Exhibit Review: “The Artist’s Hand: American Works on Paper 1945-1975”
Happy primary colored splashes of gouache paint drip and spread on white wove paper. Irregular patterns of soothing periwinkle - dark blue pigment that dried and lost its intensity - branch across the white surface, while shocks of red and yellow sustain the piece’s vitality. But most of the paper remains white space. All the colors are really pulsing, intermingling, and fading in a void. There is play between space and light and contrast and chaos, hence the piece’s all-embracing title, Composition.
Composition (1956) by abstract expressionist Sam Francis is only one of ninety-seven works from “The Artist’s Hand: American Works on Paper 1945-1975,” hosted by the Museum of Art/WSU. On loan from the Washington Art Consortium, a pioneer organization comprised of seven art institutions in the state, of which the Museum of Art/WSU is a member, the comprehensive exhibit showcases work from significant movements and forty-eight seminal artists during the transformative period after World War II. A sampling of the modern art styles includes abstract impressionism, pop art, collage, realism, and geometric abstraction, and artists Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Alfred Leslie, and Frank Stella. The exhibit boasts a collection to please almost any visual palate.
When preparing for the exhibit, consider this telling line from the brochure: “Today, the range and quality of works would be all but impossible to duplicate.” Not only do innovators in each genre have creations in the exhibit, many of the pieces are difficult to view online and read about. Modern art lovers may cherish the obscurity. For the general public, this presents a special opportunity to experience big name artists and gain insight into their thought process. Courtesy copies of the artists’ bios are available for borrowing at the front desk.
I could not conceive of a better way to organize this exhibit. In addition to the white walls that enclose the spacious gallery, five standalone wall segments form a corridor down the center, luring the visitor straight to the back. Terminating the corridor are the ten nearly-identical, brightly colored silkscreens of Andy Warhol’s Chairman Mao (1973). Reproductions of it appear in all promotions for the exhibit, but the physical placement clearly confirms it to be the featured work. If one considers Warhol’s immense fame and influence in defining American consumer culture, then Chairman Mao can come off as a mere trophy piece. However, the placement is smart for two reasons. First, it makes organizational sense. On one side of Chairman Mao are the abstract compositions and on the other, representations of the human form, with the silkscreen series serving as the transition between both. Second, the piece exemplifies a number of the exhibit’s themes. It is one of several transition pieces and one of several series. Furthermore, works of the same focus hang together to facilitate comparison of their similarities and differences, emulating Warhol’s serial imagery. I grouped the exhibit into human form/realism, brushstrokes, geometry, abstract blocks of color, and collage. Yet, the entire gallery is visible from any vantage point on the floor, suggesting that differences between the works are arbitrary compared to their impact as a whole.
Before I delve into the exhibit’s overarching morals, I want to exemplify how its components relate to each other. One of my favorite pieces was a penciled nude in the style of figurative realism, titled Laura Kaye (1966). The artist, Alfred Leslie, drew it while suffering from major losses in his personal life. According to the courtesy bio, “the uncharacteristic simplicity of Laura Kaye suggests a voluntary detachment from his work.” The drawing consists of a full frontal view of Laura’s voluptuous torso, but she averts her gaze, allowing the viewer to examine her body with less awkwardness. Her undefined hair and left arm grant a sense of mystery and the impression that she is materializing from nothing. The meticulous detailing and shading in Laura’s face, which is small in proportion to her body, compete for attention. She is beautiful. Still, Laura’s off-center stare, expressionless mouth, and missing body parts suggest that she is not completely present, perhaps like Alfred Leslie during his time of hardship; it is ambiguous whether Laura feels ashamed at or resigned to being exposed. Incomplete erasures show the artist’s attempts to perfect the curve of Laura’s waist, a nod to the fact that even when an aesthetic is achieved, past ugliness cannot be forgotten. Her “simplicity” embodies a wholesome sexuality contrasting with the other well-executed female nudes, Philip Pearlstein’s Female Model on Ladder (1976), an anonymous model in a sensuous, twisting pose, and Claes Oldenburg’s Lying Woman with Legs Apart, Reflections and Echoes (1967), a passionate, erratic fantasy formed around a birthing woman. The human form/realism pieces alone are worth the trip. One honorable mention is the transition between the human form and brushstroke sections, Corpse and Mirror (1976) by Jasper Johns, which makes use of cleverly placed red, blue, and yellow crosshatch marks to create the illusion of a body.
I then recommend wandering to the other side of Chairman Mao and pondering Robert Morris’s Blind Time XIX (1973), an explosion on paper created by smearing graphite with his fingers, under the conditions of a time limit and blindness. Besides being an optimistic sign for the uncoordinated wishing to penetrate the artworld, Blind Time XIX’s success challenges the traditional process of artmaking.
As with any art exhibit, some works simply did not appeal to me. The Pure Polygon Series (1976) by Walter De Maria is the inversion of Chairman Mao: bland and typical. It consists of six pencil drawings from a portfolio of seven. At one yard away, the large square frames look blank and even with my nose pressed to the glass, I barely recognized the polygons. Maybe the technique communicates that shapes have an infinite property and we bring them into an “impure” visible existence, but this is reading profundity into something practically invisible and entirely dependent on the placard for meaning. The same message could be communicated in a more purposeful and unique way not easily replicated with a protractor, ruler, and a light hand. Compared to De Maria’s striking geometric sculptures that brought him to fame, The Pure Polygon Series feels like a sketch or concept piece better fit for a biographical museum, not an art museum. I would also pass on the extremely minimalistic Untitled (1965) by Agnes Martin, which is uncanny to grid paper traced over in pencil. However, other works, such as Gray Instrumentation (1974) by Josef Albers, contain similar geometric and casual elements that I did appreciate, possibly deeming my distinctions frivolous by geometric abstraction and Minimalism admirers. Fortunately, they will find that the exhibit selection is weighted towards their taste.
“ The Artist’s Hand” is a perfect title for an exhibit that challenges the notion of classifying art and knowing the artist. When is a work of art finished? Is a sketch – or something that looks like one - considered art or artifact? Also, to what extent does the ethos of a work depend on the media? Consider graphite and crayon versus ink and paint versus collage. Namely, we associate pencil and crayon with drafting and elementary school. Excellent graphite-on-paper pieces like Laura Kaye and Blind Time XIX, when compared to Composition, are demoted to coarse sketches. If De Maria had translated The Pure Polygon Series into sculpture, or had Martin traced over her grid with a fine paintbrush, would I have liked them better? Nearly all the creations in the exhibit share this quality of unabashed rawness, even Chairman Mao. One does not have to agree such creations belong in an art museum, only that they are beautiful, to find this exhibit worth viewing. Finally, knowing that Michelangelo, a perfectionist, destroyed a large number of his drawings before he died to conceal how much preparation went into his work, does revealing the thought process and mistakes of a “great artist” increase depreciation or appreciation?
Only after considering the entire exhibit and how the compositions support each other, it appears that artists during the period recognized two ideas. Art is a process, and the artist’s hand is an imperfect and wondrous tool. These morals underlie every genre, every subject, every media, and every work of art.
“The Artist’s Hand” runs through December 15 at the Museum of Art/WSU, located in the Fine Arts Center on the WSU Campus, on Wilson Road across from Martin Stadium.
By Joanne Magtibay
Graduation: May 2016
Intended major: Computer Science
Real art resides above the mundane. It belongs on ceilings, walls and pedestals, under preservation and in frames. It feels finished and purposeful. It showcases beauty that we take for granted. It teaches. With a philosophy like mine, seriously considering “The Artist’s Hand” exhibit, with its abundance of sketches and abstract art, was a challenge. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the exhibit as much as ascertaining why. I don’t believe in nor desire to read neutral art reviews, so I didn’t write one. Hence, this review is in the first person, and as a reflection of my now-muddled philosophy on real art, the conclusion poses more questions than answers.