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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The Encaustic Art Revival of the 1980s and 1990s / Themes and Concerns: Landscape and the Environment

In 1993 Lynda Benglis traveled to New Zealand as the first artist to participate in the Auckland International Artist-in-Residence program. Seeing the intense bright greens, oranges, yellows, and umbers produced by the volcanic eruptions of New Zealand, she was inspired to paint again in encaustic. Working with the same technique and format that she had earlier employed, Benglis created twelve vibrantly colored encaustic paintings whose craggy, encrusted surfaces evoke the forms and processes of volcanic soils, sulfur deposits, and mineral-laden thermal waters. She continued to use encaustic in such works as Lake Mohave Orange, created in New Mexico. Inspired by the intense light and colors of that area, Lake Lake Mohave Orange was also painted at a time when Benglis was working with different, brightly hued, ceramic glazes.[185]

Since the 1970s Michelle Stuart's extensive world travels have informed her body of work rooted in an abiding reverence for nature, geology, archaeology, and natural history. Born in California, Stuart often accompanied her father, a water and land rights consultant through uninhabited areas of the state. Her later employment as a topographical draughtswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers influenced Stuart's pervasive use of maps and grids. As a student at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, Stuart was introduced to the encaustic medium by her teacher Edmund Kohn. She did not, however, turn to an extended use of encaustic until 1984. For the Neuberger Museum, she created Sacred Precincts From Dreamtime to the South China Sea which included 50 objects in cast hydrocal embellished in encaustic evoking primitive, cult-like tools. For this project which linked archaic and spiritual aspects of New England whaling and the South Pacific, Stuart also made Mariners Temple, the first of her modular encaustic paintings. Inventing her own recipe of damar, turpentine, linseed oil, beeswax and sculptor's wax, Stuart enjoyed the enormous flexibility of encaustic troweled onto prepared muslin-backed rag paper. The medium was also appropriate for the highly subtle Southeast Asian-inspired iconographic signs that Stuart incised into each unit. This experience reawakened her interest in the mutably luminous wax sculpture of Medardo Rosso, as well as the plasticity of` plaster which she had employed for her own sculptures in the 1960s. Stuart was also attracted to the brilliant colors and permanence of ancient Fayum portraits.[186]

Stuart's new kinesthetic involvement with wax was rooted in her series of environmental-scale, earth-impregnated drawings and smaller bookworks for which she first received widespread acclaim in the 1970s. Her hands-on involvement with rubbing dirt and fragments of rock from different locales into paper served as the foundation for the next stage of involvement with the process-oriented encaustic medium. In fact her Snow Elk Voyage Book of 1985 consisted of rock-marked rag paper mounted on muslin and covered with encaustic. It was inspired by Stuart's trip to Finland in 1985 when an archaeologist invited her to join him on a journey to the Lake District where they discovered petroglyphs. The incised images of elks and boats on Stuart's voyage book evoke the glyphic rock art images of this adventure. By 1986 when Stuart completed Hortus Conclusus, she was moving in a different direction.

Fascinated with cycles of time, nature, and place, Stuart embarked upon a series of works that culminated in two major encaustic projects. In 1986, inspired by the paradise aspect of gardens which appear in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Native American myths, Stuart created the monumental Paradisi mural for the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum.[187] Her Silent Gardens series of 1984 to 1988 at the Rose Art Museum comprised eight large-scale paintings honoring distinct topographical sites in the United Slates with their encrusted surfaces of earth, bones, shells, flowers, and plants embedded in encaustic evoking the passage of time. This exhibition was complemented by a multi-media installation that included an environmental encaustic relief painting, Ashes in Arcadia, that emerged from Stuart's "growing discontent toward a culturally and environmentally irresponsible America, where an ideology of progress accelerates toward self-destruction."[188] Stuart's Hortus Conclusus (Enclosed Garden) is related in content format, and technique to this body of work in which she uses wax "to honor and make visible the essential spirit of nature."[189]

Pressing flower petals into rich strata of encaustic on muslin-laminated rag paper squares, Stuart recreated the geological processes of nature. Embracing the theme of the enclosed garden (a traditional symbol of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in art) as a place for spiritual rebirth and purification, Stuart "wanted to capture the flowers and earth and seal them forever in time."[190] For Stuart, wax "holds the memory of all that is embedded within its mysterious depth like amber catching a moment in time."[191] She also embraces the element of chance which "performs its dialectic process with the use of heat and accident."[192] Thus encaustic's mutability, malleability, sensuousness, and unique luminosity (comparable to stained glass) are Stuart's primary attractions to this medium as a metaphor for transient natural phenomena. Subtle gradations of color and density in the wax and slight imperfections in the imposed order of the grid evoke the tension between the shifting, evolutionary aspects of nature and humanity's attempt to impose order. Extending the American Romantic tradition of Herman Melville, Jackson Pollock, and others, Stuart has continued to work with encaustic achieving a distinctive synthesis of abstraction and reality, fragment and whole, permanence and flux contemporary and archaic, heroic and intimate, the spiritual and material.

Joan Giordano's travels abroad to Japan motivated her to create the organic relief Red Swamp. Giordano began this work as a guest artist at the Fugimori Paper Mill in 1997. Molding pigmented handmade Kozo paper pulp over a steel mesh armature, Giordano then rubbed beeswax into the surface which was burned into the surface and fused with an electric heat gun. She completed the piece in New York with the addition of a burned out electric cable tied around in knots. Isolated on an island in southern Japan, Giordano became part of the terrain. Red Swamp maps her journey into the
earth and within herself: "it is the skin turned inside out...inner reality becoming outer form."
[193] Regarding the materials and process as integral to the content of her work, Giordano has explored various non-traditional uses of encaustic/cold wax-based media since the early 1970s. At that time she saw the work of Brice Marden and also shared a studio with Kay Walkingstick, at Pratt Institute, with whom she entered into an exchange about the properties of wax. By the early '80s Giordano discovered the malleability of handmade paper and the complementary role of wax which fused fibers that became impervious to erosive elements. Luminous and transparent, the wax allows the paper's surface to remain visible while permitting layering, peeling, scratching, and gouging. Evoking a childhood ritual of lighting candles at altars, Giordano's use of wax also invokes the forces of nature, especially water and fire, and how they alter materiality. Thus Red Swamp "is as much a metaphor for the swampiness of paper-making as it is for life in flux and how time changes matter."[194] Relating the swamp's precarious life to human vulnerability, Giordano also embraces the mutability of wax as part of her continuing inquiry into the transitory nature of reality.

In her organic diptych Night, Kay Walkingstick worked with a wax-based medium, combining abstraction and landscape imagery. During the early '70s Walkingstick -- the daughter of an Oklahoma Cherokee father and Scotch-Irish mother -- was working on a long series of abstractions whose subject was the political and spiritual experiences of Native Americans. Studying tribal art from many cultures, Walkingstick noted a primal vitality and archetypal imagery that she wanted to achieve in her work. Experimenting with various media, she found that adding a saponfied wax to acrylic paint gave it a rich, organic duality. By 1997 when she created Night, Walkingstick was creating two panel paintings, contrasting media to express the polarities of content and image. She continued to employ the cold wax and acrylic mixture on one side of the diptych, finding that "it worked so well conceptually with the abstract shapes."[195] On the more western traditional landscape portion, she switched to conventional oil paints. Her fascination with bridging dualities stems in part from Walkingstick's biracial heritage, as well as the "logical, reductive development of the composition and...the emotive, ritualistic application of the paint."[196]

Titled in English and Cherokee, Night (ORT, pronounced oosui) was based on drawings from an arroyo (desert stream bed) in the southwest near Tucson. Into the rich impasto Walkingstick has inserted a copper plate which adds color and texture while suggesting the copper lodes in the mountains that were invaded by miners who had a negative impact on the lives and land of native people. She is attracted to wax as a beautiful painting medium that adds luster, density; a natural appearance, suggestive translucence, and sweet smell. Furthermore the tactility of wax has been important for Walkingstick who painted all of Night entirely with her hands. Living in New York at the time, Walkingstick thus spiritually reconnected with her sacred, native land in the ritualistic process of painting with wax to achieve a union of the physical and the transcendent abstract and representational, native and non-native, ephemeral and eternal.[197]

In addition to Benglis, Giordano, and Walkingstick, many other artists working in encaustic and wax-based mediums have explored themes of landscape and environment. During the 1980s a number of painters were credited with revitalizing the landscape tradition by transforming it into an unorthodox postmodernist means of expression -- embracing skepticism and metaphysics in the wake of an alienated, urban culture's increasingly tenuous hold on nature overtaken by technology. Among these was Joan Nclson who attracted a great deal of attention for her intimate, small-scale, oil and wax landscapes, based on reproductions of works by Old Master landscape painters. Looking at the diverse work of Claude Lorrain, Albrecht Altdorfer, Thomas Cole, and others, Nelson appropriated fragmentary images of nature (especially trees...which evokes the work of German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich) with shining points of view that elude precise identification.[198] Often bathed in smoldering light that evokes dawn or the nocturnal, these works seemed to possess unclear intimations of genesis or apocalypse and were also interpreted as part of the American visionary tradition of landscape painting.[199] Melting beeswax over her panels and allowing it to drip over the sides, Nelson imparted an antique veneer, further evoking the artifice of an environment distilled by memory, pictorial devices, and imagination, rather than direct observation.

Around 1986 Nelson started working with melted beeswax having employed a cold wax medium after seeing Fayum portraits at the Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981-82. Nelson attributes her interest in experimenting with unconventional materials such as encaustic to the process art of the 1970s which was very much in the air during her days as a college student at Washington University. Having gleaned some information from Mayer, she developed her own technique of alternating layers of clear or tinted melted wax and thin glazes of damar resin and oil paint. Applied to wood panels with a broad brush, the wax was scraped down to a smooth surface then melted with a heat gun. The final layer of wax was also occasionally heated, "causing the painted area to sink or wiggle."[200] Only occasionally enjoying the unpredictable nature of the encaustic process in her current work, Nelson nonetheless feels that the atmospheric quality of the medium is peculiarly appropriate for her landscape subjects. A related property is the subtle interplay of illusory, image-based and actual object-based depth, created by the built-up layers of rich colors and translucent wax Thus the sensuous yet distancing encaustic medium embodies the paradox of Nelson's work which is "at once overcivilized in [its] memorializing, antiquarian manner and primitively rapturous [even nostalgic and reverent] in...tone.[201]

In recent years Robert Morris -- one of the principal progenitors of Minimalism, Conceptualism, earthworks and process art -- has also created encaustic paintings of landscapes perceived through the cultural filter of art history, such as Derived from a Part of Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves. Morris's abiding interest in Cézanne dates back to 1939 when he saw the master's late landscape Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves (1902-06) hanging on the wall of`the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child he was not yet able to comprehend the profound meaning of this work; only now can he "hear its silences as...a mourning from Cézanne that was also an acceptance on a deepest Ievel of passing as our condition."[202] Subsequently choosing to study at the Kansas City Art Institute, Morris was most likely exposed to encaustic in the late '40s in a required painting techniques class. He occasionally employed encaustic in some small works of the 1960s such as Leonardo (1964, lead over wood, wax, and wires, Collection of Florence and Brooks Barron). Morris turned to a focused use of the medium in the mid-1980s, having worked in a wide range of media and styles to investigate issues of process and perception.

In the 1980s Morris resumed painting after a twenty-four year hiatus, finding this activity to be the most appropriate vehicle for expressing his growing concerns with the threat of technology spinning out of human control. His composite Neo-romantic visions of a nuclear or natural apocalypse, replete with firestorms, skulls, and body parts, were rendered in other media besides in encaustic until 1985-86.[203] In 1987 he created an untitled series based on photographs of Holocaust victims which were transferred to silkscreens and embalmed in pigmented encaustic. [204] In a 1989-90 encaustic diptych series alluding to the moral bankruptcy of the era, Morris combined elliptical text with figures appropriated from photos, movie stills, and classic paintings. The image of one large panel is melted and blurred so that it seems a dissolute distortion of the other.[205] Discussed as references to Johns's use of encaustic and stenciled lettering, these paintings are rooted in the relationship between remembered images, objects, and labels.[206]

Morris's obsessive preoccupation with history and memory also inform his encaustic landscapes of the late 1990s based on details from paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Inness, Frederic Church, Gustave Courbet and Cézanne. Working on a scale much larger than his sources, Morris uses encaustic on square wood panels brought together on metal frameworks as monumental grids that overwhelm the viewer. Mixing powdered pigments with beeswax Morris overheats the panels with a large propane plumber's torch and enjoys the running together of fast-drying, rich, luminous colors which mix according to densities and are easy to scrape off: Basing his recent derivation of Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire on a watercolor of this subject, Morris has employed radiant transparent purples, greens, and blues on a white ground, recreating the fluidity, airiness and delicacy of the original work. Evoking Morris's affectionate memories of his first encounter with Cézanne, this painting is nevertheless an edgy homage as the artist juxtaposes the personal brushwork of the French master with the fragmentary nature of the recreation and the depersonalized Minimalist grid.[207] Furthermore Morris himself sees an oblique "resonance to second century [encaustic] Coptic art...that is exactly the indirect reference" he wants.[208]

In 1995-1996 Elaine Anthony created a series of 75 painterly, semi-abstract landscapes entitled Milagro, the Spanish word for miracle. Painted at a time when Anthony was ill with cancer, the Milagro works were her spiritual offerings for salvation. These shrinelike paintings conveyed Anthony's belief that her spirit would live on through her work after death which occurred later that year. Combining hand written text, family letters (what she called "my own coding symbols"), and used postage stamps, with fragments of the American flag on panels, Anthony painted abstracted, dream-like landscape imagery..[209] With the help of an assistant, the entire surface was then covered with a thin veneer of wax into which dye was occasionally poured. Clear or slightly pigmented, the wax created a unifying, ethereal film that suited Anthony's romantic otherworldly temperament. Continually seeking to get in touch with her own spirituality, Anthony regarded her creative process as a ritual of "overlaying, laying bare...projecting a mystical silence" or edifice.[210] The inclusion of the steel borders in Milagro 24 suggests the theme of an altar, ancient wall, or demarcation of sacred space, evident in earlier works as her homage to the Mexican and New Mexican retablos that inspired her.[211]

For the past eleven years, Amanda Crandall has been creating a visual vocabulary with which to convey her thoughts and feelings about nature. About two years ago, she began working with wax to achieve a flat rich base color. Having learned about encaustic at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1985-87, Crandall had intermittently experimented with wax, finding the method cumbersome. During a workshop at R& G Handmade Paints she learned about the hot palette and fusing techniques. Thereafter, she began to use encaustic more extensively, synthesizing it with oil, acrylic, and gold leaf.

Impressed by the delicacy and frailty of the Tudor miniatures at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Crandall began making very small encaustic landscapes on stacked wood. Although based on her own photos or sketches, the images of nature in these works bear a deliberate affinity to the mid-19th century landscapes of George Inness, Frederic Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and others. The miniature size of Crandall's landscapes, combined with their references to historical heroic landscapes, underscore "the reality that we have little pristine land left."[212] The truncated shape and depth of the pieces relate to keepsake boxes that can be held in the hand -- reinforcing the nostalgia of these works, our fragmentary experience of landscape in the late 20th century, and the irony of "something....which appears potentially infinite to our eyes, being in a space that is only a few inches.[213] Striving to create unique atmospheric qualities in her landscapes of the imagination, Crandall employs encaustic which provides both an actual physical depth as well as its illusion. Furthermore, she enjoys the serendipitous nature of`the fusing process which guides the evolution of her work.

Crandall was encouraged to take the encaustic workshop at R & F by Valerie Hammond. She was attracted to Hammond's work with its pervasive sense of atmosphere and poetry, the illusionary and physical depths, and the soft surface of the wax. [214] Having herself taken a workshop, Hammond now gives encaustic workshops at the 92nd Street Y in New York. She started working in the medium around 1995, attracted to its plasticity offering possibilities of a play of surface against depth. Hammond first taught herself through trial and error, heating the whole surface of her painting on a hot plate and easily creating a sense of flow. After the workshop, she began using a heat gun to re-work small areas of her landscape paintings. Hammond found that the tactile qualities of the non-reflective wax, "its capacity for endless transformation through the application of various other media in combination, or through effects of layering" afforded her a range of expression unlike any other medium.[215] In recent works such as Le Pont and Lacoste, rooted in her travels to Southern France, found images of fragmentary landscapes are embedded and layered into encaustic paint on wooden panels to preserve memory and record the moment. Encaustic is her vehicle for "creating a palimpsest of images...traces of the one reappearing in...another" -- a method that has been compared to Freudian processes of memory.[216] Over this encaustic work, Hammond often places another layer of images transferred to glass that appear to float over the embedded and worked areas. Dreamlike yet rooted in reality, Hammond's imaginary landscapes possess an atmospheric space defined by the melting and flowing of the wax -- reminiscent of "the movements and changes of clouds and light in sky -- the mysteriousness of nature -- ever changing and yet transcendent" sublime and fragile.[217]

Paul Hunter's mysterious, neo-Romantic Highlands is part of a series of encaustic landscapes inspired by his trips to Northern Europe and seeing the work of the German 19th-century master Caspar David Friedrich. An imagined landscape of Scotland, land of Hunter's forefathers, the highly atmospheric Highland typifies Hunter's use of encaustic to convey luminosity through the application of transparent colors over a reflective, white gesso background. Having admired the Fayum portraits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hunter sought the few literary sources he could find, including Mayer. He experimented and developed his own formula and technique (beeswax with volatile solutions and dry pigments over prepared panels; a paint remover gun is using for burning in).

Initially using wax as a new sculpting medium, Hunter started painting in encaustic in 1988. He enjoyed the directness with which fast-drying colors could be applied in no particular order. Furthermore, the adhesive properties of this permanent, dust-repellent medium inspired Hunter to create an important series of wax collages that encased diseased leaves and urban detritus. He likens the process of working with encaustic to a favorite activity -- cooking. Having abandoned encaustic today, Hunter nevertheless feels that the experience was formative as he still often mixes into various types of paints a wax that solidifies when it dries.[218]

Neo-romantic painter Hiro Yokose fuses multiple layers of wax and oil paint to create mysterious, veiled landscapes illuminated with flashes of light in the sky and water areas. He began working with encaustic in 1988 and arrived at its use through his own experiments, as well as an awareness of Brice Marden's work. Born in Nagasaki in 1951, just six years after the atomic bombing of the city, Yokose employs light in ways that could suggest that phenomenon. Nevertheless, the nuanced complexity of his untitled works defies simple interpretations and is rooted in the use of encaustic which he appreciates for its softness of surface, subtlety, and spiritual quality. The luminosity and transparency of the medium is particularly appropriate for the diffusion of light which Yokose regards as a manifestation of the divine. Often compared to the romantic landscapes of Turner, Yokose's atmospheric works possess, however, their own sense of serenity and postmodernist balance between painterly abstraction and representation, vulnerability and optimism. Allowing the wax to drip over the edges of the raw canvas stretched on panels, Yokose interrupts the landscape illusion he has created to draw attention to the creative process and object-like quality of the painting.[219]

Seascape painter Cynthia Knott, based in East Hampton, first became aware of encaustics while gazing at the jewel-like colors of the Fayum portraits and Byzantine icons at The Metropolitan Museum Art Her studies at The Boston Museum School led Knott to further investigate the medium. Knott's encounter with the work of Jasper Johns was critical for her appreciation of encaustic as a medium for contemporary artists that "could be used in a different, more sculptural, and physical way."[220] In 1989, when Knott began to concentrate exclusively on seascapes, she turned to encaustic to "achieve a transparency, atmosphere, and lightness that wouldn't be possible with any other medium."[221] Experimenting with various materials, she evolved her technique of heating beeswax with damar varnish and linseed oil to which pigments and metallics are added when the mixture has cooled. Knott also employs oil and wax-based painting sticks which do not require the use of heat and allow for greater transparency as well as portability.

To create works such as Spring Rush I and Spring Rush II, Knott repeatedly layers the paint onto the wood panel support with palette knifes and scrapes it off to obtain a breathing action and resonance from within. The use of malleable encaustic enables Knott to respond onsite to the mutability the shifting light of various times of`day. Reminiscent of Monet's tendency to create series of oil paintings capturing the elusive qualities of natural light, Knott's sublime encaustic seascapes have also been interpreted as evoking the ancient alchemical concept of conjuntio, the resolution of opposites when base metal is transformed into gold and the sky is integrated with the sea at the horizon.

Meghan Wood's abstract encaustic landscapes of Appalachia emerged from her desire to work with a flexible material that was pure. After her return from a number of camping trips, Wood felt a sense of displacement in her urban New Jersey environment. Coming upon some beeswax in a farmer's market, she was immediately drawn to its texture, luminosity and smell. A direct evocation of nature, wax was therefore Wood's chosen medium for the Appalachia series in which she physically recreated the ephemeral feeling of being in the Smoky Mountains. Applying melted beeswax to canvas, Wood mixed in dirt and charcoal and fused the surface with an iron or blow torch. Constantly changing the surface with additional layering and scraping, Wood's reductive process has, in works such as Appalachia 28, resulted in a rich, slate-like surface that evokes the geological processes and sublime beauty of nature. Aesthetic sources of inspiration include Marden's early wax-based works with their "whole, wide-open Midwestern skyness" and the metaphorical potential of Wolfgang Laibe's large beeswax constructions and pollen works.[223]

When be began using beeswax in 1992, Mike Solomon was, like Meghan Wood, attracted to its connection to nature. Securing his beeswax directly from a beekeeper, with remnants of bee carcasses, Solomon melts it and draws images with the hot liquid on paper, linen or muslin. He uses water-based media of ink and gouache which act as a resist around the wax areas. The wax can be reheated with a torch to make it seep further into the surface, to change the lines of the drawing and to adjust it to the colors added by the water-based media. The web-like Indian Corn was created by the occurrence of the hot wax seeping through the paper, turning it translucent, and bringing out the diverse colors of gouache previously applied to the back.

Solomon's use of wax resist techniques was inspired in great part by his mentor Alfonso Ossorio, as well as his appreciation of Giacometti's drawings and Pollock's 1951 black and white paintings. Solomon was influenced by these artists' existentialist integration of gesture with image, as well as Joseph Beuys, Johns, Benglis, and others "who express some aspect of material = spiritual."[224] He has also made his own associations with the mystical and symbolic identity of beeswax as a sacred material, a liquid amber that is amazingly adaptable and enduring. Believing that there are few media that have the rich historical, alchemical, and cultural associations of wax, Solomon has recently asserted that its use puts the artist automatically in touch with all of nature's secrets and memories -- the fact that "it comes to us mostly through the organic processes of nature has made it an especially important medium as we enter into a greater awareness of the environment."{225]

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