Category Archives: Modernism

HELEN FRANKENTHALER

“I am an artist of paint, making discoveries”

In 1950, Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 – 2011), fresh out of Bennington College, was thrown by Clement Greenberg into the virile, competitive maelstrom of Abstract Expressionism in its prime years. Not only did the 25-year old show she could hold her own ground, within two years, she produced a breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea,that was held to be the first substantial picture in a style that grew out of the New York School, but broke new ground as well.

Although she had moved the debate forward, Frankenthaler was nevertheless constantly characterized in subordinate or retrospective terms. She was the designated “heir” to Jackson Pollock’s dripped and poured legacy and she was charged with maintaining the abstraction revolution, the irony of which, one imagines, was not lost on the young artist.

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NON-AMERICAN POSTWAR ART III: Renato Guttuso


RENATO GUTTUSO (1912 – 1987) is best known for his social-realist paintings of working- and middle-class daily life in the post-war Mezzogiorno. While his pictures are clearly politicized, they are rarely straightforward polemics, just as his naturalistic pictorial mode is qualified and shaped by a shadow modernism. Being Sicilian, Guttuso is reticent and rarely sentimental and living in the exquisite degrado of Palermo and its environs, he is immune to the picturesque. This detached position is seen best in his series of paintings of Italian roof-scapes, gritty urban topographies observed from above, rather than at street-level. While they are emptied of the torrents of humanity churning through the cramped piazze and markets of his other works, these paintings are not impersonal aerial views seen from on high; the point of view is a window, much like the ones arrayed before us, embedded within the fabric of the city, available to, and commonly seen, by all its denizens. As one would expect of a painter of politicized naturalism, Guttuso scrupulously records the material and historical realities of rooves, omitting no crack and effacing no grime. However, the limited palette of flat colors applied to building-block forms generally diffused across the picture plane clearly registers an engagement with Cézanne and Braque. These traces of high-modernist and formalism remind us that that even in aggressively local pictures by a painter living on lawless island on the margins of Europe, international modernism was close to, if not, the default artistic way of seeing.

NON-AMERICAN POSTWAR ART II: Jeremy Moon


Jeremy Moon (1934-1973) read law at Cambridge and worked in advertising before enrolling in art school in 1961. Trained as a sculptor, he shifted over to painting in the late 1960s.

Constructivism, Mondrian and the Bauhaus are clearly points of reference. After Moon saw Ellsworth Kelly’s first show in London in 1962), Moon worked in a hard-edged, geometrical style somewhere between minimalism and Op Art—imagine Brigit Riley being forced to sit still, or Frank Stella with a British sense of decorum, or a non-dreary Agnes Martin.

Primarily remembered as a painter, Moon taught sculpture and. painting at London art schools, and he continued to make three-dimensional works as well. He was exploring the relationship of painting to sculpure in the large, three-dimensional pieces, based on his earlier paintings, on which he was working when he died in a motorcycle crash at the age of 40 in 1973.

Today, significant holdings in his works are owned by his Jeremy Moon Estate; the British government bought many of his works through arts support programs that existed in the 1960s and ’70s; and he is well-represented at the Tate Gallery. Most of the paitings sold in his lifetime are in private collections.

NO WHERE THERE: Abstract Landscapes


“What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella once said of his paintings, meaning they referred to nothing outside of themselves and represented nothing beyond pigment and canvas. Yet many of Stella’s paintings were named after places, local and far afield—Firuzabad and Delaware Crossing (NJ), Gran Cairo and Telluride. This seeming contradiction is not unique to Stella—many artists of the post-war period who worked in an exclusively abstract mode, allude to locations, places, or geographies in the titles of their works. These range from geographically-specific sites (Mahoning, Villa Borghese), to more generic typologies of place (Basque Beach) and topographical features (Mountains and Sea). These works are non-figural, and as such, they do not accord with the art historical genre “landscape,” at least not in the traditional sense.

Are these evocations of place, in fact, equivocations—a reluctance to commit to absolute abstraction, or do titles like Basque Beach amount to a personal association imposed on an painted surface that has no necessary relationship to an actual or conceptual place? To put it more crudely, is there a where there?

While they are clearly not engaged in empirical description or mapping, certain abstract paintings seem to follow the contours of places alluded to in titles or be guided in their formal choices by qualities observed at those places. For example, the high-key palette, overall bright tonality, and wave-like forms of Helen Frankenthaler’s Basque Beach would seem to permit of a quasi-figurative reading of the work. Speaking about her breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea (1952) Frankenthaler parsed the picture’s representational and abstract qualities:

I painted Mountains and Sea after seeing the cliffs of Nova Scotia. It’s a hilly landscape with wild surf rolling against the rocks. Though it was painted in a windowless loft, the memory of the landscape is in the painting, but it has also equal amounts of Cubism, Pollock, Kandinsky, Gorky.

Elsewhere she referred to her paintings as “abstract climates.”

DeKooning described the large paintings he made in the late 1950s bearing place names like Merritt Parkway and Parc Rosenberg as “emotions:”

The pictures (I have) done since the ‘Women’, they’re emotions, most of them. Most of them are landscapes and highways and sensations of that, outside the city – with the feeling of going to the city or coming from it.

For both Frankenthaler and DeKooning, abstraction may mean non-representational, but it doesn’t mean evacuated of memory. The registration of memory, like the gestural brushstroke, is a relic of the artist’s interaction with the canvas, and not a form of “meaning” imposed from without.

In 1965, both Helen Lundeberg and Roy Lichtenstein painted pictures that they referred to as landscapes, but which bordered on abstraction. By calling her radically-simplified , yet figurative picture Landscape, Lundeberg uses the term to suggest an elemental distillation or essence of place. Lichtenstein’s picture is predictably trickier; an image of the horizon executed in benday dots and cropped in such a way that it verges on Rothko-like abstraction, it clearly invokes “landscape” as a meta-category, (like his contemporary images of ruins and brushstrokes) from an ironic distance.

If traditional landscape painting was in some meaningful sense involved with a descriptive or empirical mapping of place, then to what extent can pictures of maps be considered abstract landscapes? Jasper Johns’ recreation of a map retains the form of the visual artefact on which it is based and the stenciled labels are correctly applied, but a cloud of abstract-expressionist brushwork undermines the purpose of the original by reducing it to a merely optical experience. Ed Ruscha proposes a similar conundrum with less Wittgenstein und Drang when he offers us two street names and no other points of reference as either a “view” of L.A. or a detail of a map.

The INVASION OF COLOR: MATISSE’S CUT-OUTS

After a cancer-trelated surgery of 1943 limited his ability to stand in front of an easel, Henri Matisse changed his primary medium from oil painting to gouaches découpés, or, forms cut directly from card stock painted with watercolor. Matisse was ridiculed initially for the new technique, which he called “drawing with scissors” and “cutting into color,” but by the time of the consecration of the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence in 1952, the cut-outs had surpassed his painting production in terms of popular appeal, and today they are, for better or for worse, remembered as his signature style.

Matisse worried that the advent of the cut-outs would be perceived as a break with, or worse, a repudiation of his previous work, upon which his reputation rested in the 1940s. “There is no gap between my earlier pictures and my cut-outs’, he wrote, ‘I have only reached a form reduced to the essential through greater absoluteness and greater abstraction.”

In reality, there was no break, for the simple reason that Matisse continued to paint occasional easel pictures with brush and oil pigments throughout most of the years when he was primarily occupied with the cut outs. Furthermore, the actual method by which the cut-outs were produced involved painting: rather than using prefabricated colored paper, Matisse (or his assistants) painted sheets of uncolored, heavy card stock with several layers of gouache, which allowed for a degree of saturation which colored paper could not attain. Consequently, all there cut-outs were painted to some degree or another and, bear traces of painting including visible brushwork, spattered pigment, and missed spots. Finally, the cut-outs were not entirely without precedent in the avant-garde and the Cubist collages of two decades earlier hastened critical acceptance of Matisse’s new work.

Matisse was not entirely at ease with the new prominence of pure color in his work, feeling at times that it was uncontrollable. In 1947, he wrote to Tériade, the publisher of Jazz, « Au fait ! la couleur me dégoûte et je n’ose l’écrire. […] tout mon être se révolte devant son importance envahissante!” Nevertheless, one senses that the cut-out technique enabled Matisse to break out of the confines of modeling, which was never his strongest suit, and to achieve finally what he had set out to do in the earliest fauve paintings.

Matisse: The Cut-Outs

London, Tate Modern, 17 April – 7 September 2014

New York, Museum of Modern Art, 25 October 2014 – 8 February 2015

6henri matisse, cut outs, gouaches découpées

FIVE ARTISTS WHO DO NOT FEAR COLOR IV: Ellsworth Kelly

THE PALETTE IS THE PLANE: ELLSWORTH KELLY American, b. 1923)