Art as mental health balm

By Katy Hessel

Mesmerizing is the work of Czech self-taught artist, Anna Zemánková born in 1908. Known for her lucid botanical drawings made from pastel, ink, and thread, it wasn’t until she was in her late 50s that she began to draw such wonderfully surreal and meticulously-crafted masterpieces. 

Moon Flower [cab-11470], crayon and ball-point pen on paper, 63 x 45 cm, early 1970s. © Anna Zemánková.

Untitled [00620], pastel and India ink on paper, 88 x 62 cm, 1968. © Anna Zemánková.

From the age of fifteen to eighteen she studied dentistry and then worked as a dental technician until her marriage, when she forwent paid labor in order to care for her children. In 1948, she and her family moved to Prague, and when she found herself increasingly depressed, her son, a sculptor, encouraged her to pursue the creative work she had always previously dismissed. 

Early in the morning, before anyone else arose, she’d sketch pastel and ink onto large swaths of paper, creating botanical dreamscapes all her own. In order to get recognized she held ‘open house’ exhibitions, which caught the attention of fellow artist Jean Dubuffet who launched her career exhibiting in the likes of London’s Hayward Gallery in 1979, six years before her passing. 

-Katy Hessel #katyhessel #thegreatwomenartists



Lamp [00730], mixed media, 1970s. © Anna Zemánková.

Anna Zemánková

Calming watercolour paintings made in quarantine by Nicolas Party celebrate forests and treetops

Known for his familiar yet unsettling landscapes, portraits, and still lifes rendered in soft pastels, Nicolas Party is a New York-based Swiss artist whose latest body of work, Canopy, looks to treetops for inspiration.

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 30.5 x 40.6 cm / 12 x 16 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

The watercolour paintings follow his previous collection, Sottobosco, which instead looked at the atmosphere of a dense, richly alive forest floor. With these new artworks, he looks up to pay homage to the tops of trees where “light and air expand”.

On show in Hauser & Wirth’s latest online exhibition, opening Thursday 7 May, his series of 11 atmospheric landscapes were created while quarantined in upstate New York. Each embraces watercolour’s intimacy, fluidity, and animate qualities, and inspiration is drawn from Charles Burchfield, George Grosz, Georgia O’Keeffe, and William Turner.

“Throughout history, trees have been present in so many stories, legends, and religions,” says Party. “They are one of the most important elements in human culture. Today, they are also one of the primary reminders of our fears and anxieties for the future. How many trees are being painted today? And how many trees are burning?”

Party’s distinctive vision of the natural world derives equally from his relationship to the art historical canon and his childhood explorations in Switzerland, which instilled within him a deep love of nature’s endless arrays of colour, pattern, and form. Recalling his early experiences in the outdoors, he says: “One of the first things that you draw as a child are trees. The unsteady lines on the paper find a structure in the form of a tree. A line topped with circle structures, the page creates a space, shows us where the sky is and where the ground… Trees are nature’s alphabets. The infinite flexibility of the visual language of the tree makes its execution endlessly playful.”

Party will follow Canopy with a commission from RxArt to create a giant mural for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, and a major survey exhibition at MASI Lugano.

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 16 x 12 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 30.5 x 22.9 cm / 12 x 9 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 30.5 x 30.5 cm / 12 x 12 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 25.4 x 17.8 cm / 10 x 7 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Trees, 2020. Watercolour on paper 30.5 x 22.9 cm / 12 x 9 in. All images: © Nicolas Party Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

By Katy Cowan for Creative Boom

Fate of Japanese-American artists held in US internment camps during the Second World War brought to light online

The late artist Ruth Asawa is one of the artists profiled in The Archives of American Art’s focus on Asian Pacific American artists this month. Photograph by Mimi Jacobs

To commemorate Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in the US, the Archives of American Art, New York City. has launched a focus honoring the legacy and influence of Japanese-American artists who were among the more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans incarcerated in internment camps in the US during the Second World War.

The multi-platform initiative—which is available through social media, weekly newsletters and the archives’ blog—includes poignant and rarely-seen documents related to artists such as Ruth Asawa and Miné Okubo. Some materials include a recorded 2002 interview in which Asawa explains how she coped with the isolation of being in an internment camp in Arkansas, and how the experience influenced her practice, and more than 2,000 sketches Okubo made during her incarceration at the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. 

Courtesy of David Zwirner

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month marks two pivotal dates in Asian American history: the arrival of Japanese immigrants in the US on 7 May 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on 10 May 1869, an industrial feat built with significant labour from immigrant Asian workers. The memorial “presented the opportunity to raise the visibility of these artists represented in our collection”, says Liza Kirwin, the interim director of the Archives of American Art. 

In the coming weeks, the initiative will feature posts about the artists Patti Warashina, Reuben Tam, Val Laigo, Miye Matsukata, Kamekichi Tokita, Jun Kaneko and Kay Sekimachi.

Courtesy of David Zwirner

While its research centers in Washington DC and New York are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the organization has “made an additional push to share digitized content, and have increased our efforts to point to resources available on our website while our researchers and followers are unable to visit us in person”, Kirwin adds. 

Courtesy of David Zwirner

The archives recently received private financial support for the digitization of papers of under-represented artists and other overlooked parts of its archive. Kirwin says the grant “has allowed us to renew our efforts to share this material with the public”.

By Gabriella Angeleti for The Art Newspaper 

Why Did Hilma af Klint Elude Art History for So Long? A New Documentary Considers the Mystic’s Mysteries

 In 1936, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mapped the history of abstraction—literally. The catalogue for “Cubism and Abstraction,” a major show that year, featured on its cover a diagram rendering how Post-Impressionism gave rise to Cubism, which then led to Suprematism, Constructivism, and so on and so forth. The exhibition’s purview was problematic for a number of reasons: Save for the unbilled African creators of sculptures included as reference points for certain kinds of Western abstraction, all of the artists were white. And then all but three of them were men. There was Robert Delaunay, but not Sonia Delaunay; Hans Arp, but not Sophie Taeuber-Arp; Alfred Stieglitz, but not Georgia O’Keeffe; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, but not Lucia Moholy-Nagy; Pablo Picasso, but not Dora Maar.

Hilma af Klint. Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

The show’s myopic view continued to inform the history of abstraction—even after MoMA attempted to revise it with a 2012 exhibition revisiting that prior survey. And one of the many figures who should have been included—especially with the luxury of retrospect—is Hilma af Klint, whose abstraction painting practice was intended to commune with altered states of being. Curious about the artist’s absence, filmmaker Halina Dyrschka reached out to MoMA to ask why, and went on to make Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint, a new documentary (to be released on streaming services on Friday) that considers af Klint as one of art history’s best-kept secrets. In the film, art historian Julia Voss calls that the MoMA omission “a hostility,” and Dyrschka clearly agrees as she treats af Klint as a true genius whose alluring mystical visions remained hidden away for decades until, in recent years, she became the subject of blockbuster retrospectives.

Hilma af Klint, Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood, 1907. Stiftelsen Hilma af Klints Verk

“In science, a citation can always be overturned,” artist Josiah McElheny says in Beyond the Visible. “But in art history, it seems like citations cannot be overturned.”

Coming into the world one year after the Guggenheim Museum’s “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” show drew a record-setting 600,000 visitors in New York, Beyond the Visible acts as a useful guide to the artist’s work, with a special emphasis on her biography. It traces the start of her career at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, where af Klint began pushing against art-historical norms early on (an archivist points out that she drew nude male models—a no-no at the time), and continues following her artistic growth until she arrives upon a devotion to complete abstraction. There are stops along the way to consider her spirituality—an avowed Theosophist, af Klint formed the Five, a group that regularly held séances to commune with other worlds—and to revel in the majesty of some of af Klint’s more bizarre artworks, which feature twisting circles, swans that touch noses, wild wavy lines, and surreal swatches of color.

Dyrschka is not immune to the bland trappings that pervade documentaries about artists—she is too keen to rely on talking heads, and she might be a bit too determined to point out the similarities between, say, an out-of-focus moon and a circular blob on a canvas. But he film is supported by an enormous amount of research, and it piquantly points out connections between af Klint’s art and certain scientific trends of her day. Could those shaking lines that jut out of a cube in one painting be a reference to the new kinds of light waves being studied? Do the swans in her art refer to emergent biological investigations?

Still from Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint. Courtesy Kino Lorber

As part of her research, Dyrschka provides some zesty historical details. She claims that Moderna Museet—Sweden’s most important modern art museum, where an af Klint show was to have opened in April before the coronavirus shuttered it—received an offer of works by af Klint during the 1970s—and that museum officials turned it down. (As af Klint’s nephew says, speaking of his aunt’s art, “No one understood what this is.”) And Dyrschka claims that the frequently repeated tidbit that af Klint never showed her abstractions during her lifetime may be a myth—according to a letter written by af Klint in 1928 that the filmmaker suggests is proof that the artist may have even exhibited some of her most famous works in London that year.

Some of Dyrschka’s claims are questionable—she proposes, for example, that Wassily Kandinsky might have met af Klint during the early 1910s, even though Guggenheim curator David Horowitz has stated otherwise—and she is quick to gloss over important historical details. (That the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York both staged af Klint surveys in the ’80s, years before the Moderna Museet’s 2013 show became a sensation, goes unmentioned.)

But ultimately, Beyond the Visible makes a good case for af Klint as a source of appreciation and study for the rest of time, as the artist’s works its way more and more into the mainstream. When MoMA reopened last fall, her work was included alongside that of Georgia O’Keeffe. Is a citation finally being overturned?

By Alex Greenberger for ARTnews

The Lasting Influence of Mexico’s Great Muralists

Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros created a movement with galvanizing effects north of the border. 

José Clemente Orozco’s “Zapatistas,” from 1931, lyricizes the revolutionary force. Courtesy MOMA / © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The title of a thumpingly great show at the Whitney, “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945,” picks an overdue art-historical fight. The usual story of American art in those two decades revolves around young, often immigrant American aesthetes striving to absorb European modernism. A triumphalist tale composed backward from its climax—the postwar success of Abstract Expressionism—it brushes aside the prevalence, in the Depression thirties, of politically themed figurative art: social realism, more or less, which became ideologically toxic with the onset of the Cold War. What to do with the mighty legacy of the time’s big three Mexican painters, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros? As little as possible has seemed the rule, despite the seminal influence of Orozco and Siqueiros on the young Jackson Pollock. Granted, there’s the problem of appreciating muralists in the absence of their murals. (A mural is a picture that is identical with a wall, and a wall belongs to a building that, besides not being portable, has meanings of its own.) But, with some two hundred works by sixty artists and abundant documentary material, the Whitney curator Barbara Haskell reweaves the sense and the sensations of an era to bring it alive.

“The Driller (Mural, Rikers Island, New York),” by Harold Lehman, from 1937. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum © Estate of Harold Lehman

Start the story with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader from a village in the central state of Morelos, who was tricked into a military ambush and martyred in 1919. This was a year before the decade-long, staggeringly bloody Mexican Revolution, which had begun with an attempt to overthrow the dictatorial and oligarchic President Porfirio Díaz, finally culminated in the election of Álvaro Obregón. (At least a million of the country’s fifteen million citizens lost their lives.) The agrarian rebel Zapata became an iconic figure for a new order that was merging social reform with a celebration of folkways and traditions—in striking contrast to the urban-industrial character of the Russian Revolution. (Shifting views of the Soviet Union regularly roiled the Mexican intelligentsia, many of whom welcomed the exiled Leon Trotsky to the capital, in 1937, before some effectively condoned his murder by a Stalinist agent, in 1940.) Nearly every artist had a go at exalting Zapata for his deep rootedness in native soil as well as for his dashing militance. Orozco’s “Zapatistas” (1931) lyricizes the rural force. A “Zapatistas” made the following year, by Alfredo Ramos Martínez, conveys a lot with witty economy: a packed composition of overlapping sombreros affording incomplete glimpses of peasant faces and rifle barrels. It radiates a sort of ecstatic menace.

Ramos Martínez, who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1930, is one of a number of lesser-known artists who impress in the show’s opening sections. The Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, who journeyed the opposite way, from Los Angeles to Mexico, in 1923, is represented with crisp images, including a still-life of a sickle, a loaded bandolier, and an ear of corn. But the exhibition centers on the three leaders of the mural movement and their galvanizing effects north of the border. The star, of course, is Rivera, whose panache in an epic style of sophisticated populism won him world fame. In 1931, he was given the newly founded Museum of Modern Art’s second monographic show (the first was devoted to Matisse) and created a remarkable suite of portable frescoes. Among them were a magnificent portrayal of Zapata appropriating the white horse of a slain foe and “The Uprising,” in which a woman with a baby defends a worker from a sword-wielding soldier. I once underrated that work, but this time it affected me with its cinematic immediacy. Rivera keeps looking better in retrospect, after a long period in which his standing declined while that of his wife, Frida Kahlo, soared. I prefer Kahlo myself, though by a narrower margin now. The show includes only two works by her. One jolts. The self-portrait “Me and My Parrots” (1941) communicates a force of personhood beyond that of any of the hundreds of other faces on view here.

“Barricade,” by José Clemente Orozco, from 1931. Courtesy MOMA / © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rivera notoriously enchanted American financiers and industrialists, engaging in a dizzying dance of co-optation that extended to adulatory coverage in Forbes and peaked with his masterpiece murals, completed in 1933, in the Detroit Institute of Arts, of a Ford plant in full-tilt operation. This celebrity proved tricky for him at home, where Siqueiros, among others, denounced him as a sellout to class enemies. Rivera countered by painting a head of Lenin into his grand mural suite for Rockefeller Center, in 1933. Ordered by Nelson Rockefeller to remove the Bolshevik, Rivera refused. (Light verse by E. B. White in this magazine had the mogul objecting, “After all / It’s my wall,” before it concluded, “ ‘We’ll see if it is,’ said Rivera.”) The work was destroyed in 1934. The same year, Rivera painted a new version, “Man, Controller of the Universe,” in Mexico City. The Whitney show features a full-sized (nearly sixteen feet high by thirty-seven and a half feet wide) digital reproduction of the surviving mural, printed on a single sheet of vinyl glued to a wall. I don’t know what to make of that except as an instance of technical whoop-de-do. Much as I empathize with Haskell’s yen for a pièce de résistance, I swear by the physical integrity of painting, here betrayed by a smooth-as-silk illusion.

Rivera inspired American painters to create tableaux of laboring or protesting workers (police brutality figures often) and of historical events and themes. The work of the African-American artist Charles White is notable; give an eye to his “Progress of the American Negro: Five Great American Negroes” (1939-40), which works such heroes as Booker T. Washington and Marian Anderson into a baroque panorama. The show also includes ten temperas from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” of 1940-41: little pictures, narrating the northward exodus of Southern blacks, that reverberate with intense color, clenched design, and a quiet power of conviction that makes much other work here seem forced and fustian.

But America already had a prominent public artist: the ebullient neo-Mannerist Thomas Hart Benton, who hailed Rivera until he was alienated by his Marxism. Benton’s output might be termed liberal-nationalist with a heaping side order of Hollywood. His bravura series “American Historical Epic” (1924-27) has the virtue of featuring noble Indians along with the vice of casting them as perennial losers. He could be callous. But he was right on time for certain popular moods of the thirties—so much so that his reputation crashed soon thereafter. He has come to be mentioned most often as a teacher of Jackson Pollock—a status that happens to be at the beating heart of the Whitney show.

“The Uprising,” by Diego Rivera, from 1931. Courtesy collection of Vicky and Marcos Micha Levy; © 2020 Banco de México Rivera Kahlo Museums Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Reproduction authorized by El Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura, 2020

The young Pollock was a student, too, of Siqueiros, who was at once the mural movement’s most adamant Stalinist (in 1940, he led a failed attempt, with machine guns, to assassinate Trotsky) and its most experimental, indeed avant-garde, painter. Pollock attended a workshop that Siqueiros conducted in New York, in 1936, teaching innovative techniques: using non-paint materials, airbrushing, and, among other heterodox procedures, dripping and pouring. Meanwhile, Pollock emulated Orozco’s dark, fierce, rhythmic Expressionism to the point of making works that are almost—but not quite—hard to distinguish from it. Relatively neutral politically, Orozco favored mythological subjects in such explosively composed works as “Prometheus,” a mural at Pomona College, in California, which the Whitney represents, at about half scale, in another digital reproduction. Juxtapositions of paintings by Orozco and Siqueiros with contemporaneous ones by Pollock amount to a riveting show within the show: a crucible in which the apolitical American found ways around the crushing authority of Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, and other European paragons. The vehemence of the Mexicans matched his volcanic temperament; and the heft of their gestural forms showed him how to rival, while evading, the tinkered unities of Cubism. I recommend comparing and contrasting the seething intensity of Pollock’s “Composition with Flames” (1936) with that of “The Fire” (1938), by Orozco, and Siqueiros’s “The Electric Forest” (1939).

“Vida Americana” valuably augments standard histories of modern art. Without the Mexican precedents of amplified scale and passionate vigor, the development of Abstract Expressionism in general, and that of Pollock in particular, lacks crucial sense. As for the politics, consider the persistently leftward tilt of American art culture ever since—a residual hankering, however sotto voce, to change the world.

By Peter Schjeldahl for the New Yorker