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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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“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.

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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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Jay Heikes, Ear of Dionysius, Collection Walker Art Center

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will be mounting a show of paintings in February, their first group painting show in 10 years. Titled Painter Painter, the exhibit has been co-curated by Bartholomew Ryan and Eric Crosby. I was intrigued—and heartened—by their selection process, their view of the state of painting, and the easy informality of their approach. Here are a few passages from each of them, chosen because they rang true for me:

Ryan:

Painting has always been a somewhat fraught medium, and particularly so over the last 30 to 40 years. Both Eric and I avoided bringing the more trenchant dogmas associated with it into our conversations with the artists. We wanted to be more attentive to the work on its own terms and try to figure things out from there. So our earliest questions were really simple, for instance: why choose the materials of painting today, at a time when artists can work in so many other ways?

We were also interested in a question related to some of the work being made now, which one often hears from older generations of curators, historians, and even artists, which is “Where is the criticality?” There is a certain expectation today that if a painter is to continue as a painter, there has to be some basic level of self-reflexivity, some wry acknowledgment of the problematic status of continuing to paint in a postmodern era, when painting itself has been toppled from its lofty perch. I think that’s been a good thing up to a point, but it has become deadening and knee-jerk. Many of the artists in our show have consciously sidestepped that way of framing their work, and they find more interesting things to think about.

Crosby:

There’s also something about the resolute materiality of painting that continues to attract artists. These are objects that follow deeply subjective and individual ways of thinking, as expressed through specific materials. In this show you will see works that are stained, collaged, sprayed, cut up, stitched, assembled, glued, smeared, rubbed, and so on— some works are years in the making. Painting offers a frame for contact with this very physical presence. It’s a vivid contrast with our daily routine, where we experience so many images by using a cursor, linking to them, altering them, navigating away from them. Painting resists this kind of experience. A lot of artists today embrace that notion to an extreme. They go where the materials take them, not where the history of painting tells them to go.

The Walker exhibition features Matt Connors, Sarah Crowner, Fergus Feehily, Jay Heikes, Rosy Keyser, Charles Mayton, Dianna Molzan, Joseph Montgomery, Katy Moran, Alex Olson, Scott Olson, Zak Prekop, Dominik Sittig, Lesley Vance, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung.

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Charles Burchfield, “Moon and Thunderhead”

There are many craftsmen who paint pleasantly the surface appearances and are very clever at it.

There are always a few who get at and feel the undercurrent, and these simply use the surface appearances selecting them and using them as tools to express the undercurrent, the real life.

If I cannot feel an undercurrent then I can only see a series of things. They may be attractive and novel at first but soon grow tiresome.

There is an undercurrent, the real life, beneath all appearances everywhere. I do not say that any master has fully comprehended it at any time, but the value of his (or her) work is in that he had sensed it and his work reports the measure of his experience.

It is this sense of the persistent life force back of things which makes the eye see and the hand move in ways that result in true masterpieces. Techniques are thus created as a need.

–Robert Henri

This is such a simple idea but one that feels so close to my sense of how things are in the studio. It is a metaphor that applies to both the making as well as the viewing of art.

It was my sense of just that—a powerful undercurrent—that knocked me out when I saw Robert Gober‘s brilliant show* of Charles Burchfield‘s work that was on view a few years ago at the Hammer Museum in LA as well as the Whitney in New York. Gober’s selection of work made it so easy to enter into Burchfield’s paintings in a new and revelatory way, something I had never done before. Burchfield was a nature mystic, and he felt the life force in nature. Amazingly he also found a way to capture that undercurrent in his work. Since piercing through and into that sense of things, I cannot approach a Burchfield painting without feeling that energy. Some are better than others of course, but that undercurrent is so present and so there in his work.

(For those of you in the Boston area, I just discovered three new Burchfields. They are hanging unassumedly in rooms adjacent to the Addison Museum at Philips Academy in Andover. Just ask to see them.)

A note on Robert Henri: His book from which the above passage is taken, The Art Spirit, was foundational reading for me when I first became an artist. Henri is probably better known today from that collection of his teachings—assembled by a former student, Margery Ryerson—than from his paintings although many of his works are very memorable. He also left an extraordinary legacy as a teacher. (He taught at the Art Students League, still an ongoing institution in New York, from 1915 til 1927.) Some of his more famous students include George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

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*The catalog for the Burchfield show is excellent: Heat Waves in a Swamp.

Other posts on Charles Burchfield on Slow Muse:

Burchfield on my Mind

The Artist Curator Advantage

The Intuition Deliminator

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Saville Wisdom

Jenny Saville in her Oxford studio
Jenny Saville, photographed in her Oxford studio, June 2012. (Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer)

Some memorable quotes about Jenny Saville from an article in the Guardian last year, Jenny Saville: ‘I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies’:

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Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I’m painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you’re making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn’t operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, you can’t unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock.”

She hesitates. “I’m not anti conceptual art. I don’t think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that’s like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There’s something primal about it. It’s innate, the need to make marks. That’s why, when you’re a child, you scribble.”

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Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). “When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look.”

She sees my face. “It wasn’t weird at the time! It’s only weird when I tell other people. I’m so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn’t just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o’clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn’t something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist.

Once again I feel a commonality with Saville. Our work is very different, but our views often overlap.

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Jenny Saville:

Truth, Lies and Dodges

Subservient to Painting…More on Saville

Jenny Saville in Boston

Schjeldahl on Global Feminism

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I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.

But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.

Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:

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One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.

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Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.

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Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.

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Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.

I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.

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It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)

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Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.

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The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.

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Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?

The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.

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I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.

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It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.

And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.

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[Note: Recently I went in search of a particular post on Slow Muse from several years ago. In the process I found so many others that dealt with topics that are still, all these years later, speaking to me. So I have decided to start a recycling series. From time to time I'll share content that is still bouncing around in me, still offering its own kind of inspiration. This first one originally appeared in January 2007.]

From Agnes Martin:

My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork which is also wordless and silent.


Agnes Martin, portrait by Charles R. Rushton

Martin also talks about how she first began using the grid in her work:

When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.


The Tree, by Agnes Martin

Martin’s work exudes a quiet humility and a transcendent, uncomplicated purity. The power that exists in her paintings is tangible yet rarefied. When the Whitney Museum mounted a Martin retrospective a few years ago, it ran concurrently with a show of work by Basquiat. People in his exhibit were engaged in lively discussions of Basquiat’s larger-than-life iconography and wild-handed expressionism. Two flights down, in the Martin exhibit, there was no gaggling or chatter. People wandering in fell silent as if on cue, respectful of the sepulchral reverence that had been created by her subtle and evocative work. Sitting “wordless and silent” amid those paintings was full immersion Martin.

I have thought about her line, the innocence of trees, many times. Her equating of the grid with innocence is still an idea that I find poetic and provocative—I don’t speak grid in my own work—but I do feel its fulfillment in the delicate armatures of graphite in her paintings. The large hearted innocence of nature, and of trees, just may be the delicate armatures of our existence. Like her grids, they require close viewing to capture fully. And, like her work, they call for a moment of wordless silence.

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Greek Princess 8, 1976, Courtesy of Estate of Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski, is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. (The show originated at the Kemper Art Museum in Kansas City, travels next to Toledo before opening within reach of my viewing radius—at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington DC in mid-September.)

Some moments in the video below about Jules Olitski are worth calling out. Art historian Karen Wilken is clear and articulate in putting his large scale (“public scale”) works in perspective. There is also a heartwarming clip of Olitski himself speaking in Hartford. Frustrated by the search for meaning some viewers apply to abstraction, he dismisses that line of approach with an analogy to sex—when you are making love, who is asking what does that this mean? I was particularly caught by Olitski’s friend and sculptor Willard Boepple describing how his friend approached art making: How the desperation and the awfulness of a work of art in progress is essential because that desperation leads to discovery and that is where the adventure happens.

Another Olitski confrere reads this insightful quote by G. K. Chesterton word for word:

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.

I love that.

Some of Olitski’s work send me high, like Greek Princess 8 shown above. Others are not as redolent to my eye and spirit. But his descriptions of his approach, his concerns, his way of working—I feel a commonality with those concerns every day in my studio.

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Here are a few shots from last night’s opening for Inquire/Acquire* at the Bannister Gallery. Kudos to curator James Montford for bringing cohesion to four very different bodies of work. And thanks to all those who braved the snow in Boston (just as we were beginning to think we’d slide past this winter without any) to drive to Providence. Great evening all ’round.

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Deborah Barlow

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Denyse Wilhelm

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Marcia Goodwin

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Doris Weiner

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*Show info:
Acquire/Inquire
March 1- 29, 2012

Bannister Gallery
Rhode Island College
600 Mt Pleasant Ave
Providence, RI 02908
401-456-9765
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 8pm

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Mark Rothko’s Light Red Over Black © 1998 Kate Rothko

Whitechapel Gallery has played a memorable role in the London visual arts scene since its founding in 1901. It was one of the first publicly-funded galleries and host to Picasso‘s Guernica in 1938 (as part of an exhibit organized by artist Roland Penrose in protest to the Spanish Civil War) and Rothko‘s first show in England in 1961.

A small exhibit at the Whitechapel honors that breakthrough show by Rothko. And to put that show in context, Charles Darwent describes the state of abstraction in England at that time in his review of the show:

Rothko was about to have his first English show, downstairs in the Whitechapel proper; it was organised by the revolutionary curator, Bryan Robertson. Rothko’s work would hit London like a shell. The late painter John Hoyland recalled the show. “We didn’t understand it … how to analyse it,” he said, in an interview days before his death in July. To the English, “abstraction” had meant the not-quite chalk downs of Paul Nash, the stylised boats of Ben Nicholson. Here, though, was something different. Rothko’s show was “engulfing, an awesome vision”: Hoyland “staggered around it”, drunk on the American’s sensuousness.

All this is the subject, 50 years on, of a small but fascinating exhibition at the Whitechapel. There is only one Rothko in the show – the Tate’s Light Red Over Black – and that was not in the 1961 exhibition. This in itself is poignant. It took the Tate until 1959 to acquire its first Rothko: the gallery’s director, Sir John Rothenstein, hated abstract art. The other great art knight, Sir Kenneth Clark, backed Rothenstein’s views. Under their reign, British art remained a backwater, abstraction confined to a small group of oddballs working in a far-off place called St Ives. And then there was Rothko at the Whitechapel.

The photographer Sandra Lousada was just out of her teens in 1961. Her father, a patron of the Tate, told her to go and shoot the show. The results, hung next to Light Red Over Black, evoke a time in English art now scarcely imaginable. Like John Hoyland, visitors to the Whitechapel seem stunned by the images in front of them – uncanny, soft-edged beauties like nothing they have seen before. Other photographs show Rothko on his quasi-mythical visit to Cornwall in the summer of 1959: one has him sitting in a garden, drinking tea. All the other men – Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost – are wearing trawlerman’s jumpers; Rothko is in a suit and tie. He looks like a fish out of water, which is how some critics saw him.

Under the headline, “Clarity begins at home”, the reviewer of Time and Tide found Rothko’s pictures “spiritually enervating”. “Like the beauty of some women,” he said, “their beauty is quite meaningless.”

Happily, most local writers got Rothko as quickly as local painters did. Alan Bowness, future director of the Tate, found the American “immediately sympathetic to the English taste”, and the feeling was mutual. Also on show are letters from Rothko to various English correspondents. In one, he professes himself so moved by Shakespeare and Dickens that he felt “they must really have been Russian Jews who emigrated to New York”. Who’d have thought? Don’t miss this exhibition.

While this small exhibit only includes one Rothko painting (borrowed from the Tate collection), the correspondence and photographs documenting that event held me in the gallery for a long time. Rothko’s hand typed, faded letters are firm, demanding, clear. The transaction that resulted in the Tate acquiring the Seagram paintings originally created for a restaurant space in New York was conducted just months before Rothko’s suicide. Reading the exchange was poignant and sobering.

Here’s a flavor of Rothko’s level of involvement in how his work should be seen, hung and experienced. The following transcription utterly fascinated me.

SUGGESTIONS FROM MR. MARK ROTHKO REGARDING INSTALLATION OF HIS PAINTINGS

Wall color:
Walls should be made considerably off-white with umber and warmed by a little red. If the walls are too white, they are always fighting against the pictures which turn greenish because of the predominance of red in the pictures.

Lighting:
The light, whether natural or artificial, should not be too strong; the pictures have their own inner light and if there is too much light, the color in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs. The ideal situation would be to hang them in a normally lit room—that is the way they were painted. They should not be over-lit or romanticized by spots; this results in a distortion of their meaning. They should either be lighted from a great distance or indirectly by casting lights at the ceiling or the floor. Above all, the entire picture should be evenly lighted and not strongly.

Hanging height from the floor:
The larger pictures should all be hung as close to the floor as possible, ideally not more than six inches above it. In the case of the small pictures, they should be somewhat raised but not “skied” (never hung towards the ceiling). Again this is the way the pictures were painted. If this is not observed, the proportions of the rectangles became distorted and the picture changes.

The exception to this are the pictures which are enumerated below which were painted as murals actually to be hung at a great height. These are:

1. Sketch for Mural, No. 1, 1958
2. 2. Mural Sections 2,3,4,5, and 7, 1958-9
3. White and Black on Wine, 1958

The murals were painted at a height of 4’6” above the floor. If it is not possible to raise them to that extent, any raising above three feet would contribute to their advantage and original effect.

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