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Eric Carle's "Art Art" at Tacoma Art Museum

Beyond books

ERIC CARLE: He's seen here at work in his studio by Motoko Inoue. © 2011. This exhibition was organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA.

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Count yourself blessed, Tacoma, because you get to see something few people in the world have seen. Throughout his career Eric Carle, famous for children's books such as Brown Bear - Brown Bear, What Do You See? And The Very Hungry Caterpillar and more than 70 other picture books - has created art for his own personal satisfaction that he never showed to anyone outside of family and friends. He called it his "ArtArt," and he had to be coaxed into showing it publicly. To our great benefit, Tacoma Art Museum Director Stephanie Stebich is a personal friend of the Carle family. She is the one who talked him into showing this work, and Tacomans get to be the first to see it.

And it is great. Absolutely outstanding.

On view at TAM are Carle's paintings, sculptures, poster art, photography, costume and set designs and painted glass assemblages created in collaboration with glass artist Tom Patti. The majority of his paintings are abstract works created with tissue paper collage and paint. The colors and textures are brilliant, and recognizable as the signature style of the artist who created those much beloved books. The forms are large, simple and dynamic in the vein of Robert Motherwell, Al Held, and in some works Mark Rothko; and in my opinion they are equal in every respect to these modern giants. If Carle had shown them throughout his career instead of keeping them hidden away, I have no doubt he would have long since been recognized as among the leading abstract artists of the 20th century.

The most stunning works in the exhibition are two large murals painted with tissue collage on Tyvek, durable spunbonded olefin sheet products that are stronger than paper. Both untitled, one measures 120 ¼ by 201 ¼ inches and the other 120 by 176. The former is made of four rectangles in almost solid colors of red-orange, yellow-orange, blue and green. The latter has three vertical bands of color: orange, gray and blue. The individual bands or rectangles of color appear as huge brushstrokes in various shades of the same color. The overall impact is powerful. The whole thing shimmers, and the textures and variations within the simple shapes are endlessly fascinating. While I was in the galleries - the show takes up two galleries, and there is one of these murals in each - I could not quit looking at them. As I looked at all the many other works, my eyes keep being drawn back to those two murals.

Also fascinating in much the same way is a series of 5" x 7" and 8" x 10" photographs of street markings. I would have thought they were paintings, not photographs, if the wall labels had not identified them. Each is an extreme close-up of a piece of road with parts of painted road markings. Seen in such extreme close-up they become purely abstract forms with parts of the street lines and arrows delicately balanced. "T-Two Colors" is a blunt-edged vertical yellow line that abuts a stark blue horizontal line. "T-with Slant" has the same two blue and yellow lines reversed in position with the blue line at an angle and the yellow balanced on it as on a teeter-totter. The tension between these simple forms, the contrasts of color and the textures make for powerful abstract art.

Similar to these are three paintings called "bridge" (I, II and III). They are acrylic and tissue paper collages, each with a small rectangular shape (the bridge) spanning the white space (the river) between two fields of shimmering color. They can be seen as looking down on the bridges or as monoliths in space hovering in front of the colorful fields with a great sense of atmospheric depth.

For those who love Carle as a children's book artist there are also original book art covers and illustrations and some delightful linocut prints from his work as a graphic artist in the '50s and '60s, including many of the actual linocut blocks. There are videos of Carle at work, and for kids of all ages there are hands-on materials for making collages with magnetic sheets that simulate the tissue sheets of his collages.


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