Arshile Gorky: A Life in Documents

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Arshile Gorky (1904?-1948), born Vostanig Manoug Adoian, was an Armenian-American painter who became a seminal figure in the development of the New York School. His art fused European Surrealist painting and the art that would become American Abstract Expressionism. The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents is a new edition of Goats on The Roof (2009). This new expanded edition collects the artist’s letters, statements and interviews, along with newspaper articles, letters, statements, memoirs and interviews with people who knew him.

Gorky was probably born in 1904 in Armenia. He and his sisters lived through the Armenian Genocide (1915-23) though his mother starved to death. In 1920 Gorky emigrated to the USA. He began studying art in Boston and later New York before being appointed to a fine-art teaching job in New York whilst still young. He worked assiduously and became technically proficient, mastering multiple techniques which allowed him to make art similar to that of the Impressionists, Miró, Cézanne, Léger and Picasso. While this ability was admired, observers had reservations. Who exactly was Gorky when he wanted to be himself as an artist? Was this uncanny ability to adopt the mannerisms of senior artists an extended apprenticeship or a way of evading committing to an individual style?

Gorky complicated matters by embroidering his past: he claimed to be born in Russia or Georgia and be a relative of Maxim Gorky, he said he was a student of Kandinsky and that he had studied in Paris and Rhode Island. Gorky became seen as a living master and romantic figure who was a link to Europe, despite the fact that he came directly to the USA from Armenia/Turkey and never visited Western Europe. He was ambivalent about his Armenian past. He loved to Armenian music and dance and to spend time with ex-patriate Armenians; he wore traditional woven garments. Yet he also hid his true origins from others. His second wife did not know he was Armenian until after his death. He was committed to being an American and achieving recognition in the USA as an American painter.

Gorky made a great impression on people he met. His imposing height, distinctive handsome features and air of tragedy struck interlocutors. He stocked his immaculate Union Square studio with masses of the finest materials, dazzling visitors such as the young Willem de Kooning. His air of foreign sophistication further impressed people. He held himself aloof from artistic groups and chose mostly not to exhibit in mixed exhibitions.

Gorky worked in the mural section of the Federal Art Project, the government programme intended to support artists during the Depression. The programme was launched in 1933 by the Roosevelt administration, with the FAP mural division providing paintings for public buildings. Gorky’s ambitious design for Newark Airport was accepted and completed in 1937. (The mural was destroyed during World War II. Such large projects by the FAP mural division met similar fates.)

The majority of Gorky’s letters were to his sister Vartush and mainly dealt with family matters and news of his latest commissions and exhibitions, taking pride in his advances through the tiny and competitive art world of New in the 1930s. Gorky also wrote to his second wife, Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, whom he married on 5 September 1941. They had two children together. The brief notes that Gorky and Mougouch wrote to each other when apart testify to Gorky’s affection for his family but do not reveal much about his art. Mougouch’s letters to friends and patrons of Gorky give us more information.

In September 1939 the centre of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. Refugee artists and uprooted collectors converged on New York and the American artists, who until then had been outsiders, found themselves rubbing shoulders with legendary figures. Stimulated by dialogue and competition, American artists and collectors began to assert themselves as pioneers. Gorky was well placed to take advantage of the situation.

Stimulated by the art of young Surrealist Matta, Gorky changed his Miroesque abstractions into paintings that were more dynamic, organic and sensual. His biomorphic forms related to plants and animals he observed in New England and remembered from Armenia. Colours became richer and more expressive; his lines became energetic; his brushwork more varied. He did not fully back the automatist position of the Surrealists, preferring to develop his forms and compositions thoroughly in complex and heavily worked drawings, often with colour. Only now did he find a personal synthesis that marked him as unique.

A solo exhibition of Gorky’s paintings (with a catalogue written by Andre Breton) in March 1945 at Julien Levy’s gallery in New York established Gorky as a major modern painter who presented a new link, connecting American art to Surrealism. However, the succès d’estime did not translate into financial security for him and his family. Additionally, the support of Breton and the Surrealists marked Gorky’s art as French, not truly American. By allying himself to Breton, Gorky had committed himself an artist seeking the stamp of sophisticated foreign tastemakers. Fellow painters felt that Gorky’s detachment was perhaps snobbery. Although that was not the case – many close associates realised that Gorky was shy and secretive rather egotistical – the idea took root.

Financial problems, a 1947 studio fire which destroyed much of recent art, a major medical operation which permanently debilitated him, marital breakdown and a road accident that left his painting arm weakened: these catastrophes weighed down the proud and sensitive man. On 21 July 1948 Gorky committed suicide. His loss was mourned by collectors, critics and – particularly – fellow artists. Many tributes were paid in the following years.

The two versions of this collection supersede another previous publication which included passages forged by a relative and ascribed to Gorky. Gorky was powerfully influenced by childhood memories but he did not write about this much. Much of his letter writing was brief, to the point and concerned with family and career news, not dwelling upon the past. The forging of childhood reminiscences came about because Gorky is a talismanic artist for Armenians. He is one of the few Armenian artists who achieved international fame, acclaim and influence. For such a prominent figure – especially one who personally witnessed the Armenian Genocide – not to have written more directly about his homeland is a nagging absence for Armenians seeking a public voice for their history, motivated by national pride and a desire to have a cultural hero for the Armenian diaspora. Gorky’s The Artist and his Mother (two versions) has become a treasured icon memorialising the national tragedy.

It is impossible to do Gorky’s art justice in a brief review. The Plow and The Song is an authoritative source on the artist’s development. There are generous colour illustrations of art and photographs of Gorky and friends and family. This volume alone allows us an inside understanding of Gorky’s approach, sometimes seeing it through the eyes of the newspaper critics who reviewed the work as it was first exhibited. The Plow and The Song is a fitting publication documenting one of abstraction’s – and Armenia’s – most significant artists.

 

Arshile Gorky, Matthew Spender (ed.), The Plow and The Song: A Life in Letters and Documents, Hauser & Wirth, 2018, cloth flexicover, 584pp, fully col./mono illus., £40/$50, ISBN 978 3 906915 08 1

© Alexander Adams

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Willem de Kooning

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This new book in a series on Modernist artists approaches the art of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This small book consists of two short essays, a chronology and a selection of quotes from the artist. The author Corinna Thierolf is the Chief Curator of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and this book presents her heavily German-centred perspective on de Kooning. Thierolf suggests that Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc are previously unrecognised influences upon the Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist. Thierolf draws analogies between the scatterings of hard-edge planes in Marc’s quasi-Cubist paintings and the fractured planes of de Kooning’s Women series and abstract paintings of the 1940s. The paintings of this period were heavily worked and revised frequently, producing paintings with dense layers of impasto and visible revision – very dissimilar to Marc’s animal paintings. In character, appearance and tone, the painting of Marc and de Kooning are very different.

The second essay centres on de Kooning’s last paintings and links to Marc and Kandinsky. In the 1970s de Kooning’s paintings tessellations of vivid blue, white, yellow and alizarin in liquid form exist between colliding lines, with plentiful spatterings and drips. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a noticeable simplification to de Kooning’s paintings became apparent. New paintings had less pentimenti, were less heavily worked and had fewer colours. Lines became less energetic. The paint was less messy and drips disappear. The last paintings seem unfinished, dominated by white. The artist at the time was in the early stages of dementia. It was revealed that assistants used transparencies from old paintings to draw outlines on to blank canvases to start the artist. De Kooning would paint over these drawings, sometimes changing and elaborating as he went along. In the last years, there were fewer changes; the paintings were reduced to calm flowing lines and few colours. These comprise de Kooning’s Ribbon series.

Mondrian is mentioned in relation to these late pieces. This seems a viable connection. Like de Kooning, the Dutch abstract artist also worked in New York in the 1940s. The clarity of colour and emphatic division using colour lines could legitimately be seen as an analogue of de Kooning’s Ribbon paintings.

There are two drives to reassess de Kooning’s late work: academic and commercial. Academics are looking for new work to do and new territory to survey. De Kooning’s late paintings were ignored, not exhibited and not discussed seriously until relatively recently. The art trade initially dismissed the late work and the de Kooning family did not permit the sale or exhibition of late works while the artist was alive. Only now are academics finding the late art accessible and are pioneering research on the late work, allowing such studies as this one.

The second motive is more questionable. There is a quantity of unsold late paintings in the de Kooning Estate and dealers are keen to raise the profile (and price) of these paintings via academic and critical discussion and wider exhibition of this art. There is a tendency to treat late paintings seriously because this increases the value of material resources in which the artist’s estate, dealers and auction houses all have vested interests. There are real doubts that the Ribbon paintings are comparable to the early works in terms of accomplishment, energy, complexity and originality. There is a further doubt about the value of these works as fully “of de Kooning” on two grounds: firstly, the involvement of assistants and, secondly, the fact that de Kooning was less himself as dementia slowly robbed him of his faculties. Thierolf does not approach either of these issues.

The emphasis on Der Blaue Reiter/Blauer Vier artists is less persuasive than the link with Mondrian. De Kooning was most influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Ingres and Rubens from the previous eras, in addition to looking closely at contemporary American art, especially Kline, Pollock, Gorky, Graham and others. If there is a German influence, Thierolf perhaps could have turned her gaze towards Max Beckmann, who was a figure who had direct influence and prominence in the US art scene in the late 1940s. He taught and exhibited in the USA from 1947 onwards, his work was widely reproduced in earlier years. When he died in late 1950 in New York, there was a burst of publicity regarding Beckmann. There are stylistic links between Beckmann’s figures and de Kooning’s Women series, which started in 1950. (For a fuller discussion about links between Beckmann and de Kooning, see my review of the MoMA retrospective of de Kooning, The Jackdaw, no. 100, December 2011.)

While the suggested connections are technically plausible, it seems farfetched and to a degree more derived from Thierolf’s familiarity with the paintings by Marc and Kandinsky in the collection of Pinakothek der Moderne than with any established link between their art and de Kooning. De Kooning’s first and strongest known affinities were for Ingres and Rubens. We should be cautious about yoking de Kooning with other artists because his greatest influence was always his own art. In the very last paintings clearly his older paintings were a literal starting point, transcribed by assistants. The idea that just as de Kooning’s grasp on reality was loosening he was reaching for an entirely new influence in the forms of Marc and Kandinsky is an improbable proposition. Readers are invited to judge Thierolf’s thesis for themselves.

Corinna Thierolf, Willem de Kooning, Hirmer, 2018, 72pp, 51 illus., hardback, £9.95/$13, ISBN 978 3 7774 3073 7

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Robert Motherwell: Open

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Herbert Ferber: Space in Tension

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hans Hofmann: catalogue raisonne

“Biographies of almost any first- or second-generation Abstract Expressionist artist almost always mention Hans Hofmann. Teaching at his own school in New York City and Provincetown during the 1930s to 1950s, Hofmann influenced a generation of artists, including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, as well as dozens of other significant painters. Hofmann (along with Josef Albers) was one of the most important teachers of abstract art in the US. His ideas provided an intellectual and aesthetic foundation for the rise of abstraction in mid-century America. Until now his own art has been accorded a patchy reception, which Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings is likely only partially to remedy.

“Hans Hofmann grew up in Bavaria before working in an office in Munich and studying art part-time. In 1905 he moved to Paris and came into contact with the avant-garde of the École de Paris, exhibiting infrequently and receiving little attention. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Hofmann and his future wife Miz were caught in Germany and consequently lost all his Paris paintings…”

Read the full review here at THE ART NEWSPAPER, 2 June 2015:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/books/156121/