Tuesday, January 25, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #18 - Nighthawks

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.), The Art Institute of Chicago

Edward Hopper studied at the New York Institute of Art and Design and became a commercial illustrator. He went to Europe in 1906, but just like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, he did not embrace the theories and techniques of modernism. He preferred painting in a realistic style. Though he lived in the city, he was preoccupied with isolation and loneliness. His paintings reflect this duality - single figures in communal spaces, cities deserted except for one person. He did not initially enjoy success from his personal artwork and had to continue to work as a freelance commercial artist. By the time he was 40, he had only sold one painting.

He married Josephine Nivison who helped him promote his art. She was an extrovert, he an introvert, and she had a good instinct for business. She helped him get six of his paintings into an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923 and that proved to be the turning point for him. He gained attention, sales and commissions and was able to quit his job and begin to paint full time. The critics loved his work. He sold paintings to major museums and became financially comfortable. His peak productivity time was during the 1930s, but he painted until he died in his studio in 1967. His wife bequeathed his artwork to the Whitney Museum in New York.

Nighthawks shows a corner diner brightly lit against the night. The glass walls provide an easy view into the diner and the contrast between the spotlighted inhabitants and the darkened street make it seem like actors on a theater stage. We see them, but they do not notice the viewer. The scene is unremarkable, people dining, talking, a couple together, one man sitting at the counter alone. The server is waiting on them, but at this moment in time is also a bit disconnected and off to one side. Detail is spare both in the diner and on the street. You don't see anything in the shop windows, no litter on the streets, no sign of humanity except the people we see. It's almost as if the city is empty except for these four people and the scene has a quality of eerie solitude about it. (Anybody ever see the "Twilight Zone"?) We see a story, but don't know what to make of it. Barbara Haskell, an art historian, calls this "suspended narrative" or a "narrative of inaction". It's compelling for the viewer - you can make up your own story. Hopper gives the viewer a lot of creative license in the interpretation of the scene. What do you think is going on?

Self-portrait, Edward Hopper, 1925-30

Sunday, January 23, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #17 - And the Migrants Kept Coming

And the Migrants Kept Coming, Jacob Lawrence, 1940-41. Tempera on gesso on composition board, 12 x 18" (30.5 x 45.7 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Jacob Lawrence did not have a stable life - his parents divorced and he moved from one foster care home to another until he was about 13, then he and his brothers and sisters went back to live with their mother. He took art classes early and went on to study at the Harlem Art Workshop, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the American Artists' School. Outside of the art classes he took, the also got a lot of energy and inspiration from the artists that had flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. (See the post done about Aaron Douglas on this blog in October 2010)

He was a mover and a shaker. He had a studio while he was a student and got a solo exhibition of this work at the Harlem YMCA in 1938. At that time, he made small paintings reflecting daily life in Harlem. He was a product of his neighborhood and drew a lot of inspiration and identity from Harlem. He also was interested in history and did a series about Frederick Douglass, a former slave and orator. These were well-received, so he did another series about the Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, Haitian liberator Troussaint L'Ouverture, and abolitionist John Brown. These series prepared him for a huge project he would undertake: a 60-painting series on the Great Migration. This is the work that would jettison him into the larger art world - he became the first African American artist to have one of his works included in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This work, And the Migrants Kept Coming, was the last painting in the Great Migration Series. A crowded railroad platform is shown and the wavy lines beneath this platform suggest water beneath a dock. The composition is crowded with people, young and old with their luggage. The way the image is laid out, you can imaging people stretching beyond the canvas edges in both directions. The people lack faces or individualized features - this helps the viewer think of them as "anyman" and connects to the larger idea of vast numbers of people looking for a better life; people who are willing to leave their own lives behind in the hopes of finding a better one. He uses only a few colors, but even though his figures are reduced to shapes, the viewer recognizes the image as many men, women and children on the move. There is not texture or nuance in this painting, and the paint he uses is a matte finish - a finish that is dull and unreflective. All of the paintings in this series use the same elements of simplified shapes out of seven colors which unifies the group and makes the series visually cohesive.

Many African American people were poor sharecroppers in the South - they owned nothing and eked out a subsistence living. The industrial boom centered in the northern part of the United States in the early part of the 20th century and promised jobs and a better life. Huge numbers of African Americans migrated to the north and poured into cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and New York. Because discrimination was still a stronghold across the nation at that time, these immigrants would form their own neighborhoods such as Harlem in New York. Their move to these new cities was a mixed bag - they may have found work and a new life, but they did not escape the prejudice and discrimination that they had experienced in the South. Racial tensions resulted from this new influx of people.

Lawrence's documentation of this phenomenon is based in history. He researched the Great Migration and strove to document and educate the viewer about the event. Each panel has a short title that is descriptive of the scene. The early paintings depict scenes of life from the South and show the reasons the people decided to leave. There are images of withered cotton plants and is entitled, "They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop." The middle paintings go back and forth between the South and the North. Then the later paintings show the trials and the triumphs of the migrants in their new lives. These paintings resemble a storyboard for a cinematic undertaking. The critics responded so well to this monumental work the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art fought over who would own the complete series. In the end they split the paintings with the Phillips getting the odd-numbered panels and MoMA receiving the even numbered panels. Cool! How about that? He may have also been the first African American artist to have two major museums fight over his work!

Jacob Lawrence self-portrait, 1977, gouache on paper

Saturday, January 15, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #16 - Departure of the Joads, from the Grapes of Wrath

Departure of the Joads, from The Grapes of Wrath, Thomas Hart Benton, 1939, Lithograph on ivory wove paper, 327 x 470 mm (image), The Art Institute of Chicago

Thomas Hart Benton was a rebel. The men in his family were professional politicians and military men - his great-great grandfather was governor of North Carolina, his great-great-uncle colonel in the Confederate army, his father was a colonel, and Congressman. But Thomas did not follow in the steps of his family, he left military school in Missouri in 1907 to go study at the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually he studied in Paris during a period when Modernism was flourishing. When he returned to New York, he became an art teacher to Jackson Pollock and Rita Piacenza. Pollock is the famous abstract expressionist (who went on to be called "Jack the Dripper") and Rita became Benton's wife. He was in the midst of a variety of styles of art were exploding, but none of them really resonated with him.

When Benton's father fell ill, he returned home to Missouri to sit as he was dying. It became a pivotal moment in his life and he wrote about it in his memoir:

I cannot honestly say what happened to me while I watched my father die and listened to the voices of his friends, but I know that when, after his death, I went back East, I was moved by a great desire to know more of the America which I had glimpsed in the suggestive words of his old cronies...I was moved by a desire to pick up again the threads of my childhood.

So he began painting rural scenes and people from the Midwest and made these images symbols of the struggles and triumphs that happened in these humble places. Benton was at the forefront of a new "ism", this one American - Regionalism - one that is synonamous with the 1930s. He painted a series of murals for the 1932 World Exposition in Chicago depicting the history and culture of Indiana. He did not censor the bad with the good and included images of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross, unemployment lines and labor riots. Though critics railed at these images being so public, Time Magazine put him on the cover and declared him to be one of the definining artists of the time.

Trying to take this subject matter and interest the art scene in New York was another matter. New York was on the cusp of becoming the art center of the world and tastes favored the modernism coming out of Europe, not the rural, earthy images of people and places in America's heartland - it just wasn't sophisticated enough for that scene. He turned his back on New York took a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute and taught and worked until his death in 1975. He is one of the most important artists of his day and his work is still respected as central to the Regionalism movement.

The series he did about The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, include a lithograph entitled Departure of the Joads. There are many ways to make prints (see this excellent explanation called "What is a Print" by MOMA); a lithograph print has the image drawn on stone or metal instead of being etched into metal.

This lithograph illustrates a scene from the Grapes of Wrath, the moment that the Joad family is preparing to leave the poverty they faced in Dust Bowl of Oklahoma in order to find a better life in the rich fields of California. The image is printed in black and is rich in tones of grey between areas of black and white. The crescent moon is about in the center of the print and lights up part of the sky while the other half remains dark.

One detail of Benton's style is the curving lines you see everywhere: the ground, the clouds and even the figures undulate which creates a sense of movement. The house, clouds and logs all lead your eye to the family - even the light, moonlight sky highlights them in their departure activities. Not all of the family members are glad about this move - the women and Grampa (who sits forlornly by the door of the shack) look dejected and powerless about the decision. Ma Joad embraces Granma to support her in her decision to leave with the family, leaving Grampa behind - he refuses to leave. The scene is packed with a lot of emotion, but the artist puts almost no facial features in the characters, and relies on the body language and poses to tell the viewer what is happening.

Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and one of the movie studios, 20th Century Fox, jumped on the book to use for a movie version. Benton was commissioned by the studio to produce the images to promote the film. Five of the artworks were portraits of the characters, but The Departure of the Joads was the sixth work he made and turned out to be the most powerful and long lived. It was enlarged to billboard size and he also reproduced it in color as a painting. It was also included in its original form in the 1940 edition of the novel.

American people across the nation identified with this powerful image - it reflected the hard times they had been through with the Great Depression and the feelings so many people felt - anxiousness, sorrow over broken dreams but a tentative optimism that is so characteristic of American people. The road represents the future and a journey to a better life. His image represents both spectrums - Grampa's inability to forge ahead and embrace change alongside Granma's hesitancy and anguish about the choice she is making. But the men of the Joad family have the courage to carry the family ahead. All of these emotions permeated the country in the 1930s and this image captured the essence of an important historical period.

On a personal note, I was speaking to my own students Friday about the hardships that this country is experiencing now. We talked about other periods of hardship our young country has gone through. This image is a powerful one today showing the characteristics of the people in this country that have made it great: vision, determination, hard work, sacrifice and grit. One of my students how long this current period of hardship would last, 5 yrs? I don't know the answer, but I have faith that if we pull together, love and support each other, we can come out of this stronger than ever.

Thomas Hart Benton self portrait, 1972

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #15 - Cow's Skull with Calico Roses

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, Georgia O'Keefe, 1931, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 61 cm (36 x 24 in.), The Art Institute of Chicago

Georgia O'Keefe is one of the most recognized artists of the twentieth century. It's rare to find such an accomplished woman in the art world - it has historically been a career for men. Even today, women are not on an equal footing with men in the business of art - check out the Guerilla Girls for more information about that and to see about their activisim! O'Keefe was a strong woman who followed her passion and became an icon in the art world, especially for aspiring women artists.

O'Keefe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Art Students League in New York and was exposed to a new art trend: imitative realism - a movement that was meant to artistically reproduce nature as the artist saw it. When O'Keefe took a summer class for art teachers, she was introduced to Arthur Wesley Dow who had a passion for non-western art, especially Japanese art. He believed that color, line, light and dark tones should be balanced. O'Keefe connected with these ideas and began to experiment with them. Her initial work was brought to the attention of photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Without her knowledge, he put her work in an exhibition at his gallery in New York, 291. Her work was a hit and Stieglitz became a huge supporter of hers and began regularly exhibited her work. He was able to get her to move to New York and paint full time. They married, lived and worked together until 1946 when Stieglitz died.

O'Keefe began with paintings of New York, flowers and plants. Her flower paintings were so close up, you lost the overall image of the flower and just focused on the details. It's said that O'Keefe responded about these paintings once by saying she wanted the viewer to stop and really look at the flower. Her love for nature took her out west to New Mexico and one visit was all it took to hook her for life. Take a look at this 10 minute video and listen to her tell her story about her love of New Mexico. She began painting desert scenes, including bones and skeletons of dead animals. The pure line, light and shade she used in her other paintings transferred perfectly to these new subjects. She kept going back to the Southwest all through the 1930s until Stieglitz died then she settled in Arizona and lived out her life into her 90s. Her work became so important, she was given a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the first woman to receive such an honor.

This work, Cow's Skull with Calico Roses, uses many shades of white to create the skull and roses over an unidentified white background. The value creates an image that looks three dimensional (remember, it's painted on a two dimensional canvas). It is symmetrically balanced with the focal point centered in the picture plane. The painting is a still life, but the composition is strong and bold. O'Keefe loved painting nature, and this skull was beautiful to her, not morbid. The juxtaposition of the soft flowers with the brittle bone make for an interesting combination. They could be speaking of both life and death, but ultimately speak of the beauty of nature. Her approach to her paintings is pure and direct - she had an eye for capturing nature and detail without making it fussy and busy. Her paintings are elegant, spare and compelling. Her work is beautiful and haunting and helped establish a modern aesthetic in the world of art.

This post seems woefully incomplete. Stieglitz and O'Keefe had a powerful love story and an incredible artistic connection. He was one of the twentieth centuries most reknowned photographers and Georgia was often his photographic muse. I have always enjoyed reading biographies of artists throughout my life, and reading their biographies were some of my favorites. Explore their lives for yourself - you won't regret the time invested.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Sketchbook Project

I signed up to create a sketchbook for this traveling exhibit of sketchbooks. Over 28,000 people from 94 countries have signed up to do this! The deadline to postmark our sketchbooks is January 15, 2011. I have been working like mad over the holiday to finish my book. I'm not quite done, but I see the end in sight. When I signed up for the project in October, I chose the theme "Mystery Maps". It sounded juicy to me.

The day I received my sketchbook, I had a realization: after my father's death, I asked for one thing that belonged to him - his satchel of maps. He began traveling around the US after he retired from teaching and collected maps from all the places he visited. That bag of maps sat in my closet for seven years. I knew immediately that I would use the book to explore my dad's travels. This is the cover of my book. You can see my artist profile for the project here. I'll post more info about this project later, right now I have to get back to work on it!!