Rothko’s Material Beauty


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).


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.


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.

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.


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.

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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?



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.


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?


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?



* 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

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.


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.


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

(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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.)


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.”


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

Inquire within

talian Drawings: Highlights from the Collection

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 10 July

Beyond the Human Clay

James Hyman Fine Art, 5 Savile Row, W1, until 18 June

In the Mellon Gallery of the Fitzwilliam is an unashamedly rich and demanding exhibition of Italian drawings, ranging from the 15th to the 20th century. I say ‘demanding’ because you need to look closely and with attention at these works–not simply to decipher what is going on (the narrative component), but to appreciate how it has been achieved (the formal aspect). So much of the stuff that is produced under the name of art today is easy on the eye and mind, with as much aesthetic nourishment as used air. Real art solicits the spectator’s involvement: it’s not a variant on wallpaper, it requires interpretation and response, intellectual as well as emotional. Drawings, being an artist’s first ideas, or evidence of the thought processes that result in a finished work, are especially vital and direct in their communication. We don’t have to have a detailed specialist knowledge of the period in which they were made (though this does help)–what we need more is an open and receptive eye and an inquiring mind.

Drawings are fragile and particularly susceptible to the deleterious effects of sunlight, so the gallery is dimly lit and the ambience suitably reverential. Out of the gloom comes a wild boar by Pisanello: snouty, tusky and questing, drawn in black chalk and ink. This swift access of living reality is confirmed in the drawings of another great master–Leonardo, represented here by a trio of studies. There’s a beautiful metal-point of two horses seen head-on and a moving depiction of the ermine as a symbol of purity, caught by hunters who block up its burrow with mud, knowing it will not sully its spotless pelt by attempting to go to earth. (This drawing might have been made as a design for a hat badge.)


Then there’s a highly effective grouping of figures in a drawing of the Holy Family by Parmigianino, and in a corner a study of two standing women by Perino del Vaga. Done in pen and wash, with small heads and great statuesque bodies, this has something of the monumentality of Henry Moore.

In a flat cabinet nearby are a couple of Raphael drawings, one in pen and brown ink, the other in red chalk, that are unexpectedly inquiring for such an assured artist, both exploring ways of representing groups of figures interacting. Moving on to Venice in the 16th century, we are offered Vittore Carpaccio’s telling evocation of two groups of ecclesiastics facing one another, roughly scratched in with brown ink and given body with red chalk, though in fact the chalk was put on first. And here’s a lovely sexy Titian drawing of an embracing couple, in which the bodies–drawn with caressing strokes of charcoal–seem to be moving and melting into one another.

Then there’s a Michelangelo sheet showing a draped figure of Christ, in which the black chalk is gently stroked into the paper, like smoke solidifying into form; expressive and emotional rather than linear and declarative. I enjoyed the group by Annibale Carracci: the large head of a bearded man in red chalk, looking a little like D.H. Lawrence; below it a black chalk study of the head and torso of a male nude; to the left a fabulous pen and brown ink ‘Adoration of the Shepherds‘, a large and complex drawing, vigorously dynamic.

A wild and vibrant Guercino drawing comes next, with singing single lines coalescing into darker knots of passion, the subject being ‘The sleeping Rinaldo abducted by Armida‘. On the opposite wall is a more illustrational drawing by Magnasco in pen and brush of a standing singing man with a musician. Dramatic and engaging, this works partly through distortions of scale and collapsing of space.

Other artists create mood and meaning through the areas of paper left blank between the scratchy lines and the flow of brushed ink, such as Luca Giordano in ‘Christ at the marriage of Cana’. This technique can be seen in even more extreme form in Luca Cambiaso’s ‘Angel blowing a trumpet into St Jerome’s ear‘, in which the areas left blank are made to work as hard as the drawn ones.

Among the other treasures that I feel impelled to mention (and there are many more works of varied appeal) is a splendid large Guardi ink drawing of the Grand Canal in Venice, all energetic lines and rags of dark and light, and no fewer than eight Tiepolos. (I loved the drawings of houses and the three male nudes on clouds.) I was not so moved by the Grand Tour vision of Marco Ricci and Francesco Panini but, of the more modern works, particularly fine is the Indian ink and wash ‘Portrait of a bearded man‘ by Modigliani, bequeathed to the museum by Lillian Browse.

The rewards of an hour’s concentrated looking are immense. If you have any energy left over, the adjoining displays of modern art–in particular, a group of Nicolas de Staël’s paintings, a fine Morandi landscape and a magnificent Roger Hilton abstract from 1959–are well worth a visit.

Thirty-five years ago, the American painter R.B. Kitaj, at that time living in London, organised an Arts Council exhibition of contemporary figurative art entitled The Human Clay . It was a manifesto exhibition promoting a ‘School of London‘–painters who were seriously interested in drawing the figure.

Kitaj’s original selection numbered nearly 50 artists, some now well known, others who have slipped off the radar, such as Richard Carline and Philip Rawson. Subsequently, the School of London came to mean only a handful of artists: Kitaj himself, Michael Andrews, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Various others were attached at different times by writers or exhibition organisers, but that core has held. James Hyman, an art historian of British figuration as well as a dealer, now examines Kitaj’s original exhibition and opens up the field once more to include a wider range of artists.


Hyman’s show falls into two parts: a selection of Kitaj’s original choices, and a group of works by other artists for whom drawing is important. There are notable omissions: nothing by Maggi Hambling, Ken Kiff or Paula Rego, but there are also compensations. The display is built around a classic early Kitaj from 1961 called ‘The Bells of Hell’, a wonderfully lucid modernist account of the Battle of Little Bighorn seen as a ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and heads-bodies-legs assemblage. Next to it are a darkly potent Kossoff self-portrait and an elegiac Dennis Creffield drawing. A large Peter de Francia allegory from c.1970 contrasts keenly with the extraordinary ‘Night Interior with Lay Figure‘ by Lewis Chamberlain, one of the most fanatical pencil drawings I’ve seen.

There are a couple of Colin Self’s inimitable studies of people and three small but luscious Basil Beattie oils of his familiar repertoire of forms: steps, ladders, tunnel. In the back room is a surprisingly delicate early nude drawing in ink by Euan Uglow and Robert Medley’s brilliantly minimal portrait of Philip Prowse.

Hyman has produced a catalogue, which echoes Kitaj’s original 1976 publication, in which he writes lucidly of the School of London and subsequent artistic responses to the High Art seriousness of Kitaj and his colleagues. With this intriguing show, James Hyman celebrates a decade of staging often challenging and always stimulating exhibitions of British figurative art.


When it comes to telling a news story, the camera doesn’t lie. A photograph can capture the triumph or tragedy of an event and convey a message of hope, celebration, or sorrow that cannot be denied. Great news photos freeze for all time a moment in history–fixing events, places, and human beings in our memory as words can never do. Words seldom can convey the horror of armed combat or the unabashed joy of a victorious athlete as well as a good photograph can.

Photos that tell a story are taken by photojournalists. Photojournalists are members of the media who record events primarily through a camera lens. According to Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), a pioneer photojournalist for Life magazine, the best photojournalists take the trouble to deeply understand their subjects before they focus the camera. Eisenstaedt said, “It’s more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”

Each year, the world’s top news photos are honored by the World Press Photo Foundation. In the year 2000, a total of 3,938 photojournalists from 121 countries submitted photos. An international panel of judges picked the winning photos from 42,321 entries. Lara Jo Regan, an American, won the top award, the World Press Photo of the Year 2000. Regan’s photo shows an impoverished mother and her children at home in Texas.


A Brief History

Photojournalism began in the 1800s with early photographers such as Matthew Brady (1823-1896). When the American Civil War began in 1861, Brady decided that the war should be documented. Brady closed his portrait shop and organized a staff of photographers to record the war. Brady’s crew followed the Union armies, taking thousands of pictures of battles, camp life, and soldiers.

Today, Brady’s photographs are still considered some of the best photographs ever taken. He and his crew captured the emotions of war in the faces of the men who fought the battles–setting a standard of photojournalism that still inspires photographers today. Look at the winners of this year’s World Press Photo contest, shown on the following pages. What is the main emotion in each photo? What makes each photo a prizewinner?

General News Story, Second Prize

Mozambique Floods by Karel Prinsloo, South Africa

In February and March 2000, a series of severe floods hit Mozambique. United Nations officials said the floods were the worst Mozambique had endured in about 30 years. More than 1 million people were left homeless by raging rivers and streams. What story does this photo tell?

Science and Technology Third Prize

Scientist Jurgen Bachl with Genetically Manipulated Mouse by Oliver Meckes and Nicole Ottawa, Germany

No, this isn’t tricky lighting. Scientists transplanted a gene that gives a jellyfish its fluorescence to a mouse for medical research. How does this photo convey the mystery and excitement of science?

Sports Single, First Prize

Marion Jones Wins 100m Sprint at Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia by Bill Frakes and David Callow, United States

Marion Jones beat her nearest competitor in the 100-meter race by 0.37 seconds. Does this photo make it seem as if Jones won her race by a larger margin?

Nature and the Environment, Second Prize

Relaxing on a Shore of Industrial Waste, Russia by Jacqueline Mia Foster, United States

In this photo, sunbathers enjoy a warm day on a pile of industrial waste in Russia. What can you tell about the Russian environment from this photograph?

World Press Photo of the Year 2000

Uncounted Americans: Sanchez Family at Home, Texas by Lara Jo Regan, United States

This photo shows an impoverished immigrant family in their Texas home. Life magazine originally published Regan’s photo as part of a series on Americans who are not counted in the U.S. census. What does the photo say about living conditions among some Texas immigrant families? What emotions does the photo convey to you? Why do you think this photo was chosen as the contest’s top prizewinner?

Nature and the Environment Story, Third Prize

Penguin Rescue and Rehabilitation After Oil Spill, South Africa by Jon Hrusa, South Africa

About 22,000 penguins were endangered when a cargo ship sank near Cape Town, South Africa, in June 2000, spilling oil into the penguins’ home waters. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) led the penguin rescue mission, which cost about $2.5 million. Why do you think this photo won a prize?


Science and Technology Single, First Prize

Refugee Camp, Sierra Leone by Harald Henden, Norway

Thousands of civilians have been killed or maimed in a bloody civil war in the African country of Sierra Leone. How does this photo portray the horror of that war? How might the photo also show hope for the future of Sierra Leone?

Spot News, Second Prize

Cuban Refugee Elian Gonzalez Seized by U.S. Federal Agents, Miami, Fla. by Alan Diaz, United States

Federal agents seize 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives’ home on April 22, 2000. What emotions does the photo show?

Children’s Award

Young Landmine Victim, Afghanistan by Stephan Vanfleteren, Belgium

The World Press Photo Children’s Jury selected the photo below as the best of the year. The jury was made up of nine children ages 11 and 12 from around the world. The photo shows a boy who lost his leg after stepping on a land mine. Why might the children’s jury have picked this photo?

>>> View more: Top pix: World Press Photo Awards

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

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Byline: Brad Stone

The massive new office park of George Lucas’s entertainment empire, Lucasfilm Ltd., is so picturesque and idyllic that it could stand in for one of those improbable computer-generated landscapes in the “Star Wars” prequels. Four classically designed brick-and-terra-cotta buildings rise amid Japanese maples, weeping willows and a winding stone creek on 23 acres of San Francisco’s Presidio National Park, in the shadow of the Golden Gate. But something is definitely missing: iconography from the movies that made the company famous in the first place. In keeping with the low-key corporate image, there’s only one clue as to who rules around here. At the entrance to the front door, perched atop a tiled fountain, sits a small bronze statue of everyone’s little green friend, Yoda.

But Yoda’s cinematic time has come and gone, and Lucasfilm–as a Jedi might put it–must be mindful of the future. Three original “Star Wars” films, three subsequent prequels and the bounteous licensing of bedsheets and toys (might we offer you a Wookiee Water Blaster?) has earned the company an out-of-this-universe $12.4 billion (and counting). The movies, though, are now history. While Lucasfilm’s famously introverted founder George Lucas sticks close to his vast, remote Skywalker Ranch north of San Francisco, making art films and “Star Wars” TV spinoffs, 1,500 of his employees will move to the Presidio this summer from dozens of buildings scattered around Marin County. Workers at special-effects division Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), videogame maker LucasArts and Web firm Lucas Online will operate from a central location for the first time in Lucasfilm’s 34-year history.

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The idiosyncratic company has never revealed financial results or growth plans. It has the luxury of being enigmatic, since it’s owned exclusively by Lucas. But executives are hoping that the new $350 million digs–financed solely by Lucasfilm–will inspire collaboration and synergy, two forces that could make it even more competitive in a tough entertainment landscape. It “will allow us to think about what life is like after ‘Star Wars’ and after George,” says Lucasfilm president Micheline Chau.

Chau hopes the new space will also help the company maintain another tradition for which it’s lauded: technology innovation. Lucas and his band of Hollywood rebels have long been developing tools to assist their own films, which have in turn revolutionized the rest of the industry. EditDroid, an early editing system created at ILM in the ’80s, allowed Lucas to scan film onto laser disc and cut scenes without touching the original film. It evolved into the Avid editing system in use today. Lucas employees also developed the first high-quality movie sound system, THX, and the industry’s first graphics simulation on computers. That division was spun out and became the successful Pixar studio after being sold to Steve Jobs.

More recent Lucasfilm breakthroughs have come in computer graphics–from “Star Wars: Episode I” ‘s Jar Jar Binks, the first photorealistic all-digital main character in a movie (and surely the most annoying), to the dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park.” CG images, of course, became ubiquitous in the industry, presenting ILM, still the largest special-effects house, with challengers.

The new Presidio headquarters is central to Lucasfilm’s strategy to maintain supremacy. Executives tout the largest high-performance data network in the industry: 600 miles of cable connect visual-effects artists to a 10-gigabyte network–10 times more bandwidth than they had in their former offices. A 13,500-square-foot data center will crunch ILM’s digital images 24 hours a day, using more than 3,000 high-end computer processors from Silicon Valley firm AMD. But the Lucas folks are just as excited about the more pedestrian features of the campus: the 350-seat cafeteria, the fitness center and day care, which they hope will foster an ongoing exchange of ideas among employees. For example, a videogame designer thinking about how to render a character’s virtual hair could tap an ILM employee for tips. And an ILM artist who finishes a summer special-effects movie could be put to work on a videogame. “Collaboration between games and cinema is the way we become unique again,” says ILM R&D chief Steve Sullivan.

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Lucasfilm wants to extend this teamwork into the digital-filmmaking process itself. Traditionally, ILM animators and artists work on one element of a shot, then hand it to another colleague who works on a separate element. ILM chief technology officer Cliff Plumer talks about “the new pipeline,” in which the technology infrastructure of the Presidio, along with specialized software developed inside ILM, will allow digital artists to work together virtually as they might on a physical set. They can look at the same shot and make changes that their colleagues can see in real time.

The new headquarters may have another, perhaps unintended consequence–creating new distance between the company and its chairman. Lucas will spend only a few hours each month at the new office, according to Chau. Further detached from its creator and his whims, Lucasfilm should look more like a real company with a balance statement that’s healthy even without “Star Wars” revenues. Chau insists that despite press speculation, an IPO is not imminent: “There is a certain uniqueness to being private. We can take risks.” Nonetheless, a streamlined Lucasfilm will look better to customers and prospective partners–just as its new offices will surely impress anyone who wanders by.

CAPTION(S): The sprawling Presidio site, located southeast of the Gate