I admit that I did not get out this week to see any current shows, so I’ll take the opportunity to share 5 works that run in my head constantly. These are the works that are always lurking and pushing me to create art. They’re what made me fall in love with the study of Art both as a creator and a historian.
The first is from an artist who is the reason I became an Art History major. At the beginning of my Sophomore year I got pretty down about my decision not to go to art school… espeically since I ended up at a school that makes it really hard to take art classes if you’re not in the Art and Architecture college. My oldest sister convinced me to take an Art History class and I enrolled in Renaissance and Baroque. This intrigued me enough to take a class on Impressionism (including pre and post) the next semester. It was during this class that I completely fell in love with the history of art. Learning the ins and outs of how artists’ worked and what was happening politically and culturally to inform the work was exhilarating One artist changed the way I looked at the world: Toulouse-Lautrec. I knew of his work, but in this class everything about what he created came alive for me. Behind the posters and high energy works were quiet, reflective, sad paintings of these women in their day to day experience. He showed the banal when popular culture idolized the cabaret dancers and glorified prostitution. For whatever reason, this quickly painted piece titled “Alone” remains etched into my brain and I love it more every time I look at it. I’ve seen it in person one time and it was hard for me to tear myself away from it.
The next work is by Van Gogh, perhaps an obvious choice on anyone’s ‘top 5’ list. My favorite painting of his brings together his influence from Millet and Japanese woodblock prints. The green color makes the work a bit eerie. At various points I’ve read his letters to Theo and it’s remarkable hearing his voice come alive as he recounts his struggles and successes as an artist and as a person.
The way that Frida Kahlo can put her emotions onto a canvas has always hit me deeply. Her paintings are highly symbolic and I remember every detail of how I felt when I walked into her retrospective at Tate Modern. I was first struck by how much smaller the paintings were than I had imagined… the scale of the work makes them feel as though they could fill an entire wall. The smallness is that much more powerful as they become intimate objects that pull you in. This painting is so rich in symbolism and raw emotional imagery. Her bed is placed against the landscape of the Ford factories in Detroit where Diego was working on a commissioned mural when she ended up in the hospital.
Since high school I have loved the German Expressionist artists, especially Erich Heckel who was part of a group called Der Bruecke (The Bridge). These works are what inspired my passion for printmaking as I love the raw edges and power felt in the wood cuts. The Expressionists were trying to bring a direct emotional charge to their work.
Another woodcut artist I admire is Elizabeth Catlett. She was an American artist (d. April 2012) who is best known for her work during the 1960s and 1970s. I came across a black and white version of this print when I was working at the Johnson Museum my senior year of college. I worked in the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs department so I got to get up close and personal with a lot of great work. I loved pulling out this piece and studying it.
Those are my top five… but I’m going to cheat and sneak in one more work that had a profound impact on me when I saw it for the first time. This piece was part of a show at the Johnson Museum and I was so taken by it and the rest of her work that it often pops into my mind when I least expect it to. So Ellen Gallagher gets a more than honorable mention here.