When referring to arts and crafts, the Greeks spoke of τέχνη, the word that has given us “technology,” while for the creative act itself, they used the verb ποιέω, “to make” (the root for “poetry”). Taken together, these two words remind us that although art might start in the mind (Leonardo da Vinci affirmed “la pittura è cosa mentale,” “painting is a thing of the mind”) and might aim at expressing abstract ideas and intangible emotions, for these ideas and emotions to be communicated (after all, art is communication!), they need to be given physical form. This issue on materiality gives me an opportunity to consider a few works of art and reflect upon the ways in which artists handle matter.
No reproduction, no matter how good it is, can do justice to Jay DeFeo’s The Rose—you just have to experience it. The monumental work—almost eleven feet high—engulfs the viewer, not only by its scale but by its sheer materiality. DeFeo worked at this opus truly magnum for close to eight years, from 1958 to 1966, piling oil paint impasti upon impasti, sometimes securing them with wooden dowels. Weighing over two thousand pounds, it is not quite a painting nor a sculpture, or rather, as DeFeo put it, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.” Active in the San Francisco Bay Area, DeFeo is the only visual artist associated with the Beat generation. The Rose is pure process and engagement with pictorial matter. The artist later explained that when she started painting what she refers to as “the thing,” there was no defined goal or representational intent. She declared: “I had no notion of the rose about it. The title came later. It was just a painting.” The work kept evolving. After six months, DeFeo decided she wanted it to be symmetrical and that the proportions were wrong, so she glued the canvas onto a larger one. As if endowed with a life of its own, the shapes kept building up and morphing, going through what the artist referred to as “a lifespan, a chronology of different stages.” The first stage was followed by “a very geometric” one, when it was “kind of a crystalline sort of thing,” followed by rounder shapes. DeFeo recounts the process as if she were a witness rather than an agent to these metamorphoses. She notes, for instance: “Then it started getting much more organic in character, which pleased me.” The exuberant life force of “the thing” had to be reined in when “[i]t went into a super-baroque period. I wasn’t really aware of how flamboyant it had become . . . I felt that it really needed to be pulled back to something more classic in character.” On the website of the Jay DeFeo Foundation (where the quotes I use here come from), there’s a photo of the artist’s studio, The Rose looming over DeFeo’s silhouette. When in 1965, DeFeo was evicted from her Fillmore Street studio, the extraction of the work proved to be a true challenge, finally resolved by the sawing of the bottom of a window.
To me, DeFeo’s work holds a particularly poignant dimension. My first teaching position in the United States was at Mills College in Oakland, California, where DeFeo had taught painting. She had joined the Art department in 1981, receiving tenure five years later. When I started teaching there in January 1990, the Art department was in mourning: DeFeo had died less than two months earlier, at the age of 60. This was all very sudden: she had been diagnosed with lung cancer in the spring of 1988 and had remained active. What my colleagues told me still affectingly resonates in me when I stand in front of The Rose: when painting, DeFeo had the habit of holding brushes in her mouth, thus absorbing dangerous chemicals from paints and solvents—materials (and materiality?) proved lethal.
In Michelangelo’s so-called Awakening Slave, we see a human body struggling as it were to free himself from the block of stone, the figure emerging from the rough stone. This sculpture was meant to be part of a doomed project: a funerary monument for pope Julius II, which the sculptor had to revise and scale down many times, eventually leaving a series of unfinished figures. In another sculpture for the same monument, referred to as the Dying Slave, the male figure is completed but stone from the base extends up his legs, displaying chisel marks that remind us of the material from which the sculpture was created. Michelangelo placed sculpture at the top of the arts’ hierarchy and was steeped in Neo-Platonic ideals and although he never intended to leave these works in this state, we cannot avoid but to interpret their unfinished state, which he himself termed non finito, to represent the raw and imperfect matter from which the artist extracts and reveals a latent and ideal form (for a summary of the ways in which different writers and artists have interpreted Michelangelo’s non-finito, see the article cited in the references).
The body itself is treated in a staggeringly convincing manner, its marble surface polished to a high finish that gives it the appearance of real skin, with muscles, sinews, and veins underneath. As we look at these two sculptures together, we see the ideal body progressively emerging from the raw matter while the non-finito affirms the block of marble’s sheer materiality. The contrast between the finished and unfinished parts underscores the opposition between artistic material and representation—in this case, a living human being.
The skillfully naturalistic rendering of the human anatomy comes close to convincing us that we are looking at a living body but the non-finito remind us it is in fact marble—stone masquerading as flesh and blood. In my “Art Historical Musings” for the Summer 2021 issue, I shared a work I adore from the Colby College Museum of Art: Isamu Noguchi’s Torso #378. In “Marks on the Vulnerable Body,” I considered this work in the context of how voluntary and involuntary marks on the skin (wounds, scars, bruises, wrinkles, and tattoos) function as biographical records of sorts. This essay gives me the opportunity to return to Noguchi’s work and reflect upon the artist’s handling of the material. I always enjoy having students look at this sculpture and guess its material, for they invariably mistake its red stoneware for metal. Noguchi shaped the clay as to make the viewer aware of its shape, a slightly convex sheet. Its thickness is revealed by the puncture that represents a nipple and by the neat cutout for the inside of the thighs that contrasts with the rounding of the outer edges and, in particular, of the stompy arms that extend from the trunk. At the level of the pelvis, five horizontal strips appear as if soldered onto the surface. The rough stoneware possesses a metallic luster, and its coloring ressembles rust. Remarkably ambivalent, Noguchi’s torso at once alludes to a metal shield and evokes the effects of radiation after the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. What at first might appear as protective metal plate turns out to be fired clay.
Take Abby Shahn‘s use of a rust finish. No matter the original material—whether it’s plastic or wood as in the telephones and the artist mannequin that can be seen in this photo—we are led to believe that these objects are made from metal and have been subjected to natural weathering processes. Shahn loves the color thus produced: in our conversation on the occasion of a 2020 show at SPEEDWELL Projects (an abridged version was published in the Fall 2020 issue of MAJ), she told me how “[i]t’s basically like earth red . . ., it’s one of our basic pigments.” The material is also rich with meaning. The first object Shahn painted with rust was a globe, thus alluding to our planet’s state. The items that subsequently receive this finish evoke decay and comment upon consumption and biodegradability.
In the way this coat of paint suggests a different material, I am reminded of the old craft of creating fake finishes imitating wood grain (or “graining,” very common in early American furniture) or marble and other fine stones as in the Italian technique of scagliola. Although requiring skill to be convincingly executed, we should not forget that these practices are born out of necessity. After such a treatment, a cheap pine cabinet or a simple masonry wall end up looking like it’s made of fine wood or covered in expensive marble sheathing.
When looking at such finishes, we are never completely fooled. After all, don’t we want to be able to be impressed by the artist’s ability to produce the illusion of these materials? This can have meaningful implications: in the case of Shahn’s rust covered objects, we need to remain cognizant of the fact that a phone will never rust and that plastic does not decay. The same tension plays out in 18th-century life-size reliefs I saw a few weeks ago in the Brazilian Unesco World Heritage city of Ouro Preto that represent Jesus Praying at the Garden of Olives, tied to a pilar before his flagellation, crowned with thorns, and awaiting to be put to death. In some of these depictions, blood drops are rendered with garnets, affectingly conveying the intensity of Christ’s suffering while affirming the glory of its redemptive nature.
Dadaist Kurt Schwitters made a point to work with very humble materials: urban detritus, witnesses to the abundance of stuff and resulting wastefulness in modern society (it is revealing that “Merz,” Schwitters’s one-person artistic movement, was named after a fragment of printed matter with “Kommerzbank” on it). In this collage made in the 1930s, Schwitters used torn bits of paper: we recognize wallpaper, a scrap bearing a large capital R, and other fragments of printed matter, many of which, once read, turn out to be not randomly chosen at all. We read “Bild” (image) and “Zeichnung” (drawing). An arrow points to “Ergebnis” (result). Placed below “unter 24” (under 24), it recalls the very process of collage in which a certain number of bits and pieces are assembled into a resulting composition. Finally, “für alle” (for all) offers a trenchant commentary on the democratic nature of collage with its use of cheap and readily available materials.
Similarly, El Anatsui, an artist born in Ghana and living in Nigeria, uses recycled materials such as bottle caps. Anatsui eloquently comments on the third-world practice of recycling and on poverty, while also alluding to the fact that liquor was brought to Africa by European traders. Anatsui has developed a remarkable technique for assembling these modest materials in monumental works that evoke both mosaics and tapestries—that is, media with a long history and associations with Western religion and the ruling classes. Also meaningful is that Anatsui’s creations can be folded to fit into a box, embodying what the artist calls a “nomadic aesthetic” (as a result, their shape is different with each installation; to hear an interview of Anatsui and see one of his works being installed on the façade of the Fortuny Museum in Venice, see this video). For Schwitters and Anatsui, these bits of trash, because they were rescued and integrated into a work of art, have been transmuted into valuable stuff.
In Kathleen Ryan’s sculptures of gigantic pieces of decaying fruit, the colors are rendered through semi-precious stones and pearls pined on a foam core (see a video of the process in this New York Times article). Ryan’s distinctive modus operandi might remind the reader of those decorative beaded fruits found in junkshops. Prior to creating her monumental moldy fruit, Ryan obsessively collected (and used in artwork) these pieces of “plastic encrusted in plastic,” which she found at once “anonymous and intimate,” “light and cheap” and “painstakingly and densely embellished” (Ryan’s quotes come from this interview). The fruits’ healthy areas are simply rendered in glass beads but, in a remarkable reversal, the mold, that is, what destroys the fruit’s value, is made of more expensive materials: crystals, semi-precious and precious gemstones, freshwater pearls, carved bone, coral.
The choice of these natural materials is in part motivated by their ability to create an illusion: that is, to convincingly reproduce the colors and texture of a moldy fruit. At the same time, the fact that we remain aware that tainted foodstuff is rendered through exquisite and everlasting materials is central to the provocative nature of Ryan’s work.
Matter and Illusion
The same tension between illusion and awareness of the material (in this case, a precious one) is, in my view, central to the fascination of Renaissance and Baroque paintings on rare stones. In these small and luxurious works, the artist exploits the stone’s color and patterning, incorporating them into the composition. This remarkable practice recently received attention through an exhibition and catalogue at the Saint Louis Museum of Art, prompted by a work in the museum’s collections: the Cavaliere d’Arpino’s Perseus Rescuing Andromeda. The artist left a large portion of the small oval lapis lazuli’s panel unpainted so we can appreciate the stone’s distinctive deep blue, golden flecks, and marbling. The semi-precious stone becomes a breathtaking night sky that contributes to the scene’s drama of while imbuing it with supernatural overtones.
The rather schizophrenic tension that we experience when contemplating such works of art is not different from what Ernst Gombrich called “the whole problem of image reading”: we cannot simultaneously see paint on a canvas and what is represented. Take Vincent van Gogh’s celebrated Night Café: from a distance, we have no problem “reading” the dreary room which the artist famously described in a letter as “a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime.” We see tables with marble tops and cast-iron bases, some holding the remnants of customers’ libations, wooden chairs with rush seats, a clock indicating the late time of night, and at the back, next to curtained opening leading to another room, a counter with bottles and a bouquet. Three “poor night-prowlers” are hunched over the tables, a couple sits at the back, and a man, thought to be the establishment’s proprietor, stands next to the billiard, facing the viewer. Juxtaposed to the blood-red walls, the four gas lamps that hang from the green ceiling shine blinding rays.
I cannot recommend enough a trip to New Haven: just like for Jay DeFeo’s The Rose, van Gogh’s Night Café must be experienced in person, if only to physically get close to the painting. In particular, the lamps’ incandescent centers and rays of light, meant to convey van Gogh’s “ambience of a hellish furnace, in pale sulphur,” when viewed up close become thick yellow impasti, reverting to pure pictorial matter.
Choice making is at the core of art making. Among such choices is the selection of the medium: that is, of what to work with but, also, and crucially so, how. One cannot avoid deciding between whether to remain true to the material, in other words, to work with it and respect the medium in its specificity, or to work against it. As this opposition intersects with another fundamental one, that between representation and abstraction, we can envision artworks as occupying a continuum, with at one end, works in which illusionistic effects lure the viewer into forgetting the materials that mimetically reproduce reality and, at the other, works that, like The Rose, are nothing but matter. At one extremity, the creator of the illusion hides like the Wizard of Oz, while, at the other, the artist’s presence is inescapable as we cannot avoid seeing the marks left by the making of the artwork and the handling of the artistic matter. And then, there are the works that occupy the middle of the spectrum. In them, artists play hide and seek, at once present and absent, and, as they do so, illusion and matter engage in an agonistic tension profoundly and richly pregnant with resonances.
Chung, Eileen. “Mold in Art: Affect, Abjection, and Ambiguity,” Bowdoin Journal of Art (2021).
Gilbert, Creighton E. “What Is Expressed in Michelangelo’s ‘Non-Finito.’” Artibus et Historiae 24.48 (2003): 57–64.
Gombrich, Ernst. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972. Quote is on p. 238.
Author’s note: I am grateful to Eileen Chung for introducing me to the work of Kathleen Ryan.
Image at top: Jay DeFeo, The Rose, oil with wood and mica on canvas, 128 7/8 × 92 1/4 x 11in. (327.3 x 234.3 x 27.9 cm), 1958–66, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (photo: Véronique Plesch).