Ford Crull on Paul Klee, The Magician

paul-klee-flower-mythPaul Klee, Flower Myth, 1918, Watercolor on pastel foundation on fabric and newsprint
mounted on board, 12 x 6.875 inches

For me the truly amazing thing about Paul Klee was his incredible ability, constantly, to search out new pictorial ideas and yet simultaneously to create a unique, individual expression – and to work on these many ideas at the same time. I don’t believe there has ever been an artist so incredibly diverse in their total oeuvre. This was not limited to just his imagery, but also included his willingness to try a myriad of unusual techniques to achieve his enchanting pictorial stories.

As early as junior high school I fell in love with the magical quality of Klee’s paintings. Works such as Dance you Monster to my Soft Song! (1922), and The Twittering Machine (1922), betray an imagination that knew no bounds. At first glance, there exists an almost childlike innocence in the imagery, but the remarkable structure, technique, and sophisticated drawing exemplify an artistic intelligence that foresaw so much of what was to come.

His working methods fascinated me. It drove me nuts trying to figure out that “ink transfer” technique. I tried everything I could and read everything I could about how he did it. My attempts just didn’t look right. I gave up trying to copy him, but I still wanted to understand my obsession with these works.

This was the moment of the Bauhaus, where visionaries such as Gropius, Kandinsky, and Moholy-Nagy were fashioning futuristic work that is still not only relevant but imitated by many and unsurpassed in ingenuity. I defy anyone to deny that Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, if newly created today, would be at the forefront of invention.

I was always fascinated by how Klee could jump between so many so-called “styles”, all at the same time. His works anticipated so many -isms and artists to come. I can’t help assuming that Keith Haring drew his mature style from such works as Intention (1938). Many of his paintings predate the movements they speak to, such as Drummer (1940) and its relationship to Abstract Expressionism, and Ancient Sound to Color Field and Pop Art. His important lecture at Jena in 1924 contains the basic theories of most of the art of the 20th century. The well-known Pedagogical sketchbook, published at the Bauhaus, was also fundamental in establishing the terms of the new styles of art that were forming.

Yet it was the sense of his incredible inner life that was so clearly enunciated in the work. He had no limits as to where his imagination could go. From Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: “Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century matched Klee’s subtlety as he deftly created a world of ambiguity and understatement that draws each viewer into finding a unique interpretation of the work.”

For myself, I was fascinated by his use of symbols and numbers to portray a dream-like quality. Paintings such as Flower Myth and Vocal Fabric of the Singer Rosa Silber resonated strongly with me as my aesthetic identity developed. Whether a blessing or a curse, I found later in life that my obsession with numbers and symbols had a name: synesthesia. I have often wondered if he was also bound to its dictates. Letters and numbers always had specific genders, personalities, colors, and emotions for me and Klee’s work unconsciously translated this sensibility.

Introspection, meditation, and experiment. These traits defined and allowed Paul Klee to become a transcendent and significant artist not only of his time but with a relevance that is absolutely timeless.

All That Matters  (2)Ford Crull, All That Matters, Oil and wax on canvas, 48 x 36 inches
First piece Ford made after Sept 11 2001

Lauren Britton on Edvard Munch

edvard_munch_the_sun_2_0-628x500Edvard Much, The Sun, 1910, Oil on canvas, 64 x 81 inches

I’d never seen a Munch in person before I went to visit the Munch Museum in Norway this past September. Walking its halls, I saw many of Munch’s famous works: The Scream, Yellow Logs, Anxiety… I have found that when I see paintings too many times in print or online before seeing them in person I am not as dazzled as I thought I would be. The real reward in going to museums, for me, is finding works I’ve never seen before—I’m still young enough that this happens frequently. And then, when I return to the museum later, it’s like going to visit old friends, their familiar faces teaching me more each time. So seeing The Scream, because of our digital acquaintance, didn’t do for me what The Sun did.

When I first saw The Sun, my feelings were something between shock and adoration. The Sun is not really a painting about the sunrise but about the body and the relationship of paint to Munch’s psyche. Its symmetry mirrors the symmetry of my body, and of Munch’s. Standing directly in front of this painting, the sun greets me, mirroring the position of my head. The tongue-like shape that stretches down from the central sun aligns with my own tongue. I realize the painting is sticking its tongue out at me, and I’m laughing.

The sun shines on me, from left temple to right temple, and makes my eyes squint; it’s bright in here. The dashed marks that skip outwards from the sun spread out around my head like a halo, crowning me in light. This painting has its own source of energy and light—the sun warms its viewer as well as the cool purple mountains along the bottom of the painting that cup its energy.

Munch painted and re-painted this piece throughout his career on different surfaces. The Sun was a reliable painting. Munch could enter and re-enter it, tumble and turn with it. He threw himself into the sun like a boomerang and it shot him out somewhere new each time. This was his proving ground.

In this version, the risen sun shatters those purple mountains. The light that skips across the surface of the ‘landscape’ forces the painting to separate into two distinct realities: the radiant energy of the sun on top and the cold brittle shards of the land below. The land is in direct relationship with that sun, the rays of light that radiate outwards touch each hill and valley, changing their color—red, yellow, orange, purple—as they refract across the mountain’s peaks and valleys, rushing towards the edge of the painting. The looser brushwork that describes the green and yellow flowers, which dance in the bottom right quadrant, acts differently. In a painting that is based around the circle and the spokes of light that spin out from its middle, this bouquet of greenish color unravels that logic and leaves me with something to mull over. I recover my balance in the museum hall, head still spinning and vision dappled in sunspots.

The sun is the anxiety that Munch lived with. This 1910 version of The Sun was painted shortly after a stay in a psychiatric clinic where Munch was treated with the then-popular ‘electrification’ treatment. This sunburst, this light bulb, this seeing within and without, feels like a re-birth for Munch. The shock-therapy sun illuminates a celebratory shift in him from his previous physicality and way of looking at the world to a new way, in mood and color, paintbrush in hand. This is a visionary painting.

Lauren Britton_Sunrise over our Bed_November 2014Lauren Britton, Sunrise Over Our Bed, Acrylic & Flasche on Canvas, 54 x 125 inches, 2014


Brenda Goodman on The Guston Curse

Philip Guston Painting, Eating, Smoking  1973  oil on canvas  77.5x103.5Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating, 1973, Oil on Canvas, 77.5 x 103.5 inches

In the early 70’s, I was working with a set of personal symbols that represented myself, my emotions, and important people in my life. Sometimes, a drawing would even include notes to myself and a record of important dates. So, my work was quite personal and diaristic — a direct expression of my most inner thoughts and feelings. But sometimes, an intruder would come into my world. It might happen like this: I would be painting myself lying on the floor of my studio with the things in my life heaped on top of me. It was very personal and meaningful. But suddenly- Oh no! There’s a light bulb and cord hanging down. Oh no! I’m lying on my back. Is it too much like the Guston painting of him in bed with a plate of French fries on top of him? OK, I knew I loved Guston’s paintings—they spoke to me. But it’s my story, my experience, my images. Still, I couldn’t get away from it—theres something about Guston.

It never goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t show up much; sometimes it shows up a lot; and sometimes, in happier moments, it’s not there at all. Yes, it’s The Guston Curse. You know what I’m talking about.

It wasn’t just the symbols. For a very long time I have painted blocks of color piled on top of each other. The color was not Guston, the shapes were mostly not Guston, and the paint handling was certainly not Guston but people still had to say–“Oh I see Guston in there.” It was my DNA coming out, not his, but when you resonate with an artist the connection is there. I used to be more defensive about it. As soon as a studio visitor would say “Guston,” I would say- “if I was older and Guston was younger they would say his work looks like a Goodman!” I don’t do that anymore. If it comes up I just say thank you.

Once, when I was going through the torture of giving up smoking, I did a painting of me smoking. Someone came into my studio and said, “You can’t do that- Guston already did that!” Very few artists can use red, black and white anymore without a reference to Guston no matter how different the work is. Another time I was going through a lot of anxiety about the telephone and waiting for special calls. I did some telephone pieces and then one day I was looking at a book of still lifes by different artists and lo and behold there is a Guston painting with the same black telephone called Anxiety. Grrr!

David McKee, who represented Guston, came to my studio in the early 80’s. I was doing a series of symbolic boats with my whole life packed into the boat shape. I was ready to give up the symbols and journey to a new place. He looked at the paintings and said the hair on his arms stood up. He said Guston did a series of boat paintings that had never been seen but, emotionally and compositionally, my boats had a similar feeling. Maybe a year later I was at his gallery and asked if I could see an image of one of those boat paintings. It took me aback.

If you have an affinity with an artist, it’s just that- an affinity. And it’s a good thing if you allow it. Guston had influences too!—DeChirico, R. Crumb, and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics. And I’m an artist who has had a lot of influences–from Morandi to Dubuffet with many in between. But Guston – he has a special hold on me. The Guston connection isn’t pronounced anymore but even last week I was working on a painting with a sideways abstracted head with its nose to the ground. In the back of my mind a Guston painting popped in of a head to the ground. I ran to my Guston books and found the painting. Whew! There was very little connection that others might see, and I was relieved. No matter how different my work has become, I still find The Guston Curse to be a reality many of us painters have to cope with.

Several years ago, Musa, Guston’s daughter, invited me to his home/studio in Woodstock. I was thrilled to be sitting in his space. She opened a cabinet and in it were about 200 small tubes of Grumbacher cadmium red medium. She said I should take what I like. Being polite, I took just one. When I got home I thought I should have taken another one – one to save and one to paint with. But, oh! I forgot….I can’t use that red—especially one owned by Guston – then it might REALLY look like a Guston! Ah, The Guston Curse.

5-not-a-leg-to-stand-on-1 2Brenda Goodman, Not a Leg to Stand On, 2013, Oil on Wood, 72 x 80 inches


Doron Langberg on Jess

0624200510580004Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins), The Enamored Mage: Tranlation #6, 1962, Oil on canvas mounted on plywood, 24 1/2 x 30 inches

When I saw “The Enamored Mage” in person I was completely transfixed. Painted with heavy impasto, the protrusions of paint gush out of the surface, some following the image, some swelling under it. Slightly deflated and glossy, the shapes of color look simultaneously decomposed and bejeweled, like a Technicolor fungus growing out of the intricate netting of incised lines. Looking at the painting, my first thought was how was this made? For a painting so physical, there is no trace of brush marks or even layering of paint. The longer I tried to decode Jess’s process, the more I became mystified by it.

This painting is part of the “Translations” series of 32 paintings, all dedicated to the Sun.  Each painting is a meticulous interpretation of a single image, pulled from Jess’s huge archive of magazines, children’s books, comic strips, found photographs and photographs from his personal family album. “The Enamored Mage” is based off of a photo of Jess’s partner, the poet Robert Duncan. This reference photo is the only one in the Translations series that Jess took himself, and depicts Duncan in their home amidst his books.

In the painting, the theme of Sun and light is hinted at by the two burning candles, the Tiffany lamp, the window in the background and the “Zohar” books, which means ‘glow’ in Hebrew. Although usually faithful to the tonal structure of the reference photo, this time Jess made some interventions- he added flames to the two candles, which strangely do not emit light, and toned down the light that was hitting the books. In doing so, Jess made Duncan’s portrait seem to illuminate the room, reflecting on the edge of the desk below him like a celestial body rising over a lake.

Duncan is not only the subject and light source of the painting. His poem “The Ballad of the Enamored Mage” is referenced in the painting’s enigmatic title. The last few lines of the first verse of the poem read:

How all Forms in Time will grow
And return to their single Source
Informed by Grief, Joy, insatiable Desire
And cold Remorse

By invoking Ecclesiastes’ “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return,” Duncan meditates on the bond between material and spirit. This belief that material, whether pigment or images, holds within it emotional meaning was essential to Jess’s practice. Jess saw his paintings as “salvages”. By painting the otherwise forgotten images he appropriated, he continued their life cycle, imbuing them with his own thoughts, experiences and feelings.

Through painstaking care, the intense and inexplicable surface of “The Enamored Mage” comes to embody Jess’s love for Duncan. This painting is a tribute to their relationship, their shared passions and the home they made for themselves. But ironically the ‘light’ of Jess and Duncan’s love had to exist behind closed doors. Homosexuality would remain criminal in California for more than a decade after this painting was made. Maybe Jess’s obsession with the Sun was an expression of his desire to live his life out in the open. Or rather, maybe painting “The Enamored Mage” was his way of bringing the Sun into his home, in the form of his beloved Duncan.

*Biographical information taken from- Michael Auping, “Jess: A Grand Collage”

Drifting OffDoron Langberg, Drifting Off, 2014, Oil on linen, 70 x 55 inches

Carolee Schneemann on Arthur B. Carles

Carles AbstractionArthur B. Carles,  Abstraction, 1935-40, Oil on canvas, 38 1/2 x 51 inches

How did I manage to get to the great museum on the parkway, perched like a castle above the two rivers? Did the Reading Railroad stop at Market Street, or was it 30th Street? In any case, I could walk along the parkway, finding the elongated steps to the museum cluttered with seductive people playing guitars, reading poetry, smoking French cigarettes, always welcoming.

I would slip into the great halls, wandering through the amazing spaces where an Egyptian shrine would be next to a Medieval bedroom. There I could rub my hands along the sides of an ancient wooden bed before entering a room of sculptures and fetishes from Africa.

I wandered freely, the rooms seemed shadowed, full of subtle, shifting light. My anonymous voyage within sculptures, paintings, vases, tapestries shifted suddenly one day when I followed a staircase down to modern classrooms. I was following an intoxicating aroma. I have tried at many contemporary events to offer this enchantment. It filled me with an ecstatic excitement and I followed it to an open door. There I stood fascinated to see a group of people at easels all giving their attention to a still life of transparent glass bottles and piles of oranges and bananas. They were oil painting! My elixir was turpentine!

The teacher came to the open door and asked if I would like to come in. He set up an easel with a tablet and put out drawing pencils. I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe I had entered this sacred arcana. It was all I could desire and hope for. The teacher’s name was “Blackie,” Morris Blackburn. He invited me to come back whenever I could. One Saturday I managed to travel again. I followed the stairs back down to the painting class. The teacher asked us to come around and stand in a circle. He was holding a brown paper lunch bag. He tore the paper bag into many small pieces, which shifted between his hands and then he threw them on to the floor in front of us. And then he asked, “What is the purpose of these torn up paper pieces?” The adults looked perplexed. I actually raised my hand and said, “Is it to show the rhythm between all the pieces?” Blackie grinned with delight. He said, “Yes, this is gestalt.”

I saved babysitting money and took the train to the museum whenever I could escape from home. No one bothered a kid in knee socks and ballet slippers with a small rucksack. I discovered gallery after gallery of paintings, dazzled by impressionists, abstractionists, and –because the year was 1954 — the influences of European abstraction and American expressionism were raw. I fell in love with the paintings of Arthur B. Carles.

Over time, Carles sustained my initial excitement, then indeed he uniquely bridged traditional convention and the aesthetic dynamics that would be celebrated in the 60s and 70s. His near-disappearance from aesthetic history and discussion has always pained me. I felt I was alone within this visual realm of exquisite painting — vigorous, risky, luscious, and always enlarging a concept of gestalt.

1961 TenebrationCarolee Schneemann, Tenebration, 1961Painting collage, Oil on canvas, 52.5 x 46 inches
Dedicated to James Tenney


Ellen Harvey on Rogier Van der Weyden

Weyden010Rogier Van der Weyden, Last Judgement, c. 1445–1450, Oil on oak, 87 x 216 inches

This rather battered old reproduction hangs in my studio. I’ve owned it since I was five, which is when I first and last saw the original. This is the painting that made me want to be an artist.

The painting is Rogier Van der Weyden’s Last Judgment, also sometimes known as the Beaune Altarpiece. According to Wikipedia, he was commissioned to paint it in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his newly founded Hospices de Beaune. After it was finished around 1450, it was hung in the hospital, with beds for those too sick to walk (and presumably most in need of contemplating their spiritual fate) placed directly in front of the painting.

Like many altarpieces, the painting can be folded shut. When open it’s over 7 feet tall by about 18 ft wide. The outside shutters show the donors, Rolin and his wife Guigone de Salins, and grisaille scenes of the Annunciation and of Saint Anthony (good for skin diseases) and Saint Sebastian (good against the plague). The inside of the painting, which would only have been shown on special occasions, shows the risen wounded Christ surrounded by angels bearing the instruments of his passion, seated on a rainbow. Below him, the Archangel Michael weighs the souls of the dead. The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and the twelve apostles accompanied by portraits of three women, a king, bishop, a pope, and a monk sit on fiery clouds on either side. The dead, who rise up out of the ground at Michael’s feet, are weighed and then progress either towards heaven on the left side of the panel, depicted as a golden Gothic church, or on the right towards the fiery pit of hell, weeping and tearing at their hair and flesh.

We were living in Germany at the time and were on holiday in France. I remember nothing of that trip apart from this painting. I recall begging to be allowed to stay with it at the hospital and being left behind with an accommodating priest. Unlikely as it sounds, it’s apparently an accurate memory. I can’t remember actually seeing the painting, just that it was impossibly large, frightening, detailed and glamorous. It swallowed me up. I didn’t just want to own it. I wanted to live inside it. I wanted to make something just like it.

I’ve often wondered what it was about this painting that so captivated me. In part, there’s the sheer visual spectacle of the piece: the gold, Michael’s peacock wings, the sense that you could simply step into this other richly detailed world where everything is burning and glittering forever. I remember particularly loving the red hot sword that floats at Christ’s left hand. The sheer labor and size of the painting also impresses – the fact that Van der Weyden took such trouble, such care to make this immersive experience just for you. It makes you feel how important the subject is. And what a subject! Who can resist the high drama of the Day of Judgment, that final moment of narrative collapse? I feel an immense sympathy with the desire for immortality and what I fear is a prophetic sense of fellow-feeling for the damned who (interestingly enough) far outnumber the saved in Van der Weyden’s vision. It’s also sad – it’s a kind of painting that just can’t exist any more. The apocalypse now only really exists in the movies. Even if you could paint like Van der Weyden it wouldn’t work. No painting or installation of mine, no matter how large or beautiful will ever move the dying to repentance or save a soul. I look at this painting and know that I will forever fall short.

I’ve never been back to Beaune. I think I’m afraid to.

CompositesmallcroppedflatEllen Harvey, The Unloved (all four panels), 2014, Oil on four wood panels, inlaid plexiglas mirror, together 9 x 70 feet, Photo by Dominique Prevost

unnamedThe Unloved (detail)

Austin Furtak-Cole on Duccio di Buoninsegna

tumblr_mpm7lgFOGp1rqcv5do1_1280 (1)Duccio di Buoninsegna, Rucellai Madonna, 1285, Tempera on panel, 177 x 114 inches

I was introduced to this painting in an undergraduate art history survey class and didn’t think much of it. My young self was unable to get excited about an awkward religious painting in a three by four inch reproduction in the fourth edition of a Stockstad art history book.

After college, I saw it in person for the first time. I traveled around Europe for three months with the soft goal to see, in the flesh, as many of the reproductions from that art history book as possible. I remember seeing this Duccio at the Uffizi then, but like a lot of the work I saw on that trip, I simply checked it off the list – I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how to spend time with it.

In summer 2013, I went back to the Uffizi. The first room I walked into had three epic mother and child paintings by Cimmabue, Giotto, and Duccio. This time the Duccio hit me. Its presence rooted me to the floor. There are times when a painting stops the world around me for a moment and all I can do is stare back in wonder at this thing that holds me. How could he make such a thing? I can’t imagine making that painting. I can’t imagine being in the mind of Duccio as he makes this immaculate thing – to have faith, to be enthralled by a religion and its icons and then to paint, immortalize them, giving the people who believe a little something to grasp onto beyond their faith.

Our time allows less of that. Or at least in my experience there is less to have faith in, to grasp, and to believe. Or maybe it’s more that there is choice, or the illusion of choice. The structures that help us feel human and make us feel like we have purpose have changed over time, perhaps giving more responsibility to the individual to decide how they find purpose.

Recently, in making my work, I’ve felt my own presence. The paintings hold me; my insides can flutter at those moments. I am present in making the painting and thus the painting gains presence. I imbue them with meaning as I give them my touch. Or at least I’d like to think so.

detailRucellai Madonna (Detail)

Her hands are my favorite part of the Rucellai Madonna. They are alien, otherworldly. I am familiar with them, I know they are hands, but they confuse me. It intensifies what they symbolize. Her head is like this too, as if a ripe, full moon were rising under the hood of her robe; her face at that strange angle, staring back at us with a gentle awareness. The roundness of her head draws attention to her halo. Every figure in this painting has a halo. The angels are kneeling. The angels are in awe! Think of the gravity of that. Their gold-feathered wings tucked.

But those hands, Mary’s hands, they are tender. Warmhearted. They hold baby Jesus with the utmost care, with a sensitive touch. Those long tendrils love.

Although the memory of that painting remained when I left the Uffizi, I wanted a token to remember it by, a post card or print. I purchased one but felt unsatisfied. Nothing came close to reproducing the incredible deep blue of her robe.

SONY DSCAustin Furtak-Cole,  Lover,  2013, Oil on Panel, 16 x 16 inches