Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ



Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America during the Twentieth Century

by Gail Stavitsky, Ph.D., Chief Curator


Return to page one


Encaustic Art of the '60s, '70s, and beyond

Through the example of Jasper Johns, the encaustic medium received a new degree of prominence that was transmitted to the next generation of artists of the 1960s and beyond. The growing number of technical books with formulas for encaustic such as Thelma Newman's Wax as Art Form (1966) was complemented by such films as Painters Painting (1972) which showcased Johns's bold use of the medium.[81] Nevertheless in 1963 when Victor R Stephen completed a Masters thesis on encaustic, he was surprised that the use of wax still had so few adherents among contemporary American artists and that information was still relatively scarce.[82] Among the few to employ wax-based mediums in the 1960s in addition to Johns were Brice Marden and Lynda Benglis.

Brice Marden, educated at Florida Southern College and Boston University from 1956 to 1961, has interesting links to the previous generation of encaustic painters. He has recently recalled having seen Zerbe's film demonstration of his encaustic technique as a college student in Florida in 1956-7.[83] A favorite teacher of his at Boston University was Zerbe's pupil Reed Kay who remembers Marden as an excellent student in his Techniques course.[84] A few sessions of this class were devoted to encaustic, as demonstrated by David Aronson. The content of the course which included cold wax, wax emulsion, and wax paste techniques had been published by Reed Kay in his book The Painter's Companion (1961).

Marden supplemented this education by looking at Fayum mummy portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He was therefore well versed in the encaustic medium when he first encountered Jasper Johns's work in-depth at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1963. Aspects of Johns's work -- their structural and symbolic unity (congruence of image and picture plane), overall painterly surface, grid formats, monotone colors (i.e. luminous grays), and slow, perceptual process -- confirmed the evolution of Marden's work begun during his graduate studies at Yale in the early '60s.[85] It was, however, at the suggestion of another artist, Harvey Quaytman, that Marden switched to a wax-based medium.

Disturbed by the reflective surfaces of his varnished oil paintings, Marden consulted his friend Quaytman who employed poured wax in his own work. Marden was looking for a medium that would eliminate the visual interference of oil's shininess in order to provide a subtle, flat, matte appearance for his all-over, non-objective, monochrome paintings -- "his gray vocabulary of ambiguities" -- thus enhancing appreciation of the physicality of the work itself:[86] Quaytman gave him a couple of formulas for mixing oil paint with a medium of beeswax and turpentine kept warm on a hot plate. In 1966 he made his first single color oil and wax painting.[87] The opacity, continuity, gestural physicality, and textural variations of the surface pleased Marden as he applied layer after layer with a brush, laboriously reworking each with a painting spatula and knife. Intuitively working with a variable mixture of oil and hot wax, Marden achieved a highly nuanced range of results with a medium that he was careful to distinguish from classic encaustic: "I am never exactly sure of how much wax is added to the oil paint in the final surface, but oil remains the primary binder as opposed to encaustic where the wax is the binder.[88] Furthermore, the layers were not fused with an external heat source. According to Marden, the cooling wax produces a softer, more mellow translucency than traditional encaustic, given that it does not harden. Nevertheless, Marden's work (at times identified as encaustic) is often cited as a major source of inspiration for younger artists working in encaustic -- many of whom evoke a cool transcendent reality of visual expansiveness, a type of painting without boundaries, paradoxically rooted in an emphatically sensual ground. Marden's wax surfaces were discussed in the 1970s as minimalist suppressants of feelings that are sealed in.[89] Nevertheless, the expressive, poetic impact of these works was consistently affirmed, as feelings seem to be exuded through the dense, sensuous, skin-like surfaces.[90] Marden regarded these cool, meditative, poetic, mysterious works as "highly emotional paintings" whose reductive structures "are but sounding boards for a spirit."[91]

In addition to his oil and wax paintings, Marden created independent yet related drawings in which he combined graphite and beeswax as early as 1965. An untitled work of 1970 is characteristic of Marden's fastidious, obsessively repetitive approach. Sanding down a textured piece of paper to eliminate flocking, Marden lay down beeswax on its surface. He then used a razor blade to scrape it down to achieve a smooth surface. One half of the composition, carefully orchestrated with the rectangular support, consists of this layer of clear wax over the paper. For the other section, Marden repeatedly worked graphite into the beeswax filling all the tiny white holes in the paper to achieve a rich, even, opaque surface with no overt texture -- anti-illusionistic "expositions on the plane....coming up out of the unknown."[92] Marden continued to work with oil and beeswax until 1981.

Another pioneer of the '60s was Lynda Benglis who has continued to experiment with wax-based mediums. As a child, Benglis had been fascinated with the rituals of tasting and smelling wax candies at Halloween and birthday parties. During the mid-'60s, Benglis grew disillusioned with the constraints of conventional oil on canvas painting and Minimalist prefabrication of intellectually-conceived objects with an absence of human touch. Interested in the tactile process of making her own paints, she read Ralph Mayer's Materials and Methods and decided to experiment with encaustic -- "rooted in alchemy -- the beginnings of painting."[93] By this time she was also aware of Johns's and Marden's wax-based work.[94] Purchasing her wax from a wholesale lipstick company, Eastern Mohair in Maspeth, Benglis combined it with damar resin crystals (10-20%) and dry powdered pigments. Soon she began developing her own original recipes and techniques, creating a landmark group of encaustic paintings from 1966 to 1975. Benglis' appreciation of the mutability of wax, as well as its translucency, brilliant color, and otherworldliness led her to emphasize the organic process of working with the viscous medium which seemed alive to her. For Benglis, translucent wax was, and still is, "a good imitation of skin" which also evokes the metamorphosis of all matter (melting of snow, changing clouds, the ocean, body fluids, and flow).[95] Her encaustic works were soon recognized as declaring "a very strong female sensibility, image and process... experienced as one."[96]

Thus Benglis' first wax paintings of 1966-67 placed her at the forefront of process art postminimalism, and feminism. They referred to aspects of her body in terms of their verticality, dimensions, and translucent, uniform, skin-like surfaces with suggestive orifices/holes. Some of the works were in lipstick or cosmetic hues.[97] Benglis also referred to the psychological aspect of these works in terms of imploded energy and concealment, a simultaneous absorption and reflection of light. "a mummified version of painting...something buried with a dimension that isn't quite perceived upon first glance...cocoons."[98] In 1968 she began a series of vertical lozenge-shaped paintings on masonite based on the principle that their narrow width (5 inches wide) equaled the width of two brushstrokes applied from the center moving upward and downward, thus creating a mouth-like split The support itself measured about the arm-length of Benglis herself and was placed horizontally either on the floor or on two sawhorses to incorporate gravity. The working process lasted as long as the multi-layered, pigmented wax took to coagulate; as it dripped over the edges and cooled, valleys, indentations, craggy accumulations, crevices, rivulets, and ridges were formed.[99] Using 40 pots of color on a hot plate with a zinc plate on top, Benglis in some later works of 1971-72 achieved highly intricate effects of marbelization through the burning in of a hot organic bristle-brush through many layers of somewhat transparent paint Sometimes she used a small torch flame for burning in.[100] Built up oven more thickly, these mottled, variegated paintings were equated with such natural phenomena as eroded limestone, tree mould or coral or marine forms while their abstractly eroticized textures and colors suggested "male/female symbols, the split and the coming together...both oral and genital."[101]

Bcnglis worked intermittently on these paintings until 1975, having already moved onto other process-oriented work with mediums such as poured pigmented latex. Works such as Untitled provided an intimate, contemplative refuge from the labor of her latex floor pieces and polyurethane foam installations which established her reputation. Indeed Bcnglis' acceptance of the accidental nature of encaustic -- allowing the molten wax to take its own form even beyond the boundaries of the lozenge-shaped support -- led her to the pouring process of her process-oriented installations. The organic green hue of the work suggests that it is "alive... imbued with chlorophyll."[102] The relief-like congruence of the palpable, dense paint surface with the oblong support exemplifies Benglis' ground-breaking extension of the encaustic medium into the realm of sculpture for which she would gain international prominence. The rounded work floats on the wall as a humanistic icon made through a ritual process of accumulation -- Benglis' spiritual connection with the material which dictates its own form.[103]

Just as Benglis was about to move on to other mediums in the late '70s, the sculptor Nancy Graves began to work in encaustic. From 1977 to 1984 Graves created a little-known group of vibrant encaustic paintings which developed from her innovative use of wax in her sculptures. Graves's first appreciation of wax's malleability most likely occurred during her 1965-66 residence in Florence when she saw the life-size wax écorché works of 18th-century anatomist Clemente Susini, depicting the internal organs of humans and animals. Soon thereafter, she began to employ wax in the construction of her first camel sculptures, made from the inside out to their lifelike, hide-covered exteriors. Between 1969 and 1971 Graves continued to use this material in her series of sculptures based on camel bones (often associated with fossils). She constructed the bones out of wax over a steel armature, coloring them with marble dust and acrylic.

In 1972 Graves temporarily ceased her involvement with sculpture, turning to painting. Originally trained as a painter, she experimented with various techniques and materials, including Dorland's Wax medium, most likely a cold wax process which she used for several paintings in 1974.[104] In 1977, she created Tabula; the use of encaustic for this work may bear a relationship to her first bronze sculpture Ceridwen, out of Fossils completed that year with the lost-wax casting process. Unfortunately there appears to be no documentation for the 19 encaustic paintings created by Graves, other than her unpublished "Notes on Paintings" of 1978. This technical description only mentions her use of encaustic as one of the varied methods used to achieve "depth of field through layering."[105] Extracting images from precious works, Graves emphasized layers to expose process and create levels of space: "the making...can be understood as the meaning of the painting."[106] Thus the title of the colorful, complex Clockwise in a Mixture may refer to the compositional process and multidimensional movement of hues. Perhaps the malleability of encaustic prompted what Linda Konheim Kramer has observed as the unusually "complete painterly abandon" of this work which is very similar to a group of prints made in 1981 -- thus in keeping with Graves's ongoing desire to break down boundaries within and between mediums.[107] The lush organic forms and colors in multiple layers of translucent encaustic evoke Graves' abiding interests in zoology, botany, geology, paleontology, and, by 1979, archaeology and cartography. The sense of aerial perspective suggests the effect of a geologic map of a mysterious archaeological site.[108]

Among other artists working in encaustic during the late 1970s and early '80s, Tobi Kahn was introduced to the medium as a graduate student at Pratt Institute in 1976 in a painting techniques class. "Tirah" is one of fifty encaustic paintings that he made, reflecting what he has recently referred to as his desire "to embed represent the power of history, so evocative in a surface capable of retaining what has been picked up over time, a surface that is both malleable and permanent."[109] At this time Kahn was also fascinated by the worn surfaces of exposed old walls redolent of lives lived within, exhibiting his photographs of them in 1979.[110] His experiments with encaustic were related to these explorations of memory and the aging process as Kahn embedded materials like paper into the wax and scraped away part of the surface. The result was a highly tactile surface that was weathered yet "soft and skin-like, with layers of abstract images."[111] The transparent layering of colors evoked the process of remembering stories, "aspects of images beneath one another yet translucent to our recall."[112] The wax-based work of Dove, Ossorio, and Johns had reinforced this aspect of Kahn's work, showing him "how the medium could give greater depth and translucency to a painted surface."[113] Inventing original names for his work such as "Tirah" which focus on his inner feelings and memories, Kahn "liked the idea of using a very ancient medium and techniques to embody an approach to history that is modern in its elusiveness, its fragmentary nature."[114]

Noah Jemisin turned to encaustic as a graduate student at the University of Iowa from 1970 to 1973. He was searching for a personal style of painting, employlng a medium that would possess the transparency and translucency of watercolor with more body, tactility, and substance. Encaustic seemed to satisfy these requirements; the first works in this medium to attract his attention were the Fayum portraits because "of their freshness and clarity despite their advanced age."[115] Jemisin was also aware of the work of Zerbe, Dove, and Johns. Developing his original formula from several different classic recipes, Jemisin used bleached beeswax, damar varnish, sun-thickened linseed oil, dyes, oil paint, acrylic paint and anything else that could be suspended in molten wax. In 1971 Jemisin created his first encaustic painting, the dream-inspired Nocturnal Emission (University of Iowa Museum of Art) and started exhibiting examples in 1973 when he moved to Brooklyn which most likely helped to popularize the use of the technique.

Employing encaustic, Jemisin evolved a highly imaginative, dance-like, free form, improvisational style of painting that was not preconceived -- stemming instead from internal forces, memories, and natural impulses. A longtime jazz admirer, Jemisin has also incorporated aspects of his African-American heritage into his frequently monumental sized work. The recent Carnivorous Dream epitomizes Jemisin's lyrical, semi-figurative work based on free flowing, energetic lines that loosely define silhouettes of fish-like and animalistic creatures. This calligraphy is superimposed on brilliantly colored organic layers of translucent paint. Inspired by a real dream, this richly textured painting combines elements of some of Jemisin's earlier memories with subject matter from his nightmare. For Jemisin, his highly malleable encaustic methodology enabled him "to search out the inner archetype."[116] In other recent works such as Blues for Africa (rooted in his trip to West Africa in 1992), Jemisin has exploited the binding properties of encaustic by incorporating a collaged pair of sunglasses.

Go to page four

Endnotes 1-33

Endnotes 34-63

Endnotes 64-106

Endnotes 107-167

Endnotes 168-228

Endnotes 229-257

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

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.