The Red Studio: How One Painting Paved the Way for 20th Century Art

The Red Studio

On Wednesday, March 26th at the Graduate Student Lecture Series, Professor Agee shared his research on Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911), a key painting in the development of 20th century art. Its exhibition history in the United States may be well known, but the impact of Matisse’s use of color as a structural and expressive methodology on American artists is under recognized. While cubism’s importance in the move away from illusionism is well documented, color remains a relatively unexplored agent of change in the history of painting. Professor Agee’s explication of The Red Studio mapped out the crucial encounters in which this painting altered how artists understood the function and value of color.

 

When Matisse’s paintings were first exhibited in the United States during the 1913 Armory show, they created an uproar that superseded even objections to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Art students in Chicago burned Matisse in effigy in protest of his “grotesque” figures and expressive use of line and color. Of the paintings exhibited, The Red Studio makes particular use of color, specifically red’s, ability to dominate a space in order to structure the painting. By moving away from color’s mimetic qualities, Matisse portrayed a subjective view of objective reality. Expressing the qualitative and heterogeneous nature of inner experience, he aimed to overcome the homogenizing and deterministic rules of academic painting.

 

The impact of Matisse’s vision on subsequent artists is manifold. In 1949 the painting was gifted to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it inspired  Mark Rothko’s departure from figurative surrealism in favor of Color Field painting. Assumed to be a Greenbergian development, the color field in fact began with Matisse. The dominant use of red appears again and again in work by American artists, from Warhol’s Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963) to Josef Albers Homage to the Square/Red Series, Untitled III (1968) and Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51).

 

Essential to Matisse’s subjective vision are the autobiographical elements in this painting. Completed paintings, ceramics, and a sculpture along with personal items and souvenirs fill the studio, in effect providing a review of his artistic career. Notable artists would follow suit, painting subjective views of their own studios, such as Stuart Davis’s Studio Interior (1917). Davis would continue to paint autobiographical references into his own work, particularly after his revival in the 1950s, spurred by Matisse’s cut out works. Agee suggests Davis’s Little Giant Still Life (Champion) (1950) is a reference to his own artistic comeback. Fourteen years later, Davis painted his last painting Fin (1964), in which with incredible prescience, he painted the word fin (end) as a last addition. It was the ultimate act of self-expression. It was Matisse who pioneered expressive, self-reflective commentary in painting, a development that shaped American art for the next century and beyond.

 

 

by Megan Hines

 

 

 

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The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms

This Spring semester, Professors Jaudon and Pissarro pioneered a new format of Theory and Crit class, in which  MA and MFA students are paired. Working as a team, each pair exhibits, curates, and critiques once during the semester. This is the catalogue essay for Isaac Aden’s exhibition The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms, on view at 205 Hudson Street and curated by Elizabeth Williams and Anna Jimenez.

Isaac Aden’s The Banality of Freedom: Lunch at Walgreens and the Diet of Worms is an immersive grouping of diverse objects compelled to hang together by the demarcated gray gallery space. The grouping resists the traditional notion of exhibition by challenging the objects’ status as art—texts, drawings, neon signs, souvenirs, video, framed vegetables, weapons and models are equalized within a gray and orange aesthetic unity. As Jean-Paul Sartre commented on the poet Francis Ponge’s use of words, they appear strange, as if “after the disappearance of our species, in the hands of other species that look at them as we look at shells on the sand.”[1] Aden’s works, like shells, are formally present but divested of their use, vestiges of the past or perhaps latent with potential for the future. Suspended in a gallery space without context and removed from use, these objects call upon our tendency towards pattern recognition, inciting the desire for a demonstrable connection between an architectural outline of the city of Worms, model drones, a neon Walgreens sign, Army manuals, a calendar, bear traps with a basketball, an Amish quilt, a bulawa (a Ukrainian mace), and a Lutheran Bible, but each eludes standard categorizations. Even more confounding, the objects range from the everydayness of a quilt to the ominousness of a drone, from the playfulness of a basketball to the gravity of a bible.

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The focus on formal variation within a homogenized space challenges assumptions about the ability to use or to “read” objects. Every day we navigate the world with the help of objects, whether by direct use or the abstraction of meaning. Unlike our quotidian experience, though, Aden’s installation confronts us with its opacity. The gray space, not an artist’s meretricious glossing, rather unfolds to challenge the hierarchical relationship between subject and object. As in Louis Althusser’s theory of random materialism, the gallery space becomes a meeting place of contingencies. The works in The Banality of Freedom challenge our notions about everyday encounters. Objects are no longer reliable containers for meaning, but resist our anthropocentric assumptions about space and time. Kantian space, and by extension the physical objects it contains, is described as a logical field of subjective experience. Like the empty outline of the city of Worms on the gallery wall, space is assumed to function as a transparent container of cultural significance. As Henri Lefebvre so succinctly put it, “(social) space is a (social) product.”[2] Cultural value is assigned to spaces through naming and the remembrance of designated historical events, i.e. stories, monuments, signs, plaques, gravestones, etc. Only by sharing and retelling these stories do we come to know space. Our personal navigation system, then, is not so much geographical as cultural. In a sense, the topography of our world is predetermined, the result of common assumptions about the significance of space. Objects, the physical confirmation of theoretical space, are expected to retell those assumptions. In other words, they become visual signs. On a daily basis, the diversity of subjective experience is subjugated by homogenized cultural constructions that dictate our encounters with objects. We know signs even before we experience them. As noted by the artist Robert Smithson, it is said when the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they mistook the Mayan phrase “UY U TAN A KIN PECH’ (listen how they talk),” for the name of the place they “discovered,” now known as the Yucatan Peninsula.[3] Encountering unknown territory, the Spanish expected signs, in this case language, to orient them and speak directly to their concerns, not to point out their own strangeness.

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Time, perhaps more noticeably than space, is also culturally structured. Time is understood to be an accretive process, producing history up until the present moment. Events progress from past to present in logical succession. This theoretical understanding of the forward flow of time is based on physical reality—the world and the objects it contains change as time moves. The ravages of time deteriorate while evolutionary time alters and creates. Civilization is described in similar terms: progress, development, etc. Dynasties, epochs, and time zones all flow with time. As described by George Kubler in The Shape of Time, an important text for Aden, we tend to assign objects’ place within time based on their formal characteristics, thus imposing a logical progression of history onto objects. These ideas were central to Hegel’s theory of the end of art. Aden’s work assumes a distinctly less anthropocentric view of physical objects’ relationship to space and time, hence expanding the arbitrary nature of their sign function. As de Saussure pointed out, the sign function is completely arbitrary, yet the assumption that space and time are transparently logical extensions of subjective experience affects, or contaminates, our understanding of signs. Aden, by removing objects from everyday experience and context, confronts the viewer with sleek, opaque objects. Removed from the forward flow of functionality and distribution, the objects are impervious to our habitually projected ideas. We are forced to acknowledge the everyday struggle of confrontation with outer reality that does not conform to our inner constructed space.

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Aden draws inspiration for his work from his own experiences and interests. Living in Nashville for years, he learned of the sit-ins at Walgreens as part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He also spent time living in Germany and knew of Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms in 1521. The objects in the exhibition, though, do not transparently relay this information. We experience them aesthetically, as independent objects immune to tautological constructs. The philosopher Henri Bergson stated in his essay Laughter, “Could reality come into direct contact with sense and consciousness, could we enter into immediate communion with things and with ourselves, probably art would be useless…”[4] Aden capitalizes on this distance in his work in order to open up space for humor and new understandings of history’s place in quotidian experience.

 

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, “L’Homme et les choses,” in Situations I (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1947, 252. Translated in Tom McDonough, “No Ghost,” October 110 (Autumn, 2004): 114.

[2] Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, Maiden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1974: 26.

[3] Robert Smithson, “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” Artforum, Sept. 1969: 28-33.

[4]Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005.

 

by Megan Hines

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“Memories Live in Our Bodies:” Review of Well Contested Sites at Columbia University

Well Contested Sites was part of a three-day symposium at Columbia University, “Art and Mass Incarceration,” Feb. 27th – March 1st

by Irini Zervas

“Over-incarceration is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. We are killing our own country’s future. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower. “ – Randall Robinson, lawyer, author and activist

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Walking into the auditorium at Columbia’s Barnard College, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was walking into. It turns out that Columbia’s screening of Well Contested Sites (see link here), a 12-minute film produced in 2012, brought a diverse mix of public policy and art students, lawyers and human rights activists, dance professors and ex-convicts into the same room. The screening was followed by a few audience ice-breakers and a Q-and-A with some of the individuals mentioned above.

The film is a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, Bay Area performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. With Alcatraz as its backdrop, the dancers move about the decaying space in movements that are at times symbolic, cathartic and utterly quotidian. Well Contested Sites’ actors are both its performers and the subjects of the piece. It is these dualisms of subject and object, confined and freed, that play out in the piece, challenging the viewer’s conception of the complex site that is the modern-day justice system.

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“What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” A Collaborative Lecture by Professor Kim de Beaumont

On Wednesday, February 26th the Graduate Student Lecture Series continued in the Zabar Art Library with a presentation by Professor Kim de Beaumont, Ph.D. on her latest research on French eighteenth-century artist Gabriel Saint-Aubin. Professor de Beaumont’s engagement with Saint-Aubin is extensive, having written her doctoral dissertation on his work and guest curating the retrospective exhibition Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780) at The Frick Collection, which opened in 2007 and traveled to the Louvre.

Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l'année 1753, etching Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l’année 1753, etching
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Professor de Beaumont’s talk was a preview of her collaborative lecture entitled “What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” given with her musicologist colleague Dr. Beverly Wilcox from the University of California, Davis on March 1st at the Sixth Biennial Conference of the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Saint-Aubin was a prolific artistic innovator, injecting his scenes of contemporary Parisian social life with imagination, wit and humor. His drawings of the Concert Spirituel at the Tuileries Palace were no exception. A center of activity for Parisian socialites, the Concert Spirituel was an internationally renowned concert space where people went to listen, but also to see and been seen.

Trained as a history painter, Saint-Aubin was no mere documentarian. In the course of her research, Professor de Beaumont has been able to identify many scenes in which Saint-Aubin took liberties with events both on stage and off when his artistic motivations required it. An excellent example was his large drawing of Quinault and Lully’s Armide, in which Saint-Aubin’s Rinaldo wears a sword, despite the fact that at this point in the narrative he had given up arms. He also animated his social scenes with lively gestures and well-thought-out arrangements. In one drawing of the Concert Spirituel, Professor de Beaumont pointed out how the figures resemble musical notation, anchored by a staunch, cleft-like figure to the left. A master of architectural rendering, he altered both decorative and structural elements to suit his vision, adding or subtracting as he saw fit. Saint-Aubin gives us a nuanced view of Parisian contemporary society that he innovatively enlivened and interpreted in a way that had never before been attempted, and would not be for many years to come.

The Graduate Student Lecture Series continues tonight in Zabar Art Library at 7 pm with Wayne Salazar, MFA Candidate, presenting Against Late Postmodernism and Silvia Benedetti, MA Candidate, presenting The Censured Biennial: The Boycott and the Contrabienal.

Megan Hines

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Graduate Student Lecture Series

The Graduate Student Lecture Series kicked off Wednesday, February 19th in Zabar Art Library with presentations by Janet Yoon and Francesca lo Galbo. Janet is a Hunter MA candidate specializing in modern and contemporary art. Her thesis on Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman and German photographer Thomas Demand will compare both artists vis a vis their explorations on the notion of the everyday, postwar visual culture and memory, and the quasi-documentary or journalist identities of their works. In the course of her time at Hunter, Janet has interned at the Whitney Museum of American Art,  The Drawings of Jasper Johns: A Catalogue Raisonné for The Menil Collection, and The Museum of Modern Art where she is now an assistant in the Paintings and Sculpture department. Francesca is also a MA candidate at Hunter specializing in modern and contemporary photography. Recently completing her coursework, she is currently writing her thesis on the influences of transcendentalism on Edward Weston’s photography.

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 1975

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 1975

Janet presented her thesis-in-progress, Jeanne Dielman and The Dailies: Chantal Akerman and Thomas Demand’s Hyper-attentive Intentions, in which she explores Akerman and Demand’s quotidian images through the lens of Michael Fried’s concerns of theatricality and absorption. Both artists, using everyday material and the saturation of color and light, employ pure absorption. In Jeanne Dielman (1975), Akerman allows the weight of duration to play out by filming much of the protagonist’s daily routine in real-time. Working from photographs he took from his cell phone, in Dailies (2008 –  Present), Demand similarly focuses on commonplace objects that often go overlooked. Both Akerman and Demand’s simultaneous obsession for detail, relation to the body, and eerie removal from reality recall Minimalist practice by artists such as Donald Judd, Tony Smith, and Robert Morris. What distinguishes them from their 1960s predecessors, however, is Akerman and Demand’s inscrutable artistic intentionality as demonstrated in their fixation on the minutia of the everyday. In the words of Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known…to make the stone stony.” The works of Akerman and Demand embody Schklovsky’s words as they lure viewers into uncanny worlds based on reality.

Thomas Demand, Dailies, 2008-present

Thomas Demand, Dailies, 2008-present

Francesca presented her research paper Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation: Aaron Siskind’s Pursuit of the Sublime from Max Weintraub’s Fall 2013 Theory and Criticism class . Many are aware of the re-exploration of the concept of the sublime in postwar American painting, but few understand Siskind’s exploration of the concept through his photographic series Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, a study of individual male divers plummeting through a spacious void. The sublime, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Burke, is a physiological experience, inspiring both extreme terror and pleasure in the viewer. Through strategic cropping and a focus on the body’s response to gravitational and centripetal forces, Siskind inspired both terror and pleasure in the viewer with this photographic series. His fellow artists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman similarly aimed to envelop the viewer in a physiological experience, but by way of abstracted color fields. Avoiding the question of the human body, Rothko and Newman averred the universality of human suffering and the possibility of transcendence. Siskind provides an interesting contrast in American artists’ exploration of the sublime; his use of the athletic male body challenges preconceived notions of attitudes towards figuration and the body in postwar art.

Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors and of Levitation , 1954 / print ca. 1972

Aaron Siskind, Pleasures and Terrors and of Levitation, 491, 1954 / print ca. 1972

The Lecture Series continues tonight in Zabar Art Library at 7 pm with a presentation by Professor Kim de Beaumont on her recent research.

Megan Hines

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Matthew Cianfrani | MFA Thesis Exhibition

by Alan Longino

The romance of the body is a difficult position to work around. That’s not the purely sexual or loving idea of Romance, but the Romance of intimacy and nature within the body.

The body is gross. Gross things happen, in every person’s body, and some bodies are especially gross. Before you take someone inside or enter another being, you presumably know most, if not everything, about their body and the things they are, or it is, capable of, but you never imagine their body decaying in front of you. So, you proceed.

The idea of the body where one can intensely repulse and equally attract is where I find Matthew Cianfrani’s work most located. However, beyond all sexual desire or biological nerve, it is the physical space and limits the body inhabits or tests that appear to be his more defined thesis.

In this last semester of his MFA work, Cianfrani has put together a body of work that is literally that: the body. Placing the body in a digital context, a physical context, and working in the agency of charity, the body—his own, that is—takes place as a literal tool (in running the New York City marathon) that acts out assigned tasks where few precedents exist. It would be easy to deem this as performance art, but besides there being no actual performance during the exhibition, the performance, or what I’d like to think of as ex-performance, revokes the now brill tropes of studio and gallery performance. That is, it is outside of performance. The work, his body, has taken place inside the studio and outside the studio, both through technology and on the road.

The work incorporates glitch, or rather net art. In net art, or the novel idea of entropy, there is held the idea of death and the internet. Or, death and technology — through diminishing utility, atrophy, and physical death in the internet. It is impossible to imagine the body, or parts of Cianfrani’s work – particularly the philanthropic portion, where money was raised for returning soldiers – without evoking the idea of death, or severe incapacity. Within the video piece, Cianfrani’s nude body is turned away from the audience. Parts of his body repeatedly die or become victim to technology. Questions arise. Does he have enough to run the marathon? Does he have enough to complete the philanthropic portion of the work? Has he retained enough concentration to succeed in the actual exhibition for his thesis? What we can decide from this ex-performance is that it is not entirely up to us. Cianfrani has not taken the artist’s hand out of the work. He has taken the audience out of the work.

It is outside from the audience, but not outside visual criticism. This ex-performance is a part of the larger artwork, involving his own philanthropy and actual exhibition space, and in this triptych the artist is totally, and irrevocably, humbled.

The work does not face you, but it challenges you. The work does not expect you to rise to its challenges, but it’s certain that the burden is not for you to bear. It is Cianfrani’s alone, and its feat of challenging a human’s capacity, or pioneering, is truer than the Michael Day Jackson show at Hauser & Wirth or other post-humanist cum commercial efforts.

Cianfrani’s work does not boast, nor does it beckon and bemuse, it is straight-forward and without bullshit. In a market and world so saccharine with such, it is refreshing to find an artist, particularly a student, searching not for acceptance and a criticality from the outside, but acceptance from inside.

Alan Longino is a MA candidate in the Art History program at Hunter. He enjoys writing and net art, and takes little with much seriousness or exceeding gravitas. Except writing and net art. Ask him about art.

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Chris Burden: “Extreme Measures”

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Porsche with Meteorite (2013)

By Amanda York

Chris Burden’s Extreme Measures fills the New Museum’s five gallery floors. The top floor contains archival materials and narrated videos chronicling Burden’s agonizing performances of the 1970s, and the floors below convey the artist’s initiatives in sculpture and video since that time. As the title implies, the newer works in Extreme Measures are often monumental in scale and heft. A post anchored to the gallery’s floor is a fulcrum for two metal arms in Porsche with Meteorite (2013): a restored yellow Porsche convertible is counterbalanced on the other arm by a large meteorite. Similarly, 1 Ton Crane Truck (2009) is a flatbed truck with a rigging system that dangles a metal cube labeled “1 TON” several feet off the gallery floor. These endeavors initially appear flashy, and some of the materials directly connote luxury. This is especially true of Tower of Power (1985), a pyramidal arrangement of 4 million dollars worth of gold bricks surrounded by a grouping of matchsticks fashioned into tiny men, all encased under a small vitrine. Despite the sculpture’s worth and glitz, viewing it is a letdown after waiting in line, placing bags in lockers, and being permitted to proceed by the ever-present security guard. But was the work really just the sculpture? Or did it also include the guard, pre-viewing process and anticipation, and the resulting awareness of unmet expectations? Every work in the exhibition provoked an immediate reaction—often some combination of violence, power, and aggression—but further contemplation reveals complexity. The works’ initial affronts later dissolve to reveal precariousness: There’s vulnerability in the ongoing gravity-defying suspension of heavy objects. They bring to mind Gertrude Stein’s “continuous present,” with its constant re-evaluation of things anew, coupled with a sense of urgency sparked by conflict (a topic further explored by Burden in other works). However, the works’ nuances are again undermined by the matter-of-fact wall labels drafted by Burden. For example, 1 Ton Crane Trucks’ label explains that the truck has been fully restored and outfitted with new tires; a seemingly irrelevant statement. However, these writings could also fit into the scope of the work, as a type of shop-talk that extends the hard-edged masculinity of his sculptures while glossing over their affective properties.

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1 Ton Crane Truck (2009)

Burden’s performances were distillations—the artist used his body and minimal props (glass, fire, water) to perform a straightforward yet excruciating task lasting seconds to weeks. Contrastingly, Burden’s sculpture is an accumulation of materials and meanings. Compare Burden’s performance Shoot (1971) with his installation A Tale of Two Cities (1981)—in the former, a bullet pierced Burden’s skin in a matter of seconds and exists today only in documentation (and likely a scar), while the other is a 26.5-ton assemblage of sand, boulders, and decorative plants that together function as the setting for over 5,000 toys engaged in battle. Burden’s performances immediately conjure a sense of danger, but his sculptures of slick, mass-produced components initially render the viewer awestruck by their scale, their fetishistic embrace of commodity or rarity, and their restored perfection. A peeling away of these surfaces exposes something horrific beneath. Their structure embodies flux, precariousness, tenuousness, and the employment of found materials (in this case, shockingly, children’s toys) reflects back at us, illustrating how violence is passively ingrained in society, and that the atrociousness of war is somehow distanced through the familiarity of its imagery. Burden’s work demonstrates the absurd cyclical nature of humanity’s basest tendencies, or, has Stein said, the “again and again.”

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Tale of Two Cities (1981)

Amanda York is a first-year MA candidate in Hunter College’s Art History program.

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