Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sweet Distractions

Woke up this morning all energized to hit the easel and finish off the half dozen oils I have in progress right now. I'm excited about all of them. 

Pulling on my socks though I turned my head to gaze out the window on the fog wrapping around my favorite maple tree. Damn but it was lovely! Came within an inch of dropping everything and starting a new painting. 

But I didn't. 

Sometimes I see paintings in museums by famous artists (whose work I usually admire) that seem unresolved to me. I always wonder about that. Once an artist has become widely recognized and widely collected, the prices for their paintings can skyrocket. And even unfinished work that only collected dust in the corner of their studio can become monetarily really valuable. 

Whenever you see a work where the artist managed to bring their vision completely to life it's thrilling. All artists, even the most talented, get stuck. If they're smart that's when they put their work aside for awhile and go on to other pieces. Eventually they'll get an idea for how to fix the troubled work-in-progress and return to finish it off.

Most artists of any accomplishment have lots of work like this lying around. They're waiting until the muse "whispers in their ear" and tells them how to fix their troubled incomplete pieces.
At a certain point, the artist either has to get them finished or failing that, paint over them. I'd like to leave a legacy of lots of fully realized paintings. And those six pieces I need to finish are calling to me.

To the woods outside my studio this morning I will have to say thank you and savor the memory of how they made me feel. That's good enough. Those six in-progress works are clamoring for the brush.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

More from Delaware Art Museum

The previous blog post talked about the new exhibition of art from the Brooklyn Museum, American Moderns 1910-1960, now hanging at the Delaware Art Museum that impressed me so much last weekend. Wanted to share a few more of my favorites from this show. The image on the cover of the exhibition catalogue is an oil by Georgia O'Keeffe (Am. 1887-1986), 2 Yellow Leaves. In person the handling of the paint is stunning.

Look at all the little moves O'Keeffe makes to inject some asymmetry into the painting, for example the outer periphery of the larger, bottom leaf. On the upper left it's got touches of green and seems unscathed by the coming of Fall. On the upper right the artist changes her palette more towards warm sienna browns. That second side also looks like a bug made a lunch for itself out of some of the leaf's outer edge. 

There have been probably thousands of paintings of autumn leaves, but few have the visual surprise of this one. Notice how O'Keeffe understates most of the veins that run through the leaves. Some are crisply dark, but most of their edges soften and gradually seem to submerge below O'Keeffe's gentle sea of yellow.

Sometimes the broad paint handling and unusual points of view typical of modernist sensibilities could be used to depict a Jack and the Beanstalk story with figures dressed in antiquated garb.

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington is of course Wyeth country, so it's doubly appropriate that this early oil by N. C. Wyeth (Am. 1885-1945), Vision of New York, is included. It was used as an ad for a telephone company. 

I find the rhythms of the sycamore's branches intoxicatingly elegant, with their sometimes straight, sometimes curving expanse across the canvas. Notice the way the branches move from lighter to darker and in and out of sharp contrast. They give just enough to play a huge supporting role in the climbers' drama without upstaging them. N.C. was good!

Last here is an oil by Jack Levine (Am. 1915-2010), Welcome Home, quite a large canvas tightly stuffed full of figures painted with almost flame-like flickering brushwork. The painting's surface is elegantly woven together with a network of boldly overlapping strokes. It's a bit like a mural by Thomas Hart Benton beginning to break apart into a thousand little pieces. 

Heavy patterning and crowded space like this could easily overwhelm a viewer and cause them to turn away in confusion. Look at how Levine cuts through his ulta-cluttered space with the clean sharp edge of the linen covered dining table. It's like a visual handrailing in a storm.

 I can't think of a painting that expresses joyless consumption better than Levine's biting oil. Curator Karen Sherry in her notes in the exhibition catalogue tells the background that led Levine to make this painting:

Shortly after returning from service in World War II, Levine painted this scathing satire of a welcome-home dinner for a major general at a posh restaurant. Disillusioned with the army, Levine viewed the institution as an undemocratic "caste system" that placed "the big slob who is vice-president of the Second National Bank and president of the Chamber of Commerce" in a position of authority.

American Moderns 1910 - 1960 continues at the Delaware Art Museum through Jan. 5, 2014.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

American Moderns at Delaware Art Museum

Exhibition catalogue for American Monderns 1910-1960
By Karen Sherry and Margaret Stenz. Brooklyn Musuem.
Pictured, Georgia O'Keeffe's 2 Yellow Leaves, 1928

The job of artists is to see the patterns that lie hidden just beneath the surface of things. The visual environment that surrounds us is full of distractions, insignificant details and conflicting messages. Fortunately there are roadsigns pointing the way out of this murky confusion- the paintings by the best artists who've preceded us. I've spent a life time studying their work. It has taught me how to see on a deeper level. 

And it's an ongoing assignment. 

Last Saturday I spent the day at the symposium organized around the Delaware Art Museum's new exhibition American Moderns 1910-1960. From O'Keeffe to Rockwell, a show that takes an unusual and more broad sample of how modernism influenced American painters in the early 20th century. The work is entirely drawn from the Collection of the Brooklyn Museum with the selections made by Terry Carbone, the Brooklyn Museum's Mellon Curator of American Art. She picked terrific stuff. 

Heather Campbell Coyle, Delaware Art Museum's Curator of American Art, began the symposium with a slide talk on the history of the DAM's initial forays into exhibiting and later collecting Modernist art in the decades following the groundbreaking Armory Show in New York in 1913. Listening to Heather's presentation it struck me how rarely art museums survey their own history of shows and acquistions. She showed great archival photos of the Museum's galleries in their earlier days. One could feel the unfolding of the Museum's history.

Terry Carbone followed with an overview of the Moderns exhibition itself. A key point she spoke of was how the arrival of modernism in American art is often over simplified. Traditionally  the story is told as if 20th century American art was a one- way street rushing headlong in the direction of abstraction. In contrast she showed how the modernist enthusiasms for dramatic two dimensional shapes, more active painting surfaces and the employment of brighter hues made itself felt in all sorts of different styles of 20th century art. 

As a painter myself who began as an abstract artist before committing to painting the landscape, this broader interpretation of "modernism" makes a lot of sense. In my own landscape paintings I see the echoes of my early painting mentors- the flat design of Frank Stella and the intense color in Mark Rothko coexisting with a love of Thomas Cole and Winslow Homer. All of us are complex beings, woven together from threads that come to us from all directions. 

I wanted to talk about several of the paintings in the Monderns show. I'll start with this one below and touch on others in my next blog post.

Karen Sherry (formerly from the Brooklyn Museum and now a Curator at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine) who wrote the exhibition catalogue for the show describes Marsden Hartley (Am. 1877-1943) as "A restless spirit with boundless creativity, Hartley experimented with diverse expressive means throughout his career."  If one knows his brushy and expressionist later work, this oil Handsome Drinks from 1916, early in his career, shows  him when he favored a more pristine and sharp edged way of seeing. 

Hartley's eye for crisp patterns and high contrasts in his colors is evident. What makes the painting so good, despite the obvious and dramatic contrasts between its colors and elements,  is all the different forms seem to want to be seen together.  Hartley was a painter deeply sensitive to how he handled his materials. For example, look at the blue lettering in the upper right hand corner.

A lesser painter would have painted in the white background, left it to dry, and then plunked down the "L" and the "O".  Not here. If one looks closely along the edges of the letters, one sees passages where the blue is clearly in on top of the background white. In other places Hartley's brush subtley pulls the wet background white back up over the blue. Instead of one dominating the other, or each ignoring the other, a conversation unfolds between the two.
This "dialog of little edges" occurs throughout the painting.

American Moderns 1910-1960. From O'Keeffe to Rockwell continues at Delaware Art Museum through Jan. 5, 2014. It's tour then takes it to art museums in Winston Salem, NC,  Springfield, MA, and Wichita, KS.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Winslow Homer's World (Part III)

This is the third of my posts about my visit to Winslow Homer's studio in Prouts Neck, Maine. My previous blogs on his studio can be found here and here.

Here's one of the crown jewels of the Portland Museum of Art, Winslow Homer's oil Weatherbeaten. Below are the rocks on the shore by Homer's studio in nearby Prouts Neck. Homer's vatage point was a bit more to the right and down closer to the waves than the spot where I took the photo. Even with the profoundly different weather from what Homer chose (the day I visited the studio was ridiculously clear and sunny) you can identify some of same rocks depicted in Homer's oil.

Looking north from Homer's shoreline.

And looking south.

Here is the single large upstairs room in the two story studio. The doorway opens out onto Homer's second floor blacony overlooking the Atlantic.

The docent from the Portland Museum of Art leading the tour explained Homer had these two fish mounted on his wall in his day. (Neither one looked particularly happy).

In first floor painting room the Museum has on display one of Homer's sets of watercolor pigments. When one thinks of the artist's remarkably brilliant watercolor paintings, the modest and utterly ordinary messy paint box is a surprise. Somehow I realize I unconsciously imagined something more elegant. You realize that in the right hands, real magic grows out of even the simplest of materials. They sure did here.

The Museum has several Homer quotes posted on the studio wall upstairs. One I liked in particular was "When you paint, try to put down exactly what you see. Whatever else you have to offer will come out anyway." 

Homer only moved to Prouts Neck in Maine in the second half of his life when he was already well known. Far from being remote, the peninsula was becoming a popular tourist destination sporting several large hotels. Attempting to discourage casual visitors to his studio, Homer had this sign posted outside warning of "Snakes" and "Mice." I love that someone years ago had the good sense to hold onto his crudely lettered sign.

My tour of the Winslow Homer studio coincided with a painting trip up the coast to Acadia National Park so I could do some landscape work out in the field. The Maine coast gets noticeably wilder there than in relatively quiet Prouts Neck. Given the drama Homer could inject into his oceans, I can only wonder what he would have done with the more radical landscape farther north.

Here are three new vine charcoal drawings I did on the trip (out of a total of eight pieces). My favorites will be used as a basis for oil paintings back in my studio. Each is 10 1/2 x 14" and are done in vine charcoal.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Winslow Homer Saw

Wanted to continue the series of photos from my visit to Winslow Homer's studio in Prouts Neck, Maine that I began in the previous post. The studio has been extensively restored to match how it appeared in the artist's day by the Portland Museum of Art. Tour's can be booked through the Museum.

Above is the back of the studio with the addition Homer added as a  special painting room in the foreground. The Atlantic peeks through at us from the distance.

The view of the ocean from the 1st floor living room.

The balcony or "piazza" Homer had constructed to give him a panoramic view of the sea.

Shadows on the piazza. Below two views from that balcony with the Atlantic in the distance.

Homer's painting room. The Portland Museum ascertained that Homer had the wall painted this cream yellow color rather than white.

A secret behind any strong artist is mastery of his craft. Homer was no exception. He had a killer set of canvas pliers to stretch his linen canvas "just right" over his stretcher bars. I have several different sets of canvas pliers in my studio and am charmed that their design hasn't altered in the least since Homer's day.

One of the props Homer used for his painting Eight Bells now in the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA (see below), a sextant displayed in the studio's painting room.


Getting these glimpses of what Homer saw around him brings us a tantalizing step closer to understanding his creativity. Yet as fascinating as his daily surroundings are, they only take us so far. To go all the way you have to let Homer's paintings themselves beckon you to take that last step. When they work their magic on you you feel almost like you're touching the artist's soul.

I will post a final group of my photos from my tour of the Homer studio tomorrow or the next day.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Winslow Homer's Prouts Neck Studio

My first encounter with art museums was on a fourth grade school trip to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY (my hometown). We were shuttled through the museum by an amiable docent and stopped to hear her talk about some of the work on display. I remember only one painting from that first trip, Winslow Homer's oil The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog above. I didn't know much of anything about Homer (Am. 1836 - 1910) but I knew this was what I thought a painting should look like. For a nine year old, I think I had pretty good taste.

Here's a photo of the same studio I took last Friday afternoon. My wife Alice and I were headed up to Acadia National Park in Maine to go painting. We took time to visit the recently re-opened studio of Winslow Homer in Prouts Neck, just south of Portland. The Portland Museum of Art purchased and completely overhauled and restored the property to match as closely as possible how it appeared when Homer was painting in it. Anyone who loves Homer would love touring this restored studio.

The studio is all about the ocean, Homer's signature subject. For a studio Homer had his family's carriage house dragged close to the water so he could study the light on the waves and get lost in their watery magic. He had an architect design a cantilevered second floor balcony which Homer colorfully referred to as his "piazza" so he could get a panoramic view of the sea. Here is Alice checking out what Homer so loved to gaze upon.

I have a particular curiosity about the Homer studio as he was one of the artists who had done the most to shape American realist painting when Edward Hopper (Am. 1882 - 1967) began finding his own footing as an artist. And I feel there is much of Homer in Edward Hopper's way of seeing- forms pared down to essential volumes, a remarkable awareness of the drama of light, and a deep love of the natural world. 

Hopper, perhaps unconsciously imitating Homer, built a studio on the shore of Cape Cod Bay in Truro, MA, just off the open water of the Atlantic. Here I am just about this time last fall during my 14th residency at Hopper's studio. As you can imagine, it's a place that compels you to look out to sea. 

Homer's studio differs from Hopper's in one striking way- Hopper had much more natural light to work under than Homer. Hopper had designed his Truro studio to include a 10' tall north facing window that literally floods the room with cool unchanging light. Homer's studio had fewer and smaller windows. Not surprisingly, Homer generally painted darker paintings than Hopper, though part of that was Homer's coming of age in the mid 19th century.

Here's the inside of Homer's painting room with part of the tour group we came with from the Portland Museum of Art.

Another view of the painting room:

Despite their differences, both Homer's and Hopper's studios strike one as fairly rough. In many ways they were remarkably straightforward working spaces with little other adornment. Seeing them drives home the point that it wasn't the place that made Homer or Hopper the amazing artists they were. Their achievement stemmed from the richness of their internal personality, what they brought to the places they painted.

In the painting room the Portland Museum of Art has installed text panels telling about Homer and his art. The panel in the photo below feature some of the paintings Homer made of the area around the studio, including Memorial Art Gallery's oil of Homer's studio I had loved so much as a boy.

Here's a detail:

The studio seen from the shore:

I have more Homer studio photos. Shortly I will put some in a follow up post on this blog.