200 words #18 / Ernest Mancoba

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Ernest Mancoba, Untitled (3), 1957, Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 13 in., Image courtesy of Aicon Gallery and the Estate of Ernest Mancoba

Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002) was born in South Africa, but spent the greater part of his life in Europe, moving to Paris in 1938, and to Denmark after the war, where he was a founding member of the COBRA movement. In Johannesburg Mancoba first trained in wood carving. One of his early sculptures depicted the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Despite the controversy this generated, Mancoba managed to remain above any limiting debate, always holding firm to “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

Mancoba carried with him to Europe a very African treatment of figuration, which comes across in the decorative fragmentation of the totemic figure which is central to his work, and which reappears in multiple subtle variations. Mancoba’s training in wood carving too seems to have informed the very application of the paint itself to the canvas; often a series of discrete all-over marks applied to the canvas with the patience of a sculptor chipping away at a wooden panel. The painted surface acts more like a solid block of undifferentiated marks, from which the central figure slowly emerges, and back into which it can just as easily seem to recede.

Ernest Mancoba at Aicon Gallery New York

Anne Ryan / Collages @ DAVIS & LANGDALE COMPANY INC. / New York / January 31 – May 20, 2017

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Untitled (no. 327), Collage, 7 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

For 37 years Henri Matisse owned a small canvas, The Three Bathers, by Paul Cezanne, regularly drawing from it intellectual strength and vindication for his own experiments with the painted surface. “If Cezanne was right, then I am right.” He observed, in acknowledgement of the lessons he had learnt from this small painting, before he finally donated it to the City of Paris. Matisse’s gift was a characteristically generous gesture, and a good example of his belief in the formative importance of research in an artist’s development. Matisse had by no means reached an end point with Cezanne, but simply wanted to share with others the source of so much of his artistic conviction.

Occasionally, an artist’s introduction to the work of another can have such a profound effect that it can shape their work from that moment on; very much like discovering a vocation. And if a vocation is founded as much on an intangible sense of compulsion as it is on compatibility, then the attraction one artist can feel to the work of another is driven by a combination of equally mysterious forces.

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Untitled (no. 324), Collage, 5 1/2 x 4 3/8 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

The American artist Anne Ryan (1889 – 1954) made a personal discovery late in her career, which would shape the work that she produced for the last six years of her life. In 1948, during a visit to the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, Ryan was introduced to the collages of Kurt Schwitters. Anne Ryan effectively began her career as a visual artist in the early 1930s, having already established herself as a writer of fiction and poetry. Following a short period spent living in Majorca, Ryan, originally from Hoboken NJ, returned to the American East coast, where she began to form connections with the New York visual arts scene, and was encouraged to paint by Hans Hofmann. Instead of observing the prevailing tendency for large scale abstract painting however, Ryan settled upon the modestly scaled collage format which had so impressed her in the Schwitters’ work she saw at the Rose Fried gallery on that day in 1948. It is the work she produced following this brief encounter which has sealed Ryan’s reputation.

Ryan, in her collages, remained so true to the delicate aesthetic and finely-balanced formalism of Kurt Schwitters’ collages, that in some of the more geometric pieces it can seem that the artist has relinquished much of her own identity to the task of pure imitation. And even after revisiting Ryan’s collages several times, they can still seem to reverberate to the frequency of early century European avant garde collage, rather than mid-century Manhattan. However, context is everything, and below the surface, the respective strengths of Schwitters’ and Ryan’s experiments with collage rest on distinct circumstances and influences.

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Untitled (no. 232), Collage mounted on paper, 6 1/2 x 5 7/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

The trajectory of Schwitters’ life can be read in the muted surfaces of his collages. Many of his collage works were produced when the artist was living hand to mouth as he escaped Nazi Germany. They were assembled from whatever was available to him, and the small scale to which the medium of collage is suited meant that Schwitters could continue to explore, whilst on the move, the artistic territory of the immersive installation he had had to abandon in his Hamburg residence, The Merzbau. Schwitters also brought his well-established talent as a typographer and designer to his collages.

Anne Ryan is routinely mentioned alongside the American Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were a generation younger than Ryan herself. Gail Levin, in her 2011 biography of Lee Krasner, suggests that Ryan must have made an impression on the younger painter. This influence which Ryan possessed over some of her more flamboyant colleagues* suggests something which was common to, and easily transferrable between Ryan’s low key, small scale experiments and the super-sized canvases of the Abstract Expressionists. Collage of the kind which Ryan, and Schwitters before her, made is a slow and considered discipline; more about arranging the surface than attacking it, very much the best territory for a poet.

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Untitled (no. 438), Collage, 10 x 6 3/4 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

Ryan also designed scenery and costumes for theatre and ballet. The artist’s feel for material comes across in some of the less dense collages such as Untitled (no. 438). The torn edges of the handmade paper elements in this piece are reminiscent of Hans Arp’s Papiers Déchirés, as much for the rawness of the torn fibres which soften the edges of the paper segments as for their sophisticated placement within the tight confines of such a small scale. Ryan creates the illusion of a much larger space; an abstract space which might have satisfied the critic Clement Greenberg’s taste for an all over surface, from which no single figure emerges as dominant.

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Untitled (no. 376), Collage, 9 1/16 x 7 1/16 inches, Executed between 1948 – 1954, Image courtesy of Davis & Langdale Company, NY.

Anne Ryan’s influence on a number of other artists who were producing painting, and working on a much larger scale, says as much about the influences which brought about Abstract Expressionism in the first place as it does about the power of Ryan’s collages. Ab-Ex did not exist in a void, and the lessons of European painting were fresh in the minds of American artists trying to push the artform in new directions. If it is easy to speak about Ryan’s collages and Lee Krasner’s large scale paintings in the same context, it is because they both absorbed, and sometimes rejected, the lessons of painting’s recent past. What Ryan assimilated almost instantaneously when she first saw Schwitters’ work, was a set of formal instructions which she could take up and run with to produce work into which she could then pour her own experience. When Matisse studied Cezanne’s Three Bathers every morning he was similarly recharging before the day ahead, to be spent thrashing out the lessons of his research in the studio.

On their own terms, Anne Ryan’s collages are objects of exceptional beauty, which expand on a visual language which is at once already familiar to us through Schwitters, but also uniquely accented with the artist’s own personality.

*Gail Levin, Lee Krasner – A Biography, 2012, p.274, WM Morrow, New York NY.

www.davisandlangdale.com

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

 

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 #12 / Bradley Walker Tomlin

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Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899 – 1953), Number 12, 1952, Oil on canvas, 66 x 48 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, General Purchase Funds 1963

Regardless of how many convenient artistic groupings have been contrived by critics and commentators, the activity of painting has always been a personal one.  Working on the fringes of a tendency in art, and being passed over by the first wave of public recognition can be a blessing, allowing an artist to be re-evaluated without the background noise which attends the appearance of a new movement or style. In his final years, Jackson Pollock was paralysed by the weight of expectation about where he would go next with his work.

Other more peripheral figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Hans Hofmann and Bradley Walker Tomlin produced what were arguably their strongest paintings later in their careers. From the late 1940s up to his death in 1953, Tomlin made an unprecedented series of canvases typified by a trademark calligraphic mark distributed with remarkable assurance across the canvas creating a complex balance. His exposure to the less imagistic strand of Surrealism helped inform the artist’s late style. Tomlin’s attachment to the mark of the brush may have looked retrograde at the time next to Pollock’s innovations, but the intelligence and poise of these late paintings place them beyond lazy categorization.

200 words #10 / Hans Hofmann

Song of the Nightingale, 1964, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in. (213.4 x 182.9 cm), Collection of Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, Photography courtesy of Josh Nefsky

“Art is always spiritual”. It was with such unequivocal statements as this that Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966) established his reputation as a highly effective pedagogue, a motivator of artistic talent, and a convincing champion of European modernism. From the moment he relocated to the United States from Munich in 1932, he set about the task of instructing a new generation of American artists. His teaching was characterised by a generous self-confidence, and supported by a comprehensive set of clear principles centred on the act of painting, colour theory, and the purpose and limits of the painted form.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s Hofmann’s methodology would continue to inspire his students and emerging artists. His message however, representing as it did a Euro-centric devotion to the figure and the picture plane, would ultimately provide some of his students, such as Lee Krasner, with something against which to rebel.

Looking at Hofmanns’ paintings today, it is impossible to feel the same investment in the battles of theory which were fought across the lines of European Modernism and the emergent force of Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, Hofmann’s late work in particular, looks fresh and complex today, and continues to provide invaluable lessons to artists.

200 words #5 / Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg / Glacial Decoy Series (Lithograph IV) 1980, Tate Collection, purchased 1981.

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Glacial Decoy Series (Lithograph IV) 1980 / Robert Rauschenberg / Lithograph on Paper / 1680 x 1022 mm / Tate Collection / Purchased 1981.

In December this year Tate Modern will launch a retrospective of work by Robert Rauschenberg, the first since the artist’s death in 2008. It is being sold as a retrospective of a giant of Pop Art, and to many observers and the wider public Rauschenberg falls into an aesthetic category alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann. Developments in colour print media allowed these artists to riff off contemporary events with an enviable cool and on a scale which was unavailable to collage artists at the start of the century.

I never saw Rauschenberg as a true Pop artist. The energy of the times does echo through much of his most iconic work, in silkscreens such as Retroactive for example, but it is an energy which is dependent on proximity to that moment in time for its impact. If Rauschenberg’s work had not had something more substantial in its makeup, we might not pay it much attention today. Far more than the imagery he appropriated from media sources, what remains fresh and fascinating is the way Rauschenberg could put an artwork together, assembling paintings as though they were three dimensional, and approaching sculpture with the hand of a painter.

A retrospective of the art of Robert Rauschenberg will be on show at Tate Modern, London from December 1st 2016 to April 2nd 2017.

Tate Modern – Robert Rauschenberg Retrospective