Minimalist Contemplation

“I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond.”
—Agnes Martin

As a painter, I understand a number of paintings more readily than most museum visitors. Yet there are still some that are challenging to appreciate. I’ll be honest: Agnes Martin’s work is hard for me to access. She paints and draws in a minimalist style, invoking meditation, repetition, and concepts of the infinite. I’ve never been very good at meditation, but I think that we miss something if we dismiss challenging pieces without trying to understand them. So bear with me while I relay to you the results of my grappling with Martin’s painting, ‘Leaf in the Wind‘ (graphite and acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 72″, 1963).

'Leaf in the Wind', Agnes Martin

The 1950s-70s were a period in art history steeped in theory. Many artists wrote to explain their theory of art, or to provide a frame of reference for the viewer. While she does not present a robust philosophy of aesthetics, Agnes Martin’s writings and comments are still helpful as a starting point. Her work is clearly non-representational; she means for it to evoke a response, not to image some foreign object or setting. When questioned about her work, Martin explained,

“When people go to the ocean, they like to see it all day. . . . There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall. It’s a simple experience, you become lighter and lighter in weight, and you wouldn’t want anything else. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like a curtain; you go into it. I want to draw a certain response like this. . . . Not a specific response but that quality of response from people when they leave themselves behind, often experienced in nature– an experience of simple joy. . . the simple, direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

Detail of the graphite grid

Seeing Leaf in the Wind is a carefully controlled experience. You cannot look at it from across the room: the lines melt away, and all you behold is a blank white square. It is difficult to view it just inches away: you see the ridges of brush marks, the erasures, the unevenness in the pencil lines–but you cannot see the whole image. To actually see the whole piece, you have to stand between one foot and five feet back. Within this narrow window you may move around, examining the workmanship. Seven feet back the image begins to blur; if you have already seen it, you can meditate on the piece from this distance. The piece is difficult to photograph; it demands your physical presence.

Why is it white? Because of the purity and humility of the color. White is unassuming. Why is the grid drawn in with pencil? Because of the shimmering and fragile quality of a graphite line. Why is it a grid? Definitely not because grids are systematic, removed, or in any way mechanistic. Martin clearly uses a ruler, but just as clearly draws every line by hand, leaving them wavering slightly, sometimes not quite straight, sometimes drawn in and erased again where the line would break the pattern of the grid. These erasures are my favorite parts of the painting- traces of the artist’s hand, carefully, thoughtfully, slowly creating the image.

Why name it ‘Leaf in the Wind’? The title certainly recommends a meditative visual experience. Have you ever watched a leaf twisting in the wind? There is a graceful repetition, a motion apparently infinite, a twisting and returning. Martin particularly liked the veins and interwoven lines visible in the back of leaves. She writes:

“The underside of the leaf, cool in shadow, sublimely unemphatic, smiling of innocence. The frailest stems quiver in light, bend and break in silence. … [T]he paintings [are] not really about nature. It is not what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.”

Is the painting successful? Perhaps. I do not think it my duty to approve of everything simply because it is in a museum. After you have considered it carefully, after you have done due diligence to understand a piece, after you have seen it in person and grappled with it–if it still fails to move you, then it did not succeed. Painters with lofty aims do at times fail to achieve them. Personally, I am still unsure about Martin’s work. I am inclined to approve, but I need to spend more time in front of the painting before rendering a decision.

If you are interested in reading more about Agnes Martin, the Guggenheim has an excellent introductory page. If you want to read a more sophisticated art-critical discussion of Martin’s approach to drawing/painting, I recommend the book ‘3x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing (Hilma of Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin)‘, edited by Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teicher.

Thief! Top 10 Art Heists

By now you’ve doubtless heard about the brazen art heist in France.  The security system at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, had been broken since March 30 this year.  On May 20, a lone burglar wearing a face mask cut a padlock and broke a window to gain entry to the museum.  He stole five paintings (a Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, and Modigliani, worth a combined $120 Million) and disappeared.Paintings stolen from the Paris Museum

As bold as the Paris thief was, this robbery is not as impressive as some others in the past.  For your reading pleasure, I’ve listed

The Top 10 Art Heists in History

10- The aforementioned Paris theft.

9. Public Service Heist [April 2003]

Sometime during the night, thieves managed to evade CCTV, a night patrol, and all of the Whitworth Art Gallery‘s security alarms, gather the three most valuable paintings in the gallery, and disappear into the night.  The museum was unaware of the theft until moments before opening to the public on the following day.  A day later, police were contacted by an anonymous caller who said the paintings were behind a toilet in a public bathroom near the museum.  They were found there, together with a note explaining that they did not intend to steal these paintings, just wanted to highlight security weaknesses.  The paintings were damaged, but reparable, and were reclaimed by the museum.


8. Frankfurt Theft & Operation Cobalt
[1994]

This is sheer genius on the part of the Tate Gallery’s director Nicholas Serota, who arranged to secretly buy back two of its Turner paintings stolen while on display in a German gallery.  The burglars hid in the museum until it was locked for the night, then overpowered the guards and made off with three paintings (combined value of £30 million). Two thieves were caught but the paintings were not found, so the Tate received compensation from the insurance company–a fraction of which they used to buy back the paintings directly from the thieves.  The result?  A 20 million euro profit for the Tate Gallery.

7. Tunneling to Riches in Paraguay [July 2002]

This heist was a long time in planning, and wins points for its ‘Great-Escape’ resemblance.  The would-be thieves rented a store under a fake name near Paraguay’s National Fine Arts Museum, dug an 80 ft long tunnel into the museum, and entered after it closed.  Once inside, they took 5 paintings and exited from the building’s balconies.

6. The ‘Fishing Line’ Theft [April, 1987]

Most museums don’t have the sophisticated laser-alarm system depicted in the movies, but this one did.  How’d the thief get around it? The title gives it away: he cut a hole in a gallery window, lowered a thin fishing line and a hook through it, and ‘fished’ up a 14″ x 18″ Renoir painting (Bouquet d’Anemones dans une Vase Verre).  The painting turned up four years later in Japan, by an owner who had purchased it in good faith.  The thief was never caught.

5. Smuggling the Mona Lisa [August, 1911]

This is a crazy story.  The Mona Lisa disappeared from its frame in the Louvre on the morning of August 21.  The museum didn’t know it was stolen until the next day; everyone had assumed it was out for cleaning, or photography. An outspoken poet was arrested on suspicion of the theft, and his friend Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning. Neither of them had anything to do with it.  Who did?  The mastermind was Eduardo de Valfierno, who planned to sell forgeries of the painting as ‘the returned original’.  He had Louvre custodian Vincenzo Peruggia snatch the painting from the wall, tuck it under his coat, and exit the museum. Voila! the Mona Lisa was gone.  Peruggia was arrested in 1913 when he tried to sell the paining in Florence.

4. Speedboat & Decoys [December 2000]

This one wins the prize for best getaway.  Three armed thieves broke into the waterfront National Museum of Fine Art in Stockholm, Sweden.  They swiped one Rembrandt and two Renoirs, (collective value of $30 million) while accomplices set off car bombs at the opposite end of the city to distract the police and laid tire spikes on the roads approaching the museum.  The men left in a speedboat while the police were dealing with flat tires.   The men weren’t so good at the post-heist planning: eight were arrested in less than two weeks, and the paintings were recovered by 2005.


3. The Thief Known as ‘The Monkey’
[December 2002]

All he needed was a ladder and rope.  Workmen at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, left a ladder propped against the window of an upper gallery. Two men climbed the ladder in plain view, broke the window with their elbows, set off alarms as they snatched two paintings (worth a collective $8 million) and used the rope to escape before police arrived. Their sense of style was their undoing: police arrested the men two years later based on DNA evidence gathered from hats left at the scene.  The paintings were not recovered. If they’re clever, once they finish their sentences the thieves will wait 18 years, then claim ownership: Dutch law will recognize them as rightful owners if they can prove they stole the pieces.


2. Norway, The Scream
[February 1994]

Speed and daring: this daylight theft took less than 2 minutes.  Days before the start of the Olympic games in Lillehammer, Norway, two men climbed a ladder, broke a window in Oslo’s National Art Museum, cut Munch’s Scream off the wall with wire cutters, and fled with the painting.  They left a note reading, “Thanks for the poor security.” The museum received a $1 million ransom demand, but refused to pay, and recovered the painting in a sting operation in May 1994.  By January 1996, four men were convicted for the theft.

1. Gardner Museum Heist [March 1990]

The grandaddy of them all, this theft included 13 paintings, worth a collective $300 million, making it the largest art heist in US history. The night of St. Patrick’s day, two men in Boston, MA, dressed up in police uniforms & costume mustaches, and had the museum’s night security let them in, saying they were responding to a ‘disturbance’.  Once inside they bound the two guards, took 13 art pieces, and disappeared.  The theft was not discovered until 8:30 the next morning, and despite a full-scale FBI investigation, the case was never solved.  The statute of limitation has run out, so if the thieves still have the paintings they now own them.   The FBI has offered a no-questions-asked reward of $5 million for information leading to the recover of the paintings, and their empty frames are still displayed at the Gardner Museums as reminders of the theft.


Twenty | 21 May 2010

Two nights ago, five paintings were stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.  Among them was this piece, L’Olivier pres de l’Estaque, by Georges Braque.

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Twenty | 14 May 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Irises by Van Gogh.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Paint & Portraiture: John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent may rightly be considered the king of portrait painting. He worked in a style that loosely filled in figures’ backgrounds, while carefully depicting their faces. Most of his portraits were commissions, made either for the person pictured or else someone who loved them. “Portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”, is a case in point: commissioned by the lady’s husband, the 49″ x 49″ canvas carefully states the face, while suggesting the details of everything else.Portrait of Lady Agnew, Sargent

Sargent’s strokes are bold and fluid. Once he settled on a composition, he would practice the particular brushwork until it was perfect; only then would Sargent touch the canvas. His paintings come in and out of focus, materialize into an object and dissolve again into broad strokes of pigment. His paint application is primarily thin; these portraits read more as images of people than as recognizable swathes of paint.

However, if you look closely at the highlights of Lady Agnew’s skirt, you can see the white brushwork, unblended, sitting on top of the slightly darker white of the garment. Similarly, if you closely examine any aspect of the chair, the floral print dissolves into a series of dashed off blotches of blue and red, the buttons look like so many daubs with a dull grey paint, and the wooden edging becomes four long strokes of thin, dark paint. Look away for but a moment, and everything resolves itself again: your mind accepts the cues, and fills in all the gaps in the paint.

The sitter’s face is, naturally, the focal point of the portrait. She looks straight at us, tilting her head down slightly and raising her eyes. One eyebrow is raised interrogatively. A half-smile plays about her lips. Her expression is friendly, but bemused. Her right eye seems languid while the other challenges our gaze. Her face is difficult to read; it is complex, offering confidence and relaxation, intrigue and, perhaps, boredom. Sargent prided himself on capturing intelligent and complex expressions, and this portrait is no exception.

The similarities between the poses of this “Portrait of Lady Agnew” and Bonnard’s portrait last week are striking. Each figures a young woman in an arm chair, one arm folded into her lap, the other extended at her side, legs crossed, shoulders facing forward. Each wears a white garment, a pendant necklace, and her hair up. Both compositions emphasize a vertical axis, while offsetting it with occasional diagonal elements.

The differences between the two painters, however, could hardly be more staggering. Sargent’s pieces are show pieces: they display what can be done with a brush and pigment, and trumpet the confidence of the artist. Bonnard’s are sustained and almost timid investigations into the color and shape of particular bits of the world. Both were excellent painters, but their own attitudes towards the model and material world are embodied in their paintings. ‘

Twenty | 7 May 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Three Musicians by Picasso.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Paint & Portraiture: Pierre Bonnard

So far we’ve talked a lot about narrative paintings, compositions which are based on or tell a specific story.  For the next couple of weeks, we’ll focus more on portraiture.  Today, we’ll spend the day with Pierre Bonnard’s “Portrait of Leila Claude Anet”.  Painted in 1930, the work is a little over four feet tall, and a little under three feet wide.
Portrait of Leila
Oil paintings are traditionally painted on a neutral base, like burnt umber or grey, to prevent the bright white of an untreated canvas from interfering with the painter’s color judgments.  Bonnard’s painting, however, leaves the white of the canvas untreated.  He was a master of color, and frequently used color rather than line to show the contours and movements of forms.

Ah, the careful color web in which he traced his subject.  Paint applied so thin it was translucent.  This is why he used a white background–his paintings are liquid color shining through to the white base.  His subject in this painting is a young woman with a level gaze, legs crossed, in a white blouse and blue striped skirt.

It is primarily a composition in blue and orange, but not without some red and purple hues.  He left the canvas primer exposed to speak for her blouse in the light, laying thick paint in pale tones to mention its curves in the shadows.  (And such tones!  Zoom in on her stomach: there is green, blue, pink, mauve, grey, and even some brown.)

Her face is textured, heavily worked over, mostly orange.  A cool green marks where the left edge of her brow shifts glancingly away from the light.  The bridge of her nose is the sole feature marked out in crisp outline– carved by a thin but precise line of white.

The rest of the paint is so thin, and so lightly applied, that Bonnard’s loose sketch in pencil shows through.  It is no more anatomically or geometrically correct than the painting.  That, of course, was never the point of this portrait.  An image can represent its subject in ways never dreamt by a mirror; why should it always imitate one?

Bonnard works at the intersection of watercolor and oil; he updates John Singer Sargent with a humble and meek daubing of paint.  The lighting is simple: a single warm source from the upper right, somewhere above the sitter’s head.  It casts a shadow on the left side of her face, and her head casts a small shadow on her shoulders.  The chair’s colors change to blue and orange where it is hit by the light, retreating to red, brown and purple in shadow.

Typical of Bonnard’s work, the sitter’s head is delicately painted, a touch too small, and the jaws undefined.  It seems vulnerable and lost, but simultaneously grounds the whole composition with its steady gaze and built up texture.

Sargent, too, painted loosely all the surroundings of the sitter, reserving the fixed detail work for the head.  For him the fluid brushwork was a musician’s flawless performance, to be rehearsed until the final gesture appeared effortless as it suggested the turn of an arm, a twist of silk, or the recesses of a shadow.  All these strokes, however magnificent, were only stage and set for the real star, the head.  These were carefully built up, and polished to an insane finish.  We’ll look at Sargent next week.

Bonnard eschews polish.  For him, paint is still paint, not a glittering window to a second world.  More still, the edges are clearly diluted paint- visible strokes and scumbling.  The gaze, which in Sargent is always so direct, is deferred or obscured in Bonnard.  you know where the eyes are by where the shadows fall, but you can’t quite make contact.  The sitter looks forever just past you, in an ephemeral world always coming into being and simultaneously about to dissolve.  In short, in a world not unlike our own.

Twenty | 30 April 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Doubting Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.

Art and Perception: Degas

Though it is popular to view art as the self-expression of the artist, a great deal of it is in fact dedicated to problems of perception: the process of recording observed forms presents the opportunity to correct perceptual errors. Most drawing instructors will assure you that the first and most foundational lesson in learning how to draw is simply learning how to see– if you can master that, controlling your materials is a cinch.

Frequently, an artist will make a plethora of study sketches before finally producing the painting that becomes famous. The sketches serve a variety of purposes–testing out ideas, balancing a composition, playing with metaphors–but mostly they function as research. If an artist wants to discover how an arm moves, he draws it, or, on occasion, sculpts it. Michaelangelo, Rodin, and DaVinci made drawings to research for their sculptures; Degas sculpted to research for his paintings.

Little Dancer, 14 Years Old

Though over 100 unique Degas sculptures are exhibited in museums today, during his lifetime the artist made only one which he intended for public display: Little Dancer, 14 Years Old. The rest he made for research purposes, and left in his studio. After his death, these study sculptures, originally made from wax, were cast into a more durable bronze material for museum display.

The differences in execution between Little Dancer and these study models are remarkable. The surface of the Dancer is carefully smoothed, and presents itself as a polished imitation of actual skin, tights, and slippers. The surfaces of the study models vary greatly, but none are polished to match the Dancer. Since Degas used these sculptures as studies for paintings and not as display pieces, his attention was focused on the anatomy, movement, and rough proportion of the poses, not polishing their surfaces.

For instance, Degas formed these studies of horses out of a wax composite and used them primarily to solve complex lighting problems presented by his compositions. Painting a horse with intricate muscular structure on an outdoor racetrack is far more difficult than it looks. The main light source is determined by the position of the sun and whether there is cloud cover. Depending on its intensity, that light will reflect varying degrees of local color from all surfaces near the horse, lighting it at odd angles and creating unexpected hues and tones on the body.

When this occurs in daily life the brain processes the effects so quickly that we hardly notice. But when you see a painting that neglects these lighting effects, it will feel off somehow. You may not be able to put your finger on the exact cause, but the image will feel dark, artificial and a bit flat.

Left: 'Race Horses'. Right: 'Training for the Horse Race'

Making a three dimensional model allowed Degas to observe the patterns of reflected light, and thus enabled him to paint the challenging scenes with confidence.

You can tell by the way the horses are sculpted that Degas was interested in the elegant power of the beast. The musculature is carefully observed, but not exaggerated. The skeleton is only visible as a framework connecting and illuminating the muscles. The horses are in poses that showcase their agility and grace, and when Degas paints them they are calm, natural elements of a composition about power.

You may wonder why these study models are on display at a museum: after all, if the artist didn’t intend them to be individual works of art, do they really count?

In short, yes. For the modern viewer, Degas’ study sculptures are eloquent isolations of light and form, paring away some details so that we can observe others. While these models do not create a world or finished object apart from ours, they do focus our attention and perception on the beauty of the forms surrounding us. They say “look here: isn’t the curve of a horse’s underbelly lovely? Aren’t the hocks marvelous in their delicate size and tremendous power?” And we answer “yes, but I never saw that before….” which is precisely the point. Art can create worlds, but it can also be used to see our own world more clearly, which is exactly what Degas’ sculptures do. ‘

Twenty | 23 April 2010

Twenty is a collection of apparently disparate images that have been thoughtfully selected to complement a great work of art (displayed first in the collection below).  Today’s featured image is Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse by El Greco.

Every individual image may be contemplated in conjunction with the original one (as a diptych), by itself (as a distinct work of art), or the collection may be experienced as a single unit (as a visual poem, story, or piece of music – pick your metaphor).  All images link to their source and are either public domain or copyright that source.  Any image that is not so linked is my own.