February 10, 2016

Some Contemporary Painting at the Met

Lee Krasner, Rising Green, 1972; oil on canvas, 82 3/8 x 69 1/4 in. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently reinstalled their contemporary galleries and the curators have shaken things up a bit. There are, of course, major abstract expressionist paintings, but there are also more works outside the accepted canon; there are more works by women; there are surprising paintings by artists I thought I knew. This exuberantly lyrical painting by Lee Krasner is nothing like the more formally complex paintings of hers that I know.

Mark Rothko, No. 21, 1949; oil and acrylic with powdered pigments on canvas, 80 x 39 3/8 in.

It is good to see a Rothko painting with saturated color that points to where is going in his more famous works; here there are smaller forms and a meandering line that marks a boundary between two different hues of red.

Helen Frankenthaler, Stride, 1969; acrylic on canvas, 117 x 94 in. 

And this Frankenthaler really knocked me out; it is so different from her stain paintings, which I don't much like,. The simple, grand gesture, the sweep of orange paint, are full of movement, clarity, and buoyancy.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1955-56; oil and newspaper transfer on canvas, 96 x 74 in. 

I love de Kooning's paintings and Easter Monday is a brilliant example of his work of the 50s. When I look at his paintings I am in awe of the the way the fierce energy is controlled and balanced.

Easter Monday detail

Small incidents are compelling, such as newspaper transfers that came from de Kooning's painting process,

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955; encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas,
78 5/16 x 120 3/4 in. 

The Met has a great Jasper Johns on view, White Flag. Its gorgeous surface plays with image and symbol and abstraction.

White Flag detail

White is made up of many colors.

Conrad Marca-Relli, The Battle, 1956; oil cloth, tinted canvas, enamel paint, and oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 130 1/2 in. 

I haven't seen much of Marca-Relli's work, but I very much like this large painting with its myriad forms angling towards the center, implying deep space. Its title The Battle, makes me think that it might refer to the Paolo Uccello panel paintings The Battle of San Romano.

The Battle detail

The painting is made up of complex layers of paint and pasted shapes.

Al Held, Mercury Zone III, 1975; acrylic on canvas, 96 x 143 in. 

Al Held's painting has a different kind of space, one seemingly simple but made up of illusionistic forms floating and overlapping; they defy rational understanding.

Julian Lethbridge, Untitled, 2003-4; oil on canvas, 85 x 76 1/2 in. 

I'm sorry to admit that I don't know Julien Lethbridge's work at all because I think this is a beautiful painting. I like the layered weaving of lines....

Untitled detail

....as though in a dense forest.

Alex Katz, John's Loft, 1969; oil on aluminum. dimensions variable. 

This wonderful painting by Alex Katz was in a gallery adjacent to those of the permanent collection installation. It consists of several cutout figures and parts of figures; it echoes the sense of the bouncing-around perception we might have at a party, with figures close and far, alone and in pairs.

John's Loft detail

It's beautifully painted, with perfect economy. How nervy it is to juxtapose a partial closeup of a face with a figure far behind it.

I enjoyed my visit to the contemporary galleries at the Met, and I look forward to seeing what the museum will do with its new space, The Met Breuer....I'm excited!

February 7, 2016

Adventures with Clay: Trial by Fire

Porcelain, 8 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 7/8 in.

This does not happen with painting! when a painting is done, it's a success or a failure, but it doesn't crack down the middle; the paint doesn't fall off (well...many years ago I had problems with a white oil paint that yellowed and cracked). But when this piece, which I happen to have liked, cracked in the kiln, my friend and clay mentor, Deborah Jurist, told me "now you are a real potter". These kinds of disasters happen with clay. In this case, it was probably because the piece hadn't completely dried at the center. I prepared the image panel and frame panel separately, then put them together with slip. Happily, I realize that I prefer the clean look of the two panels fired separately then glued together––you can't see the attachment edges in these photos––so a problem like this is less likely to happen in future (I hope). I like the angled planes of this image––it's based on a farm machine photo––so I will probably attempt a re-do. 

with acrylic paint

I know that some may prefer the sculpture in its original white as it comes out of the kiln, but for me white is too pure and modernist, and I enjoy color too much, to leave it unpainted. The good thing about having a ruined piece is that it allows me to feel free to experiment with paint. I was having something of a hard time using egg tempera on the fired clay, so ordered some acrylics which are recommended for painting ceramics. I tried both heavy bodied and fluid paint, regular and matte, using Golden acrylics. I found that I prefer the thinness of the fluid paint; as for finish, I like a little more gloss in the matte, and less in the heavy body, both of which can be fixed by adding some medium. I've never used acrylic paint before––I've worked with oil, gouache, watercolor, and egg tempera––so this too is a learning process. 

In making relief sculpture, my greatest pleasure resides in line: in getting lines just right; in making them with straight or curved or beveled edges; making them deep in the move from one plane to another, or thin; assertive or hardly there. I love sculpting lines, the descriptors of form.

February 3, 2016

Retreating Snow

Last winter was a season of bitter cold and snow; this year winter couldn't be more different. I wrote happily about the late arrival of winter in a blog post dated January 5, and now, a month later, the landscape looks as though it might be mid March. The snow is disappearing and the sap has started running.

The small incidents of melting snow show little beauties, which I'm determined to enjoy although they are much more joyous after three months of cold and deep snow. The warmth of plants melts the ice....

....and they appear as though framed in glitter.

A still-green fern pops up above the snow alongside a graceful dried leaf.

I love seeing the leaves and branches that have fallen on the snow begin to settle into it....

....as their warmth creates a surrounding bed, perfectly proportioned.

There are circles clear of snow around tree trunks, warming for the spring season.

And on the front lawn patches of snow invite imaginative visions, of a horse....

....or a swaying figure. Of course winter is not yet over, and we may have more cold and snow, but it's good practice to enjoy whatever comes.

February 1, 2016

New Hooked Wool Drawings

2016 #1, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 1/2 x 15 1/2 in.

Sometimes when I make a new group of hooked wool drawings I am interested in having a similar theme in all four pieces; at other times, as with these works, I aim for variety. In #1 there's an illusionistic painted form circling a solidly hooked rectangle.

2016 #2, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.

Paint and wool describe shapes and a dividing line.

2016 #3, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 12 1/2 x 23 1/2 in.

The solidity of hooked wool shapes surround a thin painted one; but that pale yellow arc has been accorded some presence by the shapes around it.

2016 #4, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 18 x 15 in. 

Two outlined shapes wobble atop a painted one. These pieces are a balancing act: of color and shape, and the weights of forms painted or in the low relief of wool loops.

January 28, 2016

"There has to be a mystery...."

"The sun has changed position. 
No going back.
But the canvas remains warm."

A man wanders, as in a dream, through landscapes, towns, cities; he meets a monk, and a man in a roadside diner who needs to speak of his philosophy of life. Finally, he arrives at a building full of paintings, paintings that he describes as though they are real life: of a landscape he says: "If I just enter here, I will never come back". The Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Elegy of a Voyage, 2001, which you can watch online here, is a reverie, as this unknown man, mainly hidden from view, tries to find his place in the world. He finally discovers it within paintings, remembering himself to be at the site of the Pieter Saenredam painting shown above, there when it was painted, where he knew the people, the window, the light. Sokurov, who was the director of the brilliant Russian Ark, has a remarkable approach to paintings; I've never seen any depiction of them which brings them so close to actual life. For him, a painting is the same as a film; they are as real as each other, and as much of an illusion.

In an interview on the dvd containing two short films, Elegy of a Voyage, and Hubert Robert, A Fortunate Life (1996), Sokurov discusses the connection between painting and cinema: they are both flat:
....therefore all the talk of the third dimension in film is a game and a mistake. I think that one must do his utmost to achieve the same results artists manage to obtain while creating a painting.  
A flat image has something. Something that we hold back from the viewer. A reticence. And art is only where this reticence exists. A limitation of what we can actually see and feel.

There has to be a mystery, and the flat image provides this mystery.
I find this analysis of the heart of painting's magical nature fascinating. I've long felt that one of the things that is most compelling to me about doing my own paintings is creating an illusion of tangible reality; that the painting is actually flat makes this an uncanny process. Sokurov very emphatically state that he has no interest at all in 20th century art; for him, the greatest art was made during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But I think that the idea of reticence also applies to 20th century abstraction, to all painting really. It all holds something back; it all asks us to think, to imagine, to feel. And what about realist sculpture? I wonder what Sokurov would say about that. Does providing a lot of information in a three dimensional work negate reticence, and therefore mystery? I would think it's a different kind of mystery: one that wonders how wood, clay, stone, can be transformed into an object that pulses with life, such as this ancient Egyptian portrait head of Senwosret III:

Is art "only where this reticence exists"? In the sense that artists are not gods, are not creating "reality"––though reality itself is something to argue about––yes. Yes, something is held back, and in that is art's mystery.

January 26, 2016

A New Painting: "Yellow/Green Diptych

Yellow/Green Diptych, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 2 panels each 8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in. 

I like diptychs and other multi panel works: form and color leap from panel to panel, creating a more complex relationship than in a single panel; it is a kind of conversation. I've done many multi-panel textile works, but not so many paintings, which are, for me, more difficult to compose. I did one diptych last year, which you can see here, and one the year before, here. My previous diptychs were horizontal, and I thought I'd try something quite different with this painting, having the two panels aligned vertically. (In the transfer from actual painting to photograph, the space between panels, which was 3/4 inch, appears too wide.) I like the way the large green planes jump from one panel to the next, and have opposite diagonal directions. 

Yellow/Green Diptych detail panel 1

There is a curve in the top panel....

Yellow/Green Diptych detail panel 2

....and several repeating ones on the bottom. These curves also introduce more color. This work was a challenge for me, and I'm not quite sure it's a success, but I intend to keep trying multi-panel paintings.

January 24, 2016

At the Met: The Presence and Clarity of a Medieval Sculpture

Virgin and Child in Majesty, French, ca. 1175-1200; walnut with paint, tin relief on a lead white ground, and linen; overall 31 5/16 x 12 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. 

I love wandering about in the medieval galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Form is stylized for maximum expression, but the feeling is contained; there's a powerful emotional reserve. Virgin and Child in Majesty is such a beautiful work, one of my favorite medieval sculptures, so on a recent visit I took several photographs of it. Its frontality and symmetry are arresting, as are all the rhythmic curves as they descend over the Virgin's arms and flow like a halo around the head of the child Jesus. Her headdress encloses the oval of her face; folds of cloth are poignantly draped over feet.

The clear and simple forms of the heads bring quiet, calm, and inward expressions to the faces of Virgin and child. The child Jesus has the proportions of an adult's face; according to the Met's web page on this sculpture, Jesus "the son of God is Wisdom incarnate". This type of sculpture is known as a "Throne of Wisdom". The still intensity of these figures reminds me of statues of the Buddha. 

Powerfully large hands hold the infant. Although they are almost flat, more the idea of hands than actual representations, their large size makes them as important as the faces. It is the Virgin as compassionate, as a mother and caregiver,.

From the side (sorry about the reflections), we can see the repetition of forms, the simple upright postures.

I love the opposing curves; such fluid elegance.

The curves meet the beautifully patterned cushion in a sensitive sweep. The upward curves in the throne repeat the curves of the figure's clothing. This is a piece where abstract form carries so much feeling: I am moved at the way lines meet, and shift, and describe a volume. I am also moved by this portrayal of humanity.

January 20, 2016

Adventures with Clay: A Steep Learning Curve

Egyptian Curves, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.

I have learned so incredibly much since I last posted about my first attempts with clay reliefs about six weeks ago. I've been working hard, I might even say obsessively, nose to grindstone, on my clay projects. It's been a long time since I've cursed as much while making art; it's so easy to make mistakes: drop a tool and make a hole, cut off an important bit of form, ruin a perfectly good line, etc. If it wasn't for the helpful advice of my sculptor friends––Sam Thurston and Harry Roseman––and the knowledge and generosity of my ceramicist friend, Deborah Jurist, who has fired this work for me, I would still be messing about with air dried clay. And if it wasn't for the brilliant exhibition of Middle Kingdom Egyptian art at the Met, I wouldn't have begun working with clay in the first place. 

I'm beginning this post with my most recent piece, and the one I think is most successful so far. I puttered with abstract imagery, as in Reliefs 8 and 9 below, but it wasn't until I copied details from Egyptian relief carvings that I began to get an idea of where I was going. First of all, I found out that carving the clay would work better for me that what I had been doing: layering thin slabs. 

Egyptian Curves detail

 Looking carefully at the detail of an Egyptian headdress, I tried to copy the subtle plane changes, and the sensitive curves and lines. Doing this gave me a three dimensional vocabulary, something this two dimensional artist sorely needed.

Egyptian Offerings, 1st version

Then there was the issue of color. I didn't want to leave the pieces white, as beautiful as that is; I love color too much. I wanted to use paint, so as not to have to fire the work again, and also to have more control. There was a problem with the porosity of the clay: at its full firing temperature, it was too vitrified to accept egg tempera; the paint didn't stick. Deborah tried placing the pieces in a cooler part of the kiln, so they would be a bit under-fired, therefore more porous, and that helped a lot. Then there was my decision on how to use the paint: transparently or more opaquely. Decisions, decisions, lots and lots of figuring things out. My first attempt on Egyptian Offerings was using transparent paint; I put a second layer and didn't like that at all: too much showing of every little imperfection on the surface; that's all you noticed, instead of the form.

Egyptian Offerings, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 10 x 8 1/16 in.

So I took a deep breath and went back at it with thicker paint, using several layers, as I do with my paintings on parchment....and....it made me happy. I made the surrounding "frame" a slightly different color than the image panel, as I did with Egyptian Curves. That was another set of decisions: whether to have the frame at all, whether to make it the very same color as the image. For me, the image panel looked kind of naked without a surround, and right now I like the slight color variation, though I might not do that all the time. 

Egyptian Offerings detail

One of the great pleasures for me in doing these reliefs is playing with line and edge, and paying attention to the way one form meets another. There are infinite variations in these aspects of three dimensional drawing.

Relief 8, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 in.

Relief 9, porcelain with egg tempera paint, 9 1/4 x 8 1/2 in.

The two pieces above were made using slabs, which I found hard to keep smooth and flat. I originally thought I'd make only abstract images, like these two, but since doing the Egyptian pieces I realize I can also use imagery from my machinery files. Relief 8 was done with transparent paint, and 9 with thicker paint. I used a wider framing panel in Relief 9 wanting to see if it was more effective, but I don't think it is, so I'm sticking with a frame that's a bit more than an inch wide. Although sometimes I've felt like a dumbbell while working with clay, it is deeply satisfying, and I look forward to seeing where it will take me.

January 18, 2016

Orange and Almond Cake, "Tarta de Naranja"

An intense orange flavor combined with the texture of ground almonds makes this cake a delicious treat for a winter's day. The recipe comes from Claudia Roden's Mediterranean Cookery; she writes that the recipe came from a Spanish travel companion. It is a flourless cake, consisting of only almonds, eggs, sugar, and orange zest; it is then impregnated with an orange syrup, so it becomes very very moist. It's quite simple to make, the only complication being separating the eggs and beating the egg whites till stiff. The cake was a hit at my art group yesterday.

4 eggs, separated
125 g (4 oz) sugar (note: I always used a kitchen scale for measuring, so I looked up the equivalent in cups: it's about 1/2 cup)
grated zest of one orange
50 g (2 oz) ground almonds
50 g (2 oz) blanched almonds, finely chopped (2 oz equals 2/5 cup, so a little more than 1/3, a little less than 1/2 cup)

For the syrup:
Juice of 3 or 4 oranges, equaling about 300 ml, or 10 fl oz)
75 g (3 oz, 3/8 cup) sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbs orange liqueur (optional; I add the zest from 1/2 orange for more flavor instead of the liqueur)

  • Preheat oven to 350º
  • Mix egg yolks with sugar, orange zest, and all the almonds.
  • Beat egg whites till stiff; fold gently into the egg yolk mixture. 
  • Pour mixture into a greased and floured non-stick 8 inch cake pan. 
  • Bake for 30-35 minutes, until lightly browned. The recipe calls for 45 minutes, but that's much too long, at least in my oven. The cake will puff up in the oven and sink back down as it cools.
  • Allow the cake to cool, then transfer it to a serving dish.
  • For the syrup, simmer the orange juice with the sugar and cinnamon stick (and orange zest if using) for a few minutes until the sugar is melted. Add the liqueur if using. 
  • Prick the cake with small holes, for instance using a toothpick, then pour the syrup over it. It takes a while for the syrup to really sink in. Roden suggests eating the cake the day after it is made, which is what I've done. 

Serves 6-8 hungry people, or 8-12 with smaller portions, which I think are quite sufficient.


For my newer readers, here's a link to more of the recipes on this blog.

January 16, 2016

A New Textile: "Back and Forth"

Back and Forth, hand dyed wool on linen, 13 1/2 x 15 in.

I titled this piece Back and Forth because of the figure/ground flipflop that occurs. I had expected something like that to happen within the lime green and black rectangles––which shape dominates, the black one or the green one?––but what came as a surprise was the prominence of the central aqua rectangle, and its insistence on popping forward, probably caused by the contrast with the enclosing black. Because of this, every shape seems to be in flux. Another aspect of changeability: when I first did the studies for this work, I had four equal squares around a central square; that would have been more stable, but I opted for some variation, with overlapping and with size differences. This piece doesn't sit still, and I enjoy that about it. 

Back and Forth detail