Archive for July 2009
An artist can transform our vision. It’s something we’ve all experienced, following a great exhibit. We walk out of the show and into the street; our visual perception has been changed, or our normal mindset has been subverted. That’s what I like about art.
Sometimes, the artist’s work is so elemental, so…essential and minimal, that we see it everywhere. Such is the case with Larry Bell. After all, Bell’s true medium is reflected light. He’s also concerned with the right angle, and defies anyone to deny its importance in the built environment.
Soon after I selected and installed our first Larry Bell show in 2006, I was sitting at a small dining table, and gazing at the array of water and wine glasses. The vessels were illuminated by a raking late afternoon light from a Venice window. I saw how the light had penetrated the rich amber of the wine, and cast that pale color across the tablecloth. I saw how the reflection of one glass was captured on the surface of another. And, I saw my own reflection in the water glass. I had to thank Larry for that moment of presence and immediacy.
It never goes away. There are always moments to pause and see the reflected light in our everyday environment. If I am driving at night on a rainy street, the tail lights and streetlamps are a woozy reflection on the pavement. If I happen to glance at the wall in the gallery, I might catch a reflection of light from a car windshield, through our front doors, and onto the entry wall. Bell has often addressed these qualities of light in his work with glass—or his “Vapor Drawings”.
Or, I might be in Minneapolis, taking a tour of art museums. I happened to glance at the intriguing surface of the Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron addition to the Walker Center. I was scanning the raised surface of the perforated metal panels on the exterior. There, amid the grid of the architects’ materials, was the outline of an early Larry Bell shape: the rectangle with corners sliced off—Bell’s precursor to the Cubes.
When Peter Voulkos began to exhibit his large-scale works in the mid-1950s, he had already been recognized as a leading potter in the U.S. Voulkos won prizes at the National Ceramic Exhibition, as well as a Gold Medal at the International Exposition of Ceramics in Cannes, France. Yet, during this time he also absorbed many influences, from Flamenco to Jazz, and from Picasso to Abstract Expressionism.
An early article in Craft Horizons, published in October 1956, has many quotes from Peter. This is the period of time when Voulkos was breaking away from craft traditions, so he had a lot to say about his working method. One quote that has stayed with me is this:
“The minute you begin to understand what you’re doing it loses that searching quality. You have to forget about the little technical problems that don’t matter—you’ve overcome them long ago anyway. You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned with keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”
Voulkos kept to this way of working throughout his life, freely improvising like a musician. His straightforward, powerful and direct way of working was later characterized by Ken Price as “direct frontal onslaught”. I recently found this 1984 photo, from Peter’s show at the Faith and Charity in Hope Gallery—a gallery owned and operated by Edward Kienholz and his wife Nancy. Kienholz not only admired Voulkos’ work, he owned a work from 1958.
I’ve given a little bit of background on Betty Asher in my last post, regarding the sophisticated sensibilities of certain Californians—a group that definitely included Ken Price and Betty Asher. I’ve also posted previously an amazing group photo from a field trip to Las Vegas with Marcel Duchamp. In the Archives of American Art interview with Betty by Thomas Garver, she describes the evening:
“At dinner we went to the Stardust and they have the follies or something, a girlie theater, and I was sitting next to Marcel at the table and the picture is a result of one of those girls in short skirts coming around with a big camera to take pictures. And just as she was about to click, I put my arm around Marcel, my fingertips very gingerly touched his shoulder because I didn’t want him to know that I was doing this, so I have this nice picture of Marcel with my arm around him.”
Asher’s collection of early Pop paintings, important works by sculptors such as Larry Bell, and ceramics (teapots, cups—famously—and figurative sculpture) was housed until the end of her life in an open and spacious condominium in Beverly Hills. I visited there during the early 1990s, and saw the variety of work—from a Jasper Johns Flag to a Philip Guston painting, from a Larry Bell to an Ed Ruscha. Betty continued collecting Ken Price’s work. Her legendary collection of cups, many of which are now in the LACMA permanent collection, was prominently displayed. In an archive, I have found this photo of her living room.
In the late 1970s, along with business partner Patricia Faure, Betty Asher opened a gallery at 8221 Santa Monica Boulevard. Their idea was “to have not only our own small group of young artists, or artists we represented who wouldn’t necessarily have to be young. In addition to that we wanted to work with New York dealers in a way that hadn’t been done before. We wanted to bring work that we liked and that hadn’t been seen for a long time, or ever, in the Los Angeles area, to our gallery…” Asher recalled in the AAA interview.
Later, the gallery moved to Almont in West Hollywood. A new voluminous space was constructed behind a small bungalow, and Betty and Patricia Faure continued their exhibition program. Remarkably, they exhibited many ceramic artists, including Viola Frey, Marilyn Levine, and others–in addition to sculpture by Joel Shapiro and Michael McMillen, and paintings by Joe Goode, Margaret Nielsen, and dozens of others. I’ve been able to research these shows, and scan some of the images from the Asher Faure archives. The image shown here is the installation of monumental figurative work by Viola Frey, which Asher championed during the 1980s, and also collected herself.
What’s fascinating is to compare that same room—the aforementioned gallery space behind the West Hollywood bungalow—when it has an installation of paintings by Craig Kauffman. In the next image, we can see a series of paintings by Craig Kaffman playfully known as the “cage paintings”—a loose, open architecture of painted lines that resemble the framing of a structure. Kauffman, an artist who exhibited many times at Asher Faure, has often used the skipping, playful line in his work. It’s great for me to remember this exhibit, and the integration of ceramics and painting at the Asher Faure Gallery.
I’ve been reading my way through huge piles of old catalogue essays, curatorial statements, and reviews about art in the 1960s. I have an interest in these things from a dealer’s point of view, to be sure. After all, many of the artists that we represent were very active during that period of time. The way that their work is presently perceived is often a result of the statements made by critics, curators and writers from the 1960s. But I have a personal interest in the art and artists of the 60s, since that is my “point of entry”. I grew up then, and cut my teeth on contemporary art at the old Pasadena Art Museum.
I never tire of Peter Schjeldahl, and whether I come across his writing in an old catalogue or a new article in the New Yorker, it is poetic and insightful. One of the best articles has the unfortunately over-used title “Feats of Clay” (anyone who reads a lot of ceramic artists’ resumes has seen that show title far too many times). The October 6, 2003 New Yorker essay’s subject is the ceramic art of Ken Price. I keep a copy around the gallery, and ruthlessly photocopy it for clients and collectors. At the beginning of the fourth paragraph, Schjeldahl states succinctly:
“Price has always been a tough sell in New York, and is practically unknown in Europe, owing to a hardwired prejudice in the art world against ceramics as a minor, retrograde medium. To overeducated eyes, a perceived relation of an art object to conventions of domestic function is corny unless pointedly ironic. Other cultures—Japanese and Chinese, Mexican and Southwest Native American—have not shared this bias. Alertness to those traditions is a richly civilized element of certain Californian sensibilities. Price’s art, witty and sophisticated while shunning irony, is grounded in the aesthetic quiddity of ceramics. Painting exercises the eye; sculpture echoes the body. Ceramics express and are addressed to the hand.”
It’s something that I read again today, after researching the Archives of American Art interview with Betty Asher, a formidable force in the history of Los Angeles Art. Betty Asher was an influential curator, collector, and dealer (in his appreciation for the Los Angeles Times, following Asher’s passing in 1994, critic Christopher Knight knowingly acknowledged her as a “triple threat”). Asher was one of the first people to collect Pop Art, as is often cited, but began collecting before that movement. She chronicled the many ventures of her collecting history in an interview with Thomas Garver for the Archives of American Art. I think it is a great way to begin to understand, indeed, the more sophisticated Californian sensibility, in which ceramics were given space in celebrated collections as well as significant galleries. Asher, of course, exhibited many artists whose primary medium was fired clay—such as Viola Frey, Marilyn Levine, and Richard Shaw, among others. That part of her collection must have stemmed from her familiarity with the work of Ken Price. Here’s the passage in the AAA interview:
“BETTY ASHER: Well, probably the first large painting I bought was a Lobdell, and it was a large black painting. And then I bought Bob Irwin and Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.
THOMAS H. GARVER: Now this is not the late fifties.
BETTY ASHER: That probably was early sixties, right. But late fifties was Lobdell. And I got interested in Kenny Price, and the entire group at Ferus, you know.”
I’ll be posting some examples of the Asher Faure Gallery’s integration of ceramics with painting and other sculpture—following along from the posts about Felix Landau, Ferus, and Janus Gallery.
(Note: Ken Price works shown: above, left: Untitled, 1961, glazed and painted ceramic, private collection, photo by Alan Shaffer, and above, right:Untitled Geometric Cup, 1972, glazed ceramic, private collection, photo by Alan Shaffer. Images in this post are copyrighted by Kenneth Price, and used with permission of the artist.)