Category Archives: Visual art

Talking with Diane Burko on art and climate change

Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015
Diane Burko: Eagle Glacier, Juneau, 1982-2005, from Landsat Series, oil on canvas, 2015

My conversation with climate artist Diane Burko has just been posted on Creative Disturbance, a podcasting platform for dialogue among artists and scientists on sustainability and environmental issues. We’re happy to join others on their Art & Earth Sciences channel, shining different lights on urgent issues relating to climate change—especially this week, as the international community gathers in Paris with the goal of reaching a universal agreement to slow global warming.

Here’s the link:

In the podcast, we talk about how Diane made the transition from painter of large-scale landscapes to an artist/advocate who has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic, witnessing and documenting the loss of glaciers; and how she tries to convey the scale of climate change through her paintings and photographs, making her work a kind of bridge between scientists and the rest of us. In this painting, for instance, she has overlaid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glacier in Alaska with recession lines, brightly marking the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.

For more about Diane and her work:



An elegy for Tesla

Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail
Elegy for Tesla, installation by Jeanne Jaffe at Rowan University Art Gallery, detail

Jeanne Jaffe’s ambitious Elegy for Tesla is a high-tech, dreamlike and heartfelt meditation on Nikola Tesla, the legendary scientist and inventor. Jaffe’s multimedia installation fills the Rowan University Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D printed models of his iconic inventions, and animatronic, motion-activated figures of Tesla that move and, in some cases speak.

Tesla stands as an avatar of massive creativity, with his hundreds of patents, and basic breakthroughs in alternating current, radio, robotics, and even computer circuitry. Jaffe pays homage to his achievements, while embedding them in the medium of a life that had strangely mythic elements. She’s particularly sensitive to the poignancy of the older Tesla, the eccentric loner who fed and cared for pigeons, whose limitless imagination had run up against the limits of the public’s reception of his work.

This aspect of Tesla is part of what drew me to work with composer Jon Gibson on Violet Fire, an opera that tried to capture the inner life of Tesla in all its strangeness through music, movement and video. So I was delighted to be asked to write the catalogue essay for this exhibit. One part of the Tesla mythos is the white pigeon he befriended, and who triggered in him a vision of blinding light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds herself, surrounds Tesla with a flock of tenderly modeled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as carriers of his ongoing inspiration, and markers of his intense, intuitive connection with the natural world.

Elegy for Tesla, gallery view
Elegy for Tesla, gallery view

But Tesla, in the form of his motion-activated doppelgangers, steals this show. Curator Mary Salvante coordinated an NEA-funded collaboration between Jaffe and students and faculty in Rowan’s Engineering Department to create the systems that animate her sculptures. They stand, and move, in a perfect salute to Tesla as “magician” of wireless electricity.

I’ll be at the reception on Thursday – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through January 30.

Elegy for Tesla, an installation by Jeanne Jaffe

Rowan University Art Gallery/West, Glassboro, NJ, through January 30, 2016

Reception Thursday, October 8, 5-8 pm, starting with artist presentation and panel discussion at 5 pm.


Phillips & Healy, sparkling

Phillips & Healy's 'Splendor in the Glass' at Wheaton
Carolyn Healy & John Phillips, installation in Emanations: Art + Process

Carolyn Healy and John Phillips have done it again: they’ve created an art installation piece that both transforms the space it’s housed in, and crystallizes some essence of the place.

This time they did it inside a one-room schoolhouse on the grounds of WheatonArts in Millville, New Jersey, a nationally known center for glass art. Their piece is part of Emanations: Art + Process, an ambitious exhibit bringing in eleven invited artists—some of them experienced glass artists, and others, like Phillips and Healy, who would encounter Wheaton’s impressive glassmaking studio for the first time.

The inside of the schoolhouse has become a kind of snow globe, documenting the history of glassmaking at Wheaton, once the epicenter of the American glass industry. The open room is filled with glass objects that Healy unearthed from the back rooms and storage bins of WheatonArts, from big bell jars and old pharmacy bottles to bear-shaped honey bottles. Light-filtering film on the windows, along with a few spotlights, makes for a singular atmosphere filled with odd sparkles and flashes, and reflections that seem to hover in midair. Suggestive videos on the wall and sound elements by Phillips, seemingly exploring the inner qualities of glass, somehow complete the transformation of the space into “a semi-transparent vessel itself, a crucible for contemplation,” as I wrote in the essay for a catalog to accompany the exhibit.

Donald Lipski
Donald Lipski, Emanations: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff installation, Emanations: Art + Process
Judy Pfaff installation, Emanations: Art + Process

Most of the Emanations exhibit can be seen in the Museum of American Glass, and includes such standouts as Judy Pfaff’s exuberant and gaudy fantasia on a theme of chandeliers; Donald Lipski’s mischief-making interventions into lovely glass objects; Virgil Marti’s dizzying faux-collection of exquisitely hued vases; and the surreal “barnyard animal” forms of Paula Hayes.

Discovering this adventurous show at Wheaton, set in a shady pine grove on the sandy soil that made the glass industry possible, is like finding the sparkling innards of a geode. If you go, don’t forget to walk down the path to the little schoolhouse with the extraordinary interior, courtesy of Phillips and Healy.


EMANATIONS: ART + PROCESS     Artists include Mark Dion, Paula Hayes, Carolyn Healy and John Phillips, Donald Lipski, Virgil Marti, Michael Oatman, Judy Pfaff, Jocelyne Prince, Rob Wynn and Mark Zirpel

Through January 4, 2016 at WheatonArts, Millville NJ   

Free admission on Wheaton Wide Open Weekends: September 11-13, October 23-25, November 6-8, and thru January 2016


Burchfield and synesthesia

Burchfield's "Midsummer Caprice" (detail), 1945
Burchfield’s Midsummer Caprice (detail), 1945, Burchfield Penney Art Center

In the paintings of Charles Burchfield, the trees vibrate, the air pulses with rhythmic patterns, and birdsong takes on shape and color. Everything is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhibit of Burchfield’s work at the Brandywine River Museum, up through November 16, you can see the early and later paintings in which he worked full-out to translate his visionary experience of the natural world.

Burchfield lived from 1893-1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the centers of art-world activity. But he kept up with the currents of modern art. It’s possible that learning about the daring art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own breakthrough work in 1915, when he first began to make connections between his own intense responses to nature and music, and his painted landscapes. In the 1930s he became known for sometimes brooding portrayals of small towns and industrial scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his earlier desire to convey the strange aliveness of nature.

Burchfield's "Early Spring," 1966-67
Burchfield’s Early Spring, 1966-67, Burchfield Penney Art Center

Birds transforming into air currents, the sound of cicadas appearing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hallucinogenic stimulation involved here? Very unlikely. Nancy Weekly, who co-curated the Brandywine exhibit, has highlighted the idea that Burchfield had synesthesia—the ability to experience trans-sensory perceptions, such as sound as color or vice versa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synesthesia too—along with many others in my family, from my father, my sister and brother through nieces and nephews. We have the most common type, seeing numbers and letters as specific colors. Although it’s relatively rare, at least one study has shown that synesthesia is more common among visual artists, and I suspect that may be true of poets, musicians and composers too.

Synesthesia runs strongly through early modern art: Kandinsky wrote about trying to achieve color-sound consonances through painting, and it can be seen as a motivator toward abstraction in his work and others, including artists of the Blue Rider school. Burchfield was aware of all this, yet he didn’t follow the path of pure abstraction. For him, those sensory correspondences were inextricably linked to the blooming, buzzing profusion of the natural world. He persisted in making pictures showing how, for him, everything around us vibrates along many interconnected spectrums—sound, color, energy.

Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what color is it?


Charles Burchfield: Exalted Nature

Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA – through November 16





Seeing Turrell’s Skyspace

A view of the Chestnut Hill Skyspace
Chestnut Hill Skyspace, photo by Greg Benson for Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting

My friend and I arrived at James Turrell’s Skyspace, at Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse, just before sundown. When I asked another visitor if we could take photos, the man—who had visited a number of times before—told us the artist had asked that no one take pictures, so that we could keep the experience “in here”—he tapped at his heart.

Turrell has built dozens of these perceptual environments around the world, but only two in the context of Quaker worship. This newest Skyspace encompasses the small, white-walled meetinghouse room, with a carefully constructed, rimless opening in the center of its roof, and a bank of hidden, digitally programmed LED lights high on the walls.

If it rains, the Skyspace viewing is cancelled, since the rain would come right in through the opening, which is usually covered. It had rained just a few hours before, but thankfully, the sky cleared up: when the covering retracted, we looked up into a softly blue sky with puffs of gray clouds. I took the invitation to lie on the floor, right under the opening. This made it different from a Quaker Meeting for Worship, though the silence that fell over the visitors through the next fifty minutes felt very close to a Meeting.

The open, rimless rectangle, framing a piece of deep sky, at first touched off a sense that I was looking at a painting—although a painting that moves—against a white background. Paintings traditionally aspired to be windows onto another view, right? It’s as if Turrell knew how hard it is to keep our eyes and brains still enough to pay attention to the sky, and offered us this one bite-sized piece.

Slowly, like a curtain rising, the hidden lighting in the room changed, and with that, we were transported into another place. Turrell the perceptual magician ushered us into worlds where our sky was intensely green, soft orange, deep lilac or faded yellow—a startling result of our eyes adapting to the changing ambient hue in the room. More amazements followed: was that a halo around the sky? Was I maybe standing in front of a window, rather than lying under it—and could I just get up and walk through it now? Finally, we blinked under the coal-black aperture, and walked outside to a sky of midnight blue.

Lying under the window of sky, I found myself wanting to share the experience with others—particularly with my father. He is in his final illness; he sleeps a lot and talks only a little. I wished I could convey to him some of the light we saw, taking it out of my heart and putting it in his. Still, I know the experience is different each time and for each person: everybody has to see his own light.

Chestnut Hill Skyspace is open to visitors 
at sunset on Sundays and Thursdays, 
and at sunrise on Thursdays.
Opening is subject to temperature and precipitation.
To learn more and to register, visit



James Turrell and sacred architecture

James Turrell’s Aten Reign at the Guggenheim

James Turrell’s installations at the Guggenheim left me in an altered state.  Using light as his primary medium, Turrell’s art requires slow looking and an active acceptance of ambiguity—both conducive to entering a kind of contemplative trance.

He’s pursued his singular work, from early experiments with slide projectors in dark rooms to Roden Crater, his monumental environmental work-in-progress in the Arizona desert. Since most of us won’t get to Roden Crater—though I sure would like to—this year’s major shows in Los Angeles, New York and Houston offer a rare chance to see some big work by Turrell. Aten Reign, his transformation of the Guggenheim’s atrium into a massive cone of gradually shifting light and color, is the biggest temporary piece he’s created so far. The experience of it is quiet and meditative, shared with a crowd of people, and lasting about an hour. In other words, it feels less like an art exhibit than the sacred experience you might have with others in a temple or church.

Turrell  has been open about this side of his work; he talks about light as revelation. A Quaker, he has designed a space for a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston that brings the sky directly into the room, translating the Quaker idea of finding the light within into outward form. But, given the times we are living in—many centuries after the ages of great sacred architecture—the art world can be a more or less welcoming alternative for such impulses. It’s less welcoming to the extent that talking about the connection of light with spiritual life can and does make some people uncomfortable (see Jed Perl’s piece in the New Republic).

Turrell may be better understood in the context of his predecessors in sacred architecture—including those who created the stained-glass light shows inside the great Gothic cathedrals. The Abbé Suger, who lived in the 12th century, brought together glass artists from all over Europe to make the innovative stained glass windows of the Abbey Church of St. Denis, the first truly Gothic building. The Abbé developed his own theology of light, involving three aspects: lux, lumen and illumination. Lux is physical light, from the sun or another source. Lumen is light transformed by sacred intention—having passed through the artist’s sparkling glass panels into a consecrated space. And illumination is that transformed light, standing for a divine, invisible light, apprehended within the viewer’s heart. This way of exploring how physical light can be transformed feels more useful to me in responding to James Turrell’s work than limiting the conversation to perceptual psychology—how the mind works to interpret the tricky behavior of photons.

Turrell knows all about the photons, and how we perceive them—he’s a mage of light and its effects. His predecessor, Abbé Suger, reminds us not to get hung up on the photons—to be open to the illumination within.


The Barefoot Artist

Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh, Image thanks to The Barefoot Artist,

Next Wednesday, The Barefoot Artist—a documentary about the unusual career of Lily Yeh—will have a special preview screening at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go if you can. It’s a chance to get a deeper look at this artist, who’s traveled to “broken places,” as she calls them, working on projects that use “the power of art to rebuild communities” (also her words). Over the past twenty years she’s worked in North Philadelphia, in a desolate slum in Nairobi, a school for migrant workers in Beijing, and on a genocide memorial in Rwanda, always catalyzing the energy of the people in those places to create something they can continue on their own.

Lily Yeh came to the U.S. from Taiwan, already trained in Chinese landscape painting. Her work to reclaim an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia grew into the Village of Arts and Humanities, with an abundance of parks, arts and youth programs. When I wrote about her work for Art in America as the Village celebrated its tenth birthday, I tried to show how what she was doing, and is still doing, is her art—not just a very successful community art project. The term relational art may be the best art-world term to cover the thing she does, and it does take in community-based work like the French artist JR’s massive guerilla photo installations in Rio’s favelas. But there’s something so open-hearted about Lily’s work; I like the idea of “public art as a spiritual path,” the title of a recent article that talks about her work. What we call it may not matter, but I’ll be thinking about this as I watch the movie.

If you subscribe to this blog, I’ll send you a copy of my review of Lily Yeh’s work, which includes a description of one of my favorite art-performance moments ever.

The Barefoot Artist, directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wednesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. Free with admission.


From the Ground Up

Isaiah Zagar landscape painting
Isaiah Zagar’s Islands of Nova Scotia, 1973 – a pre-mosaic painting

“Like embedded journalists, Peter Kinney, Isaiah Zagar and Jeff Waring have made the work in this show as ‘embedded’ artists, burrowing deep into the natural world to bring back its dirty, messy, mysterious secrets… Each of these artists is after full-on communion with the natural world, the kind that leaves you surrounded and bowled over, forgetting the difference between being human, rock, plant or divine…”

Me and artist Peter Kinney - a painting by Peter on left, and one by Jeff Waring on right
Me and artist Peter Kinney – a painting by Peter on left, and two by Jeff Waring on right

This is part of the statement I wrote for the exhibit From the Ground Up: LandWater&Sky, now up at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens through June 9. Thanks to Ellen Owens for inviting me to be part of this wonderful show, which has work by Peter Kinney, Jeff Waring, and some rarely seen early landscape paintings by Isaiah Zagar, dating to before his outdoor mosaic work. Two years ago I included Peter Kinney in a small-group show called Ecstatic Landscape in the Borowsky Gallery at the Gershman Y, where I’m the curator. Peter, Isaiah and Jeff’s work feels like they’re all part of the same school: wild, made-outside visionary landscape?

A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah's mosaic ceiling and floor - works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring
A wall of work showing it surrounded by Isaiah’s mosaic ceiling and floor – works by Peter Kinney (two larger pieces) and Jeff Waring