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Benefits Supervisor (“Big Sue”) Resting

“There are facts,” the painter Lucian Freud once said, “and there is the truth.” The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London follows less than a year after Freud’s death at 88. The show is a stark reminder that while Freud dealt with the facts of our all-too-human flesh, his primary concern is the truth that his artistic vision uncovers, probes and delineates.

In many ways the show is overwhelming. The work displayed spans most of his career, and I was reminded how rare it is to see an artist who has spent a lifetime plumbing one particular métier. Seeing those early portraits in context helped me better understand the trajectory of his evolution as a portrait visionary. And while portraiture has never been a form I have been drawn to, this show left its mark on me. Flesh, whether rendered by Freud or by Jenny Saville, is deliciously seductive to the painter’s eye. And both have painted it in profusion.

In a recent review of a Renaissance portrait exhibit (at the Bode in Berlin before coming to the Metropolitan Museum) in the New York Review of Books, Andrew Butterfield‘s exploration into the history of portraiture tracks its evolution in Western art traditions. That show’s curators state that the goal of portraiture was to “‘confer a distinct identity on a subject—as a husband or wife, merchant or intellectual, military commander, civic office holder or prince.’ Portraiture was a matter of both description and aspiration; it sought to capture the likeness of a particular man or woman and simultaneously to suggest how that person exemplified a type or ideal.” Over the course of the several hundred years, portraits moved from appearance and aspiration to reveal a “range of emotion and depth of feelings never before shown in European portraiture.”

From Andrew Graham-Dixon‘s review in the Telegraph:

Stylistically, Freud might be said to have begun at one end of the spectrum of Western painting and moved towards the other – from Van Eyck towards the later, more painterly likes of Rembrandt and Velazquez.

Gradually he became more interested in flesh and less in the gaze alone. There is an element of conscious contrivance about many of the later portraits, which focus so closely on the mute, mortal bodies of those who submitted to his many months of sitting…Men and women, huge and emaciated, are arranged in splayed or pole-axed poses, like ancient Christian martyrs. Yet the milieu is always the same mundane painter’s studio: a place which, with its small quota of never-changing props (the iron-framed bed, bulging sofa, pile of painter’s rags), brings to mind the pared-down set of Waiting for Godot.

Life, these pictures imply, is a waiting-room for death. Sometimes the light plays tricks but the truth will always out. In the final room, one bearded model, vulnerable and naked as a Man of Sorrows, resembles a modern Christ. Of course he is no such thing, just a man posing on some bare West London floorboards.

The border between enchantment and disenchantment is always breached. There are traces here of the magical, the mysterious, the uncanny, but there are no actual miracles – save, perhaps, the miracle of each individual’s inimitable, human presence.

That last line is a good encapsulation of my response to the show. There ARE traces of the magical here, but there are no miracles.


A shamsa (literal meaning, “sun”) from the Met’s new Islamic Art wing

One of my favorite books right now is Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. I have so much more to say about this book, and hopefully I will write about it in more detail later on. But right now I want to share an excerpt that is particularly pertinent to my current preoccupations.

This exchange was captured in Michael McMillen‘s interview with Kim Abeles:

McMillen: One of the fascinating aspects of your work is that you reach into history and culture and drag out and synthesize things into someting that’s not quite historical or formalist but more interesting than both.

Abeles: I’m interested in making my art interdisciplinary because usually you see history as a package deal in a museum, especially in the United States. In Europe you can walk the streets, and history surrounds you. Because I grew up in this culture, the only sense of history I ever had was if I went to a museum and paid for my ticket. I would go in, and history was in a little box, neatly labeled. That makes it hard to get a feeling for your position in history.

McMillen: The fact that an object is in a museum represents one person’s point of view or a school of thought, whereas that’s not really what history is. It’s only one of many views.

Abeles: Right, because when people see history like that, or when they read a book, they assume that a fact is absolute. They forget that there’s poetic license, that there are editorial changes, so in a sense, it’s not real history, even though the packaging looks real.

The new Islamic Art wing at the Met (the official name, “Art of the Arab lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue) is a perfect example of the problem Abeles discussed. I have no frame of reliable reference with regard to the 13 centuries of elaborate, highly developed and complex culture covered in these rooms. It IS history in a box for the likes of me. But oh what a telling. I was utterly enthralled by every room. The advice a friend gave me was well taken: You can’t do it in just one visit. Plan to make pilgrimages repeatedly.

From Peter Schjeldahl‘s review in the New Yorker:

Clash or no clash, Islamic and Western civilizations hardly harmonize. Consider that almost none of the religious, courtly, and domestic objects in the Met wing were created for exhibition. They had uses. Many—very many—are beautiful. Beauty rolls in waves and seethes in eddies throughout the installations of dazzling ceramics, noble architectural fragments and statuary, fabulous carpets, enchanting miniatures from manuscripts and albums, and the extraordinarily varied and elegant calligraphy of handmade Korans, along with choice fabrics, metalwork, jewelry, and weapons. But it’s beauty with a purpose. The logic of Islamic art isn’t iconographic. It is poetic and all but musical. The Islamic wing affords adventures in difference.

What did the curators do to make every room feel so beguiling? The sensibility in the choices of artifacts and how they are assembled together feels especially aligned with contemporary Western tastes and aesthetics. A modern bent towards minimalist design and more subtle expression is evident. As a result, I have never felt so at home among objects and artifacts so far from my own Western cultural milieu.

Knowing so little but loving these objects so much, I think the best approach is to show, not tell. With no context to share other than the utter pleasure of the eye, I am like the opera goer who can’t understand a word of the lyrics but loves the music so much it doesn’t seem to matter.

Many of you have undoubtedly heard about the Chain Letter Show. The idea was a robust one—using the existing network of artists, create an international, artist-curated, pop up event at several locations around the world all at the same time. Ten artists were asked, and then they asked ten more, who then asked ten more. It is easy to see how you get to exponentiality very quickly, making this an idea that was clearly both crazy and very fun. How could I not go along for the ride?

On the day designated for dropping off work, my friend George Wingate and I arrived with our own work plus pieces by several of our friends at the Boston location, Samson Projects. By noon there were art objects stacked three and four deep, and a line of artists was starting to form in front. (By some accounts Samson ended up with over 1200 at the end of the day.) It was clear to George and me by mid day that this wasn’t a venue that would work for us or for our friends.

So there we were in the South End, our arms full of gorgeous pieces by artists we love. Then George and I had a “Salon des Refusés” (although in this case the “refusing” was self-inflicted) moment: Let’s decouple from the Chain Letter event and just have our own show: UNCHAINED. The first version of Unchained is here on Slow Muse, followed by a second “in the flesh” installation in George’s beautiful barn gallery in Wenham, just north of Boston, later this summer.

Here are the artists included in this first exhibit: Deborah Barlow, Kelvy Bird, Dennis Cowley, Pam Farrell, Patty Hanlon, Robert Hanlon, Don Howard, Elizabeth Mead, Holly Meade, Paula Overbay, Anne Pelikan, Mary Smith, George Wingate.


* * * *

Deborah Barlow
18 x 18″
mixed media on wood panel

* * * *

Mary Smith
ancient string/fairy
12 1/2″ x 13 1/2″
Collage on paper

* * * *

Paula Overbay
Penelope’s Handkerchief
12 x 12″
mixed media on wood panel

* * * *

Elizabeth Mead
Internal Organs
Misc. sizes
Porcelain on wood shelf

* * * *

Pam Farrell
Chinese Whispers
18 x 18″
Beeswax over oil on mulberry paper on wood panel

* * * *

Kelvy Bird
20 x 20″
Mixed media on paper

* * * *

George Wingate
Adam Grows a Beard
8 x 10″
Acrylic on panel

* * * *

Patty Hanlon
Blue Scenery
5 x 6″
Plexiglass CD box, latex gloves, pigments

* * * *

Robert Hanlon
The Decision
5 x 10″
Pigment and shellac on panel

* * * *

Holly Meade
Young Man Trapped in War
12 x 12″
Woodblock print

* * * *

Don Howard
2010 Christmas Card
5 x 7″
Collage, paper, feather, paint, pen

* * * *

Anne Pelikan
The Lookers
4 x 6″
Paper postcard with sections cut out

* * * *

Dennis Cowley
View from Browns Island 2010
4 x 5″
silver gelatin print (pinhole)

“Everything I like about the art experience” is best expressed by this image of Dave basking in the Diebenkorns at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center

The Daily Beast writing about the Armory Show currently running in New York:

A Sam’s Club for Art?

Think of everything you like about the art experience: That it is meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile. The Armory art fair that opened this week in New York, like any other art fair, represents the opposite of all that. It is to a museum visit what Sam’s Club is to Goumanyat. The only thing it is good for is shopping.

This short piece was quite heartening to me. The words chosen to describe the art experience (from the Daily Beast no less) are all my kind of words—“meditative, complex, subtle, challenging; that it’s a refuge from the superficial, the pedestrian, the mercantile.”

More of that, please.

I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.

–Paul Cézanne
January 19, 1839 – October 22, 1906

A birthday commemoration to an artist whose work just keeps speaking to me. This love affair started when I was a teenager, and it has never tired.

And yes yes yes to the sentiment of this quote.

(On a more topical note, the homage to him on the Google logo today was a heartening thing to see.)

Sensuality afoot at the Metropolitan Museum

The gift that just keeps giving…I don’t think there is a single page of my copy of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin that isn’t marked up and annotated. Although Pallasmaa is an architect and writing primarily about that metier, his book is full of passages that are a parallel reflection of my own views on the visual arts (and painting in particular.)

I hope my ongoing reference to his work is of interest to some of you too.

Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality. Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses. the ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.

Crossfield 1 by Jack Tworkov (Collection of Ms. Beatrice Perry)

This has been a summer of enjoying the art reviews of Sebastian Smee in the Boston Globe. (Before coming to the Globe, Smee has wrote for The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Art Newspaper and Modern Painters. He is also the author of a book on Lucian Freud.) Boston is lucky to have him.

Jack Tworkov’s mark makingly rich, expressionistic minimalism was very influential on my development as a young artist. I have always appreciated the quality of his hand, the way he approached the surface. But as Smee points out in his review of the Tworkov show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Tworkov’s legacy has been slighter than he deserved:

When a talented artist ends up being regarded by posterity as less than great, it’s often because he or she never came to be identified with a single style. At least that’s the excuse that’s often proffered. The implied critique of some who are remembered as great — that they allowed their creativity to be reduced to the factory-style production of signature images — hits a nerve: Think of Mark Rothko’s endlessly repeated rectangular lozenges, Clyfford Still’s jagged shapes, Barnett Newman’s “zips,’’ and so on. How many vertical strips against monochrome backgrounds are needed to make a point?

I was struck by the parallels with the isolationistic “one man movement” phenomenon that was Charles Burchfield (who I wrote about here) when I read this assessment…

Although Tworkov is categorized as an Abstract Expressionist and treated Willem de Kooning as a mentor, Tworkov wasn’t wired like the rest of that crew. He was more willing to embrace doubt, to question himself. He also avoided the bombastic and often self destructive behavior that was so prevalent among many of his peers. There is a stepped away quality to Tworkov, in his work and in his approach to art. Or maybe it was a form of humility. Whatever term is used for that particular quality, its meaningfulness in the evolution of his work is very compelling to me.

Smee highlights several examples of Tworkov’s willingness to open up to the vulnerability that is art making:

“Iconoclastic rebellion was never Tworkov’s bent,’’ writes the art historian David Anfam in an essay in the show’s catalog. Tworkov himself was adamant that “Everyone who is an artist does it at the expense of being a hero.’’

“My hope is to confront the picture without a ready technique or a prepared attitude,’’ [Tworkov] wrote, “to have no program and, necessarily then, no preconceived style. To paint no Tworkovs.’’

Tworkov’s interest in expressing himself verbally never left him. His journals (selected and edited by Mira Schor in a Yale University Press volume last year) contain some of the most eloquent and insightful writings of the period. They are blessedly free, moreover, of the bombast and prolixity of artists like Robert Motherwell, Rothko, and Newman.

“The artist who acts as if he could have conceived his art by himself, sealed off from other artists and their work and their thoughts,’’ he wrote in 1958, “is stupid — he merely tries to conform to the idiotic romantic image of the artist as a primeval energy, as a demi-urge.’’

“As if revolting against the sogginess of my feelings,’’ he wrote around this time, “I’ve been trying to make a series of light, very trivial, almost facetious paintings.’’

But his painting, he felt, “had reached a stage where its forms had become predictable and automatically repetitive. Besides, the exuberance that was a condition of the birth of this painting could not be maintained without pretense forever.’’

Where Pollock’s response to a similar apprehension seems to have been a steep increase in alcohol intake and a suicidal car trip, Tworkov was able to switch to a lower gear. And so around the time he took up a teaching post at Yale (where he transformed the art program into one of the best in the country) he started making works that were based on straight-lined geometries, especially grids.

He liked, he said, the sense this kind of painting gave him of a connection with “something that exists besides, outside, myself.’’ It was “less hypocritical,’’ he felt, to paint this way than to fake the “ecstatic self-expression that a more romantic art calls for.’’

Tworkov kept painting compelling works into the 1980s. According to his friend, the poet Stanley Kunitz, he admitted near the end of his life to having “misgivings about my present work.’’

Well, he was nothing if not candid. But misgivings and doubt are animating. They put Tworkov, at any rate, in the same company as that other great doubter, his hero, Cézanne, about whom Picasso famously said, “It is his anxiety that forces our interest.’’

Doubters. They are often the ones who will let the story be told with more honesty, with more self-effacing candor. And in that sense it is an energy that I am drawn to deeply.

“Work of Art: The Next Great Artist” contestants, judges, host and mentor. (Photo: Bravo)

Sebastian Smee, a most thoughtful and open-minded art critic who writes for the Boston Globe, has written a review of the oft-discussed, highly charged topic of Bravo’s new reality art series, “Work of Art.” For many of us, making art couldn’t be farther from television audiences, hosts donning cocktail dresses (China Chow) and token appearances by the increasingly irritating and unctuously insincere Sarah Jessica Parker. But reading Smee’s review this morning—which is basically a thumbs up—was the perfect antidote for my disaffection.

And besides, gotta love home boy Jerry Saltz in whatever form he delivers his high energy view of the world.

Plus there’s a nice bonus: Smee’s succinct description of where a huge portion of the art world has landed itself by way of Warhol’s legacy is, IMHO, right on.

From Smee’s review:

If everything I’ve described so far sounds like a familiar ingredient in the depressingly formulaic world of reality TV, it has to be said that “Work of Art’’ somehow rises above the formula. What makes it so engrossing is the way it brings out into the open, with brisk, unblinking efficiency, all the questions about art that most people feel too intimidated to ask.

It starts with the obvious ones: How do we judge art? Are artists like you and me, or are they different? Is success in the art world about vision and skill, is it about knowing how to sell yourself, or is it just a lottery?

Even within the first episode, the questions get more nuanced. For instance: How on earth do you go about capturing someone’s “essence’’ (as opposed to their appearance) visually, in a portrait? Is it enough to be told that an artwork is underpinned by various ideas, or does the work itself need to express those ideas? And can the process of creating a work of art be as important as the finished product?

I scribbled down a list of at least a dozen such questions the first episode nonchalantly tossed out. It was refreshing.

The whole subject of contemporary art often seems surrounded by invisible tripwires. There’s an inside and there’s an outside; and those on the inside often protect themselves from the task of explaining it to those on the outside by feigning superiority. “Work of Art’’ makes great play with this inside/outside dynamic by simply striding right through those invisible tripwires.

In his brilliant book “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again),’’ Warhol said that at a certain point he stopped feeling emotions; instead of caring for people, he was fascinated by them. That describes more or less exactly where we are in our culture today. “Work of Art,’’ as well as any other reality TV show, taps into our need to be fascinated without the inconvenience, the risk, of further emotional investment. But curiously, within the show itself — in the tussle between Saltz’s eggheaded passion and Chow’s erotic calm, and in the conflicting attitudes of the various contestants — we observe a struggle over the carcass of a deeper idea of art.

All in all, it’s fascinating — and certainly good for more than 15 minutes.

Annie Leibovitz’s Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois’ passing has set the ripples in motion in every direction. After my eulogizing post about her work and her life yesterday, I was even more curious about the stories about her that Jerry Saltz gleaned from his increasingly muscular Facebook Tribe. And I mean muscular in the most flattering sense.

Here’s the lead in to his article in New York magazine:

Although I never attended one of Louise Bourgeois’s Sunday Salons held in her Chelsea townhouse, they were reportedly psychic-artistic battlegrounds. Open to anyone, artists could bring their work, wait their turn, and then get feedback from Bourgeois, who was said to preside over the proceedings like a queen. Some were made to cry; more shook in anticipation. But all seemed to leave with the sense of having passed through some sort of aesthetic fire. Here are few remembrances of Bourgeois salons past, from artists who attended.

Click here to read a few of these fascinating accounts. And for those of you who are friends of Jerry’s on Facebook, you can get the full fire hose treatment on his FB page.

A few notes and comments:

From the web


Norkae 1, mixed media on wood panel

My work is being featured on Design Squared, a visually stunning blog written by Barbara Ashfield and David Hansen. Located in San Francisco, Ashfield and Hansen are both designers who possess fine sensibilities, and I am honored to be covered by them.


John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee, 1506-11

My daughter Kellin, art historian by training, has guest posted on a smart and well crafted art history blog, The Art Daily with Lydia. She has written about Renaissance artist Rustici (in two parts), titled John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee.

Part I and Part 2.

From print

From Karl Kirchwey’s New York Times review of Derek Walcott’s latest publication, White Egrets:

But the kinship with Eliot, for Walcott, extends beyond genre. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), Eliot opined that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Walcott has deliberately avoided the confessional path pioneered by his early friend and supporter Robert Lowell, choosing instead a post-Romantic voice, closely allied with landscape, in which the particulars of a life are incidental to a larger poetic vision, one in which the self is not the overt subject.

Refreshing thought, especially in our current era of overdone memoirs and unchecked confessional forays.

From Peter Kramer’s review of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee:

Hoarding has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and its variants, and Irene, who displays contamination fears, probably meets criteria for O.C.D. But studies show that the genetics of hoarding differ from the genetics of obsessing. And while obsessionality is painful, Irene [a hoarder] finds enjoyment in acquiring and revisiting her holdings. It is this pleasure in objects…that distinguishes hoarding, in Frost and Steketee’s view. They suggest that hoarders may “inherit an intense perceptual sensitivity to visual details,” and speculate about “a special form of creativity and an appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday things.”

This upbeat account of hoarding’s basis has a humane ring: hoarders are discerning. But then, Irene can be indiscriminate, according every possession equal worth, whether it’s a newspaper clipping or a photograph of her daughter. Frost and Steketee are too thoughtful to give a simple account of what drives Irene. Possessions help her preserve her identity and relive past events. The objects make her feel safe and allow her to express caring. Newspaper clippings point outward, speaking to Irene of opportunities in the wider world. Irene is depressed; collecting promises relief. Irene displays perfectionism and indecisiveness, character traits that have been linked to hoarding. When there are so many motivations, no single one seems central.

I read this and had to wonder: So many artists, like me, have an “intense perceptual sensitivity to visual details”, with a “special form of creativity and an appreciation for the aesthetics of everyday things.” Is something keeping us tethered from crossing over into the zone of reality shows and shock value? I can only hope so.