Many words can be written about the work of American artist June Leaf. She has maintained a visionary style since emerging as a seminal contingent of post-WWII American artists committed to representational imagery through uniquely expressive means. It’s due time that she’s getting recognition on a grand scale with a major exhibition at The Whitney and a career survey at the Edward Thorp Gallery, where she is represented. Below is a visual essay of the current June Leaf exhibition at Edward Thorp Gallery. The show is on view through June 4, 2016.
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.”
Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Men, 2015. White ceramic tile, black soap, wax, 47 1/2 x 34 1/2 x 2 inches © Rashid Johsnon, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Martin Parsekian
The monochromatic chaotic faces of Rashid Johnson’s “Anxious Men” evoke a feeling that is at once relatable to the contemporary human condition. In our current state of crisis, these portraits project complex issues of identity, fear, and uncertainty. They are Johnson’s way of discussing his own biography and the complexity of the black male identity today. This recent exhibition at The Drawing Center of this series is the artist’s most figurative work to date.
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.
Zhang Hongtu’s first major U.S. exhibition at the Queens Museum is close to home for the 74 year old artist. Although Hongtu was born and raised in China, he’s been living in New York City since 1982 and his studio is in Woodside Queens. Outside of Asia, New York has the largest Chinese population in the world. Although there are many cultural differences between the East an the West, it is this “East meets West” phenomenon is where Hongtu’s personal style comes through most poignantly.
Hongtu was born in 1943 in Pingliang a prefecture-level city in eastern Gansu, China. His father, Zhang Bingduo, was a devout Muslim who advocated the religion’s practice by opening Arabic schools throughout China. The Zhang family’s fortune took a downturn when Chairman Mao Zedong began his “Great Leap Forward” campaign in 1958. The fact that the family were Muslim in an atheist state significantly hindered the family’s status. Furthermore during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in 1966 (due to the social and economic failures of his Great Leap Forward) brought upon more woes for Hongtu and his family. For his father, this signified the end of his tenure as the Vice President of the National Muslim Association. The Zhang family stopped speaking of religion in the house. At the time, Hongtu was student at the Beijing’s Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, and his studies were abruptly brought to an end by the initiation of the “Cultural Revolution.”
His current solo exhibition opens with his pivotal series depicting Chairman Mao during the late 1980’s to early 1990’s called Long Live Mao Zedong. The exhibition illuminates the artist’s personal and collective experiences during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” as well as his feelings of alienation from being a Muslim in Mao’s China and later from his immigration to New York City.
Quaker Oats Mao, 1987. From the series Long Live Chairman Mao. Acrylic on Quaker Oats box. 9.75 x 5 in. Private collection
Relationships between artists aren’t often easy and many artists will express that they would prefer not to be in a relationship with another artist. After all, the saying “opposites attract” is one that holds true for many couples. However, when I met Robert Henry and Selina Trieff, I was moved by how they married their love for art and one another over the course of six decades. Since the day these two artists met in class at Brooklyn College during the 1950s, they were inseparable, passionately supporting each other inside and outside of the studio. Their story is nothing short of inspiring so I was overjoyed when I came across this video on YouTube by Whitney J. Fox documenting the love that Bob and Selina had for each other and their art.
Today in observance of National Cat Day is a 1977 expressionist painting by former Rhino Horn artist Bill Barrell. Barrell’s monochromatic painting depicts his nephew Tad inside of the artist’s “cat room.” The story behind the painting is a whimsical tale that begins with the artist looking for a way to pay the rent on his studio and living space when he moved back to New York City. His solution: to board cats inside of his Long Island City loft. This proved to be a profitable endeavor for Barrell and he was able to move back into Manhattan on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Once back in SoHo, Barrell built an even bigger room for boarding cats! If that’s not a New York story, then I don’t know what is! The painting itself is a strong precursor to the Neo-Expressionist movement that would sweep through New York City in the 1980s.
Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches
The following is a personal account from Bill Barrell’s blog published on 8/22/10:
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).
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.
In continuation of the first installment of contemporary figurative humanist painting, here are some more profiles of figurative Humanist artists whose works react to a myriad of social conditions. This time, I am also including the work of figurative sculptors. The aim is for this to be a continuing series because there are so many artists to feature. This post features: Eben Kling, Reva Castillenti, Brian Kokoska, Patrick Webb, Linda Stojak, and Jordan Casteel.