Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Women’s History Month IV

For my last posting for Women’s History Month, I am leaving you with what has to be my all time favorite painting in the Worcester Art Museum. It is well worth the climb up three flights of stairs. The painting so beautifully expresses the role of women in the development of major art movements, particularly in the US. I can’t think of any group of women artists who were given fleeting mention for so long in art history texts as those who were active in the New York “School” at the same time as the “stars” who were given all the hype such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. This artist also comes from the awesome state of New Jersey, which has given us many master artists of modernism. I give you Grace Hartigan.

Hartigan was born in Newark, NJ. She took art classes at night. During World War II (1939-1945) she worked in an airplane factory, practicing her art whenever she had a chance. She became a pupil of the Newark avant-garde painter Isaac Lane Muse (born 1906). He stressed creativity over polished execution of a painting.

In 1948 Hartigan met Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and her husband Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), both seminal artists of Abstract Expressionism. At the time the two were not internationally known, but had already mastered the action painting style of the New York School. Excited by what she had seen, Hartigan produced paintings that were influenced by their styles. King of the Hill is a work that reflects the earlier gestural paintings of Pollock along with the energetic, expressionistic brush strokes of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), while avoiding the “drip” idiom of Pollock. Paintings of this style were a brief period for Hartigan, because she felt it lacked a personal depth.

Around 1952 Hartigan began introducing figurative and objective aspects to her paintings, while maintaining an expressive, gestural style. The painting New England, October of 1957 is a beautiful example of how she integrated her action painting experience into her mature style.

Hartigan’s paintings of the later 1950s won wide critical acclaim. In 1958 she was the only woman chosen to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s show “The New American Painting.” The show also featured many of the male abstract expressionists, as well as up-and-coming artists who were experimenting with color field and minimalism. The internet offers many wonderful photographs of the artist in her day with the abstract expressionists.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; A Global Pursuit: 2.2, 9.1; The Visual Experience: 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.1

Monday, March 21, 2011

Women's History Month III

If you have been following this blog you probably know I am particularly fond of investigating artists who are completely new to me or whom many of you may not have heard of. So, for the last two weeks of Women’s History Month, I’m going to introduce you to memorable artists who have been neglected in most art history books, but who were pioneering modern artists. Up this week is the sculptor and printmaker Helen Phillips. This piece from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is a great work to use to discuss positive and negative space.

Phillips was born in Fresno, California, and studied art at the San Francisco School of Fine Art. There she learned direct carving, and became acquainted with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who was painting murals there. Although impressed with the rounded, plastic forms of Rivera’s work – himself inspired by ancient Mexican sculpture – Phillips was not drawn to social realism. She found it stifling compared to open exploration of form. Sculpturally, she was influenced more by the ancient Mexican, Asian, and Oceanic works that she saw in San Francisco collections. These formed the groundwork for her mature style.

Phillips moved to Paris in 1936, then the center of modernist experiment in both painting and sculpture. She befriended such important avant-garde sculptors such as American expatriate Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966, Swiss). From Calder’s work she came away with an interest in line, creating positive and negative space in a series of works made of copper tubing. From Giacometti’s sculpture her interest in “primitive” form was reinforced. She lost all of her Paris sculptures when she fled the Nazis back to New York in 1939.

Phillips sculpture and prints attracted increasing notice during the mythic seminal period of the New York School. She showed in the landmark 1948 exhibition Bloodfumes alongside such artists as Arshile Gorky, Wilfredo Lam, and Isamu Noguchi. While experimenting with wood and bronze casting, Phillips always returned to carving in stone as a way of continuing to explore movement in space through cubic abstractions.

Abstract Form suggests a biomorphic, growing form in the confines of minimalist geometric form. While this piece may recall Donald Judd’s untitled “stack” sculptures, the connection of each geometric unit to the next gives it a definite organic feel lacking in Judd’s work. Ironically, this was Phillips’ last major bit of stone sculpture. She seriously injured her back while installed it and never produced large-scale sculpture again.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 9.1; A Community Connection: 3.2j The Visual Experience: 6.3, 10.2; Discovering Art History: 17.5

Monday, March 14, 2011

Women’s History Month II

I have always held the belief that there has been no period in history when women did not play significant roles as artists. Traditional western art history texts just failed to mention women who were professional artists at the time of the early American republic in favor of blah-blahing about Peale, Copley, and West. I present to you this week Eunice Pinney, the earliest known American artist whose dedicated medium was watercolor. The reason this is significant is that at the time watercolor was considered a minor medium compared to oil painting, and Pinney made her career doing watercolors.

In the early nineteenth century the academy system was introduced in America to regulate artistic patronage and production. It was based on the English academy and as such established standards for training artists, although women were not allowed. However, between 1800 and 1860, many women bucked society’s restrictions on their gender and became successful professional artists. Through the nineteenth century women increasingly challenged the notion that woman’s “place” was still in the home by applying to the American academies in growing numbers. By the end of that century women were represented in all of the major artistic academies in the US.

The period between 1800 and 1876 is considered a golden age for the first flowering of art by American women artists. Pinney is the earliest known American Folk watercolorist. Born of a wealthy and cultivated family in Connecticut, she and her siblings performed plays as children for neighbors. As a young woman she learned to draw and paint, although she did not begin painting in earnest until she was 39. While many well-bred women preferred painting fruit, flowers, landscapes, and scenes from history, Pinney’s range of subject matter was much broader. Of her extant fifty-four works, the majority were painted between 1809 and 1826.

Because Pinney developed her art on her own, her style was independent of what was fashionable at the time in America. Compared to other woman artists who painted at home, Pinney’s style is bolder and more self-assured. This is partly due to her maturity when she began painting, and to the fact that she produced many pencil sketches to plan her compositions carefully.

A woman of extensive reading, Pinney loved to paint literary subjects. Cotters was the English term used for poor, country people who lived in a cottage. The Cotters Saturday Night, based on a poem by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, is typical of her literary works. It is most likely based on an English print of the subject. Her composition is reminiscent of theater productions, perhaps recalling her childhood plays. The strong contours are evidence of her assured draughtsmanship. The poorly understood perspective of the space, flat forms, and naïve treatment of anatomy are all trademarks of American Folk artists. Always notable in Pinney’s work is the strong, balanced composition.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.11, 3.14; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.9; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2, 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.3, 1.6; A Personal Journey: 1.1; A Community Connection: 2.4, 3.1; The Visual Experience: 9.3

Monday, March 7, 2011

Women's History Month

Let’s kick off Women’s History Month by celebrating women printmakers. I’m a big fan of contemporary printmaking and how artists push the boundaries of the medium, especially since my only credentials in printmaking are from high school art classes. When one looks at the history of printmaking, one sees an ebb and flow in its popularity. From the 15th to the 18th century, printmaking was a major art form, appreciated not only for the nuances of tone and form, but also because the fine lines made with the tools allowed artists to produced fantastically detail masterworks of the past. In the 19th century, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was a pioneer in printmaking when the field was dominated by men. The revival of printmaking had begun in the 1850s and is a strong fine art medium on its own every since.

Woodcut is part of the oldest technique of printmaking, known as relief. The artist gouges out areas of the surface, leaving only the design to be printed elevated. Ink is spread over the raised sections of the block and transferred to paper by pressure. Other forms of relief printing are linoleum cut and wood engraving.

Karen Kunc follows a long line of successful women artists who work primarily in the field of printmaking. Starting in the early 20th century, women such as Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz, Mabel Dwight, Isabel Bishop, Kyra Markham, Adja Yunkers, and Kiki Smith have kept the art form a vibrant component of contemporary art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Kunc received her BFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her MFA from Ohio State University. She is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is best known for her large-scale abstract woodcut prints, and has paralleled that with an exploration of dynamic printed three-dimensional book forms.

Karen’s sophisticated work reminds me of everything from Bauhaus graphic artists (such as Herbert Bayer) to contemporary Latina artist Beatriz Milhazes. Here is Karen’s statement from her website about her work:

My work as an artist/printmaker addresses issues of the landscape and our natural surroundings as direct influences from my Nebraska heritage, my daily experiences and viewpoints in the landscape of the plains and from extensive travel, and as artistic interpretation and contemplation on larger issues of the eternal life struggle, of endurance and vulnerability, growth and destruction.

My prints suggest extremes of weather and natural forces at work, a sense of the micro/macrocosm, set against landscape or space, both wild and cultivated, intimate and unknowable. I am interested in the span of time it takes to wear away a canyon, build a mountain, the erosion forces that continually wash onto the plains, forming the earth, and, ultimately, shaping our world. My hope is that these larger concepts are provoked by viewing my work with a poetic and intelligent sense of wonder.

My symbolic images are derived from a rich mix of instilled influences, born at home, and greatly expanded and contextualized from seeing life lived the world over, my experiences and past work, and issues in contemporary art. I recognize a host of associations that flow out of my work and are research interests for me - from nature and science, spiritual and religious thought, art historical and modern icons, immigration narratives and native myths.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35, A Community Connection: 8.2, A Global Pursuit: 9.1, The Visual Experience: 9.4, Discovering Art History: 17.6