Monday, December 15, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 11)

In our world of instantaneous global media, social networking, and handheld devices, much of the contemporary expression of art comes through popular culture and the media.  Our society finds the most immediate connection with popular art that is instantly recognizable; consequently, much of art today deals with pop culture—everything from music and movies to news and politics.  This 2008 print by Shepard Fairey became a national icon during the first campaign of President Barack Obama.
This is certainly an article of propaganda which has since been accepted by the general public (some more than others) as a culturally relevant work of art.  But propaganda isn't new to art history; remember the court paintings of Napoleon by the French artist Jacques-Louis David?  Here we have a similar kind of approach.  The poster is vertical, intending to make the subject appear tall.  The image of the African-American senator looking upward with the slogan word "Hope" beneath implies a positive future for the nation, and the rich red and blue colors indicate the figure's patriotic devotion to his country and its flag of red, white, and blue.  His dual-colored face also implies his willingness to compromise between both Republican and Democratic parties (whose representative colors are red and blue, respectively).  It's a symbolic work that has since been received by the general public as an iconic creation of American art, not to mention the basis for numerous parody imitations.  This speaks of pop culture today and, in turn, the direction of art in the new millennium.
And, can you believe it?—that's the last artwork in my notes.  We've come to the present day (more or less) and, therefore, the end of our study of Western art history.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 10)

Much of contemporary art, as we had begun to notice, deals itself with new mediums and materials, not just new styles.  The shift of focus toward popular culture did not end in the 1960s with the Pop Art movement.  In the same way that Roy Lichenstein borrowed from comic books to create some of his most famous paintings, artists today blend mediums with cultural phenomena and challenge the community by daring to label their creations art.  Some of these recent, controversial trends have gravitated closely to what could be considered pornography, while others border the limits of ethics and legality with other approaches.  One such growing area is the street art genre, which consists largely of graffiti art and mural-making.  In this field, one of the most culturally prominent figures today is the graffiti artist who goes by the name Banksy.
He insists on anonymity as part of his theatricality and overall statement to the public.  Elusive and totally independent, he makes his own itinerary of locations and images to produce whenever he likes, and many of the walls on which he spray-paints have since been torn down and sold at art auctions for thousands, even millions, of dollars.  This dive-bombing graffiti artist is, among other things, a political activist, author, and filmmaker—and yet no one claims to ever have seen him in the act of tagging buildings (or, at least, certainly his true identity has not been revealed).
This is still a touchy subject; is all of this legal?  Banksy's graffiti art has frequently made a home for itself on public as well as privately owned property, and many critics of the artist's work have qualified this as vandalism.  And, according to most state laws in the U.S. (and Banksy has not exclusively worked in the U.S.), by now the artist should have risen to the level of felon given how many murals he has produced without the consent of property owners.  But what do you think; is this graffiti painter a criminal or an artist?  Does his creative ingenuity validate his medium, or has his art gone too far?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 9)

On the flip side, art which doesn't contribute anything to the developing breadth of artistic ideas and possibilities may be qualified as kitsch.  The term "kitsch" is an urban word which appears to have only entered the English language in the last century.  It is not a term with an altogether precise definition; however, it does carry a very specific meaning and connotation—and the connotation is always negative.  Art which is cheaply sentimental, insincerely overgeneralized, and inanely cheesy is called kitsch.  This type of art shows almost no regard for creative ingenuity and offers nothing to the art world in areas of style, technique, subject matter, and thematic ideal.
This is not a question of beauty; it's a question of integrity.  Much of the artwork we have looked at over the course of this study has been beautiful: we've looked at breathtaking landscapes, regal portraits, dramatic scenes of action and profundity; we've seen stained glass windows over 30 feet high, delicately precise still lifes, gold-plated sarcophagi, colorful Rococo portrait paintings, idealized Greek statuary, an unbelievable fresco by Michelangelo measuring over 130 feet long, the thick, oil paint globs of Van Gogh's artwork, and so much more—surely some degree of beauty is to be found in such wonderful creations.  But all of these works shared a common devotion to creative integrity on the part of the artist, whereas contemporary kitsch art devotes itself not to genuine creativity but instead marketability (and if pretty pictures is the way to satisfy an audience, then these artists will often sway that direction).  In the modern world of American consumerism, some artists shift their focus largely to commercial ends for that most common and widespread goal of our time: to make money.  It is still generally considered today that the better artist is the one who remains true to his or her own medium, craft, and subject, not the one who produces for the sake of public consumption, mass popularity, and personal acquisition of riches.  However, this type of art, especially in America, continues to rack in huge profits and sometimes even overshadows the more sincere artists.
Kitsch is fairly easy to spot.  An artist's disingenuous approach to a medium, genre, or subject will come out in his artwork.  One rather infamous example of kitsch is the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.  His hackneyed persistence, over the course of his nearly thirty-year career, with the same, repeated subject of cottages has been called tasteless and tacky and has earned the artist disrespect and scorn from critics and artists.  Though his art has been labeled "Christian," this self-proclaimed "painter of light" was known to have led a lifestyle unworthy of such a title; and yet Kinkade's cottage and Disney paintings remain among the most commercially successful bodies of artwork in the United States today.  Though the art world disdained him, this kitsch artist managed to earn millions by signing contracts with Hallmark and other commercial venues to generate greeting cards, calendars, puzzles, and a barrage of other retail products based on his paintings.  On numerous occasions and in several interviews, Kinkade publicly announced his indifference to the art community, claiming that he didn't care what the art world thought of him.  He could just, as my uncle says, "laugh all the way to the bank."  Thomas Kinkade died at his home in 2012 of an allegedly accidental drug and alcohol overdose.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 8)

The invention of the internet has also brought in an entirely new genre of art: digital art.  This can range anywhere from Photoshop images to computer graphics.  In this medium, larger possibilities present themselves to the artist by way of multi-point perspective, broader color palettes, and, with high definition enhancement now, almost infinite space for design.  Above is a digital matte painting made in 2008 by digital artist Jaime Jasso.  Not all digital art embraces stylistic realism, but the medium most often sticks to that approach, since it applies to most of its main forms of production in the business and media world.  Today, digital art finds usefulness in everything from video games, tv shows, and motion pictures to commercial advertising, architectural design, underwater mapping, and countless other uses, both practical and artistic.  But what digital art has perhaps become most popular for in contemporary culture is its branch devoted to special effects, such as the kind we see in movies.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 7)

Getting even more controversial, in 2007 Damien Hirst produced this work of organic art, a cast of an authentic human skull from the 18th century which has been coated with diamonds, and titled the piece For the Love of God.  Because the work is a platinum cast, this piece, unlike the dead shark exhibit, does not run the risk of decaying; however, the artist used real human teeth to place along the mouth of the sculpture.
Similar to the Dutch vanitas paintings, this work is a Memento Mori, a token intended as a reminder to the viewer of the imminent mortality of existence (in Latin, it means, "Remember, you will die").  The striking glitz and almost-Rococo extravagance of the piece creates an intense contrast which is shocking, indicting, unsettling, and darkly humorous all in one.  It's a skull, the symbol of death, and yet it's totally decked out with expensive jewelry.  It's reminiscent of the Ancient Egyptian method for embalming a dead pharaoh and surrounding his mummified corpse with expensive finery.  Can art make anything and everything glamorous, even dying?  Or perhaps this is a joke on the futility of riches and wealth, bringing to mind the old adage that "you can't take it with you."
Once again, there is perhaps a question of morality to an artwork such as this.  Certainly the Dutch Baroque artists recreated images of skulls in their paintings, but is it something else to here use a cast of a real human skull—and, what's more, to use actual human teeth?  Is that ethical?  The question came up in my class, I remember, about the Bodies Exhibit which has become a popular phenomenon since its opening in 2005.  In the show, as I'm sure you're aware, authentic human cadavers are put on display in various poses and cross-sections.  Originally conceived as an educational science program, the exhibit has since associated itself more with the arts.  What do you think; is it wrong to publicly display dead bodies in museums for public viewing?  Perhaps this is the ultimate question of art's limits: making artwork out of body parts and dead things, even those of our own race.  Should we call that art?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 6)

Speaking of death, here is a work of art from the 1990s that has grown significantly in acclaim.  A quasi-vanitas piece of thematic profundity and immediate shock value, Damien Hirst's artwork pictured here is emblematic of the new age of art entering into the current millennium, a kind of hyper-expressionist kaleidoscope of mediums and materials.  Anything can be used as art, in the aftermath of Duchamp's Fountain and, the slightly more validating example, Warhol's Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.  Here the artist has appropriated a dead tiger shark and encased it in an enormous display case of formaldehyde.  Hirst titled the work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
This is not the first time that art has been made from something once-living.  Spanish painters going back as far as the 1500s painted with cochineal, which is a red pigment derived from the insect of the same name.  Oil paints were scarce, and the cochineal extract provided a brilliant pigment to add to an artist's palette.  Italian and Dutch painters made use of this organic paint in the 1600s as well.  This painting by Jan Vermeer shows carmine red, a pigment made from cochineal.  We perhaps don't know it when we see it, but we're looking at paint made from dead bugs.
And yet there is something to Damien Hirst's shark artwork that might sit uneasy with us.  Is there anything unethical about placing a dead animal in a glass container and then putting that dead animal on display to the general public as a work of art?  This is a real, rotting shark, not an artist's creation (in fact—rotting so rapidly that a new specimen was brought in for a replacement in 2006).  Is this art?  There undoubtedly is something to be found in such a piece which makes us feel uncomfortable (and not just that it's playing on my fear of sharks).  It was initially met with staunch criticism but has since become, in the eyes of critics, artists, and the general public, one of the masterworks of contemporary art.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 5)

Photorealism is similar to Hard-Edge Painting.  In these artworks, the image looks so real that the viewer may very well mistake it for a photograph (hence the name "Photo-realism").  Of the Photorealist painters of the last few decades, Audrey Flack is among the most prolific.  She is known for her photographic-looking still life paintings, and here is one of her more famous ones.  It's titled Marilyn.
This painting appears to be structured and themed similarly to the style of the old Dutch Baroque still lifes which we looked at so long ago.  We are looking at a display, created by the artist, set lavishly with an abundance of objects which all carry the common theme of futility and the transience of glamour—remember the Latin term for that, vanitas?  This is a table surface or some other bench top covered with elaborate linen fabric and decked out with all sorts of items.  There are some traditional objects which we can associate to Dutch vanitas paintings, such as the tipped glass and rotting fruit.  The burning candle and hourglass also indicate the passage of time akin to the usual symbolism of still life artwork, but the artist has also added new objects for a more modern-day context.  Photographs of Marilyn Monroe show the actress as she has aged from childhood to adulthood, and a small stopwatch on the far right reminds us that time is passing quickly.  The calendar at the very top of the painting seems to suggest that the fruit in the painting will go bad; and that the rose, representative of the actress's own beauty, will wilt away in time.  The picture of Monroe faces us, and yet the artist has included an ironic image of her in a mirror to the left, which reveals her with what looks to be curled hair (an optical trick) and a lipstick roller pressed up against her bottom lip.  It's as if even the picture of Marilyn Monroe is looking into the mirror to see a picture of herself.  This is a statement on the vanity and futility of riches and glamour, which Flack paints in vivid and bright colors and startling realism to convey its realistic existence in modern life.  The painting's vanitas theme poignantly comments on the subject, of a Hollywood icon and American sex symbol who tragically died young.  It still bears today, in as much vibrant intensity, the same relevance, considering our contemporary age of movie stars and rock stars and pop culture idols: all "chasing after the wind," as a wise man once wrote.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 4)

The American artist Alfred Leslie modeled his work after Caravaggio.  His realistic artwork, very similar to Hard-Edge painting, frequently uses lighting to create stark contrasts and vividly defined images.  In his painting entitled 7A.M. News, from 1978, we notice a lone woman holding a newspaper with only photographs and no words.  She sits in a barren room in front of a table with a plate (holding an egg), a coffee cup, and a small television set.  The lighting of the room is artificial, coming from the tv.  Interestingly enough, however, the woman looks upward, as if expecting an overhead, or heavenly light to come down on her (as in Caravaggio's Conversion of St. Paul).  But the room is completely empty otherwise.  The woman is surrounded by media influences: the newspaper and the television.  Perhaps she looks up in the spirit of wanting something more than just media and news, but the artist keeps her trapped within the painting, as if to assert that there can be no escape from such an environment.  This is the attitude of the Postmodern world, maybe even more so today, in America.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 3)

Like Modern Art, contemporary art is comprised of many different facets or subgenres.  (This is another quality which makes contemporary artistic movements tricky to pinpoint; if everyone painted the same thing—zombies, for instance—we might more easily call this the Zombie Era…which would be totally nuts!  …But not everyone paints the same way; in fact, our contemporary age is probably one of the most diverse periods for Western art history.)  Many of these styles are continuations of previous genres we've already looked at.  Hard-Edge painting, for example, is a phenomenon which has carried over into art of the recent decades.
In the late 1960s, Frank Stella created some of the most distinct works of Hard-Edge art, such as this painting, Lac La Ronge IV, which shows an assortment of precise shapes in various colors.
Similar to the Color Field artwork of Richard Diebenkorn, Stella's painting is merely a creation of shapes.  Its white, defining lines and intense colors create a vivid, visual rhythm and harmony outside of the realm of subject matter.  It is similar to an abstract piece, but the shapes are so distinct that our focus becomes drawn over to them.  This work is about color, form, and the exactitude of demarcation between the two.  Hard-Edge painters usually place importance on the crisp, precise edges of the shapes in their paintings.  These works contain smooth surfaces, sharp edges, pure colors, and simple geometric shapes.  Again, it is what art is most fundamentally about, and these types of artists sought to bring that out in new ways.  Later in his career, in the '90s, Frank Stella turned to sculpture and there found a medium even more conducive to expressing the stylistic approach of Hard-Edge art.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 2)

Emily Carr, for example, was a Canadian artist, a late Post-Impressionist and Expressionist, who has only recently been receiving more critical attention in the art community.  Her paintings show her love for nature, such as this work, titled Red Cedar.
The warmth of color, next to the softness of the artist's brushwork, lends a pleasurable vibe to the aura of this work.  The grace of the swaying ground below brings us into a world bordering on the fantastical.  The artist has painted with reverence the thick trunk of the cedar tree, right in the middle of the canvas, and gives to it the most vibrant red hues of the painting.  It is crowned overhead by elaborate, royal greens that sweep across the top of the canvas like flowing hair, delicate and powerful simultaneously.  There exists here an almost religious sanctity of tonal approach.  Even in later artworks such as this, old ideals of the appraisal of nature, as from the Romantic Period, come back to life.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Contemporary Art (pt. 1)

It is a reality of the modern world that things move very fast, and consequently what is new already becomes old by the time people write about it.  This is especially true of art, which, as we have seen, is seldom given complete attention during the time of it production.  Art is constantly moving and changing; and so it's hard to keep up.  What I'm labeling as "Contemporary Art" here is in fact quite aged material, some of it from thirty or forty years ago.  I do not mean to sound anachronistic; this is simply how I was taught.  And, at any rate, I think you'll find that many of these dated works are still finding a level of cultural relevance today as if they were relatively new paintings (which, considering a time span of some four or five thousand years that we've looked at so far, I suppose this is pretty recent).  In a little bit, we shall examine some more contemporary pieces, and then I will feel more comfortable with the label (though, even those are now a thing of the past); for now, there are a few more key works to consider from the 1970s.
The label "contemporary art" is of course not an official designation but merely a temporary name for what hasn't been clearly defined yet.  In the same manner by which artists of, say, the Baroque Period only inherited their title in retrospect of the post-Reformation age, it is often the case that art and literature within the immediate present is largely unaware of itself.  Definitions and titles come after the fact.  Van Gogh was ahead of his time; during his artistic career, there was no one to explain to him, "Oh, that's Post-Impressionism stuff."  This is the way in which new things are frequently left unspecified until later generations.  And although several of these works we're about to examine have been given proper labels suitable to a growing genre of art, many of the later works have yet to be—for lack of a better word—defined.  For now we just call it "contemporary art" until scholars and theorists (and other artists) come along with a view of the larger picture of things and spot the movement of trends and fashions within the art world during this late-Postmodern Age.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Op Art (pt. 3)

Yaacov Agam, an Israeli-born artist, is another of the art movement's leading contributors.  His works often feature thin, fixed strips that project from the surface of a painting in vertical rows.  His art is frequently colorful and kinetic.  Our eye continually traces over the breadth of the visual area because we are met with such a vivid overabundance of colorful activity and shapes.  It looks chaotic, but it's actually extremely ordered.  The attention to design which characterizes so many of these types of artworks is still a popular element of certain branches of art today.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Op Art (pt. 2)

This is another good example of Op Art.  Bridget Riley frequently used black-and-white images such as this to produce the effect of an optical illusion in her artworks.  Here we see a unique mix of reversing patterns that narrow and shrink in circular fashion toward a round, empty center, which our eye naturally looks to.  When you're looking at the center of the work, however, do you notice the way the black lines all around it seem to be moving?  This is an optical trick easily achieved once learned but requiring exact precision in order to work.  Riley's canvases had to be mathematically structured in order to produce the proper effect.  In order for you to get the full effect, you might want to enlarge the image by clicking on it; but I wouldn't blame you for not looking at it too long.  This kind of art gives me headaches.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Op Art (pt. 1)

A nonobjective art movement began in the U.S. after 1960.  Taking Pop Art to a further extreme, artists of this style sought to create unconventional, extraordinary images based on the sciences of visual perception.  Op Art, as it was thus called, was a style that tried to create an impression of movement on the picture surface by means of optical illusion.
Bridget Riley was among the most prolific of Op Art artists.  Her canvases show dizzying images of lines and colors in certain patterns which the human eye perceives to be active.  She used gradual changes of color and wavy lines to add a sense of movement in this work, entitled Cataract 3.  The effect works best when you enlarge the image (just click on the artwork to view the bigger version).  The lines appear to be moving, don't they?  I think the trick is to look at the work dead on; your eye naturally glides over the picture, and this, in turn, generates the effect of moving lines.
It is perhaps no coincidence that art of this caliber rose to popularity in the 1960s and '70s, sometimes called "the psychedelic era."  While artwork such as this is maybe more communicable to people on drugs, the inherent themes of such a work bring out much of the popular sentiment of that time.  Riley herself is known to have taken inspiration from various Modern and Postmodern literary sources and built off of themes of warped reality, unclear morality and purpose in the world, and the perceived ability of science to degenerate humankind as well as to improve it.  We gaze into a strange kind of dystopia when we look into these works.  By fooling the brain or the eye with deceptive, illusionary images, our perception of the world and reality is brought to the table for questioning; and our personal sense of humanness is challenged as we find that we can no longer even trust our own eyes to accurately see what's painted on a canvas.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 7)

You can see Claes Oldenburg's famous Clothespin sculpture in Philadelphia.  Once again, we see an everyday object magnified to an extreme and plopped right down into a busy town center, as though it were another building.  This photograph by Tara Bradford particularly blends the clothespin in well with the surrounding skyscrapers and even makes the sculpture appear bigger than those other, impressive buildings.  This is the effect Oldenburg had in mind: to blend in these larger-than-life items almost as social experiments, to spark a public reaction as much as to comment on contemporary culture and the function of art in the community.  Much of Pop Art is made for the people.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 6)

Similar to Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg took ordinary, manufactured objects and enlarged them as statements of society's dependence on industrialization.  A sculptor, Oldenburg also chose unconventional locations wherein to position his artworks for public viewing.  They most frequently appear, not in museums, but in regular, everyday public places, such as this giant pickaxe, which rests awkwardly on the grounds of a park in Kassel, Germany.
The focus is vaguely reminiscent of Georgia O'Keeffe's enlargement of the flower.  Oldenburg's attention to conventional objects in unconventional places displays not just the intricate social critique of a pop artist who seeks to comment on the nature of consumerism in American culture but a memorable effusion of one of the basic qualities of artists of all mediums; and it is the thing which has come to define art in the modern era perhaps most of all—the ability of the artist to think outside the box.  After all, most of the fun in inventions such as this lies in wondering why the artist chose to position the pickaxe the way in which he did; and why that particular location; and why so big; etc., etc.  This is the heart of ingenuity, creativity, and, in a way, art itself.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 5)

If it's pop culture we're dealing with here, then I don't need to say anything regarding the developing style of graphic art in the '40s and '50s.  Comic books today still carry such a significant relevance in society that we're almost drowned in them.  I can no longer count how many superhero movies Hollywood has produced over the past decade.  Clearly, this is a medium that has embedded itself into the fabric of social culture today.  Images such as this, the Drowning Girl, therefore, are still today instantly distinguishable.
In 1963, Roy Lichtenstein produced this painting, a rip-off of an actual panel in a real comic series.  He changed a few things, however, and made the image his own; and today it is considered one of the staple inventions of Pop Art.  It features the kind of typical melodramatic action common to most genres of graphic art fiction; a girl with blue hair is drowning in the ocean or some other stormy body of water (true to the genre, we can't see anything else because this is a single frame of what would ordinarily be a string of images, telling a story—I trust all of my readers are avid comic book fans).  We can see tears beginning to stream down her cheeks, a true "damsel in distress" as per the superhero stories.  A word bubble, the most famous element of comic book fiction, appears at the top with the following melodramatic lines of the perishing girl: "I don't care!  I'd rather sink—than call Brad for help!"  The exaggerated drama and overemotional theatricality of such a frame is characteristic—almost archetypal—of the genre which Lichtenstein is here recreating and elevating to the art world (and the girl's blue hair, too, haha!).  As a product of the culture of the day, this recognizable image bears implicit connotative significance in the eyes of viewers everywhere who get the reference; and that's definitive Pop Art.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 4)

No doubt Warhol's most famous contribution to the art world was the simple image of a Campbell's Tomato Soup Can.
Once again, such a straightforward image can speak for itself.  It's commonplace, widespread, and instantly recognizable.  Perhaps I can't identify with Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series, but in America back at this time this would have been something I looked at very regularly, maybe even on a weekly basis at the grocery store.  It would therefore have its own meaning with me—(perhaps to remind me that we're out of tomato soup).  The art here ceases to be about the artist (as with Van Gogh and Pollock) and becomes about the public.  This is a cultural image of a public reality: countless people buy this kind of soup, even today.  To qualify such an entity as a work of art is a statement on the lifestyle of the American crowd in the Postmodern Era.  America is, after all, infamous for its consumerist-centered commercial industry; why not marry art to that?  And the implications of a work such as this on American consumerism surface most visibly when examining the artist's larger collages of Campbell's Tomato Soup Cans.  Warhol even went so far as to include 100 Cans in one of his works (and he titled it simply that).
When you think about it within the progression of art history up to now, it isn't as deconstructive to art theory as one might first expect.  When Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to an art salon in 1917, it was a clear, satirical jab at the institution of the art world at that time; but there is a degree of sincerity in Warhol's Tomato Soup Cans which goes beyond a mere avant-garde shift of focus onto the unexpected.  Shouldn't the fact that this is an object seen by so many people on a regular, everyday basis be a vindication for it to ascend to the level of art?  This is capturing culture.  In the Baroque Era, kings and queens and princes had their portraits painted to display to the public, and that was a statement of societal construction; it asserted the dominance of royalty.  Similarly, we looked at several propaganda paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte from the Neoclassical Period, which made direct statements on French politics at the time.  Art has perhaps always reflected pieces of the society in which it appears.  The Postmodern world simply embraced a broader hierarchy of significance, from continental maps to a mere can of soup—and that is reflective of the philosophy of such a time as well.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 3)

It was Andy Warhol who defined Pop Art in America in the 1960s, and he did so with simple collage constructions of very well-known people and things.  This is a collage of negative photographs of Marilyn Monroe.
We see the famous movie actress in a variety of vivid and energetic colors—none of them quite right for a realistic image of Monroe.  Like Color Field painting, the color scheme of the work comes across as mostly random or arbitrary, but this time we get a clear image of something we can relate with.  Whatever is to be read into that goes largely unspoken; it's a given that everyone who looks at this will be thinking the same thing: "That's Marilyn Monroe."  Yet we are handed nine prints of the same thing, copied and structured evenly next to each other.  We are given in excess the image of this pop culture icon, and we may perhaps read into that.  A statement on glamour and publicity, this striking work of art catches our eye with many bright colors very much like the actress herself attracted attention from her audiences (and John F. Kennedy).  Seeing her in this light almost oversimplifies her allure—it's all merely colors and duplications; but no one can question that Monroe was one of Hollywood's most prolific actresses and, indeed, a symbol herself of the American lifestyle.  All the appeal and shallowness, the fascination and turpitude of pop culture comes out through the image.  The artist merely reproduces it and adds a simple stylistic touch of color and form (like a painting).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 2)

Jasper Johns, for example, began producing collages in the 1950s which formed the image of the American flag.  This 1961 painting, entitled Map, shows in rough order a map of the United States.
Similar to a Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock creation, the artist has slashed paint onto the canvas with strong emotion.  The vibrant colors, red, yellow, and blue—which are the three primary (and most vivid) colors—lend further intensity to the painting.  It's a huge painting and one associated with the Modern Art tradition of Abstract Expressionism; but it displays an image (albeit compromised and messy) with which we are all familiar.  And when you think about the simplicity of the subject, too, you can glean an understanding of what Pop Art centered itself around.  This is a mere map of the United States.  Why paint something which is already so well-known?  What significance is there to be found in such a commonplace image?  This movement of art continually asserts that there is abundant meaning in images from popular culture; that audiences can choose for themselves what such an image means to them.  But here Jasper Johns has slashed away at his subject in an expressionistic approach that causes us to see the map of the U.S. in a fuddled, unattractive, and visually startling light.  This is the ability of Pop Art to alter our perspective on things otherwise taken to be ordinary and familiar.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Pop Art (pt. 1)

It might be a shock to you, but some people don't appreciate Modern Art.  Especially during its upswell, art which was so ahead of its time received little real recognition among the general public, and the new generation of artists noticed this and challenged these techniques with new art styles.  It was time for something new, a breath of fresh air from the higher complexities of Abstract Expressionism.  And in America, the 1960s was most certainly a time of change, both cultural and ideological.  A new art form swept the nation, and it's one that is still with us largely today.
If you ask me, the reason why the Modern Art movement failed was that it didn't connect with its audience.  We can see this by looking at the successive generation of artists and the qualities of their art.  The new generation of artists challenged the old techniques and introduced a style all its own.  Pop Art portrays images from popular culture, and it came to the U.S. around the 1960s .  In England during the 1950s, collages with magazine clippings and pictures of familiar household objects became popular; this theoretical ideal then crossed over to America to influence the next artistic movement.  As we will see, this type of art is wholly devoted to commonly understood and widely recognized objects or people.  Modern Art had been about artistic ideals of stylistic approach and creative technique (such as with Pollock), but that apparently didn't do a whole lot for the general public.  Not everyone can look at a Diebenkorn or Rothko color field painting and appreciate it as a masterpiece; after all, it's just color on a canvas.  But perhaps people would appreciate the images more if those images showed things which they knew and could respond to.  Pop Art dominated in well-known, instantly recognizable images.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 20)

Rothko's Blue and Gray from 1962 is another example of minimalistic color field abstraction in Modern Art paintings.  This is simply blue and grey, and that's it.  There's no subject matter, no story, no likeness to reality, no shapes, no intelligibility whatsoever.  We're just meant to observe the colors and paint on the canvas and absorb that without the distracting entities of subject matter, structure, form, shape, and theme.  In a way, then, it's perhaps one of the truest manifestations of art in all of art history.  If Manet had, a hundred years earlier, sought to rid his paintings of all pretext for illusion and deception and create artwork that admitted sincere awareness of its own two-dimensional medium, then Mark Rothko's color painting series breaks down all formalities of false perspective and artistic realism.  This is merely a painting and professes to be nothing more.  We see colors but no image; we see a painting, but no subject.  Art has rarely ever typified itself so directly.
These meditations on color offer in perfect distillation the same qualities which art has always carried to viewers: simple paint on a canvas.  But rather than the distracting subject matter, here we have a chance to look at art eye-to-eye, seeing only the color and the paint (even the "shapes" in these works are indistinct).  Though abstract and often not readily accessible to the public, these works nonetheless provide viewers with the most elementary essentials of art and beg the question not only of what it could mean unto itself, but what all of the rest of art means in light of the same fundamental revelation: that, in reality, all art is comparable to this, boiled down to this, and in fact is simply this.  It's all just colors and shapes, folks.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 19)

Mark Rothko fused color field painting with the developing artistic style of Minimalism to create some of the art world's most recognizable canvases.  His paintings often comprise only two or three colors, painted in simple shapes that plainly cover the canvas and give no reference to subject matter.  The above painting is his Orange and Yellow.
Again, approaching their art with philosophically and theoretically experimental techniques, painters like Diebenkorn and Rothko saw art as a more complicated invention than a mere visual copying of the physical reality of the world around them.  Abstract emotions and concepts must also exist in the two-dimensional frame of the canvas, but in order to convey these intangible elements the artist's approach to painting needed to change dramatically.  Here we just see patches of color, but more focally we are looking at orange and yellow.  By allowing these colors (mere pigments of light itself) to speak for themselves, the artist opens the door for transcendent, metaphysical significance to permeate the canvas as luminously and vividly as the hues of the painter's palate.  But what truth or meaning do you see in this?  Within the blankness of such abstraction, transcendent significance no doubt lurks, if you'll forgive the pun, in many shades but seldom in definitive, outright clarity.  In such hazy interpretive contexts, therefore, might some of us be vindicated in raising our own arguments as to the questionable integrity such art maintains to its genre or medium?  Do you think this is art?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 18)

Andrew Wyeth's paintings frequently contain profound imagery of stark emptiness, harsher than the soft brushstrokes of Edward Hopper.  Wyeth's colors, too, often muted and considerably darker, tell of a more callous world, tougher and sterner than the subdued melancholy of Hopper's paintings.  In this unconventional portrait, the artist paints a solitary sitter in almost total darkness, with his back and side to us.  That Gentleman (as the work is humbly titled) sits calmly and thoughtfully behind a closed door.  His shoes are neatly placed upon a desk behind him, below a board of hanging scissors, also neatly placed; and in front of him is darkening wall fading off into black.  The only ray of light in the painting glides across part of the man's back, his right shoulder, and his left hand, delicately resting on his lap.  Our only vision of the man's face reveals the back of his balding head, his ear, and his thin cheeks.  Apart from that, the man sits in isolated anonymity and peaceful simplicity.  The rugged man of the world sits in the dark with naught but a small beam of light to illuminate his thumbnail; and yet this, too, is a scene relaxing and quiet, quite calm.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 17)

This famous 1948 work of art, Christina's World, has become one of Modern Art's iconic images.  Recreated in several movies, the scene shows a woman strewn on the ground of a field, her fist clenching the earth, looking up ahead toward a farmhouse on the horizon.  Once again, this painting is accomplished through hard-edge approaches to technique; each blade of grass is especially distinguished to give a thorough vision of the field.  This attention to the detail of the ground brings us nearer the earth, as if we are seeing the grass and dirt up-close.  And amid it is the stark contrast of the woman's pink dress.  Christina refers to a real person, a neighbor of Wyeth's, who was crippled and suffered from polio.  Her struggle in the painting is then a very literal, or physical, one: she must slowly, painfully crawl up the hill to reach the farmhouse—and the distance is daunting.  Suddenly the specificity of the grass all around her has meaning, for all of this she must traverse—each blade of grass—with strained effort and great difficulty in order to reach the house.  Her destination, however, appears grim rather than inviting, resting dark and ominous in the distance.  The struggle is vast and intimidating, and the end result appears equally hopeless: this is the world in which this woman lives, as the title alludes to.  Thematically, the pictured struggle of this woman has come to be recognized also as a spiritual battle, fighting against the nature of the world itself, its apparent cruelty and hopelessness.  She digs her fingers into the earth in defiance and holds her head up to face the horizon while a faint gust of wind lifts a couple locks of her hair to the side.  We never see her face, but we can identify with her anyway to a degree almost as thorough as the realism of the grass all around her—we might as well picture ourselves in the scene, holding such a posture (though it is quite an exaggerated pose).  Faced with similar circumstances, all alone in the world, beaten down by our own infirmities to the bare soil of the earth, and plunged into the desolate waste land of an empty field, would we be able to make it safely to our destination?  Surely, this is not a life for the faint of heart.  But Wyeth's painting broadens its contexts to all of humanity.  It is the state of the modern world; that things are difficult and nature is cruel.  The literal situation for Christina in the painting is for the human race the imminent metaphorical situation in the Postmodern Age.  The poeticism of such a painting still rings cords of profundity in American popular culture today: this is probably the most frequently imitated painting in modern motion picture history.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 16)

Wyeth's artwork mostly all follows the same stylistic approach.  This painting, Turkey Pond, reveals in hard-edge Photo-Realism a similar visual construction of a figure lost within a landscape.  The landscape, it should be observed, is painted with painstakingly precise detail, to the point at which nearly every blade of grass is visible.  The result is a visual feast for viewers, even though the subject of the painting contains very few elements: it's merely a man walking through a field toward a pond in the distance.  Hard-Edge painting, however, turns these simplistic scenes into masterworks of art.  This painting, too, contains a subtle poignancy to it that balances the stark realism of Wyeth's brushwork and technique.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 15)

Andrew Wyeth painted similarly to the approach of Edward Hopper, but Wyeth's art falls under the category of Hard-Edge painting, which simplifies subject matter to limited shapes and colors, realistic or not, but outlines everything with detailed precision in order to encase or enclose objects more fully and completely.  Hard-Edge art took the "geometry" aspect of art and exaggerated it as an expression of art's perfect devotion to design.  Painters like Wyeth paid close attention to literal qualities, not just showing what things look like but capturing their essence with almost photo-realistic exactness.
In his painting Winter, 1946, the artist creates a starkly realistic scene to better convey, in graphic precision, the depth of a personal subject of poignant and emotional expressionism.  He painted it in 1946, a year after his father died in an automobile-train accident.  The scenery of the painting replicates in detail the hill near which his father died, an actual spot in Pennsylvania.  Here, on the other side of the hill, we see a solitary boy running away, trying to escape the scene.  The rigid, black bushes at the horizon on the left connote the presence of death on the opposite side of the hill, but also the way in which the hill itself looms over the boy suggests a foreboding power which is about engulf this helpless figure.  Whether representative of his father or death itself, the hill covers almost the entirety of the painting with a haunting, expressionless existence and surrounds the fleeing boy.  Although he runs, this still image freezes the boy forever (representative of the artist) within the scene.  The artist has created an inescapable cell in his painting which retains the expression of his unremitting, interminable emotion.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 14)

Color field painting is maybe the most abstract of Modern Art subgenres.  Richard Diebenkorn adopted this style after first practicing on aerial landscape paintings during his early artistic career.  Inasmuch as the American farmland countryside, viewed from the air, appears in some areas to be blocks or squares of earth placed along the ground like a puzzle, so the artist viewed painting as the application of certain colors, in varying shapes or geometric "blocks," onto a canvas.  Have not all the paintings we've looked at so far been merely "fields" of colors spread over a flat surface?  Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series (this is No. 28) offers viewers only that and nothing more.  All specifically chosen and placed in deliberate formation, these colors make up an abstract creation that challenges even Abstract Art because it challenges the very makeup of a painting.  The colors here do not form shapes, like in Kandinsky's artwork; here, the colors are the shapes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 13)

Edward Hopper's style of stark, flat realism often looks almost surreal.  His art creates detailed scenes with specific imagery, but the color schemes, structural layouts, and perspectives often produce emotional effects, akin to the art of the Expressionists.  It's as if his work is oxymoronic to itself—realistic, yet surrealistic and expressive.  And although a commonality among Postmodern artists was the trick of taking and blending from several different sources (we'll see this even more definitively with Pop Art), painters like Hopper forged completely independent styles, almost indefinable but for the historical context of art movements collectively labeled Modern Art.
This painting, meditatively called Rooms by the Sea, was finished later in his career, in 1951, and marvelously expresses the same sentiments common to his entire body of work.  Rather than a realistic work of figures sitting in restaurants, Hopper's painting here directly addresses the artist's themes of modern isolation and abandonment with new immediacy.  No figures appear in this scene; and although the interior of the house in which we find ourselves in this work appears ordinary, we very quickly notice the open doorway on the right, emptying out straightaway into a far-reaching oceanic landscape.  It's unrealistic because the artist's latent subject matter here is a metaphysical quality, the human experience of loneliness and grief.  Notice the artist has painting the scene with the same stylistic approach that keeps his objects looking realistic and plain, but this time he has inserted an anomaly: a door leading immediately to the sea.  Within this artistic contemplation of grief, the artist brilliantly structures a visual story, in metaphoric terms, for our eye to follow, as if reading a book, from left to right.
First we see the commonplace interior of some domestic dwelling.  Greens and reds, though muted in tone, provide a starkness of presence, causing us to notice quite readily the furniture of the place: the couch, perhaps most of all.  It is red and colorful, but empty; perhaps the artist draws our eye to it for this purpose.  The whole room is empty—indeed, the whole painting is empty.  But a light shines into the place, and our eye follows the whiteness of the sun on the bright walls.  Interestingly enough, Hopper has made the centerpiece and largest object of focus in the work the barren, white wall separating the interior room and the exterior ocean.  Although nothing is on the wall, a streaming window of light creates an intense line of expansion that draws our eye toward the right half of the painting.  As a kind of bridge between the two, this wide, empty wall offers no visual stimulus in and of itself, yet leads to arguably the painting's most interesting feature.  And the added touch of the floor, painted with the color of sand on a beach, makes this long stretch of blankness a kind of visual motif of transcendence.  Following the barren vacuity of this featureless environment, perhaps we do not find it so odd after all to empty out into the wide expanse of the ocean.  It's some optical illusion or surrealistic anomaly, but Hopper inserts it into his painting with the utmost subtlety and inviting calmness.  Contrasting the colorful green and red scene on the left, as well as the waste land of white in the center, this right-hand window of the scene fades away exclusively in shades of blue.  There is something poignant about the transition, something that speaks of the nature of loneliness or sorrow.  Many of Hopper's artworks, as we've seen, have dealt with these themes in the context of the urban environment.  Toward the end of his career, the artist showed just how near the wide-open expanses of unending void and emptiness can be to the familiar, domestic settings of American city life: the proximity is just down the hall and through the door.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 12)

This 1942 painting, titled Nighthawks, is one of Edward Hopper's most famous works of art.  With its precise design, evocative color, and indelible imagery, the work is nothing short of a masterpiece and remains to this day one of the iconic creations of American art.
From a sidewalk view, we are looking at an empty street corner and a late-night diner with big, wide windows.  All of the other buildings on the block are closed; the only light and warmth of color in the painting come from the restaurant.  We can see inside, but Hopper has included no visible door or entranceway into the place, as if to suggest a separation, an unbridgeable gap between us, the viewer, or the artist himself, and the populace.  But we look into this cozy area, as our eye naturally follows the light, and see several figures: a lone man seated with his back to us, a couple leaning up against the counter on the opposite side of the bar, and a waiter.  We see these figures from far away, already suggesting a tone of secluded estrangement; and what with the deserted streets and vacant buildings of our surroundings, we approach the scene in the diner already imbued with feelings of solitary remoteness.  But when we enter (at least visually) into the restaurant, we find a scene equally communicative of these consistent themes of loneliness, isolation, and monotony.
The waiter bends low behind the counter, perhaps preparing an order for the couple just in front of him.  We see a profile of him farthest indoors (or, closest to the middle of the bar).  Past him on the far right are two coffee machines, defining him as a server, a utility, almost, blending in with the pale interior walls of the restaurant; and farther off to the right is a door, probably leading to the kitchen (but we do not know).  Along the countertop we can see napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers—this attention to detail infuses Hopper's image with even richer clarity and precision, as if to suggest that this is no mere invention of artistic imagination.  This scene reflects a reality of American society, right down to the salt and pepper shakers.  Of course, this picture of society is not typical to the work of a flâneur, as we saw during the Impressionistic Period; for this scene takes place late into the night hours, when the crowds have gone and only a few remain behind.  One of these "stragglers," then, is the waiter, who we can assume is there because it's his shift; and he is meanwhile busy in his own world, working away until it comes time for him to go home.
Then, on the far side of the bar counter is a couple who are almost holding hands (the man holds a cigarette, and the woman's hand simply rests on its own).  The woman wears the most vivid colors of the whole painting.  Her red dress and stunning orange hair cause her to stand out in the scene; and yet, like the brightly-dressed waiter to the right, a part of this coloration blends in with the well-lit background of the diner.  Situated against the backdrop of the dark window, she would stand out even more; but Hopper has placed her nearer the interior lighting of the restaurant in a way that diminishes the richness of her otherwise vibrant colors.  In fact, she herself appears removed from the scene, as she stares blankly at a small packet of sugar or a dollar bill.  Her face bears no expression, and one could almost say that she's bored just sitting there.  Clearly, the coloration of her character doesn't match up with that of her outer appearance.  And the man leaning over the countertop next to her appears to carry a similar, blank expression on his face as he stares off into space.  He is clothed in darker colors, and his suit blends in more with the night behind him.  They are maybe the last customers of the night and only casually walk into the diner, not totally present within the scene or else very bored or melancholy.  The idea is that, once they are finished with their drinks, they will leave the same way they came in: not talking to each other or anyone else.  They are merely unknown souls passing in the night, distant and detached like the figure of the woman at the Automat in Hopper's earlier painting.
And then we come to the man sitting alone.  He is nearest to the center of the painting but almost blends into the background, given his dark clothes and shadowed head.  Barely any of his skin is shown to contrast the darkness around him except a slight picture of the side of his cheek.  We can just notice over his arm that he is holding a glass.  He is sitting with his back to us, and we see hardly any features of his face or even hands; we know nothing about him.  None of the other people in the diner seem to take notice of him, and the fact that we cannot see his face further separates him from us, too.  This man is completely alone and unknown, just some mysterious shape among the rest of the painting's cast of characters.  It's an impression of city life, but it also bears allusion to the pervading literary and artistic mindset of the time.  Representative of the late Modern sentiments of disillusionment and seclusion, this man evokes both the feeling and philosophy of urban isolation.  A post-Depression painting, Hopper's Nighthawks speaks subtly of the human toll of the time period alongside the Western world's entrance into Postmodernism.  The profound sense of loss and devastation that characterized the literary Modern Age after World War I is present here, and paintings like this echo the common attitude of the generation, expressed in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby:

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.  I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove.  Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness.  At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

Actually, many art scholars have linked the painting's subject matter to a short story by Ernest Hemingway, from which the artist may have gleaned inspiration.  Hemingway's short story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" tells of two restaurant waiters hanging about their diner very late one night, waiting for a single bar patron, an older man, to finish his drink and leave.  While waiting for the man to pay and exit the store, the two waiters swap rumors about the man's possible history, while one waiter grows increasingly impatient to return home to his wife.  Like the man in Hemingway's story, this figure in Nighthawks sits eternally still, late into the night, and remains to the end a mystery.
And, considering Hopper's layout of this work, the man, this anonymous loner, is placed farthest to the left, away from the center of the building.  In his seat, he hangs near the edge of the restaurant and closer to the outside world, further associating him with darkness, mystery, and the unfamiliar void.  Sitting idly in a diner late at night, all alone and with his back turned to the world, his image is of the iconic noir type, of the lone wolf—or, in this case, hawk.
Late Modern and early Postmodern poets found a recurring symbol in the hawk as an animal representative of several themes to their generation.  A kind of extended metaphor, hawks in early Postmodern literature came to symbolize many different ideas, from God, death, and the Unknown to expressions of the heart of the post-WWII generation and humanity in general.  You might check out Robert Penn Warren's "Evening Hawk," Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting," and Robinson Jeffers' "Hurt Hawks" to gain a quick understanding of the significance of hawks in poetry at this time.  I won't wax away too eloquent on this point, since it took to popularity primarily as a literary device of the 1950s and '60s; but here Edward Hopper selects Nighthawks as his painting's title, possibly to reference several of these symbolic meanings.  However, the most instantly communicable feature of the change from "night owls" to "Nighthawks" is the latter's more direct connotation to predatory imagery (since owls are more frequently characterized as possessive of wisdom).  The world of this painting is to be seen, under its chosen title, as a world of amoral wildness and heartless violence, while simultaneously one of tranquil soaring and graceful agility.  There is definitely an underlying beauty to an artwork such as this, though it depicts the empty loneliness of modern life.
Again, a darker reading of the work sees the title in direct reference to one of the figures in the scene.  "Nighthawks" could refer to a nocturnal hunter, an animal purposefully hanging about around a certain location to pick out a weaker creature to prey on.  This interpretation of the painting sees the man sitting alone as a predator.  The shadowy anonymity of his hidden face and the broad darkness of his back turned to the viewer become suggestive of an image less of pathos and more of fear.  There can be greater intimidation in his aloneness at the corner of the diner, like a solemn, vulturine scavenger, waiting to fall on a lone and unsuspecting late-night visitor.  And if we look closely at the side of the man's face, we notice that he appears to be staring at least within the vicinity of the couple—perhaps he is eyeing the woman; after all, her red dress, lipstick, and vivid, orange hair made her immediately visible to us.  Like the painting of the Automat, this woman could be read as a sexual object, innocently and absent-mindedly staring at whatever she holds in her hand while not realizing she's being looked at.  After all, why is this man staying here alone so late at night?  Is he a "hawk"?
It's interesting; depending on your own views, this lone figure on the left may be a symbol of loneliness and abandonment, or he may be seen as a night stalker or prowler.  In one instance, he merely exists in a world of pain and woe, while in the other, his presence in the world is the cause of its frightening dangerousness.  Either way, Hopper captures a pretty bleak snapshot of the world in his painting; and yet, how calm a scene!  We can almost feel the silence as we gaze through the glass of this secluded restaurant.  This could be a scene of philosophical and emotional devastation and grief; or it could be a stage picture of a terrifying night of criminal activity (perhaps alluding to another relevant short story by Hemingway, "The Killers," also set in a restaurant)—but in either case, the napkin dispensers remain laid out neatly along the countertop, the salt and pepper shakers remain in their place, and the waiter continues to work away into the late hours of the night.  And the artist shows the outside environment of empty shops and buildings and the deserted street corner as if to comment on the ignorance and indifference of the world to witness it all.  For good or ill, this paradoxical restaurant with no doors appears destined to carry on as it is well into the night, offering light and warmth but little real protection or safety from the heartlessness and predatory cruelty of the outside world.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 11)

Others of Edward Hopper's paintings addressed the recreational languor of rural life.  While a scene such as this one, titled The Long Leg, does not show skyscrapers or streets, it remains inextricably tied to the imagery of American life.  Pictured here is a beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Undertones of solitude pervade the calm, quiet scene.  Obviously the lone sailboat is quite a distance out from the shore and the small lighthouse just beyond.  It seems to be drifting tranquilly out to open sea, where many hazards await; but here, now, the scene is peaceful.  The bright colors here offer a change in tone from the artist's earlier Automat work, but the serenity operates toward the same thematic ends, to motifs of lonesomeness and abandonment, only with added subtlety and, in fact, beauty.  The lure of a painting such as this is that it can evoke a type of sadness with such delicacy and calmness that it almost becomes desirable, or simultaneously sad and contented.  All the gentle colors seem to encourage the slow, graceful motion of the boat across the water and into the uncertainty of the sea.  There is poignancy in the boat's departure expressive of the artist's detachment from society here.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 10)

A very different side of urban living gets presented in the works of Edward Hopper.  A late contributor to the style of American realism practiced by the Ashcan School, Hopper had exhibited in the historical 1913 Armory Show when his career was only just beginning.  Before that, he had studied the works of Manet under the twice-removed student (pupil of a pupil) of Thomas Eakins, one of the earliest influences on the American realist style.  The artwork of Edward Hopper shows a devoted attention to this stylistic approach and subject matter; however, Hopper's paintings exhibit something more, which deviated from the Romanticism of earlier artists like Eakins.  He sought to paint the American scene in a newly realistic manner.  Similar to the Ashcan School, he concentrated on the moods and feelings aroused by the city itself but ignored the congestion and excitement of metropolitan life to capture the emptiness and loneliness that are also a part of the urban scene, especially in the new Modern Era.
Most of his paintings look something like this.  Here we see an Automat, which was a type of café that became popular in America by the 1920s and which featured a series of coin-operated vending machines and other automated devices that cut back on the need for human services (a precursor to the fast food industry).  Inside this automat café we find ourselves looking over into a corner at a lone table where a woman sits, holding a small coffee cup.  On the far left we can see a door or window leading outward—and yet, ironically, we can only see blackness outside.  Even through the enormous window behind the woman all that is visible is the reflection of the automat's two rows of interior lighting.  Nothing of the outer world is distinguishable, and yet this blackness covers the greatest portion of the canvas.  It's a profound blackness, is it not?  We've entered a microcosm, despite the paradoxical placement of a huge window along almost the entire backdrop of the scene; our vision becomes limited only to this corner table.
Seated by herself is a woman, dressed in the typical fashion for 1927 (the year this painting was produced) and holding a small coffee cup.  Her expression is famously kept blank, like the window behind her, though the placement of a small bouquet of fruit on the windowsill next to her evokes a stylistic reference to still life painting and makes her into a subject of pathos for the viewer.  Certainly the empty chair across from her seems to convey hints of loneliness or sadness.  She looks down at her coffee, and, given the apparently lonely surroundings, we might read into her expression a sentiment of grief, isolation, or melancholy; but we can't know for certain what she's feeling.  She is simply looking downward: whether practically at the beverage she is drinking or poetically at the dull monotony of the commercialist American lifestyle, we don't know—and this is our isolation as a viewer.  For we are in the scene of the painting as well.  We can see at the far bottom right-hand corner the edge of a chair, which seems to imply that you, the viewer, are sitting at a similar table just across from the woman; and that you, too, are alone.  And unlike Manet's The Railway painting, where the woman looks up at the viewer, this moment of time passes eternally without connection; the woman never looks at you.  Perhaps this is more of a comment on the remoteness of the artist in the Modern world than that of the woman figure in the painting.  The artwork of Edward Hopper continually reminds us that for many people, loneliness is as much a part of life in a great city as wide boulevards, towering skyscrapers, and constant traffic are a part of the city scene itself.  With its secluded, vulnerable, and seemingly listless young woman against the backdrop of unfathomable, black space, this painting goes to great lengths to convey the sense of isolation and confused identity which characterized the literary and artistic subject matter of the early Modern Period.
I said "vulnerable"…—another, more sinister interpretation of this painting notes the voyeuristic elements of the female's position "on display" to the viewer.  That bouquet of fruit right next to her perhaps comments on the woman's "ripeness" for consumption, and the low cut of her dress leaves a patch of pale skin that stands out in contrast against her dark coat and the even darker background.  But one of the brightest features of the paintings is the woman's legs, strategically included by the artist underneath the table.  The painter could have cut off the painting at the table's edge, but instead we are offered a kind of split-image of the woman: on the top, we see her downcast face and lonely position within her environment; but below the table, we notice the woman's bare legs, a sight that bears the potential of turning her into a sexual object.  In painting the urban scene with a style of realism so infused with a thematic sense of isolation, Hopper creates an open-ended social context within his scenes and images to allow for an interpretive duality of Modern realism.  On one level, the American scene which he painted was filled with the perils of Modernity and the threats of the modern world to the human soul; on another level, it was filled with very immediate, physical dangers.  On one level, his paintings of the desolate urban scene acted as an indictment against the indifference of society; on another level, they made reference to that same society's active greed and wickedness.
With the muted softness of the painter's brushstrokes and the soft colors of his palette, this work is perhaps more sentimental or reflective in its thematic approach than centered on the direct attack on such a specific context as that of the contemporary criminal underworld (although implications to that context can be found in works like this one).  There are many things we can read into the image of a young woman sitting alone in a café at night; perhaps one of the most immediate: that it's simply a sight which we have all seen.  Hopper's style of realism specialized in this attention to the American scene as he really saw it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 9)

The early work of Stuart Davis was influenced by the Ashcan School.  The artist borrowed from the artistic school's selection of simple subject matter over the Cubist abstraction of European art during the early 1900s, but Davis wanted to paint with a totally new approach to style.  Early in his career, the artist set out to find a new visual language with which to express himself through art.  He nailed an electric fan, a pair of rubber gloves, and an egg beater to a table and for a year painted only these.  This experiment drew him away from a reliance on subject matter and opened his eyes to the possibilities of abstraction.  With these discoveries, the artist returned to his old affinity for the subjects in urban America but returned to these subjects through the lens of abstraction; and his 1938 painting Swing Landscape is a product of this blend.
Whereas the abstract works of Kandinsky and Pollock functioned as abstract artworks in order to communicate broad, intangible ideas or themes, this painting is of very real subject matter.  Davis has here painted a collage of the American urban landscape, complete with buildings, street signs, sidewalks, and other recognizable objects, but he has painted the scene as he felt it and heard it in addition to how he saw it.  It's largely just a collection of colors, shapes, and textures suggested by real-world objects, and on the canvas it appears abstract.  This revolutionary combination of two otherwise polar opposites, realism and abstraction, broadens the ability of art to express an idea or capture an impression via any stylistic approach.  But the implications of such a work are not merely that an artist can possess absolute freedom in approaching a subject matter; inherent within the ideology of a painting like Swing Landscape is the notion that a concrete subject contains a multiplicity (or abstraction) of interpretive expression.  Davis suggests that there is more to the landscape scene of urban America than the physical look of it.  Within every object resides an ether or an abstract quality (or several qualities) that art can bring out through realism and/or abstraction.  Here the artist has expressed some of the potential for that breakthrough in artistic freedom by so colorfully and stylistically recreating an otherwise ordinary scene.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 8)

In the spirit of American realism, Grant Wood's famous painting, American Gothic, reads today as one of the most culturally recognizable and nationalistic works in U.S. history.  Also, I think this one wins for most parodied artwork.
The artist typically painted rural scenes using a style of realism modeled after that of the Flemish and German works.  This painting definitely captures some of the simplistic, rigid style of the European Gothic period, but it also fits in a wealth of symbolism that adds satirical commentary on its subject.  We see a farmer and his daughter, standing tall and rigid, with the male (the taller of the two) in front and the woman behind, communicative of the stereotypical roles of men and women during this time (the 1930s).  The man holds a pitchfork, delineating his role as the worker and breadwinner of the family.  The male farmer also takes up the larger part of the canvas and is the one to make eye contact with the viewer, engaging the outside world, whereas the woman stares submissively off to the side.  Behind them stands their house, painted white and vaguely resembling a church steeple.  They are victors of the American Dream, are they not?  This hardworking capitalist, with his property, produce, and pride, stands inflexibly rigid with a tight fist gripping his tool.  Something so straightforwardly cliché and idealistic, the subject and style of this artwork gives off several hints of social satire in the joyless, quasi-comical faces of the two figures alone.  Yet critics have argued for a certain aspect of genuine reverence in the work, perhaps establishing this American family's plight in the world as something sacred and worthy enough to be reconstructed in a Gothic-style painting reminiscent of a Jan Van Eyck portrait.  With all of its contemporary parodies, it's probably evident to say which interpretation the current public and media have opted for, but it's always interesting to see the individual reactions this work inspires.  Some people take this painting very seriously as an honest appraisal of the American standard for success.  The artwork itself is ambiguous, merely offering an image with numerous ideological implications and ample symbolic significance and opening it up to public interpretation.  We'll see more of art functioning as a cultural medium a bit later on when we get to Andy Warhol.