I had seen her work in New York, though what I saw was rather narrow in scope compared to what she made throughout her career. Last year, when I was up at Anderson Ranch in Aspen, I sat down in the library and perused a book of Helen Frankenthaler’s complete works. The catalog captured the many nuanced directions within Color Field painting she explored. Page after page, diluted yet rich pigments dissolve and seep into nearby haloed soak-stains. Lingering lines in turn became more defined while flowing through narrow necks of one-time wetness into new residual pools. Each neighboring mark seems to impregnate, either by definition or by dissolution, other areas of the canvas with visual interest.
She created worlds at once colossal and fast while also subtly complex. Her hand and brush seemed to know when to take hold of the direction of the painting and when to let gravity and the painting itself lead with full reign. Helen Frankenthaler, brilliant Color Field painter who breathed big life into American Abstraction, died on December 27th, 2011 at the age of 83. She is still an important painter—still offering bridges, vaporous trails for me.
The language of abstraction can address a model of the universe that’s slippery and fluid; exquisitely accurate and irreducible on the one hand but inconceivably colossal on the other. We live in a world wherein the smallest stuff is neither energy nor matter—and yet both. Abstraction can allude to the conceptually unwieldy intersection of these disparate realities like no other visual language.
Abstraction, because it is so conceptually wide open, is relevant to art now because we live in a world which increasingly defies codification. Abstraction can be broad while also intimate. As visual language, it references the known while simultaneously alluding to the unknown. While abstraction can be a viewed in a formal sense, without any other references or associations, it can also be something that takes you elsewhere—if the work provides and you let it. Abstraction can call to the surface very deep-seated unconscious experiences. I’m gonna brag here a little to make a point: This story is about an ‘explosively powerful’ painting: a painting that threw a man in the air like a land mine.
A while back, I was painting large abstracted vortices that suggested a kind of light pouring through them. A WWII vet saw one of my paintings and literally fell backwards. When a friend came to help him up and asked him if he was alright, he staggered to his feet and said, “yeah, I’m okay. It’s just that that painting was an experience I had in the war.” The man’s friend said to me later, “you are one powerful painter!” True story.
I am in the studio. I go to an entirely different place in my head when I ‘m here. Thankful for the 70 degree weather, the dry air, the strong coffee and the mountains. Lately I’ve received a lot of great feedback from dealers, lots of maybes, maybe, maybe…the world seems to be coming out of its paralysis, maybe. Last week I missed New York. This week I am glad to be here, way above sea level, for now.
If you’ve ever walked the narrow roads of Sante Fe, you’d almost get a visceral sense of the different shoes that have traveled there over the centuries because little has changed in the architecture and the land. However, your attention to the dusty, narrow sidewalks and scrub pine peeking through fences would soon wander as you’d be distracted by the light and sky. Walking down canyon road, now entirely lined with art galleries in original low slung, ancient spaces, you cannot help but hold your face to the North.
Everyone walking the Canyon turns to face the horizon, the rolling rough hills and distant mesas, but most importantly the light.
The domed sky is constantly moving , always dancing, opening up. You get a sense of why artists are drawn to paint. It is no wonder Georgia O”Keeffe, Agnes Martin and Susan Rothenburg found their homes here. Sante Fe captures artists souls gladly.
In Sante Fe I visited with my old friend Carter Walker who came down from Albuquerque to go look at galleries with me and my friend Bernadette from Aspen.
I looked at galleries all week, among them Zane Bennett Gallery. It is located in The Railyard District which I happened by and saw a Sam Francis work in the window, causing a flashback of my times at Petersburg Press Gallery. I chatted with a director and the exhibitions coordinator who, upon seeing my surprise when I came up the flight of stairs and face to face with a Motherwell print my husband had pulled and I had assisted with in 1988, showed me through the stacks, and other works in storage. Together we perused the Motherwell catalogue raisonne first, then other works on paper and canvas. Seeing that print was a time traveling experience which took me back to 1988 in Manhattan on Varick Street, near Canal.
If I ever get the chance to see Robert Motherwell’s works on paper I take it. He was brilliant painter, a marvelous editor of his own work.
After this trip down memory lane I felt unusually energized. I wanted to go back home and paint. But I hadn’t yet finished with what Sante Fe had to offer. I wanted to time travel further back. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a block and a half from my casita, which the manager told Bernadette and me, had been US Officers Quarters (during the Mexican American War?) was only a three minute walk. I tend to get visually overwhelmed after looking at art for too long so I had planned to visit the museum at intervals during the day. During these periods of visual digestion I’d walk back to my casita and stare at the ceiling in the darkness. Then, off I’d go again to see Georgia O’Keeffe’s work or photos of her by Alfred Stieglitz and other of her friends. The museum guards began to recognize and greet me each time, with announcements of “back again!” I’d wave and smile, miming my passion for her work. Interestingly, as a very young artist I was never taken by O’Keeffe. I knew her as a painter of flowers, however clever. But it wasn’t until I looked at her work in person, in Sante Fe… well… there was so much more. Recently the works were part of a newly curated exhibition called Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction at The Whitney. It’s about time.
Still, understanding just a little bit more about this strong, slender woman, afraid of nothing, with her muscular hands and will of iron, I began to sense how she felt alternately imprisoned by her times, yet through her wit and great talent alternately vindicated and freed from stereotypes about women in general and women artists in particular. She kept people amazed and willing to look in new ways- at the world at large and beyond that to the world and history of painting.
Today I went downtown to see and support an old RISD colleague, Nicole Eisenman, as she spoke about her work at the Denver Art Museum. For me it was somewhat of a time traveling experience. I felt as if I were sitting in a crit room, only this time, instead of listening to her speak about a body of work built over a year of exploration and effort, Nicole spoke about bodies of work which spanned decades . It was great to catch up in the brief time we had before and especially after her presentation, and it was good to see her and her work and to talk about “pushing paint around on canvas to see what it can do”. Nicole’s work, however, moves well beyond that and offers a challenging and humorous peek, often through an art historical lens and definitely through the experience of a woman working with issues of feminine identity in New York, at our culture and times. Check out the DAM and recent works including Nicole’s at:
I came back to the studio ready to paint and reflect on the distance I’ve come, figuratively speaking, in my work since moving from New York.
Since New York I’ve been creating paintings I want people to feel drawn or compelled to walk into, almost like an open stage set. One should feel engulfed. In this way, the viewer should, in essence, become the subject within the painting. These ‘places’ are first scenes my unconscious mind creates, both on a visceral level while painting, as well as in the hypnagogic state just before sleep. Though, I must submit that, as Nicole said today, “It is painting itself , isn’t it, which compels you to do it”.