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Sandi Slone, Rasputin, 1984, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 120 inches (Photo: Left Bank Art Blog)

Carl Belz, Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, has been posting his views on a variety of art topics for some time on Left Bank Art Blog. His most recent article, The Color Picture Now: Feeling Foremost, is my all time LBAB favorite.

But that shouldn’t be surprising. This is a topic that speaks directly to the wheelhouse of my six years of writing on Slow Muse.

In this piece, Belz navigates his way through the postmodern era of art by focusing on the vision of three painters—Ronnie Landfield, Sandi Slone, and Darryl Hughto. All are, as Belz describes them, “fully schooled in modernism, and each absorbed from the start the ways and means of Post Painterly Abstraction, in particular its primary emphasis on a personal and expressive use of color.”

Belz does a succinct contextualizing of the work of these artists during an era that has not been, shall we say, painting-centric:

Postmodern sensibilities that germinated in the 1970s haven’t generally endorsed the value judgments guiding that synopsis of color picture history. Disillusioned by the failed promises of the previous decade—a reaction quickly transferred to 20th Century modernism generally—they’ve opted more for cultural deconstruction and critique, for irony, and for detached, anti-aesthetic interest than for quality and conviction. From such a position, the tradition extending from Matisse to Stella, say, is seen less as a pictorial achievement than a decorative art historical sidebar, an assessment echoing a concern that was initially voiced decades before, most notably by Marcel Duchamp, who, in the face of the Fauves and Cubists, declared the new art mere visual pleasure—in a word, retinal. As a corrective, he called for art to restore ideas to itself, the implication being that it would otherwise devolve to comprise objects lacking meaningful content, objects, that is, which were indistinguishable from ordinary things in the world, things that could only nominally be considered art, like bottle racks or bicycle wheels, for instance, instead of the real McCoy, like the things in museums.

Conceptualism’s critique notwithstanding, the colorist equation of content with feeling continued to figure prominently—as it had figured prominently since the late 1940s—across our visual culture’s increasingly pluralistic stage during the later 1960s and the 1970s. Which is when the three painters presented here…were coming into their early maturity.

Belz goes on to explore the work of each artist individually, accompanied by a selection of sample work. His point of view is respectfully admiring and thoughtful. A must read in its entirety.

The post concludes with this paragraph which resonates for me wholeheartedly:

Paintings I really like I think about living with, like the paintings of Ronnie Landfield and Sandi Slone and Darryl Hughto. The worlds they take me to are generous and accommodating, pleasured by art that is meaningful in and of itself, art that is justified simply by being, like nature. I like to think there’s room in my own lived world—even in the lived world at large—for that kind of experience. I share Matisse’s dream of “an art filled with balance, purity and calmness…a spiritual remedy…for the businessman as well as the artist”—even though I’m no businessman or artist myself.


Paintings by Colescott on the left and Ramos on the right: Installation view at the new Rose Art Museum

One more addendum to two themes from earlier this week—the reopening of the Rose Art Museum (here), and my albeit very personal response (which has become, over the years, increasingly disapproving) to the Woman series on display in the De Kooning retrospective at the MOMA (here):

Former Rose Art Museum director Carl Belz was instrumental in bringing two pieces into the Rose collection that make their homage—on many levels—to De Kooning‘s still controversial paintings. One is by Mel Ramos and the other by Robert Colescott. They hang together, both large pieces, and seem to carry on the conversation that started so many years ago.

From the commentary provided at the Rose:

A giant of postwar American art, Willem (Bill) de Kooning, painted one of his most iconic words, Woman I, during the early 1950s. Former Rose director Carl Belz wrote in 2011 that it “inspired and haunted an entire generation of young painters,” who saw it a the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Two of those painters are Mel Ramons…”I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill #1″…and Robert Colescott, “I Gets a Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo”…

In 1980, Belz curated the exhibition, Mel Ramos: A Twenty Year Survey, which included “I Still Get a Thrill When I See Bill #1” on loan. A year later, Belz’s friend Senator Bill Bradley gave Colescott’s painting to the Rose. The Ramos came up for auction in 1996, and Belz seized the change to add it to the collection.

Belz describes having the Colescott and Ramos on view simultaneously “as a postmodern appropriation, as an ironic comment about the comment about the creative act, as an oblique yet moving tribute, as a pictorial exploit, you name it, it [is] all there.

I also liked this quote from Ramos in 1980:

I was just really troubled by Willem de Kooning’s paintings at one time. So it was quite a challenge for me actually to try to attempt to do that painting just sort of outright, blatant, straightforward—here’s Woman No. 1—and still make it, you know, a Ramos painting.

…it was the kind of things that I was doing with that painting, that is, the involvement with the paint istself, the painting of brushstrokes, that is, the reconstituting of those brushstrokes, painting them visually the way they appear in magazines, as opposed to the way they actually appear on the paint, on the surface, which has nothing to do at all with the way they appear in magazine. You’re conscious of just so much energy and inhuman speed and transitory thoughts when you look at that work. So my painting is actually a painting of a reproduction of it, although it’s been slightly altered. I added breasts. I made a nude out of it. I painted it all flesh.

The stenciled title at the bottom of Colescott’s painting

Looking down from the top balcony onto the Sum of Days installation by Carlito Carvalhosa in the MOMA. It is just too big and sensual to not pay attention and be delighted at some level.

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.

Read his posts in their entirety here and here. Also included in Belz’s two pieces are responses to the work of Alex Katz, Jo Ann Rothschild, Tina Finegold, Linda Etcoff and John Salt. Read ’em all.

Warren Burger, by George Augusta

My friend Carl Belz has written about his encounters with portrait art while heading up the Rose Museum at Brandeis a few years back. He was asked to recommend a portrait painter for the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. ” I immediately suggested Andy Warhol,” Belz writes, “who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists.”

He eventually finds his way to George Augusta, a Boston-based portrait painter. Stepping out of his contemporary art world view, Belz liked what he saw:

George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike.

So began a long and fruitful relationship between George Augusta and Brandeis University.

But there is a larger arc of meaning for Belz that emerges from this encounter. Anyone who has “discovered” an artistic enclave or tradition existing in isolation from a contemporary art world that is high profile, elite, detached, controlled, and carefully artificed knows that startling moment of revelation that there are other ways of making art far afield from those confining constructs.

I had my version of that aha! experience when I first encountered Australian aboriginal painting 20 years ago. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Gloria Petyarre, Kathleen Petyarre, Johnny Warrangkula, Rover Thomas and Barbara Weir are just a few of the extraordinary artists who emerged after art supplies were first brought to the aboriginal population in the 1970s by Geoffrey Bardon. With no exposure to Western art or tradition, these artists used their own cultural heritage to produce work that, while varied and self-defined, shares an approach that is painterly, authentic, mysteriously spiritual and completely captivating. I was immediately engulfed by it, and that encounter changed my life as an artist. (An image by Kathleen Petyarre is at the bottom of this post.)

Belz describes his experience with thoughtful graciousness:

Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning.

Great piece Carl. You can read it in its entirety at Left Bank Art Blog.

Kathleen Petyarre

The landscape in Carson, New Mexico

Landscape And Soul

Though we should not speak about the soul,
that is, about things we don’t know,
I’m sure mine sleeps the day long,
waiting to be jolted, even jilted awake,
preferably by joy, but sadness also comes
by surprise, and the soul sings its songs.

And because no one landscape compels me,
except the one that’s always out of reach
(toward which, nightly, I go), I find myself
conjuring Breugel-like peasants cavorting
under a Magritte-like sky – a landscape
the soul, if fully awake, could love as its own.

But the soul is rumored to desire a room,
a chamber, really, in some far away outpost
of the heart. Landscape can be lonely and cold.
Be sweet to me, world.

–Stephen Dunn

I am posting this poem as an homage to my friend Carl Belz who, like Dunn, is a Renaissance man. Both Belz and Dunn played professional basketball as well as excelling as poets, art historians, professors and humanists.

And the sentiments are worthy ones. I’m particularly enjoying this line: “And because no one landscape compels me/except the one that’s always out of reach/(toward which, nightly, I go)”.

Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966, Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paints on canvas, 120 x 128 x 4 in., Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Abuses of power and money, decisions made by self serving Philistines, the infuriatingly short sighted policies that have ramifications way beyond the bounds of the elite board room—nothing new in any of these themes. But the stories that touch my interest, art, still stick in the caw and won’t dislodge that easily. I am forced to ask the existential question of how should we respond to these flagrant travesties, especially given how many of them take place under wraps and are never really exposed?

My friend (and favorite curator) Carl Belz recently published an account that looks back to a Frank Stella acquisition that never happened during his last few months at the Rose Art Museum. (His account is here on the blog Left Bank.) His story will infuriate you if having access to works by an important artist within reach of Boston matters to you. The bad spin around Brandeis and the Rose (Battle of the Roses?) continues and Belz’s account is just one more peek into the complexity of doing the right thing in any environment—art, academia or politics—where doing good work and operating with high minded intentions are rarely rewarded.

Watching The Art of the Steal, the recently released documentary about the highly controversial move of the Barnes Foundation art collection into Philadelphia, is yet another example. Yes, critics of the film have pointed to its highly biased telling of a complex and extremely arcane tale that tracks the fate of an art collection valued at billions of dollars. But the villainy is profligate and plentiful no matter how much you skew for bias. When there is that much money at stake, you can’t keep treacherous vultures away for long.

The stoic’s stance. Is that the optimal response for any of us to take in the face of shenanigans this large in scope? Both of these accounts make me hot under the collar, but it is a heat that has nowhere to go and nothing meaningful to do.

OK. That’s my rant. I’ll move on to something more positive tomorrow, I promise.

Lemongrass, by Judy Pfaff (Braunstein Quay Gallery)

At a pre-opening soirée for Judy Pfaff’s show at the Braunstein Quay Gallery in San Francisco last week, Pfaff talked about how different—and personally satisfying—it has been to be working in her studio again. So much of her focus recently has been installation-centric: massive venues and complex sculptural structures that have required an big interdisciplinary team to execute. The “sculptural paintings” that comprise this show, “Tivoli Gardens”, feel like Pfaff let loose with something wild in herself, plumbing the store of treasures that most artists keep of those things that just can’t be throw out—cut outs, paper edges, pleatings of rice paper, metallic scraps, fans, gourds (mostly from Pfaff’s own garden), fake flowers, crimped wire, distressed bicycle spokes, Asian momentos, honeycombed shipping material, lacy paper shards made by artful torching. She spoke of looking under the leaves and the ground cover of her garden to discover the beauty of the tangle of the living and the dying. And it is all there, celebrated as a full cycle of life coming in and life going out.

The work on exhibit at Braunstein Quay, like many of the new pieces included in the “Five Decades” retrospective at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe (through October 16th and written about briefly here), is exhuberantly expressive, friendly, fecund, playful, entertaining and completely seductive (in the most positive meaning of that term.) If there were a soundtrack for this exhibit it would be the warm and bubbly chuckling of pure delight. The smells would be loamy and soft, the fragrance of slow, wet decay.

Several of the pieces in the San Francisco show are cordoned into extremely generous box style frames. A few have been left naked and exposed. Some artists and critics have strong feelings about frames and never like the containment that happens “under glass.” But I think these Pfaff-devised and designed protective structures work just fine.

Trust, Pfaff Style

I have been a long time admirer of Pfaff’s work. I first saw her work in New York City many years ago and have subsequently seen exhibits in other venues like Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ birthplace in New Hampshire, Philadelphia, and at the Rose Art Museum (once the jewel of the now notoriously besmudged Brandeis University) in Waltham. That show took place in 1995 during what many of us now refer to The Golden Age of the Rose—that halcyon time when curatorial leadership was provided by gallery director extraordinaire Carl Belz. The Rose never regained its aesthetic footing after he left.

Pfaff titled her Rose exhibit “Elephant,” a reference to the blind men who each are convinced that their small hand hold on a very large creature is an accurate description of the whole. At an artist talk that Pfaff did at the Rose in conjunction with that show, she told a story that demonstrates one of her most admirable personal qualities—a sturdy trust in her artistic self.

With her self-effacing candor she described how she arrived at the Rose just 13 days before the show was set to open. She had a truck full of tools, supplies and a vague memory of how the interior of the Philip Johnson-designed museum was laid out. But upon arrival she immediately realized that she had remembered the space all wrong and that the ideas she had been brewing would not work. A large opening in the center of the upstairs gallery space required something completely different.

So she climbed into the cab of her rented truck parked just outside the museum to think. Well, she reminded herself, the answer is usually right in front of me. And as she spoke those words she saw a tree at the edge of the parking lot that was growing out of its bounds. She knew immediately that the tree was what she wanted. And needed.

Pfaff tracked down the grounds staff (who told her they were planning to remove the tree anyway) and had them extract it with the root system in tact. How she was able to marshal the student assistants and the know how to get that immense structure into the museum is a mystery as is the 24/7 effort needed to put the show together. By the time she had festooned that immense structure with her signature sculptural linkages, she had created a visual knock out. I experienced that tree-centric installation as an encounter with primal enormity—the birthing of something immense, like a deity or a goddess. And all of her images pulled together, 2-D and 3-D, into what was an unforgettable show.

At no point in this story did Pfaff give in to the frantic or lose that essential trust that she would find her way. I don’t know too many artists who would have the cujones to face a 13 day deadline with so much assurance. I have thought about story that hundreds of times since, especially when I am in an agonizingly protracted struggle with envisioning a next step.

Carl Belz’s Account of “Elephant”

I found a wonderful blog post by Carl Belz sharing his up close and personal account of working with Pfaff to bring “Elephant” into existence. You can read it here.

Close up view


I’m still reeling from the news that Brandeis University has announced the closing of the Rose Art Museum. Once a bastion of painterly painting under Carl Belz’s visionary directorship, the Rose has been a cherished art destination for me for many years. The building, designed by Philip Johnson, is small and not one of Johnson’s best works by any means. But the sensibility Belz brought to the place was exemplary. Judy Pfaff, Joan Snyder and a number of other important women artists were championed by Belz early in that particular visibility curve.

The outcry has been overwhelming. From the New York Times today:

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said on Tuesday that it planned to conduct a detailed review of Brandeis University’s surprise decision to sell off the entire holdings of its Rose Art Museum, one of the most important collections of postwar art in New England.

The decision to close the 48-year-old museum in Waltham, Mass., and disperse the collection as a way to shore up the university’s struggling finances was denounced by the museum’s board, its director and a wide range of art experts, who warned that the university was cannibalizing its cultural heritage to pay its bills.

“This is one of the artistic and cultural legacies of American Jewry,” said Jonathan Lee, the chairman of the museum’s board of overseers, who said that “nobody at the museum — neither the director nor myself nor anyone else — was informed of this or had any idea what was going on.”

This account from the Wall Street Journal (with an excerpt posted on Slow Painting), also caught me:

The National Academy and MOCA did come perilously close to “going away,” due to financial circumstances specific to them that predated the general economic collapse.

The academy clawed its way back from the edge by selling two Hudson River School paintings — its most important Frederic Church and its only Sanford Gifford — to raise about $13.5 million for operations. By the time its desperation-driven plan to sell came to light on Dec. 5…the paintings were already gone — withdrawn from the public domain by an unidentified private foundation.

In making this risky move, the museum forfeited not only AAMD membership but also art loans from and collaborations with institutions that obey the strong recommendation of the association’s board. “These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets,” Mr. Conforti [president of the Association of Art Museum Directors] declared.

“These objects are there for the collective cultural patrimony of the people who live in this country. They are not fungible assets.”

Is that true?

My son, ever the devil’s advocate, wants to know details about the collection being sold before he mourns its loss. He’s young and iconoclastic, very distrustful about how art institutions and their collusive insider taste makers determine what is valuable and what is not.

Yeah, I’m cynical too. But I do know some of the holdings at the Rose. And the thought that those works will be gone is crushing to me.

What’s the answer? As the financial infrastructures needed to keep our culturecraft afloat continue to disintegrate, the solution is not simple. But I still feel bereft.