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

Richard Tuttle / My Birthday Puzzle @ Modern Art / March 31 – May 13, 2017

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, IX, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, canvas, crayon, acrylic, graphite, acrylic gesso, nails, 68.6 x 66 x 3.5 cm, 27 1/8 x 26 x 1 3/8 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

There was a time when Richard Tuttle’s understated assemblages were considered by some commentators to be so insubstantial as to be an affront even to minimalism. Better to be made of nothing at all than to be made of almost nothing, they might have said. It might have been the almost-there fragility of his assemblages to which they took exception, cobbled together as they seemed to be, out of the most commonplace craft materials such as string, glue, fabric, scraps of timber, and acrylic paint. At a time when minimalist art was predominantly the slick, machine-made product of an extended process of intellectual refinement, Tuttle’s unkempt art school project rejects seemed outrageously unsophisticated and unfinished.

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Richard Tuttle, Releasing: Biologically Poor Endings, VI, 2016, quarter-inch birch plywood, aluminum flashing, canvas, graphite, acrylic, spray paint, nails, 86.4 x 86.4 x 15.9 cm, 34 1/8 x 34 1/8 x 6 1/4 ins, courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

But Tuttle’s work has outlasted the exhausting exaggerations of the greater portion of minimalist and conceptual art, with their shared requirement that we place our very human instinct towards sensuality, visual stimulus, and the imperfect edge on hold in the service of a cold idea. And yet I reflexively use the word minimal to describe the economy with which Tuttle uses his very mundane materials. His work is sometimes shockingly reduced in its construction; barely applied paint marks on unprepared offcuts of timber, fabric, and paper, balancing against panel pins or dangling from a length of twine. Tuttle’s minimalism is difficult to pull off, relying as it does on the ability to exploit that energy which is produced at the very beginning of the process of making something. Where most artists would keep adding layer upon layer, reworking and transforming, Tuttle appears to say – That’s enough – repeatedly with each component he adds to his constructions.

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Richard Tuttle, My Birthday Puzzle, exhibition view, Modern Art, 31 March – 13 May
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

It can be slightly confusing to talk about Tuttle’s work in relation to, or indeed in opposition to, either minimalism or conceptual art. This reflex of association arises from the fact that Tuttle emerged onto the art scene while these two movements were in full swing. When looking at the assemblages the artist has been producing consistently for decades, it is more useful to go further back in time to find an aesthetic with which Tuttle might share artistic territory. The delicate collages of Olga Rozanova from around 1916, or Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages of the same period, demonstrate equally well what can be done with so little. The work in Tuttle’s recent show at Modern Art in London was visually denser than much of the artist’s previous work, with more emphatic marks and busier surfaces, but still with his trademark lyrical economy.

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Richard Tuttle, Pressing: Hole in the Head, VII, 2015-2016, styrofoam, metal, colored felt, heat-sensitive quilting backing, fabric paint, white glue, bond paper, enamel paint, acid-free museum mount board, metallic paper, acrylic, day-glo gouache, nails, 64.8 x 92.1 x 5.1 cm, 25 1/2 x 36 1/4 x 2 1/8 ins
courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London

Lyricism in language and the economy of poetry, have also been of importance to Tuttle’s art. Married to the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Tuttle has collaborated with writers and other visual artists in the past on text-based works – but strangely, he sees the processes of writing and making artwork as two entirely distinct, even incompatible disciplines. The thought processes involved in producing one would be of limited use in the service of the other, according to the artist. What is common to both a certain type of poetry and Tuttle’s constructions however, is economy of expression. Poetry lends itself to this kind of reduction – the careful arrangement of words, with an allowance for their power to imply or to signify multiple things in the world, resonating with our memories and experiences. To speak about poetry in this way may be to risk a claim of something intangible in language. And to claim a lyricism running through both art forms can threaten to send us into the nebulous category of spiritualism. But when an artwork is so reduced, it is understandable that we start to draw on our reserves of memory and association.

Tuttle’s constructions are disarming in their simplicity; like a throw-away remark that has long-lasting consequences. And their lyricism is undeniable. They are beautiful statements in paint, paper, and fabric, with all the intangible associations an artist might care to risk.

Richard Tuttle at Modern Art

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 #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

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.

Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts /September 24, 2016 – January 2, 2017

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Jackson Pollock, Blue poles, 1952 , Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…”

Harold Rosenberg – The Great American Action Painters / 1952

A lot is made of the theatricality of the act in the term action painters. And indeed Harold Rosenberg’s reading of what was happening to post-war American painting, as typified by the statement above, emphasises the existential encounter of the artist with the modern world, and the individual as a protagonist within a dramatic event. It is an interpretation which might seem to encourage a one-way reading of the Abstract Expressionism movement, starting with a moment of schism and considering only what came after to be of relevance. Abstract Expressionist artists, alternately referred to as Action Painters, are sometimes portrayed as fugitives from the past, as though they had performed a jail break and were now desperate to erase their past. Whilst American painting from the 1950s on did perform radical reappraisals of traditions and produce breathless innovations in artists’ media, in the scale and delivery of the painted mark, and in content, it did so with profound awareness of what had come before.

There are several characteristics of some Abstract Expressionist painting that have become synonymous with the movement as a whole. Some of these characteristics, in no particular order, are: large scale of both the canvas and the painted mark, an all-overness to the distribution of the marks on the canvas, and -in part due to the tendency of an ‘all-over’ treatment of the surface to preclude the accumulation of marks in one area of the canvas- the absolute absence of anything which could be thought of as representational. The fact is that these characteristics are not to be found systematically throughout Abstract Expressionism, and in many cases they are nowhere to be seen.

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Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 295.9 cm, Private collection, New York     © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

There was certainly a shift towards large scale canvases from the 1950s onward. Not everyone however worked on such a large scale, at least not all the time. Jackson Pollock’s experience of working under the Mexican muralist David Siqueiros at his Union Square workshop may have informed the artist’s eventual jump in scale. His move out of the city to a larger barn space in rural East Hampton also afforded Pollock the freedom to work as large as he could imagine at the time. On balance though, many of Pollock’s canvasses are surprisingly small. Not everyone super-sized their act. The artist Richard Prince beautifully sums up the quiet intellect and discipline of Willem De Kooning’s canvases when he describes him as “…the guy who spread his arms and said that’s all the space I need…” (Richard Prince – Artforum summer 2011)

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Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952, Oil, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 149.9 x 109.3 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, 1995 © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

As for markmaking, there was undoubtedly a level of innovation in how artists actually got the paint from the tube or the tub to the canvas; innovations which have continued to inspire painters since. Pollock again, with his substitution of brush for stick dipped in enamel paint, has come to represent an anarchic rupture with the past. This is an interpretation which has served to limit the reading of AbEx to one of a movement which disavowed all that had come before. The origin of Pollock’s trademark gesture probably lies again in the artist’s experience of splashing paint about for the energetic Siqueiros. What is not evident until one is standing in front of the Pollocks gathered together for Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy is the quiet care the artist put into his marks. Every inch of the surface is considered and equally weighted, and the only evidence of anything random and uncontrolled is the dispersion of the edges of the viscous paint marks after they have hit the surface. Pollock was very much engaged with recent developments in European art. He saw the movement of major figures of European modernism to America as “…very important, for (the fact that) they bring with them an understanding of the problems of modern painting.” Of the two artists he admired most, Picasso and Miró, Pollock professed to be “…particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious.” (Jackson Pollock quoted in ‘Jackson Pollock / Energy Made Visible’ by B. H. Friedman, Da Capo Press 1995)

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Arshile Gorky, Water of the Flowery Mill, 1944, Oil on canvas, 107.3 x 123.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Digital image © 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The all-overness which is sometimes thought of as a prerequisite for truly AbEx painting is also something which is not apparent in many of the artists in this survey show at the Royal Academy. Whilst De Kooning did super-size his brush work, his thick shafts of colour coalesce to form figures and landscapes. The debt to figuration, or perhaps better termed representation -since even an abstract mark forms a figure of a sort on the canvas- is one that is common to all of the artists under the heading AbEx.

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Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955, Oil on canvas, 158.1 x 204.9 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Claire B. Zeisler 1976.39 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016. Photo: Joe Ziolkowski

The painter Robert Motherwell spoke of “…the anti-intellectualism of English and American artists…” (Robert Motherwell ‘The Modern Painter’s World’ – lecture delivered at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, August 1944) and it fits a crude reading to suggest that the arrival of AbEx signalled a reconciliation of a Euro-centric tradition of intellectualism with a more Anglo-Saxon suspicion of that which appears opaque or obscure. This sense of a certain moment involving an encounter between the old and new world, and a subsequent dramatic rupture, does not sit comfortably with the nuanced and sometimes contradictory evidence of influences and interests which form the biographies of each individual AbEx artist. John Elderfield (Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from 2003 to 2008) suggests that “The idea of fitting into some historical inevitability was a great force behind what (Barnett) Newman and (Mark) Rothko and Pollock did. They saw themselves as gathering momentum from the past and really pushing forward.”  (John Elderfield speaking about Willem De Kooning in Artforum summer 2011)

The narrative of Abstract Expressionism as a movement which was solely forward-looking is an inaccurate one. As Elderfield states, there was a continuity between the past and the then present moment in which these artists found themselves. Without momentum the movement would have foundered. It is no coincidence that one of the artists in the current Royal Academy show who had the most developed connection with European modernism, Hans Hofmann, was also one of the most influential teachers of painting of the 1950s and 60s in America. (Having emigrated from Germany to the US in the 1930s,  Hofmann went on to influence the development of a generation of American painters, including Lee Krasner.)

Abstract Expressionism at Royal Academy London runs until January 2, 2017.