Archive for Willem de Kooning

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

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

Close to Kandinsky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(detail) “Self Portrait”

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

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

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

Wider Connections

Chuck Close on Charlie Rose

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

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

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