Monday, February 11, 2019

African American (Art) History Month I

Grafton Tylor Brown (1841–1918, US), View of Yosemite Valley, 1886. Oil on canvas, 29 ¾" x 17 ½" (75.6 x 44.5 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4841)

When we usually read about the Rocky Mountain School of painting, we are presented with artists like Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Thomas Hill (1892-1908), and Thomas Moran (1837–1926). This school (a loose term to indicate similar subject matter) is credited with portraying the newly opened western territories of the US to easterners. One of the hopes was to encourage migration, which, unfortunately for the environment and the indigenous peoples, happened en masse.

African Americans somehow escape that discussion. For African American History Month, you will observe that black artists, too, were part of this artistic phenomenon in the West. When California joined the Union as a free state in 1850, many free African Americans migrated there. Although the Fugitive Slave Act meant that slaves taken to California remained so, blacks continued to move west, numbering 2000 in California by 1852.

Grafton Tyler Brown is the first-known African American artist on the west coast of the US. Born in Harrisburg, PA, it is unknown whether his family moved to California when he was a child, or whether he migrated as a young man. He was settled in Sacramento in 1858, where he taught himself art. By 1862, he was an established lithographer with a land management firm in San Francisco. He painted and drew new settlements around the city, afterward committing them to lithography.

By 1865, Brown was well-known enough to set up his own lithography business, Grafton T. Brown and Co. His lithographs of growing early California were in great demand in the East. While managing this business, he traveled throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, producing paintings and sketches of the grandeur of the new territories.

In 1871, Brown sold his lithography business to concentrate full time on painting landscapes. He is not known to have produced portraits or still life, simply landscapes. He documented, like Bierstadt and Hill, views of the mountains and valleys between California and Colorado. However, unlike the romantic element injected into grandiose views of the West by other Rocky Mountain painters, Brown’s tended to be more topographic, in the matter-of-fact views on postcards. He typically painted from a birds-eye view with little reference to human beings.

Drawn to views of snow-capped mountains, Brown moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1882 and then Portland, Oregon, in 1885. Unfortunately, Brown’s paintings did not achieve the popularity of his lithographs, which were usually credited to his company rather than his name. Additionally, eastern galleries and museums would not exhibit works by African Americans. In 1893 he gave up painting entirely and moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to be a draftsperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Gem of the Month: Nan Madol

Because 2019 is well into my eleventh year posting this blog, I’ve decided to initiate a new monthly feature for this year: Gem of the Month. As a fellow art historian, I know all too well their inclination to pretend they know everything about every art movement and artist that ever happened (usually as a way of steering attention to themselves at an Art Department cocktail party). But that is humanly impossible. On a weekly, almost daily, basis I discover some hidden treasure of art history fact that seldom appears in “mainstream” art history. Thus, the purpose of this new series. 

Micronesia, Walls of Nan Madol, Pohnpei state, Madolenihmw district, Federated States of Micronesia, ca. 1100s–1500s. Image © 2019 Tara Sturm. CC BY-SA 2.0

Although you are probably familiar with dynasties in a variety of regions of the world, the idea of dynasty is not conjured up when studying Oceanic cultures. And yet, the islands of the South Pacific are so far-flung and numerous, it makes sense that there had to have been some. Case in point, the Saudeleur Dynasty of Micronesia, which flourished between the 1100s and 1600s CE.

Migrants thought to have come from the area of Taiwan called Austronesians are believed by scholars to have settled Micronesia by about 1800 BCE. Micronesia—consisting of 2000 islands, coral atolls, and volcanic mountains—is 2,900,000 square miles (7,400,000 square kilometers) in size (wow!). The Federated States of Micronesia consists of 600 islands acroos one million square miles (2,590,000 square kilometers). Formerly the Eastern and Western Caroline Islands, it consists of four states: Pohnpei, Yap, Chuuk, and Kosrae.

Pohnpei is the largest island. The Lapita, one of the many diverse cultures that made up the Austronesian migration, are thought to have populated Pohnpei from the Solomon Islands to the south. Pohnpeian tradition suggests that the Saudeleur dynasty began with the arrival of foreigners from a mythical island called Western Katau or Kanamwayso. Their intention was to build a religious center and established autocratic control over the entire island. They built Nan Madol as a religious/political center.

Micronesia, Walls of Nan Madol, Pohnpei state, Madolenihmw district, Federated States of Micronesia, ca. 1100s–1500s. Image © 2019 Tara Sturm. CC BY-SA 2.0

Nan Madol means “water between,” referring to the water channels between the basalt foundations of the ruins.
The basalt was quarried on the western side of the island. It is the only ancient city in the world built entirely on coral reefs, consisting of stone and coral-fill platforms on top of ninety-two artificially built up islands. The city encompassed palaces, temples, residences, and tombs.

Although the culture did not have pulleys, horses, or metal, they built walls forty-nine feet (fifteen meters) high in some spots and as thick as sixteen feet (five meters). The columnar basalt pieces were laid in a header-and-pitcher pattern filled in with rubble (smashed coral). They are thought to have been raised with the help of palm tree trunks as levers. The walls were raised on platforms only three feet (ninety centimeters) above the water.

Nan Madol, as a ceremonial center, is comparable in size and layout to the Mayan ceremonial/urban centers of Central America. The kings of Pohnpei ruled the island until the 1800s when the city was abandoned. Because there are no written records, much information about the culture has been handed down orally. Specifics about the religion or society are basically sketchy. It was likely abandoned before the 1830s, when German explores documented Nan Madol as “ruins.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

An Abstract Expressionist You Should Know

Paul Jenkins (1923–2012, US), Phenomena Voyager, 1972. Watercolor on paper, 3' 6" x 2' 6" (106.5 x 76.2 cm). Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (SI-489jkars)

Some art historians, when discussing an artist’s work, will say “oh, but he’s (or she’s) a brilliant colorist!” I’ve never really known when to use that phrase with the proper cachet, but I would be wallowing in understatement if I used it in any description of the work of Paul Jenkins. This artist’s work is simply stunning. Now, I’m a big fan of Helen Frankenthaler’s (1928–2011) stain paintings because they are brilliant and quite often evoke landscape to me. But, Jenkins’ works starting in the late 1950s absolutely knock my socks off with their high-intensity color. I’m a big sucker for color, as you know, and Jenkins’ paintings are a celebration of pure color. I think the only other Abstract Expressionists whose work excites me on this front are Mark Rothko (1903–1970)—before he started experimenting with black and brown—and Grace Hartigan (1922–2008).

One of the main tenets of Abstract Expressionism was the artist expressing the inner self, with the finished painting a record of the process of that search. Most of the Abstract Expressionists were in sync with that philosophy and with the Jungian idea of the disconnect from the body while producing art. Jenkins is an interesting personality in the world of Abstract Expressionism. Like Mark Tobey (1890–1976), the fellow New York School artist he befriended, Jenkins’ work was inspired by more than Jungian philosophy and the Surrealist-inspired emphasis on subconscious creation. The reliance on spontaneity of Zen Buddhist meditation, the theories about constant internal change of I Ching philosophy, and the reflective abstract imagery in Symbolist painters such as Odilon Redon (1840–1916) had major impact on Jenkins work since early in his career.

From early on, as well, Jenkins experimented with different methods for spreading his paint into the jewel-like color and semi-transparent veils of paint that are his signature style. He rarely, if ever, used a brush to spread paint. Most often, he used knife-related tools, including his favorite ivory-handled knife. Fascinated with the stain paintings of Frankenthaler and Morris Louis (1912–1962), Jenkins devised his own method of pooling, rolling, and flowing paint on the canvas with a control that allowed the pure intensity of the colors to shine through. He often dripped thin lines of white paint to set off colors.

As early as 1958, he called himself an “abstract phenomenist,” indicating that his work reflected god inside of him. From that year on, he titled most of his works Phenomena, searching for ways to express ideas rather than forms that people would subsequently search for in his works. His use of more luminous colors began in the early 1960s. When looking back at his work, one marvels how he created luminous compositions in a variety of pigments (oil, acrylic, watercolor) as well as lithography.

Jenkins was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and spent some of his childhood in Youngstown, Ohio. Although he met both Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) as a young person, they did not impact his art. Wright even suggested that Jenkins take up farming. After service in World War II (1939–1945), he moved to New York in 1948 and studied at the Art Students League. In New York, during that germinal moment in American modernism history, Jenkins befriended Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), thrilled by the dynamism of his painting, and Mark Rothko (1903–1970), whose brilliant colors appealed to him. With all of the influences that Jenkins encountered, he developed a distinct abstract style that has stood the test of time in luminosity and brilliant appreciation of pure color.

I have to admit, I prefer his palette after 1958 to this early one, though the way he spread the oil paint is very exciting. 

Paul Jenkins, The Archer, 1955. Oil on canvas, 4' 3" x 2' 8" (129.9 x 81 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-439jkars)

The work below is a simply stunning piece, if not only for the brilliant color (especially my favorite, the violets), but for the scale. Can you imagine controlling the free-flowing on paint such a large canvas?!

Paul Jenkins, Phenomena Anvil Compass, 1981–1983. Acrylic on canvas, 6' 3" x 12' 6" (190.5 x 381 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. © 2019 Paul Jenkins/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BIAA-559jkars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 2E Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 4: 6.7; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 5.25; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 6: 5.1; Exploring Painting 3E: Chapter 5 studio experience; Discovering Art History: 4.3 17.1

Monday, January 14, 2019

Contemporary Jewelry Pioneer

Eleanor Moty (born 1945, US), Pietersite Brooch, 2000. Sterling silver, gold, pietersite, labradorite, blackpaper micarta, 1 ¾" x 3/8" x 4 7/8" (4.4 x 1 x 12.4 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2019 Eleanor Moty. (PMA-4757)

On a cold January day, I stop and look at this beautiful brooch by Eleanor Moty and wonder why I haven’t introduced you to her jewelry?! She is a fellow Illinoisan by birth, and actually grew up not far away from me. So, I have a special fondness for her art, which I have been following since the 1980s.

Moty prefers to call herself an “artist/metalsmith.” When she was teaching jewelry, she preferred “artist/educator.” In college at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, she intended to major in art education, but shifted her focus when she learned that jewelry making was a studio major.

Having grown up on a farm, Moty believes that the rural isolation affected her artistic development. Every day on the farm, she saw the horizon with its constant changes of light and color, which she now incorporates into her pieces. She considers landscape and architecture major influences on her work. Moty remembers her earliest jewelry-making as cutting out small pieces of metallic paper after tracing circles with a dime to make rosaries.

In some of her early jewelry, Moty concentrated on the technical manipulations that fascinated her such as electroplating, electroforming, and photo-etching in metal. She felt that her work had become too complex in the 1970s, resolving to leave the complex processes behind to focus on the simple act of making jewelry, concentrating on formal design. Works such as this brooch display the angled planes of a landscape or architectural interior, highlighted by the silver lines encompassing the stones. I totally see a winter landscape in this brooch.

Moty likes working in white, yellow, and black. One interesting material she works in is the blackpaper micarta. Micarta is an industrial material of resin-impregnated paper or fabric. Moty likes using the black because it mimics inclusions in tourmalinated quartz. She also is drawn to black slate with inclusions of pyrite crystals that conjure up landscape imagery for the artist. Instead of cutting natural crystals and minerals, she prefers to use their natural shapes as the central design elements. She carefully observes reflection, distortion, and facets, polishing the stones accordingly.

If one image isn’t enough for you, a Google Image search shows tons of beautiful pieces by the artist.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 1E Grade 2: 2.11; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 2.7; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 6: 5.29; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 6: 5.7; A Personal Journey: 7 connections; A Community Connection: 5.2; The Visual Experience 3E: 10.7

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Nice Winter Treat

Charles Kaelin (1858–1929, US), Cape Ann Woods. Oil on canvas, 25" x 30" (63.5 x 76.2 cm). © 2019 Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (BIAA-469)

And, by “nice treat,” I don’t mean the sight of snow. As an art historian, I really like to stop and look into artists I’ve previously never thought a lot about. Charles S. Kaelin is one of those artists. I think he’s an American treasure, and so I’m going to get you acquainted with him so you sing his praises, too. The Butler Institute of American Art has two nice examples of his work (probably because his work was exhibited frequently in Cincinnati during his lifetime).

Impressionism came late to American artists, brought over by artists who had encountered the movement while studying in Paris. Some of the earliest major players were Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Dennis Miller Bunker (1861–1890), William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Willard Metcalf (1858–1925), and Theodore Robinson (1852–1896). This of course discounts Mary Cassatt’s (1844–1926) Impressionist work that predated all of these artists.

Considering how popular Impressionism still is with the public in the 21st century, it is surprising that it was not received with open arms when it appeared in galleries in the 1890s. French Impressionism was introduced to Americans in the 1880s, but was never well received. Critics initially thought that it lacked the grandeur of “true art.” By 1893, however, many American artists were painting in Impressionist styles.

The first exhibit of American Impressionists took place at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York in 1898. It was put on by a breakaway—from the National Academy’s stranglehold on exhibitions—group of artists led by Hassam, called The Ten. Ironically, when Impressionism finally found favor in America in the first decade of the 1900s, it was already considered a passé style in Europe, replaced by even bolder experiments in modernism.

If any artist embodied the credentials of an Impressionist, it was Kaelin. He was one of the earliest American proponents of the Post-Impressionist style, which was pioneered by French artists Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935). Kaelin, whose love of nature was described as a “passion,” was born in Cincinnati to a Swiss lithographer. Initially studying lithography at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he supplemented his studies with painting in 1878 under the Tonalist John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902). Twachtman had just returned from Munich where he had adapted the Dark Impressionist style to landscape. Kaelin acquired a love of landscape painting, following Twachtman’s admonition for subjective expression as opposed to the stale formulas provided by Kaelin’s academic training.

Kaelin, who worked as a commercial lithographer for almost twenty years, produced an early body of work in the form of pastel landscapes, much of it in a filmy, light-infused style through the traditional palette (at the time) of Twachtman. (Twachtman, too, eventually adapted the pure color palette of Impressionism.) He visited Gloucester and subsequently the Rockport Art Colony in Massachusetts in 1900. After coming in contact with American Impressionists there, and inspired by the clear, brilliant light of the Cape Ann region, he made seasonal visits there for ten years. He abandoned his earlier Tonal manner and embraced the Impressionist palette, painting directly outdoors, and ultimately, in the Divisionist style of Post-Impressionism.

Kaelin abandoned his lithography career and moved permanently to Rockport in 1916. He often rendered his outdoor studies on Cape Ann in crayon, in which long, strong strokes of crayon weave together to create overall a tapestry of color. These long, sure strokes are apparent in his oils as well, in which color is supreme, and, in the case of Cape Ann Woods, forms sometimes dissolve to the point where they coalesce, much like the late works of Monet (1840–1926).

Charles Kaelin, Granite Shore. Oil on canvas, 20" x 24" (50.8 x 61 cm). © Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. (BIAA-468)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Surimono Time for the New Year

I did it before and I’m doing it again: surimono to celebrate the New Year. In the West, we don’t really make little works of fine art to celebrate the New Year. In Japan, the surimono—“printed thing”—was a color woodcut print popular from the 1790s to the 1830s, the classic period of the ukiyo-e style. Surimono were not only created for New Year, but also for Cherry Blossom season, birthdays, and announcements.

Surimono were produced on commission—not available at the local Hallmark store. That made them luxury items sold in limited quantities. They were commissioned by wealthy people, poets, and the literati for circulation among their peers. Since ukiyo-e artists were considered “craftspeople” (printmaking was not considered a fine art form in Japan until well into the 1900s), they eagerly fulfilled the demand for these works following the aesthetics of the patrons rather than being bound by what was “common taste.”

Subject matter in surimono was only restricted by the patrons’ imaginations. Popular images were zodiac signs, lucky symbols, nature, historical events, and kabuki play scenes. The extensive writings often seen on surimono include poems and dedications to the patrons.

Ukiyo Utayoshio (active 1830–1835, Japan), Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Kokusenya Fighting the Tiger, surimono for the Tsurunova Poetry Club, Osaka, ca. 1831. Color woodcut on paper, sheet: 10 7/8" x 7 ¼" (27.7 x 18.4 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2669)

This surimono was commissioned by a poetry club. I’m really not sure why this kabuki play would be popular at New Year, but the subject was very popular in Osaka. It could be that the theme of the play, about patriotic fervor, self-sacrifice, and big battle scenes appealed to the people of Osaka whom those in Edo (Tokyo) considered less sophisticated.

This scene comes from the play Battles of Kokusenya (Coxinga), which, like many kabuki dramas, began as a bunraku drama (puppet theater). It’s the story of a Sino-Japanese guy who decides (in 1644) to go back to China with his parents (Chinese father and Japanese mother) in order to fight the Manchus who were trying to end the Ming Dynasty. The decisive scene is Kokusenya fighting a tiger, who ultimately helps him build an army to fight the Manchu.

The tiger would be a very auspicious New Year animal. The animal was a symbol for one of the cardinal directions (west), and with the dragon was considered part of the yin yang idea. The tiger represented light and the earth.

The Osaka school of ukiyo-e artists is not as well written about as that of Edo. Ukiyo Utayoshio is known only for prints bearing his name in a five-year period. Nothing is known of his artistic development. His energetic figures and dynamic composition, however, resemble the style of other Osaka school artists, including the most famous: Gosotei Hirosada (1819–1863). The Osaka ukiyo-e school is renowned almost exclusively for theater prints. 

Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850), Black Crow for New Year, surimono from the Five Colors for the Floating Fans series, 1825. Color woodcut on paper, sheet: 8" x 7 3/8" (20.3 x 18.7 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2613)

In Japan, the crow is considered a divine messenger, a symbol of good luck, and also a symbol of the sun. Hearing the call of the crow in nature could denote a message from a departed loved one. I would image then that the importance of the hatsuyume (first dream of the New Year) would be enhanced if one dreamt of a crow.

Hokkei was the prize pupil of the great master landscape ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). Hokusai himself produced many surimono. Hokkei has upped the luxury of this New Year’s card with the addition of gold leaf. He also imitated the landscape style of the snooty Kanō school that produced landscapes and screen paintings for the wealthy. The zig-zag river with gold leaf shores is a typical decorative device of the Kanō school. The river represents continuity and the future, an auspicious perception on New Year’s.

Correlations to Davis programs: Experience Printmaking: 4; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.3, 4.1; Discovering Art History Digital: 2.2, 4.1; The Visual Experience 2E: 3.5, 13.5

Monday, December 17, 2018

It’s Scarf Weather

Yuh Okano (born 1965, Japan, designer) and Daito Pleats Company (1979 to present, Gumma, Japan, manufacturer), Epidermis (Ocean) scarf, 1994. Polyester, shibori-dyed, heat set, length: 47" (119.4 cm). Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Yuh Okano. (MOMA-D1044)

I’m not sure how warm these scarves would be in winter, but they sure would be fabulous displayed over a black overcoat! The honor accorded Japanese textile art equals that of ceramics, and certainly exceeds that of jewelry. What is awesome is that so much of Japanese textile design involves hand work. Although shibori is often designated as Japanese tie-dye, it is much more complicated process and deserves a category of its own. The whole impetus behind shibori is the creation of a resist-dyed, three-dimensional fabric. It involves twisting, pulling, and pinching fabric before dyeing it. Yuh Okano explores this technique beautifully.

Shibori is an ages-old traditional technique of resist dyeing cloth. Like tie-dye, small sections of textile are bound together with string. The bound section acts as a resist, keeping the cloth under the string from being dyed in the dye bath. Okano has developed her own method of shibori wherein she places a small resin bead into the cloth before tying a section. She then dyes the fabrics in multiple dye baths. Once the dye is set by steam, she removes the resin beads. What results are three-dimensional bubbles, pods, and thorn-like shapes. Lastly, the polyester is heat-set to preserve these shapes.  

Okano traces some of the influence in her textile designs to shibori patterns in kimonos from the Edo Period (1615–1868). In effect, her works are a synthesis of the artificial (polyester) and the traditional (shibori). Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, are ideal for use of the heat-set method of “freezing” surface qualities in dyed textiles.

Both of these examples from her Epidermis series show how her patterns are also influenced by the natural world. The Ocean works recall not only waves in the ocean, but also the sea life underneath, such as coral and algae. Interestingly, Okano is expressing these elemental ideas in a basically modern, technology-produced fabric (polyester is a synthetic resin).

Yuh Okano and Daito Pleats Company, Epidermis (Ocean) scarf, 1994. Polyester, shibori-dyed, heat set, length: 53" (134.6 cm). Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Yuh Okano. (MOMA-D1043)

Okano was born in Japan and now has studios in both Japan and New York. Her initial studies in textile arts were in Japan, and she then received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. For the remainder of the 1990s, she was an assistant to the famous textile designer Arai Junichi (born 1932). He works in the city a Kiryu, a centuries-old center of fabulous textile arts north of Tokyo. He has invented many extraordinary contemporary textiles using such materials as nylon and aluminum foil. He has even enfolded hand-made paper into his textiles. In 1999, Okano started her own company called Textiles Yuh. She produces scarves and fabrics for other clothing.

Heat-set textiles such as those by Okano remind me of another Japanese textile designer I’ve posted about, Reiko Sudo (born 1953). She was also an associate of Junichi. Like Okano, she uses polyester and the heat-setting process to produce marvelously pleated textiles. 

Sudo Reiko (born 1953, Japan, designer) and NUNO Corporation (1984 to present, Tokyo, manufacturer), Origami Pleats textile, 1997. Heat-set polyester plain weave, 3' by 23' 4" (91.4 x 711.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Reiko Sudo. (PMA-7136)

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey 2E: 3.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3 1E: 6.33; Explorations in Art Grade 3 2E: 6.4; Explorations in Art Grade 4 1E: 5.28; Explorations in Art Grade 4 2E: 5.5; Exploring Visual Design 4E: Chapter 6; The Visual Experience 3E: 10.8, 12.4