17 May 2017

Springtime Comes To The North















The first time I looked at this photograph, I thought it might have been made by Daniel Nyblin (1856-1923).  Nyblin is known outside his home country of Finland mostly to fans of early photography but there is something about his  images of flat lands and buildings, anchored at water's edge, made small under a vast vault of sky that stays with you once you have seen them.   In spite of that characteristic suggestion of endless space, St. Petersburg is only three hours away.
But, pleasant as it is to be reminded of Nyblin's  work, I had jumped to a wrong conclusion, two of them actually.  The photographer was an American named Aubrey Bodine, who worked for many years at the Baltimore Sun.  The photograph, taken along the coast of Nova Scotia, is of another continent altogether.  Still, a northern landscape, at least!   

Images:
1. Aubrey Bodine - Springtime in Nova Scotia, 1952, Minneapolis Institute of Art.
2. Daniel Nyblin - Overrsvommelse i Borsesje i Leirkup Gjerpensdalen, February 1923 (?), Telemark, Museum, Ragnvald.


09 May 2017

Music Under The Radar: Alice Coltrane

I first heard the music of  Alice Coltrane when I was a student, doing my homework by the radio; she had recorded several times before and I had certainly heard the music of her (by then) late husband, saxophonist John Coltrane, but until I heard her album Eternity I had no idea what she did.  As varied and impressive as the music was - from the Afro-Cuban percussion propelling Los Caballos, Coltrane's musical tribute to the elegance and playfulness of a horse's movements, to Spring Rounds, her orchestral version of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  with   shimmering washes of harmony - nothing affected me like the opening piece Spiritual Eternal.  
Here Coltrane  plays the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument that, until she adopted  it, got even less respect from  jazz musicians than the Hammond B-3.  It begins with a series of modal arpeggios that move seemingly at random until they are resolved by a large orchestra entrance and they all join in playing a jazz waltz.  No Dixieland band this, the orchestra's  blend of brass and strings takes some inspiration from the Society Orchestra of James Reese Europe (1891-1919), the man Eubie Blake christened "the Martin Luther King of jazz."   Coltrane's solo playing soars with the jagged drive of bebop, a music she heard growing up in Detroit, deployed in her quest to make  universal music, along the way incorporating  Indian classical raga, blues, and the occasional Viennese twelve-tone row.   This is definitely not dance music but by the time  the last glorious long-drawn out note fades, I am never sitting.

I never wanted to miss the Wednesday evening  program on WAER-FM,  the  Syracuse University radio station.  Hosted by a woman, something unusual in 1976, the hour was crammed with music I still love:  harpist Dorothy Ashby,  heard on Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life, pianist and composer Jessica Williams, then in her San Francisco phase recording as Jessica Jennifer Williams, and vocalists Esther Satterfield (The Land Of Make Believe) and from Brazil, Flora Purim (Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, Nothing Will Be As It Was Tomorrow).

From Spiritual Eternal, I worked my way backward to her first recording as a leader, A Monastic Trio (1968) and the transcendental Journey In Satchidananda (1970), discovering along the way her other instruments, the harp played with feather-weight glissandi (remember those arpeggios), so different from the strong melodic line of Dorothy Ashby, and the piano.  Coltrane, I learned, had replaced the titanic McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's quartet  the year before his death, something that certain Coltrane fans equated with the snake in the garden. For this, and for her experiments with the note-bending capabilities of modular synthesizers, she remained outside the jazz mainstream for the rest of her life.  That Alice Coltrane needed to become a leader in order to have a group to play with after her husband's death in 1967, seemed unworthy of comment at the time.  It makes me think of an exchange between contemporary trio leader Michele Rosewoman and a an unnamed male musician: who he asked her  "What's with this all-woman thing?" as her group was setting up for a performance.   Rosewoman turned and gestured toward his band with the reply "What's with this all-man thing?". 

A strong spiritual element of one sort or another had been in Alice's musical life from childhood.  Born Alice McLeod in Alabama in 1937, she joined  her mother i playing pinao and organ for their church choir after the family moved to Detroit.  At the same time,  Alice  played jazz dates in local clubs.  Sister  Marilyn McLeod became a songwriter for Motown Records; her hits include Love Hangover for Diana Ross and Same Ole' Love for Anita Baker.  

When Alice met John Coltrane, the two joined were joined togetherin seeking  transcendence in non-Western religious books such as  the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and writings on Zen Buddhism Alice would ultimately find a home in Hinduism and founded a Vedantic Ccnter in California, where she lived until her death in 2007.   Musicians Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra pursued a similar quest for a system of belief that could free black people from the oppression they were subjected to in America.  This is what Su Ra meant when he declared, "Space is the place."

After 1978, and the move to Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane seldom recorded but, thanks to the encouragement of her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, she recorded one final album, Transilinear Light.
Listen to Alice Coltrane - Spiritual Eternal from Eternity, 1976. 
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2017,  has just been released  by Luaka Bop Records

Images:
1, unidentified photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Journey In Satchidananda, 1970, Impulse Records.
2. Jeff Dunas, photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Translinear Light, 2004, Impulse Records.



01 May 2017

Marisol, Our Contemporary

When the current Whitney Biennial opened on March 17 in Manhattan after three years of preparation, its theme  "(the) creation of the self" seemed  hermetic and out of touch, especially coming from people who think of themselves and their preoccupations as driving the culture.   This moment, as it turns out, calls for a kind of engagement with the world.
A month before, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood had asked  What Art Under Trump? in The Nation, reopening an old debate.  Artists, she pointed out,  have often been lectured on their moral duty.  Atwood didn't invoke The Metamorphosis Of The Gods by the late Andre Malraux but she could have.   Malraux traced the path taken by the divine aura from the ancient world to art museums as our relationship to the divine has been transformed into a a veneration of objects. The sacralization of contemporary art is about money.   Paintings, books, theater, and films, are not inherently sacred, no matter what price  they command in the marketplace, although they have in the past served religious  functions, in ancient Greek theater and medieval cathedrals, to name two instances.  


A recent bequest to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo seems like a more response to the moment.   When Marisol Escobar died last year, she left  more than 100 of her sculptures, some 150 works on paper, thousands of photographs and slides, and a small group of works by other artists that she collected to the Albright-Knox. The bequest also includes the artist’s archive, library, tools, and the artist's New York City loft apartment. The sale of the apartment, worth an estimated $4 million to $5 million, will bolster the art gallery's operating endowment.
Why the Albright-Knox Gallery, located some 450 miles from New York City, the place where Marisol lived for decades?  It was the first museum to acquire Marisol's work for its collection when Seymour Knox purchased The Generals in 1962.  The artist and the museum director became  friends with Marisol making frequent appearances at  openings and events there. "She was incredibly grateful to Mr. Knox for his purchase of The Generals and Baby Girl. said Carlos Brillembourg, Marisol's longtime friend and co-executor of her estate with Mimi Trujillo.  Baby Girl  also  became an instant hit when the museum purchased it in 1964.  The little girl (who is very big) dwarfs her tiny doll-like mother.  And Marisol had another link with the Queen City: throughout her career,  Marisol was represented by the gallery of Sidney Janis, a Buffalo native.

I had to crane my neck to get a good look at Simon Bolivar and George Washington  whenever I visited The Generals;  it stands seven feet three inches tall.  The brightly painted wooden sculpture evokes a smile and memories of toy soldiers, but there is serious business going on here.  Washington and Bolivar were both leaders of independence movements in the Americas, but their imagined appearance together suggests a  satirical viewpoint; these mounted leaders with their feet hanging in air may be out of touch with reality.  A Marisol sculpture, I soon recognized, is always about more than one thing at a time.

About Marisol there is the lingering sense that her successes as an artist were never commensurate with her achievements.  Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, growing up privileged on three continents, possessed of   unusual talent  and beauty, she arrived in New York to study with Hans Hofmann in 1951.  Sizing up the male art world of Abstract Expressionism, she learned to navigate its prejudices, her determination to create unbowed.  At age twenty-seven, Marisol created a series of wooden sculptures she named The Hungarians; when it was featured in Life magazine, the  artist sitting surrounded by the wooden figures struck a nerve.    At her left was a family on a wheeled platform that could have been a train or perhaps a bus.  An image of attempted escape is implied; a mother cradles an infant while the father stands behind a toddler, but where will they go?  The Soviet Army had recently invaded Hungary and  the world  watched in horror but failed to respond to tanks rolling through the capital city Budapest, crushing bodies and spirits alike.  Surely it is no accident that in Marisol's work, the people who are trapped are looking at us.
Because the art world caught up with Marisol in the 1960s, her work has often been pigeon-holed with pop Art - and left there when styles changed - but her work has not dated.  Marisol  But her astute mimicry of human behavior was much deeper than a silk screen of a soup can.   Dubbed a "Latin Garbo" for her beauty, the feminist nature of her social critique has  become clearer with time. 
“Marisol was an important figure, subtly affecting change by her silence and the particularity of her position … She was the female artist star of pop art, [but] she dramatized it in a very subdued way, through her intensely quiet manner.” – Carolee Schneeman
“Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves.” – Marina Pacini, curator, Memphis Brooks Museum

In 2014, the Museo del Barrio was the first New York museum to present a solo  exhibition of Marisol’s work.

Images:
1.  unidentified photographer - Marisol touches up The Generals at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
2. unidentified photographer -  Marisol and a guest with The Generals, November 18, 1963,  courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
3. unidentified photographer, Marisol - The Generals, c.1961-62, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
4. unidentified photographer -  Marisol - Baby Girl, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.

25 April 2017

Chaud Lapin !


















"To the carrot, the rabbit is the perfect incarnation of Evil."  - Robert Sheckley. 

Add marigolds to that thought and start a list.  When I was little I was taken aback by my mother's frustration at finding her newly planted marigolds serving as lunch for the neighborhood rabbits .  "Why can't they eat the dandelions instead?" she wailed to no one in particular, certainly not the rabbits who continued nibblingly contentedly until she chased them away.  They hid under the family sedan parked in the driveway and stared up at us with what, to my six year old eyes, looked like mingled sorrow and reproach.   Why else plant luscious, low-growing flowers, if not for them?   I was so upset by this early encounter with adult insensitivity; eventually my mother promised to plant more marigolds ins spite of the predictable results.   And there were other little adversaries in the garden.  From my mother I learned that squirrels dig up spring bulbs; they eat the sweet tulip bulbs but, disdain the bitter taste of  daffodils, so they replant the bulbs in incongruous locations.  My mother was so attached to her gardens that we had to drive by houses where we had once lived just for her to see how the flowers were being cared for.

Chaud lapin translates literally from the French as 'hot rabbit' but its meaning is metaphorical; something along the lines of 'randy devil.'

The late Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was that rare exception among science fiction writers, one who had a sense of humor, albeit sometimes a dark one.  He gave one of his books the title Bring Me The Head Of Prince Charming;  I can imagine the outrage if a woman dared to use that title.

Image:
A detail from The Lady And The Unicorn, wool and silk tapestry, c.1495-1505, (Musee nationale du Moyen Age) Musee de Cluny, Paris.
The tapestries were deisgned in Paris and woven in Flanders.  They disappeared from puiblic view, only to be found by Prosper Merimiee, author of the novel Carmen, in 1841.  Merimee, it should be noted was an archeologist, among other things, when he discovered the tapestries moldering in a castle in central France.  Three years later, after George Sand saw them she began to publicize their existence.

21 April 2017

A New Daphne

"Daphne has escaped the god's embraces, which promising love would but result in ungraceful fertility." - T. E. Hulme

Like a ray of light from an unlikely source, comes this quote from T.E. Hulme.    Only the fanatic reader of English poetry or the dogged scholar now remembers  T(homas) E(rnest) Hulme today. This surprised me when I went looking for his poems recently; I remembered Hulme from my high school English literature studies.   More familiar is the term Imagism, invented by Ezra Pound to describe a new kind of poetry,  but it was Hulme who supplied the theoretical ballast.  Not that Hulme wrote that much poetry, but that he did write impressed the right people:  Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, who attested to Hulme's influence on his own work after they met in London in 1913.

That same ray of light is captured in  Imaginary Beings (Daphne) a sculpture recently created by  Neri Oxman using colored digital powders and other materials that were programmed through a 3-D printer.  Daphne appears in several ancient Greek texts, including in Ovid's Metamorphosis, but all agree that she was a water nymph who attracted the amorous god Apollo, a misfortune that led this sworn virgin  to appeal to her father to rescue her so, being a god himself, he turned her into a tree.

Oxman's Daphne glows from within,  usually portrayed as a woman with branches sprouting from her head and arms, here she becomes a source of light herself, the thing that makes photosynthesis possible, and bursts forth in ruffles of leaves.  When you realize that glass is composed of particles of silicate it is not so surprising that Oxman's bits of colored powders looks so much like glass.  You could think of this as a 21st century form of alchemy.

Oxman, who is an architect, has thought long about what makes for good design. At the MIT Media Lab, she  has created digital versions of morphological objects, combining the forms and structures of biological organisms with elements from architecture  to create objects that Oxman has characterized as 'Material Ecology.'  So common that we barely notice it, much less give it a name, designers have long used elements from nature  as their inspiration in  a process known as biomimicry.  But now, using computer assisted design programs (CADs), people like Neri Oxman and the Mediated Matter Group at MIT are able to produce algorithms that translate their two-dimensional ideas into three-dimensional art objects,

Oxman grew up in Haifa, Israel,  among architects and engineers so, from an early age she saw her American father and Israeli mother designing things.  She enrolled in medical school but then switched to architecture.  At MIT, Oxman has been  developing 3-D printers that can layer molten glass, in the way that they currently work plastics or polymers.  Her work was featured in a 2016 exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York,

For further reading;
1. Tashima Etsuko: Learning From Nature, at The Blue Lantern, 25 March 2016.
2. Survival of The Beautiful by David Rothenberg, New York, Bloomsbury Press: 2011.

Image:
Neri Oxman & Mediated Matter Group, Imaginary Beings (Daphne), 2011, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

14 April 2017

Jacques Prevert: A Celebration

Forty years have passed since the death of Jacques Prevert on April 11, 1977.   Prevert, a lyric poet in a country that reveres its masters of song, going all the way back to the medieval troubadour Francois Villon (1413-c.1463), the French  are marking the occasion with numerous celebration.  Although Prevert's name may be somehwat vague in North America, French children learn Prevert's songs as soon as they begin school. 
Like Villon,  Prevert's poems were passed around on handmade copies and by word of mouth during the German Occupation, much as the peripatetic Villon's verses  were sung in taverns by people who probably could not read them.   When Prevert's poems were  collected in book form for the first time  in Paroles (Songs, 1946)  they caused a sensation.  He had experienced something similar the year before when he collaborated with the Hungarian composer Joseph Kosma on the song Les feuilles mortes.  Autumn Leaves, as it is known in English, has become the most recorded song of all time.  For their part, Parisians and all the French, even those who had escaped the Occupation, were   ready to celebrate and Prevert gave them what they needed - romantic nostalgia, in song with Les feuilles mortes and in the film Les enfants du Paradis, a romance among theater people set in the 1820s.

Fortune smiled on the boy Jacques, giving him a loving mother and an unconventional father.    After leaving school, Prevert served in the French army during World War I, getting as far from home as Constantinople.  Returning to Paris,   he was introduced to the Surrealist circle, and their leader Andre Breton, by his friend Raymond Queneau in 1925.  Their abhorrence of war and the utter absence of what the French reverently refer to as la gloire  drew the circle together.    But within three years Breton expelled Prevert from the group; the younger man's anarchic sense of humor was no match for Breton's heavy-handed leadership.  For his part, Prevert considered Breton too "grave." In what counts as a surrealist move, Prevert went to work for an advertising agency and began to write the poems that eventually became Paroles.

Prevert's gallery of usual suspects included clerics ("Poetry is everywhere as God is nowhere") and the military  but, unlike others he named names, never hiding behind abstractions.  That was the kernel of his "anti-intellectualism,"  his scorn for the typical scholar  who would "expend his life erecting a self-glorifying  monument of theories."   Prevert called out the "religious insincerity" of the Popes, especially during war times, and social injustices in the persons of Marechal Petain and the French colonials in Vietnam.  His youthful encounters with the poor, introduced through his father, led t Prevert to join the Ocotber Group, a troupe of amateur actors in the 1930s.  The plays they put on may not have been much more than "agit-prop" but Fabian Loris, a Prevert biographer syas, "It was not a theater, it was a way of life,  with Jacques Prevert as its strong foundation, his humor corroding like acid on a plate."   The Communist Party was not amused but the public was and this kept the group members safe.  Meanwhile Prevert also put his politics to work in  screenplays, among them Le crime de monsieur with Jean Renoir (1935), an idyllic story of a publishing cooperative in the days of the Popular Front and Quai des brumes with Marcel Carne (1938), the story of an Amry deserter.

Abstraction, in words or images, meant little to Prevert who believed that "everything starts from something."  According to Prevert, if you paint a bird and the painting doesn't sing, "it's a bad sign."    In Gilbert Poillerat's  Portrait of a Bird that Doesn't Exist   bird song is made visible, a sunny version of the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave.   Remember that Plato believed sensations are the vehicle that allows us to experience what is universal; ideal forms he called them.   A fanciful picture of a child at the beach on a summer day anchored, so to speak, by ontology.
So who was Gilbert Poillerat, an artist who never seems to get more than two paragraphs to himself in any written forum?    Poillerat was a maitre- ferronnier, a specialist in metalwork who studied for eight years, from 1919 to 1927 with the Art Deco master, Edgar Brandt.  According to journalist Mariana Paul-Bousquet, it was his graceful iron balustrades that made Poillerat's name and fortune.  In 1943, she wrote: "They are like a winged language,  crossing from the present to sweet visions from childhood."  (translation JAL)   There are those wings again! 

Paris-Prévert by Danièle Gasiglia-Laster was just  published by Editions Gallimard in Paris.

Images:
1. Israel Bidermanas - Jacques Prevert in Paris, 1954,Pompidou Center, Paris.
2. Gilbert Poillerat (1902-1988)  - Portrait-de-l'oiseau-qui-n'existe-par, 1979, Pompidou Center, Paris.

06 April 2017

Music Under The Radar: Melanie De Biasio












"I'm gonna leave you, yes I'm gonna
I'm gonna leave you  'cause I want to
And I'll go where people love me
And I'll stay there 'cause they love me"

For anyone familiar with the outlines of singer Nina Simone's biography, it would be easy to imagine that she wrote these lyrics but, in fact, they were written by her guitarist who, on the evidence, was a keen observer of the artist who first became known as 'little girl blue' but was well on way to becoming the 'high priestess of soul" when they began working together.   An angry, wounded song from the 1960s has recently been given new currency from an unexpected quarter - a Belgian singer and songwriter who knows a good song even when it arrives smothered by a Broadway pit orchestra.

Rudy Stevenson, who wrote "I'm Gonna Leave You",  joined Nina Simone's band in early  1964, while  Simone was recording I Put A Spell On You, her finest studio album for Phillips Records, in New York City.   Stevenson, also a  composer and arranger, wrote a song ("One September Day") and an instrumental number ("Blues On Purpose") for the occasion.  Buried on Simone's next release High Priestess Of Soul was another Stevenson song "I'm Gonna Leave You."  It sounds as though it was recorded in a hurry, without much thought or care, in an  uptempo Broadway-style arrangement.   Simone herself was famous for introducing her own incendiary civil rights anthem "Mississippi Goddam" with the comment, "This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet."  Still, the song has presentiments of a more intimate meditation laced with payback than what usually gets belted out across the footlights.

Melanie De Biasio (b.1978) is a Belgian jazz singer who writes many of the songs she sings, so her inclusion of a song recorded by the American Nina Simone in the 1960s De Biasio knew she would not be able to afford much studio time to record  No Deal, which she produced herself,  so she spent weeks working out the ambiences she wanted for each track  in three short days.


I'm Gonna Leave You
  Melanie DeBiasio, 2013
I'm Gonna Leave You
  Nina Simone, 1966.

Image:
Melanie De Biasio, courtesy Worldwide FM, Gilles Peterson.

01 April 2017

Music Under The Radar: Josh Roseman















It may be a long way from Brazil to New Jersey, but not so far as you might think and the trail winds leads through an undeservedly overlooked song, Long Day, Short Night.  
The words "music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David"  described a  type of song that was  sui generis in the 1960s, complex melodies driven by abrupt  meter changes (from 5/4 to 9/8 in Anyone Who had A Heart, for instance), harmonies  modulated in ways seldom found in American popular music, and insidious rhythms.  All of which are present in Long Day, Short Night. 

Bacharach wrote the song for the Shirelles in 1965, with every expectation that it would be a hit as  Baby It's You  had been for them in 1962.  Both songs make use of the baião, a style originating in the rural states of northeastern Brazil, less familiar than the urban bossa nova but just as mesmerizing Once you know that the  baião is characterized by percussion-driven melodies dominated by a bass drum, the link between The Shirelles' Baby It's You and Josh Roseman's version of Long Day, Short Night is obvious.

Trombonist Roseman has been a sideman with a too many jazz musicians to name but his recordings as a group leader suggest a strong connection with some in particular, Art Ensemble of Chicago member and trumpeter Lester Bowie is his Brass Fantasy phase and his collaboration with Don Byron on the clarinetist's klezmer project.

Bacharach had studied composition with French composer Darius Milhaud whose Le Boeuf sur le Toit (1920) is a melange of popular  tunes lifted from Brazilian well known musicians, put through a French press of Parisian urbanity.   For more on this subject - lots more! -  check out the website of Daniella Thompson, a jazz programmer at KPFA, 94.1 in Berkeley, whose Boeuf Chronicles is just one of her many explorations of Brazilian music.

The Shirelles were a vocal group from Passaic, New Jersey.  They won a high school talent contest in 1957, attracting the attention of Florence Greenberg, a record producer who eventually brought them to Scepter Records where they had the good luck to work with Burt Bacharach, before his collaboration with Dionne Warwick captured the pop public's attention.

Long Day, Short Night
 Josh Roseman Unit, trombone, Treats For the Nightwalker, 2003, Enja Records

Baby It's You
  The Shirelles

To read more : Education By Stone: selected poems by Joao Cabral de melo Neto, translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, New York, Archipelago Books: 2005.  One of the finest poets writing in Portuguese in the 20th century, Melo Neto (1920-1999) was a native of Permanbuco, one of the Brazilian states that make up the 'nose', the country's most eastern outpost on the Atlantic Ocean.

Image: unidentified photographer for BBC - Josh Roseman


26 March 2017

Rain Blossoms: The Waters Of March

Drops of water pearled on pale blue flowers ... rain blossoms.   In March all flowers drip with rain  but capturing the phenomenon in photographs requires a deft touch.  The Viennese photographer Ernst Haas (1921-1986) was an early enthusiast of color photography, a medium he discovered shortly after he moved to the United States in 1951.  Haas became  a member of the Magnum Agency in 1949, the same year as that other underappreciated photographer, the Swiss Werner Bischof (1916-1954).  

Unlike some of his contemporaries who turned their noses up at color, considering Kodachrome a dirty word, Haas quickly became adroit at catching temporary effects, becoming the first photographer to receive a solo exhibition of his color work at the Museum of Modern art in New York City in 1962; there would not be a second such for another fourteen years.  Prejudices, however baseless or silly, fade slowly.  Just look at the Cosmo (below), its rain-drenched petals mimicking the shape of an iris for a moment.
 
The Errant Aesthete, subtitled Essentials for the Cocktail-swilling Set, was a website that  often featured the work of Ernst Hass, and although the website no longer publishes, you can still  explore Suzanne's archives.

Images:
1. Ernst Haas - untitled, date not given, Ernst Haas Estate.
2. Ernst Haas - Cosmos, California, 1981, Ernst Haas Estate.

21 March 2017

"A Singularly Lucid Spirit" - Eugen Gabritschevsky




















Gabritscevsky is an « esprit singulièrement lucide » dont la vie a été « dérobée ». - attributed to Pierre Chave

My introduction to the art of Eugen Gabritschevsky was through seeing this portrait of his dog Luce almost ten years ago, and  its radiant affection and stylistic panache have  colored my responses to what I have seen and learned since.  Gabritschevsky has long been pigeonholed as an outsider by art critics, which gives permission to give short shrift to his work or condescend to him.  Now, the first major exhibition of Gabritschevsky's work  in New York City is on view.

I am not convinced that the term ‘outsider art’ explains much about Gabritschevsky's work or anyone's.  The term and its French equivalent (art brut or rough art) were coined by critics and artists  for purposes of marketing and exclusion exclusion, more than for aesthetic purposes. It's a hair-splitting distinction for describing much of 20th century art.   I suspect that artists - or anyone else - are called outsiders when someone is uncomfortable with sharing their corner of the universe with them.  Gabritschevsky was a tormented man but, as is often true when confronted with human vulnerability, this is about us, as much as about him. A brilliant man, confronted with a bleak diagnosis, who chooses a new outlet for his energies, is someone I want to share my corner with, just as he shared his with his beloved dog, Luce.

Why not call Odilon Redon an outsider artist?   Redon declared "Everything is done by the submission to the coming of the unconscious”  and that art was "the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible."   Redon created hybrid creatures that floated in air or grew from unlikely hosts.    Like Gabritschevsky, Redon drew freely on dreams and nightmares for his imagery and, again, like Gabritschevsky, he was keenly interested in evolutionary theories and in insects, botany and the world revealed under a  microscope. You could argue that Redon’s imagination was voluntary, whereas for Gabritschevsky's was the stuff of  emotional disconnect,  but how much of this is rooted in our expectations?   


Gabritschevsky’s  gouache images of winged insects, and fantastical butterflies,  are magical creatures, not monsters.. A series of precisely detailed abstract and geometric forms that blend into a harmonious whole, convey benign emotions unlike the artist's anxiety-filled paintings of human or hybrid human-plant forms, with their air of menace.  The backgrounds, filled with subliminal reminders of earth and sky, ground these extravagant flyers in a recognizable world.  The Russian-born Eugene Gabritschevsky (1893-1979) knew these flying creatures well.

  

He was a precocious student, drawn to entomology, the study of insects.  Forms, their appearance, their adaptation, their evolution  or their disappearance  were the stuff of his researches, the same ideas that preoccupied contemporary artists.  After earning  advanced degrees in biology and genetics in Moscow, he did postdoctoral research at Columbia University in 1925.  His work on mimicry and genetic mutations in insects earned him a post at the  Pasteur Institute in 1927 but  his  mental state deteriorated.  After being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1929, Gabritschevsky was confined to a mental hospital in Munich.  Without a laboratory, he still had art

Even after two decades spent mostly confined and  and in relative isolation, Gabritschevsky could still summon imagined worlds other than the phantasmagorical ones he created using a signature device of his (seen here in attenuated form) the  proscenium or theatrical arch that distanced himself and the viewer from his more frightening visions.   Sometimes, they have seemed to me as though Gabritschevsky used - seriously and/or tongue in cheek, - the Rorschach tests (ink blot) that came into vogue during the 1920s, tests he might have undergone himself.   Although their validity has since been questioned, their ambiguity has kept them alive in the netherworld of pseudo-science, never quite debunked but never quite acceptable.  Rather like 'outsider art.'
 
For more about Eugen Gabritschevsky at The Blue Lantern read Artist Of Loneliness.

Eugen Gabritschevsky: Theater of the Imperceptible, on display at the American Folk Art Museum  in New York City  is the first in-depth exhibition of Gabritschevsky’s art,  composed of more than eighty artworks (gouaches, drawings, and watercolors on paper), a film, publications, and archival documents.

Images: are by Eugen Gabritschevsky are from the Museum of Modern Art, Toulouse, France, uhnnless otherwise noted.
1. Luce the Dog, 1947. 
2. Papillon, 1941.
3. untitled butterfly, 1941.
4. untitled, 1950, Galerie Chave, Vence, France.