Norman Bluhm’s Sensual Spiritualism

Norman Bluhm transformed the vocabulary we associate with the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism into something that others of the so-called Second Generation did not pursue, much less attain.

May 9, 2020

Norman Bluhm, “Opis” (1970), oil on canvas, 85 x 76 inches (all images © the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

In this moment, when time seems both suspended and hurtling forward, and museum exhibitions are over before they are seen, or never opened, I want to draw a connection between two exhibitions I was able to see before they were closed due to COVID-19: Norman Bluhm: Metamorphosis at the Newark Museum of Art and Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape at the Museum of Modern Art (closed April 12).

While both shows are technically closed, it is not certain that they are. There has been no official announcement, most likely because the museum itself does not know. Certainly this is the case with the Bluhm show: when I asked Jay Grim, the co-curator, he told me that he did not know the museum’s plans:

It’s a big building and good air circulation, I think, so if they keep the numbers way down, I could conceive of there being some sort of access at some point this summer but alternatively, if it turned out that it never reopened, that would also not surprise me. That would be just Norman’s luck.

When I contacted Tricia Bloom, curator of American art at the Newark Museum, she wrote, “After we reopen, the date of which hasn’t been decided, we plan to extend the exhibition through August 16.”

I thought I should try and change that luck and write about the serendipitous overlap that I saw between the paintings that Bluhm started making in the early 1970s and Sillman’s focus on the role of shape in the paintings of artists as diverse as Arshile Gorky, Helen Frankenthaler, Serge Poliakof, Philip Guston, Jennie C. Jones, Thomas Nozkowski, and Julian Schnabel.

Norman Bluhm, “Flight 114” (1961), oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches (the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

This is what I believe Bluhm has never gotten credit for: he transformed the vocabulary we associate with the gestural branch of Abstract Expressionism into something that others of the so-called Second Generation did not pursue, much less attain. Between 1967 and ’71, when gestural painting — long regarded as derivative of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline — had been superseded by Pop Art, Color Field painting, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, Bluhm transformed line and gesture into sinuous shape and frozen liquidity.

Already an outlier, Bluhm completed the transformation of gesture into shape shortly after the death of his New York art dealer, Martha Jackson (1907–69). He would not have a solo show again in a New York gallery until the exhibition Norman Bluhm: Recent Paintings at Washburn Gallery (April 19–June 14, 1986), which I reviewed in Artforum (September 1986). (In 1985 his work was included in the exhibition Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955-60, organized by Paul Schimmel, which traveled to the Grey Art Gallery, January 16, 1985–February 23, 1985.)

Long regarded as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist — a dismissive embrace — Bluhm took the vocabulary of Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning as a foundation that could be built upon, not as an ethos from which to reject or escape. In this, he shares something with Gorky, who took the vocabulary of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro as a foundation to build upon and make his own.

Norman Bluhm, “Romulus and Remus” (1979), oil on canvas, 102 x 114 inches (the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, Gift of the Estate of Norman Bluhm, 2001)

Bluhm was able to reconstitute gestural abstraction into lithe, color-saturated, erotic shapes that evoke a wide range of associations, from Peter Paul Rubens’s fleshy nudes to Giovanni Battista’s sun-drenched clouds. For this, he has never received due credit, partly because, contrary to many in his generation, Bluhm neither took the hand out of painting nor rejected the past: he believed all of the past was available for him to respond to, and spent many hours in the Metropolitan Museum looking at art whenever he came to New York from East Wallingford, Vermont (where he lived from 1987 to 1999).

It is also worth pointing out that Bluhm, his wife, Cary, and their two young children moved out of New York in 1970 because they felt it would be too much of a strain to maintain a studio and raise two children in the city.

Imagine Gorky and de Kooning being inspired by the tight, precise contours of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and you’ll get a sense of Bluhm’s ambitious embrace of the past. Guston, we might remember, also embraced the past, particularly the work of Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico. What we find in the late work of Gorky, Bluhm, and Guston is the reappearance of certain shapes.

This is from Sillman’s curatorial statement, on the MoMA web page for The Shape of Shape:

As a painter, I’ve always had an eye for shapes. Shape defines every outline, mass, and negative space. And everyone has a personal shape: namely, a shadow, that strange, flat, constantly shifting form that goes wherever you go, attached to both body and psyche. But even though shape is everywhere, we don’t talk about it much; it’s not a hot topic in art, like color or systems. I wonder if, in fact, shape got left behind when modern art turned to systems, series, grids, and all things calculable in the 20th century. Was shape too personal, too subjective, to be considered rigorously modern? Or is it just too indefinite, too big, to systematize?

Later, Sillman states:

During my search, I realized that shape-makers were also often outliers in modern art. Some of these artists were overlooked, or out of sync with their time. Perhaps this is because shape-artists tend to work with uncertainty and vulnerability instead of the self-assurance and dependability of systems.

It is not a leap to see Bluhm’s paintings from the early 1970s up to his death in 1999 through the lens of Sillman’s statement. The shapes in his paintings are “personal” and indicate that he worked with “uncertainty and vulnerability.”

Bluhm is also distinguished from his contemporaries, such as Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and Joan Mitchell, by his use of saturated color, and the layers of shapes (or what Sillman calls mass and negative space) he deftly compresses in his paintings. He recognizes that painting is a two-dimensional surface, but he does not adhere to formalist dos and don’ts about it. No matter the depth of Bluhm’s illusionistic space, he always calls attention to the painting’s surface, sometimes through means as blunt and suggestive as drips and splatters that recall pollen, milk, or semen, bursting out of rounded forms.

Norman Bluhm, “Ode to Apollo” (1997), oil on canvas, 156 x 100 inches (the Estate of Norman Bluhm)

Bluhm’s curved shapes, often marked by sinuous lines looping back on themselves, synthesize the dynamic and the languid, fleshy and fluid forms moving across the painting’s surface. Those in the late paintings seem to be rising and spreading out — something like the constantly changing masses in a lava lamp. By outlining the contour of his shapes with another color, he created a pulsing effect similar to halation.

Look at the three interconnected, pinkish forms in “Pygmalion” (1979), and how they occupy the painting’s panoramic orientation that measures 108 by 306 inches, or the cropping in “Untitled, Studies in Blue, White, Gray” (1975) of forms that extend beyond the edges of the four abutted panels measuring 48 by 240 inches, in a format that recalls a frieze.

Bluhm, who studied architecture with Mies van der Rohe from 1936 to ’41, and again briefly after World War II, was deeply aware of the relationship of paintings to their architectural surroundings. In both his formats and compositions, he alludes to sacred spaces, to altars and ceilings, and to the desire to lift our mortal forms skywards (see “Ode to Apollo,” 1997, with its use of a border and decorative repetition). He was a sensualist in search of the spiritual, and his paintings extend the prelapsarian joy found in Henri Matisse’s “Bonheur de Vivre” (“Joy of Life”) (1905–6).

His work anticipates the waterfall paintings of Pat Steir, the flower paintings of Cy Twombly, Judy Ledgerwood’s use of blacks and pinks, purples and magentas, the dense concatenations of Philip Taaffe, and his embrace of the occult.

Look at the arch formed by the trees, and the deep space it frames, in Matisse’s painting, and then look at Bloom’s “Aegean Angel” (1988) and what he has done with arch-like forms. This shows what is most contrarian about Bluhm, who was a bomber pilot in World War II and visited destruction upon those below: he did not reject the past in order to arrive in the future. He believed that it was possible to make it your own and carry it with you into your art. The richly colored shapes he developed in his paintings and works on paper were all his own.

Norman Bluhm: Metamorphosis is scheduled to continue at the Newark Museum of Art (49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey) through August 16.

Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have been temporarily suspended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Please check the museum website for business hours and further information in the coming weeks.

Tauba Auerbach’s Art Unravels the Patterns of the Universe

Tauba Auerbach, Heat Current, 2020. © Tauba Auerbach. Photo by Lance Brewer. Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO).

Auerbach’s first-ever retrospective, alluringly titled “S v Z,” was due to open on April 25th at SFMOMA, though it has been postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19 (the exact dates are still to be determined). Spanning the last 16 years of the artist’s career, the highly anticipated exhibition will be an extraordinary opportunity to experience the full breadth of Auerbach’s heady, mind-bending practice. Encompassing painting, sculpture, photography, bookmaking, performance, and more, Auerbach’s conceptual work tests the hidden logic of the world around us—from abstract principles in math and science to language, design, and craft. Auerbach questions the boundaries of these systems, discovers their limits, and bends them to expose their poetic potentials.
The survey’s title, “S v Z,” is a symbol for the artist’s long-standing interest in symmetry; the letters S and Z act as distorted reflections of each other, both visually and sonically. The letter V, meanwhile, represents the mathematical symbol for “and/or” instead of “versus.”

Installation view of “Tauba Auerbach: Projective” at Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2016. © Tauba Auerbach. Photo by Steven Probert. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

While the physical exhibition is delayed, the catalog of “S v Z” has already been published. “It’s rather strange that the book precedes the show by a whole year,” noted Auerbach. “But what can you do?” Designed by Auerbach in collaboration with David Reinfurt, the volume is a work of art in itself and serves as a fantastic teaser for the eventual in-person experience. “Time feels a bit formless right now,” she said.
Auerbach is no stranger to fluid states of time. A sizable chunk of her practice has been devoted to breaking down its constructs. For example, in The Familiar Stranger (2014), she collaborated with fellow artist Erik Wysocan and publishing imprint Halmos to hack an edition of Casio digital wristwatches. Auerbach has also developed a number of artfully designed 24-hour analog clocks that are ingeniously engineered to show us the full passing of a day. Her obsession with time can also be seen in her studio, where she keeps a personal collection of strange and unusual timekeepers. These are displayed alongside mathematical models, upside-down maps, invented tools, and various 3D prints—more the kind of personal effects you’d expect of, say, a physicist rather than an artist.

Tauba Auerbach,Untitled (Fold), 2011. © Tauba Auerbach. Photo by Vegard Kleven. Courtesy of STANDARD (OSLO).

Tauba Auerbach, Shatter I, 2008. © Tauba Auerbach. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

After graduating from Stanford with a degree in visual art in 2003, it wasn’t long before Auerbach began attracting critical attention. After being added to Jeffrey Deitch’s prestigious roster in 2006, her big break came in 2009, when four of her pieces were included in the trailblazing New Museum survey “The Generational: Younger Than Jesus” alongside artists like Cory Arcangel, Cao Fei, Ryan Trecartin, and

In 2009, she also started to make her “Fold” paintings (2009–13), uncanny experiments with depth perception and light. Auerbach made these works through a deceptively simple process: She folded a length of canvas, forming deep creases, and sprayed the surface with paint before stretching it back out. The result is a series of hypnotic, reverse trompe l’oeils; the sprayed-on paint acts as its own source of light. In 2015, several of Auerbach’s “Fold” paintings sold at Phillips for over $1.4 million, with one 2011 canvas selling for $2.2 million.
That same year, Auerbach debuted one of her most memorable works—the deftly titled Auerglass (2009). Created in collaboration with musician Cameron Mesirow (a.k.a. Glasser), Auerglass is a pump organ that can only be played with two people (each player provides the wind for the other player’s notes). This entirely invented experimental instrument debuted at Deitch Projects, where she and Mesirow performed throughout the exhibition’s duration. They also had matching custom shoes with platform heels that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Tauba Auerbach and Cameron Mesirow, Auerglass Organ, 2009. Built by Parsons Pipe Organ Builders. Photo by Max Farago. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Auerglass’s origin story is remarkably relatable. In a 2009 interview with The Fader, Auerbach described how the piece was born out of friendship and a night of boredom. “Cameron and I lived together for a long time in San Francisco,” she explained. “We were kind of restless one night and decided to make an instrument to give ourselves a project. We let ourselves into this sign shop that I worked at at the time and made a banjo out of a cookie tin and some scraps of wood.” “It was pretty bad,” Mesirow added. The pair agreed that they ought to make a more earnest attempt. “We were like, ‘our next project should be a little more ambitious,’” said Auerbach.
The artist’s practice, however, is much more than a little ambitious. In 2018, for her first major public art project, she was co-commissioned by New York City’s Public Art Fund and London’s 14-18 NOW to design a contemporary dazzle ship commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I. Invented by British painter Norman Wilkinson as a way to confuse enemy submarines, dazzle ships were ingeniously patterned with optical illusions, making it nearly impossible to detect their exact distance, direction, or speed. Heavily inspired by Cubism, Futurism, and Vorticism, these designs were described as both “floating art museums” and “a futurist’s bad dream” by journalists at the time.

Tauba Auerbach, Flow Separation, 2018, on Fireboat John J. Harvey in New York Harbor, 2018–19. Photo by Nicholas Knight. Courtesy of Public Art Fund, New York; and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Titled Flow Separation, the design for Auerbach’s dazzle ship was based on the water itself, translating laws of fluid dynamics into stunning patterns. “Flow separation” is the kind of turbulence that happens in a ship’s wake, which will often create eddies. Auerbach was able to recreate this concept through paper marbling, a process that involves floating blobs of ink on a tray of water and combing the surface to create patterns—essentially using flow separation as a drawing tool. Painted over the entirety of New York’s historic John J. Harvey fireboat, Auerbach’s bold red-and-white design was a sight to behold as it sailed down the Hudson and East River.
A through line uniting all of Auerbach’s work is a penchant for drawing out the patterns in the universe—such as in waveforms, in print, in music, or in time. In identifying these elusive rhythms, she has created a body of work that pokes around the edges of perception and, more profoundly, consciousness.
In describing what the SFMOMA exhibition has meant to her, Auerbach said, “This show has meant facing myself—noticing patterns, both good and bad, identifying and wrestling with the questions I seem to keep returning to, and realizing that I still don’t have any satisfactory answers.” While 2021 may seem like a long way away, when it comes to discovering the limits of consciousness, time is just another malleable construct.
Shannon Lee is Artsy’s Associate Editor.

Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Auerbach’s parents were theater designers; they both worked in theater production but were not designers. Additionally, Auerbach and Mesirow performed “Auerglass” almost every day at Deitch Projects, not twice a week. The text has been edited to clarify these points, as well as additional statements regarding Auerbach’s process in creating her “Fold” paintings and the definition of “flow separation.”

FRIEZE NY Officially Now Online


Art Fairs

Frieze New York


Presented Online
Now Open

Perspectives presents leading artists from Pace’s global contemporary program who have pushed the boundaries of their chosen media to make work for the current moment. Featured artists include Nigel Cooke, Mary Corse, Nathalie Du Pasquier, Torkwase Dyson, Loie Hollowell, Nina Katchadourian, Kohei Nawa, Trevor Paglen, Adam Pendleton, Song Dong, Leo Villareal, and Brent Wadden.

Online Exhibition

William Monk

Untitled (zip) II – VII

Now Open

Returning repeatedly to a single image, a mysterious and hovering vapor trail crowning unknown yet identical landscapes, William Monk’s six new paintings unfold as a visual mantra to capture, in his words, this “silenced and beautiful apocalypse.”

Mark Beasley on William Monk

On the occasion of William Monk’s online exhibition, Mark Beasley discusses the inspiration behind Monk’s latest series of paintings and the latent power in the symbols employed by the artist.
Watch Now

Frieze New York


In a Radical Move, Sotheby’s Has Debuted a New Online Sales Platform for Blue-Chip Contemporary Art Galleries, Taking a Cut of All Sales

Sotheby’s will take a flat commission from galleries based on sales.

Eileen Kinsella,

A view outside Sotheby's in New York City. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images.
A view outside Sotheby’s in New York City. Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images.

In a venture that proves just how strange the times are, Sotheby’s is launching a digital marketplace for art galleries that goes live today.

The lineup of galleries involved in the Sotheby’s Gallery Network, as the platform is being called, includes Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Lehmann Maupin, Jack Shainman Gallery, Luhring Augustine, Kasmin Gallery, Petzel Gallery, Sperone Westwater, and Van Doren Waxter.

“The greatest innovations and best partnerships come out of challenging times,” says Sotheby’s contemporary specialist Saara Pritchard, who spearheaded the initiative.

While all aspects of the art market have been challenged in recent weeks, “this is crippling for the galleries,” she says. “Without organizing exhibitions and no art fairs, they have no way to drive new visitors. We already have the e-commerce platform and ability to do sales.”

As part of the deal, galleries will give Sotheby’s a flat commission based on sales, and all artworks presented on the website will be available for purchase exclusively through Sotheby’s. Galleries will not be precluded from promoting the works through other means, but all buyers must be referred to the platform to make purchases.

While purchases of works priced up to $150,000 can be completed through Sotheby’s transactional platform, galleries are welcome to list works above that price and buyers are directed to “enquire” with Sotheby’s staff, who can help them complete the sale.

Angel Otero, Window Seat (2019). Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

Angel Otero, Window Seat (2019). Image courtesy Lehmann Maupin.

“I have a terrific relationship with Saara Pritchard, who called me in March with an idea,” said Lehmann Maupin partner Carla Camacho. “I listened, and here we are. Through Sotheby’s, we see an opportunity to expand our reach and to bring our artists’ work to clients based all over the world.”

Camacho said that, with Lehmann Maupin’s global business, a digital strategy is essential.

“For us, the Sotheby’s Gallery Network is supplemental,” she says. “It’s a platform on which we can leverage Sotheby’s deep network and also benefit from their proven record of online sales.” The gallery will intially present works by Angel Otero, Marilyn Minter, and Alex Prager.

Asked about the unusual nature of traditionally competitive galleries and auction houses getting on the same page, Camacho says the times have forced a pivot.

“The art world is not isolated. It is a delicate ecosystem. With COVID-19, we are witness to an unprecedented moment that demands creative solutions in order for businesses both small and big to survive. It’s time to experiment, to let your guard down, to reach out and help others, and to work together. “

15 Minutes with a Price Database Power User: Sotheby’s Design Impresario Jodi Pollack

The leader of Sotheby’s 20th-century design department tells us about the latest design trends—and what’s undervalued.

Art-world insiders trust one tool to buy, sell, and research art: the Artnet Price Database. These users cross industries—from auction houses and galleries, to museums and government institutions—and represent the art world’s most important players. We’re taking 15 minutes to chat with some of the Artnet Price Database’s power users to get their take on the current state of the market and how they’re keeping up with the latest trends.

Growing up in Chicago, Sotheby’s Senior VP Jodi Pollack would go for after-school jaunts to design shops with her mother, sparking a lifelong fascination with art and design. Today, you can find her at the helm of Sotheby’s 20th-Century Design department, which, under her leadership, has sold more than $100 million over the past three years in its New York auctions alone.

We sat down with Jodi to talk about the global design market, what designers are hot right now, and most importantly, which collecting category is the most recession-proof.

This year is your 20th anniversary with Sotheby’s. How have you seen the design market change over the past two decades?

The market has changed enormously over this time. I think the biggest transformation has been the shift in collecting ideology, from “connoisseur” collecting concentrated in one particular field, to a more eclectic collecting approach largely driven by decorating. Twenty years ago, many of the top collectors were building comprehensive collections concentrated in one area, such as American Arts & Crafts or French Art Deco, and their interiors reflected this focused commitment. Today, many of our most active buyers have multiple homes around the world, and they are creating incredible environments layered with art, design, and decorative arts from a variety of periods and genres.      

What categories within the field of modern and contemporary design are really hot with collectors right now?

The biggest names in recent seasons have been Les Lalanne, Diego and Alberto Giacometti, and Jean Royère. That said, works representing the very best in quality across every market—whether prewar, postwar, or contemporary design—always resonate with advanced collectors. 

What categories, periods, or designers within the sector do you see as currently undervalued? Which ones are overvalued?

There are great opportunities in many of the more classic prewar markets today, including American and British Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, and French Art Deco. These periods represent extraordinary craftsmanship and quality at very good values today. Some of the postwar markets that have seen accelerated rises, like Lalanne and Giacometti, seem like they are due for a correction, though the strong global demand we continue to see makes this unlikely anytime soon.   

Personally, what’s your favorite design period?

I love it all! Today I live with a lot of American, Scandinavian, and Italian postwar design, mixed with contemporary design.    

François-Xavier Lalanne’s Famille d’Hippopotames (1992), for sale in Sotheby’s upcoming “Important Design” auction, taking place June 29, 2020.

You’ve been incredibly successful selling Tiffany glass, including the record-setting sale of a window from a church in Erie, Pennsylvania for $2.7 million in 2016—ten times its low estimate. You also sell Tiffany lamps in the hundreds of thousands and millions pretty regularly. Why do you think Tiffany glass has had such enduring appeal, and what’s the profile of a Tiffany collector?

Tiffany is so timeless and iconic, and I think everyone can relate to its intrinsic beauty. Of all the design markets we cover at Sotheby’s, Tiffany is by far our deepest market at every level, from $5,000 up to the seven figures. We sell these works to collectors who are singularly dedicated to building Tiffany collections, as well as to countless clients who are integrating Tiffany into much more diverse collections. I have seen interiors with Tiffany lamps placed alongside a great Basquiat or Warhol, as well as classic decorative arts.    

Is there any designer or category within design that’s nearly always a safe investment?

If you look back over time, Tiffany seems to be the one area that has proven to be “recession-proof.” I think this is largely driven by the global scope of the Tiffany market, and the fact that Tiffany is such a recognizable commodity.

Do you think contemporary designers whose works have sold for huge sums at auction, like Marc Newson, will have enduring appeal? 

In my view, the most defining pieces by the leading contemporary designers will prove to have the most enduring appeal. If I were building a collection of contemporary design, I would focus on unique commissioned pieces, as well as the most quintessential models and series by a designer. 

How is the taste in design different among collectors around the world?

Our buyers have become increasingly global. We are selling design to collectors on multiple continents and from dozens of different countries in every sale. Technology and digital marketing have been a huge driver in broadening the market. We certainly curate our sales to the tastes of each region, though we are seeing a rise in global bidding in all of our selling centers. I see Asia as one of the most exciting growth opportunities for design. Asia has been a meaningful factor in the growth of our design sales over the past five years, and I anticipate this growth will accelerate in the years ahead, given the demand we are seeing in that region.         

“There are great opportunities in many of the more classic prewar markets today, including American and British Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, and French Art Deco. These periods represent extraordinary craftsmanship and quality at very good values.”

Where do you see the most crossover collecting between design and art?

No surprise, the biggest overlap we see in terms of crossover bidding is with contemporary art. Contemporary collectors are actively buying design of all varieties—including prewar, postwar, and contemporary material—to complement the art in their interiors.    

What is a piece of advice for someone looking to make their first big design purchase? 

First, don’t rush in—there is always something to buy. Spend time educating yourself about the material and the market. Build a library and see as much as you can to train your eye. And most importantly, only buy what you love and what will give you pleasure on a daily basis. Don’t buy into trends.

You just wrapped up a record-breaking online-only sale for design that totaled $4 million. Are the clients who are buying in this sale different from the ones you see in live sales?

Yes and no. A large number of bidders from our core client base were heavily active in the sale. At the same time, we had 39 new bidders participate in this sale that had never before bid in our design auctions, and in some cases were entirely new to Sotheby’s. We are fortunate to have a deep and global loyal following, and it’s very exciting to see how many new bidders are being drawn to our design sales. These are all highly positive signals for the market and future ahead!       

And of course, what’s the last thing you searched for on the Artnet Price Database?

Mums the word! You will need to check in to our next auction. Stay tuned…

How Surrealism Changed Los Angeles Forever

Alina Cohen Apr 17, 2020

Mona Lisa as seen by Duchamp ("La Joconde" vue par Duchamp).
Man Ray Mona Lisa as seen by Duchamp (“La Joconde” vue par 
J. Paul Getty Museum
Le Violon d'Ingres
Man Ray Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

In 1940, famed Surrealist artist Man Ray fled war-torn Europe for the sunny streets of Los Angeles. Threats of persecution and violence were shattering his avant-garde community in Paris, turning many of his friends and fellow artists into refugees. The turmoil also marked the end of the Surrealists’ primacy in Western art. In less than a decade, American Abstract Expressionism would dominate the art press, and Life magazine would famously ask, “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Yet the story of Surrealism was hardly over. Man Ray’s new hometown offered the movement an afterlife. Though Los Angeles was slow to embrace work by the photographer and his coterie, the city created new opportunities for them to work in safety. Its oddities and charms were ultimately a good fit for the European émigrés who adored eccentricity. As Man Ray famously said, “There was more Surrealism rampant in Hollywood than all the Surrealists could invent in a lifetime.” Los Angeles also gave the group unique patronage, access to the film industry, and connection to younger artists who would celebrate their legacy in strange new ways.

A growing audience

Arrières-pensées (Second Thoughts)
Yves Tanguy Arrières-pensées (Second Thoughts), 1939
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
La famille nombreuse (The Numerous Family)
Max Ernst La famille nombreuse (The Numerous Family), 1926
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

In the essay “Surrealism on the Rise: the Copley Galleries and Joseph Cornell in Hollywood,” art historian Timea Andrea Lelik writes that Howard Putzel was “most likely the first dealer to link European surrealism to California.” Before World War II erupted, Putzel attempted to promote the movement through a number of exhibitions between 1935 and 1936. As the director of Stanley Rose Gallery, he showed work by Max ErnstYves TanguyAndré Masson, and Joan Miró. But they never really caught on. Even when Putzel launched his own gallery in 1936, the West Coast appetite for his European avant-garde offerings seemed sparse.

Yet one collecting couple in Los Angeles was very engaged in such work—Walter and Louise Arensberg. Their tastes were so influential, legendary California-based curator Walter Hopps once called them the “most important collectors ever in the Western United States.” Longtime friends of Marcel Duchamp, the Arensbergs bought the artist’s famous canvas Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) back in 1919, when the country was still catching up to radical European art. Throughout the subsequent decades, Duchamp frequented their Los Angeles home. By the time of their deaths in the mid-1950s, the couple had amassed a collection that included work by Duchamp, Ernst, Miró, René Magritte, and Salvador Dalí.

[Marcel Duchamp and Raoul de Roussy de Sales Playing Chess]
Man Ray [Marcel Duchamp and Raoul de Roussy de Sales Playing Chess], 1925
J. Paul Getty Museum

In other words, there was patronage to be found among California’s palm trees. The Arensbergs became such close friends to the Surrealists that in 1946, they hosted the double wedding between Man Ray and dancer Juliet Browner, and Max Ernst and Dorothea TanningFlorence Homolka’s portrait of the unusual celebration features the loving foursome reclining against one another, their heads and shoulders intertwined.

The year 1948 proved to be a major one for Surrealism in Los Angeles. The Modern Institute of Art opened its doors with an exhibition that included work by Duchamp and Miró. Meanwhile, the short-lived Copley Galleries mounted Man Ray’s first solo show in Los Angeles, which attracted an all-star guest list that included Harpo Marx, Fanny Brice (theinspiration for the 1968 film Funny Girl), Hans HofmannIsamu Noguchi, Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, and Otto Preminger. The amity between the worlds of entertainment and fine art blossomed.

Surreal cinema

Ava Gardner in Pandora And The Flying Dutchman, 1951. Directed by Albert Lewin. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images.
Ava Gardner in Pandora And The Flying Dutchman, 1951. Directed by Albert Lewin. Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images.

If Man Ray easily found fiscal supporters, he had a harder time breaking into the mainstream film world. Though he worked as an art director for Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), starring Ava Gardner, his career in the industry never flourished.

Yet the artist—who was an experimental filmmaker in his own right—did find a receptive community at American Contemporary Gallery. The Hollywood venue screened his work, in addition to the dreamy animations of Oskar Fischinger.

Avant-garde, Surrealist-tinged cinema was blooming in the city. Maya Deren finished her shadowy, silent Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943. Kenneth Anger made his trippy Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome,starring occultist poet, artist, and actress Marjorie Cameron, in 1954. Cameron’s own work was similarly influenced by the movement. Curator Harmony Murphy described her work as being involved in “the unconscious, dreams, sexuality, and the occult,” relating back to André Breton’s movement-defining “Surrealist Manifesto” (1924).

Spellbound, 1945. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Photo by HO/AFP via Getty Images.
Spellbound, 1945. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Photo by HO/AFP via Getty Images.

The most famous Surrealist collaboration with Hollywood occurred in 1945, when Alfred Hitchcock commissioned Salvador Dalí to design a dream sequence for his upcoming film Spellbound (1945). The haunting result features floating eyes, a card table, a masked man, and long shadows—classic Dalí. The Surrealist’s engagement with the unconscious complemented Hitchcock’s own interests in psychoanalysis and repression. Dalí also briefly worked with Walt Disney the next year, though the collaboration wasn’t made public until after the artist died.

“What’s most exciting about the Surrealist legacy in Los Angeles is that it was here that it penetrated the mainstream film industry,” said Los Angeles–based artist Max Maslansky. In 2016, Maslansky organizedan exhibition at Richard Telles Fine Art that focused on Surrealism’s long-lost history in the city, titled “Tinseltown in the Rain: The Surrealist Diaspora in Los Angeles 1935–69.” Maslansky also noted that Disney made it a point to hire European émigrés who’d been exposed to Surrealism and “could bring these ideas into animation and film.”

Heirs apparent

Helen LundebergOracle, 1966
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 
Genesis First Version
Lorser FeitelsonGenesis First Version, 1934
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

In an essay published in On the Edge of America: California Modernist Art, 1900–1950 (1996), art historian Susan M. Anderson describes two factions of Surrealism being developed out West. She writes, “While in northern California surrealism developed toward abstract expressionism, in southern California it developed toward geometric abstraction.” In 1934, Los Angeles–based painters Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg founded Post-Surrealism, a movement that responded to their European predecessors. Joining their ranks was a young Philip Guston.

Lundeberg’s spooky figurations feature the trademark elements of European Surrealism—a clock, a sandy landscape, a painting within a painting—with a domestic, feminine touch. Feitelson similarly embraced the movement’s dreamy symbology. When the pair veered into hard-edged abstraction, Feitelson translated his bold palette to soaring volumes, while Lundeberg painted mystical compositions in tranquil, pastel hues.

Installation view “Valley of Gold: Southern California and the Phantasmagoric” at  Kasmin Gallery, 2020. Photo by Christopher Stach. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.
Installation view “Valley of Gold: Southern California and the Phantasmagoric” at Kasmin Gallery, 2020. Photo by Christopher Stach. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.

The pair’s work recently appeared in an exhibition at Kasmin Gallery titled “Valley of Gold: Southern California and the Phantasmagoric,” which opened on March 5th and has been closed indefinitely due to COVID-19. In the show, Feitelson and Lundberg create a link between the European avant-garde and younger artists such as Ed Ruscha—whose wry text-based works share an affinity with Magritte’s wordplay—and Robert Therrien, whose giant furniture evokes an Alice in Wonderland–inspired dream.

Curated by Harmony Murphy and Sonny Ruscha Grande, the show posits a loose aesthetic lineage that starts with the Surrealists and ends with contemporary artists. Instead of declaring explicit connections, as Murphy writes in the exhibition essay, the show posits “a traceable legacy of influence” revealed in “a flicker of mischievousness, an uncompromising approach,” and a “re-writing of rules.”

Installation view “Valley of Gold: Southern California and the Phantasmagoric” at  Kasmin Gallery, 2020. Photo by Christopher Stach. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.
Installation view “Valley of Gold: Southern California and the Phantasmagoric” at Kasmin Gallery, 2020. Photo by Christopher Stach. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.

The paintings of Luchita Hurtado and Lee Mullican help tell the story, as well. Mullican co-founded the Dynaton group of Post-Surrealist artists in San Francisco in the late 1940s. The movement enjoyed a major exhibition in 1951 at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Over the next decade, Hurtado and Mullican settled in Los Angeles, taking Dynaton aesthetics with them. Hurtado’s spare, uncanny landscapes exemplify her avant-garde influences.

In her essay for the Kasmin exhibition, Anderson wrote that Surrealist activity in Southern California “culminated in 1966, when a Magritte retrospective” came to town. Walter Hopps brought the show, which was organized by the Museum of Modern Art, to the Pasadena Art Museum during his final year as its director.

Robert Irwin, Daisetz, 1959. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.
Robert Irwin, Daisetz, 1959. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.
Beatrice Wood, Superb Gold Luster Chalice, 1980. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.
Beatrice Wood, Superb Gold Luster Chalice, 1980. Courtesy of Kasmin Gallery.

Artforum, which was then based in Los Angeles, published an issue devoted to the movement. “Surrealism” danced across the cover in bold red lettering against a backdrop of bubbles: an artwork titled Surrealism Soaped and Scrubbed (1966) by Ed Ruscha. “While tipping his hat to the legacy of European surrealism, Ruscha also acknowledged its contribution to the pristine aesthetics of Los Angeles’s finish fetish and light-and-space art,” wrote Anderson, referencing the major veins of California minimalism.

By the 1960s, Surrealism had permanently infiltrated the West Coast subconscious, burbling into its text art, sculpture, performance, and painting. “Los Angeles is isolated from these intellectual centers,” said Murphy. “Most postmodern artists think of themselves as outliers or cowboys. Left of center. That’s similar to the way that the Surrealists saw themselves.” 

Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.


By Stephen Westfall | April 15, 2020


In 2012, Mary Weatherford was invited by the artist Joey Kötting, gallery director at California State University, Bakersfield, to make a series of paintings in response to the area’s high desert landscape, local history, and light. Driving around during her five-week stint, Weatherford was entranced by the glow of neon signs in town and at roadside stands beyond the city’s borders. Seeing the signs set against the Bakersfield sky at twilight catalyzed something for her. She found a local neon shop to fabricate ever-so-slightly bent tubes that she then affixed to large canvases bearing broad-stroked, fluid grounds. She chose each color—ruby, lemon yellow, light green, etc.—for its effect on the background pigments and left the cords and connecting boxes fully visible in front of the canvases as a form of “drawing.” Before long, these breathtaking composite paintings, with their echoes of such predecessors as Keith Sonnier and Bruce Nauman, boosted her already significant career as a canny post-Pop, post-Pictures Generation feminist painter. She has exhibited at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles; participated in MoMA’s 2014 survey “Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World”; and mounted an acclaimed 2018 exhibition at the cavernous Gagosian space on 24th Street in New York.

Currently, Weatherford is the subject of a tight but well-selected thirty-year traveling retrospective. “Canyon-Daisy-Eden” can be seen at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College through July 12 and will travel to SITE Santa Fe in October. The show makes clear that the neon paintings, for which she is best known, relate not only to the sense of place that emerged in her work after she moved back to California from New York in 1999, but also to the collaged and silkscreened canvases that she began in the late 1980s.

Weatherford, who was born in Ojai, California, in 1963, grew up in San Diego as the daughter of an Episcopalian priest and a historian. She left California for Princeton, which offers art classes but not an art major. There she painted and studied architecture, while serving as an assistant to Sam Hunter, a foundational historian of postwar American art, especially Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Weatherford probably discerned in both those movements formal reminders of the mountains, cliffs, beaches, and impossibly deep and variant Pacific horizons along the California coast. Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland offered an evolving conception of what Big Painting could do, from distribution of incident to saturation of color.

In a different though related vein, she attended a Rosalind Krauss lecture based on the scholar’s influential essay “The Originality of the Avant-Garde,” which examines the paradoxical relationship of “original” artists like Rodin to formal repetition, copies, and editions. Sherrie Levine’s 1981 photographs of reproductions of Walker Evans photographs raised questions about male control of “authorship” and how a woman might enter the conversation. In 1984–85, after Princeton, Weatherford attended the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Immersed in an environment emphasizing semiotics, critical theory, and appropriation, she was challenged to absorb such principles yet paint beyond their parameters.

Lazy loaded image
Mary Weatherford: Violetta, 1991, acrylic, Flashe, and silkscreen ink on canvas, 39 by 72 inches.PRIVATE COLLECTION.

AMONG THE FIRST Weatherford paintings to garner attention were her large target paintings of 1989, two of which hang at the entrance to the Tang exhibition. Both titled Nagasaki, the canvases are each 82 inches square with extra-deep stretcher bars that evoke the iconic objecthood of the early stripe and Protractor paintings of her famous Princeton precursor, Frank Stella. The circular bands, echoing the iconographic impact of compositions by Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland, have the flatness of Stella’s early handling, but without the border of exposed canvas between each plane of color. The hues themselves are more atmospheric: an orange bisque filling the corners of one painting, a pinkish field embracing baked beige circles set flush to brick-red ones in the other. These colors are derived from a kimono given to the artist by a former boyfriend, but there’s a shared light in them reminiscent of west-facing stucco houses just after the sun has gone down, a Southern California light that whispers of Romanticism despite Weatherford’s Minimalist and Neo-Geo appropriations. And then there’s the shared title: “Nagasaki” referring to Puccini’s posthumous Madame Butterfly and the suffering, doomed Cio-Cio San, even as it also resonates with the historically ominous titles of some of Stella’s Black paintings (e.g., Arbeit Macht Frei, 1967). One can hardly miss the point of associating a bull’s-eye with an atomic-bombed Japanese city. Not in the show is another 1989 painting, titled (using an alternative Anglicized spelling) Cho-Cho-San. Here a silkscreened peony blooms against its darker leaves, an ectoplasmic-toned white against a black-green ground. An early example of Weatherford’s extended exploration of silkscreen and collage, the work nods to yet one more postwar male artist—Andy Warhol, who hid his Romanticism behind the apparent emotional cool of Pop appropriations.

Weatherford began silkscreening onto canvas in 1988, and, though the target paintings intervened, she continued for nearly a decade to employ this transfer method as a primary means for fixing an image. There are, in fact, multiple Cho-Cho-San ink-and-oil works (from both 1989 and 1990), as there are multiple Nagasakis. In the Cho-Cho-San works, the concentric circles of the target are reduced to thin lines dissolving in an amniotic pool of transparent darkness, releasing the flower into light like the answer floating upward in a Magic 8 Ball. In the Tang survey, Third Riddle (1991), a large (almost 9-foot-high) vertical painting whose title alludes to the suitors’ test in Turandot, performs much like Cho-Cho-San. A silkscreened chrysanthemum blooms about three quarters of the way to the top and a bit to the right out of a violet-black stain split by a spear of light. The shadow that crosses the white gleam and fills up the space between the petals renders the flower seemingly three dimensional. In the deep seep of the dark violet stain set against the subtle detonation of the flower, we see the mastery of composition that Weatherford brings to her paintings from the outset. In the opera, the answer to the third riddle is “love,” which augurs the cold-hearted princess Turandot’s ultimate surrender to marriage. The luminosity of the blossom in the painting is perfectly matched to the moment of emotional illumination in the opera.

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Mary Weatherford: Night and Day, 1996, oil and silkscreen on jute, 90 by 63 inches. PRIVATE COLLECTION.

The distraught yet resiliently defiant female psyche is poetically figured throughout the silkscreened paintings. According to curator-critic Bill Arning, the near or outright mythic stature of beset female protagonists in ballet and opera referenced by Weatherford are often projections of the artist herself, so the “her” of Her Insomnia (1991) and Her Clairvoyance (1993) is the artist.1 Insomnia was long related to the “woman’s affliction” called hysteria, and thus to the debilitative foresight of Cassandra and Ophelia. Her Insomnia distributes red thorny rose stems on a near-black ground, while Her Clairvoyance shows eels writhing on a rocky ultraviolet sea bed.

A nocturnal palette runs through those paintings, but not all of Weatherford’s operatic images are so deeply shadowed. In 5:00 a.m. (1992), thorny pale-green stems establish a vertical band against the washed-out violet-pink field, at roughly the golden section division of the six-by-ten-foot horizontal canvas. Even fewer shadows appear in Violetta (1991), whose flowers star an expanse of fluorescently virulent olive chartreuse. The flowers seem to flutter like moths and, sure enough, by 1994 Weatherford was collaging images of butterflies and moths, along with the actual shells of sea snails and starfish, onto her paintings’ surfaces. Bearing a number of these smaller works, the “salon wall” in the Tang installation is itself a kind of bricolage installation.

BY 1995, WEATHERFORD introduced figurative elements to her paintings—in some cases, a silhouette of her beloved younger sister Margaret’s head; in others, an image of herself bent double and clutching her head as if in grief, while her long hair spills over her hands like water. In hindsight, it is an almost unspeakable irony that Weatherford’s anguished pose foreshadows Margaret’s death from cancer in 2012, the same year that the artist made her formal breakthrough in Bakersfield. Margaret’s silhouette is a centered vertical protuberance in several paintings, rising from the bottom of the canvas into the pictorial field and rounding into human shape in a way that can also recall a pool or a geological formation. There’s a whimsical effect to these portraits, since the expressive features of Margaret’s face are usually obscured in favor of a plane of paint, much like the thick pours that constitute the primary figure-ground relationship in a number of the smaller moth and seashell paintings on the salon wall. Through this combination of bricolage and body-centric painterliness, Weatherford transitions from the formal restraint (even at Big Painting scale) of the Neo Geo and Pictures aesthetics that she emerged from into a much freer painting space. She hasn’t given up photo silkscreen or printing yet, but the rest of the painting surface is no longer suppressed to accommodate the transferred image. Rather, the transferred image sits like a stick-on element over other surface layers.

In the seven-and-a-half-foot-high Night and Day (1996), Weatherford’s kneeling, hair-clutching image, almost life-size, rests in the lower center of a blue-black ground. Above, the remainder of the field is filled by a pale pink half-orb, with a much smaller white disk inside it. The deep yellow and dark orange silkscreen shape of Weatherford’s body is bolstered—made an almost tangible presence—by the addition of paint. The artist was using jute instead of canvas at this point, and the material’s coarser texture meant that heavier-bodied paint was needed to hold flat color, while looser and thinner washes would pool irregularly in the exaggerated pockets between warp and weft, where the priming coat had settled. The work’s vinyl Flashe paint manages these transitions with remarkable vividness, drying matte while maintaining a bracing chromatic intensity. The grief in the self-image is lightened by the figure’s weightlessness in the painting’s (outer) space and by the sensuality of the brush gestures filling each shape and ground. Other iconic self-portraits and portraits come to mind: Courbet’s youthful Le Désespéré (The Desperate Man), 1843–45, with its bug-eyed expression; and Harry Callahan’s photograph Eleanor, Chicago (1949), showing his wife crowned with ropy, wet hair as she stands neck-deep in water. Weatherford is amused enough by the lugubriousness of her own head-in-hands image to title one painting Any Cat Stevens Song (1996), suggesting that the soundtracks of our lives are attuned to our heartbreak as much as to our bliss.

Weatherford’s expressive paint handling opened up further when she moved back to California in 1999. That was also when her paintings started responding formally to her natural environment. She generated visual tone poems of the coast, stacking shapes and bands of color into drastically simplified images of sand, sea, sky, and sun. In beach (2000), a five-foot-high painting, the order goes from bottom to top: dark head silhouette (touching the bottom edge), yellow sand, curving blue sea/sky, huge orange-pink cloud. It’s an order not unlike that of Night and Day, but in spite of the wavering edges of each border, the horizon line situates us in a landscape rather than the semiotic outer space of the earlier painting. Some of the Margaret heads from 1996 also situate us in a “scape” of some kind. We are looking in the same direction as she is, from behind her. But there is little or no spatial orientation in the allover chromatic weather that surrounds her.

Around this same time, Weatherford began affixing sponges to her paintings. An obvious nod to Yves Klein’s “Sponge Reliefs” (1959–61), these sponge works are conceptually mutable, evoking the sea, heads, stones, and even potatoes. The clumpy invertebrates are appropriative, sure, but they serve a distinct aesthetic purpose. As the title of absorbent (2000) implies, the sponges soak up color and push it into real space, much as the silkscreened chrysanthemum in the trompe l’oeil Third Riddle promises to do.

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Mary Weatherford: absorbent, 2000, Flashe and sponges on canvas, 66 by 82 inches. COLLECTION THE ARTIST.

The sponge paintings represent the apogee of Weatherford’s bricolage practice before she began the neon paintings. Yet she continued to attach starfish and shells here and there, as she delved further into painterly mark-making to create a kind of caricature. Cartoonish essentialism runs through her sunsets, moonrises over brick walls (LA is a city of alleyways), and—in a couple of cases featuring compressed Franz Kline brushstrokes—quick, hilariously accurate portraits of a black cat that haunted her backyard. The eyes are tiny iridescent seashells with a black stroke for the pupil. This first half-decade back in California, spent stretching out with paint, seems to have prepared her to make the leap into a loose, tactilely rich painting from observation. That shift meant an increase in surface incident, achieved by layering washes in a way that leaves the color underneath showing through—the ton sur ton of Bonnard updated via the epic stain painting of Frankenthaler and Louis.

In 2004 Weatherford started painting the light and shadow of the day through a huge thicket of vines that had overtaken a trellis in her front yard. The Tang exhibition includes the ivy mesh (2004) on the salon wall. It’s a small horizontal painting with gray-green vines and leaves emerging into foreground light and disappearing into black shadow. As these works expanded somewhat in scale, the dark background began to serve as a volumetric midway passage, yielding to light behind the thicket. Flickers of light flutter around the shadowed space like moths, a Corot effect pushed to the level of Charles Burchfield’s The Coming of Spring (1917–43), in which every tree, hillock, and flower seems to have an individual soul. The vine paintings never reached large scale, which suits their scrutiny-inviting intimacy. It’s a shame space wouldn’t allow more of these paintings in the show, as I find the whole series to be among the finest, gnarliest, and most specific paintings of vegetation in the last half-century.

OVERLAPPING THE TIMELINE of the Vine works is an extended series of paintings Weatherford made of rocks at Malibu’s Point Dume—two examples are at the Tang—and a subsequent series depicting a cave she found up the California coast in Pismo Beach. Only one of the Cave paintings is included in the exhibition, the labia-walled Georgia (2010), executed in multiple shades of blue, with a slyly clitoral starfish almost invisible at the top of the indigo cave-void. It’s an open letter to Georgia O’Keeffe with the starfish also recalling the stars in works by German-American Symbolist painter Agnes Pelton (1881–1961).² Weatherford would make plein air studies on paper at the sites and work on larger canvases in the studio. Treating the textures of rock as a Monet-like record of shifts in chromatic light, and rendering the contrast of glare and shadow in fluid and fast-drying paint, Weatherford became fluent in the polychromatic “action” techniques of staining and sponging. These were the basis for the blots and swipes that dance with the electrified tubes in the neon paintings.

The rock and cave works also have their antecedents in nineteenth-century French painting, notably Monet’s views of the natural bridge at Étretat on the Normandy Coast, Courbet’s sinewy cave paintings (he also made paintings of Étretat), and Degas’s landscape monotypes, some of which are nearly abstract. This deep history brings us to Weatherford’s engagement with Frankenthaler, herself a Francophile. Like her predecessor, Weatherford makes her large works on the floor, so she’s actually in the field of the painting.

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Mary Weatherford: Ruby I (Thriftimart), 2012, Flashe and neon on linen, 93 by 79 inches. HAMMER MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES.

Of the three neon paintings at the Tang, Ruby I (Thriftimart), 2012, most evidently springs from the cave paintings. As in many of those works, a border surrounds the central build-up of red, blue, black, and black-violet washes that suggest a monadic void. Vertically traversing the center but bending slightly to the right toward the bottom is a tube of ruby neon, staining the dark pool of paint with its glow. To the left, a white cord drapes down to a transformer box on the floor. Nothing is concealed. And, as always with Weatherford, much is going on.

Discussing From the Mountain to the Sea (2014), the first of her paintings in which two neon tubes of different colors merge into one continuous line, the artist offered a peek into her crowded mind: “I have [Lucio] Fontana in my head. I have Mario Merz and Barry Le Va. Of course the cords are borrowed from Eva Hesse. It’s sort of a rotating card catalog going on up here [taps head].” Later in the same interview, she said: “I’m not painting a painting that’s finished and then putting neon on it. I’m painting with the expectation this element will be added.”³

Weatherford’s neon paintings have expanded into scapes that encompass treks up arroyos and allude to political violence. She regards the neon as something like a cut but also a lingering, compositional light.4 The works reflect the influence of a chorus of predecessors, but they are always definitively shaped by her own mind, her own sorrows and exhilarations, her insomnia and clairvoyance. The glimpse of the city lights from the top of the canyon is her own song.

Bill Arning, “Weatherford’s Women,” in the forthcoming catalogue for the Tang exhibition. The volume will also include essays and poetry by artists Rebecca Morris and Arnold Kemp; an article by Elissa Auther, deputy director and chief curator of the Museum of Art and Design, New York; an interview with Tang director Ian Berry; and “East of the 5, South of the 10,” a story by Margaret Weatherford, the artist’s sister, who brilliantly imagines the LA area as a noir Olympus for the fallible Greek gods.
Works by this recently rediscovered artist are currently on display in “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, through June 28.
Mary Weatherford, “from the Mountain to the Sea: A CONVERSATION,” in Robert Faggen, Mary Weatherford: The Neon Paintings, Claremont, Calif., Gould Center for Humanistic Studies, Claremont McKenna College, and Munich, London, New York, DelMonico Books, Prestel Verlag, 2016, pp. 203–04.
Ibid., p. 202.

This article appears under the title “Shine the Light in the April 2020 issue, pp. 58–65.

Why Imogen Cunningham’s Light-Filled Photographs Are So Soothing Right Now

Jacqui Palumbo Apr 12, 2020

Calla Lily with Leaf
Imogen CunninghamCalla Lily with Leaf, 1920
Gallery 270
Martha Graham 44
Imogen CunninghamMartha Graham 44, 1931
The Halsted Gallery

Lately I’ve been having a hard time looking at photographs. But as a writer who often covers photography, it is nearly impossible for me to take a break from them.

I am cooped up at home for the fifth week while my neighborhood in Brooklyn has become a breeding ground for the novel coronavirus. My view of the world has been primarily reduced to what I see through electronic screens. My feeds are mostly images—if not from photographers I follow, then from the news.

Photographs of empty spaces, even innocuous ones, are unsettling. But scenes of people, of interaction and touch, hit me hard as well. No matter when a photograph was taken, whether last week or years ago, my instinct is to warn the subjects—don’t touch each other; please be careful.

Unmade Bed
Imogen CunninghamUnmade Bed, 1957 / 1957c
Contemporary Works/Vintage Works

Looking at photographs of life as it was just a month ago causes my mind to occupy two places at once. I feel the longing to return to the cadence of daily life, but I am alarmed by depictions of it. It seems as though the complexity of what was normal is somehow too much for me to process: My mind adds weighty implications to mundane details; it connects threads to our current crisis that aren’t there.

To cope, I’ve turned my attention to pictures of uncomplicated beauty and small pleasures, in the same way I’ve used visualization techniques during meditation to clear my head. In particular, I’ve taken solace in the late Imogen Cunningham’s work—the way she captured light gently curving on flowers or skin in soft black-and-white film.

Hens and Chickens, 1929
Imogen CunninghamHens and Chickens, 1929, c. 1979-2001
Ryan Gallery
Imogen CunninghamTriangles, 1921
The Halsted Gallery

Cunningham’s botanicals aren’t the types of pictures that usually hold my attention, but they resonate with me now for their simplicity: Light against an object is the very foundation of photography. Peering at the whorls of magnolias or the strong lines and shadows of agave stalks, there’s a clear logic of geometry, a harmony of forms that makes sense to me when nothing else does.

It’s fitting that Cunningham is giving me reprieve. She sought purity of subject matter in her photography along with the other members of the West Coast group she co-founded in 1932, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. These modernists banded together to photograph the world around them; it was a diversion from Pictorialism, which often centered on dreamy landscapes or allegorical scenes through soft-focus lenses. They named their coterie Group f/64, a reference to the aperture setting which gives the sharpest clarity from foreground to background.

Glacial Lily (False Hellebore)
Imogen CunninghamGlacial Lily (False Hellebore), 1926
Bruce Silverstein Gallery
Tower of Jewels
Imogen CunninghamTower of Jewels, 1925
Richard Moore Photographs

“There was a pursuit in the art world to see something really cleanly and precisely and with clarity,” said Meg Partridge, Cunningham’s granddaughter, in 2011, comparing the similarities the photographer shared with painter Georgia O’Keeffe.

Cunningham’s earliest work flirted with pictorial sensibilities, but by 1920, her style had shifted. Living in San Francisco with her husband, the artist Roi Partridge, she stayed mostly at home to care for their three young boys. Like many working photographers are having to do right now while spending their days indoors, Cunningham began to observe what was available to her: her children, her garden, and herself. Many of her plant studies were taken during this time, including her beloved magnolia blossoms.

The artist liked to say she photographed “anything that can be exposed to light,” as her granddaughter recalled in 2011. “More than anything else, her prolific determination to photograph every day made her the photographer she was.”

Imogen CunninghamCalla, circa 1925
Roy on the Move
Imogen CunninghamRoy on the Move, 1915
Scott Nichols Gallery

Cunningham’s early images would later influence the direction of Group f/64, but her focus on observational scenes didn’t spring from thin air. Before settling in the Bay Area and starting a family, Cunningham had studied for a period in Germany, where European ideas of “straight photography” had already taken root.

Cunningham photographed many things throughout her life, including industrial architecture and portraits, but her florals have a graceful and sensual nature that made them standouts in her oeuvre. And they have given me a sense of comfort and ease in a time that is anything but.

The curling petals and lithe stems find parallels in her nude portraits, which she took of women—including herself—and men. Her portrait of Roi Partridge in the buff on Mount Rainier in 1915 was one of the first nudes of a man ever taken by a woman (a Seattle newspaper deemed her an “immoral woman” for firing the shutter). In it, Partridge is featured small against the sweeping landscape. Later, Cunningham sought to close the distance between herself and the figures she photographed through closely cropped compositions; bodies gently unfurl, as inviting as the calyces of flowers. Whereas Weston’s nude portraits were perfectly crisp and polished, Cunningham allowed soft lines and expressive shadows—a more honest rendering of intimacy.

Imogen CunninghamSelf-Portrait, ca. 1906
Undercurrent Projects

Though Group f/64 disbanded by the end of 1940, with some members departing for other cities and some taking up the call for humanist documentary work, their association became a pivotal moment in photography. The group’s desire to reveal the simple poetry of the world around them—be it Adams’s beloved alpine landscapes, Weston’s curvilinear bell peppers, or Cunningham’s supple petals—became a declaration for subsequent generations to hear and follow with their own lenses.

Their edict reaches me, too, as I search for photographs to write about; to share with readers who are similarly listlessly scrolling through their feeds, searching for something that might lift their anxiety for a moment. In Cunningham’s work, in her search for purity, maybe we can find clarity, too.

Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.


With these high-style games, staying indoors would be a lot more interesting.


Keep Your Cool, by Slim Aarons, 1978
Keep Your Cool, by Slim Aarons, 1978

If you’re getting a little stir crazy in this season of social distancing, we’ve got you covered — or at least entertained. Whether you want to try your hand at horseshoes or sharpen your chess skills, we’ve put together a selection of unusual, rare and, in some cases, extravagant games that you can play at home.

Arturo Pani backgammon table, circa 1960s

Arturo Pani Backgammon Table, 1960s

The sleek drama of this dark onyx backgammon table demonstrates why the work of Arturo Pani, designer to Mexico’s elite in the 1950s and ’60s, is now collected internationally.

Beverly Club craps table circa 1945

Beverly Club Craps Table, ca. 1945

Dress up, stay home, roll the dice, and let the colorful history of this craps table, once owned by Beverly Country Club, in Metairie, Louisiana, transport you to the 1940s heyday of that glamorous (and illegal) casino. If you’re lucky, and the lighting is right, you may see a few celebrity ghosts waiting to place their bets.

Teckell Cristallino Gold Foosball Table

Teckell Cristallino Gold Foosball Table, New

Is this limited-edition table a game or a work of art? The Italian design firm Teckell combines cutting-edge technology with traditional craftsmanship in creating exquisite high-performance products for the home. Here, it ups the foosball ante by plating the players in 24-karat gold and making the field from shatterproof crystal.

English Skittle game

English Skittles, Early 20th Century

Skittles, for the uninitiated, is like bowling but without the crowds. This English wooden set packs away neatly on its own stand, making it ideal for the apartment-bound.

Napoleonic Prisoner of War Games Box, ca. 1800

Napoleonic Prisoner-of-War Games Box, ca. 1800

Hand-carved from bone, this rare antique game box sets you up to play dominoes, cribbage or dice in true prisoner-of-war (or -pandemic) fashion.

Andy Warhol-inspired Campbell's soup can chess set

Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can Chess Set, 2018

Artware Editions has given the venerable (and monochrome) game of chess a Pop art makeover, replacing the kings, queens and their courts with Campbell’s soup cans à la Andy Warhol’s famous early-’60s silkscreens, all decked out in saturated Warholian colors.

Charles O. Perry sculptor call and zen precision brass puzzles, ca. mid-20th century

Charles O. Parry Ball & Zen Puzzles, 1967, 1987

In addition to brain-teasing puzzles, artist Charles. O. Perry is known for his large-scale sculptures commissioned for public spaces all over the world.

Anna Rabinowitz Amethyst and wood Afora tic tac toe

Anna Rabinowitz Afora Amethyst and Wood Tic Tac Toe, New

With amethyst markers and a reclaimed-wood grid, the simplest of games becomes a high-style objet d’art in the hands of Anna Rabinowitz of ANNA New York.

Sterling silver and wood Horseshoe toss game set, circa 1996

Silver Horseshoe-Toss Set, 1996

Try for ringers with these gleaming sterling-silver shoes, crafted by the English silversmith Wakely & Wheeler, and feel your stress dissolve as your aim improves.

Italian bingo pinball machine, ca. 1980s

Bingo Pinball Machine, 1980s

You’ll be a Pinball (and bingo) Wizard in no time when you practice your moves on this fully functional Italian machine.

Acrylic Connect Four game

Acrylic Connect Four, 2019

Hone your strategic skills playing this zero-sum game, or treat the minimalist white board with its blue chips as an interactive tabletop sculpture.

Au Départ Games Trunk

Au Départ Games Trunk, New

Luxury Parisian trunk maker Au Départ evokes 19th-century romance in this sleek piece, which also holds the gear for hours of board-game fun, including Monopoly and Risk.

Traveling marble solitaire game, ca. 19th century

Victorian Marble Solitaire Game, ca. 1870

Amuse yourself in royal fashion with this antique version of a game that entertained King Louis XIV of France and inspired famed mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Roma Manikhin for Normann Copenhagen x Brask Art Collection Playing Cards

Roma Manikhin for Normann Copenhagen x Brask Art Collection Playing Cards, New

Moscow-based artist Roma Manikhin’s full deck of saucy burlesque performers will spice up your game, be it blackjack or Go Fish.

Ado Ko Verzuu Puzzle Box

Ado Ko Verzuu Puzzle Box Model No. 259, 1939

Solving puzzles is a stylish pastime with this box by Ko Verzuu. Verzuu, whose designs have been exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, developed colorful, diverting and collectible De Stijl–style toys for the Netherlands-based company ADO between 1925 and 1962.

Table Top Pinball Game Board Collection

Tabletop Pinball Collection, 1920–40

With themes ranging from soccer to cartoon animals, these six tabletop pinball games will beguile the entire family.

MahJong game set in cabinet box, circa early 20th century

Mahjong Set, N.Y.K. Ocean Liner Edition, early 20th Century

This deluxe boxed mahjong set, salvaged from one of Nippon Yusen Kaisha’s luxurious ocean liners, still has its original game tiles, made from cow bone and bamboo. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to play — the instruction booklet survived, too!

Blatt Billiards handcrafted marble pool table

Blatt Billiards Table in Marble

Blatt Billiards sourced the stone for this striking table from the same Tuscan quarry that supplied Michelangelo with the marble for his David.

François Linke parquetry inlaid games table, 1890

François Linke Parquetry-Inlaid Games Table, ca. 1890

Crafted by François Linke, arguably the most important fin de siècle Parisian cabinetmaker, this extendable table accommodates myriad games and tucks away for easy and elegant storage.

Blackjack table, circa 1940s

Mahogany Blackjack Table, 1940s

With its original 1940s cardholder and beautifully rendered lion’s-paw feet, this mahogany blackjack table is a natural winner.

Gold and tempered glass chess set

Gold and Tempered-Glass Chess Set, 2015

Yellow- and white-gold troll, dwarf and centaur pieces make this luxe set a chess master’s fantasy.

Guy Yanai’s Painting Practice Was Made for This Moment

Karen Chernick Apr 13, 2020

Gilboa Plant
Guy Yanai Gilboa Plant, 2020 Flatland Gallery
Portrait of Guy Yanai by Jonas Opperskalski. Courtesy of the artist.
Portrait of Guy Yanai by Jonas Opperskalski. Courtesy of the artist.

Guy Yanai checked into a Club Med in the French Alps, and quickly discovered it was not what he expected. The hotel was an outdated ski lodge without any snow. “It was this horrible vacation,” the fortysomething artist said of his family trip there, a few years back. Still, he wanted to paint the drab resort—maybe so he could get a do-over of his vacation, this time in colorful and glorious surroundings.But once Yanai flew home to Tel Aviv, none of his snapshots were quite right. He kept searching for a good image until, finally, he found one on a completely generic source: TripAdvisor. “They had all these pictures, so I combined a few and I made this painting,” Yanai said of Club Med Serre Chevalier (2017), the first artwork for which he ever used the popular tourism website. “I really like this painting.”

View of Guy Yanai’s studio in February 2019. Photo by Elad Sarig. Courtesy of the artist.
View of Guy Yanai’s studio in February 2019. Photo by Elad Sarig. Courtesy of the artist.

After finding decent TripAdvisor photos of that Club Med, Yanai transferred a remixed version to a large-scale canvas with his usual Mediterranean palette of bright greens, pinks, and aquas. His signature brushstrokes—long strips that leave behind sculptural traces of excess paint, like grout between mosaic tiles or the lines of a woven textile—outline the hotel buildings, mountains, and cloudless sky.

This first experiment in googling potential muses proved to Yanai that he could paint absolutely anything—even from his ground-floor studio in a rough neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, sometimes without seeing the real-life original, and far removed from the major art hubs where he mostly exhibits his work.

“Then I was like, wow, you can do anything,” he said of the surprising sources he now regularly uses for his paintings, which lean toward stylish interiors, sailboats, lush potted plants, and open windows overlooking a landscape. “I’ll use anything I can to make a great painting, I don’t care what it is. I’ll use this water bottle, I’ll use Instagram, I’ll use any tool I can that’s available to me.”

Guy YanaiYELLOW BOAT, 2018
Guy YanaiHotel, 2018

He’s turned to TripAdvisor, Google Street View, and other image-heavy websites countless times since the Club Med epiphany, making them a regular part of his artistic practice. They’re especially handy tools now, when he’s limited to an irregular combination of his home and studio (along with many other artists worldwide). It’s as if Yanai has been practicing being a quarantined landscape painter for years.

“I have everything I need right here,” Yanai told me in his studio last month, surrounded by bookshelves stacked with hardcovers on Henri MatisseDavid Hockney, and Cy Twombly; a computer with a large-screen monitor; a café-worthy espresso machine; and printouts tacked to the walls. Speakers drowned out the street noise, with jazz music that sounded like a vintage film score. “I have this kind of self-sufficiency,” he said. “And now it’s even more valuable.”

Living Room
Guy YanaiLiving Room, 2020
Miles McEnery Gallery

His visual tools are both ubiquitous and obscure, seemingly random but also all somehow personal. Yanai has used the New York Times, Vitra furniture catalogs, Peanuts comic strips, his iPhone photos, and classic films like Claire’s Knee (1970), directed by Eric Rohmer. “I’ve done so many paintings from this movie,” he said, showing me a reproduction of Lake Annecy (2019), which he painted from a still photo last year. “And honestly, I could do the whole rest of my life just painting from this movie.”

Once Yanai chooses a source image, he hangs it up on his studio wall, where he works on four or five canvases at a time. At the time of my visit, the paint-speckled wall was studded with a photo he took of a single banana, a 1950s Israeli kibbutz interior with chic midcentury modern furniture, an Alex Katz painting of trees, and some photos from his (more enjoyable) family vacation to Sicily last summer. The images aren’t connected beyond the fact that they spark a memory or response for him—one of Yanai’s guiding principles when he surfs the web looking for something to paint.

Old Banana
Guy YanaiOld Banana, 2019
Miles McEnery Gallery
Window Sicily
Guy YanaiWindow Sicily , 2019

“I’m sure that Matisse would be doing the same thing. Positive. You have all these visual things everywhere,” said Yanai, who sometimes spends nights thinking about what his art-historical heroes would do with internet access. “I think the main thing now is, you’re not an artist, but an editor. The main thing is what to paint. There’s even too much freedom now.”

That freedom extends to where an artist lives, too, in Yanai’s opinion, and is a helpful reminder now during the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many artists find themselves sheltering in a place removed from their usual art activity. Born in northern Israel and raised in the Boston area, Yanai has been based in Tel Aviv for the past two decades and is used to being time zones and international flights apart from his gallerists, exhibition venues, and collectors in New York, Paris, Düsseldorf, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles. In what Yanai paints, and how he shows it, a Wi-Fi connection is key.

Lake Annecy
Guy YanaiLake Annecy, 2019
Miles McEnery Gallery

“Right now, you need three things to be an artist in the world,” Yanai said (being able to go outside is not one of them). “You need to live in a semi-democracy; you need free internet; and you need DHL and FedEx and UPS and air freight shipping. If you have those three things, you can pretty much be anywhere.”

Yanai has had a solo exhibition (at Galerie Conrads in Düsseldorf) and three art fair presentations (at Art BrusselsArt Cologne, and the Dallas Art Fair) postponed due to the pandemic. For the moment, he’s continuing to paint the same way he has for years, just with much more distracting background noise.

Karen Chernick