28 June 2018

Charles Seliger's Small Worlds

Chew your way into a new world.
Munch leaves.  Molt.  Rest. Molt
again.  Self-reinvention is everything.
Spin many nests.  Cultivate stinging
bristles.  Don't get sentimental
about your discarded skins.  Grow
quickly.  Develop a yen for nettles.
Alternate crumpling and climbing.  Rely
on your antennae.  Sequester poisons
in your body for use at a later date.
When threatened, emit foul odors
in self-defense.  Behave cryptically
to confuse predators: change colors, spit,
or feign death.  If all else fails, taste terrible.

 -"Advice from a Caterpillar" by Amy Gerstler from Dearest Creature, New York, Penguin Books: 2009.

The word enjambment comes from the French where it means to step over or to put legs across.  In poetry, its function is similar; it means to break a phrase, a sentence, or a thought between two lines without benefit of punctuation.   This sends a mixed message, increasing the attention of the reader/auditor.  Who started the practice?  The Elizabethan poets made much of it and, like many other things poetic and historic, it seems to date back to the catchall answer that was
The caterpillar, curled in upon itself is like the painter. It seeks perfection through its solitary efforts.  Like the artist leaning over his easel at night, the caterpillar will achieve a magical transformation.  As you can see in Charles Seliger's Caterpillar with Sky, although the subject and the scope of the picture may be small, the artist's intentions are expansive, and no more sentimental than poet Amy Gerstler's imagined Lepidopteran monologue.

Charles Seliger (1926-2009) was an early abstract expressionist but, like a number of others I have mentioned in these columns, not so abstract as all that.  Although it is not obvious from reproductions, Seliger worked with small canvases, eschewing the gigantic proportions of so many of his contemporaries, the better to achieve a sense of intimacy with his subjects.

Although he did not complete high school or attend art school, his interests encompassed biology, natural history, and physics.  "My work, even when most abstract, reflects the natural world," Seliger wrote. His technique attracted the attention of New York artists in the 1940s; his paintings were shown at Peggy Guggenheim's famed "Art of This Century" gallery when he was just nineteen. Nevertheless, he worked at ordinary jobs during the day throughout his adult life.

For further reading: a tribute to Charles Seliger by Addison Parks at Artdeal magazine.

Charles Seliger - Caterpillar with Sky, 1949, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

23 June 2018

Marcia Marcus & Frieze: A Renaissance Art

The end of World War II unleashed energies pent up by years of Depression and war, and not just marriages, babies, home buying,college education, and even commercial aviation on a large scale.   That was all expected but also and  suddenly New York became the center of the art world; artists from all over converged on the city where everything was fresh, exciting, and controversial.  The contrast with the pre-war years was stark: before WWII American galleries rarely displayed American artists.  Abstract Expressionism influenced even the figurative painters of the period. In retrospect, some of the most interesting work being done melded aspects of both: flattened forms and  an ambiguous relationship with pattern and decoration.

Frieze: The Porch (1964) gets it title from Marcus' encounter with Byzantine art and Renaissance frescos in Florence when she studied there in 1961.  Florentine Landscape (1961)  features a reclining semi-nude Red Grooms in the foreground, a male odalisque.  We take this to be an Italian locale thanks to the woman in a toga standing in the background,  more clearly grounded in the landscape than Grooms who appears as convincing as the nude in Edouard Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe.  (Florentine Landscape is now in the collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York at Purchase.)

Looked at from left to right -
Jill Johnston (1929-2010), wearing a red bowler hat and holding an equally dapper cane, was born in England to an American mother and a British father; she grew up on Long Island. 
Having earned an MFA, Johnston became dance critic for The Village Voice in the 1960s.  Her column gradually expanded into a diary of her adventures in the New York art world.

In 1971 Johnston took part in a panel discussion at Town Hall  "Battle of the Sexes" that, in retrospect, was bound for notoriety.  Johnston was by then an announced lesbian, her fellow panelists included Australian author Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) who had only just been dubbed "saucy feminist that men love" by the mainstream American press,  and Norman Mailer who was - well - Norman Mailer.  Johnston became an early contributor to MS. magazine after it was founded in 1972 and  her best known writing is contained in the book Lesbian Nation, published in 1973.  Johnston published a number of other books and was one of the more intriguing practitioners of the New Journalism but her boldness was too much for most of her male colleagues and even editors at  The Village Voice expressed qualms about her activism and her outspokenness. 

Barbara Forst studied at the Art Students League in New York City where she would spend most of her adult life teaching theater and producing plays off-Broadway.  She died in Washington, D.C. in 1998.

Marcia Marcus (b. 1928, New York, NY) looking over her shoulder at the viewer and wearing  a patterned cape that suggests a familiarity with Gustav Klimt's portraits, also studied at the Art Students League and also at Cooper Union where her contemporaries included Alex Katz and Lois Dodd,  also figurative painters during the high tide of Abstract Expressionism.  Their work shared similarities, flattening forms, strongly articulated figures and attention to pattern.  All these characteristics are represented in Frieze: The Porch painted by Marcus in 1964, three years after her stay in Florence where she immersed herself  Byzantine art and Renaissance fresco painting.

At the far right  is a grisaille image (in black and white) that Marcus painted from a photograph of  herself as a child and her father.

Although Marcia Marcus no longer paints, as Frieze: The Porch demonstrates, she  deserves the attention that has been lavished on her close contemporaries and fellow downtown art luminaries: Allen Kaprow,  with whom she collaborated on Happenings in the late 1950s, Red Grooms and Bob Thompson whose Delancey Street museum featured her self-portraits (they received highly favorable reviews).  Also, for a quarter of a century from the early 1950s until the late 1970s, Marcus spent her summers painting in a shack on the dunes near Provincetown. MA,  another intensely art-centric locale.  Marcus can claim an impressive list of exhibitions at such galleries as Pace, yet her name and her paintings have become invisible.

Marcia Marcus - Frieze: The Porch, 1964, Eric Firestone Gallery, NYC.

12 June 2018

Odilon Redon & The Renaissance Portrait

She could be descended from a Renaissance woman, or at least the portrait of one.  Odilon Redon's Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier) was made in 1903 but its subject is presented with all the signifiers of an unusual Renaissance painting that Redon and his contemporaries had seen and studied at the Louvre. Here is an obviously well-born woman, beautiful and virtuous as well can see by her modish dress and elegant profile as she bens studiously over he needlework.  The left-facing profile and the arabesque-like arrangement of flowers as a framing device are part of a fascinating story told by David Alan Brown of the National Gallery of Art in the book Virtue and Beauty. Mme Fontaine  was the wife of a wealthy French industrialist and a patron of the arts whos circle included such forward-thinkers as the writer Andre Gide, composer Claude Debussy and several painters including Redon.

Antonio Pisanello's Ginevra d'Este had no precedent in the style of 15th century Florence.  Rather than adorn his subject with precious jewels to suggest the wealth of her family he chose to portray Ginevra virtues otherwise: situating her in a virginal garden (hortus conclusus)  where he surrounded her with shimmering spring leaves, perfumed carnation flowers and fluttering butterflies (symbols of the human spirit).

We may wonder whether Redon was partaking of a no-classical moment in French art, as evidenced by contemporary paintings by Cezanne and particularly La belle Angele by Paul Gauguin (1889, Musee d'Orsay).  edon makes an appearance in a painting by his friend Maurice Denis, member of the once secret brotherhood of artists known as the Nabis (Prophets, in Hebrew).  Although Gauguin was not included in the picture himself, it is a painting he owned by Cezanne (Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples) on the easel that the other artists are gathered around.  Redon stand a little separately from the group at their left,  in the painting as in life.

Redon's early graphic works in black and white are a virtual dictionary of bad dreams, and now as familiar from reproductions as the philosophical oddities of Rene Magritte.

What makes Redon's pastels outstanding is his sure feather-light touch with the chalks themselves.  The nameless blue flowers, interspersed with tiny starbursts of white and yellow seem to hang weightlessly in the air, with no other reason than to frame Mme. Fontaine's person as the white lace collar frames her face on her yellow dress.  For Redon nothing in his work was ever merely decorative, it was part of a visual language to translate the mysteries inherent in the natural world for our eyes.  Flowers, opined the artist, are "admirable prodigies of light" and, perhaps like Monet, Redon, rendered sensations in response to the contemplation of visible objects through invisible light.

For further reading:
Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci: Renaissance Portraits of Women by David Alan Brown, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 2001.

1. Odilon Redon - Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier), 1903, pastel on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
2. Pisanello - Ginevra d'Este,  c.1435-49, tempera on wood, Louvre Museum, Paris.