Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ



Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America during the Twentieth Century

by Gail Stavitsky, Ph.D., Chief Curator


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Encaustic Art in America during the 1940s and 1950s

During the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s, only a few other painters were evidently experimenting with wax-based techniques. Among these was Jackson Pollock, whose occasional explorations have been largely neglected and are subjects for further study. Around 1947 Pollock created three works on paper, erroneously identified in published sources as encaustic They are now known to be wax resist experiments in which wax was dripped onto areas, providing a barrier or resist to the ink wash, thus retaining the color of the picture ground or underpainting." There is no evidence that Pollock would have learned about wax-based techniques while studying at the Art Students League from 1930-1933; however, he would have had access to knowledgeable individuals. Possibly through his experiments with painted ceramics in 1934-35 and 1938-39, Pollock learned wax resist techniques in glazing with the help of his former teacher Thomas Hart Benton.[44] It is also possible that Pollock may have gleaned some of his knowledge while in attendance at Siqueiros's Experimental Workshop in 1936.

Equally mysterious is Pollock's decision to create two encaustic paintings in 1950 which are identical in size and format. [45] Both were owned by Hans Hofmann, America's leading art teacher, who does not, however, appear to have used the works for any didactic purposes, nor did he ever create any works in this medium.[46] Nevertheless Pollock's later use of wax-based techniques may have been part of a cultural exchange with his friend and patron Alfonso Ossorio. Early in 1950 Ossorio left for his native Philippines to create a mural for the Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker erected at his family's sugar refinery in Victorias. There, Ossorio embarked on a ground-breaking series of around 300 intensely personal works on paper based on wax resist techniques gleaned from reading an article on the Surrealist painter Victor Brauner. He gave one of these works to Pollock who had shown him how a chosen medium can be intuitively/gesturally employed to generate the work of art as a living organism reflecting psychological states and universal themes.[47] The raw primitivism of Jean Dubuffet's art brut also appealed to Ossorio who was the subject of a 1951 monograph by the French master on the subject of these "initiatory paintings."

Referring to Ossorio's complex works as decorative and metaphysical, Dubuffet explained that they resulted from a process of melted wax applied by a brush or sharpened candle-end and watercolors in at least three superimposed layers of "an exacerbated hue."[48] The work was often completed with a delicate pen and Chinese ink design; occasionally areas were cut out as well (the earliest works are torn or cut into free-form configurations). Ossorio has also indicated in his diary notes that he used a hot iron to burn in the wax.[49] Resembling at first glance "a multi-colored chaos," these works were filled with "a fracas of forms" and symbolic signs rooted in Ossorio's Catholic theology as well as themes of birth, childhood, family life, and death.[50] Dubuffet concluded that the "effect produced -- of rapture within a ritual of symbols -- is augmented by the use of encaustic which gives the paper the slippery aspect of precious parchment, and the waxy tint of Spanish leather to all the colors."[51] Another motif of Dubuffet's text is the reconciliation of opposites facilitated by the wax resist technique which allowed for an interwoven union of figures and gestural marks which retain their integrity within an all-over, non-hierarchical space.[52]

Around the time of Pollock's and Ossorio's experiments, the first comprehensive book on encaustic history and techniques was published. Frances Pratt's and Becca Fizell's Encaustic: Materials and Methods, released in 1949, traced the history of the medium from Pliny to the present. Working methods and recipes by contemporary painters comprise the largest section of the book which also includes a glossary of technical terms, a list of supply sources, and a bibliography. The authors observed that during the 20th century there had been independent experiments with encaustic in Europe and America that were "by no means concerted efforts."[53] Starting with Hilaire Hiler; they then discussed the work of Zerbe as perhaps "the most publicized of all the exponents of modern American encaustic."[54] The Boston Museum School is referred to as a "small nucleus" from which "a sizable sphere of interest in the medium has spread through other parts of the country."[55]

Among these artists featured in the book are Fred Conway at Washington University in St Louis, Rifka Angel (in a solo show in Chicago in 1933), George Holt at Bennington College, Vermont, James Penney at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, Norman Daly at Cornell University, Charles Seide at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Jewett Campbell at the College of William and Mary, Richmond, Virginia, and Mark A. Sprague of the University of Illinois. The authors rightly concluded that the publication of their book "occurs just at the beginning of a new chapter in the history of this ancient and fascinating medium."[56] As they went to press, scattered reports and requests for sharing information were pouring in, especially from educators.

Attempting to recall the genesis of Encaustic Materials and Methods, Frances Pratt says that the idea came to her in the process of experimenting with wax crayon techniques. As an artist and student of art history, she had long been aware that the ancient Fayum portraits owed their preservation to the encaustic technique. After extensive research, she decided to write a book on this subject and enlisted the collaboration of her writer friend, Becca Fizell. Miss Pratt developed her own formula and technique, exhibiting several examples at The Montclair Art Museum in a 1953 exhibition of contemporary painting techniques.[57] Her painting Spirit of Pahuatlán evokes her nearly lifetime interest in the indigenous cultures of Mexico and was inspired by a brush with witch doctors while doing research in the small mountainous town of Pahuatlán near Mexico City.[58]

Miss Pratt's encaustic book received excellent reviews that furthered popular awareness of the medium. The prominent headline of a review in the New York Herald Tribune proclaimed "Encaustic, an Ancient Wax Process, Aids Modern Artist."[59] The medium's permanency, distinctive luminosity, interesting tonal effects, rich colors, wide range of textures, and fast-drying elasticity (allowing for scraping, scumbling, and glazing without the intervening drying time of oil painting were all cited as advantages. Zerbe's practice was discussed at length. As noted by:the aforementioned Fogg Art Museum's farmer director Edward Forbes in the foreword, this book "though small in volume" became "large in influence;" it is now regrettably out of print and a sought-after prize only available through rare book dealers.[60]

In 1951, Ralph Mayer published an important article on the classic encaustic method, praising its durability and effects "as so appropriate to the visual and textural aims of so many modern tendencies."[61] Nevertheless, significant experiments in the medium seem to have remained scattered in the 1950s. Al Held experimented briefly in 1953 with colored wax, however, a fire in his studio caused by the flammable nature of encaustic destroyed all of this work.[62] Robert Knipschild exhibited a group of 14 encaustic abstractions at New York's Alan Gallery in 1955. In this context, the sudden emergence of Jasper Johns in 1954 as a master who revolutionized the possibilities of the medium seems both startling and expected.[63]

At a time when synthetic paints were becoming increasingly available in addition to conventional oils, why did Johns and a few others turn to such an ancient relatively laborious technique? Johns has recalled how his first major painting in encaustic, Flag (1954-55, The Museum of Modern Art), was actually begun with house enamel paints which frustrated him because they wouldn't dry quickly enough. In the middle of working on the painting, he switched to working with encaustic which he had read about in an unidentified source while working at Marboro Books.[64] The reading material suggested a recipe for wax, varnish and oil that would solve the problem of` the slow-drying properties of oil. Johns then went to Fezandie and Sperrle on Fulton Street (near his Pearl Street loft), one of the few suppliers of the beeswax that he would mix together with tube oils for his formula on a single burner hot plate.[65] At first he employed a sun lamp for the "burning in" process. Finding that ineffective, he then attached a hot plate to a stick for his heat source during the late '50s into the '60s.

Johns had seen examples of Karl Zerbe's well-publicized works in encaustic, possibly at the Downtown Gallery. Nevertheless, he has asserted that his use of the medium "had nothing to do with Zerbe" and that he did not know of anyone using it.[66] Indeed the encaustic medium played a significant role in Johns's fundamental change of spirit and attitude at this seminal moment, in terms of what he has referred to as "a sense of becoming more independent and more focused, recognizing private strengths, doing something which was my own."[67] The absence of references to other artists in the medium was especially important for him. From 1954 to 1958 Johns worked almost exclusively in encaustic.

For Johns, the encaustic medium offered the virtue of hardening quickly so that he could move on to the next section with out smearing or hiding what was already on the canvas. Each brushstroke "was made and kept as it was without really changing it much," even in layers.[68] This presentation of each discrete gesture as distinct rather than blurred was important for the young Johns's sense of mastery and the dynamic process of creating an object that bears the record of its own making -- a sense of the passage of time "frozen into permanent presence."[69] In Johns's words, encaustic "coincided with my thirst to use everything that was discrete...[to do] something with some rigor to it."[70] Furthermore, the veiling process of his complex multi-layered encaustic technique complemented his desire to "hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions" -- a search for neutrality.[71] Thus Johns chose pre-formed, conventional subjects such as flags, targets, alphabets, and numbers which were transformed through his innovative use of encaustic -- "things the mind already knows" which gave him "room to work on other levels.[72]

Extending an approach to collage with which he had already been working, Johns dipped cut and torn strips of newsprint, paper, fabric scraps, and photographs in beeswax and adhered them to canvases prepared with unpigmented melted wax (over a preparatory charcoal outline). Over this textured surface, he created the primary image(s) by applying the pigmented wax mixture with a brush and/or palette knife -- the strokes either simulated or opposed the painted subject. Splashes, drips, and dribbles which rounded out as they dried added further visual elements of interest as they link various areas.[73] Added touches of oil paint augmented the complexity of the surface. Numbers such as Figure 5 were often stenciled with straightforward, packing-case stencils, allowing him to concentrate on embellishing the ordinary form (built up with newsprint) in the extraordinary medium of encaustic.[74]

Embracing the dual implications of wax as a vehicle and binding agent, Johns created a uniquely complex amalgam of image/symbol, concept, and material. The encaustic medium for Johns was an integral part of the process of altering the information presented by his deceptively simple subjects. Just as the paintings do not, for example, follow the real dimensions of the flag, the translucent encaustic-covered collage elements transform its surface expectations, providing both sensuous texture and tone because the black of the newsprint is still evident through the wax veils. Hence the multivalent physicality of the object suggests a new, paradoxical interplay of reality and illusion, embedded in the work itself and its creative process. Each collage element and painted area is distinct and yet part of a unified whole, as individualities of various textures, texts, and value contrasts are simultaneously revealed and subsumed by an all-over membrane of wax offering all sorts of possibilities for "the changing focus of the eye."[75] The nuanced, contemplative, controlled structure of these early works by Johns has often been contrasted to the emotional turbulence of the work of his Abstract Expressionist forebears and contemporaries, though this was not consciously his intention. Rather he was simultaneously focusing attention upon creativity as an intellectual process and the commonplace object itself, things "seen and not looked at."[76]

Indeed the all-over neutral white wax monochrome of Figure 5 both conceals and reveals the underlying newsprint while suggesting, in Johns's words, "a kind of literal quality that was coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color."[77] Thus an enigmatic tension emerged between the absolute flatness of the emblematic number and the spatial dimensions created by the painterliness of the encaustic handling.[78] Johns was soon recognized as being "alone among the ambitious artists of this century" to have "fleshed the larger part of his production with encaustic."[79] At the time of his first one-man show in 1958 at Castelli Gallery, Johns's use of encaustic was clearly indicated, although not discussed in detail. Robert Rosenblum referred to "the elegant craftsmanship (in general a finely nuanced encaustic) which lends these pictures the added poignancy of a beloved, handmade transcription of unloved, machine-made images."[80]

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Endnotes 1-33

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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