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Saying Grace

In 1955, The Saturday Evening Post asked its readers to select their favorite cover painted by its most beloved artist, Norman Rockwell. By that year, the popularity of this American publication was enormous, due in large part to the highly original images Rockwell crafted for its cover on a regular basis. Between 1916 and 1963, Rockwell executed over 300 of these commissions, making him one of the most recognizable figures in American art for nearly three-fourths of a century. Despite the wide variety and large number of covers readers could choose from, the outcome of the survey proved decisive: 32 percent of the final vote went to Saying Grace, the quietly poignant image of a grandmother and her grandson praying over a meal in the diner of a train station. Painted in 1951, Saying Grace epitomizes Rockwell’s classic iconography and stands among the greatest achievements of his celebrated career. Saying Grace appeared on the cover of The Post’s Thanksgiving issue on November 24th, which quickly became one of the publication’s most popular issues, contributing to the iconic status this image has today. By the early 1950s Rockwell’s Post covers had achieved a pervasive level of popularity, yet the artist saw even greater levels of creativity and professional success as the decade progressed. Rockwell painted an astounding 41 Post covers during this period and thematically sought to portray imagery more explicitly American in character. In several paintings, of which Saying Grace is one, Rockwell’s work adopted a new sense of seriousness in order to more accurately reflect the realities of post-war America. As The Post’s explanatory text for the image articulated, “The world is not too happy a place these days. There are wars and threats of wars. Anxiety and frustration are abroad, and in many quarters we see the bankruptcy of morals. So, suddenly comes the day to give thanks for the goodness of life. And perhaps this can be done most understandingly by someone like this little old lady who, wherever she may be, bows her head to say grace, speaking not analytically from the mind but spontaneously from the heart” (The Saturday Evening Post, November 24, 1951, p. 3). Despite this new seriousness, however, Rockwell’s classic sense of idealism remained resolutely intact. He continued to strive to capture Americans living their everyday lives and to create scenes that had the possibility of occurring in any town or home. The publication of each Post cover seemed to outdo the last as again and again the artist presented the country with imaginative images that confronted the issues of the American present, yet were steeped in the values of its past. The creation of Saying Grace began almost exactly a year before its publication date when the artist received a letter from a Post reader. Mrs. Edward V. Earl of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania wrote to the artist on November 27, 1950 about the experience of witnessing a Mennonite family praying in a Horn & Hardart automat. “[Mrs. Earl] had 'observed a plain young woman,’ explains the Norman Rockwell Museum, ‘evidently Polish,’ she said, with a little boy of about five. They walked by her with food-laden trays, laughing and happy to be in the restaurant. They took off their coats, hung them up and returned to their table at which two men were already seated, ‘shoving in their lunch.’ The young woman and boy folded their hands, bowed their heads and, for two minutes, said Grace” (Norman Rockwell Museum Archives, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. ProjectNORMAN, Rockwell publicly declared that while he frequently received suggestions from readers, only four ultimately found their way onto his canvases. Rockwell liked Mrs. Earl’s idea so much, however, that he decided to incorporate it as the basis for his annual Thanksgiving cover of The Post. In his response to Mrs. Earl’s letter, Rockwell thanked her profusely for her suggestion but also warned that any image he created on this theme would likely diverge from her memory of it. Like the best of Rockwell’s work, Saying Grace is an astonishingly complex composition derived from a unique synthesis of photography, preparatory sketches, live models and the artist’s own imagination. He combined each element to ultimately render a picture that uniquely presents an idealistic vision of the times and demonstrates his masterful ability to elevate commercial endeavors into the aesthetic realm. In 1937, encouraged by a younger generation of illustrators that included Steven Dohanos and John Falter, Rockwell similarly began to use photography to assist in composing his paintings. He typically started his compositional process by sketching the scene as he imagined it. Only after painstakingly collecting the appropriate props, choosing his desired models and scouting the locations required to achieve his desired scene would photography sessions begin in his studio (Fig. 1). Rockwell rarely took these photographs himself, preferring to be free to adjust each element while a hired photographer captured shots under his direction. He recognized the benefits that came from incorporating the camera into his technical process, later articulating, “I feel that I get a more spontaneous expression and a wider choice of expressions with the assistance of the camera and I save a lot of wear and tear on myself and the model” (Rockwell on Rockwell: How I Make a Picture, New York, 1979, p. 92). Rockwell utilized photography to compose numerous elements of Saying Grace. Several of the artist’s favorite models posed for the restaurant patrons. The young man at the table with his back to the window is Rockwell’s oldest son, Jerry, who was on leave from the U.S. Air Force when he sat for the painting. Rockwell’s student apprentice, Don Winslow, is seated next to Jerry with a cigarette in his mouth. The artist’s assistant, Gene Pelham, enjoys a paper and a cigar at the table in the foreground, while several other frequently used models of the time, including fellow Arlington residents Mrs. Ralph Walker and Bill Sharkey, are also identifiable. Rockwell felt he created his best work when he knew and liked his models. He strove to create a convivial atmosphere as he directed poses and would often initially assume the pose himself to show his model exactly his desired position and expression. Donald F. Hubert, Jr., an Arlington resident who served as the model for the young boy in Saying Grace remembered Rockwell’s kindly demeanor well but also vividly recalled his acute attention to detail, later writing of the experience, “I also remember, in this particular pose, that I could not keep my feet still, so somebody temporarily scotch taped my ankles together for the photo session” (Letter from Donald F. Hubert, Jr., February 11, 1986, Norman Rockwell Museum Archives, Stockbridge, Massachusetts). The decision to photograph live models imbues Saying Grace with an undeniable sense of naturalistic familiarity, but the technology also allowed the artist to experiment with diverse angles, poses and perspectives that gave his work a new sense of inventiveness. The finished illustration, however, was rarely an exact transcription of an individual photograph: “I do not work from any single photograph exclusively,” Rockwell once articulated of his process, “but select parts from several poses, so my picture which results from the photographs is a composite of many of them” (Ron Schick, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, New York, 2009, p. 101). Rockwell’s most ambitious paintings required fifty to one hundred photographs to compose, as the artist strove to capture a range of images consisting of everything from overall composition scenes to the most minute detail shots. Once all were developed, Rockwell would place them on his studio floor and begin to select the best to use, at times cutting and cropping images and pasting them together in new ways. The apparent veracity of Saying Grace belies the careful planning with which Rockwell executed this composition. Rockwell’s quest for perfection was infamous, and he continued to develop and refine at every stage of his artistic process. He initially planned for Saying Grace to take place in a restaurant in Manhattan’s Times Square. Left unsatisfied with the preparatory photographs captured on site, Rockwell decided to transition the setting to a less site-specific environment. He envisioned the background first as a flower garden and then as a crowd of people hurrying by before finally settling on a rail yard, which he ultimately rendered as the stunningly detailed grisaille displayed in the work’s final version (Fig. 4). Maintaining his desire for authenticity, Rockwell photographed a nearby railroad yard in Rensselar, New York and had tables and chairs from actual diners shipped to his Arlington, Vermont studio in order to accurately portray the setting in its entirety. The heightened sense of photographic realism the canvas displays is additionally supported by the artist’s use of a popular cinematic technique called “deep-focus,” in which the foreground and background objects are given an equal sense of hyper-realistic clarity. As a result of this laborious preparation and process—which his son Peter remembers as driving his frustrated father to throw the unfinished painting out into the snow—Saying Grace offers a visual testament to Rockwell’s gifts as an artist. Rockwell included every compositional element to serve a specific purpose, ultimately allowing the picture to achieve a perfect sense of balance. The vibrant red highlights strategically placed throughout the scene direct the viewer’s eye through the composition to enhance the tangible sense of depth the artist has created within the two-dimensional picture plane. Of the nine figures whose presence can be detected in the scene, three are portrayed only partially and two are merely suggested, yet all assist as important compositional devices. The two standing figures serve as pendants, helping to frame the composition, while the man eating his breakfast in the foreground creates a window through which the viewer enters the composition. The low perspective utilized here, one likely borrowed from photography, creates the sense that we as the viewers are also sitting in the diner and participating in the action of the scene. The canvas is painted with an acute attention to detail; the myriad of textures Rockwell includes and juxtaposes—masterfully rendered minutiae such as the glass containers on the table, the grandmother’s crocodile handbag and her grandson’s newly shorn haircut—create a rich and animated surface that also imbues the painting with a strong sense of authenticity. Elements such as the curling cigarette smoke and the half-eaten breakfast on the foreground table are wonderfully immediate, creating the sense that the viewer is witnessing this vignette from life. Indeed, Saying Grace demonstrates perhaps better than any other work in the artist’s oeuvre, Rockwell’s unparalleled ability to encapsulate the subtle details of a complex narrative into a single, compelling image. This ability finds a parallel in the work of another great American master of the twentieth century, Edward Hopper, who similarly presented momentary yet extraordinarily compelling glimpses into the lives of ordinary Americans (Fig. 2). Simultaneously, however, we are not privy to the full arc of Rockwell’s narrative: Why have the woman and her grandson wandered into such an establishment where they are clearly out of place? Where are they going and from where have they come? The degree of ambiguity Rockwell includes only makes his image more captivating. We want to know more, to fully understand the scene he has rendered and the message he seeks to convey in this visually stunning and emotionally compelling work. Once we look closer, the artist’s message reveals itself: it is not the praying family who is Rockwell’s true subject but rather the crowd of onlookers who admittedly observe and consider them, yet ultimately allow them to give thanks in peace. Rather than a celebration of a particular religious practice, Saying Grace presents American culture as a place where differing values and customs are accepted. The artist explored this subject of tolerance at several iconic moments in his career, most famously in Freedom to Worship (1943), and The Golden Rule (1961) (Fig. 5). What distinguishes Saying Grace from these images, however, is the beautiful subtlety with which Rockwell translates his message. “I suppose we all have our own favorite Rockwells,” Ken Stuart wrote in 1961, reflecting on the career of his friend and collaborator of nearly 20 years. Serving as the art editor for The Saturday Evening Post during the most pivotal years of Rockwell’s association with the publication, Stuart understood the powerful reach of the artist’s imagery perhaps better than anyone; while we each find an image in Rockwell's body of work that gives us pause, particularly delights, or immediately transports us back in time to a moment of our own lives, the appeal of Rockwell remains universal. The sense of nostalgia Saying Grace presents continues to resonate with any American who has ever said grace before a meal or shared a quiet moment with a loved one. While his imagery undoubtedly adapted to evolving cultural norms and social mores over time, it consistently evokes a sense of timeless familiarity. Even today the figures he rendered—often modeled after his friends and family members—could be our own friends, neighbors or even ourselves. The particular vision of American life he projected has become integral to the country’s idea of itself and its history, contributing to Rockwell’s reputation as an astute chronicler of the American experience. Signed Norman Rockwell (lower center)

  • 2013-12-04


A HIGHLY IMPORTANT IMPERIAL EMBROIDERED SILK THANGKA YONGLE SIX-CHARACTER PRESENTATION MARK AND OF THE PERIOD (1402-1424) This massive panel is exquisitely embroidered in gold thread and brilliant coloured silk threads on leaf-green jiang chou silk enriched with a regular pattern of dark blue medallions of curled leafy scrolls outlined with gold thread. The central image is of the wrathful Raktayamari, depicted in tones of red, standing in yab-yum embracing his consort Vajravetali. Her left leg encircling his waist, his right hand wielding above his head a khatvanga embellished with human heads in varying states and the vajra thunderbolt, his left arm supporting his facing consort and holding a kapala or skull cap in his left hand. The locked couple is trampling on the blue corpse of Yama, the Lord of death, wearing a tiger skin and crown, lying on the back of their mount, a brown buffalo recumbent on a multi-coloured lotus base. All below two rows of buddhas and bodhisattvas seated on lotus bases, the upper including Heruka Vajrabhairava on the far left and Manjusri on the far right, flanking the five Dhyani Buddhas, Ratnasambhava, Akshobhya, Vairocana, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi. The lower row with Green Tara and White Tara. On the lower panel is a row of seven offering goddesses dancing on lotus bases and holding aloft dishes as offerings below the couple. The thangka is bordered by an embroidered yellow-ground band of vajra. On the upper right side is the vertical presentation mark in gold thread on a red embroidered ground below the White Tara. Accompanied with a Qing dynasty silk surround now detached. 132 x 84 in. (335.3 x 213.4 cm.)

  • HKGSonderverwaltungszone Hongkong
  • 2014-11-26

Untitled (Yellow and Blue)

“These are the edgings and inchings of final form” – Wallace Stevens (Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, London, 1984, p. 488) “There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34) “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1962, chapter 11 “Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.” Mark Rothko, "The Romantics were Prompted…,” Possibilities, New York, No. 1, Winter 1947-48, p. 84 As we stand enraptured by the stunning resplendency of Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow and Blue) we bear witness to what can only be described as an unequivocal masterpiece of twentieth-century art history. A glowing aurora of shimmering color and light, the present work confronts us as the summation of its creator’s deeply philosophical practice, wherein he staged some of the most moving, transcendent, and simply breathtaking unions between material and support ever realized in the grand tradition of oil paint on canvas. Rothko once described his ideal vision for his paintings: “It would be good if little places could be set up all over the country, like a little chapel where the traveler, or wanderer could come for an hour to meditate on a single painting hung in a small room, and by itself.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Riehen/Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Mark Rothko: A Consummated Experience Between Picture and Onlooker, 2001, p. 22) Executed in 1954, at the chronological apex of the celebrated period of Rothko’s career referred to by David Anfam, author of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, as the anni mirabilis, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is a triumphant archetype of this artistic ideal: its radiant surface and towering scale elicit a visual and somatic experience that is prodigious and undeniable, compelling us to surrender to a sense of pure contemplation in the face of its painterly authority. For Rothko, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence, and in Untitled (Yellow and Blue), as we stand suspended in its sea of meditative calm, we behold that capacity wholly and perfectly achieved. By the time he painted Untitled (Yellow and Blue) in 1954 Mark Rothko was fifty-one years old and had been working as a painter for thirty years. From figurative paintings in the 1920s and 1930s that reflected the realist trend dominant in American art, and perpetuated by figures such as Thomas Hart Benton, in the wake of World War I and through the Great Depression; through a series of canvases in the 1940s that looked to Europe and staged an exploration of biomorphic forms drawn from Miró, Picasso, Dalí, and Rothko’s other Surrealist predecessors; to the Multiform paintings begun in 1947 and representing the artist’s ultimate and unequivocal disavowal of the figurative, Rothko wrestled with the singular goal that had expanded in his mind to become all-consuming: to access an alternative realm, to transcend his worldly existence, to release himself and his viewers from what he perceived to be the devastatingly chaotic experience of everyday life. When he ultimately composed the first mature iteration of his legendary corpus, in 1949, Rothko succeeded in making his art the instrument of his inner life; his paintings ceased to be material expressions of artistic drive and transformed into gateways to the sublime. These vessels of pure color and light, Rothko’s towering theses on the absolute limits of abstraction, were overwhelmingly engrossing for him in his creation of them as they are all-encompassing of our senses as we stand in awe in front of them. As Dore Ashton writes, “His greatest fund of emotion was lavished primarily on what he made – paintings. Those paintings were to be his passport to a more luminous world, not encumbered by our nouns and adjectives, our interpretations that always fall short. They were prepared by careful thought, nurtured by well-fondled ideas, but, as he said, ‘Ideas and plans that existed in the mind at the start were simply the doorway through which one left the world in which they occur.’ To leave the world in which ideas and plans – so quickly superseded by emotions – occur was essential to Rothko. …He had deep needs to fulfill, many of them incapable of being brought to the threshold of language.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 3) Rothko’s progression, pursued with dogged determination over decades of experimentation and refinement and with an unerring conceptual and philosophical consistency, was not a quest for material success but instead a visceral, undeniable, and deeply personal calling. Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is a paean to the utterly absorptive process of its execution, whereby Rothko conferred upon its luscious, vigorous surface his own desire, as elucidated by Stanley Kunitz, “to become his paintings.” (Stanley Kunitz, interview with Avis Berman, December 8, 1983, Archives of American Art) Rothko executed twenty paintings in 1954, of which seven are today in the permanent collections of prominent museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art (Orange and Tan); the Yale University Art Gallery (Untitled); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose)); the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (No. 11/No. 2 (Yellow Center)); The Phillips Collection (The Ochre (Ochre, Red on Red)); The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design (Untitled); and the Essen Folkwang Museum (White and Brick on Light Red (White, Pink and Mustard)). This seminal year also saw Rothko’s first one-man exhibition in a major US museum, at the Art Institute of Chicago. Organized by one of the foremost champions of the avant-garde and post-war art in America, the Institute’s visionary first curator of modern painting and sculpture Katharine Kuh, this exhibition was a definitive testament to Rothko’s preeminence amongst the giants of Abstract Expressionism that were his peers and contemporaries. In the months leading up to the exhibition, and in preparation for its installation as well as the publication of an accompanying catalogue, Rothko and Kuh corresponded at length in a series of letters. In a manner entirely consistent with his artistic philosophy and aesthetic predispositions, Rothko was highly involved and invested in all aspects of the planning, approaching each detail with the same level of conceptual rigor that informed the physical execution of each and every painting he made. His comments and specifications are illuminating and indicative of the very nature of his indelibly iconic practice. By way of instructing Kuh on how best to hang his monumental works, Rothko ultimately revealed a deeply rooted concern as to how his pictures were considered and perceived: “Since my pictures are large, colorful and unframed, and since museum walls are usually immense and formidable, there is the danger that the pictures relate themselves as decorative areas to the walls. This would be a distortion of their meaning, since the pictures are intimate and intense, and are the opposite of what is decorative; and have been painted in a scale of normal living rather than an institutional scale.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 58) Furthermore, in a subsequent letter referencing the text that was to be published in the exhibition catalogue, Rothko provided some personal and vulnerable insight into his struggle to arrive at a linguistic description of his paintings that would accurately describe the purpose and phenomenal import that he had conferred upon them: “From the moment that I began to collect my ideas it became clear that here was not a problem of what ought to be said, but what it is that I can say. The question and answer method at once presented insuperable difficulties: for the question imposes its own rhetoric and syntax upon the answer regardless of whether this rhetoric can serve the truth, whereas I have had to set for myself the problem of finding the most exact rhetoric for these specific pictures.” (the artist in a letter to Katharine Kuh, July 28, 1954 in Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Writings on Art: Mark Rothko, New Haven and London, 2006, p. 92) Like viewing the inner workings of a complex machine, our knowledge of Rothko's anxieties, spoken genuinely in the same year that he created Untitled (Yellow and Blue) by a man who today is essential to any comprehensive understanding of modern art history, provides us with an indelible appreciation for Rothko’s paintings beyond the immediate and utterly visceral visual response we have as privileged viewers of their supreme majesty. Soaring to a stunning eight feet in height, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) broadcasts its allure on a greater-than human register; engulfing the viewer’s entire experience; and situating us as actors within its epic expanse. An apparent paradox typifies the artist’s ambition and contributes to his desire to commune directly with his canvases, declared in 1951: “I paint very large pictures…precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience…However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” (Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 85)  Of course, scale is absolutely fundamental to the nature of Rothko’s work, identified as such by Clement Greenberg even in 1950:  “Broken by relatively few incidents of drawing or design, their surfaces exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size itself. One reacts to an environment as much as to a picture hung on a wall.” (“'American-Type’ Painting” (1955) cited in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 248) Through the seamless flow of color and light an atmosphere of the ethereal emanates as if from within Untitled (Yellow and Blue). As we become fully subsumed within its luminous surface, our perception of physical boundaries or demarcations of material space dissolves and we are overcome by a sense of endless continuity, as if standing at a precipice reaching outwards toward an ever-receding, boundless horizon. Incandescent zones of brilliantly hued pigment, simultaneously distinct and inextricably intertwined, pulsate with a tangible energetic intensity that takes absolute hold of our vision, pulling us under in a wave of pure artistic bravura. An ocean of radiant lapis blue churns in the lower half of the composition, threatening to surge forth from its predetermined rectangular structure and pour into the shimmering fields of golden yellow that surround it. As witnesses to this inimitable masterwork, we are afforded the opportunity to travel through the subtle variants of tone and contour that comprise the intricate landscape of its surface, apprehending the subtly perceptible strokes of Rothko’s brush that imbue each area of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) with an ineffable breath and inexorable vivacity. Infused with an otherworldly glow, these iridescent tones harbor primal connotations of light, warmth, and the Sun; yet, in line with a perennial balance that characterizes the very archetypes of the artist’s corpus, there is a concurrent tension struck between the uplifting emotions conventionally evoked by warm golden hues and something implicitly more tragic. Inasmuch as the dazzling yellow, made endlessly dynamic by the sheer underlayers of red and blue pigment that give it an exquisite complexity, invokes the Sun it also implicates the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, of continual demise and rebirth. Rothko once stated to David Sylvester: “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration – all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments.” (the artist cited in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 88), and with its suggestion of an unobtainable horizon and an infinite, unbreakable cycle, this work harbors something that is indescribably portentous. For nearly thirty years, from the time that it was acquired directly following Rothko’s death in 1970, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) held an esteemed place within the renowned collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Foremost among the leading patrons in the arts for much of the Twentieth Century, Mr. and Mrs. Mellon lived according to the noblest ideals of refinement and understatement. Paul Mellon’s father, the banker, industrialist, and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon had effectively founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1937 with a gift of one hundred and fifteen paintings from his personal collection as well as the funds to construct the museum’s building, designed by John Russell Pope. Following his father’s death, Paul Mellon took stewardship over the project, presenting the completed building to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and thereafter serving as the National Gallery’s president, board chairman, and honorary trustee. When Mrs. Mellon married Paul in 1948 she brought her distinctive passion and discerning aesthetic predisposition to the Mellon family’s art collection, redefining its scope to include artists like Mark Rothko who were operating at the very forefront of artistic innovation at mid-century. Mrs. Mellon's deep reverence and love for the arts combined with and extended Paul Mellon’s own overwhelming generosity; in 1966, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Gallery, an exhibition of the Mellon’s vast trove of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings was held and the paintings subsequently donated to the museum. Five years later, the Gallery’s burgeoning collection of Modern Art required additional space and Mr. Mellon commissioned I. M. Pei to design a new East Building that, together with his sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce, he funded. Over the course of six decades until his death in 1999, Mr. Mellon donated nine hundred and thirteen works to the National Gallery. In a life and a world comprised of truly beautiful, personally meaningful, and historically significant works of art, Mrs. Mellon had a particular admiration for and predisposition towards the paintings of Mark Rothko. In the critical year following the artist’s death, she acquired a total of nine large-scale paintings from his estate including Untitled (Yellow and Blue): No. 2/No. 7/No. 20, 1951; Untitled (Blue, Green and Brown), 1952; No. 20 (Yellow Expanse), 1953; No. 14 (White and Green in Blue), 1957; Untitled (White and Orange), 1955 and Untitled (Red, Black, White on Yellow), 1955, both subsequently donated to the National Gallery; and Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), 1955, and Untitled, 1970, both sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014 as part of the auction celebrating masterworks from her collection. Widely admired for her sophistication, expertise, sensibility, and intelligence, Mrs. Mellon was an indubitable champion of the arts who, with an unerring eye amassed a collection rich in historical import and sheer beauty of which Untitled (Yellow and Blue) was a privileged part. While much contemporaneous commentary cited Rothko’s oeuvre as radically dislocated from historical precedent, subsequent perspective readily posits his corpus an eminent historical location. The theoretical foundations of Rothko’s aesthetic revolution conformed to the predominating rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-Twentieth Century – absolutism, themes of purging and beginning art anew, and other extremes of theory and practice were similarly espoused by Rothko’s now-heroic compatriots of the New York School such as Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – yet his influences span the centuries that preceded him. From Giotto, J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and Claude Monet to the Luminists, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri Matisse; predecessors concerned with the pure effects of color and light informed the new painting Rothko initiated at mid-century in New York. Written in the late 1930s, but not published until nearly seventy years later by the artist’s son Christopher, Rothko’s extensive writings, thoughts, and inspirations reveal a profound reverence for and intellectual involvement in early Italian painting, particularly that of Giotto di Bondone. During a series of trips to Italy Rothko was able to experience Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, wherein he studied and admired the artist’s ability to organize space and narrative action by means of color. Indeed, the brilliant lapis zone of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) bears a direct likeness to the stunning blue ground that covers the walls and arched ceiling in the chapel. Without question, Rothko was in awe of Giotto’s artistic sensibilities and writes at length of his colorism: “the use of color for its own sensual ends as well as for its structural ends had greatly deteriorated since the time of Giotto. Perspective displaced the use of the organic quality of colors, which had previously, in and of themselves, produced the tactile effect of recession and advancement.” (Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 38) Like Rothko himself, Giotto was a pioneer who broke new ground in the use of pigments, variously hued and built up through layers of accumulation so as to assume their own dimensionality independent of an artist’s structuring line or invocation of perspectival space. Rothko continued, “It is Giotto’s color…that produced the great effect of his tactility. All the tactile painters have used color with a knowledge of its tactile qualities. This is in contrast with the illusory painters whose illusion of recession is achieved by the graying of color as it recedes into the distance. The tactile painters, in other words, achieve their tactile quality by means of color value. Color, however, intrinsically possesses the power of giving the sensation of recession and advancement.” (Ibid., p. 59) What is made clear by Rothko’s deep consideration and analysis in these passages, written in the earliest stages of his career, is that he had already arrived at a direction and purpose for his art – his was to be a corpus of tactile paintings; he was to use color in its purest form to generate atmospheric qualities, illusions of boundless depth – over a decade before happening upon the aesthetic revelation of how to transform this fundamental concept into its material manifestation. Five centuries after Giotto, the Romantics, in an impassioned reaction against the prevailing social norms that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, employed color in the emphasis and validation of the emotional intensity that results from confronting the transcendence of an uninhibited aesthetic experience. J.M.W. Turner, in his 1844 masterwork Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway, realized the unquantifiable power of the sublime when he culled an utterly affecting narrative out of pure color and light. Through the impossibly precise yet ethereally light stroke of Turner’s brush, we are willingly transported at once to the very core of this painting’s masterful surface and inwards, towards the depths of our own subconscious. Like the Romantics who preceded them, the Symbolists considered Art as a contemplative escape from a world of strife, achieving this liberation through themes of mysticism and otherworldliness grounded always by an incisive sense of mortality. With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, this remarkable philosophical lineage was given an ever grander and more evocative visual form. As early as 1943, Rothko published a joint statement with fellow pioneers of the new Abstraction, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb: “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks. … It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.” (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, “Statement” in Edward Alden Jewell’s column, The New York Times, June 13, 1943) Thus, while delivering the tenets of Romanticism and Symbolism to the modern era, via a revolutionary compositional clarity and monumentality of viewing experience, Rothko conclusively asserted the paramount equation between his artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer. Four years later, he developed this integral relationship even further: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” (Mark Rothko, “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye, New York, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1947, p. 44) The artist famously stated, in what is perhaps the definitive text declaring the philosophical underpinnings to his oeuvre, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers… They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.” (Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” first published in Possibilities, no. 1, 1947) Indeed, our experience of Untitled (Yellow and Blue) as participants in its stunning drama brings it to life, and may give new dimension to our lives. We do not look at this painting; we are absorbed into it. Indeed, being in its presence parallels a line of Nietzsche that had inspired Rothko since he had been a young man: “There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34) It is well documented that Rothko was fixated with the literary work of Friedrich Nietzsche, above all the German philosopher's seminal opus The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music written in 1872. Nietzsche’s ideas of how the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian forces dictates the terms of human drama were important to the advancement of Rothko's color fields. Indeed, Rothko’s vast tableaux have often been discussed in the lexicon of the immediate and saturating effects of music. David Sylvester’s review of the 1961 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition in London provides an apt response to the present work in these terms: “These paintings begin and end with an intense and utterly direct expression of feeling through the interaction of colored areas of a certain size. They are the complete fulfillment of Van Gogh’s notion of using color to convey man’s passions. They are the realisation of what abstract artists have dreamed for 50 years of doing – making painting as inherently expressive as music. More than this: for not even with music…does isolated emotion touch the nervous system so directly.” (in New Statesman, 20 October 1961 cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 36) Excepting a letter to Art News in 1957, from 1949 onwards Rothko ceased publishing statements about his work, anxious that his writings might be interpreted as instructive or didactic and could thereby interfere with the pure import of the paintings themselves. However, in 1958 he gave a talk at the Pratt Institute to repudiate his critics and to deny any perceived association between his art and self-expression. He insisted instead that his corpus was not concerned with notions of self but rather with the entire human drama. While he drew a distinction between figurative and abstract art, he nevertheless outlined an underlying adherence to the portrayal of human experience. Discussing the “artist’s eternal interest in the human figure,” Rothko examined the common bond of figurative painters throughout Art History: “they have painted one character in all their work. What is indicated here is that the artist’s real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama rather than the appearance of a particular individual. Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man’s experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man’s experience becomes his model, and in that sense it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea.” (lecture given at the Pratt Institute 1958, cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 87) Teeming with the sheer genius of its creator’s inimitable evocation of the sublime, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) is the singular summation of Mark Rothko’s fundamental artistic ambition as elucidated in his definitive Pratt Institute talk. A veritable treatise on the absolute limits of abstraction, the present work, in truth, involves both spirit and nature, and instills in us a profound sense of the spiritual whilst evincing Rothko’s abject faith in the critical role the artist plays in attaining the highest realm to which man could aspire: “For art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” (Mark Rothko, “Personal Statement,” in Miguel López-Remiro, ed., Op. Cit., p. 45)

  • 2015-05-12

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1

Throughout her career, Georgia O’Keeffe strove to depict what she described as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.” Her spirit of adventure and passion for the natural world drove her to explore the landscape of the United States, and to do so in such diverse places as Lake George, New York and Abiquiú, New Mexico. As such, the core of O’Keeffe’s work lies in the natural imagery around her, but her ability to capture the elusive boundary between representation and abstraction is central to her singular language of modernism. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 is a strikingly bold and elegant representation of the artist’s mature intent and aesthetic. Painted in 1932, the work exhibits one of O’Keeffe’s most enduring motifs: her innovative renderings of magnified flowers. O’Keeffe first explored this theme early in her career, drawn to the flower as subject for what she felt was the challenge it posed to observation. It was easy, she believed, to overlook the beauty found in the details of these small forms. Beginning in the 1920s, she decided to paint them on a large scale so that “even busy New Yorkers” would have to stop and appreciate her unique, sensory experience of nature. “Where I come from the earth means everything,” O’Keeffe said of the profound connection she felt. “Life depends on it. You pick it up and feel it in your hands” (Debra Bricker Balken, Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 2009, pp. 24-5). O’Keeffe utilized the Jimson weed as subject matter on multiple occasions, presenting it each time with a new viewpoint or altered perspective (fig. 1). The beauty of the blossom first attracted her when she discovered a group of them near her home in New Mexico, where these poisonous flowers grew in abundance. She examined one closely and remarked that “It is a beautiful white trumpet flower with strong veins that hold the flower open and grow longer than the round part of the flower—twisting as they grow off beyond it…Some of them are a pale green in the center—some a pale Mars violet. The Jimson weed blooms in the cool of the evening—one moonlight night at the Ranch I counted one hundred and twenty five flowers. The flowers die in the heat of the day…Now when I think of the delicate fragrance of the flowers, I almost feel the coolness and sweetness of the evening” (Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1976, n.p.). In Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, O’Keeffe transforms the poisonous into the sublime, presenting her perception of its essence rather than its literal form. She depicts the flower with subtly modulated tones of pure white, yellow and green to evoke the play of light and shadow on its delicate surface. Eschewing the details of the subject, O’Keeffe renders the blossom and leaves as elegantly simplified, circular forms—a motif essential to her aesthetic (fig. 2). She composes each element with precise, assured strokes of pigment to create sharply delineated contours and a lush surface. O’Keeffe’s perfectionism and technical facility was legendary, described by her longtime friend and collaborator, Doris Bry, as “a meticulous craftsman in everything she chose to do—from cooking to making clothes and gardens to grinding her own pigments between glass (on occasion) for greater translucency to having a go at creating her own pastel sticks. She loved the very substance of color” (Sarah Whitaker Peters, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation, Jackson, Mississippi, p. 18). Indeed, the artist came to consider color as essential to form, once explaining that she visualized shapes in her mind that she could not translate onto canvas or paper until she could identify the appropriate colors with which to portray them. “I work with an idea for a long time,” she explained. “It’s like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily…Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract” (Calvin Tomkins, Notes from Interview with Georgia O’Keeffe, September 24, 1973, for his New Yorker profile, “The Rose in the Eye Looked Pretty Fine,” March 4, 1973). In the present work, the Jimson weed is monumental, filling the picture plane nearly to entirety with its velvety petals. The artist grants merely a glimpse into its larger context, showing only portions of its leaves and a vivid blue sky. As the muse and wife of Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was undoubtedly exposed to his ideas and aesthetic preferences. O’Keeffe’s dialogue with the photographs of Stieglitz and his colleague Paul Strand is plainly evident in Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 as she crops the picture plane sharply and focuses intently on the blossom to present its form up close (fig. 3). Although she allows for a degree of three-dimensionality within the composition, the pictorial space is largely compressed, contributing to the impression of the blossom as a pattern of shapes and colors. These forms appear to ripple and swirl on the surface of the canvas, emanating outwards as if without definitive boundaries. A painter similarly inspired by the landscape of the American Southwest, Agnes Martin achieves a comparable, pulsating effect in her 1960 work, White Flower, in which she interprets her botanical subject as a starkly minimal geometric grid of minute lines and dashes of white pigment (fig. 4). Set against the dark gray background, these strokes seem to float forward into space, pushing against the two-dimensional picture plane to impart a more immersive experence of nature. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 represents one of the rare instances during the first few decades of O’Keeffe’s career that she selected a canvas size noticeably larger than her standard format. In 1932, the same year she executed the present work, O’Keeffe had begun plans for a mural commission for Radio City Music Hall—then under construction in Rockefeller Center—which may have compelled her to experiment with this larger scale. As in Martin’s work, the proportions contribute to the sense that the landscape is enveloping the viewer. Presenting the blossom as a commanding form, rather than the delicate entity it is in reality, O’Keeffe achieves an effect not unlike that of Jeff Koons’ 1995-7 work Pink Bow, in which the artist depicts his subject in isolation, similarly centralized and frontally (fig. 5). The meticulous, nearly photographic  technique Koons utilizes in Pink Bow imbues the dainty folds of a ribbon with a bold sculptural presence and recalls O’Keeffe’s remarkably precise brushwork in works such as Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, in which her color, noted Paul Rosenfeld, “has an edge that is like a line. She created her edges with the finest and most precise kind of brushwork” (Peters, p. 17). In both works, the artist changes the subject into an iconic, timeless object that defies the fragility and, in the instance of the Jimson weed, the impermanence that are inherent to it in reality. O’Keeffe’s vision of the flower reveals the power and exuberance with which she viewed her natural environment. It is a deeply personal image that speaks to ideas of timelessness and universality. “O’Keeffe acted to suspend time,” explains Jack Cowart, “producing art that would capture the transient. [Here], O’Keeffe made a flower, with all of its fragility, a permanent image without season, wilt or decay. Enlarged and reconstructed in oil on canvas or pastel on paper, it is a vehicle for pure expression rather than an example of botanical illustration. In her art, fleeting effects of natural phenomena or personal emotion become symbols, permanent points of reference (“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Artist,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 2). As the enlarged blossom floats in the ambiguous pictorial space, O’Keeffe transforms this traditional still-life subject into a meditative experience. O’Keeffe’s intent  foreshadows the work of artists like Mark Rothko, who also used color, shape and scale to induce an emotional reaction from the viewer (fig. 6). Despite her initial association with Stieglitz and his circle, O’Keeffe’s aesthetic was always distinctly her own. Although connotations of sexuality and gender were continuously ascribed to the imagery displayed in works Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, O’Keeffe repeatedly denied these suggestions “…when you took the time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower,” she later explained of the tendency of audiences to misinterpret her work, “and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t” (Britta Benke, O’Keeffe, London, 2003, p. 38). O'Keeffe's flower paintings bring to mind the flowers of Andy Warhol, who also used the subject in a distinctive and individual way (fig. 7). Warhol met O'Keeffe in 1979 at her home in Abiquiú home to create her portrait. In Warhol's series, the artist presents his subject without narrative or context to purposely invite a greater degree of interpretation, questioning and reflection from the viewer. Both artists ultimately elevate an ordinary object into the realm of high art, compelling the viewer to consider something familiar in an entirely new way. “I have but one desire as a painter,” O’Keeffe once summarized of her creative intent, “that is to paint what I see, as I see it, in my own way, without regard for the desires or taste of the professional dealer or the professional collector. I attribute what little success I have to this fact" (B. Vladimir Berman, "She Painted the Lily and Got $25,000 and Fame for Doing It," New York Evening Graphic Magazine Section, May 12, 1928, p. 3M).

  • 2014-11-20

Onement VI

Onement VI by Barnett Newman overwhelms and seduces the viewer with the totality of its sensual, cascading washes of vibrant blue coexisting with Newman’s vertical “Sign” of the human presence, his iconic and revolutionary “zip.”  As a portal to the sublime, the limitless realm of sumptuous color envelops the viewer and brings life to Newman’s assertion that his monumental canvases be experienced up close rather than from a distance.  The demarcation of the zip, in its placement, form and complementary hue of light blue, serves both a temporal and spatial purpose in the expansive and personalized experience of this masterpiece of Newman’s aesthetic. By far the most momentous in scale of the six paintings of the Onement series, Onement VI is also one of only two of this title to be held in private hands. Annalee Newman gifted Onement I (1948) – the sister painting that so dramatically altered the course of Newman’s oeuvre – to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1992, where it joined Onement III (1949), a clear demonstration of the importance of this innovative group of paintings to the canon of modern art. Onement II (1948) and Onement IV (1949) both entered the collections of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and the Allen Memorial Museum in Oberlin as early as the 1960s. Onement VI was gifted by the artist to his wife, Annalee, in 1953 and was later acquired by the prestigious collectors Frederick and Marcia Weisman in 1961, the same year that the Newmans lent the painting to the influential show at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum titled Abstract Expressionists and Imagists. Onement I was the first canvas in which Newman’s zip manifested and is the only consistent trait of the eponymous series that includes canvases of differing colors and scale; the poetic and primal zip was the core of Newman’s ambition to create paintings free of objects, dogma, precedence or referential subject matter. Along with other heroic artists of the Twentieth Century, Newman wanted to regenerate art and society through the invention of new forms of expression that could capture the ineffable essence of existence. Onement VIand its fellow paintings are not representational – they convey a state of being and communion. Regarded as among the most independent and courageous artists of the Twentieth Century, Barnett Newman was distinctly influential at two critical junctures in American art: first among his peers and later with the next generation of artists who sought the means to redefine and celebrate painting in their own time. One of the great writers and philosophers during the creation of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and early 1950s, Newman was deeply admired by his colleagues and friends such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Adolph Gottlieb. As an organizer of exhibitions for the newly opened Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946, Newman played a critical role in the advancement of their careers; through his introductions, Rothko and Still joined Parsons in 1946 followed by Pollock in 1947, solidifying Parson’s gallery as the new forum for American avant-garde art upon the closure of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century in spring 1947. Newman showed his own work with Parsons in his first and second one-man shows in 1950 and 1951, yet the public and critical attention that had come to his comrades was to be deferred for Newman which was a tacit acknowledgement of the radical nature and unique boldness of his painterly vision. Newman had withdrawn from the Parsons Gallery – and all commercial art endeavors - after the 1951 show when critic Clement Greenberg, the great proponent of Pollock since 1943, wrote a 1952 article in Paris Review which included a belated admiration of Newman’s exhibitions that “displayed both nerve and conviction” and declared the painter “to be an important as well as original painter.” (excerpted from Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, 1961, p. 150) Among the works in Newman’s 1951 show was one of his great masterpieces, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51, Museum of Modern Art, New York) which, at 18 feet in length, is a grandiloquent statement of the revolution of Newman’s work which began with the artist’s first zip in Onement I which is only roughly two feet high. As he recounted in an interview in 1967, “I’d done this painting [Onement I, 1948] and stopped in order to find out what I had done, and I actually lived with that painting for almost a year trying to understand it. I realized that I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was, I suppose the beginning of my present life, because from then on I had to give up any relation to nature as seen. .. I remove myself from nature, but I do not remove myself from life.” (Interview with David Sylvester in New York on March 3, 1967 as cited in John P. O’Neill, ed., Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990, p. 255) With these words, Newman concisely memorialized his commitment to pure painting as a totality of transcendence, devoid of subject matter aside from the belief in the visual and spiritual phenomena of his creations so beautifully embodied by Onement VI of 1953. Newman recognized that his aesthetic ideas had been at last given form and his own unique pictorial language had been realized. Aided by his move to a larger studio at 110 Watt Street in August 1950, Newman’s paintings expanded in scale as the grounds, voids, rhythms and zips spill beyond the edges of his canvas to encompass the viewer in a spiritual dialogue.  The ambitious size of paintings such as Onement VI, which at the time was not accommodating for most homes or even galleries, was not however related simply to mere measurements or illusionistic depth, as Ann Temkin observed in her essay for the 2002 retrospective of Newman’s work in Philadelphia: “Newman, however, always talked in terms of scale, not size….Newman’s paintings prove that the dynamics on which they depend for success could operate on very little surface. What counted was the emotional resonance – the perfect adjustment of a color and the size and shape of its extent and to what neighbored it.” (Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnett Newman, 2002 p. 42) In Newman’s devotion to a single color and reductive use of demarcation with his sparsely employed zips, his work was deemed provocative and shocking, even among his fellow artists at the time of his 1950 and 1951 exhibitions; yet by the time of the first public appearance of Onement VI at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1961, Newman’s enigmatic works had struck a chord with a breed of younger artists who investigated the future of painting as Abstract Expressionism waned and the movements of Minimalist, Conceptual and Process art were in ascendance along with Pop art. By the late 1950s, Newman had begun to show his work again and his 1959 exhibition at French & Co. in New York was a revelation to artists such as Frank Stella. His banded Black Paintings, begun the same year, inaugurated the era of Minimalism in paint, and claimed a kindred spirit with Newman’s prescient work; yet the intent of the artists were diametrically opposed. For Stella, his paint was paint, his canvas an object, his bands methodical; for Newman, paintings transcend their objectness and his zips flicker with portent and presence. The subtlety of the surface of Onement VI is simultaneously voluptuous and diaphanous, proving in its sensuous evocation of atmosphere that Newman was as great a colorist as Rothko or Richard Diebenkorn. The zips were created by masking tape that reserved the area for the vertical band, and Newman welcomed the chance effects of bleeding that lend the zips their simultaneous sense of void and substance. As Richard Shiff noted in the catalogue raisonné of Newman’s paintings, Clement Greenberg had Onement VI in mind when he wrote of Newman: “If he uses his skill, it is to suppress the evidence of it. …Other contemporary painting begins to look fussy.” (Excerpted from The Collected Essays of Clement Greenberg, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969) Shiff further elaborates on the distinction between Newman’s “disposition” of his zips and colors, as opposed to schematic composition. “Despite the generous scale of Onement VI …bleeding along the taped edge becomes visually prominent, probably because it is much more pronounced toward the top of the band than at the bottom. This unevenly distributed feature creates something of a tapered effect that catches the eye, an anomalous element in an otherwise symmetrical image. Yet this anomaly belongs to, coheres with, the painting as much as any other feature …As Newman said of perceiving the human face, it requires no scrutiny, no differentiation of parts, just a vision of the integrated whole.” (Richard Shiff, Carol C. Mancusi-Ungaro  and Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Barnett Newman: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, New Haven and London, 2004, p. 58) With its title, Onement VI honors Newman’s quest for the totality of the art object, evoking emotional and spiritual resonance with essential and organic features. Newman’s aesthetic philosophy was expressed in his greatest essay on abstract art, “The Plasmic Image”, which was published posthumously. In this lengthy treatise, Newman outlined the search for a universal art and defined abstract forms as ‘plasmic’ – which he identified with an organic fluidity like the movement of thoughts as opposed to the ‘plastic’ of inert matter like paint or marble. As Newman elaborated, “The new painter feels that these (abstract shapes) must contain the plasmic entity that will carry his thought, the nucleus that will give life to the abstract, even abstruse ideas he is projecting. …The effect of these new pictures is that the shapes and colors act as symbols to (elicit) sympathetic participation on the part of the beholder in the artist’s vision.” (John P. O’Neill, Op. Cit., pp. 141-142)  In Onement VI, the single zip resonates within the canvas and with the viewer; it is described both by sharp tactile edges that retain a crisp memory of the delineating tape and by the gentle laps of marine blue that seep into the void of the cool light blue. Soft ghostly traces toward the bottom of the zip disperse as if into air, while deeper bleeds at eye level seek to bridge the gap of the zip from edge to edge, creating a spatial tension. The act of the pigment bleed is the locus of the temporal element in Newman’s work that finds corresponding resonance with the temporal experience of viewing Onement VI at our leisure and contemplatively. As Harold Rosenberg wrote in his 1978 monograph on Newman, “The format of Onement I takes its meaning from being experienced as an undifferentiated whole, thus functioning as a ‘space vehicle’ for the idea of singularity. Oneness itself in Newman’s terms is an exalted ‘subject matter’.” (Harold Rosenberg, Barnett Newman, New York, 1978, pp. 59-60) As the agent of inner coherence to the painting, the zip of Onement VI is also the agent of identity and universality, brought so memorably to life in the sculptures in zip form, such as Here I (To Marcia) of 1950/1962, so named when Marcia Weisman, the purchaser of Onement VI in 1961, prevailed on Newman to cast a 1962 bronze based on a 1950 plaster and wood construction. Placed prominently in the Weisman’s collection, Newman’s painting and sculpture gave graphic testimony to the enduring power of Newman’s creations. Critics who were puzzled at Newman’s work in the early 1950s sometimes regarded his paintings as philosophic statements made without artistic attributes, or conversely, as pure painting devoid of a subject.  Paintings such as Onement VI, in truth, involve both spirit and nature, and Newman sought to instill in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual. This did not imply that Newman was religious, but rather that he sought a profound faith in the role of the artist in attaining the highest realm to which a man could aspire. For Newman, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence. Signed and dated 1953 in dark blue paint on lower right corner

  • 2013-05-13


Jean-Michel Basquiat acrylic and oilstick on wood Executed in 1984. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Flexible Fred Hoffman Fred Hoffman, PhD, worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat during the artist's residency in Venice, California in the early 1980s. He has written extensively on Basquiat’s practice, most recently authoring The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, published in 2017.Special Catalogue: Jean-Michel Basquiat, FlexibleWhen Jean-Michel Basquiat was asked to define his art, he answered without hesitation “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” This is the vision of Flexible, 1984. In many ways, this artwork serves as a summation of these three central themes. The figure Basquiat depicts is a tribal king. His posture, with arms raised and interlocked above his head, conveys confidence and authority, attributes of his heroism. He seems to be crowning himself. The nature of the picture support, and the way in which this work came about, takes us back to the artist’s origins on the streets of Manhattan.Bringing the Street into the StudioAfter opening his exhibition at the Larry Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood in early March 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat returned to New York, where virtually overnight he completed some of his most important paintings including Notary, The Nile, In Italian and Mitchell Crew. Later that year he was drawn back to Los Angeles, which afforded him a buffer from an increasingly challenging New York art world. With his return to Los Angeles, Basquiat opened his own studio, again on Market Street in Venice where he had worked previously, in Larry Gagosian’s townhouse. Working in a location just one block off the beach, Jean-Michel mostly avoided the constant coming and goings from the Venice boardwalk. Commuting from the L’Hermitage Hotel in West Hollywood, he usually arrived at his studio in the afternoon, worked late into the evening, sometimes into the next day. The back door of the studio opened onto a small courtyard, which was enclosed by an eight-foot-high, deteriorating slat wood fence. One night, while taking a break from painting, Jean-Michel walked out into this space, and was startled by the presence of a homeless man who had somehow managed to slip into the courtyard between two sections of the fence. This experience had a strong impact upon the artist, and he decided to remove the wood fence, essentially returning the patio to the Venice ambience. While Basquiat would no longer have an enclosed patio, he would no longer need to fear someone sleeping in his backyard and invading his privacy. After making plans for the removal of the wood fencing material, Jean-Michel instructed his assistants to bring the now deconstructed fence into the studio. Within a day or two the wood slats started to take on a new life. Using longer sections of the wood fencing as vertical supports, the artist had the individual wood slats stacked horizontally, thereby turning the fence material into new, unique picture supports. Here in Venice, some three thousand miles from his earlier pictorial expression on the walls of the Manhattan streets, Basquiat had now found the means of bringing the street into the studio. A New FormalismPicture supports made from wood slat fencing material were used in more than 17 paintings made between 1984 and 1986. The earliest and most recognized of these works were Flexible, Gold Griot, 1984, and M, 1984, followed later in 1984 by Grillo, a work Basquiat executed upon his return to New York. Eli Broad quickly added Gold Griot to his extensive collection of works by the young artist. Jean-Michel Basquiat kept Flexible for his own personal collection. The works made from wood slat fencing gave Basquiat a new way to integrate his art with his penchant for life on the street. While the first wood slat picture supports were executed in Venice, California and came from previously existing fences, the artist made several wood slat picture supports from material purchased at a Soho lumber yard at a later time in New York, in 1984–1986.In contrast to the earlier, exposed stretcher bar supports, these slat supports introduced a new formalism into the work. The irregularity and refuse-like quality of the earlier works, such as One Million Yen, 1982, Rubell Family Collection, or Untitled (Ernok), 1982, questioned whether the picture support fulfilled the function for which it was conceived. Basquiat’s new picture support construction owes a debt to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. The senior artist’s almost alchemical ability to take materials, even detritus, from our daily lives, objects not loaded with significance as art, and transform them into forms laden with esthetic content and value, was of immense importance to Basquiat as he moved from the street into the studio. In Rauschenberg’s Winter Pool, 1961, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the two highly worked outer panels are separated by a ladder-like structure that extends down and touches the floor. With this common, clearly cast-off and retrieved object, Rauschenberg linked the act of painting with our world. Trophy IV (for John Cage), 1961, presents a series of found objects positioned on top of a low, wood-slat structure that functioned as a picture support. Here too, the modest materials used to create this “arena of art” allow the viewer to enter into a more neutral space unburdened with the cultural and historical associations of “high art.” It was an astute awareness of Robert Rauschenberg’s art historical contribution that enabled the accomplished young artist Basquiat to turn the fence of his courtyard into an important and essential component of his artwork.With the incorporation of the wood fence supports, Basquiat seemed to declare that his imagery must be regarded with the utmost respect and seriousness. With their weight, density and scale, these works demand to be noticed. It is instructive to recall the installation of Gold Griot and Flexible in the Basquiat retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The two works towered over the immense exhibition space. Like stop signs, these structures caused the viewer to slow down, and pay attention. An Imposing PresenceIt is not coincidental that with these new picture supports, Basquiat introduced more authoritative imagery in his representation of the standing black male. While the figure in Flexible shares some similarity with the central figure of Notary, 1983, and to a certain degree the figures depicted in The Philistines, 1982, it marks a change in the artist’s subject matter. In Notary, the key figural as well as iconographic precedent for Flexible, the central figure is part of an overall narrative content, intertwined in a cacophony of images and symbols. In contrast, the central figure of Flexible exists in solitude, looming over the viewer. Here Basquiat’s concern is for immediate, frontal engagement. In his portrayal of the ribs, Basquiat flattens out the figure, allowing the rib-chest portion to be represented as horizontal bands which become one and the same with the shape of the wooden slats. This integration of image and support adopts a formal pictorial solution more commonly associated with minimalist painting. In this regard, Flexible brings to representational image-making the same formal rigor Jasper Johns achieved in his American flag paintings and Frank Stella applied to his early geometric compositions. Flexible also pays homage to pop art esthetics. Basquiat’s use of wooden slats negates the viewer’s inclination to move into an illusionistic space traditionally associated with the picture surface. Like a pop art painting, such as Andy Warhol’s Elvis, 1962, Flexible provides no place “into” which the viewer can retreat. We are invited to engage this figure in “our” space. Basquiat’s figure is directly in front of us, without illusion. Flexible is nearly ten feet in height. In the photograph of Basquiat at work on the companion work Gold Griot in his Venice studio, the head of his figure dwarfs the artist’s beneath it. The concrete nature of Basquiat’s materials, and the tight, cohesive relationship between image and surface, give Flexible a unique and imposing presence. Manifestation of a Higher PowerBasquiat’s first narrative representation of a heroic black male is in Acque Pericolose, 1981, Schorr Family Collection, and Per Capita, 1981, Brant Foundation. Acque Pericolose presents a full-length black nude male whose hands are folded across his chest. The isolated male figure of Acque Pericolose, begun in mid-1981, underwent a significant transition over the next twelve months. This iconic subject was first represented as a raw, fully exposed and humbled youth, but quickly evolved in a series of paintings, each showing a fully mature and heroic male figure filling a significant portion of the pictorial field and surrounded with a collection of symbols. Per Capita, a depiction of Cassius Clay, was one of these works. These portray male boxers, red and black warriors, and other male figures that personify heroism, power, dignity, and pride. Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump, 1982, Profit I, 1982, Untitled (Self Portrait), 1982, and Untitled (Boxer), 1982, are others that convey these attributes. In 1982, Basquiat produced no fewer than 52 paintings and 30 drawings in which the main image is an iconic, black male figure. Some reference historical figures, others are self portraits. The artist presents them at a victorious moment, with upraised arms. The image of a black male relating to both Basquiat’s “crew” and the artist himself is primarily the subject of his formative years 1981–1982. 18 months later, Flexible ushers in Basquiat’s representation of the black male as king or divinity figure.The figure in Flexible cannot be viewed as a mere mortal. This figure exists beyond our world, a manifestation of a higher power. While many of Basquiat’s earlier images of a single black male portray specific people, including the artist himself and well-known personalities from sports and music, the personage of Flexible is not an identifiable character, but represents someone removed from our daily experience. Contrast the figures of Flexible and Profit I, which was painted almost two years earlier. In Profit I, the figure is represented with both arms raised, like a cactus plant, the gesture suggesting some kind of worldly heroism. The gold and red crown of thorns – or halo – over the figure’s head is a sacred or perhaps heavenly symbol; its submersion in a black field surrounded by cryptic scrawls and symbols counteracts these associations, aligning Basquiat’s figure with our world. Flexible presents a significantly different kind of figural presence. This figure is as much a divine apparition as a living human being. With its austere and assertive background surface, the figure of Flexible references sculptural representations of the divine in various sub-Saharan African cultures. In Flexible an oversized head, wide, slanted and partially closed eyes, a broad flat nose and mouth with prominent teeth, and cowry shells surrounding the eyes and along the hairline all indicate that Basquiat was influenced by sub-Saharan African source material. Instilling his figure with the same attributes of dignity, power and the sacred, the artist made an even stronger statement by devising a new picture support for his paintings of divinity figures. The arm gestures in most of Basquiat’s representations of the black male extend upwards, signifying heroic achievement. The arm gesture depicted in Flexible is unique in Basquiat’s oeuvre. From each shoulder, two long, tubular-shaped green appendages, one vertical, the other first extending downward and then vertically, join together as a continuous band above the figure’s head. Now the figure’s arms are linked together, signaling an act of coronation. In works such as Profit I or The Philistines, Basquiat positioned a halo or nimbus above his figure’s head. In other works, such as Charles the First, 1982, he added his now iconic crown. Both nimbus and crown imbue Basquiat’s personages with sanctity. Flexible diverges from the previous iconography, enabling the figure’s arm position to convey the same attributes assigned to the halo or nimbus. Neither Gold Griot or M, Basquiat’s two other images of royalty depicted on wood-slat fencing material, have a similar representation of their figure’s arms. Painted immediately following these two works, in Flexible the royal attributes of the figure are complemented by the additional symbolism of the sacred.Heroism and SanctityThe meaning of the word “flexible” is to bend without breaking, be easily modified, to respond well to altered circumstances. If one compares the way Basquiat schematically outlines the form of upraised arms in M with his rendering of the arms in Flexible, it is apparent that the later work conveys a freedom or playfulness not found in the more static gestural configuration of the work that preceded it. The highly expressive, freely flowing arm positioning captured in Flexible is a counterpoint to the regularity and order of the picture support. As previously noted, the arm gestures in Flexible are unusual for the artist. Faced with the “raw,” somewhat static imagery presented in M, Basquiat sought to enhance the characterization of his new, commanding royal figure. The unconventional yet expressive arm configuration of Flexible is elastic. In their extension these arms are strong and flexible, contorting but not breaking. The limbs of Flexible stretch beyond their natural capacity, extending upward, eventually joining each other, forming symbols of both heroism and sanctity. Flexible is the expression of a highly confident creator, an artist capable of taking chances, able to play with a given motif or subject matter, expanding his pictorial moves as he develops his themes.

  • 2018-05-17

No. 21 (Red, Brown, Black and Orange)

Signed and dated 1953 on the reverse241.5 by 162.5cm.; 95 by 64in.Executed in 1951. Signed and dated 1953 on the reverse “These are the edgings and inchings of final form” – Wallace Stevens (Wallace Stevens, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, London, 1984, p. 488) To encounter the majestic No. 21 is to be embraced by the full force of Mark Rothko’s evocation of the sublime. As privileged viewers of this indisputable, inimitable masterwork we are afforded a visual and somatic experience that is beyond compare and bespeaks the absolute mastery of the artist’s abstract vernacular. Executed in 1951 at the very incipit of what David Anfam, the editor of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, refers to as the anni mirabilis of Rothko’s oeuvre, the present work is a paragon of this halcyon era in which his mature mode of artistic expression pioneered truly unprecedented territory. Last seen in public during the major European travelling retrospective of Rothko’s art organized by the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1971-72, this superb painting has remained in the same highly distinguished private collection for over 40 years and its appearance here at auction marks an historic moment. A veritable treatise on the absolute limits of abstraction, No. 21 transmits an aura of the ethereal that is entirely enthralling and immersive. In accordance with the most authentic experience of Rothko’s vision, we cease to perceive this work as a dialogue between medium and support, and instead become wholly submerged within its utterly captivating compositional dynamism, chromatic intensity, and sheer scale. Soaring to 95 inches in height, No. 21 projects itself into our space on a greater than human scale, engulfing us entirely within its epic expanse. Dominated by simultaneously distinct and inextricably intertwined radiant zones of sumptuous color, the canvas pulsates with a tangible energetic intensity, pulling us ever inward. A concentrated field of gloriously vibrant orange surges forth from the sheer profundity of fierce black that surrounds it, the subtly perceptible strokes of Rothko’s brush in this area encouraging a sense of inexorable ascent towards the upper limits of the canvas. The captivating depth of the black band at the center, seemingly inhaling the areas of impossible illumination that surround it, pulls us in and takes absolute hold of our vision, encouraging us to travel through the subtle variants of tone and contour that comprise the intricate landscape of its surface. In a stunning feat of compositional and coloristic genius, this fiery ground is counterbalanced by the diaphanous layers of blush pink that seem to float amongst a sea of sunset orange in the lower register, bestowing upon No. 21 an otherworldly glow. Acting as a portal to the sublime, the limitless realm of sumptuous color in the present work envelops the viewer and brings life to Rothko’s assertion that his monumental canvases be experienced up close rather than from a distance. In its utter brilliance of palette, compositional dynamism, monumental scale, and indelible gravitas, this painting exists as an empyreal manifestation of the very apex of Mark Rothko’s painterly prowess. No. 21 was first shown in the year immediately following its creation in the iconic 1952 exhibition 15 Americans held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Organized by legendary curator Dorothy C. Miller, this seminal show included masterpieces such as Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Clyfford Still’s PH-371 (1947-S), in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In characteristic fashion, Rothko was deeply involved in the curatorial planning and installation of the gallery devoted entirely to his paintings. Of the nine works originally chosen for the exhibition, five were eventually included in the show, among them No. 10, now housed permanently in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This final group of canvases was carefully and deliberately selected with an eye to variety. A diverse interplay of hues and forms, at once remaining distinct to their individual supports whilst communing directly with one another across the gallery, relayed an odyssey of progress towards an ultimate artistic truth. For its installation, Rothko demanded “blazing light” be shed on his paintings, thus intensifying the magnitude of his looming symphonies of color and contour, and conferring upon them a supremacy and majesty commensurate with their undeniable status as his first mature masterpieces. The paintings in this seminal exhibition, all executed between the years 1949-1951, are monuments to a crucial turning point in Rothko’s aesthetic evolution, when he resolved an abstract archetype out of the preceding multiform paintings. Begun in 1947, and emerging from an exploration of biomorphic forms drawn from Miró, Picasso, Dalì, and his other Surrealist predecessors, Rothko’s multiform paintings reduced all figurative remnants to brightly tinted patchworks of irregular floating shapes that seem to variously coalesce and disintegrate as if fluidly and organically moving of their own accord. As Rothko wrote at the time, “I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers… They are organisms with volition and a passion for self-assertion.” (Mark Rothko, “The Romantics Were Prompted,” first published in Possibilities, no. 1, 1947) By 1950, however, Rothko had abandoned these multiform compositions to contemplate what he called “an unknown space.” David Anfam, in his definitive text on the artist, deems this crucial moment the onset of the “classical period,” a time he delimits as beginning in 1950 and spanning the remainder of Rothko’s lifetime. He draws particular attention to 1951, the year of No. 21’s execution, as being decisive: “From 1951 onward, Rothko’s artistic self-confidence was everywhere visible – from the meticulousness, authority and range of the paintings to his very attitude toward them.” (David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 71) No. 21 is a paean to the newfound aplomb with which Rothko approached his towering theses on abstraction, reflecting across its luscious, vigorous surface the artist’s desire, as elucidated by Stanley Kunitz, “to become his paintings.” (Stanley Kunitz, interview with Avis Berman, December 8, 1983, Archives of American Art) Indeed, in the same year as this painting’s execution, Rothko declared the apparent paradox that distinguishes his oeuvre: “I paint very large pictures…precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience…However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Mark Rothko: 1903-1970, 1987, p. 85) When Rothko asked Katherine Kuh, The Art Institute of Chicago’s visionary first curator of modern painting and sculpture, to describe her reactions to his paintings, she wrote of the ones she had seen: "for me they have a kind of ecstasy of color which induces different but always intense moods. I am not a spectator - I am a participant." (letter July 18, 1954) Like the artist himself becoming one with his canvas, physically entering into the incandescent environments as he created them, we too, as viewers, come to relate to his towering fields of luminosity as if engaging in a personal exchange. Our experience of No. 21, as participants in its stunning drama, brings it to life and may in turn give new dimensions to our life. We do not look at this painting; we are absorbed into it. Indeed, being in its presence parallels a line of Nietzsche that had inspired Rothko since he had been a young man: “There is a need for a whole world of torment in order for the individual to sit quietly in his rocking row-boat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translation by Francis Golffing, New York, 1956, pp. 33-34) Rothko’s arrival at his mature style, which in retrospect reads as the sole, inevitable, and predetermined conclusion of his quest for a reimagined abstraction, was in fact the supreme result of a calculated and concentrated purge, the product of an overwhelmingly radical and profoundly effective stripping away of compositional superfluity in order to arrive at the pure elemental state of the image. The distinct zones of color in the earlier multiform canvases coalesced into an impenetrable totality in works such as No. 21, wherein all elements engage in a choreography of endlessly pulsating flux and fusion so that the composition seems to shed the confines of its support, existing instead as a shimmering, energy-laden entity that fully surpasses the inadequacies of mere written description. Thus, the present work stands as the crowning evocation of Rothko’s declaration of 1948, delineating his ultimate goal a full three years before it was achieved: “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer … To achieve this clarity is, ultimately, to be understood.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 15 Americans, 1952, p. 18) The theoretical foundations of Rothko’s aesthetic revolution conform to the predominating rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism in the mid-Twentieth Century. Absolutism, themes of purging and beginning art anew, and other extremes of theory and practice were similarly espoused by Rothko’s now-heroic compatriots of the New York School such as Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. In response to a pervasive general malaise and loss of faith in the external realities of modern life in the wake of the Second World War, an impassioned, quasi-sacred belief in the transcendental power of art rose to prominence. Donning the philosophical mantle of his great Romanticist forebears – pioneering giants such as J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich and Théodore Gericault – Rothko devoted himself to the pursuit of art as a portal to an enhanced realm of physical and spiritual experience. In an impassioned reaction against the prevailing social norms that arose as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, the Romantics emphasized and validated the emotional intensity that results from confronting the transcendence of an uninhibited aesthetic experience. J.M.W. Turner, in his 1817 masterwork Mt. Vesuvius in Eruption, realized the unquantifiable power of the sublime when he culled an utterly affecting narrative out of pure color and light. As we bear witness to the immeasurable devastation of the depicted scene, conveyed through the impossibly precise yet ethereally light stroke of Turner’s brush, we nonetheless cease to understand it in terms of our corporeal reality. Instead, we are willingly transported at once to the very core of Turner’s masterful surface and inwards, towards the depths of our own subconscious. Developing on the same fundamental principles espoused by the Romantics a century earlier, the late-nineteenth century Symbolists – Odilon Redon, Gustav Klimt, and Edvard Munch among the most influential – eschewed naturalism and realism in art, proclaiming instead the sovereignty of spirituality, the imagination, and the unconscious.  Munch in particular, in stirring canvases such as The Vampire painted in 1893, gained prestige for his intensely redolent translations of the human psyche into art. This image, a collection of darkened hues punctuated by an electrifying mass of red that swirls and churns into a staggeringly affective depiction of two intertwined human forms, immediately and aggressively wrests us from reality, ferrying us into a world of dreamlike fantasy. Like the Romantics who preceded them, the Symbolists considered Art as a contemplative escape from a world of strife, achieving this liberation through themes of mysticism and otherworldliness grounded always by an incisive sense of mortality. With the advent of Abstract Expressionism, this remarkable philosophical lineage was given an ever grander and more evocative visual form. As early as 1943, Rothko published a joint statement with fellow pioneers of the new Abstraction, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb: “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks. … It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way – not his way.” (Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Adolph Gottlieb, “Statement” in Edward Alden Jewell’s column, The New York Times, June 13, 1943) Thus, while delivering the tenets of Romanticism and Symbolism to the modern era, via a revolutionary compositional clarity and monumentality of viewing experience, Rothko conclusively asserted the paramount equation between his artwork and its beholder, whereby the true potential of his painting could not exist without the presence of the viewer. Four years later, he developed this integral relationship even further: “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token.” (Mark Rothko, “Statement,” Tiger’s Eye, New York, vol. 1, no. 2, December 1947, p. 44) Through form, surface, texture, and color Rothko struck a perennial balance that lures the viewer's constant attention. Yet, as we are beckoned into the glowing lustrous embrace of the devastatingly beautiful and complex No. 21 there is a profound tension struck between the uplifting emotions evoked by our perception of Rothko’s vibrant hues and something implicitly more tragic. Such elemental colors as the vibrant red-orange and dazzling rose of the present work harbor primal connotations of light, warmth, and the Sun, but inasmuch as they invoke the Sun they also implicate the inevitable cycle of dawn and dusk, of rise and set, and their own continual demise and rebirth. Indeed, the near violent encroachment of the depthless black upon the shining orange expanse, though entirely and adamantly abstract, nonetheless communicates a narrative of perpetual contest between the primal forces of light and darkness. The environment that is created in No. 21 ubiquitously encompasses us yet, in its immateriality also eludes our grasp, projecting a sense of space that is at once material and metaphysical, encapsulating Rothko’s proclaimed goal to “paint both the finite and the infinite.” (Dore Ashton, About Rothko, New York, 1983, p. 179) Rothko once stated to David Sylvester, “Often, towards nightfall, there’s a feeling in the air of mystery, threat, frustration – all of these at once. I would like my painting to have the quality of such moments.” (the artist cited in David Anfam, Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas, Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1998, p. 88), and with its suggestion of an infinite depth in the darkest areas of the black shape, this enigmatic work harbors something that is indescribably portentous. Excepting a letter to Art News in 1957, from 1949 onwards Rothko ceased publishing statements about his work, anxious that his writings might be interpreted as instructive or didactic and could thereby interfere with the pure import of the paintings themselves. However, in 1958 he gave a talk at the Pratt Institute to repudiate his critics and to deny any perceived association between his art and self-expression. He insisted instead that his corpus was not concerned with notions of self but rather with the entire human drama. While he drew a distinction between figurative and abstract art, he nevertheless outlined an underlying adherence to the portrayal of human experience. Discussing the “artist’s eternal interest in the human figure,” Rothko examined the common bond of figurative painters throughout Art History: “they have painted one character in all their work. What is indicated here is that the artist’s real model is an ideal which embraces all of human drama rather than the appearance of a particular individual. Today the artist is no longer constrained by the limitation that all of man’s experience is expressed by his outward appearance. Freed from the need of describing a particular person, the possibilities are endless. The whole of man’s experience becomes his model, and in that sense it can be said that all of art is a portrait of an idea.” (lecture given at the Pratt Institute 1958, cited in Exh. Cat., London, The Tate Gallery, Op. Cit., p. 87) Paintings such as No. 21, in truth, involve both spirit and nature, and Rothko sought to instill in the viewer a profound sense of the spiritual whilst evincing his abject faith in the role of the artist in attaining the highest realm to which a man could aspire. For Rothko, art was capable of provoking in the viewer an existential sense of awe and wonderment for the sublime miracle of existence, and in this truly spectacular painting that capacity is wholly and perfectly achieved.

  • 2014-11-11

Paulette Jourdain

One of the last paintings created by Modigliani, the portrait of Paulette Jourdain is an outstanding example of the artist’s work.  Pauline “Paulette” Jourdain was the housemaid and later the lover of Modigliani’s dealer Léopold Zborowski.  She is painted on one of the largest canvases used by the artist in a completely frontal, stately manner that directly engages the viewer.  She is presented with great dignity and presence, commanding our attention and respect.  The rich colors, transcendent light and dynamic surface further transform this painting into a masterwork.  The painting demonstrates well how the artist assimilated a broad range of influences from African art to Old Master paintings to create his own unique, sophisticated vision. Modigliani was famous during his lifetime, having exhibited internationally in Paris, London, Zurich and New York, and being written about by the leading writers and art critics of his time.  His fame was firmly established by the time that he created this painting in 1919.  During the first half of the year, while living in the south, Modigliani visited Pierre-Auguste Renoir in Cagnes who agreed to meet him because “I have heard that he is a great painter” (Jeanne Modigliani, Modigliani:  Man and Myth, New York, 1958, p.79).  Modigliani returned to Paris on May 31 and painted Paulette Jourdain that fall, probably in November, when he executed the Portrait of Thora Klinkowström (private collection), which features the same format, composition and color scheme.  At the time that Modigliani finished these paintings, the English writer Wyndham Lewis referred to him in the London journal The Atheneum as being “the best-respected painter in Paris” (Wyndham Lewis on Art:  Collected Writings, 1913-1956, New York, 1969, p.167).  Within weeks, on January 24, 1920, Modigliani died. Modigliani was an exceptional colorist who created a rich, distinctive palette that is seen to advantage in the portrait of Paulette Jourdain:  the wall is bright ochre yellow, the wainscoting is orange-brown while the door is reddish-brown, all colors unique to him. He was surely inspired to explore color by Paul Gauguin’s work, which “fascinated” him when he and fellow artist Ludwig Meidner saw the Post-Impressionist’s retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in 1906.  The experience left him “intoxicated with excitement.”  The studio in which Paulette Jourdain was painted was located directly above an atelier once occupied by Gauguin, at 8, rue de la Grande Chaumière in the heart of Montparnasse.  As with many of Modigliani’s paintings, brushstrokes are readily apparent in Paulette Jourdain, making for a dynamic, busy surface.  He wanted to move as far away as possible from the slick, sterile canvases of the academic painters who preceded him. Along with Matisse and Picasso, Modigliani incorporated elements of African art into his paintings, thereby revolutionizing Western art.  The influence of African masks is evident in Modigliani’s portrayal of Paulette’s face:  the long oval shape of her head, blank eyes, long nose, button mouth and extended neck.  Her elongated form and frontal pose give her the hieratic presence of a totem.  His friend Jacques Lipchitz commented that it was African art’s “strange and novel forms” that captivated Modigliani. Other artistic influences can be discerned as well, from Old Masters to contemporaries.  Modigliani admired the Italian Renaissance Master Fra Angelico, whose figures seem to have an inner light, and he painted Paulette’s skin with iridescent luminosity.  The work of Leonardo da Vinci appealed to him as well.  Modigliani remarked to Paulette that the “Mona Lisa” was his favorite painting at the Louvre, an institution that he often frequented.  Modigliani gives Paulette an enigmatic look, akin to that of the Mona Lisa.  Her face also has a caricatural quality that recalls the portraits of Henri Rousseau.  Modigliani visited Rousseau’s studio in Montparnasse with his patron Dr. Paul Alexandre and was a great admirer of the Douanier’s paintings.  Sharp angles in the background introduce a subtle form of Cubism into the painting through the positioning of the figure:  in a chair in a corner, next to a door (that is slightly ajar), in front of a wall that is divided by wainscoting.  The angular elements behind her contrast with the flowing, curvilinear lines of her form.  While not formally one of the Cubists, Modigliani was part of their social circle.  He met Picasso soon after arriving in Paris and made several portraits of him (one in paint, two in pencil).  They exhibited together on numerous occasions.  Modigliani had deep respect for Picasso, according to his intimates. On Modigliani’s obsession with representing the human figure, Lipchitz explained:  “He could never forget his interest in people, and he painted them, so to say, with abandon, urged on by the intensity of his feeling and vision.” As the writer Jean Cocteau wrote, “He reduced us all to his type, to the vision within, and he usually preferred to paint faces conforming to the physiognomy he required…for Modigliani’s portraits, even his self-portraits, are not the reflection of his external observation, but of his internal vision…” The sitter, Paulette Jourdain (1904-1997), was born in the small coastal town of Concarneau in Brittany.  She came to Paris in the first part of 1919 and moved into Zborowski’s apartment at 3, rue Joseph Bara in Montparnasse to work, first as a domestic servant before quickly becoming an assistant in the Pole’s dealer operations.  She also took courses at a local commercial school.  Zborowski operated his business out of his apartment because he did not have a gallery until 1926.  It was at the apartment that Paulette met Modigliani who immediately invited her to come to his studio/apartment on rue de la Grande Chaumière to have her portrait painted.  Paulette remembered that there were multiple sittings and that Modigliani painted quickly. Modigliani’s portraits of young people, including this one of Paulette Jourdain, are among his most poignant paintings.  Youths emerged as an especially popular subject for him in the years 1918 to 1919.  The young people whom he portrayed often came from humble backgrounds with many being servants, workers or peasants.  A major part of Modigliani’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that he ennobled common people by painting them in large formats with grandeur and majesty.  It is no surprise then that many of these paintings are in museum collections:  The Little Peasant (Tate Gallery, London), Boy in Short Pants (Dallas Museum of Art) and Servant Girl (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo).  Paulette Jourdain has always been among Modigliani’s most prominent portraits of young people.  While his other youthful sitters have faded into anonymity, Paulette has not.  Her name has always remained in the title.  Modigliani was clearly taken with her for he wished to paint another portrait of her, but his rapidly declining health and untimely death prevented that from happening. Paulette soon posed for other artists as well, including Chaim Soutine and Moise Kisling.  She remained close to Zborowski and had a child by him in 1924 named Jacqueline.  Paulette took over operations of Zborowski’s gallery upon his premature death in 1932 from a heart attack and continued as a gallerist until WWII. Modigliani embodied the very essence of Montparnasse, a place which Marcel Duchamp called, “the first really international group of artists that we ever had.”  He was known as the ultimate Montparnasse sophisticate, someone who was highly cultured, well read and well traveled.  Paulette recalled that Modigliani sang parts of the Italian opera “La Traviata” when he painted her and that he would recite verses by the French poet Charles Baudelaire.  Remarkably, Modigliani’s style matured at the same time that his health declined.  Perhaps he knew that his end was near and that he needed to push himself to the highest level to secure his legacy.  Within his generation, he stood with Matisse and Picasso as the only artists who created world-class works in three media:  painting, sculpture and drawing. Dr. Kenneth Wayne, Director The Modigliani Project Sotheby's would like to thank Dr. Kenneth Wayne assisting with the cataloguing of this painting.   Signed Modigliani (lower right)

  • 2015-11-05

Les Pommes

Painted in 1889-90, Les Pommes encapsulates Cézanne’s artistic achievement, and displays the brilliance and economy which characterize his best work. This strikingly modern composition foregrounds the artist's unrivaled facility with the medium and his ability to imbue a still-life with all of the subtlety and emotional potency of portraiture. Cézanne’s still-lifes have long been recognized among his greatest achievements, the works which demonstrate most clearly the innovations that led to the stylistic developments of early twentieth-century art.  His vision breathed new life into the tradition of still-life painting, and his accomplishments had a profound impact on the generations of artists that followed. Picasso proclaimed that “Cézanne was like the father of us all,” and this statement has remained true to this day, with his painting, particularly still-lifes, continuing to influence artists in the twenty-first century (fig. 6). Cézanne executed a powerful series of medium-scaled still-lifes during the 1880s. His depictions of fruit from this period focus on the inherent geometry of objects and explore the spatial problems of representing three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface. In the present oil, several apples are arranged in a pyramid-like shape on a plate, mirrored by an adjacent grouping, on a simple, unadorned surface. Two partially visible apples, disappearing beyond the scope of the picture on the right, emphasize the artist’s radical framing. A dynamic composition is achieved through a contrast between the rounded shapes of the apples and the plate on one hand, and the pronounced horizontal of the background and the table-top on the other. Cézanne’s still-life series became increasingly complex, and would culminate in celebrated paintings such as Les grosses pommes of circa 1890 (fig. 4) and Rideau, cruchon et compotier painted in 1893-94 (fig. 3). Cézanne initially approached the genre during the first decade of his artistic production, the 1860s. He executed a number of varied still-lifes, romantic in feeling and based on close observation of reality. In the subsequent decades, his pictorial language became more sophisticated and his compositions more complex (fig. 6). Richard Kendall wrote about Cézanne’s mature paintings: “By this stage in his career, the still-life had taken on a special significance for [Cézanne], and he was to become one of the most original and dedicated exponents of the form. Far from being just a pretext for picture-making, the groups of apples, pears, cherries or flowers were for Cézanne as much a part of nature’s extravagant beauty as the trees and hillsides of Provence, and as likely to produce his ‘vibrating sensations’ as the landscape itself. According to Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne once claimed to overhear conversations between the fruit he was painting, and approached each item in a group as he would a human portrait” (Richard Kendall, Cézanne by Himself: Drawings, Paintings, Writings, London, 1988, p. 11). Les Pommes imparts the full range of expressive potential that Gasquet identified in Cézanne's still-lifes. The apples are constructed through careful geometries and intrusions of bright yellow tones. Cézanne grounds the gentle curves of the fruit with a clear horizon line provided by the table's back edge. He creates a sense of space and volume that gives the fruit a palpable presence - there is an intrinsic logic to the composition wholly unique to Cézanne's artistic vision. Cézanne’s mature still-lifes are considered the harbingers of twentieth-century Modernism, and provided a key inspiration for the Cubist compositions of Picasso and Braque (fig. 2). As they formulated a new artistic language during the early years of Cubism, these artists were inspired by Cézanne’s radical approach to form. Although Cézanne’s art was well known and widely exhibited during his lifetime, the first major retrospective of his work was held at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1907, a year after his death. This comprehensive view of his oeuvre was an instant inspiration to many artists, including Juan Gris and Henri Matisse (fig. 7). For all its modernism and avant-garde style, Les pommes, like other still-lifes Cézanne executed throughout his career, finds its origins in the trompe-l’oeil compositions of the French Old Masters that he had studied at the Louvre. Like his forebears, Cézanne set out to capture the essence and allure of each object in his works. His approach, however, was rooted in a truly modern belief that “Painting does not mean slavishly copying the object: it means perceiving harmony amongst numerous relationships and transposing them into a system of one’s own by developing them according to a new, original logic” (quoted in Richard Kendall, op. cit., p. 298). Both art historians and artists have argued that Cézanne reached the very pinnacle of his genius within the genre of still-life. This genre – unlike portrait or plein air painting – allowed him the greatest time in which to capture his subject, since in the studio environment he could create and control the composition, arranging the elements in ways that provided an infinite variety of formal problems to be solved on the canvas. The young painter Louis le Bail described how Cézanne composed a still-life, reflecting the great care and deliberation with which he approached the process: “Cézanne arranged the fruits, contrasting the tones one against the other, making the complementaries vibrate, balancing the fruits as he wanted them to be, using coins of one or two sous for the purpose. He brought to this task the greatest care and many precautions; one guessed it was a feast for him. When he finished, Cézanne explained to his young colleague, ‘The main thing is the modeling; one should not even say modeling, but modulating’” (quoted in John Rewald, Cézanne: A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 228). Discussing Cézanne’s still-life paintings, the English artist and critic Roger Fry noted that he “is distinguished among artists of the highest rank by the fact that he devoted so large a part of his time to this class of picture, that he achieved in still-life the expression of the most exalted feelings and the deepest intuitions of his nature. Rembrandt alone, and only in the rarest examples, or in accessories, can be compared to him in this respect. For one cannot deny that Cézanne gave a new character to his still-lifes. Nothing else but still-life allowed him sufficient calm and leisure, and admitted all the delays which were necessary to him for plumbing the depths of his idea. But there, before the still-life, put together not with too ephemeral flowers, but with onions, apples, or other robust and long-enduring fruits, he could pursue till it was exhausted his probing analysis of the chromatic whole. But through the bewildering labyrinth of this analysis he held always like Ariadne’s thread, the notion that the changes of color correspond to movements of planes. He sought always to trace this correspondence throughout all the diverse modifications which changes of local color introduced into the observed resultant… it is hard to exaggerate their importance in the expression of Cézanne’s genius or the necessity of studying them for its comprehension, because it is in them that he appears to have established his principles of design and theories of form” (Roger Fry, Cézanne: A Study of his Development, Chicago, 1927, pp. 37 & 50). Les Pommes has a remarkable provenance. Having first belonged to Cézanne’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard, it was later acquired by the prominent Dutch collector Cornelis Hoogendijk (1867-1911), who gathered a large number of Old Master and Modernist works. He accumulated one of the most important collections in Holland and beyond at the turn of the twentieth century. In a buying frenzy that lasted between 1897 and 1899, he acquired over thirty paintings and watercolors by Cézanne from Vollard. Some years after Hoogendijk’s death, the Paris dealer Paul Rosenberg purchased a number of Cézanne works from his estate, and sold them almost immediately to museums and French collectors. The present work was sold to the Parisian collector Jacques Laroche, whose collection included one of Cézanne’s famous self-portraits later donated to the Musée du Louvre. Les Pommes later came into the possession of the industrialist and distinguished collector of Modern art Marcel Kapferer, whose collection was sold at the Galerie Charpentier in Paris in 1934. The painting has been in the Lewyt family collection for almost sixty years.

  • 2013-05-07

Bild mit weissen Linien(Painting with White Lines)

1913 A Revolutionary Year Only very rarely does a single year make its mark so completely on the collective consciousness of a culture, and none so vividly as 1913. The year 1913 is particularly important within the history of modern art, marked by events and works that fundamentally changed the way art was conceived and understood. Across Europe and America artists of every sort set down new ideas and formulas for artistic expression, and in turn some of them made their defining contributions to modern culture. In New York the Armory Show introduced the American public to the European avant-garde (fig. 1), with Marcel Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 making its debut. Pablo Picasso continued to reinvent Cubism with his use of papier collé to establish the foundations of Synthetic Cubism; Umberto Boccioni created his Futurist masterpiece Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, and in Munich Wassily Kandinsky set about creating the most celebrated series of abstract paintings in the history of early 20th century art. No other single year in the artists career can be said to have produced so many masterpieces or such a coherent and magisterial body of work. Bild mit weissen Linien, executed on a grand scale and in dazzling colours, is one of the most important paintings by Kandinsky from this crucial year. The major works of 1913 share a monumental quality, both in scale and ambition, that Kandinsky had not attempted to achieve before, and which he would never truly attain again. It was a year of prodigious achievement and prolific creation. There was a great outpouring of studies in ink, watercolour and oil for the primary works of the year such as Komposition VI and VII (figs. 5 & 6) and other major oils such as Bild mit weissen Linien which attest to the meticulous approach Kandinsky took to preparing each unique composition. The Path to Abstraction From an early stage in his artistic career, Kandinsky was aware that his pursuit of his own form of expression was leading him toward an entirely new visual idiom. In a letter to his lover and fellow painter Gabriele Münter written on 2nd April 1904 Kandinsky wrote: Without exaggerating, I can say that, should I succeed in this task, I will be showing [a] new, beautiful path for painting susceptible to infinite development. I am on a new track, which some masters, just here and there, suspected, and which will be recognised, sooner or later. As predicted, in the years that followed Kandinsky travelled further towards abstraction than any painter previously, and in 1913 finally achieved it in a uniquely pure, lyrical form. Kandinsky's first major breakthrough was his discovery that colour, when disassociated from representational concerns, could become the principal subject of a painting. Taking his cue from musical composition, Kandinsky determined that every colour corresponded with a particular emotion or sound. For example, in his first major theoretical text On the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911, Kandinsky likened different shades of green to stringed instruments which matched his synaesthetic experience of colour, for example: mid-green sounded like the quiet, mid-range tones of a violin, whilst yellow-green was perceived to be the higher notes of the violin, in contrast to blue-green as a muted alto-violin. As Will Grohmann writes, Colour becomes increasingly crucial... [yellow, white, carmine, pink, light blue and blue-green] transport the subject to the sphere of dream and legend. This was the direction of development. The painter distributes and links the colours, combines them and differentiates them as if they were beings of a specific character and special significance. As in music, the materials now come to the form, and in this respect Kandinsky stands between Mussorgsky and Scriabin. The language of colour - just as in those composers - calls for depth, for fantasy (W. Grohmann, op. cit., p. 61). This revelation was due in part to the journey the artist took to Paris in 1906 and his acquaintance with Fauve paintings by Derain, Delaunay and Vlaminck, as well as his appreciation of Cézannes brushwork in his late works. Though, as Hans Roethel writes: when Kandinsky returned to Munich, ideologically and practically, the ground was well prepared for abstract painting and yet it needed a final spark to come into being (H. K. Roethel & J. K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, London 1979, p. 25). In his Reminiscences Kandinsky recalled the precise moment at which the spark was ignited: 'Once, while in Munich I underwent an unexpectedly bewitching experience in my studio. Twilight was falling; I had just come home with my box of paints under my arm after painting a study from nature. I was still dreamily absorbed in the work I had been doing when, suddenly, my eyes fell upon an indescribably beautiful picture that was saturated with an inner glow. I was startled momentarily, then quickly went up to this enigmatic painting in which I could see nothing but shapes and colours and the content of which was incomprehensible to me. The answer to the riddle came immediately: it was one of my own paintings leaning on its side against the wall. The next day, by daylight, I tried to recapture the impression the picture had given me the evening before. I succeeded only half way. Even when looking at the picture sideways I could still make out the objects and that fine thin coat of transparent colour, created by last night's twilight, was missing. Now I knew for certain that the subject matter was detrimental to my paintings. A frightening gap of responsibility now opened up before me and an abundance of various questions arose. And the most important of them was: what was to replace the missing object' (W. Kandinsky, quoted in ibid., p. 25). Through constant experimentation and extensive preparatory work Kandinskys artistic means developed from an essentially figurative Fauve style to pure abstraction. By 1910 he had found the language he sought, with sweeping lines, beautiful iridescent patches of colour and kaleidoscopic compositions. Figurative elements still feature, abstracted to their farthest point, but still recognisable, and often alluded to in the titles that the artist gave to the works. Among the most advanced pictures of those years were those entitled Improvisations or Compositions and numbered sequentially, which is a clear allusion to their symphonic qualities. However the source of inspiration for the main motifs Kandinsky used in his works were all based in the same romantic vision of Old Russia and folk stories that bewitched him from the beginning of his career. Landscapes were either drawn from his immediate surroundings such as the bucolic countryside around Murnau and Munich or for his major compositions concocted out of romanticised, lyrical scenarios featuring onion domed citadels presiding over mountains, lakes and streams which are inhabited by horses and people. Two preparatory watercolour studies Kandinsky produced (figs. 8 & 9) reveal how he took the most recognisable motifs of the tall-towered city in the upper left and the two horses in the immediate foreground with the three-arched red bridge in the centre and energised them with colour and line in the final work. These motifs are clearly visible in all the main works completed in 1913 and are a key part of his most celebrated works including Komposition VI (fig. 5), Komposition VII (fig. 6) and Kleine Freuden (fig. 3). Kandinsky in Russia In the first half of the decade, while resident in Bavaria, Kandinsky exhibited his works far and wide throughout Europe, America and his native Russia, gaining an impressive international following. However in December 1914 Kandinsky felt compelled to return to Russia after nearly twenty years of living in Germany. The war in Europe threatened his way of life, and as a Russian citizen he had to leave the country that he had adopted as his homeland. Prior to his own emigration, in January 1914 Kandinsky selected a few important oils from 1913 to be exhibited at the Galerie Ernst Arnolds Die Neue Malerei show, which included the present work, Bild mit weissem Rand, Bild mit grünem Mitte, Improvisation 34 (fig. 4) and Komposition VI (fig. 5) all of which are now in museum collections. Settled in Moscow, he barely painted, concentrating on producing watercolours and establishing himself in the citys artistic circle. In 1914 Kandinsky was invited to participate in the Spring collective exhibition at Odessa, and the choice of works from 1913 he sent is telling each seems to perfectly represent one of the four key types of painting he produced that year a more literal view of Dunaberg near Murnau (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), the lyrical, highly abstract Improvisation 34 (fig. 4, National Museum of Fine Arts  of the Republic of Tatarstan, Kazan), the present work and the monumental Komposition VII (fig. 6, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). This group was subsequently exhibited in Moscow at a landmark show entitled The Year 1915, and over time each painting found a permanent home in a Russian museum. Over the next four years, the artist witnessed the Revolution and the rise of Communism as an essentially apolitical being, whose art remained ostensibly unaffected by the social situation. However, he swiftly became a member of the Department of Visual Arts in the Peoples Commissariat of Enlightenment (NARKOMPROS) and a founding member of the Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUK). In 1919 as part of the programme to disseminate avant-garde art through the new Russia, hundreds of artworks were selected or purchased by the Museum of Painterly Culture by the museums committee, comprised entirely of artists, including Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin and Kandinsky. Bild mit weissen Linien was purchased by the State and allocated initially to the museum in Penza, an industrial city south-east of Moscow. Through schemes such as the Museum of Pictorial Culture and other cultural programmes, Kandinskys art made a profound impact on the on the artists of the Russian avant-garde. Sometimes charged with a lack of interest in the younger generations work, he was nonetheless seen an inspirational figure by younger artists, in particular the Constructivists who appreciated his dedication to abstraction. Writing in 1920 the critic Konstantin Umansky was highly supportive of Kandinsky, and stated unequivocally: The entire Russian art scene can be traced back to Kandinsky. If anyone deserves a nick name, Kandinsky does; he should be called the Russian Messiah, his work has cleared a way for the victory of absolute art, although contemporary abstract art is now moving in a different direction. [] Kandinskys art found its logical conclusion in Suprematism (quoted in Jelena Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky, Brussels, 1993, p. 243). Kandinskys Legacy It was not only in Suprematism that the influence of Kandinskys Munich period paintings can be felt. At no other time is his abstraction so lyrical, dynamic or expressive, and its lineage is clearly distinguished in the art of the Abstract Expressionists working in post-war America. Though technically innovative and ideologically different, the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, were indebted to Kandinsky and his pioneering art for taking the first steps on the path to abstraction in 1913. Kandinskys legacy stretched far beyond those of the Abstract Expressionists and continues to influence artistic production today, though grounded in a proliferation of symbolic and romantic ideals which were born out of his own era, the raw energy of his work and prescient modernism transcends its original context. Signed Kandinsky and dated 1913 (lower left); signed Kandinsky, titled, dated 1913 and inscribed No. 178 on the stretcher

  • GBRGroßbritannien
  • 2017-06-21


The canvas is unlined. There is a loose dust canvas at the back of the original. The paint surface is very well preserved and has retained the artist's original finish. There are two tiny abrasions on the lower right framing edge, and very faint horizontal stretcher-bar lines and a faint vertical line visible in the lower right. There is a small area of extremely fine, stable, craquelure in the lower right and in a line in the lower centre. Apart from a small spot of retouching in the centre of the lower framing edge and two tiny further retouchings just above, this work is in very good condition. Colours: Overall fairly accurate in the printed catalogue illustration, although less red in tone and fresher and more vibrant in the original. "In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE." Signed Claude Monet and dated 1906 (lower right)

  • GBRGroßbritannien
  • 2014-06-23

Superb and extremely rare fancy vivid blue diamond

The pear-shaped fancy vivid blue diamond of truly and outstanding colour and purity weighing 14.54 carats, mounted as an earring with a pear-shaped and a brilliant-cut diamond, post fitting. Fancy Coloured Diamonds The 17th century French merchant and adventurer, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, was among the first to be intrigued by fancy coloured diamonds. In 1669, he sold the Tavernier Blue Diamond, also called the French Blue, to Louis XIV.  In the first half of the 17th century, he was the first who made a reference to pink diamonds. Moreover, in 1642, he mentioned a very large rough pink diamond, weighing over 200 carats, shown to him by Moghuls in the Kingdom of Golconda. This diamond, named The Grand Table and valued at 600,000 rupees at the time, is still the largest pink diamond recorded to date. The French merchant also purchased two pale pink diamonds around 1668 and drew pictures of the stones in his travel book. Since the 17th century, the value of coloured diamonds increased considerably. Fancy coloured diamonds are rarer than their near colourless counterparts as their hues come from a disturbance during the formation process of the stone deep in the earth. For all coloured diamonds except pinks, the colour comes from trace elements that interfere during the formation of the crystal. A diamond is composed of pure carbon; it is the intrusion of another atom that causes the colour: nitrogen for yellows, boron for blues. Concerning pink diamonds, the colour is a consequence of a distortion of the crystal structure during the formation of the stone. Although other rare coloured diamonds, such as pink and red, are found in India, Brazil and Australia, blue diamonds are primarily recovered from the Cullinan mine in South Africa.    Apollo and Artemis   Leto bore Apollon and Artemis, delighting in arrows, Both of lovely shape like none of the heavenly gods, As she joined in love to the Aegis-bearing ruler. Hesiod, Theogony, 7th century BC, lines 918920 In Greek mythology, Leto (Latona in Latin), daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, had a liaison with Zeus and became pregnant with twins. When Hera, wife of Zeus, discovered this, she forbade Leto from giving birth on terra firma, the mainland, any island or any place under the sun. Leto eventually found the barren floating island of Asterios, later named Delos, which was neither mainland nor a real island, and gave birth there, promising the island wealth from the worshippers who would flock to the obscure birthplace of the splendid god who was to come. Leto gave birth to Artemis, the elder twin, without difficulty, but she laboured for nine nights and nine days with Apollo, according to Homer. Artemis, Diana for the Romans, became one of the most venerated of the Ancient Greek deities. She was the goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and protector of young girls. She was often depicted as a huntress carrying a bow and arrow, and deer and cypress were sacred to her. Apollo is one of the most important of the Olympian deities in classical Greek and Roman mythology. The ideal of the kouros, he has been recognised as the god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, and poetry. In Hellenistic times, as Apollo Helios, he became identified among Greeks with Helios, Titan god of the sun, and his sister Artemis similarly equated with Selene, Titan goddess of the moon. These magnificent fancy coloured diamonds are so exceptional that they deserve to be named after a god and goddess. Moreover, as the stones are quite similar in shape, dimension and weight, the names of a twin brother and sister are justly appropriate.   The Apollo Blue Mining Some of the earliest and most historical blue diamonds, such as the Hope and Idols Eye, are believed to have originated in the ancient mines of India. In more recent times, the only mine to produce blue diamonds with any regularity is the Cullinan mine in South Africa. When in full production, less than 0.1% of diamonds sourced showed any evidence of blue colour, according to the Gemological Institute of America. Thomas Cullinan discovered the Cullinan mine in 1902, which at that time was named the Premier mine. Established on the second largest kimberlite pipe by inherent value, the Premier mine gained immediate prominence as a quality producer of large colourless diamonds and also rare blue diamonds. Annual production from the Premier mine was the largest in the world for the mines first decade of operation. Perhaps one of the greatest finds in the mines history is the Cullinan diamond. The Cullinan diamond is the largest colourless diamond ever discovered with a weight of 3,106 carats which has since been cut and polished into nine major stones, including 96 minor stones. Two of them currently reside within the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. Excerpt from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles website The Cullinan I weighing 530.20 carats and the Cullinan II weighing 317.40 carats are set in the Royal sceptre and the Imperial State Crown of the United Kindgom. The Cullinan mine is also the source of several important blue diamonds: the Blue Heart, a 30.62 carat Fancy Deep Blue gem discovered in 1908, now at the Smithsonian Institution, the 27.64 carat Fancy Vivid Blue Heart of Eternity, unveiled by Steinmetz in 2000, and the Blue Moon of Josephine, a superb 12.03 carat Fancy Vivid Blue stone sold for a record price per carat for any gemstone at USD 48.5 million (USD 4 million per carat) at Sothebys Geneva in November 2015. According to the records of the GIA Laboratory, the 14.54 carat Pear Brilliant diamond has been determined to be a type IIb diamond. Type IIb diamonds are very rare in nature (from our experience, less than one half of one percent) and contain small amounts of boron that can give rise to a blue or grey colouration Historically, the ancient mines of India produced occasional blue diamonds but today the most significant source is limited to the Cullinan (formerly Premier) Mine in South Africa. Among famous gem diamonds, the 70.21 carat Idols Eye and the 45.52 carat Hope are examples of type IIb. Excerpts from the GIA type IIb classification letter   COLOUR Fancy coloured diamonds are exceedingly rare in nature, but the intensity of the colour is also an important quality of the stone. The Gemological Institute of America grades fancy coloured diamonds as such: Faint, Very Light, Light, Fancy Light, Fancy, Fancy Intense, and Fancy Vivid. Fancy vivid colours are the most sought-after. The amazing stone offered in this auction displays a very bright and deep fancy vivid blue colour. Even in the category Fancy Vivid, one can find different levels of intensity; the saturation and hue of this stone are absolutely mesmerising. Diamonds obtain their colour from so-called colour centres. They are single or multiple non-carbon atoms that replace carbon in the structure of the diamond, causing a disturbance in the structure and sometimes giving rise to the colour. The distinctive blue colour in diamonds is attributed to trace amounts of the element boron in the crystal structure. Minute traces of boron are required to create the colouration. Less than one boron atom per million carbon atoms is sufficient to produce the blue colouration. Excerpt from the Natural History Museum website Blue attracts and fascinates people and this is no exception when occuring in a diamond. Fancy vivid blue diamonds have a beauty that is incomparable to that of any other gem. They are greatly admired and eagerly sought after by collectors and connoisseurs alike. Often the blue colour is not evenly distributed, and on occasion almost entirely absent, therefore it is a professional challenge for the diamond cutter to encapsulate a beautiful pure even blue colour. He will spend months studying the rough in order to guarantee the greatest standards of proportionality, colour and beauty, and to bring out this captivating colour, making fancy vivid blue one of the natures rarest endowments of colour in diamonds. Accompanied by GIA report no. 1176680448, stating that the diamond is Fancy Vivid Blue, Natural Colour, Internally Flawless, together with a type IIb classification letter. 

  • GBRGroßbritannien
  • 2017-05-16

The Ring (Engagement)

In 1962, Roy Lichtenstein transformed the intimate moment of engagement into a thundering blast. With his audacious early masterpiece The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein delivered a critical crescendo at the height of the Pop Art era, cogently revealing the vicissitudes of American civilization by means of vernacular imagery appropriated directly from the heart of a universal cultural iconography. Mining public idealism toward the cultural constructions of love and its structural manifestations, The Ring (Engagement) is at once an immediately arresting and exhilaratingly complex crystallization of the style and themes that enveloped Lichtenstein’s oeuvre for the rest of his life. The years 1961 and 1962 marked the genesis of Lichtenstein’s pioneering series of paintings based on scenes of love and war from popular comic books, whose powerful graphic impact and narrative drama remain the most groundbreaking pictures from his career. Widely exhibited in a number of the artist’s most prominent museum retrospectives—from Lichtenstein’s first survey at the Tate Gallery in 1968 to his most recent that travelled to Chicago, Washington, D.C., London, and Paris in 2012-13—The Ring (Engagement) is highly regarded as a thrilling, monumental cornerstone of the artist’s output. Moreover, having resided in only two private collections in the past 53 years, the painting is a prized exemplar of the Pop icon's highest achievements in the medium of painting. When asked on the occasion of his 1968 Tate Gallery exhibition where he derived the imagery of The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein responded, “It was actually a box in a comic book. It looked like an explosion.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., London, Tate Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein, 1968, p. 12) At an exceptionally impressive scale that magnifies the instant of proposal to epic proportions, while evoking the cinematic frame of a comic strip in its sprawling horizontality, The Ring (Engagement) is explosive in dynamism and elemental force, gripping each viewer in its pictorial exuberance and conceptual gravitas. As is archetypal of the artist’s most resonant paintings, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) oscillates between the high emotive content of the rhapsodic imagery and the detached, readymade nature of his borrowed mass-reproduced comic-book imagery. In the artist’s own words, “I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc., in those cartoon images.” (the artist cited in an interview with John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 52) With sharp focus and a clear acuity for such simplified modernist precepts as line, color, and shape, Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) harnesses the affective power of culturally pervasive signs and symbols by means of the highly generalized imagery that acts as its communicative agent. Though intentionally universal in their imagery, content, and legibility, Lichtenstein’s comic paintings of the early 1960s retain a sly autobiographical undercurrent; the subjective significance of his seemingly objective, impersonal signs resonate with highly charged meaning. Lichtenstein turned to comic-book depictions of war concurrent with his love paintings, drawing on his personal experiences in the U.S. army—after entering service in 1943, the artist began his combat operations in France in 1945, continuing tactical operations in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland before returning home to Fort Dix in 1946 after learning his father had fallen ill. If his participation in the war inspired such renowned paintings as Mr. Bellamy (1961), Bratatat! (1962), Live Ammo (Take Cover) (1962), and Whaam! (1963), it is logical to deduce that his love pictures of the same time period were similarly informed by a private dimension of his life. Paintings of romance such as Masterpiece (1962) and M-Maybe (1965) make specific reference to painters through the narrative lens of his female protagonists—heroines who either fawn over the genius of their artist lovers or distress over the painter’s occupation in the studio and subsequent romantic absence. By the winter of 1962, Lichtenstein and his wife had permanently separated. In 1949, the twenty-six year old Lichtenstein had married Isabel Wilson, with whom he had two sons, born in 1954 and 1956. When the family moved to New Jersey in the summer of 1961, Isabel was suffering from alcohol abuse that impaired their relationship, and in the fall of that year, Lichtenstein instigated a trial separation. The next year, the artist moved into a loft in downtown Manhattan with Letty Lou Eisenhauer, a graduate student and part-time Art Department secretary that he met while negotiating his divorce. The Ring (Engagement) captures this doubling of emotion: the painting at the same time satirizes the social conventions and rituals of love as inoculated by the commercial media, while embracing a universal desire for affection. The time of this painting’s production marks the end of one marriage while coinciding with the buoyant beginnings of new love, encapsulating the complexity of emotion that Lichtenstein imbues in the image. Bradford R. Collins noted, “A contextual analysis of the comic book paintings suggests that their themes presented [Lichtenstein] with an opportunity to play out subconsciously a series of satisfying fantasies, which apparently helped him to cope psychologically with the hopes and disappointments of this tumultuous time…. Looking at these paintings, it is difficult not to recall one’s own adolescent expectations about romance. Few among us ever completely give up on the dream of perfect love…” (Bradford R. Collins, "Modern Romance: Lichtenstein’s Comic Book Paintings," American Art 17, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 62) 1962—the year he painted the present work—was also the year of his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery (which sold out before it even opened), a breakthrough that cemented his long quest for success. Thus created in one of the most emotionally charged, turbulent, and transitional periods in his life, some of the expressive power of The Ring (Engagement) can be located in the artist’s own projections toward the future during the time it was painted—engaging in the dichotomous attraction and rejection of socially normalized standards of love. Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) triggers associations surrounding love, ritual, and happiness that reveal a uniformity of social experience—in causing the viewer to realize his or her own associations profoundly wrapped up with such imagery, we come to understand the deep potency that this recognizable, but otherwise contextually displaced, iconography holds. More omnipresent than the war paintings from the same moment of Lichtenstein’s production, his pictures about love resonate with attainable realities rather than unfeasible fantasies. Human relationships and the prospect of marriage are more relatable than piloting a fighter jet, yet what is so powerful here is that Lichtenstein leavens this moment with the same explosive fantasy as in paintings like Whaam! (1963) and Varoom! (1963). In fact, The Ring (Engagement) preceded these blast paintings, suggesting that this pictorial device of outbreak and detonation originated in the privacy of human relationship; as exemplified by the painting Kiss III also from 1962, which employed the same expressive red rays emanating from a central moment of embrace. In The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein probed a defining stereotype of our culture: the moment of engagement as the ultimate expression of true love. By dislocating it from any contextual framework as though splicing up a comic book, Lichtenstein removed the frame from its relation to the rest of the story. This distortion and magnification in scale here elevates the moment of engagement and the symbolism of the ring to the status of sign, compelling and effective in raising universal connotations without any surrounding narrative structure. Without any specificity of time, person, or place, the image swiftly becomes generalized, and thus universal. The Ring (Engagement) is particularly phenomenal for its abstracted image devoid of text, which allows for greater narrative interpretation—without the speech bubble that appears in many other of Lichtenstein’s paintings from this period, Lichtenstein opened the door for a wide raft of interpretation that is not governed by authorial intent, but rather, by receptive understanding. Removing a comic strip from its relation to other frames of the narrative abstracts the frame and seals the image as a singular stereotype of our culture. Heightening the image’s vast complexity, the artist therefore expanded the reading of the painting in both its celebrative and cynical significations, thereby adopting the very ambiguity and oscillation of meaning that both dictates the human condition and in particular defined Lichtenstein’s romantic life at the start of the 1960s. Roy Lichtenstein instinctively understood the phenomenal potential of popular imagery, and more than any artist of his generation realigned the cipher of that imagery to unveil verities behind the ever-proliferating pictorial panorama of contemporary culture in 1960s America. By so doing he revolutionized how we perceive the world around us and how, in turn, the world has subsequently been presented back unto itself. Where his great art historical counterpart Andy Warhol directly appropriated quotidian images to force issues of perception through the simple act of re-presentation, Lichtenstein's genius lay in a more subtle yet equally radical transformation. Having mastered the primary modus of industrial pictographic transmission, by almost covert means he enlisted this mass-media vocabulary to present alternate perspectives onto ideal realities. Through this methodology he shone a brilliant light on the artifice of our image-saturated society, and yet, simultaneously, he also brought his paintings closer to a veritable authenticity, for the terms of their manufacture are laid entirely bare to the viewer. In his early comic paintings from the 1960s, Lichtenstein proved himself a realist of the postwar period, in the same manner that in nineteenth century France, Gustave Courbet rejected the academic conventions of his predecessors and committed to painting only what he could see. What Lichtenstein saw, in the postwar period, were predominantly images of desire dictated by the media. In the late 1950s, television sets entered nearly every living room in America, irrevocably shaping the cultural consciousness: in 1949, about one million sets were in use, and by the end of the 1950s, more than fifty million televisions had gained a stronghold in American homes. Amplifying the pervasiveness of the mass media, the introduction of the television enforced an augmented reality driven by highly composed imagery, tightly regulated messages, and universal instantaneity. As the media increasingly constructed how we viewed the world, symbols of ritual idealism such as marriage and professional success became branded and universalized, packaging innate human desires through consumable images and acquirable realities. Turning to commercial source material, Lichtenstein’s Benday dot technique harnessed the impersonal artifice of such mass-reproduced imagery in order to convey highly emotional, charged subject matter, thereby emphasizing the very clichés that underpin the mainstream media. As Otto Hahn described, “His cool detachment creates a shock, produces an interplay, an overturning between the truth of the mechanical artifice and the falsity of the emotion—between the truth of the emotion and the falseness of its translation into image. Artifice and dream, image and language, this is what Lichtenstein speaks of, giving them a monumental grandeur which refers back to the human condition. He presents a purified and structured fact: This is how men dream and how they speak of their dreams. Love, glory, victory, force, comfort, art, travel, objects—such are the dreams that are unfolded in the papers and these dreams speak...” (Otto Hahn, "Roy Lichtenstein," in John Coplans, ed., Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 143) Lichtenstein’s pictorial economy and brusque simplification renders emotion in the most direct and conventional way, making explicit the stereotyped impersonality that is necessary for the image to be universal to the human condition and thus, retain the most affective potential. 1962 was the apogee of Lichtenstein's comic strip paintings, the series that propelled the artist to international fame. Lichtenstein was not merely an artist; he was an innovator, able to catapult mass-produced commercial images into the realm of fine art. His innate gift for editing 'found' images and subsequent presentation so as to capture the telling gesture of an emotive moment defines the Pop leader's profoundly insightful understanding of the nature of perception. Many of Lichtenstein’s early paintings are composed of heavily cropped hands in isolation, dynamically gestured in their performance of various tasks—this formal propensity is expressed perhaps nowhere as sexily or appealingly as in The Ring (Engagement). Tightly cropping the image and focusing on the very action at the center created images with heightened intensity and emphatic force, all the while maintaining the elemental primary nature of generalized signs and symbols. Lichtenstein abstracted action, foregrounding the hands and the central ring without any narrative context; as John Coplans suggested, “This paring away of the unessential led Lichtenstein to a sharper confrontation with the outside world, to a wider range and sharper focus in his use of stereotype… It is not that Lichtenstein avoids painting the whole figure because it is too complex but, rather, that the whole figure is too specific, too anecdotal for his purpose. Too much detail weakens the focus and the power of the image to immediately and recognizably signal the desired content. Thus, Lichtenstein crops away until he gets to the irreducible minimum and compresses into the format the exact cliché he desires to expose. Lichtenstein’s technique is similar to his imagery: He reduces his form and color to the simplest possible elements in order to make an extremely complex statement. In short, he uses a reductive imagery and a reductive technique for their sign-carrying potential.” (John Coplans, Roy Lichtenstein, New York, 1972, p. 23) For Lichtenstein, whose painterly strategies over the course of his work were often concerned with the interrogation of his art historical precedents, the foregrounding of hands in motion can be read as a response to the overwhelming influence of Abstract Expressionism. Following his comic-inspired reproductions of masterpieces by Cézanne, Mondrian, and Picasso, Lichtenstein made paintings of precisely drawn cartoon brushstrokes, enlarged and exaggerated as a sardonic comment on the heroic, gestural handling of paint that epitomized the Abstract Expressionists. Here, Lichtenstein satirically confronts the legacy of gesture by drawing attention to the seeming lack of hand in the precise, photo-mechanical Ben-Day Dot while simultaneously enlarging and positioning two single hands as the primary content of the painting. Paul Schimmel explained, “In a perverse way, Lichtenstein’s works of the early 1960s exhibit a keen interest in action. He paints about process and not with it… The early cartoon paintings of romance and war are ‘action packed’ with water, wind, and explosions. Seeing these works in the context of Lichtenstein’s years of ‘desperate’ struggle with an imitation of action painting provides an insight into this critical period of transition in his work.” (Paul Schimmel in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition 1955-62, 1993, p. 46) As The Ring (Engagement) is indeed centered around explosive action, magnified by the rays emanating away from the ring being placed on a manicured finger, this early painting represents a decisive point in Lichtenstein’s questioning of popular modes of art-making from previous generations. With the present work, Lichtenstein initiated a critical move away from the hegemonic forms of Abstract Expressionism, dominated by the macho, toward a more incisive Pop Art. In 1961, Lichtenstein began to employ his trademark Ben-Day dot technique, appropriating the commercial printing style for comic books and print advertisements where closely spaced dots coalesce into a greater image. Hand-painting through the use of a screened metal stencil each individual dot that comprises the two hands of The Ring (Engagement), Lichtenstein’s technical virtuosity here is on grand display. The highly simplified color palette of red, white, black, and yellow coupled with the procedure mimicking newspaper printing imbued his paintings with an ostensibly impersonal, anonymous style. With the precision of his colored dots, thick black outlines, and solid fields of brilliant red, Lichtenstein endeavored to make his carefully considered hand-made process appear as mechanical as possible. Paradoxically, Lichtenstein strived toward the crudest forms of illustration to efface the presence of his hand all the while devoting himself to an intensive process of production. The sharp, simplified clarity of the composition of The Ring, as well as its flattened and foreshortened perspectival space, recall modes of consumer advertising, while strengthening formal principles and pictorial conventions native to early Modernism. The eponymous Ben-Day dots are perfectly regimented to create a kinetic dynamism that in turn invests a powerful sense of tension in the gestural motion of the two hands. Moreover, in enlarging the hands of his source material, Lichtenstein emphasized the banal, abstract artificiality of the comic strips and advertisements that served as his inspiration, as opposed to the realism that they purported to convey. Lichtenstein sought to achieve an impersonal aesthetic that appears to conceal the subjectivity of  the personal experience and expression that clearly informed the painting’s creation. Expressing an extraordinarily emotive moment in his archetypally dispassionate painting technique epitomizes the artist’s complex juxtaposition of powerful imagery with Pop clarity. What is particularly compelling about The Ring (Engagement) is the subtle eroticism that charges through the disembodied hands arrested in mid-air; although the fragmented and isolated body parts appear depersonalized and universalized, Graham Bader stressed that “its iconographic rhetoric is repeatedly one of heightened, often extreme bodily sensation… We practically feel the tactile charge of 1962’s The Ring, the radiating pattern of which directs all attention to an impending act of penetration, or 1961’s Popeye, whose schematic lines communicate the bodily impact of a just-passed moment of aggression… Lichtenstein himself, for all his stated disinterest in iconography, repeatedly stressed the central importance of such paintings’ simultaneous draining and eroticization of the human body. As he told Gene Swenson in 1963, he chose to work from comics precisely for their ability ‘to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style,’ an ability he sought to mimic in his own practice: ‘I was interested in anything… that was emotionally strong—usually love, war, or something that was highly charged and … opposite to the removed and deliberate painting techniques.’” (Graham Bader, Hall of Mirrors: Roy Lichtenstein and the Face of Painting in the 1960s, Cambridge, 2010, p. 97) The passionate vitality emanating from the focal climax at the center of the composition is thrillingly juxtaposed with the stark, proto-mechanical mode in which Lichtenstein painted the image. Thereby, Lichtenstein’s painting acquires a different energy—one that is suggestive of a close human charge that serves only to heighten the sensory drama and visceral reaction conjured by the image. Furthermore, the potent magnetic force that hovers in the center of the composition between the two hands calls to mind Michelangelo’s depiction of The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. If in Michelangelo’s painting, God reaches to touch Adam and confer life upon him with the energy from the meeting of their fingers, Lichtenstein seems to suggest with his image the social perception of man carrying a similar emphatic power in his capacity to anoint woman with the symbolic ring. Honing the media’s perception of womanhood in 1950s America, Lichtenstein commented on the social power that engagement brings for the woman, as ceaselessly suggested by the cartoons and advertisements whose imagery Lichtenstein purloined—aspirational comics such as “Young Romance,” “Brides in Love,” and “Secrets of Young Brides.” With his signature sardonic bent, Lichtenstein brought to the fore an iconographic parallel between man’s conferring status on a woman to God’s gift of life, creating an image that reverberates with the same astonishing graphic energy as the Sistine Chapel. In its spectacular allure, The Ring (Engagement) represents a crucial point in the artist’s life and career, rife with a multivalent stratum of interpretation and significance. With the painting’s simply radiant intensity and cinematic vitality, Lichtenstein ensured that the only answer to his proposal is an unequivocal yes. Signed and dated '62 on the reverse; titled on the stretcher

  • 2015-05-12

Nature morte aux tulipes

The extraordinary Nature morte aux tulipes  is one of the celebrated 'Marie-Thérèse pictures' that would ultimately establish Picasso as the most famous artist in the world. Painted in 1932, the year that is recognized as the pinnacle of Picasso's near-century long production, this magnificent painting evidences the creative explosion that defines the renderings of his incomparable golden muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter.   Nature morte aux tulipes  provides us with a synthesis of the two main media (painting and sculpture)  that Picasso utilized to represent the scale, dimensionality and physical impact of his young lover.  More than many of the pictures from this era, it evidences his desire to objectify his model in the truest sense of the word.  "Picasso pursued, embellished, transformed, deconstructed, and annexed Marie-Thérèse, as a wild beast its prey," says the artist's grand-daughter Diana Widmaier Picasso (D.W. Picasso, Picasso & Marie-Thérèse, L'Amour fou (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, p. 61).  This grand picture, completed in the span of less than three hours on a single day in March, is one of the most powerful examples of Picasso’s tireless pursuit, with Marie-Thérèse's image transformed into a divine object of veneration. As a singular composition,  Nature morte aux tulipes appears to be a vibrantly colorful ode to classicism:  a plaster bust positioned alongside an offering of tulips and adorned with a garland crown.   But there is much more to this picture than meets the eye, as it is the story behind the canvas that adds another powerful dimension.   What we see here is the unmistakable profile of Marie-Thérèse Walter, bathed in the warm glow of a kerosene lamp that hung in his Boisgeloup studio.  In prior years he had only referenced his extramarital affair with Marie-Thérèse in his pictures in code, sometimes imbedding her initials in a composition or rendering her strong, Grecian profile as a feature of the background.  By the end of the year, Picasso could no longer repress his creative impulse with regard to Marie-Thérèse, and she became the primary focus of art. Throughout 1931 Picasso had been working on several monumental plaster busts that incorporated the strong profile of Marie-Thérèse.  While molding wet plaster into the likeness of his lover offered Picasso a way to caress her in absentia, it also allowed him to transform her body into a fully-exploitable object.   These bright white forms, gleaming amidst the darkness of his Boisgeloup carriage house, were an irresistible spectacle, inciting Picasso’s Cubist fascination with the dimensionality of form in space.  By the end of 1931 he began to feature images of his plaster sculptures into his paintings, and it is Marie-Thérèse’s highly tactile and plasticized form that defines these magisterial paintings of 1932 (figs. 1, 4 & 5). Elizabeth Cowling has written on Picasso’s incorporation of sculptural imagery into his paintings of this era:  "Here, as in many paintings, drawings and prints of the Marie-Thérèse period, Picasso reflects on the relationship in his work between paintings ...  and sculpture...  The style of the painting as a whole seems intended to dramatise the oppositions between pictorial flatness and sculptural mass in the oppositions between pure line and bold areas of color on the one hand and gradations of light and dark on the other.  The sculpted head is a synoptic reference to the earlier series of plaster heads inspired by Marie-Thérèse.  The same head, raised on a tall plinth and sometimes garlanded with vines, in a object of veneration in several of the etchings in the 'Vollard Suite'" (E. Cowling in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 272). Although it is believed that the bust depicted in the present composition was not painted from a specific one in his studio, certain elements featured in the composition can be seen in photographs from the time (fig. 1), including the garland that is draped over the head and the dark shadows cast against the wall from the artificial light source.  Some objects are symbolic embellishments, such as the lapis-blue cloth and blooming tulips that evoke the iconography of the Blessed Virgin.  Others, like the basket, are recycled from past compositions.  A similar arched, woven basket had appeared in an earlier charcoal composition from September 1931, where it featured as a signifier for Marie-Thérèse.  In that earlier picture, the basket was positioned alongside a stark porcelain vessel -- the same minimalist one that was used to signify Picasso’s wife Olga in Still with Jug and Apples of  1920 (fig. 3). John Golding has written about  the studio environment in which this painting was depicted, and how it "evokes [Picasso's] nocturnal working habits, and the light shed by the big kerosene lamp made him particularly sensitive to the play of shadows over the white plaster sculptures.  He tended to distrust the official heaviness of bronze and declared that the Boisgeloup plaster heads in particular were more beautiful in their original white or plaster state.  While the studios were being got ready Picasso executed a series of small slender standing figures whittled out of single pieces of wood, and the respect for material that these required may have encouraged him to concentrate on more closed, self-contained sculptural forms."  (J.Golding in  Picasso: Sculptor/Painter  (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 28). Picasso’s theme for his picture is drawn from a more literary source.  Not long after his fiftieth birthday that past October, he began a series of Ovidian etchings to celebrate a new publication of the Metamorphosis and would ultimately create a body of work over the years know collectively as the Vollard Suites (fig. 6).  The present work is one of several canvases that alludes to Ovid’s writings, specifically the harrowing story of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto to Hades: Playing, gathering flowers Violets, or white lilies, and so many The basket would not hold them all… Sorrowful to be sure, and still half frightened And still a queen, the greatest of the world Of darkness and empress, the proud consort Of the proud ruler of the world of darkness Jean Sutherland Boggs made the following association between the Persephone myth and the present picture in her research for the Picasso and Things exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art.  She writes in the catalogue entry for this picture, “It is as the goddess returned to the earth in the spring that we find her here, the wreath in her hair, the basket of tulips and three pieces of fruit before her pedestal indicating the season with which she is identified.  Although she is placed on a blue cloth of royal intensity and assurance, the background has mysterious black shadows against the dark brown, and there is a pattern of a delicate gray on the bust itself, perhaps to remind us of the shadows of the underworld” (Picasso and Things, op. cit., p. 237). Nature morte aux tulipes is one of the legendary pictures completed in anticipation of the major retrospective that Picasso was planning that summer in Paris and Zurich.   It was at this exhibition that Olga, upon seeing Picasso's numerous references to a specific face that was clearly not her own, was alerted to the presence of another woman in her husband's life (fig. 8).  Until the exhibition, Picasso's relationship with Marie-Thérèse had been a tightly guarded secret, the evidence of which he had kept sealed away at the studio he maintained at Boisgeloup.   He had purchased this property near Gisors in 1930 as a retreat house, where he could escape from Olga and spend time alone with his mistress.   The chateau at Boisegeloup was much larger than his studio in Paris, and the space allowed him to create the monumental plaster busts of Marie-Thérèse that inspired the present picture.    Nature morte aux tulipes  evidences Marie-Thérèse's role as a completely accessible aesthetic resource for Picasso's art.  Like the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, Picasso would take his sculpture off its pedestal and brought his muse to life. Signed Picasso and dated XXXII (upper right); dated 2 Mars XXXII H 9 à 11 1/2  Hs on the stretcher

  • 2012-11-08

Abstraktes Bild

“Richter’s painting explores the enigmatic juncture of sense and non-sense. His paintings encircle, enclose the real as that which it is impossible to say: the unrepresentable.” Birgit Pelzer, ‘The Tragic Desire’ in: Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, p. 118. Chance, layering, erasure, chromatic power and compositional counterpoint are wielded to sublime effect in Abstrakes Bild from 1986. Following a corpus of nascent abstractions executed between the years of 1980-85, the present work heralds a decisive break and undeniable landmark achievement; from 1986 onwards Gerhard Richter would relinquish any planned compositional elements of form and structure in favour more predominantly of the indeterminate scrape and accretion of the ‘squeegee’. As laid down in the present work across seemingly photographic layers of pearlescent underpainting (more prominent towards the lower half of the composition), Richter has waged a battle between the squeegee and the brush. Horizontal veils of stuttering paint present a riposte to the vertical drag of wide brush-strokes, both of which are punctuated by finer and more angular accents. The result is a mesmerising field in which painterly elements both spar against and complement each other while the paint’s chromatic value injects this piece with an undisputed brilliance. Broadcasting deepest blue through to acidic yellow and red, along with all the possible permutations that exist in between these primary values, Abstraktes Bild imparts glorious light effects that verge on the experiential. In the centre, a vertical band of radiant green is pierced and intercut by a stream of luminous colour to impart a reading akin to light flooding ecclesiastical architecture or sunlight coursing through the soft miasma of cloud. Indeed, the balance between hard and soft, structural solidity and phosphorescence, photographic and the abstract, finds an apogee in this enveloping work. Towering in strident swathes of luminescent and kaleidoscopic paint, Abstraktes Bild is not only one of the largest abstract paintings by the artist, it is also one of the most chromatically, compositionally and redolently astounding. Having been on extended loan to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, during the 1990s, this painting is a remarkable exposition of the very apogee of Richter's abstract canon. Texture, colour and structure are deployed in Abstraktes Bild with spectacular force and sensitivity to engender a seductive painterly synthesis visually aligned to an exquisite and strikingly atmospheric evocation: structural strips and impastoed ridges of thick oil paint delineate a schema of painterly revelations and under layers of diaphanous blue, green and purple that are punctuated with sunset flashes of yellow, orange, red and pink. Herein, the present work draws a uniquely evocative dialogue with late nineteenth-century landscape painting from a distinctly contemporary perspective. Invoking an utterly self-referential language of abstraction, Abstraktes Bild nonetheless shares aesthetic and atmospheric congruencies with Monet’s late Nympheas, Gustav Klimt’s jewel-like treatment of the Austrian landscape, and Seurat’s proto-scientific treatment of light and colour. Indeed, Richter’s breathtaking Abstraktes Bild captures an atmosphere akin to a post impressionistic translation of landscape scenery. However, Richter has frequently spoken of aspects of his work as ‘cuckoo’s eggs’ in that his paintings are often mistaken for something they are not, or not fully. Where this most aptly applies to the artist’s take on the sublime landscape, it is also at stake within his response to both an evocation of an Impressionist landscape and the sublime abstraction of the Twentieth Century’s great American painters. Though comprising seemingly infinite tonal variations and intimations of abyssal layers beyond the picture plane, Abstraktes Bild is nonetheless a cancellation of the kind of transcendental sacred image space pioneered by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and perhaps most apt for the present work, Franz Kline. Ineluctably glorious in its enveloping celebration of colour, an experience of unbridled structure and boundless chromatic affect is nonetheless disrupted and offset by an enshrouding static drone. As outlined by Benjamin Buchloh: “[I]f the ability of colour to generate this emotional, spiritual quality is presented and at the same time negated at all points, surely its always cancelling itself out. With so many combinations, so many permutational relationships, there can’t be any harmonious chromatic order, or compositional either, because there are no ordered relations left either in the colour system or the spatial system” (Benjamin Buchloh, ‘An Interview with Gerhard Richter’ (1986) in: Benjamin Buchloh, Ed., Gerhard Richter: October Files, Massachusetts 2009, pp. 23-24). Much like a palimpsest in its layered surface and repeated working over, the present work resembles a restless confluence of many paintings at once. The exuberant strata of paint bear the ghosts of previous accretions and colour juxtapositions applied, erased, remade and obliterated over again. Such chromatic and compositional negations represent Richter’s rebuttal of the bold idealism of 1950s abstraction: "Pollock, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, their heroism derived from the climate of their time, but we do not have this climate" (Richter quoted in: Michael Kimmelmann, ‘Gerhard Richter: An Artist Beyond Isms’, The New York Times, January 27, 2002, n.p.). Rather, the climate we do have, and the climate Richter’s entire production concerns itself with, is our contemporary age of the photographic. Coming full circle from the earliest Photo Paintings, the present work witnesses the full induction of the squeegee as the principal compositional agent. This in turn invited the means through which Richter was able to instigate “Photography by other means” (Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh, California 2009, p. 173). As redolent in Abstraktes Bild, the sheen of immaculate colour and endless permutations mimic the aesthetic of a cibachrome print, while a distinctly photographic quality is compounded by the out-of focus consistency of the sweeping accretions of paint. Evoking a blurred, half-seen or remembered image and imploring the same cognitive viewing experience as his photo works, the hazy coagulation of endlessly scraped pigment forms an extraordinary repost to the canon of abstraction via the photographic, mechanical and the aleatory. Within the sheer excess of layering and dynamic compositional facture this painting emits an extraordinary wealth of enigmatic yet recognisable evocation. The incessant erasure and denial of formal resolution induces a reading of phenomological forms associated with those found in nature. Readily evoking natural experiences such as rain, water erosion, or in this case light streaming through a window, the Abstract works derive their affect from a spontaneous naturalism. Where Richter’s Photo Paintings fall away into abstraction, the Abstrakte Bilder return us to a suggestion of referentiality. As made explicit by Kaja Silverman, Richter has made claims to paint “like a camera” even when photographic content is absent from his work (Gerhard Richter quoted in: ibid.). Speaking in overarching terms of his wider painterly project, in 1972 Richter explained: “I’m not trying to imitate a photograph… I’m trying to make one. And if I disregard the assumption that a photograph is a piece of paper exposed to light, then I am practicing photography by other means… [T]hose of my paintings that have no photographic source (the abstracts, etc.) are also photographs” (Ibid). In making this analogy with the camera, Richter embraces the fact that perception and the way we view the world today is entirely mediated by the photograph and its technological proliferation. Thus, as outlined by Richter, where the camera “does not apprehend objects, it sees them”, the Abstrakte Bilder elicit the capacity of painting to propagate a true semblance of perception and appearance. To quote Hal Foster: “The semblance that concerns Richter is of a “second nature”… a culture-become-nature bathed in the glow of the media, a semblance permeated with photographic, televisual, and now digital visualities” (Hal Foster, ‘Semblance According to Gerhard Richter’, in: Benjamin D. Buchloh, Ed., op. cit., p. 126). Redolent across the endless exposures and variegation of the present work, the crackling, distortive fuzz redolent within Richter’s endlessly applied layers of pigment unmistakably bears the aesthetic mark of photographic reproduction. Indeed, Abstrakes Bild and its oleaginous layers of unrestrained colour delivers an effect that is at once utterly evocative of natural phenomena and photographic exposure. As many scholars of Richter’s work have pointed out, it is apt to note that the collective title for the abstract paintings, Abstrakte Bilder, is not a straightforward translation; rather, the closest equivalent to the original German is Abstract Pictures: by his own admission, Richter is not creating paintings but instead making images. The abstract works thus picture a post-photographic painterly image space nascently forged within the blur of the Photo Paintings and fully articulated in the large-scale squeegee abstractions. As art historian Peter Osborne outlines: “Richter’s abstract images are images of this image space itself. In this respect they are still ‘photo paintings’, but in an ontologically deeper sense than the phrase conveys when used as a designation for the earlier, more particularistically ‘photo-based’ work” (Peter Osborne, ‘Abstract Images: Sign, Image and Aesthetic in Gerhard Richter’s Painting’ in: Benjamin Buchloh, Ed., op. cit., p. 109). Abstraktes Bild is a consummate example of the type of ‘videotic’ effect mentioned by Osborne. Via a crackling, distortive fuzz redolent within miraculous sheens of colour, this painting's purely abstract field of painterly variegation unmistakably bears the mark of televisual opticality. Having sought new ways to paint that rally against “redundant” figuration and the “inflated subjectivism, idealism, and existential weightlessness” of Modernist abstraction, Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder picture an assertion of abstract painting, not only in the face of photography which lies at the root of painting’s crisis, but immersed in its digital glow (Peter Osborne, ‘Painting Negation: Gerhard Richter’s Negatives’,October, vol. 62, Autumn, 1992, p. 104). Furnished by the mechanistic dissemination and destructive scrape of the squeegee, the present work possesses the irrepressible beauty of a Franz Kline that has been processed through Richter’s de-sublimatory lens and transfigured into a glorious post-conceptual affirmation of painting for the televisual age. Gerhard Richter’s unprecedented art of abstraction stands as ultimate culmination to the epic journey of his career, during which he has ceaselessly interrogated the limits of representation, the nature of perception and the operations of visual cognition. Variously evoking something of Monet’s translation of his garden at Giverny, Rothko’s exuberance of transformative colour, Kline’s structural expressionism, Pollock’s instigation of autonomous composition, and de Kooning’s transferal of the figural to the abstract, Richter’s abstraction is ultimately without comparison. Herein, the vast expanse of Asbtraktes Bild is utterly replete with the most spectacular colour, form and texture; a sheer cliff face of unadulterated expression as delivered by the world’s greatest living painter. Within the field of this canvas, acts of unfathomable chaos have touched something not quite of this realm, creating, in short, something that is phenomenal. Signed, dated 1986 and numbered 599 on the reverse

  • GBRGroßbritannien
  • 2015-02-10

Number 4, 1951

"I approach painting in the same sense as one approaches drawing; that is, it's direct.'' Jackson Pollock interviewed by William Wright, Summer 1950, cited in Clifford Ross, ed., Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, New York, 1990, p. 144 Worthy of the highest critical acclaim, yet readily surpassing the inadequacies of mere written description, Jackson Pollock’s Number 4, 1951 encapsulates on one canvas the pure essence of his art and is, quite simply, a resounding and incontrovertible masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism. The occasion of this painting’s appearance for sale is a spectacularly rare and historic event: in the past quarter century only an elite handful of drip paintings on canvas by Pollock have been offered at auction. Executed in 1951, this work epitomizes the chromatic variance, heroic drama and thrilling dynamism of the 1950 masterworks that had just been exhibited at Betty Parsons' Gallery in New York from November to December, such as Lavender Mist: Number 1 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.); One: Number 31 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); and Autumn Rhythm: Number 30 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Focused to a point of sensational intensity, the layering here of brilliant red, blue, yellow, green and ochre oil color is tempered by the metallic aluminum paint that seeps into the raw canvas, which in turn is overlaid by the frenzied poetic chaos and flecked matrices of shiny black enamel. This painting thus represents the heightened epitome of Pollock’s preceding definitive period, and anticipates the creation of such works as the more monochromatic Brown and Silver I (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) and the subsequent graphic severity of the black enamel on unprimed canvases that occupied the artist for the remainder of 1951. The painting has resided in the present owner's collection for over thirty years, prior to which its provenance was highly prestigious. Its first private owner was Dr. Ruth Fox, the distinguished psychoanalyst and expert on the treatment of alcoholism, who treated Jackson Pollock in 1951-2, near the time of the work’s execution. Following other distinguished subsequent owners, Stephen D. Paine was an eminent collector, museum benefactor and trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for over twenty years. His collection included a number of Abstract Expressionist masterworks, including the Willem de Kooning pastel Woman of 1952 that set a world auction record for a drawing by that artist when sold by Sotheby’s in November 2002. Barely seen for forty years, Number 4, 1951 appears today as the rare vestige of an historic moment when the eyes of the world looked to New York for the most groundbreaking creative innovations and the forging of contemporary Art History. In this work the technically diverse layers of material accretion, readily apparent from the soaked-through reverse of the canvas, deliver an all-over effect that is at once aesthetically arresting and infinitely subtle. Our sustained experience of the painting is rewarded with a sublime catharsis, as the compositional complexity of the work continually fluctuates between the shadows of rhythmic patterns and the disorganized chaos of action painting unrestrained. Pools of intensely-hued pigment have stained the rectilinear canvas weave beneath misty aureoles of reflective metallic silver; all superseded by a looping matrix of black tendrils slicked onto the uppermost paint strata. While the enthralling surface encourages the eye to examine its detail, the density of layered pigments creates a dynamism that presses outward toward the canvas edge. The present painting exemplifies the innovation that most defines Pollock's achievement as embodied in the phrase "drawing into painting", coined by William Rubin in 1967 to describe the liberation of line from figuration into abstraction. Distinctions between artistic practices did not exist for Pollock whose ground-breaking technique married paint to the freedom of draftsmanship in order to express his innermost artistic impulse. Pollock's pursuit was immediacy and the fluid union of material and creativity as one. In his mature oeuvre, neither brush nor any other tool applied paint to his support surface; instead, he placed the canvas on a flat surface and with his quick wrist and flowing movement dripped, splattered and pooled paint from the can, creating complex, all-over patterns. However, although often considered an essentially graphic artist preoccupied with the primacy of line, the present work is also a major demonstration of Pollock's mastery of color. Indeed, the combination of the harmony of pure color and the tensile strength of linear design positions this painting in the highest order of Pollock’s oeuvre. The skeins of material interweave to build the structure of a picture that seems almost to possess an inner life and ultimately a sense of wholeness emerges from the combination of physical abandon and aesthetic control. Enlisting a technique of chance that would subsequently influence generations of the Twentieth Century’s most prominent artists, from Francis Bacon’s famous throwing of paint, to Gerhard Richter’s entire dependence on the arbitrary squeegee spatula for his Abstract paintings, Pollock faced an unprecedented dilemma in deciding the moment at which a picture arrived at its crescendo of resolution. In this respect the present work is yet again a definitive example of Pollock’s genius. Kirk Varnedoe has described how Pollock judged the success of a work or its arrival at its final form: "Like many other modern artists before and since, he was drawn to explore edge conditions, extreme boundaries where coherence might give onto its opposite, and where fullness of meaning and total emptiness rubbed against each other." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jackson Pollock, 1998, p. 51)  Number 4, 1951 exists for perpetuity in precisely such an “edge condition”: harboring a fundamental order yet poised on the very precipice of utter dissolution. Pollock proved that if art was defined by the artist, then the individual's subconscious and instincts directly influenced the technique, composition and content of the art. He revolutionized easel painting by asserting that material and medium could fundamentally replace subject matter in painting. It is true that there were some distant forerunners, such as the innovative use of collage and found objects in the works of Picasso, Braque and Duchamp, as well as the automatism of the Surrealists and the conceptual subversions of Marcel Duchamp. Yet Pollock demonstrated unequivocally that the medium was the message while working in the most traditional of mediums, oil paint.  As Varnedoe observed, " 'How?' would take over from 'What?' as the prime point of genesis. Changing his self-awareness from a search for buried icons or totems to a reliance on more pragmatic instincts about how it felt best to work, Pollock would unblock the way to a fundamentally personal, original art. And a great deal more." (Ibid., p. 48) Pollock's innovations were elemental and instinctive, born of many years of struggling with the tension between figure and ground, abstraction and representation, content and technique. Beginning in the winter of 1946-47 when Pollock first placed his canvases on the floor of his Long Island barn, he pushed the boundaries of painting beyond his earlier Surrealist and Expressionist work. Standing above the painting surface, Pollock worked from all four sides to drip, pool and fling pigment from sticks, brushes and other implements. From 1947 to 1951, Pollock's brush seldom touched his paintings, but his dexterity and total physicality orchestrated the fluidity, density, speed and rhythm of his medium into an all-over composition of cohesive expressiveness. This golden period witnessed the genesis of a sublime body of work, including the present painting. As one of the most iconic figures of twentieth-century Art History, Jackson Pollock’s long shadow cast a protean myth that has almost obscured his monumental achievement in creating an independent aesthetic that revolutionized artistic practice during and after his lifetime. Yet a few works of genius such as Number 4, 1951 transport us directly to the crucible of that revolutionary enterprise, and stand as enduring testament to this master’s sheer brilliance. Signed on the reverse

  • 2012-11-14

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