April 30, 2012

A New Painting: "Black Curve, Red Bar", Third in an Unplanned Series

Black Curve, Red Bar, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/4 x 8 1/2 in. 

Even though this painting does not have any direct sunlight in it, it feels bright to me because of the intense blues and the red of the almost-central bar. I thought of dulling that red, but then decided to take a chance that it wouldn't look too strong. I think/I hope that the brilliance of the blue and the strong dark of the black cylinder give it all a sense of balance; as does the horizontal and vertical composition, leavened by the one diagonal and the black curve. 

I only realized that I was doing a series of red, or rusted, bar pictures after I was finished with the second and about to work on this one. I gather lots of images each summer for the year's painting; I don't why I worked on these three in close succession.Perhaps working on a theme with variations is something to think about moving forward, as I do occasionally with my textiles, which you can see in this blog post.) Farmers will be readying their equipment for the new season's work, so I'll be heading out searching for motifs very soon. 

April 29, 2012

John Chamberlain: Crumpled Color

Hatband, 1960; painted steel, 58 1/2 x 53 x 38 in. 

One day something––some one thing–– pops out at you and you pick it up, and you take it over, and you put it somewhere else, and it fits, it's just the right thing at the right moment.
This "right thing at the right moment", as John Chamberlain describes his process, must have been a great adventure for him. I could still feel the excitement and sense of discovery in his earlier work when I went to see the Chamberlain retrospective, Choices, at the Guggenheim Museum. The totality of each piece had a sweep and drama, but then there were all those marvelous details of color and surface, all perfect, and perfectly thrilling. And when I began to walk around the sculpture....

Hatband, another view

completely new ideas came into view as changed shapes and colors took precedence. It made for the most marvelous viewing experience, as though the sculpture was nudging me "look at this! look at this! the world is ever new." I wish I could have taken photos at the show because there were so many great moments in these pieces: the way one color sat next to another, the twist of a form and the relationship of one to another, the wearing off of color where it was stressed by folding or age. No photographing allowed, so these images come from the museum's website for the show, link here; there is also a good amount of information on the artist and the work on the site. For instance, Chamberlain's titles are often very odd and witty, so we are given a lexicon with possible explanations. While I thought that Hatband referred to a hat, I am informed that it's a poker game in which each player has a card in his hatband visible to only the other players. Who knew?

 Fantail, 1961; painted and chromium plated steel, 70 x 75 x 60 in.

To continue with the lexicon, a Fantail is the overhang at the stern of a ship which is often shaped like a duck's bill, and there is a shape just like that in the 3rd view below and soaring outward above. But that's not what struck me about this piece; what I kept thinking of its columnar form topped by a wildly spreading group of shapes, seeming ready to take flight, was that it reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace

 4 views of Fantail

Each angle of this piece was a new revelation, and what I especially loved was the surprising appearance of a cone shaped fender emerging from its innards. Chamberlain's preferred material of salvaged painted automobile metal allowed him to work with vivid color and then throw in, from time to time, a bit of chrome to juice up the conversation.

 Untitled, 1961; painted tin-plated steel, 5 x 4 x 3.5 in.

One of the great delights of the show were some miniature works, fluid in form and perky in color.

 Untitled, 1961; painted and printed tin-plated steel, 7 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 6 in. 

 3 views of Untitled

I just love this piece, with it's bursting shapes sitting atop a spice can. In all of his work, Chamberlain transforms the ordinary stuff of life into sculpture; using a spice container that we all have on our kitchen shelves makes the point of the transformative power of art in a particularly fun and witty way. 

 The Hot Lady from Bristol, 1979; painted and chromium plated steel, 83 x 51 x 50 in.

The "hot lady" is a naughty limerick, and there is something exuberantly flighty about this piece. The yellow form is almost figural and the folded white metal, with its dark lines, flows like a robe.

Kiss #12, 1979; painted steel, 30 x 31 x 27 in. 

Yes, these works are abstract; they've often been said to be the equivalent in sculpture of Abstract Expressionist painting. But Chamberlain's sense of fun allows for figural interpretation; he encourages it with his choice of titles. In this version of Kiss, the pink, red, and yellow are as gorgeous as a blowsy dame; the crushed metal drum(s) like bodies crushed together.  It is an inventive update on Brancusi's sculpture, and like all his work, an utter transformation of forgotten materials into a vibrant presence. 

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1916; limestone, 23 x 13 1/4 s 10 in. From the Philadelphia Museum of Art website.

April 26, 2012

Needles and Cones: The Ancient Conifers

Hinoki FalseCypress

When I visited Dinosaur State Park recently I was very intrigued by the plantings of conifers, of many shapes and colors and growth habits. They were part of an arboretum giving visitors like me an insight into what plants were in existence during the age of the dinosaurs. The earliest fossil record for this division of plants is a very long time ago: 300 million years according to Wikipedia, 140 million according to the park's website. Either date makes them of venerable age, and they arose long before flowering plants. I wandered about, taking photos as I explored their variations. I think my favorite is the Falsecypress above, because of the way it forms overlapping fans like waves flowing outward.

Japanese Cedar

Long cascades of densely needled green and brown branches drop in graceful lines.

Blue Star Juniper

Some conifers are low growing, spreading their short blue-green branches outward.

Japanese Plum Yew

I thought the needles of this yew were so elegant, with their central dark vein and the way they catch the light on their edges.

Dwarf Japanese White Pine

This dwarf pine has a bit of the comic about it; its massed needles centered by a spiny cone look like a frothy costume for a ball, or an elaborate ruff for a high born lady.

White Spruce

I love the light airy sprays of needles with the reddish exclamation points of growing cones, giving a sense of a soft and delicate mass. The conifers add so much to our northern landscape, giving us green in the midst of winter.

I did have a question that I hope some of my naturalist friends can answer: why are so many conifers named "white"? white spruce, white pine, white fir. Is it because the wood is particularly white?

April 25, 2012

A New Textile: "Arch and Point"

 Arch and Point, hand dyed wool on linen, 12 x 10 in.

This new piece combines my shape series with volume; (you can see examples here). When I did the first pencil sketch for this work I was planning on two flat shapes, but when I added color the funny pointed shape became rounded. I hadn't been thinking of Philip Guston when I first did the sketch, but I sure did right afterwards:

Philip Guston, City Limits, 1969; oil on canvas, 6' 5" x 8' 7 1/4". (from the MoMA website)

Of course my work is a good deal more lighthearted, with none of the violent undertones of Guston's hooded figures. These are simply shapes, and any narrative allusions are very faint, such as the conversation between the curve and the point, the classicist and the bulging free spirit.

Arch and Point, detail

April 23, 2012

At Connecticut's Dinosaur State Park: The Tracks of Time

Eubrontes tracks

In 1966, a bulldozer operator, Edward McCarthy, uncovered a slab of sandstone while excavating the site of a state office building. Happily he was observant: he saw a three toed footprint that turned out to be part of one of the largest group of dinosaur tracks in the world. I stopped to revisit Dinosaur State Park a couple of weeks ago on my way home from NYC, and felt quite awestruck by this evidence of a very different earth from the one we now inhabit.

negative and positive tracks

A series of fortuitous circumstances led to the preservation of the tracks, from how they were covered so as to enable taking apart of layers of sandstone, to how they were discovered. I learned that central Connecticut, where these tracks were found, was once a great rift valley, formed by the stretching of the newly separated African and North American plates from what was once the supercontinent of Pangaea, around 225 million years ago. There were lakes in the valley where this large dinosaur fished.

Timeline of the earth's history

I find it utterly fascinating to think about the unimaginable length of time the earth has been in existence––4.6 billion years.....

When Homo sapiens arrives

and the very very brief time that humankind has inhabited it, the last line of a 92 foot long walkway in which each foot represents 50 million years. The gray section above is the Mesozoic Era , or the Age of Reptiles. It was also the age of conifers, which arose long before flowering plants. The park has a large variety of conifers in their arboretum, which I will share with you in a couple of days.

Dilophosaurus model

No bones have been found for the carnivorous dinosaur that made the tracks in Connecticut, but the Dilophosaurus is believed to be close enough in size and track-making to be similar to the maker of the Eubrontes tracks. Dilophosaurus is a theropod about 20 feet long; it was found in the same age rocks as the tracks, but in northern Arizona. When I look at this creature, I think of course! birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Fish fossils

There were also displays of local fossils at the park, giving a sense of what was living in the valley during the time of dinosaurs, including fish...

Horsetail fossil

and plants such as horsetails, or equisetum, much larger than the small specimens that now grow around my pond. When I've looked at these plants, I never realized how ancient they were.

Conifer foliage fossil

It is very humbling to look at these still-existing plants; homo sapiens seems like a tiny blip in the life of the earth, no matter our feeling of self importance. And strangely enough, seeing all this gives me hope that no matter if we make the earth uninhabitable for our own species and others, some will adapt, survive, and thrive. It certainly would be better if it does not come to that, but life is resilient after all; the earth has gone through vast changes over millenia and it is impossible to imagine the changes yet to come.

April 22, 2012

Early Greens in the Garden

Egyptian Onions

 In early spring, long before any of the annual crops are ready, perennial herbs are sending up their bright green leaves. First of the season are the Egyptian Onions whose leaves have a tangy oniony flavor; they are also known as Walking Onions because their tops form bulblets which fall over and root. I've been cutting up the hollow leaves for my lunchtime cole slaws, made with cabbage from the root cellar.


Chives have a milder onion flavor and I rely on them when the Egyptian onion leaves get tough, which they will in a little while.


I love the celery-like flavor of lovage, and have been adding some cut up leaves to my slaws along with the Egyptian onions. A favorite recipe with lovage is the Potato-Lovage Fritatta from Deborah Madison, which I'll make this week.


Then there is sorrel, for me an indispensable herb for soups and sauces all summer long, with its spicy lemony taste. A favorite spring to summer recipe is another from Deborah Madison's The Greens Cookbook,  a Sorrel-Onion Tart.

I generally get to enjoy these green for a couple of weeks before the first of the perennial asparagus emerges from the ground, but yesterday I had quite a shock: several spears of asparagus were standing tall in the bed, a couple had even gone by. Asparagus is a May vegetable, usually ready in early to mid May. Last year's snows made the crop late, but in 2010 the first spears were ready on May 4th, in 2009 on May 8th, 2008 May 10th, 2007 May 14th. As you can see, never have I seen an asparagus spear in April. And, the dandelions are blooming in the lawn, another May phenomenon happening in April. And the lawn needs mowing! I hope this year is a strange blip and not a speeded up arrival of climate change. At least it finally rained last night, breaking a very long dry spell with 1.3 inches of rain.

April 20, 2012

A New Painting: "Right Angle"

 Right Angle, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 1/8 x 7 in.

I am back to a frontal image after the receding diagonal space of my last painting, Twin Uprights, which I saw as a detour on my road forward. Thinking about my previous painting, I remembered that my teacher Philip Pearlstein, many years ago, told me that I had an architectonic sensibility, and he was right. Any time I've attempted more painterly work it is unsuccessful. I find great satisfaction in clear and forceful compositions, based mainly on horizontals and verticals, with diagonals and curves thrown in for variety and balance. Does it make the paintings too severe? without warmth? I'm sure some would think so, but I love the minimalist quality of them.

 Right Angle, detail

The space in this part of the painting was ambiguous, with the black hose flattening at the edge. It's hard to maintain an illusion of volume when a form is cut off, which brings us back to abstraction.

Right Angle, detail

In this detail of the crisscross of hoses, you can see that I tried to create enough space for each form to exist in a believable space. This is a painting in which I had to do a lot of adjusting of forms and composition from the original photographic source, which had already been carefully composed on site and then on my computer screen. My aim is to balance what comes from the real world with the formal demands of the painting. 

April 19, 2012

Dan Walsh: Beyond the Grid

 Agent, 2012; acrylic on canvas, 70 x 70 in.

It is a surprise and delight when I fall in love with the work of an artist previously unknown to me. This happened to me with the paintings of Dan Walsh, currently at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea. I walked into a space filled with rich and vivid color, and inventive pattern; fresh and personal, yet indebted to the traditions of minimalism and design. In Agent, the color of heavenly blue and the receding (or progressively smaller) shapes at the top of brought to mind the architecture of stupa.

 Agent, detail

Walsh's brushstrokes are assured and elegant, the result of a building of mark upon mark. Walking up close to the painting, I enjoyed seeing evidence of the movement of the brush: the gathered spot of paint at the end of each stroke; the pattern left around the center of the square form; the thinner and thicker lines of red paint.

 Roebling, 2011; acrylic on canvas, 55 x 90 in.

The colors of Roebling are dark, yet saturated, and the light lines around each shape give the piece a shimmery quality, as though it is a silken rug. There's a sense of shallow overlapping space...

 Roebling, detail

created by dark lines around the yellow and red shapes, and enhanced by the color surrounding the small central squares; on the brown "background" the squares with their small circles are less contrasted in color and value so settle back. In some ways the idea is so simple, the cross and leftover square, but it results in a dizzyingly pleasurable visual experience. 

Cast, 2012; acrylic on canvas, 55 x 90 in.

In a fascinating, lengthy interview with John Yau in the Brooklyn Rail from March 2010, Dan Walsh speaks of himself as "playing in a sandbox"; he lets his strokes play. He begins with an idea and adds to it, paying attention all the while to process. Sometimes the result, as in Cast, is a simple image of repeatedly smaller marks, similar in feeling to the architectural quality of Agent.

 Stall, 2011; acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 in.

 Stall, detail

And sometimes it is more complex: in Stall there is an opaque blue-gray square sitting on top of transparent golden shapes, another variation of the patterning of Roebling

Rookies, 2012; acrylic on canvas, 55 x 90 in.

The title Rookies had my mind wandering to night-lit stadiums, the beaded central forms are curves in space, the border almost decorative in the way of a Persian miniature. The image is a captivating mystery, formal yet lighthearted. I wish I could thank the stranger who I chatted with briefly at another gallery for suggesting that I see these paintings. Along with the Fred Sandback show, it was a highlight of my day.

April 17, 2012

A New Textile: Triangles and Diamond

 Triangles and Diamond, hand dyed wool on linen, 10 x 10 inches.

I began the sketch for this piece, another in my pattern series, by drawing diagonal lines across a square, yielding diamond shapes. Then I drew horizontals at their meeting points and lo and behold! triangles. After adding color to the thumbnail sketch, I tacked it up on the wall to think about it. Even though the two colors were the same value across the sketch, I kept seeing a central diamond shape, so I decided to dye the two colors in slightly different values so as to subtly emphasize that central shape.

When I dyed the wool, I was expecting a burgundy red color to emerge from the pot, but when the wool came out of the rinse it was purple. Oh well, this color works too. It's just one of the ordinary surprises that makes rug hooking fun and interesting.

April 16, 2012

Diego Rivera: Under the City

 Frozen Assets, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 94 1/8 x 74 3/16 in. 

In 1931, the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera came to New York City for a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art. While there, he painted eight portable murals in a modern version of the fresco technique. We can see these paintings and attendant drawings in an exhibition currently at MoMA. What I most loved were Rivera's three paintings of New York, a look at the grandeur above ground, and most moving for me, the picturing of working people of the city. I got the images for this post from the excellent website for the show, which has high resolution images and explanatory text. 

 Frozen Assets, detail

We have to remember that the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression when these paintings were made, and that Rivera was a dedicated leftist, a Communist, aware of the complexities of capitalism, revolution, poverty, and modern and traditional life. The soaring, crowded geometries of city buildings are very different from the swelling volumes of Rivera's Mexican peasants. He later described the US as "a truly industrial country such as I had originally envisioned as the ideal place for modern mural art."

 Frozen Assets, detail

Below the wealth of skyscrapers is a shelter for homeless men, and hidden below that is the protected vault of a bank. Are the assets that are frozen the unused labor of the masses of unemployed? In the brilliant three part design of this painting our eye is caught by the center, by the warehouse space filled with bodies.

 Electric Power, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 58 1/16 x 94 1/8 in. 

Workers are encased in the strict geometries of industry...

Electric Power, detail

where they sometimes appear as part of the machine. (I'm tempted to say that this detail of the mural is riveting, but I'll refrain.) As in all his work, Rivera's strong, simple shapes create a sense of the universal. 

 Electric Power, detail

The technique of fresco demands that the artist paint into wet plaster, or in this case, cement, so that each day a section of the mural must be completed. This requires planning and a sure and confident hand. I enjoyed seeing the marks of the brush close up (which you can also see on the website). Rivera tended to use parallel strokes of the brush to draw the forms; the color was translucent. 

Pneumatic Drilling, 1931-32; fresco on reinforced cement in galvanized steel framework, 94 x 74 in.

The black and white of this image highlights the rhythms of bodies and hoses as workers drill into Manhattan bedrock during the excavation for Rockefeller Center. This image of heroic labor is somewhat ironic in view of later events: the work on Rivera's 1933 mural for Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads, was stopped when he wouldn't remove a portrait of Lenin; the mural was destroyed in 1934. The paintings of Rivera are beautifully successful formally––color, composition, drawing, depth––but they must also be seen in their political and social context, or they lose their reason for existing.