Dona Nelson

Looking at Art

Art in America

Dona Nelson, The Mercer Museum
December, 2015
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In the stove plate room at the top of the Mercer Museum, Henry Mercer covered the walls with stove plates. By the time he started collecting them, in the early years of the 20th century, many of the stove plates had not been part of stoves for years. Stove plates are bolted together into a kind of box that makes a stove, and when cast iron stoves were dismantled, the plates were used for other purposes or consigned to trash heaps. Stove plates often feature decorative or narrative reliefs. In the Mercer Museum, the iron plates rest on L shaped iron rails attached to the concrete walls. They are held upright on the walls with heavy wire that is twisted around nails and strung across the faces of the stove plates. The stove plates with discernable images are not presented any differently than those that have rusted away or those that have broken in to several pieces. Many of the stove plates feature the same images. The hardware that holds them on the walls, the concrete walls, the concrete floor, all aspects of the room are equal. Mercer’s methods of display disregard conventional hierarchies of beauty and value, and in doing so, the entire space of the room is activated. (09/01/16)


Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917 and The Night Wind 1918, Charles Burchfield. These are completely original images, big watercolors animated by both terror and beauty. Burchfield is an interesting figure, because he grew out of his most powerful work by his 30s and then tried to recapture the power of his early work, late in life, but, of course, you can’t go back, and the visionary qualities of his later, pieced together works on paper, seems very different from the muscularity of execution that characterizes the early works. Burchfield’s highly specific and economical drawings from 1917, “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” which images psychological states, are particularly incisive.


Some years ago, I saw a show of Emily Carr’s paintings at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York City. Her plain green paintings, painted with purposeful brushwork and fulsome sense of scale, are completely connected to the places in the forest in which they were made.


Study for Chess Players (drawing), Marcel Duchamp, 1911. Collection of the Guggenheim Museum. This drawing has a very interesting, open composition that suggests constant change.


I was swinging down the ramp at the Guggenheim sometime in the 1990’s, when I passed a vitrine with one of Lucio Fontana’s sculptures from 1940s. It was a rough clay bust, about ten inches tall. The nose was pulled out, the eye sockets were pushed in, and a blue glaze was poured over her head. A real topaz, a rectangular stone, was pushed in to the clay at her throat.


The Burial of Count Orgaz, John Latham, 1958, the Tate Collection. John Latham was not a painter, which is maybe the reason that the few paintings that he did, are so physically and conceptually specific. Most of his work is related to his ideas about space and time. This is a very early work, an “abstract,” constructed version of El Greco’s great painting. In the fall of 2010, at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburg, I saw a John Latham piece sitting in a corner, outside a Yayio Kusama mirrored room. Latham had cut a book in half and glued the top of the book to a thick sheet of glass. He glued the bottom of the book beneath glass. Latham had not removed the smear glue that he used to glue the book, and The Mattress Factory had not exactly put the piece on display. Latham’s piece was allowed to function conceptually, (the abstraction of language, relative to the reality of the glass), because it was not forced to function esthetically.


The Birth of the World, Joan Miro, 1925, Collection of the Museum of Modern Art. This big painting was, like much of Miro’s work, way ahead of it’s time. It’s physical quality - the thin, dripping paint relative to the fine weave of the canvas and the umbery color is
economical and rich.


In 1982, I happened to be visiting the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and saw a big Edvard Munch painting show that had, I believe, come directly from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Munch’s paintings are almost fugitive in pictures. In photographs of Munch’s paintings, one can’t see his paint handling. The confident and unpredictable way that he paints his paintings, opposes the melancholy mood of his subject matter.


In 2009, I saw the big Arshile Gorky retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, about six times. It’s easier to see big art shows in Philadelphia, than it is, at MOMA. The galleries of the Philadelphia Museum, are beautifully proportioned, calm, sweeping and inviting; they seldom feel crowded, even when a lot of people are there. One has to spend time with Gorky’s work, to see it, because there is almost a complete absence of graphic spectacle, and also, until late in his his life, many of his paintings are stiff and academic. For many years, he worked under the influence of artists like Picasso, who had a very different temperament than Gorky. When his own life asserted itself in his work, as in the portraits of himself and his mother, from the 1920s and 1930s, everything about his paintings would change, including the quality of touch and the color. The Gorky show was so important, because ideas about artistic development have disappeared from painting, and that has affected how painting as a form, is perceived, even by painters. Gorky did what he had to do to develop; he made hundreds of drawings. In his riveting late paintings, there is no separation between painting and drawing; in many of them, there is almost nothing there, but the eraser and reworking of the painting’s space.


One of the most interesting painters of the late 20th century is the Hungarian painter, Judit Reigl. I first saw her paintings several years ago, at the now closed gallery, Janos Gat Gallery, on the Bowery. For at least two years, every time I went to this gallery, they would be having a show of one of Judit Reigl’s distinct groups of paintings. I admired the dealer for his obvious passion for her work. She makes her own painting tools, and her paintings are wonderfully incisive, both in terms of the definitive speed of her gestures and her sensitivity to materiality, (the heaviness of paint, relative to the muslin like material that she paints on). Her paintings are all the more impressive, being that many of them are huge. One of her paintings is hanging next to the Marca Relli at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Judit Reigl’s paintings, there is no distinction between the painting, as an image, and how the painting is made.


Frank Stella’s black painting, “Bethlehem’s Hospital,” 1959, is a great painting. The size and the shape of the painting are very important. “Bethlehem’s Hospital,” is both tall and very wide. At first, you think it’s a stripe painting. It seems to go on forever. Unlike the other symmetrical compositions of Stella’s black paintings, the symmetry of “Bethlehem’s Hospital,” barely holds the image on the rectangle. This painting reaches into the past, as well as the future, avoiding the undue optimism of the 1960s, and the airlessness of abstract expressionist ideas about “the sublime.” “Bethlehem’s Hospital,” is literally shaped, by the devastating wars that established the grounds for the post war boom that created an international market for art made by Americans. It is a different artwork than the neat image of itself that appeared in 1967, in Stella’s handsome series of lithographs of black painting compositions. It is also a different painting than the shaped canvases that came after it, pin stripes, firmly contained within their shapes, and within the decade in which they were made. “Bethlehem’s Hospital,” is complete, but it is not finished.


One of the differences between Wade Guyton's printed stripe paintings and Gerhard Richter’s printed stripe paintings, is that the Guyton's seem related to a design sensibility, while the Richter paintings are a purely conceptual evolution. For me, the most impressive designer of abstract paintings was Franz Kline. When I go to Chelsea to look at art, I often park on 11th Ave. and spend time looking at the Porsche and Bugatti automobiles, in the window of the dealership between 27th and 28th Street. Sometimes, I imagine these cars parked in front of the paintings that I look at in the art galleries. For me, this little exercise can reveal paintings in interesting ways. This way of thinking seems related to the 1951 Vogue Magazine photographs of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, hung behind gowned models. These photographs have frequently been used to support ideas about the evolving relationship between painting, culture and politics, with relatively little skepticism of the equalizing medium of photography. There has been, for years, a relationship between design and some big abstract paintings, but it can be difficult to see, at the time work is made, because design is so prevalent in our surrounding environment.


In 2012, there was a Louise Fishman exhibition, which included work by her mother and her aunt, at The Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. The Woodmere show was illuminated by large skylights. One afternoon, as I was visiting this exhibition with a painting class, the museum closed the skylights, and I noticed that Fishman’s paintings, now lite solely by halogen lights, were dramatically altered. Louise Fishman’s brown/blue/white/black palette, makes me think of John Constable’s palette. In natural light, her sensitivity to color and value counters the vigorous materiality of her paintings. Years ago, in a huge Soho loft, I saw a David Novros painting exhibition, illuminated only by light from windows at the front and the back of the space. In the diminished light, the subtle surfaces and colors of his paintings were made visible.


At the Sheldon Art Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, I recently viewed Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting, “Hunter’s Rest.” It is a dark painting or has darkened over time. It is hung below a similar sized painting by another artist, which features a white horse. The image in the Ryder is a black horse with a small head. A man is sitting beside the horse. At the top of the painting, there is a complex weave of tree branches and clouds rimmed with moonlight. The painting above the Ryder has probably been hung there because it is also a painting of a horse, which prompted me to notice that “Hunter’s Rest ” was not about the image in the same way as the painting hanging above it. Ryder worked on his paintings with eccentric materials, often over a period of years. Looking at his paintings now, one sees works that exist in the affect of time.


One of the most beautiful paintings that I have ever seen was a big Ives Klein (about six by ten feet). It was hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, on the floor with Rauschenberg and de Kooning and Pollock. It was hanging at the top of the south stairway. There was a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture positioned in the optimal viewing spot in front of the Ives Klein. This painting looked to be on a piece of ¾ inch thick plywood. When I peered around the edge of the painting, it looked like it was hanging from steel pipes attached to the back. I’m not sure about any of this material information, because it wasn’t on the label. In fact, I am not sure if I ever saw the painting at all. When I wrote to the museum, asking them for a picture of it, they said no such work was in their collection, and I have never met anyone else who remembers seeing the painting; however, this painting did critique, in a really interesting way, the other big abstract paintings on the floor. The Ives Klein wasn’t indebted to Cubism. The only really good critique of a painting is another painting.


There is an excellent group abstract painting show at Robert Miller Gallery, New York City, hanging right now, June, 2015. In this exhibition, there are several of Lee Krasner’s abstract field paintings from the early 1960s. One of the things that I like most about Lee Krasner’s late paintings is their bad color. The color is seldom beautiful and never pretty. It almost never suggests nature. It doesn’t seem intuitive or atmospheric. Lee Krasner’s color, especially in her later paintings, is, above all, deliberate. Her use of tan and brown or tan and maroon, prevents her late all over gestural abstract paintings from being lyrical or handsome, pleasant visual qualities sometimes mistaken for the sublime. When looking at Lee Krasner’s paintings, I am often conscious of the colors maintaining a quality that is independent from the gestures that make up the painting and also independent from the quality of the painting’s overall composition. In Lee Krasner’s paintings, her colors are not subservient to the overall image. In the 1970s, in her big pink and green paintings, the color became overtly decorative in a decade specific way. In their bold interior decorator color, these paintings are still forceful and surprising and full of paintings ideas.