September 30, 2012

Pollock and Smith: The Small and Casual

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1954; wood, 21 3/8 x 20 1/2 x 12 in.

Currently at Matthew Marks Gallery is a charming small show of five works by two friends––Tony Smith and Jackson Pollock––as a centennial celebration of their birth in 1912. The sculpture on view is a surprise, departures from what we think we know of these artists' work; they have a sense of play, of "why not try this?" The three Smith pieces were made before he even considered himself a sculptor; at the time he was working as an architect. This piece has an informal energy from its angled planes and ordinary materials.

Untitled, 1954 detail

It looks as though the wood was picked up from a scrap heap somewhere. I like seeing the pencil line indicating where to hammer the nails; places where nails have split the wood add poignance. 

Tony Smith, Untitled, ca. 1956; wire and canvas, 47 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 12 in. 

Who would have guessed that the artist later to make huge geometric steel sculptures (see the final photo) would create this whimsical tottering tower?

Untitled, 1956 detail

A detail looks like the wings of a butterfly.

Tony Smith, Untitled, 1956; concrete, 3 3/4 x 8 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. 

And if you think this looks like and egg carton....well, you're correct; Smith poured concrete into an egg carton to make this. This small sculpture, looking like a rough landscape with rows of round clay houses, and the Pollocks were made one weekend at Smith's house. It must have been fun, don't you think? working outside both of their usual areas of expertise (though Pollock had made other sculpture and three dimensional objects).

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956; plaster, sand, gauze, and wire, 9 x 12 x 5 in. 

The Pollock sculptures have a look of things unearthed, or of debris from a construction site.

Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1956; plaster, sand, gauze, and wire, 12 1/4 x 12 x 17 1/2 in. 

The rough sandy surfaces are richly juxtaposed to the refined whites of plaster; the bits of rust and wire add linear elements. These little sculptures are not great works, but I love imagining Smith inviting Pollock to play with sand casting in 1956, the last year of his life, during which he drank and did not paint. I remember that at the large Pollock retrospective at MoMA in 1998, his late works intimated a return to the figure, and this little piece, in this view, looks like a body reclining. 

Tony Smith, Source, 1967; steel, painted black, 132 x 354 x 408 in., 11 x 29.5 x 34 feet

Down the block from the modest small show, at another Matthew Marks Gallery location, was a monumental Smith sculpture, dramatic in the cavernous space, a piece more typical of his major works. My mood the day I saw these shows was sympathetic to the small and off-handed and cold to the large and fabricated; I enjoyed seeing those funky early Smiths, handmade, irregular. Although my own work is now very small, with some of it precise and some casual, I'm not generally averse to large work. I love Richard Serra's sculpture (I wrote about a recent show here); but I questioned the huge size of Frank Stella's Irregular Polygons here. I find the gigantic work of Anselm Kiefer oppressive and battering, but love Pollock's enveloping canvases. On the other hand, small work can sometimes be precious. There have been times when small works have been overlooked (I remember that in art school, lo these many years ago, my teacher Philip Pearlstein telling me to work at least as large as a "good sized Cézanne") but I don't believe it's the case now. Part of a work's meaning resides in its size, so large or small, the artist must convince us that it is "just right".

September 27, 2012

A New Painting: "Two Circles"

Two Circles, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 x 6 3/4 in. 

While working on this painting I decided to move it away from the real world and closer to a stranger and more abstract one; I eliminated two bolts that were centered just above the two circles in the original image. The bolts were detailed and specific; without them the composition becomes a more generalized one, though still having illusionistic form and light. I like the tall verticality of the painting, the blue and green rectangles, ending in the warm-colored circles above horizontals.

Two Circles detail

Two Circles detail

I've posted these two details hoping to give you a better sense of the paint surface (click to enlarge). When I work on a painting with large flat surfaces I often flick my brush in a painterly way, using subtle variations of the main color; with humor, I like to think of these areas as my miniature painterly abstractions.

September 25, 2012

A Walk in the September Woods: Fruiting Bodies

The delights of the early autumn woods are not limited to the reddening leaves. The mosses and lichens are also putting on a show, a miniature one, as they send up their oddly shaped reproductive structures, containing spores, that look as though they are waving in the breeze. (Please click on an image to enlarge and see a slide show of all the photos, which are much more wonderful when you can see the details.)

Some lichen have cup shaped structures, and are called, appropriately Pixie Cup lichen. The fruiting bodies are very small, maybe 1/2 inch high, so to photograph them I am usually down on my stomach, peering into what becomes for me a new way of seeing; the world is encompassed in a square foot space, in which there seems to be as much incident as in a square mile.

Some mosses also have fruiting bodies, here in delicate red filaments paying homage to a fallen leaf.

In this photo there are the fruiting bodies of mosses––those small threads topped with a bulbous form almost like a dressmakers pin––and of a fungus, because of course, mushrooms, which contain spores, are the fruiting bodies of fungi.

I love the orange jelly mushrooms, which look as though they are squeezing out of the wood; their translucent brilliant color is very eye catching.

Small puffballs are also popping up in the woods, and large ones on my lawn; matter of fact, I had a puffball sauteed in butter with lunch today, delicious!

And finally, my most exciting fruiting body find in a long time. These brilliantly colored small mushrooms (the stick they are on is about 2 1/2 inches in diameter) are the Violet toothed polypore. It was a thrill to see them since I'd never seen anything like this color before. There is always something to discover in the woods. As John Cage wrote
 One shouldn't go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there. 

September 24, 2012

Quiet Poetry: The Photographs of Robert Adams

From The Plains; Genoa, Colorado, 1970

Are there affirmable days or places in our deteriorating world? Are there scenes in life, right now, for which we might conceivably be thankful? Is there a basis for joy or serenity, even if felt only occasionally? Are there grounds now and then for an unironic smile?  Robert Adams
Seeing the retrospective of the work of Robert Adams at the Yale University Art Gallery is an intense and revelatory experience. Adams is an intent observer of the everyday, bringing a remarkable clarity and richness of detail to views we might pass by without a glance. In his modest (his earlier photos are around 5 inches across) black and white images, he seems dispassionate, showing what there is to be seen without drama; he says "here it is" and we are invited to look closely, to have an intimate experience. The exhibition, though, brings us an impassioned artist whose words and body of work combine into a heartfelt and deep exploration of his world, the American West. He shows a land of openness, of grandeur, too often despoiled. 

From The Plains; Northeast of Keota, Colorado, 1969

I knew Adams' work only from his book The New West. His work is collected into over thirty books of images, each with a theme, and the exhibition brings us most of them. Seeing them in groups like this creates a narrative relationship between the images and enlarges their meaning. I strongly urge you to visit the website to get a better sense of what Adams is trying to do with his words and images. Their impact so much depends on their accumulation, in the way they build an argument. What surprised me most at the show was what a beautiful writer he is; his poetic texts that preface each book are ruminations on the contemporary landscape of beauty and loss. Of the plains he writes, so perceptively (I lived in South Dakota for over a year and his words bring back the feeling of being in that spacious landscape):
Mystery in this landscape is a certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence––a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door. If you are crossing the plains, leave the interstate and find a back road on which to walk; listen. 

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968

Adams statement in The New West makes very clear his aims, ones I very much relate to:
Many have asked, pointing incredulously toward a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but it implies a difficult issue––why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks? 
One reason is, of course, that we do not live in parks, that we need to improve things at home, and that to do it we have to see the facts without blinking.... 
Paradoxically, however, we also need to see the whole geography, natural and manmade, to experience a peace; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty. 

From The New West; Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968

This is one of my favorites of Adams photos. It is so matter of fact––a plain ranch house, a well manicured lawn, a curving path to the rectilinear building––yet so poignant in the dark figure captured indoors against the light of another window. It seems close to Edward Hopper's paintings of lonely figures in interiors.

From What We Bought; Outdoor Theater, north edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973-74

From What We Bought; Burning oil sludge, north of Denver, Colorado, 1973-74

The photographs in What We Bought document the damaging growth around Denver from the building boom of the 1960s and 70s. Many are overtly negative, such as these above, as Adams wrote in 1995
The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy. They document a separation from ourselves, and in turn from the natural world that we professed to love. 

Even in his image of burning oil sludge, Adams steps back and offers a restrained view of the damage wrought. I've been thinking about how different his approach is to someone like Edward Burtynsky, another great photographer with environmental concerns, who makes large, dramatic images. With one, you come close (with reading glasses for me) and look quietly, with the other, you stand back, awestruck.

From What We Bought; Mobile home park, north edge of Denver, Colorado, 1973

Adams' landscapes are mostly unpeopled, but when we see figures, they are usually at a distance, part of the world they inhabit, not dominating it.

From Summer Nights; Longmont, Colorado, 1979

From Summer Nights; Fort Collins, Colorado, 1980

Summer Nights is one of Adams' more reverie-inducing collections, as we think about the magic of warm evenings, darkly lit. He writes, again referencing silence
Still photographs often differ from life more by their silence than by the immobility of their subjects. Landscape pictures tend to converge with life, however, on summer nights, when the sounds outside, after we call in children and close garage doors, are small––the whir of moths, the snap of a stick. 

From Pine Valley; Baker County, Oregon, 1999-2003

Adams now lives in Oregon, where he has photographed the clearcutting of forests in the book Turning Back. He also captures completely ordinary moments, a scattering of apples on the ground.
Photography is inherently fragmentary, and I find I base my faith on perfect moments. 

From Sea Stories; North Beach Peninsula, Pacific County, Washington, ca. 2005

A syncopated line of birds along the shore; again the silence, and again the eloquent words of Robert Adams, pairing with his images to create a powerful life's work.
Stanley Elkin suggested that "all books are the Book of Job". Certainly many writers and picture makers want to repeat in a fresh way what the voice out of the whirlwind said, that we are not the creator, and that rather than ask an explanation we ought to attend an inventory of wonders––the Pleiades, the morning star, the sun, the rain, the grass, the raven, the whale. Common to each is beauty. And so a promise. 

September 22, 2012

New Hooked Wool Drawings: Balance and Bounce

2012 #16, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 1/2 x 12 in.

I thought I'd play with the idea of movement in these two new hooked drawings. In #16 I was wondering if I could place forms against one edge in such a way that the composition would tilt and topple a little, but ultimately feel balanced. I put the heaviest weight, the fully hooked green square at top, then an open square, then a painted one, thinking the shift from heavy to light would make the shapes more buoyant. 

2012 #17, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 11 1/4 in. 

For #17 I was thinking of a ball rolling down, or bouncing off a wall. My aim is that the two circles animate the space between them, with the red bar as an anchor. 

2012 #16, detail

In this detail you can see more clearly how the paint sits on the surface of the linen. I varied the yellow of the square, making it a little greenish-darker at bottom to help with the balance.
Most of my hooked wool drawings have the shapes clustered at the center, so I enjoy at times trying to engage the full working surface.

September 20, 2012

Angels and Demons at Yale

Miguel Ximenez, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons, ca. 1490; tempera on panel, 37 1/4 x 26 1/2 in. framed.

 On my way home from NYC yesterday, I decided to stop in at the Yale University Art Gallery to see the Robert Adams photography retrospective, which was terrific; I'll write about it soon. I hadn't been to the museum in many years and didn't know that it had a large expansion, which enables a fuller display of its considerable collections. I had a wonderful time wandering around taking photos of paintings and objects (a post on African art is to come, too) that caught my eye. When I walked into the European Renaissance rooms, the first thing that engaged my attention were the wild demons at the bottom of this extravagant panel painting. Medieval artists seemed to have marvelous fun inventing the wacky forms of devils. The painting gave me a theme for this post on a few of the great paintings at Yale.

Master of the Osservanza, Temptation of Saint Anthony Abbot, ca. 1435-40; tempera on panel, 14 1/2 x 15 in.

Here the devil has appeared in the guise of a beautiful woman to tempt Saint Anthony. I had forgotten that Yale owns this painting, one of my favorites of a favorite artist. I love the way the Master uses clear, crisp forms and punctuated bright color.

Temptation of Saint Anthony, detail

The disturbed facial expression of Anthony, his lifted hand, show his quiet resistance. The landscape is dry and bare, with a river of rocks flowing down hill.

Sano di Pietro, Saint Anthony Abbot Tormented by Demons, ca. 1435-40; tempera on panel, 18 11/16 x 13 1/2 in.

The works of the Master of the Osservanza were once thought to be by Sassetta, but from this painting we can see they might have also been assigned to Sano di Pietro. Poor Saint Anthony is here being beaten by devils with fearsome faces.

Jan Brueghel the Elder, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1594; oil on copper; detail.

To continue the Saint Anthony theme in a later painting, here is a crowd of devilishness and temptation (click on images to enlarge, as always). I can almost hear the raucous noise of all those strange, nasty creatures.

Hieronymous Bosch, An Allegory of Intemperance, ca. 1495-1500; oil on panel, 14 1/8 x 12 3/8 in. 

I think that Bosch is the most inventive and imaginative painter ever, especially when he turns his brush to sins and the dark side of human nature. There aren't any devils in this painting, just humans desiring excess....but I wonder about that person swimming with what looks like a pudding for a head.

Marx Reichlich, A Jester, ca. 1519-20; tempera on panel.

Finally, a painting I found fantastically compelling, with its beautifully rendered figure of the jester and his alive-looking staff. For me he has an aspect of evil, and he seems to be partaking of some bloody meal, although it may just be the egg broken on the table. The small dog adds an air of calm innocence, so perhaps this jester is meant as a sympathetic figure, such as the jesters of Velazquez. I find it hard to believe in the Manichean outlook of Good vs Evil; it's not helpful in a complex world, but it did bring many marvelous paintings into being.

September 15, 2012

Roasted Red Pepper Pasta

This summer's hot weather has produced bumper crops of warm weather vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplant, melons, and red-ripening peppers. I dish I love to make with red peppers is Marcella Hazan's "Roasted Red and Yellow Pepper Sauce with Garlic and Basil", from her marvelous cookbook Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Hazan can be relied on for simple, delicious recipes, and this is certainly one of them. I have found that it even works with peppers out of the freezer, so I can have it during winter, along with chopped basil frozen with olive oil.

3 meaty bell peppers, some red, some yellow (as you can see, I used only red, but yellow would be pretty; I use more peppers than the recipe calls for, since I want my sauce very full of peppery goodness; also, my peppers are smaller than the average supermarket pepper.)
16 to 20 fresh basil leaves
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 Tbs butter
2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan reggiano cheese
1 pound pasta, Hazan recommends rigatoni or other tubular pasta.

  1. Wash the peppers in cold water, then slice lengthwise along crevices. Discard seeds and pulp. Using a swivel blade peeler, peel with a light motion. (I'm not very fussy about peeling.) Cut into 1/2 inch lengthwise strips, then slice them in two.
  2. Rinse and dry the basil; tear larger leaves in smaller pieces.
  3. Use a wide sauté pan that will hold peppers without crowding. Put olive oil in the pan with the garlic cloves and brown the garlic over medium high heat, then remove it.
  4. Add peppers to the pan and cook at a lively heat for around 15 minutes, stirring often. The peppers should be tender but not mushy. (I like them to get seared, with lots of yummy burnt spots, which taste caramelized.) Add salt and remove from heat.
  5. Cook the pasta; when almost done, melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. (or if you're lazy like me, cut the butter in very small pieces and place them in pasta bowl; the hot pasta will melt them.)
  6. Toss the cooked pasta with the peppers, butter, parmesan and basil. Enjoy! 

**I'll be going to Brooklyn to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my family. I wish all my Jewish friends a very Happy New Year! See you in a few days.

September 14, 2012

A Walk in the Woods: White

Thinking of the woods we imagine browns and greens, the warmth of duff and bark, the cool living color of leaves, which turn fiery in fall. Unless it is winter, with snow covered ground, the color white seems very out of place here. But there are white things growing in the woods, such as this Indian Pipe, which rises in mid summer, its pale flowered stalks startling against the browned leaves.

The Indian Pipe is a plant that is naturally without chlorophyll, while these young leaves seem to be missing it by accident, as though they are albinos. Both of these plants might cause a little discomfort in us because of their strangeness; rather than purity, they might be heralds of something more dangerous. Thinking of the meanings of white sent me back to a chapter in Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale" which you can read here, in which Melville expounds on the varied meanings of the color white in order to understand the terror evoked by the white whale. He writes that 
"...symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul." 

Much of the white to be seen in the woods are lichens. They appear as regular marks on trees, looking as though a mysterious someone went through the woods with a paint brush, carefully drawing circles or oblongs to show the way. These white shapes do appear uncanny, and could call up a "peculiar apparition" to the viewer.

Sometimes tree trunks are covered in white, with a lichen my book appropriately calls "Whitewash Lichen". 

There are the bright white patches of lichens on rocks, startling on the gray, as bright as the warm green moss. 

Another strange sight, which can also call up a little of Melville's horror, are small white slime molds that appear on the ground.

Much lovelier are lichens that appear in grassy spots, looking like undersea coral, but also seeming very out of place among the greens.

Lastly, a woodland white many of us are used to seeing and loving, the glowing warm white of birch bark.