"Reader on a Black Background": Sarah Meigs was curious to understand more fully "The Decorator" (2010, ink, gouache, colored pencil, charcoal and gold leaf on paper 57.5" x 85") which she purchase for his most recent PDX exhibition. Meigs invited Tharp to curate an exhibition for which Tharp selected works from her collection including "The Decorator" and write a corresponding essay.
"Reader on a Black Background"
"Reader on a Black Background" is a painting by Henri Matisse. Completed in 1939, the painting depicts a woman sitting at a rose-colored table; she reads a manuscript. Tall flowers fill a large, ceramic vase and her abstracted profile is reflected in the mirror behind her. The drafting is minimal and naïve, the color vivid. A suggestion of seasonal decor illustrates the artists romance with Southern France and the Mediterranean. These elements are afloat in a sea of black: no horizon, no ground.
As I study the image reproduced in a book, I am detached. It occurs to me that she, the woman in the painting, is also reading – we are both reading. And eventually the title, which up to now has merely described the elements of Matisse’s composition, begins to resonate with a strong, personal interpretation.
In an overwrought world, it is refreshing and restorative to take pleasure in the formal qualities of a great painting. In the case of Henri Matisse, that was his intent. His idea so to speak: to be clear. The effect of the painting was the meaning. The reduction of his forms and the primacy in his use of color is not unlike a meditation by which we concentrate on the essential and let go of the extraneous. The painting is serene, comfortable and familiar. It is bold, unique and abstract. Black is the hard edge of a cutout; the psychological shadow of flesh and sunlight. It is the interior of life illuminated by knowledge and beauty.
In relationship to this, I think about my own painting "The Decorator," 2010, and I begin with two sensibilities: The idea of knowing who we are by what surrounds us. And the notion we cannot possibly know anything.
Although it is impossible to suggest that the artworks arranged into this exhibition were intentionally made with this dichotomy in mind – it is an interesting filter by which to contemplate the works - to connect them. Richard Misrach’s lone traveler, resting in an endless sandscape shares formal qualities with Susan Rothen- berg’s obliterated, standing figure. Both works hum with the ontological anxiety of confronting oneself. Even Walead Beshty’s traveling glass boxes reveal
the fragile yet utterly brave strength of addressing the unknown.
"The purpose of the art object is to produce a particular state of mind. It does not depict or symbolize that state but, by various means, leads the viewer to it." 1
The abstract mass of Corin Hewitt’s complex and dark landscape would seem impossible to navigate if it were not for the reference to Casper David Friedrich’s, "The Wanderer above a Sea of Mist," from 1818. With this nod to a famous figurative painting, the abstract quandary of the landscape becomes traversable and the expanse of the world at our fingertips.
...it was a picture of the kind that only an aeronaut can see, when he rises in the airship above the height of the clouds... up to where ...the untroubled blue of the heaven is visible between the wisps of mist." 2
To see heaven: What is this other than a mystical state of mind? What is this if not a fantasy of indoctrinated social morality? It is the great mystery of the human experience: to search, to wander, and to be enlightened. It is in fact, the greatest kind of humane optimism. And yet, often times we feel like stray dogs running among the crumbling ruins of a great society – looking for scraps and handouts, wearing hoods and smoking cigars. We have to endeavor to remain light – especially in darkness. One must let go of comfort in order to discover a greater nature, in order to discover
1. Smith, Walter (1990). "Ad Reinhardt's Oriental Aesthetic." Smithsonian Studies in American Art. Vol. 4, No. 3. Pg. 22-45.
2. Schubert, Gotthilf Heinrich (1855). "Caspar David Friedric The Painter of Stillness." Norbert Wolf, Taschen (2003). Pg. 58.