27 July 2022

Fairfield Porter: The French Connection

"Order seems to come from searching for disorder, and awkwardness to come from searching for harmony or likeness, or the following of a system. The truest order is what you already find there, or that will be given if you don't try for it. When you arrange, you fail.' - Fairfield Porter

"The same water -  a different wave,

What matter is that it is a wave. 

What matters is that wave will return.

What matters is that it will always be different.

What matters the most of all: however different the returning wave, 

It will always return as a wave of the sea.

What is a wave? Composition and muscle. The same goes for

lyrical poetry."

          - Marina Tsvetayeva

By what alchemy do flat patches of color look like the waves of an incoming tide? A non-realistic painterly style characterized by flat patches of color is how, and that wave rolled in from France. I see the whitecaps as decorations on the blue/green breakers. Fairfield Porter's interest in decorative motifs was inspired by his admiration for the French artists known collectively as Les Nabis, in particular Pierre Bonnard. In his paintings Porter combined realism with flat abstraction; among his friends was fellow artist  and abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning.  Porter was a figurative painter  in the post-war years when American abstract expressionism was triumphant. While at the Parsons School of Design, he  studied with Jacques Maroger, a French art restorer.

During the Christmas holidays of 1938, Porter attended an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago of works by Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. The exhibition came as a "revelation of the obvious" as Porter would recall to interviewer Paul Cummings in the 1960s. Why, he wondered, would he paint any other when way "it's so natural to do this." He also told Cummings, "I think that Ingres's remark that 'I leave it to time to finish my paintings' is true in a very wide and profound way."

Image: Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) -  The Wave , 1971, oil  on canvas, private collection

20 July 2022

Leon Dabo: A Late Romantic - Part II

When Leon Dabo was an aspiring artist in Paris Japomisme  had taken the city by storm. Paintings, ceramic, posters, showed the French infatuation with all things Japanese. 

Artful arrangements were a specialty of  Dabo's floral paintings. You can see the influence of ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging in The Blue Vase. The origins of Ikebana date back at least a millennium.  Wabi sabi is an aesthetic that finds beauty in transience and  imperfection.. 

Feathery strokes are all he needed to suggest the evanescent life of flowers. A simple wash technique sufficed for the cobalt blue vase and its soft pink backdrop. Asymmetry is also present in the indeterminate turquoise plane the vase sits on.  This painting is an affectionate tribute to Japonisme.

Flower painting has long been the province of romantic painters; there just is something  about their loveliness that inspires sentiment. Dabo's interest in flower painting may have been stimulated when he worked under John La Farge in New York during the 1890s.. Like La Farge, Dabo worked in several media.

The vases are usually simple providing the pretext for  floral flights of fancy. The background only hints at a setting; the lightly outlined turquoise contrasts pleasingly with the cobalt blue vase but barely delineates its location. 

It came as a surprise to critics  in 1933 when an exhibition of Dabos' floral paintings went on view at the Knoedler Gallery in Manhattan. He had been keeping them private, some of them for two decades.  Who might we compare Dabo to?  Perhaps he is "the Manet of flowers."

Flower painting dates back to the days  of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs who used the lotus to symbolize the all-powerful sun. The figures in Medieval French tapestries, notably the Bayeux Tapestries, portray humans and animals against a background of cascading flowers; these too had specific meanings. Renaissance artists were inspired by these millefleur tapestries; for the first time flowers themselves became the subject. The century from 1750-1850 was the golden age of botanical illustration.

Image: Leon Dabo - The Blue Vase, 1952, oil on canvas, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

13 July 2022

Leon Dabo: A Late Romantic - Part I

For Paul Cezanne Mont Sainte-Victoire was a magic mountain. Though not one of the tallest mountains around, it dominated the skyline over his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. Monet had water lilies; Cezanne had his mountain. Garlanded in centuries of folklore, Vincent van Gogh imagined the artist reading Virgil on its slopes.

Cezanne even bought an acre of Mont Sainte-Victoire in 1901 and the next year he built himself a studio there to have ready access when the spirit moved him to painit.

Landscape painters following in the footsteps of the Symbolists knew what a potent medium color could be for evoking emotion.

Leon Dabo (1864-1960) had a career that spanned continents, from his native France to the Unite States and back again, and throughout his long life he tried different styles, from Japonisme and tonalism to a late-blooming romanticism. His candy-colored vision of the Provencal landscape makes clear the artist's fertile imagination

Image:Leon Dabo - Etang-de-Barre Near Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1951, oil on canvas, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

07 July 2022

Louise Bourgeois: Material Girl

"Material is only material. It is there to serve you and give you the best it can.  If you are not satisfied, if you want more, you go to another material." Louise Bourgeois, New York, April 11, 1989

Painted in the late 1940s, Roof Story is a joyous work that gives no hint of its maker's life at that time. In this self-portrait Bourgeois, her hair blowing in air like angel wings, wears a smile from ear to ear. Keeping her company is  a piece of sculpture buoyantly rising with her. And her joy is palpable.

Her birth on Christmas Day was an auspicious debut; so too her parents, proprietors of a Parisian antiques gallery.  But childhood was a difficult time for Louise, leaving wounds  she would later explore in her art.

Paris in the 1930s, les annees folles (the Crazy Years as the French called them) was awash with ferment in the arts. Bourgeois  was a student at the Sorbonne who earned free tuition by tutoring other students in English. On the one hand the Surrealists repelled Bourgeois with their excesses and  self-regard; on the other she was impressed by the modesty and adherence to the formalities of design among artists who would be dubbed "Art Deco" only in the book of the same name by Bevis Hillier in 1966. 

Of the media that Bourgeois would turn her hand to, painting comes last, possibly because she abandoned it early in her career to concentrate on sculpture Her years of painting spanned about a decade  after she had moved with her husband in 1938 to New York. There she continued her studies at the Art Students' 'League. The birth of two sons only complicated her adjustment to life in America. Neverthelessshe completed around one hundred paintings, no small achievement.

Roof Story may not be a typical work but it is all the more treasurable for showing us that for Louise Bourgeois art was not only about storm and stress but also a source of joy.

Image: Louise Bourgeois -- Roof Story, 1946-48, oil on canvas, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.