Armstrong's Choice

by R. Jay Gangewere

Richard Armstrong, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, picks some personal favorites in a stroll through the galleries.

Richard Armstrong obliged with characteristic wit and intensity when asked to comment on a handful of his favorite works in the museum's permanent collection. He started with a list of seven, drawn from thousands of paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, films and objects in the collection. We started with Bonnard's Nude in a Bathtub, a popular choice of nearly everyone. Soon we were talking about bathing, art as a cleansing experience, Calvinism, and the location of viewers in the great food chain of art. Here are his thoughts as he confronted some of his favorites.

 Pierre Bonnard, Nude in a Bathtub

To me Nude in a Bathtub symbolizes such a hopeful contradiction. It's very late in the artist's life, and the person Bonnard pictures in the tub—his wife and lifelong companion Marthe—deteriorated, both physically and mentally over a long period; by its completion, she had died. It is not a heroic subject. And yet it makes a permanent impression—because it is so humane, and so ambitious in what it synthesizes: color, memory, ineffable sensation.

Marthe was an older woman when Bonnard started painting this, but he made her look young. She was obsessively clean—perhaps a hypochondriac—and spent a lot of time in the tub. She died before this painting was completed, and Bonnard himself died a year after finishing it. Because Bonnard was old here and very near the end of his career, one might expect some sort of faltering of touch. But the subject is so important to him that, instead, one sees an infusion of his own longing, and thus a sureness of effect. It's a Proustian painting, of course. She was dead: it's a "remembrance of things past."

Edgar Degas, The Bath

There is a sense of freedom and mystery in The Bath. You can look at Degas' pools of light and try to understand how fragments of color join to make up—or not make up—reality.

Because of the way it's rendered, The Bath is a very dry picture, with a superimposition of linear order on top of the colors. An evocative painting, it is darkly monumental as well. Degas has an incomparable ability to compose. I like the way he disperses the subject, either by placing it to the edge of the canvas, or by otherwise obscuring it. In this case, he uses a curtain. Not seeing her face, I think, makes it more intriguing.

Joan Mitchell, Wet Orange

After Joan Mitchell moved to a place near Paris with an inspiring view of the Seine, her work gained strength. Just as Monet had done in his paintings at Giverney, Mitchell was able to recreate the landscape she had seen outside by working inside the studio. She would look in the daytime, make drawings, and then paint at night. So she is recreating the landscape, hours and days later, under artificial illumination.

In Wet Orange there is organization of planes. Farmers like rectangular or square fields because that's the way surveyors depict fields—rather than conforming to topography. Mitchell has recreated that sense of organization in paint, with lots of colors representing different shapes on top of the landscape. And her willingness to show us process is very interesting. There are places where she paints "wet-on-wet," and where her instinct is to paint in a grand, gestural manner.

This is a great work, in part because of its size. Like the Monet Waterlilies, it is a panorama. You're enveloped by it, and you feel you are experiencing landscape. It's optically quite rich, and demands attention. It needn't be thought of as having any particular meaning, but the title "Wet Orange" undoubtedly refers to the condition of paint, and you can imagine it as a reference to the water-soaked fields, or to the natural light on the land after a rainstorm. In this painting Mitchell demonstrates kinship with Monet.

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Afternoon

Hopper always seems a colonial artist, and I'd say his kind of work is most likely in an English-speaking colony. It embodies some not particularly attractive Anglo-Saxon traits—such as a modern fascination with the desolate. Here, wooden architecture accelerates our sense of decay in the buildings, for instance, and the picture is depopulated.

One of Hopper's great strengths, it could be argued, is that his subject is light. This celebratory picture seems to me to be either daybreak or late in the day at his hallowed Cape Cod.

Willem de Kooning, Woman VI

This work represents a critical moment inside American art history, circa 1953. The freedom of abstract expressionism is already five years old, and there aren't many artistic ideas that still have momentum after six or seven years. Usually by then they are getting codified and imitated.

Another reason this is such an important painting in the series is that it's a full treatment of the body. We see the body almost fully, and de Kooning gives you a big range of coloration—with slashing brush strokes on both sides. The Woman series was motivated by an advertisement for a cigarette that was cut out of a popular magazine of the era, showing a woman with a full-lipped mouth. I don't know which cigarette ad this was, but it mentioned the "T-zone" around the mouth.

The other great value Woman VI has here is that at that moment the museum was not pre-disposed to abstraction. The museum didn't buy this picture; it was a gift of the great local collector G. David Thompson. This painting bolstered the collection at a crucial moment, and it's truly one of the museum's icons. We show it in a corridor axis, which allows you to compare the realism of female representation from the late 18th-century [George Romney's The Honorable Mrs. Trevor, 1779–80] with this abstraction of the late 20th-century.

Mel Bochner, Measurement: Plant

In conceptual art the concept doesn't age, but the material does. This tree has not been here since 1969. This is a lend-lease palm from Phipps Conservatory. We went with Bochner (who went to art school at Carnegie Tech) over to Phipps and he found the specimen that he liked, which corresponded to his initial 1969 collage for the piece. Mel Bochner shows you reality, and he shows you hyper-reality—which is the measure on the wall behind. In Measurement: Plant we've got black vinyl tape, a little architecture for support, and the living specimen, and the artist's intention to incorporate thought into the act of viewing.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Yellow Bath)

Here's an artist who has helped reinvigorate contemporary sculpture. She's best known for having cast the interior of a rowhouse in East London. In the 1995 Carnegie International, Whiteread used the negative space of nine different chairs to make resin molds for her Hundred Spaces, a field of translucent abstractions. Yellow Bath is monumental and comparable to the larger work, and so seemed suitable for the collection.

Yellow Bath is made out of rubber and polystyrene. Here we are looking at the impression of a very ordinary, everyday object with a function—a cast-iron bathtub. Whiteread configures sculpture through negative spaces, and we're encouraged to see this impression of a tub as an abstraction.

I see now that by picking Bonnard's Nude in a Bathtub and also Degas' The Bath, and Rachel Whiteread's sculpture Untitled (Yellow Bath), I've created a recurring motif of bathing.

I might be showing my evangelical Protestant roots, accidentally. There is baptism and washing away of sins in some of these pictures. I always think of art as a kind of salvation, even if there's no afterlife. I think a lot of artists, and people who like to look at pictures, see art, and making art, as a way of surviving. As viewers we're lower on the artistic food chain—we think looking at pictures is in itself a kind of momentary salvation.

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