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albertoehlen

Imagine the conversation in this room.

Now imagine how the painting affects the conversation. Or doesn’t it?

Replace the painting with a reproduction of a 16th century nude. A portrait of Henry VIII.  The descent from the cross by Rubens.  A Bruegel landscape.  A Norman Rockwell, the boys running past the “No Swimming” sign, blown up to 6 feet high.

We all know that a painting profoundly affects the feeling of a room.  How  does this painting by Albert Oehlen affect the feeling of the room?

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/seeing-something-awful/

Photo of interior with Albert Oehlen painting from National Geographic.

titiandanaeTitian 1488-1576

hansholbeinhenryviiiHans Holbein the Younger 1497-1543

rubensdescentcrossPeter Paul Rubens 1577-1640

breugelharvesterPieter Bruegel the Elder 1525-1569

normanrockwellnoswimmingNorman Rockwell 1894-1978

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Zaha Hadid

ZahaHadidCincinnatiConartsCr2

Clearly, this architecture needs to be experienced. In the Midwest we have two buildings by her: one in East Lansing, MI, and one in Cincinnati, OH.  We should go.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3Bhv2T8Naw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9n0EQBa7dQI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GF_qPKnrrHo

https://facefame.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/zaha-hadid/

http://www.contemporaryartscenter.org/about/the-rosenthal-center

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16FebArches
These cropped forms suggest some architectural element, with variations. Or, maybe, chair backs. In any case, something well designed, serious and possibly monumental. At the same time, unstable and meaningless. If they are structures, you can see that they lack bracing but are, nevertheless, solid. They’re grand in some way. And there are many of them, this we can infer from the cropping.
This, therefore, is a painting that at first glance suggests clarity of statement. But if you fall for its seduction, you’ll soon chase yourself in circular thinking and you end up not “getting” it at all. This is a good thing. You’re looking at art.
Painting by Harold Bauer. Oil on canvas, ~30” x 24”
16FebArchesFlipNow let’s flip it horizontally. Oh, look! The flipped version seems much friendlier, more accessible. It lacks the gravitas of the original. I would not ponder this version, I would consider it “lite,” a bit decorative, merely clever.
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15JaneWhatFour
You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
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RumpTower
In these blog ruminations on how to look at paintings I’ve never said anything nice about “the verbal mode.” The idea is to turn that thing off, so that you can take in the painting (or drawing) in as pure a visual mode you can muster. I’ll stick to that, but I do occasionally go verbal and when I do, I get fascinated by the origin of words.
When I was walking along the river recently, I looked up and saw the word “RUMP” on a building. How odd, I thought, to put such a word and in such an aggressive size on a building. One sometimes sees that word with a T in front and I wondered if there was an etymology that would lead back, not just to card-playing lingo, but to “triumph.” Given the current presidential race, wouldn’t that be appropriate.
I pulled the OED, always a good read, out of its case, and combed through twelve columns trying to find out what was up with “triumph.” Much of what I found spoke to political ambition. 1) One corruption of “triumph” is used to designate a “playing card so that any one such card can TAKE any card of another suit. Take that! 2) Over centuries, since the Romans, “Triumph” became “trumpet,” both the instrument and the person “who or that which proclaims, celebrates, or summons loudly like a trumpet.” Loudly, really? 3) A thing of small value, a trifle, pl. goods of small value, trumpery.” Trumpery is good. If these presidential ambitions lead to frustration, the next tower could have the word TRUMPERY in humongous, therapeutic letters on it.
But wait, the best is yet to come. The Middle English (12th-13th centuries) version of “trumpet” was “trompe.” Now, this is truly precious because tromper in French means to fool, deceive. Je trompe means I deceive. What a find!
But what about “rump?” Predictably, more windblown towseling. “With rump and rig, with rump and stump.” STUMP would be good on a building, wouldn’t it. Later. But wait, “rump” as a verb means “to flog or scourge.” No-no. If you say that, YOU’RE FIRED! How about YOU’RE FIRED on an office tower!?
Combing through the OED leads from one thing to another and I sometimes overcomb. We shall overcomb.


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IMG_5170
These passages from Matisse are a sort of gift in speechless delivery.

IMG_5183https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/%EF%BB%BFmatisse-zoom-three/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/matisse-zoom-two/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/matisse-zoom-one/

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14SaarinenClockTowerAfter J. Irwin Miller finished his studies in Philosophy, Classics and Economics at Oxford in 1934 he went to work at the family business in Columbus, Indiana.  The firm, Cummins Inc, manufactures motors. Columbus was a tiny town then. (Currently only 45,000 inhabitants).  Miller knew that in order to attract and keep top talent in engineering and management, he had to get involved in town politics, in creating excellent schools and in architecture.  He even had to build a house for himself where he could entertain the company’s executives, since there wasn’t a decent restaurant in the area where he could throw a Christmas party.  The Miller House, designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1953, is an architectural gem and has its own tour.

The first building Miller commissioned was the First Christian Church, in 1942.  He hired Eero’s father, Eliel SaarinenTribuneTower1922Saarinen (1873-1950), a Finnish architect who by that time was well established in this country.  Saarinen had won the second prize for his entry in the Chicago Tribune design competition of 1922, a design whose influence is  evident in many skyscrapers built in the 20’s in American cities.  Saarinen was a modernist:  let’s do without ornaments, please!  He was also an architect with visual wit and courage.

Just picking a modernist to design a church in rural Indiana was itself an act of courage.  How did Miller get away with this?!  Must have been his wealth, the reputation of his company and his convictions about the power of art, architecture and modernism.

The church that Saarinen designed looks more like a factory or an athletic center than anything the Hoosiers would have associated with their Christian tradition.  Instead of a steeple, there’s a square brick clock tower!

14SaarinenChurchOutsideBut then comes the really good part:  the clock is placed off-center on the tower. I took the architecture tours in Columbus last November and when I saw this (it was the first building on the tour)  I just lit up.  Asymmetry!

First you see the whacky clock and then the tour guide makes sure you also notice that on the building itself there’s a cross that is also off center.  It was part of her job to point this out, but she wasn’t thrilled by asymmetry, that was clear.  I was.

14SaarinenChurchInsideInside the church, the altar wall is blank except for a large thin metal cross that is also, you guessed it, off center.  Not only that, it’s off center to the right, which hits you with an extra frisson.

The reason altars are traditionally symmetrical is that symmetry conveys stability: nothing changes here, don’t worry, you’re safe and comfortable among like-minded neighbors.  Saarinen’s design says, not so easy, folks, there’s work to be done in our thinking, our politics, our society, and you are the ones who have to do it.

Miller’s depth of political and social thought came to the fore a bit later.  In 1950 he co-founded the National Council of Churches. He was involved in civil rights legislation and the March on Washington. He led religious delegations that met with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to push for the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Learning about this did not surprise me, because I had seen Saarinen’s asymmetrical clock and his placement of the cross.

Miller started a foundation in the 1950’s that henceforth paid all architects fees for new public buildings in Columbus. Public buildings, mind you, not extensions of his own corporate holdings. He specified that the buildings be designed by great architects, because, he said, “Mediocrity is expensive.”

The result?  This little town in southern Indiana offers an architecture tour with sixty-one modern buildings, fifteen modern sculptures and two modern bridges. Just to drop some names: Harry Weese, Richard Meier, Kohn 14SaarinenChurchHenryMoore Pederson Fox, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen,  Kevin Roche, I.M.Pei,  and Ralph Johnson. You’ll recognize the sculpture in front of Saarinen’s asymmetrical church: Henry Moore.

Well, I’m planning on going back for my own tour at my own pace.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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