Learning to Love Edward Hopper

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning (1950), oil on canvas. © Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation, VG Bild Kunst]

Part of growing up is learning to identify and correct your errors. This is different from taste changing. It is easy to have a misapprehension and for it to go unchallenged due to laziness or preoccupation with subjects that fully hold one’s attention. One assumption I had as a young artist was that Edward Hopper was easy. He went for the obvious; he relied on movie iconography and cinematographic techniques; he dealt in clichés. Whilst these observations are true, they are not the whole truth. The obvious can sometimes be the iconic that we remember; Hopper’s use of the cinematographic brought some new imagery and references to his art; clichés can be moving. My painting tutor at college said “I’ve been painting sunsets recently. I know they are clichés but I find myself attracted to them because they are beautiful. Even clichés can be beautiful while still being clichés.”

There are tough criticisms to be made of the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). These weaknesses are apparent in two new books on his art, published to coincide with the current exhibition Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 26 January-17 May). Hopper is weak as a figure painter. There is no getting around it. His anatomies are creaky; his facial expressions are wooden; his skin tones are unpersuasive. There is no reason why should have been so. He could imbue his art with variety, energy and panache – see his drawings of trees and some very solid watercolours. Yet, for whatever reason, Hopper’s figures fail. This is not universal. Night on the El Train (1918) is an early etching which shows a couple in a subway carriage. The positions and attitudes of the couple are natural, telling and fluently depicted. The style is vigorous and fluent. Yet more often, Hopper’s figures are waxen mannequins.

A pertinent question is: do Hopper’s limitations as a figure painter make his paintings less effective? Many viewers note the poignancy of the situations, commenting on the emotional tenor of Hopper’s characters – muted, reserved and melancholy. Perhaps Hopper’s characters are more plangent for their lack of expressiveness. It is their very inexpressiveness which is expressive. On a point of principle, we can find Hopper’s shortcomings of an artist as an overall detriment, notwithstanding his achievements in spite of these limitations.

Edward Hopper A-Z is a collection of snippets collated by Ulf Küster, curator and author, during his work on the Swiss exhibition of Hopper’s art. It covers various aspects of Hopper’s life and art, including many illustrations, in a small hardback handbook. The miscellaneous facets include movies, cars, Paris, his wife Josephine Nivison and an expected fondness for German literature.

Hopper is not truly a realist. Some of his art is realist but even cursory study reveals compositions that include impossible juxtapositions, unfeasible perspectives and false horizons. Montage, viewpoint alteration, simplification and other techniques are used to create fictions that have the air – but not the substance – of reality. Doorways open directly on to oceans. Houses stand in fields without paths. Hopper’s realism is a distillation; it is a world pruned and tuned; streets are scrubbed, the posters and signage tamped down; pedestrians are reduced to sparse punctuation in the terse sentences of cityscapes. It is not especially different from the streets of Magritte, that other master deadpan painter of townscapes. Stairway (1949) is like a Magritte canvas from his 1926-9 era.

Once you understand that Hopper is not truly a realist – either a documenter of everyday life or a social realist – then you start to see him as the theatre director that he is. He is a poet who is mistaken for documentarian. Evidence of the early art (especially the watercolours executed en plein air) in Edward Hopper: American Landscapes (catalogue for the current exhibition) shows that Hopper was capable of capturing direct representations of his surroundings, sometimes with flair and feeling. Once you stop seeing his paintings as inadequate representations of real life but as artificial constructions expressive of states of meditation, loss, yearning and other intangible experiences. (“I am interested primarily in the vast field of experience and sensation which neither literature nor a purely plastic art deals with.”)

A problem which remains is Hopper’s handling of oil paint. Hopper was a talented draughtsman with pencil, pastel and etching needle. He used watercolour with accuracy, delicacy and care. He was a poor painter of oil paint. His canvases look better in reproduction than in life. The handling is dry, lifeless, a matter of filling in inside the lines, betraying their set qualities rather than emergent properties of a painting which comes about through the artist discerning new opportunities as the paint is put down. He worked as an illustrator when he was young and although this seems not to have hampered his drawing and painting in watercolour; his canvases betray all the failings of an illustrator. Despite his limitations, his canvases still work as images, scenes and evocations of place and time. If I had to own a Hopper, I would choose a work on paper.

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[Image: Edward Hopper, Houses on a Hill (1926 or 1928), watercolour on paper. Private Collection, VG Bild-Kunst]

The catalogue of the current exhibition includes many great images – Gas (1940) (a man at gasoline pumps at a country filling station, Lighthouse Hill (1927) (a lighthouse and house on a headland in afternoon sunlight), Railroad Sunset (1929) (a vivid sunset is seen over a silhouetted horizon, punctuated by a rail signal box). Coastal views feature in many pictures exhibited, most of New England. Although Hopper and Jo travelled widely, most of the imagery is local to New York State and the Massachusetts and Maine coasts.

An early, atypically finely-handled canvas Valley of the Seine (1909) shows aerial recession of a deep landscape. The position is high. It is notable that Hopper rarely showed distant land horizons; instead preferring the high close horizon of a hill or nearby wood. In Hopper’s scenes, distance would undercut the sense of intimacy and interiority. A vast panorama would work against his intentions of showing people contemplating themselves or the off-scene. His characters do not confront the infinite as the Rückenfiguren of Friedrich. That would lend them a Romantic majesty and isolation. For Hopper, it is the banal commonality of moments of reflection creeping up on one unawares that is truer of human life. None of Hopper’s characters are ever anywhere that would cause them to meditate upon the sublime. They are never dislocated – or at least never dislocated in a way that differs from everyday ennui and alienation.

Second Storey Sunlight (1960) shows two women on a balcony, the figures positioned under two gable ends of a classic wooden house. It is an allegory of the stages of life, with the grey-haired woman seated with a newspaper and a young woman in sunbathing clothing. The blinds of the windows on the young woman’s side are pulled lower than those of the old woman’s side – a metaphor of some kind.

Freight Cars, Gloucester, 1928 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Edward Hopper, Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928), oil on canvas. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, gift of Edward Wales Root in recognition of the 25th Anniversary of the Addison Gallery, 1956.7 Foto: Bridgeman Images, VG Bild-Kunst]

Some paintings show Jo painting during their outings in search of scenery. The couple bought their first car (a Dodge) in 1927. From then until a few years before Hopper’s death, they travelled around America to collect motifs for their art. Their successive automobiles made fleeting appearances in Hopper’s paintings. Jo was also a model for Hopper. However, reading Hopper’s enticing yet inscrutable tableaux in an autobiographical manner is not straight forward and is best avoided. The best Hopper paintings allow us to daydream and inhabit these deceptively artless American landscapes.

Marine scenes, paintings of buildings, views of railways and roads, and studies of trees round out this selection of Hopper’s landscapes. The catalogue includes essays addressing various aspects of Hopper’s landscapes, a chronology and a good selection of large-format illustrations. American Landscapes is a very suitable introduction to one of America’s most significant artists. The smaller A-Z book is a handy supplement for anyone already familiar with Hopper.

 

Ulf Küster (ed.), Edward Hopper: American Landscapes, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 148pp, 88 col. illus., €58, ISBN 978 3 7757 4654 0

Ulf Küster, Edward Hopper A-Z, Hatje Cantz, 2020, hardback, 120pp, 37 col. illus., €18, ISBN 978 3 7757 4656 4

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit: www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

A Confederacy of Dunces

CFD_S_11“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

In John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) (reissued in an illustrated edition by the Folio Society) Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius. He dresses oddly, refuses to convert his university education into productive employment and lives with his mother in New Orleans. He is ashamed of his mother, who likes to drink and socialise, and she is beginning to tire of him. He speaks like so to a policeman: “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.”

Ignatius mission is to act as truth teller for the 1960s. He attends the cinema to observe the lewd and tawdry content of films purely to glean insights into the descent of culture. “With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy,” he declares in his treatise on the decline of the Western world, written on pads which he illustrates.

Finally at the age of 30, forced by circumstance, Ignatius takes a clerical position at decrepit Levy Pants. In its squalid premises he seeks apply his acumen to the ignoble task of pursing trade. He engages in business correspondence with the arrogant vitriol of which society so necessarily curtails expression. “Mr I. Abelman, Mongoloid, Esq.: We have received via post your absurd comments about our trousers, the comments revealing, as they did, your total lack of contact with reality.”

Announcing that “I cannot tolerate social injustice,” Ignatius visits the factory floor to observe the inequities of capitalism in action. He is astute enough to realise that the black workers’ responses to jazz on the PA is mere Palovian conditioning, which the subjects mistake for pleasure. “In a sense I have always felt something of a kinship with the colored race because of its position is the same as mine: we both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Of course, my exile is voluntary. However, it is apparent that many of the Negroes wish to become active members of the American middle class. I can not imagine why. […] However, if they wish to join the bourgeoisie, it is really none of my business.”

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

Fired from Levy Pants for organising a (failed) riot, Ignatius becomes the world’s (or at least New Orleans’s) least satisfactory hot-dog vendor: arguing with customers, fighting bystanders and consuming the hot dogs himself. This brings him into contact with the seedy underbelly of New Orleans and into the orbit of yet more odd characters, which drive the story to a satisfying denouement.

Toole gives us some comedic set pieces without too much contrivance. These include an incipient lecture “Sex in Politics: Erotic Liberty as a Weapon Against Reactionaries”, the luncheon party and Ignatius’s follies. There is a plot and plenty of action and thus A Confederacy of Dunces does not suffer from the usual weaknesses of comic novels: passages of self-regarding clever prose and contrived authorial observations. The reader feels he is in the world of these characters and is invested in what happens to them. He is never irritated by the author incongruously taking him aside to deliver witty barbs about modern life.

Ignatius is a comic protagonist: he is a liar, glutton, sluggard, prig and sneak. Yet Toole keeps us engaged and we never lose sympathy despite our disapproval for his main character, who is somewhere between hero and anti-hero. Ignatius suffers consequences of his character flaws and his actions drive the plot. Ignatius is unfettered by social convention and we get the delight of seeing a person overturning politeness and saying the unsayable. He seems to lack the filter that most people have that prevents them from immediately voicing our views out loud. On the other hand, by reading his journal we see that he is driven by folie de grandeur and a series of peculiar convictions which distort his understanding. Thus Ignatius is both liberated by self-belief (having few behavioural inhibitions) and constricted in by delusion (having little wisdom). It is that friction between liberation and ignorance that makes Ignatius compelling as a character. That is why we can find him loveable – or at least appealing – while being aware of his foolishness and inadequacy.

Myrna Minkoff is Ignatius’s long-distance on-and-off-again Beatnik girlfriend. She wears black clothes, a beret and glasses purely to demonstrate her seriousness. From New York she writes letters diagnosing Ignatius’s dysfunction and urging sexual liberation. (To be fair, in this case Ignatius’s sexual repression does seem a contributing factor to his abnormal behaviour.) She reports on her activism. “At the moment my every waking hour is spent in helping some dedicated friends raise money for a bold and shattering movie that they are planning to film about interracial marriage. Although it will be a low-budget number, the script itself is chock full of disturbing truths and has the most fascinating tonalities and ironies.” She makes it her place to befriend the black actress. “She is such a real, vital person that I have made her my closest friend. I discuss her racial problems with her constantly, drawing her out even when she doesn’t feel like discussing them.” She carries a valise full of pamphlets on left-wing campaigns. Toole indirectly shows that her defiance of her parents is bound up with her libido. Although outwardly agitating for racial equality through political conviction, it is Myrna’s sex drive that directs her towards race-mixing and reveals a fetishisation of interracial relationships.

She is a great comic creation, although admittedly one drawn from Toole’s real-life experience. In her relentless moralism, lack of inhibition and absence of self-awareness, Myrna stands as a cutting portrait of a proto-SJW. Ignatius, likewise, is a precursor of a disaffected university-graduate anarchist who rails against the middle class whilst living with his mother. He suspects he is slandered by the forces of white supremacists. He is an armchair revolutionary who muses on how to restructure society and abolish the tyranny of commerce. He could be persuaded to engage in terrorism. “I am not above tossing a Molotov cocktail or two,” he confesses. His class solidarity allows him boundless compassion towards the masses but no patience in their execrable company.

In their forceful views, profanity, volcanic tempers and quick resorts to violence, Ignatius and Myrna are the embodiment of the minority-adulating, self-appointed class warriors.

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[Image: Illustration ©2019 Jonny Hannah from The Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces]

The secondary characters are distinctive. Hapless Patrolman Mancuso, operates undercover as a vice operative; factory owner Mr Levy is a distracted and uninterested owner of a failing concern; his wife is discontent, mildly guilty about their income, she nags her husband to better himself; Darlene, the barmaid, wants to develop a striptease act with her pet cockatoo removing her garments; her boss Lana is a penny-pinching martinet overseeing a dive bar; Dorian Greene is a party-hopping trust-fund homosexual with a line of catty banter. Burma Jones is a stand-out character; he is a cool streetwise black man living on the boundary of the licit. Toole captures his patois accurately and without condescension. When he is employed to clean a bar for below minimum wage, Jones sourly rehearses a conversation he could have with the policeman who has harassed him to get a job. “Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say “That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.” And I say, “Hey!” And he say, “Now maybe you becomin a member of the community.” And I say, “Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I a real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.””

Jones’s backchat with his employer shows him moving between leveraging historical injustice and following self-interest in a seamless manner, yet he is sympathetic and believable. He is not a rake, criminal or grifter but a smart-yet-lazy man who follows the line of least resistance, able to provide a dry self-deprecating commentary on his situation. We enjoy his company, appreciate his intelligent insight and wish him well. He is the closest to a neutral reader-perspective character in the book. It would be wrong to call A Confederacy of Dunces a collection of grotesques. Toole’s characters do not seem calculated to make social critiques or embody types but seem to have an internal life and faithfulness to life (albeit heightened) that renders them truer than outright caricatures.

This volume consists of the corrected text of the novel, an introduction covering the writing and publication history of the book and a preface by Bill Bailey, comedian and musician, explaining why he – like many comedians – finds Toole’s story strikes a chord. Production values of the Folio Society edition of A Confederacy of Dunces are characteristically high. Carefully designed, well printed and using high-quality materials, the book is a pleasure to read. Jonny Hannah has provided new illustrations for this edition. It comprises 7 illustrations plus a frontispiece, all full colour. He has also designed endpapers, cover and the design of the pictorial slipcase, as well as incidental figures in black and white, making the book a complete experience. The images are painted and drawn in a collage style, vigorous and striking. This riotous, informal and vibrant approach perfectly matches the tone and contents of the novel. Reading this new Folio Society is like being immersed in one of the best comic novels of the Twentieth Century.

John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Folio Society, 2019, cloth hardback in pictorial slipcase, 332pp, 8 col. illus., £39.95. The Folio Society edition of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, with preface by Bill Bailey and illustrated by Jonny Hannah, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com

 

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Seven Books on Women Artists & Feminist Art

Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 is a study of one of the planks of the second-wave of feminism: sexual violence. Rape, assault and subjugation are considered manifestations of the second-class status of women, so they are emblematic subjects for feminist art. Vivien Green Fryd writes: “Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970 examines how and why feminist artists, working from the 1970s to the second decade of the twenty-first century, represented and challenged the dominant narrative about sexual violence against women. I demonstrate in this book that for more than forty years, a key group of American artists has insisted on ending the silence and contributed to an anti-rape, anti-incest counternarrative […]” This is a peculiar characterisation. Rape, assault, incest and marital cruelty have been subject to legal penalty and social opprobrium for many centuries. There certainly was a culture of reticence and aversion to discussion of sexual matters and family violence but that does not equate to approval for legal and moral infractions.

Fryd includes art by male homosexual artists in this discussion. The idea is that this art critiques systematic faults of a patriarchal society and therefore aligns with the feminist position. Fryd has chronicled the plethora of feminist performances and exhibitions relating to the theme of sexual violence but cannot detach herself from the subject. The author’s accounts of historical activity are accurate and informative but the narrative becomes partial when discussing recent events. Fryd’s discussion of Emma Sulkowicz (famed as “Mattress Girl”), a Columbia University art student who claimed to have been raped and turned the allegation into part of an art performance, is disingenuous. The university settled with the accused and exonerated him of the accusation. When, at the close of the book, Fryd’s avows that she hope her book has contributed to the feminist cause, no reader will be surprised at this expression of a campaigning intent.

Nancy Princenthal’s Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s covers much of the same ground. Princenthal identifies 1970 and the few years following as a turning point in public attitudes to sexual assault. She nominates (in the American context) the sexual revolution, the women’s liberation movement and the Vietnam war as pivotal events socially and the rise of Conceptual Art, Body Art, performance, Land Art and allied movements as artistic currents that facilitated the adoption by women of the stories of rape and sexual violence. The unspoken element was the rise of Marxism in academia, with university lecturers pledging themselves to the New Left, which would use what we now call identity politics to advance socialism through lobbying for minority rights. It is within such a context that Feminist art would be artistically and politically sanctioned by the New Left. (It would be this very co-option that later gave rise to concerns voiced by some feminist academics.)

The line between sexual liberation and exploitation was a deliberately blurred one – and the inevitable consequence of deliberate transgression by activists at American universities. Within the counter-culture movements and terrorist groups, sex was offered and demanded in the service of the revolution. Princenthal exposes the cool dismissal of women’s issues by hard-line Marxists, the aggressive misogyny of Frantz Fanon and rape advocacy of Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones. The murders of the hippy commune/cult around Charles Manson were an expression of revolutionary violence, committed by a group including women willing to kill other women for thrills but ostensibly as part of a cultural war.

Princenthal, using quotes from primary sources and new interviews with participants, sets out some touchstones of literature on rape in the 1970s. She discusses early celebrated performances of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (first performed 1964) and those by Valie Export involving voyeurism and audience participation. Work by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper and others are mentioned and key performances and publications are deftly summarised. Performance art and the theatre of public protest have numerous parallels and in the case of politically motivated art the two intersect. The importance of collective action and staged spectacle are foregrounded as important components of feminist performances.

New York, New Wave discusses the influence of feminist art of the 60s and 70s on recent artists, explaining that the diffusion of politics and multiple creative approaches are more important that gender politics for today’s postmodernists. The illustrations provide a handy survey of art discussed. The book is clearly written and approachable.

The Art of Feminism studies women’s art from Victorian times to the present day. Although most readers will be interested in art from the 1960s onwards, the most interesting material is the art produced during the suffrage and world wars periods. Skill and ingenuity were used to advance the case for women’s rights in posters that are brilliant, effective and beautiful; that art contrasts with feminist art of recent decades, which is intentionally ugly, angry and confrontational. (The authors mischaracterise the anti-suffrage movement, which in part was an earnest attempt by women to protect their privileges (exemptions from the draft, jury duty and debt liability) which it was assumed would be lost if they were made equal to men.) Oddly, the leading women Abstract Expressionist painters are omitted underlining the political scope of the survey, which limits its usefulness. The quoting of “gender pay gap” statistics indicates the lack of clarity when it comes to political hot topics.

The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World inspires mixed feelings. It is an attractive and informative book (including brief questionnaires with living artists) that will appeal to younger children. It does a good job explaining art to children but some of the art is tiresome and obscure even for informed adults. It also fails to acknowledge legitimate objections to feminism in art. Feminism has not changed art practice other than by promoting existing attitudes and approaches. It has failed to produce much art of worth. Plausibly feminists could claim that these were never their intention. What they have succeeded in doing is entrenching politics in art. Feminism has also shone a light on women artists (past and present) but at the cost of turning women artists into tokens.

The subtitle of “400 artists, 500 years” gives the outline of the dictionary Great Women Artists. This attractive hardback devotes one large-format page to a substantial illustration, biographical data and a paragraph devoted to a different artist. There is much material here that is unfamiliar – some of it very weak – but there are some real finds among the lesser-known figures: Ellen Altfest, Louise Jopling, Katsushika Ōl, Zinaida Serebryakova, Uemura Shōen. The artists share nothing in common except their sex.

Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women follows a similar format, with one to four pages devoted to buildings by women. The book contains a great breadth of architecture in diverse buildings, styles, sizes and locations. For those not following architecture, the names will be unfamiliar even if some of the structures are already known. Architecture allows less potential for expression but the startling, impressive and inventive designs – marrying function and aesthetics – are more satisfying than the majority of the art in Great Women Artists. Of the two books, it is Breaking Ground that is the more surprising and delightful book. This is a beautiful and essential book for anyone interested in modern and contemporary architecture.

 

Sophia Bennett, Manjit Thapp, The Bigger Picture: Women who Changed the Art World, Tate, 2019, hardback

Kathy Battista, New York, New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, IB Tauris, 2019, paperback

Helena Reckitt, The Art of Feminism, Tate, 2019, hardback

Vivien Green Fryd, Against Our Will: Sexual Trauma in American Art Since 1970, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019, hardback

Nancy Princenthal, Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, Thames & Hudson, 2019, hardback

Rebecca Morrill (ed.), Great Women Artists, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

Jane Hall, Breaking Ground: Architecture by Women, Phaidon, 2019, hardback

 

Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978) gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x
5 3/4 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

The catalogue of a current exhibition (MCA, Denver, 20 September 2019-5 April 2020) includes early material from the short life of photographer Francesca Woodman (1958-1981). Portrait of a Reputation was the title of Woodman’s first photographic book, which had no text except the title.  Her choice of the title Portrait of a Reputation for a booklet made at a point when she was beginning her career and completely unknown is indicative of Woodman’s self-consciousness, awareness of art history and her huge ambition. The photographs and writings of this exhibition and publication mostly come from the time when Woodman began photographing herself at 13 up to her departure for New York. The photographs were taken in Denver, Colorado, Andover, Massachusetts and Providence, where Woodman studied (alongside Lange) at Rhode Island School of Art and Design (1975-8). This review is from the catalogue.

Some of this material is unfamiliar to followers of Woodman’s art. Some of it is unique and belongs to George Lange, a friend of Woodman’s youth. Some of the vintage prints (some poorly printed and uncropped) are Woodman’s first prints of images that have since become classics, given away in a flush of excitement and pride. There are teasing and affectionate letters from her to him. Also included are letters from within the Woodman family.

Lange preserved material by, and about, Woodman. That material is exposed in this new book and it provides glimpses of Woodman as a young woman, just emerging as an independent artist. Woodman was unusually precocious. Cultivated by her artist parents and steeped in Italian classical literature, Roman culture and contemporary Italian art, Woodman grew into art as a young teenager, taking her first self-portraits at 13. In one of her earliest photographs, Woodman took the opportunity of encountering dense exposed roots of a large mature tree to pose emerging from (or entangled with) the roots. Woodman was schooled in the classics and would have known Ovid’s Metamorphoses, many of which dealt with the transformation of people into animals and plants

There was a photo session at a cemetery involving friends. Woodman wore a semi-transparent dress and later undressed for photographs next to graves. The symbolism of the graveyard is too intrusive and obvious for the series to be effective but it seems a necessary experiment. An invitation card for an exhibition by Woodman has a photograph of her lying, seen from above, a common Woodman trope of the weightless woman. Profile 2 is titled by the artist in the margin and is one of the most memorable photographs in the exhibition. (Few of the individual photographs are titled or titled and the catalogue does not provide definitive labels for art works.)

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[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 x 5 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Contact sheets are reproduced, with selected shots illustrated full page. There are shots that are fluffed – Woodman fails to strike a suitable pose, she smiles as she cannot get in position, she moves during an exposure, a shot is not suitably composed and so forth. These are the side-products of any photo session. There are also shots that are blurred and double-exposures that did not seem to Woodman suitable for selection. The material includes letters, postcards and notes by the artist. There is no transcript of the texts. While there is great value in facsimile reproduction – not least a degree of intimacy and a greater order of information – the absence of transcript will leave some readers straining to decipher Woodman’s handwriting.

In her essay Nora Burnett Abrams dwells upon the issue of seriality and instability of Woodman’s photographs; this seems to overlook Woodman’s conventionality: her desire to make great and powerful single photographs. One can consider her efforts in the context of East Coast American art of the late 1970s, namely conceptualism, land art, performance and interventions within existing environments. These referent contexts are certainly not invalid and unproductive as points of departure, but their selection by commentators today is most definitely in opposition to idea Woodman may have been driven to create powerful single images (with or without handwritten marginal texts) that encapsulate the artist’s skill, ideas and vision.

There is a misstep in discussions of gender in relation to Woodman’s photography. Abbot writes that “[…] Woodman does not make her body available for the easy consumption by a (male) gaze.” The first, primary and most important viewer of Woodman’s photographs was Woodman herself. She was the envisager, creator, model, editor and curator of her art. The gaze is primarily her own. Her art was made to satisfy her own gaze. Her own judgment was the ultimate test of suitability that would determine choices about her art. The consumption of her art was by men and women. It is often women who are far more critical, cruel and proscriptive about images of the female body than men are. Woodman’s art, so influenced by stories which intertwine myths of men, women, gods, monsters and animals, is poorly served by such pedestrian commentary.

Drew Sawyer’s essay outlines the material and influences Woodman was exposed to during her education at RISD and the material of photography that was published by editor Max Kozloff in Artforum, who was also a Woodman-family friend. Sawyer points out that a contemporary interest in Man Ray’s photographs may have led Woodman to paraphrase the image of Meret Oppenheim at the printer’s press in her own photograph of herself with a hand outline painted across her chest. Lady Hawarden and Duane Michals’s are also referenced.

Exhibited are photographs of Woodman by Lange. Lange visited Woodman’s apartment-cum-studio in New York and took photographs of her at work in the studio and relaxing. We see her at work in her studio, setting up props and testing poses. Another significant aspect of the photographs of Woodman out shopping is that they show Woodman in her own time. So much of Woodman’s Gothic, Victorian and anachronistic props and clothing serve to distance her from the life of her era. Encountering her wearing Chinese style coat in a Chinese good store is to see her outside of her curated setting.

The photographs of her by Lange show Woodman reflective and playful, though not guileless. A skilled and thoughtful artist, so self-conscious and self-crafted, is never guileless. The photographs of her beside her mother and friends are more intimate than her self-taken nudes. This is the artist as a woman off-guard, reacting to stimuli, sharing a joke, trying to amuse a friend or engaged in a dialogue. Her acting capacity – functioning as auteur, both director and actor – is suspended whilst she is out of her zone of absolute control. The portrait shots of Woodman against a white wall are beautiful.

It is strange to think of an iconic presence such as Woodman appearing so unguardedly and in new ways after so many years of us being familiar with a set group of her photographs. It makes it seem as though she is still alive somewhere, producing material and experimenting with her image and her art. These provisional attempts, failed shots and discarded art – along with images of her life – make Woodman peculiarly rematerialized (returned to ordinary actuality) and dematerialised (alive but absent). We see her interacting with friends, colleagues and models (categories that overlap to wide degree). Encountering the deeper (or broader) truth of Woodman’s life pushes us to confront the biographical fact that a young woman died at the age of 22. We are confronted by echoes of life cut short, one which could still be continuing today, with Woodman as the doyenne of women photographers who take themselves as their subject.

GL.003 copy

[Image: George Lange, Untitled photograph (circa 1975-1978), gelatin silver print, 7 7/8 x
10 inches. George Lange Collection. Courtesy the artist.]

Seeing this material – “new” material, as it were – awakens the pain of loss. The old wound makes itself known again because to be cognisant and admire the art of Woodman implies the acknowledgement of her premature death and curtailment of her artistic potential and her future life. Even without an explicitly biographical interpretation of Woodman’s photographs, the fact of her death adjusts our art historical response. She was a young woman when made this art; she was a young woman when she dies; she had no opportunity to extend, revise, curate and revisit the art we know. We have no memoirs, interviews, few notes, few letters, no extended commentary by the artist upon her art. We will never have any. She had no chance to respond to the fame and acclaim her art would achieve posthumously.

However firmly we may attempt to separate the biographical from the artistic when assessing art, it is understandable that the admiration of many for the photographs of Francesca Woodman must be tempered by grief.

 

Nora Burnett Abrams, Drew Sawyer, Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Rizzoli Electa, September 2019, hardback, 176pp, fully illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 8478 6491 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950

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[Image: Mabel Dwight (American, 1876 – 1955), Night Work (1931), lithograph, image: 25.4 × 19.4 cm (10 × 7 5/8 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Hannah S. Kully]

The new exhibition True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 15 October 2019-19 January 2020) brings together iconic images from early Twentieth Century American realism alongside a collection of lesser known prints. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The two fathers of American realism are Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Robert Henri (1865-1929). Both had troubled relationships with the art establishment. Eakins can be viewed as establishing the discipline of pictorial realism – plein air painting, thorough anatomical classes and application of perspective and use of photography – while Henri is thought of as a founder of social realism, mainly in urban settings. Henri’s contribution was attitudinal rather than technical. Henri studied under a former student of Eakins at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was wanted to realism that Eakins had pioneered in America to be applied to subjects that would not typically be considered the province of fine arts. Eakins had led the way in depicting common activities such as sports as a subject for oil painting but Henri sought to apply this new American realism to be applied to life in the modern American world.

Henri’s progressive artistic and political sensibility was influential, spreading via to his students (through his teaching at Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League, New York) and artists (through his book The Art Spirit (1923)). He exhibited widely and his ideas were disseminated by these and associated reviews. Henri opposed prettiness and what he thought of as the stiffness of conventionally sanctioned fine art. Henri’s passion for depicting everyday life entailed a degree of social realism. This tendency became movement, centred in New York, which became called the Ashcan School. Followers and associates included George Bellows, John Sloan and William Glackens. Edward Hopper was commonly grouped with the Ashcan School but he stands a little aside, more closely influenced by French painting and cinema than the others. Hopper is more interested in exploring the emotional distance and psychological isolation of his characters than in the general social/political commentary that Ashcan School tenets tended to produce. We might also view this group as a rejection of haute mondaine clientele, ostentatious internationalism and insulated hedonism of the Cosmopolitan Realists Boldini, Singer Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.

After a brief heyday, by the early 1930s the Ashcan School had been quickly overtaken by Modernism, with its emphasis on abstraction and pictorially advanced styles such as Cubism, Orphism, Dadaism and Surrealism. Ironically, the exploration of realism found a home in the 1930s in Regionalism, a movement that combined nativism and social conservatism with social realism and satirical commentary on modern life, often in rural settings. Precisionism of the 1930s applied realism, photorealism and hyperrealism to modern life but it was largely centred on buildings, objects, landscapes and townscapes rather than people within urban settings and it entirely lacked the satirical element.

Such developments are not covered within True Grit – admittedly, not a large exhibition – which confines itself to socially-centred art. Artists include Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others. The prints in True Grit range over the most common mediums: aquatints, drypoints, etchings, lithographs and a wood engraving. The exhibition provides a view of modern city life as seen through the eyes of socially conscious artists of the 1920s and 1930s.

It would be wrong to entirely ascribe the choice of the working class as subjects for art to a political commitment on the part of artists. It was also an element of the younger generation wanting to slay their predecessors and surpass them in audacity by using working people to inject energy and rawness, courting attention through controversy. This is certainly true of Bellows and the printmakers here who focus on making outright social critiques. The subjects of prints are art classes, street scenes, park views, nightclubs, courting couples, tramps, vamps and crowds participating in entertainment and on public transport.

Two classic images of urban America are Hopper’s Night Shadows (1921) – showing a man walking alone in a street, seen from a high window and accompanied on by his own shadow – and Bellows’s A Stag at Sharkey’s (1917). The latter is Bellows’s most famous composition – a boxing match in a darkened room, where the smoke and din are almost palpable. Other Hopper etchings are of a couple in a subway train and woman alone in a bedroom. Hopper is the quintessential urban artist of the inter-war period, his eye trained on the telling moment or the poignant interlude. Nothing is happening in Hopper’s pictures and that is the point. They are moments of reflection for the subject or moments that are later recalled because they impressed a witness. Hopper’s proto-existentialist ennui is manifest in the metropolitan anomie and the melancholic vignette. Hopper is lacking as a painter and draughtsman – none of figures actually seems comprised of flesh, skin, hair and all the other matter of a human body; he has little instinctive feeling for his mediums – but he is a consummate image-maker. His etchings are technically more fluent than his paintings.

Alexander Nemerov’s essay investigates the impact of Bellows’s death upon Hopper. The artists had been colleagues and allies, in many ways pursuing similar goals. Both Bellows and Hopper were former students of Henri. Hopper, Henri and other artists were recorded as being distraught at the sudden death of Bellows due to appendicitis. Nemerov suggests that Hopper experienced survivor’s life-long guilt. It was only in 1925 that Hopper achieved his critical and popular breakthrough – something which perhaps could only have happened with the disappearance of his colleague-competitor. In other words, Hopper may have considered his success to have been dependent on Bellows’s death. It is too much to attribute the pervasive melancholy of Hopper’s isolated characters to the reverberations to this 1925 event but Nemerov’s case is thoughtful and well put.

John Sloan (1871-1951) is credited as the leader of the Ashcan School. He was a prominent advocate of realism and taught many students in New York. Rather than selecting the subjects generally considered ennobling in the fine arts, Sloan encouraged students to depict typical scenes of everyday life. He is best known for his street scenes. Stephanie Schrader notes that the juxtaposition of public and private spaces was typical of Ashcan art. Glimpsing domestic interiors through windows from other buildings or whilst travelling on elevated metro tracks was a common experience for city dwellers. Schrader is condemnatory of Sloan’s etchings of interiors with women in a state of undress. Her criticism is redolent of the moral certitude that critics displayed towards Degas’s candid female nudes, which they thought to be positively bestial. Viewers may have a more relaxed and charitable attitude than Schrader towards Sloan’s etchings. When passing moral judgment in art criticism, critics should be aware that their audience has a moral sense (informed by different life experiences) that is at least as developed as their own.

What of these lesser known printmakers? The Kyra Markham (1891-1967) was a producer of satirical and socially conscious lithographs in the 1920s and 1930s.  Her scenes depart from realism through the exaggerated features of figures and invention of settings which use fantasy and magic realism. Peggy Bacon (1895-1987) was an unabashed satirist, whose prints we could expect to see in journals. The beautifully effective Night Work (1931) by Mabel Dwight (1875-1955) is a lithograph showing a nocturnal vista with a glimpse of a person working in a studio – the artist? – under a moon and the silhouettes of chimneys and water towers. It is a fitting choice for the catalogue cover. Arnold Rönnebeck, Ellison Hoover, Howard Norton Cook and Howard Pennell are represented by views of skyscrapers in New York. These unpeopled vertiginous views show the American metropolis at its most inhuman but exhilarating. However, despite their concentration on the architecture and spatial effects of city design without figures, these prints should be seen as extensions of Futurism and Expressionism (including Expressionist cinema) rather than instances of Precisionism. They lack the emotional coolness and technical clarity of Precisionism in order to achieve the impact the printmakers intended.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Glow of the City (1929), drypoint, image: 28.6 × 36.2 cm (11 1/4 × 14 1/4 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Purchased with funds from Russel I. and Hannah S. Kully.]

The outstanding artist of the exhibition is an artist of whom I had never previously heard. Martin Lewis (1881-1962) two etchings leave a lasting impression. A brilliant evocative print (Glow of the City (1929)) by Lewis shows a woman in profile on an apartment fire escape, a skyscraper illuminated in the background, seen behind a row of house backs and washing lines. This is another night scene – something of a speciality of these artists, at least on the basis of this selection. It is easy to see why Hopper credited Lewis’s tuition in etching for advancing his compositional abilities. Lewis’s Down to the Sea at Night (1929) is a masterclass in tenebrous realism. A group of women walk into the surf, illuminated by the headlamps of a parked car. The handling of light and shade, silhouette and modelling, and a single in-scene but concealed light source, are all exquisitely conceived and executed. Lewis will be the discovery and star of the exhibition on the basis of these two prints alone. More than a handful of visitors will leave the exhibition with the intention of scouring for sources on Lewis.

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[Image: Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881 – 1962), Down to the Sea at Night (1929), drypoint and sand-ground etching, image: 20.3 × 33 cm (8 × 13 in.). © Estate of Martin Lewis. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of
Hannah S. Kully]

The three essays have footnotes and there is an index. Illustrations include other prints and photographs of the era, as well as some paintings for comparison. Overall the catalogue is well designed and informative. Compliments go to the designers of the catalogue, which includes colophons and signatures in the illustrated prints. However, no paper sizes are given in the text and no editions or colophon markings are indicated, which is disappointing. True Grit is an enjoyable and stimulating tour of American realist graphics and social realism of the inter-war era.

 

Stephanie Schrader, James Glisson, Alexander Nemerov, True Grit: American Prints from 1900 to 1950, J. Paul Getty Museum, September 2019, hardback, 112pp, 83 col. illus., $35/£28, ISBN 978 1 60606 627 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The war on America’s past continues

In the wake of recent attempts – some successful – to have Confederate statues removed from the US south, what is the future of colonialist statues in the US west? In Pioneer Mother Monuments: Constructing Cultural Memory, Cynthia Culver Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota, senses a reluctance to apply to pioneer monuments the ideological zeal that was turned on Confederate memorials. ‘We resist applying the insights of settler colonial studies to American pioneer narratives because to do so would call into question foundational myths of Jeffersonian agrarianism and American exceptionalism, and lay bare white conquest of native lands and peoples.’ She outlines the cases against statues of colonialists, and particularly against female settlers, who took part in the drive to colonise the American west in the 19th century.

“Statues depicting women have been criticised by academics and campaigners for being idealising, inaccurate, generalising and stereotypical. There is a sense that campaigners direct such ire at statues of women settlers not just because they embody sexism and colonialism but because they show women as complicit in the act of dispossessing native peoples. There is a residual resentment that – in intersectional terms – a political minority took part in a project to oppress another minority….”

Read my article on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/07/29/the-war-on-americas-past-continues/

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

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6