Rembrandt etchings, Holburne Museum, Bath

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[Image: Rembrandt, Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656), etching]

To mark the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the Holburne Museum, Bath is hosting an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings (4 October 2019-5 January 2020). All 50 of the exhibited prints are from the Ashmolean Museum collection, Oxford. The turquoise walls and spotlighting create an air of drama within the single gallery housing this exhibition. The impressions are good and not disfigured by collector stamps. The range is also representative, though the more earthy subjects are largely omitted from the Ashmolean collection. Alongside his Biblical and mythological scenes, self-portraits, portraits and landscapes, it has oddities such as an impression of the 1650 etching of a sea shell, Rembrandt’s only still-life in print form.

Rembrandt was an unusually experimental printmaker. He stands alongside Callot, Seghers, Degas and Picasso in his drive to reshape the parameters of his field’s possibilities in order to accommodate his artistic ambitions. Rembrandt began his career as an artist at a time when certain eras were ending and others beginning. He used silverpoint just as it became an anachronistic material and fell into disuse. He became a printmaker as a time when engraving was being supplanted by etching for artists, while engraving continued to be favoured for copyist print cutters for reproduction prints. Rembrandt favouring etching, using its flexible and correctable form as a kind of drawing with the looseness of sketching but the potential to be built up in elaborations that generate chiaroscuro similar to wash-drawings. This search for darkness was aided by the use of drypoint, which could be periodically reworked as it got worn down through repeated passes through the press. He used etching as a form of drawing not due to ignorance of the medium’s capacities but with the intention of expanding what was done with the medium. In Rembrandt’s prints we find use of hatching, crosshatching, contour shading and silhouette and contre-jour effects. In pursuit of these effects, the artists pushed printmaking to its limits by combining etching, drypoint and engraving. In prints we find dense blackness that is effectively a mezzotint avant la lettre. In pursuit of the effect and the evocation of emotion, Rembrandt reaches for any tool, any method.

The grandeur of Rembrandt’s expanses of darkness – his shadowy rooms, billowing thunderclouds at dusk and stygian night – is matched by daintiness of needle lines and minute details. The latter remind us directly of why full-time print cutters had short careers, curtailed by damaged eyesight. The museum has provided several looking glasses to aid visitors in appreciating the fine work.

One innovation of Rembrandt was the use of multiple sketches on single plates. Among sketches of peasants is an unrelated view of Rembrandt’s wife ill in bed, perhaps with the tuberculosis that killed her a few later. It is possible to describe Rembrandt as a point of origin for autobiographical art, that is, when the private life of the artist intrudes into the public art (as opposed to the private sketching). It inaugurated the aesthetics of incompleteness – something that we can find Rops fetishising in his own printed sketches.

The portrait of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, preacher (1646) has the subject reaching through his framing oval towards the viewer. It is typical of the painting style of the time, with its play of verisimilitude and deception. So universal is Rembrandt’s art, it is possible to overlook how much of an artist of his time he was. The illusionism and trompe-l’oeil tricks were very current in Dutch Seventeenth Century painting. When we encounter them in Rembrandt’s art, we might wonder why such a master of narration and emotional nuance was engaging in trite or ignoble attention-grabbing eye-deceiving viewer-impressing strategies.

The realistic nudes and one erotic mythological scene are placed on a pink-beige wall. (A symbolic choice?) The realistic nudes break new ground by showing models with few or no attributes as characters. Thus we have the advent of the nude as nude in art for consumption by the public – albeit a rarefied, discreet public of print connoisseurs. No longer does the nude have to be a character from history or the Bible. Caravaggio had previously painted nudes that were realistic but grounded in canon and artists had drawn for reference unsparing nudes but these were not public. Rembrandt’s nudes have canon set aside and assume their places as subjects of human interest.

The frankness of the nudes is verisimilitude and humane – recognising the weaknesses and imperfections of the body. It is also related to carnality. The erotic scenes (Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Monk in a Cornfield, Lit à la française and two plates of Jupiter and Antiope) are as honest about the artist and viewer’s sexual curiosity as it is about the physical impulses of characters in the pictures. The desire and abandon we see depicted is also a reflection of our own weaknesses. Rembrandt’s nudes and erotic scenes are carnal mirrors. The exhibition includes Jupiter and Antiope, larger plate (1659) is an etching with engraving for emphasis and drypoint for shading. Jupiter gazes as Antiope’s crotch with undisguised fascination.

There are a few of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, an uncommon genre in printmaking at that period. Rembrandt plays the role of Rembrandt-as: Rembrandt-as-gentleman-of-yesteryear, Rembrandt-as-actor, Rembrandt-as-businessman, Rembrandt-as-brooding-prophet, Rembrandt-as-husband, Rembrandt-as-artist, Rembrandt-as-everyman. A wall of portraits shows the market impetus behind the making of prints. Some are of notable figures who would have bought copies and of whom people could have been expected to buy portraits. The print of Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656) is typical of Rembrandt’s male portraits: detailed, atmospheric, grand yet also reflective. Some portraits, like The Great Jewish Bride (1635), seem to have been of emblematic archetypes which would have been of interest to scholars, collectors and educated men with historical, literary and ethnographical curiosity. This is true of the heads of Orientals (not in exhibition). Jan Uytenbogaert, the Goldweigher (1639) is more of a genre scene or interior than a portrait. The subject is wearing his finest clothing (or perhaps a selection of Rembrandt’s grandest costumes?), seated at his desk, the balance before him, gold in small cloth bags. His assistant is crouched at his feet, packing the bags into caskets.

The Flight into Egypt, altered from Seghers (c. 1653) adapts a plate already used by Hercules Seghers (c. 1653). The landscape has been retained but the figures by Seghers were burnished away and new figures added. (Rembrandt also did this with an oil painting by Seghers.) Another Flight into Egypt (1651) is as dark as a mezzotint with its drypoint tonal scratching. (The blur of drypoint ink is like the bled quality of wetted water-soluble ink. This is most apparent in the lightly worked topographic views around Amsterdam.) The iconic landscape Three Trees (1643) is the most powerful, tonally dramatic and pictorially deep composition. It embodies the greatness of Dutch landscape painting of the Seventeenth Century in a small etching of only black and white.

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[Image: Rembrandt, Three Trees (1643), etching]

The first state of Christ presented to the people, oblong plate (1655) is the version with the figures in the foreground. Masterfully presented as the crowd is, Rembrandt realised that it detracted from the focus upon Christ, so he removed it in the second state. It is one of his few drypoint-only prints. St. Jerome reading an Italian landscape (c. 1654) shows Rembrandt’s familiarity with Italian art. It remains unfinished but we must come to understand this as a stylistic and conceptual step in the artist’s thinking. As the sketch montages were a demonstration of the fragmentary as an aesthetic proposition, so prints such as St Jerome are an assertion of the unfinished aesthetic. Whereas Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi was appreciated for its unfinished quality, it was understood at the time as an incomplete picture. In the Rembrandt etchings, the premature halting of a picture is the preservation of the open quality that an unfinished picture has.

The exhibition is a good survey of Rembrandt’s prints. It does not include alternate proofs or proofs of different states of plates, so one could call this a layman’s display rather than an art-historical display. There is no dedicated exhibition catalogue but a catalogue of Ashmolean’s Rembrandt’s prints is available at the venue.

 

Henri Matisse: Master of Line (4 October 2019-5 January 2020) is the accompanying exhibition of a collection of prints of the 1920s and 1930s, mainly from the collection of London dealer Paul Kasmin. Most of the etchings are of female figures and portraits. Matisse does not consistently hit the target with his etchings in the way he does with his paintings. Unable to significantly revise the etchings the way he habitually did with the paintings, the etchings have the precariousness of ink drawings – linear, spare, fast and uncorrectable. There are some fine prints here and it is well worth spending time with this complementary exhibition.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Francis Bacon: Couplings

The exhibition Francis Bacon: Couplings (Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, until 3 August 2019) allows viewers the chance to see some of Bacon’s best paintings in a space which is very suitable. The generous size of the galleries and the ambient décor of medium-dark wooden floor and gray walls allows the colour to come out strongly without having to fight against the white walls that often impair the viewing experience.

The paintings are from the 1950s to 1970s and include a classic triptych and some very well-known paintings. The paintings feature couples copulating or single figures. There is one painting (Marching Figures (c. 1952)), showing many figures rendered stick-like, which depicts marching figures which deviates from this. These are by no means all of the paintings on the subject. Bacon had trouble creating multiple-figure compositions. His most frequent and successful involve depictions of sex, usually homosexual. These began in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, so his paintings had a frisson of danger. When the earliest paintings were exhibited in London they were shown in rooms with curtains.

Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973

[Image: FRANCIS BACON, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 1/8 in, 198 x 147.5 cm. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

Painting (1950) has travelled from Leeds. It shows what could be one figure seen twice or two figures, perhaps in a shower or bathroom. It goes well next to Two Men Working a Field (1971) and near the latest painting in the show, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973). The colours of the copulating figures are offset by the malachite and viridian block below them.  The painting features the tubular metal armature that recalls Modern furniture, railings or the equipment of physical therapy rooms. Despite the charge of perversity or eccentricity, it does succeed as a picture. The monkey adds to the air of unpredictability and balances the vertical format.

BACON 2019 Couplings installation view 4

There is a rare chance to see one of Bacon most anomalous paintings, Figures in a Landscape (1954). It is oil paint on cardboard and is unusually small. The uncharacteristic size and support, rough technique and unclear subject (the nude figures in the grass could just as likely be one) show this as a test painting. It was catalogued in the Ronald Alley catalogue raisonné as an abandoned painting and it looks completely authentic, though odd experimental piece. It fits the period when Bacon was painting in a rich way and developing areas of grass with multiple rich hues, generally on a dark stained ground. The tawny grass is a recurring aspect in Bacon’s paintings of the 1950s.

An underappreciated work is Two Men Working a Field (1971). The lack of prominence of this picture in literature is partly due to the fact it has been in private collections. Additionally, it is probably overlooked because the subject is atypical for Bacon, showing as it does figures involved in work. It belongs to a small group of works from the early 1970s when he painted doubles – figures who not only look alike but mirror each other’s posture. The best known examples are the lying figures in the Tehran triptych (Two Figures Lying on a bed with Attendants (1968) and the more accessible Triptych (1967) at the Hirshhorn. The subject seems to be the loss of self – the way intimacy of sex or the efficiency of work leads to bodies echoing each other. This was not a subject that Bacon developed to such a degree as he might have. The few paintings he made are not seen as a discrete group but they warrant further consideration because they are unusual and arresting.  The soil shows Bacon indulging his painterly side by creating a loam soil through brushing impasto burnt umber, ochre, sienna with a few dashes of crimson. This has been vigorously over-brushed, blurring the original application, adding more complexity to the areas.

Portrait of a Man Walking (c. 1953) is a painting of the artist’s most famous critical champion and lead interviewer, David Sylvester. The work is from the time of the men in dark blue rooms. Though these paintings are atmospheric, as paintings they are little lacklustre, with the artist tending to rely on an established format. Marching Figures (c. 1952) features  what is commonly interpreted as a polar bear surmounting a phalanx of marching soldiers (or SA Stormtroopers) probably derived from photographs of Nazi rallies. It was recovered from a collection in a Chelsea warehouse after Bacon’s death. The paintings with which he was dissatisfied he sent to his colourman for the stretchers to be reused. The canvases were not destroyed but kept without the artist’s knowledge. The heavy-gauge canvas used for this painting was also used for Figures in the Grass (1954). It shows a homosexual copulation in a field.

Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972) is a triptych of figures having sex in brightly lit rooms (or a single room). It features a mattress from photographs given to the artist in Tangiers by Allen Ginsberg. To Bacon Ginsberg gave a series of photographs of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky having sex, hoping Bacon would paint them. Bacon did not care for the figures but claimed to appreciate the “squalid” mattress, which he subsequently included in this triptych. Observation shows that rollers were used on carpet but not on the other areas. In the areas of brushed and stained paint, broken  bristles are present, showing the use of cheap brushes or a lack of care for the brushes. For the figures one finds places where Bacon has blotted with textured fabric. Brown aerosol paint has been applied over the motif.

The female nude in Lying Figure (1959) fails, the motif being too congested and to sharply delineated. It seems to have no connection to the sofa and wall. The shape overall is ugly and uninformative, telling us little truthful about the nature of lying and the qualities of a lying figure and this figure in particular. Likewise, the horizontal lying male figure on a couch (Sleeping Figure (1959)) is also a failure. The face has become a caricature and the anatomy is ugly and uninvolving. The format suggests it was cut down from a larger painting in a standard Baconian upright format. This picture has little value. These are the only two disappointing pictures in a show of a high standard.

Two Figures, 1953

[Image: Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1953), oil on canvas. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]

The final gallery holds the most celebrated painting in the display, Two Figures (called The Wrestlers) (1953), loaned from the Estate of Lucian Freud. It shows Bacon’s flexibility as a painter. The canvas was stained and the forms brushed in afterwards. The flesh of the figures is based on pale violet. The sheets are white, which has been applied impasto, in places with a palette knife. The same knife was used to scrape down that white, leaving the dark ground to create a speckled effect through the white. The head and base boards to the bed are illustrated, rather daintily and with a degree of clumsiness, setting the figures in a definite situation. Flickers of dilute monastrel (phthalocyanine) blue has been added last, heightening the pallor of figures and sheets. It is a marvellous sustained effort of execution and effective conceptualisation. It is justly regarded as one of Bacon’s finest works.

The decision not to include supplementary material benefits the exhibition. Over recent years there has been a tendency to include drawings, photographs, sources and archival material. While this is stimulating and important for understanding Bacon’s methods and approaches to creation, it also distracts from the power and independence of the paintings. Most of the time we are better off looking at and thinking about the finished paintings of an artist.

This exhibition is beautifully laid out and a chance to see Bacon at his carnal best. A full catalogue will be published in October.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Lee Krasner: Living Colour

9. Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede, 1960, Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Polar Stampede (1960). The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

The exhibition Lee Krasner: Living Colour Barbican, London (30 May-1 September 2019; Schirnhalle, Frankfurt, 11 October 2019-12 January 2020; Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, 7 February-10 May 2020; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 29 May-6 September 2020) is the first European retrospective of Krasner’s work since 1965. It displays the contributions of one of the major figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Arranged over two floors and a touch confusingly laid out, the exhibition takes us from the 1920s to the 1970s. The large spaces in the downstairs galleries allow the big paintings to be hung and viewed adequately. There is a film which uses interviews with the artist to shed light on her opinions.

Lee Krasner (1908-1984) was from a Jewish family in Brooklyn. Born Lena Krassner, Krasner took an independent course from the start. She studied painting at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, New York. She attached herself to the idea of advanced art but in America in the late 1920s that was at that time plein air Impressionism. Her self-portrait of c. 1928 shows her skill and ambition to be thought of as avant-garde. Competence is evident in here other self-portraits and life drawings in conté crayon from her student years.

In the 1930s two events changed her approach to art. The first was the birth of the WPA, which (among other things) provided artists with work making murals to decorate public space and producing easel paintings for government buildings. Krasner was employed by the WPA and became a trusted employee, heading teams and taking a prominent role. She was given high praise by her instructors. At the time she did not see herself as a woman artist because women artists were if not common  then not uncommon. For artists of the time, in a country that had no developed market for Modernist art and an economy reeling from the Great Depression, the WPA provided not only work and income, it forged a community of artists. Committees, unions, action groups and informal clubs brought artists together and allowed them to exchange professional advice and artistic ideas. Some photographs of montages by Krasner made in 1942 for window displays are projected in one gallery. They are effective at large size.

The second change was studying under Hans Hofmann, starting in 1937. Hofmann was a German émigré and a bona fide Modernist who painted abstract work (which he tended not to display, for fear of influencing his students). He treated Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Expressionism, Fauvism and abstract art as viable routes for artists. Previously only a handful of artists around Alfred Stieglitz and the 291 Gallery were standard-bearers for Modernism in America since the landmark Amory Show of 1913. While there a degree of credibility and seriousness attached to that group in the 1913-1933 period, they made little headway with the general public and even in the art world of the USA. Hofmann was a key figure, alongside artists such as the Mexican Muralists and Arshile Gorky, who advanced the idea of Modernism being the destiny of American art. She exhibited alongside respected artists and earned the reputation as a good painter. However, in the early 1940s the market for abstract and semi-abstract art was miniscule and prices – when work was sold – were low. She dabbled in Surrealism and produced paintings that owed a debt to the School of Paris but were creditable efforts.

In the early 1940s Krasner met Jackson Pollock. They started a romantic relation, married in 1945 and remained together until his death in 1956. They talked about art, shared materials and visited exhibitions together. It seems as though Krasner developed strategies to avoid provoking professional jealousy of Pollock. They moved out of New York City to Springs, Long Island, then a rural backwater a convenient distance from the city. They only had one large workspace – the barn. It was natural that Pollock should have it as he was earning more money from his art than Krasner was. Supported by Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s income kept the impoverished couple above water financially. She worked in the bedroom, which was small and had poor light. This was a factor in the creation of the Little Image series. These were abstract paintings that not only featured grids and patterns of little images but the pictures themselves were of modest or small size. This series is the highlight of the Barbican show. They are some of the most beautiful paintings to have emerged from Abstract Expressionism. They have glints of gem-like colour showing through webs of black webs, caused by the multiple layers and variety of colours used in tiny amounts. In Abstract No. 2 (1946-8) the black web dances in an inverted depiction of water – with the overlaying pattern in black not white. It is a great conceit.

Krasner was part of the trend to work in black and white paint, which was the rage in the late 1940s. She excelled at it. The all-over patterns in some paintings recall the white writing of Mark Tobey and the speckled paintings of Janet Sobel. These pictures have  satisfying quality. The square line designs over dark colour in patterns is very much of its time and it recalls swatches of wallpaper design. This is not a denigration of these paintings, which are very dense and yet have a calligraphic astringency. The weighting of elements is brilliantly judged. One black-and-white block patterned painting (Untitled (c. 1948-9)) has been reworked with dark red dashes in a grid fashion. It seems a tribute to Mondrian’s New York paintings. Krasner met and greatly admired Mondrian.

3. Lee Krasner Abstract No. 2 , 1947, IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock Krasner Foundation. Photo provided by IVAM.

[Image: Lee Krasner, Abstract No. 2 (1947). IVAM Centre, Spain. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy IVAM]

Restrictions sometimes provide stimulating challenges. The constraints on size directed Krasner to produce her what turned out to be her best works. The lack of opportunity to expand meant that she compressed the energy and expanses into small pictures. That gives the pictures their density and heft. A related work is her Mosaic Table (1947), which is a superb work. Reproduction cannot convey the rich colours and satisfying range of textures. Getting close allows one to see the coins and keys among the tesserae and glass, placed within a circular surface within a wagon wheel which had been left at her new country home. It is a beautiful object. It is a shame that Krasner did not create more works along these lines. Krasner’s strength is that she was willing to take risks; her weakness was that did not allow herself enough time to work out a seam thoroughly.

4. Lee Krasner Mosaic Table, 1947 Private Collection. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Mosaic Table (1947) Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York]

The later collages used torn up drawings that Krasner had been dissatisfied. When she returned to work, she found that the torn strips had attractive qualities. The arrangement of diagonal elongated strips is redolent of Cubism, Cubo-Futurism and Russian abstract art. Collage appealed to other artists of the time, including Robert Motherwell. Krasner, Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler were friendly at this time.

Prophecy (1956) and related paintings are a little obvious. The unrelenting pink seems too close to Matisse, the drawn curving verticals are too close to Wilfredo Lam. Later collages on a large size seem to parallel Matisse’s decoupages. After Pollock’s death she started to use his studio and produced her largest paintings. Few are fully successful. Polar Stampede (1960) is full of lashed liquid paint. Standing in front of it is like drowning in a stormy sea – a peculiar suffocating quality that is perhaps unintended and memorable even if it is not especially pleasant. However, the thinner works, were the raw canvas shows through are less satisfying. Krasner works best when her surfaces have depth in two or more layers and some kind of tensile strength of mark-making. The drawn calligraphic paintings of the 1960s are slight. Play is made of the fact that Clement Greenberg disapproved of the works of 1960, even though they went on to be praised. But Greenberg was correct. These are weak pieces. The brown colour is disagreeable, the surfaces lightly worked, the absence of palette variation a problem, the sizes too large. These are not good paintings. Too often one gets the impression these large pictures are flailings – spattered loops dancing in space which are made with the hope that brio will carry off the work. The density and tension of her best art is sorely missed here.

11. Lee Krasner, Another Storm, 1963 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery

[Image: Lee Krasner, Another Storm (1963), Private Collection. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York]

Another Storm (1963) is better. Technically similar to Polar Stampede, the alizarin relieves the claustrophobia and the mark-making knits the surface satisfactorily. Unfortunately, the painting has suffered extensive cracking. Krasner welcomed the change in fashion when it advanced hard-edge abstract at the end of the 1960s. Pop Art and a reaction against the stained surfaces of Colour-Field painting – along with the rise of Minimalism – had revived sharp lines and flat planes of colour in the painting of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These pictures work better than the preceding period, but one still has to like geometric abstraction to warm to them. The late collages include a series made out of sliced life drawings, cut into slivers. There is a gallery with a selection of works on paper, which feature staining and calligraphic signs and biomorphic marks.

Krasner died in 1984, while her solo retrospective was touring the USA. She was receiving the attention she had long deserved. The curators acknowledge that Krasner’s status as a woman painter has complicated the reception of her work.  In 1945 she rejected an offer to participate in the exhibition The Women. She did not feel an automatic affinity with other women painters. The was tough and self-reliant in her marriage to a major painter and she was just as impervious to her colleagues, male and female. Not least, the shadow of Jackson Pollock – one of the most influential painters in history – has inevitably fallen over Krasner. Happily, it is easy to judge her as an independent talent without reference to Pollock. On the quality of her best work, Krasner well deserves her place as a founder of Abstract Expressionism. Her participation in the touchstones of the New York School experience and her innate abilities make her a key figure in the history of American abstraction. This exhibition is a fine and long overdue tribute to an important painter.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

Cindy Sherman

133_21_Untitled Film Still # 21_CS 21 NEW

[Image: Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

The exhibition Cindy Sherman at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15 September 2019; Vancouver Art Gallery, 26 October 2019-8 March 2020) is a full retrospective of the American photographer’s work from her student pieces to art made this year. It shows Sherman’s work to be tricky, wide-ranging and inscrutable.

Sherman (b. 1954) grew up immersed in the American television and film world of the 1960s and 1970s. The dressing-up that all children do was a rehearsal for a deeper engagement in performance, role-play and drama that underpins her artistic work.

The photography of Sherman can viewed in light of two positions: artist as actress and woman as actress. Sherman studied film alongside fine art. There are head shots, where make-up tests seem to become a series of silent-movie era characters. In other student photographs of her full figure (sometimes maintaining a single pose between shots and sometimes performing a character) Sherman takes the role of an actress trying out characters or as the model for a costumier’s wardrobe tests. It raises the question of what is being and what is acting. How can we meaningfully separate pretending and existing? All pretence involves existing as a fiction and all existence includes an aspect of pretence.

The Cover Girls (1976) series show an original woman’s magazine cover of the period, with Sherman adding her own face. Leers, winks and pouts make the covers impossible, lurid or laughable. (There was quite a bit of laughter – albeit politely subdued – in the galleries.) These covers are like the scenes in horror films where pictures respond to characters, throwing their sanity into question and informing us that they have entered a world of distorted reality. To read these pieces as much more than cocking a snook or poking fun at the mass media would be going too far. The impact is humorous.

The Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) are a lot more serious and ambitious and can be seen as the first mature work of the artist. These black-and-white photographs restage generic scenes from American films, Sherman performs the characters of the ingénue, plucky heroine, jilted girlfriend, maid, wild child, housewife, scheming criminal, American abroad, adventurous teenager, publicity-shy film star, budding starlet, preening teen, middle-aged lush, big-city hooker and soon-to-be murder victim.

133_15_Untitled Film Still # 15_CS 15

[Image: Untitled Film Still #15 by Cindy Sherman, 1978. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York]

She uses make-up, costumes, mise en scenes, cinematography and her abilities as an actress to create persuasive photographs that successfully pastiches American movies. She also enjoys horror movies, perhaps leading to the prevalence of images of the victim in her photographs.

The Color Studies and Pink Robes of 1981-2 provide a warm and intimate counterpoint to these series, moving into colour and showing Sherman in her least overtly artificial of appearances. We should not be deceived into thinking these present emotional candour but they function like that when seen as part of her oeuvre as a whole. They are least intellectually and emotionally demanding of Sherman’s work (including the humorous work) and show Sherman working like a painter, not afraid to indulge in the pleasure of colour and texture. The violet tints of the Color Studies and the warm pink and texture of the thick robe in the Pink Robes are the work of a sensual artist. It is a shame that we have not seen more photographs along these lines. However, this line inevitably leads to exploration of non-human subjects and would take Sherman away from her prime modus operandi.

Later Sherman would expand her skills and take her creativity to new extremes with a series of History Portraits (1988-90) re-stages images of women and men from classic paintings. With prosthetics, props and heavy make-up she reaches heights of artificiality and implausibility to recreate paintings. Body casts and medical-training prosthetics augment and contrast with her own body. These results are never convincing but toy with mimicry and the grotesque, evoking the uncanny. She invites us to guess how the photographer has deployed falsehoods in order to generate an image that is unnatural. It toys with the ideas of women as users of cosmetics to hide themselves and enhance their appearance – for purposes of convention, disguise, seduction, signalling, vanity and self-deceit. The National Portrait Gallery has loaned Ingres’s Mme Moitessier, one of his grand portraits of society ladies as Roman matrons. This was a source for one of Sherman’s history portraits, which is displayed nearby.

In three sequences of erotic (or perhaps we should say anti-erotic) photography from the 1990s, Sherman creates artificial hells. These are landscapes of sex toys and medical prosthetics, which address attitudes towards pornography and obscenity in art, especially as a protest against the political suppression of nudity in the publicly-funded arts of the 1980s and 1990s. The Society Portraits (2008) are painfully acute reinterpretations of the high-society photographs found in magazines, with their ostentatious settings, arch poses, heavy make-up and stilted positions.

The deliberate confusions of stylistic registers, emotional tones and semiotic languages makes individual photographs more interesting to read and harder to interpret in the absence of an overarching expressed authorial intention. Sherman has said that concerns about the “male gaze” are peripheral to her as a maker. In Sherman’s performances she makes an analogy between herself as an artist engaged in a project and a woman who habitually makes herself up to face the world. She has spoken about when she arrived in New York City she adopted a street persona to escape unwanted attention and to shield herself. Both situations of artist and woman involve artifice and presentation. One could say that Sherman implies the woman is working in the same field as the painter and cinematographer in the business of extreme artificiality to generate a response from viewers. Yet Sherman goes beyond this in late works, where she becomes a clown, a grotesque, a woman deformed by cosmetic surgery, the victim of a birth defect or the survivor of a life-changing injury. Here horror and cosmetic transformation become wedded.

The range of tones is wide – from comic to serious, even tragic. Approaches likewise vary from candid to highly staged. Sources include movies, television and photography of all types. Characters range through all classes and include the fantastical. More subtle transformations make figures that are androgynous or fantastical (Fairy Tales (1985)). Movie-quality prosthetics make Sherman elderly or young, almost unrecognisable, yet as we know she is the author and only living subject of her photographs, we understand she must be the actress in her tableaux. Francesca Woodman could tease the audience by using models hiding their faces behind photographs of her face. The selection of models of similar appearance to her own figure generated simulacra of the artist, which worked because she was so frequently subject of her own photographs that she knew viewers would be familiar with her face and figure. Sherman does the reverse: always depicting herself but never revealing herself. “The end product of my procedure is not about anything. It’s a picture of something entirely of itself not of me.”[vii] Sherman evades the attachment of an agenda to her photographs.

he assumption that Sherman is the subject of all photographs is proved false by the development of works comprising of props assembled to form personages. In some of these works – a few them extreme close-ups – we are confronted by characters who are entirely artificial. These are the cousins of special-effects for movies or equivalents of the effects of reconstructive surgery. Some  become as lush and involved in image creation as any still-life painter (Untitled # 324 (1996)).

Apart from some of the Untitled Film Stills, Sherman has worked alone.[ix] Most of the work is done in her New York studio, which functions as a film studio does, with various cameras and lights, alongside a vast array of props and costumes. Rear projects have also been used extensively. This exhibition includes one room which reproduces at life size her studio and bookshelves.

The Chanel Series (2010-2) and Murals (2010) put full-figure characters in landscapes settings. These seem to indicate an urge to tackle something other – the wildness, the expanses of the American landscape, the delights of living things for – with the exception of herself – almost everything Sherman has depicted is non-living. It is quite something to be a photographer and at the same time refuse so much – all that is candid and unstaged, the living world of flora and fauna, the drama of landscape, the effects of nature and weather, the microscopic and macroscopic. Sherman’s lifetime of work has been – in its way – as limited as that of Mondrian or Rothko.

This exhibition is very rewarding and a fascinating exhibition of a serious artist. Highly recommended.

Cindy Sherman is at the National Portrait Gallery from 27 June to 15 September 2019.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

Angela de la Cruz: Bare

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In a medium-size top-lit gallery just off the Edgeware Road – with its bustling traffic, delivery vans and shops selling used office furniture – is a display of painted sculptures/sculpture as paintings. At Angela de la Cruz’s new exhibition Bare (Lisson Gallery, 27 Bell Street, London; 4 July-18 August 2018) four rectangular mounts are set on the walls. Sloughing down them are metal shutter bands. The bands and frames form objects that resemble roller shutters used to cover windows of commercial properties. They are dented. Each set of bands is painted a different colour: navy blue, turquoise, burgundy, scarlet. The frames are bare aluminium. There is an inevitable redolence of grimy urban existence notwithstanding the warmth and energy of the immaculate paintwork. (The shutters were painted after deformation.)

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Shutter (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, 154 x 159 x 15 cm, 60 5/8 x 62 5/8 x 5 7/8 in, CRUZ170018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

In the centre of the space are four sculptures. Rectangular box-like forms in folded aluminium are rammed into old-fashioned steel filing cabinets. The metal is crumpled, meaning that the tall forms tilt. The outside of the forms are painted, each one in navy blue, turquoise, burgundy or scarlet, to match the shuttered forms. The insides are pristine unpainted metal. The filing cabinets remain in their original state, patinated through a legacy of use then obsolescence and neglect.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, Crate (Turquoise), 2017, Oil and acrylic on aluminium, filing cabinet, 165 x 63 x 42 cm, 65 x 24 3/4 x 16 1/2 in, CRUZ170014, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

On the wall is the only canvas in the exhibition. Bare (Red) (2018) is a square painting with a square burgundy form is surrounded by an edge of scarlet. The front has been sliced free of its edges then reattached to the stretcher with a heavy nails pounded through each corner. There is no escape from being painting; it must go on as a mutilated painting, nearly pristine, its centre sagging slightly. It is so close to being both perfect and ruined and must go on existing in this dual state for as long as it is art. At some stage this object will cease to be art, as all art must do. Obliteration is the inevitable future for every art work, every object, every person and – eventually – all objects and humanity.

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[Image: Angela de la Cruz, installation view, ‘Bare’, Lisson Gallery London, July 2018, © Angela de la Cruz; Courtesy Lisson Gallery]

This exhibition extends the artist’s continued investigation of the humbled object – the abject form. Previous pieces have been broken paintings draped over chairs, crumpled into corners, sagging off walls, concertinaed into glossy curtains, hammered into scrap wood. There is no rip, slash, trampling, nailing, stapling, crumpling, contortion or other violation that her paintings have not endured. De la Cruz’s art shows us art objects as surrogate people. It is also partly us who project our feelings on to these objects. We understand what art looks like when it is new and de la Cruz adapts her objects in clear and comprehensible ways; this means we carry in our imaginations the ideal original object as it would have looked. The Platonic ideal, as it were. Thus when we study her objects as they are now, we have the impaired reality in our eyes and the perfect originals in our minds. The pity is therefore more poignant. De la Cruz’s art succeeds by being failures by not matching their Platonic pristine states and thereby becoming embodiments of human weakness, achieving poignancy as art.

Thus the Crates stand on spindly legs like personages facing in different directions. The painted outsides of the Crates are folded around, so that we see the colour from every vantage point. On the inside we see the virgin metal. This reveals the substance of what we see and harks back to the idea of making art that is explicable and “true to materials” as the direct carvers of the abstract art in the 1930s and the Minimalist artists of the 1960s would have put it. It also related to the inclusion of the Platonic form in de la Cruz’s art. Viewers have a point of reference by which to measure how far this art has fallen from its ideal. The notable aspect of this show is that de la Cruz has given us sumptuousness alongside the sombreness. The nasty vinyl blacks, discoloured yellows and nauseating tobacco browns of her previous works remind us of the Spanish genius for ugliness. Here we have clear strong hues, immaculate surfaces and play of carefully unmodified sheet metal alongside waxy glowing painted surfaces. The reflectiveness of the metal under the paint seems to shine through the paint under strong light, though that may be an illusion. Despite the suggestion of melancholy and introspection, the art has a muted joyfulness. There is the pleasure of attractive colour, the tactility of clean surfaces and simple deformation and the satisfaction of pure states of metal and paint. There is the satisfaction of seeing Crates and Shutters in matching colours, with the scarlet and burgundy reprised in the single canvas. For the first time de la Cruz has made art which looks stronger than it looks weak. This, combined with new qualities of beauty in de la Cruz’s art, makes this exhibition the most emotionally satisfying display of her art that I have seen.

This exhibition could be seen as Angela de la Cruz at her most emotionally introspective. What we get is a masterful display of colour and forms that are generous, tactile and delicious. There is humour but circumscribed by sombreness. The group of works are acutely judged as an ensemble. Once the pieces are split up some of the charge may be lost. The pieces will function differently when separated.

If we are lucky, the artist will continue further along this line of approach.

© 2018 Alexander Adams

27 July 2018

Robert Motherwell: Open

 

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[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view (Dover Beach no. III (1974) on left), courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

A new exhibition in Paris showcases some striking examples of Abstract Expressionism by Robert Motherwell.

Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) was one of leading figures in the first generation of Abstract Expressionism. He was something of an organiser and a committed teacher, helping to explain abstraction and spread its practice among American artists. He was a writer and editor and his facility with words was sometimes held against him. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were revered as the high priests (or rabbis) of the New York School but Motherwell was viewed as a professor – a bit earnest, a little dry. This is a little unfair because he was a talented painter and influenced many younger artists with his art.

Over a very productive career, Motherwell produced thousands of paintings, drawings and collages. He was the leading collagist of the New York School, combining scraps of printed paper, book pages, postage stamps and labels, with added dashes of paint and charcoal lines. Many of his collages reflect his love of French culture, particularly literature. His art is distinguished by its elegance, poise and brevity.

Much of Motherwell’s later work relies on the impact of large expanses of single colours, coming close to Colour-Field painting. Colour-Field painting is based on the effect of intense colour and large shapes, frequently using staining and avoiding prominent brushwork and gesture, as seen in Abstract Expressionism, which immediately preceded the Colour-Field movement. For a period, Motherwell was married to Helen Frankenthaler, who developed Colour-Field painting in collaboration with Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland. The influence of Matisse’s single-colour ground paintings (such as The Red Studio (1911)) is also apparent in Motherwell’s later work.

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[Image: Robert Motherwell: Open, installation view, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

Robert Motherwell: Open, Galerie Templon, Paris (17 May-21 July 2018) gathers some Motherwell’s paintings from the Open series. These are some of his best paintings. Indeed, the array in the day-lit main gallery, which presents the large paintings, is as good as the centrepiece of a museum retrospective. The exhibition presents a very persuasive case for Motherwell as powerful and original painter.

The brushed bronze-gold hue of Untitled (1974) has a near metallic quality. Dover Beach no. III (1974) has more activity, with scribbled brushmarks imparting greater contrast and complexity. The dark blue swatch in the right side implies sky, turning the rectilinear motif into a closed window in a wall next to sky. There has been debate over how literally the Open series should be interpreted, with some seeing the drawn forms as apertures such as windows or doors, others claiming these are purely abstract designs. The Mexican Window (1974) is more concretely figural, with the open window and shutters distilled to a graphic summary.

RM13965 Robert Motherwell, The Mexican Window (2)

[Image: Robert Motherwell, The Mexican Window (1974), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 194.3 x 243.8 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

The shutters cast narrow bands of shadow on the wall below. We feel the heat and glare of midday sunlight on a house wall. There is a West Coast ambience to many of the larger paintings, not dissimilar to Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series. However, Motherwell’s Open paintings are much more successful than the Ocean Park series, having a great deal more energetic, rich colour and satisfying surfaces. The Ocean Park paintings have an unpleasant dry, drab surface and an insubstantial feeling.

The wet painterly washes of the thinned acrylic paint give the impression of the minor imperfections found in ordinarily painted stucco. The size of these paintings (frequently at or exceeding two metres in dimensions) reinforces the mural character of subjects. In a way, the Open series is itself a sequence of detached murals. In this respect they are curiously mimetic: painted sections of walls have been treated as detached sections of wall.

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[Image: Robert Motherwell, California Window (1975), acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 182.9 x 213.4 cm, courtesy Galerie Templon, Paris & Brussels. Photo: B.Huet/Tutti]

 

The acrylic paint has held up well over the years and shows no sign of deterioration. One reason the paintings are in good condition is the fact they belong to the estate of the artist and have been carefully conserved. All of the 17 paintings in the exhibition come from the Motherwell Estate and all are for sale. The prices are reasonable considering the quality and importance of these paintings.

Critics have noted the lifting/ascending character of the uneven, open-topped forms placed high on the picture plane in this series. These paintings have a surprising amount of energy considering the limited range of expression. There is plenty to see, probably because of the subtle qualities of the energetic surfaces and how they change according to the light. For such simple paintings, they are actually lively.

There are a number of weak paintings. The black painting with a scraped curving outline is slight and unsatisfying. It lacks the substance of painted or drawn lines. Black Open (1973) and Royal Dirge (1972) are both predominantly black and both unsatisfying. Motherwell has a problem animating black and it shows how his art works when it is at its best – through complementing graphic elements with washed rich colour. In the black paintings half of that equation is missing. However, these weaker paintings serve to demonstrate how the series work in general by proving the rule.

In Great Wall of China no. 4 (1971) the yellow top coat covers darker forms in watery obscuration. In this piece we are made aware of a lost earlier state – something of a rarity in Motherwell’s work. Revision – certainly radical revision – is almost entirely absent from Motherwell’s late paintings and the Open pieces are only lightly worked. If anything, Motherwell is open to the criticism of being facile. On the whole, these paintings are very bold, confident and well-judged. Some of the smaller paintings risk the charge of being slight, but Open Study in Charcoal on Grey #1 (1974) has heft, despite its small size. Untitled (Red Open) (c. 1974) is a fine painting, rich in colour and satisfying in design.

This is a superb exhibition of one of abstract art’s best painters. Strongly recommended.

Galerie Templon, 30 rue Beaubourg, Paris 75003, https://www.templon.com/

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Basil Beattie: A Passage of Time

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[Image: Basil Beattie, Ins and Outs Series 1 (2004-5), mixed media on paper 28 x 36 cm, courtesy of the artist]

The current exhibition of works on paper by Basil Beattie RA (b. 1935) charts his progress from the 1980s to today. Beattie built his early career on pure abstraction, largely in line with his colleagues at the Royal Academy in the late 1950s. Influenced by American Abstract Expressionists and the Colour-Field painters, Beattie developed a language based on non-representational image making. In the mid-1980s he began the Circus series, where semi-recognisable imagery began to enter compositions. At the end of the 1980s Beattie felt he could no longer actively keep out the images that were in his mind and from then on his art has combined the solid sense of an abstract painter – with an attendant feeling for material and eye for form – with figural motifs. These are pictographs, simple and strong but not without ambiguity. Stairs, arches, doorways, ladders, corridors, roads, blocks, ziggurats and other forms become signs but signs with weight and earthiness.

The exhibition Basil Beattie RA: A Passage of Time (Hugh Casson Room, Royal Academy, London, 23 February-23 April 2018) picks up in 1986, with prints from the Circus series. Soon after these brightly coloured works, Beattie muted his colours. The work of the 1990s and early 2000s (paintings as well as graphics) were characterised by the use of black, white, ochre, cadmium red medium and grey. This is reflected in the art presented here: prints, drawings and paintings, all on paper.

There are a range of pieces covering many of Beattie’s motifs.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 1, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 1 (2017), oil on paper, courtesy of the artist]

Some of the strongest works are the prints of 1998-9, made with Advanced Graphics in Deptford. These corridors and doorways have the presence of vital pictograms, signs with import, urgent warnings or even religious meditations. They are classic images made with confidence and asperity.   Beattie’s oil paintings have a strong physical presence, with wax-thickened impasto over raw linen, and this tactility and heft is difficult to convey in prints. (Beattie might achieve effective results using mixed etchings with the carborundum process, which produce heavily textured granular effects on heavy paper.) To increase texture and weight, Beattie worked with Bob Saich at Advanced Graphics, London to combine screenprint with woodcut in In or Out (1998) and Signs of Entry (1999).

The Janus series (2009-12) are sections with views of roads disappearing towards flat horizons. In one drawing strong colour intrudes. Beattie generally handles colour adroitly but Beyond Yonder (2012) is distractingly highly keyed. His pinks and yellows work best against earthy grounds or raw linen, where predominance of subdued colour and dim tones acts as a foil to small areas of pungent colour. Beyond Yonder fails because the dominance of the white paper fails to provide that foil.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 4, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 4 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

There is a certain dry humour to Beattie’s art. His ladders are comically rustic and seem absurdly rickety. Anyone foolish enough to put weight on a rung would inevitably snap that rung and expose himself as an optimistic buffoon, as in a Buster Keaton movie. In Ladder Series 5 (2017) the ladder has been split and become two structures, almost totemic in their mute uselessness.

Basil Beattie - Ladder Series 5, 2017

[Image: Basil Beattie, Ladder Series 5 (2017), oil on paper, 36 x 28 cm, courtesy of the artist]

Tottering stacks of steps in other pictures induce unease in the viewer. These seem more ominous than comic.

The most recent work is Broken Promises (2017). It has a tottering stack, with the printed in grey over scarlet, which gives it a snappy contrast of flickers of fiery red under and around the grey top layer. The overprinting of different inks gives Beattie’s prints a particularly satisfying density and complexity.

Basil Beattie_Above and Below I

[Image: Basil Beattie, Above and Below I (2004), etching and chine collé, 72.5 x 57.5 cm, edition of 25, courtesy of the artist]

Pieces are for sale and prices modest. The exhibition is highly recommended. Let us hope there will be a British exhibition displaying the best of Beattie’s art over the last 30 years. Until then, enjoy this taster.

Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension

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[Image: Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, 2018, installation view, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

Herbert Ferber (1906-1991) was a sculptor who was part of the New York School; his was part of the Abstract Expressionism movement. The touring exhibition Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut (27 January-29 July 2018; previously at Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami) gives an opportunity to study Ferber’s art in depth. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Herbert Ferber Silvers trained and practised as a dentist part time. His art training was informal and received sporadically at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and the National Academy of Design, in his native New York. His early sculpture was carved wood and stone and cast bronze; the subjects were Expressionist figures. He also etched and painted. Ferber’s first solo exhibition was held in 1937. This was a time when Regionalism held sway in the small arena of new American art. Ferber’s expressive figurative art put him between, on one hand, the traditionalism and straightforward illustration of Regionalists, Hopper and the Ashcan School and, on the other, the nascent Modernist movement including Stuart Davis, John Marin and young abstract painters.

Ferber committed to abstraction in 1945, at a time when Abstract Expressionism was hitting its stride. A new confidence infused American art. Americans realised that America was leading the way in art internationally and had no reason to feel inferior to Europe. A new generation of collectors were buying adventurous abstract art made by young Americans. Ferber’s art fitted in. In a way, perhaps it fitted in too well. If any vital quality is lacking from Ferber’s art – with the exception of Burning Bush (discussed below) – it is powerful memorability. If Ferber’s art had fitted in less well and stuck out as odd, discordant, pungent or hybrid, perhaps it would have garnered more enthusiastic support and strong aversion. In terms of reputation, Ferber’s art would have benefitted from having both more friends and enemies.

The influence of Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut (1932) – which was frequently reproduced and exhibited in the 1930s and 1940s – is evident in Ferber’s bronzes Hazardous Encounter II (1947) and Dragon (1947). Giacometti’s biomorphic forms, jagged energy and emotive subject evidently struck a chord in Ferber.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Hazardous Encounter II (1947), bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of lead at the same time was unusual; Ferber soon discontinued using it as he found it prone to damage. He started to work in welded metal, which was his dominant method for the rest of career as a sculptor. The use of folded, curved and welded steel, brass and copper (often in juxtaposition) gave sculptures from the 1950s to 1991 greater variety of colour and surface. All of them are resolutely abstract. (Ferber apparently never returned to figuration the way Guston and de Kooning did.) The current exhibition includes one painted construction.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Roofed Sculpture with “S” Curve II (1954), cast bronze. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

The use of spikes, open linear forms and occasional horizontal orientation in table-top pieces aligns Ferber with David Smith around 1950. Such was Smith’s prominence and accomplishment that his work has tended to overshadow Ferber’s. Notable differences include Smith’s adaptation of recognisable manufactured elements, something less apparent in Ferber’s art. The exploitation of pre-made material gives Smith’s art a collage aspect and the frisson of duality: material as adapted source and material as plastic form. There is also little visual wit or punning in Ferber’s art. For better or worse, Ferber’s art is grave matter. There may be energy, exhilaration and inventiveness but there is no humour.

Ferber received the major commission to create a giant wall-mounted sculpture for the B’nai Israel Synagogue, Millburn, New Jersey. Burning Bush (1951-2) was a highly successful sculpture in brass, copper and lead depicting the burning bush through which God spoke to Moses. The dynamic forms, Modernist crispness and memorability made it very effective as art, decoration and icon. The piece benefits from the limitation as a relief, essentially. Ferber might have benefitted from making more wall reliefs.

In 1961 Ferber had the opportunity to experiment with interior sculptural installation in a work for the Whitney Museum of American Art. This informed later large exterior sculptures of steel that allowed viewers to inhabit the sculptural space. They demonstrated Ferber’s interest in dynamic open forms which defy gravity. Developing a sculptural language that consisted of space as much as solid forms became a central preoccupation for Ferber the sculptor.

Ferber returned to painting intermittently (but seriously) while being best known for his sculpture. His large paintings (made from the 1950s to the last years of his life) present simple forms with curving edges, saturated colour and – especially in late works – surfaces animated by vigorous and visible brushwork. The forms are akin to simple calligraphs and are less dramatic and abrupt than Franz Kline’s similar works. As Edith Devaney points out in her essay, the paintings are related to immersive sculpture of Ferber, with their suspended simple shapes. It is clear Ferber the painter looked at a lot of abstract painting and was close friends with many of the Abstract Expressionists. The Colour-Field paintings by Jules Olitski and Sam Gilliam may have led Ferber to develop his feathery working of surfaces and the introduction of sand as a way of diffusing light and creating texture.

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[Image: Herbert Ferber, Primo (1973), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Estate of Herbert Ferber and Waqas Wajahat, New York]

In the 1970s Ferber’s paintings became strongly coloured, often with a hot palette. Triangular sections are softened by blurring brushstrokes, dribbles and dilution. The dancing organic forms in the sculptures become cleaner and clearer. Rods and frames were used to stabilise and support the curving forms. In the energetic rococo sculptures composed of suspended, soaring and curling shapes we can see ideas that Frank Stella developed in his metal reliefs.

Ferber was included in the landmark MoMA exhibition “Fifteen Americans” in 1952 and has featured regularly in publications and group exhibitions since then. He was respected by his peers and played a prominent role in the New York School’s group activities. However, today his art remains lesser known than that of his colleagues. His work was omitted from the recent Royal Academy survey of Abstract Expressionism, whereas Smith had 13 works included – a slightly unkind reflection on Ferber. Non-sculptor Barnett Newman was represented by a bronze. One would have thought Ferber should have had at least one piece also.

The 44 works illustrated in this touring catalogue cover 1943 to 1990 and display the core of Ferber’s art without amounting to a full retrospective. The essays describe the artist’s development, working habits and artistic affiliations. Ferber comes out looking a serious and articulate sculptor. He seems a competent and independent as a painter but not a maker of imposing or exciting paintings – at least in reproduction. For anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge and appreciation of Abstract Expressionism then this catalogue is an enjoyable exploration of Ferber’s art.

 

Jill Deupi, John B Ravenal & Edith Devaney, Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension, Lowe, 2017, paperback, 66pp, 56 col. & mono illus., $15, ISBN 978 0 9969489 5 1

Degas’s Human Animals

Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, about 1896-99

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Dancer adjusting her Shoulder Strap, (c. 1896-9), charcoal and pastel on paper, 28 x 47 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.248), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection (National Gallery, 20 September 2017-30 April 2018) is an exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture, mostly loaned from the collection of the Burrell Collection, Glasgow. It is held to mark the centenary of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Twenty-two paintings, pastels and drawings from the huge and wide-ranging art collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) are united with a Degas pastel Burrell donated to Berwick-on-Tweed Museum and a handful of other Degas works to form a reasonable display of some of Degas’s typical subjects. Portraits, early academic studies, prints and landscapes are missing from the selection.

Degas became the quintessential modern artist by turning away from the classical art he knew so well and instead using poses taken from everyday life. His is the first art that features figures which slouch, stretch, yawn and scratch. Whereas these actions might have been confined to minor supporting characters or used in genre paintings for to moral or satirical purpose, Degas is the first to take such actions and present them without overt comment. We see figures contorted in instances of private ablution.

Woman in a Tub, about 1896-1901

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman in a Tub (c. 1896-1901), pastel on paper, 60.8 × 84.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.236), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Here we have humanity as it is, sometimes ungainly, sometimes ugly. Critics saw this and criticised Degas for treating human beings – and especially women – as animals. Of course, the day’s convention dictated that Degas’s images of human animals were considered unsightly treatment of the fairer sex. The aura of respect and romance regarding a woman’s figure was overturned in the series of Toilettes. Even in the portraits of woman there is the impression of imbalance and awkwardness that would become a commonplace aspect of Modernist art. Subjects are placed off centre, stiff, distracted, vulnerable – the opposite of the projections of confidence, authority and contentment that were standard in society portraiture. In group portraits such as that of the Bellelli family (c. 1867) and Sulking (c. 1870) we see the imperfect unions of temperamentally contrasting individuals in relationships.

Jockeys in the Rain, about 1883-86[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Jockeys in the Rain, (c. 1883-6), pastel on tracing paper, 46.9 x 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.241), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas had a keen interest in horses and studied animal locomotion. In the race-course scenes such as Jockeys in the Rain (c. 1883-6) the nervous tension of horses and men about to race is conveyed through the alert heads and raised forelegs of the horses. A drawing shows a horse exhausted after a race. It is unknown how much Degas knew of sequential photography of animal locomotion.

The End of the Race, about 1882

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The End of the Race, (c. 1882-90), chalk on tracing paper, 14.6 × 19.6 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.233), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Sir William Burrell was a shipping magnate who built an eclectic collection. Although rich, he was unable to compete with the American magnate collectors, and his Degas works are mainly small and inexpensive works on paper. There are a number of larger works. The outstanding work in the group is a portrait of art critic Edmond Duranty (1879) in his study, a picture which has not travelled to London for the display. The catalogue essay by Vivien Hamilton discusses the detailed history of Burrell’s collection of Degas, much of it informed by his friendship with Alexander Reid (1854-1928), the Scottish art dealer who had been friends with Vincent and Theo van Gogh and had conducted picture-trading business with the latter.

Burrell’s collection of Degas (which tended to be on loan to museums rather than in his home) includes pieces various in subject, medium and finish. There are highly finished oil paintings on canvas, oil essence paintings on paper and densely worked pastels. A revealing drawing on canvas (c. 1897) of a woman washing herself over a basin is barely started.

Woman Bathing, about 1897

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman at her Toilette (c. 1897), pastel on canvas, 78.7 × 63.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.229), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

As an art work it is unsatisfying but as studio material witnessing the creative process it is interesting. Degas sketched out the whole composition in black and then roughly applied colour to some of the background, dresser top and hair but none to the basin or the skin of the body.

Girl Looking Through Field Glasses, about 1866-72

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Woman looking through Field Glasses, (c. 1869), pencil and oil (essence) on paper, 32 × 18.5 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.239), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

An early oil sketch on paper shows a spectator at a horse race, looking towards us through field glasses. There are several scenes of ballerinas practising, made in Degas’s early tight and realistic style.

 

The Green Room, about 1877-82

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Preparation for the Class (c. 1877), pastel on paper, 58 x 83 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.238), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

The realism is relative. The veracity of Degas’s observations is condensed into compilations of poses and figures which are fictitious. His frequent visits to the opera meant that the artist became familiar with poses, costumes, attitudes and settings, which he could combine according to his aesthetic aims.

Other works include some excellent nudes in pastel and a scene two women at a jeweller’s shop.

The Jewels, about 1887

[Image: Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, At the Jewellers, (c. 1887), pastel on paper, 71.2 x 49 cm, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.228), © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection]

 

Degas looked at human behaviour in anthropological terms, catching their expressions and body language as subjects interacted. This can be seen in the tableaux set in laundries, cafés and milliner’s shops. The subjects engage in work, leisure or shopping in ways that appear as though they are unaware they are being observed. Actually, these pictures were never created in situ – Degas often worked from memory, adjusted or invented settings and had models pose in his studio. The influence of photography can be seen in the odd cropping and decentred compositions, regardless of the fact actual photographs apparently almost never served as sources. (See especially Place de la Concorde (1876).) On a few occasions at the end of his life he used photographs as sources. His maxim was to create something artificial from memory and then add an accent of nature to make it persuasive.

Another essay explains the artist’s materials and techniques. Technical analysis has advanced in recent years. (For discussion of this see these article: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/degas-themes-and-finish/  and http://artwatch.org.uk/degas-and-the-problem-of-finish/) Degas was unusual among the Impressionists in his use of many academic techniques, wide range of materials and his adoption of pastel and mixed media. This makes Degas’s art rewarding and surprising to researchers of his materials.

This excellent and enjoyable exhibition (and catalogue) are recommended.

 

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Degas and his Model is a first full English translation of a text published in 1919, published in two issues of Mercure de France. The author is Alice Michel – apparently a nom de plume. It purports to be the memoirs of a model called Pauline, who modelled for Degas over 1900-1910. There is debate about the authenticity of text, which seems to have been at least assisted by a professional writer. If it is a fake, it is a good one. It is full of both expected information and unexpected touches that convey have the touch of intimate observation – quite like a Degas pastel.

The short book tells us of Pauline’s experience of working for Degas as he worked on a Plastiline sculpture. Degas gives her a difficult pose and berates her when she struggles to hold the pose or requires breaks. He is demanding and impatient. He evades discussing or showing his art, though he is curious and a touch possessive when models talk about modelling for other artists. His studio is cluttered and dirty, as he forbids his servant from cleaning except around the coal stove. It is gloomy because the windows are covered to protect his eyes, which had grown sensitive by this time. (The 1900-1910 period was Degas’s last period of production. His blindness curtailed his productivity thereafter; in 1912 he was forced to leave his apartment and it is thought he made no work between 1912 and his death in 1917.) In a touching scene, he asks Pauline to tell him the colour of the pastel he is holding, demonstrating how damaged his eyesight was.

The account centres on the sessions for a statuette of a woman standing on one leg and studying the sole of her foot. It was a stressful pose and the pay was poor. The artist would have to feel her body sometimes as he worked on the figurine. He would use a compass or callipers to measure her dimensions. On many days he would grumble about the cost of everyday items and mock the pursuit of honours by artists. Yet he could also be kind and thoughtful. He would sing minuets from operas and mutter outlandish fables while he worked. There would be a touch of banter between artist and model and he would sometimes mention his past travels but he was wary about talking more generally about his ideas on art. There is very little about specific works of art by Degas or his great collection. Pauline may have been observant but Degas was reticent and volunteered to show her very little.

Degas and his Model is a glimpse of Degas in his twilight: nearly blind, frail, tired, working slowly but still working.

Alice Michel, Jeff Nagy (trans.), Degas and His Model, David Zwirner Books, 2017, paperback, 88pp, no illus., $12.95, ISBN 978 1 941 701 553

Vivien Hamilton et al., Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell Collection, The National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 112pp, 50 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1857096255

Le Cabaret de l’informe: The Sculpture of Medardo Rosso

MER_1018

[Image: Medardo Ross, Ecce puer (Beyond the Child) (1906), plaster coated with sealant, Museo Medardo Rosso]

The current exhibition of art Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is staged like an intimate cabaret performance. (Medardo Rosso: Sight Unseen, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, closes 10 February 2018; full catalogue) With the velvet curtains across the door, no natural light and the spotlighting from above, it could be an exclusive brothel or a scene from a David Lynch film. The few heads on display are beautiful, peculiar, delicious and troubling. In this exclusive and luxurious setting (and high-end location, in a street known for its super-expensive boutiques selling jewellery, watches and clothing), we come to commune with something hidden and rare that combines the beautiful and disconcerting.

The display uses lighting carefully. Contemporary writers noted Rosso’s obsession with controlling lighting to increase the impact of his sculptures.[i] The exhibition comprises ten heads and two groups of sculpture, with two vitrines of drawings and photographs of drawings. The photographs are largely vintage prints of drawings, which Rosso printed to exhibit in place of the drawings – a novel decision at the time. The plinths are rough and worn, echoing the rugged and weathered character of the casts they display. It is commendable that the exhibition designers have chosen not to put all behind glass. With such delicate and valuable objects that must have been a conscious gamble to refrain from using glazing. (NB: Images show all the works without glazing.)

[Images: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The selection of work, some of which is borrowed from Museo Medardo Rosso, Barzio, Italy, (including some of his best-known heads) is assembled in London. The early Carne altrui (The Flesh of Others) (1883-4) shows the head of a sleeping prostitute. It falls in line with the work of the Impressionists, with their interest in the anonymous members of the urban under-class, realistic subject matter and a desire to forge non-naturalistic styles to capture effects seen in life. A roughly modelled sculpture of a baby at a breast plays with illegibility, so strong are the marks of Rosso’s tools and fingers. Rosso was one of the few Italian artists who expressed an interest in the recent developments in French art. This played a part in Rosso’s decision to move to Paris, the centre of the avant-garde, in 1889.

The deep purple-mahogany woodgrain effect of Ecce puer (1906), cast in plaster stained with sealant, gives it an organic-mineral character. The impression of worn stone is common in Rosso’s heads. Features of anonymous figures are eroded or blurred as if by water or frost. We can also consider the sculpture of a veiled woman by Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881) especially in relation to Madame Noblet (c. 1897-8).

IMG_0293

[Image: Raffaelle Monti, Veiled Vestal (1847), marble]

Viewing statues of laughing figures is a curious experience in a way that it is not with paintings. Maybe it is the lack of pictorial distance and the existence of the insistent physical presence of an object sharing space with the viewer that makes sculpture more disconcerting to us. We are under the apprehension of being with a person and not having got the joke. Perhaps we are the subject of mockery or are in the presence of a hysteric. That freezing of a momentary action that is one of the more powerful and relatable instance of human contact we experience is significant. It is a joke we can never draw any amusement from, only observe in incomprehending alien fashion. Another unsettling aspect is the way figures are shown in motion, often close to toppling over. This adds to Rosso’s reputation as an Impressionist in that he captured transitory moments.

Rosso used colour in a manner that broke with the monochrome tradition of Italian statuary established in the Renaissance and furthered by Bernini. His colour choices depart from the monochromy of plain material, the tinting of stone by Canova and the polychromy of religious figures. He uses colour in an Impressionist manner – strong, non-naturalistic, roughly blended. In the wax cast of Bambino ebero (Jewish Boy) (c. 1892-4) is an assertively artificial yellow. This is an aspect of his art that is often overlooked.

Rosso produced only around 50 unique sculptures and nothing new after 1906. Most of these compositions were cast by the artist multiple times in different materials. He manipulated each cast, preferring to use fragile plaster and wax instead of bronze. Rosso became known in Paris for his theatrical casting, which privileged insiders, critics and collectors could witness. Rosso used casting as performance and photographs of his studio and his casts were sent by Rosso as postcards and published.

The vitrines contain drawings and vintage prints of photographs of drawings and sculptures which Rosso exhibited, distributed and published. Some of the drawings were made on scraps of hotel stationery, including envelopes. The drawings of figures and street scenes are small, rough, provisional and tonal. They are somewhat similar to Seurat’s, whose drawings Rosso should have known. As drawings they are not especially strong. The practice of using photographs of art as art is innovatory on a conceptual level and worthy of discussion.

Ropac Gallery24812

[Image: installation view, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London . Paris . Salzburg. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates]

The impression of viewing a form which fluctuates between being and not being is characteristic of Rosso’s late sculpture. This quality of extreme mutability generates a type of anxiety we may associate with Georges Bataille’s definition of l’informe. The form before us evades exact classification and calls into question our certitude regarding all categories by being simultaneously of a member of exclusive sets and not of any single one. The informe indicates chaos and entropy and breaches the human ambiguity-discomfort threshold. Thinking about it does not help: the horror of chaos only impinges further. As an animal which evolved to crave the certainty of discerning the edible from the inedible and the spoor of the prey animal from that of the predator animal, homo sapiens seeks certainty above all else. Humans are not developed for dwelling upon the boundary-crossing and profoundly ambiguous. Yet think we must, for as problem-solvers we are drawn to the ambiguous and seek to either resolve the problem or at least grade it as an insoluble or unimportant problem so it can be set aside (however temporarily).

The idea of the informe was broached by Bataille in 1929 in the Surrealist journal Documents; it was revived by art theorists in the 1990s, who put it forward as a historical precursor to one strand of Late Modernist practice and Post-Modernist theory, namely the entropic. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, Richard Serra, Eva Hess, Lynda Benglis and others used techniques which harnessed unpredictable physical properties of objects and substances to generate art they could not control in a fine manner, thereby violating one of traditions of art: that of the artist as a maker with supreme control of his materials. These artists did have some control over their materials in the way they selected and manipulated materials but this did not afford full control.

The informe of Rosso gives us material that resolutely refuses to subordinate itself to the designated form. It gives us the human form in fragmentary fashion but much of it remains unshaped; sometimes a majority of the material is unformed. In comparison to the quantity if figural matter, the proportionately large quantity of the unformed superfluous matter challenges the idea that the matter is in the service of representation. The unformed excess, the ostensible setting, takes on an importance by dint of its quantity. The lack of detail and degree of ambiguity in Rosso’s later heads give the impression of matter in the process of making form and form on the verge of returning to primordial matter. Rosso was known in his day for allowing the imperfections of his casts to remain and not be subject remedial post-casting processes. Thus rips, bubbles and cracks in casts, the prominent nails and sprues of the casting process and the excess slurry that would ordinarily have been removed or ameliorated remained as part of the final state of object.[ii] It is true that Rosso’s sculptures do display pure entropic formlessness but they infuse likenesses made in the consummate realistic Western tradition of modelled sculpture with the repugnant presence of unformed matter. Viewed retrospectively, these sculptures stand as precursors to both the abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists and the artful deformations of the Expressionists, Soutine and Francis Bacon.

Read a full review of three books about Rosso here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2019-02-06-medardo-rosso-sculpture-as-impressionism

 

6 February 2018

[i] Sharon Hecker, Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form, 2018, Pulitzer , p. 19

[ii] We should not neglect the aspect of debasement that Bataille mentioned in his definition. Semi-liquid slurry – especially when seen in conjunction with the human form – has the connotation of bodily waste and internal bodily substance which we abhor seeing openly, as this associated with injury and death. More broadly, such indistinct matter reminiscent of excreta and internal bodily substance is repellent and horrible to us as dangerous, filthy or irredeemable (that is, an injury so extreme that substantial internal matter was exposed was almost invariably fatal and thus literally unredeemable or unrepairable).