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Black Notes

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After an almost two-year hiatus, I’ve decided to start blogging again, but in a new kind of way–one that allows me to see these blog posts as fragments or “colour-beginnings,” to invoke J.M.W. Turner’s working method. Years ago, I worked with a professor who always carried a small notebook in his shirt pocket and he would bring this out during conversations, in front of a painting, at a musical performance, on the Tube. The example of chronicling one’s intellectual journey has stayed with me, and the dozens of half-filled notebooks that litter my desk speak to my commitment to such a project. But I’ve decided that I need to allow some of these ideas to live somewhere else and push me to do more with them in my research and writing and in the classroom.

When I was in NYC last week, I found myself thinking a lot about the color (or non-color, for the scientifically-minded out there) black.

Fashion: How I advised students who were nervous about attending their first College Art Association conference to wear black in order to blend in. And how Bill Cunningham had declared the return of the nineteenth-century silhouette in his assessment of NYC Fashion Week (or as one observer called it, the Gotham noir silhouette):

Bill Cunningham on NYC Fashion Week (February 2013)

Art: I was especially struck by Matisse’s engagement with black. One of the more interesting exhibitions I saw was “Matisse, In Search of True Painting”–I went in spite of the horrible title–at the Met. I like to see paintings that put pressure on definitions of signature style or artistic persona, and this delivered several surprises. (Aside: one of my favorite Matisse paintings is his self-portrait in pajamas. It should be noted that one of the quickest ways to deflate the artist-as-genius persona is to sport blue pin-striped pajamas.) Yes, Matisse, the Fauvist painter who gained notoriety through his use of garish, artificial colors, was a defender of the dark side. He believed that in order to paint light, he must take recourse in black. And I especially loved this quote by Matisse about black: “Before, when I didn’t know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force; I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction.” This pretty much sums up my thought process as a stand in front of my closet every morning.

So here are some of his “black” paintings from the Met show:

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And I’ve also been watching a lot of B&W films of late, including works on the New Woman (part of a great series called Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934) and footage from feminist art performance pieces from the early 1970s, and wishing that there were re-filming projects like the re-photography projects of late (like Debbie Grossman’s Pie Town project, which is the subject of an upcoming post). Here’s a clip from “The New Woman” disk:

On to Washington (1913)

Conversation topic: Will we every tire of black?

3 comments

1 Lesley { 02.26.13 at 2:47 pm }

I’m not a huge Renoir fan, but I love what he said: “Black is the queen of all colors.” I entirely agree. I’m a BYU art history alumna living in NYC (who wears as much black as a New Yorker is expected to) and I absolutely loved the Matisse exhibit. Such a fascinating insight into his process. It was amazing. I wish the previews would have started a bit sooner for the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibit. It was absolutely fantastic as well. I’m so happy that you’re back to blogging!

2 Lesley { 02.26.13 at 2:49 pm }

And I had it backwards, it’s “the queen of all colors is black”

3 Kimberley Sandberg { 02.26.13 at 4:08 pm }

I enjoyed the peek into your bright, educated mind, and a glimpse of the world you see and experience. I loved the womens’ suffrage newsreel and text that accompanied it, and a brief online visit to the “Met.” I could not access the link to NYC Fashion week.

I would love to see an art show where in one room all of the pieces highlighted the color black, and the room right next to it showcased the color white. I would love to see the contrast.

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