“Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, the new exhibition at the V&A London, examines Kahlo’s private world, displaying paintings, drawings, photographs and private possessions to form a powerful presentation of Kahlo the artist and the woman.
“Such an approach might seem intrusive. Yet Kahlo (1907-1954), one of the most famous painters of the 20th century, was an artist uniquely concerned with her self, displaying it in its various guises. Her symbolic portraits and self-portraits – combining Surrealism, Mexican painting and naive amateur art – and her personal life – her precarious health, commitment to Communism and tempestuous marriage to famed muralist Diego Rivera – all flowed into what is a strikingly autobiographical artistic enterprise, rich in allusion and metaphor. Indeed, fascination with her autobiography, combined with acclaim for her art, propelled Kahlo to stardom long after her death, spawning films, documentaries and numerous books…”
[Image: Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926), Woman Bathing (La Toilette) (c. 1890–91), Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund, 39.107]
Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro at Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (9 June-9 September 2018) examines the three most prominent printmaking painters of the Impressionist movement: Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Camille Pissarro (1855-1903). The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.
This exhibition shows us the complex interplay of collaboration and rivalry that influenced the printmaking of three leading painters of the age. All three artists trained in etching early in their careers then set aside the medium to concentrate on painting. At the time, etching was considered a component of a rounded education for professional artists and also pursued by hobbyists, thus it was a widespread skill. In the 1860s there was a revival in etching in France, with the Société des Aquafortistes was established in 1862. Publishers encouraged artist-printmakers to produce etchings which they then marketed to fine-art collectors in competition with lithographs.
Etchings by Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic (1839-1889) show us the work of a critical figure in Nineteenth Century French printmaking. Lepic is best known for eau-forte mobile, which is the creative inking of plates that – in the case of landscape designs – adds atmosphere, changes weather and lighting conditions and can even turn day to night. This is not pure etching, wherein the plate is inked uniformly throughout an edition and which remains faithful to the etcher’s original intentions, but instead it is a hybrid of etching and monotype, with impressions varying widely. While atmospheric inking can contribute to the impact of a line etching, it can go too far and become a game or a distraction, covering up for the inadequacies of the etching. Lepic was hugely influential among artists and master printers. Lepic’s practice was enriching but also impoverishing, causing printmakers to make etchings that were deliberately incomplete or ambiguous, which allowed the application of Lepic’s eau-forte mobile technique. (Compare this to the example of filmmaking. Some directors rely so heavily on computer-generated imagery, dubbing, digital editing and post-production effects that they become slapdash in the filming and directing of actors, which is the essence of good live-action films.) There is a viable case to be made that Lepic’s influence was more deleterious than beneficial.
Another significant figure was etcher Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914). The exhibition includes three of the ten states of Bracquemond’s masterful reproductive etching of Holbein’s portrait of Erasmus. Bracquemond joined the Impressionist movement, though his art was often not close stylistically to the most common Impressionist approach. He was a brilliant technician but it is clear why he is both less known and considered more of an associate of the Impressionists than an essential member of the movement. (To read my review mentioning Marie Bracquemond, the Impressionist painter married to him, click here.)
Catalogue essays direct us to consider notions of authorship and purity in fine art.
Richard R. Brettell discusses the collaboration between Corot, Dutilleux, Grandguillaume, Desavary and the Cuvelier brothers in Arras. Together they developed the cliché-verre printing technique, producing many prints for which the authorship is shared or uncertain. This risks giving the impression that the working relationship of Cassatt, Degas and Pissarro was closer than it actually was in 1879, though Bretell’s point is taken. The Impressionists occasionally worked in in pairs and groups in painting expeditions, arranging group exhibitions and preparing the Le Jour et la nuit journal. Bretell points out that collaboration, criticism and sharing of techniques and ideas was a significant part of the careers of many artists who are commonly considered in monographic isolation. Often in the catalogue text we encounter mentions that one of the artists gave advice to another on printing or actually helped to print certain proofs. They exchanged and purchased each other’s prints.
Many critics of the era condemned the finish of Impressionist art. (The very name Impressionism came from a critic’s slur about the supposed incomplete condition of a Monet painting.) The sequential nature of printmaking means that we have a chance to consider when a work of art is finished. It also raises the issue of how much importance we attach to a work of art and how much to the creation of that art. It is very common to read in catalogues more about the preparation for, development and revision of, a work of art than about the finished work itself.
In 1879 work began on Le Jour et la nuit which was intended to be a journal featuring the prints of Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, Bracquemond and Caillebotte, Raffaëlli, Forain and Rouart. With little accompanying text, it would have been essentially a bound version of the print portfolios of loose sheets published at the time. The journal did not appear in 1880 partly (according to a contemporary) because Degas was late with his contribution. The journal was never published but a number of etchings were prepared for it and have been identified, including Cassatt’s In the Opera Box, Degas’s Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Etruscan Gallery and Pissarro’s Wooded Landscape at the Hermitage, Pontoise. Pissarro’s print (based on a painting) seems to have been straightforward. Cassatt made three versions of her print in a number of states, dramatically altering the lighting using aquatint. Degas developed his print to completion then developed a second print which used the figures in different position and setting in a distinctive vertical format. This print – Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery – was also translated into painting by the artist. It was perhaps the extended revision of the second print through 20 states that delayed Le Jour et la nuit.
[Image: Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: The Paintings Gallery (1879–80), Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Leonard C. Hanna Jr., 1947.459]
Sarah Lees writes that it is likely the Le Jour et la nuit prints were exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition of 1880. “It is even more revealing that each artist chose to show more than one state of the prints, much as Bracquemond had done in 1874 with his Erasmus. In this way they not only highlighted the significance of the creative process, but also undercut notions about the primacy of the finished, final work.” She notes that it is possible to show an etching plate in different states the way it is not possible to with a unique oil painting.
The exhibition includes many prints from before and after the Le Jour et la nuit project. Some of the highlights of the selection are Cassatt’s colour aquatints. The lines are drypoint – scratches which hold ink with a characteristic emphatic blur – and the colour shading is in speckled aquatint, with sparing use of soft-ground etching. This is a rare technique. Included are the most famous Cassatt prints The Letter (1990-1) and La Toilette (1890-1). They are exquisite and justifiably praised. The influence of Japanese colour woodblock prints (exhibited in Paris in 1890) is obvious but not distractingly so. Cassatt used adventurous colouring and the editions display wide variation in colouring. Unfortunately, Cassatt’s drawing sometimes went awry and a number of her prints are irretrievably marred by obvious and painful flaws in anatomy. In such clear, sparse and (relatively) realistic works, these faults gravely damage the prints.
Pissarro also made prints in aquatint and drypoint. The results are uneven. The weather in Rain Effect (1879) was an afterthought. The torrential rain makes the scene of two figures sitting and standing in a field seem ridiculous. Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880) is a lot better and may have been destined for Le Jour et la nuit.
[Image: Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Woman Emptying a Wheelbarrow (1880), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.7311]
Pissarro and Degas experimented by proofing Pissarro’s Twilight with Haystacks (1879) in different colours. Examples in black, red and blue are reproduced in the catalogue. Degas preferred to add colour to his prints in pastel and paint, using the print (or counterproof) as the framework for a unique work of art. Included in the exhibition are three rare landscape monotypes that Degas made by painting dilute colour oil paint on a metal plate and running this through a press with paper. The exhibition also includes some monotypes of bathing nudes and brothel scenes.
Pissarro is not well known as a printmaker and his contributions are uneven. The colour etchings and monotypes from the 1890s of peasants and landscapes verge on the crude. The use of heavy outlines (perhaps derived from Cloissonisme) is unpleasant and works against the artist’s long experience in building forms in colour without drawn outlines. The overpowering outlines and casual draughtsmanship, combined with the unpleasant effects of oil on paper, have produced rather ugly prints. A late lithograph in monochrome is very good. The loose wash effects and emphatic shadow create drama and solidity that seem close to Romantic art or the wash drawings of Poussin.
It is heartening to encounter such a scrupulously researched art-historical exhibition, especially regarding prints, a medium often passed over as minor. Particular commendation is due for the meticulous cataloguing of technical data (including plate and paper size) and provenance, information which is often lacking in exhibition catalogues.
Sarah Lees (ed.) and Richard R. Bretell, Innovative Impressions: Prints by Cassatt, Degas, and Pissarro, Philbrook Museum of Art/Hirmer, 2018, hardback, 130pp, 100 col. illus., €39.90, ISBN 978 3 7774 2978 6
[Image: Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918), Egon Schiele, (Austrian, 1890–1918) Standing Nude with Orange Drapery (1914), Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper
18 1/4 x 12 in. (46.4 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]
The sudden rise to prominence – and subsequent descent into obscurity – of Scofield Thayer (1889-1982) reads like an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. A young American playboy tours Europe then returns to the USA to marry. When he returns to Europe after the Great War, the young man is an editor of a literary journal and uses his fortune to support the literary lions of London, Vienna and Paris. He undergoes analysis with Dr Freud in Vienna. Now divorced from his wife, he is a dedicated libertine and decadent, his life devoted to the compulsive pursuit of novelty: principally promoting avant-garde writing, collecting erotic art and engaging in sexual conquests (both women and men). He amasses a great collection of art, some of it striking erotic art. On his return to the New York, he slowly descends into insanity and lives out the largest part of his long life in obscurity, spending periods in various institutions. By the time of his death, he has long outlived his notoriety and his death goes almost unnoticed.
Thayer edited Dial, one of the most important literary journals of the 1920s. It published ground-breaking prose and verse by T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and many others, famous and unknown. Dial also brought advanced European art to American readers. Thayer bought large quantities of art, mostly because he liked it but also a few pieces he intended to trade at a profit. In Vienna, he encountered the art if the recently deceased Klimt and Schiele. In war-impoverished Vienna, excellent drawings were cheap and Thayer could amass a fine collection of graphics, especially erotic drawings by the pair, some priced as low as $6 each. His collection of almost 600 pieces of art, ranging from German Renaissance prints and Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs to paintings by the Expressionists, Braque, Bonnard and Matisse, was bought before Thayer’s mental instability sent him into seclusion at the end of the 1920s. Some of collection was erotic in character. This uneven and partly salacious collection was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum on his death in 1982. One can only imagine the mingled pleasure and embarrassment among museum administrators and curators discovering the unabashed sexual nature of much of the art received into the collection. This catalogue documents the exhibition Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection of 52 nudes by three prominent Modernist artists: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. The exhibition will be held at the Met Breuer (Metropolitan Museum of Art), New York from 3 July to 7 October 2018.
Klimt drew thousands of studies – mainly figures – during pauses between painting sessions. He drew as preparation for his Symbolist paintings (including public commissions, such as the murals for Vienna university) and also as a general exercise to keep his skills sharp. Visitors to his studio recalled nude models lounging around, ready to inspire the artist with a gesture or position. Klimt had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ready models. The drawings of nudes in the Thayer collection are typical of the late period of Klimt. Slender young women with bountiful tresses drape themselves over undepicted beds, sometimes pleasuring themselves. The style is dreamy, with the often undifferentiated subjects drawn lightly, with little shading, most executed in pencil. Outlines – which are almost all there is to Klimt’s figures – are sometimes uncertain and repeatedly reworked to build up solid but insubstantial forms.
[Image: Gustav Klimt, (Austrian, 1862–1918), Reclining Nude with Drapery, Back View (1917–1918), Graphite, 14 5/8 x 22 3/8 in. (37.1 x 56.8 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982]
The best of the drawings is a standing figure of 1906-7. The unusual rounded hairstyle, striking pose (with hip jutting) and evidence of a revised pose all make this piece stand out as memorable. The other pictures by Klimt are fair examples of their type but not very engaging.
Egon Schiele’s interests were even more frankly sexual. Unlike the more expensive and public oil paintings that he made, Schiele could use drawing on paper as medium in which to be more adventurous and explicit in imagery and subject matter. Thayer’s 32 drawings and prints (29 of which are reproduced in the catalogue) cover the whole of Schiele’s short career, starting in 1911 and ending the year of his death, 1918. The earliest drawings are sketchy, with simple lines picking out aspects, those lines sometimes floating as if detached from the motif.
Observed in a Dream (1911) is an unusual showpiece from Schiele’s early years. The fanciful title (prominently inscribed on the front), thorough colouring with watercolour paint and coquettishly sexual pose all indicate the artist aping the pornographic photographs and drawings easily to be found in Vienna in that period. Ultimately, Schiele’s art became more sophisticated and personal without losing its sexual edge. One gets the impression that a more confident and independent Schiele would later collaborate with his models to explore expressions of sexuality that were less clichéd.
The drawings and drypoints of 1914 include the button eyes and doll faces typical of that phase. There are a few of Schiele’s typical line drawings coloured by broken patches of gouache diluted with gum arabic. By 1918, Schiele’s lines were fatter (conté crayon or black chalk replacing pencil) and the curves more emphatic. The models were no longer the scrawny adolescent waifs of the early years but adult women bursting with health, some of them buxom. There are drawings of a child model, who was apparently the child of a female model, as evidenced by a drawing showing the mother and child together.
The art by Picasso is less explicit in general. Although Picasso was often driven by erotic impulses, it came out in playful, indirect and witty ways rather than straightforward realistic depictions of nude figures. One exception is Erotic Scene (1902), showing a woman with long hair performing oral sex on the artist. The work is from the Blue Period. It is poorly painted, with little feeling or care. Picasso later disavowed the painting and refused to authenticate it. However, there is no doubt about its authenticity. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson had a dim opinion of the painting, suggesting that the artist painted it hastily for money.
Other drawings by Picasso are of standing nudes executed in Gosol and Paris in 1906 and bathers executed in the artist’s Neo-Classical period of the early 1920s. The gap is not accidental. Thayer disliked Cubism and abstract art, so had no desire to collect any art made by Picasso during the 1907-1917 period. There is a 1922 pastel portrait of an idealised woman (probably a composite of Sara Murphy and the artist’s wife Olga) which is more tender than erotic. Picasso’s art seems distinctly public; the art of Klimt and Schiele is definitely of a private character. Picasso seems to be engaged in dialogue with artists of the past; Klimt and Schiele were more concerned with depicting reality and establishing connections between artist and subject. Picasso deals with ideals; Klimt and Schiele deal with actual subjects. Picasso worked from memory; Klimt and Schiele worked from life.
The selection of works tells us about Thayer’s priorities. It is notable that despite his sexual preference for men (though Thayer was apparently bisexual), the majority of subjects of the art he purchased were female. This is partly due to the fact that erotic depictions of nudes by the most prominent artists of the period were female ones, made by heterosexual male artists, which meant that the majority of erotic art of the time featured female subjects. Thus most of the nudes available were of female subjects. It also tells us that the quality of the art was more important to Thayer than its erotic potency. There was plenty of homosexual erotica for sale but none of the artistic quality of the art that entered Thayer’s collection. Thayer’s collection of non-erotic art was excellent, including some fine pieces by Matisse, Bonnard, Chagall and Demuth.
The catalogue is a useful addition to the body of literature on erotic art. The exhibition promises to be a celebration of erotic desire, the urge to present the beautiful in art and the lasting appeal of this art for viewers.
Sabine Rewald and James Dempsey, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, paperback, 132pp, 110 col. illus., $25, ISBN 978 1 588 39 65 25
[Revised on 21 June 2018 to correct factual inaccuracy]
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
“Some grand claims have been made for the art of Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941). Christie’s described her as ‘one of the greatest avant-garde women artists of the early 20th century’, yet few art-history students in Europe and America know her name. The reissue of Amrita Sher-Gil: A Self-Portrait in Letters & Writings, which collects all of the artist’s writings and reproduces her 172 surviving paintings, allows us to judge the acclaim. In the foreword, Salman Rushdie explains how Sher-Gil became an inspiration for his character Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
“There is scarcely a day without a gallery press release announcing the rediscovery of a female artist who has not just been neglected but ‘excluded from the Western fine-art canon’. The claim that any artist can be excluded from the canon is nonsensical. The Western canon is a list of the most important good art that a person should know in order to understand the Western art tradition. The canon is not a set text, but a composite of opinions and has no central authority and changes over time. Therefore no art or artist can ever be excluded from the Western canon, whatever you may be told. (For an explanation, read my essay here.)
“Amrita Sher-Gil was born in 1913 in Budapest. Her family was middle class. Her father was Amrao Singh Sher-Gil, a Sikh writer and religious ascetic. He was a skilled photographer and his favourite subject was his family. Amrita’s mother was of French and Hungarian Jewish descent. The couple were mismatched in some respects and the conflict between an ascetic detached father and neurotic socialite mother would prove a source of instability in Amrita’s life. The family (including Amrita’s younger sister Indira) spent Amrita’s early years in Hungary before the family moved to Simla, India in 1924.
This two-volume book publishes all of Amrita’s writings, translated from the original French and Hungarian. She spoke English to her family and Indian colleagues, so much of the text is in her own words….”
In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), the Mexican state started to reconstruct its social structure and establish a consensus. The new political situation entailed the working class of the agrarian nation would be the driving force behind land reform, anti-clericism and other dramatic changes. Communism took on new prominence as a leading force on the political Left following the Russian Revolution.
Compared to other Communist movements, the Communist Party of Mexico or PCM (Fondo Partido Comunista Mexicano) was judged weak in terms of membership and leadership in the early 1920s. Inspired by the example of the Russian Revolution, Mexican Leftists saw art as an important way of spreading the message of the PCM in the early years, be it through art or propaganda. The art would explain the party’s message and attract converts. Leading visual artists who joined the PCM in 1923 were the Muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Xavier Guerrero. The lives and work of the Muralists captured the imaginations of the public and were frequently covered by the newspapers. The artists (especially Rivera) were deemed politically unreliable but useful to the party. They edited the Communist newspaper El Machete for a time. The Mexican governments’ views of the PCM veered from wary collaboration to outright hostility, depending on the party in power. In 1929 the government banned the PCM and closed El Machete, which continued for a while as an underground operation.
Rivera was a problem for the PCM. He was the most prominent Mexican Communist, with an international reputation and wide popular appeal but he was wilfully independent and accepted mural commissions from the government, which was sporadically hostile towards the PCM. When Rivera left the PCM, Frida Kahlo, who was married to Rivera, left the PCM with him. The PCM undertook its other disciplinary procedures, expelling Siqueiros for inappropriate behaviour, risking revealing secret information about the now-banned party, plus various moral and financial infractions. Communist artists subject to hostile government action included Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti, both of whom had to leave the country.
Smith discusses the associated Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR). Like the PCM at this time, LEAR was a banned organisation when it was formed, only later becoming legal. Its journal Frente a Frente included much Leftist and social realist art in the form of prints and photographs by LEAR members. Much visual material was propaganda explicitly dedicated to exulting collectivism and eschewing “the mystique of the individual”. In 1935 LEAR members persuaded the government to unban the PCM, El Machete and LEAR. A 1936 group exhibition of art organised by LEAR included amateur art and even politically sympathetic commentators described the display as a mess and criticised the standard of art. Steering a course between political orthodoxy and artistic accomplishment was an impossible task.
An article in Frente a Frente (May 1935) by Siqueiros was critical of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco (1934). It led to a public debate between the artists later that year. They were divided on the appropriateness of murals as a revolutionary art form. Siqueiros – perhaps piqued by Rivera’s greater success – averred that murals were overrated as a political tool and that art should be international in character and closer to Socialist Realism than Rivera’s hybrid, which incorporated Modernism and native Mexican art. Rivera asserted that he wished to record the beauty and individuality of Mexican life in his art and that this was not incompatible with Communist principles. Siqueiros was pro-Stalin and Rivera pro-Trotsky. Deep enmities remained between the two painters for years afterwards.
Siqueiros became so involved in politics that he neglected art. He fought in the Spanish Civil War, as did Modotti. Rivera played a pivotal role in arranging for Trotsky’s successful petition for political asylum in Mexico. Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 and lived in the Riveras’ guest house for a time. Despite public and private support between the men, there were political tensions. Ultimately, Trotsky and Rivera’s alliance ended due to political differences in early 1939. Siqueiros and artists Luis Arenal and Antonio Pujol worked with NKVD in a plot to kill Trotsky. On the night of 24 May 1940 the trio broke into Trotsky’s house, failed to find the elderly dissident and – apparently inadvertently – injured his grandson. Months later an unrelated individual assassinated Trotsky.
Smith covers the founding of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (the Popular Graphic Art Workshop; TGP) in 1937 without noting that this not simply an outgrowth of LEAR but an extension of a long-existing strand of popular Mexican art, namely social engagement of artists through the portrayal of the life of ordinary Mexicans via cheap and widely distributed graphic art. This uniquely Mexican blend of biting satire, political agitation and social realism – sometimes printed in newspapers – traced its origins to the iconic prints of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). TGP proved to be one of the world’s most enduring, influential and successful artist collectives in history, producing high-quality art distributed widely, fostering international connections and displaying a broadly united front on social issues. Aesthetically, it was hobbled by its commitment to realism – technically, in its founding principles, “art [that] must reflect the social reality of the times”. However, considering the political priorities of the TGP, that position could hardly have been avoided. Ultimately, it was the rigid anti-abstraction stance and limitations on artistic and commercial freedom which undid TGP as a significant force in the arts, though it exists to this day. For my review of artists working in the TGP see here.
Perhaps the most valuable service the FCM, TGP, LEAR and their various publications achieved in the arts was to present a warning of the dangers of fascism and raising funds for the Spanish anti-Falangists. Later, their activities would help the refugees who fled the fall of Spain and Nazi-occupied Europe.
The author has based her studies upon access to Mexican secret service files and internal papers of the PCM, LEAR and TGP, allowing her to present new information on major figures in the fine arts. However, the book has shortcomings. Considering the lack of published research based on primary sources, we would have benefitted from more economic data. For example, what was the commercial value of producing oil paintings for private collectors compared to painting murals for the state or issuing editions of cheap prints for ordinary people? What was the private market for oil paintings at the time? Roughly how much money did prominent artists make from state-subsidised work? On the political side, what did artists write in diaries and letters about politics in art and did that contrast with manifestoes they signed and their public activities? More space devoted to summarising such findings would have been valuable. While we do get to understand some of the political dynamics, economic context is sometimes hazy.
Considering her previous specialisation in the field, Smith is commendably restrained on the issue of gender politics. In this book, we see that Smith is sensitive to gender politics of the Communist movement in Mexico in this era but she wisely partitions her subjects and makes no hyperbolic claims. Overall, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico is an intelligent, accessible and well-judged account of an important aspect of Mexican art in the period 1920-50.
Stephanie J. Smith, The Power and Politics of Art in Postrevolutionary Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, paperback, 288pp, 12 half-tone illus., $29.95, ISBN 978 1 4696 3568 2
[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]
The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.
Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.
Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.
Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour; a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.
In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.
Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.
In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.
[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]
Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.
[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]
A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.
This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.
Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.
Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.
The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.
The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.
[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]
Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.
Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.
Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022
[Image: Anni Albers, On Weaving: New Expanded Edition. Princeton University Press, 2017]
Anni Albers (1899-1994) was one of the most respected and innovatory figures in the modern craft movement. She studied at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, where she met her future husband Josef Albers, a teacher there. (Josef Albers, a pioneering abstract painter, was an influential teacher, especially on the subject of colour.) In 1933 the couple moved to teach in the USA, first at Black Mountain College and later at Yale. In later years, living in Connecticut, she produced tapestries and weavings, as well as writing articles and books on design and textiles. She was the first designer to have a one-person exhibition at MoMA (in 1949) and became recognised as one of the pre-eminent designers of the Modern era. Two new publications give us an insight into her ideas and practice.
Anni Albers’s worked by weaving on hand-looms, producing designs which used the natural qualities of materials and a limited palette to produce (mainly) hard-edge abstract patterns. Frequently in her designs, simple geometric shapes on small scale are expanded over large areas. In her wall-hangings, she took care over having borders that complemented and also completed central designs. Triangles provide textural “tooth” and indicate visual dynamic flow. Her colours are usually restrained and are rarely more than two or three per design. She had a preference for white, black, grey and muted reds. She produced many striking and sophisticated wall-hangings (illustrated in On Weaving) and was a skilled designer of original artist’s prints, especially silkscreens and lithographs.
On Weaving, originally published in 1965, is a newly revised and expanded version of a classic text on the theory and history of weaving. Albers explains the principles and problems of weaving, drawing on her extensive research and expertise. She covers the manipulation of warp and weft, looks at the different looms and battens, reeds and other paraphernalia of the loom-weaver’s craft. Other topics include draft notation, weave variations, tactility, artificial fibres and tapestry. Her rigorously anti-decorative function-as-form Bauhaus aesthetic comes to the fore in her comments on embroidery: “Embroidery, on the other hand, is a working of just the surface, since it does not demand that we give thought to the engineering task of building up a fabric. For this very reason, however, it is in danger of losing itself in decorativeness; for the discipline of constructing is a helpful corrective for the temptation to mere decoration.”
The illustrations Albers selected include images of weaving techniques and machinery, sample patterns, wall-hangings and pictorial tapestries. Close-up views and diagrams demonstrate the principles of knotting, lace, twills and other techniques. Pre-historic, historical and modern examples are taken from many cultures, including Mexico (which Albers visited a number of times), Norway, Congo and Japan; also presented are striking artist-made Modernist pieces.
[Image: Serape, Querétaro, Mexico, late 19th to mid-20th century. Woven cotton, 81 x 50 in. (205.7 x 127 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, The Harriet Engelhardt Memorial Collection, gift of Mrs. Paul Moore.]
Albers particularly venerated pre-Columbian weaving from Peru and there are many illustrations of Peruvian textiles. This new edition adds an extensive selection of Albers’s own woven designs to complement the relatively short text. Most of the old black-and-white photographs have been replaced by high-resolution colour photographs, which are pinpoint sharp. Albers’s original photographs of ephemeral arrangements made specifically for the book are unique and reproduced in their original black and white. Albers experimented by producing texture studies made by pricking paper, arranging small items in patterns and by typing repeated characters on a manual typewriter.
The volume’s cloth binding is appropriately handsome and sturdy. Two new essays by specialists and an afterword by Nicholas Fox Weber, Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, complement the original text. Fox Weber, Manuel Cirauqui and T’ai Smith set On Weaving in the context of the artist’s training, milieu and own production. Albers herself chose not to concentrate on her own art in the book, though it perfectly exemplified many of the points she made in the text. Albers makes clear what she feels are the bases of good weaving – understanding the quality of materials, concentrating on design through structure rather than decoration and applying a truth-to-material ethos. The drive towards simplicity – that is, a distillation of the essence of a design – underpins her designs and advice to makers.
[Image: Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]
Notebook, 1970-1980 is a facsimile publication of Albers’s only known sketchbook. This notebook with graph-paper pages (now coverless) is a typical school notebook as used in mathematics classes. This publication reproduces the book to exact size and includes all pages, including blank ones and those showing the ghost of the drawing on the other side of the page. Colour reproduction catches the slight yellowing of the paper and brown residue of adhesive tape.
[Image: Interior spread from Anni Albers: Notebook 1970–1980. David Zwirner Books, 2017]
Readers will find themselves instinctively treating the book as if they were holding the fragile original. Designer and publisher deserve credit for the care they have lavished on the production of this book. A brief afterword by Anni Albers scholar Brenda Danilowitz discusses the sketchbook.
The designs in the book relate to Albers’s textile designs and artist’s prints. They feature patterns of triangles and quadrilaterals drawn in pencil in several shades. Some are repeatable or potentially infinite patterns, while others are intended to be limited. Some introduce elements of apparent randomness. There are a few linear maze-like drawings (meanders) and some of Albers’s distinctive curvilinear forms based on curling rope or thread. The illustrations capture the nuances of the artist’s pencil shading, differentiating shades by pressure and grades of pencil. Little colour is employed. While a handful of drawings are doodles or incomplete, most are complete designs. There are few words other than notations of dates and titles of the relevant designs.
Both of these books would make excellent additions to college libraries as they are good examples of preparation and experimentation for students to learn from. Makers in general will also enjoy these impeccably produced volumes.
Anni Albers, Brenda Danilowitz, Notebook, 1970-1980, David Zwirner, 2017, hardback, 152pp, 148 col. illus., $30/£25, ISBN 978-1941-701-744
Anni Albers, Nicholas Fox Weber et al., On Weaving (New Expanded Edition), Princeton University Press, 2017, cloth hardback, 272pp, 105 col./28 mono illus., $49.95/£41.95, ISBN 978-069-1177-854
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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
Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.
Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.
The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.
Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.
In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.
In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.
After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.
Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging. Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)
There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.
In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.
The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.
The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.
After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.
William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.
William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2