Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Exploring the Artist’s Hand
“The artist’s hand…” You may have heard art historians use that term to convey how a master leaves very specific and telltale signs of his or her authorship with every muse-kissed scratch, scrawl, and dab. An expert can spot an unsigned Picasso as genuine merely by identifying Picasso’s one-of-a-kind handling of every medium he ever tackled.
An apt case study for the power of the artist’s hand can be found by contrasting two brooches by Harry Bertoia (Lots 51 and 52) with another brooch by Alexander Calder (Lot 50a). Each brooch is made of silver and created under the same method, but Bertoia and Calder bend and mark the surface of their baubles in completely different ways – the closer we look at Calder’s brooch the more industrial it feels. The silver is cut into clean, thick arcs, then beaten to look more like massive steel than tiny, precious metal, while Bertoia’s silver looks like it was molded with delicate fingertips, then hammered into submission. The loose, uneven rings feel like artifacts of prehistory, and yet we are left with a feeling of modern lightness and whimsy.
Sunday’s fast approaching auction boasts an intriguing group of works that take the phrase “the artist’s hand” even more literally – for in each of the following lots the artist works his own appendage into the composition. There’s something deeply personal when an artist gives his hand, his unaccredited collaborator if you will, a cameo.
In Bruce Nauman’s photograph, Untitled (Lot 92) from 1969, the artist is shown gripping a translucent screen which partially obscures his face and yes, his hands. Early in his career, Bruce Nauman realized, “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” And with that, Nauman’s process became his art. The resulting gems often describe his literal hand and other body parts caught in the act of creation. In 2011, for example, LACMA acquired For Beginners (all the combinations of the thumb and fingers), a piece featuring thirty-one combinations of the artist’s fingers and thumbs in a massive projection with Nauman’s voice documenting each variation.
In another photograph, Richard Serra’s Untitled (Still from Hand Catching Lead) (Lot 93) from 2009, Serra confronts us with a rather shocking and, at first glance, gruesome image of his right hand. As one finger merges into the other in inky blackness, with splatters of more deadly black dotting the image, it at first looks like the artist’s hand – his most intimate means of expression – has experienced severe trauma. In the context of today’s blog, we may see this as the agony of creation.
Yet another outstanding photograph, the cool One Hand (Lot 49) from 1966, is Man Ray’s iconic photogram of objects placed directly on the support beneath an enlarger. Only this time, the artist’s hand makes a last minute appearance, rising dramatically from the bottom right of the frame, straining its way into the image, grasping at air, grasping for the objects that would otherwise be the main subject of the photo, upstaging them and craving them all at once.
With Emerson Woelffer’s Untitled (Lot 155) from 1964, the artist’s hand is in one sense not even directly depicted; rather, directly applied. His actual hand print is the star of this work: Woelffer’s fingers drag down the surface before resting his palm to create an elegant elongation of his manual form. This is a particularly finely composed work, musical rather than handsome, with his black and green finger smudges floating in a childlike but rather perfectly drawn blue bubble, while a confetti of red dances outside.
I’ve been compelled to write several times now about Sam Francis as he’s one of LAMA’s favorite painters, and each time I have a renewed revelation. It’s interesting to compare similarities between Woelffer’s “self-portrait” and my final pick of the day, Sam Francis’ Untitled silkscreen on paper (Lot 153) from 1988. Their basic compositions are quite similar, with Francis’ work appearing by contrast to be an upside down mirror of Woelffer’s more frolicking piece. Both works have red flourishes outside amoeba-like borders, which frame each artist’s precious hand.
For all the similarities, however, Francis depicts a lusher, bolder, brighter, but nonetheless more indefinably scary world in abstract. The ocean of blue surrounding the somewhat prophylactic-looking ring of crimson is more vivid; the hues are deeper in a way only Sam Francis can achieve. And yet, now the artist’s shared red streaks give the impression not of confetti, but of oh-so-beautiful blood in tropical water. And Francis’ hand is like melting, cracking glass about to explode, reaching down, down to an all-too-human unknown.
In the spectacular works described above, there is a tactile insistence that the hands we see in front of us are also the hands that made a thousand minor choices unknown to the brain to form a vision as singular as any fingerprint. The way in which great artists literally – and figuratively – “handle” their tools, objects, and canvases is as personal as the myriad quirks of movement and mind that give each of us our own handwriting – our signature, if you will.