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Rework and restraint

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I got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just in time to see Matisse: In Search of True Painting, the tremendous show which just ended, built around the French painter’s tendency to exhaustively try different variations on a theme. When he did this, and he did it a lot, I’ve never been sure whether he was trying to get something exactly right or simply exploring every possible way to render an image, the way many artists have repeatedly returned to the same image again and again: Monet’s haystacks and cathedrals, Warhol’s various riffs on a particular iconic image and Motherwell’s repeated reworkings of Ode to a Spanish Republic. In the case of Matisse, I’m never quite sure I like the later versions of particular paintings more than earlier ones. In some cases, I get less and less interested, the further he simplifies and refines a motif. But almost everything in this show seemed to be offering itself to me from a fresh, new angle. This was especially true of the first painting, Still Life With Compote and Fruit, one of the 1._Still_Life_with_Compote_and_Fruit_Henri_Matisseartist’s earliest paintings, whose incredibly subtle color—impossible to fully appreciate in the catalog—made me want to stay there at the entry into the show and skip whatever else was coming. It’s unfinished, and yet it’s as fine a painting as any he ever did, with incredibly delicate feeling in the balance between the two sections of muted green against the peach and salmon colors of the fruit. The tug-of-war between illusions of depth and the flat and uniform areas of color—an energizing opposition at the heart of what gives life to Matisse’s work—imbues the image with a dreamlike quality that seems to breathe as you keep your eye on its cluster of simple objects that reminded me of Morandi. And that was only the start. This show was a thrill, from start to finish, and taught me at least as much about the way Matisse painted as any other exhibition of his work I’ve seen, including MOMA’s Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 which gave me an awed respect for the monumental paintings he did after his return from Morocco.

Yet I’m not sure I absorbed what this show was curated to emphasize.  MOREMy fascination wasn’t with the way he refined or experimented with an image as he tried successive versions of it. Instead, the exhibit opened my eyes about seemingly minor aspects of particular works I’ve seen in reproductions over the years. Again and again, what I thought was familiar work looked new to me in the context of the other work on view. Being able to get very close to the surface of these paintings offered me the ability to see Matisse often handled paint much differently from what I’d thought. Wrongly, I’ve usually thought he painted alla prima, trusting his initial instincts with paint and rarely going back over his spontaneous choices of color and value—once and done, as it were, as is always the case in those films of him as he does a line drawing of a model’s face. I came away convinced that, in many cases, he spent a great deal of time reworking individual paintings, sometimes letting previous layers of paint show through more recent ones in ways that simply get lost in reproductions. You can’t see the pentimento in the color plates. And some of his more abstract compositions stood out in a way that made me question what I’ve always valued most in his work—especially the way I’ve favored his classic middle period, the seemingly comfy, bourgeois, less radical views in and around his apartment in Nice. I still think I have more to learn from that period, as a painter, and it offers more of a starting point for anyone grappling with representational painting. Yet, for the first time, with this show, I found myself relieved to see a dramatically simplified image appear after I’d been immersed in the softer and more natural interiors, still lifes and figures. I was pleasantly stunned by how powerful his more abstract work looked, compared to the painterly Riviera interiors I’ve always favored.

32-_the-large-blue-dress_henri-matisseI first saw a reproduction of The Large Blue Dress at least thirty years ago, and I’ve seen it many times since then, but when I finally approached the actual painting in this show, it was almost startling, coming after a long series of the softer, looser still lifes and interiors and odalisques I’ve always loved. Suddenly, with The Large Blue Dress, Matisse seems to take a huge, sudden leap in the direction of his late cut-outs, reducing color to sharp-edged areas of flat uniform hue. It’s as if he decided to have his model get dressed for once, stand at attention and salute, and he paints her with utter clarity, simplicity and absolute confidence in his flat patterns of nearly uniform color in gentle, symmetrical curves. In this case, the work really does look alla prima. Grids and floral shapes are scratched quickly into the paint with a knife, and the almost austere scheme of primaries—along with white and black—help concentrate all his feeling into only two small areas of flesh tone and ocher, for face and hands and hair, along with a few tiny notes of green in what appears to be a forsythia bouquet behind his model’s head. A painting I previously considered a routine example of what you go to Matisse for—balance, pleasure, and beauty—now looks like to me like a brilliant fusion of his painterly work in Nice with the abstract rigor of the huge, nearly-abstract, post-Morocco compositions—and a glance forward to the cut-outs. There’s a tremendous sense of living presence in the model’s pose and expression, as if she’s ready to mutter an affectionately sardonic aside to the painter as he works. You get a sense of unpredictable life, as if something might happen if you look away, which takes command of the geometric rigor and flatness of the image. Again, I think that exact tension is what gives most of Matisse’s work its life: you can never quite resolve the conflict between the flatness of the overall pattern and the sense of illusionistic depth conveyed by at least part of the image. Properly balancing those two poles, within which he worked, until he arrived at the cut-outs and finally surrendered almost entirely to flat pattern and pure color—that was his struggle, decade after decade, to balance these two opposing impulses, one toward improvisation and music and the other toward order and abstraction, into one unified image.

Matisse-Interior-with-a-Goldfish-Bowl-1914-large-1138312730I was surprised at the sense of depth, for example, in Interior with Goldfish, which is as geometrically organized as anything Matisse painted, and yet offers what could almost be a rotoscope’s reduction of a photograph, the lines and forms are so accurately and proportionately drawn, and the perspective rendered so precisely. You can see through the window to a police station hundreds of yards away, so the sense of spatial depth is dramatic. (Goldfish bowl and police station cheek-to-cheek on the surface of the canvas—talk about tension of opposites.) Yet as casual as everything seems to be, as Jack Flam points out in his catalog commentary, the lines of the house plant, goldfish bowl and bridge in the distance, clustered near the center of the painting, echo and recapitulate each other, confusing inside and out, flatness and depth. And yet the painting offers a genuine sense of early evening light, so that the apartment is dark, while the setting sun shines directly onto the police station’s façade. Still, you’re just as taken by how this could also be an almost thoroughly abstract assembly of lines and curves dominated almost entirely by various blues except for little spots of gold, green, and peach. Think of Diebenkorn’s grids. And yet I also wanted to walk into that room and settle into a cushion and lose myself in the lazy shimmer of the goldfish circling in their glass cylinder–except that the room, full of pointed corners and straight edges has all the feng shui of a jail cell. Now that I’ve seen the actual painting, when I look at the image in the catalog, I feel the same sense of depth, but I never before had that sensation of being able to walk into an actual room with a view (such as it is) while looking at reproductions of this painting.

matisse-egyptiancurtainAgain and again, I had this sort of reaction to specific paintings: oh, so that’s what he was up to with this one. Granted, it may have less to do with the exhibition itself than with the way I’ve learned to pay better attention to Matisse, but the selection of work had just as much to do with it. Hyperallergic has a fine examination of Interior with an Egyptian Curtain, in which Thomas Micchelli convinces me that Matisse managed to fit three different paintings into one with this work: the eponymous curtain, the palm tree you can see through the window and the still life in the lower left. What startled and delighted me was nothing more than the color of the table at the bottom of the painting. The surface of the table is a rich, almost purplish pink—there must be a name for the color, but it’s so varied and rich, the utter opposite of the flat, controlled regions of color in The Large Blue Dress—as well as in other parts of this painting itself. For the front of the table, Matisse chose a distinctly different but related hue, with traces of that pink, but closer to salmon, rust, with far more orange. The color is complex, alive, a balance between intent and accident in the way the grain of the minerals settled into the medium as it dried. In the catalog plate, you get a hint of those rich strips of color, with the blob of pure black shadow under the bowl for contrast, but if you’re ever at the Phillips Collection, check to see if this one’s on view. Those two little strips of color representing a table are what Matisse is all about for me–an intensity he both luxuriated in and kept restrained–and if you can find a word for what it is those two slightly different hues deliver, then you’ll have found a name for what it is that drives me to paint.

goldfish and paletteFinally, one last revelation: when I stood maybe a foot away from Goldfish and Palette, I could see how much Matisse had worked on the painting, covering over previous work without entirely obscuring it. When you see the painting as a color catalog plate, you won’t recognize any of this at all. In the catalog, it looks far simpler in execution. There’s a rectangle of creamy white, slightly pink, in the lower left corner, and it does look as if some previous work is covered over, but up near the actual painting it’s astonishing how complex and busy this earlier, now obscured work got. Maybe he scraped off successive coats or found himself noodling around, losing his bearings, and then simply went over it all with the white, not really concerned to completely cover his tracks. To the right of that rectangle there’s a thin strip of alizarin, which, if you get close enough you can see is a complex mix of red and green, painted and then scratched away, as Matisse loved to do, drawing with his knife. It’s an incredibly busy, almost expressionist-looking strip of paint, all random scribbles, and now looking at the reproduction, I suspect it’s one small glimpse of what the central shaft of black has covered up—that this same sort of work lurks behind all that black and Matisse simply wanted one small taste of it to show, maybe to preserve a little accent of the color that might have once taken up a third of the painting, or maybe for the contrast between the sense of detail all that scratching offers—or for whatever seemed like a good reason at the time. But leaving that little strip of earlier work to show in the final work was a purely improvisational moment in a painting that looks severely constructed, a scene strenuously reduced into flat geometry, including the artist’s palette, thumb and knee, visible in the lower right, which are almost unrecognizable until you see the thumb.

With that little strip of scribbled color that you’ll probably never discern in a reproduction of the painting, it’s almost as if Matisse is saying, “Look at what I need to tame.”

The Future of Henri Matisse

Thomas Micchelli blogs about Matisse's 1948 painting Interior with Egyptian Curtain (Phillips Collection) currently on view in the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view through March 17, 2013.

Micchelli writes: "Matisse has painted not one picture but three abutted together: the window, the curtain and the still life. While each competes for your attention in its own dazzling way — the window in an explosion of short strokes, the curtain with an interlocking pattern of abstracted shapes, and the still life with a simple but blazing interaction of yellow, pink, black and white — to the postmodern eye the combination of components seem to betray a loss of faith in the ability of a single image to express the fullness of an artist’s vision." Micchelli continues, noting that "the jangling, jazzy profusion of images deny the painting a conventional center of interest. The images, however, do not direct the eye to all four quadrants of the canvas, as Matisse does in his other interiors; instead they compact a heightened level of interest in three discreet sections. To again take the work from a postmodern perspective, Matisse’s “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” can be viewed as more overt in its deconstruction of pictorial integrity than something like Willem de Kooning’s black-and-white 'Painting,' which was done the same year."

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The Influences of Manet

Painter Alan Gouk visits Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy (through April 14, 2013) and muses on the ways Manet has influenced later painters.

Gouk concludes: "There are aspects of modernism which of course challenge this nexus of values, but Manet’s art is a permanent reminder that the complex constructions of cerebral compulsiveness, the ploddings of so called 'realism,' or indexes of socio-political advance in mores and life-style, however 'modernistic' they may consider themselves to be, are likely to be, in spite of themselves less a true reflection of their times than an indictment of it. They have missed the message. Manet emphasises that the continuity of painting, the continuity of value in life, is made apparent if the artist finds and holds on to his own mode of vision, trusting his own eyesight and his 'convictions of taste,' influenced as they inevitably will be by the passing show, and the march of 'history'."

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The Great Meteor Procession of 1913, by Gustav Hahn

The Great Meteor Procession of 1913. Image Credit & Copyright: RASC Archives; Acknowledgement: Bradley E. Schaefer (LSU)
The Great Meteor Procession of 1913
Image Credit & Copyright: RASC Archives ; Acknowledgement: Bradley E. Schaefer (LSU)
Explanation: One hundred years ago today the Great Meteor Procession of 1913 occurred, a sky event described by some as “magnificent” and “entrancing” and which left people feeling “spellbound” and “privileged”. Because one had to be in a right location, outside, and under clear skies, only about 1,000 people noted seeing the procession. Lucky sky gazers — particularly those near Toronto, Canada — had their eyes drawn to an amazing train of bright meteors streaming across the sky, in groups, over the course of a few minutes. A current leading progenitor hypothesis is that a single large meteor once grazed the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up. When the resulting pieces next encountered the Earth, they came in over south-central Canada, traveled thousands of kilometers as they crossed over the northeastern USA, and eventually fell into the central Atlantic ocean. Pictured above is a digital scan of a halftone hand-tinted image by the artist Gustav Hahn who was fortunate enough to witness the event first hand. Although nothing quite like the Great Meteor Procession of 1913 has been reported since, numerous bright fireballs — themselves pretty spectacular — have since been recorded, some even on video.

 

Did a relative see this?: Please tell us in APOD’s discussion forum

We went to the forum above and saw a post in which the writer mentioned an earlier meteor procession in 1860. Following his link, we wound up at Sky & Telescope’s website. There we found this article posted by Roger Sinnott, from  June 7, 2010:

Walt Whitman’s “Meteor-Procession”

The meteor procession of July 20, 1860, was widely covered in newspapers and magazines of the day.

Donald W. Olson

What did American poet Walt Whitman mean by “the strange huge meteor-procession” that went “shooting over our heads” with “its balls of unearthly light”? These phrases appear in a short poem from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass titled “Year of Meteors. (1859-60).”

Walt Whitman (1819–1892).  Leaves of Grass.  1900.

100. Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

100. Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60

YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia;
(I was at hand—silent I stood, with teeth shut close—I watch’d; 5
I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the scaffold;)
—I would sing in my copious song your census returns of The States,
The tables of population and products—I would sing of your ships and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan, arriving, some fill’d with immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold;
Songs thereof would I sing—to all that hitherward comes would I welcome give; 10
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, sweet boy of England!
Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds, as you pass’d with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;
I know not why, but I loved you… (and so go forth little song,
Far over sea speed like an arrow, carrying my love all folded, 15
And find in his palace the youth I love, and drop these lines at his feet;)
—Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her, moving swiftly, surrounded by myriads of small craft, I forget not to sing;
—Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven; 20
Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
—Of such, and fitful as they, I sing—with gleams from them would I gleam and patch these chants;
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings! year of the youth I love! 25
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo! even here, one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?

CONTENTS BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

CONTENTS      BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

Frederic Church’s home, Olana, offers a spectacular vista over the Hudson River.
Image Credit: Roger Sinnott

It’s 150 years later, and now we know. The July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope gives full details of a new finding by Texas State University astronomer Donald W. Olson and colleagues. This press release summarizes their results, and the article is already making waves in the general media, such as New Scientist, the Los Angeles Times, or even the Tehran Times.The Texas team links Whitman’s words to a very rare celestial spectacle — a string of fireballs that marched, duckling style, across the evening sky for residents of the U.S. Northeast on July 20, 1860. The researchers clinch their case with a little-known but beautiful painting, The Meteor of 1860, by Frederic Church.This is the latest in a remarkable series of projects that Olson and his honors classes have tackled during the past two decades. And this time, I got to tag along and see them in action.For last summer’s research trip, Olson headed to the Hudson/Catskill area of New York with coauthor (and English professor) Marilynn Olson, colleague Russell Doescher, and honors student Ava Pope. The prime attraction was Church’s magnificent home, Olana, now a museum. The staff let us spend a whole day, poring through archives to look for clues about Church’s comings and goings in the summer of 1860.Church was on his honeymoon, and Olana was still but a gleam in his eyes. So the newlyweds might have stayed in Catskill with Theodore Cole, a close friend and the son of Thomas Cole, a fellow artist of the Hudson River Valley School. It’s tempting to imagine the couple enjoying the night air, perhaps on the Cole house’s wide porch, when the meteors soared by.

 

 

 

The Texas researchers check out the home of Thomas and Theodore Cole, situated in Catskill, New York, directly across the Hudson River from Olana. In 1860, unlike today, there would have been a grand view from this porch to the south, where the meteor procession passed.

Porches! Does anyone use them anymore? People certainly did in 1860, as we learned while going through an extensive paper by James H. Coffin in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (Vol. XVI). Coffin trudged across New England with a theodolite, interviewing all the eyewitnesses he could. He found 16 in his own hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, crediting his good luck to “the prevalent custom of our people, to sit at the front doors of their houses in summer evenings.”Coffin’s exhaustive study helped the team get a clear idea how the meteor procession must have looked, not just to Frederic Church in Catskill, but also to Walt Whitman in New York City.This is not the first time an Olson-led team has identified a chance celestial event as the catalyst for a great poet or artist’s work. Six years ago they showed that Edvard Munch’s haunting painting, The Scream, was not entirely a fantasy of the Norwegian artist’s troubled mind. The Texas researchers learned that Munch was likely an eyewitness to a blood-red sky a few months after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, an event that vivified sunsets around the world and caused lurid twilights as far north as Oslo. The most famous versions of The Scream were painted several years after 1883.Hey — want to hear the actual voice of Walt Whitman? The foremost American poet of his age died in 1892, but not before reciting a few lines from another poem of his, “America,” into a wax-cylinder Edison phonograph. Check it out here.

Disconnected realities at Viridian

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One of Jeffrey Melzack’s watercolors

 

I stopped into Viridian Artists last week to pick up a painting I’d shown in Endings and Beginnings, because I needed to ship it to Manifest for their current exhibit. With the parking maneuvers of an unlicensed limo driver, risking big parking tickets at rush hour, I got the job done, I’m proud to report. I’m getting as bold and improvisational as a seasoned New York driver, though I’m only an interloper in this town. I parked illegally at Second Avenue and 51st St., in the bus lane, and on a crosswalk. (You would think I was kind of a big deal.) I sprinted into UPS, plopped my big, pre-labeled pre-paid shipment onto the counter, and rushed back out to the car before anyone would have time to ticket or tow me. Gotta love those emergency blinkers. Before all of these urban scofflaw antics, I had time to catch up with Vernita N’Cognita and Lauren Purje, who were both on duty at the gallery desk. I lingered quite a while taking some iPhone shots of the current Viridian affiliate show, Disconnected Realities, getting in everybody’s way and in general feeling like an uninvited guest. It gave me time to warm up to the way the whole show looked. It seemed to hang together more coherently than most of the group shows we’ve had at the gallery over the past year, including ones I’ve been in. There was a lot of work on the walls, but it was hung in tight clusters of individual style that gave me a pretty clear sense of each artist’s strengths. It helped that most of the work was fairly small. A few quick impressions:

What I noticed about the photographs by William Atkins was how they captured contemporary sitters with techniques that give the look of 19th century figures in sepia prints, daguerreotypes, and tintypes. He induces a mild sense of perceptual friction in the contrast between the antiquated style and little clues that you’re actually looking at contemporary figures: anachronistic details such as body piercing or boxing gloves at rest on a woman’s lap. (A recent slideshow in the Times online called my attention to another photographer working in the same vein, pulling screen shots from video games like Call of Duty to create images that induce flashbacks to Matthew Brady’s Civil War.) Atkins’ photographs are wonderfully shot and printed and fun to search for those telltale signs that they were shot now, rather than a century ago.

Renee Kahn’s best painting in the show, The Card Players, despite its title, owes far more to Milton Avery than to Cezanne. It’s a quietly musical study in extremely muted, subtle greens and violets, with her three players clustered like confederates on a picnic, their bodies reduced to the simplest abstract shapes. As with Avery, by softening the edges of her geometric simplifications, and layering her paint until it vibrates with life, Kahn conveys a lot of emotion with an image reduced to its most fundamental elements. As she puts it: “maximum intensity with the least . . .  means.”

Like Atkins’ photography, Lauren Purje’s paintings ride in the gap between her anxieties about contemporary disasters—things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, yo—and her love of the traditional masterwork of Durer, Turner, and Constable. She’s also smitten by a few contemporaries like Walton Ford, but mostly she’s got a crush, big-time, on the Romantic sublime. A couple fine examples of how she melds present and past are on view, but I wanted to see a couple of her witty and self-deprecating drawings, unveiled weekly at Hyperallergic. They offer wry commentary on contemporary art as well as the joys and sorrows of Purje’s nocturnal, Brooklyn-centric habitat, as well as the fauna populating the small region of her zip code located inside her skull. Her default setting about the world, and herself, is essentially, “I’m just not sure I feel good about all this.” I hear that.

Two colorful works on paper from Vernita Nemec, the gallery’s director, are quite different from the performances she’s contributed to the shows I’ve seen in the past year. The one I liked the most appeared to be an image created by immersing the plume of an ostrich fern in red paint and then using it to lay a flat, patterned shadow of itself on paper—a monoprint off a natural, botanical design. It has subtle variations in the predominant red with faint cooler tones showing through in patches, like sky through clouds. The effect is moody but cheerful and almost Chagall-like, She’s been pulling monoprints from nature’s ready-mades for many years, including her own body in a nod toward Ives Klein. It’s part of what she calls an “archeology of the self.” Her work—performances, installations, photographs, prints, and collages are assembled from found materials to convey a kind of inner autobiography. She tells me she has yet to do a monoprint of her cat, though. If that happens, I’m going to have to go ahead and ask her to do a YouTube video of the process. Now that’s a cat video even I would watch.

Meredeth Turshen offers only the briefest reflections on her gestural abstractions in her artist’s statement, which refrains from explaining much of anything. Wish that would become a new standard. Her colors are rich and subtle, and she can load the rifts with ore by saving the most saturated passages of intense hues for the tiniest slivers of line and form. Sounds geometric, I know, but her work is anything but. Formal properties suggest a kind of mammal warmth more than abstract precision. Shards of color melt at the edges and lope in friendly, lazy swaths across the paper. Irregular figures huddle like badly-fitted puzzle pieces. There’s a slight sense of unfinished business about all of it: the energy of what she chose at the last second not to quite finish, leaving the viewer room to imagine the rest in a way that makes what’s there even better.

I suggest you take the photographs of Sheila Smith as an invitation to view more of her work on her website. The work on view at Viridian seems to marry the feel of a Matisse cut-out with Pollock drips. She assembles large crinkly collages from what appear to be colored tissue paper—the sort you might wrap around a new blouse in a gift box. Then she dribbles and splatters paint across the surface, and finally takes detail photographs of the work, which she modifies with Photoshop and then prints onto cradled painting panels. It’s all good, but it’s only a small taste of her diverse photographic work. She seems to constantly try to reconcile her schooling in both photography and painting: her detail shots of New York City graffiti sing with a surprising sense of push-pull visual depth and a deep affinity with the abstract expressionists, both from the 50s and 60s. One thinks of Mark Tobey at one point, while another image on her site is a dead ringer for de Kooning. Good de Kooning. I’d love to see her try one further step: to do actual paintings based on photographic images she thought she’d Photoshopped to completion.

Joshua Greenberg’s sophisticated photo-based images combine photography with digital processing to create surprisingly textured images that look as if they’ve been painted on a rough surface. My fingertips had to resist temptation. His artist statement spins around on itself, generalizing in abstract terms about the balance between photograph and computer manipulation. In other words, he gives nothing away about what he’s actually doing—what image he shoots, and what specifically he does to it once he uploads it. The results look unapologetically modernist. The way Jeffrey Melzack’s images hearken back to Klee, Greenberg’s stir memories of Braque’s analytical Cubist phase at one point and Mondrian at another, if Piet had been way more into blue. What’s most enjoyable is how painted his images look.

A balance between photography and painting seems to be a major thread running through this show. Katherine Smith’s paintings carry this dialectic to a more complex extreme: she shoots digital photographs of paused movie scenes on her flat-screen, then uses these images as sources for large, nearly monochromatic water-based oil paintings, done on polymer film. Process-wise, it’s a bit of a sandwich of paint between layers of film—one at the start of the process and one at the end. The paintings she’s included in the show, painterly and nearly expressionist in their brushwork, are only two of a series based on shots that took her nearly three years to compile by sifting through vintage films for just the right image. The effect is to lift an image completely out of its original narrative by isolating it and stressing its formal properties as a painting—yet in the process the figures in her scenes evoke complex, subtle emotional responses, a hint of passing time just as powerful as the flicker of frames shuttling through a projector.

Elvira Lantenhammer’s statement about her Site Maps offer a pretty concise reflection on what she’s up to in her work, which has grown from her practice as an art restorer. I pass it along with only slight editing: “I reprocess details of maps and street plans into painted tableaus – sometimes in large format. Through an intensive study of topographical map works, historic and contemporary, I arrive at the formal basic structure . . . of the place. In my abstract acrylic paintings on canvas or egg tempera paintings on wood, the main points of orientation for the viewer are the dominant colors. I am inspired by the wonderful brightness of the colors of the early Italian paintings. With the background of my education as restorer, I use this traditional materials pigment/ egg tempera on wood to express what I feel about a certain place.” In an email, she emphasized that color is her primary focus. To increase the brightness and intensity of her color, she uses wood panels, three layers of chalk, and then paints with egg tempera. She says she strives for “a remarkable, deep shining surface, like velvet.”

When I stood before Michael Rippl’s photography I had no idea it was based on Polaroid prints. I was admiring the sense of disconnected reality he achieves, as if he’d taken the show’s title to heart a long time ago as a philosophical principle. The patina of faded color evokes lost time—again a convergence of past and present that runs through a lot of this show. Yet he underscores that feel of lost time by giving the images a look of  rough usage: slightly faded, slightly worn. What amazes me in retrospect is that I started talking with Lauren, at the desk, apropos of nothing, about how Polaroids might be the last really trustworthy photographic technology available (not for long, since the technology isn’t as readily available anymore), given the ubiquity of digital manipulation. At that moment, I didn’t realize I was looking at digitally manipulated images based on Polaroids. (Subconsciously I must have picked up on it.) For these images, Rippl shot his Polaroids, which he altered as they developed—not in the manner of Andre 3000’s sage advice (shake it Suga, shake it like a Polaroid picture)—but by massaging them with his fingers, among other things. He then uploads digital images of these Polaroids for further manipulation. So what I saw here destroyed my fatuous nostalgia for a mythically untampered-with photographic image. I was seeing yet more evidence that photographs aren’t any more “objective” or literal or trustworthy than any other form of representation. Not that I cared. The beauty of the images justified whatever it took to achieve it.

I kept coming back most often to the smallest work by Jeffrey Melzack. His finely wrought images hover, like Paul Klee’s or Escher’s, in a world where geometry seems to represent a visually inviting but mostly unfamiliar world. His work is seemingly abstract but full of feeling. With the slight caveat that it’s impossible to pin down exactly what’s being represented, his world here is dreamlike, full of trap doors and stairs that lead nowhere and colors that seem to airbrush themselves into the void. There’s a quietly upside-down, inside-out enchantment going on that feels exactly right, as if this is what you came to art for in the first place, back when you had no need to know what the point of it all was. No excuses, no explanations, just my world and welcome to it. Back when you loved art because it was so irresistibly where you wanted to lose your head for a while and all the significance would dart away if you tried to take dead aim at it.

Image & Being in Painting

Mark Stone reflects on the ever-present possibility to see and form anew through the act of painting.

Stone points to the self contained worlds in a late work by Picasso and a pastel by Degas. In the Degas, he writes, "everything feels close, contained. The surfaces are filled with crosshatches and heavy pastels. The beautiful bathers emerge through the lens and then find a thicker reality in Degas’ line, the flesh formed with each stroke of color, the line tracing the reality in front of us. These visions are not mine, and I’m not supposed to fill in the blanks, there are none to choose. I am supposed to look, to see something that’s not me. I am there with Degas, experiencing an entropic moment, understanding that this drawing is both image and being at once, a hybrid of visual existence."

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Matisse: Process of Creation

Tyler Green talks to Rebecca Rabinow about Henri Matisse and his process of investigating a visual ideas on multiple canvases. Rabinow is one of the three curators of the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view through March 17, 2013.

In the web introduction for the show Rabinow writes that Matisse "used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, 'push further and deeper into true painting.' While this manner of working with pairs, trios, and series is certainly not unique to Matisse, his need to progress methodically from one painting to the next is striking… For Matisse, the process of creation was not simply a means to an end but a dimension of his art that was as important as the finished canvas."

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Matisse: Luminous Gravity

John Goodrich reviews the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view through March 17, 2013.

Goodrich writes: "As the 20th century’s greatest colorist, [Matisse] possessed an uncanny instinct for the energy of colors—for the way shifting hues illuminate a painting from within—but other qualities as well: drive, an anxious but methodical disposition, a willingness to fail and a reverence for great painting… In Search of True Painting is the rare show that reveals and connects art on its own, intimate terms—in its purely visual manifestation. Looking on, we absorb the evidence of one of the greatest minds of modern art, a painter who, to a unique degree, combined intelligence, self-awareness, and knowledge of precedents."

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Matisse: Evolving Toward Ecstasy

Roberta Smith previews the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on view from December 4, 2012 – March 17, 2013.

Smith writes that Matisse "communed with artists of the distant or not-so-distant past, from Giotto to Cézanne, and periodically brushed shoulders with Cubism and the work of his chief rival, Picasso. But his main desire was, as he put it, to 'push further and deeper into true painting.' This project was in every sense an excavation, and he achieved it partly by digging into his own work, revisiting certain scenes and subjects again and again and at times also making superficially similar if drastically divergent copies of his paintings. His rigorous yet unfettered evolution is the subject of [the exhibition], one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see."

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Turner, Monet, Twombly @ the Tate

Painter Gary Wragg records his impressions of the recent exhibition Turner, Monet, Twombly: Later Paintings at Tate Liverpool.

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