From July 16th until August 27th I will be exhibiting six new paintings in a special introductory exhibition at Galerie De Twee Pauwen in The Hague. It is exciting and refreshing for me to be showing my work in this new location. My first visits to the gallery felt as if were in another country, so different is The Hague to the city of Amsterdam. I’m curious to see how this new environment receives my artistic expression.
As far as “podcasts” go, I’d pretty much restricted myself to “This American Life”, listening attentively while furiously going nowhere on my partners crosstrainer. I’ve an artist friend who listens to podcasts while working in her studio, inconceivable to me. But I do get it, it occupies her conscious mind and allows her unconscious free rein.I tried it myself and quickly just froze in place. Split in two, a multi-task too far. I’m comfortable with the abstraction of music that supports my emotional state while painting.
It was probably something I noticed in an Instagram post that first led me to the Savvy Painter Podcast. Hosted by Antrese Wood, an artist herself, the podcasts are packed with every conceivable subject matter connected with producing art. Inspiration, techniques, galleries, social media, studio practice, creating websites, blogging, color theory, art licensing….well, you get it: A wonderful and much needed resource for practicing artists.
So, I was delighted a few months ago when I was approached by Antrese to take part in a live Zoom interview for the program. With the help of my partner, a coach who has been forced to conduct her sessions on the internet this past year, I learned the ins and outs of this new medium.
Detour to Basel
Damn! Hopper at the Beyeler in Basel and I was going to miss it.
Luckily however, a vacation in Italy planned in January remained on track despite Covid-19 and actually because of the virus the show was extended. Having already planned to drive made traveling safe, only having to take precautions in hotels and restaurants. Following our first stop in Nancy, we headed on towards our hotel in Bern via a short detour south to Basel and Beyeler.
Hopper has always been a touchstone for me. For one thing we are both Americans, we attended the same art academy in New York and actually lived just 20 minutes from each other, Hopper in Nyack NY, myself in Pearl River. This great artist passed without my knowing of his existence in 1967, when I was just 14, the year I began oil painting.
It has only dawned on me after many years living and traveling in Europe how much our shared nationality, not to mention our regional proximity, has formed and identified us as artists. There is for me nothing mysterious or exotic in Hopper’s art. I know his art directly, it is a matter of osmosis. We’re in the same family.
This painting really got my attention. The balancing of figuration and abstraction in Hopper’s work was never so evident as in this detail from “Cape Cod morning”. I made a small study in front of the piece and wrote the following: “ I also see for the first time how Hopper moved color (often abstracted shadows, curtains, shutters, etc…) across his compositions. And with how much feeling he felt out his compositions.” Without the figure and (?) the stacked horizontal lines representing clapboards in the light grey vertical shape behind her, this is a very solid abstract painting.
I knew that Hopper often made careful drawings of his subject matter accompanied by detailed notes. So it surprised me somewhat to see that beyond his careful observations he also played and played carefully with color and shape combinations. He somehow had the ability to not only record visual reality including mood, atmosphere and lighting, but also shifted and rearranged his minutely observed compositions to attain a very refined abstract balance.
A quality of this exhibit that struck me immediately was my unfamiliarity with much of the work. I have books on Hopper and have seen his paintings in many collections but here I met quite a few strangers. There were of course a number of famous works which matched the image already carried in my head, and that is always pleasant. However it was the oddball pieces, the “this is Hopper?” paintings that surprised me and made me really look.
The regrets of unseen exhibitions that Covid-19 screwed up for me and many others were to some extent made right by this virus-prolonged show.
Aaron Copland’s orchestral work “Quiet City” has entered my mind in the last weeks. It has been so strange. Watching the news every day, hearing of the deaths, the suffering, the fear. The lives of friends, family, in fact everyone’s life has been turned upside down. Whether continuing to perform your normal work with an abrupt, new sense of apprehension or being forced to work from home or suddenly having no work at all… Courageous, overworked health professionals fighting for lives and risking their own on the battlefield of hospitals around the world. The already difficult existence of the most disadvantaged; refugees, the poor, the elderly and the weak have now also become the most vulnerable. Through the international media we are all global witnesses to these bizarre and frightening events.
My own city of Amsterdam, which right now should be inundated with tourists enjoying the many bustling shops, cafes, restaurants, night life, concert halls and museums is empty. During my now less frequent early morning walks there are no hordes of bicyclists speeding towards the Central train station or to offices. No children exuberantly clamoring on their way to school.
And yet, if I’m honest, my own experience as an artist in the middle of this Corona madness has for the most part, been one of heightened enjoyment.
My studio life has been more inspired and productive in the last weeks than in the last few years. I live and work in the middle of the Jordaan, a cozy, intimate enclave of small streets and narrow sidewalks in the center of Amsterdam. Typically my street is fairly quiet but in the last month it has been VERY quiet. Fewer cars on the street, no airplanes overhead, it is a meditation. But perhaps my fertile studio life can’t be entirely attributed to this shift in the cities mood. In the months previous to the outbreak I was doing a lot of traveling and so I am having no problem now staying put in my studio and translating my many visual and emotional experiences into paint.
And I realize as well that I am fortunate in this regard. Most of us have had our careers upended, isolated from colleagues or students, not to mention orchestra’s, theater and dance companies whose work has become totally impossible.
Charles Dicken’s opening line from his novel “A Tale of Two Cities” sums up my seemingly schizophrenic experience during this Corona crisis pretty well: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”
Change is always strange. And I’m not minding the shift, my studio life is actually enhanced by it. The quiet and empty streets remind me of weeks spent on Zen Buddhist retreats in France and in America. As a writer friend expressed it in an email to me a few days ago: ‘We’re still busy, but instead of ranging freely and widely, we go back and forth inside our structures or take solitary walks along proscribed paths’. I’m very fortunate to have my live-in studio in Amsterdam and the opportunity to be with my partner outside the city in the weekends (or whenever I need to). It allows me to ‘get out’ and experience a different space and environment. As I watched Lili’s chickens from out of our own enclosed ‘coop’ last week I realized that for the time being our lives are very similar.
I try to keep my daily walk schedule intact as well. At first I assumed it would be a bit difficult in the narrow streets of the Jordaan to keep the required distance between myself and others. But surprisingly there are few people walking early in the morning (or at night for that matter). What I quickly noticed was a huge increase in the amount of joggers filling the streets. Seemingly a number of (mostly) young people have decided to use this sudden break in the normal routine of their lives to weave in a healthy practice that will hopefully remain in place when the demands of getting the kids to school and themselves to work kicks in again. And I still take advantage of the close proximity of the Westerpark to get my hit of nature before my own day in the studio begins. Wonderful to see the spring once more materializing although it is definitely the strangest change of season I can remember.
The pre-corona studio rules still apply: I have to be at work no later than 10 am. And actually I’ve found myself painting as early as 9 am these last weeks. Our travels in January and February not only made returning to and remaining in my studio a pleasure but also those same excursions brought me a lot of inspiration that I’m quite anxious to express now in paint. A new studio phenomena is the conscious decision to leave a mess behind and meet that same mess when the following painting day begins. It keeps me loose and ‘aesthetically sloppy’. What I mean by that is it helps me follow my first impulses better, to just put the paint down without being so ‘correct’ visually and creating a climate that encourages me to be more ‘correct’ emotionally. I read once that Richard Diebenkorn could draw so well that he began to invent methods to thwart his visual accuracy and open up accident and suggestion in his art. Another art hero, the recently deceased blind painter Sargy Mann, drew upon the knowledge of his many years as a ‘seeing’ artist to help him achieve some degree of visual accuracy in his figurative work while his loss of sight provided him with a bat-like radar to feel the resonance of his colors and enter into a more sensitive and heightened chromatic experience.
The Church of Impulsive Living
The Bass Museum
Our flight from Amsterdam arrived at Miami airport too late in the afternoon to visit the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. My niece whose wedding initiated our entire trip is a director there. But we managed to rise early and race over the following morning with an Uber giving us a few hours before our plane left for Key West. I was very curious to see where my niece wounded up following her move from Pittsburgh. It was a joyous surprise. I suppose I’m predisposed to wanting to be ‘moved’ by art, to be deeply soul-stirred by an artists expression. But I’m slowly learning that that expression can also be FUN, dazzling, original, creative, eye-opening and refreshing. That was the case at the small but exquisite Bass Museum in Miami Beach and we were grinning from ear to ear. I quickly noticed that the museum was seemingly run mostly by women and exposing primarily the work of women. Be that as it may, not only was the quality of the art impressive but also the Museum’s careful presentation and attention to detail. Of course we didn’t LOVE everything we saw but we were both head over heels with the work of Haegue Yang. Remember that name! Also the installations of Mickalene Thomas and Lara Favaretto were a pleasure to walk past and dance into.
Key West Wedding
Living far from home, when your country is torn in half by political turmoil can have its advantages. Especially when you are fully enjoying your life in your adopted home in a wonderful city like Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Emotionally I sometimes think of my family back in the States as if they are all packed into an area roughly compromising 25% of the state of New York (the size of the entire country of The Netherlands) and visiting with each other frequently and easily. But my nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters are flung out between Seattle, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Taiwan (!) and Knoxville Tennessee. So it was special for all of us to be reunited in the balmy weather of Florida in February to celebrate my niece Sara’s marriage to her partner Erik. The only kink in the cable was the absence of the bride’s father, my brother Kevin. A car accident a month or so before the wedding left him with four broken ribs and a broken clavicle making the flight from New York a flight too far. But via FaceTime he did view the entire ceremony live. A memorable two days but far too short to really embrace those you love and who form your deepest, most natural connection in this life.
It wasn’t my idea. In fact I could never imagine myself going on a cruise. Originally conceived as a chance for my brothers and sisters to be together for a week after the wedding it eventually boiled down to my eldest brother and his wife joining Lili and I on the MS Nieuw Statendam for a 7 day Caribbean cruise. I have had connections with cruise ships in the past; my artwork hangs on the Queen Mary 2 and the MS Amsterdam but not on this spanking new ship from the Holland America Line. And it certainly wasn’t the boring misadventure I had always pictured in my mind. To begin with our room with a terrace was pretty comfortable. And the food was very, very good. We were even able to do our yoga in the sport school in the morning as we plowed through the azure blue Caribbean Sea. But the real saving grace was the ‘Music Walk’. Afternoons and evenings there was non-stop live music to be heard in a variety of linked venues on the 9th deck. From string quartets on Lincoln Center Stage, to soul-stirring, dance infectious blues artists at BB Kings Blues Club. Additionally, there were two pianists playing crowd-pleasing covers and a Rolling Stones Rock Café with a rock band booming out electrified crowd-pleasing covers. But for me the most unexpected gift from the cruise were my pre-dawn walks on the still chilly, sometimes wet and windswept outside decks as the night slowly surrendered to the warmth and light of day. There, often completely alone I reveled in the stark, raw, emptiness of sky, wind, rain and the startlingly deep, dark, immenseness of the surrounding sea. Paintings will be coming!
When a French writer on my home exchange network approached me for a swap with my live-in atelier in Amsterdam I didn’t hesitate. Her place on Rue de l’Université close to the Seine and the Grand Palais was on the 4th floor without a lift but it didn’t matter, we had our own place for a week in Paris and it felt as if we danced up and down the long, spiraling staircase. The apartment itself was small and charming, perfect for our needs. We quickly found the supermarket and a fantastic bakery on Rue Saint Dominque which was just around the corner and parallel to our new digs. After we got ourselves oriented I plotted the routes to the four exhibitions I had purchased tickets for and at least three others we wanted to see as well if time permitted, so our agenda was full.
The second morning of our stay I arose early and was struck by the image of our street in quiet meditation below, the lights of Boutique Petrossian, THE place to purchase caviar in town glowed gently in the stunning silence of this vibrant city at rest. I quickly grabbed my i-pad and made a painting of the scene below.
Our first museum lay just across the bridge, the Grand Palais. There we were treated to a large scale and very crowded exhibition of the paintings (and one sculpture!) of the great Spanish painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco (The Greek). Ever since my visit to Toledo in 1984 I was enamored with this artist. After his education in icon painting in Crete he studied in Rome with Titiaan. He was exceptional in his time in that his solid training as a figurative painter did not restrict him from experimenting with form, light and color. I was slightly disappointed in the selection until I arrived at the end where two of his large masterpieces were displayed.
Whenever Lili and I are in Paris we make certain to visit the small and exquisite Zadkine Museum near the Jardin du Luxembourg. Here was the home and workshop of this Russian sculptor. With it’s garden and outdoor sculpture it is a unique experience to view his art in very intimate surroundings. The permanent collection was combined with an exhibition of artists using nature forms as a response to Zadkine’s work.
Luckily we had the time to walk to Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, a favorite of ours and now just a stones throw away from our apartment. We hadn’t been in some years but we were once again amazed by this incredibly rich collection of the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Not only the content and quality of the collection but also the design of the building and the creatively varied presentation of the pieces keeps you constantly engaged.
Another Museum we try not to miss is Musée Jacquemart-Andre, a private home and collection on Blvd. Haussmann in the heart of Paris. It is the private collection of Nélie Jacquemart, a society painter and her husband Édouard André a member of a wealthy Parisian banking family. The couple travelled every year to Italy and amassed one of the largest collections of Italian art in France. Among the masterpieces are works by Bellini, Uccello, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Hals, Tiepolo, Chardin and Botticelli to name just a few. They combine this impressive collection with ongoing shows throughout the year. At the moment paintings and watercolors of Turner are on view until March 13th.
Due to the transport strike we had to cover long distances with the help of an Uber. Towards the end of our stay a friendly driver deposited us near a café at the corner of Rue Saint-Jacques and the Seine. We thought we were prepared when we rounded the café and were confronted with the heartbreaking spectacle of the ruined carcass of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We were not, it was heart wrenching to see. Devastating. A few days earlier at the Cité de l’architecture et du Patrimoine (City museum of architecture and monumental sculpture) there was a very informative exhibition of the fire and ongoing restoration of the cathedral. A piece that fascinated me was the copper rooster that had stood atop the wooden spire from 1859 that tumbled to earth during the horrific blaze. Incredibly the rooster was found by a passersby on the street and handed over to the city. It was displayed as it was found.
I would strongly recommend visiting this perhaps not so well known Paris museum. We were in the neighborhood on a Monday when all other museums were closed and were highly rewarded.
Early Dutch Portraits
I arrived in The Netherlands in 1982 and quickly painted some 50 portraits within three years. But the commissions represented more than just the painting of my patient sitters, they were also a doorway through which I entered into Dutch life and culture. I traveled the length and breadth of the country and intimately entered the homes of my clients. In one case nearly living with my models: a family of five, a dog and three cats for an entire summer.
But I was getting restless, I wanted to PAINT. Everything. To experiment with composition, color and design. To develop my ability to hear my own voice, follow my artistic impulses. The demands of ‘likeness’ , of ‘pleasing’ the client and a selection of canvas sizes ranging from ‘head’ to ‘full length’ were becoming too restrictive.
For years thereafter I painted almost no portraits. I concentrated solely on my painting: landscape, interiors and the occasional still life. When I did take a commission, or asked a friend to sit it was done on my terms (at least in my own mind) and I approached the canvas with a new attitude. It was no longer just: ‘Can I get this right? Will it please the client?’ But more a feeling of: ‘Is the composition strong? Is it interesting?’ ‘Are the colors relating to each other?’ But hey, enough of this reiterating of the past…..
The whole point of this blog was my amazement in the here and now, of a sudden proliferation of portrait commissions. And its OK. I’m enjoying it.
When I came across this rolled canvas in my storage unit in November (left image) the circumstances surrounding its unfinished state came flooding back to me. I was a scholarship student at the National Academy of Design, situated next to the Guggenheim and a stones throw from the Met. I had already copied Manet’s ’Lady with a Parrot’ at the museum and was busy with my next study, Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of Herman Doomer’. The Met had very rigid rules concerning the copying of paintings in the collection. There had to be at least a 25% size difference in comparison to the original and easels, canvases and painting supplies had to be returned to the racks in the basement before a specific time. I arrived a few minutes late one day and lost my privileges.
The recently completed portrait on the right of my friend Christoph was in no conscious way a response to that unfinished copy of long ago but the resemblance is there.
Art opens the eyes. And hopefully your consciousness. At Museum Voorlinden I usually experience both and it actually begins with arrival. After bumper to bumper traffic from Amsterdam, narrow residential streets leading to the parking area, a short walk and then WHOOSH….. the expansive vastness of the Museum’s landscaped terrein opens up to you. Relaxing you, readying you for what lies just ahead.
She chose first for Louise Bourgeois, I wanted my initial contact to be the work of Anselm Kiefer. She loves string quartets, I love a Mahler Symphony. Not that Louise Bourgeois lacks intensity and high drama… I simply preferred to have my relaxed and open consciousness initially filled with Keifer’s imagery. His monumental pieces somehow reflected the seemingly limitless landscape I experienced approaching the museum but shifted it into another beautiful but brooding, desolate realm. I’m always struck by the complexity and directness of his paintings.
Less is More
And then on to ‘Less is More’. This was a joy. And I needed that after Anselm Kiefer. Ingenious, creative, inventive, original work that made me smile. It occurred to me how refreshing it was to be someplace where the people I saw were not busy distracting themselves from what was going on around them but focusing on it. The fresh, open space here recalls an accidental meeting with two Dutch artists at JFK airport in New York last month. I helped them find their way to Grand Central Station in Manhattan with the ‘E’ train and in writing me after arriving back in Rotterdam they told me how impressed they were by the Dia Museum in upstate NY, the size of the galleries there and the space the artwork had to exist in. It is smaller here, but I experience something similar in this museum as well.
Our time was up, the museum was closing and I had just 5 minutes to do a quick walk-through of Louise Bourgeois. I will have to return to give her more attention. I’ve seen her work many times before especially in New York, and am familiar with her biography. It’s unsettling art for me. Threatening, ominous, incredibly intimate and very human. We exited in the failing light only to be greeted by ‘Maman’ just outside, beautifully lit from below, stunning in the blue-violet envelope of early evening dusk.