Portraits (again)

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.

A painter

             

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…..

Past/Present

             

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.

Sunday Afternoon at Museum Voorlinden

Anselm Kiefer

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.

 

Louise Bourgeois

 

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.

 

Blasts from the Past (part 2)

Home

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 rites. 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.”