Archive for Robert Rauschenberg

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

“Poetic License”: A Joan Schulze Retrospective

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Embroidery, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , on February 20, 2010 by Liz Hager

Poetic License: A Joan Schulze Retrospective: February 16—May 9 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Click here for PDF of author’s longer piece “Joan Schulze-A Life in Collage” which appeared in Surface Design (Fall 2010).

By LIZ HAGER

Joan Schulze, The Visitors, 2009
Silk, paper, collage, glue, transfer process, machine quilted; 44 x 84 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Since 1970, Joan Schulze has produced a huge body of work, through which she has consistently pushed the boundaries of contemporary textile art. Schulze is an inveterate experimenter, whose longstanding penchant for unconventional materials is abundantly on view in the retrospective show, “Poetic License,” at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

Joan Schulze, Many Moons, 1976
Cotton, silk, lace; embroidered, appliquéd, pieced, dyed, hand quilted, 90 x 90 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Containing a generous selection of Schulze’s work from the past four decades, “Poetic License” is a tribute to her artistic range. The show presents the visual twists and turns of her career, but it does not editorialize. This strategy has advantages and drawbacks.

Joan Schulze, The Flying Chifforobe, 1984
Cotton, silk, misc.; dyed, pieced, hand quilted, 80 x 60 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Some viewers will find pure delight in discovering various historical treasures on their own. The moments of innovation are here—the lace doilies in Many Moons (1976); the abstraction of quilted landscapes represented by The Flying Chifforobe (1984); the addition of photo transfers to works like Perennial Border in 1989; glue-based transfers (Three Weeks in a Museum, 1991);  the ironic use of real (shredded) dollars in Reserves; the digital printing on fabric first displayed in Object of Desire (1997) ; thread as drawing equivalent (Dancing Lessons); the scattered bits of Velcro, plastic, paint.

Joan Schulze, Objects of Desire, 1997
Silk, paper, photo-transfer processes, machine quilted;  43 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

 

Nonetheless, the true historical import of her innovations might elude a portion of the audience. Over the years, subsequent textile artists have oft copied her techniques, so that by now Schulze’s once-radical vocabulary might appear as common vernacular to the uninitiated.

The show seems to be organized more or less chronologically. The artist’s passion for the visual possibilities inherent in fabric, needle and thread is overwhelmingly clear. Recurring themes in the artist’s work are sprinkled throughout, not grouped.  The passing of time (with the resulting decay) and the nature of female identity are readily identifiable themes in the show. Without explanation, however, many of the important personal references in the pieces may be lost.

Joan Schulze, Frameworks B, 2004
Cotton, digital print; pieced, machine quilted, 14 1/2 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

On balance much more could have been made by the curator of the arc of Schulze’s career, her place in the world of art.  In this respect, maybe a few dreaded plaques might have been a good thing.

Schulze’s limited formal education in the fine arts clearly has not inhibited her aesthetic sensibility.  A high school class in sewing set her in motion, for it gave her fundamental training in pattern shapes and scrap usage. (Perhaps, more important, it provided her with an introduction the equation Clothes = Power.) Schulze learned embroidery in her 30s and quickly took to it, by 1970 making and selling enough work to leave teaching and work full-time as an artist.

Joan Schulze, Reserves, 2004
12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

It’s understandable that Schulze would not feel bound by any particular tradition (either textile- or fine art-based); being untethered has had a positive effect on her, freeing her to “bring everything into the mix.”  Interestingly, many of her techniques are echo those in the fine arts—photomontage clearly but also abstraction, the gestural use of thread, and the layering of diaphanous fabrics, which mimics painted glazes.

Joan Schulze, Dancing Lessons, 2006
Silk, toner drawing, pieced, machine quilted; 40 x 40 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

For some this retrospective will stimulate serious thought about the boundaries of fine art and craft. When Schulze first began quilting, the two were resolutely separate in the mind of the market.  In the 1970s, she struggled to have her work seen as “art.”

I went to this one gallery. . . many times and (the owner) said “I don’t even know how to talk about your work.” And I said “Just use what you use when you look at a painting: composition, ideas, color.”  Oh, it was like the penny dropped. . . he became one of my best supporters.

Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 75 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 8 inches
(MOMA)

Today the distinctions are considerably blurrier, thanks in part to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, arguably even Julian Schnabel, who have legitimized a “whole world of materials” for use in “fine art.” “Textile art” is a tricky category—the materials often derive from craft traditions, but the end products are usually conceived as art, not as utilitarian objects. In the end, qualifying Joan Schulze as a “textile” artist may limit the way people should think about her art. Does it really matter whether a substrate is quilted fabric or canvas?

In the final analysis, any work of art must be judged on the merit of the ideas it conveys, the dialog it creates with the viewer.  “Poetic License” offers textile and fine arts enthusiasts alike an unparalleled opportunity to decide for themselves where Joan Schulze’s work lives in the House of Art.

Joan Schulze, Figure D, 2009
Paper, collage process, glue; 10 x 8 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

Joan Schulze website
More on the artist—Fiber Scene; Mercury News
The Art of Joan Schulze
The Blogosphere on Art vs. Craft—Raggity Cloth Cafe, Definition of Art (skip down to Art vs. Craft section), Objectivism Online

Rauschenberg’s Collection (1954): A Whole World of Materials

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Rauschenberg, Collection (Formerly Untitled), 1954
Painting: oil, paper, fabric, wood, metal and mirror on canvas; 80 in. x 96 in. x 3 1/2 inches
(SF MOMA)

These days Hannah Höch is lodged in my brain like a visual “earworm“—images of her photomontages pop into my consciousness repeatedly and unexpectedly. They are not unwelcome; I’m dealing with a new set of challenges in my own montage work, and Höch is always an inspiring companion on the artistic journey.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, 1919
Photomontage, 44 7/8 x 35 9/16 inches
(Preubischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising to me that, while revisiting SF MOMA’s 75th Anniversary show recently, I lingered in the Rauschenberg corner, reflecting on his unique contribution to the collage aesthetic. As has oft been recorded, Rauschenberg credits his mother, a seemstress who arranged her patterns so tightly on the fabric that no scrap was wasted, with inspiring his approach to collage.  Surely, Höch, who for many years designed fashion patterns for Ullstein Verlag in Berlin, must have been directing my subconscious that day.

Kurt Schwitters, Mz 26, 41 ocala, 1926
Paper collage on paper laid on board, 6.9 x 5.2 inches
(Christie’s)

Collection is one of Raushenberg’s earliest Combines. On the second floor at SF MOMA it’s paired on the wall with the 1955 Combine Untitled and the infamous Erased de Kooning Drawing. The former demonstrates delightfully well the artist’s particular genius at compositional arrangement. More importantly, in Untitled, the artist has masterfully transformed a plethora of otherwise mundane materials into a strikingly beautiful and refined object. By comparison Collection, though monumental, is to my eyes somewhat less aesthetically elegant.

Like any serial work, the Combines, which technically refer to five distinct stages of work completely roughly between the years of 1954 and 1964, are uneven.  Some are incredibly polished, irrefutable proof that the artist paved a truly revolutionary path for new forms of artistic expression. Others are undeniable messes of visual cacophony. On the occasion of the artist’s 2006 retrospective at The Met, Peter Schjeldahl astutely observed: “Junkiness and elegance, equally intense, don’t always cooperate.”

Despite their imperfections, the essence of  Rauschenberg’s legacy is evident in the Combines.  To fully appreciate that legacy, consider what the artist was rebelling against.

Willem de Kooning, Two Women in the Country, 1954
Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas; 46 1/8 X 40 3/4 inches
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism held sovereign authority over the art world. Inspired by the AbEx’s rebellious spirit, but not their venacular, Rauschenberg daringly challenged the prevailing AbEx philosophies that art was best created subconsciously (borrowed from Surrealism) and that color had symbolic meaning (borrowed from the Expressionists).  Consider De Kooning’s “Woman” series, which was also painted in the mid 50s—despite the relative abstraction of these paintings, they were still rooted in traditional painting materials and visually still grappling with the commanding influence of Picasso.

Kurt Schwitters, Revolving, 1919
Wood, metal, cord, cardboard, wool, wire, leather, and oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 35 inches.
(MOMA)

Rauschenberg anchored himself in a different tradition, riffing off the collage/montage example provided by the Dada circle (of which Höch was a Berlin member), Duchamp’s Readymades, and the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters, who was already affixing objects to his canvases in early part of the 20th century. (As it turns out, Rauschenberg wasn’t far from the Picasso legacy either; in the late 1940s, the influential Clement Greenberg credited Picasso with turning collage into bas-relief and then into sculpture.)

The fractured nature of Dada collage mimicked the chaos of modern life; fragments of mass-produced images were used to reconstruct reality. Rauschenberg pushed that notion farther. By incorporating everyday banal objects into the picture space, Rauschenberg Combines didn’t refer to reality, they were their own reality. While the use of discarded materials as appropriate art material is commonplace today, fifty years ago it was a revolutionary proposition for an artist. But it paid off. Robert Hughes notes in The Shock of the New:

During the fifties artists realized “there might be a subject in this landscape of waste, this secret language of junk, because societies reveal themselves in what they throw away.” Street junk. Rauschenberg was one of them. He never worked for long in one style. To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumption that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, anywhere, for any purpose and any destination it chooses from the museum to the trash can.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1954
Oil, metallic paint, fabric, newspaper, pencil, printed reproductions, paper, hair, gelatin-silver photographs, glue, nails and glass on canvas, 16 1/8 x 18 inches
(Jasper Johns collection)

Collection stakes out what would become familiar visual territory for the Combines—paint and three dimensional objects co-habitate with fragments of newspaper, fabric, photographs, hair.  Early on, these elements revealed specific autobiographical facets of the artist’s life. Later, they tended to suggest a life.  A number of the objects reside outside the traditional picture plane; is this a playful thumbing of the nose to traditional art that respected pictorial boundaries? Among the myriad of elements in Collection, I was particularly drawn to patch of sheer fabric (organza?) hanging off the canvas’s middle panel for its intriguing suggestion of the tension created by concealing and revealing.

Robert Rauschenberg—Untitled, 1954
Oil, paper, fabric and dried grass on wood box, 15 x 15 x 2 1/8 inches
(Private Collection)

Abandoning the representation of reality, and with it formal perspective, forced Rauschenberg to devise another unifying principal for his compositions. Like his other Combines, that structure in  Collection is a grid—in this case, three separate but joined panels, each subdivided visually into rough thirds. It’s amazing how it well that system links and calms an otherwise confusing mass of visual data.

The Combines would liberate art by introducing a “whole world of materials” into the picture plane. In Rauschenberg’s brazen hands, art was anything its creator said it was. For that achievement, Rauschenberg might just qualify as the most influential artist of the 20th century (aside from Picasso that is).

Wider Connections

Calvin Tomkins—Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg. In true Tomkins fashion, there is never a dull moment in this informative and insightful look at Rauschenberg and the New York art scene 1950s-1970s.

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research—“Louise Nevelson”

On With the Party: Photomontage After Hannah Höch

Posted in Collage & Photomontage, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: While preparing two long Venetian Red posts on the life and work of photomontagist Hannah Höch, I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of her artistic legacy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since Höch is still relatively unknown outside curatorial circles, I didn’t find a lot of published material on this topic.  Admittedly, I’m skating on the thin ice of visual comparisons, so consider this more free form musing than formal documentation.

And I’ve saved a discussion of the distinctions between collage and photomontage for a different post. As a result, both artists who work with fragments of photographic images and whole images intact are included.

Finally, this is not an exhaustive survey, so, if you have additional “finds,” I’d enjoy hearing from you.

Click here for all Venetian Red entries on Hannah Höch.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Hannah Höch, On With the Party, 1965
Photomontage, 10 7/16 x 13 3/4 inches
(Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Although trained as a painter and equally skillful at graphic and textile design, Hannah Höch (1889-1978) is best-recognized for her thought-provoking photomontages, hundreds of images she patiently created through unparalleled dexterity in snipping and reassembling the photographs she sourced from mass-market magazines.

Höch, the only female member of the Berlin Dadaists (1916-22), played a vital role in legitimizing photomontage as a fine art form. Use of the technique piqued in the early 1930s. By the 1940s it all all but vanished from sight as a fine art medium, although it remained broadly popular as a format for advertising.

Hannah Höch, Industrial Landscape, 1967
Photomontage, 11 7/16 x 10 1/4 inches
(Landesbank Berlin)

With the emergence of commercial (silk) screen processes in the 1950s, fine artists once again adopted the photomontage technique. The new technology allowed artists to print images directly onto the paper or canvas substrate, thus liberating them from the manual look of the old “cut and paste” method. They in turn would fully exploited the slickness of the process.

Despite the popularity of the new medium, “cut and paste” photomontage was never completely supplanted.  Höch herself worked passionately in this method well into the 1960s, despite the fact that for long stretches of her career she remained out of the public eye. And others took up the standard and it remains a popular technique today.

Hannah Höch, Grotesque, 1963
Photomontage, 9 15/16 x 6 11/16
(Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart)

Thus, there seem to be two general lines of descent from Hannah Höch: those artists who work more or less in the original tradition she pioneered and those who, through the use of screen and later digital techniques, have pushed the montage effect into new visual territory and greater dimensionality.

Tried and True

Romare Bearden best demonstrates that the traditional form of photomontage is not outmoded as an effective form of communication.

Perhaps taking a cue from the early Dadaists, there is a political strain in their work. Séan Hillen, for example, plays the juxtaposition of elements to delightful (but serious) effect in creating postcard-sized “what-if” commentaries on the conflict in Northern Ireland and other of the world’s problems.

The team of (Peter)Kennard/Phillips pushes the political more overtly, in addition to engaging in interesting experiments with their materials. The work here is a portrait of George Bush printed across 58 copies of the Houston Chronicle, which were then torn through to reveal images of the destruction of the Iraqi people and their landscape.

There is an entire category of photographers who construct construct photomontage through the aggregation of negatives. (Thus the surface of the positive remains smooth like a traditional photograph.) Jerry N. Uelsmann began to assemble photographs this way beginning in the 1950s, influence ultimately by Lazlo Maholy-Nagy’s work. He has said: “When I studied photography at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) each darkroom had one enlarger. Then when I started teaching we had a group darkroom. I was still using one enlarger, which was labor intensive for multiple printing. One day while I was waiting for some prints to wash, I looked across at the enlargers and thought to myself that if I had the negatives in different enlargers and simply moved the paper, the speed with which I could explore things or line them up would increase a hundred times. That was the moment that changed the way I worked with multiple images.”

On a different note, Daniel Gordon, following the popular contemporary tradition of ever super-sized photographs, creates huge montaged faces.  Though they take direct visual queues from Höch in their constructions, their large physical presence assaults you. They almost repell you, whereas Höch’s intimate page-sized “portraits” draw you in for closer inspection.

And finally it seems that Bernie Stephanus has learned his Höch lesson well, though in general I don’t find his work as visually compelling as Höch’s.

Romare Bearden, Spring Way, 1964
Collage on paperboard sheet, 6 5/8 x 9 3/8 inches
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Jerry N. UelsmannUndiscovered Self, 1999
Photomontage (assembled from multiple negatives)

Seán Hillen, The Launchpad at O’Connell Street, Dublin (Irelantis series), 2005
Photomontage, 7.9 x 5.9 inches

KennardPhillips collaboration, Iraq Destroyed, 2007
Pigment ink on newspaper, 350 x 300 cm.

Hannah Höch, Russian Dancer/My Double, 1928
Photomontage, 12 x 8 7/8 inches
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick, Germany)

Daniel Gordon—Red Headed Woman, 2008 c-printDaniel Gordon, Red Headed Woman, 2008
C-print, 40 x 30 inches.

Bernie Stephanus, Ingresque, 1999

New New Things

The other species of artist expanded the boundaries of photomontage through the use of new media, the inclusion of found objects (even real world detritus), and a push into the third dimension. Many of their works achieve the frenetic appearance characteristic Höch’s Dada-era work.

Andy Warhol pushed silkscreen to his slickest height, where the hand of the artist wasn’t visible or even desired. (He was reputed to have said: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”) One might well question whether these are montages at all; but I think a legitimate argument could be made for a “serial image” subset of montage.

In his series of Combines (mid 1950s to early 1960s), Robert Rauschenberg reinvented collage. By combining repetitive silk screened images with paint and articles from his every day life (including trash), he blew apart the idea that art was an illusion of reality. For Rauschenberg the work of art was its own reality.

Joan Schulze is one of the best representatives of the group of fiber artists whose canvases are based on quilt structures. They come to photomontage already sensitized to the fragmentary and repetitive aspects of the picture plane. With origins in traditional “craft” environment these pieces, meant to be hung as paintings, present their own form of repudiation about the boundaries between fine and decorative art.

Andy Warhol, Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I), 1963
synthetic polymer, silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen,  90 x 80 in.

Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1963
Oil, silkscreened ink, metal, and plastic on canvas, 82 x 48 x 6 1/4 inches
(Guggenheim Museum)

Joan Schulze, Aloha, 1980
Mixed media (on fabric),  26 x 22 inches.

It Looks Like a Duck. . .

David Hockney, Place Furstenberg, Paris, August 7, 8, 9, 1985, 1985
Photocollage, 35 x 31 1/2 inches

While it’s hard to imagine that Hockney’s photographic collages from the early 1980s could have come into being without the deconstructive example provided by Höch and the Dadaists, I can’t quite see them as a direct descendant (though perhaps a close cousin).  In their fracturing of the spatial plane, they owe more to Cubism than to Dada.

Hockney asserts that these works were born as a result of his loss of hearing at the time. He was forced to locate people in space using visual, rather than auditory, cues. This “reprocessing” led to a reconsideration of the notions of visual space. In these photo collages, Hockney creates a different concept of spacial dimension, but does not reconstitute the fragments into a new pictorial reality.

Wider Connections

From Papier Collé to Digital Collage (University of Washington online)
Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series— Photomontage
Don Hong-Oai‘s arresting composite photographs

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