Eye on Art – 2018

My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express

 

Antonakos’s Art of Light

4-19-18

When residents of this village think of neon lighting, the iconic façade of the Sag Harbor Cinema is the first image that comes to mind. While we wait for that glow to illuminate Main Street once again, let’s remember another link between neon and Sag Harbor: the artist Stephen Antonakos, whose use of gas-filled glass tubing as a medium is being celebrated at the Neuberger Museum, on the campus of SUNY’s Purchase College, which commissioned his Proscenium light sculpture in 2000.

Stephen Antonakos (1926-2013)

Antonakos, who for many years had a home on Hempstead Street and is buried in Oakland Cemetery, was born in Greece and came to New York with his family when he was four. After working as a commercial illustrator, he turned to fine art in the early 1960s. In those days his artwork was collages, assemblages, and a series of pillows that he modified in various ways, including adding lighted elements to them. The last pillow in the series featured the word DREAM in neon and led Antonakos to explore the possibilities of using illumination as a medium in its own right.

Unlike artists such as Tracey Emin and Glenn Ligon—whose word-based works are featured in the Neuberger’s current show, “Bending Light: Neon Art 1965 to Now,” Antonakos used neon tubes as an means of expressing intangible concepts. Although early on he prowled Times Square at night for inspiration, he was not interested in neon as signage. As he once wrote, “I simply thought so much more could be done with it abstractly than with words and images.”

By the mid 1960s Antonakos’s neons were being included in group exhibitions around the country, and he had his first solo show at the Fishbach Gallery in New York in 1967. It was a time when experimental media were breaking down traditional barriers between fine and applied art, and Antonakos wasn’t the only artist working with light. Neon pieces by Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, Keith Sonnier and Antonakos’s fellow Greek-American Chryssa, as well as fluorescent light installations by Dan Flavin and Robert Irwin and argon-lighted panels by Mary Corse were regular features of contemporary gallery and museum shows.

Neon’s viability for outdoor signage was well established, and from the early 1970s on Antonakos adapted it for exterior commissions in the United States and abroad. For many years his “Neon for 42nd Street,” a series of sweeping red arcs with blue backlighting, completed in 1981, could be seen on New York’s West Side, and his 1990 “Neon for the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station” is still in situ. There are also outdoor and indoor installations of his light works in cities around the United States and in Greece, France, Israel, Italy, Germany and Japan.

Stephen Antonakos, Proscenium, 2000. Neon and painted raceways, overall 20’6” x 189’. Collection Friends of the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York. Museum purchase with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Stefan D. Abrams.

Antonakos’s first commission for the Purchase campus was Neon Lintel (1997), which is suspended at the end of the covered walkway leading to the Performing Arts Center. Three years later, the college offered him a much more ambitious project, a site-specific installation for its Theater Gallery. Named for the stage area of a classical Greek theater, Proscenium frames the gallery on three sides. It comprises several individual elements, with both front and back illumination, totaling 189 feet in length, starting and ending with red and green arcs. They complement each other in both form and color, with red complementing green and the upturned arc complementing the downturned one. In between are straight and wavy neon tubes set in painted channels called raceways that contain and concentrate the light within them. Behind them, the backlighting makes the forms appear to float along the gallery walls.

Sitting in the darkened space, surrounded by the neon glow playing off the walls and reflective floor, is an intensely visual experience. According to the artist, that was his intention—to “connect with people in real, immediate, kinetic and spatial ways.” There is no message, other than the realization of a sensory response to the luminous surroundings. In other words, Proscenium is not a neon sign but an optical signal that stimulates inner awareness of what Antonakos called “a more intense, heightened kind of experience.”

Both Proscenium and its companion show of neon works by eleven other artists, including Ligon, Chryssa, Emin and Sonnier, will be on view through June 24.

 

Joseph Cornell’s Obsession

3-22-18

Juan Gris (1887–1927), The Man at the Cafe?, 1914. Oil and newsprint collage on canvas 39 × 28 1/4 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. 

In October 1953, Joseph Cornell went to see an exhibition of modern paintings at the Sidney Janis Gallery on 57th Street. One painting in particular caught his eye. He was so entranced by The Man at the Café, a 1914 canvas by Juan Gris, that over the next thirteen years he made twenty-one homages to it—eighteen of his famous boxes, two collages, and one sand tray. (His sand trays are shallow boxes containing loose sand, shells and other objects, displayed flat. One wonders whether he got the idea for such constructions on his frequent visits to his sister in Westhampton, where he often walked along the shore.) According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Gris painting and twelve of Cornell’s related boxes are on view through April 15, this is the largest number of works he dedicated to any of the luminaries he admired, including notable figures in the literary, performing and visual arts, from long-dead French poets to glamorous movie stars.

Cornell recorded his wide-ranging enthusiasms in diaries and correspondence with friends, selections of which were published in 1993. Several entries note his continuing obsession with the Gris, which depicts a faceted dissection of a man, wearing a brimmed hat, seated at a table and reading a newspaper, who casts his shadow on the wall behind him. It includes a collaged piece of real newspaper and faux wood graining on the wall and tabletop, as well as impastoed white paint pock-marked to indicate the foam on the man’s beer. The painting is part of Leonard A. Lauder’s treasure trove of Cubist masterworks, a promised gift to the Met, and it’s included to show just what it was that inspired Cornell.

Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) Grand Hôtel Bon Port, late 1950s. Box construction,?17 1/2 × 10 1/4 × 4 inches. Private collection? © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The earliest Gris-themed boxes date immediately after Cornell’s encounter with the painting and incorporate direct references to some of its essential elements. The shadow cast by the man’s figure, the faux wood-grain surfaces, and the newspaper’s headline in French are all echoed in one of the first, Homage to Juan Gris, 1953-54. Instead of a man, however, the central figure is a perching cockatoo, referencing Cornell’s longstanding fascination with birds. His aviary boxes are like taxidermy display cases—though the birds are cutout reproductions, not stuffed specimens—in which each is given a unique habitat filled with clues to its symbolic meaning. The backgrounds are often papered with pages from French textbooks, hotel stationery, and other printed matter that reflects Gris’ residency in Paris. The use of letterhead from L’Hôtel d’Etoile could also be a way of acknowledging Gris’s status as the star of the show, and the bird itself may represent the creative freedom that Cornell perceived in the Spanish artist’s work.

That Cornell considered Gris a kindred spirit is evident, both in his statements and his efforts to express his admiration through these miniature enchanted environments. Some were made right away, others were started, then set aside and revisited years later. Le Déjuner de Kakatous, for example, was begun in 1959 and finished in 1966. It incorporates collaged fragments of a Gris painting cut from one of Cornell’s art books, which are displayed in a separate case. These artifacts are just a small sampling of the myriad of raw material he collected for his art, the way a magpie picks up odds and ends for its nest. He wasn’t a hoarder, but rather a sorcerer who could transform the most mundane objects into intriguing tableaux by working his magic on them.

After several years’ hiatus from his Gris obsession, on December 19, 1959 Cornell wrote in his diary of a renewed interest, perhaps due in part to the major Gris retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art the previous year but more directly sparked by reading John Golding’s book on Cubism. “What an unfoldment—the new color of Juan Gris,” he wrote, “plus box just this week lifted from doldrums with new blues (cloud shape of cockatoo).” Could this be Grand Hôtel Bon Port, dated to the late 1950s and notable for its silhouette of the white bird against a collage of a cloud-flecked blue sky? This diary snippet illustrates the artist’s love of wordplay—“blues” meaning both doldrums and colors—and its visual analogy, in which the bird becomes a cloud-like floating form. Or perhaps, per a later diary note, Grand Hôtel Bon Port is the “new Gris done on Xmas day especially as related to day after Xmas—early morning experience,” since the entry also mentions “the touch of orange” that we see in the French postage stamp. As with all of Cornell’s work, the viewer is invited to follow the clues wherever they may lead.

 

Tennessee Williams, Troubled Genius

2-22-18

Sunday will be the 35th anniversary of the death, in 1983, of Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams, one of America’s greatest 20th century dramatists. His career is being celebrated in a revealing exhibition, “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing,” on view through May 13 at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. It takes its title from a 1981 statement by the author, who wrote almost compulsively, as if it protected him from his demons. “I try to work every day,” he said, “because you have no refuge but writing.”

Tennessee Williams, Self-Portrait, undated (ca.1939). Oil on canvas. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Used with permission of George Borchardt, Inc.

In addition to his full-length and one-act plays, Williams wrote short stories, poetry, essays, screenplays, novels and a memoir, and kept a journal that he mined for ideas. As the exhibition shows, he often re-worked material, transferring characters and situations from one genre to another. He was also a visual artist, though his oil paintings and watercolors are, to put it generously, not up to the level of his writing, as you can see in his self-portrait from about 1939. The following year, his first staged production, “Battle of Angels,” closed in Boston after being panned by the critics. Four years later, however, “The Glass Menagerie,” with characters based on Williams’ controlling mother and schizophrenic sister, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the season and his career was launched. For the next 20 years his plays dominated Broadway, earning him rave reviews, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Tony Award.

The show focuses on several of Williams’ most famous theatrical works, but it ranges widely across the literary and personal history of a complicated, driven, self-destructive genius whose own conflicts supplied his dramatic material. While he denied using specific autobiographical events, he acknowledged that his work reflected his emotional currents. Elia Kazan, who directed several of his plays, once remarked that “everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

Here’s an example close to home. In 1957 Williams visited Larry Rivers in Southampton, and they went out to dinner at the Tucker Mill Inn, the former Claflin mansion on what is now the Stony Brook Southampton campus. The windmill on the grounds was used as a guesthouse, and Williams decided to rent it for the summer. While there, he began work on a one-act play, “The Day On Which A Man Dies,” loosely based on the character of Jackson Pollock, whom he knew from summers in Provincetown in the early 1940s. Pollock—another troubled, self-destructive genius—had died in a car crash the previous summer, and Williams, who had once tried to kill himself that way, considered the artist’s death to be a suicide. Using his own experience and psychic state as springboards, he eventually created a highly stylized drama about a suicidal painter, based on Noh form, a tradition to which he was introduced on a trip to Japan in 1959.

The play was set aside and remained unknown for decades, though Williams adapted some of the material for his 1969 production, “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” which flopped on Broadway. After his death it was discovered among his literary effects, and was first staged in Chicago in 2008, after which the Pollock-Krasner House presented it at the Ross School, in conjunction with our 2009 Japanese Gutai exhibition. Its action, which includes full-body painting and the penetration of a paper wall, echoes the Gutai practices that were illustrated in the exhibition.

But “The Day On Which A Man Dies” is not one of the Williams works featured in the Morgan show, so why am I writing about it? The reason is the current production of “Pollock,” a one-acter by the French playwright Fabrice Melquiot, on through Sunday at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center. Having seen “Pollock” immediately after the Morgan show, I couldn’t help but compare it to Williams’ daring experimental drama, which supplements incisive dialogue with creatively manipulated color and movement to explore complex emotional territory. “Pollock,” on the other hand, is a cliché-ridden, one-dimensional portrait of his marriage to Lee Krasner, ninety minutes of foul-mouthed conflict with no nuances or ultimate resolution. Entire sections of dialogue are lifted almost verbatim, and without credit, from Naifeh and Smith’s Pollock biography. To sum it up, as a playwright Melquiot is to Williams as Williams the self-portrait painter is to Rembrandt.

 

David Hockney’s Progress           

1-25-18

To say that David Hockney has been around is putting it mildly. His peripatetic life and personal experiences in Europe, Asia, and the United States, where he has lived on an off for half a century, have been the sum and substance of his work since his days at London’s Royal College of Art. The chronicles of those public and private journeys are now on display in “David Hockney,” an exhibition that commemorates the artist’s 80th birthday, on view through February 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Misleadingly described in the Met’s media release as a major retrospective, the exhibition is far from a complete survey of Hockney’s long and illustrious career. It neglects his illustrated books and prints, such as A Rake’s Progress, his suite of 16 autobiographical etchings inspired by William Hogarth, which made a great stir in the early 1960s with its faux naïve style and explicit homoerotic content. It also ignores his theater décor. Nevertheless, it spans the full six decades of his work, from 1960-2017, and shows both his versatility and his virtuosity as a painter, draftsman, photographer and experimenter with visual technology.

David Hockney, A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 96″ (shaped). © David Hockney

Looking at Hockney’s colorful, decorative canvases of the past 20 years, especially his homages to the lush tropical garden and brightly painted woodwork of his home in the Hollywood Hills, it’s easy to forget how transgressive his early work was. The first gallery offers a sampling of paintings from his student days that illustrate his precocious sophistication. They include motifs from popular culture—proto Pop art, if you like—and graffiti, expressed in an idiom that synthesizes gestural abstraction and cartoon-like stylization. Witty renderings of consumer products, from a packet of his mum’s favorite Ty-Phoo tea, incongruously inhabited by a nude male figure, to Colgate toothpaste tubes as phallic symbols, the imaginative flights of fancy delve deep into the artist’s gay psyche. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Britain until 1967, so such imagery was daring, not to say shocking, outside the hidden world of the gay subculture.

Hockney’s frank depictions of homosexual themes were to some degree made more palatable by the deliberately primitive way he rendered them. Simplified forms, flattened perspective and a crude drawing style made them seem somehow guileless, like the honesty of a child blurting out uncomfortable truths in public. In his California paintings from the following decade, for example, this approach gives his pictures of naked men showering or displaying themselves provocatively an emotional distance, a coolness that blunts their eroticism. Many of the later 1960s and ’70s canvases further explore this idea of detachment, especially the double portraits of intimates, who seem more apart than together. Others are literally composed of detached motifs, like Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians, a montage of images—or maybe imaginings is a better term—inspired by trips to the American Southwest and Switzerland.

If anyone thinks that Hockney’s reductive draftsmanship indicates a lack of skill, a wall of his drawings dispels that notion. He could draw like Ingres if he chose to, as we see in his sensitive character studies from life, including W.H. Auden, Andy Warhol, John Kasmin and the artist’s parents. Three of the drawings were made in 1999 with the aid of a camera lucida, an apparatus that reflects an image onto the surface on which the artist works. Hockney’s fascination with mechanical visual aids is well known. His admirable open-mindedness and curiosity has led to interesting experiments with various devices, such as the Polaroid camera and the iPad, both of which are represented here by successful examples. The camera lucida drawings, however, are failures, lacking the vitality and immediacy of his earlier, more spontaneous works on paper.

Unlike the titular character in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, Hockney has gone from strength to strength. From his early success as a leader of the generation of British artists whose brash irreverence was the visual-art counterpart of the Beatles, to his recent iPad drawings, shown as a three-panel animation that channels Matisse in the digital age, his powers of invention and adaptation seem inexhaustible. If some of his detours, like the silly so-called “V.N.” paintings and garish 1990s landscapes, have led him off course, he quickly gets back on track by returning to the California of his dreams and his reality. Yes, it’s eye candy, but how sweet it is.