December 30, 2015

Happy New Year! with Indian Gardens of Delight

This year, for my New Year's greetings to my blog friends, I thought of the beauty and delight in the details of nature in Indian miniature painting. Last year I shared sweets, the year before the quilts of Gee's Bend.

It's such a pleasure to sink into these worlds of sensitively stylized flora and fauna. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's online collection and selected details from its holdings of Indian paintings (you can browse over 500 of them here) . There are trees that look close to naturalistic, and animals that are fanciful creations.
(To see the details clearly, click to enlarge the images.)

A courtyard garden blooms....

....and flowers burst from trees.

Fanciful carts are entwined with flowers.

The sun rises on peace....

....and animals live gently in the landscape.

Even the architecture is full of life and charming detail, whether flowers are bursting in the night sky, like fireworks....

....or a layered tree embraces a pink wall. The Indian painters were masters of color, and the relationships of pinks to yellows to blues to greens are delicious.

May you have a year full of beauty, and may all dangers and difficulties be overcome with grace.

December 26, 2015

A New Painting: "Black Curve"

Black Curve, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 6 3/4 x 8 in.

Some of the compositions for my paintings stick quite closely to the source image, but with others, such as Black Curve, I make changes. For this painting, I simplified shapes and eliminated unnecessary details. There had been white text in the black shape at the upper left, and below the big black curve were complex arrangements of small dark shapes; there was no yellow under there at all. Because what most interested me about this image was the black curve crossing the yellow one, I extended the yellow under the black curve and invented a shadow echoing the curve above it. All paintings, even those based on actual things, have to work as abstractions. 

Black Curve detail

December 23, 2015

At the Met: Elegant Near Eastern Architectural Ornament

Panel from a door or minbar (pulpit) with a repeating vine motif, detail, Iraq, late 8th-first half of 
9th cent.; wood, 70 3/4 x 15 1/2 in. See entire door panel here

Many cultures around the world embellish their architectural surroundings with paintings, carvings, and tilework. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a beautiful small show focusing on the ornament of the Near East during the years from 500-1000 A.D., Pattern, Color, Light: Architectural Ornament in the Near East. Many of the patterns are based on plant forms, with leaves entwined with curling stems. They are held within geometric shapes, here elegantly carved squares.....

Doorpost with grapevine emerging from a chalice, Egypt, 6th-7th cent; limestone,
25 9/16 x 5 7/8 x 6 7/8 in. 

....and here within the narrow rectangle of a doorpost. The compression of forms within their frame makes the curve of vine more pronounced. The grapevine in this piece is comparatively naturalistic....

Frieze section with bushy plants, Mesopotamia, ca. 6th cent.; stucco, 8 3/4 x 14 1/2 in. 

....when seen alongside this frieze, where the plants have been formed into a more abstract pattern.

Panel fragment with meander pattern, Mesopotamia, ca. 6th cent.; stucco, 13 1/2 x 23 1/2 in.

Engaged column part with meander pattern, Egypt, ca. 6th cent.; limestone, 
12 3/8 x 8 7/16 x 10 1/4 in. 

The two works above combine floral elements with geometry. They got me thinking about the human relationship with nature and with geometry. It seems to me that we have an innate sense of geometry, of right angles, being that most of our architecture is based on rectangles. Even though there are cultures whose houses are round, they are not in the majority. Excavations of ancient sites show rectangular rooms. I do wonder why this is; why is it that people didn't take to the geodesic dome as a dwelling structure? why are we more comfortable in right-angled rooms?

Window with palmettes, Mesopotamia, ca 6th cent.; stucco, 24 1/2 in.

Repeated small circles at the center and outer edge are connected by the spokes of eight leafy shapes.

Panel with beveled carving, Egypt, last quarter of 10th cent.; wood, 18 1/2 x 27 x 3 in.

The depth of this carving emphasizes the luxurious curves of the near-symmetrical patterns.

Cast of ninth century wall panel with beveled vegetal ornament, Iraq, 20th cent.; 42 x 33 in. 

Lastly, here a cast made of ornament that was found in place during excavations in Samarra in 1911-13. It has a wonderful combination of geometry enclosing vegetal forms. Triangles, pointing up and down, are resting on rectangles, and all have curving patterns within them. All of these pieces are a reminder that pattern is endlessly variable and very engaging.

Happy Holidays to all my blog friends!

December 20, 2015

New Drawings, Larger and Smaller: Freedom and Intuition

#57, egg tempera and graphite on paper hand toned with distemper, 15 x 15 in.

While I was thinking about the writing for this post, a couple of concepts related to art making came to mind: freedom, and intuition. First freedom: for me, one of the great things about being an artist is being able to do anything I want with my work, to change its direction, change ideas, mediums, formats, styles. Of course this can have implications outside the studio, such as losing a gallery when work changes direction, but I insist on my freedom of action. It has allowed me to try new ideas, such as these drawings based on Islamic design, which I began making three years ago. 

#58, egg tempera and graphite on paper hand toned with distemper, 15 x 15 in.

I love the way these drawings have allowed me to explore color in a way that is completely different from that of my paintings. The patterns that emerge from the basic design have been varied and often surprising.

#59, egg tempera and graphite on paper hand toned with distemper, 15 x 15 in.

But freedom to begin something must also mean freedom to end it, and I'm now feeling that I've reached the end of my interest in working with this drawing format. When I look at the work itself, I think "oh no, you must keep going", but when I was working on this last group (one drawing ended in the trash) I was no longer happy in the making of them. For me, pleasure in working is very important, which doesn't mean that there isn't struggle or disappointment or uncertainty, but that the work brings satisfaction during its process. I began to feel with these drawings that I no longer wanted to draw the underlying pattern; it was like pulling teeth, to use a cliche. So, for now––because I never know what I'll want to do in future––these are the last of this series.

sd 49, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

I don't yet feel at a dead end with these small, painterly drawings. I began doing them about a year and a half ago, using small pieces of paper left over from tearing down large sheets for the Islamic-based drawings. I am still enjoying the process of painting with distemper––glue size (I use gelatin) and pigment––on hand made paper, and then adding a small shape or gesture in egg tempera paint. In the sd 49 the small blue rectangle at the bottom is painted in egg tempera.

sd 50, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

With these drawings, so different from most of my work––only my potato prints have a similar aesthetic––which is ordered and planned. These works might be said to have more intuition involved.

sd 51, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

Intuition: "an ability to understand or know something without needing to think about it or use reason to discover it, or a feeling that shows this ability." (Cambridge Dictionaries Online) It is certainly true that I am using more of an intuitive sensibility to paint, in distemper, the wide swath of dark red and more translucent red beneath and then to add the dark red line in egg tempera.

sd 52, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

Nothing is planned in these drawings; I am looking at the colors I have mixed with size, and with wide brushes apply them. But how much of intuition in art really is just that and how much comes from understanding and experience and years of working and looking?

sd 53, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

I feel that I couldn't have made these drawings (and I'm not claiming great quality for them) years ago, because I wouldn't have had the tools, of the hand or the eye or the mind.

sd 54, egg tempera on paper painted with distemper, ca. 7 x 7 in.

So, these drawings continue to interest me in that they challenge an aspect of my art personality that doesn't often have a chance to be used. And they are a way of playing with pure color. I am thinking I might try them a little larger, at 10 x 10 inches, but for that I might have to buy some much larger brushes....

December 16, 2015

Donald Judd and Giorgio Morandi: Simple Forms and Depth of Feeling

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1991; Cor-ten steel and yellow laquer; four units, each 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 
19 11/16 in.

I was trying to understand the mood I was in when at the Donald Judd show at David Zwirner (until Saturday) because I was on the verge of tears while there. Here was work that was intensely formal––about shape and dimension and repetition and balance and weight and color––that was so beautiful in its clarity and reserve that I was deeply touched. The materials of the sculpture, though industrial, are gorgeously sensuous: the Cor-ten steel has a rich orange-red surface, and the acrylic sheets capture light and reflections.

Donald Judd,  Untitled, 1987 and Untitled, 1989 

There is a sense in the best minimalist art that we are seeing what is essential in the world, a perfect balance of forms that transcends materiality. 

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1987; Cor-ten steel and blue acrylic sheet, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 
19 11/16 in.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989; Cor-ten steel, 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 
19 11/16 in.

The two works above are especially moving to me; perhaps it is their square shape, and the planes within that square having a powerful presence. They have a right-ness to them, within the square and in their relationship to the space outside.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1990; Cor-ten steel and ivory acrylic sheets; 4 units, each 9 7/8 x 
19 11/16 x 9 7/8 in.

There were a few works in the show made up of repeating units, in a group of 4 as the first work posted, or this group in a horizontal alignment....

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1990; Cor-ten steel and black acrylic sheets; 6 units, each 9 7/8 x 
19 11/16 x 9 7/8 in.

....or these 6 going vertically up the wall. They add another formal element, that of repetition, and ask how we see differently when an object is not unique, but plays like a part of a musical composition.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1990, detail

Looked at closely, these divided rectangles are richly mysterious with their dark interior planes that either sink into black or subtly reflect the room.

Donald Judd, four untitled works from 1989; Cor-ten steel, one piece with yellow acrylic; 
each 39 3/8 x 78 3/4 x 78 3/4 in. 

Also in the show are four large floor pieces, each 1 x 2 x 2 meters, each having a different division of its interior space.

Detail of one of the above works

I am someone who finds it very satisfying to look down at a clear division of space within a large rectangle. Judd managed to evoke complex feelings using basic forms.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still life), 1947; oil on canvas, 8 1/16 x 10 13/16 in.

Walking upstairs at Zwirner gallery from the Judd show, where a beautiful show of Morandi paintings and prints was hanging, I was struck by a similarity of concerns for the two artists. Although Morandi's forms aren't minimalist, he painted the same simple objects again and again in different configurations, playing with basic ideas of relationships of form and space and color. Whether the objects are in a line at the front edge of a table....

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still life), 1949; oil on canvas, 12 x 17 15/16 in. 

....or compressed against its outer edge, I feel that the things depicted are more than just studio props; they become, like the Judd sculpture, essential forms, touching on transcending the ordinary.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still life); oil on canvas, 12 15/16 x 15 13/16 in.

Morandi searched for underlying reality through perception, trying to understand shape, color, space, using his hand, while Judd's search used geometry and manufacturing.

Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still life), 1962; oil on canvas, 12 3/16 x 14 3/16 in. 

But both artists explored elemental relationships of form, and through variations in those relationships, sought a kind of perfection. For me, both paths are deeply moving.

December 9, 2015

Sculpture: Picasso's Pleasures

Bottle of Bass, Glass, and Newspaper, 1914; painted tin plate, sand, iron, wire, and paper.

There's no question that Pablo Picasso was a sensualist, in his life and in his art, so it is not surprising that the painter worked in three dimensions throughout his life. The current show, "Picasso Sculpture", at the Museum of Modern Art presents over 100 of his sculptural works, from very tiny to large; my sense was that Picasso enjoyed every minute of their making. My favorite paintings of Picasso are from his Cubist period, and those are the sculptures that I liked the best in this show. They are almost paradoxical: in Cubism the world was reduced to flat planes, with sculpture it is being made into tangible volumes again, though of an abstracted nature.

Glass, 1914; painted tine plate, nails, and wood. 

Some of Picasso's cubist sculpture was fairly simple: a few interlocking flat and curved planes.....

Glass of Absinthe, 1914; painted bronze with absinthe spoon.

....while others had more complex form. The materials involved––and Picasso explored many––helped to determine the form.

Glass and Newspaper, 1914; painted wood, pencil, and oil on wood panel.

The almost flat painted wooden box is closer to the paintings, but the added form of the glass brings some whimsy to the composition.

Still life with Guitar, variant state, 1913; paperboard, paper, thread, string, twine, and coated wire.

I love Picasso's deconstruction and reconstruction of musical instruments, such as this guitar....

Violin, c.1915; painted sheet metal and iron wire. 

....and this violin, though it's difficult to discern the violin amid the colorful, almost riotous planes.

Head of a Woman, 1931; plaster.

Head of a Woman, 1932; plaster

There were a few other pieces in this show that engaged me, such as these two images of women in plaster. The first, though more naturalistic, has the forms of the face simplified and dramatized. This drama is heightened in this second, a large head. Though nothing like a real person, the actuality of the shapes, their clarity and assuredness and inventiveness, make this head remarkably alive.

Engraved ceramic fragments, pebbles, bone, 1945-47.

There was much in this show that was charming and delightful (maybe a little too much for my taste) and these tiny engraved pieces were my favorite of that type; perhaps it was because they were so small, so unassuming.

Head of an animal, engraved pebble

It was also because they referred to ancient art, and the forms that are simplified yet so sensitive to observation.

Flowers in a Vase, 1951-53; painted plaster, terracotta, and iron.

This is one of Picasso's "cute" sculptures that I enjoyed, perhaps because I'm a gardener. He really did seem to be getting a kick out of making things: fun things, silly things, sometimes more serious things.

The Bathers, 1956; wood.

Lastly, some wood assemblages of figures at the beach; the one in the foreground is a child. This exhibition confirms yet again Picasso's remarkable inventiveness––and who else would think of combining a bicycle seat and handlebars into the image of a bull's head?––his constant exploration, his joy in making art.