Aesthetics

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richard-diebenkorn
RD

My friend Joshua Baer writes about wine with more creativity than anyone I know. (His reviews appear monthly in Santa Fe’s THE Magazine, and all his columns can be found on One Bottle.) Last month he blended a review of 2012 Comte Abbatucci Rosé “Cuvée Faustine” with his admiration for the artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993.)

Our mutual admiration for Diebenkorn (who we affectionately refer to as just plain “Dick”, or RD) runs deep. Joshua’s father, the well respected California photographer Morley Baer, knew Diebenkorn and actually photographed some of his paintings for him. Joshua and I share vignettes about RD and his life like kids with trading cards.

In a tribute that appeared in the New Yorker right after RD’s death, Adam Gopnik wrote about the Diebenkorn legacy in words that still feel resonant twenty years later. Yes, RD’s Ocean Park #48 sold for $13,250,000 at a Christie’s auction two years ago. But during his life, RD was pretty much dismissed by the East coast art cartel. When I arrived in Manhattan in the early 70s, few of the artists with whom I became friends even knew who he was. Given the influence RD had had on my work as a young West Coast art student, I found this disregard unsettling.

In his 1993 article, Gopnik references several of the RD obituaries that had just appeared. In one RD was described as a “poet of sunny spaciousness.”

The obituaries were typical of the slightly backhanded compliments that Diebenkorn had been getting for most of his career. Americans don’t want their painters to be affectionately regarded—we mostly like them tetchy and transcendental—and “sunny spaciousness” sounds more like something we ask of an apartment than of an abstract master. Even “lyrical painter” is one of those winking epithets—like “scrappy infielder,” hardworking comedian,” or “sensitive art critic”—which are really code for “not so hot.”

As one art critic had previously framed his take on RD, “Kenneth Noland is a shark; Diebenkorn is a little goldfish.”

Presaging by 20 years the eventual rewrite of the West Coast’s influence on American art brought about by the 200+ venue mega-exhibit, Pacific Standard Time, Gopnik makes the case that Diebenkorn was in fact a key figure in that transformation of California from “provincial backwater to an artmaking capital equal to New York.” But he also acknowledges how slow others were to see that influence clearly:

His best paintings, the “Ocean Park” series were begun in the late sixties, when the ideological thuggery that has dominated New York art criticism ever since was just coming into being. Mannerism produces ideologues the way civil wards produce refugees: an art in which everything is held in quotation marks demands one gang of commentators to untangle its allusions and another gang of commentators to mock the first. Diebenkorn was patronized, or just ignored, by the ideological thugs of the left and encumbered with praise by the ideological thugs on the right…They admired his work for its absences, for all that it didn’t include (explicit political or ironic content, the more obvious kinds of pop imagery), and thereby left an impression, which may be hard to erase, of Diebenkorn as a Malibu Matisse.

Gopnik speaks to the influence of Matisse on RD’s work—which is certainly valid—but he shifts gears and makes the case that Diebenkorn is actually much more in the tradition of Cézanne:

Cézanne, unique among the masters, was utterly square. Diebenkorn, the perfect representative of a culture without irony, was square, too, but he managed to be square without being corny, which is a nice way of remaining classic. This unbending classical sincerity—a Cézannist quality—-radiated from the man, and it was a trait that his friends most often admired and recalled.

In spite of the current proclivity to report on art that feasts on irony morning, noon and night, there are many of us who are more drawn to that sphere of “unbending classical sincerity.” And if anyone can make being square the coolest compliment ever, it would be RD.

Call me square, PLEASE.

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Richard Diebenkorn in front of Ocean Park #59, Ashland and Main studio, Santa Monica, 1972 (Photo: Gilbert Lloyd Courtesy: Orange County Museum of Art)

More posts on Slow Muse about RD:

The Shape-Making Impulse

State of Paint

This Flashing Present

Diebenkorn’s Fields of Silence

Pacific Standard Time: Proof at the Norton Simon Museum

Pacific Standard Time: Begin the Rewrite

The Other Coast, Reconsidered

Left Coast Report

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“When Pressure Exceeds Weight VI,” by Richard Tuttle (2012) (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Universal Limited Art Editions)

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“In Praise of Historical Determinism I, II, III,” by Richard Tuttle (Photo: © Richard Tuttle/Brooke Alexander)

Richard Tuttle: A Print Retrospective at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is a sophisticated, intelligent, inventive, provocative and exuberant exploration of over 40 years’ worth of printmaking by one of the great living artists of our time. Famously gifted in an ability to see around, under and behind a thing in a way that repeatedly surprises and delights those of us who follow his work closely, Richard Tuttle is the perfect candidate to playfully dismantle the tradition-bound world of printmaking. This show upends the orthodoxy of woodcuts, wood engravings, lithography, intaglio, colographs and monoprints, and the results reveal a great deal about Tuttle’s artistic practice and the way he thinks.

I have been a Tuttle fan most of my art making life. His show at the Whitney Museum in 1975 took place right after I arrived in New York City from California, and it was one of those life changing experiences for me. Controversial and bravely stated, that show cost curator Marcia Tucker her job. But it also gave many of us a paragon for how the visually playful and simple can express an Eastern philosophical sensibility—demonstrated simply by a nailed segment of white twine that took stewardship of an entire wall. Tuttle’s work has spoken to me directly and personally ever since. (A list of previous Slow Muse posts about Tuttle is included below.)

Since that show in 1975 there have been many other exhibits, most recently the massive retrospective mounted by the San Francisco Museum of Art in 2005 (which, in a sweet coming full circle, also made its way to the Whitney.) In many ways however this show at Bowdoin offers even more transparency into Tuttle’s work than the others. With over 100 pieces on display, you are able to track his tireless eye and perpetually investigative mind at work.

This exhibit exposes in meticulous detail how Tuttle breaks things down, the way he pulls something wide open and then allows another something quite exquisite to emerge from the most unexpected shards of that dismantling. An early woodcut was created using magic markers. A series of intaglio prints incorporates the ubiquitous tarlatan (the special cloth traditionally used to carefully wipe ink from a plate) as a tiny grid matrix that is brought into the composition as an unexpected flourish. Plates are cut into shapes and the edges become lines in the composition. Paper pulp and other elements go into the press along with the plate, sometimes squeezing out the sides and extending the shape outside the familiar rectilinear form. This isn’t a slackerish disregard for technique but an exuberant celebration of pressing and pressure, another way to extend the dimensions and capabilities of the printing press itself.

The curatorial text is very well done. Unlike the common proclivity to “explain” the art and to dumb things down to the lowest common demoninator, the wall words in this exhibit are respectful, informed and enhancing. Thank you for that curators Christina von Rotenhan and Joachim Homann.

Does a trip to Maine need additional incentives? I think not!

The show, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine (about a 2.5 hour drive from Boston), is on view through October 19, 2014.

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More about Richard Tuttle on Slow Muse:

The Tuttle Bump

Martian Muse and Richard Tuttle

Vogel 50 x 50

Scale it Up, Scale it Down

Tuttle Therapy

Textilia

Go Broad, or Go Deep

Richard Tuttle at Sperone Westwater

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In his essay on Pierre Bonnard, The Art of Making a World (included in his book, Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa), Michael Kimmelman relates a conversation he once had with the photographer Cartier-Bresson. While viewing a self-portrait by Bonnard, Cartier-Bresson said, “You know, Picasso didn’t like Bonnard and I can imagine why, because Picasso had no tenderness. It is only a very flat explanation to say that Bonnard is looking in a mirror in this painting. He’s looking far, far beyond. To me he is the greatest painter of the century. Picasso was a genius, but that is something quite different.”

Kimmelman goes on to quote Picasso on the topic of Bonnard: “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting, what he does…Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a question of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”

In many ways Picasso and Bonnard inhabited two extremes of the painting spectrum. During the era when both of them were working, Bonnard was the one who was out of step, painting works that were too soft compared to the structured detachment of cubism. Many saw Bonnard as an impressionist working after impressionism was past, an anachronism caught up in his search for the elusive beauty of paradise.

With time, respect for Bonnard’s vision has steadily grown. He is not the marginalized artist Picasso dismissed but someone whose body of work speaks to a modern viewer with power and meaning. “These works crystallize what has always been Bonnard’s primary mood, that of elegy,” writes Sarah Whitfield in Bonnard. “He has often been described as a painter of pleasure, but he is not a painter of pleasure. He is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure.” That is a sense of life that speaks to contemporary viewers.

I had a similar experience of how time shifts our view while reading Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction, by Gabrielle Selz. Gabrielle, daughter of art critic/historian Peter Selz, is a gifted writer and has captured a slice of art world life both in New York City and on the West Coast (her father was chief curator at MOMA before moving to open the Berkeley Museum in California). Her charismatic father befriended many major artists—Mark Rothko, Max Beckmann, Karel Appel, Alberto Giacometti, Christo, Carolee Schneeman, among others—but that glitterati world also had its dark side of bad parenting, bad partnering and a whole lot of that 60s self indulgence. This isn’t a name dropping, “lifestyles of the rich and famous” memoir. It is the story of a complicated life told with intelligence and evenhandedness. I never lost interest in her or her world, a significant feat for any memoirist.

Gabrielle is a few years younger than me, but our lives run along many parallels. Like me, she was bi-coastal in the 60s and 70s, observing the art world both in New York and in the Bay Area. We lived just a few blocks from each other in New York City, and we even attended the same university, UC Santa Cruz. She had a front row seat however, and her account offered a more intimate view of events I remember but observed from the periphery.

There might have been a time in my life when being an insider like Gabrielle would have seemed desirable. But not now. I have come to see that there are people who are outsiders by nature. For me, I’m more interested in the weeds that grow beyond the edge of the well manicured green. Like Bonnard, I have come to believe that you can find and create your enchantment anywhere, on any terms.

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Charles Burchfield writing at his desk, by William Doran (Photo: Charles E. Burchfield Archives, Gift of William Doran)

For years I had Charles Burchfield misfiled under “Depression Era Regional Artists” along with Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood. It wasn’t a file I spent much time rifling through, so my error wasn’t discovered until I saw the show of his work curated by artist Robert Gober in 2010 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Whitney in New York. (An earlier post detailing that revelatory show is Burchfield on my Mind.)

Everything changed when I saw his work in a full continuum. In just one day Burchfield catapulted from an obscure regionalist whose work I barely knew to one of my favorite artists. My passion for him has only increased with time.

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Burchfield’s Autumnal Fantasy

While I was in Chautauqua New York for the opening of my show, On the Surface: Outward Appearances (details here), I was able to see two exhibitions that featured Burchfield and his work. One was serendipitously upstairs from On the Surface at the Strohl Arts Center—The Paintings and Writings of Charles E. Burchfield. By comingling both visual and verbal Burchfieldisms, this show makes the best case yet for his true identity as a visionary, a nature mystic, and a channel. Once you get that it is so obvious, especially when reading the words he wrote.

With the exception of Robert Gober,* art historians have not embraced the deeply mystical aspects of Burchfield’s work. He is not included in the list of visionary artists along with the likes of William Blake, Gustave Moreau and Morris Graves. Burchfield doesn’t look the part, that’s for certain: his unpretentious midwestern demeanor just doesn’t suggest “mystic” to anyone. Visiting the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo—which boasts the largest collection of his work—I found the curatorial commentary rather tone deaf to the rhapsodic quality of Burchfield’s connection with the natural world. The portrait of him that they seem to draw is one of a benign, hard working landscape artist who had a peculiar tendency towards extra swirls which they refer to as “heat waves”.

I get it. Burchfield’s ability to see the auric fields that exist around every tree, flower and star is not an aesthetic category that is easy to explain. I had the extraordinary advantage of viewing his work with my friend Linda who possesses a similar ability, so her immediate recognition of what Burchfield was up to reinforced my own intuitive sense of his gift of mystical seeing.

A few of Burchfield’s hand scrawled messages included in the Chautauqua show read like mystical pronouncements, as instructions channeled to him directly. One that I did not photograph captures the essence of Burchfield’s seminal assignment:

Give yourself up entirely to nature. Let nature woo you.

That line couples nicely with another Burchfield quote:

An artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there. To do so he must invent symbols, which, if properly used, make his work seem even more real than what is in front of him.

Given the increased interest in Burchfield and his work, I am certain there are several researchers working on what will become the newly updated and definitive biography of his life. I hope any future retelling will include a more robust recognition of Burchfield’s deeply mystical and visionary nature.

Handwritten notes from the Burchfield exhibit at Chautauqua:

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“You cannot grow unless you attempt things beyond your powers.”

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“It is up to you now, to carry on. Are you equal to the task?”

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“You are completely dead – Devoid of any emotional attitude toward nature Wake up – be bold, make bold caricatures & conventionalizations.”

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*Robert Gober is the one voice that does acknowledge Birchfield’s otherworldliness. In his catalog for the show, Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, Gober goes so far as to describe Burchfield’s work as “immersed in what he perceived as the complicated beauty and spirituality of nature…often imbued with visionary, apocalyptic, and hallucinatory qualities.”

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Louise Nevelson (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff—Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I long ago took the position that giving advice is a fool’s errand, especially with artists. My personal MO is right in line with the lyrics from Willie Nelson‘s recently released song, Band of Brothers:

We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever,
On a mission to break all the rules.
I know you love me cause I love you too,
but you can’t tell me what to do.

Not believing in advice doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how others go about fulfilling their mission of breaking all the rules however. I am actually quite fascinated by how many ways there are to be a transgressive which, at our core, most artists are.

Two books, one by a poet and one by a sculptor, crossed my path this week. Both are memoirs that offer the expected reflective, confessional and personal accounting of a life. But that’s where the similarities end.

What Poets are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life, by Gary Soto, is a beguiling, funny, self-mocking account of life as a not Name Brand poet.

From a review in the Chicago Tribune:

Soto, the child of working-class Mexican-Americans, has not had an undistinguished poetic career. He has won awards and fellowships, been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (He’s also the author of several successful books for children and young adults.) But “What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life,” a loose collection of mostly autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes, is full of genial self-mockery. He tallies his rejection letters, jokes about not getting grants, laments his sales figures, gets depressed when he sees his books (inscribed by him, no less) in used bookstores, writes that he doesn’t translate more often “for I possess only talent enough to bungle my own poems.” He describes reading at a Barnes & Noble to an audience consisting of a single member who listened to a single stanza before waving his hand and saying “Stop, stop, I’ll buy the book.” This is endearing but overfamiliar. If you’ve heard anything about poets in America, it’s probably that they are unknown and unread, except by other poets and perhaps a few freaks on the fringes.

With his easy in/easy out short fiction form, Soto talks with candor about the ignominy of being overlooked, under appreciated, unrewarded and feeling just plain left out and left behind. Which are all feelings with which every artist I know—be they poets or musicians or visual artists—is intimately familiar. Soto is dogged by the specter of being rejected by yet another obscure Midwest journal, being invited to read and no one showing up, or being asked the dreaded question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (We all have our list of those painful occupational rites of passage that don’t deliver on the passage, just the pain.) Soto has found a sweet spot between the gentle insouciance and lightheartedness that are his nature and the intense desire he also possesses to have his work read, appreciated and admired. The humor and self-mockery are his survival skills.

Soto’s little book is about a 1/4th the size of another artist’s memoir: Louise Nevelson‘s Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown. Famously self-confident, supremely brash and direct, Nevelson was born with a sense that it was her destiny to be famous and very successful, both of which she was.

John Canaday shares this anecdote in his introduction:

One woman asked Louise if she would have felt that her life had been well spent—if she would have felt sufficiently rewarded for a life in art—if the recognition had never come…”if it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” Louise paused for a moment, puzzled (not typical of her). Other artists of the kind called “dedicated” would have answered, “It would still have been worthwhile,” which I suspect is what the questioner wanted to hear. But Louise finally said, “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”

The transcripts that form the text of this book are full of Nevelsonisms: “I was very sure of what I was doing. I believed in myself and I was utterly satisfied with what I believed in. I wasn’t going to let a soul on earth judge my life.” “I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show.” “I believed in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you.” Her sense of herself and her work is staggeringly clear.

No one can parse the formula behind Nevelson’s bravado and extraordinary career. Surely it is a blend of genius, guts, hard work, timing, and the secret ingredient in any successful venture, luck. But the mantra still stands, no matter who you are: Nobody can tell you what to do.

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Meredith Monk (Photo: Peter Ross)

Meredith Monk was an ubiquitous influence on me during my early years as an artist in New York City duing the 70s. Already an icon, she explored forms of expression that ranged wide and deep, crossing over into so many different métiers—dance, music, visual art, writing, film, performance, theater. She is the archetype of artist as shaman, artist as visionary.

In a recent interview with Monk, she makes this observation:

There are basically two kinds of artists. One is a mirror of the particular time that artist lives in. The other is more the way that I think about things, which is a more timeless kind of idea of very fundamental energies and cycles of human behavior and things that recur. We are sensitive, and we stand a little bit away from the world, enough to respond to it, but at the same time we offer an alternative.

What I’m trying to do is to offer an experience, a direct experience in the very distracted world that we’re living in, which might not be so easy. It’s very hard for us to let go of our devices and distractions, and the nakedness of the present is, for many people, very painful. The stillness, the not being entertained, and just the being in the present is not that easy, but I think that that’s what I’m trying to do in my work — to offer a situation where audience members could actually let go of the distractions, let go of the mental narrator, let go of the restlessness for a certain period of time.

Monk’s first paragraph captures a concept I have circled around for years, and she does it with such simplicity and clarity. And her second paragraph—how we manage in this very distracted world—is a succint reminder of the importance of putting down our devices on a regular basis (not just on holidays) and being in the “nakedness of the present.” May your 4th of July be full of that.

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The Whitney Museum’s current Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue, soon to be abandoned for the new Renzo Piano space downtown. Photo: Gryffindor, via Wikimedia Commons.

As controversies are already abounding regarding the opening of the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum (The most visible being John Yau‘s recent essay in the Brooklyn Rail, The Difference Between Jerry Saltz’s America and Mine), I have been thinking about art criticism and what it means to me as an artist and maker. I have no interest in Koons or in seeing the show, but responses to his work may at times present a narrative that is of interest. Now that’s a curious thing, when art with which I have no connection can create a conversation around it that can be compelling.

A passage I found in Rebecca Solnit‘s essay, “Woolf’s Darkness”, from her new collection, Men Explain Things to Me, addresses some of this.

Referring to her years as an art critic:

I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

The proclivity to “make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable” is an ongoing challenge for any artist whose work is to dig deep into that which is uncertain and unknowable. “What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether,” says Solnit.

But there is also a kind of counter-criticism that actually expands the work of art, that opens up its meanings and its possibilities. Criticism of this kind can liberate a work of art and will engage in a conversation that keeps feeding the imagination. That is when criticism achieves a whole new level.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas…this is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence: the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

That is how it feels to read the really good writers about art. I put John Yau in that category along with W. S. Di Piero, Lawrence Rinder, David Levi Strauss, Sianne Ngai, Dave Hickey, Michael Kimmelman, Sebastian Smee and Donald Kuspit. And of course my all time favorite writer about contemporary art—the great Carl Belz.

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I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the work of Norman Rockwell. He used the techniques of illustration to paint a world that ignored complexity and captured some imagined untroubled time. As W. S. Di Piero points out in an essay about his work in When Can I See You Again?, “He represented experience in a way that presumed hospitable intimacies but wasn’t intimate at all…his narrow pictorial and moral range left nothing to chance. He over-managed effects and stiffly controlled audience response. His pictures are by and large cold Yankee products in which human intimacy is a contrived icy gaiety.”

But he was popular. He got his first Post cover when he was 22 and spent his life with high visibility and success. His work became signatory of an entire era in American cultural history.

Di Piero isn’t complete bloodless in his critique of Rockwell. He was a “scrupulous, hard working craftsman” and had no illusions about himself and what he was about. “He once said he painted America not as it really was but as he would like it to be.”

While Di Piero’s essay on Rockwell is in response to a traveling exhibit from 15 years ago, the final paragraph rings true in a timeless way:

Pardon my dyspepsia. I’m ragging on Rockwell for not being what he never wanted to be. But it’s irritating that so much blockbuster expense and space—the show ended its tour at the Guggenheim, whose manipulative curatorial strategies so often cynically twist art-world rumor into established greatness—is given over to such an artist when we need more good, substantial shows of Marsden Hartley, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, and Fairfield Porter, all of them purer American artists than Rockwell could ever hope to be.

With giant New York blockbuster art shows heading our way from Jeff Koons at the Whitney and Björk (yes, that one) at MOMA, Di Piero’s dyspepsia about “manipulative curatorial strategies” that turn “art-world rumor into established greatness” is a good description of how many of us feel about these two exhibitions. I just have to ask: REALLY?

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“Untitled (Rorschach),” a 1999 work by Sigmar Polke.(Photo: Alistair Overruck/Estateof Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society)

The current show of Sigmar Polke’s work at MOMA, Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010, is staggeringly expansive. With 260 works of art filling 10 galleries plus the atrium, the curators wisely moved most of the accompanying text into a 30 page handout on newsprint. Headspinnigly complex, the feeling of being overwhelmed is unavoidable.

Sebastian Smee took a stab at it in his recent review in the Boston Globe:

What kind of artist was Sigmar Polke (1941-2010)? The question affords no easy answer.

Besides being the most protean major artist of the past three or four decades, this German face-puller, tongue-poker, and cackling boogeyman was the kind of artist willing to spend weeks and months extracting purple pigment from the glands of snails (following ancient, imperial precedent) only to apply the precious substance to silk with a kind of desultory shoulder shrug.

He was the kind of artist who was happy to spend vast chunks of his life hand-painting raster dots — the pixel grids that make up imagery on television screens and printed matter — or pointing a video camera at whatever took his fancy…Replete with paintings, drawings, and prints on every scale and in every conceivable medium (and in some media, like “meteoric granulate,” “iron mica,” and “thermal enamel,” you probably never conceived of), as well as videos, photographs, photocopies, sculptures, and stained glass, [the exhibit] arrives four years after the artist’s death, at the age of 69.

Polke followed every thread and tried on every art trope. He is probably the most untethered and rule busting artist I know. The energy of his exploration is playful, but it is accompanied with a cold eye to the darker side of human nature and the world we have created. Polke “poured scorn on the idea of genuflecting before great art,” writes Smee. “An incessant, impulsive creator, he ridiculed our habit of revering artists or entering art galleries with earnest intent.”

The expansiveness and outward thrust of this extraordinary body of work is in high contrast to another artist I was reading about while I was in New York: Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964). One of the most intimate of 20th century artists, Morandi’s oeuvre focuses almost exclusively on a very discrete number of objects that he rearranges repeatedly. He lived most of his life in Bologna with his mother and his sisters, teaching etching to make his way. He was introverted and private but not so isolated that he did not know about his contemporaries in Europe and the U.S. (He was interested in works by Rothko and Pollock.) He once said, “nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, that what we actually see. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, just the meanings we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”

His approach is as far from Polke’s as you could possibly get. Where Polke is epic and expansive, Morandi is concentrated, quiet, personal and intimate. Polke experimented with every medium and form he could get his hands on, and Morandi stayed with his fascination for the arrangement of form and light in a simple still life. Polke’s humor and sardonic statements about art and the world require a willed detachment from the whole enterprise of art making. Morandi seeks a oneness with his vessels, working that connection over and over again. Yet both artists achieve an extraordinary expressiveness and are unforgettably forceful in their use of visual language.

My revisit with Morandi came through an essay about his work in the poet W. S. De Piero‘s collection of essays, When Can I See You Again? De Piero has long been one of my favorite poets who write about art (For other posts about him on Slow Muse, a list of links is below) and his description of Morandi’s work pulled me back into that world with just one read.

Here are a few passages that capture so much of what I love about Morandi’s work:

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He uses the material world to disclose the inner life, to get us to see into the secret lives of things and the instabilities of matter. The work scrutinizes in a visionary way the immaterial in the material. The pictures are extreme acts of attentiveness and can induce the kind of mania Ortega described when he wrote that a maniac (or lover) is somebody with an abnormal attention span.

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The paint can be alluvial, buttery, torpid or dashed, thinly whisked, nearly transparent. For years he ground his own pigment and returned all his life to variations on the a familiar range of tones, the sanded-down oranges, blushed umbers, and smoky maroons of Bologna’s walls.

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The modern sublime isn’t about magnitude or clarion ambition: it rubs perception so close to ordinary facts of physical reality that we feel pressed against a membrane that obscurely separates us from whatever lies on the other side, if there is another side. It intensifies and restores physical reality while suggesting something larger than consciousness. The frontal sensuous forms on a Morandi canvas induce an exhilarating anxiety about what’ unnameable and invisible but felt along the nerves.

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Morandi was the least performance-conscious of the great moderns. The only audience other than himself was the space between his eye and the canvas. And no modern more-or-less figurative artist so resists or shrugs off the use of words…Surrealism, Cubism, and Futurism make magpies of us, but his works don’t offer themselves up to words any more than Wallace Stevens’s poems offer themselves to illustration.

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Morandi’s chamber music of color harmonies, the degrees and directions of brushiness, the vibratory frequencies in and around objects—they don’t invite admiration, through they can charm us into casual awe. Modestly sumptuous to the eye, his art is tensely interiorized, it possess a reserve that puts us at a remove where we can observe the working relationship between the painter’s transformative eye and his silent sitters.

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He’s preoccupied not with liquidity and consistency but with what’s aspirated. He makes us see the ghost of a thing in a thing, as if he’s painting dark matter’s hues, a thing’s negative existence.

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Morandi’s art has everything to do with teasing out problems specific to the art, but one of its essential, sustaining pleasures is its comprehensive candor of presence (the studio paraphernalia expand and contract in a complex choreography of architectural or structural possibilities) blended with a humility that’s not reticence at all but something might and self-contained.

***
Look long enough and the reappearing paraffin lamps, shells, Tin Man hats and the rest begin to feel like company. They were his company certainly, and they feel like they’re keeping us (and themselves) company…Their presence says: Recognize us, know us in order to know yourself.

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Giorgio Morandi (Photo: SIAE/Museo D’Arte Moderna E Contemporanea Di Trento E Rovereto)

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Other posts about De Piero:

Pitchers and Catchers
Whole Body Art
Hybrid Vigor
Matisse, Giotto and the Religious Imagination
Painting the Facelessness
Beyond Liturgy

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When I arrived in New York City in the early 70s—fresh from a very different cadence that was life on the Other Coast—my first roommate was another artist. George Wingate rented me my first berth on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for $87.50 a month, and we went on to become friends for life. He was studying with two larger-than-life teachers, Henry Pearson and Frank Mason, so many of my first friends in New York were artists I met through him. And it does not seem like a random event that both of us ended up leaving Manhattan and living out our lives in the Boston area. Our mutual geography has been fortuitous.

George has many talents, but lately he has been mastering the one day pop up exhibit. On Saturday in Gloucester he orchestrated his third event over the last few years. (Words and images about his previous two exhibits are posted here and here.) George’s sensibilities are quick, quirky and startlingly fresh. And while his work is uniquely and inviolately Wingatian, he also offers up a respectful nod to many of the artists we both love—Richard Tuttle, Barnett Newman, Lee Bontecou, John Cage, Joan Mitchell, among others.

Driving up to see this exhibit staged in an emptied 18th century space (The White-Ellery house is part of by the Cape Ann Museum), I listened to an entire episode of This American Life devoted to the tale of an abandoned house in Freedom New Hampshire. The storyteller was 11 years old when he first encountered it, and the house and the family who had abandoned it became an obsession and a haunted thread in his life and the lives of his friends. This hour long radio program was the perfect preamble to George’s very personal and provocative conversation with this aged and evocative structure, one that has had its own complex history. Demonstrating respect for the solemnity of its bare essence, George found a way to nudge, tease, prod and engage that structure into an adventure in looking and seeing.

This show had an extra feature that George has not explored in his two previous pop up exhibits: Sound. Sitting monk-like on the floor in an upstairs room, Gordon Williams was surrounded by simple tools for sounding, creating a backdrop of noises that were suggestive of “house language”: obscure knockings, cranked up hammerings, tinny creaks, all reminding us that every structure has a space and spirit of its own which sometimes comes with a soundtrack. This house, for one day, was given a playful festooning and memorable voicing that was both aural and visual.

This portfolio of images speaks best for yet another memorable Wingatian visual exposé.

house

sign

back

hole

George

GordonWilliams

doorway

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brush

angel

juncture

longview

notmsg

pillar

portrait

red

shed

strip

strip1

strips

tape

tree

wall

wall1

wall2

wall3

window

window1

zip

across

you

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