John Seed: Ten Selected Blogs 2010-2013

In the past three years I have written 153 blogs about art and artists for the HuffingtonPost. For the benefit of those of you who are new to my blog here is a selection of ten blogs that have been chosen to show the range of my writing. Please leave me some comments and let me know if you have a favorite.

July 2010: "Driving Mr. Basquiat"
My recollections of meeting and working for Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1983

August 2010: "Jon Swihart: Jean-Leon Gerome is his Master"  
A profile of the artist Jon Swihart and a discussion of his passion for the works of a 19th century French academic master. 

September 2010: "I Don't Deconstruct"
My manifesto.

January, 2011: "Mazurki: The Multiple Meanings of a Philip Guston Drawing"
A long essay recalling a Philip Guston drawing I once owned, and my research into its meaning.

February, 2011: "Painterly vs. Precise: 20 Artists, 20 Studio Visits" 
One of the many blogs featuring studio and palette shots of contemporary artists.

April, 2011: "Anne Harris: They Start With Me..."
A profile of painter Anne Harris, one of my favorite artists, and a blog that said what it needed to say without rambling on and on as some others have done...

August, 2011: "Nathan Oliveira's Final Visions"
A tribute to my mentor, Nathan Oliveira.

April 2012: "Mike Kelley (1954-2012) and Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012) Have Gone Home
Two artists you normally wouldn't think of together, but there were more connections than you might imagine.

December 2012: "The Art Market and Art Criticism Will Divorce in 2013: An Allegory"
A humorous allegory dealing with some serious cultural issues.

May, 2013: "On Taste, Richard Serra and the Green Eggs and Ham Syndrome"
A ramble about an artist I find over-rated and also about personal taste.

Georgia O'Keeffe: "Modern Nature" at the Hyde Collection

I would rather walk through the woods and the grass and the briars and pick daisies and ferns and wild strawberries - or just look at the sky.... The green all about - the woods and pastures all growing wild so fast - no cows in it for three or four years - all sorts of unexpected things growing - and growing so fast - fern - little trees and big trees - flowers and all sorts of little creeping ground plants - masses of ferns that are wonderful. I love all those things so much it almost makes me feel I must stay here.
- Georgia O'Keeffe to William Einstein, from Lake George, July 1, 1937
Take a moment and see if you can summon up an image of Georgia O'Keeffe in your own mind. There is a good chance you see an icon: a sun-sculpted older woman whose life -- and art -- were studies in clarity and contrast.

In the final decades of her long life O'Keeffe cultivated and even promoted the image of herself as a woman married to the New Mexican desert, gladly assisted by celebrity photographers and the press. The black and white photo of O'Keeffe that appeared on the cover of the March, 1968 issue Life magazine is a prime example of this late-career mythologizing. Seated on the roof of her "Ghost Ranch," her profile framed against its adobe chimney, O'Keeffe is portrayed as an enduring figure connected to a severe landscape that serves as both a stage and her muse. The text of the accompanying article further underscores the artist's deep affinity with the New Mexican desert and its particularities:
She scans the mists in the far-off mountains. She picks up a stone and smooths it, touches the twisted branch of a piñon tree, toes a patch of lichen. Two smoke-toned chows watch and sniff, then jounce knowingly after their mistress. Another day has begun for Georgia O'Keeffe.
"O'Keeffe demonstrated, throughout her long life, a strong attraction to place," comments Erin B. Coe, the chief curator at the Hyde Collection, an art museum in the city of Glens Falls in Upstate New York. As those who love O'Keeffe's oeuvre certainly know, the Southwest may have been her final home, but there were many other places that she drew inspiration from including Hawaii, Texas, Maine and New York City. O'Keeffe responded to changes in setting the way Picasso responded to a new mistress: they provided fresh ideas and provoked stylistic development.

Erin Coe

Erin Coe has been studying the importance of a place that loomed large in O'Keeffe's early development: Lake George, a 32 mile long lake at the base of the Adirondacks where the family of her husband Alfred Stieglitz owned a large summer home and 36 acres of land. O'Keeffe spent considerable time there between 1918 and 1934  -- sometimes staying the entire summer or even longer -- and eventually produced over 200 paintings based on Lake George and its surroundings, some of which she completed in her New York apartment after returning home. 

"Modern Nature," -- co-curated by Coe along with Barbara Buhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and organized in association with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- will present a cross-section of approximately 58 paintings. It is the first survey exhibition to focus on the formative influence of Lake George on O'Keeffe's life and art.

Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe at Lake George
Essays by Erin B. Coe, Bruce Robertson and Gwendolyn Owens
Thames and Hudson, 200 pages

Lake George, Coe believes, was "essential" to O'Keeffe's development and to her modern vision of the natural world. The artist's 1922 oil "Lake George," -- a serene canvas featuring careful gradations of tone -- feels like a stylistic prototype of the august spareness that also characterizes her later desert paintings.

Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
Lake George [formerly Reflection Seascape], 1922
Oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 22 in.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Charlotte Mack
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By focusing on primary documents -- letters and paintings -- Coe has tried to be objective about just what Lake George meant to the artist. Because contemporary commentators have often suggested that O'Keeffe couldn't tolerate the presence of Stieglitz family members and that she wanted to "escape" Lake George, the artist's correspondence of the period has proved revelatory. In a letter written to her husband's niece, Elizabeth Stieglitz Davidson, after her first summer at the lake, O'Keeffe exclaimed "I have never been happier in my life." It was, after all, the place where she and her new husband would run upstairs after lunch to make love, and row across the lake to watch the dusk after dinner. Coe has been interested to find that the lake and its environs were often described in the artist's letters as being "perfect:"
Of all the adjectives that Georgia O'Keeffe used to describe Lake George in correspondence from the 1920s, the word "perfect" appears over and over again. There were "perfect days of perfect quiet sunshine," with "perfect" mountain views, "perfect" rainbows, and "perfect days" for working.
Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
Apple Family - 2, 1920
Oil on canvas, 8 1/8 x 10 1/8 in.
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of the Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo: Malcolm Varon, 2001

If O'Keeffe did find herself annoyed with some of the Stieglitz family members -- and who wouldn't chafe at the idea of eating corn with twenty in-laws in around a formal dining table -- O'Keeffe also developed close friendships. Erin Coe notes that Georgia was especially close to Elizabeth Stieglitz Davidson, who she visited in both Lake George and New York. O'Keeffe, who rarely painted or drew portraits, has been said to have "painted the people without the people," and the congregation of apples she painted in 1920 may hint at the shared characteristics -- and variety -- of Stieglitz's family members.

Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
Autumn Leaves, 1924
Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 16 3/8 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio: Museum Purchase, Howald Fund II, 1981.006
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"Modern Nature" is divided into six themes: Landscapes, Barns and Buildings, Abstractions, Tree Portraits, From the Garden, and Lake George Souvenirs. The painting "Autumn Leaves," from 1924, falls into the "souvenir" category. Between 1922 and 1931 O'Keeffe explored the theme of leaves on 29 different canvases, treating them with great sensitivity. In a 1930 letter she tells Alfred Stieglitz how she had "picked wonderful spring branches of leaves" which she describes as being "like rare flowers."

Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
The Chestnut Grey, 1924
Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 1/8 in.
Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"The Chesnut Grey," a yard tall oil on canvas from 1924, is one of a pair: she painted the same tree twice, once at sunrise and once at sunset. Alfred Stieglitz had started photographing the same dying tree in 1920, and continued to photograph if for a decade. "If only people were trees..." O'Keeffe told an interviewer in 1927, "I might like them better."

Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
From the Lake, No. 3, 1924
Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in.
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the same year that she painted "The Chestnut Grey," O'Keeffe was also experimenting with abstraction in a series called "From the Lake." The third canvas in this series suggests not only a kind of overview of Lake George, but also some of the essential forms and forces of nature that O'Keeffe associated with the lake and its environs.

Georgia O'Keeffe, American (1887-1986)
Petunias, 1925
Oil on board, 18 x 30 in.
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Gift of the M. H. de Young Family, 1990.55
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An avid gardener, O'Keeffe first planted beds of purple and blue petunias at Lake George in 1924. They make an appearance in her stunning oil on board "Petunias" of 1925, a harbinger of the many O'Keeffe flowers that would appear in ensuing years. Erin Coe, who feels that O'Keeffe has been subject of too many psycho-biographies, respects the artist's straight-forward explanation for her interest in flowers: "...everyone has many associations with a flower--the idea of flowers. So I said to myself -- I'll paint what I see..."

"This exhibition," Erin Coe explains, "is based on a simple premise: person and place were closely connected to each other." The 58 works assembled at the Hyde Collection offer an unprecedented opportunity to understand Georgia O'Keeffe's connection to a place she once found "perfect" as she worked to refine herself and her art.

Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George
THE HYDE COLLECTION Art Museum & Historic House
161 Warren Street, Glens Falls, NY 12801
p. 518.792.1761
June 15 - September 15, 2013

The exhibition will travel to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, October 4, 2013 - January 26, 2014 and then to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M. H. de Young Museum, from February 8  - May 11, 2014

Eve Aschheim: "Recent Paintings" at New York Studio School

Eve Aschheim, a Lecturer in Visual Arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, is an abstract painter whose recent works reflect a dialogue between intellect and instinct. A formalist who is attracted to geometry -- and who is sensitive to minute changes in position and line -- Aschheim is currently exhibiting her work in a two person show at the New York Studio School alongside paintings by Ying Lee.

I recently interviewed Eve, and asked about her background, her work and her ideas.  

John Seed Interviews Eve Aschheim
Eve Aschheim
Eve, can you tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in New York City, but much of my childhood was spent in Menlo Park, California. We also lived in Singapore for two years in the early seventies. My parents, European Jews, were nomadic and adventurous. By the time I was 15, I had seen art in a lot of different contexts: Japanese rock gardens, Malaysian puppet theater and batik workshops, the Hindu street procession of Thaipusam, in which devotees walk in a trance, with spears piercing their cheeks, lemons dangling on fishhooks in their backs, bloodlessly. I also saw Pompeii and the Sistine chapel. It took me a while to realize that every kind of artistic preoccupation had its own conditions and conventions.

Though my parents, scientists, rarely went to museums, they both loved to look at the world around them, at things that made sense, and things that made no sense. They loved flea markets and the stores on Canal Street, New York. Every thing out of place was a clue to decipher. For example, when we were in Haiti, my mom noticed that many of the houses and restaurants on the coastline weren't facing the ocean.

Eve Aschheim, "Blue Before Orange," 2012, oil on canvas on panel
17 x 22 in. Artwork photography: Christopher Burke Studios
Since you attended college in Northern California ( U.C.s Berkeley and Davis ) what did you absorb from California art and artists? 

I basically studied with everyone there. My first major influence was Elmer Bischoff, who stressed reacting to what you see and finding something mysterious that came from an unconscious place. A lot of his figure drawing class was based on invention and not just observation.

When I started thinking about my own artistic preoccupations, I realized I wasn't interested in biography, narrative or depicting objects. It seemed that if you took those out of painting, what's left are issues of pictorial space, time, motion and other ideas. I remember going to a lecture by Robert Irwin at the San Francisco Museum of Art, and being taken by his descriptions of adjusting lines and just staring at them for hours. If this is what an artist did, I wanted to sign up. I started doing projects with particular line configurations, just to see what choices I would make. That led to my current work.

Eve Aschheim, "Bullet," 2013, oil and graphite on canvas on panel
14 1/16 x 181/4 in.
I understand you are writing something about Wayne Thiebaud, who was one of your mentors.

Chris Daubert and I interviewed Thiebaud - it will be published this year. Since we were his Teaching Assistants in the 80s, we had a lot of unanswered questions about his thinking, and his approach to teaching. He was a major influence, in many ways. He understood the relationship between drawing and painting, and how fluid and dynamic that boundary can be.  

Your work has been characterized as dealing with "implied motion" and "states in the midst of change." Can you tell me more about how those ideas are present in your work?

Much art is concerned with static and defined forms. I am interested in a more active situation, in which the structures are actually in states of transition. So you see it one way and then another way without being able to settle on a final image. I think this comes from many things. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard says that as we make choices for one direction, we eliminate the others. In painting, I thought we could have both.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes that there is no "either" and no "or", only "and", in dreams because images can't be withdrawn. I wondered if I could have "either", "or" and also "and" in my work. In some of my works you can see a structure one way and then another way, but not at the same time. In some works this happens at the same time. I am also interested in that moment before thought has fully coalesced, when the choices are like a glimmer of some possibility.

Eve Aschheim, "Decider," 2013, oil and graphite on canvas on panel
18 ¼ x 14 1/16 in.
Is it accurate to say that your work is situated between abstraction and representation?

Yes, for many years I worked in two different modes: my paintings were about empirical problems in abstraction, for example, I worked with small lines to see what I could do with them. I realized the power of a tiny line: when I moved one line the entire composition would change. Meanwhile, my drawings incorporated things from the real world, things I observed or thought about, such as a subway turnstile -- the tall kind with bars -- which is a corner space that rotates, keeping you out or letting you in. I would translate these configurations into abstract pictorial images. A problem with abstraction is that one has to generalize to make something abstract, but it may lead to a generic abstraction, which one has to make specific. What that means is not so transparent or obviously clear, it's not always apparent how to proceed, but often you know when you have done it.

Eve Aschheim, "Line Light Light," 2013, oil and graphite on canvas on panel
16 3/16 x 12 1/16 in.
How would you describe your most recent work? 

In the past few years, I have begun to merge my painting and drawing practices, and the paintings are changing a lot. I also began use color more deliberately, for example using color as light. This year I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed me to paint nearly every day. I am working with various structures that break apart, coalesce and reform. My inclination is toward geometry and the calibration of individual elements. I let the structuring principle evolve out of the working process.

Eve Aschheim, Steel and Soaking, 2013, oil on canvas on panel
18 1/18 x 14 ¼ in.
How do you think of your painting titles?

I try to come up with something that is parallel to the work and related, but not descriptive in a limiting way. My daughter has thought up some terrific titles, for example "Blue Before Orange", "Colossus", "Steel and Soaking", "xLR-8" and "Anomaly".  

You have shown several times in Europe. What was that like?

I have worked with some really special gallerists: Magnus Aklundh, Inga Kondeyne, and Rainer Borgemeister. I started showing there in 1997, with Rainer Borgemeister in Berlin, and then in Cologne, Germany and Sweden. In 2001 Rainer Borgemeister held a two-person show with my drawings and those of Malevich. I've been looking at Malevich since I was in high school, when my sister took me to the Malevich retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. I felt like I "got" his work even though I don't think we talked about it. Even in Leah Dickerman's recent show at MoMA on the origins of abstraction, Malevich stands out as a radical iconoclast, presenting the canvas in a very extreme way.  

What are your interests outside of art? Recently I've been reading books on how the brain works and James Joyce.

Eve Aschheim, "Which Reverse," 2013, oil on canvas on panel
12 1/8" x 16 ¼ in.
What are your plans for your work?

I don't know what I am going to do next. If you are trying to make something unpredictable, then you yourself don't know what that is. That means you have to go with your instincts, direct yourself, but try things and stay open. You have to accept not knowing, which is unsettling, but it allows new things to happen. I am continuing with the paintings, and also working on drawings for shows next year at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York City and Galerie Inga Kondeyne, Berlin.

Ying Li / Eve Aschheim: Recent Paintings
 June 6 through July 20, 2013
Main Gallery, New York Studio School

Manuel Ocampo: Manila Vice

A "Postcard" from the Press Release for "Manila Vice."
When Dan Brown recently released his new novel "Inferno" the book's description of Manila -- "six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade..." -- caused a commotion. Brown soon received a letter from Francis Tolentino, the chairman of the Metro Manila Development Authority scolding the author for his "inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis." Of course, Brown's book is fiction, but Manila is the world's most densely populated city, and its problems are real: most of its sewage flows uncovered and untreated into Manila Bay, and its infamous air pollution is being made continually worse by smog that drifts in from China. It is a city where beauty and vice collide: a place full of ripe and revealing subject matter for art.

Philippine born Artist/raconteur/curator Manuel Ocampo -- who earned an early reputation for his paintings critiquing Spanish colonialism and Catholicism -- has recast himself as a post-identarian artist and an organizer: his most recent effort is "Manila Vice," which is a kind of grunge riposte to European highbrow art fairs. A mix of murals, installations and paintings, the exhibition currently fills the halls of the waterfront Musée International des Arts Modestes in Sète, France with Manila's sleazy, Rabelaisian energy.

Ocampo sees the Philippines as a country of "many identity crises," and a place of cheap adventures. The 23 artists he showcases are "multitaskers" who survive by alliances with "formal markets" (galleries) and also with "informal markets" that thrive at the margins of culture. The lack of a unifying identity is, in Ocampo's view, "the tragedy of all Filippinos" but the versatility and fluidity of the culture is also a source of rich and subversive possibilities. "Manila Vice," Ocampo notes, "brings together contemporary artists who reflect the diversity of artistic approaches and necessarily subjective reactions..." that Manila's urban culture fosters.

I recently interviewed Manuel Ocampo via email and asked him to tell me about "Manila Vice."

Manuel Ocampo
John Seed Interviews Manuel Ocampo: Manuel, the title of your show "Manila Vice" suggests the theme of a city of illicit pleasures. How do the artists and works you have chosen illuminate that theme?

The artists were chosen because their work deals with certain subject matters that are outside the usual subjects one might expect from art coming from Manila. A lot of the works inhabit certain narrative spaces that are full of dark humor, irony, and perversion which I think best represent what Manila is all about. Take for example Romeo Lee's painting in which a scene depicts life underneath the ubiquitous underpass flyovers in the city. The slime and grime of the megalopolis can be felt in the texture of the painting. there are tenement housings and a city floating in floodwater while an image, on the bottom right corner shows a small worm nonchalantly wriggling along picking its nose.  

What kinds of imagery and content are present in the exhibition? Themes that come up in the show are your everyday Manila scene of naked brutality mixed with irony. The majority of the artists are painters but they are not technically good in fact they are real bad painters. What matters to them is the content of the work. Like, for example, Robert Langenegger's depiction of a black boy in sheep's clothing violating a stunned wolf in sheep's clothing while a ram sheepishly looks on. Some of the subjects can be offensive and at times are politically incorrect, but the artists are brave to challenge an art world that is devoid of any statements.  

This is the second major traveling show you have organized. How did you fall into the role of a curator? Yes, I guess you might say I fell into this hole of a role. I did not plan on being a curator but no one in Manila is doing these kind of shows and these artists are seldom supported by institutions in Manila so I felt I needed or I convinced myself to do something about it.  

Can you tell me the names of a few artists in this show whose work you feel deserves international recognition
"Auction Junction," by Romeo Lee, during a recent Manila Flood
Photo - Romeo Lee
Romeo Lee is an artist of unusual charm and talent. His work is so unrefined that you might think he is doing it on purpose but that is what makes his works stand out among the many painters in Manila. He often calls himself a part time painter but a full time lover. Jeona Zoleta is also one in which art historians might have a hard time describing. She likes to paint sexually perverted scenes but at the same time loves glitters, unicorns, and rainbows. Robert Langenegger likes to depict people with down syndrome with their weenies hanging out. I don't know if they deserve international recognition but their work definitely needs to be seen.  

The Philippines have a complex and hybrid history. Do you feel that Philippine artistic culture is beginning to mature and shake off its colonial roots?

Nope, I hope not. Maturity, especially artistic maturity in an over all cultural sense is a dangerous place to be in. Cultural maturity always reeks of money, development, professionalism and other boring unimaginative stuff.  

What kind of public and critical reactions has "Manila Vice" received so far? Does the European public react differently than the Philippine public to the kinds of art you have showcased?

The Europeans I think can relate to some of the works because of their perverted past but the Philippine public is in denial of this kind of work representing a Philippine character. The Philippine public still needs to get rid of it's conservative Catholic baggage and accept a religion that is more life giving rather than life draining.  

For someone to fully appreciate "Manila Vice" what should they understand about the current state of avant-garde art in the Philippines?

Well, there is no avant-garde art in Manila. And "Manila Vice" is nowhere reflective of what is happening in the Manila art market scene. Viewers should just be aware and be on their toes when looking at my curated exhibitions as they can end up stepping on some wet and smelly mine field.  

Tell me about your plans for the future of this exhibition and other exhibitions you have in mind?

 It is really hard to tell what the future may hold for these shows I have been organizing. I've had five shows and three catalogs and I feel that I need a break and do my own thing for a change.

Manila Vice MIAM (Musée International des Arts Modestes) Sète, France
April 13, 2013 - September 22, 2013

Artists include: Gerry Tan, Poklong Anading, Romeo Lee, Gaston Damag, Valeria Cavestany, Carlo Ricafort, Arvin Flores, Bea Camacho, Kawayan De Guia, Dexter Fernandez, Mm Yu, Lena Cobangbang, Maria Jeona Zoleta, Pow Martinez, Maria Cruz, Robert Langenegger, and David Griggs

MIAM (Musée International des Arts Modestes) in Sète, southern France.

Maria Jeona Zoleta, "5 $tar Hotel," 2013, Installation, Mixed Media.
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

Left: Manila jeepney decorated by the artists of Manila Vice
Upper Left: Paintings by Romeo Lee
Facing Wall: "Leebing Things," acrylic mural by Romeo Lee
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

A detail of Romeo Lee's "Leebing Things," white acrylic on wall
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

Various oil paintings by Romeo Lee, 2005-2012
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

Maria Jeona Zoleta, "Kinder Garden," 2013, Mixed Media Installation
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

Robert Langenegger, "Untitled," 2013, Acrylic on tarp, 183 x 175 cm.
Photo: Pierre Schwartz

Robert Langenegger, "Castration Was One of the Options," Oil on canvas, 55.5" x 49" 

Maria Jeona Zoleta, "Dog Eat Dawg World," 2012, Oil on canvas

Romeo Lee, "Social Rea-Lee-sm," 2012,  Oil on canvas, 48" x 48" 

Thomas Williams: Bringing Bay Area Art to London

London-based art dealer Thomas Williams has managed to pull of quite a coup. He has orchestrated Britain's first ever group exhibition of postwar San Francisco Bay Area art: "The Bay Area School: Californian Artists from the 1940s, 1950s & 1960s." Critic Alastair Smart, writing in the Telegraph, has called the show "revelatory" and suggests that Britain's museums should pay attention:
This is a small, fascinating, superbly researched show, about a subject that deserves treatment in a major institution. It's not just the Bay artists' links with New York that are ripe for further exploration, but also those with the School of London figurative painters (Francis Bacon et al) - not to mention San Francisco's Beat writers.
Only two of the artists featured in the exhibition are familiar to Londoners: Richard Diebenkorn was the subject of a 1991 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, and Hassel Smith, who moved to Britain in 1967, is represented in the Tate Collection. The exhibition at Williams Fine Art will introduce the British public to a sampling of works by Bay Area masters well known in the U.S. -- including David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Frank Lobdell -- and also to abstractions by Ernest Briggs and John Grillo.

The Bay Area School, Californian Artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s
by Thomas Williams and Michael Peppiatt, Lund Humphries Pub Ltd

In conjunction with the show, Williams has written a new book that challenges the dominant narrative of postwar American art: he sees California as the "alternative birthplace" of Abstract Expressionism. As he likes to point out, the revolution in painting began early in the Bay Area when large numbers of discharged GIs entered the California School of Fine Arts -- run by a very progressive director named Douglas McAgy -- at the close of World War II. Williams' book features a small 1964 self portrait by Nathan Oliveira, who attended art school on the GI Bill, on its cover.

Concerned that the achievements of the Bay Area School have been "relentlessly written out" in deference to those of east coast artists, Williams is determined to narrate the crucial role California artists played in the evolution in Abstract Expressionism as well describing their accomplishments in developing new forms of figurative painting.

I was recently able to interview Thomas Williams and learn more about his passion for Bay Area art and his continuing research.  

John Seed Interviews Thomas Williams
Thomas Williams
Can you tell me how you became aware of and interested in Bay Area painting?

I started to make regular visits to the Bay Area in the late 1980s and became aware of the contribution made by certain key artists in the period immediately after the War, especially Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Frank Lobdell and David Park.

RICHARD DIEBENKORN Untitled (Albuquerque Series) 1951
Oil on canvas 17 × 15 1/2 in / 43 × 38 cm 
Diebenkorn was the first artist to catch my eye, partly because of his extraordinary contribution to almost every area of graphic art, drawings in pencil, chalk and ink, gouaches, watercolours and prints. There was an intensity and a willingness to take risks and explore the media which was more evident to me in his drawings than his paintings. He never lost that sense of discovery in his works on paper, even at the very end of his life. And since I had been specializing in works on paper at that time I was immediately attracted. My enthusiasm for his work is completely undiminished by years of study.

DAVID PARK Woman Reading 1958
Oil on canvas 44 × 38 1/2 in / 112 × 97 cm 
Later on, I discovered David Park, a real 20th century hero, who greatly influenced Diebenkorn in the 1950s. I then became familiar with the others of the school.

JOHN GRILLO Untitled 1953
Oil on canvas 12 × 24 in / 30 × 61 cm 
An astonishing discovery was the work of John Grillo. He came to San Francisco from Okinawa at the end of the War with the de-mobilised GIs and by 1945 was throwing and dripping paint on his canvasses in a remarkable variant of Free Form Abstraction. He was one of its pioneers in the United States, contemporary with Pollock, but earlier than virtually any of the others either on the east or west coasts.  

Your exhibition has been getting some great press including a glowing full page review in the Sunday Telegraph. Can you tell me more about the reactions you are getting from Londoners?

The response has varied from ecstatic to bemused. The very term 'Bay Area' created some difficulties - for instance, one comment was to the effect that the show wasn't to the viewer's taste because they had never really liked Morcambe Bay! (a seaside resort in northern England). On the other hand, the response from the Art Press and from critics has been overwhelmingly positive, with many commentators wondering why such a show had not come to the public art galleries. We have had more visitors to this show than almost any previous show.

NATHAN OLIVEIRA Self Portrait 1964
Oil on linen 8 × 6 in / 20 × 15 cm 
Other than a 1991 Diebenkorn exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, is it fair to say that the British public has had very little opportunity prior to your show to see works from the Bay Area Figurative tradition?

This is quite correct - there has been no exposure to the work of these artists in the UK through exhibitions and there are virtually no works in British public collections.

ELMER BISCHOFF Blues Singer 1954
Oil on canvas 55 × 72 in / 140 × 183 cm 
You have been doing some research and also have published a new book: The Bay Area School, Californian Artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. What have been been learning as a result of your research.

There are two aspects which have particularly fascinated me. The first is the extent to which these artists were written out of the post-war Abstract Expressionist movement by the New York critics such as Clement Greenberg, even though they were deeply involved from the outset. It is now almost invariably assumed that San Francisco was not producing artists from this school until some time in the 1950s, whereas there was a flourishing school in San Francisco from 1946. Indeed, by 1952 the west coast school of Abstract Expressionism had virtually dispersed.

JOAN BROWN Self-Portrait c.1960
Oil on canvas 15 × 13 in / 38 × 33 cm 
The movement in the Bay Area was short-lived but very intense. The artists were cloistered together at the California School of Fine Arts with their teachers, who it must be remembered included Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Ad Reinhardt. This resulted in a form of painting that was unique to the Bay Area, but was definitely within the terms of Abstract Expressionism.

ERNEST BRIGGS Untitled 1952
Oil on canvas 44 1/4 × 47 3/4 in / 112 × 119 cm 
The second aspect which has impressed itself on the study of that period is the extent to which the San Francisco artists transmitted their discoveries back to the east coast. Edward Corbett, for instance, was an crucial influence on Ad Reinhardt, who shared a house with Corbett in Richmond, CA at the end of the 1940s. Clyfford Still had a powerful influence on Mark Rothko, who made numerous visits to San Francisco in the 1940s and stayed for prolonged periods with Still while he was teaching at the CSFA in 1947, 1948 and 1950.  

Are you seeing connections between postwar California painting and British painting from the same era?

The ideas that went back to England from the Bay Area really started with the advent of the Beat artists in the 1950s, for instance. And it is fair to say that the School of London had little to offer the Bay Area until those artists broke away from abstraction into figuration, led by David Park in 1950. At that time the work of Francis Bacon offered a shining example of how to get away from abstraction without retreating into Realism. His work was certainly on the radar of the figurative Bay Area artists in the 1950s.

FRANK LOBDELL April 1967 1967
Oil on canvas 22 × 31 in / 56 × 79 cm 
How does it feel to have this show on your gallery walls?

The opportunity to exhibit the work of the Bay Area school of the 1940s and 50s for the first time in the UK is something to treasure. It is only around 70 years late, after all. My admiration for the courage of these artists is unbounded, especially when you consider that there was no art market in San Francisco at the time they were painting and virtually no local collectors of contemporary art. The commitment of these artists to their work, against all the odds, is a constant source of inspiration.  

The Bay Area School Paintings Californian artists from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s
May 15 - June 22 at Thomas Williams Fine Art, London  
Drawings of the Bay Area School June 25- July 6  

Author's Note: Nancy Boas, author of David Park:A Painter's Life (University of California Press) will be speaking about David Park (1911-1960) and the work of the Bay Area School. Tuesday, June 11th, 6PM

Location: Thomas Williams Fine Art, 22 Old Bond Street, London, W1S 4PY

Eric Fischl: From Bad Boy to Good Man

"Almost all of my early art dealt with the fallout from middle-class taboos, the messy, the ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives. Meanwhile I was a suburban bad boy -- cynical, sarcastic, contemptuous of all authority."
- Eric Fischl, in Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas.
If you had a foot in the art world in the 1980s you know who Eric Fischl is. Just in case you didn't, take a brief look at "Bad Boy," the canvas Fischl describes as his "most famous and notorious painting."

Eric Fischl, "Bad Boy," 1981, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 96 inches

The oedipal drama of "Bad Boy" unfolds in the corner of a slime green bedroom where a mattress has been laid informally on the floor. On its roiling seascape of bluish bedsheets a nude woman sprawls and pares her toenails; the porny, suburban great-grandaughter of one of Degas' late bathers. She appears totally oblivious to a shady pre-adolescent boy -- a young voyeur and possibly her son -- who leans against a dresser, and stares at her bush.

The seamy atmosphere of the scene is heightened by the fact that the boy is reaching into the woman's purse, an action that simultaneously suggests theft and sexual penetration. Alternating stripes of light and shade emanate from a half-opened window blinds, tiger-striping the scene and heightening the co-mingled tensions of the revelation and secrecy. A nearby still life -- a bowl containing some edenic apples and Freudian bananas -- adds some ham-handed touches of sophomoric symbolism

A detail from Eric Fischl's "Bad Boy."

"Bad Boy" equates the boy's moment of sexual discovery to a theft," writes Fischl in his recently published memoir, "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas." The painting, as he explains it "...extended the larger themes running through my work -- family dysfunction, the narcissism and careless inattention with which parents blind themselves to their children's needs and impulses, the suburban commodity culture that blurs the line between sexual and buying power, between genuine emotion and the superficial looks of things."

It is worth noting that "Bad Boy" was painted during the first year of the Reagan Presidency. I find it interesting that a painter who is the adult child of an alcoholic put his creative energy to work challenging the society that was offered the chance to regress towards soothing cultural and political fantasies by a president who also came from an alcoholic home. Fischl -- before during and after the Reagan presidency -- became the artist who, more than any other, channeled and attempted to exorcise the sexual and emotional angst of straight white American males.

The first time I saw Fischl's paintings -- while helping install a show of his works in Los Angeles in 1983 -- I remember noticing how many of them seemed to come from a boy's point of view. When I had the chance to speak with Eric he mentioned that some of his painting ideas came from one of his nephews. If I remember correctly, Eric's nephew had once suggested that Uncle Eric paint Adolph Hitler talking on the phone with his arm around a naked woman: that suggestion was never taken, but Fischl's nephew clearly "got" the subversive mix of sex and power that his uncle was dealing with in his art.

"Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas," by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone
Crown Publishers, 368 pages, 2013

Fischl's new book -- which mixes autobiography, art world anecdotes and aesthetic self-justifications -- is clearly written and well argued. He had good help with the project as he worked with a co-author (Michael Stone) and turned to friends, including comedian/writer Steve Martin, to give him feedback on the drafts in progress. The book has some very frank and revealing moments, including Fischl's descriptions of his mother's alcoholism and eventual suicide. In one stark anecdote Fischl describes how he tried to "reason with her" after the family faced a financial setback: "She'd rather be dead, my mother said, than face the sterility of suburban life without booze."

As I made my way through "Bad Boy," I was struck by the book's tone of sincerity, which brought up a question for me: just how heartfelt are Fischl's works?

If you are going to find this book convincing, you will need to believe that Fischl really has been coming from a place of genuine emotion, as opposed to tweaking the public with images that were and are calculatedly sensational. "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" argues for the former. Fischl goes to great lengths to explain that his early life was painful and disjointed, and that his career and oeuvre are about a personal quest for catharsis and wholeness.

To make his case, Fischl argues that what is clearly "bad" in his works -- the awkward and embarrassing sexual situations and the somewhat inept technique -- are "good" because they are authentic: he and his work deal in rough truths not glossy fantasies. No wonder the nude in "Bad Boy" derives more from "Hustler" than from Titian or Renoir.

Of course, Fischl wasn't the first "bad" painter to experiment with this formulation. In her catalog essay for the much talked about "Bad Painting" exhibition held at the New Museum in 1978, curator Marcia Tucker codified the "bad is good" aesthetic:
'Bad Painting" is an ironic title for 'good painting, which is characterized by deformation of the figure, a mixture of art-historical and non-art resources, and fantastic and irreverent content. In its disregard for accurate representation and its rejection of conventional attitudes about art, 'bad' painting is at once funny and moving, and often scandalous in its scorn for the standards of good taste.
In preparation for writing this blog I posted the image of "Bad Boy" on my Facebook page and asked my art world friends what they thought about Fischl's art, and in particular about whether or not they found his work sincere and emotionally convincing. The opinionated comments that followed -- some of which I have excerpted below -- demonstrated to me that "Bad Boy" still hits a nerve.

F. Scott Hess, a painter whose work also strives for discomfort and authenticity, had a positive reaction: "Fischl's 1980s paintings were honest expressions of his inner world, and they hit the art world with perfect timing, when it was hungry for figuration after decades in the grip of abstraction."

Painter Margaret McCann, had a first hand observation: "I've heard Fischl give several group critiques and he is The Best I've encountered - he stresses authenticity and can insightfully and eloquently pinpoint what each student is trying to articulate; his work shows the same perspicacity."

Marc Trujillo, a painter and teacher, commented that "The ineptness of the painting is almost part of the subject matter, like maybe the boy painted it or some other adolescent as fantasy."

Artist William Rand was unstinting in his praise: "A masterpiece of my generation."

Writer and art historian Paul Karlstrom took a kind of middle ground, questioning the artist's motives, but still acknowledging the pull of the canvas: "Somehow the image encapsulates, for me, female sexual power and its conscious, perhaps even cynical, deployment, at least as depicted by Fischl. This is the material of disturbing dreams lasting into manhood."

Painter Paula Heisen can't connect with "Bad Boy" at all: "I remember the shock of seeing Fischl's painting of a young adolescent boy masturbating while standing in a kiddie pool, in a gallery in Soho in the 80s. I was interested in that painting beyond the initial shock: but I have never believed a centimeter of this one. Can't answer about his (Fischl's) intentions - only he can do that - but it's a total snore."

Sensitive to the polarizing reactions his works have drawn over the years, Fischl copes by trying to stay aloof from criticism. "I actually try not to read reviews," he told me via email, "as I am thin skinned about it and don't take criticism well." Admirably, sensitivity has not dimmed his candor as an artist or as a writer.

Part of the strength of Fischl's book is that he gives an unflinching account of a work that was rejected by the public: the "Tumbling Woman" sculpture he made as a memorial for the victims of the terror attacks of 9-11. The idea behind the figure came from the indelible impressions that had been made on Fischl by the people in the twin towers who "jumped or fell from the towers, in terror and out of sheer desperation."

Eric Fischl, "Tumbling Woman," 2002, Bronze, 37 x 74 x 50 inches

After "Tumbling Woman" was briefly placed in the lower concourse of Rockfeller Center a year after the attacks "all hell broke loose." As Fischl explains: "People were offended. They didn't want to come face-to-face with a sculpture that embodied death and vulnerability." In this refusal Fischl sees the public as resistant to a cultural necessity. "To rehabilitate the importance of the body in art," he writes, "we have to come to terms with sex and death."

Even though she had not actually seen the work, columnist Andrea Peyser wrote a piece in the New York Post asserting that Fischl was cynically using the pain and suffering of others to promote his work. Within days "Tumbling Woman" was removed from view and Fischl came away from the experience "deeply hurt."

"Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" is also a love story, narrating the long partnership and eventual marriage of Fischl to painter April Gornik. When I sent April a brief message asking how Eric has managed to remain focused and productive in the face of all the reactions to his work over the years, she had this to say:
My reaction to that question is that every artist feels that the truth, beauty & strength in their work will overcome negative reactions. I don't believe that Eric ever paints or sculpts simply to provoke.
Since April -- better than anyone else in the world -- is in a position to comment on her husband's sincerity, I am going to trust what she says. I will keep her words in mind as I go back and read Eric's book, thinking hard about the fact that what looks wrong or "bad" at first deserves closer scrutiny and deeper consideration.

When I visited SFMOMA a few years ago and stood in front of Fischl's pantsless "Portrait of The Artist as an Old Man" I took it literally to be a painting about exhibitionism. Now I would be more likely to see it as a raw statement about sexuality and aging: a manifesto of impurity.

Although his book makes clear that Fischl would have liked his career to float a bit higher and longer -- he is not a fan of the current art stars Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst -- he acknowledges that he has enjoyed substantial financial and critical success. He has used his influence and cash to support "America Now and Here," a program that used semi-trucks to send art and art experiences across America to stimulate cultural dialogue. Fischl has also been very generous to his alma mater, Phoenix Community College, where he has funded a gallery, bought equipment, and launched a lecture series. 

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that Eric Fischl has transformed himself through his work from a bad boy to a good man. If you believe that true healing involves airing out and revealing hard truths -- especially those that challenge our society's prevailing taste -- you may believe it too.

Grant Drumheller: New Paintings at Prince Street Gallery

New Hampshire based painter and teacher Grant Drumheller, whose work is currently on view at the Prince Street Gallery, has recently been painting scenes of people relaxing in public spaces. More interested in light and gesture than in narrative, Drumheller takes a democratic approach to his figures, constructing them from matrices of small touches and generalizations set in light-infused compositions. His current exhibition includes several large beach scenes -- seen from a bird's eye view -- evoking a beach at Ascoli-Piceno Italy where the artist has taught during past summers.

I recently interviewed Drumheller and asked him more about his background and his approach.

Grant Drumheller: photo by Yuka Imata
John Seed Interviews Grant Drumheller  

While earning both your BA and MA at Boston University you had some superb mentors: Philip Guston, James Weeks and Reed Kay. Can you tell me a bit about what you took away from each of them?

I was a sponge at BU and found the entire challenge of learning to draw and paint both delightful and painful. I was taught by a number of gifted faculty including those you mentioned. Jim Weeks drummed two dimensional design into me the most. I asked him if I could bring paint to class because I hadn't had him as a painting instructor, and I would do a three hour painting on paper twice a week. for a year . He wasn't a big talker but would give me pointers that really expanded my color. Things like "...put some colors in that black ", "...don't paint the individual forms just the 2 dimensional shapes: think of the early Greeks!" Then he'd pull out photos of the Parthenon Pediment friezes and show us how inclined they were to positive and negative parity. He tried to explain triads as a color notion to me, which I took a long time to understand. He really was aware of the materiality of light -- a sort of Californian sensibility -- whereas BU has a strong tradition of Cezanne structuralism.

Grant Drumheller, "Orange Blanket," 2013, 8 x 10 inches, oil on linen
Reed Kay is the most committed teacher I ever knew. He also had absolute faith in me. I remember doing a painting in my flat manner of a model sitting for a portrait and he said, "Drumheller you could sign this and give it to Lord and Taylor for an ad; just give me the ear Drumheller!" He taught me to model form with warm and cool, to work from the inside out, and to use a kind of incisive and probing drawing. I learned I could have "a painting experience" in his class; a moment of knowing and forgetting. Reed always carried a pad and drew drawings for each student to clarify elements in their work. I have friends who kept every drawing: not me! They would grease up on the palette and I'd toss them. Now I wish I had them. His work is absolutely beautiful too, and once he retired from teaching, he had no regrets. He'd done it entirely and now was ready for the studio.

Grant Drumheller, "Women Talking," 2013, 8 x 10 inches, oil on linen
Philip Guston was my graduate mentor along with Jim Weeks as counterweight. I was in awe and mostly so speechless I couldn't breathe but I remember just about everything he said to me. He was so mad for Italy and quattrocento painting, it informed everything he spoke about, and he brought it into the present for us. The proscenium is a 14th century Italian convention he played with in most of his work. I would stay up all night making huge paintings before his crits just to get him to like me. Guston also pushed us to make paintings from our subconscious, to jump off the cliff in our work. It remains an ideal in my work, to be completely absorbed by the painting, to have it direct me. That mystery is a tantalizing thing: can I get that again? How do I get to that place in my work and have it happen again?

I got a Fulbright to live in Florence for a year and he cupped my cheek and said, "Good work, but you must live in Rome!" He wrote me a lovely letter to the then director of the American Academy in Rome to get me digs but they were full up with their own. He died shortly after that. I think his greatest compliment to me was during a critique. My studio mate was making hyper-realist paintings of skies and gas stations. He looked at me and said, referring to my tumbling and writhing figures that "when the revolution comes, they'll put her in charge of making the posters and you"ll go to prison!" I was recently at the Academy as a visitor and he came back to me in vivid ways; the specimen trees and sculptural fragments, the sense of scale and sky were in all the Roma paintings.

Grant Drumheller, "Bathers at the Falls," 2013, 12 x 16 inches, oil on linen
Your current show features a number of paintings of crowds seen from above. How did you become interested in that viewpoint and what are the problems of painting people from above?

 I began painting still lifes of groups of toy animals at my feet on the studio floor, like big migrations. I had also spent some time in Rome filming from the 4th floor window of our hotel room in front of the Pantheon- all the comings and goings at various intervals. I guess the idea of painting that view also came from painting some of the large ruins in Rome with the inevitably small figures next to them. Then the next step was skipping the obvious monuments and just focusing on the figures and the paintings took off. I remember a time when I turned 21 and my parents celebrated with giving me a trip to the beach in Mexico. I took a parachute ride and as I rode up in the air the point of view was that of a bird. I find that the curve of my vision is often something I want to convey and not just the "crushed" space that one is familiar with from telephoto lens photography. So the dynamic of perspective and foreshortening the figures plays some part in the way I construct the paintings , also the geometry of the reserve -- what's behind and around -- and how it interacts with the verticals of the figures is an issue. I move the elements around a lot before things settle into place.

Grant Drumheller, "4th of July," 2013, 72 x 60 inches, oil on linen
You seem to work from both memory and observation: tell me about how you mix the two.

I painted mostly from memory for twenty years, inventing figures in narratives. I was pretty comfortable coming up with a gesture and my work from life complimented it. Sometimes the generality that ensued from invention needed to be better informed through observation and vice-versa; the drive in a gesture is a powerful dramatic element that is not often obtainable in the figure from observation. I became frustrated with work from imagination when I wanted to express something very precise, such as when my mother died and I spent two years painting self portraits, some wearing her effects. It was a very valuable experience. The large invented paintings of figures on beaches or in cities use both memory and observation.

Grant Drumheller, "Nude Bathers," 2013, 49.5 x 65 inches, oil on linen
If I told you that you are a Boston painter who paints like a Californian how would you reply?

I was born in Davis, California and remember as a baby lying on a blanket in the fragrant strawberry field behind the house. Whoever said babies don't have memories: don't believe them.

Grant Drumheller, "Boys Swimming," 2013, 8 x 10 inches, oil on panel
Who are some painters you admire?

Titian had it all: color, drawing, composing, and his transitions are unmatched in art. The other strange greats such as Bellini, Chardin, Picasso, de Chirico, Degas, Vuillard, Watteau are painters I look at: I have their cards over the sink. Contemporary art is hard to comment on; I feel like I am swimming among them. I will say that painting is both unique to itself and an art of its own.  

"Grant Drumheller: New Paintings"
530 West 25th Street, 4th Floor New York, New York
May 19 - June 15, 2013