200 words #19 / Secundino Hernández

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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

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 #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.

David Korty @ Sadie Coles HQ / Davies St. London, September 1 – October 1, 2016.

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Installation view, David Korty, Sadie Coles HQ, 1 Davies Street, London, 01 September – 01 October 2016. Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

To read the critic Clement Greenberg writing in 1948 that “…the cubist tradition may enjoy a new efflorescence in this country (America)…” is to be reminded that American art was, until well into the 20th century, still looking over its shoulder at Europe. This ‘efflorescence’ never did occur, unless Greenberg had in mind some kind of sublimated re-presentation of cubism, on a larger scale perhaps – a scale befitting the art of an emergent superpower.

David Korty (born, California, 1971) is painting at a vast remove from a time when the futures of clearly identifiable movements in art were the subjects of earnest debate. If the current series of paintings on show at Sadie Coles employs visual devices familiar to us from the work of a range of cubist and post-cubist artists from the past, then it presents these devices in a way which has been researched. His work is cool, in the sense that it does not break a sweat or leave itself exposed to anything so compromising as spontaneity. Accidents, happy or unwanted, have likely happened during the period leading up to the commencement of the series proper, before the major choices involving colour, text, scale, and motifs had been made. The resulting work is sharp, consistent, and imposing.

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David Korty, Word Painting (Wind), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in, unique, signed and dated on verso, HQ20-DK12227P / DK02, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Korty’s previous series, Blue Shelves, which was shown at the gallery in early 2014, was a departure of sorts from earlier series. In Blue Shelves we saw the artist choose between figuration and the cubist elements which had increasingly threatened to take over his canvases. The Blue Shelves paintings took these cubistic fragments, and other elements, and presented them to us in a literal way; a select range of hyper-modernist iconography in tiered arrangements, reminiscent of Victorian display cases or a classical frieze. The iconography ‘on display’, or the motifs if you prefer, were doubly flattened in the Blue Shelves series in their manner of presentation to the viewer, through the inky monochrome in which they were drawn, and by the opacity of the blue against which they stood, no single motif standing out beyond another. The present series takes many of the characteristics of the Blue Shelves: the stacked presentation of motifs against an unyielding blue ground, a careful arrangement of geometric shapes, and an overall vibration of modernism. These almost centreless arrangements – I say almost because, not considering the balanced distribution of motifs in general, they do have a very evident centre of gravity in so far as they are rooted to the bottom of the canvas – are shaped by a highly distilled sense of cubist space. But equally noticeable in both this and the previous series is the craft evident in the way they have been put together, and in the deft and practised handling of paint and collage. If Greenberg’s efflorescence had emerged, it would doubtless have had to look, of necessity, as sophisticated as this.

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David Korty, Word Painting (Time), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in,unique, HQ20-DK12230P / DK01, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

With this series Korty is hardly experimenting in the way the early cubist were. He is not wrestling with forms which are radical or new. By deciding to invest more of his creative effort in the exploration of high modernism and its images, nowadays more often than not recognisable to us in ghostly echoes, the artist has found a potential vehicle for series after series of paintings. There is always the risk of crossing the line into unrewarding repetition, but this is mitigated by highly skilful and subtle variation from canvas to canvas. The vocabulary of motifs the artist has chosen to use is guided by an all-over intent to compose the space in a very cubist way. As with proto-cubist painting, balance is regularly threatened by discord as shapes nudge each other and burst out here and there like exclamations. But the overall composition holds. No clusters of motifs dominate which might disrupt the overall syncopated balance. Cubism after all had structural conventions of its own which led to a cubist ‘look’, and Korty has harnessed the essence of this look.

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David Korty, Word Painting (Nevada), 2016, flashe, ink, pencil, paper on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm / 84 x 72 in, unique, signed and dated on verso, HQ20-DK12231P / DK06, Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Another subtle development here is a more comprehensive use of text compared with previous work. There were textual elements here and there in the Blue Shelves series, but in this current series text has become central. The paintings do have individual titles, such as ‘Time’, ‘Wind’, ‘Tulips’ or ‘Horizon’- words which appear somewhere within the proliferations of text in each painting of the same title. The common master title for each painting in the series however is ‘Word Painting’. Text as it was used in early cubist paintings was parodically mundane in origin. Words such as ‘vin’ or ‘journal’, often fragmented and used as objects within the painting, reinforced the sense that radical changes were happening in the midst of so much bourgeois comfort. Korty follows suit with his use as a visual component of non-committal fragments of text; fragments which are subject, just like any other motif in the painting, to the forces of compositional arrangement and rearrangement. A recurring manipulation of text in the Word Paintings is the division of a word by splicing it with part of another. Then there is the mirroring of words in their entirety. Both uses of text might indicate a preoccupation with duality or the reverse side of a thing, a word being a thing in this case. If one of cubism’s aims was to attempt to show all sides of an object on a single plane, then the Word Paintings seem to be trying to show us text from all angles.

Again, Korty stays true to the cubists in his usage of motifs, including text as a visual motif. There are further hints at the type of cubism the artist has studied and drawn from for his own paintings. These sources are even more apparent when we look at a series of more colourful canvases Korty exhibited in the Night Gallery in Los Angeles last year. In these closely related works the influence is evident of a more genteel cubism à la Picasso’s Three Musicians of 1921 for example. Figuration again becomes an issue as the fragments of earlier manifestations of cubism begin to coalesce once more to form rudimentary but discernible figures.

What is it that draws artists back repeatedly to those iconic moments in cubism and other products of modernism? Perhaps the attraction of these forms, which are no longer new, is the challenge of trying to understand the rupture that they signified when they first came about. The fascination cubism still holds for some artists may not nowadays rest on all of the same ideas that drove the movement when it first emerged. Nonetheless, it can translate well into a contemporary context. Art forms considered by many to be irrelevant should only perhaps be labelled dead in so far as they no longer constitute an end in themselves, but can still be used as a springboard for something entirely new.

David Korty at Sadie Coles

David Korty at Night Gallery