Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Wed, 28 Nov 2018 15:58:35 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Zorawar Sidhu on František Kupka Wed, 28 Nov 2018 15:58:35 +0000 Within a year of exhibiting it, he would never paint like this again

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František Kupka, Planes by Colors: Large Nude, Oil on canvas, 1909-10, 59 ⅛” x 71 ⅛”

Planes by Colors: Large Nude is František Kupka’s only surviving large scale figurative painting. Within a year of exhibiting it, he would never paint like this again, instead developing a personal language of total abstraction. In that moment of transition, I think of this painting as a manifesto, a way to address the canon of Western painting while simultaneously declaring a departure from it.

Born in 1871, Kupka was educated in the 19th century Academies of Prague, Vienna and Paris. He was briefly enrolled at the Académie Julian which, at one point, had William-Adolphe Bouguereau appointed among its faculty. Bouguereau’s conservative paintings represent much of what I find to be problematic about French Salon painting of the nineteenth century — objectified, passive female bodies offered for the consumption of a primarily bourgeois male viewer.  Despite the subject of this painting, I don’t think Kupka was simply intending to make an object of desire for his audience. When it was originally exhibited in the 1911 Salon d’Automne, Planes by Colors, Large Nude was met with revulsion. In their reviews of the exhibition, the magazines Fantasio and Mercure de France described Kupka’s figure as decomposing, with diseased, infected skin.

František Kupka, Study, 1904

It seems that Kupka began this painting firmly planted in the conventions of nineteenth century academic painting. This early study, signed and dated 1904, only survives in reproduction, with its current whereabouts unknown.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, National Gallery, London

In a vaguely neoclassical gesture, Kupka borrows the pose of the figure from Michelangelo’s (now also lost) painting of Leda and the Swan. Without the swan, the picture is purged of its mythological and zoophilic content, thereby becoming an exercise in illusionistic rendering. The result is a literal depiction of the artist’s model posed on a chaise lounge in a dimly lit studio, which, for 1904 Paris, appears staunchly conservative.

From an academic standpoint, Kupka’s 1910 nude retains the studious rigor of the earlier version, with all the anatomical landmarks of nineteenth century figure painting indicated — the tenth rib, the xiphoid process at the bottom of the sternum, the olecranon at the tip of the elbow, etc — they are all accounted for. The crucial difference, of course, is the color. The title of the painting, Planes by Colors, explains the premise of the picture: each plane of the human body represented by its own color, as if it were a diagram. Presumably, if Kupka applied his color-coding system to his 1904 study, the result would be 1910’s Planes by Colors, Large Nude.

Upon close inspection, however, this proposition is a misdirection, as the planes are not single colors at all. In this detail photograph of the figure’s left knee, one can see the layers of Kupka’s activity through the painting’s presently cracked surface. Dry, crusty pinks are dragged over saturated oranges; yellows and greens are mixed directly on the canvas, and subtle yellow glazes nudge Kupka’s planes into differentiated surfaces. This is an exciting confluence of technical approaches for a painter at the turn of the century. Kupka draws from Cennino Cennini’s description of the Renaissance verdaccio technique, where the effect of flesh is created by layering pinks over a green underpainting, as well as from his contemporary Henri Matisse’s depiction of half-lit flesh as passages of intense green, as in his 1905 Green Stripe. In the crook of the knee, layered strokes of red, yellow and blue resemble George Seurat’s accumulated touches of pure color, while also harkening back to the hints of vermilion in Peter Paul Rubens’ hot shadows.

František Kupka, Planes by Colors (Detail)

František Kupka in his studio, 1906

I think Planes by Colors, Large Nude was an emblem of the space between the figurative realm and what lay beyond for Kupka, despite the relative lack of such painting in his oeuvre. Here he is in 1906, early in his career, when he was supporting himself as an illustrator. A painting resembling Planes by Colors hangs in the corner, perhaps on an easel, but already in a frame. Fifty years later, after decades of painting exclusively abstractly, the painting still occupied an important place in his studio:

František Kupka in his studio


Zorawar Sidhu, Last Day of Pompeii. After Karl Bruyllov, 2016, Latex ink on Backlit Film, 149 x 86 x 92 inches

Zorawar Sidhu was born in Punjab, India and currently lives and works in New York. He received a BA in the History of Art from Johns Hopkins University, a BFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and an MFA from Hunter College. He has exhibited projects with galleries and museums nationally, including solo exhibitions in the Museum of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Museum of The Town of Vestal, NY.

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Eric Fischl on Max Beckmann’s Departure Tue, 23 Oct 2018 13:30:20 +0000 The woman and man are eternally bound in a psychopathologically perverse interpretation of yin and yang.

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This essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue for Max Beckmann in Exile at the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo, New York on October 9, 1996. 

Max Beckmann, Departure,1932, Oil on canvas, Side panels 7′ 3/4″ x 39 1/4″, center panel 7′ 3/4″ x 45 3/8″

At the time that I “discovered” Beckmann’s Departure, in the mid-1970s, I was in a state of turmoil and discomfort over the abstract paintings that I was making. I had known Beckmann’s work, mostly through reproduction, when I was still a student. Attracted as I was to his paint handling, there was such a prejudice against any kind of representation in painting that I virtually ignored him as a possible source of inspiration or as a way into narrative painting.

I visited the Museum of Modern Art on a day when I was feeling either relaxed enough or lost enough to stop in front of this great work and ask it a few questions. For me, Departure, like all of Beckmann’s triptychs, seemed daunting. His iconography is both historical in a literary and eventful way, as well as personal almost to the point of being a private language. My fear was that I could never penetrate its content without first reading what he or others had to say about it. This I am loath to do, believing, as I do, that painting is and should be a direct experience of audience to painting, as it is for the artist, painter to painting.

I begin today as I did then, with the left panel and with its central figure, which I described to myself as a sailor, perhaps a pirate. Why do I think that? The shirt — the purple and black-striped shirt. It is a kind of uniform, neither military nor naval, but that of a sailor/fisherman/pirate. I think possibly pirate because of the way he wields that ax. It is malevolent. Ax? Yes, ax: like an executioner he is going to cut off the hands of the bound woman. He has already cut off one person’s hands. The whole scene reeks of destruction and chaos. Ax? Wait. It is not an ax. It is a fishnet with fish in it! How could this be? Were my associations wrong? Or has Beckmann painted images in such a way that they flip back and forth? Ambiguity reveals dualities of feeling as well as states of being. Here stands a man, executioner/fisherman/pirate/nurturer. I say nurturer because the fisherman brings fish to eat. Is Beckmann, by combining fishing with this violent scene, saying life feeds off death, literally?

And the woman? Tied and gagged, dressed like a whore, humiliated and offered up for sacrifice. Woman, the symbol of purity, mystery, innocence, and ruse. Beguiler and saint. Here stripped, not naked, but tarted up, debased as symbol and object of desire, object of love. Here, she is thrown over a large glass ball; her face peers into it. A glass ball? Not your butcher’s block! A glass ball like a fortune-teller’s. So, she still has powers! What does she see, this sorceress? The future? Underneath the ball is a newspaper: the front page of Die Zeit. “You want to know the future?” Beckmann is saying, “The future is on the front page of the newspaper. The future is what is happening today played out tomorrow!”

Why is our executioner/fisherman going to harm her? Cut off her hands, mutilate her? Is he going to kill the messenger? Beckmann had a thing about hands, and in this panel we see perhaps his most definitive and anguished statement. Hands: the first tool. What we clutch, what we release, what we build, what we destroy, and how we feel, literally and metaphorically, are expressed through the hands. So what we feel coming from this panel is a lot of anger and derision directed through the hands.

There’s a guy, his back to us, waist-deep in a wine barrel filled with water (a liquid anyway), hand tied behind his back — this guy ain’t going nowhere. What an expression of impotence! There is the other man, gagged, bound to a pillar (representing cultural and male sexual power?), his hands already severed. And, of course, the woman who is about to lose hers.

In the midst of such violence, a still life, absurdly large. Its specific meaning eludes me. It is a quiet moment in this tempest of insanity. It is the only thing in this picture that doesn’t need anything. Therefore, its experience must be purely aesthetic. The still life is an introspective, artistic reflection on the abstract problems of composition. Weights, balances, shapes on a flat plane and in space. Volumes, density, color, light — historically, the still life has been the humble expression of awesome metaphysical ambition. And here, Beckmann surrounds this still life with blinded eyes, gagged mouths, and mangled hands — all the tools required for the perception and expression of these values are damaged. This panel is a profound statement of outrage.

By contrast, the middle panel is the essence of calm and order, familial order. The nuclear family is here mythologized, elevated to metaphor, and given magical powers. It is the family of both royalty — king, queen, prince, and attendants — and holiness — Christ (the fisher king), the Madonna and child, and disciples. The father/king/Christ, is fishing. That is to say, he is holding a fishnet, but in such a stunningly blasé way! His back is to us, to the sea, and to the fish he has captured. He stands counseling/comforting his family. Beckmann here is brilliant. If you look closely at how he has painted the fish, you will see that he has with paint created a double entendre. You cannot tell whether the fish are swimming into or out of the net. In doing this, he reinforces the reference to Christ, for the fish is the symbol of the soul and Christ is both the gatherer and the releaser of the soul. So the middle panel appears to offer redemption from the chaos, violence, misery, humiliation, and disappointments that surround it.

There is in this panel, as there are in the other two panels, elements that I cannot be sure about. Like the oversized beak of an exotic bird and what appears to be a mask from some exotic culture in the background of the left panel or the strange architecture of the right panel, there are some things in the boat that I just don’t know what to make of. There is the man behind the mother/Madonna with what appears to be a pot on his head. A cooking pot! Why? There is also a soldier whose helmet shape makes him look very much like the large fish he is holding. What is that connection? There is also the fish itself. One could take a cynical approach to this scene by describing the king’s handling of the little fish in the net as careless, rather than the way I described him above, in lofty, metaphysical terms, as the gatherer and releaser of souls. I have always felt that the calm of the middle panel is akin to the calm at the center of a storm, a very bad storm.  

The right panel echoes the malevolence of the left panel, but also shows the resulting malaise. At the center is our family, no longer royal, no longer magical. The woman and man are eternally bound in a psychopathologically perverse interpretation of yin and yang. She is dressed in white and holds out a lamp, symbol of the muse, of wisdom and insight. She seems confident that she still knows the way, though I am not so sure. The upside-down man/lover/father is bound to her, and, judging form the wound on his back, is quite dead. “You always kill the one you love,” Beckmann is reported to have said, and, judging from the recent tabloid stories, he is probably correct. The offspring of this murderous love is, as you might expect, a dwarf homunculus, who tugs at his mother’s hem. Next to them stands a messenger blinded by his hat, which has fallen over his eyes. He carries a fish, which he is perhaps trying to deliver. I think, here, the fish is no longer the mystical symbol it was in the middle panel but has become a sexual one. Perhaps the messenger awaits the answer to the question of what to do with sex after love has been destroyed.

As I said earlier, the architecture of this panel is a mystery. It is colonnaded and balustraded, arched and stairwayed. The main characters stand on what is possibly a stage. In the background are people going up and down on a stairway. Where are they going? And why during the performance? In the foreground, we find our king sporting an ill-fitted golfing cap and an ermine and velvet waistcoat. What? No long robe? He is carrying and beating a drum slung around his neck. Somewhere between a bellhop paging Philip Morris in a hotel lobby and a vendor hawking peanuts at the ballpark, our king is soliciting some kind of attention. Tucked between the straps and the drum skin is a newspaper that calls us back to the fortune-tellers in the left panel. Is that what our devoted king is doing? Pounding on the drum to get us to pay attention to the headlines?

There is no summary that can be made of this masterpiece. I have thought about it ever since I opened myself to it twenty years ago. It is not a moral tale. There are no lessons to be learned. Beckmann is not calling for a shift in course. You cannot change what comes as a result of what has been; a murderous love produces a corpse. Departure bears witness to this in human nature. The brilliance of Beckmann is the insight he achieved by overlapping and conflating the various structures and times, political, social, mythological, historical, religious, and familial, in which we, both culturally and individually, have placed our beliefs, desires, and needs. I can almost hear Beckmann saying, “Read it and weep.”

Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene #1, 2003, Oil on linen

Eric Fischl is an internationally acclaimed American painter and sculptor.

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Dear Weather: Buzz Spector on Hobbema, Gainsbourough, & Vermeer Sat, 06 Oct 2018 16:03:25 +0000 Little popcorn puffs or higher, more distant, cirrus... a shorthand for how the duration of a painting allows for some time.

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“Dear Weather” was written on Sunday, December 9, 2012, while Buzz Spector performed as a “writer” in Ann Hamilton’s installation, the event of a thread, at the Park Avenue Armory. Spector hand wrote the text over a four hour period, interrupted by that day’s closing of the installation.


Dear Weather,

I write from the fleece and denim of this perch, this columbarium of regard, my back to the action in this room large enough to have a bit of weather of its own. The weather is always its sounds, of course, as well as its material and chromatic affects.

We regard the chill stinging pleasure of sleet on cheek; the melancholy of nacreous fog; the sanguine glow of an approaching storm; but all this touch and light are on us with sounds, large and small—oh, better said, loud or soft—to make of the one experience a reminder of its choral (communal) aspect. Is suffering in silence still suffering? We speak of suffering the weather, but it is not you who makes us suffer. We have to go out in the rain.

Weather, how is it that you offer yourself to the commentary of painters? I visited the Frick today with my wife and our good friends. We four enjoyed the luxury of the place, including its interior garden whose potted plants are lulled by the splashing fountain but also the murmuring visitors. The garden makes a little more wild air to breathe between looking at pictures. I write to report on the weather I saw in Hobbema, in Gainsbourough, in the window behind the soldier in the Vermeer.

Meyndert Hobbema, Village Among Trees, Oil on oak panel, 30 x 43 1/2 inches

The Hobbema, Village Among Trees, makes for its viewers only a short walk through weeds to reach its cluster of cottages. These homes are indeed nestled within an arboreal embrace. Tree branches reach around walls, peer over roofs, skirt the spaces of yards (or whatever was meant by cleared ground by the thresholds of peasants). The scene doesn’t bar us from entry, but neither has the artist run his path toward our regard. Why aren’t we closer? Why this distance, however modest, that makes the windows into lusterless frontings of darkness? Because the sky is the picture’s true subject. The heavy clouds fill its air with their ponderous mass. Cumulonimbus. Little popcorn puffs or higher, more distant, cirrus—impossible conjunctions of your real clouds, but a way for Hobbema to provide a shorthand for how the duration of a painting allows for some time. That is, how the time of making the work is something understood by its viewers as they give to it their portion of its accumulation of being seen.

Weather, do you suppose Hobbema gave thought to the long progression of this return? Of how the centuries to come would bring to his picture a continuing return on his investment? Hobbema’s clouds have gathered in the artist’s mind in order that their inscription in the scene mark the multiple seasons of his craft, close in one gesture or another, to the less extensive tasks of those villagers; pulling a weed, smoothing a pile of dirt, or even picking at one sore, one bite, or one crust of a particular meal. Hobbema’s brushes operate in similar fashion—rendering the dirt field one clump at a time, a thicket in sixteen strokes, a distant cloud in 100 gestures or more. Hobbema’s picture is still, but those clouds hint at an onset of weather.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park, Oil on canvas, 47 1/2 x 57 7/8 inches

Gainsborough’s The Mall in St. James’s Park seems to be all weather. The figures in their strolling, or else lounging at the edges of the scene, are barely physical. The gestures that conjure them have left paint in place as if it were a settling of cosmic dust. Only the three little dogs are given materialized forms. The sixteen women in their elegant dresses are diaphanous and disembodied, as if a rising wind could blow them away. Gainsborough has given us them as a collection of leaves, pinned to the canvas by pinheads of black and ultra blue; their eyes, eying each other in a play of status and social economy.

The scene shimmers, temporary in attitude at least, as a mirage. But when my gaze rises to take in the trees along the Mall, I shudder at the vivid and sour yellow of the sky. The movement of these figures is both framed by nature and erased by it. When one closes one’s eyes, the leaves will fall to the floor.

Weather, all the painters try to make you hold still. Stilled, the weather is proposed as something we can know. The stillness I speak of now isn’t yours, however. It isn’t even ours, except as the weather need be present in our history of fixing regard.

Thinking about the weather is itself a form of weather. Talking about the weather is already applying breath as an antidote to its effects. Painting the weather lends chemistry to speech in order that the weather stop (in the picture, at least) once and for all. But when we actually experience a lull in the weather – windless moment in the otherwise constant texture of the breeze, unaccountable pause in desultory splashings of a rain, instance of total whiteness in fog – such seconds can be dreadful. We are pierced by time only when it stops.

Weather, I am comforted by your constancy. Carry me with you through all my days. I’m thinking now about that little poem of Archie Ammons’s:
      The reeds give way to the wind
      And give the wind away.

Such little weather to provoke such economical closure. We’re recovering now from vaster weather, from a weather disaster with a sporty name. Sandy is the residue of beaches eaten by the sea, whose thirst required thousands of houses, leaving a salt flavor on so many lives. Weather, when you’re thirsty, woe betide us in our little vessels.

Thinking about the weather now, I become aware of a shift in the weather inside. I feel a wrap of coldness around my ankles, a tough of chill at my knees, while what of me leans above this page stays warm through the exertions of my writing. Do you feel yourself at work, weather? Are your forces marshaled in a play of gases?

There’s a history of eyes looking skyward, grasping the universal in the spray of stars, but only you, weather, can always see the stars. Perhaps cloudy nights are merely you wanting another look at them from the front of a point-of-view.

The elements of my interior weather come from sensory cues that seep into the narrative unfolding of my absorption. My task at hand occupies me in the comings and goings of what surrounds me here. Now passersby engage me as tableau escrivant, and even as this sentence unspools from my pencil so I see myself at work, not quite in my work now, having shifted to bring the sounds of the Armory into play. Murmurs, steps, creaking, the whispering reader, a child’s squeal, and a bell, from someone’s telephone? No, an actual bell, bringing a vibration of the mystical to what I am feeling here.

Weather, I am surprised by the beseechings of this crowd. The man who said hello just now added sotto voce, “I thought real artists draw instead of write.” I looked up to assess the speaker, then back to my task. Is there such a thing as real weather? Is a storm more real than a fog? Sleet more real than drizzle? What’s weather after all but its changes?

I wish to submit my weather report. The afternoon passed in the rain, the breeze of curtains lifted, then fallen, amid the scudding conversations. We all narrate the weather, don’t we? Pulling our beloved snow or fearful fog into earshot or in view. Mouth shut for the duration of this letter, my sleet, my drizzle, infuses a succession of pages that were until now so many parched fields.

. . . .

I return to my letter with a fresh supply of paper. Stepping away from this missive, I can recognize for a moment the exhilarating matter of writing itself. Weather, this is one of your secrets; writing the waves, singing the sleet, intoning the fog, inscribing all the world’s pages. I remember a line from James Schuyler’s Payne-Whitney poems, of Darragh Park coming to visit him, like “an exclamation point in the snow.” Schuyler, so often under the weather, was in a position to write as a weather vane, pointing ever in the direction of his interior winds. This may be another of your guises, weather, to dress reveries in various clouds.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl, 1657, Oil on canvas, 19.87 x 18.13 inches

But I’ve left another painting from the Frick out of this letter until now, the Vermeer, Soldier with Young Girl, or is it more simply titled Officer with Woman? I’ll do my research later, perhaps for another letter, but in this transcription I write of Vermeer’s weather. The officer has his back to us and we look past his red-caped mass and flamboyant hat at the woman’s face on which a smile is emerging, as marvelous and frail as a moment of sun through clouds. He’s said something to make her laugh, but Vermeer has given us no access to the joke. Instead, we regard its affect from a separate table, on our side of the picture plane.

To be present at the moment of a smile, to be its agent, is to be most present in weather. Vermeer has painted his picture with this belief. The officer is a near silhouette in the nacreous white marigold sunlight Vermeer has brushed onto his canvas to inscribe the weather beyond the partly opened window. That unseen sun smiles as well, and as well it should, seeing such stuff between these subjects.

Many years ago now I went to the Vermeer show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. I stopped in front of The Girl With a Pearl Earring for perhaps ten minutes, such greediness in the midst of the passing throng. She, too, was painted on the verge of an emotion, but one more subtle than a laugh. We made eye contact, she and I, and I went away content.

[This writing stopped when the singer began her concluding song]

Buzz Spector, Tower #1, 2016, Collaged dust jacket elements on ink on paper, 52 x 38 inches, Collection: Polsinelli, St. Louis

Buzz Spector is an artist who also writes about art. He currently lives in St. Louis, where he teaches in Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

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Rachel Youens on Horace Pippin Tue, 25 Sep 2018 14:23:59 +0000 I was struck by Pippin’s preference for angular, even knife-like, shapes and harsh environmental contrasts

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Horace Pippin, Abe Lincoln’s First Book,1944, Oil on canvas

As a young girl, on many a Saturday, my friends and I would rove through the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, taking in the galleries that housed dinosaur fossils and stuffed birds, ethnographic collections of distant lands, and art works. On one of those days, I noticed Horace Pippin’s painting, Abe Lincoln’s First Book (1944), and it became one of my favorites. What first drew me to it was its inky, tarred darkness. I was pulled into the oily, cracked surfaces, which conveyed both a mood of deep night and safe enclosure. I had never imagined that any picture could be made with so many densities of black and brown. Aptly named, the picture portrayed young Abraham in a windowless attic, reached by a ladder poking through a square opening, where Pippin imagined him to have retreated each evening. As my eyes adjusted to Pippin’s darkness, I would make out the furniture that lined the room’s wall: a barrel, a ceramic container, a burlap bag, a tied rope, and a hand-hewn stool. But more immediate was the silhouette of the boy, sitting up from his corn husk bed, stretched over the floor boards, reaching out from under his bear blanket with an extended arm to hold a book. Illuminated by the red flame of a candle waxed to a plate, Abe’s figure, a white stone-paste silhouette tucked beneath the spiky fur of the blanket, expressed a moment of radiating gladness. His face, turned away, was captured in a smiling profile, his eyes focused on the book’s spine, his handle-like hand reaching in the darkness below the gabbled roof. I was struck by Pippin’s preference for angular, even knife-like, shapes and harsh environmental contrasts and as I became acquainted with other works from Pippin’s larger history of Lincoln, I began to understand that such forms conveyed numinous themes of intimate forgiveness.

Horace Pippin, Abraham Lincoln and His Father Building Their Cabin on Pigeon Creek, c. 1934. Oil on fabric (later mounted to composition board), 16 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches

Pippin set Abraham Lincoln and his Father Building Their Cabin on their newly acquired land, under a crisp fall sky with oak leaves floating to the ground in early autumn. Son standing in front of father, each faced in opposite directions, arms like levers, axes in motion, and fallen trees around them. In the background, the cross-cut logs of the half-built cabin faced the viewer, while angled stumps of the once forested land stretched to the edge of the forest. Pippin’s painting, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator Pardons the Sentry, took place under a canopied tent at dusk, a lantern hanging at its apex. The deep blue sky entered through its entrance. To its left stood two Union soldiers. To its right, their shadows cast against the tent wall, stood a general and Lincoln, his hands upon the shoulders of the kneeling guard. Anecdote tells us the guard had fallen asleep at his post. In all three works, Pippin imagined intimate moments that often go unrecognized. He made them important, treating them with a high degree of formal invention, with an ethic that recognized such positive actions as enactments, which, along with the important things of ‘history,’ changed our future.

Horace Pippin, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator Pardons the Sentry, 1942, Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches

Andrew Carnegie’s Museum was a gift box burgeoning with artifacts and knowledge to educate the city’s workers. It was established in 1895, a few years after the Homestead Strike, during which he broke the Amalgamated Craft Union. I learned later too, that when Pippin was making his paintings during the 1930’s-40’s, the steel unions were in the process of integrating their ranks with ethnic and black minorities. I still don’t know when the Carnegie bought Pippin’s painting, but as an African American veteran of WWI, Pippin must have worked with a consciousness of these contradictory cross currents of history in his vision of an intimately heroic Lincoln.

Rachel Youens, Backstage, 2017, Oil on linen, 22 x40 inches

Rachel Youens lives, works, and teaches in New York City. She is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and Brooklyn College.

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Aaron Zulpo on Anthony Cudahy Wed, 12 Sep 2018 13:32:36 +0000 One man is found pulling leaves from a stem, as if counting down time. Another man stares longingly at a pile of petals.

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Anthony Cudahy, Bruegel, 2018, Gouache on paper, 11 x 8.5 inches

Rifling through someone else’s studio is complete fun. I always feel like a detective trying to find the impetus for an artist’s creativity. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Anthony Cudahy’s studio to check out his new paintings. They are all headed to 1969 Gallery for a solo exhibition opening on September 13th. Like all good studio visitors, I went for the stuff that was tucked away, since I wanted to uncover the truth of Anthony’s process. I rifled through all his sketches and hidden paintings and discovered a young artist who has developed a mature style with a Charles Burchfield- like constancy. In a stack of loose paper sketches, I found several old master copies. Anthony handles the subjects proficiently, translating the studies into his own unique language. This was especially evident in a Breughel study. Here was an artist with a complete and beautiful way of portraying the world, and not even the art of his predecessors could change his vision.

Cudahy’s works are mostly figurative, except for a few still lives, and an image taken from nature. He describes everything with an efficient use of line and shading that is a cross between Edward Munch and Luc Tuymans. Cudahy embodies a surprising amount of emotion in simple shapes, or a carefully placed area of rendering. His figures seem lifelike and mobile. His forms are placed in graphic compositions that suggest a clear sense of space. Strong lights and darks contrast, creating drama, like in an Anthony van Dyck painting. When he uses colors, it is also done simply and elegantly. Many of his paintings are just two tonalities; a dull juxtaposed with a phosphorescent. At times he uses a fuller palette which is always carefully arranged for maximum impact.

Anthony Cudahy, Arrangement, 2018, Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

After succeeding in disorganizing his studio, I turned to his newer works. My favorite, Arrangement, has a perfect title because its very design is arranged for the viewer to fit the pieces together. This painting is reminiscent of a Last Supper scene, with an angled table, like Tintoretto’s. A group of alizarin crimson red men gather around a pink phosphorescent table. The figures are situated in a dark room, fiddling with flowers, with contemplative looks on their faces. Two medieval inspired demons dance above their heads holding a long rope. The mood is grave. One man is found pulling leaves from a stem, as if counting down time. Another man stares longingly at a pile of petals. Perhaps this figure is out of time while the person next to him, who looks a lot like Cudahy, has a flourishing bouquet.

So, what is the “arrangement”? Anthony doesn’t let us know, but instead provides us with many clues. Is it the arrangement of life and death? Could it simply be the flower arrangements? Perhaps it’s about seating assignments or even a deal with demons. The composition is perfectly arranged, using the table’s angle and a crescendo of red hues to lead the viewer’s eye across the frame to a two-headed person gazing at a man holding his bouquet upside-down. Did this man upset the arrangement? As I try to figure it out, I realize I am just like those figures in his paintings who are deep in thought, reflecting upon the situation while the demons gleefully dance, stringing me along. Perhaps the marvel of Arrangement, is that the calculations are unending.  

Anthony’s large figurative paintings feature complicated emotions and bold compositions. They are a joy to look at, not to solve but to join in with, to sit down with at the table and throw in your lot. 

Aaron Zulpo, Rooftop, 2018, Oil on canvas, 72 x 50 inches

Aaron Zulpo (b. Chicago, Illinois) is an artist in New York. He is a narrative painter who explores themes from love to cowboys. His work is part of “Wacky Western” with Visions West Contemporary, August 10 to September 9. Currently commission paintings for Greenwich West are on display in the form of billboards and posters in Lower Manhattan. He is curating “Knight Errant” by Kevin Sudeith at Project: ARTspace opening September 12 and going to October 13.

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Upcoming: Painters on Paintings Panel at the National Academy with Eric Fischl, Peter Saul & Dana Schutz, moderated by Julie Heffernan Sat, 08 Sep 2018 18:58:57 +0000 Please join Painters on Paintings Co-Founder Julie Heffernan for a panel with Eric Fischl, Dana Schutz, and Peter Saul at the National Academy of Design on Sept 25th. These celebrated artists will discuss the work of other artists they admire. Tickets HERE

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Please join Painters on Paintings Co-Founder Julie Heffernan for a panel with Eric Fischl, Dana Schutz, and Peter Saul at the National Academy of Design on Sept 25th. These celebrated artists will discuss the work of other artists they admire.

Tickets HERE

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Brian Alfred on Jo Baer Tue, 04 Sep 2018 15:15:35 +0000 Its minimal linear elements raced around the side of the canvas and played with my expectations of where paint would normally be.

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Jo Baer, H. Arcuata, 1971, Oil on canvas, 56 x 244 x 10cm, Daimler Kunst Sammlung, Stuttgart/Berlin

I remember the first time I saw Jo Baer’s painting ‘H. Arcuata’. It wasn’t at a museum or gallery; it was the same kind of encounter I had with most art that hit me as an undergraduate at Penn State University. It was in a magazine. Even in print the painting knocked me out. It was so unlike any other work I had seen up until that time. It was painted three years before I was born in 1971. The stretcher was just deep enough to separate it from the depth of a normal canvas. This seemed a purposeful choice to make the painting more sculptural in its read. The muted color resonated with tones of wallpaper—the kind that surrounded me as a child in the 70’s. The painting was oddly hung as well, at a lower height than usual. Its minimal linear elements raced around the side of the canvas and played with my expectations of where paint would normally be. Most of the central area of the canvas is left empty. This gives space and air for the color on the edges to sing and seems to give them more speed and movement. I was unaware that, at the time she made the painting, Jo Baer was one of very few women who cracked the male-dominated art world. I was also unaware of just how radical these painting moves were at that moment in the history of art.

As a developing artist, be it in visual art or music or other forms of expression, finding license to make decisions and assertions is the foundation of creative development and realizing one’s own voice. Every physical and conceptual micro shift in art is made permissible through the paths laid by people willing to make untested decisions in their work. Jo Baer demonstrated this herself by stating that Rothko had “given her license to work with a format.” These revelations in seeing inspire through their bold pushing of the envelope into unchartered territory.

The minimal austerity of ‘H. Arcuata’ seemed exotic and perplexing at the time. The hand was at once present in the physicality of the object, and removed in the gesture and authorship of the paint application on the canvas. During the same period when I saw ‘H. Arcuata’, I was listening to a steady diet of Autechre, Squarepusher, Aphex Twin and other electronic musicians in the studio who seemed similarly to be removing some of the ‘hand’ from the instrumentation, and migrating to sonic explorations mediated through the computer. This music was very exciting at the time as it felt fresh, new and very much tied to the moment. What I didn’t realize until much later were the connections between this music and prior inventive sonic explorations. In 1971, the same year ‘H. Arcuata’ was painted, Philip Glass started composing ‘Music in Twelve Parts.’ I have no idea if Jo Baer was aware of his music but, to my eyes and ears, they have a very similar sensibility. Rhythmic, looping, ethereal, smooth, beautiful and seemingly slightly detached, almost authorless. At the same time, unmistakably, the creator’s work. Something was in the air.

Jo Baer’s work in the early 1970’s is by no means without a like community, but what stood out to me among the many other minimal artists of the time is that it floated. It blurred the often crisp lines of conceptualism, intent, purpose and message. It asked questions– made me ask questions– about what painting could be. It didn’t tell me so much as it lured me in with its seductive surface and tilted my expectations at the same time.

In my own work, I am endlessly infatuated with balancing between poles: yin and yang, beauty and chaos, stillness and dynamism, quiet and noise. This is the feeling I am always trying to achieve and why ‘H. Arcuata’ is such a foundational piece for me. As a young art student in college, seeing that painting made me question my expectations about what painting could and should say. To this day, I am still asking that question.

Brian Alfred, Fitness Pool, 2018, Acrylic on canvas on panel, 30 x 40 inches

Brian Alfred is an artist based out of Brooklyn, NY. He is the host of the Sound & Vision Podcast which features conversations with artists and musicians and he teaches art at Penn State University.

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Michael Torlen on John Torreano Fri, 24 Aug 2018 15:03:52 +0000 “Less is less, and more is more. No more, no less.”

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When John Torreano began his talk about his exhibition, Dark Matters Without Time, on March 24, 2018 at Lesley Heller Gallery, he did so from behind a black curtain. Like a performer entering the stage, Torreano pushed the curtain aside and his head appeared. It quickly disappeared leaving only the covered doorway in view. The audience laughed. Torreano repeated the peek-a-boo gesture several times and then emerged with his arms wide, welcomed to a burst of applause. He said, dryly, “Now, for this talk I wanted to start with one of my earliest pieces. It’s a performance piece. I call it peek-a-boo.” When the audience laughed again, John said, “You’ve heard of it.”

Torreano delivered his remarks with humor, irony, and an impish smile, all qualities familiar to those who have followed him throughout his career. “His joy is infectious,” said a viewer. Then the artist continued, in a more serious tone, “I like the idea of peek-a-boo because for me it serves as a kind of template for the rest of my life as an artist. Because it has another aspect to it that I like to have be a part of art. It appeals to everybody. You can go to little kids in the rainforest and do peek-a-boo with them and they will get it. You can do it with little kids on the streets of New York.” After a pause, he said, “Apparently you can do it with adults too.” The audience laughed. “So what is it?” he asked. “It is artwork because it is a disruption of your expectation of constancy.” He likened this structure of expectation to comedy. Audiences often laugh at jokes because of the disruption of constancy when the teller strays from expectation. He also speculated that peek-a-boo probably has psychological origins from when all of us were children, and that is why it is universal.

What does it mean to say that art is a “disruption of your expectation of constancy?”
What is constancy and how does it relate to art?

Constancy, in perception, is a term used to describe the tendency to ascribe unchanging attributes to phenomena in spite of changes in position and/or luminosity. The size, shape, color, or brightness of persons, places, and things appear to be the same even though they may be farther away, interrupted, or viewed from different angles or in different kinds of light.

Here is an example: One day while I was driving along a familiar roadway, I realized that what I was actually seeing was quite frightening. I noticed the roadway was getting smaller. The cars parked on the side of the road also appeared smaller, and the cars farthest away were very small, too small for me. Had I actually believed what I saw, I would have turned around and started to drive back home. Only then, I would realize the road back home had the same strange appearance; it too seemed to get narrower and narrower.

If I actually believed what I saw, I would never drive down that road, or any road for that matter. I would stand, frozen and afraid to move. Because every place I looked, I would see everything getting smaller. People would walk away from me and as they did so, they would appear to shrink. Even those familiar to me, the greater their distance from me the smaller they’d appear. Buildings and trees all would appear to diminish in size. If I did manage to get back to my house, and to a safe haven, I would see it too was a very odd shape and size. None of my rooms would look rectangular. The ceiling would seem to converge away from me, just like the roadway. And, if I turned around, I would see it sloping the other way. I would think I was going crazy.

Each human eye sees a monocular, flat world. With two eyes, we can see spatially. However, we all have had to learn to see depth. We have had to learn that we do not see the world as it is, nor do we see it as it visually appears—the world is not always changing every time we move our head or eyes—and even though familiar people, places and things may appear to change, we expect and assume constancy. The constancy principle seems to relieve our anxiety about the visual information entering our retina and the brain overrides and re-organizes the information into coherent, reliable objects and spaces, people, places and things. Constancy underlies perspective and most of the other visual cues in painting and drawing.

We all develop our perception as we learn to know and understand the world. What we “see,” believe, and know may be very different from one another, depending on nurture, our environment, and culture, but our perceptual systems are more similar. Torreano would argue that is why art can appeal to everybody. The constancy factor operates regardless of environment and culture. If any of our familiar people, places and things are interrupted, especially when we expect them to remain constant, there may be tension, contradiction, delayed gratification, mystery, emotional joy, fear, or anxiety, depending on the context. For Torreano, this is one of the conditions of art. He said, “To a certain extent I think that’s how art works too. You expect certain things, and then you are surprised, you get something different.”

Later in his talk, Torreano discussed the title of his show, Dark Matters Without Time, and his process in relation to his subject. Dark Matter and outer space have captured his imagination for years, providing speculative, unanswered questions and contradictions. The fact that scientists can identify where dark matter is, but they do not know what it is, fascinates Torreano. They picture it as black or dark blue biomorphic shapes, but they invent the color. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle provides another example of apparent contradiction: scientists can know where a particle is located, but they cannot measure its speed. Conversely, they can measure speed, but cannot know, at the same time, location. In painting and drawing, if a viewer sees materials, they will lose sight of the image and the illusions. If they concentrate on the image and the illusion, they will not see the materials. These and other simultaneous contradictions are precisely where Torreano’s thinking is most vibrant, his artistic choices challenging, and his art practice speculative, questioning, and contradictory. 

John Torreano, DMs & Hot Stars, 2015, Acrylic paint & gems on plywood panels, 84 x 84 inches

Throughout his career, Torreano has continued to question categories and resist labels. He had on his studio wall the following sign, “Less is less, and more is more. No more, no less.” His arguments about the definitions and categories of art — whether it is a painting or a sculpture, flat or spatial, craft or fine art, myth or fact, mysterious or rational, evidentiary or superstitious, decorative or plain, opulent or crass — are fuel for thought, creative stimulation, rather than ideas or positions to be defended. Torreano sees art making as an intellectual process of inquiry, not just a visual process. In this regard he is like a scientist, interested in questions as well as answers. He has been a comedic performer, a teacher, made paintings, sculpture, wall objects and columns, jewelry, glass vases, installations, and is the author of a book on drawing. Torreano’s work, like the work of one of his mentors, Richard Artschwager, is very difficult to categorize. As he says of himself, “I am an odd-ball.”     

As an abstract artist, he aligns himself with Modernism, but is not a Greenberg essentialist. Modernism’s essentialism argued that when photography replaced painting as a descriptive function, that function was no longer necessary. Therefore, painting should feature its essence, its means— surface, texture, paint, color, and flatness—rather than use those means for other ends. With Modernism, the means became an end in itself. However, Torreano reasoned, if an artist followed the Greenberg path, the rules would lead to a loss of particularity, as the tendency to integrate overwhelms diversity, and the kinesthetic cliché pervades.

What might this statement mean—the loss of particularity, as the tendency to integrate overwhelms diversity and the kinesthetic cliché pervades?

To answer this question, here is another story. One artist I knew had a habit. His habit concerned his hand. Every time he made a mark with his charcoal, his other hand smeared the mark. Every time he made a drawing, he used the same marking pattern; he smeared and blended his marks. All his drawings looked consistent, and integrated, because all the marks were smeared, but the drawings lacked contrast, contrast the artist wanted but could not achieve. He was stuck with his habit and he knew he was stuck—no matter what he tried to do his drawings always looked the same.

His habit was a kinesthetic cliché, caused by an unconscious muscle memory pattern. By smearing every stroke, he gained the satisfaction of unity and a consistent “style,” but he could not do anything else. The kinesthetic cliché only prompted him to do more of the same. His habit overwhelmed his intentions.

Why didn’t he do something else and stop smearing? Artists, like other human beings, are pattern-seeking animals. When we hear “Dah dahdah, dah-dah,” we have a strong tendency to want to complete the pattern with dah-dah. Once a pattern is established, we respond by wanting to complete it, and to do so quickly and in the simplest terms. Marking habits create visual patterns. Holding onto the gap between the emerging visual pattern and its completion, suspending the desire to finish it, and tolerating the anxiety of not-knowing are required for the practitioner to overcome the kinesthetic cliché in painting and drawing. This is determined by the laws of visual perception. When a visual organization integrates, as for example when kinesthetic clichés dominate, the only new marks that will also integrate and “work” are marks consistent with the underlying visual organization. In other words, kinesthetic clichés want more of the same.

John Torreano, aware of the kinesthetic cliché and the organizational principles underlying their power, has adopted a strategy he calls “Impossible Collisions.” By superimposing layers of dissimilar information, and using tools of both painting and sculpture, he creates an epidermis that is complex and contradictory. Then he resolves the collision. Specifically, he begins his eight-foot square paintings by layering a field of dark matter, biomorphic shapes derived from scientists’ images of black holes, onto four 48” plywood panels. Next, he introduces another marking pattern, often from a very different astronomical source such as a Nebula. On top of that, he superimposes configurations borrowed from another source, such as a Cézanne painting. Next, he introduces physical layers. He will paint in a field of colors, often duplicating the tones and color choices he discovers in scientific astronomical data. Using a router, he will then cut into the panel, exposing a layer of the panel plywood, use a sander to “erase” color marks, drill holes for jewels and balls, and paint thickly and thinly. As the painting develops, colored marks, holes, jewels, and balls provide location points for other marks, holes, jewels, and balls.[1] The diversity of accumulated visual information is formidable, complex, and, at times, overwhelming.

In his process, he tolerates a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. By allowing different marks, configurations, types of contrast, figure-ground flips, materials and color to live on his panel, he avoids the kinesthetic cliché. Then he has to try to figure out how to resolve the work, to give it a central tendency. He does so using his painting and sculpture tools. For the viewer, the panels are a delight, full of discovery and surprise; they reveal the artist’s process. Contrary to the exhibition title, there is a sense in which the paintings are temporal; by carefully examining the surface, the viewer can follow the sequence of actions and the color events, much like reading a narrative. 

John Torreano, DMs & Hot Stars (Detail), 2015, Acrylic paint & gems on plywood panels, 84 x 84 inches

Torreano suggests that his approach is analogous to contemporary consciousness. Stimulants from many different worlds, simultaneously chaotic and contradictory, fill our minds. We struggle with knowing and not knowing; angst, doubt, and apprehension are palpable in virtually everyone today.

His capacity to tolerate anxiety and contradiction may be one reason Torreano seems quite comfortable teaching and working at NYU in Abu Dhabi where he has taught every year for one semester for the past seven years. In fact, He made several of the works in Dark Matters Without Time in Abu Dhabi. His choice of scale, jewels, and gold leaf create the impression of sophistication and elegance, luxury and affluence. An artist friend, Gary Bower, wrote to me after seeing the exhibition:  “Perhaps as interesting as the show was his positive and enthusiastic description of his life in Abu Dhabi. The glowing report caught me. Of all of the examples of late capitalist, obscene excess– oil oligarchy– is there anything that competes with it? It hasn’t bothered John…”

The limitations of the human mind, the inability of language to be precise, and the realization that human perception is always conditional are existential facts of human experience. Torreano knows that nothing is certain, that much in this world arrives by chance, and it is up to us to connect the matters, dark as they may be. 

Michael Torlen, Target (from Memento Mori), 2018, Acrylic and Flashe paint on canvas mounted on panel, 30 x 27 inches. Photo: Jay York

[1] Using a field-marking approach as a guide for additional and approximate marks is a characteristic of many abstract, Modernist paintings, such as Jackson Pollock’s.

Michael Torlen, Professor Emeritus, Purchase College, State University New York, earned his BFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art and his MFA at Ohio State University. He maintains a studio and lives in Westbrook, Maine. @michaeltorlen



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Raoul Middleman on Paul Cezanne Tue, 14 Aug 2018 15:19:39 +0000 There is almost a metaphysical postponement of finish throughout these portraits, a hesitation as if waiting for an informant of the future to complete them.

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Paul Cezanne, The Artist’s Father Reading L’Evenement,1866, Oil on canvas, 78 x 47 inches, National Gallery of Art Washington DC

Crude primal catastrophes from a limited talent.  So might seem the paintings in the first rooms of the exhibition of Paul Cezanne’s portraits at the National Gallery in Washington —  portraits of his uncle Dominique and his father, Louis Auguste, reading the newspaper with one klutzy foot crossed over the other — all raucous likenesses slathered on with reckless abandon. Using only an intrusive palette knife, Cezanne applies the paint like a plasterer in a hurry to finish the job. These emboldened mishaps of expressive energy, much like his early narratives of revenge, rape, and murder, are at odds and so quarrel with the righteous legacy of this artist.

Paul Cezanne, Portraits of Uncle Dominique, 1866, Oil on canvas

Cezanne was part intellect, part animal; a stern contradiction buried deep in his character made the resolution of his paintings nigh impossible. Yet, right from the very beginning, all of his paintings are stamped with the same raw gruff power that constitutes his voice and authenticity as an artist.  As Merleau-Ponty pointed out in his essay, “Cezanne’s Doubt”: the Catholic (as Cezanne preeminently was) argument between Free Will and Predetermination held sway over his entire oeuvre. Regardless of whatever anguish and indeterminacy daily plagued his paintings, they were all nonetheless fated to have a stubborn inevitability, this overall consignment of persona: Cezanne could not avoid being Cezanne. Like Clifford Still, who once revealed about his painting process, “I paint like I mean it”, Cezanne’s paintings have a fierce intentionality, a clear identity, an insistency of self like a flexed muscle.

The opposite of this is Picasso.  He could mimic anything — Greek, Renaissance, African, You Name It — a veritable parrot. Sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, forever a flaneur of styles. And, yet, the central who of him was always up for grabs. His was a protean career of exploitation, a buffoonery of con and irony that set the tone for Modern Art. He stole from art history only to give it the metaphorical finger. In one engraving of the head of a Greek Goddess — done in a continuous line so skillful as to challenge the very idea of perfection — the burin winds up, in the last sweep of its arrogant imposture, cruelly slashing through the eye of the Goddess, not only destroying the serenity of her gaze but the entire pretext for its braggadocian engagement. Only in his last etchings — where looming mortality, lust, and impotence locked arms to fuel his anguish — did he suffer a crisis of authenticity that forced him to finally admit, in old age, of his failure to ever fully express a singular vision; and this admission alone became his triumph, tantamount to his vulnerability, his truth of self.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Man (Detail), 1905-6, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 21.5 inches

Unlike Picasso, Cezanne was not so fabulously talented. He had to earn the respect of his modest genius by hard work and long hours, and the niggled progress of his work came to him slowly.  An admirer of the 17th Century artist Nicolas Poussin, from whom he incorporated a whole intellectualized system of geometrics, comprising a rhythmic interplay of cone and cylinder, Cezanne endeavored to stabilize the flux and bustle of his paintings, and thus to enhance the tension between the flatness of the picture plane and its volumetric intrusions. His design finally surfaced as an altogether new language of painterly synthesis, tautly held together in its phrasing as if by a Latin grammar — a simultaneous presentation of a logical progression, the beginnings and endings all perceived at once, a continuous reciprocity of a fractured universe juggled into balance.

In 1873 Cezanne joined Camille Pissarro to paint landscapes around Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise.  They painted side by side and shared the same motifs.  Under Pissarro’s influence, Cezanne thinned his paint and lightened his palette, tracing the escaping shapes of the motif with shimmering lines of ultramarine blue.  This became a long apprenticeship for Cezanne, the harnessing of his basic temperament to a classical restraint by painting small patches of color to record his “sensations” prompted by the landscape. For thirty years he persisted in this discipline, humbling his inner malaise to a strict accountability of what was directly before him, the thereness of the scene. He daubed on a swarm of parallel strokes derived from Nature, all mainly the same size with the same slant, thus imposing upon the canvas a grid-like uniformity to entrap the chaos of a fleeting and unruly Nature, in the effort of unifying all that turmoil into some kind of Transcendent Absolute.  The desperate flurries of brushwork in the later landscapes, however, such as those of Mont Sainte-Victoire, seem to vibrate with a kind of cosmic nervousness. His was a struggle to dominate this disjointed landscape, not only the ambiguities of its space, or the shifting prism of its light, but the very soul of its presence.

What Cezanne wound up actually painting were his ontological skirmishes with the nature of reality itself.

Paul Cezanne, Seated Peasant, c.1900-4, Oil on canvas, 28.3 x 23 inches, Musee d’Orsay, Paris

When Cezanne finally got back to painting portraits, he cut loose from a strict diet of classical infringements. The contemporary radicalism of these last paintings is owing to the almost irreconcilable fusion of two antithetical circumstances: one, the increased ability of his painting chops to manipulate the language of painting; and two, a belated return to the original ham-fisted expressionism of his early years. “Temperament”, which for Cezanne seems to have meant “Passion”, took over in this abrupt return to the first blunt instincts of his talent.  For instance, in the Soutinesque “Boy in a Red Waistcoat”, the ballooning ear and the way-out-of-proportion arm — expressing perhaps the awkwardness of adolescence — are indicative of an intrinsic wacky outlook. The same goes for “Seated Peasant”, c.1900-4, where the enormous hands and tiny head challenge the conventional credulity of outward appearance; or the giddy tilting of a sullen Hortense in the Metropolitan Museum’s version of “Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress”.

Paul Cezanne, The Gardener Vallier, 1902-6, Oil on canvas, 42.3 x  29.8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

By far the most dramatic evolvements in this return-advance were the portraits of Vallier, the Gardener.  In an outdoor sketch of the seated gardener, the distinction between figure and ground is all but eliminated.  The dark tonality of the surrounding verdure of the garden takes over not only the jacket of the sitter but his entire presence in the painting, leaving only his one cyclopean eye to stare back at the viewer, as if this was the audacious gaping of Nature, intruding as a third eye upon the neutrality of otherness. And even more bizarre are the last two crusty paintings of Vallier, painted in the heavy blues and greens of his earliest paintings.  Whenever the old beggar was unable to sit, Cezanne would dress himself up in the gardener’s garb and take his place in the paintings. The hand lying in Vallier’s lap makes a vacant grasping gesture, a hole or salient gap in the painting’s progress, left bereft and inconclusive, a deferment of functionality. Lets say it could be filled-in by either Vallier’s pipe or Cezanne’ palette. By amalgamating the vestiges of the old beggar with the old artist, Cezanne has painted, surreptitiously perhaps, his last great self-portrait. In his uncanny pairing with this peasant in his employ, Vallier, conceivably a symbol of Everyman, Cezanne (who abhorred human contact and disliked being touched) has outrun the reach of his paranoia to forge a new paragon of humanistic expressionism. However roughhewn and blatant, Cezanne’s final statements insist upon an almost sculptural tactility, an impasto of brushwork where subject is one with pigment and touch. In this way he became, in these monumental late portraits, the unforeseen precursor of Soutine as much as Cubism.

There is almost a metaphysical postponement of finish throughout these portraits, a hesitation as if waiting for an informant of the future to complete them. Only a lifetime on the edge, riddled with doubt and uncertainty, coupled with an allegiance to the problematics of Art, could explain this anomalous lack of resolution. It is this fraught threat of a leap into The New that confers upon this unlikely genius the soubriquet “The father of Modern Art”.

Raoul Middleman, Gallery wall from 2015 MICA exhibition: Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman’s Self Portraits, Photo by Robert Salazar

Raoul Middleman is an artist living in Baltimore, Maryland. He is on the faculty of The Maryland Institute College of Art.




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John Michael Byrd on Kelli Scott Kelley Sat, 04 Aug 2018 20:47:49 +0000 To my eyes, this is a love letter to the maternal archetype—the maternal ideal.

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Kelli Scott Kelley, Orphaned Twins, 2009, Acrylic, paper, canvas,  48 x 30 inches

When I told my partner I was thinking about writing a piece on Kelli Kelley’s work, he said: “You know, she is probably the perfect example of the nurturing free thinker – a real maternal ideal.”  It’s a profound thought, he is absolutely right.

I first met Kelli as her student in the early 2000s, and we’ve continued to work closely together as I made the awkward transition from student to artist to gallerist and eventually to an educator myself. A true kindred spirit, our sensibilities converged on a shared love of material, Jungian analysis, and a strong belief in the necessity and endurance of myth-making. And, as with any gifted educator, her aesthetics influenced me and my fellow students as much as her gentle touch and selfless positivity.

The vast majority of Kelli’s substantial body of work is surrealist at heart, but it is all clearly rooted in the exploration of materials and media: paintings, films, sculptures, prints, drawings, performance pieces, even a book (Accalia and the Swamp Monster). One can’t help but admire her unfailing tenacity and willingness to delve into new materials and create with fearless abandon.  But here, I’d like to focus on one of my favorites.

In her painting, Orphaned Twins, pictured above, a female figure stands on all fours in a long prairie skirt, topless, suckling two small wolf cubs. Hovering above the figure is a long scroll of paper exiting the carriage of a manual typewriter. The ribbon of paper stretches from the writing table to a kitchen chair across a plane of implied space. Biomorphic forms dot the canvas, somewhat akin to germs in a Petri dish. A small stack of books occupies the foreground.

This piece takes its cue from The Capitoline Wolf sculpture, which depicts the mythical She-wolf suckling the orphaned twins Romulus and Remus. But, Kelli subverts the image in her piece, flipping the maternal character to human form and the twins to wolf cubs. It’s an enduring motif in her work: human/animal relationships and bonding. To my eyes, this is a love letter to the maternal archetype—the maternal ideal. I see, in some ways, an expression of doubt and a clear struggle between protection and detachment. The inclusion of the books and typewriter serve as a conduit for the continuation of a dialogue with the maternal force, which cuts a strong path through art history, from the Pieta of Christ and Madonna, to Jan van Eyck and Botticelli, to Mary Cassatt, to the drawings of Jenny Saville.

Here, the wolf, as pack animal, is the archetypal mother, both nurturing and protective. Is this woman a changeling? Is she representative of the many roles the mother must play? I think she is a shrewd embodiment of the conscious and unconscious; the incessant turmoil between reality, such as it is, and the enormous maze of illusions and symbologies just beneath the surface.

A certain maternal awareness is evident in her treatment of the ground as well.  An undercurrent of domesticity recurs in Kelli’s imagery and material choices: repurposed linens, recycled fabric scraps. The undeniable footnotes to traditional women’s crafts are evident in her use of hand embroidery, stitch work, grommets, and layered ephemera. I think the purposeful nature of these recycled/repurposed grounds attests to environmental concerns that are related to the animal imagery, a canny awareness of cultural imperialism and, to an extent, a sentimental stereotype of the feminine.

It is not lost on this former student that I have selected a piece of Kelli’s that depicts young creatures receiving nourishment from a maternal entity. The influence of her role as a teacher is unmistakable in her work; the material, imagery, form and color reflect her nature as an eternal student and educator. This symbiotic dichotomy operates on many levels in her work. She is both keeper and infinite seeker.

John Michael Byrd, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, 2017, Watercolor and acrylic on transparent mylar, 30 x 25 inches

John-Michael Byrd’s work is focused on absurdity and the uncanny in an attempt to resolve the gap between the artificial and the real. He works at the School of Visual Arts and is writing a collection of prose inspired by his collages.

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