Rachel Cohen

21. Xu Longsen and the sense of touch

Frederick Project: Felt

Xu Longsen

Xu Longsen, Light of Heaven Exhibition, works from 2016-2017, collection of the artist, Art Institute of Chicago, photos Rachel Cohen

Over the weekend, I set out some pictures from Xu Longsen’s Light of Heaven exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018. The exhibition was installed throughout the museum’s rooms devoted to art from China and was in complex relationships with the other works. Xu Longsen  works in series and groups, and from my photographs and the museum's documentation, I can’t tell which pieces had which names. All the works are from 2016-2017 and are in the collection of the artist, Beijing.

When I stumbled into it the first time, I was impressed by these tall columns made out of felt and then saturated with washes of ink. The columns conjured up the vertical mountainous ink scroll paintings I love from different eras of Chinese painting.

There was a row of these columns, and one much taller that reached up through the spiral staircase in that atrium space.

On another visit, I found the room of these large wall-size paintings. The five in the next photo were at one end, I believe, and there were two sets on the side walls as well, and a row of columns down the center of the room.

I went to the show several times, and made a lot of charcoal drawings from the room with the wall paintings in it. It was very satisfying to work in charcoal while looking at these. Here are some details from the large paintings in that very beautiful room.

The texture is a very important part of the experience. In all the rooms with Xu Longsen's work there were many Do Not Touch signs everywhere, but I saw people touching the columns every time I visited. I think this is a part of understanding the significance of Xu Longsen’s work.

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One day, in the room that usually has works from the permanent Japanese collection, and during the Light of Heaven also had one of the large Xu Longsen columns in it, I listened to a woman, probably seventy, a regular museumgoer, a lover of art, perhaps a bit self-important, telling a family who seemed to be from China about some things she noticed in the work. The family – a mother, a father, three children, two boys and a girl, and perhaps another man, a friend or an uncle – seemed very gracious. The woman and one of the sons explained to the museumgoer that the man in their family was the artist.

The museumgoer was surprised and pleased. She went on telling the family what she thought about art. After quite a long while, she let the artist and his family go back to the conversation they had been having about the installation.

The artist, Xu Longsen, was saying something to his family about the column in the center. I can’t remember now if he was just very near it, or if he actually reached up and brushed the surface of the column.

A guard said peremptorily, “don’t touch the art.” “He’s the artist,” his son said, as did a few others of us in the gallery who had overheard.

The guard said, levelly, “no one is allowed to touch the art.”

Frederick Project: Hasty

Delaney selfportrait sketches

Beauford Delaney, self-portrait sketches, undated, Knoxville Museum of Art, photo Rachel Cohen

This morning I went for groceries, had a zoom faculty meeting, the man came to help cement the cracks in our back foundation through which the mice are coming; my husband did the kids’ school and meals, wiped down the groceries… It’s a sunny and beautiful day, New York is running out of ventilators, Chicago is on the edge of serious trouble, I am probably already too anxious to write clearly.

For the last few weeks, I have had an hour or two, even three, to write, and have been able to write first, before the world arrives. I started doing that many years ago, first getting up early to write before my day job, then before teaching, then relying on my husband to take the kids first, but, anyway, not today.

Yesterday and the day before I wrote about Rembrandt self-portraits, and last night I tried to prepare an entry in advance. I was going to quote from Hervé Guibert’s powerful small book Ghost Image, in which there is an entry about Rembrandt self-portraits. But I am too restless.

I thought of Rembrandt’s quick self-portrait etchings, where he tried out different expressions. And this reminded me that, in storage at the Knoxville Museum of Art, I recently saw a wonderful set of nine self-portrait sketches done by Beauford Delaney.

They are so fast.

And so various.

Done on little sheets of paper torn from a spiral notebook, you can still see the paper edges with the holes. (I was in a hurry, photographing in storage, and this one blurred, but is beautiful.)

Stephen Wicks, curator at the Knoxville Museum, and largely responsible for building their Delaney collection, the best in the world at a public museum, told me he saw the sketches in the holdings of the estate and had to have them. He organized them into rows three by three and framed that that way, but thinks other arrangements might also be strong.

This one draws back a little.

And this one I love.

I can’t draw a whole thought from this. But these quick self-reflections – economy, freedom, repetition, assurance, courage, flexibility, psychological curiosity, a relationship between introspection and geometry – these are what I want to be looking at on this hasty day.

Frederick Project: Commons

pissarro detail

Camille Pissarro, The Public Garden at Pontoise, 1874, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Detail photos Rachel Cohen.

Yesterday in Chicago the lake front and many of the public parks closed. A day or two earlier, there had been a beautiful warm day, and too many people went out to the places we always go to. Jackson Park was closed, too, where the children and I have been going to keep track of spring, and to run around the perimeter of what they call ‘the circle garden.’ This morning, I am thinking about the relationship between museums and public parks, places whose colors we see, year in and year out, changing and constant.

Camille Pissarro was one of Impressionism’s great painters of urban spaces – streets of Paris seen from a balcony in snow, on days of parades, traffic circulating, barges at work along the river. There is a wonderful book about his work on city life, the monograph from an exhibition, The Impressionist and the City: Pissarro’s Series Paintings, by Richard Brettell and Joachim Pissarro.

This morning I happened upon a few photos I took of a Pissarro that's at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Public Garden at Pontoise, 1874. This beautiful space is connected to the person walking through it, her dress and the feet we can't see in the upper right.

Pissarro was, to my mind, the most radical person in the Impressionist group. Born to Portuguese-French-Jewish parents on St. Thomas, which was then the Danish West Indies, living in Venezuela, then in Paris, a figure whom many historians think held the French Impressionists together, by the breadth of his vision and the kindness of his heart, an appreciator of all their individual talents, probably the one among them with the deepest commitment to portraying working people, the mentor Cézanne needed in the period he most needed it, going ahead into neo-Impressionism with Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, writer of beautiful letters to his friends and his children, a person I have sometimes wished to write a book about.

This is just spring, taking the air on a simple day in Pontoise, one hundred and forty-six years ago. I last saw it in the fall of 2013, on an overnight trip to New York without our daughter, then one and a half. I missed her physically, missed the stroller I would have been pushing had she been there.

This morning I miss our parks through the children, the way the tree bark feels under their hands. This will be such a different spring than any other we have had. Without the places of common discovery.

Frederick Project: Colors and Collaboration

frankenthaler savage breeze

Helen Frankenthaler, Savage Breeze, 1974, Color woodcut from eight lauan mahogany plywood blocks on buff laminated Nepalese handmade paper; artist's proof, edition of 31. Printed by Bill Goldston and Juda Rosenberg. The Art Institute of Chicago, U.L.A.E. Collection. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) worked with many kinds of material. Two springs ago, the Art Institute of Chicago held a show of her prints: Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium. I went a couple of times, and once took our daughter, for whom colors are living presences.

Frankenthaler started working seriously as a high school student, with artist Rufino Tamayo as her teacher. Tamayo, born in Oaxaca, painted in an abstract style, and was influenced by surrealism. Octavio Paz said that to say in one word what distinguished Tamayo’s work from that of his contemporaries was to say “sun.” Tamayo once told an art critic that using fewer colors increased the possibilities of those colors you used.

Frankenthaler began printing in 1961. She worked at a print workshop on Long Island called Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) that had been founded by Tatyana Grosman. Artists whom Frankenthaler was friendly with, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers, persuaded her to try the medium out. Together with the various master printers who were her collaborators, she printed seriously for the next seventeen years.

This one we’ve been looking at is called Savage Breeze. It was hard to get, she said, the hardest print she ever worked on.

Savage Breeze was printed by Bill Goldston and Juda Rosenberg. Pulling prints is extremely technically demanding and printers play a central role. In Japanese woodblock prints, the printer was always acknowledged as a fellow creator, as were those who carved the wood blocks. Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas both worked with master printers. When I saw the Frankenthaler show, I was delighted by the little handwritten notes from her to the printers on certain draft prints, explaining the effects she was hoping for.

Color is not a given. A long process of trial and error. Savage Breeze began as Vineyard Storm.

And even once she’d moved from brown to green, the colors still didn’t look right. The wall text had a nice quotation from her:

Savage Breeze went dead like a lead balloon. So after many tries, I finally said, let’s scratch it. I was almost exasperated. I couldn’t get the light I desired. I knew the drawing was right. I knew the scale was right. Then I thought—why don’t we whitewash the paper first and then print the other colors I’d mixed over it. We did. And it glowed.

But the composition, the areas of color, still didn’t work. They tried a darker burgundy block over the green, but Frankenthaler didn’t like the result. In some places, she told them to cut back the burgundy block, and made crayon marks to show where. The cut away areas showed white in the final prints. In another spot, she attached a little green square of paper to show how she wanted it to look – color as edit.

Here in Chicago, the day began with a thick fog and still there seems a layer of gray cotton over the trees and houses. We are waiting, so intently, for spring. Wash, pare, wait, pull the sheets again.

For Tara, sheltering on the Vineyard

Folding Screen

Folding Screen

Ogata Korin, Cranes and Pines, mid-17th century.


I had a thought last week at the Metropolitan Museum's Poetry of Nature exhibit of Edo Paintings.  A most basic, untutored thought, but of interest to me.  Standing before a folding screen, on which was mounted Cranes and Pines, a work in ink and light color by Ogata Kōrin (1658-1716).  That a screen is a stylized geometry of the effects of landscape.  The sense one has, looking, that a curve of trees comes forward, that water both widens and recedes to the distance.  These effects are considered and commented upon by the angled folds of a screen.  It seems interesting that the experience, which, when I noticed it, felt like an austere version of the repose felt in pausing in a particularly beautiful moment outdoors, is uncapturable by photograph.


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We are here, at the place we come to once a year, in the summer.  I am sitting outside on the worn porch by the little harbor where the moored boats turn to align with the wind.  On the surface of the water the oddly abstract patterns of curved lines.  The other night, we sat out to watch the Perseids fall in the sky.  A heron was fishing off the end of a small jetty.  We would not have seen it, but there was a dusky orange light set to come on periodically and then the bird appeared in sharp dark outline with the fish below the surface scattering away from its pointed beak.      


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