Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Falling in Love with a Rock

by Kyle Gallup

Kyle Gallup, Rocky Beach, 2010, watercolor on paper, 12" x 16"
As summer returns and I emerge from the cocoon of my studio, it’s time to look outside. Painting from life is a way for me to clear my head and keep my eyes sharp. I’ve done this as long as I can remember.

In my early teens I was intent on immersing myself in the landscape, seeing what I could make of it; pencil drawings of a dappled Ozark light, watercolors in Ireland with its pastoral green patchwork dotted with fallen stone castles and cemeteries, Maine’s coastal rock-strewn beaches. Landscape painting has romanced me, connected me with a grand tradition and masters of the sublime.

It’s hard to say how chronicling light and color in nature has effected my studio work. What I do know for sure is that the process of laying out paint on my palate and putting loaded brush to paper is at once a challenge and freedom like no other. Translating the scene on to paper, the natural world becomes entertainer, teaser and sometimes taunting muse.

Beginning with bold washes of transparent color helps me to set up what’s most important, a simple outline or pathway to the thrust and weight of any scene. A passing cloud on an otherwise clear, blue-sky day adds interest or a shadow in the heat. Swaying silver-topped trees and gullies of dark, deep green conjure Corot or the rough, barked-edge of a tree in the foreground brings to mind Van Gogh with his precise, pen-to-paper intimacy, making his way up and down the gnarled trunks, getting to know his pollard birches. 
Vincent Van Gogh, Pollard Birches, 1884, pencil and ink heightened with gouache, 15" x 21", (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
I find myself in the middle of the most exciting visual happenings from one moment to the next. There is complexity, nuance, sound, weight, depth and clarity that exist separate from me. There are edges and colors that induce hallucinations, sounds of the wind, birds calling to their mates, laughing, shouting children in the distance. All these gently pierce the ebb and flow of life.

Getting to know one’s place within the whole scheme of things can have its risks, like any great affair. Searching and seeking out those things that are most moving, getting close to the heart of the scene, the bend in the road I can not see beyond, the allusive, pastel horizon between sky and sea, finding form in the boldest gray faceted rock that sits shiny wet, in the sun.

Discovering the shape of things can take me to the edge, make me feel compulsive about getting it right and knowing all there is to know. Mixing a dark clay color looks one way on the palette and then another way on the paper. How does that rock sit so firmly there? It must be a give and take, from observing eye to paper. A bond forms as I try different ways of getting at the truth of the rock’s presence. The way the sand and other stones sit nearby, the sunlight hitting the lightest side, bringing out it’s dimpled, indented mass. When I see a relationship that feels close to what I am looking at, I’ll take a break.

The next day, and the day after that, if I’m lucky enough to be in the same spot, looking at the same rock on the shore, I’ll feel smitten. A friend awaits my attention. I am finally able to caress the rock on paper with all its colored variations and know its structural shifts. The rock now sits in my mind and has given its self over to my knowledge and understanding of it.
Hudson Beach, 2009, photo credit: Philip Turner
Kyle Gallup, Hudson River, NYC, 2009, watercolor on paper, 9" x 12"
Often I’ll take several photographs of where I have been painting, a record keeping, just in case I have the opportunity to return. I have returned to familiar spots to find trees, rocks, and shorelines unchanged and then I take up where I left off. Old friends in the landscape make themselves known after a brief, getting-reacquainted period. Or sometimes I review my photographs of the scene and look closely, trying to understand how I could have been so involved with a seemingly unimposing rock on the beach.
Kyle Gallup, Study for Coney Island Landscape for John Baldessari 2011, graphite, ink, lithographic prints, painted paper on wood panel, 9.5" x 13.5" (Click to enlarge photo.)

Kyle Gallup is an artist who works in collage and watercolor.

Editor's note: On my request, Kyle Gallup included her own studio work in this post.
                      --Charles Kessler

Friday, May 27, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #13: Building Memories

Rose Art Museum.  Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
By Carl Belz

The Rose Art Museum has been closed for renovations since the end of April to prepare for next year’s 50th Anniversary celebration. For starters, the facade will be spruced up by the replacement of the existing curtain wall with new, more energy-efficient glass. The Stephen Antonakos neon, a Rose signature since it was commissioned in 1985, will be removed to storage, and the original look of the building will presumably be restored. Embedded in that last sentence alone are a couple of stories that should go on the record.
(1)     The commission was scheduled for installation a few months before an exhibition of Antonakos neons and drawings would open in the museum on May 5. Everything was going as planned—the Collections Committee had enthusiastically endorsed the project, the electrical system had been prepared, the sculpture itself was being fabricated—none of which surprised me at that point, because working with Steve had been a dream from square one: Whatever he promised, he delivered. What did surprise me, when I excitedly mentioned the approaching installation to a couple of faculty colleagues I played tennis with every Friday afternoon, was the question one of them immediately raised about whether I had informed my boss, Brandeis President Evelyn Handler, about the project. Q: Why would I do that? A: It would be a good idea, just do it. So I wrote the president a memo. First thing the next day, the phone was ringing off the hook. The president herself, telling me to stop everything, I had no jurisdiction outside the museum’s front door—that territory was hers! 
So we met, we talked, I made a presentation, the dust settled, and the project continued. And I learned my lesson: My colleagues and I ran the museum program and guided its aesthetic and intellectual content, but the building and its physical contents, including artworks housed there or elsewhere, were university property. 
(2)    You see in the accompanying photograph that the curtain wall consists of two large sheets of glass on either side of the entry doors, each measuring 14 feet high and 6 feet wide.  But that’s not what you would see if you went to the museum today, nor what you would have seen at any time since 1989, which would have been four sheets on either side of the entry, each 14 feet high but only 3 feet wide.
What brought about the change was this. We had a Dorothea Rockburne exhibition in the spring of 1989, which was curated by friend and colleague Susan Stoops. It comprised a very beautiful series of very abstract, ethereal pictures whose spiritual energy was best experienced in contemplative surroundings—as in a chapel. Dorothea wanted the gallery darkened, so preparator Roger Kizik went to the roof and covered its dozen skylights with a large canvas tarpaulin. Still, too much light flooded the gallery, so we went out and bought several huge rolls of opaque, heavy-weight, midnight blue paper—the kind of paper photographers use to create seamless abstract backdrops—that Roger fashioned to cover the entire inside of the curtain wall, every inch of it. And Dorothea was satisfied, her show could go on. 
But not without a hitch, for the very next morning—and a wonderfully sunny spring morning it was—Roger came to my office and insisted I accompany him to the front porch of the museum where we helplessly watched in horror as a large crack made its way across the glass panel on the left side of the entry doors. Physics had taken over: The sun shone directly on the museum façade, the dark paper absorbed the warmth and heated the glass, the glass in its steel frame was allowed no tolerance for expansion and so became the weak link in a chain of events we started but in which nature—as always—batted last. 
And an expensive weak link it was, which the university decided to reduce by replacing the 14 x 6 foot sheet of glass with two 14 x 3 foot sheets of glass. As this altered the symmetry of the curtain wall, decorative mullions were installed in the centers of original panels to correct the imbalance, and there they remain to this day. 

The renovation will also remove the pool that has dominated the lower gallery of the original museum since the day the Rose opened. Ah, the pool…
(1)    The pool which visitors always loved, as the gentle tinkling of its sprinklers calmed the humors, encouraged aesthetic contemplation, and occasionally even inspired the tossing of a coin to accompany a wish. 
(2)    The pool which drove us crazy, because it was forever interrupting sight lines, because its edge was always there to trip over when you backed up to better look at a painting, because you invariably had to turn the sprinklers off in order to be heard by a class or the audience attending a gallery talk.
(3)    The pool which we annually drained, to collect the aforementioned coins, but mostly to enable Roger to wash from the polished stones that came with the pool the slime that inevitably coated them, despite the gallons of chlorine we constantly poured into it in a futile effort to contain its tropical effect.
(4)    The pool that Judy Pfaff memorably incorporated into her “Elephant” installation in 1995 (see Curatorial Flashbacks #6).
(5)    The pool with a circular island in its center where Charlotte Mormon, wearing the “TV Bra” designed for her by Nam June Paik and—quite literally—risking electrocution in the process, gave a solo cello performance in conjunction with the legendary exhibition, “Vision and Television”, curated in 1970 by then assistant director Russell Connor. 
(6)    The pool which, in spite of its faults, came to the rescue when the roof drains clogged with ice one winter day, and melt water cascaded into its embrace under the watchful eyes of Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler, among other dignitaries who happened to be hanging nearby. 
New floors and ceilings and lights will also be installed, along with up-to-date heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. All of which sounds great. I wonder if it means the For Sale sign has been taken off the storage vault door.  

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Chauvet Cave Paintings

By Charles Kessler

The other day, I saw Werner Herzog’s new 3-D movie about the Chauvet cave paintings — Cave of Forgotten Dreams (now playing at IFC in New York). The Times reviewer doesn’t agree, but I thought it was a terrible movie: the 3-D effects will give you a headache (especially scenes shot in the cramped spaces of the cave), the music is an obnoxious distraction, there are too many irrelevant, sometimes silly, interruptions, and the movie is self-indulgent and  heavy-handed — typical Herzog Germanic romanticism. BUT SEE IT! It’s well worth putting up with Herzog’s nonsense just for the opportunity to see the Chauvet cave paintings.

Due to the fragile nature of the cave and artifacts, custody of the cave was taken over by the French Government (the official government website for the cave is here), and it has been closed to all but a few experts since its discovery in 1994 by the French speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet and his colleagues Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Herzog persuaded the French government to give him, and a crew of three, access to the cave to film for four days on the condition he worked under careful supervision.

These paintings might be the oldest art ever discovered, possibly an incredible 32,000 years-old - twice as old as the next oldest, the Lascaux caves. But, the thing that’s so remarkable about this work, and other prehistoric cave painting, is it’s as good as any art that’s ever been made. In other words, art hasn’t improved in 32,000 years; it's just changed.

Four aurochs (left), two rhinoceroses fighting (below) and a panel of four horses (extreme right) [Credit: Wikimedia Commons] - click to enlarge.
The skill of these artists is astonishing. In many cases a single line delineates contours of the animals — and with anatomical accuracy too. Other times the animals are carefully modeled. Not only are the animals realistically drawn with great economy of means, but they're also compellingly expressive. The eyes of the animals are tense and alert, and their bodies are dynamic and powerful.
Detail of lions hunting panel. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]
These artists were even able to portray motion. Several animals are depicted with multiple pairs of legs, as if their legs were rapidly moving (like the Futurist Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog On a Leash, 1912), or are shown in multiple places in time (like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912) — effects probably heightened by flickering light. And the means they used to create the paintings were varied and sophisticated. They carefully prepared the walls so they were smooth and white, they incised the wall along contour lines to emphasize the line, and they made use of the curve of the wall to aid in the illusion of volume.

There are no signs that prehistoric man lived in the Chauvet Cave; it was used exclusively for ceremonial purposes. And what a dramatic ceremonial space it must have been! Can you imagine what it must have been like to enter into this strange and dangerous cavern, an open space with tons of rock miraculously suspended above? Originally (before a rock slide sealed the cave about 20,000 years ago) they would have entered through a sort of outside antechamber that had red hand prints on the far wall. Then, going into the cave proper, with only torches for light, they would dimly see drawings of bears and panthers as their eyes adjusted to the dark. Further in they would come to two chambers with vast herds of bison, rhinos, horses and other animals -- more than 400 paintings in all! It must have been awe-inspiring — it still is, even just watching it on film.

This is clearly not the work of amateurs -- this isn't random scrawls or indiscriminate graffiti. It is clearly the work of highly trained specialists. (We can even identify one of the artists because his hand prints have a crooked finger). It’s pretty impressive when you think of it. This subsistence culture, as marginal as their existence was, must have believed that making art was so important that they would excuse certain people from hunting and other jobs and provide for them so they could devote their time to making art (or at least what we today call art).

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #12: The Perfect Fit

By Carl Belz

Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58"  © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
MoMA’s John Elderfield, whose panoramic curatorial record is without equal in today’s museum world, and whose vision of modernism is exceptional in being fully worthy of the capacious emotional and intellectual sweep of its subject, will be mounting later this year a too-long-awaited Willem de Kooning retrospective. Willem de Kooning, whose name is synonymous with gestural abstraction—with Action Painting, as it was sometimes called—in the first generation of the New York School. Willem de Kooning, who in the 1950s was inevitably pitted against Jackson Pollock in barroom brawls and classroom debates about who was the number one painter in leading our troops to the triumph of American painting. Willem de Kooning, whose slash-and-burn woman paintings—in particular MoMA’s iconic Woman 1 (1950-52)—inspired and haunted an entire generation of young painters emerging at that time.

Pop artist Mel Ramos was one of those painters. Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Mel made his first trip to New York in 1956. He wasn’t a pop artist yet, he was 21 years old and was just getting into painting, just finding his way, and that’s when he first saw Woman 1, which flat out blew him away.  As he’s told me himself, he made a lot of de Kooning-inspired Ramoses after that, maybe a year’s worth, while in the process of finding his own identity. Which he did by the start of the 60s when he found his focus in the media heroes, heroines, and pin-up darlings we associate with his name. A couple of decades thus passed before he felt confident enough to confront, and exorcise, the de Kooning demons that lingered from his initial encounter with the modern old master.
Mel Ramos, I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1, 1976, Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 inches. (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University)
That encounter played out in an ambitious series of paintings and watercolors based on de Kooning’s early 50s images of women that Mel started in 1975. The cornerstone painting was I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1, a stroke by stroke, line by line duplication of every mark, including every drip and spatter that comprised de Kooning’s Woman 1, except that every mark was distinguished by Mel’s singularly lucid personal touch. Despite the weight of its legendary source, the painting’s impact was all Mel Ramos, an astonishing feat that I experienced for the first time shortly after its completion, when I visited the Bay Area in 1976. In fact, it blew me away—as a postmodern appropriation, as an ironic comment about the creative act, as an oblique yet moving tribute, as a pictorial exploit, you name it, it was all there—and I accordingly had it high on my list when I returned to Mel’s Oakland studio in December 1979 to discuss with him the details of the mid-career survey of his work that we’d scheduled for the Rose Art Museum in the spring of 1980.

(Pause here for an interlude of California Dreamin’: By 1979 I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1 had been acquired by Werner Erhard, a classic California entrepreneur who, like the 49ers before him, migrated to the Golden State to make his fortune, which he did by teaching people how to get in touch with their inner selves. He originated EST—Erhard Seminars Training—and it turned out he was giving his annual Christmas party over in San Francisco at the time of my visit. Mel and his wife Leta were invited, and they in turn invited me to go with them, so off we went for what turned out to be an unforgettable evening. The party took place in a large theater from which all the seats had been removed to make room for a hundred or more freshly cut Christmas trees that stood throughout the space and filled the air with their festive aroma. Oyster bars, fully stocked with a generous selection of vodkas, were conveniently sited to assure easy access to the pleasures they offered. And then there were Werner’s guests, about 200 of them, who were to a person friendly and considerate and who together gave off comforting feelings of affection. A stranger in their midst, I nonetheless felt as though I belonged, and I was momentarily transported back in time…it was 1967 again, the time we went to San Francisco and mingled with the gentle people there, when we wore flowers in our hair and drifted blissfully through the Summer of Love. Say what?)

Robert Colescott,  I Gets A Thrill Too When I Sees Dekoo, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 66 inches Gift of Senator and Mrs. William Bradley (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University) 
A second offspring of de Kooning’s Woman 1 was welcomed at the museum as a gift just a year after Mel’s picture—the older sibling of the two—had been there as a temporary loan: Robert Colescott’s I Gets A Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo (1978), the title indicating the artist’s full awareness of Mel’s tour de force riff. But the pictures otherwise parted ways. Colescott’s painting belonged to an ongoing series of art historical appropriations through which he raised issues of racial exclusion, as he does in I Too Gets A Thrill by substituting a grinning Aunt Jemima for the spectral face of de Kooning’s demonic femme fatale. Still, I invariably thought first of Mel’s painting when, in subsequent years, I hung the Colescott in the galleries or showed it to guests in the vault—I even kept a reproduction of it handy just to demonstrate a back story in Colescott's creative process.

(Pause here for a little name-dropping and self-aggrandizement: The Colescott was a gift of Bill Bradley, Princeton alumnus, author, Basketball Hall of Fame member, and three-term U.S. Senator from New Jersey, who made a bid for the Democratic nomination in the 2000 Presidential election. We met on the hardwood of Dillon Gym in 1961 when he was a freshman and I was pursuing a doctorate in Art History. From there he went on to demolish and write anew just about every Princeton basketball record—except the one for most rebounds in a single game, which stands at a phenomenal 29 and is held by, you guessed it, me! But I was disappointed when Bill didn’t get the Democratic nomination for 2000, because it meant abandoning some of the dreams we’d hatched years before when we became friends at Princeton—like the one where he’d become President and appoint me our country’s first Minister of Culture. So I had to adjust my career ambition on that one, which I was able to do in 2008 when, as Chairman of our town’s Board of Selectmen, I unilaterally appointed myself to a lifetime position as Franconia Culture Czar. Now how about that!)
Willem de Kooning, Woman (Seated Woman I), 1952, charcoal, oil and graphite on paper, paper 14.5 x 11.5 ins.
An original Woman 1 family member came to the Rose as an extended loan in 1994, a fabulous little drawing of a seated woman executed by de Kooning himself in 1952 at the height of the excitement and controversy generated throughout the art world by his new series of pictures. As you can imagine, I used every possible opportunity to show the drawing when hanging the permanent collection—in connection with our Abstract Expressionist pictures, or a figure exhibition, or postmodern quotation via the Colescott (I still kept a reproduction of Mel’s picture nearby), or whatever.

(Pause here for a note about Extended Loans: ELs, as we called them, were objects that didn’t belong to the collection but were entrusted to our care—our storage space, our insurance, our expertise—by their owners in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit them in connection with our mission. Which we appreciated. And it naturally happened that we’d hope the objects would eventually become gifts and join the collection permanently, because that was the model of a mutually productive museum/donor relationship that we believed in. While some of our members harbored that hope with the de Kooning drawing, I always figured it was a long shot. Art like that, at that time, in a market spiraling ever upward, had simply become too valuable to give away. Its value no longer represented a vacation place Down East or a getaway farm in upstate New York, it represented trusts for the children, the grandchildren, and their children. And I was right: the de Kooning was sold at Christie’s in 2005 for more than $9 million! Yikes! And again yikes!)

I would now like you to take all of the above—the three key pictures that intersected with the Rose Art Museum between 1976 and 1994, along with the story of each, including the museum’s collection profile and exhibition history—enter it in your mental computer and tell me how you think I responded when I picked up a Christie’s auction catalog in 1996 and saw that Mel Ramos’s I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1 was about to go on the auction block. I did a double take, I was beside myself with excitement, and I resolved to buy the picture. Which, with a go ahead from our Collections Committee, I then did—because it was hands down a beautiful acquisition that had everything going for it, because it brought all of the pieces of the puzzle together, because it was a perfect fit.

(And because I really loved the picture, too)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Some Reading Suggestions

By Charles Kessler

Two challenges to accepted beliefs:
Jonathan Jones on Art, The Guardian: Surrealism? It was always old hat: The Tate's new Joan Miró show reminds me that surrealism was neither original nor revolutionary, it had clear antecedents.
R. C. Baker, The Village Voice: The Misbegotten Career of Roy Lichtenstein: Roy Lichtenstein is the most overrated artist of the 20th century.

Tyler Green suggests Five art-related websites you could be enjoying (aside from the LeftBankArtBlog, of course).

Here's a rare interview with Jasper Johns in the Financial Times.

The New York Times has an in-depth article on the revival of LA's Chinatown gallery scene -- once I thought the most vital thing happening there; and a nostalgic article on SoHo in the good old days. 
Trisha Brown's “Roof Piece,” (1973), depicting dancers on adjacent rooftops, (Photo: Babette Mangolte) 
And while we're on New York and Los Angeles, here's a funny, and at the same time insightful, article by a New York woman who ran the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, a group that supports emerging Jewish artists living in New York City. She's trying to do the same thing in Los Angeles. 

USA Today reports this good news: Conventional wisdom has long held that pursuing a career in the arts is a likely ticket to a life of perennial unhappiness, hunger and unemployment. But the opposite appears to be true -- graduates of arts programs are likely to find jobs and satisfaction, even if they won't necessarily get wealthy in the process -- according to a new national survey of more than 13,000 alumni of 154 different arts programs.

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #11: Meet George Augusta

By Carl Belz
Portrait of Warren E. Burger, Justice, U.S. Supreme Court by George Augusta © George Augusta, 1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States) )
You probably never heard of George Augusta. Not unless you’ve spent a lot of time hanging around the boardrooms and administrative offices of Harvard University, or Harvard ‘s Medical School or Law School or Business School, or Wellesley College, or M.I.T., or Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital or Children’s Hospital, or the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court of the United States, or a whole bunch of places like them up and down the East Coast and beyond, in which case you might have seen a few of the many portraits of dignitaries associated with—and honored by—those institutions that he was commissioned to paint during a distinguished career of more than five decades following his completion of military service in World War II. Even then it isn’t likely you learned his name, since the brass plaques accompanying those pictures—if there are any—generally identify only the subject, not the artist. 
Nor did I know George Augusta’s name, let alone his work, when my then boss, Brandeis Vice President David Steinberg, asked me to come up with an artist to do a portrait of the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. I immediately suggested Andy Warhol, 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. Alex Katz? Alice Neel? They both did portraits, but their portraits were meant for the home or the museum, they wouldn’t fit the boardroom any better than Warhol’s would. But then I had an inspiration: I remembered the “Portraits Inc.” ad that I’d been seeing in Art in America for longer than I could remember, so I called and asked them to send me half a dozen portfolios that would give me a range of styles to select from. Which they were glad to do, but which turned out to be a dead end. The paintings were dry and academic, many looked as though they’d been done from photographs, the figures were enhanced by pretentious architectural features and scenic backgrounds, and the surfaces seemed generally lifeless.  
I was back at square one when spouse Barbara suggested I was thinking about my assignment from the wrong vantage point, I was thinking New York instead of Boston—Boston, where there are colleges and universities, law schools, business schools, and hospitals on every street corner, every one of them housing a boardroom hung with the kind of portraits I was looking for, portraits radiant with dignity and tradition. That equation led me before long to the Vose Galleries of Boston, a name synonymous with American pictures through a family business that had been founded in 1841, their home base just a block or two away from the contemporary galleries I regularly visited on Newbury Street. There I met Bill Vose, who, upon hearing about my mission, introduced me to the artistic world of George Augusta. 
I liked what I 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. He knew his job of work, and I strongly recommended we sign on to his program when I reported back to David Steinberg.  
Portrait of Rosalynn Smith Carter by George Augusta, © George Augusta,1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (White House Collection).
There followed over the next decade four or five Brandeis portrait commissions, each fulfilling the promise of quality and meaning we’d hoped for, each providing a distinct esthetic pleasure—or so I’ve always imagined—for the president and members of the board to savor as they went about their business. Yet my favorite was destined not for the boardroom but for the University’s Goldfarb Library. It was a portrait of “First Lady” Thelma Sachar that would proudly hang next to the portrait of her husband, Abram Sachar, the Founding President of Brandeis and, at the time, still the University’s Chancellor. The only problem with this plan was that Abe’s portrait had been painted in the 1950s, a full three decades before Thelma’s would be painted, a time warp that seriously risked making the couple appear as mother and son instead of husband and wife. So I spoke with George and asked him what he could do, inquired whether his arsenal included any secret brushes or pigments that might enable a more youthful Thelma to appear during the several sittings she would have with him. To which he generously responded that he would make it happen—and so he did, he worked his magic, which is the magic of art, to everyone’s full satisfaction.
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. 

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Serra and Caro at the Met

By Charles Kessler

Richard Serra, From left, works from 1989, The United States Courts Are Partial to the Government, No Mandatory Patriotism (center) and The United States Government Destroys Art,  (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times).
Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective, April 13, 2011–August 28, 2011

The usually perceptive Roberta Smith starts her review of Serra’s retrospective with this: Few artists have pushed drawing to such sculptural and even architectural extremes as Richard Serra. The thing is, most of Serra’s “drawings” (or should it be “drawing” as in the title of the show — as if he’s there all day drawing) simply aren’t drawings. Some are paint on canvas, some are even stretched. Simply calling paintings drawings isn’t defying convention or stretching the definition of drawing. He may as well call those room-sized installations he does sculptures. What? ...Oh. 

She’s on the money elsewhere in her review when she writes: But at times this show suggests that without the steel forms and volumes of the sculptures, the work can sometimes seem at once meager and histrionic. And that pretty much sums up my take on the show: pretty thin stuff, and surprisingly arty — even precious at times. One work in particular struck me this way, Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976, re-created for this exhibition. It reminded me both of Japanese art at its most refined and James Turrell.
Richard Serra, Institutionalized Abstract Art, 1976/2011, Paintstick drawn on the wall of the Art Institute of Chicago on the occasion of the seventy-second American exhibition, 86 x 89 in., Private collection. copyright Richard Serra
What separates Serra's "drawing" from the work of hundreds of other artists who make minimal, monochromatic art, is there’s an architectural aspect to SOME of his “drawings.”  Some create the illusion of looking into dark voids or tilted planes. And to Serra’s credit, he knows how to create a dramatic space. They don’t, however, as has been suggested a lot, suck the light out of the room — there’s literally less light shining on them. (One room I noticed has two lights on the “drawing” and four on the adjacent white walls.) Most of his work, however, is pretty straight-forward minimal abstraction.

Serra’s personality sometimes works in his favor and sometimes works against him. His ambitiousness allows him to conceive of those enormous, room-sized sculptures, and to get the Met to install the work the way he wants. On the other hand he can be inauthentic, bombastic and downright cheesy. I mean, look at those titles, for God sake. The guy is shameless.

Anthony Caro on the Roof, The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden

Anthony Caro, Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof, April 27, 2010.
What is this obsession with Greenberg? Why can’t people write about Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski or Anthony Caro without mentioning Greenberg. Has there ever been another critic or another artist that this is the case?  In the second paragraph of his condescending and dismissive review, Ken Johnson dredges up Greenberg: The authoritarian, arch-formalist critic Clement Greenberg was an admirer, friend and studio consultant. With characteristically imperious self-assurance, he told an interviewer in 1968, “Anthony Caro is a major artist — the best sculptor to come up since David Smith."  What's with this? Is Greenberg's mere approval (42 years ago!) somehow automatically condemning? Let it go already. ...It’s got to be something oedipal.

A little further on Johnson writes: Remarking on Mr. Caro’s roots in English tradition, Greenberg wrote in a 1965 essay, “Without maintaining necessarily that he is a better artist than Turner, I would venture to say that Caro comes closer to a genuine grand manner — genuine because original and un-synthetic — than any English artist before him.” No artist should take that kind of statement seriously, but it seems that Mr. Caro found it hard to resist.

Well actually Caro resisted the “grand manner” and that’s the problem with this show. If Caro had some of Serra’s chutzpah, maybe he could pull off a theatrical space like the Met’s roof. But he’s not bombastic, his work is intimate, however powerful. Serra's art may be thin, trite, and humorless, but it is helped immensely by his space; Caro’s art is rich, original and playful and is killed by this space.

When I came off the elevator, Caro’s sculptures looked sad and dingy, as if they'd been out there for thirty years. It also seemed there were too few of them, like a barren closet with only a few things hanging in it. In the context of this grand space overlooking Central Park and all, there was a desolate quality to the exhibition, even on a gorgeous spring day — or maybe because of it.

I saw one of Caro’s sculptures (End Up, 2010) at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery recently, and it worked much better inside where it was set off by walls so the sculptures could play off them. The space in this show is just too open.
Anthony Caro, End Up, 2010, steel, 72x90x62 in. (Collection of the artist, courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York).
The only thing that seems to work well up there are spectacles like Doug + Mike Starn on the Roof: Big Bambú or Roxy Paine on the Roof: Maelstrom.

Caro is credited with taking sculpture off the pedestal in the sixties. He wasn't the first to do so (probably that overachieving pest Picasso was), but he carried it further and drew more implications from it than any other artist. And it was more than mere formal innovation; it meant that sculpture inhabited the same phenomenological space we do. (See my posts on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Cezanne and Picasso.)  Likewise, his use of industrial materials (i.e., not art materials like bronze or marble) makes the work more accessible; and spreading the sculpture out along the floor engages the viewer -- as opposed to monolithic sculpture like that of Caro's teacher Henry Moore (who also worked in bronze).

Caro is currently working on a huge multi-part public sculpture for three blocks of the Park Avenue meridian. It’s supposed to be installed next year. I’m afraid it just isn't his thing -- but artists in their late phase often surprise. This is the third show in the last few months by great 87-year-old artists (Charles Garabedian and Ellsworth Kelly were the others). 1924 must have been a good year for an artist to be born.  

P. S. After the Met, I went to the Guggenheim to see The Great Upheaval show again, and I was really taken by the Franz Marc paintings on view. Wouldn’t a major exhibition of Franz Marc’s paintings be a valuable contribution to the field?
Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911. Oil on canvas, 55 3/8 x 74 1/2 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).
Franz Marc,  Stables (Stallungen), 1913. Oil on canvas, 29 x 62 inches (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York).

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.

Monday, May 2, 2011

African Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Charles Kessler

I was disappointed I didn’t get to see the Tishman/Disney collection of African art when I went to Washington last week, so after looking at the Richard Serra and Anthony Caro shows at the Met a few days ago, I decided to spend time studying the Met's African art.  It's quite simply some of the best art in the city -- some of the best art anywhere.

Traditional African artists were respected professionals who underwent rigorous training in the styles and conventions of their culture, but artists were expected to make interesting variations on traditional themes. Standards were very high, and their degree of skill was acknowledged and the subject of considerable discussion.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if one of the reasons African artists were so respected, and their art is so powerful, is because it evolved when there was no written language. It was left to artists, as a result, to physically manifest a culture's wisdom, history, law, morality, etc. The incentive, the necessity, to produce richly meaningful art must have been enormous. 

African art, of course, has a staggeringly expressive range, as you'd expect of the art of a country that's more than three times the size of the continental United States. But I want to focus here on art that is elegant and graceful -- at least what is thought of as elegant and graceful in western terms.  It is an art based on nature without copying nature. This is a subtle and sophisticated art that's abstracted down to the essentials.  Here are some of my favorites. (I included the acquisition number in the captions so you can easily look them up on the Met's Collection Database.)

The first two works are relatively old and are breathtaking examples from the Edo Empire (1440-1897), the pre-colonial African state of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria.  (Coincidentally, the Edo period in Japan was about the same time, 1603 - 1868, but there is no connection.)
Head of Oba, 16th C, Edo peoples, Nigeria, Court of Benin, brass (Met #1979.206)
Detail: Head of Oba. Click to enlarge.
Both these sculptures (the brass Head of Oba and the ivory Queen Mother Pendant Mask) epitomize Itutu (or Tut), the Yoruba word for "cool" or "serene" or "composed." Itutu is one of the most important aesthetic ideals that Robert Thompson learned about in interviews with traditional African dancers and artists and documented in his classic African Art in Motion. (I treasure this book and it's missing -- if I loaned it to someone out there, please return it.) They also exemplify another aesthetic ideal Thompson's informants held: a balance between realistic portraiture and abstraction.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask - lyoba, 16th C, Edo peoples, ivory, iron, copper, 9x5x3 in (Met #1978.412.323)
Ewe peoples are from Ghana and Togo, the western part of Benin where this striking terracotta sculpture is from. (Note the subtle asymmetry --  one horn is slightly bigger than the other.)
Buffalo Head, 19-20th C, Ewe peoples, Togo, terracotta, 9x9x5 (Met #1979.206.1)
The Bamana peoples live in west Africa, and are mostly known for their flamboyantly swooping antelope masks (see the  photo below this), but I wanted to include this unusual abstract animal (a water buffalo?) because it, and the buffalo head above, beautifully illustrate the case for the sophistication and subtlety of abstract African art. This is not mere design -- there's something about these works that feels alive and vital, which is another aesthetic ideal Thompson wrote about.
Figure - Boine (Boli), 19th-20th C, Bamana peoples, Mali, wood, sacrificial materials (patina), 14x8x21 (Met #1979.206.175)
Headdress (Sogoni Koun), 19th–20th century, Bamana peoples, Mali, Wood, cane, string, bamboo, 23x8x10 in, (Met #1979.206.158)
The Met's website has only this poor black and white picture of a door made by the Baule peoples (below), but I was able to get a good detailed shot that gives a better idea of the graceful drawing and beautiful golden color of this masterpiece. Doors are interesting because they're bas-reliefs rather than sculptures and deal more with drawing and pattern than rounded form.

Door (Anuan), 19th-mid 20th C, Baule peoples, Cote d'Ivoire, wood, pigment, 62x23x3 in (Met #1979.206.120)
Detail: Door (Anuan). Click to enlarge.
The exhibition label for this figure, and a gallery talk I overheard, made note of its "slight bilateral asymmetry."  Thompson's informants felt perfect symmetry is deadening and that slight asymmetry leads to vitality. Of course this applies to a lot of art -- to Cezanne for example.

Figure, 19th -20th C, Mumuye peoples, Nigeria, wood 36x7x6 in (Met #1983.189)
Headress - Serpent (A-Mantsho-na-Tshol), 19th-20th C, Baga peoples, Guinea, wood, pigment, 55 in (Met #1978.412.339
For some reason installations of African art are lit in a dark and spooky theatrical manner, as if it's night in the jungle and the natives are dancing around a fire. Documentary films and photographs of ceremonies where this art is used show how naive this notion is. The ceremonies clearly take place in broad daylight, usually on a dusty field. To its credit, the Met treats this work with more respect.
Installation view, Masquerades Masks, 19th-20th C,  Baga and Nalu peoples, Guinea
Finally, there's this very old sculpture (13th Century) that's simple and sensual but, because it's so raw and gut-wrenching, it doesn't quite fit in with the other work. It's such a powerful piece I want to include it anyway.
Seated figure, 13th C, Djenne peoples, Mali, terracotta, 10x12 in (Met #1981.218)

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.