Archive for SFMOMA

Color in Motion: Michele Sudduth at SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Posted in Artists Speak, Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2014. All Rights Reserved

Editor’s Note: Michele Sudduth‘s exhibit of new large and smaller scale paintings opens this Saturday at SFMOMA’s Artists Gallery. Late last month Venetian Red previewed the work. Excerpts of our interview with the artist follow.

Michele Sudduth— Duo 2014 Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Duo 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 36″
© Michele Sudduth

Venetian Red: Iʼm curious about the origin of this new work and how it evolved.

Michele Sudduth: It actually started about ten years ago with the painting Blue Shift, when I projected the image of a jigsaw puzzle piece over a striped painting and noticed the sense of movement that was created when I shifted the stripes against the puzzle image.

But what also fascinated me was the humanizing aspect of the puzzle image. Over the years I’ve played with that and, most recently, I extracted one single image out of a series of puzzle paintings and used that for this latest body of work. This new work is rather figurative, but it’s also rather techno too, somewhere between figurative and architectural, which I like.

Michele Sudduth— Blue Shift, 2004 Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Blue Shift, 2003
Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: Did particular ideas or themes emerge as this new work evolved?

MS: This work has evolved a lot. One of the themes Iʼve consistently experimented with is making artwork that is difficult to focus on, not because thatʼs interesting in itself, but because of the movement aspect of it. Additionally, we’re always because we are always being told to look at specific things in society and quite often they turn out to be the wrong things. Beyond that, our individual perspective changes all the time, or at least mine does, whether this is a parallax thing because of the angle of viewing or just because my mind changes, or I’m feeling differently or I have new information. So for a long time Iʼve questioned the validity of having a viewpoint at all. Iʼve certainly questioned it in terms of the artwork that I make; I don’t want to root the viewer to any one particular perspective. So Iʼve been thinking about this as a kaleidoscopic perspective, where we have bits and pieces of views that overlap and coincide and keep changing. Thatʼs what Mission Boogie is for me.

Michele Sudduth— Mission Boogie, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 90" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Mission Boogie, 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 90″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: How does the notion of kaleidoscopic perspective play out in the current work?

MS: I think the kaleidoscopic perspective is there in the current work but itʼs taken me a long time to see it and to become comfortable with the imagery in the new paintings. Itʼs perhaps because three years ago, a group of us set out to purchase our studio building in the Mission District. In that very challenging process with all its visceral social interactions I found that I had to move beyond my attachment to who I thought I was. Ultimately we triumphed. But the process of accommodating all of our different perspectives, fears, and hopes not only changed me personally but might also have been the genesis of what feels like a more overtly social expression in my recent paintings.

The puzzle piece can certainly be read as a figurative element and thus hints at narrative but I prefer to think of it as symbolic rather than narrative. What I can now see as consistent with my earlier work is the rhythm, repetition and movement of a world in which different views co-exist, none more important than the other, and all changing in the next second.

Michele Sudduth— London Bus, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 74" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— London Bus, 2014
Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 74″
© Michele Sudduth

VR: It seems to me that color is a primary way your paintings reach out to their audience. What is the role of color in your work?

MS: Color is a real challenge for me and I work very hard at it and sometimes it flows but most of the time Iʼm sort of toughing it out, trying to figure out what’s going to work. I believe Brigit Riley once said that color is the most irrational aspect of painting and thatʼs certainly true for me.

VR: And yet the results look so intuitive, so effortless. It seems like you live easily in the world of color relationships.

MS: For me in terms of resolving a piece of work—even though I’m not sure I like the idea resolution—I always want it to have a lightness and a sense of inevitability. So I think that might be what youʼre thinking of when you say the color looks effortless. I want it to look that way. I want it to look like it just happened that way and thereʼs absolutely no other way it could possibly be. In terms of color, London Bus began much differently than it ended. I conceived of the figures on a strong yellow background but that ground evolved through yellow, various oranges and reds to the final red, which now feels to me as though it was always meant to be that way.

Michele Sudduth— Mod Fish, 2014 Acrylic on panel, 11 x 14 " © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Mod Fish, 2014
Acrylic on panel, 11 x 14 “
© Michele Sudduth

VR: Can you say more about your painting process? I feel there is more to discuss about the notion you raised earlier of “toughing it out,” to get to what looks like a very natural place.

MS: Toughing it out actually doesnʼt describe it, because sometimes I just have to relax and be easy with it but other times I find I have to push very hard. It just depends on the painting. For example, these two little new paintings, both studies, have both been lifted out of existing paintings. The first one, Mod Fish, came very easily and quickly. I worked it out on the computer and got close to the colors I wanted, which is typically how I work. But I can never translate color directly from the digital image to paint, because paint is such a different medium—the way light strikes it is different and of course scale changes everything. But this painting came easily and the colors are quite similar to my original computer sketch.

Michele Sudduth— Head Study Two 2014 Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12" © Michele Sudduth

Michele Sudduth— Head Study Two 2014
Acrylic on panel, 10 x 12″
© Michele Sudduth

The second painting has been much more challenging. I extracted this image from London Bus, thinking I would experiment with a red-on-red painting, but I havenʼt been able to get it to work at this scale and on a hard panel. So, Iʼve been thinking about the relationship between composition and color. Even though I work out a composition on the computer and then project it onto the canvas and spend a lot of time refining it—smoothing the lines and making sure the intersections work—the final resolution is actually driven by color. With this painting I donʼt want to literally change the composition,  so Iʼve been experimenting with how to change it with color, changing the weight and relationships of various components through color. Iʼm always looking for color that surprises me.

VR: In general, the exuberance of the work is largely due I think to the kind of rhythmic movement and buoyant color schemes you employ. The paintings really sing.

MS: Yes, I am very much an optimist. I donʼt need to be shown problems; I want to make art that speaks to solutions. In the end, all I can do is make a truthful painting, truthful to what the painting tells me it needs.

 The Rabbit Hole

The Eye’s Mind: Bridget Riley – Collected Writings 1965-2009
Josef Albers Foundation
Interaction of Color: 50th Anniversary Edition
Jenifer Kobylarz

Time Waits For No One: Christian Marclay’s The Clock at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Collage & Photomontage, Contemporary Art, Digital, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on April 7, 2013 by Liz Hager

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

20130407-073914.jpg

Harold Lloyd, still from Safety Last.

Do not wait to see Christian Marclay’s The Clock at SFMOMA. Its limited screening ends June 2, when the Museum will close its main building for a 3-year expansion project to accommodate the Fisher collection.

Marclay’s 24-hour digitized film montage, fabricated from film and TV clips, unfolds in an endless loop in real time. Each moment in the piece is marked is marked by a visual timepiece or announcement of time, simultaneous to actual time.  The gargantuan effort required to assemble at least 1440 shots culled from incalculable hours of footage is mind-boggling.  (The OED effort springs to mind.)  Marclay did not stop at these clips.  In a feat of virtuosic visual and sound editing, the artist wove the marked moments together with other, non time-specific, footage. The resulting 86,400 seconds is an unforgettable experience.

Like all truly impressive works of art, The Clock is both instantly accessible and unfathomably deep.  The film clips are a seductive conceit; for the first while a viewer engages in an entertaining game of recognizing actors/tresses and identifying movie scenes.  Over longer chunks of time, the rhythmic ebb and flow of the piece becomes apparent.  Countless themes emerge, recede, re-emerge. Viewers see glimpses of a bigger message, while individual characters fall into the background.

The Clock is strewn with clichés about time.  In my 2+ hour segment a lot seemed to happen in the nick of time. Numerous scenes related to various interpretations of hard time. Time never stands still, and Clock people sure were frustrated by that.  On a lighter note, I chuckled at the innuendo embedded in a brief scene depicting a character on a plane consulting his watch. Time flies!  Time is all-pervasive and language reflects our (at best) contradictory relationship to time. But this is only an ancillary message of The Clock.

20130407-074410.jpg

Christian Marclay discusses The Clock, 4/3/13

In its 24 hours The Clock captures a microcosm of the human experience, or at least a particular distillation of that microcosm as recorded by filmmakers. While I look forward to chancing upon a moment of birth in the work (no spoilers please!), most other activities that constitute a human life—sleeping, eating, working, plotting & scheming, driving & riding, walking & running, sex, death—seem to have been recorded here over and over in the variation that different clips provide.  And yet those 1440+ shots of punctuated time underscore an important message of The Clock—i.e. life is repetitive.

Emotions are The Clock’s underpinning.  Bliss. Curiosity. Mirth. Loyalty. Anger. Love. Anticipation. Fear. If emotions are the core of the work, then existential anxiety is its molten center. This is where the film’s monumental power lies. You won’t have to watch for too long before you feel gripped on a visceral level by the anxiety that comes with marking the inexorable passage of time. After a longer while, you may even start to notice moments of anxiety. Your own life is passing. Tick, tick, tick.  No, please, make it stop!  Paradoxically, you won’t be asking yourself if there is more exciting way to spend that moment.

In this age of point and click consumption of art, the most important thing about The Clock may well be its “stickiness.” It’s a fair guess that most people will spend exponentially more time in the presence of  The Clock than they ever have or might with another work of contemporary art.  Marclay has discouraged viewing all 24-hours in one sitting, although I’m sure that hasn’t stopped people from trying.  Ronald Reagan’s character (from The Killers) sums it up best at 1:20pm— “If you want in, you’re in all the way.”

Wider Connections

Daniel Zalewski’s Marclay profile in The New Yorker
Alain de Botton speaks with Christian Marclay
YouTube excerpt—Marclay’s Chalkboard
Max Weintraub on The Clock
Zadie Smith (NY Review of Books): “Killing Orson Welles at Midnight”

Obsession: Eadweard Muybridge at SFMOMA

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , on February 27, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Muybridge Fencing 1887
Eadweard Muybridge, Fencing (Movements. Male). 1887
Collotype on paper
(Corcoran Gallery of Art)

One of the many astonishing tasks assigned to me as an intern at the Worcester Art Museum one summer in the mid-70s was to cut mats for prints in the Museum’s collection of 19th-century photographs. Among the many prints I handled in the cellar workroom as part of that assignment, Eadweard Muybridge’s (1830-1904) motion studies made the most profound and lasting impression on me.

As I discovered this week at SFMOMA’s “Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change,” those plates still generate wonder and awe all these years later.

Eadweard Muybridge, Leland Stanford, Jr. on his Pony “Gypsy
(Phases of a Stride by a Pony While Cantering), 1879
Collodion positive on glass
(Wilson Centre for Photography, London; photo courtesy SF MOMA)

The grid presentation must have been part of their appeal. Although it has become a pervasive, even banal, visual presentation vehicle since, in the mid-70s the grid was a fresh aesthetic. In any case, the Muybridge have managed to retain originality. Each one of their “cells”—an individual “freeze frame”— contains its own inherent fascination; in the disconnect between what the eye sees but the brain does not register lies powerful affirmation of the marvel that is life on Earth.

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, negative 1970
Offset photolithograph, 24 3/4 x 19 3/4 in
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The motion study plates gives a tantalizing glimpse of the rich junction where science and art meet. The Victorians congregated en masse at this place; in their quest to understand ever deeper truths about the world around them, they obsessively experimented, collected and cataloged. During the latter half of the 19th century an understanding of scientific phenomenon expanded and with it came technological and cultural change.

Muybridge was a vigorous participant in this transformation. The most exciting characteristic of the intersection of art and science is its unpredictability. Muybridge’s work is no exception. Every once in a while a truly magnificent work of art emerges from among the uninspiring duds; for me Fencing, Boxing, Movement of the Hand; Lifting a Ball are among the best kind of aesthetic successes.

Eadweard Muybridge, Valley of the Yosemite,
Confluence of the Merced, and Yosemite Creek, No. 21, 1872
Albumen silver print
(The Society of California Pioneers)

As the SF MOMA show amply demonstrates, there is so much more to Eadweard Muybridge than motion.

In particular, walk through the rooms filled with sublime compositions of Yosemite and question why Carleton Watkins’ reputation as a landscape photographer has eclipsed that of Muybridge.

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865
(Library of Congress)

Muybridge distinguished himself as a chronicler of the urban world too. His 17-foot long view of San Francisco (1877) may have established him as first photographer to assemble plates into a panoramic view. This monumental piece is a fitting testament to the capabilities of man. The photograph provides inescapable fascination as one contemplates the notion of the passage of time. Logjams will form undoubtedly form in the room, as visitors take time to pour over the startling minute detail of this work.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Ramparts, Funnel Rock, Hole in the Wall,
Pyramid, Sugar Loaf, Oil House, and Landing Cove on
Fisherman’s Bay, South Farallon Island
1871
Albumen silver print
(U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office; photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

Eadweard Muybridge, Bridge on the Puerto Bello, Panama, 1875
Albumen silver print
(Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA;
Photo courtesy of SF MOMA)

With some seven rooms filled with photographs, surely no visitor will leave this show unconvinced of Eadweard Muybridge’s artistic legacy.

Wider Connections

SFMOMA catalog—Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change
Muybridge Collection, Lone Mountain College
Eadweard Muybridge SF Panorama

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

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”

Sturm und Drang: Eva Hesse’s Sans II at SFMOMA

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Eva Hesse, Sans II, 1968
Fiberglass and polyester resin, 38 in. x 86 in. x 6 1/8 in.
(Courtesy SFMOMA)

In the 10 short years that comprised her mature career, Eva Hesse (1936-1970) produced a considerable body of work, all of which is deeply and inextricably linked to neuroses born of the troubled events of her life. The facts are well-recorded—escape from Nazi Germany on a kindertransport, the divorce of her parents, the suicide of her mother when Hesse was 10. From these traumas germinated a potent brew of anxiety, inadequacy, separation and loss that drove Hesse’s interior life. She poured that life into her work, particularly her sculptural pieces, and it was often manifested, consciously or not, in the guise of anthropomorphic forms, bodily orifices, sexual references.

Seen from a distance, Sans II, Hesse’s 1968 sculpture currently on view at SF MOMA as part of the celebratory “75 Years of Looking Forward” exhibition, seems serene and orderly piece. But on closer examination the emotion is evident.

Hesse knew she would be an artist from and early age and pursued the goal with single-minded determinism. And yet, self-doubt was a constant companion on her journey. She studied under Josef Albers at Yale (graduating in 1959), but chafed against the yoke of formality imposed by Albers’ color theories.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1960
Oil on canvas
49 1/2 x 49 1/2 inches

Hesse began as a painter, drawn to the Abstract Expressionists (particularly Gorky and de Kooning). Beginning in the mid-60s, perhaps through the influence of close friend Sol LeWitt, she increasingly appropriated the vocabulary of the emerging Minimalist movement with its focus on pared-down geometric shapes. Hesse never gave herself over completely to Minimalism; the spontaneous gestural style evident in earliest drawings and paintings remained close at hand.

Drawing was an important part of Hesse’s oeuvre; among the hundreds of drawings she completed between 1960-1965 can be found the genesis of the ideas she explored in three-dimensional form. In particular, a small collection of powerful abstract ink and pencil works completed around the time of Untitled (below) introduced the nucleus of the ideas and forms that would form her first sculptural works.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1961-62
Black ink and wash on paper

The framing device plainly evident in a series of drawings similar to Untitled (below) was one antecedent of “compartment” sculptures like Sans II Hesse would complete in 1968/9.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1964
Oil on canvas, 32 x 36 inch
(Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul)

By the mid-1960s Hesse had became increasingly frustrated with the “tediousness” of transforming her drawings into paintings. Relentless restlessness and a happy accident turned her toward sculpture and it was through this medium that she began to realize her full potential as an artist. In 1964 she and her husband (sculptor Tom Doyle) were invited by German textile industrialist F. Arnhard Scheidt to live and work in his abandoned machine factory in Kettwig-am-Ruhr. Hesse began working with discarded objects from the factory floor, constructing “relief” paintings, in which the parts were often wrapped and other sculptural bits added.

Eva Hesse, 2 in 1, 1965
Enamel paint, tempera paint, ink, cord and metal belt on particle board, 21 1/4 x 27 x 9 inches

Upon her return to New York in 1965, Hesse felt encouraged to begin executing free-standing sculptures. Repetition of forms, including orderly grids and chaotic hanging, stacked, erect and spilling forms would engage her for the remainder of her life.

Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1966
Black ink with wash and pencil on paper, 11 3/4 x 9 in.

Sans II stands as a testament to the tension in Hesse’s work between order and chaos. The outward form may be an orderly grid, but the surface of its translucent membrane (made from fiberglass and polyester resin) is alive with texture and imperfections. The hand of the artist is suggested. The warm and inviting skin elicits the impulse to touch. Hesse once remarked : “If you use fiberglass clear and thin, light does beautiful things to it… it is there—part of its anatomy.” In a way this membrane—both structurally solid and delicate, orderly and sloppy—is a reflection of Hesse’s contradictory persona.

As it turns out, the membrane is also ephemeral. When Hesse began using fiberglass and latex to fashion her sculptures,  she was breaking with historical traditions, which dictated metal or stone as preferred sculptural media. She knew these new materials would deteriorate over time. According to SFMOMA, Sans II no longer retains either its original flexibility or strength. Like the site work artists of the late 60s (Robert Smithson was another close friend), Hesse seems to have embraced aging as part of the process of her art. This was nearly a generation before before the notion became fully popularized through the work of artists like Andy Goldsworthy.

Eva Hesse, ca. 1959 (© Stephen Korbet)

Sans II is confirmation that Hesse was ahead of her time. It is also a somber reminder that she was just beginning to hit her stride. One wonders where she would have gone from here.

Wider Connections

The Estate of Eva Hesse

Lucy Lippard—Eva Hesse

Eva Hesse at Tate Modern (2002-3)

Elizabeth Sussman & Fred Wasserman—Eva Hesse: Sculpture

Cindy Nemsner—Art Talk: Conversations With 15 Women Artists, Revised And Enlarged Edition (Icon Editions)

Machines & Marriage: Eva Hesse & Tom Doyle in Germany

Venetian Red Notebook: Robert Franks’ The Americans

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , on July 24, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Robert Frank—Americans 72, San Francisco, 1956

Robert Frank, Americans 72. San Francisco, 1956

“Looking In: Robert Frank’s Americans,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, opened at the National Gallery in Washington just days before the Inauguration of our 44th President. In town for the latter event, I stole an hour to see the show, thinking at least it would be enough time to visit with a few old favorites. But I had forgotten the power of Frank’s work to arrest.  They compel you to stop and consider; across time and space, a Frank photograph has an uncanny ability to capture a shared piece of all of our American histories.

Nearly the hour had passed before I realized I was still in the first room. Unfortunately, I had to leave. Fortunately, there will be many more opportunities to see the show, as it will be at SF MoMA until August 23.

It’s hard to believe that the work for The Americans almost didn’t happen. Frank arrived in New York as a working photographer from Switzerland in 1947.  By 1953 he was deeply discouraged, frustrated that, after years of wandering and shooting images, he had been unable to publish his photographs more widely. In the midst of this dispair, he nevertheless recommitted himself to his photographic work.

In 1955 Frank received a Guggenheim fellowship, the first European-born photographer to be so honored. This allowed him the freedom and means to resume documentation of life in the United States. His output, The Americans, published first in France (1958) and then in the US (1959), consisted of 83 photographs culled from the thousands he made largely in 1955 and 1956 while traveling around the country.

As a foreign-born photographer,  Frank was uniquely positioned to peer into post-War American culture and capture its significant features. Among the scenes of everyday life, Frank recorded the particularly American penchant for cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and the open road. These photographs are compelling statements about what defined us then; in most respects their legacies are with us still.

Americans 72 captures the essence of place, both geographically and emotionally. Although the photo was shot 50 years ago, its location is instantly recognizable to anyone living in San Francisco, for that Victorian corner (like many others) has remained largely unchanged. Today, with no ethnicity a majority, we might lose sight of the fact that the Western Addition was once an African American enclave. The composition and tonality of the image mimic that segregation—the dark figures in the foreground separated by the park walkway from the lightness of the city beyond—although it’s not clear that this was Frank’s intention. The couple’s expressions define the emotional landscape. Unlike many of the subjects of Frank’s photographs, this couple has caught him in the act of photographing.  The woman turns in alarm, worry perhaps; someone has snuck up behind them. Her companion gives Frank a look that might be interpreted as a territorial warning (“back off buddy!”). Or maybe he’s simply scanning the scene, sizing up the potential danger posed by an intruder. With the benefit of hindsight, a lot could be read into this photograph.

Along with cars, jukeboxes, and diners, this scene also defined America in 1956. The Inauguration reminds me that we’ve come a distance since then.

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