Saturday, January 25, 2014

A year in the studio

A little over a year ago, I walked into my nearly empty studio soon after a group of paintings had been shipped out for a solo exhibit. I gave myself a week to catch my breath, settle down and then resume my work in the studio.  Although I hoped to avoid the post-exhibit slump, I felt listless and directionless. I started to work on several new paintings that were directly connected to the previous body of work, but with little enthusiasm. As this continued for several weeks, I became increasingly despondent. Was I struggling because I had just hit a tough spot, or was I struggling because it was time to shift directions?  In preparation for the solo exhibit, I had narrowed my focus—not wanting to become distracted. Perhaps this was the moment to re-engage with ideas that had cropped up earlier but had been put aside.

The most exhilarating, but at times terrifying pursuit in the studio can be to set off in new directions-- exhilarating, because everything seems possible; terrifying, because nothing is certain.  To place some limits on the uncertainty I set up a few rules. First, since my paintings develop slowly over many months, I decided to do small works on paper that could be executed fairly rapidly.  Next, since one element of my recent work had emphasized areas of rhythmic busyness, I would push myself to dramatically pare down the compositions.  Finally, not only would I limit compositional complexity, I would also place restrictions on my palette.  Of course, through all of this I recognized that while these forays might yield dramatic changes in my work, they might also just lead to a subtle realignment of priorities.

Over the next twelve months I would follow my rules, completely abandon them, and then return to them once again. I found myself energized, utterly deflated, and occasionally thrilled at what I saw emerging in the studio. I would work with great enthusiasm and then hit a wall. I saw connections to topics I addressed in previous posts on this blog (Painting in Black and White; A personal take on Rockburne). But as the year progressed, I felt as if I had accomplished very little.

In preparation for a studio visit towards the end of 2013, I looked at all that I had done--looking for the common threads, looking to see which (if any) of the directions I had pursued resonated with me.  Several observations emerged from this review: It was a relief to discover that I hadn’t wasted my year; I quickly identified avenues that held little interest for me; I had a better understanding of several directions that did excite me; but I still had no idea where I was heading.

What follows then, is a glimpse of my year in the studio, roughly in the sequence that I worked on each project (some of which were pursued simultaneously). Although I’ve provided just a few images, each project includes between 10 and 25 finished pieces. 

February 2013 /       Untitled     oil on paper, 9.75 x 10.5 inches
My first series shows a close connection to the work from the exhibit, although I did follow my rule of working with a restricted palette. Determined to break away from rigid rectilinear forms, I abandoned this group after a few weeks.

March 2013  /   Untitled     gouache and oil pastel      6 x 6 inches
This project was prompted both by my interest in working in black and white as well as a desire to add linear gestures to my images. 

April – July 2013    /       Criss Cross    oil on paper, 9.75 x 10.5 inches 
Although the process would be slower, I resumed my work with oil paint on paper, with an emphasis on developing compositions that were spare, but dynamic. As the series expanded, the palette gradually shifted into colors I considered more decorative, adding an unwanted associative element. 

June -July 2013  /        This That     oil on paper    10 x 6.25 inches
I found the process of developing This That meditative and quite satisfying. Once again, I was searching for a dynamic tension while restricting the number of elements in the composition. I also wanted to dip my toes into working with curvilinear forms, something I generally avoid.

July 2013  /    charcoal on paper   8.25 x 9 inches
With this group of drawings, I returned to making visible marks but worked the image by lifting off charcoal with a kneaded eraser, rather than by adding lines on top of the field (as I had done with the gouache and oil pastel).  The drawings were executed quickly, meeting one of my rules.

August – September 2013   /   Tangle    charcoal on paper   8.25 x 9 inches
Clearly, this series marked a major departure for me. It emerged in response to my boredom working with more or less parallel lines, and immediately engaged my interest. After I built up the field of charcoal and began to draw (with a kneaded eraser), the images emerged fairly rapidly, in a single, relatively short work session. Although I've taken a hiatus from this series, it has a very powerful hold on me--I love the intense energy these drawings embody. I expect there will be another iteration of Tangle--perhaps in a few months, perhaps in a few years. 

 May 2013 – January 2014   /    Untitled     oil on wood panel    15” x 14.5 inches 
Although one of my self-imposed rules had been to restrict myself to work that could be produced quickly, I repeatedly returned to this series of small wood panels throughout much of the year. In earlier paintings on panel, I used rough sandpaper on small patches of the paintings to create textures and reveal underlayers. Now I wanted to see what happened when those areas became a more prominent element in my compositions and in my process.  As with my earlier paintings, the process entails multiple sessions in the studio until the composition of each painting begins to emerge. Thin paint layers are repeatedly added and partially sanded off.  Yes, these are slow paintings. But I stuck to my other rules of keeping the composition spare and the restricting the palette.

It is clear to me that I'm not yet ready to settle down. Indeed, there are already a few new explorations underway. But it has been a satisfying year in the studio.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Leon Polk Smith

The work of Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) is currently featured in two exhibits (in New York at Washburn Gallery and in Chicago at Valerie Carberry), and was recently the focus of a 'Kabinett' at Art Basel Miami Beach.  His paintings and works on paper are included in numerous museum collections across the United States and he is well known to those acquainted with American minimalism. The impact of Leon Polk Smith on several generations of reductivist artists is profound. However, I expect that Smith's work is not familiar to some, or perhaps many, of my readers. While I prefer his early work, I've included images from his entire oevre.  

"The content of all of my works for over forty years has been mainly concerned with space and color. And my driving interest in the study of the history of art and its evolvements has been with artists' concepts of space and their use of color."  
(Leon Polk Smith, 1982. Published in Leon Polk Smith, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein and Musee de Grenoble, 1989)

To consider the work of Leon Polk Smith, it is helpful to acknowledge the influence of Mondrian, which Smith did quite directly in his paintings of the 1940s and 1950s.  The 2006 centenary exhibit at Washburn Gallery shows this quite eloquently. 
(All photos in this section are from the Washburn Gallery website).

Installation view of the 2006 centenary exhibit

LEON POLK SMITH   Diagonal Passage #9, 1949, oil on canvas, 46 x 36 inches

The current exhibit at Washburn Gallery in NY:  Cherokee | Chickasaw | Choctaw  shows a selection of his work from the 1940s. Smith grew up in Oklahoma and had Cherokee ancestors. The influence of the visual traditions of the Southwest are clearly evident in the work of this period, as is the influence of Mondrian. (All photos in this section are from the Washburn Gallery website).

LEON POLK SMITH   Untitled, 1945, gouache on paper, 19 7/8 x 14 1/4 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   Untitled, 1945, gouache on paper, 40 x 25 1/2 inches
LEON POLK SMITH   Untitled, 1946, gouache on paper, 40 x 25 1/2 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   Composition in Red, Yellow, Black, 1948, oil on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches

In the 1950s, Smith began to move away from rectilinear forms.  He also began to work on shaped canvases, with a reduced palette and pared down compositions often limited to just two or three forms. Additional work from the 1950s can be seen below in the section on the exhibit at Valerie Carberry.
(Images in this section are from the Leon Polk Smith Foundation)

LEON POLK SMITH   Kanawa, 1956    oil on canvas, 41 inches diameter

LEON POLK SMITH   Okemah, 1955    oil on canvas, 47 inches diameter

The Kabinett installation at Art Basel Miami Beach (from Valerie Carberry Gallery) featured work from the 1950s and 60s. (Photos in this section courtesy of Joanne Mattera Art Blog).

LEON POLK SMITH  Untitled, 1963, enamel on wood, 12.25 x 3.625 x 1.5 inches

The current exhibit at Valerie Carberry in Chicago, Leon Polk Smith: Space Considered  includes paintings and collages from the mid 1950s through mid 1960s. (All photos in this section are from the Valerie Carberry Gallery website).

"I set out from Mondrian to find a way of freeing this concept of space so that it could be expressed with the use of curved line as well as straight. I soon found that this was not an easy thing to do. After more than a decade of intense search and painting (in 1954) somewhat by accident, while drawing with free line on a spherical surface, I observed a concomitant situation wherein the idea of space and form were complimentary to each other as well as interchangeable." 
(Leon Polk Smith, 1961. Published in Leon Polk Smith, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein and Musee de Grenoble, 1989).

LEON POLK SMITH  Untitled  collage on paper, 1958, 26.25 x 20.25 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   WHITE-WHITE  acrylic on paper, 1955, 23.75 x 19 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   Red-Black-Red (2 Approaching Spheres) oil on shaped masonite, 1955, 17 x 10.25 inches

In the 1960s and 1970s, Smith's focus shifted to clusters of shaped canvases and significantly increased in size. I have included photos from the 1995 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum to provide a sense of scale. This  exhibit included work from the 1930s through the 1990s. At the museum website are many installation views as well as descriptive information about the evolution of Smith's work.
(All photos in this section are from the Brooklyn Museum website).

To give you a sense of the dramatic increase in scale, the double panel painting shown above, Form Space #1: Red Wing, 1979, is 48 x 181 inches (in the collection of MOMA).

The 1960s through 1980s brought a return to a brighter, multi-colored palette as Smith continued working with shaped canvases, often in large clusters. The 1990s, the final period of work, brought a renewed interest in line, simplified composition and a reduced palette.

(Images in this section are from the Leon Polk Smith Foundation)

LEON POLK SMITH   Constellation Blue-Gold, 1972   oil on canvas, 4 elements, 82 x 95 3/4 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   Sunset Caribe, 1983    acrylic on canvas, 60 x 112 inches

LEON POLK SMITH   Open Space, 1990   acrylic on canvas, 68 x 60 inches

Throughout his fifty+ year career, Leon Polk Smith's work evidenced a joyful embrace of color and form, and it is gratifying that it continues to be actively exhibited.

To see an archive of images along with biographical information and interviews, visit the Leon Polk Smith Foundation.