The light-filled and spacious Freidenrich Gallery is on the second floor of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Half of the gallery displays selections from the Cantor’s diverse collection of modern and contemporary art.
Each piece invites me into a different story.
A large canvas, Interior with Cityscape, 1969 by Elmer Bischoff, depicts a woman looking down. In the foreground, she stands next to a desk, in front of a chair. Her hair, skin and clothes are painted in light warm hues like a spotlight. In contrast, a man stands on the far side of the room with his back to a window with a cityscape dominated by high rises. He wears a dark charcoal suit and his hands appear to be in his front pant pockets. His face is featureless. Behind him is a bank of light brown cabinets, waist-high. One light fixture hangs overhead between the woman and man.
The woman and man seem emotionally distant to me. Her head bends as she stares intently at her hands, which are raised to her chest. It isn’t clear if her hands hold anything. The man faces her but seems lost in his own thoughts. What is the story behind their relationship?
A nearby placard says: “The distance between the figures and the interior setting in artificial light recall works by Edward Hopper and Edgar Degas.”
The next canvas, Windows, 1967 strikes me as familiar with its bold chunk of intense blue sky and swath of charcoal jade covering almost a quarter of the canvas’s foreground. A single metal folding chair sits in the bottom right. I guessed the artist correctly: Richard Diebenkorn.
Diebenkorn paints chunky low white buildings beneath a cobalt blue sky and an orange “wall” between most of the dark charcoal jade floor and the buildings. It evokes a sense of the viewer’s importance over the view. Left of the orange wall, we see a building through a dark railing. The placard says this painting pays homage to Henri Matisse and his 1914 painting, Interior with Goldfish Bowl, with “the patterns of the balcony railings and its reference to the artist’s studio with an empty chair.”
For me, Diebenkorn’s painting suggests a feeling of space and light more intense than Matisse’s Interior with Goldfish Bowl. Matisse’s painting seems focused on his thoughts despite looking outward. Dieberkorn’s painting reminded me of the T.S. Eliot quote: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” Although Diebenkorn didn’t steal, his homage inspired a new work of art with his unique twist.
When I view the abstract painting Ocean Park No. 94, 1976, I’m surprised to learn it is also by Diebenkorn. The different shades and strokes of white and gray set in geometric shapes thinly outlined wash over me like waves. In the upper left corner, a rectangle is divided into two triangles. The lower left triangle is an intense bold blue while the one in the upper right has been horizontally bisected into a light aquamarine blue above a periwinkle blue. I notice a bold thicker black line of paint along the left side of the canvas and along the top of the canvas below a thicker white band.
This superficially simple painting reveals more of its complexity as I take one docent’s advice to look for at least 10 seconds. The giant canvas looks like a jewel set in a crown against the gallery’s dark grey wall. Diebenkorn painted a group of paintings titled, “Ocean Park” when he moved and set up a studio near Santa Monica. I wonder what prompted his move? Because I’ve visited Santa Monica, I can imagine how the blues of the ocean and sky inspired him.
Earlier, I noticed in my peripheral vision a man leaning against a wall. Now, I laugh when I realize he’s a life-like sculpture (Slab Man, 1974-75 by Duane Hanson) “cast in polyester resin from the live model.” He reminded me of an “elderly couple” we met at the Palm Springs Art Museum, also created by Duane Hanson.
The man wears a light colored, short-sleeved worker’s shirt with “Dave” sewn above his right chest pocket. His hairy forearm juts out while his right hand rests on his waist. Work gloves with the word “BOSS” in giant red letters on its cuff protrude from his front pocket along with a long metal tool for smoothing concrete or grout. Dried gritty concrete (maybe?) coats the front of black work boots. His belly strains against shirt buttons. A man observes, “He has a nice watch on.” Slab Man also wears a gold wedding band.
Hanson said: “People enjoy seeing a sort of reflection of their society. The human form is so close to all of us and we don’t really get a chance to analyze it…because of [the] taboos…[of] staring at people….” I circle Slab Man and stare at his bushy eyebrows, unruly thick hair, brown eyes and the way he stands with his right hip slightly out. Others join me as we stare without fear of being rude. What was the story behind how Slab Man became a living model for Hanson?
The next canvas is taller than me and titled, A Family Portrait, 1971 by Joan Brown. A giant panda bear with a red ribbon bow around its neck takes almost half of the canvas. Next to the bear is a gray slate cat face and neck in a pale fur coat with a furry right paw but a human left hand clutching a small burgundy handbag. The “cat” has pale human legs set in burgundy pumps (a hue similar to the purse). At the bottom right is a large red fish on a pink and light teal checkerboard patterned floor. Above the panda and cat are several more light but bright orange fishes.
The placard explains the bear represents Joan Brown’s beloved father while the animal in a fur coat is her “mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship.” The fish on the floor represents the artist, whose astrological sign was Aquarius. Brown’s story of feeling estranged within one’s family of origin is relatable though its permutations differ among families.
While distinct in media and style, each of these pieces, like Hanson said of his Slab Man, provide a portal for the viewer’s reflection, either of self or his or her environment and relationships.
See the museum’s website for more information on the Cantor Arts Center.
Featured photo by Jar (), Creative Commons license via Flickr. “Slab Man” photo by Allie Caulfield, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post and photos of “Ocean Park No. 94, ” “Interior with Cityscape, ” and “A Family Portrait” by Dolly Lee.
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