Color as Defiance: Scribbles 025-027

At the Stanford Arts Review, we find the Andersons’ generous gift to Stanford a cause for both public and intimate celebration. We encourage you to visit the collection, force your expectations of art out the door and open yourself to discomfort. For what is modern and contemporary art, after all? Scribbles on a canvas, clean lines, exultations of color that arise in all their material glory from the human mind. 

We now bring you a weekly series where our writers confront each painting and sculpture in the Anderson Collection, from 001 to 121. This week: Agnes Martin’s Untitled #21, Ellsworth Kelly’s Black Ripe, and Paul Wonner’s Figure By Window.

025. Katharine Schwab on Christopher Brown’s 1946


These are ghosts on a city street. We know the backs of their coats intimately; we see the curves and shadows of their hats, angled and obfuscating. We sense their movement, feel their loneliness seeping out the soles of their shoes into the puddles on the street. This is what America was, 1946. There’s a military man in uniform and a flag flying, but both representations are only half-visible, cut off by other murky figures or the intentional edge of the canvas.

What deep ache these people must know — having survived the Depression, the darkness of world war, the future as blurry as their own bodies against the gray concrete.

I would be that woman (or man) in the red coat, using color as my defiance against history.

026. Minna Xiao on Mark Tansey’s Yosemite Falls


Hovering a good three feet away, I already feel trapped by the icy unnaturalness of Yosemite Falls (Homage to Watkins), which Tansey has rendered with his signature unforgiving monochromaticity. At nine feet tall, the painting is a far cry from Carleton Watkins’ The Lower Yosemite Fall, the photograph it aims to reinvent. Before the campgrounds and bus tours and overpriced Half Dome postcards, California’s Yosemite Valley was an untouched emblem of the American frontier, and Watkins the first to capture its pristine and understated beauty.

Tansey’s Yosemite Falls is cold and calculated. The artist has slashed in half the foregrounding rocks of the original photograph. A fallen branch – resembling perhaps a varicose vein, or a deformed hand – slithers out toward me, pulling me in. I’m strangely reminded of the wicked witch from the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, who lures the young children into her cottage to fatten and eat. The resulting effect is entirely claustrophobic, and the scratch wounds upon the rocky garrison, as if a hapless beast had tried in vain to claw its way out of the layers of cyan paint, do nothing to shake that feeling. Before I know it, I’m standing under the “waterfall,” which looks like the vomitus some giant mechanical man has heaved up from the recesses of his metal stomach. There’s nowhere to turn. I’m forced to acknowledge the torrent of cameras and tripods, like the spindly legs of a virus, cascading towards the ground, threatening to disrupt the eerie stillness.

Four million visitors crawl through Yosemite each year, brandishing iPhones and cameras, weaving like ants in their boxy sedans from vista point to vista point. I myself am guilty. Tansey’s implication is stridently clear: for every flash and camera click greedily devouring the same tired panoramas over and over, the singular magic of Watkins’ iconic creations – and their subject – is steadily stripped of its life and luster. It’s hard to miss the title’s foreboding double entendre: at once the landmark’s literal name, it portends its untimely demise.

027. Eric Eich on Louise Nevelson’s Sky Garden


It’s a widowed grandpa’s attic, left soot-clad for want of a dutiful housewife. Or it’s a blackout, a technical difficulty at the antique roadshow. Somebody help! I need an art historian – or maybe a chimney sweep – to plunge these depths. Oh wait, it’s a phone booth. That explains the dust: sky gardens, left to rot.

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