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Diebenkorn

Diebenkorn --Portrait by Rose Mandel 1956

Diebenkorn –Portrait by Rose Mandel 1956

My wife and I are standing in San Francisco’s de Young Museum about to enter an art exhibit. The man looking out at us from the short film we are watching is Richard Diebenkorn. I want you to think of Salvadore Dali, his extravagance, the wild mustache, the publicity seeking; now think of Dali’s exact opposite. That man is Richard Diebenkorn. He is tall, lanky, well-spoken in a quiet voice, a voice that is somewhat shy. He is in his studio dressed in a button down shirt and corduroy slacks. He is wary of the fixed gaze of the camera. His voice often pauses as he carefully chooses his words. There is sometimes a hint of a shy smile. He is a quiet man. A man who does not desire the public eye, a man of regular habits who seeks his adventure with each painting he makes. And there is one other thing to mention. Despite the lack of showmanship or self aggrandizement he is one of the premier American painters of the second half of the twentieth century. A painter whose works evoke the light and spaces of California. He is an artist who remained true to his vision regardless of where it took him.

Beside us, printed on the wall, is the following note found among his papers after his death:

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
9. Tolerate chaos.
10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Sad to say, it is almost an accident that we are there at all and I cringe to think we might have missed such a wonderful presentation of this artists early work.

Our visit to the de Young was something of a consolation prize. We’d planned on visiting The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but found it was closed for renovation. Okay, we thought, the de Young has an excellent collection of American Art, so why not have a look at some of the iconic paintings from American art history. It was a vague plan but it was a plan. There was, of course, that Diebenkorn exhibit going on, we’d read about that, but it covered his time in Berkeley and ended before the great Ocean Park paintings he made in Santa Monica. I was inclined to take a pass. Deb was inclined to see it. We bought tickets and went in.

Richard Diebenkorn was artistically restless and was always very much his own man. He’d briefly tried New York in the 1940’s where he was heavily influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, but he soon fled west. “If you’re there,” he said, “you get all involved in the moment, in the issues that are always present but don’t really mean all that much. I like having had to rely on my own resources, although it seemed pretty desolate occasionally.”

Beginning as a committed Abstract Expressionist, the evolution of Diebenkorn’s work during the Berkeley years unfolds as one passes through the exhibition.

I find a representational element in the paintings of the 1950’s after the pure abstraction of the late 1940’s, as if the essence of the world around him is now being distilled for the canvas. “All paintings,” Diebenkorn said, “start out of a mood, out of a relationship with things or people, out of a complete visual impression.” The California light is there, the browns of the California landscape, and the pastel blues of the sky. In a similar way, I find an abstract element in even his much more representational work of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Some critics thought Diebenkorn’s work was erratic, some called him a ‘traitor’ to Abstract Expressionism, and some simply dismissed him as no longer of being of interest. Diebenkorn had a much calmer view of the matter. “Abstract,” he said, “literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract… a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.” Timothy Burgard, the curator of the de Young, believes that Diebenkorn’s paintings always hovered between abstraction and depiction, a quality he called ‘oscillation’ and that he believes can be seen throughout the work in the exhibition. Diebenkorn has said that he turned his back on abstract painting because it became too easy for him. He needed the constraints that representation placed on him as something to struggle against.

After seeing the paintings for myself, I prefer to take Diebenkorn’s view of his evolution. “I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another. You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it.”

It is at this point in Diebenkorn’s career, 1966, that the exhibition at the de Young ends. In addition to the many paintings there are figure drawings. Diebenkorn worked from the live model for virtually his whole career, though he mainly saw it as a form of training. There are also various serigraphs and prints. It is wonderful work. For most artists it would have made a grand career. When Deb came out of the exhibition she was so moved by what she had seen she simply went off to take some time for reflection.

“I was never throwing things away when I switched from one way of painting to another. You can see a continuum from representation to abstraction, although I must say it never felt like a smooth transition while I was in the middle of it.”

Though I meant to write only about this particular experience at the de Young Museum, I find it impossible to neglect what came next for this artist. The exhibition may end with the year 1966, but Diebenkorn’s work most certainly did not. In that year he and his wife, Phyllis, moved from San Francisco so he could take up a teaching position at UCLA. For the next twenty-five years he returned to nonrepresentational art, painting hundreds of abstractions, many of which comprise the sublime geometry of the “Ocean Park” series, so named because he maintained a studio for many years in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica. After the years away from pure abstract painting his return is that of an artist of consummate mastery. A comparison of “Sausalito #3” painted in all its frantic energy in 1948 with the equally abstract “Ocean Park #129” and its suppressed energy beneath an outward calm speaks volumes about the distance traveled by this great painter.

And finally, in the very last years of his life,

Untitled #7 1991

Untitled #7 1991

The New York Times wrote upon his death in 1993, “From the beginning of his career, in the late 1940’s, he won admirers and exhibited widely. But the distance, both physical and psychological, that he maintained from New York tended to put him out of step with art-world fashion, and it caused either consternation or indifference in many critics. When Abstract Expressionism was ascendant in New York in the 1950’s, Mr. Diebenkorn switched from abstraction to figuration. When Pop Art made figuration fashionable in the 1960’s, he switched back to abstraction.”

Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But I see a different story playing out. I see a restless quest by a quiet man for a purity of expression that few us even know exists. The Ocean Park paintings are the magnificent culmination of this quest begun so many years before. Perhaps it is best to give Mr. Diebenkorn himself the last words:

“If what a person makes is completely and profoundly right according to his lights then this work contains the whole man. A work which falls short of this content, is only of passing value and lends itself to arbitrariness and fragmentation.”

For an audio interview with Richard Diebenkorn, visit:  Diebenkorn Interview

It is a long interview and it gets off to a slow (boring) start but becomes very interesting as Diebenkorn explains his life and work in his own words. He was a precise and articulate man who was quite self aware. It’s worth the listening.

Other quotes from Richard Diebenkorn on the artistic process:

I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying’ something. What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.

I came to mistrust my desire to explode the picture and supercharge it in some way… what is more important is a feeling of strength in reserve – tension beneath calm.

When I am halfway there with a painting, it can occasionally be thrilling… But it happens very rarely; usually it’s agony… I go to great pains to mask the agony. But the struggle is there. It’s the invisible enemy.

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Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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New York Times Magazine Photographs Exhibition

 

 

mcginley-mia-1

Ryan McGinley– MIA

 

“New York Times Photographs,” opened at The Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN on November 28, 2014 and runs through March 22, 2015. A shorter version of this article appeared as the cover story in The Chattanooga Pulse, December 4, 2014.

“New York Times Magazine Photographs”, appearing at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga,  engages the viewer with images of startling power and originality. Curated by New York Times photo editor Kathy Ryan and organized by Aperture Foundation’s Lesley A. Martin, this exhibition explores work published by the magazine during the last fifteen years.  Over 100 photos taken by 35 photographers are organized into thirteen sections that reveal the surprising range of creative expression possible with the camera. The finest photographers from around the world explore subjects as diverse as the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, the world of high fashion, the Olympics, the war in Iraq, and celebrity portraiture. Their photo-essays invariably display the New York Times Magazine’s willingness to push beyond convention and seek a fresh viewpoint.

“To me, the process where a photographer visualizes a subject and the creative way a painter reimagines a subject just aren’t all that different. I don’t see them as two separate things.”

–Hunter Museum chief curator, Nandini Makrandi. 

Thanks to the creativity of the photographers, the camera’s expressive potential is readily apparent. However, if the photography of these modern masters is individual in its vision, photojournalism itself is a corporate process. A unique feature of this exhibition is the way it documents how the photo-essays seen in the Magazine come into being, how photographers are chosen for assignments, and how, through careful selection and thoughtful presentation, a visual story is honed by the Magazine editors.  We see not only published photos, but also the many that did not make the editorial cut. Tearsheets show how the photos that ran in the Magazine actually looked in print.  As Nandini Makrandi points out, “Normally those editorial decisions are hidden, but in this exhibit they are brought out for the viewer’s consideration.”

An examination of some of the photographs in the exhibition will serve to illustrate how the willingness of the Magazine’s editor to take chances often results in images that are unforgettable.

For over forty years, the legendary Brazilian photographer and environmentalist, Sebastiao Salgado, has documented the lives of people all over the world with powerful black and white images.  In 1991, with the U.S. and its allies about to invade Kuwait, he anticipated events, calling Kathy Ryan the day the war began to ask if he could document the environmental devastation he was sure would occur. Hurrying to the Mideast, he waited on the Kuwaiti border, as the New York Times frantically pressed authorities to allow him access to the oil fields.  Days later he witnessed an inferno—over 100 oil wells in flames and workers struggling heroically to stem the disaster.

Salgado--Kuwaiti Inferno (cover)

Salgado–Kuwaiti Inferno (cover) 1991

Petrole Kuwait p24-25

Salgado–Kuwaiti Inferno 1991

Salgado’s black and white photos are elemental in their grim power, expressing the desperate struggle of exhausted men taming the damaged wells. The classical visual compositions stand in striking juxtaposition with the battle being waged against the forces of chaos. Salgado presents us with a visual depiction of the ancient epic of human struggle against a hostile world, but sadly, he depicts a world made hostile by the madness of humans. It is a current event the photographer has raised to mythic status.

The photo-essay exploring and explaining current events has been a staple of the genre from its inception. The New York Times Magazine excels in this such long form reportage. For instance, in 2007 the magazine sent photographer Lynsey Addario and writer Elizabeth Rubin to the Afghanistan, embedded with the U.S. Army’s Battle Company of the 173 Airborne Brigade. The Battle Company soon became engaged in a 6 day mission to control Korengal Valley before the onset of winter.

Throughout the mission, which became a running battle with the Taliban, these courageous journalists documented the destruction and suffering they witnessed. Addario photographed these grim and desperate moments in color and at close range, giving her images the look of snapshots. It’s a quality that conveys a sense of  intimacy and immediacy–the sense that events are unfolding in real lives even as we read. Such an unblinking look at the specific moment raises her work toward the universal. These two veteran journalists, a writer and photographer, address in their work the humanity of all the participants: the warriors who fight and die as well as the civilians who suffer beside them.

In 1997, for a very different project, “Assignment: Times Square”, the magazine assembled a roster of 16 photographers, each of who could bring a very different eye and sensibility to the story. At that time, the Times Square neighborhood was on the edge of a complete transformation from its seedy past, and the editors wanted to capture a sense of the storied place. The resulting photo shoot produced an astonishing variety of images: city streets, buildings, portraits, and genre scenes.  Swedish photographer Lars Tunbjork’s photo of the buildings at the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street is timeless. “Forty-Second Street at the time was a strange place,” writes Tunbjork, “with all the abandoned cinemas and porno palaces—like a big empty theater set. I took this picture on a sunny Sunday. I love sunny Sundays in New York; the air is clean, and the light is so crisp and hard. I thought of the paintings of Piet Mondrian when I saw these buildings and the strong colors.”

Lars Tunbjörk-- "42nd Street and Eighth Avenue", published May 18, 1997
Lars Tunbjörk– “42nd Street and Eighth Avenue”, published May 18, 1997

In addition to giving considerable creative control to its photographers, the New York Times Magazine’s Kathy Ryan also likes to do ‘cross-over’ assignments, asking photographers known for their deft handling of one subject to photograph something different. An example is shown in the assignment given to Roger Ballen.  Known for his dramatic and disturbing surreal images, Kathy Ryan chose him as a photographer for a fashion shoot. Ballen worked with actress Selma Blair to produce, “The Selma Blair Witch Project: Fall’s Dark Silhouette has a Way of Creeping Up on You.”  The photograph, “Resemblance”, at once creepy and funny, has Blair, dressed in designer clothing, inhabiting an image both enigmatic and psychologically charged. It is an revealing rumination on the nature of fashion. Stripped of its special environment of runways, supermodels, and fashion journalists, the designer clothes wilt and become rather ordinary in the utterly bizarre settings that Ballen conjures up.  Not surprisingly, Ballen noted, “I won an award for that fashion shoot but no one has asked me to do another one.”

Roger Ballen, Actress Selma Blair. From “The Selma Blair Witch Project-- Fall’s Dark Silhouettes Have a Way of Creeping Up on You,” 2005

Roger Ballen, Actress Selma Blair. From “The Selma Blair Witch Project– Fall’s Dark Silhouettes Have a Way of Creeping Up on You,” 2005

In yet another example of the Magazine’s creative thinking, assignments sometimes go to artists who are not photographers. Artist Chuck Close’s photos appear in ‘Assignment: Times Square’ and Jeff Koons, a sculptor, worked with actress Gretchen Mol to recreate Bettie Page images from the 1940s and 50s in which sexual fetish imagery is presented in vivid color and filtered through Koons’s tongue-in-cheek humor.

bigpaige

Jeff Koons–

 “When you’re looking at a Jeff Koons photograph,” says Nandini Makrandi, “you’re not necessarily looking for him to be a technically excellent photographer. The interest is in how he translates the vision he is known for into the medium of photography? Is his puckish sensibility and his sense of humor present in his images?” Koons presents the viewer with photographs in which eroticism blends into absurdity. The eye is caught by the garish color and provacative poses, only to have the response end in bemused laughter.

Why not send a veteran war photographer to photograph the Oscar-worthy actors one year? Or commission a gallery of Olympians by an artist with a very personal iconography, rather than by a sports photographer?

–New York Times Magazine photo editor, Kathy Ryan

Paolo Pelegrin’s work would hardly be called puckish.  The exhibition contains three photo-essays that Pelegrin has done for New York Times Magazine over the last fifteen years. We see his photography move from film to digital, but always his work has what Kathy Ryan has called “a poetic sensibility.” In his 2002 essay, “An Impossible Occupation,” he tells the story of a platoon of Israeli soldiers on duty in Palestinian territory. His 2004 photos in “How Did Darfur Happen?” explored a humanitarian crisis. “The Exodus” from 2009, documents the flight of Libyans across the border into Tunisia and displays his ability to deal with large events in terms that are both immediate and empathetic.

However, true to her inclination to offer photographer cross-over assignments, Ryan asked Pelegrin to photograph Hollywood celebrities for the magazine’s article on in the the yearly run up to the Oscars. Pelegrin’s images are not what a viewer has grown used to in such stories. They portray the famous in mundane moments. And taking it even farther, he often imposes jarring compositions on his images or skewed camera angles. They are visual devices that draw attention to the artifice of the celebrity life by isolating moments when artifice has failed. No words can explain this approach better than simply comparing the photos of Cate Blanchette by Pelegrin and Rincke Dijkstra. If Dijkstra’s image gives us a sense of  the fragility of the celebrity’s world, Pelegrin shows us the unflattering private preparation that must precede the public moment.

Rincke Dijkstra–Cate Blanchett

 

The brilliant young photographer, Ryan McGinley, had previously worked with subjects such as skateboarders, musicians, and graffiti artists. His assignment to photograph Olympians was a challenge to transcend the banal.  His talent combined with the resources provided by Kathy Ryan created images of lasting beauty.

One of the fun examples of cross-assigning can be found in the Olympic portfolios Ryan McGinley has done.” 

–New York Times Magazine photo editor, Kathy Ryan

The Magazine contracted with the design team of Rodarte to provide special outfits for the athletes. McGinley came up with unique camera angles and compositions. Thousands of photographs were taken, and a visual story evolved that goes far beyond appearances to reveal the very essence of what these uniquely trained people are. In his incredible photo of the free-style skier, Emily Cook, McGinley captures a moment in the performance of a sport that routinely sends skiers soaring into the sky; so Emily Cook is shot against the sky, soaring into the sky, becoming the sky. She defies physical laws, hovering as an ethereal being above the common world below. It is a visual manifestation of how she feels at that very second. It is a glorious moment in the art of the camera.

Copyright 2014  James Tucker

Ryan McGinley, Emily Cook, 2010 Olympic freestyle skier (aerials). From “Up!,” published February 7, 2010 (cover image).

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Ancient Art

I was recently sent an article about the discovery of 5,000 pieces of rock art located in 11 locations in Mexico. Said to predate Spanish rule, they would appear to be somewhere between 600-1,000 years old. Usually I’m intrigued by such discoveries, but this time I was unmoved. My first thought upon seeing them was that they were made by bored pre-Columbian children.

Ancient South American art- L

That’s not the first time I’ve felt this way about ancient art. In 1998, on a trip out west, Deb and I hiked a petroglyph trail in Arizona with our kids, Molly and Andrew, and we saw various shapes and figures scratched or crudely chiseled on boulders. Nice hike, but I wouldn’t do it again for the art.

However, before the reader condemns me as a philistine, I must say that I have found some ancient art to be immensely powerful. In 1999, this time without the kids, Deb and I traveled to the Dordogne region in France. The Dordogne River valley is one of the most beautiful places on earth and the limestone caves and caverns along the river’s banks made natural dwellings for early humans. Evidence of humanoid occupation dates back 400,000 years, and beginning 25,000 years ago there is evidence of art.

Our visit to the Grotte de Font de Gaume was all Deb’s doing. She loves to travel, plans well, and we always have a wonderful time. She has taught me the advantage of seeking out local people and getting their suggestions about what we should see and do. It is Deb who finds the hidden gems, and sometimes facilitates the unusual moments and encounters, that make our trips memorable. I tell you this so you’ll understand that I’ve learned to trust her. “We must,” she said, “visit the Grotte de Font de Gaume.” “Really?” “Really!”

tickets

The first thing that strikes the visitor upon arrival at the grotte is how simple and straightforward everything is. There is a small gift shop and ticket booth. That’s it—no Font de Gaume burgers, no Friday night light show extravaganza, and no theme park with a special train to spare fat Americans the need to walk.

We were very lucky going there when we did. Access to the cave is restricted and travelers must book tours well in advance, which from what I’ve recently read on the Internet is almost impossible to do, as so few people are now allowed in. Indeed, the most famous of these caves, Lascaux, has been closed to visitors for years and what one visits is Lascaux II, a man-made replica. Though it is astonishing in its accuracy and fidelity to the original, it seems to me like traveling to the Sistine Chapel but viewing a clever copy of Michelangelo’s fresco located in a nearby warehouse. The Grotte de Font de Gaume is the real thing and Deb was right to take us there.

I quote now from a journal I kept at the time. What the writing lacks in polish I think it gives back in immediacy. The pictures were gathered from the Internet, since for reasons that should be obvious to the reader, no photography is permitted in the grotte. Sadly these photos, good as they are, provide little of the power and mystery of what one sees inside the cave, nor do they give any sense of how the images seem to change and move in varying levels of light.

It was only a half hour drive to the town of Les Ezyies where the grotte is located, and we arrived early. Deb had made reservations in the States and it’s just as well she did since people were being turned away when we arrived. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed in the caves each day because carbon dioxide and moisture from their breathing can, and have, caused the cave paintings to deteriorate. Most sites of prehistoric art are closed for just his reason but Font de Gaume is still open. I suspect it won’t remain so.

The cave is cool inside and of constant temperature. Perhaps that is what has allowed the artwork to survive all these years. A sign told us to wear warm clothing but the word came too late for me. The day was an extraordinarily hot one and I had brought no warm clothing along. Luckily I’d left my navy blue blazer on the back seat of the car. I must have made an interesting sight marching into the cave through its small entrance in khaki shorts, hiking boots, and a dinner jacket!

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The entrance to the grotte

Our guide, who spoke only French, was in his late twenties or early thirties, handsome, and charming. It was clear that the mystery of the cave held a powerful spell over him. I could not understand what he said, my French is far too weak, but his eyes lit up and his voice dropped to a whisper as he described the creation of the amazing paintings we were viewing. There was no mistaking his feelings. Indeed, those feelings affected us all.

horse

Deb, whose French is excellent, dutifully whispered a translation to me when she could. No one knows much about the ‘why’ of the paintings, but a little is known of the ‘how’. The images were clearly planned in advance and they utilize the natural contours of the cave walls to produce something of a three dimensional effect. Some of the images are rather high up and some at knee level. All the images are of animals and nearly all are of game animals. Only one, set away from the others, is known to be of a predator, a kind of cat, but two other images may also be of predators. The animals are grouped in herds and in some cases interact with each other, licking one another. The images often show a sense of perspective. The pigment —they used only two, red and black —was blown on to the walls through hollow bones. In some cases small amounts of chiseling was used to enhance the three dimensional effect, though in most cases the effect was gained by using the cave wall contours. Finally, though the paintings were faint and one would assume a bright light was needed to see them best, it was only when our guide turned down the minimal cave lighting to the level of torchlight that the animals leapt from the walls and truly came alive. Of course the dim light explained the use of only two colors. In such lighting the artist would have been working in tone and not color.

Font gaumeimages

Much about the paintings remains in the realm of speculation. Why were the pictures made? Who made them? What are the meanings of the groupings of the animals and why these specific animals? These and a thousand other questions could be asked and not answered.

Deb and I did have some thoughts on the matter. Deb was struck by the sexual appearance and symbolism of the caves, of how the narrow vertical passages reminded her of female genitalia. Perhaps, she suggested, the images were meant to ensure the fertility of the herd animals on which these peoples depended for food. However, no evident remains of any religious ceremonies or sacrifices have been found, which seems odd since there are no signs of people living in the cave, suggesting that it may have been reserved for some special use. I wondered whether the symbols were mainly preventative, meant to keep evil from the animals and ensure the continual supply of meat and game. Life in that bountiful valley must have been good for the times since where else but in a fertile land could such a fledgling society spare the human effort to make such images? Indeed, I wondered if women, perhaps priestesses, hadn’t made the paintings since it was their bodies that were associated with fertility. Deb thought not, saying that man places sperm in the woman and ancient man had likely placed the images in this womb of the earth. I suppose no one will ever know the truth of the matter. The answers died with these brilliant early artists. Font de Gaume is a good place, a holy place.

fontdegaume

There ends my journal entry. On a subsequent visit to France in 2009, this time to the Medoc, we were spending a day in Bordeaux before we flew home to the States. The morning we were to leave, Deb wanted to go to the Musee d’ Aquitaine, primarily to see the Venus a la Corne de Laussel, a bas-relief from the region where the Grotte de Font de Gaume is located. The Venus dates from 25,000 years ago, and is one of the oldest sculptures ever found.

Venus

This Venus supports the idea that fecundity was a principal motif of paleolithic art. The woman depicted appears to be pregnant, but even more to the point, she is shown as a ripe fruit, a bringer of much needed life. Certainly the image is symbolic. Living in small bands and tribes, scrambling from place to place, fleeing from predators; it is hard to believe that a real woman living at the time looked anything like this sculpture. It is instead an evocation of the very powerful idea of fecundity. An abstract idea, perhaps, but in early humankind’s daily struggle against extinction I think it would be very hard to overestimate the importance of the pregnant female. She is a physical manifestation of the renewing process of birth during a time of frequent death. I do not find it hard to imagine that the Grotte de Font de Gaume is also a temple to this idea.

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Copyright 2013 James Tucker

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The Amazing Mr. Turner

Turner_selfportrait

JMW Turner  (1775-1851)  Self-portrait (1799)

 Once some years ago, when I was roaming the stacks at the University of Georgia library, I was struck by the titles of two books shelved side by side. One was entitled The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy; its companion announced The Pre-Raphaelite Comedy. Though I read neither book, the juxtaposition suggested there was something gone wrong about the Pre-Raphaelite movement, or the “Brotherhood” as they called themselves. At least I’ve always seen it that way. There is too much mere illustration going on combined with a reverence for the myths and ballads of the medieval world. It is a “Pugin-esque” fantasy that has little resonance for me. Still, as my knowledge of their art was based on what I’d seen in books, I felt I owed them a first hand look. Art must be seen in the original as it was intended to be seen, or it’s really not seen at all. That is why, in the fall of 2012, being in London, I found myself in at the Tate Britain, patiently shuffling past paintings by Rossetti, Millais, and Waterhouse, drifting in a human current of school children, tourists, and pensioners. As I moved through the crowded rooms looking at the Pre-Raphaelites with their decisive colors, crisp drawing, and faux-medieval splendor, I could not escape the realization that my relationship with the Brotherhood was not improving.

Art must be seen in the original, as it was intended to be seen, or it’s really not seen at all.

Slipping out of the exhibition, I made my way through the general collection to arrive with relief at the Turner Rooms. The amazing Mr. Turner is always a tonic for the eye. Turner dazzles. Turner is unique and demanding and a joy.

J. M. W. Turner was born in 1775 and had a long career ending only with his death in 1851. His production was continuous and prodigious. Beginning as a Romantic, he painted dramatically and even wrote a long epic (unfinished) poem entitled, “The Fallacy of Hope”. His work during this period would have established him as a great artist, but Turner continued to change, to grow, and finally challenged the very notion of what art was about. Like Beethoven, he was lauded in his own day, but came in time to make many of his contemporaries uncomfortable. Pushing the envelope year after year, pressing his use of color, dramatic gesture, tonality, and unconventional composition ever farther, his work evolved beyond the point where many of his time could comprehend it. His late works, done after he turned 60, are revolutionary even today. And being a decent sort of chap, he bequeathed a great deal of his art to the British government so it might be freely displayed. Much of it now resides in the Tate Britain.

As I arrived, I met the young Turner just coming of age in the twilight of the 18th century, filled with the dramatic sensibilities of Romanticism. He was a young man on the rise, gaining recognition early, and was quickly accepted into the Royal Academy. My eye rested on Fishermen at Sea. Exhibited in 1796 to much acclaim, it was his ‘Academy’ piece, or the painting that gained him admission to that body’s august ranks at the unripe age of 27.

Fishermen at Sea
1796 Fishermen at Sea

Certainly this painting expresses the Romantic temperament; we have moonlight, swirling clouds and sea, and dramatic tonality. There is no question of the artist’s talent, yet a whiff of the self-conscious is present.

Turning to my left, I saw The Shipwreck. Nine years have passed. Turner shows the confidence of an assured and mature artist. The composition is brilliant, the narrative drama reaches a fever pitch, and the brushwork is virtuosic even by Turner’s standards. Little wonder the critics found it a tour de force.

The Shipwreck
1805 The Shipwreck

Over the ensuing years, Turner painted many subjects—natural, historical, and allegorical—often combining genres. Nearby is Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm. As I walk over, I move forward another seven years in Turner’s life to 1812. He began sketching the foreground figures in 1804, but a snowstorm he observed while visiting Yorkshire was his true inspiration. The painting was well received by the public, being thought ‘magnificent and sublime’, but something new is at work here. Turner is changing and this painting is suggestive of what is to come. For instance, despite the fact that he is depicting the trials of an army, the human figures are marginalized. Nature is the star player. To allow the natural phenomena to burst forth on his canvas, Turner resorts to an unconventional composition, one without any geometric order and one that throws over the traditional rules. Turner’s skill with complex compositions was the stuff of legend even then, and he taught that subject as well as perspective at the Academy. Now, as he found himself moving toward his own special vision, his old ways of thinking about painting were expanding. The battle between the idea of order and his sense of the raw power inherent in his experience of light and movement had begun. In 1817 he resigned from teaching.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps
1812 Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm

To see where his quest would take him, I walked over to one of my favorite paintings: Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth. Turner painted innumerable subjects in his long career, but he was especially fascinated by the sea and its many, often times violent, moods. He returned to the sea as a subject again and again, his vision steadily evolving. The year is 1842. Turner is 67 years old and solidly in his finest period of painting. Laden with honors and financially secure, he is painting for himself, following his vision, an increasingly isolated and eccentric figure that all except his remaining friends suspect is mad. But he is no longer painting for his own time. He isn’t giving his audience what it wants; he is giving it what his eye demands he paint.

snow_storm_steam_boat_off_a_harbour_s_mouth
1842 Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbor’s Mouth

Obviously,Turner is not concerned with the ship; he is expressing the experience itself. Hannibal Crossing the Alps in a Snow Storm showed the tension growing in him between the presentation of what is seen and what is experienced. Here experience has won out. Indeed, the ship as a subject barely exists. The swirling, maddening power of light and snow and wind is the subject. Knowing from the title that a ship is present, one guesses that the dark line is a mast and the dark passage at the top is smoke from the engines, but these suggestions are irrelevant to experiencing the image.

What most viewers saw was simply incomprehensible. Subject matter as they understood it had disappeared.

Turner claimed he asked the captain of the steamer Ariel lash him to the mast for four hours so he could study these atmospheric effects. The story is untrue. The tale merely reflects Turner’s desire for the viewer to understand that such a moment when light, motion, and color swirl into one is real. So desirous was Turner for the viewer to understand the truth of what he had experienced, his actual title of the painting is Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbours’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Authour was in this Storm on the Night the ‘Ariel’ left Harwich. Turner was presenting an experience to the viewer. What most viewers saw was simply incomprehensible. Subject matter as they understood it had disappeared. Turner’s painting was ridiculed as, “a mass of soapsuds and whitewash”. To understand how shocking such a picture would be at the time, one needs only to compare this painting to one by John Constable, Turner’s great contemporary, painted just five years earlier in 1837, the last year of Constable’s life.

John_Constable_Arundel_Mill_and_Castle
1837 Arundel Mill and Castle

A few years later subject matter as his Victorian audience would have expected has disappeared from his work as is seen in 1845’s painting, Venetian Festival. It’s a festival all right, but a festival of color harmonies floating as if on light itself.

Venice Festival
1845 Venetian Festival

Within a few years after Turner’s death in 1851, art was to take a significant change from the traditional Realism of Turner’s contemporaries. Monet and his Impressionist colleagues would soon be at work. Cezanne would be pointing the way to Cubism. Western artists would discover and be invigorated by Japanese art and then African art. The continued development of the camera would change the way artists saw their mission. Kandinsky would finally abandon any pretense to literal subject matter. Unquestionably, the intellectual and creative turmoil of the next seventy-five years is hard to overestimate. In many ways we are still working out the implications of ideas spawned during that time. Given the immensity of the intellectual and aesthetic changes that occurred, it is perhaps a fool’s errand to look for a point of origin where these momentous changes started. Indeed, contemporary painting has had many progenitors. Still, even with that said, I would urge that The Amazing Mr. Turner not be overlooked as one of the great sources of modern art.

In 1870 the France of Napoleon III engaged in an unnecessary, foolish, and unsuccessful war against Bismarck’s Prussia. It was a short sharp conflict in which the painter Bazille, friend of Monet and Renoir, was killed. Monet and Pissarro made the eminently sensible decision to relocate to London for the duration. There they were unimpressed by the dreary surroundings, painted some pictures that reflected those surroundings, and discovered Turner. Turner was not an Impressionist but he was an amazing colorist, a very daring artist, and his late work was pregnant with the future. The dramatic possibilities he poured forth were not lost on the two great French artists. I find it hard to look at Monet’s magnificent ‘Waterlilies’ series and not think of Turner.

And I’ll go even further out on the limb. If Cezanne is generally accepted as the spiritual father of the Cubists and the other ‘structural’ movements in modern art, perhaps it wouldn’t be entirely amiss to say that Turner was the spiritual father of the ‘action’ and ‘colorist’ schools that would follow. Looking at the swirling intense colors of his canvases, where color and movement and form and subject melt to become one, it is possible to see the beginnings of abstract expressionism and such artists as Pollock, Twombly, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler among many others. And in Turner’s free fusing of the subject in a swirl of emotion and movement, can the vision of De Kooning be so far away? But enough. It’s easy to say too much and influences are indirect and much mutated as they filter through time and the talents of others.

Perhaps it is best for us to return to that October day at the Tate Britain. It’s a curious thing, but there is a place where one can stand and see The Fishermen and Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off Harbor’s Mouth at very nearly the same time, just by slightly shifting one’s eyes between them. The effect is startling, almost disorienting. What a very great way Turner traveled and what an amazing new world he found.

Or in the words of Jerry Garcia, “…what a long strange trip it’s been.”

Return to Artists and Their Art

Copyright 2013  James Tucker

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Grace Kelly, The Tate Modern, and a Ukrainian girl named Sandra

I was thirteen when I decided to become an international jewel thief. Like many criminal decisions, mine was made impulsively and of course it involved a woman—Grace Kelly. The YMCA in my hometown showed old movies, and during an hour and a half in the dark, watching Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, I discovered my future life. Grace Kelly and I would live in a chateau overlooking the Mediterranean. We would spend our days stealing jewels while engaging in witty banter. She would be my lover. We would be very sophisticated.

to-catch-a-thief

To Catch a Thief is still a great favorite of mine, so it was a pleasant surprise when my youngest daughter, Molly, said that she had arranged for us to go to see it at the British Film Institute. The BFI is not at all as stodgy as the name might suggest and offered a full bar and great seating. Molly and Liam, her husband, live in London and I was visiting in October of 2012. For the better part of a week we had a wonderful arrangement. Each morning Liam would bring me a cup of tea (so English!) just before he and Molly rushed off to work. The evening before we’d made plans about where to meet for dinner, but each day I had entirely free. Having a ‘Tube’ pass and all of London to explore is like being given the keys to The Infinite Possibility Machine, something Douglas Adams might have thought up. London is a great city and its possibilities are, well, infinite.

If you are a serious traveler you know that you cannot get the measure of a city until you’ve walked for hours in it, perhaps even for days. With that in mind, and having decided to go to the Tate Modern and its environs, I took the Tube to Waterloo Bridge station and planned to meander my way along the Thames. It isn’t very far from Waterloo Bridge to the Tate and I intended to take considerable time managing the distance.

London weather is thought by outsiders to be primarily rainy, but Londoner’s will tell you that this is not true. Its dominant characteristic is changeability—sun at ten o’clock, rain at noon, sun at two, strong wind at five, more rain at seven. Being a prudent man, I was carrying an umbrella with me when I left the flat and had it at the ready when the sky opened up. Sadly, it wasn’t much of an umbrella, just something Liam had picked up at Ikea, small and green with large polka dots (he has a sense of whimsy, does Liam). It proved hopelessly inadequate to fend off a wind driven torrent. Having lengthened my trip to the Tate by meandering, I now tried to shorten it with an energetic gallop.

Turbine hall

Turbine Hall

I arrived at the Tate drenched and in a mood as foul as the weather. Entrance to the Tate is free and I strode in, rode the escalator up to the galleries and began glaring at art. Nothing pleased. Nothing could. I gave up and went down to Turbine Hall. Turbine Hall is an immense room with concrete floors, a very high ceiling, and no furniture. It is the place you pass through to get to the galleries. I decided sit on the floor against a wall and sketch the people who were coming and going. Visitors entering or leaving the museum were strongly back lit by a huge bank of windows, and it was amazing how much could be told about about the people with only silhouette to work with and without reference to detail. So the day gave me its first gift—the sketches I made of those visitors provided the visual idea for a number of paintings and drawings I’ve made since then.

But more was to come.

After a time I was shyly approached by a young woman who asked if she could talk with me. She assured me she was not a panhandler but rather an art student working on a project. Her English was good, though slightly accented, and sometimes had an American inflection. We talked a bit. Her name was Sandra and she was from the Ukraine and was a first year art student. I envied her. She was clearly both exhilarated and frightened, away from home, studying and living in London, her whole life before her. She would probably never again feel as alive as she did now. And the American accented English? She had relatives in the States and spent summers there. She asked me to give her a few items of little value that she might put in her project, which she was creating from objects she had gathered from people. I gave her a few things including some U.S. coins I had in my pocket. She asked if she could return the quarter and instead take a dime and a penny as they might work better visually—definitely artist, not a panhandler.

As we were talking a man standing in the middle of the hall suddenly began to sing, doing a kind of melodic chant. There are crazies everywhere, I thought, and tried to take no notice. But then another person started. And another. And another. Sandra leaned back against the wall next to me and we watched. The lights were dimming and brightening as more and more people, men and women, joined the chant. Flash mob? After a few minutes 50 or so people spaced at different parts of the hall were chanting together. Then they began, one by one, to fall silent and leave. Finally, only the man who’d begun was left. The lights darkened and he too was gone. Sandra rose, thanking me and saying she needed to find others willing to participate in her project.

She was only gone a moment when a man in his 40’s sat down next to me and immediately began talking in a rapid stream of words about how he lived on a Narrow Boat, a very small Narrow Boat because it was only twenty-six feet long and his room was a space that was six feet by twelve feet but he had many friends and felt that in real terms he was very rich and happy though he had little money, and yes, he’d come to London to find success and had owned things and lived well but now all that was gone, no longer a burden, and he was happy and had the things that counted. I tried to ask him questions, which he simply talked past. Finally he shook my hand, thanked me for listening, and walked away.

He joined people who were streaming into the hall. More and more arrived and they began walking about the hall, walking quickly but randomly, almost running into each other at times but then veering off at the last second. Little by little they began to coalesce, to form units and walk in patterns. Several times people walked right at me only to turn off just short of a collision. The whole hall seemed alive with moving bodies. The lights rose and fell and the manic movement continued until I began to notice their numbers dwindle. And like the chanters, they too were soon gone.

Suddenly a woman in her twenties dropped to her knees in front of me. Like the man before her, she launched in to a breathless monologue about herself. When she was a girl she used to visit her grandmother in Northumberland and her grandmother lived in a large drafty house and it was always cold there no matter what time of year she went to stay and the worst of it was that the kids had to sleep in this room that was colder than the rest of the house and was so cold it was called “Siberia” and she used to call it Siberia even though she didn’t know what a Siberia was and the comforters were old and lumpy and heavy but it was okay because the mattresses were feather mattresses and the weight of the comforter pressed her small body into the softness of the mattress and she felt very warm and safe and wonderful. I begged her to tell me what was going on. She ignored my request several times but as she rose to go she whispered that it was a performance piece called “These Associations” by an artist named Tino Sehgal.   These Associations

I had been sitting on the concrete floor so long my butt was numb and my legs were wobbly as I stood to go back into the gallery. I was feeling both at peace and exhilarated with what I’d experienced. From the gallery I could hear the chanting begin again. This time it was slower, more melodic. Finding I was really not in the mood for visual art I went to one of the balconies that overlook Turbine Hall and watched the performers begin once again to move about the hall seeing the intricacies of their pattern more clearly viewed from above. I had largely dismissed performance art prior to that day but that is no longer the case. My thoughts often turn to what I experienced and my feelings as I remember them, and I’ve thought much about the different implications of the Sehgal’s performance piece and my experience as an unwitting participant.

The evening with Molly and Liam continued the enchantment that had begun at the Tate. We dined at Wahaca, a restaurant housed in conjoined shipping containers and which offered South American inspired cuisine that was incredible. One of the joys of staying in London with Molly and Liam is that they know of such places, places I could never find on my own. And, of course, Molly had chosen her film shrewdly. To Catch a Thief worked its magic on me as it always does, though I must confess my life as a jewel thief had never worked out. Many years ago I’d come to grips with the fact that Grace Kelly was unlikely to throw herself into the arms of a thirteen year old boy no matter how much jewelry he stole.

PS: Sandra e-mailed me in December with photos of her finished project. She did a fine job of it.

Copyright 2013 James Tucker 

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“The Seine, Outside Paris” — Frank Boggs

The Seine, Outside Paris by Frank Boggs caught my eye on my first visit to the Hunter Museum about fifteen years ago. Since then, I go see it on most of my visits, and, like an old friend who never fails to charm, I always come away thrilled at its mastery of means and usually vow, with varying degrees of success, to emulate its immediacy in my own artwork.

Frank Boggs--"The Seine, Outside Paris, 15 x 22, Oil on canvas, 1885

Frank Boggs–“The Seine, Outside Paris”, 15 x 22, Oil on canvas, 1885– The Hunter Museum of American Art

When I first discovered this work I knew nothing about the artist but that mattered little. I avoid reading the information card next to a painting when viewing it for the first time, trying instead to let the artwork tell me all it can about itself, or at least as much as I can understand on a first viewing. So what can be deduced from this small canvas?

It was painted in the second half of the 19th century; the subject matter and the style make that clear enough. The relatively small size and the freedom of the brushwork suggests it was almost certainly done plein aire. Earlier in the century the development of paint packaged in tubes combined with the invention of the portable easel (still called a ‘French easel”) freed the artist from working exclusively in the studio. By the 1880’s it was a freedom that many younger artists increasingly relished and a common practice with painters such as Monet and Pissaro. Further suggesting its plein aire origins, this image has been painted on a tan colored ground, which can be seen in the foreground and behind the boats. Working directly on a toned ground, which is allowed to appear in the finished painting, both facilitates the visual cohesion of the image and speeds up the time necessary to capture the subject–not a small consideration when working outdoors with changing light conditions and environmental distractions. My guess is that this painting, almost an oil sketch, was 99% finished on the spot with very minor touches added in the studio. Great care has been taken by the artist to keep its spontaneity intact.

The economy of means and the freedom of technique are supported by a simple and effective composition. The darks are spotted judiciously, which, when combined with the swirl of the steam and clouds form lines, give the whole a vigorous rhythm and energy. Essentially, the darks along the horizon line are crossed by a second ‘line’ of visual energy that begins with the white of the river water on the lower left and moves into the picture plane to the lower clouds behind the boast. These compositional lines cross at the boats, and given the boat’s position in the painting and their dark tonality, make them the focus of the work. But Boggs goes further. By utilizing the swirl of steam and clouds above his primary subject, which he has placed on an unusually low horizon line, he gives the painting additional energy.

Of course I eventually read the information card and made the acquaintance of Frank Myers Boggs. I had not heard of him, but there are many fine artists who are not household names. When I got home an Internet search provided the following:

Frank Myers Boggs was born in Springfield, Ohio, but left Ohio in 1876 for study with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. He lived in Paris and New York, residing the last thirty years of his life in Paris. In Paris he won wide recognition for his atmospheric paintings of the ports of France and the quays along the Seine. His works were exhibited frequently in France. Between 1879 and 1916, his work was also shown in the United States, most often at the National Academy of Design, in New York, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia.

Known as a master of plein-air painting, Boggs delighted in capturing the fleeting effects of the constantly changing skies of northern France and southern England. With lush and broad brush strokes, Boggs created rich and spacious paintings, orchestrating a subtle and restrained palette of grays, deep and dusty blues, and earthy tans. Although his palette is more subtle and tonal than that of the French Impressionist Claude Monet, Boggs’ paintings demonstrate clear affinities with the early French Impressionist school. Like his fellow Impressionists, it was the transitory aspects of nature, as well as the documentation of everyday reality, to which Boggs was keenly sensitive.                                                                         –Keny Galleries- Columbus, OH)

So there you have it. The Seine Outside Paris is a small painting made by an American artist not much known today. Yet it contains much of value and, almost like a visual haiku, says much within the confines of its simplicity.

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“The Arrest” — Jack Levine

We are living in a time of increasing friction between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they serve. Violent confrontations between the police and members of minority communities have been recorded by bystanders. The resulting videos have quickly captured a national audience, causing the formation of groups such as ‘Black Lives Matter’ and leading to civil unrest. Though it was painted 32 years ago, Jack Levine’s painting “The Arrest” is more topical than ever.

Levine, who died in 2010 at the age of 95, has been described as a Social Realist, and his paintings, often crowded with satirically characterized figures, display his questioning of traditional authority and his uneasy relationship with contemporary culture. Openly hostile to the abstract styles of art dominant in the second half of the 20th century, Levine hearkened back to satirists such as Honoré Daumier and William Hogarth. “The Arrest”, while somewhat comical and obvious in its subject matter, is actually a tangle of questions about the nature and use of authority—questions that have been evolving with increasing urgency in the years after WWII.

Jack Levine, "The Arrest", 1983

Jack Levine, “The Arrest”, 1983 The Hunter Museum of American Art

This dramatic  painting contains three figures. On the left is an almost featureless white policeman whose powerful grip on the arrested person is both prominent and dominant in its determined act of control. Indeed, it is this figure’s muscular right arm, not his facial expression, that defines him. On the right a more shadowy policeman emerges from the background. He might or might not be African-American, and, though still an agent of the state, he exercises control in a less obvious way. Finally, and most prominently placed, is the faceless, genderless, raceless prisoner—a mysterious “everyperson” caught up in the net of social authority. This prisoner takes up almost half of the picture area and is thrust forward in the picture plane enhancing his or her visual prominence, but despite the compelling placement in the composition, this is a person controlled by powers that literally have grip on him or her. A difficult and emotional moment for anyone, but a bag with bizarrely shaped eye holes conceals the face. It is this bag, this mask covering the reality of feeling, that gives the prisoner a look of wry bemusement, as if saying, “of course this is happening to me, what did you expect?” It is a moment Franz Kafka would understand.

Norman Rockwell-- The Runaway 1958

Norman Rockwell– “The Runaway” 1958

However in mid-century America, not too long before Levine painted “The Arrest”,  such questions about civic authority were restricted to left wing journals and “radical” publications. In 1958 Norman Rockwell painted a magazine illustration called “The Runaway”. It is far removed in its sentiments from “The Arrest”. In Rockwell’s image, the powers of society are responsible and understanding. Likely the man running the diner called his friend the policeman upon seeing the young runaway. The policeman, for his part, is using gentle persuasion to guide the boy into choosing to return home. And finally, the boy clearly accepts and respects the authority of the adults around him. The body language of all the participants is benign and caring. It’s a beautiful world in its innocence and social connectedness. No doubt it was also one that rarely existed outside the longings of the Saturday Evening Post readers, but one that Americans, at least most middle and upper class white Americans, chose to believe.  (For a recent satirical view of Rockwell’s iconic image seeMad Magazine.)

If Levine’s painting presents a different world, perhaps it is because much happened between 1958 and 1983. The Vietnam War alienated many of America’s youth. The “police riot” at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was televised to a shocked nation as viewers watched Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine use its power to crush political protest. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became a common refrain even before the Watergate hearings showed that criminal and self-serving behavior ran all  the way to the White House. In many quarters public authority became looked upon as mere social control at the beck and call of a political and financial elite that had little interest in administering evenhanded justice.

Jack Levine-- The Feast of Pure Reason 1937

Jack Levine– “The Feast of Pure Reason” 1937

The country may have been surprised by the events of the 1960’s and 70’s, but they led us as a nation to a perspective on authority that Jack Levine had long held. Certainly his distrust manifested itself early enough. A half century before, in 1937, he painted “The Feast of Pure Reason”, which depicts a policeman, small businessman, and rich capitalist meeting to use their resources to their advantage. Their faces are well fed and complacent. Their selfish empowerment is banal and self-satisfied. Levine, who was born poor and whose first studio was in a slum neighborhood in Boston, had little reason to think that the game wasn’t rigged. In his world the rich and powerful have the law, the police, and the courts to enforce their will.

“The Feast of Pure Reason” tells us much about how we might view “The Arrest.” The police depicted in the painting use force (though by today’s standards it is quite restrained), but they are also rather neutral and detached in the process of doing so. They offer no sympathy and show no outrage. Who are these men? What do they think? What is their stake in this moment? It appears that they are merely agents of control, pure and simple. The three figures–the prisoner in the foreground, the policeman on the left, and the policeman on the right–each recedes further into the background, suggesting that somewhere in the darkness behind them, someone else is in control. Someone for whom this moment is a desired outcome. Someone not unlike the men in “The Feast of Pure Reason”.

But what of the anonymous prisoner? Has this person committed a heinous crime?  Could he or she be a violent criminal that society must lock up for its protection? Or someone much less dangerous, a petty thief perhaps? Or a political prisoner? Is the crime merely being who or what he or she is? We don’t know and the policemen don’t seem to care. They do what they do for the people who tell them to do it. This lack of feeling extends to the behavior of the prisoner. Regardless of the force in the policeman’s grip, the body language of the prisoner is completely neutral, too. There is no struggle. And because the bag masks any facial expression, we don’t see anger or resignation or, for that matter, any emotion. Indeed, the covered face suggests the mask we all wear when facing compelling and controlling authority. To reveal true feelings at such a moment would be to give away the little dignity you still possess.

In Jack Levine’s “The Arrest”, there is force and there is submission. That is all. Right and wrong are not present.

This essay is part of the Thinking About Paintings series.

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“The Circus is in Town” — Edith Cockcroft

Edith Cockcroft- The Circus is in Town-- 1912

Edith Cockcroft, “The Circus is in Town”, 1912 , The Hunter Museum of American Art

Edith Cockcroft, though not well known today, was an established and successful artist in her time. “The Circus is in Town”, part of the Hunter Museum of American Art’s permanent collection, is one of her paintings from 1912, done when she was 31 years old. In it, a circus has come to a small New York town and the locals have turned out to view the parade announcing its arrival. It is, no doubt, a regional circus, a mere shadow of the splendor of Ringling Bros. It’s probably been to this little town on more than one occasion. Still, though all but the youngest townsfolk know what to expect, it’s a bit of a novelty in its way and something to be welcomed. A cursory glance tells us we have a bit of Americana here, a display of the innocent joy of small town living.

Perhaps. But I think more is going on if one looks carefully and is aware of the context.

To begin with, Edith Cockcroft is painting in, what was for the time,  a modern and controversial style. The idea of a turn of the century circus arriving in a small town suggests sentimental nostalgia– a motif beloved by the illustrators of the time. She, however, approaches her subject objectively and with a technique that is rough, spontaneous, and dynamic.

William McGregor Paxton, "Tea Leaves" 1909

William McGregor Paxton, “Tea Leaves” 1909–Metropolitan Museum of Art

Just four years earlier, in 1908, a now famous exhibition by eight artists, later dubbed by critics “The Ashcan School,” had been staged at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. At that time, it was the only gallery in the city that showed contemporary American art. Presented by the artists Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Edward Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur Davies, Maurice Penderghast, and Ernest Lawson, the show was roundly condemned by critics for its  unacceptable and unpleasant subject matter (streetlife, tenements, etc.) and coarseness of style. Though massive changes in art had already occurred in Europe, most notably in France, the American art schools still clung steadfastly to a narrow academic style that one challenged at one’s peril. The academics set and maintained very conservative standards, and, as the twentieth century began, America was largely an artistic backwater.

The show mounted by the eight artists of the Ashcan School was a direct challenge to this state of affairs. Edith Cockcroft would  have understood and sympathized with their cause. Certainly, the young Ms. Cockcroft possessed artistic sophistication.  Born in 1881 in Brooklyn, NY,  she went to France in 1898, spending the next several years in the art colonies of Pont Aven and Concarneau. While living in Paris, she studied with Henri Matisse and exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon d’Automme. Returning to the United States her work was exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1910 to 1915, as well as at the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Art Union, the Salons of America, the Pennsylvania Academy and the Corcoran Gallery. Hardly someone with a narrow or provincial mindset, Edith Cockcroft was an artist who had her finger on the pulse of the avant garde.

So what is she up to in this painting of small town American life.

Cockcroft detail 1

“The Circus is in Town” (Detail)

To my mind, this painting is a sly critique of contemporary American life and culture, somewhat akin to that in Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel, Main Street. Her use of such a rough, spontaneous technique would, to the viewer of the time, be a bit like our hearing the Rolling Stones do a cover of “A Bicycle Built for Two”. The paint surface contrasts with the subject in a way that underscores the provincialism of the setting.

And there is further evidence of her intent.

Look at how she uses her palette. All the color is centered on the circus. Cover the lower quarter of the canvas and the remainder goes utterly lifeless and bland. The orange figure on the elephant demands our eye’s attention. More color dances along along behind, but almost no color is given to the houses or the people in the small town. They may be the bedrock of the nation, but they are also empty, static, and drab. Color, movement, and excitement must come from elsewhere.

So is it too much of a stretch to go from there to wondering if the circus just might represent the new young artists and their work? Artists and ideas she knew were coming that would utterly change American art forever. Edith Cockcroft had been to Paris, had met the avant garde, had seen the future. Was she subtly telling the rest of her country that they would soon experience it, too? All of the speculations above are obviously my personal reaction to her painting. We will never know exactly what Edith Cockcroft’s intentions were, but I would like to think that is exactly what she was doing.

Edith Cockcroft spent her entire adult life as an artist, not giving up her career for her husband (very common at the time), though she married and lived in New York City and then in Sloatsburg, New York. Her husband, Charles Weyand, was a stock broker who was ruined by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression. It was Edith who then supported them with her pottery, jewelry and fabric designs.

Let us savor that for a moment—an artist supporting a failed stockbroker! For that alone Edith Cockcroft deserves to be remembered.

She died in Ramapo, NY in 1962.

 

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