Unfinished?

Labor Day weekend, I was an invited artist in Art by the Sea/The Sea Ranch Tour, in which I opened my studio to the public. As in the previous two years, I met lots of delightful people and was happy they purchased my artwork for their homes. But one of the other artists on the tour expressed reluctance to sell her work because she didn't think the pieces were finished. She said she was still experimenting. Yet visitors to her studio wanted to buy them.

"Saint Barbara" (1437), by Jan Van Eyck. Metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood. Photo by Lukas Image Bank, Belgium. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium.

"Saint Barbara" (1437), by Jan Van Eyck. Metalpoint, brush drawing, and oil on wood. Photo by Lukas Image Bank, Belgium. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp, Belgium.

Naturally, the following questions arose: When is a work of art finished? Who's to say? Or is it ever finished? When do we stop experimenting and reworking? Whether we're involved in literature, theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, or fiber art, are we ever totally done with a poem, play, symphony, tapestry, novel, or collage, even after it has been exposed to the public? During the decades that I freelanced as a writer, I remember editing everything over and over, until the last deadline forced me to stop. If I were to reread the articles, reviews, and books I published during those times, I bet I'd still want to make changes today. As visual artists, writers, composers, or choreographers, we're constantly evolving, so why wouldn't what we create also keep evolving, even if only subtly? One of the women in the monthly art salon in which I participate told us that, according to a biography of Shakespeare she'd read, he kept revising till the very end of his life.

Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1505. Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le  Attività culturali /Art Resource, NY. Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Italy.

Head of a Woman (La Scapigliata), by Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1505. Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le
Attività culturali /Art Resource, NY. Galleria Nazionale di Parma, Italy.

Only two days before we discussed this issue in our salon, a big exhibition had just ended its run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible dealt with something that's crucial to any artistic practice; that is, how and when we determine a work of art is finished. The show included works that were left incomplete by the artists, affording a glimpse into their creative process. It also embraced works that were intentionally unfinished (non finito), "an aesthetic of the unresolved and open-ended" that painters such as Rembrandt, Titian, Cézanne and Turner explored. Then there are the modern and contemporary artists who did not demarcate between making and un-making and even left the "finishing" to viewers. The Met cites Janine Antoni, Lygia Clark, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg in that group. In the case of American artist Kerry James Marshall's untitled work below, the viewer is definitely invited to complete the painting by filling in the numbered areas behind the female artist.

"Untitled" (2009), by Kerry James Marshall. Yale University Art Gallery. Photo © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions.

"Untitled" (2009), by Kerry James Marshall. Yale University Art Gallery. Photo © Kerry James Marshall, courtesy
the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions.

By our standards, artwork from hundreds of years ago might not appear incomplete today because their treatment would make a different statement in the 20th or 21st century than that of detailed realism in the past. El Greco's "The Vision of Saint John" is a good example. In the 17th century, the painting looked unfinished, but not so now.

"The Vision of Saint John" (ca. 1609–14), by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). The Rogers Fund, The Met Breuer, New York.

"The Vision of Saint John" (ca. 1609–14), by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). The Rogers Fund,
The Met Breuer, New York.

The Met's website has photos of 209 exhibition objects. I selected some of them for this post. As you look at them, do you feel that they're incomplete? Would you rather have had the artists finish them or do you enjoy the opportunity to imagine what they would be like? Do you find yourself filling in details? Do you interpret the art differently? I consider the incomplete portraits far more interesting, for they seem to convey moods that might not otherwise come across so distinctly when there is so much else to view in the painting beyond the face.

"Portrait of a Young Man" (ca. 1770), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Photo by Hickey Robertson, Houston. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

"Portrait of a Young Man" (ca. 1770), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Photo by Hickey Robertson,
Houston. The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas.

"George Romney" (1784), by George Romney. © National Portrait Gallery, London/ Art Resource, NY. National Portrait Gallery, London.

"George Romney" (1784), by George Romney. © National Portrait Gallery, London/
Art Resource, NY. National Portrait Gallery, London.

"Woman Reading" (ca. 1927), by Juan Gris. ?Photo by Dianne Yanovick Dornquast. The Met Breuer, New York.

"Woman Reading" (ca. 1927), by Juan Gris. ?Photo by Dianne Yanovick Dornquast. The Met Breuer, New York.

According to the Met's notes, Juan Gris once expressed a "desire to find a more sensitive side in his art, one he associated with the freedom and charm of the unfinished." The underdrawing in this work reveals how Gris constructed his composition geometrically. But he added his personal take on Cubism with such curvaceous elements as the oval shape of the upper body and the flowing black lines. It was not his intention to leave the reading woman incomplete; rather, he abandoned it because of failing health. Still, it has a certain intriguing charm just the way it is, as though peering through an X-ray.

Neither did Gustav Klimt complete his posthumous portrait of Maria ("Ria") Munk III. While he was working on this third attempt at portraying the woman who committed suicide because her fiancé broke off their engagement, Klimt himself died. As with Gris' painting, what remains demonstrates the artist's process. The history of this painting begs another question: How do you finish something that someone else has literally finished off?

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-1918), by Gustav  Klimt. The Lewis Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-1918), by Gustav
Klimt. The Lewis Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

Particularly with some expressions of modern art, how is anyone to decide when a painting or sculpture is done? Unless Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) wanted to change the feeling in this portrait of his wife Annette (immediately below), isn't it complete as a reflection of a dark, perhaps troubled state? Would more dabs of clay make a difference in English sculptor Rebecca Warren's "The Twin" (second below)? Etcetera for the others.

"Annette" (1961), by Alberto Giacometti. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

"Annette" (1961), by Alberto Giacometti. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, The Met Breuer, New York.

"The Twin" (2005), by Rebecca Warren. © Rebecca Warren courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

"The Twin" (2005), by Rebecca Warren. © Rebecca Warren courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

"Untitled I (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled I (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled II (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Untitled II (Green Paintings)" (ca. 1986), by Cy Twombly. ©Cy Twombly Foundation.

"Reticulárea cuadrada 71/6" (1971-1976), by Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt).  Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Fundación Gego.The Met Breuer, New York.

"Reticulárea cuadrada 71/6" (1971-1976), by Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt). 
Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. © Fundación Gego.The Met Breuer, New York.

"Tumors Personified" (1971), by Alina Szapocznikow. Photo by Bartosz Górka. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland.

"Tumors Personified" (1971), by Alina Szapocznikow. Photo by Bartosz Górka. © 2016 Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, Poland.

"George Moore (1852–1933) at the Café" (1878 or 1879), by Édouard Manet. The Met Breuer, New York.

"George Moore (1852–1933) at the Café" (1878 or 1879), by Édouard Manet. The Met Breuer, New York.

I noticed that the Met did not include any artwork from Asia, at least not online. It makes me wonder whether aesthetic ideas of incompleteness are perceived differently in other parts of the world. Although Manet gifted his drawing (above) to George Moore in its unfinished state, I am drawn to it as it is, perhaps because it reminds me of certain styles in East Asian art. For example, to the right, this work of Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), a Japanese painter of the mid-Edo period, is not considered incomplete by any means. It depicts two semi-legendary Chinese monks from the T'ang dynasty: Kanzan ("Cold Mountain") and Jittoku ("the Foundling"). The artist felt no need to fill in the spaces created by his brushstrokes.

Similarly, Japanese artist Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795), did not populate the six-panel folding screen (below) with more than one goose. Although nearly empty, the painting does not feel incomplete to me. Looked at closely, the composition conveys a lot about the season and place with minimal brushstrokes. How does it strike you?

"Kanzan and Jittoku" (ca. 1763), by Itō Jakuchū. Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Kanzan and Jittoku" (ca. 1763), by Itō Jakuchū.
Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, Germany.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

"Goose and Reeds; Willows and Moon" (1774, 1793), by Maruyama Ōkyo. Ink, color and gold on paper. Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/671024

"Goose and Reeds; Willows and Moon" (1774, 1793), by Maruyama Ōkyo. Ink, color and gold on paper. Mary Griggs Burke Collection. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source: http://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/671024

Questions and Comments:
Which "incomplete" artworks leave you pondering or wanting to finish them?
How do you deal with the issue of completing your own artwork? When do you know you're done?
How are the criteria for certain forms of East Asian art different from those of Western art? What makes them complete?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Exploring the New SF MOMA

Last Sunday, I finally had an opportunity to visit the newly expanded and greatly transformed Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SF MOMA). Given what I discussed in my July 6th post about how much we can/cannot take in during a museum visit, I kept in mind what several readers and I agreed on: If you eat from the whole smörgåsbord, count on getting indigestion! With seven floors devoted to art, the museum has enough to keep you there for days. I limited myself and felt joyful when I walked out, eager to explore other galleries next time. I'm keen on discovering places and art I haven't seen yet.

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

I love the "new" museum. It is not only more spacious (the galleries alone have gone from 70,000 to 170,00 sq. ft), but also filled with more natural light along with views of the neighborhood. Terraces now invite you to walk outside among sculptures with a garden wall as backdrop. I appreciated being able to get fresh air in the presence of real plants and Alexander Calder's work. Whereas the "old" museum felt closed in, the latest incarnation feels open.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder.
Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The Living Wall is a wonderful addition for its greenery, its environmental consciousness, and its connection to art. The largest of its kind in the United States (almost 30 feet high and 150 feet wide), it was designed by Habitat Horticulture. The approximately 20,000 plants of 37 different species (40 percent of which are native to the state and the San Francisco Bay Area) are irrigated by a recycled water system. And the wall is stabilized by felt made from recycled water bottles and polyester. Visitors were lining up in front of it to take photos of each other.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The galleries have everything, even items that some might not consider art at first glance (even at second and third glances!). No matter, for wherever I walk, whether inside or outside, what I see first are shapes, forms, and flow lines. I saw lots of them and, of course, color, as I went from room to room or out to a terrace. I was surprised by artwork I don't remember viewing at SF MOMA prior to the expansion, perhaps because they couldn't be accommodated in the old setting or because they're recent additions.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Richard Serra's "Sequence" is particularly striking in size, shape, and texture (waterproof steel). Raised in San Francisco, as a teenager, Serra worked in steel mills in the East Bay. I stepped around and through "Sequence" as though I were traversing a canyon. Serra has said, "I found very important the idea of the body passing through space, and the body's movement not being predicated totally on image or sight or optical awareness, but on physical awareness in relation to space, place, time, movement."

The sheer vastness of the two torqued ellipses connected by an S-shape is awesome. I learned that Serra and a German steel fabrication plant have collaborated for nearly twenty years to develop both the machinery and manufacturing areas that are capable of creating such large-scale complex forms. "Sequence" was the first artwork to be set in SF MOMA's new building; then exterior walls were erected around it.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

My immediate impression of Ellsworth Kelly's "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" was to wonder whether he'd been inspired by scrap quilts. The title card explains that, when he found a bunch of colorful gummed paper squares, he turned them into a series of gridded collages by randomly selecting the colors. One of them became the basis for the oil painting below. According to the museum's description, chance techniques kept Kelly "from following any conscious or subconscious guidelines for balance in these compositions. The unexpected color juxtapositions break down any clear distinction between figure and ground, a disruption that Kelly found fruitful and would soon make a central concern of his work." His intention was for viewers not to analyze or interpret his work but to experience its structure, color, and surrounding space instinctively, physically.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Accustomed to Kelly's rectangular or square colorful paintings, I wasn't aware that he was one of the first artists to create irregularly shaped canvases, some of which I saw at SF MOMA.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Quite a few of Gerhard Richter's paintings remind me of lovely fiber art that has been dyed, painted, and otherwise manipulated in interesting ways. When I came upon "Geäst" (Branches), I overheard two women on a bench discussing what they imagined could be reflections in a forest stream or pond.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Although I'm not much inclined toward figurative art, "Walking Man #2" by Nathan Oliveira made me pause because of its intense texturing and mood. Questions arose in my mind about what's possibly going on with this man: Where was he walking? What was he feeling? The landscape seems so stark, the emotions dark. Along with Richard Diebenkorn and others, Oliveira was part of the development of the Bay Area Figurative style.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

One of the things that amazes me about abstract art is how much non-literal work can convey something we know and feel in our environment. To create the rhythm and surf-like pattern of "Three Pointed Waterfall," Pat Steir smeared and hurled white paint onto a black-washed canvas. Because I wasn't familiar with her work, I did a bit of reasearch and learned that John Cage and Agnes Martin were long-time mentors in her ongoing search for the essence of painting. Cage taught her the importance of egoless “non-doing” and the role of chance. Martin conveyed how an artist invests his/her spirit into a work. So Steir poured the paint, let it flow downward along its own unpredictable path, keeping herself out of it by allowing gravity, time, and the environment to decide the result. A blending of Buddhism and Taoism?

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I remember an exhibit of Ruth Asawa's work at SF MOMA years ago. of which I have the catalogue. I was glad to see some of her delicate yet strong fiber art is still there.The shadows they cast are like a secondary intangible work.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I enjoyed coming across more fiber art after a sea of paintings, drawings, and metal or wood sculptures. The textile collage below, with brass, thread, and wood, is by Romanian artist Greta Bræsecu. On the title card, I read that it is "the capstone" to a series of abstract compositions which she produced over a period of six years, in which the Greek myth of priestess-sorceress Medea "becomes a metaphor of creation through defiance and subversive transformation." An fascinating point about Bræsecu's life is that she did not leave communist Romania while other intellectuals were fleeing. She managed to express radical ideas by using handcraft-like techniques and simple gestures that avoided scrutiny for ideological content. Who knows, maybe the apparatchiks figured that a woman working with cloth was more domestic than political!

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Because male artists and white artists still predominate, I noted when a work belonged to a woman or a person of color. Sadly, I didn't find equality, though Diane Arbus has a room devoted to her photography and Agnes Martin has a small alcove of paintings. There are large canvases by Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner and a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Kahlo. Perhaps the floors I've not yet visited will reveal more art by Asian, Hispanic, African, and African-American artists.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

On the other hand, I was glad to notice that at SF MOMA fiber art is integrated into various areas according to artistic movements or periods rather than segregated from the so-called fine arts. This makes me hopeful for textile art in general, especially because the fifth floor, which I didn't reach, has a major fiber piece. Claudy Jongstra of the Netherlands was commissioned to create a site-specific mural installation in a transitional space between the white-walled galleries and the outdoor rooftop garden. On a lower floor, I watched a video interview with her about the entire process involved--from tending a flock of Europe's oldest breed of sheep (Drenthe Heath) for their high-quality wool through natural plant dyeing and felting. I look forward to seeing the finished product on my next visit.

SF MOMA's holdings are greater than 33,000 works of art and design. All I could and wanted to do was focus on a few galleries on a few floors. Although I have lots more photos to share, I'll end here with arguably the most unexpected experience. Opening the door into the Ladies' Room reminded me of stepping into a color-filled James Turrell elevator at another museum. Every inch of SF MOMA is dedicated to art in one way or another!

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Questions & Comments:
Even if you're not a fan of modern art, what can you cite as interesting, intriguing, or challenging about it?
If you are a lover of modern art, what about it floats your boat?

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.

Defiance in Art

Frida Kahlo (1932). Photo by Guillermo Kahlo. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

Frida Kahlo (1932). Photo by Guillermo Kahlo.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/.

For the last month or two, I've found myself thinking about what it means to be defiant in one's art. The word defiance can be defined as "a daring or bold resistance to authority or to any opposing force"; "proud and determined opposition"; "disobedience" and "rebelliousness." In a sense, it's about not trusting the powers-that-be to tell us what kind of art to create or to love. (For fans of etymology: Latin, fi from fidareand de-, a prefix that negates). I also understand that it's about going ahead and doing something in spite of existing conditions and circumstances.

Naturally, pondering defiance led me to identify artists who exemplify it. There are too many to name here, but instantly I thought of Frida Kahlo and Judy Chicago, among lots of other women artists who defied what the establishment prescribed for and expected of women in general as well as people of color.

Selma Hortense Burke (1900-1995) in her studio. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Selma Hortense Burke (1900-1995) in her studio. Photo by Peter A. Juley & Son.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Source: amazon.com/

Source: amazon.com/

What prompted this exploration is a character in a novel I read after I returned from Poland and other recent destinations. I was sorting through some old clippings and notes at my desk, when I came across one about a book I'd intended to get from the library for quite a number of years: The Polish Woman: A Novel, by Eva Mekler. The "coincidence" of this title was not lost on me, nor that the main character, Karolina, is an artist.

While the narrative focuses on fictionalized events that occurred during and after the Holocaust, a couple of pages on Karolina's experience in an art world that didn't support her interests caught my attention. As she explains to Rosalind, another character, "it turned out bad" because her sculptures are representational, plus she works in stone, which she admits is unusual. Clearly, she loves creating sculpture, just as so many of us love creating with paints, textiles, cameras, clay, metal, paper, and other materials.

It is hard work, a kind of labor, to break down stone, to tame it. You are tired and dirty and there is dust on face and in hair, even in shoes like you have come out of a mine. But from all this smashing and pounding, you have a beautiful thing, and if you are good, you have touched something true. It is ironic to make something delicate by breaking stone, no? And after, touching what you have made...[it] is like body hunger that has become...satisfied.

"The Kiss" (1888-1898), by Auguste Rodin. Rodin Museum, Paris, France. Photo by Yair Haklai. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"The Kiss" (1888-1898), by Auguste Rodin. Rodin Museum, Paris,
France. Photo by Yair Haklai. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

What happened to Karolina in the post-war art world of Communist Poland was disheartening. It was something too many of us know well, even in democratic societies and good economic times. She had worked passionately for two years on three small pieces, "Variations on a theme by Rodin," which she conceived of "as a kind of anti-Kiss commentary on the Rodin sculpture she'd adored as an adolescent and had come to resent with the fury of a disillusioned romantic." The pieces depict a male and female nude desperately attempting to embrace, but successively moving farther away from each other until, in the last sculpture, their fingers hardly touch. Unfortunately, her efforts were not received well. She explains to Rosalind, "In the end I was told I have skill, but not imagination. My work, they said, was conventional and romantic." A friend had even taken her aside and suggested she try a different medium, such as clay or papier-mâché. She was hurt and furious:

Art has to be political to please...Soon anything is art only if it is...defiant....Empty canvas is art; a marble ball tied in middle with black string is art. Glue nails and rope together and people praise it as sculpture about repression...Perhaps I should tie myself naked to a hammer and sickle....

"Distribution 1, Bronze" (2013), by Joep van Liefland. Galerie Gebr. Lehmann, Dresden, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Distribution 1, Bronze" (2013), by Joep van Liefland. Galerie Gebr. Lehmann, Dresden, Germany. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Yes, there is important defiance in certain kinds of political art, such as the murals of Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera, Picasso's "Guernica," and much feminist art. I think of Ai Weiwei, who has been clubbed in the head and imprisoned for flouting the Chinese government's authoritarianism. But art can be defiant in other ways as well.

Mural by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Thelma Datter. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Mural by Diego Rivera (1886-1957). Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Thelma Datter.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Creating or performing art can represent ultimate resistance in the face of severe deprivation and terror. At the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp during World War II, sick and starving Jewish prisoners performed Verdi's "Requiem" in spite of the appalling degradation they were suffering. Although they had only a single smuggled score, they sang the famous oratorio 16 times, including once before senior SS officials from Berlin and an International Red Cross delegation. This Mass for the dead was transformed from what the Nazis thought of as the prisoners' meek submission to their fate into an act of defiance and even therapy. Rafael Schächter, the conductor, told the chorus: "We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them." He had to reconstitute the group three times as members were transported to Auschwitz. Their performances symbolized challenge to the authorities that had imprisoned them and demonstrated courage to confront the worst of humankind. For the prisoners, singing Verdi's "Requiem" was an affirmation of life. As theatre and opera director Peter Sellars has said, "During the worst times a lot of the best art is made."

From the film "Defiant Requiem." Source: http://www.defiantrequiem.org/

From the film "Defiant Requiem." Source: http://www.defiantrequiem.org/

Here's yet another take on what is defiant art or a defiant artist. If the art world clamors for figurative or representational art, yet you love to work in an abstract style and continue to do so--or vice versa--then you're defiant in your art. If the art world is fascinated by grit and violence but you prefer peace and beauty, then you're defiant in your aesthetics.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

"Low Tide, Yport" (1883), by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

I remember reading that Richard Diebenkorn went back and forth between abstract and figurative styles, always to the dismay of the art critics, who favored one or the other. He defied all of them and painted what he wanted to paint when he wanted to paint it. The Impressionists were excoriated for making what were deemed "unfinished" paintings, but they did not cave in and go back to the precise and realistic details of classical work. Simply to be an artist can be an act of defiance in a world that values what it considers practical, useful, and financially desirable. 

"Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940), by Friday Kahlo. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78333

"Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair" (1940), by Friday Kahlo. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/78333

Our art can be defiant in what we want to express emotionally. In "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair," painted after her divorce from artist Diego Rivera, her unfaithful husband, Frida Kahlo asserts her independence as a woman and as an artist. She breaks with the traditional Mexican hair and clothing styles of her previous self-portraits that Rivera favored by cutting off her long flowing hair and wearing his typical garb instead. To make things absolutely clear, she also writes onto the canvas the following lyric of a Mexican song: "Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don't love you anymore."

For the rest of us, the lyric could be reworded to reflect a too common fact: "Look, if I loved your art, it was because of your concepts and politics. Now that your art is not  au courantin the market, I don't love it anymore."

It takes guts to be an artist in the face of all kinds of opposition, authorities, and obstacles. Sometimes it's not an outside force against which artists are defiant, but an internal situation over which they have little or no control. They don't give up despite the physical or mental hand that they've been dealt. I can't help but think of the many visual artists and writers who never asked for mental illness to dog their steps. 

"Starry Night" (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

"Starry Night" (1889), by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Vincent van Gogh is a perfect example. In June 1889, he painted "Starry Night," one of his most iconic images, at a time when he resided in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. He had voluntarily entered and accepted the restrictions of confinement. Initially, he was allowed to draw and paint only within the walls of the institution. Even when permitted to go outside, he was supervised. And he alternated between periods of stability and crises of distress. Yet he produced astonishing work that countless thousands line up to view. Vincent van Gogh defied what he didn't seem able to overcome by continuing to challenge himself as an artist and evolve his unique style. Yes, eventually, he succumbed to his demons and committed suicide, but that doesn't negate all the years of defiance.

Questions and Comments:
What do you consider defiant art?
Which artists represent defiance for you?
How are you a defiant artist?

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Filling Up on Art

In The Swan Thieves, a novel by Elizabeth Kostova, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow has particular thoughts about visiting places that house art. As he leaves the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he says, "I believe in walking out of a museum before the paintings you've seen begin to run together. How else can you carry anything away with you in your mind's eye?" Then he notes to himself:

Pushing out through the doors, I experienced that mingled relief and disappointment one feels on departure from a great museum; relief at being returned to a familiar, less intense, more manageable world, and disappointment at that world's lack of mystery: There was the ordinary street without brushwork or the depth of oil on canvas.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sleeping Girl" (1880), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

I can't say that I wholly agree with Dr. Marlow, for it's definitely possible to perceive beauty and mystery in the everyday scenes around us. It's a matter of opening the mind and paying attention to what's otherwise too familiar. Also, we can feel relief going in either direction. If the day we visit a museum, there are no major crowds, isn't it a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle on the street and the cacophony of blaring horns? At certain moments, when we're standing in front of a work of art that moves us, doesn't it feel as though we've entered a sacred space?

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

Close-up of "Sunset" (1879 or 1881), by Pierre-August Renoir. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

But I have to admit that, during my recent 5-week trip and others before it, at times my head was spinning. There was so much to take in, as though the only way to eat was to gorge at an overly abundant smorgasbord. I didn't relish indigestion.

It's a hard call how much art to view, especially when I don't know that I'll ever return to that museum or gallery, let alone that city or country. I used to think I had to do it all, for I might never again have the possibility. Over the years, I've changed my mind. In this one life, there's no chance that I'm going to get to every country, see every work of art, and so on. I don't want to. Fewer but more memorable experiences are far more valuable to me than quantity.

When confronted with a great deal of art, I have several options. Generally, I take a lot of photographs so that I can revisit the art in a more leisurely manner at home. However, they don't necessarily capture the textured details one sees in person. Mostly, I am highly selective about which exhibits I'll view, even how much of the exhibit. I limit myself so that I can enjoy what's there and what I feel drawn to for more than a fleeting glance. In this case, less is definitely more. Another approach is to intersperse museum visits with other activities. There's no formula. I go with what feels right on the particular day.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Fumee d'ambre gris"(Smoke of Ambergris, 1880), by John Singer Sargent. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

If I were to write about all the art I am fortunate to witness and include photos of everything I've seen, you'd soon stop reading this blog. There's only so much any of us can digest. That's why this post offers some tapas instead of a 12-course meal! Enjoy them as you like. These American and European artworks are part of the permanent collection at The Clark Art Institute near Williamstown, which a friend was kind enough to drive me to while I was in Massachusetts.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Saco Bay" (1896), by Winslow Homer. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

While I am usually more attracted to abstract rather than representational art, I was surprised by the light and depth in "Saco Bay," by American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910). He painted this sunset at Saco Bay, Maine, near his studio. The two women, carrying lobster traps and fishing nets were among the last figures he included in his paintings, which progressively focused only on the sea. A reviewer at the time criticized Homer for the "unnatural strawberry sky," but the painter felt it was one of his best works. If I had not seen it in person, but only in a photograph, I don't know that it would have captured my attention. But as I entered the first gallery at The Clark, I was struck by that strawberry coloring.

In other rooms, I saw works by Inness, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Sargent, Millet, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Corot, and more.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

These four dancers were modeled by Edgar Degas in the 1880s, then cast 1919-1921. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

One that seemed out of place, considering all the Impressionist paintings in the collection, was "Various Objects," by Louis Léopold Boilly (1761-1845). It's one of his earliest efforts at trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") painting. He might have even invented the term. The painting seems to be dedicated to a couple, Monsieur and Madame Dandré, to whom some of the letters are addressed. The sprig of pansies (pensées, in French, which also means "thoughts") next to them seems appropriate. Who knows what the objects are conveying, perhaps something related to the couple's activities? It feels like a contemporary assemblage.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"Various Objects (1785), by Louis Léopold Boilly. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

The last image below is of "The Sower," by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), one of the founders of the Barbizon school in rural France. He is known for his sympathetic depictions of agricultural laborers and his profound influence on later artists, such as Pissarro and Van Gogh.

Questions and Comments:
If you consider viewing art a high priority at home or while traveling, how do you deal with the fact that so much is available? What are your strategies to counter feeling overwhelmed?

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

"The Sower" (c.1865), by Jean-François Millet. The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.

*Note: To view the conversation that was started on the former Weebly site of this blog and add your comment, click here or to start a new conversation, click "Comment" below.