Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Unique Design

Maria Benktzon (born 1946, Sweden), and RFSU Rehab (founded 1972, Stockholm), Knife/Fork (“Knork”), 1978. Plastic and stainless steel, length 18 cm (7 1/16"). Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Maria Benktzon. (MOMA-D0096)

In the mid-1900s, Scandinavian artists emerged at the forefront of modernism in all facets of design: architecture, furniture, and the art of household objects. Among them were many women who came up with revolutionary ideas that challenged traditional ways of how the “decorative arts” were perceived. Indeed, the perception of “decorative arts” was challenged by the Arts and Crafts movement, and then the Bauhaus (1919–1933, Weimar, Germany). I’ve come to believe, in my old age, that the Scandinavian and Bauhaus artists were correct in their assertion that art and functionality can co-exist.

While many design artists imagine new forms for standard kitchen objects, Benktzon’s work demonstrates the ability to design works that are ergonomic. She makes familiar objects more accessible. The Knork was designed for people who could not normally use two hands (knife and fork) to eat. It is an elegant and functional design that, at the time, was revolutionary. She also designed dishes that served two purposes.

Eat and Drink Plate, 1978. Melamine polymer and rubber; height: 3.8 cm, diameter: 19 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2013 Maria Benktzon. (MOMA-D0221)

Benktzon’s work was featured in the 1988 Museum of Modern Art, New York exhibition “Designing for Independent Living.” She is committed to innovations in everyday objects that enable people to be independent.  Her work reflects the history of equality-driven, aesthetics integration with utility that has been a hallmark of Swedish and Scandinavian (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) design since the mid-1900s.

Benktzon has been active with Ergonomidesign (now Veryday), which designs home products for utility and comfort. She received awards in 2000 and 2005 for her innovative, ergonomic, and consumer-friendly designs of household objects. In many ways, she epitomizes the creed of the Bauhaus, which was to combine fine art sensibility into everyday life.

Another innovative Swedish designer:

Olle Baertling (1911–1980, Sweden), XIH, 1966. Painted Steel, 279.4 x 26.67 x 49.53 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © Estate of Olle Baertling. (AK-1838)

Danish modern design:

Grete Jalk (designer) (1920–2006, Denmark) and Poul Jeppesen (maker) (1909–1986, Denmark), Lounge Chair, 1963. Teak, 74.9 x 62.9 x 69.2 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Estate of Grete Jalk. (MOMA-D0808)

Louise Campbell (designer) (born 1970, Denmark), “Veryround” Chair, 2006. Steel, 69 x 105.5 x 83 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Louise Campbell. (PMA-4158)

Finnish modernism:

Kaj Franck (designer) (1911–1989, Finland) and Wärtsilä-Koncernen AB (maker) (firm Notsjö Glasbruk), Salt and Pepper Shakers, 1947. Glazed earthenware; each 6.4 cm high, diameter: 4.1 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Estate of Kaj Franck. (MOMA-D0413)

Eero Aaarnio (designer) (born 1932, Finland) and Asko (maker) (firm Lahti), Gyro Chair, 1968. Fiberglass, 53.3 x 93.3 x 93.3 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Eero Aarnio. (MOMA-D0234)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

You Think You Know Ancient Egypt?

Ushabti of Senkamaniksken, Kushite Kingdom, Napata (northern Sudan), ca. 643–623 bce. Steatite, 21.7 x 6.9 x 5 cm (8 9/16" x 2 11/16" x 1 15/16"). © Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY. (BMA-553)
At first glance this small sculpture would lead the viewer to believe that it was firmly within the realm of ancient Egyptian art. It actually belongs to a culture that bordered dynastic Egypt, and twice established dynasties that ruled Egypt. Much like the Roman Empire, ancient Egyptian culture had a strong influence on surrounding (often conquered) cultures. I find the purity of the traditional Egyptian funerary style remarkable in this piece that commemorates a Nubian (Kushite) ruler.

Senkamaniksken ruled over his homeland of Kush only a couple of decades after the Kushites had ruled Egypt, establishing Dynasty 25 (712–657 bce). The Kushite kingdom extended from south of Aswan on the Nile into northern Sudan, where the capital Napata was located. Interestingly, the Kushites of this period were the first to revive pyramid building since the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (1986–1759 bce). The remarkable thing about the Kushites is how thoroughly they adapted Egyptian religious and artistic conventions. The Kushites ruled Egypt twice, in the Second Intermediate period (ca. 1696–1539 bce) and the 25th dynasty, which fell to Assyrian invasion. They retreated to their homeland south of Upper Egypt, and established a kingdom that flourished for almost 1000 years.

The ushabti (this is one of nearly 1300 found in Sekamaniksken’s tomb) was yet another device to ensure that the deceased made a smooth transition into the afterlife, which Egyptians (and subsequently Kushites) believed would be a mirror of the physical world. The ushabti were meant to be receptacles for the deceased’s spirit (ka) should the body be damaged in any way. The Kushites have totally adapted Egyptian iconography, including the crook and fly whisk (symbols of kingly power), as well as the uraeus on the forehead (cobra and vulture). The uraeus is a conceit on the part of Senkamaniksken, because it symbolized rule over Upper and Lower Egypt.

Studio activity: Found object ushabti, a hometown sculpture. Using locally available materials such as clay, wood, rocks, scrap metal and wire, and cardboard, create a figure that represents a present-day ushabti. After choosing materials, make sketches for your figure, making sure that it reflects the idea of a sacred object meant to house a person’s spirit. Try to endow the sculpture with personal physical traits.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 4.2; A Global Pursuit: 1.4; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 7; The Visual Experience: 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3

Monday, May 13, 2013

National Jewish American Heritage Month

Helen Frankenthaler (19282011, United States), Silent Curtain, 1967–1969. Lithograph, 76.2 x 57.15 cm (30" x 22 1/2"). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2013 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-615fkars)

As an art historian who grew up in the age of blossoming feminist art movements, one of my major disappointments has always been the significant women artists of previous movements who were not given much exposure when they first came into their own. Helen Frankenthaler is one of them, because she was a colleague of major figures of Abstract Expressionism Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), and Robert Motherwell (1915–1991). She is considered part of the “second generation” of Abstract Expressionism. Since the 1960s, of course, she established her own reputation as a pioneer American modernist, and her work no longer needs to be connected by art historians to the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, as if that movement was the do-all end-all moment in American modernism. In 1960 the poet Frank O’Hara organized the first retrospective of her work at the Jewish Museum in New York. Hence, I salute her body of work in this tribute to Jewish American Heritage Month.

Frankenthaler was born and raised in New York. She was a pupil of Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), a German Bauhaus artist who immigrated to New York and opened his own school to teach the principles of abstraction, as well as Bauhaus ideas of how to integrate fine art into design. Frankenthaler’s earliest work was influenced by Cubism. When she met Pollock, her work lost its cubist tendencies and she produced abstractions with thick paint built up. A trip to Nova Scotia in 1952 helped change her views on abstraction. She sketched landscapes in watercolor and the wash-like character of watercolor was translated to oils and acrylics on canvas. She was a pioneer of the technique of staining unprimed canvas.

Her stained canvas paintings that hinted at landscape yielded in the 1960s to works that were large, simple fields of color. While Frankenthaler’s intention may have been to depict a literal subject, her main concern was form, with spatial dynamics. The simple fields of color evolved into contrasts of positive and negative space, such as Silent Curtain. In her prints, Frankenthaler mimics the concerns of Abstract Expressionism with texture, while exploring the idea of contrasts of emptiness and shape. In a series of prints on different subjects, Frankenthaler explored mundane activity. This piece by the artist leads one naturally to assume, values and objects are not of primary importance. What is important is contrast of positive and negative space. At this point she experimented with prints to show this contrast, often with the positive forms surrounding the blank central area. In this work, she presents the reverse. The forms are reminiscent of her stain paintings, but the subject matter, while abstract, is more recognizable.

Studio activity: An abstract everyday form. Use a piece of brown craft paper, as Frankenthaler did, and white chalk or pastel. Select a simple subject from everyday life and express it in the simplest way possible that suggests its qualities: a white window curtain, white sheets on an outside laundry line, a piece of white paper blown around in the wind, or a white flag waving in the breeze. Give it either expressive qualities or calm qualities. Either isolate the subject on the paper or create a rudimentary background using the same medium. Experiment with the white medium to create highlights that suggest sunlight surrounding the object you decide to draw.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 6.31; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 8.2; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 6, 7; The Visual Experience: 9.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.3

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Simplified Landscape

Warren Rohrer (1927–1995, US), Untitled (May 23, 1981), 1981. Conté crayon on wove paper, 48.3 x 66.7 cm (19" x 26 1/4"). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © Estate of Warren Rohrer. (PMA-4038)
The genre of the simplified (abstracted) landscape has been around a loooonnnnnng time. In particular, I think of the dreamy, suggestive landscapes of Chinese artists from as early as the Song dynasty (960–1079 ce). However, I never tire of introducing an artist whose work I’ve seen for the first time who just strikes a different cord in my appreciation of art. My own landscapes tend to be representational, but I still appreciate a strikingly different take on landscape. No matter how different the approach stylistically, I always feel that all landscapes are a response from the artist’s taking joy in nature. What better way to celebrate the advent of May than with a gorgeous landscape?

As is true with many landscape artists, Warren Rohrer was creating works of art that expressed his response to the natural world, not necessarily a precise map of a specific place, as is seen in Hudson River School artists. Rohrer, a ninth generation native of Pennsylvania, chose as his subject matter the landscape of the area in which he grew up (Lancaster County). Raised as a Mennonite, he opted to study art rather than become a farmer. He studied art at Penn State University. Early in his study of art he painted outdoors, eventually developing a grid-like approach to depicting a landscape.

The grid technique gradually evolved into this heavily layered technique. This work reflects the luminous nature of his landscapes of the 1980s. His use of conté crayon on textured wove paper is reminiscent of the experiments of Georges Seurat (1859–1891) to simulate luminous aspects in nature. This untitled May landscape definitely defines a foreground, middleground and background.

Here are some other artists’ works that remind me of Rohrer’s, whether they were influenced by landscape or not:

Studio Activity: An abstract landscape. Using rough-textured paper and colored chalks or crayons, create a landscape of a familiar place devoid of any fussy detail. Reduce it either to basic geometric shapes or layers of texture. It can be either horizontally or vertically oriented, but be sure to avoid any physical details such as individual trees, bushes, or grass. The landscape can start with a grid, or a series of abstract shapes that merge together.

Correlations to Davis programs: Exploration in Art Grade 1: 4.21; Exploration in Art Grade 2: 1.4; Exploration in Art Grade 4: 1.5, 4.22; Exploration in Art Grade 5: 6.32; A Personal Journey: 5.4; A Community Connection: 4.2, 4.4 studio time; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 5, 6, 8