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Peering into the studios of the creative

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  March 7, 2009 11:46 AM

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John Singer Sargent in his Paris studio
John Singer Sargent in his studio at 41 Blvd. Berthier in Paris
with his famous painting "Madame X".

"Artists in Their Studios," which runs at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 25, brings together more than 50 photographs of painters and sculptors in their artistic homes away from home. The Globe's Mark Feeney reviewed the exhibit:

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

STOCKBRIDGE - The architect Le Corbusier called houses machines for living. Artists' studios might be defined as cocoons for making. Not quite a residence but definitely more than a workplace, they're spaces that help reveal who an artist is and (far more important) how his or her work gets done.

"Artists in Their Studios," which runs at the Norman Rockwell Museum through May 25, brings together more than 50 photographs of painters and sculptors in their artistic homes away from home. The photographs come from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Hans Namuth, the New York School's unofficial staff photographer, shows up several times. Henri Cartier-Bresson has a photograph of Robert Rauschenberg. (Apparently, there's a decisive instant in silkscreening, since that's what Cartier-Bresson captures Rauschenberg doing.) Best of all is Inge Morath's deadpan portrait of Saul Steinberg wearing a paper bag over his head made up to look like, yes, Saul Steinberg.

Most of the photographers, though, are either obscure or unknown. It's the artist who's on the other side of the lens who matters. There's a real art-historical charge in seeing John Singer Sargent sharing the same space with his once-notorious portrait, "Madame X". (That their profiles chime visually is a charming bonus.) The baronial opulence of Sargent's studio seems positively low-rent compared to William Merritt Chase's. This is the cocoon as gallery or vault. The contrast could hardly be greater with the spattery funkiness of Robert Motherwell's studio, let alone the antiseptic spareness of Roy Lichtenstein's.

That fan behind Helen Frankenthaler is presumably there to help dry her paintings rather than cool her, since she's wearing long sleeves and thick trousers. It's a bit startling to see Reginald Marsh using a pair of binoculars to look out his studio window at passersby (below). Did he look through at the burlesque houses he liked to frequent? Once a voyeur, always a voyeur.

Reginald Marsh in NYC studio
Reginald Marsh in his studio on 14th Street in New York City, overlooking Union Square

Studios are as much about the things in the space as about the space itself. David Smith, a hard man to dwarf, nonetheless looks puny alongside the mighty appurtenances of the abandoned welding factory where he made his celebrated "Voltri" series. Conversely, the teacup from which Chaim Gross applies white plaster to his monumental sculpture "Harvest" looks hilariously incongruous (below). It's almost as if he should be holding it with his pinky extended.

Chaim Gross, in a temporary studio, working on "Harvest".

The biggest bit of incongruity here turns out, on reflection, not to be so incongruous after all. It's the juxtaposition of a photograph of Andy Warhol at the Factory, surrounded by specimens of his "Flowers" series, with a selection of photographs in the next gallery of Norman Rockwell, with related artworks, in his various studios.

It's a bit of a shock to see that the word is plural - let alone how plural. Rockwell had some 20 studios over the course of his career. One thinks of him as being rooted in the soil, like a sugar maple - or Andy on the New York social circuit. In fact, Rockwell worked at various times in New York, Paris, Vermont, Los Angeles, and, of course Stockbridge.

What may have been the most innately American thing about this self-consciously emblematic American artist was his mobility. If anything, Warhol was the less peripatetic, going straight from Pittsburgh to Manhattan, then staying put. Yet Warhol and Rockwell, such seeming antitheses, share a twofold bond. Each man's greatest artistic talent was for illustration, and his most lasting impact was entrepreneurial. One was a peerless entrepreneur of the Now, the other an equally peerless entrepreneur of the Then. Just think of Interview as being The Saturday Evening Post for a much narrower demographic.

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