Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Susan Hartung: Painter, Poet, Artist

Susan Hartung
Painter, Poet, Artist

A 50 Year Survey Exhibition at Hudson Valley Community College opens on September 18.

I’d like to introduce you to Susan Hartung.
Her engagement with art began at Northwestern University where she attended painting classes while majoring in English. Upon graduation she heard NYC calling. It was 1962. The art world was small, the lofts were big, and Susan Hartung moved there.
While finding her way as a visual artist Susan explored the ever-changing cultural mix that defined the downtown New York art world of the 1960s. She worked for Something Else Press (founded by Fluxus provocateur Dick Higgins)[1] and developed an interest in the alternative music and dance worlds. She heard the music of Moondog[2] and John Cage, visited the sound spaces of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, attended the performances of Allan Kaprow, and the dances of Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown[3]. While immersed in all that she discovered kindred spirits in drawing and painting.
The reductive lines of Ellsworth Kelly, the repetitive markings of Agnes Martin, the brushed stokes of David Smith that embrace chance as they unfurl across the page, all share Susan’s pursuit of a delicate immediacy, a sense of touch, and drawing as an act of discovery. For Susan, drawing is not so much about describing as it is about exploring. It comes from a place of not knowing. For her, the not known is a working space devoid of any need for resolution.

                                             Are you a man or woman?
                                             Is the Moon waxing or waning?
                                             Are we coming or going?

Its immediacy, its deftness, came to occupy a central role in Susan’s art. And like others in her generation the grid became a foundation to build upon. In the grid (structure, regularity) Susan injects gesture and chance. Lines freely moving, not strict or exact lines, but expressive and loose, conveying thought or feeling. We see this throughout her major works: the Beauforts, the Runes, the Notations and the Line Fields.

Susan approaches painting and drawing in a like-minded manner, they are of one piece. Their making is intuitive and probing, open to possibilities. If there is a difference it is how in the paintings color can be more pronounced, but most often the paintings are conceptually analogous to the drawings. Their function, their approach, their vocabulary is mutually shared and equally beneficial. The paintings and drawings cannot be separated. Their identities are interchangeable.
Are they drawings or paintings? Yes.

It’s a personal thing. Much of what Susan has made is measured in inches, not feet. Everything is within an arm’s reach. In her paintings, as in her drawings, size reinforces an intimacy. Through calibrating size, she maintains the ability for her hand to move across the entire surface with pencil or brush without a dramatic shift in body posture. Here we experience post-painterly abstraction at work.

Included in the brochure and the exhibition are snippets of Susan’s poems. Painting and drawing fuel her creative drive. Poetry rounds it out.

The exhibit
This is a survey exhibition of Susan’s life as an artist. Meant to introduce, as thorough as possible, her creative evolution, it is divided into three sections on two floors.
On the ground floor is The Introductory Space (a mixture of recent bodies of work) that illuminate her practice.
On the second floor are two spaces: the Discovery Hall (small works and ephemera that, in some way, made the other works possible); and the Dialog Room (a variety of works from throughout the years) where they all meet.

The Introductory Space
This room contains a broad selection from several series: the Notations, the Runes, the Beauforts and the Unmapped.
The Notations gather billowy tendrils and loose ends that tremble and flutter towards the bottom of the paper or canvas. They are simultaneously abstract and evocative of the natural world, while also maintaining a personal touch and presence.

Restless Inquiry, 22"x30", 2003

Grove, 28"x29", 1992

 The Runes evoke Nordic lettering from the runic alphabets[5]. These curled, suggestive and rudimentary inscriptions capture a certain awkwardness that exists in any initial attempt at communication.
Rune (6x6), 7"x8", 2010

Untitled, 9"x11", 2011

The Beauforts[6] accumulate windy rivulets of graphite and color. “Organized” into mostly horizontal and interlacing patterns, they continue and expand Susan’s utilization of directional mark making.

Untitled, 22"x29", 1997

Untitled, 22"x29", 2004

The Unmapped are prints and photo related works that came into being alongside the other series, but don’t fit into those categories. Important to include and singular in their presence they widen our view of Susan’s practice.

The Discovery Hall
This space was created to hold an assortment of odds and ends. Misfits, false starts, discoveries. This collection of things, (scraps of paper, poetry, rough drafts, swatches of paint) functions like an open notebook. Modest of size they permit an intimate look at Susan’s explorations and ideas (casual, imprecise and profound). Here photography also comes into play. For Susan, photography is often a way of sketching or seeing. A simplifying, a restructuring and working out of what’s been seen. Through her working process she amends images (footprints in the snow, fishing nets, vines) into something less familiar, something not yet fully comprehended, not yet able to be named.
Untitled, 9"x11", 1975

Happy Is As, 6"x10", 1974

The Dialog Room
The works in this room are from the past 50 years, and are being presented together for the first time. Included are pieces that predate the work on the ground floor and encapsulate a vision. Collectively this gathering suggests a path, meandering perhaps, with connecting threads. Susan’s creative life has been a long, circuitous and picturesque one. This room embraces that journey.

Untitled, 19"x15", 1962

Maryland Ave, 28"x42", 1983

                 I’m feeling no I’m not leaving yet and how strange that is. Thursday,
                 I don’t remember Thursday. Friday I painted the studio floor,
                 buttercup yellow. Saturday watched Wings of Desire with Stefan.
                 I too have felt touched by angels, have weighed
                 the possibilities of observing against plunging right into the thick
                 of messy thumping life.[7]

The Exhibition: Susan Hartung, Following the Line, a fifty year survey of the work of Susan Hartung curated by Peter Dudek, opens on September 18.
Location: The Teaching Gallery at Hudson Valley Community College, Troy NY.
Exhibition Dates: September 18 - October 25.
Opening Reception: Thursday Sept 18, (4-6pm).
Curator Talk and Discussion: Thursday Sept 18, (3-4 pm).

[1] Something Else Press was an early publisher of Concrete Poetry and works by Fluxus artists.
[2] Moondog was an influential American composer who, dressed in Viking garb, often performed on the streets of NYC. “Moondog made more of an impression visually than musically. Nobody looked like that in Milwaukee” (Susan).
[3] Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer participated in the Judson Dance Theater. The company (a loosely based collective of dancers, poets, artists) was initially formed at Judson Church in Greenwich Village, which was a hub for avant-garde performance, dance and music.
[4] Susan Hartung, Inclusion, An Elephant Tree House Book, 2011. p. 13.
[5] Which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet.
[6] The Beaufort Wind Scale measures wind velocity (important during her years on the boat),
[7] Hartung, p.50.

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