October 23, 2014

A New Textile: Arced Double Square

Arced Double Square, hand dyed wool on linen, 15 x 15 in.

This piece, made up of two squares overlapping at their center, was inspired by similarly formatted paintings by Mary Heilmann. It is flat like her paintings, made up of a shaped surface. I chose curves to play off against the square shapes. It wasn't until I'd started working on the piece that I noticed that its colors and theme were similar to my most recently completed painting, Red Arc, an unconscious influence. 

Mary Heilmann, Lupe, 1987; oil on canvas, 54 x 54 in. 

In Lupe, Heilmann divides the shaped plane into equal squares, with looping lines wandering across them, tying them together. 

Arced Double Square detail

In this detail image you can see that although there might be an illusion of one square overlapping another, the piece is flat. I wanted to have a point of tension where the square meets the curve, as though it is pricking the rounded line. One curve flows outward and one inward, which I hope sets up a balance of forces, the dark red shapes taking precedence over the yellow. I am grateful to Heilmann, who is a marvelous painter, for starting me off on this format.

October 22, 2014

Feeding the Neighbors

When I got home yesterday after 8 days away and looked out toward the vegetable garden I could see that something was amiss: leaves were missing. The full broad leaves of the brussels sprouts had been chewed away, though happily the sprouts were untouched.

The sorrel was gone.....

.....as was the swiss chard.

The beets remain, but not their greens.

Of course I knew that deer had gotten into the garden while I was gone; they begin to jump the fence when the weather cools down, hoping to fill their bellies before winter. I saw the tracks of a large deer....

....and those of a small one, perhaps a doe and her young offspring.

At the very end of the garden season, sometime in later November, I lower the electric fence and invite the local deer in to finish what remains; but I'm not yet ready to do that, so I put some fresh packets of peanut butter on the fence: if a deer goes close for a taste, a little shock will tell her "not now". My animal neighbors will have to wait a while longer for their treat, and meanwhile, brussels sprouts for dinner!

October 12, 2014

Richard Nonas: Forms in Space

Untitled, 2005; steel, 4 1/2 x 3 x 2 in

On my recent visit to NYC, my favorite gallery show was the sculpture of Richard Nonas at Fergus McCaffrey. The show was a retrospective of sorts, with work spanning the years 1970-2014. I don't know how I've missed seeing his work all these years; this was the first I've seen of it, and I loved it. There is a consistent vision throughout, a minimalist sensibility, with work modest in size and large in ambition. When I began processing the photographs that I took at the gallery, I noticed what must have been subconsciously clear to me while there: these small pieces were as much about the space around them as the solid forms themselves. Rather than focus on closeups of each work individually, I photographed much of their surroundings. The work above was on the wall alongside the staircase to the second floor; the way it was hung animated the wall, as though encouraging an upward movement. It is such a simple idea: two triangles abutting so as to create an irregular edge, with that empty rectangle creating energy. 

Untitled, 2014; steel; Part 1: 9 x 8 x 4 1/2 in.; Part 2: 8 x 8 x 4 1/2 in. 

Two pieces made up of a horizontal and vertical rectangular solid, seemingly the same though turned 90 degrees. But no, the left part is slightly longer than the right; and the jutting rectangle on the right is not centered on its vertical. These slight variations, along with the major one of orientation, have our eye moving back and forth, jumping from one element to the other in a lively interaction.

Untitled, 1987, Untitled, 1986; oil paint on steel; 12 x 12  x 2 in; 9 1/4 x 8 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. 

White paint on steel brings attention to surface and to the planes of the sculpture. A cross, so close to the floor, seems to levitate; a white shape moving across and irregular solid emphasizes its volume. The two pieces together are engaged in an interesting conversation.

A few small pieces were installed in a space under the staircase. The floor pieces are especially lively, looking like they are jabbering with each other. 

Skid (New-Word Chaser Series), 2014; steel; 9 parts, 41 ft and 6 in long, each: 20 x 20 x 12 1/4 in. 

Nine identical parts go shooting across the gallery from one room into another. One thing that's so interesting about this work is that steel is usually used for enormous, monumental sculpture. Nonas shows us that the material has great beauty of surface and great emotional weight at a small size. We follow these "T" shaped pieces as though they are friendly signs leading us onward.

Untitled (First Series), 2014; steel; 6 1/2 x 4 x 4; 4 x 6 1/4 x 4; 7 1/4 x 6 x 4 1/4; 6 x 4 x 4 in.

Instead of being enveloped by steel, as in the work of Richard Serra, we have an intimate relationship with it. This series of compact works uses a vocabulary that shifts from one piece to the next, all dealing with shifting planes.

Untitled (First Series)

Untitled (First Series)

The surfaces are varied in color and in surface finish, making the simplicity of form more complex.

Untitled, 1990; steel, 8 x 6 3/4 x 5 in.

This small floor piece brings to mind one of Joel Shapiro's house sculptures, but while the Shapiro is a self-contained image, the Nonas work has a deeper and more mysterious resonance; although weighty, the reddish forms also have a floating quality to them as the triangle points upward, rising in the space.

Untitled, 2003; steel, 7 x 10 1/2 x 1 1/2 in.

What could be more direct, more ordinary, than a group of sliced cylinders? They could almost be pieces left over from a construction project. In lining them up in such a deliberate way, Nonas makes something poetic of them; curving elements that could roll across the floor are instead huddled together, the pattern of their repeated ellipses giving a sense of movement. I think this might have been my favorite work in the show; it touches me: there's a vulnerability expressed in these hard forms.

Crude Thinking 1, 2005-2007; wood, 34 1/4 x 37 1/4 x 9 in.

Crude Thinking 5, 2005-07; wood, 31 x 41 x 9 in.

There were several wood pieces in the show, including these two titled Crude Thinking. I suppose that putting together 3 slabs of plain wood could be considered crude, but Nonas' perfect sense of form and balance turns them into satisfying objects of contemplation. Larger than the steel pieces, they have a more commanding presence on the wall; at the same time they are softer and warmer, wood being a living material. It may seem surprising that I would feel so moved by sculpture that is so stripped down, so elemental, but that is exactly its appeal: in clear and simple forms is a sense of the underlying reality of the world, its essential character. Nonas aims towards that.

I will be away for a while: family obligations and the opening of my NYC show at McKenzie Fine Art, 55 Orchard St, Saturday Oct 18 from 6 - 8 PM. I'll see you in a week or two....

October 9, 2014

A Walk in the Woods: The Scent of Autumn

Each season has its olfactory delights––spring and summer with the wafting scents of flowers, winter with its crisp clean smell––but one of the most delicious is in the woods in autumn.

Not only are woodland paths beautiful with their multi-hued carpets of leaves....

....the scent in the air is spicy-sweet, a smell particular to fall. You can sniff, sniff, sniff, trying to place the smell, as though you are in an exotic spice shop, but it is just the smell of the fall woods. I assume it comes from the decaying leaves that cover the ground, and what a delightful outcome from decay. I so wish there was a way to share smells, like there are images and sounds; maybe some day we'll be able to do that, a scratch and sniff for the computer. 

As I walk the path, I have the visual beauty of colored leaves above and below, the amazing aroma, and the sound of my feet brushing through the drying leaves; that sound reminds me of a childhood delight: crashing through large piles of fallen leaves in Brooklyn, scattering them, tossing them, a raucous celebration of the season.

My fall fancies are now quieter, but just as appreciative. The color is fleeting; the paths will soon be dun. The special scent of this season's woods will become a memory, as the cold and quiet of winter begins to set in.

October 7, 2014

A New Painting: "Red Arc"

Red Arc, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 3/4 x 8 1/2 in.

Simple elements: rectangle, arc, diagonal; two colors. But within those basic forms are variations of surface, of light, of form; indentations, curves, reflections, shadows. A reason I stick with representation, with getting a sense of the physical presence of actual things, is the pleasure I have in getting those details right. 

Red Arc detail

October 5, 2014

The Enigma of Jeff Koons: Formalist; Social Critic; Showman; Cynic; Buoyant Optimist??

Sponges with single double-sided floor mirror, 1978, (partially refabricated 2014); sponges, mirror, and acrylic

One of the exhibitions I saw on my recent trip to NYC was Jeff Koons: A Retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Having seen much of his work over the years, some of which I loved, some was bemused by, some I thought silly, I wondered how it would all look together. I have to admit that I went to the show wanting to like it––which I did, though definitely not all of it; some of the work is awful––because of the shocking level of vitriol directed at Koons and at his work. In this post I want to stay away from discussion of the art market––which many think is a main content of Koons' work, although I don't––and just look at the work in front of me, the work I liked, and try to decipher it. The thing that most surprised me with the early work was its strong formal qualities: yes, the materials were ordinary objects that refer to Duchamp, but the way they were combined was visually powerful. A few colored sponges act as elements in a minimalist sculpture, the mirror making them self-conscious, more than kitchen cleanup tools.

Teapot, 1979; teapot, plastic tubes, and fluorescent lights, 26 x 9 x 13 in.

from the series "The New"

The central circles of these two pieces have a vigorous presence; their simplicity allows an abstract reading: we don't have to know what the objects actually are. I first see the compositions, then I realize what they are made from. I have to say here, and will repeat, that small reproductions of Koons' work do not give a good sense of it; the work is very physical and requires a physical engagement.

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J241 series), 1985; glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water, and basketball. 

This installation is one of the great highlights of the show. It was a brilliant decision to place the single floating basketball in a small room with one of the Marcel Breuer angled windows. The piece is remarkable, mysterious, with a sense of timelessness; though that is belied because the ball will eventually sink. This reminded me of nothing so much as one of Malevich's Suprematist paintings.

Woman in Tub, 1988; porcelain, 23 3/4 x 36 x 27 in. 

A few years later comes the series––Koons works in named series––called "Banality", which made him notorious. Working with fine craftspeople, Koons enlarged small kitsch objects, such as this silly woman in a tub being frightened by something or other. The most famous of this group is Michael Jackson and Bubbles. The series of works is funny, grotesque, off-putting, and probably more than what it seems. I saw these when they were first exhibited in New York's Soho art district and remember thinking that they were subversive works: Koons had made kitsch objects into high art, and gotten collectors to buy works the small originals of which they wouldn't be caught dead having in their houses. Of course I have no idea if this was in Koons' mind while making this series; he seems to be deadpan sincere about all his work. 

Vase of Flowers, 1988; mirror, 72 1/2 x 53 x 1 in. 

This extravagant, over the top mirror is similarly kitschy in feeling. Over the years I've been thinking about Koons' use of these "lower class" objects, and how angry people get about them. Yes, of course there's something about the glitz and the marketing, but there's also the big issue of class: the bringing of attention to objects many think would be best disappeared is an interesting stance for an artist to take. I think of Oldenburg and van Bruggen who also make large public sculpture using ordinary objects––lipstick, clothespins, trowels––but don't seem to attract the vituperative responses that Koons gets. Their work is more aestheticized, abstracted, the objects more neutral in feeling. It, in a word, is more tasteful

Large Vase of Flowers (detail), 1991; polychromed wood, 52 x 43 x 43 in.

Good taste does not enter into this crowded vase of flowers, which has more of a Little Shop of Horrors look to it, and is a distant relation to the many 17th century Dutch still lives of flowers.

Elephant, 2003; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 36 1/2 x 29 x 19 in. 

 I love Koons' balloon pieces, from this little elephant to the huge balloon dog below. There is something joyous about their rounded sparkling surfaces, as they take us back to childhood memories of happy playtimes. I don't think his paintings are as successful; they seem less inventive, more derivative of artists such as Rosenquist and Salle and Will Cotton.

Balloon Venus (Orange), 2008-12; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 102 x 48 x 50 in. 

This piece, inspired by the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient fertility statuette, was new to me and a complete knockout. The beautifully rounded forms are majestic, each angle of observation showing new, rich, formal relations. There is no way to get any idea of this piece unless you are standing there alongside it. The constantly shifting reflections and highlights on all the mirror polished works add a non-stop energy to them.

Hulk (Organ), 2004-14; polychromed bronze and mixed media, 93 1/2 x 48 5/8 x 27 7/8 in. 

Hulk is hilarious: that big green monster, looking so frightening with the bristling organ pipes rising from his back, the ultimate macho beast. From the Whitney Museum explanation of this piece, Koons thinks the figure represents "both Western and Eastern culture and the sense of a guardian, a protector". Well, no, not for me; for me he's a fierce inflatable, easily deflated, a figure "full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."

Cat on a Clothesline (Aqua), 1994-2001; polyethylene plastic, 123 x 110 x 50 in. 

For another take on masculinity, there's this cat, hanging in a long bag, with two floral accompaniments. This is a huge, 10 foot high, piece that made my friend and I have a long fit of giggles. Koons has very effectively emasculated the male gender with this work (or do I have a dirty mind and it's just a cat in a bag? "a cigar is sometimes just a cigar")

Lobster, 2003; polychromed aluminum and coated steel chain, 57 7/8 x 37 x 17 1/8 in. 

Lobster brought up interesting issues of realism and representation. This is a sculpture made of a hard metal that looks exactly like a soft inflatable, one of those rafts for kids for floating in the pool (another tacky kitsch object). So, what to think of this verisimilitude? When you make a painting, even if it's a photo-realistic one, it is an abstraction: a three dimensional world is flattened into two dimensions. With this sculpture, Koons has reproduced the reality exactly, in three dimensions. It is an uncanny experience standing in front of this lobster, knowing it's a metal sculpture but believing it's an inflatable toy. If I was a philosopher I'd probably have more of an understanding of these issues, but I do believe it brings up questions of the nature of reality and of art.

Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 
121 x 143 x 45 in. 

A large gallery at the Whitney housed some monumental pieces, including this gorgeous Balloon Dog. I remember the delight I had in seeing this work on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The perfectly rounded forms reflected Central Park; the sculpture carried memories of children's parties. Its perky presence (look at that tail!) still enchants in an interior setting; it is a joyous work.

Balloon Dog (Yellow) detail

The tied end of the balloon on the dog's nose is a touching detail.

Moon (Light Pink), 1995-2000; mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, 
130 x 130 x 40 in. 

In a small photo this sculpture is reduced to the size of the balloon that was its model, while in reality it has an enormous presence. It contains a reflected world, including Balloon Dog and Play-Doh, and Cat on a Clothesline. Its simple form would be austere in another material, but Koons is out to enchant; it is lush minimalism.

Play-Doh, 1994-2014; polychromed aluminum,
120 x 108 x 108 in. 

Play-Doh, another childhood memory. The wall label states that Koons remembers his son giving him a  Play-doh sculpture he had made; if so, the son must be all grown up by now since this piece took 20 years to realize. The surfaces and texture are remarkably like that well-loved material with the very distinct aroma (which the sculpture doesn't replicate); they also can't help but bring to mind playing with poop. Like Lobster, it brings up issues of realism: are the formal aspects of this work strong enough to have it rise above mere bloated representation? I think so. Things that are so ordinary and simple in reality are transformed by Koons into imposing, yet light-hearted, monuments; there's no question that he's a showman, an optimistic one. It's quite a different strategy from that of Chardin and John Peto, who painted the ordinary, but it has validity. Monumental sculpture doesn't have to be restricted to the "Serious", such as the work of Richard Serra. I have room in my world of art for both Koons and Serra.

October 2, 2014

Nicholas Krushenik: Serious Fun

Rousseau Giving Love and Lions, 1962; acrylic on canvas, 76 1/2 x 51 1/2 in.

Nicholas Krushenik (1929 - 1999) used the elements of cartooning––bold colors, simple shapes, black outlines––to create vivid and inventive abstract paintings. A show of his early work, currently at Garth Greenan Gallery, is a visual delight, with each painting exploring very different ideas of color and shape in space. With all their emphasis on flatness, they are not at all flat, but bend and curve and wobble with vigorous energy. His titles are wonderfully allusive, as in this painting's reference to Henri Rousseau. Rather than thinking of jungle greens, however, my immediate response was to weaving with this pattern and its bulging irregularity.

Rousseau Giving Love and Lions detail

The paint was anything but flat in Krushenik's paintings. I enjoyed seeing the history of changes and the subtle layering of color that looked solid from a distance.

Quick Red Fox, 1963; acrylic on canvas, 84 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.

Blue and yellow wave pointed ends as though a tattered banner. Their intense color floats above a neutral gray, an unusual color in this show. Looking at this painting, I see how the black lines separate the colors, but also pop them out toward the picture plane; even though it's an intense color, the orange settles back as background with no black lines for contrast.

Horizontal Stripes, 1963; acrylic on canvas, 84 1/4 x 51 1/2 in.

These horizontal stripes aren't quite horizontal (I sense a joke here), with red flames licking the yellow and white. This painting flows downward, and white points push aggressively into the red, creating a figure/ground quandary.

Pango-Pango, 1963; acrylic on canvas, 80 1/4 x 47 in. 

I'm having fun trying to decipher Krushenik's titles: Pango-Pango is the former name of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. I don't quite see anything tropical in this image, but I do love the flip-flop of the two blue eyehole forms above the red and yellow "mat" (again I see weaving). There's a great deal of clever image-play in this piece, with the blue shape above being twisted by insertion of a black line, while the one below is flatter, but....it looks at though it is folded up from the blue surround, where it sits in front of the red/yellow forms. The black lines at top and bottom push those blue shapes together. The seemingly simple has great complexity.

Sterling Moss at the Esses, 1962; acrylic on canvas, 65 3/4 x 52 in.

Most of the paintings in the show are in a vertical format, and each uses the format differently. Here another woven group of shapes move downward but don't quite make it to the bottom of the canvas. Could it have something to do with who Stirling Moss is? This title was so mysterious that I googled and up came the race car driver Stirling (not Sterling) Moss, and Esses are curves on a racetrack. Was there an accident? But leaving out the possible narrative, in a nervy way, the artist abruptly ends the red and purple shapes, leaving a white shape that is startlingly present.

Your Fastener is Disengaged, 1962; acrylic on canvas, 60 x 42 in.

I laughed out loud at this painting. The bulbous forms are like swaying heads, or like that funny thing that hangs down at the back of the throat, the uvula. As fasteners, we have an amusing time thinking of them all fitting together, like wacky, organic, zippers. They undulate on top of the wavering grid of brown and orange: organic and sorta geometric.

Untitled, 1961; graphite and acrylic on paper, 12 1/2 x 8 1/2 in.

It was very interesting to see some studies for the paintings, to see where Krushenik started.....

Untitled, 1961; acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

....and how he ended up. The idea of a squiggly bounded line with a form resting in its curve was clarified and the colors of shapes changed. The resulting painting is much more dramatic with the black curving rectangle at bottom, the black band at top; the blue shape has more presence than when it was a less defined yellow as in the study. 

Untitled, 1961 detail

Looking closely at the small painting (click to enlarge), you can see that there were changes of line and shape in the making of it. It is carefully balanced. 

 3 drawings, all Untitled, 1961; graphite and acrylic on paper.

I love seeing the buoyant energy of these drawings. I see the thought process, especially in the one on the right as the artist tries variations on a theme, one of whose results we see above. I was so happy to see this show of paintings full of intelligence, quirky beauty, and wit.