“For sixty years Pat Adams has approached painting with an empiricist’s concern for the nature of visual form and the intimist’s sensibility that addresses the layered complexity of being. With abstract paintings characterized by seductive colors and richly encrusted surfaces, Pat seeks to bring from her “gatherum of quiddities” – that stew of unnamed qualities – a visual situation that bestirs contemplation.”
Pat Adams (b. 1928), That is to Say, 2010, oil, isobutyl methacrylate, pencil and crayon on paper mounted to panel, 19 x 24 inches, courtesy of the artist
From 1973 through 1976 Pat Adams was my professor at Bennington College. Pat already had 20 years of experience as a serious artist, showing in New York and collected by museums. The “landscape” for women artists was not an open one. The art world was both smaller and fairly closed to women. Things were changing, but most advances were hard won. I’m not really prepared to talk about what Pat was up against. All I can tell you is that until the 1980s, I believe, only two women had had a one person shows at the Guggenheim — Helen Frankenthaler and Helen Frankenthaler.
Seeing Pat’s paintings today I wonder why I didn’t know them better; why I wasn’t more aware of what she was thinking; what her process was; what battles she was waging on canvas. This retrospective at The Bennington Museum gave me a chance to experience her work and also see some of her materials: things she was looking at, tiny drawings she compiled endlessly in her notebooks. It was a revelation.
It was the opening night and not the best opportunity to take in the work, but at the end of the evening, when the rooms emptied, I had a moment to look closely at some of the pieces with the director of the museum, Robert Wolterstorff. I was struck by how my eyes were pulled around the canvas, how I flet moments of speed and slowness, of agitation and rest, of chaos and precision — like I was entering the universe. I wondered at the surfaces. How she achieved tiny irregularly shaped dots in a grid, how she painted a curved line that was at once as precise as a calligrapher’s curve, and yet broken in spots revealing the paint surface beneath. There was something so illogical about this line, so confounding, I couldn’t figure out how it was made.
When I was able to speak briefly with Pat during the show, she told me that some of the marks on the canvas were achieved by a kind of printing or transfer process. Painting on mylar and “stamping” it onto the canvas. But I didn’t get a chance to ask her about the lines.
Pat’s paintings are full of texture and unusual materials, mica, sand, pigment, and other minerals. Wolterstorff was most taken by this aspect of the work, which made him think of both Keifer’s straw and Beuys’ lard and felt. I forgot to mention to him that there was a Beuys exhibition at the college in the 1970s.
As we looked at the paintings, the rigor of the composition struck both of us. To me, they felt like mathematical journeys. Jamie Franklin, the curator, had displayed some things that Pat had pulled elements from — postcards of a Gothic Cathedral, the composition of an old Master painting, the shape of a sliced geode. All of these were echoed in the work.
Pat Adams’ Notebook
I believe that in the misogynistic days of the 1970s, these elements were at times dismissed as decorative. Seeing them now I know that they were no more decorative than the letters of a formula. What, after all, can be eliminated from E = mc 2 .
The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I could find in the street.
I had two notions about how I would use my time. One, I wanted to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. And two, I wanted to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way I can distil their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.
When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.
Goya’s Dog on Cardboard, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Goya on My Mind
Since Goya was already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. When I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.
All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches x 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.
*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can”, oil on soda can, 2.5 inches x 5 inches, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Dona Tadea Arias de Enriquez on Tuna Box”, 6 inches x 4 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: The Countess of El Carpio on Cardboard”, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Arsensio Julia on Cardboard”, 2 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Goya’s Countess on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, ink on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Portrait of the Countess of Chincon on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Grand Via by Antonio López García, 1974-1981, oil painting, 35½ x 36¾.
I don’t give importance to technique. I condition everything so that the painting has spirit, in every way. If not, technique does not do me any good. I have done that: put in all the forms, ordered them in the best possible way, taken measurements. Everything was done correctly, but the painting ended without substance, vacant of emotion. And that, when I had that sensation, it seemed to me a complete failure, it seemed that technique wasn’t worth anything. Not that technique doesn’t have importance, but it’s like the word is the link to the ideas and nothing more. So you acquire technique, but then what do you do with it? Antonio López García
Antonio López García is a Madrid Realist, a group of painters dedicated to working from direct observation. His paintings frequently take years and even decades to complete. While technique alone can never secure the outcome of a painting, it can provide, however, one more tool in the artist’s tool box. Lopez Garcia uses two things that I think are worth exploring. This first is a plumb line — an undeviating vertical line used as a reference when determining alignment. I had heard of their use, but never seen it in action until I watched a film of López García drawing a quince tree. He tied the plumb line to a limb of the tree and used it as a reference to the edge of his canvas, keeping everything in alignment.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.Here is a clip from that film:
When López García works on a landscape he also uses a positioning and measuring device. I don’t know if it has a specific name, and artists have devised many different versions of this from using the end of a brush to using a black thread to take their measurements. I believe what López García is doing here is holding up a piece of wood that is the distance from his eye to the canvas. At the end of that piece of wood is a vertical piece of paper on which he can both mark the size of something in the landscape and also the angle of it. Notice that he presses the piece of wood into the hollow under his cheekbone. That would give him a consistent spot to position the wood. He also marks the ground where he stands. That way, each day that he returns to doing his painting he can set everything up in the same place. He is, thereby, minimizing the variables as he works on his painting over time. None-the-less, there will be many variables that he cannot control; the weather, the time of year, the light, and since he often takes years and sometime decades to finish a painting, the landscape itself can change with new buildings being built and old ones torn down.
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto,Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
I stood immobile in the woods and listened carefully through the headphones to the two jets flying over head. For weeks we had been filming* in the most rural parts of Washington County, New York, yet every few minutes the silence was broken by another plane. If it weren’t for this 21st century intrusion, I would think I was in the 19th century or even the 15th century, as the hunters and trappers we are following with the camera walk through streams in the their boiled wool pants that sag at the knee like a figure out of Bruegel’s, “Return of the Hunters”.
Davey hit a deer and we follow the blood trail through the forest carpet of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves. Despite being a highly visual person, I see nothing: not the tiny dot of red blood on the yellow leaf, nor the small broken twigs that lead David rather quickly to his deer.
The months I have spent with Dave and Steph have completely changed my understanding of landscape. I saw the landscape as a view outside my car window, something molded and harnessed by men for their homes and farms. When I am with David, I see the fields as habitats for the deer, bear, fox, muskrats, minks, beavers, otters and wild turkeys. The roads cut through them like rivers. Dave knows how to move through this landscape. He is as comfortable in the woods as I am in my bedroom. One night, after some excessive drinking, while being followed by the cops, Dave ditched his jeep behind a barn and spent the night walking home though the woods using the light of the moon to guide his way — for all 17 miles.
Dave could read the signs of the animal scat, and broken twigs, and gnawed bark. Each day he checked his traps. It is cruel and illegal not to. Despite any love I have for animals, I admire his skill as a trapper, and the intimate connection he has to the animals. Even skinning and preparing the pelts to be sold was something he did with great care and skill.
When I watch him work, it connects me to an earlier time, when one was not quite so removed from one’s food source. Dutch paintings, in particular, come alive for me, as I watch Dave pile up the animals to be skinned. When Steph butchered a deer on the dining room table, Dave’s girlfriend’s daughter picked up the deer’s severed leg and marched it across the bare wood floor chanting, “I’m going to the castle, I’m going to the castle.” Later that night, she would be eating that deer.
The final revelation came for me when I saw Davey draw a deer on a piece of cardboard, that he and his partner would use for target practice with their compound bows. He placed a crayon at the foot of the deer and drew the deer in one line. His mark was so sure he could have been tracing his own hand. It may not have been a brilliant drawing, but it was remarkably accurate and came form a place of certain knowledge of the animal.
Davey propped the cardboard against a couple of bails of hay, and from the roof of his cabin, Steph took the first shot with his bow and put it through the heart of the deer. Davey took aim and shot the deer though the same hole — exactly, not even widening the initial hole. I felt that this must have been what went on in the caves of Lascaux: these men connecting with the animals they stalk.
* For seven years I worked as a sound person for the documentary filmmaker, Michael Marton.
American Trap 1982
60 min. WMHT Schenectady, NY and German TV
The story of two laborers in upstate New York who decide to live the life of their ancestors and become full time trappers and hunters.
(Video Center, Hamburg, Germany / Anthology Film Archives, New York)
John Singer Sargent, “Tyrolean Crucifix, watercolor, 1911
Recently I have come across some articles about “slow” observation of paintings — art historians giving their students the assignment of looking at a single work of art for three hours at one go. It made me think about how I look at paintings. I will admit openly that I am a bit of a speed viewer. My habit is to skip the bottle neck at the entrance where everyone reads the introduction to the exhibition. I go through the exhibition quickly and note what catches my eye; then I look for what might give me an ah-ha moment. After that, I leave in search of coffee. Later I double back and linger on the pieces of most interest to me. The Uffizi Museum seems to get this approach, as they have a great espresso bar at the end of the galleries.
“Portrait of Madame Leblanc”, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1823.
This doesn’t mean that I have never spent a long time looking at a painting. Since I made exact copies of paintings by Ingres for some early paintings of mine, I spent months looking at these paintings for six to eight hours a day. When a friend showed up at a party wearing a scarf she bought at the Metropolitan I recognized it immediately as a copy from a “Portrait of Madame LeBlanc”, by Ingres, because I had copied it many times.
Leslie Parke, “Stacked Diptych”, oil on linen.
The length of time that one spends with a work of art isn’t the only variable. A painting carries a history, a back ground, a circumstance under which it was made, but so do you.
I grew up just outside of New York City and started frequenting the museums early and often. But my first encounter with painting, all be it in reproductions, was from a book called 50 Centuries of Art from the Metropolitan. The painting that drew me in most was a watercolor by John Singer Sargent of a roadside Tyrolean Crucifix [see above] . What I thought I was looking at, was a man hung on a tree with a roof over his head. It looked ghoulish. But the image was compelling and held me. I returned to it over and over again, even though I had no idea either of what it was or what it meant.
I went to New York museums the way a groupie would follow the Rolling Stones. I was at the door to the museum before it opened and would leave when the guards pushed me out. I looked enough that I could discern the craquelure of a Memling or or the halo of a Petrus Christus.
Petrus Christus, Halo, detail.
I resisted reading what was on the walls, as I trusted that the objects themselves would reveal everything to me.
As the years went by I shuffled these paintings in my mind like a deck of cards. One year I worshiped the New York School and hated the Impressionists. When Frank Stella first exhibited his three dimensional paintings, it nearly gave me a heart attack. The way his work broke from the flat plane caused me complete anxiety. Now, of course, this all appears quite normal.
With others, like Jean Jacques Louis David, I knew his touch so well, I identified a mis-labeled “David” at the Met years before it was correctly attributed to a woman artist named Villers.
Marie-Denis Villars, “Young Woman Drawing”, 1801
What I know from this is that looking at art is an active thing. You bring to the process who YOU are in the moment of looking and that changes over time, and what you see changes, and how you feel about what you see changes, and what you know about what you see changes.
Looking is an active process — and over time you can go in and out of being engaged with a work of art or an artist. Yet I still feel that in the end, the work itself will yield up to you its meaning and significance.