April 29, 2011

Elizabeth Murray's Narrative Geometries

Yellow Blue Center Fall, summer 1974, oil on canvas, 15 x 15"

I love Elizabeth Murray's early work, so was very happy to be able to see a great show at Pace Gallery "Elizabeth Murray: Painting in the 70s". From the beginning we can see that Murray had a love affair with paint, pushing it about with the brush, building juicy textures, globs and glops, solid presences of shape and line. With this paint that refused to stay politely on the surface, Murray took the pervasive geometric abstraction of that era and turned it inside out, from mind to heart, from intellect to emotion. Small brilliant squares within an off-kilter circle express the heart of things, the hidden treasure.

Heart Beat #2, 1973, oil on canvas, 12 x 16"

A rhythm emerges from wavering black lines radiating from a center.

Up Step, 1973, oil on canvas 50 x 30"

Pink and Blue Steps, 1974, oil on canvas, 36 x 44"

In these two paintings of steps, Murray takes forms that seem so straightforwardly geometric and infuses them with stories and off beat humor. In Up Step, those very delicate outlines floating on the green paint make rectangles that become a staircase, and an invitation to climb, to dream? And what wild colors in Pink and Blue Steps! a thumbing of the nose at seriousness, an exuberant march up and out.

Two or Three Things, 1974, oil on canvas, 68 x 66"

There are more than two or three things in this painting, 5 tiny shapes expressively placed withine the large green and yellow triangles. They convincingly shout "here we are" and we are compelled to pay attention to their color and their placement, dancing within the whole.

Falling, 1976, oil on canvas, 9' 10'' x 9'11''.

A thick red line curves and curlicues and ends just shy of the tilted point of the canvas, where it is punctuated by a tiny blue square. All the life energy of the painting, embodied in that line, is humorously held up by it, in my eyes prevented from falling. With this large painting, Murray begins to play with moving away from the traditional rectangle, to great effect.

Twist of Fate, December 1979, oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 54 1/4"

Druid, 1979, oil on canvas, 54 1/2 x 56 1/2"

With these two paintings, Murray has begun to shape her canvases, to have the wall push into the painting and the shapes push in odd ways against it. Twist of Fate, with another red as life shape zigging up the canvas, has buoyant blobby forms on a jolly lime green ground mostly held in by the edges. The blue shape, by some happenstance, is cut off. The green shape of the Druid exists within its allotted space, but pushes against it, encircled by a blue bar. These paintings are so alive that they pulse and seem to jump off the wall. Elizabeth Murray is a storyteller in paint, who imbues each shape with feeling, and with implied meaning that we are free to tease out as we will.

April 27, 2011

Spring Rituals

There is something about the hopefulness and excitement of doing early spring chores that makes them feel like more than just work needing to be done. The word ritual, implying a ceremonial event, one repeated regularly and with a certain amount of reverence, seems apt. Each spring, when the garlic and tulips emerge from the ground, it is time for me to put up the electric fence around the vegetable garden to preserve them, and all the coming vegetable crops, from hungry deer and smaller mammals such as woodchucks. I spread peanut butter inside pieces of aluminum foil and wrap them around the fence; the strong smelling peanut butter attracts animals, but once they try tasting and get a very uncomfortable zap, they won't come near the garden again.

My second garden task/ritual is to lay out the rows, placing stakes for each one, measuring spaces between. I love doing this, walking around the bare––well, slightly weedy––ground, making order, envisioning the crops to come. Today, which started as gray and foggy and turned into a spectacular mild spring day, I planted peas and spinach, even though the ground is still very wet from incessant snows and rain. Kneeling on the ground and placing seeds in prepared furrows, pushing the soil back over them, I feel as though I am performing a ceremony. There is still sheer magic for me in plants growing from small seeds.

Another of my ceremonies is putting out the rain gauge which was in a cupboard all winter. I like keeping track of rainfall and mark each rain in my calendar.

One of the things I most look forward to is the first day I can hang laundry out of doors. There is the ritual of removing warm, fuzzy flannel sheets and making the bed with cool white cotton. The scent of sweet fresh air brought into the house with the sheets is delicious.

And finally, the first bouquet of fresh flowers brought into the house, made up of two small very early daffodils: Jet Fire with the orange cup and February Gold with the yellow. It is time to put the bunches of dried flowers on the compost pile and make ready for the grand parade of color to come.

April 26, 2011

A New Textile: "Brown/Black Ground"

Brown/Black Ground, hand dyed wool on linen, 11 x 10 inches.

I began this piece with an idea about color, suggested by a comment about using the colors of earth. I rarely work with browns or earth reds, or black, because I have so much fun using vivid color in my textiles. So I decided to dye a reddish brown for the 'frame' portion of this work and use some previously dyed black for the center. I've noticed while painting that a deep dark will sometimes pop forward because of its intensity instead of falling back, as one might expect. So I was hoping that in this piece, which is part of my figure/ground series in which I attempt an image in which no shape takes precedence as "figure", the black would bounce back and forth, receding and advancing, creating an equilibrium with the brown. I believe this is fairly successful, but what do you think? Do you see the black as a recess or as an object? or does is flip back and forth?

April 25, 2011

A Glorious Sound of Spring: Wood Frogs

This morning the raucous quacking of the wood frogs' mating call began. For me this sound, even more than bird song, signals that spring has truly come. There is excitement in it, as the frogs go about their procreative business. I love being outdoors and saturated with the noise, love having open windows bring it indoors. Dozens of these small frogs converge on my pond when the ice is out, making small ripples and points of light as they swim on the surface. The first time I heard this sound years ago I thought there were ducks on the pond, and ran out to see. Nothing there, and the sound ceased. It took me several days to realize that the loud noise was coming from frogs. This morning, my cat Blinky somehow managed to capture a frog and bring it into the mudroom. He kindly allowed me to take it from him; the frog sat quietly on my hand until I set him, or her, down at the edge of the pond, and he quickly jumped into the water, happily unhurt and free.

The video below will give you some sense of the sound of the frogs and a glimpse of their movement on the water.

April 24, 2011

At the Met: Some Portraits

A Man with High Coloring, Egypt, 161-180 A.D., encaustic on wood.

This photograph of a panel painting, a funerary portrait meant to go on a mummy, is far from perfect, but it does give some sense of the presence and power of this modest work. Painted with wax and pigment, the brush strokes are visible as solid marks and add to the life of the image. The direct luminous gaze of dark eyes with the dark mass of curls enhance a vivid encounter. Last week, in the blog post "The Paintings on My Refrigerator", I wrote a brief comment on a Egyptian Fayum funerary portrait postcard that is hanging there. So when I went to the Met this week I visited their collection of Fayum portraits, which then gave me the idea to photograph a few other portraits in the museum.

Marble Bust of the Emperor Hadrian, Roman, A.D. 118-120 (detail).

I usually don't care for Roman sculptural portraits, finding them too realistic and cool, but as I was wandering through the Roman sculpture court, I noticed this very lively image of the emperor Hadrian. The flesh looks soft and mobile, the features animated, even the mannered handling of the hair is fresh; it is a wonderfully alive depiction.

Marble Portrait Bust of a Woman with a Scroll, Byzantine, late 300s-early 400s, probably carved in Constantinople.

The form of this portrait is much more reserved and simplified, with the mass of headdress setting off a sensitive rendering of a determined and thoughtful woman. The head covering, scroll and robe mark her as of the aristocracy. I love the way the circular lines and mass of the head covering contrast with the delicate features of her face.

Donor figure, possibly Blanche of Navarre, wife of King Philip VI Valois; ca. 1350, French, marble with traces of paint and gilding (detail), 14 7/8 inches.

This small sculpture, a kneeling figure, probably came from an altar or a tomb. The carving is delicate and refined, with the same clarity and simplicity of form found in French medieval manuscript painting; the portrait is not generalized, but describes a particular woman.

Attributed to Aelbert van Outwater, Head of a Donor, Netherlandish, mid 15th century, oil on wood.

Rogier van der Weyden, Netherlandish, Francesco d'Este, ca. 1460, oil on wood, (detail).

Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Man, Netherlandish, late 15th century, oil on wood.

The Netherlandish painters have magic in their art. How they are able to paint with such precision and so much realism every fold of skin and cloth, and still have an essence of living being emerge is a mystery to me. So often precise realism can deaden a work, but these portraits are rich and vulnerably human. The gentle touch on the head of a donor by Outwater is so tender that it allows us to feel the soul of the elderly man. Francesco d'Este seems a much more reserved person, but it could be his youth that makes him seem distant. The Memling portrait is so full of kindness and thoughtfulness that he becomes a pure expression of the wisdom of age.

Edgar Degas, Portrait of the artist Tissot, ca. 1867-68; oil on canvas, 59 5/8 x 44 inches (detail).

Leaping into the 19th century, here is a detail of a painting I've long loved. The artist Tissot is surrounded by the objects in the studio; in this detail we see a painting hanging on the wall which looks like a northern European portrait from the 16th century. I love the casual energy of this portrayal, as the artist leans towards us, a tilt of the head indicating interest in what we might have to say.

April 23, 2011

Spring in Central Park

It is snowing seriously this morning here in Vermont, so looking at these photos that I shot in Central Park on Thursday, a windy but sunny day, is a delight. Early spring was in full bloom, and my first glimpse of it was the forsythia draped over the stone wall on Fifth Avenue. I had just been to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to see the marvelous exhibition Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, and walked along Fifth to the 90th Street entrance to the park, wending my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Two beautifully scented shrubs greeted me at the entrance to the park, one in full bloom, the other with the blooms beginning to open. I don't know the name of this plant, so perhaps a reader can identify it.

There was a brilliant mass of orange tulips shouting happily for attention.

The venerable flowering trees in the lane alongside the reservoir were sprouting leaves and blooms along their trunks.

The greens of shrubs are the bright, fresh yellow-green that only shows in early spring. A bicycle, itself a sign of spring, is nestled in the brilliant foliage.

Behind the Metropolitan Museum are a group of magnolias that were in full bloom, including the stunning white Star magnolia. These seem the most extravagant of flowering trees with their massive bright blooms, so different from the delicacy of cherry or apple.

And along the pathway on the north side of the museum, these modest yellow blooms shine among the detritus of winter. The joys of spring come in packages large and small.

April 17, 2011

Happy Passover

I will be traveling to NYC tomorrow to celebrate the Passover seders with my family, and to see a bit of art. Passover is a holiday that I enjoy: I like the ceremony of reading the haggadah (although I just listen) and eating the special foods. I even enjoy giving up bread for the week and eating lots and lots of matzoh, crumbled with milk and sugar for breakfast, made into pancakes, or slathered with the Sephardic version of haroseth, date butter.

So I wish all my Jewish friends a happy Passover and a pleasant spring week. This holiday, which is a celebration of the Jews' ancient release from bondage, is also a time to wish that all the peoples of the world who yearn for justice and freedom are able to achieve their goals.

April 16, 2011

A New Painting: "Signs"

Signs, egg tempera on parchment, 6 1/2 x 5 inches.

Working on this painting was a breeze and a joy. For some reason, it went easily and smoothly, the layerings of color changing, but with fun rather than with struggle, as is more often the case. I tried the blue at different values and ended with a stronger color than at the start. I played with the long shadow, finally finding that scumbling a lighter warmer green over a darker gave a greater sense of transparency. I painted the yellow several times until the value looked in balance with the large green plane. For me it's a jolly painting, even with the danger sign. But I also feel that it's closer to work I was doing a year ago because of the composition and level of detail. I like the tension formed by the cable stretching across to the pipe, but maybe it has too much of the 'realistic' as opposed to the 'real' in it.

Another reason this painting seemed so pleasurable to work on is that it is painted on top of a failed struggle. I worked for 3 or 4 days on another image on this panel. It did not go well: the composition wasn't quite balanced, so I kept changing it around; the color and light looked off no matter how many times I adjusted them. Finally, I realized I was so uncomfortable with the work that I wiped it off the panel, which turned out to be just the right size for Signs.

April 14, 2011

The Paintings on My Refrigerator

When I bought a new refrigerator last summer, a friend looked at its bare whiteness and commented that it needed some color. She was right, so I went into the studio and looked through my postcard collection, selecting some to attach to the metal door with magnets. Just the other day I was looking at the paintings I'd chosen and noticed for the first time that there was only one 20th century painting, the Morandi, while all the others went back to the 15th, 16th, or 12th century. How curious, I thought, that as much as I love minimalist abstraction, the images I see in my much lived-in kitchen are representations––of animals, humans, fruit––while abstraction is found in my work room and studio.

Beginning with the starkly expressive Saint Anthony by the Master of the Osservanza, one of my great inspirations in using egg tempera, and ending with a marvelously loopy 12th century Spanish fresco of a camel, each painting has a presence and beauty that I don't tire of. Morandi's painting of simple objects have an emotional resonance (I wrote about the Morandi show at the Met here). Vermeer, also painting the ordinary, imbues all with a transcendent light. The two Chinese paintings, a portrait of Kublai Khan and a man on a horse, were in the exhibition of Yuan dynasty art at the Met last year, which I wrote about in this post; I love the way line expresses minimal form in these works, and because I used to ride, I feel a special tenderness for the horse. Next to the portrait of Kublai Khan is a beautiful illuminated manuscript page by Jean Bourdichon, a 16th century artist. These exquisitely rendered, tenderly observed manuscript works (such as that of The Hours of Catherine of Cleves) moved me to make small paintings on parchment, my current body of paintings. And finally, between horse and camel, a forceful and solid Fayum mummy portrait from Egypt's 2nd century; I love this young woman whose dark mass of hair emphasizes the intense gaze of her overlarge eyes.

In my work room is a book shelf with volumes on abstract painters. On the wall next to my painting table is this image of Robert Mangold's studio wall, covered with drawings. I love looking up and seeing the range of color and shape, so simple, so lively.

And in the studio are a few postcards I got at Dia Beacon, one of the most gorgeous, expansive, exciting art spaces I've ever visited. Walking into the large, light filled space and seeing those gleaming perfect shapes by Walter De Maria receding in space, made my heart swell. Room after room was full of amazing work. The two cards at top are Blinky Palermo, then Richard Serra, Robert Ryman and Walter De Maria. I love having these cards to remind me of the powerful experience of that museum. Don't many of us buy art postcards as mementos, signs to guide our visual memory, even though they are pale pale imitations of the originals? Our postcard gatherings are a kind of shrine to the art we love.

April 13, 2011

Parsnips, A Spring Treat

On Saturday, I spoke with a friend of mine, getting an update on how his maple sugaring was going (it was a great season). He told me that the ground under the several inches of snow still on the ground was "not froze". When I stepped into the vegetable garden on Sunday morning, I found that he was right: my feet sank deep into soft muddy earth.

My goal that morning was to find and dig the parsnips planted last spring and left in the ground to overwinter, where they gather up a rich sweetness from the frosts. They are the first crop of spring, a longed for treat at winter's end. They show themselves by the newly greening tops, so I know where to dig; a map of each year's garden helps too, because the sticks I use to mark the row get knocked over by snow.

Using a very long narrow shovel, I pry the long, narrow roots out of the ground, wiping them off as best I can. I then place them on the lawn in the sun to dry out so that I can brush off as much of the soil as possible before bringing them into the house to wash.

Parsnips are a very humble looking root, but they have such a rich sweet flavor that one of the best ways to eat them is simply roasted. Chop them coarsely, cutting out any tough fibrous cores from the larger roots. Place them in a baking pan, large enough so they are not piled high, and toss with some olive oil, then roast in a 400º oven, tossing from time to time, until nicely browned, about 35-45 minutes. What results is a deliciously sweet and nutty treat, which makes me feel as though I'm eating a big plate of candy.

April 11, 2011

New Hooked Wool Sketches

2011 #13, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 11 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches.

2011 #14, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 15 x 13 1/4 inches.

With these four new pieces, I am continuing to play with shape and color, and having a wonderful time in the process. I so enjoy drawing thumbnail sketches, trying out this and that and then coloring them in with paint to see what will work. With #15, I first did a sketch with somber colors, earth browns and yellows, but then the idea of spring took hold of me and violet, red and green resulted.

I've also tried something a little different with #15, in having more of the linen support surrounding the image, which remains about the same size as in the other works. I wanted to see what would result: would the work have greater or less presence with this greater floating field? If you scroll to the bottom of the page, you can see the four pieces taped on the wall (when hung properly, they are pinned) so can get a better sense of scale.

2011 #15, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 16 1/4 x 14 inches.

2011 #16, hand dyed wool and egg tempera on linen, 14 1/4 x 12 1/2 inches.

Right now I'm thinking that the extra inch or two is not needed, that the other pieces (except for #13, which is a bit tight on top) look more balanced. Any thoughts about this are welcome; I can always cut away some of the linen.

April 10, 2011

Budding Trees and Shrubs


We've returned to spring in the past few days, after a stretch of wintry weather. I've been out in the apple orchard, trying to finish up the pruning. As I walked around the trees, I saw that their buds were beginning to swell, so I took a closer look at some of the other trees and shrubs around the house, to see if they'd emerged from dormancy.


I noticed a variety of bud forms and growth patterns, and decided to photograph them simply, against sky or snow, to show each expressive character. The forsythia bristled with dark pointed mini-torpedoes.


The May flowering shrub Nannyberry has buds like expectant birds' heads, waiting to open for a morsel of food.

American Cranberry

Buds like oxblood-colored enamel jewels brighten the stems of the American Cranberry.

White Ash

The branches of the White Ash are irregularly bumpy, with buds that echo their character: flattish curved forms at branch ends, like little hard pillows.


And finally, a beloved spring shrub, the lilac, here with the empty seed husks from last season and fresh new buds, which will soon be ready to unfurl and begin the show.