Aesthetics

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Ken Price at work (Photo: LACMA)

I am especially fond of an essay written some time ago by William Deresiewicz (author of the recently released Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude.

Deresiewicz traces the idea of solitude through history, from the early Greek era through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism. Turns out solitude has gone in and out of fashion. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our own, much less so.

But it is his commentary on our era’s particular proclivities that caught my attention this week:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves—by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

That quote spoke directly to two novels I have read recently that feature women artists—The The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt (and which I have written about previously here) and The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud.

While very different books by two very different writers (neither of whom has been a visual artist BTW), the female protagonist in each is devoted to her art making but has been unsuccessful in her career. Whether that lack of success is fair or unfair is less to the point of either book; more apropos is that both women have been deeply wounded—perhaps one might even say maimed—by their invisibility in a profession that has become as fickle, youth-centered and image conscious as Hollywood, a world where money and connections matter infinitely more than the once sought after qualities of talent, commitment and vision. As a result, both of these artists are full of rage. The anger in both of these books just seethes out of the pages, like oil from an unwieldy container.

For those of us—and that “us” is legion—who operate below the radar screen of auction houses and blue chip pricing, rage that enormous is not unfamiliar. The old line about the fate of the elderly—you can either be crazy or bitter, pick one—applies to aging artists as well. I have never doubted which one I prefer.

While female and minority artists have been discriminated against in every previous era and mostly overlooked, an artist’s rage at feeling invisible is gender and race blind. In my conversations with artist friends from my days in New York City in the 1970s—practicing artists who are now entering their 6th, 7th and 8th decades of life—this is a topic that invariably comes up. Some say they are, like the graciously non-game playing artist Ken Price, reconciled to living their lives out without visibility and accolades. But others struggle more openly with feeling bitter, and they believe those who don’t acknowledge the same are just masters of denial. Underneath all that talk of not caring they say, every artist harbors a deep hunger to be seen and acknowledged.

It is not my place to dissect the artist’s secret self, but I do believe our era’s particular obsession with visibility is in fact a disability for many who need quiet, solitude, focus and isolation to make their art and do their work. In this high connectivity world, it requires an explicit and concerted effort to carve out that private cave time, to keep the channels that are feeding our process free of noise and clutter. The rest is, in my opinion, a secondary concern.

But saying doesn’t make it so. Our world is our world, and its values are ambient. Thankfully there are heroes like Ken Price. I take pleasure in reading this quote from Dave Hickey‘s essay in Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective, Price’s posthumous show catalog:

There are, of course, actual downsides to working small, strange and far away, up in the high country outside of Taos, but Price has kept his own counsel on these. He tells his friends that he thinks of his time on earth in the studio as a gift, so why ask for more?… “Kenny is very pure,” Billy [Al Bengston] says, “and very stubborn, a poet and a philosopher. He doesn’t care about fame or money.”

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Jake Berthot in 1995. Photo: John Berthot

I know several people who knew Jake Berthot personally. I was not so lucky. But a fan of his work I have been for a long time, and I was deeply saddened to read of his death on December 30. He was 75.

Over the years, reading or listening to an interview with Berthot invariably resonates with me. (Several are available online.) He has often spoken about his journey as an artist with a sincerity and candidness that is becoming increasingly rare. In the class of successful and admired artists, there are few who can steer clear of pandering, posing or playing to the art buying crowd.

It is that honesty that allows him to share his vulnerability which is, in my experience, at the very core of art making I care about most. He has been willing to acknowledge that private part of an artist’s life, the one that is happening constantly during the thousands and thousands of hours spent alone in a studio. Berthot always felt like my kinsman, and by describing his own struggles he was able to put a name on my own. He made me feel less alone, less solitary.

And his paintings. They are so thoughtful and yet not cerebral. Berthot blends intelligent painting and powerful feeling. Standing in front of one of his works I am invariably struck by the herculean intention to bring something deeply authentic into form. Like his hero Paul Cezanne, Berthot is incapable of being vapid or flip. He traveled by foot, simply and steadily. It was always about the work, about gaining access—which sometimes required him to claw his way—into the next valence, to move even closer to the essence of that mysterious and compelling process.

Many obituaries and articles about Berthot’s life and work have appeared over the last few weeks. One of my favorites is by Carl Belz, a tribute that appeared on Left Bank Art Blog. I hope this is just the harbinger of more to come about Berthot and his work.

From interviews and articles, here are a few of my favorite Berthotisms, ones chosen because of the commonality I share with his way of working and seeing the world. If you have a few others that speak to you, I hope you will share them too.

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I can’t do anything but paint. That’s a blessing and a curse, but this is all I can do.

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The paintings I’m doing now, I don’t have any idea about whether they’re good, or bad, or what they are. In many ways that’s a really good place to be. These are the hardest paintings I’ve ever done, and the ones I am least sure about. [He said this in 2012!]

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People want art to come to them and it never will. You have to want to go to art.

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Once you get it together you have a choice: you can work within your established parameters and make the paintings that people come to expect you to make, or you can follow the investigation you’re involved in and go where that investigation takes you.

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As a painter you can decide whether you’re going to have a system or a method. Artists like Chuck Close and oy Lichtenstein had a system—they know how to start it and what the end painting will look like.

What I prefer is more like Cezanne. He had a clear method of working but that method was not a closure, but an opening.

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I work from a place of intuited, felt geometry.

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A young painter has to make a connection; the connection that most make is to recent history—as an embrace, rejection, or reaction—then they start to work. One day, after painting for a number of years, this painter walks into his studio and discovers that he is involved with his own history. At that point, the connection he makes with the world changes. Up to that point, he’s trying to connect to the world; after it, the world either connects with him or rejects him, and there is very little he can do about that.

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I reached another point where the idea was closing in on itself, there was too much idea; the paintings started to feel too literal, too much like a figure in space. I wanted something more organic, more felt.

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Second Verse, for instance, was done with a kind of rage; there’s a certain amount of terror in it. That’s when I felt the painting started to dictate what it wanted to be, when the painting became the boss and I became more like a servant to it instead of the other way around.

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I’ve always wanted something given, something to observe, something I could watch and build on without having to find it—kind of like someone who paints a still life or a figure, but I was never satisfied painting subjects like that. I also wanted a form that would be known; if I say square, you know what a square is, and if I say oval, you know what an oval is—I felt I could build on that, make the painting something you experience rather than just see.

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I don’t feel very talented. I feel that I have to work really hard for what I get.

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If you have source, and you believe in that source, then the form will come.

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As Milton Resnick used to say, you have to become the servant to the painting. When you start you are the boss. At that point it is like a thought process, not about feeling. But at a certain point the painting takes over. There is no real “rationale” for what you do, you just have to do it.

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“Room” by Jake Berthot at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection” in 2006. Photo: Keith Bedford for The New York Times

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Looking closely at a recent painting

Robert Hass begins his extraordinary collection, What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, talking about the photography of Ansel Adams and Robert Adams:

What the two artists have in common, besides a name, is a certain technical authority. The source of that authority is mysterious to me. But it is that thing in their images that, when you look at them, compels you to keep looking. I think it’s something to do with the formal imagination. I don’t know whether photographers find it in the world, or when they look through the viewfinder, or when they work in the darkroom, but the effect is a calling together of all the elements of an image so that the photograph feels like it is both prior to the act of seeing and the act of seeing. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention comes to life.

There is so much in this paragraph I find compelling. What actually is the “formal imagination”? And what is that distinction between what happens prior to seeing and the very act itself? Every maker, writer, artist straddles the essential tension of attention and how it comes through us, but it is difficult to describe.

That issue of attention correlates with a passage from Philippa Perry‘s book, How To Stay Sane:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to…The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved…If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. … The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

After reading that quote, a friend added this insight from the Persian poet حافظ Hafiz: “What we speak (or listen to or believe without questioning) becomes the house we live in.”

The “house we live in” is a perpetual construction site. Our thoughts, attention and actions constellate a space that is our artistic/emotional/spiritual/ consciousness habitation. While Hafiz is being metaphorical, the power of the form around the form—the self inside its house—has been particularly visceral for me as we live through the chaos of renovating the back rooms of our IRL home.

Through it all, what matters is how to bring something substantial into existence. I am reminded of literary critic Christopher Ricks‘s litmus test for how to recognize value in art: “That which continues to repay attention.”

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Eliasson at work (Photo: Nigel Shafran)

Over the last eight years, Slow Muse has been my way of advocating for the experience—and the making—of art that is earnest and sincere. In many ways this is a kind of “outsider” positioning, one that has sidestepped the predominant and pervasive zone of irony the way non-pedigree outsider artists have sidestepped traditional academic art training.

But when someone with the stature and recognition factor of Olafur Eliasson takes up the cause—”Is irony really the economy I want to support?” he asks—it does add weight to the cause.

A recent article about Eliasson appeared in the New York Times’ T Magazine (their “Style” publication…OK, yes, I am sensing your smirk) by Ned Beauman is full of so many great quotes. So whether coverage of Eliasson belongs in the style section or not, I’m going with a win/win.

Here’s a few, each one a gem:

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If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world…Irony is almost always a safe bet here [in Berlin], not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.

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There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.

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And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving…“After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”

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“If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”

(To my Italian friends, sorry about the hard knocks on doing anything in Italy…)

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If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better.

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For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness.

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“People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

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Jack Whitten (Photo: Rose Art Museum)

Yesterday I attended a symposium on the “status and stakes” of painting today. Most of the speakers were academics—art historians and curators whose business it is to categorize, systemize and prognosticate on where the world of art has been and where it is trending before it actually does.

These are concepts that hold a kind of intellectual interest for me. But I am also aware that they exist quite distinct from the day-to-day business of my life and work in the studio.

The most heartening takeaway for me was a ubiquitous agreement by all that painting is very much alive, thriving, and once again at the center of contemporary art discourse. For those of us old enough to have lived through the “painting is dead” pronouncements that started in the early 1960s and suffered through years of being asked why we did something so anachronistic as painting, there is bit of a self-congratulatory, “told you so” moment. But as one of the speakers put it, painting never stopped during those years, it just got elbowed out of the art hot seat as new forms like conceptual, performance, installation, new media and anti-art art took center stage. Katy Siegel, Curator-at-Large at Brandeis University, made the point that the popularity of painting today cannot be explained simply by market demand. There’s more to this resurgence than just commercialism and consumer demand. For someone who got the call at age 17 and has spent her life working in this form (that would be me), the answer is obvious.

When theorists gather, a lot of time gets spent on words, meaning, signifiers, subtexts, referents. Discussion about what the term “painting” means today is robust as that category keeps expanding beyond something that exists on canvas over stretcher bars. The usefulness of old standby words like “abstraction”, “artist”, “painter” have changed considerably and may not be serviceable in the current circumstances. ( Siegel said her students today eschew all the existing definitions and simply say, “I make stuff.”) Suzanne Hudson, USC professor and author of Painting Now (available in March 2015), reminded us of Leo Steinberg‘s open definition of painting as “any receptor surface on which objects are scattered.” She also finished her thoughtful remarks with a well known quote by Robert Ryman about how art progresses not through organized movements but because “everyone has to take little bites, little pieces of it and work on that.”

Energy flooded back in the room for me when artist Jack Whitten claimed his wise elder status and stepped into a whole lot of theorizing to keep the very act of art making central to the discussion. “Painting is hard work. When I am in my cave—that’s what I call my studio—I cannot see where I am going. It’s just blind man’s bluff in there…We do what we do out of necessity, and it comes out of our own world. I can see a work in my brain, and making the painting is a reproduction of that concept. It is moving something from the inside to the outside. It is scary and it is hard.”

Thank you Jack for bringing the essence back into this never ending, multi-faceted conversation. His timely interjection reminded me of another wise elder, John Cage, when he addressed the inchoateness of creation and making:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

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John Cage (Photo: Tucson Sentinel)

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One room from “The Visitors”, by Ragnar Kjartansson

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Installation view (Photo: Agostino Osio, courtesy Fondazione Hangarbicocca)


The Clock, a video montage/art installation by Christian Marclay, artfully stitched together 24 hours’ worth of vignettes with references to time. Stipulated by Marclay to only be viewed in perfect synch with real time, The Clock‘s sequences are extracted from our collective cultural consciousness of movie and television. Those images, as if from a collective dream, are haunting and mesmerizing.

The power and genius of Marclay’s project took me completely by surprise. And like many of my friends, I endeavored to view as much of the full cycle of The Clock as possible while it was available at the MFA in Boston in 2011.

So it is high time—for me anyway—to be seduced and enchanted by another video piece. I have found a candidate for that at the ICA in Boston: The Visitors, by Ragnar Kjartansson.

The set up is simple enough. Eight screens each show scruffy, casually attired musicians in different rooms in a massive, “shabby chic” mansion in the Hudson Valley. (Kjartansson himself is in a bathroom, sitting with his guitar in a tub of water.) Wired with headphones, they collaborate together on one song that winds its way through most of the hour-long video.

Like The Clock, The Visitors is an exploration into the mystery and often ineffable way we humans connect and assemble a sense of ourselves. Both of these projects exist in a zone between the narrative and the non-narrative, a zone that allows for something new to emerge.

In his review in the Boston Globe, Sebastian Smee called The Visitors a generational masterpiece, one that “may even be remembered as having helped trigger a change in the climatic conditions of contemporary art.”

Aside from anything else, “The Visitors” is a triumph of tone. Alive to the preposterousness of its premise—a bunch of hipster musicians from Iceland squatting in a grand home on the Hudson…in order to perform a repetitive, rather unremarkable song—it somehow transforms latent irony into sincere and open-hearted expression…

It presents itself as slackerishly devoid of ambition, but “The Visitors”…actually heaves with a yearning for beauty, an ache for love. The ache is powered, of course, by nostalgia, but also by an urgent, aesthetic desire to throw off something felt as too much in the way of today’s artists: the burden of intellect.

In a setting that is not so much dissonant as ill-fitting—suggestive of an artistic inheritance so grand it can only be awkward—it posits the possibility of an escape from the cul-de-sac of too much history, too much civilization—and not least, too much critical thinking. It posits the possibility of a foray into true feeling.

I would recommend investing the time to watch this entire experience unfold. The last scene is masterfully poignant, and it achieves its finality without dropping into the manipulative or artificed.* That image—and the aura of the entire The Visitors experience—is now mine to revisit over and over again.

The Visitors is on display at the ICA through November 2.

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*I just want to make this point: Artifice is an essential element of any artifact—be it a painting or a video—but it is in the gradations and subtleties that we are transported past that barrier of the craftedness of a work and into experiences that feel real and authentic. That is an issue I believe a maker confronts every day, with every work.

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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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