By: Lucy Beni

Are you bored of seeing the same types of paintings over and over again, flat and on a regular canvas hung up on a white wall? Or are you an artist in need of some inspiration to move past the traditional image of a painting? Here is a list of artists from the past century that approached the flat surface in innovative ways, leaving behind conventional practices and taking their works to a whole new realm.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Matisse, 'Memory of Oceania', 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, ‘Memory of Oceania’, 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse was one of the first to depart from the classic method of applying paint onto canvas. While he is known for his “traditional” paintings, towards the very end of his life he broke away from this and pulled out the scissors. With the help of a large crew of assistants, Matisse created what are known as the cut-outs. For these cut-outs, he and his crew hand-painted white paper using brightly colored gouache paints, then proceeded to cut these painted papers into simple geometric and organic shapes. These cut-out pieces were then either pasted onto canvases and paired with other materials such as charcoal or, for the first time in art history, pinned directly onto the walls of the museum or gallery.

Georges Braque (1882 -1963)

Georges Braque, 'Still Life with Tenora' (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Georges Braque, ‘Still Life with Tenora’ (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Along with Picasso, Braque made some of the first collages in art history, also known as papier collé. As part of the development of Cubism, Braque introduced other materials and patterns onto his canvases, suggesting the subject through the use of found flat materials instead of describing the subject-matter through paint. This may seem like a simple idea, or resemble an art project you did with your kindergarten teacher, but it was a true innovation at the time. This idea soon evolved and inspired other artists to further explore it by introducing three-dimensional objects in their works.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Kurt Schwitters, 'Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture', 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters, ‘Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture’, 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters came from a very academic background, but around 1920 he became very involved in the Dada movement in Berlin, which mocked academic practices and provided artists with the opportunity to approach visual arts with complete freedom. Schwitters brought to this movement what is known as assemblage. Assemblage is linked to the concept of papier collé, but instead of using found paper materials, it consists in fixing actual found objects on the flat surface. Schwitters’ work plays with the shadows made by the objects stuck to the canvas, shadows that move and change depending on the light hitting the pieces.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968)

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 'Waiting', 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, ‘Waiting’, 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Fontana went one step further in the use of scissors. Instead of simply cutting shapes and placing them onto the canvas, like Matisse and Braque had done, he cut the canvas itself and punctured purposeful holes into it. Fontana saw this acts as a means of building a bridge between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in art. He referred to these series of works as Spatial Concept, and was quite proud of himself for discovering the power of the tagli (“cuts”). He stated “my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery”. Some of these cut canvases are painted in a single color, some are simply left white. These white canvases in particular evoke the sense of destruction of the pure as a vehicle to progress into the sculptural realm.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock took his very large canvases and placed them on the floor instead of upright on an easel. Photographs of his creative process have circulated thoroughly. Once the canvases were on the ground, Pollock used paint brushes to drip and splatter paint across these large white surfaces. Pollock is a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, an artistic current that seeks to represent ideas and emotions using abstract forms and color instead of a figurative and realistic representation. Anyone interested in this important figure of American art can now visit the studio where Pollock worked, where you would find evidence of his technique.

Takis (born in 1925)

Takis, 'Magnetic Painting No. 7', 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

Takis, ‘Magnetic Painting No. 7’, 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

This artist ties together art and science. He is known as the first person to “send a man into space”, six months before Yuri Gagarin, during a performance. Takis’ work explores magnetic field energy, which he uses as a tool for altering the shape of the canvas. Takis transforms his canvases into sculptural pieces through the use of magnets, creating works that are a sort of magic trick. He often hangs small three-dimensional magnetic objects from the ceiling using thin wire strings, creating the illusion of floating geometric shapes in front of large brightly colored monochromatic surface. These geometric shapes are held up through the use of magnets on the back side of the canvas, which in turn is slightly pulled by the magnetic forces around it.

Yves Klein (1928-1962)

Photograph of Yves Klein's performance.

Photograph of Yves Klein’s performance.

Yves Klein used the body as a paint brush, transforming the act of painting into a performance. Klein experimented with his “living brushes” technique in small apartments in Paris. He would invite women to strip, dip their naked bodies in paint and press themselves against large white canvases. This, of course, became quite the hip thing to witness, and thus the creation of these pieces became a performance accompanied by live music that was also filmed for us to watch to this day. These pieces were kept very simple, with only one to a handful of single imprints of female bodies per canvas. For these, Klein used very strictly the color now known as International Klein Blue, whose significance for the artist is unclear and highly debated.

Günther Uecker (born 1930)

Günther Uecker, 'Untitled', 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker, ‘Untitled’, 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker used yet another surprising material in place of paint on his canvas: nails. He became obsessed with purification rituals, especially those used in religious contexts such as Buddhism. He used the hammering of nails as a meditative practice that eventually monopolized his artistic works. The canvases are supported by wood paneling in order to make this process possible. The nails create organic shapes through systematic and repetitive patterns. Most of his work is completely monochromatic, meaning the nails and the canvas are painted in a single color, usually a play off of black or white. After a full career of hammering nails to canvases, Uecker eventually progressed onto land art.

Photoville, Brooklyn’s innovative showcase of photography through the use of moving containers as exhibiting rooms, has come and gone but the photography projects shown there are still alive and well. A particular project that has stayed with me even a few weeks after the final weekend of Photoville, goes by the name of “Upstate Girls” by Brenda Ann Kenneally.     

Since 2004, Kenneally has dedicated her life to documenting and exploring class inequity in America, and more specifically in Troy, New York. Troy is known as a prototype of the industrialization in America. As the majority of the manufacturing businesses that once provided Troy with the means to flourish move overseas, many lose jobs, incarceration rates soar, and an increasing number of households are left in the hands of single mothers. The current median annual income for a family of three living in Troy is $16,796.

For five years, Kenneally closely followed and documented the lives of seven women living in Troy. Keneally’s artist statement claims, “Poverty is an emotional, rather than purely physical, state.” This fact is brought to life in this project where the viewer is given the opportunity to observe all aspects of these womens’ lives, the ups and the downs.

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Like all of the other Photoville exhibits, Keneally’s work was presented in a shipping container. However, this exhibit was vastly different than those surrounding it. There is stuff everywhere. All available wall space is covered with photographs. It honestly feels very unorganized and messy, as if a young child had curated the show. This is obviously done purposefully given the fact that the titles and descriptions paired with each photograph are hand written in a black ballpoint pen on masking tape and taped straight on to the prints. Loose corners of the unframed eight and a half by eleven prints are also held down by masking tape. At first glance, the exhibit itself seems very amateur. However, once you look over the subject matter – the messiness of the houses, the many children running around, and the piles of junk food on the dinner tables – you realize that this style of exhibiting seamlessly transitions into the actual photographs. In addition to this sea of images, Kenneally provides her audience with a large projected video of everyday life with these women of Troy, a couple more smaller screens with similar videos and headphones with sounds that bring the images to life. How the artist fit all of this into one shipping container is incredible. Even Kenneally herself, who was there struggling with the projector, was messy in her ways, which only added to the seemingly appropriate and even authentic ambiance of this little world the artist had created in the shipping container.

What really intrigued me and brought the project even more so into the realm of reality was that some of Kenneally’s subjects were in fact there, visiting the exhibit themselves. Note this project is not a flattering representation of these people’s lives. It is extremely honest and in fact more often than not very unflattering. If I myself was in these photographs I would most likely not want to look at them in front of the general public. However, I was glad they were there. Photography, more often than not, has the ability to create distance between its subjects and its viewers. Though in this case, as I observed a photograph of a bleached-blond girl sitting with her shirtless boyfriend on a dingy couch, this same bleached blonde girl stood beside me also enjoying the exhibit. Any feeling of distance with the subject was shattered.

These people were real!

Walter Swennen, who is now a very successful painter, is a great family friend of mine. In an era of young beatniks in Brussels in the 1960s, my grandmother and Swennen spent their days in a crowd of poor young artists driven by their need to create. They lived off of very little and were each other’s sources of inspiration. They would introduce each other to foreign art pieces from the United States, and would discuss within themselves late at night over a drink while brewing up new ideas. My grandmother wrote poetry and, being that she was much younger than the rest, around the age of 16, learned and grew from this group of artists who had adopted her into their circles. Various members of this social scene adopted alcoholism and other issues that stemmed from the fundamentals of this very social and experimental community, and therefore did not make it very far in their careers, but left behind great shared memories and inspiration for the others.

Walter Swennen

Swennen was much more fortunate and has continued to paint since. He has recently come into the public eye after a couple of successful exhibits in Belgium. He is now showing at the Gladstone Gallery in New York City – a very well known gallery. His work utilizes visual aspects inspired by Pop Art and abstract expressionism; some pieces more so one than others. Swennen might not agree to these sources of inspiration, but either way these are the art movements his work is reminiscent of. He also often incorporates poetic writing into his work. To this day, his work portrays the essence of the young group of artists that created and struggled together.

Walter Swennen- 2Another large theme throughout his work is an evocation of childhood. Figures seemingly appropriated from cartoons or comic books have been an undying subject of his throughout his career. Belgium is a country overwhelmingly full of comic books, about two comic book stores per block, therefore this imagery, that has been most definitely drilled into Swennen’s head, is unsurprising. Yet it is very effective in evoking recognition and a sense of shared nostalgia for most of his audience.

Swennen works in a way not uncommon to his generation of artists. One could summarize it by saying he lets the ideas come to him, and he does not seek them out. By this point in his career as a painter he knows what interests him and what does not. Some of the things that do interest him, which is evident when looking over his work, are cartoons, poetry, labels and philosophy. Some of these subjects are also commonly found in Pop Art, which is why his work is so reminiscent of this art movement. However, some of his subject matter will not fall into any specific category because he will literally let it come to him naturally. For example, he once based his subject matter off of a drawing made at school by his daughter when she was very young. Swennen is not much interested in the meaning behind his pieces, but is instead very preoccupied with the aesthetics, the process and the stories behind how his subject matter came to be. It is interesting to look at his work and attempt to guess the sources of inspiration for a specific subject in a piece.

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