From the start, I knew that I wanted to make paintings from the broken television “grid” photographs, but they posed a lot of technical difficulties. To begin with, I paint in oils. Making a clean stripe in oil is more difficult that with acrylic paint. With acrylics you can mask out your stripes with tape and then seal it with a clear acrylic layer, then add your color and it won’t bleed. That pretty much insures that you will have a sharp edge.
It was the atmospheric look of the background that most held my interest in the photographs. How to achieve that? I thought a spay gun might work, but having once tried to spray paint chair in my living room, I know that the paint, suspended on air goes everywhere. In very short order I could destroy all the work in my studio, as well as, stacks of paper, rolls of canvas and other materials. I would need a spray booth.
A person in my building, Keith Davitt from Thirsty Cat Fountains, suggested a spray painter that achieved its effect through vibration. He used it to glaze his fountains. It was much less likely to permeate the air in the studio. I still haven’t settled on a solution, but I am leaning toward an airbrush, like a spray gun, but much more refined and allegedly easier to control.
I wasn’t going to let a need for new equipment stop me. I thought of other ways I might achieve a similar effect.
Rothko mixed pigment with rabbit skin glue in an effort to achieve both depth and luminence. (The glue is what artist’s used to size their canvases. First layer was usually the glue by itself, followed by pigmented glue called gesso.) Agnes Martin worked with very thin acylic paint.
I thought of all the ways I might get the atmospheric background. Spray painting was one way, glazing (using thin layers of transparent pigments suspended in medium), coloring rabbit skin glue, all seemed possible. But as I was set up to do some pouring in my studio I thought I would try that first.
Once I poured in the background I started adding large areas of color.
I knew that I don’t really have the personality to make absolutely perfect stripes. With oil paint I was anticipating that some of the color would seep under the tape. Like Barnett Newman, I was going to live with it. You wouldn’t think choosing the right tape to make your stripes would be that great of an issue, but it turned out to be. There is the issue of the stickiness of the tape. Will it pull off the painted surface below it? Will it block out the layers of paint over it? Will it stick to the canvas and not pull off at all? And then there was the issue of the width of the tape. You can usually find half inch tape at the harware store, but any smaller than that you need to scour the internet. The main issue for me was to get the tape to stick.
While I fololowed the photograph in a general way, I was not entirely sticking to the color scheme. I wanted a little more vibrant color in the final piece.
What followed next was not what I expected. I would lay in the colors and then see that this passage was working, but that one wasn’t. I felt as though it was like playing music. Passages would work, but then how did it work with the whole piece. And other parts were just plain wrong, but why? The painting was tutoring me in what it needed. Here is what it needed: the “ground” needed to be organic, the poured surface relating the the quality of the atmosphere in the original photograph, as well as, being a signifier that this was made by hand and not machine. Colors next to each other had to work together, but there were also passages across the surface of the whole painting that needed to work together. Unlike the “flat surface” that painting has been emulating since the begining of the last century, this painting sat not on the surface of the canvas, but in space. For the whole painting to work, certain stripes cleved to an imaginary plane, while other moved in and out of that plane.
Here are some of the versions it went through. I hadn’t expected the process to be so specific. That is, only certain colors of certain values and certain instensities worked in certain places. Change one, you had to change many of the other ones until it all worked together again. Here is the final version:
You may notice that the original photograph also had horizontal stripes. This canvas was not the right proportion to add those stripes, but there was also the consideration that if I attempted to add them and failed I would have ruined weeks of work. I am now in search of a way to also incorporate those stripes.
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.