Saturday, July 31, 2010

On perseverance in art

From a letter by Van Gogh dated 20 August, 1882:

"I feel that I can do even better by toiling away and trying things out, and I am absolutely determined to do better, no matter how much time or trouble it may take."

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Friday, July 30, 2010

On Faith Puleston and Richard Strauss

Faith Puleston is a person who has recently become a follower of this blog. When I emailed her to thank her for doing so, I discovered that Faith had a career as an opera singer for many years from the 1960s to the 1990s, mainly in Germany. If you follow this link, you’ll see some great photos of her taking the lead in some pretty impressive roles (Amneris from ‘Aida’ at Covent Garden; Waltraute in ‘Gotterdammerung’; Octavian in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’):

I’ve loved opera all my life, and the voices that are required to sing opera (and Liede) are still my favourite kinds of voices (note to reader and bluegrass fan Ted Dawson: Sorry, Ted). Whenever anyone in the art world talks excitedly about multimedia art as if it’s the great new frontier, I always point out that opera was the first and is still the greatest multimedia art, combining singing, instrumental playing, acting (sort of), and all the arts of staged theatre. And almost all of it is the product of the human hands and lungs (though audio-visual projections are increasingly used in contemporary productions).

Faith talking about ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ prompted me to think about how, despite my long-standing devotion to opera, I only came to Richard Strauss’ music in the last six years. But as a composer for the human voice, particularly the female voice, I think Strauss is the equal of his near-contemporary Puccini. No doubt this was in part because he was married to a highly-regarded soprano, for whom he wrote many of his exquisite songs. Strauss has this way in his writing of taking these harmonic sidesteps away from the main key of the melody, and then arriving back on the tonic or dominant in a way that combines surprise and affirmation. The sound and the musical line can be as big and long as Wagner, but without the mythic pomposity of Herr Richard. And there can be no better example of Strauss’ slightly hilarious obscenity, superb writing for the voice, dramatic sense, and all-round operatic brilliance than the climax (in every sense of the word) of ‘Salome’, from the following clip with Teresa Stratas. Salome sings a demented love aria to the severed head of John the Baptist ("I kissed your mouth, Jokanaan/There was a bitter taste on your lips./Was that the taste of blood?/Or was that the taste of love?"). It gets seriously bonkers about 6 minutes in :

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

On past and present artists

From a letter by Van Gogh dated 21 July, 1882:

"What I would say with respect to the difference between old & present-day art is - perhaps the modern artists are deeper thinkers."

He was thinking of Millet, and Courbet, and perhaps Monet, but still ...

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On my 200th blog post

It seems appropriate, in the 200th post for this blog named after the autobiography (loosely called) of John Ruskin, to start referring to the great man and his works more often. I’ll begin by quoting the subtitle of ‘Praeterita’:  Outlines of scenes and thoughts, perhaps worthy of memory in my past life.

Ruskin describes his first memory of being introduced to the art of painting as follows. When he was three and a half years old, his parents took him to have his portrait painted by the celebrated portraitist James Northcote, about which Ruskin writes:

“I think it should be related also that having, as aforesaid, been steadily whipped If I was troublesome, my formed habit of serenity was greatly pleasing to the old painter; for I sat contentedly motionless, counting the holes in his carpet, or watching him squeeze his paints out of its bladders, -- a beautiful operation, indeed, to my thinking; -- but I do not remember taking any interest in Mr. Northcote’s application of the pigments to the canvas; my ideas of delightful art, in that respect, involving indispensably the possession of a large pot, filled with paint of the brightest green, and of a brush which would come out of it soppy. But my quietude was so pleasing to the old man that he begged my father and mother to let me sit to him for the face of a child which he was painting in a classical subject; where I was accordingly represented as reclining on a leopard skin, and having a thorn taken out of my foot by a wild man of the woods.”

Here is the 1822 portrait of John Ruskin by James Northcote:

P.S. The artist Fuseli, on seeing Northcote’s painting “Angel opposing Balaam”, said to him: “Northcote, you are an angel at an ass, but an ass at an angel.”

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On another artist's book

Another accordion book rolls off the Hartigan studio press:

It was created using the same procedure as previous examples of its kind: take damaged photos of drawings, family photos, photos and drawings of mine buildings, and superimpose them on heavy printmaking paper; write a short phrase for each print, then lightly edit them so that they run together better; print text onto images; bish-bosh, sorted. Here is an example page:

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On the physical effort required by painting

From a letter by Van Gogh dated c. 14-18 March 1882:

"If you become a painter, one of the things that would surprise you is that painting and everything connected with it is quite hard work in physical terms. Leaving aside the mental exertion, that hard thought, it demands considerable physical effort, and that day after day."

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On 10 over-rated artists

  1. Thomas Kinkade (sorry, that's too easy).
  2. Julian Schnabel.
  3. Marina Abramovic.
  4. Bill Viola.
  5. Roni Horn.
  6. Jeff Koons.
  7. Takashi Murakami.
  8. Damien Hirst.
  9. Damien Hirst.
  10. Damien Hirst.
However, if Damien, who is known to buy lots of contemporary art, were to shell out for some of my work, he would instantly be removed from this list and installed at the head of the other list labelled 'Greatest Living Artists and All-Round Geniuses.'
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Monday, July 26, 2010

On 'Viva la Vida' by Frida Kahlo

Number 28 in the series of Meditations on Art is on a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1954 (I think), in which I consider her entire life and oeuvre, and offer an irreverent comment on the 'cult of Frida', all in under two minutes.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

On the light at the end of the tunnel

From a letter by Van Gogh dated 3 January, 1882:

"It's gratifying, isn't it, Theo, when there's a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm seeing a little bit of light now. It's gratifying to draw a human being, something alive -- it may be damned difficult, but it's wonderful anyway."

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

On Art Basel 2010 (3): by Deborah Doering

In the final post from Art Basel 2010, guest blogger Deborah Doering considers work from the satellite fairs that co-exist with the main event.

As if Halls 1 and 2 of Art Basel were not enough to satisfy my visual appetite, I also sampled selections of art at the smaller "satellite" fairs, Volte, Liste, and Scope, which I reached by a short tram ride from the center of Basel. I must admit that by the time I reached the satellite fairs I was bordering on visual overload and physical exhaustion. I took many photos, but failed to note names of artists and galleries as I had done at Art Basel.

I did, however, have some very good conversations with gallerists at the smaller fairs, most of whom were very happy to speak with visitors. If you're interested in find out about the selling record at the smaller fairs, click on the following links:

My favorite performance work of any of the fairs, including Art Basel, took place at Liste. The artist, whose name I unfortunately do not know, but who is a lovely petite woman in a white dress with very red lipstick, began the performance by holding up a paper-sized sheet of ice in front of her face:

She began to melt the center of the ice sheet by breathing on it. She then approached bystanders, slowly moving the ice-sheet toward their face as well:

Together with her chosen collaborator, both the artist and her collaborator used their breath to melt the ice-sheet in the center, until ultimately, the sheet of ice crashed to the ground. At the sound of the breaking of ice, everyone applauded joyfully and vigorously:

This moment of joyful applause is what I would most like to remember about my first experience visiting Art Basel. I really hope it won't be my last.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

On 'The Illustrated Man'

Speaking of Ray Bradbury, as I was a few weeks ago, I was inspired a few years ago to produce a big linocut based on Bradbury’s story “The Illustrated Man.” The block is buried in a drawer somewhere, half-forgotten, and I only remember it whenever I see Sam Weller. At 24” x 18”, it’s fairly large. A print from the edition is now in the Ray Bradbury Archive, which is run by a dedicated chap in Indiana. I don’t think it’s too bad:

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

On the status of an artist

From a letter by Van Gogh dated 22 July, 1882:

"What am I in the eyes of most people - a nonentity or an eccentric or an obnoxious person - someone who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low. Well, then - even if that were all absolutely true, I should one day like to show by my work what there is in the heart of such an eccentric, of such a nobody."

It's dangerous, and worst of all it runs the risk of hubris and pomposity for any of us to compare ourselves to Van Gogh at this moment in his life, not merely because of the difference in talent between any of us and the man who wrote this letter, but also because van Gogh indeed exceeded most of us in his obnoxiousness, particularly towards his family, and the families of the hopelessly unsuitable women with whom he fell in love. But there's an ironic tone in this self-description, too, which makes me still pause to say: "And yet .."

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In the studio

New prints.

On Art Basel 2010 (2): by Deborah Doering

Guest blogger Deborah Doering offers her impressions of the art exhibited in the main halls at this year's Art Basel in Switzerland.

The huge, airplane-hanger-like Hall 1 featured "Art Unlimited" and also "Art Conversations/Art Salons." Both of these were among my favorite experiences at Art Basel, but even though l visited Hall 1 each day, I was not able to visit everything I wanted to see.

"Art Unlimited" showcased artist installations which varied in size and scope. Annely Juda Fine Art Gallery of London showcased the work of Yuko Shiraishi (b. 1956, Tokyo) in a very original and thoughtful installation titled "Space Elevator Tea House":

Shiraishi elegantly expresses her dual Japanese and English cultural influences by using a 1.5 x 2 meter tatami-mat as the basic dimension to build her art work. Unfortunately I do not have the space here to include all that Shiraishi wrote about her influences (Arthur C. Clark, Buckminster Fuller, as well as physicists and journalists) in the installation's annotation, but she concludes by stating: "What discoveries could we make in a space elevator tea house with its undifferentiated floors, ceilings, and walls, travelling beyond the grip of gravity away from an Earth free of national boundaries?"

Another installation that moved me was "Cri du Coeur (Cry of the Heart)," the last monumental work on paper by Nancy Spero (1926-2009):

A frieze of female mourners was hand-printed on a scroll that runs along a labyrinthine wall and contains references to the tomb of Ramose of Thebes, as well as images of loss and grief depicted in the media coverage of Iraq, Kashmir, and New Orleans. The installation is also a powerful memorial to the artist, who died in October 2009.

There were two "maze-like" installations that required careful physical navigation. Sergio Prego's (b. 1969, San Sebastian, Spain) "Ikurriña Quarter" used a pneumatic membrane made out of a translucent material in a shape based on the Basque flag. To enter and exit the membrane required a firm "push" from the participant:

Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933, Turin, Italy) created "Labirinto e Grande Pozzo," which he described as "a winding and unforeseeable road that leads us to the place of revelation, of knowledge":

The labyrinth was made of corrugated cardboard unrolled in various lengths. If you could find your way to the center, you could gaze into a large mirror which the artist referred to as "both a blind alley and an open road."

Presentations called "Art Conversations/Art Salons" were held in Hall 1 throughout the day. You can see a video (NB: Quicktime files) of each of these Conversations/Salons at

I especially recommend the Salon video titled "The Global Artworld: South Africa." South African artists Claire Gavronsky and Rose Shakinofsky (known collaboratively as Rosenclaire), Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers, and Das Kunstmagazin editors Uta Thon and Camilla Péus speak about "state of the art" in South Africa today, and how it connects to the international art scene.

In Hall 2, visitors could take their pick of art from over 300 galleries representing artists from around the globe. The following photo is one of Claire Gavronsky's paintings in the Goodman Gallery's booth:

So much art, so little time!
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Postcard from Lincoln Park

Moorish style entrance to apts.

On the second workshop for the public art project

Participant's photo: family at the Washington Monument, 1957

Monday night was the second workshop for the community memoir/public art project. We led seven participants through two hours of writing exercises, asking them to write at least a dozen one line moments of memory which were either directly related to the photos they brought along, or spinning off from them. With this larger group of people, things began to get interesting, and people were writing really moving things. One woman grew up in Canada, and most of her sentences related quite piercing and personal moments of a difficult childhood growing up in a large family as the youngest, somewhat put-upon sister.

We wish we had more time to work with the material that people created, as we would in a full writing workshop. But because of time and budget, we have to content ourselves with getting as much as we can in a shorter session. It's been a good start, and after the next couple of workshops, the public art installation should start to come more into focus.
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On megaliths and painting: Interview with Chuck Gniech

Chuck Gniech is a painter who lives in Chicago. He is a professor of art at the Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago, where he also acts as curator for Gallery 180. Chuck has a blog, Chicago Fine Art, which is well worth looking at. His paintings are currently part of a three-person show at the Highland Park Art Center, which runs until July 22nd. I started by asking him about the work in that exhibition.

'Intuition,' 48" x 36", 2010

Philip: Your paintings currently on show at the Highland Park Art Center are from a series drawing on British megaliths. As an Englishman myself, I can attest to the power of these prehistoric objects. How did you become interested in them?

Chuck: During one of my first trips abroad, I was staying with some friends in London and needed to spend some time alone. I got on a bus headed to the Salisbury Plain to visit Stonehenge and I was hooked. I went back to the States and read everything I could find on the prehistoric circles and megalithic structures—returning to Britain once or twice each year, to explore and experience these mystical places. Through my research, I found that there are more then four hundred and thirty of these prehistoric stone configurations. I’ve explored roughly thirty.

Philip: The paintings explore texture and surface through closely-related tones. What is the relation between source material and improvisation in your painting process?

Chuck: When I first became interested in the prehistoric sites, I was taken with their energy. There is a powerful feeling associated with many of the locations. The paintings from the early nineties focused on that energy. I was creating imagery of dramatic structural forms painted with fluid strokes and usually a single intense light source. As the work evolved, the configurations of the sites, the carvings, and the lichen living on the rock, became the subject matter. Now the imagery focuses on the natural patterns found in the stone. The patterns are fluid and generally soothing. They have the same calming effect as watching the waves on a body of water. I’ve recreated the fluid forms by building up a subtle low relief ground and then applying layer after layer of acrylic pigment. The actual painting process is as soothing as the outcome.
Philip: You have also painted the figure quite often. Do you work on abstract and representational paintings together? If so, do you see common elements in these different ways of working?
'Emerging from Darkness' paintings

Chuck: Generally, I work within one theme at a time but there is some overlap. The figurative pieces tend to reference the same meditative characteristics as the surface paintings. They use an alternative visual language to present a similar message to the viewer.

Philip: Do you find that teaching, running Gallery 180, and updating your blog keeps you away from your studio, or do these activities harmonize with your art practice in some ways?

Chuck: My Advisor in Grad School once told me “Artists are hyphenated”. At the time, I’m sure I looked at him rather strangely, so he continued to explain that most artists need to do other things to pay the bills. They need to teach, design, promote, sell, and still make time to paint. I may have taken his comment a little too seriously. I sometimes feel as though I have a number of lives going on at the same time - Painter, Designer, Professor, and Curator. It can be a little intense but I never get bored.

A very wise person once told me that if you’re making a living by doing something that you love to do, you never have to work. I’m very lucky not to have to work.
'Organized Chaos', 2010, 36" x 48"

Philip: What are you working on in your studio at the moment?

Chuck: I’ve been working on the next phase of the Surface paintings with the working title of “Striation”. The Striation pieces are influenced by linier patterns found on some of the megaliths. I first took notice of these marks—some ten years ago—while exploring the sites erected on the Isle of Lewis near Stornoway. Recently, while reviewing some of that documentation, I made a conscious decision to revisit and explore the use of these marks. There is something intriguing about the patterns created by the repetition of line. These meditative patterns are loosely reminiscent of works created by Agnes Martin in the seventies. I’ve also begun exploring concrete as a medium for three-dimensional pieces with the same surface patterns. We’ll see how that goes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Van Gogh's ideas about drawing

From a letter written in January 1882:

"Drawing is becoming more and more a passion with me, a passion just like that of the sailor for the sea".
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On 'Carnival of the Ideologies' by Jose Clemente Orozco

This week's Meditation - number 27 of the year - considers a work by the great Mexican muralist that he painted in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the end of the 1930s. I spent four days in Guadalajara in 2005, and loved the place. I hope it hasn't been affected by the terrible events of the drug war that has exploded since then.
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

On the first workshop in Mount Carroll

Patty and I held the first workshop for the Community memoir project on Saturday, July 17th. To give some sense of the small town where this is happening, here is a photo showing the view from the back of the house that Patty and I own in Mount Carroll:
Only 140 miles west of Chicago, but the only thing blocking the view are trees, horse stables, and small ponds. That's our house on the right, and that huge tree is apparently one of the biggest and oldest in the county. Next, here is the Owen P. Miles Musem, home of the Historical Society that is our project sponsor, and where we are holding the workshops. Built in 1873 in the Italianate style, it was the family home of several generations of the wealthy Miles family:
And here are a a few photos from the first workshop, showing photographs that people brought along, and some of the writing that they produced during the two-hour session:
After the workshop ended, we went to the small downtown area to sit at a table and hand out information about the project at Cruise Night, a car show that occurs four or five times during the summer. Classic car enthusiasts gather from the county and further afield to display their beloved automobiles:
In a sign of how this rural town is starting to recover from a long period of economic depression, Saturday was the opening day for a new store that wants to sell fine wines and cheeses:
We went in, sampled some of their wines, bought a nice bottle of red, and roped the owners in to our community memoir project. All in all, a good day's work.

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