George Nelson Clock reproduction by Verichron, 2013
Every so often it is good to have the rug pulled out from under you. The experience sharpens your senses, wakes you up, and makes you question the firm ground that all too often is taken for granted.
Online ad, Modernica, 2013
My Mid-20th Century Design Road to Damascus was a flight to Spain with a long layover in JFK. It was 1998, Trans World Airlines was still operating, and the fates conspired to leave me with a few hours on my hands in Terminal 5. Almost needless to say, I was floored by the building. My appreciation of modernism as a design aesthetic became a primary interest and the name Eero Saarinen was elevated to hero status in my estimation. Move forward 5 years and I am now sharing the flat where I currently live in San Francisco with the now Missus. We purchase a pair of pendant lamps for our living room spaces from a local favorite, Inside. Our choice? Modernica's reproduction of the Howard Miller cigar bubble lamps designed by George Nelson. So here was my first legitimate design purchase. An iconic item by a name designer. So all things being equal, Nelson's stature is elevated in my little black Moleskine.
Print ads, Howard Miller Clock Company, 1956
And it grows. And it grows. My wife buys me a Vitra-produced Nelson reproduction clock as a gift. I find an oversize jack for my bookshelf. Our flatware is replaced with a set of vintage Hall Leisure designed by the Nelson and Associates. George Nelson becomes a touchstone in my mind's eye as I become more and more engrossed in this aspect of living.
Debut of the Herman Miller logo, 1947, logo by Irving Harper for George Nelson Design
Perhaps the only thing worse than being late to the party is being late to the party as well as being oblivious. The latter is how I felt when I first read about Irving Harper a few weeks ago. Who is Irving Harper? Only the most significant Mid-Century Modernist that you have (perhaps likely) never heard of! As it turns out Harper was THE man at George Nelson and Associates responsible for everything from the iconic Herman Miller logo to the now legendary Howard Miller "Nelson" clocks which hang on the wall of nearly every discerning modernist worth their salt. And, yes, even those lamps hanging in my living room are now attributed to Harper. Sure, I knew that George often took credit for the work of this firm. Of course he did, that is the way it had been done for decades if not centuries with the name on the masthead usually taking credit for the entire output. What is astonishing is just how many of these iconic works sprung from Irving Harper's obviously fertile, creative mind. The wonderful coda to this story is that Harper is still alive and finally getting the attention and notoriety he so clearly deserves.
The Tune is Red, oil on canvas, Hassel Smith, 1960 (full painting)
I have often been asked why I like 20th Century abstract art. The phrasing of the questions have ranged from speculation on whether or not the questioner's child or grandchild could have easily done the same thing to something along the lines of I just don't get it. In truth, I cannot simply explain my attraction to abstract art both of and influenced by this period, so I thought I would muse on that notion a bit.
My first art appreciation course was not until my second or third semester of college here in San Francisco. It was a fairly pedestrian course, one which covered all of the hits and a handful of misses. As a side note: I recall the end of term project that I created for this class: a piece of assemblage, which I white-washed with tempura paint, so I was already showing my colors so to speak. By this time, I had already been exposed to a few minor abstract works via 12-inch LP covers, having got hip to jazz records in high school. Another influence, no doubt, was psychedelic art of the 1960s, something that I spent no meager amount of time digging deep into during my high school and college years. The sum total was that abstract works just captured my interest and imagination more than any other form of visual art - save perhaps architecture and design. So I did which I so often do when something piques my interest, I dug deeper and deeper until I found the good stuff.
The Tune is Red, oil on canvas, Hassel Smith, 1960 (detail 1)
Of course, no exploration of abstract art tunnels too far away from the New York School of the 1940s and 1950s, but living here in San Francisco, I am fortunate to have access to many of the fruits of the Bay Area School from roughly the same time period. Between the local works and visit to the Guggenheim and MOMA on East Coast trips, I have managed to see a fairly broad survey of modernist art from the last Century. I have my favorites, such as Franz Kline, but it's always exciting to be exposed to an exhibition such as the recent Richard Diebenkorn exhibit that I mentioned a few weeks ago.
The Tune is Red, oil on canvas, Hassel Smith, 1960 (detail 2)
Back to the question of why. From an intellectual point of view, I have come to the opinion that figurative painting - for the most part - became less and less relevant as media such as photography, film, and video gained more and more traction. Surely the skill of the great masters is something to still admire, but I think it is important to note that those paintings are often the only visual records of those times. As the means to visually document the world around us have become more and more accessible and prevalent, it seems only natural to me that and older medium such as painting be used in a different manner. Of course that I have long been interested in some many other aspects of post-World War II culture certainly has resulted in a certain predisposition. Most certainly. But I think this has been a case where bias has been a virtue, in that I don't seem to have the aversion to this style of art that a lot of people exhibit.
The Tune is Red, oil on canvas, Hassel Smith, 1960 (detail 3)
From a emotional point of view, I find abstract art captivating on a many levels - particularly when I am able to see a painting in person. In the works that have captivated me most, I have typically found a depth - in the colors, in the textures, in the movement - that just stimulates something in my brain and emotions. I don't look at them as Rorschach tests. I've ceased to look at them for meaning. But rather I have come to just experience them for what they are. And, yes, a good abstract painting can be similar in some ways to a good jazz performance in that it is a mix of skilled tradition and personal improvisation. So as my life as a jazz musician has been become more and more important, perhaps my affinity to abstract art and abstract expressionism in particular has achieved parallel importance.
Note: the painting featured on this page is currently residing at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus. Admission is free, so all you need to do it get your self there to see this one. The artist, Hassel Smith, is one of the many of that era whose love for jazz music was reflected in his work. Smith spent a significant amount of time in the San Francisco-Bay Area and was also an important early part of the Ferus Gallery scene in Los Angeles. His remarkable timeline can be found here.