Monday, August 14, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month III

My series about August as “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. Here’s some art on the subject of “fish.”

Frank Weston Benson (1862–1951, US), Salmon Fishing, 1927. Oil on canvas, 36 1/8" x 44 1/8" (91.8 x 112.1 cm). Image © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-336)

You might know that I would include an American Impressionist in the American artists’ month. Frank Weston Benson is one of my favorites, because I love his portrait of his daughters at the Worcester Art Museum. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, he studied painting at the MFA School in Boston, and then in Paris. While he did not immediately convert to painting outdoors, he was drawn to the French Impressionists’ interest in the effects of light on local color (the color of the object). His light-struck portraits of the 1880s and 1890s eventually led to his exploration of painting subjects outdoors in full-blown Impressionist mode in 1899.

It may have been his exposure to salmon fishing (of all things) that led him to explore more seriously painting outdoors. His first trip to the Gaspé Peninsula (Québec) in 1895 turned him on to the joys of salmon fishing. During the first thirty years of his career, he rarely painted scenes of people hunting or fishing. After being exposed to salmon fishing in Canada, it even led him to explore the use of the portable medium of watercolors—a medium which he had denigrated as amateurish—because it allowed him to paint during long trips away from his studio.

Salmon Fishing is one of a long series of works—watercolor, charcoal drawing, and oils—of his favorite spot on the Grand River and Bonaventure River in Canada. His paintings that resulted from his manly hunting and fishing pursuits included scenes from Long Point in Ontario, the backcountry of Maine, the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Cod, and fishing trips to the Florida Keys.

One of the most evocative aspects of Benson’s gorgeous en plein air paintings is his depiction of the nuances of light and color in water, and well as reflections in the water. The second most spectacular aspect of Benson’s work is his depiction of dappled light. He mastered this quite early in his career in his portraits of his daughters. 

Preston Singletary (born 1963, Tlingit Culture), Guardian of the Sea, 2004. Glass, 18" x 38 9/16" x 18" (45.7 x 15.2 x 45.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2017 Preston Singletary. (BMA-5403)

I first showed you Preston Singletary’s work back in 2009. This native of Washington state, a member of the Tlingit Aboriginal group, is one of the most fascinating glass artists ever. He may have been grounded in traditional glass blowing that he learned in the European glass capital Murano, Italy (near Venice), but his work far transcends merely blown pieces. He’s been at it a long time, having started glass-blowing right out of high school. It was the foundation on which his current work is built, which is stunning. He has incorporated Tlingit subject matter, forms, and symbolism into a basically Western medium; and totally made it his own.

This piece beautifully displays one of Singletary’s techniques that I find so interesting. After blowing glass, he applies powdered glass of different color onto the glass bubble he’s blowing. After it cools, the glass is wrapped in rubber tape, onto which a design is drawn. The stencil is cut with an art utility knife and the piece is sandblasted through the different layers of glass to reveal underlying color.

For the Tlingit, the orca (killer whale)or “black fish”is a medicine animal. The Tlingit have never hunted the killer whale because it is considered a protector of humankind. As a clan animal, seen in totems, the orca represents power and strength.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month II

My blog series about “American Artist Appreciation Month” continues. Here’s some more wonderful art.
Dr. Samella Lewis is one of the outstanding activists among African American artists starting in the 1960s. She was born in New Orleans, and at an early age she turned to art to help confront inequality. Her early subjects were diverse—from scenes of police brutality against African Americans to images influenced by comic books and movie characters. Like many of the mature artists of the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1920s–1930s), she came to believe early in life that art was an essential mode of expression of the black community.

Lewis attended Dillard University, a university established in 1935 in New Orleans as an opportunity for higher education for African Americans. At Dillard, Lewis studied under sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Lewis subsequently transferred to Hampton University, the first black university in the US, where she earned her BA in 1945. She earned an MA from Ohio State University in 1948 and in 1951 was the first African American woman to get a doctorate in fine art and art history there.

Lewis became a major figure in the art world of Los Angeles starting in the late 1960s. In 1969, she became the education coordinator at the Los Angeles County Museum, where she established the activist group Concerned Citizens for Black Art. She also published a book in 1969, Black Artists on Art, having founded the first African American-owned publishing company, Contemporary Crafts. This book pre-dated the ground-breaking exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1976. In that same year, Lewis was one of the co-founders of the Museum of African American Art.

From 1969 to 1984, Lewis was a professor of art history at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. She established a scholarly journal International Review of African American Art in 1976. Her emphasis was educating scholars and others about the many contributions made by African Americans to the arts. She has also been a strident champion of art education for young African Americans.

Lewis has produced paintings and sculptures throughout her life. The dominant theme is reflections on everyday African American life and, particularly during the late 1960s and 1970s, the struggles of everyday African Americans for equality. She is best known for figurative works on paper such as Boy on a Bench. Works such as this stem from her lifetime spent in arts education and her commitment to lifting young people up through education in the arts. In particular, this print was inspired by Lewis’s concern about the growing loss of African American teachers in US schools. 

Jeremiah Paul, Jr. (1775–1820, US), Four Children in a Courtyard, 1795. Oil on canvas, 43” x 54 7/16” (109.2 x 138.4 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3081)

In this work, I am prepared to declare Jeremiah Paul, Jr. as the first major genre artist in the US. Genre did not really get going as a major subject matter in American art until the 1820s. Although in theory it could be a portrait, I think it has “genre” written all over it, right down to the girl on the left who is attempting to draw the portrait of the nervous boy.

Paul was born in Woodbury, NJ, the son of a Quaker minister. He trained under the king of the American art school, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827). He may also, I suspect, have learned under Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), because his children have a touch of the English-inspired Grand Manner to them and resemble some of Stuart’s portraits of children. He painted some of the lettering on Stuart’s portraits. Many of his early works were copies of the work of ex-patriate American Benjamin West (1738–1820).

Four Children in a Courtyard is based on a print by the English artist Richard Morton Payne. Copying British prints was virtually the only way for American artists to improve their technique before the establishment of the first American academy, the ill-fated Columbianum founded by Peale in Philadelphia in 1794. This painting was exhibited in the first and only exhibition at the Columbianum in 1795. By 1796, Paul had moved on successfully to portraiture. He also advertised that he could take on any type of commission, from portraits to signs, fire buckets, and coffin plaques.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

American Artists Appreciation Month I

August is “American Artist Appreciation Month,” so I’m rolling out some artists you may never have thought about, or seen for that matter. 

Jim Drain (born 1975, US, designer) and Fabric Workshop and Museum (collaborator, Philadelphia), Pleat Construction Sweater, 2011. Wool and synthetic knit, beads, metallic vinyl. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Jim Drain. (PMA-7871)

The breadth of the body of work of Jim Drain is astounding. You have to marvel at the joy with which he uses color!

The range of his artwork—from installations to paintings and sculpture to fiber arts—is perhaps explained by his background studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1990s. While living in a factory building in Providence populated by artists, he was part of a group of cartoonists, printmakers, painters, and musicians who held shows in the building, called Fort Thunder. He also formed the art/performance/music collective Forcefield, which collaborated on videos, comics, totems, costumes, kinetic sculptures, and experimental electronic music. After graduation, he gravitated toward fiber arts—specifically knitting, which he had learned from his grandmother—which gave him an interest in discarded materials.

His wearable art is the culmination of this interest in fiber art. Not surprisingly with a BFA in sculpture from RISD (1998), his sweaters, extensions of his anthropomorphic sculptures, are exhibited with sculptures that echo the pleats. In his collaboration with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, he produced beautiful sculptural sweaters for the Opening Ceremony store. Drain created two prototypes of knitted sweaters with the Fabric Workshop that were sculptural in form. He used every fabric possible to embellish these sweaters, which included beading along the many folds.

Drain’s sweaters are knitted with wool from a company in Maine. Born in Cleveland, Drain now lives and works in Miami. He considers knitting to be like painting, because the artist never knows how the materials and colors will eventually work out together. 

Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980, US), Church Fan: Missionary Sister Gertrude Morgan, ca. 1970. Opaque watercolor and graphite on thin tan cardboard, punched, stitched, and tied with thread, 14 3/8" x 13 ¼" (36.5 x 33.7 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5099)

The visionary art of Sister Gertrude Morgan reflected in this church fan is a perfect complement to Drain’s pleated sweater. As a self-taught artist, her inherent sense of color balance enlivens her painted works. Her artwork most often records visions she experienced or passages from the Bible. She instinctively understood how different strong colors reflected mood or ideas such as hope, humility, and optimism.

As an artist, Morgan’s art came from her spiritual life—a means of expressing her faith. Born in Alabama, she moved to New Orleans in 1937 to become a street preacher. It was there that she established a storefront church in 1939. This church also contained a day care center and an orphanage. When she established the Everlasting Gospel Ministry house in the Lower Ninth Ward in 1956, it was there that she began painting in earnest.

Morgan’s fans were handed out to friends and people who visited the Prayer Room of her ministry.  Many of her other painted works were given away to congregants, and many others were sold from the E. Lorenz Borenstein Gallery in the French Quarter. Although her focus was always on her ministry, Borenstein was Morgan’s connection to the wider art world, including Lee Friedlander and Noel Rockmore. Although her art sales supported her spiritual work, she stopped painting in 1973 to concentrate on her ministry.

Check back throughout the month of August as I feature more amazing American artists.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sumidagawa in July

The actual festival of Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”) occurs in Tokyo in the last week of August, but there are fireworks in Tokyo from May through August, starting with the Opening of the Sumida River in May. Now, I’ve tried doing multiple block color woodcuts, and let me tell you, they are a challenge. What has ALWAYS impressed me about the color woodcuts in Japanese art is that, no matter how many colors, the registration is right on the mark! So, you might imagine how impressed I am at depictions of fireworks! The very ephemeral nature of fireworks makes them a subject I wouldn’t even try duplicating in oils, much less as a woodcut. So here are some great examples of different approaches to fireworks in woodcut prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858, Japan), Fireworks at Ryogoku (bridge), #98 from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series,1858. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-822)

I’ll take any excuse to include my favorite ukiyo-e artist (because he does landscapes!). Utagawa Hiroshige I was the first artist that I’m aware of to explore the fireworks theme in a woodblock print. I always comment on the awe I feel for the woodblock carvers of Hiroshige’s drawings. Imagine carving the intersecting lines of the Ryogoku Bridge’s posts or that single line of firework flare in the night sky!

Fireworks in Japan were developed in the mid-1500s. Sophisticated, large displays were perfected by 1700. Fireworks as entertainment are said to have been introduced to the Japanese by British traders accompanied by Chinese fireworks merchants in 1613, although there may be earlier examples. Up until the 1700s, fireworks were generally used in festivals to frighten negative spirits.

The Shogun Yoshimune (1716–1751) commissioned fireworks for the first Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks Festival ("opening of the river [Sumida] at Ryogoku [bridge]") for one summer to take people's minds off of a famine and resulting pandemic in western Japan. "Taking in the cool of the river" was a popular pastime from May through September, and eventually these fireworks took place on any clear night in summer. The Sumidagawa Festival is just one of those occasions, but the most popular of the summer. Compared to numerous other depictions of Ryogoku Bridge, the view from this series has removed the human presence to almost nil, in contrast with the dominating—almost melancholy—night sky and dark bridge. 

Ogata Gekko (1859-1920, Japan), Woman Looking at Fireworks from a Veranda, from the Women’s Customs and Manners series, 1897. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 ½" x 10" (36.8 x 25.4 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2358)

Comparing this Ogata Gekko print with that of Hiroshige is interesting because they each chose different moments and types of fireworks to illustrate. I can almost contrast in my mind the “pop” happening in Ogata’s print and the multiple “booms” of the Hiroshige; that’s how well these artists convey the sensation of seeing fireworks. I would image the printers of both these works rubbed some of the dark ink around the bright area to create nuances in the night sky. Brilliant! I’m pretty sure this woman is on a veranda overlooking the Sumida River.

Ogata, aboutwhom I’ve written before, was an anomaly when he produced prints because it was after the heyday of the ukiyo-e style. He relentlessly pursued the revival of the genre in his subject matter, preferring close-up views of nature to “bijin-ga”—beautiful women prints. However, the subject of “Customs of Women” was a traditional one in ukiyo-e, made popular by the late 1700s artist Utamaro (1753–1806). Ogata, who was apparently self-taught in the woodcut medium, displays subtle influences of Western art, such as perspective and more realism in his figure treatment. 

Kishio Koizumi (1893–1945, Japan), River Opening Ceremony at Ryogoku, from the series One Hundred Views of Tokyo in the Showa Era, 1935/1945. Color woodcut print on paper, 15 5/8" x 12" (39.8 x 30.5 cm). Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-629)

This Kishio Koizumi print is a most awesome contrast of Hiroshige’s Kawabiraki scene. Kishio’s scene is much flatter, with the major elements reduced to shapes and the space somewhat skewed. The fireworks are abstracted with no nuances in the night sky from the glow of the explosions. Like Hiroshige’s print, however, Kishio manages to capture the essence of the perceived experience by the artist.

Kishio was a major figure in the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement, which sought to infuse the traditional ukiyo-e genre with Western modernist elements, while maintaining traditional subjects. The creative print artists were different from the traditional ukiyo-e artists also, if you remember, because they drew, carved the woodblock, and executed the prints all themselves. This was a great departure from the master-apprentice system of the glory days of ukiyo-e, in which drawing, transferring to woodblock, carving woodblock, and printing of the image were done by different people.

Kishio was born in Shizuoka. His father, a calligrapher, commissioned woodblock-printed manuals, and Kishio learned the woodblock technique from his father’s block-carver. He studied Western-style watercolor at the Japan Watercolor Institute (Nihon Suisaiga-kai) in Tokyo. The three founders of that academy were woodblock printmakers, so they influenced his decision to go in that direction. He was a member of the Creative Artists Association early on and was an activist for their ideas. This print comes from his most famous series, which is a wonderful historical record of Tokyo before the destruction of World War II (1939–1945). 

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915, Japan), Fireworks at Ikenohata, Shinobazu Pond, 1881. Color woodcut print on paper, 8 5/8" x 13 3/8" (22 x 33.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-526)

Kobayashi Kiyochika is often considered the last great ukiyo-e master, even though many of his prints fall under the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and the government’s manic quest to modernize Japan as quickly as possible. These fireworks take place near the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park in the Taito Ward of Tokyo. I’m not sure what the festival is, but it’s such a great print, combining the influence of Western Impressionism and perspective with traditional Japanese subject matter and technique.

The printer has reduced distant forms to mere blocks of color, much as is seen in the backgrounds of Hiroshige’s prints. In the crowd figures, Kobayashi avoids the traditional attention to fine detail of figure in favor of a screen of shapes in silhouette. This sort of simplification resembles what might be seen in the work of European Symbolist painters. He had avidly studied Western art, particularly lithography, and based much of his work on Western etchings and photographs.

Kobayashi was the son of a minor government official under the last shogunate. After the elimination of the shogunate (1868), he trained himself to be an artist. His first project, which includes this print, was to diligently record scenes of Tokyo as it rapidly became a modernized city. In order to avoid comparison to previous cityscape artists such as Hiroshige, Kobayashi focused on light effects, preferring scenes of dawn, dusk, and night.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Experience Printmaking 4; The Visual Experience 3.5, 13.5; Discovering Art History 2.3, 4.1

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Artist of the “Cool School”

Ed Moses (born 1926, US), Blue Velvet, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, diptych, overall 66" x 108" (167.6 x 274.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Ed Moses. (AK-2739)

Far too often art history texts sum up the pioneering American avant-garde of the mid-20th century with Abstract Expressionism and the New York scene. Believe it or not, there were avant-garde artists all over the US by the 1930s, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. I get as weary of the New York-focus in so many discussions of American modernism as I do of the Western bias in most art history books.

Like other “schools” of artists (see “Hudson River,” etc.), the “Cool School” denotes a group of artists in the same art scene. The artists of the Cool School in Los Angeles were instrumental in building recognition of avant-garde art on the West Coast starting after World War II (1939–1945), not of establishing a singular style. In one of the great ironies of art history, the Los Angeles cutting-edge, modernist collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg of the 1940s—a major impetus for the development of an avant-garde scene in LA—is now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art of Ed Moses belongs to this seminal period (and to the present day!) in the development of an institutional art scene in Los Angeles dedicated to the avant-garde. A student of Buddhism, Moses’s paintings have always displayed a certain cool detachment from the strictures enforced by the Abstract Expressionists—their emphasis on star personality and agonizing over personal process.

While Moses’s art is process driven, he avoids the need to control the process in favor of letting abstraction be a transformative experience; in other words, letting the painting go where it wants. A practitioner of daily meditation, Moses has a relaxed way of painting in which—in a Jungian sense—he leaves his body and then lets the paint direct his hand. 

There is a lyrical note in paintings like this, where the beauty of pure abstraction is emphasized over the artist’s ego or “signature style.” In addition to free-form abstraction like this, Moses is also noted for his abstract grid works. His early work is quite exciting, and frankly makes the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman pale in comparison. I think this recent work is very nice.

Moses was born in Long Beach, the son of a Portguese father and English/Scottish mother. He studied art at Long Beach City College, University of Oregon, and UCLA before he became aware of Abstract Expressionism, particularly Rothko, de Kooning, and Gorky. While he was in school, he became a technical illustrator in an aircraft factory. That perhaps explains his fascination with grid abstraction from an early point. Having remained in LA most of his life, he has explored a variety of types of abstraction, including hard edge, biomorphic, crackle-like forms, and semi-representational. Rarely using a brush, Moses works in staining, scraping, splashing, and mopping, sometimes achieving lines with tape or snap lines.

Painting professionally since 1949, his first one-person show was at the Ferus Gallery, the very epicenter of the “Cool School.” Moses became one of its stable of Cool School artists, which included Billy Al Bengston (born 1934), Ed Ruscha (born 1937), Ken Price (1935–2012), and Larry Bell (born 1939).

Monday, July 10, 2017

It Isn’t All in the Title

I’m always a sucker for color. When I see works that I’ve never seen before by an artist I’ve always admired, and they involve color, then I have a sudden Beauty Attack. When Lynda Benlgis was asked for an artist’s statement for the publication Art: A Woman’s Sensibility (© 1975 Miriam Schapiro), she responded: “My statement is my work.” This is just so appropriate to her oeuvre that is so varied and so wonderful. I had never seen these watercolors before. Beauty Attack! 

Lynda Benglis (born 1941, US), Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, Sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-2521bnvg)
Lynda Benglis, Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. 

By the early 1960s, there were artists who rebelled against what they perceived as Abstract Expressionism’s domination of the American contemporary art scene. This "rebellion" not only spawned Pop Art, but also various types of abstraction, including Minimalism. In contrast to the personality-stamped action painting or color field works of AE, Minimalism strove for pure, abstract form devoid of the artist's personal footprint in the work of art's creation.

Minimalism, however, like many of the reactions against Abstract Expressionism, became an entrenched, canonic style that was also subject to rebellion. Benglis’s work since the 1960s has flown in the face of art ideologies and “movements.” In her exploration of form in all media, she rejects the notion of leaving no personal signature in her works. In a way, many of her works are about process, and that’s why she says “My statement is my work.”

Benglis pioneered forms of metamorphic oozing and melting. Her art is sometimes lumped under Process Art because the act of creation, rather than the finished work, emphasizes a timelessness and structural stability. The Process artist's action is finished then the substance is selected and a site chosen, often in a random way. The rest is left to natural forces, time in conjunction with weather, gravity, temperature, etc.

Benglis’s watercolors, like her dramatic multicolored pigmented work, are documents of her process of creation. I dare say these glorious watercolors would have been lauded in the days of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990s period of appropriation, hybridism, and narcissism, however, they are refreshing reminders that some artists remain true to their vision of pure self-expression without boundaries or agendas.

Benglis, born in Louisiana, became interested in the interrelationships between painting and sculpture in the late 1960s. She is arguably best known for her early experiments in pouring brightly colored liquid polyurethane as installations in galleries, creating floor paintings that could easily be associated with sculptors pouring molten bronze.

From these floor pieces Benglis began creating three-dimensional pourings, almost exclusively site specific. Pieces that were meant to fill corners of galleries or hug parts of buildings evolved into hung poured pieces, sometimes covered in Day-Glo paint. She later began casting the poured polyurethane sculptures in bronze to make a less fragile and temporary sculpture, yet still express the process of unsupervised creation through pouring.
I absolutely LOVE this piece at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Is it a sculpture? Is it a painting? Do you LOVE the color?

Lynda Benglis, Fallen Painting, 1968. Pigmented latex rubber, length: ca. 29.5 feet (901.7 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-127bnvg)

I’m not fond of the colors of these melt pieces, but imagine this in contrast to the works of Sol LeWitt or Frank Stella! However, as you can see from the above works, this artist clearly likes working with color.

Lynda Benglis, Modern Art, 1974. Bronze and aluminum, each: 13" x 43" x 29 1/8" (33 x 109 x 74 cm). Private Collection, New York. Photo courtesy of the artist. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (T18596bnvg)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

What’s New Is Old

I am a really big fan of art made from stainless steel, particularly in the field of the miscellaneous arts. Stainless steel tableware started being made early in the 1900s. At this time, Bauhaus (1919–1933, Weimar, Dessau, Berlin) artists applied industrial materials to utilitarian objects in artistic ways. The following stainless steel objects are so beautiful, and I can totally see them as props in the new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery! I thought it would be fun to contrast these beauties with more traditional examples.


Pierangelo Caramia (born 1957, Italy) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Penguin Tea teapot, 1993. Stainless steel and Polycarbonate, 9" x 3 15/16" x 3 15/16" (23 x 10 x 10 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Pierangelo Caramia. (PMA-7119)

The biggest boom in Postmodern design came in the 1980s. Pierangelo Caramia is an architect and designer. He graduated from the University of Florence in 1984 and the Domus Academy in Milan in 1986, so I’ll call his style NeoNeoclassicism. The lines are so incredibly clean and elegant, it’s hard not to associate it with classical simplicity. While the form brilliantly imitates a bird, the piece totally emphasizes the beauty of the material. Caramia is an architect who lives and works in Paris. His historicism is not confined to utilitarian objects, for he has restored buildings dating from the 1100s to the 1600s. He also teaches at the Academy of Modern Art in Paris. In the past decade, he has designed objects of terra cotta that resemble finds from archeological digs

Shibata Zeshin (1807–1891, Japan), Teapot and Tea Plant. Album leaf, lacquer on paper, 4 3/8"” x 3 1/8" (11.1 x 7.9 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1343)

The teapot in this painting is most likely unglazed stoneware. It has a certain streamlined quality that complements Caramia’s, I think (except for the wicker handle). Shibata Zeshin is famous as a master of the ancient art of lacquer, which he perfected for painting. Still life was not a prevalent subject in Japanese art, as it was in Western art starting with the Renaissance. Still life depictions such as this appeared in the late 1700s in the work of such artists as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). They may have been influenced by Western art, but it is more likely that such depictions descended from the kachō-ga, or "bird-and-flower painting." This genre, influenced by Chinese examples as early as the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), became very broadly defined in Japan, encompassing flowers, birds, insects, frogs, fish, pets, etc. That genre featured a single branch or flower with one or two birds on the blank background. This still life by Shibata contains the same aesthetic.

Fruit Bowl

Gijs Bakker (born 1942, Netherlands) for Royal VKB (1789 to present, Zoetermeer, Netherlands), Fruit bowl, 2000. Stainless steel, 51 9/16" x 12 9/16" (20.3 x 32 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Gijs Bakker. (PMA-7139)

This piece is just so gorgeous and it reminds me of Harold Edgerton’s (1903–1990) Milk Drop photograph. Gijs Bakker was trained as a jeweler and industrial designer at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and the Konstfackskolan in Stockholm. His groundbreaking jewelry designs in the late 1960s caused a sensation, and became symbols of the “mod” revolution in fashion design. Since that time, he has continued to produce daring designs in jewelry, appliances, furniture, and interiors. He was a co-founder of the Droog Design group in 1993, and in 1996 he co-founded the secessionist jewelry designer group Chi ha paura…? (Italian for Who’s afraid of…?). chp…?, as it is now known, invites avant-garde jewelry designers to create special pieces for their collection, exploring the idea that jewelry is a stand-alone art more than a fashion accessory. View more of his designs on

Sanju Mori II (1902–1970, Japan), Fruit tray, 1947. Lacquered textile core, 6 ¼" x 14 1/8" (15.9 x 35.9 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-3628)

Lacquer has played an important part in Japanese culture as a protective, decorative finish for items made from leather, wood, paper, bamboo, and metal for more than two thousand years. Japanese lacquer is harvested from the sap of the lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua). It is applied to an object with a brush or spatula. Lacquer hardens to a waterproof finish in a controlled environment of high humidity and temperature. This gorgeous bubble-motif fruit stand was created in the ages-old lacquer tradition by Mori Miki. He was trained in the traditional fashion by apprenticing to lacquer master Shigehiro Sanju I (died 1922). He adopted his master’s name as Sanju II. After studying further with Asobe Sekisai, he became an independent lacquer artist in Tokyo. This dish is called a moriki, or tray for seasonal fruit. It was made in the kanshitsu technique in which pieces of hemp soaked in lacquer are place around a wooden or clay mold, which is removed after the lacquer hardens.


Mario Botta (born 1943, Switzerland) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Tua pitcher, 2000. Stainless steel and Polyamide, 11 3/8" x 5 7/8" x 3 ½" (29.1 x 14.9 x 9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Mario Botta. (PMA-7122)

This pitcher (which translates as “your pitcher”) is a remarkably sleek, timeless design that so reflects Mario Botta’s experience with the great masters of the International Style, Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and Louis Kahn (1901–1974). The form definitely follows the function without ornament! Botta attended the University Iuav in Venice, the first architectural school in Italy that also focuses on design. This piece could easily be mistaken for a Bauhaus design of 75 years earlier. His architectural designs emphasize the simplicity (and severity) of the underlying forms, often with a sheath of bricks. He opened his own practice in Mendrisio, Ticino in 1969. In 1996, he founded the architecture program at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano, of which he became dean.

Korea, Goryeo Kingdom (918–1392 CE), Pitcher, 1100s–1200s. Bronze, 9 13/16" x 8 13/16" (25 x 22.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4996).
This sophisticated bronze pitcher may put one in mind of the gorgeous bronzes from Shang (ca. 1523–1028 BCE) and Xhou (1027–256 BCE) China. That’s a good connection to make, because during the Goryeo period, Korea was heavily influenced by China. Bronze casting was probably introduced to the Korean peninsula from China during the first 1000 years BCE. The Goryeo dynasty established a unified kingdom on the Korean peninsula after defeating the Later Koguryo kingdom (918 CE), the kingdom of Silla (935 CE), and the Later Paekche kingdom (936 CE). The Goryeo period is characterized by its highly refined ceramics and bronze work. Like Chinese bronzes, Korean examples were based on earlier ceramic forms, but Korean bronzes lack the complex surface ornamentation of the Chinese.

Ron Arad (born 1951, Israel) for Alessi S.p.A. (1921 to present, Crusinallo, Italy), Babyboop flower vase, 2002. Stainless steel, 11 13/16" x 8 13/16" x 4 ½" (30 x 22.5 x 11.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Ron Arad. (PMA-7123)

Ron Arad’s design work has been characterized by an adventurous use of unusual materials since the early 1980s. His designs are also renowned for the unusual forms he creates in commonplace objects. This vase is certainly a non-conformist design for a millennia-old form. Arad, born in Tel Aviv, studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and the Architectural Association in London. He established his own design and production company, One-Off, in 1981. That same year he produced his famous Rover chairs and settees, which united car seats from junkyard Rover 200s with construction scaffolding pipes. In 1994, he established Ron Arad Studio in Como, Italy. During the 1990s he experimented with a wide range of unusual materials for utilitarian objects, such as steel, aluminum, or polyamide. It was during the 1990s that Arad perfected various methods of working with steel, including welding, beating, and forging. Despite the organic form of this vase, the use of stainless steel gives it a singularly simple classical, yet contemporary, aesthetic. Having two apertures, it is made by welding together two sheets of stainless steel.

Ancient Egypt, Badarian (ca. 4500–3800 BCE), Vase, 3000s BCE. Burnished red clay, height: 8 3/8" (21.27 cm). © 2017 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-831)

We round out our exploration of “What’s New Is Old” with a vase that could easily pass for modern. I’m pretty use such a vessel wasn’t used to display flowers, but it is so elegant and streamlined. The early agricultural, fishing, and herding cultures in Egypt seem to have laid the groundwork for later cultural customs as early as 5500 BCE. The Badarian culture is named after the area El-Badari, Asyut, which is in Upper Egypt. It is the earliest known non-nomadic culture in Egypt of the pre-dynastic period (dynasty one dates to 2920 BCE). At this point in Egyptian history, people were buried in shallow graves, often wrapped in papyrus mats, surrounded by objects that were perceived to be needed in the afterlife, such as vases like this filled with food. The bodies were usually buried in the fetal position, oriented north/south, but always with the face turned towards the West. In Egypt, the west—where the sun set—was considered the realm of the afterlife (eventually, where Osiris ruled). This clay vessel was most likely fired in an open pit kiln. The black border, a typical feature of Badarian ceramics, is thought to be the result of turning the heated vessel upside down in finely cut hay or wheat (chaff). It is not glazed, but was burnished (polished with a hot stone).