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

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/

Short Bit: Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer is a conceptual artist living and working in New York. The main objective of her oeuvre is to make narrative or commentary an implicit part of visual objects. Essentially, her medium are words. Belonging to a generation of feminist artists from the 80’s, though her work began in the 1970s with the New York City posters. Her first experiments with projecting anonymous messages resulted in her Truisms (1977–9), which she printed onto broadsheets in black italic script on white paper and wheat-pasted to buildings, walls, and fences in and around Manhattan. These one-liners are extractions from a scholarly reading list from the Whitney Independent Study Program, where Holzer was a student. Recently, Holzer’s light projections on architecture and landscape challenge ignorance and violence with humor, kindness, satire, and moral courage.

Projections (1996-2011)

In 1981, Holzer began printing on aluminum and bronze plaques, the presentation format used by medical and government buildings, and dubbed the series  “Living.” The following year, Holzer installed the first large electronic sign on the Spectacolor board at Times Square, New York thanks to a sponsorship from the Public Art Fund program.  Using L.E.D. (light emitting diode) allowed Holzer to communicate to a much larger audience. The texts in her subsequent Survival series (1983-85) comment on the great pain, delight, and ridiculousness of living in contemporary society. In her 1986 exhibition at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York, Holzer revealed the maturity of her concept when she introduced her first total environment, where viewers were confronted with the relentless visual buzz of a horizontal LED sign and stone benches leading up to an electronic altar. This practice culminated in the installation at the Guggenheim Museum in 1989 of a 163 meter-long sign, forming a continuous circle spiraling up the parapet wall.

The third phase of Holzer’s For the City, projected on the Fifth Avenue side of the New York Public Library, October 6–9, 2005

For more than thirty years, Holzer boldly displayed her astringent ideas, arguments, pleasures, and sorrows in public places and international exhibitions; including 7 World Trade Center, the Reichstag, the Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whether formulated as a T-shirt, as a plaque, or as an LED sign, public display and reception are integral to the concept of her work. Holzer received the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in 1996. She holds honorary degrees from Ohio University, Williams College, the Rhode Island School of Design, The New School, and Smith College. She received the Barnard Medal of Distinction in 2011.

Installation in lobby at 7 WTC

Art Terms: Chiaroscuro

The Matchmaker by Gerrit van Honthorst, I just like this one so I thought it should be first. Anyway, interesting innovation of figure highlighting with chiaroscuro -type techniques.

Chiaroscuro, chi·a·ro·scu·ro  (kē-är′ə-sko͝or′ō, -skyo͝or′ō)

n. pl. chi·a·ro·scu·ros In all senses also called claire-obscure.

1. The technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation.
2. The arrangement of light and dark elements in a pictorial work of art.
3. a. A woodcut technique in which several blocks are used to print different shades of a color.

    b. A woodcut print made by this technique.

Today in art, chiaroscuro refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark. The bold contrasts affect a whole composition by adding drama, navigating the viewer’s eye’s, highlighting important figures, etc. Chiaroscuro also is a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects, such as the human body. Photography and cinema also have adopted the term, so similar effects in the lighting in film or in a photo can also be described as chiaroscuro.

The more technical use of the term chiaroscuro is the effect of light modeling in painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography and film, where three-dimensional volume is suggested by the value gradation of colour and the analytical division of light and shadow shapes—or just shading. Chiaroscuro can be achieved through a variety of techniques. In drawings and prints, artist can use hatching (shading by parallel lines) washes, stipple (dotting effects), and surface tone (texture) for the desired modeling chiaroscuro. In photographs, the photographer can adjust lighting to creat shadows, or on a computer he/she can tweak contrast and other levels in a photo editor.

But the history of the effect vs the word was much more complex than I could have imagined.

Chiaroscuro woodcut of the Virgin and Child by Bartolommeo Coriolano, created between 1630 and 1655

Actual use of the term dates back to the Renaissance when “chiaroscuro” described either colored woodcuts printed with different colored blocks or a specificform of drawing on colored paper with a dark medium and white highlighting. The “chiaroscuro woodcuts” feature different color rather than strong contrasts of light and dark.  In some German two-block prints, the keyblock (or “line block”) was printed in black and the tone block or blocks had flat areas of color. They were first invented by Lucas Cranach in Germany in 1507, and first made in Italy by Ugo da Carpi sometime around 1516. Other printmakers using this technique include CranachHans WechtlinHans Baldung Grien, and Parmigianino and in Germany this technique achieved its greatest popularity around 1520. It became popular in Italy during the later half of the sixteenth century. In Italy, chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced without key blocks and produced a very different effect. They resembled the style of wash drawings and also came to be known as chiaroscuro. So when discussing Italian art chiaroscuro can be used to describe any painted image in monochrome or two colors (In English and French the equivalent is grisaille). Early on the term was broad, covering all descriptions of strong contrasts in illumination between light and dark areas in art, which is now the primary meaning.

Though the word chiaroscuro was not used until the 1500’s, the invention of the effects of contrast was well before. The famous Athenian painter of the 5th century BC, Apollodoros, made skiagraphia, or “shadow-paintings” to the Ancient Greeks.  Although virtually no Ancient Greek painting survives, their understanding of the effect of light modeling can be observed the mosaics of Pella, Macedonia, in particular the Stag Hunt Mosaic, in the House of the Abduction of Helen, from around the late 4th century BC.

The technique also survived in a standardized form in Byzantine art but was rather curve. During the the Middle Ages contrasting effects were further refined in painting and manuscript illumination in Italy and Flanders, and then spread to all Western art. The Raphael painting illustrates the effects of lighting demonstrating how delicate modeling chiaroscuro gives volume a figure, and how strong chiaroscuro uses contrast to distinguish hierarchy between subjects; in the painting the main subject is the the well-lit model and the very dark background of foliage recedes to the background. But chiaroscuro was still not used to describe this kind of modeling at the time.

Giovanni Baglione. Sacred and Profane Love. 1602–1603, showing dramatic compositional chiaroscuro

Strong chiaroscuro became a popular effect during the  Mannerism and Baroque periods in the 16th century. The effect used light to suggest divinity and usually consisted of dark subjects dramatically lit by a shaft of light from a single constricted and often unseen source. Early developers of this compositional device were Ugo da Carpi (c. 1455-c. 1523), Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643), and Caravaggio (1573–1610), the last of whom was crucial in developing the style of tenebrism, where dramatic chiaroscuro becomes a dominant stylistic device. Tenebrism was especially practiced in Spain by Jusepe de Ribera and his followers. Illumination was also employed in compositions by TintorettoVeronese, and their many followers.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), a German artist living in Rome, produced several night scenes lit mainly by fire, and sometimes moonlight. Unlike Caravaggio, his dark areas contain very subtle detail and interest.  Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was also a follower of Caravaggio and demonstrated outstanding works of tenebrism and chiaroscuro.  Another follower of Caravaggio was Peter Paul Rubens, who exploited Carvaggio’s respective approaches to chiaroscuro for dramatic effect in his paintings.

Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1490, after a composition by Hugo van der Goes of c. 1470; sources of light are the infant Jesus, the shepherds’ fire on the hill behind, and the angel who appears to them

A particular genre that developed from explorations of chiaroscuro was the nocturnal scene lit by candlelight, which looked back to earlier northern artists and more immediately, to the innovations of Caravaggio and Elsheimer. This theme played out in the early seventeenth century by artists in the Low Countries, such as Gerrit van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen, and with FLemish Baroque painters, such as Jacob Jordaens (later referred to as the Utrecht Caravaggisti). Rembrandt‘s early works from the 1620’s also adopted the single-candle light source. The nocturnal candle-lit scene re-emerged in the Dutch Republic during the mid-17th century on a smaller scale in the works by Gerrit Dou and Gottfried Schalken among others. Outside the Low Countries, artists such as Georges de La Tour and Trophime Bigot in France and Joseph Wright of Derby in England, carried on with such strong, butgraduated, candlelight chiaroscuro. Watteau used a gentle chiaroscuro in the leafy backgrounds of his fêtes galantes, and this was continued in paintings by many French artists. At the end of the century, artist used a heavier chiaroscuro for romantic effect.

And finally, the French use of the term, clair-obscur, was introduced by 17th century art-critic Roger de Pilas in the course of a famous argument (Débat sur le coloris), on the relative merits of drawing and colour in painting. The term is less frequently used after the late nineteenth century, although the Expressionist and other modern movements make great use of the effect.

The central panel of Peter Paul Rubens’s The Elevation of the Cross (1610-1611) is modeled with dynamic chiaroscuro