Thursday, March 31, 2016

It Isn’t Just Wood

James Prestini (1908–1993, US), Bowl, ca. 1939. Mexican mahogany, height: 5 7/8” (15 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of James Prestini. (MOMA-D0119)
The American revolution in modernism in the mid-1900s was not confined to painting and sculpture alone (i.e., Abstract Expressionism). Aside from the New York School’s exploring the question of process over object, many schools of artists developed in the late 1940s that questioned the traditional concepts of various art forms. These groups included the ceramics-as-fine-art artists such as Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), and the fine woodworking movement that emerged in America during the post-World War II (1939–1945) period from coast to coast.

James Prestini is considered one of the “fathers of the modern woodworking movement” in America. He was influenced by the work of his father, an Italian stonecutter, and by the Bauhaus aesthetic of applying the elements and principles of fine art to utilitarian objects. He obtained degrees in mechanical engineering from Yale, the University of Stockholm (where he was exposed to Scandanavian modernism of the 1930s), and the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1939, a “Bauhaus West” of sorts where Bauhaus alumni Mies van der Rohe and Moholy-Nagy both taught.

Between 1933 and 1953, Prestini produced hundreds of thin-walled, lathe-turned bowls in a variety of rich hardwoods. Part of the beauty of his work is the perfection of form in the simplest of terms. The refined surfaces of his pieces often mimic the finish of glass or ceramic. These pieces really do bring the beauty of art to everyday utility.

Hap Sakwa (born 1950, US), Vessel, 1979. Manzanita burl, 3 1/2" x 9 3/4" (8.9 x 24.8 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2016 Hap Sakwa. (PMA-6906)
Hap Sakwa, born in Los Angeles, was inspired at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 to become a decorative arts artist. In 1972 he settled in southern California where he was influenced by two major figures of the American Studio Furniture movement, Bob Stocksdale and Art Carpenter.

Sakwa began producing lathe-turned vessels and carved figurative sculpture from native California root burls. Like many of the artists of the American Studio Furniture movement, Sakwa’s designs walk a fine line between sculpture and utilitarian vessels. In 1977 the artist was featured in an early issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine.

William Hunter (born 1947, US), Kinetic Rhythms #1277, 1997. Lathe-turned and carved Cocobolo rosewood. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2016 William Hunter. (MIN-71)

One of the major schools of modern woodworking is Northern California that emerged during the late 1940s. These artists came from many fine arts colleges in California, many of them specializing in hand-made furniture with a modern aesthetic produced in fine woods. These early artists extended the range of fine woodworking to encompass not only other utilitarian art objects, but also fine art.

William Hunter is a sculptor who creates organic forms in lathe-turned wood. With degrees as varied as an AA in Fire Science and a BA in Sociology, Hunter was a self-taught woodworking artist. His first show of his turned works was in 1970, at the height of the fine art woodworking movement. His sculpture uses the vessel—one of humanity’s oldest forms—as his vehicle of expression. Hunter’s lathe-turned forms—subtractive sculpture—emulate organic growth without depicting a particular plant or shell, or a specific narrative.

John Cederquist (born 1946, US), Pipe Dream chest of drawers, 1998. Cut and constructed Baltic birch plywood, maple, aniline dye, epoxy resin. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2016 John Cederquist. (MIN-69B)

Born in Altadena, Cederquist is one of the many prominent artists of the California branch of the contemporary woodworking movement. He has a BA in art and an MA in crafts from California State University at Long Beach.

Cederquist’s earliest involvement in the woodworking movement came in the design of furniture in the prevailing aesthetic of the 1970s, which emphasized anthropomorphic forms that stressed the qualities of the wood. This early furniture was heavily influenced by Wendell Castle. By the late 1980s, however, fascinated by the ideas of perspective and the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface, he began to explore trompe-l’oeil imagery in the context of furniture and wooden assemblages. This chest of drawers is a great example of his trompe-l’oeil work.

Wendell Castle (born 1932, US), Settee, 1979. Cherry wood, 36" x 58" x 24" (91.4 x 147.3 x 61 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © 2016 Wendell Castle. (MFAB-494)
Born in Emporia, Kansas, Castle earned a BFA in sculpture and an MFA in industrial design from the University of Kansas. He taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology (1962–1969) and then opened the Wendell Castle School in 1980. This school, now incorporated into the furniture making program at RIT, was a non-profit education institution offering instruction in fine art woodworking and furniture design.

Castle has been at the forefront of innovative contemporary American furniture design for more than five decades. His works are characterized by organic forms from nature that Castle believes are a natural source for furniture design. As a pioneer of the American Studio Furniture movement, he pioneered a sculpture technique of laminated, stacked wood which he then carved into organic forms. He has also pioneered a process of carving fiberglass to make furniture.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.Studio35-36; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.Studio23-24; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 3.2, 5.2, 8.4, 9.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience: 10.2, 12.4, 16.7, 16.10; Discovering Art History: 2.2

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Something Beautiful for March

Edward Steichen (1879–1973, US, born Luxembourg), Mary Pickford, March, 1924. Gelatin silver print on paper, 9 7/16" x 7 1/2" (24.1 x 19.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum. © 2016 Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (BMA-4611stnars)

Instead of showing a painting of daffodils blooming or March winds and rain, I’d like to look at one of my favorite photographers, who just happened to take this photograph in March. It probably wasn’t cold or snowy outside when Steichen took this portrait in Hollywood, but, it sure does put beauty and glamour into a month that can sometimes be dreary. And besides, seeing how some people attending the Oscars dressed at the end of February, we need a little shot of demure elegance and sophistication instead of “leaving nothing to the imagination.”

Mary Pickford (1892–1979, Canada) is a perfect subject for Steichen’s style of portraiture (and, yes, she won an Oscar in 1929 for Coquette). No doubt the melodramatic nature of silent movies was perfectly suited to a Pictorialist aesthetic in Steichen's portraiture of the 1920s. With the dramatic lighting, soft-focus, and doe-eyed, sanguine poses, Steichen set a standard in Hollywood portrait photography that continues to the present day, more or less.

Pictorialism ("art photography") did not become popular in the United States until the 1890s. Photographers who worked in the Pictorialist style believed that their photographs came the closest to the aesthetic ideals of painting, this at a time when photographers struggled to get the medium accepted as “fine art”. These aims were achieved through the choice of romantic, sentimental, or allegorical subject matter; careful staging; careful and often dramatic lighting; and generally soft focus. Steichen, who began his career as painter, was an archetypal Pictorialist photographer from around 1895 to 1914.

Steichen arrived with his family in the US at the age of 3. At 16 he had bought a camera, producing soft-focus, self-consciously artistic work. At 19 his photographs were accepted into the Second Philadelphia Salon of Pictorial Photography. All that time he was an aspiring painter, as well, and resolved to go to Paris to study it. On his way there he met Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the greatest American photographer at the time and advocate of artistic photographer.

Steichen helped Stieglitz found the Photo-Secession group dedicated to that style, and its dependent gallery "291." While studying painting in Paris, he decided to abandon it entirely for photography. Exposure to the Tonalist paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903, United States) and the French Impressionists while in Paris confirmed his Pictorialist style.

Although Steichen had abandoned painting, he styled many of his photographs—in both composition and technique—as paintings would be. Soft-focus, softly lit, asymmetrical compositions typified his poetic style. His Pictorialism was curtailed when he served as an aerial photographer for the American Expeditionary Force during World War I (1914–1918). He was forced to give up his soft tonalities for straight edge, sharp focus photography.

Steichen returned to the US in 1922 and established a studio in New York that specialized in advertising photography. Sharp, crisp imagery was important in that field. However, he was able to combine that style with the Pictorialist sensibilities in the photography he ultimately did for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines—fashion photography and portraits of movie stars and famous personalities.      

Edward Steichen (1879–1973, US born Luxembourg), Greta Garbo, 1928. Gelatin silver print on paper, 16 9/16" x 13 3/16" (42.1 x 33.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2016 Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-P0306stnars)

This is one of six shots Steichen took of the famous actress Greta Garbo (1905–1990, Sweden-US) while she was filming. No doubt the fact that she had just filmed a scene in which her character's husband had committed suicide contributed to the drama of her poses, which Steichen's Pictorialist style freezes magnificently in time.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Community Connection: 7.2, 7.4; Exploring Visual Design: 9; Focus on Photography: 2, 3, 5; The Visual Experience: 9.5, 16.6

Friday, March 18, 2016

National Women’s History Month

Poland, Portrait of Queen Anna Jagiellon, ca. 1586. Oil and tempera on wood panel. © Czartoryski Museum, Cracow, Poland. (8S-5778)
To celebrate National Women’s History Month I would like to introduce you to a woman who is not in many history books about Europe. However, she played a very important role in her home country of Poland at a time that was crucial in Polish history. Additionally, she was a massive patron of the arts.

Poland’s long history, like that of many of the lands in the post-Roman Empire world, was fraught with divisions, takeovers, and territorial partitioning up until the 1800s. Poland’s establishment as a kingdom is traditionally linked to the Piast dynasty established ca. 966 CE by Mieszko I, the first ruler of the Polanie mentioned in written records.

Although Polish rulers tried to establish Poland as a major north-central European power in the Western mode, it was made difficult by the constant interference of the popes, the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia, and later Russia. Between the late 1300s and mid-1400s, Poland realized a period of relative autonomy and power with its partnership with Lithuania. The long reign of Casimir IV (1447–1492) marked the age of one of the new monarchies of Western Europe. Poland became involved in international affairs, and by the end of the 1400s, Casimir’s heirs were elected kings of Hungary and Bohemia, and grand duke of Lithuania.

Into the “golden age” of the period of the Sigismunds came Anna Jagiellon (1523–1586). She was the daughter of Casimir IV’s youngest son, King Sigismund I the Old (reigned 1506–1548). On the death of her brother Sigismund II (reigned 1548–1572), who had no heirs, Anna became the first woman to be the monarch of Poland. In the days when who ruled a country often was determined by the stupid idea of arranged marriages between ruling families, Anna married (1576) later in life to Stephen Bathory (1533–1586), Prince of Transylvania, who became her co-regent.
While queen, Anna was responsible for ushering in the Northern Renaissance into Poland. She sponsored several major building projects, including the Royal Castle in Warsaw. This portrait, very possibly the work of a German or British artist, depicts a strong, independent woman whose reign and family were responsible for effecting a closer relationship between Poland and Western Europe.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade: 3 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, Studio 1-2; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 1.1, 1.2, Studio 1-2; A Community Connection: 6.2; A Global Pursuit: 4.4; Experience Painting: 2, 6; Exploring Painting: 4, 6; The Visual Experience: 9.3, 15.9

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


I vaguely (I’m lying) remember the word “mod” used during the late 1960s to describe anything that was slightly “edgy” (I hate that word) and “hip.” It encompassed everything from hippie-inspired garb to International Style furniture. It also included all sorts of modern design that displayed anything other than a conventional aesthetic. Here are some classic mod textile designs from a period when I imagine they would have been featured in a shop on Carnaby Street (THE mod street in London during the late 60s for avant-garde everything).

The textiles displayed in this post were all produced by Heal’s, a venerable furniture/interior design/textile design company in London that’s been around since 1810, but has never hesitated to break the mold when it came to contemporary design. In the second decade of the 1800s, they introduced feather-filled mattresses into Britain. This replaced the centuries-old practice of straw mattresses. I’ve slept on a straw mattress, and it isn’t conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep.

In the 1830s, Heal’s was one of the first firms to place advertisements in the book jackets of serialized novels (such as those of Charles Dickens). In 1917 they started the Mansard Gallery in their store on Tottenham Court Road in London as a venue to see avant-garde art. This gallery was the first to feature the work of Modigliani in Britain.

Soon after 1933, Heal’s began to exhibit pieces of distinctly radical Bauhaus designs, including pieces such as the Barcelona furniture of Mies van der Rohe. During World War II (1939–1945) they produced parachutes for the war effort, leading to the introduction of Heal’s Fabrics. By the mid-1950s, they were marketing designs in such progressive styles as Mid-Century Modern, International Style, Scandinavian, and ultimately the coolest of mod designs, Pop Art and Op Art.

Here are some examples from their mod period:

Barbara Brown (born 1932, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Frequency textile, 1969. Printed, textured plain weave cotton, 55 1/2" x 48 1/2" (141 x 123.2 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6285)

Brown was the most high-profile designer of the period for Heal’s, starting in the early 1960s. Many of her designs from that period reflected Op Art. This push-pull illusion was a hallmark of Op Art. 

Althea McNish (born 1930s, Trinidad) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Caribe textile, 1962. Printed unbalance plain weave cotton, 38 1/2" x 48" (97.8 x 121.9 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6292)

McNish was the first British designer with African roots to gain an international reputation for her textile designs. This design definitely displays the influence of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), one of her declared influences.

John Plumb (born 1927, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Chiricahua  textile, 1960–1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 50" x 45 1/2" (127 x 115.6 cm)  Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6295)

Although Britain didn’t have its own post-war abstract school, this textile totally reminds me of the gestural wing of Abstract Expressionism in the US.

Evelyn Redgrave (born ca. 1944, Britain) for Heal’s (1810 to present, Britain), Stipple textile, 1969. Printed cotton plain weave, 52 ½" x 49 7/16" (133.4 x 125.7 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6299)

Redgrave was another mid-century designer whose Op Art textile designs gained an international reputation. This piece really reminds me of the paintings of Victor Vasarely (1906–1997).

Arno Thoner (born 1940s, Netherlands) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London),  Undulation textile, 1966(?). Printed cotton plain weave, 47 1/4" x 48 3/4" (120 x 123.8 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6315)

Op Art-inspired designs like this (it reminds me of Richard Anuszkiewicz paintings) were hot and “mod” until the first half of the 1970s. 

Daan van Golden (born 1936, Netherlands) for Heal’s (1810 to present, London), Rhythm textile, ca. 1962–1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 53" x 50" (134.6 x 127 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6316)

One of the many influences in Golden’s exciting designs was Abstract Expressionism. That influence is clear in this textile. It reminds me of a Willem de Kooning lithograph that he put on the litho stone with a floor mop!

Zandra Rhodes (born 1940, Britain), Textile, ca. 1965. Printed cotton plain weave, 23 1/4" x 23 1/4" (59.1 x 59.1 cm). Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6313)

Rhodes designed really awesome New Wave fashions in the early 1980s. For the mid-1960s, this textile is pretty forward looking, combining elements of Pop Art and the random abstraction of the Abstraction-Création group of the late 1950s.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art Grade 6: 4.Studio 23-24; A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; A Community Connection: 5.2; A Global Pursuit: 9.4; Exploring Visual Design: 11; The Visual Experience: 10.8, 12.4, 16.7; Discovering Art History: 2.2