The Cubist Head: Self-Portrait in the Gym

The Cubist Head, Self Portrait in the Gym

I’m usually unsure of new pieces.  At first I think, “what the fuck?”  Then I stare at it a while longer, let my eye flow over the colors and shapes,  wonder at possible meanings.  Like, why did I put a ceiling fan over that guy’s face?  I suppose because his lose of identity is my gain.  After all, he’s pretty buff in a feminized way, and I’ve never been even close to buff.  I go to the gym simply to slightly slow the hands of time, but not actually expecting to improve anything.

Twenty-Six Thoughts on Robert Rauschenberg MoMA’s retrospective runs from stench and perfection to perfection and putrefaction. John Yau2 days ago

Robert Rauschenberg, “Untitled (Elemental Sculpture)” (c. 1953), hinged steel flange, stone, steel strap, and iron bolt (orientation variable), 13 5/8 × 18 1/4 × 9 1/8 inches (irreg.), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Ben Blackwell, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. All images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

1.
He used a rope and nail to tether a stone to a wood block. He made another work the same year, in which he attached a metal screw eye inside a box. He then tied twine to the screw eye and wrapped it around a stone that, in this instance, he placed outside the box. The person standing next to me says: “ball and chain.”

2.
He made a drawing using a car (a Model A Ford, to be exact) as the drawing instrument. A friend drove the car slowly, inching it forward, on joined sheets of typing paper that had been carefully placed in its path. Two tire tracks are visible, one in ink and the other the impression left by the tire treads. The tire tracks, perfectly aligned from sheet to sheet, form a scroll nearly 24 feet long, a drawing of two wide lines, one of which is ghostly, that stretches from one wall to another. He could have made a dozen or more of these scrolls, but he was too restless to do it again.

Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage, “Automobile Tire Print” (detail) (1953), tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. x 22 ft. 1/2 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Don Ross, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

3.
Erasing a work that he had solicited from an older artist whom he admired, one who was celebrated for his drawings, became another drawing. It took him 40 erasers to complete the task, but the sheet of paper is unblemished by creases or erasures. He repeatedly caressed the older artist’s drawing until it all but vanished.

4.
He made a series of “transfer drawings” illustrating the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s Inferno. These drawings look as if he did a rubbing of a flat image, coalescing into ghostly echoes in the streaks and smears.

5.
The gesture used in erasing a drawing presages the one used in making the “transfer drawings,” the repeated rubbing of erasure.

6.
A man clad in a towel descends into hell. He stands before what looks like a railing. Torments of all kinds are stacked up below him.

7.
He reinvented frottage. He made drawings without drawing. He was interested in ghostly images and traces. In his best works, he is often agitated and fastidious.

Robert Rauschenberg with Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953), A de Kooning drawing, graphite, and other media on paper, erased by Rauschenberg and mounted in a gilded wood frame with label inscribed using a metal template in blue ink on paper by Jasper Johns, 25 1/4 × 22 3/4 × 1/2 in., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis (photo by Ben Blackwell, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

8.
He kept the erased drawing in a drawer and did not show it. Another artist convinced him to put it in an exhibition. This artist matted the erased drawing and fit it into a gold gilded wood frame. He also provided the label, which he inscribed with perfect penmanship, using a metal template in blue ink, and affixed it into a cut-out in the mat. The gilded frame and label authenticate the drawing as a museum piece. One artist made the drawing. Another artist erased it. A third artist contextualized it. The context helps complete the viewer’s understanding of what is being looked at.

9.
He made paintings from dirt, as well as used paint made from pigments.

10.
He used taxidermied animals, dead insects, and engravings of beetles in his work.

He has gotten the tire around the stuffed angora goat, which he first saw in the window of a secondhand office furniture store. Eventually, through the suggestion of another artist, the same one who provided the gilded frame and inscribed label for his erased drawing, he places the goat on top of a painting lying on the floor instead in front of a painting hanging on the wall. The painting, which becomes a platform, is raised on casters. The platform becomes a low pedestal. We can still look the animal in the eye and contemplate his paint-smeared head.

Robert Rauschenberg, “Monogram” (1955–59), oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters, 42 × 53 1/4 × 64 1/2 in., Moderna Museet, Stockholm, purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet (© 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

12.
There are footprints on the edge of the painting that has become a pedestal, as well as a street barricade with signboard lettering.

13.
Behind the goat, on the platform, the artist has placed a paint-smeared tennis ball, a perfectly spherical turd.

14.
Perhaps he lifted this turd from a urinal.

15.
Dirt, paint, at least one turd, dead insects, stuffed animals. He goes from stench and perfection to perfection and putrefaction — a huge vat of percolating tan sludge.

16.
He smears paint, nail polish, and toothpaste onto a pillow and quilt, evidence of what happened there. The quilt is a grid, which is the way he organized his diverse images and materials. He puts one rectangle (or thing) next to another. He never got out of this way of arranging his images.

Nearly 350 years later, Rubens’ oil painting Venus at the Mirror (1615) becomes an oil and silkscreen painting titled Persimmon (1964).

18.
In Rubens’ painting, Venus at the Mirror, Cupid holds a mirror up for Venus. An African maidservant looks on. The mirror faces us, so that we see Venus’ reflection in the mirror, looking at us. One interpretation of this is the reflection of Venus, which reveals her beauty to the viewer, becomes a symbol of painting that competes with nature to produce an image that is as real as possible. From the expression on her face and the direction of her glance, it is clear that Venus is aware that we are admiring her.

19.
Ruben’s painting is about painting — about reflection, beauty, and the viewer. Its purpose is to please the viewer, to give pleasure.

20.
Do we prefer one more than the other — artifice or nature? Or do we desire to have both? What does it mean when he says: “My work exists in the space between art and life”? Is there a space between the two?

21.
He turned Rubens into a silkscreen, a representation of a representation. He changed the colors, added images of his own. The African maidservant is replaced by the image of a city street where the sign, “Cafeteria,” is prominent. Four years earlier, four African-American college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The one becomes many. Our eyes consume what is around us.

22.
The image of a round ripe persimmon, with its smooth indentation, sits right beneath Venus’s buttocks, a perfect anus.

23.
The word “persimmon” dates to America’s colonial period. It comes from the Powhatan name for the fruit, pichamin. It is a member of the genus Diospyros, which has been misread to mean “divine fruit.’ It has led some to believe it is the lotus Homer writes about in the Odyssey. In Powhatan, an Algonquin language, it means “a dry fruit.”

24.
A stone inside a box; a tire wrapped around the belly of a goat; an inverted pail that can be raised or lowered into a metal shaft; a dirty, paint smeared bed; a dirty tennis ball (or perfect turd).

Robert Rauschenberg, “Bed” (1955), oil, pencil, toothpaste, and red fingernail polish on pillow, quilt, and bedsheet mounted on wood support, 6 ft. 3 1/4 in. × 31 1/2 in. × 8 in., the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of Leo Castelli in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (photo by Thomas Griesel, © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation)

25.
In the silkscreen painting, the persimmon is the most boldly colored area of the composition — it is a round form inside a similarly colored square. A gauzy strip of cloth wraps around Venus’s right buttock, crosses over the crack of her ass, and touches against the top left edge of the torn rectangle (its top edged in white), framing the persimmon and the voluptuous indentation.

26.
Venus looks back at us, knowing what we are thinking.

A Maine Painter’s Private Realm of Becoming John Walker has led a resurgence of abstract painters who look to nature, emotion, and, especially, place. Chris Crosman2 days ago

John Walker, “Swept In” (2017), oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches (all images © John Walker, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York, unless noted otherwise)

ROCKLAND, Maine — In a subtly evocative installation photograph of John Walker: From Seal Point, currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the camera catches the light from the overhead clerestory windows in such a way that it seems to address, at least in part, how the paintings came to be and what they are about: The framing and passage of time.

The space that houses these ardent, full paintings — which seem to exhale in airy release — is so perfectly tuned to their eloquent fierceness, you might think Boston architect Toshiko Mori designed the gallery especially for Walker. The natural light washing the gallery walls, even on cloudy days, is both cleansing and muted, coaxing out the complexity of colors filtered through translucent gels, glazes, and pulsating globs. You can almost smell the salt air in John Walker’s most recent paintings, melding with the heavier, bracing smells and sounds from the nearby working harbor mere steps away from the museum. It’s the kind of vaulted and perfectly proportioned space that we imagine painters see, like dogs closing on rabbits, in their most rapturous dreams. Rarely does an exhibition conjoin so perfectly with its setting. Sometimes you just have to be there.

John Walker in his studio, 2017 (courtesy CMCA)

Born in Birmingham, England in 1939, Walker bought a house on Seal Point, Maine, in 1989. Prior to that, he had a distinguished teaching career that took him from Paris to London, Melbourne, New York, Boston, Yale and Oxford University. He is represented in permanent collections of major museums throughout the world, and he represented Great Britain at the 1972 Venice Biennale. Since retiring in 2014 from his most recent post, as director of the graduate program in art at Boston University, Seal Point is where he spends much of his time, working nearly every day.

Walker usually paints his larger canvases in a two-story former community hall near his home. In the hall, he found stacks of “Beano” or bingo cards that became the basis for small paintings. The 7 ½  x 5 ½-inch paintings on card stock are lightly but thoroughly worked and stand on their own as finished and fully realized paintings. They appear to be Walker’s heartfelt homage to the English landscape tradition — especially the work of John Constable — in which small, plein air paintings track moisture and ever-changing English skies over the cloud-piercing spire of Salisbury Cathedral. (One of the large paintings in the exhibition is titled “Constable’s Tree,” 2014).

For Walker, air, land, and sky are interchangeable in their fluidity; the artist paints them as layered, floating and charged, oozing, dragged within and often falling off the gridded card. Occasionally, printed elements from the Beano cards emerge, ghost-like from beneath the paint layers — a minuscule roving elephant, perhaps, or, more frequently, the underlying grid, including the numbers and letters of the bingo game. It has likely struck a bemused Walker that recycled and collaged numbers and alphabets had helped reinvent contemporary art half a century ago, in work by Jasper Johns. (Burying them once again beneath a different kind of abstract expression might well amuse Johns.) As intimate as the larger canvases are magisterial, the “Beano” paintings represent a distinct and intensely focused body of work. They encourage close looking, a teacher’s device for how one should penetrate, scan, and understand the larger paintings as well.

John Walker, “John Constable’s Tree” (2014), oil on canvas, 108 x 120 inches

Walker is an unrepentant modernist who has led a resurgence — mostly through uncompromising example — of painters reinvigorating abstraction by looking to nature, ideas, emotion and, especially, place. The Seal Point paintings are the artist’s celebration of the tidal mud flats, wind-driven, irregular wave patterns, and the island-rimmed horizon hugging the upper edge of his canvases. It’s the view from his front door on Seal Point — arguably among the most visually arresting sights, fair weather and foul, along the entire Maine coast. Seal Point’s natural beauty borders on the sublime, initially intimidating Walker; it took ten years before he could paint what he saw.

As in the work of artists he most admires — Matisse, Hartley, Marin, even Rembrandt and Goya — Walker’s paintings don’t much look like their sources in the real world. Indeed, that is the point. They reference how a place feels more than how it looks, much like Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings describe the Southern California streetscape, his Santa Monica neighborhood’s compartments and divisions, dissolving into pure, high color within loose but straight boundaries, occasionally disappearing or simply slipping into the shimmering expanse of oceanic blueness. It represents a way of thinking about structure and color and place that Walker seems to share and references according his own unique vision.

John Walker, “John’s Bay Pollution” (2017), oil on canvas, 84 x 66 inches

Seal Point is Walker’s private realm of becoming, always present to his eye and real to his touch. The receding tide lets local clammers dig holes in the mud. The clam holes resemble the incantatory dotted surfaces of aboriginal Australian art (which Walker collects) that puncture painting’s essential flatness. Walker has often used actual mud in his paintings, mixing it with binders and gels to evoke a quality of “realness.” The mud of Seal Point and its anti-picturesque, muck-laden quality at low tide interests him far more than traditionally beautiful aspects of his property. Its wet rawness also seems to trigger personal associations. His father fought in World War I at the battles of The Somme and Passchendaele (where the elder Walker was wounded), muddy bloodbaths where casualties numbered over half a million. Only recently has he allowed lush color and generous expansiveness into the Seal Point paintings, yielding to fierce beauty — an act not of surrender but of ownership. Seal Point is not just an idyllic retreat. It is a place — his place — where long familiar sights and time-washed memories recur with the regularity of the incoming and outgoing tides. After years of “looking out to sea,” John Walker feels that he truly owns his way of seeing Seal Point, a view that is always different, revising and renewing itself.

John Walker: From Seal Point continues at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (21 Winter Street, Rockland, Maine) through October 29.

John Walker and William Corbett, co-author of John Walker: Looking Out to Sea, will sign copies of the book at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art on September 10 between 3 and 5 p.m.

Thousands of Protesters and an Inflatable Rat Welcome President Trump Back to NYC

Last night outside Trump Tower, Jeffrey Beebe’s inflatable sculpture Trumpy the Rat made its debut and thousands of New Yorkers gathered to protest the president during his first visit home since taking office.