Sunday, July 27, 2008


I'm kind of like seeing art faster than I can talk about it lately, but it has just been so inspiring and we have SO many great shows in New York right now.

Another one of them I saw a couple weeks ago was the Action/ Abstraction show at the Jewish Museum. Essentially, the show is very much about the transitional period at the trail end of representational art, full on into abstraction, and then back out again. Such a great curatorial concept, really.

But first I just need to say--especially if you haven't ever been to the Jewish Museum: GO. Wow. I went on a Saturday, which is just free. It's not pay what you wish, it's You just walk right in the door, no guilt. So you get inside and the place is STUFFED full of people bumping into you and crowding the paintings so you can't even see them and crapping all over any concept of museum etiquette.

Except...not. First of all, it's a totally manageable number of visitors, and the people who are there, for the most part, are knowledgeable and friendly and really love the artwork they're looking at. Secondly, in all my years of going to museum shows and retrospectives, I don't know when I've encountered a more polite, conscientious, respectful crowd of museum visitors. People are like intelligently and thoughtfully discussing the artwork in such a quiet whisper I wonder if their companion can even hear them. People are deliberately moving out of the way in hopes they're not blocking anyone else's view and needlessly apologizing just in case they have.

One guy was examining the textures of a Lee Krasner painting with a big magnifying glass hanging from his belt. I had to tell him "that is a really good idea. I'd never have thought of that." He went on to say how very impactful the work was in person compared to what he'd seen in reproductions. I'm not sure I agree where Krasner is concerned, but who cares?!

THESE are the people I want in my midst when looking at works of art, hands down.

The only problem was a couple of security guards drunk on the power. I've been noticing this a little too much in museums lately, unfortunately. "Step back please." "Don't wear your bag like that." "Take your hands out of your pockets please." "Don't breathe on the painting." Of course, I'm exaggerating, but not by all that much. Calm down, Sarge.

The show was not arranged chronologically, but that's how I perceived this progression, so here were my moments.

--Hans Hofmann, Fantasia (1943)
Hofmann was one of the best things about this show, in my opinion, but I'll get to why later. This piece was really ahead of its time because the issues he's dealing with are very purely painterly. He's talking about the relationship between line and field, freedom and precision, and...well...action and abstraction. The lines are more abstractly expressive than in the Gorky, for instance, even seemingly arbitrary. But then he goes back and fills them in with fields of color, giving them a visual purpose in a way. But he doesn't actually fill them in completely: he goes right up to about a quarter inch from the line and stops, allowing the edge to show the roughness of the brushstrokes. Where the two come together is a great tension, because the brushstrokes at the edges of the fields are so free in comparison to the sharpness of the lines, but the lines are so free where their vectors are concerned, the very thing that gives the fields their shape.

--Arshile Gorky, Diary of a Seducer (1945)
Despite the chronology, I actually think the Gorky is a small step back from the Hofmann. Not to say I don't love this sort of very late Surrealism. Much like MirĂ³, it's also very transitional, as many of the pieces in the show were. But what I really love about this one (and the show, as a whole, was to some extent posing this question) is how it flirts with representation. So like if you see it out of the corner of your eye, or from far away, it looks like it might be actually representing something real, but at the same time it continually confounds your ability to ever really know what that might be.

And this is what's so fascinating I think, that from the time we're probably two months old or so, and learn to interpret visual signals to identify shapes and volumes in space, it becomes an addiction for us, an obsession. My favorite example is when you see the simple relationship of three points in a triangle, or worse yet, two points and a line :| you immediately interpret it as a face. It's as if it's hardwired into our programming.

This whole period in art is totally playing with that. Are you seeing something representational? Is it there just because you think you see it? Does this artist want you to see it, does that artist not? Should you fight the temptation to find something recognizable, or is that crucial to interpreting the work?

--Herbert Ferber, Surrational Zeus II (1947)
You see the face, right? I don't think there can be any question that was deliberate. But there's a really amazing tension here between the parts and the whole. You can only really see the face (of Zeus) if you stand back far enough and take in the whole piece at once. It's really a process of mind, though, because technically, your eyeballs can only really fall onto one individual spot at any one time. It's in your head that the whole piece is assembled into something like a face.

Looking at each individual part, there's a lot of different things, very vaguely bones, vaguely something like fire, vaguely a leaf, vaguely internal organs perhaps. Any or all of them might be completely purposeful, symbolic, expressive, but it's only really by having an impression of the whole that the symbolism could be made useful in telling the story of this piece.

--Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds (1947)
This is also extremely interesting, because it's representational, but it's "representative" of a subject that's abstract, namely music, specifically jazz. And it's free and gestural, but at the same time extremely orderly. It has very obviously rhythmic qualities to it. You may not be able to see it here, but the lines that form the structure of it are red at the left, slowly change to blue in the center, and then back to red again at the right. I can almost hear a song start to finish as my eyes travel across the canvas, left to right, and if you turned it on its side, and put a piece of sheet music right next to it, I don't think similarities would be too difficult to pick out.

--Barnett Newman, Onement VI (1949)
The Onement at the show was number IV, but I'm pretty sure this is number VI. Those of you who think Minimalism is ridiculous will no doubt find it very amusing that it'd be virtually impossible to know for sure (looking around online, that is). But I adore Newman (as I've hinted before). When asked my favorite period in art history, I said Minimalism. When asked for my three favorite Minimalists, it was Robert Ryman, Donald Judd, and Barnett Newman.

I've said this before, also, but the thing I love so much about Abstraction and Minimalism in particular--and why it confuses me a bit that most people uneducated about art find it so very alienating--is that every last thing you need to interpret these works is right there in front of your face, in the painting itself. So many people ramble on about Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque pieces. For crying out loud, you'd have to be a Catholic priest, a medical doctor, and have a PHD in Greek Mythology to fully understand what those paintings are actually about.

Anyway, what I found most interesting about this one is around the edges. Newman's work is always about the confrontation between the visual precision of the image and the physicality of the paint used to create it. In the other piece right next to this one, he'd painted around the perpendicular edges of the painting, all the way to the wall. With this one, he glued (or however attached) strips of white canvas around the outside of it, meeting the front plane perfectly at the corners. So the canvas painted blue disappears underneath the white strips, and we will never know exactly where the paint stops. So while the physicality of the paint slightly disrupts the precision of the center line, it's the physicality of the painting as an object that allows precision to win out at its edges. In the center, with brutal honesty, and at the edges, in contrast, by shrouding it in mystery.

--Ibram Lassaw, Kwannon (1952)
It is a little odd to see something look so much like a crucifix in the Jewish Museum, but Lassaw did do some work for religious institutions. What you can't see is that the bronze is modeled extremely roughly when you see this close up, almost like you can see every last individual weld drawing your attention to the hand of the sculptor. It creates this interesting contrast with the geometric structure of the piece, which is also somehow orderly and chaotic at the same time. It almost looks like you took all the plumbing out of a neighborhood and recreated it in miniature, by itself, like a circulatory system. And I don't doubt it, since he was very influenced by Buckminster Fuller (the fact that I can mention his name is the subject of a whole other post) and a lot of his work explores imagery reminiscent of the built environment.

But really the cruciform shape is so interesting...because it's not really there. None of the individual lines actually make up a cruciform, rather, the seemingly random collection of them goes in the direction of one, hinting at it like a ghost. This really is the perfect expression of a somewhat abstract symbol that has more connotations anymore than it has any actual meaning. In other words, I don't think anyone ever really looks at a cross/crucifix and puts it anywhere in this grouping: guillotine, electric chair, gallows, poison, etc. I think it's also valuable to note that this is exactly the type of extremely broadly representative symbolism Jasper Johns was beginning to use.

--Jackson Pollock, Convergence (1952)
I tried to find the largest .jpg of this I could, so you can click it. I've never been a giant fan of Pollock, although I have had some moments with his pieces throughout the years, and I have profound respect for what he accomplished. Nevertheless, I stood in front of this one for a very long time and liked it quite a bit. It's because the paint he's using is so thin. The first splatters soaked right into the canvas like ink, leaving no texture at all. But as he keeps layering and layering, the paint starts developing its own texture, based on the way the paint reacts to the force he's using to apply it.

But much more than that, you have to look at what it does to the colors. He gets the most fascinating pools of swirling color. The colors aren't just mixing, they've been beaten together. The quality of the colors and the way they combine is a direct result of the force of Pollock's swinging arm as he attacks the canvas with liquid paint. The very quality and nature of the medium and the very act of applying it to the canvas is what gives this piece its form. Brilliant.

--Lee Bontecou, Untitled (1962)
I've sort of skipped a decade, but most of the work from the late-50s was de Kooning, and some other pieces that didn't impress me too terribly much. But it appears 1962 was a great year.

I've always adored Constructivism, and I really wish Bontecou had done more, because she's so amazing. I've had the honor and pleasure to study and consider Untitled (1964) at the New York State Theater for hours and hours of accumulated time. But this is no less remarkable, if smaller. Both pieces show this incredible duality between their Space Age mechanical forms and their primitive, vaguely Native American materials and construction, combined with an almost spiritual sort of mystery to it all.

Do we overestimate the wonders of the modern world, when it's still just the result of human creativity we've had from the beginning? Do we underestimate the millennia-long lineage of human creativity? Or is the soul, the human spirit, really the guiding force behind it all and far more important than either? I think all unbelievably profound questions at the turning point between the Industrial Age and the Information Age, on the eve of our landing on the moon.

--Hans Hofmann, Sanctum Sanctorum (1962)
I think this was the piece that mesmerized me the most. It's one of the ones you absolutely have to see in person to really get it at all, but it's all about how the thickness of the paint and how it's applied affects the quality of its color. That's off in this image, too: what appears orange is actually pretty bright yellow. So first of all, look at the block of brown at center top and again at center bottom. At the top, it's actually a reddish-orange swiped over a blue field; at the bottom, it's brown over bright red, but they appear (in person) to be more or less in the same color family. However, at the top, it's because the paint is so thin that it looks brown and not reddish-orange; at the bottom, it's because the paint is so thick that it looks brown and not reddish-orange.

Next, look at the two yellow-orange patches on the right and left. They're both applied fairly thickly. But on the right, it's the paint's thickness that makes that field more uniform and vivid. On the left hand side, though, as he applied the paint left to right, he swiped up with the palette knife like peaks in the frosting on a cake. So because the paint is so thick, it can have a texture, which as the light hits it, creates shadows, and therefore changes its color, makes its color less uniform.

All over this painting he's doing stuff like this, and it's just absolutely brilliant.

--Mark Rothko, Red, Orange, Orange on Red (1962)
Oddly, though, I've never really been much of a Rothko fan. Don't get me wrong, I'm all over the psychology of color theory and all that, but I just don't feel like he had all that much to say. Once you get past that different colors, in different relationships with the body and sightlines of the viewer can have different psychological effects, you're pretty much done with Rothko.

I have also read Kandinsky, and I understand how different colors have different weights, advance and recede differently, and take on different meanings in relationship to the proportions of the canvas and their combinations with one another (although I've also never particularly cared for his choice of colors, either), but it still seems kind of limited in its scope.

This is, though, in fact where I thought his inclusion in this show was interesting. Because of the very fact that this was all he was about, I'm forced to grab onto the singularly most primary aspect of representation I can in order to interact with the piece, namely the horizon line. I think it's arguable, also, that you can ever really strip away the concept of the horizon line from a painting, unless you have no vantage point on other words, that you aren't actually viewing the painting. It's sort of like built into the very possibility of being a viewer of a work of art, unless it's on the floor or the ceiling, and then we're dealing with something else altogether.

But is this really about Painting anymore? Or is about bodies in space, bodies in an art gallery, something installation art could probably deal with far better? The idea of Intent comes into play here as well, because while I'll be the first to warn against forcing imaginary representation out of abstract works of art against their will, I do believe Rothko was relying on it, at least in a very primal sort of way, for his paintings to have any real purpose.

--Barnett Newman, White and Hot (1967)
And one last piece by my man Barnett. What I often like about his work--though Mondrian had explored it so adeptly--is this fundamental question, "how wide can a line be, and still be a line?" and because the work is so starkly minimal, it forms the most powerful tension between the concepts of background and foreground. The painting is mostly "hot," with only two slivers of white on either side, but it's an unforgiving vertical bar. It's trying so very hard to be a line, but it's just too wide.

The idea to even call it "hot" and not "red" is brilliant in itself. It's representing something, but isn't representing something visual, like blood, or a rose petal under a microscope (stupid example, but you get it). It's representing something with a relationship secondarily removed from a color, by way of burning embers, molten metal, and so on. They're things that are red because they are hot, but their color and their temperature are two separate properties, two separate sensations.

That the color does in fact symbolize something from the world outside the painting draws another contrast with the edges of the field. Here again, the precision of the tape-masked line and the paint that bleeds raggedly out of it calls direct attention to the physical medium rather than its representational abilities.

I wish he'd lived in my lifetime. I'd love to have met him.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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