Ab Expression: First Impressions

"Epic", Judith Godwin (Detail)
“Epic”, Judith Godwin (Detail)

I took a preliminary stroll through “Women of Abstract Expressionism”, the new and ground-breaking show of “under reported and undervalued” artists from the NYC and SF art scenes of the 40’s-60’s.I wanted to leave all pronounciness at the door, and let the show simply wash over me.

After an initial wide-eyed cruise through the show to take in the lay of the land, the groupings of multiple and various works by each artist, the rich colors, broad or frenzied strokes and gooped-on paint so characteristic of Ab Ex, I began to entertain myself with more ancillary aspects of the show, as outlined in the title cards.

There are 12 artists in the show, most of them now dead. I will not speculate on the role the omnipresent cigarettes dangling from their lips in contemporary photos may have played in this.

Frankenthaler, Krasner, Mitchell and DeKooning have, honestly, long been heavyweights, at least among the cognoscenti. Undervalued, perhaps (out of my league), but certainly not as under reported as several others that I, at least, have never heard of. This provides its own sort of pleasure, as the “bucket list” aspect of the viewing, the anticipated “wow” of seeing the male superstars of Ab Ex is washed away, and a freshness of first impressions takes its place.

A Joy DeFeo in blacks, grays and distressed whites is now on my bucket list for destination viewing in future visits. Mary Abbott shows a diversity of ideas; Pearl Fine’s use of non-traditional materials in painting anticipates Anselm Kiefer’s.

The design of the show, with its generous samplings of each artist, gives perspective. The artists’ own words and work defeats any lingering temptation to typecast along gender lines. For example, it’s hard to miss a large signature Krasner piece at the entrance in defiantly “pretty” pinks; and another later in the show which is awash in a lucsious magenta paired with a spring green. Yet a superficial impulse to judge these in terms of “feminine” qualities is quickly defeated by two nearby stunners executed in a potent, slashing brown/black, their insomniac beiges,drips and spatters palpably all her own, despite the famous “action” of her husband’s multi-million dollar canvasses. Krasner must have known by then that she was fated to become recognized primarily as Jackson Pollack’s wife. In this grouping, we can detect irony, resistance, anxiety and disappointment. And the ever present cigarettes in the photos perhaps speak to a jaded resignation, as they were wont to do in movies of the period.

Similarly, Elaine DeKooning shows an explosively chromatic “Bullfight”, which must certainly be related in many minds to her husband Willem’s work. But across the way are two portraits (of Willem) that in their measured flowing gesture and dark contemplative atmospherics of tone and color, must also qualify as two of the most unique in the show.

The exception that perhaps proves the rule is found in the opening vistas of the show, in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, whose soft pastel colors and abstract, misty riverine washes suggest flowery effusions and vulva-like redoubts in direct lineage to the delicate, so-designated cunts and petals of Georgia O’Keefe. But as the show notes steadfastly maintain, they primarily attest to her innovative and influential discovery of a staining process which spawned an entire movement, color field painting. So the scholarship behind the show is strong, and revelatory, and clearly not afraid to address the inevitable gender issues head-on and straightforwardly.

Nor is Krasner the only artist to allude, if only subconsciously, to the gender gap and its connotations. In a time when Freudian interpretation was still very influential, Judith Godwin, in “Epic”, situates a vaguely erectile swath of black and purple in a field of warming whites. Positive and negative space, good and evil, figure and ground, hidden grotto or towering monument, they are in a state of eternal flux in this show stopping canvas. And so might have Godwin’s ambivalence about her station in the art world expressed itself as well. But for the most part, the women of Ab Ex did their jobs for years despite the iniquities of the art market.

One interesting title card revelation: the testimonial evidence that San Francisco, as an American art scene outlier, was not afflicted with the sexist repressions of the well-monied NY city scene. This is a perspective especially appropriate to a place like Denver, where almost every artist, male or female, is “undervalued and under reported.” It speaks to the balance and thoughtfulness of the show’s curation, by DAM’s Dr. Gwen Chanzit.

Several of the works, by the way, are now in the collection of the DAM itself. This show is not a hasty band wagon leaping-on, a middle American museum calling desperately for attention. The museum clearly intended to find a niche for itself in this area for a while now and will continue to make this type of inquiry in the future. A previously installed, but related exhibition on the level below provides context for this show in a brief but well balanced look at Ab Ex as a whole. You shouldn’t miss it, because it supplies sketches and smaller works by some of the artists in the feature show.

There is much to be said for solitary and spontaneous wanderings through a show like this. It allows one to “listen” to what the show has to say. This show, though it attempts to set the historical record straight, also gives ear to these artists, as artists. I suspect that this show will become one of the more significant conversation starters in Denver- and the nation’s- cultural history.

Read Flag!

I found this image on Tumblr. I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else's image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.
I found this image on Tumblr. It’s very cool! I recognize the contradiction of a visual artist using someone else’s image without proper credit. If anyone has a source, or needs it taken down, please contact me.

It’s Banned Books Week. 

Though it’s been a busy Summer, I’ve gotten quite a bit of reading in. Evenings and mornings have mostly been spent catching up on my reading on the back porch, thankfully relatively cool this summer.

Here is what I’ve been reading. Rather than compile a comprehensive entry, which I’ve identified as a reason I have trouble posting regularly, I’ll make it a two-parter, leading up to an update on comics and other media.  Does anyone else have this problem? I’m hoping that splitting up the posts will lead to more (and more fluid) posts. I’m also updating the page on Monotype Workshops with new info on the free Denver Public Library/ Art Students League drop-in workshops I’m leading. Come down and try a monotype!

First, some books:

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon. Another “detective” story from Pynchon, actually a private Certified Fraud Investigator tale. Maxine smells a rat when a shady “Silicon Alley” corporation starts buying up failing dot coms to use as shell companies. Set in NYC in the 9/11 era, so you know all the expected Pynchonian paranoia is here. But unlike his last door-stop novel Against The Day, or his surf-hippie noir, Inherent Vice, the plot is one of his most straightforward, which helps with this type of genre pastiche. It’s no Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s a fun read.

The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn. Sounds geeky, and I guess it is, as there is technical data on each session given, but the commentaries are compelling reading, in the same way that the Beatles Anthology discs, and Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why are indispensable: they get you into the same studio as, and into the heads of, the Fabs at each juncture of their amazing creative journey. Matter of fact, just buy all three, and some beer or Blue Sapphire gin, and your reading/listening is all set. Thank me later.

Women, Art and Society, Whitney Chadwick. Not exactly a page turner, as this sort of thing usually needs to cater to the freshman text trade, and pay respects to the academic/feminist/cultural studies tenure track convo as well, but relatively free of post-modernist jargon. As such, it’s a tidy little overview of some of the issues and societal shifts that have kept all but the least well-behaved (and most talented) women out of the history books. Also: not likely to, nor intended to, make you proud to carry a Y chromosome.

Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Been meaning to read this forever, so rather than sit and day-drink between WC games one day, I walked down to the Tattered Cover and finally picked it up. Short, essay-sized chapters on topics that footy fans expound on with great certainty, that these guys (one a football scribe, the other an economist) put to the test. Which side to go during PKs. Why soccer teams don’t, and shouldn’t make money. Do coaches make a difference? Buy this,The Ball is Round, some beer or gin, and the MLSLive package, and watch soccer become a favorite American sport. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of Atlantic magazines that I didn’t have time for in the winter/spring, but which I refuse to recycle till I’ve read them because when the Atlantic publishes on a given topic one month, it becomes a major topic in the mainstream media and parties the next 2-3 months, every single time. Why Big Oil isn’t going away ( Technology makes it ever cheaper and easier to find and extract). Why the foodies’ anti-processed food crusade is wrong (it can easily be retooled for healthy eating for poorer Americans, unlike organic, GMO-free “natural” foods). Why the Beatles’ creative style fits the “team of rivals” mode more than the popular “two solitary geniuses” model ( John’s interjection “It couldn’t get no worse” to Paul’s “It’s Getting Better” lyrics exemplifies how they completed each other in making unique, complex pop.) You should subscribe. It’s cheaper than beer or good gin. Thank me later.

A whole big stack of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the quirky and irresistibly stylish journal of fiction, non fiction and publishing design gimmickry. I buy every 3rd or 4th one and keep them on the shelf in the bedroom, and I can pull one out when I need something to read at night. Often I’ve read barely half of a given issue anyway, but I often return to past favorites as well. Such as: ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ by Jim Shepherd, in #14, in which we meet one centurion who did not share in the glory of Rome. ‘The Stepfather’ by Chris Adrian in #18, where we encounter a family more preposterous and absurd than even our own. And ‘Fox 8’ in # 33 by George Saunders, in which we meet, then say farewell to, a creature who knows us better than we know ourselves. Each features a dark, insinuating humor that stays with you.

 

 

 

Class Act

Stefan from the Tuesday morning Monotype class has been working with fields of color. This is one of his first abstracts from the workshop, and I like it because it has a very balanced color scheme ( the photo exposure may suggest a brown for the darkest swath; it’s actually a rich, wine-y red), simple composition and fresh spontaneous brayer (ink roller) work.

I posted a small portfolio of other works from the class on my Facebook page, and will have more soon. It gives me a chance to catch up with some pictures and videos of my own work that I will post soon. For instance, I have staged photos of the different phases of one of the first large works to come out of all the sketches I’ve been putting up, also on Facebook ( link at the top). I’ll summarize the project in a future blog post, too.

I may be taking on a few too many projects, but I’m feeling a burst of energy with the spring, and at this point, probably too many is better than not enough. The videos are the ones that often get pushed to the side, partially because confidence level is still tentative with the new software. But I think they’re eye catchers, especially on Facebook and other social sites, so it makes sense to learn it.

As I mentioned, I’ve posted a number of videos to the soccer fan page I manage, and also to Zip37’s page. So I guess Squishtoid is due for the next world premiere! Will begin work on that this weekend.

What I’m reading: A whole stack of histories of US and Britain, hop-scotching from James I (Simon Schama, History of Britain, Part II) through Andrew Jackson (American Lion, Jon Meacham).

Art Star


Took a break from my own projects to go watch a favorite Denver artist do a demo at the Art Students League of Denver. Homare Ikeda has done a lot of monotypes, which is why I often bump into him at Open Press. He’s also on the faculty at ASLD. Here he was doing a painting demo, which was well attended and very interesting.


I don’t do a lot of painting anymore, and don’t usually work in the abstract when I do. I like Homare’s loose, open ended forms and his thoughtful, deliberate way of working, though. So chalk it up to networking and professional curiousity when I stopped by. I sent out a few snippets on Twitter, and admired Homare’s laid back narrative style. I do a lot of demos myself, and I can always learn.

Homare related that, as a student at Skowhegan, he’d gotten a studio visit from Komar and Melamid, the Russian Pop Artist team. K&M pronounced Homare’s work “constipated”.

“I figured that was a good thing”, Homare related with his shy little laugh. The crowd laughed too. He’d turned the potentially crushing, off hand remark into a small creative victory with his unassuming humor.

Later he tried to explain that being an artist is, to him, nothing special. He’s right, and the sometimes idealizing ASLD students need to hear stuff like that. There are geniuses in art, sure. And like many things, art can be done in an inspired way, but before that happens it’s mostly just hard work, done with commitment.

He finished up with some sumi-e drawings of traditional subjects; fish, bamboo, birds. It’s a fairly unassuming art form, done by a fairly unassuming guy.

Make no mistake, there’s more than a little magic in that.