In August of 2012 I started a small series of large canvases. This series of abstract paintings were all done on 91 by 121 cm (3 x 4 feet) canvasses. I used generous amounts of gel with the acrylic paints for think, juicy textures. The color palette was restricted to the primaries, plus black and white.
A few month’s back, in my quest to learn more about the Abstract Expressionist movement, I purchased a recent book by Irving Sandler. The description of that book intrigued me in that Sandler would be taking a second look at the movement – having written a definitive account of the history of the Abstract Expressionists, back in 1970. I thought it would be best to first read his first account before learning how his interpretation might have changed with 4o years of thought and observation. As luck would have it, that latest book sat on my “to read” pile and in the meantime I found a copy of his first book at a library.
I enjoyed this book. It was generally accessible and definitely educational. I have read a few biographies of key Abstract Expressionists and have become familiar with the painting style of maybe half a dozen of these artists but I never felt that I had the big picture. I had questions like: where and why did this movement come into being?, what were the influences (from without and within)? and what was the common thread that brought a number of artists with quite diverse approaches to their art, to be lumped into this movement called abstract expressionism? Having read The Triumph of American Painting, I feel that I got answers to those questions.
The 300 page book is divided into 20 chapters and includes a comprehensive bibliography and a section with short biographies of fifteen of the painters. Just over half of the chapters are devoted to individual artists, while the remaining chapters are of a more general nature, with titles such as The Great Depression, The Gesture Painters, The Color Field Painters, The Abstract Expressionist Scene, 1950-52: Success and Dissolution. The artists to whom individual chapters are devoted are:
- Arshile Gorky
- William Baziotes
- Jackson Pollock
- Willem de Kooning
- Hans Hoffmann
- Clyfford Still
- Mark Rothko
- Barnett Newman
- Adolph Gottlieb
- Robert Motherwell, and
- Ad Reinhardt
The book contains many images, photos of paintings, but unfortunately they are all in black and white. It would have been nice to see these works in full color but surprisingly, these monotone images do still convey a strong sense of the energy and style of the paintings. The only little gripe I had with this book and specifically the images, is a lack of indication of the size of each work – especially given how important this element was to a number of the abstract expressionists.
Through the course of the book Sandler describes the origins of the movement from the politics and philosophies of the time, through the drive to create art that would be distinct from the European traditions and particularly the influence of Paris. I learned how abstract expressionism grew out of cubism and surrealism and strove to be something distinct from these movements and how abstract expressionism could be broken down into two main branches: gesture and color field. The final part of the book describes the eventual recognition of the movement in the 1950’s, after a long struggle for acceptance.
As mentioned the author, Sandler revisited the movement in his 2009 book, Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: a Reevaluation. I am looking forward to reading that book and when I do, I will pass along my thoughts.
After reading (and greatly enjoying) de Koonig, an American Master the biography of Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Koonig, I was keen to learn more about the movement and other key players. Searching around for other books, one which seemed highly recommended was NIGHT STUDIO, A memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Meyer. I ordered a copy and started reading.
The first thing I discovered was that the author Meyer is Guston’s daughter. Her relation to the painter gave a fascinating layer to this work. Not only do we learn about Guston the painter but we get to know what life was like for his family – his wife and daughter.
At first, the fact that the author was the painter’s daughter and the book was not just a non-subjective biography turned me off. I was expecting to hear just about this great artist: his life, how he thought, his creative process. In retrospect I realize I was hoping for a continuation of the style of the de Kooning biography. An example of what I wasn’t expecting were passages such as this (in chapter 3):
“My daily life was dull by comparison. Third and fourth grades, I went to the West Hurley Elementary School, a white frame schoolhouse about two miles from the Maverick Road. First through fourth grades were in one classroom, fifth through eighth grades in the other. My entire fourth-grade class was left handed– all four of us.”
As I say this wasn’t what I expected to read and my loss of enthusiasm slowed down my progress through the book. I did however persevere and was very glad I did. All these bits of observation and the feelings of the daughter certainly helped paint a true picture of the successful and driven painter.
The book certainly does the job as a biography. We learn that Philip Guston was born Phillip Goldstein, in Montreal in 1913. The family moved to Los Angeles six years later where he grew up. We learn about his upbringing, art education and his decision to change his name. As one of Abstract Expressionist’s, Guston counted as his friend others of the movement such as Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, so these names and anecdotes about them do appear in this book. Another prime character in this story is Guston’s wife, Musa McKim (a writer and one time painter herself) and Meyer relates a fair bit about the sacrifices that McKim made for her husband’s art career.
The book includes 81 black and white photos plus a drawing at the start of each chapter. The photos include a lot of pictures of Guston and his family and some of his art. The book was written in 1988, 8 years after the painters death so it also describes the interesting challenges of managing the painter’s estate and body of work.
Again the daughter’s perspective in the telling of this story provided a unique and often touching perspective – such as this passage near the end:
“My mother knelt and, after a long time, set my father’s ashes inside the deep hole. With them we put brushes and paint, tubes of cadmium red, mars black, titanium white. His colors. I knelt beside my mother and we refilled the grave together”
Night Studio is a very good book – I do not hesitate to recommend it.
I fell in love with the art of Richard Diebenkorn first when I saw some of his pieces in San Francisco at the Museum of Modern Art, then when I read “The Art of Richard Diebenkorn” by Jane Livingston (See my earlier blog post). I was hungry to learn more about him and to see more of his work.
This book, Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico, satisfied my hunger. It focuses on Diebenkorn’s time in Albuquerque while he was doing a Masters degree at the University of New Mexico. He was there from 1950 to 1952 and produced some 200 works (paintings mainly but also some prints and sculpture). I like how the paintings occasionally hint at the colors and forms of the New Mexico landscape.
Richard Diebenkorn in New Mexico, the 2007 book was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name. It features 83 full page color plates and many other photos of his work amongst the text. The text is made up of an introduction by Charles M. Lovell and 3 essays – by Charles Strong and Gerald Nordland and Mark Lavatelli. These three takes on Diebenkorn’s time in the region have some overlap but are nonetheless each interesting.
Charles Strong is a curator and artist who studied with Diebenkorn for a short time in San Francisco. Strong’s two page “The Sky is the Ocean” serves as an overview to Diebenkorn’s life and work.
Gerald Nordland is the author of the book Richard Diebenkorn: Revised and Expanded and a recognized authority on Diebenkorn. His substantial section of this book entitled “Richard Diebenkorn: Routes to New Mexico” sets the stage for the Albuquerque period describing Diebenkorn’s life from his childhood to his life as a student in New Mexico (and a little beyond)
The Mark Lavatelli short, 5 page essay, “Diebenkorn’s Albuquerque Years” focuses on just that. He talks about the paintings from that time as well as the influences and how the period shaped Diebenkorn’s style. Lavatelli too know the work of Diebenkorn well, having done his MFA on Diebenkorn’s paintings from the New Mexico period.
All in all, this is a good book. I’d loved to have seen the exhibition which this volume accompanied but since I didn’t, this book will have to do. I know I will be coming back to the images in this book regularly in the future, as I enjoy and try to understand, the works of this wonderful painter: Richard Diebenkorn.
For more, read the New York Times review of the book.
On New Year’s Eve 2009 I finally finished reading De Kooning, An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. I highly recommend this 2004 biography of Willem de Kooning, one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism.
Before reading this book I knew little about de Kooning or abstract expressionism. I recognized some of the names and styles but honestly I didn’t really get it. I still don’t know if I “get” it in totality but I have much more admiration and fascination for the movement. This book gives a good perspective of the entire movement in addition to an in-depth description of the life of de Kooning. I won’t provide details that could spoil the story for those who don’t yet know the details de Kooning’s life, but his story starts with growing up in Holland them emigrating to the U.S. then continues with the development of his art in New York and finally his long, brave decline. He was a complex and often troubled individual but I am left with a very strong admiration of his vision and his lifelong dedication to his art. This book has whetted my appetite to learn more – both about de Kooning’s work but also about that of his contemporaries. Again, I highly recommend reading this book.
Here is a link to another review of this book: