Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Thu, 28 May 2020 22:17:10 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Ellen Harvey on the Disappointed Tourist | Art in Isolation Thu, 28 May 2020 22:11:10 +0000 It was intended as an exploration of nostalgia, to create a conversation across many different types of loss.

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Ellen Harvey in Studio with The Disappointed Tourist, 2020. Photograph: Etienne Frossard.


Getting out of bed after a month with Covid-19 and my studio seems both magical and somehow utterly strange. It’s as though the life I was leading when the world stopped is suddenly very far away. I had been rushing about, trying to finish a two-person exhibition for Turner Contemporary with J.M.W. Turner about the relationship between art and tourism. Now all the crates are sitting in storage just waiting. I’ve no idea what’s going to happen next.


Selections from The Disappointed Tourist, top row, left to right: The Brown Derby Restaurant, Sidney Dowdeswell’s Shell Garden, The Stardust, The Venice of America, Ramsgate Hoverport; second row, left to right: Margate Sundeck, Temple of Bel, Mer de Glace, Fairyland, Brandybucks; third row: left to right: Sutro Baths, Tower Records, Great Walls of Benin, Great Synagogue of Warsaw, White Palace; fourth row, left to right: Old Saltair, Great Barrier Reef, The Tunnel Tree, Idora Park, Bamiyan Buddha, Valentine Park. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, each painting 18 x 24 in. Photograph: Ellen Harvey.


My home studio is as I left it, filled with over 150 paintings from the now rather prophetically named The Disappointed Tourist, an on-going series of paintings of lost sites from all over the world, crowd-sourced in response to the question: Is there a place that you would like to visit or revisit that doesn’t exist anymore? It was intended as an exploration of nostalgia, to create a conversation across many different types of loss. Sites range from the intensely personal to larger cultural losses, from happy childhood memories to places of trauma, from victims of gentrification and technological change to places ravaged by climate change and war, from recent losses to the fabulous lost sites of antiquity. Looking at them now, I find myself particularly struck by how many people yearned for social sites: cinemas, amusement parks, bars, religious institutions, etc. Even before, people missed the kind of places that are now particularly out of reach. The project has taken on a completely different meaning. None of us can go anywhere right now. We’re all Disappointed Tourists.


Ellen Harvey, Monument for Ms. V, 2020. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, 18 x 8 in. Photograph: Ellen Harvey.


This last month, I thought a lot about the Plague Column in Vienna, a rather fabulous baroque excrescence that I’ve always loved for its sheer mad strangeness. It was erected by a veritable team of artists in fulfillment of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I’s vow, made as he fled Vienna during the Plague of 1670, to set up a “mercy column” if God would deliver the city. When I got up, the first thing I did was to make a small painting of it. I dedicated the painting to Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, who died at the end of March; she was only 54 years old. She was the first public-school teacher in New York City to die of Covid-19 and years ago she had been my son’s beloved second-grade teacher. She was a religious woman so I thought she might have appreciated the Plague Column. I hope so. I wonder if we will erect artworks once this is over. And if so, who or what will we choose to glorify?

I’m back now to painting The Disappointed Tourist. People keep on sending in sites and I’m feeling grateful for the human connection it provides. I used to feel keenly the inadequacy of symbolic restitution, of trying to repair in art what I cannot repair in life. Now, when I am otherwise largely doomed to inaction, I see it differently. Trying to create a conversation, no matter how limited, about what we miss is not the worst place to start thinking about building a world we can all love after this is over. This crisis has cast so many inequities into ever sharper relief that I can only hope it galvanizes us all into action.

If you’d like to submit a lost site just visit for instructions. It can be anywhere. All that matters is that you loved it and it’s gone and you wish it weren’t.


Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist: CBGB, 2019. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, 18 x 24 in. Photograph: Ellen Harvey.


Ellen Harvey is an American-British conceptual artist known for her painting-based practice and site-specific works in installation, video, engraved mirrors, mosaic and glass.

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Judy Glantzman on Obituaries and Shadows | Art in Isolation Thu, 21 May 2020 14:16:33 +0000 I have been painting portraits from obituaries on poured plaster/acrylic plaques since the pandemic began.

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All images from Judy Glantzman’s studio

I always work at home; the pandemic gives me a “time standing still” feeling which I like. I have been painting portraits from obituaries on poured plaster/acrylic plaques since the pandemic began. Once I decided to paint them, it was the most obvious thing that I could do. A tablet, a tomb, a memorial honoring someone I do not know painted as tenderly as I can. These plaster tablets, mostly 4”X5”, allow me to face the pandemic. I was hanging them on my wall, as I made them, but my 23-year-old daughter who is home with us found the wall too sad, so I set them up by my bedside.




Also I am making shadow drawings. A plant or flower casts a shadow and I trace it with watery acrylic, mimicking its color and opacity. The marks resemble clouds, ephemeral and organized; they feel like absence. I repeat these, creating a chain, a garland around the periphery, and combine them with illusionistic flowers (maybe the flower that cast the shadow), or a rendering of a cast brain, or with something emblematic, like my eye. Chance, illusion, and emblem are my visual parts of speech. They form, like a feeling, like a thought, on the tip of my tongue. They feel to me like free fall.




When the Pandemic began, I felt like maybe I’d only see friends remotely for the rest of my life. I went 100% to one extreme. Now I am acclimated to a floaty feeling: waking and sleeping at strange times, and normalizing the quarantine. In the beginning, I wrote that this was our Let Them Eat Cake Moment. I hope it is, but I am afraid that it will be the opposite: more divided, more unjust, more unequal. I hope for the collapse of the “machine” that co-opts art with money. I hope New York returns to a gritty and creative world. For now, I sit with the uncertainty.

I have been working with mourning for the past few years. We are in a collective mourning; for the dead, and for our country.



Judy Glantzman is a New York based artist and former instructor at RISD and the New York Studio School. She has received grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation, and the Pollock Krasner Foundation. She is represented by Betty Cuningham Gallery.

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Letters from Helen O’Leary | Art in Isolation Thu, 14 May 2020 13:51:30 +0000 While googling 'how to fertilize tree peonies and will they grow in the shade' I for a minute linger on the Washington Post main page and get enough in two seconds to know the world is bad.

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Helen’s Studio

To kick off our Art in Isolation series, I wanted to share with you some emails from an artist I’ve admired since I first saw her work in Chicago and later had the pleasure to work with at Penn State. Helen O’Leary is a brilliant maker of things, a Guggenheim fellow and Rome Prize winner, who learned from an early age on the farm in Ireland where she grew up how to make crude things into marvelous things, whether they be scraps of wood she’d later form into complex, three-dimensional, jigsaw-y paintings, or mere words that her mother required all her daughters (no men allowed on that farm!) to make into something to entertain one another at the dinner table. Here is some of that email exchange, begun in the first weeks of quarantine and still going on.
— Your Editor, Julie

*.   *.   *


How are ye doing, it is so damn weird isn’t it? This cell phone Zoom intimacy thing is madness; we will all get square heads out of it. I have no excuse not to tidy the barn. The first month I kept thinking it was provisional and I’d be back in our lovely house in Jersey City in no time, but now…5 hens later and a million plants ordered (my lovely student farm) I think life is forever changed.

Are ye feral yet? We definitely are. This morning Dan had a moment of realization that he should clean himself up for a Zoom call. I told him he was grand, as indeed, to my eyes all of this informality is just rounding the corporate corners off of everyone, and he, for a moment, believed me. He opened photo booth, and said, Jesus, no, I have to clean myself up, and has gone now on a long odyssey of a search for an extension cord so he can shave near a mirror and find a non- crumpled shirt. Good luck with that, is what I say.

We are, I repeat, feral, living in the barn, somewhat on top of each other. The barn is rustic, I never had a real kitchen here: studio downstairs, library in the stairwell and living upstairs…bohemian rustic. This little Nirvana was built as a bolt hole for one, not two, and it was shaped to my notions of do-ability and practicality.  Remember it took me years to accept the necessity of plumbing or a toilet and I only recently got a small fridge.  We have an Instapot and a little oven thing…it is a lesson in less, a lot less. Like children, who know every last bump and curve in their houses, we now notice every fault line in our immediate surroundings. We have become scholars of our own walls.

Dan is building a hen coop, I am building veggie beds. I whittle on my bandsaw and imagine very creative hen roosts out of our bits of wood that I’ve accrued throughout the years. I’m rooting away in the studio, lifting stones and prematurely planting soon-to-be-dead seedlings in the garden and minding hens. And then, in the middle of the ‘historic’ pandemic, the ‘historic’ polar vortex blast hit. My smug euphori: ‘why doesn’t everyone protect their plants with beer glasses’ didn’t last long, the garden is now a limp disaster. Two tomato plants survived, the one covered by the blender jug and the one in the double boxed bucket, all the other ones are once again compost. I thought using my supply of bubble wrap was a particularly genius detail, but no. So be it, I garden much like I paint, with a lot of shrugs… I keep forgetting where I have planted seeds and am sure I have planted one bed several times. I have stakes everywhere now, a Ucello battlefield, but have been consistently lazy with writing labels, thinking I will remember the lay of my land. How hard would it be to pencil in the name of the damn plant?? Anyway, no surprise, my garden is chaos. My news ration is still working, but things slip through. While googling ‘how to fertilize tree peonies and will they grow in the shade’ I for a minute linger on the Washington Post main page and get enough in two seconds to know the world is bad. Another google search of ‘why is my rhubarb scrawny’ leads me to the front page of the Independent, and it goes on, never a goal, always a meandering internet side jog.

I sound like I have a much better garden than I actually have, mine is scrappy and much neglected, like everything and everywhere I half-live, it is half-loved.

— Helen

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Helen my dear,

I read your emails with the same JOY as I read my favorite books – love love LOVED that description of your garden and gardening (despite your dead seedlings!) and your sculpture-turned-henhouse move is brilliant — perfect for the times!  The art world has changed so much, we’re obliged to rethink everything– how’re you thinking about that? And what are you doing with your days? What about teaching next fall??


*.   *.   *

I dream of Leitrim (Ireland)… it is becoming a bigger and bigger dream, and the life of less is now becoming the marker of success — we will all emerge from this as larger versions of ourselves, with the determination for a different life. I see myself on that damn mountain, with a run of chickens and a few drills of spuds as now the bigger prize. I used to see it as a retreat, now I see it as a goal.

I almost went for a walk yesterday with Jean, my first organized social distanced walk, got my mask, coat, etc, found the car keys and the car wouldn’t start!  Battery dead, so that was aborted.

I have been doing things I shouldn’t do, taking drives into deep PA, looking for Trumpian hand-written signs and just ‘getting to know’ my neighborhood. It is the opposite of perspective as we know it; the signs get bigger the further away I go. I am at a distance to this landscape, always have been and now is my time to learn it. It can be a dark place, I have lived here for so long, but haven’t readily journeyed beyond the studio or the university. Now with a phone, camera and a flask of tea I find towns on the map for the next adventure into our new reality. My next one is a town called Ullysess, PA, the white nationalist centre of the east coast; it is the heart of darkness.

There is talk of classes happening on campus in the fall, I don’t know what that will look like, with shared bathrooms etc. and non-automatic doors, everything fingered and spat upon…none of these schools were built with social distancing in mind. We ambled around campus yesterday, it was so surreal, a ghost town with occasional clusters of robed graduates and their masked families taking photos outside of shut buildings. (I kept thinking of the Mary Celeste ship that was found abandoned 400 miles off the Azores, with six-months supply of food, a lash of alcohol, no evidence of a struggle, and one missing lifeboat. As a child I was fascinated with the mystery of how an entire crew could disappear without a trace.) There were signs on some of the engineering buildings in big bold font announcing that you needed to be self-quarantined for 2 weeks before you could enter, but they were all locked anyway. I found the sign saying Heller had written Catch 22 here, a fact that has always made me smile.  He is supposed to have said it couldn’t have been written anywhere else.

We found the most magnificent trees, one gigantic Japanese maple all propped up with timber, one tree sacrificed for the continuance of the other. Who gets to be the timber, and who gets to be the tree? Isn’t that the question of the moment?

Off to count my chickens,


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Art in Isolation Wed, 13 May 2020 21:32:52 +0000 We are starting an 'Art in Isolation' series. Please share your thoughts on art during this time. Here are some of mine.

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Dear Readers,

Greetings from my separate studio to yours.

A note about what this next chapter will look like for Painters on Paintings: we are starting an Art in Isolation series. We are asking for your thoughts on art that is helping you through this time and also how your own practice is shifting. If you are interested in writing for us, please send an email.

*  *. *

I’ll start with some words about my last few months. I’ve spent them with artist friends upstate. As a single person, I’ve had the rare opportunity to live with three of the closest women in my life and their partners, closed off from the rest of the world, turned in towards each other.

My days have been strung through with gratitude. Not the kind that sits in the drawer collecting dust next to the ball of ennui, but the bright, county-fair-at-night gratitude, that shoots fireworks up my spine and waterworks down my cheeks at the smallest things.

There was an evening not that long ago (March 11th, says my calendar), when Julie and I (your co-editors) were standing among Kyle Staver’s comic, monumental figures in the Zurcher Gallery in the Lower East Side. I drove us there on empty streets. It was a room full of friends — our particular multigenerational painter community prone to unhip dance parties and general silliness. But the dj was sent home. We knocked elbows timidly and stole glances at each other over small glasses of white wine. Distance had sprouted up between us. We were already on the other side of something.

A few days later, an email informed me that Pratt classes would not resume in person this semester. I thought about this for a minute and then called Julie. “Mind if I move in with you?” I took the next day to pack my Subaru with a month’s worth of groceries and the essential art supplies – the ones that make the cut for residencies. I left the sculpey, the fish tanks, the half-renovated dollhouse and drove north.

I took the familiar route to Woodstock, to Julie’s home, which she has opened to me more times than I can count. Woodstock was a welcome sight – familiar from my time with her as well as a long stint at the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony. So, although the sidewalks were empty, each turn in the road was populated by a lively memory – teetering cones of Nancy’s vegan ice-cream, a surreptitious kiss behind Byrdcliffe’s pottery barn, the flailing bodies of the full moon drum circle, the bright bell of the door at Catskill Art and Office Supply. I paid the latter a visit on one of its last days and bought their entire stock of primed and unprimed canvas.

Even though I had oils and those endless virgin scrolls, I found myself working small. I gravitated to my friend’s 3-inch watercolor kit and a couple of half-dried gouache tubes and began making little drawings and washy sketch-paintings of the people I was with and the spaces I was in. What I didn’t sketch, I wrote down, in long fractured Word documents, documents which spawned other, longer, more fractured Word documents. I noticed I was collecting intimate moments and the memories of intimacy they recalled. I was an old lady collecting sea glass. If it was shiny, I picked it up.

My paintings are usually fanciful. They deal, not in flights of fancy, but in amalgams, imagined futures, chimera structures, and spliced landscapes. Some are warnings, some contingency plans. Most are spaces that have undergone some trauma and are in the process of rebuilding. I teach a class on world building at Pratt, with unit on utopian/dystopian literature and art as well as the apocalyptic and what comes after. I’ve been a devout reader of speculative fiction since before it was cool and dream about natural or manmade earth-altering disasters weekly. It’s in my bones, a child of ecologists who heard the canary call early. I shuffle and reorder destruction as a way of bearing witness to the real ills of the world and how they are doled out constantly and unjustly.

But now my hyperactive “what if” asking has slowed and my hand is gravitating more to the here and now. Julie too, who I consider a master of the imaginary, has been working on a longform piece of non-fiction. I won’t say more because that is her story to tell. But it makes me wonder, who else has turned to record keeping?

After a chapter at Julie’s, I drove to an artist friend’s house perched in the chilly foothills of the Catskills. As soon as I had set my last of fourteen grocery bags down, she announced that she was pregnant. We spent the next few weeks charting the changes in her body with awe. I sketched her napping, which she did quite often, and taking baths, which she did when she wasn’t napping. I liked mapping the swell of her body. I liked the finite time and energy exchanged over the course of a sketch. I talk about this in my drawing classes but had somehow forgotten its power. I also drew all kinds of other things: a friend’s Instagram livestream, my dream about the mermaid from Splash, goldfinch feathers I found by the pond, and the novel The Goldfinch.

Zaria Sleeping, 2020, Pencil on paper

At the same time, I’ve been drawn to other people’s non-fiction, confessional works. I’m listening to Perfume Genius on repeat and devouring Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Here is Ocean writing about Perfume Genius:

“Can disruption be beautiful? Can it, through new ways of embodying joy and power, become a way of thinking and living in a world burning at the edges? Hearing Perfume Genius, one realizes that the answer is not only yes — but that it arrived years ago, when Mike Hadreas, at age 26, decided to take his life and art in to his own hands, his own mouth. In doing so, he recast what we understand as music into a weather of feeling and thinking, one where the body (queer, healing, troubled, wounded, possible and gorgeous) sings itself into its future.”

I suppose I am looking both for advice on how to live through something hard, and how to spin art from it. I’m also weaning myself on Sugar Calling, a podcast where author and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed turns the tables and asks her Elders in the literary arts, including George Saunders and Margaret Atwood, for advice on processing and making work during this time. Saunders reads an email he wrote to his MFA students:

“This is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds… We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to make sense of this and recover afterwards… Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important… What you are able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now and what records you keep. Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart.”

I have no conclusions to draw. I will keep drawing what I see. And we will use this platform to archive other voices during this time. Thank you for helping grow this collection.

In gratitude,

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Like a Brain Scan: Amy Myers on April Gornik Wed, 11 Mar 2020 14:00:31 +0000 You experience the light through cumulus night clouds that gather then disperse within minutes, light ricocheting in groves of trees.

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April Gornik, Light After the Storm, 2012, Oil on linen, 78″ x 104″

My brain puts the paintings of April Gornik together as landscapes; I mean they have all of the obvious indicators of landscape. But, as I dig further, I see repeated complex structural systems, natural forces, phenomena. If you were to look inside your lungs you might see these types of gentle mixtures mixing, fueling, funneling. The viewer breathes with the painting.

What I was struck by most when I walked into the Miles McEnery Gallery to see her new works was how the atmosphere of the paintings seemed to extend out into the room itself. I felt like I was actually inside the space they were generating, experiencing the elements not only pictorially, but also physically. I noticed the trees, the light; I felt the wind, the temperatures, the void as the stark absence of light.

As I spent more time with the paintings, other sub-surface content began to percolate. I noticed an upside-down Latin cross repeated in the compositions. I noticed that, subtly, light formed a tentative hidden column in the center of the paintings that was like a ladder you could climb; as though, if you sat there and looked at it long enough, you could step up onto it.

Gornik’s paintings always allow access to light. There is never a blockage, an outage, or a shortage of light.  It’s always accessible, available, impersonal and personal all in the same moment. But it is integrated with other elements. You are always seeing the light through something else, through highly ephemeral, complex forces. Through matter and small pieces of time. You experience the light through cumulus night clouds that gather then disperse within minutes, light ricocheting in groves of trees, creating a glowing luminous presence, soon to be covered by clouds and extinguished. As in quantum mechanics, pieces of time are everything. But the light is never obscured. It lets you in.

In her moonlight paintings, the negative space reads like neurons, like a patterned map or neural synapses. The exquisite pathways and movements look like a brain scan.

April Gornik’s work is a visual narrative that transports the viewer through painted light, like taking flight in your dreams. But the transportive power of the light is in counterpoint with the ever present void. You have to be willing to stand within the void to be bejeweled by the light.


Amy Myers, Spin 2 Particle, 2015, graphite, gouache, Conte on paper, 60 x 68 inches

Amy Myers received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1999 and has had solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Tokyo, and throughout Europe. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Houston TX, California State University Museum, Greenville County Museum, Hudson Valley Center of Contemporary Art, PAMM, and the Nerman Museum of Art.

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Norm Paris on Max Ernst Wed, 26 Feb 2020 15:14:04 +0000 This is a portrait of a culture in the late stages of psychic rot.

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Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain II, 1940-42, Oil on canvas, 54 x 146 cm

I first saw Europe After the Rain II at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Max Ernst retrospective in 2005. I wasn’t really expecting to like the show. Back then I viewed Ernst as somewhat of a parlor-trick surrealist. But I was soon knocked out by the incredibly idiosyncratic physicality of his paintings and collages – aspects of which are flattened in reproduction. What initially struck me about this specific painting was the collision between the opacity of the pale blue sky and the translucent, stain-like, dirty, murky, warmth of the ground. The conventional horizon line implies a place that is tangible, but really the “ground” is just a bunch of squished paint that has been partially removed from the surface – the product of decalcomania. There is a conceit here: the landscape is only what it is because the opaque blue makes it so, seemingly clarifying form from atmosphere through stark contrast. But this familiar order is a wafer thin veil; this is not an ordered world. The painting bristles with incongruities; it is flat and spatial, heavy and weightless, Earthlike and Martian, rational and irrational. And beyond any of those dichotomies is a different truth; this place is an abyss in disguise. The sky is more solid than the land. I used to get the same feeling as a kid when I would look at clouds out of an airplane window, but this painting is…darker than that.

Europe After the Rain is a painting that physically embodies the trials of fascism (a good, if somber, reminder these days). Begun in Europe in 1940, the painting was left behind as Ernst escaped a Nazi-occupied France. He reunited with the substrate in New York a year or so later and finished the painting in safer environs. It was labeled as Degenerate Art by Hitler’s regime. And his critics had a point; Europe After the Rain is a painting that concerns the degenerate, although not in the way they were thinking. Hitler was looking in a mirror. This is a portrait of a culture in the late stages of psychic rot.

Puvis De Chavannes, The River, ca 1864, Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, 51 x 99 1/4 inches

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 56 x 32 inches

There is something body-like – both vicious and viscous – about the surface. It is as if the skin has been removed from the nationalist austerity of a Puvis de Chavannes painting. An elderly Goya might nod in solidarity with the nastiness of this space; a landscape seemingly made out of the same stuff as Saturn Devouring His Son. At the forefront of Surrealism, and Dada before that, Ernst’s use of decalcomania was interesting not only because the surface effect is so lush – although that is important, with its gurgling and intestinal ruin-like connotations – but also because the operation of applying and transferring paint from one surface to another allows Ernst to create something that he cannot control, and then use it as a stage for his own intuitions and editorializations. Maybe this wrestling with chance, or the attempt to control chaos, is a metaphor for his exiled status. What makes Ernst different from many of his imagistic peers is that he doesn’t directly describe Freudian dreams, at least not in his best work. Instead he uses material processes to liberate the imagination, thereby bringing to consciousness some of the operations of the unconscious mind.

But Ernst’s mind is confronting an external reality that resembles a nightmare. His painting becomes an act of protest via a dream state. It is the embodiment of his subjective experience provoked by the apocalypse of World War II. Max Ernst survived Nazism, but his unstable and churning painting bears an imprint of the depravities that he escaped.

Norm Paris, Monument II, 2019, Graphite on Paper, 100 x 72 inches

Norm Paris is an artist, curator, and teacher based in Brooklyn, New York. He has had solo exhibitions at The Proposition, New York, NY and Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, and is a professor at Rhode Island School of Design.

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Haley Josephs on Alice Neel Tue, 18 Feb 2020 02:02:06 +0000 I felt the awkward little girl in me stirring, a sense of vulnerability recognized and transformed into a different kind of power by this painting.

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Alice Neel, Isabetta, 1934/35, Oil on canvas, 43 x 26 inches

In some dark times a few years past, I was blowing in the wind like a tumbleweed.  Fresh out of graduate school, feeling more vulnerable and insecure than I had before entering, I found myself in a cold studio in upstate New York. In my work and life, I felt like an ice statue, petrified with fear. The one thing I wanted to do was paint, but besides being financially broke (and the anxiety that comes with that), I couldn’t shut off the voices in my head. I could still hear the voices of all the critics, visiting artists and professors that had come into my studio at the university and told me about my paintings. What was right, what was wrong. I didn’t know how to trust myself; I couldn’t hear my own voice. Just as I had when I was a child, I felt unworthy and wanted to shy away from my responsibilities, my emotions and reality. I sat in my studio, with my books and my thoughts, trying to come back down to earth and find the strength to stand back up.

If you open either of my Alice Neel books, they will each open to the same painting: Isabetta. Here stands a young girl (the artist’s daughter, age 6), fully nude, hands on hips, bushy brown hair, pale blue eyes that gaze past you, defiant. Her eyes gently flow through me, almost in the way a cat can look at you as if they know you. She dares you to test her power. Her legs are gangly but strong like two tree trunks, and her feet stand sturdily rooted to the floor. Although she’s completely naked, there’s no trace of fear at being seen. Instead, a sense of vitality arises from this image. What power could be possessed in the awkwardness of a young girl, seemingly unprotected? I felt the awkward little girl in me stirring, a sense of vulnerability recognized and transformed into a different kind of power by this painting. Somehow, through all my confusion and insecurities, something in me spoke up. This painting invited me to find strength and courage in an unlikely hero: a little girl stripped bare.      

It is because of some very unfortunate and also some very beautiful circumstances that I am even here. I’m sure many of you can say the same. It is especially true for those of us who were brought up in turmoil or uncertainty and are consequently subject to bouts of anxiety and depression later in life, or else choose to shut off completely.

To give some perspective as to why I think this image fills me with so much emotion, it’s important to explain a little of my own history. I was born in the shadow of my sister’s untimely death from gun violence, with an acute awareness of the fragility of (especially young) lives. Always feeling like an outsider, I awkwardly grew into adulthood, plagued by what I found out later in life is called “survivor’s guilt.” Starting out as an artist, I made my living by taking care of children, determined to nurture and protect their young lives. The incredible brilliance and honesty of the children in my life helped me to see beauty in small moments and develop a sense of awe. It taught me how to appreciate the child in me, the one that wanted to shy away.  

Alice Neel’s mother said to young Alice, “I don’t know what you expect to do in the world, you’re only a girl.”  What a thing to say to a child!  And yet, I know I’ve felt the same at times. What gives me the right? How can I stand up when the odds seem so slim? Younger as well as more mature bare female bodies are often portrayed in my work. I spend a lot of time worrying about how people will react. I often feel these bodies are overtly and needlessly sexualized by my audience, and that makes people feel uncomfortable. But by the term “audience,” I mean that I worry about the expectations of the monocratic, uncontested, male audience. It is engrained in the system. I am, by conditions set forth by centuries and centuries of male-dominated organization, taught to guard myself and my work against the ridicule of the classic norm, the patriarchy. But my work is matriarchal, not patriarchal. The heroic for me is the feminine; the norm is that of the She working within that structure. I have developed great respect for vulnerability and for complex emotions. Neel’s painting of Isabetta opened the door and showed me how to paint with honesty. It revealed so much bravery and is a reminder to work through obstacles, such as my fear of being judged and feelings of inadequacy that might suppress my truth.   

To those who feel uncomfortable at the sight of a young naked girl, depicted with honesty and integrity, don’t feel discouraged and try not to judge others for liking it. Just accept that this painting, this subject matter is not speaking to you, but try to acknowledge that it might be, for someone else. If you feel uncomfortable, it is most likely something inside you, not inside the painting. For me, Isabetta has become a totem; a symbol for the power of emotional honesty.   

I know that Alice Neel struggled through much in her life, including a series of mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, and the loss of loved ones. Through all of those hardships, she painted, creating works that would set a course for the many who followed her. Thank you, Alice, for paving the way and showing me there is space for emotional intensity and challenging the norms of how we view female bodies, emotions, and the parts hidden and unknown. There is a way to move through all that is strange and unpredictable in life and keep painting. As I sat frightened and paralyzed in my cold studio up north, Alice’s Isabetta showed me a way to stand up again. 

Happy Birthday Alice!
Born 120 years ago
January 28, 1900


Haley Josephs, When Times Are Hard, Just Remember the Serenity Prayer, 2018, Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

Haley Josephs is a Brooklyn based painter. She received her BFA in Painting and Drawing from Tyler School of Art in 2011 and her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University in 2014.  Recent solo and group exhibitions include Jack Barrett, New York, NY; Cleveland Institute of Art, Reinberger Gallery, Cleveland, OH; Capsule, Shainghai, China; Thomas Erben, New York, NY; Journal Gallery, New York, NY; Carl Kostyal, Malmo, Sweden; Diane Rosenstein, Los Angeles, CA.

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Raoul Middleman on the Master of the Osservanza Triptych of St. Anthony Wed, 05 Feb 2020 15:27:44 +0000 Their separate egos are hereby erased when the two saints conjoin in an embrace, which echoes the cave behind them, a cosmic hug of sorts, clinching the final humanistic coda of this panel.

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Master of the Osservanza, Triptych of St. Anthony, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches (each panel), The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Back to back, belly to belly
Well I don’t give a damn
‘Cause it doesn’t matter really. . .”
From Calypso song “Zombie Jamboree” by Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr.

I have been looking at this early fifteenth century triptych by Master of the Osservanza or years, making it a special diversion whenever I herd my students through the National Gallery in Washington.  Usually I am attracted to pictures that scramble brushstrokes with painterly aplomb. Why this fascination with a painting locked into late medieval tropes of narration? Why would a Jewish kid from 1940’s Baltimore feel a kinship with a medieval saint? Did the life journey of this monk remind me, in some small way, of my own, I ask myself? For me the crucial question hinges around why St. Anthony leaves the monastery in the first place; what, in his declining years, compels him to renounce the amenities of the monastic life and go it alone, hiking out with nothing more than a hobo’s bindle.

A partial explanation could be that comic books were the inspirational culture of my childhood. Stan Lee fully imagined his heroes in much the same way as Master of the Osservanza. He tells their epic stories and humanizes them at the same time.  Peter Parker has to deal with the normal struggles of a teenager.  You worry about a homeless St. Anthony waddling along in the desert.

The Triptych of St. Anthony consists of three panels of tempera on poplar that move in time from left to right, like a comic book, with St. Anthony as its superhero.  The first panel describes St. Anthony as a young man in the monastery; the second, his leaving the monastery as an old man; and the third, his wandering about in the world.

Master of the Osservanza, Saint Anthony Distributing His Wealth to the Poor, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches

At first St. Anthony is fully engaged in the routine of the monastery, distributing his wealth to the poor. Everything happens within a self-enclosed architecture. His back is to the inherent movement of the other panels; he is not going anywhere. The overall color of this first panel is red.  The third and final panel of this painting depicts the world journey that St. Anthony takes as an old man, along a winding spiraling trail full of starts and stops, that begins in the airy clime of mountain heights and culminates with his meeting with the Anchorite St. Paul in the desert. It is discontinuous in its design and is green.

The color of the middle panel, however — the departure of St. Anthony from the monastery — is a composite of the first and third panels, mixing the colors of the interior world of the Church with his pilgrimage into the world. It operates as a kind of unifying principal, a fulcrum balancing the seesaw of the first and third panels, the before and after that makes narrativity simultaneous.

The pivotal center of the entire triptych —specifically the very door through which St. Anthony steps out alone into the landscape — is but a languid flat plane; indeed the only plane totally parallel to the picture plane. How bizarre is it that here, the absolute central moment of the entire narrative as depicted by these three panels, a fraught ambiguity exists where St. Anthony confronts the uncertainty of his first steps into the phenomenological world; that this doorway, in its primal, innocent and vulnerable neutrality (much like the stance of Gilles in a portrait by Watteau), should react to the crisis with such listless resignation?

Master of the Osservanza, Saint Anthony Leaving his Monastery, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches

All else — steps, walls, and rooftops, even fragments of the outlying city itself — are wildly askew, in perspectival disarray.  One would think otherwise:  that the open door, making possible his exit from the confinement of the monastery, would break vehemently the claustrophobic exaction of the picture plane. But no, this quirky reversal of pictorial expectation is a disarming anomaly. The emphasis on the door as a neutral uninflected picture plane, as the central intermediary — the place where the interiority of St Anthony’s faith and spiritual calling, and the unfamiliar outside world, intersect — now acts as a foil to all the flying disarray of perspective ahead. This onslaught of empirical description becomes an active danger and an immediate threat at the very commencement of his journey. His first steps into the topsy-turvy world are imperiled by a wild and unseemly disorientation.

With just a backpack and cane, St. Anthony shuffles into a flagrantly uncharted and disheveled world, spiraling downward from mountaintop to forest, and finally to an ultimate clearing in the desert where he finds St. Paul the Hermit. Along the way, St. Anthony, stranded in the middle of nowhere, asks directions from a centaur. Out of what pasture of mythological origin does this cockamamie pagan creature appear? This is an odd epistemological glitch, a non sequitur in the medieval cosmos. St. Anthony is no longer protected by the infrastructure of Catholicism, the righteous exclusivity of its rhetoric. He is now vulnerable to a whole slew of heinous temptations, supernatural creatures and other egregious interlopers. Yet a dauntless and implacable St. Anthony soldiers on, like a Mr. Magoo on a metaphysical journey in an alien world.

All at once he vanishes into the thick entanglement of a forest (perhaps emblematic of some crisis, say, meeting with the devil, as legend has it, or suffering the proverbial dark night of the soul) only to surface into view again. Only then does he discover St. Paul the Hermit in the desert.

In this last and concluding scene, St. Anthony and St. Paul put down their canes and become one. Their separate egos are hereby erased when the two saints conjoin in an embrace, which echoes the cave behind them, a cosmic hug of sorts, clinching the final humanistic coda of this panel.

Amidst the conflicting doctrines of free will and predetermination, freedom is a narcissistic fabrication. The daily perplexity that pursues St. Anthony — all the pursuant doubts as he loses his way along a wilderness of tortuous footpaths — is the price of freedom. Yet his mission is nevertheless inevitable and fated:  to find St. Paul is to find himself. St, Paul is St Anthony’s look-alike, a homeboy in priestly robes and beads, an older version of himself.

Master of the Osservanza, The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, c. 1430/1435, Tempera on poplar panel, 19 x 14 inches

Whatever solipsistic pretensions St. Anthony might have assumed about the specialness of his journey, the perfectible singularity of his personal conceits are hereby dissolved upon the realization that St. Paul has been there all along, the first hermit to establish the anchorite monastic order. St. Anthony confronts the sobering reality that there is nothing new in its present avatar. His mission began as proud loner of the clerisy, trudging along mountainous slopes with priestly entitlement, only to descend in a backward spiral to a miserable hole in the wall, the cave — a stark contrast to the monastery he left behind.

The two monks put aside their canes so that now support comes from an overarching embrace of each other, a gestural universal whose future accepts human limitation and its fractured commonality.

Upon a closer look at the iconic magnificence of this final image —the hulking kinship of these two saints — it is the isolated profile of St. Paul that dominates.  St. Anthony is merely contributing as anonymous filler to the huddle; an acolyte subsumed into the clasping persona of St. Paul the Hermit. Here humility trumps vanity. By humbling himself to the dictates of the Anchorite Credo, St. Anthony Abbot both loses and finds himself. Could this boomeranging turnabout be the latent irony of the St. Anthony legend?

*                   *                   *

Just as the trajectory of history shows Napoleon repeating the conquests of a Roman emperor, or an aged Tolstoy, the journey of a St. Anthony, so my personal story as an artist picks up an uncanny vibration from the Master of the Osservanza Saga as well.

As a young artist I did giant Pop paintings of couples swiped from beer ads and porno mags.  These tawdry paintings featured grinning guys with big chins and flirtatious gals with big cleavage, all modeled with lots of volume against a vacuous background, a vast refrigerated zone suggestive of the monstrous benumbed acreage of Middle America. The vulgar impact of these paintings struck the fancy of the big pop dealer in Manhattan who persuaded me to move to New York, promising me representation in a top gallery and a salary sufficient enough so that I would no longer have to teach. He helped me find an old loft in the Battery overlooking the East River and Brooklyn. He took me along to dinner parties, introducing me to important collectors of Pop Art. I was included in a traveling Anti-sensibility show and the signature Pop Art exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum.  A fledgling in the New York art world, I felt “discovered”, fame and fortune just ahead.

However, as fate would have it, an unwelcome situation squashed my luck. The worst of the nightmare began when I became aware that this same fast-talking and cigar-puffing schmuck of a dealer was having an affair with my wife.  My refusal to go along cost me my marriage and career. I disappeared into the dealer ‘s mantra “What I can’t control, doesn’t exist”.  He put the kibosh on my work. No gallery would consider my billboard-like emojis of popular culture.  Blacklisted, I was flushed out of the system.

I was angry and felt myself psychologically stymied.  I needed a new beginning. Ambition faded into a kind of jaundiced bewilderment that prompted me to rebel against the whole Pop Art world, to take on the swagger of that grossly imperious establishment by going back to a retardataire, implausible, out of fashion dinosaur viewpoint — i.e., painting directly from nature.

Renting a studio in the boonies of Port Jervis, I started tramping through fields of muck, flies and cowpies, with my French easel strapped to my shoulder, in search for new vistas. I began knocking out countless plein-air sketches, sometimes five in an afternoon, in a furious commitment to the absurdity of painting landscapes in the 20th century. Most of these sketches I left unfinished. I wanted to find a personal truth, something authentic to my sensibility without it being glossed over, imposed upon or cosmeticized.

I found that the real landscape I was exploring was myself. To this end, I began a series of self-portraits— an incessant search for a genuine identity amidst the shifting flux of selves.

Because of the ever-changing light and mood of landscape, one is always in a rush to capture the raw sensations from the prism of nature. I found my instincts better suited to alla prima painting. To try to correct the image or make of it a perfect thing would be to overwork it and lose its freshness.  When I was a Pop artist, my paintings took a long time to complete. Appropriating images from media adverts, my painting hand was somewhat procrustean and mechanical. Now that I was in this new phase of painterly painting it was too dispiriting to copy from photographs.  The brushstrokes made from the actual observing of something became more engaging and opened up to spontaneity, accident and surprise.

I started to attend weekly meetings at an alliance on the Lower East Side, a gathering of strident and disaffected figurative artists whose careers were somewhat eviscerated by the power punch of Abstract Expressionism. I made friends with some artists a generation older than myself who became my mentors. I am thankful for the benefaction of these apostles of aesthetic creed:  the whirring analytical thought and insight of Louis Finkelstein; the good eye and impeccable taste of Paul Resika; and the lengthy conversations about Romanticism and the artist’s ego with Jon Schueler.

On my sabbatical to Europe, I made copies of old masters in the Louvre and, in Antwerp’s Musee des Beaux Arts, paintings by Rubens. I came to understand tradition first hand, that past and contemporary paintings could overlap to mutually extend the awareness of each of their meanings, the present informing the past and vice versa. Velazquez could be thought to be looking forward to Rothko in painting the gowns of his Infantas, gowns that hover and glow, in the space before his canvases, like clouds of glorious color.

Over the years, my paintings seem to accumulate farther from the hype and trends of the celebrity artworld. I enjoy painting portraits of friends, industrial harbor scenes, and still lives of dead fish gathered from the stalls of Baltimore’s Lexington Market, but also countless allegories, leftovers from my Pop days, spoofing Greek myths and biblical hoopla. The body of my work, painterly and expressionistic, is an avid search for a personal idiom that expresses my basic temperament, my scribble-scrabble Kilroy on the backyard fence.

*                   *                   *

Great myths and legends are like the shuffling of a loaded deck. It was destined all along that St. Anthony’s schlep would lead to St. Paul the Hermit. The shape of the cave at the bottom of the panel repeats the mountain shape at the top.  Time is reversed and incongruent spaces harmonize into one work of art.

Although the Sienese artist Master of the Osservanza (active 1420s-1440s) lived during the onset of the Renaissance, he did not avail himself of all the newfangled advances of optical know-how. He still had one foot in the Middle Ages, preferring to paint in an archaic decorative gothic style. St Anthony appears no less than three times in the scope of the third panel: first, as a tiny character roaming the steep slopes of the mountain; then, in his encounter with the stark frontality of the centaur who flashes him; and finally, merging into that colossal pyramid of collegiality at the end. In a primitive attempt at the illusion of space, increasing the size of St. Anthony on each occasion of his reappearance actualizes depth of field.

Unlike science, art does not advance as an improvement on what went before, disposing of its former truths as inapplicable throwaways. There is no expiration date on great paintings. Each work of art is rather an invention specific to its moment, yet always universal in the fabric of time. This masterpiece by Master of the Osservanza can be thought of as a dialectical construct between disjunction and harmony.  This telling of the story of St. Anthony transcends mundane description and, in a spell of magical synchronicity, illuminates the fraught moment between inner and outer worlds —casting light on my own aesthetic quest.

Raoul Middleman, Actaeon, 1996, Oil on canvas, 42 x 72 inches

Raoul Middleman is recently retired after 58 years of teaching at MICA, allowing him to wake up everyday early enough to paint the sunrise over the Baltimore Harbor, and then go back to bed.

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Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Thompson and the Case of the Vanishing Lady Tue, 28 Jan 2020 15:37:01 +0000 I wanted to draw your attention to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History, in which he looks at the career of painter Elizabeth Thompson as a way to think about tokenism, moral licensing, and being the first outsider to enter a closed world.

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Elizabeth Thompson, Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea, 1874, Oil on canvas, 36.7 × 72.2 inches, Queen Victoria’s Royal Collection

I wanted to draw your attention to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in which he looks at the career of painter Elizabeth Thompson as a way to think about tokenism, moral licensing, and being the first outsider to enter a closed world. Thompson painted the masterpiece The Roll Call in 1874, and it was hung in a coveted position in the front gallery of the Royal Academy of Art – an honor unheard of for a female artist. At the time when paintings were equivalent to blockbuster Marvel movies, The Roll Call traveled the continent drawing hundreds of thousands of eyes. With that much popularity, she should have been a shoe-in for membership in the Academy. But she lost by two votes and her next masterpiece was hidden in the Academy’s rafters. She then disappeared from the art world stage and it would be 60 years before a female member was elected. Gladwell’s interpretation of why is worth a listen. Link HERE.
Your Editor,

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Leslie Roberts on ‘Fire in the Evening’ by Paul Klee Mon, 27 Jan 2020 23:54:14 +0000 Klee presented the grid as a flexible container for ecstatic color.

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Paul Klee, Fire in the Evening, 1929, oil on cardboard, 13 3/8 x 13 1/4″, Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Joachim Jean Aberbach Fund, MoMA

I saw Paul Klee’s Fire in the Evening last week, newly hung on the fifth floor of the renovated MoMA. I was reminded how very small it is. I was reminded that most reproductions pump up its saturation, giving it electric blues, royal purples, and competing slashes of brilliant red. The painting is mainly an arrangement of chromatic grays. Near the top is a band of relatively pure blue. Of pure red, there is one rectangle only: the nested, hovering patch that’s not quite central and not quite square. In the world of that painting, no red could be redder.

I came relatively late to geometric abstraction. As a young artist, I found much of it programmatic and dry, especially, but not only, minimalism. Even after I understood Mondrian to be visual poetry, Agnes Martin’s grids seemed drab. Alfred Jensen’s, I thought, lacked subtlety. But I never questioned the luminous grids of Paul Klee.

Klee presented the grid as a flexible container for ecstatic color. To me, as a young painter, the minimalist grid, didactic and unyielding, loomed forbiddingly from above. Klee’s small grids, like Fire in the Evening, glowed from within.

Twenty years ago, I began working with geometry. Seeking unexpected visual relationships, I began diagramming words into grids of color. Suddenly, Alfred Jensen’s paintings shocked me with their majesty, Agnes Martin’s with their tender strength. A larger world of geometric painting finally revealed itself. But Klee’s grids had allowed me to enter that world and, for Klee, I had needed no key.

Fire in the Evening is perhaps the work of Klee’s I love most. In considering why, I keep wanting to say what it is not. I believe Klee might consider that a fine way to describe it. He writes in his notebooks:

A concept is not thinkable without its opposite . . . What does ‘above’ mean if there is no ‘below’?

Admittedly, in Klee’s writings, lists of principles alternate with ardent defenses of intuition, and one can likely find a quote supporting pretty much any position. But his statement about opposites is beautiful, and I’ll proceed in that spirit.

Fire in the Evening isn’t rigid, theoretical, austere, or conceptual. It isn’t oversized, bombastic, sensational, or dramatic. It isn’t expressionist, Cubist, constructivist, neo-Plasticist, hard-edged, color-field, or minimalist; it exemplifies no “ism” or movement.

It lacks elements important in some other works by Klee; it has no writing, glyph-like shapes, or networks of drawn or transferred line.  Klee’s inventive play with line and process affected the work of generations of later artists. My own work involves rule-based systems for organizing color, on panels inscribed with letters, numbers, and other linear structures. But Fire in the Evening is all color and no line. Its process is simply oil painting, organized in rectangles, on a thirteen-inch square of cardboard.

Despite the allusive title, it’s not, to my eye at least, an image. It’s an arrangement of blocks of paint that glow. It’s a small miracle of color abstraction.

In the bright, hectic atmosphere of the new MoMA, the painting looked unexpectedly modest. I wondered briefly if it had been installed with enough prominence. But then it pulled me closer, and I felt its gravity and steady inner light.

Leslie Roberts, CANARSIE LOCAL, 2019, acrylic gouache, ink, graphite on panel, 24 x 18 inches

Leslie Roberts lives in Brooklyn. Her most recent solo exhibition, “HOW THINGS ARE,” was installed at Minus Space Gallery in fall 2019. She teaches Foundation Light Color and Design at Pratt Institute.

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