Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Yale University Art Gallery

My wife and I traveled to Connecticut the weekend before last to visit one of the galleries that carries my paintings, the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme to check out their impressive Arthur Heming painting and illustration exhibition. 

We also drove over to see the just expanded Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. 

I had visited before and knew they had a real powerhouse collection (paintings by most of the great masters you can think of, which is impressive, but moreover they got good ones. Really good ones). The museum has grown significantly in size and so now there's more to see than you can reasonably take in. We're going to have to schedule another visit sooner than later. Following are a few hightlights from Yale's Collection.

Above is a wonderful small oil by Edward Vuillard (French 1868-1940), The Thread, from 1893. Vuillard is showing off his mastery of design here in a big way with the elegant rhythm of blacks in the two women's outfits. The sharp angles in the arms of the woman pulling the thread remind me ever so much of Degas' ballerinas who always seem to have their arms sharply bent to make acute triangles. 

Vuillard is also showing us that as much as he's often talked about for his love of decorative patterns, he's also someone who loves dramatic tonal contrasts. Notice how he tones down the darks in the hanging canvas portrait on the wall so he can save his high contrasts for the women.

Here's me below with Rooms by the Sea from 1951, a painting that's been a personal touchstone for me since I first saw a reproduction of it when I was in high school. Probably more than any other, it's the painting that inspired me to become an artist.

I've written about this painting before on this blog (Carter Foster, the Whitney Museum's Curator of Drawing, is going to include a quote from this blog where I've written about Hopper's working methods in his notes for his exhibition catalogue for the soon to open major Hopper Drawing exhibition at the Whitney). 

Alongside Rooms by the Sea are hanging Hopper's Sunlight in a Cafeteria,  1958 and Rooms for Tourists, 1945. The suite of four Hopper oils hang together beautifully, a remarkable holding for any museum.

Looking at this threesome it struck me how adept Hopper was at telling his story through evoking the feeling of light- either brilliant direct sun or the warm orange yellows of an interior lamp glimpsed from outside at night through a window. I belive more than anything that's what puts the spirit into a Hopper.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Florence Griswold Museum

While there Griswold's Curator Amy Kurtz Lansing was kind enough to sit down with us and tell us more about the Museum and about their current exhibition of the work of the Candian landscape painter and illustrator Arthur Heming. I'd first learned of the exhibit from the Griswold's website, where the striking image of the leaping deer had caugth my eye. 

As a major fan of the Canadian Group of Seven landscape painters, I figured this was a rare opportunity to see the work of someone who while not an official member was associated with the Group. What I hadn't known was Heming spent considerable time at Miss Florence's boarding house. In a way he was something of a bridge between that modernist influenced group of Canadian landscape painters  and the early historic period of American Impressionist painting.

Both in Heming's Aurora Borealis from 1906 (in the Griswold's Collection) and in the Heming with the leaping deer at the top of this post, Heming reveals a remarkable sense of design and almost surreal playfulness with his forms. For example, I'm getting hints of a seahorse looking at one of Degas' ballet dancers adjusting her shoe from the two dark trees at the bottom of this Aurora piece. The inventiveness of the American painter Charles Burchfield comes to mind as in his watercolor September Wind and Rain (Butler Institute of American Art) below.

Another Heming in the exhibition, Canadian Pioneers below.

Want to mention just a couple of favorites of the Griswold's Permanent Collection. Below is the powerfully abstract pattern of cast shadows and broken ice in John Twachtman's Connecticut Shore. Winter, c. 1893. My wife Alice is always a bit hard on Twachtman, but she pronounced this oil "the best thing he ever painted." Perhaps she's right.

The Museum London that organized the show also loaned some Group of Seven oils to provide some additional context. Here are my two favorite, both by the painter Lauren Harris. First Glaciers Rocky Mountains, 1922.

It had been some time since I'd last visited the Griswold. Since then they added a major new wing that is housing their current Heming exhibit.

I'd like to say this photo of me represents me pressing against the pillars of the Griswold House to help uphold the grand traditions of American Landscape Painting. In truth it's me cowering from the chilly wind blowing in from the west that day.

Friday, March 8, 2013

I Always Paint Standing Up. It's Edward Hopper's Fault.

I always paint standing up. It's Edward Hopper's fault.

Hopper's talents came in many forms- one that few people remark on is his restless tendency to always be walking around searching out a better point of view. So often looking at one of his paintings one immediately thinks "Gee I wouldn't have though to look at it from that odd angle." Because he kept moving around, Hopper found the unusual point of view others would overlook. It let him tell us things more ordinary artists missed. 

Take this lighthouse in the 1927 watercolor above, Rocky Pedestal, that's from the Carnegie  Museum in Pittsburgh. Instead of parking his Buick and setting up the easel in the parking lot Hopper kept searching. Carrying paints, brushes and an easel,  he  scampered down over some rather inhospitable sharp rocks and peers up from below. He's found a viewpoint where the rocks loom in importance, fully holding their own against the white houses and tower. 

See how he pushes the color in the rocky foreground to warmer ochre yellows and contrasts that right up against the cooler whites of the houses. Did it look this way in real life? Probably, but most likely Hopper accentuated the contrast of his warms and cools here. It's interesting that compared to the whites employed for the lighthouse tower itself, the whites in the horizontal band of houses is a cooler, more blue white. It was looking at his lighthouse and the adjoining rocks together as a chord of colors that led him to put more color change in his lightest whites. (I wonder did they teach rock climbing when Hopper went to art school?).

I am always impressed by how Hopper modulates the highlights in his paintings like this to give an extra measure of brilliance to his sunlight. For bright light, nobody tops Hopper. 

It's also intriguing how Hopper emphasizes the prominent blacks and dark grays of the foghorn, shingled roofs, and dark windows. In contrast the shadows in the foreground rocks are pretty much all lightened up to a middletone. He wants the arresting geometry of the blacks to grab your eye, so he's willing to tone down the contrasts in all his adjoining areas. 

Lastly, think of all the paintings of lighthouse towers that have been made over the years. I bet only about 1% of them (or less) cut off the top of the tower as Hopper does here. He was radical, pursuing his key idea and then cutting away all the other forms that might distract from his message.

One of the things that struck me when in 1983 I first stayed up in Hopper's Cape Cod painting studio was the drama of his 10' tall north facing studio window. Hopper designed it to flood his large painting room with the abundant natural daylight he loved to paint under. Less important to him was the actual view out the window. Here below is a photo I took this last Fall during my 14th residency in his studio.

By anyone's lights it's a lovely view, commanding a wide panorama of undulating dunes and distant Provincetown, MA on the horizon. In short it looks like everyone's stereotype of what a "Cape Cod Landscape" should look like. Even thought this view was right at hand, Hopper pretty much ignored it as a subject. To him I think it felt too much like someone else's idea of what a landcape should look like. He never painted it. He was too busy going for his walks. He knew the good stuff, the really incisive points of view he wanted for his paintings, had to be found by walking.

Time to put my shoes on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On the Pamet River

Wanted to show you what I've been working on this week. Above is a new 9 x 12" oil on panel I did of the Pamet River up in Truro, MA on Cape Cod, about a half mile from Edward Hopper's old painting studio. I had done the vine charcoal below set up on the banks of the Pamet with my portable easel in 2010 on one of my 14 residencies in the Hopper studio. And as I often do I continued working on the drawing back in my studio as recently as last week.

One of the reasons I paint from my drawings I've done out on location is it gives me one extra opportunity to distill down the dizzying complexity of the actual landscape. To stand outside with one's easel and look through experienced eyes at the landscape is to see too many possibilities. Even in the course of a few minutes the appearance of your source can change dramatically. And the longer you peer at the landscape you discover more and more contradictory statements you could make. If an experienced painter really painted everything they saw it would produce an absolute jumble.

In many ways the most critical decision is what to leave out. If you're good, you leave out a heck of a lot.

Drawing in black and white with a medium like charcoal nudges my eye toward noticing bigger relationships and radical editing. And it lets me be much more playful with inventing unexpected chords of colors once I begin an oil painting version of a drawing's design. 

Just to give a little historical context, here below is a Hopper watercolor of the mouth of the Pamet where it flows out onto Cape Cod Bay. The same house stands on this spot today, but now surrounded by a dense growth of trees. Still, the feel of the Pamet slowly flowing out to sea is still there and exerts its subtle magic on you.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lost Edward Hopper Studio Drawing Found!

After a four year on and off search I am delighted to report I finally found the vine charcoal drawing I did of Edward Hopper's bedroom. It was done in his Truro, MA studio in Fall of 2006. To get this point of view my portable easel had to be set up in the studio's kitchen. My missing drawing had been lurking until this morning somewhere in my studio in Baltimore.

It has been driving me slightly mad as I remember having really liked it but just couldn't put my hands on it (confession, alright, it was just where I had left it, tucked in with some other early Hopper studio drawings behind a larger painting in my storage racks). 

The drawing served as the basis of a couple of pastels and ultimately for this larger oil, Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Bedroom, oil on panel, 24 x 12", 2012.

Hopper was no stranger to making drawings when he worked in this studio (there is a major exhibition in the offing at the Whitney Museum being organized by Carter Foster, Hopper Drawing, later this spring that will showcase many of the small drawings he made in preparation for his oil paintings). One I'm familiar with is this study, a fanciful variation on the corner of his painting room.


Above is an old photo I ran across of Hopper working in the studio's big painting room. Behind him, standing in front of the fireplace is his wife of many years Jo. Here is a photo  I took last Fall of my wife Alice sitting in the painting room. Just to the right of the  fireplace is the door leading to Hopper's bedroom.

And finally here's a photo taken standing in the bedroom looking back into the studio kitchen. The door pictured is the one in the foreground of my drawing at the beginning of this post.