Lucio Fontana @ M&L Fine Art / March 7 – May 12, 2017

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Lucio Fontana, Battaglia, 1947, polychrome glazed ceramic 57/8 x 111/4 x 85/8 (15 x 28.s x 22cm.)

To ponder the question of whether Lucio Fontana was primarily a painter, a sculptor or a ceramicist might have seemed to the artist himself to be beside the point. His was an art in which concepts and gestures were of far greater importance than the medium through which they were articulated. Perhaps for this reason, Lucio Fontana adopted different media with ease, and jumped back and forth between them without missing a beat throughout his career – making it tricky to map the artist’s work into neat stages.

Fontana may nowadays most commonly be thought of as a painter – of sorts; the one who punctured his canvases with holes (Buchi) and slashes (Tagli). However, Fontana’s oeuvre was immensely varied. From his initial artistic training in Italy he focused on sculpture, returning to Argentina to work in his father’s studio in the early 20s, following a period of study at the Fine Arts Academy in Milan. In the mid-1920s he produced his first ceramics, and continued to work in that medium at various stages throughout his life, all the while executing sculptural commissions, creating immersive installations, and producing series of paintings.

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Lucio Fontana, Testina, 1950 – 55, ceramic (painted), height 12cm

Fontana saw any attempt to push the possibilities of a medium such as paint, clay, or marble as an effort in the wrong direction. To spend one’s career finicking over the arrangement of the painted surface, no matter how revolutionary it might seem was for Fontana, to miss a greater opportunity. As Yve-Alain Bois has noted; “…testing the respective limits of sculpture and painting…was the least of Fontana’s concerns.” (1.) In the 1950s, Fontana was of the opinion that Jackson Pollock was too tied to his investigations into the painted surface, and had really wanted, but failed, to go beyond. What Fontana had in mind was the space beyond the surface of the canvas, in front of and behind the two-dimensional surface; everything which was not in fact the object itself.

Fontana’s dismissal of medium does not imply irreverence towards it – (He was a highly accomplished sculptor, and had spent years in Italy producing public sculptural works in a triumphalist idiom). Neither was it his desire to upturn artistic convention – (not even those forms such as Cubism, which were themselves becoming conventional). Fontana’s dismissal of medium came from a perceived redundancy. “We are living in a mechanical age, in which plaster and paint on canvas are no longer meaningful.” (2.) He was a close observer of the technological developments of the twentieth century, especially developments in quantum mechanics and space travel.

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Lucio Fontana, Natura morta, 1939, painted and glazed ceramic, diameter 32 cm

 

Fontana’s distaste for the practice of foregrounding the medium and its attributes and possibilities – a kind of artistic navel-gazing – also meant that the artist had a surprisingly liberal attitude to the idea of decoration. For him, once an idea had been arrived at and was ready for execution in canvas or clay, any formal choices such as colour and shape could be made as easily as choosing a swatch of fabric. “All the rest, the various colours, the arrangement of the slashes or the holes are variations for the public.” (3.) It is an aspect of Fontana’s art which has been taken up as kitsch by some, and which doubtless has added to the popular image of the artist’s work in painting as slick, and a precursor to Pop Art. Fontana’s slashed and punctured canvases, whilst they were often sharp and sometimes gaudily coloured, were not intended to act on a decorative level alone. The decorative could be taken care of in a single decision – by covering the canvas in bright pink for example. The intellectual weight of the work, for Fontana, rested on a single gesture, which was very effectively emphasised by colour. “My discovery, it’s the hole…that’s all; it would be all the same to me if I had died after this discovery.” (4.)

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Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, 1967, rame laccato con taglio, giallo senape + base, 20 x 40cm, edition of 36 not numbered

As much as Fontana could deploy decorative flourishes to counterpoint the intellectual heft of his canvases, he engaged in the traditionally craft medium of ceramics with the categoric refusal to produce anything functional, stating “I have never made a plate…and I have never painted a vase.” (5.) Looking at the range of ceramic pieces on show at M&L Fine Art, this anti-utilitarian brief is evident. The work spans two decades, from the semi-abstract formlessness of Battaglia from 1947 to the rich, machine-produced slickness of Concetto Spaziale from 1967. The most interesting pieces in this show are arguably those in which we can see evidence of the artist’s physical manipulation of the medium. Fontana’s signature works may rest in the memory on those singular gestures of the cut (Tagli) or the hole (Buchi); gestures which the artist intended as self-contained concepts beyond both time and space, and beyond the limiting terrestrial concerns of the medium and its base processes. But there is no doubting the sensual reward from looking at these beaten and complex ceramics with their lightning dashes of glaze and motif.

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Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale il pane, 1951, holes and groove on clay, 28 x 35 cm

It is impossible that Fontana was indifferent to the effects of the medium of clay in all its variety. Some of the pieces on show are highly worked and dripping in luminous glaze, while others, such as Concetto Spaziale il pane from 1951 are untreated and sullen – an appropriate treatment which allows the puncture holes to retain their immediacy. In these ceramics we see concentrations of the various contradictory aesthetics that Fontana employed with ease in his larger oeuvre. We can also see, in some of these works, signs of Fontana’s interest in the baroque. Fontana was drawn to the baroque for its grandeur, both spatial and decorative. It appealed to his concept of spatialism for the reason that “The figures appeared to leap out of the flat surface.” (6.) In fact, it should not seem unreasonable for someone who looked so much to the future of science and technology also to be propelled by a keen sense of the past. Fontana had also, from the earliest stages of his career, sought to raise his work above both functionality and the material demands of the medium. It seems natural that he should be drawn to such an aristocratic form as the baroque with all its gilded ebullience. And it is this aristocratic strain that Fontana saw in the medium of ceramics, and which, for him, raised it above the level of craft. In his art Fontana always announced what Briony Fer has termed his futurity through the lens of the past.

Lucio Fontana at M&L Fine Art

 

(1.) Yve-Alain Bois on Fontana in L’informe mode d’emploi, 1996

(2.) Manifesto Blanco, 1946

(3.) Lucio Fontana in conversation

(4.) Lucio Fontana in conversation with Carla Lonzi

(5.) Lucio Fontana in conversation

(6.) Manifesto Blanco, 1946

 

200 words #16 / Patricia Treib

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Patricia Treib, Hem, 2015, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 127 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London.

Speaking about the difficulties involved in producing a painting, Georges Braque said “I don’t do what I wish, I do what I can.” It seems a starkly pragmatic observation from a painter commonly known for having co-authored the wildly inventive language of Cubism. The reality behind Cubism’s apparently haywire grammar however, was one of hard analysis, careful observation of the physical world, and patient construction on canvas.

The idea of constructing a painting out of fragments of reality arguably reached its apotheosis in Cubism, but is taken in a sharp new direction in the canvases of Patricia Treib. I like to think of Treib’s work as sumptuous minimalism. Many of her canvases are built on a simple conceit linking painted gestures and abstract motifs to the process of assembling a garment. It is one of those enviously concise ideas which make other painters wish they had come up with it first. In Treib’s hands the paintwork manages to be lush but not overwhelming. The compositions are as fresh as cut grass, but never facile. These abstract arrangements appear to have been executed quickly. And yet they evidence a process of analysis by the artist which is undeniably paced and reflective.

200 words #15 / Peter Voulkos

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Peter Voulkos, Red River, c. 1960, Glazed stoneware, slip, and epoxy paint, 37 x 14 7/8 x 13 3/4 in. (94 x 37.8 x 34cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation, Inc. Photography by © schoppleinstudio.com, courtesy of the Voulkos & Co. Catalogue Project

The fact that Red River was added to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection immediately after it was made in 1960 is a measure of its significance for ceramics and much 3-D work that was to follow. Peter Voulkos, already a celebrated ceramicist in a largely traditional manner, had by the early 1960s assimilated the best of Abstract Expressionism, and the energy of Black Mountain College.

Voulkos drew many lessons in material and form from painting – his own and the paintings of others – lessons which in turn found their most idiosyncratic expression in his ruptured and reformulated ceramics. It was in his roughhouse* clay handling, experimental glazes, and other previously untested techniques, that he innovated. In demonstrations to students (including Mary Heilmann and Ron Nagle) Voulkos handled his clay with confident familiarity, often dropping his creation with rehearsed carelessness, only to pick it up and refashion it as he had intended all along. This theatricality left a mark on his students, and taught them to accept the imperfect and the awkward in their work.

The fractured, and formless presence of works such as Red River, has helped artists since to cultivate the ever more important space between painting and sculpture.

*I have borrowed this wonderfully evocative word from the critic Rose Slivka on Voulkos’s synthesis of “Greek classical culture combined with French modernism and American muscle-toting, mud-slinging, refinement and roughhouse.”

Peter Voulkos – The Breakthrough Years @ Museum of Arts & Design New York

 

Antoni Tàpies: Revulsion and Desire @ Timothy Taylor / 16 February – 18 March 2017

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Capgirat, 2005; Mixed media and collage on wood, 224.9 x 200 x 4 cm
© Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Photo: Sylvain Deleu / Image Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Watching footage of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies (1923–2012) at work, patrolling the limits of his large wooden panels laid flat on the studio floor before making occasional decisive lunges with brush or paint pot, we witness that very twentieth century model of an artist – one commanded by intuitive mark making, and as much led by their medium as leading it. The idea of the artist as an agent of aesthetic forces remains an intoxicating one today, but also one in which it is now harder for an artist to actively indulge. For painters working today, the marks they make and the placement of those marks on a surface are contingent on an acknowledgement that they may already have been enacted elsewhere with the same intent, and as a consequence, may never be viewed as unique. In short, a painter working today will often find themselves pausing to look over their shoulder.

There was no such equivocation in Tàpies’ mind. His style, like that of so many of his contemporaries, took shape in a highly intuitive way through a series of straight choices the artist made around colour, medium, motif, and scale. Tàpies’ self-professed – contempt for everything pretentious, grandiloquent – not only informed his stark approach to subject matter and iconography, but is also supported by the evidence of his roughed-up surfaces of varnish, paint, marble dust, and other bas relief accretions. It is easy to imagine Tàpies thrashing out ideas directly onto the final surface of plywood or canvas with minimal reverence for his medium, and enlisting into his repertoire of marks and motifs, for perpetuity, all the results that pleased him.

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Antoni Tàpies, Matèria sinuosa, 2010, Mixed media on wood, 160 x 160 x 4.4 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Much is made of the uncompromising directness of Tàpies’ motifs, especially the brutal frankness of his treatment of the human figure, often splayed across the naked plywood surface like a pair of wet tights. Of all the explorations of base materialism* which many artists engaged in throughout the twentieth century, Tàpies’ is by no means the most shocking. The power of the painted human form to surprise us has diminished and we are more likely to register as beautiful the way in which Tàpies marries the chunky inelegance of his impasto figures with the equivalent rawness of untreated plywood. Some of the most striking of the artist’s figures sit, squat, or recline against a sparse plywood background with the minimum of extraneous motifs to draw the attention away. Body parts seem to float on the dull surfaces without spatial reference points; the muted pinks and light ochres of the artist’s reduced palette broken here and there by a splash of white or a scrawled black inscription.

Amongst the range of influences on the artist, the graffiti Tàpies saw as he walked through Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter had a lasting effect on his work in both the use of text itself and, perhaps more significantly, on the nature of his painted marks and the way he handled his medium. As with graffiti, the marks in Tàpies’ paintings are simultaneously reduced and excessive gestures. A large syrupy splash of resin and paint becomes analogous to a human thigh with the same economy as that with which a raw flourish of graffiti might articulate a complex message.

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Antoni Tàpies, Cames i diari, 2005, Mixed media and collage on wood, 54 x 64.9 x 7.9 cm, © Comissió Tàpies / VEGAP, Courtesy Timothy Taylor

In a way, it is more rewarding to view Tàpies’ work – particularly the later paintings – without the requirement that we be shocked before the brutality of the surfaces. For the larger part of Tàpies’ career, his disgust at the events of the Spanish Civil War, combined with an anarchic impulse – an attempt even to elicit from us the revulsion of the current exhibition’s title – were significant influences on the artist’s choices of materials and ultimately on the look of the paintings. Yet there is a more slow-burning aspect to this mature work. The restraint with which Tàpies fills these later panels shows great discipline with his medium and economy with his message; more reduction, less excess.

*This is a reference to the idea of base materialism as presented by Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind E. Krauss in the 1996 exhibition and book – L’Informe: mode d’emploi (Formless: A User’s Guide), (which takes as its starting point Georges Bataille’s Critical Dictionary). I am not suggesting that Tàpies would have considered himself an active participant in the scenario Bois and Krauss sketch out in their book, but more that much of Tàpies’ work does appear to share characteristics with a strand of activity that they identify in much twentieth century art. 

Follow this link to the current show – Antoni Tàpies at Timothy Taylor Gallery

For an interesting insight into Tàpies’ working methods and his wide range of interests and influences watch-  Antoni Tàpies documentary on YouTube

200 words #14 / Uta Barth

 

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UTA BARTH, In the Light & Shadow of Morandi (17.03) 2017. Face mounted, raised, shaped, Archival Pigment print in artist frame, 48 3/4 x 52 3/4 inches; 123.8 x 134 cm, Edition of 6; 2 APs, Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

The concept of the artist as researcher is at odds with the more popular notion of the artist as creative medium; someone gifted with vision which is unique and unavailable to the average person except through the artist’s revelatory powers of expression. The writer John Berger identified Picasso as the latter type of artist. By denying – the causal connexion between searching and finding* -Berger finds Picasso as much a hostage to his own vision as we are.

Through years of quiet research into visual perception, the photographer Uta Barth has been searching and finding, and since the late 1990s she has been using exclusively as material the fleeting modulations of light and shadow which occur throughout the day in her apartment. Whilst Barth didn’t set out to impose this working limit on herself, by observing effects of light and shadow on the simplest expanse of wall or the fold of a curtain she quickly realised that she had unlimited visual material around her.  Consequently, there was – no point in going out to seek that out.

Infused with what Berger describes as a spirit of research, Barth’s latest series pays homage to the work of another patient observer, Giorgio Morandi.

Uta Barth at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

*John Berger – The Success and Failure of Picasso, 1993, New York, Vintage, p.32.

200 words #13 / John Baldessari

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Miró and Life in General: Relevant, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint
243.1 x 125.1 x 3.8 cm
No. 19359

From their apartment on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel in New York in 1925, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, looked out at the same view. On one side they witnessed the emerging city, and on the other, the low-rise profile of the East River. They captured these in much the same way. Yet O’Keeffe’s painted images and Stieglitz’s photos stand distinctly apart for us.

John Baldessari sees no good reason why painting and photography should have separate histories. Born in 1931, Baldessari came to maturity as an artist in the 1970s; a period of dramatic reconfigurations involving art theory and practice, and far removed from the limiting machismo of Abstract Expressionism. Baldessari has also worked as a teacher since the late 1950s, including a two decade involvement with CalArts. Of his philosophy of teaching, Baldessari states that he wanted to keep the “…wall as low as possible between instructor and student…”*. This is a strategy that has ensured a two-way exchange of ideas. As an artist, Baldessari keeps us looking at the exchange of meaning between the painted and photographic image and text by virtue of his even-handed treatment of all three.

John Baldessari interviewed by David Salle

Picasso Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery, October 6, 2016 – February 5, 2017

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Self-Portrait with Palette by Pablo Picasso, 1906; Philadelphia Museum of Art: A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1950 © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2016; Photograph and Digital Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art © Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York  

At one stage or another during his long career, Picasso fit different models of what an artist could be. Picasso’s versatility as a painter, and ultimately his appetite for dramatic shifts in style, sometimes within the same day, lead observers either to find fault with his work or to deify him. His impulse to change his style – an impulse the artist indulged in to a mischievous degree – and his tendency to rework his own innovations at a later date in the form of irreverent parody, have been a source of frustration for Picasso biographers, with some writers refusing even to acknowledge certain periods in the artist’s career.

Picasso’s range, and his undoubted mastery of every style and medium he worked in, attract the accusation of a lack of serious long-term intent or commitment to any path in particular. At the same time this free-wheeling ease of movement between styles and refusal to be categorised, seem to be his strongest selling points to large art audiences. Even within his own lifetime, Picasso stood in uneasy relation to many of his peers, including artists to whom he was compared, such as Matisse. Whilst Picasso and Matisse shared a similar range of subject matter, Matisse was undoubtedly playing a long game when it came to his exploration of his primary medium – paint. Matisse’s commitment to optics and the investigation of how the painted mark functions was one which led him to tackle his subjects in series and with a forensic obsession for testing, time and again, his own discoveries. For Picasso on the other hand, subject matter takes precedence over the medium of paint, leading the artist off on one route of exploration after another. His virtuosity meant that any one of the artist’s periods could have served as a starting point for a lifetime of incremental development and exploration within that style alone, had he wanted to explore it further. But Picasso’s compulsive restlessness would not allow it. It is only at fleeting moments of calm, when comparing both artists’ treatment of the same subject and having blocked out the background chatter about Picasso’s life and personality, that Picasso and Matisse can truly be appraised side by side. The great Picasso versus Matisse debate is as frustrating as trying to imagine what is happening at the same moment on opposite sides of the planet.

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Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, autumn 1910 by Pablo Picasso, 1910; Art Institute of Chicago © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2016; 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York  

If Picasso’s virtuosity and his hyperactive style shifting are some of the main points of departure between him and Matisse, then it might be tempting to find an alternative point of reference and comparison in the form of another of Picasso’s peers. Francis Picabia, the privileged and flamboyant artist to whom Picasso gravitated in the 1920s when Picasso was staying in Juan-les-Pins, shares some of the same characteristics of artistic range and sudden dramatic changes in style. Whilst Picasso biographer John Richardson dispatches Picabia as a ‘jack-of-all-styles turned dadaist pioneer’, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the influence Picabia has had on the contemporary art world – contributing in no small way to the creation of a model of the artist as highly self-aware, informed, socially savvy, and having an enormous range of media and forms at their disposal. In as much as the Picasso / Matisse comparison breaks down on the point of each artist’s commitment to medium over subject matter, the same incompatibility arises when we try to find common ground between Picasso and Picabia. Picabia’s irreverence was disruptive in nature. It was not just towards the art that he absorbed but towards his very own creations, and as such is of a very different order to Picasso’s playful interludes. So trying to find a context for Picasso that encompasses all aspects of the artist’s career is an effort which is frustrated by his versatility. Better to try to fit other artists, and even movements to which Picasso was briefly associated such as Surrealism, around Picasso himself.

The exhibition Picasso Portraits – at The National Portrait Gallery in London until the 5th of February – demonstrates the sheer breadth of Picasso’s stylistic mastery of given forms such as classical portraiture. It also affords us an opportunity to see his innovations signposted clearly throughout the artist’s changing treatment of the same subject, the portrait. Looking at the range of styles here highlights the accelerated developments Picasso’s work experienced, with each abandonment of one style yielding within a short space of time to another, almost fully articulated, visual form. The fairest assessment however, must be the one which rests primarily on the evidence of the paintwork. Amidst the noise and distraction of this ambitious show, there are moments of visual clarity, where it is possible to view a series of paintings from the same period which show the artist as researcher, exploring methodically the possibilities of paint. Nowhere in the exhibition is Picasso’s successful balance of medium and subject more evident than in the artist’s reworkings of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. These paintings, produced in 1957, offer a more distilled version of the signature painterly vocabulary which Picasso had developed – almost to the degree of parody – in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They also come just a few years before the artist’s too easily dismissed late period canvases. This quiet corner, towards the end of a packed and visually exhausting survey exhibition, silences all argument over Picasso’s commitment to the medium of paint.

Picasso Portraits is at The National Portrait Gallery, London until February 5, 2017.