Monday, 3 June 2013

GEORGE BELLOWS: MODERN AMERICAN LIFE

I had meant to write about George Bellows right after I saw the exhibition a few weeks ago—now there's only a week left for you to get to Royal Academy and do the same, because it is a superlative show that reveals Bellows as a pivotal, and major, artist, and raises the question of where he might have gone had he not died at only 42.

The response in the local press was somewhat lukewarm. Most reviews concentrated on the work for which Bellows is best known, his boxing paintings, particularly Stag At Sharkey's (1909), which is a magnificent work, its power intensified in person and close up. Bellows himself was more interested in the atmosphere around the ring than the dynamic scene he paints inside it, and by the time he produced an oil of Dempsey and Firpo (1924) his perspective has changed considerably—Firpo is a figure of heroism in the centre of a more static crowd—and the lights up in the rafters look on like the staring eyes of jealous dieties. To miss the difference between these two approaches, which span virtually the whole of Bellows' serious career, is to miss his growth, and luckily the RA also shows Preliminaries To The Big Bout (1916), White Hope (1921—the Jess Willard/Jack Johnson fight) in which the battlers exude tiredness, and the triumphant Johnson seems seriously out of shape, and an earlier version, Dempsey Through The Ropes which focuses on the power of Firpo's follow-through.

This might make Bellows appear a genre painter, but he is far more than that, though again the British reviews seemed to care more about what he wasn't—namely an Impressionist. Yes you can see the influence of Manet, and Whistler, but to call him a failed Impressionist is to miss the point. Even Richard Dorment, who didn't miss the point and wrote of Bellows' relationship to Robert Henri and the Ash Can school (and linked it perceptively to Sickert and Camden Town) somehow managed to transform Bellows' contemporary John Sloan into John Soane! But seeing Bellows in terms of Impressionism is missing, most crucially, the point of the exhibition's subtitle, 'Modern American Life', and fails to put Bellows into his proper place, which I think of as being a powerful central figure in the early American Twentieth Century, linking the wide spectrum of styles that were growing in the hothouse of New York City throughout the early part of the century, right up to the Abstract Expressionists after World War II.

I started by thinking in terms of Bellows as a touchstone between the Ash Can painters, and their commitment to urban reality, and American Impressionism, which was a late-blooming thing which, pace Bellows' reviewers, hasn't always received enough credit for what it is, as opposed to what it is not. But the deeper you consider Bellows' work, the more links to his contemporaries you can make. Some early paintings, like 42 Kids (1907) recall Eakins, but his figures can also seem like children's book illustrations, almost stick figures. You can see Sloan in Election Night Times Square (1906), and there is no denying affinity with the Ash Can artists, which is no surprise as he studied under Robert Henri, alongside Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent

Bellows' second-best known works are probably his studies around the excavation of the Pennsylvania Station, in which New York City sits atop some primordial force, fires coming from within the earth, with the few human figures looking beaten down, and the lights of the city street pale against the workers' floodlights. This is a different sort of look at urban reality, one which is partly mythic and partly impressionist, recalling Whistler in its use of distinct lighting. You can see some of Hopper in the buildings in the background of Excavation At Night (1908), and you can also see Bellows' influence on later artists like Charles Demuth or Charles Sheeler, who celebrated the finished product of such excavation. It's a different dynamic to the Impressionists; yes, you can see the steam from a train while looking down Riverside Park in Rain On The River (1908) and you can sense the intrusion of the machine age, but Bellows is working at a time when rail is commonplace, and in a milieu where escape from New York is not the grail it was in Paris.

While Cliff Dwellers (1913), with its metaphorical title, can be seen in a genre context, it's a big step forward to New York (1911), a city scene which blends a number of New York squares into one, and populates it with a more fashionable sort of Lowry crowd. There are elements on abstract, say on the wagon pulling itself across the foreground. Way off in the distance, between two skyscrapers and almost crowning a third, is a cold-looking cloud, a kind of gateway to Bellows' most brilliant New York studies—painting after painting of the city frozen by winter, held in thrall to mother nature. His winter is brilliant sun-reflecting white and deep ice blue, and the wild spaces always extend right up to and even past the border of civilisation. It is as if he is returning the city to its proper place in the grand scheme of things, even when, as in Love Of Winter (1914--below left) it's only the sight of the pristine hills glowering in the background. There are elements of Rockwell Kent in some of the painting he did outside the city, in Maine (where Robert Henri summered, and which would be important for artists as diverse as Hopper and John Marin), for example (Forth and Back, 1913) which stands in comparison to Blue Snow, The Battery (1910) to remind us of Bellows' vision of a New York that remained part of unfettered nature. This is obvious in North River (1908), with its high point of view looking past the snow, past the boats on the river, to the seeming wilds of the Palisades.

By contrast, Summer Night Riverside Drive (1909 below right) features lurking darkness and two bits of impressionistic light, including reflections off the river, while figures in the park look for privacy—a topic made plainer, but with less striking effects, in Strugglers Solitude (1913). By the start of World War I, I think you can point to Bellows as already reaching elements of synthesis between the forces in modern painting. The sheer scope of the works I've mentioned were produced in the space of eight years, by which time Bellows was one of New York's leading artists.

But he was also part of a group called The Lyrical Left, and by 1911 was on the board of The Masses. His drawings for the paper, along with other lithographs done for more upscale magazines like Harper's Weekly and Collier's are revealing because they show where Bellows channelled the social awareness we saw in his paintings. This becomes particularly evident after the start of the Great War, in his dramatic drawings in the series Disasters Of War, which deliberately recall Goya, in a magazine illustrayion of the murder of British nurse Edith Cavell, and in his five paintings titled War Scenes, which were inspired by the 1915 Bryce Report on German atrocities. These are pure propaganda, pure emotion, as powerful in their way as his boxing work, but with a broader focus. They reminded me immediately of John Singer Sargent's Gassed, which was completed in 1919 and hangs in the Imperial War Museum. There is a palpable sense of shock in both painters, as if they cannot totally comprehend the full horror of what they are painting.

He was more ironic and cutting but less shocked perhaps in works like Benediction In Georgia, Electrocution, and Dance In A Madhouse, all done in 1916-17, where convicts being preached to or executed don't look saved or blessed, and the mad look anything but. The last looks forward to the work of Jack Levine, in its chaotic beauty. There's an interesting boxing cover Bellows did for the New Masses, and two pages of contrasting illustrations: John Sloan's portrait of the upper crust on an ocean liner on one, Bellows' riverfront scene of meagre food in the other.

His later magazine work, if anything, is more emotionally powerful. His Billy Sunday (1923), a study of the fiery preacher whom he covered with John Reed, shows Sunday with his fist cocked, like a boxer, the press in the front rows like at a boxing match, and the crowd in expressions of fear, shock, and wonder. The Law Is Too Slow (1923) is a lithograph done for Century magazine, a black man being burned beneath a hanging tree by men in masks. In a sense you get the sense of a divide between this work and his painting, because by this time he was concentrating on portraiture, and they are hugely impressive portraits, which again recall Sargent.

Sargent used to paint watercolours for his own experiment and amusement, while concentrating on the portraits which earned him his acclaim and living. Bellows may well have been painting his portraits as much for their sense of safety, in the evident beauty he highlights in his wife and daughters, his main subjects, as for anything else. At the start of the exhibition, you see three of early portraits, done 1907-09. Frankie the Organ Boy stares directly at the viewer with eyes almost bugged out. His Nude Girl: Miss Leslie Hare does suggest Manet, but her face, like Frankie's seems to be making a statement, just slightly off a pose, perhaps indicating their background in the streets. But the portrait of the laundry girl Queenie Burnett (Little Girl In White) is magnificent in its efforts to imbue her with an almost fairy-tale royalty.

He can be as perfect as Sargent or Whistler in his portrait of Mr and Mrs Philip Wise (1924) but there is something almost reverential in Emma And Her Children which contrasts movingly with Emma At The Piano (1914). In the latter, she is part of the balance of lovely objects in an almost neo-impressionist way, while in the later work, the figures are more carefully delineated, with more depth, but set against an almost abstract background.

Finally, there is The Picnic (1924) with its Alice in Wonderland dreamlike quality, with his daughter holding a jump rope and looking off into the Wonderland across the Hudson River, while Bellows contemplates his fishing pole while his wife stares into the picnic blanket. It's hard not to see that as some sort of premonition of his departure from them; a burst appendix would lead to his death from blood poisoning in January 1925.
One gets the distinct impression that at the time of his death, Bellows was possibly reassessing his artistic direction, and given the variety of his earlier work, and the contrast between his illustration and painting in his later, I wonder how significant that abstract background in Emma And Her Children is. Because I see another link here, between Bellows and the Abstract Expressionists. Bellows was the most masculine of painters; like Franz Kline he had been a sports star who turned to painting, and like Kline his work conveys physical dynamism. With America, and American art, in flux in the Roaring Twenties, and about to entire the Depression, Bellows future, looked at retrospectively, almost shimmers with possibility. But what he left behind, as evidenced in this exhibition, is satisfying enough.

George Bellows 1882-1925: Modern American Life
Royal Academy of Art, until 9 June 2013

This essay also appears at Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)

Friday, 30 March 2012

STUART DAVIS: RESEEING TEN YEARS LATER

Stuart Davis: Art & Theory
an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
through 15 December 2002

Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-31
by Diane Kelder
Pierpont Morgan Library, $7.95 ISBN 0875981380

NOTE: Searching my floppy files today, I stopped to reread this article, which was published in the TLS ten years ago. It brought back a very pleasant memory of the exhibition at the Morgan, which I came across because I liked to use their cloak room as a left luggage facility while passing between the airports and Grand Central Station (whose storage was closed at the time, for security concerns) and also because their cafe was so nice. I hadn't really appreciated Stuart Davis, and this exhibition was one of those excellent ones that shows you something in a way you've never seen it, nor thought about it, before.

One of the effects of the modern art explosion that came from America just after the Second World War has been to overshadow the work of artists who bridge the gap in the tradition between the realists, like Thomas Eakins or John Sloan, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and the abstract expressionists and pop artists from that century’s middle. Stuart Davis was one of the most important of those artists, and Diane Kelder, in her sharply written monograph which accompanied a small but revealing exhibition of his work at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, has taken a large step toward placing Davis firmly in the context of a continuum in modern American art.

Davis was a realist prodigy, not yet 21, when five of his watercolours were displayed in 1913 at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, at the 69th Regiment’s Armory, the famed Armory Show which introduced America to European modern art. He came by his talent naturally. His mother was a sculptor, his father an artist who served as art director of a Philadelphia newspaper, where many of the group of realist painters known as "The Eight" supported themselves doing illustrations.

One of them, John Sloan, later served as art director of the influential socialist magazine, ‘The Masses’; he bought illustrations from the teenaged Davis, who was already in New York studying with the best-known of the group, Robert Henri, whose work led to their being re-named ‘The Ashcan School’. They brought a gritty but vivid new realism to the straining loftiness of American art, a concern with the everyday life of cities, particularly working class pleasures and bohemian life ‘downtown’. They loved the music halls and boxing rings, and the young Davis. a piano player himself, haunted the clubs in the black sections of Newark and Hoboken, seeking out the music which, brought from the south to the urban centres of the north evolved into jazz.
The music makes a interesting parallel for the art, because what Kelder’s penetrating study shows is how Davis, like so many other American artists, whose view of the world was already being changed by the heady enticements of the new modern popular culture, had his idea of art transformed at the Armory show. changed the way they saw art. Kelder shows how Davis absorbed and adapted the influences of European modernism, turning them into something different, unique, and particularly American. In the process of seeking out his own artistic amalgam, Davis in many ways laid the foundation for much of what followed, and in fact might lay claim to being the hidden father of Pop Art.

For Davis, the link with music was particularly clear. At the Armory he was dazzled by the Fauvists’ use of non-realistic colour to make emotional impact, something for which he had been striving in his own work. "It gave me the same kind of excitement I got from the numerical precisions of Negro piano players…and I resolved I would quite definitely have to become a "modern" artist’, he recalled in 1945.

Of all the artists on display at the Armory, Van Gogh remained the biggest influence. In 1919 Davis painted a self-portrait which at once used bright colours, a yellow face with red lips, a shining blue shirt, and a deep red background, to pay hommage to Van Gogh while already hinting at a move to a style more abstract. That was because Davis was also, like his contemporaries, profoundly affected by Cubism, the other shocking highlight of the Armory show. Although the impact for Davis was immediate, in his case the gestation of the style was slow. As early as 1917, in his painting ‘Garage’, Davis was blending a working-class, realist subject with the unreal colours of a Fauvist palette, and experimenting with planes which overlapped. He summered among the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and his 1918 work, ‘Multiple Views’ (below right) is just what its title implies, an attempt to paint various scenes of life in that port (including the recurring garage) simultaneously. The mix of styles results in a painting with a curious feel more medieval than modern.

By integrating objects into planes, Davis was able to create a vibrant sort of cubism, and the nature of the objects he chose, beyond his self-portrait, with echoes of his populist realism, let him indulge that Fauvist palette that had so excited him. Bottles of Odol mouthwash, Lucky Strike cigarette packs, Bull Durham tobacco and Zig-Zag papers, even the literary magazine The Dial feature in his paintings, deconstructed decades before deconstruction. The interaction with poetry was particularly strong, especially the influence of William Carlos Williams. It's instructive to compare Williams' influence on Davis with, say, his effect on Charles Demuth, whose work shares similar concerns with integrating the planes of cubism into realistic settings, but in Demuth's case becomes refined into powerful and bleak industrial landscapes.

Williams used a Davis painting for the frontspiece of ‘Kora In Hell’ and found in Davis’ work the suggestion ‘of development of word against word, without any impediments of story, poetic beauty, or anything at all except word clash and sequence’. Words formed the basis of a mural Davis painted for Gar Sparks’ Nut Shop, an infamous Newark bar.

Davis’ own cubist experiments became refined in the ‘Egg Beater’ series of 1927-28 (below right) Here he nailed an electric fan, rubber glove, and egg beater to a table, and produced an extraordinary sequence of works dealing with the shapes and spatial relationships of the objects. In an early watercolour collage, Davis had added the letters ITLKSEZ: ‘it looks easy’…but the final part of Kelder’s study reveals that his artistic growth was anything but. Throughout his life, Davis kept notebooks, into which he entered, alongside sketches and experiments, his own thoughts on artistic theory and practice. Seeing the pages on exhibition, or reading them in Kelder’s study, one is struck with the single-minded aggression with which Davis pursued modernism, was entranced with the possibilities of a new way of seeing, and a better way of transforming that sight into art. Kelder has done a service not just to Davis, but to an entire era in American art by showing how this was done.

Note: This essay also appears at Irresistible Targets, my primary blog...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

KLINE AND DEKOONING: A 1995 RE-EVALUATION

NOTE: I recently found this piece in my files. I'd written it early in 1995, as you'll see, and it appears I sent it in ms form to the New Statesman. This may have been the piece which prompted the response 'I like it but I can only use pieces I've commissioned', to which I replied 'well, why not commission it?' which prompted a hang-up. That editor will remain nameless, but it's not an unfamiliar occurance. My memory says the DeKooning show was the one that had the biggest impact on me of these three, but that was probably because I was already convinced by Kline, and probably felt re-establishing him in the pantheon with Pollock, Rothko, and now DeKooning was important. There is a theory that it was DeKooning who got Kline interested in using an enlarger, but that doesn't really change things one way or the other. So here it is, as written 16 years ago...

The New York School is hot again, just when it seemed about to become old hat. Following the Whitechapel's Franz Kline retrospective last summer, the Tate is hosting the massive 90th birthday Willem De Kooning show, which comes to London from New York's Metropolitan Museum. Back in New York, just before that show closed, a powerful Kline exhibition opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art; it closes on 12 March.

In New York, the De Kooning received curiously mixed reviews. The criticisms were largely due to the didactic nature of the show; it was presented chronologically, and as such documented the intellectual development of de Kooning's work alongside his stylistic progress, making clear the way he grasped the logical basis of the process of painting, the way he was able to blend the advances of the New York School into the more analytical approach he had already adopted. For an audience used to seeing lots of de Kooning, over a period of some 50 years, this somehow seemed to reduce his stature. But to a London audience, somewhat less familiar, the Tate show should reinforce his position as both a great painter and a major force in the leading art movement of the post-War century.

If we think of Jackson Pollack as the muscular force of the New York School then perhaps de Kooning was its intellectual center. The Tate's show makes clear the way de Kooning was able to take his "woman" paintings, full of Jungian symbolism, and combine them with the powerful 50s work which seems almost like Kline, but in colour. He achieved a synthesis in the 60s, by which time Pollock and Kline were already gone, which took him to a new level, and then amazingly he was able to continue pushing himself into new areas, at first as if by logical progression, and later as if by pure instinct.

And if Pollack were the muscle and de Kooning the mind of Abstract Expressionism, perhaps Rothko was its soul, but then Franz Kline was surely its heart, the one who searched for a way of transferring his feeling directly onto canvas, and having discovered that means, pushed it for all it was worth. The Kline retrospective at the Whitechapel was instructive, showing the conscious pace of development in his style, suggesting ways in which that development might have continued had he not died in 1962. But the Whitney's show, organized by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, is different. It is, simply, six rooms filled with Kline at his artistic peak...a few early 50s works to show the directions he was heading, and then a cannon-blast of mostly large-scale Kline which nearly overpowers the viewer.

To many casual viewers, seeing one Kline is the same as seeing them all. The fallacy of that position becomes evident immediately at the Whitney. When I say that Kline is an emotional painter, I don't mean it in the sense of DeKooning, or even Rothko, where you can see the nature of the work expressing emotions. I mean that he was able to transmit his feeling directly to the canvas, that his feelings are equal to the reality of the paint; a Kline painting is not an expression of emotion, it is emotion itself, reflected in the spontaneous nature of the individual act of making the particular painting itself..

Elaine de Kooning stopped just short of this realisation in her description of Kline's brush strokes, which " expanded as entities in themselves, unrelated to any reality but that of their own existence." While this makes a good theoretical basis for modern painting, the brilliance of Kline's work is that those brush strokes are, obviously, also related to the reality of his own existence--and that is what he is putting onto the canvas. The thing, that is, is real in itself. This feeling is present in the poetry and music of the post-war era: the open field poetry experiments of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, the be-bop jazz of Charlie Parker and his followers. There is even an affinity with the photography of film noir movies. It is an expression of the reality of emotion, through the apprehension of real things.

The Whitney exhibition contains a revealing set of small oils on paper from the collection of Cy Twombly, in which Kline seems to have realised his vision. We see from the early outlines on the pages of old phone books, and in the 'Study for Black and White #1' (1952) that Kline has found his form of expression, and from that point he produces work of such individual power that to see them grouped here, and realise their cumulative impact is literally amazing. The ways in which Kline experiments with motion 'August Day' (1957--at the top of this post), portraiture 'Elizabeth' (1958), structure 'Mahoning II' (1961) or raw feeling: 'Requiem' (1958--above on the right) belie the notion of his being a one-trick pony. And though we think of him in black and white, when he died he was working frequently with colour; compare 'Henry II'(1959-60--on the left) with DeKooning's work at the time (the 1966 painting from the 'Woman' series above it on the left) and ask who was influencing whom.

Kline reflected the raw energy of New York in the post-War period, with his background in gritty, coal-mining Pennsylvania he was able to see the power in the landscape of urban construction. He also strikes me as expressing more clearly than any American painter since Hopper the essential loneliness of the American soul. In his lifetime, Kline was always considered one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, yet since then he seems to have been relegated to something of an afterthought. It could be because he was just starting to reach his artistic peak when he died; you could argue Pollock and Rothko both had reached theirs when their lives ended. I suspect his death from heart failure lacked the dramatic impact of Pollock's car crash, or Rothko's suicide. The British reaction to the Whitechapel show was somewhat lukewarm, concentrating on the mechanics of Kline's work; the pages from the telephone book with the calligraphic brush strokes on them. Yet with that show, and especially the one at the Whitney, he should be restored to his place as one of the great painters of the Twentieth Century.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

CY TWOMBLY: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY THAT WASN'T

Yesterday I wrote this obituary of Cy Twombly for the Independent, but because of a glitch in my computer, I never actually filed the copy to them, and as they were unable to reach me later they had to rush to get another piece. This is the kind of mistake I hope I never make again, wasting their time and mine, and losing the opportunity to register my appreciation of Twombly in print.

I first wrote about Twombly after I went to the Tate Modern's 'Cycles and Seasons' exhibition in 2008, the very first post for this blog about art, which has been more irregular than was intended. You can link to that essay here. I had always been interested in Twombly, because of the Black Mountain connection, but that show was a revelation to me, because I hadn't realised how beautiful much of his work could be, and I was overcome by its ability to express emotion and move me. I regret messing up that assignment from the Independent, and apologise profusely to my editors there. What I wrote for them about Twombly follows.

CY TWOMBLY, ARTIST

The American painter Cy Twombly, who has died aged 83, was our last link with the glory days of the Abstract Expressionists, but his work was always an awkward fit with that movement, indeed with any modern movement. It was a mark of his idiosyncratic talents that he abandoned New York for Italy just as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline were at their peaks of success; moreover, where all of those artists died at the height of their fame, appreciation of Twombly's work progressed slowly, dividing critics and the public alike. Some of the reasons for this became evident in his hugely successful retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2008. Where individual Twombly canvases might seem ephemeral, random, and difficult, presented together their impact was intensified and became clearer. His mix of dripping colour, hand-written notes or fragments of poetry, and chaotic lines for many obscured his mix of classical and modern concerns. Cynical voices accused him of deliberate obscurantism, but Twombly never indulged in flamboyant display for its own sake, preferring to find new ways to express old stories.

If Abstract Expressionism wanted to go beyond the pure self-involvement of abstraction, Twombly's work can be seen as constantly seeking more direct expression, and even in a European context, spoke of a uniquely American perspective. Like the Abstract Expressionists, there is a sense of American pragmatism, but there is also the intellectual curiosity which allowed him to absorb European classism, and meld it into something sui generis.

He was born Edward Parker Twombly, Jr., 25 April 1928 in Lexington Virginia. His nickname came from his father, a pitcher in baseball's major leagues who was called 'Cy' for his resemblance to the great Cy Young. He studied in Lexington with the exiled Spanish artist Pierre Daura, and after finishing high school, he spent a year at a prep school in Georgia followed by brief spells at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts school. In 1950 he got a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, where he met and became close to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg introduced him to Franz Kline, and persuaded Twombly to enroll at Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina, where Kline, Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell taught, and where Twombly's affair with Rauschenberg would lead to the breakup of the latter's marriage.

The influence of Kline and Motherwell was apparent in Twombly's first New York shows, one arranged by Motherwell at the Samuel Kootz gallery, and another at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery, where he shared the space with Joseph Cornell. But Black Mountain's influence extended beyond painting. The college's rector was the poet Charles Olson, and much of the writing on Twombly's canvases recalls Olson's 'Projective' verse, and his dictum that 'form is never more than an extension of content'. Kline's work is often compared to Chinese written characters, and Olson drew on Ernest Fenollosa's studies of them; we can often see Twombly's graffiti as objects in themselves. John Cage taught music at Black Mountain, and the silences in his work might be seen to have their equivalent in the large expanses of blank canvas in many of Twombly's larger works.

A grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts allowed Twombly to travel to southern Europe and North Africa. 'Virginia is a good start for Italy,' he said, referring to his Southern sense of faded glory, but he returned from that first trip to go into the Army. His service as a military cryptographer also had a profound influence on the writing he would include in his paintings. Moving back to New York, he worked closely with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were was breaking away from Abstract Expressionism, and would be crucial in the foundation of Pop Art. Twombly left Stable for Leo Castelli, fast becoming New York's most influential modern art gallery, but by then he had moved to Italy, and, in 1959 married Tatiana Franchetti, the sister of one of his patrons.

If his 1959 'Poems To The Sea' show a fusion of Kline's art and Olson's poetry while celebrating the peaceful Mediterrean shore, Twombly was already creating new work which reflected the heat and passion of Italy, such as 'Crimes of Passion' and 'Murder of Passion', as well as more classical influences, including Roman myths, particularly Leda and the Swan. His series based on the Discourses of Commodus, which he painted to reflect the assassination of John Kennedy, received a savage reception from the critics when shown at Castelli in 1964. Although that setback caused his production to slow down, he began returning to the States more often, working both in Lexington and in New York. His painting reflected this part-time change of setting, particularly the series Treatise On The Veil, whose strong brush strokes and serenity remind one of late Rothko. At the same time, the elegaic Nini's Paintings seem an almost violent grief in response to the death of the wife of his Roman dealer.

One can see pieces of Shahn's emotional impact and Cornell's cool found-object commetary co-existing in Twombly, but his scale was always increasing. By the Seventies, massive works like his deliberately-mistitled 'Fifty Days At Iliam', based on the Trojan War had restored his reputation, prompting a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1979. He began spending most of his time in the southern Italian coastal town of Gaeta, producing sculptures based on boats and paintings with watery themes, like his version of the myth of Hero and Leandro. Twombly showed at the Venice Biennale three times, thirty-seven years apart, and had retrospectives in Zurich and Paris before the monumental 1994 show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, In 1995 the Cy Twombly Gallery was opened at the Menil Collection in Houston.

One of the highlights of the Tate Modern show, titled 'Cycles And Seasons', was Twombly's two versions of what his arguably his greatest work, 'The Four Seasons'. Although influences of music and poetry abound in the paintings, there is an obvious reference point to Poussin, and just last week the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened 'Arcadian Painters', a joint exhibition of Twombly and Poussin, which does much to answer the still-spiteful voices in the British press who, even after his death, rushed to deflate his reputation. Twombly died in Rome 5 July 2011, after a long struggle with cancer. His wife predeceased him in 2010; he is survived by his son Cyrus Allessandro, and by his long-time companion Nicola del Roscio.

Note: this essay appears also at Irresistible Targets

Friday, 4 February 2011

SEEING THINGS AS WE ARE

I wrote an essay recently for APEngine, about artist film and documentary, and their intersection. You can link to it here, where it's been paired with a piece by Michael Avatar about working with Steve Jackman on a film about the choreographer Jeremy James. There's also a link to the trailer for Waste Land, Lucy Walker's film about the artist Vik Muniz's work with the garbage pickers of Rio, which was my absolute favourite among the films I watched while helping write the catalogue for the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I've also appended my essay below, for archive, but please do check the site out. APEngine is having funding problems in the current climate, and deserves support...

SEEING THINGS AS WE ARE

Putting strict boundaries on a notion of artists’ film and documentary would be both impossible and self-defeating, but the obvious common ground that might define such a genre is linked to process. Later in this piece, Michael Atavar describes his use of ‘process work’ with filmmaker Steve Jackman, which both illustrates and demonstrates the point. There is a natural impulse toward the documentary to follow the process of artistic creation, yet there is an equally natural imperative born of film’s ability to, ‘unearth inner material’.

‘Form is never more than an extension of content,’ said the poet Robert Creeley, and artist film dealing with artists naturally embraces the materials of film narrative. Issac Julien mixed home movies, interview, ‘behind the scenes’ film footage and a Tilda Swinton essay into a portrait of Derek Jarman. Process forms the intrinsic link between art and film. We apply the concept literally to the visual arts, where we believe we ‘see’ work being created (think of Hans Naumath photographing Jackson Pollock painting on glass), and we understand instinctively that moving pictures are all about their own process, put together frame by frame. In Chris Landreth’s Ryan this means appropriating the tools of animation to approach the animator’s life and work.

Ryan reflects the way documentary film has traditionally chased process while trying to discover what makes things the way they are. I think of filmmaker Mary Lance’s Agnes Martin: With My Back To The World whose very structure, as well as its composition both reflects and illuminates Martin’s work, or Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, where the documenting of Vik Muniz’ project among the catadores of Rio De Janiero’s garbage dumps becomes part of the completed work itself.

Think back to the Tate Britain’s 2003 exhibition, A Century Of Artists’ Film In Britain, curated by David Curtis, whose broad boundaries included Duncan Grant and Gilbert and George, Kenneth Anger and Steve McQueen, and early shorts by Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway. It’s a world of crossover; Andy Warhol static films grew into the crucial spin to the elements of artistic process when he filmed Larry Rivers in Sleep; Warhol’s progress from art film to exploitation feature-films provided the model for Sam Taylor-Wood’s career. Yet when actor Ed Harris directed Pollock, a mainstream bio-pic, for all its reliance on the story elements required of feature-film drama, he not only recapitulated Naumath, but made the crucial link between the process of creation shared by artist and the actor.

Our world of Einstein and quantum physics is one where nothing is certain, where everything changes, and where the act of looking at, measuring, documenting an object is assumed to force a change on that object. In the bigger sense, all art is now documentary, and in an immediate sense, the borders between fiction and documentary grow ever more flexible. In Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, that border is assaulted as actors mime the voices of ‘real’ people from Andrea Dunbar’s documentary, and Dunbar’s plays are restaged on the estate where she grew up and one of her daughters still lives a life filled with tragedy and pain. Some critics found the mix less powerful than a straightforward doc about Lorraine Dunbar might have been, yet Barnard moved directly at the crucial question of what process informed Dunbar’s creativity. Explaining Ryan, Chris Landreth quoted Anais Nin, and defined that crucial distinction which informs the new meeting ground of artist film and documentary: ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

SARGENT AND ITALY

I saw the Sargent And Italy exhibition soon after it opened at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art in February 2003. Four years earlier, the Tate Gallery’s massive John Singer Sargent retrospective had infuriated London's critics, who railed against a painter of profligate skill seemingly content to utilise his talents in the service of profitable commissions rather than pursue the artistic grail of self-expression. In the TLS Richard Thomson called him ‘all surface (with) nothing underneath,’ while Elizabeth Pettejohn pointed out ‘nowadays we expect artists to be hustlers in the schmatta of the art world…(Sargent’s) misfortune was to do it (while) the art world was in revolution.’

Yet that exhibition contained a few paintings which suggested a different Sargent lurking behind the enigma of success. Sargent And Italy, which opened in 2002 at the Palazzo dei Diamani in Ferrara before heading to LACMA (and thence to Denver) brought much of this well-hidden shadow into the light.

Italy was Sargent’s spiritual home. He was born in Florence in 1856, to parents who quit America after the death of their first child, and remained expatriate, restlessly pursuing European culture. After studying in Florence and Rome, he moved to Paris at 18 for more formal training. He visited America, to establish his citizenship, in the Centennial year of 1876, but the following year was back in Paris, exhibiting at the Salon. He was only 21.

Flush with Parisian success, he returned to Italy, working in Venice, but travelling extensively. In Holland he immersed himself in Frans Hals and Vermeer, and in Spain absorbed Velazquez’s massive influence. But in Naples and Capri, in Spain and Morocco, Sargent also sought out the exotic subject matter of Mediterranean peasantry and Orientalism. The way Sargent puts those influences to work within what amount to genre painting is tantalising; his synthesis of classic and contemporary plays with light and shadow to create a shimmering sensuality.

A fine essay by Richard Ormond in the sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition compares Sargent’s languid ‘Venetian Bead Stringers’ (c. 1880-82) with more energetic portraits by accomplished genre painters. His ‘Venetian Interior’ (c. 1880-82) mixes shadows and figures, as if fleeing from the bright light outside a door at the far end of the room. But his sensuality is most evident in two paintings from the same time, ‘A Street In Venice’ and ‘The Sulphur Match’. In the first, an insouciant man addresses a woman in a doorway; she is momentarily distracted, as if by the viewer. In the second, the same man lights a cigar, as a women leans back in a chair, casually satisfied, feet in the air, an empty flask of chianti on the ground. Ormond compares Sargent’s with Whistler’s contemporaneous Venetian works; he says they undoubtedly knew each other, which is interesting because the louche figure in those paintings could easily be mistaken for Whistler himself.

This brooding sensuality boiled over in Paris, when Sargent’s portrait ‘Madame X’ created a scandal at the 1884 Salon. The stunning Virginie Gautreau stands in profile, pale arms and shoulders bare, contrasting with the decolletage of her black dress. While the critics fumed, they also missed the point. Sargent’s friend Violet Paget, who, as Vernon Lee, was publishing her first work on the Renaissance, called it an ‘unpleasant’ but ‘very grand work’, ‘tending entirely toward fifteenth century ideas’.

Sargent’s reaction to critical opprobrium was not just to move to London, but to establish himself remarkably quickly as English society’s most-sought after portrait painter. A century later, his success was still infuriating the critics. Although no one paints women more beautifully, he would shock no one else, and seemed to save his deepest sensuality for representing fabrics and shadows. In 1890 the Boston Public Library offered him his first mural commission, elevating him to the top paying ranges of the art market. He was hailed as ‘The American Michelangelo’, and he was still only 34.

At the same time, in the mid 1890s he began to return to Italy, researching his commissions and vacationing virtually every summer until the Great War made travel impossible. His studies of monuments and figures have a life of their own; Arthur Symons, amazed by his painting of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus, described a ‘terrorless Medusa head from which the blood drops like clotted pearls’. But the studies pale beside a stunning group of oils and watercolours, almost impressionist in their striking light effects; they shimmer and glisten with life. His Venetian paintings are all corners, edges: buildings glimpsed in part, from a gondola perhaps, whose prow nudges into the bottom of the view. Although Sargent once referred to working in watercolour as ‘making the best of an emergency’, he seems to revel in the freedom watercolours provide.

It is not the thesis of the exhibition, but it is nevertheless tempting to see these later Italian works as Sargent’s vacation of sorts from the prestigious murals and high-toned portraits that marked his successful life in Boston. Walking through the Italianate layout of the Los Angeles show, there is a palpable sense of release, of freedom, in these paintings of gardens, quarries, cypresses, and of his family and friends on holiday. It is as if his career turned on the fulcrum of ‘Madame X’, and now, unimpeachably successful, he could return to his earlier pursuits.

Sargent never married; his sexuality has always intrigued art historians. He never travelled alone, and he brought with him exotic costumes in which he posed relatives, servants, and friends. If, as Ilene Susan Fort suggests, his emotions were reserved for art, the sensuality of his early works manifests itself again in the way he positions figures lounging by rivers, in the shadows of mountains, or simply on grass. Their limbs are entwined, their shawls take on a serpentine life. In ‘Group With Parasols’ (c. 1905) the ‘Whistler’ figure from Venetian streets seems to reappear. Perhaps it is a fantasy self Sargent is painting into those scenes.

His beautiful views of the Palazzo Barbaro, where he was a guest along with Henry James, remind us of the affinity between Sargent and writers, the subject of a thorough essay by the late R. W. B. Lewis. When Lewis refers to The Wings Of The Dove as being James’ statement about ‘the dark interior workings of the human spirit’, one senses a vivid contrast with Sargent. Perhaps, as the critics insisted, he withdrew from digging deeper into those dark interiors, to concentrate on exteriors. But the effect of this exhibition, the essays in this catalogue, is to restore our sense of artistic spark to Sargent, to look behind the portraits and see the evidence of the man in a wider, more intriguing, body of work.

Sargent And Italy, Bruce Robertson, editor Princeton University Press/Los Angeles County Museum of Art 208pp, $35.00, ISBN 0691113289

A slightly different version of this essay originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement



Wednesday, 3 February 2010

VUILLARD AND ME: THE IMPRESSIONISTS AT SOTHEBY'S

There was a sale of Impressionist Art at Sothebys today. Yesterday my friend Michael Goldfarb and I skipped our usual weekly dim sum or pho or ramen lunch to check it out, and to see what was briefly one of best art museums in the world. The big publicity was for a wonderful Klimt, 'Church in Carcassone', looted by Austrian Nazis from the collection of the Jewish industrialist Viktor Zukerkandl, and it is a magnificent work whose shimmering quality suggests the sunlight on the landscape and river, and gives it a more romantic cast than much Impressionist work, which had obviusly influenced Klimt when he painted it in 1913. The picture was actually taken down while we were there, whether for publicity shots or for private viewing by a high-roller, I don't know. The guide price was £18 million, which seems a bit out of my reach, at least, but I was struck by the thought that there were works on display I could have afforded to buy, especially if I hadn't just bought a house.

It was a hugely impressive display. Pissarro, my favourite of the Impressionists, had a lovely 1901 painting of the church at Dieppe in the morning sun, probably better value at a mere £2 mill. I recognised the landscape in Seurat's Hospice et Phare de Honfleur (1886) whose beauty comes from unusual understatement, both of the pointillism and especially the way the lighthouse is relegated to the fringes of the image. There was a 1907, very impressionist, Bonnard, of a field in front of a church, whose use of blocks of colour suggests things the Abstract Expressionists wouldn't be getting to for another forty years. There was an ink and brush drawing by Picasso of Arlequin, dating from about the same time, 1909, which breathed a new and shadowy life into that familiar image.

A Klee watercolour, Country House Near Fribourg (1915) is an almost perfect small work, and I found it and Max Liebermann's Flower Shrubs Near Wannsee (1919) somehow refreshing from the thought of the Great War. I was also impressed again by Natalia Goncharova, a painting called Haymaking, done sometime between 1905-10, but like much of her work seems to have been under-valued, perhaps because of its melding of Impressionism with hints of Cubism.

But it was as we were leaving, and I was hurrying to make sure there were no further crannies I'd overlooked, that I saw a painting that stopped me in my tracks, and made me re-consider yet again what it is that makes it special to be alive. It's a modest Vuillard, one of numerous portraits he did of Lucy Hessel, wife of his art dealer. Madame Hessel a Son Cabinet de Toilette dates from 1917, and is primarily done in a rich, peaceful green, into which Mme. seems to almost blend. all that sets her apart, apart from her bowed head, is the brilliant orange scarf around her neck. She is spotlighted by a white petalled lamp aimed directly at her, and another, red scarf, hangs on the wall. Those brilliant colours provide hints, perhaps, of the person ready to step out of the shadows, or perhaps back into them; she is lost in her own thoughts, just a small step away from becoming one with her surroundings. It was profoundly moving, transcending its setting, and transporting me, for a while, with it, despite the efforts of London to intrude.

This piece appears also at Irresistible Targets

Sunday, 31 May 2009

DIEBENKORN DOES THE WHITE HOUSE

The Obama Effect has thus far been mostly symbolic; he seems to balance every positive move (Israeli settlements) with a negative one (Guantanamo and torture), has approached the economic crisis much more like Bill Clinton than FDR, and been very cautious with his first pick to join the Supremes. But symbolic does has impact, and I'm all in favour of his latest move, which was to borrow a new set of paintings from the Hirschorn, including Richard Diebenkorn's 'Berkeley No. 52' (pictured right).

Diebenkorn's a fascinating painter, one of my absolute favourites. He's from the generation of the Abstract Expressionists and in one sense produced a West Coast version of AE which took a long time to get recognised. That may be because his Berkeley work, from the 50s and 60s, is more representational than one expects from Abstract Expressionism. Even his Ocean Park series, from the 60s and 70s, still features recognisable parts of landscape, more than a hint of Post-Impressionism in them. They have a relaxed, west coast feel to them; not the intensity of, say, Rothko (who did grow up in Portland, Oregon, where Diebenkorn was born, after all), whom they sometimes recall. There's also a touch of Franz Kline about some of them, in their structural, almost architectural, power; and it's interesting that the Obama's have apparently requested a Kline from Chicago, on approval, as it were. Apparently, Barack took Michelle to the Art Institute on one of their first dates.

The Obamas have also borrowed sculptures by Jasper Johns and Degas, and works by Josef Albers, Louise Nevelson, Rauschenberg and, oddly, a red painting by Edward Ruscha with words like 'I think' 'maybe' and 'yes' on it. This is Obama's Bob the Builder approach to art. Can we fix it? Maybe we can! They've also selected a couple of works by a little-known black American artist, Alma Thomas Sky Light (left) and the Chubby Checker-inspired 'Watusi Hard Edge'. There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal which, while noting the pressure to make political gestures when presidents pick art, was more concerned with the potential increase in market value for the artists. This, I suppose, would be more of a help to those who are still alive, though the works themselves need to be at least 25 years old before they can be added to the White House's permanent collection, lest presidents be seen to be playing the art market like British MPs play the property market with taxpayer funding.

Call me predictable, but I find it interesting that I immediately make connections between Diebenkorn, Rohko, and Kline--my favourites of the painters of my lifetime. There's also a nice parallel to be made with Cy Twombly (about whom I wrote last August; you can find that here), another AE artist working at a remove from the mainstream, outlasting them, and in an environment of relaxed bright light. You can see a bit of Twombly, and even more of Charles Demuth, in many of the Ocean Park paintings (right).

That Diebenkorn's work should appeal to Obama, raised in Hawaii and colleged, at first, in California, doesn't come as a great surprise. I remember in the early 90s spending a weekend in Healdsburg, mainly because Diebenkorn lived there. The Clos du Bois winery was there too, and between them and the nice little Inn I stayed in, I decided Healdsburg would be a fine place to live. I wonder if it's still the same, with a Disney 1950s feel to it. Oddly, that's the kind of feeling Diebenkorn draws from me; I find his work both contemplative and soothing, both of which I assume would be a boon to someone with his job description. But the idea of having the great galleries of America as a shopping gallery makes me think the job might almost be worth it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

RE-VISITING VERMEER'S LADY WRITING A LETTER

I finally made it back to Dublin this week, and paid a visit to Vermeer's 'Lady Writing A Letter with her Maid', about which I wrote in my essay, which you can find here, on Matthew Hart's The Irish Game . The occasion was a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, 'Vermeer, Fabritius, and De Hooch: Three Masterpieces From Delft', whose title is pretty much self-explanatory. In a small, nicely-proportioned room, Vermeer's 'Woman Writing' (Hart, and I, prefer the title 'Lady Writing A Letter', which I think helps set out the relationship between the two women in the painting better, but the gallery calls it 'Woman') is placed facing the doorway, flanked by, on the left, Fabritius' 'The Goldfinch' (1654) and, on the right, De Hooch's 'The Courtyard of a House in Delft' (1658). It's interesting, as the Vermeer is dated circa 1670, and there is a strong sense that by that time he had taken a step forward, in terms of both dramatic depth and use of light, and felt the influence of his two predecessors.

Having never seen 'Lady Writing' before, I was first surprised that it's somewhat larger than I had imagined, and then realised that it is exactly that sense of drama, of tension contained within his scene, that had left me with the impression of a more compact piece. The other big surprise was just how powerful that curtain on the left of the painting actually is: it's weight and texture hover in the corner, as if waiting to be drawn, close off the light, shut out whatever it is the maid is looking at, and stop the woman from writing the letter which she obviously must get finished right away. The heavy drapery itself casts an ominous shadow over the lighter curtain and the room's corner, on whose edge stands the maid, as if reluctant to move fully into the light. On the floor, the seal, which restoration revealed, and the hastily discarded paper—a crumpled draft? the original note she is answering?-- add drama, but it is the light through the window, which catches her and the task of her writing in the spotlight, which is so impressive.

It's easy to see the influence Pieter De Hooch must have had on the young Vermeer. 'The Courtyard', from the National Gallery in London, is marked by the contrast of open and closed spaces, emphasized by the three doors or shutters seen hanging open, and by the multiple framings of arches, doorways and support poles. Only the adult figure in the foreground lets the composition down. The exhibition brochure makes an interesting comparison with works like Gerard Houckgeest's renderings of Delft's Nieuwe Kerk; it's possible to see De Hooch as celebrating the same play of architectural grandeur and natural light on a much more human scale. It's also fascinating, familiar as we are with the tiles on the floors of Dutch paintings of the period, to look at the brickwork in the foreground and learn De Hooch's father was a master bricklayer.

Carel Fabritius' 'Goldfinch', usually seen at Mauritshuis in den Haag, is one of the more famous images of Dutch art, and it is a working of stunning simple perfection. It was painted in the last year of his life; he was killed in the explosion of the city's gunpowder arsenal, in 1654, when he was only 32. Because it's painted on a very thick panel, it's speculated that it was meant to serve as a door for an encased painting; thus it would have an almost trompe l'oil function hanging on a way, and the delicate chain that holds the bird to his perch takes on a double meaning about the capture of art.

Delft was known at the time for its experiments with perspective; Fabritius had been a student of Rembrandt's, and again, the exhibition brochure contains the only one of his paintings making such experiments, a view of Delft meant to be viewed through a peephole in a perspective box. It puts 'The Goldfinch' into, shall we say, perspective, because the balance between the bird, the two rails, and the feeding box, set against a wall whose warmth and texture is echoed by Morandi or O'Keeffe, is perfect. The coldness of the shadow cast on the wall contrasts with the warmth of the bird itself; viewed up close the feathers soften and it's possible to imagine the small chest heaving. Take a step back, and the head takes on an almost abstract quality, mirroring the pattern of the exposed wing.

In effect, the Vermeer catches the twin appeals of these works, the sense of light creating drama within the framework of both the painting and its architecture, that he learned from De Hooch, but also the small perfect stillness, the drama of the frozen scene. Fabritius does it more with close-up, Vermeer with spot-light, but these are cinematic effects. It's wonderful to see 'Lady Writing' hung in safety in the National Gallery, it was inspirational to see it displayed in such a revealing and inspirational triptych.

Friday, 1 May 2009

PRECISIONISM: THERE IS NOTHING SENTIMENTAL ABOUT A MACHINE

"The art of Europe is finished -dead- and America is the country of the art of the future. Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than these?"

Marcel Duchamp wrote that in 1915. Faced with the alternative of a continent indulging itself in a ritual of mass suicide, one can understand Duchamp's enthusiasm for the new world he encountered.It was a world whose possibilities must have seemed endless to those prepared to look beyond the aesthetics of the passing age, influenced by the new perspectives the new century had already offered. As its subtitle, 'Reordering Reality', implies, the 1994 book PRECISONISM IN AMERICA reflects some of those possibilities, but also reveals the limitations of those aesthetics in coping with the changes in modern America.

Growing out of Cubism and Le Corbusier's Purism, Precisionism saw hope in the purity of things mechanical, which insinuated themselves directly into daily life. This was above all a way of imposing form on an increasingly chaotic universe. The seemingly formless romanticism of the 19th century, which reached its zenith with the Impressionists, offered no way to cope with the destructive pace of change in the 20th century. Disorder seemed to multiply geometrically, turning the world upside down, and revealing its dark side most clearly in the technological madness of the World War.

PRECISIONISM IN AMERICA spotlights the best known painters of this very loosely structured movement: Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe and Joseph Stella, along with photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston.It also provides revealing looks at Preston Dickinson, Elsie Driggs (that's her 'Queensborough Bridge, 1927' left), and the photographer Imogen Cunningham, which help us round out the picture of the art. The work of Driggs, O'Keeffe, and Cunningham also signaled another of the major reorderings of the century, the growing importance of women in modern art. The "cool, intellectual nature" of work by women often baffled contemporary critics, who expected more emotional,if not more 'twee', art, but in the new century, design would be based on cool intellectualism. Dorothy Grafly was perceptive in comparing Precisionist women's painting to "photographic purity"; purity, in the face of modern chaos, was the precisionists' ideal.

As a synthesis of American realism with European abstract design Precisionism harkens back both to classical architecture and to Cubism. William Carlos Williams had close connections with the Precisionists; Demuth's painting based on his poem 'I Saw The Figure 5' is one of the early works marking the move from synchronicity to precision. Williams might well have been writing about the Precisionists when he wrote "There is nothing sentimental about a machine. A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there's nothing sentimental about a poem I mean there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant."

You can see what Williams meant in Preston Dickinson's "Grain Elevators" (1923) or Ralston Crawford's "Buffalo Grain Elevators" (1937). Or the Sheeler photo, "Criss Cross Conveyors" (left), or Paul Strand's remarkable "Motion Picture Camera." Detail, simplicity and, yes, precision: materials converted to power with nothing redundant.

Yet for all the seeking to escape 19th century romanticism, Demuth could use an Impressionist palette in a painting of a water tower and a smokestack he titled "Aucassin and Nicolette" (1921, right) and incline the two structures toward each other, like those Medieval lovers. This may reflect innate American sentimentality more than Romanticism, but it begs the question of modernism. In the face of twentieth century America, as Duchamp realised instinctively, realism WAS modernism. Realism seems the dominant force at work here, reflecting, more than seeking out, a Cubist language. Paintings like O'Keefe's "New York Night" seek to imitate the patterns of nature in those of man: the lights of traffic reflected in patterns on hotel windows.

These artists were attempting to simplify the aesthetic formula of Cezanne and others, which had been done previously in America by the Synchronists, who used abstract forms; the precisionists' forms were real. They wanted art to reflect the perfection in straight highways, and gleaming skyscrapers. Demuth's early echoes of synchronism soon give way to still lives of eggplants, then the larger scale of factories and cities, like 'My Egypt' (right) justifiably famous both for its beauty and its message, that the works of modernity were every bit as classic as those of antiquity.

As with Sheeler's fascination with the simple lines of Shaker furniture, the Precisionists sought in both the past and in nature justifications for the precepts of modernism. The exterior fabric of American society never came to reflect those human fundamentals; the immediate shock of the Depression is reflected better in, for example, Edward Hopper, and another World War rendered the inventions of modernity much less appealling--it wasn't a coincidence abstraction flourished after that war. But that was something they could not have predicted. The pace of change increased faster, but much less precisely, than they ever dreamed.

PRECISIONISM IN AMERICA 1915-1941: Reordering Reality
Gail Stavitsky, Lisa Steinman, Rony Golan
New York: Harry N. Abrams/Montclair Art Museum