Art objects are storytelling machines. That’s because we are hardwired to tell and listen to stories. All art, no matter how abstract, must respond to this fundamental human trait. Viewing the show (September 15-October 31, 2018) of Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor James Greco’s new work at Elga Wimmer’s Chelsea Gallery in New York, you would have been transported to narrative worlds even as you gazed at his gestural abstraction. Employing an improvisational mark making and painterly freedom that is singularly his, Greco discovers pictures that traverse the gap between the gestural and the referential.
Six tarpaulin paintings, together forming the show’s piece de resistance, were hung on the walls of the gallery’s main display space, together with two more traditionally made paintings created on cotton cloth the artist had stretched on wooden fames he himself had made. A third painting from this category was on display in an adjacent smaller space. Four sculptures were distributed between the two rooms.
At work in the paintings was the energy and effort of an embodied mind, concentrated in a painter’s hand. Greco says he has an elemental, passionate relationship with paint, and you see this in the sheer physicality he imparts to his imagery. Driving his work is an immersion in spontaneous process, not the finished product – nonetheless, the product emerges as a compelling object that reverberates in you, a hard-won image that takes you to the continuity between gesture and reference. This is akin to mindfulness. You become one with the painter’s experience, the embodied experience that created the painting.
Let’s take a look at two of the paintings in the show, starting with one of the three more traditional paintings so as to see more clearly the leap forward the tarp paintings represent. The name of the piece 1968, no.14 was initially a reference to the year in which Greco was born, and it sprang to his mind while the painting was still in process. Once this light came on, he also recalled the political and social turmoil that erupted in 1968 in many parts of the world. The clash between the grays and whites and reds of this highly energetic painting evokes a violent turbulence that makes you think of Francis Bacon’s paintings as well as Chaim Soutine’s. Coming to mind, too, is the volcanic energy and sinister violence of the paintings of some members of the Gutai group.
Greco in fact celebrates the affinity between his artistic practice and the ideas that drove the revolutionary art of these Japanese artists, who were active as a group between 1954 and 1972. When you regard his tarp paintings you see this affinity right away.
In terms of both Japanese culture and the global art world, the Gutai group sought a new beginning and aspired to a strident originality, especially with regard to choice of materials and processes. Such a radical departure was a natural response to the national disaster the Second World War brought to the Japanese people. The group wanted to turn away from the country’s past and consciously adopted an internationalist outlook. Yet, while the Gutai pioneered new ways of art making that prefigured and catalyzed such later global art forms as happenings and performance art and conceptual art, they achieved, especially in painting, an immediacy, spontaneity, and free expressiveness that was also a hallmark of traditional Japanese art inspired by Zen Buddhism. Look at Tarp Painting 14. The vitality Greco generates in it through his gestural use of wine red, black, gray, white, and earth brown pigments create in you a Zen like experience that is at once numinous and embodied. The play of the colors pushes and pulls, affecting you viscerally, pulling you into a narrative drama, while also pushing you imperceptibly via a subtle allusiveness that seems to harbor a “sudden awakening”– the very essence of Zen. For centuries Zen painters aspired to bring a painting’s core into existence through a single stroke. You see that idea pervading all of Greco’s tarp paintings.
Greco creates a grid in each tarp by folding it into squares he embeds into the canvas by using an iron. The resulting “ghostly geometry”, as he calls it, provides a structure that helps give direction to his brush strokes. Over time, the folds relax and spread out, creating undirected change. The outcome speaks to you of simplicity, artlessness, and even imperfections wrought by time and usage.
The sculptures in the show were made with the same spirit, energy and aspiration that animate his recent paintings. Made of wood, plaster, cement and resin, the forms come together rather quickly with little thought or preconception. Greco tries to feel the physical space they occupy and the independence they claim. Once realized, they are shaped with plaster or cement bringing it all into unity with the mechanical aspects of the binding process being well hidden, inclusive of the armature materials. Greco then applies resin to seal the surfaces and leaves them alone.
Elga Wimmer PCC is currently promoting a new show devoted to the abiding greatness of Asian landscape painting and the reinvention of this genre in contemporary art. Greco, now signing his paintings with a traditional Japanese-style ink stamp – this with a view to signifying not so much their origin in his hand but rather the process that brought them into being – will be a contributor.
The James Greco show discussed in this article ended in October 2018. Those seeing it would have found transformative his distinctive narrative abstraction. The signals they would have received from the liminal space his art occupies would have beckoned them into a heightened awareness.
It’s no secret that water has its own unique attraction. Some of our best memories of youth often center around water, especially in moments when the summer’s oppressive heat is quelled by a dip in a cold lake, stream or pool where games and adventures, big and small, take place. Then there are the socio-political aspects of water: chemical pollution, climate change and even the damage that plastic water bottles can cause – some, even disputed facts that can separate us as much as it unites us.
The eight artists in this exhibition touch upon the above issues as well as add new and deeper ways of thinking that feature varied aesthetic or symbolic characteristics, as they offer distinctive jumping off points to view the world for all its beauty and frailty.
Tim Daly has, for as long as I have known him, been wholly concerned with environmental issues. His two paintings, which address the impending disaster of the Salton Sea in California, present a very real and startling symbol of how past abuses never lose their potential to reap havoc with our health.
Cecilia Whittaker Doe sees water through a complicated lens that challenges the viewer to put the pieces together the same way the Cubists once confronted their audiences. With Whittaker-Doe we see more of a subconscious, day-dreamy quality and a bit softer deconstruction than her predecessors.
Keryn Huang reveals with her images the magic one can harness with a black and white photograph, especially in setting a mood. Even the simplest of juxtapositions and angles can become overtly transformative or quietly compelling in the hands of a patient observer who waits for just the right moment.
Jim St Clair paints solely from his boat, most often along the shores of the five boroughs and New Jersey, as a he captures the beauty as well as the beastliness of large hulking ships, decrepit docks or wobbly walkways that have succumbed to nature and man’s relentless insults, all set against a quickly changing skyline.
William Thompson finds great concerns for what confounds our seas, reaping both physical and psychological harm. As a result, the sea is becoming angry, hot, even molten and we can feel in his intimately sized paintings centuries of abuse bubbling up to the surface as the day of reckoning approaches.
With their timeless sepia toned surfaces, Roman Turovsky creates photographs that feature awe-inspiring angles of some of New York’s most majestic bridges. That mix of time and testament to human kind’s ability to overcome great gaps is much needed today when considering our divisive socio-political climate.
Martin Weinstein looks at nature over days, months even years to collect illuminating imagery on layers of overlapping Plexiglas. Each painting is done from life as it leaps from moment to moment like the pages of a novel, unfolding through beauty, brilliance and the quietude present in each brush stroke.
Patrick Winfield’s Driftwood (2017) holds snippets of a story that reveals itself sequentially in recognizable elements veiled by raking sunlight. Each frame spawns memories in us of similar circumstances when we too have stopped to look and breathe in the timeless moments of everyday life.
Water Works runs from April 27 to May 22, 2019 at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea District.
The Artwork that Led to the Publication of a Magazine
by Steve Rockwell
I had dropped out of the art scene already in 1972. When I came up with the idea for Pick a Number Between 1 and 99 in 1987, my contact with people I had known from art school and the early studio days had all but ceased. To quote Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, professionally I was essentially “…a complete unknown.” Distanced from my past efforts, my future presented a blank slate. The situation was at once liberating, yet tinged by a sense of urgency.
Work on Pick a Number was designed to progress incrementally in the expanse of a public arena, not the hermetic, catacomb strictures of a studio. From this point, my normal working space would be consigned to the finishing aspect of the art – its fabrication. The approach felt fresh and invigorating in a way that I imagined, the impressionists may have experienced working en plein air. Essential to the project was an intent to make the endeavor as idiot proof as possible, allaying the burden of having to plumb any arcane pretensions that the participant may have associated with conceptual art. It really came down to just picking a number and selecting a square. With profundity and import deferred, I soldiered on, adopting the habit of toting my half-letter-sized paper forms as I went, a bit like a photographer with his camera, I suppose – at the ready to frame and capture my subject anywhere, any time.
In point of practice, the project unfolded in a predictably routine way: supported by friends, family, and work colleagues – the low-hanging fruit. Even then, I found myself in an awkward role as somewhat of a huckster in having to sell people on the idea. I needed a cover if I hoped to carry this thing off. In my mind, the right persona might be just the ticket. Steve Rockwell was born April 12, 1987, just two days after Bea Egolf, a typesetter at the company for which I worked, scribed the number 32 into the first Pick a Number grid.
Good or bad at this point, the initiative had at least brought me into a fresh consideration of my creative approach. How far can I stretch this artist character? How will it affect my working method as I progress? Admittedly, all this had been a wry jab at the solemnity and, in my view, needless complexity of Sol Lewitt’s approach to conceptualism. His Wall Drawing #232: The location of a square had been the singular springboard for this new direction. The 19-line geyser of a sentence in Lewitt’s set of instructions, however, gave me a headache. I would rather have assembled an IKEA bookcase. “A square, each side of which is equal to a tenth of the total length of three lines, the first of which is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the wall and a point halfway between the wall and the upper left corner and the midpoint…” and so on. Nevertheless, I did like its precision and aura of certainty – its final executive clarity.
Looking back now, I see that the complexity that I had dispensed with in Lewitt’s instructions, had merely been displaced by the Steve Rockwell character, as played out in the 139 separate negotiations with the participating individuals over the eight month period required to complete my Art Involvement Form #001 project. An important distinction lay also in the final product. While Lewitt employed fabricators and assistants to complete his work, following detailed instructions to a specific end, the final product in the Art Involvement pieces were provisional and generally arbitrary. Decisions about the look of these pieces could be made once the information had been collected. There were two key aspects to my approach – data generation and data implementation, necessarily facilitated by a social network. It wasn’t lost on me that their conception occurred in tandem with the 80s development and proliferation of the personal computer. It’s worth considering the role that Steve Jobs played in hyping the warm, human aspects of computing, made conspicuous with the 1983 release of the Apple Lisa, named for his daughter.
Despite my best efforts to manage the progress of the Pick a Number piece, a fly dropped into the ointment with author Jerzy Kosinski’s contribution. After a lecture he had given in Toronto, he either didn’t catch, or simply ignored my instruction to mark a single number into the space of his choice. Instead, he gobbled up all of six squares, scribbling in three combinations of sixes and nines with an obvious eagerness. At the time, I thought that the blunder had spoiled the intended symmetry of the piece. Participants in the 12 by 12 grid project ought to have generated a tidy 144 completed forms. When displayed at their exhibition, the wall installation of Pick a Number sheets were arranged into 24 rows six deep as planned, but with five unintended blanks spaces remaining at the end. Kosinski had inadvertently blocked five people from taking part in the project and given the piece something of an unfinished look. In retrospect, the “mistake” may have turned out to be fortuitous. It had bothered me somewhat that the white square on the last participant’s form would remain without the blackening. In the preparation of this article, and seeking a way to best configure the 139 sheets of paper, a possible solution presented itself. Why not ink in that last counter and punctuate the form by my own signature? This would make it an even 140 and allow for its display as a grid arranged five forms deep with 28 rows across.
Not surprisingly, given its social aspect, the Pick a Number project had quickly edged towards a narrative, the generation of ciphers progressively threading disparate individuals into a kind of information tapestry, even more so with the passage of time. The first tragic instance of it, as I recall, was the sudden passing of a work associate, Leo, who had once played Olympic hockey for Italy. Hearing the news affected me in a strange way. His contributing datum had made him inadvertently part of a larger story, the transcription to which I had served as a witness. Leo’s number pick had been a peg driven into the tent of a specific moment in time and place.
To be expected, life passages are the Pick a Number events that etch the deepest into relief. Represented on the form as a fade from white to black, they analogize the nakedly sharp edge of our existence. From the beginning on April 10th, 1987 to its completion on December 2nd of that year, various personal stories constitute an ever-expanding tableau vivant, the forms serving as delineating markers, a canvas upon which a mélange of dramas continue to play out into the present. All along, it had been the personal part of the information gathering that had made the simple act of selecting numbers into something of a life moment – and as long as narratives are being tracked, Pick a Number seems never to close out.
I have come to appreciate the project as a private diary – people clustered into specific times and places, a sequential log of family, friends, and people that I knew, worked with, and met casually in 1987. Two Toronto mayors became part of Pick A Number. I bumped into Art Eggleton, the longest serving Mayor of Toronto, striding past Henry Moore’s Archer and across Nathan Phillips Square, the mayor presumably fresh from a council meeting at the adjacent City Hall. After a brief verbal joust, he relented and signed the form. Then mayor of North York, Mel Lastman signed my form without hesitation at a public function. He would preside over an amalgamated Toronto from 1998 to 2003.
I can see from the dates on the forms #11-20 that Thursday evening on April 16 would have involved a drive with the family to parents in Northern Ontario for Easter. The next day on Good Friday seven family members signed forms at our stay at my parents. Three more were numbered on Easter Sunday, indicating that we had paid a visit to the in-laws.
All of 22 forms were inscribed on a single day, August 30th at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. The North York Arts Council had provided some booth space for artists, giving my outing there a carnivalesque step-right-up-folks flavor. While at the exhibition, I took in a set by rockabilly legend Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, who obliged me with a 69 on his Pick a Number form. The three members of another CNE act, the Aussie band, Mind The Gap, also picked numbers. A quick Google search just revealed that their head-banging anthems and reflective ballads are still reverberating. Before his success in Canada, lead singer, Patrick McMahon, had arrived at the Vancouver Airport in 1986 with a suitcase and a guitar, not knowing a soul. My recollection is that McMahon had picked the name for his group from the caution signs that he observed riding on the Toronto subway.
My local in 1987 was the Ben Wicks – a lode rich in Pick a Number participants, which included a former Playboy bunny who had apparently once worked at Hef’s Chicago club, and Maury Mason, a Greenpeace spokesman who now manages the Vipassana Meditation Center in British Columbia. It was Mason who had reported on the six Greenpeace members who were chained to the British vessel The Gem in the protest of the dumping of 5,000 barrels of radioactive waste into the Atlantic.
Pick a Number was the first of several art involvement projects that would sprout from the original seed idea, the second being Decade, which had its showing as part of a group exhibit in December 1988. This work involved putting up for sale days of a purchasor’s choice of the ten years leading up to the year 2000. Although begun and created in December 1987, Color Match Game would not be exhibited until 2004, undergoing refinements and developments that continue into the present. In that respect, the work shares a characteristic common to all of these pieces. Since the final visual appearance of each is provisional, there is a regenerative aspect to the works that lends unpredictability and frequently a surprise of outcome.
These three columns of type constrained by the pages of dArt magazine owe their direct genesis to the burgeoning line of art involvement projects, the eighth being the sculptural Gallery Space, which led to the book work Meditations on Space in 1996, and finally dArt International magazine in 1998. In the strictest sense the subject, of course, is still space.
Gallery Space was part of the first Steve Rockwell solo exhibition at the Arnold Gottlieb Gallery in January 1989. That summer, Gottlieb featured the Steve Rockwell Sandwich, driving home the idea that the application of a program, or menu retains its freshness in the perpetuity of production. Since then, the sandwich has appeared on restaurant menus and been featured at a 2004 Arts and Eats fair in San Antonio, Texas. The sandwich inspired a new food product, the dArt Burger, made available to order from a Toronto restaurant menu in 2011.
Long before Pick a Number and all that followed, is an ink and water color sketch that I came across by Jouko Salomaa done in 1973 that foreshadows the reflections on space that found expression in the late 80s, created by the individual who would rebrand his art in the persona of Steve Rockwell. Originally an untitled sketch, I decided to name it Field Work in the preparation of this article, as a way to knit together what went before with what came later. At the moment of its rendering, not much context could be inferred, that is until the current reconsideration of Pick a Number, where the arena of my labor would drift from one side of the studio wall to its exterior.
Little did I know when I sat down for the lecture by The Hermit of 69th Street, that strands in the narrative of a writer of “autofiction,” would eventually be woven into the visual art of another fictive persona. Since Kosinski spent a good part of his late career dodging accusations of plagiarism, the questions that arise have validity and currency. How much of what an artist reflects is genuinely his own? Admittedly, by Kosinski’s definition, the writer of autofiction was a teller of neither truth nor lies. I’d like to think that Steve tells truths.
The current offering at John Davis Gallery is the ideal combination of excellent art and a carefully prepared and perfectly installed exhibition. As a result, Ron Milewicz strikingly beautiful landscapes immediately capture and hold your attention as you enter the space. Opposite the entrance of the gallery hangs the most spiritual work in the show, Sun and Oak (2019). This modestly sized oil on panel will at first remind some of the visionary works of Charles Burchfield. The difference in Milewicz’s art lies in the more earthly nature of his scenes, which are most often about the exceptionally quiet moments one can experience on this earth when communing quietly and alone with nature. In a way, both Burchfield and Milewicz have that innate ability to enlighten the viewer, only with Milewicz you have a more subtle transition that relies more on the viewer’s past experiences than any otherworldly presumptions one might have. In that way, perhaps Milewicz’s landscapes are closer to Peter Doig’s paintings than Burchfield, sans the trippiness of Doig’s intense palette.
Take for instance Three Trees (2018), perhaps a nod the ages old subject The Three Muses, where we see a most subtle mastery of a moment when space and time meld harmoniously into veils of consciousness. Our attention is subtly held as we are methodically brought to the fore from the left – then across – moving back through the quietly chilling space from the right as our eyes hop along a slowly fading arc. In paintings like Tree Stand (2017) you can really see the artist’s mastery of his medium in the way he slowly, carefully and ever so lightly delivers his paints across the prepared textured surfaces of each panel. There is much movement here as well, as one of the far trees bows and bends to a sinuous path of light that plumes up and into the heavens.
Fall (2017-19), which has a double meaning with its late autumn colors and an obvious silhouette of a fallen tree, is one of the more complex works in the exhibition. Mostly invigorated by overlapping triangle shapes of the distant tree line, the alternating angles and uprightness of the white, black, brown and gray leafless trees dance across and divide the composition into stages while that one dead tree and its hump of a root system adds more than a bit of life/death cycle to one’s thoughts throughout. Late Winter Pond (2018) is the one work that has a bit more darkness to offer than Fall, as the oddly shaped pool of water is more like a heart shaped pit that blackens the earth while the soft moonlight disorients passers by wondering only where they might make an inconvenient misstep in this hauntingly serene setting.
Hanging in the lower level of the gallery are Milewicz earlier works, which are steely cityscapes of New York City’s more industrial aspects contrasted by formidable skylines and an occasional tree or grassy hillside. In these works, the overlap with Milewicz landscapes is in the striking way the artist handles and distills detail, form and color to drive all of his oddly romantic narratives without a single soul in sight.
Ron Milewicz: Circumstances at John Davis Gallery, Hudson, NY. The exhibition ends March 24th. If you are in Hudson, be sure to see it.
The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art stands as a consistent reminder that a regional museum can play a major role in the presentation and understanding of Contemporary Art, as well as offering a showplace for antiquity and Modern Art. Currently, the museum features four outstanding exhibitions that are presented thoughtfully and with a very high level of professionalism.
First, is the energetic and inviting painting exhibition Just My Type: Angela Dufresne. In it, are a number of life-sized portraits that begin with a half dozen multi-layered room-scapes dominated by a lone and oft times luxuriating figure. In each, we see overlapping veils of color, line and wash-based abstraction executed in thin, fluid oil paint. Gradually and effortlessly Dufresne’s painterly references directly and indirectly elicit form and depth, ultimately translating into an interior setting. This all comes about much in the same way a sculptor may work, beginning with a wire or wooden armature with the intent of adding more ‘solid’ materials to flesh out the forms. When considering the narrative elements here, paintings such as David Humphrey (2009) and Leigh Ledare (2007) show figures in repose, as one can assume, after a long day of exhausting creative activity. That unique combination of semi-transparent representation and ‘artist as subject’ gives these works their characteristic unpredictability – as they are more like a conversation between two creative minds than a portrait of a lone, posing or distracted individual.
Other examples of portraiture, such as Tomaso de Luca (2017), Kerry Downey (2016) and William E. Jones (2017), have much simpler backgrounds than the aforementioned works. With the subjects surrounded by one color, you may begin to register certain details such as the strong spindly fingers and the bigger than life personalities that may lead one to consider the influence of Egon Schiele or Alice Neel. As a result, this more emotional type allows the personal traits of the subjects to dominate, thus enhancing the their individuality. On the other hand, the use of a monochromatic wash of color to surround the figures intensifies their focus, which in some instances, as in the portrait of Kerry Downey, puts forth a hint of anxiousness or impatience – not an unusual response to sitting still for a portrait.
Around the corner from this first exhibition is a show that features a new addition of art to the museum. In Celebration: A Recent Gift From the Photography Collection of Marcuse Pfeifer is a stunning display of intensely alluring black and white photography from the apex of Modernism to the late ‘80’s. Included is Bernice Abbott’s famous portrait James Joyce (from the series “Faces of the ‘20’s”) (1928), which combines the dynamics created by a subtle gesture, opposing angles and corralled visual voids with more than a bit of fashionable flair. Also from the same series, and in stark contrast to Joyce, is the imposing form of Princess Eugene Murat (1928) that forcefully divides the composition into two corresponding triangles. Alternatively, and from the same series, is Buddy Gilmore (1926-27) where we see the projection of pure joy through an obvious celebration of life and a love of music that shifts up and out of the picture plane in a series of circles, shadows and suggestive signals.
Max Yavno’s Muscle Beach, Los Angeles (1949) and Cable car, San Francisco (1947) are wonderful, classic West Coast moments that are beautifully composed and impeccably nuanced. The work of Peter Hujar shows great versatility as he moves from the stone cold daunting geometry of New York: Sixth Avenue (I & II) (1976) to the thought filled serenity of Susan Sontag (1975). In both instances, the texture of the numerous parallel lines in Sontag’s sweater and the striations in the New York City’s looming behemoths links the aesthetic, while the starkness in the background above the skyscrapers and the reclining figure creates a palpable level of quietude.
August Sander offers a different level of contrast between the bleakness of the woman in Rural Bride (1921-22), and the sophisticated citified form in High School Student (1926), both clearly defining the era’s varied levels of poverty and privilege.
Of the other two exhibitions, one is a tribute to the 150th anniversary of nearby Mohonk Mountain House featuring wonderful archival photographs, plus student interpretations of various images of the past. Then there is an incredible, multi-faceted one-person exhibition by Linda Mary Montano titled The Art/Life Hospital. This exhibition references Montano’s stellar career as a performance and installation artist, coupled with intriguing mixed media sculptures, wildly suggestive drawings, fascinating videos and a very active set of participatory chalk boards that key off the colors of the chakra. Much of what is here is the artist dealing with late-in-life issues and realizations as well as her life-long spiritual and faith based beliefs that fill the space with a very potent reality. The Art/Life Hospital was organized by Anastasia James, and runs through April 14, 2019.
Mohonk Mountain House at 150; Just My Type: Angela Dufresne, which was curated by Anastasia James and Melissa Ragona; and In Celebration: A Recent Gift From the Photography Collection of Marcuse Pfeifer, which was curated by Wayne Lempka, all are on display through July 14, 2019. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art is located on the campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz at 1 Hawk Drive. There are a number of events planned during the run of these four exhibitions, so please visit the museum’s website for more details: https://www.newpaltz.edu/museum/
My father had a brain tumor. His little sister, my aunt Peg, also had an acoustic neuroma. Her’s went malignant and she died. The fifth neurosurgeon screwed a specially built helmet onto Dad’s skull to blast his growth with radiation from 360 degrees. It saved his life but left him incapacitated. He died ten years later from diabetes after laying around on the couch depressed and getting fat – for ten years. He had been a dashing sorta’ guy. How much television can you watch?
Mary Jones’s exhibition combines x rays and attractive abstract art. Brushstrokes. Hazes. Painting. Stencils. Scans. One layered over another: Renaissance Portrait #2, Beauty and reality. Fate and frailty. At the opening reception at this tiny gallery visitors bumped into the larger canvases hanging on the walls. I could not help but notice. Dream Screen Patrick. I said nothing at the time. What good would that do after the fact? Like beeping your scolding horn at a car after they already made a dangerous move on the road. Everything is abstract. What is more real than a Xerox of your insides? A bunch of lines and shapes that make up your life. Everything you are. Then there are the colors. Mensch. The fleeting forms that become our existences, our lives; everyone, everything you will ever know. Every flower, every eye, nose, foot – abstract shapes that come to mean something to us, those figments of bones and tumors and cells and, that is what we are. Pretty colors and brutal facts. Melancholia. This exhibition lays it out quite plainly: Beautiful, magnificent, sad, painful, over. All of the colors of our lives, the shapes of our bones, the contours of our minds – because several of the x-rays are of brains. The abstract expressionist gestures and flailings, Diana’s Beautiful Brain, that’s us. The hues, shapes, that become all that we will ever know or understand, and what is inside of us, what comprises us, are more of the same; however banal the photo imagery of our insides are. Inside and outside, or, perhaps more accurately, the other way around. The Here Thing, That those carnal, factual images can behove the imaginings, the days, the entireties of us, as individuals, of all of mankind’s history, of all the universes, of all of everything . . .
Mary Jones, Travel Light, High Noon Gallery, February 7 – March 10, 2019, New York City
It’s not often that a new art movement shoots into life just as a nation needs it socio-politically. This is exactly what happened in 1947, the year India threw off the yoke of British imperial rule, when a group of young artists banded together in Mumbai (then Bombay) to launch the Progressive Artists’ Group with a view to creating, in the words of its manifesto, a “new art for a newly free India.”
By organizing from September 15, 2018 through January 20, 2019 a show comprehensively presenting the group’s vision and achievements, the Asia Society Museum in New York is making an indispensable contribution to art history. The group’s many achievements still reverberate today. Seven decades later, the Progressives’ ideas and legacy provide a lodestar for India and a wider world beset by the politics of insularity, division and exclusion – a world in which cultural freedom is under threat.
In the catalog accompanying the Asia Society show, curator Boon Hui Tan, also Museum Director and a Vice-President of the Society, complements the essay contributed by guest curator Zehra Jumabhoy by contextualizing the legacy of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) within a wider Asian context. He concludes in his essay, “The battles over the art of postcolonial Asia are essentially battles over the ideological basis and values of the new nation, which are shaped by the changing structures of power over time.” In her essay’s conclusion, Jumabhoy, also Associate Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, calls for reclaiming the core message of hope embedded in PAG’s “progressive vision” – a message applicable, she believes, to the political landscapes of both India and the United States. In essence, the group’s vision and accomplishments, as articulated by the Asia Society show, have ramifications extending well beyond India’s political and cultural geography.
Back in 2010, art historian Iftikhar Dadi saw in PAG’s artistic adventure an aspiration to
go beyond the boundaries of the national to open up “the self and the nation to a wider
dialogue with universalist aspirations of equality and freedom.” How right he was, the
show tells us. Discussing its timeliness and importance in a recent article, writer Tausif
Noor suggests that it has become vital “to re-examine the Progressives’ vision of India as
a nation of commingling and complementary differences.” But, taking our cue from Dadi,
we might also assert this: the same vision throws light on the sustenance of pluralist
democracy and cultural diversity amidst challenges now emerging not only in India but in
many regions of the world.
What did the PAG artists mean by declaring themselves progressive? The deployment of the term in the context of culture had already become current in India since the 1930s with the founding of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which, as Dadi reminds us, “had rapidly emerged as a highly influential group of writers producing literature of socialist realism and critique across India in numerous languages.” Francis Newton Souza, the main driver propelling PAG’s creation, was, in his early youth, briefly a member of the Communist Party of India. Yet, within a year of PAG’s birth, in 1948, he wondered why his group still called itself progressive. “We have changed all the chauvinist and leftist fanaticism which we incorporated in our manifesto …Today we paint with absolute freedom for contents and techniques.” Over a decade later, when he was resident in London, having migrated there in 1949, Souza even said, “I don’t believe that a true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself.” In saying this, Souza spoke for himself, and PAG had in any case disbanded in 1956. The Progressives clearly followed diverse, distinctive agendas that could not be distilled into a single artistic program. Yet, all of them willy-nilly responded to their socio-political milieus even as they expressed themselves, some clearly addressing issues with social implication, and, in the process, they evolved an aesthetic that spoke to the cultural needs of their time even as their personal artistic vocabularies diverged.
Present at PAG’s creation, as founding members, were Souza and five other artists: K.H.
Ara, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, M.F. Husain, and S.H. Raza. The six came from diverse
social and religious backgrounds and were for the most part quite poor when they began
their careers. Over time the group expanded to include six other artists: Akbar Padamsee,
Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, and Mohan Samant.
Unfortunately, the only woman artist associated with the group, Bhanu Rajopadhye, did
not maintain the link beyond 1953.i
The Progressives succeeded in their agenda of progressing beyond the artistic paradigm set by the cultural institutions founded during the British Raj, especially the Sir J.J. School of Art, as well as the achievements of twentieth century artistic predecessors – the Bengal School and Amrita Sher-Gill most prominently – by internalizing in a transformative way the insights of Western high modernism. This assimilation, as the Asia Society show brings home to us, became a profoundly imagined Indian construction because PAG artists integrated modernist concepts, especially things pushing outwards formalist possibilities, with ideas they inherited from India’s cultural history, an ancient history spanning many millennia. Two more influences need mentioning. The Progressives borrowed ideas from India’s extremely diverse folk art and culture. What’s more, they took ideas from sister civilizations in Asia, especially the arts of China, a country with which India has interacted for at least three millennia. To the Asia Society show’s curators we owe a big debt of gratitude for an art history contribution of great significance: their spotlighting of a significant intra-Asian connection.
Many factors enabled the Progressives’ achievement of a cross-cultural synthesis. This
essay will address this issue in an attempt to extend the ground so well covered in the
exhibition catalog. Three integrating factors are especially worth noting.
Iftikhar Dadi has identified one of these by saying that formalism–that is, formalism such as that catalyzed and promoted by modernism – “is itself more amenable to Indo-Persian aesthetics than is academic realism,” the nineteenth century European realism promoted by colonial British policy. Here, Dadi was of course referencing the great tradition of Indian miniature painting that reached its apogee in the sixteenth century through an integration of two traditions that were themselves products of centuries of cultural hybridity – Persian painting, embodying an Islamic aesthetic building upon earlier traditions, and an Indian art that represented the meeting of three streams emanating from the needs of three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, especially the latter two, given the strong possibility that Indian miniature painting first sprang to life in the eighth century in the eastern part of India, under the umbrella of the Pala dynasty. Emerging from this immense, ancient, swirling backdrop was a natural desire for harmony and emotional balance. Formalist aspects of modernism in art were seen to respond well to this aspiration, especially through abstraction.
In thinking about this, one might recall the principle that Henri Matisse laid down when he said in his Notes of a Painter (1908) that even as color is used expressively, the content being expressed should be stable and harmonious. Discussing Matisse’s goal in a witty, wonderful book – What is Painting? – Julian Bell suggests that Matisse’s goal, while pursuing his intuitions about color, was “to reach beyond transient emotions: to arrive at a transpersonal, by way of the personal.” Surely, similar goals animated the numinous, transcendent art of both S.H. Raza and V.S. Gaitonde. In his memoir-essay Looking Out of the Looking Glass, published in 2013 as part of a substantial book on PAG published by DAG (Delhi Art Gallery), Krishen Khanna speaks of Raza’s engagement with symbolic metaphysical forms. Of Gaitonde, he says, “His gradual exploring of a colour with all its tonalities is reminiscent of a Vilambit Khayal.” This is the slower of two main stanzas of a North Indian vocal musical form embracing cycles of improvisation that, through melody and rhythm, transport you to a world beyond words.
A second area of congruence arose from Indian miniatures employing color –frequently vibrant, intense stains – in both symbolic and expressive ways. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, the desire to allude to a world beyond the arena of the painting as well as the desire to stimulate feeling in the beholder pushed European artists to shift boundaries. Eventually they crossed the frontier into modernism, brandishing a passport called color. Think of Vincent van Gogh now, and his friend for a while Paul Gauguin, whose colorism was a big influence on Amrita Sher-Gil. The PAG artists rejected her legacy but, in practice, succumbed to the logic that moved her artistic practice. Color’s expressiveness and its ability to create feeling played into their agenda of responding to a new nation’s concerns, which they personally felt to be their own. So, for example, M.F. Hussainii drew upon the colors and images of Basohli miniature painting (and other Indian sources) even as he borrowed ideas from Picasso and other Western artists.
The third integrating factor is this: the PAG artists operated in a cultural milieu that was
decisively influenced by thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win
the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not only a writer and educator, he emerged late in life as an
innovative artist. In 1921, Tagore claimed that the ‘idea of India’ militated “against the
intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” Discussing
Tagore’s statement in The Argumentative Indian, a collection of essays on Indian history,
culture and identity, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate,
suggests that it has implications within India and the arena in which India relates to the
world. Sen’s suggestion is that, both internally and externally, Tagore’s claim “proposes
an inclusionary form for the idea of Indian identity.” Sen admits, “It would be hard to
claim that there is some exact, homogeneous concept of Indian identity that emerged
during the [country’s] independence movement as a kind of national consensus.”
Different leaders and thinkers, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s
first Prime Minister, took diverse approaches on many aspects of the idea of India. But all
of them shared “an inclusionary reading of Indian identity that tolerates, protects and
indeed celebrates diversity within a pluralist India.” It is this inclusionary idea that
brought the Progressives together, in terms of their art and the social legitimation they
aspired to in different ways. And along with it, hand in hand, came their openness to a
millennia-old Indian cultural syncretism that fertilized their absorption of modernist
In the early twentieth century, thanks to developments in the West, a paradigm change had taken place in the world of art, and it was only appropriate that Indian artists should engage with the new paradigm. In fact, well before PAG, as art historian Partha Mitter has shown, Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy found in Western avant-garde thinking ammunition for their anti-colonial resistance. Mitter also reminds us that, in the nineteenth century, Western Romanticism received from Indian philosophical thought a most important infusion, and the resulting synthesis had produced many mutations all the way to the twentieth-century Existentialists as well as Henri Bergson and Wilhelm Worringer. This stream of influence and confluence affected artistic modernism, by contributing to the cultural climate that created and sustained it. It was reflected, for example, in the thinking and practices of Wassily Kandinsky and other modernists in their development of a flat, non-figurative art and their search for an alternative to materialism.
Already by the eleventh century, as art historian John Guy has shown, a Pan-Indian artistic sensibility had developed in the subcontinent. This “shared style and expressive language” was dominated by two aesthetic concerns: “a striving for fidelity to nature” that was balanced by “a desire to generate powerful emotions through pictorial imagery and literary allusion.” Let me now suggest that this Indian aesthetic came into play most vividly and expressively when, in the sixteenth century, Indian art absorbed an earlier infusion of European artistic ideas via contact with the European Renaissance – a topic addressed in a most original way by art historian Kavita Singh. Painters of miniatures at the Mughal court took readily to European ideas regarding naturalism, chiaroscuro, and perspective but did not progress in linear fashion towards a full-fledged adoption of European practices. Rather Mughal painters preferred a hybrid aesthetic wherein these ideas were imaginatively combined with an art that continued to draw upon Persian conventions with regard to symbolism, allusive practices, and composition. Moreover, given the fact that most Mughal court painters were not Persian expatriates but indigenous Indian artists, it seems to me that the Pan-Indian style identified by Guy was still a living force, especially with regard to the importance of symbolic imagery and artful allusiveness.
Let me now go on to suggest that this Pan-Indian style was a vigorous force even in the
second half of the twentieth century. Subliminally and perhaps even overtly, it directed
the hands of the PAG artists as they sought the ‘new art’ they proclaimed in 1947. It
guided them as they selectively took ideas from Western modernism to create a
‘decentered’ modernism in India. It guided them as they propelled the forging of a new
synthesis, which also absorbed ideas from other Asian artistic traditions. If you visited
the Asia Society show and took it all in one sweep, albeit a slow one permitting deep
looking, you would be struck by the salience of a few themes.
To varying degrees and in different ways, the PAG artists showed that there is but a porous frontier between abstraction and figuration. Applying the previously noted syncretism of Indian culture, the Progressives created different combinations of the two styles. Think of Souza’s symbolism-laden figures embodying an intense experience of alienation and suffering – here was an artist who stretched the possibilities of painting. Think of Husain’s admixture of simplified, Cubism-inflected figuration with an expressiveness arising from his use of color to create feeling and to compose the picture; think too of his employing color in combination with imagery to allude to ideas emerging from Indian art and culture, including the quotidian culture of ordinary Indian people. And now think of the forms of abstraction towards which Gaitonde and Raza and S.K. Bakre gravitated – abstract styles that were also in their own ways highly suggestive and allusive, pointing to Indian and, in Gaitonde’s case, other Asian artistic and philosophical ideas, and even transporting you beyond the picture frame. During your visit to the show, make it a point to look intently at a Rajput miniature painting from ca. 1690 titled Krishna and Balarama in Pursuit of the Demon Shankashura, which the exhibition’s curators have juxtaposed with S.H. Raza’s Bindu (ca.1980s). It’s astonishingly close to a modernist painting. Consider its flatness, its simplification of landscape elements, its employment of color at once to stimulate delight and compose the picture, its juxtaposition of multiple narratives, its suggestiveness and symbolism – modernism is not a stone’s throw away, but it is not far down the road. Yes, Raza’s painting could be seen as a response to the aesthetic embedded in the Rajput miniature. But, applying your imagination adventurously, you could even say that the Progressives’ entire oeuvre, broadly speaking, is just such a response. All in all, a glorious creativity arose when the Pan-Indian aesthetic, incarnated in the sensibilities of the PAG artists, encountered the ideas that these artists took from Western modernism.
The Progressives succeeded in creating “a new art for a newly free India” by marrying their individual imaginations to their commitment as a group to a pluralistic India, an idea completely in accord with the inclusionary syncretism they inherited as Indians. Their art solidified and enlarged a new edifice – Indian modernism. Some of them pursued career trajectories abroad, carrying forward their creative evolution through the urgency and stimulation that came from their interaction with new influences. Over time international recognition and impact followed for them and the PAG artists who stayed home. The art world has come to accept the reality that modernism had many centers.
Zehra Jumabhoy rightly asks, “Is it not time to give the Progressives’ visualization of a plural India a second chance?” At a time when India is experiencing a high economic growth rate but finding challenges in making that growth inclusive and environmentally sustainable, the pluralist vision embodied in India’s constitution is not simply a desirable, aspirational idea but a critical necessity for generating the innovation and creativity at all levels without which India could not create widespread prosperity for its citizens. And those citizens now comprise a share of world population that will soon reach 18 per cent. Jumabhoy’s question has ramifications for India and the world.
i We know of Bhanu Rajopadhye’s association with PAG because of some smart
sleuthing by Zehra Jumabhoy.
ii Worth noting is M.F. Husain: Restless Traveler, an exhibition mounted by New York
City’s Aicon Gallery from October 26-December 1, 2018 partially paralleling the Asia
Society show. Themed around Husain’s constant travels throughout the world and the
inspiration they had upon his work, the exhibition’s centerpiece is a monumental nearly
sixteen feet long acrylic-on-canvas painting called “Beyond Theoria”.
Of Armenian descent but born in Greece, where she now lives (with regular visits to New York), Eozen Agopian was educated in the United States – at Pratt Institute for her master’s degree and at Hunter College for her bachelor’s of fine arts. Her recent show, expertly curated by the art historian Thalia Vrachopoulos, The Fabric of Space, at the Greek consulate in New York City, enabled visitors to experience her highly worked art, dependent on cloth and thread, nearly as luminous as a Russian icon but also dedicated to the complex vectors and planes of modernist painting. Agopian is an artist of unusual skill, being someone whose textural surfaces are as involved and intricate as embroidery. Her artisanal vision will inevitably tie her to artistic craft, but that term will not do justice to the jewel-like, but completely art-oriented, work she makes so well.
In Presently (2016), Agopian creates a surface of extreme density, helped by a rectangular set of banded threads that frame two small abstract images. Outside this construction, we see a variety of colored planes–mostly blue, green, and gray–taking up the rest of the space. The density of the image’s architecture is remarkable and creates a space that is of strong interest in its variety of textures. Crowded with forms that fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, the composition comes close to exploding beyond the confines established by its frame. Fine art like this relates historically to collage — in particular, the work of Kurt Schwitters, the German founder of merz art. Its impact is derived from the contrast between one form and the next within a relatively small space. This happens on a regular basis in Agopian’s art.
In Nicholas’ Space (2018), the lines take over the entire space of the composition, with forms lending complexity underneath. It feels like an allover composition, with attention being paid to texture. The rhythmic emphasis brought about by the rows of strings also structures the image, which is complex and self-contained. A word of caution might be said about the relentless modernism of Agopian’s vision — some viewers might say the work looks backward too often, relying on a sense of the past that is no longer energetic as an outlook. But this is highly formal work whose manufacture is done so well, we can only marvel at the intricacies of its parts. This is generally true of the artist’s efforts, which are exquisitely put together in ways that remind us of our need to see something well made. As time goes on, and we move further and further away from a sense of craft, Agopian’s art will maintain an integrity that in fact comes from craft, at the same time successfully presenting its high art intentions.
My Departure (2013), the last work to be discussed, consists of thin canvas folded in a vertical fashion, held together by six bands of horizontal, light-colored strings. The colors of the folded, painted canvases give the work a vibrancy that is deeply satisfying. Maybe texture is the true center of Agopian’s focus, which tends to emphasize the exterior of the image–to the point where it takes on the feeling of a sculptural surface. This work, like all of Agopian’s pieces, is self-sufficient in its autonomous abstraction. It communicates feeling as well as highly considered design. This combination of emotion and facture supports our experience of the artist’s thinking, which is original and achieved in the extreme. We live in a time when a kind of manic expressiveness, triumphalist and egotistical, has taken over in art. Such an attitude leads nowhere, although its inherent selfishness may lead to momentary euphoria. But it does not last. The remarkable thing about Agopian’s art is that it is alive to modernism, that is, the recent past, even as its experience leads us ahead, to an esthetic as yet unknown. Thus, we must hope that this show, and Agopian’s art in general, do not go unnoticed, given as the artist is to forging ahead.
Once in a while I stumble upon an exhibition that really opens my eyes and reorients my thinking and understanding of the creative process. The Cove Pop Up exhibition here in Providence, RI, which includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics and utilitarian objects, offers a great number of art works by talented individuals who are dealing with varying degrees of debilitating issues. The exhibition theme is one that should enlighten many, revealing how creative and honest one can be as an individual when unencumbered by thoughts of High Art or fashionable trends. These free-thinking and enlightening individuals are working with the very successful programs offered through The Cove, RHD-RI, Flying Shuttle Studios and edge+end where “adults with developmental disabilities reach their goals” with the creation of some pretty amazing and illuminating works of art.
Walking through this salon style exhibition I am immediately reminded of Adolf Wölfli when looking at the work of Paul A., who manages to find that same sort of “alien” vocabulary of markings and images within an organized composition in one work, then moves toward the brutality of a late Philip Guston in another painting. Then there’s the work of Kevin G. who manages to find that sweet spot where Fauvism becomes somewhat musical or lyrical when lightened by the strategic presence of unpainted surfaces.
My weakness is that I can best describe what I am seeing using established art world labels, but I have to say at this point that these labels are simply a way of describing what I am seeing, but not nearly articulating what I am feeling. There is such a sense of the individual here, something that artists strive to achieve and sometimes do manage when they are able to shed all outside influences. That seems to be far less of a problem here with these artists who have directness and a rawness that bleeds passion.
So, I can describe the bold, near Fauve-like clarity of Nissah A. art as having a blend of George Condo’s aggressiveness in how he establishes the features of his figures combined with to heavy application of black contour line that Georges Rouault once championed. That would describe the technique and style somewhat, but not the visceral effect of this small painting, which is unforgettable. On the other hand, Jennifer B.’s Cedar Waxwing Adult and Seeds have a rawness of form and an awkwardness or wistfulness of technique that resonates deep within the memory of any viewer who has experienced the ‘depth’ of ‘reality’ of a natural environment without definitively suggesting the work of another ‘insider’ artist.
Koury D. records ghostlike harbingers that shutter through space, maybe not so much eliciting fear as much as they remind one of the spiritual aspects of representation. Holly T., who seems to be channeling that late career imagery of Pablo Picasso, injects humor with text in the most beautiful way in her pencil drawings, while Raymond J. shows me and any artist who is willing to look how to utilize a predominately red palette with accents of yellow, green and black to achieve some of the most remarkable transitions of space, form and texture on a two dimensional surface. His approach to his media, color pencil, and his representations of space and perspective are nothing less than miraculous and surprising.
By the time this review is published, the exhibition will be closed, however, I urge any contemporary artist to take the time to look at the art that comes from the aforementioned programs to learn just what a contemporary outsider’s mind can produce.
For more information visit www.grodencenter.org/covepopup or follow their endeavors on Instagram @covepopup