Archive for the ‘News & Updates’ Category
Mind the Gap © Peter Miller
Photography takes many forms, today we are happy to share the work of Peter Miller.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., a northern outpost of Appalachia with three rivers, many hills, onion-domed churches, lots of snow in the winter, a former iron and steel center. I graduated Columbia in New York, did a Ph. D. in Sociology at Berkeley, and consulted for clients at the Stanford Research Institute. One of these was Honda, who brought me to Japan in 1977 to help with their first U.S. auto plant. After some back-and-forth, I stayed, and have lived in Japan since 1981.
I continued consulting for various high-tech clients, and again as chance would have it, one of these made an ultraviolet light source for the printing and semiconductor industries. Coincidentally, I had seen the 19th-century photogravures of Peter Henry Emerson at a 1989 museum exhibit, and learned that this technique uses ultraviolet light. I moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1991, built a photogravure workshop, taught myself the photogravure technique, and held the first exhibit in an unused store in Kamakura the following year. In the 23 years since I started doing photogravure, I’ve held some thirty exhibits in Japan, America, France, England, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Russia, among others. These days, I’m organizing exhibits with other artists in an effort to see what contemporary Asian art means to viewers around the world.
How did you get started in photography?
From the age of six, photography was my way of exploring my surroundings in Pittsburgh. Through a primitive box camera I looked at snow scenes, railroad tracks, steel mills, light-and-shadow patterns, people in various ethnic neighborhoods, streetcars, amusement parks, friends — whatever caught my eye. Later I set up a home darkroom; that was then the fastest way I could get to see the images. I recall winding rolls of 35-mm film onto stainless-steel reels and immersing them into tanks of home-made developer and fixer. Traveling West, worshiped nature, mesmerized by the grand visions of Ansel Adams and others. In college, I did some of the covers for the Columbia Review. Moving to Japan unleashed other interests explored this new (to me) environment photographically. I resumed an interest in mountain-climbing and skiing, becoming the first foreign member of the All-Japan Alpine Photographers Association.
I have always responded to new experiences visually and photographically. Putting together a coherent series of images, it seems, is a way of making sense of the unknown. In doing so, I avoid ‘must-see’ sights and just walk around or take trams to discover what is visually interesting, as I did as a child in Pittsburgh.
Westwind © Peter Miller
Myoko Kogen © Peter Miller
Which photographers and other artists work do you admire?
Peter Henry Emerson, an American who practiced photogravure in England in the 1880s and 1890s, inspired my own efforts. The marvelous simplicity and tonal subtlety of his images of the Norfolk tidelands and its people continue to inspire. In the etchings of Rembrandt, every line matters, the extraordinary range of tone is matched by an equally extraordinary range of emotion. The Japanese ink-brush painters Sesshu and Sesson developed a similarly wide range of tonal and emotional expression in a very different context. Whistler’s etchings evoke the shimmering charm of Venice even in its backwaters — he was really the first Impressionist, before the name existed. In the 20th century, Stieglitz and Coburn, both of whom did photogravure, exalted the mystery of urban imagery. Jackson Pollock brought American art to a pinnacle in mid-20th century Abstract Expressionism with an energy and verve that have never since been surpassed. Among recent photographers, Wynn Bullock stands out as one who explores in-depth the mystery of life.
Would you share with us an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
A photo by Hiroshi Hamaya of a village called Tokamachi, in Japan’s snow country, evokes the furusato (hometown) feeling through children on their way to school fitted-out with rice-straw that looks like wings, making them symbols of the life that will emerge in the spring. Simple and profound at the same time, Hamaya’s photo transforms an ordinary moment into a vivid recollection, which is why it stays with me.
If no one saw your work, would you still create it?
With any artwork, it’s good to ask ‘Who is this for?’ No one specifically requested it. They don’t even know they want it — yet! There is a strong desire for hand-crafted things, to relieve the excessive perfection of computerized graphics. With my photogravure etchings, I think of the micro-landscape of the etched copperplate as akin to the Zen notion of wabi-sabi, something rough, imperfect, asymmetrical, unfinished, organic. If in printing the plate I can impart that quality to the prints, they are most attractive. That sense of craft and Japanese sensibility is what the people who acquire my prints are looking for. Yet if the prints are made only to satisfy clients, something is lost, the style becomes mannered and boring. To stay fresh, it has to have that spark of spontaneous chance that sets it apart from the glossy perfection of goal-oriented behavior. In that space, I have to forget about viewers, then comeback to them when it’s done, saying ‘here, I hope you like it’.
Why photogravure etchings ?
There’s nothing like the depth, texture, and tonality of intaglio for connecting sight and touch, for going directly to ‘the heart of the matter’. More than a century-and-a-half after photogravure was invented — by Talbot in England and Niépce in France — the way it enlivens the world we think we know is still magical. The archival quality of photogravure is ensured by carbon-based inks, which last for eons, which is why carbon is used for geological dating. Photogravure is part of the same lineage as engraving, etching, and aquatint going back to the 1500s with Durer, Rembrandt, and Goya.
Please tell us about your process and what the perfect day of photography is for you.
The photo is the beginning. No, imagination is the beginning. No again, it’s really a matter of being open to the unexpected, guuzen-sa as we say in Japanese. Now you can’t search for surprises, and that’s the point: to free yourself from any purpose. So I don’t try to record or document anything, and I certainly don’t capture anything. There’s no particular place or person or subject that I’m after. If I’m looking for anything at all, it’s an arrangement of black-and-white or light-and-shadow that corresponds to some state of mind. A state of mind that might be located in the past, a memory perhaps, or in the future, an anticipation or expectation or longing. When that ‘clicks’, it’s a good day of photography.
Three Friends © Peter Miller
Meigetsuin © Peter Miller
Photogravure etching needs an incredible — but pleasurable! — amount of time. Since 1991, I’ve created, etched, printed, and published 312 editions. That’s an average of less than 15 editions per year. Selecting from among numerous photos those that are worth this major investment of time and effort is the next step.
I look for qualities in the scene and the photo that lend themselves to the particular ink-on-paper (or washi) look of photogravure, qualities like depth, texture, and tonality, that are independent of any subject matter. Different kinds of light-and-shadow balance, near-to-far progression, distribution of sharp focus versus haze, might be found in natural forms such as fog, rock surfaces, skin, sand, waves, trees, etc. These might give rise to emotions such as the sense of foreboding associated with dark clouds, or the sense of mystery associated with reflections, or the joy of something luminous.
I exclude anything that cries out for some stock response, any hint of snark or lack of respect for the subject, and anything that might appear staged. Finally, I look for specifically Japanese qualities, regardless of whether the scene originates in Japan or not. Certain philosophical themes intended for an exhibit or a book or a Series I’m engaged in also influence this selection.
What challenges do you face as a photographer?
One major challenge is finding a perspective that encompasses the whole experience, because often the various elements are far apart. Video is very good at putting together related images in emotional sequence. In still photography, the challenge is to see all of these ‘at a glance’ in one or a series of images. Another challenge is removing the clutter. Many photographers don’t bother, justifying their approach on the grounds that they take the world as they find it. That style has been around for a century or more. Street and urban photography is done that way because ‘that’s the way it is’. But the world as it is awfully cluttered, and really much of the clutter is better forgotten, like many of the snapshots in that genre. It may be true that hidden gems await discovery in garbage, but you have to look through a lot of garbage to find them. I would rather search for scenes of glory in plain view, waiting as needed for the light or a suitable human.
If you could go out and shoot with another photographer living or passed who would it be?
Tetsuya Noda, because he is so good at noticing things — stray details that on second glance turn out to be significant. I would like to witness the thought process that transforms personal observations of apparently fleeting interest into images that live on independently of their sources. Many try to do this; few succeed.
How do you view this time in the history of photography?
Advances in computer technology in every phase of image-making, from recording to storage, processing, printing, publishing, communicating, and other forms of sharing, have opened up previously undreamed-of possibilities in photography. Today’s image sensors (CCDs) are already as sensitive as film and will continue to improve. We have hardly even begun to explore the creative potential of image-processing software. The technology advances, but our minds have a hard time keeping up — for example, it’s still generally accepted that photographs render a true picture of events, people, objects, documents, etc. Yet news and fashion photos often distort what they purport to represent. We appreciate extensive video-editing, even in documentaries, yet still photos that are edited seem to lose authenticity. Until a consensus of acceptable still-photo editing emerges, photography will continue to be held back from realizing the great potential of the available technology. Before photography,Canaletto, Vermeer, and others used lenses to outline their paintings — but they didn’t just copy what they saw through the lens, they re-arranged buildings, people, interiors to suit their own aesthetic purposes.
Advances in computerized imagery have generated a corresponding desire for hand-crafted graphics, like photogravure etching. I’m not an antiquarian, though. I use a computer in every phase of my practice except the actual plate-making, etching, and printing. I’ve met people around the world who first became familiar with my gravures through my websites or social media. Without the Web, that would never have been possible. Coordinating the exhibits I’ve organized with other artists in New York and Paris, at venues in Eastern Europe and Russia, would have been unthinkable without current computer resources. In publishing books with similarly dispersed collaborators, I also give thanks for what computers and the Web have enabled. The present is a time of greatly expanded creativity for photography and all the arts.
Adrift © Peter Miller
How do you over come a creative block?
By doing something unexpected, seeking out new experiences, experimenting with a previously untried variation on the photogravure technique, allowing myself to respond without restriction to a new situation, place, or person.
Also by re-reading old manuals of technique, re-viewing artwork that once inspired me, reading my etching and printing notes, searching for something on the Web and letting the search go in serendipitous directions.
Travel almost always stimulates creative endeavor, if there’s enough time after dealing with all the logistics and gatekeepers to reflect on what one is experiencing.
What do you hope the viewer takes from your images ?
More ability to observe their surroundings, to notice interesting things great and small that might otherwise escape their attention: Above all, to see for themselves, develop their own preferences, and enjoy art they can live with.
Would you like to share a story about one of your images?
The print ‘Broth of Life’, is a scene of the kombu (kelp) harvest in Erimo, Hokkaido. Just as we arrived at Erimo, a four-year-old girl spontaneously took my hand and led me to where her family was spreading out the kombu to dry on the rocks. She introduced her friends, then her pet seal, which turned out to be a piece of driftwood that looked very much like a seal. From that vantage-point, the view of the entire length of drying kombu appeared — thanks to Naoko-chan.
The title ‘Broth of Life’ comes from the fact that 90 percent of the kombu in Japan is harvested here at Erimo, Hokkaido. It is a staple of daily life, at once part of everyone’s life and the livelihood of these seafaring communities. It resembles the woven rope seen at temples and shrines — symbols of harmony and strength.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
The printmaking practice gives me a sense of what to look for, what forms, textures, and shapes will ‘translate’ best into the graphics of ink on paper or washi. The artwork is really an alternate universe of perception, co-existing with the practical necessities of maneuvering my bicycle through traffic, finding the right train, buying supplies, or whatever. On the train, I might think about technical problems like ultraviolet exposure or which prints to select for an upcoming exhibit. I might make a mental note to get off the train sometime at a station that I normally pass by, so that I can explore what looks interesting from the train window.
Creating art clarifies the ‘big picture’ of the world, like the denial of experience that lies at the root of today’s toxic political culture. From this comes the campaign to promote ideology over observable experience, inducing a weird doublethink as the wished-for state of affairs recedes ever-further from the actual state of affairs. Hence the spread of conceptual art and its related denigration of craft, the enlistment of art as propaganda for the cause du jour, and the tendency to reduce art to argument.
Photogravure being technically unforgiving, if any one of its numerous conditions is not met, the etching fails. When this happens, the mistake is my fault, I can’t blame it on anyone else or on society. While this may seem harsh, in fact it means the resources for correcting the mistake are within the scope of my personal responsibility, seeking improved, realistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work. In the printmaking workshop, distinguishing actual from wished-for results is essential.
While we cannot escape irrational forces in international or personal relations, we can offset them with what might be termed irrational counter-forces. Art is one of these, along with music, religion, science, and other creative endeavors. All of these cultural artifacts stimulate irrational counter-forces in a positive way. These activities are vitally important for the overall welfare and health of society because they are the only effective resources we have for opposing and neutralizing the demoniacal forces unleashed by tribal ideology and war.
Where can we see your work?
Prints are available at Ebo Gallery
My next exhibit in the United States will be at the Tenri Cultural Institute of New York
June 3 – 23, 2015.
artcritical, Monday July 21st, 2014
by Douglas Florian
David Shapiro (1944-2014)
David Shapiro, who died earlier this year after a long struggle with cancer, was a mentor and friend. A fellow abstract painter, he was as generous, open, and honest as he was talented and prolific. In the thirty years or so we knew each other, I saw his work grow in depth, expressiveness, and clarity, without conforming to the latest fad, fashion, or “ism” in the art world.
Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Shapiro trained at Pratt Institute and Indiana University, where he earned an MFA in 1968, and attended the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. He taught at several institutions, including Barnard College and Parsons.
David Shapiro at work. Courtesy of David Shapiro Studio
Continuous study and practice of Buddhism greatly influenced his work as well as his daily life. From Asian art he embraced a great sense of stillness, as well as an appreciation of calligraphy, and a muted sense of color. Yet somehow, to me at least, there was something of New York City in his work, something
of the place where so many cultures collide. He was always alert to his immediate surroundings, be that the texture on a wall in raking light, or a pattern of clouds reflecting off a glass building at sunset. The “now” somehow seeped into the ancient.
Shapiro almost always worked in series, the titles of which reflected what he sought to achieve, what he sought to approach. In his Clearing series two adjacent squares speak to each other: dense with open, airy with watery, luminous with solemn. Despite the binary nature of the series the pieces seem to transcend dualism. The series title itself invites different meanings: a clearing in a wood, a clearing of sky, or, better yet, a clearing of mind.
Origin and Return is a large meditative series where each piece contains four distinct parts, a vertical always followed by three squares, woven together to form a unified long horizontal work. Woven together thick lines may be followed by concentric circles, leading into watery thin lines, and finally two straight lines or a circle, or even meandering thick lines again. Intuition plays a leading role here, not logic or formula.
In the Savasan series (named for the recumbent yoga pose) six squares connect horizontally in both compelling and surprising ways. In Seer, Actor, Knower, Doer verb becomes noun, as four tall verticals join to form a square.
Shapiro sometimes referred to “allostasis” – stability through change – as a goal of his paintings and prints, with seemingly opposite or disparate forces uniting as one. I remember David relating to me how often a brushstroke on the canvas would coincide with the arc of his breath as he painted, outer connecting with inner, spiritual with material. A mark was not only an extension of his body, but of his very essence. He believed in painting as not only as expression of his self, but as a means to understand his non-self, all that wasn’t David Shapiro in the universe. His poise and steadfastness in this regard enabled him to create a body of work over the years that both evolved and held together. He achieved mastery but avoided the facile or the obvious.
Despite a great and sincere modesty, Shapiro had over eighty solo shows in galleries and museums across the United States, as well as in Japan, England, and Canada. In addition to painting and drawing he created more than fifty editions of prints, often selecting Nepalese or Japanese papers of unusual texture to which he frequently added natural elements such as pumice, metal filings, marble dust, and graphite to enrich and enliven the works. His work is represented in many private, corporate, and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington D.C.; and the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Japan.
A comprehensive look at Betty Merken’s signature approach to Printmaking in her Seattle studio.
On October 16th, members of the Japanese Art Society of America (JASA) toured the Japanese Garden at Kykuit, part of the Rockefeller Family Estate and the former country home of John D. Rockefeller, now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Pocantico Hills, NY. The tour was hosted by JASA Board Member Cynthia Altman, Curator of the Kykuit collections.
The Garden was designed by Messieurs Ueda and Takahashi under the supervision of landscape architect William Wells Bosworth. Mr. Ueda and Mr. Takahashi trained at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in landscaping and architecture. “A brook with stone and mortar bed flows 2200 feet, re-circulates and catches overflow from the fountains and pools of Kykuit’s gardens. An estate road divides the garden into two sections. The lower portion, with a pond surrounded by flowering cherries, clusters of azaleas, pines and thread-leaf maples, is typical of a hill and pond garden. The upper section is more densely landscaped, and the brook and divergent paths form a stroll garden. Low spreading juniper and grasses cover the steep easterly bank. Shrubs and ornamental trees merge into the main lawns along the western border.1
The first Teahouse completed in 1909 (now called the Shrine) is of mahogany and originally had a thatched roof. The one large room can be divided into two sections with fusuma (sliding panels). The outer mahogany walls on three sides slide into pockets to reveal shoji (translucent latticed panels) covered in glass and silk. The shoji also slide open for viewing the surrounding gardens. In 1922 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. authorized the replacement of the thatched roof with an ornate copper roof.1
In the early 1960’s Nelson A. Rockefeller commissioned David Harris Engel to redesign the upper portion of the garden. Engel had studied in Kyoto in the 1950’s under Tansai Sano, a master landscape architect. The first Teahouse was moved and a new Teahouse was built on the site. The Teahouse was designed in the tradition of Sukiya-shoin style by the eminent Tokyo architect, Junzo Yoshimura (1908-1997) who had previously designed the “House in the Garden” at the Museum of Modern Art.1
Yoshihiro Terazono and Tomoko Urabe
During the tour, a demonstration of Tea was given by Tea Master Yoshihiro Terazono of the New York City Urasenke School with the expert assistance of Tomoko Urabe at the Garden Teahouse.
L. to R. Tomoko Urabe, Yoshihiro Terazono, Judy Blum and Cynthia Altman
The Japanese Garden at Pocantico Hills – Published by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Tarrytown, NY
The painting, “Summer Morning V” (above left), by renowned artist Robert Kipniss is part of an exhibition at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, Long Island. The show is called “Recent Acquisitions” and is comprised of 24 works acquired by the Museum since 2010. The show opens Saturday, August 17, and runs until November 24.
Also, two of Mr. Kipniss’es mezzotints and the two plates they were pulled from are now in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
by John Seed Professor of Art and Art History, Mt. San Jacinto College
Huffpost Arts and Culture, August 7, 2013
Peri Schwartz, whose work is currently on view in the three-person exhibition “Dwellings” at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, is a formalist and a seeker of harmonies. Schwartz’s compositions get their rigor from the implied presence of a grid, which she offsets and punctuates with painterly gestures and harmonies of color and value. Her most recent oils — studio interiors and still lifes of translucent bottles and jars — have the expressive vitality of perfectly executed chamber music.
I recently interviewed Peri Schwartz and asked her about her background, her development, and her artistic values.
John Seed Interviews Peri Schwartz
Peri Schwartz: Photo by Donna Callighan
Peri, tell me something about your family background. Are you the first person in your family to take an interest in art?
Yes, the first in my immediate family but I have a lot of cousins that are artists.
My mother has a great eye and is one of my best critics. She also encouraged me from a very early age to pursue my passion. Her house is filled with beautifully framed drawings, paintings and prints from every stage in my development.
My cousin, Gary Schwartz, lives in Holland. He has written numerous important books on Rembrandt and other Dutch artists. One of the best memories I have was the first time I visited him and his family in the lovely town of Maarssen. He took me to the Rijksmuseum and pointed out Saenredam, an artist I had never heard of. Saenredam does magnificent paintings of church interiors and is an artist I frequently return to.
Maggie Painting, 1970, 23″ x 19″, oil on board
Tell me about your art education in Boston. What mentors made an impact on you?
Boston University’s School of Fine Arts was a very serious place and I was in bliss. Our training in drawing and painting was traditional and very rigorous. Joseph Ablow taught composition and it was my favorite class. He had studied with Albers at Yale and was brilliant in demonstrating how a painting is constructed. He introduced me to Morandi, an artist that continues to inspire me.
Sometimes BU could be a bit too traditional. I was fortunate to be at a summer program BU had at Tanglewood. There I studied with Robert D’Arista, a terrific painter and teacher from American University. Unlike the teachers at BU, he wanted us to work quickly and intuitively. It shook me up quite a bit and I did some of my best student work that summer.
Studio, 1975, 52″ x 44″, oil on canvas
You think a bit like Vermeer: you like to turn your studio into an entire world. Tell me about that tendency and how it evolved.
I have two very vivid recollections of using the studio as a subject. The first was when I was at BU. It was dusk and I was alone in the drawing studio. I saw the easels silhouetted against the windows and did a charcoal drawing. The second time was when I had my own studio as a graduate student at Queens College. It seemed to be the perfect subject with a mirror, stool with pad on it and other painting materials. In that painting are all the things I continue to use in my studio interiors.
Yes, I look at Vermeer a lot and am especially interested in how he used the architecture of the windows as verticals and diagonals. Often the proportion of the painting or wall hanging is echoing the dimensions of the canvas. I find it fascinating that Vermeer was a strong influence on Mondrian, whose paintings are like skeletons of the Vermeers.
Studio Self-Portrait, 1998, 68″ x 40″, oil on canvas
You have said that the “grid is not a restriction.” Can you expand on that?
I don’t begin with a grid, the grid emerges. For example, in my Bottles and Jars paintings, I randomly set up the bottles and jars on the table. In trying to find the middle of the composition I measure where that will be. From there I divide it again and this is how the grid comes into play. It’s a tool that helps me find the intervals. Often I will draw a line that is part of the grid, confident that it belongs where I drew it. As the painting progresses I inevitably move the bottles or jars and paint over part of the line. When the painting is done there are grid lines that weave in and out of the composition but are never uniform.
Studio XVIII, 2007, 56″ x 44″, oil on canvas
Many artists are afraid of rulers, but you aren’t. Do you have a background in drafting?
No, but at BU we were taught how to use a plumb line when drawing the model. As my work developed I became more and more interested in how things lined up on that horizontal or vertical line. Instead of using a pencil I began using rulers. When I started drawing corresponding lines on the tables, floor and walls in my compositions, I needed more rulers that were longer.
Bottles & Jars V, 2009, 20″ x 32″, oil on canvas
How do you know when a painting is finished?
For me, finishing a painting is a balancing act. I want to retain the freshness of the paint and at the same time get everything in the right position. The painting is usually finished when I can’t bear to move one more object.
Roy II, 2012, 28″ x 20″, monotype
Although you are mainly known for still life imagery, you have done some wonderful monotype portraits. Do you plan on doing more work with the figure?
Thank you. I spent many years doing self-portraits. The portraits that I do are from people I know whose faces are interesting to me. I work directly from life and it takes me several hours to do a drawing or print. That makes it difficult to get someone to commit to posing. I am sure I will do more portraits but the timing has to be right for me and my subject.
Studio #13, 2012, 30.5″ x 28″, charcoal and ink on mylar
In addition to your paintings, you create numerous black and white drawings: tell me about the importance of drawing to your artistic practice.
It has always been essential in my development to alternate between drawing and painting. There is a wonderful sense of rediscovering the materials after you have not used them for a while. I imagine drawing is like writing a poem or short story- the limitations lead to a certain kind of freedom.
Bottles & Jars XXI, 2011, 22″ x 26″, oil on canvas
What forces are pulling you towards abstraction in your work?
From the beginning of my art education, I have been interested in the compositions of great paintings, particularly Degas, Morandi and Diebenkorn. What interests me most is how they take a subject and use it to make a brilliant composition. I tend to seesaw back and forth with paintings that are more and then less abstract. Because working directly from life is so essential to me, I can’t imagine doing a painting or drawing where the viewer is left without a sense of real space. Being on that edge is where I want to be.
Studio XXXIV, 2013, 54″ x 44″, oil on canvas
What are your interests outside of art?
Listening to classical music, especially small ensembles, is vital to me.
I go to concerts frequently and aside from getting emotionally involved in the music, I like to watch how the musicians communicate with each other. When I am back at the studio, the relationships between my still life objects remind me of the communication I observed between the musicians.
If you could tell someone in a single sentence why you paint, what would that sentence say?
Painting is like breathing for me: I couldn’t live without it.
Topophilia- Ma and Ki
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Two interesting videos of Jean Gumpper recounting her recent experience during an artist residency in Death Valley last April.
Painting at 99, With No Compromises
Joshua Kristal for The New York Times
“The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that’s what I want to be,” the artist Will Barnet, 99, says.
New York Times Article, October 26, 2010
By Robin Finn
Published: October 26, 2010
Propelled by a scholarship to the Art Students League, Will Barnet, an aspiring artist with a portfolio heavy on seascapes and family cat portraiture, left Boston for New York City in 1931 with $10 in his pocket. It was summer, it was hot, and besides the Depression-era garbage rotting in the streets, the air was ripe with raucous political protest. He rented a room for a $1 a night, gorged on cheap baked beans at the Automat and started sketching the forlorn and angry faces he saw on every corner. He was 19 and “radicalized” by possibility.
“I felt like Gary Cooper,” he recalled, “like a cowboy in a Western movie.” He roamed the city the way his idol, Honoré Daumier, had wandered through Paris; it was his muse. His style: stark, brooding social realism.
Eight decades later, hard of hearing but still tart of tongue, Mr. Barnet continues to paint every day — abstract forms, oddly hued and, as ever, deeply felt. His evolution as a modern American painter is on display this month in “Will Barnet and the Art Students League,” an exhibition that honors his centennial year and his influence on generations of artists, and includes works by renowned league students and colleagues like Louise Bourgeois and James Rosenquist.
“I’ve seen it all but I want to see more,” said Mr. Barnet, who lost the use of his left leg two years ago after a fall. “I have no opinion on what it means to be 99 except that it’s different from being 19. I used to work 8, 9, 10 hours a day,” he said. Now he paints three or four hours despite his inability to stand. “I didn’t compromise, ever,” he added. “The old masters are still alive after 400 years, and that’s what I want to be.”
Mr. Barnet, whose art career began with his painting self-portraits in his parents’ basement in Beverly, Mass., “according to the way Rembrandt worked, with the light coming over my left shoulder,” is a symbol of 20th-century American inimitability. He’s the guy who abstained when the establishment went gaga over abstract expressionism (“Most of those paintings felt like accidents”). But his major works from the 1950s to ‘70s — abstract and figurative, Byzantine and Indian Space — now sell for up to $400,000. He has had 80 one-man shows, the most recent this spring at the Alexandre Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney all have his work — usually in storage. (“They don’t show artists of my nature; the Whitney hasn’t shown my work in 30 years,” he said.)
“He took a very independent route, often in contrast to what was the popular or easy direction, but it was the art world that was contrary, not Will,” said Robert Kane, an expressionist colorist painter and former student of Mr. Barnet’s whose work is included in the retrospective. “There’s a quote of Picasso’s that is, to me, the secret of Will: ‘Some people make a red dot and it’s the sun; other people make the sun and it’s just a red dot.’ ”
A fan of Picasso, Ingres and Cezanne, Mr. Barnet wanted to be a modern American painter in a 20th-century American city: the league was a Mecca for modernists. Neither his parents’ indifference (his father was a machinist in a shoe factory) nor the suicide of Jules Pascin, who was to be his first teacher at the league in 1931, deterred him. “I had to be an artist and not sacrifice myself for anything but art,” he recalled.
Mr. Barnet knew no one in New York, but he arrived with a letter of introduction from a friend at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who had an Armenian uncle in the city, the surrealist artist Arshile Gorky. Mr. Barnet hiked downtown to his studio unannounced. Standing on the sidewalk, he heard shouting. He knocked anyway. Turned out Mr. Gorky was infuriated because overnight, mice had destroyed a collage that included cheese among its media.
After calming down, Mr. Gorky took Mr. Barnet for an instructive stroll, at one point stopping outside a shoe shop with a fancifully painted business sign. “Young man,” he said, “there’s the future of art in America.” Mr. Barnet kept his mouth shut, but he has never been a fan of what would become known as Pop Art. The closest he came to being a commercial artist were the poster editions of his 1970s prints (“Woman Reading” is the best known); some editions sold for $300,000, but there were no sequels or variants.
Over the years, Mr. Barnet’s work morphed from social realism to a nuanced abstraction that used flat planes of color to convey emotion and depth; in his prime, he segued from pure abstraction to pure figuration and back. As a teacher, he elevated printmaking to an art form and emphasized to painters the difference between fine art and the transfer of object to canvas.
“I never wanted to repeat myself,” he says. “And that drove some art dealers crazy. I love moving on and finding fresh ways to use color and form. That’s been my excitement.”
He was appointed league printer in 1935 for $15 a week, and taught art there from 1942 to 1979 (Mark Rothko was his printmaking student in 1951). No canvas left his studio unless he had spent at least three years getting it absolutely, obsessively right.
“I had seen some of his paintings on the wall outside the classroom and thought, ‘Here’s someone who sees something no one else sees,’ ” said the urban muralist Knox Martin, whose work is also included in the exhibition, at the league’s gallery on West 57th Street. “He was the first human being I ever met who could communicate what art was.”
Mr. Barnet said he once painted Gypsy Rose Lee’s portrait for rent money, though he has forgotten what she paid: $20, or maybe $50. His 1934 lithograph “Cafeteria Scene” was purchased by the league for its permanent collection. Philip Alexandre, who owns the gallery that represents him, said that over the past decade Mr. Barnet and his work have begun to experience a pleasant art establishment phenomenon — “a reassessment of value,” noting: “Younger artists are discovering him, and that’s key.”
Mr. Barnet and his wife of 58 years, Elena, moved in 1982 from the Upper West Side to a duplex at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park that includes his first genuine studio.
It has a full wall of two-story windows facing north. The other walls display paintings, some 15 feet high, like the austere winter portrait of his and Elena’s daughter, Oona, and grandson, Will, on ice skates in Maine, circa 1980. The original pencil sketch for “Woman Reading” — a 1970 oil painting and later a popular poster — depicting Elena and their cat, Madame Butterfly, hangs in the living room. The reason for the bald spots on the walls: he lent several paintings to the league and to a show being presented at Montclair State University, where his son Peter teaches painting. Another son, Richard, is a sculptor who teaches at the league, and a third son, Todd, is a lawyer; all three were born during his 10-year marriage to Mary Sinclair, a painter.
Mr. Barnet mixes colors himself, and keeps a sheet of waxed paper over them to assure freshness. He sits beside his canvas in the wheeled office chair he relies on to get around the studio. A gigantic 150-year-old wooden easel looms behind him, unused; the wall, more accessible, now doubles as his easel. Hundreds of paintbrushes are guarded by a stuffed raven he refers to as “the early bird.” He cannot climb stairs anymore, so he sleeps on a daybed in the studio; when he leaves the apartment to go out to dinner or to a gallery, he begrudgingly uses the wheelchair parked in the hall.
Mortality is on his mind.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said, digging into a saucer of frozen Georgia pecans (his other favorite snack is 72 percent dark chocolate, which he discovered 50 years ago, way ahead of the curve). “My grandfather was 96 years old, and one foggy night in Beverly, Mass., he went walking and was hit and injured by a drunken driver.
“He was lying in bed dying of a fractured skull, and my father took me at the age of 6 to say goodbye to him. And I’ll never forget what he said: ‘Do you think it’s easy to die at the age of 96?’ ”