29 September 2009


Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909. Bacon was one of five children, and in 1914 moved with his family to England to avoid the oncoming war. His childhood was riddled by asthma and allergy attacks, and his asthma continued to be a hindrance to him later on in life. When Bacon grew to adolescence, his homosexuality surfaced, deeply discomfiting his father. He was kicked out of his house for wearing his mother's clothes, and in 1926 began a life of his own in London. For some time Bacon worked in interior design and furniture, During this time period he went to Berlin and Paris, exalting in the night scene as well as attending art exhibits. He was very impressed by Picasso's exhibit (1927) in Paris. It was then he began to draw and paint, and continued to do so when returning to London. His early work went widely unrecognized and poorly reviewed, to which he responded by destroying his pieces, until his 1944 exhibit of the triptych "Study for the Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion." Though he received mixed reviews, this piece was an overall success and the beginning of a remarkable career.

"Three Studies for Figure at the Base of the Crucifixion," 1944, Tate

Bacon was able to avoid the draft for WWII due to his asthmatic condition, and formed a friendship with a group of burgeoning artists during the 40s in London, including but not limited to Lucien Freud, John Deakin, Isabel Rawsthorne and Dan Sutherland. Through Sutherland Bacon formed a contract with the Hanover Gallery. He was living, interestingly enough, in a house formerly owned by Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, which he occupied from 1943-1951 along with his childhood nannie Jessie Lightfoot. MoMA purchased their first painting of his in 1946, (Painting 1946), depicting a postwar violent image of a man isolated in the center of the painting, dressed in a suit, with a graphic cow carcass hanging behind him. The majority of his head is covered, save a grimacing mouth. The image is co
ncomitantly haunting and provocative. MoMA notes Bacon's image of a carcass being a reference to his fascination with butcher shops as a child; distinct allegorical, memory derived images like this reappear in later work. 

"Painting 1946," MoMA

"Head VI," 1948

"Figure in Frame," 1950

Jessie Lightfoot died in 1951, scarring Bacon and prompting him to sell the Millais House. Despite the rough start, the 1950s was a particularly prolific time period for Bacon. He pursued the imagery of trapped figures in suits, emphasizing portraiture with chilling expressions. Bacon's series on the Pope also emerged at this time with his study of Velasquez's Pope Innocent X. The Tate describes his choice in subject matter, "The paintings of Popes, which established his reputation, alternated with those of contemporary figures in suits who were similarly entrapped; however, following a trip to Egypt and South Africa (1950) a lighter tonality emerged in paintings of sphinxes and of animals."  His visit to Egypt, as well as his growing relationship with partner Peter Lacey, inspired an animalistic portrayal of sexual encounters. His subjects have been called homoerotic, disturbing, and powerful, and are certainly unusually compelling. Bacon's work speaks to our psychological depths, provoking our own disturbing subconscious. 

"Study for a Portrait I," 1952

"Study of a Baboon," 1953

"Number VII from Eight Studies of a Portrait," 1953, MoMA

Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)  1955

I found the Tate's description of this image really interesting: 
This is one of a series based on the life mask of poet and painter William Blake. Bacon first saw the mask at the National Portrait Gallery in London, but he also used photographs and, at some point, he even acquired a cast of it. His response to the source is typical of his preference for a mediated image of the body. The painting is more complex than it seems: it is built up with delicate layers of paint against a rich black ground. One commentator wrote, ‘broad strokes of pink and mauve, with which Bacon establishes an equivocation between waxen mask and human flesh, drag pain and loneliness and imperturbable spirit in their wake’.

Bacon's work shifted into raw color and an expressive style in the 1960s. He took on a new lover, George Dyer, a man with a turbulent demeanor. Dyer was known for his criminal past and his avid drinking. The relationship was tumultuous, and in 1971 Dyer committed suicide, the night of Bacon's first retrospective. This event haunted many of Bacon's future paintings, including the triptych (1972) shown far below. In 1974, Bacon developed a lasting relationship with John Edwards, the subject of some of his last paintings. 

"Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" 1963

Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne  1966

"Study for the Head of George Dyer," 1967

"Studies from the Human Body," 1975

The triptych became Bacon's preferred approach to painting towards the end of his life. Bacon said his triptychs were "the thing I like doing most, and I think this may be related to the thought I've sometimes had of making a film. I like the juxtaposition of the images separated on three different canvases." (MoMA) Following an archetypal Christian religious triptych, he often left the center panel for the object of devotion. This can be seen in his final triptych done before his death shown below, currently held in MoMA's collection. 

"Triptych, August 1972" Tate
"Second Version of Triptych 1944," 1988, Tate

"Triptych," 1991, MoMA

Francis Bacon died in April of 1992 from pneumonia that was worsened by his asthma. He was the recipient of a number of retrospective exhibits, during his lifetime and after. The Tate held two, the Guggenheim one, and there was a recent retrospective held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I was lucky enough to walk through this past June. The Met's retrospective included sketchbooks of his, photographs used as references in his work, and a wall size reproduction of Bacon's studio, shown below.

22 September 2009


Milton Avery was an American painter and printmaker from Connecticut (b 1893). He grew up supporting his family, taking on multiple jobs and often sacrificing his own potential for success. For some time he worked night shifts at a tire and rubber company so that he could paint during the daytime. He gained financial footing upon his marriage to Sally Michel, an illustrator, in 1926. Due to Michel's personal success and affluence, Avery was able to focus his efforts on painting in New York. He had his first solo exhibition in 1935 at the Valentine Gallery, and developed friendships with some of the major abstract expressionists of the time, namely Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. The Phillips Collection of DC was the first to purchase one of his paintings.
Often likened to Matisse, Milton Avery painted with a minimal palette, preferring to depict simple forms. His paintings are rather flat, with some repetition of pattern and "large areas of glowing colour," as described by the Tate. He began by producing landscapes, using a thick application of paint via palette knife as well as a fair balance of simplification and detail (think Matisse's ability to use detail while maintaining simplification- very similar). 

"Harbor at Night," 1932

His work transitioned out of detail to strong abstraction circa 1944, adopting "crisply delineated forms." In 1949 he had a heart attack, and on after produced a great amount of monotype prints and muted, thinly washed paintings. This transition can be seen below.

"Portrait of Marsden Hartley," 1943
(I always find it fascinating to see an artist's depiction of another artist. Here's Avery's portrait of Marsden Hartley, another great painter of the time. )

"Bird and Breaking Wave," 1944

"Green Sea," 1958

"Sea Grasses and Blue Sea," 1958

MoMA, in reference to the above:
"That black is paradoxical: as Matisse remarked of the black in one of his own paintings, it is used as "a color of light and not as a color of darkness." In various ways, in fact, Avery is closer to Henri Matisse than to the styles that prevailed in America during his lifetime-in his love of clarified form and flat color, for example, and in the sense of rich serenity that permeates his art."

"Yellow Sky," 1958

"Sally with Beret," 1960

Avery died in 1965 at the age of 72 in New York, leaving a lasting impact on the abstract expressionists of the 50s. His work has been acquired by many major art museums worldwide, and is the namesake of Bard's Milton Avery Graduate School of Arts. The most interesting discovery I made while researching Avery is that his wife preserved many of his interviews, letters to him, and other relics. She submitted them to the National Archives, where they can be viewed in person or online. A couple images of his gallery invitations held in that collection are shown below.

19 September 2009


Frank Auerbach was born in Berlin in 1931. His parents were Jewish, and in 1939 they sent him to England to avoid the advent of WWII. He went to St. Martin's School of Art where he met fellow artists David Bomberg and Leon Kossoff and developed longstanding friendships with them. Both Bomberg and Kossoff would contribute quite an impact on Auerbach in the years to come. After St. Martin's Auerbach studied at the Royal College of Art from 1952 to 1955. He had his first solo show in 1956, and continued to gain critical acclaim from then on.

Auerbach works in an impasto painting technique, in which paint is built up heavily on the canvas to render the image. Characterized by thick brush strokes, impasto is a very expressionistic and emotional style. In Auerbach's work, the paint is at times so thick and layered that the painting itself is comparable to a sculptural relief. Art critic David Sylvester, who praised Auerbach's work early on, comments that "in spite of the heaped-up paint, these are painterly images, not sculptural ones... their physical structure is virtually that of sculpture but their psychological impact is that of painting." Auerbach typically did many sketches and paintings before arriving at a finished product. In his drawings he would erase, rework, and draw over his subjects, using layers of paper that had a similar sculptural effect (seen in Head of EOW below).

Though it is difficult to do Auerbach's work justice on a flat computer screen, I've compiled the following images below to give a better sense of the impression these paintings leave upon their viewer. Close up, Auerbach’s paintings appear almost entirely abstract, with thick deposits of paint protruding from the surface. However, as one steps back, a rendered image appears, with a certain sense of accuracy and vitality unmatched in others’ work.

He has maintained the same three subjects in the majority of his work:

Julia, his wife

Juliet Yardley Mills, a professional model:

"J.Y.M. Seated No. 1," 1981

"Seven Portraits, JYM" 1989

and Estella West, a woman he developed a romantic relationship with when he was 17 (and she 32). This relationship was sustained even after his marriage.

"E.O.W. Nude" 1953

"Small Head of E.O.W.," 1957
"Head of E.O.W.," 1959

An interesting fact I found is that the reason Auerbach’s earlier work is mostly done in earth tones is not for aesthetic purposes, but instead due to his lack of funds. He broadened his palette once acquiring the financial resources. Below are examples of this shift in color application. It's amazing how well he achieves his goals in rendering despite the very limited color palette.


"Oxford Street Building Site," 1959

"To the Studios," 1991

Auerbach is still living, working, and exhibiting in London. He had his first retrospective in the 1990s in England, and his work continues to appear in major traveling exhibits throughout the world, like "Paint Made Flesh," an exhibit that just passed through the Phillips Collection in DC.

12 September 2009


Richard Artschwager was born in 1923 in Washington, DC to European immigrants. He was quite familiar with art at an early age, his mom a student at Corcoran School for the Art. Artschwager was drafted into WWII, but was wounded and discharged. He spent his early years as an artist in New York studying under Amedee Ozenfant. He began designing wood furniture, but after his workspace caught on fire he went back to fine arts.

In an interview by the Brooklyn Rail, Artschwager notes:

"Artschwager: ... I was interested in science and in art. Around the time our friendship got serious, a woman said to me: “You have to choose, focus on one. You can always change.” And so, I went to art because it’s unpredictable, and science, except in rare cases, is uncovering what’s already there. I couldn’t sleep that night—“What the hell have I done?” It’s like jumping off of a cliff. The door was open nevertheless… and then what to do with that… and it having to be original—how the heck can you be original?

Yau: So in ’47 you decided to be an artist and be original, but you made your first original pieces around 1962, right, when you did the sculptureHandle.

Artschwager: Yeah, in ’62. Formica, it came to my rescue, and non-European handy instincts, which is, what materials to use. “Handle” was made from stair railing, something that the individual naturally grips.

Yau: Things that people touch, like tables, chairs, and drawers..."

Artschwager is known for both his sculptures and paintings. In 1960 he began experimenting with illusional art, creating sculptures that resembled unremarkable objects yet played to an extent with optics. He first explored optical illusions with a series of pieces entitled "Table and Chair."

"Table and Chair," 1963-4

"Table and Two Chairs," 1965

MoMA notes his similarity to minimalism, and deems his gravitation towards this type of representation as a response to Pop Art.

Artschwager: ...What I am talking about is looking for originality. And above all one doesn’t want to be “school of.” For an artist that is the kiss of death.

Yau: You were associated Pop Art at the beginning.

Artschwager: The expression Pop Art is grossly misleading; there is nothing popular about it. Context is a useful thing to pay attention to. Cubism is another one that is misleading, that period has nothing to do with cubes. If you think of shingles you get a better idea.

Artschwager paintings also play with optics in a very different style than his sculptures. Mimicking antique photography, Artschwager used acrylics to portray modern culture.

"Untitled," 1970

"Sailors," 1972

"Interior," 1972

Here's an installation I really liked entitled, "Blips," in which Artschwager painted white circles around New York City on architecture that he found particularly compelling or beautiful. He did so in order to draw the attention of passersby that would have typically overlooked these fantastic structures. The one depicted below is on MoMA's P.S.01 building.

Artschwager has pretty much stayed in this same vein of exploring optical illusion. He is making work currently, some of which is shown below.

"Splatter Chair I," 1992

"Question Mark," 1994

"Live In Your Head," 2002

09 September 2009


Antonin Artaud is perhaps one of the most peculiar artists I have come across so far. Artaud is considered a Surrealist artist, who's dabbled in film/cinema, drawing, acting and playwright. Though the artbook focuses on his drawings, most of my research has uncovered erratic, obscure, sometimes disturbing cinematic and theatrical accomplishments. There is no understanding to his work without first exploring the personal history of this artist- specifically, Artaud's psychological deterioration, beginning shortly after birth. 

Antoine Marie Joseph Artaud (better known as Antonin Artaud) was born in 1896 in Marseille, France. At 4, he suffered from a severe case of meningitis, which left him with some psychosocial brain damage. He was also diagnosed with clinical depression, neuralgia (neuropathic pain) and stammering. He spent some time in and out of sanitariums, and though drafted to the army in 1916, he was quickly released due to mental instability. Antonin was prescribed opiates, to which he quickly became addicted to. He maintained this addiction throughout his life. As Artaud came into adulthood, he moved to Paris and began studying the theater. This marked the beginning of his acting/ writing career. He formed friendships with some of the major surrealists artists and writers in Paris (namely Breton), who became major influences on his work. These artists later rejected Artaud due to his refusal to join the Communist party. 

At this time, Artaud formulated his "Theatre du Cruelle," a conceptual approach to the theater in which the stimulation of the senses overtakes the intellectual storytelling process. Translating to "Theater of Cruelty," Artaud was striving to cause "eroticism, cruelty, blood thirstiness, quest of violence, obsession with horror, dissolution of moral values, social hypocrisy, lies, false witness, sadism, perversion" yet at the same time a sense of liberation. He also published a book during this time, "The Theater and its Double," discussing a theory of theater as a kind of alternate universe equally as real as the one we live in. Aspects of his mental condition are certainly pervasive here, but I think it's more than that: Artaud is expressing an element of the human condition that is only magnified (not fabricated) under the influence of mental disease. We all have the discretion to establish a difference between reality and fantasy, and it is only a matter of opinion to which one of us is correct. In society he is labeled psychotic, yet in the art world we are able to visualize and internalize a disparate reality in a different light, a more humanizing and relatable fashion, in a way where we can arrive at a true appreciation for the routes of genius his mind took him through.

(If you're interested in his writings, I highly suggest you purchase a book of his work:
The Theater and Its Double, Selected Writings, I plan on buying the former)

In 1937 Artaud suffered from a mental break, was arrested and put in a straitjacket. From this time on he spent the majority of his time in various psychiatric wards.
Towards the end of his life in 1946, Artaud, was admitted into an asylum in which he received electro-shock treatment. Delivered by Dr. Gaston Ferdiere, this treatment caused a serious change in his mental state. Ferdiere encouraged art therapy, having Artaud draw and write frequently. Artaud produced many drawings at this time (which were exhibited at MoMA in 1997). 

In 1948, Artaud was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and died not long after in the psychiatric ward. He was alone, seated at the foot of his bed, holding his shoe. 
There have been many works created since that are influenced by Artaud's work, some of which I have come across and been admittedly quite disturbed by. His ability to warp reality, blur the distinction between eccentricity and insanity, and evoke wild discomfort are really unmatched. What a fascinating artist.

Below is his film "The Seashell and the Clergyman" (cut into three sections), an early work of his exploring cinematography a theatrical boundaries. A definite psychological self-portrait, Artaud presents seemingly normal scenes with elements of fantasy in a sinister, eerie portrayal. Especially at a time when themes of rape and murder were not prevalent in films and other modes of popular culture, this film extends accepted subjects to their furthest reach. 

I couldn't find a great amount of work from his later period (which makes this an interesting choice by the Artbook), but I found a self-portrait he did while under the care of Ferdiere. 

Here is another film I found on Youtube in which a student has used Artaud's work as a basis for his project (shot in 2004). Though not necessarily endorsing the film, I do find it interesting to see the type of interpretation that someone from the current decade has given to Artaud's work. It certainly does seem just like the type of film he would make were he alive and working presently.

Caution, depending on your level of sensitivity, you may feel this film disturbing and/or offensive.