Wednesday, November 26, 2014

ARTicle: Pop Art

According to art historian Sam Hunter, Pop Art is an “original and irreverent parody of the imagery and artifacts of commercial culture.”

The germ of Pop Art lay in the work of one of Abstract Expressionism's finest painters, Willem de Kooning. His use of women as points of departure for painting triggered work by other artists which brought back “subject matter” into painting.

San Francisco artist Richard Diebenkorn produced paintings in the 50s which resembled Abstract Expressionism with a geometric division of the picture within a portrayal of interior scenes and landscapes. You could see it as scene but you were constantly reminded that you were looking at paint by the way it was painted – a heavy impasto and loose, painterly application.

Larry Rivers introduced meticulous drawing, of Washington crossing the Delaware and other North American folklore – this embedded in a loosely-painted style. Robert Raushenberg added to that style rags, fragments of comic strips and other discarded materials. His first “assemblage” was his own bedding, a sheet and quilt that he nailed to the wall and painted on. Despite the earlier Dada movement this work shocked the public. A later assemblage included a stuffed goat with a tire around its waist.

Jasper Johns, a contemporary and friend of Raushenberg, took as his subject two-dimensional objects such as flags, numbers and targets. To these he added shelves on which he placed real objects – spoons, cast plaster faces, beer cans. The consistent quality of Johns' work is its elegant craft. Johns and Raushenberg tied together the strands of Abstract Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism as a bridge to Pop Art.

True Pop burst forth in 1962 in exhibitions in New York City, primarily at Sidney Janis Gallery. James Rosenquist was a billboard painter and his huge paintings look like close-ups of advertisements. Roy Lictenstein painted single frames from comic strips, an “Oh Brad” from a syrupy love story. Later he was to use the comic book style, with its ben day printing process, to parody famous modern paintings.

Jim Dine continued the Abstract Expressionist style but used it to present commonplace objects, like pliers, a hatchet, palette, coat hanger, valentine heart, bathrobe. What stands out with Dine is his mastery of drawing.

Claus Oldenberg gave us soft sculpture. He would render a telephone, a hamburger, hot water bottle or other everyday objects in materials that made them look like they were melting or had collapsed. He has done commissions for many major cities. In downtown Philadelphia there is a huge clothespin, this one in steel.

Andy Warhol is the Pop Artist's Pop Artist and the most famous, and outrageous, of the group. His debut exhibit featured sculpture; wooden rectangular forms with silk-screened images of Brillo Pad boxes, stacked up as if in the grocery. Even more well known were his Campbell's Soup paintings which simply depict rows of the stacked soup cans. Warhol went on to bring images of movie stars (notably Marilyn Monroe, Elvis), politicians (Mao), car accidents, the electric chair and money. He called his studio The Factory and hired assistants to help produce his art. He also began making films, just as controversial as his paintings. Setting up a camera facing the Empire State building he produced an eight hour “documentary”. This he titled “Empire”. He put actors nude in a restaurant scene, pointed the camera and directed them to improvise. “The Nude Restaurant” was then whatever happened on camera.

Warhol sought publicity, doing things the art world tended to shun, like endorse commercial products. But even these were transformed by his presence, as with the soup cans. Him just sitting there, blankly and blandly staring at the camera, forced a thoughtful response to what otherwise would be commonplace. His presence may not have increased product sales but it served to amplify his fame, not to mention wealth.

The artist also authored books, did speaking engagements (once creating an uproar by sending someone in his place, posing as him) and publishing Interview Magazine, an oversized collection of interviews with celebrities which pre-dated the supermarket celebrity mags like People.

While Warhol was making endorsements, movies, paintings, portraits of the rich and famous, he was also accumulating a tremendous collection of art himself. He frequented the auction houses and antique shops, buying a bewildering variety of objects from an equally diverse range of history. After his death in 1988 his collection was auctioned off and a foundation set up to provide grants to artists to further their careers. An Andy Warhol museum was sited in his hometown, Pittsburg.

The Pop artists took a look at and commented on the popular and commercial culture. The gullibility of the “consumer” to Madison Avenue marketing techniques which promote an obsessive material acquisitiveness were held up to parody. It is interesting that the essential Pop artist himself succumbed to the obsession. Perhaps he wasn't as “ironic” as was supposed. Or maybe this was just more irony.

This ARTicle first appeared in the Dublin Georgia Courier Herald in 1989, in a slightly different form but with the same illustration.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

ARTicle: Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expression emerged in the late 1940s, growing out of the influx of European artists fleeing fascism, and the theories they brought with them. It was the second wave of European modernism, the first not having caught on here 30 years earlier.

The idea of painting “automatically”, without thinking, without plan, drawing from that part of the brain where we dream – that Surrealist notion was used by the Abstract Expressionists but they left out the dream images, they just “automatically” put paint on canvas and moved it around until it seemed like time to stop.

Many of the painters had studied various eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism. Another influence, the existential philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, where the individual is seen as alone in the universe, creating meaning. Contemporary writers were similarly motivated, especially those known as the Beats, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They overlapped with the musicians of that time and city such as the Jazz of Thelonius Monk.

So these painters stood before their blank canvases, looking for that “right” arrangement of paint. Failure to find it spelled deep anxiety for some. More than a few were to commit suicide.

The largest collection of work from this period can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York city. Most Art museums in major cities have followed MOMA's lead, gathering a collection also. The prices now are astronomical, blue chip, often in the millions. When the paint was still wet they could be had for a few hundred dollars.

The chief artists of the movement, sometimes called Action Painters, were a varied crew. Jackson Pollock is famous for his drips and splatters. “My child could do that.” was and is still uttered before this work sometimes by the unbelievers (like the writer Tom Wolfe who wrote a disparaging, philistinian tome called, The Painted Word). Others opine, “It looks like a dropcloth.” In a way they do. Jackson would lay the canvas flat on the floor and drop paint while walking around it or from step ladders, creating meandering swirls. What he did was what all painters do, choose colors and put them somewhere. The finished canvas is judged by the same standard as other art, the total effect. No one before Pollack thought to apply paint the way he did. Anyone since who tries it will likely be considered an imitator. He sort of has the patent. Pollock had a serious alcohol problem and was killed in a car accident in 1956, possibly a suicide.

Mark Rothko represents another strain in the movement, more mystical and other-worldly than Pollock. His most mature work consists of horizontal bars of color seemingly floating in space. Amazingly he agonizingly doubted the value of his work and became another suicide statistic.

In the east there is the idea of a Mantra, an image to stare at or word to chant which helps one enter a trance-like state to experience the unnameable, the godhead, field of being or whatever word you might use to point at the ineffable. That idea is present in various way in this movement. With Pollock's paintings you are aware of the action of the painter, the trail of the physical act of painting. With Rothko you are more transported to a place of contemplation.

Another painter in the movement was Willem De Kooning, a virtuoso akin to a great violinist. His most well-known series used the frenzied expressionist application of paint to depict semi-abstract, grotesque women. Later in the 50s he did huge and wonderful abstractions, breathtaking blowups of his skilled brushwork.

Other artists were Arshille Gorky, a painter of exquisite and calm abstraction (unlike his life which also ended in suicide); Franz Kline, known for his large, powerful works in black and white; Helen Frankenthaler with her streaming and layered bands of thinned down paint; Grace Hartigan's confident and deft sensibility; and Barnett Newman for a geometric look that eventually evolved into a sparse, single vertical line. Many other painters worthy of study produced works as part of this movement. One wonders what kept them going (those who did keep going) given their almost complete lack of monetary reward. But their impact on the western world was tremendous. They changed the way painting is defined, what we expect a painting to. They transferred the world art capital to New York City, and they enriched us by what they left behind.

This article was written originally for the Dublin, GA Courier Herald in 1989.

Friday, November 14, 2014

ARTicle: Picasso, 1881 - 1973

When Mozart was three, the story goes, he watched his father give his sister a piano lesson, after which he sat down and played it from memory. Genius sometimes makes itself felt early.

There is a museum in Barcelona of Picasso's work. When he was only ten years he was painting small neighborhood scenes – a view of a road on a hill, some chickens... He was already doing several paintings a day, a pattern he maintained most of the rest of his 93 years.

The paintings were amazingly competent. Picasso's father, it is said, a teacher and painter, gave up painting when he saw that his young son had already surpassed his talent.

At the turn of the century, 19 year old Pablo arrived in Paris, capital of the art world. This was a time when Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and the impressionists were finally being recognized, in advanced circles, as important artists. Picasso quickly tried all the styles and by 1905 had evolved into what is called his blue period – melancholy paintings in cool blues, prompted probably by a friend's suicide and his extreme poverty.

His palette gradually lightened into gay pastels, his rose period. The poverty was not to last. A wealthy North American writer, Gertrude Stein, took him under her wing (as she later did Hemingway). She purchased many of his paintings and promoted him to others.

Picasso was to become the richest and most widely known artist of all time but his early career was marked by great shifts that confused and alienated many of his supporters. By 1930 he had more or less settled into a style. He had another 43 years to live and work.

In 1906 he did a large panting that shocked even his radical friends. It depicted several standing women in a strange flattened style. The faces were grotesque and mask-like. The artist had seen an exhibit of Pacific Island sculpture and found in it a powerful source for his art. He kept this painting, Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, out of sight, continuing to paint his scenes of circus and theater people. But even into these began to appear the new influence.

The painter Paul Cezanne, who died in 1906, had evolved a style of painting that heavily influenced Picasso. Cezanne would color his pictures without slavish regard to the objects being depicted. An apple might be red, then again it might be blue. Another more important aspect of his work was the fact that he would move his easel from time to time while working on the same painting. This created distortion and flattening of perspective which Picasso took much further.

He began to simplify and flatten, so that the paintings came to look like a view through a shattered window. His friends Braque and Juan Gris joined him in this series, creating what came to be called Cubism.

At first Cubism was loose, groping and awkward. Later it became very refined and later still it evolved into a flat play of colored shapes which still referred to things in the world (a guitar, a portrait, still life) but were so abstract that the colors and shapes could be enjoyed just for themselves.

Interspersed throughout Picasso's career was another style. It ranged from a very fine descriptive, linear drawing (portraits, figures on the beach) to cartoonish and playful scenes of dancers, frolicking families and circus troupes. Sometimes the two styles came together in the same painting. Picasso's subject and approach was extremely broad as were his ventures beyond painting into pottery, printmaking and sculpture.

Picasso will be remembered for his immense output – thousands of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery, and for his unique touch. He had many imitators, and in the beginning he imitated and learned from other artists but his style became unmistakably his own. His mark on history, what remains of it, is assured.

Friday, November 7, 2014

ARTicle: Dada, Surrealism and War

Dada was an art movement which reacted to the madness of World War I. The artists were saying, in essence, if this is what rational thinking brings us, let’s try a little irrational. Scientific theories were also in the air that would soon lead to the ultimate rational achievement, the atomic bomb.
The movement was made up of artists and poets, sculptors and writers, initially in Switzerland. They would hold events where three or more poets would read different poems at once. They might disrupt symphony concerts by standing to lecture or shout nonsense. The most extreme Dada act was suicide, or even murder.
A fur-lined cup, a flat-iron with tacks glued to the bottom, a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool, a urinal turned upside down and signed R. Mutt – these are a few of the Dada acts offered as sculpture.
Marcel Duchamp, the “creator” of the urinal, was probably the most influential of the group. His painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, outraged the public in 1913. Today it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. It depicts a figure apparently coming down stairs, very abstract, broken into planes and facets.
Dada eventually developed into Surrealism, losing some of its wildness. Surrealism is chiefly characterized by strange, dream-like scenes: a train coming out of a fireplace or a mountain-size rock floating above the ocean.
The late Salvador Dali is the most famous Surrealist with his waxed moustache and zany antics. The Surrealist approach was to try to paint “automatically”, without thinking, trying to tap into that part of the brain where we dream. The paintings had the disjointed look of dreams, more often nightmares, with melting clocks, floating tables, upside down people.
The link between Dada and Surrealism is the irrational. Dada was based in anger at the senseless slaughter of war. Surrealism was more interested in exploring the irrational as a psychological state. In this it derived largely from the work of Freud, Jung and other groundbreaking practitioners of the new-ish art of psychiatry.
Artists of different temperaments developed in other directions. Malevich is credited with making the first abstract painting. He painted a tilted white square on an off-white canvas in 1911.
Vanguard artists Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee explored abstraction over the years 1915-1944. They saw parallels between painting and music. Music speaks to the ear, painting to the eye; the message is the same. For Kandinsky painting was composition of visual elements: color, shape, line. Like music one could simply delight in the arrangement, see a red triangle followed by a distorted checker pattern. Again, like music he recognized an emotional play. “Color is the keyboard of the emotions”, he said.
Klee too was concerned to compose line and color. His art was whimsical without being trivial. In the course of meandering through his visual signs one encounters sudden surprises, a series of lines and shapes then an unexpected fish or cup or some other playful and loaded image. Looking at chief preoccupations of 20th century art – the exploration and celebration of imagination. Klee said, “The tree reaches roots deep into the earth and brings forth blossoms. The artist plums the depths of the self and creates art.”
The art capital of the western world had been in Italy, France, Spain, Holland but always Europe. The rise and terrible spread of fascism saw many or Europe’s great artists flee to the U.S. Here they had tremendous influence, so much so that by 1950 the art capital of the western world had settled in New York City.
  • Author's Note: This ARTicle was first published in the Dublin Courier Herald in a slightly different form in 1989 (illustration by the author).

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Western Artists at the turn of the 20th century were faced with an emerging modern era, which they enthusiastically embraced or scornfully dismissed. Young Picasso was an enthusiast, attracted particularly to Paul Cezanne's paintings, which were, in part, geometric simplifications of the subject, whether a portrait or landscape. Picasso developed this to its logical conclusion, and beyond, in ways that would probably have scandalized Cezanne. This was Cubism.

Marcel Duchamp too reacted to Cezanne, at first working with the faceted planes typical of early Cubism as in his Nude Descending a Staircase. Cezanne's work was so radical in its time that you either rejected it or took on the task of re-thinking what art was. This Duchamp did with a vengeance, reducing art to its essence – choice. Duchamp expanded what could be “chosen” in art, from brushstrokes to urinals, bags of charcoal, bottle driers... what came to be known as the ready made, instant art. Duchamp's impact is seen in the periodic re-emerging of his take on things, such as the Conceptual Art Movement of the early 70s, or the more recent Jeff Koons phenomenon.

While Modernism was being born in Europe a movement in the U.S. was forming around the painter Robert Henri. For him the important artists were Frans Hals, Velazquez and Manet. Their styles and subject aligned with his emphasis on vitality. He seems to have been unaware of the revolution in painting occurring in France. Modernism had as yet not gained the notoriety it soon would. When finally it reached him, he completely dismissed it.

The movement that Henri founded came to be called the Ash Can School. It was paralleled in literature by the novels of Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. These authors were expressing outrage at the harsh living conditions endured by citizens in the rapidly growing cities. Successful industrialists were ruthlessly exploiting labor, reaping vast wealth and literally crumbs for the workers (sounds familiar). The painters were less interested in protesting than in sympathetically depicting the lives of ordinary people, creating a democratic and optimistic art. The term Ash Can derived from their humble subject.

Henri returned from Europe in 1891. The artists who gathered around him were newspaper illustrators – William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan. They joined him in New York City where he started an art school. Their style of painting was part of the tradition Europe's advanced painters were discarding. What at first outraged critics was their subject. It was just not considered worthy of “high art” to depict boxers, street urchins and tenement houses. As European art was introduced in New York via Gallery 291 and the huge Armory Show, the essential conservatism of the Ash Can School, subject aside, became apparent. But it suited the country and the avant garde had to germinate until the 40s.

Though Modernism only briefly caught the public's eye it seriously engaged a group of U.S. painters who created a substantial body of work. The dominant influence was Cubism, the reduction of subject to geometric planes. This was joined by a brilliant color derived from French Fauvism (literally the wild beasts, so called by critics of their first exhibit) and German Expressionism. Some of the painters worked in a modern mode for only a few years then settled into styles more compatible with the larger conservatism of the time. Others sustained the modernist impulse throughout their careers.

Georgia O'Keefe was one of these. In her 90s when she died, her paintings are of vaguely organic forms, bones and flowers – all in a highly personal style. John Marin is known for his water colors of Maine, painted in an abstracted, fragmented array of planes, recognizable as landscape but enjoyable as color harmony. Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella painted scenes of factories, shipyards and cities in their unique Cubist style which emphasized diagonal division of the picture. Stuart Davis incorporated architectural elements also but reduced cityscape to a near cacophony of colored shapes, referring loosely to the subject and especially including billboards and advertising, anticipating Pop Art by at least a decade.

These painters were shunted aside by the art public in favor of the second wave of the Ash Can School, the American Scene painters. The diverse artists of this movement held in common a fondness for peculiarly U.S. subject. For some it was a critical look (the great depression was in full force), for others an affirmation. Black artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden were also producing fine work as part of this movement.

The two main painters of the “affirmative” or regional school were actually defectors from the satire of their earlier work. Grant Wood's painting, titled American Gothic, became highly popular. It was seen as embodying virtues particular to this country. Yet the painting was intended to satirize narrow prejudice. Wood is said to have gradually adopted the popular interpretation. His later works were patriotic scenes from U.S. history. Thomas Hart Benton shifted also from social concerns to celebrating Ozark farmers, fiddle-dancing and plowing fields.

The Social-Realist wing of the American Scene painters dealt with urban life. Some, as Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield portrayed the downside of the U.S. success story: alienation, desolation and spiritual vacancy. Others were less psychological such as Reginal Marsh, Ben Shahn and Isabel Bishop, in their depicting of the victims of capitalism run amuck.

These painters, and many others, developed their unique styles while part of a more general movement. They defined that movement by what they accomplished. Ultimately, like all artists, they used their art to both make sense of and shape their world.

This article originally appeared, in a slightly difference form, in the Dublin, GA Courier Herald, in 1989.