Achilles G. Rizzoli was an outsider artist and a drawing savant. He was also a playful, inventive, and idiosyncratic wordsmith. His visionary drawings are densely and compulsively layered with a language and vocabulary of his own making. Anagrams, puns, neologisms, and solecisms run wild amidst the voluminous inner monologue that he mistook for the voice of God.
For no rational reason, I stumbled upon this particular Robert Frank photograph from his famous 1955 book, The Americans. Ordinary Americans drinking soda at a Detroit drugstore soda fountain in the mid-1950s. But I was struck by the incredible display of advertising overkill going on for a drink called “Orange Whip” — only ten cents a glass! The air is thick with Orange Whip signs, and the man in the foreground seems to be enjoying a glass of this marvelous elixir.
I had the privilege to know and work with the artist John McCracken (1934–2011) as an undergraduate art student. McCracken began making his famous leaning “plank” sculptures and freestanding “monoliths” in the mid-1960s, before Stanley Kubrick’s famous monolith appeared in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Lettrism (or Lettrisme or Letterism) is a French film and visual poetry movement that enjoyed a brief heyday as the avant-garde du jour in 1950s Paris, and is often associated with the French Revolutionary Student Movement of 1968. Founded by Elvis lookalike Isidore Isou (born Ioan-Isidor Goldstein, 1925-2007), Lettrism influenced other forms of art and poetry in Europe and Latin America up to the present and likely into the future, even as most Viners and Snapchatters remain unaware of this strange fold in the space-time continuum of art.
WAITS/CORBIJN ’77-’11 is a new book of photographs by singer/ songwriter/ actor/ poet/ artist Tom Waits and photographer/ director Anton Corbijn taken over the course of a 35-year friendship and collaboration. Notes the publisher’s blurb:
Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) was a German artist who “worked in several genres and media, including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography and what came to be known as installation art. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.”
Schwitters fled Nazi Germany in January, 1937, first to Norway and finally to England, where he remained in exile until his death in 1948. His collage work often included found fragments of commercially printed text, and his move from Germany to England precipitated a corresponding shift to English language found text in his collages, as seen in Cottage, above. Just for the hell of it, I’ve put together a found poem using most of the legible scraps of English in Cottage in rough order of appearance from top to bottom: [Read more…] about Kurt Schwitters’ Cottage: following the text to see where it leads
The great poet, novelist and artist Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) created a number of wonderful “picture poems” like the one above, which also served as the title of my source for this image: The Argument of Innocence – A Selection from the Arts of Kenneth Patchen, by Peter Veres, The Scrimshaw Press, 1976. The painted text reads,
The Argument of Innocence
can only be lost
if it is won
Veres describes the evolution of the picture poems, and includes an elucidation of their genesis by the artist’s wife, Miriam Patchen (p. 53-60):
Jed Birmingham wrote a great article a couple years ago, Black Mountain Review: Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker, about William S. Burroughs and his appearance in The Black Mountain Review in the late 1950s. The Review was the art and literary journal of Black Mountain College, the experimental liberal arts college that existed in North Carolina from 1933–1957. Here is Birmingham’s description:
Chances are by now that you’ve heard of Christian Marclay’s brilliant work of art, The Clock (2010). Though less likely that you have actually seen it (I haven’t as yet). As described by Wikipedia, the piece “is in effect a clock, but it is made of a 24-hour montage of thousands of time-related scenes from movies and some TV shows, meticulously edited to be shown in ‘real time’: each scene contains an indication of time (for instance, a timepiece, or a piece of dialogue) that is synchronized to show the actual time.”
I really care about meaning in art. I want things to look simple, but to raise issues, and to have more than one level of comprehension.
As I noted in a previous post (In praise of the artist John McLaughlin), the California artist John McLaughlin (1898-1976) is one of my favorite artists. McLaughlin’s favorite artist was a 15th century Japanese monk-painter named Sesshu Toyo. Here his the Kyoto National Museum blurb about the Sesshu painting shown above:
This masterpiece depicts a bird’s-eye-view of the famous sandbar in Tango province, one of the Three Famous Scenic Spots in Japan. It can be dated by the coexistence in the painting of the two-storied Chionji temple pagoda, which was built in 1501, and the buildings of Nariaiji temple, which burned down in 1507. It is remarkable to think that the artist, who was well into his eighties at the time, climbed to such heights to paint the scene! The painting’s combination of soft, wet ink tones, precise brushwork and sublime composition represent the acme of Sesshu Toyo’s (1420-1506) art.
This painting can be considered the masterpiece of an artist who went to China to study painting from life and the art of the Song and Yuan Dynasties and sought the unity of Zen and art throughout his life.
John McLaughlin lived in Japan for three years in the 1930s, and after that opened a Boston gallery that sold Japanese prints. “During World War II, he used his fluency in Japanese to do Marine Corps intelligence work in China, Burma and India,” wrote art critic Christopher Knight in his article about McLaughlin, Open your eyes to John McLaughlin. Here is an excerpt from that article, where Knight discuses the influence of Eastern art and thought on McLaughlin’s work:
For McLaughlin, though, the void was fundamentally different. His is a visionary envelope, an open space of expansive thought, creative energy or the spirit. It’s a void that represents the highest aspiration within Japanese aesthetics rather than Western tradition.
McLaughlin had deep admiration for traditional Japanese and Chinese painting. He was inspired by it as much as by Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich, the spiritual Russian Suprematist. In fact, Sesshu Toyo, the 15th century Japanese monk-painter, was his favorite artist.
Eastern painters were aware of Western perspective, but they rejected it. Instead, they designed paintings to draw a viewer into a profound visual excursion through time and space. McLaughlin did too. The modern Western tools of color and shape in geometric abstraction fuse with the Chinese manner of monochrome painting. Solid merges with space, line with shape.
McLaughlin’s easel paintings, never more than 4 or 5 feet on a side, also dispense with the public scale of a mural, which New York School painters demanded. His paintings are instead designed for intimacy — for the one-on-one experience of contemplative interaction that describes, say, a single Japanese scroll hanging in a tokonoma alcove. The modest size maneuvers a viewer into an optimal place a few feet away, from which to cogitate in splendid isolation.
“I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation,” the artist once said, “without the benefit of a guiding principle.”
See also: In praise of the artist John McLaughlin
This intense, early landscape painting by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon compliments my previous post about McCahon’s later text paintings. McCahon divides the space in this painting according to at least three different conceptual models: spiritually, based on the Biblical six days of creation; phenomenologically, based on his snapshot visual observations of the New Zealand countryside as he traveled it by bicycle; and pictorially, puncturing the painting’s surface with the spaces of six different landscape views.
Below are several different commentaries that each shed light on this remarkable painting straddling the conceptual border lands between representation and abstraction, symbol and sensation, theology and phenomenology, memory and perception.
Monotonous Cumulative Grandeur, Like Bach
“This painting I never explain but am often asked to. To me it explains itself. It was, I suppose, reconciling gains and losses, stating differences, hills and horizons. Simple. A bit of blood shed in the middle.” Colin McCahon is an outstanding figure in New Zealand art of the twentieth century. He was a great painter and a profound thinker as well as a teacher, critic and curator for ten years at this Gallery. In the 1940s the hills of Nelson and Canterbury were a familiar environment for McCahon, travelling to and from fruit-picking work. The fragmentary landscapes suggest glimpses flashing past the window of a bus or train, essentially similar, yet with varying moods. In response to a comment that New Zealand’s hills were monotonous, McCahon replied, “Monotonous yes, but with a cumulative grandeur, like Bach.” The “six days” in the title echoes the Old Testament six days of creation, before the arrival of humanity. McCahon extracts an austere beauty from these low hills, and at the centre of the painting he places water and the “bit of blood” spilt – symbols of grace and redemption. A beautiful, contemplative work, and one of the outstanding achievements of his early career, this is an example of McCahon’s intense exploration of landscape as metaphor for the human condition, for the journey of life.
Sacrifice and Redemption
In the Christchurch years (1948-52) McCahon continued with the mixture of biblical narratives and landscape paintings he had practised in Nelson. Six days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950) is one of the best-known works of this period, nominally a landscape painting but with religious connotations deriving from the Genesis-reference of its title, while the streak of blood-red at the centre of the image alludes to sacrifice and redemption.
Source: McCahon 1953-60: Before Titirangi.
Painting Too is Work
That McCahon’s career has long eluded the regard of the international art world comes as no real surprise. Apart from a bare few months spent in trips to Australia and the United States, he lived out his entire life and career in New Zealand. Born in 1919, he both endured and exploited his country’s geographical isolation, which persisted over much of his life (he died in 1987). Not that McCahon did a great deal to aid his own cause–though one doubts that he would have recognized international self-promotion as a cause worthy of his commitment. When he traveled to the United States in 1958, an ideal moment to assess the great decade of New York School abstraction, he did so in his capacity as deputy director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, rarely revealing, in scores of visits to museums, galleries, and studios across the continent, that he was himself an artist. Indeed, despite a fierce sense of vocation and prodigious productivity as a painter, printmaker, and set designer, he had difficulty imagining his art as a professional proposition until late in his life. On resigning his last paid, full-time employment–at age fifty-one–in order to devote himself only to painting, he wrote, “I am only now, and slowly, becoming able to paint in the mornings. After a lifetime of working–farming, factories, gardening, teaching, the years at the Auckland City Art Gallery–I find it hard to paint in the world’s usual work-time. It can be difficult to accept that painting too is work.”
The life story encapsulated in that remark sums up a saga of genuine hardship and punishing resistance to his ideas. It’s a time-honored avant-garde script, but McCahon lived it: When he painted Six days in Nelson and Canterbury, 1950, he had just journeyed several hundred miles on a bicycle looking for seasonal work in the fields; his first job at the Auckland City Art Gallery was as a janitor. The irony of his experience lay in his resolute pursuit of an unprivate painter’s idiom that could communicate in society as widely and immediately as possible. Any aesthetic nicety that stood in the way of this goal he sacrificed as an impediment and distraction.
Source: Spreading the word: Colin McCahon.
The late great California abstract painter John McLaughlin (1898-1976) is one of my favorite artists. He was mostly self-taught, and didn’t begin painting until he was nearly 50. When he did, he created an astonishing body of intensely beautiful geometric abstract paintings, along with collages and prints. The images here don’t do the paintings justice — you really need to see his work in person. McLaughlin is not nearly as well-known as he should be, but I think eventually he will be regarded as one of the great masters of 20th Century art, not merely an “early Los Angeles” “hard-edge” minimalist grandfather of what came in the 1960s. And he is no minimalist, as his exquisite use of color alone confirms.
The Los Angeles art critic Christopher Knight wrote an excellent article about McLaughlin, Open your eyes to John McLaughlin, last October in the LA Times. Here is an excerpt where Knight does a great job describing McLaughlin’s paintings and their impact on the viewer:
Shapes are geometric, mostly rectangles like the canvas or paper support. Paint application is smooth, uniform and flat, edges crisply defined. Black, white, gray and neutral taupe are common, but so are limpid hues — especially sky blue, vivid yellow and crimson, plus an occasional green. The colors are a distinctive variation on Mondrian’s enthusiasm for the endless possibility available from the primaries.
What McLaughlin did with these stripped-down tools remains one of the great achievements in 20th century American art. Ignoring accepted rules, his sophisticated paintings pry open perceptual space. Almost surreptitiously, they grab hold of your optical apparatus and undermine conventional habits of seeing.
Here’s how: The paintings work against the natural tendencies of binocular vision. You’ve got two eyes and a brain, and they conspire to create depth perception and parallax vision, allowing us to see the world in three-dimensional motion. McLaughlin pulled the plug on that.
A typical McLaughlin canvas chucks established notions of good composition. Most of his paintings are divided right down the middle, forming roughly equal halves. The right-left division is sometimes made by juxtaposing pairs or groups of rectangles. Other times, one or more vertical bars cut the picture in two. Occasionally, the bars are wide horizontals — so wide that your eyes can’t take in both ends at once.
Sometimes a square is centered within a horizontally rectangular canvas. Then, the “empty” space at either side functions the way painted vertical rectangles do in other works: Each eye latches onto one, and the natural tendency for vision to converge in the middle is thwarted. It’s as if the painting is forcing your two eyes apart, letting light and space rush in to fill the yawning void that opens up.
In our era of cool distance, separation, irony, mass-production, and art-for-money’s-sake cynicism, the paintings of John McLaughlin are a tonic, and serve as a reminder of what can be accomplished by one person with a clear mind, conviction of purpose, and a lot of dedicated hard work.
Hamish Fulton (British, born 1946) is one of my favorite artists, all the more remarkable since I have never seen his work in person. Nor, for that matter, has anybody else. That’s because Fulton is a “Walking artist,” whose primary artworks are solitary walks he undertakes in (often) remote places all over the world. The work he exhibits and sells in galleries and museums, books and essays, are the abstracted photographic, diagrammatic and concrete poetry descriptions of his walks, which he is the first to admit are no subsitute for the initial experience, his true artwork.
Unless, like me, you are not from New Zealand, you’ve probably never heard of the artist Colin McCahon. Regarded by many as New Zealand’s greatest painter, McCahon (1919-1987) created many works in a variety of styles, from landscapes to religious-spiritual narrative paintings, to cosmic spiritual abstractions. But it’s his strange, (mostly) religious text paintings that really stand out for me. And not surprising for someone so compelled to put many words into his paintings, he has some great titles; here are some of my favorites:
[Read more…] about Text paintings by New Zealand’s Colin McCahon