Peri Schwartz: The Studio as Subject

Walk into Peri Schwartz’s studio outside New York City, and you might see angular stacks of books on a table, light pouring in from a large window, canvases leaning against the wall, and translucent glass bottles and jars filled with richly colored liquids. Instead of inventing subjects, Schwartz prefers to work directly from life, and the objects that occupy her studio space also serve as subjects for her paintings, drawings, and prints.

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Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). “Bottles & Jars XXXI,” 2009. Monotype. Gift of the artist, 2014.81

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Schwartz, and learn more about her artistic process and inspirations. One of Schwartz’s artworks in the Mead’s permanent collection, Bottles & Jars XXXI (2009, monotype) is part of a larger series of monotype prints. Monotype is a specific printmaking process that involves painting ink directly onto a glass surface or panel and using a press to transfer the ink to paper. Schwartz says that she first started making prints while at the Boston University School of Fine Arts, and has continued developing this process ever since. She works in painting and drawing in addition to printmaking, often focusing for long periods on a single medium. For example, she says that she just spent six months working on monotypes and has now switched back to painting. She says that every time she returns to painting, drawing, or printing she feels like she is rediscovering the medium. Each one, she says, requires a different way of thinking.

Peri Schwartz. American (1951- ). Self-Portrait at Night IV, 1985. Print, monotype. 30 15/16 in x 21 in.  Purchase with Wise Fund for Fine Arts, 2001.575.

Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). “Self-Portrait at Night IV,” 1985. Monotype. Purchase with Wise Fund for Fine Arts, 2001.575

In her work, Schwartz says she strives for a balance between representation and abstraction. One of the ways she achieves this is through a grid technique, which she acquired in school when learning the basics of composition, and which is now an essential part of her work. She initially applied the grid when composing self-portraits, such as Self-Portrait at Night IV (1985, monotype), as a way to remember exactly where she was sitting, and now uses grids in all of her work. Schwartz’s grids extend beyond the canvas or paper and onto the walls, tables, and books in her studio, turning the space into a real-life grid with intervals on the walls and in the painting.

Grid lines are visible on the walls of Peri Schwartz's studio in New Rochell, New York.

Grid lines are visible on the walls of Peri Schwartz’s studio in New Rochelle, New York.

One of the reasons Schwartz says she loves working with monotypes is that they function as a record of where she’s been compositionally. Prints are much more immediate than painting or drawing, and each monotype typically yields two prints — the original print and what is often called a ghost print, which is made with the ink left on the plate after the first printing. These ghost prints can be great ways to build new colors and interpret the composition in a new way. More prints can be laid on top of the ghost print, similar to a color etching where a different etched plate is used for each color. Schwartz’s video on monotyping provides a good overview of the process: https://vimeo.com/121209304.

Schwartz uses plexiglass as the surface for the prints, and Q-tips to clean up the lines of the forms and colors. One of the things she likes about printmaking, she says, is the freshness of colors that can be achieved, and that the original white of the paper can be maintained to bring out these colors. In printmaking Schwartz says that she feels there is more space between the composition and the actual paper, leaving room for necessary contemplation of the arrangement of the subject before putting ink to the plexiglass plate. Prints cannot be erased or painted over, and the final work is the product of only a few prints of a certain plate.

The series to which Bottles & Jars XXXI belongs focuses exclusively on bottles and jars. Schwartz sees this series as a “marriage of subject matter” and medium, combining the liquid of ink with the liquid in the bottles. In Bottles & Jars XXXI, an intense red liquid overlaps a jar with orange liquid, and white bottles are set in contrast next to yellow and red. The colors reflected on the table and the overlapping cylindrical forms make this print both realistic and abstract.

Peri Schwartz. American (1951- ). Painting, 2015.

Peri Schwartz (American, born 1951). Untitled, 2015. Painting. Scheduled to be on view at the University of Mississippi Museum in fall 2015

Schwartz’s monotype Bottles & Jars XXXI, as well as her self-portrait monotype and recent painting, all exemplify her combination of realism and abstraction. By working directly from life, using the grid to lay out and analyze each composition, and continuously rearranging the composition, Schwartz’s work has an undeniable sense of energy and coherence that still lifes often lack.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

Some Prints for Spring: From Japan to New England

It’s finally spring at Amherst! The quad lawn chairs are out, the Ultimate team is tossing discs, and it’s raining, not snowing! Crazy, right?

The other day in Japanese class, my sensei mentioned that in Japan, the cherry trees are just ending their bloom, and in fact, we have three cherry trees on the Amherst College campus that are just beginning their bloom. (Can you find them?) As Amherst’s landscape becomes more colorful, this essay seeks to compare the springtimes of two cultures — Japanese and American — through the lens of two prints from the mid-nineteenth century, one depicting a city landscape in Japan and the other the rural landscape surrounding Amherst in Western Massachusetts.

In their riotous, uncontrolled bloom, the cherry trees of Japan are a spectacle to behold. When an individual gazes into their gossamer of color, it’s all too easy to lose focus and dream. Year after year, the Japanese people anticipate the pinkish hue that will soon dominate Japan’s landscape. Relatives and friends gather to enjoy the drink and dance of sakura matsuri (cherry tree) festivals, and the beauty of nature around them.

Amdo Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797-1858). Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara [Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura'), from the series

Ando Hiroshige (Utagawa Hiroshige). Japanese (1797–1858). “Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara” (Shin yoshiwara naka-no-chō yozakura), from the series “Famous Places of the Eastern Capital” (Tōto meisho), ca. 1840–1842. Woodblock print. Gift of William Green, 2005.366

Andō Hiroshige’s Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-chō in the New Yoshiwara, from the series Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, depicts Japan’s cherry blossom festival in Edo’s (modern-day Tokyo’s) pleasure district, or Yoshiwara. Filled with brothels, the Yoshiwara combined the public spectacle of the cherry blossom festival with other aspects of public life. Notice how the cherry blossoms line the Yoshiwara canal in the foreground of the print and how courtesans meander the streets of the district. Come springtime, this district would be the place to visit because of its fertile associations with spring.

The significance of the cherry tree in Japanese culture dates back hundreds of years. Cherry trees convey the fragility and beauty of life. In the spring, when the cherry trees flower, the Japanese people are reminded that their lives are as ephemeral and precarious as a cherry-blossom petal whisked away by the wind, and they are therefore meant to enjoy what time they have. So when they congregate to celebrate and appreciate their surroundings, not only is the beauty around them on their minds, but also the deeper cultural meaning and consideration of their annual tradition.

Hiroshige also integrates the night sky as an element into this print. He uses bokashi, a gradient technique, to wash the black night sky into the Western, Prussian blue that delineates the sky. This woodblock print would have been sold as a souvenir to Japanese citizens traveling to Edo, and by examining the print closely, we can tell that it was very popular: black lines are faded, and the red cartouche at the top right is not sharply defined as it would be in an earlier impression, an indication that the block was used for multiple editions.

A couple of weeks ago, while Tokyo’s cityscape was dominated by cherry trees, Amherst’s spring was making its gradual approach. One day would be 35 and storming, but the next, 60 degrees and perfect. Unlike the ephemerality linked to the cherry trees, the scenic change that occurs is one that settles and becomes familiar. People are outside, breathing the fresh air, and are relaxed, not in a hurry to hit the hotspot in town.

Robert Brandard, after William Henry Bartlett, engraves our familiar vista of the Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke (1838). “After” means that Brandard reproduced Bartlett’s drawing of the same view, using a medium allowing for wide distribution of its multiples, a common practice of artists and publishers. They both depict the view from the top of Mount Holyoke, located only a few miles from Amherst. Bartlett, an English artist, published drawings he made during his trip to the region as American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature, which subsequently played a significant role in making this location the second-most-popular tourist destination in America. Like the Japanese Famous Places of the Eastern Capital, Brandard’s engraving was part of an artist-publisher collaboration and investment project intended for the tourists who flocked to Mount Holyoke and bought these prints as souvenirs. It is hand-colored (two other impressions in the collection, 1965.100 and 1955.698, are not). This means that someone took the time to further enhance its visual appeal and value.

    Robert Brandard; Bartlett, William Henry (after). British (1805–1862); British (1809–1854). Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke, 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.

Robert Brandard (British, 1805–1862); after William Henry Bartlett (British, 1809–1854). “Valley of the Connecticut from Mt. Holyoke,” from “American Scenery; or, Land, Lake, and River: Illustrations of Transatlantic Nature,” 1838. Engraving. Gift of Francis T. P. Plimpton, Class of 1922, 1943.7.

Let’s take a look at the Brandard engraving: compared to the lively night-life and the vibrancy of the cherry blossom flowers in Hiroshige’s print (created around the same time), nature in Brandard’s/Bartlett’s print is staggering, serene, and withered. In the foreground, we can tell that the tree is old and gnarled, a stark contrast with the setting’s apparent youth. Bartlett stresses the scene’s cultural aspects: the peaceful day, the people who engage in their leisurely hunting and picnicking activities, and contrasts the variegated, wild vegetation in the foreground with the landscape below, dotted with indications of settlement. Bartlett described the Connecticut “intervals” as some of the most fertile and sunny pictures “gemmed with prosperity, neatness, and cultivation.” No doubt, the landscape is beautiful and bucolic.

Both of these prints emphasize nature — cherry trees dominate the foreground of Hiroshige’s woodcut just as the lush vegetation and jagged rocks do in Bartlett’s engraving — to show how humans integrate themselves into spring’s renewing splendor. Even at Amherst, we’ve created a culture where we mark spring’s arrival with our annual ritual of bringing the lawn chairs out to the quad.

Written by Fawzi Itani, Class of 2018

Elizabeth Catlett: Centennial Birthday of an American Artist

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). Pensive, 1985. Lithograph. Purchase with the Samuel B. Cummings (Class of 1926) Art Fund, 2001.573.

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). “Pensive,” 1985. Lithograph. Purchase with the Samuel B. Cummings (Class of 1926) Art Fund, 2001.573

The strong, defined face of Elizabeth Catlett’s subject in Pensive, which entered the Mead’s collection in 2001, is representative of Catlett’s artistic work and motivations. Cropped dark hair frames the woman’s face, and light falls on her forehead, cheeks, and nose, contrasting with her dark eyes and lips. Her chin ends sharply, and light and shadow highlight her straight nose and cheekbones. The slight creases beneath her eyes suggest weariness, but her straightforward and determined gaze conveys resilience and perseverance.

Catlett, born in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1915, worked as a sculptor and printmaker in the United States and Mexico until her death, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2012. After graduating from Howard University in 1935, Catlett completed an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. At Iowa she studied under the Regionalist painter Grant Wood, best known for his painting American Gothic and depictions of the American Midwest.

As an African American woman who pursued art from a young age, Catlett faced obstacles in her education and artistic opportunities. She won a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but the college refused to admit her when they discovered that she was black. While teaching at Dillard University later in her career, Catlett wanted to take her students to a Picasso exhibition at the Delgado Museum of Art, but the museum did not allow African Americans. Catlett refused to accept the museum’s rejection, and convinced the museum to let her students visit on a day when it was closed to the public. She always felt driven to bring art to the widest possible audience, and never underestimated her students, regardless of their education.

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915-2012). "I Have Special Reservations," 1946. Linoleum cut. Leslie J. Garfield Fund, 241.1991. Museum of Modern Art.

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). “I Have Special Reservations,” 1946. Linoleum cut. Leslie J. Garfield Fund, 241.1991, MoMA

Catlett’s body of artistic work contains many portraits of famous African Americans as well as anonymous black women. Her well-known series of linoleum cuts entitled The Negro Woman (1946–47) includes subjects such as Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth—women she referred to as her “sheroes.” The linoleum cut from this series I Have Special Reservations depicts Rosa Parks with dignity and strength, just like the subject of Pensive. In addition to her portraits of famous US women, Catlett is well known for works depicting unknown women and sculptures that meditate on the relationship between mothers and children.

At various points throughout her career Catlett was involved with the cultural and political issues of the places she lived in, from Washington, DC, to Mexico City, where she moved in the 1940s as a result of American political repression and lived for the remainder of her life, becoming a Mexican citizen. She taught at many high schools and universities with the hope of bringing art to a diverse audience; in turn, she was inspired to create art that many people could relate to and understand.

“I have always wanted my art to service my people,” Catlett once said, according to the New York Times article written shortly after her death. “To reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017