Monday, April 30, 2018

Architectural Sculpture or Architecture as Sculpture?

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, Somnathapur, consecrated 1258 CE. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10088)

When Western art history books talk about “architectural sculpture,” it is usually in the context of Romanesque and Gothic churches/cathedrals in Europe. When one is looking at temple architecture in parts of Asia, then we start to imagine that the line between architecture and architectural sculpture is very blurry. When studying temples in India, I am often struck by the observation that not only does the architecture aspire to imitate features of the natural world (like mountains), but the architecture is aspiring to be sculpture!

Chennakesava means “beautiful” (chenna) and “Vishnu” (kesava). This temple is one of the 1500 that were built during the Hoysala empire (1026–1343 CE) and represents the high point of the kingdom’s architectural style. Descriptions of Hoysala architecture always indicate that it was very ornate. Does this mean loaded with sculpture, so much so that the whole building visually takes on a sculptural feeling? Talk about “texture” on a grand scale! This temple is an example of one of the many regional variations on temple architecture that make the late medieval period of Indian architecture (ca. 1192–1526) so fascinating.

This temple is unique among late medieval Indian temple designs in that the mandapa (prayer hall, fronted by the half-hall, ardhamandapa) has a flat, rather than pyramidal tower, roof. Another interesting fact is that the vimana, the tower above the inner sanctum, is the same height and importance as the other sikhara (towers, literally “mountain,” for obvious reasons). This type of sikhara is called the vesara. It is characterized by a squat, pyramidal shape. These sikharas are totally enriched in sculpture that give them a compelling visual texture from a distance.

Hoysala architecture is generally more ornate than other southern styles. The temple is also unique in that it is dedicate to three deities: Vishnu, Krsna, and Siva, with sanctuaries under the sikharas. This temple is sometimes called a “star temple,” because the plan has a sixteen-pointed format.

The earliest Hoysala kings came from the hills northwest of present-day Halebid, which became their capital in 1060. The Hoysala acquired much territory from the Chalukya dynasty (543–753 CE) and the Chola dynasty (300 BCE–1279 CE). By the early 1200s, the Hoysala dynasty was dominant in southern India. Struggles with rival kingdoms and futile territorial ambitions with the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) led to the collapse of the Hoysala during the 1300s. They were succeeded in the region by the Vijayanagar dynasty that ruled from about 1366 to 1646.

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, from entrance gate, Somnathapur. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images (8S-10089)
The vimana is usually visible from the approach to Indian temples. The uniform size of the sikharas at Somnathapur make it hard to distinguish.

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, assembly hall (mandapa) wall with images of Siva and Parvati (left) and Laksmi and Vishnu (center), Somnathapur. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10091)
The two major gods, Siva and Vishnu, are found in their multiple incarnations in Hoysala temple reliefs. Some of these high reliefs depict Siva in action, such as slaying a demon or dancing on the head of an elephant. His consort Parvati or Nandin the bull often accompany him. He may be represented as Bhairava, another of Siva’s many incarnations. The sculptural program here, so rich and beautifully high relief, was created at roughly the same period of much of the Gothic sculpture programs in European churches. The sculpture also serves the same function as the Gothic: educating worshippers about their faith. Hello global village!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Is “Self-Taught” a Necessary Descriptive Term in Art History?

I was recently studying the insanely wonderful art of contemporary artist Carmen Cartiness Johnson (I posted about her back in February), and I noticed that her artist’s statement said right off the bat that she is “self-taught.” Now, except for a year and a half at an art museum school in Chicago, I am essentially a self-taught artist. But, unlike Johnson, my work is not exhibited in museums. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I have written biographies of hundreds of artists—about where they studied, who they studied with, and who influenced them. And yet, I feel as if the phrase “self-taught” often conjures up images of “visionary art” in the minds of some art historians (especially ones with PhDs).

Ever since the early 1900s, what was once considered naïve, self-taught art was reevaluated for what it truly is: art that responds to an inner vision that often is richer and more expressive than the work of artists who follow the academic path. This was especially influential on many well-known artists of Dada, Surrealism, and abstraction. I have personally resolved to downplay formal education and emphasize what inspired artists, and how they had the innate ability to express that, in future writings of artist bios. How about that?

How many museum walls would be noticeably bare without the work of “self-taught’ artists? I present to you the work of artists represented in major museums, all with “big names” who were essentially “self-taught” artists.

Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853, US), Sarah Salisbury Tappan, ca. 1830. Watercolor on ivory, 3 7/16" x 2 11/16” (8.7 x 6.8 cm). © 2018 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-380)
When Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853) was growing up on a farm in Templeton, Massachusetts in the late 1700s/early 1800s, the few rights that were accorded to women did not include attending the limited number of art schools in the US at the time. Women who showed an aptitude for drawing at an early age were mostly trained by male relatives, if they happened to be artists. Goodridge honed her drawing skills when she moved to Boston to spend time with a brother who lived there. Although she may have taken lessons in Boston, she was largely self-taught. Portrait miniature painting was profession in which it was easier for women to succeed because the work could be done at home. In Boston, she became acquainted with the Grand Manner painter Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), whose work may have informed her own style.

Goodridge opened a studio in Boston in 1820 and became one of the most prolific portrait miniaturists of the first half of the 1800s. Compared to her contemporary miniature painters, Goodridge’s figures show more solid modeling, and an acute attention to physical detail. At the time this portrait of a woman from an elite Worcester family was painted, Goodridge was producing as many as two paintings a week and was able to support her family on her art.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910, US), Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1873–1876. Oil on canvas, 24 ¼" x 38 3/16" (61.5 x 97 cm). © 2018 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0230)
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is by far—next to Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)—one of the supreme American realists of the 1800s. Homer was born in Boston and his parents encouraged him to draw at an early age. Drawing became the staple of his income for the first two decades of his life. He honed this skill by keen observation of everyday life. That genre became one of his strong points as an illustrator when he was hired by Boston lithographer John Bufford (1810–1870) (a rival to Currier and Ives) in 1855. He executed book illustrations and magazine and music sheet covers, which also honed his artistic skill.

In 1859 he became a freelance illustrator in New York for a number of publications and served as a war “correspondent” for Harper’s weekly magazine during the Civil War (1860–1865). During that war he concentrated more and more on painting. He translated many of his Civil War sketches into paintings after 1866, when he spent a year in France. Although Impressionism was budding in France at the time, Homer was drawn more to the Realism movement, particularly the Barbizon painters in their emphasis on painting outdoors and visual reality. He was also moved by the work of Dutch Baroque landscape artists whose work he saw in the Louvre museum.

As early as 1873, Homer became fascinated with painting scenes of the ocean and other bodies of water after a visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he produced a watercolor of this scene. Like Dutch Baroque seascape artists, Homer produced many outdoor studies of waves and light on water to produce his marine works, which were always painted entirely in the studio. For the effects of bright sunlight and deep shadow, Homer used the traditional academic method of tints and shades using black and white added to local color.

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991, US), Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34, 1953–1954. Oil on canvas, 80" x 100" (203.2 x 254 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 Estate of Robert Motherwell, Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-453movg)
Abstract Expressionism was the first indigenous modernist art movement in the US. It blossomed after a roughly twenty-year period in which realism, especially social realism, was ruler. The movement was influenced greatly by émigré artists from Europe during World War II (1939–1945), many of whom had a Surrealism and Dada background.

The Surrealist aesthetic of “automatic creation,” or the superiority of the subconscious in creation, was one of the motivating factors among the Abstract Expressionists. The Abstract Expressionists were also attracted to any European movement that advocated total abstraction, which included De Stijl and the Russian movements of Suprematism and Constructivism.

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was the youngest of the “first generation” of the Abstract Expressionists. His early education was in ART HISTORY, literature, and philosophy at Stanford University in California. As a painter he was largely self-taught, except for some brief formal study with the Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962) in New York in 1941. He met a number of other Surrealists there, and he was most impacted by the idea of their aesthetic grounded in the intuitive, irrational, and accidental aspects of creating a work of art.

Motherwell painted his first version of Elegy to the Spanish Republic in 1948. It was his profound reaction to the defeat of the Spanish Republic by Fascists in the 1930s. He painted more than 150 versions of this theme throughout his life. In contrast to the bright palette of his other paintings, the Elegy series was dominated by black and white. Like Picasso’s (1881–1973) painting Guernica, Motherwell’s Elegy series equated black with death and white with life. By the 1960s, the series had become monumental in scale, almost mural-like. The artist intended the loosely brushed forms to symbolize universal tragedy. This particular version related to Motherwell’s feelings about the Korean War (1950–1953). 

Wong Wucius (born 1936, China), Towards Enlightenment B (Green), 1991. Color offset lithograph on paper, 30" x 21 5/8" (76.2 x 54.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Wucius Wong. (PMA-5258)
Artists of an independent or progressive mind were obviously not welcome in the China of Mao Tse Tung (1893–1976). After the formation of the Republic of China in 1948, many Chinese artists adopted Western artistic styles, but this was quashed when the Communists took over and advocated for Chinese artists to pursue “revolutionary realism.” This is the Western equivalent of social realism, a style that is meant to be uplifting to everyday life in a hit-over-the-head way.

The “Cultural Revolution” (1966–1976) was meant to bring society into conformance with Mao’s “progressive” ideas, but it ended up in the persecution of many well-known artists. The “failure” of Communism in the late 1980s, along with the opening of more dialogue with China by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in 1978, engendered a boom of the Chinese economy in the 1990s. Artists turned increasingly away from a political context and experimented within traditional subjects and forms, often in the realist aesthetic. Increasingly, however, modernist interpretations of traditional Chinese art became the norm.

Wong Wucius (born 1936) was born in Guangdong and moved with his family to Hong Kong in 1938. He initially pursued studies in literature, but gradually decided on a vocation as an artist, He began as a self-taught painter, and augmented his work with the renowned calligrapher Lui Shou-kwan (1919–1975) at age 14. His teacher’s circle included many artists who were pioneers in exploring Western modernism within traditional Chinese themes such as the venerated landscape.

Towards Enlightenment is an ongoing series in which Wong combines the traditional Buddhist search for Nirvana—always connected to landscape painting—with a modern concern for abstract design that he learned from the work of artists such as Zao Wou-ki (1921–2013), who were influenced by the late landscapes of Cézanne (1839–1906). In combining Western modernism with Chinese tradition, these works do not diminish the emotional connection to landscape that is so traditional in Chinese painting!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


Tejo Remy (designer, born 1960, Netherlands) and Droog Design (manufacturer, firm 1993 to present, Amsterdam), Rag Chair, 1991. Rags, metal strips, 39 3/8” x 23 5/8" x 23 5/8" (100 x 60 x 60 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Tejo Remy. (PMA-8493)

I read a very disturbing article recently, which stated that a large percentage of the clothes we could donate for reuse ends up in landfills. This is disturbing because a lot of the materials do not deteriorate naturally, and it causes a big problem where they are buried. Of the clothing that does get donated, much of it gets recycled for use in furniture fill and insulation manufacturing. I guess I was naïve to believe that the fashion treasures I donate end up making someone else look fabulous! I have discovered in recent years, however, that Dutch designers are, among many, very active in the area of recycled interior design. Tejo Remy (born 1960) is certainly a pioneer in this effort.

Simple solutions to structural problems are a feature of Remy’s designs. He takes everything available in the everyday world as “media” for his designs, and comes up with stunningly simple but also ingenious solutions to interior design. Imagine a living room with a set of these obviously comfortable side chairs. It sure beats the cold, soulless Barcelona furniture of Mies van derRohe (1886–1969), which has had a resurgence in popularity among those who weren’t around for the first incarnation of the style.

Although these chairs were called “rag chairs,” they are comprised mostly of discarded garments. Even though Remy no longer works for the company, Droog still markets these chairs and offers the customer the ability to add their own discarded garments as part of the chair. If this is not a comment on our throw-away society, I don’t know what is!

Remy studied at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Department of 3D Design. Sustainability is the guiding principle behind his designs, recycling everyday objects in his interior work since the early 1990s. This was the period just coming out of the “greed decade,” as I call it, or the Reagan Era. I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with another of his landmark designs, the You Can’t Discard Your Memories chest-of-drawers from the same year as his Rag Chair. It’s simply brilliant. 

Tejo Remy, You Can’t Discard Your Memories chest of drawers, 1991. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Tejo Remy. (MOMA-D0490)

The only downside to “sustainability” and “recycling” is that one pays dearly for the cachet of the designer’s name. The same is true with the furniture designs of Philippe Starck (born 1949), who employs discarded industrial materials in many of his designs. Frank Gehry (born 1929) explored furniture made of corrugated cardboard, which are over the moon in price. The Rag Chair is listed on Droog’s website for €2694.21! May I just say something everyone’s probably thinking: Why is something so good for the planet (and so visually stunning) so expensive?

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Awesome “Find”

Yun Gee (Gee Wing Yun, 1906–1963, US, born China), Skull, 1926. Oil on paperboard mounted on wood, 11 1/8" x 15 ½" (28.3 x 39.3 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-337)

In the annals of art history—and I mean the standard art history texts used for high school and college—obviously thousands of significant artists are left out. Well, as I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, I’m here to correct these many oversights! When we discuss early American modernism, it usually involves artists from the East Coast. Well, surprise, there were pioneer modernists from the West Coast at the same time, and Yun Gee (1906–1963) was one of them.

The paintings of Yun Gee are such a wonderful interlude between the Armory Show of 1913 and Abstract Expressionism. And yet, it seems that they are seldom included in studies of early American modernism, because he spent a lot of his time in San Francisco and Paris. He was also active in New York.

Gee was born near Canton, China to a merchant father who spent much time in San Francisco. Gee joined his father in 1921 and settled near Chinatown, enrolling in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). The most notable influence of Gee’s mature work was his teacher, the painter Otis Oldfield (1860–1969), whose own work reflected the influence of late Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).

This painting, Skull, was executed during a period when Gee helped form the Modern Gallery on Montgomery Street in San Francisco with a group of avant-garde artists. It was a venue that featured the works of abstractionists and would eventually become the San Francisco Art Center. In 1927, Gee went to Paris, where he immediately became intimate with members of avant-garde art movements from Cubism and Futurism to abstraction. He exhibited often at the Salon des Indépendants—the venue for artists considered too avant-garde for the mainstream art scene.

He returned to the US, settling in New York in 1931. Despite shows at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (1932), Gee struggled through the Depression years (1929–1940), due in large part to the preference for Social Realism at the time in the US, as well as discrimination against his Asian heritage. He painted murals and taught art for the WPA during the Depression, and his painting style ultimately was honed into a combination of Cubism and a more ironic (rather than “social”) sense of realism. A second stint in Paris (1936–1939) garnered him two one-person exhibitions at the Galerie à la Reine. After his return to the US, his painting style gradually drifted toward abstraction that reflected Abstract Expressionism.

Painting was not Gee’s only creative offering. He wrote poetry, which often accompanied his paintings, that reflected both Taoist tradition and the modern poetry of people such as Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) (whom he had befriended while in Paris). He also danced, designed sets, and wrote for the stage. Although he was known best as a painter, he expanded his search for beauty in the world through bird-watching and playing numerous Chinese instruments.

Works such as the following two paintings lead me to believe he may have been in contact with either Morgan Russell (1886–1953) or Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890–1973), two American artists in Paris who pioneered the Cubism/Orphism-inspired movement Synchronism! Am I right?

Yun Gee, Sleeping Girl, 1926–1927. Oil on linen mounted on paperboard, 14 7/8" x 19 ¾" (37.7 x 50.3 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-481)
Yun Gee, Man with a Pipe (Head of a Man), 1926–1927. Oil on paperboard, 15 3/8" x 10 15/16" (39.1 x 27.8 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC. (SI-482)

Monday, April 2, 2018

A Breath of Spring

Kenneth Noland (1924–2010, US), April, 1960. Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 16" x 16" (40.7 x 40.7 cm). Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2018 Estate of Kenneth Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York. (PC-310novg)

What better way to celebrate the beginning of April than to see COLOR. Kenneth Noland’s (1924–2010) painting named for this month makes me think of blue skies with a bright sun and the smell of mown grass. (I know everyone loves that smell when spring weather starts getting better.) I’m particularly fond of this work because of the use of cobalt blue and secondary colors from it, including the outer ring with dark blue outlines that verge on violet. And we all know that blue and yellow equals green. This painting has it all—primaries, secondaries, and complements!

April is transitional to Noland's later circle paintings. While the inner rings are tightly controlled in their description, the outer circles tend toward irregular contours, with the outermost circle a painterly ring of cerulean blue. This may reflect a hangover effect of Abstract Expressionist action painting. Another source for the radiant energy of these concentric circles may be early American modernist sun paintings such as Arthur Dove’s (1880–1946) Red Sun (1935, Phillips Collection) or Georgia O'Keeffe’s (1887–1986) Evening Star III (1917, Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Color Field painting is sometimes called “post-painterly abstraction” to denote that the artists who were part of the style rejected the idea of individual brush gesture, the hallmark of action painting. Hard Edge painting evolved from Color Field, which emphasizes a total unity of surface with sharply defined forms contrasted with blank canvas, avoiding the appearance of figures on a field.

Born in the art colony town of Asheville, North Carolina, Noland studied at nearby Black Mountain College (1946–1948), working with Minimalist Ilya Bolotowsky (1907–1981) and geometric Color Field artist Josef Albers (1888–1976). After a year in Paris in 1948, he returned to the US, moving to Washington, DC in 1949. His paintings from this time reflect the all-over painting abstractions of the European counterpart to Abstract Expressionism, l'Art Informel.

Noland frequently returned to Black Mountain for visits. In 1950, he met Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), an artist who was experimenting with staining raw canvas. He also met art critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism Clement Greenberg (1909–1994). Through them, Noland became aware of Abstract Expressionism.

Noland immediately began experimenting with Frankenthaler's staining style for his own brand of Color Field works, abstract canvases saturated with pure color. Returning to Washington, he encountered a group of painters known as the Washington Color School Painters, among them Morris Louis (1912–1962), who, like Frankenthaler, stained raw canvas with pure color.

Noland's first completely unique statements of Color Field lasted from the mid-1950s to about 1962, after he had discovered the center of the canvas as a focal point for his compositions. This resulted in paintings where the principal image of concentric circles is exactly centered on the square canvas. In emphasizing concentric circles, Noland eliminated the time-honored method of looking at a painting from left to right.