Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

It was over 90° in Chicago today. Climate change is making this incredible city more desirable with each passing year. But never mind that. Hot weather and the pop art king drew me to one of my favorite places on earth, The Art Institute of Chicago. I went with my older son and as we scaled the noble steps off Michigan Avenue, we looked at each other and realized we have been doing this for nearly 25 years together. Art binds like nothing else.

The main event was the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective. It was the first show to examine his works since his death on September 29, 1997. The show was years in the making and I’m sure it was challenging to collect just the right pieces to do justice to an art pioneer. Indeed Mr. Lichtenstein was a major dude. Early on he took lots of criticism from all corners, but pressed on nonetheless. I’m so happy he did.

The show is beyond massive. It engulfs several galleries of the AIC, carefully arranged and choreographed so even the casual observer can enjoy. Over 160 works created between 1950 and 1997 that includes paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each time you turn a corner the senses are assaulted with dots and colors and explosions of primary colors. So much of what he created looks machine made, but all of it was crafted by hand. Perhaps he invented more than created. Borrowed more than others. But therein lies the power of Lichtenstein. Like Warhol, how it’s made is nearly as important as what is made. Both sourced from everyday objects. Lichtenstein invented a new easel that could spin, allowing it to keep pace with his mind and brush. The result feels somewhat slight of hand, but everything was pre-meditated.

I was completely taken aback by his landscapes. Most of my time over the years was spent studying the larger, more commercial works. But the landscapes were made for Lichtenstein. Dots turned into the line of a horizon or the deep blue of the ocean. These felt more meditative and focused and it gave him more of a chance to broaden his skill.

Lichtenstein once said in an interview in 1962:

I’m never drawing the object myself, I’m only drawing a depiction of the object—a kind of crystallized symbol of it.

About halfway through the exhibit there was a small room, painted a deep brown, displaying dozens of sketches and studies. Amazing to see how he brought things to life. Personal notes on what options could be explored from the shape and size of the dots to the color. Many of the studies were high fidelity, showing his deep need for quality.

As an accidental post-modernist I have deep appreciation for what Lichtenstein gave us. His work is an act of borrowing, decompiling, and rebuilding classic modern executions.

I believe many people dismiss Lichtenstein out of hand as cold or not professional. This is a mistake. If you can make the trip to Chicago you will see for yourself.

Images taken by Steve A Furman inside the exhibit.

Art, Journalism and Dialogue in the Internet Age

As a technology optimist I am almost always in favor of pushing the art  and science of the web further. As we know the current period is hyper-focused on Social Media. We hear a lot of discussion about the new era of personal journalism. The news is now frequently reported by regular citizens who are witness to something and broadcast it through Social Media. But having a Twitter account and practicing serious journalism are worlds apart. Wired Magazine published the following list of untruths that were spawned by this new army of journalists on Twitter in 2009.

Bill O’Reilly is gay (Jan.) // Rick Sanchez is high on crack and might not be coming into work today (Jan.)// Britney Spears is dead (March) // Pork gives you swine flu (April) // Google is buying Twitter (April) //Apple is buying Twitter (May) // Prop 8 was overturned (May) // Steve Jobs is dead (June) // Sarah Palin is getting divorced (Aug.) // Kanye West is bisexual (Aug.) // Jeff Goldblum is dead (June) // Zach Braff is dead (Oct.) // Microsoft is buying Twitter (Oct.).

Real journalism is on the decline and Social Media loose cannons are everywhere. Which brings me to the actual topic of this post; art journalism. Yes you read that right. art and journalism. Writing has never been lucrative, at least not for 99.9% of writers. And writing about art is probably at the bottom end of the writer’s financial food chain. So when you find someone who does it well you can be sure it’s a labor of love. That’s the case with Liz Goldner and her Contemporary Art Dialogue site. She loves art and people, and is a splendid writer. She listens and tries to write about what people are interested in. She lives in southern California and moves fluidly through that active art community. Much of her research is carried out in interviews. Her work effectively teases out the interesting details. She describes it as follows.

Working in art journalism, I am privileged to know a world infused with color, light, form, texture and the often-intense emotions of artists as translated onto canvas, photo paper, wood, clay or any material. I converse with those who draw inspiration from genres as diverse as the dada movement to abstract expressionism. They pay homage to these influences in their own works, filtering them through the prisms of their inner muses.

Her writings are a journey. She explores, connects and celebrates art. I’ve known Liz over 10 years and the best word I can find to describe her is “rare.” Have a look at her site. Take a moment to read about abstract art, assemblage art, photography, graffiti art and of course people. Add your experiences and impressions. If you find yourself in the Laguna Beach area, look her up and buy her dinner. It will lead to great conversation.

Full disclosure. Liz has dubbed me a Postmodernist (guilty as charged) and has included me on her site.

Adrew Wyeth – Simple yet Complicated Modern American Painter is Dead at 91

We have all seen dozens of images from the three generation of Wyeth painters. The Elder, N.C. Wyeth, helped shape my childhood memories with his realistic illustrations for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Treasure Island and others. As I grew older Andrew took center stage for me and he pushed his father’s style a little further. Andrew wanted to go beyond being known as “an illustrator” and in my humble opinion succeeded. His father allowed him to move through phases and then pull back again, which gave him courage and experience. Andrew had strong academic training but did not allow that to dominate his body of work, which is quite fluid.

Snow Flurries, 1953, Tempera 37¼ x 48 in.

In the book, The Two World of Andrew Wyeth: A Conversation with Andrew Wyeth by Thomas Hoving, they discuss Snow Flurries painted in 1953. The subject is a very simple hill that Andrew walked nearly everyday which makes it extremely difficult to paint, yet a wonderful challenge. On the surface it appears to be a simple work, but the more you inspect it, the more details emerge. Mr. Wyeth describes this paradox in the interview.

I don’t agree with the theory that simplicity means lack of complexity. I feel that the simpler the thing, the more complex it is bound to be. I’ve found that some of the simplest people are very profound and actually very complex… Well actually, this picture is to me a whole lifetime. It summarizes an awful lot. That’s really what interests me. What I was after is what you get after sugaring off maple sugar from the maple tree. You keep boiling it down until you have the essence of purity. That is what I was after. I’m not saying it’s all that pure or good, but I did want it be be all the hills but yet a very definite hill

Mr. Wyeth elected to sell many of his works in a massive deal with a Japanese investor, and live the rest of his life outside the public eye. His works can be found in great museums all over the world. He’s gone now, which always causes me to seek out the work, knowing there will be no more.

House at Dusk: A Study

Only the top floor of the stone apartment building is revealed in Hopper’s House at Dusk. Our eye traverses past each window and quickly we notice a woman, alone of course, sitting on a bright red chair looking down. Perhaps she is reading a book or stroking a newly acquired kitten. You get the feeling that she has spent all day in her apartment and from time to time glances up and out through her window to the vista beyond. Her chair is strategically positioned to allow her that view as well as of her small space where she lives. There is no television, only a radio.

The limestone structure is Georgian in style, exhibiting a formal arrangement of parts employing a symmetrical composition, enriched with classical detail. It’s ringed in dental molding and framed with large quoins at each corner. The exterior finish is smooth, not course ashlar, and the sash windows are narrow and long and vertically separated from the ones below with a decorative inset. Hopper has removed the panes of glass dividers frequently seen in windows of this architecture style, as if plucking companions from the lives of those still occupying the rooms. This is yet another signal of aloneness which permeates his body of work. No one else can be seen through the windows, either they have not yet returned home from their daily work ritual, or are positioned more in the center of their apartments.

The chimneys rise to equal heights but varying widths above the roof, and are perfectly aligned with the windows or wall columns beneath them. Hopper loves his symmetry. They reflect the dental ribbon and their stark contrast against the dark clump of trees resembles teeth. No smoke can be seen, which means there are no fires in the hearths beneath these stone stacks.

The perspective in which Hopper has painted the structure combined with how the molding juts out at the roof line causes the building to be seen as a trapezoid, not a rectangle. The sharply and probably somewhat steep steps off to the right intersect the building exactly at the inset space separating the top two floors. This connects the house with the preserve of trees that dominates the middle layer of the painting. The angle of the steps means it’s a completely different world beyond those trees. There is no one on the steps and although we can’t see much of the grounds behind the building or off the canvas to the right, we know for certain no children are pushing their play time as the sun sets. No young lovers are lounging on a blanket enjoying each other’s company. There is nothing there.

A lone street lamp in the lower right hand corner of the canvas echoes the simple buffet lamp with a classic, pleated, empire shade in the top floor apartment. These two lamps are the only overt light sources revealed. However, since the front of the building is well illuminated and we can see a shadow on the third chimney from the left, it means other street lamps exist.

The thick grove of trees immediately behind the house serves as a lush, green fence, completely detaching the life of the occupants of this building from what lies beyond. The structure is most likely on the outskirts of a bustling urban area, which by contrast is rich in sight and sound and dialog.

That amazing, signature Hopper light permeates the entire canvas. How much of it is that ever-changing dusk light and how much of it is coming from the city beyond, waking up to its evening? Hopper always keeps us guessing about the stories, but never forgets to provide us with perfect light. The light gives me everything I need.

There was a Hopper show at The Art Institute of Chicago in the spring of 2008. You can read my thoughts on that exhibition here.

Edward Hopper – Sunlight on the Side of a House

It was gray today with periods of showers. Perfect for spending time in the Art Institute of Chicago viewing an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s works. Hopper is a mild obsession of mine. But you have to understand that mild for me is probably equal to an off the charts extreme for most people.

Hopper chooses ordinary scenes; houses, streets, rooms, lobbies, buildings, seashores. They are dominated by shapes of color and bathed in light. Squares, rectangles and trapezoids, decorated at times with ornamental curves. Sometimes people are present, sometimes the space is completely empty, save for that Hopper light. If he includes people they strike routine poses, but what they are thinking is omitted. Usually we are peering into their private spaces as we pass by on light rail, or simply looking out the kitchen window. Nature frequently finds its way into Hopper’s works.

House at Dusk, 1935

I’ve spent hours looking at and thinking about House at Dusk. You can read my in depth study of this painting here.

Mark Strand, a recent poet laureate, has studied Hopper at length. In his 1994 book entitled Hopper, Mr. Strand makes these observations.

Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narative of what came before. They engage us when the idea of passage cannot be far from our minds—we are, after all, either approaching the canvas or moving away from it… Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness. They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of a life lived as by the time before life and the time after. The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point.

The exhibit was beautifully staged on the second floor of the Rice building. Early works on paper through to the final canvases. At about the half way mark we encounter New York Movie. This is Hopper immersed in the urban environment of a meteoric America. On the left side of the canvas is a crowded movie theater, elaborately decorated in the palatial style of the old grand movie houses. People escaping their daily problems through the newly discovered art form of cinema. On the right side is a lone figure. A blonde usherette, leaning against the wall of a simple space completely detached from the emotional rake of the movie theater. She works in a house of escape, but is tortured by something very real in her life. Perhaps she could use her flashlight to illuminate the answer to her problem. We can see that Hopper’s characters always ponder, we just never know if they are making progress. He floats space on one side, and fixes it on the other. This is classic New York Hopper, showing a dense city that feels completely empty.

New York Movie, 1939

Naturally, Nighthawks took center stage in the exhibit. The Art Institute recognized this masterpiece immediately after it was painted in 1942, and acquired it for $3,000. It has been one of the museum’s gems ever since. The image is iconic, so much so I don’t even need to post it and everyone reading this can close their eyes and easily conjure up a detailed picture of it in their mind. Art is power.

There was a glass case in one of the galleries that displayed two of Hopper’s personal journals. He would make a small pencil drawing of the painting just completed and then scribe notes beneath it. Fascinating to get a brief glimpse into his thoughts. The journals were inexpensive hardbound ledgers. He did not require an overabundance of creature comforts and lived in a 4th floor walk up at Number 3 Washington Square North in New York. He and his wife Jo frequented small, locally owned restaurants.

The last canvas in the show, and one of my favorites was, Sun in an Empty Room. Although not his final work, it came less than four years before his death in 1967. There is always an emotional undercurrent to Hopper’s work. More imagination than observation. So much so that it’s easy to forget the work is very personal. When he was asked what he was after with this painting he responded, “I’m after ME.” A truly American response by a pure American.

Sun in an Empty Room, 1963

Hopper once said,

All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.

This once in a lifetime opportunity ends in Chicago on May 11th. If you missed it in Boston or Washington, D.C., or here in Chicago, then you have truly missed something. But you can see Hopper all over the country. Go see it.

Link to The National Gallery of Art’s interactive web site on Hopper here. They have a very interesting timeline of Hopper here.

Note. Images of Hopper paintings taken from web searches for Public Domain images.


Video Self-Portrait From SFMOMA

I had an extra hour this week between sessions while attending a board of advisors meeting in San Francisco, so I walked two blocks to the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I really love this structure and was here while it was under construction, then came back a couple of times after it opened. The finished product is an appropriate space for a modern art collection. It’s constructed in perfectly even layers of black, gray, white, brown and blue. The modern interpretation of geologic strata found naturally in rocks of the west. Mostly straight lines and crisp angles, with curves sprinkled in to soften the experience and direct your eyes back into the main space of the building. None of the art can be seen without taking sharp turns. It’s the opposite of the Guggenheim in NY, where the art can be viewed from almost anywhere, as if one was surveying the landscape. An oval eye is proped up on top of the structure, evoking a communications dish poised to collect radio waves from the cosmos.

There was a fascinating media art installation on the third floor entitled, Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay. The artist is Dan Graham, and it was composed of two black and white television monitors, two video cameras and two large mirrors positioned on opposite sides of a wide gallery. As you approach, the camera records you, but holds it for a few seconds before feeding the video to a small TV screen. The result is a bit jarring. You move inquisitively toward the television screen expecting to see yourself but you don’t. Suddenly you appear as you were a few seconds earlier, giving you an opportunity to study yourself in motion. It takes a while to notice what’s going on, but once you get it, the brain lights up.

It’s like that old trick where you are looking into what you believe to be a mirror, but in fact it’s an opening, and someone else is facing you (your identical twin), pretending to be your reflection. That person mimics your body movements and facial expressions exactly, hoping to keep up the illusion. You then try to outsmart the reflection by making sudden, unexpected movements. In the trick it works, but in this installation, it’s always you. I snapped this photo of me inside the monitor with my iPhone.

Eventually you start performing, to see what you look like. You move in for a close up and make faces. Travel from one side of the gallery to the other and do it all over again. The mirrors keep the image moving and changes the point of view, so you can see both your front and back. Kind of a reality show on yourself, but without the personal humiliation or prize money. Everyone that passed by was instantly engaged. This is the power of modern art; the viewer participates and the common perspectives are challenged.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to see much of anything else, but captured a few more images on the way back to the summit.


Photos by Steve A. Furman