Francis Cunningham's Century Masters show ended yesterday. With more free time back at the studio, we've just completed and are now sharing a video made in the gallery. We think it complements the earlier video by Jon Peters, showing the work and the space while also letting artist speak.
An accompanying essay by John Walsh, former director of the Getty Museum:
In this exhibition, Francis Cunningham shows some of his well-known landscapes and still lifes—each laid out broadly but exactly, and subtly painted—and also a half-dozen seldom-seen life size nudes, all revealing un-idealized physiques and complex states of mind. The exhibition invites us to slow down, look with care, and let the paintings reveal themselves.
Cunningham has said that these nudes are “both anatomically functional and abstracted from particular human beings.... Compared with the nudes of the Hellenized past, a past that ended with Renoir, they are confrontationally present... They are anatomically functional, meaning they can get up, leave the canvas, and enter the room with you. They are certainly not in a style one finds in the Museum of Modern Art. Yet when seen alongside the old, they appear modern and contemporary.”
He goes on: “I look at the forthcoming Century show with more than a little trepidation. It isn’t that viewers won’t see or don’t want to see—it is more that we are conditioned to see only what we expect to see. How to get past this state of affairs?”
Trepidation is not what you imagine Cunningham feels very often. He is a sturdy ex-Marine, straightforward, blunt, and, when his well-considered beliefs are challenged, fierce. (He is also a clear, forceful writer about his own motives and methods, so I quote him copiously in this essay; some passages are from his forthcoming book, Unframing the Nude.) Cunningham says he wants it understood that “by integrating the nudes with landscape and still life, one may see them as part of a complete and consistent viewpoint, the product of a lifetime of work, not tangential but in fact at the center of the enterprise.”
His enterprise began at the Art Students League. Cunningham arrived there in 1955 after graduating from Harvard (where he wrote an honors thesis on Van Dyck’s English period) and serving for two years in the Marine Corps. The League’s alumni included the major figures of the Abstract Expressionist generation--Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Guston among others—who were then reaching the peak of their fame, as well as Cunningham’s near contemporaries Rauschenberg, Twombly, and Smithson, whose paths diverged dramatically from his own. Cunningham studied drawing and painting with Edwin Dickinson and anatomy with Robert Beverly Hale. Dickinson’s ideas had a lasting influence on him, reinforcing his commitment to unprejudiced vision and supplying the tools he needed.
“Dickinson’s teaching vocabulary was perceptual,” Cunningham writes. “With us, he stayed clear of all subjects—perspective, anatomy, composition theory, color theory and the like—that might function as ‘preconceptions’ and distract us from what the eye sees. He wanted us to record in paint or charcoal the shapes of ‘color-value’ we saw in nature from our ‘station-point,’ without interference from conceptual theories or concern for the ‘what-it-is’ of the objects or shapes before us. To a painter, a mud puddle is as interesting and demanding as a human figure; to paint either requires the same detachment from expectations such as ‘the human being is “beautiful” and the mud puddle “ugly.”’
Dickinson’s working methods came from his teacher Charles Hawthorne, a landscape and portrait painter, who based them in part on his experience at the Art Students League under the brilliant turn-of-the-century painter William Merritt Chase. Hawthorne went beyond Chase and developed a method of observing and putting down broad patches of color and tone that he called “color spots.” The idea was to try to ignore what they represented and simply see what they presented to the eye when juxtaposed with other color patches. Dickinson taught Cunningham that once he had observed the main elements of a composition, he might paint rapidly and decisively. He advocated an exercise he called “premier coup,” making a completed painting fit for a museum wall in a single session, usually of two to four hours, not belaboring or correcting but trying for a maximum of freshness. Dickinson’s methods became those of Cunningham, who, having become a teacher himself, transmitted them during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to several generations of younger artists.
His lifelong application of these principles of composition and color are readily apparent in his landscapes and still lifes. He looks for large forms and renders them in broad areas of mostly modulated tone and quiet color. There are no attention-getting brushstrokes, no show of virtuosity. Despite the convincing illusion of deep space he creates, a strong abstract pattern underlies his flat surfaces.
Cunningham has painted countless landscapes during the past fifty years, and a good many still lifes, that have been bought by collectors and museums. Another artist would have been satisfied. But the urge to paint the nude has never left him. In the early 1970s, while teaching figure drawing and painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, he took up the challenge of painting life size figures. “Like an unexpected shaft of light, the naked human being became the subject of the nude. I saw it happen. The jockstraps came off the male models. That was the physical manifestation of a changing outlook, and one that happened everywhere and seemingly all at once... With the removal of the cover-up, the models, women as well as men, ceased being studio props. The models now could be seen for who they were, human beings existing in their own right, needing no excuse or purpose other than being themselves in order to be drawn, painted or sculpted. That was a revolution in attitude.”
He and his collaborator Barney Hodes accepted the models as they were. “Our concept of the nude didn't celebrate youth over age or ‘beauty’ over imperfection. We weren't looking for a prototype because we knew firsthand that no two people are alike. The idealized view of the body that governs advertising and the fashion industry, while useful for commercial purposes, for us seemed debased...The idea embodied in the nude we undertook is that the individual human being is inherently beautiful in never-ending and surprising ways.”
Cunningham came to believe that the more his viewers can imagine these figures free to move about, the more credible they will be. He calls them “anatomically functional.” By this he means that the model is not seen and proportioned from a single vantage point, and thus fixed in place. Instead, they appear “capable of moving out of their painted position on the canvas to take another pose,” which requires the artist to observe the model from many different points of view, as though from a great distance, thereby removing the optical distortion produced in a single close-up view.
I spent time recently in Cunningham’s studio looking at Reaching, (Peter). We gave it what I think of as a Kandinsky test. (Kandinsky wrote that when he was a young landscape painter, he came upon one of his own pictures on its side in the studio and didn’t recognize it—he could see only forms and colors, a revelation.) We stood his nude on each of its four sides. I saw a great deal that I had missed when it was conventionally upright picture of a nude man in an unusual pose. I saw strong abstract patterns in his back, delicate shapes in the shadows behind one knee, subtle patterns even on the sole of a foot. These are the product of the painter’s curious, patient observation of “wondrous and unexpected shapes,” and their “occasional ‘marriages’ with adjacent shapes within the body or background.” He reveals his motives when he writes, “these designs within the body open up the range of human emotion—not a symbolic ‘mad, sad, glad’—but all the myriad, infinite shades of emotion that the range and variety of individuals can produce.”
It is not just emotion that Cunningham’s models express. They display their youth by their taut physiques and their infirm old age by their sagging shapes, and they invite us to speculate on what their bodies may reveal about their life histories (which in every case Cunningham knows thoroughly). In a few instances his vividly particular models embody saints, and even Christ. His world-weary Christ ascending from limbo, he says, was Tom Johnson, now dead. The figure is “in the process of returning from hell... emaciated; he has added thirty years to his thirty-three in his descent to hell.”
Cunningham asks his viewers to confront their own mortality in these fellow human beings. What’s more, he invites viewers to ponder our differences. “Why the nude today?” he asks. “Stripped of every mark of rank and distinction, the nude presents us with our shared humanity. Something so simple as this can direct us past differences of a kind that lead to prejudice, injustice, and violence. As an embodiment of our shared humanity, the painted or sculpted nude carries us beyond the parochial differences of class, creed, and nation. I think of it as art for life's sake.”
With conviction and hope, Cunningham has carried forward several long traditions in painting. His work continues not only the Renaissance humanistic practice of depicting the natural world and living men and women, but also the modern practice of discerning abstract forms in those things and letting those forms determine how they are painted.
Among his hopes has been that his figure painting might prompt young artists, if not inspire them, to turn to the human being as a subject. Despite a brief vogue for figural painting in the 1980s, the nude has remained out of fashion. Now that critical consensus on what constitutes artistic progress has dissolved, however, and more pluralistic views about artistic merit prevail, Cunningham’s paintings may gain an audience of people, including artists, who are willing to look patiently, attentively, with open minds, to discern beauty in unexpected places.