Sunday, July 29, 2018

Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown

"My pictures are full of abstract climates and not nature per se, but a feeling."
-Helen Frankethaler, 1962

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 - 2011) was a giant among the mid-twentieth century "second generation" New York abstract expressionists. Her contribution was original and exerted a major influence on postwar American art. 

Frankenthaler at PAAM.
There's a knockout show of her work titled "Abstract Climates, Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown" at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (affectionately known as PAAM) until September 2018. The PAAM selection provides a revealing lens through which to appreciate Frankenthaler's work. Nearly all of the PAAM paintings reflect Frankenthaler's reactions to the landscape of the Cape, where she made these paintings during about a decade of summers during the 1960s.

Frankenthaler originated the "soak stain" technique.

Helen Frankenthaler, Blue Atmosphere II, 1963, 72" x 69.5"
Like Pollock, she worked on large unprimed and unstretched canvases spread out on the studio floor, pouring and manipulating the paint.

Frankenthaler in her studio in the woods, 1968

Blue Atmosphere, detail 1

Unlike Pollock, she stained raw canvas through with translucent veils of paint, creating large, colorful shapes while also allowing the paint to do its own thing.

Blue Atmosphere, detail 2

Cool Summer, 1959, 69 x 120 inches
Paintings like these can be like poems in how they transcribe experience into beautiful new wholistic forms that nonetheless avoid simplistic lyricism. They obey different laws than those of traditional western art.

Sea Picture with Black, 1959, 82x57 inches
The sea is raw, so that's how she transcribed it - not with exaggerated or distorted representation, chaos or incomprehensible geometry, but directly through the paint's colors, its capacity to drip and splash like water or billow in translucent plumes like foam - and yet again into something new and strange that it takes new eyes to see.

Sea Picture with Black, detail
Her paintings affirm that "non-representational" does not have to mean devoid of content. Standing before the huge and gorgeous painting, "The Bay," I saw all the colors of the Cape - there was the silvery sheen on the marsh grass I was trying to match that very morning; there was the warm gray-brown of the sand in shadow I'd been seeing in the dunes. But this painting used these "facts" as mere starting points for a new ordering of beauty.

Helen Frankenthaler, The Bay, 1963, 80x62 inches. Resembles a continent, or an aerial photo, no?

This little landscape was the most representational of the bunch- but its similarities to "The Bay" above, while not immediately apparent, are intriguing.

Provincetown Window, 1963-64, 82 x 81 inches
By focusing on place, the curators foreground the content in Frankenthaler's work (always helpful when putting abstract paintings before the public), and this helps to clarify one of the primary differences between Frankenthaler and her peers - Frankenthaler used her art to embody and express sensations and experiences above ideas. This isn't what makes her work great - it's just a characteristic of it that distinguishes it from other abstract expressionists of the period. What makes it great is the impact it has when you're standing in front of it. I'm not going to try to parse that impact, but part of it for me went something like: "my god, I didn't know that amazing, wildly successful art could look like this."

Beach, 1950, oil, sand, plaster of paris and coffee grounds, 34x32 inches. Love this! It's like the earliest human artistic expressions, basic as cave painting. But she hadn't yet found her true voice. This is steeped in the surrealism of artists like Miro, Picasso, and early Pollock. 

I was still buzzed from the excitement of seeing the work of a great artist creating at the peak of her powers, when an artist named Dan Weldon said something amazing in a talk that he gave about his work. Dan, like myself, was teaching on the faculty of Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro this summer. He distinguished between "conceptual artists" and "experimental artists." By this I think he meant, on the one had, artists for whom the creative process is primarily a thoughtful, well-conceived, rational process and, on the other hand, artists for whom the goal is to channel unconscious energy, to experiment with (I think of it as "partnering with") the medium as a means of getting past conscious control. What's key in Dan's formulation is that it's not about technique (for both approaches, experimental and conceptual, finely honed skills are needed, just not the same or the conventional ones), rather it's about overall approach, about one's fundamental orientation to the creation of art.

Frankenthaler was married during her Provincetown years to abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, who had his own studio in Ptown. Last time I was down there, I saw a show of Motherwell's "sea pictures" (in the parlance of the times) in which he also poured, stained, and flung the paint in his monumental canvases, effectively channeling the fluid rhythms and vigorous gestures of the powerful Atlantic Ocean. Motherwell, by the way, spoke of black and white as "protagonists" in his work. "Black," he said, "is technically not a color, [it represents] non-being if you like. Then what is more natural than a passionate interest in juxtaposing black and white, being and non-being, life and death."
Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea, 1966

Seeing the catalog of that show on sale in the museum jogged my memory and got me thinking about the similarities and differences in these two artists' work. Both were "experimental painters," in the sense that they allowed the material to lead, staying out of the way of the paint and, from a psychological viewpoint, avoiding the rational mind and embracing the unconscious (Motherwell used the surrealist term "automatism.")

The difference is that where Frankenthaler is subjective and personal, Motherwell is iconic - as the quote above reveals, he conceives of his content on the plane of the archetypal and symbolic rather than the relational and personal. Realizing the two artists' kinship and differences allowed me to really enter into Frankenthaler's work. "Experimenting" allowed Frankenthaler to paint the experience of nature without representing it; she channeled the colors and feelings associated with the breezy tip of the Cape directly into her art. 

She simply walked out of the room of traditional Western art. Her approach was to avoid all the conventional "rules" (including representation), to create stunning, literally experimental paintings unlike anything ever seen before. She was less interested in representation than in what art can be, and perhaps communicating on a deeper level with her audience - provided that audience is willing to release expectations of what a painting is "supposed" to look like and accept her personal language of color, shape, and technique.

These ideas and Frankenthaler's example of fearlessness and absolute trust in the materials and the unconscious inspired me to try a much more painterly approach to large abstract paintings than I'd done before. Here's what I came up with:

Christopher Volpe, Cape Light, 2018

I hope to make more paintings in this vein. It's heavily influenced by my sometime mentor Eric Aho, but the moves in the paint and the feeling in it are genuinely mine. And I tried to follow Frankenthaler's example of wholly trusting the materials as well as my intuitive feeling-seeing memory, and trying to paint THAT alone, letting go of nearly all representational forms and getting the sensation into the paint. Whatever else it is, DAMN, was it fun!

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Some Thoughts on Painting

“The essential thing is to spring forth, to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature, the shock, with the original reaction.” 
- Henri Matisse

I'm teaching a week-long workshop at Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, on the Cape this week. Called "Beyond Plein-Air," it combines plein air with studio painting and thus occasions a thoughtful appraisal of the relationship between these two, which also demands a reconsideration of the relationship of myself to painting in general. Thus, this class works for me as much as it does for my students as a reset button, a renewal of artistic vows, a chance for sophisticated play and fresh insight in the spirit of openness and excitement about art and life. 

Here's what I'm handing out on day one:

Don’t paint the thing - paint what made you want to paint it in the first place - that split-second miracle of insight into the mysteries of being-in-the-world. The false distinction between abstract or representational dissolves when you realize painting is about what the artist puts into it.

Matisse, The Open Window, 1905

Joyous living becomes possible when we escape the rational intellect’s habitual fight or flight mechanisms and stop judging and defining everything as either a promise or a threat. You let the floor drop and embrace failure and success as both parts of the same path. Same in the paint. All disasters are opportunities for information, to which we can have a creative response. Making art demands an embrace of uncertainty, both in the medium and, if you are making a life in art, in living itself. Enlightenment is NO FEAR, because “failure” and “success” (can we even honestly define these things?) no longer apply. In art and in life, playfulness, perception, thought, and creative surrender to uncertainty rule for as long as we can manage to embrace them. 

“Something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a painting. The process of painting spring from this interest… completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when that special thing has been said.” - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
Robert Henri, The Laughing Boy

Everything in the painting, in relation to everything else, expresses a central mood, idea, or intuition - a thought-feeling - a VISION. I’m interested in SEEING, but not as much as I’m interested in giving reality to a VISION. When a painting is too much like a picture, it closes down possibilities for poetry. Open the work to being about larger experiences through a sort of associative thinking that melds perception and observation with feeling and intuition, questions about identity, subjectivity, the attempt to grapple with the truly real. Only then engage editorial intervention.  

When looking, you ask, What are the primary relationships here, and you shape everything around that. Forms and shapes: where are the lights, where are the darks, what shapes are they, what are the colors and the edges doing?

Paul Resika, Sisters, 2001
Consciously stop yourself from making paintings based on a template of what good paintings are or are supposed to look like. Be true to yourself. Paul Resika taught me to ask of any painting not how good it is, how skillful or daring, or contemporary, or whatever, but "Is there anything in it?" 

Is there anything in it? It's a simple question concealing a powerful truth. Honest, soulful painting is always valued for itself and what the artist puts "in it." This is our task. It's why we go outside and paint from life - to puncture the cliche. Because when your eyes are open, everything is always new. Bring your love of every painting you've loved and bring your eyes honestly with you when you walk out of the door in the morning, when you arrive in a new space to paint, and everything is going to be amazing. I tell myself and my students this because it's so hard to live it every day and we need to hear it again and again.

Open your mind and heart to nature and risk everything.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Shelter in Plates

There's an excellent show of five contemporary New England artists at the Fitchburg Art Museum titled Fantastical, Political. As I wrote in my review for Art New England, the show features "appealing surfaces and seemingly quaint ornamentations that disclose charged political statements and barbed social commentaries that linger like unhealed wounds." You'll have to wait for the issue to come out to read the rest (I know, you CAN'T WAIT!!!), but while I was checking out the show, I also discovered a treasure of Boston contemporary art of which I knew nothing. It wasn't part of my piece for ANE, so I decided to document it and share it here.

“Shelter in Plates” is displayed in a small adjoining room in the back where the Fitch is showing works from the permanent collection that relate to their main exhibitions. The work consists of six fancy-looking “commemorative plates” that Chantal Zakari and Mike Mandel created, much like those nice ceramics that are made to commemorate world fairs, national events, or public ceremonies. But these plates riff brilliantly on that hokey tradition to memorialize the mood of anxiety and fear and the “shelter in place” tactics used by police to lockdown Watertown during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bomber. 

Mandel, a photographer, documented the scene as the police moved through their neighborhood, and Zakari, a visual designer, turned the photos into at-first-glance "souvenirs." I've got pix of the wall text, so there's no need for me to babble on. Enjoy. Each plate is followed by a closeup showing the details. As always, click on the images for higher res (readable) versions.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A very special paint box

Gearhead warning! I'm the proud owner of a brand new custom-made antique-hardwood paintbox/sketchbox that a friend of mine crafted for me.

Longtime followers may recall that some time ago I found a palette in the attic of the farm house we live in that my wife Anna's great-grandparents built in 1872. The palette could only have been Hilda's (Anna's grandmother). It's a beautiful tool - a small, thin slice of hardwood (not plywood) in an unusual shape, light as a feather, and seasoned to beat the band. 

I asked Michael Ready, a Lowell friend and master woodworker, if he could build a paintbox around it. I acquired a reclaimed barn board of 400 year-old chestnut at a local lumberers and Michael worked his magic. It took a while, but last week the prophecies were fulfilled, the skies parted, and my newly inseparable companion arrived to the fanfare of heavenly trumpets and angelic choirs and trailing clouds of glory.

Michael secured the box with a precise solid brass English latch and attached a vintage oxblood leather handle I'd been saving for just such a use.
To finish it, he didn't stain or varnish - he rubbed the wood with linseed oil and wax to bring out the natural luster. The grain is gorgeous!

Here it is open. You can see Hilda's palette is secured with a little wooden turn-latch and thus perfectly housed (serendipitously, it matches the wood's color, too). 

The palette comes down and rests on supports so I can pop a canvas into the lid and go to work. 

Here it is filled with my painting supplies.

I added a crimson liner to the bottom using some found fabric. It looks big, but it's only 11 inches across - perfect for the 8" x 8" and 8" x 10" panel studies I do in the studio and at home.

I also added a matching detachable leather shoulder strap.
I got the hardware for the shoulder strap from an old French easel.
Gorgeous ain't it? It's always with me, so I'm always ready to paint. It comes with me to the studio in the morning and travels back home with me at night. They say you have to love your tools, your materials, your instrument, so that you always want to play it. I certainly feel that way about this little number. Many thanks to "Mr. WorksWood," aka Michael Ready, for bringing such beauty into my life!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Pop Art explained in two sentences

.... and dismissed utterly (but not by me!) as a big part of what's wrong with the art world.

Claes Oldenburg, “French Fries and Ketchup” (1963), vinyl and kapok on wood base
What is Pop Art and why would someone pay millions of dollars for a reproduction of something from a magazine that's not even made by the artist himself but by assistants working in assembly-line fashion at the artist's "factory?"

Andy Warhol's "Cow Wallpaper" from the 1960s, installed with five silkscreens from his electric chair series.

Well, because art history has enshrined the work. But why is that? Because as Shakespeare said, art holds the mirror up to nature. Stay with me. In the very same way that exquisitely detailed Dutch still life painting reflected the urbane cultural values of Northern Europe in the 17th century, the Pop Artists showed us how shallow and commercialized American culture had become, all the while riffing on and exploiting the rich colors, bold contrasts, and "of the moment" energy of commercial graphic design. Here's an excellent two-sentence definition of why art historians (and those who "get" Pop Art) care:

"(The Pop Artists') rise in the 1960s perfectly echoed the banal consumer society that exploded as the post-war economy prospered. They typically represented everyday objects and the signs of popular mass culture through representational techniques used by advertisers and comic strip commercial artists." Bam! There you have it. 

Roy Lichtenstein, BAM! - 1960s
Look, art imitates life. If you don't like what you see, blame life! Blame the 1960s: consumer products, sexual liberation, rock music, drug use, tragic death, and a heavy dose of shopping—the cultural phenomena that defined the decade. Above all, Pop art is a reflection of the American cult of consumerism. It confuses those who like a high-brow, refined definition of art as "high art" because it blurs the lines between fine art and popular culture.

The writer of those two sentences above, Joseph Nechvatal (writing as a correspondent for the excellent online art mag Hyperallergic), was reviewing a Pop Art show currently in Paris and ruefully reflecting on the "Ugly American" stereotypes this brand of art exposes (or "celebrates," depending on whether you like Pop Art or not - Nechvatal decidedly does not).

The writer notes that the Paris show, Pop Art: Icons that Matter, regrettably reinforces the "Ugly American" stereotypes which, he says, are being reinvigorated in France by the behavior of Donald Trump, whom he describes as "a loud, arrogant, white, sexist, racist American president who reportedly never reads or works on a computer, but watches hours of television a day, drinks around 12 Diet Cokes and chows down Big Mac cheeseburgers for dinner while endlessly talking on the telephone with friends (all activities conspicuously right in line, he notes, with the self-confessed personal habits of Andy Warhol).

Andy Warhol, Coca-Cola 3 Bottles, 1962
He chides Pop (which extends from the Warhol/Lichtenstein/Rauschenberg 1960s through the 1970s,  '80s, and '90s to the contemporary neo-pop that Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are producing and selling for millions today) because it does nothing to resist what he sees as consumer culture's oppressive failings. 

Jeff Koons, Ballon Dog (Orange) 1994-2000 mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent coating. Auctioned at Christies in 2013 for $58 million.
Instead, he argues, pop art is complicit in consumer culture and doubly damnable for denying us, its audience, art's ability to engage human subjectivity - Pop Art is just "there" ("I like boring things," Andy said. "I am a deeply superficial person"). He blames Pop for the rise of the bloated prices and over-commercialization and hollowness of much contemporary art on display at celebrity-studded art fairs and stratospheric auctions. Pop, he says, "greased the chute for the price-porn piggies and their abuse of art as a luxury/lifestyle/investment device that has lately been deforming culture as never before." Dude has an axe to grind - but when a single painting sells for $450 million (more than the GDP of the world's smallest seven countries) he does have a point.

Andy Warhol, Flowers from the1960s
In condemning Pop Art on numerous levels (or rather dismissing it as something that "doesn't matter"), he argues for a "darker, more indeterminate" and "enigmatic" art that forces us to to interpret it and in so doing empowers us to "re-appropriate (our) capacity to see on a personal basis." In saying that, he is a theorist after my own heart.

I don't think that in order to "matter" a work of art has to be "a site of cultural resistance," as Nechvatal seems to believe, but I do want to create art that does exactly what he describes: "It invites the viewer into the position of an active visualizing participant" and "rewards the inner (private) human condition or resists the social/political/commercial spectacle that tries to consume it." That's the aesthetic of my Loomings series in a nutshell.  

Andy Warhol, Jackie, 1964
Actually, a good deal of Warhol's lesser-known work is gritty, darkly ironic, and legitimately full of meaning and at times touched by actual emotional pathos, personal reflection, and the twinning of beauty and sadness, IMHO, Mr. Nechvatal.

The whole article is a very stimulating read and I recommend you check it out if you have a few extra minutes of web time. 

Andy Warhol, “Electric Chair,” (1971), silkscreen

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Dennis Miller Bunker - An American in Medfield

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889 (click for high res closeup)

Though his life would be tragically cut short just six years later, Dennis Miller Bunker at the age of 23 was one of the most promising of the young American Impressionists who sprang up in Boston toward the end of the 19th century. Bunker and other Boston painters mentored by William Morris Hunt - including Tarbell, Childe Hassam, Wm. Merrit Chase, and Frank Benson, became avid disciples of Monet. Collectively they’re referred to as the “Boston School.”
Bunker learned Impressionism from John Singer Sargent in England and while spending a summer painting with Monet. But in 1889, when Bunker couldn’t afford to return to England with Sargent, his patron Isabella Steward Gardner (who’d lost a young son, who had he lived would have been Bunker’s age) recommended the young man go and see Medfield, Mass.  

Medfield had already been immortalized after George Inness moved there with his family and began painting it around 1860. It was there, a few years later, that Inness, moved by the onset of the Civil War, created his first great, fully realized spiritual visions of the American landscape, paintings that would eventually give birth to the Tonalist movement, including his celebrated Peace and Plenty.

George Inness, Clearing Up (Medfield)
Isabella was in the habit of taking Boston socialites there for parties and concerts at the summer cottage of her friend Charles Martin Loeffler, a well-known composer and concertmaster for the BSO. Bunker fell in love with the place and, while staying at a congenial boarding house, painted dozens of canvases over the the summers of ’89 and ’90, his most productive years ever.

You can see examples of these paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The public saw the first of Bunker's Medfield paintings in 1890. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889 or '90
A reviewer for the Boston Evening Transcript wrote: "The skies are represented only by reflection in these interesting freaks of painting and they may be classified as bold and original experiments in the representation to that eternal phenomenon which possesses such a powerful fascination for all painters—sunlight."*

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield
Those words are still true today. Bunker’s paintings of the brook at Medfield are unlike anything else of the time and instantly recognizable as his own. 

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889/90
Evidently, he went at this most humble and ordinary subject with the same intensity of observation and execution that Monet lavished on his haystacks and Giverney. To my mind this is what makes Bunker's Medfield paintings seem so much more “American” than the more conspicuously European-influenced landscapes and parlor pieces of his Boston School peers (Tarbell and Hassam especially).

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Pool, Medfield, 1889
I was reminded of Bunker’s Medfield brook paintings when I cropped a photo that I snapped of work a friend showed me by contemporary Cornwall landscapist John Brenton (I’d classify his work a kind of neo-Impressionism). It’s going to be the starting point for a lesson on palette knife painting in my every-other-Wednesday painting classes in Exeter, NH and Lowell, Mass. 

The composition of the entirety of Brenton's painting, compared to Bunker's, is more conventional:

Meanwhile, I’m in touch with the Medfield Historical Society to see if the exact location of Bunker’s brook still exists. If so, I foresee a field trip this summer!

Dennis Miller Bunker, The Brook at Medfield, 1889
*My source for the historical background on Bunker and Medfield is town historian Richard deSorgher, writing for the Medfield Patch


David Temple of the Medfield Historical Society has informed me that plenty of farmland and marshy grounds still exist in Medfield, all equally likely locations for Bunker's endeavors. According to him, there's a great book on Bunker by Erica Hirschler that I need to get hold of and which may well yield more info. Temple suggested that wherever Bunker painted would have to have been in walking or bicycling distance from where he was staying. He told me that although Hirschler believes Bunker boarded at 109 Main St., Medfield, the large c.1800 Goldthwaite family farmhouse that's there would be an unlikely candidate for a boarding house. According to Medfield historian Richard DeSorgher, Charles Martin Loeffler (Isabella Gardner's Medfield connection) was renting a cottage at 661 Main St., and Bunker stayed next door at Sewell's Tannery Farm, which is still there, at 663 Main St., "just before the vast open meadows of the Charles River." That sounds like the right place to look for Bunker's "brook." According to DeSorgher, Bunker wrote to Gardner: "You should see the Charles River, it has dwindled almost to a brook—and has lost all its Boston character. It is very charming—like a little English river—or rather a little like an English river. It runs here through the most lovely meadows, very properly framed in pine forests and low familiar looking hills — all very much the reverse of striking or wonderful or marvelous, but very quietly winning and all wearing so very well that I wonder what more one needs in any country. … The calmness of everything here — its roughness and simplicity is to me most charming and restful — and I feel more happy and in better courage." Sounds like marching orders to me - come summer, that is.