Thursday, December 6, 2007

painting the inner reality

There are extremely interesting happenings occurring simultaneously in John Sloan’s Rainbow, 1913 as well as Hale Woodruff’s Caprice, 1954. Both Woodruff and Sloan, through the manipulation of various formal elements, have abstracted their compositions to differing degrees in order to represent and communicate their internal reality. While placing the paintings specifically on a timeline chronicling the progression of art, their stylistic elements allude to the impact of highly influential European Modernistic avant-gardes that were prevalent specifically during the time each work had been created. In terms of the artist’s application of paint, the motives behind the execution, and their individual stylistic representations, I have drawn parallels in both artists approach and exploration of visually communicating and embodying their ideas and emotions.

It is ironic that Sloan would choose to name this cityscape Rainbow, and include on the picture plane a miniscule image of the quintessential rainbow. Existing on the upper left hand corner of the picture plane is an arc of prismatic colors. This image of a rainbow appears to be minor in importance due to its scale in relation to the canvas as well as in Sloan's decision to use colors that are predominately cool and dark in value. In relation to what can be seen as the most important aspect of the painting, the muted rainbow appears in what can be taken as the heavens or sky and opposite to the city. Spanning the majority of the composition, the city is comprised of warm, effervescent colors that one would expect to be in the rainbow. Not only does the city contain a multitude of colors but its location in relation to the rainbow appears to be important. A rainbow exists opposite the sun and its existence is caused by the refraction and reflection of the sun's rays through drops of rain.[1] It seems as though Sloan may have been drawing comparisons to the city and to the sun. The warmth and brightness of the city caused the emergence of this prism after perhaps a rainstorm, which can be implied by the cool dark values surrounding it. Since the focus is on the city and the plethora of warm hues that have been employed and manipulated to create this amiable impression of the city, the title Rainbow may also have been an allusion to his choice of colors to convey his impression of the life and vivacity of the city. This imagery is loosely painted in thick oil paint applied with bold brush strokes. Sloan’s handling of the medium and composing with it has been done in a painterly manner. Paint has been similarly applied in Hale Woodruff’s Caprice. Caprice is an entirely abstract work comprised of color and brushwork. Each bold mark works together to create a “non objective symphony of brushstrokes” flowing across the canvas.[2] Woodruff generalizes physical detail, so that the canvas becomes an abstract pattern.[3] His use of lights and dark rhythmically move into and out of one another conveying this whimsical and capricious sort of nature. From a more central location on the picture plane, colors appear to move towards the boundary of the canvas. This creates a more dynamic composition facilitating movement into and out of the painting with an implication that the color could exude indefinitely into space, never fracturing from delimitation of a rectilinear canvas. Tension is present as the value of colors is darker in the top left, and a lighter value exists in the bottom right. These two values begin to divide the picture plane in half on a diagonal axis. Color becomes the dominant visual element in Caprice, it appears to be an intentional choice of color palette based on nothing but visceral decisions.

Color becomes an extremely important facet in talking about Sloan's work. The architectural space of this city landscape has been reduced to color: lights and darks. By eliminating some and emphasizing others, he produces a synthesis of effect, in which confusion has disappeared, but the suggestion of vivid actuality remains.[4] It is the humanity of the scene, as well as its pictorial suggestions that interests him. Not in the way of telling a definite story, but by inference and suggestion.[5] The dynamism created by the implementation of a warm array of colors harkens to the people and life that exists within the city of New York.

There is relevance and importance in both Woodruff’s and Sloan’s application of thick impasto-like oil paint onto their canvases. The way both artists have made and left a mark on the canvas translates into its own language. Each bold mark serves as a diaphanous record of the artist’s presence and process. Because of the expressive nature in the way both artists have handled the medium, the result of all these marks becomes a means to immortalize the internal emotion invested at the moment each transient stroke had been created. Woodruff’s Caprice is rendered as an abstract non-figurative organic composition. His use of free broad brushstrokes convey colorful impressions of rhythmic movements in nature, which has been presented in bright, clear and resonant color.[6] To stand in front of this image is to be confronted with organized chaos. The composition has a life which has been instilled in it by Woodruff. His title aptly embodies the manner in which the colors change direction and move at their own liking. It also may allude to the internal and emotional reality that Hale has transcribed into his painting. For Hale to have invested so much of his internal reality into his painting is not a reach. At the time he made Caprice there was an overall penchant for the reduction of painting to its material forms: non-figurative and two dimensional was accepted. This was a key formal concern for New York Abstract Expressionist painters.[7] Conceptually the mark-making of the Abstract Expressionists was said to have been drawn from the artist’s unconscious as well as from other universal themes and emotions derived from the collective unconscious.[8] Caprice was made when he was residing in New York. This work is representative of his response to what the Abstract Expressionists were doing and can be seen in his style which shifted to what he described as semi-abstract, symbolic painting.

Sloan’s Rainbow strays entirely from realism or photorealistic renderings and rather serves as his own personal account of the city. Sloan has immortalized himself and his view from the rooftop with his translation from intangible image (his perception of the city) to an object (manipulated paint on canvas). Besides documentation of the artist’s own presence, the painting also conveys his impression of the city. The painting then becomes a simulacra, where as the non-existing original is but the aggrandized imprint contrived in the mind and by the emotion of John Sloan. His paintings are then "made in response to life, distorted to emphasize ideas about life, as well as emotional qualities about life."[9]

Just as Rainbow becomes a recoding and reinterpretation inspired directly from Sloan’s external living environment in New York City, so does Woodruff’s Caprice. Drawing from his inner being, Hale is transforming his work from the physical natural environment. Both artists have separated their external reality from their internal reality, and have used the latter to inform a reworking of the former. Intense color, impulsive painterly gesture, malleable line, and amorphous shape formally are implemented to convey internal reality.[10] The aim of expressing internal reality in unconventional abstract terms was to bring out its vividness to the introspective eye. These were more appropriate than conventional representational terms, for internal reality seemed abstract compared to external reality, and more vivid once it was creatively apprehended.[11]

Upon first inspection of the work of Sloan, one may conclude he is simply painting the physical environment he resides in. Yet due to its altered appearance, the painting has been done by the dictates of his unconscious.[12] The distortion and abstraction perpetuated by the inner eye was the preferred eye in Modern art.[13]

The use of the unconscious and drawing from the artist’s internal reality has been prevalent throughout various movements in Modern art. Considering the years in which Caprice and Rainbow had been created, there were prominent European avant-gardes that drew from the unconscious or the internal impression of reality in which both Sloan and Woodruff would have been exposed to. Both artists had been looking at and drawing influences from Expressionism and Impressionism, but in addition Woodruff was directly influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. Their mutual geographical location in New York at the time of the 1913 Armory Show, which brought emerging European artists to the attention of artists in the United States, was a significant source of exposure to the advances in modernity as well as the impact artistically and internally that had been impressed upon both artists. It would have been at this show where both artists had seen their first glimpses of the Modern aesthetic. Woodruff, while at art school in Indianapolis, had expressed an intrigue in the new trends in the work of more recent European emigrant artists as well as in the examples presented art the 1913 Armory Show.[14] Yet the ideals represented in the works at the show were not embraced by the faculty at Herron, and in expressing his interest while simultaneously alluding to his pursuit, Woodruff concluded that there was no one at the school “who could prepare him for the new modernism which had taken hold.”[15] Similarly, for Sloan, the Armory Show is credited with having introduced him to VanGogh’s Dutchman’s Picture, which he commented as being inspirational and laden with “expressive power”.[16] Sloan, who had worked on the hanging committee for the Armory Show, could not have been unaware of European Modernism even before the show.[17] As early as 1908 John Sloan had been acquainted with American abstract painter Arthur Dove, whom had traveled to France in 1907 and was introduced and exposed to the extremely expressive European developments in painting style, in particular the Fauves.[18] The influence of the Armory Show and the emergence and ultimate integration of the concepts implemented by European Modernism can be seen as a catalyst for artists such as Sloan and Woodruff, to create works that have been derived and executed as a result of internal expression.

[1] Della Summers, Longman Advanced American Dictionary: (Harlow, England, 2001), 1186.

[2] Judith Wilson, “Go Back and Retrieve It”: Hale Woodruff, Afro-American Modernist (Atlanta, GA, 1988), 45.

[3] Ibid.. 45.

[4] Patricia Hills, “John Sloan's Images of Working Class Women”: Dozema & Milroy, Reading American Art, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 313.

[5] Patricia Hills, “John Sloan's Images of Working Class Women”: Dozema & Milroy, Reading American Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 314.

[6] Amalia K. Amaki, Hale Woodruff, Nancy Prophet, and the Academy, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007), 37.

[7] Judith Wilson, “Go Back and Retrieve It”: Hale Woodruff, Afro-American Modernist (Atlanta, GA, 1988), 43.

[8] Amalia K. Amaki, Hale Woodruff, Nancy Prophet, and the Academy, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007), 37.

[9] David Scott, John Sloan: (New York City, NY: Watson Guptill Publications 1975), 58.

[10] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art,(Cambridge, United Kingdom: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004), 100.

[11] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge 2004), 101.

[12] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004), 100.

[13] Donald Kuspit, The End of Art, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge 2004), 101.

[14] Amalia K. Amaki, Hale Woodruff, Nancy Prophet, and the Academy, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007), 24.

[15] Ibid,. 24.

[16] David Scott, John Sloan, (New York City, NY: Watson Guptill Publications 1975), 58.

[17] Heather Campbell Coyle, John Sloan’s New York (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 59-60.

[18] Ann Lee Morgan, Arthur Dove, Life and Work, With a Catalogue Raisonne, (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses 1984), 40.

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