“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
Last night I dreamed that I was attacked by bats. Of course it made me think of this etching by Goya.
I looked up its meaning in Wikipedia:
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Spanish: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, it is the 43rd of 80 etchings making up the suite of satires Los Caprichos. Goya imagines himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by slumber and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. The work includes owls that may be symbols of folly and bats symbolizing ignorance.
The full epigraph for capricho No. 43 reads; “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
Leslie Parke, “Wrapped Blue”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
EVERYTHING IS REAL is a group of paintings that are both abstract and representational. Each image in the series exists in the real world – an old board of insulation, an industrial garage door, a silo and corncrib, a track in the mud and wrapped cargo on pallets. At the same time, each has been composed to accentuate the inherently abstract qualities of the reflective surfaces and their interplay with light.
Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
I started my career as an abstract painter, sometimes making non-objective images and at others deconstructing the work of earlier masters, such as Ingres, Matisse and Giotto. Then in the 1990s I received a grant to spend half a year at the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, where I had a studio and 24 hour access to the Monet’s garden. At first, I looked for anything abstract; the structure, the color — but in the end, I was seduced by the light. Since that time, I have been in search of the subject matter that would resonate best with this full range of interests. I have painted many things from nature in the past, and even some traditional still lifes, but I’ve never completely related to those traditional genres. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto a waterfront dock piled high with pallets of cargo wrapped in plastic that I felt I’d finally found my subject. This shiny, transparent, and translucent stuff, which reflected light and held water bubbles from the rain, had all the qualities I was searching for. The subject is completely abstract, and yet has a surface as complex and difficult to paint as one of Ingres’ satin dresses.
Leslie Parke. “Leaning Insulation”, 60 inches x 40 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber
At last, all the elements I’ve worked on separately over the years have come together in these new paintings and I can see a way forward. Everything is real; every crease exists in the object, every reflection.
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.
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.