25 April 2020

Beatrice Wood: Her Brimming Life

"I never meant to become a potter.  It happened very accidentally ... I could sell pottery because when I ran away from home I was without any money. And so I became a potter." - Beatrice Wood

You could say a chalice is a drinking glass with pretensions.  But Gold Chalice by Beatrice Wood is truly gorgeous. Raising the vessel on a footed pedestal as Wood does gives it a sacramental air. It also shines with one of the lustrous glazes that became a Wood trademark. The plastic nature of the raw  clay makes for a variety of form limited only by the skill of the maker. Wood's technical skills were good, she threw her pieces on the wheel,. but she prized the inclusion of  organic and even irregular elements with ancient sources  A Wood vessel may be whimsical, bizarre, even preposterous but is always breathtaking.

Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) was born in San Francisco to a wealthy family but after the earthquake of 1906 the family moved to New York where Beatrice became enamored of the theater.   Her parents opposed her ambition but finally allowed her to study painting in Paris as she was already fluent in French. So at age nineteen Wood fled a stultifying life at home; arriving in Paris she studied drawing at the Academie Julian and then acting at the Comedie Francaise.  

The outbreak of war made transatlantic travel dangerous so Wood stayed on in Paris where she performed with a French repertory company from 1914 to 1916. She became interested in Dada when she met Marcel Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roche.  The three became involved in a love triangle.  Roche published a novel Jules et Jim in 1956 that was made into a film in 1962, directed by Francois Truffaut.  Wood identified the members of the real-life triangle, but the romance of the idea that Wood was the woman has proved to be a sturdy myth. While in France, Wood was nicknamed "Mama of Dada" for her love of  all things bohemian.

Wood's career as a ceramicist began in her  forties and grew from a small seed;  she wanted a teapot to match a set of teacups she had purchased while in  the Netherlands.  So she enrolled in a class at Hollywood High School where she soon realized that, despite her optimism, she was "not a born craftsman."  She never did make that teapot but in just a few years Wood had rented a small shop on Sunset Boulevard to sell her pots. By 1947 she had exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of At and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A daredevil as a ceramicist, Wood often tossed chemicals - including mothballs! - into her kiln just to see what  effects

Her autobiography I Shock Myself, published in 1986, is downright cheeky.  She was encouraged to write it by her friend Anais Nin.  "I owe it all to chocolate and young men," Wood wrote.

Wood continued to work in her studio until she was 104. She died nine days after her 105th birthday in Ojai, California where she had lived since 1947.

Image: Beatrice Wood - Gold Chalice, 1985, earthenware with gold lsutre glaze, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.

22 April 2020

John Pfahl: Punto di fuga

"I want to make photographs whose very ambiguity provokes thought, rather than cuts it off prematurely.  I want to make that work on a more mysterious level, that approach the truth by a more circuitous route." - John Pfahl

The photographer  John Pfahl died on April 15.  He was 81.

Pfahl's photographs combine the conceptual with ordinary perception in provocative ways, using string or yarn, aluminum foil, colored tape, or Styrofoam balls. Layers of suggestion unfold like an onion.  Triangle - Bermuda plays on our notion of the Bermuda Triangle as a negative space where things disappear; Pfahl makes it visible without answering the question - what is it?  "Altered States" in 1975 was Pfahl's first major series.  He was  preternaturally aware of human interventions on the natural world; in this his work is similar to landscape architect John Brinkerhoff Jackson. So, among  series of waterfalls and rivers is one on power stations.

John Pfahl parodied the work of an older generation of nature photographers for their unearned reverence, especially Ansel Adams who misrepresnted roadside vistas for wilderness and whose use of red filters falsified the land, in Pfahl.s view.  Pfahl's deadpan sensibility was also apparent in his 1992 series "From the Very Rich Hours of a Compost Pile."  Ravishing color and rigorous composition are not things normally perceived in heaps of peelings, pods, and discarded produce leaves. The critic Richard Huntington wrote, "John Pfahl could make even a heap of garbage look beautiful."

"Ansel Adams had his beloved Sierras. I seek out the more elusive mountains on the lake plain near my home in Buffalo, New York." - John Pfahl

Soon after he was given his first (Brownie) camera at eight years old, John appropriated his mother's 35mm camera. At age nine he had found his vocation.  Pfahl has left his mark across his native state. Born in New York City, Pfahl was  educated at the Syracuse University School of Art, taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology and at the University at Buffalo where he lived for forty years.

And about that triangle. Punto di fuga is the Italian term for the vanishing point, literally the fugitive point, the point of escape, usually located near the center of the horizon in an image. Perspective itself comes from the Latin perspicere 'to see through.' Linear perspective was one feature of Renaissance art  developed by architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Batista Alberti. Simply put, it was a system to create the illusion of space and distance on a flat surface using geometry. 

The lesson I find  in John Pfahl's photography and in any good photograph is that  I come away better able to see with my own eyes.

Visit the website John Pfahl.

Image: John Pfahl - Triangle - Bermuda, 1975, from the series "Altered States," at George Eastman House, Rochester.

16 April 2020

Giorgio Morandi & Jean Simeon Chardin: The Modest Sublime

"Even at night, the objects kept vigil,
even as he slept with African dreams,
a porcelain jug, two watering cans,
empty green wine bottles, a knife.
Even as he slept, deeply, as only creators
can sleep, dead-tired,
the objects were laughing, revolution was near.

The nosy watering can with its beak
feverishly incited the others;
blood pulsed wildly in the cup,
which had never known the thirst of the mouth,
only eyes, gazes, vision.

By day, they grew humble, and even took pride:
the whole coarse existence of the world
found refuge in them,
abandoning for  time the blossoming cherry,
the sorrowful hearts of the dyin."
  - "Morandi" by Charles Wright, 2013, BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels

My personal introduction to Giorgio Morandi came in 2008  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I was surprised that I had not seen his work before; only later did I learn how little the artist had been concerned with exhibitions.  All he wanted to do was to paint.  And now a museum in his home city of Bologna is devoted to his art and bears his name.

Still Life (above) looks like nothing so much as a meeting-slash-power-struggle as lucent bowls and bottles jostle each other for position like people lining up for a group photo.  There are no labels on the boxes; squarish and matte, they almost give the impression of being two dimensional,  rendered  flatly, with minimal modeling and  shading.  There is a strangeness in their want of verisimilitude.

Several critics have professed to see in Morandi's still lifes a palimpsest of ghostly cities and I can envision an urban skyline when I look at them. Siri Hustvedt has written that Morandi's colors " are colors you see when you walk the streets of almost any Italian town, hues baked and lightened by the sun - green and blue shutters, yellow walls, old terracotta turned pink..."    

Morandi believed that studying art "offer(s) us an answer to our questions - but only if we formulate  them properly.  As a beginner, he digested the influences of Cezanne, Cubism, Futurism, and pittrua metafisica  of Giorgio de Chirico.  Looking back at his, Morandi told an interviewer in 1957, "For me nothing is abstract. In fact I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality." At first glance, contradictory, or perhaps more accurately, metaphysical. 

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was born in Bologna, a university town.  He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Bologna from 1907 to 1913. There his studies were based on Renaissance art; he taught himself  to etch from books on Rembrandt. There he developed a deep intimacy with the works of Piero della Francesca.  One of his favorite paintings was The House of Cards by Jean-Simeon Chardin, specifically the house of cards itself, which looks eerily similar to a Morandi arrangement

He seemed to live only for art; we have no traces of any romantic attachments.  When he ventured from Bologna to Florence it was to visit Piero della Francesca, Massacio, Giotto, and Ucello.  Ucello, the artist whose name means 'bird' in Italian but whose paintings, as Italo Calvino pointed out, contain no birds at all.  According to his biographer Janet Abramowicz writes, Morandi was so sensitive that he "was unwilling even to squash an insect in his garden."

For further reading: Giorgio Morandi: The Art of Silence by Janet Abramowicz, New London, Yale Uniiversity Press: 2004.

1. Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1954, oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art of Trento & Rovereto.
2. Jean-Simeon Chardin - The House of Cards, circa 1737, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

11 April 2020

Looking At Pictures With Jozef Czapski

"The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.

Here dozes once against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.

See how she spins! The grace is there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.

Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco which he kept...
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while her slept."
   - "Museum Piece" by Richard Howard

"But the true new painting will begin only when it is understood that color has a life of its own, that infinite combinations of color have their poetry and poetic language much more expressive than ancient methods." - Sonia  Delaunay

A seminal breakthrough made by the Expressionists was the realization that color liberated from the demands of realism could amplify emotion.  Vincent van Gogh had often affirmed to his brother Theo and others that he used color to express his emotions.  Then consider Jozef Czapski, a painter attuned to the moods and body language of others, who used color to heighten the viewer's awareness of people in their daily lives.

Against a background of muted tones typical of those used by Gustave Courbet (this painting Exhibition commemorates a centennial retrospective of the 19th century Realist at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1977) our eye is drawn to the figure of a tall woman dressed in orange, a clutch under her arm. As she strolls, her feet move ahead while her head turns to look at the painting, inviting us to wonder which will prevail - the feet or the eyes.    Czapski, a devout Catholic, may have chosen the image of two women, one sitting while the other kneels to wash her feet,.for its religious significance.

To paint paint itself is to create an illusion, one that viewers respond to with pleasure.  When we take in the yellow walls and shades of green in the next gallery they provide a frame of sorts, another image within an image and another mystery.  Is the woman in the green dress staring at something we cannot see or is she gazing across the gallery to the giant nude on the opposite wall?

Jozef Czapski frequented the museums of Paris,  for the interactions between  people and  paintings,as eagerly as for the paintings themselves. Another example is Young Man Before a de Stael, also the product a retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1981     How a person related to a picture, what choices they made among them, how closely they approached, whether they looked in passing or engaged in an extended colloquy.

In his biography of Czapski, painter Eric Karpeles describes his way of looking at a picture; first look from a middle distance, then move closer, then back to the middle distance, and finally from across the room.  There is more to looking at pictures than just standing still.

Jozef Czapski (1896-1993) was born in Prague and died in Paris.

For much more about Jozef Czapski: Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Jozef  Czapski by Eric Karpeles, New York,New York Review Books: 2018.

Jozef Czapski - Exhibition, 1977, oil on canvas, Collection Aeschlimanns, Chexbres, Switzerland.

04 April 2020

Chaim Soutine: The Trees Speak

"I could see them plainly, but my mind felt that they were concealing something....and yet all three of them, as the carriage moved on, I could see them coming toward me....Like ghosts they seemed to be appealing to me to brin them back to life....I watched the trees gradually recede, waving their desperate arms, seeming to say to me: "What you fail to learn from us today, you will never know. If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to rais ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself  that we were bringing to you will vanish forever into thin air." I was as wretched as if I had lost a friend, had died to myself, had broken faith with the dead, or repudiated a god." - Marcel Proust, from In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by G.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin

When John Ruskin coined the term "pathetic fallacy" in Modern Painters he intended no compliment, describing the state of mind that gave rise to human personification of nature as "unhinged by grief."   Yet the belief that things are mirrors of our inner lives is seductive and resonant. As Marcel Proust wove a spell around readers with his....of an encounter with three trees, so does Chaim Soutine mesmerize viewers with the painting Big Blue Trees. It is, of course, the artist who is communicating a message; his colors bursting from his brush with elemental force, distorted, exaggerated, expressionistic. Even in reproduction, we sense the viscosity of paint applied to canvas.  The agitated canvases of Soutine owe something to the black paintings of Goya. Soutine developed a recognizably personal style early on.

A small sponge cake...Chaim Soutine and Marcel Proust. The "petite madeleine" that sets Proust's meditation on time's dimensions also inspired Soutine in naming his portrait La Petite Madeleine des Decorateurs (1928). Madeleine Castaing was a wealthy Parisian interior designer who became Soutine's benefactor in the late 1920s.

"Soutine painted rapidly...He painted passionately, with fervor, in a trance, sometimes to the music of some Bach fugue that he played on a phonograph." - Chana Orloff, like Soutine an emigre to Paris and, also like him, she became friends with Modigliani who, in turn, introduced her to Soutine.

The tenth of eleven children Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) was born in a shtetl in Minsk. His tyrannical father often beat the children for any reason or no reason at all and his wrath fell most harshly on young Chaim.  But the boy did not have a submissive personality which only enraged his father more.
And, feeling unsafe at home, Chaim sought solace in nature.

Thanks to the intercession of some kind neighbors, Soutine was able to study art for three years in Vilnius.  From there he, and two fellow students, emigrate to Paris where they found refuge at La Ruche (The Hive), a residence for struggling artists in Montmarte.  There he met Amedeo Modigliani, who was enchanted by the shy but determiner painter.   The two became inseparable, spiritual brothers.  Modigliani would paint Soutine's portraits several times, most notoriously on the door of the apartment of their dealer, Leopold Zborowoski, the man who introduced Soutine to the magical landscape of Nice.

Another dealer, Paul Guillaume took up Soutine's cause, showing hs work to the wealthy American collector Albert C. Barnes who was so impressed that he bought the contents of the artist's studio on sight. After years of poverty, Soutine was giddy: he ran out into the street where he hailed a taxi and ordered the dirver to take him to Nice, four hundred miles from Paris.  Soutine's sojourns in Nice, so different from his native land, colorful and prosperous, greatly influenced his painting, freein him from a drab palette, much as it had done for Vincent van Gogh before him. Vital and full of energy, Soutine's radical style would him an enthusiastic audience.

Chaim Soutine -  Big Blue Trees, 1927, oil on canvas, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris..