Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Compassion in Art, part 2

My Compassion in Art series continues with a look at the subject in photography.

Consuelo Kanaga (1894–1978, US), Untitled, 1930s. Gelatin silver print on paper, 4 1/8" x 3 ½" (10.5 x 8.9 cm). Image © 2018 Brooklyn Museum of Art. (BMA-1446)

Like Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), and Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971), Consuelo Kanaga was an important documentary photographer in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike her contemporaries, despite a successful career of sixty years, Kanaga received little public acclaim or critical success in her lifetime. Her political and social ideologies guided her art. At a time when most social commentary in photography involved images meant to shock the viewer into action, Kanaga's images seduced the viewer with careful composition, intuitive cropping, and reframing.

Kanaga moved from San Francisco to New York in the 1920s. When first in New York, Kanaga became interested in documenting urban poverty and deprivation. At the same time that she was producing pleasing portraits of middle-class people to support herself, she was also creating sympathetic portraits of the inner-city poor.

The Great Depression (1929–1940) provided Kanaga with ample subject matter in terms of people left with nothing and nowhere to go. Her intent in her documentary photographs was to give the public something to think about to prevent poverty, not to shock or shame them. By choosing a close-up on the man on the bench, her point could hardly be considered subtly accomplished.

Zoe Strauss (born 1970, US), Gunshot in the Leg on Gurney, Philadelphia, 2007/2011. Inkjet print on paper, 12" x 18" (30.5 x 45.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Zoe Strauss. (PMA-7364)

Zoe Strauss is a native of Philadelphia. Previously known for her public art happenings and installations, Strauss took up photography in 2000, when she embarked on a ten-year project called Under I-95. She went all-in, devoting her life to the project, and came out the other side an elected member of the famed Magnum Photos cooperative.

An epic, open-ended narrative in photographs “about the beauty and struggle of everyday life,” Under I-95 hinged on an annual, one-day exhibition of Strauss’s street photography—in the form of color photocopies priced at five dollars each—on the concrete pillars under an elevated section of Interstate 95 in South Philadelphia. Although she has photographed in other cities and countries, Strauss continues to document the everyday people in neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Strauss’ work is reflective of the sophisticated evolution of the Snapshot Aesthetic style of photography. The style flowered during the 1960s in the hands of such artists as Diane Arbus (1923–1971) and Garry Winogrand (1928–1984). It mimicked the candid, un-posed, spur-of-the-moment pictures taken by amateurs and middle-class families. Interestingly, between the 1960s and the 2000s, the style has been refined to subtly reveal psychological investigation by the photographer.

What more disturbing element for Strauss to document than the out-of-control gun violence in the US? When you wake up every night at 2 am and hear gun fire in the neighborhood, then that is not a good thing. Unfortunately, as Strauss points out in this photograph, Americans seem to take gun violence casually, even when they are the victim themselves.

Read part one, Compassion in Art (Printmaking). 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Compassion in Art, part 1

A couple of mornings ago, a homeless person was in the parking lot of our building yelling his lungs out to get attention at 6:45 am. I feel bad for these folks who have nowhere to land during the day. When one thinks about it, this is an important social issue that has recurred throughout history. In the ancient world, homeless people would bed down in temple precincts. During the Middle Ages in Europe, churches often housed the homeless. There have been artists throughout history who have taken on the subject as a way of reminding people that these issues persist. Today and tomorrow,I will take a look at this subject in in printmaking and photography.

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879, France), “You were hungry? You were hungry? That’s no excuse! I’m hungry practically every day and I don’t go out and steal bread!,” #15 from the series Men of Justice, published in “Le Charivari” illustrated newspaper, October 20, 1845. Lithograph on paper, 10 7/16" x 13 ¾" (26.5 x 35 cm). Private Collection. © 2018 Davis Art Images (8S-29950)

Honoré Daumier produced almost 4000 prints in his lifetime. He also supplemented his income with painting. While he did some portraits and genre scenes, many of his paintings concern the same subjects as his prints—the lives of the poor, struggling underclass of the 1800s.

In 1834, a law passed banning outright satire of the government, so Daumier turned his attention to the lower middle class and their struggles. An ardent draughtsman, Daumier elevated the genre of lithography to masterful heights in his exploitation of the possibilities of fine nuances of shading and visual texture. It was during this period that lithography became a serious rival to wood engraving for publications such as newspapers, books, and magazines.

Daumier had a very dim view of judges and lawyers as part of the entrenched government that kept poorer people down. He was also always eager to point out the vast differences between the poor and the rapidly expanding middle class in France. What better way than to show a clueless, fat judge who equivocates the idea of being hungry? 

John Biggers (1924–2001, US), Mother and Children, 1952. Lithograph on paper, 16 ¾" x 13 3/8" (42.5 x 34 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 John Biggers/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-4087bivg)

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s galvanized black artists to push for a revival of exhibitions and the study of African American art. The revival of the black artistic community led to the formation of groups dedicated to integrating common aesthetic problems with a commitment to civil rights. The group Spiral, founded in New York in 1963, elevated awareness of the dual motivations among black artists: art that was relevantbasically narrativeto the black community, and the search for individual modern expression outside of political concerns, which would include abstraction.

The work of John Biggers represents this dichotomy among African American artists. His subject matter addressed concerns of the black community, conveyed in an expressive, abstract visual language. His style is a realism tempered by an abstract simplification seen in African art. He drew his subject matter from his experiences growing up in the South, many of them from the period after his father's death.

The artist produced many versions of Mother and Children. In these personal subjects, Biggers reflected on the larger state of African American communities in America and their experiences. His signature style is a complex network of hatching and cross-hatching to build up form, with an expressive exaggeration. The image of a poor, Southern black woman cradling three hungry children was an image that many African Americans, particularly refugees from tenant farming in the South, could identify with.

Check back tomorrow for part two of my Compassion in Art series, which will take a look at this subject in photographs.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Pfahl for Fall

John Pfahl (born 1939, US), Toxic Waste Reclamation Site, Niagara Falls, New York, from the Piles series, 1996. Chromogenic print on paper, 16" x 20" (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Photo © Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Art © 2018 John Pfahl. (AK-2021)

I know that this artist’s name (German origin) is pronounce “Pfaal” instead of “Fawl,” but I couldn’t resist shining a spotlight on him this week—for artistic purposes—as a follow-up to my post about him back in January. He’s one of the most interesting artists featured in the landscape chapter of our Focus on Photography 2nd edition. I’m always intrigued with novel interpretations of an ages-old subject matter that can, quite frankly, get rather dry over time. Pfahl’s interpretations of landscape are an interesting take on the viewer’s perception of what landscape actually is. His landscape photography combines what is seen with how to interpret it (or misinterpret it) based on his brilliant framing of his subjects.

Pfahl, born in New York City, studied at Syracuse University, first receiving a BFA in 1961 and then an MA in communications in 1968. He taught photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and has served as a professor at the Visual Studies department at the University of Buffalo.

Throughout the 1900s, artists questioned the very nature and purpose of art. By the late 1900s, many photographers had concluded that photography was not a medium that always had to record absolute fact. This was not in the sense of Pictorialism’s staged fantasies, but rather in the way the artist framed his subject without distorting focus or perspective. Pfahl explores ways to produce landscape images composed in such a way as to emphasize ambiguity and uncertainty in the viewer.

Pfahl’s landscapes deal not only with presenting them in compositions that question vantage point and scale of forms, but they are informed by his abiding love of landscape and of the environment. Many of his works deal with the erosion of environmental standards, couched in compositions that resemble landscapes. Such was the case with his Piles series of the 1990s. Emulating Ansel Adams’ (1902–1984) iconic views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, Pfahl carefully observed light, atmosphere, and scale in his photographs.

The Piles series features mounds of raw and recycled materials, debris, tires, soil, and toxic waste, imbued with a sense of monumentality and grandeur of real mountains. Pfahl isolates his subjects in this series brilliantly so that scale is uncertain. The only thing that gives it away in this one is the orange plastic fence. And even that could be mistaken for a fence in front of an impressive vista across a valley! He purposely elevates these piles of garbage into a grandeur that he recalls from seeing such alluringly lighted views of mountains in the Sierras and the Alps. A series from 2014, Picture Windows, exhibits the same careful attention to framing and scale in a series of landscape views in which picture windows act as the lens of the camera.

Correlations to Davis programs: Focus on Photography 2E: 10

Monday, October 15, 2018

American-Renaissance-Aesthetic Entrepreneur

I often happen upon an artist’s name and think, “Aha! I’ve never posted about this artist, and his/her work is awesome.” That’s what happened yesterday when I crossed paths with George Jakob Hunzinger’s name. In the annals of American furniture design, nothing better epitomizes the (ahem) “unique” tastes in some of the miscellaneous arts of the American Renaissance Period (1870–1900). This period of American art, often erroneously referred to as “Victorian,” shares the same exuberant exploration of a zillion historical influences in furniture as British furniture of the period, but Victoria was not our queen.

American Renaissance is a better term for this period, because the US was expanding in so many directions at such a rapid pace—socially, industrially, financially, politically and militarily. Also, the middle class was expanding rapidly, and to assert their status, they needed fancy furniture! Well, Hunzinger was just the one to provide it! 

George Hunzinger (1835–1898, US, born Germany), Folding Armchair, ca. 1873. Wood and original upholstery, 31 5/8" x 27 ½" x 29 ¼" (80.3 x 69.9 x 74.3 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5585)

The Industrial Revolution (1760–1820/1840) initiated a process that revolutionized the building of furniture by machines, rather than cabinetmaker artists. In the late 1860s, the Arts and Crafts movement evolved in Britain, and through the 1870s and 1880s spread to the US. The aesthetic of the movement was a return to traditional, handcrafted decorative arts such as furniture, with the combination of fine art and functional design. This ushered in a revival of past furniture styles going back to the Renaissance and even Ancient Egypt.

The middle ground between these two aesthetic poles was what would subsequently be termed “patent furniture.” Patent furniture was aesthetically designed furniture that exploited the most up-to-date industrial techniques without sacrificing “high style.” Hunzinger was a leader in this style of furniture from the 1860s through the 1890s.

Born in Tuttlingen, Germany, Hunzinger immigrated to the US in 1855. His family had been cabinetmakers in Germany since the 1600s. He was already an established furniture maker when he came to the US, eager to build a furniture company that took advantage of America’s far-reaching advancements in industrial technology and inventions. Ultimately, the means of production for Hunzinger’s furniture was a major source of inspiration for his patented designs.

Hunzinger was a prolific inventor himself, securing twenty-one patents in furniture design between 1860 and the year of his death (1898). Among his inventions based on modern convenience rather than concerns about historical styles were extension tables, swivel top and nesting tables, reclining and folding chairs, convertible beds, platform and folding rocking chairs, and an innovative seating material made of braided steel wire.

The artist’s attitude toward modern production methods matched his instinct for modern marketing methods. He offered his furniture in a wide variety of woods, finishes, and upholstery, with price points that appealed to a broad range of customers. His reliance on the mechanical influences in his furniture designs had major impact on American furniture into the mid-1900s. 

George Hunzinger, Folding Rocking Chair, ca. 1870. Walnut, brass, upholstery, 31 ¾" x 17 7/8" x 29" (80.6 x 45.4 x 73.7 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5364)

Folding chairs, such as the red armchair and rocking chair, appealed greatly to the hoards of people moving west during the late 1800s. Imagine the convenience of folding up this rocker and loading it in a wagon to migrate west—a bit of civilization on the frontier! The rocker is one of Hunzinger’s more modestly priced items with it’s simple printed fabric. The red armchair reflects elements of the Renaissance Revival. The design was loosely based on the Italian Renaissance Savonarola chair. 

Elegant folding armchairs were popular among the middle class, who could not always afford to furnish every room in a house extravagantly, moving chairs from one room to another. They were also convenient for elegant outdoor events. Both folding chairs exhibit Hunzinger’s patented construction that featured front legs that served as the side bars of the back. This was easy to produce in one piece, whether turned or straight, and could be very decorative as in the following two examples.

The following two examples demonstrate the confusion of historical styles that ultimately resulted from the mania for historical revival styles. Furniture historians would probably be hard-pressed to pin down a single influence in these designs. The overstuffed pink upholstery is most like part of Rococo Revival, while I’m not sure to what styles the rest of the chair alludes. The overstuffed yellow upholstery also waves at the Rococo Revival style. This armchair features another patented Hunzinger innovation, the “Lollipop Spindle” seen in the lower back of the chair. Hunzinger produced chairs in which Lollipop Spindles that formed the entire back of the chair. Ouch! 

George Hunzinger, Side Chair, ca. 1869. Bonized wood, original upholstery, 44 1/2" x 25 ¾" x 28" (113 x 65.4 x 71.1 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5089)

George Hunzinger, Armchair, 1869. Wood and original upholstery, 35 5/8" x 27 ¼" x 25 ½" (90.5 x 69.2 x 64.8 cm). © 2018 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5070)

Find out more about the many revival styles from the 1800s in my post Revival Curiosities from 2015.

Correlations to Davis Programs: Explorations in Art 1E Grade1: 6.35; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 1: 6.7; Explorations in Art 1E Grade 2: 6.35-36; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 6.9; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.2

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Woodcuts Like Paintings

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011, US), Radius, 1992–1993. Woodcut in nine colors from six blocks on paper dyed in six colors, sheet: 28" x 28" (71.3 x 71.3 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8308fkars)

My significant other and I just had a redo of our vacation in Provincetown that did not end up happening in July. So, in honor of that, I’m presenting Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), a true American art legend who lived in P-town when she was married to Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915–1991). I’ve seen the house they shared there and apparently they had to install a garage door in the back of the house (beachside) in order to accommodate their huge canvases.

We all know Frankenthaler as the pioneer of stained-canvas Color Field painting. I have found myself recently even more in love with her work when I understand how she tried—and succeeded—to translating the Color Field aesthetic to printmaking.

Raised in New York, Frankenthaler became a pupil of pioneer abstractionist Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), whose school in Provincetown I featured prior to my earlier attempt at a P-town vacation. Her earliest works were influenced by the Cubism of Picasso. She moved into freer forms inspired by the organic abstractions of Kandinsky, Miró, and Arp. The pivotal period of formation of her style started around 1951, when she spent summers in a Cape Cod studio. She painted numerous studies of hills and woods in watercolor washes.

From these washes, Frankenthaler produced paintings in thinned oil on raw canvas. Also during that time, she was introduced to Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and seeing his paintings and his methods excited her tremendously. She felt that his method of painting on the floor would be a good jumping-off point for her to realize freer form. Her first exhibited painting in the stained style, Mountains and Seas, exhibited in 1952, had a major and lasting impact on abstract painting.
Frankenthaler was the first artist to explore the possibilities of staining raw canvas. In such a technique, whether in oil or acrylic, the ground and color are integrated and the distinction between foreground and background ceases to exist. As in action painting, the emphasis on pure abstraction is meant to focus attention on the act of painting itself.

Frankenthaler extended her interest in merging support and color to her printmaking. Unfortunately, because Abstract Expressionism was dominated by an emphasis on painting, printmaking was considered by the Art World “elite” to be a marginal art form. After Russian émigré Tatyana Grosman (1904-1982) founded Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island (1957), the European esteem for printmaking was introduced to the New York School and many of the artists reluctantly tried their hand at it (lithography at first).

Frankenthaler, too, reluctantly approached printmaking—beginning with lithography—after seeing the works of Grace Hartigan (1922–2008) and Larry Rivers (1923–2002) in 1961. Around 1974, she began to work in woodcuts. As she had with lithography, she was trying to achieve the same visual effects in woodcut as in her painting. With the initial cutting of the blocks, mixing of colors, approval of registration marks, and selection of paper, she wanted to be totally involved. The mass reproduction of the approved blocks she assumed would be left to printers who were artists in their own right.

Some of Frankenthaler’s multiple block woodcut prints dwarf the Japanese ukiyo-e style, wherein twelve blocks were used. She produced works using up to 102 colors and forty-six blocks of wood! In works such as Radius, which references landscape, Frankenthaler hoped to achieve a result wherein the images seemed to be laid down all at the same time, like her paintings. This was her guiding aim with her woodcuts. Starting in the 1990s, she began to experiment with dyed pulp paper in order to further the effect of layers of color like her color field paintings.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Whose Mod Is It?

Emilio Pucci (1914–1992, Italy), Dress, late 1960s. Printed silk knit, height center back: 33" (83.8 cm). Image © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8695)

Japan, Kimono, 1920s–1930s. Silk plain weave with stencil-printed warps and wefts, height center back: 63" (160 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-8691)

I’ve posted before about how the idea of abstraction has been around since the earliest art produced by humans. However, somehow in the West we think that Western artists “invented” abstraction. The idea of “Mod” as a style evolved during the 1960s with Beatnik and Hippie aesthetics applied to high fashion. It was the first period in fashion design in which contemporary trends in painting were applied to clothing design. Having been a child during the late 1960s, I can vouch for the fact that some of what was designed was incredibly hideous. But, there are some “mod” designs that are truly tasteful and elegant. The Pucci dress is an example (which I’m sure very few women could afford). But, oh look, there’s a similar vertical pattern in the early 1900s kimono! Do we call that “mod” too?

This elegant dress, which probably cost hundreds in the 1960s (a lot of money back then), is the epitome of 60s mod. Pucci was once dubbed the “prince of prints” because of his designs. He introduced abstract patterns based on contemporary art into fashion in the 1950s. The 1950s were the “Leave it to Beaver” era! 

Pucci is such an interesting artist. He studied agriculture at the University of Milan in the 1930s, the got an MS in social science from Reed College in Portland Oregon. He also received a doctorate in science from the University of Florence. I’m not sure where design came into the mix, but he was first noticed designing ski fashions for the Reed College ski team in 1947.

Pucci’s ski fashions inspired him to introduce his own line in 1948 in Capri. He initially designed ski wear and swimwear. His experimentation with bold and bright colors led him to designing scarves, which ultimately led him to designing women’s fashions. By the 1960s, his designs were popular with such heavy-weights as Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962). Pucci’s abstract designs started to be featured in women’s clothing in the 1950s, at that time a real novelty. He was inspired by Southeast Asian batik, African motifs, Sicilian mosaics, and heraldic motifs.

As a colorist, Pucci was inspired by the landscape of the Mediterranean, and also from Southeast Asian countries he visited. I think we can see that the result of all of his influences is this sophisticated abstraction that reminds one of a Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) painting. His designs also have the sense of landscape. Again, Hofmann! 

Ogata Korin (1658–1716), Red and White Plum Blossoms, ca. 1710–1716. Ink, watercolor, and gold leaf on paper mounted on wood, 61 3/8" x 67 ¾" (156 x 172.2 cm). © 2018 Museum of Art, Atami, Japan. (APAH-210)

Interestingly, the same thing (landscapes) inspires kimono patterns in Japan. Any doubts? Look at this screen by Ogata Korin. Tell me there isn’t abstraction in this painting!

Kimonos evolved during the Heian Period (794-1185 CE) in Japan. It became fashionable at that time to layer up to thirteen(!) silk kimonos of differing patterns and colors as a sign of social status or seasons. After the forced opening of Japan to Western trade by the US in 1853, there was the inevitable introduction of Western fashion, which ultimately doomed the kimono as everyday wear. By the time of World War II (1939–1945) to the present day, kimonos have been worn a lot for special occasions.

In many Japanese art forms, pattern is a key element. Japanese art informed the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and Impressionism in the West. I would like to think that this kimono from the 1920s or 30s would fit right in on a 1930s Art Deco movie set as a nice contrast.

You can delve into the history of art as I leave you with this question: Where (precisely) do you see abstraction in art?