DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Matisse the Deconstructionist

Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914, by Henri Matisse

The exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” is on view through October 11, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The show features work from a brief period in the middle of Henri Matisse’s long career, roughly coinciding with the first World War.  It shows the artist engaged in a heroic struggle to transform his “decorative” style into something hard enough and grand enough to stand out in the twentieth century.

Traditional painters start rough and then labor to make their work more polished, more developed, more elaborate.  Matisse worked and reworked his canvases and sculptures to strip them to their structural essence.  He had no interest in smoothing the brushstrokes or making a more convincing illusion of reality.

View of Notre Dame, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse was born in 1869, when photography was already ubiquitous, and came of age in an era when the most interesting movements in art explored liberation from visual realism.  His early work was a kind of post-impressionism, traditional subjects loosely painted with a sensuous approach to vivid colors.

During the time period this show focuses on, Matisse was determined to take his work to a new level.  Perhaps he was challenged by the impact made by the cubism of Picasso and Braque.  Perhaps his previous work began to feel too small and genteel in a time of war. Many of his sculptures and large canvases of this time were repeatedly and heavily reworked, becoming in the process more austere, more bold, and more abstract.

Even as the size of the works expanded towards the monumental, as Matisse’s early rounded, cloudy forms gave way to angular slabs, and his sweet candy colors to fields of blue, black and gray, the images remain sensual and inviting – Matisse could not obscure his inner warmth.

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse knew that the process of working towards greater abstraction was as interesting as the final works.  Photographers documented incremental stages of paintings that were revised over a period of years, and his sculpture, “Back”, was repeatedly altered by reworking plaster casts, retaining the molds of different versions.  Even where earlier states of the paintings are not documented, Matisse left pentimenti clear enough to invite the viewer to try to penetrate the development of the work by examining the layers of paint.

“The Back”, four versions, 1908 through 1931, by Henri Matisse

The curators of this exhibit have used digital tools to analyze these stages of development, and one gallery presents this analysis in an animated display.  If you are not able to make it to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibit, this exposition of the successive changes in “Bathers by a River” and “Back” is presented in the excellent website on “Matisse: Radical Invention” hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit was initially shown.  For anyone interested in the creative process of visual art, this website is worth perusing.

Another great example of Matisse’s work from this period is “The Piano Lesson”, recently compared with other artists’ treatment of the same theme in this post at my friend Claudia’s blog, Museworthy.  The original painting is in this show.  It’s eight feet tall and all that gray is surprisingly luminous.

I also recommend matisse.net, one of the best websites out there devoted to any artist’s full career.

Images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links back to the sites where I found them.


Burchfield’s Force Fields

Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-1944, by Charles E. Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield’s landscape paintings swarm with spirits.  His wild and hairy visions of the alive world are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in an exhibit titled Heat Waves in a Swamp.  I knew a little of Burchfield before, mostly through reproductions, but seeing this show, brilliantly curated by sculptor Robert Gober, was like discovering a cache of glittering gems hidden in an old tree stump.

Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio and lived most of his life in Gardenville, a rural suburb of Buffalo, New York.  His talent was recognized at a fairly early age, but he had no interest in living in a big city or being part of a movement or scene.  He painted to please himself, and sold paintings to support his wife and five kids.  His life story and his words reveal him as an unassuming and unpretentious man, but so thoroughly an artist that he couldn’t stop thinking as an artist for a moment.  One room of the Whitney show is filled with hundreds of abstract biomorphic doodles that he made while talking on the phone or playing card games with his wife.  Besides doodling he also kept journals throughout his life.  A particular pleasure of the exhibit is that nearly every painting is accompanied by Burchfield’s own eloquent description or reminiscence of its creation.

Charles E. Burchfield painting in his studio in Gardenville, N.Y., 1966, photo by William Doran, Burchfield Penney Art Center

While he did oil paintings and some mixed media, the bulk of Burchfield’s work is done in the medium of “dry brush” watercolor and gouache.  Traditional watercolor technique involves using thin washes of color on absorbent wet paper, and often tries for luminous, saturated colors and a loose, spontaneous style.  Burchfield’s technique is quite different, heavily worked by watercolorist standards, and his colors are often subtle and earthy.  His work achieves a feeling of light not by a light touch, but by a fiery intensity of movement.

His work divides neatly into three periods: the first begins in his breakthrough year of 1917, when he was in his mid-20’s.  He devised a system of visual motifs that embodied different moods and energies, called “conventions for abstract thoughts“.  These forms remind me of the “thought forms” described by Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater in a 1901 book as shapes of thoughts visualized through clairvoyant synesthesia, though I do not know whether Burchfield was influenced by Theosophical ideas.  In painting from nature Burchfield saw manifestations of these abstractions, and his paintings of this period seem to depict organic forms through drawn lines whose movement expresses their underlying forces.  Those forces sometimes seem dark, ominous, prickly, overwhelming, or explosive, but always beautiful.  The chaos that is there is fertile and creative.

The Insect Chorus, 1917, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description of the image above reads, “It is late Sunday afternoon in August.  A child stands alone in the garden listening to the metallic sounds of insects.  They are all his world, so, to his mind, all things become saturated with their presence – Crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”

In his middle period Burchfield turned to a kind of American regionalism or social realism, often depicting industrial scenes or working-class settings.  The paintings of this period have a great sense of light and space.  The example below has a deep perspective reminiscent of Breughel, with a whole town visible in the far distance.

End of the Day, 1938, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description:  “At the end of a day of hard labor the workmen plod wearily uphill in the eerie twilight of winter, and it seems to the superficial eye that they have little to come home to in those stark, unpainted houses, but, like the houses, they persist and will not give in; and so they attain a rugged dignity that compels our admiration.”

Sun and Rocks, 1918-1950, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s late period begins in 1943, when he was fifty.  He had spent decades developing his craft, but felt that his work was “rather prosaic” compared with his youthful, magical approach.  He went back to early works that were not quite successful, but that had the seeds of great ideas he now had the maturity to accomplish.  He attached extra paper around these early paintings, extending them into bold compositions in monumental scale.  The late period expansions were as much as five or six times larger than the early paintings that form their cores.

While many of the middle-period works in the show are oil paintings on loan from major museums, all the late work is watercolor on paper, which can’t be kept on permanent display due to watercolor’s vulnerability to fading, and most of them are from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, where the artist’s personal archives reside.  I assume this means most of this late work was not sold in Burchfield’s lifetime.  Perhaps in his later years he had achieved enough recognition, his children were grown, and he felt the freedom to paint for himself, for the sheer joy he clearly felt in it.

The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, by Charles E. Burchfield

Though Burchfield was a protestant, his late work expresses a pure pagan spirituality, in which clouds and rain, trees and insects, are living beings in a web of sacred life.  In one painting, the space between trees, through which the bright distant landscape is seen, becomes a golden dancing figure.  Another seems to show, as curator Robert Gober says, “the point of view of a man lying in a field of dandelions on a sleepless night”.  The late works are overwhelming in their size, their magical light and space, and their thorny, buzzing detail.  The reproductions here don’t even begin to do them justice.

Heat Waves in a Swamp:  The Paintings of Charles Burchfield is curated by Robert Gober.  It was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, before moving to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where it will remain on view until October 17, 2010.

All illustrations for this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures links to their source pages, which are great places to find more images and information on Burchfield and Heat Waves in a Swamp.


Picks of the Whitney

Filed under: Reviews: Art Exhibitions — Tags: , , , — fred @ 15:28

SN35, Sumi ink on paper, by Roland Flexner

This year’s Whitney Biennial exhibition is a disparate collection of contemporary work.  I appreciate the lack of any discernible curatorial agenda, as the individual works then have a chance to stand for themselves rather than representing some theme imposed by a curator.  I found much of the work in the show, to put it kindly, uninspiring, especially almost a whole floor of bland, hackneyed video projection pieces, but there’s also a lot of great work to see.  Here are four artists whose work I found particularly engaging.

Roland Flexner shows a wall of small abstract dream landscapes (such as the example pictured above) made by a sumi ink marbling technique manipulated by handwork and blowing.

Aurel Schmidt has a magical life-size drawing of a bison-man, his body constructed out of cigarette butts, beer cans, flowers, stars, flies, worms, and other elements, all rendered with exquisite detail and texture.

Storm Tharp shows several big, haunting mixed-media portraits, the faces made with a perfectly calibrated bleeding ink-wash technique.

Dawn Clements has a wall-sized panoramic ballpoint pen drawing derived from a lush, moody interior seen in a 1945 movie.

The 2010 Whitney Biennial features fifty-five artists selected by curator Francesco Bonami and associate curator Gary Carrion-Murayari.  It’s on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through May 30, 2010.


Drawing as Theater / Presence as Provocation: Kentridge and Abramovic at MoMA

Rest Energy, photo of a 1980 performance by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, photo from Galleria Lia Rumma

The Museum of Modern Art in New York currently hosts retrospectives of two idiosyncratic and uncompromising living artists, Yugoslavian born Marina Abramovic and South African William Kentridge.  The two artists could hardly be more different from each other, but each has followed the path of art as something deeply personal and necessary.

Marina Abramovic emerged as a performance artist in the 1970’s.  Using her own body as her medium, she explored the power of living presence in ritual acts of vulnerability and endurance.  Her earliest works were so raw and risky they still shock – for example, in Rhythm 2 (1974), she took drugs that caused seizures, convulsions and catatonia.  But then in the 70’s everyone was experimenting with drugs – she just did it in front of an audience.

In 1976 she began a twelve year collaboration with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen).  The work they did together achieved a kind of spiritual and aesthetic clarity that has not been surpassed, even as this kind of work has entered the mainstream with David Blaine‘s well-publicized acts of endurance.  In “Rest Energy”, pictured at the top of the post, Abramovic and Ulay lean apart, their weight suspended by the tension of a bowstring with an arrow aimed at Abramovic’s heart.

Abramovic and Ulay traveled continuously, living in an old Citroen van (the van is in the MoMA exhibit), fully devoting their lives to their artistic experiment.  A statement they wrote at the time (1975) reads:


no fixed living-place
permanent movement
direct contact
local relation
passing limitations
taking risks
mobile energy
no rehearsals
no predicted end
no repetition
extended vulnerability
exposure to chance
primary reactions

Abramovic and Ulay parted ways in 1988.  Much of Abramovic’s solo work from the 90’s looks to me more strident and more self-conscious about making “statements”, but in her most recent work she seems to be rediscovering the power of simplicity.

The Abramovic retrospective at MoMA includes documentation of a great many of these performances that tested the limits of the mind and body and the relationship between artist and audience.  It also includes living “reperformers”, re-enacting several of the most well-known actions.  The one that has been most widely discussed is Imponderabilia, originally performed by Abramovic and Ulay in 1977.  A naked male and female stand impassively facing each other in a narrow doorway, through which museumgoers may pass only by squeezing sideways between the pair.

Abramovic has long argued that performance art must be kept alive by reperformance, and in her 2005 show at the Guggenheim Museum she herself reperformed a number of seminal performance works originally done decades ago by such artists as Joseph Beuys and Valie Export.  It is undeniable that the MoMA show is more interesting with live bodies interspersed among the old documentation, but the change of context has surely altered the effect of the pieces.  It is not just that what were once radical experiments are now enshrined in the most institutional of museums.  The original pieces were radically minimalist – highly clarified simple happenings in isolation, usually presented in blank gallery spaces.  The MoMA exhibit is like a crowded menagerie of acts and images, with a steady flow of tourists trying to see it all before their feet give out or the kids start crying or they have to meet someone for dinner.

The title of the Abramovic show at MoMA is The Artist Is Present, and it is with her own simple presence that she makes the strongest statement and the deepest impression in this show.  In the great atrium of the Museum, throughout the public hours while her exhibit is open, the 63-year-old artist sits silently at a table, while museumgoers are invited to sit directly across from her.  She sits all day, and will do so for 77 days.  This is about as radically minimal as performance can get.  She is not doing anything sensational, really not doing anything at all.  But if you’ve tried to sit still for even an hour you know it becomes incredibly grueling.  You can often see the pain in her face as she holds steady eye contact with an endless stream of museum visitors, some of whom sit for moments, and some for hours.  It is an act of extreme endurance, but also, in a way, an act of extreme generosity, giving herself to her audience in direct human presence.  Observe for a while and you’ll see suffering, defiance, confrontation, resignation, engagement, boredom and bliss – the full range of the human condition living and breathing there before us.  Amazingly, her simple presence fills up the gigantic atrium space more than any of the monumental pieces of art I’ve seen there over the years.

On the opening day, her former collaborator, Ulay, showed up at the table for an unexpected tearful reunion:

Ulay and Marina Abramovic, March, 2010, photo by Scott Rudd for MoMA

Just off the Atrium is the entrance to another immersive exhibit, William Kentridge:  Five Themes.  Timed to coincide with Kentridge’s multimedia staging of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose (based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story) at the Metropolitan Opera, this retrospective shows Kentridge’s drawings, prints, animated films, theatrical designs, optical experiments and even animatronic puppets as a diverse but highly unified body of work that spans media and obliterates the traditional line dividing graphic art and theatrical storytelling.

Kentridge became widely known in the 1990’s for his 9 Drawings for Projection (1989-2003), a series of richly evocative short animated films, made by drawing, erasing and redrawing large charcoal sketches on paper.  Originally shown one at a time in galleries in conjuction with exhibits of the final-stage charcoal drawings, the series of films hangs loosely together as a single ongoing story.  They tell of an industrialist, Soho Eckstein, his wife, and her lover, the bohemian Felix Teitlebaum, who is always depicted naked.  Eckstein and Teitlebaum are opposites in a way, but both recognizably resemble Kentridge.  The story in 9 Drawings plays out across the backdrop of the upheavals of South Africa in the late apartheid and early post-apartheid eras, but the films aren’t straightforwardly political.  Instead they’re personal and poetic.  The erasures and redrawing of the filmmaking technique, the transformations of the elemental and mechanical imagery, the ebb and flow of the lives of the characters, and the shifting sands of cultural change are all of a piece, an era of life experience distilled into a cinematic dream.  I get the impression that the transformations of the drawings are not preconceived, but exploratory.

Drawing from “Felix in Exile”, 1994, one of “9 Drawings for Projection” by William Kentridge

The museum show is arranged not chronologically or by media, but thematically.  The 9 Drawings and other films are projected at monumental size, with the real drawings, also quite large, nearby, allowing one to experience the images in both their forms, as mutable projections and as the tactile reality of smudgy charcoal on heavily worked paper.

Kentridge is an obsessive drawer and mark-maker.  One room in the MoMA show surrounds us with multiple projections showing him drawing, tearing paper, pouring ink, etc., often in reverse.  Other rooms are filled with projections, drawings and objects based around designs for his recent operatic productions, Mozart’s Magic Flute and Shostakovich’s The Nose.  There is almost too much to take in, a barrage of images and ideas, nearly all in bold black and white, with a rough, handmade texture.  Throughout the exhibit there are many recurring images, including water and bathing, mechanically walking figures, birds and  rhinoceroses, the industrialized landscape, Alfred Jarry’s corrupt king Ubu, and especially Kentridge’s own heavyset self-image.

Kentridge’s work is not colorful, and while it is bold, it is not simplistic.  It is gray and ambiguous and conflicted.   It draws upon the angular dynamism of early-20th-century avant-garde design, but the boldness is more than anything else the magnified theatrical gesture of the human form.  This is the closest contemporary work I know to the great etchings of Goya, the Caprichos and the Disasters of War.  For Kentridge the act of drawing is theatrical, improvisational and demonstrative, and theater is a graphic art where shadows and lines convey ideas and feelings.

Drawing for II Sole 24 Ore (World Walking), 2007, by William Kentridge; Charcoal, gouache, pastel, and colored pencil on paper, Marion Goodman Gallery

I’ll close with a quote from the Phaidon Monograph, William Kentridge, by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev et al, that reveals something about his open-ended creative process:

“Drawing for me is about fluidity.  There may be a vague sense of what you’re going to draw but things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what you know.  So drawing is a testing of ideas; a slow-motion version of thought.  It does not arrive instantly like a photograph. The uncertain and imprecise way of constructing a drawing is sometimes a model of how to construct meaning.  What ends in clarity does not begin that way.”

Marina Abramovic:  The Artist Is Present, organized by Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large, The Museum of Modern Art, and Director, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, is on view through May 31, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

William Kentridge:  Five Themes, originally organized for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Norton Museum of Art by Mark Rosenthal, is on view through May 17, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Images in this post link back to the sites where I found them.


Raw Urgency: Picasso at Gagosian

Filed under: Reviews: Art Exhibitions — Tags: , , , — fred @ 23:38
PABLO PICASSO Portait de l'homme à l'épée et à la fleur, 1969, Oil on canvas, 146 x 115 cm)

PABLO PICASSO, Portait de l'homme à l'épée et à la fleur, 1969, Oil on canvas, 146 x 115 cm

On Friday (my birthday) I went to see Mosqueteros, the exhibit of paintings and prints from Picasso’s last decade, at Gagosian’s spacious Chelsea gallery on West 21st Street in New York, curated by Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson.  When he was in his eighties, Picasso accelerated his already prodigious productiveness, creating hundreds of large oils, as well as drawings, etchings and aquatints.  The subject matter engages the traditions of 17th century masters like Velazquez and Rembrandt and Rubens (as in the above canvas, reminiscent of a famous Velazquez), but the energy with which Picasso attacks the work is quite modern.  The paintings are physically raw and unpolished, and the emotional content is equally raw, often expressing the painful conjunction of sexual frenzy with the anguish of the aging body.

The exhibit has about fifty large-scale paintings and about fifty prints.  The etchings and aquatints, many on a theme of female exhibitionism and male voyeurism, clarify the energy and restless experimentation of Picasso’s gestural mark-making, revealing a similar aspect in the oils.  The paintings hold to a fairly narrow range of figurative elements, mostly portraits and nudes, but the formal apsects of color combinations, composition and expressive brushstrokes are bold and dazzling.  There are images of faces and bodies squeezed together in contortions of lust, aching to merge two into one, and haunted faces already shadowed by the mark of death, dreading another kind of merging.

Picasso is considered a painter first and foremost, but his approach to painting, especially in these later works (1962-72), avoids the illusionism and polished sheen many painters strive for, instead giving us gestural directness and sheer energy.

My last post was about light painting, so I’ll close with a link to images of Picasso painting with light.  These images show clearly the special quality of Picasso’s movement.

Mosqueteros is on view through June 6 at the Gagosian Gallery at 522 West 21st Street in New York.

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