Sunday, October 23, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #17: Writing About Art, Part 2

By Carl Belz

As promised, here are a few more short essays on individual paintings acquired for the Rose Art Museum where I was director from 1974 through 1998. (BTW To celebrate my appointment to that directorship, spouse Barbara scored an acquisition of her own, the car you see pictured in the photograph above. It’s a ’49 Mercury, and it was the car of choice among cool guys when I was in high school between ’51 and ’55. Also the car James Dean memorably drove in Rebel Without A Cause. I always wanted one, but being cool wasn’t in my arsenal back then, so I had to wait a while to get my Merc—like, about 20 years. But, better to be cool later than never cool at all, right?)
Jo Ann Rothschild, In Memory Of Edwin Rothschild, 1995, mixed media on canvas, 92 x 134 inches.
On my first visit to a studio, I like to take some time to get a feel for the space and the artist, so I usually just pace silently around for a while, looking as much at the art as at the postcards and reproductions tacked to the walls, the books and magazines lying around, and the tapes stacked next to the audio system—anything that might inform my comments on the work itself or, if I come up short on that score, might at least circle around the work and lead to a conversation about personal tastes in art or literature or music. The approach has generally worked well, but it carries no guarantees. When I first visited Jo Ann’s studio back in the seventies, for instance, there were no reproductions or books or tapes to talk about, just her paintings. And though they were very large and very abstract, signals of high ambition, they nonetheless left me cold, because they were very expressionistic, displaying a slash-and-burn manner that recalled the kind of New York School painting that had pretty much exhausted itself 20 years before and seemed able to survive only when laced with irony. But the paintings exhibited no trace of irony, so there I was, stranded by what my mother had always told me, which was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” 

I must have said something at least vaguely encouraging—probably that I’d be interested in seeing how the work developed—because Jo Ann occasionally asked me to look at new paintings after that first visit. I remember one time around 1990 when she brought pictures to the museum, probably about 35 or 40 of them, and to my surprise not one of them measured more than a foot in either dimension. The images in a few cases loosely alluded to landscapes but otherwise remained abstract, and the surfaces with few exceptions retained the expressive handling I was familiar with. The size, however, was what most intrigued me, because I felt it indicated a questioning of gestural bravura, maybe even an urge to rein in the expressionist impulse that had previously been the work’s signature. The new direction looked promising, but it also looked experimental, as though the ideas it proposed had yet to be fully worked out. I talked a little more than before, but not much.

I was glad curator/friend Susan Stoops was with me when I returned to the studio in 1995. Concerned that I would again not really like the work and again be left with nothing to say, I hoped Susan would carry the conversation and maybe help me with a fresh perspective on the art. But that turned out to be unnecessary, for I was totally flattened by what I saw, yet I felt not the least bit awkward in not knowing how to articulate my response. The paintings were again very large—in Jo Anne’s attic studio, we could look at only one at a time—and they were still very abstract, but their abstractness was now radically open and expansive. With each canvas, I found myself thinking less about what Jo Ann had meant by the paintings than what the paintings meant in themselves, as though she had detached herself from them, stopped trying above all to express herself through them, and had thereby set free and allowed to sing the pictorial elements of drawing and color and space that she previously sought to bend to her will and possess as exclusively hers—as though she had found her voice once she stopped looking for it.

My experience that day was fully rewarding and instructive: rewarding, as a reminder that good artists can open even reluctant eyes if you remain open to them; and instructive, as a reminder that good art doesn’t need words, because it invariably speaks eloquently for itself. 
David Ortins, #2395P, 1995, oil and wax on wood panel, 68 x 44 inches.
Innovative techniques and new materials occasionally appear in art and quickly gain widespread usage, as collage did in the 1910s, or as acrylics did in the late 1950s, and their usage can initially seem to transform even the most ordinary pictures into objects of wonder. With acrylics, for instance, staining in the manner of Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland quickly became a dominant painting technique, and by the middle of the 1960s we were surrounded by acres of Color Field pictures, each of them seeming more glorious than the last. Such was their allure, and it was irresistible; their surfaces were everywhere soft and inviting, their color effortlessly spread and glowed, and light breathed life into them as generously as in nature itself. You probably think I’m exaggerating in saying these things, but that’s the way it really was. At least for a while. By the time the 1970s were under way, stain painting had lost a lot of its original freshness and become routine and predictable—like collage, which at this point has been so thoroughly academicized that even school children practice it with ease. Which is not to deny the significance of Color Field painting as a whole, let alone the significance of its major practitioners. I mean only to suggest that new techniques and materials can sometimes infatuate you on impact, only to then cloy the appetite on which they feed.  

The 1990s counterpart to acrylic staining in the 1960s is wax. Though wax has for centuries been available to painting in the form of encaustic, it took on new meaning with the highly personalized and autobiographic art that has proliferated during the past decade or so. Pick up a canvas or board, sketch upon it an image of a figure or paste upon it an old photograph, then pour on a coat of translucent wax and bingo, you’ve instantly got a visual metaphor for memory or some related emotional effect. In studio after studio I observed that practice, and I was at first as seduced by it as anyone else; remembering the sixties, however, I soon began to look harder at sure-fire effects that often failed to go beyond mere sentimentality, and I became wary whenever I encountered pictures incorporating wax.  

I had seen some of David Ortins’s paintings by the time Susan Stoops and I first visited his studio in 1994. He had been doing geometric abstractions that were executed on white wax grounds, but the wax mostly served to provide a clean support and didn’t call particular attention to itself, so it was accordingly unproblematic. The new pictures presented an entirely different situation. Instead of an overall geometry, the images consisted of two or three spare rivulets of color—red or yellow or black—that flowed easily from top to bottom in the center of each painting and dramatically exposed the wax ground, making it pictorially assertive where it had before been hardly noticeable. Forewarned, I would have thought the situation risky, but instead it took my breath away. Smooth and immaculate, the whiteness of the wax slab felt as pure as natural light, detached and impersonal, yet exhilarating. We were fortunate in being able to purchase one of those paintings for the permanent collection, and I especially enjoyed installing it once or twice in the company of our Louis stripe painting, because they communicated so meaningfully with one another, but also as reminders that the uses of new techniques and materials don’t always become cloying—in the right hands, they can actually make hungry where most they satisfy. 
Alex Katz, Ada With Superb Lily, 1967, oil on canvas, 46 x 51-1/2 inches.
Born in 1927, Alex Katz came to artistic maturity during the 1950s. Back then, one of the values we aspired to in presenting ourselves to the world was that of being cool. James Dean and Marlon Brando, for instance, were both cool. Their manner was sometimes hesitant, as if they were conscious of our gaze and wary of being looked at, on stage or before a camera—maybe anywhere—but it was also assured, suggesting inner confidence, being on top of the situation while choosing to hold back from it, and from us as well. The aloofness was cool, lending to their manner an edginess that kept us wanting, an edginess that Alex Katz must have grasped, for it is a characteristic feature of his paintings.

Ada is the artist’s wife, and she appears regularly in his pictures, sometimes with him or with their son Vincent, occasionally with both, but most often by herself, as she is here. Whenever she appears, however, you can be sure of one thing: she will be composed and ready to meet her audience, a model of urbane decorum, fully in control, and invariably in style, glamorous even when casually attired. Just was she is at the moment of this picture, seated in a canvas lawn chair, assertively facing us through her chic sunglasses, her formally pulled back yet clearly in order and tied with an elegant silk scarf, her sophisticated presence appropriately complemented by the Superb lily that rises behind her and completes what is indeed a strikingly dignified and superb image. There aspects are all carefully observed and recorded, making Ada seem familiar, and stirring in us the feeling that we might on another occasion have met her.

This is surprising in view of Katz’s generalized approach to his subject. His drawing is broad and crisp, silhouetting and flattening the figure in its space, and his color is applied in large, even masses that further reduce both subject and setting into schematic shorthand notations. Since we are in fact presented with very few specific details, how can we feel we might have met this person, that she is familiar? What kind of familiarity are we talking about?

I think it’s like the familiarity we feel in relation to movie stars or professional athletes or public figures we know through the media world, that is, in contexts for which they are always prepared and which are themselves tightly controlled, quick, and two-dimensional. Who could be more familiar than your favorite anchorperson on the local television news? Yet, as Marshall McLuhan first pointed out, when we happen to see such a person in the unstructured, extended, and three-dimensional world of normal everyday experience—say, at an art exhibition—we’re ironically uncertain if it’s the person we thought we were so familiar with. Wishing our two worlds to reinforce one another, we cautiously approach, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Ada Katz?” Cool.  

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


Anonymous said...

Another great piece Carl. I can't tell you how much I love these short, personal, insightful remembrances of paintings that had significance to you and to the Rose. I hope you will continue this, to do the entire body of work you were instrumental in acquiring.

Your insights about staining and wax are so good I am going to have to quote you on my upcoming blog post. I'll give you full credit of course.

Looking forward to another installment from you soon.

Nancy Natale said...

Thanks for your post, which I was alerted to by Deborah on her blog. Your description of visiting an artist in her studio and being put on the spot by your reaction to her work is informative. Being on the other side of the situation, I can empathize with the visitor because I'm sure it must be difficult to say something appropriate when you are not wowed by the work.

The piece you purchased for the Rose by David Ortins must be lovely. I can imagine it must have looked great in combination with the color field paintings.