Monday, March 12, 2012

In and Around Monochrome

By Carl Belz
(Note: Living in rural northern New Hampshire, I can’t jump into my car and do studio visits as I did while living near Boston. Nonetheless, I’ve become newly aware during the past couple of years of artists among my Facebook friends whose work looks good to me on my computer, like work I'd like somehow to engage, so I’m here beginning a series of “virtual exhibitions,” group shows based on themes and subjects and such that reflect what I’ve been seeing and thinking about. I hope you’ll enjoy them. –CB)  

We got a taste of monochrome painting in the 1960s with the early work of Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, and Frank Stella. None among them was a monochrome hard liner, none out to declare the end of painting or the dawn of a new age utopia—none the direct offspring of either Rodchenko or Malevich—and none operated from a theoretical platform of any kind. All of them, however, having been born in the 1930s, had come of age in a post-World War II culture where abstract art was not only widespread, it was just as widely celebrated for its expressionist freedom. It needed no defending, as it had needed defending in its beginnings, but it did need reining in—at least, that was the assessment of it by an emerging generation of artists who felt the urge to simplify and distill and systematically shape and set limits upon it in order to clarify what they wanted to say with it. Thus the appeal of monochrome painting in the 60s. Except it wasn’t called monochrome painting, it was called minimal art.   

Monochrome spawned no school or movement following its appearance in the early 1960s, but it has nonetheless remained a presence in the art of our time, its directness and simplicity periodically offering respite within a culture drenched increasingly by spectacle, while at the same time demonstrating anew abstraction’s capacity to secure meaning, even when self-imposed limits seemingly reduce its options to degree zero. In varying measures, its appeal has all along been visual and conceptual, a matter of body and mind together accounting for its integrity as art. And so it is—or so it looks to me anyway—with the artists whose work I’ve come to know individually via the internet and have brought together in this virtual exhibition: John Zinsser, Daniel Levine, Karen Baumeister, Jeffrey Collins, and Matt McClune. In mining a radical vein of modernist abstraction, they extend a century-old tradition; with their individual voices, they demonstrate its continuing vitality.   
John Zinsser’s paintings are self-reflective, they have a lot to do with the challenges that go into making paintings, with the process of getting paint the way you want it from the can onto the canvas, with the kinds of marks you mean to make with it once you get it there. The process is physical, the paint has substance, you can see how it’s moved around by brush or squeegee or trowel, you can see that it’s sometimes obdurate, sometimes yielding. The process is also deliberate, you’re aware that different kinds of marks connote different kinds of meanings and construct different kinds of pictures, sturdy and assertive pictures, for instance, along with pictures that are welcoming and serene, pictures that are fast, pictures that are slow. Thus does the process signal the pictures’ internal awareness, determine their character, and shape their meaning. Through all the process, however, there’s also pleasure, pleasure evident in the paint’s lubricious tactility, in the mark’s decisive sweep, in the choice of a picture’s identifying color. Which is where monochrome comes in: It’s not so much Zinsser’s subject as it is the framework for his enterprise, it’s an anchor, it functions as a constant against which we register and measure his art-making reflections and experience the wide-ranging and abundant pleasures they engender—for the artist, and for us as well.
John Zinsser, Quantity and Method, 2011, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches.
John Zinsser, Manner of Illusion, 2010, Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches.
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John Zinsser, Primary Nature, 2010, oil on canvas, 19 x 24 inches.
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John Zinsser, The Waking Sky, 2011, Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 36 inches.
The pleasures that accrue to Daniel Levine’s paintings are of a different order, they’re delicate, ethereal. Their rarefied atmosphere is circumscribed by rigorously defined and scrupulously observed parameters: Levine paints only with primary colors and white, each monochrome is contained by a razor-sharp border of raw canvas, all of the pictures are minimally off-square. In a 2004 statement, he wrote, “I’m not motivated by objects, but by the idea of them.” In conversation with John Zinsser earlier this year, Levine referred to his own paintings as being “inherently internalized”, and he further acknowledged, “…my paintings aren’t ‘outwardly friendly’…” Asked about his influences, he referenced Philip Guston, John McLaughlin and Myron Stout as “…the ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Asked why he titled his pictures, he commented, “…people have names for God.” Yet, both his statement and his conversation are sprinkled with references to punk and popular culture, notable among them, Iggy and the Stooges and Tuesday Weld. In response to this devil-or-angel conundrum, I’d say the pictures’ significance is pretty clear. If I imagine being with one of them, in my home, say, I see myself in a private space, a space for meditation beatified by the painting’s austere and otherworldly presence, a space outside of which beckoning demons may hover, but they’re kept at bay by the radiant, life-giving light of the picture’s surface, leaving me at peace—with myself, with the world.  

Daniel Levine, O. M., 2007 - 2010, oil on cotton, 8 x 7 ⅞ inches (Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson).
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Daniel Levine, Untitled #2, 2001, oil on cotton, 16" x 15 3/4".
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Daniel Levine, Untitled #3, 2009-2010, oil on cotton, 9 x 8 11/16 inches (private collection).
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Daniel Levine, Untitled #5, 2010, oil on cotton, 16 7/8 x 16 13/16 inches.
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Karen Baumeister’s dignified monochromes return us to the world of everyday experience. She paints them in everyday light, which is also how she prefers having them seen, because she conceives of them as being lived with, in harmony with their everyday environment, responding to it as naturally as plants respond to sunlight. Her preferred format is square or close to square, suggesting still life paintings, images of everyday objects instead of human figures, which would be clearly vertical, or landscapes, which would be clearly horizontal. Her paint, generously and sensuously layered across canvas supports, accumulates visibly at the pictures’ edges and further underscores their physicality, their tactility, their referencing of objects we routinely handle. And her color, whether gray or green, red or white, is consistently muted and restful, neither thrusting at us nor tugging us in. Its unassuming tone reflects the pictures’ comfort about being in the world, content in allowing the monochromes to integrate and signal their individual identities. Thus do the paintings become, for us, objects of contemplation, hushed invitations to become absorbed in them and partake of their pleasuring content. But what kinds of everyday things do these monochrome still lifes comprise, what are we likely to find within them? Secrets, perhaps. Or maybe dreams. Or desires. Or memories. All of which are within and around us all of the time—common things right before our eyes in these uncommonly meaningful and satisfying paintings. 

Karen Baumeister, Grays Over Blackened Blue, 2011, 64 x 64 inches.

Detail: Karen Baumeister, Grays Over Blackened Blue, 2011, 64 x 64 inches

Karen Baumeister, Everchanging, 2010, 8 x 9 inches.
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Karen Baumeister, Red, 2010, 64 x 64 inches.
I have an artist friend who periodically reminds me that art doesn’t have to be ugly to be sincere. I can’t remember what got him started saying it. It could have been when punk was the rage or when grunge came along, or it could have been in reference to the anti-aesthetic of California Funk or Neo-Expressionism or the YBAs. Whenever and whatever, it had to have been one of those characteristically modern moments when beauty gets questioned as being merely beauty, meaning merely decorative, out of touch with lived experience, inauthentic as art. But, behold, beauty has made a serious comeback since the start of the millennium, in painting and elsewhere—in my estimation, because a new generation of artists is emerging that’s often been deeply inspired by modernist abstraction and is fully informed of its achievement, but by dint of time and space, a lengthy span of postmodern irony, and an increasingly global perspective, is coming to maturity feeling unburdened by the baggage of what that abstraction may earlier have meant, and correspondingly free to make their own reading of it . In the context of monochrome, for instance, Jeffrey Collins bonds gestural abstraction with minimalist reserve, an unlikely pairing, to attain a delectable expressionism that is unique within the genre. 

Jeffrey Collins,  07-01-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 36 x 30 inches. 

Jeffrey Collins, 07-22-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 39 x 36 inches. 
Jeffrey Collins, 11-18-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 30 x 24 inches.

Jeffrey Collins, 02-17-2011, 2011, acrylic and wood filler on canvas, 25 ½ x 16 inches.
Matt McClune, by comparison, presents us with layered veils of color, fragile, alluring, astonishingly and irresistibly beautiful, which appear to have come into being on their own, without agency, as if they were forces of nature—monochrome highlighting not so much the process of their becoming as the autonomous state of their being. 

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 53 x 39 inches. 
Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 35 ½ x 29 ½ inches

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 35 ½ x 24 ½ inches.

Matt McClune, Untitled, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 25 ½ x 22 ½ inches.
In greater and lesser degrees, these monochrome paintings, simplified and distilled and systematically shaped as they are, sometimes make painting look easy, as if the way it is is the only way it could ever have been, as if inspiration and its expression—regardless of the facts of their gestation—were born as one, effortlessly and simultaneously, in an instant. Really good art of any kind has a way of doing that, and the effect can be exhilarating—still, risk attends the urge to go for it. This Yeats knew:
A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.            

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


Jeffrey Collins said...

Many blessings to you Carl. Wonderful piece on many of what I believe are the best of todays modern painters. I thank you very kindly for the wonderful words.


Maureen said...

Wonderful post!

CJ Nye said...

Bravo Matt McClune- nice work.

Ian Williams said...

A great collection of great painters. Thanks for sharing!

Christopher Hayes said...

fantastic work! shame it gets lost inbetween abstract epressionism and pop art

Christopher Hayes said...

Fantasic work! shame it gets lost inbetween abstract espressionism and pop art

kim matthews said...

Thanks for this post! You have just scratched the surface. More, please, like Bosco Sodi.

Carl Belz said...

Just checked out Bosco Sodi--Wow, I see what you mean, Kim. Thanks for the tip.

craig stockwell said...

I like this Carl!

craig stockwell said...

I'd also add Michael Brennan for consideration.

Jim Harris Artist said...

Thanks for the interesting blog.

David Hirschi said...

Great article and a great group of painters. I was reminded of Barbara Rose's statement that monochrome is not a style so much as it is a 'personal stance.'

Deborah Barlow said...

Carl, this was completely satisfying, and it was fun. I think this format is highly plastic and well suited for your broad exposure to so much contemporary art. So only one word: MORE!

Giovanni Policastro said...

For over 40 years Italian artist Claudio Olivieri works on monochrome, dedicating his life to the exploration of light on color. Has participated in biennials of Venice 5. I understand the enthusiasm, but look around first.