Louise Fishman, A LITTLE RAMBLE 2017, Oil on linen, 70 x 90 inches, 177.8 x 228.6 centimeters. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
By the time Louise Fishman took her first painting class in 1956, the same year Jackson Pollock died, Abstract Expressionism was already in decline. Retrospectively, Fishman has been spoken of as belonging to this movement, if only by way of a spiritual affiliation rather than as having played a part in its formation. In fact, had Fishman been a true contemporary of the main players in Ab Ex, it is unlikely still that she would have engaged with them to any great extent. She has been, by her own admission, a loner when it has come to creating alliances and nurturing relationships within the artworld. For such a solitary activity as painting this is perhaps no disadvantage.
Fishman’s canvases are packed tight with contemporary riffs on Ab Ex – the sweep and drag of the brush, or whatever other implement the artist employs, leaving on the canvas the unmediated imprint of a super-sized gesture. If this sounds unsubtle, then the effect within each of Fishman’s canvases is elegant and controlled. The artist’s stated intention “…always, was to not repeat a painting”. The implied grid in each painting however, upon which the painted marks proliferate, allows a remarkably consistent voice to emerge.
Louise Fishman at Cheim & Read, New York
Ryuji Tanaka, Nature ’89, 1989, Mineral pigment on panel, other materials 60.7 x 72.6 cm (23 7/8 x 28 5/8 in.) Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London / New York
It may seem odd that, no sooner had so many artists in the latter half of the nineteenth century begun to successfully assert their independence from established art institutions, such as the Beaux-Arts in France, than there was a rush to form new groupings, to gather together under new rules and with new criteria for entry. Many artists in subsequent generations would come together to form alternative collectives – the artistic movements with which we are familiar such as Dada and the Surrealists, and other later movements which are less well known, such as COBRA and Gutai. So many of these collectives were underpinned by manifestoes in which, ironically, one variety or other of artistic independence was declaimed. But they were often loosely held together communities of thought and any efforts to keep all participants on the same page failed. By the 1970s, the need for artists to identify collectively under a shared set of written principles had become the exception.
Ryuji Tanaka, installation view of exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery London, image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery London, 2017
The Japanese group of artists known collectively as Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Concrete Art Group – formed in 1954 by Jiro Yoshihara ) cited in their manifesto an artistic kinship with certain Abstract Expressionists who were working almost contemporaneously – most notably Jackson Pollock. What the Gutai artists saw in Pollock was a singular emphasis on paint itself – what they recognised as “the loud outcry of the material” – at the expense of any imagistic possibilities in the medium that the artist might be tempted, by force of habit, to explore. The hyper-individualism in American art which was emerging through the Abstract Expressionists, would reach its accelerated apotheosis in the 1980s – an acceleration which would see the focus move away from painting.
Continue reading “Ryuji Tanaka @ Simon Lee London from 23/06 to 25/08 and New York from 13/09 to 28/10, 2017”
Secundino Hernández, Rojo, 2016. Acrylic, alkyd, oil and lacquer on linen, 310.5 x 287 cm, 122 1/4 x 113 in. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London © Secundino Hernández
I first saw Hans Hofmann’s paintings in the flesh in 1999 in a small collection at the Met – (part of a pilgrimage of sorts which included a visit to Hofmann’s mosaic mural for the New York School of Printing on West 49th Street, which features in the banner image for this website). I remember being surprised by the imperfect physicality of his canvases, buckling under the weight of paint. Still, as rough and ready as these paintings looked, they were the genuine article.
If the finish of Hofmann’s canvases was an initial disappointment to a naïve art student brought up on reproductions, then it was a joy to discover many years later the fresh and rich paintwork of the Spanish artist Secundino Hernández. This, I thought, must have been what Hofmann’s surfaces looked like before they acquired a layer of New York grime.
Matisse observed that “…a big painting needs more architecture, more technique”. Hernández works on a far larger scale than Hofmann did, but through his considerable technique his canvases somehow retain a very human measurement. The paintwork, modulating in tone and colliding with the same comfortable friction that Hofmann termed push and pull, is complex yet well resolved.
If certain places bring to mind certain colours, then Spain presents them all at once. Hernández works in Madrid, and his paintings seem to resonate with the opaque intensity of a sunlit urban landscape.
Secundino Hernández at Victoria Miro
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
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. Continue reading “Lucio Fontana @ M&L Fine Art / March 7 – May 12, 2017”
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.
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. Continue reading “Antoni Tàpies: Revulsion and Desire @ Timothy Taylor / 16 February – 18 March 2017”
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”