Da Vinci and The Nutt

 

Jim Nutt

One of the more memorable exhibits of the new millennium was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2011. Essentially a retrospective of the painter Jim Nutt, it was the first public showing of his work in about a decade. As a longtime fan of Nutt, and as much as I enjoyed seeing some of the earlier works again, it was his recent portraits that literally took my breath away.

Jim Nutt Bump Nelson-Atkins Museum of ArtComparatively intimate in scale, and most accompanied by an original pencil preparatory drawing, the work is masterful. Layers and layers of color applied in ways that created both striking textural patterns and an inner luminosity. These life-size portraits of women could easily be dismissed as a “slicker” version of earlier work where faces and figures are distorted to an extreme that is regularly described as grotesque. But the colors and patterns serve to provide focal points that make the imagery playful rather than malicious. Regrettably, the handsome and competently printed catalog just can’t do these portraits justice.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViIX2lMWdxk[/embedyt]

 

Recently spending time looking at a book of the handful of known paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and glancing up at work of Jim Nutt above my desk, I was reminded of the other show I saw on that spring day in Chicago. Pure serendipity, and the kind of coincidence that keeps life interesting, earlier that same day I had wandered through a show at the Art Institute of Chicago with medieval art that included, to my absolute delight and surprise, a small Madonna and child by Leonardo Da Vinci known as Virgin with Yarnspinner. It was the first time this work had been on public display since being purchased by a private collector in the early 1970’s. Even a background reminiscent of the Mona Lisa but poorly executed by assistants, could not diminish the power of the two figures. I was intrigued by the similarities between the Da Vinci and the Nutt portraits, including the bizarre foreshortening on the face of the child, and the luminosity of the Madonna’s face.

The print "Your so Coarse (Tish Tish)" from my private collection.When I later shared my observation of the similarities between his portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci, Nutt disagreed. I defended my idea by explaining that I stood enthralled for so long while staring at the Yarnspinner a museum guard warily inquired, “is everything okay?”. The same evening found me at the CAM show where the similarities of the many portraits by Nutt with the Yarnspinner seemed so obvious. After a brief back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.

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A Twice Told Tale?

Jorge Luis Borges City of the Immortals

Jorge Luis Borges City of the Immortals

Among the best stories that Jorge Luis Borges wrote is a particular favorite of mine, The Immortal. Originally published 1947, it was subsequently reprinted to a wider audience in the first edition of El Aleph in 1949. It is possible that the current state of literary criticism and analysis regarding this work is at best incomplete, and possibly irrelevant.

Whether this narrative is about the reputed author Marcus Flaminius Rufus, the book dealer Joseph Cartaphilus, or someone else who has achieved temporary immortality may not matter. Of the many observations discussed in the Postscript of The Immortal, most significant is likely, “He infers from these intrusions or thefts that the whole document is apocryphal.” In point of fact, it is not.

Recently, a friend and noted Egyptologist acquired all of the plates – with original watercolor – that accompanied 1820, 1821 and 1822 versions of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s narrative of his time in Egypt. Handsomely rebound by the Cairo bookbinder Mr. Fahti (who has worked magic on many antiquarian volumes in my personal collection) I took advantage of our friendship to borrow both the enormous plate volume (measuring 40 inches by 24 inches when open, with fold-out plates) as well a first edition of the more practically sized text volume.

Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon

Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia; and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter at Ammon by G. Belzoni was first published by John Murray, Albemarle-Street, in 1820. The copy temporarily sitting on my desk once belonged to the collection of Keith C. Seele, responsible for the successful completion of the first UNESCO project in the early 1960’s – moving the enormous temple of Abu Simbel out of harm’s way prior to the completion of the Aswan High Dam (see obituary; Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 32, January-April 1973).

It was while reading Belzoni’s description of his work at Ybsambul (now Abu Simbel) that I was first reminded of Borges’ story of the immortal one. Later, descriptions of abandoned temples, references to troglodytes and feral people living in pits led me to open my copy of Labyrinths and read, yet again, The Immortal. Which in turn led me to reread chapters in Narrative. Which in turn… Finally tiring of this dizzying cycle, the unmistakable similarities between these two works led me to write this brief note.

Belzoni notes in his Preface that his career was made in Thebes. Marcus Flaminius Rufus notes that his fate was sealed in Thebes. Mysterious peoples, the desert and protagonists unable to manage their fate appear in both Narrative and The Immortal. Beset by antagonists and problems both fearful and often fanciful, the only thing immortal in either of these tales is the past.

That a fantastic story conceived by a proud Argentinian during the 1940’s was heavily influenced by a boastful description of work undertaken by an Italian with British sympathies in Egypt during the 1810’s is obvious.

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Reconsidering Sol Lewitt: Spring 2018

Portrait of American artist Sol LeWitt (1928 - 2007), New York, New York, August 1969. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Portrait of American artist Sol LeWitt, New York, August 1969. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This short note is inspired by the fact that Sol Lewitt died in April 2007, and since then exhibits of work created after his death continue to occasionally pop-up.

“The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of art as any finished product.” Lewitt wrote this in 1967 and it remains, perhaps, the most insightful expression of what his conceptual artwork was about; the idea, not the object. Further, Lewitt was widely known for his (even now!) use of other artists to actually create his “finished product” so it is not unreasonable that people assume Lewitt was above the dirty work of putting pen-to-paper or brush-to-wall. This notion, of the artwork itself not being the point, dogged Lewitt throughout his career. Yet his later work is so colorful and lyrical that the label of conceptual no longer seems appropriate. His comment from 1982, “I would like to produce something I would not be ashamed to show Giotto,” may better speak to Lewitt’s true sensibilities as an artist.

Sol LeWitt’s Notable Works

The catalog produced in conjunction with a retrospective of Lewitt’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 2000 wanders across a lifetime of output starting with early figurative work, some truly oddball sculptures, then moves on to the geometric work with which he remains closely associated and finishes with the later paintings of irregular brushstrokes and lines. Lewitt produced a staggering number of drawings and paintings. In between, he oversaw the creation of large numbers of constructions, sculptures, and around two\\\ thousand wall drawings. It certainly appears that the man enjoyed making things. And, that Lewitt enjoyed painting and drawing and sculpting.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9ROCnWMPww[/embedyt]

The notion of playfulness seems to escape many discussions about Lewitt and his work. Even such exhausting projects as the “Incomplete Open Cubes” series – with all its manifestations – has, at its core, a jocular sensibility. The cubes as drawings, as photographs, as small sculptures, as big sculptures, in black, in white, all obsessively depict the 122 variations. The doodles evolve into isometric renderings that become little models that become big sculptures that are in turn photographed, all of which are printed in little books and pamphlets. It is not unlike a great shaggy-dog joke. Avoid getting caught-up in intellectual analysis and the juxtaposition of a Lewitt incomplete cube in a gallery filled with baroque and mannerist paintings has its lighter side.

The Sol LeWitt Process

Lewitt’s process of seeking every combination of a series served among other things, to ensure that he had plenty of material to work with. Seemingly endless variations of bands in four directions were turned out in seemingly endless varieties of mediums. The consistency of the form allowed for an opportunity to fully explore the interaction of colors, or in the case of sculpture, the interaction of light and shadow. Lewitt repeatedly set strict limits that allowed for infinite variety. Or, to use a phrase attributed to many but best expressed by Jorge Luis Borges, Lewitt created “an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

The art of Lewitt should not be defined by hard logic and cool detachment. Lewitt’s work is better appreciated for the humor, color, and inventiveness that Giotto would have certainly enjoyed.

Original NY Times Obituary: Sol LeWitt (1928-2007)

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What an idea looks like

|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” -Sol LeWitt, 1973|

For reasons most people will not understand, I’m excited about a little work recently added to my collection of ephemera by the artist Sol LeWitt. Part of the reason this work resonates more than many others is due to the evolution of my goals as a collector. More than other items, many of which frankly offer more pleasing aesthetics, this drawing exemplifies the ideas that draw me to the artist. And to LeWitt’s stated goals as an artist.

Sol LeWitt Wall Sketch. An original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber gallery in March of 1986The pencil sketch was likely the original conception of a wall drawing intended for an exhibit at the John Weber gallery in March of 1986. I have the invitation to that particular show, and now the working drawing for a signature piece from the exhibit. Further, LeWitt was meticulous in documenting his output, and in a catalog of wall drawings published in 1989, this work can be clearly identified as #472. Its most unique attribute is that it was gray – no colors were used, even for the background. As with so many of the wall drawings designed for specific exhibitions, the assumption was that the work would eventually be painted over, as was the case here. My research has not yet – and may never – come up with a photo of the actual painting.

In the drawing we see LeWitt thinking about the color scheme (for lack of a better term), and in his published description of Wall Drawing #472, we see the final work matches this one. Each number represents how many coats of gray were applied to each segment. Curiously, While “5” indicates five-coats (the darkest), “1” indicates three-coats and “3” indicating one layer of gray (the lightest). The inscription “for Cosimo” implies that the drawing was given to the son of gallery owner, and long time LeWitt booster, John Weber. That the drawing was of little value even at the time is demonstrated by a note, hastily scribbled on the back in ballpoint pen, about a lost bead from an earring.

And all this has what to do with my collection of LeWitt artwork? From early on in his professional career, LeWitt emphasized that the idea was more important than the final artifact – painting, sculpture, wall drawing, etc… This little drawing provides insight into the decision making process of a guy who was most interested in the process.

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Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson on … Sol LeWitt

“I find it difficult to write a statement that will be a correct summation of my philosophy of art. The work itself seems to subvert such statements, while the total of one’s work creates its own philosophy. This emerges from work to work, successful ones or failures, finding its own dimensions. The total of all past work exerts its influence on the new work. The new work combines the reality of the old and destroys the idea in which it was conceived. It cannot be understood in context of other work, the original ide being lost in a mess of drawings, figurings, and other ideas.”

-Sol LeWitt

“Sol LeWitt is very much aware of the traps and pitfalls of language, and as a result is also concerned with enervating “concepts” of paradox. Everything LeWitt thinks, writes, or has made is inconsistent and contradictory. The “original idea” of his art is “lost in a mess of drawings, figurings, and other ideas.” Nothing is where it seems to be. His concepts are prisons devoid of reason. The information on his announcement for his show (Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, April 1967) is an indication of a self-destroying logic. He submerges the “grid plan” of his show under a deluge of simulated handwritten data. The grid fades under the oppressive weight of “sepia” handwriting. It’s like getting words caught in your eyes.”

-Robert Smithson

 

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Mumford Rules

The Lewis Mumford Reader Edited by Donald MillerOn the recommendation of my good friend David, I have been perusing The Lewis Mumford Reader. It might be accurate to describe Lewis Mumford as a modern polymath and an apologist for the American mind. Born in 1895 his work describing the importance of American philosophers – particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville – sounds remarkably relevant, even today.

One of the more interesting essays in the collection included his description of how the Renaissance ultimately led to the creation of the American Way. This line of thought started off with Mumford’s observation that the Renaissance didn’t represent a new beginning, but instead marked a start of the disintegration and fragmentation of the old. In his view, the Renaissance was not so much a “rebirth” of Western Civilization as the death knell of the medieval world.

Where the consensus considers Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo and Newton standard bearers for an inevitable march forward Lewis Mumford offers a more nuanced view. Specifically, that the work of these and other innovators was a pitched battle against entrenched interests, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. Piling on over time, this combined force of new ideas served to finally undermine the power of outdated institutions and allow for something new to be built on a firmer foundation. That something new was most clearly expressed in the new world of the New World.

Moby-Dick Heman MelvilleMoby Dick is undoubtedly one of the finest works of American literature and one I only came to appreciate in the last couple of years. The notion of facing a task so daunting that it can’t truly be described speaks to the idea of looking at a wilderness and seeing our place, however unlikely, in the midst of it. And not as Manifest Destiny but woven in as part of the very fabric of everything that wilderness encompasses.

Leaves of Grass Walt WhitmanWhile poetry has rarely found a place on my reading list, Lewis Mumford caused me to read The Leaves of Grass for the first time (another embarrassing fact). There is, indeed, a way of speaking of the American Way which is sorely missing from today’s mindless bloviating by politicians and pundits. We should be proud, not ashamed of our America.

America, by Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

 

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The Early Prints of Jim Nutt

My first conversation with Jim Nutt was regrettably brief and took place a few years ago. Star-struck at meeting an artist I have admired for over 30 years, I was tongue-tied and did not take advantage of the situation to have a real conversation. Instead, I simply mentioned that as much as I admire his portraits they were out of my price range. So my focus was on his many small prints done in the 1970’s. He smiled and agreed that those early works were, in some ways, as interesting as his current paintings.

Last year I enjoyed a more in-depth discussion with Mr. Nutt. After reminding him of our previous encounter, Nutt graciously agreed to answer a few questions. First I mentioned his earlier comment about his prints versus his paintings. Surprised, he was quick to say that he did not remember making that comment and it was in no way a standard response. He diplomatically added that each body of work belonged to a particular place in his thinking and that, perhaps, it might be better to describe the works as distinct rather than better or worse.

Then I shared my observation of the similarities between his recent portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci. This idea was based on an unexpected encounter with both a Da Vinci on display for the first time since the 1960’s from a private collection in France and a retrospective of Nutt’s oeuvre at the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago. Having stumbled over the Da Vinci at the Art Institute on a Thursday afternoon (where I stood enthralled for so long a museum guard asked, “is everything okay?”). That same evening at the CAM show found me comparing the many portraits by Nutt with the Virgin and Child on display at the Institute.

There followed a back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, where Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. And he also noted his disappointment at having missed the chance to see the Da Vinci painting. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.

Now, on to the small prints. The selection of works I’ve been exploring begin with an etching from 1967/1968 titled “Gay Nurse” and end with an etching from 1977 tagged “oh! my goodness(NO NO). A total of 30 etchings and three lithographs were printed during this period. One enigma is that some were printed in Chicago and others in California with some printed in short editions at both places, starting with “Gay Nurse.” Only the final four prints in this group saw editions of more than 20 copies, with many seeing only five to ten.

Additionally, many editions included one or two of the impressions being hand colored, or even cutout and reassembled. Within single editions there could also be a variety of paper types in different colors. There is even a print I’ve seen with the mat cut to match the contours (very ragged) of the deckled edges of the paper (very handsome). All of these interesting variations make it a bit challenging to compare and date the individual works, even within the same editions.

The remainder of our talk revolved around the reasons for the many editions, the challenges of finding like-minded printers, the use of students (for a couple of the lithographs) and the relationship of a couple of the prints to the paintings being produced during this period. My work to aggregate these fascinating facts and stats is currently underway.

Though some of the prints feature imagery that is a bit too strong for my taste, and unlikely to be added to my growing collection, all are worth a careful look. And it has been interesting to find works that I enjoyed as reproductions proving to be less desirable when finally viewing the originals (especially the more edgy work). Much of this has to do with the quality of the printing, hence my desire to better understand the backstory of who, where and when these prints were put to paper.

We finished our conversation by looking at works by fellow Hairy Who? member, Suellen Rocca, hanging on a nearby wall.

Note: While examples of Nutt’s work can be found in most catalogs and books discussing the work of the Hairy Who? gang in Chicago (including the terrific work by spouse Gladys Nilsson), for a full view of his prints, both before and after the period mentioned above, look to The Chicago Imagist Print, published by the University of Chicago in 1987.

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The Casual Geometry of Sol Lewitt

Sol Lewitt published “Serial Project #1” in an art magazine during 1967. He commented at the time, “The series would be read by the viewer in a linear or narrative manner (12345; AB B C C C; 1 2 3, 3 1 2, 2 3 1, 1 3 2, 2 1 3, 3 2 1) even though in its final form many of these sets would be operating simultaneously, making comprehension difficult.” This description of his thought process would find itself manifested in a mindboggling number of subsequent works over the following decades. Yet it might be argued that underlying this comment is a more revealing interest of Lewitt: A fascination with the Idea of Geometry.

Let’s consider one of Lewitt’s biggest artist’s books (measured by square inches) in defense of this notion. For an exhibition by the Societe des Expositions, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels in the spring of 1974, an 11.5” by 17” folder containing a tri-fold sheet printed on one side was published by the artist. Three geometric figures – a square, circle, and triangle – accompanied by Lewitt’s commentary in three languages – English, French and Flemish – provide a telling artifact. “Location of Three Geometric Figures” offers an engaging set of images accompanied by mind-numbing texts supposedly explaining the drawings.

Lewitt used this combination of texts describing the creation of images extensively for small books, colorful prints, and large wall drawings. Some of the most compelling works from this series embed the text inside and alongside the spaghetti-like tangle of lines and curves that result in revealing basic geometric shapes like circles and triangles. But make no mistake, there is nothing Euclidian about this geometry.

In fact, the text is a wicked indictment of mindless academic pabulum attempting to explain art in intellectual terms. Lewitt creates paragraph-long sentences describing how random and convoluted measurements can be used to create, for example, a simple square. The response of a typical viewer is to ignore the texts and focus on the artwork. An excerpt from the book being discussed explains why:

“…the first of which is drawn from a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square and the upper left corner and the midpoint of the left side to a point halfway between the center of the square and a point halfway between the center of the square the midpoint of the bottom side…”

In other words, forget any explanation of the artist’s possible intentions and focus on the visual impact of the actual drawings. With all the “points from” lines rendered delicately and the final object – square, circle, triangle, etc… – boldly described in black outline, the images overpower the text. It doesn’t take reading but a couple of lines to ignore the words and return to the image. Just as it should be with any type of art, where too often criticism becomes the focus instead of the object.

So, the often-suggested notion of a cold, geometrical approach to making art turns out to be an incorrect assessment of Lewitt’s intentions. Geometry as a theme? Undoubtedly. Mathematics as a key component? Hardly. Once again Lewitt shows himself to be a master of the shaggy-dog joke.

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When geometry becomes art

Euclid’s Elements was one of the first books on mathematics to be printed (Ratdolt Latin Edition, Venice, 1482), and is now thought to be the most widely published book after the Bible. The 1926 essay by Charles Thomas-Stanford clearly demonstrates that while subsequent early editions of Elements might have been graphically enhanced, all decoration and any vignettes were limited to the margins and did not include the visualization of Euclid’s proofs as part of the graphic treatment. The Ratdolt edition was austere in its design and remained the model over the next century. A page from Ratdolt’s 1482 book is included here.

Sebastien Le Clerc is widely regarded as one of the finest draftsmen from 17th century France. At age 31, before seriously pursuing a career in art, Le Clerc published an edition of Elements, Pratique de la Geometrie sur le papier et sur le terrain, Paris, 1669. Though a lifelong aficionado of geometry, living to age 77, his Pratique speaks more to personal aspirations than to elucidating the finer points of Elements. While the example below exhibits an earnest attempt to integrate the proofs into a visually pleasing design, it is no more successful the many works using graphic elements as simple marginalia.

The 20th century saw enthusiasm for the Elements wane as these teachings were integrated into books covering the entire spectrum of mathematics. Still considered a required component of any complete education, contemplation of the individual proofs has seemingly lost the magic to inspire. In fact, the bifurcation of text and image of Euclid’s work in recent books on mathematics tends to diminish the opportunity for easy understanding, especially for some of the more challenging proofs.

As Sol Lewitt began his assault on traditional definitions of what constitutes a work of art, it is possible he considered Elements a source of inspiration. In the early 1970s Lewitt began a series of work that used the basic tenants of Euclid’s proofs as a visual complement to passages of text satirizing the overblown verbal nonsense of post-modern intellectual commentary on the meaning of art. Whether Elements actually played a role in the development of Lewitt’s visual vocabulary cannot be clearly demonstrated, yet an example from 1974 is offered in support of this idea.

Perhaps most intriguing is the possibility that Euclid considered visual explication of the points, lines, angles and planes to be equally, or even more valuable, than commentary. The paucity of words used to describe each element might be a vindication of this notion. That Lewitt would use points, lines, angles and planes as his fundamental artistic palette suggests a similarity of thinking worthy of consideration (all books from the author’s collection).

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