Painters on Paintings A conversation between contemporary artists and their influences across time. Sun, 24 Feb 2019 15:28:49 +0000 en hourly 1 Painters on Paintings 32 32 Julie Heffernan on El Greco Tue, 05 Feb 2019 15:23:55 +0000 El Greco emphasizes this theme of separation—head from body, conceptual realm from sensorial realm, upper half from lower half, white from black.

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El Greco, Portrait of Hortensio Felix Paravicino, c. 1609, Oil on Canvas, 44 1/8 x 33 7/8 inches

El Greco’s painting of 17th century Trinitarian preacher and poet Hortensio Felix Paravicino portrays a man of extreme sensitivity, its directness and compositional simplicity suggesting a degree of intelligence and psychological nuance on a different order from most other El Greco portraits.  He painted many portraits, but this is one of the few where he paints more than just the head and upper body of his sitter.  And he makes some distinctive compositional choices that stand out as more provocative and metaphorically rich. What was he doing here? Was he giving us a sagacious portrait of an actual man, someone who was himself wise? Or was he trying to paint something greater than the man himself, something tantalizing, surprising and possibly inspiring on an entirely different level of contemplation?

Fra Paravicino is not a generic or neutral subject. Although a connoisseur of art, he attempted to censor nudity in painting, stating, “The finest paintings are the greatest threat: burn the best of them.” These are extreme views even for 17th century Spain, especially in light of the fact that the King himself had a collection of such works, as did many of his courtiers. Those words of Paravicino’s were never published in the pamphlet he wrote them for, and one wonders how much El Greco was aware of them. Nevertheless, he employs a number of mechanisms that subtly suggest what kind of man Fra Paravicino might have been, or conversely what El Greco might have wanted him to be. 

The painting is starkly lit, with a subdued color palette that, on the face of it, reads primarily black and white. Compositionally, it is divided in half with the upper and lower body bisected at the half way point by the bottom edge of Paravicino’s black chasuble, suggesting an inherent split — either in the man himself, between his upper and lower selves, or in his belief system, between higher and lower (or baser) realms.  Furthermore, El Greco creates an almost perfect square arising from the top of that bisecting line, by conflating the rectangular back of Paravicino’s chair with his chasuble, suggesting the ideal of a rational space in which this man exists, or at least the rational space of a higher realm.  The extreme contrast between the white cowl framing his head and the black background works to further this reading of a man set apart from the concerns of a lower order of existence. There is a stark suggestion that this man’s sensorial and intellectual capacities exist on a higher plane than the rest of his body.

The upper half of the painting is also broken up into realms of higher and lower existence.  Paravicino’s eyes line up with the top edge of his chair back but are positioned just below the line break separating the chair from its background.  By placing Paravicino’s eyes at that level, El Greco suggests that the preacher exists sensorially within the realm of the earthbound chair, not in the realm beyond or above, personified by the background. His forehead, however – representing the mind, our conceptual apparatus for perceiving the divine — is firmly situated in that upper realm.  El Greco emphasizes this theme of separation—head from body, conceptual realm from sensorial realm, upper half from lower half, white from black – to suggest that this preacher is a man of distinction, with a calculating intelligence and rich array of higher faculties.

The lower half of the painting is where things get interesting.  In this lower realm El Greco explores a reading of Fra Paravicino that is proto-Jungian in how it presages the idea of merging the male and female in higher consciousness individuals. While Fra Paravicino should be seated, given the usual circumstances of such a pose, El Greco has depicted him instead in a weird enigmatic posture, the vertical thrust of his white robe suggesting more standing than sitting, although his arms are clearly resting on the arms of his chair.  Furthermore, the position of his left hand is tantalizing, inserted in a sexually suggestive way into the small book, which is atop a larger book that his other fingers are holding onto. The large book is resting against his hip, which effectuates a deep wrinkle in his robe that suggests a vaginal form, the crevice of which meanders down to the bottom of his robe, where a veritable hole appears. That reading is made more emphatic by the black and red cross on Fra Paravicino’s robe that itself looks more like a wound than an insignia, due to the marked highlighting around the cross that creates negative space. But, most significantly, the combined shape of his white robe, sleeves and hands unmistakably suggests the shape of female fallopian tubes.

Now, I do not know what El Greco knew of female reproductive anatomy. But this resemblance has always struck me as so self-evident that I do wonder whether he was suggesting that Fra Paravicino was a man existing on a higher plane of being, where distinctions between male and female fell away.  Was El Greco really proto-Jungian, anticipating the dissolution of the binary that we are now experiencing in our own culture, which one hopes might signal a shift towards a more capacious understanding of what human beings are capable of? There is no way to answer that question with certainty. But El Greco was a great artist, whose imagery has the power to take us to a higher plane of contemplation, and the question has long nagged at me: was Fra Paravicino himself worthy of that kind of complex and layered portrayal, or did El Greco simply use him to say something both simple and profound about what it is to be human? Either way, the portrait is a gift, an image of wisdom that continues to resonate.

Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait with Lock, 2018, Oil on canvas, 68 x 58 inches


Julie Heffernan is a Professor of Fine Arts at Montclair State University, represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. Heffernan is a Board Member of the National Academy of Design. Her work has been reviewed by major publications including the New York Times and Artforum; and in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and VMFA among others.


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Brenda Goodman on Her Work in Stages Wed, 23 Jan 2019 17:05:30 +0000 There is something about feeling that rightness of a painting when I’m 75 that feels so very satisfying.

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Brenda Goodman, Impending, 2018, Oil on Wood, 80 x 72 inches

Looking back at my work over a 53-year span, I sometimes think that I could do this or that passage of a particular painting better now, but I have never gone back into a piece once it was done. I always felt that I did the best I could do at the time and it wouldn’t be right to go back years later and change it or improve it.

Impending (Stage 1)

I also have never destroyed or slashed a painting in progress. I work on each one, and still do, until it finally feels right, and when it’s right, it’s right!

I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a painting feel RIGHT for a while now. Every artist, no doubt, has a stopping place in a painting when they feel everything works together and is therefore done. It’s intriguing to think about it because every artist has a different RIGHT for themselves. How many times has someone come into your studio and said: “It’s done! I wouldn’t do anything else to it!” This can be really irritating! Yes, it might seem spontaneous and fresh at the point they saw it but you know it needs more work. The trick is to work more deeply into the piece and preserve the freshness, while also developing it into a richer and fuller image.

Impending (Stage 2)

So, something clicks in my head when a painting is done, when it’s right. It always has but there is something about feeling that rightness of a painting when I’m 75 that feels so very satisfying.

Impending (Stage 3)

Here is a series of images that show the progression from beginning to end of one of my paintings, “Impending,” now showing at Sikkema Jenkins. At about stage 4, someone was in the studio and said, “Oh, that curved figure is great! I hope you don’t change anything.” But I knew the painting needed more and I added the grey ball shape. Without that shape, the space felt empty. And because of the black shape looming above, I wanted the curved shape to be hugging or embracing the ball. Protecting it. Trump actually came to mind when I was painting the black shape so it made sense to me that the ball shape needed comforting. That’s what I felt listening to the news all day. From far away, I also saw the grey shape as negative space. That makes it even more complex in its interpretation, depending on the perspective of the viewer. So that shape, which I added at the end, is what made the painting so poignant for me. Then I knew it was done. It was RIGHT. For me.

Impending (Stage 4)

Brenda Goodman is a seventy-five year old painter. Born in Detroit, she spent thirty-four years on the Bowery, and now lives in the Catskills. She has exhibited widely throughout the United States and her solo show at Sikkema Jenkins, A Lighter Place, runs from January 24th to February 23rd in Chelsea, NY.

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Lavar Munroe on Folkert De Jong and Expansive Painting Thu, 10 Jan 2019 15:45:31 +0000 Evidence of deconstructing form and then “healing” those breaks was apparent in the yellow and pink adhesive substrates bleeding through the crevasses of incisions.

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Folkert De Jong, The New Deal, 2012, Styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam and pallet

What constitutes a painting? Is it possible to create a “painting” that occupies space, has actual volume and is made with unconventional materials? These questions point to an expansion of the definition of “painting” as it relates to the action of painting.

I have been an avid fan of the work of Folkert De Jong for many years, in particular his works that occupy space and are three-dimensional. I was privileged to see a few of those pieces in person at UNTITLED Miami Beach a few weeks ago. Although I am not a huge advocate of viewing and appreciating works in such spaces (Art Fairs), the works on display gave me some visual and intellectual insight into his working process.

Immediately, I was drawn in by De Jong’s color and painterly gestures in The New Deal, 2012, most of which seemed to be achieved with unconventional, non-traditional painting materials.  His clever use of materials and color to achieve a sense of painterly gesture instantly compelled me to look closer, to inspect his choices, consider the conceptual underpinnings of those choices and attempt to digest the grouping of objects. Evidence of deconstructing form and then “healing” those breaks was apparent in the yellow and pink adhesive substrates bleeding through the crevasses of incisions. The rigor by which color was excavated through the subtractive process of carving coupled with the “chemical” color of various adhesives he used, strategically accented with what seems to be conventional house paint, in my opinion, pointed to a beautiful expansion of the definition of “painting.”

Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et jeune Arlequin (Acrobat and Young Harlequin), 1905, Oil on canvas, 191.1 x 108.6 cm

Intellectually, much of the work points to specific and substantial histories — art historical representations of both painting and sculpture — while simultaneously straddling imaginative territories. I am reminded of Picasso’s Harlequin paintings from the early 1900’s (Blue and Rose periods) in combination with the grotesque figuration of Goya, when confronting De Jong’s work. The Harlequin paintings point to a darker history — of circuses, world fairs and human zoos — that are today suggestive of our fraught racist and bigoted political climate, among many other things. I am also reminded of those themes of darkness and evil associated with childhood fairy tales and fables.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143 x 81 cm

The grotesqueness of encrusted materials in De Jong’s forms forcefully compel the viewer to associate that ugliness with its opposite — beauty, elegance and suaveness — in how he handles his materials, specifically the “natural” colors of wood that are revealed in the process of excavating the materials used to construct his forms. Though initially created to serve as “sculpture,” the multiplicity and manipulation involved in the making process “cries” painting, both from a visual and technical standpoint. To redefine and expand on the notion of painting is, for De Jong, to break rules and defy conventional boundaries.

Whether the viewer is convinced that these works are paintings, or are even in conversation with the practice of painting, is very subjective. But I myself find comfort and feel confidence in this work that is so multi-lingual in terms of its making. It speaks the language of many practices, but resonates, for me, most fluently with painting.

Lavar, Munroe, Boys, 2018, Acrylic, spray paint, fabric, cigarette buds, rubber, string, feather and makeshift ball on cut canvas, 64″ x 80″

Lavar Munroe was born in Nassau, Bahamas and currently lives and works between Bloomington, Indiana and Nassau, Bahamas. He received a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and was later awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Exhibitions include the Liverpool Biennale, 56th Venice Biennale, 12th Dakar Biennale, and Prospect New Orleans 4.

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Constance Mallinson on Manet’s and von Werefkin’s Ragpickers Sat, 29 Dec 2018 21:59:52 +0000 Few previous painters were capable of challenging and disturbing the consumerist mentality and self-satisfaction of the middle class and the economic and social systems that sustained them.

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Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, 1865-1870, Oil on Canvas, 76 3/4″X 51 1/2 inches, Collection of Norton Simon Museum

While researching Edouard Manet’s Ragpicker painting, I found other images of that 19th century genre which depicts the urban destitute collecting old rags to supply the paper industry. The realism of Courbet, Manet, and later Van Gogh’s working class approbations, elevated the working poor and their conditions to art worthy status. Manet’s Ragpicker (1869) is a magnificent tribute to those who toiled amidst the misery coexistent with Parisian bourgeois life. Set within an ambiguous shadowy space — either the artist’s studio or an alleyway alluded to by the small trash pile in the foreground — a ragpicker stands hunched- old, dirty, disheveled, propped up by his walking stick with a sack slung over his shoulder. Unlike the painter’s Olympia, who wore a haughty, confrontational sneer and flaunted her sinful trade, he looks downward to the side. The imposing figure of the stereotypical street person, defeated and worn, surely must have provoked the same uncomfortable reactions then as those of today’s urban elites to our homeless populations. Few previous painters were capable of challenging and disturbing the consumerist mentality and self-satisfaction of the middle class and the economic and social systems that sustained them. Such paintings anticipated Modernism’s 100 plus years of artistic infatuation with overlooked realms of culture in pursuit of novel approaches to artmaking: think Picasso’s demi-monde obsession, the Ashcan school as well as Mike Kelly’s more recent abject visions or contemporary painter John Sonsini’s series of day laborer portraits.


Maryanne von Werefkin, La Chiffonier, 1917, Tempera on Paper, 67 x 97.5 cm

Ragpicker imagery surfaced in the mid 19th century but it curiously reemerged much later in a 1917 painting La Chiffonier by a little-known Expressionist — the Russian-German-Swiss painter Marianne von Werefkin. In its World War I period incarnation however, the “identity politics” of the subsistence worker was downplayed in favor of different narratives.

Von Werefkin had lived with her renowned partner Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky in the early 1900’s but, as was the expectation, abruptly stopped painting for 10 years to support his career. Kandinsky, Franz Marc and other key Expressionists comprised their influential circle. When the First World War broke out, she and Jawlensky emigrated to Switzerland but separated soon after.  There in the midst of Alpine lakes and towering mountains she painted her modest sized but highly dramatic tempera painting on paper. It depicts the spindly black spidery form of a man carrying a walking stick and bearing a basket on his back. Slightly beyond him is another smaller bent-over figure sifting through a rocky pile. Unlike Manet’s figure that powerfully fills the space, both are dwarfed by an animated technicolor landscape of toothy jawboned mountains dueling with fists of descending turbulent dark clouds. A section of the icy lake waters burns bright red from the sunset’s reflection. Characteristic of the early Expressionists, the bold color is freely applied in brash unmodulated strokes; here the painterly swathes are rather ragged and patchwork, underscoring her figures’ impoverished state. Oddly out of context, as there could not have been any rags to collect in this landscape, one can only guess why the painter inserted ragpickers there.

The painting essentially marries two genres — the sublime landscape and the iconic impoverished street habitue’, the predecessor of today’s shopping cart pusher. Multiple interpretations arise. The threatening clouds above the urban dweller might, in the tradition of the sublime, symbolize humanity’s existential struggles with the immanent cataclysm of war. Or von Werefkin might have simultaneously intended to reinforce nature’s ultimate power and endurance over the irrational, self-destructive actions of man — depicted as small and vulnerable here.  Maybe this is a snapshot into the future when starving humans are forced out of cities to survive in the wilds. Von Werefkin could have also intended her figure to represent a female top hatted and tuxedoed cabaret figure prancing across this grand outdoor stage. The marginalized female artist is forced to mimic a male in a male dominated world and “performs” her transformation or fantasy of freedom. A feminine narrative of the sublime’s fiction of renewal, she would experience a “coming out” by her contact with the shock and awe of natural forces.

A hundred years later the world is once again at a human-made critical turning point with unimaginable consequences, this time with climate change. Less Manet and more von Werefkin, I paint my immediate surroundings and, like her ragpickers, I strap on a backpack daily to roam my urban neighborhood collecting consumer detritus.  I mingle with street denizens in order to rummage through dumpsters in fetid corners, our purposes quite different. As a flaneuse, I am wary and defensive. The found refuse is then portrayed in monumental, post-apocalyptic still lifes that I pose against foreboding atmospheric backdrops. Capitalist-globalist-consumerist dreams run amok; they are in turns monstrous and beautiful. The breathtakingly high purple mountains and pink orange canyons above Los Angeles loom large at every turn of my wanderings, a constant presence in the sprawling city. Recently I witnessed from my studio doors the terrifying spectacle of nearby atomic blast sized mushroom clouds of smoke from the Southern California fires roaring through these mountains. Von Werefkin could not have known about global warming and its effects but, as the sky darkened with ash, her emaciated ragpicker seemed to uncannily foreshadow my experience of nature’s power.

Both of these two very different portrayals of the same subject manage to shift seamlessly from past to present socio-cultural critiques.  The Ragpickers encourage my belief that the idea and practice of painting will continue to outlive its historical borders to uniquely and vividly provoke debate on the perennial human condition.


Constance Mallinson, Still Life in Landscape, 2017, Oil on Canvas, 5’X14′

Still Life in Landscape (Detail)

Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles based painter, writer and curator. Her work is included in major public, corporate and private collections and will be featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in Fall 2019. She has written for numerous art publications such as Art in America, X-tra, Artillery, and the Times Quotidian as well as published many exhibition catalogs.

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Wendy Letven on Simona Prives Tue, 18 Dec 2018 16:24:07 +0000 The alchemy of using a fragment of a scan of parsley to represent a forest was a revelation.

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Simona Prives, Black Matter, 2018, Sumi ink, monotype and collage with xerox transfer and watercolor, 70 x 44 inches


Simona Prives creates images that describe shifting, changing imaginary worlds inhabited by human beings and all their detritus. From a distance, one is at first drawn in by the sweeping brush strokes that make up the “stuff” of these compositions. On closer viewing, we see all order of human activity embedded in the abstracted landscapes. Cities are under construction, or crumbling, territory is being colonized as acrobats catapult themselves into oblivion. Prives says that her work is about “locating ourselves in the built and natural environments at this particular moment in history”.

Prives’ current solo show curated by Grace Noh at John Doe Gallery is called “Time Waves”. The exhibition includes projected animations, and works on paper made with Sumi ink, monotypes, xerox transfer, and collage, both physical and digital.

One of the largest of her works on paper (four by six feet) is Black Matter. The aspect of scale and the yin yang of positive and negative space are used to powerful effect here, in terms of both form and content. Each passage flows seamlessly from dark into light, from being into nothingness, from clustered marks and color stains into the emptiness of white paper. Voluminous, layered washes of pigment define the space and contrast with hairline networks of feathery roots, topographic maps, architectural diagrams and patterned geologic forms, the details of which are both obsessively rendered and captivatingly seductive. There is a sense of change and motion in this work that one rarely sees in a still image. And there is an added element of intrigue in discovering each of the fragments of representation, which give us a deeper entry into the pictorial space.

Simona Prives, Black Matter (Detail)

You would need to enroll as her student at Parsons or NYU to get an inkling of the multi-step processes of drawing, painting, printmaking and photography that encompass Prives’ art practice and the sophisticated digital skills needed to create her mixed media prints and animations. Prives studied printmaking in the MFA program at Pratt, but it was through collage that her work began to come together. The process of decomposition and reconstruction lent itself perfectly to her surrealist inclinations. She related to the brand of surrealism that sprang out of Dadaist practices, which access subconscious thinking by taking images and objects out of context to create new meanings. The alchemy of using a fragment of a scan of parsley to represent a forest was a revelation.

Simona Prives, Black Matter (Detail)

Her references for Black Matter and many of the other works on paper in the show, come from her studies of Chinese scroll painting. Prives began experimenting with combining drawings and prints with watercolor and ink, mining their potential for establishing atmospheric perspective out of which her imagery could spring. Rejecting the golden mean as a given format, she opts for the elongated length of those famous scrolls, which artfully sets the stage for drama, slowing the reading of the work from one side to the other.

“Time Waves” also includes animations of her collages, which was a natural next step in the evolution of the work. Watercolor and ink, again, provide the fertile ground that anchors the cycle of formation and decay and, in this case, actual motion, with video capture of ink bleeding onto the page. The sound design, a collaboration with composer Ross Williams, accompanies each pulse of ink with a clashing rush of natural noises and the din of humanity, literally making its mark upon the land. It mirrors the ebb and flow of images and, together, their rhythms call attention to our own, from small bodily repetitions, to tides, and planetary patterns.

Wendy Letven, Interdimensionality Triptych, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 30 x72 inches

Wendy Letven is a painter/sculptor who also teaches at Parsons School of Design. Wendy’s suspended public sculpture “Drawing the Invisible”, is being exhibited through January, 2019, at The Flatiron Prow Artspace at 175 5th Avenue in New York City.

“Time Waves”, curated by Grace Noh, is showing at John Doe Gallery (112  Waterbury St) through December 23. Black Matter will also be on view at Art On Paper with Heather Gaudio Fine Art.

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Laurie Hogin on Grant Wood Mon, 10 Dec 2018 14:22:17 +0000 The readmission of artists like Grant Wood into high art discourses may open the door to many more types of representation, inclusive of many more places, lives, and subjectivities.

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Grant Wood, Young Corn, 1931, Oil on canvas, 24 x 29 7/8 inches

Regionalism. The wide-open air that settles on the Midwestern agoras is heavy with the sticky oppressions of cultural stillness, corrupt power structures, and close, stifling folkways. Urbanism. The frantic richness, collaborative reinvention, and cacophonous promise of cities opens onto worlds of progress. There’s been an aesthetic dichotomy, too, with urban avant-gardes opposing strategies which engage with narrative, representational traditions. This has been among the modern century’s organizing metaphors. Even lately, many cosmopolitans in the cities and the deep blue islands of college towns, perhaps with their own orthodoxies, corrupt economies, fears, fetishes, folkways, myths, contradictions, and subtle oppressions, still organize the world accordingly.

Boy, the way Glen Milla played. Songs that made the Hit Parade. Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days. And you knew who you were then! Goils were goils and men were men. Mister, we could use a man like Hoibert Hoovah again!  — Theme song from “All in the Family”, set in Queens, New York, 1971-1980

I live across from a vast, industrial farm field, the kind that consolidates the lands of several small farms—a capitalist version of collectivization—to make massive, single-crop fields, typically alternating corn and soy each year. Even so, the myth of the American pastoral lays like a golden sepia mist over this genetically novel monoculture. The fields and skies still look like what Grant Wood saw. I see grey thunderstorms over fields of pale cornstalks and seas of blue-green soy undulating under the prairie wind, and I think of Grant Wood’s paintings. I wonder how they can speak to us now. It seems urgent.

Up and down the roads here, empty farmhouses sit with their backyard apple trees, now ancient and twisted, next to the weather-worn ruins of collapsed barns, the wood silver with age (and ripe for the recent trend in upscale decorating with reclaimed wood). New barns, belonging to farmers who live elsewhere, are metal, with roof spans that can accommodate the kind of machinery needed to farm 1000 acres. (They are indistinguishable from the types of warehouse buildings found in urban industrial corridors.) The land is dotted with manufactured homes, shaped like shoeboxes and often moldy or mossy (like ours). Some are duplexes or small apartment buildings. Old trucks, machine parts and appliances, stacks of building materials, refuse fire pits (ours is recreational), and folding chairs crowd tiny yards. Some have gardens. Many have American flags, a few Confederate flags (I want to fly an Ecology flag). Trailers languish under big, shedding trees and new “sprawl” subdivisions have curvy networks of smooth, new roads and new houses with trendy dormer deformities and long, stony faces, putty-colored and full of tall windows. The “new country” neighbor to our south has a 15-foot, inflatable Bambi Christmas balloon in his front yard. Our “old country” neighbor to the north has a plastic Santa with a rifle and a deer-shaped array of white Christmas lights hanging from a tree. From its nose, a wonderfully abstract cascade of blood in red LED’s. The deer are everywhere.

Whose fields these are, I think I know, Monsanto makes ‘em GMO. They will not see me stopping here. The stock’s in my portfolio?! My little truck must think it queer to stop without a pole barn near, between the corn and soybean seas, to watch our natures disappear. — After Frost

With any luck, this old truck (Rare find. Purple ’98 F-150; reg. cab, LB, 6 auto., perfect for hauling, etc. (Perfect for me.)) gets me down these county roads to the Interstate. Museums appear on my Google Map! There is a Dick Blick outlet store in a patch of lonely woods amid the corn and soy fields in Shelbyville, Illinois, selling damaged 150-milliliter tubes of Williamsburg brand oil pigments; luminous earth colors and cadmiums dense and toxic as isotopes; brushes made of Chinese hogs’ bristle cloned from the skins of Iowa hogs, among other things the store’s truck-stop neighbors might think are queer.

According to didactics on museum walls, books I was given, and art-school hipster cultures, all of which have sought to organize my art viewing since childhood, American Regionalism was an essentially retrograde practice; the bad kind of populism, formed in xenophobic, rural, white identitarianism and nostalgia, an early expression of the disease that erupted in Trumpism. Nationalist and romantic, it trafficked in reassuring notions of everyday life in the Heartland, conservative in concept and aesthetic and constitutionally unable to evolve towards urbane Modernism’s revolutionary destinies, and so my love of it dared not speak its name. The recent Grant Wood show at the Whitney, and the writing about it by Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker, Dennis Kardon in Hyperallergic, and Richard Meyer in the catalog essay, indicate that this is changing. There is a new interest in Wood’s American Regionalism, and an acknowledgement of who he was and his intentions with his work. Perhaps this new interest is inspired or made urgent by the shock of realization that the lived experiences and mental phantoms of flyover folk have consequences for everyone. Close examination of the paintings themselves reveals that his was a very queer eye.

Where can the horizon lie, when a nation hides its organic growth in the cellar?
— David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World

But there is something else also going on. Landscape is a set of operations; it is well-understood that the practice of framing is useful in establishing a difference between inside and out, structure and chaos, self and other, here and there. The history of landscape has rightly been theorized as a machine that manifests power relationships, inventing an ideological gaze, or a gaze that becomes ideological because of the selfish gene, or the will to power, or perhaps toxic masculinity depending upon one’s library. But there is a different kind of story available through landscape. My experience as a body in landscape is not one of transcendent objectification, or celebration or mourning over a sense of place, but rather of profound mirroring.

Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” is widely acknowledged as a landscape-as-body. Possibly, there are two bodies. This well-known work, often noted for what has been interpreted as a representation of pleasant idealized rural life, depicts a rolling corn field studded with nubby, nascent cornstalks. Soft, fair-weather sunlight creates subtle shadows on sensuous, bulbous swellings that represent hills which cradle a central, lowland field. Three tiny figures operate in the field, invoking the transcendent solipsism of engagement with the miniature. A simple, yellow farmhouse sits adjacent to a curving drive that borders a likely alfalfa field. The central hill’s subtle shadow reveals its topography, which resembles a belly sprouting a deliciously neat trail of body hair. In the distance, up in the top left corner of the picture where the head of the figure might be, a windmill faces us like an open eye. The pale color, though green in hue, has a value appropriate to represent a certain flesh tone, and the soil in the newly-sprouted cornfield that leads the eye into the picture is the color of slightly tan skin. The central cornfield, striped like fabric, lays across the hill’s hips like bedclothes. This gentle, erotic vista provides the kind of visual pleasure promised by landscape’s various ideologies, but something else happens here. Mirror neurons are activated. The landscape-as-body gives me a subject position not only in the narrative, but in the landscape itself. The tour around the scene is an inventory of my own physical being in the landscape, mirrored in the landscape; there is an equivalence between the space and me. In this representation, the ideology of landscape becomes one of erotic empathy and identification, delivered as poetic fable.

Artistic strategies of all kinds are productive when you have an MFA and teach in art schools. I am always thrilled by innovative strategies—they define notions of “progress” in our field. Educational privilege grants access to an understanding of those strategies, and to cryptic, avant-garde aesthetics. (These seem no sooner invented than co-opted by the dominant culture for purposes that serve existing economic structures, though trickle-down aesthetics arguably fortify the liberatory “soft power” of desire-based free markets.) These afford great pleasures in decoding and interpretation. Their novelty often demonstrates the stunning creative capacity of human cognition. But, all my life, I have loved art that also depends on elemental, ancient habits, art that is storytelling, skill-oriented, retinal, engaged with the project of re-presenting sensory phenomena, and representationally legible—in other words, pictures. Once I enrolled in art school, and joined the ranks of the institutionally initiated, I had to hide this. These strategies and aesthetics lacked prestige and cache. They were somehow corrupt, pilloried as “conservative”, as though this aligned them with conservative politics. In fact, the opposite is arguably true; the politics of representation and political ideals are sometimes at odds in institutional priorities. A great political potential lives in works which are democratically accessible, and represent working-class values like skill, and experiences from the margins, outside of the cosmopolitan intellectual life of cities—and, like Wood’s queer eye, can assert other identities, other experiences, other types of agencies, into our broader cultural discourse. The readmission of artists like Grant Wood into high art discourses may open the door to many more types of representation, inclusive of many more places, lives, and subjectivities.


Laura Hogin, The Sleep of Reason (Silver Bullets in the Garden of St. Augustine, Oil on canvas, 72″ x 96″, 2008

Laurie Hogin is an artist and writer who lives with her dogs, photographer husband, and teenage son in rural East Central Illinois. She teaches in the Studio Art Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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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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