Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cézanne's Portraits of Madame Cézanne at the Met

By Charles Kessler

Detail: Paul Cézanne, Portrait of the Artist, n.d., graphite on paper, 13 ½ x 11 ¼ inches (Metropolitan Museum Of Art).
Cézanne often painted the same subject over and over, including his wife, Hortense Fiquet. Given the large number of works Cézanne made of her, it's surprising that the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Madame Cézanne (until March 15th) is the first time that there has been an exhibition devoted to them. The show brings together 24 of the 29 portraits, made over a 20-year period, plus many drawings and watercolor studies.

Accompanying Madame Cézanne is a jewel of a side exhibition of other Cézanne drawings and watercolors from the Met's collection (including the self-portrait above).

The personality of the long-suffering Hortense seems to be the main topic of discussion in reviews (here and here for example) and in the exhibition catalog: "Her expression in the painted portraits has been variously described as remote, inscrutable, dismissive, and even surly." She may in fact have been all these things, but I don't think capturing her personality, or the personality of any other of his sitters for that matter, was Cézanne's concern, any more than capturing the personality of an apple or a landscape was.
Paul Cézanne, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1886-87, oil on canvas, 18 ⅜ x 15 ⅜ inches (Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Everyone Cézanne painted, including himself, looks dour, probably because of the demands Cézanne placed on them. They were required to sit unmoving for many hours. He's quoted as complaining to Ambroise Vollard, his art dealer who he was painting: "You wretch! You've spoiled the pose. Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple? Does an apple move?"

Furthermore, I disagree with the common description of Cézanne's art as composed of massive, rounded, solid forms. I know about his famous advice for his friend the writer Émile Bernhard: “... deal with nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone … .” This is an oft repeated quote, and one of the few that's nonsense – or perhaps it was "do what I say, not what I do" type of advice. In any case, I defy anyone to find cylinders, spheres or cones in Cézanne's art.

Instead of massive, rounded and solid, I perceive Cézanne's work as elusive, evanescent, and unstable. (I discussed this in an earlier post.) Cézanne's compositions are always a little off – slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) out of balance. They can be asymmetrical, elongated, broken up, tipsy, uncentered; and forms fluctuate back and forth between inhabiting three-dimensional space and lying flat on the surface. This is what gives Cézanne's art energy and dynamism, and its expressive, if often disconcerting, power. The mind seeks harmony and balance, and when it's not there, there's tension. (These tensions were described by Erle Loran as early as the 1940’s; I don't know why they now seem to be disregarded.)

One of the most unstable portraits in the show is this one:
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90, oil on canvas, 45 ⅞ x 35 ¼ inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art). 
Madame Cézanne looks like she's ready to fall over, not so much because she's tilted precariously (although she's actually fairly vertical), but because she's not tied into the space compositionally. Instead she floats in a shifting, ambiguous space. The drapery and orange rectangular shape on the left form a frame pushing everything back, but her dress goes to the bottom edge, thrusting her bottom half forward. The wall behind her tilts in different directions, and she seems to be floating on her chair. Even her body doesn't stay still. Her left arm is lower than her right, and the two form a shifting play of curves with her torso. Her head and hair are also asymmetrical and jiggle around in space.

And Cézanne's forms aren't solid; I see them as colored light so gaseous it feels as though I could put my finger through them. (See close-up below.)
Detail of above: Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90, oil on canvas, 45 ⅞ x 35 ¼ inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art). 
There is also tension in Cézanne's color which is ephemeral and seems to glow. This is because Cézanne typically employs simultaneous effects (also called simultaneous contrasts) – the phenomenon whereby colors, especially contrasting, or nearly contrasting, colors, appear to change depending on the colors they are near. This can be seen even in reproduction, as in the detail above. The blue shadows and highlights of Madame Cézanne's hands look blue/green because of the surrounding reds and oranges. And not only does the blue look greenish, but it's a glowing, brighter, more elusive color than can come out of a tube. The same is true of the yellow/orange. It glows because it's adjacent to blue, its near complement.

Simultaneous effects are especially strong under natural light, so it’s fortunate the Met installed this show in the Lehman wing.

I think Cézanne's more subtle asymmetries are more successful because they kind of creep up on you. What appears on first sight to be a solid, tight composition starts to become animated, wobble, and shift in and out of space. This little beauty is a good example – a small, stark, unusually simple and abstract portrait, but nevertheless elusive, glowing and subtly but ultimately disconcertingly unstable.
Paul Cézanne, Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca.1877, oil on canvas, 10 ¼ x 12 ¼ inches (private collection).
The basic pose is pyramidal, which ordinarily is very stable except she's off-center, so that throws everything out of kilter. She's sitting on a stuffed chair that looks "massive, rounded and solid," but the right side dissolves into flat brushstrokes when it touches the unpainted edge on the right. The same goes for the stripes of her dress – they attach themselves to the unpainted strip on the bottom and are forced forward, flat onto the picture plane.

As you keep looking you'll find even more. The part in her hair is a little off-vertical, and her hair is bigger on the right than the left, and slightly higher. Her face sometimes looks turned a bit clockwise and other times looks frontal, and her right eye is slightly lower than her left. Also note that the red/green simultaneous effects on her face make her face glow and dissolve its solidity, weight and palpability. All these things animate and enliven the composition.

Here are some other works from the show.
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne Sewing, ca. 1880, graphite on laid paper (Courtauld Institute of Art).
Paul Cézanne, Seated Woman (Madame Cézanne), ca 1902-4, graphite and watercolor on wove paper (Steinhardt Collection, NY).
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, ca. 1888-90, oil on canvas (Art Institute of Chicago). 
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, ca. 1888-90, oil on canvas (Foundation Beyeler, Basel).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik: Letting (e)Go

by Carl Belz

(Author's note: Facebook friends Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik have teamed up for an exhibition titled "Generative Processes," for which they invited me to contribute the following essay. The exhibition will be at TSA Gallery in Bushwick--1329 Willoughby Ave, #2A--from February 20 to March 29, 2015 with an opening on February 20th from 6 to 9 pm.)

In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself. 

In referring to their pairing for this exhibition, Debra Ramsay mentioned her and Alex Paik’s mutual interest in creating an “ego-less” art. An ego-less art: a surprising yet intriguing ambition, even a radical ambition at a time when individual empowerment and expression are everywhere promoted in our culture – in the countless blogs and commentary flooding the internet, in the unprecedented financial rewards associated with entrepreneurial achievement, in the plethora of memoirs on our bookshelves, and not least in our art world’s boundless appetite for star-studded spectacle and entertainment. Against such excess Debra Ramsay sounds an alternative note in describing herself as a meditative agency, “a conduit for the arrangement of shape and the placement of color” in her abstract pictures, while Alex Paik in the same spirit modestly likens himself to a country songwriter needing “only three chords and the truth” to write a good country song. 
Debra Ramsay, Color Changes in the forest, during one year, at the same location, 2015, acrylic on Juan silk, 6 inches x 153  inches.
What ego-less can be said to mean in the face of these artists’ art is signaled in the arts’ unassuming physical properties. Debra Ramsay regularly works with acrylic on unframed museum board, paper, mylar and related materials that connote cultural ephemera but at the same time facilitate the kind of close handling and interaction we associate not with signature artworks destined for exhibition but with private studies and drawings and with problem solving explorations meant not first of all to delight but to aid in resolving the job at hand – that is, with artistic process not product, let alone with branded commodities. Nor is the work driven in terms of size and scale; on the contrary, we’ve no trouble imagining an ample Debra Ramsay exhibition being fully delivered in a briefcase or artist’s portfolio. And here, too, the artists are in accord, for Alex Paik also works with paper, cutting and folding and creasing and coating it with gouache and colored pencil and thereby shaping abstract painting/sculpture hybrids he accurately describes as possessing a toy-sized scale, his method embodying “a lo-fi and straightforward approach to art making, hoping to reveal some truth about my materials or process and create work that is sincere, graceful, and intimate.” Ego-less such art may be said to be, but that’s in no way to say it isn’t personal.
Alex Paik, Folded Square (Hanging Yellow), 2014, gouache, colored pencil, paper, 40 x 13 x 3 ½  inches.
Both of these artists employ a conceptual system of one kind or another to generate and guide their work and – especially significant in the context of their urge toward an ego-less art – to rein in and structure the decisions affecting the work’s spectrum of thought and feeling, which in turn determine its character. In doing so they manifest the conviction that meaningful artistic freedom is secured only within limitations – as in life, so in art – and without them would be, and would be perceived, as merely personal and arbitrary. The artists’ aim in approaching systematically the creative process is not to annihilate the authorial ego, but to acknowledge its humanity.   

Debra Ramsay, Seeing Through :: Landscape As Time, 2014, acrylic on Juan silk, 90 x 48 inches.
Debra Ramsay’s approach is fully present to us in Landscape as Time, an ambitious and visually absorbing project begun in the spring of 2013 while she was participating in a Golden Family Foundation residency in the town of New Berlin in upstate New York. It entailed routinely walking a selected trail on the site, photographing the landscape 18 times at intervals of 100 paces on at least four occasions through the seasons of a calendar year, and returning to the studio after each visit to translate and mix colors from the photographs into the pigments she wanted via a computer application. The paintings that followed focus upon and document seasonal color changes and lengthening or shortening daylight. They are wholly abstract – the artist herself regards them as “pure landscapes reduced to actual found colors” – and they are formally configured into clusters of vertical stripes or stacks of horizontal bands, but they are at the same time regularly ordered, less noticeably but no less importantly, by top-to-bottom and left-to-right compositional symmetry, which in each case is where the artist’s taste – which is central to the artist’s ego – becomes curbed and the systematic framing of the pictures’ genesis is registered. And thus do stasis and change come to resonate and inform one another throughout the series, allowing us better to know each by measuring each against the other, their interaction allowing us to gauge the color changing and thereby glimpse time passing and time paused, feel the coupling of art and nature – and quietly savor the abundantly satisfying pleasures of both. 
Alex Paik, Parallelogram (Offset Layers), gouache, colored pencil, paper, 2014, 21 x 26 ½ x 1 inches.
Alex Paik’s pictorial abstractions are deeply indebted to the classical music abstractions he learned while growing up and playing the violin. Individual works generally begin with a single geometric figure – some version of a triangle, parallelogram, or trapezoid, and so on – that is treated like a musical theme or fragment and in turn becomes the engine generating and guiding the work’s shape, character, and identity. “The work reflects my love of contrapuntal music, imitating the way the theme of a fugue is repeated, turned upside-down, transposed, and folded upon itself. My working process is essentially doing a lot of improvisational sessions and then cutting, pasting, and editing those sessions into some sort of coherent whole, much like Miles Davis’s Bitch’s Brew was composed.” Thus does jazz spontaneity become wed to classical discipline in informing and shaping the work’s structurally complex but intuitively buoyant effect; thus, in becoming visible, do the fugue-like manipulations of its making add music’s defining dimension of time to the work’s content; and thus does the artist’s creative process come to be felt less as an expression of the artist’s ego than as an engagement with the job at hand yielding truth about his approach to art making.  
Alex Paik, Radial (Open), 2014 , gouache, colored pencil, paper, 21 x 21 x 2 ½ inches.
Debra Ramsay, The Days Grow Longer in the Spring, 2014, acrylic on Dura-Lar, 20 x 61 inches..
The history of modernist abstraction hovers around these artists, as they surely know. Debra Ramsay’s vertical clusters and horizontal stacks recall color field paintings from the 1960s by Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland, while Alex Paik’s banded geometries have been likened to Frank Stella’s shaped and striped paintings from that same decade. The comparisons are suggestive, not in revealing meaningful stylistic influences or wry tongue-in-cheek appropriations, but in demonstrating how what goes around comes around – in this case, artists thinking about art making, then and now. For what Davis and Noland and Stella were thinking about then was that gestural abstraction had become excessive and mannered, that composing had too often become arbitrary and merely personal, and that the deck had to be cleared in favor of a simpler, more straightforward and objective approach to art making, an approach that would be less about the artist per se and more about what the artist knows, more like the artist as a conduit. All of which Debra Ramsay and Alex Paik and their generational colleagues very well know, for they know the history of abstract art, yet they harbor no nostalgia for a return to it, preferring instead to be present in the artistic world of their own making, a world respectful of the past but not confined by it; a world in which they assume responsibility for its freedoms and its limits; a world, according to Debra Ramsay, wherein “artistic science” operates and, according to Alex Paik, “formalism is more interested in serendipity and invention than in unified systems of thought” – in other words, the world that’s generously offered in their pictures, the one they call ego-less in which less ego essentially means more creative space for each of us, for you and me and the others.     


Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals

By Charles Kessler

This exhibition (on view until July 26, 2015) is not only about a group of Mark Rothko paintings done at the peak of his career, but it’s also about an ingenious restoration technique – a way to restore the color of these faded murals via non-invasive digital projections.
Mark Rothko's tryptic from his Harvard Murals, illuminated with digital projections that restore the original color (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette). 
I should note that on the website of the Harvard Museums, there is very little photo documentation of the exhibition or information about the restoration process. This is inexcusable, especially in an educational institution. To make matters worse, photography of the work, even of the wall labels, was not allowed. Fortunately I happen to have taken some photos before I was told it was verboten.
Verboten photograph of some studies for Mark Rothko's Harvard Murals. 
The exhibition features a much-damaged five-panel mural that Rothko was commissioned to make in 1961-62 for the penthouse dining room of Harvard University’s Holyoke Center (now the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Campus Center).
Rothko's Panel Five inside the Holyoke Center, January 1968 (from the Harvard University Archives).
In addition, 38 studies for the murals are in the exhibition, including this little beauty:
Mark Rothko, Untitled (study for Harvard Murals), 1961, tempera on purple construction paper, 7 x 12 inches (Harvard Art Museums, Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation).
And, presented here for the first time, a sixth mural which was painted for the commission and held in reserve until Rothko decided which five paintings he wanted for the final installation. (I was not able to find a photograph of this painting.) Since it was ultimately not included in the final installation, it was rolled up and stored until now, so fortunately it never got damaged.

Rothko had made paintings for a particular site before – the Seagrams murals (which he decided not to install), the Rothko Chapel, and the Phillips Collection Rothko Room (see comment below). But the Harvard Murals were the only ones where he personally supervised the installation.  He also chose the color of the walls –  a rather obnoxious greenish ochre that I assume he wanted in order to contrast with the canvases.

The murals are installed in a space that approximates the penthouse dining room’s original dimensions; but without the penthouse's furnishings, windows and drapes, the room feels too big for the work – it's not the immersive environment that I imagine the Holyoke Center penthouse conference room must have been. And intended or not, they don't have the theatrical religiosity of the Rothko Chapel or the mysterious poetry of his earlier work – what Clement Greenberg disdainfully referred to as “moody paintings.”

The murals are more structured than Rothko's typical earlier work with its soft-edged floating rectangles, but not structured enough to deal with their much greater size. Rothko referred to them as “portal paintings,” and they are usually composed of two "columns" framing an interior void. To succeed, the columns and voids would need to be experienced as somewhere between a solid and a colored cloud, or field of color. If the columns are too wide, they become color fields and lose their solidity, too narrow they become a figure in a ground and don't breathe and glow. The same with the voids. If they are too big relative to the size and shape of the canvas, or if there is too much space between the columns and the edge of the paintings, they become just a colored space for the columns to inhabit. The voids lose the solidity needed to compress the space and create a taut, dynamic composition.

Unfortunately, the mural panels don't achieve this balance. Panel Four for example:
Mark Rothko’s Panel Four (photo from WBUR Radio website).
But a successful balance is achieved in many of the smaller studies, like this one:
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Harvard Mural Sketch), 1962, oil on canvas, about 6 feet high (Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel).
The main problem with the Harvard Murals, though, is that they faded badly – so much so that by 1979 the university took them down and put them in storage. Rothko used light-fast pigments, but the binder he used made the pigments highly unstable and prone to fading. This was made even worse because even though Rothko insisted that special light-blocking shades be drawn during the day, people kept the shades up most of the time – apparently the view of the Charles River was just too tempting.
The penthouse of the Holyoke Center in January 1963 (Elizabeth H. Jones/President and Fellows of Harvard College). Rothko is in the middle wearing a sport coat. 
In addition, people ate in the room and had parties there; as a result, food and drink were sometimes spilled on the paintings, and furniture was bumped into them. There was even graffiti on some of the paintings, which shows a shocking lack of respect for what was then contemporary art.

Ordinarily conservators would paint a protective layer of varnish over a painting that needed restoring in order to isolate and protect the original painting from the touched up restoration. Harvard conservators could repair the damage from food and drink, and even the graffiti, but they could not restore the faded color without the isolation varnish masking the subtle brushwork and matte/gloss contrasts in the works.

So, expanding on the ideas of Canadian conservator Raymond Lafontaine, who used slide projectors in the 1980s to partly recover the colors of some art, the Harvard conservators, together with scientists from the MIT Media Lab, came up with what they called “compensation images” – colored light digitally projected on the faded murals, that would restore the original rich colors in a non-invasive way.
The digital imaging software and tools used to calibrate the color corrections onto the damaged Rothko paintings
 (photo: Jesse Costa/WBUR Radio).
To achieve this was no small task. First they had to determine the murals’ original colors. Fortunately there were some good Ectachrome transparencies (large slides) taken of the work in 1964; even though they too faded, the conservators were able to correct their color according to a common formula that has become standard in the field. Then, to verify they had the colors right, they compared the color of the corrected transparencies with the unfaded sixth canvas that had been rolled up and stored the whole time. Next they photographed the existing faded canvases, creating an amazing 2 million pixel scan for each panel. And finally, they made a map of the "compensation color image" by essentially subtracting the faded color from the original color to discover what color is missing from each pixel. These colors are projected onto the paintings, making the color look like it did fifty years ago.
Conservation scientist Jens Stenger holds a white board demonstrating the noninvasive digital projection of one of the damaged Mark Rothko paintings (photo: David Ryan, The Boston Globe).
Of course the experience isn’t the same as viewing paint on canvas. It is after all projected light. Nevertheless, as can be seen at 4:00 every day when they shut the digital projection off so people can see what the faded work looks like, the digital projection definitely helps to bring these faded paintings back to life.