"Composition in Green," by Werner Drewes, 1935

“Composition in Green,” by Werner Drewes, 1935

Entering this ambitious exhibition, I immediately headed for the third floor where I knew I’d find artists at the heart of this modern collection: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Mark Rothko. It’s not that I didn’t want to see the earlier years, it’s just that I knew the third floor would likely take the entire time I had–it did. And it was enthralling. As the artist Kenneth Noland put it when he was living in Washington, DC in the fifties, “Going to the Phillips is like going to church.” Amen.

"Blue Still Life," by John Graham, 1931

“Blue Still Life,” by John Graham, 1931

This show, which takes up the entirety of the newer wing (showcasing more than 160 works by 120 artists) , represents the return of paintings and sculptures that have been travelling since 2010, both around the world (Madrid, Tokyo) and in the United States (Nashville, Ft. Worth, Tampa). It’s astonishing how many of the works seen here were first shown in a museum by Duncan Phillips, the Collection’s visionary founder—he began the collection in 1921 as the nation’s first museum to be entirely devoted to modern art.

"Maritime," by Karl Knaths, 1931

“Maritime,” by Karl Knaths, 1931

The first room, “The Legacy of Cubism,” gives us a purely American version in John Marin and Karl Knaths, who drew inspiration from nature; Stuart Davis and John Graham, who were influenced by Picasso’s exploration of objects for their own sake; and George GK Morris and Ilya Bolotowsky, who were pure abstractionists.

Shame on me, an ardent Phillips fan, for not knowing many of these artists well, if at all. If you’re like me, this show is a revelation with many “new” artists to enjoy. Among them, Werner Drewes, who was one of the 39 founding members of Abstract American Artists, and who studied with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus—you can see the influence in “Composition in Green,” 1935. Tucked in a corner by the elevator, this small painting literally grabbed me as I walked in. What energy, color and life!

"Abstraction, 1940," 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

“Abstraction, 1940,” 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

John Graham, a Russian born in Kiev who studied with John Sloan at the Art Students League, was also unfamiliar. Phillips was his first patron and admired Graham’s adaptation of Picasso’s use of heavy outlining in “Blue Still Life,” 1931. Despite its rather formal approach, there is something mysterious hidden in those shapes, and something satisfying about the way the artist resolves the composition.

While I’m confessing my art ignorance, let’s move on to Karl Knaths, whose large Provincetown-inspired painting, “Maritime,” 1931, was another discovery. The excellent notes accompanying the painting tells us that Knaths was influenced by Stuart Davis. He went on to influence many Washington artists himself, teaching for years at the Phillips Collection.

"Still Life with Saw," 1930, by Stuart Davis

“Still Life with Saw,” 1930, by Stuart Davis

Also new to me was Ilya Bolotowsky, another founder of the American Abstract Artists. His “Abstraction 1940,” 1940, echoes Miro in its charming biomorphism.

The stand-out work in the room entitled “Still Life Variations” is Stuart Davis’ “Still Life with Saw,” 1930. During his1928 year in Paris, Davis fell under the sway of the surrealists. This painting, with its recognizable yet flattened objects floating in space, may have had surrealist origins, but it’s all his own.

"Red Polygons," by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Red Polygons,” by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Degrees of Abstraction,” the third room, offers up this intriguing quote from Alexander Calder: “I think I am a realist. . . I make what I see. It’s only the problem of seeing it . . . the universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.”

A mobile, “Red Polygons,” 1950, an untitled stabile, 1948, and a stand-alone sculpture, “Hollow Egg,” 1939, are all lit to great advantage, with fanciful shadows moving on the white gallery walls.

"Black Sea," by Milton Avery, 1959

“Black Sea,” by Milton Avery, 1959

I’m not a Milton Avery fan, but was struck by the dramatic “Black Sea,” 1959, which was influenced by his friendships with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, both of whom are present in this show.

"Rose and Locust Stump," by Arthur Dove, 1943

“Rose and Locust Stump,” by Arthur Dove, 1943

Arthur Dove, we learn, works “at the point where abstraction and reality meet.” How beautifully they meet in “Rose and Locust Stump,” 1943. This is the one I would steal and take home, given the chance.

Morris Graves gives us the luminous “Chalice,” 1941, gouache, chalk, and sumi ink on paper. This brooding piece finds an echo across the gallery in “Full Moon,” 1948, by Thedoros Stamos. Seeing reverberations in this painting of the work of Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, we learn that Phillips often paired this piece with Arthur Dove in the gallery.

"Chalice," by Morris Graves, 1941

“Chalice,” by Morris Graves, 1941

Acquired two years after the artist’s death, Jackson Pollack’s “Collage and Oil,” 1951, appealed to Phillips for its Asian aesthetic. Full of movement and intensity typical of this artist, it reads as a scroll.

"Collage and Oil," by Jackson Pollock, 1951

“Collage and Oil,” by Jackson Pollock, 1951

Another stop-you-in-your tracks piece, Kenneth Noland’s “Inside,” 1950, was the first to be shown in a museum. One is struck by the thought: what if Duncan Phillips had not taken up Noland, or the many other “unknowns” of the day? We’d be so much the poorer.

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn, was the first by the artist to be acquired by the Phillips Collection. Duncan Phillips was introduced to the California artist by his nephew, Gifford Phillips, Diebenkorn’s primary patron. Paired with the evocative, “Girl with Plant,” 1960, both paintings are good examples of Diebenkorn’s Matisse-influenced figurative period. (See my blog post, “In Love with Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years.”)

"Inside," by Kenneth Noland, 1950

“Inside,” by Kenneth Noland, 1950

In the room labeled “Abstract Expressionism,” Adolph Gottleib’s “The Seer,” 1950, stands out. With all the whimsy of Paul Klee, this large work appears to point the way to Jasper Johns’ fascination with targets and arrows.

"Interior View of Ocean," 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

Bradley Walker Tomlin (another artist new to me) gives us a breath of spring air (which we all need right about now) in his “No. 8,” 1952, one of his “petal paintings,” in charcoal and oil on canvas. Nearby is Kenzo Okada’s “Footsteps,” 1954—a Japanese rock garden in the fog. Both lyrical paintings evoke the subtle Asian sensibility that Phillips often sought.

"The Seer," by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

“The Seer,” by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

The final small room gives us these treasures: Sam Francis’ “Blue,” 1958, Morris Lewis’ “Number 182,” 1961, and a late Rothko on paper, “Untitled,” 1968.

"No. 8," by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

“No. 8,” by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

As you have gathered, this one floor of this massive show has so much important art, it could well stand on its own. Stay tuned for floors one and two—or better yet, meet me there and we’ll enjoy it together!

“Made in America” is on view until August 31, 2014.








Between the years of 1972 and 2010, Crown Point Press in San Francisco was one of the finest printmaking studios in the country, turning out stunning works by many leading artists. The perfect finished print, though, rarely gives us a glimpse into the tortured process that may have led to the final proof. “Yes, No, Maybe,” on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, explores this iterative process by juxtaposing rarely seen preliminary test prints, working proofs, and final prints, many of them owned by the gallery.

Photo maquette, "Keith," 1972, Chuck Close

Photo maquette, “Keith,” 1972, Chuck Close

Although the show features some twenty-five artists, I’ll dwell here with my favorites: Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, and John Cage. Quotes from each artist illuminate the work: Diebenkorn boiled down all artistic endeavor to being “…in the nature of problem solving,” while Cluck Close said, “The far more important thing is problem creation (italics mine),”and for John Cage, it’s all about “…asking questions instead of making choices.”

"Keith," 1972, by Chuck Close

“Keith,” 1972, by Chuck Close

The show opens with the evolution of Chuck Close’s “Keith,” 1972. In this work, Close—drawn by the velvety blacks and pearly whites the process produces—challenged himself to produce the largest mezzotint possible. Could the process work at great size on one of his “mug shot” portraits? He joined Crown Point’s founder Kathan Brown and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco’s works on paper group to find out. The mezzotint process involves scraping and pitting the plate to give a highly textured ground. Close learned as he went, while Brown and the printmaking team experimented with photo etching. The sheer size of the finished product caused the work to take months, rather than the usual weeks. Somewhere in the process, Close decided to leave in the faint background grid lines in the final print, a trademark of his later work. In the final result, Keith’s asymmetrical face appears to be viewed from under water, the expression constantly changing to reveal interior psychological depths.

"Touched Red," 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Touched Red,” 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

Revision was also essential to Richard Diebenkorn’s work. “I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first, then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.” Repetitions and comparisons between the lines, shapes, and colors finally coalesce in a state of “rightness,” but at the same time allow for “a sudden surprising contradiction.” “Touched Red,”1991, was the result of pasting shapes over and over in 40 working proofs, all of which belong to the NGA, a gift from Crown Point Press. In the final result the work’s patinated surface appears to have accumulated over time, like the paint layers on an old screen door.

"Green," 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Green,” 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

The evolution of “Green,” 1986, shows Diebenkorn’s attempts to “steal a second chance.” Earlier images seen in the working proofs (an infinity symbol, the upturned tail of a cat) are gone in the final, subsumed by the luminous ground of green and vivid cobalt reminiscent of the oil paintings of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park and Berkeley series. The tranquil aerial views of those paintings also come to mind in “High Green Version,” 1992.

Trust John Cage, who didn’t think of himself as an artist at all, to produce some of the most fascinating work in this show. Cage’s interests in Zen, natural history, and numeric theory shape the works he produced while at Crown Point Press.

"Eninka 29," 1986by John Cage

“Eninka 29,” 1986by John Cage

In a video we see Kathan Brown and Cage, collaborating on Cage’s “Eninka 29,” running burning newspaper and damp sheets of paper through the press to create ethereal, subtle, shifting images. Also visible are brandings with a hot coil. At the first successful print, Cage exclaimed, “Oh, it’s beautiful! I can’t believe it! I couldn’t sleep all night. I thought my whole life had been a waste!”

"75 Stones," 1989, by John Cage

“75 Stones,” 1989, by John Cage

In “75 Stones,” 1989, Cage selected a palette based on the color of the stones and then positioned the rocks by chance calculation. The project began as an homage to the 15 stones in the Zen rock garden at Roanji, Japan. Cage started with 15, but wound up with 75, which seemed the right number. Don’t the images have a calligraphic, Japanese feel?

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978 is a fetching tribute, using images of a hawk feather, hazel nut, and rabbit tracks. The position, orientation, scale, and color of the images were also calculated by computer “chance operations.” In Cage’s mind, even though he couldn’t draw (or thought he couldn’t), the process rendered the images “beautiful.” I agree.

"17 Drawings by Thoreau," 1978, by John Cage

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978, by John Cage

If you love works on paper, and crave being a voyeur in the print shop, the show will be up until January 5, 2014. There’s still time!

“I’m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it.” — Richard Diebenkorn.

My friends Susan and Leslie and I are all a little in love with Richard Diebenkorn, envying his close circle who were given his charming cigar box lid paintings as gifts. Why weren’t we among them? We were in Berkeley too, or at least I was. So it was something of a pilgrimage of the heart when the three of us crossed the threshold of the striking de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to see “Richard Diebenkorn, The Berkeley Years: 1953 – 1966.

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

At the opening to the entrance of this vast show, we were greeted by Diebenkorn’s ten rules for a creative endeavor which I’ve appended to the end of this post: “Notes to Myself upon Beginning a Painting.” Number Eight was particularly challenging: “Keep Thinking about Pollyanna.” Should we be the anti-Pollyanna? One suspects so, but what if he means the opposite? “Be careful only in a perverse way,” number 10, suggests we defenestrate Pollyanna. With this delightfully cockeyed perspective, we strolled into “The Berkeley Years.” Susan and Leslie are both artists in their own right, so it was wonderful to see these stunning canvasses with other, highly educated and experienced eyes than just my own.

Dispersed among the large brilliantly composed oil paintings, are exquisite small black and white pieces, such as “Untitled (Berkeley),”1953, in ink, gouache and graphite that add punch and intimacy. But the most absorbing works are the abstract expressionist oil paintings that are the numbered “Berkeley” works.

"Berkeley #8," 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954 (North Carolina Museum of Art), with its brilliant colors, precisely  balanced composition, and thrusting movement, put me in mind of Jack London canneries, docks, ships, tide pools, and the Berkeley mudflats.

"Berkeley #57," 1955

“Berkeley #57,” 1955

“That red stripe,” Leslie said, studying “Berkeley #57,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), “the painting needed it.” Is it landscape? City grid? Aerial views of farm land? The answer is likely yes to any and all images that float up from this lusciously colored work. We can see how Diebenkorn’s thinking (and not-thinking) took him to the brilliant “Ocean Park” series of paintings later completed in Los Angeles and recently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

"Chabot Valley," 1955

“Chabot Valley,” 1955

As hard as it is to see Diebenkorn’s brand of abstract expressionism as limiting, he gradually became disenchanted, calling it a “stylistic straitjacket.” A wall of small representational paintings heralds this change. “Chabot Valley,” 1955, was his first representational painting.

"Coffee," 1959

“Coffee,” 1959

The next room features a number of Hopper-esque figure paintings of lonely women looking out of windows. “I think his figurative work is goofy,” Susan declared, and I had to agree that these paintings were less successful than the wholly abstract work–although I did love many of the drawings and prints of female nudes. Susan and I both felt the paintings that worked for us were the ones in which the figures were integrated into the background. One exception, “Coffee,” 1959 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – the figure is striking in the familiarity of the solitary pose, and the absorption of the figure in that cup. “Maybe he took up representational painting because Wayne Thiebaud and other friends were doing it,” Susan said. So hard to tease out what inspires painters, especially when they’re part of a vibrant community of artists.

"Figure on a Porch," 1959

“Figure on a Porch,” 1959

Despite the somewhat over-wrought wall placard analysis, I was drawn into “Figure on a Porch,” 1959 (Oakland Museum). The placard tells us that the figure “is the surrogate for the viewer.” Okay, I buy that. But the chairs standing in for “action” and the blue of the bay for “community”? I don’t think so. This observation was actually the least pedantic of them all, which made me glad I hadn’t taken the proffered headset and stopped reading the written commentary entirely, other than to note the title, year, and location.

We’re back to the landscape, albeit still representational, with “Cityscape #1,” 1963 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), an enthralling work. In shadow, the road divides the developed land—the buildings stack up as if massing at the border and seem to confront the undeveloped green spaces in a showdown.

"Cityscape #1," 1963

“Cityscape #1,” 1963


All three of us were perplexed by the rooms containing “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965 (private collection), with its Matisse-inspired floral patterns. Diebenkorn had evidently seen Matisse’s work at the Pushkin museum on a visit to Russia with his wife and had been deeply moved. This painting was the least surprising in a

"Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad," 1965

“Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965

room full of Picasso-like nudes and Matisse knock-offs.

We retreated to the first room to the left of the entrance, which we’d missed, and reveled in “Berkeley #3,” 1953 (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco). Lavish in pinks, apricots, and golds, this painting took me back to the bustle of my fishery/cannery images, and like many other Diebenkorn canvasses, you can lose yourself in a corner–any corner.

"Berkeley #3," 1954

“Berkeley #3,” 1954


“Berkeley #23,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) was completely reworked from an earlier version painted in 1954. Diebenkorn enjoyed “altering” the image, “by way of

"Berkeley #23," 1955

“Berkeley #23,” 1955

subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposing of another idea.” Looking at the work, you imagine that you can follow the painter in his efforts to structure it. The feeling of participation is one of the most pleasing aspects of experiencing a Diebenkorn painting: you feel that the work is plastic, but that somehow it arrived at the perfect balance, leaving tracks of the process behind. And those surfaces worked and reworked into the vivid turquoise of patinated copper, that periwinkle, that raspberry, that green, that unifying black line—electric!

"Berkeley #44,"1955

“Berkeley #44,”1955

With its mossy green field, “Berkeley # 44,” 1955, reads as a cutting of a vast continuous swath that extends beyond the borders of the canvas. It’s unmistakably a landscape, in my eye, but am I being too literal, too boringly predictable? Quoted in a 1957 Life magazine story, in which he was photographed in front of “Berkeley #44,” Diebenkorn said, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter.” So there.

The show is on view until September 29, 2013.

If you can’t make it, the well-written and comprehensive accompanying exhibition catalogue is a close second.

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.