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The Yearling, by Donald Lipski, now installed in Denver

In David Levi Strauss’ book, From Head to Hand, he begins the chapter on sculptor Donald Lipski with three quotes and this paragraph:

The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.
–The Blind Man (1917)

Why not look at the constellation of things that surround us every day? That is the combinatory art. Nothing should be left out. Everything has to undergo the test of how it can live in this relatedness.
–Frederick Sommer, The Constellations That Surround Us (1992)

Art supposes that beauty is not an exception—is not in despite of—but is the basis for an order.
–John Berger, “The White Bird” (1985)

From the viewpoint of art for art’s sake, aesthetic decisions are continually being contaminated by the things of this world. In Donald Lipski’s art, this process is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. In fact, this contamination—resulting from the contact and mixture of disparate substances and materials—defines the method and has come to be the principal subject of Lipski’s art.

A great collection of quotes, and a topic that has many more levels to it than just Lipski’s eclectic work. Sommer’s encouragement to look at and work with the “constellation of things” and to take a “combinatory” approach to art making speaks to me as a painter as well. Clearly my approach is a much more subtle implementation, often operating most powerfully at the inchoate level of intent. But the steady accretion of non traditional materials into my work has been my own painterly way of coming into relationship with the constellation of things that exist in my world.

I also found this passage about Lipski and his relationship to minimalism provocative:

Lipski’s art is particularly well suited to contemporary postindustrial society, a society of plethoric overproduction, wealth, and waste. But his art is not plethoric. It is, rather, remarkably light on its feet, transforming glut into spare elegance. The work clearly responds more to minimalism than to pop, but with a twist…David Rubin wrote: “Although minimalism was born of a disdain for metaphor and materials with associative value, Lipski has brought new life to is most cherished principles. In subjectifying minimalism, altering it as he does objects, Lipski has effectively transformed it from an art of the few into an art for the many.

My favorite Lipski is his 1998 installation for Grand Central, Sirshasana. A huge artificial olive tree, it hung upside down. The roots were covered in gold leaf and its branches were draped with 5,000 Swarovski crystals. Named after a head down yoga position, the tree felt ethereal and provocative—its roots reaching heavenward and its branches drawing down to the earth. Much can be drawn from that orientation, and Strauss quotes the 13th century Zohar: “The Tree of Life extends from above downwards, and is the sun which illuminates us all.”

This work feels loaded, lush and full of light.


Sirshasana, in Grand Central

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Everyone needs a Maureen Doallas in their lives. Maureen filters the world of art and poetry like a baleine whale combs the sea for krill. Her latest find is a show at Winston Watcher in Seattle by mosaic artist Ann Gardner.

As described by the gallery, Gardner is known for “unique sculptures that use hand cut, tinted and etched glass to create elegant mosaic-covered forms that challenge the physical boundaries of the medium.” These forms are exquisitely simple, beguiling and visually luxurious.

And Gardner’s statements about her work speak to concerns that are conversant with my own:

My intention is to make work of presence and harmony from the intersection of three very simple elements: light, shape and color. When these elements play with the surface, I want them to reveal a complexity that changes as the day passes over the work.

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Whether I create a sculpture for a private or public commission, I am interested in the same issues: I want my work to elicit an emotional response, such as celebration, quietness or calm, and facilitate a connection to that response for the viewer.

Yesterday I posted about sculptor Bill Walton. Today it is Ann Gardner. And given that things often happen in threes, I’m ready for my third to appear. It’s like a 3D meteor shower.


(All images courtesy of Winston Wachter Gallery)


Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul,” at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The sculpture is made from plastic and makes reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: Scott Peterman)

Thank you Sebastian Smee, for addressing an issue that feels extremely personal and one that I have written about here many times: the demand to narrate the visual art experience with language.

In writing about the Portland Museum of Art exhibit by Anna Helper, Smee begins his article addressing this issue head on:

One of the cruelest burdens we impose on artists is the obligation to talk about their work. It’s not that artists should somehow — like children of yore — be seen and not heard. They are often the most articulate and insightful of commentators. (And why wouldn’t they be? It’s their work.)

But over the past several decades, in the academy, in the media, in front of collectors and curators, talking and writing about one’s own work has increasingly become, for artists, an expectation, a requirement. In some ways, it’s a burden, even a kind of violation.

Why? Because the inner compulsions of the best artists tend to develop in a place that is out of reach of language. And so when artists are asked to explain their work, the constructions they come up with can be smooth, convincing, terrifically interesting — and yet in some strange way a betrayal of the original impulse.

Smee focuses this line of thinking to the more specific realm of Anna Helper’s work. He notes that in the past Helper has referred to her work as being connected with nature. She has written about a particular work speaking to the “temporary perfect sphere’’ of a dandelion whorl, or how another piece suggests “flocks of birds converge in midair.’’

But, says Smee, her self-defined contextualizing has now shifted:

In a recent conversation, just days after visiting her during the installation of “Makeshift,’’ Hepler was suddenly eager to de-emphasize her works’ connections with nature.

“I used to constantly point out things in the natural world,’’ she says by phone. “But my work is not about those things. I don’t go to nature for ideas.’’

Instead, Hepler says she is trying to get closer in her work “to something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world.’’ She doesn’t want to negate her works’ links with nature. But her real interests (and here she gives the impression of groping for words) lie in “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape. If that makes any sense. My work is like a 12th-generation Xerox of these [geometries].’’

Yes, yes and yes to Smee, to Helper, to this line of thought. Her distinction of not going to nature for ideas but turning to “something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world” is a point of view that I resonant with deeply. Her phrase, “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape” is not a groping for words IMHO but one of the most insightful descriptions of a process that is, granted, very hard to articulate.

And the show sounds compelling, provocative, visually stimulating. I’m planning my visit now.

Show info:

Makeshift
Anna Hepler
Portland Museum of Art
Through October 17, 2010


Anna Hepler, Cyanotype 6, 2009, inkjet on rag paper, 36 x 47 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

This is a heads up about my upcoming exhibit opening in Brooklyn on Saturday June 26. I am very excited to be showing (mostly) new paintings along with the stunning sculptures of Rina Peleg.

The artist reception starts at 7pm on the 26th—an event that is being described by gallery director Martine Bisagni rather provocatively as a “Midsummer Revel”—so I hope you can stop by.

Midsummer
Paintings by Deborah Barlow
Sculpture by Rina Peleg
Curated by Martine Bisagni

Brooklyn Workshop Gallery
393 Hoyt Street
Brooklyn NY 11231
718 797 9427

A word about Brooklyn Workshop Gallery:
Brooklyn Workshop Gallery and the Brooklyn Workshop Gallery Foundation are committed to bringing art making and audiences closer together. In addition to a gallery space, BWG offers programs, classes and community outreach to promote the experience of art for everyone.


Louise Bourgeois in 1990, behind her marble sculpture Eye to Eye (1970) (Photo Raimon Ramis)

Louise Bourgeois is hard to place in my personal inspiration taxonomy. I have been aware of her for most of my art-making life, but I never had the deep connection to her work that I have had with the pack of painters who were my early heroes. But respect? I have always had lots of that, for who she was and how she approached her art. And as for prolific, Bourgeois’ output has been superhuman, ranging from prints to works in wood, stone, steel, fabric and rubber. Her work possesses a rawness that is organic and can at times feel almost aggressive. But an underlying leitmotif carries through her life’s work: the human body in all of its personal peculiarity and raw vulnerability.

She brandished a style of feminist outrage that focused primarily on her own personal life story, and her approach to her autobiographical material was unique in the art world of the 70s and 80s. She was so French! Her work was not strident. Instead she could be seductively coy as well as blatantly over the top. Like Rothko who vehemently rejected any tag of “spiritual” to his signatory work, Bourgeois refused to claim sexuality as her intent. But the sexuality of her work is rampant. When she did her legendary photo shoot with Robert Mapplethorpe she was photographed in a black coat of monkey fur with a prop under her arm. To our eye it was a giant penis and balls, but she insisted that the black latex sculpture was her “little girl.” All of this of course while she is smiling so mischievously. That was Louise.


Mapplethorpe’s portrait of Louise

One of my favorite quotes from her (and I cannot remember who originally shared this with me) has been a keeper. In speaking to the art students at one of the New York City art schools, her advice to them was to make their art as true to their authentic expression as can be regardless of the trends in art at the time. “Then rent some warehouse space in Long Island and put the work away for 10 or 20 years. The rest of the world may catch up with your vision, but you need to be patient.” This story was particularly memorable since she did not achieve her own well deserved success until very late in her life.

Some of her works delight me, some are actually quite repulsive. And some are just a bit ho hum, like the giant spider series that made her extremely well known in her later years. But her tenacious energy, playful coyness and inventiveness have never been seen in that combination before. She is a force of nature that will be missed.


Cumul I (1968). (Photograph: HO/Associated Press)
From Jonathan Jones’ eulogy: “Bourgeois claimed she saw no sexual forms in this teeming nest of, er, sexual forms. (Artists don’t always have to make sense.) The whiteness of marble creates an ethereal, cloud-like quality: hence the title.

Kudos to the Guardian (absolutely, without question, the best art coverage overall in a major newspaper) for running so many eulogies. Here’s a sampling from their site plus a few others:

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian
Michael McNay in the Guardian
Adrian Searle in the Guardian
Holland Cotter in the New York Times
Suzanne Muchnic in the Los Angeles Times

A few more highlights of Chelsea art viewing from New York City last week:

At Sikkema Jenkins, Leonardo Drew’s exquisite wood constructs were spectacular:


Photo courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins

A few selected views:

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And at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe Gallery, Oliver Arms paintings knocked me out. Here’s a florid (but satisfying) description from Western Project:

Continuing his visual cacophony, the artist confirms his place as a master of contemporary painting. Each work in the exhibition is grand in scale, built up of multiple layers of oil paint, sanded and repainted dozens of times over months in his studio. Every gesture and every square inch is considered; as a surgeon works, exacting and emphatic. Arms’ art is not in the labor, but in the historic vision he creates. It is poetic, alarming, compressed and florid; it mirrors our culture of information and visual overload. He uses retinal contradictions: assault and fecundity, toxic and ravishing, momentary and endless, depicting immense densities and atmospheres. Each is a kind of micro/macro hallucination, a psychic, social, and spiritual tale, of epic landscapes of miasma. It is a vocabulary akin to Pollock and Lao Tsu; the finite and infinite, the internal and eternal exposed and unapologetic.


Photo courtesy of Western Project

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And as a close: This shot below is of the High Line in winter. It’s hard to believe, but we really are just weeks away from the verdant revolution that is spring. This view was a sobering reminder to me that this grand journey through space continues, that there is movement even though about now I am almost convinced the planet got stuck and can’t get back in its orbital flow. Not true, not true.


Looking south from Cordova NM


The view from Carson NM

I’m back from five days in New Mexico. Born in the desert and more at home in that landscape than anywhere else, I have been in a deep need for that stark horizontality, for the vistas that read both minimally and maximally, for the understated tonality that invites your eye to detect the slightest variations in color and light.


Zane Bennett Gallery, Santa Fe NM

It was also my first visit to my new gallery, Zane Bennett. Located in a recently renovated two-storey adobe building near SITE Santa Fe, the gallery now fills a space that used to house a brothel (or so says one old timer who only grinned when I asked him how he knew that to be the case). Everyone on the staff is knowledgeable, professional and engaging. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this venture.


Ojo Caliente in 2009

Lots of high points on this trip. Like returning to one of my favorite spots, the natural hot springs at Ojo Caliente. Twenty years ago it was a funky, rustic hideaway located off the road between Santa Fe and Taos, but it always succeeded in bringing me in touch with an earthy, inchoate energy. “Hot eye” is a good name since it suggests an earth opening that is moist, porous and wise. Sacred to the Native Americans long before any white folks were looking for a place to soak, the pools at Ojo have waters that are rich in iron, lithium, soda and arsenic.

It has been nine years since my last visit, and the sleepy roadside spa and strip motel is no more. After changing hands a number of times, Ojo is now owned by a Japanese family. New buildings and a definite Asian aesthetic have replaced the tents and tarps. And it works. We had a memorable day at the new Ojo with good friends and local residents Anne and Paxton Robey.


A wall of Castillos at Paula’s studio in Cordova


Castillo installations on the facade of the new History Museum in Santa Fe

Another memorable leg of this journey: Reconnecting with friend of sculptor Paula Castillo. Sharing a gallery space with her husband Terry, Paula lives in Cordova, a small town on the High Road between Chimayo and Taos. Her sculpture is complex and yet utterly beautiful. It interweaves the heavy with the airy, the masculine with the feminine. Physically tiny, Paula builds massive metal pieces that never lose their sense of the hand. It is almost as if she is stitching and quilting in metal. She was commissioned recently to create pieces for the facade of the new History Museum in Santa Fe. To describe these as site-appropriate is selling them short. They are site-maximal, site-magical. In other words, just plain stunning.


The sanctuary at Chimayo NM in the winter light


Tribute, by Anne Truitt (Photo courtesy of Anne Truitt)

More thoughts about Anne Truitt, mostly through commentary by others:

Her son-in-law, art critic Charlie Finch, wrote an essay about Truitt that brings her work and her persona closer together. He begins the essay by describing Truitt as “the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that ‘it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.'” But he puts her detachment into perspective, and his insights into her work are memorable.

From his article on Artnet:

In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis’ widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg. Precisely because she worked so intensively and personally on her sculptures, Anne was dismissed by Minimalists such as Donald Judd for being too subjective (and, of course, too female) to create true “specific objects.” Anne was deeply respectful of her dealer, Andre Emmerich, who criminally ignored her for a long time, giving her the occasional show, but little practical assistance.

In the studio, Anne was painstaking to a fault, finding the right piece of wood, sanding it for months to the point where it could properly absorb and reflect her chosen color and then applying layer upon layer of paint in order, counterintuitively, to achieve maximum transparency. The tiny bands of color at the base of her sculptures, which were subsequently borrowed by Haim Steinbach for his marvelous series of black paintings, were a clue to their meaning. There are two interpretive elements to Truitt’s sculpture, a forbidding armor which blocks out the viewer at first glance and then a slowly revealed intimacy which invites further discovery.

Another commentary on her work was written by Peter Plagens in response to a show of Truitt’s work in Baltimore in 1992.

Truitt’s work is deceptively simple. Take “Autumn Dryad” (1975), for instance. It’s a boxy wooden column, a little taller than most people, painted entirely orange except for a grayish mauve brand around the bottom. At first glance, it seems like a design fillip for a Scandinavian airport lobby. But as you continue to look at it (and you cannot help but look at it), you notice that the acrylic paint has been lovingly applied in untold coats. Simultaneously, the sculpture looks like it’s solid color, like butter is yellow all the way through. The piece makes your mouth water (which is, by the way, the test of all good abstract art). “Autumn Dryad” is visceral-as opposed to conceptual-minimalism. As Truitt puts it, “Everything is written on the body. Your experience stains your body like color dyes a canvas. [That’s why] the paint sinks into the wood. It marries the wood.” In almost all the works on view, the bride and groom indeed live happily ever after.

Additionally, my response to her most recent show at the Hirshhorn Museum can be read here.)

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Installation view of “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection,” at the Hirshhorn Museum (Photo: Lee Stalsworth)

I have been a fan of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing since I read her book Daybook many years ago. First published in 1982, Daybook is Truitt’s personal journal while working at Yaddo, and her insights into the squirrely nature of the creative process spoke to me. Her style is nonlinear and yet insightful, personal and yet not too. When the book came out all those many years ago, there weren’t a lot of witnessings available of how women artists were navigating that behind-the-scenes art making life. There are lots of them now.

Truitt went on to write a few other similarly styled books, like Turn and Prospect. But none had as powerful an impact on me as that initial exposure so many years ago.

Her sculpture was harder for me to connect with. A Truitt was always easy to spot because almost every piece in a public collection is a slender wooden column painted with care and artfulness. Most collections have one. I liked her essential idea—a minimalist, Supremacist project that combines 3D and a feathery fine-tuned sense of color—but my “in the flesh” experience of the work just never held me in awe.

But that all changed when I visited Truitt’s retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. This is her first major show since the 1970s and includes both paintings and sculpture from her 50 year career. (Truitt died in 2004.) In the literature that accompanies the show (curated by Kristen Hileman), the column sculptures are referred to as Truitt’s “profoundly focused practice. Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface. Throughout her work, she investigated proportion, scale and color, as well as perception and memory.” Profoundly focused practice is a perfect phrase. The work has a meditative, disciplined, higher state of mind quality to it.

This is work that needs to be seen with its full gaggle of siblings. Placeholder pieces, token Truitts, cannot do the job. This is not one-up work. It is a body of art that demands your complete and undivided attention. You need to be able to lift out of the gallery, out of the museum, out of this terrestrially bound existence so that you can levitate in and around these silent, slender plinths, listening for the hum of their ethereal subtlety.

Truitt was a color ecstacist, a superlative neologism that goes beyond the everyday concept of being an ecstatic. At one point she says that the columnar format dominated her efforts to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” a pursuit she saw as “analogous to my feelings for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.” That’s the language of spiritual ecstasy, of finding oneness with god. Which in Truitt’s case is the Polychroma itself.

In a video that accompanies the show, Truitt talks about her process of choosing colors. It is like listening to someone channeling in an altered state. I sat and listened to her rapture with a sense of awe and amazement. If you go, take the time to sit and hear what she is saying.

Talking about her extremely minimalist painting series called Arundel, Truitt had this to say:

In these paintings I set forth, to see for myself how they appear, what might be called the tips of my conceptual icebergs in that I put down so little of all that they refer to. I try in them to show forth the forces I feel to be a reality behind, and more interesting than, phenomena.

The reality behind and more interesting than phenomena. That nails it.

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Eva Hesse. She’s one of those artists in the Influencer Pantheon who just keeps giving. Her work lights up my dashboard again and again. And how I wish I were going to be in Edinburgh in October rather than November—50 works by Hess, never before seen in public, are being featured in a show as part of the Edinburgh festival. It runs through October 25.

Here is an overview from Laura Cumming in the Guardian:

When the New York Times famously announced that Hesse was “at the outset of a brilliant career” in 1970, its prediction was shockingly mistaken. Not because she had already established herself as a great sculptor by the age of 34, but because she had recently died of cancer.

This anecdote is bitter proof for those who still insist upon Hesse as the Sylvia Plath of art: a refugee from the Nazis, her mother a suicide, her marriage ending in desertion just before the tumour was discovered. But the life is entirely divisible from the art, as these marvellous creations testify. Every little thing here, from the “painting” made of washers to the ribboning scroll of mesh that holds itself nonchalantly aloft, is vivacious, dynamic, surprising, droll – by all accounts, like the artist herself…

To speak of these sub-objects (as they are described in the superb catalogue) as vessels is to miss out all sorts of other nuances of shape. And that’s the joy of it – Hesse hits just beyond verbalisation. It is part of her gift to evade analogy and association and make things so eccentric and awkward they look like nothing else, or nothing else before them. For sculptors have been trying to emulate Hesse ever since.

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Eva Hesse Studiowork, 1968, Courtesy of University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Photograph: Abby Robinson/Courtesy of the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh