Artist Marilyn Kalish
Artist Marilyn Kalish
Written by Amanda Rae Busch / Photography by Scott Barrow
Marilyn Kalish is a woman possessed. At least that’s what a visitor might think upon entering the artist’s Great Barrington, Massachusetts, studio-salon to find her assailing a pair of seven-foot-tall canvases with fistfuls of graphite pencils.
Clad in a crinkled, gunmetal-gray raw-silk robe over black wide-leg pants, Kalish windmills her arms in sweeping arcs, the sharp points of her tools scratching and tapping the expanse in a vigorous, passionate symphony. Kalish sways to an imaginary rhythm, her tightly shut eyes like the ebb and flow of passersby on the scorched Railroad Street sidewalk one story below.
She wiggles her fingers to make delicate lines within fluid figure eights—the lithe arm of a dancer, the strong arch of a petite foot—over and over and over again. A strand of pearls swings furiously from her neck. “It’s unpredictable,” she murmurs, breaking her meditation and softening her dark features from a scowl. “I want this thing to surprise me.” This thing is the almighty blank canvas, which Kalish has been confronting in such a manner for more than two decades. These two particular works-in-progress will morph rapidly into part of the artist’s ongoing Sensuality of Dance series, her most celebrated body of work, produced during a winter-long residency in the archives of Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, in 2006, prefacing the legendary dance festival’s seventy-fifth anniversary.
Each is born on semi-translucent beaded mylar, a flexible polyester film also used to create high-performance boat sails and map overlays; strung about the Vault Gallery, Kalish’s intimate exhibition space named for its spot in the former Mahaiwe Bank building just around the corner on Main Street, the metallic dancers shimmer in the soft glow of overhead lighting and move with the gentle breeze produced by browsing visitors. Stephanie Kouloganis recalls being mesmerized upon wandering into the Vault Gallery four summers ago.
“That’s why I kept going back—and it’s the same thing that still draws me to her work—the movement of her lines. It’s such classical subject matter, but her artwork is contemporary, and people respond to that,” coos Kouloganis, now Kalish’s trusty wingwoman and Vault Gallery associate director.
“We have dancers who come in and they’re stunned; they say they’ve never seen dance captured in that way. For Marilyn, it’s all about light and physics and how to capture that movement.” Ask Kalish if she’s ever been a dancer and she’ll cackle and quip, “Only at weddings!” Yet she’s not totally unlike them. “I’m in awe of their discipline,” she says. “It takes more than talent. It takes excitement.” By measure of the artist’s process—a raw, visceral, intensely physical outpouring of emotion—it’s as clear as the crystal on a nearby chandelier that Kalish channels similar enthusiasm. After dumping her handfuls of pencils into metal cans set on the floor, she grabs two palm-sized chunks of charcoal from a coterie of carved wooden bowls and clasps her fingers around their edges as if the settings of precious smoky jewels. “This is my language,” she says, dragging the soft black rock along the dancer’s developing torso. Swoosh, tap. A fine ebony dust floats to the drop cloth below. “It all smells so luscious,” she declares. “And the sounds are gorgeous.” This is the gritty, down-and-dirty, physically taxing, and psychologically draining part. Beauty—that part comes later. “You have no help,” Kalish states wryly, lounging in a velvet chair at the opposite end of the room just minutes later. “It’s a blank canvas. You have to be sort of crazy to produce a consistent body of work from nothing.”
The sheer number of works occupying the vast rectangular space is testament to Kalish’s inexhaustible ambition. She nabbed this place in February, after learning, rather regretfully, that she was no longer welcome to work in near-obscurity from a loft in St. James Church—the house of worship has been shuttered due to a structural deformity. (“It’s a dark day when a church is condemned,” the former church mouse states solemnly.) Part studio, part gallery, part lounge, the space seems plucked from a chic Parisian pied-à-terre with plush fabrics, glass-topped coffee tables, and gilt galore, thanks to a decorating partnership with Berkshire Home & Antiques. On weekends, Kalish invites the public here to mingle over flutes of sparkling rosé and to view her work as it might appear in their own homes, over their own sofas or beside their own fresh flowers. There’s also opportunity to peek at some of Kalish’s unfinished works, like the two she’s been tackling today, but without feeling as if one’s intruded mid-act. And it’s here that her earlier work—darker pieces that have been showcased in museums from Boca Raton to Manhattan—hang alongside new experiments, like last winter’s series of golden canvases depicting dreamy, abstract Asian provinces dotted with the occasional pagoda or bonsai.
“It’s still in infancy,” she says of her first foray into landscape painting. She’s cast those pieces aside for now. Lured again by the magic of motion, Kalish has been incubating a fledgling series, Exquisite Life of Birds, for the past few weeks, the sketches of which hang in the salon amidst her resident dancers and near a small stone statue of Michelangelo’sDavid. Each depicts birds in mid-flight—“knots of energy,” she chirps—and upon closer inspection, it seems as if the torsos of the avian creatures are late-stage predecessors of the twisting human forms. “The bird series is freest of all,” Kalish admits, adding, almost as an afterthought, that the finished pieces will stray from her traditionally neutral palette. For the first time—aside from a brief love affair with crimson pigment that spawned a large-scale oil interpretation of Lady Macbeth for the April 2008 opening of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts—she’ll apply ribbons of rainbow color. “I already see them finished,” she says, dreamily enough to make a visitor almost forget that moments earlier she likened her tick-tock-tick-tock approach to life as that of a manic-depressive, minus the slumps. “This fertility … keeps me interested.” The house in which Kalish spent her childhood sits across the street from Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. “That was my playground,” she recalls. “I would take off into the woods on adventures, collect lady slippers, frogs, guppies—I had jars of night science. It’s a lot like painting: discovery. And wonder.”
She recalls, in detail, standing behind the velvet ropes to gaze at Rembrandt’s Polish Rider at the Frick Collection in Manhattan and marveling: How on earth could I ever do that?
It wasn’t until she was a few semesters into a psychology degree at the University of Hartford that she took an art class. Kalish, who’s held an appreciation of the macabre and has had an affinity for dark attire for as long as she can remember, found conformity unappealing. But, she says, “That stopped when I smelled oil paint.” She started painting, along the way meeting her husband, Alan Kalish, now director of the Vault Gallery, and raising two children, Michael and Lauren, now grown. “She always had a studio at home,” Alan says. “When the children were at home that’s the only studio she would ever see.” Still, Kalish developed her own “bag of tricks,” her rituals, which helped her survive the isolation she endured for short periods in remote studios after the kids were grown.
“I do eight to ten pieces at once so when I get stuck….” she says, trailing off. Just last week, she holed up in a secret studio space smack in downtown Great Barrington for nearly two full days and churned out thirty-six of those bird sketches. Taped to every sliver of wall space in the single-room apartment cluttered with drop cloths and floodlights and folding tables topped with supplies, the sketches embody a flock of energy. “I remember, vividly, being moved by the sheer scale of her drawings and her prolific manner of working,” says Susan Stoops, curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum. It was 1999, and Kalish, who was working at the institution’s conservation lab, had invited Stoops to drop by her studio. “There were drawings hanging on every possible surface, and when she ran out of room in the studio they began to take over her living space,” Stoops recalls. “The physicality of her mark-making was formidable; the seriousness of her enterprise was never in doubt. And the more I looked, the more I came to understand that for Marilyn drawing was both an act and a site of self-creation.” Kalish’s personal growth is tied inextricably to her artistic evolution. After working for awhile in an open studio on North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she found herself seeking privacy and knocking on the door of St. James Church.
Almost simultaneously she hatched a plan to launch a gallery representing herself on Main Street with a self-imposed challenge: she’d ask eight of her artist friends to showcase their photography, sculpture, and painting; if any of them declined, Kalish would scrap the project.
Kalish’s Vault Gallery today confirms that dear friends, like famed Stockbridge, Massachusetts, photographer Clemens Kalischer, Leonard Baskin (with whom she’d taken a drawing class at Smith College), and Barry Moser believed in her ambition. Photojournalist Craig Walker had just ventured to Afghanistan when she called him. Kalish marvels.
“After you stand in front of a blank canvas,” she says, “starting a business is not hard.” Her husband agrees. “She has a tremendous drive,” he says matter-of-factly, attributing much of this to her being constantly “discovered” at the Vault, seven days a week, year-round. “She’s physically exhausted a lot, but emotionally she’s ready to work, twenty-four hours a day.” But a reclusive artist Kalish is not. Though she appears as something of a dark force in An Intimate Encounter with Art, the twenty-eight-minute documentary film shot in 2007 by her son, Michael, a Boston-based videographer and founder of Generation Productions, Kalish is as likely to be seen at the local farmers’ market or theater as she is hosting a business after-hours event for the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
Of special pride is her recent appointment to the Great Barrington Historic District Commission, a board of safeguard-minded citizens selected by the town manager.
“I want to preserve things that should be preserved,” Kalish opines. “I’m terribly proud to be considered. My community is important to me.” Kalish doesn’t distinguish between clients and her community. “You go there and she’ll invite you to have tea—you haven’t bought anything yet!—and she wants to know what you enjoy about [her work],” gushes collector Lisa Ross-Benjamin, 52, a Great Barrington second-home owner from Stamford, Connecticut. “It’s crazy: she just wants to know you and she wants you to know her.” Speaking from a cellphone during a Berkshire shopping excursion, Ross-Benjamin becomes so animated about her interactions with the artist that her husband and college-age daughter can be heard in the background, pleading with her to please calm down.
“Her artwork reflects all the movement and the beautiful feeling we have up here in the Berkshires,” Benjamin-Ross continues. “There’s a Jewish word called kvelling—you ooze love for somebody. I’m proud to know her and own her artwork and share it with other people.” Lady Godiva, depicting an ethereal woman on horseback, is one of two pieces that Ross-Benjamin gave to her daughter, a history major, upon college graduation. (Ross-Benjamin’s other daughter, a dance major at Skidmore College, also found a personal connection with Kalish.)
Photos of the works hanging above a couch in a starter apartment are sealed into a scrapbook at the Vault Gallery, per Kalish’s request that patrons send documentation of her pieces in their new settings. Two new homes for Kalish’s work are just up Route 7 in Lenox, Massachusetts: at the Spa at Cranwell. Both are site-specific custom installations of her Dancers in significant locations, such as opposite the broad windows that line the elongated atrium leading to the reservations desk at Cranwell.
CAST-OFF ANGELS AND TOYS BECOME KALISH’S TREASURES
CAST-OFF ANGELS AND TOYS BECOME KALISH’S TREASURES
January 28 – February 4, 2000
By Leon Nigrosh
The notion of time looms large in Marilyn Solomon Kalish’s work—in the conception and in the execution. Each of the nine wall-mounted assemblages, which are currently on display in the ARTSWorcester Gallery at Quinsigamond Community College, appears to have slowly grown from the pages of history almost by themselves.
These works, which look so deceptively simple, were, in fact, quite time-consuming to construct. Kalish spent hours wandering through two “secret” junkyards looking for things, anything that caught her eye. She would often find beauty and significance in cast-off items; and once back in her studio, she began to restore, arrange, and to rearrange her treasures until
they came together. The frameworks were built to exacting specifications, finished appropriately, and then all the disparate parts assembled.
The large centerpiece of the QCC show, Liaison, is so powerful for its combination of textures of soft fabric, smooth slate, and of coarse stone dust. It produces an intimate tête-à-tête between encrusted shards from two ancient chalices (which are actually bits of broken PVC pipe). For Clandestine, Kalish juxtaposed a smooth, slate surface on a plane of roughly scored and tinted-marble dust. On top of this, she has affixed a timeworn, brass effigy of two tiny cherubs posed in a secretive manner.
The most spellbinding works on display are the three wall objects that showcase small, brass, animal figures. Amazing finds in themselves, the figures become icons ensconced in stone-like reliquaries. In Beast of Burden, our attention focuses on a cast, brass replica of an ancient, horse-drawn, covered hansom that is set deep in a crevice cut from a block, roughly skinned with pigmented-marble dust. Presented in a similar context, Rock-Shelter gives the impression that the small, brass bovine with a bell around its neck is a child’s toy resuscitated from some Phoenician burial mound. Nearby, the tiny, brass horse-on-wheels becomes more than an abandoned toy. Peering from its perch, set into a framework of pigmented-marble dust, it has been imbued with the spirit of a Guardian of the Cave. Through her careful attention to detail, Kalish presents these pieces in a calm and spiritual manner. It is as though we are witness to some great archaeological finds whose true meanings have yet to be discovered.
Kalish is also showing some recent works in charcoal and wax on paper. These three, large, inky-black “drawings” are so thick with an impasto of wax that they make their references to doorways and to arches in low relief. Shard goes so far that it becomes three-dimensional, with a large segment lifting right off the page to form an open door. An added bonus with these reverently spiritual works is the lingering aroma of the fragrant wax.
The most-recently executed pieces are several charcoal-on-paper drawings that, in some cases, refer to the three-dimensional works. Frankincense, although it looks vaguely like some Italian basilica we should recognize, refers directly to Kalish’s construction Censer by mimicking the brass globe’s cut-out stars and circles in the drawing. The tall, narrow Interiorcould be a gothic archway or a bower of trees; and the marks in Introspection suggest a wispy figure. Time is also present in these works, but quite speeded up, as the slashing gesture lines attest. The attributes of antiquity and mystery are not present in the drawings as they are in the constructed objects. Speed and gesture cannot replace the real-time thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that infuses an enchanting and timeless quality in Kalish’s objects.
Now It’s Own Reward
Now It’s Own Reward
December 10, 2000
Kalish’s Drawing Now It’s Own Reward
By Frank Magiera
It is probably fair to say that Marilyn Solomon Kalish’s favorite drawing at the moment is “Breathe,” the huge, majestic, invigorating smudge of charcoal that is the centerpiece of her latest exhibition at WPI’s George C. Gordon Library. The image is just the suggestion of a figure; arms outstretched; head thrown back; one leg about to take a giant step forward, perhaps, as the torso inhales expansively.
For Ms. Kalish the piece is not just defining but transforming. She views it as something of an artistic gateway through which she has finally passed after a lifetime of treating drawings as preliminary exercises in preparation for more substantial works of art.
“I’ve always sketched. I’ve always drawn since I was young,” Ms. Kalish said. “I didn’t place a lot of value on my drawings because, historically, they were the prelude to a more important piece.” Her outlook changed when she discovered wax and figured out how to use it in her drawings.
“I’m excited about this piece because I found a place to push,” she said. “That means a lot to me.”
Ms. Kalish, who has lived in Worcester for four years, has quickly caught the attention of the local art community. She volunteers in the conservation department of the Worcester Art Museum. She is active in ARTSWorcester. And lately it seems her artwork has been starring in one exhibition after another.
She recently concluded a solo exhibition of collages at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and one of her drawings won the Freelander Award for the best piece in Worcester’s annual Art for AIDS’ Sake show just as her exhibition of new drawings was opening at WPI.
“I’m old-fashioned in the way I approach painting,” Ms. Kalish said. “I’m not interested in intellectual concepts. I’m a contemporary artist. There’s no denying that I’m fully aware of the times we live in. Yet I pay attention to what happened before me.”
If Ms. Kalish is not interested in concepts, she is absolutely inspired by materials. When she’s not making art in her studio, she is likely to be reading about the old masters such as Titian and Rembrandt.
“I’m impressed with their integrity, the time and care that they took in preparing their materials,” she said.
Ms. Kalish’s respect for classic materials made her a perfect match for a role as a volunteer in the museum’s conservation department, where great paintings are cleaned, repaired and preserved. About two years ago she began working with museum’s Fayum portraits, the encaustic masks used to cover the face of mummies.
“They’re beautiful, seductive and gorgeous,” she said. “These were wax, not oil, and they held up better than oil. So I became very interested in that method.” As Ms. Kalish explored the techniques of encaustic, she also returned to her drawings.
“I always loved to draw,” she said. “It gave me a lot of joy. I’m a morning person. I’m up at 5 sketching and sketching. My technique is that as soon as I make a mark I’m pretty much committed to the mark.”
“So I have many, many drawings that don’t work or that are not realized for me. And then one will become realized. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to stay in the drawing longer. And then at some point my work, my volunteering and the wax converged.”
Ms. Kalish simply borrowed some of the classic painting techniques to give more substance to her drawings. For instance, she sizes her drawing paper with rabbit skin glue, much the way artists used the glue to size raw canvas to prevent oil paint from penetrating the linen or cotton fibers. Then she heats clear wax and brushes it over the surface of the paper with Chinese brushes.
The wax dries almost immediately, providing a malleable ground for her drawing. With the wax coating, Ms. Kalish discovered that she could wipe out the lines of the drawing if she decided they were wrong, without abandoning the image entirely. In fact, she discovered that the shadowy residue of obliterated lines left something of a record of the drawing process, which enhanced the final image.
“I started to draw on that with charcoal,” she said. “And if I didn’t like what was happening I could push it back with turpentine. I just brushed turpentine into the wax and the charcoal image would just push back and leave a faint, ghost-like image. It allowed me to stay in it for so long.”
The wax also allowed Ms. Kalish to use tools usually associated with painting, such as palette knives, to make her drawings. The technique also allowed her to dramatically enlarge her drawings from notebook-size to painting size. The image of “Breathe” for instance, measures 88 by 56 inches. It is made on three large sections of paper, glued and waxed together, and mounted on a rigid fiberboard backing.
“My drawings can stay large now,” she said. “That was for me—I don’t want to say a breakthrough because I think breakthrough is nothing more than working very hard and persevering. I tend to agree with Einstein’s statement that creativity is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. I just kept doing.”
Ms. Kalish also likes the simpler and more subtle imagery that has emerged in her new drawings.
“As I became older life became simpler,” she said. “I began to shed things. Less is more. I’m not having to explain so much. There’s a lot going on in them but they’re just not … boom! I don’t need to do that anymore. I don’t feel it’s necessary to bash you over the head.”
“Born in Springfield, Ms. Kalish grew up surrounded by art. Her grandfather was a portrait painter and she spent many hours in his studio. But as an art major at the University of Hartford in the 1960s she fell under the influence of the more fashionable abstract expressionism.
“I thought he was old-fashioned,” she said of her grandfather. Then a college instructor discouraged one of her projects, saying that everything there was to accomplish in art had already been done.
“Those were fighting words,” she said. “That was a challenge.”
Ms. Kalish said the best word that she can think of to describe her working methods is “assault.” That term seems particularly appropriate at those times when her drawing becomes so intense that she actually cuts holes in the paper surface. That is also when her experience in the museum’s conservation department comes in handy.
“I trust the pen,” she said, “I trust the assault. I trust everything that is happening. I’m excited. I work from experience rather than a concept. I don’t want to be illustrative. I want to express something more than that.”
“It’s a fine line I’m walking. There’s the image. I go and kick the hell out of it. If that holds up afterwards, then those drawings are the ones that have the most to offer.”
Living, breathing images in charcoal and wax
Living, breathing images in charcoal and wax
December 21 – 28, 2000
Wax works – Living, breathing images in charcoal and wax
By Leon Nigrosh
Some readers may remember that it was a little less than a year ago that art works by Marilyn Solomon Kalish were favorably reviewed in the pages of this paper. At that time, she was heavily involved with three-dimensional bas-reliefs and sculptural wall pieces. However, she also showed, somewhat reluctantly, three new charcoal and wax “drawings” which turned out to be portents of a fundamental change in direction for her artistic endeavors.
Now, eight months later we can see her very latest works in the Gordon Library gallery at WPI. The current images are the complete antithesis of her previous works, objects that were very time consuming to gather and arrange and then construct to exacting specifications. These new pieces consist
of a complex array of fleeting gestural marks seemingly made in a race to capture the feeling and the instant, to freeze them in the wax before they escape. The very large scale of each drawing at first commands our attention, and then beckons us in for a closer look. And on close examination we begin to see just how facile Kalish is with her drawing implements.
Her handling of the charcoal stick on both Mother Wit and Tis a gift to be simple is strongly reminiscent of drawings by early masters such as the graceful anatomical studies by Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) heroic sketchbooks.
In each case there is a noticeable and active variation in the lines as they change from light to dark and thick to thin all the while charging across the page. Kalish further emboldens her work with judicious smudges to create volume and skin tone along with inventive gouging and scraping back to the white paper for added visual— as well as physical—depth. All the while adhering to the monochromatic values inherent in the charcoal itself.
The solitary figure in her five-foot tall charcoal and wax on paper Awake appears to burst upwards through a multitude of sweeping lines cut into the clear wax surface. Its classical stance emerges from pale to dark tones as it thrusts higher and higher. One can almost imagine wings. Nearby, the blackened image in the seven-foot tall signature piece of this exhibition, Breathe, actually does sprout wings as it spreads across three large sheets of wax-coated paper. This work, the only unframed piece in the show, still exudes a faint aroma of wax, which adds to the title’s apparent bidding that we join in, expand our lungs, and breathe.
Kalish is not above social commentary on a grander level. Her drawing entitled Pillar of Society offers us an almost WPA-style image of two figures with uplifted faces placed between two tall Doric columns, with the graffito inscription, “The artist and the institution.” Along with her adept use of charcoal drawing and scraping in wax, Kalish has introduced another design element, a series of spirals. Upon reflection, it turns out that she made these spirals by touching the drawing’s surface with the hotplate coil used to warm the wax. It is left up to us to decide whether this application was intentional at first, as well as which pillar in the drawing is referred to in the title—the artist, the establishment, or the actual fluted columns.
The only “landscape” in this exhibition, A Precipitous Place, is a mad jumble of charcoal squiggles and vigorous wax scratching that resembles a mountainside bathed in the glow of the sun—another hotplate spiral. This piece has a distinct flavor of period Japanese ink-painted landscapes. Made up of myriad marks, both dark and light, broad and narrow, with measured white areas between them to suggest space, this work has a charm similar to the scroll paintings of one of the few recognized Meiji era female artists, Noguchi Shohin (1847-1917).
At the beginning of this review I suggested that these works were rapidly executed in a flurry of activity. In truth, this is not the case. Kalish does start each work intuitively, making marks on a page, or as she says, “just drawing.” But then, if something connects within her, she leaves the drawing alone in the studio. Later she “spends more time with it,” working with the surfaces and textures as she learns more from the drawing itself. This process, which she finds so important, continues over time until the particular piece reaches a state of physical and emotional completeness. It is this totality in each of her images that she offers up to us as a bridge of personal discovery.
Making Bold Moves
Making Bold Moves
Marilyn Kalish “Making Bold Moves”
By Gwenn Mayers
Drawing is mark making to be sure, but it’s also “another kind of language.”* No matter their scale, their medium, or their function—preparatory or a final expression of a creative idea—drawings speak of intimacy and immediacy. Marilyn Kalish adds physicality, with un-choreographed dancers’ movements, to the language of drawing. The force of her work explodes, the edges of the paper barely containing forms, lines, colors and marks. You cannot look passively at her paintings and drawings, but, swept up by their movement, you enter them.
I spoke with Marilyn Kalish in her new undertaking, the Vault Gallery. She is exhibiting her sketches and paintings in a group show called, Sanctuary: The Power of Images.
The process of making art continually fascinates Kalish and informs all of her work. On her web site, www.marilynkalish.com, viewers can see the process unfold. I asked her to talk about her process.
Marilyn Kalish: The process is extremely important to me. I start out drawing, with my eyes closed. I stand close. I am feeling it, breathing it. I’m holding 15 or more pencils in each hand, using whatever pencils are in the studio and varying the pressure and tones of the marks. Moving fast and slow. Building. Eyes closed, head turned, that’s energy. I am trying to clear my mind, trick my psyche … I am trying to get out of my own way. I work for hours with my eyes closed. I enter the drawing. Then I am left with a large scribble, elegant, gritty lines. I leave the studio. After a while, I come back and sit with it. I wait until I see something that resonates. The process becomes a communal experience. The marks are informing me. There are clues. The editing just happens. I cant—and don’t—force the image. I don’t cover up the process; I want to see the experience, the energy. I am interested in physics; the idea of chaos and order is irresistible.
We are looking at Sanctuary, a 48”x144” work on Mylar. There are images of birds and the physical feeling of flight and movement; it is not a painting of birds. Image and process are entwined.
Gwenn Mayers: Tell me about your images.
MK: When I did this piece, I was listening to Messiaen, a French composer, who recorded birdsongs. That energized me. He dedicated a large amount of time to this. He wrote a symphony based on birdsongs. I had no idea that I knew how to draw a bird. Then in the doodles, I saw birds and talons. I did not force my will here, it happened very organically. I don’t know what the images mean. At other times a horse appears, I did not even know that I could draw a horse and the horses may not happen again. I like that viewers try to find an image they can relate to in my drawings. I like the Rorschach quality. The line has the fertility to travel. I am aware of viewers bringing their own experiences to each piece and finding something that resonates for them. My work becomes a communal experience between viewer and the art.
GM: Is music important to your work?
MK: Thank you for asking. Yes, music is critical to my life and my work.
GM: So this piece is on Mylar, what other materials do you use?
MK: For me, it’s all about materials. I respond to seductive surfaces, what smells good, what feels good. Some artists are inspired by landscapes, by portraits, I am inspired by materials. In addition to Mylar, I also like Stonehenge paper, it takes a full assault. I can release aggression and fear. I use what is at hand. Acrylic or oil paints, charcoal, pencils and sometimes, encaustic. I think of all the artists now and historically who don’t have materials to work with, I am mindful of waste.
GM: Yes, I wanted to ask you about encaustics.
MK: I worked as “ artist in residence” in the conservation department at the Worcester Art Museum for 4 years. Lawrence Becker was the head of the department then. He is now at the Metropolitan Museum. He liked working with artists and thinking out of the box. That is where I first saw the Fayum Funeral Portraits. They were dazzling and I became mesmerized. I was good with materials and I studied the technique. There is no traditional way to work with encaustic, you can get close to how the Fayum artists did it, but we really do not know the exact technique for the encaustic because the recipes were destroyed. Two smaller works here in the gallery are encaustic. I taught encaustics at Art New England, a summer program held at Bennington College.
GM These encaustics are framed, but most of the other works are not.
MK: Seamless framing, I liked the idea of a fragile drawing enclosed in wood and I use a silicone gel to hinge the drawing to backing. That way there are fewer distractions. But I really wanted to break out of the frame. It was restricting and I wanted to work larger. One of my larger, unframed works, “Cool and Green” which is about 5’by 12’, just sold. So people will buy unframed work. This is very encouraging.
Kalish’s colors are difficult to describe; they are “evanescent” colors, dissolving colors, colors that shift with the light, colors that are on the surface but translucent, ambers, grays, greens, ochres, shades of black.
GM: What artistic path did you follow from studies, to black and white drawings to large, color paintings?
MK: I have always been drawing. It is a meditation of sorts. I do not care for the word breakthrough so, I will describe what happened as a turning point: I looked at my sketches, and knew they were better than my paintings. Fluid, spontaneous, energized, and, uncensored. Everything I wanted my paintings to be. And I thought, “Why can’t I do work like this?” But of course I did do them. This was very puzzling. I simply did not value them as much as the paintings, the “real art”. How could these sketches matter? I always considered my studies preparatory for something more important. I did color field paintings for years, and had hit a brick wall. I did not know what I was saying. Unfortunately, I could dazzle and infatuate with color.
There was no reason to push harder. I had to ask myself why I was so free in the sketch, yet became self-conscious with the larger work, paper or canvas. I gave this a lot of thought over the years. The paintings were beautiful, but I was suspect of their beauty. I struggled with how to balance color field painting and drawing. I had a color sensibility and I knew how to draw. But, integrating the two would take me many years. Remember learning about the value of “happy accidents” in art school? Now, I am allowing those accidents. With these works, (the large paintings) I integrated mark making and my color field obsession. I found my voice, this is me. Of course, not all work is successful. Now I am OK with that, I feel quite tender with that.
GM: Who are your artistic influences? Mentors?
MK: Mark Rothko and Rembrandt influence my color sensibility. Physicality is very important to me, with a Rothko, you can enter his painting. I also look to the Greeks for their precision. Antonio Tapis is another influence; he makes such intelligent and seductive surfaces. Frank Cressotti, Chair of the Art Dept, Holyoke Community College was a mentor. I was a struggling artist, about 25 years ago and Frank visited my studio, I was working on a piece that was going nowhere. Frank kept saying, start another one, start another one. So now I work on 6-8 paintings at one time. My other mentors are my family, my friend Ray Pieczarka, who believes in me. And Sigmund Freud and Clemens Kalischer for sanity and music.
GM: How do you arrive at your titles?
MK: I like to write. I put a great deal of attention to my titles. I try to connect to what is going on in the painting.
GM: Are there any negatives to living the artistic life?
MK: Well, the down side to being an artist is solitude. Solitude is the best and worst friend.
GM: Isn’t it always?
MK: The process of art filled my life. I think too much isolation—which I can easily do—is unhealthy. I always found that I would do one other thing that would allow me to mingle with my species. I was a hospice worker for a few years.
GM: How did that come about?
MK: I had a friend whose mother was a hospice worker herself and she suggested that I do this work. I took the workshop and each week I said goodbye to the other people, not intending to come back the next week. But I did. After the training, I became a relief caretaker; I would sit with a gravely ill person and sketch, while his or her own caretaker had some time off. It was a different isolation.
GM: What was next in your escape from isolation?
MK: Well, I volunteered in the conservation laboratory of Lawrence Becker at the Worcester Art Museum. That ended about 5 years ago. After that, I rented a studio in Pittsfield and began to just work. I did bas-relief, used found objects, and worked with marble dust. It was all about the materials. I worked with lots of different materials, I was trying to find myself, trying to integrated my mark making, love of color and seductive surfaces: waxes, lovely papers. I was making these huge encaustic pieces and some charcoal pieces. Everything was black and white. About 2? years ago Clemens Kalischer, the photographer, came to my studio and immediately offered me a show at his gallery, the Image Gallery in Stockbridge. Right after that, color happened in my work.
GM: And then the Vault Gallery?
MK: Well. I was looking for a new studio and saw this space. I immediately thought that it would work for a gallery. I contacted Clemens, Craig Walker, Barry Moser, and several other artists who have a quality that impacts me. I wanted to show their work. If any of them had refused, the gallery would never have happened. As it happened, they all agreed to let me show their work and the Vault Gallery opened this past May. I was recently able also able to get Leonard Baskin’s bronze sculptures to exhibit. The space lends itself to a salon. I am learning as I go. I love being a beginner. I have no business experience and I must say I was frightened. Would running a gallery mean my work would suffer? Would I feel trapped? Be bored? None of these things happened. I now have a wonderful studio two doors away at St. James Episcopal Church. I am dividing my time between both. I do have experience with balance. Gwenn, you are meeting me at a good time in my life. I have kept this quote close for years: “Make bold moves and powerful forces will come to your aid.”
GM: What is the future of the gallery?
MK: I am selective and I like to build slowly. Right now I represent ten artists and I like the idea of weaving in new artists, but slowly. I am surrounding myself with work that has quality and integrity. The goal is to have different works, have a dialogue. The gallery is a non-threatening environment and serious collectors as well as high school students are coming in. I have stayed ambitious in my work, which is a good place to place your ambition. In the worst case, you get to make art, the world may come or not. I am privileged every single day to do this. I have never known any guarantee that I can continue. I am not self-indulgent. It is the only thing I can do, I do it out of necessity.
Marilyn Kalish will have 3 paintings on exhibit in the 2005 Florence Biennale in December 2005. Her work is on exhibit at the Vault Gallery, located in the historic Mahaiwe Bank on Main Street in Great Barrington, MA and at the Image Gallery in Stockbridge, MA. For more information call: 413-644-0221 or visit www.vaultgallery.net.
*Richard Serra as quoted in the catalogue, Drawing is Another Kind of Language, Harvard University Art Museum, 1997.
March 13, 2008
As I walk into the Vault Gallery in Great Barrington, housed in the former Mahaiwe Bank building, there’s a photo shoot going on, some French jazz, various people milling about, directions being given and flashbulbs going off.
This is a welcoming place. For, despite the busyness, I’m asked several times if I would like help or information.
The gallery is small and a bit quirky; quotes are painted on the walls, chairs are arranged for tete-a-tetes and potted orchids lend both beauty and color. Then there’s that vault — yes, there is a vault, in all its vault glory, serving as the smaller room of this two-room gallery.
And soon enough I am in conversation with Marilyn Kalish, the gallery’s proprietor, whose “Sensuality of Dance” series is currently on display.
Kalish’s work is all about energy, and movement. A year or so ago she was drawing birds; now she’s drawing and painting dancers — dancers in the process of leaping, twirling, swooping. Not, she is quick to point out, Degas-like dancers, posing.
While Kalish’s current obsession is dancers, which she starts by viewing at nearby Jacob’s Pillow, it’s not dance itself that draws her. It’s the physics of energy and movement.
“But I can’t paint physics. I’m interested in movement.”
Still, “I’ve been surprised at the impact [of the dancers],” she says. “Whether we know a dancer, or we’ve danced . . . we all have connections.”
As she did with the birds, and as she is now doing with horses in her studio around the corner in the St. James Episcopal Church building, Kalish starts by drawing with her eyes closed, clutching fistfuls of pencils in each hand, moving her arms around the canvas or the paper freely, wildly, slow, then fast, feeling, rather than seeing the movement. The process, she says, “stops me from censoring. I get out of my own way.”
At this point, the work is a “huge doodle…it feels very organic. I get up close and I feel it. I can smell it.”
Then, “at some point I drop the pencils.” She opens her eyes, walks away from the work for a while and “then I sit back and I just see them” (the dancers, in the drawings she’s made). “Then I edit.” Kalish likens the process to a sculptor, chipping away at a mass of stone; she erases from a mass of markings. The process allows
her, says Kalish, to let go in a way that she can’t if she’s watching what she does as she does it. “If I open my eyes I’m not going to let go,” she says. “I’ll tidy it up much too quickly.”
Several of the drawings on view are on canvas, with oil, but most are executed on glass beaded panels, which are set away from the wall and scroll down, lending an impression of loose paper; the fall of the panel lends the work an added sense of movement, energy and yes, elusiveness. And yet, “It has a memory,” says Kalish of the panels.
Kalish was working pretty much in a palette of neutrals, combining the charcoal with shades of white and gray — “and I was happy there”— when someone asked her about her “aversion” to color. “So I thought ‘You want color? Okey, dokey.’ ” The result is a powerful series of dancers drawn in black on vivid crimson canvases.
Kalish has gone through periods making abstract art, and while her dancers are representative, they are not specific. “I’m trying to walk the line,” she says. “Absolute realism is not an interest of mine. My goal is ambiguity.”
While the works in Kalish’s gallery are ever-changing — she shows about 10 artists on a regular basis — her works will be on the walls for awhile. Along with her dancers are sculptures by Leonard Baskin and a group of wonderful black-and-white photographs by renowned international photographer Clemens Kalisher. Despite the similar name, Kalisher is not a relative but a friend, who several years ago gave Kalish her first area show in his Stockbridge gallery, The Image Gallery.
Kalisher, who as a boy escaped Nazi Germany with his family, shows photographs that are beautiful and often poignant.
The Vault also displays works in various spots around town, including the Berkshire Bank and Castle Street Café. The Vault Gallery is at 322 Main St., at the corner of Castle Street, Great Barrington.
It is open daily, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tel: 413-644-0221; www.vaultgallery.net.
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