Georgia O’Keeffe’s house and landscape have occupied our imagination almost as much as her paintings. O’Keeffe left New York to take up residence first on Ghost Ranch and then in Albiquiu, New Mexico. I had a vivid image of what her surroundings looked like mostly through the black and white photographs of her in these settings. What I found when I went there is that some images were remarkably accurate and others didn’t tell the whole story. I thought, for example, that her house was miles out in the dessert in complete isolation. But, in fact, she lived in a small town not unlike the one I live in, with a school, a bunch of houses, and a general store. She happened to live somewhat on the edge of the town, so that her views, at least in one direction were not obstructed.
This view, for example, could be seen from her bedroom. The road has been up graded and is much used today, but when she lived there it probably didn’t have much traffic. She did a painting of this road in winter.
The surrounding landscape is remarkably like her paintings.
Even parts of her house are represented in her work.
Before heading to her house I checked out the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and was happy to find her paintbox and brushes. She used mostly Blocx paint, but also had Winsor and Newton and Grumbacher.
Around her house there were the proverbial bits of nature.
The famous elk horn under which she was photographed.
O’Keeffe’s stone and shell collection.
And rustic door to her court yard.
What was more surprising was the interior of her house. It was completely modern with mid-century modernist furniture. We weren’t allowed to photograph it, but this skeleton of a chair was in the courtyard.
When Monet died, his step-daughter Blanche took over his home in Giverny. Once she died the place was passed to his son Michel, who had no interest in it, preferring to be on safari in Africa. Trees grew up in the large studio where some of his last paintings were still stored and Monet’s Japanese prints still hung on the walls. I knew people in Giverny who used to rummage through the house when they were kids. Much was stolen form the place, but not Monet’s paintings, nor the Japanese prints. When the house was restored, so were the prints. The influence of these prints on Monet’s work, and the work of the Impressionists cannot be overstated. At each juncture in Monet’s career, he returned to the Japanese for inspiration. (I will give some specific examples in later posts.)
I was fascinated by this connection and on my first trip to Japan I visited the southern end of Japan where the Dutch traded with the Japanese. There are several stories about how Monet first came into contact with the prints, but one is that while staying in Holland to avoid the draft during the Franco-Prussian War, these prints were used to wrap his groceries. he was so taken with them that he returned to the store and picked up a pile of them. Once you learn the process that goes into these prints, with each one taking up to a month to produce, you soon see that even when they were more common, it is unlikely that they would be used as ballast in a ship.
Here is a wonderful film about Canadian David Bull, who upon seeing his first Japanese prints decided that he had to learn how to do these. After some trial and error he packed up his family and moved to Japan, where he sought out master printers who would teach him the trade. Now, more than 20 year later, he is still in Japan. This film shows the process in some detail and helped me really appreciate what went into these amazing prints. http://woodblock.com/press/woodblock_shimbun.php?storyid=tv45
“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 .
Most of my Facebook friends are artists. As I scrolled through their posts this summer, I found that I was most drawn to work of modest means, that I felt had a monumental impact. Three of these artists are Lori Ellison, Wilma Vissers and Paul Pagk.
Lori Ellison, Ink on Notebook Paper
Lori Ellison has been singled out by Roberta Smith, so my observation of this work is in no way unique. What I like in particular is the way Ellison creates her pieces on common paper or school grade notebooks. She is immediately tempting you to compare her work to doodles, and not the doodles of a great artist, but the doodles of a student. The mastery in her work occurs on many levels, not the least of which, is to not fall into any doodling cliches. This is not Zentangle, after all.
And her work echoes eloquently the work of past maters, as in this piece inspired by Matisse — or this one that brings Brice Marden to mind.
The rigor of Ellison’s simplicity, is what I admire. I love how her work engages me in the process. They almost beg you to try to imitate them — and perhaps it is precisely in this process of putting pen to paper, that you begin to feel her decision making, her clear and precise choices — how the image sits on the page, how it relates to the edge, how it interacts with the lines on the page.
These drawings have an impact that is emotionally complex and visually exciting.
Lori Ellison in her studio.
Wilma Vissers’ drawing are ones that I come back to over and over. They are often executed in drawing notebooks and I have come to feel that the middle fold of the page is very much a part of the composition.
In fact, before I figured out that they were in notebooks, I thought she was purposefully folding the page to create a line from the fold and something that signaled a reverse side, a second part or a mirror image. She sometimes has a solid shape with a hairy line.
She has built a vocabulary that is strangely compelling.
Vissers drawings are either studies or a separate work from the objects she creates. The objects or wall pieces to me appear to come from the tradition of Richard Tuttle. Each object made in a unique material. Frequently small, the odd bits have a feeling of rightness, an inevitability that I also see is Tuttle;s work.
Some Wilma Vissers’ pieces on the wall of her studio.
Paul Pagk decided to post a series of drawing and studies from a few years ago. To me these are moments of pleasure. Each piece seemed to celebrate a line, a shape or a color.
Paul Pagk, oil, pastel, ink and silver crayon on paper.
In this piece, I was taken by his use of blue. It made me think of Matisse’s blue cutouts and Diebenkorn’s use of blue. After scrolling through his drawings my response was, “Damn, I wish I did that.”
Look at the placement of the drawing on this paper.
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.
This fall, as I mapped out the coming months in terms of exhibitions, grant applications, work projects, writing projects, and social media campaigns (or general PR), I found that working just on my computer was hopeless. I needed to SEE what had to get done. One of my favorite tools is the huge post-it notes you can get at any office supply store.
Maryann McGeorge, a former VP at Ralph Lauren and now consultant whose expertise is in business systems, taught me how to do a brain dump, where you list everything that you need to do to get a project completed, divide that into doable units, ascribe each of those units to who needs to get it done . (Yes, that is usually me, but can also be my carpenter, photographer, graphic designer, IT person, framer, or dealer.) And then put a deadline on each item. As a fairly severely right brained person, being handed these steps was a godsend. Years ago, when I visited Maryann in her old office in the tower of the Woolworth Building in New York, there was not a piece of paper on her desk. She is someone who can open all the outlet stores for Ralph Lauren in Japan without using a piece of paper. As much as I aspire to that level of organization and understanding of where I have hid my files in my computer, that is not possible for me.
I need to get physical.
I started with the list of everything that I needed to get done this fall. Divided that into categories, grants, projects, etc. Then, I removed the list and started over again. The picture above is what the wall looked like once I redid my lists for grants. I gathered together all my grant materials, marked their deadlines and requirements and then set about organizing each of the parts. Any of you who have done this, know how involved it can get. Artist statements, proposals, resumes of different lengths, bios, work samples – each grant requiring a different size jpg and different way of labeling them, recommendations. All of these materials needed to be updated. The process took about a month.
Even with the work samples, I found it helpful to print them out and pin them to the board. That way, it was easier to see if some piece didn’t fit the purpose of the grant. It also made it easier to show others, who could give me feed back on the selection.
All of the work I am listing here are things that artists dread doing. Making it physical, marking things with colored markers, moving pieces around, better imitated what I do when I work. It gave me a feeling of command over the material. It was more like making art and less like prepping for an evaluation. It helped me find and hone the message of the grant and make all the supporting materials support it.
Artists experience the world differently than others. The more we can approach those aspects of our career that strike terror in us, in ways consistent with our unique way of working, the better.