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!