Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mothers of Invention: Betty Parsons

The view that greets you as you reach the top of the stairs at Alexander Gray Associates in Chelsea

A few years ago at the Armory Modern show in New York City, I saw Betty Parsons's artwork for the first time. Of course I was familiar with her legacy as a gallerist. In her eponymous gallery, which she opened in 1946 and would run for 37 years until just before her death in 1982, she had shown the likes of Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg, and launched the careers of such artists as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Richard Tuttle. What I hadn’t known then is that she was an artist in her own right and that, in fact, she’d had 10 solo shows at Midtown Gallery (Later Midtown Payson) and elsewhere before and during the course of her tenure as the doyenne of 57th Street. 

I was reminded of that first encounter when I walked into Invisible Presence, the radiant exhibition of Parsons’s work at Alexander Gray Associates, which has been extended through July 28. The ground floor gallery offers a selection of her early work—watercolors and a couple of bronze sculptures, made when she was a young woman studying art in Paris. (She was born in 1900, decided to be an artist after seeing the original Armory Show in 1913. Family wealth funded her studies.)

Early watercolors in the street-level space, including the one below, which in this photo is just to the right of the desk. Image from the gallery website

Below: Rockport, 1943, graphite and gouache on paper

A pivotal work as Parsons moved into abstraction: Untitled, ca. 1950, acrylic on panel, 16 x 10

Upstairs are the paintings and found-wood sculptures made by the mature artist. Parsons didn’t show her own work in her gallery, but it would have fit right in. Roberta Smith, reviewing Invisible Presence, described a style that “finesses its way between the emotionality of Abstract Expressionism and the formal ecstasies of Color Field painting.”
I'm not showing you everything in the hopes that you can get to the gallery before the show closes. If time or distance prevents you, there is more on the gallery website.

An almost 360-degree panorama in the second-floor gallery. Use this image as your guide as I take you around clockwise, starting with the painting, shown below, which holds the distant left wall 

March 3, 1962, acrylic on canvas

Swinging around to the long wall

Victory, 1967, acrylic on canvas
Parsons was born in 1900, so she was hitting her stride in her late 60s

Flame, 1967, acrylic on canvas
This painting evokes two thoughts, and fire is not one of them. First, it presages the female imagery in Judy Chicago's 1979 Dinner Party; second, it suggests the iconic corona around the Virgin of Guadalupe. I love the connection between sexuality and divinity. (Turns out that Parsons was a lesbian. Connect the dots if you wish.)

II Oglala, 1979, acrylic on wood
From the gallery handout I learned that Parsons maintained a studio in Southold on Long Island and that she collected pieces of wood on her beach walks. She began making assemblages in 1965 and titled them after places she had visited or as a reflection of her cultural interests

Continuing around the long wall

Punch and Judy Theater, 1975, acrylic on wood

Maine, 1972, and Bird in a Boat, 1971; both acrylic on canvas

Below: Closer view of Maine

African Dawn, 1972, acrylic on canvas

Back of II Oglala
To the left,  Challenge. Journey, which you'll see below, is hidden by the sculpture. To the right you can just about make out the legs of a vitrine, which you'll see shortly as well

Below: Challenge, 1976, acrylic on canvas

Journey, 1975, acrylic on canvas

The Grass and the Wine, 1960, acrylic on canvas

This painting and vitrine are to your right at you reach the top of the stairs. Here's what the wall text says: "I have always been fascinated with what I call the invisible presence. We all have it. Everything has it . . . a room has it. And that is what I am intrigued with, especially when I am working. That invisible presence."

Two views of the vitrine that documents Parsons, the artist

More on Parsons:
. Wikipedia
. ArtNews from the Archives
. 1992 NYT review
. NYT obit
. Archive Grid

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Mothers of Invention at Met Breuer, Part 2: Marisa Merz

Untitled, 1993; copper wire, unfired clay, steel structure
Knitting, as you will see, is one of Merz's recurring structural methods. Her interest in the Fibonacci series is something she shared with Arte Povera's other Merz

Marisa Merz is better known in her native Italy than here, but her recent 50-year retrospective at Met Breuer, The Sky is a Great Space, has brought her work and career to an appreciative audience on this side of the Atlantic. Modest materials—clay, wax, copper wire, clothing—are the stuff of a body of work that is part poetry, part crafty Earth Mother.

Merz (pronounced mairtz—yes, she is is the widow of Mario) was the only female member of the Arte Povera movement, Italy's humble and homespun response to the sleekness of Minimalism. Homespun thought it may have been, Maritza Merz would appear to have been the only one of its members who made art at home while raising a child. This may account for the scale, which typically consists of smaller elements amassed or assembled into a larger installation, or what the museum describes as a "constellation of objects." Like many wives-of—Frida, Elaine, and Lee, for example—Merz's career was marginalized until the point when it was not, which seems to be right about now. At 90, Merz lives in her native Turin and is still making art. 

Marisa Merz: The Sky is a Great Space has closed at the Met, but if you are in or near Los Angeles, it is on view at the Hammer Museum through August 20. The exhibition was put together by curators from the two museums: the Met's Ian Alteveer and the Hammer's Connie Butler. Here's what I saw back in March when it first opened at Met Breuer.

Two views give you a sense of the layout of the exhibition
Both images are screengrabs from the Met video of the exhibition 

Untitled, 1976; copper wire, nails, canvas
Detail below of a single element

Untitled, 1994; copper wire, paraffin, clay, metallic paint, pigment, lead, iron

Two details below

Untitled, undated; unfired clay, paraffin, copper wire, thumbtack, paint, dried leaf, alabaster, plastic, paper, plaster, metallic paint, graphite, colored pigments, metal coin, gold leaf, metallic pigment, pastel, colored pencil, metal table

About the heads: The wall text describes Merz's heads as "enigmatic," further noting that they "possess  both a solemnity and a peculiarity characterized by their compositions and odd materials." Merz's interest lay in "angels, madonnas, queens, and aliens"

I'll be honest: I am not especially taken with Merz's vision, but I admire that she held her own in the face of the muscularity and large scale of Arte Povera, which for all its focus on the modesty of materials, was as macho as any other movement of the time

Untitled, 2004; metallic paint, pastel, ink, paper, copper wire, nails, thumbtacks, paint can, and adhesive tape on plywood with copper shelf

Detail below
(Doratura Tixe is a metallic synthetic shellac)

Untitled, 1994; wax, tempera, copper wire, cardboard, and bamboo cane on panel
Says the wall panel: "This may be a portrait of a queen or of Joan of Arc, a figure who holds a particular fascination for the artist"

Detail below

Wall of portrait heads. Most are undated; of those that are, the earliest is from 1981, the latest from 2012
The installation is reminiscent of how the work was installed in her studio

Below: A section of Merz's studio wall. Screen grab from the Met video of the exhibition 

This room was my favorite in the exhibition. The two discrete works here, created in different decades, feel like an installation intended by the artist instead of, I'm assuming, one designed by the curators. I found it muscular yet light, bold yet intimate

Untitled, 2010; mixed media on paper mounted on wood, iron and copper frame; beams, wax

Detail below
From the wall text we learn that the celestial blue wax orb was cast from the inside of a teacup, a punctuation that is as sweetly domestic as it is mysterious. Depending on your vantage point, it may appear that the diagonals in the drawing emanate from the orb

 Detail of Untitled, 1990-2003; unfired clay, steel, paraffin, gold leaf, metallic paint, pastel, paint, adhesive tape, wax
The field of paraffin, we learn, is melted down and recast for each installation

Above and below: Living Sculpture, 1966, aluminum

This work opened the exhibition. Cut and assembled from aluminum sheet, the sculptures initially hung in the flat Merz shared with her husband, Mario, and daughter, Beatrice.  I love that they feel somewhat ominous; you can imagine them suspended in the kitchen above the stove. 

Panoramic view of the vignette in the last gallery that sums up a 50-year career

More reading: New York Times, The New Yorker,  Hyperallergic, Artnet
Video: Sunday at the Met

Friday, July 7, 2017

Mothers of Invention at Met Breuer, Part 1: Lygia Pape

In the Mothers of Invention series:
Armory Week: Mothers of Invention 
Part 1: Carmen Herrera
Part 2: Hilma af Klint

The confluence of art and architecture: Lygia Pape, A Multitude of Forms, at Met Breuer through July 23

There are two Brazilian Lygias of interest to art-going New Yorkers: Lygia Pape (pah-peh’) and Lygia Clark. Both lived and worked in Rio de Janiero more or less contemporaneously, and both had manifold careers that included geometric abstraction and performance. Clark (1920-1988) was the subject of a major retrospective at MoMA in 2014. Pape (1927-2004) is featured in an important solo at Met Breuer right now. (Both can be seen together in Making Space at MoMA this summer.) But this blog, part of my irregular series, Mothers of Invention, is about Pape.

Two Lygias (and a Carmen) in Making Space at MoMA, up through August 13: Lygia Clark, foreground; Lygia Pape on wall, right; and Carmen Herrera

Lygia Pape was an early exponent of Concrete Art, arte concreta in Portuguese. Concrete art was, and remains, the universal term used to describe non-objective abstraction. Pape came to align herself with
a splinter group of "neoconcrete" artists who challenged the flat plane with the introduction of physical dimension. You'll see this as we walk through the exhibition. Her interest in spatial structures would culminate in ethereal installations of what appeared to be pure light. This post is but a slice of the show, 
a selective look of work that I was able to photograph between waves of visitors on a Friday evening. There's much more in the exhibition. See it if you can.

The early work was very much of its time, the Fifties
 Both paintings titled Pintura (Painting), 1953, oil on canvas

Wall of Pinturas (Paintings), 1954-1956, gouache on fiberboard

I love that Pape worked rigorously with one size and one set of formal elements to wrest the most out of them, here the line and the square. The wall text notes that the work "reflected the growing interest in optics and technology," but they have a Russian Suprematist feel to me

Closer view  below

Relevos (Reliefs), 1954-1956, tempera and industrial paint on wood

Notes the wall text: "Here, Pape was starting to question the two-dimensional convention of the picture plane."

Below: Alternative view, in which we see how the painted sides begin to disrupt the picture plane

Another wall of Relevos (Reliefs), 1954-1956, tempera and industrial paint on wood

Below: A closer and alternative view of the Relevo at the far right on the wall above

Wall of woodcuts on Japanese paper, Tecelar (Weaving), 1955-1957
So many of the elements in this series found their way into Pape's Night and Day Book, which follows

Below: Closer view of one Tecelar

Single element from the 36-piece Livro noite e dia (Night and Day Book), 1963-1976, tempera and acrylic on wood

All 36 elements are shown below in six-element sections. The installation itself was horizontal, two rows of 18 sculptures each

Livro do tempo (Book of Time), 1961-1963
This mural consists of 365 elements, one for each day of the year

In the foreground, a facsimile of Pape's book, Livro da criacao (Book of Creation), 1959-1960, which could be handled by visitors. (The large blue page standing up at left is what you saw in the opening photo of this post)

Below: detail of  Livro do tempo

Amazonino installation

I am unfamiliar with this aspect of Pape's work, so I quote from the wall text: "Throughout her life Pape demonstrated an interest in the architecture and material culture of Brazil's indigenous population. The objects in her Tuminamba series (1997-2003) are covered with red feathers, recalling the Tupinamba, the country's original coastal tribes who were massacred during colonization. These tribes treasured the precious red feathers of the scarlet ibis and used them in their crafts and rituals . . ."
Amazonino, 1991, automotive paint on iron

Tteia 1, 1976-2004, thread

It's interesting that an artist so involved with the physicality of her painting and sculpture could, later in her career, create such an ethereal experience from those same geometric elements. Of course the textile sensibility was always there--witness her her "woven" woodcuts--but the luminosity and the dramatic scale of this work create a poetic space that allows the viewer to physically participate in the work

Another view, with a look, below, at the construction 

There's more to the exhibition than I've shown you here. For instance, I haven't mentioned Pape's performance Divisor (Divider), which is shown on film and was recreated by the museum at the beginning of the exhibition's run. You'll have a chance to physically handle a facsimile of her Book of Creation. And, of course, there's nothing like experiencing the real thing. Go!