Saturday, October 8, 2016

Early Wolf Kahn in Boston exhibit

Acme Fine Art Gallery in Boston's SOWA district is showing a compelling group of very strong paintings from an early period in Wolf Kahn's career. The exhibit's up now through November 26, 2016.

Cypress Rows

Created during the early 1960s, these abstract landscapes reveal a moodier side of Kahn, different from the exuberant explosions of color, light, and shadow for which he is best known today. Acme Gallery obtained the work because Kahn (who's 89 years old) is downsizing his New York studio and couldn't store it any longer. Kahn's early works are rarely shown; he's reportedly been watching the auctions and buying back his initial experiments, presumably to fine-tune his legacy by removing them from the market, if not from history. (Some artists destroy earlier work they feel will dilute their overall achievement.)

Kahn made these paintings during travels in Maine and in Italy in the early 1960s. They're striking for their rich, cool blues and purples intertwined with grays, subdued greens, and only occasional hints of the high-keyed palette that dominates his oeuvre. The grays are still present in his paintings today, but primarily as foils for the flaring brights - here in the early work the roles are reversed. 

Wolf Kahn, Untitled (Landscape from Penobscot Bay), c. 1963

"I was using the language of abstract expressionism to play my own games," Kahn's said of the paintings of this period. The painting above struck me as a sort of amalgam of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell. 

Claude Monet, Blue Waterlilies, c. 1910?
Joan Mitchell, Rufus's Rock, 1966 (with art dealer Riva Yares)

The surface is dense, layered, textured with expressive brushwork agitated by the drips and accidents of action painting.  Here are three details of the Penobscot painting:

There's a wonderful series of sailboats from this period, too. (Who'd imagine something as cliched as a sailboat would lend itself so well to a visionary, nuanced abstract treatment?)

The painting below was my favorite of the fleet. It's at first glance "just" an all-white conceptual painting. It's a radical rendering, however, of a moment of perception - sheets and waves of brilliant sunlight drenching and dancing off the white sails of a boat.

As the wall text points out, the cascading glare is actually composed of subtle tonal shifts of warm and cool color and, seen from further away, the painting resolves itself into the familiar motif. 

Wolf Kahn, Disappearing Sailboat

Closer pic of "Disappearing Sailboat"
The largest painting on exhibit, "Into a Clearing," is a delightful paradox - a representation of ebullient foliage rendered in non-representational, Mitchell-like scribbles of subdued, grayed-down color.

Wolf Kahn, Into a Clearing, closer up.
The subject matter, scale, brushwork, and overall perceptual / expressionistic character of this one put me immediately in mind of contemporary painter Eric Aho. 

Eric Aho landscape
Here are a number of closeups of Wolf Kahn's surface in "Into a Clearing":

This small-scale but no-less potent show is certainly worth a walk-through. Rumor has it this is Acme Fine Art's final exhibition before the owner retires, which is a shame because Boston needs every daring, progressive gallery of contemporary art it can get.

Wolf Kahn, Early Work, installation view.
Check here for a thorough write-up on Acme's website and here for a selection of the works on view.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Some Thoughts on Painting

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Education, 2015
I think that, for whatever unclear reasons, artists walk through this world burdened with a feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction with the conditions of human life as it's lived day to day. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Burning
Then one day they encounter a great work of art (it could be a painting, a novel, a poem, a piano concerto…) and suddenly they fall in love with the idea that it is possible to improve those conditions - to elevate humanity above its habitually low level of consciousness by bringing into existence tangible manifestations of a full life, in fact the best of human thought and feeling.

Enrique Martinez Celaya, The Confession
Something in this individual silently devotes itself to this "mission" of accessing a deeper, more meaningful reality in themselves and bringing into existence objects and experiences (works of art) that make those states both evident and accessible to others. 

Then begins a difficult but inevitable though often uplifting lifetime of trying and mostly failing to achieve something: art, the only thing worth doing.

This is often described as a "calling." - All this no matter how unlikely the odds that they will ever create anything on an equal footing with the great works of the great artists in history. This project of living a more authentic life, of really seeing and thinking and feeling and wanting to share that through the practice of art, is what inspires great artists to create. 

All authentic art - that is, art that's honest, in which the artist has created from within without relying over much on the successes of his or her predecessors - has the beneficial effect of allowing people open to experiencing the art to awaken to their own untapped potential as thoughtful, feeling individuals. 

Most people live lives of "quiet desperation" always looking over their shoulder at those around them and doing what they think they are supposed to do or what other people (i.e. society) want or coerce them into doing. 

We live in a completely commercialized culture in which nearly everyone behaves as if acquiring money is the goal (whether or not they consciously believe this, and very few actually do, nevertheless it's is how many's days are spent because so few believe they have any other choice). Strong art does what economically driven societies and communities only do as an afterthought, if at all - it creates moments of meaningful human expression and communication, celebrating the "impractical" areas of human experience (dreams, imagination, sensation, ideas) providing nourishment for thought, feeling, and perception. 

I didn't start painting until the age of 41, but I'd been on an artistic path (as a poet, in fact) since the age of 16. I fell in love with painting after discovering the great works of American painters from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which until then I had never truly seen or understood. I knew I loved it as soon as I smelled the linseed oil I use every day and saw the first colors taking form under my brush. 

I follow Gaugin’s advice as best I can:

“Paint freely and madly; you will make progress Above all, don't sweat over a painting; a great sentiment can be rendered immediately   Don't copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it and concentrate on what you will create as a result."

While ordinary visual seeing is a given, artistic seeing is a matter of spirit - which is to say, the artist’s inner life of imagination, memory, and sensation, compounded with one’s highest ideals concerning art and life. These things inform the kind of work one wants to make, and this in turn literally informs what and how one sees in the world. 

One's artistic practice should always be about the struggle for self knowledge. It mustn’t revolve around technique, conception, or even perception alone.

Painting is a manifestation of being; it's a concretized form of self-development that never has to end as long as one lives. 

Enrique Martinez Celaya (studio wall)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Borderlands: In Search of Martin Johnson Heade's Newburyport Meadows

Heade, Newburyport Meadows, c. 1865. Click for high res.

Though you wouldn't call him a maverick, Martin Johnson Heade steered the conventions of nineteenth-century landscape paintings down his own road.

His insistence upon "making it his own" means he doesn't fit neatly into the usual categories. Unlike his Hudson River School contemporaries, he painted small, sometimes uneasy, often luminous canvases that seem at first to be mostly about the sky, instead of the outsized, majestic hymns to America's rugged glamor we associate with the movement. He clearly wasn't as interested in topographical accuracy as they were, devoting himself instead to mood, atmosphere, subtle enigma, and carefully observed effects of light. And yet, if it weren't for the Met's landmark Hudson River show in the 1980s that included him, we might not know even that much about him.

Martin Johnson Heade, c. 1875
He was not, in fact, primarily a landscape painter; he was unique in devoting just as much time to still life and portraiture, all without adhering to convention in each.

Martin Johnson Heade, Still Life with Orchid and Two Hummingbirds, 1860s. People (like Frederick Church, for one) painted exotic locales and people painted botanical studies, but Heade combined them into something else. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Thunderstorm, c. 1860s. This is a powerful yet strange and idiosyncratic painting by any measure.

Although I live less than an hour from Boston, I had to end up by chance in Vero Beach, Florida before I could see a significant chunk of the Boston MFA's preeminent collection of Heade's paintings. A major show of Heade's work mounted in 1999-2000 traveled from the MFA to several other museums across the country, but that was before my time.

One of the Boston MFA's gorgeous Heades - click for high res. 
The MFA only shows one or two of their Heades, so I mistakenly assumed that what I'd seen is what they have, and I'd certainly never seen so many in one place. I'd also never appreciated how singular a painter he was.

Martin Johnson Heade, Sudden Showers, Newbury Marshes, 1865-1875

The Vero Beach Museum of Art's exceptionally well-curated "Nature Illuminated: Landscapes and Still Lifes by Heade and His Contemporaries" confronted me with a double surprise - here, in 95 degree Florida heat, were marvelously atmospheric landscapes of the New England marshes near where I live painted by an artist I'd taken for granted, touted as "one of the most varied and inventive painters of the late nineteenth century."

Martin Johnson Heade, Salt Marsh, Hay, 1865-1870. Heade was a master of atmospheric light and weather effects. He was the first American to depict the phenomenon of stormy dark skies paired with eerily lit foregrounds (cf. The Thunderstorm, above).

Heade was born in 1819 in Pennsylvania, the son of a general-store owner. He showed a talent for portraiture in his early 20s and studied for a season in Paris. He fell in with landscapists Benjamin Champney and John Frederick Kensett, who got him excited about landscape. He ended up specializing in marshes.

To see how different his whole approach to landscape was, check out this pairing of a conventional (and derivative of European models, btw) grand Hudson River landscape by arch practitioner Asher B. Durand (left) with one of Heade's small and moody marshes.

Heade seems to me to have confined himself to these small-scale, geometrically simplified marsh scenes because he wasn't interested in depicting "God's grandeur" embodied in the North American landscape. Perhaps his orientation was primarily inward. He prefers moments of uncertainty, where the light is changing and the weather shifting. As John Updike has written:

Heade’s calm is unsteady, storm-stirred; we respond in our era to its hint of the nervous and the fearful. His weather is interior weather, in a sense, and he perhaps was, if far from the first to portray a modern mood, an ambivalent mood tinged with dread and yet imbued with a certain lightness.The mood could even be said to be religious: not an aggressive preachment of God’s grandeur but a kind of Zen poise and acceptance, represented by the small sedentary or plodding foreground figures that appear uncannily at peace as the clouds blacken and the lightning flashes.

Others have pointed to subtle tensions and dissonances for the viewer of his marsh paintings. There's a disjunctive quality in pairing such agitated and stormy skies with such serene, horizontal land masses, or marrying brightly mobile cloudscapes with foregrounds being consumed by ominous shadows. "Heade's paintings are concerned with the crucial Transcendentalist issue of the fractured self in the modern world," writes scholar Jonathan Clancy.  "They do not offer a solution to this problem but, instead, signify an ambiguous acknowledgment of modernity's problems."

Since I live less than an hour away and have painted there since I started in 2007, it seemed ridiculous that I'd never gone to the marshes in Newburyport and environs with Heade in mind. I decided to right that wrong and headed out to sketch on site in some of the same locations Heade did. I resolved not to imitate Heade but to synthesize my firsthand experience with my memories and feelings about Heade's achievement.

Martin Johnson Heade, View of Marshfield, 1865-1875, at the Corcoran - click for high res. 

One of the most famous of his marsh paintings is "Newburyport Meadows"(reproduced at the top of this page), which is in the Metropolitan Museum's collection. I asked the "Maps" app on my iPhone to show me "Newburyport Meadows" so I could go and paint there, but this is all I got:

Either the "Newburyport Meadows" are gone or Heade invented the name. It's probably a bit of both. There are still marshes here that look a lot like Heade's, but since there are now so few farmers to prize the salty grasses for feeding cattle, the erstwhile marsh-grass "meadows" are almost all confined to small pockets of conservation land between roads and houses. The disparity between Heade's gorgeous and poetic landscapes and the Newburyport "Meadows Construction Company" says it all: the bucolic past has ceded to development.

At the same time, I'm beginning to wonder what it means to paint nature while living in industrialized America under the growing shadow of climate change. "Fractured self?" Check.

I completed 15 paintings in response to Heade's work and what's there now. They'll be shown at Kennedy Gallery in Portsmouth, NH this month. Here are a few of the paintings.

Ghost Marsh - 8"x10" - this was the first one I did, plein air on a gray day - the foggy, dissolving landscape seemed like an apt metaphor for the lost past of Heade's time and the turning-away from nature of ours.
When not actually painting on location I tend to make diagrammatic sketches of ideas and take personal notes about what I'm seeing and feeling. On this day I listed words that occurred to me as I wandered about the marshes: "expansive, watery, bleached, empty, light haze, gold, shock of blue." Later these notes inform larger works I can undertake in the studio.

Parker River Estuary - 11"x14" - this is a memory painting based on a location near Plum Island, now the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, that Heade would have seen.
Newburyport Meadows (after Heade), 12"x16" - this one was an abstracted study of Heade's painting with the same title.

At the Edge of the Marsh, 16"x24"
Shadows and Light, 10"x20"
The Meadows, Clearing Up, 16"x24" There's still beautiful marshland to be seen here.
Heade's one of those artists whose paintings turn up regularly in yard sales and relatives' attics. He was prolific, wasn't a famous artist during his lifetime, was forgotten until the 1940s, and he was quite popular among middle-class buyers. In addition, he was artist-in-residence at a fashionable Florida hotel for the last 11 years of his life, so itinerant buyers bought and dispersed his work widely across the country. 

Here are just two anecdotes about recent Heade discoveries from a list on his Wikipedia page.

  • An unnamed Heade salt marsh landscape now titled "River Scene" was discovered in the attic of a Boston-area resident in 2003. It sold at a local auction house to an art dealer for $1,006,250 and was featured on the PBS television show, "Find!". It was purchased by a private collector, and is now on view at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • In 2004 a Florida woman was informed of the Heade discovery featured on "Find!" by her son, and inquired about a small 6 x 12 inch landscape that had hung in her living room. The painting, which her late husband had purchased for several dollars in St. Augustine in the 1970s, was authenticated as a late Heade marsh landscape. It sold at auction to an art dealer for $218,500.

The standard source for information about Heade and his work is by the curator of American art at the Harvard University Art Museums, Theodore Stebbins, Jr.