Carmen Herrera – The Cuban Abstract Painting God

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ARTNET
People

Carmen Herrera, Who Sold Her First Painting Aged 89, Turns 100 Years Old

Eileen Kinsella, Sunday, May 31, 2015

Carmen Herrera at work on a painting.  Photo: Courtesy Jacob Schmidt.

If the life story of Carmen Herrera was written as fiction, many people wouldn’t believe it.

As Deborah Sontag wrote in a front page story for the New York Times Art & Design section in 2009: “In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot.”

The artist had her first sale at the age of 89. In her 90s, her work became part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Hirshhorn, and Tate Modern. After 60 years of honing and practicing her craft, creating brilliantly-colored and ever more minimal and pure geometric abstractions, Herrera is finally receiving her due in critical, institutional and collecting circles alike (see Imi Knoebel, Marianne Vitale, and Carmen Herrera Among Robust Sales at Armory Show 2014 and Sales Heat Up at Frieze New York).

The Cuban-born, Manhattan-based artist marks her first century this May 31. “Life is wonderful and funny,” Herrera told W Magazine. “And then you get to be 100.”

This spring, Alison Klayman directed a brief but fascinating new documentary about Herrera’s life and her recent rise to fame in the art world. The film, titled, The 100 Years Picture Show—starring Carmen Herrera, premiered at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.

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Herrera’s diptych Blanco y Verde (1959) is now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s debut exhibition in its new Meatpacking location, titled, “America is Hard to See.” Her paintings, if you look at them carefully, can almost seem like cuts in space,” curator Dana Miller says in an audio guide for the show.

The artist, who had previously studied architecture, has long been fascinated by spatial arrangements. For the upcoming London edition of Frieze this October, the Lisson Gallery in London, which represents her, is planning a solo show of her large-scale paintings at the fair.

In a 2010 interview before a previous exhibition at Lisson, Herrera told Hermoine Hoby at the Observer, “When you’re known you want to do the same thing again to please people. And, as nobody wanted what I did, I was pleasing myself, and that’s the answer.”

The artnet Price Database lists 15 of her works at auction, the most expensive of which is one sold for $170,500, at a November 2012 auction at Christie’s New York.

Carmen Herrera

The artist, who was born in Havana in 1915, moved to the US in 1939 with her husband Jesse Loewenthal, a poet and longtime Stuyvesant High School teacher. After spending a few years in Paris following World War II—where Herrera told the Times she found her own “pictorial vocabulary,” and exhibited alongside artists including Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delauney, and others, the couple returned to New York in 1954. For decades, Herrera has occupied the same loft, which also serves as her studio, near Union Square.

Over the years Herrera has been friends with artists ranging from Cuban star Wifredo Lam, to Yves Klein, and Barnett Newman (see New Collectors Fuel Demand and Double Estimates at Latin American Art Sales and Frida Kahlo Export Market Booming Despite Export Restrictions). She also knew Jean Genet, whom she calls “a sweet man.”

HerreraStill#2RES

The documentary includes intimate scenes of Herrera and her assistants at work, conversations with Herrera and her close friends about her life and work, and talks with art experts including Walker Art Center director Olga Viso and curator Dana Miller.

“She gets up every morning and makes art. It’s a compulsion. It’s what sustains her,” Miller says.

Herrera, who is wry and charming, quotes an old saying: “If you wait for the bus, it will come. I waited 98 years for the bus to come.”

She adds with a laugh: “Nobody cared what I did…It was a hard thing to get people to accept it. Now they’ve accepted it. That’s okay with me.”

Carmen Herrera. Photo: Courtesy Alison Klayman.

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NYTIMES

At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Carmen Herrera in her Manhattan loft, surrounded by her art. She sold her first work in 2004. More Photos >

Published: December 19, 2009

Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her. More Photos »

Collection of Estrellita Brodsky, First Sale

Ms. Herrera’s “Red Star” from 1949. More Photos >

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said of painting. “I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, called Ms. Herrera “a quiet warrior of her art.”

“To bloom into full glory at 94 — whatever Carmen Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.

A minimalist whose canvases are geometric distillations of form and color, Ms. Herrera has slowly come to the attention of a subset of art historians over the last decade. . Now she is increasingly considered an important figure by those who study her “remarkably monumental, iconic paintings,” said Edward J. Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University.

“Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role” Ms. Herrera has played in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Painting in relative solitude since the late 1930s, with only the occasional exhibition, Ms. Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal. An English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Loewenthal was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an “elegant, three-piece suit, the gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front.”

Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”

In a series of interviews in her sparsely but artfully furnished apartment, Ms. Herrera always offered an afternoon cocktail — “Oh, don’t be abstemious!” — and an outpouring of stories about prerevolutionary Cuba, postwar Paris and the many artists she has known, from Wifredo Lam to Yves Klein to Barnett Newman.

“Ah, Wifredo,” she said, referring to Lam, the Cuban-born French painter. “All the girls were crazy about him. When we were in Havana, my phone would begin ringing: ‘Is Wifredo in town?’ I mean, come on, I wasn’t his social secretary.”

But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. “Paintings speak for themselves,” she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like “Blanco y Verde” (1966) — a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle — she said, “I wouldn’t have a student.” To a sweet, inquiring child, then? “I’d give him some candy so he’d rot his teeth.”

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”

Born in 1915 in Havana, where her father was the founding editor of the daily newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter, Ms. Herrera took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris and embarked on a Cuban university degree in architecture. In 1939, midway through her studies, she married Mr. Loewenthal and moved to New York. (They had no children.)

Although she studied at the Art Students League of New York, Ms. Herrera did not discover her artistic identity until she and her husband settled in Paris for a few years after World War II. There she joined a group of abstract artists, based at the influential Salon of New Realities, which exhibited her work along with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and others.

“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” she said. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art” — her less-is-more formalism — “was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.”

Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”

Over the decades, Ms. Herrera had a solo show here and there, including a couple at museums (the Alternative Museum in 1984, El Museo del Barrio in 1998). But she never sold anything, and never needed, or aggressively sought, the affirmation of the market. “It would have been nice, but maybe corrupting,” she said.

Mr. Bechara, who befriended her in the early 1970s and is now chairman of El Museo del Barrio, said that he regularly tried to push her into the public eye, even though she “found a kind of solace in being alone.”

One day in 2004, Mr. Bechara attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who was dealing with the withdrawal of an artist from a much-publicized show of female geometric painters. “Tony said to me: ‘Geometry and ladies? You need Carmen Herrera,’ ” Mr. Sève recounted. “And I said, ‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ ”

The next morning, Mr. Sève arrived at his gallery to find several paintings, just delivered, that he took to be the work of the well-known Brazilian artist Lygia Clark but were in fact by Ms. Herrera. Turning over the canvases, he saw that they predated by a decade paintings in a similar style by Ms. Clark. “Wow, wow, wow,” he recalled saying. “We got a pioneer here.”

Mr. Sève quickly called Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector who has an art foundation in Miami. She bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought another five. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, also bought several, and with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

The recent exhibition in England, which is now heading to Germany, came about by happenstance after a curator stumbled across Ms. Herrera’s paintings on the Internet. Last week The Observer named that retrospective one of the year’s 10 best exhibitions, alongside a Picasso show and one devoted to the American Pop artist Ed Ruscha.

Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street “like a French concierge,” Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.

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frieze

 

Issue 152 January-February 2013 RSS

The Whole Thing

Interview

British artist David Batchelor talks to Cuban-American painter Carmen Herrera about her 80 years of making art

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A specially commissioned portrait of Carmen Herrera by Jody Rogac, 2012

This conversation took place over the course of an afternoon in Carmen Herrera’s studio in New York. I became intrigued by Carmen’s work after I saw her exhibition at IKON in Birmingham, UK, in 2009; I was embarrassed that I hadn’t been aware of it before. Ever since I was a student, I have had a thing about the more austere forms of abstract art, and there I was, faced with a body of work that spanned the entire postwar history of abstraction. Even better than that, almost all of it used just a few lines and no more than two colours.

Carmen’s studio occupies the south-facing end of her long, narrow, seventh-floor apartment in lower Manhattan, where she has lived and work­ed for 45 years. The studio and apartment are functional and uncluttered, orderly but in a straightforward and unstudied way. Carmen her­self was warm and gracious, funny and entirely without pretensions. She has the relaxed dignity that comes from a lifetime’s work and the un­der­standing that she has absolutely nothing left to prove.

I would like to thank Tony Bechara, Carmen’s long-term friend and neighbour, who helped or­gan­ize and facilitate this discussion.

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Red with White Triangle, 1961, acrylic on canvas, 122 × 168 cm

David Batchelor You were born in Cuba in 1915.

Carmen Herrera Yes, but I left when I was very young, and although I went back a couple of times for family crises I never lived there again. If I went to Havana now I wouldn’t know anybody.

DB How old were you when you began painting?

CH I was a child prodigy as far as my family was concerned. I had a brother who was a painter, a very talented person who did nothing with his talent, but through him I became interested in art. My family were collectors of paintings, but not of modern art.

DB Your work was first exhibited as part of a group show in 1933 at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Havana.

CH It was a funny exhibition, because they weren’t prepared for the kind of work I was doing; it was amusing to see people come, look and walk right out, as if they had been insulted by me.

DB You were also included in an outdoor exhibition in Havana in 1936.

CH Yes. We hung our paintings in the trees and people came in their droves. It was shortly before World War II; some German sailors were in Havana and came to the exhibition. I had placed the head of Christ in a swastika in one of my paintings, because the Germans were crucifying Christ, but the sailors didn’t know how to respond. It was terribly funny. The things you do when you’re young!

DB Then you moved to New York with your family in 1938.

CH I came with my husband [Jesse Loewenthal] – an American I had met in Havana. But I had been to Europe in 1928 and went to school in Paris and learned how to massacre French! I then went to Berlin in 1929. It was weird; there was something there that was not right somehow. Children are like dogs – they know. First, I was sick and then my sister was sick. We realized something was going to happen and it did. My sister was very wild; she was working for the Cuban embassy in London when the war began. Everybody was leaving London, and she became a warden. Either she was completely mad or she was very courageous, I don’t know.

DB Have you ever been to London?

CH I like London very much, but I’ve never been for any length of time. My sister stayed there. I’d rather be in Europe, but I’m in New York.

DB Why is that?

CH I don’t know. New Yorkers are very strange people. They are the sweetest people on earth, but they can be very strong somehow. But I like New York.

DB So, you came to New York in 1938. Were you painting full-time by then?

CH No, not at all. I had been studying architecture in Havana, but there were too many architects, so they were tough on us: you had to be a genius to pass. Also, I discovered that if you’re an architect you have to deal with the clients. So it wasn’t for me.

DB After World War II, you went to Paris for five years and began exhibiting.

CH In Paris, I was fortunate enough to run into a group of artists called the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. Non-representation was their answer to the Germans who declared this kind of thinking was degenerate; in little old Cuba, I had been completely oblivious to all of this. Anyhow, I met a lot of people, and I loved it.

DB You exhibited with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles four times between 1949–52, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Which other artists were involved in those exhibitions?

CH Everybody. A lot of artists who are very well known today, such as Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Victor Vasarely.

DB You had your first solo exhibition in Havana in 1950 at the Lyceum.

CH Yes, but it was absolutely enough for me. It was very difficult.

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Blue with White Line, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 1.7 × 1.7 cm

DB Were you influenced by your New York peers at that time?

CH I just painted. I knew Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko and met Jackson Pollock, but we didn’t exchange anything.

DB You also became good friends with Barnett Newman.

CH I knew him and his wife, Annalee, very well. When I first arrived in the United States my English wasn’t there at all, and we used to get together; my husband was a good friend of Barnett and I would sit and listen to them. Barnett was a brilliant person. You know, many artists are not brilliant – they love to talk about what they don’t know, so they’re better if they shut up. But not Barnett. As I was learning English, I realized how important he was, how many ideas he had, although he had to pass an examination to get a job as a teacher in a high school, and he couldn’t do it. He was having a crisis when I met him, he wasn’t painting. Annalee said to him: ‘I married a painter. I didn’t marry a schoolteacher.’ And then they managed very well. But, in a strange way, he was different from all the other artists. With them, well, basically it was drink. And having a good time.

DB I read that you were very impressed with Ad Reinhardt’s painting.

CH Yes. But he was a difficult person. Like a lot of artists at that time, he had a thing against Georgia O’Keeffe. But I admired her no end when I first came to America. She was one of my gods. But Reinhardt, he hated her.

DB Why?

CH I don’t know. I can never figure this kind of thing out. I don’t hate anybody too much.

DB And what about the younger generation? Did you meet Donald Judd and the Minimalists?

CH No. I was too old for them; they were too young for me.

DB So, you returned to New York from Paris in 1954 and you’ve stayed here ever since?

CH Yes, my whole life has been here. Cuba is like a memory. A very pleasant memory – until it got unpleasant.

DB And most of your exhibitions have been in New York.

CH I didn’t have that many. The few that I had were here, yes.

DB Many of the group shows that you’ve been in have been exhibitions of Latin American artists.

CH Yes, and I feel terrible about it. I don’t want to be considered a Latin American painter or a woman painter or an old painter. I’m a painter.

DB Is it true that you sold you first work in 2004?

CH No! I sold a little painting here, a little painting there, all the time. Around 1982, I got a telephone call from a man called Rastovski who was opening a gallery on the Lower East Side who said he would like me to show him my work. I said, ‘Do you have a big gallery, because my work is very big?’ And he said, ‘Oh yes.’ My friend Félix González-Torres was showing with him; he had a tremendous eye for artists. But he was not a business person at all and had no backing.

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Pasado (diptych), 2010, acrylic on canvas, 183 × 183 cm

DB You’ve been painting for 80 years. Do you paint every day?

CH Very much so. Especially as I get older. I am more disciplined than I was when I was young.

DB But for nearly 80 years, you’ve painted most days, even when you were undisciplined and young?

CH Yes. When I don’t like the paintings, I say: ‘There’s enough trash in the world, I don’t want them!’

DB Have you any idea how many paintings you’ve made?

CH That I really like? Not too many.

DB When do you decide that the work is no good? Is it immediately after you’ve finished it, or some time later?

CH Sometimes I’m very pleased, sometimes not so pleased, but it takes me a little while to know that a painting is garbage.

DB In my experience, it’s difficult to know if a work is any good until some time later. Beware the work you like!

CH Yes. Although I think I am a good judge; that’s why I throw them in the garbage!

DB On average, how long does it take you to make a painting?

CH It depends on the painting. Sometimes they come very easily, and sometimes you do it, you re-do it, you change it, you throw it away, you take another piece of paper, you do it again. I draw an awful lot before I do anything.

DB Do all of your paintings derive from drawings? Are they very precise?

CH Yes.

DB And then you scale them up onto the painting?

CH Yes.

DB How many drawings do you make compared with paintings?

CH Many, many, many, many.

DB How many will become a painting?

CH That’s a hard one. Sometimes it just requires changing a little bit, and I keep it. At other times, I throw it away.

DB From about the mid-1950s, you’ve only made paintings with two colours. Is that correct?

CH Yes. I only use the primary colours anyhow. And I reduce them. Less is more. I didn’t want to say it, but it’s true.

DB Your earlier work, in the 1940s, often only used three colours. And it was more informal, perhaps. Did you make a conscious decision one day to say: ‘ok, that’s it, two colours maximum’?

CH In 1948, I was supposed to bring a painting to Fredo Sidès, who was with the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. He had a beautiful place in Paris. I went there and I showed him my canvas. ‘Ah’, he said, ‘ah, how beautiful’, and so on and so forth. And then he said ‘Madame, we’re going to show it!’ But then he said: ‘One thing; you have many paintings in this painting.’ And I felt very gratified but as I walked away, I realized what he was saying and said to myself: ‘Oh God, what he’s telling me is that I have too much in it.’ He gave me my first big lesson.

DB So, pretty much since then, you’ve worked with just two colours, flat planes of colour, often with dynamic intersections between the colours. And obviously that’s enough for you.

CH That’s enough.

DB  In the last few years, you have done paintings with one colour.

CH A friend of mine said to me: ‘One day you’re going to have just one dot!’ I said: ‘Wonderful. That will be the day!’

DB Have you ever made a single-colour painting with no divisions in it?

CH It would be nice. A blank canvas. That’s it. But I suppose it has been done …

DB You’ve also made diamond-shaped paintings?

CH Yes.

DB What led you to that?

CH I don’t know. It probably comes out of the drawing. When I was young, I stretched all my own canvases with the help of my husband. Then when he died, that stopped.

DB When I think of a diamond painting, it always makes me think of Mondrian. You did a series of paintings called ‘PM’, around 1990. Was this a reference to him?

CH Everybody thought the title had something to do with the weather or the afternoon. PM: Piet Mondrian.

DB So it was an homage to Mondrian?

CH Absolutely.

DB You also work in diptychs.

CH Oh yes. I like them. I don’t know why. It attracts me, the separation, I guess.

DB But also when the canvases are joined together, it’s like another type of division, different from a drawn line.

CH You know, one thing that is very difficult about this type of painting is what goes around it; what do you do? If you frame it, that will kill it. So I think: paint it. That’s what I’ve been doing now for quite a long time, painting on the side of the canvas.

DB I read in the catalogue of your 2009 show at IKON, Birmingham, that colour is the essence of your work. Has that always been the case?

CH Yes!

DB And do you mix your own colours?

CH No. I have a chart. I like Liquitex acrylic paints.

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Untitled, 1956, acrylic on board, 102 cm diameter

DB Are there certain colours that you find you return to often, ones that work for you?

CH Yellow, cobalt blue and cerulean blue. Cerulean blue and yellow are beautiful. Black and red. Or black and blue, or green. I’m sure the way you paint reflects something that’s happening in your personal life, whether you like it or not.

DB I’ve never seen a painting of yours that has violet or purple in it.

CH No.

DB Why not?

CH It’s not in me. But you’re forgetting that the canvas is a colour too.

DB Can you describe what led you to make three-dimensional works?

CH It’s funny but I don’t know. It’s like if you asked me why I did a black and white painting. I really don’t know. It’s something that I wanted to do. As soon as I had the occasion, which was money, because I’m not a carpenter, I found this guy who was wonderful, and we did it together. But then he wanted to be paid, obviously, and so that ended.

DB When abstract art has straight lines and hard edges, people often talk about it as being systematic and rational and suchlike. But it seems to me a straight line can be as intuitive and improvised as any other kind of line.

CH I love the straight line. I love it. It’s such a nice feeling, too. If some ink falls, I’m devastated.

DB So, your process would be to do a series of drawings until one held your attention? Or something sparks?

CH Yes, yes. I hate to say it, but it’s like a fight. I begin the drawing but the drawing, it’s doing me. And I can get very angry with it. Then sometimes I think I’m doing a new thing, but I have already done it before.

DB The drawing has a kind of logic of its own, that tells you what to do.

CH Yes. I think, in my case, and in that of many people I know, we have a small vocabulary to use. Because it’s not necessary to have more. Less is more. Less is more.

DB You’re a great admirer of the 17th-century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán. What is it about his work you like?

CH He’s something else. He wasn’t a monk, but he may as well have been one. He painted for all the convents and so on. And I saw his work in Spain, in the proper place, where he had painted for this convent. And it was so beautiful, the whites and the whole table, it was absolutely wonderful. Then there was an exhibition of Zurbarán’s work at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and I went but I didn’t feel anything because it was out of his context.

DB I think all artists love Zurbarán. There’s a work by him in the Prado, Madrid, just four vessels on a shelf. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen; there’s nothing in a Zurbarán which doesn’t have to be there. I feel the same about Mondrian, and about Kazimir Malevich, at his best. And I think they’re good company for your work. Can you imagine your work being exhibited alongside Zurbarán?

CH Oh Christ, I would faint. I would simply faint!

Afternoon (Yellow and Black), 2009, acrylic on canvas, 1.8 × 1.8 cm

DB These days, a lot of young people graduate from college, they’re 24 years old, and they want a big show, and they want to be in a big gallery. What would you say to them?

CH Don’t do it. Don’t even try.

DB Wait for 60 years?

CH I have a friend, a lovely person but she’s just looking for recognition, fame, things like that. And I don’t know how to tell her, that’s not the whole thing.

DB But now you’re well known, you’re recognized. Does it matter to you? Did it matter to you when people really didn’t know your work very well? Was that ok?

CH Not really. I wished it was different, but what can you do?

DB What can you do? You can continue, that is all you can do, I guess.

CH Because you can’t stop. And that’s my case. Fine, who doesn’t want to be recognized, to make money, to be in the paper, all that? Oh, terrific! But that’s not it. And that’s what I try to tell them, and they don’t understand what you’re talking about. Whenever I finish a work that I’m happy with, I think: ‘Great!’ But that’s rare.

DB And when you finish a work that you’re not happy with? How does that feel? Flat?

CH Yes. But then you look at it again, and it’s not as bad as you think it was. Or you throw it in the garbage, if somebody lets you.

DB How do you feel about these black and white drawings that you are working on now?

CH I think I have to make six more and, after that, I’ll go back to colour. I’m dying to go back to colour. Maybe I should just stop and go back to colour, who knows?

DB Would you say you are content?

CH Oh yes, I am. I am.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in May 1915, Carmen Herrera has been living and working in New York, USA, since 1954. In recent years she has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Lisson Gallery, London, UK (2012); Museum Pfalzgalerie, Kaiserslautern, Germany (2010); Frederico Sève Gallery, New York (2010); and IKON, Birmingham, UK (2009). In 2013, her work will be included in the group show ‘Order, Chaos and the Space Between’ at the Phoenix Museum of Art, USA, and a solo exhibition of new work opens at Lisson Gallery, Milan, Italy, on 25 January.

David Batchelor

is an artist and writer based in London, UK. His work will be exhibited in ‘Light Show’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, from 30 January to 28 April 2013. His most recent book, Found Monochromes Vol. 1 (2010), is published by Ridinghouse Press.

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W MAGAZINE MAY 2014

 

 

  • Carmen Herrera at 99 - Carmen Herrera
  • Carmen Herrera at 99 - Carmen Herrera Yesterday
  • Carmen Herrera at 99 - Carmen Herrera Black and White
  • Carmen Herrera at 99 - Carmen Herrera Blanco y Verde

 

  • Carmen Herrera at 99 - Carmen Herrera Escorial
  • Carmen Herrera, 2013. Photo by Tony Bechara, courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Carmen Herrera at 99

The Cuban artist is just hitting her stride.

Two days before her 99th birthday, Carmen Herrera is cracking jokes. “Let’s get all the 100-year-old people together and give them a whiskey,” says the artist when asked how she would like to celebrate, adding that she’s nearly survived a century because she “was never suicidal.”

Indeed it is Herrera’s positive spirit, exemplified by her sharp, sometimes biting, wit that drives her. She began her career as a painter some 60 years ago and, despite running with the likes of Barnett Newman and Leon Polk Smith, was largely overlooked until the early 2000s, due in no small part to her gender (female) and her heritage (Cuban). “Somebody once told me if you wait for the bus, the bus will come,” she says.

Herrera’s ride may have been a long time coming but at last it has arrived. Major institutions, such as The Whitney Museum of American Art, have recently acquired her work, and director Alison Klayman, best known for her groundbreaking Ai Weiwei documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, has been working on a documentary about Herrera, the trailer for which was released today. Next year, to honor the artist’s 100th birthday, Lisson Gallery will present a major retrospective of her work.

All the while, Herrera has been unwavering in her vision. Her paintings, which deal with primary colors and mechanically straight lines, have only become more minimalistic over time. In the past, she has used multiple colors at a time, but more recently she began working strictly with two colors and, lately, only one, using the blank canvas as a complement. “Someone told me one day I will just paint a dot and be done,” she says.

Herrera may not have achieved financial success through her work until recently—a fact she jokes about often—but her life has certainly been rich. She met an American English teacher, the late Jesse Loewenthal, when he “knocked on her door” in her native Havana, and settled in New York with him in the mid 1950s. She counted Barnett Newman and his wife Annalee as good friends. “We had breakfast practically every Sunday,” she says. She saw the first ever performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in Paris and though she never met Beckett, she did know Jean Genet. “He was a sweet man,” Herrera says, recalling a time that her beaded necklace broke and Genet came to the rescue. “He was down on the sidewalk looking for the last beads,” she recalls. Now the artist spends her time in the same Union Square apartment-slash-studio she has called home for over 45 years. She still paints every day.

“Life is wonderful and funny,” Herrera says. “And then you get to be 100.”

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ART NEWS
Art of the City

‘Don’t Be Intimidated About Anything’: Carmen Herrera at 100

Carmen Herrera in her New York studio.JASON SCHMIDT/COURTESY LISSON GALLERY

One afternoon in late April, the artist Carmen Herrera was sitting in her apartment and studio a few blocks north of Union Square recalling the frequent visits she would make to the Whitney Museum of Art some 70 years ago, when it was located in Greenwich Village. “It was empty!” she said. “Nobody went to museums. It was incredible. And now, you go to a museum, you want to look at something and hundreds of people are in front of you.”

Herrera shared this with good-natured exasperation, almost laughing as she complained. She turned 100 this past Sunday, and seems well past the age of worrying. Plus it would not quite be fair to be too upset about the crowds at museums, since the throngs that are filling one of them at the moment, the Whitney’s new home in the Meatpacking District, are now seeing her work, after years of obscurity—a large painting she made in 1959 that has a short green isosceles triangle that stretches across the middle of a white canvas. The museum acquired it just last year.Carmen Herrera, Blanco y Verde, 1959.WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

It is a stunning painting, and it is hung in perhaps the most beautiful and tranquil room in the new museum, alongside pieces by well-established giants like Frank Stella, John McLaughlin, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin. The work is titled Blanco y Verde, a straightforward name that underscores Herrera’s remarkable achievement: an art of crisp, clear straight lines, of pure color and pure shape. Her paintings are cut to their bare minimum, but it would be wrong to describe them as sparse or restrained. Their solid colors are arranged so that they teem with energy, whether effervescent (as in a bright orange rectangular diptych from 2007) or subtle, like that 55-year-old white and green number.

In recent days Herrera had been having trouble hearing in one ear, and so her longtime friend, Tony Bechara, a voluble artist, sometimes helped her to understand my questions, speaking more loudly than me or translating them into Spanish, which she first spoke growing up in Havana. Nevertheless, she was quick with her quips. “Men!” she exclaimed, when Bechara spoke too much about her work. “We can’t live without them, and we cannot live with them.”Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 2007.COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LISSON GALLERY

Herrera’s father was a newspaper editor, her mother a reporter. Growing up in Havana, she took art classes, but she studied to be an architect, quitting that path in the late 1930s when she married Jesse Loewenthal, a school teacher who died in 2000 at the age of 98. (By that point she had still not sold a single painting.) Around the time of her marriage she began painting in earnest.

Her first great inspiration was the Cuban artist Amelia Peláez, Herrera told me. “I admired her so much. I liked what she was doing. It was the first thing I really liked. I heard her and I asked questions, and she was terrific.”The couple moved to New York, and Herrera studied at the Art Students League. “It was all women, and I hate to say it,” she said, shaking her head, “but we were like cats—fighting.” She recalled that one of her teachers, Fredo Sides, told one of her friends, “What is she doing here? Why doesn’t she go home and begin painting, think about whether she wants to be a painter or not? I think she’s very good, she better get out of here.” And so, “Thank you!” she said, “And I left.”Carmen Herrera, Green Garden, 1959.COURTESY TEH ARTIST AND LISSON GALLERY

She and Loewenthal moved to Paris after the war, where she quickly fell in with the abstract artists showing under the banner of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, and she developed an organic form of abstraction, with flowing, curving shapes. Europe seemed more receptive to her work, and the fact that it was made by a woman. By the mid-1950s the two were back in New York for good, and her work became sharper and more minimal. Barnett Newman, whose paintings perhaps most closely resemble hers, and his wife, Annalee, were neighbors. “We used to have breakfast every Sunday together.”

“I was very young, much younger than they were,” she said. “I was just listening. I knew very little English, but it was very interesting.” What did she learn from him? “Don’t be intimidated about anything,” she said. That was a useful lesson since, despite having occasional shows in the coming decades, nothing ever sold, a streak that ended only in 2004, when Bechara got a dealer interested for the first time, igniting a wave of support from the market and museums.Midway through the interview, Bechara suggested a Scotch, which Herrera usually enjoys midday. He abstains.“He’s very sober, he doesn’t drink,” she announced.“I only drink at night.”“I don’t care!” she said in a mock huff.Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1952.THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

Drink in hand, the stories kept coming. Filipino artist Alfonso A. Ossorio once lived below the apartment we were sitting in—Herrera has been in it for half a century—and had apparently wanted the space for himself. He would telephone occasionally and declare, “You better get out of there, because I’m going to kill you.”

And sitting with Jean Genet in Paris one day, an American woman approached, and attempted to flatter the writer, Herrera recalled. “She said, ‘Oh, I love your work,’ and this and that. And he said, ‘Oh, you too are a pederast?’” Herrera laughed heartily. “He was a sweet man but also a funny man.”At 100, Herrera has become someone whom newspapers regularly declare, as Proust sardonically put it, one of “the last representatives of a world to which no witness any longer exists.” Of course, it is actually true, and the art world is finally paying its proper respects. The Whitney is at work on a retrospective for next year, Lisson Gallery, which represents her, is planning a show for later this year, and Alison Klayman, who directed Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, is making a documentary about her life.Meanwhile, though, Herrera is continuing to work. She still draws when she feels well enough, sitting by her front window, sketching out ideas for new paintings, which she then has transfers to grid paper and has her assistant execute. An unfinished new painting was sitting in her studio, a green triangle filling half of it. She was thinking about what to do with it next.I asked her where her ideas for her forms come from. “I have to have it in my head,” she said. “I do a drawing, and then I figure it out.”“Once you think about it,” she said, with a bit of bravado, “it’s very easy.”“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.

Copyright 2015, ARTnews Ltd, 40 W 25th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10010. All rights reserved.

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Carmen Herrera: ‘Every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win’

carmen-herrera

Carmen Herrera at her home in New York on her 94th birthday. Photograph: Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu

When did you decide you were an artist?

You don’t decide to be an artist, art gets inside of you. Before you know it you’re painting, before you know it you’re an artist. You’re so surprised. It’s like falling in love.

When you began painting you made representational work. How did you make the leap to abstraction?

I was in Paris at the time. I was walking around and I found something called Nouvelles Réalités [a salon of artists focusing on abstract art]. And that was an eye-opener. I thought this is what I want to do. I went to the studio and I worked and worked and worked and worked. I was angry that I didn’t know about this before.

What was Paris like then, in the 1940s?

It was a curious time. From all over Europe people came, and some from the United States, and we all showed [Herrera was born in Cuba but moved to New York in 1939]. And we were all crazy, abnormal. I had the privilege of being in France at that time. I consider those my best years. Of course it was right after the war and a lot of things were lacking. There was no coffee, there was no this, there was no that. But little by little it improved. One day we went to the opera and in the intermission a woman came out beautifully dressed, in one of the big couture houses, and everybody went like that [applauds] – it was the beginning, it was like resurrection.

You were discovered aged 89 after painting full-time for more than 60 years. Why do you think it took so long for your work to be recognised?

Things happen in a funny way. I mean you have to be in the right place at the right time, which I always managed not to be. But at the same time, people were not ready to receive my work. Years ago somebody called Rose Fried had a very avant garde gallery in New York and said she was thinking of giving me a show. Then I went back to the gallery and she said, you know, Carmen, you can paint circles around the men artists that I have but I’m not going to give you a show because you’re a woman. I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out. But anyhow, she’s dead now.

Are there advantages to not having had much recognition for so long?

Yes, yes, yes. Because when you’re known you want to do the same thing again to please people. And, as nobody wanted what I did, I was pleasing myself, and that’s the answer.

Is it at all destabilising having this sudden renown?

I love it – I’m lapping it up. What do you want me to say – that I’m sorry about it? But every time they say something about me they say, “she’s 95″. I mean – really! They don’t go round saying how old the other artists are – so why pick on me?

What is your productivity like now?

Pretty good, considering I’m 95 years old.

Now you’re talking about your age!

So you wouldn’t – I did it first!

Has the way you approach a composition changed over the years?

I think really every painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win. But you know how many paintings I threw in the garbage? I wouldn’t have anything were it not for my husband. I was stupid.

Your agent joked to me that maybe your late husband had a hand in your success – that he’s pulled some strings from the afterlife.

He didn’t have a hand in anything! But no, they say that behind every great man there is always a woman. Well, behind a great woman there is always a man. You need it. I was very lucky. God, I was lucky.

What are the good things about being the age you are?

Not too many, my dear, not too many! There are too many physical difficulties. I do not advise it. But you have to take life the way it comes. There’s nothing you can do about it. Write that down for yourself.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

“Don’t hurry up, just take your 20s as long as you can.” But the 20s is not an easy time. A lot of things are coming to you that you’re not ready to absorb. You have to get old and wrinkled and grey-haired before you know what they’re talking about.

So what do you know now?

Everything! I knew nothing then. But I was very bold, I thought I knew everything. Emotionally, politically, about art – I was learning. I always used to say: my husband, he likes to teach and I like to learn. That’s an enormous difference.

Are you still learning now?

Yes, I am. I’m more dedicated to my art now and I’m more watchful. Anything – a piece of paper that’s folded in a funny way – I think, “ah, I can use that”. I feel much more aware now.

Any regrets?

My only regret is that I didn’t study architecture, which is what I really wanted to do. But to be an architect you have to depend on the client and play up to the client. I couldn’t do that.

Have you found it exciting watching New York change architecturally, and in other ways, over the last 50 years?

Yes, I feel very comfortable in New York. It’s my home, my country. I won’t say “America” – New York is my country.

You don’t feel Cuban?

I feel Cuban, but I can’t function in Cuba. I would never have been an artist if I’d stayed in Cuba.

Are you religious?

Very. I was born a Catholic, I hope to die a Catholic. A lot of things I question in my mind but I keep my mouth shut. But it has been a great help to me through my life. I’m not a saint. Not a sinner either. I’m in between. And I don’t think I was born like that, I think life made me like that. Life is interesting if you let it be. Isn’t that so?

Carmen Herrera will be showing alongside Peter Joseph at Lisson Gallery, London NW1 from 23 November to 29 January 2011

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 PHAIDON

Inside the mind of Carmen Herrera

Exploring the creative processes of artists featured in Vitamin P2

Portrait of the artist Carmen Herrera, photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu
Portrait of the artist Carmen Herrera, photo by Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu

The crisp, primary abstractions of painter Carman Herrera very nearly passed the art world by. Born in pre-revolution Cuba in 1915, Herrera left after the Second World War and spent time in Paris and New York during a period when her friends Leon Polk Smith and Wilfredo Lam were forging their own reputations. However, Herrera failed to achieve a similar level of success for herself, owing perhaps to her marginalised status as a Hispanic woman producing minimalist work. In fact, Herrera didn’t sell an artwork until 2004 when she was 89 years of age. London’s Lisson Gallery recently hosted the 97-year-old’s first ever European major gallery show. We thought it was rather good and wanted you to know a little more about her.

Who are you?

I am Carmen Herrera. I was born in Cuba during the great war, the first World War 97 years ago in 1915. I have lived most of my life in New York. I wanted to be an architect but in Havana in those days the university was always closed due to some revolution or another. I became a painter and in 1939 moved to New York. During the forties and fifties I met many artists that would later become rather well known. I was friends with Barnett Newman, Leon Polk Smith, Wilfredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez and many others. From 1948 to about 1953 I lived in Paris at number 5 Rue Campagne Premiere in the 14th. What years those were – Paris was full of bicycles and artists from all over the world. I exhibited in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelle with artists like Ben Nicholson and Soto and Pierre Soulages and Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Youngerman and Vasarely. Those years shaped the vision of my life’s work. In short, who am I? I am a painter.

 

Carmen Herrera, Two Worlds
Carmen Herrera, Two Worlds (2011), acrylic on canvas

 

What’s on your mind right now? 

London is very much on my mind right now. The exhibition at the Lisson Gallery was my first major gallery exhibit in Europe. I think of my sister Teresa Durland. She worked at the Cuban embassy in London in 1939. When war broke out everyone left but not Teresa. She stayed on and became an air warden. She spent the rest of her life in London and is buried there. A Cuban air warden during the blitz, that is one irony for the record book.

How do you get this stuff out? 

You never get it out. It is always churning. It is a constant, continuous process. You finally say something, and then it just leads to more questions.

How does it fit together? 

A sense of perspective holds it together. I mean, you step back a bit and you will discern the sense to it all. You identify a lexicon of forms and ideas. Your visual language is revealed during the process of making art and as you apply principles that guide you.

What brought you to this point?  

Many years and many paintings.  Each painting is the result of choices made. Each work is a series of paths not taken and paths taken.

 

Carmen Herrera, Yellow and Black
Carmen Herrera, Yellow and Black (2010), acrylic on canvas

 

Can you control it?

It controls you, really. One engages in a long process and a dialogue where one attempts to define. Then there is also time and place and other circumstances that enter into the equation. It is not necessarily about simple control.

What’s next? 

What a question to ask a 97 year old! However, since you asked, I will respond. I want to make larger works, but then there is the problem of getting them in and out of this studio – the lift is tiny, the staircase crooked, and I never go out. So again, I have choices to make – how to make them larger, or seem larger, or maybe make the world smaller?

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THE TELEGRAPH LONDON

Carmen Herrera: ‘Is it a dream?’

After a lifetime of anonymity, the 95-year-old Carmen Herrera is suddenly one of the world’s most collectible living artists.

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Carmen Herrera

Photo: STEFAN RUIZ

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‘Since I am famous, my life is hell,’ grumbles Carmen Herrera, the 95-year-old Cuban artist who sold her first painting six years ago and has been hailed as the discovery of the decade.

‘I used to have a quiet life doing what I liked to do – which is painting.’

Herrera worked in obscurity for nearly seven decades; now her canvases fetch up to $50,000 (£30,000). ‘I was amazed when my first painting sold,’ she says, shaking her head. ‘I still am amazed.’

Her work is now on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn in Washington and Tate Modern in London and she has frequent exhibitions – including one currently at the Lisson Gallery in London.

Speaking in slightly stilted English, Herrera has a voice that teeters towards laughter, taking the edge off her blunt statements.

Wheelchair-bound and arthritic, she never leaves her studio loft apartment in New York. Her friend Tony Bechara, a Puerto Rican artist, lives a few doors down and organises the exhibitions of her paintings, intense geometric minimalist distillations that defy explanation.

Herrera sits at a long desk overlooking the bustling street below.

Strewn across the desk are industrial-sized rulers and piles of graph paper, covered in geometric calculations and lines. In one sketch two white lines zigzag identically across a black expanse. On the sides numbers are scrawled in pencil.

Next to it is an almost identical sketch. ‘The first one didn’t satisfy me,’ explains Herrera, pointing at it with long unwavering fingers.

‘It’s a very selfish way of doing things – I have to work on it for a while before I come to a decision. Sometimes it takes weeks and sometimes I get stuck.

I get very mad and sometimes I win and sometimes the picture wins. I hate being interrupted when I am working but now I am interrupted all the time.’ She looks at me accusingly and laughs.

‘Really, fame is ridiculous. I didn’t used to bother anyone and no one bothered me. Now I am paying because they are paying me.

‘The money is useful because at the end of life, to my amazement, you need a lot of help. Otherwise I would end up in a nursing home. And I dread that.’

Herrera has four helpers who rotate around the clock, enabling her to stay in the home she has occupied for decades.

I ask her when she moved in. ‘About 18 years ago,’ she says.Bechara, who sits in on part of the interview, intervenes. ‘Come on, darling, 18 years ago! You came here in 1968.’

‘You are very nasty, Tony,’ says Herrera. ‘When you are 95 you will forget your own name.’

They tease each other throughout the interview. Bechara is like a son to Herrera, who has no children of her own. Her husband, Jesse Loewenthal, a teacher, died 10 years ago, aged 98.

‘Jesse was a saint and I’m thinking back and I never even thanked him for all he did for me. He was the only one I ever spoke to about my paintings. He understood what I was doing and he was always supportive.

‘I made him move to neighbourhoods that were cheap and sometimes dangerous so I could have room to paint. We had a very good life, actually. We became closer and closer and by the end we were one person.

‘We could think without talking. He died right here in this room with me holding his hand. Lately I miss him a lot.’

Herrera may not have a head for dates but her mind seems perfectly sharp in all other respects. And she is still painting prolifically.

Behind her chair is one of her recent works – a 6ft black canvas with a large irregular yellow zigzag across the middle. ‘I like yellow and I like lines,’ she says, when I ask her what the painting represents. Once she has an idea she works obsessively.

‘She can be a real pain,’ says Bechara. ‘The paint is never black enough.’

‘For me black is all the colours, somehow,’ explains Herrera. ‘The other colours are like a decoration.’ She describes her work as an intellectual process.

‘It’s mostly here,’ she says, pointing to her head. ‘I don’t have a heart to paint. I have a brain to paint. I don’t paint babies or flowers or things like that. They don’t interest me.’

She scoffs at people who say her work looks easy. ‘Perhaps they should try it.’

It was Bechara – who first met Herrera and her late husband more than 30 years ago – who engineered the sale of her first work.

‘Carmen came to me around 2004 and said, “I have to destroy most of this work because it’s a nuisance. You can have some of it and if you can place it in a museum in Cuba after Fidel dies I would be grateful.”

I said, “Carmen, that’s a big responsibility; let’s try something else.”’

A few years earlier he had arranged a show for her at Museo del Barrio in New York, but although it was critically acclaimed Herrera sank back into obscurity.

This time he mentioned her work to Frederico Sève, the owner of a gallery in New York, who was organising a three-woman show. ‘One of the women had dropped out and I said, “I have the perfect woman for you: Carmen Herrera.”’

‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ Sève replied. But when he saw her work he was flabbergasted. The canvases predated by a decade other artists working in a similar style.

Recognising that he had before him a pioneer of Latin-American modernism, Sève added her to his show. Herrera chuckles. ‘I remember saying, “I feel terrible for this poor man. Nothing is going to sell.”

Then I had a call saying, “Somebody bought one of your paintings.” I said, “Oh, goody.” I was wondering, “Is it really happening or is it a dream?”’ Recently she came across some paintings she did decades ago.

‘I had rolled them up and thrown them in the closet. Some are in very bad shape but people are so crazy they buy them.’

Born in 1915, Herrera grew up in a busy household in Havana, one of seven siblings. Her father was the founding editor of the newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter at the paper. As a child, she remembers lying on the floor painting.

‘I was left alone pretty much – my father was dead and my mother was too busy. But I do remember once my mother coming into my room and I was doing a painting and she said, “Da Vinci is using your hand to do that painting.”

‘And I said, “No, it’s not true; I’ve been working all day on that damned thing.”’

Herrera was sent to finishing school in Paris, then returned to Cuba to study architecture. She met Loewenthal when he was visiting from America, married him and then moved to New York, abandoning her degree course.

Herrera says she did not decide to become a painter; it just happened. ‘It hit me in New York. I realised one day, “My God, I’m an artist, how horrible.”

Just as if you realise you’re in love with the wrong person. I do it because I have to do it. People keep saying, “How do you work all those years without any reward, no money, few exhibitions?” Because it was a vocation.

‘Why would anyone go to a hospital to take care of the lepers if they do not have the vocation of being nuns? It’s the same.’

After the war Herrera and her husband moved to Paris for a few years. ‘They were the happiest days of our lives,’ she says. Still groping her way as an artist, she found inspiration, and exhibited, at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, a venue for abstract artists to exhibit their work.

I ask her why she left Paris. ‘Money,’ she says. ‘We had to get the Yankee dollar.’

Settling into a studio in New York, she continued to paint while her husband pursued his career as a school teacher.

For the first few years she often returned to Cuba, where her brother had been imprisoned by Castro and her mother was still living. But she has not been back since her mother’s death more than 50 years ago.

And now she has no desire to. ‘It has changed too much. I know nobody in Cuba. My whole generation is gone. I am sick of banana republics, frankly.’

Bechara groans.

‘Tony, don’t be embarrassed,’ says Herrera.

‘But you are talking to a journalist,’ says Bechara. ‘Her job is to write what you say. Do you really want her to write that you are fed up of banana republics?’

‘Shut up, Tony,’ says Herrera, taking a sip of her Scotch and water.

Although Herrera and her husband moved in artistic circles, no one caught on to the significance of her paintings. ‘There are so many people who thought what I was doing was crazy. Well, it was crazy but it’s paying now.’

Herrera herself was too diffident to promote her work. ‘I am very shy. I would die before I would do that.’ Now she finds it amusing that she was overlooked for so long.

‘The Museum of Modern Art kept going to Cuba to find artists when I was right here in New York. Why go to Cuba, for God’s sake? They should have discovered me long ago. I am happy the way things have turned out.

‘But if no one had found me I wouldn’t be unhappy either.’

It puzzles her why everyone mentions her age when discussing her work. ‘It’s ridiculous. My age has nothing to do with the painting. I have enough to cope with at my age without everyone talking about how old I am! I live in the moment.

‘My future is there waiting for me. When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it.’

Bechara is still fussing around her.

‘Do you want more ice?’ he asks.

‘Te voy a matar,’ growls Herrera. (‘I’m going to kill you.’)

I ask Herrera why straight lines fascinate her. She shivers with delight. ‘Ahhhh, it’s almost a physical thing. There is nothing I love more than to make a straight line. How can I explain it? It’s the beginning of all structures, really.’

And where does the line end? Herrera chuckles. ‘It doesn’t.’

‘Carmen Herrera and Peter Joseph’ is at the Lisson Gallery, London NW1, until

29 January (lissongallery.com)

MoMA’s “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925″ Article Collection

Photo

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925, opening Sunday at MoMA, includes “Endless Column,” by Constantin Brancusi, and a wall of Kazimir Malevich paintings. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

In the second decade of the 20th century, abstraction became the holy grail of modern art. It was pursued with feverish intent by all kinds of creative types in Europe, Russia and elsewhere, responding to assorted spurs: Cubism and other deviations from old-fashioned realism, the beautiful whiteness of the blank page, communion with nature, spiritual aspirations, modern machines and everyday noise.

Painters, sculptors, poets, composers, photographers, filmmakers and choreographers alike ventured into this new territory, struggling to sever Western art’s age-old link with legible images, narrative logic, harmonic structure and rhyme. It was a thrilling, terrifying process, and in terms of the history of art, it is one of the greatest stories ever told.

“Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” a dizzying, magisterial cornucopia opening on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, captures something of that original thrill and terror, in a lineup of works that show artists embracing worldliness and, in some cases, withdrawing into mystical purity. The show brings new breadth and detail and a new sense of collectivity to a familiar tale that is, for the Modern, also hallowed ground.

The 350-plus works on view include numerous paintings — most of the major ones from outside the museum’s collection — as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. Arranged loosely by nationality, they represent a herculean feat of orchestration on the part of Leah Dickerman, a curator in the Modern’s department of painting and sculpture, and Masha Chlenova, a curatorial assistant.

This is the kind of sweeping historical survey of a big chunk of modernism for which the Modern is justly celebrated, and in many ways it is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the type, the pioneering “Cubism and Abstract Art” show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s effort sprawled over 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Ms. Dickerman has tightened the stylistic brackets and the time frame considerably and, perhaps in keeping with the Modern’s current performance-centeredness, deftly insinuated early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries.

She has also added American artists to the mix, and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women. As a result, it is at once more focused and more inclusive.

Ms. Dickerman places new emphasis on abstraction as a great collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several mutually influencing art forms, from the hands of players who often knew one another. She gets specific, adorning a wall outside the exhibition with an immense chart dotted with the names of the show’s 84 artists, all connected by radiating lines that represent relationships between correspondents, friends, spouses and collaborators. (The most connected, catalytic creators, highlighted in red, include Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky and Alfred Stieglitz.) No artist is an island, the chart seems to say.

The first artist we encounter in the show itself is Picasso, represented by a stark Cubist painting from 1910 that — free of his characteristic legible details — flirts with total abstraction. It was a rarity for him, and is the only Picasso here; he left it to others to carry Cubism to its logical conclusion.

Next comes a key moment of cross-fertilization: The Munich concert of Arnold Schoenberg’s music, in January 1911, that inspired Kandinsky to broach abstraction, after pondering it for years. Two comical sketches of the event, with figures and instruments clearly visible, are here (along with its music, in both written and piped-in form), and so is the semi-abstract and rather Thurber-esque painting that resulted, “Impression III (Concert).”

From there the show has an urgent pace, its rhythms set by constant shifts and pivots in scale, medium, locale and style, as well as by different notions of form, space and even speed. Startlingly large canvases by Frantisek Kupka, Picabia, Morgan Russell and David Bomberg punctuate the proceedings, proving that the Abstract Expressionists were not the first to scale up abstract painting — it was born that way.

Equally stunning are clusters of small works, foremost a small gallery where 11 paintings by Piet Mondrian show him progressively flattening and magnifying the Cubist grid to reach pure abstraction, and a wall of nine Suprematist paintings by the Russian master Kazimir Malevich. In one of the show’s more astute juxtapositions, Malevich’s drifting, implicitly spiritual geometries confront three relatively crowded, boisterous German Officer paintings by the American Marsden Hartley, a canonical arriviste; their face-off is refereed by the earthy severity of an early, nearly seven-foot-tall version of Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.”

The show has flaws and omissions. Paul Klee is absent because of a reneged loan; also missing is Joan Miró (too Surreal?), who might have brought a breath of whimsy to its sometimes earnest tone.

But there are numerous compensations, among them the sight of so much substantial work by women. We see not only Robert Delaunay but also his formidable wife, Delaunay-Terk, represented by her daring illustrations of the poetry of Blaise Cendrars and one small, radiantly prismatic example of Orphism — Guillaume Apollinaire’s name for a color-saturated, aggressively abstract kind of painting that echoed Cubism — that outshines her husband’s four works.

We see Hans Arp’s sly biomorphic wood relief next to the needlepoint abstractions of his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Marcel Duchamp’s subversive incursions into art juxtaposed with his sister Suzanne’s subtly recalcitrant painting-collage “Funnel of Solitude,” from 1921.

There are also works by the German choreographer Mary Wigman, the little-known Russian-Polish sculptor Katarzyna Kobro and the English painters Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Helen Saunders. Georgia O’Keeffe is here too, of course, represented by, among other things, a mysterious watercolor of swirling blue from 1916.

This show is an experiential deluge, and unfortunately the labels don’t always illuminate the connections among artists. But slowing down and considering everything around you at any given point yields immense rewards.

At one of my favorite spots in the show, you can listen to a reading of poems by Apollinaire, abstraction’s first defender, while paging through a rare copy (in digital form) of the modest book in which they first appeared. Shifting slightly, you can peruse the actual book — concocted on a mimeograph-like machine that easily reproduced the poet’s visually eccentric arrangements of handwritten words — in an adjacent vitrine. Or you can take in a wall of paintings and drawings from 1913-14 by Fernand Léger that convert the delicacies of Cubist structure into fields of tumbling black lines and arcs, which are bulked up by brusque touches of white or color.

The Légers culminate in Picabia’s “Spring,” from 1912, a large, roiling abstraction whose blocky forms and terra-cotta tones connote a figureless but fleshlike expanse that seems intended as a response to the angular pink ladies of Picasso’s 1907 “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Adjacent to it are two smaller paintings brimming with splintery forms — more decimations of Cubism — made in Russia in 1912 and 1913, one by Mikhail Larionov and the other by his wife, Natalia Gonchorova.

If you turn around, you’ll face the friendly giant that is Morgan Russell’s 11-foot-high “Synchromy in Orange: To Form,” from 1913-14, with its big fans of bright color and its painted frame, visiting New York from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo for the first time since 1978. To the right is a gallery devoted to the Italian Futurists and their clattering, brittle paintings, and a wall covered with some of their magical language drawings. In the opposite corner, a group of small colored-pencil drawings and a painting by Giacomo Balla might have been made yesterday.

All of which is to say that “Inventing Abstraction” is itself a marvel of a diagram, a creative circuitry variously visual, aural and kinetic, whose radiating lines yield new sights and insights at every juncture. Bravi!

NEW YORK MAGAZINE

art reviewJanuary 6, 2013 9:15 p.m.

Saltz: MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction Is Illuminating—Although It Shines That Light Mighty Selectively

By

Early-twentieth-century abstraction is art’s version of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It’s the idea that changed everything everywhere: quickly, decisively, for good. In “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925,” the Museum of Modern Art’s madly self-aggrandizing survey of abstract art made in Europe, America, and Russia, we see the massive energy release going on in that moment. Organized by Leah Dickerman, the show is jam-packed with over 350 works by 84 painters and sculptors, poets, composers, choreographers, and filmmakers. The sight of so much radical work is riveting.

Yet art of this kind still poses problems for general audiences. They look on it warily. Indeed, even we insiders sometimes don’t get why certain abstraction isn’t just fancy wallpaper or pretty arrangements of shape, line, and color. It can take a lifetime to understand not only why Kazimir Malevich’s white square on a white ground—still fissuring, still emitting aesthetic ideas today—is great art but why it’s a painting at all. That’s the philosophical sundering going on in some of this work, the thrill built into abstraction. Insiders will go gaga here. But I wonder whether larger audiences will grasp the way this kind of art thrust itself to the fore in the West, coaxing artists to give up the incredible realism developed over centuries by the likes of Raphael, Caravaggio, Ingres, and David.

For 400 years, starting in what we now call Italy round 1414, a highly codified form of picture-making took hold in Europe. It was based rigidly on perspective, and all subject matter was soon depicted in the same perspectival space. Surfaces got smoothed out; traces of process all but disappeared. Thus came into being one of the greatest picture-making cultures of all time. By the nineteenth century, decadence was setting in. You could see it, painfully clearly, in the sea of stylistically similar salon paintings: frolicking children, middle-class life, society ladies, romantic views of nature and animals, and lots of voluptuous nude women seemingly worn out from masturbating. Constable, Corot, Courbet, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, Cézanne, and others loosened the pictorial stranglehold. Yet by the early-twentieth century their painterly perestroika was no longer enough. A total break had to happen. Even Cubism, as radical as it was, wasn’t enough to do the trick: As the painter Robert Delaunay put it, “Cézanne broke the fruit dish, and we should not glue it together again, as the Cubists do.”

Which brings us to the first work in “Inventing Abstraction.” This being MoMA, I don’t have to tell you that it’s by the museum’s macho honcho Picasso. It’s Femme à la Mandoline, an intriguing, dusky-colored 1910 work with cubistic compartments, shapes, and slants. Apart from a curve that could be from a mandolin or a hint of hip, there are almost no defining real-world features. This is Picasso coming this close to pure abstraction. Then he blinks. “There is no abstract art,” he stated. “You must always start with something … even if the canvas is green—so what? In that case, the subject matter is greenness!” He’s right, of course. Even so, the rest of the show is dedicated to artists who didn’t blink.

Some sights that follow overwhelm. A wall of nine 1915 Malevich paintings wows with its all-out commitment to form, shape, and color arranged in ways that will never look like intellectual wallpaper. Back up, so you see these punctuated by Brancusi’s rough-hewn Endless Column, and you’ll witness astral geometric visions through some metaphysical Teutonic timberland. The sight of these two artists going for broke is unforgettable. As is the alcove of eleven Mondrians that lets us witness this Dutchman taking Cubism beyond the nth degree, transforming it into one of the most instantaneously recognizable and clear visual styles since the ancient Egyptians’. Starting with a 1912 rendering of bowing trees, Mondrian moves through fields of waterlike marks to crosshatched grids of wavering space, all the way to pure geometry. Absorb yourself in his infinitely rendered edges; see how your inner eye perceives pings of light (visible, but not painted; they’re all in your retina and your mind) where Mondrian’s lines cross. This isn’t just abstraction. This is the movement of visual elements, micron by micron, in ways not seen since Van Eyck.

A large Picabia from 1912 is so deadpan, ironic, and visually aggressive that you see in it future artists like Polke, Kippenberger, and Oehlen. Not far from there, seven different-colored geometric shapes, each on a white ground, by Russian Ivan Kliun radiate calibration and nuanced surface, and point directly to artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, and Robert Mangold. The British painters (Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, Lawrence Atkinson) all surprised me by looking better than I’ve ever seen them. They’re still self-conscious to the core, contriving every effect, much as recent British artists do. Even the Futurists like Giacomo Balla and Francesco Cangiullo, whose cartoony ideas about movement can be annoying, look good confined to a small space in small numbers. Their posters and diagrams far outshine their paintings.

The show will still leave general audiences in the dark about why abstraction came into being. But careful observation reveals how powerful abstraction can be, how it is still a tool that circumvents language, disrupts identification, dissolves narrative, delays the crystallization of meaning, and becomes a reality unto itself. These days, abstraction is normal, not shocking, the expected thing in schools, galleries, and museums. Too many artists still ape the art in this show, throwing in Abstract Expressionism, post-minimalism, or surrealist twists and tics, adding things their teachers have told them about. Their work is as boring as it is derivative. The exciting news is that artists are doing away with purist cant, getting rid of academic dogma, dumping Clement Greenberg’s rigid nonsense about “flatness.” Artists are polluting and expanding abstraction in fabulously impure ways, bending its armature into whole new configurations. And abstraction, old and new, can still leave us floored. These days, I am stunned by Uri Aran’s sculptures, which conjure the logic of imaginary maps with objects laid out on tabletops, and by the painter Lisa Beck, who hangs pairs of canvases in corners, one with a mirrored surface that reflects the other; somehow the parts meld, become a whole that seems to act as a telescope into unknown dimensions.

At MoMA, it’s great that Dickerman allows masterpieces to share the stage with lesser-known works. She smartly puts stained glass, needlepoint, wood carving, posters, photos, and illustrated books on equal footing with painting and sculpture. For MoMA, which rarely mixes and matches media in its permanent collection, this is a big, praiseworthy step. Yet even with much to love, there’s something demented, even dangerous about this show. Only an institution this besotted with its own bellybutton would title a show “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.” Abstraction wasn’t invented in the West in those years. Abstraction has been with us since the beginning. Westerners discovered it, or rediscovered it. In many cases, it soon became insular and overpurified. Consciously, conceptually, purposefully, fervently. Abstraction is there in the caves. It’s been practiced ever since, all over the world. All two-dimensional art is abstract, in that it’s a representation of something in the world rather than the thing itself. Neolithic stone sculpture and Chinese scholar rocks are as abstract as Brancusi’s Column and Vladimir Tatlin’s tower monument. Missing at MoMA are visionaries like Adolf Wölfli, whose manic abstraction can make Kandinsky look tame; George Ohr’s biomorphic ceramic configurations; Rudolf Steiner’s cosmic diagrams; and Olga Rozanova, who was making Rothkos and Newmans of her own. What about Antoni Gaudí, who’s about as out-there abstract as it gets, on a giant scale? All would have dovetailed perfectly with the wild-style work here by Nijinsky. The American sculptor John Storrs is MIA. Ditto Hilma af Klint, who was making fantastically abstract paintings as early as 1906. The deeper you dig, the worse it gets. There’s an empty gallery devoted to music by Stravinsky, Debussy, and others: Fine. But there’s no Scott Joplin! No Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Jelly Roll Morton. All are as original and as “abstract” as these Europeans.

Really, the title of MoMA’s show could be “High Museum Abstraction: History Written by the Winners.” Or “White Abstraction.” On some level, this show is MoMA talking to itself, looking for ways around its ever-present deluded, limited narrative. If it doesn’t open up this story line soon, MoMA will be doomed to examine the imagined logic of its beautiful ­bellybutton, alone and forever.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Museum of Modern Art. Through April 15.

*This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

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NEW YORKER MAGAZINE
The Art World January 7, 2013 Issue
Shapes of Things
The birth of the abstract.
By Peter Schjeldahl

2013_01_07

 

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Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich, and Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column, version 1” (1918), at MOMA.
Suprematist paintings by Kazimir Malevich, and Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column, version 1” (1918), at MOMA. Credit Photograph by Raymond Meier

In “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” a splendid historical survey at the Museum of Modern Art, the most beautiful work, for me, is “Vertical-Horizontal Composition” (1916), a small, framed wool needlepoint tapestry by Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Rectangles and squares in black, white, red, blue, gray, and two browns, arranged on an irregular grid, generate a slightly dissonant, gently jazzy visual harmony that is pleasantly at odds with the tapestry’s matter-of-fact, nubbly texture. The work bespeaks a subtle eye, a sober mind, and an ardent heart. If you could make something like that, you would drop everything else and do it. You wouldn’t need any great reason. I was mildly shocked by how unshocking Taeuber-Arp’s work is, amid rooms of strenuous sensations from the epoch of abstract art’s big bang. But, in a show that raises the question “Why?” at every turn, I kept coming back to it.

What possessed a generation of young European artists, and a few Americans, to suddenly suppress recognizable imagery in pictures and sculptures? Unthinkable at one moment, the strategy became practically compulsory in the next. Many of the artists had answers—or, at least, they cooked them up. The trailblazing Wassily Kandinsky and the bulletproof masters of abstraction, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, doubled, tortuously, as theorists. They initiated what would become a common feature of determinedly innovative art culture to this day: the simpler the art, the more elaborate the rationale. That’s easily understood. We need stories. When they are banished within art, they re-form around and about it. But most interesting to me are the early abstract artists’ personal motives.

The Swiss Taeuber-Arp and her husband, Hans Arp, from Alsace, were Dadaists in Zurich during the First World War. They seem to have been excited by the prospect of a passably pure, toughly modest aestheticism that jettisoned the traditions of a Europe gone mad with slaughter. Arp was making sprightly geometric and free-form collages and reliefs, often composed by games of chance—for example, shapes in colored paper dropped onto sheets of white paper and glued down more or less where they fell. The couple took comfort and delight in carefully irrational, morning-fresh ways of creating. Abstraction, for them, was a haven and a test of character. Little else in the show makes such humanly grounded sense, though there’s no gainsaying the appeal of the abundant flavors of an international aesthetic cuisine: French color, Italian locomotion, Russian tectonics, Dutch severity, American pep. There are more than three hundred paintings, drawings, prints, books, photographs, films, and music and voice recordings, but they barely summarize the phenomenon’s fantastic variety.

The invention and contrariety of that brainstorming age—in a rewarding introduction to the catalogue, the show’s curator, Leah Dickerman, cites “cars, photography, relativity, and the death of god”—conferred a special prestige on creators, in all of the arts, who dramatized the effects of change. Music led the way, as is often the case when cultural foundations shift; the composer David Lang, one of twenty-five essayists in the catalogue, tracks the abandonment of “functional harmony” from Wagner to Debussy and then, with a lurch, to the atonal Arnold Schoenberg. Analogies to music enabled painters to escape from the logical stylistic developments in their field—at the time, mainly Cubism, which Picasso and Braque derived from suggestions in the work of Cézanne. An ecstatic mess of a painting by Kandinsky, “Impression III (Concert)” (1911), registers his response to a Schoenberg concert, with sketchy hints of audience members assaulted by shapeless floods of black and yellow. There is something forced, a hysteria of the will, about the work, as there is about the drive of the Italian Futurists to represent motion, which stumbles on the fact that paintings hold dead still. But the intensity of ambition of the Futurists and of Kandinsky batters misgivings.

The show opens with a surprise to me: Picasso, as a closet inceptor of abstraction. He painted “Woman with Mandolin,” and a few similar pictures, in the summer of 1910. It is a typically early-Cubist, dun-colored congeries of arrowing lines and shaded planes, nudging in and out of shallow pictorial depth. But it lacks any visible subject matter: no discernible woman, nary a mandolin. It is, in a word, abstract. So, it seems from Picasso’s own testimony, were at least some of his later Cubist works, before he added what he called “attributes”—a bottle, a mustache—to make them still-lifes or portraits. This fleeting episode in his career is obscure, because he would never take credit for conceiving non-figurative art, an idea that exasperated him.

Picasso’s arguments against abstraction still carry weight. He reasoned that there can be no such thing as non-figuration. “All things appear to us in the form of figures,” he said. “A person, an object, a circle are all figures; they act upon us more or less intensely.” (One early term for abstraction, “non-objective,” is especially fallacious in this light—as if any function of the human brain, let alone a work of art, could evade subjectivity.) Picasso also said that, without reference to things we experience as real, art sacrifices its one indispensable quality: drama. Such was the challenge for artists who embraced the racy new looks: how to make the manipulation of circles, say, or of fugitive marks seem to matter. A few—certainly Kandinsky, by fits and starts; Malevich, for a torrid spell; and Mondrian, with steadily growing command—faced down the Spanish basilisk. They did it by activating a figure outside the work: the viewer.

The MOMA show, though exquisitely selective, is unconcerned with rankings of quality. It aims to inform. Mere coincidence in time puts grandly scaled but clumsy painterly cadenzas by the Czech František Kupka, the Frenchman Francis Picabia, and the American Morgan Russell on an undeserved equal footing with Kandinsky. Pretty-good color compositions by Robert Delaunay—which the dashing poet-propagandist Guillaume Apollinaire fancifully termed “Orphism,” after the mythic bard—are no match for Fernand Léger’s joyously tumbling forms in red, white, and blue. A wonderful sequence of Mondrians—from a 1912 picture of semi-abstracted trees to the dawn, in the early twenties, of his mature manner of taut horizontal and vertical black bands, and of blocks of primary colors, all keyed to a physical sense of gravity—far outshines the designy efforts of Theo van Doesburg and his colleagues in Dutch Neo-Plasticism.

Just one movement, that of the Russian avant-garde, after it was cut off from Europe by war and revolution, achieved something like collective genius. A stunning array of Malevich’s thumpingly material, lyrically gravity-defying Suprematist paintings affirms him as the first among equals, including Vladimir Tatlin, who is memorialized by a reconstruction, from 1979, of his gigantic maquette for the “Monument to the Third International” (1920). It is a symbol, like none other, of twentieth-century aspiration and tragic folly. Striking works by Liubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Ivan Kliun, and other Russians make for a superb cameo survey within the show.

Dickerman and her curatorial crew have worked up a flowchart of affinities and influences, along the lines of the famous chart that MOMA’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., created for the modern movements, circa 1936. Neuron-like webs converge on “connector” individuals, socially adept Pied Pipers who fostered the formation of the time’s avant-gardes. The prime artists include Picasso, Picabia, and Léger, in France; Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova, in Russia; and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in Italy. There are two poets, Apollinaire and the Dadaist honeybee Tristan Tzara, and one dealer, New York’s Alfred Stieglitz, the shepherd of the native modernist painters Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe, and of the photographer Paul Strand. The chart is an effective aid to memory, a free-fire zone for disagreements, and fine intellectual fun.

On the point of intellect, the show makes an awkward but compelling case that Marcel Duchamp stands centrally in the history of abstraction. Some of his jarring provocations—including a film he made with Man Ray, “Anemic Cinema” (1926), in which spinning, optically disorienting patterns alternate with punning French wordplay—share a room with works by Americans, in the Stieglitz orbit, on whom he exercised a catalytic influence. Dickerman, in the catalogue introduction, analyzes Duchamp’s mordant take on the problem, which bedevilled early abstraction, of finding meaning in art that had no recognizable subjects. Far from trying to close the gap, he made it abysmal. His readymades give meaningless objects meaning-laden titles—most notoriously, the urinal called “Fountain” (1917). “The readymade was thing plus text,” Dickerman writes. With abstraction as the hinge, Duchamp opened a trapdoor at the bottom of Western thought and feeling.

Between Picasso’s conservative critique and Duchamp’s radical one, abstract art was sternly tested. This returns me to Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s humble, radiant tapestry, which obliterates all skepticism. The proof of any art’s lasting value is a comprehensive emotional necessity: it’s something that a person needed to do and which awakens and satisfies corresponding needs in us. Such a payoff remained intermittent in the abstract art of the period covered by the MOMA show. It came to full fruition later, in the singing expanses of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and other Abstract Expressionists. But that’s another story. ♦

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LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS

At MoMA

Hal Foster

When Alfred H. Barr Jr launched the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, it was a paradoxical enterprise: a museum for an avant-garde art that was very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, for his landmark show Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936, Barr drew up a flow chart that funnelled the various streams of modernist practice to date into two great rivers that he named ‘geometrical abstract art’ and ‘non-geometrical abstract art’. In effect the diagram was a confident projection of a history that the museum would move, strategically, to display and to define. If modernist art was first made in Europe, it was first narrated in the US, and abstraction was its Geist.

Flash forward 77 years. For Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 (until 15 April), the curator Leah Dickerman offers a different diagram: not a diachronic chart of tributary movements but a synchronic network of charismatic ‘connectors’, such as Vasily Kandinsky, F.T. Marinetti, Guillaume Apollinaire, Francis Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Theo van Doesburg and Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom were polemicists (critics, editors, exhibition-makers) as much as they were artists. Like the diagram, the exhibition looks back to the period when abstraction emerged, not forward to its eventual triumph; rather than project a telos to come, it historicises a moment a century ago. In doing so, the show suggests, perhaps involuntarily, a closure to this practice. Is abstraction ‘a thing of the past’, a form of art that, however world-historical once, is well behind us now?

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Liubov Popova, ‘Painterly Architectonic’ (1917).

Inventing Abstraction opens with a complicated Cubist figure by Picasso. It is a conventional enough beginning (recall the title of the Barr show), yet there is no way around it, nor should there be: even if Picasso never went abstract (neither did Matisse, for that matter), Cubism was the fountainhead of abstraction, and key protagonists like Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich felt they had to work through it. Dickerman features Kandinsky next, but she does not present abstraction as having a simple origin. Its sources are transhistorical and multicultural (modernist inspirations include African art, Byzantine icons, and Islamic ornament): abstraction is always discovered as much as it is invented. That said, the purview of the show is strictly European (including Russia and Britain), though the selection is broad and various within this frame, with many provocative juxtapositions and far more women than in past shows (Sonia Terk and Sophie Taeuber, for example, get equal billing with their husbands, Robert Delaunay and Hans Arp). At long last such movements as Italian Futurism and Polish Constructivism are given their due, and lesser figures like the Britons Lawrence Atkinson and Duncan Grant, and the Americans Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, have their day too. Given the cost of insurance, conservation concerns and political problems (Russia has an embargo on loans), we are not likely to see such an extraordinary gathering of abstract art from this period ever again.

Although Inventing Abstraction includes sculpture, photography and film, it runs heavy on painting. It wasn’t obvious how absolute abstraction was to be achieved in those other media, and the modernist project of ‘purity’ – of an art freed from both resemblance to the world and function within it – privileged painting in any case. At the same time, many painters needed the aid or at least the analogy of the other arts, music and poetry above all. Music had long been seen as the most abstract (‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,’ Walter Pater had said), and Dickerman points out the importance not only of Wagner’s chromaticism and Schoenberg’s atonality for Kandinsky (a Schoenberg concert in Munich on 2 January 1911 was an epiphany for the artist) but also of the structural reflexivity of Bach for Paul Klee (who was a gifted musician). As for poetry, Mallarmé had already announced a crisis, and the next generation took the attack on conventional sense to an extreme in Futurist parole in libertà (‘words in freedom’), Russian zaum (transrational) texts, and sound poems (Kandinsky, Arp, van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters all produced important examples).

The tension between medium-specific and cross-media impulses was generative for early abstraction. Against formalist critics, from Roger Fry through to Clement Greenberg, who stressed the decorous ideal of painting as strictly visual and spatial, Inventing Abstraction shows how abstract artists were concerned often with the tactility of materials (faktura or ‘texture’ was a watchword of the Russians) and sometimes with the temporality of animation (alongside abstract films by Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and László Moholy-Nagy, there are unexpected projects by Grant and by Léopold Survage, an artist of Finnish descent active in Paris). ‘Tested by abstraction, the boundaries of painting and other media began to dissolve,’ Dickerman argues in a riposte to the medium-specific position. For one thing, abstract painting prompted a loosening of the ground under the viewer: Malevich suggested aerial perspectives in some of his early abstractions, and El Lissitzky rotated his diagrammatic Prouns as he painted them in order to confound any sense of orientation. Such experiments led some painters – Kandinsky, Lissitzky, van Doesburg – to abstract interiors, both actual and projected, and there were other crossings as well. Dickerman opposes medium-specificity and cross-media exchange, but the two principles are not in complete contradiction: however opposed in method, the Gesamtkunstwerk and the pure painting are both committed to the idea of aesthetic autonomy.

Artists were on the verge of abstraction well before the breakthrough year of 1912: why was it such a difficult concept to accept, even for champions like Kandinsky? The principal reason was that it seemed to expose art to the arbitrary, the decorative, the subjective. If art was no longer rooted in the world, what might ground it? If it was no longer governed by the referent, what might motivate it? By and large artists sought a basis for abstraction at the two extremes, in the transcendental realm of the Idea (usually Platonic, Hegelian or theosophist) or in the material register of the medium; in this respect abstraction provided an aesthetic resolution to the philosophical contradiction between idealism and materialism, either of which it could serve. Against the arbitrary, artists like Kandinsky also asserted the ‘necessity’ of abstraction – history demanded it, art required it – and such assertions in turn prompted a flood of words: individual proclamations, group manifestos, lectures, treatises, journals. Dickerman views this visual-verbal relation as a symptomatic ‘split’, even a dissociation of sensibility: ‘This structure – of images and words existing in parallel spheres, the two held at a distance – suggests a division in modernism.’ Yet one might also see it as a relation of supplementarity, and deconstruct it accordingly: which term in the binary truly determines the other in each instance? However parsed, the insight that practice and theory (or, for that matter, performance and publicity) would thereafter compensate for one another in 20th-century art is an important one.

Abstraction had recourse not only to artistic analogies and textual reinforcements but also to radical developments in the sciences of the time, such as the theory of relativity, quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry; yet more germane, Dickerman argues, were new philosophical paradigms like phenomenology and semiotics. According to phenomenology, perception is not detached and objective – not ‘realist’ in this sense – but subjective and embodied and thus to an extent ‘abstract’. So, too, semiotics discarded the belief that language referred directly to the world (here the intimacy of the linguist Roman Jakobson with Malevich is very telling). Although Dickerman alludes to the impact of new technologies and culture on abstraction, one would like to hear more on this score. The exhibition offers a strong sense of the ambiguous attractions of the abstract world of the industrial machine, as differently evoked by the Futurists, Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp, but little sense of the abstractive force of the mass-produced commodity, the becoming-abstract of capitalist life, as variously explored by Georg Simmel, György Lukács and Alfred Sohn-Rethel. After Greenberg (not to mention Theodor Adorno), we often think of abstraction as a withdrawal from the modern world, almost a safehouse for art, but the converse is just as true: the modern world became too abstract to represent in the old ways.

Dickerman revises Barr dramatically, but not when it comes to the affirmation of abstraction, in which MoMA is still very invested. ‘The propositions were many, and at times contradicted each other,’ she concludes, ‘but in their aggregate they marked the demise of painting in its traditional form and its opening to the practices of the century to come.’ But was abstract painting as absolute a rupture as this makes out? Dickerman insists on its fundamental break with the old model of the perspectival picture, with its metaphor of a window onto a world, its sublimation of the materiality of the painting, its assertion of ‘the primacy of the visual’, its assumption of ‘a discarnate gaze’ and so on. This is true enough: for some artists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, abstraction did put paid to the project of representation. Yet for others it was the purification of painting, not its end but its epitome (this is an essential meaning of ‘pure painting’). Given the Hegelian cast of some theorists, abstraction might be understood in large part as the sublation of representation, that is, as its simultaneous negation and preservation. Thus, even as abstractionists like Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian cancelled any resemblance to reality, they also affirmed an ontology of the real; even as they rejected painting as a picture of the epiphenomenal world, they insisted on painting as an analogue of a noumenal world: appearance was sacrificed at the altar of transcendence. So, too, even as these artists broke with representational painting, they often did so in a way that continued the tradition of the tableau, reaffirming its criteria of compositional unity for the artwork and epiphanic experience for the viewer. In this respect the glorious Windows of Delaunay reflects on picturing in a way that rivals any self-aware painting by Velázquez or Vermeer.

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

Robert Delaunay, ‘Windows’ (1912).

So if ‘the demise of painting in its traditional form’ was not total, what about the ‘opening to the practices of the century to come’? Inventing Abstraction contains examples of avant-garde inventions nearly coeval with abstract painting, such as non-objective collage, relief and construction (an impressive model of the unbuilt Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin dominates one gallery). For Dickerman, abstraction prepares these devices and others too, including all that we comprehend by the name ‘Duchamp’: the readymade, experiments with chance, the artwork as idea and so on. Yet this strong claim is open to argument: already in the chart drawn up by Barr for MoMA, and later in the theory of ‘modernist painting’ promulgated by Greenberg, abstraction comes to displace these other strategies, and it would not be until after the dominance of abstract expressionism, in the neo-avant-gardes of the 1950s and 1960s, that they returned with any force. Abstraction was a break, to be sure, but it was also used to defend against other breaks that were perhaps more radical.

The final gallery of the show suggests the mixed fortunes of abstraction: there is a testament to abstraction as the necessary future not only of modernist art but of modern life tout court in the form of experimental pieces by Moholy-Nagy, a near travesty of abstraction as a kind of Dadaist nonsense in ornamental objects by Taeuber and Arp, and a set of essays in abstract form by Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński which, however exquisite, also appear stunted, with nowhere to go historically. And what about abstraction today? It does not pretend to the great ambitions – revolutionary, utopian, transcendental – of this early period; that is obviously not our mode. Many artists treat abstraction as a distant archive to cite more than as a continuous tradition to develop – but then nothing can be world-historical twice.

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Avant Garde Without Borders: Inventing Abstraction at MoMA

by Kevin Kinsella

Back-dated art works, Picasso’s frustration, and the transnational creation myths of Abstract art.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 19101925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

According to Gabrielle Buffet, her husband Francis Picabia invented abstract art in July 1912 on a drunken drive across France with Claude Debussy and Guillaume Apollinaire. Mix equal parts artist, composer, and poet in a car at the dawn of the modern age, let it bump around for a while, then throw the doors wide, and out pours a brand new cocktail of color, space, and time.

Of course, Vasily Kandinsky might have begged to differ—and he did. An often-told anecdote has it that the Russian-born painter and critic had stumbled upon Abstract art as far back as 1896. One evening, just after arriving in Munich, Kandinsky saw one of his own paintings leaning on its side in his unlit studio. He couldn’t make out the subject of the work in the darkness, but the forms and colors before him nonetheless struck him—an event sparking the revelation that “objects harmed my pictures.” Despite this epiphany, it took Kandinsky nearly 15 years to bring an abstract painting into the light of day, so to speak. It is perhaps more illuminating that this story started going around in 1913, just as the same lightbulb seemed to be switching on in everyone’s head.

Everyone, it seems, wanted to be associated with abstraction’s creation myth—and some went to extraordinary lengths to secure their positions, including going so far as to backdate key artworks as proof of their having been there since the very beginning. For example, an untitled piece from 1913 by Kandinsky was given a new birthday in 1910; Robert Delaunay’s Soleil, Lune, Simultante 2 (Sun, Moon, Simultaneous 2), which was originally shown by the artist in 1913, was reassigned to 1912, as well as Le Premier Disque (The First Disk). The Russians seemed particularly sensitive to their own role in the development of abstraction, with pieces by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Kazimir Malevich all receiving reverse facelifts to suggest that their works were anywhere from two to five years older than they actually were. Given the geographic and political barriers at the time faced by these Russian artists, one might understand their insistence that they receive a handicap when it came time to assigning credit for what Leah Dickerman, curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 exhibition, calls the “greatest rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance.”

Abstraction is now so central to our conception of art that it’s hard to imagine a time before the idea of an abstract artwork. But until 1911, it was impossible for artists and the public to let go of the long-held notion that art is supposed to describe things in a real or imaginary world. So, when examples of nonreferential artworks started popping up about a hundred years ago by the likes of Kandinsky, Picabia, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, and Fernard Léger, observors didn’t know what to make of them. With such unexpected and dazzling glimpses into the Fourth Dimension, these early exhibitions in the so-called real world were felt almost immediately. Within five years, other artists from across Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the United States—Hans Arp, Vanessa Bell, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Arthur Dove, Goncharova, Marsden Hartley, Paul Klee, Mikhail Larinov, Malevich, Franz Mark, Piet Mondrian, Hans Richter, Wyndham Lewis, and more—were producing abstract artworks. Things happened so suddenly that comparisons with the past were impossible.


Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½”.© 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

Inventing Abstraction, which runs at MoMA until April 15, 2013, explores abstraction as both a historical idea and an emergent artistic practice. But while it is tempting from a historical perspective to nail down just who “invented” it, the story of the movement’s sudden proliferation may have something more to say about the nature of innovation itself. Abstraction was not the inspiration of a single artist working in isolation, rather it was, according to Dickerman in her introduction the show’s catalogue, “incubated, with a momentum that builds and accelerates, through a relay of ideas and acts among a nexus of players, who recognize and proclaim their significance to a broader audience.” Indeed, the central tenant of the exhibition is just how much the phenomenon of abstraction was the product of ideas moving between artists and intellectuals working in different media and between far-flung places. If abstraction was “invented,” it was “an invention of multiple first steps, multiple creators, multiple heralds, and multiple rationales,” says Dickerman.

From its start in the years immediately before World War I, Abstraction was an international phenomenon. With less-restrictive passport regulations and increasingly porous borders, people were traveling internationally more than ever before. And when they weren’t traveling, the availability of telegraphs, telephones, and radios kept them in touch and up to date with cultural and scientific developments across Europe and the Atlantic. Within the art world, specifically, the notion of a borderless avant garde was fed by the flourishing of artistic and literary journals—in Paris alone, some 200 “little reviews” of art and culture were being published in the decade preceding the war.

Accordingly, Inventing Abstraction takes a transnational perspective. Surveying key episodes in the movement’s early history, including works made across Eastern and Western Europe and the United States, the exhibition explores the relationships among artists and composers, dancers and poets, in establishing a new modern language for the arts. It skillfully brings together a wide range of art forms—paintings, drawings, printed matter, books, sculpture, film, photography, sound recordings, music and dance footage—to draw a rich portrait of this moment that brought us that hopelessly frustrating question: “Yes, but what does it mean?!”


Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Untitled (Triptych), 1918. Oil on canvas on board, three panels. Photo courtesy of Kunsthaus Zürich, © ARS, New York/ProLitteris, Zürich.

Above the entryway to the gallery, visitors are confronted with the central question of Kandinsky’s seminal theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art, which first appeared in 1911: “Must we not then renounce the object altogether, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?” It’s almost a cue to brace oneself before entering the gallery, which isn’t a bad idea when one is about to step into a whirlwind of color, space, and time.

Of course, one can’t confront art at the beginning of the 20th century without first paying respect to Pablo Picasso, represented by the starkly Cubist Girl with a Mandolin from 1910. A rare flirtation with total abstraction for the Modernist master, one is left with a sense that he wasn’t particularly serious about it. And Picasso was the first to admit it, announcing at the time: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something”—a statement which appears on the painting’s label. In the end, Picasso pronounced the painting unfinishable and so too his experiment with abstraction.

With Picasso out of the way, visitors are free to move on to Kandinsky. Without himself realizing an abstract painting in 1910, Kandinsky had described Picasso’s early foray into abstraction as, “splitting the subject up and scattering bits of it all over the picture,” an effect that was “frankly false” but nonetheless an auspicious “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” According to Dickerman, “Kandinsky could theorize abstraction before he was capable of doing it. Picasso, on the other hand, was dissecting the mechanics of identification, when he came to abstraction, he was horrified by it.” But things came together for Kandinsky after attendng a performance of composer Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet on January 2, 1911.


Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Concert), 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 × 39 9/16 inches. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München.

Impression III (Concert) depicted Kandinsky’s first encounter with the Austrian composer’s pioneering atonal compositions. Two sketches for the painting, though with figures and instruments clearly visible, demonstrate that Kandinsky was depicting neither the particular concert he had experienced that fruitful evening nor a particular composition; rather, the pictures portray his overall impression of a musical performance. The dominant contrast of the picture is apparently the clash between two color masses: black (the piano) and yellow (the audience). Completely lacking in depth, the yellow is bold, a typically “worldly color,” as Kandinsky described it in a letter to Schoenberg. Black, on the other hand, “is the most soundless color to which any other, including the weakest one, would therefore resound more powerfully and more precisely. . . Bright yellow contrasted with black has such an effect that it appears to free itself from the background, to hover in the air and to jump at the eyes.”

From there, the pace and progression of the show suggests that as soon as Picasso and Kandinsky helped work through the initial theoretical kinks, abstraction gained viability as a movement. The 400-odd works on view include numerous paintings—a majority from outside the museum’s collection—as well as stained glass, needlepoint, film, sculpture and illustrated books. At once open and intimate, the layout reveals a panorama of works of varying scale and media installed in different galleries, giving the impression that the ranging artworks are part of a single rich moment or narrative. The effect can only be described as dizzying.

A bit down from Kandinsky, visitors encounter Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars’s stunning text-image collaboration La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, 1913) The book, illustrated in loose and sensual geometric shapes of blues, yellows, orange, and black, features a poem by Cendrars about a journey through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1905, during the first Russian Revolution, printed on an abstract picture by Delaunay-Terk. Cendrars himself referred to the work as “a sad poem printed on sunlight.”


Kazimir Malevich. Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, 1915. Oil on canvas, 28 × 17 1/2 inches. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

Pushing on, the grouping of Marcel Duchamp’s broken glass painting, To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918), his kinetic sculpture, Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) (1925), the wooden objects of his 3 Standard Stoppages (1913-1914) and his oil and pencil on canvas Network of Stoppages (1914) demonstrate the Frenchman’s vaunted range. In these quirky works, it’s as though meaning is excised from the objective world. For instance, in 3 Standard Stoppages, Duchamp challenges the French metric system as an intellectual construct rather than an universal absolute by undoing the metric standard through a random placement of three meter-long threads. In Network of Stoppages, he complicates that idea, by reproducing each one of the three threads three times and positioning them in a diagrammatic arrangement on a previously used canvas (a sketch for his ongoing The Large Glass). By painting over the threads and the images of a female figure and a somewhat mechanical drawing from the earlier work, the visible and semivisible layers oppose three systems of representation: figurative, chance, and the diagram, which maps the world without picturing it.

The Russian wall, a tribute to the earth-shattering 1915 exhibition 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting, where Malevich introduced geometric Suprematism to Petragrad, and so the world, is a show in and of itself. Dickerman and assistant curator Masha Chlenova went to great lengths to bring together the original works to recreate as close as possible the original wall, including the iconic Painterly realism of a boy with a knapsack color masses in the 4th dimension, White on White and Self-Portrait in Two Dimensions. Placed opposite French-born Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s oak Endless Column, version 1 (1918), consisting of a single symmetrical element, a pair of truncated pyramids stuck together at their base, then repeated to produce a continuous rhythmic line that suggests infinite vertical expansion, it offers one of the most arresting views of the exhibition.


Exhibition view of Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department.

And just around the corner looms a model of Vladimir Tatlin’s staggering Monument to the Third International (1920) a work whose original-yet-unrealized plans called for a structure taller than the Eiffel Tower and made out of steel and glass to show the transparency and modernism of the new Soviet party. Still, anchored confidently among El Lissitsky’s cathedral-like Prouns, MoMA’s scale model, itself is a soaring temple to the future, and a near-religious experience to behold, which could be said for much of the exhibition itself.

In many ways, Inventing Abstraction is a sequel to one of the first and most famous of the types of exhibitions for which MoMA is so well-known: the pioneering Cubism and Abstract Art show mounted by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director, in 1936. Barr’s show covered some 50 years, from Cézanne to Surrealism. Dickerman’s is tighter yet also more ranging, including early dance films and recordings of poetry and music into the galleries. Another difference is that she also included American artists (Hartley, Morgan Russell, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand), and increased the numbers of British and Italian artists and women.

Dickerman also places new emphasis on abstraction as a collective endeavor that emerged simultaneously across several art forms, from artists and intellectuals who knew and influenced each other. The story of the origins of abstraction is about relationships, of collective participation. The network through which abstraction spread is suggested in a diagram, made with a nod to the famous chart that appeared on the cover of Barr’s catalog for Cubism and Abstract Art. Visitors are confronted with Dickerman’s own diagram before they enter the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch Exhibition Gallery. Vectors link individuals who knew each other, suggesting the unexpected density of contacts among the movement’s pioneers, by turns casting shadows and throwing light upon those who claimed to have invented abstract art.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator (from Russian) living in Brooklyn. His latest book, a translation of Sasha Chernyi’s Poems from Children’s Island, is now available through Lightful Press.

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THE NEW REPUBLIC

Art

January 19, 2013

The MOMA’s “Inventing Abstraction” is Exhilirating, Challenging, and Completely Wrong

By

It has been a long time since I saw museumgoers as fully engaged as the crowds moving through “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” the visual and intellectual banquet at the Museum of Modern Art this winter. Visitors are wide-eyed, attentive, quietly exhilarated. And why not? They are having the kind of full-out artistic experience on which the Museum of Modern Art built its legendary reputation, but which it has rarely managed to produce in recent years. From the first work you see, Picasso’s austere Woman with Mandolin (1910), through to the final room with its wealth of work by Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and László Moholy-Nagy, this is a show that electrifies through its sure-footed presentation of the early abstract avant-garde in France, Germany, Russia, England, and the United States. Leah Dickerman, the MoMA curator who organized the exhibition, knows how to install works of art, and that’s a far rarer talent than is generally acknowledged. The grace with which Dickerman juggles a wide range of material is thrilling to behold. She never allows the many extraordinary books and more ephemeral items on display to detract from the explosive power of gatherings of paintings by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Léger, Mondrian, and Malevich. “Inventing Abstraction” is almost too good to be true. And that’s where the trouble begins. Dickerman has achieved this end-to-end visual coherence by denying the dizzying heterogeneity that characterized the early years of abstract art

“Inventing Abstraction” is packed with tremendous works and formidable ideas. That the exhibition is also, at least in my view, deeply wrongheaded does not in any way detract from its importance. “Inventing Abstraction” is so forcefully, lucidly, and persuasively wrongheaded that it achieves its own kind of intellectual glory, instantly recognizable as the latest in a great Museum of Modern Art tradition of shows that make arguments that practically beg to be contradicted. “Cubism and Abstract Art,” the legendary 1936 MoMA exhibition with which “Inventing Abstraction” has much in common, was in its day said to be wrongheaded by many people, including Meyer Schapiro, at the time a very young art historian. Alfred H. Barr, Jr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art who organized “Cubism and Abstract Art,” would most likely have agreed with Leah Dickerman when, in the opening wall text of the present show, she declares that “Abstraction may be modernism’s greatest innovation.” I certainly agree. The trouble begins when Dickerman goes on to define abstract art as an art that “dispensed with recognizable subject matter.” And the trouble only deepens later in the show, when in a wall label for Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, we are told that “the emergence of abstraction spelled the demise of painting as a craft and its rebirth as an idea.”

As Dickerman tells the story, abstract art is a prescription rather than a permission. This is a terrible mistake. She is fascinated by work by Mondrian and Malevich, where at least for a time it seems that abstraction is a way of limiting and thereby intensifying the possibilities of painting. She banishes from the exhibition Paul Klee and Joan Miró, two seminal figures whose profoundly abstract visions did not exclude “recognizable subject matter.” What Dickerman cannot admit is that abstraction in fact released painters to approach experience in an extraordinarily wide variety of ways.

Dickerman weaves so many fascinating strands into her story that some museumgoers may not even notice what has been left out. She has found a remarkable early abstract painting by Vanessa Bell, a compact composition of rectangular forms that has a blunt, pragmatic integrity. And although she could have perhaps done with a little less Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley, Dickerman is right to emphasize how early and how forcefully American artists come into the story. The trouble with the way Dickerman tells this story, however, is that abstraction becomes too much of an absolute. She emphasizes the nobility of artists who were either on the verge of entirely banishing recognizable subject matter or had already done so. But abstraction, which arguably originated with the symbolist impulse in late-nineteenth-century art, was always less a matter of banishing reality than it was a matter of creating new realities, each of which had its own relationship with what the painters who in the nineteenth century set up their easels out of doors referred to as reality. In order to maintain the scheme of “Inventing Abstraction,” it sometimes seems that Dickerman is forced to willfully ignore the evidence before her eyes. If Miró and Klee have been excluded for the sin of recognizable subject matter, then why is it that Léger’s Les Disques, with its evocations of machinery and wrought iron, makes the cut? If “recognizable subject matter” has been banished, how is it that so many of the works in the exhibition contain letters or numbers, which are recognizable to any child?

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The absolutism that this exhibition imposes on abstract art is not an absolutism that many of the artists embraced, at least not for very long. Arp, one of the heroes of Dickerman’s story, spent his later years carving abstracted human torsos in marble, neoclassical visions that owed as much to Ancient Greece as to cubism and abstract art. Mondrian in the 1920s and 1930s did paintings that excluded pretty much all associations with the recognizable world, yet when in his later years he titled paintings Place de la Concorde, Trafalgar Square, and Broadway Boogie Woogie, I think you can certainly argue that he was encouraging his audience to recognize some fundamental relationship between abstract form and particular local realities. If Duchamp was a critical figure in the history of abstract art—and this is the formulation of Dickerman’s that strikes me as most wrongheaded—what does she make of the readymade, which is arguably the most realistic of all works of art?

As for Klee and Miró, the two most egregious absences from this exhibition, they believed that abstraction liberated the artist to embrace nature—or “the nature of nature,” as Klee put it—in a whole new variety of ways. Dickerman would perhaps file Miró under Surrealism, which many would say is itself a form of abstraction. And she did apparently intend to have one Klee in the exhibition, his Homage to Picasso, although the truth is that Klee should have been as central a player in this exhibition as Léger, Malevich, or Arp. The longer I consider the exclusions of Miró and Klee, the more difficult they are to comprehend. Some will say that “Inventing Abstraction” reflects an old orthodoxy at the Museum of Modern Art, where sometimes (although by no means always) abstraction has been regarded as a one-way street leading to ever increasing purity. But if MoMA’s vision of abstraction embraces the work of the Abstract Expressionists, then it makes no sense whatsoever to exclude Miró and Klee, whose richly poetic understanding of the content of abstract art left such a deep impression on the American avant-garde in the 1940s.

Leah Dickerman’s enthusiasm for the work that she embraces here is so heartfelt that it can’t but be infectious. When she places the dark silhouette of Brancusi’s Endless Column before a wall of preternaturally lucid paintings by Malevich, she produces a theatrical effect that museumgoers are going to remember long after this show has closed. And it is pure dramatic genius to set Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International under a skylight, so that the thrusting form seems to be taking off into the stratosphere. Yet in this instance the brilliance with which Dickerman puts together an exhibition—and we have seen it before, with her involvement in exhibitions devoted to Dadaism (when she was at the National Gallery) and to the Bauhaus and the murals of Diego Rivera (at MoMA)—tends to tie the story all too neatly together. The technique of dedicating parts of galleries or entire galleries to work done in particular geographic localities, which brought coherence to heretofore chaotic material in her great Dada show, makes the story in “Inventing Abstraction” look more logical and seamless than it really was. At times, by shifting from one country to another, she seems to be trying to draw our attention away from what might be uncomfortable thoughts. Léger, one of the heroes of her story, would be painting figure compositions well before Dickerman’s closing date of 1925, but before we can even consider that uncomfortable fact we’ve been whisked off to Russia and Malevich’s abstractions. And so it goes.

Considering that many of the artists Dickerman includes had at best a passing interest in her definition of abstract art, you might think Dickerman herself would have begun to ask a few questions. The problem begins at the very beginning of the show, when in the label for Picasso’s Woman with Mandolin, Dickerman quotes Picasso’s famous statement: “There is no abstract art. You always have to begin with something.” For Dickerman, these are fightin’ words, dividing the non-abstract artists (beginning with Picasso) from the abstract ones. Interestingly, Dickerman does not include Picasso’s next line, which in fact complicates the story because what he says is that in the end “you can remove all traces of reality.” In a catalogue essay, the well-known scholar Yve-Alain Bois makes the same point even more aggressively, proclaiming Picasso’s “loathing of abstract art.” My feeling is that both Dickerman and Bois are drawing the lines a little too sharply. Picasso was quite evidently fascinated by Mondrian’s most radically simplified compositions of the 1920s, a fascination reflected in the white expanses, black lines, and primary colors in his Painter and Model series of the late 1920s. And as for the revolutionaries who are the subject of “Inventing Abstraction,” as I moved through the show I found myself coming back to Picasso’s statement, because more often than not the artists were precisely “begin[ning] with something.” If Dickerman really believes what she says, why on earth has she included photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, which merely look at recognizable sights in a fresh way?

As for the interesting emphasis that Dickerman places on the art of dance—with vintage footage of modern dance performances toward the end of the show—this also raises serious questions about the exhibition’s basic assumptions. Modern dance, with its dramatic reconsideration of the human body’s potential for movement, might be said to be the most realistic art of all, grounded as it is in an exploration of immediate physical experience. Perhaps the point of modern dance was not to regard the body abstractly, but to regard the body in a radically different way than classical ballet, which is arguably the more abstract art in that it imposes on the individual an ideal order, a physical discipline in many respects highly impersonal. By comparison, the modern dancer Mary Wigman, seen here in a performance from 1930, establishes a veritable cult of personality—a naturalism or an expressionism, take your pick, grounded in her own private reality. Dickerman is on far more solid ground when she turns to the relationship between the visual arts and music, a theme at the very beginning of the exhibition, where Vasily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg are paired. It is true that music is the most inherently abstract of all the arts, and certainly provided a model for many painters, going back to Fantin-Latour in the nineteenth century. But even here the situation is more complex than Dickerman may allow, because the avant-garde interest in music was also an interest in the Wagnerian unity of the arts—in Gesamtkunstwerk—and even as this encouraged the abstractness of the visual arts it encouraged new forms of symbolic storytelling and image making, which deeply affected the subject matter of Klee, Kandinsky, and many others.

The more I think about “Inventing Abstraction,” the more I find myself arguing with its fundamental assumptions, but the pleasure of the argument is grounded in the intricacy and solidity of Dickerman’s work. Like the great Museum of Modern Art shows of the past—like “Cubism and Abstract Art” (1936), “Dada, Surrealism and their Heritage” (1968), “Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” (1984), and “Picasso and Portraiture” (1996)—“Inventing Abstraction” challenges us to think our own thoughts. I am left thinking about how often the will to abstraction returns us to representation of one kind or another. I am left thinking that a broader definition of abstraction—a definition that fully embraced the achievements of Miró and Klee and the later work of Kandinsky (which with its symbolic forms may strike Dickerman as insufficiently abstract)—would make it easier to see the art of the twentieth century as a whole. And I am left thinking that a more honest and inclusive view of early modernism would render irrelevant all the talk of postmodernism, because so many of the values we tend to associate with postmodernism—narrative, symbolism, heterogeneity—are in fact aspects of early modernism. As for Picasso’s comment that “you always have to begin with something,” this may reflect not so much a rejection of abstract art as a rejection by this supremely pragmatic and skeptical artist of the spiritual longings that were so often associated with abstract art. The fact is that every artist in “Inventing Abstraction” began with something, even if that something was only a rectangular shape. The invention of abstraction was not about replacing something with nothing or craft with idea (as Dickerman would have Duchamp telling us). Abstraction was the new reality. Apparently we are still catching up with that reality.

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Abstract Critical
14 February 2013

Inventing Abstraction

Written by Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann

‘The movement of abstract art is too comprehensive and long-prepared, too closely related to similar movements in literature and philosophy, which have quite other technical conditions, and finally, too varied according to time and place, to be considered a self-contained development issuing by a kind of internal logic directly from aesthetic problems. It bears within itself at almost every point the mark of the changing material and psychological conditions surrounding modern culture.’ Meyer Shapiro, Nature of Abstract Art, 1937

‘The answer to the question “How do you think a truly radical thought?” seems to be you think it through the network’. Leah Dickerman, Inventing Abstraction, 2012

© 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

The first quote is taken from Meyer Shapiro’s response to the vision of abstraction put forward by Alfred Barr in his exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1936. The importance of Shapiro’s objection, or indeed Barr’s formalism, bear little repeating here – both  trace long and embellished histories across the last 75 years of art historical thinking. Upon crossing the five-storey high bridges of the new MoMA to enter into the show Inventing Abstraction, however, one might be forgiven for questioning where exactly this last 75 years has led us – aside from across a narrow gangway towards attendant vertigo.

At the entrance one is confronted by a diagram that looks like the remnants of a secret service briefing on Al-Qaeda cells (minus the mug-shots), or a potential app for Facebook: in fact the now forgotten ‘friend circle’ on said social networking site is pretty much exactly what it is. The roughly geographical diagram, connecting individual names (or nodes?) by confusing yet impressive webs of red lines is central to the conception of an exhibition whose subtitling claims to present ‘How a Radical Idea [Abstraction] Changed Modern Art’: ‘How do you think a truly radical thought?… you think it through the network’ asserts curator Leah Dickerman (backed up by social scientists) in the perhaps understandably sweeping tones of the catalogue introduction. This explanation might carry in the context of a secret service briefing, or a study of group dynamics. For the purposes of exploring the genesis of abstraction, however, it seems wildly deficient.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

This is particularly evident if we place the diagram (as we are invited to do) in contrast to the famed diagram Alfred Barr presented on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the aforementioned exhibition. From Barr’s perhaps simplistic, but nonetheless reasoned, exploratory and propositional map of formal influence are reduced to a geographically inspired dot-to-dot.

The absence of an axis of time and the exclusion of any attempt to penetrate the ideas that flowed through the maze of red communication channels are troubling. If Shapiro could criticize Barr’s model for excluding the myriad historical factors external to formal progression, what are we to make of this presentation, where surrounding cultural and historical influence is reduced to an annotated who’s who of abstract practitioners. It is – one might say – a very cogent embodiment of the loss at which, one hundred years after the advent of abstraction, the art world finds itself. Isolated and distanced from both historical and formal analysis, enthralled by the pretences of postmodern social sciences and encumbered by the uncritical trappings of the cult of celebrity we seem unable to form a cohesive historical framework; and are left facing an infographic.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar © 2011 The Museum of Modern Art

It would be unfair to unfold an entire analysis of the exhibition on the basis of this diagram alone (although as with Barr’s it may yet stand as the most permanent visual reminder of the historical vision proposed). It is a relief, therefore, after the vertigo of the entrance well, that the exhibition presents one of the more impressive and complete displays of early 20th century abstract painting that is likely to have been compiled anywhere in the world (though Paul Klee is notably absent owing to a failed loan). Accumulated are a huge range of breakthrough works from Arp, Dove, Duchamp(!), Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Kupka, Leger, Picabia, Popova, O’Keeffe and many more besides. Laid out in an unfolding succession of roughly geographically grouped rooms, this breadth, and much else, makes the exhibition worthy of repeated visits (difficult, of course, from this side of the pond).

Morgan Russell. Synchromy in Orange: To Form. 1913-1914. Oil on canvas, 11’3″ x 10’1½” (342.9 x 308.6 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery Buffalo, New York. Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. © 2012 Peyton Wright Gallery. Photo courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY.

If far from all emerge as heroes, grouping together so many artists makes apparent the incandescence of fifteen years of production which witnessed what the exhibition’s organisers and many more before have described as ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’. Looking through the works I was struck by how many of the formal enquiries of the succeeding century were prefigured in that brief period. Picabia’s The Source (1912) and Morgan Russell’s Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14) put pay to the myth that abstract painting owed a monumental scale to Abstract Expressionism (the suppression of scale surely, therefore, falling at the feet of early 20th gallerists); Carlo Carra and Robert Delaunay were, albeit tentatively, raising the possibilities of shaped canvasses some half century before Richard Smith and Frank Stella; and right across the rooms we see multiple investigations into surface tactility, grids, colour theory, deep space, suppressed space, frontal composition, word images and hermetic attempts to forge abstract languages.

For all this vitality, I could not help but feel distanced by MoMA’s presentation. In their attempts to emphasise abstraction’s commonality and novelty they have excluded its historic roots. Whilst a 1910 Picasso (‘abstract in all but name’) bars the entrance wall to the exhibition, its inclusion is intended to attest to abstraction’s ‘conceptual impossibility in 1910’ rather than its artistic lineage. (A usage which conveniently sidesteps Picasso’s continued assertion of abstraction’s conceptual impossibility). And throughout the show works have been selected and organised not to show the evolution and continuity of ideas – the multiple paths which led towards abstraction – but to emphasise the drama and commonality of the conclusions. The Futurists, Leger and Delaunay appear stripped of their evolving interests in simultaneity, urban experience and light and are presented as in some manner homogenous with Kandinsky’s spiritualism. The Americans are presented as Parisian voyagers or strange floating nodes in the network and Dada’s assaults on rationality appear uncritically alongside O’Keeffe’s floral close-ups and Matissean Bloomsbury paintings.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

It is unfortunate that the extensive and beautifully produced catalogue (in which a unifying introductory essay is followed by a series of specific studies) does little to underpin and investigate the foundations of these often quite distinct explorations. Whilst the now standard references to the linguistic experiments of sound poetry, non-Euclidean geometry, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, parallel editing in film and breakdowns in subject / object relations in psychology are all present, they are awkwardly pushed into the background by the continued insistence on viewing abstraction as a monolithic invention, pulled from the rib of the network. In this worryingly ahistorical model we are left with very little idea as to the proposed relation of these wider events to the works on display; very little concept of the extent to which such ideas constituted the fabric of the artists’ interests or communications; little to no idea, in short, of the multiple contexts in which the move to abstraction was sown.

Paradigmatic of this approach is the emphasis on cross-media exchange as an apparent source of abstraction. Time and again we are presented with moments in which this exchange is said to have spurred abstraction; be it in the form of Kandinsky’s reaction to a Schoenberg concert or a car journey involving Francis Picabia, Apollinaire and Claude Debussy. But rather than a consideration of the common interests aired in such exchanges we are more often than not left with reductive parables: ‘Put a modern artist, a poet and a composer in a car, rumble along, and what do you get? Abstraction’ states Dickerman. In placing emphasis on such moments without exploring the wider discursive frameworks which informed them, the actual contents of the exchanges remain shrouded in mystery, even as the concept of cross-media exchange (and indeed exchange of any kind) is exalted. As such, for all the attempts to channel music into the gallery (far fewer than I had, in fact, anticipated), we do not move far beyond the problems which Shapiro identified in Barr’s model: for whilst the definition of artistic endeavour is broadened, ‘The history of modern art is [still] presented as an internal, immanent process among the artists.’ (Shapiro)

The contexts in which abstraction came to flourish are of course diverse and complex. Nonetheless, by shortcutting them I cannot help but feel that we move towards reinforcing myth rather than understanding and leave abstraction as a fragile and awkward edifice. In investigating these roots we are not aided by the dissolution of the Marxist certainty that underpinned Shapiro’s analysis nor (and perhaps more disruptively) by the distance which has emerged between the comments and thoughts of so many of the pioneers of abstraction and our own time. It is striking that whilst so many of the formal concerns of the last hundred years seem prefigured in these early works, the pronouncements of many of the leading figures now seem hopelessly distant. Take Kupka’s thoughts on straight lines, ‘a taut cord, energetic beyond nature. Solemn, the vertical is the backbone of life in space’, ‘the horizontal is Gaia, the grandmother’, or Kandinsky’s general spiritual waffle.

František Kupka. Localisation des mobiles graphiques II (Localization of graphic motifs II). 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 6’ 6 ¾” x 6’ 4 3/8″ (200 x 194 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund and Gift of Jan and Meda Mladek. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Whilst the current catalogue’s writers (and many art historians before) have attempted to push Kandinsky and Kupka into a contemporary framework by casting their spiritualism as a matter of secondary importance, it seems clear that these spiritual interests provided an essential context for several of the artists who pushed towards abstraction. Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian all referred repeatedly and explicitly to the influence of Theosophy on their adoption of abstraction. That these three, coming from different countries and different backgrounds – and not directly connected by the network chart – should all find inspiration in a hybrid form of Eastern mysticism which cast the material world as an illusory fiction seems to offer a more concrete and illuminating path of enquiry into the genesis of abstraction than a million unexplained lines on a diagram. Yet it has been consistently ignored and sidelined.

Vasily Kandinsky. Impression III (Konzert) [Impression III (Concert)]. 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 7/8 x 39 9/16″ (77.5 x 100.5 cm). Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo courtesy of: the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

In presenting the case for abstraction as a ‘radical’ product of the network without acknowledging the heterogeneity of wider interests surrounding the network, the curators belittle the truly radical aspects of abstraction and the exchanges upon which it was built. For whilst Theosophy does not, of course, offer a comprehensive handle by which to approach all of the artists grouped in this exhibition, the shattering of the long-dominant modes of Western thought, which Theosophy’s popularity across Western Europe points towards, surely does. It seems self-evident that, ‘the most dramatic rewriting of the rules of artistic production since the Renaissance’ did not spring magically from the internal logic of the network, but from an equally dramatic shift in social conditions. Ironically, in their obsession with the social scientist’s network theory the curators have, in fact, veiled the influence of a much wider social exchange in which non-Western concepts of spirituality and an increasing familiarity of non-Western modes of art had a transformative role in the evolution of European art.

Writing in his introduction to the third edition of his landmark 1906 study Abstraction and Empathy Wilhelm Worringer described ‘the one-sidedness and European-Classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art’ which his study attempted to redress. It is a contribution which has made his study a key text of the period – paralleling as it does a similar shattering of historical conceptions across the arts. Be it through Picasso’s study of African sculpture, Leger’s enthrallment with urban experience or the Russians’ pursuit of a ‘non-objective’ painting, time and time again we witness the artists of the period pulling away from the model of representational aesthetics which had become predominant over the preceding half a millennium. It is a withdrawal which is at once distinct from and bound up in abstraction, a wider centrifugal movement in which abstraction formed a vector. In their vague attempts to present abstraction as the transformative Invention and Idea of the age, however, the curators have lost sight of this context, disembodying abstraction from its wider historical sources and producing a hollowed structure in which diverse experiments are reduced to a series of amorphous and clipped exemplars of abstraction’s networked rise.

The most jarring and perhaps explanatory example of the dismembering of abstraction from the wider contexts of modernity comes at the end of Dickerman’s catalogue introduction. Here she presents Duchamp as the rightful heir of abstraction, the figure who more than anyone else has ‘played out the implications of abstraction in his practice’. She continues: ‘In its inscription of artwork as idea, its expansiveness across media, and its divided structure in which work and text are integrally linked but held apart, and the artist is a producer of both images and words, its implications are vast. In all of these senses, abstraction is a form of ur-modernism: it serves as a foundation for what follows. Today, when we see an obdurate object, an encompassing media installation… text presented as image, or a conceptual script, we see the legacy of the invention of abstraction’.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925. The Museum of Modern Art, Imaging and Visual Resources Department, photo Jonathan Muzikar

Here Dickerman reveals the underlying motives of a context stripped focus on abstraction as an ill-defined Idea. In merging abstraction with the wider pull away from ‘historical conceptions of art’ of which it was a part, she attempts to brand abstraction as the progenitor of the conceptual movement. To do so overlooks the fact that Duchamp’s ‘anti-retinal’ work is, at best, only tangentially aligned with the wider logic of abstraction. For whilst Duchamp was undoubtedly a product of the same historical movement away from tradition, his assaults upon visuality (often launched through playful modes of representation) were by no means intrinsic or central to the wider moves towards abstraction. In merging abstraction with Duchamp’s legacy, whilst stripping it of its wider relations to society, Dickerman disinherits much of the greatest artwork of the previous century, condemning its visuality and social relevance as anachronisms.

Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 is on at the Museum of Modern Art until the 15th of April. You can download Meyer Shapiro’s Nature of Abstract Art here

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Wild Things: What Was Abstract Art?

MoMA’s monumental exhibition recalls the time when abstraction affected people like love or revolution.
By
Barry Schwabsky
February 19, 2013

Sometime around 1912, painting changed. Artists from Moscow to Westport, by way of Munich and Paris, began making abstract works. “Observers spoke of the exhilaration and terror of leaping into unknown territory,” Leah Dickerman writes in the catalog for “Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art,” the monumental exhibition she has curated at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, on view through April 15. This saut dans le vide, she notes, was “accompanied by a shower of celebratory manifestos, lectures, and criticism, a flood of words flung forth perhaps in compensation for their makers’ worry about how the meaning of these pictures might be established.” It also brought a deluge of labels: “pure painting,” “nonobjective painting” and many more, with “abstraction” being merely the stickiest. In the century since then, the squalls of talk haven’t stopped, with art historians and cultural critics joining artists, their promoters and detractors in worrying at the meaning of abstraction. That so much has been said about abstraction has itself become a topic of discussion. In his 1975 book The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe dismissed contemporary art as mere illustrations of art theory—which some of it has been. What’s more striking to me, though, is that after 100 years of abstraction, no one has been able to state conclusively just what it is.

Sometimes I think that indefinability is the defining feature of abstraction: if you can identify what a painting depicts, then it’s not abstract. The problem is that this notion excludes a good deal of the art normally categorized as abstract. I can say that a Josef Albers painting depicts some squares or a Gene Davis painting shows some stripes, and this ought to disqualify them from being called abstract—just as much as my being able to identify a Philip Pearlstein painting as showing some nude models or one by Rackstraw Downes as depicting an industrial landscape would rule out those works.

At other times, I think the opposite. Although abstraction may have been a thrilling venture into the unknown, it could not remain so. Falling in love leads to marriage; there are no permanent revolutions. In the long run, far from being ineffable, abstraction is an artistic genre like any other, like still life or history painting. If a definition is hard to come by, the general parameters are not: abstraction means paintings of things like squares and stripes, brushstrokes and drips, the basic elements of pictorial form and painterly activity.

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I don’t much care for this second definition, but it’s hard to avoid. The virtue of ”Inventing Abstraction” is that it seductively reminds us of the time when abstraction was still a leap, when it affected certain people like love or revolution. And more like revolution than love, for it was a group effort instigated by a determined, committed few, a pivotal fact that “Inventing Abstraction” gets wrong. “Abstraction was not the inspiration of a solitary genius but the product of network thinking,” announces the opening text panel. This seems to promise a new outlook on what is, after all, a pretty familiar history, of which MoMA has been the central proponent for many years. The problem lies in trying to realize it through the evocation of “network thinking,” a trendy concept that tends to downplay the importance of agency—and not only of individuals, whether or not they are “solitary geniuses,” but also of organized groups, movements, coteries. Many of the key nodes of Dickerman’s proposed network are, as she says, “editors of little reviews,” thanks to their ability to connect far-flung artists and writers. Boosters of networking seem to assume that it is always advantageous to accumulate more and more “weak ties,” as they are called—but the classic avant-gardes who contributed to the invention of abstraction valued intense connections and decisive action. As Renato Poggioli pointed out long ago, “the avant-garde periodical functions as an independent and isolated military unit, completely and sharply detached from the public, quick to act, not only to explore but also to battle.”

For all the trendy lingo, MoMA is repeating the story about abstraction it has always told, only with a few of the details filled in differently, and with a concerted effort to point out connections to parallel developments in music, poetry and dance rather than cordoning off the visual arts as a self-contained realm. Dickerman’s appeals to “network thinking,” and her borrowing of terminology from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell—Guillaume Apollinaire as “connector”—are more decorative than transformative. And despite abjuring “solitary genius,” Dickerman begins the story with Picasso, Mr. Genius himself, where MoMA’s tales of modern art so often begin. Picasso, as is well-known, periodically flirted with something like abstraction but consistently pushed it away, even denying its existence: “There is no abstract art,” he once said. “You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all appearance of reality; there is no longer any danger, because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”

Yet beginning with Picasso does make sense, and especially with one of his early Cubist paintings from which the “appearance of reality” has been so successfully effaced that, if not for its title, Femme à la mandoline (Woman With Mandolin; 1910), we could not make out its subject—or is it just that we imagine we can discern it? In any case, our effort to reconstruct the image helps us see the painting as a whole. Such paintings, as well as slightly later ones like “Ma Jolie” (1911–12), which Picasso endowed with a few more visual cues about the possible subject, are still amazing: solidly constructed and entirely evanescent. As Yve-Alain Bois explains in the exhibition catalog, “Each facet, each plane, whether included in the grid or contravening it, is lit and shaded independently, to the effect that no solid is depicted in the round yet at the same time a sense of depth”—and, I would add, a sense of concreteness—“is conveyed.” The wonder of these paintings is not just that the real-world referent has been nearly expunged, but that the painting itself has been endowed with such a distinct sense of presence.

For painters across Europe, Picasso proved that a different kind of painting was possible, one that would no longer have to “start with something” other than the gestures and materials of painting. Even Arthur Dove, in relative isolation in Westport, had seen in New York City a Picasso drawing that Edward Steichen described at the time as “certainly ‘abstract’ nothing but angles and lines that has got [to be] the wildest thing you ever saw.” Yet these painters continued to look to real things as inspiration for paintings that would no longer depict real things. Consider a painting from 1911 by Vasily Kandinsky, who knew Picasso’s work from photographs; he thought that something about the Spaniard’s paintings was “frankly false,” but also constituted a “sign of the enormous struggle toward the immaterial.” Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (Impression III [Concert]) announces its subject in its subtitle, yet that clue proves insufficient. It takes a comparison with a sketch Kandinsky made that year at a performance of Schöenberg’s music to see how literal a transcription the work really is: the large black shape that rises toward the upper right is nothing other than a piano lid; the oval blobs and fingerlike forms below it are members of the audience. Unlike Picasso’s painting, Kandinsky’s gains little from being sourced; on the contrary, it seems stronger if seen entirely as an implacable assertion of the force of color and texture. Kandinsky needed an abstraction that would no longer have to “start with something,” and having gone this far, he would reach that goal soon enough, for instance in his Komposition V (Composition V), also from 1911. Note not only the lack of subtitle, but also that the musical reference (this is not a depiction of a concert) is conveyed not visually but structurally. Just as, in the nineteenth century, Whistler had given his paintings titles incorporating words like “symphony” and “nocturne” to suggest that his real subject was not the depicted scene but pure form, Kandinsky invokes a musical analogy to tell the viewer not to look for a depicted subject, but rather the relations between the various “notes” of color.

The pairing of Picasso and Kandinsky presents in a nutshell all the dilemmas of abstraction. Whether starting from something already seen was better than starting with the materials of painting was a new problem for painters, but it didn’t spare them the old ones, such as the age-old conflict between the primacy of drawing (as seen in Picasso’s early cubism) or of color (as with Kandinsky). And that’s only the start. Does abstraction, by eschewing pre-established conventions, offer an expression and celebration of “those things that make us individually different and separate from each other,” as MoMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe once claimed? Picasso might have been pleased to father an art of this sort, just as he would probably have smiled on hearing Vanessa Bell describe a visit to him, in 1914, as one in which “the whole studio seemed to be bristling with Picasso”—where each thing, however unfinished, presented its maker back to himself. But abstraction can also be the herald of whatever is common and universal, as Kandinsky must have believed when he later threw in his lot with the Bauhaus. On this view, the point of abstraction was not just to level the old academies but to supplant them with a new one propagating the new shared values.

In an all-too-contemporary fashion, the metaphor of the “network” allows Dickerman to finesse such disagreements. A network is not an individual, but it’s not a collective either. It is a function neither of inner will or insight nor of shared decision-making. And it lacks discrimination, tending to accept far more than it rejects. But by the same token, Dickerman’s LinkedIn approach makes the exhibition—as Willem de Kooning once said of art itself—seem “like a big bowl of soup,” because “everything is in there already, and you stick your hand in and you find something for you.” At the same time, through its density and the way so many unexpected differences and similarities are provoked, the exhibition communicates something of the giddiness that artists must have felt upon realizing that the rule book was being torn up and would possibly be pieced back together differently. The galleries hum with the feverish mood of a gold rush.

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All the marquee names are here: not only Picasso and Kandinsky, but also Malevich and Mondrian, Duchamp and Léger, Arp and Schwitters, Albers and Lissitzky. They may not have been solitary artists, but that’s no proof they weren’t geniuses. Some play a bigger role than might be expected. Because Francis Picabia gets routinely associated with Dada and Giacomo Balla with Futurism, we may not remember them as great proponents of abstraction. This exhibition tells us otherwise. It also cogently charts the way abstract painting gave birth to abstract sculpture—not so much because sculptors imitated what painters were doing, but because abstraction drew the attention of painters toward the tactile substance of their materials, which turned many of them into sculptors.

But as an exhibition on this scale should do, it also offers surprises. I didn’t know that abstraction had found a toehold in Bloomsbury as early as 1914, when Duncan Grant created a long, scroll-like Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting With Sound and Vanessa Bell made several abstract paintings—including one, with floating rectangles of various colors against a yellow surround (now in the collection of the Tate), that is far more thoroughly reduced, flat and frontal than anything anyone else, even Mondrian, had made at that time. Yet Grant and Bell must have found these experiments unsatisfactory (I certainly do), because they soon returned to making figurative art.

Also from 1914 is a striking Chromatische Phantasie (Chromatic Fantasy) by Augusto Giacometti, cousin of the far more famous Alberto Giacometti. The very few of his works I’ve seen before have been landscapes and still lifes of a broadly post-Impressionist stamp, and no more abstract than a work by Gauguin or Bonnard. But this piece—made, it seems, by roughly dabbing colors onto the canvas with a palette knife—is not only resolutely nonrepresentational but also an abstraction of a sort that seems out of place with anything else in the show, and out of time. With its confident formlessness, and the way touch and color become one, I’d have guessed it to be the work of a tachiste of the 1950s.

For a contrast to Giacometti’s cultivation of the near-random-seeming placement of quite physically distinct bits of paint, there are three drawings by Wacław Szpakowski. Made in 1924, they describe patterns formed by continuous black lines undergoing incessant movement, though always at right angles: the line is always moving either horizontally or vertically, but the patterns created include diagonals. If Giacometti is an unheralded precursor of tachisme, then I suppose Szpakowski plays the same role in relation to Op Art, which makes much of similar optical effects. But as with Giacometti, what’s exciting is not that Szpakowski anticipated a later development; it’s that even within his own time, there is something inexplicable about his having done what he’s done. Using ideas and information similar to those of his peers, he’s arrived at something that is abstract in the strong sense of remaining somehow uncategorizable and even, in a deep sense, unknowable—abstract in a way unlike anything else in “Inventing Abstraction.”

Unfortunately for an exhibition goer who wants to know how Giacometti came to make his Chromatische Phantasie or why he didn’t continue along this line, there’s not a word about him in the catalog. In Szpakowski’s case, one can learn from Jaroslaw Suchan’s contribution that he “was drawn to abstraction by his fascination with the mathematical laws observable in nature” and that “he developed his work not just in isolation from the Polish avant-garde but in complete indifference to the art of the time.” You might find his drawings difficult to distinguish from the kinds of mathematical, scientific or even spiritualistic images that Dickerman insists “are not art at all” because “they were intended to produce meaning in other discursive frameworks.” But that is part of what makes his drawings unsettling and strong. Szpakowski died in 1973, and his works were first exhibited in 1978. The network isn’t everything, and isolation can be necessary even to those who may not quite be geniuses. Szpakowski wasn’t concerned, as Picasso was, with expressing his own anxiety; he was searching for impersonal patterns of universal order. Yet his art was distinctly personal, with a flavor peculiar to itself. Perhaps this is the great lesson of abstraction: that sometimes it can overcome its own antinomies.

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For curators, the inconsistencies between an exhibition and its catalog can be hard to overcome. Anyone who has seen Dickerman’s previous blockbusters for MoMA—on the Bauhaus in 2009 and on Dada in 2006—knows that she is adept at organizing complex exhibitions with scads of material in a lucid way. The same is mostly true here: only the attempt to integrate music into the story falls flat. However, such exhibitions have a particularly symbiotic relation with their catalogs, which need to fill in and give perspective to the historical narrative. In this respect, “Inventing Abstraction” is a disappointment. Perhaps in deference to her fascination with networks, Dickerman’s substantial but fairly succinct introductory essay is followed by thirty-six brief texts on various topics by twenty-four authors (including herself)—not only art historians but luminaries from other fields, such as the composer David Lang and the historian of science Peter Galison. As a result, there is insufficient mediation between her overview and the multitude of details it ought to encompass, and which have been parceled out to the various contributors, who do not always agree with each other or with her.

In her introductory essay, Dickerman seems to take at face value Picasso’s assertion that his first Cubist paintings were done more or less as “pure painting, and the composition was done as composition,” with any identifying “attributes” added only as an afterthought. But in his entry, Yve-Alain Bois refutes this, concluding that Picasso’s interlocutor, Françoise Gilot, had either misunderstood the painter or that he had been indulging in some kind of “convenient” fib. At times, for that matter, Dickerman’s introduction doesn’t even agree with the exhibition. She ends her essay with a brilliant stroke, by claiming Duchamp’s readymades as products of abstraction, and she’s right—but then why isn’t one of them on view? I don’t normally think of Duchamp as a great painter, but really, it’s good to be reminded that Le passage de la vierge à la mariée (The Passage From Virgin to Bride; 1912) is as ravishingly painted as anything in the show. Even so, the inclusion of his Bottle Rack (1914) or his snow shovel, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915), would have shown another outcome of his interest in abstraction altogether. Like much of the best abstraction, those works are at once paradigmatic and almost inscrutably idiosyncratic.

New York Painter Stanley Whitney’s Formalist Inventions and Biography

 

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HYPERALLERGIC

GalleriesWeekend

Stanley Whitney in the 1990s

Stanley Whitney, "In Our Songs" ( ), oil on Linen 77 x 103 inches (all images courtesy Karma gallery)

Years ago I saw a drawing in a modest exhibition at the Centre Pompidou that Picasso made on a sheet of stiff cardboard while he was on a picnic with his friends, Michel and Louise Leiris. Not one to waste space, Picasso divided the surface into a grid, and in each small square he made a quick contour drawing of his longtime friends. Here was Picasso, a person who loved making art so much that he had to be doing it all the time, including while relaxing in the French countryside. I recalled that drawing the other day when I saw the exhibition, Stanley Whitney, at Karma (June 15–July 26, 2015).

There are eighty-one works displayed on one wall in the front room of this bookstore/gallery. They range from around seven by nine inches to twenty-two by twenty-eight inches. They include small oils done on prepared canvas, crayon on paper, and graphite on paper. Whitney made them between 1990 and ’99, and I suspect this selection is just a glimpse.

And there are five large paintings from the ‘90s in the gallery’s spacious back room.

Installation shot of Stanley Whitney's "Radical Openness" (1992), oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 103 1/2 inches

Drawing and mark making are what all of the artist’s works, whatever their size, share. In an interview that I did with Whitney in The Brooklyn Rail (October 2008), he talked about the importance of drawing to his work:

You know, I began working in this studio in ’72. The paintings were going nowhere. I remember that I always liked Van Gogh’s drawings, and there were always some at the Guggenheim. So I made these big black-and-white landscape drawings that were reminiscent of the works of Van Gogh. The drawings were very important to me; they were key to figuring out the space. Even now with the paintings, no matter how structured they are, the lucid stuff really belongs to drawing.

Van Gogh freed line from description, which appealed to Whitney for a number of reasons, including his love of abstraction. In the small oils and works on paper, he uses a coiling energetic line and quick daubs to define shapes that evoke masonry or heads. The shapes are arranged on shelf-like bands that span the length of the composition. Sometimes they are close together, like morning commuters on the subway, other times there is a substantial space between them. 

Working within the self-imposed restraint of a loosely defined structure, Whitney draws different colored lines within a rounded abstract shape. In the two earliest paintings in the exhibition — “Radical Openness” (1992) and “My Whatever Means Necessary” (1992) — Whitney insets a series of rounded shapes on shelf-like bands against a uniformly colored ground. Within each shape he drew an energetic line in paint, a flurry, that wants to burst beyond the shape’s boundaries, but doesn’t. Sometimes he draws another line over the first. He places one color on top of, as well as beside another. There is a dissonance within the structure, but there is also air and space. The paintings are gritty, urban and brisk. They evoke graffiti, but don’t cite it.

An installation view of Stanely Whitney's "My Whatever Means Necessary" (1992), oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 103 inches

In the three later paintings, which Whitney did after he went to Egypt in 1994, he begins emptying the air and space out of the paintings. As he told me in the interview:

[…] it was in Egypt that I discovered density. That’s what Egypt was about. In Rome, you have all this great architecture. That was the big thing: architecture. But then I went to Egypt — the pyramids and all the tombs. I realized that I could stack all the colors together, and not move the air. I realized in Egypt — it just came to me — that I could get the kind of density I wanted in the work. Egypt was the last key to the puzzle.

It is in 1996, after traveling to Egypt, that Whitney began bringing the planes of color closer together. In the large horizontal paintings “The Trials of Misfortune” (1996) and “In Our Songs” (1996), you see Whitney moving towards the kind of density that he eventually arrived at in his work, and for which he has become known since the turn of the century.

By the ‘90s Whitney has pretty much established his palette, which consists of variations of primary and secondary colors, along with brown, black and white. What he had to give up was linear mark making, the line. Only by jettisoning the line, something he loved making, could he achieve the density of color and solidity that he long desired. Whitney belongs to that select group of artists who are willing to give up what they know how to do well, in order to move on

An installation view of 80 works on paper and canvas (1990) by Stanley Whitney

In the small canvases and works on paper, which were done throughout the ‘90s, Whitney’s restlessness and single-mindedness are evident. It is this combination — and the evident pleasure that he got from making these works — that brought Picasso’s drawing on cardboard to mind. I don’t imagine Whitney thought that he would one day exhibit paintings done on inexpensive prepared canvases measuring seven by nine inches, and he didn’t do them for that purpose.

Genius, a word that is handed out like candy on Halloween, especially when it comes to monetarily successful artists in our lucre-obsessed world, is beside the point. Picasso and Whitney both need and love to draw, to make something out of whatever materials are at hand. And for Whitney, whose first New York solo museum exhibition, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, is about to open at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 16–October 25, 2015), this exhibition of work from the 1990s at Karma, along with its beautifully designed book, which spans the years 1978–2015, serve as both an introduction to what the artist has been up to, often while few people were looking, and, more importantly, as a reminder that beauty can come from hard work, especially when you love doing it.

Stanley Whitney continues at Karma gallery (39 Great Jones, Noho, Manhattan) until July 26, 2015.

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Stanley Whitney’s work “My Name Is Peaches” is at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Abstract painting moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes it leaps ahead and challenges us to keep up, as with Malevich’s black square of 1915, Jackson Pollock’s dripped skeins from the late 1940s, or Frank Stella’s shaped canvases and metallic stripes of the early ’60s. And sometimes abstract painting seems to stall, its devotees settling for cautiously repeating accepted conventions — monochrome, grids, stripes and so forth.

But certain artists stick with these conventions until they find themselves in them and show us something new. An example is Stanley Whitney, who, with a freehand geometry and a fierce and extensive range of color, found his way to a painting style all his own, one that neither stops history in its tracks nor repeats it, but has quietly and firmly expanded abstraction’s possibilities of both form and meaning.

This much is demonstrated by two excellent complementary exhibitions that combine paintings and works on paper to their great benefit. “Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, features efforts from the last seven years, when Mr. Whitney greatly heightened the power and clarity of his work. And Karma, a gallery and artists’ book publisher on the Lower East Side, has mounted a group of little-seen works from the 1990s that give some idea of the diligence that led to the pieces in Harlem, most exuberantly in a wall hung salon-style with scores of drawings in graphite or crayon and tiny oil studies. (For a more detailed account of Mr. Whitney’s creative path, a new Karma book reproduces 311 drawings and paintings, dating from 1978 to 2015 — and no text.)

Photo

The exhibition “Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange” at the Studio Museum in Harlem includes the 2013 title work, center, surrounded by four untitled paintings, with “My Tina Turner” visible in the outer gallery. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

He has energized abstraction for himself and others by using saturated color and the Modernist grid for their mutual reinvention. In so doing, he has devised an improvisatory, enriched Minimalism, whose hard edges, ruled lines and predetermined systems have been loosened and destabilized, whose colors are more random — all of which gives the viewer an immense amount to look at and mull over.

Mr. Whitney’s system is flexible and simple: On square canvases, he arranges sturdy blocks of singing color into vibrant grids, without benefit of straight edge, reinforcing them with at least three horizontal bands. When these bands match the blocks, space is altered by the effect of banners hanging from ribbons. These grids are always irregular, and slivers of color often intrude from the edges, implying other blocks that might yet slide into view, creating a different arrangement.

Photo

Another exhibition, “Stanley Whitney,” is at the Karma gallery on the Lower East Side. Credit Courtesy the artist and Karma, New York

All of these relationships are in play in every painting at the Studio Museum, but they occur with special complexity in “Dance the Orange,” the 2013 work that gives the show its title. Five different oranges crowd an expansive block of yellow, reinforced by horizontal bands of orange that blend — or don’t — with them. Their conflagration is balanced on the right by a stack of two blues and a black.

Like all of the work by this African-American artist, the painting encourages an epiphany: Every block of color is different, with its own shape and proportion, as well as its own hue, surface and relationship to the whole. This is a condition rich in visual, philosophical and political implications.

The Studio Museum show features work from the last seven years. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Mr. Whitney was born in Philadelphia in 1946 and grew up there. He moved to New York in 1968 after earning his B.F.A. at the Kansas City Art Institute, and he received an M.F.A. from Yale in 1972. As he suggests to Lowery Stokes Sims, a former director of the Studio Museum, in an interview that is the catalog’s most substantial text, his artistic development may have been somewhat prolonged by his blackness. He always knew he was a painter, but it took him until the late 1970s to feel entirely at ease with being an abstract one, and until the early ’90s to hit his stride. He had to contend with the assumption that, as a black artist, he should tackle social issues head-on. Referring to his blackness and maleness and to “just being a human being,” he tells Ms. Sims, “When you’re facing a blank canvas, you need all these things to make it something.” His totality as a person would be evident in his paintings if they were strong and truly his own.

Mr. Whitney’s art has affinities throughout the history of 20th-century painting. His palette echoes that of other African-American artists, in particular the figurative artists Bob Thompson and Jacob Lawrence, both advocates of bright, opaque color, who rarely use white.

Photo

Untitled works from 2014. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The virtual absence of white in Mr. Whitney’s work creates a great visual heat and internal pressure — an alloverness that reflects his careful study of Pollock — but, of course, it also has symbolic overtones. It links Mr. Whitney’s paintings to textiles that minimize white — Amish and Gee’s Bend quilts and African kente cloth — and also to the unrelenting black, green and red of the Pan-African flag. It also reflects a society in which nonwhite skin tones are proliferating, and whiteness, both as a construct and a fact, is changing and shrinking.

Although “Dance the Orange” is a line from Rilke, the titles of Mr. Whitney’s paintings sometimes touch on political attitudes or cultural identity: “Radical Openness” and “Unpronounceable Freedom” (at Karma); and, at the Studio Museum, “Congo” and “James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo.” Also at the museum, “My Tina Turner” conjures a special, private understanding, and repossession, of a widely celebrated black artist. The exceptionally beautiful “My Name Is Peaches” is titled with a line from Nina Simone’s “Four Women.”

But Mr. Whitney has many connections to a more mainstream Modernism. His intuitive, improvised color, for example, echoes Matisse’s but from within a formal structure closer to Mondrian’s. In the catalog interview, he admires Hans Hofmann’s bright canvases (the best of which lack white, by the way) and Giorgio Morandi’s narrow yet intuitive focus on still life. There are comparisons to be made with Josef Albers’s concentric squares of color and also Mary Heilmann’s freehand geometries.

You can see the primacy of color emerge in the Karma show. Here, the color blocks are more like irregular stones and covered with bright, contrasting scribbles that evoke graffiti and children’s drawings. In the Studio Museum show, which was organized by Lauren Haynes, the associate curator, the blocks have filled out, closed off the background and gone solid. Scribble-free, they are opaque monochromes — smooth and delicate as skin, and matte — although the brush and underlying colors are sometimes visible. Undiluted, with no reflections, color is greatly empowered.

At a moment when looking at a static art object is often dismissed unnecessarily by advocates of performance, participatory or social-practice art for encouraging only “passive contemplation,” Mr. Whitney’s paintings are opulently interactive and engaging. Instead of “What you see is what you see,” Mr. Stella’s closed-off pronouncement about his own early abstractions, Mr. Whitney might propose, “What you see is where you start.” To speed our journeys, each one different, his paintings provide a nearly inexhaustible cache of provisions.

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BROOKLYN RAIL MAGAZINE

In Conversation

Stanley Whitney with John Yau

On the eve of his three-person exhibition (January 8th–February 14th, 2009) at Team Gallery, Rail Art Editor John Yau paid a visit to Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio to talk about his life and work.

John Yau (Rail): Because you’re such a well-kept secret, I want to start with your background.

Stanley Whitney: I grew up in Philadelphia and went to the Kansas City Art Institute—East Coast to Midwest. It was strange, but I needed to get away. You know: The Vietnam War. But, before going to Kansas, I went to the Columbus School of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. That’s how little I knew about art. Kansas City was recruiting people in those days. I looked at Chicago, but Kansas gave me a great deal, so I went there from ’66 to ’68, then came to New York to go to the Studio School.

Stanley Whitney’s studio in Cooper Square, Manhattan. September 18, 2008.

Rail: How old were you when you came to New York?

Whitney: I must have been about twenty-two.

Rail: Didn’t Guston help you get here?

Whitney: Yeah. I met Guston at a summer program in ’67. And he loved the work. I was going through a lot of changes—I had changed from being a figurative painter to an abstract painter. I was drawing a lot, and not painting much. He wasn’t painting much either. He liked the drawings, and recruited me to go to the Studio School. I ended up going there, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, so I dropped out. But Guston was very good about it. At the time I worked at the Strand bookstore, and he bought supplies at a nearby art store; he would come by and talk to me at the Strand. I was going through a lot, being in New York, and he was very supportive of what I was dealing with. He said, “Do what you gotta do.”

Rail: And you ended up going to Yale.

Whitney: Yeah, I ended up going to Yale. Around the time I met Guston I met Bob Reid, an African-American painter who studied at Yale. He was teaching at Skidmore, before that at a summer program. While I was in New York, I wanted to go up there to work in the summer, so I wrote Bob about that, and he wrote back and told me he was at Yale, and that I should go there for graduate school. He sort of recruited me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. I had been in New York a year and a half and I was trying to keep my foot in the door. I thought, why go back to school? But I did. And people encouraged me. Al Held was a teacher of mine at Yale. He was a great teacher.

Rail: Al was also changing his paintings.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Whitney: At the time he was making black and white paintings, which were lines, and no color. I liked those paintings a lot. There was a lot of great artwork in New York in ’68 and ’69. I saw a lot that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Everything was new. Looking at a Newman, a Pollock, a Rothko. I mean, what can you do with that? You saw a painting and you liked it, but there was no room for you to say, Well, I’ll do this. And you had all these Color Field painters that were doing process stuff. I kind of did that, but I found that work structurally weak. I liked the color. I was always a colorist, but I didn’t know what to do with that kind of color and lack of structure. It was a difficult time in terms of figuring out how to re-invent painting. I mean, now I kind of get it. Now you go to Newman, you go to Judd. And then from that you get back to painting. For me, in my work, you can sort of say “Newman, Judd, then Me.” Because Judd helped me reinvent painting. With those people, there weren’t any drawings.

Rail: Drawing is central to you, even though you’ve barely ever shown them.

Whitney: You know, I began working in this studio in ’72. The paintings were going nowhere. I remember that I always liked Van Gogh’s drawings, and there were always some at the Guggenheim. So I made these big black-and-white landscape drawings that were reminiscent of the works of Van Gogh. The drawings were very important to me; they were key to figuring out the space. Even now with the paintings, no matter how structured they are, the lucid stuff really belongs to drawing.

Rail: Are you still drawing a lot?

Whitney: The last two or three years I’ve been doing little paintings instead of drawing. It took me a long time to move out of drawing. Once drawing allowed me to figure out the space, I stopped except for some color drawings. I do a little drawing, but haven’t done any major drawings for the past six years. But drawing helped me to get here. I showed drawings last year for the first time in a long time. I have a sketchbook that I draw in all the time. But I don’t really show them.

Rail: One person that you knew when you came from Kansas was Don Christensen, Dan’s brother.

Whitney: Yes. Don was also painter. He left Kansas for New York in ’67, earlier than the rest of us, and didn’t come back. We all lived on Bowery because David Stratford and Don had a place there. All the galleries were uptown and everyone lived downtown.

Rail: And there was this whole group of Color Field painters, like Dan Christensen, and it included a number of African Americans. Did you meet them when you got to New York?

Whitney: I did. I met Jack Whitten and Peter Bradley when I was twenty-two. They were hanging out in the scene. With the whole music thing and color, there is something there with African-American color. They were in that Color Field scene, which was really open, because it was a party scene. They had a lot of great parties. We didn’t sit around and talk about art too much. Greenberg would be in the corner with his “people” who you couldn’t talk to. If you went over there, they’d stop and look at you and not talk. I was in that scene for a while but dropped out of it because I could see that I didn’t fit in.

“James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo”
oil on linen 72″ × 72″ 2008

Rail: You didn’t seem to fit into any scene. You dropped out of the Studio School scene, and you didn’t feel like you belonged to the Color Field scene or with the African-American painters working that way.

Whitney: There were always aspects of the scene I liked, but I didn’t really feel comfortable. I didn’t see myself in any scene. That was even true when I came out of Yale and hung out with Bob Rauschenberg and Al Taylor, who I knew from Kansas. That scene was Pop to me. So I never belonged to any scene. I was just there in the Pop scene, witnessing things, mostly because I wasn’t very interested in the subject matter. I definitely related to the Color Field artists, but the work didn’t have enough structure for me. I watched all of it, but I wasn’t about to act on it. I was in the studio, struggling and struggling, from ’72 to the late ’80s, just trying to make work. People quite liked the work, but I had too much of it. I had drawings and paintings. I had work all over the place. Even Rauschenberg said to me, “You’re giving people too many choices, you can’t give people too many choices.”

Rail: And didn’t going to Egypt change all this?

Whitney: Yeah, that was really the place. I knew how to draw, so I was drawing a lot. And I was teaching at Tyler in Rome. Now at this point I was really working with the kind of structural work I do now, but they were much looser. I was painting a lot of bold color into the field, a great deal of it. I knew I should go to Egypt. This was about ’94. And it was in Egypt that I discovered density. That’s what Egypt was about. In Rome, you have all this great architecture. That was the big thing: architecture. But then I went to Egypt—the pyramids and all the tombs. I realized that I could stack all the colors together, and not move the air. I realized in Egypt—it just came to me—that I could get the kind of density I wanted in the work. Egypt was the last key to the puzzle.

Rail: You got to New York in ’68, and for 25 years you struggled to figure out how to structure color, which you did around ’94.

Whitney: I think that’s about right.

Rail: When did you switch from acrylic to oil?

Whitney: That must have been in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I wasn’t loose enough in the painting because I couldn’t really draw in acrylic. Going to Italy was a big thing. I remember going to the Etruscan museum in Volterra, and seeing all the stuff stacked on shelves. And I thought, just stack the color. Before that I was trying to move the color around, and being baroque. Then I thought, just stack it, make it really simple. Let the color really be magic. Italy was a good thing, getting out of the States, out of New York.

Rail: For an abstract artist to be independent, particularly in the late ’60s, meant not following in the path of Frank Stella or the Color Field painters.

Whitney: Yeah, that’s true. Stella was always all over the place. I watched all that work but I was always very critical of it. The way he used color, the idea, “right out of the can,” I thought, touch is more important. I would say my work was somewhere between Pollock and Rothko. I liked how open Pollock was, but I liked how wide and still Rothko was. There was never any one thing I could say, “this is it.” I was sort of in between everything. I remember thinking, well, Stanley, you could change the work. The color threw people off. People would say, are you from the Caribbean? What’s this about?

Rail: They’d project on to you because of being African-American.

Whitney: Well, people thought the color should be more playful, and it wasn’t. If you use color, then color should be this. The color wasn’t that. The paintings were always a little too off, a little too tough. People wanted the color to be loose and playful.

Rail: And yet, at the same time, there are references in some of your paintings. There’s that painting you did after Katrina devastated New Orleans; I realized the purple and green were associated with the city. The references are never really obvious. Someone else said the color came from African blankets and textiles.

Whitney: Yeah, all that’s kind of true. Sometimes there are references, and sometimes there are events that hit you. Most of the time I can’t control the color, it just comes.

Rail: But it’s not set.

Whitney: No, I’m kind of all over the place. I think that’s why I was a slow developer. African textiles, any kind of textile, quilts, all those things influenced me. It’s like the difference between Matisse and Picasso. In the Matisse show at the Metropolitan, you saw some of his sources, a Romanian blouse, for example. Picasso would never use a Romanian blouse as a total source, like Matisse. Women’s work, or things made by people who are ex-slaves or field people, also influenced me.

Rail: But you don’t make it a thing about it in your work either. You don’t want to be closed into any one thing. The Matisse show, the colors of New Orleans, and African textiles—all of them are useful. How do you start?

Whitney: I start at the top and work down. That gets into call and response. One color calls forth another. Color dictates the structure, not the other way around. I wanted something very simple that would allow the color to have a life. I start at the top and put down a color and then another. I just want it to be whatever the painting needs.

Rail: Do you go back into it?

Whitney: Usually there are two or three sessions and I go over every color. If there’s a yellow, it probably takes two or three different layers of yellows to make it looks the way it does. I kind of feel the color. Color for me is all about touch. Whether it’s thicker or thinner—how you touch the canvas is different. If I put it on at a different weight, it’s a different color. The question for me is whether to repeat a color. I want to paint every color in the world. If I repeat a color—I work hard at repeating, so a lot of times I’m reducing the painting. I usually have a lot more color and take some out.

Rail: I didn’t know that. I feel like that’s one of your projects—how much color can you get into a single painting?

Whitney: With a painting what you see is not what you get. They’re to live with and not to look at. As you live with them you see more and more.

Rail: Do the titles come to you before or after?

Whitney: After. It’s like trying to name your kids. I read a lot. I write a lot in my sketchbook. I think about titles that make sense. This one’s called “James Brown: Sacrifice to Apollo.” which people will probably mistakenly call “James Brown at the Apollo”. This happened after Brown died. This is what I want to do. Who owns what? Who names what? Titles for me are clues. If someone wants to dig deeper in a literal way, they can get in there.

Rail: I would say that your palettes couldn’t be a higher key. It’s largely primary. Primary and secondary colors with some other colors mixed in.

Whitney: Yeah it is, but I have no control of that. Red is dominant. Red, yellow, blue, green. The palette just comes. I follow my work wherever it goes—out the door, around the corner. I gotta follow the work. It’s high key now because I’m focusing on intensity. It’s kind of a heavy beat—it comes from the West African drumbeat. Music in the African-American community is what saves people. I grew up and music was everything. That’s a big part of my painting.

Rail: You said you used to make moody, expressionist paintings in undergraduate school.

Whitney: Yeah, and the color got depressed; I was struggling with oil paint. I got involved with Spanish painting: Goya, moody, dark. In those days it was more about controlling paint—so I really couldn’t get the color. I think the way it ended was that it got too psychological. “This means this and this means that.” I realized I wasn’t a storyteller. Once I realized I wasn’t a storyteller, I asked, “what do I do?” That’s when I saw Morris Louis, his color, and realized there was another way.

Rail: As an African-American, you’re expected to tell certain stories.

Whitney: Yeah, who or what do you paint? Bob Thompson did a great job painting in colors. He figured that out. He had just died and I remember going to the New School to see some of his paintings. Painting in New York at that time was really big, so I got to see a lot. But I couldn’t find my piece of the puzzle.

Rail: We’ve also talked about Alma Thomas, and how little people know about the long history of abstraction among African-Americans.

Whitney: Thomas is a well kept secret. She is so difficult because she was so good and she got good after she retired, in her sixties or seventies, in Washington D.C. So you have [Kenneth] Noland and [Gene] Davis, and you have Alma Thomas, this older African-American woman painter. I think people had a hard time deciding what to do with her then and even now.

With African-Americans, race is always a big issue, and how the art answers the call to race. Everyone understands how to be a doctor or a lawyer—a social activist—to answer the call to race, but what does painting have to do with it? There is this need to see yourself, so you’ve got to pretend you don’t see yourself; you’re told you’re an outsider, but you’re not an outsider. You want images of yourself. You want to go to movies and museums and see yourself. And you’re there, just like women are there. When you go to the Met, you’re in the quilt section, not with the paintings. So that’s a big thing. Being an abstract painter, what does that do? Where does that fit in? People have a hard time with that. Take MoMA, and how they have it all lined up—where does abstract painting or Thomas fit in? They don’t. Hopefully in the 21st century, things will get rewritten, and you’ll see that work, or people will get interested in that work, which is really a secret.

Rail: And you know that there are many others in that position.

Whitney: Yeah, there are. David Hammons curated a show in Vienna at Christine Koenig Galerie, “Quiet as It’s Kept.” I wanted an Alma Thomas there, but I couldn’t get one. So there were three generations; I was in the middle. It was a whole history of abstract work that people don’t know how to deal with. In America, people want to simplify. With my work, I want people to ask difficult questions.

Rail: Wasn’t that something you were conscious of all along?

Whitney: When you’re painting, you’re fixing the painting you’re painting. When you’re on the street, you’re not. Outside the studio, it’s very complicated. When I’m not painting or when I’m looking at the paintings, I’m kind of aware of that. But when I’m painting, I’m just a painter. You do so much work outside the studio, going to look at work, reading, or discussing. I never like my work when I’m painting. It took me a long time to like them. I paint them, but then I hate them. I never get what I want. It takes me a long time to relax and see what I have, as opposed to what I wanted. It takes me a while to see it.

Rail: That’s an interesting split, because you can bring all that street stuff into your studio and have that determine what you paint. Or you can say, there is another way that isn’t beholden to an external agenda.

Whitney: I think I was always difficult, even when I was young. I was getting into a lot of trouble in high school and college. I was a big troublemaker. In the ’60s there were the Panthers, Civil Rights, and Dr. King, and I wanted to paint. How could I justify that? I avoided the Panthers in Kansas City because I wanted to paint, and I thought, God, I can’t tell them that I’m a painter; it’s a bourgeois activity. When people were telling you that you were African-American, and you should be a voice of the race, and this is what you need to do, and you’re a painter.

Rail: And painting, as we’ve been told, is a white, European, decadent, bourgeois activity.

Whitney: Yeah, and you’re born as a painter, so what is that? So you had to hide out and protect yourself and go paint. And through painting, you discover why it’s important. I think that I was always that individual.

Rail: The other thing you said was that you felt like you were a witness, because others didn’t know what to do with you. Like with Rauschenberg.

Whitney: Well, I wasn’t an entertainer. I think people—if they walked into a room—wouldn’t listen to you as the artist. I was very quiet and not particularly aggressive. I was clear about what I was striving for in the studio, but I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from the art world. It’s two different things. It took me a long time to grow up and get real.

Rail: That takes patience. It’s figuring it out in the studio, rather than on the street.

Whitney: Yeah, I guess so. It’s funny because now I’m reading a lot of art criticism. Reading is a bigger thing now than going to museums to look at art, because I feel like I did my homework earlier. I’m looking at my path (when you get older you have a past, the present, and the future) and think what I did or why I did it. Why didn’t I hang on Guston’s coattails, and use that to better my career? But at the time I was so involved in my work. The studio was everything for me. I had a salary, I could teach, I could make work. I was willing to put the time in—that was a big decision, to realize I wanted to put the time in. The scary thing is to think as a young painter now, that if you put the time in, and make the work, and twenty years later people go, “I don’t like it or want it.” You’re gambling, because the world changes quickly. There’s also the money factor, which says you better show early. Because when you’re showing early and you’re building your career, it’s one brick at a time. So you really want to show the work, have it out there, have a conversation, and meet people. I wanted to be left alone, and paint. I think of myself still pretty much as a hermit.

The Rail: Who came to New York.

Whitney: I always loved New York. Even as a kid I remember coming to New York, and I wanted to be an artist. I remember coming with my mother and a friend of hers; we went down to the Village, and walked by a basketball court on 4th Street. There were street artists drawing portraits, and one guy said, “I’m the best artist in New York.” I thought, “Oh my God, I just got here, and I’m ten years old, and I’ve met the best artist in New York.”

Rail: In New York, you can go out every night and still feel like you missed something. Or you decide to stay home and do your work.

Whitney: It’s funny because Al Taylor and I used to try to hang out. There were lots of parties on 14th street, wild scenes, but after a while you realize if you want to paint, you can’t do that. You really can’t; you have to put the time in. And then you bounce back. So I got into this rhythm: teaching, painting, teaching, painting.

Rail: What about now?

Whitney: I retired. I realized that I didn’t want to teach. I taught for over thirty years. I also chaired, hired people, had graduate students, and undergraduate students. That was enough. There’s nothing else I would have accomplished, and I wanted to spend more time in the studio.

Rail: Do you have any theories about color?

Whitney: I wouldn’t want to go there. I want to leave it to itself. You know, color’s very magical, and I want to leave it magical. People in the West always want to have control and science, and they have a hard time, sometimes, with it being just what it is. Someone could ask why I put that blue next to that gray—because it feels good. That should be there, that amount, that density. It just feels right. Those kind of things—you know when you go to a movie in a theater, how do you pick a seat out? It just feels right. If you think about it, you get fucked up.

Rail: It’s about ownership.

Whitney: I remember going to see a show at the New York Public Library on 42nd street. It was a show on New York; there were no African-Americans, Asians, anybody of color. And, as a painter, it’s like what I should be drawing or who owns this or who owns that. I was always aware of ownership. I’m standing in front of this Cézanne in this museum in Ohio; it had a beat. I could see it as music. I’m sure the people who write about Cézanne wouldn’t write about Charlie Parker. You know what the great thing about art is, painting reinvents time and time doesn’t exist. Today or tomorrow doesn’t exist in a painting. You look at Caravaggio, and it’s really contemporary. Time doesn’t exist. That’s the good thing about painting. And also painting was where I could take responsibility. Painters are well-disciplined; they want the responsibility. You don’t rely on someone else—what do you think? Should we do this, should we do that? You do everything. I didn’t really want to work somewhere. I made myself up. People have mentioned Malevich, Carl Andre, and Matisse, this color and that. There’s lots of ways it can go if you really have the knowledge. Look at the title, figure things out from the title, James Brown: Sacrifice to Apollo. I guess with me, I really want that kind of depth.

Contributor

John Yau

==

BOMB MAGAZINE

Stanley Whitney

by Alteronce Gumby

BOMB’s Oral History Project documents the life stories of New York City’s African American artists.Download this Oral History as a PDF, EPUB, or MOBI file for your ereader.


Stanley Whitney at his studio in Parma, Italy, 2012. Photo by Marina Adams. Courtesy of the artist.

It gives me great honor to present BOMB Magazine’s Oral History of Stanley Whitney. Stanley is a New York based artist born and raised in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He studied art at various institutions, including Columbus College of Art and Design, Kansas City Art Institute, and Yale University. He is represented by TEAM Gallery in New York City, Nordenhake Galerie in Berlin, Christine König Galerie in Vienna, and Albert Baronian in Brussels. Stanley spends his time between New York City and Parma, Italy with his wife, the painter Marina Adams.

During the final year of my BFA at Hunter College, I was looking for Afro-American abstract painters. It was my subject of interest at the time. I wanted to know how contemporary Afro-American artists used abstraction and for what functions. Were they talking about identity, race, stereotypes, or politics in their work? After five years of studying art intensively, I arrived at the podium with a handful of names. Stanley Whitney was one of them.

I first met Stanley at an exhibition opening. I, being an overly curious student, had so many questions about his work. I remember being really nervous and asking him five questions at once. “Stanley, what does the grid mean to you, do you consider yourself a modernist, what’s your favorite color?” I remember standing there waiting for his response to, hopefully, at least one of those questions—some words of wisdom from a great artist. Stanley shook his head slightly, glanced up at me and said, “Look, I’m doing this talk next week at SVA on my work. You can ask me all the questions you want then.”

The information a fine art student gets from an art history class and the knowledge one gains from talking with an actual artist about their work are two separate things. I believe both forms of information are needed for an enriched understanding of their ideas and direction toward making art. Stanley told me once, “There are many art histories … and many art worlds.” The more I talked to him about his work and influences, the more I found that statement to be true. Every artist creates their own history, their lineage through other artists and practices that lead them to this “thing” called art, and it takes place in their studios, their world. It takes more than just a BFA or MFA degree to arrive at a place in one’s practice where subject, material, and image project a new idea and perspective of the world around us. The amalgamation of life experiences is present in every painting, every gesture, and every decisive mark Stanley makes in his work.

I remember walking into TEAM Gallery for Stanley’s solo show, Other Colors I Forget, and being completely blown away. Stanley’s world and the world around us were right in front of me in those paintings. The colors, structure, space, rhythm, soul, human interaction. I heard the music, I felt the beat, the energy and intellect of the painting; it mirrored the life of the artist. “It’s all a part of it,” Stanley said.


Stanley Whitney in his Cooper Square studio, New York, 2015. Photos by Richard Goldstein.

Alteronce Gumby Today is April 12, 2014. It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and the work in Stanley’s studio is just as vibrant as the streets of New York are right now. Stanley, let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us where you’re from, where you grew up?

Stanley Whitney Yes, I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in the Main Line, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, which is a wealthy, old area associated with the Pennsylvania Academy. Where Grace Kelly comes from. I grew up in a very small Afro-American community. Basically we were two streets of Afro-Americans, two or three streets of Irish. It wasn’t really segregated; but even though you saw the Irish community, you didn’t really deal with them, and they didn’t deal with you, though we went to school together.

AG What did most people do there? What was the main trade?

SW Well, most of the black community was help for the rich people. Actually, the rich people had two choices. They had black help or Irish help. The second generation of the Irish became small businesspeople—grocery stores, fish stores, beverage stores, you know, corner stores. The black community didn’t get into this kind of trade. They did things like landscaping. And they mostly worked for the rich people.

AG What kind of work did your parents do?

SW My father attended Howard University where he had Ralph Bunche as a professor. My father was a real estate and insurance man, and an accountant. He did a lot of things. He had a shoe shop, he had a cleaning business, but in the end he did insurance and real estate. In those days, he wasn’t allowed to be on the board of realtors because they were segregated. So, basically, he sold houses in the black community. When he sold a house in the white community and put up his “Sold” sign, they’d take it down—because he was a black realtor. But all in all I had a fun childhood. We played in the street—handball and football. I remember the community very fondly. I had great friends all through my childhood.

AG What about your mother?

SW My mother went to Temple University. She worked for my father a while, then she got a job working for the education board in Philadelphia. She’s still alive. She’s ninety-eight. My mother was a really great athlete. Even in her nineties she could bend over and put her whole palms on the floor. I have an older sister and two brothers—I was the third child—and we’d help out at my father’s small store. Everyone was poor, but we didn’t really think about it because all the black people were poor. The Irish were kind of poor too, and then you had the super-rich people who had estates with mile-long driveways.

AG Were there any other artists in your immediate family?

SW No, I was the only one. I drew since forever. I always drew on everything. I drew all over the wall. I drew on paper. I was always drawing. There was another guy, Harry Pollitt—we called him Flubby. He was very talented. And there was Jimmy Phillips, who became part of AfriCOBRA. So, there were three of us black students. It was a very small black community, in every grade maybe two or three black people.

AG What was your first art experience?

SW Well, my first art experience was going to a Saturday art program in Bryn Mawr when I was ten. I knew I liked art, but in the community no one ever thought about it. I never thought much about it either. I didn’t know what it meant to be an artist. I thought I could make money being a commercial artist. So I went to this program.

I remember it clearly. We painted this model, in oil paint, and I used every color on the palette. The art teacher loved it, but all the other kids’ paintings were either sepia, black and white, or trying to be real realistic. And mine was full of color. I had no idea why I had done that, and I took it home, and my parents said, “What’s this?” So I put it in the back of the closet and never went back to the program.

It was hard, because I wasn’t used to being around white people—while it wasn’t segregated, you really didn’t socialize with them. You went to school with white people, you had white teachers and white classmates, but outside of that, you never talked to anybody white. You socialized with black people. In this art class I was the only black student, and then I was such an oddball—I’d painted this odd painting. So, I just couldn’t handle it. I never went back. My brother, who was a year older, was already in the Boy Scouts. I was a Cub Scout. So, I went to the Boy Scouts, where I would do camping and stuff like that. I didn’t go back to the art program. That was my first real art experience.AG When did you first recognize what art was?

SW Well, that’s a hard one. All through grade school to junior high, my friend Flubby and I did all the decorations for prom, and we did the drawings for the school newspaper—illustrations, stuff like that. But I didn’t know about the Philadelphia Museum, or the Barnes Foundation, or the Pennsylvania Academy. I just knew I could draw, and people said to me, “If you can draw those illustrations, like in a newspaper, you can make a lot of money.” The big thing was, like I said, we were really, really poor. My siblings and I grew up above my father’s store, basically a two-bedroom apartment with six people in it. It was tight. I knew I wanted to make art. I knew even in high school. I wasn’t academic. I wasn’t going to go to college. I didn’t participate well in high school because I just didn’t like it. My older brother did pretty well. He got a soccer scholarship to Lycoming College, and my sister went to Howard University. My brother ended up transferring to Howard. But I was really anti-establishment. I just didn’t participate. So, I knew I’d go to art school.


Stanley Whitney, Double Self-Portrait, 1966. Oil on canvas. Collection of Jeff Boerger. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Did you take any art classes in high school?

SW I majored in art in high school, but the teacher was a guy who did these pretty watercolors. I couldn’t really make pretty watercolors like he could, and, actually, in my last year in high school, I got a hold of oil paint again, and I made a couple of oil paintings with a lot of color. In fact, my mother still has those two oil paintings.

AG Were they abstract or figurative?

SW They were figurative, but the images were made up. It’s funny because I used, again, every color you can imagine. (laughter) People liked them a lot, and so a friend’s parents tried to get me a scholarship to Pennsylvania Academy. I spent high school hanging out with a lot of what, in those days, you would call bohemians, in Philadelphia, and trying to go to clubs. I knew about the jazz scene. But I didn’t want to stay in Philadelphia. The city was tough in those days, in the late ’50s, early ’60s. If you were Afro American, you’d take one step, and the police were on you. The bohemians were more mixed, of course, and everybody was into jazz. But I wanted to get out of Philadelphia, so I didn’t take the deal to go to the Pennsylvania Academy. Not that I knew what the deal was, or what the Academy was anyway. However, in the back of a magazine I saw that the Columbus College of Art and Design was offering every class in the world. So, I went off to Columbus, Ohio.


Stanley Whitney in studio, Columbus, Ohio, 1966. Courtesy of the artist.

AG When was that?

SW ’64.

AG And what kind of work were you doing there?

SW Well, it was an art school. It didn’t even offer a BFA yet, but it was a four-year program. It was affiliated with the Columbus Museum of Art. We had a Bauhaus kind of program—we had painting, two-dimensional and three-dimensional design, anatomy. It was a really basic, European idea of how to have an art education. We even had anatomical drafting. So, you had to learn all the muscles to draw the figure. It was almost like an old trade school, you went to school during the day, then school shut down and everyone was on their own. Most people were from Detroit, many from Tuskegee, Alabama, and there were some from West Virginia. It was a poor man’s school. I think it cost like three hundred and something dollars a semester to go. But it was right by the art museum, and I got to see paintings there. And when I saw the Cézanne painting, everything kind of clicked.

AG Which Cézanne painting?

SW Oh, yeah. I have a reproduction here. It wasn’t very big. In fact, I saw the original again a couple years ago in Paris, at a Cézanne show.

AG I’m looking at Cézanne’s Portrait of Victor Chocquet, 1877. This is great! You saw this at the museum in Columbus?

SW Yeah. When I saw it for the first time I was already deeply involved in painting. I didn’t want to do anything else but paint. And that Cézanne painting set me off.

AG Where there any instructors that guided you during your time in Columbus?

SW No, not at that point. Most of the instructors there were not that interesting. I was there from ’64 to ’66. In ’66 I transferred to the Kansas City Art Institute.

AG What sparked that decision?

SW Well, a lot of things. Kansas City had just built a whole campus, with dorms, school buildings, everything like that. And they were actually going about recruiting for it. They came once to Columbus and we met them at a hotel, and they were recruiting students. Many of my friends from Columbus went down there. It just seemed like a better program—it was an accredited school and they gave you a BFA. A good friend, Wilbur Bruce, another Afro-American artist who I met in Columbus, went down to Kansas City. Bruce and I were both deep into jazz at the time. I knew more about jazz than I knew about art. I used to come to New York on the weekends and go to the jazz clubs. I didn’t know about the Museum of Modern Art or the Met, but I knew about jazz.

AG What kind of jazz were you listening to back then?

SW When I was in high school, all through the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a lot of great music. I listened to John Coltrane, of course, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, and Sonny Rollins. And if you came to New York, you could go to the Five Spot, to the Village Gate, to Slug’s, Lee Morgan … you could see all these people. I remember going to the Village Gate on Bleecker Street and hearing Charlie Mingus. Then, during break time, Mingus went across the street to a café, and I went across the street with him and sat right beside him at the café. I didn’t say a word, but I sat right beside him. (laughter) Just listened to him talk. I mean those people were very special. The music was very special. I was lucky. There was a lot going on. You had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones; you had Bob Dylan. In those days the audiences of these different kinds of music didn’t intermingle. Either you were a folk person, or a jazz person, or a rock and roll person. You didn’t go from one thing to the other. But I did. I liked all of it. I liked Eric Dolphy, but I also liked the Beatles, which kind of confused me.

AG (laughter) It’s kind of hard not to like the Beatles.

SW Yeah, but most people were deep into the music they liked.

When I got to art school I thought, This is it. I had been a total outsider in high school, so when I got to art school I realized that I was finally doing what I love to do. I was a really good student. The teachers said do something, and I did it. I took lettering, drafting, I did everything I could. My father had sent me saying, “Look, I’ll pay for one year. After that, you’re on your own.” So I was working to get that scholarship, and, believe me, by sophomore year, I was like, I got it.

AG You got it.

SW Yeah, I wasn’t going back home.

AG What kind of work were you doing in Kansas?

SW You know, it took me forever to find my subject matter. I was looking at works by Cézanne and Edvard Munch, who I really loved. People were really into de Kooning at the time because most of the art professors came from Abstract Expressionism. I was doing a lot of experimenting—self-portraits, painting my table with food on it, painting everything I could. I didn’t paint landscapes. We had an assignment, going outside to paint the landscape, and painting outside was just a disaster for me. I think it was the fall. I got leaves all over everything, and I said, “I’ll never paint outside again.”


Stanley Whitney, Still Life, 1966. Oil on canvas. Collection of Zach Boerger. Courtesy of the artist.

AG The late ‘60s was the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Were you aware of that while you were traveling back and forth to New York City, listening to jazz?

SW No, I really wasn’t aware of it. When I was in high school I didn’t know there was such a thing as another black painter. I had no clue that black people even made art. I didn’t know or meet anybody, and nobody told me about anybody. Not at all.

AG How did that make you feel? Making art, in this time when social tensions were very high in the United States, and here you are making paintings and not seeing anyone in the mainstream scene who’s an African American artist?

SW Well, it was definitely a hard time, no matter what you did. It was really a difficult and interesting time. The country was in turmoil. I was in Kansas City in art school during the riots. I was there in art school when King got shot. I was there when Malcolm got shot. I knew Black Panthers, and I had a hard time explaining why I wanted to paint. When the Panthers asked me, “Stanley, what are you doing for the race?” I didn’t know how to defend myself or say what art is about. I called them the black police. Amiri Baraka also haunted me in terms of what that meant in relation to race. I was always in my basement painting. I didn’t participate. My white friends, they would go to San Francisco where the whole hippie thing was going on. The music thing, the Doors; we went to that. And there was a lot of good rock and roll in those days. The white folks were even cool in those days.

AG With all this going on, did you ever feel the need to talk about identity or politics within your work?

SW No. At this point in my work, when I was a sophomore and a junior in Kansas City, I was still figuring it out. What do I paint? I’d paint my girlfriend. I’d paint people. I’d take a figure from a Courbet painting, and then a background from a Rothko, or I would steal a figure from Piero della Francesca, then take something from a Jasper Johns. Or I took a figure from a Piero della Francesca fresco and an image of a background from a Francis Bacon painting. I was trying all kinds of things. I would paint, then go across the street to the museum and look at Velasquez or Goya.

A lot of people at Kansas City were into Diebenkorn, that kind of painting that was going on in ’67 or ‘68. Some students were very much involved with whatever was hot in Artforum magazine then. So we had one class where we were taught to paint like Cézanne, and I thought, God, I’m not doing that. Another class was painting out of Artforum magazine. I went to a class with Richard Lethem where people were all over the place, making things up. I just tried everything—looking, experimenting, trying to figure out what I liked. I liked a little bit of everything. That’s how I painted.

But I knew I wasn’t a storyteller. I felt that art should be something that encompassed more. At that time I was reading a lot of poetry. I didn’t know any poets, but I knew that I wanted my work to be more than one single story.

AG Is that why you leaned toward abstraction?

SW I didn’t lean. I didn’t know about it. I hadn’t seen any abstraction that I liked. Then, Dick Lethem, who was my professor there, showed me a Morris Louis painting and something clicked. When I saw that painting, his Veils, and other ones where the color seeps in the center and opens up—that really turned me around. That was my introduction to modern painting. Before that, my work was just like art history; it was all Velázquez, Goya, Cézanne, and Soutine. But when I saw Morris Louis I saw a way into the present. So, I stopped painting these dark, figurative, Goya and Velázquez kind of paintings. And then, as a junior, I got a scholarship to go to a summer program. Perfect timing. It was at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs and was called Summer Six. It was where I met key people in my life.

AG Who were some of those people?

SW I met Robert Reed, who later became a professor at Yale. And I also met Philip Guston, who got me to New York and a scholarship to the Studio School.

AG So what kind of work were you doing up there in Saratoga Springs?

SW The painting had kind of died. I didn’t know what to paint. So, I was drawing a lot. I drew landscapes, a lot of trees. I’d bring a twig back to my studio and just draw and draw.

AG So it was pretty open? It wasn’t as structured of a program?

SW It was. You had a drawing class and a painting class, and they gave you a studio. Bob Reed taught a drawing class, so maybe there were assignments. Guston liked my work a lot. I remember his enthusiasm for painting. I was going from figurative to abstract work, and he was going from abstract work to figurative work. So that’s kind of how we met. He’d try to get me to go paint or draw downtown, there, in Saratoga Springs. But I wanted to go the other way and thought, Why is he telling me to go downtown and draw some life when I’m trying to move to abstraction!

AG (laughter) Yeah.

SW I had no idea what he was doing at the time. No one knew he was making those changes in his work. I got along with Guston really well. He had his favorite students, and I was one of them. I remember one time walking the street with him, and he got so excited over this beautiful red car—it must have been a Cadillac, with red leather seats. And here I was, I must have been twenty. He was in his fifties maybe. He seemed like an old man to me. And he was so excited by this red Cadillac. And I was like, Man, this guy’s older than me, and he’s more excited about life than I am.

Anyway, after the summer program, Guston said, “Look, you should go to the Studio School in New York.” I said, “Well, I’m finishing up at Kansas City. I have one more year.” “Go there through them. I’ll get you a scholarship. You come and finish your last year in New York.” I thought, Well, that’s a great idea. Once school was out, while I was in Columbus or Kansas City, I came to see friends in New York who were living on the Lower East Side. I’d go to the clubs, then I’d spend some time at the museums.

AG What year was this that you came to New York after the Saratoga Springs residency?

SW Probably the winter of ’67 and the spring of ’68. I used to get in a lot of trouble in Kansas City because of the race thing. The police always harassed us, the black students. But I was so used to it—my whole life, being harassed by the police—that I never told anybody. With a friend of mine, who was also a painter, we got a place outside of the art community. We had this loft in downtown Kansas City. It used to be a big dance studio, the Arthur Murray dance studio. We threw a big party, and I invited people from the black community, the Panthers, along with everybody from school. It was a huge loft party, and there was a lot of marijuana in the arts community. The police raided us and threw everyone in jail, even the professors. The padded wagons came. They put everyone in the holding cell, but me they put in a lone cell by myself.

AG Why was that?

SW Because they found a lot of marijuana there.

AG And you took the rap for it?

SW I was going to take the rap for it, that’s what they told me. They said ten to twenty! They let everyone out of jail, but kept me in. Anyway, the next day, they let me out. It turned out that Clarence Kelley, who later became the head of the FBI, at that point was head of the Kansas City Police Department. His brother, another Kelley, was head of the design department at Kansas City Art Institute. And so, because of the brother, they got everyone out of jail. And somehow the newspapers never got a hold of it, so they dropped all the charges on me. The only reason they busted the party is because they said there were blacks and whites mingling together. They actually wrote that in the report. So I got out on a technicality.

So, the dean of the school told me, “Look, Stanley. You want to go to New York? Go ahead. We’ll let you go to New York to the Studio School program. Work there, and then bring the work back here, we’ll look at it, and we’ll give you a degree.” They kind of kicked me out of town, which I was happy about. I was like, Great, I’m out of here.

AG I’m sure.

SW I had been in Kansas City two years. I did my tour of duty out there in the Midwest, and I wanted to come back east anyway. I knew New York was the place to be.

AG So you came back to New York what year?

SW I think it was ’68. I started at the Studio School in New York, but that was too romantic for me, and I dropped out of that.

AG Was it just one semester you did there?

SW I was going to do one semester there. It ended up being more like two weeks. At the Studio School, which wasn’t accredited and couldn’t give a BFA, they were very excited about the exchange program with Kansas City. So, here I was a test case for having an accredited school working with a non-accredited school. When I came to the Studio School, there were Morton Feldman, Leland Bell, Elaine de Kooning, and Mercedes Matter. Everyone was talking about, you know, the old days. I felt like I was done with that. In Kansas City, in the Midwest, you actually have all the time in the world to be romantic about everything. I wanted to be in New York and hang out with contemporary painters. I knew this guy Dan Christensen, who was a Color Field painter. His brother, Don, was a friend of mine in Kansas City. Dan had a loft on Great Jones Street and hung out at Max’s Kansas City. There was a lot going on in my life. I was breaking up with my girlfriend, and the draft board was after me. I had to go for my physical. I really wanted to be done with school.

AG What were your ideas about art then? Here you are, finishing school, you just moved to New York City, it’s ’68, there’s a huge art scene. What was your work like?

SW Well, I had done that summer program at Saratoga, with Guston. I was getting into more abstraction and doing big oil paintings. They were about seven by four feet. I was working with staining, color, and line. And just looking at a lot of art.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 8 × 10 feet. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Who were you looking at?

SW Well, in those days in New York there were a lot of gallery shows, at  Marlborough, Emmerich, Bykert. Brice Marden was showing a lot. Barnett Newman was sort of King of the Hill. I don’t really remember Judd at that point. A lot of young Color Field painters, and Pollock.

AG Did you get a chance to see any of those Morris Louis paintings in person?

SW Yeah, I got to see all of those. All the galleries were uptown, so on Saturdays, a group of us would meet on 57th Street, mostly people I knew from Kansas City, like Al Taylor. Al and I moved to New York from Kansas City around the same time. We would go look at art together. We would just cover every gallery on 57th Street.

AG As a young artist coming to the scene and being African American, did you feel it was easy for you to tap into those social circles?

SW Well, when I was in Kansas City I hung out with this guy, Wilbur Bruce, and we were the only Afro-Americans out there. It was complicated because on some levels you dealt with people because you were a painter, and on some levels, you couldn’t. You had your own music, and if people can’t get to your music, you can’t hang out with them. When I went to look at art, I hung out with people mostly because of their art, not because of their race. When I got to New York I didn’t know many Afro-American painters. I knew this one guy, James Philips, who was in AfriCOBRA, but he had moved to the West Coast because New York was too rough. In terms of art, race wasn’t really an issue for me at all. My best friend was Al Taylor, who was from Wichita, Kansas. We met at Kansas City in ‘66 and were best friends until the day he died. We went everywhere together. We had a great dialogue and understood the seriousness of our endeavor as artists. Al was painting abstract paintings that were very loosely painted connecting lines, each line being a different color. I think they were in acrylic. The art, for me, always has been everything.

AG In ’69, here in New York City specifically, the major art institutions were showcasing a lot of African American artists. There was the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Harlem on My Mind, the Whitney’s series of abstract African American artists, starting with Al Loving, then Jack Whitten and Alma Thomas. Were you seeing these shows? What was your reaction to them?

SW Yeah, a lot was going on. It was such a complicated time. What was happening was that all the institutions were scrambling, trying to convince people they weren’t racist.

AG (laughter)

SW So they were trying to have a few token Afro-American shows: everyone who came out of Yale before me, like William T. Williams, or Al Loving, who came from Detroit. Danny Johnson was an Afro-American artist. He got a whole building in SoHo. Some deal! I came to town almost like a country bumpkin and didn’t really know what was at stake. I was young. But what I got out of all that turmoil was that I got to go to Yale. People went to jail; I went to Yale.

AG When was that?

SW Well, I was there ’68, ’69, and ‘70. I had stayed at the Studio School for not even one semester, dropped out of that. Morton Feldman and Mercedes Matter tried to sit me down, but I walked out the door, left my paintbrushes and paint, and thought, I’m not coming back. Kansas City let me graduate anyway and gave me my degree. I was living with Richard Lethem in Brooklyn for a few months. Richard is Jonathan Lethem’s father, in fact. Jonathan was about ten at the time. Then my girlfriend and I got a place on our own nearby, on Dean Street in Boerum Hill. About a year later, I took Al Taylor’s subleased loft on Canal Street, above the Three Roses Bar, and he moved into a loft at 94 Bowery. I had stayed on Bowery off and on the previous few years and that loft became our main hangout. Al got the loft through Peter Young and Larry Strafford, whom Dan Christensen knew. That was great because Young had left New York, and all his paintings were there. So, I lived there with Peter Young’s paintings.

AG Did that influence the work you were making at the time, having those paintings around?

SW It did, and it was the dot paintings, almost like candy dot paintings. They were real interesting. I remember the loft exactly and seeing the paintings laying out. At that point, everyone was figuring out radical ways of painting—you know, besides painting with a brush, which I experimented with too.


Stanley Whitney in his Cooper Street studio, New York, 1983. Photo by Marina Adams. Courtesy of the artist.

I was searching. Going to museums, to galleries. I was looking at everything. You didn’t see much figurative work at that time, and I wasn’t interested in it anyway, although I liked Alex Katz’s work. Abstract work was really big in those days. I saw a lot of great Pollock paintings, like ones with black enamel on dark linen. I don’t know where those paintings are today.

AG This was also the time of Pop art, and Minimalism was starting to come around about that time.

SW Yeah, you could say Barnett Newman was a Minimalist. But, back to the race thing, like I said, I benefitted from that. Bob Reed, who I’d met at Saratoga, got a job at Yale, probably because they needed a black professor. I would assume, but I don’t know that for a fact. When I wrote to Bob he got back to me asking if I would be interested in going to Yale for graduate school. I said no, because I was just out of school and getting settled in New York. All of a sudden there were these new galleries in SoHo—Ivan Karp, OK Harris. All this stuff was happening in SoHo, and I was living in this loft on Canal Street above the Three Roses. I worked at Pearl Paint, and I wasn’t interested in going back to school. But then Dan Christensen, who I used to work for sometimes, stretching canvases, said, “No, Stanley, look. Yale’s a really good program. A lot of good people have come out of there—Brice Marden and Chuck Close went to Yale.” So, Bob came down to my studio, looked at my paintings, and rolled them up and took them to Yale.

AG What kind of paintings were those?

SW I was working in acrylic, and I was working on the floor because I couldn’t afford stretchers. I was copying tantric art. I had seen this book of tantric art with these big half moons. And the shapes were stacked.

AG Were you playing around with color then?

SW Yeah, I made these constellations of round circles about three to five inches in diameter, and I put them on a colored field. They were stacked either vertical or horizontal. And I was staining—a lot of young artists were staining in those days. Acrylic was really big. So, I was making flat color, then I’d make this constellation; it wouldn’t be like the Big Dipper, but I would just make these shapes.

AG How big were these paintings?

SW They were maybe five by seven feet, horizontal. I never showed them. The only person who has one is Al’s widow, Debbie Taylor. I traded one with Al, and he kept everything. I don’t know what happened to those others to tell you the truth.

AG So Bob Reed came to the studio, and he saw these paintings.

SW Rolled them up and took them to Yale. I didn’t go up. I was young and arrogant in those days. I didn’t really care that much. But he did. Like I said, everyone was looking for black students, black professors. You have to understand, I’m sixty-seven, but people in their seventies now, they didn’t know anybody black. They didn’t socialize with black people. Even if you went, like myself, to a high school that wasn’t segregated, you went to class together, but that was it. You didn’t socialize. You didn’t date. We knew we were the Other, and they knew we were the Other, and they didn’t deal with us. There are always a few exceptions, but that was my experience.

AG Jeez.

SW I mean, they talked to you, like we’re talking. But that was it. After school, you didn’t. There were a few people who wanted to hang out with the black kids because they knew we had great music and great parties. But these people were rare. And they were strange. Because we were always being harassed, we were always told we were nothing. In high school, there was never anyone black who did anything good. Maybe George Washington Carver, but that was it. You never heard of anything black that was good.

AG Were you still experiencing this kind of racial tension when you went up to grad school in New Haven, within the student body there?

SW No, never with other artists. The art community was like a tribe. So with artists, it wasn’t the case, but with dealers and collectors, it was. I talked with Ed Clark, who’s in his eighties, almost ninety, about his time in Paris—he didn’t just hang out with other black artists. People often pretend they all hung out together, but they didn’t. Not every black artist likes every piece of art that black people do. We’re just like everyone else. Some people we like, and some people we don’t like. So, I was hanging out with anyone whose work I liked. I didn’t care if they were female or male, black, Chinese. I didn’t care about race. All of that stuff that is put on you—you’re this, you’re that. I personally think it’s the state making this up to control you. I don’t really believe in it at all. So, I was hanging out with anyone who I thought was making interesting art. In fact, my best friend from the time was Al Taylor, and we met in Kansas City in ’66.

AG Yeah, it’s great, there’s no segregation amongst artists.

SW Not that way, no. When it came to the galleries, and making money, and showing, then there was.

AG Yeah, and most artists would agree.

SW I did really well at Yale, and when I got out no gallery or collector would touch me with a ten-foot pole.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1983. Acrylic on canvas. 24 × 36 inches. Photo by Richard Goldstein.

AG Let’s talk about Yale a bit. What kind of work were you doing there?

SW I was still experimenting. I continued doing those circle paintings, then I started doing more linear things, with line. And, I have to say, Al Held was a big influence. Up until that time, before Yale, I was mostly influenced by Clement Greenberg and the Color Field painters, because with them there was a black presence. I worked my way through that. Peter Bradley was one of the African American artists in that scene, who I became friends with. At those parties there’d be a lot of jazz musicians.

AG You went to a lot of the Greenberg parties in New York?

SW Yeah. That was a scene where you felt like black culture was part of it. They thought black people were really hip, and they are, and so their parties were kind of like that. They were very fun, big loft parties, lots of dance music. And that was a combination of both the jazz things I knew really well and also the art things. So, I hung out in that scene, and I was trying to make these acrylic Color Field paintings. But I had a lot of questions and a lot of doubts about that work. I thought it was very thin; they were interesting paintings, but they didn’t go far enough. But the color was there. Like in the works by Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons. I liked Brice Marden’s work. By this time Judd was really big, and I knew that work, the structure of that.

At Yale, Al Held was my professor. I had already met Al at Pearl Paint, the last job I had in New York. Before that I worked at the Strand Bookstore. Dick Lethem got me a job there. And then I quit that job and worked as a carpenter on the construction site of Electric Ladyland recording studio for Jimi Hendrix, on 8th Street. But I was a terrible carpenter. I just faked it until they realized I was faking it. And then I got a job working at Pearl Paint. That was where all the New York artists would come in—Barnett Newman, Al Held. Most people painted in acrylic. It dried faster, it was cheap, and you could buy big jars of it. Pearl paint was the brand new art supply place, and it was small in those days. Only three people worked there in the art department.

So, that’s how I met Al Held, and he was teaching at Yale. When I got into Yale Al offered me a ride up to New Haven because I had this big trunk full of acrylic paint. When we rode up in his station wagon he asked me who my favorite painter was, and I mentioned some Color Field painter, and he said, “Oh, they’re lousy! They’re terrible painters, those Color Field people.” And I was like, “Uh, okay.” And he laid into me. I almost wanted to jump out the window. He went on about it all the way from New York to New Haven. “How can you like that work?” And I couldn’t really defend it. I was a young artist, and I didn’t know. I was just figuring things out.

Al was a big influence. I’d say he was a big influence on a lot of people. Al would always challenge me. He came up to the studio about once a week, and it was like a boxing match. It was toe to toe.


Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio, New York, 1975. Photo by the artist.

AG Is there anything Al said to you that still resonates with you now?

SW No, there’s nothing in particular. It’s just that he was really tough, and he’d question everything. He’d make you defend your work. Al got me thinking about structure and drawing and space. At this point, I was still working on the floor. I would draw something with a piece of cardboard instead of a brush, using acrylic on cotton duck. If I didn’t like the image, I’d cover it with a random color of thin acrylic and draw again, and get an image, and draw again. You know, building layers. I never knew, preparing the painting, what the painting would even be or look like.

I think Al said one time, “You should just take a mop. Why use a brush? Just mop the whole thing.” So I’m painting with this mop, but I can’t do a lot of color because everything gets muddy. I tried all that for a while. I liked the freedom of it all, using non-traditional processes and materials. A lot of people were just experimenting, trying different ways of applying paint and reinventing painting. Because painting at the time was really being challenged. It was said that painting is bourgeois. The most interesting work, people thought, was sculpture. You know, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, and Robert Smithson. People thought Robert Morris was a genius. Painting wasn’t considered that important, though painting’s always important.

AG Were there any other instructors that you interacted with at Yale that stuck out to you?

SW Well, there was William Bailey. He had just gotten the job at Yale and moved there from Indiana University. He used to come to Kansas City a lot as a visiting artist when I was in school there. So, I knew Bill, and there was Lester Johnson. They had a lot of visiting artists too. We had one a week coming to the studio. And critics. People like Lucas Samaras, Larry Poons, Larry Rivers, Ken Noland, and Clement Greenberg. I always did very well. There was never a time that people didn’t say, “Hey, this guy’s really good.”

AG Were you looking a lot at Al Held’s work at that time?

SW Yeah. I was looking at Al Held’s work even before I went up to Yale. Emmerich Gallery was a big place that showed a lot of Color Field painting. The art scene was small until SoHo opened up. You could do all the galleries on 57th Street on a Saturday.

AG So you were taking trips from New Haven to New York every weekend, checking out shows?

SW No, once I got to New Haven, I didn’t because I wanted to just paint, paint, paint. When I was in New York I had a job during the day at the Strand bookstore and painted at night. It was a real luxury to be able to paint in the day. Even now, I only paint during the day. In New Haven, I also got caught up with the other students, and the faculty, and the visiting artists, so I just stayed there and painted for two years.

AG So what happened after Yale? Did you come back to the city?

SW When I was at Yale, I was highly visible, and I was offered a teaching job at the University of Rhode Island. I hadn’t looked to go to Yale, and I didn’t look for a teaching job either. I didn’t have to.

AG They were searching for you.

SW They needed us, you know? While I was still a student at Yale I was offered a job at the University of Rhode Island. I knew this black artist, Marvin Brown, who was living in New York, and they had offered him the job. But he was teaching at Hunter so he recommended me. I met with Richard Frankel, and he offered me this job at University of Rhode Island. At Yale, I was living in my studio illegally. I was totally broke, and I went from that to having a teaching job, a salary, and a car.

AG How was that first teaching experience?

SW It was good for me because Richard Frankel, who hired me, was a very nice man, and we got along really well. It was young faculty up there; the students were almost the same age as me. It was fine. But after I had been there for a year, I realized that living in Rhode Island wasn’t good for my work. I wanted to go back to New York. Living in Rhode Island—I’ll say, I sailed a lot, I drank a lot, and I partied a lot. But I thought to myself, You’ve got to do what’s best for the work. I never had any money growing up, so I wasn’t worried about money. I told Richard I was going to leave and go back to New York.

AG Was that the moment you decided that you wanted to become a career artist, or you wanted to make art your lifestyle?

SW No, I knew I was a career artist. I knew that early on, even in high school. Although, back then, I didn’t know what that meant. In Rhode Island I knew I could have a nice suburban life, but I really couldn’t paint there. The work wouldn’t survive there. When you’re young the work needs certain things. I needed a community and to see a lot of other art. Rhode Island wasn’t giving me that. All my serious artist friends had moved to New York. I already had a community there. It wasn’t like I was going there on my own, like I did in ’68.

AG You were coming back to a stronger artists’ community.

SW Yeah, everyone I had hung out with before was still in New York, like Al Taylor.  I also had met Margo Margolis at the summer program at Skidmore, and, back in New York, I ran into her at the Spring Street Bar, which was on the corner of Spring and West Broadway. It was a really nice bar and restaurant where everybody used to go. Really good food, and cheap. I hadn’t realized she had gone to graduate school in Indiana and come back, and they’d hired her at Tyler to teach. She had a loft on Crosby Street, but was teaching in Philadelphia. Tyler had offered me a job while I was at Yale, but I had already taken the job in Rhode Island, out of loyalty to Frankel, and I liked it there. Anyway, Margolis said, “They still want you. There’s a job search going on right now.” I said, “I’m not interested. I want to be in New York.” She said, “Well, I live in New York, and do this. You can say you live in Philadelphia.” So, I said, “Okay, I’ll apply.” And I was surprised when I got the job. I think even Al Loving applied for that job.

AG What year was this?

SW That was ’73, the same year I got the loft I still live and work in, actually. But I told them I would never live in Philadelphia.

AG (laughter) So, you were coached to say that you lived in Philadelphia, but you told them, “I am never going to live here.”

SW I realized that I wasn’t going to keep a fake place there, and I couldn’t afford to pay two rents anyway. I said, “If the job means living in Philadelphia, then I’m out.” And they said, “No, you can live wherever you want.” Looking back on it now, I think if I had said, “I want to live in Elkins Park,” where they lived, they would have had a hard time. There were no black people living in Elkins Park then.

AG (laughter)

SW So, I think that kind of opened the door for everyone to commute. I didn’t realize that at the time. I think if I had said, “I’ll buy a house next to you,” it would have been a problem. In those days, real estate was pretty much segregated. It isn’t anymore.

AG Yeah, for sure. So what kind of work were you doing in New York? How was the work developing, coming from Yale, teaching at Rhode Island, and now back in the city with this art community behind you?

SW I was still painting on the floor, in acrylic, still making big messes, but not using a mop. I was back to using brushes, painting something, and looking at things, thinking: Who did that? What’s that look like? Or, where’d that come from? I was still doing all kinds of process painting combinations and just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. I was still just wide open. There was no solid bundle of work that I was making. The work was more interesting in terms of paint. But I wasn’t getting what I wanted in terms of space, drawing, or structure. I wanted something as open as Pollock but as structured as Mondrian. That was a big distance I was trying to work in, that space between those two artists. Which covers a lot of ground, a lot of possibilities. You know what I mean? I was going to the Met, going to the Modern, going to the galleries, going to artists’ studios and just trying to steal ideas, as much as I could.

I would say really from ’68 to ’78, I was just doing all kinds of experiments with process, and just trying to come up with images I thought were interesting. I had no idea of what was finished, in terms of weight, or an object, or how tactile things were.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1979. Acrylic on canvas board. 14 × 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Were you still drawing a lot?

SW Well, I didn’t see anyone drawing in graduate school. And, actually, I didn’t see any abstract artists drawings. In undergraduate school I drew the figure really well, and I’d go to figure drawing class. By the time I got to New York, I wasn’t doing that because I wasn’t making figurative paintings, so why would I draw the figure? I wasn’t really a landscape painter either, so I wasn’t really drawing at all. I didn’t know what drawing meant in terms of contemporary painting. I didn’t see many drawings that I liked. I didn’t know anybody who was really drawing. I was just painting. I thought painting and drawing, at that point, were the same thing.

AG So back to the start of your time teaching at Tyler. Were there any influences there—through your teaching process, maybe conversing with the students, or other faculty members?

SW You know, people always said I was a teacher [at heart], and they would always ask me about their work, and I’d tell them what I thought. Al Taylor, when he was in Kansas City, he used to go, “Whitney, come downstairs and see what I’m doing.” People liked to use me as a sounding board. They wanted me to look at their work because they liked my comments, which I never thought much about. It was just what I did. When I got the teaching job at Rhode Island, they were mostly people who had to take an art class; they weren’t majors.

AG So undergraduates.

SW Yeah. When I got to Tyler it was really an art school. It was just like Kansas City. That was good because I had to really talk. I had freshman drawing and sophomore painting, and how are we going to run that? It really made me figure things out—what was important and what was not. You’re talking all the time. And for me, doing it my way, I could teach, talk, think, come home, and it never got in the way of my own artwork. I was able to talk to students with all kinds of different [approaches] and it was fun. If someone was a figurative painter, or a storyteller, I got involved with that. And it clarified a lot for me.

AG What things did it clarify for you?

SW Well, all of a sudden, you’re a teacher, so you teach drawing. And what’s important to drawing? Why do you draw? I had to figure that out. There’s sophomore painting. What’s important to know? How do you begin a painting? How do you put things together? How do you look at things? How do you set up a palette? How do you stretch a canvas? How do you set up a studio? I had to teach all of those things. And how do you deal with twenty-five kids in the room? So that was all really good, and I could do that very well. It forced me to have a voice.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1982. Acrylic on canvas. 14 × 18 inches. Photo by Richard Goldstein.

I taught for thirty years, and I had a lot of good students. And it paid the bills—and for the paint and the canvas. With teaching, in those early years, there wasn’t a lot of corporate intervention. There wasn’t a lot of writing; there weren’t a lot of rules. In the ‘70s, you could smoke and paint in the classroom. I remember everyone would be smoking and painting and talking. (laughter) It was like the Wild West.

AG What about your contemporaries? What was happening in New York during the time you were teaching at Tyler?

SW I was both teaching at Tyler and working part-time delivering art with Al Taylor. That’s when Al met his future wife, Debbie Taylor, who was Robert Rauschenberg’s studio manager at Bob’s house on Lafayette Street. It must have been around ’74. That led to about eight or nine years of being involved with Rauschenberg and his entourage, which was a very exciting time. I got to meet everyone involved with the Castelli gallery and all of the artists who showed there. A lot of celebrities would stop by, and Brice Marden, who was formerly Bob’s assistant, was always there too. Joseph Beuys used to send Bob a drawing almost every week in the mail. It was a great time and full of great artist conversation. Rauschenberg really influenced my work. One thing he said to me was, “When a dealer comes to the studio never give them a choice.” And I was giving them lots of choices (laughter)

But it was great being at Rauschenberg’s house because you got to see all the work before the shows, and he had a great collection of other artists’ works and his early works. Bob was one of the brightest people I ever met. He was very generous. I got to attend his retrospective in Washington DC. He flew us all down and paid for our hotel room. We had a great weekend in DC. My girlfriend at the time also worked for Rauschenberg, running his program—Change. It was more of a Pop-artist community, which I didn’t think I would be interested in, but I got a lot out of it. Bob really taught me a lot.

When I got to Tyler they had brand-new buildings, and they had just hired Margo Margolis, Frank Bramblett, and myself. They called us the Mod Squad.

AG (laughter) The Mod Squad!

SW We were the brand-new faculty. Before my generation got involved with teaching most artists, if they were serious about their work, didn’t teach. You know what I mean? They kind of didn’t need to. Lofts were still pretty cheap. I had this loft for two-fifty. For teaching, they would offer fifteen-thousand dollars, and I was like, “Oh, I’ll take it!” (laughter) In those days that was a lot of money for a young person. So, suddenly, a lot of people came into art teaching. Yale always had that great program, and now other programs were being modeled after that.

AG Was it helping to push the development of your art in any way?

SW My art career? Yes and no. Being around all those people and seeing their careers and their work, which was a very different scene from the Color Field artists, really allowed my work to open up and go in different directions. But in terms of my career, I wasn’t showing the work at all. When I got out of grad school, I had a rude awakening. In school, you’re good. You can be black, Chinese, or Mexican, whatever. No one cares where you come from. No one cares about your color. School makes everything equal. But when you get out of school, you are back in the real world. People were having shows all around me, but no one would touch me. I couldn’t get a show. Not that the work was really great. It wasn’t, don’t get me wrong.

AG I remember seeing those pen and ink drawings. I believe they were on Mylar? When were those happening? Was that during your time at Tyler?

SW Yeah. Like I said, I was experimenting a lot with the painting. And the paintings were going nowhere. They were getting more and more like [Jules] Olitski’s work, and I didn’t want to go there. They looked like rock or something, and people would say, “Well, how’s this painted?” So I realized the paintings weren’t happening. I was spending a lot of money on acrylic paint and painting on the floor, but I wasn’t happy with the work. So, I decided to go back to drawing.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1983. Black india ink on mylar. 36 × 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

I used to look at that small Van Gogh drawing in sepia ink in the Guggenheim; I always loved how rich and colorful it was, even though it was black and white, sepia. You know, it was a different mark-marking technique. My paintings then were so indirect that I wanted something that would be real direct. I didn’t like the conversation the paintings were creating: “How’d you make this?” Or, “How many layers of paint is this?” I think these were the worst paintings I’ve made, ever.

AG (laughter)

SW And so I decided to go back and draw, get rid of the color and just do something black and white.

AG What year was this?

SW This must have been ’77 or ’78. After Yale, I’d thought my career would take off, but it didn’t take off at all. I never thought it was because of race. It never occurred to me, though I don’t know why.

AG So, what did you discover through that process of just working in black and white, going back to drawing?

SW I worked on opening things up. Because before, when I was doing a drawing, I’d always end up covering it up. I’d paint on the floor, lay down a color of acrylic, then take either a squeegee or a brush and make something over it. If I didn’t like it, I’d cover it up with another layer of color, and the drawing would sort of come through. I’d keep doing that, and things kept shutting down. The idea with the new drawings was to open things up. I chose pen and ink, not charcoal, because I wanted to put a mark down and deal with it. I couldn’t erase it.

I bought a book on the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh with all of his drawings in it. I would lay it out here and make these drawings that were kind of like landscapes, much more open, like Morris Louis’s. I always liked, in Morris Louis, how open that middle was. So my drawings were based on some idea of Morris Louis and some idea of Vincent Van Gogh.

AG That’s very interesting. Because you first saw Morris Louis’s work back in Kansas City, and years later, here you are thinking of Morris Louis again. For me, Louis’s paintings have this emphasis on gravity. The line is always vertical. Your pen and ink drawings from that time have this fluidity and transparency. And the line is not only vertical but also horizontal. Almost like intersections.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1978. Pen and ink on paper. 23 × 35 inches. Photo by Richard Goldstein.

SW Right.

AG Can you talk about that a little bit?

SW There are a couple things. It’s true that I liked how Morris Louis used gravity. Whether they’re the Veil Paintings, or whether they’re the ones where the color is coming in from the side and then falling down, very naturally, just falling in. The fact that they were very natural, very organic, was an important element for me. I liked how open they were. Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie at the Modern was very important too, and also his drawings, of course. They were really key.

AG The early drawings?

SW The early drawings. When Mondrian comes to New York and starts dancing, when he does Broadway Boogie Woogie, that’s when I’m interested in his paintings. But before that, it’s the drawings—the tree drawings, all those things. I saw a Mondrian show at the Guggenheim, and it was great. You could see every step. And I thought, That’s the way I want to move—step by step by step. My work changes very slowly. Taking every step—that’s something I stole from Mondrian. That, and the Vincent Van Gogh drawings—they’re so lively, they’re so musical, they’re so playful, they’re so open. They’re just out there.

So that really was my big goal. I wanted to open the work up—not relying on the color, but on structure. I thought that Color Field artists were weak with their structure. And the color in those days was weak too. They used flat color right out of the jar or the tube, like Stella. But I didn’t want to give up color and touch—colors like Veronese’s or Courbet’s, or de Kooning’s sensuousness with oil paint. I was interested in how color and touch go hand in hand. The color changes with the touch—it’s a different color if you change the weight, or the amount of paint, or its viscosity. It’s much more nuanced. I was looking for a way that I could have all these things in one painting. Do you know what I’m saying?


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1999. Watersoluble crayon. 22½ × 28½ inches. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Yeah, for sure.

SW I wanted all those things.

AG Color and structure. Mondrian is key for artists to look at when thinking about structure and composition. When did structure start coming into play for you?

SW After graduate school, that’s when I really got down to it. I wasn’t thinking so much about structure; I was really thinking about space and keeping things very organic. Space and gravity—not that I would have used the word gravity at that point. I had a lot of ideas, but what was I going to hang my hat on?

Now I’ve been painting since ’64—’65, if you count school. I have a fifty-year history of painting, many different kinds of painting. Drawing was a way to really work my way through things—to look, to open up, and to not avoid anything. Drawing is very important. When I looked at Rothko’s last paintings, before he killed himself, I thought, He had no back door. He had no way out. He had no way to reinvent himself. You see, Guston did draw, and drawing was the thing that helped him reinvent himself.

When I think of Brice Marden—and I always liked Brice’s work—even when he was doing those really dense panel paintings, he was drawing a lot. And I think that really saved him. For me, as I said, I always had color. I was born with the color. But to put the color in the right space and give it a real intellect, you need to do drawing. I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to go anywhere if I just kept painting the way I was painting. So I went back to drawing, and I was enjoying it.

AG Do you still draw now?

SW A lot. I draw all the time. I can show you some drawings. They’re all line. They don’t look like the paintings, but they feel like the paintings.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 2014. Black gouache on Fabriano. 11 × 15 inches. Courtesy TEAM Gallery, New York.

AG What does line mean to you? Looking at the paintings now, there’s this running line going across each painting. There’s four lines in the composition. The line kind of organizes the painting, but also has this looseness to it. It’s like a freestyle line. It’s not a rigid, linear line.

SW My painting was never rigid. Nothing is ever really straight, it turns out. The line opens things up. You have this gravity, you think there’s a kind of stack, and the colors have good weight to them. The line is this breath of fresh air—it just spreads things out. This structure happened out of need. I didn’t make the structure and then add the color. The color made the structure. And it’s a structure that gives me lots of freedom to do many different things.

AG We’re talking about line and structure, and I’m looking at these paintings here in your studio. Going back to Mondrian for a minute, the Broadway Boogie Woogie painting that stuck out in your head is laid out like a grid, referencing the city landscape. Do you feel like you’ve reinvented the grid for yourself?

SW No, I never think about the structure as a grid—though it is a grid, really. I’m a real New York City painter, if you know what I mean. My paintings are just the way New York is. I want that kind of simplicity, which is also the madness of New York, because of the color. So you have this contradiction, in a sense. There’s the grid, which should be very orderly, and then you put the color, and it throws the whole thing off. Maybe that’s what people find attractive. Maybe that’s what people don’t find attractive. In a sense, there’s nothing really to focus on. With my paintings, the eye kind of moves around, it can’t stay still.

So there is order, but also no order. It’s like New York. Everything’s laid out very orderly, and then it’s just total madness. You cross the street, but which way do you look? A bicycle could be coming this way, a cabbie coming that way. I have European friends who come here and go, “You ride a bike in New York? It’s madness!”

AG Definitely.

Looking at Sixteen Songs, the painting you had in the Reinventing Abstraction show at Cheim & Read last year, we can see how the balls that you were making in the ’80s, have turned into these squares or blocks. Can you talk about how that happened? I think that painting was also in acrylic?


Stanley Whitney, Sixteen Songs, 1984. Oil on canvas. 66 × 108 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

SW That’s in oil. It’s one of my first oils. I got invited to a print shop in Philadelphia in the late ‘70s. Brandywine Workshop. I did some screenprints there. I worked on Mylar with black ink, then they photographed them and made silkscreens out of them. I worked on this type of Mylar that was not totally transparent. I used pen and ink on that, with a brush. So that was a shift—going from pen and ink to a brush and ink. I made these kind of roving lines, and then, again, big blocks or balls.

That led to a whole series of pen and ink on Mylar drawings. I’d buy a roll of Mylar and cut it. I liked it because the Mylar was sort of transparent, and so it didn’t look like an image on a field; it was just these black images sitting up. Then on the paintings I made these areas of color in acrylic, and I would take a brush and make these small marks, so I had large marks with small marks. And the big areas of color could be different areas. It could be a red area, or a blue area, or a green area.

I made those on the floor here, then stretched them later. Those were a big breakthrough. And people were like, “Oh, that’s really good, Stanley!” You know, with my friends, we’d always exchange visits. So, that breakthrough led to a whole group of paintings. And then I started covering things again because I wanted to keep moving, moving, moving. I would draw and cover it, draw and paint over or cover it again. And then I realized that the acrylic paint got deader and deader.

But then I went to a print shop with Bob Blackburn, where my future wife and girlfriend at the time, Marina Adams, was working. She was also going to Columbia University for her MFA in painting. It was through her that I got invited to do these monoprints. And when I did those, my hand really showed up. There was more gesture and mark making, and the color layered differently. The monoprints felt more alive and had more immediacy than those acrylic paintings I was doing. I thought, You know what? I’m getting rid of the acrylic and going back to oil paint. That must have been in the early ‘80s.


Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio with small paintings, 1979. Photo by the artist.

AG So how did the floating balls turn into squares?

SW Oh, very, very slowly. When I was working in acrylic, I was working with paper buckets on the floor. I had a lot of them.

AG Paper buckets?

SW Buckets made of paper. I bought them to mix paint in, but when I switched to oil paint I got a glass palette. I hadn’t used one since I was an undergraduate. So, I was mixing on the palette, and I’d mix my paint in a circular motion and form. And I thought, I want to do the same thing on the painting, put the paint on very naturally, and have the painting be as organic as possible. I’d make these areas of color on the canvas, copying the drawings and would also incorporate line.

Sixteen Songs is from 1984. I think I made two or three big oil paintings like that. The field would be a light color, grey or blue, and I’d put large areas of color down, then the line. I couldn’t let the line be anything but white. I don’t know why. And the color was very pastel. I couldn’t quite get to the color because I was too focusing on the drawing. Not until I figured out the space could I get to the color.

At that time, the colors I used were mostly pink, brown, or blue. And black, of course. Other colors only slowly came in and step-by-step. As I got to know the paintings, got to know the space, and got to know who I am, I arrived at the color.

It’s funny, because as much as I’m involved with being a New York painter in terms of the grid, I really thought about painting being more organic. I wanted a way of putting any color down, whenever I felt like it, and not having to wait or have to layer it. I wanted a system where, if I wanted to put a blue down, I could put a blue down, and if I wanted to put a green down, I could put a green down, without having to wait for something. I really wanted the color to dominate.


Stanley Whitney in his Cooper Square studio, New York City, 2015. Photo by Richard Goldstein.

I taught out at Berkeley in ’86, and at Stanford for the summer in ’87 or ’88. I traveled across country a lot then. I kept thinking about space in terms of landscape. That Sixteen Songs painting, I really think about it in terms of landscape. We drove across the country then. When I came back from California I showed at Fiction/Non-Fiction, Jose Freire’s gallery. First on the lower east side, and then he moved to Mercer Street. I did shows at both galleries. Not much came out of that at that time, around the late ‘80s.

Then, I had the opportunity through Tyler to go teach in Rome in ‘92. So, Marina and I decided to move to Italy. We had been married for a few years and decided to get out of New York for a bit. It was in Italy that I started thinking about space in terms of architecture. That’s when things changed.


Stanley Whitney in Rome, 1993. Photos by Marina Adams. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Did you meet a lot of other artists during your time in Rome? What was the community like there?

SW We didn’t meet many Italian artists, only a few, but Marina and I became very good friends at that time with David Hammons. I knew David in NY, but we became very close in Italy. He had been there before at the American Academy in Rome and had been invited back to do a show with Jannis Kounellis. We really started hanging out all the time there. He had an Italian girlfriend then, so he was always in Rome. David and I did a couple of shows together. One was in Naples soon after my son was born. Marina, David, my son William, and I went to Naples when he was about five months old and had a great time. We did a very fun show together. That painting over there on the wall with the wire and cigar coming off of it was a collaborative piece from 1994 and was exhibited in the Naples show.


Stanley Whitney and David Hammons, Untitled, 1993–94. Wire, cigar, and oil on canvas. 8 × 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Sarah Kurz.

Once we came back to the States, David and I worked on another project together—a show called Quiet As It’s Kept, at Christine König Galerie in Vienna. It was three generations of black abstract painters. We made a beautiful catalogue with a very well written essay by Geoffrey Jacques. David and I are still very good friends to this day. We always have great conversations, whether it’s about art, politics, or life. You know, it can be very hard to get a good friend later in life. When my best friend Al died, that’s when I really got close with David. We used to travel a lot together and had a great time.


Stanley Whitney and David Hammons, Vienna, 2001. Courtesy Christine König Galerie, Wien. Photo by Christine König.

AG How did your time in Italy change your paintings?

SW Looking at Sixteen Songs again last year, I realized that the paintings from these years, the mid-eighties, are very influenced by landscape and me traveling across the country. But when I went to Italy, architecture became the big thing. I think about Rome as a great combination of architecture and landscape—the beautiful architecture, and all the ancient buildings, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and then these umbrella trees. Living in Rome, walking past the Pantheon all the time, passing the façade of the Vatican, the light on the buildings, the color—that was a big influence on me. So, I started getting more involved with architecture, more so than with landscape.

AG Was it the way one’s body interacts with space, with architecture?

SW No, it was more of a visual thing than a physical thing. It really was just these beautiful buildings. Rome is a beautiful city. And the incredible light, it is just like Caravaggio—it’s black and dark, and then light. The temperature changes like that, from dark to light.

The first year I was there we did a lot of visiting with art historians who take you to all these sites and talk about them. Tyler School of Art Rome had these classes, and since I was part of the faculty, I could go on lecture trips. Faculty would take us all around Pompeii. Once I went to Volterra, and we went to, I think, the Etruscan Museum, and they had all their little urns stacked up in rooms. I thought, That’s interesting, everything’s just stacked up. At that point my painting was still very loose and gestural, very baroque. And I thought to myself, You know what, Stanley? I’m just going to stack the color.


Stanley Whitney in his studio, Rome, 1994. Photo by Athina Wannoy. Courtesy of the artist.

I stacked the color and painted like that for a long time. And then I took a trip to Egypt. Living in Rome, we traveled all around the Mediterranean. The Egypt trip was in December of ’93. I remember the date well because my son was born in Rome the following May. I felt a strong desire, even pull, to go to Egypt—to the pyramids and the temples and see the scale. I knew I had to go. And I was right, when I went to Egypt it just came to me. I looked at the pyramids and found the last missing piece of my puzzle—it was density. I mean, at the Pantheon, you have pillars that are twelve tons. In Egypt, you have even greater ones. And I thought, You know what, Stanley? I bet I can just stick these colors right next to each other instead of having them on a field. I didn’t know at that point that the space was in the color. I kept thinking the space was around, and the color was all in the space. But when I put the colors directly next to each other, I realized that I don’t lose the air.


Stanley Whitney and Marina Adams, Egypt, 1993. Courtesy of the artist.

AG What’s interesting to see in your paintings is that each square has its own idea of space, but they’re also working with each other within the whole composition of the canvas. It seems like you’re playing around with space, opacity, and density from square to square.

SW Yeah, I can have lots of paintings within one painting. And as I said, I always had the color. The color was never an issue. The issue was, how was I going to make the color subject matter. And I didn’t really know that this was my big question all those years, but that’s what I was asking. I was always working on how to put the color in the right space. So, Egypt was the last piece of the puzzle. Density. I realized that I could just pack the color together. I always thought, if I did that, I would suck the air out of the painting.

AG So, with that said, would you say you’re making painting about painting? Or paintings about paint?

SW You know, I don’t see figure, and I don’t see landscape. I see paint, on canvas.  Painting is a really strange thing, I think. Painting in itself, in the Western world—or better, poetry and painting in the Western world—are really strange things. I think people have a hard time dealing with both, but they’re very important because they bring a lot of humanity to people. The Western world is so into engineering, and feats like that. I’ve just been reading a great book about Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s great poets. Stalin killed poets and artists because he thought they were a real threat. Painting and poetry, I think, bring so much understanding, trying to figure out what it is, really, to be human. That’s what I’m trying to do in the paintings. Color is such an unknown thing. Color brings so much emotion and depth to people, and people get a lot of joy out of it. It opens up a lot of hope and possibilities.


Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 2014. Gouache on paper. 19¾ × 27½ inches. Courtesy TEAM Gallery, New York.

AG Do you ever feel like you run out of colors?

SW No, never. The color is just endless, and it’s something that changes. Depending on if it’s thin or thick, opaque or transparent, it feels totally different. It’s really about how it feels. The world is so tactile, and I want the paintings to be that tactile. So sometimes, the painting is real hard, then it’s soft or really delicate. There are all these different feelings you can get through color. Even with this painting here, which is at an early stage, there are some things I like already and that I’m sorry I have to give up because it hasn’t arrived in the space or at the clarity I want. I want the painting to be like a beautiful, clear, clean day. But I’m not sure yet what that means in terms of gesture, or mark, or touch. Some of what’s there might stay, some of it might change. I don’t really know yet.

AG What about the interaction between scale and color?

SW Oh, I want the scale to be big. You know, we’re Americans. (laughter) But it’s not just big in terms of size. I want it to be a lot of color. Overwhelming. This size, to me—seventy-two by seventy-two—is small. I love painting ninety-six by ninety-six. But if I put these out there together, people will be overwhelmed by color. It becomes like an insulation. You know what I mean?


View of Stanley Whitney’s Other Colors I Forget, April 11–May 12, 2013, TEAM Gallery, New York. From Left: This Side of Blue, 2011, oil on linen, 96 × 96 inches; Stanley Whitney, Left to Right, 2011, oil on linen, 96 × 96 inches. Courtesy TEAM Gallery, New York.

AG That’s something I noticed about your show at TEAM Gallery. There were all these new, really big paintings. I mean, one gets overwhelmed with the color and the feeling you’re getting from them. But then, we’re here in your studio, and I’m seeing these twelve by twelve inch paintings. Are these studies for the bigger paintings?

SW No, they’re their own thing. While I paint the large paintings, I paint with little sort of salad bowls as palettes. Each color has its own bowl. I make the small paintings because I have paint left over in the bowls. I’ve done tons of these little paintings. I’m trying not to do as many as I used to, because I already have stacks of them. They keep me in shape too, because when I’m working on the big paintings I have a lot of drying time. At the moment, I’m drawing instead. I do a lot of reading too.

AG When you’re working on a piece do you listen to music? Or is it silent?

SW Music’s a big part of my life. I don’t know about you, but in the black community I came from music was always there—the radio was on, dance parties, music, music, music. I think that’s how people got through slavery—with music. It’s sort of a lifeline.

So, in my studio I always have music on. When you’re painting you kind of go into a trance, and you come out of a trance. I hear the music when I’m beginning to paint, and then again when I’m done. Maybe if I’m having a hard time painting, I hear the music more. For me, painting’s about color, but it’s also about getting the right rhythm, getting the right combination. Painting, for me, is like music. It really is like call and response. A color calls another color. The idea is that all the color is equal and that one color doesn’t get in the way of another color, and that you have good transitions, so you can move through the painting pretty easily.

I grew up listening to Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and I actually found this great Bud Powell CD where he’s playing this piano that’s out of tune. I love to hear Bud Powell playing the same song over and over, and every time it’s different. It’s hard to talk about jazz in this country because it’s treated so lightly. People don’t think much of the music, or people don’t really understand how much Louis Armstrong changed the world. They kind of know it, but they go, “Eh, that’s not a big deal.” What African Americans did, people are like, “It’s not a big deal.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s just natural.” They don’t realize how hard Billie Holiday worked to get that kind of rhythm, or that kind of beat, or to lay way back and still have it be on time. People don’t realize the intellect that’s there.

AG Yeah, for sure.

SW And so the color sort of comes out of that. Somebody asked me the other day if I have a color theory. No. I don’t have any color theory. The color is magic, and I want the work to be magic. I lay a color down and that color calls another color, and then it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to have something dominate something else, and you want to have good transitions.


View of Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio, 2015, New York. Photo by Richard Goldstein.

AG What’s your favorite color to use? Do you have a go-to color?

SW I don’t have a favorite color. I use a lot of red, but I would never say that red was my favorite color. Although you come into the studio and say, “There’s a lot of red here!”

AG Yeah. What about the brand of paint or pigment you’re using?

SW Well, I use Williamsburg paint. I can buy big tubes of paint. I like big tubes of paint. Williamsburg paint seems to work okay for me. Bill Jensen says it’s terrible paint, but it’s okay for me.

So, I’m not making my own paint. I’m not a chemist. I want to get to things pretty quickly. You know what’s hard for me to get? If I see a beautiful dark-skinned black person who’s wearing pink or red, I think, Gee, I can’t quite get that dark to have that richness it has with that pink. I haven’t been able to paint a real brown or black that’s that kind of skin color. Like you get people from Sudan who are black as night, and you put color on those people, like whoom! The color just jumps.

New York is great because it’s a real people-watching place. Everyone’s trying to be an individual. Everyone has to work hard to stick out. People really dress here. It’s great. Fashion’s big, and you see all kinds of combinations. When I was in West Africa, in Dakar, I loved how the women just mixed up all these fabrics, with all kinds of color combinations. It’s just like, wow! So color is endless to me.

AG When you paint, do you think of these textiles and color combinations that you saw on your travels?

SW I think there’s color everywhere. Most of the color in the world comes out of the southern hemisphere, though. You know, Africa, India, South America. Women are definitely much more involved with color than men. Most of the time, it’s the women who like my paintings more. The men sometimes have a hard time with them. Because they want to be in control so much, and you can’t control the color. That’s what I think, anyway.

But textiles, rugs, quilts, fashion, lipstick, you name it—I kind of want all that stuff in my paintings. I don’t see an end to it, if I really follow all these things. I haven’t been to Mumbai yet and seen a thousand shades of orange. I don’t know where the structure will go or whether I will keep painting these, like you say, squares of color. But I don’t worry about that. I’ve been following my paintings my whole life. I’m just trying to be courageous. If the painting goes under the door, I go under the door. If the painting goes around the corner, I go around the corner. If the painting goes out the window, I go out the window. Wherever the paintings go, I go. The paintings really lead me. I don’t lead the paintings.


View of Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio, 2015, New York. Photo by Sarah Kurz.

AG I read an interview that you did about your lineage where you said, “Newman, Judd, then me.” I was wondering if you—

SW Oh, I did say that? How interesting.

AG (laughter) Could you talk about those two, and then you?

SW What I meant was that when I came to town and saw Barnett Newman, I couldn’t do anything like him, as a painter. But I think Donald Judd, as a sculptor, could. I think Judd kind of took Newman and reinvented him in terms of sculpture. For me, as a painter, there was nothing I could do with Newman. But I could then look, as a painter, at Judd’s three-dimensional work and reinvent painting from his sculpture.

AG I really like that. How do you title your work? Newman was great at titling his paintings.

SW Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue?

AG Yeah, right, or other titles were themed and referenced the Bible. How do approach titling a painting?

SW Well, I’ve read a lot, and I still read all the time. If I’m not painting, I read. So, I always write things down. If someone wanted to read my life, my titles are a clue to where I am, what’s going on, and what I’m thinking. I had a title, My Tina Turner, and, actually, John Yau thought it referred to Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson—because I read a lot of poetry. But it wasn’t that. I have another title, I think it’s James Brown: Sacrifice to Apollo, or something like that. I did that because I thought, people will say, “He means James Brown at the Apollo.” But I wanted to talk about James Brown being a god. So, the titles are another way for people to get involved with the work, another way in. Sometimes I use musical titles. I used a great Fela title once, Suffering and Smiling. I wish I could use it again. Suffering and smiling,is really what I think black folks do.

I want to have titles that connect to what’s happening at the time, in the world, or my connection to music, or my connection to reading, or my connection to communities. Different things.

AG Has the reading influenced the work any?

SW The reading kind of keeps me in shape, mentally. I want to stay sharp, so when I come into the studio I’m right there. And I’m right on top of it; I never fuss around. Painting is a real love act, and you’re putting a lot of love into the world. The world needs a lot of love, I think, and so that reading keeps me in touch with ideas.

AG Let’s talk about your family life. You mentioned that you’re married to Marina Adams, also an artist. Has she influenced the development of your work? Are there breakfast conversations?

SW Great conversations, I have to say. I’m married to Marina Adams, who’s a fantastic painter. And because of that, we love looking at art together and love traveling together. I mean, we’ve been together, God, thirty years, and it’s been great. Marina has a beautiful studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and I paint in our loft.

We’ve really grown together in so many ways, personally and professionally. Privately, when you’re married to a painter, it’s really good. Publicly, it can be really hard because people think there’s only room for one painter, but it’s not true. Marina has greatly influenced the development of my work. We’ve had and have great conversations. With our work, we have color in common, but our idea of drawing and structure is very different. In our conversations we don’t necessarily agree on everything. In fact, in terms of color, what I think of as Yellow, Marina insists is Orange. (laughter)

She’s the one and only person I really trust in the studio. She has a great eye, and I’ve always valued her feedback over anyone else’s. She knows me and my work better than anyone, and I totally rely on her.

We have a son, William, who will be twenty in May. He’s at Colby College. He’s not really involved with the arts. He is studying political science. But he’s very much into rap. He’s a rapper. And he writes a lot.

AG So he’s into music.

SW Always, in the black community music is key. Every generation reinvents it. They take the same music, the same idea, and they reinvent it. And what they do with it is astonishing. In my building here is a place called Scratch.

AG Which is a DJ school.

SW Yeah. They’ve invented this whole industry from nothing. They didn’t have money to go learn to play piano, or to go learn to play anything. But yet, they’ve reinvented this music. Because we need music to survive. So, my son’s really involved with this music. And that’s his generation. I have maybe three hundred records of all this jazz stuff. He’s not interested in it. He’s so involved with his music, just like I had my music, while my father listened to Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington and all that, and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fine. Whatever.” My son might get interested in jazz one day.

AG You talked about travelling a lot, and currently you have a studio here in New York as well as in Parma, Italy. Could you talk a little bit about the difference between working here and in Italy?

SW It’s not much different for me, actually. It’s really wonderful to have these two spaces. The reason we have the place in Italy is because of Marina. She really wanted a summer studio, so we got this house up near Parma. It was Marina’s idea to do this, and it was a great idea. We took this old fienile, a stone barn, and turned it into a studio and living space. We both paint there in the summer time. I don’t send paintings from Europe back to the States, though I do send paintings from the States to Europe. Two years ago, I did a show in Berlin, at the Nordenhake Gallery, and it was the first time I showed works from New York and from Italy together. I wondered if one could tell the difference between them. Is the color different? It’s the same paint, but I use a different type of canvas. The ones from Parma didn’t look any different than the ones from New York.


Stanley Whitney in his Parma studio, 2011, Italy. Photo by Eleanna Anagnos. Courtesy of the artist.

AG Between here, in New York or the US, and over in Europe, do you feel like there’s different responses in the audience?

SW Yeah, definitely. Well, in Europe, they have a whole history of art and a clear idea of where the artist fits into the culture. Here, it’s the Wild West. It’s still cowboys and Indians, with a few slaves thrown in.

AG (laughter)

SW Like even in the little town, Solignano, outside of Parma, where Marina and I moved, the people there think we’re magical. They think, Wow! Two artists from America came to live in our town. How lucky we are! And they treat us like we are very special. Whereas, upstate New York, or on Long Island, people think, Oh, these artists. They don’t think artists are special.

AG (laughter)

SW So it’s a different relationship. There they have a great respect for art. And, of course, Europeans just love music, and they like jazz. So, if my work comes with the music, they love that idea too. It’s definitely different in terms of how people see you. But at the same time, in America there’s a lot more freedom to do or be whatever you want to be. You don’t have that kind of freedom in Europe.

AG Definitely. And where do you feel like you fit into the art world now, being a New York artist? Do you feel like you’re carrying on your part of the New York abstract school?

SW Yeah, I definitely do. The New York abstract school, I embrace that. I wanted that. I worked for that, and I think it’s a really great school. A lot of things happened in New York. You have these moments in history, whether it’s Paris or New York, when things can happen. It’s not for me to decide what young people will do, or what the art world’s going to be. It’s like what music is, what music was. What painting is, what painting will be.

I’m sixty-seven now, and I don’t feel like I’m making my mature paintings. I keep waiting to make crazier paintings as I get older. The color allows me endless possibilities. The paintings might look the same, but they feel totally different. I don’t really know what the color does. It’s like the world. I don’t know about the world. I don’t know what’s going on. We don’t really know much. We say it’s two o’clock, but we just made it up.

AG (laughter) It’s true, yeah.

SW I’m not scared of working with something I don’t know. But I know that when a color allows another color to be there too, they all can get along. They can be very democratic. And that’s what I want.

Georg Baselitz: “Only in Art is the World Whole.”

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THE SPECTATOR – LONDON

Upside down and right on top: the power of George Baselitz

The British Museum’s immaculately presented ‘Germany Divided’ shows the strength of its headline act. Plus two more German shows – Renaissance Impressions at the Royal Academy and Strange Beauty at the National Gallery

‘Hercules Killing Cacus’, 1588, by Hendrik Goltzius

‘Hercules Killing Cacus’, 1588, by Hendrik Goltzius

Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation

British Museum, until 31 August

Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

Royal Academy, until 8 June

Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance

National Gallery, until 11 May

It’s German Season in London, and revealingly the best of three new shows is the one dealing with the most modern period: the post-second world war era of East and West Germany and the potent art that came out of that split nation. In Room 90 is another immaculately presented British Museum show of prints and drawings, focused this time around Georg Baselitz (born 1938). Of the 90 works on display, more than a third has been donated to the BM by Count Christian Duerckheim, the remainder lent by this assiduous collector.

The show begins with Baselitz’s contemporaries and I was surprised to find myself quite liking some things by Gerhard Richter, currently the most overrated artist in the world. Not his traced-from-photos Pop Art drawings but four watercolours, his first in the medium, together with his smudgy graphite drawings of a hotel and pedal-boat riders. A flat cabinet of Sigmar Polke’s drawings comes as light relief and a series of blue watercolours by A.R. Penck is more expressionist and direct than his usual cybernetic stick-figure language. Marcus Lüpertz comes across strongest here, with savage drawings of helmet heads and a richly structured gouache entitled ‘Monument — dithyrambic’ (1976), slightly reminiscent of John Walker. This is art with real bite.

On this showing, the only good thing about Blinky Palermo is his name, but the star of the show is Baselitz, who is given the whole of the second half of this large gallery. Whatever you think of his characteristic upside-down imagery (which he initiated in 1969, conceiving, composing and executing his work thus thereafter), his best work is deeply affecting and often uncomfortable. Baselitz was inspired by Renaissance chiaroscuro woodcuts, which he began to collect and emulate, and various of these — by Urs Graf, Ugo da Carpi and Hendrik Goltzius — are exhibited beside his own efforts. These are certainly worth studying but of greater import are the more abstract images, the eagles and upside-down landscapes from the Sixties and Seventies. A show to savour.

In the RA’s Sackler Wing are more of the chiaroscuro woodcuts that exerted such a powerful influence over Baselitz, including a number from his own collection, augmented by works from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. More than 100 prints are on display in what is a valuable, if rather dry, exhibition. Anyone interested in technique will find it fascinating, but for the non-specialist the variants and repetitions may become tedious. A film of the painter and printmaker Stephen Chambers (born 1960) making a contemporary chiaroscuro woodcut helps to explain the technique in very practical terms, and this is shown in a booth off the first room of the exhibition. Essentially, this revolutionary but short-lived technique of 16th-century colour printing is all about modelling through the interplay of light and dark, with unprinted areas of the paper used for highlights.

‘Man on a Tree Downwards’, 1968/69, by Georg Baselitz
Ein neuer Typ (‘A New Type’) by Georg Baselitz, 1965 

The exhibition has been thoughtfully designed with prints in the first and last rooms hung both on the wall and displayed on angled tables beneath, affording easy access for study. Here are woodcuts by Cranach and Hans Baldung Grien, as well as Hans Burgkmair and Hans Wechtlin. I particularly liked Cranach’s ‘St Christopher’ and Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’. Famous paintings are reprised, such as Raphael’s ‘Miraculous Draught of Fishes’, done in red by Ugo da Carpi. (The same artist’s ‘Nymphs Bathing’, after Parmigianino, is rather beguiling.) The print is a cheap way of disseminating sculpture as well as paintings: see the Giambologna versions of Andrea Andreani. There is a lot I didn’t respond to, but among my favourites are the two architectural woodcuts by Erasmus Loy, the landscapes by Hendrik Goltzius, and Beccafumi’s ‘Group of Men and Women’, an engraving with woodcut tone.

I’m all in favour of showing familiar paintings in new contexts to enable us to look at them afresh, but the current show in the Sainsbury Wing charges a hefty admission fee for an exhibition of works drawn mostly from the National Gallery’s own collection. Admittedly, it is beefed up by a number of loans from the V&A, the British Museum and other owners, but these are almost entirely works on paper. The public is actually being asked to pay to see works that are usually on display for free. Nevertheless, on the day I visited there was a pretty good attendance at the show. Perhaps this is because the NG is so mobbed by crowds these days, to pay for the privilege is the only way to see pictures in relative peace.

The thinking behind the show questions accepted notions of beauty in historical and contemporary terms, and the patterns of taste that dictated the NG’s own collecting. Much has been made of the reconstruction of the Liesborn altarpiece (c.1470), for instance, yet all we are shown here are the panels the NG owns and some poor photos of the other panels, which are scattered through the world’s museums. Better, if you do decide to visit this show, to trawl for great paintings and not worry about themes or curators’ justifications. There are plenty of wonderful pictures here, from the oddly dramatic Paulus Potter cattle in the first room to everything by Hans Baldung Grien (especially ‘Portrait of a Man’, 1514), the Holbeins, the Altdorfer landscapes, all the Cranachs, and of course the Dürers, but most particularly ‘St Jerome’ (c.1496). There is no catalogue, but the NG has published a handy little paperback (at £9.99), crisply written by Caroline Bugler, on the German Paintings in the National Gallery. But, however much I love and support the NG, the recent habit of charging for exhibitions largely drawn from the permanent collection is undeniably a diabolical liberty.

Meanwhile, Sotheby’s is selling a superb collection of 15 paintings by L.S. Lowry (1887–1976), assembled by A.J. Thompson over a 30-year period and sold now after their owner’s death last year. Subjects include a beautiful small painting of Peel Park in Salford, the trees and areas of grass reminiscent of Mark Gertler’s early landscapes, and two vivid renditions of Piccadilly Circus. There are plenty of hurrying figures and mill buildings (‘After the Fire’ is a particularly fine if bleak example), and the tall chimneys Lowry loved. The sophistication of this supposedly artless painter is everywhere apparent: viewing daily (except Saturday) until the sale on 25 March at 6 p.m.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

 ABSTRACT CRITICAL
13 March 2014

Baselitz – Farewell Bill

Written by Dan Coombs

Willem raucht nicht mehr, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Originating in inarticulacy and failure and pushing themselves to the brink of collapse, the heroic gestures in Baselitz’s paintings become an absurdity. In their intermingling of creativity and destruction his paintings appear a big joke at the expense of positivistic ideals. With his new paintings at Gagosian, he tries to burst his own bubble with a series of mock-heroic, upside-down monumental self-portraits, that depict his head, topped (or rather, bottomed) by a white baseball cap emblazoned with the word ZERO – apparently the brand name of his paint manufacturer. His recent “remix” style resembles giant versions of pen, ink or watercolour, the drawing delineated in filigrees of broken, Pollock-like black inky lines, the colour sploshed in with the abandon of a monstrous toddler. Both the philistines and the formalists are right – the painting is absurdly incompetent yet highly sophisticated and nuanced. The repetition and emptying out of established motifs allows Baselitz to approach the formalist condition, the illusion of art created out of nothing, emptied of meaning and being about nothing but itself. He seems to be going for a kind of pure painting, but even in such a hallowed place a nauseating sense of chaos pervades even the most decorative elements.

Untitled, 2013, India ink and watercolor on paper, 26 x 19 13/16 inches / 66.1 x 50.3 cm (unframed) © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The show is entitled Farewell Bill in homage to Willem de Kooning, who Baselitz describes as a “mentor”. Baselitz was held largely in contempt by the international art world until 1981 when Norman Rosenthal hung Baselitz opposite de Kooning in “The New Spirit in Painting” show at the Royal Academy. Baselitz is an obvious correlative with de Kooning as de Kooning was responsible for extending the force of the gesture in post-war painting. Drawing on the work of Soutine, de Kooning found a way to hook up bodily energy to a Picassoid cubist structure, that extended the dynamic of gesture beyond anything in European painting. As gestures became more distant from the composed armature the overall structure seemed to melt. De Kooning talked about “slipping glimpses” as though little figurative references were woven into his compositions. There is a significant difference between de Kooning’s gestures and Baselitz’s. De Kooning’s fluid strokes always seem to turn on some spatial illusion, as though the edges of his marks define bodies and nature. Baselitz’s strokes are anti-illusionistic and his gestures function more like a form of carving; he treats his canvases as opaque fields that the figure has to be separated from, rather like a sculptor who removes the excess wood to reveal the figure inside.

Baselitz’s paintings are of a piece with his sculpture, and in many ways his work has moved forward through a dialogue between the two mediums, as though he is painting sculpture and sculpting paintings. Much is revealed about Baselitz’s approach to painting through his sculpture. In the eighties he really cracked open the language and found his own space as a sculptor by employing a chainsaw to carve wood. Often the brutal speed of the process gives way to a poignant delicacy, a good example being Dresdner Frauen / Women of Dresden,1989.The cuts of the chainsaw travel across the concave faces of the women with a subtlety analogous to actual facial expressions, though they seem frozen, stoical and scarred. Baselitz’s sculptures can be remarkably abrupt. Joseph Beuys thought his contribution to the 1981 Venice Biennale, Modell fur eine Skulptur / Model for a Sculpture, 1979 -1980, was not even worthy of a first year art student. Beuys may have been embarrassed by the image – a stranded pathetic seig-heiling golem whose lower half is still encased in its block of wood. Animating the surface of the sculptures with paint, the sculptures epitomise the tragi-comic; ludicrously awkward, abrasively physical and focusing solely on conditions of human failure , but with an animating spark that has translated recently into sculptural figures that are funnier than Jeff Koons. Koons’s art is a solemn affair compared to a work like Volk Ding Zero or Dunklung Nachtung Amung Ding (both 2009) or the earlier Meine neue Mütze / My New Cap, 2003. These monumental carved figures wear white caps, blue shorts and chunky shoes. The recent sculptures are absurd and hilarious and yawping, though there is the sense of him teetering over the abyss, fighting the urge to throw himself in.

Licht wil raum mecht hern, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

It seems that he’s only achieved such energetic fluency in both painting and sculpture by tying himself to the things that consciousness would normally shove aside. His achievement is shadowed by the abject realities he has had to tie himself to. Baselitz is an artist who cannot avert his eyes. He forces himself to look when he wants to turn away, perhaps a way of dealing with the scenes of terror he must have witnessed as a boy when his family, like thousands of others, had to flee the Russian army who were closing in on the apocalyptic landscape of bombed-out Dresden.

Baselitz grew up in the ground zero of post war Germany, and from the get-go the demons refused to loosen their grip on his psyche. Rotting foetal dumplings , masturbating dwarves, hideously sprouting genitalia, the creatures of his early work exist within a dead black vacuum whose claustrophobic emptiness is matched only by David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead. Later on he created the Heroes, with their action man heads and ridiculously encrusted leiderhosen – they seem to want to topple out of the painting, squashing the viewer. Baselitz through the late sixties pushed his paintings towards greater crudity, greater flatness. Even here he intuits that he has to push against pictorial illusion, toward the actual condition of the paintings’ flatness, not for aesthetic effect but to concretise the motif. The idea of painting images upside down came in 1969, a marvelously blunt rejection of pictorial coherence, like a rejection of rationality itself. The idea is absurd, and seemingly doomed to failure, yet he set about trying to master the idiom with initially quite realistic images, almost from the life room, of himself, his friends and family.

Untitled, 2013, Pen and ink, watercolor and ink on paper, 26 x 20 3/16 inches / 66.1 x 51.2 cm (unframed) © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Turning images upside down makes them appear more complicated than they actually are. So for Baselitz, painting the motif upside down forces a greater simplicity and directness in order to compensate for what would normally induce a physical and perceptual confusion. In the eighties, the figures of his paintings, such as the terrifying Nachtessen in Dresden  / Supper in Dresden, 1983, which communicates directly the moment of a bomb’s impact – are pushed up against the surface of the painting, like creatures trapped beneath ice or frozen within the tableau of a medieval frieze. Baselitz dredges up motifs from Catholic Medieval Art, from Munch, from mannerism in a nightmarish mash-up of the human condition. Yet by the end of the decade, the space of his work has opened up even more, achieving even greater actuality- he starts to work on the floor, and the motifs no longer seem to have one particular orientation. Almost like a performative version of cubism, Baselitz is able to come at the painting from any angle, he can stomp and dance in his paint spattered trainers across the painting’s surface and paint his pictures by walking on them.His images from this period seem to want to stay close to the earth, like the squawking riot that is Where is the Yellow Milkjug Mrs Bird?, 1989, or Folkdance (Melancholia), 1989. These are pictures that barely want to rise above the earth, and one can feel the ground pressing through their surfaces. They were part of a highly memorable exhibition at Anthony D’Offay gallery in 1990, which still seems like a pinnacle of Baselitz’s career. It’s hard to define what makes the works from this period so special. They do not reach for the sublime, like a lot of American painting – they point in another direction, downwards. Even the folkdance which seems to take place on a blue sky is rooted to the floor. They seem not so much to create space as to give painting its own sense of place, measured by the foot.

Raum licht wiln echt mehr, 2013, Oil on canvas, 118 1/8 x 108 1/4 inches / 300 x 275 cm (unframed), © Georg Baselitz. Photo Jochen Littkemann. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

The recent paintings at Gagosian are, in keeping with the “remix” style, much lighter than earlier work. Baselitz likes to leave a lot of the canvas empty and draws on it as though its paper. In some ways it’s very appealing that Baselitz has lightened up so much but the paintings are still operating as they always did. Gesture’s function is to carve and separate the figure from its ground, and even here, where the figure seems on the brink of dissolution, colour function to pull the form forward out of the canvas towards us. One painting has dissolved entirely back into an all-over dirty white ground, but the other paintings seem to leer or wince or laugh or cry out at us. Where Baselitz’s art seems grounded is within matter itself. The paintings operate by holding pictorial space in tension with materiality, but always allowing material to threaten to overwhelm any coherence. The pictures themselves embody the self in the process of dissolving back in to matter. This acceptance of the inevitable downward pull of matter generates, in opposition, an exhilarating burst of gestural energy. Each painting is the result of a clash of these dramatically opposing forces, one that takes place in real space.

Farewell Bill is on at Gagosian, Britannia Street until the 29th of March

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Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

October 25~2013

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents, in the Paris Pantin exhibition space inaugurated in October 2012, a comprehensive exhibition with new monumental sculptures and paintings by the German artist Georg Baselitz.

“What is Germany, really, in regard to traditional sculpture?” In a recent interview, Baselitz looked back to questions he asked himself in the 1970s: “The last thing I could think of in the way of pleasing or characteristic German sculpture after the Gothic period was the group Die Brücke, including Schmidt- Rottluff, Kirchner and Lehmbruck. When I finally arrived at this idea, I took a piece of wood and started work” (Georg Baselitz, 2011).

Baselitz’s first sculpture was shown in the German Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Since then he has made only a few.

After Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Max Ernst chose a readily malleable material when they had reached the limits of painting. Baselitz stands in this tradition of painters who leave their medium. He finds sculpture “a shorter way than painting”, to tackle certain problems; it is “more primitive, brutal, not as reserved […] as painting can sometimes be”, and “less cryptic than pictures, far more direct, more legible” (Georg Baselitz, 1983). Besides this recourse to Expressionist sculpture, an important field of reference for Baselitz’s sculpture is the fundamental nature of African sculpture, where specific basic types have been developed over a long period.

Baselitz works exclusively with wood, negating both the idea of doing justice to the material and that of the stuffy, conservative reputation of wood sculpture. “Any appealing form [..] any arty- crafty elegance or deliberate construction is taboo” (Georg Baselitz, 1987). With great physical effort, he hacks, stabs and saws the block of wood, taking no account of the grain. “For a sculpture to take shape, the wood has to be forcibly opened” (Uwe Schneede, 1993).

For the past ten years, Baselitz has cast limited editions of his wood sculptures in bronze at the long-established Hermann Noack fine art foundry in Berlin. Here the finest details of the sculpted wood are reproduced and burnished in black by the artist. On Baselitz’s black, unreflective surfaces, John-Paul Stonard remarks in his exhibition catalogue essay: “They betray the light absorbing wood from which they were originally carved; memory falls into them, rather than drama out of them.”

Georg Baselitz’s new bronzes include Sing Sang Zero, a standing couple with arms interlinked, and three fetishistic sculptures – Marokkaner, Yellow Song, Louise Fuller – showing a humanoid figure enclosed in rings. Louise Fuller is a gentle parody of the American dancer famous for her act with veils.

The monumental BDM Gruppe revives his childhood memories of three parading girls in his native town of Deutschbaselitz. John-Paul Stonard writes: “These village beauties […] could not be further from the Three Graces of antiquity, shown most famously in smooth white marble by Canova, or with classical restraint by Raphael. So much has been lost or transfigured. What has survived, from a memory that must have been filtered a thousand times, is the motif of the linked arms. Not hands held, but arms linked; a rare motif in the history of art.”

In the past months Baselitz has been working on a new series titled Black Paintings. After Blackout (2009) and The Negative (2012), the series in black would seem to be a logical step. Expressive representations of birds and human figures may be discerned in these pictures, though the shades Baselitz uses render them almost invisible. The figuration is revealed more through the highly structured surface of the heavy layers of black, dark blue and brown. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Michael Semff writes: “The artist surprises us with a radically new pictorial concept which, in almost minimalist reduction, aims to eliminate all visible contrasts. […] Time seems to have stopped here – not in the sense of standstill, but of exhaustion, calming ‘after the battle’.” Semff points out that twenty years before he created these Black Paintings, Baselitz already described his approach to painting, which still holds today: “I try to work without experience, without training, in a way I myself don’t know. I don’t want continuity … I set great store by waking sleep.” For his new series, shown in Pantin for the first time, Baselitz goes beyond this idea, confessing: “I dream of painting an invisible picture”.

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at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

until 31 October 2013

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Above – Louise Fuller, 2013

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Yellow Song, 2013

BDM Gruppe, 2012

Flunkler Deck, 2013

Feite dunzkeleit, 2013

Rikschornfabstein, 2013

Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” installation view at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris.

Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat; Jochen Littkemann.

   

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Sep 11, 2013

The Dark Side

The Dark Side

‘Le Côté Sombre’ (‘The Dark Side’) brings together Georg Baselitz’s latest painting and sculpture at Thaddaeus Ropac’s sprawling new space in Pantin, a couple of miles north east of Paris.The monumental sculptures, cast in bronze after wood carvings, are less violent than Baselitz’s previous works. His signature axe and chainsaw cuts are not softened – the rough surfaces reveal the creative process of angular hacking and gauging. But their black patina gives them a slick gloss, which befits their modish surroundings.BDM Gruppe is the most striking sculpture of the new series, three black faceless figures, androgynous but for some crudely sculpted high-heeled shoes. The inspiration (and title) come from Baselitz’s childhood memories of the parading Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls’ section of the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth), in his village of Deutschbaselitz, Saxony. As with much of his work, the grim spectre of Germany’s recent history is ever present. Baselitz’s primitive technique is testament to his roots, drawing on Volkskunst of Saxony, as well as art brut and African sculpture from his own private collection.The same sculpture was recently on display in the John Madejski Garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum and comparisons drawn with Antonio Canova’s Three Graces. BDM Gruppe is The Three Graces in negative. We recognise the three standing figures with arms intertwined, but instead of the graceful, smooth white marble of Canova’s sculpture, they are clunky, jet black textured giants.The idea of the negative, the inverted, is shot through Baselitz’s oeuvre since he first produced an upside-down canvas in 1969. In his new series, Black Paintings, the idea of the negative translates into the desire for an entirely black canvas: Baselitz claims to ‘dream of painting an invisible picture’.

The Dark Side

Black Paintings give us more than opacity. In some, colour is mixed into the black, which might recall a child’s experiment to see what colour you get when you mix all the colours together (answer: blackish). In certain lights the form of an eagle emerges, perhaps turned upside down, perhaps nose-diving into gloom. The contrast between eagle and surroundings is an almost imperceptible change of texture, a glossy shape emerging from a matt canvas of broad, sweeping strokes. In places, touches and streaks of white pierce the canvas. Between figurative and abstract, the paintings are reduced to subtle shifts in colour and texture. They are sombre, but meditative rather than anguished.

September’s first wave of vernissages in Paris revealed the traditional slew of medium sized oeuvres packed into small white cubes. Baselitz’s new works would not fit through the door. But in Ropac’s new, 2000 square-metre space they are strangely diminished, dwarfed by the new trend for über-galleries on the city peripheries, designed to showcase large-scale trophy art.

‘Georg Baselitz: The Dark Side’ is at the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac: Paris Pantin until 31 October 2013.

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← Back to Original Article

Q&A wtih GEORG BASELITZ : Portrait of an Artist Still Trying to Grow

October 14, 1995|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The exhibition of work by Georg Baselitz opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers Angelenos a comprehensive look at one of the most influential artists to emerge from post World War II Germany.

Best known, perhaps, for making paintings with images that appear upside down–a strategy he began using in 1969 to drain objects of their meaning and transform them into shapes–Baselitz has hammered out a consistently experimental and distinctive melding of abstraction and figuration. The show, which comes here from New York’s Guggenheim Museum, draws from 30 years of Baselitz’s career.

Interviewing the 57-year-old artist through a translator in one of the LACMA galleries where his work is hung, one encounters a beautifully dressed man who’s remarkably amiable considering that he just completed a long plane ride that left him with a severe headache. An in-depth conversation about various brands of aspirin preceded the following discussion of his work.

Question: In a recent interview you made a point of identifying yourself as a specifically German artist. What about your sensibility is recognizably German?

Answer: For years people said that about me, so I finally thought about it and realized it’s true. With artists there really are differences that have to do with nationality and I am German–I have no sense of myself as a citizen of the world.

Q: How did growing up in the shadow of World War II shape your sensibility?

A: I was 7 years old when the war ended, so my childhood took place in a climate of fear. The primary thing then was survival–how do you get some soup? Now that I’m older, I’m beginning to look at the larger implications of that war–and Germany itself finally seems ready to address its past. The German people feel great shame about the war, and as to whether that wound of shame will ever heal, I think what will happen is that it will be replaced. Events in the world and another peoples’ shame will supersede it. The human race seems to be evolving in not a good direction.

Q: What drove you as a young artist that no longer seems so important?

A: Early on, I felt it necessary to be explicit, crass and dramatic in trying to make clear what I wanted to do. I was also intent on rejecting the dominant styles of that period–Social Realism and Abstract Expressionism–but that’s part of the coming-of-age of every young artist. In this kind of rejection you make mistakes, but you must make them to find your freedom. I no longer feel required to work that way, and my work is less and less a reaction to the outside and to what other artists are doing. Rather, I find myself looking to my own past, repeating, correcting, deepening. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to wander through my past, and I find myself developing a more responsible attitude toward my work. I want to work more consciously.

Q: The American art world has an image of you as something of an aristocrat. How do you feel about that?

A: Me? An aristocrat? I don’t understand that at all because in Germany I’m a farmer! During the war my father had to go through the family records in order to prove his lineage to the Nazis, and believe me, there were no aristocrats in the family. My ancestors were all middle-class, bourgeoise priests and teachers.

Q: You’re not an aristocrat, yet you live in a castle with 120 rooms?

A: Well, that’s what is available in Germany. Nobody really wants to live in them, so artists often end up with them.

Q: In the catalogue for this show, when you discuss artists you consider your peers, writers you admire and artists who’ve influenced you, you don’t mention a single woman. Even all your dealers are men. Do you consider yourself a sexist?

A: If you have a specific example, I can respond–actually, I have a very good example. When I was a student I saw work by an artist named Joan Mitchell and I loved him a lot. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered Mitchell was a woman–and I thought nevertheless, the work is good!

Q: How old were you when you began to have a sense of yourself as an artist?

A: Fourteen. My parents were both teachers and my father spoke several languages, so I was raised in a fairly intellectual environment. In Germany, when you turn 14, you must decide whether to go to a trade school or go on to university, and it was then I decided to be a painter.

Another change took place then too. My uncle was a priest and I was raised a Protestant. As a child there’s no way to reflect on what you’re being taught because it’s all you know. But at 14 I began to wrestle with the question: Should I run away from the church, or should I embrace it? I found the milieu of the church frightening, and so I escaped. Another problem was that I don’t believe in God.

Q: In a recent interview you made the comment: “I don’t understand Christian paintings–people flying around in fairy-tale clothes. I don’t know what it means and it has no importance for me.” Why have millions of people over several centuries chosen to embrace this belief system?

A: There are powerful religions, and there are less powerful religions that fail. There is a conflict between Germans–particularly Germans north of the Alps–and Christianity because Germanic folklore revolves around pagan things that emanate from under the earth. In Christianity, things come from above. I’ve always felt that if there really is such a thing as freedom–which is what people are looking for in religion–that it won’t come from the sky. I believe it will come from the earth, and that is where my work is rooted.

Of course, every imperial religion has denounced the pagans because they had other gods, and unfortunately, the pagans disappeared and everyone became Christian. But this is where artists come in–they bring all things of the past to light again. Every artist functions as a medium, and it’s not something they’re in control of because it’s too valuable and sensitive to be controlled.

* Georg Baselitz’s paintings will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Sunday through Jan. 7. (213) 857-6000.

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Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

October 25~2013

Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac presents, in the Paris Pantin exhibition space inaugurated in October 2012, a comprehensive exhibition with new monumental sculptures and paintings by the German artist Georg Baselitz.

“What is Germany, really, in regard to traditional sculpture?” In a recent interview, Baselitz looked back to questions he asked himself in the 1970s: “The last thing I could think of in the way of pleasing or characteristic German sculpture after the Gothic period was the group Die Brücke, including Schmidt- Rottluff, Kirchner and Lehmbruck. When I finally arrived at this idea, I took a piece of wood and started work” (Georg Baselitz, 2011).

Baselitz’s first sculpture was shown in the German Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale. Since then he has made only a few.

After Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, artists such as Umberto Boccioni, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Max Ernst chose a readily malleable material when they had reached the limits of painting. Baselitz stands in this tradition of painters who leave their medium. He finds sculpture “a shorter way than painting”, to tackle certain problems; it is “more primitive, brutal, not as reserved […] as painting can sometimes be”, and “less cryptic than pictures, far more direct, more legible” (Georg Baselitz, 1983). Besides this recourse to Expressionist sculpture, an important field of reference for Baselitz’s sculpture is the fundamental nature of African sculpture, where specific basic types have been developed over a long period.

Baselitz works exclusively with wood, negating both the idea of doing justice to the material and that of the stuffy, conservative reputation of wood sculpture. “Any appealing form [..] any arty- crafty elegance or deliberate construction is taboo” (Georg Baselitz, 1987). With great physical effort, he hacks, stabs and saws the block of wood, taking no account of the grain. “For a sculpture to take shape, the wood has to be forcibly opened” (Uwe Schneede, 1993).

For the past ten years, Baselitz has cast limited editions of his wood sculptures in bronze at the long-established Hermann Noack fine art foundry in Berlin. Here the finest details of the sculpted wood are reproduced and burnished in black by the artist. On Baselitz’s black, unreflective surfaces, John-Paul Stonard remarks in his exhibition catalogue essay: “They betray the light absorbing wood from which they were originally carved; memory falls into them, rather than drama out of them.”

Georg Baselitz’s new bronzes include Sing Sang Zero, a standing couple with arms interlinked, and three fetishistic sculptures – Marokkaner, Yellow Song, Louise Fuller – showing a humanoid figure enclosed in rings. Louise Fuller is a gentle parody of the American dancer famous for her act with veils.

The monumental BDM Gruppe revives his childhood memories of three parading girls in his native town of Deutschbaselitz. John-Paul Stonard writes: “These village beauties […] could not be further from the Three Graces of antiquity, shown most famously in smooth white marble by Canova, or with classical restraint by Raphael. So much has been lost or transfigured. What has survived, from a memory that must have been filtered a thousand times, is the motif of the linked arms. Not hands held, but arms linked; a rare motif in the history of art.”

In the past months Baselitz has been working on a new series titled Black Paintings. After Blackout (2009) and The Negative (2012), the series in black would seem to be a logical step. Expressive representations of birds and human figures may be discerned in these pictures, though the shades Baselitz uses render them almost invisible. The figuration is revealed more through the highly structured surface of the heavy layers of black, dark blue and brown. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Michael Semff writes: “The artist surprises us with a radically new pictorial concept which, in almost minimalist reduction, aims to eliminate all visible contrasts. […] Time seems to have stopped here – not in the sense of standstill, but of exhaustion, calming ‘after the battle’.” Semff points out that twenty years before he created these Black Paintings, Baselitz already described his approach to painting, which still holds today: “I try to work without experience, without training, in a way I myself don’t know. I don’t want continuity … I set great store by waking sleep.” For his new series, shown in Pantin for the first time, Baselitz goes beyond this idea, confessing: “I dream of painting an invisible picture”.

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at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris

until 31 October 2013

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Above – Louise Fuller, 2013

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Yellow Song, 2013

BDM Gruppe, 2012

Flunkler Deck, 2013

Feite dunzkeleit, 2013

Rikschornfabstein, 2013

Georg Baselitz “The Dark Side” installation view at Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris.

Courtesy: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg. Photo: Charles Duprat; Jochen Littkemann.

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1995 interview

ART

New Again: Georg Baselitz

By Kenzi Abou-Sabe, Deborah Gimelson

Photography Richard J. Burbridge

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ABOVE: GEORG BASELITZ IN INTERVIEW, JUNE 1995. PORTRAIT BY RICHARD J. BURBRIDGE.

Georg Baselitz would like you to know that he embodies individualism. Rarely has another artist shirked categorization as surely and as vehemently as Baselitz. When we interviewed the German artist in June 1995, he was awaiting his very first retrospective exhibit on American soil at the Guggenheim. Now in his 70s, Baselitz hasn’t stopped creating, and his work has been exhibited in the US 105 times since then. Next week, on March 29th, Baselitz’s latest exhibition at the Gagosian in London will come to a close. Titled “Farewell Bill,” the show focuses on a series of upside-down, mirror-image, and perspective-jarring self-portraits, painted in bright strokes of color as homage to the late artist Willem de Kooning. The twin desires that Baselitz displayed to us in ’95—to be unpredictable and to shock—are clearly still at the forefront of his aesthetic ideology. Much of the chaos of Baselitz’s early paintings is still there, but they are both simpler and more complex in their characteristic distemper.—Kenzi Abou-Sabe
Raw Nerve Art
By Deborah Gimelson

As a German artist born during the time of Hitler’s Germany, Georg Baselitz has had to struggle with history itself to find his own way into history. He has taken the repression that came with the aftermath of the war and exploded it in his work. He is one of those artists who is essentially still unknown, even if his work is famous. The image of his work is imparted in the minds of all who have seen it, but the reasons for the work, and the man’s background, have not yet truly been discovered in this country. His retrospective, which just opened at the Guggenheim Museum, is one of the first real chances we’ve had in America to seriously discover what this tough, anxiety-producing art is really about. Here, in a two-part interview, an American art writer, Deborah Gimelson, takes on the heavyweight and finds out some of the answers and some of the mysteries.

Part One
Georg Baselitz seems almost too affable for a guy whose art—from eagles to men to dogs, much of it upside down—has torn through the fabric of traditional German painting and sculpture. His canvases and sculptures have managed to imprint their agitated, often tortured residue on the consciousness of contemporary art—a consciousness the artist is all too aware is not always accepting of his uncomfortable vision. His response to viewers finding his work ugly follows the line of reasoning he has adhered to from early in his career. If he is affecting someone so strongly and negatively, if they remember what they saw, says Baselitz, he must be doing something right.

After a successful, three-decade career on the Continent, Baselitz is having his first bona fide American retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, from May 26 through September 17. Although it appears to have taken a long time for a retrospective of his work to reach our shores, that is not the kind of problem that engages Baselitz, as he made clear in the interview that follows.

DEBORAH GIMELSON: I wish I spoke German, but I don’t. Can we try it in English, with translation, and see how it goes?

TRANSLATOR: Yes. O.K. [Editor’s Note: In the first part of this interview, conducted via telephone on March 22, the interpreter was Mr. Baselitz’s assistant, Detlev Gretenkort.]

GIMELSON: All right. Congratulations on the upcoming retrospective at the Guggenheim. You’ve had enormous success in Europe for many years, and I wonder why you think it took so long to have a show like this in America.

GEORG BASELITZ: I don’t have the feeling that it took such a long time.

GIMELSON: Even though we tend to give retrospectives to people in their thirties and forties in America?

BASELITZ: Lichtenstein was much older than I am when he got his first retrospective in Europe.

GIMELSON: [laughs] Uh-huh! O.K. What do you think the differences are between showing in Europe and showing in America?

BASELITZ: For me, America is a big unknown situation. I don’t see art as entertainment, so I don’t know exactly how to react.

GIMELSON: Because you don’t see art as entertainment? I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at. Do you think that American audiences view art as entertainment more than as art? Is that what you’re saying?

BASELITZ: Most of what comes from the States to Europe has something to do with entertainment. I can’t imagine artists in the United States having the same kind of isolated position that we have here in Europe. I have a feeling one lives more publically in the States.

GIMELSON: Hmmm. Anyway, I know you’re from Eastern Europe. I wonder what it meant to you to grow up in the postwar East. What kind of opportunities and what kind of obstacles were put in your path?

BASELITZ: When the war ended in 1945, the place that had been our home, which had been in the center of Germany, became and still remains a part of the Czechoslovakian border and the Polish border. I was seven years old. I grew up in the Eastern Zone, which became the German Democratic Republic in 1949.

GIMELSON: I’m trying to get at what it was like for you. In America there is, and has been, a resistance to German art of your postwar generation. I’m not so sure that this resistance only has to do with the idea of Nazism, which was happening while you were growing up. I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that certain kinds of art have been associated with fascism—for example, expressionism. You’ve been referred to as the greatest living neo-expressionist. How do you react to being called that?

BASELITZ: I became an artist because of the possibility it gave me to develop in another way, because I didn’t want to follow the same lines the others around me did. I was educated in the former German Democratic Republic, which meant that an individual figure had to be… like a soldier in the army, you know?

GIMELSON: Part of the bigger picture.

BASELITZ: Yes, part of the bigger picture. First, they tried for about a year to make me understand that I had to make a contribution to this system. Then after a year, they found out that I was too crazy for such things, and they dropped me out of school. [Gimelson laughs] So that was how I started at the Academy [of Fine and Applied Art] in East Berlin. Then I went to West Berlin and continued to study there.

GIMELSON: When did you go to West Berlin?

BASELITZ: That was in 1957. And there I found out that Germany is a kind of province. I didn’t know anything about expressionism, about the Bauhaus and Dada and surrealism. I was uneducated, so to speak—and everybody else was more or less uneducated, too. At the art school [the Academy of Fine Arts] in West Berlin, the great influences were coming from Paris. Those kinds of people didn’t exist anymore in Germany, because they had all gone into exile. I got sort of interested in this French thing, but I soon found out that existentialism was not congruent with my thinking. Then, in 1958 at the art school, there was a great American exhibition. It was a very big exhibition that was organized by MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art], with all these paintings by Pollock, Motherwell, and Rothko.

GIMELSON: The abstract expressionists.

BASELITZ: Yes. It was travelling all through Europe. It was the biggest and most powerful exhibition I had seen so far, and immediately I found out that even what I saw at this exhibition didn’t work for me, because I didn’t want to be colonized. So I forced myself to think about where I come from, and what has meaning for me.

GIMELSON: At that point, who did you identify with as an artist?

BASELITZ: I did not always trust my teachers, because I found them too weak. I was looking for something that could take me in a new direction, for things that I could admire. And because it was so hard to find this, I became a sort of outsider. That’s why I began to identify with the insane, “outsider” artists.

GIMELSON: The outsider artists in Germany, you mean?

BASELITZ: Not only in Germany, everywhere.

GIMELSON: Who were some of these people, specifically? Did they have names, or were they anonymous?

BASELITZ: Many of them were known, like Carl Fredrik Hill and August Strindberg, for example, and many others. There is a book that was written by Hans Prinzhorn and published in 1923 called The Artistry of the Mentally Ill, where you can find some of them.

GIMELSON: Ummm, all this is very interesting, but I want to get back to the subject of being a young artist for a minute. Do you have any contact with younger artists who are coming up today?

BASELITZ: Yes, I’m a professor at the art school in Berlin.

GIMELSON: And do you find that many of the obstacles you confronted as a young artist are similar to those that these young artists have to deal with today?

BASELITZ: I have always been aware of different movements and directions in art. But, in general, I’m always bored by any kind of generalization when it comes to artists. I think that there are just single individuals, who are valuable, and they work outside of any group.

GIMELSON: You mean those who develop as great artists.

BASELITZ: Yes.

GIMELSON: In some circles you’re well-known as a collector of African art. I wonder how those images, or that primordial energy from them, filter into your work. Can you describe the transaction between the two things, your collecting and your own work, and why collecting is so important to you as an artist?

BASELITZ: I have always had the feeling that other people are too stupid to discover interesting things. That’s why I do it myself. I think of collecting as a way to show that I understand what’s important better than others do.

GIMELSON: How many pieces are in your collection?

BASELITZ: Oh, I have collected so many different things.

GIMELSON: I’m sure, and for many years, right?

BASELITZ: Yes. At first, I started collecting my artist friends, artists like myself who nobody had yet noticed. I believe that I was the first to collect the very early [A.R.] Penck paintings. In everything, all I am collecting, so to speak, are my friends—artist friends. Right now, I’m focusing on African sculptures more or less from the Congo area. I’m also collecting 16th-century prints from the Ecole de Fontainebleau. Nowhere in my collection do I, say, have a Renoir painting. Because everybody knows that this is a good painter without me having to demonstrate it.

GIMELSON: I’d like to talk now about some people who have been intricately involved in your career. You met Michael Werner [who has continuously represented Baselitz since the beginning of the artist’s career and was influential in introducing his work to America] very early on. I’d like to know what the atmosphere was like in German art circles at that time, and what you think you and Werner saw in each other to forge such a strong and long-term association.

BASELITZ: We were from the same generation and the same nationality. Nobody had one penny in their pocket then. It was a very difficult time, economically speaking. When Werner saw a painting of mine, such as Die grosse Nacht im Eimer [“Big Night Down the Drain” 1962-1963], which back then nobody wanted and everybody thought was ridiculous, he realized that this was the right provocation, that it represented the feeling of the times in the right way.

GIMELSON: Do you have any specific stories about how you and Michael worked together?

BASELITZ: Michael was the first person I worked with who had something to do with art dealing. This was in the early ’60s. I remember that Michael told me about a famous collector, and Michael set up an appointment for us to meet. This man looked around the room and at my pictures. Then he said, “Young man, why are you doing these horrible things? Look out the window. There are nice girls out there. It’s springtime. Look at how beautiful the world can be. You’ll ruin your health by smoking so much and doing such tortured things.” The he left, embarrassed, without buying anything. And half an hour later, Werner came over, and I told him what had just happened. We agreed that this meeting had been a success.

GIMELSON: What do you feel is the absolute best situation, the optimal physical structure, for your work to be seen in?

BASELITZ: If my images stick in peoples’ heads, if they know the image without even looking at the image.

GIMELSON: Well, we should probably stop for now, since we have a second meeting for this interview in person when you come to New York next week. You know, I’ve seen you in Berlin a couple of times. You winked at me on the street once. [to the translator] Don’t tell him that! [translator tells Baselitz]

BASELITZ: On what occasion?

GIMELSON: The “Metropolis” exhibition four years ago.

BASELITZ: Are you sure it wasn’t somebody else? Because I don’t have a beard any longer.

GIMELSON: No, it was you. See you on Monday.

Part two
Curious to see what the dynamic of the artist who has made so many dynamic images is like in person, I sat down with Baselitz face-to-face in Interview‘s wood-paneled library to resume our talk. Baselitz drank espresso doppio and sometimes got up between translations of his responses to look at the selection of books on the library shelves; the first thing he did was make sure there was something about Baselitz on the shelves. Dressed in a well-made, wide-wale dark blue corduroy suit, dark shirt, and expensive silk tie, his current image is hard to reconcile with the Baselitz who reputedly, in his youth, hung out in Berlin bars with the Baader-Meinhof terrorists. Now more country squire than social revolutionary (he spends most of his time in a castle in Derneburg, where his studio is in a series of connecting, high-ceilinged, 17th-century rooms), he still wages an aesthetic war with his stark, volatile, and often primitive images. [Editor’s note: The following interview took place on March 27 in the Interview library. On this occasion, the interpreter was Waltraud Raninger, a translator who works with the Guggenheim Museum SoHo.]

GIMELSON: I want to begin this part of the interview by asking you about Francis Bacon. Now that Bacon is dead, many people consider you the most important artist of senior stature working in Europe today. How do you feel about this?

BASELITZ: I don’t know who made up this sort of greatest-hits list for artists. If one artist isn’t moving forward anymore, then it’s assumed another one is going to take their place. With Bacon’s death, a whole genre of art died. Does that mean now that I’m the next one to die?

GIMELSON: [laughs] I hope not.

BASELITZ: So do I.

GIMELSON: Can you talk a little bit about what you think neo-expressionism, a term that has often been used to describe your work, means in Europe, and what it means in America, and how the two notions of this genre differ?

BASELITZ: First of all, I am not a representative of anything. When art historians or critics or the public put somebody in a drawer like this, it has a tranquilizing, paralyzing effect. Artists are individuals. They have ideas, and the conventions for one’s self as an individual are not for a group. There are always those who follow the group, but they belong in the margins. I refuse to be placed within, or added to, one particular school.

GIMELSON: Why do you think it is then that people have tried to slot you into that neo-expressionist mold?

BASELITZ: I don’t know. When I began as an artist, I already did not like expressionism, or abstract expressionism, because abstract painting had already been done. I did not want to belong to any one group or the other, and I’m not one or the other.

GIMELSON: Where do you think the main impetus was coming from in your work when you were in your twenties, as opposed to now, when you’re in your fifties? What were the forces working on you then, and the obsessions, and what’s different about them now?

BASELITZ: These forces are biologically different now than they were then. In the beginning, the energy involved to create came from my reaction to the work of other artists. The force behind this was aggression. The art that I saw was great, but I had to reject it, because I could not continue in the same direction. So I had to do something entirely different. It had to be so different, so extreme, that those who loved pop art, for instance, hated me. And this was my strength. Later, it again worked in a biological manner. But in no way was it just my reactions against things.

GIMELSON: I am wondering how you would like this exhibition at the Guggenheim to represent your work.

BASELITZ: In a place like the Guggenheim, I would like to be a representative of arte povera. This would be my ideal. Unfortunately, God had something else in mind. I’m a painter, and this space is completely inappropriate for my work. But in the end, maybe this is also an advantage, because we have seen so many exhibits in recent years where the exhibition design was aesthetically beautiful. In this case, if someone wants to get something out of the exhibit, they must neglect the aesthetics and look at my pictures.

But I do not have a philosophy about retrospectives. Of course, I cannot change what I have done. What I am doing today, this I can change, in view of whatever I have done before. My retrospectives are like a series of ghosts. And for me to see my work collected like this is like entering a haunted house.

GIMELSON: You have spent your career defying tradition and structure, constantly remaking yourself or your art through your various paintings and sculptures. Yet in other aspects of your life, traditional structures, like family, are very important. Can you talk about this?

BASELITZ: As a human being, I am a citizen, but as an artist, I am asocial. A citizen sticks to conventions, does whatever is social. Artists, of course, must reject all conventions. I see no differently in reconciling the best of both of these worlds.

GIMELSON: If you met somebody who’s never heard of you or seen your work, how would you describe what you do every day?

BASELITZ: I would say I am somebody who builds furniture like a carpenter with canvas and color. No, I would say I build buildings or houses like a bricklayer with canvas and paint. This is a very good question.

THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE JUNE 1995 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

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GOETHE INSTITUTE GERMANY

Georg Baselitz Rebellion by Standing Reality on Its Head

Special exhibition
Special exhibition “Georg Baselitz: Nature as Motif” | © Picture alliance

Painting motifs upside-down became his hallmark. Georg Baselitz is less concerned with the recognition factor of his technique and far more with depicting the world as he has experienced it: an upside-down world.

There are artists and writers who struggle with a theme throughout their lives, returning again and again to the same motifs and wrestling with that which eludes depiction. Many soon end up stagnating and become uninteresting. But those however, who continually take different perspectives, discover unconventional means and thereby illuminate their themes in new ways – these artists’ works never cease to ask interesting questions. Kafka was such a writer, Georg Baselitz is such a painter.

The process of painting as process of insight

The fact that Baselitz is not concerned with an interpretation of his subjects, but with the process of painting itself, can be seen in his works: his canvases appear unfinished by means of paint can edges, shoe prints and over-painting. Baselitz rejects clear-cut contours and cleanly-painted figures, since the foreground is taken up by the how and not the what. His first sculpture, which he presented in 1980 in Venice, was entitled Modell für eine Skulptur (Model for a Sculpture), half of which still remained un-carved in the wood block. The “how” enables us to follow the progress of the work and Baselitz’s thought process, which among other things leads to the insight that the “what” can be assertion pure and simple, and therefore absolutely must be called into question.

A German-German-German biography

Even as a child, Baselitz experienced the arbitrariness of such claims to truth. He was born into the Nazi dictatorship as Hans-Georg Kern on 23 January 1938, in Deutschbaselitz in Saxony. His parents were teachers – he remembers the schoolhouse where he lived with them: “A banner was stretched around the building with ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ (‘one people, one empire, one leader’) written on it.”

The next truth was presented to him in the form of GDR socialism. In 1956 he began studying art in East Berlin and concentrated on Picasso, but not the way his teachers intended. When after two semesters Baselitz submitted “his” Picassos of the war years in Paris, they saw only the decadence of the west. Baselitz was expelled from the academy on the grounds of “social immaturity” and continued studying in West Berlin.

But the West also confronted him with “truths.” Pollock and de Kooning were the new heroes, but however much they impressed Baselitz, he was not inclined to emulate them. Baselitz, for whom being a follower had a bad aftertaste, encountered the truths of this world with distrust. Someone that sceptical is compelled to find his own truth – and Baselitz, young and aggressive, set off in search of it. In 1961 he changed his name to Baselitz after his birthplace.

Rebellion without penalty

In 1962 he married Elke Kretzschmar and began to do something that “simply no one wanted at all,” he says. No recognition, not exactly a pleasant time, Die große Nacht im Eimer (A Big Night Down the Drain) had come. In 1963, the picture of a man masturbating was confiscated from the Galerie Werner und Katz in Berlin, as was the painting Nackter Mann (Naked Man) that shows a nude with an oversized, erect penis. Baselitz was prosecuted. He was forced to find another way of expressing his scepticism if he was to avoid getting into trouble with the state prosecutor’s office each and every time he rebelled. In 1969 he created his fracture paintings (Frakturbilder): figures he cut up into strips and put back together in displaced order. The irritating effect of madness ultimately led to his upside-down take on reality, which was to become his hallmark: in that same year he painted an upside-down motif for the first time – Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Forest Upside-Down). Rebellion by turning reality upside-down, and it worked: formally, Baselitz overcame concrete meaning and thereby created his own, personal alternative to the ideologically charged debates over realism and abstraction. He turned reality on its head and thereby rendered it abstract – it was this idea that made him famous.

“Strangely upright”

Baselitz knew he was on the right track. Starting in 2005, he began to revise his work and at the same time to deepen it. He then sometimes paints “strangely upright”, as he puts it. He also now finally feels stable enough to quote the great American artists of Abstract Expressionism and squeezes his figures out of the paint tube onto the black canvas, Action Painting without splattering. Negative images arise with reversed brightness values and the black eagles that convey the depressing aura of an oil-tanker accident. On the occasion of his major retrospective exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Baselitz, now 76, finds succinct words for his revisions of the past: he considers his works over and over again and understands that “it could all have been done differently.” And because Baselitz doesn’t stop at this insight, he goes and does things differently.

A survey of Baselitz’ work Back Then, In Between and Today – Damals, dazwischen und heute is offered by the exhibition of the same name in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, until 1 February 2015.

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nytimes

Photo

Georg Baselitz in his studio. Credit Martin Müller/Gagosian Gallery

LONDON — In the autumn of 1958, an East German art student ventured into an exhibition of American paintings and was staggered by what he saw. Hanging on wall after wall of a West Berlin academy were works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other Abstract Expressionists.

“I found those pictures so overwhelming, so totally unexpected, so different from the experience of my own world at the time that I felt totally desperate, because I thought I’d never stand a chance of doing well compared to those painters,” Georg Baselitz recalled in an interview at the Gagosian Gallery here.

“The dimensions, to us, were just huge: an expression of freedom,” Mr. Baselitz said, speaking through a translator. “Our canvases felt pathetic, tiny.”

More than a half-century later, Mr. Baselitz carries that experience with him. Now 76, he is being honored with three London exhibitions: “Farewell Bill,” a tribute to De Kooning is at Gagosian through March 29; “Germany Divided: Baselitz and His Generation,” through Aug. 31 at the British Museum, features more than 40 of Mr. Baselitz’s works on paper; and he has lent some 16th-century prints to the Royal Academy of Arts’s “Renaissance Impressions: Chiaroscuro Woodcuts From the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna,” which runs from March 15 through June 8.

Photo

One of the artist’s works that is part of  “Farewell Bill,” a tribute to Willem de Kooning. Credit Georg Baselitz/Jochen Littkemann, via Gagosian Gallery

For much of his life, Mr. Baselitz has created work around one central theme: the pain of growing up in the ruins of Nazi Germany. He has produced raw and sometimes shocking art to express it.

His Gagosian show is full of large, jubilant canvases covered with messy swirls of bright paint that resemble 1970s de Koonings. Most are upside-down self-portraits in which the artist wears a baseball cap marked “Zero” — a reference to his brand of paint, but also, according to the catalog, to “Zero Hour,” a phrase used in post-1945 Germany to indicate a clean slate.

“As a German, by definition, you’re always linked to the Holocaust, linked to the Nazis,” Mr. Baselitz said. He added: “I was only 7 when World War II was over. Yet people nowadays still associate my generation with the past.”

Along with Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer, Mr. Baselitz is part of a group of German artists who “took it upon themselves to reinvent a broken culture,” said Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner of the Michael Werner Gallery in New York, which represented Mr. Baselitz until 2008. Although Mr. Baselitz has never been an auction darling on the scale of Mr. Richter, he is an influential post-war painter. The Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who represents Mr. Baselitz in Continental Europe, said he could not imagine “any other artist who confronted Germany with its own past the way Baselitz did.”

The past has never been absent from his work. Mr. Baselitz’s father, a primary-school teacher who fought for Germany in the war and lost an eye, was banned from teaching in what became East Germany. Their relationship was tense. “If your father was a Nazi and a perpetrator, the problem between the two generations becomes even more serious,” Mr. Baselitz said.

He started to express this aggression. In 1963, he completed a painting of an ugly, masturbating male called ‘‘Big  Night Down the Drain.’’ It was included  in his first gallery show, which drew  public attention, and was promptly confiscated (with another work) by the district attorney.

In the late ’60s, Mr. Baselitz started to develop what would become a trademark motif — depicting subjects upside down in a style that appeared both figurative and abstract.

“He found his perfect solution by inverting,” said Stephen Coppel, the curator of the British Museum show. You recognized the work’s subject, he added, but were also made to “look at the marks by which it was created.” The British Museum show includes drawings and prints of upside-down figures, eagles and trees.

Notoriety came at the 1980 Venice Biennale, when Mr. Baselitz exhibited his first sculpture — a totemic figure with a raised arm — that some viewed as depicting Hitler. Since then, he has continued to sculpt as well as provoke.

Age has not made Mr. Baselitz less blunt. In January 2013, he told Der Spiegel that women “don’t paint very well,” though they excelled at disciplines such as science. The remarks caused a stir, with journalists, academics and women in the arts accusing Mr. Baselitz of sexism, accusations that have resurfaced on Twitter, along with the original interview.

Asked in the interview at the Gagosian here to comment, Mr. Baselitz replied that while “the most beautiful women are those created in art by men,” female artists depicted unseemly subjects. The 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, for instance, showed men being “castrated and decapitated,” he said, while contemporary artists like Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas made everyone, including women, “look extremely ugly.”

“It could be that in the future things will improve,” he concluded.

Norman Rosenthal — who organized a Baselitz retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2007, and ran the exhibitions program there at the time — said Mr. Baselitz was, like Pablo Picasso, someone who “doesn’t care about being politically correct, cares about his own private, personal obsessions, and expresses them magnificently in painting and sculpture and printmaking.”

Gagosian’s London director, Stefan Ratibor, said the gallery had staged seven previous Baselitz exhibitions in New York, London and Rome.

“We wouldn’t do a show on this scale if we weren’t confident in his market,” he said. “Of the artists we work with, he’s one of the greats.”

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SPIEGEL ONLINEBaselitz also wasn't too thrilled about the art market in Germany.

01/25/2013 06:36 PM

German Artist Georg Baselitz

Baselitz also wasn't too thrilled about the art market in Germany. ‘My Paintings are Battles’

By Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knöfel

German painter Georg Baselitz has made a name for himself — and a fortune — by being provocative. In a SPIEGEL interview, he stays true to form by bashing Germans and their museums and saying that the best artists have less talent and can’t be women.

The house of Georg Baselitz, one of the world’s most important painters, is hard to find. It’s on the waterfront of Ammersee, a lake near Munich, and hidden behind other villas. Designed by Basel architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, it’s probably one of the most beautiful residences in Germany. Fearing architecture tourists, Baselitz doesn’t allow journalists to photograph his house. The 75-year-old meets with SPIEGEL in his studio next door. Much of what he says seems cantankerous, but he clearly enjoys his tirades, which he delivers with a mischievous smile.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, you’ve just turned 75, and you’ve been famous for the last 50 years. At the beginning, you were the painter with the wild and dangerous works, and the police even confiscated some of your paintings. Now you are lionized, and your works are coveted around the world. What’s harder for an artist to deal with, rejection or recognition?Baselitz: First of all, I seriously doubt that what you say about recognition is true.

SPIEGEL: Gallery owners and collectors are both crazy about you, and museums are constantly singing your praises.

Baselitz: But not the media.

SPIEGEL: Come now, you’re written about often.

Baselitz: Is that so? I’ve had some major exhibitions abroad lately, and yet there was hardly a word in the FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung), for example. And that was only because I had previously said that the relevant editors at the FAZ suffered from pandemic mental enfeeblement.

SPIEGEL: What makes you say that?

Baselitz: I received the graphics prize at Art Cologne three years ago. Before that, it had been awarded to people who undoubtedly deserved recognition, such as Sigmar Polke. But, in my case, the FAZ wrote that it was a petty cash prize.

SPIEGEL: The prize money is €10,000 ($13,400), which is a paltry amount when compared to the sums your paintings fetch.

Baselitz: The prize money is the same each year, but when I get it, it’s called “petty cash.” I think that’s contemptuous and insulting to the people who award the prize and to the graphics medium.

SPIEGEL: You’re one of the most famous and expensive painters in the world. But you seem to notice your critics more than your acclaim.

Baselitz: For me, it’s about more than that; it’s about Germans’ relationship with art. For instance, in Germany, we often hear the absurd complaint that museums don’t have the money to buy paintings. Of course, I’m not talking about me and my paintings. There are, after all, more popular painters in this country.

SPIEGEL: Only one of them is more expensive: Gerhard Richter.

Baselitz: Much more expensive. And he certainly pays more taxes than I do. Despite all the taxes people pay, there supposedly isn’t any money in this country for art. Of course, this makes an artist ask himself: “Well, then, what are you doing with the 100 million I pay each year? What happened to that money?” And he doesn’t get an answer.

SPIEGEL: Now you’re no longer complaining about the media, but about museums.

Baselitz: Yes, I am grumbling a bit. The Rhineland was once the center of art in Germany. Then it was Berlin, but now things have become quiet there, as well. Still, Berlin has the National Gallery, a name that suggests that the museum ought to be there for national art. There are similar museums all over the world, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the MoMA in New York and the Reina Sofia in Madrid. They all fulfill their purpose and do what has to be done.

SPIEGEL: And what’s that?

Baselitz: They collect what’s important in their respective countries. In Berlin’s National Gallery, however, this isn’t the case. They’re interested neither in me nor the other usual suspects. It’s simply a German reality.

SPIEGEL: What do you attribute that to?

Baselitz: To the directors and the mood.

SPIEGEL: What mood?

Baselitz: Spending money on art has always been frowned upon in this country — even earlier, when my and others’ paintings cost almost nothing. Something is always more important. The people in charge are always peddling reasons that others seem to accept. Those who don’t drink and aren’t crazy, or who don’t attract attention with how they behave in public, aren’t noticed in art.

SPIEGEL: You sound furious. We were actually planning on discussing whether the situation in the art world isn’t better than ever.

Baselitz: That’s a justified question seeing that everyone apparently has the feeling that that’s the case. There’s a market for art, and things are indeed going swimmingly, especially for German artists. But everything takes place in America and in London, where there are quite a few wealthy, engaged people. What motivates them to buy art is a different question, but they do.

SPIEGEL: These collectors are also buying your art. What more could you ask for?

Baselitz: That things were also better here, and that we weren’t just dealing with know-it-alls.

SPIEGEL: People in this country are very interested in art. The museums are reporting record visitor numbers.

Baselitz: I’ve painted, but I’ve also done graphics since as long as I can remember. So even people with little to spend could afford it. But even the graphic works are only bought by those who buy the big, expensive paintings. I think that’s troublesome.

SPIEGEL: Why do you say that again?

Baselitz: Because everything is drifting apart, and because everything is moving away from the ordinary public.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain the many visitors to museums?

Baselitz: The museums! They say that people are going there. I had two big exhibitions in Dresden, but no one went. There are plenty of tourists on the street in Dresden, but they’d rather go to the Green Vault (museum) or to see the Old Masters. Other contemporary artists have had the same experience. And look at music. Alfred Schnittke was an important contemporary composer, and he lived in Germany, but no one here has heard of him. Everyone has heard of Mozart, and many believe that he can still be found in that little house in Salzburg, which is why people stand there in line. I think that our music and our art belong to our era. If the public doesn’t show up, it must be stupid.

‘Talent Seduces Us into Interpretation’

SPIEGEL: Perhaps artists and composers have also distanced themselves from the public.Baselitz: Wrong. The public has distanced itself.

SPIEGEL: And yet artists themselves could be to blame. Writers participate in debates in entirely different ways. Durs Grünbein writes political essays, and Martin Walser has often gotten involved. Günter Grass wrote a poem about Israel. You don’t have to approve of (the poem), but everyone was talking about it.

Baselitz: Painters just don’t live to draw attention to themselves in that way. Walser sells his books because people go to his book-signings and readings, where they buy a copy for €20 and take it home with them. He has to sell thousands of books. We painters don’t need that. I’ve never been on a talk show. I used to say to (now-deceased German painter) Jörg Immendorff: “Don’t do it. It’ll just hurt you, and it’ll make you unhappy.” But he couldn’t leave well enough alone because he was an agitator by nature. Writers have to do it. TV is their medium for selling books.

SPIEGEL: Sometimes it’s just a question of speaking up. In your works, you certainly do grapple with the country you live in.

Baselitz: Exactly. But no one on the other side of society is interested in that. We’re called “painter princes,” but it’s meant derisively. All German painters have a neurosis with Germany’s past: war, the postwar period most of all, East Germany. I addressed all of this in a deep depression and under great pressure. My paintings are battles, if you will.

SPIEGEL: Do you prefer not to address current affairs?

Baselitz: At least not the way Günter Grass does. And that would be terrible. Instead of sitting down and writing another “Tin Drum,” he writes a poem about Greece.

SPIEGEL: You find this reference to the here and now embarrassing?

Baselitz: Extremely embarrassing. There are also painters who do this sort of thing, but we’re not going to name them.

SPIEGEL: Why do you have trouble treating culture here with indulgence?

Baselitz: I think Günter Grass is truly awful. So is Walser, and so is (Hans Magnus) Enzensberger. Just read the diary of Hans Werner Richter, the head of Group 47, to which they all belonged. Read what he says about these people, and it’ll make you feel very depressed. I also feel that way because, after all, they were our role models, our heroes. Your magazine was the voice of these people. And their contribution? Zero. Reading Walser is unbearable. I call him “the bubble of Lake Constance.”

SPIEGEL: Oh, come on.

Baselitz: It makes me furious. I’m disappointed with philosophy. I just saw an opera, a premiere by … what’s his name, our professor from Karlsruhe? The one with the hair?

SPIEGEL: Peter Sloterdijk.

Baselitz: He wrote the libretto for “Babylon.” My God, is it awful.

SPIEGEL: Do you also pay attention to what your fellow painters are doing?

Baselitz: I live a secluded life. I live, in a sense, a lonely life. But I do pay very close attention.

SPIEGEL: The art-selling business has gone crazy. The gallerists who sell your works — including Larry Gagosian, the world’s most successful gallerist — must be constantly asking you for more paintings. Is this a dilemma for someone like you, who demands quality and depth?

Baselitz: No. It’s not a dilemma, and why should it be? It’s really an ambition. I want to be part of it, to be young and belong. That has always been what I wanted.

SPIEGEL: But Richter tops the list of the most expensive living artists. Do you like him?

Baselitz: I’m always happy to listen to someone from (the eastern German state of) Saxony. Most Saxony natives are offended when you address them in the Saxon dialect. Gerhard never is.

SPIEGEL: Aha.

Baselitz: Don’t forget that, as an artist, I have been a risk-taker. And I’ve done a lot of different things. I don’t make it easy for people. Identification is difficult. One doesn’t recognize my art right away.

SPIEGEL: Turning motifs upside down, as you do it, is a unique characteristic.

Baselitz: Actually, no one who looks at my paintings can see whether a painting is upside down or not anymore. I’ve made or developed so many image models that some people have given up trying to keep track of me. But others have only one or two ways of doing things and are successful with that.

SPIEGEL: It’s been said that you have painted all-black paintings or even painted over existing paintings with black paint. What is the point of that?

Baselitz: I don’t paint over my paintings with black paint. I paint black paintings. It isn’t because I’m sad, just as I didn’t paint red paintings yesterday because I was happy. Nor will I paint yellow paintings tomorrow because I’m jealous.

SPIEGEL: There are a lot of lone wolves in your generation. But there’s apparently enough room and money for you, Richter and Anselm Kiefer.

Baselitz: There are surprisingly many lone wolves, and they all run across the finish line as winners. Of course, when we got started, they were saying that panel painting was dead. But then came people like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, as well as Richter, Kiefer and me. When I painted my first painting, still right-side-up, my teacher told me that it was an anachronism. I had to look up the word. Then I said: No, no, I’m an avant-gardist. What I do is quite aggressive and quite mean-spirited.

‘Women Simply Don’t Pass the Test’

SPIEGEL: You started painting in East Germany, but you left early and continued to study in the West. Nowadays, the art market largely ignores the artistic legacy of East Germany, including the painters who received all the attention and promotion, the ones you referred to as “assholes” after German reunification. Is it delayed justice?Baselitz: As always, the market is right.

SPIEGEL: Always? The market only embraces a few women. There are hardly any women among the most expensive artists.

Baselitz: Oh God! Women simply don’t pass the test.

SPIEGEL: What test?

Baselitz: The market test, the value test.

SPIEGEL: What’s that supposed to mean?

Baselitz: Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. There are, of course, exceptions. Agnes Martin or, from the past, Paula Modersohn-Becker. I feel happy whenever I see one of her paintings. But she is no Picasso, no Modigliani and no Gauguin.

SPIEGEL: So women supposedly don’t paint very well.

Baselitz: Not supposedly. And that despite the fact that they still constitute the majority of students in the art academies.

SPIEGEL: It probably isn’t a genetic defect.

Baselitz: I think the defect actually lies with male artists. Male artists often border on idiocy, while it’s important for a woman not to be that way, if possible. Women are outstanding in science, just as good as men.

SPIEGEL: Women certainly aren’t as loud and obtrusive when it comes to how they present themselves. With its desire for the sensational, the market isn’t very forgiving of that.

Baselitz: Don’t you know who Marina Abramovic is?

SPIEGEL: She doesn’t paint, but she’s an important performance artist, someone who shows that a woman can come a long way.

Baselitz: She has talent, as do many women. But a painter doesn’t need any of that. In fact, it’s better not to have it.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying it’s better to not be talented?

Baselitz: Yes, much better.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Baselitz: Talent seduces us into interpretation. My sister could draw wonderfully, but she would never have hit upon the idea of becoming a painter. I never had that extreme talent.

SPIEGEL: For centuries, art was a craft, an almost physical labor that was performed by men. Men were also the first art historians. Everything was male, and it’s simply stayed that way.

Baselitz: That has little to do with history. As I said, there are certainly some female artists: Helen Frankenthaler, Cecily Brown and Rosemarie Trockel.

SPIEGEL: The latter is German, and she currently has a big show in New York. She is also well-regarded worldwide.

Baselitz: There’s a lot of love in her art, a lot of sympathy.

SPIEGEL: That doesn’t sound like praise. So what does she lack, and what does Modersohn-Becker lack, to make you not rank the two of them among the great artists?

Baselitz: Let me qualify that. There is, of course, quite a lot of brutality in art. Not brutality against others, but brutality against the thing itself, against what already exists. When Modersohn-Becker painted herself, she looked very unpleasant, and extremely ugly…

SPIEGEL: …and nude, at a time, around 1900, when it was completely taboo for women to portray themselves in that way.

Baselitz: Exactly. But she hesitated to destroy others, in other words, to really destroy Gauguin by going beyond his art. Men have no problem with that. They just do it. But you must know that I do love women.

SPIEGEL: Of course.

Baselitz: Yes, I’m constantly in love — with my own wife.

SPIEGEL: Does Jeff Koons — another expensive contemporary artist — have the necessary brutality? He supplies the world with sculptures of tulips and hearts.

Baselitz: The most unpleasant works of Jeff Koons that I’ve seen are those fuck paintings with Cicciolina. Just the fact that he made those paintings while at the same time talking about love and fathering a child … I think it’s dreadful.

SPIEGEL: So Koon’s early art did have that brutality you demand.

Baselitz: I don’t demand it. I just know that it has to be that way.

SPIEGEL: So, it has to be that way if you want to be a big artist?

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Published 10/06/2007

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

Georg Baselitz

Royal Academy of Arts, London
22 September–9 December 2007

Georg Baselitz is a powerful and rebellious painter who admits to being a painter of ‘bad pictures’. He has refused to fit into mainstream art since bursting onto the art scene in the 1960s, yet he has become universally admired. His overbearing preoccupation is Germany’s ugly wartime legacy. Baselitz is celebrated in a major retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, this autumn. Featuring over 60 paintings together with a significant number of drawings, prints and sculptures, the exhibition offers a comprehensive survey of Baselitz’s most important work. In 1981, Baselitz was included in the seminal exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘A New Spirit of Painting’. This introduced his work to the British public; he is an Honorary Royal Academician.

Baselitz was influenced in his early years by the artistic works and writings of influential artists and theorists such as Kandinsky, Malevich, Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett and the French writer and artist Antonin Artaud. Baselitz later became involved with the work of the mentally ill and other outsider artists. He is a collector of African art and influenced by French and Italian Mannerist painting. Printmaking in the German tradition has also played an important role.

When the Allied Forces bombed Dresden in 1945, the young Georg Baselitz witnessed the horrors. One can be forgiven for having a love/hate relationship with the work of one of Germany’s most uncompromising artists, whose self-advertisement and self-aggrandisement exist in parallel with poignant, albeit extraordinarily ugly, images. Every work in Baselitz’s show refers to war, whether it is the black mood, fractured presence or specific references. Waldemar Januszczak finds it hilarious.

Baselitz is as compelling a painter as he is because the ultimate absurdity of war seems never to escape his attention. Even his most notorious painterly act – the ridiculous policy of painting everything upside down – strikes you as perfectly reasonable when compared with Germany entrusting the nation’s destiny to the Führer.1

He considers that Baselitz tackles the overwhelming problem of being German and being loathed, ‘with a fabulous combination of urgency and insolence’. Known as the artist who turned painting upside down at the end of the sixties, literally, he irritatingly has not put it right since. He appears to work in the eye of the storm freed of the spell of artistic icons, and yet he continues to work in traditional media: painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. He has taken risks to the point of recklessness, yet still chooses still life, portraiture and landscape. His are ‘unequivocal declarations of an attitude’, rather than ‘examples or components of a style’.2

In 1963 at his first solo exhibition in Berlin, two of his paintings were seized by public prosecutors on the grounds of obscenity. In 1969, he began to paint his figures upside down. In 1980, he shared the Nazi-era German pavilion at the Venice Biennale with Anselm Kiefer. The sculpture he showed there was crudely modelled, block-like and primitive in style, and it appeared to be making a fascist salute. It caused an outrage. Although the human figure is central to his oeuvre, he never uses a life model. The twisted, distorted, fractured human forms from the 1960s onwards are as shocking in their perception of humanity as those of his forebear in the northern tradition, Hieronymus Bosch. Baselitz, however, endows his work with elements of the absurd.

Georg Baselitz was born in 1938, the son of a primary teacher, in the small village of Grossbaselitz in Saxony, which later became East Germany. His name was Hans-Georg Kern, which he changed to Georg Baselitz when he left East Berlin in 1957. When he was seven, the town of Dresden just 30 km away was heavily bombed by the Allied Forces. The small school where Baselitz attended was also bombed, in spite of having the Red Cross flag on it. The children experienced the horror, huddled in a bomb shelter. The girl who later became his wife was from Dresden. They claim to have talked about the bombing every day since. The tragedy and horror of the Second World War and the aftermath under a Communist regime have obsessed Baselitz ever since. It forms the core of his experience and his art. David Sylvester describes his career as like no other European painter in that his creativeness has been sustained decade after decade.

The outstanding importance of his role seems to me to reside in two attributes, both of them rare. One of them – rare only in our time – is that his work seems free of any theoretical or polemical foundation or justification. It is a delight to wonder and to behold; it is not a notable stimulus for verbal investigation. The other quality – and here is probably unique – is that he is an artist who uses a harsh Germanic iconography (the hunter, the dog, the woman with a whip, the bird of prey) to produce paintings whose succulent, tactile surfaces seem the prerogative of French paintings.3

The work of Baselitz nonetheless presents images of a world possessed, a dreadful fracturing of human values, the collapse of civilisation itself. He distorts the human form itself and in doing so, creates works that are physically disgusting. The paint itself is applied as excrement, pushed and shoved around the canvas with apparent contempt. The contempt is in Baselitz’s scheme of things, disdain for the world, a comment on human nature itself, a searing comment on war and the state of the world: whether it be Vietnam or Iraq, nothing has changed.

What Baselitz could not escape was Germany and being German. Januszczak continues:

Baselitz’s Heroes are said to evoke Germany’s battered spirit in the post-war years. Their shirts are ripped. Their flies are open. Their bits are dangling. It has also been suggested that these are self-portraits, particularly the image of a one-legged soldier holding a palette and brush that is actually called Blocked Painter. But what I like most about these clumsy losers is their air of comic meladrama… If Baselitz is looking back on his pitiful national inheritance, then he is doing so with an explosive mixture of sadness and scorn.4

Thrown out of his first art school in East Berlin in 1956 on the grounds of ‘political immaturity’, Baselitz moved to West Berlin prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall. There he saw ‘The New American Painting’, which had a profound impact. In fact, he still refers to the experience of first seeing Phillip Guston and Jackson Pollock. Baselitz instinctively understood the observation made by de Kooning of Pollock, that Pollock had broken the ice. Pollock indeed shattered pictorial space. Guston was represented in ‘The New American Painting’, by works from the mid and late 1950s. They were neither abstract nor figurative, they were elusive and the discernable images fluctuated in focus and dissolution. In this Baselitz was greatly affected. He eventually rejected abstraction as such, but like many American artists was influenced by jazz music, the disruption of underlying rhythm, the dislocation of melody. Baselitz’s work has an affinity with jazz in the sense that many harmonies, sidetracks and levels of meaning all contribute to an art that can be experienced on different levels. Baselitz’s paintings of the late 1950s share much in their structure and woven surfaces, their energy, with Guston and de Kooning especially. He was not impressed nor taken in by the iconic simplicity of Pop Art and he rejected both the Social Realism of the Communist regime in East Germany and the universal purity of abstraction. In doing so, Baselitz became an outsider on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He had an irreverent sense of humour, and was more interested in the art of the insane than of modernist Europeans. He was drawn to the grotesque works of Grünewald’s ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’, Chaim Soutine’s fleshy distortions and Gericault’s studies of hands and feet. Baselitz also depicted feet – ugly, distorted images; he described his position at the time as ‘anti-classical’.

The Northern tradition of the ugly and grotesque drew Baselitz naturally. His first exhibition was described as ‘obscene’, ‘pornographic’, ‘revolting’. The titles themselves were provocative: ‘Sex with Dumplings’ (1963) where paint and bodily fluids were shown as interconnected. The painting ‘The Big Night Down the Drain’ shows the artist masturbating in an isolated dark space. The male ego is exposed by Baselitz as a pathetic, solipsistic performance, in which he masquerades as painting itself, the very medium that through history has been perfected to emulate human beauty and perfection. Norman Rosenthal, who organised the Baselitz exhibition, says that:

Exposure of the body and its more embarrassing functions has never been a problem for Baselitz, and this highly charged self-portrait about masturbation has a sense of tragic inevitability. The artist was not making a scandal for its own sake, but, rather, confronting postwar Germany – which he had found too ready to hide behind bland abstraction, too keen to avoid societal and psychological issues – with his own reality.5

Baselitz uses oil paint as if it were shit, and it did not do him much good in the process. Melancholia and illness characterised his personal experience.

Baselitz made images of the hero/soldier which inevitably created loathing in many viewers.

While it is not hard to see these images as referring to Germany’s desperate condition following the war – hulking single figures rise over their defunct landscapes like survivors of a great cataclysm – they could also be seen as surrogate self-portraits, reflecting Baselitz’s self-mocking ambition to reenergize German painting. These heroes, who carry palettes, a symbol of creative freedom and forward-looking energy, find their hands immobilised in animal traps. The ruined landscape could speak of war or the aesthetic debris left in the wake of the stylist onslaught of second – and third-generation abstraction. The Hero paintings posit the contention that if the twentieth century began with elimination of the figure through abstraction, it would end with the re-emergence, but that re-emergence would require anti-heroes who follow unpredictable paths.6

Baselitz’s hulking great figures have massive bodies, small heads and large hands. Michael Auping states that, ‘Baselitz’s further contortion of these characteristics creates an artist protagonist that is as deranged and bold as he is voluptuously pathetic. Contructed from rich accumulations of thick brushstrokes, he presents a tragic-comic Beckett-like character waiting for the painter’s next move’.7

The ‘Fracture’ paintings of the late 1960s reveal Baselitz’s keen interest in forests and trees and the motifs and imagery that have historically been associated with them. In fact, Baselitz considered a career in forestry and had applied to the state forestry school in Taranth. Rural landscapes peoples with woodsmen and hunters are depicted with an earth palette. They are part fantasy and part appropriation; they are divided into segments so that the imagery can be reorganised pictorially. Dividing the picture plane into segments conveyed the fracturing of Germany by the war. Pre-war and post-war Germany and East Germany and West Germany represented the divided national psyche. Fracture paintings represent the violent ruptures and break from historical continuity; they reveal the distress and destruction of Germany’s history. The next move was to turn the image on its head. The first completely inverted picture was ‘Wermsdorf Wood’, based on a painting by the von Rayski work of 1859. The loosely rendered image of the wood was seized on by critics as having political connotations – upside-down trees were seen to represent a country that had been culturally uprooted. The Nazi ban on ‘degenerate’ modernist art indeed created a rupture in German art history, in Baselitz’s words ‘a severing of memory’ from a figurative tradition. What followed was dislocating, ‘It was like one day waking up and abstraction had become the authority’.8 Inversion enabled Baselitz to bridge the gulf between the figurative tradition, stopped in its tracks by the Nazis and abstraction that came to dominate art by the 1950s. Baselitz describes his method:

The object expresses nothing at all. Painting is not a means to an end. On the contrary, painting is autonomous. And I said to myself: if this is the case, then I must take everything which has been an object of painting – landscape, the portrait, and the nude, for example – and paint it upside-down. That is the best way to liberate representation from content.

The hierarchy which has located the sky at the top and the earth at the bottom is, in any case, only a convention. We have got used to it, but we don’t have to believe in it. The only thing that interests me is the question of how I can carry on painting pictures.9

Portraiture is central to Baselitz’s oeuvre; he has been making portraits of family and friends since the late 1960s. Elke, his wife of thirty years, is often the subject; she claims this is largely due to her availability and the fact that they have always lived very closely. On one hand then, there is the pictorial calculation required to construct and execute an inverted portrait, and then there is the inevitable emotional content, as a consequence of the long-term close relationship, of sitter and artist. Conflicted feelings seem to characterise the majority of Baselitz’s work – nothing is as straightforward as the artist’s comments about them. Auping observes:

His portraits are about the fact that experience itself is not a pure process, revealing a narrative of distinct and logical episodes. The picture may be upside down, and references to the visible world may or may not be present in a specific picture, but that does not make such a picture any more or less faithful to its subject. There are moments in life when feelings exceed perceptions, when the world inside takes precedence over the world outside; every moment in every life is a confrontation, a meeting of inner and outer, an encounter between self and the thing observed or felt. What makes Baselitz’s inverted imagery so intriguing is the way in which it resists simplification and has the weird naturalness and ungraspability of experience itself.10

Baselitz’s portraits one at a time are disconcerting; en masse they assume a different level of existence. They are powerful and remarkable. The issue of portraiture in the post-photographic world was given profound impetus by Picasso almost 100 years ago. Any portrait since Picasso inevitably addresses the psychology of the sitter and the relationship between artist and sitter. It is important to be aware that Baselitz does not paint a work, and then turn it upside down. He holds the photograph of his sitter in one hand and paints with the other. If an inverted portrait is put the right way up, they simply do not work. Gerhard Richter understood Baselitz’s method when he observed that, ‘Nonsense has been written about Baselitz: by being turned through 180 degrees, his figures are said to lose their objective nature and become “pure painting”. The opposite is true: there is an added stress on the objectivity, which takes on a new substance’.11

Arguably, the most remarkable of Baselitz’s portraits are those of Elke in linocut. Baselitz found the traditionally low status of linocut attractive, as had Picasso and Matisse. The energy that can be achieved in linocuts is achieved by its direct and uncompromising method. The actual cutting and scooping of the lines, and the clear contrasts achieved when it has been inked and printed is both exciting and satisfying. So too are the methods of execution of Baselitz’s sculptures, which he began to make in the 1970s. His preferred carving tool is the chainsaw – primitive, energetic and roughly hewn. David Sylvester observes that unlike Baselitz’s paintings, his sculpture was always wholly Teutonic. ‘They are magnificent frames, rough-cast yet subtle, energetic, robust and moody. He has used these weighty, brooding forms to contain and offset some of the most tenuous and fragile looking canvases he has ever painted, creating a perfect integration of sculpture and painting, the coarse and the delicate, the massive and the vulnerable.’12

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Baselitz increased the scale of his work, making his imagery bolder. Although numerous of Baselitz’s images are overwhelmingly egotistical and male, he produced a remarkable image of Elke in 1994, ‘No Birds (Picture Twenty-Eight)’, in which she dwarfs the surrounding landscape, indeed becomes the landscape itself. Painted with hands rather than brushes, the figure is sculpted in paint; the figure is mother earth, a matriarch, an earth figure who floats across the vast canvas (290 x 450 cm). Flowers that have a myriad of associations are introduced by Baselitz as a kitsch wallpaper, a folk art addition to an already valid image. Teetering between the acceptable and artistic suicide, Baselitz teases his viewers, as only a self-styled loner-cum-self-publicist would. Baselitz is maddening in his audacity as an artist and as an individual. He is incredibly difficult to explain, and while there is very great support for his work in Germany and internationally, he has not inspired an actual following. He is a loner in all respects. In the 1990s his work became more accessible, with the introduction of more lyrical drawn lines in paint, with decorative elements of flowers, and a richer palette. The individuals look more plausible, less mythological, friendlier and more ethereal too. Baselitz is many things at any given time in his career.

Drawing is central to the painting of Baselitz and in certain respects his vast sculptures too. The linocuts especially show the powerful immediacy of the drawn line, and many paintings, especially recent works, resemble amplified versions of small works on paper. Baselitz describes drawing as encouraging an exceptionally ‘… fluid type of space … [where] you can break any kind of order or convention, quickly and precisely’. Recent works resemble vast pen and ink drawings amplified onto canvas.

The curator of this exhibition is Norman Rosenthal, who has long championed the work of Baselitz. It seems a little too apologetic to write the catalogue essay for a major retrospective at the Royal Academy ‘Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter’, but that in fact was based on the title of the artist’s own manifesto in 1966, ‘Why the Painting “The Great Friends” is a Good Picture!’

Standing within the long tradition of German art, and using time-honoured media, Baselitz has striven constantly to confront the realities of history and art history, to make them new and fresh in a manner that can only be described as heroic; heroic because his art has consciously gone against the grain of fashion, while always remaining modern. For Baselitz, the artist must be always an outsider, a worker and also, in a certain sense, a prince. Although he is rooted in a German – specifically Saxon – background, Baselitz has succeeded in engaging with art from all around the world. Through both learning and empathy he is able to bring to life traditions quite alien to his experience. He can be read as a highly conservative figure within modern art, but this makes him no less radical, even provocative.13

The Royal Academy exhibition of Georg Baselitz is a most successful one in terms of the hang, wall text and scholarship. The most dramatic galleries are where the ‘45 series’ and ‘Women of Dresden’ were displayed. The ‘45 series’ is a sequence of twenty paintings on wooden panels of equal dimensions. They are powerful images en masse, all produced over a four-month period. The physical feat is most impressive: the wooden panels are incised like wood engraving blocks, or etching plates, but the scale involves an aggressive and rebellious act. Oil and tempera have been applied to the surface, which is then chiselled, in a dynamic manner, not unlike the way Baselitz sculpts with a chainsaw. The geometric carving of the wooden panels reveals the raw untreated wood beneath the paint. The wood is lacerated, like torn flesh; further images are applied in a crude series of splodges, which allude to images of women. The series was made in 1989 to mark the 45th anniversary of the end of the war. As a series, they reveal Baselitz’s aesthetic concerns that were abandoned in many works. ‘Women of Dresden’ (most of the men were at the front when the city was bombed) is a homage to the suffering of women and children in the war, but without any of the profound compassion of Kathe Kollwitz. The crude sculptures resonate with references – from the Expressionist work of the Die Brücke, to the German tradition of wood engraving. They are layered with references to history and art history; they are angry but not moving. Rosenthal has succeeded in presenting a tough body of work, inexplicable in the first instance, in a convincing and enlightened manner.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1 Waldemar Januszczak. Turning the art world on its head. The Sunday Times 23 September 2007. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/ tol/arts_and_entertainment/ visual_arts/article2499962.ece (last accessed 3 october 2007)

2 Andreas Franzke. Georg Baselitz. Munich: Prestel, 1989: 7.

3 David Sylvester. Paintings in Carvings. In: Georg Baselitz: outside. London: Gagosian Gallery 2000: 13.

4 Januszczak. Op cit: 18.

5 Norman Rosenthal. Why the Painter Georg Baselitz is a Good Painter. In: Georg Baselitz. London: Royal Academy, 2007: 3.

6 Michael Auping. Detlev Gretenkort (ed). Georg Baselitz: Paintings, 1962–2001. Milan: Alberico Cetti Serbelloni Editore, 2002: 16–18.

7 Ibid: 18.

8 Ibid: 20.

9 Ibid: 20.

10 Ibid: 22.

11 Ibid: 22.

12 Sylvester, op cit: 13.

13 Rosenthal, op cit: 1.

Baselitz: Who wants to be a small artist?

SPIEGEL: You simply wanted to be different from others yourself.

Baselitz: I was always on the outside. It was the worst when I still wanted to be a professor, having to deal with colleagues and students, and having to listen to all that academic nonsense. It’s really just a haze that keeps them busy. But all of that is fortunately over now, once and for all. Everything ended happily.

SPIEGEL: Wait! Georg Baselitz is happy?

Baselitz: Absolutely! Completely! It’s fantastic! I can even be happy about my own paintings.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Baselitz, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Susanne Beyer and Ulrike Knoefel; translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Georg Baselitz

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen



T his spring Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac hosted the opening of the exhibition of the new works by Georg Baselitz. The show includes a series of Baselitz new monumental sculptures, paintings and a number of works on paper.
Mart Engelen: When you started as a young artist,
do you remember the first thing that inspired you?
Georg Baselitz: My first inspiration was not as a
professional, because I was very young. I remember
that I saw an artist painting an oak tree in the countryside.
He was an unknown artist and the oak tree
looked so explosive! It was painted in the method
of ‘Die Neue Sachlichkeit’. I was only 13 or 14 and
thought: “What is this?”
ME: When you later entered the Academy of Art,
what did you specifically like?
GB: At the time in Germany it was a total different
situation than for instance in Amsterdam or Paris.
Just after the Second World War it was very difficult
for us. Germany was destroyed. There was no
hierarchy. There were no people you could believe
in, everything had been taken away also education
wise. I did not know who Kirchner was or Paul
Klee. I didn’t know anything. All of that changed in
1958. When I was twenty there was for the first time
at the Art Academy a big exhibition about American
Expressionism with Jackson Pollock and many
more contemporary artists.
It was so impressive, wonderful, but also astonishing
that you did not have a chance as a young artist
to create modern art. Because, for instance, De
Kooning was more understandable for the Europeans
than Pollock also Sam Francis. I thought: “this
is so great and surprising!”
I had a total different idea about America , so I said
to myself: “you have to do something totally different.
You cannot follow this. It was another time, another
world, another quality.” And then we heard
that there was an important museum in Amsterdam,
an important director and we heard about the COBRA
group.
So, many hitchhiked to Amsterdam. The first trip
I made together with my wife was to Amsterdam.
That was in 1958 or 1959 and we stayed in a little
hotel in the Red Light District for 5 Dutch guilders
a day. Separate. So we visited the Stedelijk Museum
but did not know anything about modernity,
Bauhaus and so on. I saw for the first time work of
Marcel Duchamp, Picasso and Malevich. For us
German artists Holland was actually the beginning
of our German career. Many of my colleagues had
exhibitions in the beginning of their careers at the
Stedelijk Museum of Eindhoven. After that followed
Amsterdam, France and the United States.
The Stedelijk Museum in Eindhoven had at that
time a very active director named Rudi Fuchs.
ME: What does Art mean to you these days?
GB: Well, it has changed a lot. Before, Art was determined
by certain doctrines, also styles. To give you
an example. When I started out, they said: “The image
of a table (“tafelbild”) is dead. You cannot paint
that anymore”. Then we have had the photographers,
after that the conceptualists, minimalists and
so on. Now nobody talks about that anymore. For
me, who always believed in this métier, I must say it
is an interesting development. Now you have a much
bigger audience. In the old days people were not interested
in Art. It was a small elite who were interested
in Art and who visited exhibitions. The group
who bought Art was even smaller. Nowadays there
is a big interest. You have many visitors of contemporary
Art shows. There are many collectors. It has
totally changed. By the way, the name of the Hotel in
Amsterdam was Elen.
ME: Never heard of it.
ME: You once said: “you cannot deny your origins”.
When we look at young artists today, I am tempted
to say that they are loosing their origins because of
globalization. What do you think about that?
GB: I don’t know, I cannot judge that. They always
ask me why are German artists so interesting? Well,
they all shared the same history: the Second World
War. And many were born in the DDR and lived
there. They also shared the feeling of being despised
by the whole world. That altogether appears to be a
good base to create Art.
We cannot say this of today’s new generation artists.
But some things will never change. Today we still
have German Art, American Art, Dutch Art. Even
when a German artist today will make pop-art, people
will see that it is made by a German, just like people
will recognize work that is made by an Italian or
a French artist.
ME: So there is still origin?
GB: Yes. I don’t know what it exactly is but I assume
a combination of roots and tradition.
ME: Your generation artists could find provocation
and inspiration through the Second World War.
How do today’s artists inspire themselves?
GB: I think they orientate in Art towards Art. When
you are an artist you have an incredible ambition.
What you believe is right, you have to pursue it. This
process is connected all the time with a lot of discipline
and aggression. They have to defend their Art,
so you have to be a provocateur. Otherwise it does
not work.
ME: When you want to become a great artist should
you then also play the role of ‘the great artist’?
GB: There are many ways. You can say the artist is
ill, that’s why he produces only one artwork a year.
Or, this artist is so introverted and precise he can only
produce one work a year. They say a lot of things
about artists just to manipulate the market and it is
seems all legitimate, but it is wrong of course. You
know there is a book about Rembrandt that explains
to us the entrepreneur Rembrandt. He totally manipulated
his own market. And today this happens
even more so.
ME: How can artists become good artists?
GB: First of all they need of course passion. They
have to own a sensitivity towards images more than
normal people. They have to suppress the feeling that
they just can
“do it like that”, because Art has nothing to do with
interpretation. With music, when you are talented,
you can play wonderfully a part of Chopin without
losing yourself.
In art that is impossible. You cannot paint like de
Kooning then you are not an artist. You are an interpreter.
We don’t need this in Art. That’s why a lot of
Art, what we see these days, is so diffuse. And you
think: “Why?”
ME: Do you collect Art yourself?
GB: Yes, I collect Art between 1500 and 1600. Specially
Parmigianino and his contemporaries. Apart
from that I also collect African Art, especially from
Congo.

 

Parker Ito: Interviews and Articles

 

==

 PARIS-LA MAGAZINE

EXHIBITION: PARKER ITO AT CHATEAU SHATTO

Parker Ito’s show at Chateau Shatto, A Little Taste of Cheeto in the Night, is a fully-immersive, claustrophobic, phantasmagoric experience. The artist transformed a vast, multi-roomed warehouse behind the gallery with architectural interventions, punching holes in the walls and ceiling. Double-sided paintings hang from silvery chains and LED light strands, and the floors are haphazardly carpeted in astro-turf and red plush. Custom-made slippers, screen-printed buckets, ceramic figurines and action figures litter the space, sometimes in precise constructions, and at other times lying about in wait for a crushing step. Photos simply don’t do the show justice; go and see it for yourself before it closes on April 26.

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Parker Ito

Sarah Nicole Prickett
Sebastian Kim

Parker Ito, Parker Cheeto, Olivia Calix, Deke McClelland Two, Julia Rob3rts, and Painter_John99@yahoo.com are all, as far as Los Angeles-based artist Parker Ito is concerned, real names used to make real art. Now known almost exclusively as Parker Ito, the 28-year-old artist is currently working on a series of shows that, collectively, he sees as the second exhibition in a Parker Cheeto trilogy. (The first, “Parker Cheeto: The Net Artist [America Online Made Me Hardcore],” took place at IMO gallery in Copenhagen last year.) He’s also planning an exhibit of his 101 “Parked Domain Girl” paintings (oil canvases based on a stock image of a smiling blond with a backpack); a show of sculptures about computer printers; and a “multichannel installation.” He doesn’t sleep very much, or very well. He doesn’t read. He hates discussing his work. If we hadn’t met in the flesh to do exactly that, I wouldn’t have even been sure that it was Ito speaking—he’s often had friends or assistants conduct interviews over e-mail on his behalf.

In September 2012, Ito had his commercial breakthrough show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” at Stadium gallery in New York. The room glinted and flashed with all-surface objects, unbelievable from every angle. Photographing them was a little like Insta-gramming the moon—impossible, but you couldn’t stop wanting to try. I wanted to buy one. This past February, The Agony and the Ecstasy (2012), a wall covering made from vinyl, enamel, and 3M Scotchlite fabric, sold at Sotheby’s for more than $94,000. Suddenly, a Parker Ito fingernail was out of my price range. Critic Jerry Saltz called him a mediocrity.

It should be easy enough to locate Ito’s work in a “post-internet” bubble and leave it there, but once you start looking, you quickly see he’s not too good for that, but too much. Cosmophagy, the word Susan Sontag used to describe “the devouring of the world by consciousness,” comes to mind. His oeuvre is compulsive, insatiable. No starving artist, Ito seems rather more bulimic, as if there’s no bad-for-you image or medium he won’t eventually chew up and spit back out. When I find out he’s a supertaster (meaning he experiences the sense of taste far more intensely than most), the metaphor is complete: Ito explains that the condition makes him unable to eat anything too complex or refined, and that, like his friend Harmony Korine and his idol Jeff Koons, he prefers the salty, bland, overly processed, borderline trashy and “fake.” I met up with him for a few hours in April when he was in New York, and we ate sushi.

PARKER ITO: Is there a Google search result for your hair? I searched your name and hair came up as a suggested thing.

SARAH NICOLE PRICKETT: Probably. I’ve had a lot of different hairstyles. You seem like someone who Googles everyone you meet.

ITO: Yeah, I do.

PRICKETT: What year did you first get a computer? People have different ages, I think. You have your biological age, the age on your birth certificate, and then you have a sexual age, and then a digital age. Maybe you have an emotional age.

ITO: Well, my taste buds are like a 7-year-old’s. [laughs] I remember the internet being a thing, and not having it at my house, and then getting AOL dial-up, and having my parents put a porn filter on the computer. But I can’t remember much in general. My memory’s gotten really bad lately.

PRICKETT: Short term or long term?

ITO: Both. I’m pretty good at remembering what I have to do, though.

PRICKETT: How many things do you have to do every day?

ITO: I don’t know, 10? I don’t write anything down.

PRICKETT: So, you have the memory of a really good waitress.

ITO: Maybe. And I’m good at remembering my ideas, or at least I think I am. I don’t keep a sketchbook.

PRICKETT: Do you remember your dreams?

ITO: When I used to take prescription drugs, I had really vivid dreams and I could remember them. But now I never do.

PRICKETT: What did you take drugs for?

ITO: I have agoraphobia, and it got really severe last year. Do you have it?

PRICKETT: No, I don’t, but I think agoraphobia seems like a perfectly sane response to the absolute disgustingness of the world at times.

ITO: I see the world as a pretty positive place. With agoraphobia, I’m only in fear of fear. Like, I’m afraid of having a panic attack, and panic attacks usually happen in public places, so I’m afraid of public places. I had a panic attack on an airplane last year. They were about to take off, and I was like, “I need to get the fuck off the plane, I’m having a panic—” And they were like, “Oh my God, do you need a stretcher?” And I was like, “No, just let me off the fucking plane.” After that I went on Xanax. A lot of Xanax. I was also on an antidepressant and a mood stabilizer. I was a fucking zombie. It was a really dark time in my life.

PRICKETT: Were you making art?

ITO: That was the only thing I could do. The only time I felt normal was when I was making stuff.

PRICKETT: Did it change the art you made in any perceivable way?

I‘M INTERESTED IN MAKING WORK THAT MIMICS THE MECHANISM OFTHE INTERNET …I’M TRYING TO MAKE SOMETHING SO COMPLICATEDTHAT IT CAN’T BE UNDERSTOOD, SO TOTAL THAT YOU CAN NEVER ZOOM ALL THE WAY OUT.  —Parker Ito

ITO: No, I don’t think so. Well, that was right around the time that my assistants started becoming very heavily involved, because I had left California to get away from my family. [laughs] I grew up in Orange County, and my family lives in Long Beach, and at the time, I was living with my dad. My parents were—are—going through a divorce, and I was right in the middle of everything. I flipped out, and I came to New York to live here for a month. It was the worst place to fucking go, but I was under the impression that being around my family was what was stressing me out, so I came here, and then I called and e-mailed my assistants and had them work remotely for a month. In May I flew back to Los Angeles for a show, and I hadn’t even seen the work; I hadn’t touched it. I just showed up for the opening, and there were 20 paintings that I had made.

PRICKETT: How many assistants do you have?

ITO: About five. I have a very different relationship with my assistants than most artists. Most artists say, “My assistants made this, but the ideas are all mine.” But sometimes my assistants come up with ideas for stuff to make, and I just say, “Okay, we’ll make it.”

PRICKETT: If your assistants make something for you, are their names on it?

ITO: Well, I don’t sign my work, so nobody would sign anything.

PRICKETT: Are they well-paid?

ITO: Twenty-five dollars an hour.

PRICKETT: That’s good. Do you remember that New York Times Magazine piece written by an assistant for Jeff Koons who made the Cracked Egg painting and got paid 14 dollars an hour?

ITO: Whoa. That’s shitty.

PRICKETT: I’m shocked that none of your assistants ask you for a percentage of sales. But I think I just don’t know how the world works.

ITO: My assistants like making things, but they don’t want to put up with all the bullshit of being an artist. And I try to be a really cool boss. For my two main assistants, who have been with me longer than anyone else, I bought monogrammed velvet slippers. I bought them the Jackson Pollock Crocs. I’m getting berets made for them, and they have sweatsuits printed with some paintings we did.

PRICKETT: Were you ever someone’s assistant?

ITO: No, I’d be a fucking horrible assistant. I can’t really do anything. [laughs]

PRICKETT: Were you a good student?

ITO: In art school, yes, I was a very good student. In high school, no. And before art school, at this junior college in Orange County, I was kicked out. I was put on academic probation because I failed this math class twice. I just never showed up.

PRICKETT: I bet everyone thinks they know what your adolescence was like because they watched The O.C. growing up.

ITO: Oh, yeah. But I watched Degrassi [The Next Generation].

PRICKETT: So you were an original fan of Drake?

ITO: Yeah. Jimmy.

PRICKETT: I saw that one of your shows was titled “Nothing Was the Same (John Boehner Ramesses III).” I’m Canadian, and I find it so funny, a famous rapper being from Canada. It’s incongruous. Drake is so drastically uncool. His record label, OVO, has a blogspot page.

ITO: I’m into that. My girlfriend is in Canada now.

PRICKETT: What’s her name?

ITO: Liv Barrett. She’s also my gallerist now. We live together in Hollywood. I don’t know what you know about Hollywood, but that’s where I live. So it’s all super-fucking-eccentric rich people with giant cowboy hats, and then bums shitting on trees.

PRICKETT: That’s amazing.

ITO: It’s a weird place.

PRICKETT: It is a weird place. L.A. is so heartless and disparate to me.

ITO: Yeah, there’s no center. I like living in L.A. a lot.

PRICKETT: You drive a car, I guess.

ITO: All the time. I drive a ’98 Honda Civic. It’s a piece of shit. I’ll go to an event with a collector and there’s valet parking, and they’re in a Rolls-Royce or something, and I’m behind them in a shitty Honda full of garbage.

PRICKETT: Do you remember the first time you thought you wanted to be an artist?

ITO: Yeah. [laughs]

PRICKETT: Was it when you were watching Degrassi?

ITO: It was a little before that. I was really into skateboarding for a long time. Then I realized that I probably wasn’t going to become a professional skateboarder. I’ve only wanted to have two jobs: a professional skateboarder and an artist. I’ve actually come back to skateboarding through art. I don’t know if you know who Rob Dyrdek is. He had a show called Rob & Big that was on MTV, and now he has a show called Ridiculousness, and he’s a pro skateboarder, and he’s collecting art now. He collects my work. Through Insta-gram, I became friends with Steve Berra, who runs the Berrics, the skate place and website. It’s one of the most influential things in skateboarding right now. And Steve said he wanted to give me a pro model, like a pro board.

PRICKETT: I guess if you have a pro board, you’re a pro skateboarder.

ITO: Technically, yeah. It’s like an honorary degree. But, yeah, I read a book on Basquiat when I was 18 or 19, and I decided I wanted to be an artist.

PRICKETT: You dress well. That’s a Basquiat thing. He wore, like, Commes des Garçons suits.

ITO: Yeah, yeah, and he painted in them.

PRICKETT: He painted in them?!

ITO: All I wanted my whole life was to buy whatever I wanted.

PRICKETT: Did you grow up with money?

ITO: Fuck, no. I’m from a super-middle-class family.

PRICKETT: Define middle class. What did your parents do?

ITO: My dad works for an oil company. My mom was a hairdresser, and now she does X-rays, mammograms, stuff like that. I worked in the oil fields before I became an artist. It’s a big paranoia of mine that people think I’m from money because I’m from Orange County. I spend a lot of money on clothes now, and I go to all these fucking parties for art.

PRICKETT: Well, and you’re successful, and it’s getting harder and harder to go to school and become a successful artist if you don’t have money to start with.

ITO: That’s the other thing. A lot of artists are just rich kids. But, no, I’m in a lot of debt from school. A lot of debt.

PRICKETT: How much?

ITO: Probably 60, 70 grand. I don’t really know, to be honest. When I was in school, I got them to give me a bunch of extra money so I could buy computer software, and then I downloaded all the software for free and used the money to go shopping online.

PRICKETT: What did you buy?

ITO: Just tons of clothes.

PRICKETT: The shirt you’re wearing now, the print has the Montreal Canadiens logo on it. Did you do that on purpose because I’m Canadian?

ITO: Oh, no. It’s vintage Nicole Miller from the ’90s. I collect shirts with all-over prints, and this one seems to be Canadian-themed. It would be funny if I did it on purpose.

PRICKETT: Do you collect any other things?

ITO: I have a lot of books, I guess.

PRICKETT: What kinds of books?

ITO: Art books, books with big pictures in them. I read comics a little bit. I like Dash Shaw and Paul Pope. In my work I use a lot of images from a comic Geof Darrow did with Frank Miller called Hard Boiled. There’s an image from it on my website.

PRICKETT: Who wrote the text on your website?

ITO: Glass Popcorn. He’s a rapper who lives in Tempe, Arizona. I think he’s 17, but he got popular on the internet when he was maybe 14. His favorite artists are me and Harmony Korine. That sounds weirdly egotistical.

PRICKETT: It’s not. I loved Spring Breakers [2012] more than anything, because it was all surfaces, and everything was reflective and refracted, and you could read that movie so many ways, and [Korine] wouldn’t argue with you about any of them. He’d never admit to having an opinion on his own work, although he did say it was the first real movie he’d made.

ITO: Harmony Korine is my good friend. He’s a real artist. My girlfriend and him had a conversation in Miami, and if I remember correctly—I was pretty fucked up at the time—he said he made Spring Breakers because he was interested in the way the light in Miami looked at particular times. It wasn’t about script or storytelling; it was about lighting.

PRICKETT: Lighting is everything. I won’t go to places with bad lighting. Partly it’s vanity, but it’s also that I seek certain times of the light. Sometimes in my apartment, at sunset, the whole window will burn orange, and it’s just my favorite—it’s ecstasy. So I think that’s a perfect reason to make a film. What do you feel is your primary reason to make art?

ITO: That I want to make this shit. I want to see this thing made. The work I’m making now is a continuation of my earlier work, which includes art I made under different names, art I made in collaboration with Body by Body [a collaboration between artists Cameron Soren and Melissa Sachs], a bunch of websites I made, a bunch of video work. But people only know the reflective paintings or the dot paintings because those are at auction. Right now, I’m building an exhibition that can’t be contained by a gallery. It’s planned to take place in the fall in L.A. in a warehouse where I’ll just work for months.

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ARTFORUM

Parker Ito

03.23.15

View of “Parker Ito: A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night,” 2015.

 

Crammed into 7,500 square feet of leased space behind Château Shatto Gallery in downtown LA, Parker Ito’s current exhibition is a stunning, vertiginous private museum multiplied hundreds of times. The show is over a year in the making, and it’s not finished yet: Ito will continue amending the paintings and installations on view until the exhibition is reprised as an “epilogue.” “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night” is on view until May 2, 2015.

I WANT TO MAKE EXHIBITIONS where there is always a potential for the work to be shifting. There is a sensation that I’m chasing: an exhibition beyond the pacified white cube, something indigestible, something profuse. The question became how to make something that feels like my website, where I’m always making new work and adding things on. In a sense, my website is my masterwork: It’s like a grand edit of everything I’ve ever done, and it takes on a life of its own where things are infused in a bigger structure.

I came up with this two-year project of trying to make something so total and intricate it couldn’t be comprehended—where you could zoom in on the details endlessly, but never zoom out completely. “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night” played out in several stages. It began with a prelude in the beginning of 2014: I hung eight paintings in an Atwater coffee shop. They were completely anonymous and ambient. After the exhibition, the paintings came back to my studio to be painted on some more, and they now hang in this show on the back of larger double-sided paintings.

Part one was at Smart Objects, a project space in Los Angeles, in May 2014. It was the first time I considered the whole building as a medium. I left the main space of the gallery empty. A nonsensical neon sign was hung facing out toward the street. There was a disused, three-story elevator shaft in the building and I broke through the wall to hang a bronze sculpture inside the shaft. Wallpaper was installed in the bathroom, and I hung a series of paintings throughout the second-floor apartment where the dealer lived. I painted a mural on the roof, too.

Part two was at White Cube in London last July. I considered this a trailer for “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night.” This was an effort to make an exhibition that spilled beyond the confines of the designated exhibition space. Children of the gallery’s staff contributed to some of the paintings that were hung throughout the offices, and flower vases made by other employees were scattered around the show. There was also a video piece, which is an episode of another ongoing work, and the receptionists wore pairs of bespoke slippers for the duration of the show. We added live parrots for the documentation. The show was credited as the work of Parker Cheeto and my eight studio assistants. People thought it was a group show.

The content in the current LA exhibition goes through a process of absorption. There are numerous sculptures riffing off the iconography of the local company Western Exterminator; my works feature an iconic top-hatted man with a mallet that sits atop company buildings and vans. They’re something you see often in LA because you’re constantly on the freeway, and Western Exterminator has depots at several freeway locations—off the 101, the 405. I think about how part of being alive is having to constantly process so much information that you’re pushed to a space where you don’t really know what the thing is—it’s just floating. I wanted to be able to incorporate as many media, processes, and strategies, as many kinds of content, as I could grasp. With such a density of information, the chemistry between things becomes unpredictable. The exhibition reaches a point where there is no one-to-one correlation between a reference and its meaning. It’s like when people who don’t read Chinese get Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies. Often those phrases are mistranslated, but it doesn’t really matter to the person what the characters say. They’re mostly interested in the qualities being conveyed by this kind of typography. That’s how I think about content: It’s not equivalent; it’s a filter. I’m invested in the sensation of things.

— As told to Chris Kraus

NYTIMES T MAGAZINE

An Artist Whose Signature Style Is a Lack of One

Photo

Handlers install a painting for the artist Parker Ito's new show, "A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night," which will be displayed through an ongoing installation process during its run.
Handlers install a painting for the artist Parker Ito’s new show, “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night,” which will be displayed through an ongoing installation process during its run.Credit Elon Schoenholz

When Parker Ito was growing up in Seal Beach, a small city in Orange County, California, he watched David Copperfield DVDs assiduously. He dreamed of being a magician. “Then, I wanted to be a professional skateboarder,” the artist, 28, said from a folding chair set atop the barren rooftop of his Los Angeles studio in the El Sereno neighborhood. It was a few weeks before his new, knotty multimedia show, “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night,” would open in a 7,800-square-foot warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, adjacent to Château Shatto, the gallery co-owned by Ito’s girlfriend and art dealer, Liv Barrett.

In his busy workspace below, Ito’s studio assistants were perched on scaffolding as they studiously worked from photographs and printouts to render massive two-sided paintings, which were now hanging shambolically on chains from the rafters of the exhibition warehouse. The paintings dally between appropriated logos from the ’90s skateboarding brand Hook-Ups; images of Ito as a Joan of Arc figure; and representations of the Western Exterminator, an Angeleno billboard staple depicting a tophatted man scolding a mouse while holding a mallet behind his back.

Ito is well known for hiring skilled painters as his studio assistants and paying them a fair wage (and sometimes giving them full credit as the artists of an exhibition, as he did at the London gallery White Cube last year) to realize his concepts. Often, this rankles critics who prefer that the artist’s hand touches the work — the sort of question of fabrication that Donald Judd raised in the 1960s and that has critically dogged Jeff Koons’s practice.

Photo

An installation view of "A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night."
An installation view of “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night.”Credit Elon Schoenholz

Ito tries to remove as much of himself from the process as possible, aside from an approval procedure; and because of his assistants’ distinct abilities, the studio creates works that vary greatly in technique. The pieces through which he first achieved prominence while still a student at California College of the Arts in Oakland — paintings of “the parked domain girl,” a fresh-faced co-ed who appears as a placeholder on countless unconstructed web addresses across the Internet — come in all types, from one that apes the street-art wheatpaste style to one that is completely abstracted to one done as an anime.

In fact, for Ito, variety is the only constant. He even switches his name up, going by pseudonyms such as Deke McLelland Two, Creamy Dreamy and Parker Cheeto. The idea that most artists end up finding and perfecting a style, which they’re expected to maintain for the rest of their lives, frightens him. “I never wanted to be someone who had an ability to do anything,” Ito said. “I never wanted to be someone who could paint really well or draw really well. I always want my work to be changing and shifting, and I never want to be set in something, so I purposefully never learned to do anything. I really try to make everything at this point.”

“A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night,” his biggest show yet, which opened over the weekend, is the culmination of two years of Ito figuring out how to present his artwork in a yearlong series under one umbrella. Previously, there was a show done anonymously and semi-secretly in a cafe in Atwater Village, consisting solely of still life paintings of roses, followed by an exhibition at the cramped Echo Park gallery Smart Objects. The third iteration came last July, after Jay Jopling, the owner of the prominent London gallery White Cube (which represents Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin among others), dropped by Ito’s studio and offered him a show. Ito was hesitant, having made the decision to shun big galleries; he compromised by doing the show, but giving credit to his assistants — and Parker Cheeto, of course. “I was really trying to take a break this year,” he says. “I really wanted to carve my own path and avoid commercial galleries.”

Ito dislikes openings, so “A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night” did not have one. The exhibition’s announcement came in the form of a newsprint booklet containing a love letter written to Ito by Barrett. And Ito has painted Barrett into one of the show’s paintings (though he had to redo it in the weeks leading up to the show, because “her nose was all wrong,” Ito says).

Alongside 33 paintings, 19 bronze sculptures of the Western Exterminator in all forms are hung from chains or positioned on top of other works. Sloppy ceramics are scattered through the space, string lights are haphazardly threaded through holes in the ceiling like the nest of wires at the back of a computer desk, and several fake palm trees — the same kind used to mask cellphone towers — will be right at home when they are installed in the next few weeks of the ever-changing exhibition.

If anything, Ito is the type of artist that sends critics into fits. The New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz called him mediocre in one article, lumping him into the “zombie abstraction” dogpile in another, Ito having been caught up in the whole mess surrounding the art advisor Stefan Simchowitz’s price goosing and art flipping. The art-world gossip has affected the way critics approach Ito’s work. “It turns people off to my work before they even look at it,” says Ito. “It’s hard for me to know if people have even seen a lot of the stuff I’ve done.”

Ito is hoping that this show changes the perspective of how his work is seen, a daunting task in the art world. Ito can’t say for sure exactly where he falls in the art-making genres, but what he does know is that he will always be switching it up, keeping people guessing and trying to keep it interesting for himself through adaptation. “Even though I’ve made so many bodies of work that look totally different, people tell me there’s a feeling that, when they see my work, they know it’s mine,” he said. “So even my attempts to destroy myself, I’m still myself, I guess.”

“Part 3: A Lil Taste of Cheeto in the Night” runs through an undisclosed date in late April at 1317 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, chateaushatto.com.

Correction: January 28, 2015
An earlier version of this post omitted a credit for the pictures of Parker Ito’s artwork. They were taken by Elon Schoenholz.
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DIS MAGAZINE

Interview with Parker Ito

PARKER ITO | THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
STADIUM
548 W. 28th St. Suite 636
New York, NY 10001
SEPT 6 – OCT 6 2012

Parker Ito, as many of you already know, is a multi-media and Internet artist based in the Bay Area. Over the past few years he has become known for his uses and manipulations of found and stock imagery as well as continually re-configuring and jumbling all kinds of online identities, communities, systems and paths of communication. His current solo exhibition at Stadium in New York City titled The Agony and the Ecstasy, features new paintings and sculptures that defy the conventional binary between viewership in the gallery and documentation as it is presented online.

Courtney Malick: I have to start off by asking about the title of the exhibition, The Agony and
the Ecstasy, which of course conjures certain distinct references such as the novel (1961) of the same title about the life of Michelangelo and the subsequent film (1965) based on the book starring Charlton Heston.  Then there of also the famous song by Smoky Robinson.  Were any of these works in your mind in any way when deciding on a title for this show?

Parker Ito: I like movies, but only bad movies. And I don´t ever read books, only Wikipedia entries.  So my knowledge of these things is very superficial.  The Agony and the Ecstasy seemed to be a good title for an art show because it kind of encapsulates artistic struggle.  My artistic struggles are not so much about, ‘Oh, making art is really hard,’ but more like, ‘I need more money to go online shopping,’ ‘I have a crush on this girl, how do I get her attention on twitter?’ or ‘Do I look hot in this Facebook photo?!’ Online romances are sort of my thing and that´s probably the main theme of this show.  When I say “online romances” I don´t just mean girls either, I´m talking about romantic relationships with art via the Internet as well.

CM: Can you tell me a bit more about what you mean by ‘romantic relationships with art’?

PI:  Like people artworks seem to exist in some sort of in-between state. Sometimes people take really good photos and sometimes people look hotter offline. I heard a rumor that I’m hotter in person. More so now than ever things exist in multiple versions and one is not truer than the other. Most artworks seem to look better online and lots of art objects can be underwhelming and unromantic in person.

CM: Yes, that is definitely true for photos and other two-dimensional work. I am also really interested in the idea of the exhibition trailer that was included as a link in the press release that I received via e-mail.  This is a PR technique that I have never seen before.  Is it something that you conceived of as a preemptive extension of the exhibition or is it something that the gallery has done in the past?  Also, what was it that you wanted to convey in the trailer that you felt would intrigue people to come see the show in person?

PI: Maybe not in a blue chip sense, but more so with a lot of younger artists exhibition trailers seem to be pretty common now.  Mark Leckey made some pretty cool trailers for his exhibitions.  Hopefully people will get excited about coming to my show when they see the trailer.  That’s probably what I was thinking about most.  We live in a day in age of TL;DR though, so who wants to read a whole press release when you can watch a video and get more of a sense of what the show is about?  You do´t even have to watch the whole trailer, which is cool too, you can just scrub through it.


CM: I guess that is true to an extent, but I actually found a lot of things in the press release that intrigued me that I doubt I would have understood about the show based solely on the trailer. Most importantly the press release describes a lot about the conceptual background for this body of work, but I would really like to hear from you how it came about, especially as it relates or diverts from your previous work?

PI: Twenty-twelve was all about making beautiful things – my motto this year is ‘be pretty, make pretty things.’  That was the genesis of this body of work.  Then I got this idea to try and create artworks that were un-documentable, and then this basically shifted into trying to make art objects where the content of the work was the documentation and that had multiple, unique viewing experiences.  Reflective material offered all of these qualities and I just jumped into that head-first.  The timing was so perfect, as reflective material seems to be really trending in fashion right now. This makes me feel like I´m the artistic equivalent to hypebeast or something.

CM: I love the idea of documentation as content too and it is clearly foregrounded in this project. Can you say a bit about why you have chosen to set it up in this way?

PI: Yes this is the most important thing.  When buying a painting or a sculpture collectors always ask “which is the artists favorite?”  My answer would be that my favorite is all the of the paintings and sculptures together, with multiple documentation of each object collected on my website, then a link to my website posted on Facebook with at least 50 likes.  I think that´s probably most simple way to explain my reasoning.

CM: From what you have told me so far I am curious to know if you consider this project to be a formal one or if you see it as being rooted in the conceptual?  Perhaps in this case we cannot distinguish between the two?

PI: I´m not a conceptual artist, but I think this work is rooted in “konceptualism” and this is similar to when people spell the word “cool”, “kewl”, or “kool”.  I am passionate about the Internet and making work about the effects that Internet has had on traditional art objects is the most honest thing I can do, even if sometimes I do that under another name.  These paintings and sculptures are made flat, un-stretched.  Water and paint is sprayed on to the reflective material, which leads to very randomized results.  This reduces the whole process into something very systematic, which yields a very formal result.  But the qualities specific to the materials make the experience of viewing these works in person and in documented form very unique, and this is the more “konceptual” side of the project.

CM:  Wow, I’ve never thought of a kind of renewed or “off-brand” version of conceptualism.  It is interesting that you mentioned wanting to achieve a certain beauty with these works yet on the other hand you would be most pleased to see them reduced to a popular link on your Facebook page.  Again, the tension between agony and ecstasy or form and concept seems to arise.  Do you feel it is that dichotomy that the works embody that will continue to make them compelling in a non-visual sense once the gallery show is over?

PI: Most conceptual artists claim to be intellectuals. I am either a super anti-intellectual or a fake pseudo-intellectual. Just in the same way that my life is more conceptual than any art, therefore I do not need to make conceptual art. Multiplicity is an important part to the project – a gallery viewer could see these objects in person and think “wow these are extremely beautiful” and the works would just be reduced to pretty things on a wall. Someone could see a low res cell phone pic on Facebook that is extremely blown out and actually have no understanding at all of the formal characteristics of these works. So these objects both reject and accept their own beauty. The most interesting way to experience them is to live with them because one can view them in every lighting condition.

CM: Clearly one of the problemics your show addresses is the dichotomy that exists between experiences that take place online as opposed to offline.  Offline, in terms of an art exhibition, would traditionally mean the ‘separate-ness’ of the white cube of the commercial or museum gallery.  However, I am beginning to wonder if we can even make such a distinction any longer, as most of us spend each day with a smart phone in our hand at all times, through which we are continuously connected to the internet and various social media networks.  It is this perpetually connected condition that makes me wonder if the “unaffected”, (as it is referred to in the show’s press release), space of the gallery can any longer actually be considered as such?  Do you think that virtual and physical space necessarily operate differently?  And if so, do you think that there will eventually be a time when they will merge completely?

PI: Yea I mean this is already happening.  The best way to understand this is if you think about the new Apple OS and how the default track pad settings actually function in reverse from the previous settings.  This is because people are getting so used to being on smart phones all the time and scrolling the opposite way is actually more natural.  Or things like how Instagram filters just look like Instagram filters and don´t even reference film anymore.

CM: I know what you mean, particularly about Instagram’s self referential filter aesthetic.  It is clear to me that it is this condition that your show references, what I am wondering is whether you feel that by presenting something (these paintings) that cannot as easily transition from the real to the virtual realms, does this project represents a critical perspective on this hyper way of interacting via new technologies?

PI: No. I think I’m just being honest about the impact of the Internet on contemporary culture. I mean right now I’m writing this on my iPhone on an abbreviated version of gmail because my laptop is broken and I’m traveling. it takes me longer to type and the experience of handwriting my responses would be very different but it’s still “me.”

CM:Right, of course. I guess my last question would be if other than the documentation existing as the final state of this show that will be accessible on your website, do you have other plans for ways to extend or re-use the documentation “works” that will be the result of The Agony and the Ecstasy?

PI: I don’t really see an end because this work could be re-blogged forever and each time the work is photographed it is reactivated.

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ART REVIEW MAGAZINE – LONDON

Maid in Heaven / En Plein Air in Hell (My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Cheeto Problem)

White Cube Masons Yard, London, 16 July – 27 September

By Oliver Basciano

Parker Cheeto is Los Angeles-based Parker Ito. This show is attributed to a ton of names on White Cube’s website (which I assume are real; Cheeto / Ito is known to play with these things, though), including his assistants, various friends and an art logistics company in LA. I’m guessing however that this is mainly a Cheeto / Ito affair, because it is his face that is plastered floor-to-ceiling in the lower gallery. Back to those portraits shortly. Cheeto / Ito who is in his late twenties, has various other hip guises, including a Twitter account under the name of Joe Vex (@CreamyDreamy), from which he posts such bon mots as ‘i will never admit ive met someone before unless they admit it first :(’ and ‘i cant fuck you tonight cause im fucking you tonight’. I thought about trying to decipher all this. I looked at the press release, but it was just some story about going to a party in Miami and not recognising New York Yankees baseball star Alex Rodriguez. I looked online, but all I found were interviews in which our man said things like, ‘Harmony Korine is my good friend. He’s a real artist.’ In the end I came to the conclusion that I really couldn’t give a shit.

I came to the conclusion that I really couldn’t give a shit

Which is where I thought initially I’d leave this review. Then I became annoyed that I wasn’t giving a shit, because that’s the kind of Valley Girl attitude, signposted in interviews, those tweets and the party-boy persona displayed in the self-portraits, that Cheeto / Ito’s practice is a knowing expression of, and what is so infuriating about Maid in Heaven/En Plein Air in Hell (My Beautiful Dark and Twisted Cheeto Problem). On the ground floor of the gallery there are six paintings (which mix UV paint, oil, acrylic and screenprinting on each canvas), together with some garish wilting flowers in ceramic vases on the floor; chains hanging down from the ceiling; and a widescreen monitor, also floor-based. I have no idea what the flower and chain motifs (reiterated in a couple of the paintings) are there for. They evoke, respectively, works by Jeff Koons and Kanye West, figures to whom Cheeto / Ito nods in the show’s title. It is hard to determine the reasons for these references, other than their cool cultural cachet (incidentally, Cheeto / Ito can perhaps be seen to perform a similar role for brand White Cube). The paintings are kitsch when studied through the lens of any painterly critique, stylistically closer to tattoo or skate iconography than anything else. It appears, however, that the intention for them is to be looked at less in the terms of painting and more as advertisements for or signifiers of the Cheeto / Ito brand: scrawled across a couple are even the title and dates of this exhibition.

Can you guess what the video that was being shown on the monitor is like? A thoughtful meditation on neoliberal politics and the dispossessed. No, just kidding. You were correct first time: giflike animated characters, phone pics of Cheeto / Ito and his mates having a good time, the music videos of Kanye’s Bound 2 (2013), Robyn’s piss-poor Dancing On My Own (2010), all interrupted occasionally by an industrial noise track neither I nor Shazam recognised. Downstairs: red carpet; more chains; more flowers; more paintings, this time hanging from the ceiling at angles; and those floor-to-ceiling photographic portraits of the man himself looking cool / kind of hot and definitely being aware of both these things. Over the latter images are various lengthy handwritten notes, including a list of ‘Things not likely to be seen in a P.I. Painting’ (Candy Crush, outdoor gear and ‘Jewish Shit’ among them apparently).

Aside from being immensely boring, the problem with all this is that it’s Teflon-coated

Aside from being immensely boring, the problem with all this is that it’s Teflon-coated. There’s so much layered irony, self-awareness and knowing hints to ideas of vacuity (the artist as brand, from the show title’s evocation of Kanye and Koons onwards); so much celebrated meaninglessness, so much self-publicised lack of a shit given; that to critically hit it with those things just elicits a shrug. To play devil’s advocate, the artist may just be honestly reflecting the generational and cultural environment that surrounds him (poor chap); but if he’s just holding a mirror, with no commentary, with nothing at stake, just a mire of Gen-Y nihilism (and when the artist literally won’t put his name behind the work), it leaves the critic stuck, art criticism stuck and this critic wanting to hit the eject button.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue

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BOMB MAGAZINE

Art : Interview

Away From Keyboard: Parker Ito

by Antonia Marsh

Parker Ito discusses AFK, IRL, and post-Web 2.0 arenas.


Parker Ito, The Agony and the Ecstasy series, Enamel on 3M Scotchlite and vinyl, 36 × 48 inches, 2012. All images courtesy of the artist.

Although his new paintings attempt to create an artwork that cannot be documented, it was documentation itself that was the aim of one emerging YIBA (Young Internet-based Artist). Parker Ito’s most well-known exhibition project, New Jpegs, took place at Johan Berggren Gallery in Malmo, Sweden in 2011; the artist generated content in the form of installation shots that were then manipulated through digital imaging software to create an entirely new body of work. This conversation between Ito’s practice in the digital realm and three-dimensional artworks that have the capacity to exist within physical space weaves throughout Ito’s work. JstChillin, an online curatorial project that lasted eighteen months, in its retrospective, stepped away from the screen and manifested itself in real space, while his project The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet exists simultaneously as a series of paintings and a continuously re-blogged Internet meme.

With much of his earlier work available online via the artist’s website, and with three exhibitions this summer in New York, Chicago, and Toronto, the perceived notion that a digital environment exists separately from its physical counterpart is limiting. Musing over the oppositions of physicality and virtuality both in space and objects, Ito and I conclude that an artwork—and, by implication, an exhibition—cannot exist solely in real space, but must include an online presence in order to fully exist.

Antonia Marsh While some of your earlier projects such as JstChillin.org and PaintFX were web-based to begin with, they have also included live, real-time aspects. How do you understand this transition from an online environment to an IRL [“In Real Life”] environment?

Parker Ito Well, to begin with, I no longer believe in the relevance of the term “IRL.” Although perhaps somewhat dogmatic, I find its usage antithetical to my entire practice. For me the term “IRL” constitutes a relic of Web 1.0 net anxiety/novelty. “IRL” infers a division between a presumed “real world” and what happens online that I don’t think exists anymore. We live in a technologically hybrid reality where the space between the physical and the virtual is fluid.

AM Ok, so if we are to avoid the term “IRL,” what can it be substituted with? Does another term communicate better the position such projects exist in when taken offline?

PI Currently, we exist in a post-Web 2.0 arena, floating slightly before or in the midst of what I believe will be Web 3.0. A more custom, personal web, whose language will remain consistently abbreviated due to the ubiquity of smart phones and other mobile devices, defines Web 3.0. “AFK” or “Away From Keyboard” is the term I use the most often, but even the meaning of this term is shifting. In being constantly connected, “Log Off” is increasingly becoming a redundant action for users, so in fact we are very rarely “AFK.” However, overall I still see this as a more appropriate term, because fundamentally it acknowledges that the Internet is very real, realer than it’s ever been, which the term “IRL” seems to inherently reject.

AM Now that we are armed with the appropriate terminology, let’s return to art practice: for you, how is the authenticity of a web-based artwork or exhibition affected when it is taken offline?

PI In my opinion, through its constant documentation, an art object now exists as much online as it does offline. Whether professional or amateur, the capacity for posts on Facebook or links on Twitter to share artworks with a global audience has transformed contemporary art into a cyclical network of documentation. Art since the Internet has become continuously documented, shared and exchanged, which I now visualize as a kind of loop with no ending point or final resting place. All information flows in more than one direction. A lot of times the initiators of these loops are objects, or exhibitions that take place AFK, but this isn’t always true. A website, jpeg, etc. can be the starting point too. I think of the production of an artwork intended for physical exhibition or web-based exhibition simultaneously. I never produce a work that won’t be online. So whether or not it is intended for physical exhibition, its relation to operating in this media distribution loop is embedded in my artistic practice.


The Agony and the Ecstasy series, Enamel on 3M Scotchlite, plexi and aluminum, Dimensions variable, 2012.

AM So would you be inclined to argue that the online presence of an art object in fact legitimates its existence more so than its actual physical presence?

PI I would actually say that in the artist community that I’m most directly involved with, sometimes referred to as #YIBA (young, Internet-based artists), an artwork is most directly initiated into existence through its documentation as a non-object. For me, this initiation via non-objects equally exists in the realm of exhibition-making. What I mean by this is that until you post your show as an event on Facebook and begin actively generating responsive activity, such as “Likes,” it doesn’t really exist.

AM Are you therefore suggesting that the status of the art object has shifted so as to always maintain some sort of inherent online presence? In order to exist offline as a physical object, does an artwork have to exist virtually online at the same time?

PI There is a saying, “If it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” This is true now more than ever.

AM One of your most recent projects, an exhibition in Zurich, Switzerland entitled Anime Bettie Page Fucked by Steampunk Horse Warrior, had a considerable Internet presence. Was this a deliberate choice, perhaps an attempt to embody what we have been discussing about the necessity for an online presence in order for an exhibition to fully exist?

PI I initiated Anime Bettie Page Fucked by Steampunk Horse Warrior as part of Aventa Garden, a collaboration between Body By Body (Cameron Soren and Melissa Sachs) and myself as Deke 2. The exhibition spawned out of observations surrounding the way counter-cultures and sub-cultures have become increasingly popularized through their hybridization and increased prominence via the Internet. Contemporary popular culture is reliant on the Internet for its visibility; however, similarly, everything that is taken online has the potential to become “pop” almost immediately, including what might otherwise be considered counter-cultural.

In terms of using Web space to present exhibitions that occur offline, Anime Bettie Page Fucked by Steampunk Horse Warrior reflects what I’m most interested in at the moment. For the show, Aventa Garden (which describes itself as the leading American-Anime Deviant Art Studio Concept-Powerhouse) generated a lot of content, even though the actual exhibition only consisted of one projection, one painting, and some Mountain Dew cans stacked around a door. The gallery exhibition was just a tiny aspect of the show and in some sense is overshadowed by the extensive collating and archiving of documentation of the project’s process and supporting materials.

Thinking about this particular project enables a visualization of what we just discussed—this idea that art exists within a network. If a viewer were only to see the gallery component of this exhibition, they’d be missing out on a lot. On the website, email correspondence between the curators and the artists and craftsmen who helped us realize the exhibition are made available; as well as Google Chat conversations between Melissa, Cameron, and myself discussing the concept of the exhibition. We even documented our attempts to contact an ice block store to see if they could freeze a saxophone for us. As a result of this continuous amalgamation of information, the project feels somewhat never-ending, and we seem to be constantly updating the site with new tidbits.


Installation shot from New Jpegs with Ben Schumacher sculpture in foreground. The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet, Oil on digital print on canvas, 36 × 48 each, 2012.

AM In relation to what we have been discussing, it might also be beneficial to talk about some of your earlier projects, like JstChillin.org and Paint FX …

PI It’s interesting that you bring up JstChillin and Paint FX, both highly collaborative projects that, while I initiated and remain associated with, equally exist as authorless projects, or belong to a collective rather than individual voice. Paint FX (Jon Rafman, John Transue, Tabor Robak, Micah Schippa, and myself) began in response to a returning interest in formalism and a general fetishism for glossy software. Paint FX had several offline shows where we printed jpegs from the site on paper and displayed them in a casual salon-hang. Over 700 images exist on PaintFX.biz, and I found selecting ten works for exhibition in a gallery space challenging, because it instigated a conversation about quality that I felt uncomfortable with. The element of constant, unhierarchical output was something that had always appealed to me about the project.

AM I agree, the Internet as an unhierarchical network offers the works on Paint FX a kind of utopian horizontality, however as soon as some kind of curatorial selection is implemented in order to choose which works might be taken offline, this horizontal organization is lost. In addition, in terms of curatorial modes of display, the salon-hang is historically associated with artistic hierarchies between genres of painting.

Frozen Saxophone, Ice, saxophone, Mountain Dew Game Fuel, Dimensions Variable, Aventa Garden, 2012.

PI When the project was placed into a gallery space, it suddenly felt contrived and static. I do believe there was potential for the project to work as an exhibition, although more attention to display was needed. Unfortunately Paint FX ended at the peak of its popularity, so for me the project still feels unresolved, and in some ways this lack of conclusion feels like failure. Although my role was less in production of work for the site and I functioned more as a facilitator for the project, in the end we were successful in branding a new aesthetic of shimmering software, which I am happy with.

JstChillin was a long-term project I started in collaboration with Caitlin Denny, an artist I studied with in California. In total JstChillin lasted two years, from Spring 2009 until Spring 2011, which is an unusually long time when considering the speed normally associated with the Web. This unconstrained timing allowed us to develop our own unique voice. For me, what was most successful about the project was our transformation of the online platform model into a constantly morphing project that constituted part social experiment, part networked performance and part gallery. Every two weeks we invited an artist to launch an exclusively commissioned project that was featured on the homepage. We intended to rebel against the online gallery “reblog” model that seemed to be dominating web-based exhibition spaces at the time.


The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet, Oil on digital print on canvas, 36 × 48 inches, 2012.

AM What offline endeavors were programmed and how did these affect the rhythm and identity of JstChillin?

PI “Avatar 4D,” a one night performance event we curated in San Francisco in 2010 was the first AFK event we hosted and in a lot of ways was a major turning point for the project as well as for my own work. This was the first time I met a lot of the artists we had been working with in person, including Artie Vierkant, Chris Coy, and Jon Rafman. All three of these artists were included in New Jpegs, an exhibition I curated in Malmö, Sweden last year and then Jon and I started Paint FX together. JstChillin culminated with a retrospective over the last two years at 319 Scholes Gallery in New York, entitled READ/WRITE. The title of the exhibition is derived from a term coined by Lawrence Lessig, developed in order to describe the difference between Web 1.0, a read-only web, and Web 2.0, a read/write web.

Our approach to the show was loose in some ways, but was mostly focused on objects, and more than anything was really about the social component of a group of artists whose practices are defined by a high online presence.

But in short I view offline and online exhibiting as two unique experiences, and two unique perspectives, one is not more important than the other. They are both essential for contemporary art in the midst of smart phones, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, [and beyond].

For more information about the work of Parker Ito, visit his website here.

Antonia Marsh is an art writer and curator from London.

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WIDEWALLS

Interview Highlights: Parker Ito

Sanja Lazic

Parker Ito is a very interesting guy. He is an artist without a signature, recognizable style or technique; he hates discussing his own artwork, reading and long sleeping. However, this 28-year-old American artist agreed to talk to Interview Magazine’s writer Sarah Nicole Prickett about almost everything, even his own art. From a status of an emerging artist, Ito gained wider recognition in 2012, thanks to his breakthrough show ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ at Stadium gallery in New York. Now, Ito’s works sell for head-turning figures, causing a lot of controversy over the actual value of his works.

Interview Highlights: Parker Ito

Art As A Cure

Ito admits suffering from agoraphobia, which caused a long period of taking prescription drugs. However, even if he calls it ‘a really dark time’ in his life, art was the only thing that kept him sane. ‘That was the only thing I could do. The only time I felt normal was when I was making stuff’, Ito remembers, ‘well, that was right around the time that my assistants started becoming very heavily involved, because I had left California to get away from my family. My parents were—are—going through a divorce, and I was right in the middle of everything. I flipped out, and I came to New York to live here for a month. It was the worst place to fucking go, but I was under the impression that being around my family was what was stressing me out, so I came here, and then I called and e-mailed my assistants and had them work remotely for a month. In May I flew back to Los Angeles for a show, and I hadn’t even seen the work; I hadn’t touched it. I just showed up for the opening, and there were 20 paintings that I had made’.

Interview Highlights: Parker Ito

On His Assistants

Ito explains his relationship with his assistants (five of them) being different from the usual one. He even admits that some of the ideas for the work are theirs, even though they are not signed, explaining it by saying ‘I don’t sign my work, so nobody should sign anything. My assistants like making things, but they don’t want to put up with all the bullshit of being an artist. And I try to be a really cool boss. For my two main assistants, who have been with me longer than anyone else, I bought monogrammed velvet slippers. I bought them the Jackson Pollock Crocs. I’m getting berets made for them, and they have sweatsuits printed with some paintings we did’.

Interview Highlights: Parker Ito

No Signature

Ito’s work doesn’t seem to have the usual continuity as other artists do. He agrees with the statement that this lack of recognition helps him not be branded in a certain way. ‘I’m interested in making work that mimics the mechanism of the internet. In The Agony and the Ecstasy, I wanted to show the effect of the internet on traditional art objects, and how that affects the way we document and experience artwork. So it was about distribution through a network. Now I’m interested in embodying it. I want to be an internet for a network, right? And a network is something constantly shifting and never stable. So to do that, I can’t really have a signature style or be bound to a medium. It’s very hard because there’s a style that emerges anyway, or maybe it’s more a feeling than a style’, Ito concludes.

Interview Highlights: Parker Ito

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