Archive for Chuck Close

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Music & Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2013 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of wilful choice like a very miser—never forgetting how one link dropped undoes indefinite number.   —William James

I wish I had a routine for writing. I get up in the morning and I go out to my studio and write. And then I tear it up! That’s the routine really. And then, occasionally, something sticks. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.   —Arthur Miller

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0307273601?ie=UTF8&camp=213733&creative=393185&creativeASIN=0307273601&linkCode=shr&tag=venered-20&=books&qid=1371354568&sr=1-1&keywords=daily+rituals

Always struggling to create working discipline in my creative life, I snatched up Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals, hoping to glean a few actionable tidbits this compilation of anecdotes on the working habits of 161 writers, musicians and artists, from Voltaire to Abramović.  Culled from Curry’s blog of the name, the book is a fast and entertaining read.  Though I wasn’t struck by proverbial lightening bolts while reading, after digesting the book I did formulate one hugely-important overriding maxim for myself.  More about that below.

A disclaimer in the book’s introduction sets a modest stage:

“…this is a superficial book… it’s about the circumstances of creative activity, not the product; it deals with manufacturing rather than meaning.”

I suspect the book has been wildly popular precisely because it looks behind the curtain, so to speak, of the creative process.  Not exactly a “how to” book, Daily Rituals is nevertheless instructive.  In the introduction Curry purports to address (if not answer) the big hairy questions we all ponder:

How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living?

Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?

When there doesn’t seem to be enough time for all you hope to accomplish, must you give some things up or can you learn to condense activities, to work “smarter”?

Are comfort and creativity incompatible? Or is finding a basic level of daily comfort a prerequisite for sustained creative work?

yousuf-karsh-vladimir-nabokov-1899-1977-3-november-1972

Vladimir Nabokov
©Yousuf Karsh

The book is not organized around these questions (in fact, an organizing principle was not obvious to me), and leaves the reader to his or her own conclusions. Helpful patterns do emerge, however:

Wake Up.  Creatives rise around the clock.  At one end, rose Proust typically did not get up until 3 or 4 in the afternoon; on the other end,
Balzac rose at 1am.

Work Routine. This category too yielded no regularity.  As a visual artist, I was astonished (jealous?) to discover how few hours most of the writers purport to work day, usually just a few hours before noon. Many set word limits for themselves and then, working day completed, went on to the other parts of their lives. (To be fair, many writers held/hold down paying jobs—Trollope, Cornell, Eliot, Joyce.) Some, like Simon de Beauvoir did, work in two shifts, adding an after dinner session to the morning routine. Philip Roth reports all-day work. Conversely, Gertrude Stein habitually wrote only 30 minutes a day. Descartes believed idleness was essential to good mental work.  Henry Miller had to switch routines midway through life, realizing that he was a morning person. Francis Bacon’s routine was chaos. One look at his studio, faithfully reproduced in The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, tells you all you need to know.

Bed. A big part of the routine, especially for writers… Proust wrote exclusively in bed, his head propped up by two pillows. Truman Capote always wrote “horizontally.” I particularly relish the image conjured up by James Joyce’s sister of the writer in bed”smothered in his own thoughts.”

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962 Bromide Print on card mount Courtesy National Gallery

Cecil Beaton, Dame Edith Sitwell, 1962
Bromide print on card mount
Courtesy National Gallery

Edith Sitwell, who was reputed to have slept in a coffin from time to time (one would have thought that would be Anne Rice’s territory…), also enjoyed her bed.  “All women should have a day a week in bed,”  she quipped. At the end of one particularly long day working in bed, she observed:  “I am honestly so tired that all I can do is lie on my bed with my mouth open.”

Although Frida Kahlo is not included in this book, one is reminded of her lengthy and involuntary stays in bed. So driven to work, she rigged ingenious set ups , which allowed her to paint while nearly immobilized.

Food. For breakfast, coffee or tea, toast and, more often than not, cigarettes. It seems that hardly anyone in the book skipped breakfast or at least the first meal of the day. (Possibly the advice imparted by a recent graduation speaker—”Never start something new on an empty stomach”—is already common wisdom among creatives.)  Lunch and dinner are also recorded, mostly as social events with family or friends.

Stimulants. Daily Rituals offers irrefutable confirmation that creatives consume copious amounts of alcohol, occasionally while working. (Or used to, at any rate. Maybe that has all changed in today’s health-conscious world.)  Francis Bacon was legendary, living a life of “hedonistic excess, eating many rich meals a day, drinking tremendous quantities of alcohol, taking whatever stimulants were handy, and generally staying out later and partying harder than any of his contemporaries.”

John Deakin, Francis Bacon. 1962

John Deakin Francis Bacon,1962
© The Estate of John Deakin

Patricia Highsmithalways downed a stiff drink before starting work, in order to calm her manic energy level. Toulouse-Lautrec was well-known for his nights of binge drinking. That routine probably cost him his life—he died at 36.

Smoking. Many many cigarettes of course, but also cigars (Georges Sand famously; Thomas Mann, continuously), and some pipes.  Bathus had a most evocative description of the uses of smoking:

“I’ve always painted while smoking. I am reminded of this habit in photographs from my youth. I intuitively understood that smoking double my faculty of concentration, allowing me to be entirely within a canvas.”

Other habits & diversions:  Creative people spend lots and lots of walking. (A body in motion is a powerful ideation tool.) And working at regular income jobs. On the subject of breaks, composer John Adams sensibly says: “The problem is that you do get run out of creative energy and sometimes you want to take a mental break.”

And indulge in your guilty pleasures! PG Wodehouse reportedly never missed an episode of “The Edge of Night” afternoon soap opera.

Henri Matisse at work Photograph © Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

Henri Matisse at work
© Alvin Langdon Coburn, courtesy Getty Images

On the pain and joy of the craft. Writers compete for superlatives on the distress of working. Philip Roth: “Writing isn’t hard work, it’s a nightmare.”  Styron similarly complains: “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Ira Gershwin observed of his brother, George: “To me George was a little sad all the time because he had this compulsion to work. He never relaxed.”

On the other hand, joyful work be yours, if you happen to be a creative Gustave. The Austrian Mahler:  “You know that all I desire and demand of life is to feel an urge to work!” The French Flaubert quipped: ” After all, work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

Among visual artists, Matisse was perhaps the most relentless worker, even telling “all sorts of tales” to get his models to work on Sundays.  “I can’t sacrifice my Sundays for them just because they have boyfriends.” Matisse had the great fortune to basically enjoy everything. “I am never bored,” he often admitted.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait,  2006

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 2006

I’m not sure Daily Rituals provides overt answers to the big questions Curry poses at the onset.  In the aggregate, its overwhelming message is that creative work, like all work, is often just relentless grind.  One has to find the ways to muscle through. On a personal note, I try to live by Chuck Close’s well-known adage: ” Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Amidst our creative toil, who among us has not at times felt Kafka’s lament: “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.”

If the 161 anecdotes in Daily Rituals offer any collective wisdom, it is that there is no one way to achieve regular production.  That’s permission to engage in whatever habits work best for one’s own creative process, as long as the habit is regular.  In a 2005 NY Times article, Michael Kimmelman noted: “Out of routine comes inspiration. That’s the idea, anyway. To grasp what’s exceptional, you first have to know what’s routine.”

Find a process and trust it.

The Rabbit Hole

Twyla Tharpe—The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
More Artist Routines—How We Work
John Deakin: Photographs
Eric Fishl—Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
NY Foundation for the Arts—”Ten Habits of Successful Artists

Venetian Red: SFMOMA Presents the Fisher Collection

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: On occasion, Venetian Red invites guest writers to contribute to these pages. Today Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, covers the debut of the Fisher Collection as SFMOMA. VR has a long-standing interest in the Fisher collection; for other posts on this topic, click here.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Melancholia,
(courtesy of SFMOMA)

I was out of town last month so I missed the press preview. However, one of the first things I did on my return was to get over to SFMOMA and see what all the shouting has been about. The museum is celebrating its 75th year and obtaining this collection gives them another reason to break out the champagne. This sweeping exhibition, entitled “Calder to Warhol: Introducing The Fisher Collection,” offers an extraordinary preview of the depth, breadth, and quality of the Fisher holdings, with works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and many others—160 works by 55 artists, a tasty amuse-bouclé indeed!

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Even if the museum had the resources of the legendary King Midas, there is there is no way it could have bought even a fraction of these pieces. While it is difficult to get accurate figures on the sales of contemporary art, a 2005 Artnet article reported that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC paid $4.5 million for one of Serra’s pieces. Richter’s auction high is the $5.4 million paid for the “Three Candles” and Twomby’s key works from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s have exceeded $10 million. The collection is rich in works from artists below the top-ten echelon. According to a recent (May 1010) article in the Huffington Post, artists such as Chuck Close, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Ryman, and Wayne Thiebaud, sell for prices in the $2 million to $4 million range.

Chuck Close, Agnes Martin
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Agnes Martin, well represented in the exhibit, sells for around seven figures; her prices are probably higher by now. So, while the dollar value of the collection is into the stratosphere, the artistic value to art lovers and the museum is beyond price. Anybody who has followed the saga of the Fisher’s and their art knows about the long and acrimonious battle over his wish to have a museum at the Presidio. Conservationists and wiser heads prevailed to stop it. It wasn’t just a case of NIMBY but involved serious issues over questions of traffic, a huge footprint and, frankly, some distrust of what would happen “after” all the shouting died down. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors were anxious to keep the collection in the city and passed a resolution in 2007 to that effect. Nevertheless, the ultimate fate of the collection was unknown until the Fishers finally announced that the collection would to go the museum, by means of a 100-year renewable loan. Maybe it was astute behind-the scenes talks or perhaps an intimation of mortality that made Don Fisher agree to this for he passed away a few days later.

Andy Warhol, Nine Multicolored Marilyns
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

It is said that you gain immortality through your children; in a very significant sense, his art collection was one of Fisher’s children and now, it’s been gifted to us. The collection is a huge addition to SFMOMA’s collection and puts the museum on the map as a major destination for lovers of modern art. With few notable exceptions, the pieces are huge, bold and brassy, with a focus on the blue chip artists of the last decade or so. It’s beautifully organized and hung, thanks to curator Gary Garrels and the rest of the museum staff. The entire fourth and fifth floors of the museum, including the Rooftop Garden, present a distillation of the sculpture portion of the collection. The Fifth Floor gallery is full of light and airy Calder mobiles. One of the pieces, a charming freestanding sculpture evokes the aquarium of the title with a few witty twists and scrolls of wire. Calder could have given lessons to any minimalist sculptor on elegant simplicity. Major works by Serra, Richter and Kiefer, Lewitt and Bourgeois are also on display.

Alexander Calder, Double Gong
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

After all that, you will need a big cup of Blue Bottle coffee to tackle the rest of the show. The Ellsworth Kelly pieces are textbook examples of his statement that paintings should be the wall, art as a geometric idea and not an emotion. The Kiefer pieces will be another wonderful addition to the museum’s existing one. I am a fan of this enigmatic and philosophical artist so I lingered in front of his Sulamith” with its evocation of the Holocaust. Kiefer’s enigmatic and emotional pieces display an evocative Teutonic angst combined with an awesome list of painting materials (oil emulsion, wood cut, shellac, acrylic and straw on canvas).

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Throughout the exhibit, Garrel’s has intelligently paired pieces against one another—a thickly textured Sam Francis (Middle Blue, 1959) matched with the more open brushwork of a 1989 Joan Mitchell; Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #67 on a wall where it visually leads to the gallery full of Agnes Martin’s pieces. One of those paintings, (Wheat) with its subtle rectangles of cream, parchment and a glaze of creamy yellow, is possibly one of the quietest and most beautiful pieces in the show. The fourth floor is too full of good pieces to list but one in particular—a great Oldenburg Apple Core—adds a much needed taste of wit to the more ponderous pieces in the collection. SFMOMA has announced plans for a vast addition to the museum. Two hundred and fifty million of the needed $480 million has been raised by “friends of the museum” and the board is currently looking for an architect. When the new wing opens in 2016, it will include a 60,000-square-foot Fisher Wing and allow a far more extensive display of the collection.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #67
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

“At this momentous time in SFMOMA’s history, we are not only celebrating 75 years of accomplishments and innovation, we’re also looking forward to a new era of growth and community service that will be greatly enhanced by the museum’s presentation of these outstanding works of art from the Fisher Collection,” said SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “Our collaboration with the Fisher family will give visitors access to some of the finest modern and contemporary masterpieces, placing SFMOMA among the greatest museums for contemporary art and elevating the cultural profile of the city as a whole.”

Claes Oldenberg, Apple
(Courtesy of Civic Center Blog)

As the first unveiling of Doris and Don’s incredible gift to the city of San Francisco, this exhibition will introduce the public to an incomparable group of iconic works that will inspire and educate generations of visitors in the years to come.” I think that Grace McCann Morely, the museum’s first director would be well pleased.

“SFMOMA: From Calder to Warhol.” On display through September 19.

Wider Connections

More on the Fisher collection from ChezNamasteNancy
Kenneth Baker weighs in

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Inside the Painter’s Studio

Posted in Artists Speak, Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER

Ross Bleckner, Throbbing Hearts, 1994
Oil, powdered pigment, and wax on canvas, 96 1/8 x 120 1/4 inches
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift of the artist © Ross Bleckner)

Thanks to a friend of Venetian Red, who passed along an excellent tip regarding Joe Fig’s 2009 compilation of interviews, Inside the Painter’s Studio. I casually picked up the book one evening recently, thinking it was the sort of work in which one could dabble, leaf through an interview or two, put it down, come back to it intermittently. By the second interview (Ross Bleckner, as it turns out) the book had hooked me, and I read straight through to the end. (A 90 minute investment.)

Fig asked the same 18 questions of 24 accomplished artists of different generations (with himself as the 25th). Most of Fig’s questions reflected his primary interest in exploring the nature of the creative process and the role the studio space plays in that. While he fixed-question method has its uses (i.e. levels the playing field, creates boundaries for information), it can also hinder the process of collecting truly penetrating information from interviewees.

On the face of it, some of his questions seemed banal—How long have you been in this studio?, How often do you clean your studio? Do you listen to music or have the TV on or something like that? But other queries drew out more philosophical responses, though, in a number of instances, even those just plain stumped a few interviewees (or they were just unwilling to answer). In these cases, the conversation appeared be grinding to a halt, though Fig skillfully pulled the session back the brink by guiding the artist to the next topic on his list. (That, or interviews were rescued in the editing process.)

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997
Oil on canvas, 8′ 6″ x 7′
(Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Agnes Gund, Jo Carole
and Ronald S. Lauder, Donald L. Bryant, Jr., Leon Black,
Michael and Judy Ovitz, Anna Marie and Robert F. Shapiro,
Leila and Melville Straus, Doris and Donald Fisher, and purchase.)
© 2010 Chuck Close

You will find no profound revelations in Inside the Painter’s Studio. Instead, its pages are punctuated with important (and often eloquently articulated) reminders regarding the creative process (and the business of art). The artists among us may viscerally or intuitively understand these pearls, but hearing them repeated in different ways is always welcome.

More fascinating are those moments when a particular personality emerges through the interview process. Malcolm Morley comes off as a pragmatic curmudgeon; Amy Sillman appears to shoot from the hip (though looking at her paintings you don’t see how that can be true) ; Philip Pearlstein seems plainly sincere; a tinge of haughtiness colors Matthew Ritchie’s responses, etc.

And finally, because you just can’t keep track of everyone, the book was useful in prompting an exploration of artists’ work unknown to me, specifically Inka Essenhigh and Barnaby Furnas, who paints on his canvasses on the floor.

Malcolm Morley, Messerschmitt with Spitfire, 2000
Oil on linen, 79 x 111.3 inches

Following is a brief selection of extracts from some of my favorite responses:

How long have you been in your studio?

Malcolm Morley: That’s totally irrelevant.

Joan Snyder, Blood On Our Hands, 2003
Mixed media on board, 16 x 16 inches

Can you describe a typical day, being as specific as possible?

As Fig expresses surprise at Ross Bleckner’s 7-day a week work habit, Bleckner further elaborates:

Ross Bleckner: Yup. That’s the way I work. It’s very athletic. It’s just good for me, and it is the only way I can really create the rhythm of concentration. For me it is all about the process. There is no idea that I have ever had that comes to me outside the process of work. So therefore, the few months in a row I am working seven days a week—and if I am having a show or not is irrelevant—I guess the operative metaphor for me is that I am a scientist in a lab, on the verge of discovering something. Or  I am just a hound dog sniffing around trying to catch the scent. But in order to do that, I need consistency.  Then when I stop working, when I take a break, I take a break for a month or two.

Amy Sillman, Cliff 2, 2005
Oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.
(Saatchi Gallery)

How often do you clean your studio and does it affect your work?

Ross Bleckner: It affects my work a lot. I clean my studio many times a day. But specifically when I come in and when I leave. I don’t like to leave any traces of the day before. . . Brancusi said something that I have always felt was true, which is “All you have to do is show up. All you have to do is get to your studio and put a broom in your hand. Just by the act of sweeping and cleaning you will start working.”

Amy Sillman: I never clean my studio. I’m sure my work would be better if I would. Again, I wish that somebody could come over and help me, but I would have to tell them where everything is, every single thing. I can’t explain it to anyone. . . Once in a while I go around with a huge garbage bag and pretty much throw everything away. . .

Eric Fischl, Bedroom Scene #6 (Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds)2004
Oil on linen, 72″ x 90″
(Mary Boone Gallery)

Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

Bill Jensen: . . . Artists are people who go in a room everyday, let the art drag them a little further, and then sitting back twenty years later say, “How did I get here?” You’ve made this whole other world. You know, there was no idea of what heaven and hell used to look like. Artists made the idea of what heaven and hell looked like. We have the same kind of job today. We’re making these worlds that no one ever dreamed of, yet they are very real. They come from reality.

Chuck Close:  Inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work. . .

Julie Mehretu: To take care of my work as best I can. . . you know, really put everything into my work, and the work would return that to me. . .

Jane Hammond, Some Species Like It Hot, 2002
Oil on wood panel, 52 1/2” x 89 “ x 6”

What advice would you give a young artist who’s just starting out?

James Siena: . . . Don’t go knocking on Willem de Kooning’s back door saying “Can you look at my work?” He’s busy!

Bill Jensen: . . . You have to spend the time and pack as much energy into the work, and it will over flow into the world.

Malcolm Morley:  . . . (A) young composer asked Mozart for advice on what he though he should write: whether he should write a saraband, a suite, a romance, a symphony, etcetera. So Mozart looked at him and said, “Well, in your case I’d write a waltz.” So the young composer was very sort of angry. And he said, “But Mozart! At the age of ten you wrote a symphony.” And Mozart replied, “Yes, but I didn’t have to ask anybody’s advice.” So any artist or student that asks advice is already a failure in my view.’

Joan Snyder: My secret is. . . well, it’s not a secret that I have never hung out too much, and I’ve just worked very, very hard for thirty-five years. It’s just a lot of hard work. That’s my secret—it’s a big secret (laughs). . .

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock, 2008
Wood, polymer clay, oil/acrylic paint, metal, plastic, paper, canvas
(Byron C. Cohen Gallery for Contemporary Art)

Wider Connections

Joe Fig—Inside the Painter’s Studio

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Liz Hager, Printmaking, Quilts, Sculpture with tags , , on November 9, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. “Dark Day Picks” highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

de Young Museum—Amish Abstractions. The Amish faith embodies the principles of simplicity, humility, discipline, and community, but their quilts are anything but humble. This exhibition features 48 full-sized quilts, made from the 1880s-1930s.  November 14—June 6, 2010.

Museum of Craft and Design—Michael Peterson: Evolution/RevolutionPeterson produces elegant, abstract sculptures made from local woods. This exhibit traces his artistic development over the past 20 years. Through January 3, 2010.

San Jose Museum of Art—Chuck Close Prints. Painter Chuck Close was particularly concerned that his prints not simply be smaller versions of his paintings, but rather that printmaking open up an additional arena of investigation that would require him to engage in image-making in completely different ways. Through January 10, 2010.

deCAMPed: Will SF Say Goodbye to the Fisher Collection?

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

(Previous VR posts on this subject can be found at A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection and The Evolving Uses of the Presidio: CAMP Update.)

John Chamberlain

John Chamberlain sculpture of crushed sheet metal/car parts in the Gap, Inc. lobby.

In a not unsurprising move, Donald Fisher officially announced Wednesday that he would withdraw his proposal to build a museum (CAMP) for his contemporary art collection on the Parade Grounds of the Presidio’s Main Post, making the prospects for keeping the collection in San Francisco seem ever more remote. Options are still available. Perhaps Fisher and SFMOMA will work out a suitable arrangement. Fisher could seriously consider the other Presidio site, the Commissary (currently home to the Sports Basement), which was mentioned early on by the Trust as its preferred alternative site.  A worst-case scenario might force Don Fisher to decide whether he would rather give up some curatorial control to MOMA in return for real estate in a prestigious downtown location or maintain absolute curatorial control in a more remote (and less prestigious) location. On the other hand he might just get a best offer from any number of other cities—Houston, Chicago, Miami, Boston.

The nearly two-year vetting process has pitted steadfastly competing interests against one another. Preservationists and neighborhood groups squared off against Fisher’s largesse, egotism and stubborn pride. And, as is often the case, the process of this rancorous bickering over often parochial interests nearly drowned out advocates for the public good—the greater economic, social, and psychic good of maintaining a broad and deep cultural collection in our city.

Finally, on Wednesday Donald Fisher signaled that he’d had enough, commenting: “Doris and I will take some time to consider the future of our collection and other possible locations for a museum, which could include other sites within the Presidio and elsewhere.”

For a lot of reasons, many consider the MOMA scenario to be the most sensible alternative. But the Commissary site (off Mason Street) at the Presidio is not a bad option. A contemporary art museum presents a vast improvement to the eyesore that currently occupies the site (temporarily in use by the Sports Basement).  Built in 1989, the Commissary is not protected as an historical structure. The plans for renovating Doyle Drive (construction begins in 2011) include an underground tunnel at the southern edge of the site that will camouflage traffic from the field below. Further, the tunnel’s grassy mound will slope gently towards the site, creating the feeling of a park. The restored (and protected) Crissy Field with its marshlands and beach, not to mention the wild frothy waters of the Bay and emblematic Golden Gate Bridge beyond, would be an impressive sight indeed from the second-story window of a new building . . .

One thing is for sure: if the Fishers’ ambitious and high-quality collection ultimately lands elsewhere, the real losers will be not only be the impersonal “city of San Francisco,” but the very personal you and I. The city will perhaps loose the incremental tourist revenue that comes with a world-class museum, nothing to scoff at.  You and I on the other hand will miss out on an huge chunk of American culture (there are over 1,000 pieces in the collection), as well as the incalculable joy of exercising our imaginations, while contemplating works by Agnes Martin, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Guston, Richard Long, David HockneyElizabeth Murray, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, Sean Scully, Chuck Close, William Kentridge (visitors to the recent MOMA exhibit will remember that the Fishers own many Kentridge’s pieces), Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, and Sigmar Polke, among many others.

Now is a time like no other for the public to stand up for the public good. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s MOMA or the Commissary—both are fine options—just as long as the collection stays here. Letters to the Fisher, the MOMA or Presidio Boards, the Chronicle could help influence the decision. We can’t afford not to.  Otherwise, the final words might best be the refrain from Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always got to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?”

Wider Connections

Donald Fisher—CAMP

Presidio Board; Presidio Trust contact

MOMA Board contact

Letters to the Editor, Chronicle

Kenneth Baker visits the collection (video)

Close to Kandinsky?

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , on October 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

Chuck Close, “Self Portrait,” 2000, oil on canvas

All artists trawl the art historical waters, appropriating consciously or subconsciously concepts, images, and techniques from the net  It’s a natural part of developing a unique and, if one is gifted, a progressive artistic voice.  All artists are linked thus linked in a long, unbroken line.

In past eras the trawling process was facilitated by the teacher/disciple, atelier, and guild traditions.  Today a good art school performs the function (though often it doesn’t). Without a good working knowledge of the work of previous generations of artists, or more importantly, without a strong sense of the work that is personally meaningful,  how can an artist develop a truly unique style?   Sometimes the connection between artists is obvious (e.g. Matisse/Dufy); other times, a legitimate connection is buried, perhaps even in the mind of the artist.

In the 1970s, Chuck Close began to develop his signature style—thousands of individual marks harnessed in the production of gigantic and commanding highly-realistic portraits. Beginning in the early 90s, his debuted a brilliant technique—cell-bound millefiori, each of which operated as its own abstract painting, but ensemble morphed into a stunning portrait.  It’s a clever contemporary twist on the Impressionist concept of thousands of colored strokes defining patterns of light and shadow.

Close has always been tied to the grid—larger or smaller cells—as the starting point for his paintings.  But where did these colored circles as painterly mark originate?

(detail) “Self Portrait”

As influences on his own work, Close acknowledges de Kooning and Ad Reinhardt’, in particular the latter’s writings. He has said that Vermeer is his favorite painter, describing the works as “magical apparitions” blown onto the canvas like “divine breath of air.”  He’s said that his marks have no symbolic meaning. I suspect, if asked about the circles, Close would say they just happened while he was working. And he’d be right. Those transformational moments tend to happen while an artist is at work, not thinking about it.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Farbstudie Quadrate,” 1913, oil on canvas

Close’s circles may be entirely accidental, spontaneous. Or he could have appropriated them from anywhere—afterall targets as a human “mark” are found on even the most primitive of artifacts. And Kandinsky’s abstract circles, completed early in his career, served a different function from Close’s (i.e. abstractions in themselves). Still, I can’t help but wonder whether Kandinksy’s work and these images in particular sneaked into Close’s subconsciousness at one point through a back door. And whether the hand cracking open the door belonged to de Kooning.

Wider Connections

Chuck Close on Charlie Rose

Laura Cumming, UK Observer: “What Drove Kandinsky to Abstractiion?”

The critic who made de Kooning—Harold Rosenberg: The Tradition Of The New

A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection

Posted in Architecture, Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting, Paper with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2008 by Liz Hager

One of the 1,000+ pieces in the Fisher collection: Chuck Close, “Phyllis,” 1984, pulp paper on canvas

Don Fisher’s proposal for a Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) has generated substantial uproar since its unveiling last summer.  At the root of the controversy are the 100,000 square-foot building—designed by the Gluckman Mayner Architects to house Fisher’s extensive collection of contemporary art—and its placement on the parade grounds of the Presidio.  

Since the details of the proposal became public, many have weighed in on the value of the collection to the community and the aesthetic costs of the current proposal.  Other than a video of art critic Kenneth Baker touring the collection with Don Fisher, however, there aren’t many details available on the collection itself.

In a move to drum up support for his proposal, Don Fisher hired Ground Floor Public Affairs. In September, the group was conducting guided lunchtime tours of the collection for members of the public. As it turned out, the tour did not cover the whole collection, although there was certainly on view to form an opinion about the value of the collection within a greater art historical context.

The tour congregated in the lobby around Richard Serra’s sky-scraping sculpture “Charlie Brown.” So-named because it was installed on the day Charles Schultz died, the piece has an internal space (characteristic of some Serra works) created by the placement of massively vertical steel slabs. The resulting acoustics make for a wild and child-like experience, as tour members whispered and sometimes felt compelled to shout while inside. Unfortunately, “Charlie Brown” will not be part of the CAMP collection, as it was purchase by the Gap, not by Fisher.  

Six large rooms (and one or two hallways) on the bottom floor of the Gap’s headquarters house the artworks on public view. Overall, it was hard to detect a particular curatorial hand in the collection (and the reason may be because there hasn’t ever been a curator of the collection). American artists figure prominently, although a few of the artists, such as Sean Scully, were born elsewhere and live here, and some—including Richard Long and Gerhard Richter—aren’t American and don’t live here. Not visible were Damien Hirst or Anselm Kiefer, arguably necessary components in any collection of contemporary art. To be fair, however, these artists might be represented in the collection, just not on public view. 

Works are presented in loose chronological order—i.e. Lichtenstein and Stella in the first rooms through Jeff Wall and Sam Taylor in the last room. This organizing principal isn’t so strict as to prevent a meditative pairing of Agnes Martin’s organically-inspired 1950/60 paintings with Richard Long‘s reverent natural stone “Autumn Circle” (1990) on the gallery floor. 

In the aggregate the Fisher collection does a fine job offering up the eminent artists of the last four decades—including Philip Guston, Sol LeWitt, Elizabeth Murray, Bryce Marden, Bill Viola—a solid starter course on contemporary art. What’s more, with many of the artists represented by multiple pieces the depth of the collection provides important glimpses of individual leitmotifs, as well as an overview of the march of artistic movements. Three Sean Scully paintings hanging together brings out the lyrical quality in his structured “bricks” of color technique; a single painting could not do this. Almost an entire room of Chuck Close works clearly demonstrates the artist’s prowess manipulating media in service of “portraiture, redefined.”  The two copies of “Phyllis” hanging side by side illustrate this point well.  The larger (above) is constructed from quarter-sized disks of reconstituted paper pulp; a smaller study has been executed purely with his fingerprints. Both from a distance read with photographic-like clarity. 

There is no doubt that San Francisco would be immeasurably enhanced by a public venue for this collection. But how to deal with its container?

There are loads of fantastic contemporary buildings that fit in, even augment, their surroundings. One need look no farther than to the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences for examples of successful parkland museums.  Herzog + de Meuron and Renzo Piano  have managed to conjoin two buildings of radically different design with a neo-classical bandshell in a graceful embrace of their shared plaza. Perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to edifices on those sites, as buildings had been there previously for nearly a century.

By contrast, the Gluckman Mayner big square white glass box plopped on the wide-open (rehabilitated) green of the Presidio parade grounds is austere.  The CAMP building feels self-conscious and alone, like a singleton in desperate need of a sibling.

Fisher’s proposal may ultimately pass the public review process, but this is not a fore-gone conclusion. Under National Park rules, the Presidio Trust must publicly vet the proposal.  As a result it finds itself embroiled in the community agitation; the July BOD meeting is a painful reflection of that. For his part, Don Fisher has threatened to keep the collection private.

One hopes that the benefactor will be persuaded to move the building to one of the less prominent, though no less agreeable, sites suggested. One hopes the historic preservation, YMCA and various other groups fighting the proposal will see that the right modernist design will augment the beauty of the Presidio.  IIf a compromise cannot be reached, we all lose. 

Want to dig deeper?

July 2008 BOD transcript

Tyler Green on the proposal

Corrections & Amplifications—10/25/08

* The Trust does not operate under the National Park’s Organic Act, but under the Presidio Trust Act. All federal agencies must comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, which determine the public process. Neither the state nor the city have any decision-making authority, but clearly it is better to have their support than not. 

* The Y does not oppose the project. 

* The Fisher collection has more than 1,000 pieces, many of which are in the Gap executive offices and various other locations without public access. 

 

 

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