Tag Archives: Abstract Expressionist

Consulate General of Greece in New York Proves That Current Greek Art Matters

26 Oct
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The new art exhibion Colors of Greece at the Consulate General of Greece in New York is a phenomenal display of artistic diversity. I was thoroughly impressed by the variety of subject matter and aesthetic style of Greece’s contemporary artists.
 
Contemporary Greek art—be it visual art, as it was in this case, or the literary arts—matters to me a lot. Now, more than ever.
 
As a Greek, I am proud of my country’s rich Classical history. Our ancient art and architecture is revered the world over, and for good reason. To this day, I still stand in awe every time I look up at the Parthenon. How could anyone not? And yet, as well-meaning individuals speak to me about Olympia and Homer and all the beautiful work of Greece’s centuries’ old history, a part of me feels frustrated that only the Greece of the past is recognized. It is as if the Greece of today is nonexistent in their eyes. I think most Americans would be hard-pressed to name any Greek artists living today.
 
This saddens me because Greeks and Greek Americans have done much to enliven the postmodern art world. As a scholar of the Beat Generation, I have often turned to the art of the 1940s and ’50s. Specifically, I have researched the abstract expressionists who hung out at the Cedar Tavern and mingled with the Beats. Several of the most famous abstract-expressionist artists were Greek American: Wiliam Baziotes, Theodore Stamos, and Peter Voukos. Another famous artist of that time period was neon-sculpturist Stephen Antonakos. Today, there are artists like Maria Fragoudakis, who continues the collage and pop-art work of that era. These artists have done exceptional work that does not hinge on their being Greek.
Colors of Greece, likewise, demonstrates the vast scope of Greek art in 38 works. The artists cast their eye far and wide, landing on people swimming in blue, blue bodies of water; dramatic flora; city streets; the human face. Their style is photorealistic, figurative and full of emotion, abstractions. In a small exhibit hall it may perhaps seem jarring to view dissimilar works, and yet that is what makes this exhibit so special. It only captures a small sliver of the variety of work Greek artists today are doing. 
 
At a time when contemporary Greece is looked at through a negative political and economic lense, drawing attention to contemporary Greek artists’ work is a political statement. The Consuate General of Greece in New York shows that there is more to Greece than what you see on the evening news and read in history textbooks. There is a Greece that is vibrant, full of life, energetic, and colorful. There is a Greece that sees beauty among the ruins. It is the artists who perhaps will raise Greece up, who will innovate, who will create a new Greek generation.
 
Colors of Greece runs until October 30, 2015. Free of charge, the exhibit is open to the public from 9:00am to 2:30pm at the Consulate General of Greece in New York, located at 69 East 79th Street.
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Also, I’m pleased to announce Hellas, a 2016 wall calendar that I created using photographs I took while in Greece this past summer. You can purchase it here.
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That’s Cute that You Think You’re Subversive: How the CIA Promoted the Radical Arts During the Cold War

29 Jul

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During a recent writing workshop that I’m part of with two female writers, our conversation rambled along to the topic of how the CIA had advanced abstract expressionism. That weekend one of the writers asked if I’d pass along the article I had referred to. I did a quick search for it online, and realized I’d actually read several articles about how the CIA had been involved in promoting artistic and intellectual communities that many people tend to think of as nonconformist, liberal, and subversive.

Here’s a quick roundup of articles about the CIA promoting nonconformist art and literature:

  • The article I was thinking of was The Independent‘s “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’” about how the CIA used art to show how free-thinking the US was in comparison to Russia during the Cold War
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education published “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which shows the CIA’s involvement with the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop
  • Work in Progress’George the Gentlemanly Ghost,” references the CIA being involved in The Paris Review.  It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac’s first clip from On the Road was published in The Paris Review. (You can read more about that in my book Burning Furiously Beautiful.)
  • Encounter Magazine, the UK lit mag founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol in 1953, was funded by the CIA

I’m sure there are more, some we know of and some we don’t. Please add your stories and links in the comments section.

There’s a lot to be said here, but it raised a few questions for me:

  • Without the CIA’s help in funding and promoting modern arts, would these works have remained obscure?
  • Is modern art a scam, and traditionalists correct that it’s not real art?
  • Is the art and literature of the 1950s and ’60s a reaction to or a product of its times?
  • Can something be subversive even if it’s a political ploy?

Whole books could be written in answer to these questions. They’re important topics to consider and discuss, but I want to take a far less Big Brother approach and ask:

  • What are you trying to accomplish by being subversive?
  • Why do you want to be different?
  • Where do you get your information and how do you evaluate it?
  • Who is challenging you to think outside of your own box?

I’m all for dancing to the beat of your own drum. But is that what you’re really doing?

 

The Light and Life of Greek American Neon Artist Stephen Antonakos (1926–2013)

19 Aug

I learned via Gregory Pappas, founder of the Greek America Foundation, that artist Stephen Antonakos passed away this weekend. I had the great privilege of attending an exhibition of Antonakos’ neon sculptures at the Lori Bookstein Fine Art gallery here in New York City when the abstract artist was honored for the Gabby Awards Lifetime Achievement Award. You can read about that here. Antonakos attended the event, and I remember him being a quiet, humble artist. Yet his work speaks volumes.

Captivated by the neon lights of New York City, the Greek immigrant—Antonakos moved to the US when he was four years old—the artist began incorporating neon into his art in 1960. In an interview with Zoe Kosmidou, he explained the symbolism—or lack thereof—in his neon work:

My forms do not represent, symbolize, or refer to anything outside of themselves. Such specific correspondences would limit the work’s meaning, whereas pure abstraction, liberated from any external references, is capable of saying so much more. My neons relate formally to architecture and space, but they do not represent anything outside themselves.

Even so, raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, the artist’s work did have spiritual subtext. He created crosses and “chapels.”

Earlier, in the mid 1950s, Antonakos was creating collages. In a 2007 interview with Phong Bui for The Brooklyn Rail, Antonakos said:

And since oil painting was too slow for me to keep up with all of the ideas that were racing through my mind, I felt the physical and spontaneous process of putting various objects together was more suitable to what I needed to get done in those years.

His desire to work fast, engage in a spontaneous process, and collage disparate found objects together resonates with the postmodern aesthetic. We hear the same vision in the works of the abstract expressionist painters and the Beat Generation writers. Antonakos revealed that although he admired the work of the abstract expressionists, he felt he could “get more out of” the Italian artists Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana.

Antonakos went on to have more than 100 solo shows around the work.

For artists of any discipline, one of the great takeaways from Antonakos’ life is that one can have a day job and still be an artist as long as one perseveres. Antonakos worked as a pharmaceutical illustrator during the day and then would work in his studio until 2 in the morning.

Here are a couple of links to celebrate the life and work of this inspired artist:

Clip: New Abstraction News

24 Jul

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Back in 2008, I had the fun experience of doing PR for Lesny JN Felix‘s art exhibit at Gallery Bar down on the Lower East Side. I got to see his paintings, wrote up his press release, and helped him with set up for the opening reception. We also attended other artists’ shows and had a lot of conversations about the art world. I was thrilled when he asked me to write the catalog copy for his upcoming new exhibition.

Painter Lesny JN Felix is starting his own one-person school of art: the New Abstraction News. The Haitian’s show Instant Identification will debut at the Lower East Side’s pop-up gallery 215 Bowery (215 Bowery St., Manhattan) on Tuesday, July 30, 2013, with a free opening reception from 7 to 10 p.m. There will be one hour of hands-on silkscreen making.

The exhibition includes a collaborative painting with artist Rick Wray that emphasizes JN Felix’s unique New Abstraction News style and, in contrast with Wray’s style, explores the diversity found within abstract art. Fans and collectors will have the opportunity to meet both artists.

Since JN Felix’s last major show in New York, his work has matured into more complex abstractions. Read more here.

In the catalog copy itself, I explore how JN Felix works in a similar method as Jack Kerouac and how he is different than the abstract expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s. You can pick up a copy of the catalog at the show. Hope to see you there! It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Clip on Xu Beihong Plus Thoughts on Calligraphy, the Beats, and the Abstract Expressionists

19 Feb

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Burnside published my art post “A Time to Plant and a Time to Uproot” today.

It only occurred to me as I was posting this clip how interesting it is that Xu Beihong’s painting is from 1951. Doesn’t the seemingly traditional shuimohua painting seem much older? Xu is actually known for his Western sensibilities and is considered a forerunner in modern Chinese art.

Xu studied calligraphy with his father before attending the famous École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts — you know, that Parisian school where Degas, Matisse, Monet, and Renoir studied at. In 1917, Xu Beihong went to Japan to study art. During World War II, he sold his paintings in exhibitions throughout Asia, giving the proceeds to the Chinese whose lives had been upturned because of the war. As a teacher and artist, Xu’s policies greatly influenced the way both colleges and the government respond to art in Communist China. He died in 1953.

Meanwhile, over in Oregon at Reed College in the early 1950s, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen (who served Stateside during World War II), and Lew Welch–who are associated with the Beat Generation–were studying with calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds. Snyder and Whalen later spent time in Japan, where they studied zen. The US State Department initially denied Snyder a passport, alleging he was a Communist.

Asian influences can also be seen in the art of the time period, most notably the abstract expressionist art of Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, and Theodoros Stamos. Note this opening paragraph from the Guggenheim’s article “Abstract Art, Calligraphy, and Metaphysics“:

Following World War II New York City became the center of the avant-garde art world. Artists were working in new ways, and some were exploring the energy of the gesture with loose brushwork that reflected the impact of the artist’s bold movements. The calligraphic brushstroke was an approach to abstract painting that focused on the spontaneous gesture of the artist’s hand and was informed by the East Asian art of calligraphy and popular writings on Zen and its principles of direct action.

The article goes on to say:

In Chinese and Japanese calligraphy the brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, his or her entire body. The artist’s stroke not only suggests the movement of the body, but also inner qualities. Abstract as it appears, calligraphy also conveys something about the essence of the individual artist. It is therefore not surprising that 20th-century American Abstract Expressionists who sought to convey emotion through paint were drawn to it.

Because so many soldiers were stationed in the East during World War II, both the West and the East were influenced by each other.

What I personally find fascinating with calligraphy is the collision of art and literature, the visual and the literal, words becoming art, and art becoming words.

Abstract Expressionist New York @ MoMA

8 Apr

As I mentioned, I recently went to the MoMA thanks to the generosity of a friend of mine.  One of the reasons I’d been wanting to go was to see the Abstract Expressionist New York exhibit that’s running through April 25.  The writers of the Beat Generation used to hang out in bars with the abstract-expressionist painters, so I’ve been fascinated by how the literature and visual arts of the 1950s have influenced each other and have done some writing on the subject.

I like this line that was posted on one of the placards in the museum:

With a grave intensity and sense of responsibility the Americans who would later become known as the Abstract Expressionists set out to make art that would reassert the highest ideals of humankind.

It reminds me of how Jack Kerouac said that “beat” stemmed from the biblical beatitudes.