28 February 2017

A Day of Rain

"I am not in front of nature, I am inside it."
("Je ne suis pas devant la nature, je suis dedans.")
- Pierre Tal-Coat, (translation JL)

Rain trickling down an invisible window in white rivulets intensifies the green world on the other side, or so it appears.   Among abstractions in art - and almost anything can become an abstraction if you look at it from a certain angle - the French called their version Tachism for its lyrical qualities and to distinguish it from the crudely testosterone- and alcohol-drenched productions of the American Abstract Expressionist painters.
Tal-Coat (1905-1985), born Pierre-Louis Jacob in Finistere, (the end of the land) the westernmost part of the French mainland, was a self-taught artist who worked in a pottery factory in Quimper.  It was only when he was obliged to go to Paris for his military service that he found a group of supportive fellow artists for the first time and absorbed the dominant cubist style.  Tal-Coat's portrait of Gertrude Stein won a prize in 1935.

Everything changed when he encountered the antique Chinese landscape paintings from the Song Dynasty (900-1279).   Here, centuries before landscape emerged from the background of religious and court paining in Europe, was a fully developed genre that used the technqiues of the brush to express human emotions.  Under its influence,  Tal-Coat  turned from portraying nature through visual perception  to using paint to record his immediate emotional responses to nature's ephemera, foam breaking on a rock, raining running down a hillside.   In contrast to the unrelenting pessimism of Samuel Beckett, who saw nothing but negations in the artist's later work, I am reminded of some lines  from The Outermost House, the naturalist Henry Beston's bestseller  first published in 1928.   "The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach."
In 1961 Tal-Coat moved to a building at a Carthusian monastery in Normandy where he worked and lived  quietly until his death.

Tal-Coat - Jour de pluie (Day of Rain), 1965, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper.

21 February 2017

Fly-Over Season

In the world of aerial photography the flyover season is about to begin.  Thanks to the unusually warm winter temperatures in the Northeastern United States, snow on the ground is already patchy or the ground is bare, and the leaves will not come out on the trees for some time.  Under these conditions, the lines etched on the land by human travail are at their most visible.
More than a century ago much of upstate New York was farmland, cultivated and sectioned off; but the combination of easy farming on the flatlands  of the Midwest, improved transportation (think: connecting waterways and railroads) and industrialization in the Northeast left fallow fields, ripe for reforestation.   Now some of the old farms  that lie south of the Erie Canal are being taken up again, often by Amish and Mennonite families  who have moved up to New York from neighboring Pennsylvania.  Drive along the Cherry Valley Turnpike (U.S. Route 20) or N.Y.S. Route 80, both roads running more or less from east to west and you can identify these houses  by the lack of electrical wires  running from the roadside poles.

By the time President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1800, the American farm had already assumed the outlines still in evidence today.  The best farms were situated on hillsides facing south, with barns and other sheds forming a screen around the house, the kitchen garden located nearby for protection from the elements, and a wood lot located to the north to act as a windbreak.  There were trade-offs, of course, between the richer soil in the valleys versus the longer growing season on the sun-soaked hills.  Farms on the north slope of hills often failed to prosper because of the shorter growing season and even today these lots are more likely to be timberland than farmland. A sheltered site for the house also lessened the need for firewood. A farmhouse was located near the top of hill so that a well with pure water would be protected from farm water runoff.

Avoiding the  cold  was uppermost in the minds of European settlers  accustomed to milder winters, followed closely by the belief that the fog and mist that hung over the valleys carried disease. Charles Estienne, author of the popular manual Maison rustique or The Country Farme (London, 1616), certainly thought so.  "If ever there be a hill, build upon the edge thereof,making choose to have your lights toward the east but if you be in a cold country, open your lights on the south side, and little or nothing toward the north ....recoup the liberty of the air and a goodly prospect..."

The land is a palimpsest, written on again and again, written over until details of previous times are obscured.  By comparison with cities and suburbs, rural areas still offer a rich visual story for those who take the time to look.  Now is a good time to take a ride in the country.

John Pfahl (b.1939) is an American photography, a graduate twice from Syracuse University, who now lives  and teaches in Buffalo, New York.
For further reading: Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 by John R. Stilgoe, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1983.

1. John Pfahl - Nursery Topsoil - Winter + Lancaster New York, 1994, Janet Borden Gallery, NYC.
2. John Pfahl - Blue X, Pembroke, New York, 1975, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
3. John Pfahl - Pingry Hill Road, Andover, New York, 1979, Joseph Bellows gallery, NYC.
4. John Pfahl - The Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile, 1994, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

14 February 2017

Le monde de la douceur

It's not exactly what you may be thinking about today.  However, there is a phenomenon the French call le monde de la douceur, meaning a world of gentleness and sweetness,  a phenomenon they associate with the new year. Superficially it seems similar to Valentine's Day but its meaning extends  to the  romance of everyday life, something as real as our darker thoughts, even in the middle of winter.  A boy regarding a dandelion puff with singular concentration for instance, or blowing soap bubbles through a wand.

 A little harder to see,  perhaps, is the harmony in a landscape that humans share with waterbirds and grazing animals (just visible on the hillside).   
Two different photographers with two different ways of showing us this douceur (the French word is more expressive than the English translation.)  French photographer Daniel Boudinet composes an expansive landscape, an exercise in the symmetry that we can see in the natural world; in contrast the American Sharon Core's  recent series of photographs of found compositions in nature, the things we pass by without noticing, draws our attention to the charms of asymmetry.  

1.Vincenzo Balocchi - Young Boy Looking at a Dandelion Puff, c.1960, Museo de Storia della Fotografia (Museum of the History of Photography), Florence.
2. Daniel Boudinet  - untitled, a wide view of water and animals before a mountain horizon, 1988, photograph from the series Voyage en Asie (Travels in Asia), Mediatheque, Paris.
3. Sharon Core - Untitled #3, 2015, archival pigment print from sharon core

08 February 2017

Whose Modernism ?

At the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan a Picasso, a Picabia, a Matisse, an Ensor, and a Boccioni have been put in storage while seven works by other artists have been interpolated into a gallery of the permanent collection.  This sort of thing happens often,  a rehang that refreshes the relationships between works of art on museum walls.  But  six  of the works brought out of storage are by Iranian artists and one is from Sudan.   While the the museum's curators make a point about the inclusiveness of art at a highly charged political moment, they have had the art works  to illustrate the connections between European modernism and art from other continents at their disposal for decades.   Matisse and the Cubists hanging side by side with works that Europeans studied, imitated, and mined for  their own art,  coming from a museum that has, from its beginnings in the 1930s, appointed itself the narrator of  modernism, is a retelling long overdue. 

Is the history of art a European invention and, if it is, what does it matter? This question may seem rarefied or trivial but when large pots of money and  intellectual prestige are involved the question becomes loaded.  Whose painting hangs next to whose provokes similar angst to who gets into an exclusive club.  James Elkins,  who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been worrying this bone for quite some time in books like Stories of Art (2002) and Is Art Global? (2007) and he is still immersed in the subject, having completed some 300,00 words on  his newest (unnamed)  project.

The two works shown here are not new nor are they new to the Museum of Modern Art.  Mon pere et moi by the Iranian Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (b. 1937) is a large work that uses bright colors to depict an intimate relationship.  Alfred H. Barr, Jr., bought the work for the museum the year Zenderoudi created it, in 1962.  Zenderoudi studied both fine and decorative arts in Tehran. Ibrahim  ElEl-Salahi's  The Mosque, painted in 1964 and purchased  for the permanent collection the following year, is small and its colors muted, while the artist's use of Islamic  calligraphy  suggests the mosaics used to decorate architecture in Arabic countries.   Even without knowing the calligraphy's lexicon, it is easy to see a sense of uplift in the juxtaposition of forms and gestures that run across the midsection of the canvas.  Born in Sudan in 1930, Ibrahim El-Salahi came to New York on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1954.  He became friends with the African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, whose monumental Migration Series is divided, half at the Museum of Modern Art and half at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

1. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi - Mon pere et moi (My Father and Me), felt tip pen and ink on paper, 89" X 58.6", 1962, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Ibrahim El-Salahi, The Mosque, oil on canvas, 12.12" x 18.12", 1964, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
(One thing that the internet is not  good at is suggesting the relative sizes  of the images reproduced.)