February 28, 2011

Winter Light: Rounds

Although the landscape outside still looks like deepest winter, with a thick snow cover on the ground, the light is changing to that of early spring: longer days, brighter sun. This post, with photographs I shot a few weeks ago, will be the last of this series until next winter. This group began with the photo of the clementine and dish by Beth Mueller. I loved the repetition of shapes, curves of objects and shadows, contrasted with a black square.

So I set out to photograph other round objects. The intense deep blue vase creates a shadow color as strong as it is, while the rounds of vase and little table holes are bounded by straight lines of shadow.

The sparkle of sun passing through the base of a vase creates a burst of light in shadow.

Old tops, each a different shape, lie still on the tabletop, sparkling round patterns on a metal box behind them. The quiet of these winter afternoons will soon give way to the rapidly changing, exciting days of spring.

February 26, 2011

Flowers at the Met: Thinking of Spring

Vase, Ming Dynasty, 1522-66; porcelain painted in underglaze blue and overglaze yellow and red enamels.

Vase, Qing Dynasty, late 17th-early 18th century; porcelain painted in enamels on the biscuit.

It has been a long, cold, snowy winter here in the Northeast, so when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week, I thought I'd give myself and my readers a treat by photographing flowers. I wandered through the museum's collections, gathering flowers as I went. Some of my favorite things in the museum are the Chinese porcelains, and here are two examples with beautiful floral designs: the Ming vase with stylized patterning, the Qing with a more naturalistic rendering of white spring blossoms, dramatic against black.

Balthazar van der Ast, Dutch, Wan-Li Vase with Flowers, ca. 1624; oil on panel, (detail).

A sprig of lily-of-the-valley, so evocative of Spring, rests on a table under a vase filled with more luxurious flowers.

Hans Memling, The Annunciation, ca. 1464; oil on wood, (detail).

The graceful, nodding white blossoms of the Easter lily are a symbol of the Virgin Mary.

Bernaert van Orley, Netherlandish, Virgin and Child with Angels, 1505; oil on wood, (detail).

On the ground, next to the Virgin's blue robe, the flowers and fruit of rebirth and spring: tiny wild strawberries.

Riza-i Abbasi, Study of a Bird, Iran, 1634; inks, colors, gold and silver on paper.

Although there are only two small red flowers, which look like tulips, in this delicate painting of a bird, for me the image speaks of the coming spring with returning birds and emerging new foliage.

Huqqa (water pipe) Base, The Deccan, India, last quarter of 17th century; zinc alloy inlaid with brass.

From India, a stylized vision of golden flowers on arching stems.

Bottle, North China, Northern Song period, 12th century; Stoneware with sgraffito design in slip under glaze. From the Rockefeller collection at Asia Society.

After the Met, I went to Asia Society to see a stunning exhibition of a Persian manuscript, and while there saw this stunning vase, which I couldn't resist including in this post. The grand dramatic patterns of black against white, the big gorgeous peony flower (my favorite flower, by the way), make this one of the most beautiful pieces of Chinese pottery I've seen. I will look at this and think of my peony border in June, really not that far off....

February 21, 2011

Cream of Carrot Soup

I usually have a good store of carrots in the root cellar to last the winter. One of my favorite recipes with carrots is this soup, creamy and sweet, delightful for a winter's day. Be sure to use sweet carrots; woody tasteless ones won't do.

6 large carrots, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, chopped
1 1/2 teas sugar
1/2 teas salt
1 1/2 cups water

3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs flour
1/2 teas salt
1/4 teas white pepper
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream

  1. In a large saucepan, combine the first five ingredients. Bring the water to a boil and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
  2. Puree the carrots in a food processor or blender.
  3. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, melt the butter; add flour and cook gently for a few minutes. Stir in the salt and pepper. Gradually add the milk, stirring, until the mixture is thickened and smooth.
  4. Add the carrot puree to the milk. Cook gently for 20 minutes, making sure the bottom doesn't burn.
  5. Stir in the cream. Serve garnished with chopped parsley if desired.

**I'll be traveling to NYC, so will be enjoying my mother's cooking for a few days. See you next weekend (or so).

A New Painting: "Plus/Minus"

Plus/Minus, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 5 x 6 inches.

Working on this painting was a lesson in balancing details with the whole. I had spent some time working on the left section with all those little shapes in light and shadow. When I looked at that painting, the little shapes jumped out and didn't sit on the surface; they were yelling 'here I am!'. They took away from the overall illusion of shapes pushing forward in space. Frustrated, I glazed a couple of layers of paint over the details, which showed me how I should proceed: each tone had to maintain an overall harmony with the light of each plane. When I went back and began again to clarify the details I tried not to make the darks too dark or the lights too bright. The middle section, in more light, has more contrast in the details.

You can see in this detail, which is much larger than the actual painting, that my brushwork is not extremely exact. If I try too hard to draw everything 'just right' the painting ends up being too tight and dry. The challenge of this painting reminded me of a show of Renaissance drawings many years ago at the Frick. The exhibition focused on Michelangelo, but also included artists who were contemporaries and followers. What was strikingly clear was that Michelangelo's drawings, though full of detail and incident, never lost the sense of a whole, while the lesser artists' images broke apart into detail upon detail.

Piet Mondrian, Composition 10 (Pier and Ocean), 1915, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 42 1/2

When I first gathered the image for this painting, I immediately thought of Mondrian's paintings based on a Pier and the Ocean––plus-minus, vertical-horizontal––so my Plus/Minus is an homage to these beautiful works.

February 19, 2011

My Old House: The Work/TV Room

This room at the top of the stairs is where I spend most of my time; I paint, hook rugs, and watch movies and television here. There are two rooms upstairs: this one, which was completely unfinished when I moved in, and the bedroom. As you can see, the ceiling, which I had insulated and finished, comes down to the floor, so it is considered a half floor. On either side of the staircase there are now north skylight windows, so the light in the room is beautiful. Poppy is drinking some water and behind her is a table with rug hooking supplies, including a cutter which cuts the wool into strips.

The wood door leads to the shed, which is a handy storage area. The slanted window is often called a witch's window around here. It is tilted at the same angle as the adjoining shed roof because there would be no room for an upright window.

The old sewing table, alongside the sofa, is where I keep my rug hooking materials as I work. And I work in the evenings in front of the tv, watching fairly dumb shows that entertain just enough but not too much to need a lot of attention. I give movies undivided attention, however. You can see the textile piece in progress stretched on a frame.

A further turn around the room shows my favorite rocking chair and a shelf full of dyed wool remnants. They come in handy for making my wool sketches or for looking at color choices.

The old cupboard holds my sweaters, and the old mirror reflects my image, showing my work attire: sweat pants and shirt, warm and comfortable. You can catch a glimpse of the bedroom through the door.

And here is my work table, an old drop leaf, with a metal typing table to hold my palette. It is a very comfortable setup for my current work. The light under the skylight is ample and everything I need is close to hand. I have a large studio in my barn, but since I've been painting very small pictures, I love working in this room.

Atop the cupboard is a still life of remembrances, with an old jug, old mirror, a metal box from Syria that was my grandmother's, and a old bonnet that I found in this house. Sharing the space with these objects is a small still life of mine from 1982.

A nude by Rafael Ferrer luxuriates on a striped bedspread, and is cushioned by the soft mounds of colored wool.

A small abstract sculpture by Darrell Petit, in the box a sculpture by Howard Kalish, on the wall an engraving by Joe Sultan.

A painting of a Brooklyn scene (my home town!) by Dee Shapiro.

Hanging on the closet door is a broadsheet with woodcut by Susan Jane Walp and poem by Jody Gladding. The triptych of framed drawings is by Deborah Kass.

*I hope you're enjoying this tour through my house. To see the previous rooms shown go to:
The Staircase
The (Tiny) Front Hall
The Living Room
The Guest Bedroom
The Back Room/Office
The Mudroom
The Kitchen
The Pantry

February 18, 2011

A New Textile: "Three Rectangles"

Three Rectangles, hand dyed wool on linen, 14 x 10 1/2 inches.

With this piece, I've gone back to working with shapes outside a rectangle, like my series of one shape moving outside a quadrilateral, which you can see here. This piece was inspired by drawings of Joel Shapiro which I'd seen online. I loved their color and energy, their intimation of a figure with limbs pinwheeling out in space. My piece is much simpler, with three elements, a large black rectangle anchoring the whole. For color harmony, when I mixed the color for the green and orange, I added a bit of each color to the other. I decided to hook the rectangles following their outline, round and round, making each shape an individual. My one annoyance is that the line on the right of the black rectangle curves inward at the bottom; I don't know why that happened, but rug hooking regularly thwarts plans. The black triangle now looks like it is jutting leftward instead of being a continuation of the upper part of the rectangle. But then, the orange rectangle has a curve to it too. So, does it work for you, or does this curve throw it off?

Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 2001; pastel, charcoal, and pencil on paper, 63 x 59 inches.

February 17, 2011

Winter Greens

Today was a day of sheer heavenliness, a harbinger of spring, with deep blue sky and temperature up in the 4os. It was difficult to stay indoors, so I went out with my camera, took a snow shoe through the woods, and later sat on the porch, soaking up the sun. Thinking of coming spring means thinking about green growth, the fresh sparking greens of new shoots and leaves, vibrant and telling of new life. While it is still snow covered winter here, we have stalwart and serious greens, with the stamina to make it through difficult weather, such as the cool, frosted blues of the white spruce, almost black in shadow.

Against the blue of the sky, the spruce needles take on a brighter character.

The needles of the pine are a dark warm green, that catch light and sparkle in the sun, gracefully dancing.

The balsam fir has an upright character, its warm-colored greens spreading like fingers, and rich against the reddish branches.

Seen from a distance, pines, like many of the evergreens, look dark, black against the sky, sentinels in serious garb. The greens of winter have a weight and depth to them as they look to the lighter spring greens to come, and remind us that life still pulses throughout the woods

February 16, 2011

"Build therefore your own world."

While reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1836 essay Nature, I found myself at turns fascinated, frustrated, exhilarated, annoyed. As a first exposition of Transcendentalism, Emerson, who read in the Eastern religious traditions, wrote of the spirit in nature and humankind, and of unity:
that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually: ...that spirit...does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.
At other times in the essay, Emerson seems too much to place the world as subservient to Man, who he sees as its "head and heart". It's possible I am misreading from my 21st century viewpoint, which sees homo sapiens as an often destructive species. At the end of the essay Emerson won my heart, first by this simple sentence:
The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.
And then by the following words, which I found very moving, and a lesson for our lives in finding a place, finding happiness:
What we are, only can we see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do. Adam called his house, heaven and earth; Caesar called his house, Rome; you perhaps call yours, a cobbler's trade; a hundred acres of ploughed land; or a scholar's garret. Yet line for line and point for point your dominion is a great as theirs, though without fine names. Build therefore your own world.

February 15, 2011

A New Painting: "Double Curve"

Double Curve, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 3/8 x 5 inches.

This image of deep cool reds is a solemn one, very different in mood from most of my previous work. There is no bright sunlight with its attendant shadows for liveliness, and the simple curved shapes seem to insist on dignity. The perspectival line of the foreground shape aims for the "eye" of the brownish bolt. Seriousness is called for.

As I was working on this painting, building the layers of paint, it seemed as though I was making a relief sculpture. The different planes moving back and forth in space became almost real to me. I may have written about this before: it is an uncanny feeling of paint becoming a solid object under the brush. It is also a thrilling sensation, as though by magic I am not just depicting an object but making one.

February 14, 2011

Winter Light: Chairs

An empty chair holds a human presence, its enfolding form embraces us. Of all objects of use in a house, is any more evocative of the body than a chair? The old wooden chairs in my house are a motley group, no two matching, each with its color and character. This is probably the oldest of them, with too much wear for old repairs to have held.

The patterns of chair backs and rungs is repeated on the old linoleum floor.

The seats of chairs in raking winter light: the cane seat becoming so fragile that I no longer dare to use the chair; a charming, disheveled and worn pillow covering the living room rocker's seat, alongside a red bench. The light creates patterns on top of patterns.

February 12, 2011

Against American Exceptionalism: Australian and Danish 19th Century Landscape Painting

Eugen von Guérard, Mount Kosciusko (detail), ca 1864, oil on canvas, 26 x 45 1/2 inches.

For many years, American painting was not well thought of or even known. I believe that when I was in college in the late 1960s, much American 19th century painting was just coming to light. Books such as Barbara Novak's Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875 were important in establishing a philosophical and artistic context for the work. Luminism was defined as a peculiarly American painting style. But really, it's not; I disagree with Novak who calls it "one of the most truly indigenous styles in the history of American art". Looking at the paintings in this post, we can see many of the characteristics of Luminism: clarity and precision of form, still calm light, planar composition. Although American painting can be said to have been influenced by the limner folk art tradition, there also was a linear, closed-form style in European art. As much as I love American landscape painting, I have seen very beautiful work from other countries, especially Australia and Denmark, which makes me wary of over-celebrating my own country's art.

The painting above by the Australian artist Eugen von Guérard has a more dramatic subject than usual for a luminist, but it fits the description in other ways. Like other artists of the colonial period in Australia, he was from elsewhere, and as a student in Dusseldorf was probably influenced by the ideas of German romanticism as practiced by Casper David Friedrich. He was the most exciting of the Australian artists that I was introduced to when on a trip there about 20 years ago.

Eugen von Guérard, Larra, 1857, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 22 inches.

Von Guérard's work was not all sublime landscape; other paintings showed homesteads in a broad sweep of land, with a mood closer to that of modest Luminist scenes. The foreground seems very close to the marsh paintings of Martin Johnson Heade.

Nicholas Chevalier, Mount Arapiles and the Mitre Rock, 1863, oil on canvas,
30 1/2 x 47 1/2 inches.

This painting by Nicholas Chevalier, a Russian artist educated in Europe who lived in Australia for several years, reminds me a great deal of American painters of the west such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. And no wonder, Bierstadt was German born, and studied in Dusseldorf in the 1850s.

John Glover, My Harvest Home, 1835, oil on canvas, 30 x 46 inches.

John Glover was a successful British artist who emigrated to Tasmania in later life. I love the golden light in this painting, its feeling of fecundity and peace. It has an almost primitive quality in the form that reminds me of American itinerant painters' views of homesteads.

Mary Morton Allport, Telopea punctata, from the mountain pass above Barrett's Mill, ca 1840, watercolor, 19 1/4 x 15 inches.

One of the few women professional artists in Australia, Allport was educated in England. In this interesting work, she sets a native flower against a grand landscape of gum trees and distant hills. Also using this format of flower with landscape was the American painter Martin Johnson Heade in some later works.

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, Porta Angelica and Part of the Vatican, 1813, oil on canvas, 12 1/2 x 16 1/4 inches.

Thirty or so years ago I travelled to Copenhagen, where I was thrilled to learn about Danish "Golden Age" painting. Eckersberg, who studied for a time with Jacques-Louis David in Paris, was considered the founder of the Golden Age. He painted landscape and the figure, all with a classical sensibility: clear form, brilliant light, carefully balanced compositions. This work also reminds me of the clarity and light of the paintings of early Corot, which were made later.

Christen Købke, One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle, ca 1834-35, oil on canvas, 69 5/8 x 63 3/4 inches.

Købke may be my favorite of the Danish painters; his sense of air and light and touch are marvelous. This painting is one of the few large works that he completed. Like the American luminists, most of his paintings are modest in size and sensitively describe the people and world around him.

Constantin Hansen, View in Rome, 1839, 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches.

This is a wonderful little study by Hansen, with refined touch and brilliant quality of light.

Carl Dahl, View of Larsen Square, near Copenhagen Harbor, ca. 1840, oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 27 3/4 inches.

Dahl was considered a minor artist of the Danish Golden age. He was an associate of Eckersberg and specialized in marine paintings. I love this view of the harbor, with its crystalline form and beautifully composed space, the curve of the water being echoed in the sky. I even like the solemn deep key in the color, which has the objects feeling weighty and solid.

Johan Thomas Lundbye, Autumn Landscape: Hankehøj near Vallekide, 1847, oil on canvas, 14 1/4 x 16 7/8 inches.

This lovely landscape, modest yet celebratory of the ordinary Danish countryside, is typical of the work of Lundbye. It is classically composed, with a touch of the romantic in the depiction of clouds and foliage, and in its pastoral vision. But there is still a precision and stillness in the light and in the details, so this could be an American Luminist painting. I believe we should always see our American painters in a wider context; it enriches them, it enriches us.

If you are interested further, here are catalogs of this work that are available:
Eugen von Guérard
The Colonial Image: Australian Painting 1800-1880
The Golden Age of Danish Painting This is a catalog from an exhibition at LACMA and the Met in 1994.