Writing

Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss

In September I traveled to New York on two occasions to gather video footage for Syracuse University’s Arents Award video tributes, which our department produces; the Arents Award is the university’s highest alumni honor. My colleague Bob and I stayed at SU’s Lubin House, the university’s home base for New York City operations. We also shot a few interviews there. While staying overnight at the Lubin House, I had a chance to walk into the Palitz Gallery on the premises and view the Robert Kipniss exhibition mounted there. The exhibit continues until Nov. 12, and my review follows below.

##

The ventilation system hums inside the Palitz Gallery at Syracuse University’s Lubin House in New York City. But standing in front of some of the graphic works of Robert Kipniss currently on view at the gallery, you may imagine other sounds—a screen door swinging shut, a train roaring in the distance, cicadas singing and the wind moving through tree limbs.

Quiet Intersections: The Graphic Work of Robert Kipniss presents more than 30 prints depicting interior still life scenes and rural landscapes composed of plants, windows, houses, trees, hills and fields. Most of the works are black and white, while others have subtle earth tones like mauve, green and brown.

Branches by Robert Kipniss (1967)

The prints are part of the Syracuse University Art Collection, a gift from James F. White, and cover more than 40 years of Kipniss’ career—from 1967 to 2013. Most are small works, the largest measuring 24 by 18 inches (height to width).

These pieces show a consistency in style and composition, as the artist uses a dark palette, dynamic angles and carefully constructed geometric patterns to draw the viewer’s eye and create a moody atmosphere.

Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)
Four Houses by Robert Kipniss (1991)

With the human figure pulled from the scenes, we get the sense of seeing the subjective point of view of a person standing in a living room and looking out a window at a dew-covered backyard or hillside in southern Indiana, or sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning hours, sipping that first cup of coffee and observing the sunlight filtering through parted curtains. Hence, the works stimulate introspection and possess greater allure than straight still life or landscape prints. Their power lies in what they are able to represent or conjure in the mind of the viewer.

 

Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)
Without Within by Robert Kipniss (1978)

And Kipniss prevails in his subtlety. This is not art on a grand scale showcased in a massive and overcrowded gallery space; instead, this is art to live with and reflect on, objects to hang on a wall and return to on a daily basis.

Kipniss was born in Brooklyn in 1931. Both of his parents were artists and he developed an interest in both verbal and visual expression. He studied at the Art Students League and earned two degrees from the University of Iowa—a bachelor’s in English literature in 1952 and a master of fine arts in painting and art history in 1954.

He won an art competition in New York in 1951 and was awarded his first one-man show. After serving in the Army, he and his wife returned to New York City. He worked evenings at the U.S. Post Office and spent his days painting and writing poetry. He then made the decision to devote his time entirely to painting, which meant he shelved his writing.

He would, however, jot down observations about his life and work over the next several years, and these memories would form the basis of his 2011 memoir, Robert Kipniss: A Working Artist’s Life (University Press of New England).

Kipniss has exhibited his work in more than 200 solo shows. He is represented in the permanent collections of several prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

He was elected to the National Academy of Design and to the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers in London.

Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)
Vase with Branches and Chair (2013)

The exhibition will remain on view through Nov. 12; it is open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free and open to the public. The Lubin House is located at 11 East 61st Street between Madison and Fifth avenues. Contact 212-826-0320 or lubin@syr.edu for more information.

After it closes in New York, the exhibit will travel north and then open in January at the Syracuse University Art Galleries in Syracuse, New York.

Writing

The Happy Couple Exhibit

This essay was published in the 2014 edition of Words & Images literary magazine, a student-run publication at the University of Southern Maine.

##

I heard the woman first before I saw her or her partner inside the museum of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse. She said in loud voice, “Rick, where are you hon?” The OHA had a few exhibitions running simultaneously on this Saturday in early January 2013, and so it was possible to lose sight of your friend or partner as you made your way through the different gallery spaces and inspected the various works. “Hon, come here, look at this,” she added.

Onondaga Historical Association
Onondaga Historical Association

At the time I was examining the exhibit Manifest Destiny and The American West by Buffalo artist Robert Hirsch. Hirsch presented nearly one-thousand images in a three-dimensional display—with the pictures placed inside jars and serving as a commentary on how the geographic progression across North America shaped U.S. culture.

After I finished looking at the Manifest Destiny jars, I started walking toward where the couple was standing. They were planted in front of some panels of an exhibit highlighting historic stereoscopic photographs.

Rick was probably in his sixties. He was tall, broad-shouldered and bald except for a tuft of grayish-white hair at the back of his head. He had a bushy mustache that curled downward and matched his hair color and he was wearing a tan jacket. The woman, whom I will call Ruth, was small and also appeared to be in her sixties. She was wearing a black fur coat, tall black boots and bronze earrings that looked like costume jewelry. She had short black hair, a birthmark on the right side of her face and she had applied a little too much burgundy lipstick to her mouth.

But it was her dialogue that made her memorable. I am not a casting director, but I believe you could pick Ruth up and place her in a Woody Allen film and without even reviewing the script, she would fit in with no problem. In fact I bet she would steal scenes away from Scarlett Johansson or Penélope Cruz.

I heard her tell her husband, as I assumed they were married, “See, I should have lived in the 1920s. I’d be dead now, but look at all the stuff I would have remembered.”

Something else about Ruth struck me on a personal level; she reminded me a lot of my late mother. My mother had never attended an art exhibit in her life and was not loquacious like this museum visitor, but the two women shared some physical features. Both were short and had short black hair.

My mom: Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

And just like Ruth, my mother would often smear too much of the same shade of burgundy lipstick on her mouth. My mom also had the habit of applying a little too much rouge to her cheeks. If she was getting ready to leave the house to attend the Saturday vigil mass at St. Peter’s Church in Rome, New York, where she lived, I would tell her, “Mom, you need to blot your cheeks. The rouge is caked on.” Her standard reply would be, “Oh shut up. Can’t you ever say anything nice?”

Ruth, Rick and I were gathered inside a small gallery space where Carl Lee’s multi-channel video Last Housewhich documents the destruction of a house in Buffalo, was being screened.

In the piece, on what looks like a bright spring or summer day, a backhoe starts demolishing the house and three separate camera angles capture the action simultaneously. Viewers watch as the scoop of the backhoe starts eating away the roof and walls of the structure, while a man stands near the rubble and uses a power hose to spray water on the scoop and house so no sparks jump to life.

As arresting as Lee’s video was, his exhibit became trumped by a living breathing work of art—the older couple that had seized my attention. And as I stood near the back wall of the room, my focus shifted from the images on the screen in front of me to Rick and Ruth seated on a black bench nearby.

“You see that, it’s three angles of the same thing,” Rick said.

“Yes, I know,” Ruth replied. She paused and then added, “You must think I’m a real idiot.”

I almost burst out laughing because her delivery was a spot-on impersonation of my mother, using the same words my mother had said to me on numerous occasions. But I managed to suppress the laughter swelling inside of me and kept it contained in my throat.

A short time later Rick said to Ruth, “Hon, are tired?” Ruth rubbed her thighs and said, “A little, but I’m OK.”

“Well it’s 2:30,” Rick said.

“No, it’s later.” She checked her watch and said, “It’s 2:40.”

“Your watch is fast,” he said.

“No it’s not. I set it by the stove, and it’s always slow.”

They stopped chatting and watched in silence as the house was being ripped apart in the video. Then, a little while later, amid the grating sounds of the backhoe and the walls tumbling down, Rick turned his head toward Ruth and said, “Are you sure you’re not too tired?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said.

And that’s how I left them. The couple was still sitting there, watching the video when I stepped out of the exhibition space and exited the OHA.

I think what intrigued me most about the couple was their ease of interaction and level of comfort with one another. And I was thankful for having witnessed this slice of life from their apparent happy marriage, a snapshot of two older people behaving in an unguarded fashion in a public museum on an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

I did not assume they lived a perfect life without worry or conflict. But it appeared Rick and Ruth understood and accepted one other unconditionally. In spending a few moments in their presence, it seemed like neither partner had any illusions about the other person, and there appeared to be no mysteries in their relationship still waiting to be uncovered. They had likely revealed all their flaws and weaknesses a long time ago, and yet, they still enjoyed spending time together and remained happily married and devoted to one another. Or at least that’s the impression they gave to outsiders.

I often get a rush of creative energy after visiting an art museum, attending a play or concert or seeing a great film. And while I was walking home my rumination about the couple sparked an idea. I decided they would make a compelling subject for a modern art exhibit.

So here’s my proposal:

A museum would build a large installation showcasing Rick and Ruth as one of the last surviving happy couples in America. It would be a spectacle like something 19th Century showman P.T. Barnum could have curated and promoted.

Rick and Ruth would be placed inside a large kitchen space encased in glass like the diner scene in Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

We would observe them sitting in their kitchen—drinking coffee, talking, cooking and eating breakfast, lunch or dinner, reading the newspaper, playing Scrabble, baking cookies, celebrating their birthdays and washing and drying dishes.

The display would offer viewers an unfiltered window into the life of the couple, and the images, sounds and conversations would document Rick and Ruth’s ease of interaction. The goal would be to reveal the secrets of this happy marriage.

As a result, the exhibit would aim to answer these central questions: What makes this couple different from others? What is the key to their bliss? And what advice or insights do they have for other couples in terms of making a relationship last?

From a technical standpoint, Rick and Ruth would need to be well-lit and microphones would need to be placed on or near them to pick up clean sound; the museum would also have to mount speakers or headphones near the display so the viewer could listen as the couple communicates.

As this idea spun wildly inside my brain, I felt a sense of joy bubbling within and I smiled when I imagined Rick and Ruth hanging out in their hermetically-sealed museum kitchen.

I could almost hear him saying something like, “You know, we’re gonna have to eat a little later because the chicken still needs to defrost before we put it in the oven.”

Ruth would then shoot Rick a dirty look, smack her lips or maybe place a hand on her hip. “Do you think so?” she would say. “God, you must think I’m a real idiot.”

Moments later Ruth would be standing at the counter making a salad and Rick setting the table, and Ruth might turn to him and ask, “Hon, what do you feel like for dessert?”

“Oh I don’t care,” he would say, his eyes lifting from the cutlery on the table. “Anything.”

“Well we have that Entenmann’s crumb cake in the freezer. You want me to take it out?”

“Sure.”

“Yeah, that sounds good, doesn’t it hon?”

“You bet Ruth. It does.”

Then, as the museum would get ready to close for the day, the lights to the kitchen display would be dimmed and Rick and Ruth would depart the exhibition space. And we wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with them when they walk outside the walls of the museum, get into their car and head home for the night.

But I suspect not much would change between them, and I find this reassuring because I wouldn’t want to miss anything.

 

Writing

Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home

In visiting the Everson Museum in Syracuse, you could easily miss the exhibition Julie Blackmon: Other Tales from Home tucked in the small Robineau Gallery on the main floor. The exhibit, which closes Sept. 2, contains eight large-scale color photographs depicting family scenes. The images are a cross between common family snapshots and an artfully arranged tableau depicting the chaos of modern family life; and Blackmon seems comfortable straddling the line between reality and manipulation and taking the viewer along for the ride.

Blackmon fills the frame with so much information—in the form of kids, pets, food, plastic toys and other props—the viewer can linger in front of the works, as countless narrative connections spark the imagination. You also find yourself counting the number of kids and the different props in each scene.

Blackmon lives and works in Missouri. In her artist statement, found on her website, julieblackmon.com, she cites the lively narrative paintings of 17th century Dutch artist Jan Steen as an influence on her work. However, it may be Blackmon’s own family life that provides the most inspiration. She is the oldest of nine children and the mother of three, and she says, “These images are both fictional and auto-biographical, and reflect not only our lives today and as children growing up in a large family, but also move beyond the documentary to explore the fantastic elements of our everyday lives, both imagined and real.”

One of the most compelling aspects of her work is the care she takes in capturing children. The young subjects, whether they are her own children, her nieces and nephews or children from the neighborhood, reflect a sweet innocence in front of the camera. They play, pout, and cry, but cuteness is not the aim of the artist; these are not Facebook photos uploaded by proud parents. Instead, even though the scenes are staged, we get the sense these are kids acting like kids in a safe environment surrounded by family. In many cases, the subjects seem unaware of the camera’s presence. The result is Blackmon’s photos possess a timeless quality resembling the iconic American paintings of Norman Rockwell, but with an odd twist thrown in.

In Patio, for example, one of the works in the exhibit, we see what looks like a modern house in a sun-bleached California-type setting. There is a blue inflatable ball on the roof in the top right of the frame and a pink ball in the bottom left. A little girl in a white dress is looking at her reflection in the window, a toddler is scooting around on a blue stroller and a third child is crawling on the floor in the house, just inside the doorway.

A red charcoal grill stands in the middle of the frame with orange flames shooting out, and a large box of McDonald’s French fries rests on a circular table covered with a green tablecloth. A barefoot woman sits in a chair, her face buried in a large-scale glossy magazine called New You. A bag of Lay’s Classic potato chips has been placed near her feet. The viewer is left to wonder: does she know there are children playing close to the open fire? Does she care?  

And that’s the beauty of this exhibition. The images remain fertile in your mind, as you think about the families depicted in the scenes. You get the sense it would be fun to spend an evening with them, to take part in the chaos of their meals, games and merriment, while at the same time having the freedom—like an aunt or an uncle—of being able to leave the house at the end of the night.

It also seems Blackmon could revisit this work over and over again, dreaming up more scenarios for her family to act out without the images becoming repetitive. You can just imagine scenes of kids getting ready for school, a baby screaming after dropping its pacifier, toddlers sitting on the kitchen floor and struggling to tie their shoes, little boys chasing frogs or fireflies on the front lawn on a summer evening and little girls standing in front of a full-length mirror, modeling their mothers’ clothes and jewelry.

The one question I keep asking myself again and again in rethinking this exhibition is, for each photograph, how long did it take Blackmon to get the kids to pose exactly as she wanted? And did she have to bribe them with promises of ice cream sundaes or trips to a local water park?