Author: Ron Newman
My friend Alan is a photographer – well, sort of. The product of his camera is way closer to raw material than to finished work. He and Photoshop transform it into lovely abstract images that are heavy on shape and nuanced color that bear little or no resemblance to what came out of the camera.
The interesting thing is that he is nearly completely red/green color blind.
His mother, an accomplished and well-known easel painter, recognized his condition very, very early and she carefully trained the contents of his head, the “wetware”, to make best use of what limited information was coming from his eyes.
It’s an established fact that, statistically, women are much better equipped to distinguish between very similar shades of a given color than are men even though there is no discernable difference between the anatomy of a male and a female eye. The difference must be in the wetware that processes that information. That’s certainly true in our household.
A (much younger) friend who has a lot of graduate-level courses in the physio-neurology of vision in his resume gave me a thumbnail sketch of what’s going on with vision.
Our eyes have two kinds of sensors in them, rods and cones. The rods are only slightly sensitive to color but very sensitive to light and dark. They are scattered fairly uniformly across the back of our eyes. The cones are only slightly sensitive to light and dark but very sensitive to color. They are concentrated in the center of our file of vision and are sparse elsewhere.
Information from the rods goes directly into a very old area in our brains and information from the cones into an area that is believed to have evolved much later. There is a small but measurable difference in the time it takes to get rod information and cone information into the wetware. What happens after than to synthesize what we “see” in our mind’s eye is a very good question.
If we could record a single snapshot of what our eyes send off to our brains it would be a far cry from what we think we “see”. Actually what we “see” in our mind’s eye is the result of our brain merging recent information from our eyes (about 20 time a second) that are constantly wandering no matter how hard we try to hold their direction.
Why it should be this way is, of course, a mystery. One plausible theory is this – the rod information tells the viewer where things are. That would give our hominid ancestors the ability to build a mental map of their surroundings “large/near”, “small/distant”, “moving/animal” as an aid to hunting or searching for food. The cone information helps identify what things seen in the center of the field of vision are –food source, threat—refuge from threat. Sheer speculation of course but that seems a viable theory to me.
I should title this blog post “confessions of an art junky”. I know only a few people whose appetite for looking at art is more voracious than mine.
The Seattle Art Fair, founded in 2015 by the late Paul Allen -- his heirs promptly discontinued all his art-oriented philanthropy -- is now an independent event.
Hooray, after a two years pandemic pause it was last weekend at the Lumen Field Event Center. I lost count but something like 80 galleries from all over the USA and a few from other countries trotted out their latest and greatest.
I love it! I’ve been looking forward to it for months.
I am energized even by the work that I do not understand, do not understand why anyone would buy, do not understand why anyone would make it in the first place. At a rule-of-thumb level of accuracy I guess that I can walk by perhaps 80% of the work in the fair with no more than a glance, 15% of the work I can say to myself “very well done but no thrill” – the remaining 5% are the relatively few pieces that blow me out of my socks, leave me literally weak in the knees.
One of the endearing aspects of this particular art show is a particularly northwest issue – I wander about in jeans and a striped t-shirt and the galleryists don’t know whether I’m a penniless retired engineer (true) or a high-tech millionaire (false). I stopped to admire a dazzling Art Nouveau poster of the 5th Vienna Sucession (1892) in a vintage bronze frame (price tag $58000) and had an engaging conversation comparing this piece with Alphonse Mucha’s contemporary work.
The hit of the show is a brand new glass sculpture by Preston Singletary. https://seattleartfair.com/projects/killer-whale-totem/ The photograph in this link doesn’t do it justice. It is stunning. Placed in the entry court of the event center my immediate reaction was “Well, I can go home now. Nothing else will top this!” The back of this piece is flat and polished to a mirror surface so that you look through it to the sculptured and sand-blasted figures on the front.
I can hardly wait for next year’s fair.
If you happen to be in San Diego this summer, maybe go to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see this current exhibition. Here's a review by Elizabeth Rooklidge who is an Independent Curator and Editor of HereIn Journal.
One might expect an exhibition focused on ten years of an artist’s practice to present a narrow slice of work, a partial—unsatisfying, even—picture of a lifelong creative evolution. Such a focus may seem best presented in book form. Yet Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (co-organized by the Menil Collection in Houston) exemplifies how a focused art historical examination of a particular portion of an artist’s career can make a successful exhibition. Saint Phalle is perhaps an especially noteworthy subject for such a presentation—over the course of a decade, changes in her practice developed rapidly, achieving fully mature and powerful work at every step. Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s outlines a fast-moving practice that boasted innovation at every turn.
Born in France and raised in the United States, Saint Phalle (1930–2002) began her career in Paris, where she made work alongside the most influential artists of the day. Saint Phalle was the only woman to be associated with Nouveau Réalisme—the French movement founded in 1960 by critic Pierre Restany. Her early work is in dialogue with artists such as Arman, Christo, and Jean Tinguely in its incorporation of found objects, as well as with Yves Klein’s happenings and performances. She was also in artistic exchange and collaboration with American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. She would eventually move back to the United States, settling in La Jolla, California, where the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is located.
The Saint Phalle pieces that are best known in the public sphere are the “Nana” sculptures, vividly colored female forms with exaggerated features, which appear paused in moments of exuberant dance. In contrast, the work for which she became first known in the art world was a series of paintings shot at with guns. How does an artist move from shooting paintings—evocatively expressive but deeply cerebral— to the whimsical, ebullient Nanas? Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s deftly reveals the mechanics of these surprising changes in her practice.
At MCASD, the exhibition occupies four galleries. In the first, visitors are greeted by a Nana in the center of the space. Early wall-bound assemblage works—found objects encrusted in plaster on plywood—hang on the walls. The standout is Hors-d’oeuvre, or Portrait of My Lover from 1960. In this piece, a white shirt covered in buttons is laid into a plaster ground. Above the shirt’s collar, a cork target occupies the space where a head would be. Two darts—thrown by the artist and visitors to the gallery—pierce the bullseye. This work foreshadows the shooting pictures in strategy and participation, her later figurative assemblages, and the humor that undergirds the later Nanas.
The second, larger gallery begins with a selection of the aforementioned works Saint Phalle called Tirs(“shots” in French). Ranging from intimate to monumental in scale, these pieces consist of reliefs constructed from plaster, embedded with bags of paint and small domestic objects. To finish the works, Saint Phalle would shoot the paintings with a .22-caliber rifle, puncturing the surface and allowing colored paint to explode and bleed across the white ground. She would soon welcome fellow artists and friends to join her in the shootings, drawing on spectacle to craft participatory experiences much in line with Nouveau Réalisme’s ideologies while asserting a devastating critique of Abstract Expressionism’s macho culture and patriarchal violence at large.
As evidenced in this second gallery, the Tirs evolved to include even more found objects, transform into outright assemblage, and, in some, move into fully three-dimensional space. They evoke Rauschenberg’s early combines in their fusion of object and painting, effectively deploying the strategy to include a wide array of imagery—including domestic goods, war planes, monsters, cityscapes, and religious iconography—all splattered with paint. Some of the elements are hand-built, and the works become increasingly bombastic in their evocation of a crash of creation and destruction. Works such as Gorgo in New York and Pirodactyl over New York (both 1962) have a marked cinematic quality and address, among other things, the era’s pervasive anxiety about the Cold War and the damage wrought by organized religion. Saint Phalle made fewer and fewer of the Tirs works as the decade progressed, explaining that she had become “addicted to shooting, like one becomes addicted to a drug.” She felt, she said, “out of control” and turned away from the Tirs as her primary mode of making in 1963.
Entering the third gallery of MCASD’s exhibition is a shock. The space is filled with female bodies, ebullient with clashes of material and color. Made from 1964 to 1969, in works on paper, assemblage, mixed media, and painted polyester resin, they all draw on combinatory aesthetic strategies. Clarice(1964–65), a collaboration with the artist Larry Rivers, depicts his pregnant wife. Rivers drew the figure’s outline while Saint Phalle collaged and rendered explicitly feminine imagery—flowers, butterflies, birds, whimsical doodles—that suggests growth and birth of many kinds. The wall-bound assemblage Crucifixion (ca. 1965) presents a sex worker resplendent in lingerie. Her upper body is covered in toys (babies, cowboys, animals) and faux flowers. She wears curlers on her head and a mass of tangled black yarn for pubic hair. This and other assemblage works in the gallery operate with a more ambivalent tone, violence having been wielded against these women, yet the title positions the sex worker as a sanctified figure. In the gallery’s final section, a selection of Nanas—some covered in fabric and yarn, others in polyester resin and paint—dance across the floor and float in the air. In material and subject, these works presaged the coming feminist art movement of the 1970s. Ultimately, this gallery of women presents a radical leap, from anxiety and violence to joyous agency.
A small fourth gallery contains a variety of material. A case holds ephemera such as newspaper and magazine articles and exhibition brochures, as well as a few drawings and prints. Videos and photographs from the Tirs performances play on monitors and hang on the walls. In the center of the gallery stands a case containing Model for Hon, a 1966 maquette made of painted papier-mâché on wire mesh, measuring approximately thirteen by thirty-five by fifty-two inches. It was a preparatory work for Hon –- en katedral (Hon – a cathedral), which Saint Phalle would realize that same year. Hon was Saint Phalle’s most ambitious and provocative work to date. Installed at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, it featured an enormous, brightly painted Nana reclining on her back, her legs spread apart, a doorway between them welcoming visitors to step inside the sculpture. Her figure filled the large gallery space, her pregnant stomach and bent knees nearly touching the ceiling. The work presented a commanding, sacred feminine body, offering sanctuary to all.
Behind the maquette, the curators have hung on the wall a large offset print bearing a photograph of Hon in the Moderna Museet gallery space, surrounded by visitors. The sculpture in the photo is painted in the same vibrant colors as the papier-mâché sculpture in the case. This pairing—of object and image—elicits the experience of viewing Hon as effectively as one could for a monumental work no longer extant. This last gallery might have felt patched together, but the tight curation and smart installation present a cohesive finale to the exhibition, representative of Saint Phalle’s abundant accomplishments over the span of a mere decade.
It is worth noting that the exhibition’s curators, Jill Dawsey and Michelle White, have chosen to include very little biographical information in the wall texts (for example, it is not mentioned that Saint Phalle was in a romantic partnership with Jean Tinguely for many years, nor that she experienced abuse as a child—both of which have been heavily relied upon for past art historical examinations of the artist’s work). This was a wise choice. The exhibition’s catalog marks a major contribution to art history, offering a deep dive into the context of the artist’s work and its reception. By leaving biographical information and interpretation to the publication, the curators allow for the work to move beyond its historical context into the current moment, the effect of which is both powerful and troubling. I wish that Saint Phalle’s themes of patriarchal violence, global conflict, damage wrought by religion, and bodily autonomy were not entirely relevant today and instead relics of the past—interesting but unneeded in the present. Yet we are gripped in a stranglehold by these very issues still, and Saint Phalle’s work from the 1960s retains the same urgency—and effectiveness—as when it was made.
Independent Curator and Editor of HereIn Journal
Repainting the Word
I recently re-read “The Painted Word” – I do so every couple of years just to keep my perspectacles on straight. (“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1975, Bantam Books, 1976)
“Realism does not lack its partisans, but it does rather conspicuously lack a persuasive theory. And given the nature of our intellectual commerce with works of art, to lack a persuasive theory is to lack something crucial – the means by which our experience of individual works is joined to our understanding of the values they signify.”
This excerpt from a review in the Sunday New York Times of April 28, 1974 sparked the “aha!” that led Wolfe to write The Painted Word. The very short time elapsed between the “aha!” and the publication by a major house (in fact, it was published in Harpers’ magazine a couple of months earlier) testifies both to the excitement that Wolfe felt about the subject and the chord that it must have struck with his publisher.
Wolfe states the major point of the book in the introduction. In his not-at-all-humble opinion, art theory and criticism no longer play the role of “… establishing readable texts, in explaining obscurities and clearing up confusions in any art, in supplying background and context for the creations and creators that are difficult because of remoteness in time or place. ...of giving a jewel the setting it deserves.” (Jacques Barzun writing in Atlantic, November 1984). Wolfe states that art scholarship has raced ahead of the making of art to a degree that makes it necessary to establish theory (persuasive or otherwise) before the art will be taken seriously by the museums, collectors, and (especially) the critics – that the art exists to illustrate the text (thus the title of the book).
Wolfe spends the rest of the book explaining how this change has affected the art community. He holds that it has moved the cutting edge of the art world from the studio into the hands of a relatively small number of critics and curators who play the role of kingmakers in today’s museum and gallery world. Kingmakers who are constantly on the lookout for new movements, new faces with radical work and, especially, with passionately written artist’s statements about ways of seeing that are incomprehensible to the untutored eye. The private collectors of art, he holds, have largely become followers of the kingmakers and the artists themselves forced, if they seek recognition, to strive for the unusual, the bizarre, the incomprehensible.
[Parenthetically, there is another artist’s approach to this situation. The painter Od Nudrum has had at least two double page spreads in Art News in which he presents his manifesto. He paints in the style of the Dutch/Flemish masters but uses the style to paint strangely anachronistic, not exactly surreal subjects. In his manifesto, he appropriates the term “kitsch” and redefines it to mean what he does. He then presents his case as to why this is the pure and vital form of painting. He, in my opinion, is attempting to provide a persuasive theory to support what he is doing. Perhaps he read Wolfe’s book, too.]
Wolfe then examines the course of modern art from the 20’s through minimalism to show how his ‘aha!’ explains at least some of the lurching about in the art world. He ends with a cackle of glee that photo realistic paintings (a new wave at the time the book was published) was selling very well in spite of its lack of a persuasive theory and in spite of lofty disdain from the New York critics and curators.
I find this book compelling and much of his argument very convincing. It also makes me feel a bit better about not being able to understand a great deal of what is written about art today. Even if you do not agree with his sweeping generalizations (and they are sweeping, indeed) I believe that you will find food for thought.
The late Bill Jay, a prolific writer about art – mostly photography – said (and I can’t find the exact quotation) that many so-so artists would become famous if they destroyed 90% of their work.
Mark Twain burned a great deal of his draft materials and false starts before his death. He didn’t want historians “rummaging through his trash” and publishing material that he had abandoned.
Picasso kept darn near everything and the historians are still quibbling about what they are finding.
Bill Jay also noted that there are four types of artists. The first is the type who stumbles about until they find a “groove”, make wonderful pieces then stays in that groove for the rest of their career recapitulating previous successes. He calls out Ansel Adams as an example.
The second type is the artist who finds a groove, works it until the vein of gold is exhausted and then finds another groove – either by medium (Picasso) or subject matter (Sabastião Selgado, look him up – what set me to thinking about this issue is that he just received a Lifetime Achievement award and an honorary doctorate from Harvard).
The third type is the artist who never exhausts the vein of gold and continues to produce wonderful pieces for their entire career – Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, photographer Jerry Uelsmann.
The fourth type just stumbles along. Ted Orland (another prolific writer about art) says that “The only purpose of 99% of what you do is to get to the 1% that sings.” That’s me.
As I write this I’m looking at three shelves of three-ring binders full of pages of negatives – roughly 50,000 of them. I can also see other shelves of black portfolio boxes containing roughly 500 finished prints. Hmmm, sounds like 1% to me.
What comes next? I doubt very seriously that some future historian will pour over my negatives seeking overlooked gems. I doubt very seriously that there are any needles in that haystack anyway.
Then, only last week, I got an email from my 55 year old daughter reminding me of a photograph that I took of her when she was 16 and wondering if I could make another copy for her – and I could.
Life is such a puzzle.
At a place and in a time I do not remember I bought this button. I thought it was a giggle and I agreed with the statement it makes. I have worn it on various sweaters and sweat shirts for years.
I have received quite a few comments on it – at the toll booth at the ferry terminal in Anacortes the attendant looked me over and said "Ok, I'm not afraid." as he handed me my change.
A few of months ago at the Pike Place Market the young woman behind the cash register at the tea shop said "Ooooh, that's a Miripolsky!"
Does the name Miripolsky ring a bell? (It didn't with me.) But I said "It sure is." and looked him up as soon as I got home. Turns out that Andre Miripolsky is a big-name pop artist from Venice California (where else) and this was kind of his break-out piece. Ok, cool, here's an 84 year old geezer like me running around with a pop art icon on his sweater.
Just before the pandemic hit I went to the opening of the middle-school student art show at the Burien community center. The event was fun, mostly because the kids from all over the school district who had pieces in the show were having such a good time. The I believe 6th grader who took the first price was a rather shy girl. Her piece had a cartoony, kind of goofy look that reminded me of Miripolsky so after the awards were all done I asked her if she would show me her piece and tell me about it.
She was obviously pleased to have a random grown up take interest but told me with a straight face that she wasn't good at talking about it. (Ever hear that before?) Then she treated me to an articulate, well-reasoned explanation of why she did that particular piece and what it meant to her. I loved it. As we walked back towards her proud parents she very quietly said "I really like your button." What would any softhearted parent do? I gave it to her and she pinned it on her blouse. I also wrote down the url to Miripolsky's website for her.
That ought to improve my art Karma just a bit.
I also ordered a couple of more of them from the website -- having one to give away suddenly seems like a good idea.
Check out the latest exhibitions that are at the Seattle Art Museum. I haven't been there since before the pandemic so I really want to go soon. Doug
Check out this interesting article about 16th Century Italian Artist Tiziano Vecelli (Titian)
Check out this interesting article about French Realist Artist Julien Dupre.
“The Dirty Sock Syndrome”
(I’ll get back to the title shortly. Bear with me.)
Every now and again I’ll say “I have just got to tidy up my work area.” to which my wife usually responds with bit of a snort and “You spend as much time tidying up in there as you do working in there.” Not quite true but close enough to be worthy of a snort.
I try to put tools and materials back where they belong as soon as I’m done with them (even for a minute) but I am not by nature a neat and orderly person. As a consequence the cruft tends to build up – especially when I’m in the middle of, say, mounting and matting prints – until there isn’t enough vacant space on the work surface to put anything else down. I guess the price of tidiness is eternal vigilance. But that’s a short-term issue.
A longer-term issue is that of the dirty sock syndrome. I read of it in (of all the unlikely places) a chapter on building maintenance in an excellent book on church governance*. In it the author says that if you see a dirty sock on your bedroom floor you pick it up, put it in the laundry basket and forget about it. Come laundry day it gets clean, you put it in a drawer and all is well. If you don’t pick it up – leave it there for, say, three days, it becomes part of the décor and you stop seeing it. It will stay there until your spouse (or whomever) picks it up. Exasperated parents will instantly recognize this phenomenon in occasional visits to their child’s bedroom. This, not seeing what is obvious to a stranger, is a longer-term issue. Once in a while I have to spend some time picking up the dirty socks in my work area. Looking around me as a write I see about eight – starting with an ink bottle containing maybe 2 ccs of ink standing proudly beside a full one and a small kitchen timer that stopped working even after I put a new battery in it. I have no idea how long they’ve been there but now that I’ve noticed them they are gone.
Art on a wall works the same way. After it’s been up for a while (a lot longer than three days) we stop seeing it. Galleries and museums change their shows – why not our homes? Chances are good that if you are reading this you have more artwork than wall space. (If not, support your local artists, buy reproductions from museum shops, frame your own pieces.)
When we moved to our current house three years ago one of my smarter ideas was to put hanging rails on a lot of the walls, making it easy to change our “show”. I walk past it 20 times a day and as soon as I don’t occasionally stop to smile and say to myself “George Tice certainly makes beautiful prints!” it’s time to change the show – roughly three months. Only a few of our particular favorite pieces are on “permanent display” but even they move from place to place so they will stay fresh.
The hanging rails are really helpful but it isn't that big a deal to add or subtract a few picture hooks. With a bit of forethought the new piece will hide the pinhole left by the former hook. In our previous house I kept a small jar of filler and another of touch-up paint at the ready.
* “Moving on from Church Folly Lane”, Robert Latham, Wheatmark Press 2006