Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008 with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends

Part IV: Art of Today and Conclusion

By Nancy Allyn Jarzombek and Nancy E. Green

 

With more young artists emerging from fine arts programs than ever before and an art market that boasts a healthy appetite for "the new," the business of art is booming. Today's art is characterized by diversity. While artists of earlier generations continue to pursue their chosen paths, younger generations either align themselves with already established movements or break away to find individual modes of expression. A multiplicity of voices seems to drown out any single voice or collective trend; no one style has emerged as dominant, and artists are free to pursue those avenues they feel most appropriate.

Contemporary art is avidly collected by an enthusiastic group of Cornellians, and they approach the field with characteristic individuality. Some look for current work of contemporary "old masters" such as Helen Frankenthaler or Jasper Johns. Others seek out work by young artists emerging on the scene.

There are a number of current pieces in the exhibition by artists who have their roots in the abstract expressionist generation. The painting Thalassa (cat. no. 67) shows the illusion of deep space played against masses on the surface of the picture-a lifelong interest of Helen Frankenthaler. Cadmium Wall (Cave 101) (cat. no. 47) is from Elaine de Kooning's last large cycle of paintings, begun in 1983 when the artist traveled to the Dordogne River valley in France to see prehistoric cave paintings. The notion of elegy, with its dual associations of life and death, has absorbed Robert Motherwell for four decades. His first elegy paintings, dating from the early 1950s, were monumental statements; Elegy Fragment II (cat. no. 108) translates the original larger-than-life symbols into a smaller, more intimate version done in the refined, precise medium of etching.

Beginning as an abstract artist in the 1950s, Richard Diebenkorn developed into one of the most intellectually stimulating artists of his generation. Over the decades, as his work became more figurative and his fascination with landscape more pronounced, his images became more linear, a series of sequential changes moving across the picture plane. In his works on paper, he explores space defined by abstract planes on a smaller scale, and the images can be read as symbolic spaces viewed from above: streets and lawns intersect and form landscapes. In Twelve (cat. no. 51) the blue is seen as the water's edge and the grays as streets in this strangely vacant scene. Another print, Blue (cat. no. 50), also reads architecturally, albeit less clearly than Twelve. As the title suggests, the color blue dominates the composition, complemented by small patches of primary colors. As a lithograph, Twelve has a certain inherent emphasis on draftsmanship, whereas Blue has the more expressionistic qualities to be expected from the woodcut medium. Diebenkorn also favors the color blue in his untitled #34 (cat. no. 49), which consists of two simple shapes, one seeming to hover above the other, the resulting image moving into the purely abstract realm of line, shape, and color.

Artists of the 1960s and '70s also show new directions in their current work. In Savarin Blue (cat. no. 85) Jasper Johns has given us a frequently repeated personal image from his paintings as well as other prints-the Savarin coffee tin laden with paint brushes. Appealing on many levels, the lithograph epitomizes the sixties' demystification of art by creating art from everyday objects. It also conveys a personal statement from the artist, whose brushes momentarily rest in the can. The overall cast of the entire image is a blue-black ink, creating a somber, almost melancholy ambiance. Through color and mood, Johns distinguishes this image from his other Savarins, creating a fresh, nonrepetitious impression.

Johns moves toward abstraction in Usuyuki (cat. no. 84) and Cicada 11 (cat. no. 86). The staccato markings fluctuate and flow, offering a sophisticated statement on color interactions. The color creates an oscillating movement in a deeper space, seen as newsprint through the crevices of the color markings. True to his early interest in graphic art, Johns appropriates various letter types and uses primary and secondary colors to emphasize an artistic shorthand that may be immediately understood as the pop language of advertisements and signs.

Frank Stella, once preoccupied with simple geometric patterns formed by parallel lines, has now branched into wildly biomorphic images. In such works as Pergusa Three, State I (cat. no. 146), he takes an almost whimsical delight in elaborate color and form. Combining intaglio and relief processes, his prints stress the tactility of the surface, similar to his current large three-dimensional painting constructions. Like many artists of his time, Stella was weaned on abstract expressionism, came of age with Pop Art and minimalism, and finally evolved his own unique styles in the seventies and eighties.

In the 1980s Andy Warhol was still making silk-screens of well-known images. Sandro Botticelli "Birth of Venus, "from Details of Renaissance Paintings (cat. no. 151) takes his central purpose -- to demystify the popular icons of our era-one step further, attacking fine art the way he had once attacked mass culture. This close-up view of Venus, the colors all wrong and printed slightly awry,

forces us to rethink Botticelli's image of ideal beauty and at the same time to analyze our own concept of beauty, now heavily influenced by pop imagery. Is Venus less enticing or more -- because of her startling red and yellow hair, her black face with its red undercoat and vibrant blue outlines? Warhol favored the mechanical printing process, each color printed slightly off register, because it emphasized the artist's minimal involvement in the production of the image.

In the 1980s Roy Lichtenstein also invaded the world of fine art for subject matter. In Painting on Blue and Yellow Wall (cat. no. 95), he gives us a silkscreened image of one corner of an abstract expressionist painting. The image and its exaggerated wood frame seem to float on the sheet of paper, rendered in Lichtenstein's characteristic pop style of bold black outlines and flat areas of primary colors.

Jim Dine's art has developed from pop to a more personal figurative mode. Red Etching Bathrobe (cat. no. 54) evolves from a long line of bathrobe images, starting in 1964. Dine has, in fact, explored all printing media -- etching, lithograph, stencil, and woodcut -- using the same disembodied robe, arms akimbo, the artist's presence very much felt. In Red Etching Bathrobe, an etching printed on two plates, the red robe seems to emerge ethereally from the rich density of the black background. Like other artists of his generation, he has taken one image and played it over and over for his audience, examining fresh nuances each time. Unlike Lichtenstein and Warhol, however, Dine's work is personal and personable, never allowing the medium to stand between the object and the viewer.

In the sixties James Rosenquist introduced his own version of Pop Art. Trained as a billboard painter, he brought to fine art an obsession for small items reproduced in enormous detail. These magnified details from commercial imagery often become unrecognizable or, at the least, obscure, when placed in their new context. The sixteen-color lithograph Area Code (cat. no. 129) is an exercise in color variation and light. Rosenquist uses the image of brightly colored fiber optics enlarged to an unrealistic size, and randomly adds dabs of color and streamers.

Although it appeared that figurative art was out of style during the sixties, Philip Pearlstein revived the classical female nude for his own brand of realism. His nudes are often cropped in unexpected ways to heighten the almost accidental snapshot quality of the scene. The images are usually simple: one or two nudes sit on a rug, a chair, or a chaise, sometimes partially clothed, as in the aquatint Nude in Kimono (cat. no. 118), in which the subject is draped in an elaborately patterned robe. The broadly shadowed black nude is poised pensively on the chair edge, staring into the space to the left of the viewer, her muscular right leg thrust downward, confusing the perspective. She is elegant, almost regal, encompassed by her own thoughts. The green robe with its bright red chrysanthemums emphasizes her exoticism. The use of aquatint softens the lines and creates gentle shading, contradicting the hardness of the model's features. The print projects the model's strong personality starkly juxtaposed with the bland whiteness of the wall. Pearlstein's work is both unsettling and provocative, suggesting art historical precedents yet establishing its own unique identity.

The legacy of the 1960s carries on today as artists freely borrow elements from pop art, such as the selection of banal subject matter or the use of cartoon imagery, to express personal concerns. Ed Ruscha selects ordinary details, words, or images to reveal aspects of contemporary life. The Jockey (cat. no. 131) is a simple image of a jockey statue commonly seen on lawns in suburban neighborhoods of the 1950s. The figure first appeared as a black man but was then painted with white skin after the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Ruscha's painting, therefore, suggests an era of affluence and racism, not bygone as we like to think, but in fact still present, as the looming shadow reminds us. Roger Brown uses cartoon imagery as an easily readable language with which to tell highly personal stories. The Plague (cat. no. 30) depicts a panicky society threatened by fatal illness. Keith Haring is another artist who uses cartoon imagery. Although his work is rooted in the graffiti of urban life, his hieroglyphs seem to represent a private inner world.

Emerging with pop artists in London, Malcolm Morley moved to New York City in 1964 and produced paintings that looked like travel posters done in a super- realist style. By the early 1970s, however, he began to look to nature for his subjects, painting expressive landscapes such as the exuberant Antigua (cat. no. 107). Joseph Raffael and Alan Magee share an interest in landscape but take an approach quite unlike Morley's free use of paint. These artists focus very closely on nature, choosing small limited areas and rendering every detail. Raffael typically studies water and flowers, whereas Magee chooses smooth variegated stones that form beautiful patterns on the flat picture plane.

The legacy of minimalism, with its central notion of artwork as object first and foremost, appears today in the work of contemporary artists who explore the possibilities of their media. Jacqueline Humphries closely approximates minimalist pursuits in Gray Area (cat. no. 82), in which she divides a square canvas into two rectangles, one white, the other a mottled painterly gray. On the other end of the spectrum, Terence La Noue, who received his M.F.A. from Cornell in 1967, is interested in the complexity of surface and texture. Winterkill: Snowbound (cat. no. 90) is constructed of molded fabric and pigments, collaged and painted to form a dense and complicated image that reads more like a tapestry than a conventional painting.

In sculpture, Jeff Koons's bronze Soccer Ball (cat. no. 88) quotes the minimalist style. Yet despite the simplicity and directness of the ball's shape, it is not what it appears to be. The connotations of "bronze" and "ball" force us to reconsider what is important to both and therefore move us out of the perceptual and into the conceptual realm. Nancy Graves has pushed bronze casting and patination to new limits. Intensely interested in organic forms, she began to cast such objects as seed pods, leaves, sticks, and vegetables in bronze and weld them together, patinating the whole sculpture with bright colors.

By the middle of the 1970s a number of artists rejected the tenets of minimalism and the slick cartoon imagery of pop art and began producing paintings that forcefully communicated their personal values. Katherine Porter and Jennifer Bartlett started out making cool, impersonal compositions based on grids, but both broke away to develop individual expressive styles. Instruments of Torture (cat. no. 120) is one of a series of abstract painterly canvases in which Porter brings together political and social convictions with personal experiences and her knowledge of the history of art. In work such as At Sands Point #14 (cat. no. 14), Bartlett has developed a realist style informed by the rigors of minimalism yet imbued with a subjective poetic mood. Gregory Amenoff, working in color woodcut -- a medium rarely used today -- has developed a highly expressive abstract style that, in Urania (cat. no. 2), retains references to landscape. Alison Saar uses powerful symbolic forms, such as the snake in King Snake of the 88's (cat. no. 132), to convey what is mythic and yet what is also intensely subjective about experience.

 

Conclusion

"Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends" gives visitors to the Johnson Museum a glimpse into the history of American art that can never be duplicated. Bringing together one hundred and sixty-two pieces from seventy-two collections, the exhibition provides the visitor with a richly textured picture that chronicles the well known alongside the lesser known. The resulting survey gives us a unique opportunity to add to our understanding of the multifaceted development of two centuries of American art.

Although one of the goals of "Cornell Collects" is to demonstrate the important connections between collectors and the museum, it cannot possibly do justice to each collection. Given the limited size of the galleries, there were many pieces that could not be included in the exhibition. And given that the focus of the exhibition was limited to American art, we did not look to the many rich collections in other areas -- Asian, African, European, and South American arts, to name a few. "Cornell Collects," therefore, should be seen as a first step in a larger program of the museum to renew and strengthen ties with alumni and friends who share a deep commitment to the arts and to enrich the cultural life of the Cornell community for generations to come.



About the authors

Nancy Green is senior curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. She joined the Johnson Museum staff in 1985 and since has organized dozens of exhibitions at the Johnson Museum and elsewhere. While the subjects of these exhibitions are wide-ranging, her principal interest is in American and European art from the 19th century to the present. She has published numerous articles, exhibition guides, and catalogues including, most recently, Byrdcliffe: An American Arts and Crafts Colony (2004); Surrealist Works on Paper from the Drukier Collection (2003), Dreams, Myths, and Realities: A Vincent Smith Retrospective (2001), Arthur Wesley Dow and American Arts and Crafts (1999), Susan Rothenberg: Drawings and Prints (1998), and Master Prints from Upstate New York Museums (1995). She is the recipient of research fellowships from the Getty, Winterthur, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, the Paul Mellon Centre, the Wolfsonian, Huntington-British Academy, and a grant from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design. She is currently working on a catalogue and exhibition A Room of Their Own: The Artists of Bloomsbury. Green received her B.A. from Connecticut College and her M.A. in Art History from Williams College.

Nancy Allyn Jarzombek, former managing director and director of research at Vose Galleries of Boston, has written several catalogs featuring American artists. She previously served as curator of painting and sculpture at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University. Recently she was a contributor to Consuming Views: Art and Tourism in the White Mountains, 1850-1900, published by the New Hampshire Historical Society.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text, without illustrations, was reprinted in Resource Library on August 2, 2008, with permission of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University and authors Nancy Allyn Jarzombek and Nancy E. Green. The permission was granted to TFAO on July 23, 2008. Ms. Green's essay pertains to Cornell Collects: A Celebration of American Art from the Collections of Alumni and Friends, which was on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York August 21 - November 4, 1990.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Liz Emrich, Exhibitions Assistant/Rights and Reproductions of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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