Sunday, December 20, 2015

Matthew Metzger interview for Figure/Ground

Here is an interview I did with painter Matthew Metzger for Figure/Ground. I am pretty proud of it

Matthew Metzger lives and works in Chicago where he is Assistant Professor in Studio Arts at The University of Illinois at Chicago. Matthew was awarded his BFA from The University of North Texas and his MFA from the University of Chicago. Since graduating in 2009, he has exhibited at The Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Sikkema & Jenkins Co. in New York, Arratia Beer in Berlin, and Regards in Chicago, more recently, at Expo Chicago. He is also co-editor of the publication SHIFTER.
Your hyper-detailed painting of a machete, The Condition, was the standout work for me this year atExpo Chicago. Why did you think it necessary to rework this painting?
Paintings are never finished. Sometimes I accept that and move on. Other times, the painting is rather demanding in its need for labor, and in turn, labor’s need to be amplified as a concept for the work. One question that has been generating this series of machete paintings is about whether one can express oneself at the very same time one is laboring over something. At each moment this painting has been exhibited, afterwards I want it to do more, so then I begin to do more.
© Matthew Metzger, The Condition (detail – right side). Medium: Acrylic and Oil on Honeycomb Fiberglass Panel, Size: 24 3/4" x 24 ¾" Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago.
© Matthew Metzger, The Condition. Medium: Acrylic and Oil on Honeycomb Fiberglass Panel, Size: 24 3/4″ x 24 ¾”
Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago.
The knife in the painting runs from one edge all the way to the other and it splits the painting into two halves. The knife represents separation, orientation, and is undeniably connected to political violence as well?
The project stemmed from a Michael Fried essay in 1965 called Three American Painters. In the essay he is writing about post-painterly Abstraction. At one point he remarks that Morris Louis’ work comes from the wrist. It sparked these ideas about how one thinks about the body and its relationship to expression, and perhaps the location on the body where expression originated. If Morris Louis’ work comes from the wrist, then perhaps Jackson Pollack’s comes from the shoulder. I began to ruminate on what is that relationship was about, going from the shoulder to the wrist, and what’s the function of the shoulder now? At points of intense labor where the shoulder is being used can one also express oneself simultaneously? Or is there a paradox between working and expressing? Do they ever find their way together? And if they did find their way together where might it be found in the body today? So it became a location for thinking through a simultaneity of labor and/with expression. Quickly in this rumination, expression for me lingered in ‘the political’ and labor was found in the echoing of a thing absent the hand, labor. Either way, where they meld and what sort of tool houses both sides of this binary, of this division line, is of a particular interest to me. The machete is the one blade that is deeply rooted in the shoulder, a personal, domestic, and political tool that always and already severs and joins.
© Matthew Metzger, The Condition (detail – right side). Medium: Acrylic and Oil on Honeycomb Fiberglass Panel, Size: 24 3/4" x 24 ¾" Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago.
© Matthew Metzger, The Condition (detail – right side). Medium: Acrylic and Oil on Honeycomb Fiberglass Panel, Size: 24 3/4″ x 24 ¾”
Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago.
You can appreciate a good painting in a superficial way, but there are always several deeper layers beneath it. You can admire the technical ability that it took to make this and maybe a fancy chef like Paul Kahan would see it and connect with the subject and buy it. But the knife, it’s a red wheelbarrow; it contains everything.
These paintings have been an ongoing meditation. When I’m painting them [the blades] and I’m standing here this perspective is right, but when I come over here and I’m painting this [the handle] this perspective is all wrong. The condition is dependent on where you are in relation to the thing. The perspective is always distorted to some degree. The paintings are inherently always distorted and abstracted because the body can move and the painting can’t.
When you make work that is so real, it starts to fall apart in front of you. It becomes abstract again.
That happens all the time when you think about how far to push things. I am tied to the belief that paint can be alchemic in a way. I think the illusion that paint has the capability of reconfiguring itself through becoming something other than itself has always been fundamental to painting. We often think a painting is either figurative or abstract and on a circle, figuration is at one end and abstraction is on the opposite end, and the painter/painting is always somewhere on the circle in proximity to both, but at the end, I realize it’s not a circle at all, it’s actually a corkscrew. I know it sounds ridiculous or perhaps a little too dogmatic, but in painting today there is just not enough insistence on forcing paint to do what the artist wants it to do. It’s a material like anything else in the world and you can make it do whatever you believe it can do.
© Matthew Metzger That Which Can't Be Played (Composition #7) Medium: Acrylic and Oil on MRMDF Panel, Size: 11 ⅞" x 11 ⅞" Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago
© Matthew Metzger That Which Can’t Be Played (Composition #7) Medium: Acrylic and Oil on MRMDF Panel,
Size: 11 ⅞” x 11 ⅞” Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago
It’s a fear-based thing. A lot of artists are afraid to fail. I’ll never be as good of a painter as Caravaggio, so why try? It’s also a huge commitment of time. It takes years to learn to paint well and in the meantime your friends and family are watching you make this awful work and somehow not judging you for it. You have to not feel embarrassed by your own past (bad) work and to accept that it takes years to figure this stuff out. It’s a good thing actually, because you will have this pursuit that will sustain you throughout your entire lifetime. Older painters have told me that even after everything else ends, marriages, jobs, relationships, they always have painting and that it is endlessly interesting and that there are new things to learn and do.
Your work made me think of Mark Rothko’s paintings. He was looking for some sort of universal truth that would exist in any time and anyplace. Rothko had a pretty traumatic life and even though he wanted to make paintings that transcended politics, he was still responding to the fact that WWII had made the world a terrifying place. His paintings were about expressing basic human emotions – depression, ecstasy, terror. I feel that in a way, even though you are at the opposite ends of the spectrum, the extremes of representation and abstraction, you are both after the same thing, and that your work slides back and forth between the two. He was deeply depressed and made this untitled piece shortly before he killed himself. It was painted in 1969, the year of the moon landing. I look at this and I know this is the surface of the moon. It’s abstraction sliding back into representation. There is that horizon line, just like your painting, and the same palette too. The moon was the coldest, loneliest place imaginable and we got there using military technology. This came from the same funding and research that was meant to keep Russia in check after the war. Rothko was a Jewish painter born in Russia who immigrated to the United States and he must have felt this event in an extremely personal way.
He was after something that preceded language, a thing that can’t be located until after the fact.
In Paul Virilio’s book The Accident of Art the idea that all art comes from trauma is discussed, and that even surrealism for example is a type of coping with the War. The idea is mentioned that you can’t look at stacked objects without seeing stacked bodies, post-Holocaust for instance. I am very interested in this. Especially what generates the production of work in an artist’s studio and is it really that direct as to say that trauma is a common denominator? I don’t know, but I think it has certainly stayed with me since I read it.
Going back to the horizon line idea, the horizon is the end of something. In our emails you wrote something like, The Condition [the title of the painting] is living in a state of awareness about the limits of perspective and language.
Yes, for a long time art making has had a tendency to privilege intellect over feeling. And only recently in the past few years, by breaking down my own anxieties, I’ve realized that even though we don’t have very effective language to describe our feelings, they’re always there, and usually in full force. Feeling is so much more present and dominating than a kind of idea or theory. Attempting to figure out how to cope with those feelings is a universal dilemma I think. My own curiosity is embedded in knowing that my understanding of my feelings are often embedded in theories.
Yes, that’s the thing Rothko was after.
When I’m researching ideas, they’re always embedded in the question of how you translate an untranslatable experience. In that often untranslatable experience is that which precedes language, that which is made manifest in the body. It can be a lot of feelings crowded into one. A theory is never going to be as interesting to me as the person developing it. There is a selfhood that is lacking in a lot of contemporary work—it’s vacant.
I don’t know if culturally we live in a place anymore that privileges trying to figure yourself out. Perhaps we never have. I always thought I had a very systematic, removed process of making in the studio as I attempted to explain everything and figure everything out before I actually started making work. Slowly I’m realizing that the work is becoming more embedded in questions about how to express. And maybe after I move through those questions I’ll find a language with which I can express myself. Right now it’s making images of our limitations. And from there, where do we go?
© Matthew Metzger. That Which Can't Be Played (Composition #5), Medium: Acrylic and Oil on MRMDF Panel Size: 11 ⅞" x 11 ⅞" Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago
© Matthew Metzger. That Which Can’t Be Played (Composition #5), Medium: Acrylic and Oil on MRMDF Panel
Size: 11 ⅞” x 11 ⅞” Date: 2015, Courtesy of Arratia Beer, Berlin and Regards, Chicago
Barthelme writes about this is an essay called Not Knowing. He wrote that artists make work without knowing how it will end up or even why they are making it. They have a style that comes from limitations and setting up some sort of parameters– in your case it is the gray primer background you always use, the length of the knife dictating the height and width of the canvas. But then after you’ve finished the work, you realize why you did it. You figure it out later, but it was in there all the time and you didn’t know it as you were doing it. You have to work that way if you want to uncover, as Barthelme put it, “the as-yet-unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.”
Not knowing is also about privileging vulnerability, about being okay with not quite understanding. We have a tendency to jump to terms like failure, but maybe it’s not as binary as success or failure, knowing or not knowing, but rather just accepting an unavoidable incorrectness / inaccuracy while doing, and the vulnerability that results. It means that if you fail, you are failing in the aesthetic of being vulnerable versus confident vulnerability.
It takes a lot of maturity and patience to get to that point. I think that’s a good place to be and a good place for us to stop.
© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Metzger, Gwendolyn Zabicki ( and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Suggested citation:
Zabicki, G. (2015). “Conversation with Matthew Metzger,” Figure/Ground. December 21st.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at

Monday, December 07, 2015

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #63 at the Art Institute of Chicago

The drawing measures 18 x 18 feet, getting darker towards the bottom. 

For the month of November, I was hired to help draw Sol LeWitt's wall drawing #63 on a wall of the modern wing in the Art Institute of Chicago. We met Monday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm, for four weeks of non-stop drawing and pencil sharpening. I worked with a man from the Sol LeWitt estate, who travels the world installing these drawings in museums and rich people's homes. There was one other assistant (aside from myself), a recent MFA graduate who used to be Rikrit Tiravanija's assistant. 

detail of the wall drawing

The boredom was excruciating. We talked about everything we could think of-- our families, our childhoods, things that embarrassed us, favorite movies, secret food shame, things we stole, times we cried, worst jobs, best jobs, injury stories. I wondered aloud that maybe some future generation would invent some kind of technology that would allow them to read these conversations, that some trace of the things we talked about were somehow embedded in the wall. I learned something about myself-- that I only have about 100 hours of stories. After that, we had to talk about things we saw on the internet the night before. 

We could draw three lines at a time with these carefully assembled 6H drawing leads. 

We used a plumb bob, string, and a level to establish the perimeter of the drawing and then carefully filled in each section with a specified combination of horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines. Two people would hold the ruler and mark where the lines would go and the third person would connect the dots along the ruler. The person drawing could make three lines at a time because we used sharpened 6H drawing leads that were perfectly spaced and taped together. 

I was amazed at the precision demanded by this project, the way we had to prepare the wall, the exacting way the drawing leads had to be sharpened and assembled. Even the masking tape on the drawing leads had to go in a certain place. With just the tiniest imprecision or sloppy measurement, an eight foot line could quickly veer to the left or to the right. As hard as we tried to be perfect, it was impossible. We had to stay focused on our task the entire time and constantly correct for our mistakes. 

It was pretty much just this for four weeks.

I noticed odd things while working at the museum. This new bright airy modern wing was surprisingly dusty. Museums seem like such clean places, but since our roped off section wasn't regularly vacuumed, the dust piled up like crazy. We worked right by a large staircase and I was surprised at how many people regularly tripped or fell down the stairs. At least one out of every 500 people on this well traveled staircase fell. I'm not sure if this is commonplace or if these were just poorly designed stairs. Every warm day, we would look out the window for the sunbather in the park. If we saw Jerry we knew it would be a good drawing day.

I ate lunch with him one afternoon. He's from Greece and asked me why I wasn't married.

We were lucky enough to get to visit the museum storage and see all the work not on display. We saw an unverified Alexander Calder sculpture of a bull. It had a large penis and when you pressed the head down the penis bobbed up and down too. I learned some things about Sol LeWitt that I haven't heard any where else. I learned he was stoned all the time and that he first came up with the idea of having other people do his drawings because museums wouldn't pay him to come out and do them, but they would pay a third party. It became a way to toss a good job to his friends, some of them making careers out of being Sol LeWitt draftsmen. 


I met some wonderful people and saw the inner workings of a museum and I now know this drawing inside and out. It's still not my favorite kind of work, but I feel more confident in expressing that opinion. It's subtle work, hard to actually look at, and almost impossible to photograph. When I look at it, I can see all the floaty dust in my eyes, making me aware that I am looking and aware of my eyes limitations. Personally, I'd rather look at the John Currin or the Gerhard Richter paintings around the corner, paintings that are generous and celebrate just how much we can see. But still, I'm honored to have been a part of this project and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Two Fantastic Long Reads on Painting Worth Your Time

Why Have There Been No Great Women Bad-Boy Artists? There Have Been, of Course. But the Art World Has Refused to Recognize Them.
By Jerry Saltz

I often find myself thinking, "thank god for Jerry Saltz." You can always count on him for a deliciously bitchy take-down of current trends in painting:

"Nor has either of these artists gone down the super-popular, yawn-inducing “critique of painting” rabbit hole — the perennial syllogistic “It’s paintings all the way down” painting about painting about painting, and so on. I have in mind the many artists who cut holes in canvas or paint likenesses of cotton or linen weave, as if to say,This is a painted surface on painted painting of a painted surface that is a painting; or the many more good little postmodernists who make art-historical references or paint in known styles, so the message is something like, This is a nod to other works of art, which tells you that this painting knows it's "a painting" …  put me in a biennial. This is a time in which art history has been simplified in order to be gentrified so that it’s palatable to the widest market share, so anyone can look at a painting and say one of the magic names of Warhol, Richter, Kippenberger, Krebber, Koons, Guyton, or some preapproved artist or -ism. By now, not only could most of this work have been made anywhere anytime since 1945, much of it looks like it’s from one small painting mill churning out collectibles. It's as if artists, academics, curators, and critics are comfortable in a tractor beam of nostalgia that draws them forever back to some imagined wound in painting, a scab to peel back, and the same problems can forever be solved in similar ways. I imagine that when money goes away, so will this pious minutia of eternal return."

Here is part of an equally delicious take on Sargent (one of my all time favorites) by Peter Malone in Hyperallergic:

"We have reached a point in our postmodern tangles where an unprecedented lack of skill, particularly among painters, is severely limiting the possibilities of a medium that ought to be as alive and as fluid as contemporary music. What’s needed is a fresh look at the work of painters like Sargent, who embody that crucial moment in art history just before things began to change so rapidly."

The Unsettled Legacy of John Singer Sargent
by Peter Malone

Monday, September 14, 2015

Excellent read: Drawing the Curtain by Kathryn Murphy

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of Apollo. Click here to subscribe to the magazine 
Why paint a curtain? The motif of draping an image in cloth reaches back to antiquity, revealing preoccupations with artistic competition, hidden meanings, and the limits of realism
In his Historia naturalis, Pliny the Elder tells the story of a competition between the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so lusciously real that birds flew down to peck at the painting. Confident of his success, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw back the curtain covering his work, only to realise that the curtain itself was the painting and that Parrhasius had won the competition. On its surface, the tale suggests that verisimilitude and trompe l’œil are the true tests of art. But as Zeuxis said in acknowledging defeat, to fool your fellow artists is better than to fool the birds. Parrhasius relied not just on technique, but on manipulation of expectation, to hoodwink Zeuxis.
Their competition, and its reflection on realism and convention, is reprised on a single canvas in Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (1658), now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago. A still life of blooming and overblown flowers with insects by Adriaen van der Spelt is partially concealed by a blue silk curtain, painted by Frans van Mieris. Seventeenth-century paintings were commonly kept in domestic interiors behind such coverings, and the image plays on the theatricality of unveiling involved in such display of art. However the trompe l’œil goes further than a joke to invoke the questions of realism and illusion proposed by Pliny’s tale. Van der Spelt’s still life is a fine example of the genre, with its carefully observed natural detail and exquisite rendering of the texture of petals and butterfly wings. In comparison with van Mieris’s mastery of light and illusionistic technique, however, it looks conventional and flat: more still than life. The background shows, dimly, a vaulted room or alcove, but van Mieris’s hyperrealism trumps that trompe-l’œildepth.
‘Madonna del Parto’ (c. 1455–65), Piero della Francesca (c. 1415/20–92). Museo della Madonna del parto, Monterchi
Again, it is not just van Mieris’s skill that bests van der Spelt. His curtain seems ‘real’ not just because of its rendering, but because it is a curtain, and seems to belong to the world of the viewer and not that of art. Leon Battista Alberti, in his De pictura (1435), famously recommended that a painting be conceived as an open window through which its subject – thehistoria – might be seen. To paint a curtain is to interpose something between the viewer and the historia. It is not fully part of the picture; instead it is an invitation both to examine critically the painting’s apparentsubject – often, paradoxically, by covering part of it – and to reflect on the claims and limits of realism and representation. A curtain is not supposed to be looked at; the viewer’s instinct is instead, like Zeuxis, to ask what lies beneath.
To draw a curtain’ can mean two apparently contradictory things: to pull it aside to reveal what it had concealed, and to pull it in front of an object, in order to hide it. To draw – and to paint – a curtain is thus both to cover and discover. Such dynamics of concealment and revelation have particular resonance in devotional imagery, and the paradox is especially potent in Piero della Francesca’s great fresco, the Madonna del Parto (now in the Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi; c. 1455–65). The pregnant Madonna stands revealed by symmetrical angels who have drawn back the curtains of a canopy. This discovering is echoed in the Virgin’s own parting of her garments over the bulge of her pregnancy. Though this displays nothing but more fabric, her gesture refers both to her imminent childbirth – the parting of parturition that gives the fresco its title and purpose, as an object for the devotion of pregnant women – and to the mystery of the Incarnation, the divine in human form, in the baby she carries.
‘Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain’, 1658, Adriaen van der Spelt (1630–81). Art Institute of Chicago
As the canopy contains and reveals Mary, so she contains and reveals the infant Jesus. Moreover, the details of the canopy recall the Old Testament tabernacle, described in Exodus as made from 10 curtains, coloured purple and scarlet with trimmings in gold, and lined, as here, with animal skin. The tabernacle creates a curtained zone of sanctity, the Holy of Holies, housing the divine presence, and barred to trespass by any but the High Priest. In the typological interpretation which sees the Old Testament as foreshadowing the gospels, the tabernacle prefigures Mary. The angelic opening of the curtains in Piero’s fresco thus symbolises the fulfilment of the Old Testament in the New, and the new accessibility of the divine in human form. Interpretation pulls back the curtain of allegory. In the Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus is veiled in flesh; not, however, in the sense that the divine is concealed by body, but in that its mystery can only be made manifest through it. The curtain is at once what must be withdrawn to see the truth; and what must be looked at to reveal it.
‘A Woman in Bed’, c. 1645–46, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69). Scottish n National Gallery, Edinburgh
In Rembrandt’s A Woman in Bed (c. 1645–46), now in the Scottish National Gallery, the themes of curtain and flesh, revelation and concealment, are also at play, although – at first sight – this is a paintingmuch more concerned with secular senses of the uncovering of bodies. It depicts the intimate space of a curtained bed. The richly embroidered drape is pulled back by a woman from within that enclosure. This partial revelation is repeated more subtly in the other cloths that cover her: she is lying under a blanket, but the cant of her lean takes her partly out of it; she is wearing a nightshirt, but only over one shoulder: most of her right breast is exposed. Each material half conceals and half reveals her. In this sequence of layers of fabrics, closer and closer to her flesh, her skin itself becomes a kind of cloth. The visible folds of her armpit, elbow, and furrowed forehead encourage the comparison.
The layered coverings mark boundaries between publicity and privacy. The painting toys with intimacy, and the barriers that must be crossed to enter into it. The woman’s expectant stare encourages us to assume a lover. Some scholars have suggested a specific scenario. GivenRembrandt’s repeated recourse to the Book of Tobit as a source, and the painting’s similarities with a work by his master Pieter Lastman, A Woman in Bed has been identified with the wedding night of Tobias and Sarah. In this tale, Tobias is Sarah’s eighth husband; the previous seven had all been killed on their wedding night by a demon. The price they paid for attempting to cross into the zone of intimacy of the curtained bed was death. Tobias, however, protected by the angel Raphael, is able to drive out the demon and consummate their marriage.
There are few clues in the painting that would confirm this disputed association: no demon, no Tobias, no angel. But accepting it enriches the symbolism of the curtain. The status of the Book of Tobit was problematicin the 17th century; though canonical in the Roman Catholic Bible, Protestant theologians denied it was a book of divine revelation, and consigned it instead to the Apocrypha. The Dutch Bible established in 1618 prints Tobit, but, as Julius Held has indicated, with a prefatory warning that it is untrustworthy, because of the fantastical tale of the expulsion of the demon and the death of the seven bridegrooms. If this is a depiction of the wedding night of Tobias and Sarah, it is precisely this most dubious moment that Rembrandt chooses as subject. The disputedstatus of the Book of Tobit is thus encoded in the painting itself. ‘Apocrypha’ means, literally, ‘hidden, covered up’. The themes of revelation and concealment, visible in the curtain and fabrics, are also the condition of the painting’s historia.
‘The Art of Painting’, c. 1666–68, Johannes Vermeer (1632–75). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
In both Piero and Rembrandt, a painted curtain invites reflection on the relationship between the seen and the unseen, and the immanence of allegory or revelation in the mundane and material. This may seem very distant from the competitive tests of skill in Zeuxis and Parrhasius, or van der Spelt and van Mieris. What they have in common is the positioning of a curtain at the forefront, to lead the viewer to consider what painting can reveal or conceal. Other examples combine competitive painterly mastery with the issues of interpretation evident in Piero and Rembrandt. The Art of Painting (c. 1666–68), for example, is at once a bravura exhibition ofVermeer’s skills of naturalism, illusionism, and perspective, and a complex allegory of the claims of painting to supremacy in the arts.
Vermeer symbolically incorporates music, sculpture, history, poetry, and cartography, to demonstrate painting’s surpassing of them all. In this, the curtain that covers about a quarter of the canvas acts variously as an exhibition of illusionistic skill, a theatrical gesture of invitation into the scene of the painter’s art, and a signal of allegory, of the fact that something is to be discovered in the image beyond its demonstration of mastery.
‘The Spinners’, 1655–60 (with alterations after fire damage in 1734), Diego Velazquez (1599–1660). Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
The same is true of Velázquez’s The Spinners (1655–60). The background represents a scene from the myth of Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – the moment when Athena, angered at having been bested by Arachne’s human craft in a weaving contest, strikes her with a shuttle before turning her into a spider. The myth confronts art as divinity with art as human exercise of skill. The canvas as a whole makes the same juxtaposition.Classical myth is staged in the alcove in the background, while human labour dominates the foreground, where five women are involved in the business of making wool: winding, spinning, carding, skeining – and one withdrawing a red curtain, which might otherwise obscure our view. Their activity stresses the material ground of historiastorytelling as weaving, or the woven canvas behind the painted image. This is underscored by the tapestry hung at the back of the alcove, which is at once Arachne’s contribution to the contest, and Titian’s Rape of Europa rendered in thread. Like Parrhasius, van Mieris, and Vermeer, Velázquez thus stages an artistic competition – between inspiration and craft, myth and realism, Athena and Arachne, Titian and Velázquez himself. Taken as a whole, The Spinners exhibits both poles of these confrontations. And again, the viewer’s encounter with these knotted problems is mediated by thewithdrawal of a curtain: the product of the human art of spinning, and a gesture of display.
Each of these painted curtains relies on its ambivalent role: both part of the painting and a framing device, at once involved in the historia and a commentary on it. Their significance relies precisely on their not being the main subject of the painting. A final example, however, mimics Parrhasius’s gesture precisely. In the mid 1960s, Gerhard Richter painted a series of paintings entitled Vorhänge: curtains. In these works, the curtain doesn’t signal or manage a boundary between different kinds of depiction: it is what is depicted. If, as Alberti suggested, a painting is a window on historia, the view from the window is here emphatically blocked off.
To paint a curtain is in some sense to paint nothing. Or at least so Richter hoped. In the early 1960s, Richter practised black and white photorealism, an approach he justified as having ‘nothing to do with art’, in which banal and given subjects offered ‘a kind of escape’ from significance and interpretation. Though stylistically similar in combining illusionistic precision with the effects of blur, the curtains were not however based on photographs. By 1972, Richter wrote that they disappointed him; the deliberate nature of their composition betrayed his desired neutrality. Inevitably, given their history as mechanisms of conceal-ment and revelation, of critical stance towards historia, painted curtains offered not an escape from conventions of painting and interpretation, but a prompt to consider them.
Richter’s curtain paintings represent a realism so real, so exact, that it ceases to be recognisable as such. They flirt with abstraction. The oscillations of their folds, the rhythmic alternation of bands of blacker andwhiter grey, recall the op art paintings of Bridget Riley from the same period. The similarity is disrupted, however, by the scant few centimetres of darker painting at the bottom of most of these canvases, which indicate depth, a floor. A study of form in two dimensions becomes the illusion of three.
In an interview in 1986, Richter remembered that, on coming across the avant-garde painting of Pollock and Fontana as a student, he had been struck by their ‘shamelessness’. A curtain, however, represents at once shame and innocence, reticence and an invitation to prurient speculation. The drawn back curtain in Piero and Rembrandt was an invitation to look, an exposure of flesh, of the matter of bodies and what they might mean. In Velázquez and Vermeer, curtains acted as a membrane between reality and myth or allegory. But in those paintings, there was a painted subject other than the curtain, about which the curtain invited critical reflection. In Richter, there is nothing but the curtain. The German ‘Vorhang’, however, means literally something that hangs before; it invites speculation on what might lie behind it.
There are some obvious possibilities. Richter, born in 1932 in what became East Germany, emigrated to the West in 1961. These paintings, executed only a few years later, seem to invoke the Iron Curtain, the separation of Europe into halves, adjacent and yet concealed and sealed from one another, especially since the erection of the Berlin Wall in the year of Richter’s emigration. Or is there rather a suggestion of shame: of the failure of West Germany at that time to acknowledge the guilt of the era of National Socialism adequately, a curtain behind which the gruesomeness of unacknowledged crime is concealed? (Student protests and the terrorist activities of the Rote Armee Fraktion would attempt to wrench back that curtain in the later 1960s and early 1970s; in 1988, Richter controversially returned to his photorealist style in the cycle 18. Oktober 1977, which depicted the protagonists of the RAF.) Or are we supposed to think of the history of art, the kind of curtains depicted by Parrhasius, van Mieris, Piero, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Vermeer, a historical competition into which Richter here enters himself?
All of these, of course; and none. There is no way of settling these questions. Richter, as matador, holds out the grey curtain as a red rag to speculation, only to whip it away. In the same period, Richter made various other attempts to short-circuit interpretation, including over-painting his own work. His 4 Glasscheiben (4 Panes of Glass; 1967) takes direct aim at Alberti’s notion of the painting as window by offering windows with no paint. The curtains series makes a similar gesture. The painting-as-window, with all its art- historical baggage, is occluded by thecurtain-as-painting. But rather than securing meaninglessness and neutrality for the image, as Richter wished, the curtain is the promise of meaning concealed. The gap at its bottom edge lets interpretation in. As in Parrhasius’s winning composition, the painting of a curtain provokes the viewer to want to draw it back.
Kathryn Murphy is a fellow in English literature at Oriel College, Oxford.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Painting-- Josephine

oil on canvas, 
32in x 24in, 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A good poem for today

By George Bilgere
Just when you’d begun to feel
You could rely on the summer,
That each morning would deliver
The same mourning dove singing
From his station on the phone pole,
The same smell of bacon frying
Somewhere in the neighborhood,
The same sun burning off
The coastal fog by noon,
When you could reward yourself
For a good morning’s work
With lunch at the same little seaside café
With its shaded deck and iced tea,
The day’s routine finally down
Like an old song with minor variations,
There comes that morning when the light
Tilts ever so slightly on its track,
A cool gust out of nowhere
Whirlwinds a litter of dead grass
Across the sidewalk, the swimsuits
Are piled on the sale table,
And the back of your hand,
Which you thought you knew,
Has begun to look like an old leaf.
Or the back of someone else’s hand.

I love this painting by Elizabeth Livingston

Wedding Day 
oil on canvas
24” x 34”

That down blanket is perfect. I want to sleep on this painting. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

My favorite church in Rome... the The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri).

This church was designed by Michelangelo in 1561. It incorporates the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian (which were built on that spot in 306 AD). The entrance of the church seems very modest until you realize that it is the original wall of an ancient Roman ruin. Instead of covering it up, Michelangelo wanted us to see it, which seems like a really modern architectural choice to me (exposed brick?) During the Renaissance people didn't know what these ruins were or how they were made, but were in awe of their size and the skill it took to build them.

In 1702 a meridian line/sundial was built inside the basilica. Pope Clement XI had it built because he wanted to check the accuracy of the Gregorian reformation of the calendar and to produce a tool to predict Easter exactly. 

From Wikipedia:
The sundial was built here because (1) Like other baths in Rome, the building was already naturally southerly oriented, so as to receive unobstructed exposure to the sun; (2) the height of the walls allowed for a long line to measure the sun's progress through the year more precisely; (3) the ancient walls had long since stopped settling into the ground, ensuring that carefully calibrated observational instruments set in them would not move out of place; and (4) because it was set in the former baths of Diocletian, it would symbolically represent a victory of the Christian calendar over the earlier pagan calendar.


Here is a picture of the beautiful oculus at the top of the dome. There are little planets and stars in the stained glass. It really is a thing of wonder:

Sunday, August 23, 2015


I went to Rome in May. I won't bore you with all of my photos, just some of my favorites.

 Oh my god the churches. They are everywhere and all of them are amazing.
                                                           This wavy marble

This little Bernini statue is above a tomb in a church. That little hand peeking out from the shroud, is, well, touching.

This saint's tomb. I think she's in there or part of her is below this gruesome wax model.

                                And finally, please in the church with the right clothes.