Archive for the Painting Category

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , on November 30, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Dark Day Picks highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.

Asian Art Museum, SF—Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam & Burma. The first major exhibition in the West to explore the rich but little known arts of Siam and Burma from the 19th century. Many of the than 140 works, including sculptures, textiles, paintings, and ceramics come from the Doris Duke Collection (recently donated to the Museum) and have never been on display before. The only venue for this show.  Through January 10, 2010.

Modernism, 685 Market Street, SF—Catherine Courtenaye: Fieldhand and Other Works. “Courtenaye’s inscriptions gently mock the idea that every move of the artist’s hand registers some truth of personality or mood. The whole point of calligraphic penmanship was to suppress vagaries of temperament.”—Kenneth Baker.  Through December 23.

Cain Schulte, 714 Guerrero St. SF—Justin Quinn: Keep Out This Frost. “Justin Quinn continues his transcription of Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick into the letter E. This letter has become a surrogate for all letters in the alphabet, presenting a universal yet unreadable language.  This simplified system allows Quinn to explore the distance between reading and seeing.” Through December 23.

Venetian Red Notebook: Othon Friesz’s Chromatic Fervor

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Othon Friesz, Paysage (Le Bec de l’Aigle, La Ciotat), 1907
oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 32″ (courtesy SF MOMA)

It would be easy to overlook Othon Friesz’s Paysage (Le Bec de l’Aigle, La Ciotat) in the upstairs gallery of works on permanent display at SF MOMA. Tucked just inside the entryway on the right, this gem of chromatic fervor is not directly in sight. With the far wall beckoning, one is tempted to make a bee-line across the room, ignoring the wall on which The Eagle’s Beak hangs.

That would be a shame,  because the painting is just about as good an example of Fauvism—that fleeting but influential movement—as exists in the museum’s collection.

If his mother had had her way, Othon Friesz (1879-1949) would have become a musician. But, Friesz, born into a prominent shipbuilding family in Le Havre, convinced her that art was his true calling. Friesz studied at the École des Beaux-Arts (Le Havre) under neo-classicist Charles-Marie Lhuillier. There he met Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy, who would become lifelong friends, as well as fellow Fauves.

Othon Friesz, Bec de l’Aigle, La Ciotat, 1906-7
oil on canvas, 65.5 x 81 cms.

In 1898, Friesz moved to Paris to study at the Beaux-Arts under Academic painter Leon Bonnat.

Despite the academic styles of of teachers, Othon Friesz’s work this period shows the hallmarks of Impressionism—painting directly from nature, interest in the effects of light

In the first years of the new century, however, Friesz sought to break away from Impressionism. In Paris he met Henri Matisse and came under the spell of the emotional force of colors and the power of the flattened picture plane that defined the Fauvist painters. In 1905, he exhibited with the other Fauves at the seminal Salon d’Automne and again in 1906 at the Salon des Indépendants.

Like Matisse, Derain and the other Fauves, Friesz’s style owes much to Cézanne’s innovations in composition, color and brush technique. Freisz pushed color and line into the realm of the decorative, to great effect. Though the compositional lines of this painting swirl with harmonious movement, curiously Le Bec feels like an unrushed effort. It’s less like a plein air work and more deliberately thought out, more embellished as a result of the thinking.

As critic Clive Bell observed in 1921: “… Friesz has a reaction as delicate and enthusiastic as that of an English poet. Only, unlike most English painters, he would never dream of jotting it down and leaving it at that. Such hit-or-miss frivolity is not in his way. He is no amateur. He takes his impressions home and elaborates them; he brings his intellect to bear on them; and, as the exhibition at the Independent Gallery shows, without robbing them of their bloom, makes them something solid and satisfying. .” (Burlington Magazine, June 1921, p.281)

Othon Friesz, La Ciotat, 1907
oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm (private collection).

In Le Bec, Friesz has succeeded in revealing the essential character of Le Bec, a most unusual natural form. Equally important through his distinctive color palette—warm yellows and reds—he has expertly evoked the afternoon light of the Mediterranean.

By 1908, a revived interest in Paul Cézanne’s vision of the order and structure of nature had led many of them to reject the turbulent emotionalism of Fauvism in favor of the logic of Cubism. (Braque to substantial success.) And yet, the Fauves released generations of subsequent painters from the restraints of “local” color.

Le Bec stands as our own local testament to this brief, luminescent moment in the history of art.

Wider Connections

Scott Hewicker & Cliff Hengst pair SF MOMA Collection with some of their favorite songs, including this Friesz.
Masters of Color exhibition catalog
More Friesz

Dark Day Picks—New York Roundup

Posted in Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , on November 23, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Today Dark Day Picks departs from its usual coverage of San Francisco to highlight noteworthy events in New York.

Onassis Cultural Center—The Origins of El Greco. Holland Cotter reviewed this show as: the “most enwrapping and enrapturing art in town, framed by alert scholarship, a lambent environment (the installation design is by Daniel Kershaw), and a score of Byzantine music, arranged and performed by the Greek ensemble En Chordais, that will soak into your system and stay there.” See also VR The Making of an Iconoclast.  Though February 27, 2010.

International Center for Photography—Dress Codes: The Third ICP Triennial of Photography and Video. A global survey of some of the most exciting photographers interpreting the theme of fashion. Through January 17, 2010.

American Museum of Natural History—Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World. Making stops at Xi’an, Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad, this multi-faceted show includes dioramas, interactive exhibits, artifacts, performances by Yo-Yo Ma and a variety of films bring the legacy of the ancient Silk Road alive. Through August 15, 2010.

A Different Canvas: Charles Burchfield’s Landscapes for Interiors

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, Painting, Textiles, Wallpaper with tags on November 18, 2009 by Christine Cariati

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles and wallpaper.  For all posts in the series, click here.

by Christine Cariati

Charles Burchfield, Morning Glories, c.1925
Design for fabric
Burchfield Penney Art Center

When Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was a young man in Ohio he painted experimental watercolors of nature and insects in an expressionistic and exuberant style where color had deep emotional resonance and even sounds were depicted through an invented calligraphic shorthand. In 1930, the newly-opened Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted Burchfield’s work in their inaugural solo exhibition.

Charles E. Burchfield, The Insect Chorus, 1917
Opaque & transparent watercolor w/ink, graphite & crayon
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York

In the 1930s and 1940s Burchfield shifted gears and began to paint the masterful, quiet yet dramatic portraits of industrial small town and city life for which he became very well known. These paintings were mostly watercolors but had the solidity and palette more commonly found in oil painting.

Charles Burchfield, Freight Cars Under a Bridge, 1933
Watercolor, Detroit Institute of Arts

Then, in 1943, when Burchfield was fifty years old, he returned to the landscape and created a stunning body of work. These large-scale, semi-abstracted landscapes vibrate with energy that lovingly reflects on and explores the landscape of upstate New York—the change of seasons, weather, clouds and flora—in a deeply inspired and spiritual way that has strong psychological and emotional resonance.

Charles Burchfield, Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring), 1950
Watercolor on paper
Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York
photo courtesy Gary Mamay

VR recently discovered that in 1921, after studying at the Cleveland School of Art, the young Burchfield relocated to Buffalo, New York (where he lived the rest of his life) to work as a wallpaper designer at M.H. Birge & Sons. He also designed coordinating fabrics for interiors. These designs are harbingers of Burchfield’s later work, celebrating nature and the seasons in a decorative yet very painterly and beautiful way. It’s an interesting variation on the theme of established artists venturing into textile design and yet another example of the fruitfulness of embracing both decorative and fine art.

Charles Burchfield, Bleeding Hearts, 1929
Design for wallpaper

Charles Burchfield, Robins and Crocuses, 1929
Design for wallpaper

Charles Burchfield, September, c. 1925

A retrospective of Burchfield’s work, Heatwaves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, is at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through January 3, 2010.

Dark Day Picks

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting with tags , , on November 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

On Mondays Venetian Red celebrates the day of the week when most galleries and museums are traditionally closed. Dark Day Picks highlights current exhibitions, new installations, books, and art world tidbits. Get a jump on a week filled with art.


Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery—Frances McCormack, recent paintings. For McCormack loosely interpreted botanical forms and architectural elements are the vehicles through which she explores the restraints/opportunities presented by the rectangular picture plane. Through Dec. 12.

Caldwell Snyder Gallery—Cole Morgan. Morgan harnesses his signature style—graffiti-like paint notations and pencil scratching—into the grid format. Sometimes Morgan’s work gets a little too self-conscious, but joy and whimsy always shows through. Through Nov. 30.

111 Minna Gallery—The Novemberists, including collages by former SF Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. Through Nov. 30.

A Different Canvas: The British Abstractionists

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

This is the third installment in a series of posts, in which Venetian Red explores aspects of artist-designed textiles.  For all posts in the series, click here.

Henry Moore—Barbed Wire 1946

Henry Moore, Barbed Wire, ca. 1946,
serigraphy in five colors, spun rayon (courtesy The Ascher Collection).

While primarily known as sculptors and painters, the British “Abstractionists” Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Henry Moore (1898-1986) also designed a fair number of textiles. Though not always huge commercial successes, in fact their designs did help revitalize British textile design, which was nearly moribund in the pre-War years.

Nicholson, Hepworth, and Moore were eager to experiment with textiles; they all considered designing for the applied arts to be a legitimate part of their artistic output. Further, they understood the power of the mass-distributed textiles to introduce their individual aesthetics to new audiences.

Barbara Hepworth—Pillar, 1937

Barbara Hepworth, Pillar, 1937,
woven cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, produced by Edinburgh Weavers.

A discussion of mid-20th-century textile design in Britain necessarily begins with William Morris (1834-1896), the undisputed progenitor of the industry. Through tireless efforts, Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts movement provided the framework—in terms of both design and production—that would thrust Britain, indeed the world, into the modern design age.

Ben Nicholson—3 Circles, 1937

Ben Nicholson, Three Circles, 1946-47,
screen printed linen, produced by Edinburgh Weavers (courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

By the mid-19th century Britain enjoyed clear dominance in the production of textiles. An ample supply of inexpensive cotton thread from her colonies, together with an unfailing commitment to industrialization of the weaving process and to the production of synthetic dyes (spurred by the discovery of synthetic mauve in 1856 by Sir William Perkin) formed the backbone of her competitive advantage.

Roller printed export cotton, Lancashire 1858

Pre-Morris Design—typical roller-printed export cotton, Lancashire, ca.1858
(courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum).

Nonetheless, the nation’s pre-occupation with technology eventually stymied design innovation. By the 1860s, the industry was hopelessly mired in copy-cat design practices that bred profusely-ornate and garishly-colored patterns. The country’s ability to provide innovative décor and fashion fabrics to a burgeoning middle class was seriously compromised.

Wm Morris—Larkspur wallpaper, 1872

William Morris, Larkspur (detail), 1872, wallpaper design.

By the 1870s, Morris and his colleagues succeeded in breathing new life into the British textile trade. Morris’ imaginative and harmonious designs were influenced not only by the arts of Medieval England and France, but 16th- and 17th-century Italian textiles, as well as growing attention to the cultivation of formal gardens. The designs sought to achieved a more naturalistic depiction of floral arrangements in both color and form. Indeed, great observation was at the core of  Morris’ superior draftsmanship.  Morris succeeded in creating designs that are timeless; a century and a half later, we still find them irresistible.

In addition, Morris’ unflagging promotion the standards of hand-made production (natural dying, hand weaving, block printing) led to innovation in weaving techniques, which, in turn, restored a richness of quality to fabrics that had nearly been lost through the rapid mechanization of looms.

Phyllis Barron—Log pattern , 1915

Phyllis Barron, Log, 1915, hand-blocked cotton.

The shadow of Morris’ legacy was long. Certainly, pockets of creativity existed in Britain well into the 1920s. After Morris, the design standard was ably carried  by C.F.A. VoyseyWalter Crane, Rennie Macintosh, Liberty’s, the Omega Workshops, among others. Originally painters, Phyllis Barron (1890-1964), Dorothy Larcher (1882-1952), and Enid Marx (1902-1998) were committed to continue the revival of hand block textile printing techniques that Morris had begun. Through much truly laborious work, they produced many stunning designs, in the process keeping the hand-crafted principles of the Arts & Crafts movement alive.

Enid Marx, Blue Waves

Enid Marx, Waves, ca. 1930s, hand-block printed cotton.

Outside Britain, perhaps the most visible disciples of the movement were Peter Behrens and the Darmstadt colony, the Wiener Werkstätte, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Lötte Frömel-Fochler—Grünfink

Lotte Frömel-Fochler, Grünfink, 1910, fabric sample.

By the early 1930s, these innovations notwithstanding, the British textile industry on the whole had once again sunk into a deep design funk. In place of British goods, the lushly-ornamental designs of the French had become highly-desirous. The British textile manufacturers were simply unable to compete effectively. Compounding matters, an ever-deepening economic depression enveloped the nation.

Nancy Nicholson—Unicorn, 1930s

Nancy Nicholson, Unicorn, 1930s, bedspread, block print and stencil.

A handful of textile firms specifically sought to redress this problem. In the early 1930s, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth began experimenting with block printing on textiles through Poulk Press, established by Nicholson’s sister, Nancy. Later they would work under the auspices of Edinburgh Weavers (established in 1928) whose director, Alastair Morton, regularly commissioned artists throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s to provide avant garde fabrics to the architectural trade.

Alastair Morton

Alastair Morton, late 1930s (?).

In October 1937, Morton launched the “Constructivist Fabrics” collection with designs by Nicholson,Hepworth,Winifred Nicholson (Nicholson’s first wife), and Arthur Jackson (Barbara Hepworth’s cousin).

Ben Nicholson—Princess, 1933

Ben Nicholson, Princess, 1933, hand block printed cotton.

Nicholson was already pre-occupied with flat geometric shapes in his paintings and linocut prints, and it is easy to imagine why he was influenced by Enid Marx’s work (though he found her techniques too slow and soon had his sister printing his designs). Nicholson produced some of the most austere textile prints of the pre-War period; but as Three Circles (above) demonstrates, he also could harness his fascination with geometry into appealing designs.

Hepworth’s textile designs closely follow her abstract paintings and drawings, in which she often worked out ideas for her sculptures. Hepworth had a gift for mathematics, and was close to her father (a civil engineer), so her two-dimensional works often have the vestiges of technical drawings in them. She and Nicholson were married for over 20 years, and although their work is different, it is also highly complementary.

Marianne Mahler—Treetops, 1939

Marianne Mahler, Treetops, 1939,
printed cotton and rayon furnishing fabric, printed by Edinburgh Weavers.

Though the importance of the Edinburgh Weavers within interior design industry was substantiated by the magazines and trendsetters of the 1930s and 40s, Morton once admitted that the fabrics weren’t always commercial successes:

There may be relatively few buildings yet that can suitably use them. But we are confident that they are the type of buildings and fabrics that the present generation wants and their production will have been justified if they have helped to develop a genuine contemporary style of interior decoration, keeping its place in the living culture of today.”

—Alistair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Art, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 12

The company continued to produce avant garde textiles until Alastair Morton’s death in 1963.

Victor Vasarely, Oeta, furnishing fabric, 1962,
printed by Edinburgh Weavers, (courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum)

Henry Moore first became interested in fabrics during WWII, when Czech exiles Zika and Lida Ascher commissioned Moore, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, and others, to create designs for a collection of limited-edition silk scarves for their textile company. Soon Moore had filled four notebooks with designs, not simply for this commission, but for furnishing fabrics and dress-making material.

Henry Moore—Three Standing Figures, 1944, silk serigraphed scarf

Henry Moore, Three Standing Figures, 1944
serigraph on silk, printed by Ascher, Ltd.

His textile designs show a wholly different Moore, full of expressionistic line and color. Textile design fitted Moore’s socialist aim of integrating modern art into daily life, so familiar, though ominous, objects, including barbed wire or twisted safety pins,  gave his designs a distinctive hard edge. Whimsical motifs such as clock hands, sea creatures, and piano keys referenced Moore’s pre-war flirtation with surrealism.

Henry Moore, textile design

Henry Moore, textile design from sketchbook, 1940s, pencil/was/crayon/wash.

Given the drab chroma of his iconic stone and metal sculptures, one of the most astonishing elements of Moore’s textile designs is his use of vivid color. The artist conceived his hues—among them lime green, mustard yellow, bright pink—as a counterweight to post-war drabness. Moore once said that color for him was “a bit of a holiday,” and his work in textiles offered him the opportunity to work unfettered in this realm.

Wider Connections

Enid Marx
Alison Morton, hand weaver & daughter of Alistair Morton
VADS—Textile Collection
Meg Andrews—Antique Costumes & Textiles
Barbara Hepworth

“Henry Moore Textiles”

Venetian Red Notebook: Don Hong-Oai’s Arresting Photographs

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Don Hong-Oai, Only Me Yellow Mountain, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Gallery 71).

Though the landscape genre has long been appreciated in Western art, “nature art”—the depiction of nature and her species—has struggled to be taken seriously as a fine art form.  Not to be confused with domesticated animal portraiture, essentially a form of still life (i.e. animals as possessions), “nature art” is most often categorized as “illustration.” Perhaps that’s because, in the West, the depiction of the natural world has historically served science.  Even Audubon thought of himself as a scientist first; drawing and painting were just the means of documenting his findings.

John James Audubon, Belted Kingfisher, Havell plate no. 77, ca. 1812; 1822 (courtesy New York Public Library).

Asian masters seem to have been free from such constraints, no doubt because of the long tradition of purposeful reverence for nature there. Taoists believe that harmony with the Tao can only be achieved by living in accord with nature. Nature should be understood, befriended, not conquered or exploited. Additionally, Sung Dynasty (960-1979) Confucianists sought knowledge through “things,” reflecting their interest in observation and understanding of the world through nature.

Fan K’uan (990-1030), Sitting in Contemplation by a Stream, ink on silk.

Long before the Impressionists then, Chinese tradition dictated that a painter actually observe nature for long periods—notice how animals behaved, interacted with flora; record how the landscape changes with the seasons, distances, and times of the day—so that it would deeply resonate with him. In China’s tradition ofbird and flower painting,” which dates from the Tang Dynasty (8th/9th centuries), the birds and flowers are but one among many elements in an overall composition. The image isn’t meant to convey specifics, but the emotional impact of nature. Eventually two main trends evolved, one, Gong Bi, in which artists focused on small details, careful application of color and meticulous technique, giving their art a realistic and ornamental feeling; the other,  Xie Yi, looser and more expressionistic.

Don Hong-Oai, Winter Fog, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

With the rise of photography as a fine art medium at the dawn of the 20th century, it was only natural that photographers would at first imitate the motifs and techniques of painting. Stieglitz and his contemporaries did much to champion American “pictorialism, ” recognizable through its soft-focus, painterly style. (See Venetian Red’s The Birth of Photographic Pictorialism).

In the 1940s, possibly in Hong Kong, photographers popularized a style of composite image, which came to be known as “Asian Pictorialism.”  The images, based on the motifs of the “bird and flower” paintings, made extensive use of double negatives and montaged elements, all assembled in a vaguely realistic way.  Like the paintings, realism was not the goal; these photographic images were supposed to communicate the emotive power of nature.

Don Hong-Oai, Hoops, 11×14,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004) was one of the last photographers to work in this tradition.  Although the influences are recognizable (down to the “chop,” or calligraphic signature on the photographs), Hong-Oai’s images are truly unique. The photographer managed to create idealized scenes through hauntingly-specific details. He’s suggested whole worlds through the sparsest of details. His images are often atmospheric, although never overtly sentimental. However, the penultimate magic of these images lies in their alluding to the passage of time without being rooted in any specific time. Time passes; time is arrested.

Don Hong-Oai, Returning at Dusk, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Born in Canton, China, Hong-Oai was the youngest in a family of 25 children. His early life was dominated by poverty. As a young child, after the sudden death of his parents, he was sent to live in Saigon. Beginning as a seven-year old, Hong-Oai apprenticed to a photography studio, where he learned the basic techniques of photography. He nurtured an interest in photographing the landscape, which he did on his time off with the studio camera. (Who knows how long it must have taken him to save the $48 necessary to buy his first camera?) Later, he studied at the Vietnam University College of Art, eventually becoming a teacher there.

He studied with an earlier master of the Asian pictorial style, Long Chin-San. Chin-San had been trained in the techniques of “bird and flower painting,” and searched for ways to translate the overall effect into photography. He is reputed to have perfected the negative layering method around 1939.

Long Chin-San, Longevity, 1961, photograph.

Hong-Oai remained in Vietnam through the war. In 1979, however, because of disturbances between China and Vietnam, the photographer fled the country by boat, arriving at the age of 50 in San Francisco speaking no English. For years, he lived in Chinatown, where he had a small darkroom. He sold his prints at local street fairs.  Periodically, he returned to China to replenish his inventory of images.

Don Hong-Oai, Solitary Wooden Boat, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Only in the last decade of his life was Don Hong-Oai discovered by a wider public. These days, print of his work often start at $2,600 and a first edition of his book, Photographic Memories, now out of print, was recently offered on Amazon for $1,242.

Photographer Don Hong-Oai

Wider Connections

Utata—Don Hong-Oai biography

The Nonist—The World According to Chin-san Long

Birds: The Art of Ornithology

Alma Thomas: On the Shoulders of Giants

Posted in Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2009 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Over the past several weeks our contributors have been on hiatus, in order to participate in SF Open Studios event. With this piece Venetian Red resumes its regular posting schedule.

By LIZ HAGER

Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976,
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 x 135 1/2″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In 1924, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) became the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s newly-created fine arts department. Quite possibly, she was the first African-American to hold this kind of degree. She went on to become the first women to receive a Masters’ degree (teaching) from Columbia University. For 35 years, Thomas dedicated herself to teaching art to high school students. She retired in 1960, in order to focus on her own work. In her 70s, plagued by arthritis and degenerating eyesight, she threw herself into her work. In 1972, at age 80, she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Two weeks ago, Alma Thomas made news yet again.

Alma Thomas—Blue Abstraction 1961Alma Thomas, Blue Abstraction, c.1961
oil on canvas, 34 x 40″.
(Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Although the list of artworks the Obamas have requisitioned for the White House collection was released months ago, it wasn’t until a recent  New York Times’ article—“White House Art”—that members of the conservative blogosphere found another excuse to blast the Obama administration. Indignant, they locked their rifle scopes on one painting in particular, Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge).  Free Republic and Michelle Malkin posted particularly exemplary pieces, decrying the work as an “almost exact replication” of Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) The Snail. All Thomas had done, they argued, was to rotate Matisse’s canvas clockwise 90° and change some colors. “An embarrassment for the ‘sophisticates’ who failed to spot a copy hiding in plain sight,” one blogger hissed.

Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
gouache on paper, cut and pasted on paper mounted on canvas, approximately 113″ square.
(Tate Gallery)

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963
acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8 x 44 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

The outcry was predictably bereft of thoughtful analysis. In the aggregate, the derisive comments—”my two year old could have done that” and “the crap that passes for art”— not to mention downright ugly sneers—”The original itself is a hoax. Most modern art is.”—might otherwise be a sobering reminder that a vocal segment of the population appears truly threatened by modern art. Predictably, though, the commentators revealed themselves to be neither knowledgeable nor interested in the subject of modern art. No, it was pretty clear from the particulars (including some nasty, racially-oriented snips) that Thomas and, by extension modern art, was merely the scapegoat here; Watusi was the vehicle through which the conservative fringe could ridicule, yet again, the President’s alleged lack of judgment. One self-appoint -ed cognoscente snickered: “He can’t even pick real art.”

Jean Arp, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance), 1916-1917
torn-and-pasted paper and colored paper on colored paper, 19 1/8 x 13 5/8″.
(Museum of Modern Art; © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Did Alma Thomas copy Matisse? When it comes to intellectual property, despite  legal guidelines, copying is often harder to prove than it would seem.

Alma Thomas, Early Cherry Blossoms, 1973,
acrylic on canvas, 69 x 50″.
(Michael Rosenfeld Gallery)

On the one hand, as any trained artist knows, examining the world through the eyes of others is a necessary step on the road to developing a “mature” personal style. Indeed, all of human progress has been built on the shoulders of previous giants. Matisse’s cutouts could not have existed without the work of the collagists who preceded him—Jean Arp,  Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch—who in turn owed debts to earlier Cubists, Picasso and Braque. And on it goes.

Henri Matisse, Snow Flowers,1951,
watercolor and gouache on cut and pasted papers, 75 11/16  x  35 7/8″.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On the other hand, illegitimate copying is real. Both Richard Prince (See VR’s “Prince of Pilfer”) and Jeff Koons have  been sued by photographers for incorporating copyrighted work into their own. Koons lost the Rogers v. Koons case, but won a more recent suit under the “fair use” doctrine.  Readers will remember that earlier this year Damien Hirst threatened to sue a 16-year-old over his use of an image of Hirst’s diamond-incrusted skull, in the process demanding royalties.

Alma Thomas at work in her studio, 1970s?

In the imaginary case of Matisse v. Thomas, interpretations of the “substantially similar” clause suggest many ambiguities that would present a challenge to definitively proving copyright infringement. (Imagined cries of “I know copying when I see it!” from Thomas bashers aside.) Thomas always credited Matisse for the inspiration that produced Watusi. It is obvious that the work launched her on a journey of artistic discovery that produced her unique and forward-looking (if not radical) mosaic style.

To assert that Thomas was “simply copying” Matisse would be to deny the rich and varied underpinnings of her work.  Thomas was deeply impressed by the colors and patterns of the natural world around her.  “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she once said.

Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches, 1938
oil on linen, approximately 21 x 25″.
(The Smithsonian American Art Museum)

At her best, Thomas adeptly fused her own interpretation of the modernist approaches to color with the craft traditions (textile-based in Thomas’ case) of black America to arrive at a style that, while abstract, never quite looses its connection with natural form.  In addition to Matisse, Thomas identified with the work of Cézanne, as well as her teachers Jacob KainenRobert Gates, Joe Summerford, and Lois Mailou Jones.

Alma Thomas, Oriental Garden Concerto, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 68 1/4 X 54 1/4″.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

If there was any real “crime” committed by the Obamas in the selection of their White House collection, it was that only 6 (!) of the 45 pieces were by women. (Louise Nevelson and Susan Rothenberg also included.)  Worse perhaps, no Latinos/as were represented at all.  Not exactly  “Change We Can Believe In.”

Alma Thomas, White Roses Sing and Sing, 1976
acrylic on canvas, 72 1/2 x 52 3/8″.
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Hullaballoo

Michelle Malkin—Do the Watusi: Art, Imitation, and the Obamas

greg.org—“On Wingnuts on Alma Thomas”

Steven Kaplan—“Watusi vs. L’Escargot: Another Desperate Republican Attempt to Smear Obama”

The Mississippifarian—“It’s Called ‘Having a Clue.’ “

Wider Connections

Holland Cotter—“Colors From a World of Black and White”

Self-taught sculptor William Edmondson was the first African-American to have a solo show in a major US museum. See “Doin’ the Lord’s Work.”

John Elderfield—The Cutouts of Henri Matisse

Merry Foresta—Alma Thomas: A Life in Art

News Grist: Audio Symposium—A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars

US Copyright Office

Dark Day Picks: SF Open Studios Weekend 4

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Ceramics, Female Artists, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , on October 26, 2009 by Liz Hager

Over the four weekends in October we’re highlighting San Francisco Open Studios, the largest program of its kind in the country. Artists invite viewers into their studios to see the work outside of the gallery system. SF Open Studios takes place during successive weekends in October, different neighborhoods on different weekends.

Weekend 4: October 31 & November 1
Neighborhood: Hunter’s Point Shipyard

Paula Clark—Anti-physics
Paula Clark, Bldg. 101, #1312

Susan Friedman, Bldg. 101, #1517

Dolores R Gray—I Wanted to Dance with Josephine

Dolores R. Gray, Bldg. 101, #1302

Julie Nelson, Bldg. 116, Studio A

Sawyer Rose, Bldg. 110, #205

Jane Woolverton, Bldg. 101, #1408

Maggie Malloy—Origins and Tools

Maggie Malloy, Bldg. 116, #7


Dark Day Picks: SF Open Studios Weekend 2

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mixed Media, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2009 by Liz Hager

Over the four weekends in October  we’re highlighting San Francisco Open Studios, the largest program of its kind in the country. Artists invite viewers into their studios to see the work outside of the gallery system.

Weekend 2: October 17 & 18
Neighborhoods: Buena Vista, Diamond Heights, Fort Mason, Haight, Hayes Valley, Marina, Mount Davidson, Pacific Heights, Richmond, Sunset, Ocean Beach, Twin Peaks, West Portal

Christine Cariati—Atelier 781, 781 Sixth Avenue

Tashkent paradise

Liz Hager—Atelier 781, 781 Sixth Avenue

Mary Daniel Hobson—3069 Washington Street at Baker Street

Barbara Kleinhans—1240 Hayes Street, #6

Marilynne Morshead

Marilynne Morshead—Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Fleet Room #100

Wider Connections

Art Span

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