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The Pastels of Cristina Grassi

By Barbara Rose


Cristina Sanpaolesi Grassi’s life has always been full of art – to the point that art is so familiar to her as a means of expression that she has no self consciousness about being direct and unencumbered by theory.  She lived the privileged life of the daughter of a professor of architecture at the University of Pisa, who was also Superintendent of fine arts of the region of Tuscany.  As a child in Florence, she was taken to see the great masterpiece of Renaissance art under her father’s jurisdiction.  They became not distant icons but familiar friends.  She had a natural talent for drawing.  From the time she was a child in Italy, she began drawing and continued to draw what she saw as she grew up.  Indeed, it is a mark of the genuine artist that they do not, as most children do, stop making art as adolescents but continue, even if not in a professional capacity.


After she married fellow Florentine Marco Grassi, she moved to New York City, the center of avant-garde art.  Because Marco Grassi is a distinguished conservator of old master paintings, the workshop where he brought the great masters of the history of art back to life, became as familiar to Cristina as her own kitchen.  This sense of ease and familiarity in the presence of art and artists is something we feel in her pastels.  Not that they are b brought off with facility, but rather that they are done by someone who has no fear of materials or that mistakes cannot be corrected.  And we must remember there is a difference between facility and mastery.  The mastery of a technique always makes it look easy, whereas facility leads to being content with surface.


Once settled in New York, Cristina Grassi enrolled as a student in the National Academy of Design in New York City, where classical studies from casts and then live models was the practice.  At the Academy, Cristina began to develop her own style both in charcoal drawings and in watercolors.  For a time, she had a small art gallery, but she continued painting at home Cristina had been painting in watercolor, but the pallid delicate transparent tones that so appealed to an artist like Marie Laurencin appeared too soft and reticent for the type of strong expression that is natural to her intense expressive temperament.  Pastels, on the other hand, could be used to create a sense of sculptural volume and contour that had the kind of emotional impact she was seeking.


Once she decided to dedicate herself entirely to her art, she gave up watercolor for pastel.  To sharpen her drawing skills and to develop her own techniques in pastel drawing, Cristina attended classes at the famed The Art Students League of New York for five years, where many members of the New York School like Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner had studied.  The Art Students League was run like the open ateliers in Paris where live models posed, except for the fact that the students as well as the teachers critiqued each others works.  Cristina enjoyed the spirit of competition and appreciation of her fellow students for the forcefulness and frankness of her works.  She began hiring models and setting up still life arrangements in her own studio in SoHo.  There light streams in through the window, casting shadows on her subjects which she records not in the dark of shadows but in the brilliant hues of the rainbow and spectrum.  Indeed, one of the advantages of pastel as a medium is its wide range of pure color.  These she uses not as mixed or adulterated tones, but as sharp and intense hues that are consciously paired for maximum contrast and luminosity.


Like the members of the Ash Can School, Cristina Grassi prefers not the noble subjects of antiquity, but the humanity and vulnerability of ordinary people.  Gestures and expressions are important to her as the means to identify the singularity of her subjects as individuals rather than as the members of an anonymous mass.  Her choice of subjects as well as her empathetic treatment of her models reveals that she is not interest in beautiful surfaces alone, but in something much deeper about human character as well as compositions more formally durable than just a pleasing still life arrangement.


In the past, pastels were used the by the greatest artists to do highly colored drawings on paper that can achieve the sparkle of oil as well as the finesse of the fine pencil or pen drawing.  These particular qualities of the past medium, which lends itself to both color and line, surely appeals to Grassi who interprets both with individuality.  For example, her palette is both intense, almost to the point of being harsh and garish as well as luminous, to the point of almost blinding the eye.  The simultaneous contrast of adjacent colors, the theory on which both the optical mixture of post-Impressionism as well as the spatial theories of Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann are based is clearly familiar to her.


Historically, pastels have often been associated the feminine sensibility of women artists or of the rococo, so that Grassi’s more energetic and physical style introduces originality into her treatment of the medium.  For example, during the eighteenth century, pastel portraits were very much in vogue.  The pale chalky palette that was popular in the rococo later became popularly known as “pastel”.  AS might be imagined, pastel understood in this sense always had feminine connotations.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, important artists did major works in the pastel medium.  As studies, pastels were a practical way of studying color relations.  Delacroix, for example, was a master of the pastel medium.  However, he did not exhibit his pastels publicly, which indicates that pastel was considered an informal art, like a sketch, relatively small in scale and often observed from nature.


The emergence of the pastel as a work of art in its own right as a medium in between drawing and painting belongs the end of the nineteenth century.  Whistler, best known in his lifetime for his controversial nocturnes, harmonies, and arrangements in paint, also made many works in pastels.  One of his most famous groups of pastels was executed in 1879-80 while he was in Venice preparing for a London exhibit in 1881.  Whistler was singularly able to achieve the same kind of atmospheric effects in pastel as he did in his oil paintings.  His contemporary, J.M.W. turner also demonstrated that pastels could achieve exceptional effects that combined the characteristics of both drawing and painting.  To achieve atmospheric effects, however, these artists smudged and mixed their colored chalks together.


Many of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists delighted in making pastels, but surely the greatest master of the medium was Edgar Degas, whose exquisite studies of dancers stretch the limits of the medium taking advantage of its double edged capacity to synthesize the sculptural quality of drawing with the color light of painting.  Although it was a favored medium for the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, pastel fell out of favor about the same time that Cubism was invented, possibly because its soft edges had nothing mechanical about them.


Cristina Grassi has looked at the old masters, but is clear she has also scrutinized modern painting as well.  Her edges are feathered rather than hard and her backgrounds, although created through vigorous arm gestures, have the softness and velvety surfaces that make the pastel medium so charming and attractive.  Characteristically, she employs side by side vertical parallel strokes that permit her to interweave contrasting colors to achieve an even greater degree of luminosity without using highlights.  Her emphatic parallel strokes allow the spectator’s eye to mix color optically.  Even when indicating shadows and reflections, she does not smudge chalk, but allows individual hues to vibrate with their maximum intensity.  By intentionally pairing warm and cool colors, such as the red peppers, blue glasses and cups see in in her still lifes, she projects radiation from the surface.


Typically, she uses a horizontal frieze-like format so that the objects can be placed across the surface like the notes on a musical scale.  She elminates detail in favor of geometric volumes that lend an abstract monumentality even to the small works.  Always, she aims at clarity and permits a certain casual informality to invite the viewer to enjoy the spectacle at leisure rather than forcing a point of view.


In the larges of her still lifes, a horizontal piece that is 200 centimeters long, she employs bands of orange, green, violet and yellow in the background against which she silhouettes a frieze of primitive figures.  In front of these sculptural pieces, she places elegant glass vases, and ceramic jars and cups.  The space is compressed but essentially planimetric trather than tilted up as in a Cubist still life.  In another work, a blue checkerboard cloth is covered with three dimensional still life objects, which are not flattened our for decorative effect but employed as sculptural volumes to give a three-dimensional effect to a medium  that is not usually interpreted in this way.


Sometimes she intentionally treats chalk like oil as in, for example, the still life Summer 2000, where she places cream and earthenware vases and stacked mugs against a buckling drape with a bluish green cast.  In another still life, the background is an awning of green stripes banded in red which is folded back to reveal a backside of two blues and two different greens.  In the crystal glasses and vessels patterned with the swirling designs typical of Venetian glassware, transparency and translucency are emphasized.  In one still life, a precious blue Venetian glass is paired with common peppers – one yellow, one orange, one red and one a surprising green to the background at the right, which tells us that art not nature put them there.  There is vehemence in Cristina Grassi’s stroke and an agitation in the arrangements that reminds of neither Cezanne nor Morandi, but of a contemporary sensibility that perceives time differently and with a certain impatience. In another work, a brilliant orange cloth is draped to reveal reddish shadows and closes off the back plane like a curtain – to the right pale green.  These subtle color combinations are “arrangements” in the sense that Whistler used the word as much as they are any specific still life.


Andy Warhol once observed that his portraits were his still lifes, so lifeless and deprived were they of individual characteristics.  Certainly the opposite is the case of Grassi’s work.  Her portraits follow the same horizontal format as her still lifes, but they are as specific as the still lifes are generic.   In one, a young black woman with an extreme hairdo is seen against a blue background, her green overalls contrasted against the banded patter of her jersey.  She stares at the artist we sense is observing her.  Two other portraits are also three quarter views, one male and one female seated at the extreme left of the paper.  The woman is placed against a banded background.  The shadows that model the flesh are not in tonal modulations but in bright Fauve color.  The color bands in the background touch, their edges seeming frayed with excitement.  The man is relaxed, he has just had a drink, and he holds an empty glass the bottle is in front of him.  His body fills the frame, giving the figure not only dignity but monumentality.  In another study, a young white man’s nude torso is patched with shadows colored in bright mauve and violet tints, with a yellow lamp radiating light from the right side against a background of parallel blue and green strokes.  The fierce intensity of the light brings to mid Van Gogh’s Night Café, and there is a sense of psychological drama hinted at that may point to a new direction in Cristina Grassi’s works.

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