Monday, September 28, 2015

A Bridge

Jasper Johns (born 1930, US), Green Target, 1955. Encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas, 60" x 60" (152.4 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (MOMA-P1929jovg)

The impression a reader gets from some surveys of art history, unfortunately, is that one artistic movement ends and another picks up in a totally different direction. We know this is not true when we see, for example, how classicist realism persisted in painting long after Impressionism hit the scene in the 1870s. The same is true with “movements” in modernism. The more I learn about some artists the more I question the convenient categories into which they are often pigeon-holed. Many of the artists who pioneered abstraction in the early 1900s began their careers painting in either an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist style, because by that time, Impressionism had become almost institutionalized. The same goes for Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s in America. By the mid- to late 1950s it was practically academic in its dominance over modernism. Artists who eventually explored other forms of modernism in reaction to Abstract Expressionism were unavoidably influenced by it when they were developing their mature styles.

Jasper Johns is perhaps most famous for his paintings and prints that feature images of the American flag or target, both obviously potent symbols of American culture (next to the dollar sign, I guess). This connects him to Pop Art’s explorations of representational imagery that emerged in the very late 1950s and early 1960s. But, I have just recently found it unfortunate that Johns’s name is so frequently only associated with Pop Art. Like many artists, Johns’s body of work is incredibly varied and complex, and I find it a bit irritating to merely link him to Pop Art because he used aspects of mundane American culture as subject matter.

Johns was born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina. He studied art at the University of South Carolina and Parsons School in New York in 1948. After service during the Korean War (1950–1953), Johns returned to New York, where he met another seminal artist of Pop Art: Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008). He and Rauschenberg, who was already using gestural painting as part of his work, formed a close association, inspiring and influencing one another’s art until 1961. 

Rauschenberg ushered Johns into the art scene in New York, at the time dominated by Abstract Expressionism. The two artists worked together closely until the early 1960s, both acquiring from Abstract Expressionism the brush work of action painting, but little else. Little by little their work moved away from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Of major impact on both their bodies of work was a viewing of the Surrealist and Dada works, particularly the found object works ("readymades") of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1958. Johns's work expanded as he incorporated the painting technique of Abstract Expressionism and the incorporation of banal everyday objects into it.

These paintings from Johns’s early mature work show how he combined Abstract Expressionism’s painterly surface with something that was anathema to the Abstract Expressionists: reference to everyday objects or symbols. Ironically, Johns’s titles—“Flag,” “Numbers,” “Target,” and the like—do not leave the impression of any literary, symbolic, or romantic intent, even more anathema to Abstract Expressionists. They are merely convenient vehicles to contrast with the beautiful painterly surface. What I like the most about these early works is that, unlike the American flag, the reference to American culture does not hit the viewer over the head, it is so subtle. I am, no doubt, not the first art historian to consider Johns’s importance to lie in his being a bridge from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. Interesting fact, make of it what you will: Johns once stated that he conceived of the American flag subject after dreaming about painting it.

Other “bridge” works: 

Tango, 1955. Oil and encaustic on canvas, 42 7/8" x 55 1/8" (109 x 140 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-27041jovg)

Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Mixed-media, 64 15/16" x 53 15/16" (165 x 137 cm). Collection of the Artist. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-27050jovg)

False Start, 1962. Lithograph on paper, 18" x 13 3/4" (45.7 x 34.9 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2015 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-2200jovg)

I personally love Johns’s lithographs, because I remember from school the joy of working with a litho stone and the textural possibilities involved. Lithography was a favorite medium of Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), one of the “action painters” of Abstract Expressionism. Look at how fluid de Kooning’s lithograph is! I’ve seen one of his lithographs in which he used a floor mop as a “brush!” 

Willem de Kooning (1904–1997, US, born Netherlands), The Preacher, 1971. Lithograph on paper, 29 15/16" x 22 7/16" (76 x 57 cm). Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH. © 2015 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BIAA-44kgars)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 4 6.35, 6.35-36 studio; Explorations in Art 6 5.25; A Community Connection 6.2, 8.4; Experience Painting 7; Experience Printmaking 6; Exploring Painting 12; Exploring Visual Design 6, 8, 10; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History 17.1, 17.2

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gently Waft into Fall

Elizabeth Otis Boott Duveneck (1846–1888, US), Autumn Foliage, 1882. Oil on wood, 35 15/16" x 10" (91.3 x 25.4 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-3527A)
Since I don’t know many people who enjoy seeing summer end, I use the words “gently waft” instead of “fall” for this post. What better way to mark—not celebrate—the end of summer than with a beautiful work of art celebrating the major splendor of fall: Nature. So many artists who often exist under the radar, and so little time… Elizabeth Boott was the wife of the Dark Impressionist painter Frank Duveneck (1848–1919). Her paintings are beautiful, especially her nature paintings and landscapes. They don’t have all that Baroque-inspired tenebrism of her husband, but the delicacy of her work really is a beautiful counterpoint to her tragically premature death.

Being a woman of independent means from a wealthy Boston family, Lizzie Boott Duveneck was able to pursue seriously a profession as a painter. She initially trained under William Morris Hunt (1824–1879), an American Barbizon painter—a group of painters who emulated the realist landscape paintings of the French Barbizon painters near Fontainebleau outside of Paris. Barbizon painting emphasized authenticity in depictions of nature, and ambient light gleaned often from painting outdoors, a radical new practice. Hunt had begun the first ever classes for women artists in Boston in 1868. She then trained with the Barbizon landscapist Thomas Couture (1815–1879) in Paris, and briefly with her future husband Frank Duveneck in Munich.

The relationship between Duveneck and Boott lasted for most of a decade. Boott convinced Duveneck to move to Florence, where she lived with her father, and encouraged him to try to enter works in the official Salon in Paris. I think she actually managed to get Duveneck to lighten his palette from his Dark Impressionist style seen in his Munich paintings of the 1870s, particularly portraits. Lizzie’s style was light struck, delicate, and celebratory of nature. Although her first show of oils was in Boston, she also exhibited in Florence and Paris, particularly her watercolors.

Here is the complete set of panels, probably meant for decoration in dining or drawing room door panels. 

All five panels together at the Brooklyn Museum: Autumn Foliage, Rhododendrons, Apple Blossoms, Rhododendrons and Poppies. © Brooklyn Museum (BMA-3527)

Duveneck’s isolated flower paintings remind me of the work of Fidelia Bridges (1834–1923), another Massachusetts native trained in the same realist vein. Bridges painted in the influence of the American Pre-Raphaelites who were fanatical about accurate detail in depictions of nature. Her work is a little less lyrical than Lizzie’s. There’s something very monumental and classical about her work. 

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

I’m also including in this ode to autumn Alma Thomas, not because she’s underappreciated, but because I love her colors. Also, I think she has a fascinating history: in 1924 she was the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s new major in art; she taught art in grade school in Washington, DC for 35 years; she went from photo realism to abstraction in her late 50s; and she only started seriously exhibiting her work in her 70s! She went through the color field painting style briefly under the influence of then-current Abstract Expressionism. However, her fascination with nature—particularly the leaves rustling in the window outside her windows—led her to her mosaic-style color field paintings that are absolutely the hallmark of her work. 

Alma Thomas (1891–1978, US), Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 57 15/16" x 50" (147.3 x 127 cm). Photo © The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. (PC-556) 
Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 4.20, 4.connections; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.2, 1.3, 1-2 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6 5.25; A Community Connection: 5.4, 6.2, 8.4; Experience Painting: 5, 6; Exploring Painting: 7, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.2, 16.4, 16.7

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Consistent Concretist

Carmen Herrera (US, born 1915 Cuba), Untitled, 1952. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 25" x 60" (63.5 x 152.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Carmen Herrera. (MOMA-P5120)

I recently learned about an artist who turned 100 this past may. Turning 100 is fabulous, and even more fabulous is discovering that this artist was ahead of her time stylistically in painting, but did not sell her first painting until she was 89! Unlike Alma Thomas, who began painting when she retired from teaching, Carmen Herrera painted steadily for 60 years before she started gaining international attention in the early 2000s. I’m not sure if the word “concretist” is real (my spell-check says it isn’t), but it’s as good a word as any to describe Herrera’s work.

Long before World War II (1939–1945), the great De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) sought to redefine abstract art as “concrete art,” because he felt that the term “abstract” denigrated non-objective work when discussed in terms of “reduction” or “simplification.” He indicated that there was nothing more concrete than pure, non-objective art. The geometric, minimalist abstraction pioneered by the De Stijl artists and some artists from the Bauhaus, such as Josef Albers (1888–1976), did not disappear after World War II, when Abstract Expressionism and its European counterparts, l’Art Informel and Tâchisme, dominated modernist experiment. It persisted in the work of artists like Carmen Herrera.

Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, was one of the post-war Latin American modernists concerned with geometric, minimalist, and optic abstraction in painting and sculpture. Some Latin American artists—who exhibited in both Europe and their own countries—formed groups dedicated to abstraction such as Los Disidentes (Venezuela), Grupo Madi (Argentina), and the Concretists (Brazil). Herrera went back and forth between Paris and Cuba during the 1930s and 1940s, having originally studied architecture at the University of Havana. She studied at the Art Students League in New York between 1949 and 1953, where she was affected by the work of other geometric minimalists, such as Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), and Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923).

Herrera painted this work while at the Art Students League, right before she settled into her studio near Union Square in 1954, in which she still paints to this day. Compared the the action painting dominating the New York art scene at the time, Herrera’s paintings seem to bridge the geometric minimalism of pre-World War II European painting with the Op Art and Minimalism of the 1960s. Even a lot of Barnett Newman’s geometric abstraction is not as beautifully precise as Herrera’s. (She was good friends with Newman and his wife.)

Herrera’s stated purpose in her work is to condense her forms to the simplest, most refined state possible. Recent works feature single colors, sometimes contrasting with unpainted areas of canvas.

I’ll show you four other artists who worked in a similar vein to Herrera around the same time period, with one exception. The first two artists were also geometric minimalists whose work may have impacted Herrera’s direction:

Anni Albers (1899–1994 Germany-US), Wall Hanging, designed 1927. Cotton and silk, 58 1/4" x 47 5/8" (148 x 121 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0133alars)

Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996, US), Untitled, 1946. Gouache on cardboard, 24" x 16" (61 x 40.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Leon Polk Smith Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-18373lpvg)

And here are two artists usually associated with minimalist-optical geometric abstraction, but mostly in the 1960s:

Victor Vasarely (1908–1997, Hungary-France), Gerode III, 1956. Oil on canvas, 70" x 40" (177.8 x 101.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2015 Estate of Victor Vasarely / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-2241vsars)

Frank Stella (born 1936, US), Fez (2). Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 77" x 77" (195.6 x 195.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2015 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P3109slars)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 3.15, 3.16, 3.Connections; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Community Connection: 6.2, 8.4; A Global Pursuit: 5.5; Experience Painting: 9; Exploring Painting: 12; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 9, 11, 12; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 16.7

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Thailand, Ayutthaya, Fragmentary colossal Head of the Buddha, from the temple precinct of Wat Phra Mahathat, between 1374 and 1388/1395. Photo © Davis Art Images. (8S-10313)

The look on the Buddha’s face of serenity is probably what some of us acquired after having a three-day weekend for Labor Day. But, this image intrigued me because—as is the case with every religion on the planet that produces images of their deity, from one culture to the next—the differences in style are simply fascinating. The historical dates for the Buddha are ca. 563–483 BCE.

This colossal Buddha head fragment at Wat Phra Mahathat (Monastery of the Great Relic) in Ayutthaya, at one time the capital of Thailand for 417 years (1350–1767), is my favorite of the many Buddha images there, even more than the famous Buddha head being gobbled up by tree roots. Although Ayutthaya fell into neglect starting in the eighteenth century, these Buddha heads are still considered holy, of course. If this interpretation of the Buddha’s wisdom, serenity, and grace is not the epitome of those qualities, then I don’t know what is. Amazingly, there is no single style to the Buddha statues at Wat Mahathat, but this one certainly stands out with its curling mouth.

Buddhism came to Thailand during the 200s BCE when the ruler Asoka (304–232 BCE) in India sent missionary monks there. The earliest extant art works depicting the Buddha are sculpture coming from northern India and Pakistan from the 100s CE. The practice of producing Buddha’s image proliferated quickly throughout the lands where Buddhism spread.

China, Head of the Buddha, ca. 700 CE .Sandstone, 9 5/8" x 5 1/2" (24.5 x 14 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-669)
Although there had been persecutions of Buddhists between the 400s and 800s CE in China, Buddhism flourished once again during the Tang Dynasty (ca. 618–906 CE).  One of the best proofs of that is the sculptures of the Buddha that date from that period. Tang sculptors set a standard of elegance, grace, and beauty for the face of the Buddha that established the iconography for depictions of Buddha throughout the rest of Chinese art history.

The slightly round, feminine quality of Tang Buddhist sculpture, which was transmitted to Japanese sculpture as well, is sometimes to referred to as the “Tang standard of beauty.” This example is particularly interesting in the hair style. Instead of the repeated row of snail shapes for hair, this Buddha’s hair is arranged almost like a garland of flowers. It may be a Chinese interpretation of the Greek-influenced wavy hair of Gandharan Buddhas.

Buddhist monks reached China by 217 BCE via monks sent from India, but the religion did not take a major foothold there until the Northern Wei period (386–535 CE). Tradition says that Buddhism was introduced to China during the reign of the emperor Han Ming Di (58–75 CE) after he had a dream of a flying golden man. The earliest dated Buddhist image comes from around 338 CE. It is a gilt bronze sculpture in the Indian Gandharan style.

Pakistan or Afghanistan, Head of the Buddha, 300s to 400s CE. Painted stucco, 17 5/8" x 13 3/4" x 13 3/4" (44.8 x 34.9 x 34.9 cm). © Art Institute of Chicago. (AIC-322)

This head of the Buddha shows an interesting transition from the Hellenized Gandharan style of northern India and Pakistan to a more Chinese-inspired style. It displays the severely arched brow and an interpretation of wavy Greek-influenced hair, although the waves seem to be evolving into the snail shapes seen in later versions of the Buddha. The facial features have definitely evolved from the “Apollo”-type Gandharan versions.

Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE) conquered lands in central Asia that bordered northern India in 327 BCE. He was trying to wipe out all vestiges of the Persian Empire.  During the time of the Roman Empire (flourished 27 BCE–ca. 453 CE), these lands became Roman colonies that sat on the western end of the “Silk Road” to China. Another early Indian dynasty, the Kushan (flourished ca. 50–320 CE) of northern India, traded with the Roman colonies and thus was transmitted the Roman version of the classical sculptural style.

As the Greek sphere of influence declined, the Aryans pushed their way back north from Bihar into Afghanistan. This was the beginning of one of India’s greatest dynasties, the Mauryan Empire (ca. 322–175 BCE). Reaching as far south as Mysore, the Mauryans conquered nearly the whole subcontinent. The great king of the time, Asoka (reigned 268–232 BCE), turned his attention from war to Buddhism and became as tireless a missionary as he had been a conqueror. Asoka brought Buddhism to much of central Asia.

Pakistan, Head of the Buddha, from the Gandhara region, ca. 200s CE. Schist, 7" x 4" x 3" (17.8 x 10.2 x 7.6 cm). © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2971)

Ever see an image of the Buddha with a mustache?

After the collapse of the Mauryan dynasty (ca. 185 BCE), India broke into several local power centers each vying for supremacy and troubled by harrassment by northern peoples. One of these, the Kushan, had left the western borders of China (called Yuezhi by the Chinese). The Kushan entered India through Afghanistan in the first one hundred years BCE. They had already displaced the Persians in the lands once conquered by Alexander the Great. After establishing a dynasty in India, the Kushans established trade with Roman colonies.

Two significant styles developed between the 100s and 400s CE, the art of Gandhara (now Pakistan) and the art of Mathura (far to the south and east). It was during the Kushan period when the first sculpted images of the Buddha were produced. Because there were no Buddhist figural images before contact with Western cultures, Roman and Hellenistic forms gave shape to sculptures of bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

Gandhara-type Buddhas typically have an oval face, arching high brow, and broad nose. The wavy hair, tied in a ribbon, was a Greek style, as seen in the Vatican's Apollo Belvedere. This fashion detail gradually became the symbolic top knot on the Buddha's head, which was a symbol of his wisdom. The mustache is an Indian characteristic, as is the caste mark on the forehead. Gandhara Buddhist figures had a profound influence on subsequent images of the Buddha. Ironically, in the 500s CE, in the region where the sculpted image of the Buddha was born, an invasion by Huns stamped out Buddhism forever.

Gade (born 1971, Tibet), Manuscript Sheet with Buddha, Christ, an Islamic Figure, and Mao, 2004. Mixed-media on paper, 5 3/4" x 20" (14.6 x 50.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2015 Gade. (PMA-3514)
The Tibetan artist Gade has combined several historical styles of Buddha in his painting, a pseudo-manuscript page fragment. Historical images of the Buddha usually depicted the Buddha’s eyes downcast in meditation. Gade has chosen the Ghandaran style of wide-open eyes. Gade imitates and practices techniques of classical Tibetan painting, including the modeling of figures. He has always wanted to locate traditional Tibetan art in a contemporary context. In this way his work envisions the tradition separated from religion. Although this piece presents religious figures from three of the world’s major religions, his inclusion of Mao Tse Tung has offended Buddhists, particularly because of the brutal suppression of Tibetan monasteries under China’s “Cultural Revolution.” Gade believes his Chinese father resembles Mao, and both men came from Hunan Province.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1-2 studio; 3-4 studio; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1; A Global Pursuit: 3.5, 4.5; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 10.2, 13.2, 13.3, 13.4; Discovering Art History: 4.2, 4.3