Category Archives: Margaret’s View

State of the Art Criticism

MJ&D cropped 2015

Artist Margaret Pettee Olsen, art critic for New York Magazine Jerry Saltz and Director of the Clyfford Still Museum Dean Sobel at ‘A Critical Conversation’, Ponti Hall, Denver Art Museum, February 12, 2015

I’ve been away from my blog as I’ve been planning and then moving my studio to a new, much larger space. A flood forced the move, but it turned out to be an excellent one. So I have some catching-you-up to do. Here’s a quick recap of what’s been of note to me outside the studio–albeit kind of late. This February, Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times, and Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, paid a visit to the artists, collectors, curators, dealers and art lovers of the Mile High City to talk about the state of the art of criticism today. The Denver Art Museum’s Ponti Hall at(DAM) provided a venue for the attendees. The Clyfford Still Museum (CSM) sponsored the event. That CSM was able to entice both of these critics out to for a talk was terrific—perhaps a first for Denver.

Speaking as an artist, i.e., one who naturally spends a lot of time in the studio playing this one person sport of painting, I knew I had to go listen and maybe even discuss art with this word-wielding duo. Since Jerry Saltz invited me on my Facebook wall to “stop by and say hello” in person, I made sure to take the trek from my studio way north of uptown Denver to the DAM. Dean Sobel, Executive Director of CSM, opened the evening’s talk, A Critical Conversation, with a quote by Clyfford Still, whose opinion of art critics was, let’s just say, less than glowing. Sobel’s humorous opening remarks called to mind the complicated relationship between critics, artists and the rest of the art world and set the tone for the evening. Jerry Saltz, comic-showman-critic that he is, kept the room thinking about responses to art in a fresh, anti-academic manner which complimented Smith’s unapologetic and focused approach.  Together, their repartee would be the source of dialogue on art that evening, not any preplanned structure. Mr. Sobel did not moderate, there were no cue cards—nothing like that—just two critics with a no-holds-barred, on-the-spot thinking approach to art criticism.

While there was no prescribed format, I did notice that both critics addressed the artists in the audience, asking about how they might fit defining qualities of an artist, from personality profiles to really odd habits such as having a ‘good luck’, sort of fetish object– something to carry wherever one goes. Of course, being an artist is much more than any profile could paint, but I appreciated the direction of the talk: Artists first.  Roberta Smith was upfront in discouraging anyone from choosing the life of an artist unless they absolutely “had to”, and with that, the discussion about the state of criticism and contemporary art began.

I was encouraged to hear that Smith saw painting as a medium very much alive with possibilities today. In her opinion, there were too many artists who were ‘hiding out’ in performance based work. While I have no problem with artists who find good and meaningful direction in ‘social practice’ it was good to hear that her ideas broadly reflected mine regarding the importance of painting today.  I was also pleased that Smith caught my meaning in a question I pitched during the Q&A, “What is next in contemporary art considering how the landscape has changed and our view is one of a layered, multi-faceted, global and information-compressed world–a world where there are many threads of thinking–not just one?” Saltz threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Well, how the hell do we know that?” taking my question, in that moment, at face value, while Smith noodled away at what I was asking—understanding my question demanded stepping back and looking at the direction whole system(s) are moving in now, how art and criticism is changing, and that these changes are altering the very way we see art in context. Near the close of the talk, Smith aligned herself with one attendee who asked if she saw, “important and interesting work happening in many places around the country.” She agreed but added a caveat: “criticism still lives in New York,” she said.

As a onetime New York based artist, I mused a bit more on her comments on criticism in New York, took a few more notes about ideas that occurred to me during the talk, but mainly I tried to listen.  On the way out I thanked Jerry for visiting us far-flung artists, and then I approached Roberta: “Thanks for getting my question.” “It was an important one,” she offered as I packed notes and a sketch into the well-worn black leather bag I’ve carried since I came to New York just out of art school. That satchel’s a well-worn, paint-splattered thing, but I carry it wherever I go.

Now, post flood, panic and studio move, I think about that talk on art criticism, but leave it all at the door  when I walk into the large white studio with cement floors and freshly prepared canvases. I put down a steaming cup of coffee, glance at my black bag in the corner and begin work. Then again, I don’t really have a choice—now do I?


Facture — Finding My Way in Paint

details of recent work energy 2013 Above, Waves (detail), 2013, polymer, reflective and interference pigment on canvas was sold to a private collector.


For years I’ve been inclined to put down subtle washes that I would build, layer upon layer.  I was immersed in the recognition of fast painting for so long during the eighties I reacted by defying painterly-ness in its most plastic form–thick layers of expressive oil paint.  When I began printmaking for a living, working alongside and with the last of the printer painters of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, as well as pop and conceptual artists, from Willem de Kooning to Barbara Kruger, my head and hands were in ink and everything I considered about making art was examined under this new lens of printmaking.

I recently began considering how printmaking had an effect on my art when professor of printmaking at Brooklyn College and onetime printmaking colleague, David Lantow, visited my studio last month. David said he could see printmaking’s obvious impact on the evolution of my imagery and the manner in which I made art.  My use of thin, relatively even layers of pigment and concerns for building texture graphically were indicators.

Oddly enough, I had never given this any serious thought before. The idea was liminal, but soon after our visit, I was reminded of what artist Mike Cockrill once posted on Facebook when discussing an artist’s misplaced search for an authentic voice, “Behold the core”, he said.  An artist doesn’t have to worry about finding his/her ‘voice or style’ . The hand of the artist is always there in the work–no need to go looking for it.

Printing provided a mechanism for me to slow down my thinking and to hold me to task in considering every mark.  Printmaking had helped to forge my visual vocabulary.  What was I doing by painting? I began my latest canvases with a fresh, one pointed focus in mind: facture through painting.

I began to think back to other possible influences to see if they might lend clues to my essential concerns. As a onetime performing artist I found myself looking to ‘gesture’– again. It made perfect sense…’Behold the core’. In my gut and in my bones, from all those years of dancing (see Biography),’gesture’ in all sorts of space and light was central.  But how did this fit with painting?

I found myself looking even closer at the surface of my canvases: swaths of thin white, and interference pigments, recorded trails of sensually flipped brushes on both dry and slippery surfaces over transparent-primed linen. But the soft warm grey of the canvas fiber was where I really began my inquiry.  My pallet, though not dramatically changed, now seemed to ask for a spectrum of greys, warm and cool, between iridescent, translucent and opaque whites and dark glossy and soft matte blacks. I exaggerated the feathering of bleeding pigment on linen, blending the grey of linen and the grey of paint , co-mingling these ‘stitches’ inside broad gestural strokes, sensing the need for a wiry outward wending  from vortexes of visual detritus drawing line back in.

Fragility of form, the power of gesture, the dissolution of drawing, traces and steps, edge and edge-less-ness, line of sight edits, a berth of vision– this is what I’m still after in paint.









Painting Is Dead, Long Live Painting

Does something have to ‘replace’ painting in the evolution of Art History? It’s kind of up to all of us to declare it dead–or not; artists, collectors, curators, gallerists, museum directors,viewers, etc.,despite what a few may believe. For me, painting is very much alive. Then again, I don’t buy in to the idea that something worth looking at, something transportive, has to be shocking, new media. Photography, for example, has been around as long as I have but I don’t think it has taken the place of painting. It offers something different. Each new thing that comes down the curatorial pike, each new invention in media, is not ‘a replacement for’ but ‘in addition to…’ the unfolding of aesthetics and ideas in Art History. Perhaps, because I don’t have the need to establish hierarchies and designate one thing above or below another, something which has absolutely nothing to do with experiencing art, I engage in seeing all sorts of work. I love the diversity and panorama of visual opportunities available today. Why trade the possibilities of full vision for a pair of horse blinders? Painting is fresh and provocative when the artist is speaking authentically, the fullness of a viewer’s experiences are tapped and deep seated memories and associations rise to the surface of full awareness with new clarity and connection. At its best, painting can instantaneously transport us through time and, as one Lawrence Charles Miller poetically pronounced on a thread by collector, Claude Reich on facebook, good painting can ‘wake up the dead’. Yes, painting is still miraculous.

I could address the post-post modern opportunity here, but that will be another post. What I want to point to now is this; the full-bodied-ness of painting, specifically through the language of abstraction, provides a visceral yet wide open and many-leagued sense of the world. It can conjure up a quiescent yet energetic field and gets straight to the unwieldy point of it. Abstraction, at its most powerful, doesn’t preach, instruct or prescribe a set of rules or circumscribe galleries of thought. It references the known while suggesting the unknown.

So what do we make of it, literally? There have been inventions and refinements in paint materials which allow artists to create work with new subtly and effect. Advances in paint media provide opportunities for painters to keep work moving in all sorts of fresh ways. Of course there are manifold ways of making art; performance is alive, blurring lines between the arts and crafts is alive, photography is alive, and the practice of painting, for me, still provides ways to create objects which imbue the world with meaning. Painting is still on the cutting edge of addressing: here, now, that which lies beyond our ken, of flesh and beyond flesh, life, death, transformation, connection, collision, commercialism and dissolution, on and on… Painting can still refresh my sense of what I see and how I see it.

I move to pronounce the majesty of painting, to call the dead awake. Painting Is Dead. Long Live Painting.

Beyond Mental Gridlock

Today, there will be no universal dis-embodied voice charting my course or suggesting my re-calculation. No i-pads, no computer stylus set for digital drawing. I’ll be brainstorming much of the day and I’ve packed lightly. Supplies for the trip: coffee, sketch paper and a graphite pencil (No 2). You laugh, ‘What could you possibly discover with such elementary tools; the flesh of trees, carbon sticks from the dust of stars?’  I’m telling you, there are universes still to discover in that simple stuff — vast spaces a mind can go–beyond charts, webs and words and this electric global campfire.

Another In A New Series

“Tandem Wakes”, 48″ ×  72″ × 2″, acrylic and metal pigments on canvas, 2012.

Okay, here’s a sneak-peek into the studio today. This diptych is one of several moderately large pieces I’ve been working on. The fracturing, floating, fogging imagery has my head going to places that spawn new ideas before I’ve even finished the piece in front of me.

Happy Birthday James Rosenquist

Brandeis National Women's Committee Serigraph by James Rosenquist

This is a print I pulled with James Rosenquist in 1988. The limited edition serigraph was for Brandeis University National Women’s Committee. I had just moved to Manhattan and was pleased to have been introduced to adjoining print shops where I worked printing and assisting a variety of artists. Rosenquist was one. Happy Birthday James Rosenquist!

Several New Directions

I’ve been working in several directions lately. This large detail from a recent piece represents one. My use of reflective and interference pigments is employed to address concerns of ‘worlds within worlds,’ occlusions, modifying purchase and perspectives. However, some of these images are making their way into new media, and with that shift, another sort of emphasis on these concerns is being made. I will post more on these exciting developments as they happen. (Please click the image below for a larger version.)

Thank you for taking the time to look at this work in progress.

—Margaret Pettee Olsen

Elaine de Kooning Story

First, let me say that this story is Elaine de Kooning’s story and not mine. I had heard it while printmaking and acting as quality control for a series of lithographs by some of the leading members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. I was just a baby, newly minted from the Rhode Island School of Design, and, as I recall, we (my then-boyfriend William Olsen, another lithographer/painter—David Lantow, and I) were working on a Trestle Editions project that was projected to be the last for Willem de Kooning.

This was my first New York Art World gig, and it was a tremendous learning experience in a number of ways. Working full time at the neighboring press, just through the french doors on the 4th floor at 75 Varick Street, I pulled serigraphs for artists such as Barbara Kruger, James Rosenquist, and others. I was called in, as needed, for quality control on the de Kooning project, so stories about ‘Bill and Elaine’ were swirling in the sticky, SoHo August air. The New York Art World was abuzz, in the throws of leveraging the tragic, Art World-induced drug overdose of Jean Michele Basquiat into products of more iconization and commodification.

One day, at Fanelli’s, the art-bar that had managed to stay open even during prohibition, I brought up the idea of ‘client worthiness,’ and William began telling a story about Elaine De Kooning recently having been on the receiving end of this mentality. Sitting in the cafe in my black frock and paint-and-ink-splattered jeans, I perched my head on the palm of my hand and leaned forward, my elbow resting on the cool, black-and-white-checker-covered table top, listening closely to the latest sweet inside-Art World story.

Elaine had gone shopping for a leather bag and found herself at one of the big upscale stores where she shopped frequently enough to have an account. That day, she was looking over large hand bags that suited her. As an artist, disinterested in impressing anyone with a dress-as-wealth sort of conspicuous agenda, she caught the nervous eye of the sales person who thought she should be watched as a potential thief/otherwise unworthy member of the human rat-race/who’s to say, exactly.

The clerk became even a little more nervous as Elaine actually approached the register with a gorgeous bag and asked to charge the $5,000 item to her account. She gave the clerk her account number, name and address. The sales clerk looked up her information then looked Mrs. De Kooning up and down with a slightly curled lip of disdain and incredulity. He asked Elaine for her drivers license (for a possible police report, maybe?) She indicated that such requests had never been protocol before.

This man could simply not believe that Elaine de Kooning, based on her appearance (read: importance), could be anyone capable (read: worthy) of buying this limited edition bag.

While Elaine tried to explain, first calmly, then with humor, next with increasing annoyance, and finally with out-right indignation, the manager came out from the back room, horrified to discover the iconic artist arguing with the ignorant sales clerk.

The manager tripped over himself apologizing to Elaine, while intermittently glaring sideways at the clerk, as if to say, If you don’t know what you are doing, please get someone who does!  “This is Elaine de Kooning,” he repeated, emphasizing the ‘E’ in Elaine and and ‘oo’ in de Kooning as he spoke.

William finished his story and looked up from his beer. The sounds of sculptors and painters milling about, discussing meaning-making and materials, ideas and individuality, bouncing of the hard walls and tile floors of the venerable art-bar came into focus. We all shook our heads and ordered one more round before heading to Brooklyn.

Art Business As Usual?

I was recently out of town when I walked into a ‘reputable gallery,’ thinking if I found a small ‘gem’ I might buy it. Yes, as an artist, I like other work as well as my own and will trade with an artist or, on occasion, buy another artist’s work. As I walked into the beautiful space, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the owner placing her hand on the forearm of her assistant as the assistant stood to grab the artist’s cheatsheet, the owner stopping her in mid-reach and clearly indicating that I should not be approached, shown, and/or told any information about the artist. I walked around the gallery perusing the art, taking my time. Had I found something I’d have considered owning that day, based on what I witnessed of the gallerist, I would not have made the purchase.

On my way out, I walked over and asked, “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”  As the dealer looked at her watch, I said, “Oh, never mind. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t the roaring 80s anymore. For a moment there, the way you chose to ignore me or perhaps anyone you surmised wouldn’t buy or shouldn’t have the art, I thought I was in a time warp.” Despite the fact that I am likely a little younger than she is, I gave her a gentle, almost grandmotherly smile, as if to say, “really, honey—this is how you conduct your business?” She was speechless. I walked out.

I wasn’t at all surprised to hear the following month that the gallery had closed. For a brief moment, before leaving the gallery that day, I thought about telling this dealer my “Elaine de Kooning story,” which could have have been helpful to her, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fit her profile of someone worth listening to, let alone speaking to. I do not mean to suggest that building a mystique about an artist or a gallery is wrong, obviously.  The question is how to do it–with good or ‘bad magic,’ to quote the character Queegueg from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

This case was very sad really, as the artists she carried had obviously been neglected for quite some time. So, the moral of the story is—for artists—act as a potential buyer at a gallery with whom you are considering having a working relationship as an artist. Witness all of it, or as much of it as you can. Pay attention to the way and respect with which the dealer handles the artwork, as well as she how handles (or neglects to handle) potential buyers. Talk to other artists about how they are treated. Gallerists, I love you and what you do for artists. You can be such brilliant storyteller-sales people, elucidators and promoters of artist’s work. You are very important to many of us. However, if you don’t know my “Elaine de Kooning story,” you should. Eh, but what do I know? Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

(If you want to know my ‘Elaine de Kooning’ story, send an inquiry—I’ll post it.)

Update: Several readers expressed interest in hearing the Elaine de Kooning story. I have posted it here.

Clipping From The Archives: Susan Rothenberg Visits My Studio

Clippings from the archives-Susan Rothenberg visits my studio

From The Archives: ‘Before I Left The Figure Altogether’—A Visit With Susan Rothenberg

While preparing a PowerPoint about my work for an upcoming talk in Aspen, I discovered an image from the archives: Susan Rothenberg visiting my studio. This image was taken back when my work was more figurative. As I remember, we talked about how the figures almost lost there identity as human forms and became suggestive of S’s or fives and other numbers, letters and glyphs, a connection with and off-shoot from Jasper Johns’s work, she suggested. (Unfortunately, one can’t see all the paintings we talked about in this photograph.) For a few years, I teetered there, between figuration and abstraction, before I left the figure behind altogether. Now I am conceptually re-contextualizing abstraction, using reflective and refractive materials in my painting, with titles and discussions surrounding the nature of the 21st century and the many-layered Art World.