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.
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.
Miró and Life in General: Relevant, 2016
Varnished inkjet print on canvas with acrylic paint
243.1 x 125.1 x 3.8 cm
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
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.
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. Continue reading “Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts /September 24, 2016 – January 2, 2017”
Spanish Orange Black Macchia with Sable Lip Wrap, 2006, 19 x 36 x 25″
“The Macchia series began with my waking up one day wanting to use all 300 of the colours in the hot shop.” Dale Chihuly describes the origins of one of his most iconic series of blown glass objects in characteristically down to earth terms. Chihuly always speaks about his work with reference to the processes involved in its production. The instability of blown glass, and the technical requirements involved in controlling it in its molten form, dictate the final product to a far greater extent than most other media.
Even though the Macchia have the appearance of vessels, they are in no way functional. With an undulating lip marking the aperture between a vibrantly coloured mottled outer surface and a raw, almost organic interior, they could also be seen as tropical coral vividly imagined in glass. The tendency for blown glass to create billowing, rounded shapes reminiscent of some naturally occurring forms is an almost unavoidable result of the way it is produced, and the Macchia series is perhaps the most uninhibited expression of this. Like Jackson Pollock exploiting the viscosity of enamel paint straight from the pot, Chihuly allows the inherent organicism of his medium to dictate the results.
Clip from Chihuly over Venice on Vimeo
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.