Art Chronicles: Hedda Sterne

There’s a photograph, quite famous in Art circles, known as The Irascibles, or, to give it its full title, the Irascible Group of Advanced Artists, which shows 15 from a group of 28 artists who had signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, complaining that the exhibition, American Painting Today – 1950 was unrepresentative of what was currently happening in truly advanced contemporary circles.

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Photo by Nina Leen for Life Magazine

There they are – Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt prominent amongst them. The guys. As formally dressed as if ready for the office – or a funeral – and looking anything but angry or dangerous, and little resembling the popular image of the bohemian artist. And at the back, the sole woman in the group – imposingly positioned, one assumes, by the photographer – is the artist, Hedda Sterne.

Only two other women had signed the letter, the sculptors Mary Callery and Louise Bourgeois, and one might wonder why so few? Where was Elaine de Kooning when the letter went round? Where, Lee Krasner? Helen Frankenthaler? And how come Hedda Sterne? One explanation is that the gallery owner Betty Parsons, who represented Sterne in addition to a number of the male artists present, had used her influence. What’s certain is that Sterne hadn’t just happened to wander in off the street as the session was in progress – not dressed as smartly as that.

Whatever the reason, from Sterne’s point of view it did her, professionally, little good. As she later said, “In terms of my career (it was) probably the worst thing that happened to me.” … “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work.” Nor had she felt welcome at the time. The men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”

When Sterne first emigrated from Romania to New York she was befriended by Peggy Guggenheim, who, in turn, introduced her to Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and her work was included in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. Exposed to the artistic zeitgeist of the day, her painting became less a product of European surrealism and increasingly influenced by American abstraction, although she never identified herself wholly with the Abstract Expressionist movement and, throughout her working life, would move between abstraction and figuration as her imagination demanded.

I believe … that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What interests me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.

This refusal to be pinned down or labelled is perhaps one of the reasons why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries – that together with her dislike of the social scene revolving around such figures as the poet Frank O’Hara, which, to some extent, helped foster the careers of painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. No O’Hara poems would be written for her with titles like Poem Read at Hedda Sterne’s or For Hedda, After a Party. And there can be no doubting, in retrospect, the low opinion she held of her fellow female artists …

Most women were Uncle Toms and would rather be loved and accepted than admired and feared.

The exhibition of paintings and drawings on display at Victoria Miro, Mayfair until March 21st, represents Hedda Sterne’s first solo show in this country. In addition to seven drawings, there are eight paintings from two series, Horizon and Vertical-Horizontal, all from the early 1960s and the result of eighteen months spent in Venice on a Fulbright fellowship.

 

Victoria Miro 1

Victoria Miro 2

As Eleanor Nairne says in her essay in the catalogue …

Hedda Sterne’s paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre. brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up one the sun dips below the horizon.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VII – Detail

Sky, sea, land; sea, sky; shifts and changes of light, of colour. Time and again looking at these paintings, I was reminded of the quiet minimalist abstractions of Agnes Martin, no longer held in place by the architecture of the grid, but rolling down in loose lines even as they spread across. Sky, sea, water, land.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VI – Detail

Let the artist herself have the last words …

“I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure. You know there are knife-edge contrasts in my Vertical-Horizontal pieces. This is what I enjoy – these very, very subtle distinctions in values.”

Untitled 1966 Mixzed Media on Paper
Hedda Sterne : Untitled, 1966. Mixed media on paper.
  • Victoria Miro have published a beautifully produced catalogue, designed by Joe Hales, with excellent reproductions of both the paintings and drawings, and an essay by Eleanor Nairne.
  • Exhibition photographs : Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

Art Chronicles: George Shaw

There I was in Stevenage this Saturday just past, walking up Monkswood Way towards the Lamex Stadium, home of Stevenage Football Club  – hosts that afternoon to Notts County – when I noticed both sides of the busy road were bordered by woodland. Thinnish, it’s true, but woodland nonetheless: on the near side shielding the bizarrely named Roaring Meg Retail and Leisure Park; on the other, the edges of the Monkswood Estate and the fringes of Fairlands Valley Park, through which, in the early 70s, I would walk most mornings to the secondary school where I was teaching.

But then, instead of thinking about how Notts were going to fare that afternoon [They won 3-0, extraordinary!] I found myself thinking instead of the woods in the paintings of George Shaw, whose exhibition, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I’d visited at Bath’s Holbourne Museum the day before. Shaw’s paintings, executed in the Humbrol enamel paint beloved of boys who spent hours making Airfix models in their rooms [back in the days when boys used to make Airfix models in their rooms] take as their subject the Tile Hill area of Coventry, where he was born and brought up. An area of new housing built on the edge of the city, on the edge of woodland. A bit like Stevenage, really; Stevenage New Town. Brave New World.

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Some people stay; some move on. Part of Shaw has stayed where he lived out his childhood and adolescence. So he goes back, makes drawings, takes photographs. Paints the rows of similar houses, tatty now; the abandoned garages and sheds; those woods …

When I was not yet grown up the woods at the back of our house was that other world It was a world of our own making outside the usual time and the usual cartography and far from the governance of mums and dads and nosy neighbours and teachers. You never saw a copper in the woods. When the time would come no one would save you.

Taking my own life in my own hands I’d climb trees, make dens, bridge dishes and ponds, dig holes, break things, burn things and take things. Most of all I’d watch and keep out of the way of the others. In particular I’d keep out of the way those older, bigger and louder. They would never come on their own and were very easy to spot shouting, smoking, drinking, spitting, snogging, fingering. They would leave behind them circles of paper and porn, cans and fag-ends, initials carved into a tree or a burnt-out motorbike.

 

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These paintings are haunted by absence. Memory. Doors which are never opened; paths along which no one walks; bus shelters; shops permanently closed. Borders, fences, gates, railings. Signs of a life that has been lived and is being steadily left behind, with Shaw chronicling its demise.

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Art Chronicles: Bonnard at Le Cannet

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Fruit on the Red Carpet 1945

I remember being surprised when I realised that Bonnard had lived through World War Two. In my mind, he had existed in the Paris of an earlier era, when, along with Vuillard, he was one of the leading lights in the school of Post Impressionism known as Les Nabis. But he lived – and continued to paint – until his death in 1947 at the age of 80.

In 1927, Bonnard bought a house in the village of Le Cannet, close to Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, and until the outbreak of the war, when travelling became first difficult and then impossible, he moved between there and his home and studio in Paris. From 1939 onwards, he and his wife Marthe, the subject of many of his paintings, lived solely in Le Cannet, Marthe’s mental and physical health declining until, in 1942, she died, leaving Bonnard bereft. You can see this in the self-portraits he made in those years; see also, I like to think, his awareness of what he had learned of events of the war.

The following poem of mine was written after reading Bonnard at Le Cannet by Michel Terrace, with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson, 1988). It was first published in Poems for the Beekeeper, edited by Robert Gent (Five Leaves Publications, 1996) and re-published in Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998) and Out of Silence (Smith/Doorstop, 2014).

Self Portrait
Bonnard at Le Cannet

Cold here, this room you sit in, 1945;
your corner table, vase of flowers and white cloth,
grey scarf  close about your neck.
You sit and smoke, patient for cognac
warm in its glass; a white cup with gold rim,
the small black coffee she will bring.

Again and again sketched in his diary –
Saturday, February 26th; Tuesday the 15th of June –
like an otter she would ease, sleek, into the bath,
snug against the curve of porcelain.

On the radio, news of the Armistice,
a hastily articulated peace, the Jews.
The air is rimed with smoke, far echo of guns.
The small electric heater stands unplugged,
no fire in the gate.

Marthe – why does she not come?

These last mornings you have walked
between the almond and the olive trees,
gazed over red roofs toward the fullness of the sea.
You painted ochres, oranges and browns,
cupboards steeped in jars and bottles,
herbs in bunches, greengages and plums,
golden apples, persimmons.

In the studio the slow shunt of trucks,
smell of paint thick on your hands;
stiff-legged before the mirror
you blow warmth into your fingers.
Head shaved, ready, this is not so difficult,
one portrait, all that’s left.

A gash of colour for the mouth,
those veins, blue, drawn down
across the fabric of the face;
black hollows where the eyes would have been,
burnt out by bodies that lay ripening,
close=pressed between trees, their richness
leaking back into the soil, beyond reach of seeing,
stripped beneath the surface of the sea.

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Self Portrait 1945

 

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory is at Tate Modern from today (23rd January) until  6th May.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Chronicles: Amy Sillman

If you’re in North London and looking for something to do of an artistic nature – looking rather than making, though making happens there as well – Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads is a good bet.  Even if whatever’s showing doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the good little café with an adjacent two-tier garden. And, more often than not, the work in display is, at the very least, interesting. Sometimes, a lot more than that, with the bonus of discovering artists whose work you weren’t previously aware of, even if you should have been.

Such was the case when I came along with my daughter, Molly, last year and we were introduced to the work of the 90-year-old Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu – 90 and still working. And so it was this week, when my partner, Sarah, and I went to see Landline, an exhibition by the American artist, Amy Sillman. Enthralled. Delighted. Excited. “Wow!” from one room to another.”Wow!’ Just, I mean, “Wow! Look at that!”.

Back of a Horwse Costume
Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume, 2015-16

The Lie Down
Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume [detail] 2015-16
With the help of a zine [The OG. Fall-Winter 2018-19] put together by Sillman especially for this show [she’s into zines in a big way] and an Arts Centre File Note, edited by Gina Buenfeld & Martin Clark, our responses did become a little more articulate.

Aside from a large and rather beautiful animation based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, showing on video in the central space between the galleries, Sillman’s work here divides into two main categories: paintings, oil and/or acrylic on canvas, and acrylic, ink and silkscreen works on paper. The former, mostly quite large – 190.5 x 167.5 cm, around there – seem more considered and while individual, wear their abstract expressionist legacy with ease. There’s Guston there, clearly – those heavy lines – [Guston in the works on paper, too] – a notion of de Kooning, perhaps – and in one piece, Avec, the greens and rectangular shapes have a hint of Diebenkorn. One of the articles we browsed in the Reading Room suggested Joan Mitchell as an influence, but I didn’t see it myself. [I’d have plumped for Grace Hartigan.] And besides – what does it matter, all this naming? Hints of this person, that person. [It’s the curse of once having done a History of Art course at Birkbeck.] Sillman is who she is.

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Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows, 2018

What the Axe Knows 2
Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows [detail) 2018
The paintings are striking – and the hang gives them room to be so – striking in their immediate overall impression, and then again when you give them time, standing with them, moving close, standing still, moving away, interesting in a more complex way. It’s useful what the File Note has to say …

All of her paintings are long and often arduous exercises in accumulation and excavation, aggregation and erasure, coalescence and collapse. Over many weeks and months, surfaces are work and reworked, abandoned and returned to, scraped back and covered over.

So that what we see in the final painting is a sum of all the images, the marks that have been there before and partly obscured, painted over, nudged, shifted, changed. Change, that seems to be the key word for Sillman. As if, even though she has had, finally, to accept that a work is finished, it’s only finished against her wishes. Against her aesthetic.

We’re committed to something scrappy but good, earnest but smart, ironic and not cynical, a strange FORM! … We haven’t figured it out but we love art that offers change above all: insistent, unremitting change that won’t resolve into finality or finesse. We want to know what happened before and after. We can’t stand the knowingness, the smugness, of a goddamn good painting.

Amy Sillman. The OG#11. Metamorphoses. 2017

In an slightly earlier sequence of drawings shown here – the Pink Drawings from 2015-16, using acrylic, charcoal and ink on paper – a large display of them spread along one wall – the pleasure comes from the vitality of the colour, the vigour of movement, the swiftness of the marks, the solidity of the black.

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Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16
Pink Drawings 1
Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

The most recent of the works on paper are more instant, direct and disturbing – one series was started in response to Trump’s election. In some there is a single figure on his or her knees, vomiting, shouting, screaming …

Rebus for Camden
Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018 

… in others there is a swift overworking of line and colour not dissimilar to the technique used in the paintings.

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Amy Sillman, Dub Stamp, 2018

The powerful double-sided pieces that comprise Dub Stamp in its entirety  hang in a line across Gallery 3, the more immediate, predominantly black and white figures along one side – the one that presents itself first – shifting on the reverse to a mixture of brightly coloured abstraction and strongly inked irregular shapes and lines.

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Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018
Dub Stamp 3
Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

As you walk round, the images cluster against one another, coalesce for a moment and then divide. There’s an ugliness here and a hint of beauty: faced with the horror that underlies much of modern life, how might an artist respond? You can’t pin the answer down, it’s always shifting, changing. Try covering up the ugliness, the truth, and it will still show through.

Let me say again, this is a terrific show and it continues until January, 2019.

 

Walhalla

It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which  Walhalla takes over the  gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.

The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor,  bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.

At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …

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Walhalla : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]
Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.

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Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.

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Sursum Corda : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (Ben Westoby)]
Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in  this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world.

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Arsenal : Anselm Kiefer [Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)]
The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.

Speaking Frankly … 2

I must say I am never bored when I paint. In the first place, the world is very interesting, life is interesting and seems an unearned gift; perhaps one wants to give something back. In addition, painting is a wonderful game. One has little power over the crises in life, or in friends’ lives. One cannot control wealth or poverty, happiness or misery. I am only in control when I am in the studio. Then I am close to life.

It would be more daring to be a bullfighter, or a stunt pilot or an acrobat! The daring I’m talking about is simple daring in painting … I’m naturally timid. I’m frightened of  heights, I can’t swim, I can’t drive, I’m afraid of large dogs. It seems to me sensible to avoid the seaside, bridges and Alsatians. Painting is a relatively safe way of being courageous.

from Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting – Catherine Lampert.

Marlene Dumas: Image as Burden

There are art shows currently in London – Diebenkorn at the RA, for instance, or Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern – you can – should – enjoy for their sense of colour, of form, of texture, of light; for the sheer pleasure of looking, of seeing, finding familiar, finding new. Sheer pleasure. Delight. Then there is – or there was until today – Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, also at Tate Modern.

There is – don’t get me wrong – much pleasure to be found here in the manipulation of paint, the movement of line, the expressiveness of colour; there is even humour, though it’s not too long before the smile is smacked from the side of your face.

This is the art of confrontation: art as confrontation.

These faces, large portraits in close-up. Don’t look away, fucker! Look at me!

Although it’s the last morning, traditionally the time when people flock to shows they have not got around to and don’t want to miss, the galleries are far from crowded; more so than when I first visited a few weeks before, but not enough. [I want to got hold, somehow, of the hordes who shuffle slowly, reverentially, round in front of canvases like Monet’s water lillies, and drag them here by the scruff of the neck.]

The Image as Burden. You get the sense, from what she says, that there’s an uncertainty always for Dumas in what she does as an artist, what she paints. As if she’s never quite satisfied with the results. And yet painting is what she has to do. The work. Her work, a burden; images as burden.

She doesn’t use living models (because something in the traditional artist-model/male-female role feels – is – wrong?) but photographs; the people in her paintings have already, as she says, been framed, made into an image, an image which may already be, for them as subject, a burden. Because of their colour and ethnicity, their gender and sexuality. A burden which, in a sense, Dumas takes on and amplifies, forcing us to acknowledge it, be aware.

Love, death, pride, shame, identity.

Perhaps most striking are these big, close to overwhelming portraits which are so much a feature of the exhibition, faces filling the frame, little to encourage disengagement, distraction. Just the eyes, the paint, the picture frame, the forcefulness of colour: the eyes that don’t let you go.

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Towards the end of the exhibition, which, at Dumas’ suggestion, is arranged chronologically, are a number of paintings in which the subject matter is more specifically political in a non-personal sense, paintings that deal with international conflict, terrorism, martyrdom. One, Stern, uses as its basis the same photograph of Ulrike Meinhof, dead in her Stammheim prison cell, previously used by Gerhard Richter. Another, Dead Girl 2002 – again, hard to look at, hard to look away –  is based on the newspaper photo of would-be terrorist who was killed in her attempt to hijack a plane.

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But for me the single most striking image in the show is the 1994 work, The Painter, based on photographs of Dumas’ daughter, Helena.

images-1It’s the gaze, of course, like so many of the others in the show, challenging, confronting you, daring you to question, answer back; the pose, strong, assertive; the hands that have been dipped, one supposes, deep into paint; the right hand blue with the paint the child has smeared, as children do, across her body, the left hand dark red with paint reminiscent of blood, a forecast of (menstrual) blood to come. Above all, defiant; subject as well as maker; painter of her own portrait, mistress of her own image.

Seeing it the first time I was propelled back immediately to those evenings when I had sat at our daughter’s bed while she slept, no more than three or four years old and yet, it sometimes seemed (as in a different way it does now) that she was so much older than she looked, so much older than her chronological age. As if that head, that brain already contained everything and in feigning a kind of childish ignorance she was only playing a game, playing along – save for those moments when not in words but in a look she made it clear just how much she knew, how aware she was, aware of what was happening now and what was to come.

Historically painting was seen as female but, the males were the painters, and the females the models. Now the female (the daughter) takes the main road. She paints herself. The model becomes the artist. She creates herself. She is not there to please you. She pleases herself. The question is not “Who is she?” but “Who are you?”

Marlene Dumas