Blasts from the Past (part 2)

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Back in Holland. But not empty handed….

The physically, emotionally and psychologically draining work of emptying my storage unit in New York is done. Sounds dramatic, but it’s not simply keeping what you want and tossing the rest. This was a final act of separation, from my country, culture and a good deal of my own creative effort. The actual disconnection took place some time ago, here in upstate NY I was performing the last rights. Over the years, flying back from wherever, I would look down at the Mondriaan-like, geometric landscape of Holland and feel empty and lost. Where was home? Not here and no longer there. The experience I’m describing was beautifully captured by Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film ‘Lost in Translation’. Writing this now I am indeed home, settled and happy in Amsterdam. My mind now flashes to the millions of refugees who were forced to escape violence and persecution in their native land, many of whom came to the Netherlands as well and began the difficult work of assimilating into a different culture. I, at least chose for it.

 

Nostalgia/Art

I have a live-in atelier in the center of Amsterdam. It’s perfect for me but expansive it is not. I made the decision to consolidate my life here and to stop with the storage units (for now..). The many sketchbooks, drawings and paintings I reviewed were not too difficult for the most part when it came to separating the wheat from the chaff. I kept what was good, potentially good and inspiring. Of course there were items that fell beyond the scope of ‘Art’. Awards, photos, invitations, written text. These I carefully sifted with the attitude of: ‘Nice to see you again’ and ‘Meaningful’. To a large extent I don’t need the past around me, I enjoy my life as a mindful ‘sort-of Zen Buddhist’. But there are touchstones that I’d like to have for the remainder of the journey. This pastel above of a stream in Accord, NY near Woodstock, comes under the heading of inspiring art.

Going forward

This small painting and the pastel above came along with me because I felt they were bridges connecting me to a possible future. The difficult decisions to leave things behind makes you aware of what you still carry with you. These excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ will give you perhaps a better idea of what I’m trying to say:

“ There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable—
And therefore the fittest for renunciation.”

And:

“With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
Calling

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Blasts from the Past

Tough decisions

 

Last week I arrived in upstate New York to deal with my artistic past. In 2000, when I returned to The Netherlands not knowing how long I would remain, the contents of my studio in New York were put into storage. Now, 19 years later I am ready to sell, ship, archive and in some cases, possibly destroy some works on paper from this collection of paintings, drawings and art supplies which span a decade beginning in 1990. I will have to make some tough choices about what I want to ship back to the Netherlands, leave behind with my remaining family here in the States or banish to the trash. It’s difficult when you reach that point in your life when such decisions have to be made. The paintings I’ve reproduced here are hanging safe and secure in the home of my sister and her husband, but of course I can’t expect that my siblings, nephews and nieces will want to store every scrap of paper I made some marks upon in that decade. This piece: ‘Dutch coffee can with peaches’  12×14 in. is in safe hands.

 

A rejected portrait

 

This painting, a rejected portrait commission made in Holland in 1982 (I refused to add more detail into the faces of the chess-playing brothers in the rear of the composition and I ended up going home with it) will have a better chance than most of standing the test of time. It hangs in my sisters living room, purchased in my Dutch studio more than 30 years ago where it was spotted by my brother-in-law. It was later revealed to me that at the time he had whispered in his wife’s ear: ‘We’re not leaving without that painting’.

 

Photos/Paintings

 

I wasn’t terribly organized during my early years painting in Holland. I recall having painted this on location but can’t recall for the life of me where that location was. Obviously these were works I had brought back with me when I returned to America in 1989. A painting or drawing preserves memory in another manner as than a photo. It’s not a ‘quickie’, a one night stand. With a camera you ‘take’ a picture. Creating a piece of artwork is more intimate. it’s a process of looking, feeling and making very personal decisions about inclusion, elimination and invention as it slowly reaches its finished form.

Paula Rego ‘Secrets and Stories’

Culture on Dutch TV: ‘Close Up’

 

The cashier at my local organic supermarket noticed my paint-splattered pants and remarked: ‘Ben jij een beoefenaar van de schone kunsten?’ (Are you a practitioner of the visual arts?). ‘Well, lets just say I’ve never fully matured and still spend my days playing with colors.’ I answered. This led to a discussion of color and he asked if I had seen the recent Dutch TV program ‘Close UP’?  ‘No’ I answered but that evening I checked it out.

The subject was an Australian photographer that filmed ‘Holi’ the Hindu festival in India that takes place in the early spring and is characterized by an outrageous celebration of color. Color is thrown, dumped, splashed and bathed in. It covers everyone involved including elephants, buildings and anything else in the way. It was thrilling to see and afterwards I continued to search around in the listings and see what else might catch my eye. Quickly I found a documentary focussed on a contemporary artist that always fascinated me and whom and I knew very little about: Paula Rego

 

Raw and Intense

 

Paula Rego was always an artist circling on the edge of my consciousness. I would see her work intermittently in books, exhibitions, catalogues and almost always found it raw and intense, but also very, very good. I often wondered about the source of her pained imagery. Her works were always realistically well painted, (although she worked for many years as an abstract artist) often bringing the drawings of the German artist Kathe Kollwitz to mind.

So it was fascinating to discover the story behind her painted stories in this wonderful documentary. It tells of her childhood in Portugal, ‘A terrible country for women’ as her father once remarked. Her studies at the Slade School of Art in London, her troubled marriage, her depression and her personal tragedies.

Her paintings are not always easy to look at. She exposes her perverse fantasies and the difficult truths that most of us cover up or turn away from. But these are paintings you will find difficult to ignore.

Don’t miss it! ‘Paula Rego: ‘Secrets and Stories’

Color

Mitchell Johnson

My plan today was to continue my blog about my recent vacation in France.
But as so often happens, life made other plans…
A follower of mine and an artist I follow on Instagram, Rob Larson ( rob_larson_artist  ) posted a daily series of images recently, with this text underneath: ‘I’m looking at..’. There then followed images of work by Bonnard, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Brian Hollister, Jenny Nelson, myself and a painter by the name of Mitchell Johnson ( mitchell_johnson_artist ). Well, I immediately loved his work. As I suspected, he is a big fan of Bonnard, Morandi, surprisingly Corot (worth investigating!) and Josef Albers.
What struck me was his bold use of color combined with strong composition. He calls upon his intuitive sense of color use to balance and invigorate his works. I wrote to him in the hope of developing a dialogue with an artist who like myself is not concerned with current art trends or movements, but focuses on his love and fascination for the visual phenomenon of color, composition and color relationships. AND, also managing to stay in touch with the atmosphere and mood of the scene he depicts. As Matisse said: “The most important aspect of painting is not the imitation of nature, but the transformation of perception into an enduring image.”

Josef Albers

Listening to a podcast of Mitchell being interviewed on ‘Savvy Painter’ he spoke often of the deep effect the teachings of Josef Albers had on his development.  Albers was a German artist best known for his theories on color, specifically color relationships, vibrations and the effects of visual perception. I absorbed his teachings at my first Art Academy in Memphis Tennessee in 1971. I was 19 years old and wanted to just paint, I didn’t have much patience for the theory of color, but I did the exercises and was quite amazed by the results. His famous and highly influential book: ‘Interaction of Color’ was originally published in 1963.  The statement that had the most effect on me was the following: ‘Repeated experiments with adjacent colors will show that any ground subtracts its own hue from the colors which it carries and therefore influences.” And although I dutifully finished the course I would have no idea how much I had actually digested or how insidiously these ideas would slowly seep into my fascination with color that emerged much later in my career.

Our French Adventure (Part two)

Autun

Just an hour west of Beaune lies the city of Autun. Founded during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus, the town still bears witness to its past in the form of walls, gates and a Roman theater.

Lili and I wanted to share the old center of Autun with our travel companions, especially the Cathedral of Autun (St. Lazare’s Cathedral). It is a major example of 12th century Romanesque architecture. Above the west entrance of the church you are immediately struck by the ‘The Last Judgement’ a visually astounding sculpture that gives you a taste of the high quality of art found within.

But our tour of the church was over before it began when Jenn twisted her ankle badly while photographing outside. We got some ice from a café nearby to keep down the swelling. It was decided to go to a nearby hospital for x-rays although we were pretty convinced it wasn’t broken.

Before heading out Lili and I made a quick dash to the Rolin Museum next door specifically to visit the amazing sculpture of “Eve’ (see above) which originally was located above the north transept of the church.

But there were other treasures in store for us in Musée Rolin… before we returned to the café we discovered on the top floor an entire room filled with pastels, paintings and watercolors of Maurice Denis. Fabulous to see all these works some of which I knew but had never seen live.

We then got Jenn to the hospital where accidents caused by a sports car rally through the city and a partial strike by the hospital’s employees made the wait so long that we eventually left not having seen a doctor. It all worked out though, on our way to Lyon the following morning….

 

 

Our French Adventure

Paris

Paris elevators are small. For two Americans visiting from San Francisco they appear ridiculously small. Three people with carry-on luggage is often the max. But we managed to get the bags upstairs to my room and headed out for a quick breakfast before departing with the train later that morning for Dijon. It was wonderful to see my godson (Matt) and his wife Jenn again, I had arrived the night before with the evening Thalys from Amsterdam and we were anxious to begin our journey.

Lili was already in the country for her ceramic course near Langres and she would be driving to Dijon to meet us and our carefully planned, weeklong French adventure would finally begin. The plan was simple: to indulge ourselves with delicious food, wonderful wine, beautiful architecture and inspiring art spread between two wine regions (Burgundy and The Loire valley) and three cities, Beaune, Lyon and Amboise.

Rogier van der Weyden

For Lili and I, Beaune is synonymous with The Hospices de Beaune or Hotêl-Dieu de Beaune, a former charitable almshouse founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin as a hospital for the poor. The wooden building is remarkably well preserved and houses a remarkable piece of art: ‘The Last Judgement’ a 15th century masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. It consists of nine painted oaken panels of which six can be closed revealing six more paintings on the reverse. An amazing structure which moves a large magnifying glass horizontally and vertically across the surface using a remote control allows the viewer to study and marvel at the paintings incredible details.

Beaune

We all pretty much agreed that our first airbnb just outside Beaune was the nicest. Rolling farmlands filled with grazing cattle, a restored farmhouse with all modern conveniences. We had two excellent meals accompanied by an superb local Burgundy at a small hotel in the nearby town of Couches and our first evening was made complete when we lost our way back home after dinner and had a near collision with a marauding herd of wild boars.

 

A Visit to Copenhagen

Elke Sommer

Copenhagen.

Blue. Definitely blue, but mellowed, softened. Light, in feeling and in atmosphere. Rough, but not too rough, not like ‘Rotterdam’ (ROT! DAMN! A Dutch port, violent, dangerous, dock workers) and of course Elke Sommer,  a sexy blonde actress from my teens, whom I always associated with Copenhagen (actually she’s German). Well, so much for the fantasies of youth…

But ‘light’ and ‘blue’ weren’t too far off. The Scandinavian countries always fascinated me and now, finally, I was going. Via a non-simultaneous house exchange with a Danish-Iranian couple who stayed here in April, they made it possible for us to visit their city in August.

They home was a penthouse in an international architecture award winning building in a trendy neighborhood called ‘Vesterbro’, rising from the ashes where the Carlsberg beer headquarters formerly was located. A beautiful home and a fascinating area.

 

Pierre Bonnard

We rented bicycles. Definitely the way to go in a large city, well, if the city happens to be as bicycle friendly as Copenhagen. Wonderful to be free to go wherever you like when you like. Our first day while stopped at an intersection, I looked to the left and was stunned to see: “Pierre Bonnard, The Memory of Color’ plastered on the side of a building not far from our place. I knew it was in London a few months earlier. I’d already seen a retrospective at the MOMA in New York in 1998, and another in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne in 2006 (there, a long curved wall with all four of the horizontal bath paintings. Unforgettable) so I thought: ‘I’m not flying to London just to see two canvases I haven’t seen before’.

Whoa! Was I ever wrong. The exhibition was presented in the Glyptoteket Museum and at least a third of the works in this show were new to me. Together with Matisse and Diebenkorn, Bonnard holds a warm place in my heart. Once again I was motivated, inspired and thrilled by his use of color and composition.

Although I often regard the texts of curators as needless attachments to an exhibition meant to highlight their own knowledge and writing skills rather than allowing the viewer his/her own visual experience, the catalogue for the show was filled with fascinating information regarding Bonnard’s personal life, habits and working methods.

 

Louisiana

No, not the state. The Museum of Modern Art, just an hour train ride outside of Copenhagen. Beautifully located on the sea, a large portion of the space was given to a major exhibition of the work of the contemporary Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. In a career spanning some 30 years, we were treated to the results of her outrageous, funny, visually stunning experiments in video imagery. When you enter an exhibition through a garden adorned with her piece: ‘Used Underwear’, yes, literally 50 or more pairs of men’s and women’s used underwear dangling from the trees around you, it’s certain you are about to experience something different and original.

I’ve a tendency to roll my eyes at this sort of thing, but perhaps because I didn’t know what to expect and owing to my general lightness of mood I was able to let go of judging whether or not this was ‘Serious Art’ and allowed myself to be dazzled, amazed and entertained.

Louisiana is definitely a must for anyone traveling to Copenhagen for the first time or anytime.

Deconstructing a painting (part four)

        

Go with the flow

 

When I went back to work the next day the movement felt choppy. It didn’t have the calligraphic flow across the surface I wanted. Where was the kink in the cable?

It seemed the three ‘figures’ in the middle weren’t doing their job, they weren’t moving the eye properly from left to right. So, reluctantly I replaced them with three new figures that had a solid identity but provided a rhythm that moved the viewer along.

Yes, now it was working….

But there were still unresolved problems. The legs for instance, what role were they playing? And the large backpack on the far right. Necessary? Working for me? Or working against me?

 

 

Balance

 

Too crowded. Too heavy. Lighten it up. Redesign number 5. Remove number 6. Lose the backpack.

My first impressions as my workday begins again.

I’m consciously fighting the urge to describe, to delineate, to explain. The entire surface must be a whole, one piece. It has to hit you at once, all together. Like a poem that baffles but also delights and intrigues. I don’t want the viewer to KNOW what they are looking at. I want them to ENJOY what they are looking at. Feel it before they understand it.

I like it.

Let it be….

 

 

Resolution

 

Yeah right, ‘Let it be’….

I got stuck for 6 months.

I loved the surface I’d created, the mood, where it was going, but I couldn’t leave it there. It was too sketchy. The right side was unresolved.

So I looked at more photos, drawings, made new drawings until I finally found a way. But I was very unsure, hesitant.

Finally I removed and inserted the new figures and slowly I began to feel the whole once more. When I work on such a large piece I wonder if composing a symphony is something similar? How to hold on to a big idea when so many individual sections need to be completed and yet constantly relate back to that one idea?

At a certain point, if it goes well, I stop talking at the painting and begin to take dictation. The painting starts to inform you. I listened closely and finally I was done.

My now dear departed friend, the painter Ed Baynard and I were headed to breakfast together years ago on 57th street in New York and we happened to pass a newsstand where an article on the front page of the New York Times caught his eye: “Oh my God, Alice died.” He exclaimed. (referring to the American abstract painter Agnes Martin) “Did you know her?” I asked. “Yes, when I first arrived in New York I was her studio assistant” “Oh really? What was she like?” “She was very quiet and I didn’t dare question her about her painting although one day I screwed up my courage and did. I asked: ‘Alice, where do you get your inspiration from?’  She looked at me oddly, as if I sought an answer that didn’t need answering. ‘Well, I just do what the voices tell me to do!’ she replied.”

Deconstructing a painting (part three)

Don’t paint the photo

 

‘Don’t paint the photo, PAINT THE REASON WHY YOU TOOK THE PHOTO’

 

This sentence is written down and posted on the wall of my back studio (my ‘idea factory’) where I produce the studies and play with the ideas that eventually lead to a painting.

 

The Sri Lankan schoolgirls were an excellent case in point. Although I was able to jot down studies in my sketchbook at the scene as well note the mood, atmosphere and my own feelings and associations, I also took a lot of photos with my iPhone.

 

For me, using photos is a dangerous but sometimes necessary practice. Why? The photo records the visual facts and all the details like a good machine should do. But when the photos are back in my studio I realize I have not yet made any choices, I have not selected what I find important or non-essential. I haven’t yet distilled the image down to its essentials, which is what drawing is all about.

 

Beginning the painting

 

OK,

I’ve now made 50 or so drawings. I’ve entered into, become intimate with, filleted, analyzed, pulled the figures part and reassembled them. Time to affix two 110×120 cm. aluminum panels to my front studio wall and get started.

 

Using only rags saturated in indigo paint I move quickly across the white surface. I know my first run must be a statement.

 

Confident in what I have learned and yet nervous to be relying only on instinct and intuition I bolt out of the gate as a skier on a black diamond slope. A huge expanse of white looms before me.

 

The moment a dark is registered the response must be balanced, bold and beautiful.

Voices shout directions, encouragement, as I hurtle towards the right side, the finish line:

‘Hold the lyricism’   ‘Keep it open’   ‘Suggest, Don’t describe’    ‘Balance, Balance’

 

Underway

 

A good run.

I like it.

Actually I like it a lot.

But I won’t leave it here.

I like the placement.

The balance of dark and light is good.

Legs are not working.

The figures need to be tweaked and shifted around.

It reads like a poem for me now, a text I can’t quite decipher and yet suggests volumes.

 

To be continued…..

 

 

 

Deconstructing a painting (part 2)

 

Cell phones?

Returning home to Amsterdam, I printed a number of photos and together with the drawings I’d made in Sri Lanka,  I set myself up in my back studio to begin working on composition in preparation for my first painting. As I studied and drew I became aware of a remarkable ambience in the groupings of the girls. There was a presence, a connection between them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…

Then I understood it. They had no cell phones. They were ‘in relationship with each other’. Talking, laughing, gesticulating, lost in thought, bored or simply observing what was going on around them.

 

Arabic text

In my travels in Morocco and Tunisia I was always intrigued by the rhythmic beauty of Arabic text. Perhaps it was this appreciation that helped me to instantly perceive the girls heads and limbs as undulating text moving across the white ‘page’ of their uniforms and the wall behind.

My goal was clear: remain in touch with the visual reality that so moved me AND find a means to incorporate that into the larger compositional idea it aroused in me.

 

Degas

Edgar Degas has always fascinated me. When I studied at the National Academy of Design at 5th Avenue and 89th Street in New York (across from the Guggenheim Museum) I would often walk a few minutes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, donate my 5 cents (you had to donate something for admission, and the employees there got to know my face and knew I was a poor art student. They would just smile and pass me through) and head towards my favorite galleries. Often those were the rooms containing the drawings and pastels of Degas. Together with Eduard Manet, he served as a bridge connecting the classic, academic style to the ‘impressionism’ of his younger colleagues. He once remarked : “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” He was a fantastic draughtsman who knew his anatomy inside and out but was always looking for new compositional ideas. For instance, how he found ways to redesign the bodies of his dancers to form a flowing, lyrical whole.

His drawings helped me a lot to think in certain compositional terms and to not just simply copy the group in a specific photo onto the canvas.

To be continued….