Saturday, November 1st, 2003

American Cutout

The New York Studio School
8 West 8th Street
New York NY 10011

October 15 through November 22, 2003

Alex Katz Cat (1959) collage, 7-1/2 x 9-1/2 inches Courtesy Alex Katz

Alex Katz, Cat (1959) collage, 7-1/2 x 9-1/2 inches Courtesy Alex Katz

This show encompasses a number of different styles and formats, namely cutouts and collage, and the definition of “cutout” is meant to be multi-faceted.. Cutout generally means cutting out shapes and placing them on some sort of background. Cutouts allow artists to draw without the use of chiaroscuro. Crisp edged cutout forms have been used by artists to emphasize color and outline. Cutout has also been an essential part of modern art because of the way it flattens out forms and the picture space. Collage on the other hand, creates ambiguity in two-dimensional space. Photos, text, drawing, painting, and other materials, such as wallpaper, pieces of construction paper, and candy and food wrappers can be combined in the same composition. Through collage, artists have been able to subvert subject matter, add psychological or political dimensions to their work, approach drawing and painting in new ways, suggest new kinds of pictorial space, introduce text into their work, and redefine pictorial realism.

In Kara Walker’s work and the small pieces by Alex Katz in this show, notions of foreground and background are presented unambiguously; the picture plane is not deconstructed. The cutout is used either to sharpen the contrast between picture planes (Walker) or to heighten the tension between two-dimensional space and the suggestion of three-dimensional forms (Katz).

Kara Walker Jockey 1995 cut paper mounted on canvas, 10 x 10 inches Courtesy Brent Sikkema, New York

Kara Walker, Jockey 1995 cut paper mounted on canvas, 10 x 10 inches Courtesy Brent Sikkema, New York

Walker uses stenciled cutouts to create a jarring contrast between fore and background, which makes her work more disturbing and surreal. The black stenciled forms she places on a solid white background (“Jockey,” 1995) have political implications, but also fool us into thinking we can easily read the action and the figures. In fact it is not clear exactly what we are looking at. The gender of the figures, what they are wearing and holding and doing is unclear. We are not sure how the figures are interacting with one another, even though their outlines are crisp.

Three small collages by Alex Katz from the fifties (“Cat,’ 1959, “Roadmaster,” 1955-56, and “Two Figures,” 1955) are perfect examples of how artists use simple means, snipping away at tiny pieces of colored paper, to portray complex relationships. The trimmed edges of the colored paper capture the nuances of the figure of a sleeping cat, two lovers lounging on the grass, and a parked car. Katz’s Rowboat, 1964, is a piece made of painted wood cutouts of two people in a rowboat floating on calmly rippling water. The cutout figures have been painted black, and when placed on a white background, create the illusion of three dimensional space, rippling water, shadow, and solid form and figure, without resorting to line drawing or the modulation of colors.

The isolating effect produced by the cut-out can be used in a variety of ways. One of Katz’s full length portrait cutouts of friends and colleagues (“Frank O’Hara,” 1959-60) transforms the gallery space into a background for the figure. The cut aluminum figure by William King (“Magic,” 1972) has a ghostly erotic presence. From one angle the shape looks like a female figure, bending to the floor with her rear end in the air. Viewed from another angle, this reading falls apart and the shape becomes completely abstract.

Ellsworth Kelly Horizontal Nude 1974 collage, 4 x 5-7/8 inches Courtesy Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly, Horizontal Nude 1974 collage, 4 x 5-7/8 inches Courtesy Ellsworth Kelly

Like many artists in this show, Robert Motherwell uses collage to enhance the drawing process and reinvent form. Drawn or painted elements commingle with newspaper clippings, images, and text to form an agitated whole. Ellsworth Kelly juxtaposes different materials,a fragment of a naked woman over a row of mountains (“Horizontal Nude,” 1974), a bar of color pasted over the Statue of Liberty (“Statue of Liberty,” 1957) to create new kinds of pictorial space and to recontextualize cultural icons. A few artists in this show follow in the tradition of cubist collage and make new forms and new spaces using fragments of observed reality and patterns and textures such as Lee Krasner’s “Study for Mosaic at 2 Broadway, New York,” 1959, and Frank Stella’s “Lanckorona,” 1972.

Willem de Kooning Woman c1969-70 india ink on wood cutout, 36-1/2 x 42 x 2-1/4 inches Courtesy of Vered Gallery, East Hampton, NY

Willem de Kooning, Woman c1969-70 india ink on wood cutout, 36-1/2 x 42 x 2-1/4 inches Courtesy of Vered Gallery, East Hampton, NY

The most exciting rarities in this show are “Woman,” 1969-70, by Willem de Kooning, believed to be an armature or study aid for a sculpture he never made, and a small but beautiful gouache découpée by Matisse (“Alga on Green Background,” 1947). An India ink drawing on a wood cutout, “Woman” is immediately recognizable as a de Kooning because of the familiar high heel shoes and flailing breast shapes. This object was probably one of the many fragments of unfinished projects or ideas the artist had strewn about his various work spaces. The Matisse consists of a purple tendril shape (which appears in many of Matisse’s late works) placed on a green background. The piece has an aqueous feel to it, and the colors are enchanting.

This show makes it clear that artists used collage and cutout to disrupt or flatten or complicate the picture plane and to introduce different materials into the same composition. Photography undermined the realism welded by painters and draftsman for centuries, but collage and cutout allowed visual artists to manipulate two-dimensional space in ways not available to the photographer, at least, notprior to the invention of graphics software. Collage and cutout transformed the very notions of abstraction and realism, and the works in this show exemplify the liberating spirit they brought to modern draftsmanship and painting.