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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Museum of Art NYC’

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Painting for me is like a fabric, all of a piece and uniform, with one set of threads as the representational, esthetic element, and the cross-threads as the technical, architectural, or abstract element. These threads are interdependent and complementary, and if one set is lacking the fabric does not exist. A picture with no representational purpose is to my mind always an incomplete technical exercise, for the only purpose of any picture is to achieve representation.

–Juan Gris

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I like this idea of painting being a fabric with a weft and a warp of elements that bring the representation to its full realization. It’s this idea that allows for such differing versions of the same image. One set of threads bring the recognizable form while the other allows for the individual artistic interpretation. Some fabrics are richer and some are coarser. Some are stronger and some are weaker.

I may not be explaining it very well but I understand it.

This comes from the great Cubist painter Juan Gris, who was born in Spain in 1887 and died in France in 1927, leaving behind a consistently wonderful  body of work. He is thought of as one of the most important of the Cubists, perhaps only eclipsed by Picasso and Braque.

Since he died at such a relatively young age– 40 years old– it makes one wonder how his work would have evolved in the later years of maturity that he never obtained. As it is, there is a lot to see in his work.

His most famous piece, Still Life with Checked Tablecloth from 1915, is at the top of this page. It sold at auction in 2014 for $57.1 million and is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. You can click here and go their Met Collects site to get a closer look at the painting. Being able to look closely at the surfaces is very illuminating to me. Take a look for yourself.

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Thomas_Hart-Benton-America_Today_ 2I had not heard until just this morning that one of my favorite pieces of public art had been removed from the walls of a NYC lobby and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I am talking about Thomas Hart Benton‘s incredible 10 panel mural America Today which hung for nearly 30 years in the lobby of the AXA Equitable Building on 6th Avenue– the Avenue of the Americas, officially– in midtown NYC.

It’s a magnificent sweeping representation of the American epic, painted in 1930-31 for the boardroom of NY’s New School, just as the nation was entering the Great Depression. The color is deep and bold and Benton’s rhythmic linework and forms run through the various scenes of the nation at work and at play, binding it all into a piece of art that has the impact of a symphony at full crescendo. Just a great piece of work that reaches out and grabs you.

Thomas_Hart-Benton-America_Today_OilAt least that’s how it came across to Cheri and I many years ago, long before I had dreams of  painting for myself,  as we were wandering around Midtown one evening.  We found ourselves strolling up 6th Ave. in the evening darkness and through the windows of one of the large office buildings we suddenly both caught a glimpse of  bold colors that appeared to be some sort of mural running around three sides of the groundfloor lobby.  We scooted through the doors and stood in absolute awe.  It was long after the office workers had left the building so it was dead still except for a quiet conversation between the security detail at the front desk.  We stayed there for quite some time, amazed that this magnus opus was here for all to take in and see.

Thomas_Hart-Benton-America_Today_City_Activities_with_Subway It seemed appropriate.  Over the years we always made a point when we were in NYC to make a  stop and gawk with mouths open at Benton’s beautiful work.  It was always magical.

I am a bit torn about its removal to the Met although I know it is for the best, from a preservation standpoint,  and that probably more people will actually really appreciate it there.  But the idea of having it out in a public space where anyone can stumble from the street and take in its wonder really appealed to me and spoke to the democratic spirit of the work.  But it will be well cared for and hopefully always on view for those who wish to see Benton’s vision.

Below is a view of the mural installed in the Met.  This is not in HD  so its not a fantastic view but it gives you the idea of how well the work hangs together.

Thomas_Hart-Benton-America_Today_Thomas-Hart-Benton-City-Activities-with-Dancehall-from-America-Today

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Baseball  Helen West HellerI was looking for woodcuts that had baseball in them and came across a couple that were by an artist with which I was not familiar, Helen West Heller.  I liked the design and look of the pieces that I had found, more modern and stylized than the others.  Unique.  I began to look up the artist, who lived from 1872 to 1955,  but found little.  No Wikipedia page and a few scant biographies that mainly listed her exhibits and the collections in which her work – both woodcuts and paintings-  was included.

Baseball2 Helen West HellerAnd it was a pretty impressive resume.  A retrospective at the Smithsonian.  Awards from the Library of Congress. Shows at the Brooklyn Museum and other galleries around the country.  Looking at the Metropolitan Museum website, I found that she had over 170 pieces in their permanent collection.  Why wasn’t there more on her?

HellerBut then I came across a site devoted to her life and work, The Extraordinary Life and Art of Helen West Heller.  It’s a rambling website full of references and writings devoted to Heller but even as Heller’s most ardent fan and champion, Dr. Ernest Harms, wrote in 1957, just two years after her death: “Helen West Heller has lived the life of a full blooded personality striving and fighting for an artistic ideal . . . Far too little is known even among artists about this amazing woman.”

The tragedy is that when she did die, she did so alone and as a pauper in  Bellevue in NYC.  Her body remained in the morgue there for over 10 days until Artists Equity arranged for burial in NJ.  There’s a lot more on her in the rambling site devoted to her, much of it quite interesting but never completely revealing.  She lived at a time when there was still room for mystery and mythology in one’s life.  Perhaps that mystery, as well as the personality of her work,  is what makes her  so intriguing to me.

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Martin Johnson Heade Approaching Thunderstorm 1I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned Martin Johnson Heade here.  This is really an oversight on my part as some of his work was really influential on the direction of my work early on, even though our styles and methods of painting were wildly different.  The intensity of the color and contrast in his paintings of  floral subjects and tropical birds that he completed during his long and  prolific career ( born 1819- died 1904)  really made me want to push my own color ahead.  There is a , Martin Johnson Heade- The Complete Works, that has his complete works online where you can see the great quality of his color and  use of contrast.

But the painting shown at the top, Approaching Thunderstorm, from the Metropolitan Museum is my favorite Heade painting.  The forms of the  black water of the lake set against the vibrant color of the shoreline is striking and  a most ominous storm cloud churns toward the boaters who have not yet fully heeded the signs of the oncoming storm.

It was painted in 1859, in the years before our country exploded in civil war.  This painting was part of a cultural movement of the time that depicted the tension gripping our nation in metaphorical terms.    The metaphor is strong and obvious  in this painting and  several prominent abolitionist preachers owned versions of this painting , many often referring to the coming storm in their sermons.

Knowing this makes me appreciate the painting on a different level.  But it is still about the sheer emotional impact of the color and forms that hit me long before I knew its history.  There is a tension and that feeling of stillness that occurs in the moment just before action occurs, something I have tried to capture in my own work at times.  I still find this piece brilliant and inspiring.

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The first time I remember being truly struck emotionally by a piece of art was many years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, long before I ever dreamt of being able to paint.  I came across this Van Gogh's IrisesVincent Van Gogh painting, one of his Iris pieces.  It seemed to literally vibrate on the wall.  I was mesmerized, to the point of nausea and a throbbing headache that made me exit the room.  

I often think about that experience, especially when I speak to high school or college classes where it seems they are more intent in their subject matter than in the way they express their emotions in the paint itself.  This piece is a merely a group of irises in a pitcher, probably a subject painted through the ages by thousands of painters.  Hardly anything earth-shaking there.  But it’s in the paint and the strokes that the emotion burns through.  The thick application of the background and the rich lines of the foliage all express much more than the mere subject.  To me, this piece is brimming with desire and heartbreak, love and anger– a spectrum of human experience. 

So I try to get kids to look beyond the subject and try to see what is really contained in the surface of any painting.  After all, a pitcher of irises may say much more than it seems.

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