Monday, July 24, 2017

Sumidagawa in July

The actual festival of Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”) occurs in Tokyo in the last week of August, but there are fireworks in Tokyo from May through August, starting with the Opening of the Sumida River in May. Now, I’ve tried doing multiple block color woodcuts, and let me tell you, they are a challenge. What has ALWAYS impressed me about the color woodcuts in Japanese art is that, no matter how many colors, the registration is right on the mark! So, you might imagine how impressed I am at depictions of fireworks! The very ephemeral nature of fireworks makes them a subject I wouldn’t even try duplicating in oils, much less as a woodcut. So here are some great examples of different approaches to fireworks in woodcut prints.

Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858, Japan), Fireworks at Ryogoku (bridge), #98 from the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series,1858. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 3/16" x 9 7/16" (36 x 24 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-822)

I’ll take any excuse to include my favorite ukiyo-e artist (because he does landscapes!). Utagawa Hiroshige I was the first artist that I’m aware of to explore the fireworks theme in a woodblock print. I always comment on the awe I feel for the woodblock carvers of Hiroshige’s drawings. Imagine carving the intersecting lines of the Ryogoku Bridge’s posts or that single line of firework flare in the night sky!

Fireworks in Japan were developed in the mid-1500s. Sophisticated, large displays were perfected by 1700. Fireworks as entertainment are said to have been introduced to the Japanese by British traders accompanied by Chinese fireworks merchants in 1613, although there may be earlier examples. Up until the 1700s, fireworks were generally used in festivals to frighten negative spirits.

The Shogun Yoshimune (1716–1751) commissioned fireworks for the first Ryogoku Kawabiraki Fireworks Festival ("opening of the river [Sumida] at Ryogoku [bridge]") for one summer to take people's minds off of a famine and resulting pandemic in western Japan. "Taking in the cool of the river" was a popular pastime from May through September, and eventually these fireworks took place on any clear night in summer. The Sumidagawa Festival is just one of those occasions, but the most popular of the summer. Compared to numerous other depictions of Ryogoku Bridge, the view from this series has removed the human presence to almost nil, in contrast with the dominating—almost melancholy—night sky and dark bridge. 

Ogata Gekko (1859-1920, Japan), Woman Looking at Fireworks from a Veranda, from the Women’s Customs and Manners series, 1897. Color woodcut print on paper, 14 ½" x 10" (36.8 x 25.4 cm). © 2017 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-2358)

Comparing this Ogata Gekko print with that of Hiroshige is interesting because they each chose different moments and types of fireworks to illustrate. I can almost contrast in my mind the “pop” happening in Ogata’s print and the multiple “booms” of the Hiroshige; that’s how well these artists convey the sensation of seeing fireworks. I would image the printers of both these works rubbed some of the dark ink around the bright area to create nuances in the night sky. Brilliant! I’m pretty sure this woman is on a veranda overlooking the Sumida River.

Ogata, aboutwhom I’ve written before, was an anomaly when he produced prints because it was after the heyday of the ukiyo-e style. He relentlessly pursued the revival of the genre in his subject matter, preferring close-up views of nature to “bijin-ga”—beautiful women prints. However, the subject of “Customs of Women” was a traditional one in ukiyo-e, made popular by the late 1700s artist Utamaro (1753–1806). Ogata, who was apparently self-taught in the woodcut medium, displays subtle influences of Western art, such as perspective and more realism in his figure treatment. 

Kishio Koizumi (1893–1945, Japan), River Opening Ceremony at Ryogoku, from the series One Hundred Views of Tokyo in the Showa Era, 1935/1945. Color woodcut print on paper, 15 5/8" x 12" (39.8 x 30.5 cm). Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-629)

This Kishio Koizumi print is a most awesome contrast of Hiroshige’s Kawabiraki scene. Kishio’s scene is much flatter, with the major elements reduced to shapes and the space somewhat skewed. The fireworks are abstracted with no nuances in the night sky from the glow of the explosions. Like Hiroshige’s print, however, Kishio manages to capture the essence of the perceived experience by the artist.

Kishio was a major figure in the sosaku hanga (creative print) movement, which sought to infuse the traditional ukiyo-e genre with Western modernist elements, while maintaining traditional subjects. The creative print artists were different from the traditional ukiyo-e artists also, if you remember, because they drew, carved the woodblock, and executed the prints all themselves. This was a great departure from the master-apprentice system of the glory days of ukiyo-e, in which drawing, transferring to woodblock, carving woodblock, and printing of the image were done by different people.

Kishio was born in Shizuoka. His father, a calligrapher, commissioned woodblock-printed manuals, and Kishio learned the woodblock technique from his father’s block-carver. He studied Western-style watercolor at the Japan Watercolor Institute (Nihon Suisaiga-kai) in Tokyo. The three founders of that academy were woodblock printmakers, so they influenced his decision to go in that direction. He was a member of the Creative Artists Association early on and was an activist for their ideas. This print comes from his most famous series, which is a wonderful historical record of Tokyo before the destruction of World War II (1939–1945). 

Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915, Japan), Fireworks at Ikenohata, Shinobazu Pond, 1881. Color woodcut print on paper, 8 5/8" x 13 3/8" (22 x 33.9 cm). © 2017 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-526)

Kobayashi Kiyochika is often considered the last great ukiyo-e master, even though many of his prints fall under the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) and the government’s manic quest to modernize Japan as quickly as possible. These fireworks take place near the Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park in the Taito Ward of Tokyo. I’m not sure what the festival is, but it’s such a great print, combining the influence of Western Impressionism and perspective with traditional Japanese subject matter and technique.

The printer has reduced distant forms to mere blocks of color, much as is seen in the backgrounds of Hiroshige’s prints. In the crowd figures, Kobayashi avoids the traditional attention to fine detail of figure in favor of a screen of shapes in silhouette. This sort of simplification resembles what might be seen in the work of European Symbolist painters. He had avidly studied Western art, particularly lithography, and based much of his work on Western etchings and photographs.

Kobayashi was the son of a minor government official under the last shogunate. After the elimination of the shogunate (1868), he trained himself to be an artist. His first project, which includes this print, was to diligently record scenes of Tokyo as it rapidly became a modernized city. In order to avoid comparison to previous cityscape artists such as Hiroshige, Kobayashi focused on light effects, preferring scenes of dawn, dusk, and night.

Correlations to Davis Programs:  Experience Printmaking 4; The Visual Experience 3.5, 13.5; Discovering Art History 2.3, 4.1

Monday, July 17, 2017

An Artist of the “Cool School”

Ed Moses (born 1926, US), Blue Velvet, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, diptych, overall 66" x 108" (167.6 x 274.3 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Ed Moses. (AK-2739)

Far too often art history texts sum up the pioneering American avant-garde of the mid-20th century with Abstract Expressionism and the New York scene. Believe it or not, there were avant-garde artists all over the US by the 1930s, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. I get as weary of the New York-focus in so many discussions of American modernism as I do of the Western bias in most art history books.

Like other “schools” of artists (see “Hudson River,” etc.), the “Cool School” denotes a group of artists in the same art scene. The artists of the Cool School in Los Angeles were instrumental in building recognition of avant-garde art on the West Coast starting after World War II (1939–1945), not of establishing a singular style. In one of the great ironies of art history, the Los Angeles cutting-edge, modernist collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg of the 1940s—a major impetus for the development of an avant-garde scene in LA—is now part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The art of Ed Moses belongs to this seminal period (and to the present day!) in the development of an institutional art scene in Los Angeles dedicated to the avant-garde. A student of Buddhism, Moses’s paintings have always displayed a certain cool detachment from the strictures enforced by the Abstract Expressionists—their emphasis on star personality and agonizing over personal process.

While Moses’s art is process driven, he avoids the need to control the process in favor of letting abstraction be a transformative experience; in other words, letting the painting go where it wants. A practitioner of daily meditation, Moses has a relaxed way of painting in which—in a Jungian sense—he leaves his body and then lets the paint direct his hand. 

There is a lyrical note in paintings like this, where the beauty of pure abstraction is emphasized over the artist’s ego or “signature style.” In addition to free-form abstraction like this, Moses is also noted for his abstract grid works. His early work is quite exciting, and frankly makes the works of Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman pale in comparison. I think this recent work is very nice.

Moses was born in Long Beach, the son of a Portguese father and English/Scottish mother. He studied art at Long Beach City College, University of Oregon, and UCLA before he became aware of Abstract Expressionism, particularly Rothko, de Kooning, and Gorky. While he was in school, he became a technical illustrator in an aircraft factory. That perhaps explains his fascination with grid abstraction from an early point. Having remained in LA most of his life, he has explored a variety of types of abstraction, including hard edge, biomorphic, crackle-like forms, and semi-representational. Rarely using a brush, Moses works in staining, scraping, splashing, and mopping, sometimes achieving lines with tape or snap lines.

Painting professionally since 1949, his first one-person show was at the Ferus Gallery, the very epicenter of the “Cool School.” Moses became one of its stable of Cool School artists, which included Billy Al Bengston (born 1934), Ed Ruscha (born 1937), Ken Price (1935–2012), and Larry Bell (born 1939).

Monday, July 10, 2017

It Isn’t All in the Title

I’m always a sucker for color. When I see works that I’ve never seen before by an artist I’ve always admired, and they involve color, then I have a sudden Beauty Attack. When Lynda Benlgis was asked for an artist’s statement for the publication Art: A Woman’s Sensibility (© 1975 Miriam Schapiro), she responded: “My statement is my work.” This is just so appropriate to her oeuvre that is so varied and so wonderful. I had never seen these watercolors before. Beauty Attack! 

Lynda Benglis (born 1941, US), Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, Sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-2521bnvg)
Lynda Benglis, Untitled, 1998. Watercolor on paper, sheet: 16" x 12" (40.6 x 30.5 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. 

By the early 1960s, there were artists who rebelled against what they perceived as Abstract Expressionism’s domination of the American contemporary art scene. This "rebellion" not only spawned Pop Art, but also various types of abstraction, including Minimalism. In contrast to the personality-stamped action painting or color field works of AE, Minimalism strove for pure, abstract form devoid of the artist's personal footprint in the work of art's creation.

Minimalism, however, like many of the reactions against Abstract Expressionism, became an entrenched, canonic style that was also subject to rebellion. Benglis’s work since the 1960s has flown in the face of art ideologies and “movements.” In her exploration of form in all media, she rejects the notion of leaving no personal signature in her works. In a way, many of her works are about process, and that’s why she says “My statement is my work.”

Benglis pioneered forms of metamorphic oozing and melting. Her art is sometimes lumped under Process Art because the act of creation, rather than the finished work, emphasizes a timelessness and structural stability. The Process artist's action is finished then the substance is selected and a site chosen, often in a random way. The rest is left to natural forces, time in conjunction with weather, gravity, temperature, etc.

Benglis’s watercolors, like her dramatic multicolored pigmented work, are documents of her process of creation. I dare say these glorious watercolors would have been lauded in the days of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990s period of appropriation, hybridism, and narcissism, however, they are refreshing reminders that some artists remain true to their vision of pure self-expression without boundaries or agendas.

Benglis, born in Louisiana, became interested in the interrelationships between painting and sculpture in the late 1960s. She is arguably best known for her early experiments in pouring brightly colored liquid polyurethane as installations in galleries, creating floor paintings that could easily be associated with sculptors pouring molten bronze.

From these floor pieces Benglis began creating three-dimensional pourings, almost exclusively site specific. Pieces that were meant to fill corners of galleries or hug parts of buildings evolved into hung poured pieces, sometimes covered in Day-Glo paint. She later began casting the poured polyurethane sculptures in bronze to make a less fragile and temporary sculpture, yet still express the process of unsupervised creation through pouring.
I absolutely LOVE this piece at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Is it a sculpture? Is it a painting? Do you LOVE the color?

Lynda Benglis, Fallen Painting, 1968. Pigmented latex rubber, length: ca. 29.5 feet (901.7 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-127bnvg)

I’m not fond of the colors of these melt pieces, but imagine this in contrast to the works of Sol LeWitt or Frank Stella! However, as you can see from the above works, this artist clearly likes working with color.

Lynda Benglis, Modern Art, 1974. Bronze and aluminum, each: 13" x 43" x 29 1/8" (33 x 109 x 74 cm). Private Collection, New York. Photo courtesy of the artist. © 2017 Lynda Benglis / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (T18596bnvg)