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Gagosian Quarterly

February 25, 2021

Augurs ofSpring

As spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, Sydney Stutterheim reflects on the iconography and symbolism associated with the season in art both past and present.

Sterling Ruby, FLOWER (7552), 2020, ceramic, 30 ⅞ × 17 ⅝ × 2 ¼ inches (78.4 × 44.8 × 5.7 cm) © Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby, FLOWER (7552), 2020, ceramic, 30 ⅞ × 17 ⅝ × 2 ¼ inches (78.4 × 44.8 × 5.7 cm) © Sterling Ruby

Sydney Stutterheim

Sydney Stutterheim, PhD, is an art historian and writer whose research focuses on postwar and contemporary art. She joined Gagosian in 2018.

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Long considered the season of rebirth, springtime marks the transition from the austere months of winter into the lush abundance of summer, serving as a reminder of nascent growth, life, and possibility. From ancient times to the present, artists have been inspired by the fleeting splendor of the four seasons, often relating nature’s physical transformations to cycles of human experience. The annual spring equinox marks the precise balance between lightness and darkness—when day and night gain equal shares in the earth’s daily rotation, breaking out from the shadow cast by winter’s gloom without yet fully escaping its grasp.

Spring has been a recurring theme across the arts, inspiring works as diverse as William Wordsworth’s poetry and Claude Debussy’s 1887 symphonic suite Printemps. In the visual arts, it has appeared in a variety of forms, reflecting the complex symbolism of the season. Among the most famous examples in the Western art historical canon are Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece Primavera (c. 1480) and Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Spring (c. 1620–30), elaborate compositions populated with visual clues regarding the time of year. In the enigmatic Primavera, an allegorical narrative of springtime abundance, a group of mythological figures is positioned within a lush pastoral scene. This setting contains more than one hundred distinctly identifiable plant types—a detailed emphasis on varied botanical species that immediately conveys a sense of flourishing life. In the painting Spring, based on an earlier drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the depiction of the annual ritual of planting seeds in a garden intended for a later harvest focuses attention on the importance of laying groundwork for future reward.

Augurs of Spring

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, c. 1480, tempera on wood, 81 ½ × 125 ½ inches (207 × 319 cm), Uffizi, Florence

Augurs of Spring

Pieter Bruegel the Younger, Spring, c. 1620–30, oil on panel, 16 ½ × 22 ½ inches (41.9 × 57.2 cm)

Augurs of Spring

Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), Allegorical Figure of Spring, c. 1546–48, oil on canvas, 41 ½ × 76 ¾ inches (105.4 × 194.9 cm), Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.

Certain iconography, like the profuse depiction of flowers or harvests, continues to evoke the spring season through the present day. The theme of abundance has been embraced by artists including Jeff Koons, whose Bluebird Planter (2010–16) exuberantly captures the lushness of spring’s verdant growth with a large-format stainless-steel sculpture of a bluebird, a noted symbol of happiness, which is decorated with an array of live flowering plants in a perpetual state of bloom. Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Celebration Bouquet (1962) proffers a festive, joyous composition, depicting a vibrant bouquet of uniquely colored flowers. Other contemporary works evoke the idea of the season as a harbinger of the upcoming late spring and summer bounty, when countless crops come to fruition in a gloriously plentiful cornucopia. Notably Urs Fischer explores the concept of harvest in Springtime in the Midwest (2019), with ears of corn, ripe cherries, and potatoes plentifully scattered across the work’s surface, like a springtime rain shower.

Augurs of Spring

Helen Frankenthaler, Celebration Bouquet, 1962, oil on linen, 13 ⅜ × 29 ⅜ inches (34 × 74.6 cm) © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Augurs of Spring

Urs Fischer, Springtime in the Midwest, 2019, aluminum composite panel, aluminum honeycomb, two-component adhesive, primer, gesso, and solvent-based screen-printing ink, 96 × 76 ¾ inches (243.8 × 194.9 cm) © Urs Fischer

Other artists have taken different approaches to this theme. Tintoretto’s Allegorical Figure of Spring (c. 1546–48) presents the image of a young woman at a transitional point between childhood and adulthood as an allegory of the budding season. This connection to human life cycles is key to Tom Wesselmann’s Tulips and Shoe (1979), in which a small bouquet of red tulips—a flower type celebrated for its springtime bloom—is set in juxtaposition with a woman’s cerulean-blue sandal. These objects seen together signal a specific time of year, while also alluding to a specific period in a young woman’s life. The correspondence between young adulthood and spring’s nascent spryness is likewise evoked in Glenn Brown’s American Sublime (2017), in which an Adonis-like young man appears to conjure a visual explosion of color, the young creator manifesting and shaping a profusion reminiscent of the springtime abundance of hues after winter’s monochromatic palette.

Augurs of Spring

Glenn Brown, American Sublime, 2017, oil and acrylic on bronze, 38 ¾ × 24 ½ × 23 ⅝ inches (98.5 × 62 × 60 cm) © Glenn Brown

The striking contrasts of springtime—during which delicately budding flora emerge from the weather-worn earth following the severities of winter—arouse associations with concepts of metamorphosis and hidden resolve. Sterling Ruby’s exquisite ceramic flowers similarly capture the duality of fragility and strength, with their alternations of craggy and smooth textures and depictions of delicate petals that cling to a central pistil.

Artists have also focused closely on illustrating specific seasonal details, celebrating the color and textures unique to the blooming florae and new life forms that emerge at this time of year. While living in Arles, in the South of France, during the spring of 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted multiple compositions of trees, orchards, and parks in blossom. In Pink Peach Trees (“Souvenir de Mauve”) (1888), he deployed an icy palette of cool-toned browns, blues, and grays, punctuated by delicate bursts of pinkish-mauve and rose depicting the emergent flower buds on the peach tree. Here, the dichotomies of spring—as a transitional season between winter and summer—are readily apparent, the crisp winter light illuminating the first signs of the transformations to come. Similarly, in Setsuko’s painting Stephanotis avec citron coupé (1989) the sparse still-life scene—comprising a bowl of lemons and a potted Madagascar jasmine plant, rendered in a cool-toned palette of greens, yellow, blue-red, and white—captures the unhurried thaw of winter with suggestions of an airy lightness to come.

Augurs of Spring

Setsuko, Stephanotis avec citron coupé, 1989, gouache on paper, 39 ⅜ × 27 ⅝ inches (100 × 70 cm) © Setsuko

In late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Japan, artists often featured representations of springtime within larger compositions depicting all four seasons in a single woodcut or work on paper. In these examples, artists commonly used visual contrasts to communicate the distinctive elements for each season, frequently presenting a single subject—like a small group of trees—transitioning in accordance with shifting weather patterns over the course of a year. While in this example, Japanese artists represented the four seasons as a way to convey the passage of time, there are examples of contemporary art that might be interpreted in a similar manner. For instance, in Clock (Swamped Up Sagg) (2020), Davide Balula uses three stark, bare tree branches as the hour, minute, and second hands of a functioning clock. When seen in motion, this work conveys the anticipatory feeling of late winter as the days slowly begin to grow longer with the promise of life to come. Rachel Whiteread’s luminous work on paper Green, Green and Khaki (March–Sept) (2020) also evokes a sense of temporal passage, particularly through the countless layers of drawn ink that recede into the background, thereby opening up the surface to convey a sense of expanded time. Here, the intricate, lattice-like patterns of varying shades of green recall the veining of leaves, the angular shapes loosely suggesting botanical forms.

Augurs of Spring

Rachel Whiteread, Green, Green and Khaki (March–Sept), 2020, ink on watercolor paper, 11 ¾ × 16 ⅝ inches (29.7 × 42 cm) © Rachel Whiteread

Many contemporary artists have found inspiration in unconventional materials that convey the tensions and complexities of the vernal season. In Get to Work on Time (2014), Dan Colen covered the linen support with an accumulation of jewel-toned flowers—a traditional symbol of spring—that materially transform over time through the natural process of decay. The result is a painting that resembles the way in which individual plant species blend together when seen at a distance, creating an immersive experience that makes subtle allusion to darker themes of death and degeneration. In his butterfly paintings, such as Righteous Path (2019), Damien Hirst also turns to organic objects as artistic material, carefully placing actual butterflies into a rhythmic arrangement of concentric rings. Here too, the use of organic materials highlights the proximity between life and death. Giuseppe Penone has based a large portion of his practice on naturally sourced materials and the depiction of organic forms; his acacia-thorn works in particular capture the complex frictions of spring, in which the stark brutality of winter is still harbored for some time longer.

Augurs of Spring

Giuseppe Penone, Spine d’acacia – Contatto 29 maggio 2012, 2012, acrylic, glass microspheres, and acacia thorns on canvas, 39 ⅜ × 47 ¼ × 2 ¾ inches (100 × 120 × 7 cm) © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

In parts of the Northern Hemisphere that see seasonal distinctions, summer is marked by unending balmy days, autumn by the warm color palette of changing leaves, and winter by the chilly stillness that permeates the land and air. Yet spring is less readily defined. It evokes a buoyant lightness, made possible by shaking off the winter frost. It reveals all the hidden life that had lain dormant below the icy surface. It carries forth the weight of the immediate past while presenting glimpses of a vibrant, abundant, and prolific time to come. Over the last year, the splendor and tenacity of the natural world—even when faced with the unimaginable circumstances that have defined this period, and the precarity of environmental futures—gained a considerable urgency. At once hopefully optimistic and marred by scars that act as reminders of the brutality of the immediate past, the joys of spring take on a new imperative as the new season approaches on both literal and metaphorical levels.

Anna Weyant’s Two Eileens (2022) on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2022

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2022

The Winter 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Anna Weyant’s Two Eileens (2022) on its cover.

Urs Fischer: Denominator

Urs Fischer: Denominator

Urs Fischer sits down with his friend the author and artist Eric Sanders to address the perfect viewer, the effects of marketing, and the limits of human understanding.

Jordan Wolfson’s House with Face (2017) on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2022

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Fall 2022

The Fall 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Jordan Wolfson’s House with Face (2017) on its cover.

Photograph of the execution of Giuseppe Penone’s frottages in La Tourette, Éveux, France. Giuseppe Penone, Le Bois Sacré (The Sacred Forest), 2022, prepared canvas oil and wax pastel

Giuseppe Penone À La Tourette

Le Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, in Éveux, France, is both an active Dominican priory and the last building designed by Le Corbusier. As a result, the priory, completed in 1961, is a center both religious and architectural, a site of spiritual significance and a magnetic draw for artists, writers, architects, and others. This fall, at the invitation of Frère Marc Chauveau, Giuseppe Penone will be exhibiting a selection of existing sculptures at La Tourette alongside new work directly inspired by the context and materials of the building. Here, Penone and Frère Chauveau discuss the power and peculiarities of the space, as well as the artwork that will be exhibited there.

Y.Z. Kami, Night Painting I (for William Blake), 2017–18, oil on linen, 99 × 99 inches (251.5 × 251.5 cm) © Y.Z. Kami. Photo: Rob McKeever

In Conversation
Setsuko and Y.Z. Kami

The artists address their shared ardor for poetry, the surfaces of painting, and nature.

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 102 color woodcut from 46 woodblocks

The Romance of a New Medium: Helen Frankenthaler and the Art of Collaboration

Inspired by the recent retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, William Davie writes about the artist’s innovative journey with printmaking. Davie illuminates Frankenthaler’s formative collaborations with master printers Tatyana Grosman and Kenneth Tyler.

Setsuko standing in front of one of her decorative ceramic pieces in the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau, Rueil-Malmaison, France

Regards de Setsuko

Join Setsuko on a tour of her exhibition at the Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau in Rueil-Malmaison, France, the former residence of Empress Joséphine. The video brings together the artist; Isabelle Tamisier-Vétois, chief curator, and Élisabeth Caude, director, Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau; and Benoît Astier de Villatte, cofounder of the atelier Astier de Villatte, Paris. They discuss the origins and development of the project, which is designed as a dialogue between Setsuko’s work and the decorative ceramics held in the museum’s collection.

Urs Fischer and Francesco Bonami speaking amidst the installation of "Urs Fischer: Lovers" at Museo Jumex, Mexico City

Urs Fischer: Lovers

The exhibition Urs Fischer: Lovers at Museo Jumex, Mexico City, brings together works from international public and private collections as well as from the artist’s own archive, alongside new pieces made especially for the exhibition. To mark this momentous twenty-year survey, the artist sits down with the exhibition’s curator, Francesco Bonami, to discuss the installation.

Awol Erizku, Lion (Body) I, 2022, Duratrans on lightbox, 49 ⅜ × 65 ⅝ × 3 ¾ inches (125.4 × 166.7 × 9.5 cm) © Awol Erizku

Awol Erizku and Urs Fischer: To Make That Next Move

On the eve of Awol Erizku’s exhibition in New York, he and Urs Fischer discuss what it means to be an image maker, the beauty of blurring genres, the fetishization of authorship, and their shared love for Los Angeles.

Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne

In Conversation
Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne on Helen Frankenthaler

Broadcaster and art historian Katy Hessel; Matthew Holman, associate lecturer in English at University College London; and Eleanor Nairne, curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, discuss Helen Frankenthaler’s early training, the development of her signature soak-stain technique and subsequent shifts in style, and her connections to the London art world.

Installation view of Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2011) in Ouverture, Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection, Paris, 2021. Artwork © Urs Fischer, courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich; Bourse de Commerce – Pinault Collection © Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, Niney et Marca Architectes, Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Photo: Stefan Altenburger

Bourse de Commerce

William Middleton traces the development of the new institution, examining the collaboration between the collector François Pinault and the architect Tadao Ando in revitalizing the historic space. Middleton also speaks with artists Tatiana Trouvé and Albert Oehlen about Pinault’s passion as a collector, and with the Bouroullec brothers, who created design features for the interiors and exteriors of the museum.

Helen Frankenthaler, Heart of London Map, steel sculpture

Helen Frankenthaler: A Painter’s Sculptures

On the occasion of four exhibitions in London exploring different aspects of Helen Frankenthaler’s work, Lauren Mahony introduces texts by the sculptor Anthony Caro and by the artist herself on her relatively unfamiliar first body of sculpture, made in the summer of 1972 in Caro’s London studio.