Archive for Jackson Pollock

VR Sees RED

Posted in Artists Speak, Christine Cariati, Contains Video Elements, Fine & Decorative Arts, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Red, a two-character play by John Logan, is about Mark Rothko and his young studio assistant (a fictional amalgam of various actual Rothko assistants) that pivots on the often-told story about the commission that Rothko undertook, and then ultimately rejected, to paint a set of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building.

At the time, around 1958, Rothko and his generation of abstract expressionist painters—Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—were beginning to be eclipsed by pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Through Rothko’s often-heated dialogue with his young assistant, we get to eavesdrop on his ideas about art in general and his own work in particular—and to understand how he came to reject the commission and return what was then the enormous fee of $35,000. (The paintings are now at the Tate Modern in London.)

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon Sketch (for Mural #6), 1958

The play attempts the near-impossible task of conveying something truthful about the thought and emotion that propels the creative process—and more often than not, it succeeds. Yes, the arc of the story is predictable, as is the evolution of the father/son, mentor/student relationship between Rothko and the assistant, Ken—but I thought that Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne transcended those limitations and often seemed to be having a real conversation.

As you take your seat in the theater, the stage, which reeks of turpentine, presents a believable recreation of Rothko’s New York studio at 222 Bowery. You then notice that Alfred Molina, as Rothko, is already on stage, sitting in a chair, studying the painting in front of him. Throughout the play, Rothko and his assistant are stretching canvases, mixing paints—and in one particularly moving scene, priming a huge canvas a brilliant red.

Mark Rothko, c. 1953
Photo courtesy Henry Elkan

Venetian Red particularly enjoyed Rothko’s violent outburst when he addresses the question: what do you see? to his assistant standing in front of a blood-red canvas. When the assistant tentatively responds: red, Rothko flies into a rage at this reductive answer, and begins to passionately enumerate the dozens of possible complex colors that the word “red” could represent.

Mark Rothko, Untitled Mural for End Wall, 1959

While Rothko is accurately portrayed as monstrously egotistical, pontificating and self-involved, that doesn’t mean that he’s not right or that he doesn’t have a lot of interesting and true things to say. Going in, I was not particularly a fan of Rothko’s work, but watching the play I got a better grasp of the intellectual and spiritual motivation for his work and its underlying sense of tragedy. And, yes, since seeing the play I’ve taken the time to look at his work more carefully.

What was important to me about the play was Rothko’s passionate insistence that art matters—that the artist must believe deeply in what he is doing. He also insisted that the viewer cannot be passive, but has to bring something to looking at a work art, not merely consume. When  Rothko badgers his young assistant that he must educate himself, read philosophy, great literature, look at all the art he possibly can—before he deserves to have an opinion—he makes a strong case. Rothko’s ego is enormous, but so is his passion. It was actually thrilling to hear someone talk with such fury about their work and the importance of making art, all with a complete lack of irony.

The only thing I care about is the expression of man’s basic emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, destiny  — Mark Rothko

Crucial to the effectiveness of the play is the lighting. The canvases—all saturated blacks and reds—are luminous. They are lit so that they glow, morph and radiate energy before your eyes, which fast-forwards the experience that unfolds more slowly when you sit for a while with Rothko’s work.

Red is playing in New York through June 27th. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Wider connections:
Joanne Mattera’s thoughts on Red.
Roberta Smith, New York Times

Dark Day Picks—James Elkins’ “What Painting Is”

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2009 by Liz Hager

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, art world tidbits, and, as in the case today, books that have recently made an impression on us. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Pollock—No 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) detail

Jackson Pollock, No I., 1950 (Lavender Mist), detail of lower left center
oil on canvas
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

What is painting?

Typically, art historians answer that question with a litany of the who and what for facts of painting—the social, financial, and political forces that conspired to bring a work into being. After all, their job is to securely place a work within the (academically-assigned) progression of human endeavor. An art critic may add nuance to this discussion by dissecting the position of the work on the artist’s evolutionary arc or opine on the painting’s merit by comparing it in compositional terms to works by other artists.

Authors of painting manuals answer by showing us how to paint—they divulge the secrets of achieving different effects with the many painterly substances.

In his 1999 book What Painting Is, James Elkins takes a different approach. He explores the why of painting, every bit as fascinating and important as the what for and how. Elkins points acknowledges that painting is a metamorphic act, simply put, “the name for what happens when paint moves across a blank canvas.”  The book is his thesis on the experiential process of transforming basic material substances—once pulverized stone (pigment) and water (oil). In this regard, painters in their studios are very much like alchemists in their labs—they wrestle, coax, redo, and every so often miraculously succeed in converting their raw materials into something of transcendent beauty.

It may seem far-fetched to compare painting and alchemy, particularly in the post-Enlightenment world of chemistry:

Despite all its bad press, and its association with quackery and nonsense, alchemy is the best and most eloquent way to understand how paint can mean: how it can be so entrancing, so utterly addictive, so replete with expressive force, that it can keep hold of an artist’s attention for an entire lifetime. Alchemists had immediate, intuitive knowledge of waters and stones, and their obscure books can help give voice to the ongoing fascination of painting.  (p.7)

“The alchemical sisters,” from Johann Daniel Mylius, Philosophia reformata (1622), emblem 10.

A Professor of Art History at The School of the Chicago Art Institute who trained as a painter, Elkins does bring substantial authority to his central proposition: that the essence of a painting is in the visible and invisible processes that went into creating it. Using details from range of paintings—from Sasetta, Monet, Debuffet, Pollock, Rembrandt, Nolde, among others—Elkins discusses the similarity in the processes painters (and alchemists) go through to create their magic.

It’s a seductive comparison, which largely holds a reader’s interest, because most of the discussion on alchemy is kept within range of the uninitiated. Further, Elkins always returns to the discipline of painting, which is the more important topic of the two, afterall. That said, I found some of the alchemic discussions a bit obscure and a few of the analogies to painting slavishly concocted. The chapter on  “Moldy material prima” was brilliant, but my interest waned more than a few times in the chapter on “Coagulating, cohobating, macerating, reverberating.”

Still, the observations on painting are more often than not heady and inspirational. I suspect painters will nod vigorously in agreement. A long passage on Jackson Pollock winds up this way:

Thinking of the painting as a layered sequence, it may seem as if Pollock was actually working toward a kind of order, so that the painting would reveal its creation, step-by-step, to a careful investigator. But Pollock was desperately interested in avoiding the normal structure of drawing and painting. It is rarely possible to follow a stream of paint as it winds its way across the canvas (as museum docents often advise visitors to do). Whatever such a layer became too obvious, he obfuscated it, tangling it back into a pattern as if he were stitching a stray thread. Where marks threatened to become too clear, Pollock let a messy beige drip fall just on top of them, or he held the brush still while it spun a thread of paint, piling up like syrup on a pancake. . .

. . . It may be that what Pollock feared, and wanted most to destroy, was the long continuous contour that would imply a human figure. . .  (p.93)

Dubuffet—The Ceremonious One, detail, 1954Jean Dubuffet, The Ceremonious One (detail of left flank)
1954, oil on canvas

Near the end of the book, Elkins hones in exactly why painters are so addicted to paint:

Oil paint can’t be entrancing just because it can create an illusion, because every medium does that. No: painters love paint iteself, so much that they spend years trying to get paint to behave the way they want it to, rather than abandoning it and taking up pencil drawing, or charcoal, or watercolor, or photography. (though I might argue that watercolor is paint. . .)

It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movement of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint iteself. . .

These are the passages where Elkins nails it for me—a more accurate and eloquent description of the painting process I have yet to find.

The Color of Genius: Van Gogh’s Night Café

Posted in Artists Speak, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

van-gogh-cafe-de-la-nuit

Vincent Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888,
oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 36 1/4″ (©Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Stephen Carlton Clark)

In early September, 1888, nine months before he entered the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote a series of letters to his sister Wilhelmina and brother Theo, which detailed his objective in painting The Night Café.  In composite form, this text functions as both a roadmap of the robust complementary color scheme employed by the artist and an evocative explanation of the emotional substance of color, then a driving concern in the artist’s work.

I have just finished a canvas representing the interior of a night café illuminated by lamps. A few poor night wanderers are asleep in a corner. The room is blood red and dark yellow, and there under the gaslight the green billiard table casts an immense shadow on the floor. There are four yellow-lemon lamps with a glow of orange and green. The blood-red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a rose nosegay. The white clothes of the landlord, watchful in a corner of that furnace, turn lemon-yellow, or pale luminous green.

In my picture of the “Night Café” I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. . . the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. There are 6 or 7 different reds in this canvas, from blood red to delicate pink, contrasting with as many pale or deep greens. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens, in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty dreary room, in violet and blue. I have tried to express the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all of this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulpher.

—Vincent van Gogh. Letters to Theo van Gogh. Written 8-10 September 1888 in Arles. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, published in The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Publisher: Bulfinch, 1991, numbers 533, 534, W07.

The primary, secondary and tertiary colors of the Color Wheel.

In one letter, Van Gogh mused aloud that this color palette would cause his mentor, Hermanus Gijsbertus Tersteeg (note below), to peg The Night Café as “delirium tremens in full swing” (Letter 534).  It may have struck contemporary viewers as Van Gogh feared. Today, however, when standing in front of the painting, one marvels in how effectively the painter deployed that many different shades of green. Further, when one considers Night Café (and indeed other Van Gogh paintings from this decade before his death) in relation to the works of his contemporaries—Monet, Pissarro and Degas—one truly grasps Van Gogh’s monumental genius in the realm of color.

Claude Monet, Montagnes de l”Estére,1888,
oil on canvas, 65 X 92 cm, (© Courtauld Institute of Art, London)

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself, 1888,
pastel and charcoal on paper, 18.5 x 23.75″
National Gallery, London)

Camille Jacob Pissarro, Vue de Bazincourt, 1889,
watercolor over graphite on plain weave cotton pasted to pulpboard, 8 1/16 x 10 1/16
Brooklyn Museum)

In viewing the painting its hard to imagine that the painter has managed to effectively utilize  By separating objects from their “local” (true optical) color, the artist freed himself to explore the inner nature of an object—its symbolism and emotional content.  This bit of innovation was to directly influence the next generation of artists, most notably Matisse, and lay the ground work for 20th century artists to abandon realistic representation of objects altogether in search of emotional reality.

Henri Matisse, Interior in Venetian Red, 1946,
oil on linen (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique).

Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Composition II, 1909–10,
oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 5/8″
(Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 45.961.Vasily Kandinsky © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

Jackson Pollock, Eyes in the Heat, 1946,
oil and enamel on canvas, 54 x 43 inches
(The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 76.2553.149.
Jackson Pollock © 2007 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York).

Note: Van Gogh had worked briefly under Tersteeg (1845-1927) when he was employed as a clerk in his uncle’s art gallery Goupil et Cie in The Hague in 1869,  before being promoted and transferred to the company’s London office.

Wider Connections
Van Gogh’s Letters
Van Gogh Museum
The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery
Impressionism and the Making of Modern Art

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