Orange Red Orange by Mark Rothko (1961-2)

Probably many of you are familiar with Rothko’s work. This is one of my favorites, among many.

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It sold at Sotheby’s NY in 2009 for just under $3.4 million.

Rothko was born in Russia in 1903 and died in the US in 1970, committing suicide. During his lifetime he rejected labels for his style and his art, but the bold and glorious color canvases that he created celebrate abstract art, laying down a path for young artists of the 1960s and 1970s.

During his own youth, in the 1920s and 1930s, Rothko live din Portland and then New York, working and studying with emerging artists. His teacher was Milton Avery. He also worked for the WPA, then TRAP — government-supported bureaus that employed artists to work in public buildings across the nation.

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Rothko was an intelligent and intellectual man, but he came to believe that his paintings should simply be organic and speak to the viewer-spectator in a straightforward manner, rather than require detailed knowledge or an understanding of color or art theory.

I love these paintings because I think they do, indeed, speak to the viewer in a resonant and organic manner. They are large, surprisingly large when one sees them like this, without reference.

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But the colors connect, vibrate, react with one another and the soft-edged rectangles and lines work unerringly to create a sense of light, energy, relationships, space, depth and dimension similar to what one finds in more traditional pictures. But because of the simple shapes and colors, in a sense Rothko is right: one simply must “look” at the picture and allow it to have an affect. There is no sense of “figuring out” the subtext or meaning, the story or event depicted, no hidden messages or reliance on anything but the most basic blocks of meaning.

I love these. Of course, I understand why people don’t, as well.

“Dancers in Pink” by Edgar Degas (1880-85)

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This Impressionist painting is one of the many studies Degas made of ballet dancers in Paris, usually in backstage or rehearsal moments, rather than in performance. Here a group of four dancers in pink tutus waits in the wings for a signal.

Degas focused on ballet dancers, women bathing, horses at the track (again, prior to or after the race, not during), and middle-class gentlemen at work or play. The latter is not nearly as famous or popular — or important — as the three initial categories.

But, frankly, it is simply beautiful, given Degas’ use of shape, color, light and ratio.

La Belle Iseult by William Morris (1858)

William Morris’s only painting is a portraint of his beloved wife Jane as Iseult, the tragic princess and beloved of Tristan. This is Jane in real life, 1858.

The bed looks like the one Morris built and dressed for his country house, Kelmscott Manor, one of my favorite places on earth, where MOrris lived with Jane and his two daughters… and his BFF Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti was a poet and painter, too, and Jane’s lover.

Oh, yes. Morris knew Rossetti was Jane’s lover.

This is the only painting known to have been completed by Morris, who is better known as a poet, essayist, Socialist, designer, embroiderer, carpenter, weaver, printer, engraver and general arts-and-crafts genius. On the back of the small painting, Morris wrote, “I love you but I cannot paint you,” a confession from a man who could, in fact, paint quite well.

A love story untold.

QueeQueg by Rockwell Kent (1930)

I am also in love with the modern woodblock prints by Rockwell Kent. Most of them appear as illustrations in books, like this one —

but in any case they are bold, quirky and fascinating. This one from Melville’s Moby Dick (oh, and happy 161st anniversary of publication, Herman Melville!)

I also noticed. last week, that Kent’s visioning of the body was very similar to that of Blake, like this painting of “Glad Day.”

 

Pity by William Blake (1795)

I am constantly amazed by Blake’s work as a poet and as an artist. Seeing them in person is, for me, a kind of spiritual experience.

Blake worked in watercolors and ink. He brought a mystical kind of vision to his work, but he was also inspired by Shakespeare, Milton and other great poets.

He was an illustrator as well as a painter, illustrating anthologies of his own work. He was a poet who wrote in what some call pre-Romantic style, but it is clear that in his own time was thought mad or ignored, while today he is acknowledged to be a seminal figure in arts and letters of the late 18th/early 19th century. You’re probably familair with this poem, and this is Blake’s original illustration of it.

Ellen Terry by John Singer Sargent (1889)

This fabulous portrait of the acting queen Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is a stunner.

This is Terry at her peak, at age 42. This production featured the actress as a star in Sir Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Irving directed but also played the role of the Scottish king.

The dress was woven out of iridescent green and blue tinsel yarn, and decorated with… beetle wings. It was apparently meant to look like both chain mail and snake scales. Wicked. Or wickedly sexy.

She holds Duncan’s crown above her head, and the rapt expression in her eyes says it all. This is the traditional Lady Macbeth whose ambition exceeds that of her husband… but Terry’s interpretation was unconventional in that she presented the Lady as young, fertile, sexual and sensuous. It has hung in the Tate Gallery in London since 1906.

This photograph is of Terry in her costume.

Kabuki Costumes

In June I attended an exhibition at the Yves St. Laurent institute that featured costumes from Kabuki performances plus the various properties that surrounded them.

It was a small exhibit, with only about twenty costumes, but it was well-curated and highly interested. Kabuki costumes are similar to everyday clothing worn by Japanese audience members but, like Western theatrical costumes make allowances for the needs of performance. The movement of the actors, the theatricality of the event, and the mass appeal of the genre all contribute to the final costumes.

The included robes in the exhibition were striking.

Kabuki was linked to the world of geisha, of popular entertainment, of the city streets. The onnagata or female performers were the greatest celebrities of the art, and continue to epitomize the height of the traditional theatre form.

Blue Kimono by John Sloan (1913)

Sloan was one of the New York painters who brought European styles to America in the first decades of the 20th century. This painting evokes Manet’s “Olympia” and, in turn, Renaissance Venuses, but is completely modern.

Here, Sloan’s picture of three women drying their hair on the rooftop of a Manhattan building reminds me of the nudes by Degas I saw earlier this summer. It is obvious Sloan was completely familiar with the style and philosophy of the modern French masters, but added his own “American” ideas.

Gerhard Richter Retrospective at Centre Pompidou, Paris

Last night I went to this amazing, huge, sprawling show. Left overwhelmed and exhausted by the fifty-year career of this artist.

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The show starts with his early (1960s) work on photographs, where he enlarged photos and then painted them, but, while the paint was still wet, used a brush to blur the edges. It is completely hard to describe, but the final effect are large-scale paintings that look like photos, only blurry… but as if there is a secret you cannot quite find there. Like this black-and-white of a tiger. Not a photo, a painting about 6×7 ft.

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Then a series of landscapes and other paintings informed by Richter’s grounding in the classical tradition of painting. And yet transcending/passing classical traditions with the absolute freshness of the way he handles his images, and the eerie photographic reality of the work.

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Then the first series of abstracts, using size/scale, color, and media in extraordinary ways.

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This one is from a series of small paintings done in enamel on glass. The colors in person are unreal, as is the edginess of the work because of the sharpness of the enamel/glass combination.

Then a roomful of portraits–and one self-portrait–that were tremendously moving and personal.

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Then a roomful of nothing but gray paintings and glass works (sculptures?) using painted and plain glass sheets or mirrors.

Then the final series, including September 11. Ten rooms: brilliant and moving and exhausting.

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Richter is clearly a man and an artist with a very, very smart brain, a sense of humor, and the willingness to take risks. And to experiment. Most of what we saw last night could be put down to an artist continually learning and re-learning his craft, and experimenting with technique and his own curiosity,  and a ruthless self-honesty.

The Slaying of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi (1612-13)

This painting by Italian artist Gentileschi is the signature image for the exhibition in Paris of her works that I’ll see this week.

Gentileschi was a fierce painter working between about 1610 and 1647. She started training with her father, then with his friend Agostino Tassi. When she was about 19 Tassi raped her, and Artemisia and her father brought him to trial. The 1998 film Artemisia focuses on this event and its toll on her.

Despite the attack, she continued to paint, including this picture, in which she paints herself as the Biblical Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, a portrait of Tassi. Notice the sawing violence of the beheading, as well as the way Judith and her maid hold the Assyrian general down.

You go, girl.