Artists

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 female peers, who primarily made studies of flower compositions. Wautier sold four of these to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who also 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. 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. Her 1654 painting of a Jesuit missionary was recently sold at auction for around $400,000.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

Much more famous than Wautier. 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
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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

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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
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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
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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
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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

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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, even with regard to 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.

Artist of the Month: Alice Neel

Artist of the Month (July)

Alice Neel
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Detail from Andy Warhol (1970), 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 Artist and the Artist’s Estate 2016.

I recently saw the above portrait of Andy Warhol by Neel at the Whitney and felt overwhelmed and inspired. Alice Neel is renowned for her raw, minimalistic works that express the essence of her subjects’ characters in an intimate and truthful fashion. Like her contemporary (albeit of another medium) Diane Arbus, Neel seems to have gotten otherwise private individuals to open up to her and in the process, confront themselves and their inherent humanity through her depictions of them. At least that’s certainly the case in this particular piece, as best encapsulated or indicated by the accompanying wall text–

Dubbed by an art critic a “collector of souls,” Alice Neel portrayed an extraordinary variety of sitters, from the anonymous to the highly recognizable, as in this portrait of the renowned Pop artist Andy Warhol. Here, Neel captures the vulnerability of an artist whose work and public persona were famous for their cool detachment. When in public, Warhol typically cloaked himself in a variety of guises—wigs, makeup, sunglasses, and a practiced air of disinterestedness. He once remarked, “Nudity is a threat to my existence.” Neel painted the Pop artist provocateur with his eyes closed and shirt removed, exposing his pale, scarred torso and the supportive corset he was forced to wear after being shot in 1968 by Valerie Solanas, a former member of his studio entourage. The canvas is limited to cool hues, such as a swatch of light blue surrounding Warhol’s head and upper body, whose fragile, androgynous contours are outlined in Neel’s signature aquamarine pigment. The background is spare, with only the outline of a couch, thereby emphasizing what she described as the picture’s “hypersensitive economy.” Depicting Warhol as isolated, wounded, and withdrawn, Neel shows us an unexpected, and perhaps more profound, side of her fellow artist.

So many aspects of that description and the work itself resonated with me, specifically the focus on Andy’s physical suffering and the near sense of resignation and acceptance that is visible across his face and being; it is part of what renders her study intensely poignant and memorable.

Another one of Neel’s more famous paintings is this sensational piece, which is prominently featured in the Met Breuer’s oft-referenced UnfinishedI keep promising a review, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to get to that shortly. For now, check this out.

And while I’m at it, below you’ll find Neel’s short bio, courtesy of Artsy.

Alice Neel, one of the great portraitists of the 20th century, made starkly honest paintings of relatives, lovers, friends, and neighbors. A successor to the expressionism of Chaim Soutine, Edward Munch, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Neel used distorted drawing and invented color to reveal the character beneath each sitter’s physical appearance. Neel worked in obscurity for most of her career, painting a range of locals from salesmen to the homeless, but during the last two decades of her life, she finally gained recognition, receiving many honors and awards. Her later paintings include portraits of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol (as we just discussed) and Marisol, as well notable people such as Mayor Ed Koch and Bella Abzug.

For more on Neel, this article is another excellent start, and I would also recommend watching a documentary about her, created posthumously by a relative and which can be found here.

Artist of the Month: Kay Sage

Artist of the Month (June)

Kay Sage

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Tomorrow is Never (1955), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Copyright Artists Rights Society (ARS) of New York 2016.

Bio of Sage (by Alexis Corral in this Artsy article about obscure female Surrealists) below:

The evocative Surrealism of Kay Sage—which recalls Giorgio de Chirico’s shadowy landscapes and stark buildings, and her husband Yves Tanguy’s spheric forms in desolate spaces—was tremendously influential in the United States in the 1930s. Sage spent her childhood in Europe and New York, and later integrated herself into the Parisian Surrealist boys club, where she met Tanguy in 1939. Once she developed her mature style, featuring strong architectural forms and precise horizon lines, Sage routinely exhibited in New York and Europe throughout the 1940s and ’50s. She tragically began losing her eyesight in the mid-1950s, but went on to write four volumes of poetry and the beginnings of a memoir.

I recently saw Tomorrow is Never in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Met. The profound and tragic beauty of the work deeply resonated with me and spurred me to discover more about Sage. According to the wall text, she painted this work after a five-month hiatus following the sudden death of her husband and it symbolizes the poignant sense of entrapment and dislocation experienced by Sage prior to her 1963 suicide. Though the piece has a somber, graying tone, it feels transcendental, calm; the stillness is palpable. The painting’s moroseness renders Tomorrow is Never ethereal, transcendental, and utterly memorable. Despite the impending summer season, with light and joy abound, I thought referencing Sage would help anchor my own inner thoughts and appreciation for her art in tangibility.