Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cy Twombly's photographs

Twombly, Landscape, Villetta Barrea, 2008
The lushness of his paintings remains, that is the surprise.  But if so it's in a muted and muffled form, as if the earlier work had succeeded so well that the eye is now allowed to come to rest.  The scrawls have departed, and the huge canvases in rose madder and creamy white so admired by the public, with their quotations from Ovid and Homer, their antic and ancient energies amid swirls and loops and delicious doodles, are off hung in the greatest museums and sometimes, as with the Menil Collection in Houston, in museums all their own.  The photographs too are lush, but it's of a quiet, very settled kind of lushness, solid, mature, at times mannered perhaps but always masterly.  Another surprise is that these small works are every bit as powerful in their own way as the paintings, yet very few people seem to know about them. 

Cy Twombly (1928-2011) had been taking pictures, as we say - as opposed to making pictures - at least since the 1970s, often using the popular and inexpensive Polaroid SX-70 instant camera which was introduced to the market in 1972.  He was far from alone in this: Andy Warhol and even Walker Evans and Ansel Adams also toyed with it.  Twombly's dedication appears to have been much deeper however, seeing in the oddly pictorialist palette of the camera and its frustrating focusing system a way of celebrating memory, or the memory of a memory, though these are not his words.  In his painting and sculpture meanwhile he was ultimately addressing this same theme, using other tools.

He didn't show his photographs until late in life, in 1993 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York - nearly half a century after exhibiting his first paintings.  The occasions for the photographs seem to be moods of reverie he found himself in, at times prompted by a desire to distance himself from his ongoing studio work whether in Italy or America.  An object would capture his attention, an idle view of fruit or flower - a hazy, deliquescent moment - you can imagine a smile crossing his lips or a tear welling in his eye, Verdi on the phonograph in the other room, as he got down close to snap the picture.

Twombly, Interior, Rome, 1980

The soft focus and the peculiar color saturation were part of the simple system he was using, but he was alert to its possibilities.  He tinkered with the photos, blowing them up, cropping them.  At some point - the histories have yet to be written - he found himself in Sauvigny-sur-Orge outside Paris in the workshop of the Fresson family whose ancestor, Théodore-Henri Fresson, in 1899 had invented an early type of carbon printing process.  Pigment-based, unlike the dye methods becoming common in the 1980s, the Fresson process, now using four colors, assured photographers of an unassailable archival quality to their prints.  For Twombly, the process turned his Polaroids into editions of unexpected nuance and sensitivity. 

Twombly, Tulips, Rome, 1985

Twombly, Interior, Bassano in Teverina, 1980

Twombly, Lemon, Gaeta, 2008

Twombly, Studio, Lexington, 2009

Gone from these are the glorious brushstrokes of his paintings, the excitement and freedom of his almost giddy imagery.  In its place he has given us complete intimacy and peace, sensuous and literary at the same time.  'I would have liked to be an architect,' he says.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Naming wildflowers in the desert

Casanave, Wave Machine, Monterey Bay Aquarium, 2013

(A guest post by Bobby Bashir)

When my boyfriend Chris suggested we drive down to Arizona to look at the wildflowers I said why not and we began planning it right away.  I don't know why I hadn't thought of it first.  But Chris does whims very well, that's one thing (there are others) I love about him.  It was February after all and in a few weeks we knew the first yellow blooms of brittlebush would dot the high deserts and mountains east of Phoenix, sending all who hiked up there into transports of joy or at least disbelief.  We exchanged a brief kiss to seal the deal and decided that's something we wanted to be a part of.

near Apache Junction, Arizona, early March

I called Omar - could he cover for me at the restaurant?  No problem.  Next I had to tune up the old van with new belts and brakes for the 10 hour drive ahead, then freshen up the living space in back and I don't just mean redecorate although that too - we had found some royal blue Ralph Lauren floral patterns and I had a few notions about how to use them.  Then we put in new supports, not springs exactly but what you could call a distant relative of the spring, under the saggy bed, cleaned the espresso machine and test-ran our slow-cook oven - my big contribution from a trip last year to Bodega Bay - on a bulging chicken tamale I confected for the purpose.  It worked.  By Saturday everything was ready and we headed out.

I let Chris drive and we followed the old pony express trail known as Interstate 10 till we got to the Arizona border.  He's tireless behind the wheel, I really admire him for that.  Too talkative maybe, depending on your mood and whether you want to hear the same crazy stories again, true they're a little different each time, a new inflection here, a new character there, but it gave me time to figure out where we might want to go once we reached what they call the East Valley around Scottsdale and Mesa.  It was then I noticed that Art Intersection in Gilbert was about to open a show of alt-photography called Light Sensitive 2014.  I scanned the entries online and recognized several names.  Hey, we could drop in, it's just down the road from Mesa.  Chris was a fan of my lumen prints so he thought it'd be fun to check it out too.

Darkness was falling when we found the gallery.  The opening was in progress upstairs, lights blazed and you could see figures moving about at the windows, but I for one was pretty tired and hungry (I'd taken over the wheel after crossing the Colorado River) so we said let's eat before we go up.  On the ground floor was a place called the Euro Cafe that looked active.  We got a table and I ordered the spanaki balls (spinach, rice, mozzarrela and provolone), an overwhelming portion that I shouldn't have gone for, medically speaking, while Chris had the pork molise, grilled pork wrapped in bacon topped with an apricot & cherry sauce, alongside horseradish mashed potatoes.  We staggered out, leaning and bumping into each other, well fed but already nostalgic for the delicate wonders of California seafood.  Could we survive in Arizona?
Art Intersection by daylight, Gilbert, Arizona
at the opening, March 8

Yes, as it turned out.  The gallery was more spacious and attractive than we'd thought, and the pictures handsomely lit and hung.  The attendees, probably locals from their weathered tans, seemed unexpectedly alert and knowledgeable about the niche interests of 19th century hand-crafted analog photographic art, if we properly judged their somber nods and whispers.  We circulated.  There was considerable mystery on the walls and, often, beauty as well.  You had gum bichromates, bromoils, ziatypes, tintypes, argyrotypes, platinum palladium prints, a few chemigrams and pinholes and even a lumen if I'm not mistaken.  Have I missed anything?  No mordançages this year, sorry Brittany.  Chris's favorite was Martha Casanave's low-angle pinhole with very selective hand coloring called Wave Machine, which recalls the dreamy theatricality of her great book, Explorations Along An Imaginary Coastline, still available from Amazon and which everyone should rush out and get.  The critics haven't yet come close to doing justice to Martha's work; she awaits her ideal interpreter.  But I predict her day will come.

My own salute goes to Douglas Collins' strange, and strangely funny, untitled piece, a chemigram.  Don't ask me what it 'means,' but I'm told there's no story behind it, no allusions.  It is what it is as they say.  Later Chris and I, up in the Tonto National Forest north of Apache Junction, spent a whole evening talking about it, reaching no agreement whatsoever, and then going off in tangents from it after our third bottle of wine.  That's what alt-photo art can do to you.

Collins, untitled, 2013

a creosote bush

So this post has become more about the art in Gilbert than the wildflowers we came all this way to see.  Let me show you some pictures to prove how wrong you are.  Did you know that cacti have flowers?  I like to taste their flowers too, I keep them in my shirt pocket and nibble on them as I ramble and roam.  There were also lupines (mementos of home!) just coming up, and desert marigolds, and here and there a creosote bush, lots of yellow, yes, you have to wait later in the season for more of the blues and whites like peppergrass, one of my personal treats.  Chris thinks I'm nuts.  Let him say that.  Another time I'll tell you about his problems.

Luckily we didn't meet up with any scorpions but that's not what you think of when you're having fun. 

somewhere in the Superstition Mountains

near Pinnacle Peak

Bobby Bashir
Seaside, California

Monday, March 31, 2014

Nasreen Mohamedi's photographs

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1980s

There are very few of them so far, the photographs released from her estate.  Just a handful.  Done mostly in the 70s and 80s, the first ones were shown publicly hardly a decade or so ago, a few years after the death of this great Indian modernist in 1991.  To see them again at the recent show at the Talwar Gallery in New York gives a shiver of recognition: the depth of her work is like no other.  To call it artistry is to miss the point completely.  There is no irony here, no conversation with history.  It is sheer presence, denuded to the point where the art we've been comfortable with simply falls away.

Her eye was attracted to the motions of lines, especially skewed ones, to waves on water and sand as well as traffic directional signs on pavement, to crescents, arcs, and to looms weaving wool, all lines that propagate in ranks, veering off the page endlessly.  They echo the delicate patterns of line in her drawings which are now celebrated in the art centers of the world, yet exist with their own energy.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s
Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1960s

Movement was crucial to her but it was always aimed toward the unity of that point at infinity where movement converges, and often she would go there and bring that point back to the center of her attention, from movement to stillness.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1980s
In 1971 she wrote in her diary: develop form through intuition from point to point.  She was thinking of her drawings but it could apply to her photographs as well.

Mohamedi, untitled photograph, ca. 1970s

her studio at Baroda, India, date unknown
A year later, the only entry was: a day of thinking begins.  You have the feeling she was holding her breath until she could think again, that every day was a trial and a release.  

For March 1981 she carefully wrote the single line: the shadow came and stood in its place like yesterday.  Nasreen is a penitent from a vanished order of an ancient faith, and with her hand she traces the remembered epiphanies.

At the end, prematurely, she succumbed to Parkinson's disease.  In Geeta Kapur's memoir, she's on the beach in Kihim south of Mumbai one May morning with her sisters watching the waves on the Arabian Sea near their small beachhouse.  'Sitting as if in preparation,' Kapur writes, 'she passed on suddenly without a sound.'

Monday, February 17, 2014

A deep connection to materials at ICP

Breuer, Untitled (C-1189), 2012

(The following is a guest post by Eva Nikolova)

Currently on view at the International Center of Photography under the title "What is a Photograph?", a selection of the work of 21 contemporary artists purports to challenge our very notions of photography.  A provocative title, and while we may not be able to put the answer into words given the range of photographic experimentation from the last four decades that are the focus here, we still assume: we’ll know it when we see it.  But an ostensive definition can no longer encompass the works of those artists who are engaged in stripping bare the very basis of that recognition.  So what must be still present for a work to constitute a photograph?  Clearly not the camera: fully a third of the artists in “What is a Photograph?” have abandoned the iconic device, and some have gone much further, casting aside almost everything assumed indispensably photographic.
Breuer, Study for (Metal/Day), 2000

Dispensing even with the action of light or chemistry, here are some of the highly tactile, deliberately modest-in-size works of Marco Breuer.  Dazzling in the inexhaustible inventiveness of his methods, Breuer scrapes, scratches, sands, folds, burns, drills, and otherwise mutilates his photo paper creating unsettling tension between image and surface violation.  “Deliberate misuse” is his own phrase for the way he treats his materials, but plain "abuse" seems more apt: how else to describe scorching the paper with red hot coals, dynamite or a frying pan, or shooting - with a gun not a camera - a box of photo paper?  In fact, shooting with a camera is what Breuer has done the least of, even when starting out – his introduction to photography was through photograms.

Rossiter, Defender Velour Black, expired Jan 1946, processed 2011 (C), 2011

Rossiter, Fuji Gaslight, expired date unknown, ca. 1920s, processed 2009 (D), 2009

And then, there are the works of Alison Rossiter, which she describes as “found-photograms”. Rossiter seeks out gelatin silver papers that have expired many decades ago, and as if out of veneration for these relics of the photographic past, keeps her interventions minimal: she simply develops the entire sheet of paper, or else applies a little developer to a part of it.  For all the evocative shapes, planes and shadows that materialize onto the papers as a result, the subtly colored monochrome abstractions represent nothing external, just their own particular histories – ghostly traces of time made visible through darkroom chemistry.  In a one piece on view, the photographer withdraws almost completely: she presents to us a small rectangle of Eastman Kodak Solio, presumed to have expired around 1910, that she has left unprocessed.  Perhaps she felt the one hundred-year-old paper had endured enough - its incredibly rich, copper-like surface certainly suggests as much.  Like commemorative markers, Rossiter’s works simply bear the names of the paper, the year of expiration and that of processing.  If this elegy for darkroom photography seems merely nostalgic instead of poignant, and the concerns hermetic instead of urgent, it may be that to fully take in the impact of the work, you’d have to feel a deep connection to such materials and a personal stake in the continued existence of analog photography.  But even if you are not similarly moved, the works’ sheer visual presence - at once sumptuous and spare, sensuous and severe – may feel like a revelation.

Although working at seemingly different ends of a spectrum, Rossiter’s principled withdrawal and Breuer’s intensely physical engagements both share in the creation of objects that operate at the very edge of our assumptions of what a photograph is.  And where exactly is that elusive edge?  Perhaps it has become so razor-thin, so exquisitely whetted by the attempts to penetrate the obdurate essence of the medium in the last forty years, that it’s invisible until touched by the right hands, and then, suddenly, we see the mystery and beauty embedded in the materials we have taken for granted, laid bare before us.

Eva Nikolova

Monday, January 20, 2014

Turnbull in Carmel

Turnbull, Dot Studies I, 2013

Richard Turnbull grew up in a hard-resist world, as anyone who explores his website can verify.  He's gone through a checklist of varnishes, putties and lacquers and mucked up an assassin's satchel of knives, blades and other weapons, all in an effort to harness that wild bronco that is the chemigram.  More often than not he's been successful, but that's not been enough.  His restless spirit has drawn him back to more innocent beginnings, to those first steps in chemigram class where they teach you about soft resists - the glues, the syrups, and the tapes.  A lot of professional chemigramists ignore the soft resists but it is here that, for the time being at least, he has found a home, and where he is producing some amazing art.  Arthur Danto, the late philosopher, said there will be no more linear progress in art as a continuity because we're at the end of it: you do what you want, go where you want to go.  Richard Turnbull is a fine case in point.

Dot Studies I, shown above, was picked by the jury at the prestigious Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California, to hang in their main hall during the annual show which runs until March 1, 2014.  It's made with dot labels, the stick-on kind, and with tape; Rich roams the streets of New York looking for new kinds of tape and labels since each, he says, has a characteristic stickiness, and an associated chemistry.  Under repeated assaults of fixer and developer the dots and tape eventually detach and lift, leaving behind a signature of the last chemical they were in contact with.  Different materials produce a different randomness and present the artist with different choices of when to block or snatch - technical terms of the chemigram trade that refer to an act which terminates a chemical attack.  He's also drawn to stick-on materials for their ability to generate hard and relatively precise lines which, after a good pummelling by chemicals, become little islets of stability and order in a sea of disorder.  Isn't this the beauty of chemigrams, after all?

Rich will offer a workshop in chemigrams at Manhattan Graphics Center on February 22, 2014.  Plan to be there.  In his spare time he teaches art history at F.I.T. and lectures at the Metropolitan Museum, and is also - this must be a sideline, or is it? - an accomplished cook of south-east Asian cuisine.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Herbert Matter we like best

figure 1

Herbert Matter (1907-1984) is not much remembered today by cameraless artists, yet he made standout contributions that are worth reconsidering.  In his time he was best known as a graphic artist and designer; trained in Europe by people like Léger and Le Corbusier, he immersed himself equally in art-world currents of the time - dadaism and especially constructivism - and paid close attention to the work of El Lissitzky and Man Ray.  He absorbed his lessons well.  By the time he came to New York in the 1930s he had developed techniques of photomontage and typography as a visual art that revolutionized American advertising (that is not too strong a word) and which served him as a calling card throughout his life.  Just one example: for many of us, the logo he created for the New Haven Railroad became one of the iconic emblems of mid-twentieth century America.

In 1938 he married a beautiful young painter named Mercedes Carles, who had been a student, then lover, of Hans Hoffmann and a cellmate of the young Lee Krasner - later the wife of Jackson Pollock - when both were arrested during political demonstrations.  Soon his circle expanded; he befriended sculptors Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti, eventually photographing their work for publications, as well as painters Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, and others.  Between jobs for clients like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, he became an adept of the darkroom; when he shared a space with photographer Robert Frank on West 37th Street he would work up to 12 hours without a break - too bad for you, Robert.  A personal body of work began to emerge: Mercedes nude on the dunes of Provincetown, then landscapes, then abstract closeups of treebark and rocks - great memes of the day - then more Mercedes, dancing, hair in the wind.  He probably thought you couldn't do better than take pictures of Mercedes and he's close to being right.  But then one day he found a great new subject: light.

Following cues from Moholy-Nagy and others, he began using a penlight as a paintbrush to draw on photo paper directly in the darkroom, often using the paper-negative method to end up with whitish lines.  He also tried experimenting with liquids of different miscibilities and viscosities, resulting in the chemigram-like 'ameoba forms' in figure 2, which today we would just call a glassprint.  This was 1941, 1942.  By the next year, the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York gave him his first show.  Some critics have suggested that during this period he might also have influenced the breakout work of his friend Jackson Pollock, just then developing his drip technique, although I don't buy it.

figure 2

figure 3

figure 4

But by the following year, 1944, Herbert must have realized he was really a designer at heart, and although he now knew he could execute a broad range of graphic, arty things with considerable ease, he and Mercedes decamped for Southern California where he took a conventional job with Knoll Furniture, photographing chairs by Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, or by Charles and Ray Eames, and probably earned good money doing it.

Still, he couldn't totally elude the demon of experimentalism.  He'd seen the photographs by Gjon Mili who had used flashlights and long exposures to illustrate movement, and he wanted to try it himself.  Here's Herbert taking off his pants and jacket with open shutter, around 1945:

figure 5

Later, he may have been inspired by work coming from the Chicago Bauhaus when he hooked up an electric circuit and made this:

figure 6
The problem we have with Herbert Matter, and the reason you don't find him in the histories of alternative photography, is that he wasn't sure what he wanted to be, artist or designer.  He was perhaps too gifted a designer to allow himself to become an artist as such, to let himself go in that irrevocable way, into the terror and joy of it.  For us that's a loss, all the keener the more we look at figure 4 or figure 6, two of my favorites.  He had more things to give us.

After his California sojourn, he spent the last twenty years of his life teaching design at Yale.

The photographs above come in most part from the library of Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chemigram to photogravure (for printmakers)

figure 1
(Franco Marinai sends a guest post)

I do my chemigrams on 8x10" high contrast orthochromatic film, not on photo paper, since I will port them to photogravures when I'm finished. I use undiluted Golden varnish, bleach, Dektol, fixer, warm and cold water.  The transparency of the film allows me to reproduce the chemigram on a copper plate and ultimately ink it, wipe it, and print it on a high-pressure press as an intaglio print, thereby giving me the three dimensionality and subtle tactility of an etching.  But I will do this following the more demanding photogravure process, which is best known for the elegance of its continuous tone reproduction and its exceptionally intense blacks.  This will ensure fidelity to the mesmerizing graphic qualities of the chemigrams.

Fig. 1 shows the final rinse of an 8x10" chemigram on orthochromatic film.  I use hard water, rich in magnesium and calcium cations, from the well in the square outside my studio in Serrazzano, Italy.  Serrazzano is a small medieval village on a hilltop 25 miles south-west of Volterra.

figure 2
Here (fig. 2) the transparencies have been cut and masked in preparation for the gelatin exposure in the vacuum frame.  The chemigram of the one on the left was started with immersion in bleach, while the one on the right started with Dektol.

figure 3

After the gelatin has been exposed, transferred to the copper plate, and developed in warm water, the plate is covered with a fine layer of rosin (aquatint) and readied for etching (fig. 3).

figure 4

The plates have been etched for twenty minutes in ferric chloride (fig. 4) and cut to the size of the transparencies (7x10").

figure 5
This is the first proof of the two plates: Side By Side (2013).  Typically I print an edition of six plus an artist's proof.  Here are a few more photogravures, all printed from individual plates and produced using the same technique.

Marinai, They Do Not Think The Same, 2013

Marinai, Comics, 2013
I can be reached through my website, www.marinai.com, or you can post comments below.  For a detailed discussion of the photogravure process, visit Lothar Osterburg's site.

                                                                                                                       - Franco Marinai