May 5, 2016

At the Met: The Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary


Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bluebird" Radio, 1934; manufacturer: Sparton Corporation; 
glass, chrome-plated metal, fabric, painted wood.


I love good design, and seeing the attention paid to all aspects of a manufactured object: a thing in everyday use can be beautiful. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a display of American modern design from the John C. Waddell collection, gathered in a couple of cases in the contemporary galleries. The wall label informed me that modern design in the US was in a sorry state at the time of the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925, but afterwards, with the inspiration of that exposition, a new effort was made by artists and designers and they produced "strikingly innovative objects". The radio above certainly is a stunning thing....


Walter Dorwin Teague, "Bantam Special" Camera, 1936; manufacturer: Eastman Kodak Company; 
metal, enamel.


....as is this camera. They were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, who was considered the "dean of industrial design", a leader in the field along with Henry Dreyfuss, whose objects are below, and a few others. These modernist objects have a dramatic and satisfying aesthetic presence. It would be nice to own this radio and this camera just to be able to look at them. 


Henry Dreyfuss, Electric Toaster, 1932; manufacturer: Birtman Electric Company;
chrome-plated metal, plastic, glass.


This toaster is an inventive combination of flat black planes and a big rounded chrome belly topped by an open rectangle. It's an improbable combination of elements that's visually exciting.


Henry Dreyfuss, "Big Ben" Alarm Clock, 1938; manufacturer: Westclox Company;
metal, chrome-plated metal, enamel.


I'm pretty sure I had one of these clocks when I was young. It's one of those everyday things that we wouldn't pay any attention to, but shown in a museum we take another look and notice its crisp design. Dreyfuss also designed the Princess telephone.


Henry Dreyfuss, Kitchen Utensils, 1934; manufacturer: the Washburn Company;
metal, painted wood.


I love the shapes of the handles on these kitchen utensils; they're utilitarian and amusing at the same time.


Henry Dreyfuss, Thermos Bottle and Cups, ca. 1933; manufacturer: The American Thermos Bottle Company; metal, glass, plastic, paint, cork.


This thermos features another surprising combination of shapes, as in the toaster above: a long, flat-sided body topped by a rounded cup, all painted red and black, like a harlequin.


Wolfgang and Pola Hoffman, Cigarette and Match Holder with Ashtray, ca. 1930; manufacturer: Early American Pewter Company; pewter. 


I wonder if designers these days are spending any time working on cigarette accoutrements. But these two pieces....


Donald Deskey, Cigarette Box, ca. 1928; manufacturer: Deskey-Vollmer Inc.; 
painted wood, silver leaf.


....are beautiful examples of the former glamour of smoking cigarettes. For a fascinating look at good contemporary design, see the film Objectified, by Gary Hustwit, which I wrote about here. An industrial designer has a difficult task: to make the object both useful and attractive; I'd like to honor those who achieve it.


May 2, 2016

A New Painting: "Hidden Bolt"


Hidden Bolt, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/2 x 8 1/4 in.


I love shapes: their juxtapositions, their color, the way one balances or is in tension with another. Their taut, precise edges excite me; the light flowing over them carries an added drama. I am offering a defense of painting that is not painterly, not "expressive", not about the figure or narrative events, but is restrained and is focused on the formal elements of painting. I am writing this now because while this painting was in progress I felt a passion for its shapes, a delight and an exhilaration that reminded me why I continue with this subject matter. 


Hidden Bolt detail


And, there are metaphors within the most straightforward of images.
I paint, after all, for myself; if others like what I do that is a wonderful bonus.


April 29, 2016

At the Met: Capital Inventions


Marble Double Capital with Masks and Birds, French, Languedoc; ca. 1140-60


Medieval artists had wild and inventive imaginative powers, often pointed at the varied tortures of hell, but also showing marvelously in the carvings of churches, such as gargoyles and the capitals of columns. On my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while I was wandering through the medieval galleries, I began to look up more attentively. Above my head were five capitals, each a fanciful composition of human, animal, and plant forms. A man's open mouth spews forth stylized curving forms, which wrap around birds eating grapes. There's a symmetry which rationalizes very strange imagery.


Limestone Capital with Samson and an Attendant Fighting a Lion, North Spanish, ca. 1175-1200


I love the simplification of form in this capital and the one below. The lion's mane becomes a pattern of overlapping shapes, like roof tiles; the carving of Samson's clothing and his hair and beard form linear patterns. There's a solid stillness to the struggle of man and lion.  


Limestone Capital with a Centaur Battling a Man with Bow and Arrow, Northern Spanish, 
ca. 1175-1200


There's no indication on the wall labels at the museum that this capital and the one above are from the same church, but they do seem very similar in the way form is treated. It's interesting the way the upper body of this man-beast is facing backwards, creating a flowing line from underbelly through the head.


Limestone Capital with Lions Mounted by Nude Riders, North Spanish or South French, 
ca. 1200


Here is another image of a man on the back of a lion, like the capital with Samson above. Here the lion's mane has more volume, and flows like little waves on a choppy sea. The curve of the man's back echoes the decorative curve alongside him. There is a snake winding up towards his head in an uneasy dance. 


Limestone Capital with an Angel Emerging from a Cloud, French,Burgundy; ca. 1150-1200


A wide-eyed angel soars above a complex design of beautiful leafy forms; this capital is sheer delight, with no intimations of violence or fear. As aesthetic objects all these capitals are heavenly.


April 27, 2016

Four New Hooked Wool Drawings


2016 #5, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 1/2 x 16 in.


When I am working on studies for new hooked wool drawings, a theme sometimes emerges; with this group it might be "line and shape". Each work has a line––or double line––of hooked wool along with painted and/or hooked shapes. Above, two divided circles, half painted and half hooked, are held together with the blue line of a square.


2016 #6, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 12 in.


A curved line touches the point of a yellow rectangle, while a second line encloses an implied oval.


2016 #7, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 2 panels each 16 x 7 in.


Double-lined circle and oval float on blue fields in this diptych. The curved outlines of the blue against the unpainted linen are different in each panel, creating an offbeat rhythm.


2016 #8, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 17 3/4 x 18 in.


A thin oval plays off against dense curved shapes inscribed within rectangles. Of course there is always the question the balance of all elements: color, line, shape, and their relationship to the surface of unpainted linen. All artmaking is a juggling act.


April 19, 2016

JMW Turner's Leap into Modernism


The Thames above Waterloo Bridge, ca. 1835-40,


Paint becomes atmosphere and light; land and water dissolve into a fluid presence. Joseph Mallord William Turner's late paintings are beautifully expansive, with open paint handling that comes close to eradicating image and leaving just painted light. In the current exhibition, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer, are five of these paintings, hung together in a small room. They were part of the Turner Bequest, in which he left 300 paintings and 30,000 sketches and watercolors to the British nation. Many of the paintings in this bequest stayed in storage for years, not shown in public, such as these, some of which are assumed to be unfinished.


The Thames above Waterloo Bridge detail


In this painting, there is a briefly sketched image of a manned boat with oars; it is in the lower right of the painting. It is clear that there is an unfinished portion in this painting.
(I recommend clicking on the images to enlarge them in order to see more of the detail.)


Sun Setting Over a Lake, ca. 1840,


But then there's a painting such as this, which to our 21st century eyes looks quite complete and balanced: a dense saturated red with a bright spot holding its center is surrounded by lighter grays, all seeming to swirl around that intense light. What more could he have added? Some of his contemporaries, however, "accused Turner of extravagance and exaggeration, outdoing each other with comparisons of his pictures to lobster salad, soapsuds and whitewash, beetroot or mustard..." (quote from the Turner link above)


Sun Setting Over a Lake detail


Turner applied paint with tremendous freedom. This detail reminds me of Philip Guston's abstract paintings.


Margate From the Sea, ca. 1835-40


The luminosity of the paintings comes from a deep understanding of color and contrast: the light glows as though the canvas is lit from behind. Another painter of the 1950s that this brings to mind is Mark Rothko who also had a subtle control of light and color, and whose canvases also glowed. I chose to show images of Turner's paintings with the frames included because the contrast brings out their light; I felt that having the paintings against a white page removed some of their drama.


Margate From the Sea detail


In this detail you can see how Turner layered the paint, as though he was physically creating space.


Rough Sea, ca. 1840-45,


Rough Sea dissolves into turbulent paint into light, the paint becoming the thing. Seeing the painting flattened as a small image on a screen doesn't give the viewer a true sense of its dynamic presence.


Rough Sea detail


Turner plays with paint in a very open way, as though his subject is only a useful pretext. Though of course, this painting may indeed be unfinished, with Turner planning to add a ship tossing on the sea. With our modern sensibility, though, it looks done.


Sunset from the Top of the Rigi, ca. 1844


This light filled, delicate canvas is based on a view from Mount Rigi in the Swiss Alps. Of all the paintings I've shown, this one might seem to be the most unfinished because of its minimal handling and close tonality. But according to the Met's label it was finished and offered to a collector, but it was rejected. I suppose that a painting made in 1844 but looking like it was made in 1954 was too much for a collector to handle. Sunset was part of the Turner bequest but it was not seen by the public until 1974, when it was shown at a bicentennial celebration of Turner's birth at the Royal Academy.


Sunset from the Top of the Rigi detail


When I see these paintings I wonder how Turner did it; how did he make this imaginative leap into a different kind of painting? John Constable, another English landscape painter, lived at the same time as Turner and he too made some quite wild paintings at the end of his life, with white paint flying, standing in for light; but Constable kept a tight grasp on his subjects. England does produce some eccentric artists: Richard Dadd, Samuel Palmer, William Blake, and in the 20th century Stanley Spencer, which makes me think there is something there that allows for unusual approaches. Turner was certainly a unique genius, a master of color and light who made paintings that were far ahead of his time.


April 17, 2016

The Intense Pleasure of the Early Spring Garden



How glorious it is to be outdoors in weather that is finally sunny and mild, and to begin to work in the vegetable garden! It is beautiful to see the early growth of bulbs planted last fall: tulips and garlic. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction looking at them, and this feeling is especially keen when there is so little evidence thus far of growth, except for the Egyptian onions and the robust weeds.




My first job was to march around the garden with my wheel hoe, slicing off the many weeds that spread across the soil. I then raked them up into piles and carted them off as fill in the various holes left during the winter by the road crew. I love the spare look of the early garden; it's the look of promise.


video


While I worked the wood frogs were singing accompaniment in the pond, making their joyous quacking mating noise. In the video above you can hear the sound. When I first lived here I thought there were ducks on the pond even though I couldn't see them. I was very confused and it took me several days to realize the sound came from frogs: the wood frog.
*If the video doesn't work in the email of this blog post, click on the title of the post above to go to the post online where you can see and hear it.




When I finished neatening up the soil, my next chore was to put up the pea fence. I had planned my rows a few days ago, marking them with small sticks, so now I put up the stakes for the fence––3 feet high for the 25 foot row of shell peas; and 6 feet high, with another foot or so added with broom handles for the 9 feet of sugar snap peas––and then rolled out the chicken wire to attach to it. Planting the peas will be next....and the spinach, which goes in a double row next to the snap peas. You can see the string I use to mark the rows; that's where the spinach will go. These crops are very hardy so can be planted when there's still a chance of hard frost.




Wood frogs weren't the only creatures adding delight to my day; there were also lots of chickadees flitting about, and resting on the chicken wire pea fence. They are friendly little birds. They're attracted to the garden because of the peanut butter I've placed inside aluminum foil packets and wrapped around the garden's electric fence. This is my method to discourage deer and small animals such as woodchucks, raccoons, and skunk, who will get stung if they try to get a taste of that delicious, highly scented treat. But birds hanging on the fence are not grounded, so they don't get a shock. They eventually finish off all the peanut butter and I have to replace it, but I don't begrudge them their nice little meal.




Another early spring chore is to finish up the compost pile I was building and start another one; I have three going: one that's cooking, one I'm building, and one that I'm using. I put a layer of soil over the one that will be cooking, then some hay, and I then cover it all with chicken wire because I have a problem with skunks getting in the compost and tossing it about. This is another satisfying aspect of the garden: turning food and garden waste into rich fertilizer and soil amendment for the newly growing plants.




The first greens from the garden are these perennial Egyptian onions; they come up each spring brightly green and with a crisp onion flavor. I cut some for my midday soup and they will flavor my boughten organic dinner salad. The anticipation of the harvests to come is delicious....and in just about another month: asparagus! Working in the sun, smelling the spring air, hearing the frogs and birds, knowing that the work will lead to large harvests of healthy, tasty vegetables: what a life affirming activity!


April 14, 2016

Two New Clay Reliefs: "On a Curve" and "Soft Angle"


On a Curve, porcelain with acrylic paint, 6 x 11 x 1/2 in.


Most of the clay reliefs I've done so far have been moderately complex in their compositions––I love working with all those different lines and planes––so I thought I'd try something a little simpler: two circles with internal arcs, on a long curve. To me it's a bit humorous, with the top circle/ball rolling down. I had a bit of a hard time figuring out the color for this piece: I began with a yellow ocher-ish color, but it really did not suit the feeling of it. It reminded me that I'd recently written about color's emotional impact in a post titled "The Emotional Resonance of Color". In it I wrote, regarding my sculpture: "The form may ask me for a certain color, or the feeling I want to achieve may demand a certain color, but it's not at all obvious." I decided to try a more warm pinkish color, echoing the bit of whimsy in the composition, and it worked much better for me. 


On a Curve detail


One circle is sunken relief and the other is raised. They both have arcs within them that are modeled in the round with the main part of the circle is flat.


On a Curve detail


Because of the large expanse on the upper part of the composition I thought I'd try using a subtly textured surface. I achieved it using wooden modeling tools and fingers. 


Soft Angle, porcelain with acrylic paint, 9 1/8 x 7 1/8 x 5/8 in.


My other recent piece goes back to a more complex structure, with several overlapping planes and different kinds of lines separating them.


Soft Angle detail


During the work process, I thought of having a curved edge on one of the shapes. Clay allows a lot of flexibility in edges....


Soft Angle detail


....and a lot of different kinds of lines––hard and soft, crisp and beveled. It is a very sensuous medium, and I love it.


April 11, 2016

Raoul De Keyser's Poetry


Drift, 2008; oil on canvas, 13 5/8 x 17 1/2 in.


Paint contains within it a wide range of possible expressions, from a precisely contained delineation of form to a free flowing burst of energy; from thickly textured surfaces to surfaces where paint is a barely-seen vehicle for an image; it can shout and it can murmur. For Raoul De Keyser (1930-2012), paint is a subtle medium, carrying a delicate expression, fluid and free, and at the same time concise and spare. His paintings are like brief poems, allusive, and richer than the minimal language suggests.


Detail, 2005; oil on canvas mounted on wood panel, 7 1/16 x 6 5/16 in. 


There is a beautiful selection of De Keyser's paintings at David Zwirner gallery, an exhibition they've titled Drift. De Keyser lived in Deinze, Belgium––a town not far from the sea––or his entire life and it is evident from the work on view that the landscape around him was a subject for his paintings.


Untitled, 2006; oil and charcoal on canvas, 18 1/2 x 12 5/8 in.


The three works above reference landscape in brief, rather clearly....


Untitled, 2006; oil on canvas, 20 1/8 x 18 1/4 in. 


....while this blue, barely there, cloud of color may point to sky, or water, or atmosphere, or simply the pleasure of paint. The softly irregular blue is pinned in place by a very small horizontal blue line above it.


Avondrood, 1992; oil on canvas, 32 3/16 x 26 5/16 in.


In Avondrood, reference disappears; what is left is paint on canvas, brushed more or less opaquely, giving a sense of space and air.


Avondrood detail


Embedded within the veils of paint are small wounds, scabs on the skin of the paint.


Hayward 3, 1993; oil and gesso on canvas, 21 5/8 x 12 5/8 in.


Sometimes De Keyser just plays with shape....


Recover, 2003; oil on canvas, 32 7/16 x 26 3/8 in.


....a soft geometry.


Recover detail


His use of paint is restrained yet luscious.


The Last Wall


The Last Wall is a group of 22 very small works (this image doesn't include all of them) that he completed before his death in 2012. They are wonderful paintings, spare and whimsical. The two images below are from this group.


Upwards, 2012; oil and gesso on canvas mounted on wood panel, 6 5/16 x 11 in.



A green line meanders upwards on a white field spotted with denser white.


Blue R, 2012; gesso and silkscreen on cardboard on canvas mounted on wood panel, 
7 5/8 x 10 1/2 in.


Rectangles of yellow and blue are intruded upon by irregular green shapes.





 De Keyser's work is mainly of a modest size, though he did do some larger paintings; this installation shot gives a sense of their different dimensions.


Come on, play it again nr. 4, 2001; 74 7/8 x 47 7/8 in.


This painting is about the same size as the one seen through the doorway in the photo above. I see it as a landscape reference: rocks in a stream or along the shore. They are beautifully observed and balanced quirky shapes, shown just in outline, hugging the edges and dancing in the center. Within his quiet language, De Keyser explored wide worlds.