An Oak Tree

“An Oak Tree” Michael Craig-Martin, 1973

Conceptual art can be challenging and polarizing. Generally this is because the nature of conceptual art tends to be abstract, obscure, and elusive as the primary focus is the “idea” of the piece rather than any form or sense of aesthetic. There are very few guidelines and little to nothing available to prepare viewers for what to expect. The lack of  definitive structure allows the viewer freedom to conceptualize and muse over the “idea” of the art piece, and while this can be liberating and exciting for one it can just as easily push away another who wants simply to enjoy something aesthetically pleasing.

So all of that babble was to pump you up for the the conceptual instillation An Oak Tree! An Oak Tree was created by Michael Craig-Martin and first displayed in 1973 in his own gallery. The original is in the National Gallery of Australia and an artist’s copy is on loan to the Tate gallery. The installation is comprised of two units arranged according to specific presentation guidelines: the object is a pristine French Duralex glass of water measured to the artist’s stipulation placed on a glass shelf fixed to the wall with metal brackets exactly 253 centimeters above the ground, also mounted on the wall is a text. The text appears in red on white paper, and upon its debut was dispensed as a handout. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain an immaculate appearance and in the event of deterioration the brackets should be resprayed and the glass and shelf replaced.  

Now for the good stuff. The text makes the assertion through a semiotic argument that Craig-Martin was changed the glass of water into an oak tree by means of transubstantiation. He was able to do this without altering the “accidents” of the glass of water; and accidents are defined as color, weight, size, feel… etc so the “actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.” Craig-Martin asserts the impossible with that sentence, clarifying specifically that no, this is not symbolic of an oak tree but that a real oak tree is present, right in front of you, in the form of a glass of water.

“I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present in the form of a glass of water. [And] it would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”

I am sure there are some of you wondering what is going on, why Craig-Martin would claim that he has transformed a glass of water into an oak tree and how this is art. First it is important to understand that transubstantiation is the same device that the Catholic Church uses during the Eucharist to transform bread and wine/juice into the body and blood of Christ when the worshipers take communion. They also assert the impossible and ask worshipers to believe the bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood during Eucharist while maintaining an unchanged appearance. In the same way Craig-Martin’s text asks the viewer to believe that the glass of water has become an oak tree without altering the “accidents” of a glass of water. One simply has to accept that the artist is right, relying on mutual belief between artist and viewer.

Secondly An Oak Tree deconstructs transubstantiation demonstrating that the belief of both artist and viewer has significant power over the formation of art, and in fact belief can be understood as the most basic and essential element of art. At least in this example of conceptual art. Craig-Martin considered the work of art to demonstrate the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say

The reception of the piece was divided to say the least. Richard Cork called its original display in 1974 “one of the most challenging moments” of contemporary art. Some artists and critics were highly admirable while others where full of straight up scorn. I would read comments from Damien Hirst praising the piece as one of the greatest sculptures ever then shortly after find out that critic David Lee had ranted that “Some of the stuff that’s called art is just damned stupid. I mean, ‘That glass of water’s an oak tree’ kind of thing.”

More divisive opinions abound with critics criticizing each other’s opinions of the work as well. In response to Nigel Gosling’s praise of the work, Giles Auty sarcastically, though poignantly, observes, “How would the self-same critic react if, on ordering oak planks for an outhouse, he were sent instead a bucketful of water? Would he gently muse on ‘the subtle and obscure waters of identity’—or make immediate reflections on the mental well-being of his timber suppliers?” Michael Daley also condemns Craig-Martin’s admirers saying that they should have been snubbing the “self-deluding, pretentious offerings of Craig-Martin and his like” instead of  “eulogising” them for the past twenty years.

In my opinion, I believe that the lasting effect an artwork has, what significant contributions the piece adds to the cannon of art history be it in the form of discord or admiration, adds to its importance over time. I don’t think anyone could say it better than Sir Nicholas Serota in his Richard Dimbleby Lecture on November 23:

 “We may not ‘like’ Craig-Martin’s work, but it certainly reminds us that the appreciation of all art involves an act of faith comparable [to belief].”

You have to understand that An Oak Tree was one of the first of its kind. It laid a foundation for later conceptual artists to build upon. We knew that art could take many forms thanks to the modernism and Dada, but Crag-Martin demonstrated that art can be created from abstract ideas, faith held between two believers. And An Oak Tree only works if a mutual belief is shared between viewer and artist. In this sense it is almost an intimate understanding, a mutual agreement almost like a shared secret or religious bond.

Both the Irish Museum of Modern Art and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy praise the piece, recognizing it as a turning point in the development of conceptual art. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy records acclaim such as “to fail to consider it a great work of art because it fails to give rise to a distinctively aesthetic kind of pleasure does not actually undermine the project at all. Conceptual art, as we now know, is about conveying meaning through a vehicular medium, and not to provide its audience with experiences of, say, beauty. Any attack on this fundamental feature of conceptual art targets not so much an individual piece but the artform as such.”

 So what I hope to persuade you with this post is that yes, I get it, conceptual art is not for everyone. But having said that, I think it is important for everyone to recognize when something is significant to a larger social and historical context whether they like it or not. Liking art is arbitrary to the influence it held during its time and continues to hold ever after.

Here’s the text so you may read it:

Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?

A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.

Q. The accidents?

A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …

Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?

A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.

Q. It looks like a glass of water.

A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.

Q. Can you prove what you’ve claimed to have done?

A. Well, yes and no. I claim to have maintained the physical form of the glass of water and, as you can see, I have. However, as one normally looks for evidence of physical change in terms of altered form, no such proof exists.

Q. Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A. Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.

Q. Isn’t this just a case of the emperor’s new clothes?

A. No. With the emperor’s new clothes people claimed to see something that wasn’t there because they felt they should. I would be very surprised if anyone told me they saw an oak tree.

Q. Was it difficult to effect the change?

A. No effort at all. But it took me years of work before I realised I could do it.

Q. When precisely did the glass of water become an oak tree?

A. When I put the water in the glass.

Q. Does this happen every time you fill a glass with water?

A. No, of course not. Only when I intend to change it into an oak tree.

Q. Then intention causes the change?

A. I would say it precipitates the change.

Q. You don’t know how you do it?

A. It contradicts what I feel I know about cause and effect.

Q. It seems to me that you are claiming to have worked a miracle. Isn’t that the case?

A. I’m flattered that you think so.

Q. But aren’t you the only person who can do something like this?

A. How could I know?

Q. Could you teach others to do it?

A. No, it’s not something one can teach.

Q. Do you consider that changing the glass of water into an oak tree constitutes an art work?

A. Yes.

Q. What precisely is the art work? The glass of water?

A. There is no glass of water anymore.

Q. The process of change?

A. There is no process involved in the change.

Q. The oak tree?

A. Yes. The oak tree.

Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.

A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water. As the glass of water was a particular glass of water, the oak tree is also a particular oak tree. To conceive the category ‘oak tree’ or to picture a particular oak tree is not to understand and experience what appears to be a glass of water as an oak tree. Just as it is imperceivable it also inconceivable.

Q. Did the particular oak tree exist somewhere else before it took the form of a glass of water?

A. No. This particular oak tree did not exist previously. I should also point out that it does not and will not ever have any other form than that of a glass of water.

Q. How long will it continue to be an oak tree?

A. Until I change it

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

So where do I start with this outrageous character of Dada legend and lore? Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is pretty much the founder of Dada in New York during the 1913-20′s. (Dada came about as a reaction against the academy’s stuffy rules regulating, defining, organizing, and otherwise controlling an understanding/definition of art; the anti-art scene then escalated into anti-culutre movement in part as a search for meaning and consolation in the catastrophic aftermath of WWI.) Marcel DuChamp, her contemporary and friend, credits her as being the original dadaist stating that, “she is not a futurist, she is the future.”

It is right that DuChamp should be so admirable of The Baroness. She brought Dada to the fore front of culture in at the start of the new century in New York by pushing the boundaries of elite culture. Dada’s darling went to war with the bourgeois, attacking decency with her explicit dadaist poetry, constructed ready-mades that upset traditional art making practices, crafted dangerously anti-religous sculptures, and designed her own elaborate costumes from found and stolen items. The Baroness did not just cause a riot, she was a riot, making scene with her outlandish, ridiculous behavior everywhere she went. In short, the woman was a hot mess. Today we’d call her a ratchet, with the singular gift of provoking everyone around her into a hissy fit.

The Baroness was born July 12,1874 in Germany, she studied art in Dachau, near Munich before marrying her first husband in 1901, Berlin-based architect August Endell, at which time she became Else Endell. Ever one for a good scandal, she lived an avant-garde bohemian lifestyle, having an open relationship with her husband while working as an actress and vaudeville performer. She had numerous affairs with artists in Berlin, Munich and Italy, and in 1902 she became involved romantically with a friend of Endell’s, the minor poet and translator Felix Paul Greve (later the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove), and all three went to Palermo in late January 1903. They then lead a faery nomadic lifestyle, traveling to various places, including Wollerau, Switzerland and Paris-Plage, France.  She found work modeling for artists in Cincinnati, and made her way east via West Virginia and Philadelphia.

Elsa became a baroness by marrying Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven in 1913 and maintained that title the rest of her life, despite numerous affairs. She exploited her aristocratic status as a weapon to assault bourgeois taste. One of my favorite Baroness antics was her single-handed effort to present futuristic fashion to the bohemians of Greenwich Village, by scandalizing her neighbors parading about semi-nude along 14th Street, barely covered with feathers. It is evident that her preferred method for undermining the avant-garde was to always be as naked as she could get, even wearing nothing but tea-balls on her breasts while reciting poetry on street corners.

Until recently, The Baroness was best known for her  provocative poetry, which was finally published in a 2011 posthumous compilation of her writings Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Irene Gammel. (The New York Times praised the book as one of the notable art books of 2011.) She liked to experiment with punctuation and grammar to challenge the structure of langue. She made good use of dashes to set unique tempos and almost actual motion within her sentences, and created portmanteau compositions that made a mockery of coherency with non-sensical phrases.  As the poem “Loss” states:  “She is mad— / I am lost— / Utter.” (Loss, 234)

When reading her poems you often have to pause to rethink her meaning. I find I have to recompose the poems, decide which statements are spoken by which voice/persona, in what order lines are meant to be read, and in what combination with the lines surrounding it.  Take a second look at the tercet cited above—here the two-syllable word line “Utter” may be a command “to utter” and if so who is to speak?  Is the command directed to her, us, or is it the owl in the poem? Or is “utter” not a verb at all but a displaced adjective, one which should be read as if it precedes the word “lost” in the penultimate line? And if so does The Baroness ask the reader if this refers to utter loss? And who utterly lost and what was it? Or is the speaker utterly lost? Or is she talking about a random cow’s utters?! By being evasive with layers of meaning, The Baroness wrote very polarizing poetry, causing some people to either find their meanings very personal to each reader or very isolating and shallow. Ezra Pound was not always her biggest fan, but what does he know?

Another one of her stylistic elements is her laudable exploration of the thin line—made up of one to three syllables and streaking down the pages like a stripe, an arrow’s shadowtrail. At times these tiny lines create a clipped, staccato pacing, at others they embody speed and slippage; are aquatic in their rush. This is especially true in poems where sound seems beyond control, tumbling and falling

And of course she is never shy about discussing sex. A lot of her portmanteaus are highly explicit, such as “Kissambushed” and “Phalluspistol.”  The Little Review put her on the map in 1918 by publishing 20 of her poems and more than a dozen of her essays and notes. The magazine thereupon gave the baroness a forum for the next four years, establishing her among Dada luminaries. One of the Baroness’ poems, reproduced by Gammel, reads:

No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them…
There’s the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! …
A dozen cocktails, please!

Yup. Those are blatant phallic references. By today’s standards perhaps these aren’t so shocking, but in the early 1900s worn were still admired for their gentle and modest qualities. And even men could get into trouble for being so open about sex acts.

The Baroness also worked with found object making assemblage sculptures and collage paintings while in New York. Her habit of collecting rubbish and refuse to create sculptures of anti-art greatly offended art critics. But her radical behavior impressed and inspired her contemporaries. She was feared and admired by the likes of Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Djuna Barnes who all, like Ezra Pound, found themselves discussing her work in verse whether they liked it or not. And the very first movie made by Duchamp and Man Ray was about Elsa, titled The Baroness Shaves her Pubic Hair. The film cements her status Queen of Dada, but sadly only a handful of film stills have been salvaged by history. She is featured in many other Dada artists works, adding further testament to the depth of her influence and the admiration held to her by contemporaries.

Being friends with DuChamp, The Baroness was likely also involved in the conception of the famous ready-made, Fountain (1917). As Irene Gammel has documented, the choice of a urinal as art work is more in line with Freytag-Loringhoven’s scatological aesthetics than with Duchamp’s.  Moreover, Duchamp indicates in a letter to his sister written in 1917 that a female friend of his had sent him the urinal for submission at the Independents Exhibition. Rediscovered by the Whitney Museum in New York City in 1996, her Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (no longer extant) is an example of her ready-made pieces. She also contributed to New York Dada by collaborating with Morton Schamberg on the 1917 assemblage sculpture God, which is constructed of plumbing materials.

Unfortunately her death was not a glamorous or scandalous as her lifestyle. Finding herself finically insecure, in 1923, The Baroness went back to Berlin, expecting better opportunities to make money. Instead she came home to an economically devastated post-World War I Germany. Regardless of her difficulties in Weimar Germany, she remained there, penniless and on the verge of insanity. Though she still had several friends in the American expatriate community, in particular Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Peggy Guggenheim, who provided emotional and financial support, she continued to deteriorate over the next few months.  She died on December, 14 1927 of gas suffocation after the gas was left on in her flat. She may have forgotten to turn the gas off, or someone else may have turned it on; the circumstances were never clear. She is buried in Paris, France at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

So there you have it. The Baroness is the original socially unacceptable bad girl. Her life reminds us that Miley Cyrus only wishes she could be as naughty as The Baroness, and Madonna and Lady gaga have nothing on her scanty outfits. I leave you with what is my favorite poem, for now, and I’ll also leave a few of images of her art and costumes. I highly recommend you read the Gammel book and check out this link to her digital library hosted by the University of Maryland digital library: http://www.lib.umd.edu/dcr/collections/EvFL-class/index.html

Ah Me!

Trust me
I do agree
Madam—I firmly stand that ground
Coitus is paramount
Ab-so-lu-te-ly!

Nay—Mr. Twitch do me allow
To cool define: when you know how!
As poetry—coitus urges
Driven courses rhythmic surges
Energy—
Executive ability.
Fancy’s wing composed complex
Genius sex’
Bagpipe spell
Sunsirens’ crimsoncruising yell
It is—

Else:
Hell!
Well?
Saucerorbs agog enorm
Smirks he
Ah me!
I don’t perform. (43)

“God” Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Limbswish, sculpture 1917-1919

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven 1874, Swinemunde, Germany – 1927, Paris Portrait of Marcel Duchamp 1919 Collage, pastel, and ink on board 31 x 46 cm

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in her Greenwich Village apartment, December, 1915

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Wheels are Growing on Rose Bushes, 1921-22 Ink on paper, 5 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches

Art Term: Artist’s Hand

The hand of the artist (or artist’s had) refers to the evidence authorship in a work of art, identified by any evidence of the artist’s mark in the piece. For example, the brush strokes left in paint, the delicate modeling of a sculpture, and even the general emotive qualities of a piece and all be described as the artist’s hand and used to uncover the artistic process of creating the art. This the proof left behind that reveals or provides insight into the artist’s role in creating the art. An expert can spot an unsigned Picasso as genuine merely by identifying Picasso’s one-of-a-kind handling of every medium he ever tackled. There’s something deeply personal when an artist gives his hand, his unaccredited collaborator if you will, a cameo.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) “View on Delft,” 1660

One artist that demonstrates perfectly the artist’s hand concept is Dutch genre painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer lived in the 17th-century and painted mostly domestic scenes; in fact most of his paintings are set in one of two rooms in his own home in Delft and the same pieces of furniture, decorations and even the sitter (generally women) can be identified from painting to paintings. He worked slowly and with great care, using bright colors and is particularly famous for his masterly treatment of light in his paintings. The recurrence of traits from painting to painting— style, light effects, furniture, location, subjects, pigments, materials, etc.— are all considered evidence of Vermeer’s authorship, or “hand,” in his paintings. But in particular, it is Vermeer’s use of color to recreate the effect of light hitting a surface that most distinguishes his hand at work. There is no other seventeenth-century artist who employed as lavishly, or as wastefully, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, or natural ultramarine. Vermeer used these elements not just in naturally colored subjects, but earth colors like umber and ochre. Vermeer understood that warm light behaved within a painting’s strongly-lit interior by reflecting in multiple colours onto the wall. So he recreated this effect by building the warms tones with cooler tones and in this way he created a world more perfect than any one could witness, as exampled in “View on Delft.” Vermeer developed this method from his understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object, meaning that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural color. Anyway, I say all this to make the point that artists can leave a signature trait behind in their work that distinguishes it as there’s, and these traits are referred to as the “artist’s hand.”

Below are two good examples of Vermeer’s “hand” putting authorship to his work. You can see that single out a woman, the floor is of the same tile, the composition is notably similar, some historians think the man is the same model (others believe “The Allegory of Painting” is self-portrait though), and colors and lighting are also similar as well as his expert treatment of the lush fabrics.

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) “A Lady and Two Gentlemen” 1659

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) “The Allegory of Painting” (or “The Art of Painting”) 1666

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think its worth pointing out that the Modern art movement developed largely around questioning the what’s, why’s, and how’s of art with the intention of challenging the academy’s authority to distinguish between “good” and “bad” art. By ignoring basic artistic conventions, the premise of removing authorship arose and thus artists began to omit their signatures from their work. No finer example of this can be mentioned than Marcel DuChamp’s readymades. The readymades are Duchamp’s answer to the question, How can one make works of art that are not “of art”? They are incredibly impudent and Duchamp’s method was audacious: he withdrew the hand of the artist from the process of making art, substituted manufactured articles (some custom-made, some readymade) for articles made by the artist, and substituted random or nonrational procedures for conscious design. The results are works of art without any pretense of artifice, and unconcerned with imitating reality in any way. The readymades included found objects, objects he chose and deemed art presented unaltered largely the way he found them. Again, these objects lack completely any distinguishing traits that could single out DuChamp as the maker.

DuChamp reasoned that if you want to break all the rules of the artistic tradition then you may as well begin by discarding art’s most fundamental values: beauty and authorship/artisanship. By removing completely any signifier from the work, he created art that was art only because he CHOSE it and presented it as such. His most famous readymade is probably “The Fountain.” (though he definitely had co-conspirators, most notable of which is Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and she is a complicated post for another day) “The Fountain” was conceived for a show promoting avant-garde art, which inevitably excluded forward-looking artists. Under the pseudonym “R. Mutt,” DuChamp took advantage of the show’s lack of juried panels and submitted “Fountain” as a prank taunting his not-quite-so-avant-garde peers. And like all of his readymades, this was a calculated attack on art tradition. By signing the piece as “R. Mutt” Duchamp surrendered all claim to authorship of the piece, completely eliminating the “artist’s hand” tradition in the “The Fountain.” He defended the piece from accusations and even charges of plagiarism in an unsigned article in The Blind Man, a one-shot magazine published by his friend Beatrice Wood, replying that “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.”

And so, Modern Art was born and authorship— among other conventional definitions of art— became irrelevant.

In 1995, Damien Hirst defended his work with that very same rationale stating that, “It’s very easy to say, ‘I could have done that,’ after someone’s done it. But I did it. You didn’t. It didn’t exist until I did it.”

Well this post took a tangent toward Modern Art! But I suppose Modern Art is my favorite and I have been thinking about the period a lot here lately. I hope you guys enjoyed the extra art information. It seems that I need to to do a post on Damien Hirst and the Baroness soon.

So recap: Artist’s hand refers to signifiers of authorship, that distinguish the art piece as being by this artist.

 

https://www.lamodern.com/2013/05/peters-auction-pick-of-the-day-exploring-the-artists-hand/ http://www.julietmacdonald.co.uk/phd_files/Site_hand_eye_p/theartistshand.htm

Jasper Johns

I found out that Jasper Johns has new work on exhibit at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) and got all kinds of excited. And since I touched on artists who work and find success well into their advanced years recently (Maria Lassnig) I thought I would provide another example an artist pursuing his craft well inot his twilight years instead of retiring.

Jasper Johns is mostly known for his richly worked paintings of maps, flags, and targets that led the artistic community away from Abstract Expressionism toward a renewed emphasis on concrete subjects. But today the 83-year-old Jasper Johns is still hard at work and recently made two paintings, two etchings and 10 works on paper in a variety of media, all of which are variations on a photograph of artist Lucian Freud that appeared in a Christie’s catalogue, originally commissioned by Francis Bacon. While Johns does own a painting by Freud, he never met the artist himself, and only met Bacon once via telephone interview; Johns says all inspiration for the series came from the Christie’s photograph, not Freud or Bacon.  When asked how the works evolved Johns answers with, “It just began… There were drawings that were studies for paintings. I also knew I wanted to do a print, and so it went back and forth between printing, drawing, and painting.”

“Regrets” 2013. An altered photo from a Christie’s catalogue.

In the photo a younger, Freud, then in his 30s, sits perched on a bed raising an arm to hide his face. British photographer John Deakin took it around 1964 as part of a series commissioned by Francis Bacon, wanting to use the images as source material for his own paintings. Over the years, Bacon took that photograph of Freud on the bed and folded it, tore it and creased it until a pronounced dark patch dominated its foreground. Eventually Christie’s got a hold of the tattered image and shortly after Johns saw it in their auction catalog. The photo became the focal point of his latest project, inspiring him frays, creases, black patch, and all.

But in true Post-Pop fashion, Johns tore the image out of the magazine rather then buy it himself, and proceeded to trace, copy, mark up and in all possible ways obscure it into near abstraction. He also played with the negative of the dark patch to contrast the positive space, all while incorporating layers of his signature themes like crosshatching, numbers, gray palette and wire mesh. A signature of his work is simplicity that downplays the elaborate nature of his working process.

Ok, so now for a little history on Johns. A native of the South, Jasper Johns was born in Augusta in 1930, and raised in South Carolina. From the young age of five he knew he was going to be an artist. He attended college at the University of South Carolina at Columbia for three years, leaving for New York in 1948 at his art teachers’ insistence he move there. Johns attended the Parsons School of Design for a semester and saw numerous exhibitions during this period. For a period of two years  he served in the army during the Korean War, stationed in South Carolina and Sendai, Japan, only to once again return to New York in 1953. Johns soon became friends with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925), also a Southerner, and with the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham. During the mid-1950s, Johns along with Rauschenberg joined up with several Abstract Expressionist painters of the previous generation, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman to name a few.

“White Flag” 1955

During this time Johns grew frustrated with the results of Abstract Expressionism deciding that improv painting had arrived to all possible conclusions; or at least he appeared to become bored with where the technique was heading. Ever the control freak, Johns refocused on the the deliberate abstraction of widely available concrete subjects like printed media, or as he explains “things the mind already knows.” He became famous for repurposing quotidian icons of American culture; such as flags, targets, stenciled numbers, ale cans, and, slightly later, maps of the U.S especially the American flag during the 50s.  The difference between  Johns’ new painting style and Abstract Expressionism is that Johns stressed conscious control rather than spontaneity thus revolutionizing the allover compositional techniques of Abstract Expressionism. Johns’s new style engendered a number of subsequent art movements, among them Pop, Minimal, and Conceptual art. Johns’ early style is perfectly exemplified by the reserved, but lush large monochrome encaustic painting White Flag of 1955. The simplicity of this piece understates the meticulous and great amount of work Johns put into the piece rendered of beeswax on cotton panels he stretched himself.

Throughout his career, Johns incorporated certain marks and shapes into his art that clearly display their derivation from factual, unimagined things in the world, including handprints and footprints, casts of parts of the body, or stamps made from objects found in his studio, such as the rim of a tin can. This latest series of work seems to be a continuation of his exploration in abstracting concrete printed media in new and innovative ways.  I was able to find two more images of works from the show, but for now much of it is being kept secret for the opening; which was March 15th. So there should be more information available soon.

 

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/arts/design/moma-to-show-jasper-johnss-regrets-series.html?ref=design&_r=0

http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/john/hd_john.htm

Maria Lassnig: Body Awareness

I realized that I have done y’all, dear readers, a huge disservice. I have failed to post anything on one of my FAVORITE artists in any genre EVER. Her name is Maria Lassnig, she hails from Austria, born September 8, 1919 in Kappel am Krappfeld, Carinthia. Lassnig built her artistic career by bravely exploring the insecurities associated with the internal sensations of the body by shamelessly exhibiting, for our viewing pleasure, her own body in paintings and drawings.

Since the 1940s, her self-portraits boldly explore “body awareness,” her term for these paintings, to reveal insights into Lassnig’s own feelings of sensations within her body. The viewer is invited to share with Lassnig, the senses felt within her own skin and we don’t just observe, we experience her fright, or timidness, or violence, or confusion. Her paintings are meant to make the viewer feel uncomfortable and the powerful effect of her images ironically comes from their vulnerability. Her naked, bald, and wide-eyed self-portraits brazenly posit her bare body for examination. Looking at them we see exposed, fragile, fleshy, soft fgures, naked with enlarged eyes full of feeling., and we empathize with these exposed figures.

Lassnig’s approach to painting is rooted in rendering only the parts of her body that she can feel while painting. Through this approach she has created an oeuvre originating with the recognition of the human body’s potential as a medium for generating images,  constituting a sort of autobiographical attempt to render her inner states on canvas. A lot of her portraits and later figures are shown without limbs, clothes, or hair because these are parts of herself she cannot sense while painting. In her large-format works Lassnig investigates themes like gender-roles, with figurative elements presented against monochromatic backgrounds in a colour-palette that  prominently features a neon-ish sea green, characteristic of her work. The spectrum of motifs ranges from a double-portrait (“Adam und Eva,” 2010) and the presentation of a couple making love, an amorphous green creature seeming to float above them (“Die Inspiration,” 2010), to a half-portrait of a young man who literally reveals his innermost, insofar as he opens up his chest with his own hands (“Der Jüngling,” 2011). Being completely unafraid of taking on unpleasant topics, Lassnig produced a series of paintings that places the violence of rape uncomfortably before the viewer, with the intention of allowing us to experience the victims’ terror and helplessness while simultaneously relating to the dominance and pleasure felt by the rapist. A lot of her self-portraits in later life are such dualities that comment on youth and age.  She exposes similar feelings of helplessness felt by the very young and the very old by juxtaposing a childhood companion, the teddybear, with her frail and aged body (“The teddy is More Real than Me,” 2002).

“The teddy is more real than me”

Following her graduation from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1944, Lassnig contributed greatly to the emergence of art informal in Austrian in the early 1950s. She met and befriended Arnulf Rainer and Josef Mikl and the three abstract painters exhibited in Vienna around this time. During this time she was part Hundsgruppe, which also included Arnulf Rainer, Ernst Fuchs, Anton Lehmden, Arik Brauer,  and Wolfgang Hollegha . The works of the group were influenced by Abstract Expressionism and action painting. Later, in the 50′s, she joined with Surrealist Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret. Lassnig’s early exposure to Art Informal, Surrealism, and Gutal left apparent influences in her softened graphic, but still brutally honest style. She remained singular from her contemporaries for the linguistic interests she pursued in her portraits. She also left her mark on the development of feminist art in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In 1980, after living for several years between Paris and New York, Lassnig returned to Vienna for a position at the Academy of Art, becoming the first female Professor of painting in a german-speaking country. She was also the first woman artist to win the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988, and in 2005 she was awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.

Lassnig has also exhibited extensively through the world.  She represented Austria, with Valie Export, at the Venice Biennale in 1980, and has twice exhibited at documenta. In 1996 a retrospective of her work was held at the Centre Georges Pompidou. For the  2005-2006 year she she designed the large scale picture (176 m2) “Breakfast with Ear” as part of the exhibition series “Safety curtain” the Vienna State Opera. In 2008 an exhibition of her recent paintings was shown at the Serpentine Gallery which also travelled to the Contemporary Arts Center in the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, (2009). The exhibition was curated by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist in association with Rebecca Morrill and featured thirty canvases and seven films. Lassnig’s recent solo exhibitions include, It’s art that keeps one ever young, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, (2010), ‘Maria Lassnig. Films’, Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York NY, (2011), and THE LOCATION OF PICTURES, Deichtorhallen; Hamburg (2013).

Finally, Lassnig received the 55th Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, awarded at the Biennale’s June 1 opening, with the Italian artist Marisa Merz. Lassnig is now 93 and it is a great honor to be awarded this in honor of her long and prolific career. In old age, many artists are criticized for becoming soft, conventional, “losing their style/vision/fire/<insertcritique> but Maria Lassnig has proven that age cannot be held up as a barrier to art making, to impact-full art making, and she continues to produce art that pushes boundaries to expose dualities to reveal insights into ourselves, bodily and conceptually.

Art Term: Pointillism

 Lets all shout ‘yay’ for the second art term post— YAY! The topic for this one is: Pointillism. “Yay pointillism!”

George Seurat, “A Sunny Day on La Jatte.” 1884-1888

Pointillism is a technique and style of painting invented by the  French painters Georges-Pierre Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886. The objective of pointillism is to create the illusion of your subject/solid space by using dots, only dots, and nothing but dots, of any pure color or size. This technique relies optics, utilizing both the art’s and the viewer’s perceptive ability of eye and mind to optically blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones. This is similar to the four-color CMYK printing process used by some color printers and large presses that place dots of Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and Key (black). Televisions and computer monitors use a similar technique to depict images using red, green, and blue (RGB) colors. Today artists can achieve this effect with a variety of tools, such as a pen, pencil or tiny paint brush; but the image must be rendered through the application of pure pigment with small distinctive dots (points).  As you can imagine this is a very time consuming and meticulous process requiring patience and discipline.

Seurat made pointillism famous when he debuted his painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte(1884-1888) at the eighth annual and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886. It took two years of painstaking dot application for Seurat to finish the painting, which immediately changed the course of vanguard painting by initiating a departure from Impressionism that came to known as “Neo-Impressionism” and later inspired Divisionism. (But in general discussion you can refer to Pointillist painters as post-Impressionsits, remember from that other post?)

However, Seurat’s painting received a withering reception within Impressionist circles. Seurat’s innovation was a deliberate challenge to Impressionism’s first practitioners, such as Renoir and Monet.  Impressionist critics and artists disliked Pointillism because the technique was a flagrant departure from traditional methods of blending pigments on a palette. Impressionism was all about creating images with a variety of brushstrokes, and Pointillism removed brushstrokes all together thus eliminating texture and the ever venerated “hand of the artist.” Art critics even intended the name “Pointillism” to ridicule these paintings— though it no longer carries that earlier mocking connotation.

Signac became Seurat’s faithful supporter, friend, and successor by embracing Pointillism to develop his own color theory. Signac’s color theory became the foundation for his more technical adaptation, Divisionism. They differ in that Pointillism is concerned about the mechanics of dot-work used to apply the paint, not necessarily the science of color separation. Divisionism is concerned specifically with the science of color separation and  juxtaposition of small dots of pure color.  Either way, both are concerned with the additive aspect of light and color, much like the RBG image you are staring at on your screen right now.

Paul Signac, “Portrait de Felix Feneon.” 1890

Pointillism continued to evolve through the experiments of later artists like Van Gogh, Jean MetzingerRobert Delaunay, Warhol and to some extent in Pop Art with Roy Lichtenstein‘s exploration of print media. Oh! And of course Yayoi Katsuma, remember? The technique is still used today, and even I did a dot drawing with ink in high school. Though with pointillism, the artist sacrifices depth and texture, the variety and richness of colors achieved after much diligence is simply stunning.

Van Gogh, “Self Portrait with Felt Hat.” 1887

Jean Metzinger, “La Dance (Bacchante).” 1906

Roy Lichtenstein “Drowning Girl.” 1963

Robert DeLaunay, “L’honne a la Tulip.” 1906

Henri-Edmund Cross “Madame Hector France.” 1901

Henri-Edmund Cross “La fuite des nymphes.” 1906

Joe aka Casa-nova, This pointilism portrait by artist Joe aka Casa-nova took over 50 hours to complete, 2010

Sakura Chrno “Sun.” contemporary

Claire Ellis, “untitled” contemporary

*Bonus: Pointillism is also a kind of music that developed in the mid to late 20th-century. Different musical notes are made in seclusion, rather than in a linear sequence, giving a sound texture similar to pointillism.  This type of music is also known as punctualism or klangfarbenmelodie.

  1.  “Pointillism.” Artcyclopedia. Artists by Movement. John Malyon/Artcyclopedia, 2007. Web. http://www.artcyclopedia.com/history/pointillism.html
  2. Ruhrberg, Karl. “Seurat and the Neo-Impressionists”. Art of the 20th Century, Vol. 2. Koln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1998. ISBN 3822840890.
  3.  Nathan, Solon. “Pointillism Materials.” Web. 9 Feb 2010. http://www.si.umich.edu/chico/emerson/pntmat.html
  4. Britannica – The Online Encyclopedia http://www.britannica.com/

American Girl 2014

I did not grow up as a fan of the American Girl dolls, I was rather indifferent to them I suppose. So while you couldn’t say I had any expectations for the debut of the 2014 Girl of the Year doll, I was notably disappointed and sadden by the bland choice for this year. Her name is Isabelle, she has hazel eyes, blonde hair with an attachable pink hair streak, and her outfit is also pink. Oh, and she is into dance. This is very cliche American isn’t it? A cookie straight from mother Dixie’s oven. I had always thought that the dolls were about moments in history, so I looked it up.

I started thinking that if I  knew more about previous dolls maybe it would help understand why Mattel chose to have a blonde girl in pink that is into ballet represent 2014, instead of a Hispanic girl whose family is struggling to get legal status, learn English, and fit in in a Texas neighborhood (cause immigration reform issues would have been a great topic to mark the year right?)

Mattel has owned the American Girl brand for 15 years, buying it up in 1998 from Pleasant Company. After the Mattel takeover American Girl under went incremental, but forgettable, changes. The company debuted a line of contemporary 18-inch dolls and accessories that has since evolved into the new My American Girl. The first really notable change was in 2008, when Mattel decide to archive the original dolls and rename them “Historical Characters.” This means that dolls with stories that illuminated on controversial and important moments in history- like Samantha, Kirsten, and the headstrong colonial girl Felicity,- that made up the core of the “The American Girls Collection” are no longer sold by American Girl. The archiving of Historical dolls freed up funds to market the customizable My American Girl and the annual Girl of the Year dolls. These product lines feature blander avatars to little girls, reflecting only the present time period and appearance of “contemporary girls.” This is right off their website: “The My American Girl product line lets every girl create a truly special doll that’s just right for her, then bring her doll to life in a safe, enriching online world that promotes learning and helps girls to be their best.”  Really? A truly special girl, just like her, that promotes learning in a safe online world. How can a doll that is “just like her” really challenge your daughter to explore ideas and topics outside of her awareness?

The historic dolls represented more than just the origins of an iconic brand, they allowed girls to see themselves in the thick of the action. They were doing rather sitting on the sidelines. The systematic archiving demonstrates a lost sensibility about teaching girls to understand complex historical controversies AND how use that understanding to become builders of a continually progressing social and political consciousness. When compared to the historical dolls, the contemporary dolls lack dimension, interest, and dynamism. These are qualities that help children understand that they have the potential to do more than be a part of their small part of the world- they can reshape it.

Take Saige, McKenna, and Lanie. These are three previous Girl of the Year Dolls, that are nothing more than recycled attributes plus or minus a superficial element. All three are white; upper-middle-class. Saige is a dancer, McKenna a gymnast, and Lanie is an amateur gardener and butterfly enthusiast. In their attempts to encourage spunky and active girlhoods, Mattel approaches problem solving in a highly local way. One has a bake sale to help save the school arts program, Lanie persuades one neighbor to stop using pesticides and Isabella balances school work with her dance lessons (I think McKenna learned the same lesson about time management but with gymnastics instead). They also undergo emotion development by overcoming jealousy, insecurity, and bullying. Great. But none of these girls faced situations that brought them into contact with real social issues or physical and emotional hardship.

Before the rebranding, American Girl characters faced real social real controversy and the girl’s solution had meaningful, resounding impact. The very first American girl doll was Samantha, an orphan raised by her grandmother during the Edwardian period. Themes in Samantha’s books include women’s suffrage, child labor, and classism that were dealt with through her friendship with and rescuing of a serving girl. Molly McIntire is a young girl of Scottish descent,  living in Jefferson, Illinois during the latter years of World War II. Her father is doctor stationed in England caring for wounded soldiers, and Molly must cope with changes that war has brought. She realizes that she can do something to aid soldiers and she and her family host an English girl immigrating from the war zone. Kirsten Larson is a Swedish immigrant who settles in the Minnesota Territory with her extended family. She faces actual physical risk posed by the challenges of settling a wide territory and adaptations necessary to adjust to life in America- like ya know learning to speak English. These earlier dolls deal with immigration, displacement, women and children’s’ exploitation, and hard work. These girls grow from their situation.

Compare that to Isabelle who enters a dance competition but then starts to do poorly in math (she’s poor at math! why math? why can’t she be bad at home ec?). She is just like Marisol, another dancer, plus a bit from Lanie or Kailey, or both who can tell?, with a different outfit. Sure, her story might inspire some little girl to be the next greatest dancer or choreographer, but more than likely most parents will find that they have wasted their money on lessons their daughter quit after a few weeks.

*sigh* Ok on the real, there’s nothing wrong with young girls learning about good time management early on, but seriously, how does Isabelle’s story make her different in some way from the “average” girl reading her book? How is this young reader compelled, motivated, or enlighten? She’ll learn about bullying and dedication to accomplish goals, but did she learn about immigration reform or LGBT rights? Gun violence in school?  Or let’s talk about creationism vs evolution in schools! Or even about freaking global warming?!!!!!

Those are things that real American girls do face every day. Where’s the girl who as two dads or a mentally ill sibling?

But this is just a harmless marketing move, right? Nothing more that a strategic way to target collections toward buyers willing to cash out the big bucks for costly dolls, right? Just like Spanos said, its a marketing strategy. She also says that “[Mattel] still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand.” 

The current catalogue leads off with the My American Girl offerings, followed by “Dress Like Your Doll” 2013 Doll of The Year,’ and ‘Books and Magazines.’ Only when you get to the fifth section, on page 38, do “Historical Characters” make an appearance. And on the website the homepage features matching doll outfits, dresses for girls so they match their doll, the current product line, and the online game for our 2014 Girl of the Year, Isabelle. Essentially, historical dolls are afterthoughts.

 “[American Girl] still considers the historical characters to be the heart of the brand.”— Spanos

So why doesn’t Mattel feature a doll who has a parent, maybe a mother, fighting in Iraq? Or just a girl whose not white? (there’s only been two black  character dolls—one a slave girl!— and NO Asians, Ivy doesn’t count cause she’s Julie’s BF, not a main character with her stuff), and for the contemporary lines there’s not much to cater to girls with darker skin either. 

Oh what look at this:

The dolls retail at American Girl stores nationwide for $110 each, and accessories cost extra.”—ABC News

In the end, the dolls are  $110-$200. Mattell knows who they are marketing to, and its not to every American girl. Heck after reading the comments its not even to girls, it looks like its mostly old ladies buying them up.

Check this quote for a buyer”

“”I purcahsed these two dolls for my girls as a Christmas present. Although they have not seen them yet I LOVE them. Their accessories and outfits are so nice.”

(the caps are not my formatting)

Also, does no one else think dolls are just plain creepy?

She has the devil’s eyes!