Wednesday, August 10, 2016

August Artist Birthday to Recognize

Hedda Sterne (1910–2011, born August 4, Hedwig Lindenberg, Romania), Alaska I, 1958. Oil on canvas, 71" x 110" (180.3 x 279.4 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2016 Hedda Sterne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-697snars)

Give credit where credit is due, I always say. Sadly, that isn’t something a lot of art history texts do when it comes to women artists. For instance, there were many women practicing some form of abstraction already in the 1930s, when the Great Depression sort of slumped the interest in art from “something new and exciting” to Social Realism. Several women, such as Gertrude Greene (1904–1956), helped found the group American Abstract Artists (1936) which championed abstraction in a period when it was being largely ignored. Hedda Sterne is another artist who worked in abstraction from early in her career. Since her birthday was the 4th of August, let’s (unofficially) call this “Hedda Sterne Month.” She’s such an interesting artist!

New York, VIII, 1954. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 72 1/8" x 42" (183.2 x 106.76 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. (MOMA-P1682snars)
It is evident (to me, anyway), that these beautiful two paintings have an innate sense of depth in them, even though I would call them abstracted. What is so fascinating about these two works is that I can see the subject of the title in them. I can totally see a snowstorm obscuring the horizon on Alaska I and I can really get a sense of the buildings of New York through a window in New York VIII. It is one of the works in a style she called “vertical-horizontals”. Perhaps this is why Hedda Sterne usually did not refer to her intuitive painting as “abstract.” This probably stems from her background in Surrealism, which gives greater weight to the reality of inner vision, than observed fact.

Born in Bucharest, Romania, Sterne trained in art there and later in Vienna. In the 1930s painter Victor Brauner (1903–1966) introduced her to the Surrealists, and later in that decade she began to exhibit her paintings with them. Many of her works of the 1930s include dream-like figuration or disembodied heads on abstract backgrounds. In 1941 Sterne escaped a round-up of Jews in Bucharest and escaped to New York.

In New York, Sterne became part of a community of refugee European modernist artists, befriending Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976), and Mondrian (1872–1944), among others. It was this group of diverse European modernists who helped stimulate American artists prone to modernism into forming Abstract Expressionism, the first modernist movement indigenous to the US.

Sterne became represented by the wonderful Betty Parson (1900–1982) in her gallery in New York, Sterne joined the circle of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism also represented there: Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Mark Rothko (1903–1970), and Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967). It is perhaps for this reason that Sterne is sometimes labeled an Abstract Expressionist.

Sterne, along with 17 Abstract Expressionists, including all the “stars” of the movement, wrote an open letter to the Met in 1951 objecting to its refusal to show modern art. This group of artists became known as the “Irascibles,” and Stern was the only woman in the photograph of the artists by Nina Leen (1909–1995, a fashion photographer mostly) that appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refusal to exhibit modern art was the result of a 1921 exhibit of “modern art” from Europe, featuring Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Lillie P. Bliss, one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1929), persuaded the Met to host the exhibit. It was such a “ratings” failure, that the Metropolitan Museum’s rulers rejected featuring modern art in that museum.

Funny how things go, huh? I don’t really see “action painting” or “color field” in Sterne’s work, two of the standard measures of Abstract Expressionism. These works from the 1950s are logical progression from the crisper, grid-like paintings she did in the 1940s, only in more muted palette. Sterne painted in an abstract idiom for the rest of her career. Although she co-signed the letter to the Met, Sterne eluded the “star” status accorded to the men in Abstract Expressionism, and yet, perhaps more so than many of those men, had worked in abstraction throughout most of her career.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 4 6.35; Explorations in Art 5 6.35; Explorations in Art 6 5.25; A Community Connection 6.2, 8.4; Exploring Painting 12, Exploring Visual Design 4, 5; The Visual Experience 6.6, 9.3, 16.7; Discovering Art History 17.1

Monday, August 8, 2016

A True “Renaissance” Person

I was recently reading about Herbert Bayer (1900–1985, US, born Austria) and realized what a treasure this artist has been! I always appreciated his Bauhaus years and his contributions to graphic design, but, I had really never investigated very deeply how broad his vision was for the Bauhaus aesthetic.

Grass (Earth) Mound, from Aspen Meadows, Colorado, 1955. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-834byars)

Marble Garden, from Aspen Meadows, Colorado, 1955. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-833byars)

By 1946, Bayer was an internationally recognized leader in graphic design as well as interior design. He was approached by Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, who had a vision to make Aspen, CO into a world-class community that integrated art and culture. From childhood on, Bayer was a lover of nature. That was reinforced in 1923 when he made an extended trip to Italy, sketching and painting what he saw in nature. His initial instinct after World War II (1939–1945) was to return to Austria and build a ski hotel in the mountains.

His visit to Aspen, with its gorgeous mountain views, convinced him to accept the Paepcke’s offer to design an integrated cultural center—the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, today the Aspen Art Institute—into the surrounding environment. Once he moved there he was provided with a lot of design work, which included architecture, outdoor sculpture, and these two groundbreaking earth works. The stylistic designation Earth Works is usually reserved in art history books for works from the 1960s and 1970s. I feel we should extend that designation back to 1955 when Bayer designed Grass Mound and Marble Garden.

I feel that the style Earth Works does not take into account, either, Japanese garden architecture dating back to the 1500s, but that’s another arthiSTORY. Bayer’s works were truly novel for the period in which he created them. They totally put me in mind of ancient Roman ruins, which, considering his long trip to Italy in 1923, may not be a stretch. Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) created a sculpture garden at MOMA in 1953, but it certainly does not have the same interaction with nature as Bayer’s Marble Garden.

More aspects of this Renaissance Person:

Bauhaus Books—Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, book cover, 1925. Letterpress on paper. Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-802byars)

Were you aware that Bayer introduced the Universal font in 1925? After graduating from Bauhaus in Dessau having studied graphic design and typography, Bayer started teaching courses in graphic design starting in 1925. He left Bauhaus in 1928 to establish his own design firm which became amazingly successful. While at Bauhaus he designed book covers for Bauhaus publications, and also designed stationery, programs, and flyers. The reduction of forms to utter simplicity at Bauhaus really reflects the influence of Russian Constructivism, don’t you think?

Silesian Home magazine cover, 1927. Letterpress and offset lithograph on paper, 12 3/16" x 8 1/4" (29.8 x 21 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-809byars)

Bayer is credited with moving graphic design into the modern age with his wonderful magazine, advertisement, and poster designs. This cover is one of my favorites, because it perfectly demonstrates how compatible abstraction, fine art, and architectural structure are. It’s too bad the Nazis considered this “degenerate” art. It’s a lot more exciting than the stale, overblown Neoclassicism that they preferred.

Self-Portrait, 1932. Photomontage, 14 3/16" x 11" (36 x 28 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-821byars)

While working in Berlin after 1928, Bayer explored the use of photographic montage in his design work. This had been pioneered by the Surrealists. Bayer used it both professionally, and for his private work. This “self-portrait” has all the hallmarks of Surrealism. Bayer’s reflection in the mirror is not the true physical world, but something out of the subconscious or dream world.

Chromatic Squares with Circle, 1966. Acrylic on paper, 20" x 20" (51 x 51 cm). Photo courtesy of the late Artist. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-762byars)

It seems there were very few avenues of style that Bayer did not explore. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s much of his painting was concerned with the optical effects of color. This was something he would have studied at Bauhaus with Josef Albers (1888–1976). In the 1960s, the exploration of the optical sensations of movement caused by the juxtaposition of certain colors falls under the Op Art stylistic designation.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 4 6.35; Explorations in Art 5 3.15, 3.16, 5.25-26 studio; Explorations in Art 6 4.24, 5.25; A Community Connection 8.4; A Global Pursuit 8.4, 8.6; Communicating Through Graphic Design 5, 6, 7; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.5, 9.14, 10.4, 16.6, 16.7; Discovering Art History 14.4, 17.2, 17.5

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Sargent's Watercolors

I get to see so many great works of art by artists I truly admire, that I like to share them with as many folks as I can. As I’ve probably already blah-blahed, I’m a big fan of the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (1856–1925). As a matter of fact— as a failed watercolor artist—I sort of idolize Sargent’s watercolors. They just make me feel happy all over looking at the many, many beautiful works he produced in that medium. Here are some I bet you may never have seen. And please note: at the same time Sargent was producing gorgeous watercolors, he was till painting in oils, though hardly any portraits, except for one that was commissioned for the Ufizzi in 1907.

A Tramp, ca. 1906. Watercolor on paper, 20" x 14" (50.8 x 35.6 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1010)  

John Henry Leonard (1834-1904, Britain), Studies of Sheep. Watercolor on paper, 4 3/8" x 14 3/16" (11 x 36 cm). Private Collection. © 2016 Davis Art Images. (8S-13169)

The Impressionists really laid the groundwork for Sargent’s watercolor when they revolutionized the painting process. Sargent himself painted in Giverny with the Great One, Claude Monet (1840–1926). Impressionists discarded the traditional, academically-taught underpainting that established lights and darks in favor of applying pure color right to the white surface of the canvas. This made their colors RADIANT.

There are a lot of reasons I attribute Impressionism for Sargent’s late works, particularly in watercolor. Compare the Sargent above (I really hate that title) with the Leonard. Did you know Sargent was a master of the “schmear” (my word)? To lessen the saturation of a color he would rub off with his fingers or a brush the wet watercolor, allowing the paper to help create a tint. Academic artists like Leonard used the traditional brown-yellow-green underpainting and achieved tints for highlights by adding white (gouache) to the color of the fur.  

It’s amazing to me how luminous this little study is, with the schmeared cobalt blue coming through in the highlights on the arm. And that incredible muted shadow of the left ear Sargent achieved! This piece may come from Sargent’s 1905 to 1906 trip through the eastern Mediterranean from Palestine and the Middle East through Turkey to North Africa. 

Bedouins, ca. 1905. Watercolor on off-white wove paper, 17 7/8" x 12" (45.4 x 30.5 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1012)
So many of Sargent’s watercolors are like tourist snapshots of his travels through the Middle East and Europe. Let’s just say I prefer watercolors to photographs if I have my choice when Sargent’s work is concerned. This work is stunning, not because of the intense expression on the man’s face, but the fact of the luscious cobalt blue deep shadows. Perhaps the fact that Sargent was able to capture the essence of his subject with quickly executed watercolor accounts for the fact that there is little interest in psychological depth in this piece?

This Bedouins comes from the same trip as A Tramp. I can only guess that Sargent saw these guys either in Syria or Saudi Arabia? For works like this Sargent usually did the most minimal pencil sketches, and then constructed the form in color. 

Corfu: Lights and Shadows, 1909. Transparent and opaque watercolor over graphite, with wax resist on paper, 15 7/8" x 20 7/8" (40.3 x 53 cm). © MFA, Boston. (MFAB-41)

Between 1907 and 1909 Sargent must have traveled constantly, because he produced watercolors from Switzerland, Italy, and Greece. Corfu is an island on the west side of Greece. The island must really have inspired Sargent, because there are a lot of gorgeous paintings that resulted from that visit. This watercolor is my favorite. Talk about the ability to evoke the physical sense of a sunny day in the Mediterranean!

This depiction of shadows on a whitewashed wall is simply brilliant. I’m thinking that he achieved the white parts of the wall by blocking them with either a candle or wax crayon. That means he established the shadows in reverse, I am assuming. I’m just wondering how thick he applied wax and if it stayed on the work after finish?

At any rate, this is a gorgeous little work, especially those scrumptious shadows of multiple color in the foreground. That was yet another realization that was arrived at by the Impressionists, that shadows have color, they’re not black. Before Impressionism, shadows were achieved by adding black (or burnt sienna) to the local color to create a shade.

In the Simplon Pass, 1909. Transparent and opaque watercolors over wax resist and graphite on paper, 14 7/16" x 21 3/16" (36.7 x 53.8 cm). © Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5292)
I absolutely love Sargent’s sun-drenched watercolors of Switzerland! I’m including this piece because it isn’t quite finished, but it is gorgeous anyway. One can actually imagine the finished piece in one’s mind due to the absolutely brilliant colors Sargent uses in the shadows. I’m thinking he used the wax resist in the top of the parasol and details of the sitter’s outfit.

Sargent had only two exhibitions of his watercolors in the US at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. In 1909 exhibition, the Brooklyn Museum bought the whole group which Sargent considered a cohesive portfolio. In 1912 the MFA in Boston did the same thing at the second exhibition. Sargent remarked that he really liked painting in watercolor, and I think it shows! Now if I can only figure out exactly how he applied the wax resist: Was it like frisket? A stick of wax? Stumped minds want to know!

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art 2 1.3-4 studio; Explorations in Art 3 5.27-28 studio; Explorations in Art 4 1.1; Explorations in Art 5 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, 4.20; Explorations in Art 6 1.3; A Community Connectioin 2.3, 6.4; A Personal Journey 2.2; Experience Painting 2, 5; Exploring Painting 5; Exploring Visual Design 3; The Visual Experience 9.3, 9.10, 16.6; Discovering Art History 15.1