Earlier this year members of the Princeton Artists Alliance were invited by the Princeton University Art Museum to visit “The Educated Eye,” exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum conceived as a celebration of the museum’s 125th anniversary and comprised of key works that represent the range and diversity of the museum’s collection. The PAA artists were asked create a work of their own in response to or inspired by one of the masters shown in the art museum exhibit. The resulting works comprise “The Artist’s Eye,” which opens on Thursday, September 25, in the Taplin Gallery at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, the new home of the Arts Council of Princeton at 102 Witherspoon Street.
After viewing “The Educated Eye” Princeton artist Nancy Lee Kern chose to create a work inspired by Willem de Kooning’s “Black Friday,” but admits that what she created was more a response to de Kooning himself and his aesthetic than to the specific painting.
“By delving into Picasso’s cubism and the unconscious,” Kern writes in her artist statement, “he became a true action painter, bringing together the Apollonian and the Dionysian. He was trained in the guild-like tradition of Holland, arrived in the United States in 1926, and evolved into the leading abstract expressionist, producing wildly painted landscapes and images of women.”
In de Kooning’s mostly black-and-white painting, swirling line and texture are complemented by houselike shapes that give the abstract expressionist masterpiece an echo of physical reality and seat it vaguely in an actual landscape. Kern’s own set of four paintings, mounted in a single frame, reflect the same freedom of line but with bright, bold colors. And whereas de Kooning only hints at landscape, Kern’s paintings are relatively identifiable as abstract skyscapes.
Kern says she identifies with the artistic approach de Kooning used to produced this work. “When I do a cloud, it’s not just a cloud,” she says. “I do it sweepingly. I feel like I am physically in a painting, and that’s what de Kooning’s about.”
In abstract expressionism, process is emphasized as much as product. “You never know what you’re going to get,” Kern says. “When you work from the unconscious, you can call up mythlike and archaic figures. You drip, pour, slash, and get your emotions in more directly.”
Kern grew up in Baltimore and used to summer at her grandmother’s home on the Chesapeake Bay. Being outdoors from sun up to sun down, she believes, primed her for the love she developed later for 17th-century Dutch paintings, with their low horizons, big skies, and light at different times of the day.
Her father studied at the Maryland Institute of Art and painted landscapes, but then joined the Coast Guard. Her parents thought about living in Alaska, one of his ports, but her father ended up going into business in Maryland.
Although Kern was advised to go directly to art school, she went instead to Goucher College, where she majored in English. “I wanted to take all the creative courses I could, not just study art,” she says. “I didn’t want to be inhibited from day one.”
While at Goucher, she studied the painting of figures and still lifes at the Corcoran Gallery. Working with nudes and studying anatomy provided lessons that have stayed with her. “I knew what bones and the rib cage are like,” she says, “instead of making them like a sack of flour.”
Like her father before her, she also studied at the Maryland Institute of Art with Jacques Maroger, who had been on the staff of the Louvre. “He insisted that we go to museums and copy,” she says. His goal was to help his students better understand both the artists and the craft of painting by copying the masters. Although this frustrated some students, who felt they were focusing on craft rather than creativity, not so Kern. She says, “I didn’t feel I would be contaminated creatively, because by then I was pretty much a full adult.”
In the 1950s, after she got married, Kern and her husband, Kenneth (now retired), moved to Princeton, where he started Chemical Economic Services, which published industry directories. At the Art Students League in New York, she studied with George Grosz, an expressionist but also a draftsman who understood body structure and artistic technique. “At the Art Students League, everything was drawing and line,” she says, “and it reinforced what I had learned academically.”
Kern remembers Grosz being critical of his students, but in a way that she enjoyed. “Grosz would do drawings to illustrate his point all over my drawing pad,” she says. “He would say, ‘That face looks like a vase’ or ‘That foot looks like a table leg,” and then he’d draw it. Other students would get upset, but I thought it was funny.”
In Princeton Kern met Hyde Solomon, an abstract expressionist painter whose work influenced her own. She used to travel with him to New York to visit galleries.
Another influence was William Seitz, who was the first professor of modern art history at Princeton University and became the curator of the department of painting and sculpture exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “What he did was help introduce abstract expressionism in this country to the public,” she says. “He told me, ‘Never copy a painting; interpret.’”
The Kerns’ first home in Princeton was Coventry Farm, a dairy farm on the Great Road where she was surrounded by artistic subjects. She used oils to paint flowers, but to reach the animals in their own environments, she had to work in pastels.
“I used to go in the sheep barn and spend all day with the sheep,” she says, joking that “sometimes I would go to pick up a color, and it would be a little sheep turd.” She also learned some important lessons about sheep behavior. “If you’re not quiet,” she says, “they all will pile into the corner and suffocate.”
After nine years, she and her husband moved to Stuart Road, where her studio is today. She worked first on black-and-white etchings of sheep, calves, bulls, and farm cats and showed the whole series at the Merrill Lynch gallery and the bulls at Grand Gallery in New York.
Eventually she moved back to oil and then to watercolor, which, she says, gave her “all the freedom in the world.”
To record her artistic ideas, Kern is a bit of a traditionalist and always uses sketchbooks. “It comes from academic training,” she says. “All the masters had sketchbooks. It went out of style, but I stuck with it because it’s like a diary.”
Another Princeton Artists Alliance member who visited “The Educated Eye” was fine art photographer Tom Francisco, who says his response to Robert Rauschenberg’s “Booster” was based both on the associations evoked by the piece but also by the kinship he felt with the artist’s craft. Francisco works with collage, and he is drawn to Rauschenberg’s use of different media, his interest in three-dimensionality, and his collecting of found objects that he puts together in interesting ways.
Francisco’s work grew from his association of Rauschenberg’s “Booster” with the shroud of Turin — a cloth with the impression of a human figure said to have been wrapped around Christ after his crucifixion. “Symbolically it had a religious feeling to it,” he says.
As a photographer and a collage artist, Francisco was also drawn to “Booster” because of its design and composition. “What was interesting to me about his piece was the layering of images, the juxtaposed images making up an entire image, and the translucency of some of the images,” he says.
Francisco’s piece captures the emotional feel of Rauschenberg’s painting — with its focus on a series of X-ray-like sections of a human skeleton — but with a different subject matter, children and child abuse. “There have been so many cases of child abuse and child abduction and murders of young children who are basically defenseless,” says Francisco. “It hit a spark for me.”
His piece, developed first as a collage on the computer, comprises overlapping photographs of a black child and a white child as well as images of a newspaper article on a child abuse case and of a spray-painted wall in a ghetto neighborhood. Two children’s school desks in Francisco’s work, which recall abused children absent from school, also reference an empty chair in the top left-hand corner of the Rauschenberg piece. The final homage to “Booster” is that Francisco’s image, when presented in the gallery, will be laid flat, almost like a shroud, across several schoolchildren’s chairs.
Francisco grew up in Nutley, New Jersey. His mother was a fashion designer before she got married, and after being a housewife for many years became a manager for Bell Telephone. His father was a carpenter.
As a child Francisco did a lot of drawing and painting, but his father discouraged it. When Francisco decided to go to art school — he graduated in 1974 from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art with a certificate for commercial art — his father was against it. “Being a laborer and carpenter and working in unions, he frowned on ‘sissy stuff,’” says Francisco.
He now lives in Bloomfield, and started as a graphic designer and photographer over 36 years ago, using T-squares and triangles. “I switched to the computer when the first one-gigabyte Mac came out,” he says, “and I used it as a glamorized typewriter.” He designs annual reports, brochures, and advertising materials.
Alongside his commercial work, Francisco has always done fine art photography, but is now trying to phase out his commercial work in order to do fine art fulltime. The technique he often uses is to set up and photograph still lifes, combine images with the computer into a photographic collage, and then use encaustic wax to add color and texture and perhaps tone down areas he wants to be more subtle. He has also worked in mixed media and sculpture.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how much more so is an artistic work in the eye of a fellow artist.
The Artist’s Eye, Thursday, September 25, 5 to 7 p.m., Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Opening reception for an exhibit of works created by members of the Princeton Artists Alliance in response to a visit to “The Educated Eye,” an exhibit at the Princeton University Art Joanne Augustine, Hetty Baiz, Anita Benarde, Rajie Cook, Clem Fiori, Tom Francisoc, Carol Hanson, Shellie Jacobson, Margaret Kenard Johnson, Nancy Lee Kern, Lore Lindenfeld, Marsha Levin-Rojer, Charles McVicker, Lucy McVicker, Ruane Miller, Harry Naar, Barbara Osterman, Madelaine Shellaby, Marie Sturken, and Barbara Watts. On view through November 26. Gallery talk with the artists on Saturday, October 4, at 2 p.m. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.