15 December 2020
Georges de La Tour: Transcendent Light
10 December 2020
Pieter Bruegel's Short Life and Strange World
02 December 2020
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
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
15 October 2020
Beatriz Milhazes: You Never Really Arrive
28 September 2020
Sheila Goloborotko: Janaina, A Yoruba Goddess
"In Rio de Janeiro
they go at midnight
to welcome the new year.
Fresh in white garments
bearing white candles
they assemble by the sea.
To toss old year's errors
griefs and mistakes
into the accepting waves.
Begin again afresh and new
when the year turns to become
green again and young."
- from "To Become Green Again" by Lorna Goodison, Kingston, Jamaica
Janaina is a goddess whose origins are in the Yoruba religion of West Africa. The Yoruba people believe in Ashe, the energy that animates all living things and unites the human with the divine. In Goloborotko's rendering she takes the form of a mermaid wearing a star crown and surrounded by clam shells, a latter-day Botticelli Venus, perhaps. Clasped in her right hand is a shell fan and in her left she holds a sword. A goddess of both beauty and power.
Brought over to the Caribbean and South America by slaves, Janaina has been represented as a sea spirit celebrated at various times of the year in different places. For example, in Rio de Janeiro people dress all in white and gather on the beach to welcome the New Year, setting off fireworks and throwing white flowers and other offerings into the sea in the hope that Janaina grant their wishes for the coming year. Some offerings are even sent to sea in tiny wooden boats.
Sheila Golobortko is a Brazilian artist who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and she is also the founder and director of the Goloborotko Studio in Brooklyn, where she makes prints and conducts print-making workshops.
Image: Sheila Golobborotko - Janaina, 1992, color viscosity, intaglio and colored ink on lightly textures wove paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
22 September 2020
Lady Of The Beasts: Nancy Spero
"I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it." - Nancy Spero
Spero believed that archetypes, exemplified in the goddesses of mythology, reverberate through our contemporary lives. In 1969 when women were fed up with the assumptopn of male superiority by men in artists' coalitions, they broke away to form W.A.R. (Woman Artists in Revolution) Nancy Spero was there. The feminist movement of the 1970s inspired Spero to explore female sexuality, suffering, and heroism. Her celebrations of life from the ancient world to the present re-figured the representation of women in art. Spero's task was nothing less than writing women back into history through art.
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, wildlife, and nature, making her the most venerated goddess of rural people. As the protector of young girls, she represented chastity. Artemis was also a Maenad, a female follower of Dionysius, god of wine and drunkenness. Maenads could be recognized by their animal-skin clothing and by their frenzied, demented dancing.
Spero borrowed her Artemis from a 5th century BCE kylix, a decorated drinking cup. She holds an animal in her left hand and in her right she grasps a thyrsus, a tall walking stick or staff, traditionally made of fennel and garlanded with ivy. The earliest surviving image of Artemis is an archaic Greek Potnia Theron ("Queen of the Beasts") We can easily imagine such an image on a wall, perhaps an antique fresco, so it comes as no surprise that Spero would begin making works that scroll off the paper onto the wall.
"Dear Lucy, The enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be crushed. Love, Nancy" - a letter from Nancy Spero to Lucy Lippard
"Dear Nancy, the enemies of women's liberation in the arts will be upended by envy." - Martha Rosler to Nancy Spero
"I suppose I felt doomed to be an artist ear;y on, because of the way I drew all over the margins of my textbook." - Nancy Spero
Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was an American artist known for confronting injustices in her work, believing "the personal and the political are indistinguishable." She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and after graduating in 1949, she trained for five years in Paris at Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at Atelier Andre Lhote, already focused on painting the human form. After returning stateside, Spero married fellow artist Leon Golub; the two would collaborate throughout their careers and shared a commitment to new expressions of human forms. In the 1960s, Spero changed her medium from canvas to paper. Spero was a founding member of A.I.R.,(Artists in Residence), the first cooperative women's gallery in SoHo.
Image: Nancy Spero - Artemis, 1989, hand-printing and hand-printed collage on paper, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.
11 September 2020
Fred Wilson: Beautiful Trouble At The Museum
"I get everything that satisfies my soul from bringing together objects, manipulating them, working with spatial arrangements, and having things presented in the way I want to see them" - Fred Wilson
I. An installation artist who shakes up traditional museum presentations, an archaeologist who digs into museum archives to uncover previously untold stories, Fred Wilson is an artist with a mission. To call him a conceptual artist barely scratches the surface of his work. When Wilson speaks of remembrance he intends to remind viewers that museums collect in order to recollect. Wilson is, in his own description, "African, Native American, European, and Amerindian."
Fred Wilson's SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not at the Hood Museum in 2008 asked the question: what does it mean to be viewed from the outside by those who impose their interpretation rather than extend understanding? In the photograph above we see busts on pedestals, originally created for an anthropological exhibit at the 1904 St' Louis World's Fair. At the time, it was called the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - an overtly expansionist declaration of intent. A prominent and popular display was "The University of Man." It included temporary villages of peoples from around the world, along with life-cast models of the inhabitants that were taken and shared among scientists of the day as an encyclopedia of racial "types"
These are the busts that Wilson renamed, shrouding the derogatory labels with cloths (Onondaga, Sioux, Kongo Bakuba, Pygmy, Negrito, Tagalog, etc.) in heavy cloth. His captions honor their individual humanity: "I have a family, " "Somebody knows me - but not you," "The ancestors remember me." When I think about this transformation I recall the unease I experience looking at figures painted by Paul Gauguin during his years in Tahiti. There is no glimmer of feeling, no sense that the models were open to him or that he even recognized the chasm between artist and subject.
The figure at right in the photograph above, Ota Benga (1883-1916), was a 23 year old member of the Mbuti people from the Congo who was purchased from slave traders by American missionary Samuel Verner to inhabit the anthropology exhibit at the 1904 exposition. Later Benga was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an orangutan. A committee from the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference protested his treatment and eventually Benga was transferred to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. But Benga wanted to go home to Africa so depressed and stymied by the outbreak of WWI, he committed suicide.
II. Daniel Webster's position is an outsize one in relation to Dartmouth College where the exhibition SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD - Believe It Or Not! took place. Founded in 1769 as a college to educate Native Americans, Dartmouth soon moved away from that ideal. In the meantime the school had founded a museum known as Dartmouth College Museum in 1772, making what would eventually be renamed the Hood Museum once of the oldest in the nation.
Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the son of a farmer, graduated from Dartmouth in 1801 and enjoyed a long career as a lawyer, statesman, and orator. When Webster won a major case at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1819 that guaranteed the right of the college to remain private and free of government interference, its museum became a repository of for all sorts of Webster memorabilia. But then in 1850, while sieving as U.S. Secretary of State, Webster brokered the Missouri Compromise, that extended the reach of slavery into the western territories. Fred Wilson made multiple uses of paintings and artifacts to construct his alternative narrative of the museum's collection with regard to Webster's legacy. His touch is deft, surgically precise. He shows rather than tells; like a prestidigitator, he can make visible what has been hidden in plain sight.
Fred Wilson channels Peale's showmanship in his allusions to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Robert Leroy Ripley's was a self-taught artists who received an honorary degree from Dartmouth in 1939, prompting him to donate items from his Odditorium to its museum. Ripley made his audience decide the truth of his visual displays, weighing the scale in his day was the "scientific' concept of the "primitive" as a human category.
III. At the time of the publication of The Voices of Silence in 1965, a famous photograph of Andre Malraux appeared in Paris Match, the author stands over an array of images spread out around him on the floor. Its title was "Museum Without Walls." He believed this demonstrated the unity of human experience, a belief congenial to the cosmopolitan European white male. Malraux, dissatisfied with the museum's dependence on portable objects, lamented that "Napoleon's victories did not enable him the bring the Sistine to the Louvre." Of course, some have argued that, for instance, the Elgin Marbles, were never intended to be portable and yet they were removed from Greece and now reside (contentiously) in the British Museum. In contrast to Malraux, Fred Wilson was photographed lying on the floor among pictures of Daniel Webster, not the figure of Olympian detachment but one immersed in a contentious history.
Fred Wilson was born in the Bronx (1954), attended Music & Art High School, and received a BFA in Fie Art from SUNY Purchase. To support himself at college Wilson worked as a guard at the Neuberger Museum. Wilson's first major installation "Mining the Museum" at the Maryland Historical Society, placed unlikely objects together to reveal overlooked viewpoints on the colonization, slavery, and abolition in the state. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and in 2008 he became a trustee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
For further reading:
Fred Wilson: SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD: Believe It Or Not! by Barbara Thompson, et al, Hanover, University Press of New England: 2006.
Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus, Santa Monica, RAM Publications: 2011
1. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of life casts, 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.
2. Fred Wilson - photograph of installation of "The Immortal Daniel Webster", 2008, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH.
3. Francisco Goya - "They May Be Of Another Race" from The Disasters of War, circa 1810-1820, etching, drypoint, burnisher on wove paper, National Museum of Western Arts, Tokyo.
03 September 2020
Seraphine de Senlis: Art as an Ecstatic Confession
"I realized that if, subsequently, I encouraged Seraphine de Senlis, it was not for the primitive or surrealist character of he paintings but because she belonged to the great immortals who go beyond the framework of a movement or a school." - Wilhelm Uhde
Seraphine Louis (1864-1942) lived a life permeated by sadness while painting images filled with joy and beauty.. Despite innumerable hardships, she taught herself to paint, finding inspiration in her Catholic faith. Seraphine mixed her own colors, mixing Ripolin, the first commercially available enamel paint, and whitewash. When finances allowed, she switched to using varnish. Her first paintings were made on wood in 1906 and usually have a matte appearance. Remarkably, this completely self-taught artist left works that present few conservation issues. She began each painting by engraving her signature with a knife.
Paintings by Seraphine Louis are in the collections of the Musee Maillol in Paris and the Charlotte-Zander Museum in Bonningheim, Germany. There is a gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Parris where her works are displayed alongside those of Henri Rousseau, challenging the modernistic dogma that belittles such art as exotic or primitive.
25 August 2020
Elsewhere, Paradise: Patricia Chidlaw
This is a place that erases visual history with glee. Did the fires and earthquakes give white settlers the idea or did they come with erasure in mind? Chidlaw's precisely located paintings are a historian's gold mine of post-war architecture, so the paintings of Nell Brooker Mayhew (1875-1940) captured the Spanish missionary style.
Saffron's World is something altogether different, like one of my other favorite Chidlaw paintings Air Dancer (the dancer of the title is a trapeze artist). "The Story of My Golden Life," a poem by Pamela Davis imagines the quirky interior monologue of Saffron, the goldfish, who confides flirtatiously, "I try to lift a fin to wave my prettiest when he walks/ through the door."
"Everything went so fast. Once I was going nowhere
in a dime store aquarium of a dozen common fish
and he chose me - lifted in a metal scoop, held high
plopped in a bag of water shut with a quick twist."
Here at last that elusive paradise is getting closer.
1. Patricia Chidlaw - Paradise Motel, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
2. Patricia Chidlaw - Mr. Lucky, 2017, oil on linen, Sulliivan Goss: An American Gallery, Santa Barbara.
3, Patricia Chidlaw - Abandoned Water Park -Tune Up, 2018, oil on Canvas, private collection
4. Patricia Chidlaw - Saffron's World, 2017, oil on canvas, private collection.
20 August 2020
The Heart of the Matter: Otis Kaye
"Every day I go to earn my bread
In the exchange where lies are marketed,
Hoping my own lies will attract a bid.
It's Hell, It's Heaven: the amount you earn
Determines whether you play the harp or burn."
- from Hollywood Elegies by Bertold Brecht,
translated by Adam Kirsch in Poetry Magazine, 2011.
Money problems put a strain on his marriage; in 1937 his wife moved back to Germany with their two children. He also made etchings in the styles of Rembrandt and Whistler; however he sold only two works during his lifetime and there were no public exhibitions, either. Kaye eventually returned to Dresden in 1966, where he died in 1974. Only after his death did Kaye's works attract attention and then enter public collections.
Otis Kaye would be better known today if, he had been the subject of a book by arts journalist Lawrence Weschler. In 1999 Weschler published Boggs; A Comedy of Values about the career of J.S.G. Boggs who, like Kaye, drew pictures of money that he used as performance art pieces. Again, like Kaye, Boggs was the subject of prosecutions - on three continents. The authorities were not amused.
Image: Otis Kaye - The Heart of the Matter, 1963, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago
09 August 2020
Francis Ponge: Babillage
03 August 2020
Horace Pippin: Scenes From A Childhood
22 July 2020
Diego Rivera: The Hammock
17 July 2020
Charles Prendergast: An Earthly Paradise
There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast.
Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.
11 July 2020
How to Ruin a Friendship
Alma Schindler was a Viennese beauty and a budding composer when she fell in love with Gustav Mahler, nineteen years her senior, and a moody, authoritarian composer who made Alma give up her music in order to marry him. Marriage marooned eighteen year old Alma, stifled artistically and taken for granted by her husband; she turned to her male admirers (and there were always several to choose from) for consolation. This did not bode well for the future but Mahler died in 1911, leaving Alma to refashion her life.
Broncia Pinell was an established artist of thirty-three when she married Hugo Koller, a physician who had been introduced to her by the composer Hugo Wolf. Before their marriage Hugo had to withdraw from the Catholic church because marriages between Catholics and Jews were not permitted. There is some indication that Broncia converted to Catholicism, at least formally. After their marriage in 1891, Hugo, an avid art collector, promoted his wife's career. And it bears underlining that Broncia Koller-Pinell was an important Post-Expressionist artist, painting nudes at a time when it is was not considered proper subject matter for female artists. Indeed, female artists were barred from study at the Royal Academy until 1920. Her legacy erased after her death, even as late as 1980 she was described as "a housewife who painted."
That these two women whose lives overlapped yet differed in many significant ways ever became friends may have come about because of their children. Koller-Pinell painted several pictures of her daughter Silvia and also of Alma's daughter Anna. The Mahlers often visited the Kollers at their summer home in Oberwaltersdorf, 35 kilometers outside Vienna. The parrot pictured with Anna belonged to the Koller children.
Personae: Alma Schindler Mahler (1879-1964), Anna Mahler (1904-1988), Broncia Koller-Pinell (1863-1934), Rupert Koller (1896-1976), Silvia Koller (1899-1963)
1. Broncia Koller-Pinell - Self Portrait, circa 1920-1925, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.
2. Broncia-Koller Pinell - Anna Mahler With A Parrot, oil on canvas, Austrian whereabouts unidentified.