He developed a significant reputation on the East Coast with his hard-edge geometric paintings during the s and 50s. The artist spent his formative years in Reno , and upon his death two large Nevada-inspired paintings were donated to the University of Nevada, Reno Department of Art. Writing about an artist is much like painting a series of portraits at various stages of his life.
Not only the face changes, but the work-even the reasons for making art in the first place. By all accounts, Ben Cunningham did not plan on a career in art until he was about twenty. He was more interested in music and is reported to have played the trumpet with proficiency. In fact, music appeared as a theme in several of his paintings.
Cunningham was born in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in ; his family moved to Reno in , and one of his lifelong friends, Oliver Kistler, remembers being shown the house the Cunninghams were building on Cheney Street in When the Kistler family later moved to Reno in , Ben lived with them for a year and a half and apparently considered them his extended family, remarking that he felt more like a Kistler than a Cunningham.
In sum, Nevada was the place of his formative years, and he often returned after moving away. But Nevada was not the place of his artistic development, even though this special terrain undoubtedly influenced his visual vocabulary, and it also later became the subject of several pieces.
It is unlikely that he encountered much pertinent guidance in Nevada that would have led him to the visual arts. Nor was there any tradition in the visual arts in the family. Cunningham's father was a medical doctor who joined the army during World War I. On a tour of duty he met, and later married, another physician. He never returned home. Cunningham's mother worked in the Washoe County Courthouse for many years, and in she decided to run for state office on the heels of a scandal that involved three state officials including the treasurer who were convicted of playing the stock market with public funds.
While campaigning, she was killed in an auto accident. He then briefly returned to Reno to work for a mining company before moving back to the Bay Area in The following decade is arguably the most critical of his art career. In he participated in his first professional group show at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco and started to be recognized among his peers. The s are also the period of his major mural work and of actual employment as artist and arts administrator, beginning with the work at the Coit Tower in San Francisco in A look at this work today is to glimpse another era through the eyes of artists who responded to the sociopolitical climate of the s.
They identified with the worker and the man in the street, and capital and management were overtly and tacitly depicted as the oppressor. This theme prevailed throughout much of the work on the first floor, where Diego Rivera was one of the painters. A sense of unity connects the work of many disparate artists, attributable both to the master plan for the entire project and to the communal spirit among the artists themselves.
Even though all were accomplished artists, some had little experience with fresco work the old Italian tradition interpreted by Mexican artists , and these paintings became a learning experience. Cunningham's fresco Outdoor Life is located on an upper level and covers an area of nine by twenty-two feet with easily read outdoor recreational scenes. With its mixture of modelled and flat painted surfaces together with repeated areas of patterns, it contains the typical elements of his representational work.
He executed several other murals himself, including the ceiling for the Reno post office in , painted in oil. To his dismay, it was obliterated shortly afterward. According to several accounts, the old retiring postmaster simply had it painted over, and there was no outcry by civic groups or any other move to save it. Could it have contained a shade of red? Could it have appeared un-American to a provincial bureaucrat?
Such was the reception of Cunningham's work in Nevada in When an exhibition of his paintings was at last mounted here, it was the year —by which time he had safely become a footnote. Finally in Cunningham met Hilaire Hiler, who was to become a major influence on his thought and work. During the s Hiler had painted abstractions based on extensive explorations in colorimetry, an area of inquiry that was put on a "universally accepted precise quantitative basis" during the s.
While it does not attempt to substitute science for art, it absorbs such studies It is made for contemplation. Rather, color is used to transmit forms and sensations in space with the aim to create extra optical perceptions. Hiler introduced Cunningham to Wilhelm Oswald's color theory, which ultimately played a significant role in Cunningham's analysis of the relationship between pigments and color perception.
In the Oswald color system the color solid is a double cone—that is, two identical cones that have a common base with the central axis oriented vertically.
This concept was the touchstone for Cunningham's work, which is based on complex investigations of color to create illusions of flat surfaces or volumes, and on intricate interplay of light and shadow established with film colors and metamers, causing viewers to "see" or flesh out imaginary colors or spaces. His goal, he believed, was to dematerialize color, that is, to transform inert pigment into shifting patterns of light and shadow.
During the s in New York he also began a long career as lecturer in several prestigious institutions where he passed on his color theories to students. He had worked his way through, existing modernist precepts before arriving at his mature style, of which Corner Painting is emblematic. Veils of geometric shapes on two canvases, placed in a corner, create the illusion that space extends beyond the walls. This effect was achieved again in a larger work, Six Dimensions of Orange In he took this concept a step further by painting the three panels of Jewels of the Medici , to be installed on a projecting corner.
With the advent of op art in the sixties he was invited to major shows, where it now became apparent that there was a similarity between his style and Victor Vasarely's.
But according to his biographer, Cindy Nemser, Cunningham was unaware of Vasarely's work when he developed his own color compositions. Their paths crossed during this particular period but took quite different directions before and after this short interlude. In , Cunningham saw a painting by Vasarely for the first time. In , he was invited to exhibit a work—"Equivocation," now in the Modern Museum's collection—in "The Responsive Eye" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and for the first time he began to attract some attention.
He realized that he was part of a world trend. Artists kept popping up from nowhere. People asked him how he managed to be so stubborn and hang on to his own objectives so long. Much of what Cunningham thought and said about art comes to us from the notes kept by his wife of thirty years, Patsy—she was his third, and last, wife. Some excerpts from these chronicles follow:. To make a painting luminous is to create the illusion that the color gives off more light than falls on it The verbal language is inadequate to a discussion of painting because it forces a choice which leaves out the others It is often said that an artist must reflect his time.
But if he simply comments on it, he adds nothing—a case of deja vu. His function is to enrich his culture by providing a definition of it. After Patsy Cunningham's death in two paintings were donated to the University of Nevada, Reno, both dealing with Nevada in totally different ways. Pyramid Lake oil on canvas, 29 by 56 inches was painted in It has been suggested that its realism was a gesture toward his brother, for whom it was originally painted. This stylized landscape, with its mauve and reddish brown modelled mountain shapes and patterned sagebrush foreground, is typical of Cunningham's attention to design and detail.
Nevada 2 oil on panel, 22 by 28 inches, one of a series of three was painted in and is basically an abstraction in orange and green with vibrating squares and ovals.
NOTES: 1. Other statistics cited regarding the Coit Tower are from this source. Agoston, Color Theory , Nemser, Ben Cunningham , Campbell, Well-Tempered , Art Students League News 22 March Nevada Humanities produces and supports dynamic educational and cultural programs that enrich our lives and encourage us to explore challenging ideas. Nevada Humanities unites us through our history and heritage.
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Some excerpts from these chronicles follow: To make a painting luminous is to create the illusion that the color gives off more light than falls on it Geographic Area:. Article Locations. Related Articles Craig Sheppard. Katherine Lewers. Lyle Ball.
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