In her article The Merry-Go-Round Kings, Linda Kowall-Woal writes, “Today, carousels and their carved figures are highly regarded as examples of American folk art at its best, and cherished as nostalgic icons of a bygone era when amusements somehow seemed more lavish, fanciful and innocent.”
The northern most wall of the Post Gallery in Butler North is lined with carousel animals. Five wild horses jumping, and a pig. I’m not going to sugar coat this – that pig is terrifying! I state that as a fact, though I realize my perspective may be skewed by having watched the Lord of the Flies at too early of an age. However, I’m told that the pig is actually more valuable because wood carved carousel pigs are rare in comparison to the horses.
The five horses are gorgeous turn of the century wood carved steeds designed with long voluptuous lines creating strong outspread limbs and manes that curve in swooping parallels so soft that they nearly invite you to reach out and touch. These jumpers are posed eternally defying gravity – bound and contorted to the whim of the woodcarver’s desire. Though gilded and bejeweled, their true beauty is found in the expressiveness of their gestures and countenances. There is a fury and a fear there that was brought forth by the hands of master crafts folk and it certainly reaches the soul if you let it. Once the objects of reckless thrills, the Butler jumpers are now treasured, well cared for, and protected.
Their values are recognized and determined not only by the quality of the wood, rarity, and complexity in carving but also for the authenticity of wear. The authenticity is what really gets me. If you take a few moments to really observe the age of the pieces you may find the textures are mesmeric. This wabi sabi aesthetic carries with it a truth, an aura, that is impossible to fake. I mean, home furnishing corporations try, but that stuff has no lasting value. To see the wear of time as it has occurred naturally is a wonder that cannot be compared. Another intriguing aspect of the art of the carousel is the anonymity of the artists. There is a detailed history there, but only a few ever achieved accolades as artists. These sklled wood carvers were certainly not getting rich creating carousel animals. They worked their craft for the love of it, and for the joy it brought into the world.
Dr. Zona remarks that people often ask if any of the carousel works are from Youngstown’s famous Idora Park Carousel. They are not. The Idora Park carousel is at home in Brooklyn where it is fully functioning. The carousel animals here in the Post Gallery were gifted to the Butler in 2008 by the Estate of George Breckner. Breckner, a Youngstown native, began his formal art training at the Butler in 1937 studying first under Ceylon Hollingsworth and later under Clyde Singer. With degrees in both fine arts and education, in 1953 Breckner began teaching art classes at the Butler. He was an accomplished artist represented in numerous private collections. In addition to being an artist and teacher, Breckner was an avid art collector. Thankfully he had the wisdom to understand not to have any of his carousel pieces restored. Looking through his file in the Butler Archives is fascinating! It is filled with his sketchbooks and drawings. He was very skilled. His file is also full of years of correspondence with the author of A Pictorial History of the Carousel, Fredrick Fried. Based on receipts on file it appears Breckner was very active collecting during the 1960’s. Fried visited Breckner on more than on occasion to discuss and appraise Breckner’s collection, as well as make trades and other transactions. Breckner’s legacy to the Butler is rich with love for the arts and for the Butler, and it will carry forward for many future generations to learn from and enjoy … even the pig.
Until next time – Best!
330.743.1107 ext. 1108 – Office
“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” – Joan Mitchell.
Those are the words of a woman whose father was a poet. It’s a romantic notion isn’t it? To take a place, a moment in time, a visual memory and then fold or unfold it like clothing in luggage. This quote is often referred to when considering Mitchell’s work not only for its poetic approach to what it means to be and grow as a human, but perhaps more importantly it gives insight to her systematic approach to interpret life and land in terms of her own perspective and skill as a painter. As an American female Abstract Expressionist active in the middle of the 20th century, she was certainly in tune with the zeitgeist of her generation. During her lifetime, her mastery of form and visual order was applauded and admired among her peers.
In the upper level of Beecher Court in the Butler, there hangs a relatively small painting by Mitchell, Untitled, and it is phenomenal. At 17” x 16” it holds its own opposite Motherwell’s 72” x 144” Mexican Past. Mitchell often painted on large canvases, but this smaller scale work provides a more intimate view of her organizational methods. The restraint of a smaller canvas does not limit the energy that emerges from her work. She was known to admire Van Gogh, and the fury of her brushwork in the foreground of this piece meets that level of intensity. As an action painter, the movements that went into the thick applications of paint are evident and activating. The elevations within the impasto of the actual surface create a tactile sensation, which amplifies the expressive experience of the work. These various smaller strokes overlap each other creating a quick jazz like rhythm in contrast to the middle ground where the eyes can rest a bit on large strokes of low-key neutral blues and warm whites. Her palate here is an arbitrary forest that begs the question, where are these landscapes she’s traveled? Analyzing her psychological application of color would have to begin with the tipping scarlet vertical stacked on the adjacent horizontal that commands dominance over the canvas. The excitement of which is met by the quietly negative space of the neutral gray at the top of the canvas where it lingers serenely as background. Throughout the painting her shifting contrast in values is genius.
On a personal note, a friend loaned me the book de Kooning An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in which I read, “Joan Mitchell had a mouth that could shame a marine and could be especially cutting about other women. She called Helen Frankenthaler, who was known for staining unprimed canvas with misty washes of paint, “that tampon painter.”” (pg. 345) My Goodness Joan! I guess like another favorite Joan of mine (Jett) she don’t give a damn about her bad reputation. It’s just a little dirty laundry, anyway. The woman was a master.
Until next time – Best!
330.743.1107 ext. 1108 – Office
“I follow the rules until I go against them all.” – Helen Frankenthaler in an interview with the Washington Times in 1993.
Recently, while observing Frankenthaler’s painting Veiwpoint II on the balcony of Beecher Court at the Bulter, a friend of mine that is not an artist said, “but I could paint that.” He went on to explain that it is just his casual opinion that the technical art he believes he could not make himself is just more impressive than abstract work. While I tell him that I agree that art that appears to take months or years and more than a fair share of technical skill to create is objectively impressive, I say that Frankenthaler’s contribution to the art world with paintings like Veiwpoint II is a testament to pure freedom. And that it is Frankenthaler’s confidence in her embrace of freedom that makes her paintings even better than impressive. It makes them interesting.
Pure abstraction in visual art can sometimes be hard for the public to appreciate. So, I’ve taught a few youth art classes, and I found a lot of children were very hard on themselves for not being able to paint like da Vinci. Foundational skills are important to learn, but kids develop at different rates and I often encouraged them to let go and embrace the freedom of abstraction once in a while. The easiest way to explain to them why pure abstraction holds a very important place in art history was this: a long time ago, photography broke painting. Once the camera came along and took over the chore of visually documenting history, the identity crisis painters experienced eventually led to artists like Monet to explore the possibilities of paint. Impressionism was born and subsequent abstracted artistic movements followed in time. For the sake of simplicity, I pretty much skip ahead passed fun stuff like Cubism, Dadaism and so on, right on to America’s own first great art movement Abstract Expressionism. I mention that as part of Abstract Expressionism Jackson Pollock, whom they all usually know, legendarily revels in wild creative freedom with his all-over composition and revolutionary drip method and thereby famously platforms paint’s event horizon – pure abstraction. Works of visual art without any representational object.
Which brings us back to Frankenthaler, blazing the trail tread by Pollock she did something so unusual that Clement Greenburg had to create a completely new movement to describe it. He called it Post-Painterly Abstraction. Frankenthaler’s contribution to Post-Painterly Abstraction was stain painting, and it is a gorgeous hot mess. Like Pollock, she laid the canvas on the floor, but she ditched the brush, thinned her paint, and poured the color onto unprimed canvas. Veiwpoint II is such a canvas. It’s chaotic and raw, but admirably sincere. Without rules, there are no mistakes. Evidence of spills and stains drift and tide audaciously, and the soft liquidity streams forth like a siren’s song. The charm of mixing Ultra Marine Blue with Alizarin Crimson soaks the canvas in a variegated violet daydream. Distinctions of value create pale blooms and unyielding densities that deny the mysteries of its making. Without gesso, the unprimed canvas reveals an unstable absorption of paint, but also the artist’s willingness to play with the risk of disaster. This willingness gives Frankenthaler’s work its most visually stunning quality: luminosity. Viewpoint II glows like what you see when you blink at the bright blue sky, if only you noticed blinking. The large crimson-thick black horizontal oval that gently looms over the upper half of the painting is so soft that it drifts over the top of the streak of pale blue that appears so much brighter just by its nearness to the dark.
Recognizing all the kudos she receives for the embedding of color into the fabric of the canvas by way of stain, Frankenthaler’s approach to the surface with Viewpoint II is even more intriguing. Breaking the Post-Painterly Abstraction rule of flatness, Frankenthaler, it appears, rebelliously dipped her finger into white paint and then ran it horizontally several times just below the center of the canvas. It creates a foreground of sorts. It creates inter-dimensionality – a thickness over thin. A painterly-ness. She did it because she can. That’s freedom.
Clement Greenburg coined the term Post-Painterly Abstraction largely in response to Frankenthaler’s stain paintings, but what is also interesting to note is that the great art critic Barbara Rose in her book American Art Since 1900 A Critical History in 1967 wrote about the “emergence of a reductive, minimal art, which stresses the literal qualities of the painting – that it is two-dimensional…” (pg.234) partly in response to Frankenthaler’s influence on the reductive method of painting through literal use of thinned and poured paint, and focus on the flatness or non-illusionist space on the canvas. Minimalism as a movement took on more stipulations than just these qualities but as Morris Louis said of Frankenthaler’s work Mountains and Sea, 1952, hers was a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” (1) Frankenthaler’s work is significant for not only for its brave freedom and her contribution to Post- Painterly Abstraction, but also for her influence on the development of Minimalism. Isn’t that impressive?
Until next time – Best!
330.743.1107 ext. 1108 – Office
- Gibson, Eric (December 27, 2011). “Pushing Past Abstraction”. The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones.
In a world that desperately seeks to remind you of how unhappy and delusional it can get, crossing paths with the lovely painting The Street, 1957, by such an important American Scene painter as Jacob Lawrence is a welcome comfort. Lawrence’s powerful work The Migration Series, 1940-41 tells of the exodus of African Americans from the agricultural South in the US up into the industrial North. That body of work has been divided between the MoMA and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. The Street, located in the Beeghly Schaff Gallery here inside The Butler, was painted about 16 years later. To discover an artist like this whose work documents the lesser told events of history is satisfying for it nourishes the mind, but especially so when the work is visually nourishing as well.
The color feeds the eye first. In The Street, Lawrence uses casein, a medium comparable to gouache, to stack expressive swaths of red, gold, green and black to form four substantial figures. From across the room the eye savors the bold red and gold stripes of the long robe-like garment of the tall back of a high shouldered woman. She wears a round yellow hat with soft scrolls of dark curls sweeping out from under. Her left arm is lowered, as she holds between her large fingers a speck of a hand of a child whose small stance is set wide to mirror hers. She is large, so large, like a shield, and the stripes of her robe begin a pattern that creates a fortress around the youths within the frame, of which there are also four, and are all kept partially out of view. The arrangement of the four adult figures is subtly evocative of Nanni di Banco’s Four Crowned Martyrs, c.1412-15, half encircling the slightly asymmetrical center of the composition – a baby in a carriage. The baby, the humanist’s ultimate symbol of innocence and new beginnings, is a bit a funny looking. Lawrence’s stylization gives it the look of an almond with limbs. The baby’s notably tiny arm is outstretched and grasping its teeny hand onto a black string pulling diagonally upwards via a blue-green fish balloon float-swimming in the sky. This upwardness reveals an essential aspect to the The Street; everything about the children is upwards, and relatively tiny. Each of the four children is gesturing upwards in some fashion. There is one child whose face is revealed, though only partially, and he is my personal favorite because I love the way babies’ arms only just reach over their heads, as this little grinning guy appears. And with one hand holding up the balloon string, the other arm is extended upwards creating a sweet rendering of that classic power pose of joy.
The stylization of the large bold adult figures facilitates the pattern that creates the impression of the protective fortress surrounding the children. The narrative of the children and their upwardness is matched with the downward gaze of the adults. This downwardness reveals another essential aspect to the The Street; the gestures of the adults is downwards, and they are in contrast to the children very large. Mostly, this difference indicates the concern and the care for the children, but the joy in the child’s face is not paralleled in the faces of the adults. The adults’ faces show the wear of time. They show the weight of history. They tell of the lives of people that have lost battles but keep showing up for the fight. They tell of lives that have known suffering. They tell of the lives of martyrs. This is not a feel-good children’s book illustration. This is a street in Harlem in 1957, still several years before the civil rights movement.
What makes The Street so lovely is the spontaneity of the narrative the scene portrays combined with the depth of Lawrence’s evolving personal stylization and symbolism. It’s clear that Modernist Abstraction had some influence on his style. The solid geometric shapes in The Street as well as the use of the strong black diagonal lines within a progressively dynamic composition sets this apart from his earlier work. The Street has a cubist mood with poet’s heart. Which brings me back to the balloons. Balloons so comparatively big and absurd that the fish look as though they could swoop down with their jagged smiles and gobble up the children. But no, that’s not what they do. What the fish do is very cleverly draw the eye and the narrative up and out of the back-and-forth balance that radiates around the central point – the baby. With the perfection of a Fibonacci spiral the moral of the story is grasped with the odd balloon in the upper right corner of the picture plane – a simple round one, the same hue of blue as the sky.
Until next time – Best!
Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the great American painters of her time and she knew it. In the early 20th century, she was among the very first American artists to break away from realism and immerse herself in abstraction. It was a bold and brave move. Most teachers and the establishments of the times would not reward her for abstraction, but her sense of determination was as strong as steel and the self-assuredness she possessed to create the work she wanted eventually cemented her place in history as a major player in the American Modernist movement.
By the time O’Keeffe painted Cottonwood III in 1944, which is part of The Butler’s permanent collection and is presently hanging in the Ford gallery, she was spending most of her time painting in New Mexico. Like many of her New Mexico landscapes, the intense youthful sensuality of her earlier flower paintings is subdued in Cottonwood III. Instead, there is … a hunting? You can see it in her decisions. She is searching for something. It’s hiding in the warm flesh tones of the desert floor. It’s forgotten in the pale cerulean tinted sky. It’s cut against the hard edge of the mountain and is tripping down its subtle slopes. It’s mixed in the transition between the shades of blue to yellow of cottonwood leaves. It’s lost in the tips of the sharp phthalo branches sinking like fingers deep into the greens aching to hold them in place. And it’s exposed in these two beautiful bits of burnt sienna traced into shapes that certainly pleased her – waiting there perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner of the foreground.
While doing research into Georgia O’Keeffe to help me understand Cottonwood III I became fascinated by her. Beyond her success as a working artist O’Keeffe was truly a woman ahead of her times. In 1921 the nude photographs that her much older and very successful husband exhibited of her in New York caused a public sensation, for sure. Although by today’s standards the images are not very scandalous, and just for the sake of context – it’s apple to oranges – Playboy wasn’t a thing until 1953. O’Keeffe was clearly brave and trusted her husband, but she was also vulnerable. In 1928 she checked herself into a hospital for two months due to a nervous breakdown over that same very successful husband’s love affair with a younger woman. The humiliation was amplified when the nervous breakdown essentially caused her the loss of the elite opportunity to paint a large-scale mural for Radio City Music Hall. But you just gotta love Georgia because the next year that woman bossed up. Again, context is important here because not a lot of people, let alone women, were capable of buying themselves cars in 1929, but that is exactly what O’Keeffe did. Then she essentially abandoned the New York art scene to paint in the deserts of New Mexico. In the video interview Georgia O’Keeffe talking about her life and work (link is below) the female interviewer comments to O’Keeffe how “… nice it was of Stieglitz to let you go to New Mexico …” to which O’Keeffe laughs, “… he didn’t let me go. I just went.”
But it isn’t O’Keeffe’s determination, or her bravery, or her talent, or even her vulnerability that fascinates me. There is a moment in the video interview Georgia O’Keeffe talking about her life and work towards the end of part 3 where the interviewer asks O’Keeffe if she had ever climbed over the surrounding rocky terrain of her New Mexico home, and again O’Keeffe laughs, “… certainly, wouldn’t you?” And there is this sparkle in her eye as she says it. That sparkle. That’s where she got me. Georgia O’Keeffe was an adventurer – exploring the West. What could be more American?
Until next time – Best!
There is an old pale blue comb on the floor and it’s missing most of its teeth. It rests there like the brittle bones of a lifeless fish whose ribs a have been picked apart by ravenous birds. If only the pale blue comb could have ever actually provided any such value to birds.
The materials chosen to create visual art, particularly sculpture, can intrigue when used wisely to develop complex layers of metaphor, symbolism, or multiple narratives into the imagery. For instance, while walking through the Ron Barron and Ed Hallahan installation Earth Air Fire Water in the Flad Gallery at The Butler my eyes land on the outspread wooden wings of a Totem. The winged Totem is just one of a small forest of Totems gathered here. Shorn of bark the Totems stand naked like souls without skin. In hand-carved shapes of various geometric whimsy they rise abstractedly Solomonic. Some of them unite in couples or herds while others tower in isolation. Many dichotomies exist here, for these Totems are both alien and familiar, similar yet unique, they are still yet animated, and though they are silent certainly they are speaking secretly in some unknowable ancient language. Ed Hallahan has titled these works of wood DORW – a Sanskrit word for tree and truth.
On the south wall of the exhibition beside Hallahan’s DORW works of an interestingly different variation, hangs Ron Barron’s Cocoon assemblages which are made up of collected household waste bound into visceral little plastic shrink-wrapped bundles. Though the textures here sparkle softly and almost beckon, there is something uncomfortable about them – something suffocating. These garbage beings grow dysmorphicaly. Some are long and thin like sickly snakes in grass while others are squat and bulging oracularly fertile. It’s scarcely visible that they are caught up in an elastic glitter cord matrix – a double bind. But the beautiful truth about cocoons is that while they are in fact shells of devastating self-annihilation, enveloped within all that detritus is the determined grace of transformation.
Moving on, my eyes travel over Ron Barron’s scavenged ground pollution and again something pale blue draws me in. This time it is a mangled mesh bag casting a shallow shadow like a warped grid of space and time, next a lost sole of disposable footwear, then a rusted chunk of metal machinery gesturing to crawl along like a crab, a dirty dark blue ring pop, mylar balloons with streaming tails tangled up in fisherman’s nets, badminton shuttlecocks, lighters, bolts, screws, washers. So many discarded material objects that occupy the mind, but it’s the stray feathers lingering among them that will weigh on the heart.
Earth Air Fire Water will be open for view in the Flad Gallery at The Butler until March 21, 2021.
Until next time – Best!
If, for a moment, we zoom out and imagine the entirety of the human race as a singular organism on this planet, then we can adjust our perspective to observe the arts as a chart of human development, in much the same way we observe benchmarks of the development of a growing child. 30,000 years before writing was invented humans were drawing handprints on the walls of caves. With every new “movement” we see the growth and expansion of our collective historical mind. From cave paintings, to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and twisted perspective, complex Greek sculptural ideals of beauty, the Romans and the political Augustus of Prima Porta, the Renaissance and linear perspective, and so on, the building upon the developing human mind is evident. For reasons that reflect the times be it war, peace, famine, or excess, we witness that throughout the growth of human development visual art has merged lanes with religion, philosophy, satire, architecture, and technology. Now, we find ourselves on a planet so electronically interconnected that the art of all the ages is to some degree accessible from our phones. And with the onset of Covid 19 and social distancing, we have embraced electronics like never before.
Zooming back in, we have taken note of the individuals that brought about changes in the arts because they are the signposts for those of us that wish to travel back through the labyrinthine streets of art history. Those artists, and in some cases their patrons, are the people that mark the forks in this road we share. But the path is not linear. In his book New Media in Late 20th Century Art Michael Rush writes, “Not only are we still in the midst of the story, the story itself began and continues with simultaneous activities among different kinds of artists in separate parts of the world.” (pg.9) Which brings me to The Butler Institute of American Art recently announcing the new acquisition of a collection of kinetic art from the estate of David Bermant. In the book David Bermant The Audacious Art Collector Dr. Zona writes, “Before anyone considered technologically based artistic expression as serious art – there was David Bermant. Not only did he come to recognize that art created with light or digital electronics was indeed on the same level as painting or sculpture, he took the unprecedented step of actually acquiring such work and encouraging artists to stay with their vision and continue to explore new realms.” (pg.8) This new acquisition is so important to us because it includes so many of the pioneers of kinetic art.
So, by definition kinetic art moves. It can be moved through a natural force such as wind, it could require electricity, or the viewer must provide the movement. For example, (spoiler alert!) in the Novak gallery in Beecher Center is Marcel Duchamp’s Rotorelief, 1935-1953. Upon approaching Rotorelief, a relatively small mysterious black velvet box hanging on the wall adorned with a circular print, motion sensors will trigger the plugged-in device into action. The circular print, or disc, begins to spin – revolving like a drunken record player. The disc itself is interchangeable, but the one currently on display is titled Optical Disc No. 10 and will be familiar to anyone that has watched Duchamp’s 1926 Dadaist film Anemic Cinema. Stepping back from the disc a little and allowing the eyes to absorb to the rotating pale orange circle at the center makes way for the optical illusion to set in. Mesmerized – the whole world drops away as the soft hypnotic hum of the device creates a cocoon of sound happily complemented by the sweet chiming of the George Rhoads sculpture playfully rolling along down the hall ….
The Butler is grateful and proud to have the works of the David Bermant collection at home in Beecher Center, the wing of the Butler built for and dedicated to art and technology. The Bermant Gallery inside the Beecher Center here at The Butler is now open with new pieces from the Bermant collection installed. You can also find pieces from this new acquisition in the Novak gallery where stands Audrey Flack’s Colossal Queen Catherine. There is more to come and though we are eager to share, it will take some time before the much of the rest of the work is on view.
Until next time, best!
*This blog may contain facts about events, and works of art at The Butler; and is poetically / artistically written by the writer’s own personal interpretation.
The Butler Institute of American Art
A blog by Liz Hicks-Skeels.