Monday, December 18, 2017

A Multicultural Proclaimer

Iran, The Archangel Gabriel, page from a dispersed manuscript of Wonders of Creation by Qazvini, 1500s. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 10 7/8" x 7" (27.7 x 18 cm). © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-1407)

Westerners usually think of the Archangel Gabriel in terms of Christmas cards depicting the Annunciation, when he proclaimed to Mary that she would conceive Jesus. Well, it turns out that he was a multicultural proclaimer, serving as God’s messenger in Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths. The angel is mentioned several times in the Qur’an, although there are various interpretations of his status by scholars. However, scholars all agree that it was Gabriel (Jibril, or Jibrail) who made the really big announcement to Muhammad that he was chosen to be a prophet by God.

In the ninety-sixth chapter of the Qur’an (96:1-5), the archangel Gabriel appears to Muhammad while he is in the wilderness of Hira (near Mecca) meditating and trying to figure out his spiritual life away from all of the evils in the world. Gabriel basically tells Muhammad that God needs him to put forth God’s message, and to write down God’s teachings. The archangel helped him overcome his protests that he could not read or write, ultimately convincing Muhammad, “Read in the name of your lord and cherisher who created…He who taught the use of pen; Taught man that which he did not know.”

This passage, in which Muhammad is instructed to write the Qur’an, more or less, is so interesting in light of how significant calligraphy became in the art forms of Islamic lands. The emphasis on the written word in the Qur’an is so strong that, by the Middle Islamic Period (ca. 750–1258), literacy in Islamic lands was greater than in Western Europe. 

So, this image of Gabriel is not simply the result of the influence of Western European manuscripts from the Renaissance, because angels already existed in Islamic thought. In fact, winged, supernatural beings in human form have existed for thousands of years in the art of the Middle East. This figure of Gabriel bears the typical stylistic traits of Safavid Iranian court painting in the attenuated, elegant figure in a shallow landscape that resembles the millefleur designs of French Renaissance tapestries. The wings resemble paintings of seraphim, the angels of upper high heaven in European paintings. 

France, Triumph of Eternity from the Château de Chaumont Tapestry series, from the Loire Valley, ca. 1512–1515. Wool and silk, 125 ¾" x 148 5/8" (319.3 x 377.6 cm). © 2017 Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of various donors, by exchange. (CM-492)

Book illustration became a dominant form of artistic expression during the Middle Period. Although the Qur’an forbids the representation of any being with a soul, secular books began to portray religious scenes. This image comes from Abu Yahya Zakariya ibn Muhammad Ibn Mahmud-al-Qazvini’s (ca. 1203–1283) book Wonders of Creation. This book, divided in two sections, focuses on celestial phenomena (such as angels, constellations, and planets) and the earthly world (geography, ethnology, zoology, and botany). Qazvini, educated mostly in Bagdhad, was primarily a compiler of information from various sources.

In many ways, this book is similar to the Book of the Marvels of the World (Livre des Merveilles du Monde), a French compilation of numerous sources on similar subjects, both religious and scientific, ca. 1460. Talk about a global village. Wonders of Creation became very popular in Mughal India (1526–1756), where the Safavid style of illustrating books had great influence on Mughal painting.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Experience Painting: 1; Discovering Art History: 4.7, 7.3; Discovering Art History Digital: 4.7, 7.3; The Visual Experience: 14.2

Monday, December 11, 2017

Don’t Look Now…

Edna Andrade (1917–2008, US), Veil Drawing 3, 1974-1979. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 15 ½" x 10" (39.4 x 25.4 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4232)

I may be a broken record on the subject, but in my virtual art history wanderings, I come across so many artists who have been significant in some aspect of the history of art, and yet they are not generally known about. What is always fascinating to me is the connections they have with the “greats” of art history, and how it affected their work. Take Edna Andrade, for example. A fascinating artist, she developed her work in what has to be one of the seminal periods of twentieth-century art, the 1940s and 1950s. She’s absolutely brilliant, and I would like to share some of her work with you.

Andrade once commented that her works were meant to be totally visual. In other words, there is no narrative or story to go with them. It’s interesting that her Op Art pieces were also influenced by architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and design. One can certainly see the latter two disciplines in her work. I think another big influence on her work was the 1965 show “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art. That show featured works by artists such as Bridget Riley (born 1931), whose black and white illusionistic paintings I’m certain Andrade saw.

Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, Andrade’s parents encouraged her to draw and paint from the age of eight. She achieved a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. After her studies, she taught art at the elementary level in Norfolk, VA. While travelling after World War II (1939–1945), Andrade became acquainted with Bauhaus abstraction and German modernism. Bauhaus influenced her strong emphasis on design, color, and abstraction.

In much of her early work, Andrade shows the influence of Surrealism and Cubism. A large part of her early body of work included watercolor collage and ink drawings of abstracted landscapes. In the 1950s she painted abstract, geometric works in a limited palette. This interest in precision and geometry led to her interest in Op Art in the 1960s. Influences on her style included Paul Klee (1879–1940), Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), and Bauhaus geometric abstractionist Josef Albers (1888–1976).

Edna Andrade, Disappearing Man and Conch Shell, 1948.Opaque watercolor on paper, 8 1/8" x 9 ¾" (20.6 x 24.8 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-4329)
This early work suggests the work of Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), and the influence of Surrealism.

Edna Andrade, Cape Ann Beach, 1958. Pastel on paper, 22 3/8" x 29 ¾" (56.8 x 75.6 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6593)
Even while experimenting with Surrealism and abstraction, Andrade continued to produce beautiful landscapes such as Cape Ann Beach. In her treatment of the rocks that dominate this work, one can see how she began to section elements of a composition—in the case of this work, the rock forms—into an abstract configuration such as is seen below. 

Edna Andrade, Star Night, 1967. Screenprint on paper, 29" x 29" (73.7 x 73.7 cm). Image © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6424)
In her fully-developed Op Art pieces like this, Andrade’s work definitely takes on an aesthetic similar to that of Riley, and particularly Victor Vasarely (1906–1997).
Correaltions to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 5 3.15, 3.16; Discovering Art History 17.2; Discovery Art History Digital 17.2

Monday, December 4, 2017

Temple on Active Volcano’s Slopes!

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), view from the Pura Penataran Agung, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10151)

I’m naturally concerned for Pura Besakih (Mother Temple). It is situated on the slopes of Mount Agung, which is currently causing havoc with its eruption in Bali. It survived a major eruption of the volcano in 1963, when the lava miraculously parted and flowed around the temple. It would truly be tragic if anything happens to this treasure. That would also include ignorant, disrespectful tourists taking crude selfies, as recently happened Wat Arun in Thailand!

Pura Besakih is a complex of twenty-three temples that sit on parallel stepped terraces. Each of these temples has a “meru,” a tiered, pagoda-like tower that reflects the built-up pyramidal shapes found in Indonesian temples. In both cases, the rising form symbolizes the legendary Mount Meru, a golden mountain that stands in the center of all creation outside of the physical plane. The pura itself is built on the side of Mount Agung, considered a sacred mountain, and the stairs that connect each terrace represent a symbolic ascent of Mount Meru toward the Hindu gods. 

Besakih temple was originally a terraced temple dedicated to the dragon god Besakih, who is believed to inhabit Mount Agung. After annexation by the Majapahit rulers in the 1300s, the temple was dedicated to Hindu gods. The merus at Besakih consist of a masonry base about three feet (one meter) in height with a wooden ante-chamber raised on stilts. The ante-chamber is surmounted by a series fiber-thatched roofs in diminishing size. Various relics are buried in parts of each meru to make them acceptable to receive visits by the deities. The number of roofs is always an odd number, related to the god for which the temples are a temporary residence. Eleven tiered-temples such as these are usually dedicated to the highest gods in the Hindu pantheon, such as Siva, Brahma, or Vishnu. 

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), gargoyle figures, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10152)

“Gargoyles” in the temple precinct served the same function as guardian demons in Buddhist temples, or gargoyles on Christian cathedrals: ward off evil. 

Bali, Indonesia, Pura Besakih (Mother Temple), view of the temple precinct from the Pura Penataran Agung, 900s–1300s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10150)

Fossilized human remains indicate that prehistoric Bali was occupied going back to the Paleolithic era, as early as 248,000 BCE. Cave paintings and jewelry made from animal bones have been found on the island of Sulawesi, northeast of Bali, that date between 38,000 and 20,000 BCE. Bali was occupied by Austronesian migrants sometime between 3500 and 2000 BCE, judging by the existence of stone tools and earthenware vessels near Cekik in west Bali.

The Austronesian migration southward toward New Guinea, and ultimately Australia, originated on the mainland of Southeast Asia. Rice, raised in China as far back as 9,000 BCE, extended to Indonesia around 1500 BCE, and possibly to Bali by 900 BCE. Metal artifacts discovered near Cekik indicate that Bali's bronze age had begun by 300 BCE.

Bali received Indian and Chinese migrants starting in the 100s CE. Hinduism had begun to spread by the 400s CE, and Buddhism by the 500s. By the 900s, rice cultivation was active in Bali. Bali became a colony of the Majapahit Empire (flourished 1293–1520 CE) in 1343. When that empire declined in the 1400s due to the growth of Islamic kingdoms in Java, there was a large migration to Bali of Javanese artists.

The word “pura” originates from the Sanskrit word “puri,” which means “walled city,” “city,” “towered city,” or “palace.” In Balinese architecture, it has come to symbolize a Hindu temple complex. Because so many have been built there, Bali is sometimes called the “Island of a thousand Puras.” Most Balinese temple complexes, like Besakih, were planned in three zones: outer, middle, and inner courtyards, each containing a number of shrines.

Correlations to Davis programs:  A Global Pursuit: 8.5; The Visual Experience: 13.3; Discovering Art History: 4.5; Discovering Art History Digital: 4.5

Monday, November 27, 2017

Some Flourish While Others Decline

Ancient Peru, Nazca Culture, Poncho or tunic, 100–600 CE. Camelid fiber, tapestry weave, 74 3/8" x 27 9/16" (189 x 70 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-1226)

It drives me absolutely nuts as an art historian the way Western art history textbooks treat Mesoamerican and South American cultures in a peripheral way, yet fawn all over ancient Greece and ancient Rome as the high points of aesthetic development. The fact is that the Americas, as well as East and Southeast Asia, had sophisticated, thriving empires during the same period of the flourishing of Greece and Rome. In fact, they outlasted them. What was happening with the Roman Empire between the late 400s and 600s CE? Oh, nothing. That’s right, it had collapsed. Although Peruvian cultures waxed and waned just like Rome, there was a sustained period of flourishing cultures from around 1500 BCE until the Spanish invasion and conquest in the 1500s CE.

The Nazca (flourished ca. 250 BCE to 650 CE) are thought to have arisen out of the Paracas culture, which flourished ca. 750 BCE to 100 CE. The Nazca culture was characterized by a collection of independent chiefdoms. Although there are cultural and artistic similarities among these communities, they did not—like other Mesoamerican and South American cultures—build great cities of standardized design.

As the Nazca expanded their influence, they traded with inland mountain regions where alpacas and llamas were raised, and rainforest regions where they secured the feathers of tropical birds for garments.

The best source for Nazca art objects is from their tombs, which were often 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet) deep. The Nazca culture produced sophisticated ceramic art, gold and metal objects, and particularly sophisticated textiles. Textiles were the most highly-prized objects after gold in Peruvian cultures.

The Nazca were skilled in all of the Andean techniques, including several types of weaving and embroidery, and they also painted designs on plain cotton cloth. Abstract figures were especially popular in designs and most often are depicted participating in harvest scenes that show such foodstuffs as maize and beans. Animals, similar to those in petroglyphs and pottery designs, were also a popular subject.

The poncho above may have once served as a banner. It is thought that the neck hole was woven at a later date from the original weaving. It represents three large figures and twelve subsidiary figures. The large figures wear masks, ponchos, and skirt/loin cloths, and are bearing trophy heads

And here’s an example of the beautiful Nazca ceramics, produced at the time Rome was falling apart: 

Ancient Peru, Nazca Culture, Double-spouted bridge handle vessel, 325–440 CE. Painted ceramic, 3 15/16" x 7" x 6 ¼" (23.5 x 17.8 x 15.9 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5242)

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Community Connection: 1.5; The Visual Experience: 14.4; Discovering Art History: 4.9

Monday, November 13, 2017

Sister-in-Law / Beautiful Landscape

Claude Monet (1840–1926, France), The Islets at Port-Villez, 1897. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" x 39 ¾" (81 x 101 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Bequest of Grace Underwood Barton. (BMA-432)

My sister-in-law Stacy's birthday coming up on the fourteenth of November. She’s a beautiful person both inside and out. Since I couldn’t find any “sister-in-law” works of art that satisfied the need to praise a beautiful person, I am resorting to a work by an artist who truly produced some of the most breathtaking paintings I’ve ever seen. Even his studies for paintings have an extraordinary beauty to them. And, I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to my sis-in-law than with beauty in a painting equal to her beauty as a human being.

As you may already be aware from my posts about Monet paintings, he is one of my inspirations for wanting (trying) to paint landscapes. I think the fact that he was growing as an artist and expanding his vision of what he wanted to show in paintings even in his eighties, should be an inspiration to any painter to keep at it. I often think studies like this have an abstract potential that eventually came to dominate his late water lily paintings.

In 1890, Monet bought his home in the village of Giverny, which is now world-famous for his water lily garden. Nearby was the town of Port-Villez—between Vernon and Bonnières-sur-Seine—where he did numerous paintings as studies of reflections in water. To paint scenes such as this, Monet used a flat-bottom boat, something he had learned from the realist Charles Daubigny (1817–1878). In the 1860s, Daubigny was one of the Barbizon painters who encouraged Monetand his fellow fledgling Impressioniststo paint landscapes outdoors to achieve realistic interpretations of light and atmosphere. This, combined with Monet’s encounter with the works of J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), the great British Romantic landscape painter, is what started Monet on his path to true greatness.

Like many of the Impressionists, Monet did not paint most of his works completely outdoors. He established the colors and light while outdoors, then refined the works in the studio. However, I have a funny feeling that this study was executed completely outdoors. It’s always thrilling for me, an aspiring landscape painter, to see sections of a Monet canvas unpainted. Monet’s brush work seems to follow the rays of light from the rising sun. Those arcing lines of color are echoed in the foliage to indicate the receding and jutting volumes of the trees. For Monet, the landscape did not exist separately from the surrounding atmosphere and light. He attributed those elements as the truly important contributors to a successful painted landscape.

Correlations to Davis Programs: A Global Pursuit: 7.2; Discovering Art History: 13.1

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tree Memories

Rodney Taylor (born 1966, US), Untitled (Birch Trees), 2010. Mixed-media on paper, 144" x 114" (365.8 x 289.6 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Rodney Taylor. (AK-2810)
Meet my new “find”: the awesome painter Rodney Taylor. As a Virgo, I do not routinely paint totally from memory. While a memory can evoke very specific imagery, it is often affected by emotional coloring that distracts me from establishing an image of the place that is somewhat recognizable. (I’m basically a landscape painter.) I certainly can, however, attest to the strong feelings place can play in a work of art. I think memory and place combine in the work of Rodney Taylor.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Taylor moved to New York City, where he lived and worked for 16 years. He studied at the Cooper Union, Fashion Institute of Technology, Bard Annandale-on-Hudson, and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. A large part of Taylor’s work is heavily impasto impressions of elements of urban life and decay. He also often combines images of trees with his architectural imagery. The tree image also appears individually in his paintings.

Although many of Taylor’s paintings address urban imagery and symbolism, his paintings of birch trees stem from personal reminiscences. They recall memories of trips with his family to Maryland for family reunions. The birch trees represent his remembered views of trees flashing by the car.

Taylor’s more recent work has taken a decidedly abstract turn and a more muted palette. These works seem to be influenced by urban architecture.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.1; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.6, 6.34; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.26

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Prescription

It was rainy and damp in New England for quite some time in October. My prescription for the rainy blues is color (and art history, of course). 

James Lambie (born 1964, Scotland), Zobop (Stairs), 2003. Vinyl tape. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 James Lambie / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-2689lmbars)

If I were able to commission Jim Lambie to add more color to my life, I’d have him do the wood floors of my apartment hallway. I would love to see this vibrating color every day! It would make even the dreariest rainy day all right. What is so impressive about his installations is that they follow the contours of the room so precisely, it almost seems as if the colors are pulsating back and forth. This is exactly the effect Lambie hopes for in his works.

Lambie’s installations use eight to nine colors of vinyl tape to transform spaces into virtual kaleidoscopes of color. This piece at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is from an on-going series that Lambie has called Zobop. Lambie first conceived of Zobop (he invented the word) in 1999 for his first solo exhibition in London. His intention was to fill a room with rhythm while keeping the space free of physical construction. He equates this filling of the room without obstruction to music, which plays a large part in his life outside of his visual art. Zobop may be related to the 1940s terms of “be-bop” and “re-bop” that referred to complicated chords and rhythms of nascent jazz music.

Lambie’s process is amazingly complex and time consuming when he creates his Zobop. He starts by outlining the entire space at the point where the wall meets the floor. He then repeats the outlining with color after color, overlapping precisely 2 millimeters (about 1/16") until the entire square-footage is completely covered. It results in a domination of parallel lines of vibrant color. He has also created versions of Zobop in entirely black and white tape, and metallic tapes in gold, silver, and copper colors. He also often combines Zobop with found objects that he augments with bright color. Lambie has referenced music when describing his installations as the baseline played by drums and bass (the tape outline) and the found objects placed on top as guitar and vocals.

Lambie was born in Glasgow and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. The artist avoids attaching any cerebral meaning to his Zobop, though it is tempting for art historians to compare them to Minimalism and Op Art. However, it lacks these 20th-century movements’ impetus to redefine art and the way of looking at it, based on mathematical formulas and science. He prefers that people take away what they like from these installations. 

James Lambie (born 1964, Scotland), Zobop (Stairs), 2003. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 James Lambie / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-2690lmbars)

Correlation to Davis Programs: Beginning Sculpture: 7; Experience Painting: 9; Exploring Visual Design: 4, 11, 12

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rich History

I just returned from vacay, spending my last day in Dublin after leaving Switzerland. We went to the National Museum of Ireland, where we saw tons of beautifully executed golden objects that have been found in bogs over the years. These ancient objects are dated to the first 1000 years BCE, giving an image of a culture with resplendent metalworking and particularly fine gold work. The sophistication of these early Celtic / Viking cultures (pre-Roman and certainly pre-Christian) surprised me. How many cultures have you not thought about in the last, say, 24 hours? How about the rich cultural history of Java, Indonesia?

Java, Indonesia, Prambanan Plain, near Yogyakarta, Plaosan temple complex, view across Plaosan Lor, 830–850 CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10183)

This beautiful, sculptural temple complex is located in south-central Java. It was built during the rule of the Medang (or Mataram) Kingdom, which flourished, along with many other dominating kingdoms in Indonesia, between the 700s and the 900s CE. The Medan Kingdom was the ruling entity when the Great Stupa at Borobudur was built.

It is generally believed that the earliest inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago were of Indian or Burmese origin. Later migrants known as Malays came from Southern China and Indochina at around 3000 BCE. Hinduism was introduced from India through trade during the first 100 years CE. Hindu kingdoms were established in Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Java between the 400s and the 1200s, some of which had also absorbed Buddhist influences.

The Medang, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom, evolved at the same time as the massive Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra and western Java. Interestingly, although few inscriptions from either culture survive, they appear to have been similar in the fluid manner in which they ruled, with kings overseeing regional overlords who were more or less autonomous. Similarly, both the Medang and Srivijaya seem to have established what could be considered urban centers.

Javanese architecture began under Hindu influence. There was a surge of Buddhism from about 750 to 850 (as evidenced by the monumental Stupa in Borobudur), followed by a second flourishing of Hindu architecture that lasted from the late 800s until the 1300s, with the coming of Islam. The Plaosan temple complex is a large group of Buddhist temples. Plaosan Lor (North Plaosan Temple) was dedicated to the Dhyani Buddha, the five celestial Buddhas believed to have existed since the beginning of time. This is one of two temples in the center of the complex. It was built on a 2 foot (60 cm) high base, and, like the Great Stupa at Borodubur, contains a grouping of multiple towers at the top, a symbol of the world mountain, Mount Meru.

Srivijaya Kingdom (flourished 600s to 1200s CE, Java), Woman Holding a Lotus, architectural fragment, chalk stone, 18" x 10" x 4 ½" (45.7 x 25.4 x 11.4 cm). © 2017 Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. (AK-1240)

This female figure may have been a celestial woman or deity from the decoration of a temple. In style, it is very similar to the female figures depicted on the exterior of the Great Stupa of Borobudur, in the Medang Kingdom. This indicates the vast influence the Indian sculptural style had as Hinduism and Buddhist spread throughout Southeast Asia.

The Sryivijaya Kingdom was Hindu-Buddhist, and was ruled by Tamils centered in Palembang, Sumatra. After the Funan culture (centered on mainland in Cambodia) had been defeated in the region, the Srivijaya dynasty established itself around the late 500s CE, and thrived between the 700s and 1200s CE. The kingdom enriched itself by controlling the sea trade in the region, particularly that to India and China. The kingdom established control over Sumatra, western Java, and much of the Malay peninsula. Like the Medang kingdom, the Srivijaya rulers established vast Buddhist temple complexes that were famous for their exterior sculptural decoration.

Prambanan, Java, Pawon Temple, ca. 778–800s CE. Image © 2017 Davis Art Images. (8S-10451)

Pawon Temple is one of three Mahayana Buddhist temples built during the Sailendra Dynasty of the Medang Kingdom. The name Pawon derives from the word for “kitchen” in the Javanese language, which in turn comes from the root word for ashes or dust. It is theorized that the term pertained to the fact that the temple may have contained the cremated ashes of a king. It is on a northeast-southwest axis between the temples of Mendut and Borobudur. The multiple towers and high platform are similar in style to the other two temples.

Various scholars have proposed the origins of the Sailendra to eastern India, Cambodia, and Sumatra. Early inscriptions mentioning the dynasty name date to 778 CE in the Kedu Plain in central Java. The Sailendra rulers had good relations with the Srivijaya Empire in Sumatra. It existed next to the Sanjaya dynasty in Java, and around ca. 850 CE it seems to have been subsumed by the Sanjaya. The next mention of the Sailendra was as rulers in Sumatra associated with the Srivijaya. An Indian invasion by Chola rulers in 1025 conquered Sailendra territories in Sumatra and seems to have ended their rule there.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Global Pursuit: 8.5; The Visual Experience: 13.3; Discovering Art History 4E: 4.5

Monday, October 2, 2017

Workus Interruptus (Vacation)

Even though I’m half Swiss, I’m not really a Swissaholic. I just happen to see a lot of art that happens to be from Switzerland that also happens to be worth sharing. I’m going on vacay and thought I’d leave you with a Swiss kiss of art.

Switzerland, Wardrobe from Toggenburg, Sankt Gallen, 1827. Painted wood, 69 3/4" x 56 ½" x 26 ½" (177.2 x 143.5 x 67.3). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-6672)

When I was little my mother dragged me and my brother to lots of castles. Some of the ones in larger cities would inevitably have at least one room that was furnished in the Rococo style, which was the favored style by the fyni Lüt. This is what my grandmother called the landed gentry, who were governors of areas of cantons, basically a landed upper class. Since Switzerland had no royal court or princely courts or dukedoms, the upper classes in many parts of Switzerland aped French fashions. That lasted until the first Napoleon forced thousands of Swiss men in on his dumb Grand Armée campaign to invade Russia.

That was in central and western Switzerland. In the far eastern part of Switzerland—Ostschwyz, as we say—there may have been French tastes among the elite, but they were executed in the form of painted furniture, rather than finely carved and gilt furniture like French Rococo. The designer of this armoire was definitely into the Rococo arabesques (rocaille), but the little landscape scenes painted in the roundels are straight out of the Danube painting school going back to the 1500s. The roundels may be attempts at Chinoiserie

Toggenburg, now part of the canton of Sankt Gallen, was part of the Protestant-Catholic strife in the early 1700s. It was finally united with Sankt Gallen in 1803 when the Federal Republic was established. 

Max Bill (1908–1994 Switzerland), Striving Forces of a Sphere, 1966–1967. Granite, 23 ½" x 35 ½" x 23 ½" (59.7 x 90.2 x 59.7 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (AK-1007bfars)

Like many other Swiss artists in the first half of the 1900s, Max Bill, born in Winterthur, studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau under Josef Albers (1888–1976) from 1927 to 1929. He is probably one of the most ardent theorists of the Concrete Art aesthetic. The term “concrete” art was coined in 1930 by de Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) to reference pure abstraction. De Stijl artists reduced art to simple geometric shapes. They felt that the term abstraction implied reduction from a natural form instead of fundamental forms divorced from all reference to the natural world.

Bill initially exhibited with the French abstraction group Abstraction-Création, and organized Concrete Art exhibits in the 1930s. He revived the importance of the aesthetic after World War II (1939–1945). Bill firmly believed that art always had had a mathematical origin, whether conscious or unconscious on the artist’s part. In sculpture, the forms that intrigued Bill the most were the spiral and the sphere. Works such as Striving Forces of a Sphere are Bill’s idea of an endlessly transforming shape that exudes the qualities of rationalism, clarity, and harmony. Although he is renowned as a graphic designer, I really like Bill’s sculptures the best.

John Armleder (born 1948, Switzerland), Untitled from the Supernova portfolio, 2003. Lithograph on paper, 22" x 30" (55.9 x 76.2 cm). Photo © 2017 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Art © 2017 John Armleder. (MOMA-P3624)

The question with contemporary artists is no longer “What is Art?” as it was in the early 1900s with Dada and Surrealist artists. Now it is the concern with how an artist’s ideas are reflected in the creative process. Which is more important, the idea or the result of the idea? The Conceptual Art movement that began in the 1960s immersed itself with that question, as did the loose international group of performance and visual artists called Fluxus. They called for the overturning of traditional perceptions of physical art in favor of both mental and visual perceptions.

John Armleder was at one time associated with Fluxus. Born in Geneva, where he studied art at the School of Fine Arts, Armleder is a painter, sculptor, performance artist, and installation artist. The Fluxus movement rejected the idea of “star artists” after the sensation caused by Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. That sentiment was revived during the greed-fueled, entrepreneurial art scene of the 1980s. Armleder’s body of work is concerned with anti-establishment and anti-commercialist works. In 1969, with other Geneva artists, Armleder co-founded Groupe Ecart, a performance and installation vehicle that was concerned with abandoning traditional hierarchies of art media.

The group of prints in Armleder’s Supernova portfolio embraces the idea of anti-star power by mimicking a variety of divergent styles from Abstract Expressionism to Op Art in only a vague nod to the strict canons of those movements. Armleder invites the exhibiting space to hang these 20 prints in any combination or alone, vertically, horizontally or diagonally. This underscores Armleder’s belief that the art has a life of its own, independent of the artist and certainly independent of commission-hungry sales galleries.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Color for the End of September

With all the storms this month, what better way to end September than with a storm of color? And what better way to end with color than to show you the work of an artist who is 1) committed to his modernist vision in painting, and 2) committed to extending an unpretentious appreciation of modernism to whomever wants to share it with him. I wish every town had an artist like Charles Clough with his open studio/participatory events. 
Charles Clough (born 1951, US), Cruor, 1993. Enamel on Masonite, 24" x 32" (61 x 81.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Charles Clough. (AK-2523)

I just can’t stop looking at these paintings by Buffalo artist Charles Clough. As early as the late 1970s, he was producing paintings that have been celebrations of color and gesture, and I absolutely love them. I am venturing a guess that he decided on abstraction rather than narrative content around 1980, based on the moment he writes about in his autobiography, Pepfog Cluff (2007). In his book, he states that he wanted to paint for process’s sake like Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). I can totally see a Pollock aesthetic in his work, although uniquely Clough.

What interests me even more is that Clough’s work was featured in an exhibition called The Pictures Generation in 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It ostensibly featured artists who were involved with appropriated imagery like Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, and Cindy Sherman, but also, I guess, included artists who appropriated processes in abstraction. The exhibition included artists who founded the Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center exhibits in Buffalo in the 1970s, which Clough co-founded with Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman in 1974.

Clough was born and raised in Buffalo, studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (1965–1970) and Ontario College of Art (1971–1972). He also studied at the University of Buffalo Center for Media Studies (1973–1974) and New York University Information Technologies Institute (1997–1998). He has taught at Columbia University and the Rhode Island Institute of Design. He decided to devote himself to being an artist in 1971. I cannot say enough about how much I admire the diversity of this artist and his body of work. I admire him even more for his open studios called Clufffalo in East Aurora, NY, where total strangers are invited to lend their efforts to collaborative paintings. After you read about Clufffalo, you’ll understand why I said I wish there were artists like Clough in every town!

More works by this fabulous painter:

Charles Clough (born 1951, US), Universal Soul Doll Guts, 1979. Enamel and paper collage on paper, 19 3/4" x 13 13/16" (50.2 x 35.2 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Charles Clough. (AK-350)
Charles Clough (born 1951, US), August Sixteenth, 1990. Enamel on board,  16 1/2" x 12 1/4" (41.9 x 31.1 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Charles Clough. (AK-2524)