Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Charles White at N'Namdi Gallery

Charles White, Shaping of Black America
N’Namdi Gallery - March 5th

The first thing you notice about these iconic images of American black people is that none of them are angry. Contemplative, intelligent, determined: yes all of those qualities are magnificently expressed, but none of these characters, whether ordinary workers or famous liberators, seem angry about the world of injustice and humiliation into which they were born.

The next thing you notice is that the only thing about them that is African are the features of their faces. They could just as well be Mexican, or Chinese, or Turkish, rendered as they were in the international style of social realism, that leans so heavily on European painting from Giotto to Michelangelo.

Which is especially surprising since this work was done in 1974, at the height of the Black Power movement that inspired so many young African American artists of that era, especially the Africobra artists here in Chicago, to explore African themes, colors, and designs.

But the painter of these images was Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979) and they were done for the publisher of Ebony Magazine, John H. Johnson (1918-2005) who, like White, also grew up in poverty on Chicago’s south side and rose to prominence by virtue of hard work, imagination, and dedication to the destiny of his people.

Originally, this series of 12 paintings was intended to illustrate each chapter of “The Shaping of Black America” , written by Lerone Bennett, the long-time editor of Ebony Magazine. But the small images that appear in the book give no idea of the painstaking craftsmanship that is apparent in the 31”x 39” originals.

Done in monochrome oil on board, they have the feeling of watercolor on paper, with a carefulness that expresses the tenacity, dignity, self-reliance, and sensitivity of the cultural ideals being represented, as well as the mature character of the artist himself at the age of 56.

The social idealism found in his earlier work at the Art Institute (like “Harvest Talk”, 1953) has turned inward to become more personal.

There’s not a lot of joy in these severe monochrome images that seem to painfully emerge from discarded, crumpled brown wrapping paper. But this was intended to be a history lesson, not an aesthetic banquet, and aren’t most of the lessons from history grim ones?

Friday, February 4, 2011

John Marin at the Art Institute of Chicago

John Marin's Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism
Art Institute of Chicago
thru April 17

Sometime in the last century, the shameless huckster became the marketing professional, and the skills of building brand and market share were applied to fine arts as well as chewing gum. What’s so fascinating about Arthur Stieglitz is that he remains so admirable as an aesthete, as well as an artist and successful promoter. The permanent installation in Gallery 265 is the tribute that the Art Institute pays to his uncanny ability to help turn exceptional but obscure young artists into national icons: Georgia O’Keefe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Edward Steichen, and John Marin.

Stieglitz began his career promoting photography, but what ultimately captured his enthusiasm was Modernism, the kind that was strong, bold, personal, and just as spontaneous as a shutter click. It was distinguished by its form rather than its perceived content, and none of the work he sold exemplified that any more than the watercolors of John Marin which he continued to collect and sell throughout his life. Happily, in 1949, Georgia O’Keeffe donated 40 of those pieces to the Art Institute, and they are now on display with 16 other paintings (plus some etchings) from the museum’s collection. All 56 are were made by Marin, but the ones that Stieglitz himself collected are the most exciting, as Marin acrobatically triumphed over the daring risks he took with his unforgiving medium.

And what a wonderful variety there are, from the slow and massive to the quick and crackling; from a room full of vibrant New York cityscapes to the rooms of ships, seacoasts, landscapes, and even nude bathers (whose puffy pink shapes are such a contrast with his usual angularities). But is all this expression specific to the Modernism that Stieglitz promoted and the Art Institute enshrines ? Are John Marin’s watercolors a medium for Modernism – or are they a medium for the kind of aesthetic enjoyment of the world that European landscapes have been expressing for centuries, and Asian brush paintings for a millennium? Gallery signage quotes Marin’s nonchalance about subject matter (any boat will do), though elsewhere he pronounced its importance and distanced himself from inner self expression. If Marin was a pioneer in abstract art, so was Rembrandt when he made his landscape drawings.

This exhibit is a triumph of aesthetic practice – in both the painting, the collecting, the curation (Martha Tedeschi), and even the framing, which uses either original gallery frames or ones made to their specifications. Under its current director, several shows have been mounted, using only objects from the museum’s own off-view collection. And this show is no less spectacular than the exhibits of the museum's own European tapestries and Japanese screens that preceeded it.

But it’s also a tragedy. Because when this show comes down, all these paintings may well spend another 60 years in storage, accessible only to those who make appointments with the Goldman Study Center (now open 8 hours/week). Why can’t they be rotated through a gallery of 20th C. works on paper, the way that Ukiyo-e prints have been in the Buckingham Gallery? Why can’t high resolution images of them be posted on the Internet? Why are visitors not allowed to take pictures of these items which are from the museum’s own collection?

Perhaps because the musem is far more committed to the ideologies rather than the aesthetics of modern art, and supporting evidence for an ideology only needs to be comprehended once. It’s only an aesthetic achievement, like a recording of Uchida playing Mozart, that needs to be experienced again and again and again.

Note: the above images,
taken from the AIC website,
are so small
I'm almost too embarassed
to show them.

Cape Split, 1935

But here's how his paintings look
in nice, big images
(thanks to Colby College, Maine)

Brooklyn Bridge, 1912