Tony Robbin on the Painter of Pech Merle

cavePech Merle Cave, 25,000 BCE, Village of de Cabrerets, Lot county, France

25,000 years ago an artist who looked a lot like you and me (except without the haircut and the Uniqlo clothes) climbed down 150 feet below the surface of what is now called France, wending through phantasmagorical rock formations, to paint pictures of horses on the walls of a cave. Since their discovery in 1922, those remarkable paintings have been studied by anthropologists and scientists, but the sophistication of their artistry is rarely mentioned because few if any artists have written about them. I saw these paintings–the real things, not reconstructions– in the spring of 2015.

A controversy is raging about whether or not the spots on the horses are to be thought of as representational. In 2011, a team of evolutionary geneticists offered proof that 14,000 years ago horses had genes for “leopard spotting.” The artist of Pech Merle, then, was painting what he or she saw. Barbara Olins Alpert, in her article for the open access journal arts, rebuts that claim by giving examples in contemporaneous art of horses and other animals where it is clear that the spots are not representational – are placed in the area between animals, or are arbitrarily placed on animals that never had spots. She attributes the spots to the “visual voltage” of seeing dots, especially in flickering torch light. The debate is important for how we might tease out the motivations of the artist: was the painter making art, or was the painter making magic?

My contention is that the artist was making art, by using conventions familiar to artists today to represent figures in space. The dots on the back of the depicted horse are bigger than the dots under its belly, as though they were foreshortened. The mane does not hang straight down, but curves as though rounding the horse’s shoulder. Horses overlap to represent a grouping. These are not only matters of close observation, but are also sophisticated techniques to depict volume in a two-dimensional image. And as is often pointed out, the artist used the physical features of the wall itself to further the illusions : the jagged edge of the rock is the profile of a horse’s head, and the shoulder of that horse is a bump on the wall.

As painter Cynthia Carlson remarked to me, some edge lines of this artist’s work are “contours,” in that they are relatively sharp, as over the horse’s rump; but some are feathered out, as over the back, describing a flatter surface, one perpendicular to the viewer. Further, she noted that the artist had the technology to make crisp outlines as shown in the hand silhouettes. It is widely surmised that the artist spit pigment using the hand as a mask for the spray: by varying the angle of the hand, the spray makes a hard or soft line. This variety of line suggests conscious picture making more than a trance-induced instinctive action.

While it is dangerous to project our consciousness onto distant events, there are effective artistic conventions that have been used repeatedly over millennia, and it is imaginable that the Pech Merle artist used these conventions too, just like we do. It is also imaginable that, because those Cro-Magnon people were anatomically built like us (homo sapiens sapiens), they had language, they lived in social groups like we do and they made images to which we can emotionally bond. The reward for such a thought– the thrill of it– is to remember that artistic representation is fundamental to human consciousness– it goes way beyond art world fashon or ego: there is an imperative to make art that we are part of.

drawingTony Robbin, 1963, Pencil and ink on paper

Adam Cvijanovic on Thomas Cole

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 2.46.53 PMThomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State, 1834,  Oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 63 ½ inches
Collection of The New-York Historical Society

He was not a particularly remarkable painter. There is no dazzling brushstroke or consummate gesture. They are paintings that get the job done and punch the clock. But Thomas Cole is arguably where American art begins.

Born in England in 1801 Cole came to Ohio with his parents when it was still the frontier. He cut his teeth as a third string itinerant portrait painter wandering the raw mid-west. It was only when he came to New York in his mid twenties that he began painting the landscapes that became a part of art history.

Cole was one of the founding members of the Hudson River School, the first true movement in American art. Though native, it was a movement that had its reflection in Europe: in Romanticism and a search for the sublime, which had great realization in the works of J.W. Turner and John Constable in his native England, Caspar David Friedrich in Germany and the School of Fontainebleau in France. But in Europe Romanticism gave way to the great 19th century battles of the Impressionists and the Proto-Modernists. In the United States it coupled with a sort of deadpan Realism, a need to document the tectonic shift from wilderness to industry; it acquired an urgency that resonated deeply and carried farther into the conscience and self-definition of the young nation.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 2.46.41 PMThomas Cole, The Arcadia or Pastoral State, 1834, Oil on canvas, 39 ½ x 63 ½ inches

Cole’s paintings are a fascinating and curiously American hybrid of observational realism, romantic interpretation, ethical narrative, Christian allegory, nostalgic sentimentality and futurist fantasy. From the strands intermingled in Cole’s paintings come a truly heterogeneous crosscut of things to come. Everything from the stoic wilderness narratives of Winslow Homer all the way to the heroic monumentality of Robert Smithson and Richard Serra. Back again to the tourist-friendly landscapes churned out in Santa Fe and the magical mall paintings of Thomas Kincaid. There are even echoes that reach into mediums that were beyond comprehension when Cole was alive, the big canvas narratives of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas, and the extraordinary neo-romantic environments of contemporary gaming.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 2.47.12 PMThomas Cole, The Consummation of Empire, 1836, Oil on canvas, 51 × 76 inches

In his great narrative cycle ‘The Course of Empire’ at the New York historical society, all those progeny are in there, lurking in his shot across the bow of an adolescent America. A set of five, same-size canvases, titled from left to right as hung: ‘The Savage State,’ ‘The Arcadian State,’ ‘The Consummation of Empire,’ ‘Destruction,’ and ‘Desolation.’ Together they describe an imaginary landscape through its transition from a ‘wild’ environment into an idyllic countryside, then to a great seat of imperial power and finally to decadence, decline and ruin. The landscape itself is an amalgam of the Hudson River Valley and The Lake District in England. The architecture of narration starts out with Native American wigwams, moves on to Stonehenge and winds up with a long, oversized riff on the Rome of the Caesars. They are the kind of paintings you can read like a novel. And what a novel: these paintings were made in the mid eighteen-thirties, for an audience that saw themselves as existing somewhere between the Arcadian state and the consummation of empire, the rest of the narrative looming in the future as a vague cautionary tale. Now 180 odd years later we’ve moved up the cycle and the paintings have the chilling effect of looking at a sandglass that has mostly run out. They just sit there by the side of the park, in a museum few people bother with, quietly marking the passage of the great experiment we call home. What’s not to like?

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 2.46.26 PMThomas Cole, Destruction, 1836, Oil on canvas, 39 ½ × 63 ½ inches

Fifteen years ago I started a series of large-scale paintings about the American landscape. The first in this series was a wallpaper mural of Monument Valley. Over the years I took up many variations on the theme, from suburban housing developments to early Hollywood to a fantasy of Los Angeles without gravity. As a representational painter in the 21st century my relation to contemporary art is asymmetric at best but my relation to my forebears is more direct than most of my compatriots. So the many influences on this body of work sit on the surface, like family genes – mother’s eyes and grandfather’s hair – nineteenth century scenic wallpaper, cyclorama painting, Italian renascence frescos. It is bringing these influences into contemporary relevance that, to a great degree, defines its success as an artistic venture. And here the malleable and open-ended work of Thomas Cole is always at the back, holding it together like a spine.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 2.47.24 PMThomas Cole, Desolation, 1836, Oil on canvas, 39 ½ × 63 ½ inches

One of the reasons Cole is so open to reimagining and interpretation is precisely because he is not a great painter. There is something in a flawed but brilliant artist that is like an unfinished sentence: it is a hand-written invitation to fill in the blanks.

And so I have found that I have been drawn in with amused delight to the eccentric and deeply American mashup that is Thomas Cole. To a self-taught itinerant painter who made it his project to describe not only the physicality, but also the emotional and social metaphor of the landscape at the onset of one of the greatest moments of transformation in the existence of this planet– a transformation that is continuing in reality and consequence to this day, and that I as an artist living in the cannon blast of this moment struggle to comprehend and record. The work of Thomas Cole provides me –a fellow traveller somewhat farther down the road—a little help along the way.

unnamed-1Adam Cvijanovic, Discovery of America, 2012, Flash acrylic on Tyvek, 15 x 65 feet

Joan Semmel on Lisa Yuskavage

YUSLI0393-100-600x440Lisa Yuskavage, Outskirts, 2011, Oil on linen, 86 x 120 inches

As an artist I have never wanted to write about art, my own or anyone else’s. I’ve always felt that the art must speak for itself without the embellishment of words. In the hyper art environment and constant propaganda in which we are all now working, the noise surrounding every event makes it almost impossible to really see any art without being influenced by its promotional baggage. How can we utilize the past history of art and the present deluge of images that floods our environment, to create an art that is both meaningful and accessible? Can paint on canvas, and object oriented, essentially contemplative art, have a place in a society of sound bites and multi-tasking? Both painting and figuration have received short shrift in the critical press in the last 20 years, as Performance Art and technology picked up from Conceptualism and Abstraction as the new darlings, seducing the hordes of students entering art schools because they loved to draw and paint. How does art move beyond style and contemporaneity to penetrate the surface of things?

I would like to speculate about some of the issues that I feel have not really been aired much regarding an artist whose  work in some ways coincides with my own, although not very comfortably. I was thrilled when Lisa Yuskavage first entered the discourse, as one who survived  art school seductions at last. But the price of survival was the use of shock, coated in irony. Irony is a double-edged sword. It engages those who hate and those who love, both at the same time, and all can live together in the same bed. The result then is neutrality, or status-quo.  

Yuskavage’s work employs all of the traditional tools of the painter’s art with confidence and élan. Her work will stand up to the scrutiny of the most discerning amongst us. What then is there left to say, except to heap praise upon praise? For many years when writing about any art, critics would concentrate on descriptions– of the color, the line, above all the style of the work– and then came the shift of emphasis to the meaning of the work.  In later years context was the important measure.  So I would like to begin with context.

The English artist Jenny Saville, who uses paint as gesture and surface as well as volume, seems more connected to other English figurative artists such as Lucian Freud; and both of their approaches to painting register as an outgrowth of the distortions of a De Kooning woman and a return to the power of volume within the tradition of contemporary painting. In conceptual and  generational terms they predated Yuskavage in expressing a highly personal way of treating representations of the human form without depending on stylistic novelty for impact.

YUSLI0750-483x600Lisa Yuskavage, Hippies, 2013, Oil on linen, 82 1/4 x 66 1/2 inches

Yuskavage, on the other hand, appeared and was educated at Yale School of Art at the same time as John Currin, and their works were often linked because of the almost cartoonish nature of the way they depicted the figure and their relationship to the appropriation of art history, advertising and pornography . Both adopted approaches that were rooted in the ideas of Warhol and Jeff Koons and featured slick surfaces and super cool emotional resonance. I have to admit that I could never get past what I considered mockery in the works of both–not mockery of their sources, but of their subjects and audience. What then is the difference between irony and mockery? I would posit that Irony has a different bite. It returns us to the source issue that is being criticized. Mockery leaves us with a sneer.

I went to see Yuskavage’s last show at Zwirner Gallery hoping to find a maturation of theme to measure up to her sumptuous color and fluid paint quality. The works on paper, I found, experimented with using descriptive form in a looser way, flooding the whole page with one ground color and then working linear elements into that ground, finding and losing edges. Some of those methods were extended into the paintings, where a monochromatic ground color held all the elements in play. The use of deep space gave a somewhat otherworldly quality to scenic settings in which the narratives were placed, although in some pieces the figures were up tight against the picture plane and seemed to be onlookers to the background activities.

Yuskavage’s preoccupation with doll-like creatures with upturned noses, distended stomachs, nipples pointing in separate directions at the sky, and engaged in Game of Thrones-like narratives is present in most of the paintings. The rounded buttocks, paste-on breasts and occasional bust in the viewer’s eye sometimes make the paintings feel like illustrations for a fantasy publication. The abject child woman, projected in much fashion photography, is exaggerated here to even more extreme ends. The color becomes an environmental envelope, sometimes grisaille, punctuated by several luminous, contrasting elements. The soft focus of disappearing outlines refers to photographic and film sources.  The accompanying literature for the show carefully cites Renaissance references and folkloric narratives as sources for some of the material.

lisa_yuskavage_5_bodyLisa Yuskavage, The Smoker, 2008, oil on linen, 60 x 42 inches

What then are we supposed to make of all this? Are these paintings an attempt to make the viewer uncomfortable or an attempt to seduce us into vicarious pleasure? Are they a way of thumbing one’s nose at all possible pieties? Although the aging male figure in ”Dude of Sorrows” sports a black eye and a collapsed penis, the cute female figures, with their preadolescent bodies engaged in adult sexual provocations seem more seriously damaged psychically. Is her work a form of self-hatred finding voice? Do young women identify with these creatures, or is her work a form of critique that I am missing?  Is Yuskavage simply pandering to the usual art world-savvy audiences?

I think that perhaps there is some of each of these elements involved. I would not presume to speculate on the psychological underpinnings of the artist’s intentions, but I think that self-hatred misses the mark. The artist was groomed in the Yale School of Art MFA Program, a very savvy art school. Her work originally surfaced when Feminism was in a backlash phase. In a culture where women have been infantilized and made to be dependent for so long, the necessity for women to suddenly become independent and responsible can be daunting. Young women’s yearning to regain their lost childhood without losing the sexual freedoms gained in the new independence is perfectly symbolized in Yuskavage’s images. Men have usually found vulnerability and childish innocence enormously appealing sexual attributes; thus these images work their seductive magic on all sexes. She has used perfect timing and strategy to appeal to a wide audience of both the super cool and the somewhat regressive. Now that the culture seems to be entering a new Feminist phase perhaps we can question some of these attitudes and their crippling effects. We need a new Zeitgeist.

Yuskavage’s paintings are aesthetically and technically accomplished but, to me, profoundly disturbing.  Perhaps that, in the end, is their strength.

Out Of Darkness 1977 oc49x67Joan Semmel, Out Of Darkness, 1977, Oil on canvas,  49 x 67 inches

James Siena on Albrecht Dürer (Re-post)

Durer_1497Albrecht Dürer , Self-Portrait, 1498, Oil on wood panel, 20 1/2 x 16 inches

Known primarily for his nearly unparalleled work in engraving and woodcut (and I say unparalleled because it is equal in every way to any painting or drawing), Albrecht Dürer managed to establish a mastery making paintings that, in spite of their relative scarcity, put him at the highest rank of painters, full stop.  It’s no coincidence that this particular self-portrait (the middle one of three he painted in his younger years) sits in the Prado.  We tend to identify the Prado as the repository of the great Spanish painters such as Goya, Velasquez, Zurbaran, El Greco.  But surely the royals who put this collection together were equally zealous about Cranach and Bosch, who are represented by masterworks of the highest quality, and indeed by Dürer, whose small scale portrait practically warps the space around it with its psychedelic, synapse-enhancing power.

Psychedelic means, literally, “mind evident”, and surely this work is as revealing about the psyche of the artist as any other.  What is so significant about this particular painting is that it may be the first true self-portrait, one that examines the mind and the ambition of the young artist.   Painted after his first trip to Italy in 1494-5, the influence of Italian Portraiture is obvious, yet the work is utterly Northern European.  The inclusion of the hands (the hands dressed in the finest deerskin gloves, but more on that later), the architectural setting with a brilliant landscape, which includes farmland, a waterway, and snowy mountains, and the bold stripes of the sleeves and neckline of the jacket, repeated in the soft leather hat with tassels (and repeated again in the braided cord that holds the cape over his left shoulder), are all visual devices of Italian invention. But Dürer, in his execution of the textures and weights of the materials of the clothing, in the finishes on the window frame and walls, in the nearly perfectly rendered and teased out cascading hair, wants to say, yeah, I went to Italy, and I can do this–but I can do it better.  He is saying this not out of arrogance, but out of ambition, and a very healthy ambition at that.  He wants those who see this painting to know how he feels about himself as an artist, and as a person who is to be respected for his vision and his skills.

This goldsmith’s son wants to show his father (among many others) that his life’s work is worthy of respect, and he does this in the most audacious way:  he commissions his own portrait as a gentleman.  Here are his own words, written in 1506 in a letter from Venice:  “How I shall freeze after this Sun!  Here I am a Gentleman, at home only a parasite.”  Look at the finery he clothes himself in, the tunic crested by golden lacework.  The deerskin gloves, a typical sign of status in Nuremberg at the time.  But look, most of all, at the seriousness of his gaze, both haughty and humble, and note the irregularity of his rendering of his own eyes, one leveled at the viewer, just behind the nose, and the other, open a bit wider, and looking just over our own left shoulder.  He’s telling us something; I’m not entirely sure what, probably something about things having two meanings.  This remarkable painting is about a mind manifesting, supremely confident, but it’s also about a mind scrutinizing itself.  This is, after all, what all artists do, to this day.  Dürer was one of the first, and still, one of the best.

The inscription reads:  Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt/Ich war sex und zwanzig jor alt.  (I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old).

Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminus, 29 x 22 3:4 inchesJames Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 29 x 22 3/4 inches, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Angela Dufresne on Gentileschi’s ‘Beheading’ – Two Times (Re-post)

beheading 1Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1611-12, Oil on canvas, 62.5 x 49.4 inches

I know its an absurd statement to say – “Masterpiece” or “Greatest Painting Ever Made”. It’s obscene, and not in a good way, I admit this.  But I have seen a lot of paintings, and have grown, shall I say, immune to many works that used to sop up my knickers, or galvanize in flames my heart like the way Anne Carson describes Geyron being pained with real passion in the Autobiography of Red, something that used to happen to me frequently in my younger, more excitable years. Even more so, I have become immune to claims around artworks that give them either street, market, institutional, intellectual or academic cred.  In general, it’s BS.  Yeah, I said it. Rarely do assertions of the emotional or intellectual power of the piece ring true when looking at an actual work, with the given claims put aside, and the artifice of fashion, trends and market powers laid, in their rightful place, on the floor below the TP in the douche closet.

Alas, I found myself in Chicago this fall, standing in front of the piece I had actually seen before at the Uffizzi, where it lives normally, but hadn’t truly absorbed…. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes completed between 1614-20.  Where do I begin.  I had come a long way since the last time we met in 1998, and since I saw her tremendous retrospective at the Met.   I was fucking floored, tears in my eyes, laughter cracking my mouth inadvertently open at both sides.  I wanted to howl.  How many times have I stood in front of a work that claimed to marry art and life, performances even, that left me feeling like I was waiting for the bus.  Artemisia was literally driving a 400-year-old bus over my skull and I was loving her for it.  Cindy Sherman eat your heart out- how about how Artemisia placed herself in this mythic role? Demystifying, appropriating it for her own needs, her own pain, neurosis, and obviously a genuine desire to innovate, to tell a story that stays, a long long time, stays under you skin, through your eyes, and heart.

Of course, like a colonialist pirate, Holofernes invaded her land, attempting to snatch its resources and women, his favorite being Judith.  Her agency was to use her sexual power to get the man drunk and lob his criminal head off.  Thank you dear; if only some supermodel would have done that to Dick Cheney- or Reagan- or the fucking Koch brothers- (any takers?) the world would be much better off.  (PS Artemisia was of course a victim of rape.) The picture is violent, sublime, horrifying, beautiful, and, dare I say, a slaying of a 1% exploitative, sexist douchebag.  Should we just call him Koch-Head, if you will?

beheading 2 copyArtemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1614-1620, Oil on canvas, 73.3 x 63.8 inches

But this is all so obvious.  What is totally amazing to me is the two versions, made from exactly the same drawings.  Everyone made multiples of paintings back then, what’s stunning about these two versions is the rupture she created in the picture plain as the addition to the first version. Besides the addition of some of Holofernes’s legs, spread nicely into a kind of missionary pose….. we get the absolutely viscerally convincing blood shooting out of that douchebag’s neck in a perfect mathematical trajectory, out of the picture into the viewers face.  Note Caravaggio’s version–static theater in comparison. Our girl had reasons, urgent reasons, to make this painting powerful.  The absolute inverse of the Pollock surface splat, she illusionistically squirts blood out of the painting into your face, as if to say- “There is more than just a picture here” and further- “I am You, we are both in this together, I’m implicated, you are too”. It was like when I saw Iggy Pop and he yelled for the last 10 minutes of the show- “I am You” and I thought- jesus I hope so because I love you.   But I also felt the urge to jump back, there was a fear of stain, it was so, REAL.   Whatever that means- it was, well is still is- messy- the space between the painting and the viewer.

Rumors are she worked out the geometry with Galileo:  talk about cross disciplinary collaboration, talk about implementing current technologies for the innovation of your own practice, we have a long way to getting back to such engagements.  This innovation of geometry, of the radical space of the picture, its reaching outwards past its frame in the blood trajectory does for sure create the realness which allows for one of the strangest, most shocking points of entry into a picture, a scene, and then a narrative I have ever experienced in a painting.

I was raised catholic, so I have a special affection for beheadings, Wilde’s Salome still totally thrills me, I read and revelled in every word of Kristeva’s The Severed Head, the sacred and the profane, together again, so I must admit my bias.  It seems the ritual resonates with me in the way Kristeva points to the question of independence and rebellion.  No work presents this better to me than Gentileschi’s.  Not Pollock, not Duchamp, Malevich or Warhol.  Only this time, in her beheading, something is happening, something real, that threads the flat picture and the realms of empathetic imagination into a wild intellectual and emotional orgy of release and movement rather than static contemplation or context, as though we are the blood flowing out of his neck, out of the problem, to other realms, lead by better forces of power than we know, by her majestic hand.  Thank you, for both the works, for revising, for not stopping too soon, for engaging all dimensions of the story and the painting, for acknowledging and breaking the 4th plain of your movie- (she beat you too Velázquez and Godard) inside and out, Gentileschi.

Angela Dufresne, I am you: Tatiana R, Oil on canvas, 5 x 3.5 feet, 2014

Martha Edelheit on Georgia O’Keeffe: A Reminiscence

gok7Georgia O’Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds I, 1963, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

The following is based on a tape made from notes taken immediately after the event.
This is edited from the original version published in Women Artists Newsletter in 1977.

It’s 1965. I’m daydreaming in my studio about all the famous, inaccessible artists alive in the world. I think of Georgia O’Keeffe. For years a photograph of her has hung over my kitchen sink. Her work always had a special mеaпiпg fог mе.

It would be wonderful to meet her. Five years later, in 1970, I went to the Southwest for the first time. I wanted to experience this extraordinary landscape: Monument Valley, Canon de Chelly, Rainbow Arch, The Petrified Forest, the Navajo, Zuni, and the Hopi land and people. After weeks of hesitation, I wrote a letter to O’Keeffe. I said I was a painter; I would like to visit her. Would she leave a message at the hotel in Santa Fe if it was all right?

I went to the Museum of Modern Art library to see the file on O’Keeffe—a thin manila folder with a few clippings, some reviews, and a few handwritten invitations to сuratогs to oрепіпgs of her exhibitioпs. Опе astonishing review of her 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was by Clemeпt Greenberg: “…The importance of Georgia O’Keeffe’s pseudo-modern art is almost eпtirely historical aпd symptomatіс. The еrrогs it exhibits аге sigпificaпt because of the time, place and сопtext iп which they weгe made. Оtherwise her work has little iпhегепt value. The deftпеss апd pгecision of hеr brush and the neatness with which she places a picturе іпside its fтаmе еxегt a сегtaiп іпevitable charm which may explain her popularity; and some of her агсhitectural subjects mау have evеп mогe thап charm—but the greatest part of her work adds up to little more than tinted photography. The lapidarian patience she expended in tгіmming, bгеathing uроп, and polishing bits of opaque cellophane betrays сопсегп that has less to do with art thап with private worship and the embellishment of private fetishes with secret and arbitrary meanings.” (The Nation, June 15, 1946.) O'Keeffe, B&W PHOTO002

Another clipping, of an article from the National Woman’s Party newsletter,* June 1942, епds with a quote fгоm Thomas Cгаven’s book, Men [sic] of Art: “I conclude with Georgia O’Keeffe, who besides being the foremost woman painter of the world, is an artist of genuine originality.” There was no message at the Santa Fe hotel. O’Keeffe’s telephone was unlisted. I went to the local museum, hoping they would have her number. They didn’t. The receptionist said that if I waited till Saturday, I might find her shopping at the supermarket. А mап standing nearby said with some authority that if I had written to her, she was expecting me – I should just go.

So I did. Not wanting to intrude on her assumed work time I arrived around 5 p.m. Abiquiu was marked only by a small road sign and gas station. The adobe house was behind an adobe wall extending into a wire schoolyard fence. I could see a garden blooming in shades of lime, moss green, pink, and lavender. A sign said, Beware of Dogs. The weatherbeaten wooden door was framed by an arched covered vestibule.

I knocked timidly, peering through a crack. Two large dogs, one a chow, the other hairless except for its face (looking like a Bosch chimera) ran silently down the path. The house door opened; an elderly Native American womап in a large white аргоп оver a floor-length dress, grey hair braided in a bun, opened the gate a crack. “I wrote a letter. . .” “Miss O’Keeffe just sat down to dinner, but if you wrote, I’m sure she’ll remember. Please wait.” She closed and locked the door, leaving me outside, with a splendid view of the Chamas Valley and the Sangre de Christo mountains.

I was sure she wouldn’t see me. At least I’d seen her landscape, or part of it—I was overwhelmed by the clarity of the skies, the vastness, the contrasts.

Half an hour later the house door opened. A woman in a long, black, kimono-like cotton dress, with black cotton shoes and stockings, came down the path. My eye still pressed to the crack, the door opened; she leaned out to greet me; we bumped noses, then both jumped back laughing. She was taller than expected, vегу егеct, regal, strong yet fгаil. “I’ve wanted to meet you for years.” “Well, here I am. What do you want to know?”

I’d been in a panic wondering what I would say. “I wanted to explore your landscape.” She grinned, waved her hand toward the spectacular view and observed, “Pretty good, huh… Well come in.”

In the living room, the first thing I saw was a large cloud painting, like I’d first seen at a recent Whitney Biennial. How marvelous that someone had finally painted sky and clouds from an airplane’s view. At the Whitney, I was startled to see that it was an O’Keeffe. Like little icebergs …or cobblestones in the sky. It charmed and enchanted me. It was audacious, in its almost childlike, naive composition. A very pure painting, like the skies in medieval icons.

O’Keeffe’s work is so beautifully painted. Both in her craft and sophisticated articulation, she is masterful. Her compositions are newly envisioned. The images are direct and clear, even if they are often enigmatic, mysterious. This cloud painting made me smile. It gave me pleasure. It did not take my breath away like Constable’s cloud studies. It expanded, breathed, was gentle.

If great art consists in creating a new vision, a new way of seeing the world, a compelling and unique group of powerful, subtle, beautiful, works, then O’Keeffe fulfills this criteria! Greenberg’s narrow minded, nasty, waspish review reflects his own limits, not O’Keeffe’s.

The living room was a long rectangle, with a wall-sized window at the far end, adobe sofa benches built out of the flesh toned adobe walls, a fireplace, a glass Mies van der Rohe coffee table with a Japanese grasshopper, pieces of driftwood, some small stones, piles of books, a few framed watercolors leaning against the wall. A quiet, peaceful room.

She sat on a small stool by the window. As we talked, the wind blew the white curtains, which at one point enveloped her black-robed figure entirely. She never moved, made no effort to push them away.

“I’m appalled at the things I’ve seen written about your work.”

“So am I.” She’d liked only one recent piece in Barbara Rose’s book on American art. Did I know Rose? Yes. O’Keeffe wanted to know what I did, if I’d had shows. Did I know Nevelson? Yes. Did I like her work? Yes. “What about that Frankenstein woman?” “You mean Frankenthaler? Yes, I know her. She’s a good painter.” Whose work did I like now? I mentioned Oldenburg, Poons, Samaras, Segal. She was asking only about women artists. I named only male artists (a good index of where my head was in 1970). She had never heard of them, had not really kept up with the new people, she said. Did I know someone named Lenore–? She’d gotten a beautiful announcement from her and would have gone to see the show but it didn’t arrive until after her return from New York. She went to get the announcement. It was Lenore Tawney. Pointing to tiny Japanese print and feathers, O’Keeffe commented on how fine the brushwork was. I realized that she thought it was all painted. She didn’t know it was collage. Her eyesight was failing. (I’ve since heard her vision is very poor now, and that she has become a potter.)

She invited me to stay with her at Ghost Ranch, her other house. It was beautiful there; she preferred it, she said. When she really wanted to be alone she would go up there.

And then she added, “Would you like to see my most recent painting? There’s still enough light.” In the dining room she pointed to a small painting on the wall, a wedge-shaped black rock on reddish earth against intense blue sky. “My rocks—I must be off my head! When I do something like this, I wonder what my people [the local native people] think.”

I asked whether the edge of the picture was painted or raw canvas. “Painted. I always paint around the edge, have for the last 40 years. As a matter of fact, I may have been the first to exhibit work unframed.”

Had I been to Mexico? If I was flush, I should stay at a marvelous hotel, the Camino Real. There were many other stories: O’Keeffe described having ridden high above the treeline in Oregon. “The world was made of rock, the trees and forests below like bits of moss clinging to it. The Northwest is very beautiful.” She talked about the flash floods, the Gaspe Peninsula, Canon de Chelly, about her close friend Charles Demuth (he had left all of his work with her when he died). As we talked, now sitting at the dining-room table (a lacquered sheet of 4×8 plywood), it grew dark. She remarked that the fading light was so much better on her rock painting. The light and dark played on her face and hands; now she was just a faint glimmer across the table. We sat talking for a long time in total darkness.

*      *      *

In 1972 I went to Mexico and stayed at the Camino Real Hotel. I made my first film there, of the fountain in front of the hotel, “Camino Real.”

In 1976 Lil Picard organized a show of women artists in Hamburg called GEDOK. It included wonderful artists such as Nevelson, Hesse, Benglis, Miss, Kozloff…and me….and I convinced O’Keeffe to loan a painting, one of her rock paintings! Though she was often aristocratic (and arrogant) in her attitude towards the Native Americans whom she lived amongst and who worked for her, she strongly believed in equality. I think she simply wanted to be identified as an artist among artists! Not as a Woman Artist. She was a feminist in her life, long before the word or movement existed.

*The clipping in the MOMA file from the June 1942 National Woman’s party newsletter told a story, which Edelheit related on the “Is There a Renaissance Woman?” panel (March 1975) and then passed along to us. The newsletter article, headlined “EQUAL RIGHTS,” describes O’Keeffe, then receiving an honorary degree from the University of Wisconsin, as “a devoted feminist and active member of the National Woman’s Party” and longtime supporter of “the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.” We repeat–1942! O’Keeffe is quoted: “It is hard to realize that any group still has to work for equal rights before the law…Surely today when women are taking their place everywhere we should not think in terms of reservations and prejudices of the past, but of a joint effort, the freedom of peoples and of human equality. To me the Equal Rights Amendment is a necessary step in that direction which we in this country have power to take immediately.” Well, not quite immediately. But the item is fascinating, particularly since O’Keeffe’s refusal to join all-woman shows or to advocate for the women’s art movement has been interpreted by some (although perhaps only those born after 1942) to mean she wasn’t a “feminist.”

unnamed-2Martha Edelheit, View of George Washington Bridge from Monument Valley, 1975, Acrylic on canvas, 83 x 48 inches

Julie Langsam on Frederic Edwin Church

1965.233_wFrederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Oil on canvas, 40 x 64 inches, Collection Cleveland Museum of Art

I first saw Frederic Church’s “Twilight in the Wilderness” in 1996 on my first trip to Cleveland; I was wandering aimlessly through the galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art when this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never been particularly interested in landscape painting or the landscape as subject, but the high drama of this particular painting affected me deeply. I felt a bit used and manipulated in the same way that certain sappy songs can choke me up no matter how obvious the formula, or the way a scene in a movie can bring on an intense emotional response even when there is no logical reason why I should be so affected by a fictional narrative. And yet…. and yet I felt an excitement about the possibilities this painting presented. It was bold and it was daring. It was syrupy and obnoxious and all the more thrilling in the way that only the forbidden can be. It was so OBVIOUS. Yet I kept coming back to this painting time after time, visit after visit, never fully understanding why it was getting under my skin even though I understood how.

I could describe Church’s use of high key color, the juxtaposition of both complements and neutrals, the meticulous brushwork, but these formal qualities are not what interest me about the painting. In fact the surface of the painting is quite cold, hard, and calculated. What does interest me is the daring on display: unapologetic, upfront, in your face, think what you like, take it or leave it. I am telling you a lie and I expect you to believe it.

In fact, it is the fiction of Church’s painting that fascinates me—- the impossibility of the moment combined with the elaborate mechanics that he uses to convince me of the impossible. “Twilight in the Wilderness”, as with many of Church’s paintings, is filmic and theatrical. As a scene it sets the stage for something to happen, yet we are suspended in both the now-ness and the forever-ness of the painting. It is not particularly large (though not small) and not particularly wide or expansive, yet it demands much of the attention in the room where it is displayed, despite sharing company with works by Bierstadt, Cole, Heade, Gifford, and Kensett to name a few. The melodramatic mood of the painting speaks to a longing for a past and/or a future that is only partially imagined, creating a desire, which, though not fully articulated, is both painful and titillating. It hurts so good.

As a painter seeing this work for the first time, I felt liberated; liberated from the strictures of ‘good taste’, liberated from the introspection of much of 20th century art and liberated from the self-reflexivity of ‘painting as image/object’. Church, in many ways, was a maverick. His work speaks presciently to the ‘society of the spectacle’ described by Debord where representation replaces reality. Its strength as a painting lies in it’s grand gesture(s), its confidence and conceit, but most of all in its fabrication of a believable fiction— a fiction that becomes a reality only within the context of painting.

GropiusLandscape_Master's_House_300Julie Langsam, Gropius Landscape (Master’s House Kandinsky / Klee), 2014, Oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches