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

Jennifer Coates on Paul Gauguin: Pork Talisman (re-post)

the-ham-1889.jpg!BlogPaul Gauguin, The Ham, 1889, Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 22 3/4 inches

Paul Gauguin’s ham is like an archeological dig site with remnants of the porcine ancestor embedded in its terrain. The untamed progenitor of domesticated pigs, sus scrofa, or wild boar, haunts the charcuterie. Fatty streaks subdivide the flesh strata like fossilized bones in clay-colored earth or like a Paleolithic drawing in a meat cave. Pigs, who huddle in muddy wallows in fellowship with their brethren, are killed, chopped, salted and drained of blood. The legs become an edible delicacy after a period of months. “Cured” of its animal state it becomes food for humans, a symbol of both abundance and death, offered up on a round silver plate. Beside the pork sits eight small pearl onions and a glass of red wine. The still life casts a crepuscular shadow on the hot orange-yellow wall behind: the encrusted, fading residue on the glowing back wall implies demise, a radiance that foreshadows an end.

The small onions appear like speech bubbles from an imaginary mouth of the skull-shaped ham: a rhythmic tumble of bulbs that are actually repellant to animals and cause tears in humans. The involvement of onions in lachrymation – a cleansing and lubrication of the eyes – is a blurring which engenders a clearer seeing. In ancient Egypt onions were placed over the eyes of the dead; oaths were sworn on onions. “Onion” is derived from the word union or one, it has been seen as a symbol of eternity, a metaphor for uncovering layers of truth. In a basic biochemistry experiment, visible strands of DNA can be easily extracted from them: onions have more DNA than humans. A descendant of the wild allium, in the lily family, the onion is also one of the oldest cultivated vegetables.

The glass of dark liquid reflects two of the onions and a flush of red flesh. A picture within a picture, the onions appear to hover over the surface of the blackish wine like sea creatures at night – vegetal emanations of the murky deep. The drinking glass is like a petri dish, a vessel that contains transformations. The wine is a product of fermentation, of the bubbling action of bacteria on fruit: a “boiling” that hastens rot, as yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Wine is a symbol of blood, a sacrament of redemption with narcotic effects.

Glass, plate and table theatrically present evidence of the human intervention upon flora and fauna. The sloping legs of the table are a calligraphic flourish that echo the streaks of fat in the ham and indicate surplus: the fat of humanity that requires trimming. The vertical wood beams along the back wall with rhyming decorations painted alongside them reinforce the hard-won illusion of warmth, comfort and familiarity against the cold, empty vastness that constitutes the majority of the material universe. These are all structures “united to hold up the edifice” – as Gauguin wrote in his essay On Decorative Art, referring to art within the church upholding Christian ideology.

In The Ham, the animal speaks of the vegetable, which recalls its bacterial ancestry. Culture (along with all its accouterments and distractions) is the by-product of microscopic dots and dashes. As Gauguin wrote: “What are we? Daily existence. The man of instinct wonders what all this means.” The pig, the onion and the grape sit together within the circle of domestication, cultivation, and agriculture: within the limits of history. The circle demarcates a threshold beyond which chaos lurks. In this epic painting Gauguin creates the visual equivalent of an etiology and a doomsday prophecy of life on earth.

Picnic #2 48 x 48 inches, acrylic on canvas, 2014Jennifer Coates, Picnic #2, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

Jon Rappleye on Joseph Stella

2003.3Joseph Stella, Dance of Spring (Song of the Birds), 1924, Oil on canvas, 43 3/8 x 32 3/8 inches

I believe it was at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City where I first saw this jewel of a painting from across the room, beckoning me to come closer. I am not clear on the details, but I remember it was not a large painting, although I stood in front of it for a long time, mesmerized by its seductive power. I felt as if I had made a new discovery, so profound, like discovering a new planet. It was Dance of Spring (Song of The Birds) by Joseph Stella.

This was my first encounter with the artist Joseph Stella’s symbolist paintings. Most of us know Stella for his futuristic-industrial paintings from art history class. He was influenced by the Italian futurists in works like The Battle of Lights or his ambitious, monumental NewYork Interpreted-Voice of the City, an epic five-paneled piece. Full of innovation and complex iconography, it is considered by many art historians to be one of the masterpieces of American Art.

Stella’s subjects are diverse, ranging from nature to technology to birds and bridges. Underlying all of his subjects is an interest in and subjective use of symbols, not an established use of known allegorical references but a modern, personal individualism. These works I find strange, ambivalent, oddly ambiguous, mystical and seductive.

tree-of-my-lifeJoseph Stella, Tree of My Life, 1919, Oil on canvas,  83.5 x 75.5 inches

After my encounter at the Kemper Museum I decided to further investigate the works of Stella. I was surprised and fascinated by what I discovered, but one particular piece stuck with me and continues to hold me spellbound. In Tree of My Life, a sort of Garden of Eden is presented, bursting forth with an abundance of life- flowers, birds, fruit, butterflies and vegetation. Like many of Stella’s works, symmetry plays an important role: a duality of contradictions, forces of light and dark or good and evil. You can almost smell the air, fragrant with flowers and fruit, a garden of earthly delights where fruit, vegetables and flowers become phallic and fecund. Stella’s narrative is a complex synthesis of abstraction and representation. The central tree figure bursts forth in a circular form, like a mandala or Native American dreamcatcher; light emanates from its center, an antenna simultaneously projecting and collecting information. A sky of cobalt blue cradles this circular form. A tangle of branches and tendrils creates a strangled tension. According to Stella the bulbous and deformed tree trunk represents “the first fierce struggle in the snare that evil spirits set on our path”. The act of art making was a divinely spiritual act for Stella; his Christian leanings can be seen in many works depicting Madonna and Child.

I have always had a strange attraction to the oddballs, those characters who are not easily categorized, who don’t fit cleanly into the pantheon of art history. I appreciate works of art that I can get lost in, that reveal themselves slowly over time. I appreciate their detail, their complexity in execution and content. Over time, Tree of My Life has continued to reveal its secrets to me, hidden within its fantastic frenzy.

2-2Jon Rappleye, Oh What a Beautiful Symmetry We Are, 2014, Acrylic and spray paint on paper, 52 x 40 inches

Judith Linhares on Marsden Hartley

G31094_R, 3/12/09, 12:40 PM, 16C, 6282x5031 (81+2124), 112%, Repro 2.2 v2,  1/20 s, R17.6, G7.5, B20.8
Marsden Hartley, Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy1940, Oil on hardboard, 40 x 30 inches

Acadian Light-Heavy is the very picture of erotic longing. The image has lived in my mind since I first saw it in reproduction in 1975. It was years later that I saw the original at the Chicago Art Institute. Today, version III is featured in the inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum. What I first noticed about this painting is that the figure appears to be looking at me from his chest. My attention is drawn away from his face and towards his body by the bull’s eyes of his upper torso. A light coming from the lower left side and slightly behind him illuminates the space he is standing in with sloping red and orange paint. He is forward in the space of the painting and backlit. The short brushy strokes that represent body hair are both comic and descriptive of the figure’s manliness. This painting is not a simple portrait, like much of his work, Hartley creates an image that transcends portraiture and reveals a type. I see an archetype of the virile man.

The almond shaped eyes are outlined with light. This is a handsome face but the body is what Hartley wants me to focus on. His body in relationship to the frame of the painting leaves spaces that are small in relation to the mass of the figure. The fighter has no hands; his genitals are sheathed in a dark cloth leaving just a suggestive shape. At first, we are struck by the overall shape of the body. The painting is modest in size, 40 x 30 inches, the simplification of the form and its placement in the frame of the canvas make the figure feel totemic and monumental. The play of light and dark is dramatic; the figure is modeled with dark reds and yellow ocher mixed with patches of orange. The highlighted areas of the neck and torso are clear strokes of yellow ocher and white. The paint is applied with directness and follows the contours of the form, adding to the man’s dramatic presence. Seeing version III of Acadian Light-Heavy at the new Whitney reminded me how you can know a great painting, but its presence will still surprise you.

In 1975, when I first encountered this painting, I was reading Linda Nochlins’ feminist texts contrasting traditional representations of women and men in western art. My take away was an irritation with how often women were represented as passive, depicted naked or nude, and how they seemed always to be agents of nature. By contrast, men were often represented by their vocations – be it knight, fisherman, carpenter, or King. For the most part, men were not represented as vulnerable with the exceptions of Christ and St. Sebastian who were often shown half-naked, dead, or pierced with arrows. The painting Man of Sorrows by Marten Van Heemskerck, created in 1532, shows a well–developed Christ with a light cloth fairly dancing around his groin. Identified by Leo Steinberg in the essay “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Painting” this is a fine example of an exposed man, powerful in his vulnerability. Representations of half clothed men interest me, as they might reveal the hidden side of sexual dynamics and gender politics. The man in Acadian Light–Heavy is mostly naked but takes an aggressive, totemic stance. This great Marsden Hartley painting is not only a work of personal desire, it challenges social norms and contains mystery in the simplicity of its form. What is the place of the body in the imagination and what is its part in being human?

WaterJudith Linhares, Water, 2012, Gouache on paper, 30 x 41 inches