Tag Archives: American painting

Looking at Norman Rockwell at a time of National Crisis*

*Below is the initial musing … . For an edited version with repros: Reconsidering Norman Rockwell.

Looking at Rockwell paintings, and a show of photographs by Pops Peterson on view through May 2021, at the Norman Rockwell Museum

The work of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) resonates in new ways in the age of the Covid pandemic, the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and the Biden/Harris inauguration. 

Prolonged pandemic relocation has led to explorations of art venues I probably never would have sought out otherwise—such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, located in the pre-Revolutionary-established village of Stockbridge, MA, by far the most popular museum in a region that encompasses The Clark and MassMoCA (according to mainstream touristic press in recent decades).  Recent national events relative to what and who and where America has been and hopes for its future spurred me on.

Opened in 1969 with the facilitation of the artist, who spent the last two decades of his life in the town, the museum was reestablished on new grounds in 1993, along with Rockwell’s last studio. Since then Rockwell’s art historical and market stock has risen incrementally. Previously, art cognoscenti generally resisted consideration of Rockwell as a serious artist, per se. His populist success was his failure, to paraphrase Arthur C. Danto, who begged to differ, based mainly on Rockwell’s ability to tap emotion in viewers (google Danto, “Age of Innocence,” The Nation, Jan. 7, 2002). The millennial (final) fall of canonical modernism as the only path for artists who had their proverbial hand on the pulse of their times has also opened onto new critical looks at Rockwell. Straight away I will say that, beyond these somewhat dissipated debates about Rockwell’s intent as a painter (i.e., artist) on the one hand and an illustrator (aka picture-maker-for-hire) on the other, seeing his original paintings first hand if you know them only through repros and adaptations for print will probably effect your assessment of his oeuvre.

Rockwell has been best known, at least until recently, for idealized representations of white-American-middle-class life from the eve of WWI to the 1960s. His mid-century pictorial appeal (in dual senses) to viewers overlapped with emerging tropes in advertising and television programming; indeed, familiarity with timely iconographic cues were key to his quickly amassed faithful following, facilitated through his long affiliation with the Saturday Evening Post.  Over 300 of his cover illustrations for the publication spanning five decades are on long-term view on the ground floor of the museum.  The installation reads as a collective visual history of changing fashions, gadgets, transportation modes, public persons, holiday trends, and a mostly upbeat view of two world wars and their veterans.  Beyond certain cliché settings and very light humor, and along with impressive, detailed realist style, Rockwell’s prosaic humanism (for lack of better term) seems to have rung true with diversifying viewers over time.  In fact, his seeming knack for capturing human postures and expressions, and apparent technical skill were diligently nurtured through art school in his native Manhattan. From there, he relocated to rural Vermont, where he became famous as the Boy Scouts of America artist who immortalized the local ginger-headed kids, apple pie moms, Barney Fife policemen, et al., –in carefully arranged set-ups to be sure—carried to a climactic phase in Stockbridge. 

Rockwell considered himself an illustrator, unabashedly, although he admired “fine artists,” especially historical painters, suggested in many paintings worth dissecting formally as well as thematically. These are found on the main floor, most ultimately related to Saturday Evening Post covers. Currently, as with most museums in the Covid era, exhibitions focus on works in the collection, sometimes in lieu of cancelled or postponed shows and open-ended. Here, several ostensibly discrete permanent and special displays run into each other–it doesn’t much matter the order in which one meanders through the apropos New England-Classical galleries. A tour de force is Shuffleton’s Barbership (1950), in terms of spatial illusion, narrative detail and simulated texture–far more complex than a functional printing guide need be. (It’s on view here via long-term loan agreement from the Los Angeles Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in 2018 after its controversial deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum of Art). Apparently deferring to the demands of producing lucrative mass media, Rockwell exhibited paintings intermittently but sold relatively few; thus, the cache he had in store for posterity here.

Several galleries comprise an abridged version of a previously traveling exhibition, “Imagining Freedom,” and includes graphics by peer artists of the WWII era in the museum’s expanded collection. The star is Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series of four paintings and related studies and resultant prints. Based on points enumerated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 address to the nation and created to be issued as posters to raise funds for the war effort, the series secured Rockwell’s national ubiquity—and makes a great case for art directly effecting social action, judging by public response. Perhaps the most famous, Freedom from Want, aka the “Thanksgiving” painting (although other of his works include “Thanksgiving” in their titles and this one does not), benefits in person from the nuanced perspective that seats you at the depicted dinner table. This work has been as copiously appropriated in diverse visual culture as its precedent kin, Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930).

Today Rockwell is increasingly known for his late forays into topical Civil-Rights subjects, which led to his break with the Saturday Evening Post and an affiliation with the more forward-looking magazine, Look. Prominently, The Problem we all Live With (1963) has generated an enormous amount of brilliant academic and pedagogic, as well as popular coverage in the past decade, furthered by an extended loan to the White House during the Barack Obama years, and the increasing activism of Ruby Bridges, whose seminal case of grade school integration in New Orleans inspired the painting. What could be more relevant than the 2020 Democratic debate in which Kamala Harris stated to Joe Biden her similar experience with busing in California? In fact a substantial amount of political cartooning and a brilliant manipulated photo meme by Bria Goeller (google it) on the incident referred back Rockwell’s painting. Standing in front of it was quite moving, the internal scale of the giant cropped guards against the child especially impactful at eye level. Rockwell photographed several young girls to model in a white dress he had created to develop the final composition, which helps qualify his brand of realism and complicates his intentions and ours in excavating its latent layered messages. Among his last works, studies and paintings from a loose series based on several brutal Civil Rights murders, are highlighted in a separate presentation.

The museum also mounts small special group and solo exhibitions of other historical and contemporary artists. On my visit, a big bonus was an intro to Pops Peterson, a Stockbridge artist who riffs on Rockwell with photo-based works printed on canvas to simulate (imo), a light impasto characteristic of Rockwell’s paintings (only discernible in person in both artists’ cases). Especially acute is Peterson’s version of Rockwell’s Freedom from Fear, which foregrounds particular concerns of African American families as far as domestic safety, and an updated take on The Problem we all Live With, which reflects on its unfinished business after the Michael Brown police shooting and aftermath in Ferguson, MO. All in all a highly thought-provoking excursion.

The Cosmology of Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, at the Whitney Museum (WMAA), through June 21, 2020.

(As of this posting, the museum is temporarily closed due to Covid-19 emergency; check museum website.)

Luckily, I got to see this transporting show before the bad news hit —including the closure of the Whitney and virtually all other NYC museums, the Met Opera, Broadway, live t.v., and more until further notice.  Hopefully things will normalize soon, and then the sophisticated spiritual surrealism of Ms. Pelton will be the perfect antidote to the current gloom.

Starting from a European-based realism, Pelton gradually moved very deeply into nature and finally the outing of inner visions through the course of a somewhat peripatetic life, literally and metaphorically—ending up as a yogi-transcendentalist painter in Palm Springs, CA.  In the Whitney presentation back-story material (wall text) is nicely brief so that visitors stay focused on the surfaces of these contemplative works, which effectively approximate the states of mind and imagination that apparently motivated them.  They emit a collective quietism–via smoothed brushwork, softened contours, and dusty, twilight-like palette, with intermittent flashes of glowing atomic detail.

Many include recognizable botanical forms highly abstracted, for example, linear Deco-like lotuses or floating arabesque ferns.   As in the florals of Georgia O’Keeffe, these can yield archetypal central female forms, furthered in Pelton’s oeuvre by ova-orbs and some female figures.  The inevitable comparison between these two peers is interesting as much for their divergent sensibilities, styles and artistic aims as for shared ones.  (Their artist circles overlapped although there is no known direct contact between them; Pelton was more consciously involved with female-centered experience.)  Elsewhere Pelton goes full-on cosmological—the kind of thing associated canonically with Kandinsky and now—and here more so—Hilma af Klint’s idiosyncratic celestial mysticism [see Klint]; Pelton’s work evokes more intimacy. Her surrealist affinities lie in her morphing of watery, heavenly, and biological elements, e.g., flower heads and petals into rippling waves and stars.  A major inspiration for many early modernists (broadly) was music—as Pelton herself, an accomplished pianist, emphasized in her case, and which should be recalled in forthcoming exegesis in this arena. 

Agnes Pelton, Lotus for Lida (Egyptian Dawn), 1930; in the current WMAA exhibition
Agnes Pelton, Fires in Space, 1938; in the current WMAA exhibition

Farm Livin’ Writ Large: Grant Wood at the Whitney

Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables; through June 10, 2018, at the Whitney Museum

This smartly installed Grant Wood show is as illuminating as his mid-West-baroque corncob chandelier in the entrance gallery that highlights his generally underplayed substantial early design training and career.  Unexpected are inventive yard art-meets-Dada table-top-scale sculptures, alongside subdued classically-derived painted allegorical adornments.  There are two examples (models) of stained glass projects in situ, one of which depicts a sweetly sanctified male youth that fast forwards to similar window treatments by Kehinde Wiley.  Yes,  sexual undertones are there throughout, and in accompanying scholarship.

Grant’s disciplined Arts & Crafts-influenced foundation underlay a strong compositional and surface facility in his “fine art” paintings.  His bold and deliberate figurative style cedes to warmly rounded gestalt-like geometry from a distance.  Upon close viewing, many paintings reveal an obsessively repetitive and layered, near-pointillist technique.  Also in his drawings Wood approaches the coup de chiaroscuro of Seurat’s charcoals, with similar dense and gradated hatchings and rich opaque silhouettes.

Following the sens de la visite, I practically sensed beneath my feet the velvety-verdant patches of field and earth on which Wood set his mainly sprawling yet intimate homages to farm life, real and mythologized, while engaging his emblematic adaptions of the locals, inflected, variously, with nuanced satire and lofty stoicism. The famed American Gothic (1930) is not one of his most intriguing works in painterly terms, but its iconic hold is as strong as ever.  In a few late paintings his pristine light impasto opens up, a la rich Fauvist contouring, harking back to his roots in Impressionist tapped on an early sojourn to Europe, some examples of which are included.

Most copious here are all manner of studies for Wood’s expansive murals, which impress in scope and refinements.  Committed Regionalist we know–as per the canonized “story of American art”–unabashedly, and above all–one whose perceptive, partly repressed humor and social commentary is veiled in technical confidence and representational inventiveness.

Hipster Paintings for Posterity

“Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s”; Whitney Museum; through May 14.

Reganomics; the mainstreaming of hip hop, club kids, supermodels; gender and body politics, from the Pop-post-feminism of Madonna to the onslaught of AIDs.  Insert art world: the disco art show; Wolf-of-Wall-Street collectors; out-sized art stars (bringing Pollock’s posthumous persona to its ironically macho [after Warhol] conclusion) and the (reciprocal) PR-savvy mega-dealer (read Queen Mary Boone and Gogo Gagosian); reverse-chic tiny salons; (props Gracie Mansion); graffiti brought in from the cold (not to mention, scaled to the sofa), with Keith Haring (gay white artist) and Jean Michel Basquiat (of African descent; i.e., black in America) leading the way.

The socio-economic and cultural climate not only ushered the definitive infiltration of photography into the galleries in the 1980s, but also a barrage of refractive, hand-hewn painting.  (That’s even if the hand was hired by the artist of record, a la Mark Kostabi–one bold-face name in the era missing from the Whitney’s collection.  Hmmm.  Certainly his early style was appropriated, overall, as seminal “East Village”; but I digress.)

For one thing, paintings long have been assimilated in the West as trophies of wealth and (thus) taste, and, in tandem, are far more easily commodified (conceptually and physically) than sculptural and new media modes that gained traction in the upper art echelons through the 1970s.  This revival of sorts in the US (centralized in NY out of art schools all over) was bolstered and burdened by a similar burst in Europe, especially Germany, where some incarnations were deemed by some cognoscenti “reactionary”–dangerously or just redundantly so–in their gestural equivocations of unbridled virility.

Yet, in the end, despite numerous claims to the contrary, painting  hardly died and still thrives in the digital age.  Through the 1980s, the eternal appeal and joie de peintre for those on both sides of the picture plane was outed, unabashedly–for what it’s worth in itself (everything–a fundamental experience of visual artifice haunted by the painter-magician, to lift from a more complex Walter Benjamin metaphor).  In particular, figurative painting of any ilk could seem transgressive (an aesthetic buzzword of the era) in its structural (literal and semiotic) “decadence,” compared to the purposefully esoteric continuum of inventive forms aka “the historical avant-garde” (see Donald Kuspit, The Dialectic of Decadence, 1993).

If you weren’t there, well, the Whitney’s got most of it–pretty much to a tee; if you were, I think you’ll enjoy/agree.  Of course, the museum also helped (a lot) in constructed this “history”–not least, via its ongoing Biennials of “best new work,” which accrue caché for emerging artists and have served as feeders for the collection at the same time.  (Just saying.  It’s all part of  the culture industry.)  Along that vein, it may be fun (to oversimplify) for some to identify the dealers most in on the action here – namely, a cache of exciting paintings on the surface variously psychological, politically explicit, or purposefully left at accessible sea level, as far as content.  The entrance wall (facing the elevators) has been painted with Haring’s mural design from his unprecedented Pop Shop, onto which is hung a Haring edge-to-edge sprawl on faux animal hide that binds his inextricably child-like and sophisticated art primitivism; and examples by fellow graffiti-istes Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.  It’s a cold-hearted viewer who, at this point, can resist Haring’s autonomous mazes of intertwined, loving stick figures; like-wise, Basquiat’s raw and poignant word and image play, and Scharf’s Surrealism-meets-the-Jetsons cosmos.

The hit room (imo) includes a dark, expressionist Julian Schnabel featuring a male hero/savior; a prurient tourist beach scene by Eric Fischl; a terrifying Leon Golub from his blood-red-grounded mercenary series: an antidotal (to all that drama), splashy and parodic self portrait by Robert Colescott (he’s done in by three Graces); and an almost-Realist slice  of landscape by Louisa Chase.  Beyond their own merits, each indicates directions of many peers not represented here.

Other works recalled vividly:  Walter Robinson’s dime-store paperback novel cover image over printed fabric work, which brought to mind earlier Sigmar Polke and later Richard Prince; of few abstractions, Ross Bleckner’s and Terry Winter’s biology-evoking images with diametrically opposite painterly  sensibilities; and piece-meal painted montage puzzles that anticipate Photoshop by Julie Wachtel and David Salle.

Caveats:  the Schnabel is not one of his broken plate paintings that really made his mark.  The Whitney’s example is concurrently on view on another floor in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” (through April 2); likewise, among the most compelling Basquiat paintings in his oeuvre, Hollywood Africans (1983).  There is much other brilliant work in this (ostensible) portrait show (not limited to painting), including a personal favorite, Gary Simmons’s sculptural installation, Lineup (1993; first featured in Thelma Golden’s landmark, Black Male, 1994-95); and some engaging odd ducks, e.g., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s carved stone female Buddha type, Chinoise (1914).  However, the theme and organization is catch-all and amorphous.  Yes, expanding preconceptions and boundaries of genres and (other) categorizations with highly subjective takes can be interesting to a point but here the term “portrait” looses meaning in a way too simplistic to say, simply,  that this was the point.

Gary Simmons, Lineup, 1993 (detail; mixed media installation); at the Whitney Museum (1/31/17)

Titus Kaphar stays the Course at Shainman

Titus Kaphar: Shifting Skies; at Jack Shainman (513 W. 20th; and 524 W. 24th) through January 28.

Kaphar had a breakthrough with his extensive painting series, The Jerome Project, 2014, in terms of public exposure, as well as artistic and socially committed aims.  This group of portraits juggled and compressed deep personal motivations, hyper-realist painting style, Byzantine-golden grounds, the visual rhetoric of mugshots, and post-painterly abstraction; in each, the subjects are partly obscured by tarry blackness seeping up over the image field.

Around the same time, Kaphar was developing two other directions (according to his first [dual] exhibitions at Shainman; see post): one, steeped in revisionist history thematics sprung from past art images as catalysts and templates upon which to surface and flesh out the ostensibly invisible black presences outside–or erased from–these “frames”–joining, in this terrain, immediate predecessors and peers like Robert Colescott, Whitfield Lovell, and (fellow Yale alum) Kehinde Wiley.  The other has been his direct engagement with and poetic documentation of Black Lives Matter from its beginnings, especially prominent images of the spontaneous hands-up-don’t-shoot solidarity gesture partly obscured by a maelstrom of ghostly brushwork.  (One of these was published in Time, 12/10/14, in conjunction with the selection of BLM as collective runner up for Person of the Year).

The works on view in the current show further all three veins mentioned, variously.  Individualistic portraiture remains prominent; notably in a series of intimate,  sepia-toned images on raw canvases, and larger, Warholian off-register-photo-silkcreen-type images of (to most) anonymous, “shaken” individuals.

Titus Kaphar; seen at Jack Shainman, 24th St. (Jan. 19, 2016)

The torch of history is carried through in the clever, curt, crunched and jewel-toned Twisted Tropes, 2016;

Titus Kaphar; seen at Jack Shainman, 20th St. (Jan. 19, 2016)along with other distorted, ripped and re-organized pictures and planes throughout; with several silhouette-cut-out wood panels that move away from paint entirely.  Elsewhere, more photo-based imagery vies with windy brushwork in soldier subjects–namely uniformed and armed (African American) Buffalo soldiers.  Familiar visages of George Washington pop up throughout; including (I believe–or a similar colonial “father”) in squished-profile within an  experimental glass series of amorphous-heads.  I think many will agree the most compelling is in the form of an over-blown, tipped and corked canister with a bit of “brown juice” (both liquor and molasses are evoked) puddling at the bottom.

Overall, the works here are no less energetic for also conveying a  slow and steady visual exploration of presence and absence simultaneously.

“We Mourn Our Loss”: Kerry James Marshall Retrospective Right On Time

At The Met Breuer, through January 29, 2017:

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry 

The morning after the election debacle brought immediately to mind a painting in this timely (for the artist, the art world, and American society at large) Marshall retrospective.  On a huge, gold-fringed canvas tarpaulin, a glitter-winged, but gravity-bound women, very black as are virtually all of Marshall’s figures, fusses with a flower arrangement in a pristine, spacious living room.  One wall is adorned with a banner featuring medallions of MLK, JFK, and RFK above the slogan, “we mourn our loss”–itself echoing a cloud of fading photo-screened portraits hovering at the top of the composition above a carefully glitter-scripted caption, “in memory of.”  With a silvery-grisaille companion piece hung nearby, in which memories of the 1960s infiltrate a domestic interior veiled by shiny beaded curtains that can read also as bars and grounded with the inscription, “what a time what a time,”  Marshall’s layered iconography and mix-and-match painting techniques provoked in this viewer a palpable nostalgia for the immediate post-Civil Rights decade or so possibly approaching the intensity of Marshall’s own that inspired them.

Marshall’s entire 30-some-year oeuvre has been related in content to the subdued but rich private and pubic, social and emotional summaries encompassed by these two mentioned works–first recognized definitively in a breakthrough series based on urban-periphery “garden apartment” housing projects erected through the 1960s and 1970s, here exhibited in full (about a half dozen unstretched canvases from the mid-1990s).  In these vaguely Norman Rockwell-ian scenario blow-ups, bicycles, dogs and school kids abound.  Adults are scarce.  When they do appear, they are sartorially suggestive–Afrocentric or literally white-collar.  Sporadically dripped passages staining below and over the figurative aids in evoking clouded memories.  The aesthetics and messages overall vacillate between tentative and idyllic, challenging, disappointing, and ultimately loving, through the eyes of a knowing artist from early on destined to stay the course.  Especially gripping (perhaps as I had looked at it closely years before, now encountered in a political context that lent nearly to tears) is a scene of three youths performing a solemn and private patriotic ceremony in a patch of yard, which bears the slogans, “Happy July 4th,” “Bang,” and “We are one.”

Marshall’s stylistic signatures of very dark skin color and deliberate, stoic poses can recall traditional African votive scultpure–ameliorated with the Western realist figurative tradition in which he is deeply ensconced.  Canonical art history seeps into his naturalism one way or another throughout, variously referenced and appropriated.  This is most obvious in an intermittent, loose series of artist-at-work pictures, capped by a bubbling, stocked and staffed  studio extravaganza to rival Courbet’s ubiquitous proto-modern prototype (The Painter’s Studio . . . , 1855).   A tour de force is a bustling hair salon scene emanating shades of Ernie Barnes and Barkley Hendricks as well as Rockwell, Archibald Motley, and maybe a hint of Kehinde Wiley, not to mention a shout out to Chris Ofili directly in a reproduced poster of his art hung in the salon–all crowned with a sarcastic riff on the Renaissance novelty of anamorphosis–as you scan across the picture plane, an abstract blob in the foreground becomes a disembodied blond Barbie-head.

Then there are the ethereally-hued and musically-ornamented pictures of black love–family; romantic; in myriad settings, which stop short of both sentimentally and irony to convey a rare authenticity (for lack of better term).  Add light-box-presented comics that Marshall has developed over the past decade surrounding a character called “Mastr.”  Final bonus: none of the artists I’ve mentioned, but many more, are included in a gallery of “favorites” across time and place from The Met’s collection selected by Marshall.

Great paintings change through time, carrying their pasts with them.  Many works in this show fit that delineation.   All Americans and many others should be moved by them for many reasons–not least as a collective demonstration of the continuing powerful potential of depicting forms we recognize as direct reflections of life, i.e., figurative painting.

Works described (google):

Souvenir I, 1997 (MoCA, Chicago)

Memento #5, 2003 (Nelson-Atkins)

Untitled (Studio), 2014 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

School of Beauty, 2012 (Birmingham Museum of Art)

Bang, 1994 (Progressive Corp.)