24 March 2013

Some Lateral Thoughts, II (in Which a Rose is Not a Rose)

Reading Peter Schjeldahl's recent New Yorker write-up of the Jay DeFeo retrospective at the Whitney, being reminded of how DeFeo has long been one of those one-hit wonders of the artworld. Mainly because of her painting "The Rose," which -- being over ten feet tall, close to a foot thick, and allegedly weighing upwards to a ton -- is not so much a painting as a laboriously crafted sculptural bas-relief that happened to be made out of paint. A "single, preposterous object," Schjeldahl calls it. It was reputedly the sole piece that she worked on during the years of 1958 to 1966, the effort being mostly forced to an end when the artist was evicted from her San Francisco apartment; an event that required removal of a portion of wall so that the painting could be lowered out of a window into the street below (with Bay Area artist and experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner documenting the whole thing).

Over the years I was used to seeing the work routinely cited or reproduced in artists that dealt with the West Coast art scene of the postwar decades. With the artist being given a passing mention, nothing much said aside from the fact that she was the person who made the work in question. Thing is, for a number of years early on I didn't realize that it was a single painting -- rather I thought it was a series of works dealing with the came motif and compositional schema. Reason for that being that the painting tends to look different from one photograph to the next, depending on how it was photographed. The quality and angle of the lighting being the key to these differences. In some shots it looks darker, with the earth tones dominating. In others, it looks quite pale and bright, with the red and pink-ish hues being more pronounced. It's dense material facture also being another quality that captures differently from photo to photo, as well. Years ago, I had initially assumed there were several versions of the thing -- all being variations on a theme.

But the matter of DeFeo concentrating on the one piece for some eight years, working it up through a very methodical process -- that sort of scenario sort of perversely fascinates me. Perhaps because the topic of my own graduate thesis many years ago was devoted to an American artist of the same period who devoted the last 11-12 years of his life and career to -- as far as most viewers were concerned -- producing the same painting over and over again.

But I had reason to be reminded of DeFeo's "The Rose" some months ago. I was recently asked to contribute to an art book, to write 11 compact critical essays on the work of 11 different contemporary artists. The format was so constricted that there were times that the brevity issue proved challenging -- trying to some up some of the more complicated aspects of an artist's output in a few scant sentences. One of the artists I ended up with was Mark Grotjahn. Grotjahn has long had a tendency of set a rigorously methodical, systematic working process for himself -- imposing strict limits and formulae, following them through in an almost OCD-type manner -- in the course of creating paintings with rather dense surfaces. With his early works of skewed one-point perspectives and radial compositions, and with his "butterfly" paintings that followed, the viewer might perceive the whole endeavor as a playful twist (no pun intended) on the hard-edged "pure" geometric abstraction of Josef Albers or Kenneth Noland might come to mind. But for me, DeFeo's Rose kept reasserting itself in my memory.

And then there's Christopher Wool, whose work I've always found slightly intriguing. I side with the reading of much of his work amounting to a dryly casual, de-heroisized take on Ab-Ex "all-over" composition. Particularly with his output since the mid 1990s, which for me frequently bear elements that bring DeKooning's early black-and-white phase to mind. Except that recently Wool has taken to "remixing" and reprocessing his own work -- running it through a digitized graphics program, tweaking its various elements in a number of ways, flipping parts of it into degraded low-res fascimilies, screen-printing the results, sometimes with a little additional painting or inking done atop. In a few instances, this has also involved some light collaging of his previous paintings -- jigsawing portions of them, flipping them into a slight different (re-)configuration...

At which point I found myself thinking of another figure from the Ab-Ex "New York School," albeit a much lesser-known figure. That being Conrad Marca-Relli, whose work overwhelming involved the collaging of various painted components...

Superficial associations in some respects, I know. But one's head often connects certain dots that way, doesn't it? Or at least mine often does. Chalk it up to gestalts, archetypes, continuums, the venning of similarities versus the "drops-away syndrome," & etc.

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