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I just returned from a week in the Outer Banks with my three sisters. Beautiful and remote, that slim slice of land felt even more so with whole sections of the road washed out from Hurricane Sandy and only traversable via 4 wheel drive. Later in the week the road was closed down altogether due to wind and high tides. The only way back was a slow ferry to an out of the way corner of (very) rural North Carolina.
But being there was what matters most. Those grayed over skies and a frisked up surf presaging yet another storm this weekend were a perfect backdrop for my deep dive into the delectably oversized Gerhard Richter: Writings 1961 – 2007. Now back home after my OBX sojourn, nearly every page is marked up and annotated. What a feast. If Gerhard Richter‘s work speaks to you, this book is for you.
Here are just a few passages that I opened to at random:
One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is total idiocy.
Each picture has to evolve out of a painterly or visual logic: it has to emerge as if inevitably. And by not planning the outcome, I hope to achieve the same coherence and objectivity that a random slice of nature (or a readymade) always possesses. Of course, this is also a method of bringing in unconscious processes, as far as possible. I just want to get something more interesting out of it than those things that I can think out for myself.
Uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.
Any thoughts on my part about the ‘construction’ of a picture are false, and if the execution works, this is only because I partly destroy it, or because it works in spite of everything—by not detracting and by not looking the way I planned.
I often find this intolerable and even impossible to accept, because, as a thinking, planning human being, it humiliates me to find out that I am so powerless. It casts doubt on my competence and constructive ability. My only consolation is to tell myself that I did actually make the pictures—even though they are a law unto themselves, even though they treat me any way they lie and somehow just take shape.
It seems to me that the invention of the readymade was the invention of reality. It was the crucial discovery that what counts is reality, not any world-view whatever. Since then, painting has never represented reality; it has been reality (creating itself.)
Everything you can think of—the feeblemindedness, the stupid ideas, the gimcrack constructions and speculations, the amazing inventions and the glaring juxtapositions—the things you can’t help seeing a million times over, day in and day out; the impoverishment and the cocksure ineptitude—I paint all that away, out of myself, out of my head, when I first start on a picture. That is my foundation, my ground. I get rid of that in the first few layers, which I destroy, layer by layer, until all the facile feeblemindedness has gone.
The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality.
Question: You do abstract and realistic paintings at the same time. Isn’t that a great contradiction?
The means you use to organize it are the same: the same structure, the same contrasts…But there is a difference in what I call the climate. For example, the landscape are peaceful and sentimental. The abstract works are more emotional, more aggressive. I look for these differences of climate.
I believe I am looking for rightness. My work has so much to do with reality that I wanted to have a corresponding rightness. That excludes painting in imitation. In nature everything is always right: the structure is right, the proportions are good, the colors fit the forms. If you imitate that in painting, it becomes false.
It follows that art is a way of thinking things out differently, and of apprehending the intrinsic inaccessibility of phenomenal reality; that art is an instrument, a method of getting at that which is closed and inaccessible to us (the banal future, just as much as the intrinsically unknowable); that art has a formative and therapeutic, consolatory and informative, investigative and speculative function; it is thus not only existential pleasure but Utopia.
And when the mind is immersed so deeply, everything is seen through that Richterian lens. Beach, sand, water—all elements that speak a similar language.
[Note: Recently I went in search of a particular post on Slow Muse from several years ago. In the process I found so many others that dealt with topics that are still, all these years later, speaking to me. So I have decided to start a recycling series. From time to time I’ll share content that is still bouncing around in me, still offering its own kind of inspiration. This first one originally appeared in January 2007.]
From Agnes Martin:
My interest is in experience that is wordless and silent, and in the fact that this experience can be expressed for me in artwork which is also wordless and silent.
Martin also talks about how she first began using the grid in her work:
When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then a grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do, and so I painted it and then I was satisfied. I thought, this is my vision.
Martin’s work exudes a quiet humility and a transcendent, uncomplicated purity. The power that exists in her paintings is tangible yet rarefied. When the Whitney Museum mounted a Martin retrospective a few years ago, it ran concurrently with a show of work by Basquiat. People in his exhibit were engaged in lively discussions of Basquiat’s larger-than-life iconography and wild-handed expressionism. Two flights down, in the Martin exhibit, there was no gaggling or chatter. People wandering in fell silent as if on cue, respectful of the sepulchral reverence that had been created by her subtle and evocative work. Sitting “wordless and silent” amid those paintings was full immersion Martin.
I have thought about her line, the innocence of trees, many times. Her equating of the grid with innocence is still an idea that I find poetic and provocative—I don’t speak grid in my own work—but I do feel its fulfillment in the delicate armatures of graphite in her paintings. The large hearted innocence of nature, and of trees, just may be the delicate armatures of our existence. Like her grids, they require close viewing to capture fully. And, like her work, they call for a moment of wordless silence.
Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski, is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. (The show originated at the Kemper Art Museum in Kansas City, travels next to Toledo before opening within reach of my viewing radius—at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington DC in mid-September.)
Some moments in the video below about Jules Olitski are worth calling out. Art historian Karen Wilken is clear and articulate in putting his large scale (“public scale”) works in perspective. There is also a heartwarming clip of Olitski himself speaking in Hartford. Frustrated by the search for meaning some viewers apply to abstraction, he dismisses that line of approach with an analogy to sex—when you are making love, who is asking what does that this mean? I was particularly caught by Olitski’s friend and sculptor Willard Boepple describing how his friend approached art making: How the desperation and the awfulness of a work of art in progress is essential because that desperation leads to discovery and that is where the adventure happens.
Another Olitski confrere reads this insightful quote by G. K. Chesterton word for word:
There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.
I love that.
Some of Olitski’s work send me high, like Greek Princess 8 shown above. Others are not as redolent to my eye and spirit. But his descriptions of his approach, his concerns, his way of working—I feel a commonality with those concerns every day in my studio.
Here are a few shots from last night’s opening for Inquire/Acquire* at the Bannister Gallery. Kudos to curator James Montford for bringing cohesion to four very different bodies of work. And thanks to all those who braved the snow in Boston (just as we were beginning to think we’d slide past this winter without any) to drive to Providence. Great evening all ’round.
March 1- 29, 2012
Rhode Island College
600 Mt Pleasant Ave
Providence, RI 02908
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 8pm
Whitechapel Gallery has played a memorable role in the London visual arts scene since its founding in 1901. It was one of the first publicly-funded galleries and host to Picasso‘s Guernica in 1938 (as part of an exhibit organized by artist Roland Penrose in protest to the Spanish Civil War) and Rothko‘s first show in England in 1961.
A small exhibit at the Whitechapel honors that breakthrough show by Rothko. And to put that show in context, Charles Darwent describes the state of abstraction in England at that time in his review of the show:
Rothko was about to have his first English show, downstairs in the Whitechapel proper; it was organised by the revolutionary curator, Bryan Robertson. Rothko’s work would hit London like a shell. The late painter John Hoyland recalled the show. “We didn’t understand it … how to analyse it,” he said, in an interview days before his death in July. To the English, “abstraction” had meant the not-quite chalk downs of Paul Nash, the stylised boats of Ben Nicholson. Here, though, was something different. Rothko’s show was “engulfing, an awesome vision”: Hoyland “staggered around it”, drunk on the American’s sensuousness.
All this is the subject, 50 years on, of a small but fascinating exhibition at the Whitechapel. There is only one Rothko in the show – the Tate’s Light Red Over Black – and that was not in the 1961 exhibition. This in itself is poignant. It took the Tate until 1959 to acquire its first Rothko: the gallery’s director, Sir John Rothenstein, hated abstract art. The other great art knight, Sir Kenneth Clark, backed Rothenstein’s views. Under their reign, British art remained a backwater, abstraction confined to a small group of oddballs working in a far-off place called St Ives. And then there was Rothko at the Whitechapel.
The photographer Sandra Lousada was just out of her teens in 1961. Her father, a patron of the Tate, told her to go and shoot the show. The results, hung next to Light Red Over Black, evoke a time in English art now scarcely imaginable. Like John Hoyland, visitors to the Whitechapel seem stunned by the images in front of them – uncanny, soft-edged beauties like nothing they have seen before. Other photographs show Rothko on his quasi-mythical visit to Cornwall in the summer of 1959: one has him sitting in a garden, drinking tea. All the other men – Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost – are wearing trawlerman’s jumpers; Rothko is in a suit and tie. He looks like a fish out of water, which is how some critics saw him.
Under the headline, “Clarity begins at home”, the reviewer of Time and Tide found Rothko’s pictures “spiritually enervating”. “Like the beauty of some women,” he said, “their beauty is quite meaningless.”
Happily, most local writers got Rothko as quickly as local painters did. Alan Bowness, future director of the Tate, found the American “immediately sympathetic to the English taste”, and the feeling was mutual. Also on show are letters from Rothko to various English correspondents. In one, he professes himself so moved by Shakespeare and Dickens that he felt “they must really have been Russian Jews who emigrated to New York”. Who’d have thought? Don’t miss this exhibition.
While this small exhibit only includes one Rothko painting (borrowed from the Tate collection), the correspondence and photographs documenting that event held me in the gallery for a long time. Rothko’s hand typed, faded letters are firm, demanding, clear. The transaction that resulted in the Tate acquiring the Seagram paintings originally created for a restaurant space in New York was conducted just months before Rothko’s suicide. Reading the exchange was poignant and sobering.
Here’s a flavor of Rothko’s level of involvement in how his work should be seen, hung and experienced. The following transcription utterly fascinated me.
SUGGESTIONS FROM MR. MARK ROTHKO REGARDING INSTALLATION OF HIS PAINTINGS
Walls should be made considerably off-white with umber and warmed by a little red. If the walls are too white, they are always fighting against the pictures which turn greenish because of the predominance of red in the pictures.
The light, whether natural or artificial, should not be too strong; the pictures have their own inner light and if there is too much light, the color in the picture is washed out and a distortion of their look occurs. The ideal situation would be to hang them in a normally lit room—that is the way they were painted. They should not be over-lit or romanticized by spots; this results in a distortion of their meaning. They should either be lighted from a great distance or indirectly by casting lights at the ceiling or the floor. Above all, the entire picture should be evenly lighted and not strongly.
Hanging height from the floor:
The larger pictures should all be hung as close to the floor as possible, ideally not more than six inches above it. In the case of the small pictures, they should be somewhat raised but not “skied” (never hung towards the ceiling). Again this is the way the pictures were painted. If this is not observed, the proportions of the rectangles became distorted and the picture changes.
The exception to this are the pictures which are enumerated below which were painted as murals actually to be hung at a great height. These are:
1. Sketch for Mural, No. 1, 1958
2. 2. Mural Sections 2,3,4,5, and 7, 1958-9
3. White and Black on Wine, 1958
The murals were painted at a height of 4’6” above the floor. If it is not possible to raise them to that extent, any raising above three feet would contribute to their advantage and original effect.
Seeing (and writing about) the David Hockney show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy was (and is) hard. In some ways I have a sentimental place for Hockney that dates back to my early days as an art student. His early work, particularly those that showcased his masterful draughtsmanship and his wit, left an impression on me at a time when I was learning my craft. And the work that emerged from his newly-adopted home base in Los Angeles became iconic, with swimming pools and palm trees that were a signatory measure of the English gent living in that strange landscape of American suburban sprawl.
I eventually lost that personal connection with his work, but I did observe his development as he powered through phase after phase, from theater design and decorative inventions to a reconnection with the landscape of his homeland. In addition, his lassoing of new technologies into personal style tools (including Polaroids, the iPhone and now the iPad) is impressive for an artist who has been over 30 for a long time.
There are lines in London for all the current exhibits but none were as long as the line to see the Hockney show. In an exhibit full to the brim in every room with attentive viewers, the general sense I had in listening and watching was that the work was delighting those who stood outside in the cold for over an hour. It is a prodigiously huge body of work and a testament to the ability for artists in their 70s and 80s (and sometimes 90s) to continue to produce new work. But unlike most of the other gallery visitors, my experience was not one of delight. While I am glad I saw the show and did have a few moments with his very unique mastery of pictorial space, I left the exhibit feeling unsettled and unsatisfied.
The drawings, done in charcoal, are exquisite. Like most of the work in the show, these were done in the last few years and are as lush a celebration of nature and tree-ness as I seen. But the glorified sense of color that has always been Hockney’s signature flair was exhausting in room after room of paintings, so these black and white images were a place of rest and quiet for me. I looked for them in every gallery as a touchstone of groundedness before venturing into another deep dive of magentas, brilliant oranges, purples and lime greens. For a longtime colorist like me, this reaction was a surprise. But the use of color felt gratuitous, more like the way color is used for cheery illustrations in a children’s book.
Maybe the best of us can’t really see when our explorations, each of which we value deeply, do not translate into a form that belongs in the harsh, staid and naked setting of an empty gallery. This whole exhibit seems to have done assembled by an artist who has the stature to demand and be given carte blanche to fill an enormous space with anything and everything. Was there a conversation with anyone at any point about the visual disruption of assembling a massive painting from smaller canvases that have each been framed in mahogany wood? This felt like a student grade exhibit decision to my eye.
And then there is the issue of two most glaring editorial mistakes: The first is Hockney’s riff on the Claude Lorrain painting, The Sermon on the Mount, which hangs in the Frick collection in New York. These exercises should never have left the studio.
The second is the iPad drawings, blown up in size, framed and then hung salon style in the Royal Academy’s largest hall.
Here is Laura Cumming‘s take on that body of work from her Guardian review:
With their felt pen squiggles and eerily empty transitions, so reminiscent of Photoshop, they appear inert and dehumanised. The surface of these prints has an easy-clean sheen and at more than a metre high they look like what they are: quick studies of dandelions and leafy lanes voluminously enlarged.
Perhaps the technology has bewitched him with its efficacy and speed; and who would begrudge Hockney this pleasure after a lifetime’s experiments with Polaroid, fax, photocollage, video and all. But perhaps this goes to the central disappointment of A Bigger Picture. One witnesses Hockney’s excitement, verve and energy, wall to wall, floor to ceiling and in room after room without ever feeling it oneself.
The best line I heard while I was in London came from a taxi driver. When I asked her to take me to Whitechapel Gallery she perked up and said, “Oh, I love art! It is so subjective.” It was so immediate and so right on, I was still rather stunned when she dropped me off. I don’t begrudge anyone their joy at experiencing this exhibit. For me it was bigger picture, not a better one.
I will be showing my latest body of work at an upcoming exhibition at Rhode Island College next month. I am looking forward to seeing these pieces outside of my studio and all the visual clutter that comes with it. The shift in seeing can sometimes be surprisingly revelatory. I hope it helps me deepen my understanding of the new territory I am exploring.
That’s the show part of the heading. The sojourn part starts tonight when I head to England. I’ll spend time in the Lakes as well as in London.
I am still perplexed by how deeply I am affected by a change in venue, something that works on others just as powerfully as it does on me. In a recent interview with the writer John Logan (his play, Red, is reviewed here), he describes how he travels to Death Valley every year by himself, going at the height of the summer so he can “scorch everything away. It cleanses the palate of my imagination. Writing is a hard job and it takes a lot out of you, so you need to take the time to replenish it.’’
England is no Death Valley. But the verdant green and the abundance of ancient sites (Britain has more than 1000 stone circles alone) seep in me and do some quiet rewiring of my insides. It is one of my ways of cleansing the palate of imagination. The desert can bring a powerful reset as well, but it works on me in a very different manner. I long for regular exposure to both.
I will be back to Slow Muse on February 22.
March 1- 29, 2012
Artist reception: March 1, 5-8pm
Rhode Island College
600 Mt Pleasant Ave
Providence, RI 02908
ACQUIRE/INQUIRE: A GROUP EXHIBITION
To inquire—to engage in the intentional act of discovery—is the vital cord that connects the work of Deborah Barlow, Marcia Goodwin, Doris Weiner, and Denyse Wilhelm.
The objects, books, and memories they have acquired are the results of lives lived in purposeful inquiry, provoking and sustaining their work. Walk into any one of their studios and see possessions that are intensely personal: a Chinese wedding basket, peridot tinted vintage glass, Javanese puppets, or shards of pottery. In the work of these four artists, elements of nature, culture, mysticism, choreography, and music are transformed into visual ideographs that are dimensional, vibrant, ambient, and atmospheric.
This exhibition is curated by James Montford, director of Bannister Gallery.
OK. I haven’t seen the show yet. But Sebastian Smee‘s Boston Globe review of the newly-opened deCordova Biennial rang true of so many shows that I have seen lately:
I thought we had outgrown smarty-pants biennials, filled with arcane and self-obsessed art by artists hypnotized by the riddle of their status in the world, and audibly gnashing their teeth over what purposes they might legitimately serve…Actually, most good artists do outgrow this stuff and get on with making art. The trouble is, curators—for whom art-making often remains impenetrably mysterious—still love it. Or think they should love it. And so we have biennials and triennials that overflow with self-consciousness, with worn-out conceptual japes, and with lazy gestures of political consciousness that have all the committed warmth of a dictator waving his gloved hand behind tinted windows.
For my regulars I am repeating yet again. But reading this review brought to mind the quote from Roberta Smith‘s response to a similar show. Her words, like Smee’s, speak to a gap that exists between curators and art makers:
After 40 years in which we’ve come to understand that dominant styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Pop are at best gross simplifications of their periods, it often feels as though an agreed-upon master narrative is back in place.
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.
Her advice to curators is right in line with Smee’s response to the deCordova show:
They have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.
These things should be understood by now: The present is diverse beyond knowing, history is never completely on anyone’s side, and what we ignore today will be excavated later and held against us the way we hold previous oversights against past generations.
Message to curators: Whatever you’re doing right now, do something else next.
Smee did find a few submissions that offered something to the viewer. His closing line is a keeper: “These promising, good, or interesting things were outnumbered by lightweight gestures of cling film conceptualism—cut off from fresh air, refrigerator-ready, coddled in cleverness.”
I just love this guy. The image is pitch perfect.
*Here is Smee’s specific response to this work by Joe Zane:
In the main gallery, on the third floor, Joe Zane, a Cambridge-based artist whose work is pretty much the last word in conceptual onanism, has another sign, this one in gold letters affixed to the wall. It reads: “This is not the Biennial I was hoping for.” Reading it, I felt momentarily outflanked, my ungenerous, rube-like thoughts revealed and writ large. But then I registered the bathos of the gesture, and its reliance on that old teenage trope of being forever smarter and more sarcastic than your audience. After which I merely felt tired.
The past weekend was spent with my partner Dave’s family, gathering in Utah to remember his mother who passed away at 88. At her memorial service I was reminded once again that all of us have many identities and many versions of ourselves. The community where she lived saw a kindly older woman who loved children and taught them in Sunday School. Her family had a very different view. It is like the essential paradox of any biographical project: the story of a person’s life, no matter who they are, can be shaded and skewed. We are each an assemblage of multiple realities, a mini-Rashomon where all possible explanations of us and our lives are variations of the true.
This was born out as well in my recent devouring of all things Philip Guston. I fell under the spell of his insights and wisdom when I read Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations. More a talker than a writer, Guston is best experienced in transcripts of his conversations. He loved talking, and it is his preferred form. My copy of the book is now awash with underlines and comments. It has had a deep impact on my time in the studio.
Being so moved by his words, I felt compelled to continue to plumb the life of this complex, brilliant, driven man. Night Studio: A Memoir Of Philip Guston is written by Musa Mayer, Guston’s only child. Mayer is a particularly unique witness to Guston’s life: while she owns up to the unavoidably subjective view any child has of their parent, she also relies on her psychological counseling background to buy some distance and objectivity. She is intelligent and articulate, truthful and yet generous of spirit. I read her account cover to cover in one sitting.
Guston was an insightful and inspiring teacher, a devoted and passionate friend, an extraordinarily hard working and gifted painter. But the narcissism that seems to come hand in hand with the excessive drinking and hard living of that generation made him a destructive and difficult parent. The evenhandedness of Mayer’s account speaks to the deep work she has done over her lifetime to come to terms with the parts of this agitated, restless, gifted man.
Having read both of these books back to back left me feeling somewhat untethered, a bit uneasy. I am so inspired by his understanding of art making while I abhor who he was in his personal life. Like all of us, there is no one narrative to explain or capture the fullness of his life.
Whether a genius painter or a newly deceased parent, the best answer to the question of who they were is simply this: e) all of the above.