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Focus Gallery, July 2020
h3 style="text-align: center;">Donald Judd (American, 1928-94)) Untitled, 1993  |  Brass and green Plexiglass  |  Private Collection; L2019:144.1
Remembered as a leader of Minimalism and one of the most important figures in post-war American art, Donald Judd began his career as a painter and art critic. In the early 1960s he began to make what he termed “specific objects,”artworks that were neither paintings nor traditional sculptures as they had been previously known. These critical early pieces were often composed of identical three-dimensional units such as rectangles and squares, which he placed on the floor or attached to a wall. Each piece was industrially fabricated based on Judd’s designs –Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties, Inc. was his choice firm –and frequently arranged by assistants rather than Judd himself.
Untitled, from the artist’s Stacks series, demonstrates Judd’s characteristic simplification of shape, volume, and color in an effort to avoid illusionistic space and reference to the natural world. Judd intended his stacks to activate the viewer’s spatial awareness, blurring the line between three-dimensional sculptures, traditionally visible in the round, and two-dimensional paintings attached to a wall. Judd used this method throughout his career, urging viewers to consider sculpture and environment as an integrated whole. As he explained, “Thespace surrounding my work is critical to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself.” Download this study guide.
The Judd Foundation: art space, archive, biography, artwork, writing, press.
Focus Gallery, September 2020
Howling is a stellar example of an evolving series of large-scale paintings begun in 2018. It combines Simpson’s distinctive use of text and found images –cut from her favored sources of Jetand Ebonymagazines –with timeworn photographs from arctic expeditions. Strips of text linger in the dripping azure haze, forming a curtain in the frozen landscape from which a woman’s face can be glimpsed peeking through, a mix of caution and daring in her eye. The shifting blues and layers of ink, paint, and digitally enhanced photography that define the series embody Simpson’s grief for the socio-political division, isolation, and unrest she feels increasingly permeating the United States. “It does feel like a preoccupation with an environment that is historically inhospitable, with very dire rules for survival,” she reflected in 2019, speaking of the works as psychological mirrors to the “heightened inhospitable condition” of daily life.
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h3 style="text-align: center;">Tom Sachs (American, b. 1966) Bonsai,, 2016  |  Cardboard, toothbrushes, cue-tips cast in bronze  |  Courtesy of John McEnroe; L2020:28.1
Bonsai originated as part of an immersive sculptural installation, Tea Ceremony, at The Noguchi Museum in 2016. Characteristic of Sachs, the tree plays with the concepts of luxury and utility, and reveals its raw construction and process. Branches made of cue-tips and toothbrush handles join a carboard trunk, the whole consisting of over 3,000 individual pieces. Sachs revels in materiality and imperfections. Exposed hinges bring attention to the naked weld joints as the thin layer of cast bronze seems to highlight the original markings of the reused carboard.
“There was never a movement toward the real [in New York]. People didn’t go all the way. It’s too threatening to the art-world system to have art that works, because part of what makes it so strong is that it is insular,” Sachs told BOMB Magazine, in 2013, in conjunction with an immersive installation at New York’s Bohen Foundation. “You need to be a little provincial to keep your things tight. That’s partially why I’m not as interested in art as I am in media and technology.”
Willem de Kooning
Throughout his prolific and experimental career – which included painting, sculpture, printmaking, and film – the enigmatic Surrealist Salvador Dalí was fascinated with Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind and the creative power of dreams. Dalí set out to mine this resource in all its complexities, reflecting how Freud discovered “that the human body is full of secret drawers that only psychoanalysis is capable to open.” Drawers became a favorite motif of Dalí’s, reappearing throughout the 1930s in sculptures, paintings, and drawings.
Buste à tiroir demonstrates the artist’s distinct flair for conceptual humor and hybrid, often hallucinatory visions rooted in technical skill. Both title and image play with the concept of a bust, or chest, of drawers: both nouns function as colloquial terms for the upper torso of the human body; bust also refers to a type of sculptural or pictorial portrait, while chest designates a piece of furniture containing drawers. The disconcertingly realistic drawing depicts a bearded sculptural bust with a half-opened drawer protruding from its forehead. The drawer is empty, however, and the contents of the unconscious mind remain elusive. Download this study guide.
Belgian artist René Magritte was a pivotal member of the international Surrealist movement, celebrated for an oeuvre that intentionally defies interpretation as it questions knowledge, language, and reality. His visually stunning and conceptually complex paintings subvert the ordinary and familiar with unexpected juxtapositions that challenge preconceptions. In LeCicérone, Magritte brings viewers into closer proximity with the subject of an earlier painting, Les Droits de l’homme (1945, “The Rights of Man”; pictured at right; click for larger image). Atop the baluster-like chess piece of a body sits a bilboquet, a simple toy comprised of a wooden cup with a ball attached by a string, which in Magritte’s rendition bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of a cannon. The title (referencing the ancient Roman orator, Cicero) is an antiquated term for an educated guide who gives tours of historical and cultural sites. Placed on an outdoor balcony overlooking a moonlit ocean and gazing at a leaf held by a human hand, the anthropomorphized object appears lost in thought. As is typical for Magritte, the scene is a collection of motifs repeated throughout his career; it serves as a reminder that although knowledge may seem within our grasp, there is little we can truly know with certainty. Download this study guide.
Sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti studied in Geneva and worked mostly in Paris, where he settled in 1922. It was here that Giacometti witnessed the radical experimentations of the city’s avant-garde movements, such as Cubism and Surrealism, which introduced new avenues of expression to his philosophical interest in the human condition. The physically and psychologically haunting array of tall, slender figures he produced after WWII established Giacometti as one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. Femme qui Marche II (Woman Walking II) provides a glimpse into the artist’s brief flirtation with Surrealism in the early 1930s. He found affinity with the movement’s visionary embrace of dreams, the unconscious, and the uncanny, which he incorporated into a renewed interest in the human figure. Despite the title, this “walking” woman seems to stand perfectly still. Absent a head and arms, with regal posture and subtle contrapposto, she evokes the ancient statuary of Egypt, Greece, and Rome that Giacometti sketched during trips to the Louvre. Download this study guide.
Left: Giacometti, ca. 1950s | Photograph: Gordon Parks/Getty Images  |  Right: Giacometti, ca. 1960  |  Photograph: Henri Cartier-Bresson Modern artist Alberto Giacometti created eight plaster busts of his wife, Annette, in 1962, completing the series with two more in 1964 and 1965. The group marks the only period of concentrated portraiture of his wife in the artist’s career. Giacometti’sidiosyncratic manipulation of bronze yields a heavily textured surface at odds with his choice of medium. The delicate features and abstracted upper body of Annette seem to have more in common with an unfinished mass of modeled clay that still retains the heat of the sculptor’s hands. Her face is alive with wisdom and discerning beauty as she gazes unflinchingly toward viewers.Though remembered as one of the most significant sculptors of the twentieth century, Giacometti was also a highly creative painter, draftsman, and printmaker. His innovative conceptual style transitioned away from the influence of Cubism and Surrealism in the 1930s as the artist settled into the psychological, often haunting, explorations of the human figure for which he is best known.Download this study guide.
Jean Dubuffet studied painting as a young man but only seriously began making art at age 41. Rejecting his formal education, Dubuffet turned for inspiration to art created by children and the mentally ill. He termed his style art brut, or “raw art,” advocating for an expressive spontaneity untainted by the limitations of academic convention and dominant cultural trends. L’Amphibologique is a prime example, from the series L’Hourloupe, which he began 1962 and worked on for over a decade. The series began as a cycle of drawings in red and blue ballpoint pen inspired by a doodle he produced while on the telephone. Translated through paint, the juxtaposition of the linear with organic curves, of black with primary colors, serves as a visual expression of the titles of the painting and the series. Amphibologique, related to the French adjective amphibolous, refers to the notion of syntactic ambiguity and the multiple meanings that can arise from the relationships between words and clauses within a sentence. Hourloupe merges the French verbs hurler (to roar) and hululer (to hoot) with the noun loup (wolf), creating an ambiguous phonetic jumble. As Dubuffet explained, “it evokes a character who’s at once somewhat enchanting and grotesque: a kind of tragic, growling, lumbering figure.” Download this study guide
Joan Miró’s playful yet meticulous compositions evolved from a tension between his poetic impulses and his sensitivity toward the ruthless realities of war-torn Europe. Though he found affinity with Surrealism’s devotion to the subconscious, and is considered a critical member of the broader avant garde inter-war movement, Miró resisted labels throughout his experimental, multi-media career. Typical for the Catalan artist, the initial impression of abstraction in Hommage à Nusch Eluard quickly fades to reveal fanciful human and natural forms.The two figures on the left are poet Paul Éluard, one of the founders of Surrealism, and his wife, Nush Éluard. Nusch was also an artist, and frequently modeled for her husband’s friends. The backdrop of celestial symbols and the avian creature flying beside the couple are recurring motifs in Miró’s oeuvre. Many artists associated with Surrealism embraced birds as symbolic transitory beings with the ability to move between the earthly and heavenly realms, the real and the fantastic. The intriguing addition of a grafted metal coat hook with wooden knob and mallet exemplifies Miró’s delight in working beyond the expected norms of artistic medium. Download this study guide.
The restless, improvisational innovator Robert Rauschenberg ranks among the pivotal artists of
the latter half of the 20th century. In 1948, during a transformational stay at Black Mountain
College in North Carolina, he studied – and often combined – painting, photography, drawing,
printmaking, and sculpture. In New York and on a trip to Italy in the early 1950s, he created his
first assemblages, which incorporated disparate imagery and subjects, multiple mediums,
scraps of ephemera, and three-dimensional objects. In 1954, Rauschenberg began calling these
radical and often controversial works “Combines” or “Combine paintings” to highlight their
material diversity and formal construction as both sculptures and paintings. Untitled
demonstrates an early working through of this material and conceptual process as the artist
moved away from experiments in monochromatic painting. Ordinary objects such as a camera
bellows – an expandable sleeve that enables the lens to be moved for focusing – fabric, and
tissue paper merge with wood and paint. Rauschenberg intended the visually compelling
disorder of materials to defy easy interpretations and challenge viewers. Speaking of such
works in 1959, he famously said, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I
try to act the gap between the two).”
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Francis Picabia’s diverse and prolific oeuvre traces the stylistic moods of the twentieth-century avant garde in Europe and the United States. Without relinquishing his innovative sensibility, the artist moved nimby between movements such as Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, and mediums such as painting, poetry, and performance. Picabia made Intervention d'une femme au moyen d'une machine (Intervention of a woman by means of a machine) during a sojourn in New York City where he became involved with the circle of American photographer Alfred Stieglitz. This new influence, and the recent work of friend and fellow modernist Marcel Duchamp, provided the catalyst for Picabia’s pivotal transition from Cubism toward his mechanical period. This early mechanomorph drawing – a “portrait” of a machine, often with anthropomorphic, psychological, and even erotic undertones – was also influenced by the industrial landscape of New York. Picabia praised the city for inspiring “a complete revolution in my methods of work. Almost immediately upon coming to America it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is in machinery, and that through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression.” Download this study guide.
Francis Picabia developed a prolific career as a painter, poet, publisher, and performer through energetic patterns of reinvention and experimentation. He moved fluidly between stylistic and conceptual movements, producing his own innovate canvases and publications while also maintaining a prominent role in avant-garde movements such as Dada and Surrealism. Picabia’s figurative paintings in the1940s diverge radically from the dynamic mechanical Dadaist compositions and Surrealist Transparencies that brought him critical success in the preceding decades. Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) stands out in its return to the gestural brushwork and attention to light that defined his earliest impressionist canvases. The artist’s WWII works have long been a subject of tense debate among art historians due to the Social Realist aesthetic (the style of art approved by the Third Reich, then occupying France) many of the paintings appear to embrace. In the 1990s, however, research revealed that Picabia was copying his figures from photographs in popular Parisian erotic magazines. Historians now largely agree that Picabia’s choice to appropriate these provocative images of the human figure was likely a subversive comment on the Nazi regime’s mandate against “degenerate” art. Download this study guide.
Born in Los Angeles, where he still lives and works, Mark Bradford earned his BFA and MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. He is celebrated for large-scale paintings and sculpture—sometimes shown as installations—incorporating materials such as newsprint, billboard paper, and flyers that he salvages from urban communities around his studio in South LA. Bradford engages with these materials like a social historian or an archeologist, investigating the potential of discarded ephemera to elucidate how broader historical and economic conditions disproportionately affect marginalized populations. He refers to his work as “social abstraction…with a social or political context clinging to the edges.” The buoy-shaped Untitled returns to a sculptural installation Bradford created in 2014, in which the artist directed his interest in urban cartography toward medieval and Renaissance maps of maritime exploration. The buoy displays his signature process of building and molding layers of materials, including the addition of rope for added texture and linear elements. Download this study guide.
Contemporary African American artist Mark Bradford characterizes himself as an excavator and archivist of culture. His trademark mixed-media compositions recycle discarded materials like movie posters, circulars, and newspapers, which he collects from the streets surrounding his studio in South Los Angeles. While his oeuvre has expanded over the last two decades to include installations and video, abstract collaged canvases remain the core of Bradford’s creative practice. Each new work demonstrates his continued dedication to making art that is visually captivating, layered with meaning, and tied to community while engaging with national issues. The enigmatically titled You Don’t Know What Kind of World You Woke Up represents a 2018 series in which the artist returned to one of his early conceptual interests: maps, civic organization, and the physical marginalization of minority communities. Bradford scrapes and sands his constructed layers of paper to create a highly textured surface that recalls an aerial view of a landscape. Vivid blue paint ruptures the ghostly grid-like composition, suggesting the wave of political and social upheaval hinted by the title. Download this study guide.
More than thirty years into his career, George Condo continues to push the boundaries of representation with psychological explorations of the human figure. His Man and Woman reveals a disconcerting glimpse into the furthest extremes of the human psyche using elements of the absurd and grotesque. Here, as in other works, Condo borrows from the experimental manipulations of twentieth-century masters like Pablo Picasso and Willem deKooning in search of concrete representations of intangible emotional states. The titular characters in this work merge together in an aggressive physical deformation that creates a sense of intense mental disquiet, intensified by a lack of context. The figures’ piercing gaze and jagged mouths suggest an entrenched cultural divide - both a reverence for and a distinct fear of femininity. By viewing a historically and ideologically loaded subject through a subversive contemporary lens, Condo demonstrates his idiosyncratic ability to merge tradition and innovation. Download this study guide.
Born in Ethiopia, Julie Mehretu studied in Dakar, Senegal, and Michigan before receiving her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. She now lives and works in New York. In the paintings and drawings for which she is best known, Mehretu explores history, geological time, social identity, and the psychology of space by combining abstract gestures of color and line with careful studies inspired by archival maps, city grids, and architectural plans.
Six Bardos: Luminous Appearance is from a three-year series made in collaboration with master American printmaker Case Hudson after Mehretu visited China. Each print refers to one of the six transitional states of consciousness, or bardos, that the soul moves through between death and rebirth as described in the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead). Luminosity is the fifth state, Chönyid bardo, which occurs the moment after death and manifests in auditory and visual phenomena accompanied by sensations of profound peace and awareness. Mehretu’s complex colorful interpretation can be seen as a blueprint for viewers to explore who or what they might become through their own cycles of physical and spiritual renewal. Download this study guide.
Keith Haring moved to New York in 1978, beginning a short but prolific career inspired by the city's rich outpouring of masterful urban graffiti, its flowering hip-hop culture, and the conceptual gap between “high” and “low” art. Haring developed a deceptively simple pictorial language in which he rendered form, setting, and emotional energy through little more than line and monochromatic accents of color. An AIDS diagnosis in 1988 did little to deter the artist's creative output. Untitled features dozens of Haring’s iconic characters, who seem to dance in a celebration of life, contorting wildly to music we cannot hear. Completed shortly before the artist’s death, the painting demonstrates Haring’s professional and personal ambition to infuse art with commentaries on global issues like the AIDS crisis. Haring saw his disease as a reason to celebrate living, not to fear pain or an inevitable end. Wishing to accept his impending death without regret and limitation, Haring explained,“No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone…. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.” Download this study guide.
Though Alma Thomas preferred to see herself simply as an American artist rather than an icon and role model for Black or female artists, she is remembered as a pioneer of marginalized voices. In 1972, at age 82, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and enter the permanent collection of the White House, where her work was installed a record three times by Barack and Michelle Obama.
Thomas grew up in the segregated cities of Columbus, Georgia, and Washington D.C., before becoming part of the first class to graduate with a degree in fine art from Howard University. She did not devote herself to an artistic practice, however, until her retirement from teaching in 1960 at age 69. The prolific 18-year career that followed includes soothing watercolors and vivid mosaic-like compositions that hesitate on the edge of pure abstraction, each piece driven by the artist’s dedication to beauty, joy, and a generous belief in humanity. The white overlay mosaic in Dogwood Blossom Along Skyline Drive was painted one patch at a time, allowing the manipulations of color underneath to gently suggest the scene evoked by the title. Download this study guide.
Alexander Calder was born into a family of artists – his mother was a painter and his father and grandfather were sculptors – but initially resisted a career in the arts. Instead he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering. After enrolling at the Art Students League in New York in 1923, this background provided the foundations for the signature mobiles that would become the core of his prolific oeuvre. These delicately balanced constructions are hinged together with metal wire and weighted by biomorphic shapes that appear to move on their own, swayed by the slightest breath of air. In each sculpture, the poetic possibilities of motion are an essential element. Fish recalls a subject explored in some of the Calder’s earliest mobiles and is one of just twelve mature sculptures with this formal composition. Encased by a metal frame and held taught by wire and string, the suspended pieces of colored glass become glittering scales that cast ever-changing compositions of shadows as ambient air currents animate the mobile in unexpected ways. Download this study guide.
Multi-media artist KAWS, née Brian Donnelly, began his career as a graffiti artist in the 1990s after studying animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Merging commercialism and cultural reference with street art, painting, and sculpture, his work recalls the fundamentals of Pop Art and conflates the distinction between fine art and commercial objects; KAWS is in fact known for merchandising his work and has collaborated with such international brands as Dior and Nike. The artist’s animated style and use of vibrant colors are often compared to the work of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (b. 1962). A Lonely One demonstrates a mild temperament rarely featured in KAWS’s oeuvre. His signature subversive appropriations of cartoon characters and cultural icons are absent, replaced by a graphic abstraction that seems to provide a close-up glimpse of a strange, energetic world that extends beyond the confines of the frame. Download this study guide.
Jennifer Bartlett emerged as a central figure of New Image Painting in the late 1970s, which marked a return to painting as a new generation of contemporary artists disengaged
from the purely conceptual, installation and performance-based work of the previous decade. Bartlett’s oeuvre embodies the movement’s embrace of the expressive and sensorial
potential of painting without negating its physical object-hood or conceptual potential. Representational and abstract motifs coexist harmoniously, often in multi-media grid
systems. Bartlett creates her grids from scratch, a method of her own invention in which she bakes steel panels with white enamel before finishing the surface with silkscreen ink or
paint. At Sea expands her breakout series, Rhapsody (1975-76), which explored the motifs of houses, trees, mountains, and oceans – subjects to which she still returns. Each steel
square provides a fleeting, fragmented vision of water, welcoming viewers with an intimacy that balances the overwhelming monumentality of the entire seascape. The oscillation
between abstracted parts and a representational whole recalls impressionist landscapes and creates a viewing experience that, for Bartlett, mimics a conversation “in which people
digress from one thing and maybe come back to the subject, then do the same with the next thing.”
Thiebaud began his artistic career as an Army illustrator and cartoonist,
working briefly as an animator for Disney, a freelance commercial artist, and
movie poster designer for Universal Pictures before completing an MFA and
becoming an art professor at Sacramento City College and UC Davis. In his early
professional work as a painter in the 1960s, Thiebaud concentrated on
depicting American food, especially sweet treats like pies, cakes, lollipops, and
ice cream. Dessert Cart hearkens back to these panoplies of sugary fantasy,
which were inspired by the endless color, assortment, and arrangements of
bakery counter displays. Against the somber grey of the cart, the vivid display
of carefully placed desserts tempts the senses. Thiebaud’s thick, almost buttery
application of paint captures the material essence of his subjects – frosting,
cream, pudding – transforming the still life into a sumptuous offering of
comfort and indulgence.
Cecily Brown rose to prominence in New York in the late 1990s after training in London among a generation of artists loosely affiliated under the moniker “YBA” (Young British Artists). Like many of her peers, Brown grapples with Postmodernism’s essential questions concerning the historical significance, contemporary value, and potential future of painting as an artistic medium. Brown believes painting has a superior capacity to hold and collect layers of meaning over time: in the long-term, through the decades, but also in the shortterm, in the present moment of visual encounter. As Brown explains, “one of painting’s great strengths is that it can unfold slowly” and can therefore “force people to really look at things.” Her work rewards such prolonged viewing. Figures, setting, and emotional tenor suggest themselves haphazardly within the vibrant colors and energetic brushwork of The Reaping. The evocative title promises visual and conceptual coalescence for viewers with patience and imagination. Clarity remains just beyond reach, however, reflecting Brown’s expressed interest in “where the mind goes when it’s trying to make up for what isn’t there.”
Over the course of more than six decades, Alice Neel built a body of work that remains distinctive and relevant. The fiercely independent painter worked in near obscurity for forty years before attracting critical attention in the 1960s. While she also painted landscapes and still lifes, her uncompromising commitment to emotionally nuanced and astute portraits has cemented Neel's posthumous reputation as one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century. Her subjects included friends and family, artists, writers, celebrities, and those on the margins of society, such as immigrants and the homeless – each treated with the same degree of scrutiny, curiosity, and intuitive empathy. Nancy with Flowers depicts Neel’s daughter-in-law and studio assistant with the artist’s characteristic use of subtle figurative distortion and a remarkable attention to color. Blue outlines add a dynamic, unexpected energy. Identifying herself as a “collector of souls,” Neel believed portraiture could do more than capture the likeness of a person; it could be an honest, intimate study of humanity.
Cindy Sherman rose to prominence with the postmodern “Pictures Generation” in the late 1970s and ’80s and remains one of the most significant cultural critics in contemporary art. Like her fellow provocateurs Richard Prince and Barbara Kruger, Sherman uses photography to explore themes of identity and representation, appropriation, and the influence of mass media. Sherman also works as her own model, skillfully inhabiting the worlds she creates with an uncanny ease that elides the boundary between reality and fiction. This portrait of Sherman as an anonymous Renaissance man belongs to her History Portraits (1989-90) series, which was inspired by Old Master paintings. As with earlier work, this series delivers a playful critique of culturally-consumed images and the often unquestioned reverence attached to the term “masterpiece.” Sherman posed herself as men throughout the series, improving upon earlier experiments by removing emotional expression from her face and utilizing costumes, wigs, and makeup to full advantage. Though Sherman completed much of the series while living in Rome, she chose to avoid museums and real examples of the paintings she was imitating. Instead, she garnered inspiration from photographs and images in books. As she explains, “it’s an aspect of photography I appreciate, conceptually: the idea that images can be reproduced and seen anytime, anywhere, by anyone.”
Over the course of more than six decades, Helen Frankenthaler built a body of work that remains relevant and influential. Consistently experimental and fiercely individual, she created paintings, woodblock prints, sculpture, and ceramics. Frankenthaler’s pioneering approach to painting—termed the “soakstain” technique—made her one of the most influential artists of post-war American Modernism, an era dominated by male painters. Bridging the gap between Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Color Field painting in the 1960s, Frankenthaler’s seemingly spontaneous, abstract compositions concealed the methodical discipline and intentionality necessary for pouring acrylic pigments diluted with turpentine directly onto an unprimed canvas. Breakwater features monochromatic stains floating in a central arrangement of barely self contained organic forms. The translucent veils of color evoke watercolors, seeming to hover on the surface of the canvas despite the nearly complete integration of medium and support.
Jewish artist Alina Szapocznikow survived an adolescence in concentration camps and the later distress of tuberculosis before training at L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris during the 1950s. Her oeuvre reflects the enduring remnants of the inter-war avant-garde and the post-war movements flourishing in the artistic capital, to which she remained closely connected for the rest of her life. In Poland, Soviet restrictions on art loosened following the death of Stalin in 1953, and Szapocznikow transitioned from her classical training and sanctioned Social Realist paintings to haunting mixed media sculptures that explore the somatic experience of memory and history through surreal sculptures of the human figure. As the artist explained, “I am convinced that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering, and all truth.” Like many of her mature sculptures, Lampe-Bouche (Illuminated Lips) expands on the conceptual process of Szapocznikow’s first body casts (of her own legs) in 1962. It straddles an uncomfortable divide between abstraction and representation, human and object, sensuality and absurdity, frailty and permanence.
Contemporary artist Kerry James Marshall aims to reassess and begin to reverse the underrepresentation and exclusion of Black bodies and experiences in the canon of Western art history. Working within foundational genres such as history painting and portraiture, Marshall uses undiluted and often un-nuanced black paint for his figures, placing them in an unapologetic yet celebratory spotlight in which they refuse to be dismissed. Marshall’s Lost Boys series takes its title from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, subverting the romantic fictional narrative of children who don’t want to grow up with memorial portraits of real young men who were robbed of the choice. In each portrait, Marshall honors the lives of individuals too often ignored by a society indifferent to their plight, many of whom died in a proliferation of gang wars and police violence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The word “lost” takes on expanded meaning in Marshall’s hands. As he explains, it becomes a multilayered concept that addresses not only a life lost but also the realities of being “lost in America, lost in the ghetto, lost in public housing, lost in joblessness, and lost in illiteracy.” Marshall thus evolves Barrie’s premise, asking not whether these boys wanted to grow up, but whether they ever had a chance to grow up at all.
Kerry James Marshall
African American abstract artist Ed Clark began his career at The Art Institute of Chicago after serving in the Air Force in Guam during World War II. After the Art Institute, he continued training and working in Paris—a more open environment for black painters than the United States after the war—and moved to New York in the 1950s. Clark, who passed away this October, is remembered as a central member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionism, alongside contemporaries such as Helen Frankenthaler. Ardent individuality and an endless spirit of experimentation define his oeuvre, which includes shaped canvases and chromatic compositions inspired by travels throughout Europe, South and Central America, Africa, and China. Untitled demonstrates Clark’s sensitive consideration of color, brushwork, and the dynamic interplay between action and tranquility. He began using a push broom to apply and manipulate paint (the first American artist to do so) in New York in 1956. Often able to show his work only at the whim of white gallery owners, and staunchly opposed to being labeled a “Black artist,” Clark has only recently started to receive the attention fitting his prolific, influential, and innovative seventy-year career.
Weather Change showcases Helen Frankenthaler’s interest in the traditional genre of landscape, particularly coastal environments. Throughout her career, Frankenthaler enjoyed visiting Atlantic beaches and summering in the idyllic seaside of Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, gleaning inspiration from the patterns of sunlight playing off the ocean. Often working from watercolor sketches painted outside, she would return to her studio and complete the final composition using her signature method of pouring diluted acrylic paint onto an unprimed canvas placed on the floor. The technique might suggest unhindered spontaneity, but Weather Change demonstrates Frankenthaler’s careful, controlled consideration and internalization of the natural world. She described the process as “[having] the landscape in my arms as I painted it…[having] the landscape in my mind and my shoulder and wrist.” The horizontal stains of paint suggest abstracted elements of a familiar coastal landscape: a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, a hint of sunrise or sunset, the nebulous formation of gathering clouds.
Bay Area artist Wayne Thiebaud has eschewed categorization throughout his prolific six-decade career, motivated by a desire “to steal,” in his words, “every kind of idea – western, eastern, and everything I could think of – atmospheric perspective…linear perspective, planal and sequential recessions.” The artist further defines his vision as “many ways of seeing in the same picture – clear forms, hazy, squinting, glancing, staring and even a sort of inner seeing.” Though his earliest canvases of desserts and confection shops in the 1960s drew critical comparisons to the Pop Art movement, Thiebaud identifies his oeuvre in the lineage of the expressive and formal innovations of early twentieth-century European avant-garde. River Boats is a characteristic example of Thiebaud’s bright visions of quintessential West Coast landscapes. Its flattened perspective and chromatic exaggeration signal how his rendition of this pastoral setting is grounded in observations mediated through the artist’s imagination and memory. Despite their titular spotlight, the two river boats nearly become lost within the colorful panorama.
Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama during the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement and moved to Los Angeles just before to the devastating Watts Riots of 1965. These formative experiences shaped his critical approach to painting. His work chronicles the invisible history of Black identities in the canon of Western art, often subverting familiar art historical motifs. Study for Vignette is from Marshall’s seminal Vignettes series (2003-08), which garners inspiration from 18th century French Rococo masterpieces. Marshall brings the period’s romanticized images of aristocratic courtship, pleasure, and frivolity into the present to expose the persistent contradictions between romantic ideals and political reality. Loosely inspired by Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767), the lovers in this vignette occupy their space with a sense of intimacy and belonging, placing their bodies firmly within an artistic canon that had rendered their presence invisible. They appear an idyllic, celebratory symbol of love. Marshall undermines the classical archetype, however, removing the display of luxury associated with the Rococo and inserting floating pink hearts as notes of satire and cynicism. Throughout the series, he adds further critique in what he refers to as “classical ideals of Black independence and Black nationalism” – visible here in a gate that doubles as an iconic commodity from the 1970s: an afro pick with the clenched fist symbol of the Black Power Movement.
As an outstanding example of Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Interior series, Modern Room (Study) takes inspiration from the idealized domestic environments of billboard and phonebook advertisements. The series, painted during the final years of his life, represents a culmination of Lichtenstein’s lifelong fascination with popular culture and the divide between “high” and “low” art. This monumental vision of a generic, middle-class living room features the artist’s distinctive use of primary colors, thick black outlines, and Ben-Day dots – a commercial printing technique prevalent in comic books during the 1950s and 1960s that employs small, colored dots to create dimension and shading. Lichtenstein conflates the visual methods and conventions of “low” artistic mediums such as comic illustration and commercial advertisements with the “high” art of painting, using the motif of a modern domestic interior to comment on the consumerist quest for happiness through the purchase of massproduced goods. The artist offers an additional, possibly ironic critique of capitalist culture by decorating the room with one of fellow Pop artist Andy Warhol’s iconic, and endlessly reproduced, portraits of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong.