24 November 2018

Mercedes Matter: Expression in the Abstract

Against a neutral background of negative space, yellows, oranges, and purples vie for prominence in Colors of Autumn  by Mercedes Matter.  The abstraction of the image allows us to contemplate  changes that the season brings.  The intense colors that transforms leaves just before they dry up and drop from the trees in temperate regions are rivaled by the drama of autumnal sunsets, purple clouds back-lit by cherry pink skies. 

As the daughter of a famous modernist, Matter  understood the expressive  possibilities of abstract painting in the mid-1930s, years and a war before the general  public had any inkling that the movement would take over the art world, drawing all the oxygen from other types of art for more than a decade.

Just what is being abstracted in paintings known as Abstract Expressionist?  Thoughts and emotions, filtered through a recognition that a flat two dimensional representation of three dimensions is intrinsically abstract.   Renaissance perspective is, at bottom, just another abstraction.

Those who met Mercedes Matter (1913-2001) described her as "elegant" and even "infuriatingly chic."  And did I forget to mention "charming, intelligent, talented, and witty"?   By the time she was twenty-three Mercedes Carles had an established artist as lover, Armenian expatriate Arshile Gorky. The next year she began to take classes with Hans Hoffmann, another expatriate artist who had just opened his own art school in New York City and who would be an influential teacher of dozens of abstract painters, including Mercedes Carles.   Hoffmann also followed Gorky in her affections.

Her artistic circle grew to include Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Bill and Elaine de Kooning, and Less Krasner and Jackson Pollock.  When Mercedes saw the first version of de Kooning's Woman On A Bicycle  ar his studio in 1952 she thought, "it was a portrait of myself, albsolutely like a photograph could be."   "The next day it wasn't me at all, it was somebody quite different," she told interviewer Sigmund Koch years after the event

Arthur B. Carles, who had studied painting with Matisse was her father and Mercedes de Cordoba. an artist's model who worked with Edward Steichen was her mother.  Thanks to her parents,  Mercedes met seemingly everyone in the art world while she was growing up.  Born in Philadelphia, Mercedes received her first paintbox before attending finishing schools on two continents.  She said that the museums and churches of Italy were her first art school.

She met Herbert Matter while she and Bill de Kooning worked together on a mural project for the WPA with Fernand Leger; Mercedes also translated for the Frenchman.  Mercedes became friends with Leger who, in turn, introduced her to his friend Matter, a Swiss photographer. The couple married in 1941.   By the mid-1950s, Mercedes was, as  Mary Gabriel described her in Ninth Street Women, "the opposite of a retiring wife."   Along the way, she had affairs with fello w artists including Philip Guston.

For further reading:
Ninth Street Women: five painters and the movement that changed modern art by Mary Gabriel, New York, Little, Brown & Company: 2018

Mercedes Matter - Autumn Still Life, 1985, Mark Borghi Fine Art, NYC.

14 November 2018

Serena Perrone: Magic Mountains

When I was six years old I was given a book on world geography for my birthday.  Through it I discovered  the existence of volcanoes, something so much at odds with what I knew of the familiar terrain of northeastern New Jersey that I balked at the revelation.  I couldn't think through this information and so I began to imagine that volcanoes could erupt anywhere at anytime.  I worried over the smallest hillocks to the point that my parents had to flash a light over my backyard sandbox each evening that spring to assure me that no eruptions were sneaking up on Brookwood Road.  Only with time did I realize that my reaction was part of a long history of humanity's attempt to wrestle with the inexplicable.

Volcanoes are older than humanity, their eruptions are awe-inspiring displays of terrestrial outrage, yet, paradoxically, it is their effluvia that carry the minerals that enrich the surrounding soil and make human agriculture possible.  Catal Huyuk, thought to be the first human city, flourished in Anatolia (now eastern Turkey)  around 7000 BCE on a volcanic plain.  The perturbations of Mount Etna (Sicily) and Vesuvius (Naples) and their lesser siblings cast a spell over classical mythology, among the earliest recorded literature.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, from 10th century Japan tells of a goddess who buries the elixir of life at Fuji's peak, hymns the perfection of its symmetry.  In a neat bit of irony, only men were allowed to ascend to the top where its spectacular views could nourish the spirit.  Mountain climbing is a form of spiritual pilgrimage for the Shinto believer and Buddhism also affirms similar intimations of immortality .

Katsushika Hokusai's album Thirty-Six Views  of Mount Fuji (c.1830-1832) was the first to spread the image of the sacred mountain beyond Japan.   Not to be outdone, Ando Hiroshige also published his Thirty-Six Views in 1858.  By the early 1890s the mountain was so well known that the public was ready for Yoshitoshi's tongue-in-cheek parody Thirty-Six Bizarre Selections of Transformation.  With hindsight, Yoshitoshi, whose career bridged the end of the Edo Period and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, stands as the last great Japanese master of the woodblock (ukiyo-e) print.

Serena Perrone's A Volcano Pilgrim in Exchange for Fire is a contemporary series of 21 prints that align to form a continuous work some 25 feet long.   Recognizable accuracy of individual volcanoes is blended at the edges of each with an otherworldly license made possible through abstraction.  In Japanese ukiyo-e refers to an imaginary floating world and Perrone's series melds into its own floating world. The individual prints show active volcanoes in Italy, Central and South America and, most recognizably, Mount Fuji.  The spume blowing from each volcano contains bits of text taken from a travel blog written by poet Craig Arnold during the days preceding his death in 2009.  Arnold was hiking and doing research for a book of poetry he was working on which was to have been called An Exchange for Fire.   Arnold  (b. 1967) and a winner of a Yale Younger Poets Award for his first book published in 1999.  He disappeared while exploring the volcanic island Kuchinoerabujima in the China Sea off southern Japan on April 27, 2009. His body was never found and  Arnold was presumed to have fallen to his death.

Perrone describes her intention for this hybrid of images and text: "Moving geographically from Italy to Japan as they move chronologically  through time from his first blog post to his last, the 20 prints in this series chronicle the 20 days on which he wrote  during his Japan expedition." She hopes that her prints, by finding a permanent  home at the Metropolitan Museum "will be enjoyed by generations to come, and the words of Craig Arnold will continue to reach new audiences."

Serena Perrone is Assistant Professor of Printmaking and Drawing at the Pratt/ Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY.

Serene Perrone - from he series  A Volcano Pilgrim in Exchange for Fire, c.2009-2010  -  dry-point, gouache, monotype and letter press on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

04 November 2018

Like Oil and Water: A Color Lithograph by Louis LaBrie

Patterns in nature layered and reflected in water, like a cascade of regressing mirror images become what all two dimensional images are at their origins: abstractions.   Scaly bark on trees seen through a medium as clear as glass.  These contrary are effects achieved by the American artist Louis LaBrie (b. 1950) in his color lithograph Autumn.   At first glance it could pass for a photograph, a tribute firstly to the artist's imagination and then to his skills.  He has said that he wants his works to be  equally effective from faraway as from close up.  With Autumn there comes a moment when you switch from gazing at the leaves flowing toward you on the surface of the water to trying to see upside down what is reflected in the water at a distance
Growing up in Martinez, an old city in the East Bay area near San Francisco, early on LaBrie became keenly attuned to an element of decline in the changes taking place in the natural world.   His first painting, made at the age of eight, showed the Yosemite Valley reflected in the Merced River.  After studying art at the University of California, La Brie has described sketching his way around Europe and North Africa for a year before settling once again in California.

A printing process that is based on the incompatibility of oil and water, that old cliche, is color lithography.  Designs are drawn on prepared plates using greasy crayons or inks and when moisture is applied to the plate it adheres only to the uncovered areas.  In the history of printing, color lithography is a relative newcomer, having been invented in 1798.  Its predecessor, relief printing, as its name implies, is accomplished by incising a design into the surface of a pla te and then applying ink to it.  It was first used by the Egyptians before the Common Era some two thousand years ago to print on cloth and spread rapidly after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.  A painstaking hand-driven process was mightily helped by the invention of photography in the 1820s; the introduction of  halftones allowed an image to be broken down into a variety of sizes of dots.  Changes in the composition of plates from limestone to pre-sensitized plates in 1951 have  made ever more detailed and sublte effects possible for the accomplished artist.

Louis LaBrie - Autumn, 1985, color lithograph, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.