Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pat Passlof at WCU's Fine Art Museum and Black Mountain Collge Museum

The world is a hard complex place to navigate. In this respect, the art world is as impenetrable to some, as the Amazon rainforest. Moods and tastes are changing on a seasonal basis, celebrity and spectacle are the ever consuming product churned out by media savvy oligarchs and recycled as yesterdays pop culture by thousands of artists. The word art has been redefined so many times, so as to encompass virtually anything and everything the mind can provide with a reasonable amount of substance. Damien Hirst was heard saying that his medium today is money, a line that would make Warhol blush, and as such he retooled the moral impetus of art and artists everywhere yet again. The art market is the biggest totally unregulated market in the world right now and it shares a spot in the sunlight with student loan debt as being the biggest bubble about to burst any day now, the way it did in the 1980’s. It’s a vicious cycle, one that seems to have no end. But all things must come to an end sometime, even good things.

This is the backdrop against which we must understand the present Pat Passlof exhibition, a joint venture between the Fine Art Museum in Cullowhee and Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville. Nothing can be more clich├ęd and untrue as sounding out nostalgic odes to the “simpler” past and yet it is a psychological tactic that keeps the mind anchored within a comfortable vantage point from which it can survey its surroundings. And so it is with this exhibition. What we are looking at, are paintings, plain and simple. Before delving into aesthetic specifics, it’s probably a good idea to understand that the concept of painting has several implications.

First it proposes that one need to paint and only paint to provide a message to an audience, an idea noble and authentic and flawed and feeble at the same time.

Second, it presents paintings in a specific context, the museum space. Again the above must be repeated because our understanding of a work of art doesn’t necessarily depend on its placement. A work of art functions as well in a park, a living room, a sprawling desert, on a mountaintop or inside someone’s mind. Painting in this respect takes a position of a vanguard of this specific context of a museum setting. It is truly the only place where such a work can be enjoyed by everyone, or at least by those that came to see it.

Third, a painting’s function is in its immediacy, an object to be consumed but also an object to change a space and by this virtue to change our perception of that space.

Fourth, it espouses tradition. Through historical analysis a painting is suggestive of a set of guidelines which can either be followed or dismissed. When and where is a painting a painting? Does it need to stay within the confines of a canvas? I will leave such questions for a different conversation entirely. But I do feel that addressing or at least asking them can turn them into prudent qualifiers for Ms. Passlof’s work. Beauty and design can be put aside entirely and yet we can see that her work functions on all levels mentioned above.

Passloff was one of the last Abstract Expressionist painters, and although she might take issue with that title, it is more than apparent that her paintings have all the vestiges of Abstract Expressionist paintings. The exhibition is a veritable stroll down memory lane in which we can see, decade by decade Passlof’s influences from which she worked. Paintings like Escalator, 1949 and Yardstick, 1949 bear resemblance to the work of early AbEx painters like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Muted tones in shades of gray and amorphous linear compositions also play on surrealist techniques.

Woman, 1949 bears witness to both the style of early AbEx painting and is an obvious homage to Passlof’s biggest influence Willem DeKooning. It was the meeting with DeKooning that marked Passlosf’s turning point toward broad brushed abstraction of layered thickly applied paint. In her paintings the convention is similar to DeKooning’s, but she opted to remain purely abstract, to leave out all remains of figuration and chose colors that marked her own sensibilities. The shining examples from this era are the exquisitely sumptuous What is Rome,1960 and Sky Pasture, 1961. Though wonderful paintings, they are still not detached from the overbearing influence of action painting.

The 1970’s and 1980’s are represented by 5 paintings in the exhibit and are much too muddied by Passlof’s desire to break from her earlier work and influence. These are also the least successful paintings. These decades must have found Passlof working hard on understanding her position and creating a voice within an art world dominated by the cold ruminations of minimalism, expansive sublimations of environmental art and bumbling arbitrariness of emerging graffiti and street art.

The 1990’s finally brought Passlof to an era of unprecedented creativity as if she finally shed the skin of Abstract Expressionism, all except the heroic scale, bringing her up to par with her contemporaries. Beside the Rothenberg-like horse paintings, the last two decades of Passlof’s life resulted in some wonderful pictures, a language which would turn her into an influence as opposed to the influenced.

Of note is the fact that Passlof never turned to political commentary, something which she adamantly denounced in her Manifesto. Ironically her stance on politics and desire to keeping art clean of any vestiges of conceptual and political forms, make it into a political one nonetheless. What can be more political than a manifesto? One can say that a total denial of something is just as much an affirmation of it, and so it is with Passlof’s work. When looking at her paintings, grouped together, keeping in mind her position as a woman artist surrounded by a cadre of male painters, one cannot but come away with a feeling that her work is somehow politicizing or at least has been politicized by these facts.

Beauty comes to mind before anything else however. It is really hard to think of anything else when confronted by a ten foot canvas with lush strokes of blues, purples and reds. However there must be some distinction between the beauty conveyed by the plastic beauty of the paint and natural beauty. Passlof is not very concerned with translating anything other than the beauty inherent in the pigment of her paint. All reference to natural objects seems to be eliminated, giving space rather to unconsciously driven ephemera that are painted in with vivid strokes of color. It is a world In which color and paint take precedence over representation and yet we are still reminded of skies, landscapes, forests and meadows. As far as the mind is concerned, a symbol is the most powerful conveyor of information. And color, can be one of simplest and yet most complex of symbols. Just think of the color red and the imagery that come flooding in once the mind focuses on the symbolism associated with it.

With Passlof gone, an era definitely ended. Action painting and concern with accidental revelations, discovery of the self through the outpouring of paint on a canvas, brought to a conclusion. This two part show however, is a grand gesture, a high note with which to go out.


  1. How are we looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko these days?
    Is he old hat, replaced in America by more contemporary concerns? Looking at his minimal canvases and their enticing floating squares of subdued paint live at the MOMA recently, I had to stop to wonder whether he still communicates to a modern and younger audience.
    Wahooart.com, the site that sells good canvas prints to order from their database of digital images, has many Rothko prints. I ordered this one, Blue and grey, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8BWU7F
    , that I have now hanging in my study. I can spend a long time looking at this elusive image that takes me to some other place not in this world.

  2. This question would be best answered in a completely separate blog post, but I think that in some respects Rothko's work has entered a realm of "classical" painting. What I mean by this is that his work should be considered in the context in which it was made, the way that we look at Picasso, Velasques, Leonardo, etc. What this means is that the work has become an archetypal expression for and era and it's specific concerns.
    I have to be honest here and say that Rothko has always been one of my favorite painters. His work touches a certain strand of artistry that was seldom achieved by other artists. Whether it was as a result of his spiritual concerns or the mediation of his images I have no idea (for an artist to be truly great and famous, a certain amount of media glorification is necessary, there are many for whom only the latter is needed as is the case with much contemporary artificially inflated art).
    But just like a Leonardo doesn't necessarily speak to our time, because he is simply not of our time, in Rothko like in Leonardo the visual clues are enough to keep the work relevant. I still see the same colored rectangle within a differently colored rectangle method being rehashed through many media. It is not something that is going to go away any time soon.
    But nobody can ever paint another Rothko, just like nobody could ever paint another Leonardo. The contemporary concern is changeable, and influences come and go. Performance, kinetic and conceptual art, pop surrealism, these things have a way in which they communicate with the past, at least that is the theory. I do find that many new artists lack the necessary background in art history to truly ground them in what they are doing.
    To sum up the above, Rothko is still relevant, and he may be old hat, but only in the same way that Mondrian is old hat, or Duchamp. Art cannot move forward unless it has an eye toward the past.