Barbara Zucker on Florine Stettheimer

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.36.25 AMFlorine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II, 1933, Oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 64 5/8 inches

I walked into MOMA in 1976 and fell in love: with a painting. It was a coup de foudre. The first thing that drew me to it was the wacky, white scalloped frame. The painting it surrounded (Family Portrait II, 1933) was impossibly girlish, personal and completely against the prevailing grain. I stood transfixed. Who was this woman? How could she paint like this is the 1930’s, in this deceptive schoolgirl hand? Forty years after my introduction to her work, we have caught up to Florine; her calculatedly naïve approach to painting seems familiar, no longer the work of an outlier, she is one of us. But then, she was dancing and twirling to a prescient tune wholly her own.

Stettheimer__Asbury_Park_South__1920_gross-e1413924830262Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, Oil on canvas

Stettheimer received traditional training in art academies in Germany, where she and her family lived until the First World War forced them to return to the States. Her early paintings are competent and rather unimaginative – there is little hint of what was to come, though as early as 1917 she used unorthodox materials: tassels, velvets, paste jewels, glitter, net and quantities of putty she mixed into oil paint to give it volume and substance, applying it to the canvas with a putty knife. She made a conscious decision to radically alter her style in about 1918, painting scenes and dreamscapes of her life in and near New York in a way so original for its time that most people in the art world simply did not know what to make of it. Some did: her dear friend Marcel Duchamp admired her work and mounted a posthumous retrospective of her paintings at MOMA in 1946. One wonders why he took so long. Should anyone doubt Stettheimer’s wry sense of humor, or her acute awareness of her choices, just look at the riotous summer painting Asbury Park South, 1920. On the far left of the canvas, a poster advertising a performance by the famed singer Enrico Caruso is rendered in a perfectly realistic style, while the rest of the canvas is painted a la Florine. Paintings two ways.

Family Portrait II, in MOMA’s permanent collection since 1956 (a gift to the museum by Stettheimer’s surviving sister, Ettie) is a luscious poem of a painting, with a huge bouquet of flowers floating center stage in a surreal, dreamy space, a device Stettheimer would use often. Beneath the blossoms is a round rug, another familiar symbol, and on it are written the names of her family. Unlike other American artists using text at the time, Stettheimer chose words not as signifiers but as points of information, making sure we knew everyone’s name and status. Family Portrait is suffused with red, one of her favorite colors. We are both inside and outside, simultaneously. Each flower represents one of Florine’s perennial cast of characters: her mother, and her two sisters. Stettheimer represents herself both as the tendrils that bind the flowers together and in a self-portrait standing stage left (all her paintings are highly theatrical), dressed in an elegant pants suit and stiletto heels, palette and brush in hand, as she surveys the scene. Stettheimer often inserted herself in her paintings – a silent, lithe and ageless observer. In the background on the left, a chalky Empire State Building stands next to a gigantic crystal chandelier; and on the right a diminutive Lady Liberty holds her flame aloft.

800px-Florine_StettheimerFlorine Stettheimer in her Bryant Park garden c.1917-1920. Image held in the collection of the Florine Stettheimer papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Stettheimer continued to use unusual materials, to create a stage set for Virgil Thompson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, to fabricate inventive, customized frames for her paintings, and to construct what we would now call an “installation” for the sole one person exhibition she had in her lifetime at Knoedler in 1916, bringing into the gallery a copy of her gold and white bed canopy, and hanging the walls with diaphanous materials. Florine Stettheimer was an eccentric (she originally wanted all her paintings buried with her, like an ancient royal!), a sophisticate, a fashionista, social butterfly, and a poet.

“I was pure white
You made a painted show-
Thing of me
You called me the real-thing
Your creation
No setting was too good for me
Silver – even gold
I needed gorgeous surroundings
You then sold me to another man”
– Florine Stetteimer

lilianonthefloordet650Barbara Zucker, Lilian on the Floor, (detail), 2002-2008, vulcanized rubber, size variable

Barbara Zucker lives and works in Burlington, Vermont. www.barbarazuckersculptor.com

Catherine Howe on Charles E. Burchfield

BurchfieldCharles E. Burchfield, Sun and Rocks, 1918-1950, Watercolor on gouache on paper, 40 x 56 inches
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Burchfield explained, “To the child sitting cozily in his home , the roar of the wind outside fills his mind full of visions of strange phantoms and monsters flying over the land.” (Inscription by Charles Buchfield, Whitney Museum Catalogue, 1956)

I always thought I had special privileges when it came to the work of Charles E. Burchfield. After all, I too had weathered life in the often inhospitable place that is Buffalo, having stayed there through college before finally escaping to civilization. That child was me.

Today, after peering for a time at Burchfield’s Sun and Rocks on my tiny cell phone screen, I emerged from my studio to see my January-frozen garden suddenly take on much more color and life than I had remembered earlier in the day. Great paintings can do that: change our reality. Cold to hot, in this case. Yes, this is a feverish painting! I see a craggy landscape brilliantly alive with bleeding stumps, spiky grasses and flowing weeds. Dove-like clouds float by the blazing oriole that surrounds a star/sun. That familiar baked, dry, smell of pines strikes me as well. There is yearning and much listing, to the left and to the right, and the sense of barren lands that lay in the distance. Fronds beckon and wave, and ask me to stay. It is oddly animated and viscerally real at the same time.

To say that this serves to remind us of how vital nature is seems obvious, but there it is. In Burchfield’s essay for the catalogue from “Heat Waves in a Swamp,” the exhibition of his work organized by the Hammer Museum and later on view at the Whitney Museum in New York (2010), Dave Hickey quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald in a passage from the Great Gatsby: “…man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” I think Hickey’s choice here is apt. How many of us may still experience sublime nature today?

Young Burchfield did. He seems to have worn his wonderment on his sleeve. The painter’s youthful work, a lucid reflection of his up and down temperament and complex spiritual/physical conversation with nature, would be his salvation in later life. This work literally becomes the center of the large paintings of his last years. Sun and Rocks was finally made in 1950, but the core of this piece was a small watercolor on paper that the artist created just after his self-described “golden year” of 1917. Now in his 50’s, he had hit a rough spot and he didn’t know how to go forward. So, he looked back to his youthful epiphany, his monogamous coupling with nature. More than using them to reminisce, he literally expanded these old works by gluing each on a larger piece of paper. He could now expand out from the center (and his own past) in every direction. I find this oddly affecting and very touching, though sad too. In 1922, Burchfield said he wanted “the courage to see nature with the great graphic shorthand of Youth.” Still young when he said this I doubt he would have imagined his older self resorting to cut and paste.

Still, the new piece is fully alive. Sun and Rocks is a painting that spans much of a lifetime: painted both directly from nature in youth, churning with emotion, surprise and delight, and later, revisited with the experience and longing of age.

As a child, during the perennial school trips to the Albright- Knox Art Gallery, and later, on my own, I saw this painting often, or one very much like it. Shamefully, I didn’t spend much time with Burchfield then. I was more interested in de Kooning and his friends. Lucky for the SUNY Buffalo students, this small museum has one of the best, if not the best, selection of Abstract Expressionism anywhere. The sublime power and the frightening scale of all that paint was too tempting for the schoolgirl in me. I so loved and still love those guys, but I failed to recognize the local boy. His was a more intimate parsing of sublime terror and ecstatic beauty, always under glass and framed neatly. Harder to see in this company.

Looking at the work of Burchfield now, and in particular this painting, so poignant with its reworking years later, I realize that I breezed by the very artist who had more to sustain me in the long run than all those larger art historical figures ever could.

Howe.MicaPainting (C.W.)_48 x 60 copyCatherine Howe, Mica Painting (C. W. ), 2015, Acrylic mediums and interference mica pigment on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

Catherine Howe is an artist with an extensive history of exhibitions who makes paintings in Manhattan and a barn in Columbia County. She is currently a Professor on the Graduate Painting Faculty at the New York Academy of Art, where she leads a seminar on aesthetics. www.catherinehoweartist.com

Richard Estes on Bernardo Bellotto

3593_1619093Bernardo Bellotto, View of Pirna with the Fortress of Sonnenstein, 1755/65, Oil on canvas,
19 3/8 x 31 1/4 inches

There is a small painting by Bellotto at the Chicago Art Institute – a view of a street in the small town of Pirna, Germany a short distance from Dresden – that I used to see every day when I was a student there and which always fascinated me. It probably is not the greatest painting in the world but considering its subject and technique I think it had a great influence on me and the direction I chose to take with my work.

07Richard Estes, Tower Bridge London, 1989, Oil on canvas, 29 x 66 inches, Property of a California Collector

Richard Estes is an American artist, best known for his photorealist paintings.

Jacqueline Gourevitch on Piet Mondrian

oval-compositionPiet Mondrian, Composition in Oval with Colored Planes, 1914, Oil on canvas, 42 3/8  x 31 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York

In choosing to write about Mondrian’s Oval with Colored Planes (1914), I find it hard to bypass several mysterious paintings by Piero di Cosimo or, for their sheer enchantment and many other qualities, the works of Giovanni di Paolo. I return to that world again and again to encounter and confirm the power of painting. But at the moment it feels like a stretch to relate a painting of mine to works so deeply rooted in mythology or the Bible. So, for the sheer immediacy of seeing what lies at the heart of making a painting, I turn to this early Mondrian. I want to look closely at how this painted surface, devoid of representational content or narrative, manifests and embodies its own unique, complex meaning.

This Mondrian has a marvelous, lilting, adventurousness to it: an improvisational, searching liveliness. These are life enhancing qualities. The oval hovers just above the bottom edge of the canvas. Equidistant from right and left, it appears to sway slightly. It floats. It breathes. It is alive and has a pulse. It has an anti-gravitational thrust, with greater definition and weight toward the top where the circumscribing oval line is more sharply drawn and explicitly cropped. To name the colors suggests the primaries: red, blue and yellow. But this yellow is ochre, an earth color left over from the Cubist palette. The blue and red are cut with white, avoiding the full color saturation of his later work. Line and color are constantly negotiating for territory, competing and displacing one another while maintaining a respectful distance from the inscribed oval. The greyed-out surrounding area invites and rewards close inspection. The painting is many layered, generous in what it reveals about how it is painted.

Oval with Colored Planes spoke to me on first sight and it has never disappointed. But, when I first encountered it the delicacy of Mondrian’s touch here surprised me. At that point I only knew his later, iconic 1920s, hard-edged paintings in which the exact placement and definition of color and shape became paramount. I soon discovered his roots and motifs in traditional landscape painting, and his rejection of Cubism’s volume building in favor of using its tools to dissolve volume, to open and re-structure the surface.

second image Piet Mondrian, Tableau No.2/Composition VII, 1913, Oil on canvas, 41 3/8 x 45 inches
Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York

I continue to marvel at the radical logic and speed of the trajectory of Mondrian’s work in the few years leading to the Oval with Colored Planes. Only months earlier in Tableau #2/Composition #VII we see a very rough and raw battleground of hurried, scratchy zig-zag brushwork. Color areas establish themselves while redrawing their own ever shifting black boundaries, always maintaining some distance from the edges of the canvas. There seems to be an effort to deny and retract the corners, to reject the shape of the canvas. There is no embarrassment about covering up what may at first glance appear as corrections. Erasure is positive. Throughout there is a sense of the vitality and urgency characteristic of early work. The color palette is still Cubist, but the space is not. We look into it and under it as we see the canvas simultaneously painted on and over. Still visible alongside the outer edges of the canvas are segments of a thin straight black framing line. Sometimes that line is barely visible, buried under the covering white, at other edges it is clearly painted over the white as if to reassert that this is still, after all, a rectangular canvas.

The resolution of the Oval was yet to come. When it did it appeared almost effortless.

Over decades of painting Cloud Paintings I have felt a kinship with Mondrian’s quest for openness, conveying and implying motion, weightlessness and the use of white as color. I was deeply moved when I first came upon his 1907 painting The Red Cloud. I responded in 1971 by painting my Homage to Mondrian’s Red Cloud without a horizon. His Pier and Ocean drawings were on my mind recently while painting Winter Harbor with Ellis Island in 2011.

Winter Harbor with Ellis Island, (#7) 36_x21_, 12_2011, oil_c_1460357 copy 2Jacqueline Gourevitch, Winter Harbor with Ellis Island, 2011, Oil on canvas, 36 x 21 inches

Jacqueline Gourevitch lives and works in Lower Manhattan.  www.jacquelinegourevitch.com

Joyce Kozloff on Miriam Schapiro

Schapiro_Bal_Masque+Azerbaizani_FanMiriam Schapiro with Black Bolero (behind) and Azerbaijani Fan (below)

Among Miriam Schapiro’s works, the black paintings are my favorites. Although she often used color ecstatically, I never felt it came to her easily. In these works, it was not an issue: they are refined, elegant, beautifully crafted, perfectly pitched. She layered transparent, gauzy, filmy fabrics over a dark ground until they merged seamlessly. It was sometimes impossible to tell if certain passages were collaged, painted or both. She would talk about the importance of gluing, and she was right. By 1980, she had become a master/mistress of the glue pot! She would delicately squeeze sparkly, iridescent acrylics from a tube with a tiny nozzle to create the dotted lines that look like strands of beads.

Miriam_Schapiro_Black_Bolero_1980Miriam Schapiro, Black Bolero, 1980, Acrylic, fabric and glitter on canvas, 72 x 144 inches
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia

It is well known that Mimi (only her husband Paul Brach ever called her Miriam) collected embroidered handkerchiefs, doilies, aprons, napkins at yard sales and thrift shops, and that women all over the country saved them for her. But she also had a cache of finer fabrics (silks and satins and damasks and chiffons) in her materials closet, and that’s what I see when I look at the black paintings. They remind me of how much she loved the exotic jewelry and garments that she wore to art openings and parties. The black-and-white photograph taken in her studio, in which she stands in front of Black Bolero and behind Azerbaijani Fan, perfectly describes these paintings as an extension of herself.

Miriam_Schapiro_det_Black_BoleroMiriam Schapiro, Black Bolero (Detail)

Black Bolero is so dense, controlled and tightly designed within its half circle/fan shape that it shouldn’t work, but something wild happens as it breaks out into that cloud of arabesques at the top, a shout of joy. There are two kinds of patterning, geometrical and floral – here we see them both, carefully intertwined and balanced. It succeeds in her often stated goals: to marry high art and craft; eastern and western influences; the public “male” world and the domestic “female” world; the rigorous and the sentimental; kitsch and splendor. We feel an underlying fin-de-siecle morbidity too, and not just because it’s black. It is as if the brightness and liveliness dancing across its surface were disguising a depth of sorrow.

det_Black_Bolero_MiriamSchapiro     Miriam_Schapiro_Bal_Masque_det
Miriam Schapiro, Black Bolero (Detail) and Bal Masque (Detail)

Bal Masque (like Medusa) from her “Screen” series is more austerely formal. Composed of 6 attached panels, these works are flat, although they appear to recede into space. The form anticipates her theater pieces that were to preoccupy her for many years, but I prefer the severe, contained parameters of these screens. She upended all she’d learned utilizing the computer to generate large, hard-edged geometrical abstractions earlier in her life. Filigreed botanical ornament follows its borders respectfully, as it might in a traditional screen, but at the center, it sprouts tendrils and buds. If you look long enough, you begin to see gaping eyes and death heads at the interior, reminiscent of the masks that Mimi collected and arranged on the walls of her loft. At the center is a face, a scary one! I somehow associate these pictures with the ravishing interiors in The Last Emperor (1987) – could Bertolucci have seen these paintings?

Miriam_Schapiro_Bal_MasqueMiriam Schapiro, Bal Masque, 1980, Acrylic and fabric on canvas, 84 x 168 inches (6 panels)
Collection of Judy and Alvin Krause, Roslyn, LI

It is essential to situate artists in their historic milieu, especially if they thrived on interactions within their community, as Miriam Schapiro did. She was active in many feminist artist groups on both coasts, participating in working collectives with other strong, smart women. There were intense, heated discussions about art and politics, which could be volatile or generative. She was also a member of the Pattern & Decoration movement, which included a pretty even number of men and women (Robert Kushner, Valerie Jaudon, Brad Davis, Patsy Norvell, Arlene Slavin, Jane Kaufman, Cynthia Carlson, Robert Zakanitch, Kim MacConnel, Barbara Zucker, Ned Smyth, Mary Grigoriadis, Tony Robbin, Richard Kalina, Kendall Shaw and myself, plus others as it expanded). At our meetings, we encouraged one another to push the boundaries of the decorative. We shared a love for the arts of other times and places, and a dissatisfaction with the restrictions of formalism, which had been dominant in 60s painting. Some of us continued the conversations from the larger gatherings during one-on-one studio visits, at which ideas were hashed out in front of the work; the dialogue was so stimulating that one would be energized. These were among Mimi’s happiest times, and I believe that their charge is visible in the pieces she made during those years.

If_I_Were_a_Botanist_GazaJoyce Kozloff, If I Were a Botanist: Gaza, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 54 x 91 1/4 inches (3 panels)
Courtesy of the Artist and DC Moore Gallery, Photo: Steven Bates

Miriam Schapiro: A Visionary, opens at the National Academy Museum in New York City on February 3, 2016 and is on view through May 8, 2016.

Joyce Kozloff lives in New York and is represented by DC Moore Gallery.
www.joycekozloff.net

Richard Haas on Jan van Eyck

0Jan van Eyck, The Arnolphini Wedding, 1434, Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards, 32.4 × 23.6 inches

The challenge to an artist to think about his or her influences is such a central one that it immediately sends a stream of thoughts about a seemingly endless number of artists through one’s head. There have been countless artists, art works, and whole periods of art and architectural history that have passed before my eyes. Whenever I am asked by someone, “What is your favorite work of art or artist or what is your own favorite project?” I generally freeze up for a moment and try to beg off the question as best I can. One is prone to rising and receding enthusiasms for art heroes. They really mount up over more than 5 decades of serious looking.

My own art journey began in the mid 50s with my excitement about Frank Lloyd Wright, which was fed by my circumstances of birth, family connections and a growing architectural interest in general, combined with an early love of Cezanne, who influenced my first paintings. Along with this, I could add a serious study of Rembrandt etchings as I became more active in printmaking. As artists, we do not necessarily drop any of our early enthusiasms as we evolve but simply pile more and more influences into our art tool chest.

My interest in architecture stemmed from where I was born, two miles north of Taliesin East. I had family members who knew and worked for Wright. Architecture wove itself in and out of my art and eventually became my dominant interest over most of my career. As I plugged myself into Taliesin and the world of its master, I also explored the greater urban environment of the Midwest, which included not only Madison and Milwaukee, but especially Chicago. That city was the mother lode of much of my growth with all of its precedent-setting architecture and its great museum, The Chicago Art Institute. That museum more than any other was where my journey into art history began.

As I travelled more, and especially after I moved to New York in the late 60s, my study and knowledge of art history grew tremendously. I was also fortunate to receive an extensive art historical education, taking over 30 credits in the field while working on my MFA at the University of Minnesota. Besides London and Paris, my trips also included Amsterdam and the Low Countries, Munich and especially Italy. In Florence, Rome and Venice I extended my interest in Giotto, Piero, Fra Angelico, the Bellinis, Mantegna and of course Michelangelo. I made repeated visits to The Arena Chapel in Padua and Mantegna’s Camera del Sposi in Mantua. Mantegna’s completion of that room which welded the ceiling and walls together seamlessly was, in its daring simplicity, an unprecedented masterpiece. There were countless other works of a similar nature that I studied including the Rococo churches of the Asam and the Zimmerman Brothers in Bavaria, sites I revisited on many occasions.

It is a little surprising to me, as it also may be to others, that I have decided to land on Jan van Eyck and The Arnolfini Wedding as the single most important work for me to focus on. Why Van Eyck and this particular painting? There are many reasons. It may be that the refined clarity and particularity combined with an amazing hollowing out of pictorial space was achieved best by the Flemish artists, especially the one who for me was their greatest master. It may also be that the strain of my Germanic heritage causes me to identify with this artist in particular.

It seems to me that few other works capture space like that room Van Eyck created with all of its soft light, its spare but elegant furnishings, and of course the bridal pair, with their lavish attire and attractive, if peculiar, attitudes. When I say that this work set a precedent, I do not mean that there were not plenty of interesting paintings of such interiors before, as I know there were, but for me none pulled the viewer in like this work and none up till then managed to control our sense of the space. It also seems to have spun off a host of imitations and variations that followed for centuries. I cannot help but think of Valasquez’s Las Meninas with his brilliant trick of using the reflective mirror in the center, like Van Eyck did, nor can I help but think of a host of Vermeer paintings (another favorite artist).

The reflective round mirror of Van Eyck’s painting acts as a visual center but also as a way of seeing out and beyond our cone of vision to feed our imagination while extending our sense of location. We see that others are now entering the room. The window on the left functions as a way of taking us out and beyond the room itself and adds to the subtle logic of how the space is lit, even though the light is fed by multiple sources. Then there are the objects that reflect that light so beautifully, like the candelabra above and the oranges on the table below the window with one orange on the windowsill. We are told that oranges were not only rare but also symbols of love and marriage. There are many other symbols that relate not only to fertility and pregnancy but also to the presumed wealth of the subjects, such as: the wooden slippers so casually but carefully placed, the bed, and even the seemingly frozen dog, which we are told is a Brussels Griffen, known to be a special terrier bred to catch rats. I know that all of this symbolism has been dealt with ad infinitum by historians over the centuries and that they have analyzed the couple ad infinitum as well. Was she pregnant? Was this a version of a shotgun marriage from that period? The headboard contains a carved statue of St. Margaret who was the patron of childbirth to bring home the issue of pregnancy.

What was the exact status of the couple, since we know they were rather high in the aristocratic order? The clothes alone, with their rich materials and expensive dyed colors, indicate their higher status. Research seems to confirm that they were actually of Italian merchant origins from the area of Lucca. We see in the commission how wedded the wealthy areas of Europe were to each other, as Bruges and Tuscany were both among the richest areas at that time. It also shows how the painters of Flanders and those of Renaissance Italy were very connected.

It was during my own early rambles through historic art, including not only the Flemish but also the Dutch artists, especially Vermeer, that I began to make study drawings. I also decided to start a series of miniature interiors in three-dimensional dioramic boxes depicting Dutch and Flemish interior paintings. One of the first that I dwelled on was The Arnolfini Wedding where I spent countless hours constructing the imaginary space of that room with all of its details and also constructing silhouettes of the figures. I then proceeded to carefully light the box in an attempt to reproduce the ambience of that room. I felt it was moderately successful and I went on to make several other boxes of a similar nature. These included a dioramic box of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and many more of recent artists as well. Matisse in Nice, Picasso in his Paris studio, Gertrude Stein in her dining room along with Pollock in his Springs studio were but a few of these works.

There were many things driving me during this rather obsessive period of work. I wasn’t trying to get closer to a particular time and space, but somehow to get closer to how the artist thought and felt while making the work. I doubt that I succeeded in my explorations, especially in regard to Van Eyck and Vermeer, but I have little doubt that these explorations fed my desire to attack real space in a more meaningful way. They certainly heightened my focus on contemporary urban spaces and interiors, where I hoped to inject my own sense of illusion and heightened reality. I think I did manage to carry that off in ways that I never would have imagined in the early period of my study and work. My gazing for extended periods at The Arnolfini Wedding in the National Gallery of London and then walking into another room and peeking into Van Hoogstraaten’s painted interior box set me off on a very long, complex journey that I hope is not yet over.

IMG_8675Richard Haas, Homage to Cincinnatus, Mural painted on Brotherhood Building, Kroger Company, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1983

Richard Haas is a painter, printmaker and muralist who has focused on work that is mostly architecturally related for the past 4 decades. He was born in Spring Green Wisconsin in 1936, raised in Milwaukee where he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1959 and later attended the University of Minnesota where he received an MFA in 1964. http://www.richardhaas.com

Amy Weiskopf on Carlo Carra

2157OP282AU3392Carlo Carra, Natura Morta con la Squadra, 1917, Oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches

If Pompeian still life frescos and Cubist still life paintings had a baby, Carlo Carra’s Natura Morta con la Squadra would be that child. Within the positivism of those Pompeian paintings and the analytic nature of Cubism lies the intelligence of this painting. I recently saw it at the Novecento museum in Milan and then walked next-door to the Palazzo Reale, where there was a show of still life frescos from Pompeii. It was startling to think how much had happened in those intervening 2,000 years, and yet how little had really changed. Italian artists and architects embraced Modernism as fully as artists anywhere, but they held onto their Greco-Roman roots.

ancient roman foodsPompeian wall fresco

For all the visual connections between Natura Morta con la Squadra and the still lifes of Pompei, the spirit of each could not be more different. The Pompeian fresco with its charming naiveté contrasts with Carra’s studied simplification and purposeful interplay of two and three dimensions. In the fresco, art looks to nature; in the painting, nature is shaped by art. We are clearly in the 20th C. with Carra, which he underscores with his title: the square (“Squadra”), an artist’s tool, says this is not an ordinary kitchen tabletop. And that self-conscious aesthetic is at the heart of the metaphysical structure of the painting.

What I love about this Carra is the combination of a cerebral metaphysical space and a plastic sensuality that I also see in the fresco. An array of luscious grays, set off by creamy white, charcoal black and one ochre triangle create a rich and restrained tonality worthy of a 17th C. Dutch still life. The variation of a tabletop as the inside of a box (or maybe a room) is ingenious, matched by the way the artist has so cleverly described and arranged the objects and their shadows. It’s an intense and complicated visual experience and, for me, a pure pleasure.

Still life with cut squash and winter mellonAmy Weiskopf, Still Life with Cut Squash and Winter Mellon, 2010, Oil on canvas, 9 x 11 inches

Amy Weiskopf is a still life painter who lives in Brooklyn. She is represented by Hirschl and Adler Modern.

Virginia Wagner on Doron Langberg

1423156447469Doron Langberg, Sleep, 2014, Oil on linen, 50 x 70 inches

There’s a slippage in Doron Langberg’s 2015 painting, Sleep. The sole figure is gently sliding out of the piece on a current of sleep—but sleep here is something more than unconsciousness; it is like an emanation, suggestive of weight and transfiguration– and the frame follows him. The motion is smooth, not to jostle him awake. I think of the River Lethe – where cleansing is forgetting – and the souls that float in circles around Hades once they’ve sloughed off their dirty membranes of memory.

The figure floats over impossible distances and depths. The indigo stains of oil could be miles of hazy dusk. And yet, there is nothing illusionistic about the elements such that, when your eye gets to the unfinished edges of exposed white ground, the space rockets forward and the paint is just paint. The same play exists in the pumice-like patches of turf that ring the figure. They ground him – literally introducing an earth element – in the inconstant, liquid space. Yet, in the next moment, they separate from the scene like oil from water and you feel you could peel them away.

The man in Sleep is radiant. Not in the tongue-in-cheek way we are used to when seeing a naked man laid out in an Olympia-esque pose. This isn’t about retribution for centuries of hijacking the female gaze or a conscious upending of traditional roles. Moreover, this is not an androgynous, delicate man who bridges gender. It is a portrait of a solid, hairy, masculine man: beloved, one imagines, in the eyes of the painter.

There is a layered chaos to Sleep. It’s impossible to know how each mark was made.  Scraped away paint excavates lower layers that shine through. Large strokes, scrubbed textures, and piled pigment create a disordered complexity. The chaos of the paint, no doubt created though chance and repetition, reads, at points, as dimples on the water or the uneven terrain of skin. Despite the wild, scumbled surface, Langberg’s skill is such that we believe in the vitality of the figure and the space. We know that, under those rough, hasty marks, the scene exists in all of the intricacies of life. It is as if the act of painting were a hasty rubbing over of the real to make it visible to us, as a scholar might make a rubbing of a tombstone.

There is a dichotomy between rootedness and un-tethering in most of Langberg’s paintings in his current two-person show with Gaby Collins-Fernandez at the Denese/Corey Gallery in Chelsea. In the piece Mark and Aubrey, the foreground figure’s torso is grounded in a domestic, familiar space but by the time your eye has traveled down to the foot, the leg has shifted into sepia tone and is from some other time. I believe this rings true to how we all experience place – sometimes our homes embrace us and other times we are haunted by the uncanny, which whispers we are frauds, our walls are façades. “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!”

Artists have their own lenses through which they filter the world around them – from photorealism, to gesture, chiaroscuro, or expressionist mark making. Langberg seems to have a heat sensor, as if we are looking through a thermal imaging lens. The subject pulses at points of high energy and desire. Temperature reins supreme both in terms of warm and cool tones as well as passion. Sleep is washed over with cold water and burns from the inside out. Warm light spills from the body and plays on the reflective surfaces, as fire would. There is no irony here, no social critique: Langberg makes this piece with all the tools of a magician and the heart of a lover.

Sky Burial_2015_Ink acrylic and oil on canvas_44x55inVirginia Wagner, Sky Burial, 2015, Ink acrylic and oil on canvas, 44 x 55 inches

Virginia Wagner is an artist, writer, and Founder of Painters on Paintings who lives in Brooklyn, NY. www.studiovirginia.com,  www.urbanoutlaws.org

The Mute Shape of Exteriority: Jennifer Coates on Paul Gauguin

Man Ray Untitled (hat) Photograph 1933 7x8.3in2hats
Man Ray, Untitled (Hat), 1933,  Photograph, 7 x 8.3 inches
Headdress Diagram

Freud wrote that hats are like sex organs – sometimes phallic, sometimes vaginal. If a man wears a brimmed hat with a sloping indentation that runs across the top (the Trilby hat, seen above in Man Ray’s 1933 photograph), he sports a symbol of female sexuality on his head. But what about women who wear headdresses and religious habits, the hat’s more dramatic cousins? Variations on the theme, they are morphological elaborations on the gyno-principle. In the late 19th century, women in Brittany, in northwest France, possessed an enormous vocabulary of intricately folded, starched or lacey headdresses that corresponded to their age, the time of year, and religious events. In Pont Aven, where Paul Gauguin and the Nabis painters worked, they were especially varied and striking. The Breton women and their hats were the subject of numerous paintings that chronicle a radical shift towards proto-abstraction.

Bretons arrived in France in the 5th and 6th centuries from southwest Britain, escaping Germanic invaders. Their 19th century version of Roman Catholicism still contained rampant pagan influences from their ancient origins. The headdresses themselves descend from the Druidic tradition.

3Robert Wylie La Sorcière bretonne 1872 OIl on canvas4Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Les Bretonnes au Pardon, 1887 49.3 in × 55.6 in oil on canvas
Robert Wylie, La Sorcière Bretonne, 1872, Oil on canvas
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Les Bretonnes au Pardon, 1887, Oil on canvas, 49.3 × 55.6 inches

An artists’ colony in Pont Aven attracted painters in the second half of the 19th century. Many of the painters who arrived there in the late 1880s were drawn by Gauguin, among them Emil Bernard, Maurice Denis and Paul Serusier. But even before the Nabis began painting local women in traditional dress, they had been a source of fascination for other artists. In 1872, Robert Wylie painted La Sorciere Bretonne, a scene of four Breton women attending to a baby in its mother’s lap, with two men and a small boy on the outskirts of the action. Knowing nothing of the specifics of the “sorcery” being depicted, one thing is obvious: the men don’t matter much. Both in shadow, one with his back turned to us: the focus is clearly on the intensity of the women, who each wear a different headdress. Fifteen years later, in 1887, Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret painted Breton Women at a Pardon (a type of religious festival). Again, the focus is on women in elaborate hats and collars. They sit in a circle on the grass, listening to one woman read from a sheet of paper, as the men stand off to the side, shadowy and unimportant.

At this time, Emil Bernard had helped develop Cloisonnism, a style that involved bold colors, flattened forms and dark outlines, in service of simplicity and accessibility. In Breton Women in the Meadow (1888), the headdresses sit like sculptures atop the women’s heads, and their faces, when visible, are cursory, alien, almost mask-like. Bernard’s inventive handling of the folding white forms makes them more animate and alive than the figures that wear them. They become biomorphic and almost glyph-like as they punctuate the picture.

5Breton Women in the Meadow. Émile Bernard, 1888 oil on canvas 36.6 × 29.1 inPaul Serusier_1892_oil on canvas_Breton Women The Meeting in the Sacred GroveLandscape with Green Trees_Maurice Denis_1893_Oil on canvas_46x43
Émile Bernard, Breton Women in the Meadow, 1888, Oil on canvas, 36.6 × 29.1 inches
Paul Serusier, Breton Women The Meeting in the Sacred Grove, 1892, Oil on canvas
Maurice Denis, Landscape with Green Trees, 1893, Oil on canvas, 46 x 43 inches

Sorcery and occult rituals were also depicted by Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis, in scenes of gatherings in sacred groves. The artists themselves become the shadowy men on the outside looking in. The Nabis (which means ‘prophet’ in Hebrew) were also interested in the occult, which informed their painterly sensibilities. Paul Gauguin was a member of Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society – he remained a devout theosophist for twenty years until the end of his life. For theosophists, color had mysterious powers and could express specific experiences or states of mind. There was much pseudo-scientific research at the time to “prove” how color might affect the psyche. The ancient influence of alchemy on color theory, from Isaac Newton to Goethe, was part of the lineage of these ideas.

Gauguin Vision After the Sermon 1888 oil on canvas 29 x 36Paul Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon, 1888, Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches

Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon (1888) is a vision of Jacob and an angel fighting: a biblical scene bathed in red. It could symbolize blood but it is also the color of the philosopher’s stone, the ultimate goal of alchemy. By probing into visionary states through the psychological or magical effects of color, not just through the depiction of women experiencing a shared hallucination, Gauguin veers into abstraction. The blankness of the white habits unfolds into flatness and pure expanses of color. The habits become like pieces of paper containing occult secrets, like folding and unfolding picture planes, stand-ins for the canvas, as it reveals and conceals its inner workings. The white forms release the secrets in the form of a hallucination. Their narrows, creases and curves guide our eyes around the painting, yet all of the spectators’ eyes are closed. The only pair of what one might call ‘eyes’ is formed by folds on the back of a habit. True seeing is only possible with the assistance of the hat.

As these ornate constructions were placed on the head, their powers amplified. They had hypnotic power not just over the women, but the men who regarded them with awe. As Emil Bernard wrote, the aim of the Nabis was “to highlight the abstract sense and not the objective…Seeing through the religious costumes inspired a more visionary approach. There was an invisible meaning under the mute shape of exteriority.” The obsessive focus on the sacred genital architecture of the headdress and the fixation on female-centric, occult religious rituals encouraged Gauguin and his followers to turn away from the visible, towards the visionary – a necessary step on the road to modernism.

pbandj 48x48 acrylic on canvas 2014Jennifer Coates, PB&J, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48×48 inches

Jennifer Coates is an artist, writer and musician living in NYC. www.jenniferlcoates.com

Julia Jacquette on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard

self portrait w two pupils
Adélaïde Labille–Guiard, Self–Portrait with Two Pupils, Mademoiselle Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Mademoiselle Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788)1785, Oil on canvas, 83 x 59 1/2 inches

A number of years ago a well-known and influential New York art gallerist was brought to my studio by a private dealer I’d been working with. The visit was tense: I’d been working on a new body of large paintings and yet the gallerist was clearly not engaging in the work (or in the conversation). Later that day, I met up with the dealer for coffee to discuss the visit – he’d been trying to help me find a gallery to represent my work and had hoped that this particular gallerist might be a good match. He apologized, saying that the gallerist wasn’t interested in my work. He also recounted something the gallerist had said to him: “In general,” the gallerist had said, “I don’t get painting.”

That sentence has stuck with me ever since. How could it be that an extremely powerful, influential, and – it is assumed – knowledgeable art world “player” was categorically dismissing painting? The fact that his gallery stable reflected that – it didn’t (and still doesn’t) contain many artists making paintings – didn’t ease the sting. Neither did the fact that his stable of artists was a group whose work I respected and admired. In fact, maybe that last fact made it sting even more.

So why – of all things – did I start thinking about this statement when I was asked to write about painting? Why is my knee-jerk reaction to automatically defend painting? Not just to defend it, but to defend it here, in an arena whose purpose is to celebrate painting? Certainly part of it is my own self-doubt, but it’s also the subtle yet ever-present sentiment that we painters are still bumping up against: the idea that painting is never as topical, current, and imbued with content as newer – “edgier”, “groundbreaking” – mediums are.

One of the mantras I use to quell that inner voice is something that Joan Waltemath said as part of a panel discussion on painting in the mid-2000s. Joan was the first on the panel to speak and, with nary an introductory remark, coolly and self-assuredly began: “It’s a mistake to defend painting.” Continuing in her calm, authoritative, and elegant manner, she quickly came to her point. I’m going to have to paraphrase here, but it was something along the lines of, “Shut up world, the questioning of painting’s relevance should never have happened in the first place, so let’s get on with it.”

The modus operandi of much of my own artwork – and my personality – is the acknowledgment of doubt and defensiveness, in the hope that the acknowledgement of my own weakness will lead me to a place of chagrined acceptance. Maybe it can even lead me to a place of truth: the fact that painting, at the very least for me, is endlessly meaningful, limitlessly inventive, and absolutely and completely visually compelling. Or, I should say, painting has the potential for being all these things.

Just as there are films that I return to again and again – bringing a childlike satisfaction in the comfort of familiar stories, characters, and scenarios – there are paintings that I come back to over and over for the same reason. For many years one of my touchstones has been Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s 1785 painting, Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818) and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond (died 1788), which for many years hung in the room at the top of the main staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (an unavoidable location that only added to its power).

With fastidious, Neo-Classical technical skill (and yes we can argue about the pros and cons of hyper-rendering an image, but that’s a whole other conversation) Labille-Guiard depicts herself painting wearing a blue satin dress with stunningly well-depicted texture. The painting uses a classic triangular composition, with the figure of Labille-Guiard and her students creating a central pyramid-like form. Stretcher bars, maul sticks, and other objects act as diagonals that constantly loop our gaze back to the central figure. Although there is minimal background imagery, we do see a couple of plaster casts of classical statuary – one looks to be a copy of a roman bust. The statue seems to be gazing at the artist. Is it showing concern? Amusement? Disgruntlement? In any case it’s a funny aside on Labille-Guiard’s part.

The most impressive aspect of this painting for both the little-kid me and the grown-up me is that Labille-Guiard depicts herself working, with two female students watching over her shoulder. I get teary eyed every time I see it – the relaxed confidence and gentle smile with which Labille-Guiard has depicted herself. Maybe she taught only female students, and maybe that’s the reason she’s chosen to depict herself with the two young women here, but it’s nonetheless stunning to see an image of a female artist as teacher to female students. I began to notice this painting on early visits to the Met with my mother – I must have been 11 or so, at just about the time she gave me a compilation book of reprints of early Wonder Woman comics (with an introductory essay by Gloria Steinem!). The two women – one an 18th-century French painter, the other a 20th-century superhero – have always been linked in my mind and from that time on, Labille-Guiard has been a kind of Wonder Woman to me.
wonder woman
An entire symposium could be held on the meaning of this painting. Indeed, the Metropolitan’s wall text for it asserts that it “…has been interpreted as a propaganda piece, arguing for the place of women in the academy.” Although my writing here is about my own response to the painting – and not the art historical interpretation of it – I’m all for the interpretation of this painting, with its stunning technique and glorious, beautiful, and charming imagery, as a propaganda tool for women’s inclusion in the academy (“anything you can do, I can do better”, indeed). Not to mention the fact that Labille-Guiard painted numerous portraits of French royalty, yet was sympathetic to the French Revolution (or so says the wall text). But, for me, the painting is the work of an individual reveling in her role as a skilled, highly regarded professional, who could both make knock-out artwork and serve as a mentor to other women. Even as an 11-year-old girl I was onto this and it impressed me indelibly.

Most of my artistic output as an adult (and, come to think of it, much of it as a kid as well) deals with the continuous visual narrative of the so-called perfect life that the contemporary (and omnipresent) media culture constantly presents to us. I’ve been struck by the fact that contemporary advertising seems to know more about the kind of visual language Labille-Guiard utilized (and for that matter, Johannes Vermeer and other golden age Dutch painters) than they know about contemporary painting. One of my recent paintings depicts a zoomed-in section of a pink satin dress, worn by the actress Nicole Kidman, from an ad for luxury watches. The painting doesn’t actually include an image of Kidman, but focuses on the beauty of the satin fabric in the photo, rendered now by me with oil paint in as faithful a reproduction of it as I can manage. My intention is to bring the whole thing full circle by bringing the image back to painting. (Hopefully the underlying pathos I feel in undertaking this endeavor makes its presence felt in the piece.) Advertising – and not painting – is the contemporary arbiter of what is beautiful (a point made eloquently by Elaine Scarry in her 1997 book On Beauty) which is a bone-chilling thought. But, as problematic as it is, it also eggs me on, making me want to throw as many punches as I can. Maybe while wearing blue satin and holding a palette, brushes and a maul stick.

Julia picJulia Jacquette, Nicole Kidman (Pink Chiffon) I, 2013, Oil on wood panel, 18 x 20 inches

Notes:

At the time of writing this essay, (fall 2015) Self-Portrait with Two Pupils is on loan to the Grand Palais in Paris, as part of an exhibition of the work of one of Labille-Guiard’s few female classmates, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.

For many years Self-portrait with Two Pupils hung in the Metropolitan’s European Paintings 600 room, the painting Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie Denise Villiers hung directly opposite. The wall text for that painting asserts that it’s now thought possibly to be a self-portrait as well. For me, the Villiers always acted as a “daughter” painting to the Labille-Guiard: somewhat more modest in size and ambition, but with a tremendous quiet and presence. In addition, its position in the same gallery confirmed to me the importance of the Labille-Guiard. And, while Villers is not one of the pupils depicted in Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait, my own interior narrative of super-heroine passing on the baton to her protege suggest she is.

In the end, though, in my own mind, the companion painting to Labille-Guiard’s self-portrait is Philip Guston’s Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973), already written about in this publication by Brenda Goodman. For me it’s an equally impressive and meaningful self-portrait, but also lives in a sort of “paradox world” (to borrow a term from Seinfeld) when compared to the Labille-Guiard. Guston’s painting is lumpen, ugly, funny, full of pathos, and as full of doubt as Labille-Guiard’s is full of confidence (and bravura painting technique) but is equally as chock full of information about the artist and their position in the world.

Julia Jacquette is a painter who was raised and lives in New York City. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Unrequited and Acts of Play, will be at the Wellin Museum on the campus of Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, NJ. www.juliajacquette.net