Editor's note: The following essay for the exhibition The Light in Nature and Time: Paintings by Fred Danziger, on view April 22 through June 11, 2016 at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto, was reprinted in Resource Library on April 1, 2016. The essay was reprinted with permission of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 31, 2016. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Beauty on the Cutting Edge: The Paintings of Fred Danziger

by V. Scott Dimond

 

Early on, Fred Danziger learned that a talented and canny artist could earn for himself a large share of life's rewards. As a boy, his clever drawings won the praise of friends and the admiration of pretty girls. Adults showed him respect and awarded him prizes for his work. On considering art as a career, Danziger saw that successful artists stood to gain both fame and fortune just for doing the things they liked to do.

Danziger was not shy about why he wanted to become an artist, yet the closer he approached his goal, the more ambivalent he seemed to feel about it. His ambivalence wasn't particularly conscious, at least not at first. After leaving the Pennsylvania Academy, he mustered his talent and gamely applied it to the contemporary art scene of the seventies and eighties. For representational artists, this meant Pop, Photorealism, and various kinds of neo-Dada and Surrealist irony. Danziger paid attention to what was happening around him and made some very competent contributions. His boxlike still-lifes of industrial artifacts displayed his awareness of Postmodern art and showed the sly and thoughtful wit that was supposed to go with it. Yet as time progressed, he found that his heart wasn't in this kind of work.

Danziger was struggling with what he calls "Big Art," or the contemporary trends that grab our attention for a few years until the next fad comes along. The art that such trends produce often invites deep reflection and philosophizing. It can be complex at times, and rather exclusive unless one has been initiated into its mysteries. As Danziger well knew, this was the sort of art that keeps critics in business and as such, it can launch an artist into the stratosphere. Therefore it was a necessary route to artistic success.

However, with what must have been guilty realization, Danziger found that he could not turn away from the earnest love of nature that had been with him all along. Traditional landscape painting tugged at him and on occasion it even made its way into his "cool" pieces. He knew that this appreciation for natural beauty would be a handicap, as critics found little in it to bolster their own reputations. There was nothing very witty or sophisticated about beautiful art, and it did not require the intercession of a critic-priest. At the same time, praising the beautiful often conveyed a kind of reverence that was seen as backward. It was the kind of backwardness that took viewers all the way back to the nineteenth century and the Hudson River School. The sincere religious feeling of Thomas Cole or Frederic Edwin Church may have been fine for its own time, but it was the kiss of death for a serious artist approaching the year 2000. If Danziger understood that Big Art was not his true calling, he also knew that he would have to bring fresh eyes to the problem of representing nature and its beauty.

Since the early 1990s, Danziger has been steadily articulating his present point of view, which takes Big Art's laudable notion of intelligence and applies it to his fundamentally positive take on the natural world. The paintings that have emerged from this effort are genuinely remarkable in that they are thoughtful and relevant, yet unabashedly beautiful. They have something to say to the critic, and for one who knows his artistic tropes, they offer unexpected surprises. Yet they may be appreciated "as is" by the man on the street. No special knowledge is required in order to be uplifted by Danziger's work.

Brandywine October (1991) is a significant transitional painting which marks Danziger's move from Postmodern still lifes to a full-blown "intelligent landscape" aesthetic. First shown at Philadelphia's Rodger Lapelle Galleries, it was provocative enough to capture the attention of the Philadelphia Inquirer's art critic, Edward J. Sozanski. No friend of traditional art, Sozanski described the work as a "straight calendar-style view with embellishments." Yet he was intrigued by these "embellishments," which can be read as much reduced and more sober examples of Danziger's erstwhile still-lifes. Bordering two sides of the central image, these little paintings-within-a-painting draw out the unseen constituent elements of the scene -- the individual plants and animals that inhabit Danziger's serene landscape. In this way, the artist goes beyond the pat conventions of the picturesque view to reference the deeper aspects of nature, or what Sozanski called a "complex web of interdependent life" that ultimately includes humans as well. The implications of this are weighty and remain relevant even today, yet the painting is still undeniably (and unapologetically) pleasing to the eye.

Painted almost 25 years later, The Garden of Harm Not Done (2005) forgoes much of the obvious structure and didacticism of Brandywine October. The artist's nod to his earlier, more forthrightly intellectualizing mode is not as plainly evident. Nevertheless, there is a strongly cerebral component to this otherwise lush image. Utilizing a photographic approach, Danziger gives us a close-up image of wildflowers growing around a weatherbeaten wire fence. Beyond the fence, one can make out a green meadow backed by a dense screen of trees. On first glance, the painting stands as the artist's sincere appreciation of anonymous, perhaps overlooked patch of natural beauty. There is a sense of quiet reverence here that would not be unfamiliar to the masters of the Hudson River School.

At the same time, however, there are some witty subtleties that hearken back to Danziger's forays into Big Art. The rectilinear grid formed by the old fence is perhaps self-referential, reminding us of the artist's earlier penchant for depicting his subjects within illusory trompe l'oeil shadow boxes. Yet the fence itself is pushed right up against the picture plane, affirming in good modernist fashion that we are still dealing with a flat piece of canvas. In this light, the flowers assume a tapestry-like quality, putting us in mind of Wolf Kahn and other contemporary artists who employ natural motifs to express their theories of abstract painting. Even so, we continually try to look beyond the flowers, to climb over the fence, so to speak, so that we can enjoy what appears to be an equally pleasant scene in the distance. The Garden of Harm Not Done is clearly a homage to its subject matter, yet Danziger's playful allusions to artmaking also underscore the presence of the artist. They remind us that it is the artist who is fashioning this particular experience of nature and that he is in a certain sense demarcating what is "real" and what is "illusion."

The interplay between reality and illusion (as well as subject and artist) is further refined in Danziger's paintings of leaf-strewn pools. A good example is Blue Sky in Water (2009), whose jewel-like finish puts one in mind of Eliot Porter's quietly indulgent nature photographs. As with The Garden of Harm Not Done, the viewer is brought close and asked to contemplate the unassuming beauty inherent in a collage of leaves on still water. The painting evokes a sense of wonder, not unlike that felt by the child who picks up freshly fallen autumn leaves, each one more gorgeous than the one before.

Yet if Blue Sky in Water is the sort of painting that even a child can appreciate, it is by no means simple. Apart from the subject itself, which invites clever puns on "reflection" and "surface appearances," there are again a number of choices and formal devices that call attention to the act of making (and viewing) art. Here, the still surface of the pool allows Danziger to work with multiple levels of visual phenomena, including the representation of objects seen under water, objects floating on water, and objects reflected in water.

By essentially merging the mirror-like face of the pool with the picture plane itself, Danziger opens up a multifaceted inquiry into the nature of reality and illusion. On one hand, the carpet of leaves floating on the surface says that this is a two-dimensional subject painted on a two-dimensional support. On the other hand, there are hints of something under the carpet: another layer of leaves lying just below the surface much the way an artist's underpainting exists beneath the image we can see. At the same time, the suggestion of reflected branches and blue sky (alluded to in the title) points to the world outside the picture plane, the cosmos itself. This is the artist's own "real" milieu and the source of this and all of his other images. For all of its "simple" beauty, Blue Sky in Water is an exceedingly thoughtful painting. It is filled with hints of process and progress reminding us that this apparently objective, apparently photographic image is in fact a highly constructed work of art.

The paintings of Fred Danziger show us that one can be a "serious" artist and a sincere votary of nature at the same time. In them we see that it is quite possible to intelligently wield the impedimenta of modern and Postmodern theory while still working in praise of beauty. In Danziger's work, we understand that painting beautifully is not merely a refuge for artists who can't or won't acquaint themselves with the convoluted sophistries of Big Art. It is a conscious choice, and for the "serious" artist, a brave choice. To pursue beauty despite possessing considerable theoretical knowledge and the awareness of current trends is itself a radical position. It is an act of artistic rebellion that puts Danziger and others like him on the cutting edge. The avant-garde, it seems, is coming full circle, and Danziger is ushering in the day when Big Art and beautiful art will be one in the same.

 

V. Scott Dimond

January 2016

 

About the author

V. Scott Dimond is the Curator for Visual Arts at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

 

About the exhibition

The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Loretto has recently announced its latest exhibition, The Light in Nature and Time: Paintings by Fred Danziger. Opening April 22, 2016, this special loan exhibition surveys Danziger's work from his student days in the late 1960s to his mature canvases of the 2010s. The exhibition will remain on view through June 11, 2016. (right: Fred Danziger, Attractive Scoutmasters in the City, 1985, Acrylic, 12 x 16 inches. Collection of Robert L. Bohrer)

Featuring nearly 60 spectacular paintings, The Light in Nature and Time is the result of a collaborative effort on the part of the artist, his many collectors, the James Gallery in Pittsburgh, and Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. Personally assembled by Danziger, the exhibition's checklist represents the finest and most important expressions of a career spanning almost five decades and results in one of the most ambitious solo exhibitions ever held at Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art-Loretto.

A native of Pittsburgh now residing in Philadelphia, Danziger is a contemporary landscape painter of extraordinary talent. Unembarrassed by his love of the beautiful in nature, his compositions range from lushly realistic images of leaves and flowers to sweeping vistas of the Pennsylvania countryside. His work is not a simple homage to the natural world, however. Early on, the artist acquainted himself with modern and postmodern theory, refining his approach to painting through a series of witty still life compositions and other conceptual pieces. The knowledge he gained from this phase of his career has since been applied to his recent work, infusing it with a contemporary sensibility and intelligence that is rare among traditional landscape painters.

Danziger studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he received the Academy's prestigious Cresson and Scheidt scholarships for painting. He also is a recipient of a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant. The artist has staged 18 one-person shows and has been included in more than 100 group shows. Danziger's work is included in many private and public collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Asheville Museum of Art, the Wichita Art Museum and others. He is represented by James Gallery in Pittsburgh and Rodger LaPelle Gallery in Philadelphia.

 

To view the checklist for the exhibition, please click here.

To view images for the exhibition, please click here for set one and here for set two

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above catalogue essay by V. Scott Dimond for the exhibition The Light in Nature and Time: Paintings by Fred Danziger was reprinted in Resource Library on April 1, 2016, with permission of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 31, 2016.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Travis Mearns of the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text. All images courtesy of Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art.

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