Saturday, December 21, 2013

How To Dispose of 5000 Works of Art: Herb and Dorothy 50 x 50

Robert Boyd

The collector's mania sneaks up on you. I'm in my super-cluttered bedroom looking around, and there are 51 visible artworks (and many more in portfolios on my bookshelves as well as artworks hanging in other rooms). They range from a painted postcard sent to me by Earl Staley and silkscreened limited edition beer-bottles with art by Ron Regé, Jr. and C.F. to paintings by Lane Hagood, Rachel Hecker and and Chris Cascio. I'm not saying this to brag--well, maybe a little--but to point out what all serious collectors come to realize--that they have a lot of stuff and will someday need to dispose of it.

We think of collectors as rich people, but despite the shocking auction prices we read about, the reality is that almost anyone can collect art. Small artwork, prints, art by non-"big name" artists can all be pretty affordable. If you can buy directly from an artist, that usually saves you some money. Sometimes you can trade for art--if you offer a service that artists need. (Hence the art collections of dentists.)

The Vogels are the gods of this approach to collecting. A quick recap of their story: Herbert Vogel was an amateur painter who worked for the post office. His wife Dorothy had a job at a public library. They loved art. They were really into pop art when they got married in 1962, but it was too expensive for them. So they started buying minimal art (not quite yet the new thing when they started). They made a deal with one another--they would live on Dorothy's salary and buy art with Herbert's income. And they did, for decades. In the end, they had a collection of over 4000 pieces of art, which they donated to the National Gallery. In 2008, a really entertaining film , Herb & Dorothy by Megumi Sasaki, was made about the couple. And that seems like it should have been the end of it. The problem is that Herb and Dorothy kept on collecting and kept on donating to the National Gallery, which finally said, enough! As big as the National Gallery is, it just couldn't absorb 5000+ pieces of art.

So they came up with a wonderful solution. They made a gift of art to 50 museums--one in each state--of 50 pieces of art. This is the 50x50 program. Thus 2500 pieces of art were distributed all over the country. And Megumi Sasaki filmed a sequel, Herb & Dorothy: 50x50.

The Blanton Museum at the University of Texas got the 50 pieces of art reserved for Texas. I saw them when the Blanton mounted an exhibit of the work, and one thing I noticed is that not every artist they collected has ended up in the canon. The Vogels had an amazing ability to pick "winners," but no one bats a thousand. (Interestingly, the Blanton also received James Michener's large collection of modernist art after his death. In the book American Art since 1900, Robert Kushner looks at Michener's collection in terms of a year by year "batting average"--significant works as a percentage of the whole. He calculates Michener's lifetime average at .319, which I'd say is pretty great. Is it crass that I'd like to know what the average is for the Vogels?)

That's one thing the new documentary examines--artists who haven't achieved any particular fame whose work was collected by the Vogels.

Charles Clough with the Vogels at the Metropolitan Museum (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

For example, the film looks at Charles Clough. He is an abstract painter who came out of the same Buffalo scene that spawned Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo (Clough was a co-founder of Hallwalls). The Vogels collected a large number of his pieces (127 are part of the 50x50 collection), and he is one of the artists whose work ended up in all 50 museums. But his career as an artist has been rocky. He admits to having hardly sold anything in the previous 10 years. He points to a map of the USA covered with thumbtacks. Each one represents an artwork in a museum. And two-thirds of them are a result of the 50x50 program.

Charles Clough painting (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

Another artist who never achieved fame was Martin Johnson. Johnson had some success in the late 70s and early 80s, but eventually moved to Richmond Virginia to run the family business, which represented plumbing supplies to buyers.

Martin Johnson and the family business (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

As it turned out, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond was one of the recipients of the Vogel collection, and they were amazed to learn that one of the artists whose work they received lived right there in Richmond.

Martin Johnson and his work (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

Artists whose moment of success happened decades ago are suddenly finding their work in museums all over America. For artists like Clough, it could mean a second chance at success.

The artist who most exemplifies the Vogel collection is Richard Tuttle. Herbert Vogel was quite close to Tuttle, and Tuttle is represented by 336 pieces in the 50x50 collection--enough for each museum in the program to get at least six Tuttles.

Richard Tuttle with the Vogels (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

As it turns out, he's not super happy about the 50x50 program. He would have preferred to see the collection stay in one piece, even if it meant storing most of it. But he's realistic and is shown visiting with curators in Maryland to discuss the best way to display his work from the collection.

Richard Tuttle at the Academy Art Museum in Maryland  (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

Of course, Tuttle is a pretty difficult artist to love. Most of his work in the collection consists of pieces of lined notebook paper with one or two small watercolor marks on it. This is pretty challenging work, especially in provincial museums in Montana or Alabama. How to show this work in these disparate places is the main subject of the movie. The filmmaker traveled to several of these far-flung museums, including small museums in Honolulu and Fargo, North Dakota. Stephen Jost, the director of the Honolulu Museum of Art, addresses this head on. He knows the work is difficult for many visitors, and the Honolulu Museum has worked very hard to help viewers engage with it. One scene shows children playing a game with the art--they have a guide to all the pieces with little image excerpts, and they are in a race to see who can find them all on the walls first. But Jost acknowledges that there are some viewers who are just plain hard to reach in general and especially with the art from the Vogel collection. These viewers are teenagers and young adults.

Sullen teens at the Honolulu Museum of Art (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

What some of the museums have done is make the Vogels the focus of the exhibits--telling their story. The Blanton had the first Vogel documentary running continuously. Some museums actually recreated parts of the Vogel's apartment, down to stuffed cats and turtles (the Vogels never had children--they had pet cats, fish, and turtles).

The Plains Art Museum (still from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

Places like the Plains Art Museum were thrilled to get the gift. Director Colleen Sheehy states her pride in being in the company of LA MOCA and the Albright-Knox Gallery, who also received Vogel gifts.  She used the Vogels themselves as the way to interest viewers in the work. She explained it this way: "The work might seem difficult, but they're so accessible." She actually commissioned a local artist, Kaylyn Gerenz, to create a stuffed animal version of one of their cats to be exhibited alongside the work in a small recreated corner of the Vogel's apartment.

One of the museums they donated the work to, the Las Vegas Art Museum, abruptly closed in February 2009, a victim of the recession which hit Las Vegas especially hard. Part of the conditions for accepting the gift were that if you closed, you had to give it to an approved museum in the same state. In this case, the work went to the Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery at UNLV. By focusing so much on several small, regional museums, Herb & Dorothy: 50x50 almost becomes a documentary about provincial museums. It's fascinating to see how they strive to stay relevant and stay afloat.

Herbert Vogel died during the filming of this documentary. The Vogels had already stopped collecting, and their apartment was emptying out.

Before and after (stills from Herb & Dorothy 50x50)

After you've given away your life's work, I guess passing on (at the ripe old age of 90) is not so bad. But I worry about Dorothy (now 78). Will an apartment with no art and no Herb be too lonely for her?

One more interesting thing about Herb & Dorothy: 50x50. It was partly financed by a Kickstarter campaign. They did a typical thing--gifts of a certain size would get you a download of the finished movie, and a little more would get you the DVD.  In short, they presold the movie. I was pretty sceptical when I heard about it, mainly because I didn't really believe there was anything else to say after the first movie. But I went ahead and donated enough to get the DVD, and I was very pleasantly surprised. By focusing on artists like Charlie Clough and Martin Johnson and museums like the Plains Museum and the Honolulu Museum, Sasaki created a completely new documentary around the Vogels. It's an informative, moving documentary.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Something to do when you have 4 hours and 48 minutes free

Robert Boyd

Listen to For Philip Guston by Morton Feldman, performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble. (Hat tip to Alex Ross.)

Philip Guston, Friend--to M.F., 1978

In the 50s, Morton Feldman was Philip Guston's closest friend. But their friendship ended in 1970 when Feldman disapproved of Guston's new cartoonish figurative "bad" paintings. Apparently Guston regretted the rift, which is why he painted Friend--to M.F. Perhaps Feldman similarly regretted the estrangement. In any case, four years after Guston's death, he composed For Philip Guston.

Monday, December 16, 2013

LOKALKOLORIT: Representation, Repetition, and Punctum

Betsy Huete

Philosopher Roland Barthes coined the term “punctum” in his final publication Camera Lucida in 1980. In enumerating the term, he was in effect making an argument against the sole interpretation of photography as a set of linguistic, political, and societal codes. While a photograph naturally contains these codes, of course, Barthes argued that there is an additional kind of meaning inherently embedded in the work. It’s a meaning that defies terminology or code breaking—it is the kind of resonance that connects with the viewer on an intensely emotional level, thereby making the work indescribably unique.

Upon entering Inman’s first main gallery, it is tempting to immediately cock one’s head to the side and think, “what the hell is going on here?” Between the nude drawing, while attributed Corinne von Lebusa but questionably drawn by a young hormone-induced boy who snuck into a life drawing class and, horny and over-imaginative, just wanted to draw neon boobies, and the muddied squirrel-rabbit something or other by Jochen Plogsties, the work immediately feels trite, out of place, and even abject. Yet they command attention. How? Furthermore, how do we connect these five artists together (von Lebusa, Plogsties, Inga Kerber, Johannes Rochhausen, and Edgar Leciejewski) who seem to be making fairly disparate work? Additionally, does the sole fact they are exhibiting in a group show necessitate their connection?

Corinne von Lebusa, Nuby, 2012, Drawing, watercolor, varnish, 27.6” x 19.7”

In titling the exhibition LOKALKOLORIT, which quite literally translates to “local color,” Inman intimates that we should. Other than their proximity to each other in sharing the same studio building and having gone to school together, and that Leipzig (where the artists reside) is our sister city, they all employ representational imagery and methods of banality and repetition that question modes of originality and authorship in art making.

These, however, are the kinds of postmodernist tropes that have been around in the art world for quite some time. And while this tongue in cheek sort of nihilism certainly pervades the work, there is also a notion of sincerity inherent in it that belies its postmodernist stereotypes—as if these artists genuinely want to cull meaning from our overly saturated, hyperbolically monitored world. And it is this kind of sincerity that not only connects the work, but also commands the viewers’ attention and displays the works’ punctum.

Naturally there are pieces in the show that communicate this more surprisingly emotively than others, and the series that most effectively achieves it are the series of floating head portraits John, Inga, Hans, Romy, and Dory (all 2013). Modestly scaled and oriented horizontally in a row, von Lebusa draws playful, lyrical faces that humorously feel like a cross between David Bowie and Glamour Shots. While Hans faces the viewer head on, the rest seem to be looking afar with entranced glances, their poses evocative of cheesy 80s portraiture, replete with fuzzy colors and backgrounds. However, this playful sensibility is sharply contrasted by sharp facial features and arresting, penetrating eyes. This contrast in conjunction with the repetition of faces demands sustained attention from the viewer, as if the faces are asking to be taken seriously in spite of themselves. This kind of unexpected seriousness is far more interesting than von Lebusa’s Portraits 1-12 (all 2012), which do not read as anything much more substantial than topical caricatures of women. And while that is probably the whole point, these portraits are simply less provocative than Hans and company.

Corinne von Lebusa, Portrait 7, 2012, Drawing, watercolor, varnish, 9.4” x 7.1”

Speaking of banality, Johannes Rochhausen paints his studio. That’s it. While repeatedly painting one’s studio may sound like an act of obsession or even narcissism, according to the exhibition catalogue, he uses his studio as subject matter less as the content of the work and more as a control to work through various aspects of painting. Therefore, the work is less a conceptual statement on Rochhausen’s place of artistic production and more self-referential exploration on the act of painting. However, it’s arguably impossible when repeatedly painting the same representational subject matter to divorce the imagery from its content. And whether he intended for that separation or not seems inconsequential because it’s actually when Rochhausen’s treatment of the paint activates his studio as the content of the work that the most exciting things start to happen. This is most prominently represented in Untitled (study of room) (2013). While still representational, this barely illuminated corner of the room more so than the rest of his work leans toward abstraction. The dark browns and grays as well as the long vertical strokes of the corner walls lend the work an air of mystery and strange intimacy, creating a space that at once feels thoroughly lived in and foreboding. And it’s this kind of ambivalent treatment of a space that is far more engaging than Air Conditioning (2013) that, while beautifully rendered, conceptually and aesthetically flatlines.

Johannes Rochhausen, Air Conditioning (Study), 2013, Oil on paper, 56.3” x 41.7”

While these are only two examples, there does seem to be this common thread of a strange, unexpected punctum prevalent in much of the works of these five artists. While they all employ representational elements and engage with postmodernist tropes of authorship, repetition, and originality, there does seem to be an optimistic attitude of garnering meaning where there, upon original inspection, doesn’t appear to be any. While of course this sincerity works better in some works more than others, hopefully this is what defines Leipzig’s local color instead of nihilistic, played out postmodernist attitudes.

LOKALKOLORIT runs until January 3, 2014 at Inman Gallery.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nothing's Changed

The art crowd consists of 200 visual artists, gallery owners, curators, architects, historians, writers, critics, musicians, dancers, patrons, students, hangers-on, and dilettanti who bump into each other year after year at the same art openings, performances, parties, and the same ten restaurants. There is much running around in packs, a hedge against loneliness as well as intimacy; sometimes two eventually pair off and marry, or friends quarrel and avoid each other, finally growing friendly again, because there aren't that many people to talk to, the cast of characters is so limited. Every once in a while a new curator or artistic celebrity moves to town and is feted, courted, scrutinized, privately dissected. Every so often, too, one of the regulars, like a Chekov character who keeps sighing, "I must go to Moscow," actually picks himself up after years of threats to do so and moves to New York or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. These defectors later return for visits, wistfully reporting that they have never been able to find anything like that warm camaraderie of the Houston art crowd. On the plus side, the art scene here is exceptionally cohesive, supportive and loyal, on the minus, this close-knit courtesy has so far stifled the development of honest, tough-minded public criticism, which means some local artists are never challenged to go beyond producing half-baked work.
This is from Phillip Lopate's essay "Houston Hide-and-Seek" published in Against Joie de Vivre: Personal Essays (1989).

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Review - Waltercio Caldas: The Nearest Air, at the Blanton

Paul Mullan

Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas, long influential in his home country, is less known in the United States. Co-organized by the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin, and by the Fundação Iberê Camargo in Porto Alegre, “The Nearest Air” is Caldas’ first US museum retrospective and is currently on display at the Blanton.

Co-curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and Ursula Davila-Villa, former Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art, the survey eschews a chronological installation. Viewers can start at either entrance to the ground-floor galleries and randomly step through the exhibition; Caldas’ different themes and approaches will gradually become apparent.

Waltercio Caldas, Aquário completamente cheio (Completely Full Aquarium), 1981, Glass and water, 13 3/4 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 inches

There is nothing physically in Completely Full Aquarium (1981) except water, which reaches the very lip of the clear, glass tank and does not manifest a discernible water-line. From a medium distance, the water evidences little movement caused by the air conditioning or vibrations from people walking though the gallery, and it can almost be read as “air”. Since the water acts as a lens, those passers-by and other objects in the vicinity appear as small, crisp images – reversed and upside-down – “filling” the bowl (but which blur, when the viewer is at a close distance). This imagistic interior is a dynamic, immediate, and ephemeral indexing of the work’s exterior. Each viewer can also become, from a vantage point always other than their own, an image “filling” the bowl. The conventional boundary between spectator and work breaks down.

The site-specific work Pre-Corner includes an orange, polygonal field which traverses the intersection of the west and north walls of the Blanton’s main atrium. In “front” of that field are four slender lengths of yarn hanging from the ceiling and terminating a few inches above the floor. From a close distance, the two vertical, black lengths of yarn visually mimic the darkened, linear recesses in the ceiling, such as the air conditioning vents and the tracks along which gallery lights are positioned. One of the other, orange lengths is located near a vent and slightly angled by the gust of continuous air; it sways only intermittently and gently. 

However, from the far distance of the atrium’s opposite corner, near the grand staircase landing, the swaying of the yarn is no longer visible. As well, a column blocks sight of the intersection. The irregular, seven-sided shape of Pre-Corner then appears as part of a continuous plane and resolves (roughly) into a quadrangle. The environment’s impact on the works’ materiality (the yarn) vanishes, signaling the secondary character of that materiality and the primacy of the pictoral; this was the case as well with Aquarium, with the physicality of the water being secondary to the images transmitted.

Waltercio Caldas, Longínqua (Far), 1986, Glass sheet and nylon strings, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4 inches (variable height)

Far (1986) is a rectangular glass plate, approximately three by four feet in size, suspended a few inches above a pristine, white pedestal by two continuous nylon threads, which are hung from the ceiling and run under the plate at each side’s midpoint. On an initial approach with a horizontal view, the work’s structure is more obvious: the glass is understood as massive and heavy and is conceptually counterposed to the thin supports which manage to keep it from crashing to the ground. However, when viewing the work close-up and from above, the precisely defined shadows cast on the pedestal, both by the threads and by the edges of the plate, are almost indistinguishable from those threads and edges themselves. Looking through the top, the glass becomes a picture plane flattening out the depth between the shadows’ sharp lines and the sculptural materials proper. By “compressing” the three-dimensionality of Far in this way, the pictoral is again prioritized and the underlying material structure rendered secondary; though whereas the images “in” Aquarium were derived from the context strictly outside of that work, those “in” Far are derived from the work internally.

Waltercio Caldas, A emoção estética (Aesthetic Emotion), 1977, Painted iron and shoes on carpet, 7 7/8 x 80 11/16 x 76 3/4 inches

On a rectangular cut of worn, pale-earthtone carpeting in Aesthetic Emotion (1977), a black pair of men’s dress shoes are squashed by the weight of an open iron arc, painted black. The iron is sheared off at, and is flush with, the edge of the carpet; if imagined to extend beyond that edge, it would constitute a circle. A small, metal plate engraved with the name and date of the work, and name of the artist, is affixed near a corner. This is analogous to the antiquated museum practice of identifying paintings via a plate attached to the bottom of the frame, and to the painterly practice of signing and dating a work at the bottom of a canvas.

Waltercio Caldas, Escultura para todos os materiais não transparentes (Sculpture for All Nontransparent Materials), 1985, Pairs of polished metal, wooden, and marble hemispheres, Dimensions variable

Thus, the carpet can be understood as a pictoral field, one which is, yet again, rendered primary over the material and which abruptly terminates the massing and weightiness of the iron. This most basic geometric form – the circle, or the sheared sphere in Sculpture for All Nontransparent Materials as well – can exist only when the spectator “completes” it conceptually. Nor do Caldas’ actual forms exist in an “empty”, homogeneous space of equivalent points, as demonstrated by the ultimate resolution of the orange quadrangle in Pre-Corner from the “correct” point at the staircase. In these three senses, then, Caldas’ work is decidedly not a variant of minimalism, given the latter’s emphasis on a “sculptural” form’s empirical facticity, wholeness, and mass and on the “filling” up of homogeneous space through serial repetition of such a form. Likewise, while the artist uses steel, glass, bronze, aluminum, and industrial materials widely, his compositions and aberrant shapes do not at all recall industrial production, another of minimalism’s common themes.

Waltercio Caldas, As sete estrelas do silêncio (The Seven Stars of Silence), 1970, Silver needles in chromed steel box lined with velvet, 1 3/8 x 11 3/4 x 9 7/8 inches

The Seven Stars of Silence (1970) is presented at tabletop level, which forces the observer to look downwards. The sculpture is a shallow, steel box with clean, simple lines and no décor, aside from two oxidized, ornamental latches. The box is opened, revealing seven silver needles lying flat in a velvet-lined interior. Those needles are: of varying shapes, linear or curved; of varying lengths; and aligned horizontally. How they might resolve into points or “stars” is not obvious. However, as with Aesthetic Emotion, a small, metal plate with the title of the work is affixed to the bottom edge of the interior, then interpretable as a pictoral field. Given the velvet’s dark tones, this field is further analogous to the flat blackness of a starry sky.

The box resembles either a type for holding precious, luxury objects, such as jewelry, or a type for storing delicate medical or surgical instruments. The former reads as allegorizing the private or domestic; the latter as something quite sinister. In either case, the box secrets objects away from public view when shut. This sequestration is posed as within, not an intimate (and silent) enclosure, but a vast expanse of the natural world, the nighttime sky.

Waltercio Caldas, Centro de razão primitiva (Center for Primitive Reason), 1970, Gold needles in velvet-lined box, 11 3/4 x 3 7/8 x 3 7/8 inches

Center for Primitive Reason (1970) is a second, finely-crafted box: in dark wood; a foot tall; elevated on a pedestal; and with a metal plate, identifying the title of the work, attached to the exterior. Four gold needles are mounted vertically on the velvet-lined interior and are highlighted against the black lining of the open lid behind them, constituted as a pictoral field by the frontal plate. If a viewer circumvents that field and, instead, aligns the eye straight above the points, those sharp, menacing ends actually resolve into faint, hazy “stars” proposed by the companion sculpture.

Waltercio Caldas, O Louco (The Madman), 1971, Lead figurine in velvet-lined box, 2 3/8 x 31 7/8 x 3 1/8 inches

The Madman (1971) is a third box, shallow and very wide. A metal plate with the title is secured to the frontal exterior, as with Primitive Reason. Represented by a tiny lead figurine, only a few millimeters in height, is a worker wearing a red cap and with a bundle slung over their shoulder. From the close-up vantage required to see the figurine’s details, the worker trudges across the interior of a vast “landscape” analogized by the velvet lining. It is notable that Caldas, elsewhere, only rarely figures the human body directly.

Waltercio Caldas, Dado No Gelo (Dice on Ice), 1976, Chromogenic color print in lightbox, 29 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 3 15/16 inches

The photograph of Dice on Ice (1976) shows a die frozen in a solid cube of ice, which, until it thaws, arrests any potential for chance. 

These four works from the 1970s use a somewhat different strategy, and have a strikingly different tone, as compared to works of later periods. Dice on Ice, Seven Stars, Primitive Reason, and The Madman rely upon a traditional figuration: static, unlike the dynamic and ephemeral indexing operations of Aquarium; sculptural or photographic, unlike the perceptual effects, and sense of compression, in Far; and unitary, unlike the conceptual “completion”, demanded by Aesthetic Emotion, of interrupted elemental forms. These representations are strictly internal to the composition, an impression further reinforced by the closed, insular character of the jewel-box forms and lightbox; the only relation to the broader exhibition context is the conventional spectatorial position demanded by a pictoral plane. Finally, these earlier artworks are heavily metaphorical or allegorical.

Brazil’s left-wing President João Goulart was ousted in a coup d’etat in 1964, ushering in a notorious military government. It was only the first in a wave of reaction: vicious, authoritarian regimes were invested over the next ten years, throughout the continent, to smash popular movements. Caldas, who began his artistic practice in the late 1960s, was not a political artist in any conventional sense and did not create agitation or propaganda.

However, in a return of the repressed, this objective historical context forces its way to the surface, and is a necessary part of any interpretation, of Caldas’ art from the period. The hidden threat (and reality) of massive state violence and torture is analogized in both Primitive Reason and Seven Stars. The statis of the political situation – the dictatorship was in power for more than two decades – is allegorized in Dice on Ice; and the laboring body – working class upsurges were very much the target of the South American coups – in The Madman. These were elements of everyday experience for many in Brazil. Given the attacks on genuine collective, political action and shared language, however, their memory could only exist sequestered in the isolated private or domestic domain – or, encoded in a language more acceptable to the armed bodies of men ensconced in high office, as allegory.

“The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas” is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin until January 12, 2014.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock Were Expelled From High School

Robert Boyd

[Philip] Guston and [Jackson] Pollock were also politically active in their support of art education at a school that was fast becoming a hotbed of talented high school athletes. Their activity reached a climax when they were expelled for publishing and distributing leaflets against the popularity of high school sports. (Michael Auping, introduction to the catalog for Philip Guston Retrospective, 2003)

To which I can only say RIGHT ON!

Philip Guston, Drawing for Conspirators, 1930, graphite, ink, colored pencils, and crayon on paper, 21 1/2 z 14 1/2 inches. This was drawn when Guston was 17.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Paint, Ink, Photo, Text: A Wols Retrospective

Betsy Huete

There’s a curious pairing going on at the Menil right now. On the one hand, there is the Luc Tuymans show Nice, a title that coolly represents the works’ vacuous draining of life and emotion. And right next door is the Wols retrospective, a show so wrought with love and aggression that it’s hard to determine if whether their adjacency is brilliant or crazy. If anything, each one provides a respite from the other.

Wols was an abstract painter from the 1940s that represented a group of artists, along with Jean Debuffet and Georges Mathieu to name two, that represented the European movement art informel. It was a abstract painting movement that unfortunately got overshadowed here in the United States by Abstract Expressionism. Luckily for us, Dominique de Menil was an enormous Wols fan, allowing for a comprehensive comparison between the larger than life deKoonings and Rothkos and Wols’ relatively modest paintings. What objectives did all of these artists share? What were their specific methodologies and how, among other things, did they achieve it with scale (or lack thereof)?

Toby Kamps of course doesn’t literally answer these questions, although he does seem to be asking these questions and many more in his curation. It quickly becomes obvious that Wols wasn’t simply a painter: he was also a photographer and drawer. And it also becomes clear within moments that Wols, while being influenced by the people of his time like the Surrealists and Paul Klee, was clearly looking introspectively, producing innovative works that seemed to be speaking an interior language unlike that of his contemporaries.

It’s All Over, 1946/7, Oil, grattage and tube marks on canvas, 32”x32”

So what was the structure of that interior language and how does the viewer go about accessing it? Given the disparate media and sheer amount of work in his abbreviated oeuvre, piecing it all together seems like a dizzying prospect—yet somehow Kamps seamlessly strings it together. Like a film that starts with its climax then immediately cuts to the flashback only to build back up to what we’ve already seen, he cinematically slingshots the viewer from the front room of paintings—Wols’ final works—to the photos and drawings of an earlier period and back again to his later abstractions. This dictation of movement in the space is how Kamps allows the viewer to build the connective tissue between all the work in spite of its disjunctures.

Much has been written and discussed of this connectivity. What was the linkage (and slippage) between Wols’ interior and exterior worlds, and how was it represented in his artwork? Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre—to sum it up somewhat reductively—thought it a conflation of the two. He saw Wols as a troubled man wrought and ravaged by poverty, an artist whose work was an extension of his misery. But in connecting his paintings to his photos to his drawings and back to his paintings again, there seems to be repetitious formal treatments apparent in the work that reach far beyond artistic and emotional vomiting: namely that of a nucleus.

Untitled, 1932-41, gelatin silver print, 7.7”x5.2”

From mannequins to food to self portraits, Wols’ photographs are varied in subject matter. Yet more often than not there seems to be a centralized epicenter of bursting activity, most prominently exemplified by Untitled (Nicole Bouban) (ca.1933). It’s a fairly innocuous portrait of a beautiful woman resting blissfully. However, her head feels nearly bifurcated by incisive stripes moving in two directions. Wols uses the hard lines to create tension, the stripes simultaneously serving as a backdrop as the head emerges forth while also compressing her face, claustrophobically pressing her back in. His handling of line in this context serves as a clear precursor to his abstract proclivities.

Untitled (Nicole Bouban), 1976 (ca.1933), Gelatin silver print from negative

As the viewer proceeds left into the room of drawings, she encounters numerous Klee-esque works on paper: relatively small ink drawings adorned with playful watercolor backgrounds. While an interest in figure and surrealist subject matter carries through most of the work, as time progresses the drawings seemingly coagulate towards the center, densely compacting movement and activity. The climax of this density is shown here with La ville sur pilotis (1944). A tightly compacted composition that Wols must have drawn with a magnifying glass, it reads as a city that isn’t quite sure whether it has been uprooted, freely floating, or precariously balancing on the very apparatus meant to keep it above water.

La ville sur pilotis, 1944, Ink and watercolor on paper, 5.47”x7.28”

And as the viewer falls back into the original space of paintings, the work seems less like abstractions and more like explosions. Rife with all-over flinging and scrawling and smudging of paint germane to its time period, Wols’ abstract paintings retain their nucleic identity with multiple loci within a single frame. Defying simple or singular interpretation, these scabbed eruptions emanate a quiet knowledge that birthings and similar generative moments are often consequences of violent activity.

Voile de Veronique, 1946/7, Oil, grattage and tube marks (?) on canvas, 31.9”x31.9”

While Wols rarely dated anything—a move that must have been incredibly frustrating for Kamps as well as Wols scholars alike—he did sign nearly all of his work, a gesture common in his time period. But while the signature commonly appears in the bottom right hand corner of the work, it’s never in the same spot. Sometimes it is shoved far into the edge while other times falling almost centrally into the canvas; sometimes it is painted boldly and fluidly in black while other times being barely scratched into the paint like a ghostly apparition. A signature is the kind of formality that most artists overlook: a simple way for them to stamp its authenticity. Yet Wols seems to have treated it time and again as a formal consideration of the work, thoughtfully positioning it in relation to its content.

It seems that Wols was grappling with languages repeatedly in his drawings and paintings. In a true exercise of ambivalence, it feels like much of the work was the result of semiotic warfare—this being most prevalent in Oui, oui, oui (1946/7). Here an interior visual language of color and layers and circularity directly butts up with an actual exterior language—as if Wols went spelunking into a cave of his own interiority and was linguistically trying to claw his way out. He’s furiously scrawled desperate affirmations all over the canvas. What exactly is he saying yes to? What is he is giving permission for? And at the bottom right appears “WOLS,” itself an unintentional mangling of his name that the artist adopted. It’s a moment of textual lucidity that shockingly feels more schizophrenic than the rest of the picture plane.

Oui, oui, oui, 1946/7, Oil, grattage and tube marks on canvas, 31.7”x25.3”

It is no secret that Abstract Expressionism is thoroughly tread territory. But showing work at the helm of art informel simultaneously sheds light on an overlooked movement while additionally informing the entirety of abstraction in the late 1930s to early 1950s. And with the Wols retrospective, the Menil has faithfully represented the comprehensive though short career of an all too often ignored yet nevertheless important abstract painter.

Wols: Retrospective runs until January 12, 2014 at the Menil Collection.

The Madonna in South Louisiana: Notes on Lynda Frese

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

Lynda Frese wrote recently to announce her photo collage paintings are in this year’s International Contemporary Art Exhibition at Gallery Le Logge in Assisi’s Piazza del Comune, which means the art is ennobled by the first century B.C. Temple of Minerva which is also in that piazza and which has one of the most splendid facades in antiquity. Minerva’s Corinthian capitals are so lovely they seem to challenge the misguided decision to turn the goddesses’ house into a church.

Lynda Frese, Le Grande Salle, 2013, Photographs, egg tempura on panel, 16” x 20” (Exhibited in Assisi through December 8)

Frese is not new to Italy; she has had residencies and exhibitions including some at the American Academy in Rome, but the fact that many of her art images were photographed in Italy makes it a fitting exhibition venue. Further, she employs the technique of painting over collage elements with Northern Italian antique pigments used to repair church frescoes. When I first encountered her art in 2011 at Redbud Gallery in Houston I was so moved by the blue-toned egg tempura pigment she managed to snatch from Italian restoration artists, I described it as “that celestial blue Giotto stole from Cimabue.”

Last year Frese published Pacha Mama: earth realm, a collection of artworks with haunting combinations of myth-based and landscape images that proximate life as organic, pulsating and unified. By straddling human consciousness across demons, saints, Paleolithic cave paintings, the Peruvian goddess Pachamama, grottoes, streams, Neolithic Venus statuary and stone circles, they articulate sacred connectedness freighted with birth-decay-death cyclicality. In one painting a Hindu deity accompanies Romanesque carvings of the Virgin near a mountain pool, in another medieval religious frescoes float above a rainforest. Complimenting earth realm’s images are essays, poetry and Sanskrit verse, and the book includes a refreshing “Acknowledgements” in which Frese expressed equal gratitude to local saloons as to her collaborators and university colleagues.

Lynda Frese, House of Worship, 2010, Egg tempera paint, photographs, gold leaf on wood, 7.5” x 10” (earth realm series)

That area around Assisi is a pretty good place to realize the particular aspect of life’s unity based on fecundity and regeneration. You can’t go two feet without encountering depictions of that feminine principle in the form of the Virgin Mother whose god-birthing Queen of Heaven mythological history and iconography form a continuum with ancient goddesses of earth and abundance. A place to find the Virgin’s image by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti is in the Basilica of Saint Francis where Francis is buried (d. 1226) and where pilgrims go to view his various relics such as raggedy clothes. It was Francis who began the business of saints getting the stigmata (hysteria?) which guarantees sainthood.

It’s often said that Italians invented their own hierarchy for divinity which ranks the Virgin Mary (Madonna) above Jesus. You don’t doubt this in and around Assisi, Perugia, and other Umbrian hill towns where people use the phrase “Madonna” for exclamatory emphasis, the way Sicilians say “Mamma Mia.” “Madonna” is a standard reply and means “oh” and “really” and “how awful” and “wonderful” similarly to our interchanging “really” with “Jesus Christ” or “no shit.” I once traveled to the thoroughly medieval town of Spello to see Roman antiquities and paintings by Pinturicchio at Sant Andrea (begun 1025) and at Santa Maria Maggiore (1159), this second church dedicated to the Virgin and constructed over a temple dedicated to Juno and Vesta, and while there encountered inebriated guys pulling large wine barrels on a wooden cart, Dionysian style. Outside Spello’s ancient walls is the small church of the Madonna of Spella where supplicants talk to the Madonna images in the frescoes and leave written invocations such as a 1586 reminder to do something about the famine.

Lynda Frese, Introitus, (detail), 2010, Egg tempera paint, photographs, gold leaf, 10” x 24” (earth realm series)

Frese didn’t have to travel to India, Crete, Peru and all those other places to realize unity of life artistic inspiration. There is plenty of that where she lives in south Louisiana. The Rhode Island native moved there in 1986 to be a professor of Art at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. South Louisiana is grounded in Virgin Mary mythology extensively represented in statuary form. Virgin iconography is so prevalent it suggests the human imagination must have its gods in order to conceptualize existence and mortality, for as the Council of Ephesus determined, there could be no erosion of Artemis’s temple and cult without substituting Mary as deity. In south Louisiana the earth-spirit bountiful aspect of the goddess’ totality is palpable - shrimp boat captains, rice farmers, and sugar cane harvesters pray rosaries and light candles to ensure success and profit. Mary’s corresponding role is to intercede in personal matters - “Virgin Mary, help us win the game on Friday night,” “Mary, make Daddy not drink so much,” “Mother Mary, get those children to act right!” So if you want to see how deeply the human psyche longs for ordering through mythological and iconographic intimations of wholeness, unity and abundance, drive through the towns of Breaux Bridge, Delcambre, Arnaudville, or along the canal at Dulac, or down the highway to Grand Isle and witness the unbelievably high quantity of goddess statues, all there to mirror human fears and desires. None of this escapes Frese of course who artistically imagines sacred deities, the god Shiva for instance, in inconceivable places like Holly Beach, Louisiana.