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

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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

Melismatic: the Prints of Ian Davenport

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Ian Davenport, Poured Triptych Etching: Ambassadors (After Holbein) (2017), aquatint, 159 x 239cm, © Ian Davenport, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

 

Ian Davenport & Michael Bracewell, Ian Davenport: Melismatic, Alan Cristea Gallery, 2017, paperback, 48pp, 41 col. illus., £20, ISBN 978 0 9955046 3 6

 

Ian Davenport’s new exhibition of prints (Alan Cristea Gallery, London, ends 31 July 2017) showcases series of prints which extend his interest in using chance in formats that evoke established rigid pictorial conventions. To these compositions Davenport has applied a positively sensual approach to colour.

Davenport’s vertical stripe prints take as their starting point his approach to making stripe paintings. He takes a rigid smooth surface and applies multiple streams of liquid paint until the whole surface is coloured. These lines run down the surface and mingle at the bottom. The bars of alternating colour relate to the Op Art and Neo-Geo schools of painting but the fluid dynamics of Davenport’s paint assert themselves in the slight blending that occurs at certain places in the edges of stripes and most dramatically at the bottom, where the liquid flows in a more unconstrained fashion.

The printmaking process involves the photographing of paintings specially made for the purposes of generating prints. The photographic images are split into colour transparencies and these sheets worked on by hand. The separate colours are photographically transferred to metal plates as areas of aquatint. (Etching is the process of ink being worked into incised lines on a metal sheet and paper being pressed over this sheet, transferring ink from plate to paper; aquatint is the method of gathering ink in large areas in tiny pits, thus creating washes or blocks of colour, an effect which is not possible in line etching.) The bands of colour are laboriously inked by hand before the paper is laid over the plates and run through a press. Thumbprint Editions studio in South London carry out this elaborate, time-consuming and sophisticated process under the guidance of the artist in collaboration with master printmakers.

The prints in this stripe series are up to 159 cm high by 239 cm wide and achieve the physical presence of paintings. They are large enough for a viewer to immerse him- or herself in. The colour palettes are sometimes derived from paintings Davenport admires. In this series some prints have the colours of paintings by Holbein, Van Gogh, Klimt and Perugino. The mind alternates between an instinctive search for patterns and pleasure in immersion in an undulating curtain of rich pure colours. In some instances Davenport requested plates be printed a second time without re-inking. This generates second proofs that are pale in colour, close to watercolours in appearance. This demonstrates his keen eye for opportunity and his flexibility.

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Ian Davenport, Poured Triptych Etching: Primavesi (After Klimt) (2017), aquatint, 159 x 239cm, © Ian Davenport, 2017. Courtesy of artist and Alan Cristea Gallery, London

 

Another series are the Colour Splat screenprints. In these images a scattering of splashes of liquid colour have been applied and their vertical drips below form curtains of alternating and mixed colour. These are less successful than the stripe prints because there is a visual struggle between the assertive incidents of the splashes (and their attendant spatters of colour) and the much less imposing drips. The imbalance is never resolved and it does not seem clear that the artist intended such an imbalance to be so prominent. Davenport’s art seems to work best when the struggle between formal order and fluid dynamics of materials are closely matched and constrain each other. In the Colour Splats the material characteristics overwhelm whatever the artist can do to try to constrain them. That said it is good to see an established artist taking chances even if the results are not – for this reviewer – wholly successful.

Unlike many artists of his generation, Davenport is genuinely engaged by the printmaking process and works carefully to find the best technique and approach to making his prints. While some artists simply photograph an existing work, tweak it on computer and send the file off to be printed, Davenport thinks through his work and collaborates with experts at every stage. He sometimes pushes master printmakers to innovate or to try methods that seem at first impossible but turn out to have beautiful and unique results. His decisions are not determined by what is easiest but by what will produce the best results.

The catalogue contains a brief interview with the artist and photographs of the prints being made, giving an idea of the process involved. The works themselves are reproduced in full, with complete technical data on technique, paper and edition sizes.

24 July 2017

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/