The Originals: Elisabetta Sirani and Clara Peeters

For this next installment of “The Originals,” a series of short biographies of early female painters that began with Michaelina Wautier and Artemisia Gentileschi, comes the following gloss on Elisabetta Sirani and Clara Peeters, two highly prominent 17th century figures who pioneered their respective artistic traditions. Sirani was the most famous woman artist of Bologna (Lavinia Fontana being her chief competitor for this role), helmed her family’s workshop, and even established an academy to teach other female artists of the Renaissance period. Peeters trained in the Baroque style of her native Flanders, but later moved to the new Republic of Holland and became the first of her sex to participate in Dutch Golden Age painting. To learn more about Sirani and Peeters, check out the descriptions below.

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665)

For Sirani, art was the family trade. Like Gentileschi, both her peer and precedent, Sirani studied under the tutelage of her father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, a favorite pupil of master painter Guido Reni. Elisabetta, whose faculties at some point eclipsed those of all her relatives (her two sisters were also artists), was herself viewed as Reni reincarnated by Bologna’s public. Yet Elisabetta departed from––or rather, overtook––Reni by employing more chiaroscuro (dramatic contrasts of light and shade), color, and heavy brushstrokes in the 200 paintings, 15 etchings, and countless drawings she produced in her short lifetime. Her prolific oeuvre developed from how quickly she could maneuver the canvas, to the point that many doubted the single authorship of her pieces. As legend has it, Elisabetta refuted such charges by inviting her accusers on May 13, 1664 to watch her go from start to finish in one sitting. After Sirani senior contracted gout, Elisabetta became her family’s primary breadwinner. Further defying gender stereotypes, she garnered great acclaim for the biblical and historical topics of her works as the first woman painter to specialize in the latter (they were supposed to only really paint portraits). She was patronized by cardinals, kings, princes, dukes, merchants, and academics from Bologna and across Europe and was one of her city’s main celebrities, the Sirani studio a main attraction for its visitors. Notable works are 13 public altar-pieces, her version of Judith and Holofernes (to be contrasted with Gentileschi’s), St. Anthony of Padua (1662), and the marvelous Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664). Elisabetta never married and her unexpected and therefore “mysterious” passing at the early age of 27, over which her maidservant was put to trial, gave rise to many bizarre theories that cemented her legacy as an enigmatic talent. But whether it was unrequited lust and desperation for a husband that killed Elisabetta (as was rumored) or a ruptured peptic ulcer, she was mourned in death by as many who fêted her in life. 

Clara Peeters (ca. 1594, fl. 1607-1621)

Had a wonderful way of rendering the glint of gold and glass. There is a visual and physical richness to her subjects (like authentic but bizarre-looking Dutch pretzels), although after 1620 she went more monochromatic and thematically humble. She is said to have been a favorite of the wealthy. Here’s Artsy‘s take:

Clara Peeters is one of the few known female Flemish artists of the 17th century, and one of the only to have specialized in still lifes. Little is known about her early life, but her earliest dated oil paintings are from her teenage years. Peeters’ early paintings featured valuable objects like goblets, coins, and exotic flowers, while later works included fruits, nuts, and confections. Peeters is also credited for introducing the “Breakfast Piece”—a still life showing the ingredients of a simple, everyday meal—into the Dutch painting tradition. These were typically arranged on narrow ledges and viewed from low vantage pints, against dark backgrounds. She was hailed for her ability to evoke a human presence through cut fruit, or partially eaten food. On occasion, she captured self-portraits on objects with reflective surfaces within her paintings.

Four of Peeters’ early works were brought to the Prado in the 1620s from the Spanish royal collection. Auction prices hovering around 2.9 million in recent years.

Left: Elisabetta Sirani’s Self-Portrait as Allegory of Painting (1658), Pushkin Museum of Moscow. Right: Clara Peeters’ Vanitas (1610). Both via WikiMedia Commons, edited in Trigraphy.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Amended, at the Brooklyn Museum

Fondly dubbed “a sleeper hit” by the Met’s social media manager, Kimberly DrewGeorgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern examines O’Keeffe the artist through O’Keeffe the person––and vice versa. The exhibition, which leaves the Brooklyn Museum July 23, places items from the painter’s wardrobe alongside pieces spanning her eighty-year career in arguing for the centrality of style to O’Keeffe’s identity. This is the first time her art and garments are on display together, with the purpose of portraying just how monumental a cultural figure O’Keeffe was. Androgynous pantsuits, bandannas, black hats, Spanish capes, loose pants, and long Kimono wrap dresses help to “proclaim” O’Keeffe’s singularity and independence from traditional social roles. This distinct aura of “otherness” is deemed the root of her fame. One of America’s first celebrity artists, O’Keeffe straddled a reputation for bold sensual themes––as nurtured by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz––with an austere temperament and love of nature. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern subtly decentralizes the unintended erotic undercurrent to her work by elevating her avant-garde, if sober, taste in clothes. It, too, the curators seem to say, can be regarded as subversive: by choosing comfort over corsetry, O’Keeffe inaugurated a new definition of elegance for a new era.


Georgia O’Keeffe, photographed by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, circa 1920-22. Details available here. Copyright belongs to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2017.

Yet although it was mounted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the exhibition’s frame is foremost aesthetic. O’Keeffe might have been honored with a place setting at Judy Chicago‘s The Dinner Party (1974–79), which resides in the Sackler wing, but her creative elan was more a matter of simple partiality than ideological radicalism. O’Keeffe wanted her distinction as an artist to be removed from her sex. She rejected the gendered, Freudian construal of her work, telling Stieglitz and the critic Paul Rosenfeld, “You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t” (emphasis added). In 1976, she notoriously refused the request of Professors Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin* to participate in Women Artists: 1550 to 1950, a gender-based show that they were orchestrating at LACMA, because, in her words, she was not the best woman painter but “one of the best painters,” period. This affair and Nochlin’s subsequent decision to leave her in the exhibition anyway brings us to the still extant debate over whether feminism advocates equality or separation, but that is for another occasion and perhaps a different site. With or without progressive politics, O’Keeffe merits a contemporary rehashing. 2010 was when she last had a retrospective in the United States (not counting shows as her eponymous museum and those around the globe), and while that signals a track record far better than most, she is the most expensive female artist and, in the opinion of TimeOut, one of the most famous artists of all time (Frida Kahlo being the only other woman to make the cut). O’Keeffe’s brand of modernism might have been most realized through her paintings, but her edgy sophistication in attire––to be popularized by Comme de Garçons and Helmut Lang––is an unsung vehicle for its influence. After hosting O’Keeffe’s first non-commercial show in 1927, nearly a century later the Brooklyn Museum finally gives her clothes their dues.

Above: photographs of O’Keeffe’s clothing from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to Gavin Ashworth, 2017.

Sadly, not quite in the smooth, steady fashion of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Stanford University’s Wanda Corn, a prominent art historian who last tackled Gertrude Stein, organized the exhibition along with Lisa Small, the museum’s curator of European Painting and Sculpture. Corn deserves much praise for her thorough academic analysis of O’Keeffe, which manifests wholly in the accompanying catalogue, but its practical execution has its flaws. 

The exhibition reviews O’Keeffe’s studies, career trajectory, and relationships––romantic, platonic, and otherwise. It takes us from her days at girls boarding schools to her stints at several art colleges to her tenure as a teacher in Texas to her New York years with Stieglitz to her time in New Mexico and the Southwest. One enters the show through a narrow parlor presenting memorabilia from O’Keeffe’s adolescence and several shockingly beautiful early works. This is followed by a series of logistically challenged rooms that struggle to assimilate the large installations at their respective centers. At the heart of the chambers are wide, rectangular stages supporting headless mannequins draped in O’Keeffe’s garb. When the galleries fill up, these platforms can be highly obstructive, compromising visitor circulation by hampering the movements of those orbiting the surrounding walls. This issue is compounded by the haphazard positioning of busts of O’Keeffe and other sculptures in the same areas. That said, the clothing arrangements prevail over poor foot traffic owing to the magnetism of O’Keeffe’s sharp sartorial impulses. Though the threads might be dismissed by some as modest and plain, the attentive observer will find himself captivated by their individuality. Despite the provided descriptions being quite minimal, one gets the impression that each piece had its own special meaning to O’Keeffe (for example, the much-noted “OK” pin from Alexander Calder, a beloved custom brooch gifted to her in 1938). One can visualize her surveying blouses at antique stores, designing coats for a tailor to make, and sewing outfits herself in the same diligent manner that she painted. O’Keeffe favored apparel that exudes asceticism with panache. Every item, shoes and scarves included, feels exquisitely personal and uniquely “her,” much like the contents of closets belonging to Diana Vreeland or the less renowned but equally dapper Sara Berman. As Roberta Smith writes at the NY Times, O’Keeffe was just as much an archivist as anything else; she meticulously preserved her costumes for future generations, therein according them import.

Remedying any damage dealt to public opinion by the clumsy configuration of the clothes are a hundred odd photographs of O’Keeffe from the likes of Stieglitz, one of the medium’s notable grand-pères, and other industry pros: Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Yousuf Karsh, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, etc. These works animate the garments for viewers by putting O’Keeffe in them. The prints are mostly small scale, or roughly 4.5 by 3.5 inches each, a petite size that suits the drawing power of their subject. O’Keeffe is a wonderously confident and often theatric poser, with a star quality that generates a rapport between her and the audience, absorbing the role of picture-taker as she pulls viewers inside the space. She never fails to adopt graphically striking stances, carving out miniature “landscapes” where her body meets the background planes.

Above: photographs of O’Keeffe by Todd Webb, Bruce Weber, and Ansel Adams. Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to the Brooklyn Museum and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2017.

Even as her features grew ever more masculine with age, there was always a delicacy to O’Keeffe’s proportions. Despite the fact that they are not self-portraits in the usual sense, the photographs of O’Keeffe evince a balance of softness with aggression that is mirrored by her paintings, several of which hang beside them. But it is not only a tone of strength and grace that these works share. There is an uncanny resemblance between the forms of O’Keeffe’s physiognomy and those that adorn her canvases. Everyone knows couples that could be mistaken for siblings or people who twin with their dogs. Applying such anecdotes to the realm of art is perhaps overzealous, considering that obviously an artist’s oeuvre will reflect her being. But I will err on the side of redundancy here because I think in O’Keeffe’s case the parallels are particularly fascinating. The angles of her face, hands, and costumes that are so conspicuous in the photographs can be seen again and again in the petals of her forget-me-nots and in the cracks of her animal skulls. Thus, more than looking at her clothing, encountering O’Keeffe in the world confirms the richness of her artistry. She is a gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s term for a piece in full or an “all-encompassing art form.” O’Keeffe is more than a sum of her parts; she is a synthesis of reality, photographic illusion, and tangible craft. I will revert again to 19th Century German: she achieves “gestalt.”

Above: a photograph of O’Keeffe by Alfred Steiglitz; two paintings by O’Keeffe, Clam and Mussel (1956) and Line and Curve (1927). Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the National Gallery of Art, 2017.

As if with an acute self-awareness, O’Keeffe charms the camera into doing her bidding rather than the other way around. She alone controls the images, most of which were shot in Santa Fe, her primary place of residence from 1929 and onwards. It is an habitat where O’Keeffe found artistic renewal and refuge from various crises, her houses near Abiquiu and at Ghost Ranch serving as the kind of private creative quarters Virginia Woolf prescribed in A Room of One’s Own. Her relocation from New York to the Southwest is heavily explored in the show. Not unexpectedly, the change of environment precipitated shifts in O’Keeffe’s art and dress as she embraced hills, mountains, and blue jeans. She also hosted like-minded migrants such as Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg (as well as, Charles and Anne Lindbergh). It was at her Abiquiu property which she restored and converted to a studio, that, in 1977, O’Keeffe received Perry Miller Adato, who filmed the artist and her assistant for a PBS documentary. Some of Adato’s footage is projected onto a screen in one of the exhibition’s final corridors, showing an elderly but sanguine O’Keeffe in her element. Communicating with the same gentle intimacy that she brought to the photographs, O’Keeffe discusses her life and work, delivering a combination of wit and wisdom that makes the tape worth watching. (You can find it here).

Pilgrims young and old continue to journey to New Mexico in search of the very same serenity O’Keeffe discovered when she first travelled to Taos with her friend Rebecca Strand. Her eponymous Santa Fe museum has been attended by almost 3 million people since its opening in 1997, which is half the number of annual visitors to the Met but a remarkable statistic all the same. In augmenting the scope of O’Keeffe’s artistry, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern will surely add more devotees to this list.

*of “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” acclaim.

Dialogues: Richard Serra and Charlotte Salomon

Above: on top, Salomon’s Self Portrait (1940) at the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; copyright belongs to the Charlotte Salomon Foundation 2017. On bottom, Serra’s Inside Out (2013) at Gagosian Gallery; copyright belongs to Richard Serra 2017, photo by Lorenz Kienzle. Via Artsy, edited in Trigraphy.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the future and what it is I’d like to do with my life. In the process of making these considerations, a very natural and rather banal sense of impending doom has clawed its way into my conscience. This perception is not directly related to the political climate, though many in the art world and otherwise have been furiously invoking it at every turn to explain their surging anxiety. Rather, it correlates more closely with my upcoming graduation from high school. A typical knee-jerk reaction that people employ when experiencing this strain of consternation and fear is to dive back into their pasts. However, my retreat from reality in this vein is not total; it includes a fusion of something I’ve contemplated since childhood and something I’ve only recently discovered.

When I was little, I used to sit on the floor outside my kitchen and stare at a book (or more accurately, study its spine)—a catalogue of Charlotte Salomon‘s magnum opus Life ? or Theater ? (1941-1943). Now visible from my bedroom, Life ? or Theater ? chronicles the story of Salomon, a German-Jewish artist born to a wealthy Berlin household whose mother committed suicide when she was nine. Over the 769 individual pages that compose her Singspiel, or song-play, she explores themes such as death, romance, and family, touching on art’s lasting significance in the shadow of Hitler’s viciously xenophobic Third Reich. Intended to be a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work” in the tradition of Wagner, Life ? or Theater ? is painful, personal, and morbid. The pieces and their textual overlays are done in gouache , with haunting results: Salomon’s warm colors and saturated tones create a fragility and an intimacy reminiscent of Chagall and Ensor (even Maira Kalman), yet her narratorial captions ground the works in drama and fantasy. Upon actually opening up and perusing the tome, I was mesmerized by its ethereal, dreamlike feel, a quality I would later be reminded of in Munch. Letting her thoughts wander freely, Salomon traipses through past and present, portraying the Weimar bourgeois with a loving amusement and woeful regret that sticks out in one’s memory. (more…)

The Originals: Michaelina Wautier and Artemisia Gentileschi

Before Vigee Le Brun and Mary Cassatt, before Frida Kahlo and Helen Frankenthaler, before Georgia O’Keefe and Julie Mehretu, before Elizabeth Murray, Marlene DumasAlice Neel, or Njideka Akunyili Crosby, were female painters of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. This post inaugurates a series of short biographies that will examine their lives and work.

Michaelina Wautier (1617–1689)

Wautier was from the Southern Netherlands and active in Brussels. She painted portraits, historical scenes, still-lifes, and everyday tableaus (30 have been credited to her), a departure from the oeuvre of her woman peers, who primarily made studies of flower compositions. Wautier sold four of these paintings to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who also specially commissioned several works. Her well-known self-portrait was misattributed to Italian Artemisia Gentileschi (described below) in the 1905 book Women Painters of the World, but the error was later corrected. Another recognizable piece of Wautier’s is The Triumph of Bacchus (1650), which can be found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Her first ever solo exhibition will take place at Rubens House in Antwerp. According to ArtNet News, the survey is slated for 2018 and will include an overview of the many genres in which she practiced. Wautier’s 1654 painting of a Jesuit missionary was recently sold at auction for around $400,000.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

Much more famous than Wautier and a rare talent. Hyperallergic did a good write-up. Here’s Artsy‘s characterization:

A legendary figure and one of the first female artists to pursue a career on the same terms as men, Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s work is often overshadowed by the conflicting narratives that surround her, especially her rape by a colleague of her father at the age of 17 and the notorious trial that followed. Like her father, Orazio, with whom she trained, Gentileschi painted in the style of Caravaggio, illuminating her subjects with powerful stage lighting to heighten effects of emotional drama. Her figures were mostly heroic women drawn from history, mythology, and religious subject matter, including Cleopatra, Lucretia, and Mary Magdalene, often depicted nude and eroticized. Gentileschi’s most famous work, Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1614–20), is notable for its brutality combined with a masterful rendering of flesh tones and fabrics.

Also noteworthy: Gentileschi was the first of her sex to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. And despite the fact that the mark of her rapist long obscured Gentileschi’s achievements, she is today considered an important figure in the canon of women artists. Patronized by the Medicis, tribute is also paid to her in Judy Chicago’s feminist pantheon, The Dinner Party (1974-79), which is permanently installed at the Brooklyn Museum.

Left: Michaelina Wautier’s Self-portrait with easel (1640-1649). Right: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-1639). Both via WikiMedia Commons, edited in Trigraphy.

Artist of the Month: Cecily Brown

Artist of the Month (January)

Cecily Brown
Untitled (The Beautiful and the Damned) (2013), photo by Rob McKeever, copyright Gagosian Gallery 2016, via Artsy.

Cecily Brown is a contemporary painter who makes large, exuberant canvasses. A native of London, she is currently based in New York City. Her work is gestural, immediate, and bold; in the above piece (9 x 14 ft), there are moments where it feels as if she’s slashing the page. They are also very musical: like a symphony conductor, Brown seems to command her colors into motion as lively tableaus unfold. Recalling those of her stylistic ancestors—Claude Monet, Willem de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell—Brown’s chaotic forms blend into a single whole, at least from a distance. Up close, however, the viewer can appreciate the beauty of the disjointed, intricate fragments composing each ensemble. I enjoy how exciting and fresh her paintings appear. She’s playing with shapes and images and ideas in her works that are familiar and quotidian to us: human anatomy, body language, nature, sex. Combining abstraction and figuration, Brown embeds these motifs within her pieces, hiding them inside amorphous masses.

Brown recently had a solo show at the Drawing Center in downtown Manhattan that was on through December 2016. According to the museum, Cecily Brown: Rehearsal was New York’s first institutional survey of her work and the first exhibition in general to concentrate specifically on her drawings (“The Ecstasy of Drawing” headlines a review by Hyperallergic). In 2015, she received praise from an early skeptic, NY Times critic Roberta Smith, for The English Garden, a gallery presentation at Maccarone. It featured smaller paintings than Brown usually offers, though her traditionally lighthearted approach to titles prevailed: “The Home of the Brave,” “First I go in, then I go out,” and “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” were among the selection. If, like me, you didn’t make it to either of these shows, nor past ones at Gagosian, I would suggest watching Brown’s Artist Project for the Met, in which she talks about Medieval sculptures and what contemporary artists can glean from them.

Brown is often grouped with other female painters who emerged in the Nineties such as Amy Sillman and Charline von Heyl. As a “star” of the New York art scene, she has also been compared to Philip Guston and Francis Bacon. Her art is so popular, it seems, that Brown now has an alleged copycat, California’s Sherrie Franssen (although the strange similarities between their works could just be a product of a shared enthusiasm for de Kooning). Furthermore, as per an excerpt from Artsy‘s bio of Brown, she is credited alongside individuals like John Currin “as a central figure in the resurgence of painting at the turn of the millennium.” But to learn more about her particular background and process, instead of seeing Brown exclusively in tandem with other artists, check out this video, in which she fills you in herself:


What are your thoughts on Cecily Brown? Comment below with anything that comes to mind.

Artist of the Month: Francisco de Goya

Artist of the Month (December)

Francisco de Goya


A Giant Seated in a Landscape, sometimes called “The Colossus” (by 1818), copyright belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2016. Not on display.

There is something dark and deeply disturbing about the work of Spanish Romanticist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Goya once said that he only had three teachers: nature, Velazquez, and Rembrandt. It is easy to see the penetrative, noirish tones of Rembrandt and the structural depth of Velazquez in his work, but nature? Take, for example, Goya’s Los Caprichos, a series of 80 aquatint and etching prints, and a set called The Disasters of War, considered by art historians “a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising.” They depict marginal elements of the human narrative: writhing bats and reptilian figures; skeletal, starving people plagued by famine; twisted interactions; bizarre romances; and eerie, mythic monsters. Yet to write these pieces off as dystopian and artificial is fallacious, for the Los Caprichos personas, however fantastical, seem intended as the physical manifestations of mankind’s spiritual demons and gory products of evil gone unabated. (more…)

Artist of the Month: Eva Hesse

Artist of the Month (November)

Eva Hesse
No title (1969-1970)Copyright belongs to the estate of Eva Hesse; courtesy of Hauser & Wirth (see here).

November is a month of struggling. We wake up from October’s slumber to a world cruel and cold. I was having trouble making art and I listened to Benedict Cumberbatch performing Sol LeWitt‘s profanity-ridden letter to Eva Hesse about what to do when this happens: just go for it, create. So I read up on Eva, elusive character that she is. There’s a lauded documentary about her, and if you like her work, you’re probably more “in the know” than not. It’s complex and confusing, centered on abstract concepts like sensuality and mortality in her manipulations of material, tangible things. I wanted to understand her to tap into that, myself. Her childhood suffering and tremendous trauma (see below) shaped all that she did. But Eva went beyond her pain. I wanted to use her strength as a roadmap for attempting transcendence, too. I have so much to pour in but often feel impotent, artistically blocked. I’ll share with you what I’ve found on Eva, what’s guided me this past week to finally do.

Here is her bio, by Artsy:

One of the first to work with synthetic materials like fiberglass, latex, and plastic, Eva Hesse is best-known for her innovative sculptures, dubbed Postminimalist for the time and style in which they were made. Reacting to the rigidity and uniformity of Minimalism, Hesse’s sculptural forms appear soft, slack, and uneven, conveying a human sensibility. A pioneering feminist artist, Hesse desired, in her own words, to “challenge the norms of beauty and order.” Hesse’s painful childhood—having fled Nazi Germany followed by her mother’s suicide—significantly impacted her artmaking, prompting close friend and art historian Lucy Lippard to describe Hesse’s work as a “materialization of her anxieties.” Hesse’s artistic engagement with her own psychology is apparent in her Spectre paintings, where she uses muted tones and a thick and gestural application of paint to create haunting pictures reminiscent of Munch.

The Art Story website has an equally excellent version, which includes a timeline and some of her best works.

Artist of the Month: Frederick Church

Artist of the Month (October)

Frederic Edwin Church
Copyright belongs to the Museum 2016.

Ah, the Hudson River School, capturing the literal nature of what it means to be one with the world from 1825 through 1870! I recently saw this Romantic (capital ‘R’) Church painting, as well as a whole host of others in the same tradition, under the bright, promising lights of the Met‘s American Wing, a rediscovered favorite. In all likelihood, you will not get an accurate sense of the breadth of Church’s masterpiece (it spans 10 feet)– nor that of his mentor Thomas Cole‘s equally stunning and beloved work, View from Mount Holyoke– from the above photo. It deserves a trip to the Museum, a pilgrimage of sorts. But why Church to begin with? Who was he? What do we know about him besides the fact that he made really large and intricate pieces? (more…)

Artist of the Month: Sally Mann

Artist of the Month (September)

Sally Mann
Copyright unknown (appropriated from Artsy, 2016).

I know what you’re thinking. Another MolaPola feature on a black-and-white photographer whose heyday was two decades ago. The thing is, I’m enamored with Sally Mann’s work. I couldn’t put off covering it, especially now, when the youthful, brooding, exciting, and sinister qualities of her pieces are actualized in my own life as summer fades to fall. There is so much to love about how Mann captures perfectly the prolonged complexity of female adolescence. Her monochromatic vignettes of the pre-teen years– shadowy, mysterious, glowing, and ethereal (I could go on)– resonate with me even as I near adulthood. The work above has this carefree joy unique to ages eleven, twelve, and thirteen as the lighthearted, love-the-world insouciance evident in the photograph slowly devolves into the hard-edged cynicism and anxieties of high school and onwards. Even when I was younger, I was never truly happy-go-lucky, nonchalant, or easygoing. I was always an introvert, deeply troubled by what I saw around me, forever shy and reserved. I’m still that way. And Mann also embraces this character (see Ponder Heart and Katie and Painting); her work attests that there are more of us serious types out there than one tends to think. But I idolize the girl in Untitled. Never being “chill” myself, I have great respect for her ideals; her freedom and mellow sensibilities remind me of a favorite 1969 Pippi Longstocking film. It is hard today to echo her relaxed comportment; other burdens tug at me, requiring my attention. I strive to embody her airy grace. Welcome, September.

Here is Mann’s bio, courtesy of Artsy, for your enjoyment–

While photographs of poignant Southern landscapes and historic architecture earned Sally Mann initial accolades, it was her portraits of girls captured in the ephemeral moment between childhood innocence and womanly sophistication that solidified her reputation as provocateur. At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988) emerged out of intimate, black-and-white photographs of her own young children, often nude, going about their daily lives—eating, sleeping, and playing. Besides eliciting controversy over her sexually charged images of children, Mann is noted for using large-format cameras—sometimes with damaged lenses that admit light leaks and imperfections—to reveal the uncanny beauty in her subjects, be they decomposing corpses, Civil War battlefields, or her own family. More recently, she has revisited the 19th-century process of wet collodion on glass plates, which captures fine details, but requires exposing and developing the film within 15 minutes. Limited control over the process leads to what Mann describes as “happy accidents” in her work.

Here are some lovely articles about Mann. Plus, read about these 20 young female artists pushing figurative painting forward.

Artist of the Month: Robert Mapplethorpe

Artist of the Month (August)

Robert Mapplethorpe


Patty Smith (1975), from the Whitney Museum of American Art and now featured in the show Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection. Copyright belongs to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 2016.

According to the wall text besides the above diptych by Mapplethorpe of his longtime friend, muse, and onetime lover, Patty Smith

… [These photographs are of] a moment shortly before the two artists rose from relative obscurity and poverty to international acclaim, a period documented in Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids. The image on the right served as the cover of Horses, her debut album. Recalling the shoot, Smith has said, “The only rule we had was, Robert told me if I wore a white shirt, not to wear a dirty one… I got my favorite ribbon and my favorite jacket, and he took about twelve pictures. By the eighth one, he said, ‘I got it.’”

I spent some time with the work not only because I was aware that Mapplethorpe is having a moment (in addition to being heavily represented in the Whitney show, he is also the subject of concurrent retrospectives at the Getty and the LACMA this summer), but because I was drawn to the honesty of his monochromatic photograph. It recalls the recent Intimisms show at James Cohan Gallery by inviting the viewer into Mapplethorpe and Smith’s private orbit. He captured a delicate androgyny, a combination of confidence and vulnerability, that betrays their closeness. I also found his experimentation with proportions compelling. On the left side of the image, Smith is at the bottom, her figure cut off almost awkwardly. The camera follows the diagonal of a triangular shadow upwards so that on the right, she is front and center, rendering each half surprisingly balanced.

The organic sensuality of Mapplethorpe’s pieces never ceases to wonder me. Even the most artificially arranged of his photographs, such as Ken Moody (1984), seem to be instinctively carnal but subliminally human: they are natural, feeling, and passionately corporeal. This is even the case with pictures of plants.

Here is his bio, courtesy of Artsy (please excuse the redundancy)–

In the 1970s, Robert Mapplethorpe and musician, poet, and artist Patti Smith lived together in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel where he started shooting Polaroids to use in his collages. Drawn to photography, Mapplethorpe got a Hasselblad medium-format camera and began taking pictures of his friends and acquaintances—artists, musicians, socialites, pornographic film stars, and members of the gay S & M underground. Despite his shocking content, Mapplethorpe was a formalist, interested in composition, color, texture, balance, and, most of all, beauty. In the 1980s, he concentrated on studio photography, specifically nudes, flowers, and formal portraits that are considerably more refined than his earlier work. After Mapplethorpe died from an AIDS-related illness, his work precipitated national controversy when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Human Interest finishes in February of 2017. If you are able to get there, I highly recommend attending.

And for more Mapplethorpe, check out Artsy’s resource page on the artist, available here.