Anonymous but unforgettable: the collections of Robert Flynn Johnson, opening at Petaluma Arts Center Saturday, talk Sunday
If you love compelling photography, drop by the Petaluma Arts Center this weekend for its latest fête – an exquisite and intriguing selection of photographs from unknown photographers from the private collection of Robert Flynn Johnson. Johnson, recently retired as curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, is a consummate collector of many things and, along with these photographs, 12 of his 19th century quilts are on display. The exhibition is aptly named “Anonymous: 19th and 20th Century Photographs and Quilts by Unknown Artists from the Collection of Robert Flynn Johnson.” Flynn bought most of these exquisite photos years ago and for a song, before they became collectible. He frequented estate sales and flea markets all over the world and acquired some through serendipitous channels in his day job as a curator for the Achenbach Foundation. Several of the photographs will pull their weight along side the photos of the great masters and the collection, in its entirety, has a solid place in the history of photography.
The images assembled at the Petaluma Arts Center make the cut for their formal and aesthetic qualities as well as visually exciting bizarreness, and social interest. The take-away depends entirely upon your taste, but there is something for everyone. Along with stunning Victorian portraits, whose soft lighting evokes the romanticism of Julia Margaret Cameron, there is a diptych of a bullfight in a stadium somewhere in Spain and the audience is a dizzying sea of Nazi soldiers enmeshed in the spectacle of a slow blood fight. And if you’re intrigued by bravado bordering on foolhardiness, Johnson’s grouping of photographs of gravity-defying balancing acts from NY rooftops will leave you utterly queasy.
Several of the photographs convey a special emotional or spiritual aura and others are special because their compositions are interrupted by some unforeseen but gripping action, such as a cat racing through just as the photo was snapped, leaving a streak across the foreground. And, if you love dogs, be prepared to be charmed by some stunning old portraits, in particular a Victorian-era portrait evoking pure love between a woman and her dog, both seated on her velvet couch. All of the works on display are portals to the lyrical, humorous, sad and transcendent aspects of our humanity. Oddly, not knowing who took these photos or why, doesn’t strip them of any of their poignancy, it seems to enhance our access to deeply-held, even repressed, sentiments.
The hand-made quilts too are fabulous and the few on display, excellent examples of abstraction, speak to Johnson’s fine collecting eye. Often velvety with wear and pieced together from family clothing and cherished fabrics, they play well with overall theme of memory-gathering coming through in the photos.
Johnson is an informative and engaging speaker. On Sunday he will be in conversation with prominent vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson, who is coming from Seattle for the talk, and San Francisco gallerist and collector, Robert Tat, owner of Robert Tat Gallery. In 2007, Robert E. Jackson’s collection of anonymous snapshots was the subject of an important exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson, the first major exhibition, accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, to examine the evolution of snapshot imagery in America. That show began with the invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 and extended through the 1970s, tracing a rich vocabulary of shared subjects, approaches, and styles.
ARThound will soon be publishing a full interview with Robert Flynn Johnson but is waiting for permissions to reprint the accompanying photos.
Saturday, August 13, 2011, 4-7 p.m. opening reception to coincide with Petaluma Downtown Art Walk
Sunday, August 14, 2011, 2-4 p.m., Panel Discussion—Robert Flynn Johnson in conversation with vernacular photography collector Robert E. Jackson and gallery owner and collector Robert Tat.
Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma, CA 94952. (707) 762-5600. “Anonymous” ends September 18, 2011.
In its Final Days: “Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism,” Legion of Honor, San Francisco.
“Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism” at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor closes this Sunday. The show consists of roughly 250 prints, drawings, and artists’ books that trace the development of the Japanese print over two centuries (1700–1900) and reveal Japanesque’s profound influence on Western art during the era of Impressionism. Most of the works are from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts which is the works on paper department of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FMASF). See this show now, because it’s likely you won’t see these prints together again for at least 20 years according to exhibition curator Karin Breuer. The long interval between exhibits is necessary to preserve the prints as prolonged exposure to light will cause fading. The lighting in the show is subdued but more than adequate to view the prints. Each print in the show is being tracked to monitor how long it is out of its archival box and exposed to light. The show complements “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay,” at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, through January 18, 2011. Many of the paintings from the Musée d’Orsay are aesthetically indebted to concepts of Japanese art.
Japanesque unfolds in three sections: Evolution, Essence and Influence.
Evolution: Evolution presents a chronological development of the Japanese print in Edo (presentday Tokyo), beginning with early black-and-white woodcuts and handcolored woodcuts. They are followed by delicate three- and four-color prints by early masters of ukiyo-e such as Suzuki Harunobu and Kitagawa Utamaro that feature the courtesans and beauties of the “floating world.” Landscape prints from the 1830s by Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige are shown as examples of that important Japanese genre.
Essence: The Essence section features the Japanese aesthetic in print, and particularly highlights those subjects and compositional concepts that Western artists admired and imitated. Iconic images such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave and Fuji above the Lightning from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1831–1834) are shown here, as well as Hiroshige’s Plum Orchard from his famous series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1857).
Influence: A large group of works by European and American artists of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist eras who were influenced by the Japanese print includes prints and drawings by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The artists collected Japanese prints and often produced their own graphic work that, in composition, color, and imagery borrowed directly from the Japanese aesthetic. Henri Rivière’s homage to Hokusai Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902) is featured, as well as the work of American artists such as Arthur Wesley Dow and Helen Hyde, who traveled to Japan to enhance their knowledge of the Japanese color woodcut.
Artist Studio featuring the Craft of the Color Woodcut: Color woodcut techniques developed by the Japanese and adopted by Western artists are featured in a special education gallery within the exhibition. The “artist studio” includes woodblocks, tools, preparatory drawings, and progressive color prints that demonstrate the process of designing, carving, and printing color woodcuts.
Details: The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. For information, visit http://www.legionofhonor.org or call (415) 750-3600.
Tickets to “Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond” at the de Young are good for same-day admission to “Japanesque” at the Legion of Honor.
California Conceptualist John Baldessari: Veteran Iconoclast, Irreverent Data Processor. Show in final week at Legion of Honor, San Francisco
It is rare that the Legion of Honor has a show honoring a living artist who is available to comment on his work, and even rarer when that artist is leading rabble-raising conceptualist. For the past 50 years, John Baldessari., now 78, has been poking his finger in the eye of the contemporary art world, challenging its long-held assumptions, with the persistent confidence of a visionary. As a result, he has become one the most influential artists of our time. His current show at the Legion of Honor “John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of the Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” closes this coming weekend and is well worth a trip.
125 prints are included in the exhibition that spans the last forty years of Baldessari’s post-painting period, from the 1970s to the present. The collection of prints is on loan from the Portland, Oregon-based collection of real estate developer Jordan D. Schnitzer. Schnitzer, who began collecting in 1974, and now has an almost complete archive of Baldessari’s printed work in his a collection of over 5,000 prints by leading artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, and Bruce Nauman. Schnitzer worked with Karin Breuer, Curator in Charge, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, to organize the exhibition, and to support the printing of the catalog.
The most important thing that someone can take away from a visit to this show is a change in their own attitude about what it really means to really see something. Baldessari is the quintessential data processor. Much like what Einstein did for physics, Baldessari has challenged some of art’s lynchpin assumptions by exploring what would happen if they were relaxed, asking WHY is this so? He is a genius at stripping things of their normality—their context, order of being experienced– and then seeing what emerges. As a result, he has been able to experience the world in a way that is not preconceived and to see profound connections that others aren’t even looking for. He separated himself from his herd of artists early on and made a distinctive break from painting in the 1970’s by ceremoniously burning his paintings. He then began working with paper and photographic images, working through many of the concerns that he wasn’t able to address as a painter. With his fresh eye, sharp wit and soft spoken ways, he managed to influence an entire generation of artists. His work can be intimidating for the uninitiated as it is not always easy to understand. “Sometimes I think people get frustrated with his work because they feel they have to figure it out,” said curator Connie Lewellen, who has worked with him for years, “and that causes tension because they have to decide. You can look at everything he does on many different levels and I think you are also challenged to make your own stories which will evolve the more time you spend with the work.”
The press preview offered a guided tour through the exhibition with Baldessari and Lewellen and a chance to hear Baldessari talk about his work and ask questions. What emerged was captivating—he spoke very simply about complex and powerful thoughts. The Baldessari comments that follow (in italics) are all from that day.
Standing in front of “The Fallen Easle” (1987), a nine part color lithograph and screenprint, that is emblematic of a lot of the issues that his work has dealt with over the years, Baldessari admitted to being a “closet formalist.” (focusing on the visual elements of the artwork). There are fragments of different images that were possibly culled from movie stills, magazines, sources from popular culture, sources that are cut up in very idiosyncratic ways. On a compositional level, the fallen easle is a pointer, an arrow to the rest of the composition. The space between the images is empty. One frame holds a pointed gun, an image appearing frequently in his work. Another frame contains three men in suits treated in his emblematic way of handling faces, which is to cover them with bright, primary-colored dots. “He does this to take the individuality away from the people, so they cannot be identified and are generic types, explained Lewellen. “It’s never important to John to identify what the source is or where is came from.”
“This is a period where I am choosing multiple frames,” said Baldessari. “In early shows I was such a purist that I refused to put my works in frames, I used Velcro and a lot of damage occurred over time. I refused to think about frames for as long as possible but my gallerist, Sonnabend, convinced me that I had to think about the work and preserving it. I decided to use the frame as part of the work, to use the frame as architecture and to avoid a single frame and to play around with pieces that had both framed and unframed parts. A lot of the works also play with what was considered normal height/width ratios that were accepted by museums and that as artists we had to accept… I asked ‘why?’ and started using long rectangles and placed them with other sized rectangles and squares.”
Leveling the playing field with colored dots
Circular disks placed over faces figure prominently in Baldessari’s work from the mid-1980’s onward. “I’d been working with images from newspapers a lot and had a lot of imagery of people shaking hands, the local fire chief, that type of thing. I was always intrigued by them. It hit me one day that, working in the isolation of your studio, you’re not doing much about the condition of the world but those people are. I got to feeling there’s something out of whack here. I was working with other works where I was using these little price stickers and, in a fit of exasperation, I stuck them over the faces so I didn’t have to look at them. I felt that I had leveled the playing field.
It later struck me that we have ways of prioritizing our vision that impacts what we see. If you’re running into a train station and you’re late, you’re going to prioritize the clock but if you’re just wondering about you’re going to look at other things first. People tend to look at faces and if you can’t see the faces, you’ve got to look elsewhere—at how they’re dressed or standing, the ambience, so forth. Also in drawing class, you might
spend two hours on the head alone and the last hour on the rest of the body. In my class, I put a drape over the model’s head so they couldn’t do the head. Then, in the last hour, I took the drape off. That’s how that all started. Now, I think in terms of I am master of my universe I can control what people see and pay attention to.”
“Throwing Three Ball in the Air to Get A Straight Line (Best of Thirty-six Attempts),” (1973) is illustrative of the prankster in Baldessari, who initially set out to trying to upset beauty (a beautiful result) by intervening on a photo shoot. The series of work is about throwing three balls in the air to make a straight line…an absurdist idea….and underlying that, trying to create order from chaos or to look at non-conventional forms of order, an ongoing interest of Baldessari.
“Beauty is a by-product,” explained Baldessari. “Each time an artist does something, you get better and better at making beauty, so why work at it? Why not something else?”
The majority of the works in the show are from the 1980’s and they all basically address breaking-up the rectangle, which had become the convention that people had become conditioned to accept as normal. Baldessari asked “why?” and found there was no real reason. He began working in a new direction, experimenting with various ways of putting together images from varied sources, sometimes adding colors.
“Roller Coaster” (1989-90) combines two black and white squares which are formalist tropes we recognize from Malevich but sandwiched between them is something very novel and other—an image of two carnival roller coasters about to hurdle past each other. Your mind looks at what appears to be a very minimalisti piece of artwork in the black work and then processes the roller coaster and then moves on to the white square. The work has a curving line of white that extends the movement of the photograph and across the black on the left and a similar effect with a green line on the right which extends into the white expanse.
Baldessari is masterful at word play. In “Life’s Balance (With Money),” (1989-90), he offers three images that don’t seem to be related at all—a juggler, some people above who are very happy with money and a precarious situation—someone about to lose his balance. “The point is that you can combine almost any two or three images and come up with a story or narrative,” explains Connie Lewellen.
Humor is also by-product–a lot of his absurdist ideas are funny and serious at the same time. His first print using digital imagery– “The Pot with Nine Removals” (1996)—is a bizarre series of ten prints that begins with what appears to be an old film still of several scantily clad blond Marilynn Monroe-like cannibals dancing around a man about to be cooked in a huge cauldron. People are systematically removed from each successive print in the series until just the empty pot remains. A frustrated journalist tried to think his way through the piece and asked him what was going on. “Well, I’m the last person on earth who is going to answer this,” replied Baldessari. “It’s about being reductive and taking things away, or being additive. “
“I sometimes think of myself as writer but, instead of using words, I am using images,” said Baldessari. “A word and an image I find equal in weight. In a lot of my work, instead of an image, I am using a word or, instead of a word, I am using an image. I’m putting them together pretty much like a writer does and, if they are good, they have to have the right placement of words. If it’s not the right order it’s too flabby or it’s too obtuse—it has to be just right, not so stretched that it snaps, but you want it to pop.”
Repatterning the Color Code
Baldessari has long been fascinated with big questions such as can color in art ever be stripped of its meaning. A number of his works address color which he tends to use sparingly but in a bold fashion.
I used to do a lot of painting and then I started doing more and more with paper and painting wasn’t foremost in my mind. I decided I was going change my attitude towards color which has a relational use in painting and most of the time is used to produce something aesthetically pleasing. I decided that I wanted to get away from that and would use something like color coding, always in some systematic fashion. I was working in sequences at the time, so I if were working in a sequence of three, I would work in the three primary colors–red, yellow, blue— and if it were six, I’d bring in the secondary colors of orange, violet, green or up the ante by adding black or white. I had a system going on and I owe that to Sol LeWit who has a system and follows it. With faces, I used color in a symbolic way, color coding people—red/dangerous, green/safe, blue/platonic, and yellow/crazy. This led me to ask him about how the dot might factor into his interaction with real people. Does he mentally blot out of their face and focus on the information around them? He did not answer the question.
Philosophically, Baldessari has a long-standing fascination with the relation of the part to the whole which he has tackled in many ways. He often has asked himself’ ”How much can I leave out of something; when does it cease to be whole?
His “Person With Guitar” series (2005) addresses a very clichéd image—the guitar—in a novel way. There are six images of hands playing guitars—the players are not recognizable as individuals because they are headless and the guitars are hand-painted, each in a different color, so that all distinguishing characteristics are gone. The hands are also painted. “I am always gathering images but I don’t necessarily like them but I am fascinated by them. I am attracted by things that are ugly, in my mind, too.
A lot happens form disliking it so much that I force myself to deal with it. The guitar has a long history…it made such a beautiful shape when you take away all the distinguishing details, so that it’s in perspective and it’s just a shape. I isolated that and the hands and I decided to paint on the surface to create a different reflectivity. I got tired of paint and so I decided to have more than one level and had a level above and then another by sinking into it…hands, guitar, clothing”.
Parts of the body is another curiosity. “Noses & Ears, Etc: The Gemini Series: Two Faces, One with Nose and Military Ribbons; One With (Blue) Nose and Tie,” (2006) is part of a series in which six three-layer screenprints are mounted on Sintra board and specific facial features are articulated by color and dimension. There is a high degree of abstraction—the face is a single color, but the tie and shirt are presented in exacting detail.
I had a retrospective in Vienna and I saw these works that I had forgotten about. The ear painting came about when I was in San Diego and I had friend in the billboard business and they put them together in sheets—a 24 sheet billboard. So, any time they were any left over sheets, I would get it from my friend and look at the imagery. I was very much interested in philosophical way what was the difference between the part and the whole or is there any difference…this still occupies my think a lot. I came upon this giant ear and all of a sudden a part became a whole and so I used it as a basis for a painting and that’s how I got interest in body parts. Going on with it, it became a subject of my work…eyes and lips seemed fairly conventional but noses and ears were rare in visual art, so that’s what I started off with, eliminating nearly everything but the ear and the nose in roughly he same territory that we might expect a head to be. After that I did a whole other series of elbows and knees. And then foreheads and eyebrows (some of which are here) and now I am working on hands and feet. Hands are pretty easy; feet aren’t.
What Baldessari is doing is formulaic—at every instance, he is rejecting the common view and trying to find a new one by stepping out of conventions and assumptions. Art has the benefit of not needing strong conventions because of its abstract nature–you never have to return to the real world. Baldessari is also a paradox…he had to achieve a certain amount of success in the art world before his early ideas–that so challenged that world– were accepted and became so influential.