Archive for March, 2016


Carpe Diem, Autumn's Last Flowers, oil on linen, 30" x 52"

Carpe Diem, Autumn’s Last Flowers, oil on linen, 30″ x 52″

To the same collector in Connecticut. For sales, it’s been the best consecutive 18 months I’ve ever had thanks to Jim and Jinny Hall at Oxford Gallery.


Breaking Free, Cutting Loose, oil on linen, 49" x 49"

Breaking Free, Cutting Loose, oil on linen, 49″ x 49″

To a collector in Connecticut.

40 years later

Yellow Hat, 1936, Normal Lewis

Yellow Hat, 1936, Norman Lewis

The reappraisal of Norman Lewis, decades after his death, nice story from CBS.

Blast from the past

Young Possum

Young Possum

Henry James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

–T.S. Eliot

I reread “The Beast in the Jungle” today, after being reminded of it by reading John McGahern’s “The Wine Breath,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1977. So I was led back to this quote from Eliot, which I’ve always loved. We need more and more painters who have that same kind of intelligence.

The Fenniak blues

strata, 2015, oil on panel, 24 x 32, Forum Gallery

This is an uncharacteristic still life at Paul Fenniak’s show comprised mostly of dream-like narrative scenes of people who seem adrift or maybe sleepwalking and not at all sure what to think about it, now at Forum Gallery. The texture of the paint itself evokes the texture of the folded cloth and what appears to be a strip of foam rubber carpet pad he’s slipped in near the top. Likewise, the lyrical column of blues and purples on the right, representing the nearest wall, relies on scumbled layers of paint to give you the feel of plaster. So many blues flickering in that chiaroscuro.

Juried exhibition

viridianAt my old haunt, Viridian. Deadline, April 9.


Paint matters

Harvard Murals, Mark Rothko

Harvard Murals, Mark Rothko

There’s no substitute for the actual painting. The physicality of paint matters. This was nicely put earlier this month in a letter to the editor from The New Yorker, Feb. 1, 2016,


In discussing the digital component of the artist Josh Kline’s work, which relies on technology that doesn’t yet exist, Ben Lerner makes a comparison to the computer-generated restoration of the “Harvard Murals,” a suite of paintings by Mark Rothko. In the early nineteen-sixties, as an apprentice in the conservation department of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, I was among the crew that worked with Rothko on the installation. Lerner describes the murals’ recent exhibition at the Harvard Art Museum, in which color that was fading was made more vivid by the projection of computer-generated hues. Lerner suggests that the original art may not be necessary if projectors could produce the same effects. As the former head of conservation at the Harvard University Art Museums, I disagree. I maintain that the experiment with projected color brought us closer to that of the originals. Lerner did not see the exhibition, but, had he been there, he would have been able to experience the haptic effect of Rothko’s brushwork, seen on a huge scale. The colored light did not obscure the painter’s application of layers of various media—egg white, glue-size, oil—that suffuse the clouded, glowing expanse of canvas. Hue and substance were reintegrated. Though Lerner questions whether “the present’s notion of its past and future are changeable fictions,” he gives short shrift to the aim of conservationists, which is to find ever more accurate and responsible methods of preserving and restoring original works of art.

Marjorie B. Cohn Arlington, Mass.

Creative myopia

Bill Santelli and Bill Stephens, at Tom Insalaco's home

Bill Santelli and Bill Stephens, at Tom Insalaco’s home

The three of us visited Tom Insalaco in Canandaigua and had lunch. What I took away was Tom’s comment during lunch: “An artist has to be myopic.” Yes. It’s the hardest thing: to eliminate the distractions, focus on painting as the dominant activity in life, and narrow the creative range to exactly what you most want to do–but I think he really meant to say, don’t venture off track, in the work itself, often or for long. They were looking through the deep stack of marvelous portrait drawings Tom does every morning, working on them before breakfast. It’s his way of waking up.

Love and marriage at Maker’s

stephens work

Bill Santelli and I paid our first visit to Maker’s Gallery and Studio this week to get a look at a diptych by Bill and Jean Stephens, part of a “Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show” curated by Alex and Anni Gruttadaro, the gallery’s owners. They’ve created a hospitable and friendly place to see work and hang out, part living room, part studio, part coffee bistro. Alex literally did plumbing, woodwork and helped pour the concrete countertops for his space, and it has the raw-finished feel of a contemporary urban loft, with painted brick walls and exposed rafters. (Alex drives a Ford F150 and works as a contractor to support his painting and the gallery.) Alex and Anni, who opened the gallery last summer and use it as their studio, contributed a diptych of their own, a pair of half-nudes, showing Alex side-by-side with Anni, their faces and most of their anatomy cropped out of the image, beautifully done, with subtle modeling of the figures and a faint wallpaper pattern for a background, hinting at Kehinde Wylie, but pleasantly lacking his postmodern irony. All of the work in the show is fascinating, but I came specifically to see the contribution from Bill and Jean.

Their collaboration was a surprising increase in scale–Bill has been experimenting with improvisational line drawings over the past year, mostly in small sketchbooks, often accompanied by text. This time the work is larger, leaving more space at the center for Jean to elaborate on the rocks she places inside these husks that remind me of dried milkweed pods. I’ve admired what Bill has been doing with the smaller drawings, the intricate, imaginary organic spaces he creates using fine-point pens: my sense is that they evolve as he puts down marks, with a general shape in mind, like a jazz riff meandering around a melody. With the concentrated muted colors of Jean’s rock at the center, the images serve as a perfect fulfillment of the idea for the show: how a man and woman can work together, in life and art, creating something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Jean has been doing a series of bird’s nests for quite a while, and the polarity of egg/nest in those images becomes even stronger in this diptych, so that these two drawings become almost a deconstruction of her usual work. The egg in her earlier nests here becomes a heart-shaped rock, colorful as a hatched bird with folded wings, but permanently earthbound. The protecting swaddle of the swirling twigs becomes Bill’s intricate and less confining fretwork. This shape, and many of his other drawings, remind me of a milkweed pod after it launches seeds into the wind–the botanical equivalent of a nest. The image is warm, inviting, and complete, but without an easy stability. It plays with the idea of a nest the way Picasso played with a face, creating uncertainties and multiple points of view. If you look the drawings long enough, you realize Jean’s rocks cast shadows over Bill’s line drawings, in a trompe l’oeil effect, flattening his lines back into the surface of the paper as her rocks seem to rise up and out into all three dimensions, even as they stay in place.  (A nice metaphor for most negotiations with my wife.) It may have been created to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but this work suggests the happy teamwork and truces of marriage far more than romance, and it resonates less with Cupid’s heat than the isometric warmth of enduring love.

“Diptych: A Valentine’s Day Group Show,” featuring the work of artist couples Bill + Jean Stephens, Alex + Ani Gruttadaro, Cordell + Rachel Cordaro, Clay Patrick McBride + Sarah Keane, Rob + MandiAntonucci, and Duncan + Alisia Chase. “Diptych” opens on Valentine’s Day, which is Sunday, February 14, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and continues through March 14.

Islamic art


Je Est Un Autre

Je Est Un Autre

I is an other. — Rimbaud

In my current re-immersion in Matisse, I’ve been reminded of how deeply he was influenced by the East, both in his Tangier sojourn, and in a journey he made to an historic exhibit of Islamic art in Munich, in 1910. He embraced the hedonism of sunny Tangier, but he was also moved by the peace and order of its religious imagery. He discovered the power of pattern–as a way to free himself from post-Impressionism, reaching for abstraction without completely surrendering to it, and he recognized how what may seem purely decorative can become laden with subtle meaning unavailable to the Western tradition, at least until the 20th century. The mathematics embodied in Islamic designs are assumed to be serendipitous anticipation of geometric insights developed in the 20th century, or were a visualization of math within Islamic intellectual culture (Persian society once considered science and mathematical exploration to be an integral, central part of human life). I’ve always been drawn the fractal patterns of Persian carpets my larger still lifes because of the suggestion that math and science are consistent with a vision of life as sacred. Braque and Burchfield rooted their work, as well, in decorative elements that bore far more meaning than mere ornament: Braque’s father had been a house painter, and he apprenticed early on with a master decorator–his ability to mimic various surfaces of marble, stucco, and wallpaper became crucial in his mature work where it gave the flat surface of a painting a timeless resonance, like a fossil record of daily life, far beyond its representational signifiers. Burchfield, as well, worked as a wallpaper designer, as a source of income, and his emphasis on patterns becomes one of the crucial ways he conveys forces of nature in his most original watercolors–summer insect sounds look like arabesques of rising smoke. In my Googling, I happened across this site of a contemporary artist also deeply influenced by Islamic art: Navine G. Khan Dossos, aka, Vanessa Hodgkinson. As it did for Matisse, Islamic art frees her to find color harmonies that would probably be unavailable in a more representational image, and the effect is musical. She relies on qualities of Islamic “decorative” design, but in a conceptual and more political way. I love the color and the self-effacing way it’s presented in regular grids–how individual expression surrenders the stage to the discipline of repetition and regularity. Echoes of Stella, and many others, as well as Mecca. And like Blake, she forsakes oil in favor of water-based paint, with an affection, similar to his, for the early and mid-Renaissance. For me, the effect seems closer to Byzantine mosaics.