Art, ambiguity and loss

Like so many other things in our lives, the Art Caravan’s travelling schedule has been suspended, due to the pandemic.  Instead of bemoaning the specific shows we didn’t see this summer like  L. L. Fitzgerarld at the WAG or Katie Ohe at the Esker  (sigh…) we are going to think about  the work of Pauline Boss, a researcher, professor, author, and therapist who first used the term ambiguous loss in the 1970s.

Doc Snyder's House, L. L. Fitzgerald, 1931

Doc Snyder’s House, L. L. Fitzgerald, 1931

Sky Block, Katie Ohe, Esker Foundation, image by Elyse Bouvier

Ms Boss defines the two types of ambiguous loss:

a physical absence with psychological presence (eg. in situations of divorce, immigration, natural disasters, adoption)

psychological absence with physical presence (eg. dementia, Alzheimers’s, addiction, depression, mental illness, brain injury)

Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, by Pauline Boss

The On Being Podcast with Krista Tippett  (audio and/or transcript) provides a very good overview to Ms Boss’s research.  In her introduction to the interview Krista Tippett says You could say of 2020 that we are suddenly in a world of ‘ambiguous loss.’  The conversation with Pauline Boss is, indeed, …full of practical intelligence for shedding assumptions about how we should be feeling and acting that actually deepen stress precisely in a moment like this.

I particularly liked the July 2020 follow-up conversation between Ms Tippett and Ms Boss. This Living the Questions  (audio and/or transcript) segment is honest, affirming and, again, offers practical strategies for these strange and challenging days.

On Being podcast

In the spirit of Ms Boss’s suggestions for coping during the pandemic, The Art Caravan will continue with the ritual of bi-weekly postings.  We acknowledge the sadness and losses we sometimes feel. We will continue to enjoy fabulous, fascinating artwork, artists and ideas.  Now we have the luxury of time to share it with you.

 

 

The Best Impressionist Painter is not Monet…and other heresies

Who, me?  Dissing Monet??  No, not at all.  It’s just that Berthe Morisot doesn’t get the attention she deserves.  She is my favourite Impressionist painter, and, (dare I say?) the best of the lot.

Berthe Morisot, Self Portrait, 1985

Berthe Morisot, Self Portrait, 1985

The Frick Five’s final question (which is really two questions)  Which artist do you find most overrated?  Which artist do you find most underrated? reminded me of Berthe Morisot.  If you are thinking Berthe who? you’re not alone.  Many people are not aware of her, and her significance in the history of art.

I was fortunate to come across several of her artworks in the Musée Marmottan in Paris.  (Three  fun facts:  I briefly wrote about Mme Morisot  in 2014, the Marmottan is  one of my favourite art museums in Paris, and, coincidentally, it has a huge Monet wing – definitely a topic for another post.)

More recently, she has received some of the attention she deserves. In 2019, The Dallas Museum of Art hosted the international exhibition  Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist, which also toured to the Barnes Foundation, the Musée D’orsay and the Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec.  Everyone from Artnet News to The New Yorker to The Washington Post has been writing about her since 2018.

In her biography of Berthe Morisot, Anne Higonnet, outlines some of the challenges Berthe Morisot faced.  From our viewpoint in the 21st century, it’s startling to realize Madame Morisot (Berthe’s mother) had to chaperone Berthe’s painting visits to the Lourve.

Nineteenth-century bourgeois convention recognized only one suitable path for women – marriage and motherhood.  Anything else was failure.  Single women were ‘excess’ human beings who had not fulfilled their womanly destinies.  A career was supposed to ‘unsex’ a woman, leech away her femininity, and render her abnormal.  In Morisot’s field, such threats acquired a daunting edge.  For genius was deemed a masculine attribute.  No one could imagine a great woman painter.  None had yet existed, and this seemed sufficient proof that none ever would.  (p.51)

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay image

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay image

The challenges and obstacles she faced began well before she even reached the easel and picked up a paintbrush; they were everywhere around her, in the idea that ‘genius’ was a function of masculinity, in the dearth of role models for her to follow, in the … logistics she encountered on a day-to-day basis, in the minds of others and in her own mind. (p.148)

Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago image

Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875–1880, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago image

How Berthe Morisot Broke Barriers to Become the First Female Impressionist  is a succinct article, with good images, from My Modern Met.  All ‘barrier breaking’ aside,  Berthe Morisot is, in my books, a DFP (damned fine painter.)  Note the lush brushwork, and the gorgeous palette – all hallmarks of the Impressionist painters.

Take another look at the compositions, too.  Subtle, but powerful:  in Woman at Her Toilette the line of the mirror anchors the left side of the painting, whilst the highlights off her earring, and then the glass container, draw us in to appreciate the beauty of her shoulder and neck. The right side of the painting is fascinatingly vague, and gives our eye a space to rest, in contrast to the rich details enveloping the woman.

Notice how she uses geometric shapes to give strength and contrast to the domestic scenes she portrays in both The Cradle and Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight. Triangles abound in the former painting;  rectangles compose the latter, below.

Berthe Morisot, In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan, Photo by Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY

Berthe Morisot, In England (Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight), 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan, Photo by Erich Lessing Art Resource, NY

I suspect one of Edouard Manet’s portraits of Berthe Morisot is more well-known than any of her paintings.  Edouard Manet was her brother-in-law;  she was married to Eugène Manet.  Although Anne Higonnet dismisses art historical gossip (p.92) she admits that

….he made more portraits of her than anyone else.  (“He has made a portrait of his wife, I think it was about time,”  wrote Cornell Thomas Morisot in March 1869.)  (p.55)

It’s a flattering portrait, there’s no arguing that.  Whether of not they were romantically involved is a topic for speculation.  I am looking forward to reading the new novel, Madder Women,  by Dede Crane which promises tumultuous love affair.  Who can resist?

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, Edouard Manet, 1872

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, Edouard Manet, 1872

One must give credit where credit is due.  Besides all of his prodigious output, Claude Monet left an extensive collection of 19th century Japanese prints in his home in Giverny, as well as a  gorgeous garden for us to experience.  He may not be the best of the Impressionist painters, but he was generous, and remains hugely popular and beloved.  Perhaps as Berthe Morisot receives more attention, her genius will be appreciated and her artwork will be widely enjoyed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family dynamics

Have you thought about the questions from the Frick Five videos?  (See the last post for more info.)  Any definitive responses?  No hard and fast selections made here, either.  But isn’t that part of the enjoyment?

I’m still thinking about my answer to the first question:  What is the one work of art you would want to live with every day?   I can’t commit to a decision….yet.  But thinking about possible choices reminded me of a favourite painting by the artist  John Singer Sargent.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

This is a stunning oil painting.  For starters, it is large: 7 feet by 7 feet square.  It assumes a significant physical presence in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Wikipedia reminded me that The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit  is hung between the original two vases depicted in the painting.

I don’t think of myself as a huge fan of realist painting, but this painting offers far more than a physical representation of a person, or a group.  I have had the opportunity to see it in person, with plenty of time to sit in an uncrowded space, and enjoy it.  (The typical art museum visitor spends, on average, less than 30 seconds looking at a piece of art, according to a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and Art in 2017.)

Consider the composition.  Our attention is immediately captured by the girls. (Psychological studies provide evidence that our eye / attention is instinctively drawn to a human face or figure in visual art.)  This is not a typical arrangement of figures for a family portrait, especially considering it was painted in 1882.   We don’t even see the (presumably) eldest daughter’s face as she is turned away from the viewer and and  is obscured by  shadow. Two of the girls hold more traditional poses, but not together.  One of them is shadowed, and the other is at the edge of the painting. The youngest is plopped on the floor, like her doll.  The child and the doll present as one figure.

John Singer Sargent was a prolific artist , creating thousands of artworks in oil, watercolour and charcoal.  He was born in Italy to American parents, and lived most of his life in Europe, with frequent trips to the USA.  At the beginning of his career, he accepted many portrait commissions in America.

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), John Singer Sargent, 1882

Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), John Singer Sargent, 1882

Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882

Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882

The Boit family were part of the expatriate  American community in Paris.  In this commissioned portrait, Singer Sargent allows us, the viewers, room for imaginative speculation about the characters of the sisters. He’s given us just enough situational context to create stories about the individual personalities, and  to speculate at possible family dynamics.  Note the abundance of dark tones in the painting.  I wonder if the parents knew, encouraged or approved of this extremely unconventional depiction of their daughters?   The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (originally titled Portraits of Children) was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 1919, only four years after Edward Darley Boit died.  Perhaps the sisters weren’t all that fond of it?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent, 1882, NYTimes image

Structurally, the painting is intriguing.  The girls – and an inanimate object, a vase –  dominate the left two thirds of the composition, with the carpet almost meeting the doorframe at an angle – the same door edge that strongly frames one of the sisters.  Meanwhile, the orange-red triangular shape (a screen?) firmly pins the right side down, whilst partially obscuring the repeated vase shape.  What a playground for the eye!  We can travel from the human figures to the classical vase shapes to the geometry of the carpet, doorway and screen.  My eye is intrigued by the reflection in the upper right third of the painting, and thus another visual trip around the composition begins.

By re-examining one of my favourite paintings, maybe I’m getting closer to a definitive answer to the second Frick Five question.  Maybe.

If you could have your portrait made by any artist, who would that be?

 

 

 

 

If you could have any artwork in the world….and other perfect summer fantasies

 

What is the one work of art that you would want to live with every day?

Isn’t this a great question to consider?  It’s quite a fun idea to explore.  Just think about it. Take your time.  I find a seemingly unending stream of memories is elicited.   I offer it as a satisfying bit of escapism this summer.  As Annie Dillard says Spend the afternoon, you can’t take it with you.

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It’s not an easy choice for me.  I acknowledge that much of the remarkable work I’ve experienced wouldn’t be easy to live with every day.  There are  size and volume constraints, of course, but tone and meaning and the intention of the work must be considered, too.  Just as we are (or ought to be) selective about choosing housemates and partners, we are sensitive to the spirit of the artwork we bring into our lives.

If you could have your portrait made by any artist, who would that be?

I especially like this question.  (Could it be because it’s so self-centred?!)  Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about portrait painting and so I have fewer choices.  Whatever the reason, it too, offers the opportunity for entertaining possibilites.

Artemisia Gentileschi?  Caravaggio?  Rembrandt?  John Singer Sergeant?  Berthe Morisot?  Njideka Akunyili Crosby?  Käthe Kollwitz?

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, I Refuse to be Invisible, 2010, artist image

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, I Refuse to be Invisible, 2010, artist image

The questions are not originally conceived, nor are these:

What is the work or art / monument / museum that changed your life?

What is the book, and what is the piece of music, that inspire you the most?

Which artist do you find most overrated?  Which artist do you find most underrated?

These questions are posed by the Frick curators on their twice a month series, The Frick Five, available on the Frick’s website.  The Frick curators, Amiee Ng and Xavier F. Salomon, conduct relaxed, remote video  conversations with other curators.  It’s fun to get a glimpse into their homes – not always the  ubitquous book shelves – and hear them speak from a personal, as well as a professional viewpoint. The stories surrounding a life-changing piece of art or monument are delivered honestly and with a measure of vulnerability.  Isn’t that what happens when we resonate with a piece of art?  As they ably explain the historical and artistic significance of the works  supporting images are provided.

It’s highly entertaining to hear art professionals discuss the ‘overrated’ artists, and very informative to hear their support and enthusiasm for an artist deserving more attention.  They are limiting  the discussion to deceased artists, and not dishing any dirt on contemporary artists – although I initially held out some hope for just such an exchange, but they are obviously more gracious, and a whole lot wiser, than me.  I’ll leave it to you to find the interview with the curator who dares to question the values attributed to certain Impressionist painters.

The music and book choices are sometimes surprising, but always charming.  Kylie Minogue, anyone?! I think I would find it impossible to choose only one book, or one single piece of music.  Just like one piece of art, how does one choose?

 

 

 

 

There are no rules….

 

…..that is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen.
Helen Frankenthaler

 

The artist Helen Frankenthaler spoke from experience.  She was one of the first artists to explore the stained painting technique – a process wherein she poured thinned paint onto raw (unprimed) canvas.  Mountains and Sea (1952), considered a breakthrough painting, shows the transparency and delicacy possible with this technique. Here is a very brief interpretation of the painting from the National Gallery of Art.  (Curiously enough, there is a Canadian connection to this work.)

Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler, 1952 National Gallery of Art image

Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler, 1952 National Gallery of Art image

I recall being impressed by large canvases of her work in Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler at the Seattle Art Museum. The Museum called them …three visionary painters who developed distinctive painterly styles. SAM also recognized  …their hard-won accomplishments in what was a male-defined domain.

Pace Prints reminded me of Frankenthaler’s printmaking work in a recent exhibition. In Her Mind’s Eye was a show of  woodcut prints she completed  from 2001 to 2009 with master printmaker Yasu Shibata.  She was really demanding for each project he said, in a recent interview for In Her Mind’s EyeShe knew exactly what she wanted.

 He points out the connection between her early stained paintings and the process she used in the Pace printshop with the plywood:  It’s really abstract just like Helen made in (the) early ’60s or ’50s – that she did the same thing on unprimed canvas –  that she poured the oil paint that makes (it) bleed and the edges of the shapes are really soft.

Snow Pines, Helen Frankenthaler, 2004, Pace Prints image

Weeping Crabapple, Helen Frankenthaler, 2009, Pace Prints image

In the 10 minute video  Helen Frankenthaler: OK to print  she says I don’t confuse – or try not to – working on prints with working on painting.  They are totally different mediums. She likens her creative process in a printmaking studio to cooking a meal from an unfamiliar icebox:  You mix your own magic – whatever you’re given to work with…..because you are confronted with things that are forcing you to make something wonderful.

Madame Butterfly, Helen Frankenthaler, 2000, publisher Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Madame Butterfly, H. Frankenthaler, 2000, publisher Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

When collaborating and working at different print shops like Pace, Tyler Graphics, ULAE, Frankenthaler knew that she had a reputation as a demanding artist. The word is that I am so fussy….so particular…..such a perfectionist.  She explains her attitude to the work:  In order to have something to really move and work and be beautiful it takes a lot of time and effort and being explicit and being demanding and being controlling and also knowing when to allow…and such.

Gateway Screen, Helen Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Gateway Screen, H. Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

Gateway Screen, Helen Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe, New York image

Gateway Screen, H. Frankenthaler, 1988, Tyler Graphics, Ltd, Ameringer, McEnery, Yohe image

I am struck by how these ideas, specific to Helen Frankenthaler’s art making practice,  are applicable to our current local, national and global challenges.  If we want a more peaceful, inclusive society we need to break some of the old rules, routines and ways of being.  It will  take time,  hard work, and dedication.  We may not be popular or welcomed, as we demand and adapt to  the changes necessary to create a world that moves and works and is beautiful.  

Perhaps we take her analogy about the icebox to heart?  We are experiencing problems and situations that require creativity to  make something wonderful.

 

 

 

Breaking the Rules

If You Want Peace, Corita Kent, 1976, created for the Campaign for Human Development

If You Want Peace, Corita Kent, 1976, created for the Campaign for Human Development

Pop art, 1960s social activism, screen printing, Los Angeles art scene, Catholic nun….one of these nouns seems incongruous, doesn’t it?

Thanks to the book Forgotten Women: The Artists by Zing Tsjeng, I learned of  (Sister Mary) Corita Kent. This short video is an introduction to this intriguing personality (1918 – 1986.)

The more I read about her, the more fascinated I become.  After high school, Francis Elizabeth Kent entered the order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles and took the name Sister Mary Corita.  She studied at the (now) California Institute of the Arts and the University of Southern California. From 1947 to 1968 she taught classes, and headed the art department at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles.  

 Imagine being one of her students in an art department that became part of the L.A. art scene. Her classroom ‘rules’ are inspiring, aren’t they?  I’m especially drawn to Rules 6 and  9.  Along with Rule 4, I may have found my personal Rules for Life.

Sister Corita’s Art Department rules, lettered by D. Meckleburg, Corita.org

Corita Kent and the more famous pop artist  Andy Warhol were producing art in the 1960s. Both grew up in devout Catholic families.  Corita saw a show of his work in 1962, shortly after she had begun working  with serigraphs.

that they may have life, Corita Kent, 1965

that they may have life, Corita Kent, 196

 

Brillo Box, Andy Warhol, 1964

Brillo Box, Andy Warhol, 1964

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coca-Cola (3), Andy Warhol, 1962

Coca-Cola (3), Andy Warhol, 1962

 

for eleanor, Corita Kent, 1964

for eleanor, Corita Kent, 1964

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kent chose to work mainly in silkscreen printing (serigraph), which is accessible and affordable.  She created almost 800 different designs.  The work is included in many, many museums and galleries.  The Hammer Museum has extensive resources, including a vast digital archive of her work. The Corita Art Center preserves and promotes her works, and mission.  You may want to check out their Corita 101 art videos based on her book Learning by Heart:  Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit.

She, too,  became a popular figure in America culture:  she was featured on the cover of Newsweek in 1967.  She designed the US Post Office Love stamp in 1985, of which more than 700 million were sold.

‘Love’ stamp, Sister Corita, US Post Office, 1985

Do we call this pop art timeless?  It seems we are still, unfortunately, struggling with the same issues that Kent and Warhol explored. By using popular culture images, in simple, engaging designs, they  expressed their beliefs.  In different ways,  they were challenging  the status quo, and society’s continuing obsession with celebrity, material goods  and consumption – at the expense of peace and justice for all.

It’s a message worthy of re-consideration.  Rule # 10 gives us the impetus and permission to make the necessary changes to create a more equitable world for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can’t look away anymore

Have you ever seen a work of art that’s almost too difficult to view?  (I am not referring to work that is badly executed, or manipulative, or too clever by half, but an artwork worthy of attention.)

I felt that way when I saw The Hanging Tree by Joe Minter at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

The Hanging Tree, 1996, Joe Minter, welded found steel

The Hanging Tree, 1996, Joe Minter, welded found steel

The museum information label read:

de Young Museum, San Francisco

I was overwhelmed by the historical facts presented.   I focused on the shadows at the base of the artwork, not wanting to accept what I had read, and what was before me.   I attempted to process the information, as I was deeply shocked  by the facts. There were recorded lynchings as recently as 1981???

I was also overwhelmed by the beauty and integrity of the sculpture in response to the brutality suffered – unfathomable events,  repeated hundreds of times, with little or no repercussions to the perpetrators.  And yet – despite these unspeakable acts,  this violent history towards African Americans – Joe Minter says We have went through tribulation, but from that experience we learn patience and develop the strength of hope.

The Hanging Tree (shadow), Joe Minter, 1996, welded found steel

The Hanging Tree (shadow), Joe Minter, 1996, welded found steel

This sculpture was part of the exhibition  Revelations:  Art from the African American South  at the de Young Museum from June 2017 until the end of March 2018.

Even as I write this blog, my heart rate is elevated.  It’s difficult, and challenging to face the reality of our society’s inhumanity and ongoing injustices.  But –  face it, and act to change it  – we must.  We can’t look the other way.

 

 

 

Loss, …and change?

It’s a time of great loss.  The death of the American painter, Emma Amos , adds another drop into the ocean of sadness threatening to flood our world.

Black Dog Blues, Emma Amos, 1983 artnews image

Emma Amos (American, born 1938). Preparing for a Face Lift, 1981. Etching and crayon, 8 ¼ × 7 ¾ in. (21 × 19.7 cm). Courtesy of Emma Amos. © Emma Amos; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York. Licensed by VAGA, New York

Emma Amos (American, born 1938). Preparing for a Face Lift, 1981. Etching and crayon, 8 ¼ × 7 ¾ in. (21 × 19.7 cm). Courtesy of Emma Amos. © Emma Amos; courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE, New York. Licensed by VAGA, New York

Baby, Emma Amos, 1966, oil on canvas, 45" x 50"

Baby, Emma Amos, 1966, oil on canvas, 45″ x 50″

Artnews has prepared a brief slideshow of a few of her works.   Ms Amos worked across several media, from drawing and painting to printmaking, tapestry and installation work.

Emma Amos was an artist, wife, mother, and (sometimes) reluctant activitist.  She was a Guerrilla Girl! Guerrilla Girls work anonymously to expose gender and ethnic bias, but Ms Amos did say I was once a member of a very famous clandestine women’s group that worked at night and did not ever go out without masks on our faces.

Howard Cotter’s article in the New York Times Is worth a read.  It’s a factual, insightful and compassionate summary of a very accomplished artist. He points out the significance of paintings like Tightrope, Equals and Work Suit.

Tightrope, Emma Amos, 1994, acrylic on linen with African fabric borders, 82" x 58"

Tightrope, Emma Amos, 1994, acrylic on linen with African fabric borders, 82″ x 58″

Equals, Emma Amos, acrylic on linen fabric, image transfer, African fabric borders, 1992

Equals, Emma Amos, acrylic on linen fabric, image transfer, African fabric borders, 1992

Work Suit, 1994 Acrylic on linen, with African fabric borders and photo transfer, 74" x 54" Image courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

Work Suit, 1994 Acrylic on linen, with African fabric borders and photo transfer, 74″ x 54″ Image courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery

If you’re like me, you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Emma Amos, or seen her work.  She wondered the same thing.  The ARTnews article about her career quotes her: I wake up in the morning and say, ‘I have one piece at the Museum of Modern Art.  I wonder, Is it still there?’  ‘You know, I wonder if I’ve been deaccessioned,’ she said. ‘And I wonder how come nobody knows who I am?’

As we all know, it’s time for that to change.

 

 

 

 

 

Wow! Who made that?

You know you’ve found something special, when the same artist takes you by surprise on different occasions.  I remember the first time I saw Lee Bontecou’s work at MoMA.  I stood in the middle of the gallery, looking up, gobsmacked.  I said to one of my art friends, Look at that!  Who is it?

Without a moment’s hesitation S. said, That’s Lee Bontecou.  Isn’t she great?

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1980-1998, MoMA

I was only slightly, and fleetingly, embarrassed that I wasn’t familiar with this artist, and her work.   Lee Bontecou was born in 1931 in Rhode Island, U.S.A.  She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1957; in 1966 she won the first prize from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  There have been major solo retrospectives of her work in the last twenty years, including  at MoMA / MCA Chicago / Hammer Museum in 2003/4. In 2014 the Menil Collection in Houston had a exhibition of her drawings.

Last October (2019), at the newly renovated MoMa, I came around a gallery corner and encountered  this:

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Bear in mind this sculpture is about 5 feet wide by 5 feet high and protrudes from the wall.  It is an arresting presence that stopped me, and demanded my attention.  The darkness of the central void, the somber palette, and the varying depths and shapes encompassed in the piece make it extremely powerful.

I had to check the label, as neither my friends (S. and J.) nor I recognized the work. I was pleased to read Lee Bontecou.  This sculpture cemented my admiration for Ms Bontecou’s work.  The label explained that it is constructed of old conveyer belts that the artist salvaged from a laundry below her East Village apartment.  The curators suggest that the piece expresses anxiety, as it was created when the U.S.A. entered the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall construction began, and the American tensions with Cuba were at fever pitch.

Here is a short video from MoMA highlighting Bontecou’s piece within the show Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction. (You can skip ahead to the 4 minute mark to hear specifically about this sculpture.)

Untitled, Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

The details are exquisite, don’t you think?  The copper stitching appears fine and delicate, yet it holds together the muscular, voluminous forms.

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Untitled (detail), Lee Bontecou, 1961, MoMa

Bontecou said, My concern is to build things that express our relation to this country…..to other worlds to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exists in us all and hangs over all the young people today.

It’s not surprising that the work is strong – it expresses much of the human condition.  Despite being 60 years old, it is still relevant today.

 

 

 

 

Out of control!

It’s not only how our lives may feel at the moment, but it’s how the artist Pat Steir describes her work.  Some of her musings about making art are surprisingly relevant to our pandemic times.  The chance in a painting is like a companion, she says.

As I said in my last posting, there are about a billion ways you can spend time in front of a screen right now.  (I find myself experiencing a kind of ‘screen fatigue.’)  This short video from Pace Prints is worth five minutes of your time.  In it,  Ms Steir discusses some of her motivation and the processes for making her art.  I’m really only interested in the performance of painting and colour.  The photography is effective, and a lot of intriguing ideas are packed into a few minutes.  She cites John Cage and Agnes Martin as influences.  It’s fascinating, and inspiring, to see her combine printmaking and painting in large scale works.

Pat Steir, NYTimes image

Good news and bad news:  There’s a significant exhibition of her paintings, Color Wheel,  at the Hirshhorn, a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.  It opened October 24, 2019 and is slated to run until  January 18, 2021. It’s wonderful that the work is being featured, but it’s unfortunate that so few people will be able to see it as all the Smithsonian Museums closed on March 14 for public health safety.  In the meantime, feel free to browse the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive on-line resources.