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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 7)

Another point about Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork which receives a lot of attention particularly today is her latent sexual imagery.  Many within her series of flower paintings contain double-readings of the plant as a symbol for nature and Mother Nature.  In characterizing this aspect of her subject matter, then, the artist has often painted vague likenesses to the female anatomy.  The maternal breast of Mother Nature may be implied here, whereas other works by the artist show flowers that look like a vagina.  This controversial reading causes us to question what we're seeing when O'Keeffe enlarges an ordinarily small plant to the size of an entire canvas—some filling enormous canvases up to nearly six feet wide.  Is this a statement on sexuality?  After all, flowers are often held to be symbols of femininity.  This could be the personal expression of the artist herself, finding an element of her own human nature in an object from nature; or it could fall back on the role of viewer perception in appreciating artwork.  Like I said, these works are not Surrealistic, but one sees the possibility to perceive, even within commonplace items like flowers, images within images through art and the ability of the painter to stylistically portray subject matter in any way he or she wants.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 6)

The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe began her official artistic career in Texas, where she became an art teacher in public schools.  Her art around this period of her life, which she produced in her spare time, showed immediate fascination in the beauty of the dry, open, western landscape.  While in Texas, she began to paint watercolors based on her response to the flat, stark surroundings.  She drew her inspiration from nature and would continue to do so even after she moved to New York and for the rest of her long career.  Her subjects often reflected the environments which she saw along her travels.  She painted pictures of New York skyscrapers as well as the deserts and mountains of her beloved southwest.  This broader view of nature and attention to large landscapes (such as one will find in the desert) imbued her art with a tone of vastness and natural beauty.  The simple elegance of her style also denoted a form of American realism in her approach to painting.  But her later career turned to a different focus, something very small and otherwise ordinary and cliché; yet her emphasis on this subject matter would award her the iconic artistic reputation for which she is remembered most today.
The artist turned from landscapes to flowers.  This directly contrasted her prior thematic approach to painting large subjects; nonetheless, she threw herself into her artistic study of flowers, and she chose to paint them similarly to the way in which she fashioned her landscape scenes.  Because a flower is so small, so easy to overlook, O'Keeffe was determined to paint it in such a way that it could not be ignored.  The result was a startling close-up view, painted in sharp-focus.  Here she's painted a super zoom-in close-up of a White Flower on Red Earth, and the bud takes up almost the entire canvas.  The before-gentle blossom now becomes a thing to lose oneself in, it's almost that daunting.  It is, unto itself, a globe of nature with a centrifugal growth and fully rounded diameter.  Its expansion toward the viewer in the painting seems almost to envelop us, drawing us into the central stigma of the flower.  Certainly no flowers which we have looked at in art history have ever been painted this way.
Of course a flower bears connotative symbolism.  Flowers often stand for beauty, nature, and love.  To paint these subjects in such a new light carries with it the implications of that approach onto the symbolic interpretation of such imagery.  Certainly beauty functions appropriately as an artistic aesthetic, to enlarge a flower to take up the whole canvas of a painting.  I mean, one of the expectations we bring to the table when we look at art is that we want it to be beautiful, right?  (Do you find these paintings beautiful?)  Or maybe there is something unsettling about expanding something so small to a larger-than-life size, an image stark, vivid, and in-your-face.  Is this an expression of love (another common association of flowers as symbols)?  Whether or not accurately suited to a connotative theme, O'Keeffe's flowers strike the eye, like Magritte's apple in The Listening Room, as objects blown out of proportion, almost surreally large and, in a way, intimidating in their huge, central placement within the frame.  But it's not anything surreal; it's just a painting of a flower.  This is the ability of art to alter perspectives on otherwise small or ordinary phenomena.  To separate the traditional representation of the flower into a completely new style of appearance is consistent with the ideological movements within Modern Art, which largely sought to redefine art within the Postmodern world.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 5)

Many people find a liberating quality to the artwork of Jackson Pollock, as if it lifted away the oppressive boundaries of artistic creation, allowing artists free reign to splash paint onto canvases and do whatever they want.  While there are inherent positive benefits to such an emancipation, a good counter-argument remains that completely unrestricted art forms cease to function as art, both for the public and for the artist; and that therefore, creative expression through art cannot purely exist in such anarchical genres as Abstract Expressionism.  There are still many people who would argue that paintings like this are not art.  And what can we say to that?  For both artist and audience, a work such as this (Pollock's painting, Lucifer) did not apply to the standard criteria for art—in fact, it intentionally deviates from art, in a way, by becoming solely about the individual's act of making something.  Clearly, this is something broader than mere art, something more abstract in conception and execution than "I'm making a painting."  So, what is going on here?  Is this art?  Perhaps more practically: should we interpret this as art?  Abstract Expressionism certainly doesn't want to be tied down to any restrictive framework.  Wouldn't it be an ironic contradiction, then, to take such an abstract entity and label it as one thing or another, an art style or a movement of art history?  Or is art something so vast that it can encompass the abstract without pushing specifics or regulatory standards on its object?  Can art freely cover all areas, abundantly broad in definition even to include the nameless, abstract, incomprehensible works?  It brings us back to the question, what is art?  Perhaps it is an entity as abstract as Pollock's paintings themselves; or perhaps you disagree, which is equally arguable.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 4)

Perhaps the culminating realization of Abstract Expressionism found itself in the artwork of Jackson Pollock.  Pollock's works center around the personally expressive effusion of the artist.  His work was about the process of creating a work of art—an element purely for the artist's experience, not relating in any way to art critics, the public, the historical tradition of art, or any other outside influence.  You might think, then, that the work of such an artist would not attract any attention in the public community; and, surprisingly, you'd be wrong.  Jackson Pollock's famous painting, No. 5, from 1948, sold at auction in 2006 for $140 million, making it the world's most expensive painting—(until 2011, when a Cézanne attracted a significantly higher amount at a private auction).
Pollock's No. 5 is an 8' x 4' canvas of paint splatters that the artist poured and threw onto the canvas.  Often flicking his dabbed paintbrush at the canvas, often pouring it directly from the can, and even occasionally stepping on top of and walking over the canvas, the artist allowed artistic aesthetics and subject matter to fly completely out the window because his art was about his own relationship to the painting through creation (and it's more interesting to do all of those things than nitpick for hours over small details).  This painting, untitled except for a numerical designation, contains no concrete subject matter, realistic imagery, or manifest theme.  In that sense, there's almost nothing to be said about a painting like this; it is a personal work of the artist and existing thematically only within the abstract expressionism of his personal emotions tied to it and physical relationship to the creative process of the work.  And yet this is the second highest selling painting in the world.  What do you think is to be so desired in a painting like this?
In a way, this is a deconstruction of art, similar to the function of Kandinsky's paintings, except for one important difference.  Kandinsky's abstraction was purely visual; Pollock, acting akin to the flow of Postmodern thought, took that concept of abstraction further to apply to art theory, theme, creation, and craft.  This painting is not initially a statement on the progression of artistic practice through history; it is, first and foremost, a product of intimate self-expressionism, like Van Gogh's asylum artworks.  It is totally abstract, removing itself away from the institutionalized ideology of art on a whole and bringing it totally within the realm of the individual's complete freedom and privacy.  Yet indirectly, Pollock's artwork affected the trend of art history on a whole because Abstract Expressionism (even the most personal form of intimate artistic creation) became, in Postmodernism, equivocal to the larger forms of art technique—and, in fact, any form of art technique.  Paint splatters on a giant canvas with no manifest attention to communicable theme, subject matter, or technical inventiveness become just as relevant as (or maybe even more relevant than) a work by Leonardo da Vinci in the Postmodern art world.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 3)

Abstract Expressionism, once again, isn't always immediately about self-expression.  Oftentimes accomplishing new techniques for art theory, this kind of art (mainly a 20th century phenomenon) brought emotion specifically into the construction of the painting—the physical construction.  The act of painting itself could communicate emotion and ideology.  In that sense, form is still taken into account, but much of these paintings' aesthetics are completely ignored or given up to abstraction or random layout.  The expression is not in anything concretely visible anymore, like Van Gogh's thick globs of paint or vivid colors.
Willem de Kooning's Woman I demonstrates this stylistic approach to painting (also his Woman III personifies the concept well, but we only need to look at one).  In terms of abstraction, the style of painting has completely contradicted, and therefore counter-acted, the subject matter.  Typically shown in art as regal models or majestic goddesses, the female sex gets presented here in a completely different light.  This is a violent painting.  It features probably the most violent brushstrokes we've looked at so far.  The artist has slashed paint on the canvas with quickness and force, showing very little care to detail and realism.  We can only barely make out the image of a woman in all of this furious anarchy, but it is a grotesque depiction.  Large, fearsome eyes glare out above inflated nostrils and bared teeth.  There are splashes and smears of sickly-pigmented colors all over the canvas.  Clearly, this is an image of women (the unqualified "Woman" of the title bears reference to the sex in general) that has been forged out of, if not emotional expressionism, then a particular abstract, ideological approach to the subject matter.  In other words, if he had painted the woman realistically, we would lose all of the contextual significance received here in the way he has painted her—it would just be a woman.  Similarly, a realistically drawn angry woman would simply be an angry woman, but it is Willem de Kooning's technique that infuses emotion into the unqualified abstract: not of a woman but of Woman, the ideal (and likewise for its non-specific emotionalism).  The artist has an itinerary to convey the abstract of an idea when painting Woman I which won't come out through realistic depiction of subject matter; it will come out stylistically, through how he paints it.  The conceptual elements here bear several implications, alluding to the traditional artistic views of women as in opposition to the rising movement of feminism at this time.  The bosom of the figure here, in Woman I, as well as her short, stout body, reminds us of one of the earliest depictions of women in art history, the Venus of Willendorf.  Her nudity bears reference to Classical statuary, and her gaze at the viewer is reminiscent of Manet's Olympia.  All of these historic traditions of depicting females in art exist here in this painting, but through de Kooning's completely unorthodox style he reverts every one of those traditions, presenting women in an utterly new way that earned him much criticism from the art world and the public alike.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 2)

And one of the key elements of Modern Art was self-expression.  An early example of this is found in the artwork of Arshile Gorky, an Armenian artist who, as a young boy, had to flee his country and come to America in order to escape the Armenian Genocide, which indirectly caused his mother's death.  In memory of his mother and the devastating loss of life which occurred in his country during World War I, Gorky's art became about the remembrance and personal struggle with the aftermath of such a horrific experience.
This painting, of The Artist and His Mother, Gorky painted after his mother died in Armenia.  It is painted simplistically to accentuate the expressive feelings of a child (the artist was just a boy when he had to leave his home because of the Genocide).  Innocence has been lost here in the sloppy, choppy brushstrokes of, for example, the two figures' clothes, and yet a devotion or loyalty to innocence remains in the stylistic choice of the flat, two-dimensionality of the image.  Gorky paints himself as a kind of stick figure, humbly offering up a small flower in honor of his mother.  The mother, seated proudly on the right, stares with confidence and strength directly at the viewer.  Although she has passed away, her memory, in the artist's eyes, is something still energetic and powerful, exuding an authoritative presence and an engaging connection with onlookers.  Her face is defined and firm.  The whiteness of her dress indicates her purity and spotless humanity, but the artist hasn't bothered to continue filling in the bottom of her dress.  The brushstrokes fade off—and in fact much of the painting looks unfinished.  And what is most poignant is the artist's separation from his mother in the scene.  He stands to the side, apparently a small distance back, gazing sadly or longingly at her.  This painting is expressive of his personal emotions about his mother and the memory of the terrible experiences of his childhood.  As an artistic statement, the painting is able to show a form of Expressionism but one executed with subtle and restrained colors (not like the vibrant palette of Van Gogh).  Because the art itself, then, isn't producing the bulk of its own emotional expressionism, the painting's stylistic theory takes from both Abstract Art and Expressionism.  To convey emotion, artists began turning to non-traditional stylistic forms, since abstraction (at least theoretically) has no bounds.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Modern Art (pt. 1)

Modern Art is an official designation, and in specification of this we capitalize both words, as opposed to modern art, which would refer to art containing elements of modernity, Modernism, or historical relation to the Modern Period of Western history.  Modern Art, however, is a specific art movement which spanned largely the post-WWII Western world and continued on into the 1950s and '60s.  This style included many different sub genres, which I'll go through.  On the whole, however, the individual sub genres collect into the overarching label of Modern Art as art which reflected the dissemination of the earlier Modernist period.
Modernism, you'll remember, spans back to Manet and Baudelaire, two artists who saw the need to reevaluate the world in the context of Industrialism and an increasingly global environment (at that time visible through the institution of British Imperialism).  As the Western world moved into the 20th century, technological revolutions led to a form of hyper-industrialization and, in a way, the reinvention of a new world.  By the time of the First World War, it was an unrecognizable place as compared to the conditions of a hundred years prior.  The Modernists responded to this new uncertainty about the world, and the most central expression of this Modernistic sentiment was Impressionism.  Monet's style of impressionistic brushwork was a new approach and became in fact the definitive style for the new era.  This was Modernism.
Postmodernism is something different.  Like the expansive exploration of the Post-Impressionists to new experiments in theory and form, Postmodernism takes Modernism to a broader extreme.  In literary theory we are taught that Postmodern literature is, essentially, Modern literature taken further—and by "taken further," I mean not only expanded theoretically or practically but culturally, globally, and ultimately ideologically.  The artist's craft is changing forms, but the artist's perspective on life and art is also changing.  In a way, the modern world had fully established itself by the end of the Second World War, and artists during this time existed in an artistic period which was new but also reflective of the unexpressed, unfulfilled aspects of Modernism that budded out briefly in the Post-Impressionistic and Abstract periods of the previous generations.  The groundwork had been laid; new applications would be forged through that.  (Postmodernism famously takes from other sources as a characteristic trait, like how Duchamp "stole from" the Mona Lisa for his L.H.O.O.Q.).  This kind of expanded, fully-realized Modernism (what we call Postmodernism) provided the most direct inspiration for artists during the Modern Art period.