Archive for Frank Stella

Stripped Bare: Amish Quilts at the de Young

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Maker Unknown, Pine Trees motif, crib quilt, ca. 1930, Ohio.

As we have observed on these pages before (A Different Canvas), the line that separates art and craft can be narrow indeed, the distinction fueled by a contemporary fine art world intent on preserving its top-dog status.  Nowhere would the distinction seem to be more blurry than at the de Young’s current show Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.

Maker Unknown, Nine Patch Variation (Tartan) motif, quilt, ca. 1930, Pennsylvania.

While the curators are at pains to point out that there is no documented evidence that modern painters—Joseph Albers, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, or Victor Vasarely, for example—had any connection to the Amish quilting tradition, the visual similarities are inescapable.

Kenneth Noland, Interlock Color, acrylic (?) on canvas, 1973.

Josef Albers, Homage to a Square, acrylic on canvas, 1965.

Frank Stella, Marrakech, oil on canvas, 1964 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Maker Unknown, Roman Stripe variation motif, crib quilt, c.1915, Kansas.

Certainly, basic geometric shapes are fundamental to all human-made ornamentation, whether the ornamentation ends up as a decorative or fine art piece. The Amish quiltmakers, however, weren’t interested in making art. All aspects of Amish life are dictated by a list of written or oral rules, known as Ordnung, which outline the basics of the Amish faith and conduct. Ordnung vary from community to community (which explains why one Amish might ride in a car, but another eschews electricity), but the basic tenets encourage humility and simplicity, and with those,  avoidance of all but the basic forms of ornamentation in dress and accoutrement. Art for art’s sake is associated in the Amish world with pride, vanity, fashion, luxury, and wealth, all cardinal sins.

As a placard at the introduction to the show poignantly proclaims: “The women who made these quilts…lived in a world that was already stripped bare of self-involvement, pride, and even the need to create self-conscious works of art.”

Thus, what makes an Amish quilt “Amish” is precisely what differentiates this body of work from its high-art relatives on display downstairs at the de Young.

Rebecca Zouk, Bars, quilt, ca. 1910, Pennsylvania.

The Amish quilting tradition as outsiders know it, didn’t get underway until the late 1870s—in fact the overwhelming majority of quilts were made between the 1880s and 1960s. To start, quilters constructed their coverings from one solid color, often black, brown, or blue.  The earliest multi-color designs were basic square and rectangles, which slowly evolved into more colorful and bold patterns.

The boldly-colored shapes and their intricate patterning are a visual delight. But look closely at Rebecca Zouk’s Bars quilt from 1915 and you will see the most extraordinarily intricate designs precisely stitched by hand into the background fabric. The sheer joy of discovering this delicate expression of reverence and love (for the recipient as well as the work itself) throughout many of the quilts of the show is alone worth the price of admission.

Maker Unknown, Crazy Quilt motif, ca. 1930, Pennsylvania.

Amish Abstraction is not all dour seriousness. Witness the use of this crazy quilt  from 1930—the cacophony of the traditional motif is restrained, Amish-style, within 12 orderly squares. The Amish knew how to have their fun.

Wider Connections

Faith & Stephen Brown’s site—CollectionAmish Quilts & Modern Art

The Amish Quilt

Josef Albers—The Interaction of Color

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)

The Content of Stripes: Frank Stella & Diego Velázquez

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on September 29, 2008 by Liz Hager

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Supper at Emmaus, 1622-1623,
Oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 52 1/4″
(photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Frank Stella, Empress of India, 1965,
Metallic powder in polymer emulsion paint on canvas, 6′ 5″ x 18′ 8″ Gift
(© 2008 Frank Stella; photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York).

One day while the show “Three American Painters” was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleris. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student who had entered the gallery approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. “What’s so good about that?” he demanded. Fried looked back at him. “Look,” he said slowly, “there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velázquez, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velázquez. But what he knows is that that is an option that is not open to him. So he paints stripes.” Fried’s voice had risen. “He wants to be Velázquez so he paints stripes.

I don’t know what the boy thought, but it was clear enough to me. That statement, which linked Velázquez’d needs to Stella’s in the immense broad jump of a single sentence, was a giant ellipsis whose leap cleared three centuries of art. But in my mind’s eye it was more like one of those strobe photographs in which each increment of the jumper’s act registers on the single image. I could see what the student could not, and what Fried’s statement did not fill in for him. Under the glittering panes of that skylight, I could visualize the logic of an argument that connected hundreds of separate pictorial acts into the fluid clarity of a single motion, an argument that was as present to me as the paintings hanging in the gallery —their clean, spare surfaces tied back into the faint grime of walls dedicated to the history of art. If Fried had not chose to give the whole of that argument to the student, he had tried to make the student think about one piece of the obvious: that Stella’s need to say something through his art was the same as a seventeenth-century Spaniard’s; only the point in time was different. In 1965, the fact that Stella’s stripes were invovled with what he wanted to say —a product, that is, of content—was clear enough to me.

Rosalind Krauss, “A View of Modernism,” Artforum, September 1972

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