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 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 (one of several versions of this motif)

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.