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.


200 words #7 / Jessica Stockholder

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Installation view of Jessica Stockholder: The Guests All Crowded Into the Dining Room at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. © Jessica Stockholder; Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY. 

When certain critics asked Jackson Pollock why his paintings stopped short of the edges of the canvas, as though the looping paintwork was turning back on itself, they were exposing a fictional boundary between painting and the world beyond the canvas. In asking the question they seemed to be willing the paint across the edge, perhaps to see what would happen and what it would mean.

When I first saw Jessica Stockholder’s work about 20 years ago, reproduced in a generously illustrated large format Phaidon monograph, I realised what it meant to take the challenges faced by painters every day in front of their canvases and to thrash them out in three dimensions. The issues of painting are portable I discovered, and could just as well be investigated without easel or paintbrush.

Using the most commonplace of items such as plastic laundry baskets, refrigerator doors, lightbulbs, fans, mirrors, and shower curtains, Jessica Stockholder creates irresistibly lush environments. Where she uses paint, it is to consolidate disparate objects under the same colour. In other places similarly coloured, unpainted objects seem to mimic the painted surface. Her immersive installations, sometimes resembling a latter day merzbau, are cerebral and poetic in equal measure.

is at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York until October 1, 2016.

Roberto Burle Marx – Brazilian Modernist @The Jewish Museum, New York, May 6 – September 18, 2016.


Avenida Atlântica, Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, pavement designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1970. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

Amongst the multitude of artefacts in the architect Sir John Soane’s house on London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a bust representing Soane has been positioned above those of both Raphael and Michelangelo. It is said that Soane chose this symbolic arrangement to suggest that the greatest of achievements in either painting or sculpture were lesser than those of architecture, albeit the type of architecture which was based on classical principles.

Nowadays, in the absence of such guiding principles, it would seem a redundant exercise to choose sides according to which art form one believed best expressed the same ideas or best achieved the same end. Better perhaps to accept what each art form does best. The practice of jumping between disciplines, if it is done well, and the resulting cross-pollination, is today considered a sign of sophistication in an artist.  It is arguably because of the divisions and differences between practices, rather than in spite of them, that it has become so attractive to be able to switch from one discipline to another with ease.

Yet the impulse towards a hierarchy of the arts persists. A ceramicist for example will only be brought into the context of a contemporary art gallery once the larger portion of functionality in the object has been relinquished. As a subject for painters, a garden, or a chosen vista onto a pastoral landscape, has long allowed artists to say at least as much about paint itself as about the landscape being painted. The notion of the primacy of paint (above a great many other mediums) is deep-rooted. Claude Monet might not be as celebrated as he is had he not come to his enthusiasm for cultivating gardens through the medium of paint with its immanent philosophical potential.

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Installation view of the exhibition Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist, May 6 –
September 18, 2016. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

Roberto Burle Marx started his artisic journey relatively unburdened by the expectation to observe the hierarchies between the arts. Before embarking on the career in garden design, for which he is known, Burle Marx was free to spend an exploratory period in Berlin at the end of the 1920s, where he was exposed not only to the myriad developments in Modernism but also to the tropical plants housed in the city’s botanical gardens. In 1930 he returned to Brazil  to begin studying painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Rio.

Burle Marx’s interest in painting started to cross over into garden design proper in the early 1930s, and in 1932 he was given a commission to create a garden layout for a house designed by Lúcio Costa, the man who would later create the urban plan for the new capital, Brasilia. By the time many young artists who were born after the turn of the century first encountered European Modernism in the late 20s and early 30s, Cubism was practically a classical discipline itself. There is much in Burle Marxs’ designs throughout his career which was developed from his study of the planar, fractured space of Cubism. After working through various styles however, it was the amorphous abstractions of Hans Arp which would inform Burle Marx’s aesthetics most visibly in future projects. The roof garden of the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo, created in 1983, is a well-resolved and iconic example of the signature style Burle Marx developed.


Roberto Burle Marx, mineral roof garden, Banco Safra headquarters, São Paulo, 1983
Photograph © Leonardo Finotti.

Prior to Burle Marx’s introduction of irregular shapes and asymmetrical arrangements, garden design in Brasil had traditionally involved the transposition of a grand 19th Century French formula of straight lines and European plant species. There was little or no allowance for the potential to exploit the staggering variety of native species which surrounded the urban centres. Having travelled to the other side of the world and been hugely affected in the Berlin Botanical Gardens by the sight of tropical plant species, Burle Marx would now begin to consolidate the various influences in painting, sculpture, drawing, and design to which he had been exposed. During the 1930s and 1940s, with the momentum of several prestigious design projects behind him, Marx developed his use of flowing organic forms, and layered vistas containing native Brazilian plant species such as the iconic Victoria Amazonica water lily.


Victoria amazonica water lilies, garden of the Fazenda Vargem Grande, Clemente Gomes residence, Areias, designed by Roberto Burle Marx, 1979. © Burle Marx Landscape Design Studio, Rio de Janeiro. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

There is no doubt that his experiences of European Modernism in painting informed Burle Marxs’ designs from the 1930s onwards. Rather than try to continue this legacy back in Brazil however, Burle Marx saw an opportunity to take the essence of Modernism and apply it to the development of urban spaces in his country, both public and private. It was an aesthetic which encouraged the search for inspiration from amongst ones’ own assets. Through the intuitive use of native plants and an openness to the true environment around him, Burle Marx helped foster a new creative self-confidence in Brazil.


Roberto Burle Marx holding Heliconia hirsuta burle marx ii, one of the plant species that bears his name. Photograph © Tyba.

Roberto Burle Marx at The Jewish Museum NY



Mary Heilmann – Looking at Pictures @ Whitechapel Gallery, London, June 8 – August 21, 2016

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Mary Heilmann, Cup Drawing, 1983, Oil on ceramic, 30.48 x 48.90 x 4.45 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Lucio Fontana thought of ceramic as the most aristocratic of sculptural materials. And it is likely that at about the time he began to work with ceramics at the Manufattura Mazzotti in the 1930s, the medium was still held in some degree of reverence for the delicate craft it often demanded. Fontana was one of the first of several modern artists to appropriate ceramics as part of their wider body of work, to stand alongside paintings even. In turning their attentions to it however, they also tended to drift far from the aristocratic.

Mary Heilmann has also built up a body of work which incorporates ceramics and painting, but one in which the presumed appropriation of the traditionally ‘craft’ medium belies a more intimate relation between the two components in the artist’s work. Heilmann studied ceramics and sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley from 1963 to 1967, before moving to New York in 1968, where she took up painting. It is easy to see ceramics as an adjunct to the artist’s painting, especially given the scale of some of the early paintings we encounter as we walk into the first room of the Whitechapel Gallery. But it would be negligent to assume that this formative period spent working with such a raw and pliable medium did not have a sustained influence on Heilmann’s painting.

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Mary Heilmann, The Thief of Baghdad, 1983, Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 106.68 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Pat Hearn Gallery
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The exhibition opens with some canvasses in which the impact of the male-dominated New York painting scene is tangible. There are some large and loose colour field works which seem to riff off the experiments of Joseph Albers or Mark Rothko. While the scale is substantial and the effect from a distance is one of a solid, carefully built up surface, these paintings are surprisingly unkempt. The slightly wobbling edge of an area of painted surface indicates hurried execution, as do the splashes and drips which enliven the chunky sides of the canvas. There are experiments with the square; often blocked in with thick satin interlocking strips of black acrylic over candy striped washes which bleed into each other like distinct river currents. These are nominally investigations into the kind of optics which occupied Albers over the course of a lifetime. With the newly arrived Heilmann however, we see a bold and almost irreverent hunger to work through what was current or recent in American painting.

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Mary Heilmann, Primalon Ballroom, 2002, Oil on canvas on wood, 127 x 101.6 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Oren Slor
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Were it to be seen as no more than a period of sampling and experimentation, this early body of work might have been given a less visible presence in this Whitechapel survey. The most interesting thing about these early paintings however, is just how much of their treatment of medium and attitude to colour interactions was carried on into the next stage of the artist’s career, when there began to emerge a signature approach, almost a style, which was Heilmann’s alone. Despite an impulse to disregard the artists’ early explorations in New York as momentary, unstudied, and deferential, on closer examination it becomes clear that there is consistency of intent throughout. If Heilmann felt it necessary to try to emulate the heft of popular large scale painting of the time, then she still could not resist applying the paint as though it were a ceramic glaze. These joyfully sloppy lines and incidental drips are what Heilmann has gone on to ‘refine’ in the work which forms the mature period of her career.

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Mary Heilmann, Crashing Wave, 2011, Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.60 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo: Thomas Müller
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Heilmann’s work looks not so much effortless as like joyful effort, and this is partly down to the ease with which the artist manipulates paint. This ease, in turn, comes from those critical formative years spent pressing and shaping clay and applying glazes. For any observer who sees Heilmann’s mid-career work as an abandonment of the potential touched on in the early New York paintings, I would suggest that the application of lessons learnt from a traditionally craft medium constitutes a highly appropriate evolution from the era of AB EX. After all, the processes demanded by the medium, and the ways in which these stages inform the final product, mean that crafts such as ceramics or blown glass for example will always speak more of their own formal qualities than any illusory content we may hope to charge them with.


Mary Heilmann, Maricopa Highway, 2014, Oil on canvas, 106.68 x 106.68 x 3.175 cm.
©Mary Heilmann
Photo credit: Marie Catalano
Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

The idea of content then is the other key element in Heilmann’s work. The artist speaks of being influenced by music and movies; individual songs and individual scenes. One might expect this to push the work in many directions. We could end up looking at a roomful of paintings entirely different from one another. However, Heilmann never strays too far from her signature elements, either her colours or her fluid geometrics. There is rarely any musical or filmic reference in any of her paintings which is so explicit as to appear to have informed the look of the work. These are impressions which the artist has grafted onto the work or simply thrown into the mix. They hardly seem to be essential. Yet for Heilmann, these musical or cinematic references exist as equals in the work alongside the continued exploration of colour values and geometric abstraction, and alongside the immanent physicality of her paintwork that comes from the lessons of working with ceramics.

Mary Heilmann came to painting having already received an initiation into ceramics and sculpture. Coming from this direction, an artist is bound to view their new medium through the prism of the one they are more familiar with. She also came to painting at a time when the spell of large scale abstraction was starting to break, if not already broken. Perhaps it is due to her discovery of painting during such a time of transition that Heilmann is less beholden to the medium of paint, but instead allows everything to flourish simultaneously in her work. This is a very contemporary attitude; to see an artwork as a ground on which to work out patterns of interaction between disparate, sometimes irreconcilable elements. The artist doesn’t need to impose a hierarchy, but instead can admit content, form, craft and intellect into the work in equal measure.


Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In the late 1990s, in the painting department of the art college I was studying at in Dublin, there was a small group of painters for whom a kind of process painting was the most logical way forward. It was a time when we were being urged from some corners to abandon painting altogether, at least temporarily, and to ‘interrogate’ our preconceptions or to ‘collapse’ our assumptions of what painting could do. It was the language of wartime and it made the task of thinking about art and reflecting on one’s work sound more like a national emergency. To throw ourselves into the unselfconscious application of the medium allowed us to switch off from the agony of second guessing.  

One way of looking at process art tells us that chance results, obtained through the application of a medium within a set of pre-decided material and procedural parameters, are themselves the aims of the artwork. The medium, and the way it responds to a variety of physical, temporal and chemical stages of intervention, is the message. On paper this definition of process in painting reads just like any kind of painting one cares to imagine. In the Renaissance workshop there were arguably far more complex processes being carried out at every stage of an artwork’s production than can be seen in the contemporary artists’ pouring from a pot or squeezing from a tube. So it could be that the term process painting is a misnomer.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In virtually all process art, from the pouring and staining technique of Morris Louis to the fluid choreography of Bernard Frizes’ patterns, there is a single or at most a small number of very evident stages involving the application of the medium, which give the work its most apparent characteristics. We could call this a signature conceit. In process painting the conceit on which the work rests is most often presented on a large scale if it is not to risk appearing finicky, like a detail from a larger image. This signature, or the result of the processes involved in making the work, are so evident that each successive viewer asks themselves the same single question; How is it done?

In Ryan Sullivan’s latest show at Sadie Coles, the question of how the work has been produced is certainly immediate. But it is followed by a host of other questions which are prompted by the quantity and variety of gestures and marks, and the profusion of sometimes jarring colours. There is a lot to take in aside from our initial curiosity about the technique, or process. If we return to our initial statement about process art, that it is about the behaviour of the medium within a predetermined set of procedural stages; the content or narrative of the final resulting image being the story of that process itself, then the seven works on display here start to look less like process painting alone. The ‘signature conceit’ of these paintings should surely be the result of the way the medium behaves in the service of a single process of application. In this case the paint has been set into silicon rubber moulds, some of which are flat and others corrugated. In the corrugated moulds, from which the completed painting is later extracted, much of the pigment has gathered in pools and slid and bled into other pigments. There is evidence of movement and accrual of different pigments which has occurred slowly in the time following their initial application in the mould. However, there is much incident in these paintings which is not accidental. There is brushwork, directed spattering, considered placement of marks, not to mention the colour choices which have gone into the works.  

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In his previous show at Sadie Coles in 2013, Sullivan presented us with a series of large panels which were more homogeneous in character. The process of applying exploding flares of spray paint to layers of wet oil paint created vast landscapes of slipping magma, like primordial landslides seen from space. We got lost in these unending, organic territories. The present series, whilst also being sizeable panels, appear more domestic in scale. The evidence of the brush here and there, gestures limited by the span of the artist’s arm perhaps, connect us more immediately to these paintings.

As striking as the 2013 paintings were, it is exciting to see the artist admit more variety of marks and hand-drawn interventions to his paintings. Whether or not Sullivan, as an American painter, feels any debt to Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting is not necessarily the right question to ask. It is fun however to spot passages in these paintings which are reminiscent of Hans Hofmann or Joan Mitchell, two of the more lyrical of the American painters associated with AB EX. This is not to suggest that Sullivan is trying to squeeze content into his paintings other than the content suggested by the medium as it sloshes beautifully around the surface. But why not have a little fun with our impulse to extract meaning from paintings?