July 19, 2021

Borders, Boundaries


I walk across a small field in full sunlight. The light touches leaves and grasses, shifting with the breezes; it sparkles on the tall, thin grasses and glows on leafy surfaces. There is a trodden path through the growth, but the 4 foot tall flowering grasses still brush against my skin, with a slightly scratchy feeling. (I'd like to use the word raspy, incorrectly, as I think of a wood rasp, with its small holes, tickling away the edges of a wood panel.) Ahead of me I see the dark edge of the woods.

When I cross that border from bright fields to shadowed woods it is as though I am in a different body, one that is cooler, cradled, limited in sight. From a horizontal world, open and expansive, I enter one that is vertical, where I look up to treetops and down to the ground. I often think of the words of Robert Frost, which come to me unbidden: 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

This line is from his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". In it he speaks of that most unforgiving of borders, that between life and death, in saying

But I have promises to keep, 

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

In the woods are many stone walls, walls that used to be the borders between property owners, separating long-gone open fields. A few days ago I noticed the red boundary marker for the southwest corner of my property; I hadn't paid attention to these boundaries for years. 

Many of the walls have fallen apart; stones are no longer piled one atop the other in an orderly fashion; trees grow through them. The hard labor of transporting and placing large rocks and huge boulders is undone.  Another Frost poem, "Mending Wall", has a phrase that echoes through my head:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall
The poem is a wonderfully wrought, simply put questioning on the necessity of walls, because even though his neighbor insists
Good fences make good neighbors
Frost wonders why a wall is needed between an orchard and a pine woods. And we can now take that questioning out into the larger world. 

The curved line of metal is all that remains of a gate that stood in the southeastern corner of my field, a forlorn reminder of the futility of fixed boundaries.

July 11, 2021

At the Met: Egyptian Relief Sculpture

Relief with a billy goat ca. 2551–2528 B.C. Old Kingdom

I am in awe of ancient Egyptian sculpture. The sensitivity to line and form, and rhythm across a wall, that is sustained across centuries is remarkable. It's hard to imagine a culture that stayed so consistent over this length of time, with small variations in style. The close attention to the volumetric shapes of this goat bring it fully to life, even though the representation is simplified and in low relief. Ah, those elegantly curved horns! 

 Relief fragment showing a pile of offerings and part of an offering list ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Many of these sculptures were found in chambers in pyramid temples, and were offerings to the king, The bounty shown above was thought to provide for life everlasting. This work doesn't have the realism of the relief of a goat shown above, but the abstracted forms and color are very satisfying. This fragment is a clear illustration of how the medium of relief carving is between fully rounded sculpture and painting.

Relief depicting an offering table and part of an inscription ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Although the details in this relief are more crudely handled, I love the pile of shapes and the duck's head alongside them, resting on curves An exhibition of Middle Kingdom art at the Met several years ago pushed me to start doing low relief sculpture in clay; I wrote about the show in an earlier blog post. As an artist I feel totally inadequate when comparing my reliefs to those from ancient Egypt; mine seem clunky and inelegant. Oh well, I try my best, and it's good to aspire to these role models.

Relief Fragment Showing Waterfowl in a Clapnet ca. 2020–2000 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

This fragment depicts a stack of ducks in repeated curves. I can see that they are different species from the shapes of their heads and the varying curves of their beaks. I couldn't figure out how they were in a net until I looked at the description of this piece on the Met's website. It pointed out that there was till a faint tracery of paint on the ducks' bodies, indicating the net; you can see this if you click on the image to enlarge it. 

5 Lintel of Amenemhat I and Deities ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Relief block from a building of Amenemhat I ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt, with god Horus

The two reliefs above are from the same building, the king's mortuary temple. The artists who carved these reliefs––all the reliefs shown in this post are carved from limestone blocks––were very skilled. The hieroglyphs at the top are especially beautiful in their simplification of objects, which turns them into language. I find that lintel so very beautiful; I want to run my hand along the edges of the forms, to feel their subtle distinctions.

 Reliefs from the North Wall of a Chapel of Ramesses I ca. 1295–1294 B.C. New Kingdom Egypt

This more recent relief made during the New Kingdom is more crowded with activity than earlier works. There are piles of provisions atop piles of provisions, and below, many workers preparing food or libations. The sculpted forms are more rounded than those in the Middle or Old Kingdoms, which increases the feeling of a bustling, overstuffed storehouse. Rhythms are varied and I see a rich visual polyphony.

Relief plaque with a swallow, and with Face of an Owl 400–30 B.C. Late Period–Ptolemaic Period

There's a heightened sense of realism in these two small plaques, made much later than the works above. At this time Egyptian art was influenced by that of Greece; Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. An article on the Met's website explains the history and artistic interchanges of this period. I see the Egyptian style in the basic simplification of form, and the carefully observed details; the relief is higher, as is common with Greek sculptural reliefs. The owl is a marvel, a compelling portrait of an inscrutable bird. I know I just wrote that these works are more realistic than what came before, but paradoxically, they are also wonderfully stylized: the artists managed to portray creatures that are both real and ideal, perfect of their kind. It is so interesting to think about this delicate shifting balance between naturalistic representation and abstraction that is evidenced across the centuries in Egyptian art. 

July 1, 2021

At the Met: Abstraction, Modest and Monumental

Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1921

One of the great joys of wandering the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeing art that spans centuries. There is Egyptian sculpture from 2,000 B.C., through and up to contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries; this range of style and content and culture and meaning opens my mind. Oh, I admit there are areas of art that I don't think I'll ever like––Italian 16th century mannerism, for instance––but I admire most everything; that certainly includes modern and contemporary abstract painting. I loved seeing this small––19.5 inch square––painting by Mondrian in the Modern and Contemporary galleries. It has great presence in its simple structure of rectangles divided by heavy black lines. What's especially interesting about this painting, which is early in Mondrian's exploration of Neo-Plasticism, is that the color is mixed, as different from that in his later work, when he used only primary colors. 

Leon Polk Smith, Accent Black, 1949

Leon Polk Smith's geometry is more lively than that in the Mondrian. The diagonal placement of rectangles and squares emphasize movement; the composition is then stabilized by the black at the bottom, holding the earth-red shapes in place. 

Carmen Herrera, Iberic, 1949

With Carmen Herrera's Iberic, I see yet another approach to geometry, using curves and points and shapes of different sizes. The composition is anchored by the slightly squashed divided circle at the center, held up by a thick line of horizontal black that angles into a vertical and meets orange. The color is both somber––black, and dark red, with deep orange––but also hot, in the warmth of red and orange. For me, Iberic is quite playful in its rhythmic shapes. 

Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, 1971

After seeing the three paintings above, I walked into galleries that contained paintings which had been part of the exhibition "Epic Abstraction". The three following paintings are certainly epic in their size, and they are all "painterly". To be clear,  I am not equating size with quality; it is simply a different characteristic. Joan Snyder's 6 x 12 foot canvas is covered with joyous paint; I see it in that spirit because of its color, like an explosive spring garden, and in the exuberant paint handling. There is open space, as in a Chinese landscape, and my eye follows paths across the canvas.

Joan Snyder, Smashed Strokes Hope, detail

The paths are created by paint that is slathered, wiped. dripped; it is thick and thin; put on with brushes? hands? palette knife? The variety of marks, their physicality, adds energy to the painting; the brushwork lends such immediacy that it feels as though it's still in the process of being made.

Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, 1979

Joan Mitchell creates an atmospheric landscape-like space across the four panels of this large painting. The upper area of the panels are gently violet-tinged; they contrast with the aggressive, agitated marks below. Because the painting is divided into four parts, with no continuity between them, it reads as a narrative, with four events unfolding over time; each panel has a slightly different emotional register, but all are passionate. 

Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, detail

In this detail we can see much more complexity than when looking at a small image of the entire painting. Blacks and blues are layered over ochers and pinks, The brush jabs and sweeps, and the paint drips; there are thickets of strokes, evoking trees and brush. La Vie en Rose is an immersive experience, as though being within Mitchell's sense of space.

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, 1956

Ah, de Kooning! Even though I've seen many of his paintings over the years––including this one, and the great retrospective at MoMA in 2011-12––I stood transfixed in front of Easter Monday during my recent visit to the Met. I felt that I was exploring an actual physical space, complex and shallowly layered. Although the painting appears frenzied––on the Met's website they cite critic Thomas Hess, who likened this group of paintings to "abstract urban landscapes," and "Easter Monday does seem to reference the whirling pace and gritty detritus of the modern city"––its structure is solid and balanced. 

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

As with the two paintings above, it's impossible to get a true sense of the physicality of paint in a photograph, but if you enlarge the images by clicking on them, you'll get a better idea. In this detail we can see an transfer from a newspaper pressed onto the canvas. As explained on the MoMA website: "De Kooning often used newspaper in his painting process. He pressed it against the surface of his canvases to keep the paint wet." This adds an unexpected element to the painting, which is at odds, in a fascinating way, with its abstraction. 

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

Willem de Kooning, Easter Monday, detail

The brushstrokes are edgy, yet luscious. When I think of de Kooning's process, it brings to mind a quote of his in an interview with the critic Harold Rosenberg, about the uncertainty of making art, and I believe this to be true no matter the style or medium of the artwork: 
De Kooning: If you yourself made a sphere, you could never know if it was one. That fascinates me. Nobody ever will know it. It cannot be proven, so long as you avoid instruments. If I made a sphere and asked you, 'Is it a sphere' you would answer, 'How should I know?' I could insist that it looks like a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after awhile you would say, 'I think it's a bit flat over here.' That's what fascinates me––to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.
Rosenberg: You believe that's the way art is?
De Kooning: That's the way art is.