by Claire Cushman, MFA 2015
“Artists have a limited amount of studio time, so we have to be selective about which shows to see,” says Peter Drake, Academy Dean and curator of Beautiful Beast.“I envision going to shows as part of an artist’s studio practice – and seeing shows that don’t inspire you is like losing time in the studio. With any show at the Academy, it’s important that the work presented gets people back to their studios wanting to make art.”During the February 3rd opening of Beautiful Beast, it was clear from guests’ reactions that this show had succeeded in inspiring artists. I overheard more than one guest remark, “This is THE BEST show the Academy’s ever put on.”Beautiful Beast brings together 16 of the most compelling and influential figurative sculptors of our era. With wildly different visions, materials, and processes, the artists in this show slip back and forth between the beautiful and the grotesque. The works, which range in material from carved wood to stainless steel, foam rubber to video installation, ask audiences to question the meaning of these two paradigms and all that lies between.
During the OpeningLast week, I sat down with Peter Drake to discuss three of the pieces that caught my eye and left ME itching to get back to the studio.Although Beautiful Beast is a sculpture show, Lesley Dill’s 2D wall installation, “Rush” was the first piece Drake thought of for the show. “Often sculpture shows can feel monotonous, because there tend to be a lot of works of roughly the same height,” he says. “This piece, which covers the whole wall, activates the space so that anything happening in the rest of the room becomes part of a spectacle.”In “Rush” a small metal cutout of a seated figure occupies the left corner of the wall. Hundreds of different cutouts pour forth from his back, overlapping and flowing into one another in a cloud of swirling imagery. Dill grew up in Maine, and says the vastness and grey luminosity of the sea has stayed with her and influenced her work in metal.Dill sees the small figure as one of us. The work deals with the limitlessness and wonder of the creative impulse, and the need to just get ideas out of one’s system. She based the piece around a Kafka quote:“The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free to myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I’m here, that is quite clear to me…”“This figure needs to have this purging experience in order to live and survive,” says Drake. “There’s a rush of cultural activity exploding out of him –Indonesian art, European art, American art, Mexican art – all these different icons of creativity.”The overall effect of this piece is one of overwhelming beauty combined with frustration and confusion at this cloud of ideas. Just as the viewer can’t parse the imagery out into discrete units, as artists, we often don’t know quite what it is we’re trying to make or say, just that we need to get it out.In the far corner of Wilkinson Hall stands Folkert de Jong’s “The Piper.” Its placement in the corner is no accident – with playful, candy colours and an enticing variety of materials, The Piper is incredibly seductive from afar. “It acts as a magnet and pulls people into the space,” Drake says.De Jong creates an entire world out of cheap materials such as polyurethane and Styrofoam. “Many of his pieces are anti-war themed,” Drake explains. “He does something that few people can do – he makes very powerful social statements, but you don’t feel like you’re being preached to.”The pipers de Jong refers to are the musicians employed to encourage soldiers into battle. “The piper is both musical and beautiful, but for a very destructive purpose,” says Drake. “The head of this sculpture is based on Abraham Lincoln – a strange contradiction, considering that Lincoln was a crusader for peace.”While this piece immediately draws you in, up close, it’s downright frightening. The range of textures is at once gorgeous and repulsive, with wax that depicts flesh peeling away in some areas. The body is the size of a human form, but the swollen looking head is larger than life, and leans forward toward the viewer. If you stand right in front of the sculpture, you feel as though it might to topple over onto you, invoking a harrowing physical experience.Monica Cook crafted“Snowsuit” specifically for Beautiful Beast. It began as a smaller figure, but grew to life size as she worked. “She had in mind the idea of shedding the skin, the rebirth and renewal that you must do in order to grow as a person,” says Drake. “But she was adamant about not leaving the skin behind looking like some discarded thing – she wanted to construct it in a confident posture.”At first this piece, with its furs and zippers, reminded me of a piece of clothing I might see in a winter couture show. However, after spending some time with it I began to feel a bit sick. Cook incorporated flesh coloured pigment into the resin, which reminds the viewer of human skin. The scale of the piece makes it impossible not to think of our own bodies while viewing the piece, and the large chunks of the legs, arms and torso are cut away to reveal what looks like a layer of viscera and organs. I couldn’t help but think of “Silence of the Lambs” suit made of skin.Monica Cook was originally thought of as a painter, but has undergone massive transformations as an artist. “She started making sculptures for stop action animation, so she had to learn all these new techniques at the same time,” says Drake. “This piece is about her journey as a creative person – she’s constantly learning and trying on new things, becoming expert at them and moving on.”While the opening certainly succeeded in inspiring Academy students and viewers alike to get back to the studio and make things, it also provided a fantastic opportunity for the artists in the show to meet each other. “Many of them have had work in shows together or followed one another’s work over the years, but have never met in person,” says Drake. “So there was a really nice energy in bringing them together.”Beautiful Beast is on view daily in Wilkinson Hall until March 8th, 2015.
By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015)
Will Cotton stands before a medium sized canvas, blank but for a few brown marks he’s laid in for measurements. He lazily wipes his paintbrush on his apron, which was once white but is now splattered with brown and red paint. “This is my rag,” he tells us. His voice is clear and his manner relaxed, and although it’s Saturday morning, students hang on his every word. The apron, plus his thick-framed glasses and leather combat boots, lend Will a hipster-butcher look.
Coconut Cake, 2013
But Will is more of a baker than a butcher. He has created a world of dream-like, candy-confection-landscapes, often inhabited by human subjects, and is best known for his highly rendered oil paintings. However, his world extends far beyond the canvas. Over three weekends in November of 2009, he installed a pop-up French bakery/art installation at Partners & Spade, where he baked and sold confections that often serve as visual reference for his paintings. In 2010, he directed Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” music video, (again based around imagery from his paintings, which Perry was attracted to). In 2011, Will created “Cockaigne,” a scrumptious-smelling performance piece employing both ballet and burlesque to celebrate whipped cream and cotton candy.
Initially, Will strove to make art that came out of an awareness of the commercial consumer landscape we live in. He studied at the Academy in the late eighties, (when it was still on Lafayette Street), and after graduating began to develop a language in which the landscape itself – filled with candies and cakes – became the object of desire. In the early 2000s, nude or nearly nude figures began to populate these scenes. “These paintings are all about a very specific place,” he says. “It's a utopia where all desire is fulfilled all the time, meaning ultimately that there can be no desire, as there is no desire without lack.”
Will in his StudioDAY 1 - DRAWINGAlthough his paintings seem “photorealistic,” Will always paints from life, so we work from a model for the duration of the two-day Master Class. “Life drawing seems to communicate to people more,” he says, as he begins his demonstration. “Even if I don’t get a likeness, it’s just more powerful. I always, always have a subject in front of me.”
He starts sketching out the model’s face and chest in raw umber, which he prefers as a drawing color because it dries quickly and is relatively transparent. “I like to compartmentalize,” he continues. “I put the structure down first, and then allow myself to move on to color… I think about John Singer Sargent, how he’d just kinda slap it on, and maybe be smoking and chatting while painting… I'm certainly no John Singer Sargent.”
“I begin with just the paint and turpentine because I don’t want it to get all slippery at the start,” he explains. At this early stage, he focuses on light, shadow, and contour, and is careful to point out that “contour includes the contours between light and shadow.”
As he draws, Will takes measurements and constantly corrects his work. “Drawing is all about being honest and not making assumptions. I’m always comparing between what I’m seeing and what I’m doing, and asking myself “what’s different?”” He pulls out a makeup sponge – “These things are great for erasing,” – and wipes away the lines of the model’s mouth. “It’s easy to think of the mouth as a flat structure, but we have to remind ourselves it’s curved.”
Most of Will’s paintings are very large, so a student asks how he draws out his compositions for larger pieces. “Usually I use like a 22x30 piece of paper and draw it out… and then I take a slide to project it,” he answers. “I cheat as much as possible…” He pauses. “Actually, I don’t think there is a cheating – the only thing that bothers me a bit is when I see people painting over photo printouts. There’s something I find a bit off-putting about that. But short of that, throughout all of history people have done whatever they can to get that image up there.”Without rules in painting, it’s easy to look around and wonder, “What do I paint?” So it’s incredibly important for artists (of any sort, really) to give themselves constraints to work within. Constraints can be physical (like limiting your palette, tools, or surfaces), or conceptual, wherein you limit your subject matter somehow. Will does both, and the end result is highly specific and unique.
I’m curious about how Will sets the rules for his world, so when he makes his way over to my canvas, I inquire about it. “Well,” he says, “The world I create is probably not a healthy one… It’s made of sweets, and humans live there, and probably die there, too.” Currently he’s gotten a little tired of painting nudes, so he’s been working on a lot of costumes. “I can’t paint people in regular clothes, because that wouldn’t make sense to me… So I’m painting costumes made of candy wrappers. I ask myself a lot of questions - would there be cellophane in this world? Yes, because candy wrappers are made of cellophane. Would there be cotton clothing? No. Burlap? Yes. I just make logical conclusions and follow a thread, and one thing leads to the next.”He looks at my painting, and reminds me not to let the paint get sloppy. “Use less turp – just go straight in with the paint for now, don’t let it get all inky or it’ll be less controllable.”After five hours of painting, before the final hour of the day, Will has us all introduce some lead white. “It’s particularly nice to add lead white under the flesh.”Will's Demo PaintingDAY 2 - COLORWill has a very limited palette, and Day 2 is all about how to use it. “These colors play well together,” he says, and he finds he can get pretty much any color he needs out of this group. “It’s a very obedient palette."Will’s Palette: (All Old Holland brand)
-Titanium White – for opacity and strength (usually for highlights)
-Magenta – (Quinecridone) – Will likes it for its coolness and vibrancy
-Cadmium Orange – With this and Magenta, you can mix any red you like
-Cadmium Yellow Light
-Delft Blue – this is a “middle” blue, so you can take it anywhere you want (ie towards green or towards purple). Will hates phthalos (monster-weed colors, far too strong), and ultramarine is too purple
-Ivory black –Will mostly uses the black for background, to represent a kind of dead zone or nothingness. Also, black and yellow make much more natural greens than blue and yellowFor demonstration purposes, he mixes his colors right on the canvas, in blobs at top, using different brushes for light and shadow. “I mix on the fly, all with a brush, because most of my colors are “ish” colors. I have to adjust constantly, so it doesn’t make sense to pre-mix with a palette knife,” he explains.
Many of us were surprised by the lack of earth colors (oxides, umbers, ochres) in Will’s palette, because his paintings contain a lot of browns and flesh tones. “I use oranges, blues, and whites to create my browns,” he explains.
The Deferred Promise of Complete Satisfaction, 2014
Will spends a lot of time looking at the subtle differences in color across surfaces of skin. “Light on flesh tends to get cooler and greener,” he says, “so I often go for yellow and blue when going for light in the flesh.”
Perhaps the most important formula any Academy painting student will learn during their two years is this: when the light mass is warm, the shadow mass is cool, and vice versa. However, what really makes a painting “sing” is the subtle temperature differences in “reflected light,” within the shadow mass.
“I love reflected light. It’s just my favourite thing… What happens in between light and shadow – that’s what’s really interesting, what pays off – it's more important than the color of the light mass,” he says. “See how this shadow color changes from blue to orange on the breast?” Considering how well-rendered Will’s paintings are, what surprised me most about him was his aggressive facture. “The great thing about doing an under-painting is that it preserves the drawing,” he says. With the drawing intact, he can absolutely attack the canvas when he introduces color. “I just put paint on and move it around until it looks right. I’m also not shy at all about taking it OFF.” He takes 3-inch wide bristle brush and pulls paint across the whole form. “I’m not a big believer in the sanctity of the mark,” he says, slashing through the paint he’s put down. He steps back to assess, and then lunges at the painting again, like a fencer. “You may mess it up by doing this, but it creates complexity. If you just blend along the line you get tubes and sausages. If you do it with a big brush, you get weird little skin-like things happening.”
Many times during my second year at the Academy I’ve been reminded to “cover my tracks” – that is, not let my viewer see how I’ve made a painting. A painting can lose some of its magic if the viewer can say “Here’s exactly how I would make that” and imagine themselves recreating the work. It was a treat to get an inside look at Will’s process, and to see just how he goes from blank canvas to his highly realized, dreamlike candy land. Will Cotton is a baker, a painter, and in this respect, a true magician.###Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) is a painter and Social Media scholar with a penchant for blogging. Check in on the Academy's blog to read more entries from Claire throughout the year.
People often tell Cecily Brown that she paints like a man from the fifties. Her response? “Well, somebody’s got to do it."
Her large-scale, remarkably tactile oil paintings hover at the intersection between abstraction and figuration, and are often compared to Abstract Expressionist works. Based on the aggressive way she puts down paint and her star status in the art world, one might assume Cecily Brown would be a little intimidating in person.
And you can see why I might be intimidated.
(Cecily in Vanity Fair, 2000)However, when Cecily arrived at the Academy two days before Halloween, I immediately felt at ease. She has a warm smile and kind way of speaking, and carried a shopping bag filled with her five-year-old daughter’s Halloween costume. As we rode the elevator to the fourth floor, I asked her what her daughter was going to be – “A fox,” she answered. “My husband and I are dressing up as the parent foxes… My daughter’s been talking about it for the entire year.”Cecily came to the Academy to conduct critiques as part of the visiting critics program. Critiques are just what you would imagine - other artists entering your studio and giving you feedback about your work. Sometimes the process is inspiring and encouraging, and sometimes it’s downright deflating. Every critic has something unique to say – some inspire new ideas, others help resolve specific technical issues, and some leave an artist feeling confused and overwhelmed. It’s not unusual to receive back-to-back critiques that completely contradict one another. Although critiques can be frustrating at times, critiques help artists clarify their direction, because they force us to choose what advice to listen to and what to tune out.***After looking around my studio for a few seconds, Cecily asks me was what kind of paint I use. I show her my paints, which include a variety of brands, and some large tubes of Winton, Winsor Newton’s student grade brand.“Okay,” she says. “First thing – don’t use Winton. Ever. It’s so shit. It’s just waxy and awful and ruins everything. I think it might be impossible to make a good painting using Winton.”She then zeroes in on a large painting I’d done in my Painting 3 class of a nude model sitting with a dog, (a life sized German Shepard stuffed animal, to be exact). “What’s that red there? And this green thing?” she asks, pointing to an area behind the model. I explain that this is a painting of meat, (by Academy third year fellow Shangkai Kevin Yu), which we’d set up behind the model. The green is a cactus. “Hmm. This is my favorite part,” says Cecily. “The most interesting part is the most obscure part, where you can’t quite tell what’s going on.” She pauses, and then continues. “I would just paint right over the figure… But of course, I would say that,” she laughs.Brown creates a unique aesthetic reality by working with a constant conflict between her desire to paint the figure, and her refusal to allow the figure to remain. “I never want to be saying “this is the way it is” – when I feel like I’m naming something in too final a way, or it’s too pinned down, that’s when I feel I have to say “but is it really like that?”She moves on to another painting, a work in progress that had begun as three figures in a forest but is starting to resemble a cow. She points to an area at the bottom right, a purpleish blob that I hadn’t really considered. “This is like Francis Bacon’s rabid dog,” she says. “Go with that.”As Brown paints, she both imposes her will upon the painting, and lets the painting tell her what it needs. “There’s always another story going on that’s not the main story – look at the way these marks are coming together,” again, referring to the dog. “It’s subtle, but may be more important than the rest.” She urges me to squint, and look at the painting in a “gentle” way. “What might be there that you’re not immediately seeing?”
Don't Bring me Down, 2011I ask her about appropriating from other artists. “Oh yeah, I take figures from art history and use them… Like I’ll take a Goya figure, and then a Bacon figure… But it’s important to mix it up between artists so it doesn’t become too derivative,” she says.The old adage goes, “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” and Cecily Brown has no shame in stealing. “I have been looking at Munch and Beckmann,” she says. “I find as I get more assured of the fact that I can paint, I don’t mind letting my influences show.”Brown is most drawn to figurative paintings from the past. Her influences are mostly very old dead male painters – Brueghel, Bosch, Goya, Titian, Rubens… “These are people who I’ve loved for years, and I get so much out of – they seem very much alive to me,” she has said. But of course, she also tends to paint like a man from the twentieth century. She loves Beckmann, Bacon, Baselitz, de Kooning, Guston… and many German painters. “I consider myself an honorary German painter,” she says. Much has been made over the fact that Cecily Brown is a woman working in this aggressive, male way of painting, but she’s said this isn’t really of much importance to her. “Inevitably it’s got a feminine point of view because I’m a female, but studio is one place I’m not really conscious of my gender... I’ve never set out to do x as a woman - you just do your work.”I’m curious about Cecily’s process, so ask her about how she begins a painting. “I just start,” she answered. “I never do any kind of prep – I just go right into it. Sometimes I make drawings about halfway through… but not usually.” Cecily doesn’t start with a clear idea of what a painting will look like, and usually begins by laying down a wash of colour. A form is suggested very quickly, and then she responds to what the painting is giving her. “I don’t have the angst that some people do in front of a white canvas, the problems for me start later. I begin, I don’t know what’s going to happen, I see what’s going to happen based on first few marks. It’s a very organic process.” She recommends working on several canvasses as a time, and seeing how they influence each other. “I’m more focused when I’m more spread out.” Brown in her studio“I think you need to bring some areas more into focus, and clarify parts of the abstractions,” she tells me. She looks at my most recent painting, of three figures on horseback in a landscape. “It’s a bit muddy at the front. All this green is the same, and the head of this figure is clear but then it kind of dissolves into mud. If you add something at the front to clarify it, maybe some red, that could help. Have you looked at Delacroix? He’s great at that.” She continues. “You don’t want the left and right to be the same.” She advises me to look at every corner of the painting and make sure it’s different. “And try bringing different tempos to your painting,” she comments. “Paint really fast one day, and then go back in and paint some areas slowly, more carefully.” Brown tends to paint quite quickly and frenetically, but that comes after a long time of sitting, staring at the paintings, trying to get clues as to how to proceed. “I spend a lot of time of looking slowly so that I can paint quickly.”***The goal in the second year at the Academy is to develop a cohesive body of work to present to the world. I think a lot of people who don’t make art on a regular basis assume that a given artist has a natural “style” or way of making things, and that that’s just the way it is. In reality, though, the more skill you have, the more options you have available to you, and the more you might feel like you can be 50 different artists doing 50 completely different things. For example, I’m mostly doing abstract painting these days, but took a master class with Will Cotton last weekend and made a the most rendered portrait I’ve ever painted.The “cohesion” factor comes from making conscious decisions about what to emphasize and what to let go of in one’s work. This semester, I’ve begun to realize that what I’m best at and most interested in is working in a fairly intuitive manner. When I start a painting with a rigid idea of how I want it to look at the beginning, and follow this program through to the end, my work tends to look lifeless, or “choked up,” as my thesis advisor commented. As trite as it may sound, I am learning that my strength comes when I am able to let go, and follow my intuition. I found having Cecily Brown come into my studio incredibly helpful, because she had specific formal ways to approach this sort of painting. Cecily is an inspiring example of an artist who works in this way, but whose work still demands a tremendous amount of rigor. Her decisions are still highly formal and aesthetically based. Although she certainly throws paint around, she isn’t just throwing it around for the sake of it. She may not have a map when she begins, but trusts that she’ll be able to figure out the painting as she goes along.
You may have heard of “Take Home a Nude” and wondered whether this annual fundraising auction featured dates with the New York Academy of Art’s nude life models. Allow me to clarify – Take Home a Nude, wherein academy students, alumni, and other artists donate works to raise money for Academy Scholarships and programming, first took place at the Academy in 1992 – and the name stems from the fact that most of the work created by Academy artists at that time featured, well, Nudes.
This year’s 23rd annual Take Home a Nude took place on October 9th at Sotheby’s. Although today’s Academy students still spend a minimum of twelve hours a week drawing from the nude figure during their first year, the work showcased at Take Home a Nude this year included a wide range of subjects, from abstracted elephants and minotaurs to chandeliers and seashells. Of the 184 lots featured, (including work by Will Cotton, Alex Kanevsky, Vincent Desidirio, and Laurie Simmons, to name only a few) there were around 50 nudes – and the definition of what constitutes a “nude” is a loose one. Some of my favorite pieces were butt cheek prints by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, “Black Bottoms.”
Black Bottoms, by Tim Noble and Sue WebsterArtwork hung in four galleries. Guests including Brooke Shields and Mary Kate Olsen perused the walls from 6-9 for the silent auction. At 9 pm, Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s and firecracker auctioneer Gabriela Palmieri opened the floor to a live auction, where she charmed guests into bidding just a little higher for each work. By the end of the night, $900k was raised to benefit the Academy’s scholarships and programming.
Before the night kicked off, I interviewed Ms. Palmieri about her involvement with the Academy, Take Home a Nude, her work at Sotheby’s and her love of art in general. Here is our conversation.
Gabriela working the crowdCC: You’re part of the Academy’s president's Advisory Council and a big supporter of the Academy. What led you to support the Academy, and how did you become involved with Take Home a Nude?GP: My dear friend Robby Looker, who was my mentor when I first came to Sotheby’s, introduced me to the Academy in 2007. Then I happened to sit next to Eileen Guggenheim at a luncheon, and I was so impressed with what the Academy stands for. I’m an Academic in training, and I really do celebrate any entity that is so committed to development and learning. Robert invited me to Take Home A Nude when it was still happening down at Phillips, where he was helping hang the installation. Then I asked Eileen if she would consider having Take Home a Nude here at Sotheby’s. She said yes, so I introduced the team. I think we’ve achieved unprecedented success in this format here. This is my third charity auction this week – and it certainly feels like “save the best for last” for me. This is a great crowd, and there’s a huge amount of energy, support and interest coming through here tonight.CC: Well we owe you a big thank you for bringing Take Home a Nude to Sotheby’s! Do you have a favourite Take Home a Nude moment you can think of from over the years?GP: They started doing this thing called “Hot Lots” during the silent auction portion of the evening. On some of the pieces, you start to see a bidding war – it’s as if these vultures begin swarming the works, like out of a Hitchcock movie almost.. . So you take the last bidders, the ones who really want to take home this nude, the last two or three standing, who are now somewhat hostile to one another, and you go into a bid-off. Last year we had a hot-lot that ended up raising an additional fourteen thousand dollars. You can generate a lot more money this way, and it really makes a difference. It also becomes like a spectator sport – it’s this intense rally, and watching it feels like watching the US Open.
Gabriela in front of a Hot Lot pieceCC: Sounds intense! And I imagine the Live Auction is even more so. Can you tell me about what it’s like for you during the Live Auction process?GP: There’s so much hope and anticipation riding on the results, so you feel very responsible. You have this gavel, and there’s something about when you get behind a podium… See, every bid matters, so you certainly want to coax people to keep on bidding, whether it’s through funny banter or a little bit of prodding. But there’s a fine line between that gentle nudge and putting someone on the spot when they’re really done bidding. So there’s a finesse and balance between the two. This is my artistry. It’s a privilege, a pleasure, but a really big responsibility.CC: Sounds stressful. I can’t imagine being in that position! You are also the Vice President of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s - Can you tell me how you came to Sotheby’s?GP: Well, first I completed by PhD in Art History at the University of Chicago. Chicago is an extraordinarily rigorous program that is really steeped in academia, methodology, historiography, and deconstructionist arguments… It’s a fantastic program, and made me into much more of a critical thinker and a better writer. However, being the art romantic I am, I really missed the proximity to the artworks. I had such a need for being around the actual art, that and that’s what landed me here.CC: Not a bad place to be for an art lover. Are you an artist yourself?GP: (laughs) No. I think the creative, artistic mind must skip a generation. My father is a musician, but none of my siblings or I got the creative gene. But I am mesmerized by someone who can pick up whatever implement or instrument – the crayon, the brush, the pencil, the camera – and make something, whether it be abstraction, figuration – it really inspires me. I also love being part of the nurturing process for artists, so that’s why I’m so excited about Take Home a Nude. Here at an auction house, we are a secondary exchange, and don’t get to have any involvement with the actual artists. I love being involved with the Academy because it allows for that nurturing the early stages of an artist’s career.CC: Do you have a particular movement or moment in art history that you’re especially drawn to?GP: I really love any artist who pushes or punctures through the atmosphere of what was done before. So I gravitate towards seismic and defining moments in art history. Say, how radical the New York school of Ab Ex was, or how radical someone like Helen Frankenthaler was with a painting like “Mountains and Sea,” one of the first color field paintings ever painted. And I gravitate toward female artists. You never want to look at something for gender specificity, but there is something to be said for female artists and the challenges they have faced. For someone like Lee Krasner, when Hans Hoffman said of her painting, “this is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.” Honestly I’m a little all over the place because once I see the work, I’m more intellectually, romantically engaged with the subject – because of its history, its context.CC: I’m sure that makes it even more difficult to pick a favorite within contemporary art, then.GP: Yeah. Before I started here at Sotheby’s I was a cataloguer and researcher, and there was a running joke that before I looked at the front of the painting I’d look at the back – I wanted to see where had it been. What shows had it been in? I’m really fascinated by the social life of works.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SENIOR CRITIC JUDY FOX
“It’s hard to say life is small, delicate, and vulnerable unless you can show the real size of life,” says New York Academy of Art’s newest Senior Critic Judy Fox. On September 17th, Fox discussed the presence of abstraction in sculpture with renowned abstract sculptor and Pace artist Joel Shapiro for the Academy's first Art and Culture lecture of the school year. While Shapiro spoke about arriving at meaning through the process of sculpting, Fox explained her highly premeditated way of working. “The emotional effect is one of unattained glory, of someone trying to be something they’re not – a regular person trying to play a grand role,” says Fox, who relies on iconic figures from art or history, as well as a model she’s forced into the iconic pose and photographed. As she works, she observes the inherent tension between the real and the ideal.
The day after the lecture, I went to Fox’s studio to interview her about her work. I removed my shoes at the door, and almost immediately had a layer of silky sculpture dust covering my bare feet. Natural light poured in from a wall of windows, and NPR – which Fox listens to constantly as she works – blasted from the radio. Strange figures stared me down from all over the room – babies on top of cabinets, surrealist mollusks, and a life sized mermaid from her 2012 PPOW show, “Out of Water.” Fox sat sculpting and continued to sculpt for the duration of our conversation.
CC: What are you working on now?JF: This long skinny thing that I’m scratching away at is part of a snake tree, which will be about eight feet tall. It’s a symbol of the temptations that confront Eve. When I think about evolution, and how animals express their sexuality, it’s not often visual – a chimp doesn’t dress up and doesn’t care about esthetics. Eve might represent the dawning of seduction and visual awareness.CC: How does this relate to your other work?
JF: I like to look at mythology, including religion, and think about the psychological and sociological themes that the myths are addressing. I reanalyze myths in a frank, contemporary, science-oriented way. I pillage all of time and civilization, and choose myths wherein the imagery seems to suggest a new interpretation by contemporary standards.
CC: Can you tell me how you arrived at your mollusk sculptures?
JF: I was thinking about evolution as an approach to visualizing the Garden of Eden. So I was reading the bible and I was side tracked by the third day, when the seas were created. I started thinking about primordial muck, primitive life forms, and sea monsters. I was interested in our connection to PRIMATIVE life, and our fear it, fear of monsters… you can see sea monsters at the side of old maps back when people believed the world was flat. These snakey, reptile wormy monsters were the inspiration for the worms. They were fun to make. You have to have a good time.
CC: What source images were you using to create these?
JF: I just worked from magazine and internet pictures, whatever I could get. Cephalopods are very flexible in the flesh, but they do have some anatomy, which I tried to study. I worked out the anatomy but also hybridized them with certain ideas I had, to give them different characters. I was using my ability to invoke human expression, to make them look like a person of one type or another. We are all animals, so we have certain things in common with them. We are fairly related even though not… I wanted to emphasize this ability to empathize across species. I was using form as a way of evoking aspects of human experience in a humorous way. CC: What are you currently reading?
JF: I try to have a novel going… right now I am reading “Benang,” a novel by an Australian aboriginal writer, Kim Scott. I love anthropology of all kinds. That comes with being a figurative artist – you like to learn about the human experience from all sides. I tend to read science magazines and collect information that way. And listen to NPR.
CC: What artists are you looking at historically?
JF: My main stylistic influences/brothers are Northern Renaissance sculptors. I also love High Gothic sculpture, which is much more attentive to individual character. It’s actually kind of easy to make a Renaissance sculpture because all you really need is anatomy and curvilinear resolution. But to actually get all the individual character into it you have to observe a real example of a person. CC: You mentioned during the lecture that you found observing nature more interesting than working from your imagination.
JF: When I was a student, I was once trying to finish up a piece and thought – “I’ll just make up the belly button,” which came out fine. Then the model came in, and damned if her bellybutton wasn’t way more interesting than the one I made! I realized that the act of understanding something is the act of trimming away all the irregularities. So I decided I was going to fight against that and stick to nature. For example, in painting, once you get some idea of what light and shadow looks like, you can probably do it credibly. But you’re never going to be Vermeer that way. There’s just nothing like actually observing real light and the myriad of color reflections. I encourage any artist to work from life. There’s no substitute for going out there and looking at reality.CC: You spoke about trying to create tension between a model’s personality and the role you are trying to fit them into.
JF: In some cases, the model’s personality meshes with the hero or the figure they’re playing – that can work sculpturally, like in Shiva dancing. The model was a very confident, tough little kid – his personality fit very well with the Hindu god shiva, the creator and destroyer. So that worked well for the piece even though it wasn’t a very “tense” outcome. When the models are really different from the role I’m trying to place them into it creates tension, and makes a more poignant outcome. The sculpture becomes more about trying something that’s difficult. Both things are truth. It works in either direction. That said, there are still some pieces that end up more captivating than other pieces in the end.
CC: Do you ever scrap pieces, if you’re not happy with them?
JF: Of course I try to only make pieces that are going to be good because they take me so long to make, but some of them really end up being stronger than others. And since I’ve spent months and months on them, I use those pieces too. I show them all. It’s a big ceramicist thing to throw away imperfect pieces of your work. But ceramicists don’t usually work on a piece for a year. CC: What is your pace?
JF: About one month for every ten inches of sculpture. Sculpting an adult takes me about nine months. And then by the time it’s fired, put together, seams fixed, it’s effectively a year for a life-sized adult. Kids are faster. And surrealist things are faster because they’re straight out of my head. CC: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you made abstract constructions. How did you move from these works to the strictly figurative work you are making now?
JF: I loved doing the constructions and probably would have continued making them had I been accepted into the Whitney Independent study program – they would’ve discouraged figure – but then I wasn’t accepted, so I went to art conservation school at NYU. This was cool because no art school at the time would have encouraged me in any way to do the figure. But taking art history courses exposed me to very serious interpretations of figuration and its various styles. I was also doing my own work and working out a way of doing the figure that reflected my own time.
CC: What skills did you learn at NYU that you use in your work now?
JF: That program was where I was really introduced to polychrome sculpture, because most sculpture in the ancient world was painted. It was really more of a post 19th century thing to have everything be colorless. Art conservation taught me to mix and layer colors, as part of replacing lost areas. Kind of by surprise, it was a great place to learn to make art, and a fun education.CC: What kind of work did you do as a conservator?
JF: When I finished graduate school in 1984, I started my first job at NYAA. I was taking care of their cast collection, which had a tendency to get broken by party revelers – I would glue them back together, fill the losses, the usual restoration routine. I later joined a private business that worked on Modern and Contemporary Art. Being a conservator saved me from having to do the usual kind of hustling that artists so often have to do. It was a great day job, and overlapped with my studio needs.
CC: Were you ever interested in working 2D?
JF: I’m just a natural sculptor, and am very literal minded. It’s possible for me to draw, but I wouldn’t credit myself with having developed a drawing language that works. I have respect for drawing and painting, but I don’t really like doing either. For example, I painted my Cuttlefish sculpture with a colorful pattern on its back, and it was tedious for me to paint within the lines. I don’t love it, but I have to paint to give my sculptures that sense of life.
CC: When and how did you come to a clear idea of what you were trying to say with your work?
JF: I didn't come to a clear sense of how to make figures contemporary for a long time. I was searching for a way to express certain things for years. For example, I wanted to avoid monumentality in favor of subtlety and intimacy. I went down a few dead ends, but when I started the baby series in 85, I knew that the sculptures were finally taking care of all the things I wanted to say. Eventually the language of form that I developed became my style. In the 70s, the grad students would say “Why would you make a figure, why bother?” When I started to do the baby series it was like “well, it’s a figure because my work is about human issues and personality.” Modernism had gone so far as to chop off heads and do just torsos, and abstract elements of the body. The head, and the mind in it, was important subject matter to me. I was looking to make figures that addressed contemporary life in an interesting way.###
Judy Fox contributed two essays in The Figure: Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture – Contemporary Perspectives, the New York Academy of Art's debut monograph celebrating the art of the human figure, published by SkiraRizzoli .
Her conversation with Joel Shapiro is featured on the Academy's Vimeo page and her extraordinary work can be seen on her website www.judyfox.net
By Claire Cushman MFA 2015
In the early hours of Monday, June 9th, eleven half-asleep Academy students trudged through the rain to Grand Central Station, dragging bags heavy with clothing and paint supplies. After what I’m told was a scenic two-hour train ride along the Hudson River, we arrived in Rhinecliff, New York, where staff members Katie Hemmer and Denise Armstrong met us with two vans. We piled in, and headed to Germantown’s “Central House” B&B, which would be our home for the next four nights and five days.
This summer marked the New York Academy of Art’s second Hudson Valley Plein Air painting residency, which affords students the opportunity to paint in the idyllic region in which the Hudson River School painters once worked. Founded by Thomas Cole, the original Hudson River School was the first painting school native to the United States and rose to prominence in New York City in the early 19th Century. The work was grounded in a celebration of the American landscape and the notion that nature was a powerful resource for spiritual renewal which led them to paint carefully observed, reverential, and sometimes idealized paintings of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding locations. Our retreat, led by faculty member Catherine Howe, offered a very welcome change of scene after a full year of toiling in our Franklin Street studios.
After settling into Central House (which we had entirely to ourselves), we drove to the nearby Clermont State Historic Site. The site protects the former estate of the Livingston family, and is named for its clear view of the Catskill Mountains over the Hudson River. Catherine met us in the visitor center (a small cottage that served as our painting base camp). She sprayed us thoroughly with bug spray and made us promise to conduct nightly tic checks on each other, then took us on a tour of the grounds. We made our way through an “allée” of enormous trees, past a bountifully flowering garden, by a pet cemetery with a gravestone from 1902, to the Livingston mansion. Rolling green hills surround the mansion, giving the property the feel of a golf course.
Many of us set up our easels and began painting that day, but were only able to get about two hours done before we were accosted by a downpour. This was a common theme during the week, so we ended up painting quite a few still lifes in the visitor center’s dining room. We also ended up playing a good deal of Pictionary and charades, telling ghost stories, and enjoying numerous “family dinners.” In true Academy fashion, there was plenty of wine.
The next day, we ventured to Olana, once Frederic Church’s home and studio. Church, the predominant painter of the Hudson River School’s second generation, travelled extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East, and drew inspiration from the design he saw while abroad. Scenic carriage roads lead to Olana, which perches atop a hill overlooking the Hudson River valley and Catskill Mountains. The mansion’s ornately stenciled stone and brick façade is a mixture of Victorian, Persian and Moorish architecture. The interior remains lavishly decorated, as it was during Church’s lifetime. Bird feathers, Persian rugs and tapestries, sketchbooks, unique amber stain glass windows, and other eclectic objects, which Church acquired on his travels, fill the house to the brim. Hanging on the walls are over forty paintings by Church and his friends.Thankfully, we had some sunshine while at Olana, and could clearly see Church’s stunning view of the Hudson River Valley. With the weather forecast clear for the whole afternoon, I was excited to get back into landscape painting, especially after focusing on the human figure for the school year.
Before starting at the Academy, I primarily painted landscapes. However, not having painted outside for nearly a year, I felt like a beginner when I began putting brush to canvas on this retreat. And on top of the unfamiliar subject matter, there were the challenges of painting outdoors. The plein air painter must contend with fickle weather, bugs, the annoyance of carrying one’s supplies around while finding a good spot to paint, and ever-shifting light. While at Olana, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth the Hudson River School painters were able to create the meticulous work they did without the aid of photographs.
Although I felt like a fish out of water at first, I also found that what I had learned during my first semester perceptual painting class at the Academy deeply informed my landscape painting. This class (which I took with Dik Liu) made me think much more carefully about color temperature and spatial relationships, and has given me a far organized approach to painting from life. It was truly exciting to feel like I could put what I had learned this year to use “out in the real world” during the Hudson Valley residency. I highly recommend this retreat to all and any academy students next year.
Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) participated in a week-long residency in Hudson Valley, New York where she and Academy artists Jaclyn Dooner (MFA 2015), Patricia Horing (MFA 2015), Richard Alex Smith (MFA 2015) Rachel Birkentall (MFA 2015) , Shaina Craft (MFA 2015), Todd Eisinger (MFA 2014), Daniel Dasilva (MFA 2015), Kiki Carrillo (MFA 2015), Kerry Thompson (MFA 2014), and Ian Factor (MFA 2014) experienced a pastoral splendor that has enticed American artists for centuries.