another year of struggle for him to assemble a group of drawings to take with him to Brussels; his letters to his brother Theo describe how, through his anguish, Vincent found his vocation.

"Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures..."

"So please don't think I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and although I have changed, I am still the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?"
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, July, 1880.

"Well, even in these depths of misery I felt my energy revive & said to myself, I shall get over it somehow, I shall get to work again with my pencil, which I had cast aside in my deep dejection, & I shall draw again, & ever since I have had the feeling that everything has changed for me, & now i am in my stride & my pencil has become slightly more willing & seems to be getting more so by the day.  My over-long & over- intense misery had discouraged me so much hat i was unable to do anything."

"...I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again.  I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible & beyond my abilities.  But now, though I continue to be conscious of my failings & of my depressing dependence on a great many things, now I have recovered my peace of mind & my energy increases by the day."

"At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very much longer in the little room where I live now.  It is very small indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the children's & my own.  And now that I am working on Bargue's fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is.  I don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements."
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Cuesmes, September 24, 1880., translated from the Dutch by Arnold Pomerans in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, New York, Penguin Books: 1996.

Vincent took his drawings to Brussels in 1880 where he showed them to his mentor, Reverend Peterson, who saw something in them that transcended Vincent's lack of formal training and so Vincent persevered.


1. Jean-Paul Grandmont - The house where Vincent van Gogh lived in Cuesmes, photograph, 2005. (Note: the Miason van Gogh is now a museum)

2. Vincent van Gogh - Coal Miners, September, 1880, pencil on paper, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

30 December 2020

New York, New Year: Mark Innerst

 "Letters swallow themselves in seconds,/ Notes friends tied to the doorknob,/ transparent scarlet paper,/ sizzle like moth wings,/ marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,/ lists of vegetables, partial poems,/ Orange swirling flame of days,/ 
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn't,/ an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space./ I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,/ only the things I didn't do/  crackle after the blazing dies."

 - "Burning the Old Year"  by Naomi Shahib Nye, from Words Over Words: Selected Poems, Portland, OR, Far Corner Books: 1995.

Ah, Manhattan, the city that epitomized the glamor of the 20th century city. Even an ordinary traffic circle can became an occasion for magic, especially at night. Thanks to electric light, headlights of cars moving circles form  and windows blink. Mark Innerst's Columbus Circle depicts the spot from which all distances in the city are measured, the place where Broadway, Eighth Avenue, and Central Park East/West converge.

Mark Innerst paints on a table, working on a panel or canvas laid flat, as Jackson Pollock did. Innerst uses acrylic paints, building up layer on layer on panel; for the final step he coats the image with a glaze.

Like Yvonne Jacquette (also represented by the D C Moore Gallery), Innerst's urban views are often aerial ones. Jacquette's paintings seem to be what you might see from a plane while Innerst's vantage point often, as here, seems to be that of a bird swooping down from the sky, navigating between buildngs as it goes. Their methods are polar opposites- Jaxquette's style is almost pointilliistic in its fine details while Innerst bathes his subjects in a lush luminosity has earned comparisons with such 19th century Luminist painters  as George Inness.

Mark Innerst was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1957 and now lives and works  in Philadelphia.  After earning his degree in Fine Arts in 1980, Innerst began working as a preparator at an art gallery in New York City. With that experience under his belt, within a few years he began exhibiting his own work.

Image: Mark Innerst - Columbus Circle as Seen from the Essex House, 2010, oil on panel, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica. (So far MWPAI has purchased five paitings by Mark Innerst for their collection, a vote of confidence in his future.)

22 December 2020

Night of Quiet Stars

"Somehow, not only for Christmas,
But all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others,
Is the joy that comes back to you;
And the more you spend in blessing
The poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart's possessing,
Returns to make you glad."
 - John Greenleaf Whittier

As a child I saw the John Greenleaf Whittier Bridge that carries I-95 past the back of Newburyport while it was under construction.  My mother and I would walk down to the end of Ferry Road at the Merrimack River.  In an early moment of disillusionment, my mother explained to me that the road was not Fairy Road as I had assumed.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1895) was a quintessential New England poet of the 19th century, famously the author of the much-anthologized Snow Bound,  yet his reputation has faded compared to such contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Whittier grew up on a farm near Haverhill on the Merrimac River several miles inland from the  Atlantic (1807-1895).  He learned that he was color blind when he could not distinguish ripe red strawberries from the unripe. His sister sent one of Whittier's poems to William Lloyd Garrison, pubksher of the Newburyport Free Press where it was published when Whittier was just eighteen. Garrison also gave the young man his first job as an editor at a weekly newspaper in Boston. Whittier's political passion was deeply routed in the failed promise of toleration in Boston's early days. Two Quakers were executed in Boston in 1656: they had emigrated from England in violation of a law passed the year before banning Quakers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on penalty of death.

 After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1832, Whittier had a nervous breakdown and returned home. He became active in the abolitionist movement and was especially supportive of women writers of his day, amon them Sarah Orne Jewett, Celia Thaxter, and Lucy Larcom.  An influential poet in his lifetime, the city of Whittier, California is named for him. 

I like to think that Alverto Campanile's photograph of Bruncio, Italy will evoke thoughts of Old North Church in Boston as I remember it from childhood.

Image: Alberto Campanile - Christmas Decorations at Bruncio, Italy, 12 December 2007, Alinari Archives, Florence.

15 December 2020

Georges de La Tour: Transcendent Light

An aspect of preparing food that comes to the fore  during winter holidays is an association with the sacred. Georges de Latour, a French painter of mostly religious subjects, illustrates this in a newly discovered work,  La Fiellette au Braisier.

In this enigmatic painting of a young girl cooking the artist has given us no clues locate the space she inhanits or where the source of the light is; its angle is more like a modern floodlight than anything in a 17th century home.

I can't quite make out what is being cooked but it looks like it could be an omelet; perhaps she is using the implement in he right hand to lift the edge. That could also explain why she is staring so intently into the brazier. or she is just learning to cook. She is all attentiveness as sje works. A fillette is a young girl and we can tell from the lacing on the bodice of her dress. 

Known primarily as a painter of religious subjects, Georges  de La Tour imbued everything he painted with a spiritual aspect through his use of striking contrasts of darkness and light.  Latour seems to have been influenced by Dutch Caravaggisti, painters who adopted the technique from the great Italian Caravaggio. It had been around since the Renaissance but Baroque painters seized on it for its heightened intensity, its ability to evoke a sense of awe in the viewer. In Caravaggio's works it created an air of menace that reflected the often violent city that was 16th century Rome.  Indeed, Caravaggio left in a hurry after he murdered a man in 1606. In La Tour's hands chiaroscuro was  about the light that triumphs over darkness.

Georges de Latour (1593-1652) was born in the Diocese of Metz, one of seven children of a baker and his wife. Details of his early life, his travels, or his artistic education are unclear. When Latour married in 1620 he set up a studio in Luneville, then part of the duchy of Lorraine.  From this outpost he managed to attract the patronage of King Louis XIII of France and when Latour moved to Paris in the late 1630s he received commissions from Cardinal Richelieu, Louis' principal minister.

Like Vermeer, with whom he has often been compared, La Tour left behind only a small number of paintings definitively attributed to him (48 at present). Although Latour enjoyed many honors during his lifetime, he was forgotten after death, again like Vermeer, until his paintings were rediscovered in the early 20th century by Herman Voss, a German scholar of Baroque and Renaissance art.  Voss. the director of the Dresden Museum, was  described by those who knew as being ambitious and vacillating and, together, these characteristics may have predicted his turn from liberal opponent of the Nazis to  second director of Hitler's Fuhrermuseum. What attracted Voss to the devout Latour?  Perhaps it was the light.

Image: Georges de La Tour - La Fillette au braisier (Young Girl with a Brazier), oil on canvas, circa 1646-1648, Gallery Lempertz, Cologne

10 December 2020

Pieter Bruegel's Short Life and Strange World

"... the boy a frolic courage caught
          To fly at random ..."
              -  Metamorphosis by Ovid, translated by Arthur Golding (1567)
It seems that the most famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was actually made by his son Pieter the Younger after an original that has been lost. Another piece of received wisdom bites the dust.  When Jan Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) was recently  revealed to be something more like a memento mori of the Tuscan merchant's dead wife (in childbirth?) with his riches, another one became inoperational. These early Netherlandish artists can still mystify us from half a millennium away.

This and more  is the subject of a book Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by an Englishman, Toby Ferris. Ferris was 42 when he embarked on a plan to go and see all 42 paintings that have survived by the  Renaissance artist Bruegel the Elder. Nineteen countries and three American cities later he had encountered them all. Interwoven into his art criticism are memories of Ferris's late father, an engineer who died in 2009.  There was scant documentation of the senior Ferris's life, as Toby Ferris would discover about Bruegel's,  all that was left was "only the vivid remnant flesh of the paintings and drawings and engravings."

Ferris organizes the paintings not by date or location but by common themes such as cold, crowds, fires, home. He introduces The Fall of Icarus by recounting how he had once picked up a paraglider who had landed on a grassy hill. Bruegel's world is both familiar and strange.  His paintings contain familiar characters - beggars, bee-keepers, children at play, drunkards, farmers, and census takers; it is from the materials of their world that strangeness emanates.

Bruegel is one of the great artists of winter, he lived during a time of hard winters known as the Little Ice Age.  How hard were the winters as portrayed in Hunters in the Snow? Birds dropped out of trees like blocks of ice and in Antwerp the River Scheldt, deep enough to sail an ocean-going ship, froze solidly. Bruegel shows us the hunters returning from what looks like an unproductive hunt, followed by their tired and dejected dogs.  Look up and to their left and you will observe the women preparing to smoke and preserve the family pig, needed now to feed the village through the lean months ahead.  Meanwhile the skaters trace their rounds on rinks cleared on the frozen river.  And because painting is a spatial medium, we marvel at the seeming casualness of Bruegel's choreography, the placement of human and animal figures is never shambolic. 
Although he grew up in a peasant family in the commercial Antwerp Breugel's success enabled him to move to the capital  of Brussels where he attracted royal patrons. He died in his mid-forties in 1569, a short life by our measure but prodigious in its output.

The interweaving of personal experience and the experience of encountering a work of art is unique to each person but that hardly makes it irrelevant although some art historians dismiss it as such. Similarly, the New Critics of mid-20th century American poetry decreed  each poem is an island unto itself, not to be contaminated by biograph or history. 

The subtitle Short Life in a Strange World notes that Bruegel worked on wood panels rather than the more expensive medium of canvas.  But there were other distinctions to be made. Wood tends to warp as it dries, shrinking and cracking unevenly. Bruegel knew the reasons why northern builders favored oak or walnut over lime or pine.  As he assessed the knots and grains he would have known that unpredictable shifts and alterations that would transform his works after he was gone.  
Breigel's  sophisticated use of imprimatura (an undercoating that prepares the panel for the layering of colors) was a souvenir of his time in Italy. He experimented as he went along, creating subtle effects, not easily seen in reproduction. He smudges tacky paint with his fingers, he scraped paint with the pointed end of the brush to simulate the appearance of textured fabrics. And his collection of brushes contained the fur of various small animals with coarse hog bristles for the underpainting.

Toby Ferris is the creator of the website Anatomy of Norbitron,  devoted to "essays on suburban life and universal failure as seen through the lens of Renaissance art" so this, his first book, follows a longstanding  preoccupation.

Short Life in a s Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels by Toby Ferris, New York, HarperCollins: 2020.

1. after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, probably by Pieter Bruegl the Younger, The Fall of Icarus, oil on panel, circa 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
2. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

02 December 2020

Little Houses

The poet Christina Rossetti asked rhetorically "Who has seen the wind?"  Look at Ash Houses, a ceramic ensemble by Chris Rupp, and see the wind made visible through the artist's  imagination. And why not, on a day when a meteor flashed into earth's atmosphere, briefly visible from the CN Tower in Toronto and felt in two countries. According to NASA scientists, it detonated over the upstate New York city where I live.

These little ceramic houses would fit in among the fairy tale forests of the painter Chaim Soutine.  Soutine's signature use of impasto and the resulting compulsive and sinuous rhythms that flowed from his brush created forests of sleepy trees and animated houses that seemed to sway with the wind.  

Rupp's Ash Houses is a visual display of the  glazes that can be made with burning vegetation. Ash glazes are made from the remains of organic matter, usually burned wood or straw, For millennia they were the source of glazes used by East Asian potters. Ash glazing  began around 1500 BCE during the Shang Dynasty in Chinas. 

Most ash glazes belong to the lime family of ceramic oxides. Usually the ash was mixed with water or clay and applied to the already fired vessel.  The proportions of  various chemicals give  characteristic colors to a glaze. A high proportion of wood ash results in browns and greens, rice straw which is high in silica produces a creamy white glaze, and a very thick glaze of rice husks containing phosphorous results in opalescent blue. 

The Russian born Soutine is usually associated with the School of Paris, a group of artists from other countries who came together in Montparnasse in the years before World War I.  Soutine and the others, including Modigliani, were very poor indeed, so poor that when the American collector Albert C. Barnes was shown Soutine's work for the first time and bought sixty Soutine paintings at one go, the artist grabbed the money and ran out into the street where he commandeered a taxi to drive him from Paris to Nice immediately!  Then thanks to the patronage of interior designer Madeleine Castaing, Soutine was saved from a life of penury, allowing him to paint without pressure.  In the estimation of his felow artists, Chaim Soutine was the first among equals.

Christopher Rupp is a California ceramicist and member of the faculty at Westmont College in Santa Barbara.

Image: Chris Rupp - Ash Houses, 2020, ceramic with ash glazes, courtesy of Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara. 

25 November 2020

All Blues: Impressionism or Gentle Realism?


I. When the Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid created their series People's Choice paintings in the 1990s, to no one's surprise, blue was the favorite color in countries around the world. With tongues planted firmly in cheek, the duo had hired a polling firm to conduct the research that resulted in the composite "Most Wanted" and "Least Wanted" paintings. Conceptual art can be hermetic and off-putting but this project was fun.  And it illustrated a truth long known to artists.

Natural ultramarine was for centuries the most prized of all pigments by artists.  Its  only source was lapis lazuli, mined in Afghanistan beginning in the 6th century. Imported to Europe through Venice, it was  valued at five times its weight in gold by Renaissance artists. Yes, there were other blues that became available but each was unsatisfactory in some way.  An experiment gone wrong in an alchemist's  laboratory in the early 18th century resulted in the discovery of Prussian blue, giving hope that other,  better blues could be developed. Watteau used the new pigment and shared it with Fragonard and Boucher and it was used to great effect b Elizabeth Vige-Lebrun. But it was the explosion of industrialization in the 19th century that led to the invention of an inexpensive, synthetic ultramarine used to great effect in Gustave Caillebotte's Skiff on the Yerre, painted in 1877.

II. Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was both a painter and a patron of his fellow Impressionists.  The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer who made a fortune supplying blankets to the French Army, he grew up and made his studio in a large house the Caillebotte's  purchased from none other than Baron Haussmann, architect of Parisian urban renewal.  After serving in the military during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Caillebotte enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux  Arts in Paris where he made the acquaintance of Edgar Degas who introduced him to other Impressionist painters.  The young Caillebotte can be seen in Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881).  He is the one seated at the far right in a white vest and straw boater.

Although he fit in with the circle of Monet, it was the influence of the great realist Gustave Courbet that inspired Caillebotte's  hybrid style, a style that has been called "gentle realism." For Caillebotte, human figures are full of individual personality and are never mere types. His work is also notable for the odd angles that he chose as vantage points in composing his paintings. Like his contemporaries,  Caillebotte had absorbed the spell of japonisme with its heady unconventional juxtapositions of conventional subjects.

Owing to his wealth, Caillebotte felt no pressure to sell his pictures; thus, he had a low public profile.  Modest to a fault, he bequeathed his considerable art collection to the nation but did not include any of his own work. Renoir, who was the executor of his will, eventually arranged to have Caillebotte's paintings hung in the Palais de Luxembourg alongside the artist's personal collection. 

For further reading: Painting By Numbers: Komar & Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, New York, Farrar Straus & Giroux: 1997.

Image: Gustave Caillebotte - Skiffs on the Yerre, 1877, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

18 November 2020

Evening, Canoe Lake: Tom Thomson

"Because we love bare hills and stunted trees/ we head north when we can,/ past tiaga, tundra, rocky shoreline, ice.

Where does it come from, this sparse taste/ of ours?/ How long/ did we roam this hadrscape, learninng by heart/ all that we used to know:/ turn skin fur side in,/ partner with wolves, eat fat,  hate waste,/ carve spirit, respect the snow,/ build and guard the flame?"

 - excerpt from "Improvisation on a first line by Yeats (from Hound Voice)" by Margaret Atwiid, from Dearly: New Poems, New York, Ecco Press: 2020.

Given the similarities in their climates it is hardly surprising that paintings by members of Canada's Group of Seven makes the viewer think of the northern Europeans - Munch, Van Gogh, Arnold Bocklin, or Ferdinand Hodler -  all of them painters from the early 20th century. If there is a significant difference between the Canadians and the Europeans it is that when we look at the Canadians we cannot help but think of the vastness of the prairie in the background of their landscapes.

Trees give the measure of the landscape in Tom Thomson's paintings, their forms give shape and meaning to the surroundings. In the foreground  of Evening, Canoe Lake  trunks of winter birch trees are painted in ochre and gold with bits of tangerine.  Auburn and cobalt, applied horizontally define the rocky shoreline; used vertically these same shades in thin blended strokes define the birches that cling to it. The emphatic purple of the mountain range as viewed through the  scrim of the trees is a Thomson signature. We know this is North America by the bold colors that cold fall nights bring. This idiosyncratic palette is typical of Thomson's work, his control of them is phenomenal.  Despite his very early death, Thomson's influence is apparent in the work of the other painters of the Group of Seven, only established after his passing. 

Algonquin Park does not possess conventionally beautiful scenery, with swamps, flooded by beaver dams, and clear-cut pine forests but as part of the geological formation the Pre-Cambrian Shield it did provide a quintessentially Canadian landscape for artists searching for a national identity.

Tom Thomson (1877-1917) was a self-taught artist who worked in Toronto for the design group Grip Ltd.   On his own time he hiked and climbed mountains and painted what he saw.  He soaked up influences from Van Gogh and Cezanne. For Thomson the far reaches of Algonquin Park were his Mont Sainte-Victoire. He painted  pictures from the age of fifteen onward; his need to paint was relentless.  Along with hundreds of oil sketches, Thomson left behind fifty large oil paintings.

The American poet Robert Frost became a friend and mentor to Thomson around the time of the outbreak of the World War.  Thomson had lost his job and was anguished about whether her should, at thirty-seven, enlist in the Army,  becoming "the oldest bald head in the battalion."  

Canoe Lake was the place where Thomson entered the park when he disembarked the train from Toronto.  A logging town named for a lake, this was where Thomson loved to canoe and to paint. It was also where he disappeared on a summer night in 1917.  His canoe was seen floating on the lake in the afternoon but  his body was only recovered from the waters eight days later. Thomson was less than a month away from what would have been his twentieth birthday.  The circumstances of his death gave a mythic cast to his reputation in retrospect but to Canadians Thomson remains the quintessential Canadian artist.

Image: Tom Thomson - Evening, Canoe Lake, circa 1915, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

05 November 2020

Eva Hesse: An Ear In A Pond


"Don't ask what it means or what it refers to. Don't ask what the work is. See what it does." - Eva Hesse
Lucy Lippard, art critic and Hesse biographer, called the colors used in An Ear in a Pond "ill-.conceived," but I disagree.  When I first looked at the picture I immediately remembered a gorgeous brushed Lucite necklace my mother bought at Bergdorf Goodman in the late 1960s.  It consisted of cubes, each shaded from chartreuse to cerise (or raspberry pink, if you prefer) with tiny, round pink beads alternating between each cube. There were matching earrings - dangling (! like the red cord in this picture) single cubes on a string of cerise beads.  I wish I knew what happened to them. 

When Hesse made An Ear in a Pond  it marked the beginning of her most creative period, five years in which her paintings became increasingly sculptural, a period that ended with her premature death from a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of thirty-four.  It was first exhibited in Germany in August, 1965  where Hesse and her husband Tom Doyle had moved so he could take a position as artist residence. Hesse was unhappy about leaving New York but it did not keep her from working; no amount of turmoil ever did.  An Ear in a Pond is a hybrid, basically a painting but built up into a third dimension with the use of papier mache, especially the pink form of an ear in the lower right section of the picture. Also dangling from the ear is a double string of red wrapped for half its length in cotton cords.  This inventive use of materials is difficult to see in a reproduction.

In retrospect it was a prototype of what was to come. We know from a journal entry that Hesse completed this work on April 27 of that year. On April 14 while she was at work on An Ear in a Pond  her friend Sol Lewitt wrote to Hesse, "You seem the same as always, and being you. hate very minute of it. Don't! Learn to say 'Fuck you' to the world once in a while."

In her journals Hesse called these works "machine drawings," and likened them to "outer space networks." With hindsight, it is painful to read the journals, so full of self-doubt and questioning about the balance to be sought between the intellectual and the emotional, knowing how powerful the works are and how many artists have been influenced by them.

Image: Eva Hesse An Ear in a Pond, 1965, tempura, enamel paint, papier mache, cotton cord on Masonite, Ursula Hauseer collection, Switzerland.

31 October 2020

Get The Message?


This is an artwork based on the infamous butterfly ballot from the 2000 Presidential election that threw the Florida ballot count into question.  Those holes, the ones that are punched through, were called hanging chads. Whoever created this image deserves to be applauded.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover its creator. 

Image: by Thoughts On Democracy, 2016, Wolfsonian Museum, Miami.

22 October 2020

Angela Prati: Sudden Light

"Glory of expanded noon
when the trees give up no shade,
and more and more the look of things
is turning bronze, from excess light.

Above the sun - and a dry shore;
so my day is not yet done"
the finest hour is over the low wall
closed off by a pale setting sun."
  - "Glory of Expanded Noon" by Eugenio Montale, translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith, from The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale, edited by Rosanna Warren, New York, W.W. Norton: 2012.

The first thing we notice in this photograph is the imperious quality of the light, the sun as master stage-crafter. Arches that we cannot see give the effect of proscenium arches silhouetting an open doorway and a cart full of harvest produce, pumpkins and squash. The door, the cart, the earth, and the terracotta walls just happen to be the palette we associate with autumn. And we have seen this light in Angela Prati's photograph before in the paintings of Italian painters.

There is a quality to light in the paintings by the 19th century Italian artists called I Macchiaioli that appears abrupt, as definitive as a spotlight trained on a stage.  It is as unlike as possible from  the blurriness and deconstruction of objects in paintings by the French Impressionists.  When this light reappeared in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico around 1910, the artist decreed a new movement - the scuola metafisica - where stillness and emptiness spoke louder than words could. In their paintings the Macchiaiolli let macchia (patches or spots) of contrasting colors determine the composition, a practice on display in this contemporary photograph by Angela Prati and also in the painting Peasant Woman in the Sun by the short-lived Florentine  Guseppi Abbati (1836-1868) whose life was cut shot when his dog Cennino, infected with hydrophobia, bit im.

Angela Prati was born at Piacenza and divides her time between Milan and Trento.  She has traveled around Africa in a Land Rover, As well as writing for magazines and newspapers both Italian and intternational, Prati took the photograph's for Trentino: The Enchantments of Art and Nature (1987) and Alvisi Zorzi's book Luce di Venizia (The Light of Venice) (1989) among others. Pati has specialized in anthropologic research photography, focused on peoples and cultures that are often overlooked.  In 2015 she was chosen by the Alinari Archives of Photography in Florence to interpret travel photography for their new project Alinari Contemporary

For more about the Macchiaioli go here and here and here and here.

1, Angela Prati - Mantova (Mantua), photograph, Alinari Archives, Florence.
2, Giuseppe Abbati - Peasant Woman in the Sun, oil on canvas, Pinacoteca Provincale, Bari