The ArtsCulture 2 Go
Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor
Through Dec. 23 at Cornell Fine
Rollins College, Winter Park
The Cornell Fine Arts Museum opened its fall season Sept. 11 with several new exhibits, including a deeply engaging show of work by Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns. Poetic Works as Metaphor is far more than a visual snack; instead it is a visual and intellectual feast for the discerning, minimalist palate.
The late Motherwell (1915-1991) was part of the groundbreaking abstract expressionist movement, and Johns, born in 1930, came slightly after; both Americans helped to bridge the gap between post World War II abstract art and the explosion of pop art in the 1960s. The work shown here was inspired by poetry by Rafael Alberti and Samuel Beckett. All of the artists and poets involved in this exhibition – some born more than a century ago – ask big questions still relevant to our times, only they do so in a language that may feel archaic to some by being too minimalist. To others, it may feel subversive because of John’s challenging use of blank space without traditional figure/ground delineations and Motherwell’s unabashedly romantic view of the Spanish republican movement. Ultimately, both artists ask universal questions about the meaning of art and how it portrays the human condition.
Johns, famous for his American flag paintings, drew ordinary things like numerals; his interest was not the object itself but rather the process of creating it. For instance, we see “1” as delicate and scrolling, evolving into a darkened, heavy “4” that illustrated a chapter – or “fizzle” – in writer Samuel Beckett’s Fizzles (1976). In that book of short prose “poems,” Beckett wrote of wandering Irish heroes and detailed ordinary things in life, like the quality of their legs, emphasizing a labyrinthine world, echoed in Johns’ art.
In other paintings, Johns develops flagstones across several prints, eliminating all but a few flat red and black shapes, floating in a sea of white. Here it is the pathway, rather than the destination, that counts.
In contrast, Motherwell’s vigorous inks capture the essence of death. When the Spanish republic was overthrown by a conservative coup in the 1930s, Motherwell is documented as saying that he came to “the realization that the world could, after all, regress.” His artistic works repeatedly evoke the circumstances of this war, and this series was inspired by Rafael Alberti’s poem El Negro Motherwell.
In “Elegy Black Black,” a stabbing black triangle threatens black shapes, reading as figures, yet their significance is broader: a warning. “Black With No Way Out” appears even more dire, a struggling form dying into a solid, blood-tinged square.
Motherwell’s legendary blacks reek of warnings, of deep Wagnerian questioning; Johns represents the wanderer, his paper space taken up by a pattern for the eye to trace. Johns’ work at first appears overshadowed by Motherwell’s operatic shapes, yet it is Johns to which one returns in Zen-like contemplation.
— Richard Reep
wife-hunt still rings sweet Company
Through Oct. 17 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company was one of Broadway’s original “concept” shows. It eschewed a linear plot in favor of an examination of a particular subject – in this case, the state of marriage in 1970s New York. Unattached Bobby is a bemused, befuddled and much-beloved bachelor, whose connection to a quintet of married couples is both his major source of comfort as well as his excuse for not getting hitched himself.
Via song and scene, Company captures Bobby’s slow but eventual acceptance of the benefits of a joined existence, regardless of the compromises he sees his married friends make in order to sustain their unions. Sondheim’s musical has held up well over the years, even as society’s views of marriage have zigged and zagged across the decades.
Staging 14 performers – plus musical director Robin Jensen’s grand piano – in an area smaller than a one-car garage is no mean feat, and director Frank McClain and his talented cast is mostly successful in conquering the restrictions of the theater’s limited space. But the tiny stage simply doesn’t lend itself to Company’s dreamy aspects, nor allow an adequate portrayal of all Bobby’s friends’ different personalities and lifestyles. This Company does not suggest an expansive New York City where a handsome, single man like Bobby (well-played by Shawn Kilgore) can overload on choice, making a commitment to one mate so difficult. So McClain has wisely chosen to concentrate on character, small moments and, of course, the wonderful music.
Company contains one of Sondheim’s most engaging scores, and the book and lyrics are as witty as anything he ever penned. There are no truly stellar singers in this cast, but because Sondheim writes for a character’s inner voice, as well as the outer, good acting tends to make up for any vocal shortcomings. The performers perfectly internalized their characters’ motivations, and all the tunes are believably delivered. And when the cast sings in ensemble, that’s when this Company really shines. Here too is when Sondheim’s genius can be appreciated, because no modern musical theater lyricist/composer is as adept in weaving rhythm, words and melody into captivating swirls of sound, emotion and meaning.
— Al Krulick