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.