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 .
Artist collaboratives can be a tricky business, but try doing it with neither the internet or even a computer. Years ago I collaborated with the brilliant, contemporary composer Henry Brant on a piece called “Inside Track“, which was played at the Holland Festival. My part in it was that I made slides of dozens of paintings on paper that were displayed on four projectors, which were “played” by two percussionists. Since the piece was performed in Holland, I never got to see it.
Let’s break down that last sentence. “I made dozens of slides.” We are talking about real slides, physical slides; slides that take a week to process in a film lab; slides made out of film and cardboard, that can’t be cropped, but rather have to be taped with physical tape to block out anything you don’t want the viewer to see. “The slides were ‘played’ on four projectors”; yes, these were slide projectors, all mechanical, nothing electronic about them. They were noisy, had different lenses, could overheat and burn the slide. Or if you used the projection long enough, the slide just faded or turned brown. The button to forward the slides was not always reliable, nor was it easy to control the speed of the advancement. The percussionists must have been very talented.
The New Artist Collaboration with Composer Thomas Oboe Lee
Recently the Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee asked me to collaborate with him. He made two music videos using my paintings. In this case, I uploaded the images to dropbox, he downloaded them to his computer and edited them to his music. By that night I received the video in an email and we both posted it to “the world” on Youtube and Facebook.
A quarter of all of Gustav Klimt’s paintings were landscapes. When I finally saw them all at an exhibition at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, what struck me most was their flatness — even Bonnard’s landscapes recedes more into space. Klimt did not paint panoramas, but rather simple motifs: gardens, meadows with fruit trees, farmhouses surrounded by lush vegetation, and details of the lake and its shoreline. Perhaps it is not surprising that the landscapes appeared flat, considering the decorative nature of his other paintings, but it soon became apparent that something else was at work here. Klimt used a variety of viewfinders; initially, a simple piece of cardboard with a hole cut out of it, and later an ivory plate or an opera glass. [austria.info/uk/art-culture]
He also used a telescope. He would stand on one side of the lake and look through it to the opposite shore. The telescope made the landscape appear flat. Klimt used the pointillist’s mark to create his landscapes. However, he did not use it in the same way as the pointillists did, to optically mix colors. His landscapes were organized into blocks of colors and shapes.
Klimpt with Telescope
When you examine one of Klimt’s landscapes close up, a couple of things become apparent. First, he leaves a fair amount of the canvas showing through. And, he frequently outlines things, like the edge of flowers or leaves. I have seen Joseph Raffael do a similar thing in his watercolors. It seems that, especially with watercolors, if you let the edge of, say a leaf, just be the place where the color ends, your whole sense of the leaf as an object disappears, something seems quite off about it. Reinforcing the edge with a line helps it hold its space. This was most obvious in Klimt’s paintings of flowers.
Here is a short video of Joseph Raffael fine tuning one of his watercolors.
The studio is practically empty. I sent eight large paintings to my dealer in Houston. The rest of the work is out to summer shows in museums and regional galleries. The walls are very white and very empty.
The work I sent to Houston is mid-project. I know that there are more pieces in that series, but for the moment I have turned my attention to a large canvas where I am working out the latest manifestation of The Print Project. I spent over a year developing several permutations of a four color lithograph inspired by a painting called “Almond Tree – Biot”. Michael Williams helped me further deconstruct the image into a digital format. With him I was able to separate colors and change them in ways that were antithetical to the original image of a tree in bloom. As we printed out a large print, about 2 1/2 feet by 3 feet, it became obvious to both of us that the print wanted to be larger, much larger. So, that is exactly what I did, I started translating this print back into paint on a large canvas.
I want these paintings to act like Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals, but with a twist. I want the color and the scale of the painting to create an atmosphere — a sensation, something you almost feel before you see. Yet, I want to do this with colors that are not exactly taken from nature. I have sliced and diced the color until it has a certain feeling and a certain light. But the color is not true to what would be the local color in nature. In my first version there are flowers that would be white in nature, that are black in the painting. And yet, over all, you still have the sense that the image is from nature.
Working on the first of these paintings, I have run into endless problems with the alignment of the colors. I will paint a color in one day and out the next. I have kept my brush strokes bold and gestural, but at the same time I am working with very small brushes — so the strokes are as small as they might be on an Impressionist painting. At each stage, I feel as though I have ruined it. Is my brush stroke right? Is it too messy. Will I be able to convey what I hope to? One moment I am certain that it will all work out, the next minute I am wondering who I can hire who can really paint this.
I won’t know if this is any good until I am done, and perhaps not even then. My vision requires that I do several versions of this before I decide if it works or not. So, at mid-year I feel in mid-air, falling, falling, falling.
My Print Project has taken a new turn. I have started working with artist Michael Williams making digital prints based again on the almond tree image. He is helping me alter the image in Photoshop. It has taken the print in a new direction, which I would call a Monet/Wharhol remix.
Michael has been working almost exclusively in digital prints for years. He creates his work directly on the computer and alters it in Photoshop. I like this use of digital technology, more than using it for reproductive purposes. The issues are quite different. Instead of trying to reproduce a fact-simile of something else, the computer itself becomes the medium in which the artist works.
On my journey through the print process, I have been looking for a way to express in print what I am able to do in paint, but different. With Tim Sheesley at Corridor Press, I learned many of the attributes of lithography and I pushed hard to see how I could use that medium to get the effects that I wanted. The process was labor intensive, taking me months to produce the plates and days to print out the various color combinations. With each effort I found what the medium could and could not do for me.
With that knowledge in the back of my head, I went to Michael to see what we might do in digital medium. Well, as the old ad used to say: “This is your brain on drugs.”. In this case, this was my print on drugs. With a click of a button we could move the print through many color permutations. But again, I wanted a print where it felt as though the light was popping out of it. We would land on a set of colors print it out, adjust and repeat.
My image coming out of the printer.
In this process I made the most important discovery of all, some thing that took me right back to my original concept. When I first started out I wanted to put 9 prints together to make something the equivalent in size of the original painting. After spending three months of drawing the plates and seeing what a complex process it was to print all the colors, I abandoned that idea. But as Michael and I printed out the digital prints it was obvious to both of us that the print was screaming to be BIG!
Michael comes from a background of making large abstract paintings. And he spent quite a bit of time working with Ken Noland. If anyone was sensitive to the importance of scale, it would be Michael.
We have found that a print about 30 by 40 inches is doing the trick for us.
But guess what happened then.
I took one of our images and starting painting it on a canvas larger than the original painting, which was 60 by 70 inches. I think I needed this long apprenticeship to discover something about my paintings. I love each permutation of the print, but now I am excited to get the image back into paint.
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