Monday, June 27, 2011

New Acquisitions Month: An American Surrealist

I close out my Month of New Acquisitions with a pioneer American modernist. Pioneer because she was exploring avant-garde art at a time in America that it was not popular. Between the time of the first Armory Show in New York (1913)—which introduced Americans to European avant-garde art such as Cubism, Post-Impressionism, and Expressionism—and the onset of the Great Depression (1929), some American artists eagerly pursued modernist approaches in art. The economic collapse of the Great Depression caused art patronage for modernism to virtually dry up, and Americans to look inwardly. Americans wanted to see art that portrayed the glories of American life in a realistic way. A few artists persevered in pursuing all forms of avant-garde exploration, and many of those artists were women.

Helen Lundeberg was a cofounder of one of the few independent avant-garde art movements in America in the 1930s: California Post-Surrealism. Surrealism was a European movement that stressed expression of subconscious impulse rather than rational thought. The irrational was preferred over the logical.

Lundeberg, born in Chicago, studied at the Stickney Memorial School of Art in Pasadena, California. Her mentor, and later husband, was Lorser Feitelson (1898–1978), an early modernist who had studied in Europe under Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978). De Chirico’s work was characterized by classical elements set in dream-like landscapes. Lundeberg and Feitelson became an influential couple in forward looking art in Southern California.

Lundeberg’s art took surrealism a step further than pure psychic automatism (stream of consciousness). Beginning in the early 1930s, she began trying to reconcile subjective, introspective imagery with the rational, conscious mind. Lundeberg wrote a theoretical manifesto [New Classicism (1934), her term for Post-Surrealism] to accompany their first Post-Surrealism exhibition (1933).

Enigma” was one of a series of four lithographs Lundeberg produced for the Federal Arts Projects (a Federal program to help unemployed artists) print division. The lithographs pursued the same themes as her paintings, exploring images from memory and imagination. The post-surrealist artists differed from their surrealist counterparts in Europe in that their compositions often included a more-or-less rational space, but with scale and object incongruities. This seeming still life features—depending on what a viewer decides—a mirror reflection a hanging light bulb from no logical place in the composition, or a box with hanging light bulb within.

A couple other pioneering avant-garde women artists from the same period are Gertrude Greene and Irene Rice Pereira.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.7, 2.8; A Personal Journey: 2.2, 2.4, 7.1; A Community Connection: 8.2; A Global Pursuit 5.2, 6.2; The Visual Experience: 5.2, 9.4, 16.6; Discovering Art History: 15.2

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Acquisitions Month: A Classic Minimalist Work

My fascination with modernism (doesn’t that term sound old-fashioned)—let me rephrase that—forward-thinking art never seems to diminish. Call me lucky (I think I am), but as we add new works to Davis Art Images image collection, I routinely see works that are my daily or weekly “wow” moments. As I get older more mature, I find it easier than ever to appreciate art movements that I used to turn a blind eye to. One of those movements is Minimalism. Being a painterly landscape artist, I appreciate the ability to tame the urge to overwork a subject or go to town wasting medium (of which I’m always guilty).

Minimalism was a movement that resulted as a reaction to the emphasis in western art on gestural abstraction of the 1940s and 1950s. Ironically, initially it emerged from Abstract Expressionism as color field painting, an often expressionistic alternative to the splatter, drip, and slash vein of the New York School. From artists such as Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman emerged artists whose work defined the elimination of the trace of emotion, symbolism, narrative or personal signature. David Smith (1906–1965) was a sculptor from the New York School who pioneered pure minimalism after producing somewhat active abstract sculpture in the 1950s.

Along with artists such as Sol LeWitt and Tony Smith, Carl Andre is one of the true pioneers of minimalist sculpture. He studied art in Andover, MA and moved to New York in the 1950s. In the late fifties he became associated with the studio of pioneer minimalist Frank Stella, while developing his own sculptures and drawing. Stella’s work was a major influence on his own mature style. What cemented his ideas was a visit to Stonehenge in the early 1960s. Andre’s concept of minimalism stemmed from his interest in building multiple units.

In the early 1960s, Andre created pieces by carving blocks of wood. He soon progressed to building pieces of multiple units of finished wood, such as this piece. He then moved on to what he is best known for, using multiple units of either manufactured materials (such as cement) or metal. His large arrangements of metal plates placed directly on the gallery floor were a sensation in the 1960s. He encouraged viewers to walk on them, revolutionizing the perception of participatory museum experience.

This lovely piece contains all the aspects of minimalism I adore: the symmetry, pure geometry, and reverence for the material. Such respect for the material can be seen in works by other artists whose abstraction is pared down to simple forms. One who comes to mind is Barbara Hepworth. While organic, her forms beautifully mirror the same intent as Andre’s.

Correlation to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.5-6 studio, 4.23-24 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 21-22 studio; A Personal Journey: 9.1; A Global Pursuit: 1.2, 2.2, 3.2, 8.2; The Visual Experience 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.5

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

New Acquisitions Month: The Beginning of Western Painting / When Books Were Treasured

I’ve really admired the work of manuscript illuminators since I went to the Newbury Library at the University of Chicago while in grad school. I got to actually hold some of these precious works in my own two greedy, art historian hands. Before that I had only seen manuscript pages projected as slides in a classroom, I had no idea about the size of these beautiful little books. They’re the size of post cards! I’d go blind trying to paint that small. In Western art, they’re an important bridge between the ancient world and the Renaissance. This page comes from a group we just accessioned from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

After the fall of the Roman Empire (roughly 5th century CE) large scale painting virtually vanished in Western art. What little painting existed was in the form of illustrated religious books. These manuscripts followed the style and format of late Roman manuscripts, featuring the writings of ancient philosophers illustrated with either full-page or small miniatures.

During the early Christian era (ca. 500–900 CE), printing was not available for the mass dissemination of books. Texts were copied by hand, a majority of them in monasteries and convents. Thus began the tradition of illuminated manuscripts. When learning and affluence increased in Western Europe, more elaborate illustration was desired by patrons of manuscripts. Professional artists replaced monks and nuns as the primary decorators of books.

With a renewed interest in realism in art during the early Renaissance (ca. 1400–1450), manuscript illuminators produced elaborately decorated pages such as this one. Not only does it provide a window into a space on a 2D surface, it also features elaborate floral border surrounds. Some scholars believe that the increased attempt at realism in manuscript illustrations like this French example sounded the death knell to the importance of the art form, eventually leading these same artists to take up panel painting, and extending their subject matter to portraits and genre scenes.

Take a stroll through other fabulous book illustrations from across time and place in the DAI collection.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.6, 2.9, Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.3, 5.25, 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3, 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.5, 5.26; A Personal Journey: 1.1, 4.2; A Global Pursuit: 2.2, 4.1, 4.2; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 15.8; Discovering Art History: 7.4

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New Acquisitions Month: Translating Painting to Silkscreen

Although I wrote a master’s thesis on Swiss Renaissance art, since then (I’m not saying how long ago that was!) I have become a big fan of the New York School that bloomed immediately following World War II (1939–1945) and established the United States as the center of modernism (and yes, it still is). I have to say that I’m torn between the color field and gestural strains of Abstract Expressionism (the granddaddy of American modernism), and I tend to gravitate toward artists who combine the two. Although Walter Bannard is too young to have been a member of the nascent New York School, he definitely carries on the tradition of action painting/color field. Interestingly, I’m showing you a silkscreen print we recently acquired from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.

The medium of silkscreen is amazingly versatile, its most noted use being for posters, advertising, and tee-shirt designs. The medium can reproduce images on hard or soft surfaces. The basic technique involves a piece of finely meshed material such as silk, organdy, or polyester upon which a design is made in an impermeable medium such as glue, gesso, or a paper stencil. The material is stretched onto a frame over a piece of paper (or any other surface that can hold an ink design). Inks are forced through the material with a squeegee not covered by the impermeable material. Like relief prints, a different screen must be used for each color.

Bannard began painting seriously in the late 1950s, influenced by the color field paintings of Clyfford Still (1904–1980) and the paintings of William Baziotes (1912–1963) who had explored the idea of automatic painting (painting by subconscious impulse rather than a plan or sketch).

In the 1970s he formed his mature style of pure manipulation of color. In this print, Bannard used fish line to maintain the grid that divides the work into nine sections. In spirit, it displays the random splatters of the gestural Abstract Expressionists while conforming to the love of unemotional (lack of gesture) fields of color that characterizes the color field artists.

This painting is a good example of the Principles of Design. Show your students this work, and ask them which those might be: a) unity and variety; b) movement and rhythm; c) pattern; d) balance (asymmetrical or symmetrical); and e) emphasis.

Correlations with Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.33; A Community Connection: 8.1, 8.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.2, 7.2; The Visual Experience: 4.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 3.3, 17.1, 17.3, 17.6

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

New Acquisitions Month: Yucky Still Life?

I’ve decided to dedicate my June posts to a series highlighting new images in Davis Art Images’ digital collection that have either blown me away, or, in the least, charmed me. Whenever I accession new images into our collection, I have what I call “epiphany moments,” caused by seeing a contemporary artist’s work I’ve never seen before, or just some awesome piece of art from the past. Epiphany moments happen on a regular basis in the work I do with acquiring new images, and it is a pleasure to share them with you for the beginning of SUMMER! This week’s image features the kind of cabbage I wish I could find in my local Price Chopper, although without the bugs.

Artists of the Renaissance (ca. 1400–1600) in Western Europe took a strong interest in realistic fidelity as a major sign of quality in painting and sculpture. That included meticulous rendering of things observed such as architecture, drapery, still life, and landscape. Starting in the 16th century, particularly in Northern Europe, many of these categories, once only an integrated part of history or religious painting, became independent subjects. In Italy, this phenomenon happened in the late 17th century. Still life, landscape, genre scenes (scenes of everyday life), and architectural illustration were particularly popular in Northern Europe especially after the Protestant Reformation (early 16th century), which frowned upon religious imagery.

Although Baroque art (ca. 1600–1750) of the Netherlands reveled in imagery of the everyday world, including still life, it was not without moralistic content. Still life was often a vehicle for symbolic flowers. In this still life, the luscious cabbage is not the main emphasis. It is rather the butterflies, a symbol in the Baroque artist’s mind, of the freedom of the soul after death, or of resurrection (from caterpillar to butterfly). The very fact that bugs surround this edible morsel represents the idea of imminent decay, something which human beings had to contemplate and come to terms with before the Last Judgment.

Decaying vegetables were symbolic of the transience of human life and the importance of the spiritual life. The cabbage, in Dutch art, was also a symbol of a spendthrift life (excess luxury), but also, peeling back the layers of a cabbage was symbolic of the various stages of the Christian soul’s journey to the divine.

Can I just say what a brilliant watercolor this is?! I had a terrible time with watercolor when I was in grad school, and turned to oils. This brilliant little piece is so detailed, it reminds me of botanical studies done (it may well have been one) during the late Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Take a look at some additional Dutch Baroque still life paintings to see more evidence of decay in art.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 1.2, 4.20; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 4.19, 5.29; A Personal Journey: 2.4; A Global Pursuit: 5.1; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 9.3, 16.2; Discovering Art History: 11.3