Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Kenneth Noland @ Almine Rech

Kenneth Noland, Version, 1982
It was with great delight that I saw Kenneth Noland’s current exhibition at Almine Rech today. I feel as though Noland is one of those artists whose work is easily recognizeable but that I know very little about. The concentric circles, stripes, and odd shaped canvases were so integral to the revolution in postwar American painting that they became household images. Yet beyond the familiar circles so central to Greenberg’s pronouncements about abstract art, very few other paintings came to mind when thinking of Noland.
Kenneth Noland, Pink Lady, 1978
The current hanging at Almine Rech is surprising for the variety of the artist’s work across the past 50 years. Although it retains the concern with color, canvas and the essentials of painting, it does so in many different ways. The familiar tensions between color and line, the dethroning of the rectangle, and of course, the circle, the vulnerability and excitement of the edges, continue to be his concern until the end of his life.

Kenneth Noland, Play, 1960

The first thing I noticed on entering the gallery was not simply the odd shape of the canvases, but also, the unanticipated use of colors. He uses both shape and color to challenge the viewer’s perception of art, questioning what we expect a painting to be, as well as what it will do, and  how we will interact with it. The role of shape in this is clear, but he also uses color in ways that completely refuse to allow us to indulge in the sumptuousness of painting. For example, the sprayed pink surface of Pink Lady, 1978 offers an area of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane.  Nothing about it makes us want to move closer, spend longer or develop intimacy with the image. As such, this and others remains the perfect example of Greenberg’s notion of post-painterly abstraction. Where the shape of the canvas, the absence of gesture, and the resultant cool acrylic surface challenge everything we know about painting. Not to mention the fact that a work such as this can be physically difficult to look at thanks to the glare resulting from the acrylic sheen.

Kenneth Noland, Comet, 1983
In one of the side rooms, we see Noland’s Comet, 1983, a work that harks back to the strips and parallel lines of the 1950s and 1960s, but not. The thick paint applied with a spatula gives the suggestion of being luscious, but is, in fact, as cold and distant as any of the thin spray painted surfaces. Even though the material has a glutinous texture, there is no mistaking its plasticity. That said, the small hints of gesture and emotion are thrilling: the paint going over the edge of the canvas, the drips and splashes that have (we assume mistakenly, but no doubt they were intentional) found their way into the colour field change everything. In addition, when the edges are no longer even, the lines no longer perfectly straight, our attention becomes focussed on the edges, the patterns, the tensions, and the chance smudges of painting. These moments become more serious than the color field itself, and we try to connect to the human hand behind its execution.
Kenneth Noland, Into the Cool No.9, 2006
I think what is most striking about these works today is that they haven’t lost their radicality. Whereas an artist like Warhol becomes Romantic in retrospect, and we indulge in his play with color and light, in his painterly gestures, Noland’s surfaces remain harsh, and difficult to look at. They are unrelenting in their commitment to challenging everything we know about painting.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Ellsworth Kelly, Fenêtres, Centre Pompidou

Ellsworth Kelly, Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris, November 1949

Although Ellsworth Kelly lived in France for six years as a young man, I don't think of his work as being particularly influenced by or of interest to the French. And yet, there it is, in pride of place on the 4th floor of the Pompidou Centre. As I spent more time with the paintings, I began to see why Fenêtres/Windows would gets its own exhibition at the Pompidou. Kelly’s window paintings are both inspired by and representations of Parisian windows. This small exhibition is delightful and will be an inspiration to people interested in both representational and abstract painting.

Ellsworth Kelly, Window II, 1949
The Parisian window is something to look at, not through or inside. Kelly shows us the window frame as an aesthetic, complete with a formal geometry and a potential to cast shadows that skew that form. The small series of Kelly’s Window paintings, together with studies and preparatory sketches invite us look at Paris’s windows differently. In the earliest examples from 1949, Kelly paints and draws the wooden frames in black, filling the glass and what would be the surrounding building façade in a thick, matte white oil paint. In Window II (1949) Kelly’s hesitant thinking is revealed in the white painting over black lines on a linen support. The unevenness of the white field that represents glass is not something that we associate with Kelly. The painting becomes an off-white, cracked surface, making it more sensuous. The paint in Window II reveals traces of time inscribed as grains of dirt might tell of a shower of rain on a window. In these early examples, Kelly is not yet fully equating the window with painting, but rather, sees the window as an object to be painted, a surface to be looked at, and represented.

In these early examples, Kelly translates what he sees into painting, from one medium (reality) into another (painting). However, the one equation he begins to make between window and painting is in the use of wooden frame of the stretcher to “represent” the frame of the window.
Ellsworth Kelly, Window VI, 1950

As the exhibition continues, Kelly starts to broaden his perspective on the window. Windows are opened and closed, they are broken, come in all different forms; with shutters, looking like doors, with curtains, sash windows. He even finds windows where they are not, for example, in a construction belonging to the International University campus in Window VI (1950). At the centre of the exhibition is the Window. Museum of Modern Art Paris (November 1949). The window itself is shown in an accompanying photograph; covered in graffiti, painted over, cracked. Kelly’s representation removes the detail and in a frame that replicates the form of the window itself, he places a white and a grey canvas beneath. In this work, the wooden representation of the window frame is brought to the fore by the placement of the grey canvas behind it the frame. As a result, the painting as glass is also emphasized, rendering the canvas an optical field.

Ellsworth Kelly, White Square, 1953

There is mention in the flyer about Kelly’s attraction to the “anonymity of Egyptian art.” I am not sure what this means, but as he continues to paint and draw windows, the object of the window loses its identity; it starts to lack objecthood, and like glass, becomes an abstract shape. This could, of course, be called anonymous. Kelly also claims the “painting is a fragment of the visual world, where the third dimension is removed.” We might conclude that as windows become painting with the third dimension removed, the canvas represents glass and we are left looking at or through nothing. Then, we see the painting as object thanks to the markings (like paint on a canvas) such as dirt left by rain, cracks made by a stone, or reflections of something or someone that happen to find it as mirror. Accordingly, when the window becomes a wall for graffiti or a mirror for a person’s image, two dimensions return to three dimensions, the glass window to a thing.

Ellsworth Kelly, White over Black III, 2015
While I see the connection being made between the two halves of the exhibition, I am not convinced. In the second half, we see Kelly’s black and white paintings. Unlike the windows, works such as Black. Two Whites, 1953  are about looking with the object of the window (and the painting) removed. The question of what we are seeing shifts from “Am I looking at a window, a picture of a window, a painting, or an abstract work?” to “What is the relationship of the white field to the black?” or in a works such as the adjacent, White Square (1953) and Black Square (1953), “are they the same size? Or does my vision deceive me?” This uncertainty comes because the placement of each color changes our perception of the canvas. Similarly, in the most recent work on display, I am reminded that the emptiness and nothingness of white is never empty and nothing on the canvas. When I stand before White Over Black III, 2015, my shadow intrudes into the painting if it is lit from behind me and the slick white surface becomes a mirror. As a result the object and surface shifts, yet again, to a whole new phenomenon.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Hammershøi, the Master of Danish Painting

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Courtyard Strandgarde 30, c.1905
The Hammershøi exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André on Boulevard Haussman not only vindicates everything I say about Hammershøi’s use of grey in The Truth is Always Grey, but is also a stunning example of the brilliance of a modernist painter's use of grey as a technique. 
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Five Portraits, 1901-1902
From his earliest works, this exhibition shows us that the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi was interested in stripping away the narrative details of his painting, details such as identifying features of faces and places. Looking at the early works, it's not outlandish to suggest that he wasn’t much of a portrait painter. None of the figures are emotive or memorable as individual characters, and in works such as Five Portraits Hammershøi is already trying to do something different with figures. He uses gradations of grey paint as light and darkness to create atmosphere. From the beginning of this exhibition, Hammershøi removes all furniture from spaces, and faces from people in order that the architectonics of space and the color grey have the opportunity to slip into the role of expressing emotions, creating mood and significance, as well as inviting the viewer to come closer to the painting. Above all, Hammershøi is committed to the use of grey to create light and darkness, warmth and coldness in the literal and metaphorical air of his paintings. From the beginning we see the radicality of painting in Hammershøi's refusal to soften any aspect of facial features through light. The face is not the focus. These works may be representational, but they are as abstract as any non-representational work of the early 20th century. They are about the harshness of the lines and structures of the image, the rigid and fixed framing, flatness of the canvas and the experimentation with a single color palette.
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1886
The influence of James Abbot McNeill Whistler can be seen everywhere in the thinness of Hammershøi’s paint, as well as the manipulation of gradations and shades of grey. The works on display are so hastily painted that sometimes Hammershøi does not paint to the edges, and at others, one could be forgiven for thinking he never finished the work. We don’t need the evidence of the Portrait of the Artist's Mother (influenced by Whistler’s Composition No. 1) to convince us of Whistler’s influence on Hammershøi’s experiments: the evidence is in the use and application of paint on the canvas, as well as the formal organization of the spaces. Also, like his American inspiration, Hammershøi brushes against the accepted wisdom of painting conventions of his time in an attempt to transpose the temperatures and tones of industrial modernity to the canvas. In a work such as The Jewish School in Guilford Street, (1912-13), it’s not just that the work is executed in grey paint, but that the tone, temperature and social significance of the work is achieved through the nuances and fluidity of grey. Grey is the color of modernity at this moment of immense upheaval. And it is the color in which Hammershøi suspends the Guilford school in stillness and silence.  
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Jewish School in Guilford Street, 1912-13
Visitors will also notice the influence of Vermeer when looking at Hammershøi’s women standing in rooms on their own. However, while the figures are familiar, Hammershøi removes all the narrative, and so, unlike Vermeer’s works, there are no milk jugs, maps, globes, earrings or paintings in the background. The Vermeer influence pervades Hammershøi’s paintings in the form of intimacy and warmth, a sense of vibrancy introduced through the use of light. However, Hammershøi's works are also flat, and refuse the viewer’s imagination, most significantly because the woman is usually sitting or standing with her back to us. The result is that, rather than the ambiguity of narrative that leaves us puzzling in front of Vermeer's women, Hammershøi's scenes are pervaded by emptiness.
Vilhelm Hammershøî, Interior with a Woman
For me, the most exquisite of these paintings are those in which people have left the room and the sun express itself on uneven floors and old skirting boards. These spaces are highly constructed, but always made unsettling by light. The paintings are often focused on corners, door frames, floorboards, walls and their relation to the picture frame that is never parallel. The skewed lines are emphasized by light falling at impossible angles, shining through windows that are also closed to the world. In Sunlight in the Salon for example, light falls at a different diagonal, to the imagined presence of the window, at a greater intensity than would seem possible given the soft illumination on the floor. We are left trying to figure out how can the window create this pattern on the wall? Alternatively, we are drawn to study the use of light and shadow to articulate space on grey walls and floors.

Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunlight in the Salon, 
The brilliance and radicality of Hammershøi comes in the slow move to abstraction as we see it in the interior spaces. The thinness of the paint, the emphasis on form and structure, in spaces where something isn’t quite right. The recognition of multiple spaces beyond and to the side of the one depicted. The use of open and closed doors, creating disquiet in both the room in the image and the unexplained spaces beyond. The most exciting image in the exhibition is that of his wife leaning out of the window into the yard of their apartment building, Courtyard Strandgarde 30. It is an exterior that is also an interior, an imbalanced composition in which the brilliant light on the woman peering through the window is so intense that she could be on a stage. And the light, as well as the view on a corner of windows, creates an impossible perspective that is more illusory than it could ever be real.  
Vilhelm Hammershøi, Sunbeams or Sunshine. Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams, 1900
The pamphlet provided by the museum claims that Hammershøi’s paintings reflect a clinical sobriety. To me, they reflect the absolute opposite. The figures may be without character, but they are filled with emotion, it’s simply that we can’t access those emotions.  And when the people have no emotions, it’s because the background is infused with all the feeling through the careful use of grey to articulate volume and shape, impossible lines and mysterious illumination. The museum also claims that Hammershøi’s palette is limited. Again, I would disagree. While he might use a single color palette, the greyscale is infinite. If ever there was evidence of grey being multiple and varied, fluid and exciting, this is it. Within a single body of work, Hammershøi gives us the full range of possibilities of the color grey.