Wednesday, November 30, 2016

1912-2004: Agnes Martin, American

Agnes Martin was an important American abstract painter from the 1950s through the end of century. She developed a new form of abstraction that combined certain principles of Minimalism with the basic motivation of Expressionism. Her paintings used pale horizontal stripes and delicate grids to generate peaceful and happy moods associated with nature and meditation.

According to a critic for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl Agnes synthesized the essences of two world-changing movements—Abstract Expressionism and minimalism in her grids. Her response to a life tortured by schizophrenia was to derive a philosophy, amounting almost to a gospel, of happiness. There is nothing cuddly about Martin, but there is joy.

Background: Agnes was born in Saskatchewan, the third of 4 children. Agnes's father died when she was 3, and her mother moved the children to life with her widowed father a few hours away. When Agnes was 7, the family moved to Vancouver, where her mother supported the family by buying, renovating, and reselling houses. As an adolescent, during the early days of the Depression, Martin moved to Bellingham, WA, to help care for a pregnant sister. Although she spent the rest of her life in the States, she didn't become a naturalized citizen until 1952, when she was 40.

Training: Agnes didn't have the idea of being an artist when she was young. Instead, she trained to be a teacher at a college in Bellingham, and she taught in various public schools in Washington.

At the age of 29, in 1941, she attended Columbia University's Teachers College, where she studied arts and arts education. About this time she decided to be an artist herself.

In 1946 she began studying art at the University of New Mexico, and returned to Columbia in 1951 to earn a master's degree in fine-arts education. She also began to study Zen Buddhism.

Career: After finishing her masters, Agnes spent a few years doing odd jobs in New York while painting portraits and landscapes. Later she moved on to abstract paintings of organic forms. These works received attention as part of the minimalist movement. She spent about 10 years trying various styles and techniques. Eventually her thinking led her to produce images based on small-celled grids.

When she was about 55, Agnes began having psychotic episodes resulting in several hospital stays. She left New York, and after a year's roaming about the U.S., settled in New Mexico. For the next few years she devoted most of her energy to building her own primitive dwelling, first in one location and then in another.

When she was satisfied with her house, Agnes felt truly at home in New Mexico, and in 1971, when she was 59, she embarked on two highly-productive decades in which she created her most important work. She isolated herself from social interaction, practiced a meditative life-style, and devoted herself completely to making art that was serene and joyous.

Her new work moved on from the grid to horizontal bands and lines, rendered in pale colors and delicate graphite. She felt that a horizontal line expressed perfection and harmony, and her horizontally banded paintings evoke the flat, warm earth, the jewel-blue sky, and the benign sunshine of New Mexico.

For the rest of her life, Agnes showed in one exhibit after another, sales increased, and her work received increasing critical regard.

Private life: As a child, Agnes believed that her mother hated her and that she liked seeing people hurt.

As an adult, Agnes tended to be solitary. During the years when she was getting her education, she moved back and forth between New York and New Mexico, and worked odd jobs to support herself, which kept her from forming long-term relationships.

In the late 1950s her dealer got her to settle in an artists' neighborhood in lower Manhattan, which was the home of several gay and lesbian artists. She felt comfortable in this liberal environment, and she was known to have lesbian relationships with a textile artist and a sculptor. However, when she was in her 50s, Agnes began to have psychotic episodes that included auditory hallucinations and catatonic trances, and she was hospitalized repeatedly, even receiving shock therapy. Her illness made her even more committed to solitude.

In 1967, having lost the lease on her studio in New York and received a grant large enough to buy a truck and airstream trailer, she ditched her possessions and left New York for an extended road trip. After 18 months of roaming, she settled in a small town in New Mexico in 1968. For a few years she was occupied with building her own dwelling, moving, and building another dwelling.

Her years in New Mexico were marked by a profound withdrawal from worldly things, a life of renunciation and restriction that often sounds punishingly masochistic, though Martin insisted the intention was spiritual, an ongoing war against the sin of pride. The voices were strict in their limitations. She wasn’t allowed to buy records, own a television, or have a dog or cat for company.

Her reclusiveness and her spartan existence contributed to her growing status as the desert mystic of minimalism.

As she aged, Martin became happier and more social, as well as considerably more wealthy. In 1992, she moved into a retirement community in Taos, New Mexico, driving each day to her studio in a spotless white BMW, one of the few extravagances in a life still dedicated to extreme material simplicity. When she died at the age of 92. It was said that she hadn't read a newspaper for 50 years.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz

My photos

Leaf in the Wind, 1963
Norton Simon / Jan's photo, 2017

Night Sea, 1963
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Drift of Summer, 1965
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

The Cliff, 1967
LACMA / Jan's photo, 2017

Untitled #21, 1980
Anderson Collection / Jan's photo

Untitled #6, 1980
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Untitled, 1981
Stedelijk / Jan's photo

Untitled, 1984
Metropolitan / Jan's photo

Untitled #2, 1985
Seattle / Jan's photo, 2017

Untitled #15, 1988
MFA / Jan

Untitled, 1995
Gementemusuem / Jan's photo

Thursday, November 17, 2016

1917-2011: Leonora Carrington, British

An English-born Mexican artist, Leonora Carrington is recognized as an important Surrealist. She lived most of her adult life in Mexico City, and was one of the last surviving participants in the Surrealist movement of the 1930s.

Leonora developed a private visual language that she used to interpret themes of metamorphosis, magic, and whimsy.

Background: Leonora was born into a wealthy Catholic family in England, and grew up on the family estate, where she spent a lot of time riding horses.

Training: Rebellious and disobedient, Leonora was frequently expelled from school and developed an early loathing for the Church. In her late teens she was sent to a boarding school in Florence where she began painting while studying the Italian Renaissance. When Leonora returned to London, her parents permitted her to study at art academies there, and this is how she learned about Surrealism. Feeling suffocated by the rigidity and class prejudices of the English aristocracy, she was attracted to the transformative power of Surrealist aesthetics.

Private life: Leonora met Max Ernst at a party held in London in 1937. She was 20; he was 46. He was already well-connected and famous. He had been married in 1918, fathered a son, and been divorced 1922; for several years he had been part of a ménage à trois. In 1927 he married again. In 1937 he divorced this wife in order to be with Leonora. In 1938, Leonora and Max settled in a small town in southern France, where she bought a small farmhouse. They had a brief idyllic period in which they both made a lot of art. Leonora later said that Max taught her everything about art and literature.

With the outbreak of World War II, Max, who was German, was arrested, first by the French, later by the Germans. He managed to escape and flee to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, who was a sponsor of the arts. Max and Peggy married in New York in 1941. That marriage ended a few years later, but he and Leonora were not able to renew their relationship. In 1946, Max married another surrealist, Dorothea Tanning.

So in late 1939 and early 1940, Leonora, who was just 23 years old, found herself alone for many months in a foreign land at the outbreak of a war. She was paralyzed by anxiety and experienced delusions. Friends helped her to escape to Madrid, but there she suffered a breakdown, and in 1940 she was institutionalized by her family. She was given very intense forms of therapy, including some that have since been banned. When she was released into the care of her nanny, she escaped and sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Lisbon, where she knew a diplomat named Renato Luduc. He came to her aid by marrying her and taking her to New York City.

Before leaving Portugal, Leonora and Renato ran into Max and Peggy at a sidewalk cafe in Lisbon. Max suggested that since they were both in marriages of convenience, they might continue their romantic relationship, but Leonora wasn't having it. When they met the next year in New York City, Max pleaded with her, but to no avail. His casual treatment of Peggy, who had rescued him, had disillusioned Leonora.

In 1942 Leonora and Renato moved to Mexico. In 1943, when she was 26, she met Emeric Weisz, a rather famous Hungarian Jewish photographer. After getting a friendly divorce from Renato, Leonora and Emeric married. Her life calmed into stability and she was able to develop as an artist. Leonora and Emetic had two sons.

She grew close with several other Surrealist then working in Mexico. She knew Frida and Diego, and attended their second wedding.

Career: Leonora devoted herself to her artwork in the 1940s and 1950s, developing an intensely personal Surrealist sensibility that combined autobiographic and occult symbolic.

In her art, her dreamlike, often highly detailed compositions of fantastical creatures in otherworldly settings are based on an intensely personal symbolism. Themes of metamorphosis and magic, as well as frequent whimsy, have given her art an enduring appeal.

Throughout a seven-decade career of prolific creation, the same images have appeared in Carrington's art again and again. Ghosts turn into crows, pigs unfurl wings, armchairs produce arms and women grow birds as limbs.

Leonora's work touches on ideas of sexual identity yet avoids the frequent Surrealist stereotyping of women as objects of male desire. Instead, she drew on her life and friendships to represent women's self-perceptions, the bonds between women of all ages, and female figures within male-dominated environments and histories.

Leonora was honored with her first one-woman exhibition in New York in 1947. She became a celebrity almost overnight. This was followed by solo and group shows around the world throughout the 20th century, and her work has received even more attention in the 21st century.

Most of her paintings are in private collections, which makes seeing them rare.

Leonora was a prolific writer as well as a painter, publishing many articles and short stories, and one highly regarded novel, The Hearing Trumpet, 1976.

She died in Mexico City in 2011 of complications due to pneumonia. She was 94 years old.

My photos of Leonora's work:

Nunscape at Manzanillo, 1954
Dallas / Jan's photo

Dear Diary--Never Since We Left Prague, 1955
Minneapolis / Jan's photo

Dos Personajes, 1965
Crocker / Jan's photo

Internet Examples:

Self-portrait, c. 1938
Metropolitan Museum of Art / Internet

Portrait of Max Ernst, 1939

The Giantess, c. 1947

Evening Conference, 1949

The Lovers, 1987

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

1908-1984: Lee Krasner, American

Lee Krasner was an important American abstract painter in the 1950s and 1960s. She was a pioneer in the synthesis of abstract form and psychological content that was the foundation of Abstract Expressionism. Her finest works combine all-over compositional structures with formal rhythms and subtle color harmonies. Her paintings are technically accomplished, emotionally powerful, and distinctly innovative.

Lee was "rediscovered" by feminist art historians during the 1970s and lived to see a greater recognition of her art and career, which continues to grow to this day. She is one of the few women to be featured in a full retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.

Background: Lee was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants who fled to the U.S. to escape anti-Semitism. She was the 6th of 7 children. She was born Lena Krassner, but changed her name several times, finally settling on Lee—which is gender neutral—and Krasner, with one s.

Lee's parents operated a produce store. Her family lived a traditionally observant Jewish life, and the children attended Hebrew school as a supplement to public education.

Training: From an early age, Krasner knew she wanted to pursue art as a career. She enrolled at Washington Irving High School for Girls because they offered an art major.

Self-portrait, c. 1930, age 22
She went on to the Women's Art School of Cooper Union where she complete the course work for a teaching certificate in art. This was the approved career path at that time. She worked various odd jobs, from factory worker to artist's model, to support herself.

Later she trained at the National Academy of Design, completing her course there in 1932, when she was 24.

At the age of 29, in 1937, after she had been working for several years, she began taking classes from Hans Hofmann; she studied with him until 1940. He emphasized the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane and using color to create spatial illusion. This is when she developed her "all-over" style, covering the surfaces of her paintings with abstract, repetitive designs.

Private life: While she was at the National Academy of Design, Lee fell in love with a dashing fellow student named Igor Pantuhoff. He was a Russian aristocrat who later became a successful society portrait artist. They say he began to style her in glamorous clothing and exotic jewelry. The two lived together for two years, and both worked for the Public Works of Art Project of the federal government. She was devastated by unannounced his departure.

In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a sort of mystique among women of devoting themselves to the support of a great male artist. Several women artists felt a conflict between the desire to nurture their partner's talent and the drive to develop their own careers.

Around 1940, when Lee first started having works in major exhibitions in New York, she met Jackson Pollock, a gifted abstract expressionist painter, 3 years younger than she, whose work was shown in the same exhibits. Lee was fascinated by Jackson's painting style and felt she could learn something from him. At the same time, he was much less sophisticated, having been brought up in rural Arizona and California. He was also less disciplined, and he struggled with alcoholism. It seems likely that she thought she could help him realize his talent.

Lee moved in with Jackson in 1941, and they began to learn from each other. In order to draw Jackson out of the heavy-drinking milieu of New York City, in 1945, Lee persuaded him to move with her to the village of Springs in outskirts of East Hampton, a remote location at the end of Long Island. That year they got married in a small ceremony. They fixed up an old farmhouse and outfitted a studio for each of them. They got into all sorts of domestic activities and entertained friends.

Jackson did manage to stay fairly sober for a number of years and worked on his painting with devotion. Around 1949, he made a major breakthrough and produced canvases that shook the art world. So, in a way, Lee accomplished her mission with Jackson. However, by 1955, he had resumed drinking heavily, and he had a flamboyant extramarital affair with an artist named Ruth Kligman. By 1956, Lee was discouraged, and made a trip to Europe, her first, to consider her options.

While she was gone, Jackson drunkenly plowed his car into a tree, killing himself and a woman passenger, and seriously injuring Ruth Kligman, who survived. Lee returned home. For the rest of her life she promoted Pollock's art and worked to ensure his legacy, while continuing to develop her own work.

By 1962, Lee had established a residence in Manhattan, but continued to spend several months a year in Springs, where she had moved into Pollock's old studio. In 1962, Lee had a brain aneurism that halted her work for a few years.

Lee died at the age of 75 after a period of ill health.

Career: In 1934, a couple of years after she finished her course work at the National Academy of Design, Lee began working for the WPA, a visual arts program sponsored by the government.

She began to exhibit in 1940 with the American Abstract Artists group. Soon after this, her work was shown in an exhibit that included major American artists with major European artists, such as her heroes, Matisse and Picasso.

Lee's career development was somewhat sidetracked by her marriage to an alcoholic artist named Jackson Pollock. During her marriage to Jackson, she took on the duties of promoting and managing his career, to the neglect of her own. She didn't stop painting, but she pushed his work instead of her own.

Pollock also affected her painting style. While her work was carefully controlled and deliberate, his was gestural and expressive. His style was trendier, and she wanted to develop in that direction. This caused her to enter a period of transition in which she didn't produce much work that satisfied her.

However, she made a breakthrough when she was about 38. Between 1946 and 1950, she produced 31 paintings known as the Little Image Series. These are her first all-over abstractions, demonstrating the expressive power of small, intricate lines and gestures. She worked looking down on her canvas, dripping paint to create tight figures in rows and columns. The painting's overlapping skeins of white paint form tightly controlled small units that shimmer on the painting's surface.

In 1951, Lee started her first series of collage paintings. Placing the support on the floor, she would
arrange scraps of old canvases, pinning them in place to determine the composition. She would then paste them down and add color with a brush, if required. It is thought she was inspired by the collages of Matisse's late career.

In the mid-1950s Lee started painting lush, biomorphic compositions of abstract, natural forms. After her husband died in a car wreck, she took over his studio, which enabled her to make very large works. Grand, sweeping gestures and simplified color palettes appeared in her compositions. She worked in this powerful new style for about 6 years. The first series was called Earth Green; it featured a combination of red, green and tan against a white background.

In the 1970s Lee's work took a new direction. She began painting flattened, hard-edged abstractions. Her color palette also simplified, and the paintings feel bright and optimistic.

Our photos of Lee's work:

Composition, 1949
Philadelphia / Jan's photo

Milkweed,  1955
Albright-Knox / Jan's photo, 2012

Desert Moon, 1955
LACMA / Jan's photo, 2017

The Seasons, 1957
Oil and house paint on canvas (93" tall x 204" wide)
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2015

Polar Stampede, 1960
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Cobalt Night, 1962
National Gallery / Jan's photo

Internet examples:

The Sun Woman II, 1958

Night Creatures, 1965
Metropolitan / Internet

Gaea, 1966

Rising Green, 1972
Metropolitan / Internet

Sundial, 1972

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1907-1954: Frida Kahlo, Mexican

Kahlo in 1932, photographed by her father
Guillermo Kahlo
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter whose work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and indigenous traditions, and by feminists for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form. She has become a universally recognized symbol of artistic triumph and feminist struggle.

Pain and illness were the defining factors in Frida's short life. She was born in 1907 in Mexico city to a father who had immigrated from Germany and a mother of mixed Native Mexican and Spanish descent. Her father was a professional photographer and an amateur painter who had experienced serious illness in his own life. Her mother was a devout Catholic, who bore three other daughters. When Frida was six years old, she came down with polio, which caused her to be confined to her home for 9 months and deformed one of her legs. She spent a lot of time with her father, who introduced her to various cultural matters, including art history. Later she studied at a prestigious preparatory school, and also received private drawing instruction.

Frida recovered enough to return to school and to engage in sports, but when she was 18, her school bus collided with a streetcar in a crash that killed several people. Frida's pelvis was impaled by an iron handrail, fracturing the bone, and she also fractured several ribs, her legs, and a collarbone.  Her recovery required 3 months of bedrest, wearing a plaster corset.

Frida's whole life was troubled by these injuries, and she underwent over 30 corrective surgeries. One effect was that she couldn't carry a child full term, despite several attempts. Her attitude about her ordeal was complex, and she seemed to depend on illness and hospitalization as ways to get attention and sympathy. Moreover, when she became an artist, her physical trials became one of her dominant themes.

Frida's private life also included a lot of emotional pain and suffering.  When she was 20, Frida's recovery was sufficient that she was able to socialize and to hold menial jobs. She espoused and promoted all sorts of radical ideas, including Communism. In 1929, at the age of 22, she was introduced to Diego Rivera, who was well-known both as an artist and as a Communist. They were fascinated by one another, and were soon married.

Diego was a fateful choice. On the positive side, he was a genius artist, he was already rich and famous, he appreciated her talent and encouraged her to develop artistically, and he was able to pay her ongoing medical bills. On the negative side, he was 21 years older than she, he was ominously tall and heavy, and he was a self-confessed womanizer. He seems to have been willing to care for Frida and encourage her, but not to be faithful. He continued his affairs, even seducing Frida's younger sister. Frida was distraught by his disloyalty, but she also carried on notorious affairs, with women as well as men. Thus their life was an emotional roller coaster. They even divorced at one point, but they remarried the following year, 1940.

Frida began painting after the bus accident when she was confined to her bed for a couple of years. Her family rigged up a portable easel that she could use in bed. She was well grounded in art history from her preparatory school and her father's influence, and she had had private instruction in drawing, but she had no formal art training. A mirror was attached to her easel so that she could make self-portraits, since she was alone so much, and she also did portraits of friends and relatives.

Rivera was a celebrated muralist, and after their marriage Frida followed him to the US, where he painted some of his best murals. Frida made a point of taking his lunch to him up on the scaffolding every day. By watching Diego paint, she learned the fundamentals of her craft. His imagery recurs in her pictures, along with his palette—the sunbaked colors of pre-Columbian art. She also learned how to tell a story in paint. Her signature style started to emerge. She began to incorporate more graphic and surrealistic elements in her work.

Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

In 1933, when she was 26, Frida and Diego returned to Mexico, and settled in an upscale district of Mexico City in a pair of houses, one for each, connected by a bridge. Despite numerous physical crises and romantic liaisons, she continue to develop as an artist, and she began to achieve recognition in the U.S. when she was 32. Around that time she traveled alone to Europe, where Marcel Duchamp arranged an exhibition of her work that was lauded by all the major artists, and the Louvre purchased a self-portrait, its first work by a 20 C. Mexican artist.

When Frida and Diego divorced, she was determined to achieve financial independence so she painted more than ever before, and she created some of her most enduring and distinctive work. In self-portraits, she pictured herself in native Mexican dress with her hair atop her head in traditional braids. Surrounded by pet monkeys, cats and parrots amid exotic vegetation reminiscent of the paintings of Henri Rousseau, she often wore the large pre-Columbian necklaces given to her by Rivera.

Despite her productivity, Frida's health deteriorated alarmingly. When Diego heard of her condition, he arranged to take care of her. The two remarried a year after the divorce and settled in Mexico City, in the Blue House where she was raised. Frida continued to paint psychological studies of herself using graphic symbolism.

During the last decade of her life, Kahlo endured painful operations on her back, her foot and her leg. She drank heavily—sometimes downing two bottles of cognac a day—and she became addicted to painkillers. In 1953, her right leg had to be amputated below the knee. During this time she painted more still lifes, often with symbolic details. She remained a dedicated leftist, and she painted Marx and Stalin. She accompanied Diego to a political demonstration just days before her death. Her official cause of death was pulmonary embolism, but there were a lot of reasons to suspect suicide, including the fact that her nurse stated that she had taken an overdose of painkillers the night before.

The fact that Frida was able to become an artist at all is awe-inspiring. She was one of the earliest artists to make explicit references to her own life story, thereby opening a whole new world of themes for painters.


Frida painted only about 200 paintings. A revealing chronological survey of 100 of them may be seen here: Frida Kahlo at Wikiart

Self-portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926
Internet grab

Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and the United States, 1932
Internet grab
Frida painting Self-Portrait on the Borderline, 1932

Fulang-Chang and I, 1937
MoMA / Jan's photo

Self-Portrait dedicated to Leon Trotsky, 1937
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Itzicuintli Dog with Me, c. 1938
Dallas / Jan's photo

The Two Fridas, 1939
Internet grab

Me and My Parrots, 1941
Internet grab

Portrait of Natasha Gelman, 1943
Internet grab

Flame Flower, 1943
Internet grab

The Love-Embrace of the Universe, 1949
Internet grab

Viva La Vida, 1954
Internet grab

Kahlo came into the news in 2016 because one of her paintings was recently rediscovered in a home in Sunnyvale, where it hung for 60 years in a dark bedroom. The owner had been an assistant of Frida's, and Diego gave it to her in 1955, one year after Kahlo's death. It was set to be auctioned at Sotheby's Latin American art sale on Nov. 22 and 23. It was estimated to sell for $1.5 to $2 million.

Frida was 22 years old, in 1929, when she painted it. Although its location has been unknown to the art world, its existence was known because a photographer who documented her early work made a photo of it.

Sunnyvale Frida

Self-portrait with Necklace, 1929