26 September 2014

Lila Oliver Asher

Back in December 2013 through March this year, the little art gallery at Maplewood Park Place, the residence where my mother lives in Bethesda, Maryland, hosted an exhibit of prints by area printmakers.  There were three or four artists whose work was on display, showing perhaps half a dozen prints each.  Among the most appealing, both for their subjects and their style, were the linoleum-block prints of Lila Oliver Asher, who also attended the opening for the show.  My mother made it a point to be there, too, because it happens that Mom and Lila Asher have been friends since their childhoods, some 80 years ago or so.  (Mom and Lila met at Camp Wa-Na-Gi on Lake George, New York, when my mother was a camper and Lila was a counsellor.)  Mom’s a New Yorker who grew up in New Jersey and Lila’s a Philadelphian, so the fact that they each ended up in Washington (they both live in the Maryland suburbs now) at the same time is an amazing coincidence, I think.  They both arrived in D.C. in 1946—my mom in February and Lila in May—so their husbands could take jobs in the city, Sydney Asher, Jr., as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board and my father as an executive in a local movie-theater corporation.  Since I was born in the District at the end of that same year, I’ve known Lila literally all my life.

Lila Estelle Oliver was born in Philadelphia in 1921, where she started drawing as a child, receiving her first set of oil paints as a birthday gift from her parents when she was seven.  “I was always aware that I wanted to be an artist,” she wrote later in a biographical sketch.  Then Lila went on to study in a children’s program at what became the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial (formerly the Graphics Sketch Club, now affiliated with the Philadelphia Museum of Art).  In 1939, the incipient artist received a four-year scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts).  Among the distinguished artists with whom she studied were landscapist Joseph Grossman (1889-1979) and portraitist Franklin B. A. Linton (1871-1943), a protégé of realist painter, photographer, and sculptor Thomas Eakins.  Lila also studied with Gonippo Raggi (1875–1959), an Italian-born church muralist, but she started out to be a portrait artist.

Before graduating from PCA in 1943, in the middle of World War II, Lila began sketching wounded GI’s in hospitals for the USO, volunteering with the newly-formed Hospital Sketching Program (1943-1946).  The drawings were both entertaining and therapeutic for the invalided servicemen, and Lila was also a good listener, chatting with the boys, so immobilized by their injuries that they couldn’t attend the song-and-dance USO shows being offered nearby, and hearing their tales as she sketched.  The young artist was flattered to be asked—some of the other artists recruited were quite established already—and she felt she was putting her artistic ability to use to serve her country; if she’d been a man, she thought, she’d have been drafted to fight, so this was a way of doing her bit.  Visiting veterans’ hospitals all over the area, from Philadelphia to Valley Forge and Atlantic City, for as much as six days at a time, to draw and paint the portraits, “I became a one-woman USO show,” she likes to say.  “And literally, I sat from bed to bed,” she recalls.  “I sat on a bed with a young man and did a sketch,” later collecting many of the 3,500 portraits she created in a book entitled Men I Have Met in Bed (Heritage Books, 2002), which includes the transcripts of many of the often humorous letters she wrote to her wounded subjects.  Unable to accept payment for the drawings, though many of her subjects offered, Lila collected the shoulder patches of the GI’s units—so she’d “have an insignia from all the different areas”— assembling the more than 200 emblems into a little quilt which is depicted in the book. 

Married in 1946, Lila Asher (she uses her full name, Lila Oliver Asher, professionally) moved to the Nation’s Capital three years after she graduated from PCA and established a studio for painting, sculpture, and printmaking in a $25-a-month space in Northwest Washington.  To supplement her art, she took a job illustrating advertisements for Charles Schwartz Jewelers and upscale men’s clothiers Lewis & Thos. Saltz.  For Schwartz, she drew pictures of the gems, which the store gave her to take home in a little paper bag.  

The young artist soon began teaching art at local colleges and universities.  She started in Howard University’s Art Department, the oldest academic art department in the Nation’s Capital, from 1947 to 1951, where her students included Romare Bearden (1911-88), among the most distinguished American artists of the 20th century; Franklin White, Jr. (b. 1943), a well-known Washington artist and instructor at the Corcoran School of Art; and David Driskell (b. 1931), an artist and scholar of African-American art.  She also taught at Wilson Teachers College, which became part of the District of Columbia Teachers College in 1955 and then incorporated into the University of the District of Columbia when UDC was established in 1977, from 1953 to 1954.  Returning in 1961 to Howard, one of the oldest traditionally black colleges in the U.S. and one of the most prestigious, Lila was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1964, to Associate Professor in 1966, and to full Professor in 1971.  She has also taught master classes and as artist-in-residence or visiting instructor at schools all over the country and abroad, and has lectured or given workshops around the globe.  Since 1991, after almost 44 years of teaching printmaking, watercolor, drawing, and more to students like master printmaker Lou Stovall (b. 1937) and prominent District artist Bill Harris (b. 1943), Lila’s been Professor Emerita at Howard. 

“Teaching is very useful to an artist,” Lila declares. “You learn a lot.”  To be sure, the artist found passing along her acquired knowledge and expertise to new generations “a true calling,” in the words of LuLen Walker, the Art Collection Curator at Georgetown University Library’s Special Collections Research Center.  Former Howard student White said he taught the same “life drawing techniques acquired from Lila Asher” for over thirty years as a painting instructor at the Corcoran, and in the catalogue for a retrospective of Lila’s work at Howard in 1991, the year she retired, her former pupil Driskell, the chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland from 1978 to 1983 and later Distinguished University Professor of Art until his retirement in 1998, wrote that he 

remembers poignantly the clarity with which Asher taught, extolling the virtues of keenly observing the beauty of the human figure.  The memorable lectures she delivered to a small class of students in the early 1950s have served as a model for those of us who have made teaching a lifelong commitment.

(Sydney Asher, by then a labor judge at NLRB, died of a heart attack at 62 in 1974.  Lila and Sydney had two children, a son and a daughter.  The artist remarried in 1978, to Kenneth Crawford, who had three children from a previous marriage.  Crawford, a one-time Howard colleague of Lila’s and then a language specialist with the National Security Agency, died of cardiac arrest in 2006 at 86.  Both men were World War II veterans and, like Lila herself, active in philanthropy, service organizations, and social issues in the Capital community.  Though I must have known Sydney Asher, I don’t remember him, but I do remember Ken Crawford as an extremely nice man.  Ironically, I only just learned that Ken Crawford and I both studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute—called the Army Language School in his day—in Monterey, California,  25 years apart.  It may never have come up because, as an NSA linguist, he probably couldn’t talk about his background; the NSA is far more secretive than Military Intelligence, in which I had served.)

The first class Lila taught at Howard was ceramics, but to get to her studio she had to cross through the print classroom.  That’s how she was introduced to printmaking, which became her specialty.  Lila’s an internationally acknowledged authority on printmaking, all forms of which she’s studied, made, and taught around the world for decades.  She specializes in relief printing, in which the raised surfaces of the printing plate or block are inked while the recessed faces remain ink-free (as distinguished from intaglio printing, which is the exact reverse process); the desired image, therefore, is carved into the block in reverse, like a sort of photographic negative.  The paper—Lila selects a handmade paper of a specific texture for the effect she wants—is then pressed or rubbed, which the artist prefers to do by hand with a Japanese baren, onto the incised block to create the image.  The artist even went to Japan in 1973 to study the woodblock techniques of Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950; born Hiroshi Ueda), one of the great masters of the art in a country admired for the delicacy and expressiveness of its woodcuts over many centuries.  The many nations abroad where she and her work have appeared, often with a demonstration or workshop for local artists—as she did in 1973 and ’74 on a tour of Japan and India under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service (the same agency for which my father worked in Germany a decade earlier)—also include Denmark, Germany, Israel, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Turkey. 

Last year, Lila was selected to be one of the artists in ART CART: Saving the Legacy, a project which preserves the works of aging artists and connects them with art students in order to prepare to document and archive the older artists’ creative work for posterity.  This program, started by Columbia University students in New York and now expanding nationwide with D.C. one of the first cities to be added, also returns Lila to teaching of sorts, or perhaps mentoring is the better word, because the connection between the older, established artist and the younger student artist is intended to pass on the legacy of America’s artistic culture.  Meanwhile, at almost 93, Lila continues to create art in her studio in the Bethesda home filled with seven decades’ of paintings, sculptures, and prints, and to exhibit in Washington and around the world.  Her process hasn’t changed since she retired, but now “I can do it when I feel like it,” she says.   “I sort of don’t know what else to do,” she told a recent interviewer.  “This is what I’ve always done.”

The linoleum block, which for Lila is a sheet of linoleum fastened to a block of wood, is the artist’s favorite print medium.  “Unlike wood, which has grain you have to go with or fight against,” the artists explains, “linoleum has no grain.  You have complete control.”  She has used many different media of printing, including silkscreen and woodblock, but she returns to linocut consistently—just as she returns to printmaking when she ventures into other art forms such as watercolor, wire sculpture, terra cotta sculpture, and stained glass.  It may say something of how special Lila’s print work is that Mom and I each own an Asher piece, both prints (mine a lino print and Mother’s a woodblock).  

Lila is widely renowned for the sensitivity and flow of line in her linoleum block prints, which have been compared to those of Henri Matisse, one of the principal elevators of the form above wallpaper patterns, advertising images, and mere illustration.  The artist’s “singular deployment of line” is almost always spotlighted with special praise in reviews of her work.  Harold Horowitz of The Washington Print Club Quarterly, comparing her talent to that of “master draftsman” Pablo Picasso, wrote that “the linear elements of the designs are very powerful and are able to both define the forms and suggest the three dimensional properties as well.”  Frank Getlein, Washington-area author, journalist, and art critic, declared: ”Our eye follows her line and hears its music, even cues us to join the chorus.  Her line sings sweetly, stands strongly, builds like an architect, makes shadow and texture like a weaver, shapes life, like the creator she is.”  And in New York, a reviewer for The Villager asserted: “Her line is sharp.  It has authority; it has beautiful movement also.”

Lila’s work in other forms is far from ordinary or uninteresting; that’s not what I mean.  Her watercolors, which are mostly landscapes and street scenes—the Washington Monument figures prominently in one, too, unsurprisingly, considering her home base—and they’re colorful and endearing, with an impressionistic cast.  The scenes of rural France and Germany, as well as the scenes of Washington, are so evocative of the places themselves that I can smell the bread baking in Charcuterie Boucherie, France or feel the mist rolling off the lake in Scotland.  The sculptures, which include solid pieces reminiscent of Auguste Rodin and wire figures that remind me of Alexander Calder’s early work before he invented the stabile.  The former are impressionistic like the watercolors, suggesting emotion and a narrative behind the poses; the latter pieces are whimsical and amusing and seemingly frivolous—three-D doodles.  Lila’s stained glass medallions and panels, meant to be hung in front of a window to catch the light while they sway or spin to change the perspective, are pretty and gay, but more like an experiment in light and color than a fully expressive artwork.  

I’ve occasionally said of a friend who writes plays and musicals that his adult fare is good and usually intriguing and unpredictably funny—but his children’s scripts are special, incomparable.  (I don’t know if he agrees with me on that, though I’ve told him directly once or twice.)  Well, Lila’s prints are like that: as good as all her work in other forms is, and I’d be honored to display any of them in my home, her prints are extraordinary, full of feeling and import which may not all have been her own intent.  (Good art makes the viewer feel and see new things.  Great art make the viewer feel and see things that the artist herself didn’t plan.  There are things in Shakespeare’s plays he never consciously wrote about—but they’re there nonetheless.)  As Lila herself makes clear: “The process of printmaking is laborious and involves certain basics but there is always some element of surprise along the way.  That is one of the things that make printmaking so fascinating.”  

Of all my mother’s art—she and my dad started collecting in a small way back in the late ’50s—her Asher woodblock is among my most cherished.  It’s Lila’s Medea, depicting the conflicted mythical figure as embracing Mother (in black) juxtaposed with the nearly-identical image (in blood-red) but all aflame, representing the Monster about to engulf her children.  It’s a remarkable piece, as simple in composition as any of Lila’s work (or any other artist’s who works in a minimalist vein), but fraught with power and impact.  Even as a child—I don’t actually remember my parents not having Lila’s Medea on a wall in any of our homes—I was fascinated by and drawn to this dual image, even before I knew the story of Medea, Jason, and their children.  (I vaguely recall my dad telling me the story as we looked at the print, but it wasn’t until I was a little older that I really got into the Greek myths, much less any of the several version of the story dramatized by playwrights from Euripides and Seneca to Pierre Corneille to Jean Anouilh to Robinson Jeffers.)

My own Asher print, a linocut called Silence, is a more serene piece.  It shows a young man, nude, a towel draped over his lap, seated in a spoke-back chair in a variation of Rodin’s Thinker pose.  A black-and-white figure whose face is buried in his hands, this young man isn’t so much contemplating something deep, as Rodin’s subject is, but suffering some kind of despair.  ‘Why’s he so despondent?’ I wonder.  ‘What’s the backstory?’  I can guess, of course, but I can’t know.  I wonder if Lila knew?  I wonder if Lila knew the young man himself, a real person who’d suffered some loss when she captured him?  In my bedroom, Silence is displayed on a wall of all black-and-while pieces, an initially accidental composition I deliberately extended when I hung the Asher, and on the other side of my bed hangs another black-and-white portrait of a boy, an untitled pen-and-ink sketch by Spanish artist Rafael Alvarez Ortega of the rear view of a standing nude.  Part of a series of line drawings called “Los Niños del Mar” (“Children of the Sea”), it’s a handsome drawing, but it’s emotionless, just an artist’s sketch of a posed model, his left arm hanging by his side and his right arm raised, the back of his wrist laid languidly against his forehead.  The boy’s standing on the banks of the sea, but he doesn’t seem to have any interest in the water or the shore—and neither does the artist.  In comparison with the Ortega, Lila’s Silence is fraught, emotion-laden, evocative, alive, and hot.  In a review of a 2013 exhibit of Lila’s prints, the writer characterized the artist as possessing “a reputation for clarity, grace, and emotional content.”  I couldn’t agree more from my own private perspective.  

Most of Lila’s prints are monochrome, predominantly black on white like my Silence.  (War (mother and child) is rust-brown on white.)  She likes to add a spot of color, usually red, in a single object in many pictures—Eve’s apple, for instance, or the torch flame and sun’s rays in Prometheus.  (Lila occasionally hand-tints the final print, as in Pictures at an Exhibition.)  Almost all of her prints have people in them—unlike the watercolors which are nearly exclusively devoid of human presence.  David Driskell observed of Lila’s human figuration: “She works with it with love and passion and endows each form with a realistic aesthetic that is bound in the classical antecedents from which traditional art sprang.”  She quips, “I think if I live long enough, I may come into vogue.  I think figures are coming back.”  Her subjects for the prints—again, as differentiated from the other work—cover a small span: mythological scenes (like the Medea, Prometheus), Biblical stories (Eve II, Noah and the Ark), and scenes of daily life—what Robert Aubry Davis, the host of WETA Arts, a program of the local PBS station in Washington, called “everyday yet lyrical moments” (The Picnic, Hide and Seek III).  Among the last group, which Robert Taylor of the Boston Globe says “celebrates the joys of everyday living and the uniqueness of the ‘ordinary,’” are a subset that may be Lila’s most touching vision (and possibly her most personal—Lila’s a mother and stepmother herself): portrayals of the many incarnations of a mother and child (Airport Mother and Child, Mother and Child in a Chair).  Another collection of “lyrical, timeless depictions of people enjoying everyday life,” as Davis put it, is Lila’s prints of musicians at work (Saturday Night Gig, At the Harp).  LuLen Walker pronounces the artist a “keen observer of the human spirit.”

Early in Lila’s career, the Washington Star’s Benjamin Forgey noted that “the hallmark of her art . . . is an extreme clarity of idea and style.”  If it’s not too hyperbolic to state it (and even if it is), every one of her prints is warm with life, vibrant, and emotionally loaded.  Sometimes it’s joy, sometimes love, sometimes anger, sometimes playfulness—but it’s always life and living.  “Evoking the figures on black figure vase painting but distilled in the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints,” writes Walker, “Asher’s classically charged imagery is a lyrical delineation of the human form in quiet celebration of life and humanity.”  What Lila gets out of a flat surface, a rigid medium (in the sense that a block of wood or linoleum isn’t as manipulable as a brush, a pen, or even a palette knife), and a limited color palette is remarkable and inspiring.  (As a writer, I wish I could do with words what Lila does with ink.)  She said that upon discovering printmaking in that long-ago passage to her ceramics studio that she “fell in love with line.”  Well, the “sensitive and flowing line” of her prints reciprocated and has responded to Lila’s urgings and manipulations with astonishing expressiveness, conveying “profound human emotion with universal themes.”  In New York City’s Park East, reviewer Dorothy Hall remarked that her print images “attest not only to the artist's proficiency in draftsmanship but also to her great warmth and sensitivity.”  

Some of Lila’s prints are remarkable even among her extraordinary body of work.  In Noah and the Ark, for example, she not only uses multiple colors (which in print work means a separate rubbing of the paper and often a separate incised block for each color), but she achieves a wonderful effect by combining print media.  The olive-colored boat with Noah and the animal figures on the deck is printed from a linoleum block, but the blue sea, with the waves and the ark’s wake, is created by the grain of plywood.  “The wood is scorched with a torch and then worked over with a wire brush,” the artist explained.  “This wears down the softer part of the grain and the harder part remains higher for inking,” creating the lighter and darker areas of ink that give the effect of eddies and swirls in the water.  In addition to this mixed-media printing, the white dove in the right foreground is cut out of the wood with a jigsaw, leaving open space that lets the white paper show through the surrounding blue ink.  (Just to increase to the complexity of Noah, Lila adds a red stripe around the ark’s gunwales.  The dove is outlined in the same olive ink of the boat, has a red eye, and carries a green olive branch in its beak.  Each of these small details requires its own block and pressing.)

The musical performances are sometimes multiple images, usually to show motion or dynamism.  Piano Concerto, another print incorporating both linocut and woodblock printing, depicts a woman playing a grand piano.  (The grainy wood appears as the wall of the auditorium with a ghostly conductor barely visible behind one of the piano player’s images.  The woodcut is printed in brown to contrast with the black-inked musician.)  The pianist is printed three times in slightly variant poses, each image overlapping the previous one in a minutely different size with her hands and head in different attitudes, creating the impression of both movement and artistic intensity.  For Jazz Piano, a multi-colored linocut, Lila portrays the musical rhythms of the pianist by repeating his image, identical in silhouette this time, in five different colors (black, teal, mustard, orange, and red) in an arc from the lower-left foreground curving up right center and back left again in the upper quadrant of the paper.  I’m not a jazz aficionado (though my father was a huge fan), but to my eye, Jazz Piano replicates visually the energy of a jazz musician jamming in improvised variations on a theme. 

But just as dynamic as these images are, Lila captures the serene figures with another kind of emotional impact, but one no less evocative.  Paul Richard, the art reviewer of the Washington Post, comparing her work to that of Henri Matisse for its “weight and warmth of flesh,” declared, “Lila Oliver Asher’s prints are the finest when most simple, strongest when gentle.”  The simplicity of childhood, say in the comfort expressed in the red-black-and-white Cup of Milk (I swear I had a striped shirt just like that kid  when I was his age—or maybe I just think I did because of Lila’s image) or the uncomplicated joy of Hopscotch, both of which harken to a less fraught age (probably when my brother and I and Lila’s children were growing up in suburban Washington).  The artist’s “stunningly tender portrayal of lovers” are images of pure devotion, whether simply embracing (The Window) or in motion together (Skaters Waltz).  And her mother-and-child pictures celebrate the universal and undying maternal love in terms that defy the familiarity of the subject.  They are simultaneously sentimental and elemental, depicting the symbiosis of the mother-child relationship at a glance.  In the Washington Post, writer Jo Ann Lewis maintained that Lila’s best prints “are rendered with a single graceful arabesque, or series of arabesques, that somehow convey . . . the tenderness of an embrace, a gesture or touch . . . .”  In an apt summation of the artist’s art, Georgetown University’s Walker concludes that the artist’s prints “reflect her optimistic outlook on life in the creation of timeless, life-affirming prints that encourage thoughtful reflection and admiration.”

[Some one-artist exhibitions of Lila’s work include: Barnett Aden Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1951; William C. Blood Gallery, Philadelphia, Pa..., 1955; Arts Club, Washington, 1957, 2010; Collectors Gallery, Washington, 1959; Garrett Park Public Library, Garrett Park, Md., 1960; Burr Galleries, New York, N.Y., 1963; Gallery Two Twenty Two, El Paso, Tex., 1965; Thomson Gallery, New York, 1968; B'nai B'rith Headquarters, Washington, 1969; University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va., 1970, 1988;; Green-Field Gallery, El Paso, 1972; Northwestern Michigan College, Traverse City, Mich., 1972; Franz Bader Gallery, Washington, 1972; American Club, Tokyo, 1973; USIS Bombay, 1974; Iran-America Society, Teheran, 1974; Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn., 1974; USIS Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, India, 1975; USIS Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, Pakistan, 1975; USIS Ankara and Adana, Turkey, 1976; Via Gambaro Gallery, Washington, 1976; Gallery Kormendy, Alexandria, Va. 1978; Howard University, Washington, 1978, 1991; Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, 1979; Northeastern University, Boston, Mass. 1980; National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan, 1982; Kastrupgårdsamlingen Kunst Museum, Kastrup, Denmark, 1982; Gallaudet University, Washington, 1985; Mickelson Gallery, Washington, 1986; UCLA, Los Angeles, Cal., 1986; Cosmos Club, Washington, 1992, 1998, 2004; Rockville Art Mansion, Rockville, Md., 1992; Georgetown University, Washington, 1992; Hood College, Frederick, Md., 1992. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md., 1993, 1997; Goldman Gallery, Jewish Community Center, Rockville, 1997; Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, Prince Georges County, Md., 1999. Strathmore Hall Arts Center, North Bethesda, Md., 2001; Washington Printmakers Gallery, Washington, 2006; Landon School, Bethesda, 2006; Henry J. Simson Center, International Institute of Peace and Security, Washington, 2009; Ratner Museum, Bethesda, 2010; Washington Printmakers Gallery, Silver Spring, Md., 2011, 2013; Maplewood Park Place Art Gallery, Bethesda, 2014. 

[The artist’s work is also part of numerous collections, including: National Museum of American Art, Washington; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington; Barnett Aden Collection, Tampa, Fla.; University of Virginia; Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Va.; B'nai B'rith, Washington; City of Wolfsburg, Germany; David Lloyd Kreeger Collection, Washington; Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Washington; Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Washington; Center for Research in Education of the Disadvantaged, Jerusalem, Israel; Embassy of the United States, Tel Aviv, Israel; Embassy of the United States, Mexico City, Mexico; Fisk University; Montgomery County Collection of Contemporary Prints, Montgomery County, Md.; National Council on Art in Jewish Life; American Jewish Congress, New York; Georgetown University; National Museum of History, Taipei; Kastrupgårdsamlingen Kunst Museum; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington; Jundt Museum, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Wash.; and many private collections in the U.S. (including my mother’s and mine!) and abroad.]

21 September 2014

'The Washington School of Color'

When I was recently in Bethesda, Maryland, on a visit to my mother, I saw a short review in the Washington Post about an art show at a commercial gallery right near my mom’s apartment, the Marin-Price Galleries on Wisconsin Avenue.  The exhibit was The Washington School of Color, a collection of works by members of the mid-20th-century group of artists in the Nation’s Capital who originated the movement of that name (more commonly known as the Washington Color School), the only art movement identified with Washingon, D.C.  The Washington School of Color, which ran from 2 to 27 August, featured works by Leon Berkowitz (1911-87), Howard Mehring (1931-78), James Hilleary (1924-2014), and John Chapman Lewis (1920-95).  Special emphasis was given to the hard-edged work of Hilleary whose Op Art-like canvases bear a striking resemblance to the brighter, more vivid paintings of Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), one of the Color School’s more prominent members who’s not represented in this show.  

In fact, of the founders of WCS in the late 1950s, none of the movement’s leading lights—Noland, Morris Louis (1912-62), Gene Davis (1920-85), and Anne Truitt (1921-2004)—were part of the Marin-Price exhibit—which may account for its short run of only 23 days as well as the low attendance; we were alone in the small gallery when Mom and I spent an hour or so there on Monday afternoon, the 25th.  (The likely prices of these artists’ work may explain their omission more than any aesthetic decision: the costliest pieces in the Marin-Price show were $10,000 and $20,000, far lower, I’d guess, than a Louis or Noland would demand.)  Normally, I’d have thought, the curiosity value for area residents and visitors combined with the sheer vibrancy of the WCS masters’ works would have brought out a large number of viewers (not to mention potential buyers).  As it was, however, The Washington School of Color was a disappointing affair, not only lacking in star power, but in verve and excitement—two of the principal responses I, at least, get from displays of the best of WCS art.  (Washington Post art critic Mark Jenkins, estimating that the undated works largely came from the 1960s, noted the lack as well: “The more elemental shapes and hues came later.”)  My disappointment, of course, may just have been because some of those artists’ work is among my favorite of modern art; I’ve described these works as “extremely colorful and enticing.”  I called the poured, “rich and intense” acrylic stains of Morris Louis “luminous,” for example.  Noland’s Op Art hybrids I described as “bright and striking” and “exciting to look at” as they “seem to pulse and spin.”  (I’ve reported on ROT on several exhibits of WCS artists, including Anne Truitt in “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on 18 January 2010, “Morris Louis” on 15 February 2010, and, in passing mention, Kenneth Noland in “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin” on 26 June 2011—which also covers an exhibit of the work of Sam Gilliam, a later member of the movement.  I also mentioned the WCS and several of its member artists in “Washington Art Matters,” 5 September 2013.)

Marin-Price’s Washington School of Color, with its focus on the lesser lights of the movement, was basically a pale reflection of the power of the WCS.  The Post’s Jenkins also suggested that the display didn’t include the “mature styles” of some of the “less-celebrated” WSC painters.  Leon Berkowitz was represented, among other pieces, by a large (53" x 65") action abstract painting, Untitled (Spain) (1955), that was essentially gray (at a Color School exhibit?  Really?).  James Hilleary’s pieces were dominated by angular chevrons, mostly dichromatic (many of which looked to me as if they were different-colored versions of the same patterns) which reminded me of washed-out Nolands.  Where Noland’s stripes are bold and bright, Hilleary’s are pastel and pale, giving a watered-down feel to the work.  The offerings of John Chapman Lewis seemed like wannabe Mark Rothkos and the paintings of Howard Mehring, covering a variety of styles, also suffered, in my view, from lack of vibrancy and boldness in their palette.  My mother and I used to have a regular benchmark for art shows we liked: we’d suggest a “midnight shopping trip” to pick up the pieces we liked best.  I wasn’t moved to come back to the Marin-Price for a late-night raid on this collection

There were many practitioners of the Washington Color School movement including most notably Berkowitz, Davis, Noland, Louis, Hilleary, Mehring, Lewis, Thomas “Tom” Downing (1928-85), Sam Gilliam (b. 1933), Truitt, and Paul Reed (b. 1919).  Other artists associated with the group include Mary Pinchot Meyer (1920-64), Jacob Kainen (1909-2001), and Alma Thomas (1891-1978), among others.  The movement, which dealt with the effect of light on color, was a form of abstract art that grew out of color field painting, a type of abstraction itself that experimented with covering large areas of the canvas with solid pigment, as exemplified by the work of Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011).  (Color field painting is one of the two branches of Abstract Expressionism in the United States.  The other is known as action painting, the style which characterizes the best-known works of Jackson Pollock.)  The movement was a departure from the Abstract Expressionism then prevalent in New York art circles: “It was about color and light and form,” said Beatrice Gralton, curator of the 2011 Corcoran Gallery’s Washington Color and Light.  “It was about an all-over approach to imaging-making.  It was really this reduction to the most pure, elemental aspects of art making.”  

In 1953, Louis and fellow D.C. artist Noland visited New York where they saw paintings by Abstract Expressionists Pollock (1912-56) and Franz Kline (1910-62).  The two Washington painters also paid a call on Frankenthaler at her New York studio where she introduced them to the idea of pouring the pigment to stain unprimed canvases.  This newly popular technique created intense color and accentuated the grain of the untreated canvas.  Louis has said that Frankenthaler, essentially the founder of color field painting, created “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.”  Returning to Washington and working with other Washington-based artists like Davis, Downing, and Reed, the two painters helped develop what became known as the Washington Color School.  The early Washington colorists were among the first artists to experiment with the newly-developed, water-soluble acrylic paints, which they diluted to stain the raw canvas with translucent color rather than paint a previously primed canvas with opaque oil colors.  They experimented with all kinds of new techniques, essentially trying whatever came to mind.  They poured, dripped, dabbed, and dribbled the acrylic pigments onto unframed and unstretched canvases, using the floor (in Louis’s case, of his dining room) as the easel, the technique used by Jackson Pollock.  

(Simplistically, the difference between staining and painting is that with painting, the pigment coats the surface of the canvas or other medium forming a thick, solid crust while with staining, the pigment seeps into the fabric and is absorbed by the fibers, creating a tint through which the texture and grain of the cloth is visible.  Furthering this distinction is the practice of priming the canvas for an oil painting; that is, covering the raw fabric with a coat of white or neutral paint before applying pigment.  The stained canvases of the WCS artists were unprimed so the thinned acrylic is absorbed readily instead of sitting on the surface.)

The WCS movement was formalized in 1965 when a group of painters who lived and worked in the National Capital, including Louis, Noland, Davis, Reed, Mehring, and Downing, displayed works in Washington Color Painters, an exhibit at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art, a non-profit institution near the city’s Dupont Circle (where several art venues, including the Gres Gallery in which my parents were then involved and the Jefferson Place Gallery, a promoter of WCS painters, were located) that featured contemporary art between 1961 and 1968.  This show established Washington’s place in the nation’s art scene when Clement Greenberg (1909-94), the country’s most influential art critic in the middle of the last century, saw the exhibit and declared the staining of canvas with color a “school” (“I’m tickled by the idea of a ‘Washington School’ in art,” the critic wrote in a postcard to Davis.)  Washington Color Painters toured the country and defined what is now the city’s signature art movement and the name Washington Color School made it into the art textbooks and “put our city on the national art map,” as Jean Lawlor Cohen put it in Washington Art Matters.  “Everybody was into transferring their thinking from oil paint to acrylic,” said Sam Gilliam, “so that when you got together, you talked paint.”  So for about a decade, according to John Anderson, art reviewer for the Washington City Paper, “seemingly every artist in Washington was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism and the so-called Washington Color School.”

(Greenberg, a champion not only of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting, but Louis and Noland themselves, had introduced the Washington artists to Frankenthaler, thus perhaps sewing the seed of the WCS movement even before its inception.  By dint of his reception of Washington Color Painters, he was clearly the midwife of WCS; perhaps he was also the matchmaker who made it possible as well.  Though some art historians credit critic Clement Greenberg with originating the name Washington Color School, the show’s organizer, WGMA director Gerald Nordland probably coined it.  A few writers even deny either man came up with the phrase, but whatever the doubt for its source, art journalists needed a label in order to write about this new collection of hot young artists from the Nation’s Capital.)  

Washington had just become a true art center in its own right a few decades earlier because of the proliferation of museums (Corcoran, 1874; Phillips, 1921; National Gallery, 1941) and art schools (city universities established art departments: Howard University, 1921; American University, 1925; Catholic University, 1930 as the Division of Art and renamed the Department of Art in 1943; the Corcoran School of Art was founded in 1890).  This situation assured that the city would have regular exposure to the best art, including contemporary forms, and a steady flow of young artists.  Some historians note that Washington is close to New York City but not so close that its artists would lose their independence; as Clement Greenberg phrased it: “From Washington you can keep in steady contact with the New York art scene without being subjected as constantly to its pressures to conform as you would be if you lived and worked in New York.”  It also didn’t hurt that two local critics, at the Washington Post and Times-Herald and the Evening Star, were receptive and enthusiastic observers of the hometown art scene.  (Other art journalists dismissed much of the work of these upstarts as the output of monkeys with paintbrushes which “make Jackson Pollock look like Rembrandt.”)

At the same time, while the post-World War II generation of Washington artists were continuing the traditions of 20th-century American art, the next group broke with that model and, in the view of editor and curator Jean Lawlor Cohen, “entered love affairs with color and geometry, scale and materials, . . . intent on finding a breakthrough vision.”  Just as the previous generation of American artists had struggled to break away from the European model, their Washington successors wanted to break away from the influence of the New York Expressionists.  Though D.C. had a population of just under a million inhabitants in 1950 and ’60 (probably over a million in the whole metro area), it still had the feel of a small town, and discrete communities, like the art world, were even more communal.  The young painters all knew one another, at least casually or professionally: they attended the same talks and lectures, went to the same showings, taught or studied at the same studios, and got together and “talked paint,” as Sam Gilliam put it.  The “new” wasn’t just upon the Washington colorists, they were inventing it.  As Thomas Downing said of his own work, at the end of the ’50s, the young artists were “trying everything”; by the turn of the decade, Paul Reed declared, “We felt enormous momentum and excitement” and sculptor Anne Truitt quipped, “The brew began to boil up.”  

Following their initial impact at the WGMA show, as the original group of artists came to dominate the art community in the District from the ’60s into the ’70s, Davis, Mehring, Downing, and Reed exhibited at other galleries in the area. The original Washington Color School painters expanded into a second generation, which included Sam Gilliam and Rockne Krebs (1938-2011), and the movement continued to bear influence over the Washington art scene and beyond even as some of the original artists moved on to other work.  Some leading WSC artists didn’t survive the ’60s (Louis, Meyer) or the ’70s (Mehring, Thomas), but their influence and that of their Washington Color Schoolmates on American art stretched through the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st.  Hilda Shapiro Thorpe (1920–2000), a color field painter who made large abstract paintings and handmade-paper, balsa, or sheet-metal sculptures, taught a generation of Washington-area artists and helped perpetuate the Color School movement into the present.  “I guess today you’d say that we learned to think outside the box,” Gilliam said, “but we also learned to think in the context of the larger art world.”  Among the later painters who bears the stamp of the WSC is Lou Stovall (b. 1937), a friend and colleague of Gilliam’s whose work I first saw in 2011 and have admired (read “coveted”) since.

The main tenet of the colorists was to cover their canvases with unified blocks of bright, pure colors.  In a review of a 2003 gallery show that featured James Hilleary’s work, Washington Post art critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote that he’s “able to distill lyricism out of pure line and color,” a founding principle of the colorists’ art.  Like abstract painters, with whom the colorists shared many parallels, color field painters rejected the representation of identifiable figures.  WCS artists generally painted abstracts, and there are parallels between the Color School and Abstract Expressionism, though there are significant differences as well.  The WSC adherents were more formalist than the Abstract Expressionists, more prone to decorativeness and less forbiddingly philosophical.  Though the use of stripes, washes, and fields of single colors of paint, for instance, was common to most artists in both groups, Washington colorists eschewed symbolism in their art, feeling that even abstract forms distracted viewers from experiencing the pure color.  There weren’t supposed to be any subjective, emotional connotations in the hues or forms on the canvas: red was just a color, not an expression of passion; the painting was just art, nothing more meaningful or symbolic.  It was all supposed to lead to a pure sensation of enjoyment.  Baltimore Sun art critic Glenn McNatt capsulized this art: “Swirls of color, limpid washes of pigment that jump out and envelop the viewer, eye-popping stripes that seem to march across the canvas to a syncopated, ragtime beat.”  Painter Thomas Downing spoke of “the expressive potential of pure color—the necessity for a form which was simple and direct to convey it.”  The focus on purity of form strongly links color field painting with Minimalist art, as you can see in Anne Truitt’s brightly painted, formalistic  wooden structures, for example.  Morris Louis pared his paintings down to just what he felt was necessary, the bare minimum to create his effects.

The Washington Color School wasn’t strictly a “school” in the sense that most art movements connote by that title.  The artist didn’t work together or collaborate on techniques and styles; the WCS wasn’t an organized group.  They didn’t socialize as a group (though they knew each other for the most part and some, like Louis and Noland, were friends, as were Kainen and Davis).  The commonalities they encompassed were designated by critics and curators for the most part.  Each of the WCS artists had an idiosyncratic and personal style: Howard Mehring favored Z shapes; Alma Thomas was influenced by patterns of light; Paul Reed painted elaborate spheres; Thomas Downing’s circles looked like discs; Kenneth Noland was known for his hard-edged lines, chevrons, and, most distinctive, circles which were sometimes called “targets”; Morris Louis poured broad stripes of color on mostly raw, white canvases; Gene Davis was all about straight lines; Anne Truitt made geometric wood sculptures painted in high-gloss colors.  What linked them was, first, that they all lived and worked in the relatively small art community of Washington, D.C., and that they shared certain significant stylistic qualities: they worked in oversized formats, focused on color in bold and striking ways, painted in abstract shapes and forms, and used hard-edged stripes and swaths of (most often acrylic) pigment.   

The Washington Color School continues to hold the interest of exhibitors and spectators alike.  In the years before Marin-Price’s Washington School of Color, there were many other exhibits focused on the art and artists of the movement.  Over 30 arts institutions in Washington mounted a city-wide celebration of color field painting, ColorField.remix, including exhibitions at galleries and museums of works by members of the Washington Color School (such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, Alma Thomas, Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz, and Sam Gilliam), during the spring and summer of 2007.  Later in 2007 and ’08, the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden housed Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited and in 2009-10, the same museum presented Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection.  In 2011, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea, the center of the newest of contemporary art, held Kenneth Noland: Paintings 1958-1968 and a group of Washington, D.C., art collectors began the Washington Color School Project, to gather and publish information about the history of the color painters, notably Davis, Louis, and Reed, and abstract art in Washington.  Sam Gilliam’s works have been displayed in D.C. shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005-06 and the Katzen Art Center at American University in 2011, and in a site-specific project at the Phillips Collection, also in 2011.  (The Katzen show Washington Art Matters in 2013 spotlighted the Washington Color School in its survey of the art scene in the Nation’s Capital from the 1940s through the 1980s.)  Earlier this year, two galleries in Brookland, in the Northeast section of the District, mounted Under the Influence: Reverberations of the Washington Color School, a show devoted to  current “acolytes and a few antagonists” of the WCS.  

16 September 2014

Words with Pictures / Pictures with Words

[In a recent post, “Words and Pictures?” (25 July), I ruminated on the way film writer Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi of Words and Pictures created a story pitting “words”—that is, language—against “pictures”—that is, images—told in a medium that relies on both words and pictures so significantly.  I noted in that article that there are “artists who use both words and pictures,” naming specifically William Blake, “who integrated text into his images,” and Jenny Holzer, “who uses words as pictures” in her work.  I also brought up the Dada poets, who “used words not so much for their meanings as for the pictures they could make on the printed page.”  One artist who also incorporated text into many of his paintings, drawings, and photographs whom I didn’t mention is David Wojnarowicz, and I’m sure there are several others as well.  I thought, though, that it would be an interesting exploration to examine the work of these artists and see what, if anything, we can glean from them.]

In the movie Words and Pictures, released earlier this year, screenwriter Gerald Di Pego and director Fred Schepisi set up a contrived conflict between Jack Marcus, a veteran prep school English teacher, once-renowned poet, and general word maven (played by Clive Owen), and newly-arrived art teacher Dina Delsanto, a celebrated painter with a successful New York career seemingly behind her (Juliette Binoche).  The two soon-destined-to-be-lovers tease and provoke one another right from the moment they meet in the faculty lounge over which medium is the better conveyor of ideas and feelings, words—that is, writing, Marcus’s specialty and obsession—or pictures—the focus of Delsanto’s world and life.  It’s not long, after Delsanto has disparaged words in her art class and Marcus responds in his English class (which share a large number of students), before the poet challenges the painter to a contest to prove whose metier is worthier: his students will compose pieces of writing and hers will create paintings and drawings and the best of each will be published in the next edition of the school’s literary magazine (which Marcus edits).  (The contest eventually evolves into a challenge for Marcus, who’s been blocked for years, to write a new poem from which Delsanto, who suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, will draw inspiration for a new painting.)  In the end, the students and faculty of the school will judge the results and decide which creation has accomplished the artist’s purpose more effectively.  

I said this was contrived, not only because Di Pego and Schepisi have set it all up very conveniently, but because there’s not really a conflict between words and pictures to begin with.  This is especially so since most of Delsanto’s AP art students are also Marcus’s AP English students, portrayed as the school’s best and brightest who manage to use both words and pictures interchangeably as the need and circumstances necessitate.  When the final show-down occurs at the end of the movie, Marcus makes a passing concession that, of course, both writers and painters are artists who “take us to another place.”  (As I observed in the first article, the movie does use music in one scene in which Marcus expresses his feelings to Delsanto, a medium that’s neither words nor pictures, but that idea isn’t developed.  I’m not going to develop it here, either, except to say that there are other artistic means, like music, dance, and architecture, which don’t—or don’t strictly—depend on words or pictures in order to communicate ideas, moods, or feelings.)  

Not even considered in Words and Pictures is the phenomenon of artists who use both text and imagery to make their art, and what I want to do here is take a look at those creative spirits from that narrow perspective: their use of words and pictures together.  It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything at all, we get from this examination—because I honestly don’t know what the results will be; it’s an honest-to-God exploration and I have no idea what’s on the other side of this mountain.  (Talk about going to another place!)  Shall we have a look-see?

WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)

William Blake was an English poet, painter, engraver, and printmaker who was born in Soho, London.  Largely home-schooled (by his mother) and then self-educated—he left school at ten, after learning to read and write—he was seen as a visionary and a mystic.  An outspoken iconoclast in both his poetry and his visual art, he was something of a social outcast during his lifetime as well.  He’s also considered by some to be the first multi-media artist because of the books he made for his richly illustrated poems, particularly Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794).  

Blake self-published his books of poetry, using etched copper plates to effect the integrated text and images, tinting the engravings by hand with water colors afterwards or using a method he invented himself.  Many critics find this evidence that the artist and poet never intended his poems and illustrations to be separated.  Blake printed each copy of what he called “illuminations” by hand, in different colors, with different details, and sometimes with the poems in a different sequence.  In some estimations, the books are as beautiful as medieval illuminated manuscripts, “the words enhanced by decoration of design and colour,” in the view of Kathleen Raine, a poet, critic, and scholar with a particular interest in Blake.

Blake’s designs are immensely complex, full of symbols and mythology that he invented, requiring readers to use their imaginations to comprehend the dialogue the artist set up between his texts and his illustrations.  “At a time when painting had become a manner and a mannerism,” wrote Jacob Bronowski, a mathematician, biologist, historian of science, theatre author, poet, and inventor who wrote several books on the artist, “Blake crowded his paintings with matter.  It was not wholly a painter’s matter; but neither was it a writer’s matter.  It was common to all that he did, the single and compact matter of a great imagination.  And Blake knew how he wanted to put this matter.  He knew that it needed a manner of its own . . . .”  Literary critic Harold Bloom contends that Blake invented a new art form that combines design and text in varied ways so that the two “illuminate one another” and Raine wrote: “Such art comes from a source deeper than the individual experience of poet or painter, and has a power of communication to that same level in the spectator.”  

Literary critic Northrop Frye, who established his reputation with a book on Blake, wrote:

In the Preface to Jerusalem [1804–20] Blake speaks with pride of having developed a free and unfettered verse, but he hardly seems to notice that he had at the same time perfected a far more difficult and radical form of mixed art, for which there is hardly a parallel in the history of modern culture.  The union of musical and poetic ideas in a [Richard] Wagner opera is a remote analogy; but the poetry is not independent of the music in Wagner as it is of the painting in Blake.  Blake seems to have worked on his text and his pictorial ideas simultaneously: this is clear from the manuscript of The Four Zoas [1797], where the pencil sketches in the margins indicate that Blake did not think in terms of a poem to be written first and decorated afterward, but, from the beginning, in terms of a narrative sequence of plates.

Blake’s words and pictures weren’t just the two sides of a coin or a matched set, created merely to compliment one another.  They were both independent of one another and dependent on one another simultaneously.  Frye explained:

Blake . . . hit very early on a form in which text and design are simultaneously present and contrapuntally related.  From the start Blake avoids all devices that would tend to obscure either text or design at the expense of the other. . . .  The words are left alone to do their own work.

More surprising than the independence of the words from the design is the independence of the design from the words. . . .  In Blake the poem does not point to the picture . . . .  On the other hand, the design is not, like most illustrations, an attempt to simplify the verbal meaning. . . .   [W]e can see that, so far from simplifying the text, the design has added a new dimension of subtlety and power.

So, from this brief examination, it seems that William Blake, at least, “thought” in both words and pictures, if not simultaneously then with equal import and weight.  One medium for him wasn’t more “worthy” in its capability of communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and they weren’t so much interdependent, either, but co-dependent.   His poetry books were, perhaps unique (and maybe we’ll see), specimens of “words with pictures/pictures with words.”

THE DADA POETS (1916-24)

Dada, or Dadaism, was an art and political movement that evolved out of the aftermath of the start of World War I, the first mechanized war, and lasted for about eight years.  It was first a reaction to the horrible destruction technology visited on humankind, but it quickly became a response to all forms of regimentation, oppression, suppression of thought and ideas, conventionality, and conformity.  Anti-establishment, anti-conventional, and anti-regimentarian, the Dadaists were purposefully provocative and relentlessly anti-establishment—even (or especially, perhaps) with respect to the art establishment.  They weren’t, however, without a considerable sense of humor; some of their work is profoundly silly.  (For the interested ROTter, I posted a report on a 2006 and ’07 Dada art exhibit on this blog on 20 February 2010.)

Dada artists turned their hands to almost everything: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, and other usual forms of art; film, music, dance, theater and performance; printed works including posters and flyers for Dada events, books, journals and magazines; signs, illustrations; sound poems—and just about anything someone could come up with in the years between the World Wars.  Since some of the originators of the Dada movement were poets, Dada poetry was one of its initial mainstays.  In 1920, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963; born Samuel Rosenstock in Romania), one of the principal founders of the movement, even wrote out the process of creating a Dada poem:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

What Tzara didn’t include in his instructions was the way the words were to be assembled on the page—the patterns the poet determined they should form.  The Dada sound poems focused on words as sounds and just vocal noises; some were recorded, but they wouldn’t work too well on a printed page.  The “literary” version of Dadaist poetry, if that’s even the correct designator, are sort of the reverse: they look interesting on the page, to the eye—but reading them, especially aloud, would be very difficult (if not even impossible).  In his 1918 “Manifesto of Dadaism,” Tzara affirmed of Dada writing: “Every page should explode, either because of its profound gravity, or its vortex, vertigo, newness, timelessness, or because of its crushing humor, the enthusiasm of its principles, or the way it is printed” (my emphasis).  Using typography itself as a medium of communication, the “pictures” the words made on the page were equally important as the sense the words conveyed, if not more so, requiring readers to look “at” the words as objects rather than just “through” them to meaning.  Tzara, for example, wrote Bilan (“Balance Sheet”) in 1919 using 20 different typefaces, and German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) designed poems for Die Scheuche Märchen (The Scarecrow Fairy Tale, 1925) featuring anthropomorphic letters with feet and arms.  

Today, this kind of work, in which the typographical arrangement of the text is the significant element in conveying the meaning or impact, known as visual or concrete poetry, depends almost exclusively on what the poem looks like on the page rather than what the words say.  While some literary experts consider the two terms, coined in the 1950s, synonymous, others see visual poetry (called vispo by adherents to the form) as a subset or off-shoot of concrete poetry, while yet others consider them discrete forms.  The distinction between them is that concrete poems may still convey meaning semantically, through rhyme, rhythm, and other aspects of word meaning and poetic diction, while visual poems are entirely pictorial in their effect, the words frequently nonsensical.  I’m not going to enter into this debate, principally since Dada predates the use of either term and, therefore, Dada poetry is essentially sui generis.  (Dada poetry is what it is, let’s say.)

One significant point in Tzara’s manifesto is that he said that Dada writing should be characterized by great impact of what it says OR by how it’s printed on the page—either words as words, or words as pictures.   Unlike Blake’s illuminated poems, Dadaist poetry isn’t really an integrated, multi-media art form.  While Blake worked in both media at once, the Dadaists used an either/or approach.  They gave equal weight, perhaps, to both communications forms, but they didn’t make them work together.  Dada visual poetry (as distinguished from the sound poems) relies almost entirely on the typography, together with the fonts, which often include a wide variety in each work, and the lay-out, and less on what the words mean denotatively or even connotatively (which, as we’ve seen, are often haphazardly assembled).  In fact, when read, many of these Dada poems lose part or all their effect.  (I should confess here that I’m generalizing about Dada poetry.  Many of the artists and writers of the movement wrote decidedly avant-garde poems but still conveyed meaning through the semantic sense of the words.) 

JENNY HOLZER (b. 1950)

Born in Gallipolis, Ohio, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.  Having taken summer classes there in 1974, she enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program in 1975; a year later she moved to New York City and joined the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art.  Though Holzer started out to be an Abstract Expressionist—she “wanted to be soft like [Mark] Rothko and ruthless like Ad Reinhardt”—like many artists in that era, she became interested in a more socially-aware, even political art, especially in a feminist vein.  The young artist began “concentrating on work that had content—accessible work,” she said in a 2012 interview. “There was a lot of talking and reading in the ISP, so language was welcome.”  Looking for a way to insert narrative and commentary into visual art, she began putting words into her paintings.  “I used language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand,” Holzer says.  Soon she abandoned traditional painting entirely and focused on language.  She started displaying messages, mottoes, verses, and quotations in public spaces, such as billboards, the sides of subway cars, projections on building façades, plaques on storefronts, stone benches, and baseball parks—eventually mounting lighted electronic signs and her work began to share similarities with Dada art. 

“Words, in fact,” wrote artist Kiki Smith in Interview magazine, “are the marrow of the 61-year-old Ohio-born artist's large-scale, technology-driven productions.”  Holzer felt the writings she’d read in the Whitney’s ISP could be reduced down to simple phrases everyone could understand.  She called them Truisms (1978), and she printed them anonymously on paper and pasted them on building façades, signs, and telephone booths in lower Manhattan.  Maybe I can convey some of the valuable content [of the ISP reading list] in an accessible way,” thought the artist.  In 1977, Holzer had started writing her own texts, but since 1993 she’s focused on passages by others.  These have included literary texts by respected authors but also quotations from other sources, such as declassified (and much redacted) government documents, including autopsy reports, military maps of the Iraq invasion plans, FBI e-mails from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and letters from Gitmo prisoners.  One large LED display presented testimony from soldiers interrogated about atrocities they committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; other works in this line are Was in Baghdad Ochre Fade (2007) and Redaction Paintings (2009).  

In addition to several successful exhibits at galleries and museums both in the U.S. (the Guggenheim, New York, 1989; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1991) and abroad (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1988; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany, 2000), Holzer become the first woman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.  The 1990 U.S. pavilion housed her LED signboards and marble benches.  Holzer was one of the first artists to embrace new technology for her work—later she began using computers to manipulate and generate her texts, offering her a greater variety of possibilities in both text size and configuration—and the lighted messages became the artist’s main medium after 1996.  In 2010, Holzer returned to painting on canvas, though her medium is still words.  As she explained to Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian of London in 2012: “I wanted to show time and care.  I wanted it to be an indicator of sincerity and attention.  I wanted it to be human.”  The artist also asserted, “The paintings seem true because nobody wants me to do them.”  She insists, “I hope to show the truth.” 

In 1993, while New York‘s Times Square was undergoing a massive renovation (some called it “Disney-fication”), Holzer created scores of signs and messages for the vacated storefronts of onetime porn shops and empty marquees of former grind houses along 42nd Street.  Slogans such as “alienation produces eccentrics or revolutionaries,” “abuse of power comes as no surprise,” “raise boys and girls the same way,” and “laugh hard at the absurdly evil.”  She has emulated the diction of advertising and political sound bites, and Smith asserts, “Holzer simultaneously honors the value of language to communicate and critiques its ability to control and contain.  In the words of Stuart Jeffries, Holzer’s “characteristic” texts are “as punchy as a headline, yet confusing to unsuspecting passersby.”  

In contrast with William Blake, who was both a painter and a writer/poet, Holzer doesn’t perceive herself that way.  I really wasn't—and I'm not—a writer,” she admits.  “[E]ventually writing wore me down because it didn't come naturally,” the artist explained.  “The visual is easier for me”—which is why she turned to quoting others in her messages, “people who really are writers.” 

The Dadaists were intent on ridiculing all that was conformist and establishmentarian.  Their messages were anarchistic and provocative, and often hidden in obscurantism and nonsense.  Holzer wants to illuminate with her messages, to throw light (if you will) on subjects previously hidden and secret, like the Abu Ghraib violations.  While the Dada poets and artists were political only in a general way, espousing a kind of muscular libertarianism, Holzer is conscientiously political in her art.  Her messages question consumerism and power; describe violence and torture; lament oppression, war, disease, and death; celebrate sexuality and feminism.  She doesn’t offer an opinion or commentary on the words she displays, however, leaving the viewers to come to their own understandings of what the texts import.  “I think the material speaks for itself,” Holzer told Jeffries. “There's no reason for me to give my pathetic opinion.”

Ms. Holzer has infused Conceptual Art’s playful language with real-life seriousness,” wrote art critic Roberta Smith in the New York Times.  Her intent is to provoke a response in the viewer and, critic Smith says, her work “regularly succeeds in taking us deep into the machinations of human frailty and power.  Holzer’s said, for instance, “The desperate things seem to require attention, the lovely things seem to elicit celebration.  If I had to choose, I would go to the awful in the hope that doing something could yield a happier result.”  In addition to the more substantial structures on which Holzer inscribes her words, they’ve also appeared on T-shirts, baseball caps, and even condom wrappers.  “I like placing content wherever people look,” declares the artist, “and that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a river or all over a building.”  


Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, painter, photographer, videographer, sculptor, writer, and activist (among other things) David Wojnarowicz dropped out of New York City’s High School of Music and Art at 16 and ran away from home to escape a violently abusive, alcoholic father.  Most of his short life was fraught with hardship, artistic, political, or personal.  After hitchhiking cross country and back between 1970 and ’73, Wojnarowicz settled again in New York, living for a time on the streets and working as a prostitute, thief, and hustler.  The world in which Wojnarowicz lived is recorded in a graphic (and autobiographic) novel, Seven Miles a Second (DC Comics, 1996), created with artist and cartoonist James Romberger, and in the monologues he transcribed from some of the people he met on the streets, published in The Waterfront Journals (Grove Press, 1996).  The artist’s own journals have also been published: In the Shadow of the American Dream: The Diaries of David Wojnarowicz (Grove Press, 1999).  His world’s also visible in much of Wojnarowicz’s art, especially his paintings, which often contain images and sometimes words reminiscent of the childhood he always carried with him.  Sadly, when he died of AIDS in 1992—he was diagnosed in 1987—he hadn’t gotten very far chronologically from his childhood.  (I posted a profile of the artist, “David Wojnarowicz,” on ROT on 15 March 2011; he’s also mentioned extensively in “The Return of HIDE/SEEK,” 4 January 2012.)

As early as 1970, Wojnarowicz began writing and taking photographs (with a stolen camera and film) to document his life and the life he saw around him, and also as a way to take control of his life, which was already painful and difficult.  He was bearing witness to the history that the official record didn’t tell because, the artist thought, “People should witness things.  They should, at the very bottom level, be witnessed.”  This might be called Wojnarowicz’s creed and would be the prevailing impulse of the artist’s work in all the forms, including his writing— perhaps particularly his writing.  His visual artworks were eclectic in their use of media, ranging from conventional canvas, to masonite, maps, advertising posters, photographs, trash-can lids, “found objects,” and such unlikely material as loaves of bread and plastic sharks—and he often incorporated texts into his paintings, along with other visual media.  Wojnarowicz offered his art as testimony of life he felt no one else acknowledged.  According to writer and cultural critic Cynthia Carr, “Art was his way of witnessing.  On some level, the work was about putting information out there, exposing what’s usually hidden and creating cultural counterweight.  Where the marginal were ignored, he would exalt them.”  Personally shy and reticent (as was Jenny Holzer), art and writing gave him a way to say what he couldn’t in a social setting.  It became the artist’s mission to call attention to any injustice he perceived in American society, especially (but not exclusively) where it concerned the gay community.  

Wojnarowicz saw himself as an outsider in the art world; in fact, Wojnarowicz at first didn’t think of himself as an artist at all.  “Artists,” according to him, “were such-and-such people,” people who were special, different from the rest of us.  Wojnarowicz “wasn’t particularly an artist,” he insisted; he was just a guy with something to say who tried hard to find ways to say it—like music, writing, or installations.  He’d been writing since he left the streets—poetry, transcribed monologues of street people—but photography was another way to chronicle the world he was witnessing and which few others, especially the established media, were recording.  “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history,” Wojnarowicz asserted.  Some of his later works, including photographs, incorporate disparate visual media and written texts in the form of short stories, which, as in William Blake’s art work, are integrated into the painting with the other media (see He Kept Following Me and I Feel a Vague Nausea, both 1990).  

In his essay in the catalogue for Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz (New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999), art historian and critic John Carlin wrote:

Simply put, David was not just an artist; he used art as a vehicle for something else, not as an end in itself.  David was more like a shaman, the witch doctor of our tribe, than someone purely interested in formal relations or being smart. . . .  He was less concerned with aesthetics than with communicating—about himself and society, about things that were real and actually happening but that no one wanted to talk about.

His artistic matrix, however, wasn’t beauty or even aesthetics in general.  He had no interest in being “decorative.”  Wojnarowicz wasn’t interested in design or composition—he hadn’t had any training in that anyway.  He wanted to communicate, to show people what the world he saw looked like—even if they didn’t want to see it.  He was a habitual truth-teller, even as a second-grader when he learned that everyone dies: “I remember running down the block and to every kid that I saw I said, ‘We all die, one day we’re all going to be dead!’”  The kids cried and their parents decided Wojnarowicz was a sick child—because he thought everyone should know the truth.  Leo Shapiro, the stage director whom I’ve mentioned often on ROT, believed that artists are society’s oracles.  “The point of an oracle,” Shapiro asserted, “—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says.  It doesn’t always give you good news.” 

In a 2011 Brooklyn Rail review, Kara L. Rooney called Wojnarowicz’s art “often elusive, sometimes dangerous, and always brutally honest.”  Shapiro called Wojnarowicz “the canary in the mines—the ones that die first.”  Rooney put Wojnarowicz in the category of the “selfless” artists whose artistic impulse 

derives from a genuine passion for change, seeking to foster political and social awareness among disparate economic classes.  The work of these artists challenges the status quo.  It shakes things up.  It provokes.  It is groundbreaking in its execution and often only appreciated in hindsight.  In short, it haunts us.

While writing had long been a mainstay of the artist’s creative life--he started keeping a journal when he was 17—text began appearing in his visual art in the 1970s.  Wojnarowicz’s generation, in addition to being impelled to address issues of sex, race, gender, and ethnicity, was also drawn to mixing their media, including non-traditional ones like pop culture and even pornography and recycled materials like posters, maps, and even derelict cars.  Like his contemporaries, Wojnarowicz saw little distinction among the various means of making art or making his statements, working in paint, sculpture, photography, installation, and collage with equal force.  Wojnarowicz also made films and videos and was, as noted, a prolific writer and speaker as well. (He also played in a band, 3 Teens Kill 4, known as 3TK4, from a New York Post headline.)  “Often juxtaposing text, paint, and collaged elements with photography,” observed Melissa Harris in Aperture magazine in 1994, “his works animate ideas and images, playing them off one another both ironically and metaphorically.  Experiencing Wojnarowicz’s art is like being in the wake of a dream—or perhaps a nightmare.”  Richard H. Axsom concluded of the artist’s legacy in a 2002 profile on glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture: “Of all the media and formats for which Wojnarowicz is known, the works that combine image and text are the most complex and moving, offering the best summary of his art.”  

At a 2004 retrospective of Wojnarowicz’s work that combined image and text, Out of Silence, the Chelsea gallery PPOW asserted: “Wojnarowicz's juxtaposition and overlay of the two signifying systems, the visual and the linguistic, is central to his artistic development.”  In the works where the artist combined images and text, the words seem intended to be both read as text per se, and simultaneously to be seen as part of the overall visual message in tandem with the pictorial aspects.  Wojnarowicz’s words enhance the pictures’ points, illuminating and concretizing them.  In his graphic (in both senses) autobiography, 7 Miles a Second, for example, we can see very clearly that the text isn’t a direct narration of the pictures and the pictures don’t actually illustrate the words: they function separately and together, contrapuntally.  In his essay on the artist, English professor Bill Albertini points out that “the text and visuals comment ironically, and darkly, on one another.”  In some of Wojnarowicz’s mixed-media work, it’s not the picture that’s dominant, but the words: in Untitled (One day this kid . . .) (1990-91), for instance, the center of the piece is a ’50s-style photo of a freckle-faced boy, clearly the artist himself as a child, while all around the innocent-looking picture, occupying two-thirds of the space, is a text predicting the boy’s possible tragic future.  

More akin to Blake than Holzer, Wojnarowicz was impelled to use any and all media to convey his ideas for several reasons.  First, he just didn’t know any better: never having had any formal training in art or its establishment practices, the artist learned by observation, experiment, and imagination.  Second, he possessed an endlessly restless and curious mind, always searching for new and more effective ways to communicate.  Third, he was good at a lot of the forms, visual and textual.  His painting was raw, rough, and powerful, and his writing was just as moving and brutal, poetic and honest.  (He was an equally effective orator, by the way.)  Oddly, though, he innately distrusted words, especially the way they were used (or abused) by politicians, bureaucrats, and advertisers—a kind of Postmodern Newspeak—in what he called “the preinvented world”: “The bought up world; the owned world—the world of coded sounds; the world of language, the world of lies; the packaged world; the world of speed in metallic motion.”  (In fact, he sounds a little like a less-gentle Dina Delsanto and less in tune with Jack Marcus.)  Yet, he subverted the establishment’s hegemony over words and turned them against those he saw as responsible for society’s ills and injustices or who should have helped but didn’t.  If pictures were successful in showing the world what no one else was revealing—the responses of people like Donald Wildmon, Jesse Helms, and William Dannemeyer proved that they were!—then words and pictures were even more effective.  If anyone wasn’t sure what the pictures meant, then the words would leave no doubt.

In a 2012 interview with Matt Fennemore about a stage adaptation of Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives (Vintage, 1991), the performance artist remarked: “Visuals and soundscapes will support and underpin the text and further assault the senses”; that precisely captures, perhaps in reverse expression, the way Wojnarowicz’s words and pictures work symbiotically in his visual art as well.  It may be ironic (but only slightly) that this multifaceted artist was thrust onto the main stage of American culture because of words—“Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” his controversial essay in the 1989 catalogue for Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing (Artists Space)—and then rose once again in a controversy over pictures—the excerpt in 2011’s HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (National Portrait Gallery) of his 1986-87 video, A Fire in My Belly.  

Most artists devote themselves to one medium or the other, pictures or words.  There have always been some who’ve shared the same spaces: N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945), the father of artist Andrew Wyeth, made a career of illustrating boys’ adventure stories—one artist’s pictures encapsulating the words of another.  But William Blake and David Wojnarowicz, separated by two centuries, found they needed both words and pictures to make their art, integrating the one form with the other; and the Dada poets and Jenny Holzer both made the words into pictures—or at least visual images.  In all their cases, I’d say, theirs would have been poorer, far less powerful art (if, indeed, art at all) if they hadn’t worked simultaneously in both media, if both forms weren’t present in their work at one and the same time.  Gerald Di Pego and Fred Schepisi can make Jack Marcus and Dina Delsanto conceive a conflict between words and pictures, argue over which is a truer conveyor of meaning and emotion, but not all artists can keep the two separate.  Proving, I think, that words and pictures aren’t in conflict—it’s only the imaginations of some artists that are.  QED.