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.

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 #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.

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.