Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Renaissance Perspective is Not a Butterfly or Vice Versa?


Mark Grotjahn (born 1968, US), Untitled (Painting Blue Light to Dark VII), 2006. Oil on canvas, 60" x 50" (152.4 x 127 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Mark Grotjahn. (MOMA-P5043)

I don’t like to admit to something like this, but when I first saw this work in the MoMA collection, I didn’t pay that much attention to it. When I saw it a second time the other day, I was like, “Wow!” Sometimes I wish everyone would try listening to a symphony by Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782) when they look at paintings the way I do at home when looking at my own work. The son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), his music is so soothing. It allows you to slow down and take in every aspect of a painting. I did that with this painting while listening to Pandora at work. It’s a visual pleasure overload!

There is something very visually seductive about this phase of Mark Grotjahn’s painting. It is so tempting to analyze his work in formal terms—Renaissance one-point perspective, Minimalism, Hard Edge painting (see the work below), blah blah. However, I think it’s a mistake to pin down one aspect of his work and blanket-categorize it. I prefer to look at it with the “untitled” hanging in my mind.

Although the precise one-point perspective draws in the eye, we’re immediately confronted with two rather than one vanishing points, slightly (ever-so-slightly in this work) askew. So, does that make Grotjahn’s “butterfly” works a stab at the rigidity of one-point perspective as taught to Renaissance painters? I prefer to think of Grotjahn searching for visual perfection. I much prefer these limited palette works (there’s a stunning one in black), where there is a surface tension aside from the lines of recession that borders on an Abstract Expressionist emphasis on process. And these works are most assuredly the result of a painstaking process.

Grotjahn, born in Pasadena, CA, received an MFA from UC Berkeley in 1995. Coming into his own in the theory-laden art scene of the 1990s, this artist chose to ignore the “art world’s” obsession with modernist analysis of the post-NeoExpressionist and post-Postmodern art scene. Early works included his “Sign Exchanges,” in which he painted replicas of homemade signs in mom-and-pop stores and exchange the painted for the original, which he hung in a gallery. This community-oriented project combined the similar aesthetics of Pop Art, Appropriation, and Dada readymades.

He began his “Perspective Series” (I don’t know if I like this designation any better than “butterfly”) in the early 2000s. The elements of these works were perspective, geometry, and color, which, I might add, he does brilliantly in some of these works, especially the ones done in color pencil. Right?! While the brilliantly executed lines of color inexorably create a compelling sense of depth, I’m not sure I would say that Grotjahn’s work reminds me of Op Art. Works like this one remind me of time-lapse color photographs of cars on an expressway.  

Mark Grotjahn, Untitled (Butterfly), 2003. Colored pencil on paper, 38 ½" 30" (97.8 x 76.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Mark Grotjahn. (MOMA-P1850)

In 2007, he began in a new direction (I think of it as an Abstract Expressionist period, don’t hate me for using an art historical designation!) in which the perspective bands are sublimated to more gestural painting. Well, let me tell you, this had led to his exciting “Mask” works of the past five years, which are pretty darn interesting. Where’s the “butterfly”? you ask.

Interestingly, I read an interview with him recently in which he stated that he wants to return to total abstraction. This was in response to a question of whether the he considered the “mask” paintings “portraits.”

Monday, May 22, 2017

Lathe and Nature Magic


David Sengel (born 1951, US), Night Bird, 2000. Ebonized maple burl, sassafras, rose and locust thorns, 4 ¼" x 10" x 9 ½" (10.8 x 25.4 x 24.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 David Sengel. (PMA-8029)

When I see a work of art that blows me away, I’ve just got to share it with as many people as I possibly can. This work was my “epiphany of the week” that I recently sent to my co-workers. I’m sure we all realize that there is strong and proud traditional emphasis on process, design, and crafting within the contemporary woodworking community. I’m pretty sure I don’t care if wood is worked to produce a functional piece or a sculpture, I still just call it ART. FINE ART at that. All one has to do is look at David Sengel’s work to realize why I say this!

David Sengel is a really unique individual, aside from being a great artist. He grew up learning about woodworking in his father’s workshop. For some time he honed his ability with the lathe, making functional works of art. At some point, he decided it would be more interesting if what he created had some sort of narrative. That is clearly evident in this piece. One of his chief inspirations is a daily walk through his land in North Carolina, where he observes details in nature that eventually end up in his art.

A dear friend of mine was a lathe enthusiast, who turned amazing pieces out of burl wood. His preferred burls came from Australian trees, but I imagine trees all over the world have burls. Burls are growths on trees, which may be caused by insects, fungi, or environmental stresses. They usually look like a big bump on the side of a tree. My friend Matt used to make amazing bowls from burls on his lathe, often including the deformities in the finished piece. I’m kind of imagining that this work by Sengel is displaying some of the deformities of the burl.

In this piece, Sengel has ebonized the wood. Ebonizing is not simply staining the wood with a dark color. It involves a process that causes a chemical reaction to make the wood turn black, imitating the precious ebony wood that is practically extinct on our planet. The tannins in the wood are what react with the treatment. A combination of tea, steel wool, and vinegar is often used to ebonize wood. Tea is loaded with tannins. It must be done after the wood is turned, because ebonizing only affects the surface.

I’m not sure what part of this piece is from the sassafras tree, but I’m pretty sure the bird is composed of rose and locust thorns. I’ve seen other works by Sengel with those components. Sengel’s work is amazing, and he uses every part of a tree imaginable, including the roots! 

Sengel's art can be found in a number of museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Mint Museum. The following websites feature his work and the work of other wood artists:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Still Life and Our Culture of Abundance

John F. Francis (1808–1886, US), Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, 1859. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30 1/8" (63.5 x 76.5 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-360)

I got so excited the other night while watching Antiques Roadshow. A person brought two little still-life paintings from 1865, and I said to myself, “Oh, those look like John Francis’s work.” And they were! If the Baroque period was the high point of Dutch still-life painting, then the 1800s were for the US. There are just so many artists who specialized in still life, and I’m purposely ignoring trompe-l’oeil still life because illusion is more important than anything else in those works. Because of the domination of the Peale family during most of the 1800s, artists like John F. Francis are not given the art historical accolades they deserve, so I’m on it!

Francis was born in Philadelphia and had to have been aware of the paintings of the Peales who specialized in still life: Raphaelle (1774–1825) and James (1749–1831). His training, however, is unknown, and it is generally assumed that he was self-taught. Interestingly, at the time Francis began painting, still life was still a (relatively) newly accepted painting subject—portraiture and history painting were still considered “the finest” compared to landscape, still life, and genre.

Francis became a portrait limner—an itinerant painter with little formal training—during the 1830s and 1840s. He never strayed too far from Philadelphia, however. About 1850, he began to add still life to his body of work. By 1854 he was painting still life almost exclusively. I’m not sure if he ever saw Dutch Baroque still-life paintings, but he preferred to paint sumptuous “banquet pieces” like these. Like the Dutch Baroque artists, he intensely scrutinized the textural appearance of the food in his still life, and did not eschew showing fruit that was past its prime.

I’ve seen these Francis works at the MFA. Although they appear as sharply painted as Peale still life, they are actually more painterly. Another difference from the Peales is compositional. Francis’s still-life works are typically staged on a white tablecloth that is slightly askew from the picture plane, as opposed to the parallel, undressed shelf of Peale still life. While many are on neutral backgrounds like these, some are set with landscape backgrounds.

All in all, still-life paintings like these of the mid-1800s speak to me of the (perceived) “bounty” of America. The middle class American art patrons—just like their 1600s Dutch counterparts—wanted these luscious paintings in their dining rooms to reflect to their guests not only their good artistic taste, but also their own prosperity. I get a kick out of seeing these paintings up close. Francis used pale blue for his highlights on the glasses and fruits in these baskets instead of the usual white. 

Still Life with Apples and Chestnuts, detail.

Here’s another beautiful example:

Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit, 1857. Oil on canvas, 25 1/8" x 39 7/8" (63.8 x 76.2 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-367)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.6; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.36; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 2.8, 2.7-8 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.6; Experience Painting: 6

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Raphael of Flowers


Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759–1840, France, born Belgium), Joséphine’s March Lily (Amarylis Josepinae), 1802–1805. Watercolor over graphite on vellum, sheet: 19 ¾" x 28 ¼" (50.3 x 71.8 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-7953)

I don’t usually experience beauty attacks when considering art from France of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Neoclassicism isn’t my thing! But this artist is a standout in a period otherwise dominated by history/political art. Any artist who pursues the love of painting flowers while France was going through the Reign of Terror is OK in my book! And, it reminds me that there are many other artists who have specialized in, or simply done a nice job with, works about flora and plants.

Some of the details of Pierre-Joseph Redouté’s life sound like a charmed folk tale. Take the story that he once visited Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI (both died 1793) in the Bastille because they wanted him to document a flowering cactus that was there?! Nevertheless, he was a highly respected botanical illustrator, and he escaped the French Revolution with his head.

Born of a Flemish family of painters (mostly for churches), he started painting flowers, plants, and trees as a child. He studied the masters of Dutch Baroque painting as a young adult, and was particularly impacted by the floral still-life painting of Jan van Huysum (1682–1749). He went to Paris in 1782, where he began earning his living doing theater decoration.

In his spare time in Paris, Redouté would spend hours doing flower studies in the Garden of the King. He came to the attention of the Superintendent of Paris Waters and Forests, Charles Louis l’Héritier (1746–1800), who subsequently mentored him and encouraged him to produce scientific studies of flowers. He introduced Redouté to studies of the dissection process and, more importantly, his massive botanical library.

Under l’Héritier’s guidance, Redouté learned the watercolor technique of Gerard von Spaendonck (1746–1822), a fellow Flemish botanical artist. Spaendonck eventually recruited him as a staff artist. Spaendonck had connections to the royal family, and eventually Redouté secured a position as a court botanist to Marie-Antoinette. He documented hundreds of exotic flowers in royal estates, such as the Tuilleries and Versailles. He managed to avoid the guillotine by cozying up to the Bonaparte faction during the 1790s, meanwhile becoming one of the most popular botanical painters in France.

Before Napoléon (1769–1821) made himself emperor, Redouté began associating with Napoléon's wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763–1814). He continued to produce watercolor studies that eventually were translated into colored engravings in books, personally learning the stipple engraving process. In 1805, a year after Napoléon’s and Joséphine’s coronation, he was appointed a court flower painter to the empress. Typically, he again switched allegiances back to the Bourbon royal family after Napoléon was deposed in 1815.

The beautiful study above was produced for the publication The Garden of Malmaison (1803) by the botanist Étienne-Pierre Ventenat (1757–1808). Redouté’s watercolors betray the influence of Spaendonck in the contrasting values of high-intensity color and transparent high values. This Josephine’s March Lily is a fitting subject for Redouté, because Malmaison was Joséphine’s private palace on the banks of the Seine 15 km (9 miles) west of Paris. The rest of his life he spent teaching flower painting. Between 1817 and 1824 he produced his greatest success, a portfolio of prints of his watercolor studies called Les Roses.

Here is a painting by Jan van Huysum, whose work greatly influenced Redouté to pursue botanical painting. 

Jan van Huysum (1682-1749 Netherlands), Flowers in an Urn, ca. 1720. Oil on wooden panel, 31 7/16" x 23 5/8" (79.9 x 60 cm). © 2017 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0864)

Here are some other artists I particularly like who specialized in flowers and plants:

Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923, US), Wisteria on a Wall, 1870s. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 14" x 10 1/16" (35.6 x 25.6 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1170)

Bridges, a native of Massachusetts, was encouraged in her studies of flora by the pioneering woman sculptor Anne Whitney (1821–1915). Bridges, like Redouté, worked exclusively in watercolor. 

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849, Japan), Morning Glories in Flowers and Buds, ca. 1830. Color woodcut print on paper, 9 ¾" x 14 11/16" (24.8 x 37.3 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2610)

I know Hokusai specialized in landscape, but he also produced numerous examples of the time-honored subject matter of bird-and-flower painting (kacho ga). Even in woodcut form, these compositions are stunning. 

Edwin Hale Lincoln (1848–1938, US), Thistle, 1898–1907. Platinum print on paper, 18 ¾" x 9 13/16" (33 x 25 cm). © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P2452)

Serious study of plants and flowers in photography began early in the development of the art form. Lincoln concentrated exclusively on documenting flowers. Beginning in the 1890s, he developed a group of platinum prints, first published in 1906 as The Wildflowers of New England. He published several editions of the study. The 1906 edition had 75 images, and by 1914 it was up to 400 images. 

Guo Dawei (Kwo Da-Wei, aka David Kwo, David Kwok and David Kwo Da-Wei, 1919–2003, US, born China), Cannas, 1950s. Ink and color on paper, 44 5/16" x 13 11/16" (112.6 x 34.8 cm). Image © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-663)

Guo was trained in traditional Chinese landscape and bird-and-flower painting in Beijing before the Communist takeover. In 1953, he moved to the US, where he was exposed to Abstract Expressionism. His bird-and-flower works from after that period reflect the action painting strain of Abstract Expressionism.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2 1.2; A Personal Journey 5.5; A Global Pursuit 7.3

Friday, May 5, 2017

Beauty Attack


Henry Bacon (1839–1912 US), Street in Cairo, 1905. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 13 1/2" x 20" (34.4 x 50.8 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-561)

I must say, one of the things that keeps me young (in spirit, of course) is the constant beauty attacks I experience at work while looking at art from all over the world and every conceivable time period. These beauty attacks occur pretty much on a daily basis. I’m sure my co-workers get tired of hearing me exclaim “That’s gorgeous!” about one artwork another. Sometimes these attacks are great in the extreme and become epiphanies. That means I’ve learned something new and I’m thinking about an artist in a brand-new light. That would be the case with Henry Bacon (18391912).

Can you totally feel a sigh of relief standing in the shade rather than the bright sunlight? Bacon’s watercolors so remind me of the work of Sargent, particularly his scenes of Egypt and the Middle East. And he totally learned the Impressionist mantra to “not use black to make shades for shadows!” You can see that in his swipes of phthalo blue all over the place.

This former Civil War (1860–1864) soldier and illustrator for “Leslie’s Weekly,” born in the state in which I currently live, went to Paris in 1864 to study art after being wounded in the war. Unfortunately, he chose the École des Beaux-Arts—instead of the Barbizon and their budding Impressionist protégés—and studied under the realist Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889). He also came under the influence of the equally-vapid classicist realist Jean Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). The only difference in Bacon’s work of the 1870s and 1880s from those artists is that he painted many genre scenes of people in Brittany.

The Colossi of Thebes, 1904. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 15 7/16" x 21 9/16" (39.3 x 54.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-315)

Bacon developed an abiding love for the people and light of Egypt after his first trip there in 1897. By the mid-1890s, he had already swayed away from his genre scenes of middle-class French people in favor of Impressionism. The light of Egypt confirmed his interest in observed light and painting on the spot with a lighter palette. It also confirmed his love of watercolor, in which he worked almost exclusively for the rest of his life.

Like Americans Winslow Homer (1836–1910) and John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), Bacon used the white of the paper as his highlight. He abandoned the opaque underpainting watercolorists had traditionally used. Here, again, we see the use of phthalo blue in the deepest shadows. 

Bedouin Campfires, ca. 1911. Watercolor over graphite on paper, 16 13/16" x 26 1/16" (42.8 x 66.2 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-509)

Being an extremely poor watercolor artist myself, I’m always very envious of artists who can achieve such wonderful nuances with the medium. This lovely dusky scene is just full of the Impressionist palette, right down to the salmon and green he used for the foreground, which is beautifully complimented in the darkening sky. What most intrigues me is the smoke from the fire. The lazy me is tempted to attribute it to white gouache he may have added after the rest was dry, simply because there is a big white blob in the middle of the smoke under the camel’s head. And how else did he achieve the wisps of smoke to the left, but with thinned, white gouache? Just gorgeous!

And, just so you can compare his exciting watercolors to his…competent…earlier genre paintings, here is one of his oil paintings from the 1870s. This subject is what made him famous: people on transatlantic steamers, the latest thing in the 1800s. 

On the Open Sea—The Transatlantic Steamship, 1877. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4" x 29 1/8" (50.2 x 74 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (MFAB-47)

Bacon did countless works on the subject of transatlantic voyages to America, a new craze in the 1800s since steamships made travel to the US much faster. I find this type of realism at a time when Impressionism was blooming a big YAWN.

And speaking of big yawns, if Bacon’s realist period reminds you of anybody, here’s a hint: James Tissot (1836–1902). I can’t believe any art historian would ever even remotely associate Tissot with Impressionism, except that he liked to document middle class urban life. I’m not even going to guess what the dude on the trapeze with a monocle means! 

James J. Tissot (1836–1902 France), Women of Paris: The Circus Lover, 1885. Oil on canvas, 58" x 40" (147.3 x 101.6 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1233)