From Mosaic to Man

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Untitled (Two Figures on Mosaic Background), oil on wood mounted on wood shingle, c. 1953, 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

From Mosaic to Man on view at Lori Bookstein Fine Art is a seminal examination of the painter Jan Müller’s (1922-1958) transformative style. The exhibition features a group of early paintings and late that highlight Müller’s transition from painting colorful mosaic-like abstractions to incorporating blatant representational imagery.

Müller is considered to be one of the first practitioners to realize the conflation of both figurative and abstract expressionism during the early 1950s. Upon arriving in New York and Provincetown’s flourishing artist community, the German refugee found artistic kinship from his fellow native countryman Hans Hofmann. Müller studied with Hofmann at his school from 1940 to 1950, and the two German-born painters had great admiration for each other, despite consistent disagreements and passionate debates regarding their diverse ideas about painting. Müller stated (published in Marika Herskovic’s 2009 survey, American Abstract and Figurative Expressionism) “The artist … cannot take flight to the Elysian Fields of the preciousness of perfection, the prism of the eye, but has to deal with matter complex.” This quote was in stark contrast to the dialectic that Clement Greenberg was espousing at the time, which celebrated formalism – taught by Hofmann and employed by Pollock, Rothko, and others – as being rendered pure because it removed itself from all extrinsic effects. Another quote by Müller (published in “Airless Despair,” Time, 2 February, 1962) elaborated “Abstraction is no longer enough for me. So I am returning to the image. The image gives me a wider sense of communication.”

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This Art’s Not Kosher

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Boris Lurie, Big No Painting, 1963, oil and paper on canvas, 65 1/2 x 85 in. Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York © Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York.

This art’s not Kosher, and that ain’t a bad thing either for the spectrum of artists in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition titled Unorthodox. To quote Jens Hoffmann the museum’s Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs:

Unorthodox does not comment on Jewish religious orthodoxy or critique it, but takes its inspiration from the Jewish tradition of dialogue and debate to investigate the impact of unorthodox concepts on orthodox systems. Unorthodox aims to break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo.”

So just how does one define the status quo these days where the art world is not as clear cut as it was during the 20th century and centuries prior? For me it is defined by two separate yet equal courses, academia and economics. Art School and the Art Market are the driving forces of dogmatic art discussions today. In some cases, rebellion and “unorthodox” approaches are rewarded. For example, the Hairy Who as well as Peter Saul are enjoying a honeymoon within the art establishment. Their work was hard to digest during their time, but today it is revered, as it well should be, for its forward thinking and groundbreaking aesthetic vocabulary. However, there are many times when the rebellion and maverick nature of an artist or a group of artists is the disdain of academic and institutional tastemakers. Often times, the disdain comes from the fact that the work is non-linear to the canon of Western Art or seen as too grotesque.

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Post-War Humanism Revisited at MoMA

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Jan Muller, Walpurgisnacht – Faust I, 1956, oil on canvas

The devil is in the details in Jan Müller’s grandiose painting  Walpurgisnacht—Faust I (1956), which is the centerpiece of an exhibition called Soldier, Spectre, Shaman at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition – curated byLucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints – is a rare peek into MoMA’s collection of post World War II figurative art. What bonds these works is their concern for humanity in an age of crisis. The artists in this exhibition express sadness, confusion, anger, and complex reactions, as a result of being witnesses to the horrors of the second deadly world war.

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Maryan S. Maryan

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

As this blog reflects on the past and present artists whose work is/was largely expressive and full of socially charged Humanist imagery, one perfect candidate for discussion is Maryan S. Maryan. I first heard of Maryan through discussions with both Rhino Horn co-founder Peter Passuntino, and the late Figurative Expressionist Irving Kriesberg. Passuntino had brought up his name immediately as the first response to a question I had posed while I was initially interviewing the members of Rhino Horn. The question was “which other contemporary artists would you have included in Rhino Horn?”  While Maryan never did become a member, Passuntino always held his work in such high regard. While his unabashed paintings are a sight to behold, Maryan’s biography makes for just as remarkable of a story.

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From the Archives: Counter Currents

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Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.

A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis.  Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.

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Naked at the Edge

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2″ x 26 1/2″

The current show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery embraces the arrival of Autumn in a warm and exhilarating fashion. Naked at the Edge is a two person show of two very distinct American painters, Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). While the two painters never crossed paths, their work shares many similar elements.

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8″ x 36 3/8″

The colors and subject matter in each of the artists’ paintings comes right in time for the Fall season, which is also the beginning of the gallery season here in New York. Eilshemius used earth tones, specifically muted greens, blues and browns in his fantastical landscapes of nudes, nymphs, and mythological beings. Thompson’s early palette reflected dark earthy tones, but they soon made way for the Fauvist inspired hues that became his signature style.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s amazing exhibition space allows both of the artists to have ample room, while also allowing a very intimate viewing. In fact the show views both as two distinct solo shows as well as one overarching exhibition that joins these two seminal painters who were generations apart, in a contemporary dialog with one another.

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Allen M. Hart

Self Portrait at Age 87

Self Portrait at Age 87

“Art to me is an adventure in which I attempt to unearth the darker realm of consciousness with irony and the absurd.” – Allen M. Hart (1925-2014)

Allen M. Hart explored the physical and metaphysical world for nearly nine decades and has an incredible art historical account to show for it. Born in 1925 in New York City, Hart studied at the prestigious Art Students League from 1940 to 1948 studying with influential and renowned artist-teachers Frank Vincent DuMond, Anne Goldthwaite, and Jean Liberte. In 1944, Hart was included in a group show at Gallery Neuf on East 79th street and met Peggy Guggenheim, who became interested in his paintings. In 1948 Hart made his first sojourn to Mexico where he connected with the artists Ignacio Aguerre, Pablo O’Higgins, Frida Kahlo, Mendez, and Siqueros; became member of the Talle Graphicos in Mexico City; and had a solo show in 1950 at the Museum of Michoacan in Morelia. Reflecting on his experiences submersed in Mexican Modernist culture, Allen said he felt at home there and had a deep respect and admiration for indigenous people. Additionally, the politically left leaning artistic community of Mexico City had a long lasting influence on Hart’s work, which is in part, fueled by socially engaged themes and poignant Humanist metaphors.

After meeting his wife Mildred in 1952 at his solo show at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, the couple traveled extensively. They settled in Spain and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When they moved back to New York, Hart became the director of the Visual Arts Center (Greenwich Village), where he administered the Children’s Aid Society program for 30 years (1969 to 1999).

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Rhino Horn: A Lineage to Humanist Figurative Art

Had the Rhino Horn group continued on what artists would have been a likely fit? That is a question that I have asked each of the Rhino Horn group founders, and that we’ve often discussed when speaking about their contemporaries. The criteria for being in Rhino Horn was vague, and stylistically, while the majority of the work was Expressionism, there were notable exceptions (the realism of Bowman and the existential surrealism of Fauerbach). The artists were more focused on bypassing the commercially driven art scene and achieving complete artistic freedom for their work to be experienced as they intended.

Being a small group, it became a fairly big challenge for all of the members to agree on adding new ones. They ultimately agreed to enlist Leonel Gongora, Bill Barrell, Joseph Kurhajec, June Leaf, and Isser Aronovici. Some other artists who have been mentioned by the former members were Irving Kriesberg, Christopher Lane, Emilio Cruz, Pinchas Burstein (known later as Maryan S. Maryan), and Philip Sherrod. These artists were either discussed and ultimately not chosen, or they turned down the offer to exhibit with the group. Regardless, the aforementioned artists were supporters and friends of the Rhino Horn group, and are also considered seminal parts of the Humanist movement.

This question was one of the inspirations for the series of recent posts featuring contemporary figurative painters and sculptors with a Humanist element in their work (See Connecting Figures: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I am constantly looking at the work of a wide variety of artists whose work adds to the lineage and visual vocabulary of the expressionists in the Rhino Horn group as well as other maverick groups like No! Art, and The Hairy Who. Every contemporary artist who has been featured on this blog could arguably make sense in the context of these earlier groups.

The intent is that this blog will be a subjective and ongoing survey on Humanist and figurative art from the era of Rhino Horn through today. I’ve found these artists that I have featured through a variety of sources (going to MFA open studios, gallery hopping, the internet, and word of mouth). Therefore, I am incredibly open to suggestions by artists, curators, and art historians. Feel free to comment or email me with any suggestions or links to work. If you’d like to see who has been featured, please read the three aforementioned posts as well as the following: Q+A With Jason A Maas, Reclaiming the Racist Flag (John Sims and Sonya Clark), and Dialogue with Joshua Peters.  Stay tuned for many more upcoming interviews and features of today’s artists who expand the discourse that Rhino Horn and earlier groups presented.

Reclaiming The Racist Flag

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Cliff Joseph, The Superman, 1966, oil on canvas, 48 x 24 inches

Iconic symbols represent an archetypal meaning and/or have a collective cultural definition. Often times due to a vast range of ideologies, these symbols become dualities.

For example, the swastika is known in Western culture as a symbol of hate and in many Eastern civilizations as a sign of peace. The two uses of the symbol couldn’t be further apart. Depending on its context and use, this symbol can be interpreted in different ways. The Nazi’s adopted an ancient symbol, sacred to Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, and as a result have stigmatized this symbol of non-violence through the violent extermination of Jews, homosexuals, and other minority groups. In Sanskrit svastika, means “good fortune” or “well-being.”

Today, the swastika has been upheld by factions of white supremacist groups as an emblem for their racist and anti-Semitic ideologies. Similarly, many of these groups display the confederate flag, a symbol with a deeply rooted history of slavery and racism.

Artists use signs and symbols within the context of a piece as a powerful statement. Most frequently, the use of these images are interpreted as liberal or progressive leaning, however there have been some notable exceptions.

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June Leaf

Installation Shot of June Leaf's

Installation Shot of June Leaf’s “Recent Work” at Edward Thorp Gallery, New York.

June Leaf is an enigma in the contemporary art world. Her career spans more than six decades and crosses the boundary between Post-WWII Modernism and today’s contemporary scene, yet she is still greatly under recognized. Leaf was making art that embodied feminist ideas and imagery before there was a critical discourse on feminist issues in art. However, while distinct connections can be made, Leaf is not often referenced as a key influence when mentioning her renowned successors like Kiki Smith, Daisy Youngblood, and Marlene Dumas. However, it was pioneers like June Leaf and her Chicago contemporaries Nancy Spero and Mary Beth Edelson who paved the way for many of today’s great female artists.

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