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Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man's faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements. – Giacomo Puccini
Her studio is the second floor of a house that overlooks a sloping back lawn to the Credit River. Most of the interior walls have been removed. It’s an expansive work space—wooden storage racks along the end wall are filled with paintings. The largest stretched canvases do not exceed the dimensions of 5’10” x 5’10”. She found out years ago that a 6’x6’ would not pass through the stairway.
Despite the contrariety in attitude between the general public’s long- standing resistance to abstract painting, and the coveting embrace of large-scale abstraction by large U.S. corporations as emblems of post-WW2 economic and cultural superiority, the reputation of the revolutionary American abstract expressionist painters of the1950s has endured and attained the status of mythology.
Post-modernists have perceived elitism there, and abnegated it, as equally as there has been populist head-scratching about art with no recognizable images. Nonetheless, Ab Ex is a high-water mark in 20th century art—a post-war cultural phenomenon that exploded in America. New York City replaced Paris as the art capital of the world. And yet, today, non-representational, abstract painting is still largely misunderstood and under-appreciated.
The only planning I do is to select three or four colours – out of the 80 or 90 in my palette. I think of my work as a kind of calligraphy and the movement of shapes across the canvas.... My best work is minimal. – LLI
For the abstractionists of the 1950s and 1960s, painting was a self- contained, self-consuming exercise. To stay in the game, artists were compelled to seek constant innovation. Their painting was steered by the controlling principles of art-making propounded by powerful “high- art” critics, most notably, the formalist, Clement Greenberg. In the 1960s, abstraction was seen to be driven by the modernist demand for originality and advancement toward a pure, formalistic solution to painting that involved an increasingly urgent concern for the integrity of the picture plane, the way paint was deposited on the surface, and the retreat from illusionism.
Painting grew steadily more specified in its aims. It steered head-long into minimalism and an inevitable cul-de-sac. “What you see is what you see,” Frank Stella said. By the 1970s, in terms of art history, painting had had its day. As it turned out, however, formal abstraction —the agent of inexorable advancement—wasn’t the culmination of art history. But the canon of modernism had made it seem to be. The story had been reduced to an exclusive group of abstractionist heroes playing out the history of painting in an international arena. Sensing the end, many abstract painters sought a way out by turning to sculpture, pop art, or a return to realism.
Even though succeeding generations of painters have reinvented ways to approach abstraction, it is not uncommon to find that many art curators today view abstract painting as enervated material, its usefulness expired, its narrow, aesthetic basis questioned and deemed superfluous. For them, abstraction’s place is in the toolbox of graphic designers.In the 1980s, some critics declared that painting was dead. But it was only modernism—the belief that there could only be inexorable progress—that died. Abstract painting continues. Released from the pressures of modernist progress and its concise objectives, painters persevered with renewed commitment to an art form that is integral to art history and Western culture.
It is this legacy that LLI embraces. Coming to abstract painting several decades after the turbulence of Ab Ex, she found not a dead end, but a new possibility. Liberated from the strictures of modernism, and its domination by a handful of iconic Ab Ex painters from NYC, abstract painting offers a myriad of opportunities for highly sophisticated psycho-spiritual exploration, and for very refined seeing.
But then, LLI’s abstract-painting methods do not descend directly from those first-generation male Ab Ex heroes, such as Pollock, De Kooning, Newman, Gorky, Still, et al. LLI’s passion for the spill and flow of paint was acquired through study with the great female colour- field painter who came along shortly after that first wave—Helen Frankenthaler.
Although Frankenthaler herself was influenced and promoted by the fearsome Clement Greenberg, with whom she had a five-year relationship, and was later married to Robert Motherwell, she broke the Ab Ex white-male mould.
Helen Frankenthaler was one of the younger ’50s and ’60s painters. When she taught, she didn’t “demo”—she didn’t have to. She came into the studio two times in a five-day week and do her two-hour critique. She was very brutal. All the painting was done on the floor on large raw canvas. To critique them, they were tacked on the wall. – LLI
A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks laboured and overworked, and you can read in it—well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that—there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes 10 of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute." – Barbara Rose quoting Helen Frankenthaler in Frankenthaler (1975)
LLI set her own pace and context for her abstract-painting practice. She focused on passionate triggers of her own choosing, outside of art history. Most significantly, she chose the tragic grandeur and intensified drama of classical opera.
Nowadays, operatic excerpts are used routinely to uplift movie scenes; music and image stimulate our emotions through their combined power to create memorable cinematic sequences. They suspend reality and create the illusion of extraordinary sensations and heightened moments. For LLI, a tumult of colour, an improvised gesture, a conviction that this line, this form, this saturation can induce a similar, exquisite, revelatory experience. While Frankenthaler is the sudden force that turned her art practice around, opera is the touchstone for her ongoing inspiration.
The human voice is the most beautiful musical instrument. – LLI
From Frankenthaler, LLI learned the meaning and technique of “colour-field”, and “soak stain”.
As wet paint moves, it dries, crackles. What I see is not what I get. Ever!
Practice or sketch or preliminary plan is not in my vocabulary.
My method is a simplification that’s badly needed. – LLI
The first Jackson Pollock show Frankenthaler saw was at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in 1950. She had this to say about seeing Pollock's paintings Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950), Number One (1950), and Lavender Mist (1950): "It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language." – Barbara Rose, in Frankenthaler (1975)
In those spellbinding moments in the grand operas of Puccini and Verdi, when Cio-Cio San and Tosca pierce the heavens with soaring, plaintive song, Lila Lewis Irving’s heart is breaking. What calamity could be more rapturous? How does a mortal being contend with such an abundance of powerful feeling? The unabashed irrationality of opera—its improbable representation of narrative by word and song and theatrical performance—is the unabashed rationale of her impetus and her painting.
Art is a kind of illness. – Giacomo Puccini
I adore art ... when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear. – Guiseppi Verdi
Sometimes I get my best paintings from torture, frustration, overworking ... but it’s breathtaking to do a painting alla prima— all at once! – LLI
Bryce Kanbara (Dec/2011)
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