Art Thoughts, Week 17 -- Cassatt & Intimacy

Woman with Nude Boy at Her Left, Mary Cassatt (American, active in France, 1844—1926), c. 1905—1908, watercolor on paper, BF 323.

A watercolor study is a bit like a gut reaction. In a slightly scandalous continuum, they are more than a sketch, and less than an oil painting. The combination of responsive paper and willing paint creates an environment of spontaneity, and a sometimes impetuous result. Yet, as unpredictable as it can be, watercolor is also akin to the phrase sometimes heard at grade-school testing time: go with your first answer; it’s probably the one closest to being right. In other words, the immediacy of our initial synapses are often more reliable before they become increasingly weighted down with context.

Mary Cassatt’s Woman with Nude Boy at Her Left has an instantly affecting and painterly immediacy to it. The Barnes collection has two Cassatt watercolors of almost identical subjects, yet this one is the truer of the two – and the less worked, as it turns out.

There is obvious warmth between mother and child (the familiar gaze and touch seem to suggest that relationship, regardless of the innocuous title). The leaning boy is drawn in by the large, rose-colored V of the mother’s robe neckline. He is further enveloped in an opposing warm V of her skirted legs, nestling him carefully. And too, she is gently holding him there with her right arm. Thus there is a subtle mix of two elements: an encouraging-into-intimacy, and a holding-inside-of-intimacy. Her legs provide the nest of that intimacy, and her arm the adoring restraint of love. This is a decidedly pacific and nurturing take on intimacy. That is, a welcoming space is provided, and then an extremely gentle hand of guidance and restraint is used, saying, in effect, I want you here; and you need to be here. This intimacy model is opposed to the one which would turn the tables, restraining someone in a grip of intimacy, and then attempting to nurture. This of course, is necessary in discipline, and may be found in some lovemaking. Here, however, there is no overt discipline and the painting itself is not Oedipal in the least. There is only a warm, cursory instant between mother and child.

Cassatt’s painting method accentuates this intimate feel. Many thin brush lines of dark lilac and salmon puddle around the figures’ limbs, and caress them into form; the positive shapes becoming almost a negative space, materially speaking. That is, there is less paint on the figures than there is around them. This creates a sort of paint nest for the growth of bodily form inside it, conveying a delicate and spontaneous feel to the paint surface; the forms feel almost carved out of the paper with paint. And those two qualities – delicacy and spontaneity – are certainly as equally important to mothering as they are to painting with watercolors.


Art Thoughts, Week 16 -- Hartley & Tension

Flower Piece, Marsden Hartley (American, 1877—1943), 1916, oil on commercial wallboard, BF 2072.

Energy is a funny thing. How something so seemingly static and…well, flat like a painting could put one on edge – psychologically or even physiologically – is amazing. And yet, Flower Piece does this; it imparts an energetic tension, through implied motion, and what in physics is known as potential energy.

A crucial element in this Hartley painting fostering this energetic tension is that it, in the grand tradition of Modernist art, subtly plays against our elementary school art lessons. That is, most of us were taught in the equally grand Renaissance tradition that all representative pictures should (once we’re old enough to understand and utilize it) have correct perspective and vanishing points. Here though, there is no such stability. At first, the paint application, texture and color scheme is exceedingly calm, almost somnambular, lulling us into thinking that all is well and domestic. However, once we start paying attention, we see there is no one perspective or vanishing point; no, there are numerous ones, all piled up like a thicket of pick-up sticks. Any rash movement might topple and crash this tense monument.

The other element which is equally as crafty as the painting method and color is the style: a kind of “folk-graphic” composition of tea-table, doily and goblet with flower, which fools us into thinking sleepy thoughts of afternoons at our grandmother’s. But no! The table is off to a sly tilt to the left; the doily is angled neatly to the right, and then the goblet again to the left; the flower and leaves are set upon each other like a spinning pin wheel, lending a bit more vertigo. This is all serenely teetering, like a video still of a plate spinner’s act.

As seen, contrast can play an important part in creating energetic tension in an artwork. The careful, methodical introduction of an elemental theme throughout a work’s whole can subsequently make for tension by the introduction of a contrasting, opposite force. Here in Flower Piece the teetering-tower feel is introduced into an otherwise calming environment. (This sense is heightened by this painting's being hung several feet above eye level, in the Foundation gallery.) But this is good for us as viewers. It keeps us from consigning this to the “still-life-painting” file in our brain, and moving on yawningly to the next piece. It may set our body ever so slightly on edge, and we begin wondering why, and are thusly influenced by the work. Tension in one area tends to make us want to move in another direction.

All this seems appropriate to Hartley, whom as his life progressed became increasingly interested in the spiritual elements inherent in art and the possibilities therein. To have created a work of art which moves one towards something larger than one’s self is essentially spiritual. Our body may not yet have moved, but something deep inside has begun to.


R.I.P. Rauschenburg

Robert Rauschenburg, a member of the pantheon of 20th century artists, passed on Monday evening. I feel fortunate I was able to see one of his last retrospectives, at the Guggenheim, in 2000. When I was there, I admired his painting Bed, which includes an actual quilt:

A few months after having painted the piece below, I began to think of it as an homage of sorts to Bed and, in a larger way, to Rauschenburg himself:

Snow Snake, collage and enamel on panel, 2007.


Art Thoughts, Week 15 -- Kaldis & Equality

(NOTE: My apologies for the lateness [again] of this Art Thoughts...I will also again do my best this week to catch up, since several other paintings have caught my eye and mind...)

Absorbing Art, Aristodemos Kaldis, (American, 1899—1979), 1941, oil on canvas, BF 988.

It is sometimes said that we are most attracted to that which we are like. We might be attracted to a companion, for example, based on a commonality in appearance. However, the opposite can be true; we are attracted by (often without realizing the connection) someone who has something that we ourselves are lacking. Only upon later reflection do we realize that, in a way, we truly needed that person. In fact, the best spouses are exactly that; needed in a very deep way, to "finish" us. Though crass, the "better half" quip has its verity.
And some may contest, but I would say that to live up to its definition as such, art too needs a viewer. Moreover, art needs a viewer who is willing to suspend disbelief – and occasionally belief as well – in order to be changed by the aesthetic experience. Art which is good at this interface creates a commonality through aesthetics through which equality may be encouraged, if not reached.

In Absorbing Art, there is a curious technique used by the artist, Aristodemos Kaldis, to encourage this interface towards change and equality. The main presence in the painting is a large, wide-shouldered African-American man, stalwart on a bench in a gallery, gazing absorbedly into an artwork – and here’s the curious part – which is actually us, the viewers. He is, to our estimation, looking at us, and it would be a bit unsettling except for that his gaze is completely calm and interested in what he’s looking at: his mouth is even cracked in wonderment. He clearly is there for the long haul, since he has resolutely placed his hands on his thighs, and planted his charming wingtips firmly on the raucously painted emerald rug. He is determined to make something of what he’s looking at.

In this picture, the viewer has become the viewed – the “art”. The thing viewed (the man) has become the viewer. Because of this, there is a friendly impasse; a staged, or suggested equality; a checkmate of sorts between us and the gallery visitor. The experience mentioned before, that of being confronted by a piece of art to change or otherwise face the world anew, is set up here in a very human way. Instead of being faced with a metaphor; an icon; a simile or motif, we are confronted with ourselves, essentially: another human being. The medium happens to be painting in this case. It’s also significant that this painting, bought circa 1950 by a white collector and hung in a gallery filled with continental African sculpture, would have confronted its contemporary viewer in an even more powerful way. This man, this viewer of viewers, has become or even should be your equal, whether you like it or not. If this is what Kaldis, a sometime-member of the New York School of mid-century painters, had in mind, we can’t be sure, but it was not for nothing this gallery-goer is African-American, in what was a tumultuous time for race relations and consciousness.

Again, having made this connection very literally, we can imagine that, like us real time viewers who will soon exit the gallery after contemplating this painting, and having hopefully absorbed the lesson and change that we encountered, this man will also turn and exit down the long hall behind him; past the gallery attendant, and through the paned door, having made an equal change in his own thought and practice, because of an encounter with a powerful and convincing piece of art. And that art? It was us.

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