Snowfall: A Meditation on Monochrome Painting in Aspen

Snowfall: A Meditation on Monochrome Painting in Aspen

A selling exhibition of monochromatic paintings at Sotheby’s Aspen recalls a perfect bluebird day in the country’s premiere ski town.
A selling exhibition of monochromatic paintings at Sotheby’s Aspen recalls a perfect bluebird day in the country’s premiere ski town.

T he exhibition Snowfall: Surface and Seeing seeks to encapsulate the winter wonder of Aspen. Bringing thousands of visitors every year to the slopes, ski seasons are made or broken depending on the snowfall and whether you can be the first out to enjoy fresh tracks. Nothing is better than a bluebird day, when the sky is blue and the snow glistens in the light. Every nuance in the white surface can be seen, every bump, curve and line, waiting for tracks to alter the expanse – but not yet. For a skier, snow is all about the surface and being able to see and know the exact moment to turn.

On view at Sotheby’s Aspen through 5 February, the exhibition, displayed on vibrant blue walls, showcases modern and contemporary artists who have used surfaces in order to tackle the way we view a canvas. Inspired by a work by Robert Ryman, the title illustrates the artist's obsession with surface and experimentation. Test (1986) and Untitled (1965), his two works in the show, highlight the painterly and flourishing movement of his later work, versus the beautiful linear quality seen in his canvas from 1965.

This artistic dialogue between ostensibly pristine surfaces and canvas runs throughout Snowfall. Sergio Camargo, a Brazilian artist whose wooden reliefs are his most renowned series, uses small and large pegs to explore mass and void. Inspired by the critic Ferreira Guilar’s theory of the artistic “non-object,” Camargo’s reliefs exist in a space where painting and sculpture converge.

Snowfall: Surface & Seeing is on view at Sotheby’s Aspen through 5 February

Taking a more modulated approach to the same question, Enrico Castellani creates original terrains full of unique topographies by stretching canvases over arrangements of nail heads. Featured in a number of ZERO exhibitions (Günther Uecker, also in Snowfall, was a founding member of the movement), Castellani’s works venture into new artistic modes by forming three-dimensional paintings. Understanding light, the viewer is constantly faced with areas cast into bright light while other areas are in deep shadow.

From the undulating surfaces of Camargo, Castellani, Uecker and Lucio Fontana to the exploration of materials by Louise Bourgeois, Mary Corse, Y.Z. Kami, Dan Flavin and Mark Bradford, Snowfall: Surface and Seeing is perhaps best summarized visually by Ed Ruscha’s work Dimple (1964) – a simple evocation of surface texture atop a white ground.

A visit to the exhibition, taken together, recalls a perfect bluebird day and evinces the transcendent moment that Robert Frost described in his poem “Dust of Snow” (1923):

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart 
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued 

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese

Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale, Attese , 1967. Waterpaint on canvas, 32⅛ by 25¾ in.

In 1946 Lucio Fontana published “The White Manifesto,” in which he argued for artists to adopt “matter, color and sound in motion” as alternatives to figurative practices. In five manifestos to follow, he further developed an abstract school of painting called Spatialism; Concetto spaziale, Attese from 1967 is a pinnacle of the genre. This simple canvas, painted white and slashed five times with a razor, expresses the artist’s theories about how paintings should interact with their environment.

Robert Ryman, Untitled

Robert Ryman, Untitled , 1965. Oil on canvas, 10 by 10 in.

Despite their initial appearances, Robert Ryman’s paintings are incredibly rich – they are full of texture, paint is applied in various densities and light reflects and morphs across the contours of the brushstrokes. This white painting from 1965 articulates his devotion to mark-making and the reflection and scattering of all visible wavelengths of light into a field of texture whose range is ethereal, dynamic and imposing.

Brice Marden, Diptych with Green

Brice Marden, Diptych with Green , 1993–94. Ink and gouache on paper, 2 joined sheets, sheet: 9¾ by 15⅜ in.

Brice Marden made his first monochromatic painting in 1964, after a trip to Paris where he admired the work of Alberto Giacometti and Jean Fautrier. This diptych from 1993–94 comes from a later period of work yet retains his mastery of monochromatic technique. The calligraphic brushstrokes are densely entangled, creating a sense of depth and gravity.

Enrico Castellani, Superficie bianca

Enrico Castellani, Superficie bianca , 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 39⅜ by 86⅝ in.

Affiliated with the ZERO Group and influenced by Lucio Fontana, Enrico Castellani is known for his “paintings of light.” This late work by the artist, who passed away in 2017, was made the same year as his major retrospective at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. The bumps and divots in the canvas are made using nails – a later adoption by the artist, who first created texture in his paintings by embedding hazelnuts.

Ed Ruscha, Dimple

Ed Ruscha, Dimple , 1964. Tempera and ink on paper, sheet: 11½ by 14½ in.

Ever the trickster and a conceptual artist par excellence, Ed Ruscha evokes the spirit of textural inventiveness with a simple gesture: by covering a clean sheet of paper with the word “DIMPLE” in bold typography. Ruscha’s “Word Paintings” are full of wit and jokes about art history – a knowingly humorous attitude common to West Coast conceptualists, including the artist’s friends William Wegman and John Baldessari.

Contemporary Art Auctions & Exhibitions

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