I just returned from five days in New York and Philadelphia. This was a working and a viewing trip. Since returning home I have been folding and unfolding, folding and unfolding, my thoughts and feelings about the de Kooning show at the MOMA. I’m not ready to articulate a response just yet. I want to find a way to capture both my joys and my frustrations with this sprawling, overwhelming, revelatory exhibit. But in a manner that is both meaningful and personal.
In the meantime I will to share the words of a friend, words that achieve that meaningful and personal goal. Carl Belz has been writing about individual paintings he was instrumental in acquiring for the Rose Art Museum during his years as its director (1974 through 1998) on the blog Left Bank Art Blog. These essays are compact, engaging, insightful and endearingly personal. I hope he does every work of art he had a hand in acquiring.
This excerpt is from his response to the work of David Ortins. Belz addresses some of the fads and fashions that have affected the art world. I lived through both of these so his words resonate particularly for me.
Innovative techniques and new materials occasionally appear in art and quickly gain widespread usage, as collage did in the 1910s, or as acrylics did in the late 1950s, and their usage can initially seem to transform even the most ordinary pictures into objects of wonder. With acrylics, for instance, staining in the manner of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland quickly became a dominant painting technique, and by the middle of the 1960s we were surrounded by acres of Color Field pictures, each of them seeming more glorious than the last. Such was their allure, and it was irresistible; their surfaces were everywhere soft and inviting, their color effortlessly spread and glowed, and light breathed life into them as generously as in nature itself. You probably think I’m exaggerating in saying these things, but that’s the way it really was. At least for a while. By the time the 1970s were under way, stain painting had lost a lot of its original freshness and become routine and predictable—like collage, which at this point has been so thoroughly academicized that even school children practice it with ease. Which is not to deny the significance of Color Field painting as a whole, let alone the significance of its major practitioners. I mean only to suggest that new techniques and materials can sometimes infatuate you on impact, only to then cloy the appetite on which they feed.
The 1990s counterpart to acrylic staining in the 1960s is wax. Though wax has for centuries been available to painting in the form of encaustic, it took on new meaning with the highly personalized and autobiographic art that has proliferated during the past decade or so. Pick up a canvas or board, sketch upon it an image of a figure or paste upon it an old photograph, then pour on a coat of translucent wax and bingo, you’ve instantly got a visual metaphor for memory or some related emotional effect. In studio after studio I observed that practice, and I was at first as seduced by it as anyone else; remembering the sixties, however, I soon began to look harder at sure-fire effects that often failed to go beyond mere sentimentality, and I became wary whenever I encountered pictures incorporating wax…We were fortunate in being able to purchase one of those paintings for the permanent collection, and I especially enjoyed installing it once or twice in the company of our Louis stripe painting, because they communicated so meaningfully with one another, but also as reminders that the uses of new techniques and materials don’t always become cloying—in the right hands, they can actually make hungry where most they satisfy.