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. 
(AK-2522bnvg)

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)