FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DE KOONING DINE FRANCIS FRANKENTHALER JOHNS LICHTENSTEIN
MOTHERWELL RUSCHA STELLA THIEBAUD WARHOL
May 20 July 10, 2006
Leslie Sacks Fine Art
11640 San Vicente Blvd. (Brentwood), Los Angeles, CA 90049
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(l.) Jasper Johns, "Two Flags (Whitney Anniversary)", 1980, lithograph, 50 x 33 7/8 inches.
(r.) Roy Lichtenstein, "Picture and Pitcher", 1981, woodcut, 25 1/8 x 17 inches.
American art has long been characterized by a penchant for realism. This exhibition seeks to suggest the parameters thereof. To put this another way, how far out can you take it and still keep it real?
The roots of American realism date back to the Colonial Era, beginning with the portraits and narrative paintings of John Singleton Copley, and subsequently to the Hudson River School of landscape painting when 19th century America was largely about consolidating its geo- political identity and reveling in the discovery of new found vistas. At the turn of the 20th century, the Ashcan School sought to portray the unembellished reality of everyday American life. Modern times have given us Social Realism, which emerged from the socio-economic struggles of the Great Depression, and more recently photo and hyper-realism, as the pendulum swung full back from the abstract expressionism of the New York School.
While the foregoing is an oversimplification, it does provide a quick sketch of a profound and enduring tradition of realism in American art a realism that has encompassed both content and style. If this preoccupation with realism is indeed such a pervasive characteristic of American art, how is this reflected in the work of modern and contemporary American masters?
For purposes of discussion, the American masters included in this exhibition may be placed into two categories: abstract and representational; works that depart from physical appearance and those that reflect it. Ironically, the works of Willem De Kooning, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, though thoroughly abstract in appearance, are very much about reality: the reality of the artist’s visceral or metaphysical motivation; the distilled, essential reality of the subject; and/or the material reality of the art work itself as opposed to the use of art work as a vehicle for representational illusion.
Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, though radically different in style from the abstract expressionists seemingly, their diametric opposites were also and equally concerned with the reality of art itself. Lichtenstein’s subjects are always crisply rendered images of people, objects or environments, but done with exaggerated benday dots (the tiny dots that make up offset lithographically printed imagery, such as magazine and newspaper pictures) or other patterns that clearly identify his works as pictorial representations rather than attempts to recreate the actual appearance of things. Using the opposite approach to reach the same end, Warhol employed photographic images of his subjects (in this show, the American dancer, Martha Graham) and as he did with Marilyn and Mao among others, added colors with little or no relationship to the physical reality of the subject and thereby clearly identified the reality of his photo based images as art works, more so than being merely novel documentation of that which they would seem to represent. And so, the masters of American Pop (and this was an American movement) used an ironic twist in conveying the straight forward reality of their subjects while underscoring the reality of their art works as being just that. What could be more real?
Thiebaud’s pictures synthesize the concerns of both the abstract expressionists and pop artists discussed above, especially his cakes with their thick impasto frosting, as these deal with both the reality of working with paint and the physical (“real”) appearance of the subject. It should also be noted that Thiebaud is a master of landscape and thus retains a connection with the history of American landscape painting. Similarly Johns, with his deeply textural handling of paint (and graphic references thereto) is a bridge between abstract expressionism and the everyday reality which characterizes pop art subjects. His Two Flags (Whitney Museum Anniversary) lithograph from 1980 clearly references the reality of painting, with readily apparent brushstrokes, and drips that read like gouache or watercolor obviously not an attempt to create the illusion of a real flag though, ironically, the repetition of the otherwise unmodified flag reinforces a sense of its conventional reality.
Rucsha’s signature works most frequently feature words (concepts and ideas) as main subjects, as if they are people or buildings set in three dimensional spaces, oftentimes landscapes. His pictures are, however, skillfully painted with immense respect for the straightforward physical appearance of nature, so there’s a keen balance and dynamic tension between the reality (read truth) of ideas and the more readily apparent beauty of worldly experience. Stella’s work is certainly concerned with the reality of concepts and ideas, his early work having evolved from the internal logic of geometric forms as they existed on a defined surface plane (the picture), and his more recent Imaginary Places series being an example of his concern with landscape, albeit those of his own abstract invention. Indeed, the outrageous colors in these recent works are bright enough to rival those of the most lurid tropical fish, and combined as they are with an overwhelmingly complex and disassociated “mapping” of fanciful geographies, Stella has taken realism to its furthest extremes; in fact, to its ultimate deconstruction.
So, American realism survives in the work of modern and contemporary masters whose vision presents challenges not unlike those faced by the United States since the mid 20th century in seeking to redefine the reality of the American Dream.