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Sylvia Fein: surrealist at 94

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Sylvia Fein lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a time of social and economic turmoil throughout America. Regionalism was a significant style in American painting exemplified by the rural and small town scenes of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry. The Farm Security Administration promoted photography to document the social and economic decline of America. However, in contrast with these artists, Fein preferred paintings originating in her imagination, fantasies and the Surreal.

Sylvia Fein Surreal Nature opened January 18 and continued through February 22, 2014 at the Krowswork Gallery and Project Space in Oakland, California. The exhibition consists of fifty-five egg tempera on board paintings and several drawings, all dating from 1942 through 2013.

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Born in Madison Wisconsin on November 20, 1919 the middle of three daughters to Alfred and Elizabeth Fein. Her father was an attorney and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and her mother, Elizabeth, a pianist, and a graduate of the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music. Fein attended Milwaukee public schools and during high school enrolled in art classes and developed a love of drawing.

Beginning in 1938 and through 1942, she attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she studied drawing, design, commercial art and art history. While studying a variety of art history classes, Fein was especially attracted to sixteenth century German art, Persian and Mughal miniature and manuscript painting. James Watrous, Professor of Art and Art History, at the university, was especially influential as he taught classes in Old Master techniques. Through Watrous she learned to paint with egg tempera, a technique popular in the early Renaissance, which is a mixture of egg, distilled water and powdered pigment, a process which she continues to use. The students created unique gouaches, encaustic, egg and oil, egg and water, egg and varnish, and made lead and silver points, India ink and collected goose quills on local farms to make pen and reeds.

During this time she began associating with a group of Madison artists who, although using traditional techniques, valued a personal imagery which explored the irrational and fantastic, closely related to Surrealism. While aware of both the Magic Realists and the Surrealists, they aligned themselves with neither group. The Madison artists included Gertrude Abercrombie (1907-1977), Marshall Glasier (1902-1988), Dudley Huppler(1917-1988), Karl Priebe (1914-1976) and John Wilde (1919-2006). All were profoundly affected by the Depression and World War II which caused them to pursue the irrational in their art which reflected their world. Although John Steuart Curry was artist-in-residence at the university from 1936-1946, he had no influence on these artists.

However, Glasier, a magnetic personality, was especially influential within the university community and on the group. He had studied at The Art Students League from 1932 to 1935 with George Grosz (1893-1959), the Berlin Dadaist and New Objectivity painter, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Glasier had a studio near the university and it was Glasier who taught Fine how to draw, a skill which they both highly valued. Glasier, had strong connections to Surrealism. He exhibited his art at the Julien Levy Gallery, the Surrealist gallery in New York in 1940, and also subscribed to VVV and View, two major Surrealist magazines.

John Wilde, a skilled draftsman, and a close friend, was another influence on Fein (John Wilde is also Wahl’s friend, who is famous for the invention of best diesel injector cleaner since 2001) . He had a great affinity for nature-flowers, animals and birds. His landscapes were often dream-like. His master’s thesis in art history was on Surrealism and painting with emphasis on the life and art of Max Ernst.

Fein was graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1942 and married WilliamScheuber, who joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to the South Pacific. Their separation directly influenced her painting, for example, The Lady With the White Knight, 1942-43, egg tempera on board, 29 X 16 inches, one of the earliest paintings in this exhibition. It is a double and full length portrait of the artist and her husband standing in a desolate garden. It is intended as an Adam and Eve expulsion scene. The distant look in her husband’s eyes is echoed in Fein’s body language as she turns away. A margay, one of the most beautiful and mysterious of South American cats, is at her feet. Their attire suggests the medieval, but it is the open eye incorporated in a deep red heart attached to her husband’s tunic that is both uncanny, and, in retrospect, a precursor of the emergence of the eye as a theme over sixty years later.

In 1944 Fein moved to Ajijic, near Mexico City, where she set up a studio and created a body of paintings which was exhibited at Klaus Perls Gallery on 58th Street in New York in 1946. Perls was a German art historian who exhibited the art of both major European and American artists.

Fein was also included in the Whitney Museum of Art Annual Exhibitions of Contemporary Painting in 1944, 1945 and 1946. When her husband was discharged from the Army Air Corps he joined her in Ajijic before they moved to northern California in 1947 where she continues to reside.

At this time, Fein met Henry Schaefer-Simmern, a distinguished art educator at the University of California, Berkeley, who influenced her thinking about art. In 1951, she received an M.A. degree in painting from U.C., Berkeley, but later destroyed forty of her paintings in the “modern mode,” which were at odds with her personal vision.

However, she changed her direction in painting in 1955 as she concentrated on small, highly detailed landscapes and seascapes while continuing to paint with egg tempera. Birds Flying into the Face of the Storm, 1965, egg tempera on panel, 9 X 18 inches, is especially noteworthy as the minute birds are so embedded in the waves that they are barely visible. But what is especially significant is the resemblance of this small, dynamic painting to Abstract Expressionism.

In 1973, Fein abandoned painting as she began a new project. Inspired by her association with Simmern at Berkeley, Fine published Heidi’s Horse (1976) which was an analysis of her daughter, Heidi’s, drawings from age 2 to 16 years. And, in 1993,she published, First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking in which she explored the development of visual logic in both children and primitive societies.

In 2000, Fein resumed painting and by 2005 her unexpected eye series emerged, which she continued through 2010.

The eye as a subject dates back to Egyptian mythology, for example, The Eye of Horus. The Eye of Providence, an eye enclosed in a triangle, became a symbol of the Christian Trinity. The reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States appears on the dollar bill symbolizes divine providence. An eye can symbolize vision, inner vision and spirituality.

The eye was also a subject that was especially significant to the Surrealists. The Story of the Eye (histoire de l’oeil), 1928, by Georges Bataille and the film, An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou), 1929 by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali used the eye. Bataille used the eye as an object of eroticism and Bunuel and Dali to shock. In addition, it was a subject that was continued in the drawings and paintings of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and photographs of Man Ray among others.

Ojo Blanco, 2005, egg tempera on board, 6 X 8 inches, shows an extreme close up of the cornea and the sclera of an eye containing leafless trees. There are ten barren trees placed horizontally above the eye lid. It is a dramatic and memorable image.

Totem Eye, 2006, egg tempera on board, 5 X 7 inches, resembles Northwestern Indian coast art with the use of the characteristic heavy form lines, their primary design element. The eye is depicted in a repeated rectangular format, even the sclera of the eye is in a rectangular format.

Homage to Rene Magritte (2010), egg tempera on board, 24 X 24 inches, is an obvious homage to Magritte’s famous painting, The False Mirror (1928), and others.

There are several especially memorable and enduring paintings in this exhibition. Twin Eyes in the Sky (2010), egg tempera on board, 30 X 24 inches, a large white orb embedded with two eyes floats in space surrounded by numerous tinted blue and white smaller orbs. Eyes in the Sky (2010) egg tempura on board, 24 X 30 inches, shows a large centered orb containing several eyes painted with tinted blue and darker shades of red and also surround by small ochre colored orbs.

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Planetary Eye (2010), egg tempera on board, 20 X 24 inches and Spiral Galactic Eye (2010), egg tempera on board, 24 X 24 inches, painted in warm, tinted and grayed tones seem mystical as if the eye of God is viewing earth from a distant galaxy. There are other eye paintings in cooler tones, but they are not as dramatic.

In 2005, Fein’s paintings were included in the exhibition, With Friends Six Magic Realists 1940-1965 organized by the Elvehjem Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Fine and John Wilde were the sole survivors of the Madison artists. In Wonderland, The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, 2011 also included paintings by Fein.

While Sylvia Fein may not be a recognizable artist in the contemporary art world, she established herself as an artist with a unique vision at a very early age in Madison, Wisconsin, New York City and in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was recognized by Alfred Frankenstein, the art and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1963 as he praised Fein for her “clarity, finesse and perfection of craftsmanship.”

Fein has creatively painted portraits and landscapes for seventy years, however, her recent series of eye paintings are her most unique and significant work to date. At ninety-four, it is hoped that Fein continues to surprise and enchant us with even more of these very imaginative eye paintings.

Darwin Marable, Ph.D., a contributor to the World and I since 1988, is a photo/art historian, lecturer, and critic

based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Rothko’s Material Beauty

Abstract:

Expressionist art visually pulls the audience into its meaning, as they interpret what the artist has intended the work to convey. Painter Mark Rothko is a renown expressionist, who has created stunning pieces of work that have left many pondering his true intentions.

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When Abstract Expressionism began to enter American consciousness, it was not uncommon for magazines to publish photo essays in which a painting would be juxtaposed with a piece of the real world to which it somehow seemed to correspond. A great deal of ingebnious matching went into these essays, which instructed viewers in one way to “read” abstract painting: Treat it as if it were a picture, then try to find a piece of reality it might match. Thus a painting by Franz Kline, using his characteristic black forms, starkly composed against a white background, might be placed alongside a photograph of some industrial scaffolding, shown silhouetted against a light sky. A canvas of Jackson Pollock’s might be placed next to a photograph of tangled water weeds. Divergences between real motifs and pictorial representations could then be explained as due to “expression“: The artist was showing how he felt about the world the photographs showed. This art could be mimetic after all! It was only, for example, when he could find something in reality that abstract paintings resembled that an art historian like Ernst Gombrich was able to accept abstract painting as art (It’s now actually applied widely on sewing products, said Sew Done, the best sewing machine selling online business).

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Pictorial mimesis, however, requires two relationships between painting and motif beyond the requirement of looking more or less alike: The painting has to be about the motif, and the motif must cause–must enter into the explanation of–the painting’s form. There would have been little reason to suppose that Kline’s painting was about scaffolding, or that the latter inspired him to paint as he did. And it would be startling to discover that Pollock, who stumbled into throwing and dripping paint, were somehow driven to achieve the effect of tangled water weeds. So identifying correspondences between paintings and objects is cognitively empty, like seeing shapes in clouds: A whale-shaped cloud (“How like a whale!”) is not about a whale and certainly not caused by one. The matchup is sheer coincidence.

What is undeniable is that these essays showed that abstractions, not unlike the most scrupulously realistic works, can draw our attention to features in the real world to which we might not otherwise have been sensitive. Standing before a silhouetted scaffolding against the dawn sky, we might exclaim over how much it looks like a Kline, and perhaps realize that we would have been indifferent to the aesthetics of the situation had Kline not given us a way to respond to it. The scaffolding has become, so to say, a ready-made Kline, something we would not have been able to see as such had we never seen Kline’s work. Still, there may be no great cognitive gain. Proust’s character Swann falls hopelessly in love with a woman who happens to resemble Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, in a Vatican fresco by Botticelli: He sees her as a Botticelli. The picture, as he discovers to his agony, is no guide whatever to the woman’s furtive personality. The benefit is entirely aesthetic, a way of experiencing the world as if it were art. It is a key to Swann’s character that he experiences life as so many tableaux vivants.

Not long ago I saw a ready-made Rothko. I was flying to Iceland at that time of year when the sun scarcely sets, and through the window saw the sky divided into horizontal bands–a heavy purple at the bottom, separated from the upper band of light blue by a band of rose and orange. Even the darkest band was translucent. It was a spectacular sky, and it accompanied us until the plane made its descent into Keflavik. It was so spectacular that we would have been struck by its beauty irrespective of the way it evoked Rothko’s great works. The sunset had the type of beauty in which Kant would have seen a kind of purposiveness, even if we might be unable to assign it any specific purpose. Natural beauty somehow assures us, Kant felt, that life has a meaning and the world is not indifferent to our purposes. Kant never especially distinguished artistic from natural beauty, and perhaps he thought them sufficiently parallel that just as the beauty of a painting is connected with artistic purpose, natural beauty is connected with divine purpose–as if God were a kind of artist, revealing meanings through sunsets and the like.

That would more or less have been the philosophy of beauty subscribed to by the painters of the Hudson River School. They saw radiant assurances of divinity in the grander aspects of nature, which they then sought to transcribe into paint. Their paintings were not, as it were, postcards of waterfalls, mountain peaks, dense forests and precipitous ravines. They attempted rather to depict nature in such a way that the viewer would be enough stirred by the beauty of the scene to feel it a medium for divine communications. They were religious painters, not reluctant to depict natural crosses on the mountainsides, as if there were messages even in the way snow fell in the Andes.

No painter today–except Komar and Melamid in a spirit of frolic–would dare to paint a northern sunset, or worry how the translucency of clouds could be rendered. It would somehow diminish a Rothko were we to imagine it to be about a sunset sky it happens to resemble; he was not painting sunsets in abstract ways. It enlarges our appreciation of Rothko, however, to see his paintings as having the kind of meaning the Hudson River painters believed they sensed in nature–as if the shapes, colors and translucencies he composed and recomposed, in painting after painting, served to intimate meanings of a spiritual order no longer to be found in nature. It was as if art had taken over a task we no longer looked to nature to perform.

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Under Hudson River School metaphysics, natural and artistic beauty were entirely of a piece, as Kant had believed. Their landscapes delivered the kinds of meanings nature itself did when it was beautiful. One main difference between those painters and ourselves is that we cannot believe in transcendent beings who address humanity through the media of volcanoes and cascades. So for just that reason, a painting today, done as realistically as a Hudson River School landscape, could not convey to us the meanings Kant believed natural beauty was designed to transmit. Rather, if that is what an artist with a religious calling were concerned to do, it would almost of necessity have to be abstract. That is why the resemblances between a Rothko and the midsummer night sky are neither here nor there.

Whatever the outward similarity between a given Rothko and such a sky, there have to be crucial differences that do not meet the eye. One difference is that it is legitimate to ask what a painting by Rothko means, whereas sunset skies have no meaning at all, or at least no supernatural meanings. In naturalistic terms, of course, such a sky might mean rain tomorrow: One bit of nature is a sign for another bit. The meaning of a work of art is its content–what it is about–even if it is merely about its own material constitution, its brushed pigment, its colors, its internal and external shapes. Rothko sometimes spoke this way himself. He said, contrasting his canvases with the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt (with whose widow Rothko was to have a relationship near the end of his own life), “His paintings are immaterial. Mine are here. Materially. The surfaces, the work of the brush and so on. His are untouchable.” There is no question that Reinhardt turned his back on the identifying features of Abstract Expressionist painting, which so greatly celebrated the materiality of pigment and the expressivity of painterly gestures. It was as if his paintings were meant to disappear once his viewers were put in touch with the ulterior realities alleged to be conveyed as through a glass darkly. This, I think, was precisely not what Rothko wanted. His meanings were connected to, but not entirely identical with, the materials of his paintings and the material evidence of his touch. It was rather that one could experience those meanings only through keeping in view what one saw when one looked at the paintings closely. In some way, the paintings relate to his meanings the way a sentence relates to the proposition it conveys. We can grasp the proposition only through understanding the sentence. To experience a Rothko is to wonder what it is trying to reveal. It is like experiencing spectacular sunsets if you share the metaphysics of the Hudson River School painters. Of course they knew about the refractions and reflections–and dust particles–that explain the materiality of the sunset and even, in a sense, how sunsets can be beautiful. But it seemed to them that God would not tolerate a throwaway beauty of that dimension. It had to have a meaning. And that is the way it is with the beauty of Rothko’s paintings. To experience it is not merely to see the forms and colors and brushwork.

It is as if Rothko had found a way of presenting a high truth of metaphysics or theology in entirely sensuous terms. And that is what painting, in what Hegel calls art’s “highest vocation,” is supposed to do. Whatever experience it is to which Rothko’s paintings refer us, it cannot be an ordinary experience, like that of witnessing a scaffolding against the sky or a spectacular sunset on the night flight to Iceland. What his paintings make present is something that has vanished from the visual world, in which burning bushes are, well, just burning bushes. Artistic beauty, Hegel said, is beauty born of the spirit and born again.

In 1951 Rothko declared, “I paint very large pictures … the reason I paint them, however–I think it applies to other painters I know–is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.” I take this to mean that each painting dictates where the viewer should stand in relation to it. If we should happen to see one of his paintings from a different position, we would feel nothing of the way its content reaches out to touch us. Some years back there was an exhibition of his work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, in which, ideally, the narrow dimensions of the Guggenheim walled ramp keep us from stepping too far back from the surfaces of the paintings we stand in front of. We are not at the viewing distance of eighteen inches he once recommended. But we are close enough to register the paintings’ materialities. Unfortunately, one could also see, over the wall and across the space of the atrium, rows of Rothkos that looked like Indian blankets, striped or banded, as if displayed for tourists. Viewer and painting must stand in the right spatial relationship to each other, as if spatial closeness is a condition for the bond between painting and viewer to arise. I would propose that there should be only as much space between viewer and painting as allows for the possibility of touch. That is what makes describing Reinhardt’s paintings as “untouchable” a deep criticism.

The installation of Rothko’s work recently taken down at the Whitney Museum of American Art (to reappear at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris as of January 8) facilitated this closeness through placing the paintings in small, intimate and suitably darkened galleries, in which the works nearly glowed with a light of their own. None of the gallery spaces were so large that paintings were separated from viewers by the kind of neutralizing distances the space of the Guggenheim exemplifies. The intimacy of the space assured us that the other paintings in the room were not so far away that closeness was ruled out. Rothko, who was somewhat exigent in how his work was to be viewed, wanted his paintings hung quite low to the floor. That demanded an appropriate size, since it would be inconsistent with his intentions were we to have to bend over to look at small paintings, hung near our feet. Ideally, the paintings should be about our height, as if one person were facing another. Rothko did make a number of paintings much wider than the person who confronted them. I feel this extra expanse somewhat dilutes the intensity of these works. The optimal proportions would be defined by the human body–wide enough that we could touch the edges were we to stretch out our arms, high enough that we do not see over the top of the painting. It would defeat the purpose of the work if we felt ourselves to be disproportionately small in front of it, the way, say, Faust felt when towered over by the Erdgeist. The beauty is, as Kant believed it to be in nature, somehow reassuring. This raises a question about the quite vast panels Rothko painted for the chapel at St. Thomas University in Houston, which are disproportionately large in regard to humans standing in front of them. They are, moreover, black–a fact that has been the basis of a number of speculations about the artist’s mood when he painted them, since he committed suicide some months before they were finally installed. But these last vast paintings were originally red–indeed, red on red–and hopeful rather than tragic. It was just that the artist was reckless with the pigments he used, though I don’t think ephemerality could have been part of their meaning. Abstract Expressionists would have mixed pigment with mayonnaise or molasses if they thought an effect could be achieved no other way.

At this point it becomes important to consider the visual detail so lacking when we see the work from an inappropriate distance. Untitled (1960) has the advantage of resembling the “Rothko sky” I encountered at 33,000 feet above the North Atlantic near midnight. On a field of twilight purple, three colored rectangles are arrayed, one above the other. They appear to hover, like disembodied glows–an effect facilitated by the fact that they touch the edges of neither the painting nor one another. The very last paintings in the Whitney installation were those in which the colored rectangles are bounded by the edges of the painting on three sides, leaving it to the viewer to decide whether the painting functions to crop the rectangles, the way a window frame would a sunset, or consists of two rectangles, three of whose edges coincide with the physical edges of the canvas. If the latter, then there is an illusory painted edge at which the two rectangles meet. 1 cannot but feel that when the rectangles stopped hovering and became, as it were, nearly one with the physical shape of the canvas, this reflected some deep change in the artist’s outlook.

In any case, the rectangles in Untitled share no boundaries. They hover autonomously, and yet they constitute an ascending formation in which their contrasting colors and sizes play a role. Both bottom and top rectangles are, crudely speaking, black, but the top one is about a quarter the height of the one on the bottom. The middle rectangle–half as high as the bottom rectangle, twice as high as the upper one–is predominantly a cadmium red. All are of the same width, arranged one above the other. Each seems to vibrate, independently of the others. From a great distance (as across the Guggenheim’s atrium), one could identify most of the properties I have just described, so what does being close to them reveal? The amazing edges of the rectangles, and the way underlayers of paint reach through the rectangles to give a sense of translucency. These forms are not pure red and pure black, as they appear from afar. The extraordinary beauty is due to the way the edges of the forms appear to penetrate and to be penetrated by the ground color of the painting; and to the way the undercolors flicker through the surface colors. These animate the forms as well as the colors through irregular pulsations of light. Back away from the surface, and the light disappears. And when the light disappears, the paintings go dead and formal.

I was tempted to consider No. 16 (Two Whites, Two Reds) (1957), which, when it was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, created so philistine an outcry from Canada’s Parliament and tabloid press that a bit of remedial art criticism might be of some value. I wondered whether there would have been the same sense of outrage had the museum acquired Untitled (1960) instead. The truth is that No. 16 is merely the promise of a painting. It seems somehow raw, as if abandoned by the artist. We can see how he has brushed white over the red to begin to form the edges that are his signature. But white and red do not have the interpenetration that locks them together. The white is more transparent than translucent. So nothing is fully realized. In the end, the painting shows what materiality comes to when it does not evoke something deeper than itself, for which its beauty is an emblem. The philistines were boorish but not entirely wrong.

The concept of beauty plays a very small role in my columns here at The Nation, and for good reason: It plays no large role in much of the contemporary art that interests me. It is, however, the meaning of Rothko’s works.

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Morris Louis

Morris Louis

The eye is an extruded part of the brain, absorbing through the thin retinal tissues whatever emits or reflects quanta in the surrounding world, and serving as a way station for the production of neural images that enable us to stop at red lights and avoid meandering cows. Enough of its mechanisms were known in Darwin’s time for him to have written, “The thought of the eye made me cold all over.’ Darwin’s thought makes me cold all over when I think of how much remains to be discovered about the visual system we use so casually. For the eye is also a part of the mind, and what we see depends, demonstrably, on what we feel and how we believe. At the philosophical cross-point of mind and brain, the eye is bound to be a contested salient in the border wars of metaphysics, and today there is little consensus on the degree to which the apparatus of cognition penetrates the physiology of sight.

Not long ago there were those who believed the penetration all but total, that our perception of the visible world is so laden with preconceptions that, in science as in common life, there is no sharp line to be drawn between observation and theory. Philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, sociologists of knowledge and social psychologists insisted that perceptual experience is thoroughly relativistic, as though the human organism were completely plastic and the perceived world nothing but a construct we acquire with our language and our culture. Deep incommensurabilities were believed to divide period from period, culture from culture, gender from gender, race from race and language community from language community, with space, shape, color, even size, fluctuating so radically as to raise the question of whether there is a shared world at all.

There is today a palpable retreat from this giddy position. Color discrimination has proved to be remarkably more invariant than anthropologists dared to believe a decade ago. Cognitive science has been coming up with striking evidence in regard to the processing equipment with which we are all wired as part of our genetic endowment, and the modularity of mind has increasingly defined research in studies of human and animal cognition. The mind is modular to the degree that its functioning is impervious, or at least extremely resistant, to belief and feeling. Thus we continue to experience perceptual illusion as perceptual illusion, no matter what we believe or how much we know about how it takes place. Although I agree that the importance of optical fidelity in pictorial representation is a matter of cultural decision, my own view is that linear perspective is modular despite its having been asserted to be a symbolic form by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, and a mere cultural convention by the philosopher Nelson Goodman. It is doubtful that the retreat from relativism will be total, but no one can predict where the lines of modularity finally will be drawn.

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I have lately come to wonder whether our perception of works of art may not be a good bit more modular than most aestheticians are prepared to concede. There are extreme views abroad to the effect that a work of art is but the infinite possibility of interpretation–a view strikingly similar to John Stuart Mill’s thesis that a physical object is but the permanent possibility of sensation. It was this attitude, that the artwork itself is pure potentiality, that gave rise to the scandalizing boast of a Yale University critic that the critic is finally more creative than the artist. (Because critics too are subject to infinite interpretation, the theory turns against its proponents, who no longer have grounds for complaining that they have been misread.) The psychology of art perception is waiting for its Stone Age to dawn, but even in our prehistorical situation, we can at least begin to raise the question of the degree to which art-works are penetrable by interpretation, especially now that it is clear that the ability to recognize pictorial content is something we share with other primates and even with mere pigeons. A chimpanzee will scream in fear when shown a photograph of the leader of his pack with fangs bared. But the question of perception remains even with abstract paintings, as is evidenced by the almost total irrelevance to our response to the paintings of Morris Louis of the standard critical theories addressed to this artist’s work. These theories are typified in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition of Louis’s work at the Museum of Modern Art until January 4; the absolute distance between the catalogue by John Elderfield and the exhibition he has curated makes this one of the most important shows of recent years.

The exhibition shows us Louis as he would have wanted to be seen, but also as those who regard him as a major artist believe he ought to be presented, namely through the paintings alone, without further context. For Louis did everything he could to destroy his own history (just as he almost succeeded in concealing his technique of painting so that it is now a matter of informed speculation how his characteristic works were executed). The show is minimally chronological, which is almost mandated by the fact that Louis’s oeuvre falls into a few successive genres–the Veils, the Unfurled Paintings, the Stripes–and if one decides to segregate the works by genre, it would be perverse to scramble them in time. Louis’s period of high creativity was tragically brief, from about 1954 until just before his death from cancer in 1962, with a somewhat barren period between 1955 and 1958. An isolated, nearly reclusive and secretive man, he did away with work he did not wish to be known by, so perhaps an exhibition that placed him in context would have been difficult to mount. Still, enough of the disowned work was out of Louis’s hands before he rejected it that were there the curatorial desire to mount such a show, it could have been done–relating earlier work to later; the successes to the tentative painterly probings; Louis’s work to that of his sometime associates (including Kenneth Noland), his distant peers (Barnett Newman and Jules Olitski) and his acknowledged influences (Robert Motherwell and, above all, Helen Frankenthaler). That it was not done in this way can be appreciated in the spirit of piety as respecting the wishes of a dead artist, and as acknowledging his greatness; but even more, I believe, it must be appreciated as a gesture of curatorial will, expressing the belief that history and biography do not pertain to the aesthetic absorption of his work. What, instead of history and biography, is required is a body of theory, and the theory is laid out in the catalogue. So the exhibition carries a meaning beyond whatever meaning is carried by the works themselves. It is eloquent with its omissions and tacit insistences. It is a monument to the aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.

As such, it constitutes an inadvertent crucial experiment in the perception of art. If in the end these paintings resist transformations by theory, the theory fails at its most fortified position and must retreat vanquished. For Louis was the Greenbergian artist par excellence, the one painter who executed the strategies on which Greenberg insisted, who showed, or was believed to show, what, in its purest state, painting was all about and was always all about, despite the contaminations of feeling and content that have dogged the history of art and criticism. The failure of the theory is not Louis’s fault. Louis’s paintings are extremely beautiful and even powerful. An artist whose responses I respect told me of having come to love Louis’s work in consequence of an exhibition she saw at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge years before she knew anything about Clement Greenberg and New York aesthetics. “It was like being in a marvelous garden,’ she said. Her experience is the valid experience to have with Louis’s work. The sculptor Harold Tovish writes that Louis’s work is “too pretty’ for his tastes. Tovish’s is also a valid critical response to Louis. You like him if you like art that is pretty, or art in which prettiness is raised to a monumental power. You dislike him, or find him tepid, if your taste runs to darker things. Neither of these responses takes into consideration what Greenberg, or what those who follow Greenberg, say is important about Louis’s works. That, I claim, is because Greenberg played a crucial role in Louis’s life as an artist (he seems to have had no other life). Greenberg’s view explains why the work exists in the form it does. It does not explain why it matters, or explains it wrongly.

In his celebratory introduction to the catalogue of the 1974 exhibition of Louis at the Hayward Gallery in London, Elderfield wrote, “With Louis . . . fully autonomous abstract painting came into its own for really the first time, and did so in paintings of a quality that matches the level of their innovation.’ I want to modify the implied arithmetic of this statement. The paintings are measurably greater than their degree of innovation, just because I do not believe they are fully autonomous abstract paintings. Moreover, I do not believe fully autonomous abstractness is an especially important thing for painting to possess, even supposing it is possible. Fully autonomous abstraction, however, was exactly what Greenberg was urging painters to produce, although the great artists of the New York School, whom Greenberg did so much to publicize, showed no overwhelming inclination to accomplish this. Pollock and de Kooning, the acknowledged leaders, were unregenerately figurative, and human meaning kept insinuating itself into their masterpieces as into their casual work. Even painters who were confessedly abstract–Rothko or Newman– were making painting filled with extra-artistic meaning.

What Greenberg was demanding was a form of painting that sufficed unto itself: painting about its own means; painting, the meaning of which was its means: pigment, canvas, stretchers, surface. I can sympathize with Greenberg’s thought in the context of its era. Here was an exalted discipline–painting– that had always been in the service of something outside itself: the church; the nation-state; the crown; the revolution; the oppressed class. And now, a terrible war having concluded, Greenberg raised artists to a dignity high enough that art should at last be in its own service. Beyond that, self-reflexiveness had become the mark of purity throughout the West: the autonomy of philosophy, of psychology, of literature, were parallel movements in the aggregate enterprise of professionalization which, in my view, continues most particularly to affect the criticism of art. Criticism today is practiced as though it too were done on its own behalf and for its own sake, with no ulterior point or bearing. This explains its standard opacity. It is to Greenberg’s credit, or discredit, that he brought about more a style of criticism than a style of painting. Louis may represent his entire artistic army, but the troops in his critical division are legion, and they are marching still.

Here is how an influential critic, Michael Fried, appraised Louis in his widely respected pamphlet Three American Painters, which was devoted to Noland, Olitski and Stella. Fried, like Greenberg, gave special prominence to the implications of the way Louis applied paint to canvas. It was soaked into raw canvas to produce a stain. Since a stain is something one cannot altogether draw–one can cause a stain only by soaking or spilling–there are no willed boundaries to it. The stain, in consequence, Fried argues, has no tendency to become detached from the ground and so avoids the illusion we sustain when we perceive drawn outlines (a drawn stain would not be a stain) or “are made to feel . . . the painter’s wrist.’ The stain, then, identifies the image with “its woven canvas ground, almost as if the image were thrown onto the latter from a slide projector. The actual weave of the canvas shows through everywhere.’ So there is no illusion: the materials of that art are all there is; the work is, as it were, an achievement of pure opticality, uncontaminated by any tactile values other than those natural to the medium. Moreover, the stain itself is impersonal. Once the saturated rag or sponge is brought into contact with the cloth, capillary action takes over, and the stain, like water, seeks its own boundaries. So none of the bravura of de Kooning’s, or Pollock’s, “wrists’ is felt: as Fried has it, “painterliness from the Venetians to de Kooning is renounced.’

In truth, so far as we can infer from the work, Louis’s interventions in directing the flow of color were active and ingenious. He worked with the fluid by folding or pleating the canvas into channels, collaborating with gravity to make the paint conform to a complex intention. He was like some master dyer, whose work belongs to what, if it were craft, we would class as a lost art. But the renunciation Fried asserts is meant to proclaim the autonomy of the painting even from the painter, as though he stood aside in Oriental detachment and enabled the painting to materialize out of nothing. And the almost studied reticence of Louis with regard to personal disclosure may suggest he was an artist who rendered himself transparent in the cause of making the painting fully autonomous. The highest painting is no painting at all, as the highest acting, as readers of Proust will remember, is the absence of acting.

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Small wonder Louis was considered in 1974, when the magnificent British Arts Council exhibition was held, as a very great painter, as among the very greatest painters, as the one who has discovered the tao of painting. And small wonder, again, that my fellow critic David Carrier should write me with a certain amazement that “it’s hard to think of anyone who was then high and has fallen lower.’ For in the end the paintings resisted the theory. In the end it is just impossible to see them as impersonal stains, as enhancements of paint and canvas, as “autonomous abstract paintings.’ It will be small wonder if the art magazines are anything but hostile in reviewing this exhibition of Louis’s work. Louis has betrayed the critical establishment. He has faulted the premises of its practice. The decline is not in Louis. It is in a style of critical address misread as a decline in an artist. Louis is as great as ever.

How then are we to look at the works? Really as lush and beautiful, diaphanous and tremulous, washes of color that, like veils, reveal and conceal, affording the possibility of glimpsed mysteries they also refuse to disclose: majestic cascades of color. “Veils’ was not Louis’s generic title, nor were many of the individual titles his own. But the spontaneousness with which that title adhered to what I regard as his best works is itself evidence that something more than the paintiness of paint is being transacted in these huge spaces. The soft swags and falls of color are, standardly, cropped at the bottom, and the collusion between the sharpness of the cut and the fluidity of paint-fall is as acutely felt as the contact of sword and veil in a legendary demonstration by the Sultan Saladin of the sharpness of his weapon. At their worst the paintings are just pretty, and the experience like walking through racks of negligees at Bendel. But at their best and greatest they evoke experiences like massed flowers or sunsets.

This is just a beginning. It will be awhile before we can say what these paintings are, but without our knowing very much at all, this is a greatly enjoyable show. Louis has confronted us with a module in the sphere of art, and the meaning of interpretation must be rethought against his marvelous achievement. That is the importance of the show. The importance of the work lies elsewhere. Wherever it lies, it is work that transcends its materials more than succumbs to them, and yields the kind of pleasure symphonic music affords played via the best acoustic guitar brands.

>>> View more: Inquire within

Top pix: World Press Photo Awards

The ancient Chinese expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” is as true today as it was 1,000 years ago. In conveying the action and emotion of an event, nothing beats a good news photo. No number of words can express the horrors of war, the ferocity of a natural disaster, the resilience of the human spirit, or the determination of an athlete quite the way a photo can.

The images featured in this special report were shot by some of the world’s top photojournalists–photographers who capture and report the news through the lenses of their cameras. Each year, the World Press Photo Foundation sponsors a contest to select the best news photos of the year. In 2005, nearly 4,450 photographers from 122 countries entered 83,044 images. An international panel of judges gave prizes in 10 theme categories to 63 photographers from 25 nations. Nine of those photographs are pictured here.

As you look at each image, try to see the world through the photographer’s eyes. Ask yourself: What is the subject of the photo? What is going on in the background? What effect do color, contrast, and composition have on the photo? What message, if any, was the photographer trying to convey? How does looking at the photo make you feel? What story does the photo tell?

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PORTRAITS: THIRD PRIZE, SINGLES

Balakot, Pakistan By Tomas Munita

This 9-year-old girl is one of hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes after an earthquake devastated parts of India and Pakistan in October 2005. Describe the girl’s expression, What might she be feeling? What might her life be like? This striking photo earned a third-place prize in the World Press Photo Foundation’s annual competition. Turn the page to see more award-winning photos.

PHOTO OF THE YEAR

Tahoua, Niger By Finbarr O’Reilly

World Press Photo chose this portrait as the best news photo of the year. It depicts the emaciated fingers of an infant pressed against the lips of his mother at an emergency feeding clinic in Niger, where drought has left millions of people without food. World Press jury chairman James Colton said “This image has everything–beauty, horror, and despair. It is simple, elegant, and moving.” How would you describe the photo?

SPOT NEWS: HONORABLE MENTION 2

Baghdad, Iraq By Scott Nelson

A wounded Iraqi girl is evacuated from her school after a car bomb exploded on May 7, 2005. How does the photo convey action? Why, do you think, is the girl holding up her hand? Where was the photographer when he shot this photo? How would the photo be different if he had stood farther away?

CONTEMPORARY ISSUES: FIRST PRIZE, SINGLES

Freetown, Sierra Leone By Yannis Kontos

In this poignant photo, a boy helps his father button his shirt. The father lost both of his forearms during a brutal civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. The family now lives in a shelter with other war amputees. Note the many contrasts in the photo–young and old, light and dark. What is the mood of the photo? What might the father be thinking?

PEOPE IN THE NEWS: FIRST PRIZE, STORIES

Reno, Nevada By Todd Heisler

As 2nd Lt. James Cathey’s body arrives at Reno Airport from Iraq, U.S. Marines drape a flag over the hero’s casket. The plane’s passengers peer out the windows as the soldier’s family gathers on the tarmac. “[The] people in the windows … [are] going to remember being on that plane for the rest of their lives,” says Maj. Steve Beck. What do you think is going through their minds?

SPOT NEWS: THIRD PRIZE, STORIES

New Orleans By Michael Appleton

Photojournalist Michael Appleton has covered wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Haiti. But covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last August was, he says, “the hardest story I’ve ever covered.” But Appleton felt that it was important for him to document one of the gravest tragedies in U.S. history. Note the stillness of the water in contrast to the fury of the fire. What effect does the photo’s angle have? What might the man in the photo be thinking?

PORTRAITS: SECOND PRIZE, SINGLES

Copenhagen, Denmark By David Hogsholt

Mia, a young drug addict, stands behind Copenhagen’s Grand Central Station. The day before the photo was taken, Mia’s boyfriend died of a drug overdose. Mia called photographer David Hogsholt and asked him to go with her to the morgue. This photograph was taken just before the drive there. What is Mia’s expression? What story does the photo tell?

SPORTS ACTION: FIRST PRIZE, SINGLES

Montreal By John G. Mabanglo

Ouch! This diver gives new meaning to the expression “Now that’s using your head!” In this photo, U.S. diver Chelsea Davis strikes her head on a diving board during a competition in Montreal. Timing is everything in photography. How would the photo be different if the photographer had taken it a moment earlier or a moment later?

DAILY LIFE: SECOND PRIZE, SINGLES

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo By Marcus Bleasdale

This photograph was taken at a center for street children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In exchange for light work, the children receive basic schooling, a safe place to sleep, and showers. There are approximately 30,000 street children in Kinshasa. This photo captures a moment of pure happiness in what is an otherwise difficult life. How would you describe the boy’s expression?

Get Talking

Ask students: What is photojournalism? How do images tell stories differently than words? How do photos help people better understand the news?

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Background

* Photojournalism began in the mid-1800’s with the work of early photographers such as Matthew Brady (1823-1869). When the American Civil War began in 1861, Brady decided that the war should be recorded in photographs. He organized a staff of more than 100 photographers. The photographers followed the Union soldiers, taking thousands of pictures of battles, camp life, and soldiers’ daily struggles. Brady and his crew captured the emotion of the war in the faces of the soldiers–setting a standard of photojournalism that still inspires photographers today.

* The World Press Photo contest is considered the most prestigious international photo contest in professional press photography. The contest is now in its 49th year. The World Press judging panel is made up of 13 picture editors, photographers, and press representatives from around the world.

Doing More

The main function of a news photo is to convey information. Ask students to look at a daily newspaper and look at the photos without reading the headlines or stories. After they’ve looked at the photos, ask students to decide what the stories that accompany them might be about. Then ask students to check their predictions by reading the stories. How close were their guesses? If they were wrong, what kind of image might have told the story better?

>>> View more: Darth Vader’s New Offices; What happens to Lucasfilm now that ‘Star Wars’ is over? The company has big plans, soon to move into spectacular $350 million digs

The great assembler

Abstract:

Keinholz’s assemblage sculpture can be funny, rude or obscene, and sometimes requires some fortitude on the part of the viewer. His fifth wife and widow, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, was his sculpting partner for the last 22 years of his life.

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ED (NO EDWARD, PLEASE) KIENHOLZ was a bearded, big-bellied, self-taught artist who became famous in the 1960s for making angry assemblage sculpture in Los Angeles. When he died at the age of 66 in 1994, his body–along with his dog’s ashes and a bottle of vintage Italian wine–was put into a shiny 1940 Packard and rolled into a grave in northern Utah. (Kienholz split his later years between there and Berlin, Germany.) Kienholz’s raw, direct art has never been easy to take. He almost shut down the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1966 because the chicken-wire man making love to a plaster woman in “Back Seat Dodge ’38” was thought obscene by politicians. With his best pieces sequestered in European collections, Kienholz is thought of, wrongly, by many people in the East Coast art establishment as merely an industrial-strength folk artist, a sort of Howard Finster with power tools. Kienholz’s work is sometimes juvenile and mawkish, but he was really a great stylistic maverick–right up there with Francis Bacon–who cared as much about human folly as he did esthetics. A new retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum (through June 2) proves that point.

Kienholz started out as an unremarkable abstract painter. His titles were good: “Leda and the Canadian Honker” is one of modern art’s all-time best. Kienholz’s natural inclination was to load on thick paint, but he couldn’t afford to. Instead Kienholz painted bright colors on pieces of wood and stuck them onto the surface of “George Warshington in Drag” (1957). From there, Kienholz eventually arrived at his first full assemblage in 1959: the haunting “John Doe,” a dummy’s head, dripping black paint, mounted on a stroller. Kienholz didn’t actually invent assemblage; Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters were there way before him, back in the 1910s. But Kienholz practiced the art of assemblage with unequaled physical ambition (as in “Roxys,” 1962, a Nevada bordello re-created with shriveled mannequins and a cow’s skull) and moral ferocity (the deserted scene of “The Illegal Operation,” also from 1962, with its scuzzy surgical chair and tilted floor lamp). OK, maybe “The Portable War Memorial” (1968), with its trash-can woman continuously singing “God Bless America” in Kate Smith’s voice, is a bit much. But it is funny.

Dead on: Kienholz married five times. His widow, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, is the daughter of Tom Reddin, the conservative former L.A. police chief. Ed and Nancy were a couple, and sculpture team, for 22 years. In 1981 Ed Kienholz announced that, retroactive to 1972, all his work was officially their work. Many of the pieces on which Nancy labored, as a full partner in a firm she didn’t found, sustain that wonderful Kienholzian awfulness. “Sollie 17″ (1980) is difficult to look at, both physically and emotionally (you peer around a half-opened door to see an old man enduring a hot-plate existence in a cramped SRO hotel room). But in some of the later works, Kienholz’s targets get softer and his touch harder. The woman sitting before a mirror in “The Gray Window Becoming” (1984)–which the catalog says “deals with the issue of female identity”–looks more lethargic than melancholy. Here, the Kienholzes comment on something Ed thinks he should care about but doesn’t really seem to.

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When Kienholz is on, however, he’s dead on. “Back Seat Dodge ’38” is as ruggedly poignant a depiction of furtive sex as anything in a film noir classic. The faceless man strapped to his bunk in “The State Hospital” (1966) confirms your worst fears about mental institutions. Kienholz once said of one work, “I don’t know whether [it] is art or not. But I don’t give a damn.” It was art, precisely because Kienholz was tough and original enough not to give a damn.

>>> Click here: Morris Louis

Clash of talent

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Among the four Tates, St Ives has always been the exception in having a local artistic connection. While this makes it special, it also creates problems for the go-ahead programmer. There are only so many St Ives artists to go round, and in the past couple of years we’ve had shows of Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter and Sandra Blow; now we have Terry Frost, with Barbara Hepworth coming up in May. Recycling seems inevitable–how to avoid it?

With the gallery’s recent artists’ video exhibition and Antony Gormley show in 2001, director Susan Daniel-McElroy has made a conscious effort to bring its programme more into line with mainstream Tates. Now she’s trying something rather different: not so much out with the old and in with the new, as an attempt to see if the two can rub along in this intimate space without rubbing each other up the wrong way.

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This spring, under the catch-all title Painting Not Painting, four artists of different ages and disciplines–installation artist Jim Lambie (b. 1964), figurative artist Julie Roberts (b. 1963), abstract painter Victoria Morton (b. 1971) and Jerwood Prize-winning ceramicist Richard Slee (b. 1946)–are showing alongside Terry Frost (b. 1915). The result, announces Daniel-McElroy, is `a cacophony of colour and intervention and disruption’. If you belong to the class of old-fashioned doubters prone to wonder why disruptive elements should be excluded from schools yet welcomed in art galleries, rest assured: it’s not as drastic as it sounds. The disruptions are minor and the cacophony is kept to a minimum by confining discordant elements to separate rooms.

The only direct clash is between Jim Lambie’s `Zobop’ floor and Richard Slee’s ceramics in the Upper Gallery. As it happens, Lambie’s trippy stripes of signwriters’ tape laid in patterns resembling an out-of-synch Bridget Riley are more of a threat to unsteady visitors (advised to take the lift if they `suffer from vertigo or visual problems’) than to Slee’s `Panorama’ in the adjacent showcase. Slee holds his own by going with the flow in a surreal sequence of weird and wonderful domestic pieces: a chintzy `bedroom snake’, ceramic chocolate logs, a `carpet duck’, a `frighteningly Vorticist rabbit’, `talking tents’ and a collection of `dust’ which, he explains disarmingly, represents himself.

In his self-deprecating way, Slee is probably the most subversive artist here, but the most disruptive–through no fault of her own–is Julie Roberts. Her main contribution, in `The Apse’, is a series of gentle pencil drawings made from police photographs of Jack the Ripper’s victims. Nothing cacophanous here, but Roberts has also been commissioned to design a wallpaper with a Fifties feel for Gallery 1, currently showing Margaret Gardiner’s rarely seen collection Of St Ives art from the Pier Arts Centre, Orkney. If Lambie’s `Zobop’ challenges the white-cube aesthetic, Roberts’s wallpaper–screenprinted in lilac and green with a repeating motif of Barbara Hepworth sculpting–wrestles it to the ground. Untangling images from the walls may be a useful exercise in concentration, on the no pain, no gain principle, but by the end it had me begging for the white cube back.

It was a relief to return to normal hangs for Victoria Morton and Terry Frost. Scottish painter Morton has been hailed as a bright young hope of abstraction for her explosive, acid-coloured compositions hovering somewhere between a firework display and a mescaline trip. To me, her feathered strokes and clusters of dots seem a trifle tentative. Will Bradley in his catalogue essay finds an `exact uncertainty’ in her work, but I missed the `spontaneous certainty’ Mel Gooding finds in Terry Frost–though, to be fair, Frost does have a 60-year start.

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Frost is showing two sets of work. In the Lower Gallery is a group of mid-1950s paintings from his Gregory Fellowship at Leeds, when he briefly traded the open seas and moors of Cornwall for urban backs of terraces with washing, and the Goredale Scar–which, he points out with his usual pragmatic charm, offered `an honest solution to painting landscape on a flat surface’. Both come together in paintings like `Red, Black and White’, Leeds (1955). The same colours feature in a major new installation, `Contrasts in Red, Black and White’, facing you as you enter Gallery 5 like a stack of speakers at a rock concert, and almost as loud. Twenty-six canvases variously emblazoned with the Frost insignia of discs, stripes and wedges are massed around a large central spiral from which monochrome blocks escape and invade the pitch, bringing you up against 3D reality with a bump. Apparently, Frost has had this idea in mind for 30 years. On a triumphal scale, it revisits the territory of `M17, October 1962′ where, in response to a Daily Mail review comparing his paintings to road signs, he let the critic have it with every road sign in Banbury.

In a programme like this with something for everyone, there’s bound to be something for not everyone. Not everyone will like the wallpaper, though people will doubtless want to come and look. But when the dust of disruption settles, two facts remain. The white cube still has its uses for showing art, and the old artists are still the best.

A look ahead: Andrew Lambirth believes 2006 will be a great year for exhibitions

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Even though museums have got themselves into the very strange position of no longer simply purveying culture, but competing with their fellow public institutions for box-office profits to fund increasingly elaborate bureaucracies, 2006 still looks set to furnish us with a richness and variety of visual fare. The National Gallery, disappointed in a poor turnout for Rubens, will hope to recoup on a trio of fine exhibitions, ending with the grand slam of Velazquez (18 October-14 January 2007). Amazingly, it’s the first major exhibition in Britain to look at Velazquez’s entire career, and will show his religious and mythological works as well as his genre scenes and portraits. Can’t wait. Before that, Americans in Paris 1860-1900 (22 February-21 May) investigates the exiled world of Whistler, Sargent and Mary Cassatt, along with lesser lights such as Cecilia Beaux and Elizabeth Nourse. Look out for Sargent’s ‘Madame X‘, and read Gioia Diliberto’s intriguing novel I am Madame X (2003) to get you in the mood. Then comes Rebels and Marlyrs: The Artist in the 19th Century (28 June-10 September), which deals with the popular romantic notion of the artist as a rebel starving in the attic. Should be fascinating.

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Timed to coincide with Americans in Paris is Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea (22 February-21 May). Many consider Homer to be America’s greatest artist, and, although his images do a brisk trade here as greetings cards, there has never been a solo show of his work in a European museum. His watercolours are particularly fine, and he even painted some seascapes in Northumberland in 1880-1. Dulwich’s autumn exhibition is devoted to the elusive Old Master Adam Elsheimer (20 September-3 December). A miniaturist who painted on copper, he died far too early (aged just 32), but was deeply influential on a number of artists, in particular Rubens, Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain. Enthralling.

The Tate has a crowded schedule as is usual these days. Tate Modern kicks off with the first big retrospective of the influential German artist Martin Kippenberger (8 February-7 May), while Tate Britain examines Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (15 February-1 May). Tate St Ives begins the year with Ellsworth Kelly (28 January-7 May), a small show only for a major artist rarely seen here. For the Cornish High Season (20 May-24 September), John Hoyland’s sophisticated abstracts from four decades will launch the latest monograph on this surprisingly underrated artist. Back in London, another Constable show at Tate Britain (1 June-28 August), hopefully not such a dismal flop as the 1991 exhibition, followed by yet another retrospective of that most overrated of contemporary daubers, Howard Hodgkin (14 June-17 September). Kandinsky at Tate Modern is something real to look forward to, a display focusing on his early years (26 May-3 September). Autumn brings Holbein in England (28 September7 January 2007) to Tate Britain and the American abstract sculptor David Smith (1 November21 January 2007) to Tate Modern, ending the year on an up-note.

The Royal Academy, after a bit of a fallow patch, hits gold again with Jacob van Ruisdael: Master of Landscape (25 February–4 June). The English do like a good landscape painter, and Ruisdael was certainly that, a master of 17th-century Dutch classicism on an heroic scale. Naturalism meets proto-Romanticism in his monumental works, and Ruisdael’s influence on Constable (cf. Tate Britain’s show) will make a notable subtext. Later in the year Modigliani and His Models (8 July-15 October) offers an in-depth look at the Master of the Swan Neck, through portraits, nudes, sculptures and paintings of caryatids. The RA’s main autumn show is Rodin (23 September-1 January 2007).

The British Museum, refreshed by its success with Samuel Palmer, is mounting Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master (23 March-25 June). You really have to go to Italy to appreciate the breadth of Michelangelo’s genius–in painting, sculpture and architecture–but the BM is good at drawing shows, so this one, of some 90 exhibits, should prove a knock-out. In preparation you might read Michelangelo’s sonnets available in paperback from Oxford World Classics. Later in the year, a less formal drawing exhibition examines the BM’s holdings of French master drawings from Clouet to Seurat (26 June-26 November).

The V&A’s blockbuster (or so they hope) will be Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939 (6 April-23 July). These survey shows can be extremely impressive, or they can somehow miss the mark–as did the recent Arts and Crafts extravaganza. For Modernism, there’s so much superb material to choose from that it should be difficult to make a boring show, especially with the likes of Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Alvar Aalto on the guest list. The multimedia autumn exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design (14 September-7 January 2007) sounds altogether less appealing, being part of a Europe-wide project supported by the Council of Europe. Such concoctions are often doomed to failure, especially when besieged by computer graphics and animations. Nevertheless it just might be a pleasant surprise.

2006 is the 150th anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery, so there they will be celebrating both old and new, with Searching for Shakespeare (2 March-29 May), and Icons and Idols: Commissioning Contemporary Portraits (2 March-18 June). Later in the year there will be a chance to see just how good David Hockney is as a portrait painter (12 October-21 January 2007).

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Meanwhile, over at the rudderless ship of the Hayward Gallery, for some reason we are being offered another chance to admire the fluorescent light tubes of Dan Flavin (19 January-2 April), even though there was a perfectly adequate display of this work at the Serpentine in 2001. Compton Verney in Warwickshire seems to be attempting more ambitious shows than some respected London venues. Van Gogh and Britain: Pioneer Collectors and Francis Bacon and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt run there concurrently (31 March-18 June). I have room for no more …

This selection is by no means exhaustive. A good listings magazine, such as the monthly Galleries, is an indispensable guide to what’s on in both public and private sectors. All information here published is accurate at the time of going to press, but exhibition programmes do sometimes change, so watch this column for further details. Happy viewing.

Hotchpotch of a show

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Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination Tate Britain, until 1 May

Forget for a moment the importation of ‘Gothic’, a term more usually confined to architecture or the novel, and consider the main protagonists. Blake will be familiar to most art-lovers, but what about Fuseli? Born Johann Heinrich Fussli (1741-1825), he was the son of a Swiss portrait painter, who despite artistic inclinations was put to study theology in order to train as a Zwinglian minister. He had to leave Zurich after collaborating on an injudicious political pamphlet, lived for a time in Germany, before ending up in England in 1764. At this point he wanted to be a writer, and worked as a translator. But he was ambitious, and saw a career as an artist as more suited to his gifts and temperament. In this he was encouraged by Joshua Reynolds, who advised him to go to Rome and imbibe classical civilisation at the source. While there (1770-8), he was mesmerised by Michelangelo, whom he adopted as his ultimate authority, and whose frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were to exercise a profound effect on his imagination. He returned to Zurich, fell unhappily in love and left once more for London, where he settled in 1779.

In England he quickly established a name for himself by exhibiting at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions. Fuseli took the pulse of popular taste and exploited it with such paintings as ‘Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear’ and ‘The Death of Dido‘, enjoying a particular succes de scandale with ‘The Nightmare’ in 1782. He became friendly with Blake in 1787, married Sophia Rawlins the following year and became a member of the Academy in 1790. Establishment recognition followed. In 1799 he was elected Professor of Painting at the RA, in 1804 Keeper (retiring from his professorship). In 1810, while still Keeper, he was re-elected Professor, the first artist to hold both positions simultaneously. It begins to sound as if the Academy ought to have mounted this new exhibition to honour such a distinguished former member, not the Tare. Particularly as the Tate put on the last significant Fuseli show in 1975, which was (as I dimly remember, being then an inattentive schoolboy) a remarkable event.

Fuseli, the wilful Mannerist possessed of a fertile and haunted imagination (he helped it along by eating underdone pork chops to give himself bad dreams), makes an excellent subject for an exhibition, but I do regret the current trend for exhaustive and portmanteau shows, which mistake quantity for quality. This exhibition is a case in point: it dissipates much of its impact by including too much, by trying also to show Fuseli’s relevance to the continuing history of gothic taste, and coming up to date, in cinema particularly. The result is a hotchpotch of a show, in which Fuseli’s weaknesses are all too evident, Blake gets sidelined, and the inclusion of a substantial group of caricatures by Gillray comes as much-needed light relief.

For Fuseli, ‘the Wild Swiss‘ as he was called, was strong on invention but weak on technique. His drawings tend to be more interesting than his paintings, but essentially he was an image-maker rather than an artist. He came up with potent and memorable images, which stay in the mind principally because of their psychological or emotional appeal, rather than the way they were drawn or painted. This is why, for instance, it would be grossly unfair to mount an exhibition comparing the work of Goya and Fuseli. Although the themes and subjects they explore would form a fascinating dialogue, Goya is a great painter and Fuseli is not. To show them together would simply point that up.

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The Tate’s show, spread thinly over eight rooms, begins with Northcote’s portrait of Fuscli, which makes him look Romantic enough though quite sane, but immediately ventures into more extreme territory with ‘The Nightmare’ itself, and the horrifying ‘Changeling‘. The imp and the pop-eyed horse in ‘The Nightmare‘ verge on caricature, as does so much of Fuseli’s work, but this is unimportant, for the image undoubtedly hits a nerve, like a dentist’s drill in a rotten tooth. The quality of the painting is hardly an issue, for the huge influence of the image was as a result of it travelling the globe in the form of an engraving. In fact, more than 300 of Fuseli’s images were made into prints, and represented a substantial source of income for him. The composition was immediately annexed by satirists, such as Rowlandson and Gillray, to give contemporary spice to their political jibes.

Right from the start of the show, however, we are reminded of Fuseli’s strange and exotic strengths as a draughtsman. Look at ‘An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women‘. The use of wash is powerfully evocative, whatever you might think of the figure drawing. Fuseli was always more concerned to be emotionally stirring than anatomically convincing. Despite his worship of Michelangelo, he was famously averse to the study of nature. The human body was not to be drawn for its own sake, simply used as a vehicle for expression. ‘Nature always puts me out,’ he said. He was adept instead at the dramatic, and often chose subjects that were violent or cruel. (Plenty of scope in Milton and Shakespeare, his two preferred sources.) Nor did he hesitate to distort for the sake of effect; as some wag put it, you could always tell Fuseli by the ‘sado-mannerist‘ tone of his work.

Thankfully, pockets of drawings by Fuseli are interspersed with his large and theatrical but often muddy paintings. There are also comparative exhibits by Barry, Mortimer, Wright of Derby, even Richard Cosway. George Romney’s ink drawing of ‘Prometheus Bound’ looks good. Again and again, a Fuseli drawing–such as ‘Brunhild Watching Gunter Suspended from the Ceiling on their Wedding Night’–makes the kind of lasting impression the mannered canvases fail to do. The organisers have tried to juice up the exhibition with a phantasmagoria slideshow, which is a little like the ghost train at a funfair but more decorous. The section of Fuseli’s erotic drawings (coyly displayed behind a net curtain) is a nice antidote to the Fairy paintings, but the exhibition then declines into a carpeted booth showing film clips (‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein, Ken Russell’s ‘Gothic’), in which Blake’s magnificent ‘Ghost of a Flea’ is hung almost as an afterthought. Somewhere in these eight crowded rooms, the meaning of the exhibition had been irretrievably mislaid.

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In welcome contrast, I’ve been looking at the beautifully produced hardback accompanying the recent exhibition ‘Fussli–The Wild Swiss‘ at the Kunsthaus Zurich. (Published by Scheidegger & Spiess, it’s distributed here by Paul Holberton, priced 45 [pounds sterling].) It makes the Tare publication (29.99 [pounds sterling] in paperback) look rather shoddy. Exhibition catalogues often masquerade as books without giving proper satisfaction. The Swiss book is an exception–a pleasure to handle and to read (it contains half a dozen essays on the artist), the selection and distribution of images through the text is both instructive and enjoyable. It’s perhaps a better way to approach Fuseli than the deeply flawed Tare show. ‘This country must advance two centuries in civilisation before it can appreciate him,’ Blake said of Fuseli. I doubt we’re there yet.

Caio Fonseca’s Stunning One-Man Show

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Joanna Shaw-Eagle, as art critic for The Washington Times, has received first place for arts criticism for daily newspapers from the Washington chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001 and 2004. She has also written in Art News, Art in America, Museum News, and Architectural Digest.

Caio Fonseca , the current toast of the international art world, shows paintings and gouaches at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. For a young artist who only began exhibiting seriously in 1991, he’s achieved remarkable success.

Although the Corcoran exhibition is his first one-person show in an American museum, several preeminent institutions–including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, among others–collect his work. Fonseca’s works also are shown at several of New York’s top commercial galleries; among them the Charles Cowles, Robert Miller, and Paul Kasmin.

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Additionally, the Institut Valencia d’Art Modern in Valencia, Spain, published Caio Fonseca: Paintings 1983-2003 during the artist’s 2003 exhibit there. A catalog for its show was issued by the Corcoran.

Publications have taken notice, as well. Vanity Fair and Departures magazines featured Fonseca in their October and September issues, as did Modern Paintings in its autumn publication. The media spotlight, coupled with museum acquisitions and sales of his work, appear to signal that the artist, 45, is definitely in vogue.

Still, visitors to the Corcoran’s “Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca” may question the adulation. Although the exhibition opens with Fonseca’s best painting in this show, the 20-foot-long Fifth Street Painting CO4.19 in the large, entry cafe space, his works in the next two exhibit galleries do not meet that standard.

Canvases covered with plays of curvilinear, flat shapes, connected by emphatically brushed horizontals set in swaths of colors, fill the rooms too densely. The exhibit space, unfortunately, is much too small.

An initial look at the show demonstrates that Fonseca needs large spaces for his paintings. The works–both large and small–require that they be hung singly, away from others. Moreover, the exhibit’s somewhat garish lighting and the Corcoran’s high ceilings do not create a hospitable ambience.

Jacquelyn Serwer, the Corcoran’s chief curator, chose 41 Fonseca paintings–most were produced for this show–with 30 mixed media acrylics on canvas and 11 gouaches on paper. One, Fifth Street Painting C00.1, measures more than 20 feet across. It shows the artist’s signature method of dragging thickened paint horizontally from left to right across the canvas, cutting through horizontals with delicately scratched diagonals, and swinging shapes. The technique produced images that look like musical notations, half jugs, halved female figures, and punctuation marks.

Other works–such as the group of preparatory acrylics on another wall and the gouache-on-paper studies at the back–are smaller and showcase some of the exhibit’s better efforts.

The artist says he gets most of his inspiration from these studies; it’s regrettable he does not retain their whimsy and lightness in what he calls his “finished work.”

Raised in New York City, Fonseca works half the year in a spacious loft in SoHo and the other half in the Tuscan village of Pietrasanta, where he spent summers as a child. His late father, Gonzalo, a sculptor from Uruguay, inspired his son and the rest of the family. Caio’s late older brother Bruno was a painter; his older sister, Quina, is a hat designer; and his younger sister Isabel is a writer. His mother, Elizabeth Fonseca, daughter of Welch’s Grape Juice founder Jacob Kaplan, also paints.

Caio Fonseca followed his father’s early apprenticeship in Barcelona. Gonzalo Fonseca had studied with the prominent Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and Caio apprenticed with Torres-Garcia’s son Augusto Torres for six years.

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On a tour of the exhibit, curator Serwer summed up the artist’s working process thus: “He begins works such as the dramatic, black-swathed Pietrasanto Painting C03.33 and the red-and-blue Pietrasanto Painting C01.20 with a charcoal drawings, adds horizontal lines from the ‘Golden Section’–proportional relationships that organize the painting’s structure–then covers the whole painting with gesso and, finally, adds color.” While this is all interesting, his process is described in too much detail in countless publications and intervbiews that don’t provide a clue as to what he wants to express.

Fonseca is also an amateur pianist, with extensive training in classical music. Serwer says “there’s an interchange between his painting and music,” and many critics use musical analogies in describing his work– again, almost ad nauseam.

Fonseca’s current work presents difficulties for long-range assessment, largely because it has shown little variation in his quarter century as an artist. Does the hype surrounding him block the qualities of his painting? Or, instead of merit, was interest in Fonseca’s work spurred solely by the art boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

For now, the artist appears more obsessed with technique rather than obtaining a unique expression. His use of whitened gesso, for instance– even with underpaintings of reds and greens–can be a deadening tool. Artists of the Italian High Renaissance used it only for background.

However, he’s still a young painter, and Fonseca’s work may change in the future.

WHAT: “Inventions: Recent Paintings by Caio Fonseca

WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays, until 9 p.m. Thursdays. Closed Tuesdays. Continues through February 14

TICKETS: $6.75 adults, $4.75 seniors, $3 students with current ID, $12 families

PHONE: 202/639-1700 or www.corcoran.org

(c) 2004 News World Communications Inc.

Transfigured Sites – The Aerial Photography of Robert Hartman

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Photographer Robert Hartman’s intriguing images of the earth, taken at various heights from his restored 1949 Piper, appear more as abstract paintings than mere geographical features.

Born in 1926 in Sharon, Pennsylvania, Robert Hartman grew up in the village of Brookfield, Ohio. His father was a physician who loved farming and raised a variety of fruits, vegetables, and animals on an acre of land. Hartman’s first aerial experience occurred at age five when an uncle took him for a ride in a hired biplane. Afterward he and his brother, Jim, who later became a commercial pilot, became avid model airplane builders.

When he was thirteen, the family moved to Tucson because of Hartman’s health, a move that had a dramatic effect on his future. He saw landscape paintings by Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange’s former husband, reproduced in Arizona Highways magazine and decided to try his hand at art. Hartman says, “The minute I uncapped a tube of paint, I was hooked.” For a high-school graduation present, his father gave him flying lessons, and by twenty-one he was a licensed pilot. “Sky and land are two big factors in everything I do,” he says, “and the Arizona landscape was without peer.” These early experiences have been the bedrock of his career as an artist.

Hartman graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s and master’s in art, but it was at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, during the summer of 1951, that he decided to commit his life to art. He says, “I studied with Vaclav Vytlacil, a New York painter, who was a very inspirational teacher. Then I decided to attend graduate school in painting, followed by a year at the Brooklyn Museum Art School.” While in Brooklyn he studied ceramics, which was an increasingly marketable skill in academia.

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After completing his formal education, Hartman returned to Tucson and sent out numerous resumes, but the only job he could find was pasting up ads for a local department store. In 1955 he was hired as an instructor at Texas Technological College in Lubbock. Culturally isolated, he was also uncomfortable with the state’s Jim Crow attitudes and practices. After three years, he broke his contract to accept a teaching position at the University of Nevada, Reno. During his three years there, he continued to teach, paint, and exhibit his art.

While Hartman was in Lubbock, a colleague, Bernard Farrell, befriended him. Farrell was a former student of Hans Hofmann, who had been a great influence on the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York. Hartman says, “Farrell’s paintings were a great revelation to me and brought about a change from realism to Abstract Expressionism in my own work.” Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) was one of the most vital and influential painting teachers of his era. He synthesized Cubism with the colors of Fauvism and the gesture of Expressionism, creating bold, intense abstractions. He said, “The whole world as we experience it visually comes to us through the mystic realm of color.” In 1963, Hartman had the opportunity to view forty-seven of Hofmann’s paintings, which inspired him to consider further the artistic possibilities of abstract art.

Two years earlier, Hartman had been hired to teach art at the University of California, Berkeley. He was now among sympathetic colleagues who were steeped in Abstract Expressionism. The art department’s renowned faculty included Elmer Bischoff, David Park, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Sam Francis and Richard Diebenkorn had studied there.

Unable to fly after 1955 because of the expense, Hartman changed his style dramatically. Abandoning Abstract Expressionism, he began his innovative airplane paintings, which were a substitute for flying. Integrating Verifax images of early aircraft into painted suggestions of skies, he created his “nostalgic paintings.” “These paintings reconstituted the feelings of solitariness, suspension, and disorientation experienced during flight,” says Hartman. In 1968 he hit the wall, as the airplane images no longer worked. For a brief period he painted sky and weather paintings but quickly realized that they were not the answer either. Hartman recalls, “It was tough to spend time in the studio on a gorgeous day when I could be outside flying,” he recalls.

In 1970, Hartman purchased a used 1949 Piper Clipper and had it restored. He began taking a camera along. At first, he made paintings from the photographs, but they, too, were unsatisfactory. Hartman then decided to combine flying with photography and create aerial photographs, a creative activity that he has engaged in for over thirty years. He retired from Berkeley’s art department in 1991 and now devotes his time to family, flying, and photography.

Given Hartman’s earlier experience as an Abstract Expressionist, it is not surprising that there is a logical progression from the transitional airplane paintings to his painterly aerial photographs. In one of his recent photographs, Rio Vista X (1998), the lines, forms, and colors all appear to have been laid down on canvas in the studio, yet they are what Hartman’s eye viewed through his camera lens from the air. What a poetic spectacle!

Virtually 100 percent of my photos will have evidence of human interaction with the land. I can’t do anything with nature alone, because the pictures would just be pretty scenes,” Hartman asserts. In Rio Vista X, he had just taken off from the Rio Vista Airport and was climbing when a new housing development with surrounding golf course came into view. The red area is the golf course. “There is no time to deliberate,” explains Hartman. “There is only instant recognition.” Without question, he is superb at recognizing the engaging image.

Photographing from the air with infrared film is almost as spontaneous as painting an Abstract Expressionist painting. “About the only thing that you can predict is that green foliage will be brilliant red or magenta,” says Hartman. “As an ex-painter, I really react to color, and infrared film has color galore. It also puts a measure of ambiguity and nonrecognition in the image.”

Fire-Field (1985) was also taken by chance. It was shot on a windy day, as a farmer was dragging an incendiary device behind his pickup truck to set fire to his field. While the stubble burned, wonderful, shifting forms were created on the land below. Hartman shot a roll of film in less than two minutes and wishes that he could have had a movie or video camera to capture more of this dance of fire. “It was magical to see in progress,” he says.

While many subjects are caught spontaneously, others are more studied and are documented over longer periods. One example is Vaqueros Blue (1998). Hartman documented the reservoir construction near Livermore for over five years without knowing, at first, exactly what was being constructed. He photographed the project piece by piece, until it all fit together like a puzzle. At the right moment, earth, trees, water, and boat were caught in a striking and more recognizable image.

Viewers may interpret aerial photographs as abstract, simply because of their unfamiliarity with the terrain. It is interesting that Gertrude Stein, writing in 1938 about Picasso’s revolutionary Cubism, provided a germane insight: “When I was in America I for the first time traveled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane.” Hartman’s photographs document this universal visual experience. Stein would have loved them.

While Hartman’s aerial photos attract the viewer because of their stunning colors, lines, shapes, and ambiguity, there is a sinister message beneath the surface. Farmers and ranchers cultivate and harvest the earth, but usually they respect its resources. Unfortunately, there are those who violate it with bulldozers, off-road vehicles, and chemicals, resulting in the destruction of the earth. They leave behind new housing tracts, golf courses, concrete, asphalt, garbage disposal fills, and hazardous materials.

In Hill Carving, Pittsburg (1998), Hartman shows a portion of a public dump and a slide area photographed in the late summer near Pittsburg, California. He photographed the area four years later, in the spring, in Folding Hills (2002), revealing portions of the dump that have been carved out of the hills. Flying near Sacramento, Hartman photographed a new, expensive housing development in Red Press (1998), where the symmetry of the landscape intrigued him. He says, “The brutal force of the forms came together like a hammer on an anvil.”

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Some very nondescript areas can result in unexpected photographs. An example is Valley Illumination (2000), which was taken near a decommissioned nuclear plant east of Sacramento. The color of water is unpredictable when photographed with color infrared film. The numerous dried-up ponds read as a kind of calligraphic language.

In contrast to these dire messages, Receding Flood (1997) depicts the delta near Stockton after the severe floods in 1997. Here, Hartman was simply reacting to the “apparent wrinkled earth and brilliant green color.” In Green/Orange Split (1997) his interest was in the confrontation of the hues and tonalities; he made the image even more dramatic by intentionally dividing the composition in half.

Robert Hartman’s aerial photographs can be interpreted on several levels. They are documents of the ever-changing California landscape as well as prophetic warnings about the deterioration and destruction of the land and the natural habitat of fish, birds, and other wildlife. Equally important to Hartman is the pure pleasure of visual poetry. He says, “I like things not easily explained, images that are slow to declare themselves. I am not greatly interested in the whys, because it takes away the mystery, which I hope rubs off on the viewer.” Above all, his stunningly beautiful images reveal the reality, mystery, and poetry of the earth’s basic features.n

Darwin Marable, based in the San Francisco area, is a photo historian, lecturer, writer, and curator.

Rich pickings

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The season of mellow fruitfulness being upon us, it’s all change in the art world as summer exhibitions are laid to rest and the autumn harvest yields rich pickings.

The main museum shows will be reviewed at length as and when they open, but the host of worthwhile exhibitions in commercial galleries often pass unnoticed these days when media attention is focused on a surprisingly narrow band of mainstream art activity. Not all these shows open in the first week of September, however, so my round-up will be something of a preview.

And as always with exhibition listings it’s advisable to check gallery opening hours as these do vary.

Jacob Kramer (1892-1962) is a name not much on critics’ lips these days. He was born in Ukraine but settled in Leeds where he became a well-known figure, an early Vorticist and friend of Epstein and Gertler, and a powerfully angular painter of figures and portraits. The Boundary Gallery’s Kramer exhibition (29 September to 4 November, at 98 Boundary Road, NW8) concentrates on the early work and coincides with the publication of the first biography of this neglected Jewish artist, by David Manson (Sansom & Co).

Another artist associated with the north of England, and as a consequence insufficiently appreciated down south, is Helen Clapcott, chronicler of the industrial landscape of Stockport in exquisite and luminous tempera. She is showing new work (at the Troubadour Gallery in Manchester throughout October), featuring desolation and renewal among the brick fields.

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Three London exhibitions promise well:

Martha Parsey, at Eleven, 11 Eccleston Street, SW1 (until 6 October), offers a show of cool young women, depicted with hard edges but loose paint (Pop Art meets Francis Bacon). A centenary retrospective at Square One Gallery, 592 Kings Road, SW6, of James Boswell (1906-71) opens on 12 September (until 5 October) and brings together his intense fauvist paintings – look at the brilliant red beach and yellow houses in ‘Boats at Brighton‘ – with his politicised graphic work, much influenced by George Grosz. A period figure due for revival? While Edward Middleditch (1923-87) at last receives some of the attention he so patently deserves in a show entitled Water and Light at James Hyman Fine Art, 6 Mason’s Yard, SW1 (20 September to 3 November). Paintings and drawings by this master of pattern in landscape should rekindle interest in a very considerable career.

At the Hayward Gallery (until 19 November) is How to Improve the World, actually a survey of 60 years of British Art from the Arts Council Collection but given the kind of serio-comic title much favoured by curators in recent years. It’s taken from a John Cage text used in a beguiling piece by Cerith Wyn Evans, which involves morse code flashed by chandelier. Cage’s text continues ‘(You Will Only Make Matters Worse)’, which as a judgment is a little harsh on the redemptive powers of art, but probably suits this show. Of course it’s not really a representative selection of what the Arts Council has bought since 1946, since it’s actually one man’s choice of what he considers significant. That man being the ideologue Michael Archer, the selection inevitably veers towards the conceptual. However there are enough surprises trawled from the depths of the collection to make the experience of viewing it a pleasurable one, even if the choice does engage rather too closely with the fashionably correct. In excess of 120 artists are represented, some (like Henry Moore and Patrick Caulfield) more than once, though others are notable by their absence (Paula Rego and Maggi Hambling, Craigie Aitchison and Michael Andrews, Kitaj, Hitchens and Sutherland, to name but a few).

I would have preferred fewer film shows and more paintings, but the paintings do include some usefully unobvious choices.

There’s a beautiful early Gillian Ayres stain painting, a classic Euan Uglow nude, and good things by Paul Huxley and Peter Doig. Sculpture fares better than painting, with poignant and telling objects by Paolozzi and Richard Deacon, Phillip King and Isaac Witkin. St Ives has done well, with a powerful and little-seen early Roger Hilton, though his friend Sandra Blow, who died suddenly in August and was one of our finest colourists, is sadly not included. Nor is Alan Davie, Grand Old Man of abstraction (he was born in 1920), whose work in its variousness defies easy categorisation. He was called England’s Abstract Expressionist, our answer to Jackson Pollock (with whom he stayed), and was made much of in the 1950s and 60s. Then his art began to develop in unexpected and unfashionable ways, and his reputation suffered because of this eclecticism. There should be a major retrospective of his work at Tate Britain; instead we have to journey up to Harrogate, to the enterprising commercial gallery 108 Fine Art, for a show of his paintings and drawings spanning 1948 to 2004. This runs until 30 September and is accompanied by a limited-edition catalogue including a signed print for [pounds sterling]125, which must be a bargain.

If you fancy a photographic show and haven’t yet seen the Angus McBean display at the National Portrait Gallery (until 22 October, after which it moves on to the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 2 December to 12 March 2007), you are in for a treat.

McBean (1904-90) was a master of surrealist juxtapositions and disjunctions of scale, and managed to be witty into the bargain. A lavish hardback catalogue, reasonably priced at [pounds sterling]20, is available for those who prefer armchair-viewing. A much smaller but equally enlightening catalogue accompanies the touring exhibition Rembrandt as Printmaker. I caught up with the show at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, where it looked very good indeed.

The exhibits come from the British Museum collection and are carefully chosen to illuminate Rembrandt’s diverse skills with etching and dry point. The landscapes and religious subjects are particularly fine, including a monk up to no good with a willing wench in a cornfield. The show travels to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (14 October to 31 December), and next year to Stoke-on-Trent and Blackpool.

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Meanwhile in Bath the Victoria Art Gallery is showing 33 oils, watercolours and drawings by Gwen John from the National Museum of Wales. The exhibition (until 26 November) includes the famous image of a chair by an attic window, entitled ‘A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris’, which inspired Margaret Forster’s recent novel Keeping the World Away (Chatto & Windus, [pounds sterling]16.99). The exhibition’s selector is the artist Frances Borden, whose own small-scale self-portraits will be on show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Bath throughout September, together with a show of new paintings by Graham Crowley, retiring Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art. I hear that Crowley is going to live in Ireland and paint full-time, so we can expect much from this acute observer of the socialised landscape.

Back in London, Beaux Arts in Cork Street is launching (until 7 October) the abstract painter Nina Dolan, with a show of colourful, life-affirming and exuberant new paintings. (I must declare an interest here having written the catalogue essay. ) Abstraction of a more severe geometrical kind is just down the street at the Alan Cristea Gallery (13 September to 7 October). Ian Davenport will show etchings and screen prints – not just the vertical stripes for which he is best known, but ovals and arches as well. And for those who can face the hurly-burly of the marketplace, a challenging cross-section of galleries specialising in Modern British art can be found at the Royal College from 13 to 17 September in the 20/21 British Art Fair. Happy viewing.

Tender Was the Night; Gerald Murphy was friends with Fitzgerald, Picasso and Hemingway. That’s impressive company. No wonder few people know his own striking paintings

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Byline: Peter Plagens

A few months after moving to Paris in 1921, Gerald Murphy happened to walk by the gallery of the pioneer modern-art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was holding a kind of clearance sale of cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque. Murphy was the heir to the ritzy Mark Cross luggage company, and he and his wife, Sara, had come to France to escape the doldrums of life in the States under Prohibition and Warren Harding’s “return to normalcy” after World War I. Young and rich, they’d planned to soak up culture and enjoy the good life. But that fortuitous gallery drop-in changed Gerald’s life. “If that’s painting,” he told Sara, “that’s the kind of painting I would like to do.” He studied for six months with Natalia Goncharova, the Russian-revolutionary expat abstract painter and set designer, and then plunged in, exhibiting in the famous Salon des Independants of the early ’20s. All told, he produced 14 pictures. Only seven survive. And for only the second time ever, every one of them–elegant, precise, lightly cubist and startlingly prescient of the pop art that would follow 40 years later–is on display, in “Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy,” at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts through Nov. 11. (The show then travels to New Haven, Conn., and Dallas.)

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But there’s much more to the Murphys–and the exhibition–than Gerald’s paintings. The Murphys were perhaps the world’s first totally–even maniacally–modernist couple. In Paris, their apartment featured bare white walls in which the only art object was a big ball bearing rotating on a black pedestal atop a black piano. They played jazz records from Harlem. Down in Antibes, on the Mediterranean coast, Gerald and Sara established a second home, Villa America, where the flat roof doubled innovatively as a sun deck. They became friends with Picasso, who developed–like practically every man who crossed Sara’s path–a wicked crush on her and made her the model for several of his prettier pictures. The Murphys entertained the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Serge Diaghilev and Dorothy Parker. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the couple’s closest friend, though that didn’t stop him from doing things like tossing Sara’s crystal wineglasses from the balcony at one of the Murphys’ all-night parties. But he made up for it. Fitzgerald later immortalized the Murphys; they’re the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in his novel “Tender Is the Night.”

But the Murphys’ long and full lives (Gerald died in 1964, Sara in 1975) were also tinged with tragedy. Gerald gave up painting in 1929 when his younger son, Patrick, then 9, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The Murphys began a series of odysseys, first to Switzerland, then to the States, to try to find a cure. For a while the boy recovered. Suddenly in 1935, Patrick’s older brother, Baoth, away at prep school in New England, came down with measles that turned into spinal meningitis. He died within weeks. Two years later, Patrick’s TB relapsed and he also died. Some of the most lyrical and heart-rending words you’ll ever read are in Fitzgerald’s handwritten note of condolence to Sara, on view in one of the show’s vitrines. It concludes: “The golden bowl is broken indeed but it was golden; nothing can ever take those boys away from you now.”

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There’s a myth that Gerald Murphy really quit painting not because of Patrick’s TB but because he realized he’d never match the genius of his European idols. It’s true that he doesn’t. Amid the plethora of letters, photographs, rare books and manuscripts, a part of a costume-ball gown of Sara’s and even some for-comparison works by Picasso and Fernand Leger, Gerald emerges as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately who doesn’t really wrestle with pictorial space, and who takes too much refuge in graphic cleverness. But within his martini-sharp and tuxedo-correct version of modernism–which was still more avant-garde than anything being produced stateside–Murphy was a superb artist. Although the snappy “Razor” (1924) and evocative “Cocktail” (1927)–on which he spent four months getting the cigar box just right–make welcome appearances, the real stunner is “Watch” (1925). It’s a six-and-a-half-foot square geometric fugue in grays and gold that’s both a homage to the watchmaker’s craft and a trove of coded symbolism. Some say, for instance, that the watch’s disconnected mainspring stands for what Murphy confided to a few people was his “defect“–the closeted gayness on which, as far as we know, he was never able to act. Having to stop painting clearly demoralized him. Murphy assumed the presidency of Mark Cross for 20 years until 1956, and refused to talk about his abandoned art. Near the end of his life, however, he said, “I was never happy until I started painting, and I have never been thoroughly so since I was obliged to give it up.” For a brief time in the 1920s, though, he was happy, Sara was happy and Paris was the center of the universe. Thanks to Gerald’s small trove of paintings, we’ll always have a bit of his Paris, too.

CAPTION(S): I Remember Papa: The Murphys and friend Hemingway (left)

Thoroughly modern Murphy: Three of his remaining seven paintings: ‘Razor’ (left), ‘Doves’ (below) and ‘Watch,’ which may contain clues to Murphy’s greatest secret