If there is a such a thing as summer reading then why can there not be such a thing as summer art. It makes no sense just the same.
Summer is almost here. Kids will soon be out on summer break. Adults will be planning their vacations. The parks will be full of sun worshippers, and people of all ages will be at play at sports, and leisurely excitement will be had by all. Today I received an email from Vincent Scilla. He is an artist who I have known for a very long time and who, in his baseball series paints so honestly what he loves that he captures the complexity of America, much like James Thurber did in his writings: The contrary nature of what we hope for and the blatant reality of what we must do in order to live. In our dreams we may see ourselves (or even our heroes) hit the great home run that wins the game or make the great catch, but in reality it is always against the back drop of the hot dogs or the yams or you fill in the blank for sale. Don't get me wrong, I am not against capitalism. I don't know of a better alternative, but it is the reality of the time we live in. It is like the great American past time, it is a part of our psyche. Like Thurber his work is a parable about success having its cost. It is a parable that has intimate characteristics of trying to be more than what you buy or sell. Maybe it is equal, and thus it cancels itself out, 50 % accomplishment vs 50 % selling items. Or maybe it is not.
In case your are in Chicago he will be in a group show at the Springfield Art Association from June 25th to August 21. The location is Google mapped below.
Hat's off to Larry Gagosian for this one. This is a show of 27 paintings from museums and private collections all over the world, that must have cost a fortune to insure, being shown in a commercial art gallery where not a single painting is for sale. That's a rarity. It's also a great show. I know that sounds like it should go without saying since it's Monet, but since he lived to such a ripe old age, and was so prolific, not to mention commercially successful, he did tend to occasionally crank out some half hearted, conveyor belt work. None of that can be seen in this show.
Monet is one of those painters that everyone likes, or at least anyone with a heartbeat should. Today his work is very accessible. Every 16 year old suburban white girl has a poster of one of his paintings in her room, probably next to her collection of beanie babies. This makes it kind of hard to imagine that throughout most of his lifetime his work was seen as radical and difficult to appreciate, but it was. This show concentrates on his late work. After he became wealthy and established he bought his home in Giverny, and painted the large luxurious garden he had built around him. If this sounds decadent or bourgeois, it was. Get over it.
The show covers the years 1904-1924, and is divided up into four galleries. The first three consist entirely of images of water lilies. These make up only a fraction of the water lily paintings he created over these years, a subject that obsessed him so much you'd think he was Kermit the frog. The thing that struck me when I walked into the first of the four galleries was that this work seems to have foreseen, and in some ways laid the groundwork for non-representational art. The way he translated light into paint using a few simple color choices, and in such a physical and tactile way suggests that he was recognizing the surface of the image, and the painting as a literal object. The contrast between the thick impasto of the pigment, and the bare primed canvas is undeniably viscerally beautiful. You can see the influence of these paintings in the work of Joan Mitchell, Hans Hofman, and the early paintings of Philip Guston. Some people have suggested that this was because he was loosing his eyesight, and he needed some tactile clues to construct his images. Who knows? Another thing that suggests a move toward abstraction is the unusual compositions of these late paintings. They lack a clear focal point, or a visual anchoring structure that's used in almost all figurative pictures. Because of this, and the way they're oddly cropped some of them look almost like details of larger images. Also, it's not always clear where the viewer is in relationship to the picture plane, or the imagery inside it. One could see these as early prototypes of the non-hierachtical, all over paintings of Jackson Pollock, or William deKooning.
Something else occurred to me as I entered the third gallery of the show. These are some pretty complicated images. We're not just looking at the water lilies floating on the surface of the water. We're seeing the sky and trees, and clouds reflected off of it. We're also seeing the light passing through the water. And, in some cases we're seeing flowers growing out of the lilie pads, and branches and vines hanging in front of the water. So we're seeing the surface of the water, the sky above it, the water below it, and the things on and in front of it. The whole image is about how light conveys information. It's the furthest thing in the world from being non representational. In fact it's ultra representational. It's much more about representing what he saw than most typical representational painting at the time was. Maybe the reason his compositions were so unconventional was that he was losing interest in making pictures, and becoming more interested in studying nature and the effects of light in it. Maybe he wasn't defying the conventional relationship between the viewer and the picture plane, but simply ignoring it. Or, that the unpainted areas on his canvases were there because he didn't feel the need to complete the picture. Maybe after decades of painting from nature, he'd become more interested in studying it than in making art. His interest in natural light was possibly greater than his interest in picture making. I know these are two totally contradictory interpretations of his work, but I think both are equally valid.
The last gallery (1918-24) is the only one that departs from the water lily subject matter. Here we see paths, and bridges from his garden that are painted in a flurry of spontaneous brushstrokes. The colors are almost violent in their richness and intensity. One painting of a Japanese bridge is so impassionately rendered that it makes Van Gogh look like Thomas Gainsborough in comparison. But, I think the thing that makes these late paintings so important in retrospect is the unusual place Monet positions himself as an early modernist pioneer. Usually toward the end of an artists career (particularly such an established, and commercially successful one) the work can get complacent. The fact that this work is both so very figurative and so very literal at the same time shows the brilliance, curiosity and balls-out ambition of Monet to have the audacity to end his career with a question mark.
Louis Bourgeois died on Monday. She was an artist who came to greater public fame in her 70s with her provocative work and her giant spiders. She was a Chelsea neighbor who I never knowingly saw on the street but who I always was strangely aware of. I found out about her passing through Joanne Mattera's post which is here. She has had a long life, a full career, and a loving family who I have met. Not knowing her and to be blunt, being the son of an artist who not long ago had passed away, I will miss the idea of her walled off in her brownstone in Chelsea. She was an enigma who for me had come out of no where in my youth. A spider who had latched onto my shoulder and someone who I had reflected on as I think of my own personal history. I knew who she was but not her implication as a person and artist. Draw your own conclusion. Holland Cotter has good obit here.