Monday, July 26, 2010


Kurt Moyer
"Frost Pond", oil on linen

With so much rain during this summer, my garden is lush but gets out of hand if I don't give it constant attention.  I like to be outdoors and think about how artists' portrayals of nature have helped form my personal aesthetic.  Childhood memories include my father packing art supplies on family vacations so we could paint on location.

Great art will stand the test of time.  Some subjects (like landscape) may never go entirely out of fashion, it just seems as though some artists' styles get dated.  Style is more about what you leave out of a painting; and style also has to do with how an artist structures space in a painting.

If you go outside to paint (en plein aire) - how do you begin to comprehend nature in all its variety?  If you can understand what you are seeing, how does that translate into color, shape, and atmosphere?  How will you determine what is essential to your art?  With that in mind we could begin to look at some paintings in recent exhibitions and have a view into the artists' modus operandi.

At the Arts & Cultural Council gallery on North Goodman Street in Rochester, we have bright new paintings from Kurt Moyer. Roughly divided into three sections, Kurt Moyer's paintings are figurative realism within a classical compass.  Nude bathers, calm bosky ponds, and spring flowering are all handled with a painterly, not overly fussy, approach.  It seems as if it is a perpetually sunny day in Kurt Moyer's world where people swing in a hammock, go sailing or cavort in the woods.  Associations could be made with Manet and Cezanne - but seen through a more contemporary lens - so that these paintings are neither the transgressive fleeting nudity of Manet, nor the heroic near-abstractions of Cezanne.  Kurt Moyer's matter-of-fact observations translate with joy and care for his subject.

Scale, the relative size of things, becomes a critical factor in landscape painting - it helps or hinders our "reading" of the artwork and can render a painting more or less chaotic if the artist is not sensitive to it.  What is painted with clarity and what is not becomes an issue to be addressed.  In photography it is the focal point and the sharpness of edges relative to lighting that can determine how we respond to a scene. Something similar happens in painting.

Windsor Whip Works Art Gallery

Just outside the city boundaries of Binghamton is the village of Windsor, and on Main Street a beautifully renovated store has now become the two story Windsor Whip Works Art Gallery. Bill and Johanne Pesce migrated up from Long Island to create this art center which is becoming a magnet for visitors and artists alike.  On a recent weekend, I met George Rhoads at the opening of a show of more than one hundred of his imaginative landscape paintings.

In the 1960's George Rhoads had shows in New York City of his expressionist paintings, but he is known more for his kinetic sculptural installations found in many museums and in collections around the world.  Rhoads was educated in Chicago and has been an artworld presence for over fifty years.  Curiously,  only one or two of his sculptural works were on hand at the Whip Works Art Gallery, and the rest of the space was given over to his and his son Paul's paintings.

The mostly smallish size of the paintings does not mean that George Rhoads is a miniaturist, but it does mean that for the viewer to make the most of the experience- you have to get very close to fully enjoy the work.  A typical George Rhoads landscape has a quality that folk art seems to share - unusual brightness of color and unusual clarity in places that make the reading of the work more structured and more uniform than would happen in nature.  George Rhoads does not paint on the scene, these are more memories or evocations of places, and at their best they are knit together like a fascinating quilt of color and texture.

George Rhoads
at Windsor Whip Works Art Gallery

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Landscape with People

Landscape with People

Catching up with my summer reading, I am ensconced in the letters of Fairfield Porter (1907-1975) and an autobiography of Marcia Tucker ("A Short Life of Trouble", University of California Press) who died in 2006.  I met both of these people when they were forces in the artworld, but that artworld was much more circumscribed than what we have today, which is perhaps more democratic but spread rather thinly.  Fairfield railed against the technology that ironically would help make the arts more accessible, but he would also bring his firm intellect down on media and critics who were too authoritarian.

I regularly follow a few writers on art including Peter Schjeldahl ( Let's See) in the New Yorker, Barry Schwabsky in The Nation, Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times, and Sanford Schwartz in The New York Review of Books, among others.  When I read their words, it is like I have an extra set of eyes and ears and I am enlightened and entertained.  In Fairfield Porter's letters ( "Material Witness", University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor)  he details struggles in his life and art that jump off the page.  Early on, other artists like Willem DeKooning overshadow him, and he frets but defends his position as a painter of intimate family life ( with some substantial tools that set him apart in the early 1950's).  Porter's book of art criticism ( "Art In Its Own Terms") will renew your interest in painting if it has lagged, and any artist who paints the landscape owes him a debt.

Marcia Tucker's book is much more present, and as a curator and museum director she has left a richer legacy that is still being tested.  The first few chapters of her memoir could be called the trials and tribulations, as she deals with death and near-death experiences - not the kind of thing you would expect from an art history student, and soon-to-be curator.

I felt her impact when I lived in New York City where she curated shows for the artists Bruce Nauman and Richard Tuttle while she worked at The Whitney.  I could have guessed that she was an early feminist, that she was an engaged political activist and she bucked the system which turned her out and away from The Whitney Museum and onto a path towards directing her own museum.

Her show "Bad Painting" sent out ripples in every direction and it was just one of the noteworthy projects she instigated while working at her start-up "The New Museum" before it found a space in Soho.  I think I saw every show she produced for a number of years while she was first at an annex to The New School on 14th Street, and later when "The New Museum" moved down to Broadway.
The late 1970's and 1980's brought "pluralism" and efforts to shake the gallery system and the old boys network that so dominated the visual arts in prior decades.

Marcia Tucker provided a role model for women in the arts, she blazed trails that few had taken before she arrived.  She had courage and smarts, and stayed on course even when the going was very rocky and she was almost broke.  Even if you never knew of Marcia Tucker, you can still feel the repercussions of what she accomplished in the world of visual arts.