Monday, March 19, 2018

National Women’s (Art) History Month

Florence Knoll (born 1917, US), Chair, 1955. Chromed steel, wool upholstery, 31" x 29" x 24" (78.8 x 73.7 x 61 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Florence Knoll/Knoll. (PMA-3533)

It took a heck of a lot of work, but after World War II (1939–1945) a group of artists yanked the US away from the love of “all things past” toward modern design. Many of these artists were influenced by Bauhaus artists who had emigrated to the US because of the war, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969, born Germany) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946, born Hungary). Others were influenced by the prevalent European modernism of émigrés such as Finland-born father and son Eliel (1873–1950) and Eero Saarinen (1910–1961).

The overriding concern of these modernist European designers was the function of architecture and utilitarian arts over ornament. They incorporated the sleek, industrial lines of modern machinery into everyday household design. The aesthetic of these designers found inspiration in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which pioneered the integration of fine art and miscellaneous arts.

Florence Knoll, née Schust, was born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1917. She showed an interest in architecture at an early age and studied at the Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, adjacent to the Arts and Crafts-oriented Cranbrook Academy. The close friendship she developed there with the Saarinens, who taught at Cranbrook, impacted her mature design style. Especially influential were her visits to Finland, where she met pioneering modernist architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976). Aalto recommended that she study under the great Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius (1883–1969, born Germany) and Marcel Breuer (1892–1981, born Hungary), who were teaching at Harvard, and Mies van der Rohe, who had opened a branch of the Bauhaus in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

When she moved to New York in 1941, she met Hans Knoll (1914–1955, born Germany), who was then building a modern design company. Their marriage united two unique, progressive design minds that would revolutionize US interior, utilitarian, and furniture design that lasts to the present day. In heading the Knoll Planning Unity, Florence set the standard for modern corporate interiors that harmonized with the revolutionary International Style in architecture, which became the rage after the war until the 1970s.

As part of the Planning Unity, Knoll contributed equally to furniture design and interior design. This side chair reflects primarily the influence of Mies van der Rohe’s “Barcelona” style side chairs that were omnipresent in the lobbies of all of his buildings. Knoll’s design strips away the x-bar stretchers. In many of her furniture designs, the emphasis was as much on comfort as it was on the stripped down, unornamented aesthetic of Bauhaus designers. This emphasis made her furniture infinitely more approachable to US consumers than some of the barely-essential Mies designs.

Friday, March 9, 2018

National Plant a Flower Day

Margherita Caffi (ca. 1650–1710, Italy), Still Life with Flowers, ca. 1680. Oil on canvas, 16 15/16" x 3 3/16" (43 x 59 cm). Private Collection. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-21985)

Not only is it National Women’s [Art] History Month, but Monday is National Plant a Flower Day. Due to the two major nor’easters that have rocked the Northeast, I would like to feature a hope for spring on flower planting day. No one needs to see works of art about snow right now!

Little is known about Margherita Caffi’s life (ca. 1650–1710). Caffi was the daughter of Francesco (or Vincenzo?) Volo, who was a still-life painter, and Veronica Volo. She also married a still-life painter, Ludovico (Lodovico?) Caffi (ca. 1641–1695), in Cremona in 1668. She may have apprenticed in Vincenzo Volo’s—either her father or another relative—workshop as “Vicencina” or “Vincencina” are added to her signature in some paintings. She was patronized by the Medici in Florence and the Hapsburg rulers in Madrid, Spain and Innsbruck, Austria. She is thought to have lived in Innsbruck for a time. Thirty paintings are firmly attributed to her. Caffi died in Milan and was awarded a funeral that celebrated her life as an artist.

Compared to Francesco, Caffi’s still-life works are infinitely more dramatic and interesting compositionally. Her still-life works often include two arrangements of flowers in an open, asymmetrical composition. The extreme tenebrism (stark contrasts of dark and light) often obscures the vessel holding the flowers.

Between the 1400s and 1700s, education and training of women did not markedly improve. Women with the drive to be artists had to train under fathers or male relatives who were established artists. Women were denied membership in the guilds, which ensured continual patronage to artists. Because of the restrictions in their training as artists (such as studying anatomy), many women artists specialized in still-life and portrait subjects. The rise in status of still life as a stand-alone genre in painting coincided with the increased education of women artists and their establishing successful careers as painters.

And, for those of you who miss snow because we had two nor’easters within a week, here’s a beautiful work by American Impressionist Helen Hamilton (1889–1970): 

Helen Hamilton (1889–1970, US), Winter Afternoon. Oil on canvas, 18 1/8" x 24" (46 x 61 cm ). Image courtesy of R.H. Love Gallery, Chicago. © 2018 artist or artist’s estate. (8S-27000)

Hamilton was active in New York and New England. Her father, Hamilton Hamilton (believe it or not) (1847–1928), was a pseudo-American Impressionist. At age nineteen, her family moved to Pasadena, California, and her father trained her in the Impressionist technique on the spot in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By 1910, the family was back in New York, and Helen took part in the active American Impressionist art scene, including the Silvermine art colony in Connecticut. In 1913, she discovered the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) at the famous Armory Show. After that, her paintings became active surfaces with slashing brushstrokes of pure color. She delighted in the depiction of rushing water and waterfalls.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8; A Personal Journey: 2.6; Discovering Drawing 3E: 4; Experience Painting: 9; Discovering Art History 4E: 7 Activity 2

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Receptive Eye

Francis Michael Celentano (1928–2016, US), Gamma, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 60" x 96" (152.4 x 243.8 cm). Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 Estate of Francis Michael Celentano. (AK-3172)

Every now and then one comes across an artist who tends to get bypassed in art history books. Obviously, those books can’t cover every artist that participated in significant art movements. So, that is my job! Francis Celentano (1928–2016) was part of The Responsive Eye, a landmark show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1965. That exhibition, which is seen by many art historians as the “launching point” of the Op Art stylistic movement, featured such renowned Op Art artists as Bridget Riley (born 1931), Richard Anuszkiewicz (born 1930), and Yaacov Agam (born 1928). Celentano’s work is absolutely gorgeous!

Francis Celentano was born in the Bronx and graduated from New York University in 1951 with a BA in Art History and Psychology (what a dual major!). In 1957, he achieved an MA in Art History. As an undergraduate, he took courses with Philip Guston (1913–1980), who introduced him to Abstract Expressionists and other members of the New York avant-garde art circle. He was initially drawn to the spontaneous and intuitive nature of Abstract Expressionism’s action painting.

A year’s study in Rome (1957–1958) reportedly changed his inclination toward the New York “school.” Celentano was struck by the illusionism of Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca (1415–1492) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506). This led to a Hard Edge period—a style in which abstract shapes are given the illusion of three-dimensions—and then Op Art, which ultimately led to his inclusion in The Responsive Eye.

The color lyricism and rational schematics of Celentano’s work are hallmarks of the visual movement evinced by Op Art. This meticulous approach to painting is the antithesis of the action painting wing of Abstract Expressionism, which is one reason I find Celentano’s work is so compelling. Instead of his painting being a conscious rejection of Abstract Expressionism—as Pop Art and Minimalism were—Celentano’s evolution as an Op artist seems completely understandable. His exploration of color theory, which he began to study seriously in 1968, produced paintings such as Gamma, in which the optical structure coincides with dramatic color interactions.

In later life, he experimented with computer manipulations of color, enabling him to produce large-scale paintings in his signature style of vibrating color and meticulous construction. Celentano once equated “perceptual” (Op) art with the distortions of perception provided by nature and culture. These are distortions I can live with!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, 3.16; Discovering Art History: 17.2

Monday, February 26, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month IV

Henry Taylor (born 1958, US), Untitled, 2011. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 78" x 62" (198.1 x 157.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Henry Taylor. (MOMA-P5082)

One of the avenues of expression in the flourishing of African American art since the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1920s–1940) has been the exploration of subject matter concerning the contemporary Black American experience. Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance believed that it was important for them to document the struggles and triumphs of their community. Perhaps because of the power of the Harlem Renaissance movement, the exploration of contemporary Black life has become more dynamic than ever.

The work of Henry Taylor (born 1958), particularly his portraits, are evidence that there is no disconnect between art and life. He paints scenes of everyday life (genre) and current events, but portraiture seems to be his forte. His subjects include friends, people off the street, folks from the art world, relatives, and even sports figures. He renders them in expressionistic brush work that is reminiscent of the work of Alice Neel (1900–1984). His works are, dare I say it, a form of social realism that has great sincerity, dignity, and monumentality that transcends the work of many artists designated under that style.

Taylor’s portraits are roughly painted, often reflecting the world of the artist’s experience. However, the people are depicted with a spirit of affection rather than detachment or judgement. His portraits of everyday African Americans reflect the same spirit as artists like Bob Thompson (1937–1966) or Robert Colescott (1925–2009).

Taylor was born in Oxnard, California, the youngest of eight children. While working at a state hospital as a nurse (1984–1994), he began taking art classes at the California Institute of Arts at age thirty-one. Major influences on his work are the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), the slashing figures of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), and German Expressionist Max Beckmann (1884–1950).

Transcending all of his art training experiences was his own childhood. His parents had lived through the Great Depression (1929–1939) in Texas. He lost a brother in Vietnam. Through all of his experiences, Taylor always remembers his father’s advice to treasure every moment for what one can learn, because of the transience of life. 

Carmen Cartiness Johnson (born 1954, US), To Get Together, 2005. Color lithograph on paper, 19 ¼" x 27" (48.9 x 68.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Carmen Cartiness Johnson. (PMA-4171)

Carmen Cartiness Johnson (born 1954) describes herself as a self-taught artist and storyteller. Indeed, storytelling is a big part of her body of work. Her passion for painting comes from her wish to visually (and joyfully) share personal narratives from her past, as well as from the people close to her. She does so in the simple, brilliant palette influenced by the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), employing forms that are composed of simplified color shapes. She also references Lawrence’s tendency to depict scenes from unusual vantage points. This painting would make one swear they were dangling from the ceiling fan!
While works such as this may suggest the simplicity of color shapes in the work of Lawrence, there is a complexity of composition (the birds-eye view) visible in the painting-collages of Romare Bearden (1911–1988), another of her stated influences. The artist also admires the political content and color of Diego Rivera (1886–1957).

Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Johnson now lives and paints in New Jersey. She began teaching herself to paint after her grandmother died. Her earliest works were emotional memories of spending summers with her grandparents in Arkansas. Connecting to intimate circumstances and transmitting feelings of warmth and affection are a main goal of Johnson’s art. She also gets subjects from the words in songs, poems, novels, and movies. Ultimately, she wants viewers of her work to be able to relate to what she has depicted. In the grand scheme of things, Johnson’s work embraces the whole range of human experience from joys to sorrows. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month III

Sam Gilliam (born 1933, US), The Illustrious Kites Made in Boxing Styles, 2004. Acrylic, flag bunting, cotton/polyester thread, installation: 50’ x 15' x 8’ (15.2 x 4.6 x 2.4 meters). Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MIN-28Agilars)

Whenever you’ve got a massive case of the “sads” in winter, it’s always helpful to seek color to give you a lift. What am I saying? Even if you don’t have a case of the sads, color will always come through for you! This is particularly true in the case of the awesome work of Sam Gilliam (born 1933). To say he is a colorist would be to wallow in understatement. I think his most recognizable work for most folks are his massive, draped canvases drenched in color. What I’m showing you is an exciting piece he designed for the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina (an amazing museum collection). 

Illustrious Kites was commissioned by the Mint Museum to fill their lobby. Gilliam decided on the motif of box kites after being inspired by the park-like setting around the museum. What is exciting about his work is that he has taken the Color Field branch of mid-1900s American modernism and converted it to the three-dimensional realm. Imagine if artists like Morris Louis (1912–1962), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), or Mark Rothko (1903–1970) had done this! They would have made American Modernism exciting!

Sam Gilliam, The Illustrious Kites Made in Boxing Styles, 2004. Acrylic, flag bunting, cotton/polyester thread, installation: 50’ x 15' x 8' (15.2 x 4.6 x 2.4 meters). Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MIN-28Bgilars)

Gilliam, who was born in Mississippi, has figured prominently among African American artists committed to abstract art. He has painted in the Color Field style since graduating from the University of Kentucky and moving to Washington, DC in 1962. Color Field painting and Action Painting were the two “schools” of Abstract Expressionism. Color Field painters began to gain more public attention between 1960 and 1962.

Gilliam associated with two other Color Field painters, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland (1924–2010). Both artists worked in a more painterly manner than most Color Field painters by staining the canvas, often throwing paint onto the canvas. The surface was not emphasized as in Action Painting, but rather the interaction of the colors.

Starting in the late 1960s, Gilliam became famous for his canvases. He stained the canvases in much the same way as Louis, but removed the canvases from the stretcher bars and draped them on gallery walls.

Sam Gilliam, Petals, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 87 ¾" x 93" (222.8 x 236.2 cm). Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PC-493gilars)

Petals clearly shows the influences of Louis, Noland, and especially, in my mind, Helen Frankenthaler. It resembles Louis’s “veil paintings,” in which the colors staining the canvas were allowed to freely flow together. However, it is a lot less muddy than Louis’s work, in my humble opinion. The colors are brilliant.

Check out the other posts in my African American [Art] History Month series.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month II

Thomas Gross, Jr. (1775–1839, US), Chest-on-Chest, 1805–1810. Mahogany, yellow poplar, pine, and brass fittings, 82 ¾" x 43 ¼" x 22 ½" (210.2 x 109.9 x 57.2 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1927)

Let us not forget that African American artists have existed since the founding of America. Unfortunately, they were not colonists, but forced here as slaves on Dutch, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and British ships. Many of those artists represent aspects of American art history that get very little reportage (classy, huh?). Yet, they are fascinating pieces to the puzzle that constitutes American art history. Some of these artists are only known by their advertisements in papers or by the customers for whom they did work. When one digs deeply into the history of African Americans in the American colonies, it’s an eye opener.

Very little is known about Thomas Gross, Jr. (1775–1839), a cabinetmaker in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is thought to have been a former slave who specialized in large chest-on-chest pieces of furniture. He also operated as an undertaker, as did many cabinetmakers in the early United States. Like many freedmen, he most likely learned cabinetmaking while a slave, and learned all of the most fashionable styles of furniture at the time, which were based on pattern books that came from Britain.

This cabinet does not really reflect any of the contemporary British styles such as Chippendale, Sheraton, or Hepplewhite. These British styles usually had bombé (curving) fronts. This reflects more the contemporary simple, utilitarian style of Pennsylvania German or Amish chest-on-chests, as well as the geometric simplicity of Neoclassicism.

Germantown, a settlement of German immigrants in 1683, was the first town in America to issue a protest against slavery in 1688. Slavery was not banned in the colony until 1780, but Germantown became host to a large community of freed African Americans. Ironically, it was also the home to one of the largest and last of the major slave-holding plantations in Philadelphia, the Chew family of the Cliveden estate. Despite outlawing of slavery in 1780, the state of Philadelphia’s manumission (freedman) law allowed slave holding until 1840. 

Moses Williams (1777–ca. 1825, US), Silhouette of Angelica Peale, later Mrs. Robinson (died 1853). Hollow-cut silhouette with black ink on paper, sheet: 4 7/8" x 4" (12.4 x 10.3 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5241)

Speaking of freedmen, Moses Williams (1777–ca. 1825) typifies the situation of the children of emancipated slaves, who were required to remain in the slave owner’s household until the age of twenty-seven, according to manumission laws. Fortunately (an ironic choice of words) for Williams, his owner was Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the patriarch of the first American dynasty of painters.

Williams was the son of Scarborough and Lucy Peale. Slaves often took their owner’s last name. Peale freed Scarborough and Lucy in 1786, and Scarborough subsequently took the name of John Williams. Moses, however, stayed behind in the Peale household, raised with the Peale children and trained as an artist.

At an early age, Moses developed his talent creating silhouette portraits, at the time called “shadow portraits,” “profile portraits,” or “shade portraits.” He learned to use the newly invented “physiognotrace” (face-tracing) machine. This device (originally called physionotrace)—invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754–1811)—used a lens to transmit the sitter’s likeness to an etching needle. The machine was upgraded in America by John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1855) to traced around the subjects face with an actual bar connected to a pantograph (a system to copy drawings in different sizes via a series of connected rods), which reduced the silhouette to less than two inches (5.1 cm).

Silhouettes were popular until the 1840s when Daguerreotype and calotype photographs became easier and cheaper methods of portraiture. The genre continued through the late 1800s, although it was no longer fashionable. Moses created silhouettes in a combination of cut out paper that was adhered to white paper. He then augmented it with small details in black ink or gouache. He did silhouettes of all of the Peale family, and some 800 beyond that. Like all of the other Peale children, Angelica, portrayed in this silhouette, was a gifted painter of still life. 

View all of the posts in my African American [Art] History Month 2018 series.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month

Alma Thomas (1891–1978, US), Earth Sermon—Beauty, Love and Peace, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 52 1/8" (182.9 x 132.2 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-409)

I have decided to apply officially to change the name of one of this month’s official designations to include African American Art History Month (although I haven’t really). When one looks at the contributions to our society of African American artists and art educators, everyone would agree with my application! Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) is one of the most inspirational art educators and artists I’ve ever come across. I’ve also always admired Claude Monet (1840–1926), because even in later life he continued to expand his Impressionistic dissolution of form to the point of abstraction. Similarly, Thomas began abstraction later in life after a lifetime of painting realistic still-life and landscape works. Her work is brilliant!

Thomas retired in 1960 after working as a public-school art teach for thirty-five years. She began studying at American University and discovered a love of color learning about Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. In 1966, Howard University—from where she was the first woman graduate in their art program (1924)—offered her a one-person show. Rather than show her works inspired by Color Field, she minimized her brushwork and, inspired by the moving leaves outside her window, came to her ultimate mature style as seen in Earth Sermon.

Earth Sermon is part of Thomas’s series of Earth paintings that came out of that shift in strategy. If you look at these paintings close up, you see a multi-colored underpainting, over which is laid a field of pure color in short brush strokes. Visually, one could compare this to the pointillist technique of the Post-Impressionists, because the colors reverberate off one another in glorious effect. In short, her work is full of joy! 

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963. Acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8" x 44 ¼" (120.9 x 112.1 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-386)

This work dates to the period (1960–1966) when Thomas was inspired by the coloristic aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. This is clearly influenced by Color Field’s reliance on un-nuanced blocks of pure color. However, it was mainly inspired by another artist who was a brilliant pioneer of pure color abstract works, Henri Matisse. Thomas applied the precepts of Color Field—pure color laid down in unmodulated shapes—to pay homage to Matisse’s late work The Snail (1953, Tate Gallery, London). The Snail came from Matisse’s period when he produced collages of cut paper painted in bright gouache colors. 

View all of the posts in my African American [Art] History Month 2018 series.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Experience Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 7