Thursday, April 21, 2011

Art Context in Provincetown

Provincetown with the monument at its back. It's the first thing you'll see as you drive up or arrive by ferry.

As if I needed to add to my anticipation of going to Provincetown (Ptown) for a week for the encaustic conference and post-con workshops, the other day I read Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham, as recommended by Joanne Mattera on the encaustic conference blog. Although I'd read a couple of other books about Provincetown, I had never read this one. It's a wonderful, lyrical and funny book that captures the spirit and character of that odd place at the end of the Cape Cod hook.  Joanne is right: read it before you go and then read it again after you've been there.

Author Michael Cunningham

The book cover with a painting by Provincetown artist and Cunningham friend, John Dowd

My Ptown History
I am no expert on Ptown by any means, but Cunningham's book really resonated with me. I spent one summer there the year after Bonnie and I got together (nearly 26 years ago). Other than that, it's been just a few days or a week from time to time. For a few years I was a member of the Provincetown Art Association & Museum (PAAM) so that I could participate in the annual members show. I won first place in that show in 1996 and the next year I had a solo show at the Art Association in the Ross Moffett Gallery as the prize.

"Learned to Laugh," 1997, about 30"x40", collaged xerographic prints in a found frame with dental x-rays. This was the image on the card for my show, which was called "Rest Area."

The old PAAM, first established in 1914, this building was purchased in 1919

The new PAAM (note the old building to the right of the picture). This addition/remodel was built in 2005/06.

Ptown Art History
Anyway, I was thinking that it might be fun to post some images of artists and artworks from Ptown's past for general interest and to give some context for people attending the conference who might not know about Provincetown. So where to begin?

The Three "H"s
Although there have been multitudes of artists who lived, painted, wrote, acted, danced, sang, and performed all manner of artistic activities in Provincetown, in terms of visual art (painting to be more specific), there were three men whose names began with the letter H who were major players: Hawthorne, Hensche and Hofmann. They were teachers who influenced generations of artists in and outside of Provincetown.

Charles Webster Hawthorne demonstrating painting en plein air, ca 1910, on a pier in Provincetown

Hawthorne about 1910

Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930) studied with William Merritt Chase, known as the leading proponent of American Impressionism. Hawthorne established the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown in 1899. It was the first outdoor school for figure painting and became one of the leading art schools in the U.S.  Hawthorne was also one of the founders of PAAM in 1914.

Hawthorne painting of an artist en plein air

Hawthorne's painting of Ptown fishermen (I believe this painting is owned by the town and displayed in Town Hall)

By 1916, Provincetown was reputed to be the largest art colony in the world! Hawthorne gave weekly instructional lessons and critiques, and his school attracted well-known artists as well as beginners.

Henry Hensche (1901-1992) the second of the H-men, studied with Hawthorne, became his assistant and ultimately carried the torch of his teaching methods and theories. When Hawthorne died suddenly at age 58 in 1930, his school closed. Five years later Hensche reopened the Cape Cod School of Art and carried forward Hawthorne's work by emphasizing Monet's Impressionist tradition of seeing and painting color with light. Hensche referred to himself as a member of the "color realist movement." Both Hawthorne and Hensche taught their students to paint with putty knives and Hensche also added block studies-- "light key, masses, and variations of masses are the essentials of all visual logic."

Hawthorne portrait of Hensche

Hensche in painting demo

Hensche portrait of woman in hat

Hans Hofman (1880-1966) the third pillar of the Ptown teaching trio took an entirely different approach to painting. Born in Bavaria, Hofmann established himself first in Germany and Paris and then moved to the U.S. because of WWII. He retained his European connections but was accepted as an important force in American painting, for example, being included in the Whitney American painting annuals from 1945 on. Hofmann was a player on the world stage of art and spanned art history from Jules Pascin to Picasso, Braque and Matisse through Ashile Gorky, Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg to William Baziotes, Willem deKooning and Bradley Walker Tomlin. He showed throughout Europe and the U.S., had his first New York show at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery, was one of the Ab-Ex Irascibles, represented the U.S. at the 19560 Venice Bienniale along with Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Theordore Roszac and received honors, accolades and attention from all corners.

Hans Hofmann cleaning his brushes

A teacher of legendary energy and enthusiasm, Hofmann first established an art school in Munich during WWI and then, forced out of Germany by WWII, brought his school to New York in 1933 after having taught for a while at the Art Students League and other venues. His Provincetown school began as a summer venture in 1935 (note that it was the same year that Hensche reopened the Cape Cod School of Art). From 1939 on, Hofmann spent five months a year in Provincetown and the rest of the year in New York, teaching in each location at his own school. He taught until 1958 when he was 78 and wanted to spend more time on his own work. (official Hans Hoffman website)

Hofman landscape, 1941

Hofmann "Sanctum Sanctorum", 1965

Hofmann, "Lonely Journey" 1965

Hofmann's Push Pull Theory of painting emphasized that two-dimensional space could be created using color and shape rather than depicting objects from a one-point perspective. (Here's a fun experiment from PBS where you can play with color to see Hofmann's theory at work. Be sure to click the brush on the color that you want on the palette first and then on the shape on the blank canvas.) This theory was an important influence on the development of modern art.

Pasted below is a short video that shows Hofmann in the classroom with students and features students talking about the man and his methods. I think this is from the PBS special on Hofmann and is narrated by Robert deNiro. (Ignore the way he pronounces Gloucester as Glowster.)

The Two Painting Camps in Provincetown
Although these three painters/teachers were united by the common first letter of their names, the devotion of their followers to their conflicting theories of painting caused a rift that found a locus in Provincetown. The two schools were known as Regulars (Hawthorne/Henshe) and Modernists (Hofmann and others) and between 1927 and 1937 PAAM held separate annual exhibitions of work for each group after 30 Modernists led by Ross Moffett petitioned for a show of their work. In 1937 PAAM held one show--Regulars on one side of the main gallery, Modernists on the other. From then on they tolerated each other and/or buried their differing views.

Today there are still devoted followers of the Hawthorne/Hensche painting tradition. For example, Hilda Neily, who studied with Hensche for 15 years, runs a gallery together with artist Rob Longley, another Hensche student, and teaches the brand of plein air impressionism learned from Hensche.

Hilda Neily, "Early Summer Light"

Hilda Neily, "Monument View"

Robert Longley, "Monument at Night"

On the other side of the divide, the distinction becomes harder to identify and interpret, but here are a few "Modernists" whose work you may see in the Ptown galleries or the PAAM collection or know from other museums.

Paul Resika, "Dark Lady", 2001-02. Resika shows at Berta Walker Gallery

Resika, "Calabash Beach" 2008, gouache on paper

Resika, "Regatta/Three Sails" 2009-10, oil on canvas

Ross Moffett, "Life on the Dunes"  (unknown date but looks like the '30s)

Ross Moffett, "Boatyard" (unknown date)

Helen Frankenthaler, "Mountains and Sea", 1952

Haynes Ownby, "Dancing Lobster" 2000

William Freed, "Birds by the Sea", 1959

Karl Knaths in Provincetown studio. Photo by © Arnold Newman, for the article written by Robert Hatch, "At The Tip Of Cape Cod" July, 1961 issue of Horizon, a hardbound magazine. Finally a use for those heavy clam/quahog shells!

You can see more of these and other artists on the Provincetown Artist Registry here.

Another Major Contributor
The Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) was established in Provincetown in 1968 by a notable group of artists and writers who intended to make a place for young people to develop their work at an early stage of their careers. Cunningham says they wanted "to restock the town with younger artists and writers the way a forest service restocks a lake with fingerling trout." Residencies run from October 1 to May 1 for ten writing fellows and ten artists from all over the world. During their seven-month stay, fellows get a place to live and work and a small stipend. They must remain in Provincetown throughout the period and focus on their work. Many fellows stay on in Provincetown after their residencies and form a core group of artists and writers with an affinity for the place and its history. Michael Cunningham, for example, first came to Provincetown twenty years ago for a residency at FAWC after two years in the Iowa Writers' Program and never having been east of Chicago. He developed a lifelong love of Provincetown although he makes his main home in New York.

Fine Arts Workshop (a place that's very hard to get an image of online for some reason)
This collection of buildings was formerly Days' Lumberyard where many artists rented studios for the summer.  An interesting page on gives lots of info about who, when and how much (peanuts) they paid for work spaces.

The old lumber bins were apparently turned into studios for the hardy artists who rented space.

Notable Notables
You can look up these people with a strong Provincetown connection if you have the urge:

Norman Mailer
Jay Crichley 
Stanley Kunitz
Meryl Cohn
Tony Vevers
Kate Clinton
Eugene O'Neill
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Ryan Landry
Tennessee Williams
John Waters
Mabel Dodge
Robert Motherwell
Mark Doty
Varla Jean Merman
Robert Pinsky

 Edward Hopper, "Cape Cod Afternoon"

More, Much More
I hope this piques your curiosity about this fabulous place at the end of the road. Meanwhile, here are a few more images of works that I admire by Provincetown artists.

Paul Bowen sculpture - wood, tar and found materials

Another Bowen wood+tar work

Anne Packard, "Cape Marsh"

Anne Packard, "Long Point"

Anne Packard, "Waiting for the Tide"

Anne Packard is a beautiful painter. You can click on these and get more of a sense of them. She has a gallery in the gallery district of Commercial Street. Two of her daughters are also painters.

Cynthia Packard, "Jen"

Leslie Packard, "Purple Flowers"

Pat deGroot, "Dark Sea and Dazzle"

Marian Roth, pinhole camera photograph

Polly Burnell (info unknown)

Elspeth Halvorsen, "To the Monument," construction, 2007

Nancy Whorf, "Welcome to Provincetown"

Nancy Whorf, "Shoveling Snow, " 2007

Sal Del Deo, "Low Tide, East End," 1990

Sal Del Deo, "Winter Solstice," 1982

Finally, I'll leave you with an image of the monument the way I began. By the way, if you are looking for something to do in Provincetown and feel the need for a little exercise, climbing to the top of the monument will provide you with that plus a great view from the top. Along the way, you can read the inscriptions on the stones that were purchased by various cities, states, countries, groups and individuals.

One thing that Michael Cunningham mentioned that I hadn't heard before and MUST check out as soon as I arrive, is that the top of the monument bears a distinct resemblance to Donald Duck.

"The Pilgrim Monument is visible almost everywhere, in town and in the wild. If you look at it from the proper angle--obliquely, from any of its four corners--you can see the head of Donald Duck. The top of the tower is his hat, the arches are his eyes, and the crenelations under the arches are his beak. The Donald Duck head is slightly difficult to see, but once you've seen it, you can't look at the Monument and see anything else."

Here's to happy duck hunting!

Provincetown monument at night

Sunday, April 10, 2011

El Anatsui at Davis Museum, Wellesley College

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity of seeing the first U.S. installation of a career retrospective of El Anatsui's work and then hearing him talk about his work in person. Why, you may wonder, is an international artist of Anatsui's status and a resident of Nigeria giving a talk in such an unexpected place as Wellesley College and why would that site be selected as the destination for the first U.S. showing of this important show? Funny you should ask.

El Anatsui with one of his wooden sculptures at the Davis Museum (Photo by Bill Greene from the Boston Globe)

In the art world, as in every other type of world, it's all who you know, and Lisa Binder, curator of this nearly-five-decade retrospective of Anatsui's work, was a Wellesley grad who knew Anatsui from her visits to his studio in Nigeria. In addition, she is Assistant Curator at the Museum for African Art in New York, the show's ultimate U.S. destination after several other stops. This was a major coups for Wellesley, and they got support for the exhibition from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation to supplement their own in-house sources of funding.

"Plot a Plan" from the Davis Museum website

Perhaps you have read one of my other posts about El Anatsui, such as in February 2009 or August 2009 or February 2010 or March 2010. In those posts I gave a lot of background about Anatsui and many, many shots of his work found online and taken in person at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, his dealer. What a great privilege to see and hear him in person and to see the course of his work over time.

The Wellesley Experience
Wellesley is all about the academic approach, so they prefaced the talk by Anatsui with a tour of the exhibition led by a 2010 Wellesley grad and curatorial assistant, Kelley Tialiou, who did an excellent, very poised job of explaining the work to the 30-40 people who accompanied her on the tour. I was one of them, although I didn't really feel the need for guidance, but I arrived just in time and decided to join the herd. I did learn some things about the work and was able to take notes throughout--with a pen.

"Plot a Plan" detail - from the Davis Museum website

Despite my being permitted a pen, in keeping with the seriousness of their mission, the Davis Museum guards are extremely conscientious: if you come within a millimeter of crossing the line of tape on the floor in front of a piece, they will give you a sharp "Ma'am" and motion you back with a reproving look. Of course the tape is placed so far away from the wall where the piece is hanging that you are unable to read the liquor caps and labels that comprise the piece. Note to self: if you want to read the labels, go to Anatsui's gallery where you can come as close as you like to the wall and even look behind the piece.

Hanging Methods
One thing I noticed about the installation of Anatsui's brand new wall piece, Stressed World, (just completed in 2011 and no image available) is that there were big chunks of white foam rubber behind it. Since this new piece is much more airy and weblike than usual, the foam is very apparent, especially up close. As I recall, at Anatsui's New York gallery the work was draped over a few strategically placed drywall screws and it looked just fine. Perhaps it's a case of over-seriousness, in keeping with the general mission and academic rigor of the whole enterprise. (In other words, overkill.)

"Sacred Moon" from the Davis Museum website

Even before I heard him say it with my own ears, I had read that Anatsui is not a stickler for hanging his work in particular ways. In fact, he wants people to feel free to install his work as they see fit, only suggesting that he prefers it not be flat against the wall but have ripples, folds and bulges. "Everybody's way is right," is what he actually said and, "There is an artist in everybody."  To demonstrate the extremes to which installers go, take a peak at this short video showing the installation at the Davis Museum. Note that this is NOT on the Wellesley website but on the website of the Museum for African Art. In fact, you will not find much about the show on Wellesley's website except three photos and a short text. (In other words, stingy and afraid someone will take the images and use them in a blog.)

Installing El Anatsui from Wellesley College on Vimeo.

When I Last Wrote to You About Africa
Now that I have spewed some of my resentment about being treated like a non-academic moron by Wellesley, on with the post. The show title is "When I LastWrote to You About Africa," the title being taken from the piece below.

Anatsui's 1986 wooden wall sculpture "When I Last Wrote to You About Africa" 

The image just above is from the website of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, the location of the first stop for the show before coming to Wellesley. This piece is five or six feet high by maybe 36 inches wide. The apparent depth is illusionistic because it's really only a couple of inches deep. It is carved and burned with symbols Anatsui invented or borrowed from Adinkra. (See my post here for an explanation of Adinkra.)

Here's another very short video that tours the show at ROM and shows many of the pieces in the Wellesley show. It also features Anatsui himself talking about his work.

Although we in the U.S. know Anatsui primarily for his metal cloths, he worked mainly in wood for a number of years, supplemented with metal, ceramic and painting on paper or canvas with oil, acrylic and watercolor. There were examples in the show of all these mediums plus found and manipulated objects. One of his hallmarks is that just about all his work is modular, that is, it is comprised of pieces or sections that can be rearranged. The work is not static. Even the piece above is composed of slats that look as though they could be assembled in a different order--although that would disturb the 3D illusion. Anatsui feels that chance should  play an important role in art as it does in life.

Example of a wooden wall sculpture from 1992

Another sculpture, unsure of date, "Kente Rhapsody"

The pieces shown above were not in the show but represent the type of work that was included. I had never seen this wooden work before and thought it was very strong. I hope you can see that the work has some dimension to it and is composed of modular pieces or strips. Carving, burning and painting are used on the wood.

Another Powerful Work
The ROM site says that the show consists of more than 60 pieces. There was a lot of work and I can't mention it all, but one piece that  I did like a lot after it was explained to me by the tour guide was "Open(ing) Market." This consisted of more than 700 lidded metal boxes and three lidded metal trunks arranged in a close grouping on the floor with all the boxes facing in one direction. The guide told us that these boxes were made from flattened cans and metal containers. The outside of the boxes were painted black with red designs (sort of a series of half-moon paint strokes) on the lids. The inside of the boxes were collaged or printed with colorful advertising papers or the painted colors and names from cans. The lids of the boxes were arranged so that some were open, some partially closed and some closed altogether. They represented an African market, with the lids being shades over market stalls that would be raised or lowered depending on the sun or time of day.

"Open(ing) Market" at the ROM show - not displayed as well here as at Wellesley

This image above is from the ROM (a horribly distracting gallery with walls and floors a nasty dark blue). The installation at Wellesley allowed you to see the piece from back and front so that when you saw it from the back, it was all black and red, but when you walked around to the front, you were hit with a burst of color from the opened lids.

Detail of opened boxes and lids. (This mishmash installation at ROM does not do justice to the work. which looks better arranged in a more orderly way or spread out more.)

In the Sebastian Smee review of the show in the Boston Globe, he quotes Anatsui referring to the trunks in this piece as being the type that were used for children sent away to boarding school or on a trip. Anatsui said, "I saw them and my mind was instantly carried back to childhood days."

New Discoveries About Anatsui
Although I've done as much researching on Anatsui as I could for all those posts I wrote, there were some new things I learned about him from this show and talk. For one thing, his first name is "El" and that's what friends call him. He also signs his work that way. I thought the El was an "el", Spanish for "the."

Anatsui at Wellesley

Sebastian Smee said that Anatsui is the youngest of 32 children and that he was educated at a Presbyterian mission where he was completely isolated from his culture. Anatsui spoke about his education being European, but did not go into this much detail.

Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu

The talk that Anatsui gave was actually a conversation between him, the curator Lisa Binder and Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton University. Professor Okeke-Agulu has known Anatsui for some years and was his studio assistant in the past. His contribution to the conversation was invaluable in that he was able to expand on Anatsui's comments and give them more of an understandable context. He also had less of an accent and was easier to understand. Anatsui seems to be a quiet person who does not talk a lot and does not project his voice. I don't think he is used to addressing an audience. (Click here for a link to Okeke-Agulu's blog post about the Anatsui show at ROM where you will see images of the show with the dark blue walls and floor.)

Cultural Influence
Anatsui said that his European education had prevented him from finding artistic inspiration in his own culture. The professor said that in the '60s many African artists were actively looking to their culture to see how they could express themselves and reference their African heritage instead of being locked into the European models. They rejected the Western mode of image making and materials. Anatsui mentioned going to the National Cultural Center of Ghana and finding out about his own culture. He began his more African-influenced work with wooden trays similar to those found in the market and used to display goods. He carved and branded symbols into the trays and displayed them on the wall. The show included some of those trays and you can also see them in the video from ROM.

The young Anatsui working on a ceramic sculpture in 1979

Working Methods
Anatsui taught for many years at the University of Nigeria and has recently retired. He is 67 now and has an international art career with his work collected by museums around the world and featured in impressive exhibitions and collections. The first time he traveled to the U.S. in 1980, he came to Massachusetts, and now that is the first U.S. location for his retrospective. I had forgotten reading that his first trip was to a now-defunct artists' colony way out here in western Mass., in Cummington (now renowned as the home of Rachel Maddow). He said that was where he was introduced to the chainsaw--a tool he really enjoyed and later put to good use in breaking up big chunks of work into pieces with ragged edges.

Assistants in Anatsui's studio working with liquor bottle tops and wraps

In his studio in Nigeria, Anatsui works with a number of assistants to make the metal tapestry work. He said that most of the young men (all men) who work with him are recent graduates who are waiting to get into college (I believe he said). LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) recently purchased one of Anatsui's works and included the image above in an online story about it that also includes some other interesting photos of work in Anatsui's studio. Anatsui has apparently worked with assistants from the beginning of his career and also employed them in carving and branding wood under his direction. He said that he never makes drawings in preparation for work but likes to work directly and changes his plans as the work develops. "The more organic the better" is the way he expressed it since the work develops slowly and organically and without a fixed idea. He also reuses pieces of his metal tapestries when they come back to the studio after being in an exhibition and considers that work "readymade" to be incorporated as other readymade objects are into new work.

Big Themes
Although Anatsui has hit the major leagues with his metal tapestries, he had a whole career as a sculptor and teacher prior to that where he worked in a range of mediums. Lisa Binder, the curator of the retrospective, said that the show at Wellesley was arranged so that from any perspective, a viewer would see work in more than one medium. Emphasizing medium is probably not the way I would have organized it, but I can see that it would be difficult to make sense of such a large body of work for viewers.

To sum up, as I see it, Anatsui's work expresses a love of experimentation and invention. He is ready to see the usual from a different perspective. He has a love of language and symbols and a great appreciation for his culture. He is not afraid to make beautiful work (what he calls "ocular beauty"), but on closer inspection, the beauty has deeper content. He enjoys manipulating mediums and finds poetic expression in text, line and form. He is willing to surrender his work to chance and change and welcomes that interference with his prior intention as it creates unexpected results and mirrors life itself.

Finally, here is another video of El Anatsui--this time at the installation of "Between Heaven and Earth" at the Metropolitan Museum. (Of course his manipulation of the piece is contrary to the way he likes to do it, but perhaps that's the price an artist pays for selling his work to a museum. If only they hadn't put it on that gold wall.)