Paul Cezanne Still Life with Apples and Biscuits oil on canvas 1877
"The work of the artist is to see into the life of things, I suppose what the scientist Rupert Sheldrake would call 'morphic resonance'---the inner life of the thing that cannot be explained away biologically, chemically, or physically. I'd call it 'imaginative reality.' The reality of the imagination leaves nothing out. It is the most complete reality we can know. The artist is physical; and it is in the work of true artists, in whatever medium, that we find the most moving and poignant studies of the world that we can touch and feel, whether human or natural. When Cezanne paints an apple or a tree, he doesn't paint a copy of an apple or a tree, he paints its reality,m the whole that it is, the whole that is lost to us as we walk past it, eat it, chop it down. It's through the artist, who lives more intensely than the rest of us, that we can rediscover the intensity of the physical world.
But not only the physical world. The earth is not flat, and neither is reality. Reality is continuous, multiple, simultaneous, complex, abundant, and partly invisible. The imagination alone can fathom this, because the imagination is not limited by the world of sense experience. It's not necessary to be shut up in oneself, to grind through life like an ox at a mill. Human beings are capable of powered flight. Our dreams of outer space are only a reflection of the inner space we could occupy if we knew how. Art knows how. At the same time as art is prizing away old, dead structures that have rusted, almost unnoticed, into our flesh, art is pushing at the boundaries we thought were fixed. The only boundaries are the boundaries of our imagination. We need art to remind us of that. . .
Time is not ended yet, and there will be no end to the question 'What is art for?' perhaps because we never stop asking the question, 'What are we for?'
We are restless, searching creatures---poignant in our smallness, triumphant in our determination not to be small. It is all these things---our determination, our aspiration, perhaps our inevitable failure---that art relays back to us. But art is more than a recording angel. It is the creative force that marks out our humanness, the creative force that seeks to bind together all the separations that we are."
--excerpted from the very interesting essay What is Art For? by Jeanette Winterson.
At the end of May I had the pleasure of going to visit my Mom and Dad. My dad had two days off, so we all went together to the Getty museum where I saw all of my old and favorite painting-friends (dear Van Gogh, dear Cezanne, dear Munch), as well as some new ones (Sisley and Monet’s beautiful little pastels---I didn’t even know they made pastels), and one painting that I felt very suspicious of (Orazio Genteleschi’s benign-looking rape of Danae by Zeus in the guise of a shower of golden coins and ribbons---was this painted before or after his daughter was raped by her painting teacher?) We walked through the model cave temples of Dunhuang and marveled at the delicately reproduced wall paintings: their bright malachite greens and calligraphic lines, the angelic presences darting around the ceilings, the pattern that envelops you as you turn around and around, looking.
After my dad was back at work, my mom still had time off, so we took a train adventure into Los Angeles and went to visit Hauser, Wirth, and Schimmel in their new white palace just east of Little Tokyo. The gallery is enormous, and very elegant. It is also strange: the blend of pristine whiteness with the neatly preserved rusted doors and broken tilework from its previous life as a factory; the extension of the commercial art space into the commercial marketplace of food and books with the addition of a restaurant, a food truck and a full-size bookstore to the four plus rooms devoted to showing art. The inaugural show was also curious for several reasons, one of which the LA Times already pointed out in that most of the work is borrowed from museums and is not in fact for sale. The show, ‘Revolution in the Making’ has a narrow focus on abstract sculpture made by women during the years 1947 to 2016, which had me questioning: was this a good thing, to put together a show that should be in a museum but considering the way museums neglect female artists in general (you can look up the Guerilla Girls for some interesting statistics) was unlikely to happen? Is it progressive for such a large gallery to focus its first show entirely on women when the general statistics for women in galleries is little better than the statistics for women in museums (see Michol Hebron’s gallery tally)? But why all women? As I went through gallery after gallery, noticing that while many of the artworks referenced the body or feminine experience they by no means all had those themes in common-----and I wondered, is it good for all these women to be shown together outside of the context of their male peers? While women certainly do have a lot to say to each other, they don’t work in a world outside of the world---it makes little sense to separate them from the full conversations of the time and place that they were working. Were these women all grouped together because their artwork had a great deal in common beyond working in the vague and broad field of ‘abstract sculpture’, or was the only other commonality the gender of the maker? If, as the gallery press release said, all these artists “reject[ed] the precedent of a monolithic masterwork on a pedestal” then why not show them with the artwork they were responding to? Why separate them? And were only women making that change? I seem to recall that most sculpture after the 1960s jumped off the pedestal onto the floor and walls and anywhere else, and that strangely enough, in this show there were some heavy pieces of concrete on pedestals, who only barely miss being termed “monolithic” because there were quite a few of them shown together.
I found myself dwelling on Louise Nevelson’s sculpture. It wasn’t displayed very prominently; it was in fact off to one side in the first gallery, tucked almost into a corner, although well lit. But it was also covered in a deep layer of dust, which gently covered the flat, matte black surfaces of the wood, growing deeper as they recessed into crevasses of shadow. I looked at it with my mother for a long time, and asked her whether she thought sculptures should be dusted? Every one of Nevelson’s sculptures that I have ever seen has been covered deeply in dust, and this made me wonder---was it intentional? Did Nevelson leave any instructions that her pieces should not be dusted, or is this an instance of neglect that would make her very sad were she alive and did she know that no one had cleaned her sculptures in many years? Perhaps the issue of dust seems small, but to me it is a vital one, because it changes the perception and meaning of the piece. When I see such deep dust, I think of many things: the passage of time, of disuse, neglect, of the living rooms of strangers, of the hidden depths of cupboards, I think of the poetic makeup of dust---the particles it is made of, the bits of skin and flakes of things sloughing off their outer layers as the fatigue of time grows heavy on them, and how they gather on other things to make a new outer layer, a skin of other skins. How can the materiality of dust help but affect the sculpture that it sits on, and the thoughts of the person looking at it? Perhaps someday I will write a more full meditation upon the transfiguring power of dust.
When my mother and I stood in front of Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, pondering, was what I was looking at an intended layer of meaning, a poetic meditation on time, or was it a visible sign of the neglect that so many women artists suffer at the hands of an art history made primarily by male collectors, male curators, male historians? Would a man think of dust in the same way as a woman used to dusting the many wooden surfaces of her home?
This question led me to other questions about the relationship between women-artists and domesticity when we entered the last gallery room of what the gallery termed “a Post-Modernist generation of increasingly global figures who are far more expansive in their use of space, and whose works signal a foundational shift from discreet sculptural objects toward more installation-based practices.” What struck Mom and I the most about this room was the shift in content, construction methods, and most of all atmosphere from the previous rooms. While previous pieces had referenced the female body, fairy tales, the earth---they all had in common great beauty and delicacy of creation and presentation. They were elegant, thoughtful, and for the most part, austere. The last room was crowded, claustrophobic, purposely sloppy, adolescent (one sculpture incorporated kitty-emblazoned t-shirts), aggressive, and had a pervasive undercurrent of what I noted to my mom felt like a deep loathing towards domesticity and craft. Certainly the detritus that the sculptures were made of was the detritus of home, fabric stores, craft stores, thrift stores. Certainly also the way the sculptures were made did not seem to intend to transcend those materials, or to treat them kindly or respectfully – the fabrics, furniture, cleaning and craft supplies were torn, wound, stuffed, dangled, smashed, deformed, and made to push into the viewers’ space to make them/me feel faintly threatened. In some cases even worry that it might fall on me and I would be caught and smothered under a pile of dirty laundry or distorted filthy couches that looked like they came from the back of a high school drama room. It felt like an adolescent nightmare: the cellophane, the nail polish, the nylons, the t-shirts and dirty bedding and bits of old Christmas trees and the strangely shrouded piano turned over on its side. Without knowing the artists, I couldn’t know why. Did they dislike the domestic for personal reasons? Did they all share a common childhood that left a similar psychological impression of distrust? Was this satire of the homely a way to define themselves as artists: yes, I am female, but I am not domestic? Was it based in the fear that to be a ‘real’ artist, a woman must discard the traditionally feminine, or make it strange, other, disown it the way a troubled teenage girl might disown her mother? Saying, I won’t be like you. But why? Why a whole room of artwork with that same feeling and the same family of materials made grotesque? Was it the curator’s choice, a selection which does not show the full range of interests in current abstract sculpture made by women, or does it reflect the general impulse of women’s sculptures, in which case, I am left with the same question of why all these women/artists are so negatively ambivalent about femininity, domesticity, and craft? There is some part of me that wonders---were they rewarded (by men, by other similarly ambivalent women) for this attitude? To laugh at what troubles, at the things that cling to their minds and hearts despite themselves. The clutches of duty and childhood and the question of how to be a woman, to be an artist, when the invisible, fragile, vulnerable, and omnipresent world of the home, overlooked and underappreciated, is all one has ever seen or known.
The women of previous generations found ways to be artists and women both, incorporating their special knowledge of femininity into their art rather than disowning or satirizing it. Ruth Asawa’s elegantly knitted wire forms, for instance—taking the ephemeral action of knitting and giving it the permanence and flexibility of wire, and the lightness of seedpods floating through the air. Or Lee Bontecou’s relief sculptures that under their frightening facades have the orderly purpose of mending, repurposing. Or Claire Falkenstein’s jeweled nests-nets, with their rich ambiguity of form and reference. Or Bourgeois, or Nevelson, who take discards and paint and assemble and change them, and allow them to transcend the meaning placed upon them by other people, even their own makers. They give them form, and identity, and freedom to be different than what they were intended to be. And yet they are what they are, still, the same wood under the paint. But they can be both discarded wood, no longer needed, and artwork, very much needed, at the same time. What I admired most about the earliest artists in the show was the way they held ambiguity in the air, and let it stay there.
Pieter Claez Still Life with Wine Glass and Silver Bowl oil on panel 1635
I have been reading about Pieter Claez, and thinking about the silence of still life paintings. Still Life is the quietest of genres: an entrance to the world of objects, observations of the things around us, those mute possessions that are always still, yet not without experience, which is a kind of living. Claez's almost monochromatic paintings with their solemn, silvery-golden light are the direct predecessors, I think, to similarly spare and remarkably silent paintings by Chardin, Peale, and Morandi.
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Still Life with White Mug oil on canvas 1764
Raphaellle Peale Still Life with Cake oil on canvas 1816
Giorgio Morandi Natura Morta 1946
Pierre Bonnard The Demanding Cat oil on canvas 1912
Several Saturdays ago my husband and I drove up early to San Francisco to the Legion of Honor Museum and its view of the gloomy, rain and wind-swept bay. We’d been planning our trip since we heard about the Pierre Bonnard show 'Painting Arcadia' in a letter from my friend Tom. Bonnard has always been one of my favorite painters, but my experiences seeing his artwork have always been scattered: a beautiful big painting in a group exhibition here, a small and fascinating painting from a permanent collection there. I’ve never seen a whole show of his work before, and my hopes were not disappointed.
While the title ‘Painting Arcadia,’ seemed slightly misleading to me, given that the show had as many interiors, still lifes and nudes as landscapes, I was very happy that all those paintings were there. The show covers Bonnard’s whole life, from his earliest ‘Japoniste’ paintings on cardboard painted during his early and mid-twenties all the way to the very last painting he made before he died in 1947, the blossoming almond tree he could see from his window. It was remarkable to see that painting, as small and intimate as his first paintings, but shimmering with a lifetime of experience and looking. It was the same painting that he asked his nephew to bring to him on his deathbed so he could retouch it, never satisfied that it or any other painting he made was truly finished.
I noticed several new things about his paintings, things you can barely see in reproductions, if at all: the shimmer of his colors, which is almost opalescent at times. Looking closely in person, you can see that it is achieved by layering pale warm colors against pale cool colors, sometimes over each other, other times dappled side by side, which causes a vibration and a shimmer, especially as one steps back from the painting. I noticed that most of the paintings looked most vibrantly alive from a slight distance. While they were beautiful up close, and his touch with the brush is a delicate and sensitive one, the paintings felt most coherent when standing a few feet away. Many of the paintings are painted from the standing perspective anyway---the gaze of the viewer/painter is generally high, sometimes looking across a room, other times looking down on a table that slants towards the picture plane. Also hard to see except in person is how Bonnard uses a vast range of colors: rarely in the same painting is a large patch of color the same color---he makes it shimmer by shifting the tones and hues slightly as it moves across the surface of the canvas. He stipples and dapples with his brush, and contrasts opaque color with transparent color with great poetry and expressiveness.
My husband was most puzzled and intrigued with the lack of faces. In most of the paintings the faces were obscured, turned away, blurred and vague. I believe it is because very few paintings Bonnard made were meant as portraits. Faces always steal the focus of the painting they are in---it is difficult to turn your attention to anything else. But in a painting by Bonnard, your eye is kept roaming, roaming across the veils of color and mysterious brightly colored shapes. Objects dissolve and transform, bodies are both recognizable and anonymous, feeling is diffused into the whole surface of the canvas, and not focused in any one place or form. Ryan felt that Bonnard’s paintings were akin to Van Gogh’s. I overheard many other museum-goers speaking of a resemblance to Matisse. I thought both were good references: neither painter was afraid of beauty. Bonnard certainly wasn’t. Beauty was his primary subject, more than anything else: the beauty of being, and the pleasure of looking.
Looking at so many Bonnards, I also realized how well he knew animals: there were cats and dogs in almost every room of paintings, writhing, leaping, curled, sleeping, being rubbed, playing, rubbing, gazing. His early 1894 painting of ‘the White Cat’ was especially notable for the way it did not look naturalistically like a cat, but it described the movement and mood of a self-satisfied cat exactly. There was also a trembling graphite line visible around the cat’s legs that reappeared in one of Bonnard’s last self-portraits, also in the show, drawn in repeated thin lines of graphite covered in thin washes of watercolor and gouache, a very lonely painting.
We spent all of our time at the museum in the show, but it still didn’t feel long enough, even after walking through slowly, twice. You could spend a lifetime with those paintings and still be noticing their subtleties, such is the scope of Bonnard’s achievement. My two thoughts leaving the show were that Bonnard was quite right that a painting is first an arrangement of lines and colors on a surface before it is an image or anything else, and my other thought was that the world was so colorful, so beautiful, that his paintings had shown me how to see again.
Claude Monet Still Life with Melon oil on canvas 1872
"At night I am obsessed with what I am striving to achieve. In the morning I get up broken by fatigue. The dawn gives me courage, but my anxiety rushes back as soon as I set foot in the studio. How difficult it is to paint. . . it really is torture."
I am pleased that you want to write more reviews about artists who are women after you read Maura Reilly’s Art News article on gender disparity in the visual arts. It strikes me as a problem, though, that if you only found the work of 17 women interesting enough to write about before considering their gender that if you seek out more artwork by women to write about, the issue of importance remains----did you look at their work because you felt it was important and interesting in itself, or to rectify your previous omission? When I read Reilly’s article it occurred to me that at least part of the problem for women is one of perspective, especially the perspective held by the viewer of what is ‘important.’ Because the subjects that a woman finds important because of her life experience may well be different than what a man finds important because of his. It is an old distinction in the history of painting, most obvious in still life. Norman Bryson wrote eloquently about the concepts of megalography and rhopography and their relationship to gender in Looking at the Overlooked: “For as long as painting’s mode of vision would be constructed by men, the space in which women were obliged to lead their lives would be taken from them and imagined through the values of the ‘greater’ existence from which they were excluded.”
It takes a revolution of perspective to see past one’s own expectations. When you are a cat in a world of cats, it may be difficult to empathize with the perspective of a rat. When you are a man looking at a woman’s artwork, a leap of empathy may be needed, a change in perspective, an openness to unsettling your previous judgments about hierarchy and importance. Looking at art allows one to try on another person’s eyes for a while, to look about in their brain, to see into their life and philosophy. Importance necessarily shifts from artist to artist; judgment must be suspended until the other world view is fully inhabited.
You may not remember an evening five years ago spent visiting the studios at a small art school, but I vividly remember the first sentence you spoke as you entered my space: “Why so domestic?”
I was taken aback at the time, and didn’t have a chance to answer your question with my own: Why not? Our inner lives are most revealed in the privacy of the home. It is a space all share; everyone goes to sleep somewhere, has parents somewhere, fill the needs of the body somewhere. Domesticity is universal. Why would that be your first question unless, as I guessed to myself later, you felt that such a subject was unimportant and therefore my interest in the home needed to be justified?
It is the puzzle of perspective – we look at the same thing with different eyes --- and whose view is closer to the truth?
Life is lived within the circumference of gender. To make artwork about something means the artist feels such a thing is important, should be looked at, thought about, remembered. One’s own sphere of experience affects all definitions of importance. When you go out looking at women’s artwork with the intent to write more equitable reviews, I would like to ask you to stop and question what assumptions you bring with you. Can you make the leap of empathy – can the cat see a rat’s world with rat-like eyes?
Some day when you next look at my artwork, I hope you might not look at it straight with all your old judgments and assumptions, but slant, and backwards, and sideways, to see from where it was lived, and with what concern and wonderment.
Regard a Mouse
O'erpowered by the Cat!
Reserve within thy kingdom
A "Mansion" for the Rat!
Snug in seraphic Cupboards
To nibble all the day
While unsuspecting Cycles
Wheel solemnly away!
Andrea Del Sarto Study of the Head of a Young Woman (detail) about 1523 red chalk on paper
My husband and I were lucky enough to go see the Getty Center's new show Andrea Del Sarto: The Renaissance Workshop in Action. It is a beautiful show, full of wonders of the hand and spirit. His drawings are small, confidant yet delicate, and astonishingly full of feeling. What struck me most, walking through the show twice trying to absorb all the beauty, was his tenderness and respect for his subjects, something I usually associate most with Rembrandt. Yet his paintings were more DaVinci like, with soft sfumato edges and gentle chiaroscuro, but far more vibrantly colored. Unusually, there is an unfinished painting on display, a heavily worked, half-done, very large painting of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The angel is a cherub, a symbol of innocence in a moment that takes away Isaac's innocence forever. Isaac's face is ambiguous, maybe even ambivalent, as he kneels below his father's outstretched hand. The image is agitated, violence barely averted. My husband remarked that Catholic painters had to be interpreters of the scriptures, theologians as well as painters.
While it was interesting to see Del Sarto's working drawings and how they were used, sometimes repeatedly, in his paintings, I enjoyed his portraits most of all. The drawings of a woman which the writer of the wall-texts speculated was likely his wife Lucrezia had such tenderness, respect, and thoughtfulness that they almost glowed. You had the sense looking at them that here was a woman respected and loved. The oil portrait of a young man with lavender-grey sleeves was similarly remarkable for the directness of his gaze, the beauty of his expression and the mutual regard the viewer gets to share with the painting, looking and being looked at, a glimpse forever shared. There was also an exquisite and moody drawing of a young boy with ruffled hair in the same room, a study for a painting of a youthful Saint John the baptist, also on display. Del Sarto's use of chalk is really wonderful, how he could vary between softly blended shadows, hatchwork, and all kinds of varied lines to describe the contours of the face, the tendrils of hair. His range of emotion is wonderful, too, from astonishment to wariness to introspection to warmth and liveliness. He often didn't draw pupils in the eyes of his subjects, which gave them a dreamy other-worldliness, a look of reflection.
Speaking now of a different kind of reflection, on the state of art today, this morning I read Ben Davis' 'Why are There Still so Few Successful Female Artists?' and Mira Schor's response 'Just a Short Message From Venus.' It made me think of the recent headlines about Meryl Streep sending a letter and a book about equality to each member of Congress encouraging them to revive the Equal Rights Amendment. It shocked me a year ago to read a book on feminism and realize that there is no language in our constitution ensuring the equality of women in this nation. This despite Abigail Adams' passionate letter in March of 1776 to her husband to "remember the ladies" as he helped write the constitution. She warned him "all men would be tyrants if they could." After the initial shock began to pass into wonder, I found myself thinking how could half of America not count enough to have a few words added on their behalf? But somehow women are still overlooked, living a half-invisible life. How sad that it is not in our history books that while the Equal Rights Amendment was first written in the 1920s and passed in 1972, progress was halted in 1982 because it was three states short of the minimum needed to add it to the constitution. And here we are in 2015, still missing those crucial few words that recognize a self evident fact that all humans are created equal, all men, all women, all children, no matter what gender, age, race, sexual orientation, or belief, everyone is equal before God and should be equal before the law. Perhaps we need to re-read Abigail Adams' letter, and again warn the world that if "particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion."
Perhaps we also need to look at more humanist art, to learn to look at others with respect and tenderness, alive to the nuances of individuality that Andrea Del Sarto so beautifully recorded in his drawings and paintings. I sincerely believe that art teaches us how to look, and that to look at the world (and other people) with more attention leads to greater appreciation and care for what we regard.
Yesterday I read Maura Reilly's Art News article on gender disparity in the art world. It wasn't surprising after recently seeing the Guerrilla Girls show and hearing two members of the group lecture at Pomona College Museum of Art, but it was disheartening. Half of the world are women, and yet only 30% of art shown in public institutions is made by women. It makes for a culture that is incomplete and out of balance, missing the different perspectives that come with different experience: whether that is the experience that comes from being a woman, of a non-white or mixed ethnic background, of non-heterosexual orientation, having a physical or mental disability or disease, or anything else that makes one's experience unique, distinct, unusual, an important addition to the full story of what it is to be human.
Here is a small selection of my favorite (representational) painters who are also women.
Gwen John The Convalescent oil on canvas 1923-1924
Christiane Pflug Kitchen Door with Ursula oil on canvas 1960
Louise Moillon Still Life with Cherries, Strawberries and Gooseberries oil on panel 1630
Rachel Ruysch Nosegay on a Marble Plinth oil on canvas 1695
Fede Galizia Still Life with Apples and Peaches oil on canvas 1607
Sofonisba Anguissola The Chess Game oil on canvas 1555
Clara Peeters Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke and Cherries oil on panel 1625
Frida Kahlo Tunas: Still Life with Prickly Pear Fruit oil on panel 1938
Georgia O'Keefe Oriental Poppies oil on canvas 1928
Joan Brown Self-Portrait oil on canvas 1970
Suzanne Valadon the Blue Room oil on canvas 1923
Alice Neel Hartley oil on canvas 1965
Mary Cassat Young Woman Sewing in the Garden oil on canvas 1880-1882
Berthe Morisot Summer oil on canvas 1880
Paula Modersohn-Becker Self Portrait oil on panel 1907
Jane Frielicher In Broad Daylight oil on canvas 1979
Meria Sibylla Merian two botanical watercolor paintings about 1665
Paul Cezanne Chrysanthemums oil on canvas 1896-1898
"In The Transformation of Nature in Art, A.T. Coomeraswamy says that the transformation of nature has to do with indicating its mystic dimension, and nature just naturally is out there, so what! You see it in pictures, you go out in the fields and you see it again. But what the artist does by organization is to render a rhythmic statement that something of the mystery dimension comes radiantly through and touches us. Cezanne had a saying, 'Art is a harmony parallel to nature,' and the harmony that is stated in art is of the nature that is both the nature of our own lives and the nature out there. So we get an 'Aha!' a sense that, 'Ah yes, I've known that all the time.'"