New Public Art, Author Debra Balken, and more
This week public art installations, “The Herd” and “To Each Era Its Art. To Art, Its Freedom,” by artists Andy Li and Jose Davila. An interview with curator and author Debra Balken about the work of abstract painter Arthur Dove. Another look at the Monet exhibit at the MFA, and Reno artist Susan Handau.
>> I wanted everyone to read these and be like,
"I can do this today."
>> I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
tracking art in the wild.
Or at least outdoors in downtown Boston.
Then a curator's quest to document all of the work
of one of the 20th century's great,
but lesser known, painters.
>> He was the first American to produce an abstract painting.
>> BOWEN: Plus the magic of Monet.
>> There's something that can be so transportative
about Monet's beautiful vision of nature
and willingness to see variety and splendor in the mundane.
>> BOWEN: And an artist's abstract notions.
>> You can't really say, "Well, that's a, a tree."
You kind of say, "Oh it almost looks like this,
but no, it's not."
>> BOWEN: It's all now on Open Studio.
First up, from art that lifts our spirits
to sculpture that invites play,
we head outdoors to two new public art installations
in downtown Boston.
With the arrival of the Lunar New Year,
and according to the Chinese zodiac,
we have just entered the Year of the Ox.
>> They're very hard workers, they're diligent, um,
they're honest, and they don't like to be,
um, praised for what they are, but more for what they do
and what they can create.
>> BOWEN: With banners of green and yellow
that suggest bountiful crops,
artist Andy Li has just completed this installation
titledThe Herd on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Since 2015, artists have populated this stretch
of the park just outside Chinatown
with Zodiac-based artwork--
a year-to-year menagerie of sheep,
pigs, and a neon mouse.
What's the experience you want people to have?
>> I just want some calmness, you know,
a moment to just relax,
especially after such a crazy year.
We need some peace, right?
>> BOWEN: And so by the time you walk out, you feel better.
>> Yeah, you know, you feel like
even if you don't read anything, if you don't see anything,
you have this experience where you just...
it's kind of tranquility in this moment.
>> BOWEN: Yes, here, the ox is rendered in writing--
no tails or horns in sight.
A fiber artist, Li's work has always been spelled out in text.
>> It kind of lets you create your own scene, you know,
like how a painter will paint a scene
or a photographer will capture a moment.
I like to use words that you can attach
your own emotional and experiences with.
>> BOWEN: And he hopes they'll be encouraging ones.
His work often musters a can-do spirit.
That's translated here in Li's banners,
which kind of make the artist
a proprietor of positivity even in a pandemic.
Unfurled by the wind, the works reveal messages
like "Don't stop because you failed once,"
or "Keep doing what you do."
>> I think it's a very strong motivator.
I wanted everyone to read these and be like,
"I can do this today," or, "If I don't do it today,
I'm going to start tomorrow and I'm going to make sure
I start tomorrow," you know? (laughs)
>> That's how I grew up,
is going and looking at big pieces of art.
>> BOWEN: Travel up the Greenway
and in front of the New England Aquarium,
you'll find 21 large concrete blocks
giving a burnt orange jolt to a weary winter landscape.
>> It warms us,
even though it might not be physically warm right now.
>> BOWEN: Kate Gilbert is the Executive Director
of Now + There,
an organization which curates public art around the city.
It commissioned this installation by Mexican artist
Jose Dávila in which the blocks sport river boulders
balanced just so.
Can you tell me why I'm so fascinated
by the fact that this is so precarious?
>> Because it's a human instinct to, like, pick something up,
you don't want things to fall,
you don't want people to get hurt.
Yeah, it's-- it's acting, it wants you to care for it
in a weird way.
>> BOWEN: The piece is titled
To Each Era its Art, to Art, its Freedom,
inspired by a group of Viennese artists
at the turn of the 20th century
who broke through traditional hierarchies
to push art into the world.
Dávila operates from a similar M.O., Gilbert says.
In places like Guadalajara
and Havana, he's used stone to alter the landscape.
In Los Angeles, the artist installed a giant cube
that was then dismantled and dispersed,
only to be reassembled with a new history.
>> His intention is to slow us down, make us pause,
and think differently about
how we're using public space right now.
>> BOWEN: I spoke with the artist for GBH Radio
on a rainy day in November
just after he'd finished the installation.
>> It's trying to add an experience to the place,
not only as an object and then have people remind
or have a memory about it.
>> BOWEN: Including playing with it.
Gilbert is as adamant as the artist
that there is nothing precious about the work,
especially in a pandemic.
>> The role of art today, um,
is to break us out of our usual habits.
I think public art can invite us to come outside
and go to someplace we haven't before.
You can come, you can see it, you know,
kick it around and move on.
>> BOWEN: And even though this piece was conceived,
constructed, and installed completely independent
of Andy Li'sThe Herd, Gilbert says they are related.
I think Andy's work says it's okay to fail
and this work says it's okay to experiment.
So I think they are definitely talking, uh, to each other
in ways that are extremely different.
His as a, you know, fabric moving,
very much dictated by wind.
And this one very solid,
but also dictated by how people engage with it.
>> BOWEN: Next, curator Debra Bricker Balken
has just published a catalogue raisonné,
a book that documents all of an artist's known work,
of painter Arthur Dove.
Despite the ground he broke,
despite the friends he kept, like Georgia O'Keeffe,
Dove isn't very well known.
Balken wants to change that.
Deborah Balken, thank you so much for being here
at our socially distanced studio, we appreciate it.
>> I'm glad to be here.
>> BOWEN: So full disclosure,
I'm a huge fan of Arthur Dove, as are you, of course.
You are because you have just completed this wonderful book.
But let me ask you to start, what drew you to--
drew you to him? >> He was a member
of Alfred Stieglitz's circle
in the early 20th century, and in 2009,
I assembled a show that paired Dove and Georgia O'Keefe
for the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
And during that project in particular,
I was using a very old catalogue raisonné of Dove's work.
And I thought, my goodness,
America's foremost abstract painter
of the early 20th century
deserves a better book than this.
And that's how it got launched.
>> BOWEN: Well, let's talk about that.
What was he doing in art
that no one else was doing at the time,
that he doesn't seem to also get the credit for?
>> He was the first American to produce an abstract painting
as early as 1910, 1911.
There were other figures in Europe
who were also pursuing similar territory.
But Dove was the first in this country.
>> BOWEN: And what drove him to that?
I mean, he had to-- he had to break out of
what was happening here in America.
I know he'd been to Europe,
but where did the conviction come from to push forward?
>> Well, it's interesting because Dove spends a year
or more in France from 1908 to 1909.
And while he's there, he has invitations
to visit Gertrude Stein and attend her various salons,
but he never goes.
He does become, however, a member of an expat community
of Americans that included figures like Max Weber,
Patrick Henry Bruce, Jo Davidson,
and most importantly, Alfred Maurer, who will become
a lifelong friend.
Dove exhibits no interest in the current state of painting
in France at the time.
Cubism, you know, by the time he has got there,
has already been widely exhibited.
But he reveals no interest in these very modern movements
until he comes back to New York after his trip.
And Mauer introduces him to Alfred Stieglitz,
who is the foremost gallerist in New York.
Stieglitz is also a renowned photographer.
And I believe it's through his conversations
with Alfred Stieglitz that relate to the state of, um...
of modern art, that Dove makes this very,
very bold, unprecedented leap into abstracting forms.
>> BOWEN: Well, Georgia O'Keeffe was part of that circle.
>> She was part of that circle.
>> BOWEN: And you can find similarities in how they create.
How similar are they?
>> Well, O'Keeffe arrives on the scene a little bit later.
She actually has the last show of Alfred Stieglitz's gallery,
his 291 gallery, which is named for 291 Madison Avenue.
And it's actually...
Dove was somebody that interested O'Keeffe deeply.
She saw a reproduction of one of his pastels in a book
that was produced by Arthur Jerome Eddy,
who was a collector from Chicago.
She wanders into the 291 gallery,
and she finds Stieglitz and shortly thereafter,
their romance begins. (laughs)
>> BOWEN: Well, Dove... what I find so fascinating,
as you cover in this book as well,
is how attuned he was to nature. >> Yes.
>> BOWEN: I mean, how much did that inform what he created?
Did it inform everything?
>> It informed everything, actually.
So part of the reason I don't think that Dove, you know,
was attuned to the developments that were being made
with abstract painting in France while he was there
is because his own work was deeply preoccupied with nature--
it was nature-based.
When Dove comes back from France,
he goes home to Geneva, New York,
in the Finger Lakes region.
He spends a lot of time camping out in the woods,
just assessing his trip abroad,
what he gleaned from his experience in Paris and France,
and he begins to look and examine the ways in which,
you know, color, you know, permeate the natural world.
He will, you know, decipher the bark from trees.
He will look at flora and fauna.
And he declares himself to nature as of that point.
>> BOWEN: So there's nature
and then where... how much does emotion come into play?
>> Emotion is, is a large part of Dove's work,
I mean his work, and this is what he and Stieglitz will use
to describe the distinguishing factors between his work
and other figures associated with Stieglitz,
like John Marin and Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe,
is that it is intuitively based, it's drawn--
it draws on his-his instincts.
And from there we get to his subjectivity
or to his emotional life.
>> BOWEN: Is it true that he painted on roller skates?
>> No. (laughs)
I'm afraid that's a myth. (laughs)
>> BOWEN: So... was he doing it for the purity?
Was he... because he didn't have a great deal of fame
when he was alive. >> Right.
>> BOWEN: He didn't keep himself in that tight New York circle
by being in the city. >> Right.
>> BOWEN: So what did the work represent to him?
>> It was, um...
it was a pure project for Dove, as it was for his peers.
He knew that there was no material gain,
that there was no market for abstract painting
in particular in the decades of the teens, '20s, and '30s.
The market for American art isn't really going to pick up
until actually, you know, the late '50s, early 1960s.
This is-- this was a perennial problem,
was selling one's painting.
>> BOWEN: Well, as you mentioned at the onset of the interview,
here is the man who really made the first foray
into abstract works.
And yet we find that so many people
still don't know who he is-- why is that?
How did he get so lost?
>> I think because unlike Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin,
it was very difficult for Alfred Stieglitz
to sell Dove's painting.
Abstraction was a new prospect in painting
during the decades of the '10s, and '20s, and '30s.
There wasn't an audience for the work,
but that-that didn't mean that Stieglitz
would give up on Dove, he remained devoted to him
until they both died
within three months of each other in 1946.
So again, there were very, very few buyers for Dove's work.
With the exception of Duncan Phillips,
who founded the Phillips Collection in Washington,
he acquired over 43 paintings during Dove's lifetime.
>> BOWEN: So he doesn't get his due at the time,
but what becomes his legacy in terms of what he did?
>> Well, you know, the very radical nature of his work
will be felt again in the mid century after his death
with the rise of movements like abstract expressionism
or as the New York school, as it's sometimes called.
>> BOWEN: What do you hope will come from this?
>> I do hope that there is
renewed interest in Dove and in the early 20th century
for American art, which, you know,
for the most part still remains somewhat overshadowed
by European developments, by the rise of cubism,
by figures like Picasso, and Braque, and Gris and others.
>> BOWEN: Well, it is such a pleasure
to speak with you again.
We last talked to you from
the fabulous Mark Tobey show you did.
Such great work.
>> Thank you.
>> BOWEN: And I really appreciate you having you here.
>> Thank you.
>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week,
where the hills are alive and it's time to take a hike.
For inspiration during COVID, visit Cape Ann Museum's
CAM (Re)Connects, Sunday.
It features images of historic moments
Americans have overcome in the past.
>> ♪ The hills are alive with the sound of music ♪
>> BOWEN: Tuesday marks the 56th anniversary of the release
ofThe Sound of Music,
starring then 35-year-old actor Christopher Plummer,
who passed away this month.
>> As I sound your signals you will step forward
and give your names.
>> BOWEN: He later cheekily deemed it S&M.
But the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Feeling the weight of the world?
Walk it off.
Wednesday, stroll through
the Armenian Heritage Park's Labyrinth
and Zoom in for a talk on the power and health benefits
Thursday, experience Michelle Samour's depiction
of her Palestinian heritage
inMapping Borders and Boundaries
online at the Fuller Craft Museum.
Her work turns territorial boundaries into abstraction.
When the Museum of Russian Icons re-opens Friday,
stop by to see Alexander Gassel'sPainted Poetry.
His work combines ancient Russian techniques
with more modern imagery from Art Deco onward.
Next, one of the most popular museum exhibitions
of the last few months,
not to mention one of the hardest to get tickets,
is the Museum of Fine Arts' new Monet show
spanning his earliest efforts
to his late-in-life experimentations.
Before the show closes,
we thought we'd revisit our own tour.
There he is on film.
It's 1915 and Claude Monet is talking,
smoking, and painting at home in France.
He's real and regular-- Monet as man, not monument.
But as he fades from view, the legend takes hold.
>> There's something that can be so transportative
about Monet's beautiful vision of nature
and about Monet's willingness
to see variety and splendor in the mundane.
>> BOWEN: Katie Hanson is the curator of
Monet and Boston: Lasting Impression,
a hallmark event of the Museum of Fine Arts'
150th anniversary celebrations.
It puts all of the museum's vast Monet holdings on view.
>> Boston was a great champion for Monet
during the artist's own lifetime.
He knew his works were here.
>> BOWEN: The show moves chronologically,
with the first work coming from a teenaged Monet.
Who is Oscar Monet?
>> (laughing): Oscar Monet is someone who was teased
about his name during his military service.
And so he switched to his second name, Claude,
but we do have one caricature that he drew as a teenager,
and it's signed O. Monet, for Oscar,
because that is how he began his career
both as Oscar and also as a caricaturist.
>> BOWEN: The caricaturist would turn Impressionist
in short order,
after an artist in his hometown
recognized Monet's early talents
and pushed him outdoors to experiment.
>> Try the landscape, try color and the vibrant air.
And Monet was, was open to that kind of exploration.
>> BOWEN: Monet explored his native Normandy,
from villages to harbors.
>> He touches the canvas with the brush
and squiggles it in one gesture
to confidently create the reflection
of the mast of a ship
on the rippling surface of the harbor water.
>> BOWEN: Katie, I love this painting, because you feel like
you can feel that little bit of heat
that might be coming through with the sun.
>> I love about this particular painting
that it's really about Monet and where he lives.
I mean, he's living in this house.
He's renting this house with the green shutters.
And so, you know that he saw
this kind of commuting happen daily,
and that he saw art in it.
He saw beauty.
>> BOWEN: As he did wherever he went,
especially along the coast, where he filled his palette
to meet the explosions of color in nature.
Eventually, Monet settled in Giverny,
where he could make hay, or haystacks,
of his lush environment.
And where he'd be the stalwart of Impressionism.
>> You more and more see artists
creating their own sensibility, their own touch.
>> BOWEN: All the while, Boston collectors wrote him,
visited him, and purchased works,
for which Monet signed his own receipts.
The painter John Singer Sargent
was both an admirer and a conduit to Boston patrons.
>> Sargent painted Monet painting one of the pictures
that's in the MFA's collection,
The Meadow at Giverny.
And there is a letter in the exhibition
that Sargent wrote to Monet, and he's saying it was,
it was a pleasant afternoon,
despite the Bostonian air of the ladies who came.
>> BOWEN: This dramatically lit gallery is lined with
later-in-life works in which
Monet vigorously tackled the same subjects
or views with multiple impressions:
cathedrals, coastlines, and, yes, water lilies.
Katie Hanson has titled this space "Monet's Magic."
>> In 1911, the MFA hosted
its first solo show for Monet,
here at this location.
And one of the critics writing for a Boston newspaper
was completely awestruck
and talked about the magic moment,
being surrounded by all the colors in a rainbow of dreams.
>> BOWEN: His process wasn't always dreamlike.
Here on the French Riviera,
where Monet had vacationed with his friend Renoir,
he met his match in the blazing light.
>> One of the things that he says when he's on the Riviera
is that he had to joust and fight with the sun.
>> BOWEN: Monet relished challenges,
and for it, his paintings evolved.
Ultimately, he would make a splash
with his water lilies, depictions of the gardens
on his own property-- places he saw every day,
but to Monet, never stayed the same.
>> A critic for theGazette des Beaux-Arts, Roger Marx,
in 1909, when those paintings were first shown,
he says, "No more earth, no more sky, no limits now."
For Monet, there were no limits to the canvas.
He continued to be curious.
He continued to look at the world around him
in new and invigorating ways.
>> BOWEN: We move to Reno, Nevada, now
where abstract artist Susan Kay Handau has both
a body of work and process that's layered.
>> My name is Susan Handau and I'm an abstract artist.
I work in mixed media.
I do acrylic, oil, sometimes wax.
I put chips in, mix it with glue for texture.
And sometimes I cut up paintings and sew them back together.
I do color blocking.
It's just blocks of color that are scratched away.
It's an organic kind of shape.
It's not like a square anymore.
I've been chipping away at it, scratching away at it.
And then I'll do the border or the background
in a neutral color.
I can't really say, "Well, that's a tree
or something or that's even like a box or something."
You kind of say, "Oh, it almost looks like this,
but no, it's not."
When I start a painting,
all I know is that I'm going to do color blocking.
And really I do a layer of colors upon colors.
And then I put the gypsum and I call it mud.
You know, it's not really mud,
but I just put the mud down there to build
the texture up.
And then you can see
that it cracks a lot.
It dries and then I start putting different color on there
and push the color around in the cracks.
Then I'll paint another color over top of it,
and then the one color will stay in the crack.
And then I really scrape it.
I start scraping and marking
and that's where the fun comes in.
Because then you get different layers
that pop out.
So that's my canvases.
So, with my paper, that's a whole different story.
With my paper,
I'll put a little texture on there,
and then I'll do the same kind of thing with the paint,
the color blocking.
And then when I get it just so,
just how I like it, then I cut it up.
I actually cut the paper
and then I sew it onto another piece of paper.
And then I'll just see how it goes.
And I don't really ever have anything planned.
Color to me is pretty important.
When I'm mixing colors to find an unusual color,
bizarre color combinations,
or ones that really you don't expect to see together.
And then, of course, shape.
I really like to cut away at an image to make it
really more organic.
If it's not right in my mind, I can't show it.
Just keep working on it until it's right for me.
Even then, after a show, if a painting
doesn't feel right, I'll change it.
I'll paint over it.
I've painted over so many paintings.
This one here behind me, that's like a...
There might be two or three paintings under that one.
I really like beautiful things.
That's like my goal is to, for myself to really like it,
then I'm so proud of it because I love it so much.
When somebody buys my painting, I'm like,
"Oh my gosh, they... they feel the same way I feel."
It's not the money thing,
it's the fact that, wow,
somebody really likes what I like.
That's what makes me feel good.
It's always been that way.
>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
We are off for the next couple of weeks.
But, as always, you can catch my latest art news and reviews
on the radio--
every Thursday onMorning Edition with Joe Mathieu
and regularly on Boston Public Radio.
That's all on 89.7 GBH, Boston's local NPR.
We'll be back soon.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
As always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,
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