Friday, 28 November 2008

FLEEING DIRE ENCUMBANCIES: EXILES AND EMIGRES

FLEEING DIRE ENCUMBANCIES
"Exiles & Emigres” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1997-98 and the catalogue: Exiles and Emigres by Stephanie Baron (LACMA 1997 ISBN 9780875871783)

Hitler’s 1937 exhibition of “degenerate” art declared war on artists threatening the Aryan purity of the Master Race. They got the message; Max Beckman left for London the day after it opened. Yet artists proved remarkably lucky in avoiding the worst fates of Hitler’s other targets. “Exiles and Emigres”, follows the paths of artists exiled from Nazi Europe, first to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, and then to the United States. In detailing their fates in contrast to the displacement of most refugees, it raises some unsettling questions about the west’s response to the Nazis, and in gathering the work of these exiled artists it questions to the core our basic belief in art’s power in the face of unspeakable horror.

Stephanie Baron, who curated this show for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it opened, had already organised the ”Degenerate Art” exhibition at LACMA in 1991. That served as a springboard to the wider themes now on display. “Although few artists made it as far as California, there were many German exiles in the film industry who faced similar problems of assimilation, and the same questions of how political their work could be,” says Baron. Given a climate where, in 1939, 83% of Americans supported curtailing immigration, assimilation and politicisation did not go hand in hand.

Unusually for art galleries, but perhaps not for Los Angeles, “Exiles and Emigres” makes its most vivid impression on video. The centrepiece of the show, and the harshest evidence of the world’s indifference to the fate of Hitler’s victims, is a moving 15 minute documentary, “America and the Refugees”, produced by Chana Gazit. Unlike the audio-visual portion of many exhibitions, this is essential, unsettling viewing, as it sets out the refusal of shelter to those threatened by Nazism. The villain is not so much Hitler as Breckinridge Long, Roosevelt’s State Department official who used bureaucratic stalls to ensure nearly half the US’s available quota places for refugees went unused. Sympathy for mere Jews was still dangerous politically.

Long is counter-balanced by the exhibition’s hero, Varian Fry, who was sent by a group of American art collectors, the Emergency Rescue Committee, to aid some 200 intellectuals and artists, including Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst, in escaping through Marseilles. Fry proved a remarkable secret agent, and managed to save more than 2,000 other people, “ordinary” refugees, before being forced to return to America. Ernst’s wife, Peggy Guggenheim, also fled to America, and when she was back she staged “The Art of This Century” exhibition in New York. A model of the surrealist gallery from that show leaves one wondering if she had any idea a war actually was in progress. Ernst at least attempted to parody Hitler in “Napoleon in the Wilderness”. “Compared to ordinary refugees, artists had it easy,” admits deputy curator Teri Bernstein. Easy, of course, is a relative concept. Britain interned John Heartsfield and Kurt Schwitters on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens. Strangely enough, Heartsfield is the only artist in this show who produced explicitly anti-Nazi work.

Shows of “free” German art were staged in Paris and London in 1938. Stephan Lackner’s essay written for Max Beckman’s exhibition at the Burlington Gallery describes a Germany where “genies of the dark execute unperturbed their dire encumbancies“. Beckman’s own work, like “Self-Portrait with Horn” seems strangely inward looking in its struggles, as if he found himself powerless to make any meaningful action against the horror

Isolationist America was far different from London and Paris; modern art had still not been totally accepted by the mainstream of the collecting world. Despite an atmosphere where, in Baron’s words, “the impulse toward political art was deadened”, the modernists give a sense of trying desperately to “fit in” to the New World. Only Andre Kertesz, barred as a potential spy from taking photographs outdoors, challenges the American mainstream. The shadows on his wartime photographs speak eloquently of personal, as well as political, isolation.

The work of Georg Grosz is particularly poignant. Grosz left Germany just before Hitler came to power, and wanted to become a “genuine” American. Contrasting his “Lower Manhattan” with the architectural images of the German-raised but American-born Lionel Feninger, reveals his lack of a innate sense of naïve optimism. His “Manhattan II, Manhattan Night” echoes Sheeler or Demuth, but turns the thrusting modern city they celebrated into an expressionist film noir set, an almost abstract recoiling from the sheer dangerousness of unfettered power.

The freedom America offered liberated many artists. The reconstruction of Mondrian’s New York studio shows the impact that jazz music made on him, literally setting free his painting. But there is no sign of the chaos from which he’d been rescued. Reflecting British anger at Auden and Isherwood’s moves to America, or French suspicion of Picasso, this show questions the idea that an artist’s first responsibility is to his art. Does that responsibility carry with it a freedom from any further action? We may think differently about Menhuin playing with Furtwaengler, or Pound in Italy, after we’ve glimpsed how irrelevant many artists considered the horror they’d escaped to be. Perhaps the reality is art, “Guernica” notwithstanding, realised that, in such circumstances, it could have little impact. Or perhaps, dependent on patronage from those who wish not to rock the boat, most of the exiled artists simply refused to make waves. Jazz playing in the background, Mondrian assimilated himself all the way into American isolation.

Assimilation inevitably produced self-censorships. Chagall, for example, bizarrely used the figure of Christ on the cross to symbolize the martyrdom of the Jews. “He felt that explicit Jewishness would alienate a Christian audience that had refused to allow Jews escape from Hitler,” says Bernstein. Tellingly, only three of artists included in this show are Jewish. And one of them, Mies Van Der Rohe, supported Hitler, at least until der Fuhrer soured on the Bauhaus. Still, Van Der Rohe and his Bauhaus colleagues were acceptable enough to America's upper-crust to encounter little trouble dodging the quota system and grabbing plum jobs at top US universities.

Yves Tanguy, born in Paris, died in Connecticut. His moving “The Prodigal Son Never Returns” serves as a metaphor for the real story of the exile of modern artists from Germany. They were soon absorbed into the American mainstream, as was their art. They thrived in the boom economy of America’s postwar golden age. Within a decade of the end of Nazism, New York was the art capital of the world, and they were world-renowned. But there is a different coda to this tale of moral indifference, obliviousness, or compromise. Varian Fry would also die in Connecticut, an unknown high school teacher, ignored and forgotten by those whose lives he saved.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

ARS GRATIA ARTIS: SAM TAYLOR-WOOD 24/7

From your soaraway Guardian yesterday:

'She's an art superstar--she spends much of the film being photographed herself as she goes to awards ceremonies and parties--but vehemently refutes any suggestion that she got where she is because of her marriage to Jay Joplin or her showbiz mates' -Pick Of The Day

'Her work includes David, a video of David Beckham asleep, and Pieta, in which Taylor-Wood cradles Robert Downey, Jr' -Guardian magazine Q&A

Sam Taylor-Wood: The South Bank Show. A year in the life of the photographer. Includes an interview with Taylor-Wood conducted by Elton John -TV listings

'Her new exhibition is at the White Cube Gallery...She has two daughters with the art dealer Jay Jopling, from whom she has recently separated' -Q&A

-If you could go back in time where would you go?' 'Straight into Elvis's bed' -Q&A

Yes, it's all Sam all the time! The Sadie Frost of the art world meets Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank, and I can't help but thinking Mel is going to be cast as Warren Beatty to Sam's Madonna...

And, by the way, unlike any work by Franz Kline (see the item preceding this one) the Guardian judged Sam Taylor-Wood's David one of the 1,000 works of art you must see before you die. Probably while you're on life support.


Tuesday, 4 November 2008

BEFORE WHO DIES? GUARDIAN'S 1,000 WORKS TO SEE....

I have two words for the compilers of the Guardian's week-long list of '1,000 artworks to see before you die':
Franz Kline.

There are ten Pollocks on the list. You think Jack was ten times the artist Kline was? Even Yves Klein gets one. Pissarro gets only one. This is why I hate lists like that; you get forced into making artificial value judgements, while the overall perspective of the poll drives you crazy anyway (almost like no Faulkner in Waterstone's millennial top 100 novelists).

I'm not insisting on my favourites. I'd have included one Diebenkorn too, but I'm not surprised he's out. But Kline? His early death doesn't seem to have given him a romantic image, like Pollock, but to his AbEx colleagues, he was the real deal, and in some ways the prototype: Pollock's macho crossed with Rothko's intensity.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe

AN ALMOST VIOLENT PURITY OF SPIRIT
Georgia O'Keeffe portraits by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have become commercial icons. Animal skulls dried by the desert, adobe chapels, lush sexual flowers, tall thrusting cityscapes, all part of an instantly recognisable and popular style. O’Keeffe herself has become part of that iconography, just as recognisable. Her face, with its strong sharp features, piercing intelligence, and deep eyes, echoes the visual images of her work. Yet,as this exhibition shows, that image is itself a work of art, a construct that arose from the unlikely artistic partnership of one of the major figures of modernism in America with an unknown student. Over thirty years, it would produce nearly 400 prints.

In 1916 Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was the centre of modern art in America. His journal Camera Work was almost singlehandedly turning photography into an art form. O’Keeffe was a 28 year old unsuccessful artist who had taught in South Carolina and Texas and was taking classes at Columbia. A friend had passed O’Keeffe’s drawings on to Sieglitz because she knew how much she admired him and his immediate reaction was “at last, a woman on paper!” He exhibited the drawings at 291, getting the state wrong as he billed her as “Virginia O’Keeffe”, but over- whelming O’Keeffe’s protestations at being taken up with his understanding of her art. And his understanding of its impact. The gallery which had introduced America to Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley was now causing a bigger stir. The powerful erotic energy which Stieglitz recognised in O’Keffee’s abstract drawings disturbed many of New York’s critics, even those in the would-be avant-garde.

Stieglitz was keen to introduce women into the modernist movement (Camera Work gave Gertrude Stein her first appearance in print), but where on the one hand he was promoting O'Keeffe's work, encouraging her as an artist, on the other he also began using her as a model, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of her romantic, as well as artistic, objectification.

At the beginning, Stieglitz was taken by the abstract possibilities of O’Keeffe’s remarkably strong, sharp features. He is particularly attentive to her hands. Her long fingers both frame other objects to give them a geometric quality, and provide an abstract shape of their own. If modernism was about isolating the pure geometric volume from forms, Stieglitz was already beginning to move past that abstraction with O’Keeffe. But his photos quickly came to reflect the growing intimacy between photographer and subject. The quest for abstract shapes recedes, as Steiglitz becomes more and more fascinated with O’Keefe’s body, its combination of grace and power, of stark angles and edges softened by deep curves: her breasts against her shoulders, her hips balanced by her legs. And the same qualities he had originally captured in her hands he would continue to reveal in her face.

The stark force of her face was muted somewhat by O’Keeffe’s wonderfully expressive eyes. This expressiveness turns Steiglitz’s modernism transcendental: he had discovered a human form in nature which could both generate and convey the equivalent of his deepest inner experiences. Original as it seemed to him, he was also recapitulating what O’Keeffe had already made the central aim of her own art.

By 1919-20, the photographs have become more intimate, even obsessive. Abstract nudes give way to extreme sensuality, O’Keeffe setting her hair, squeezing her breasts, displaying her feet. They caused a scandal when exhibited, and even today there is something almost fetishistic about them. The scandal was intensified, no doubt, by the fact that they were living together openly, despite the fact that Stieglitz was married. Eventually, Steiglitz would take these 'scandalous' shots off the market.

After Stieglitz was divorced in 1924, he persuaded O’Keeffe to marry him. She saw no point in the added respectability of marriage, and perhaps predictably, Stieglitz’s camera at this point appears to lose its fire. He begins producing more mundane portraits, as if the very idea of being Mr. and Mrs. Stieglitz were the antithesis of their conception of modernist art and modern life. Reflecting their increasing time apart,the pictures become almost chaste. O’Keeffe began to spend more time travelling, while Stieglitz preferred the familiar environs of New York City and his house upstate on Lake George. Some of his passion transferred to his other major series of prints, shot at Lake George, of abstract shapes from nature, particularly clouds. These correspond with emotions, in much the same way that parts of O’Keeffe’s body once had, but they never recapitulate the total emotional involvement of the 1920 portraits.

But as their relationship, and his photographs of her became less intimate, Stieglitz began to portray O’Keeffe as an artist, rather than a model. He now seems more involved with the work than its creator, and he begins to reveal the iconic O’Keeffe so familiar to us today. Now the sharp angles of her face, the deep gaze of her eyes, the dynamic power of her body reflect what the artist and poet Marsden Hartley called the “almost violent purity of spirit” in her work.

Although Dorothy Norman took O’Keeffe’s place in the passionate intimacy of Stieglitz’s life, and O’Keeffe began to winter far away in New Mexico, they spent summers together each year at Lake George. By now she was travelling through New Mexico in an A Model Ford, with the back seat removed and converted into a mobile art studio. Her freedom seems to have fascinated Stieglitz, who photographed O’Keeffe’s hands, once again almost as abstract framing, caressing the wheel-covers of a V-8 car. The triumph of man over the energy of machines is an important part of both their work, but O’Keeffe’s hands give the picture its impact, inserting a human dimension to keep the powerful shape of the machine in its place, in fact, turning it into something to be caressed, if not an item of fashion.

There is a wonderful 1932 portrait of O’Keeffe in a head-scarf, looking out the front window of her car as if auditioning for the Bonnie Parker role in BONNIE AND CLYDE. As she gets older, her face seems to grow deeper, its angles more involving, stronger and more shadowy at the same time. What is clear from these photos is that a relationship which may have started very much as pupil and teacher, and soon deepened into romance, eventually extended beyond romance and into art. After the passion faded, they transcended the bounds of artistic or romantic definition. If Stieglitz’s images of her helped mould our perception of her as an artist, her vision as an artist helped Stieglitz find new means of expression through his camera.

“When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who that person is,” O’Keeffe wrote for a 1978 retrospective, some 60 years after those first pictures had been taken. Whoever that person was then, she is now the figure whose features, as captured by Stieglitz, reflect perfectly Marsden Hartley's perception of her work's violent purity.

NOTE: This piece was written for the FT, after an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, back (I think) in 1997. My memory says it bounced between the magazine and the weekend arts pages. These things happen. Here it is now. The exhibition's catalogue is still available...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

ROBERT CREELEY IN ARTISTIC COMPANY

IN COMPANY: ROBERT CREELEY’S COLLABORATIONS

NOTE: This is another piece I originally wrote, in 2000, for Alan Ross at London Magazine, which languished in his files. In Company showed at the New York Public Library, the Witherspoon Art Gallery, Greensboro North Carolina, the University Of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, and the Green Library at Stanford University. The catalogue, including a CD Rom and edited by Amy Cappellazzo and Elizabeth Licata of the Castellani Art Museum, Niagara University, New York was published by University of North Carolina Press. Creeley, of course, has since passed away, but I've left it in its original, present, tense.

“I Know A Man”, the best known of Robert Creeley’s poems (one line from it spawned a Jeremy Larner novel which became a Bob Rafelson film starring Jack Nicholson), begins:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,--


We think of poetry as a lonely art, but Creeley doesn’t. The most striking feature of “In Company”, an exhibition of the Bollingen Prize winning poet’s collaborations with artists, is sheer exuberance. When the exhibition opened in the refined surroundings of the New York Public Library’s Salomon Exhibition Hall, the works almost seemed to leap from their cases in an attempt to pull the viewer into dialogue with them, in much the same process as occurred, one imagines, between the poet and these artists.

Now 73, Creeley, twice a Harvard dropout, World War II ambulance driver, and struggling chicken farmer, began his poetic career in collaboration. On his New Hampshire farm in the late 1940s he heard Cid Corman’s poetry program on the radio from Boston. Through Corman, editor of the ground-breaking literary magazine Origin, Creeley began an intense correspondence with Charles Olson, then rector of the experimental Black Mountain College. Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” provided the blueprint for an entire generation of post-modern poetry, from Allen Ginsberg to Robert Duncan, and one of Olson’s key precepts quotes Creeley directly: “form is never more than an extension of content”. This phrase echoes continuously through the present exhibition: a breaking down of the distinct , and discrete, distance between artistic technique and subject.

Creeley had moved to Mallorca, where he tutored Robert Graves’ children and began to apply his own aphoristic precepts, starting with an essay on the French artist Rene Laubies. Laubies returned the favour by illustrating Creeley’s first book of poems, THE IMMORAL PROPOSITION (1953). Laubies’ art lies flat on the page facing the poems: each painting shares physical space with the words. Form extends content: simple broad strokes accompanying “An Obscene Poem” suggest wave motion and boats, but only suggest. Increasingly Creeley was seeing words as things in themselves, rather than symbols. Sight is an important metaphor: Creeley’s straight-forward perspective may be the result of losing one eye when he was two years old. But the primary position thatsight takes also suggests the realms where the body’s actions and mind’s perceptions move together, like boats rocking in the water.

He returned to American and joined the Black Mountain faculty, which included dancer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and the artist Franz Kline.In an essay, “On The Road: Notes on Artsts and Poets”, Creeley recalled listening to Kline’s sad stories while drinking with him and Jackson Pollock in New York’s legendary Cedar Bar. Creeley responded to the “non-verbal” quality of Pollock’s painting. The paradox fascinated him. Artists like Kline possessed the verbal facility to captivate poets with their stories. Yet Kline and Pollock’s art spoke to the emotions while doing away with story-telling entirely. Form is never more than an extension of content? For Kline, form was content. Out of this collaboration, Creeley learned to focus the expressive reach of his writing in each individual word.



-- John, I
sd, which was not his
name,the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, 


“If it’s you, he embraces it,” said the artist Jim Dine, whose etchings for Creeley’s MABEL (1977) try to make literal objects out of Creeley’s words, reflecting the way abstract expressionism saw painting as a process, manipulating its own materials. In an essay for this exhibition’s impressive catalogue, critic John Yau points out that Creeley’s move from Mallorca’s relative isolation to the myriad influences of Black Mountain, enabled a similar process: from using the external world as a “signpost” to thinking of words as material things.

He’d established artistic common ground. Creeley’s NUMBERS (1968), is a series of ten abstract poems, written to accompany Robert Indiana’s hard-edged silkscreens, trying to make the words equal to the numerals represented in Indiana’s art. Rather than suggesting a story for each number, Creeley simply tries to create that number for the reader. Think of Charles Demuth’s famous poster-portrait of William Carlos Williams “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold”. Unlike Demuth, Indiana dropped the backstory, and Creeley has not inserted one.

Given these aims, it is not strange that the only portrait of Creeley on show is by RB Kitaj, who did exceptional portraits of other 'Black Mountain' poets, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Paul Blackburn, and collaborated with Creeley on A SIGHT, published in London by Cape Goliard in 1967, and on A DAY BOOK (1972). The latter was Creeley’s attempt to write down the raw material of life without turning it into art. Kitaj’s DAY BOOK portraits are deceptively simple. As you can see at the top of this post, Kitaj's Creeley looks pensively from his one good eye, a playful wink implied behind his unique visual perspective.

or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,


Experimentation is a constant. It’s a question of process, the energy at work between artist and writer parallels that between artist and materials. John Chamberlain once defined sculpture as “something that if it falls on your foot, will break it”. He sent Creeley completed prints; Creeley wrote FAMOUS LAST WORDS (1988) to accompany them. Chamberlain’s note to Creeley reads like a Creeley poem: “here are 10 prints/for whatever use to you—hope/they influence enough to find/words you haven’t used for/awhile.” The photo-copier images done by Creeley’s second wife, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, suggest there might also be a sexual element to artistic collaboration. So do Arthur Okamura’s tiny nudes, creating Busby Berkeley-ish mandalas for Creeley’s poems, or Susan Rothenberg’s mezzotints for PARTS (1993), completed entirely by post, but resulting in powerful animal images, like “Dog Leg Wheel”.

In his poem “For Jim Dine” Creeley refers to “the confounding, confronted/pictures of world/brought to signs/of its insistent self.” Later he speaks of the “intervals between silences”. For fifty years, Creeley has sought the insistent self behind the world’s pictures. His words have filled those silences, and in these collaborations, the intervals do grow smaller, and disappear.

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

Friday, 26 September 2008

ROTHKO'S ROOTS: HOW 1930s NEW YORK DEVELOPED MODERN ART

THE AMERICAN AVANT GARDE: A DECADE OF CHANGE

NOTE: With the Mark Rothko retrospective just opening at the Tate Modern, it seemed a good moment to revisit this 2000 show at the Bruce Museum. I wrote the following piece, in essentially the same form, for the FT, who, I think, were originally more interested in the possible appeal to their readership in the Greenwich area than in the subject matter, thus let it sit just a little too long to run in the end. But the issue of Rothko's development can't really be separated from that of the Abstract Expressionists as a group, nor can the ways in which their growth as artists was shaped by the events of the Depression years. In that sense, perhaps they echo the nation's struggles and rebirth after the war as something more direct and more powerful. The only changes of note are those of tenses; I eliminated some material about the Bruce which isn't relevant to today's story. The reference to the Tate Modern may reflect my early reaction to the museum's opening that same year. I'll have to post that essay here sometime.

The sheer power of the post-war explosion of American art which came to be known as Abstract Expressionism overwhelms the preceding decade, which gets dismissed as a period of chaotic, if not adolescent, development. To European eyes, that attitude confirms the New World’s essential paucity of talent, reinforcing the idea that New York, in Serge Guibault’s famous phrase, “stole the idea of Modern Art” from Paris, and that far from being an original and deeply meaningful epoch in art, Rothko, Pollock, DeKooning, Kline and the rest were merely the beneficiaries of economic imperialism; a CIA-funded US version of Saatchi and Tate Modern-promoted emperor's new clothes.

“The American Avant-Garde: A Decade of Change” at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, sought to redress this imbalance, and present that 'lost decade' from 1936-46 as one of vibrancy, not only a creative cauldron from which emerged the finely hammered steel of the New York School, but one which produced art memorable in its own terms. Organised by the Bruce’s Nancy Hall-Duncan and art historian Irving Sandler, it took a new look at well-known artists from the 1930s, giving a fresh perspective to their influence on the developing talents of Abstract Expressionism's icons, but also showcased a number of artists perhaps unjustly forgotten today.

It’s not enough to look at Rothko’s “Untitled: Two Nudes” (1936), imagine it without the figures, enlarged and turned to the horizontal, and see the doors, doorways, and walls creating the blocks of colour we associate with the painter today. I remember doing that the first time I saw the better-known “Entrance To Subway” (1938), and you could go back to Hopper's “Room In Brooklyn” (1932) for much the same effect. But this story goes deeper than that.

It’s a given that America’s young modernists in America in the 1930s rejected the prevailing Realist styles. Regional Realism is typified somewhat cruelly here by Grant Wood’s “Sentimental Ballad” (1940), painted to promote John Ford’s film “The Long Voyage Home”, and showing John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Jack Pennick, and the Ford Repertory company singing over pints in an Oirish pub. But at the peak of the Depression, Social Realism was also in its heyday. In Philip Evergood’s “The Pink Dismissal Slip” an artist brandishes a notice from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) firing him from the Federal Arts Project. Evergood himself had been beaten and jailed in a protest against the dismissal of nearly 2,000 artists. His painting’s power comes precisely from the primitive technique young American painters were feeling it was necessary to use, to escape the feeling of being captured by an unfair society.

This was at least partly a reaction to European modernism. The American Abstract Artists (AAA) were heavily influenced by the Cubists, but Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb belonged to The Ten, who took in a wider range of influences. They attempted to synthesise a position somewhere between propaganda and formalism by combining social consciousness with an mix of abstraction, expressionism, and even surrealism. Meanwhile, Jackson Pollock was the prize pupil of the leading regional realist, Thomas Hart Benton, who himself had studied in Paris before rejecting ‘elitist’ European styles as both introspective and neurotic. Benton’s family were populist politicians in Missouri, and that influence is apparent in Pollock’s “Cotton Pickers” (1935), originally painted for the WPA. It echoes Benton, while suggesting El Greco, Corot or Daubigny. It absolutely typifies the work which Pollock later called “something against which to react”.

A native American abstraction also flourished in the 1930s, and the works of less-remembered people like Balcombe Greene (“Two Forms” 1937) or Burgoyne Diller (“Construction no.16” 1938) suggest they were already seeking space in which their materials could be allowed to act. Particularly rewarding is Irene Rice Pereira’s “Untitled, 1944”, an assemblage of glass, fabric and metallic strips which would still be cutting edge today. With the start of the war in Europe, the surrealists had fled en masse to America. This may have been the final catalyst, or perhaps it was the Jungian analysis the alcoholic Pollock underwent at the same time. Whatever the spark, with Pollock’s “Man Bull Bird,” one of his last works for the WPA (1941), some sort of boundary has been crossed.It is no surprise to see artists like Arshile Gorky and John Graham heavily influenced by Picasso, as it was everywhere. Yet by the time Gorky painted “Horns of the Landscape” (1944) he was already adapting Cubism into a more specifically American vernacular. A bigger influence may have been Hans Hofmann, whose classes were a focus point in New York. Hofmann’s “Mirage (1946)” already contains all the elements we associate with the best of the Abstract Expressionists, while still showing its Picasso roots. The biggest step toward synthesis may have come from Milton Avery, whose Matisse-influenced landscapes, such as 'Autumn' (1944) were already reducing scenes to just a few well-judged shapes, and would clearly influence Rothko. The war is still on, but it's clear from works on display by Rothko, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, and Willem de Kooning that they were already refining and inventing what would become the most dynamic painting of the second half of the century, and perhaps the end of the war was merely what set them free.

That they should have absorbed European influence is not surprising: Rothko, Graham, Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning and Josef Albers were all immigrants. That their work should seek to adapt such influences to an “American Dream” is even less surprising. In many ways, Abstract Expressionism is about 'effete' art adapting to Americanism, in the same way immigrants or their children felt they needed to prove their Americaness. The two-fisted macho approach of most of the AbEx artists, the fights at the Cedar Bar, Pollack working in his T-shirt and jeans, were all part of a studied anti-highbrow approach. Ironically, their art succeeded in part because of the high-brow push given it by critics, who brought on board the very people these artists condemned in the 1930s, by convincing the moneyed buyers of the value of this new art. The same was true of the Impressionists, and the AbEx artists have followed their path to first popularity and then decorative ubiquity. Which would have surprised any of the artists represented in this exhibition.

What is also surprising is the way a relatively small museum like the Bruce, situated on hill overlooking the commuter rail station which links Greenwich with New York, has assembled such a spectacular collection. Significantly, they’ve borrowed not only from major institutions like the Whitney and Guggenheim, but also from smaller museums like the Neuberger at nearby SUNY-Purchase, where Sandler teaches, and the New Britain Museum of American art, upstate in Connecticut. The exhibition has been designed brilliantly by Anne von Stuelpnagel. Hung with strong black and red backgrounds, it allows you to see each work on its own merits, while inviting comparisons within rooms and from one space to the next. It’s like walking back into a more intense time, when depression and war made it seem everything was under threat, when everything seemed possible in art.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

LOOKING BACK AT BACON'S VAN GOGH

VAN GOGH BY BACON
The 2002 Exhibition at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Palais Du Luppe, Arles

Note: The Francis Bacon retrospective has just opened at the Tate (and isn't it odd that Bacon is 'Britain' rather than 'modern' when he gets Tated?) and by coincidence that was one of the topics for Newsnight Review when I watched to check out my former colleague and fellow Swede Dotun Adebayo. The Telegraph's Rachel Campbell-Johnston was bothered by the huge slabs of black in some of Bacon's 'bad' paintings; all three panelists agreed the show for the most part had avoided what it thought of as his lesser work. RCJ's reference to black slabs reminded me of writing this piece about a 2002 show of Bacon's Van Gogh paintings in the heart of Van Gogh country, Arles. It appeared, in a slightly different form, in the TLS then, and seems relevant to the discussion now...

Francis Bacon worked in such a frenzy of lateness to finish his Van Gogh studies in time for their show at the Hanover Gallery in 1957 that guests at the opening are said to have taken some of the still-wet paint home with them on the backs of their dresses and jackets. The paintings themselves have never been the critics’ favourites; John Russell, for example, thought them “perhaps the weakest of his groups”. Now, however, this reuniting of eight of the nine paintings in the series, along with Bacon’s two later revisitings of the theme, provides an opportunity to judge them with new eyes, and may provoke a reassessment of their place in Bacon’s work.

Critical suspicion of Bacon’s Van Goghs may stem from a sense that it’s simply too facile to draw an emotional link between the tormented artists, self-mutilation compared to mutilation of the painted figure. Bacon’s own starting point was Van Gogh’s 1888 self-portrait, “The Painter On The Road To Tarascon”, showing the artist, in straw hat, lugging his easel and equipment, facing the viewer head-on, and casting an almost ominous shadow which appears to be following him. This is the Van Gogh of popular imagination, searching obsessively the countryside around Arles for perfect light, then, just as he found it, rejected by French Babbitry, forced to quit the town along the very same road.

Bacon never saw Van Gogh’s original, destroyed when Dresden was firebombed in 1945. He made do with photographs, but often preferred the qualities brought out by reproduction; he never bothered to see Velasquez’s original of Pope Innocent X in Rome. As reproduced, Van Gogh’s background jumps out at the viewer, broad swathes of colour stretching almost two-dimensionally across the canvas. Watching the way paint is turned into sunlight, parched fields, into shadow and shade on the road, suggests a different sense of Van Gogh’s importance to Bacon. Viewing the Van Gogh portraits together, what is striking is the accumulation of other influences which Van Gogh seems to mediate for him, as if the fever pitch of deadline-beating energy absorbed and revealed ideas which, in a sense, Bacon may have needed to paint out of his system.

Entering the exhibition in Arles, the impact of this revelation is amplified by juxtaposition. The deep purples and scarlets of “Study For A Portrait of Van Gogh IV” suggest German expressionists; the dark Van Gogh, is, apart from the shapes of the painting equipment he carries, indistinguishable from his shadow. There’s a further expressionist suggestion of Munch in the face of “Study I”, completed in 1956. It recalls another 1888 Van Gogh, “The Sower”, but its incredible darkness is relieved only by the yellows of his straw hat, and the outlines of his easel, canvas bag, and shoulder straps. The pose also suggests influences beyond painting, as curator David Allen Mellor makes plain in his excellent monograph in the exhibition catalogue.

Bacon had rushed to see Vincente Minelli’s film, LUST FOR LIFE, starring Kirk Douglas. Based on Irving Stone’s pulpy novel, the film follows a Hollywood tradition of macho painter-pics that includes Charles Laughton’s two-fisted Rembrandt, but Minelli’s Van Gogh is one who is overcome as much by the overpowering sunlight of Provence as by his inner demons. The pose of the painter in his self-portrait is very self-consciously cinematic, direct to camera, as it were, and Bacon will echo cinematic effects throughout the series.

The shadowy darkness of those two paintings contrasts sharply with “Study III”, one of the works where the imprint of the Hanover Gallery opening night press may be visible. More apparent is a use of figure and colour suggestive of Willem DeKooning. Here yellows stretch across the fields behind the artist, while the road has become a broadly-applied expressionist mix of scarlet, blue, and white. The three paintings come together in “Study V”. The starkest of the series, here road and background have been reduced to bands of colour which suggest Abstract Expressionism, particularly Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a reduction to essence of what can be seen in Van Gogh’s original, and here the artist is reduced too: almost a shadow himself, projecting his own fatigue onto a shrinking shadow. The shadows can look awkward, almost childish, as painting, but in essence,you can imagine the awkward shadow is what was always chasing Bacon, and Van Gogh.

The next three paintings serve as what Mellor calls “a hinge” in Bacon’s career. The Van Gogh figure and its shadow merge in “Study VI”, apparently swallowed up in a landscape which itself takes on more life. In “Van Gogh In A Landscape” that setting has become omnious and threatening, reducing the struggling figure of the artist to a trudge, almost a retreat from his art, the burden of his easel a cross literally to bear. Finally, in “Untitled (Landscape After Van Gogh)” the figure itself has disappeared, only hinted at in the suggestion of shadow. The trees which frame Van Gogh in the original and in most of Bacon’s studies, now loom like figures themselves, again suggestive of crucifixion.

The other side of Mellor’s hinge is “Homage To Van Gogh”, painted in 1960, which assumes many of the characteristics associated with Bacon’s portraiture. Working from photographs, Bacon’s Van Gogh takes on pitiable, nightmarish characteristics, not the least of which is a pig-like snout. It recalls the famous story of Bacon’s encounter, six years later, while being driven round Provence by Stephen Spender, with a crashed lorry carrying pigs to market. Bacon thought the dead pigs ‘the most beautiful thing’ he ever saw. Certainly the links between pig and bacon need no elaboration.


The final painting is Bacon’s 1985 “Homage To Van Gogh, Arles”, done for the opening of the Fondation Van Gogh, and its director Yolande Clergue, co-curator of this exhibition. Here the painter is seen from waist down, literally blending into his shadow, the bright white of his drawing paper our only clue. He is hidden by a screen, on which are the words Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, 1888-1988, on a blackness which reminds us of the strange sense of historical guilt which pervades the show.

No painting by Van Gogh has ever been shown at the Fondation. There is a notable reticence from those who own the works to contribute them to the city which tossed him out. In fact, though tourists can visit the garden of the hospital where Van Gogh recovered after slicing off his ear, or the rooms in the sanitarium outside San Remy where he checked himself in for a ‘cure’, there is only one painting by Van Gogh on display anywhere in Provence, in Avignon’s admirable Musee Angladon, and that collection has been transplanted, as it were, from Paris. So the Bacon series is an important step forward in the rehabilitation, as it were, of Arles, and what the Fondation has demonstrated in its thoughtful presentation of Bacon should lead many to rethink the position of Arles itself.

A collection of portraits of Bacon by leading photographers might appear a mundane contrast to his paintings, but in fact, it works remarkably well in raising, if not answering, questions about an artist’s identity. For what is most apparent is the way Bacon becomes a different character for each photographer. For Cecil Beaton he starts out fey in 1951, but by 1960 that feyness remains in only half his face, the other half is lost to shadow. Cartier-Bresson turns him into a French painter looking cynically around his atelier, to Don McCullin he’s a worker exhausted after a long day in the mill. Harry Benson’s Bacon, in New York, could be a tough-talking Irish reporter with the Bowery as his beat. Peter Beard, with his own ties to Arles, sees Bacon as one of his own works, while Hans Namuth manages to transform him into an action painter, a la Pollock, whom Bacon apparently couldn’t stand.

The portraits set the stage for an even more impressive group of photos, Perry Ogden’s shots of Bacon’s London studio, taken as reference before it was moved intact to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. The sheer mess behind Bacon’s work space echoes the artist’s presence in their random mix of shapelessness and colour. The photos themselves could go on show at the ICA, or the Saatchi; Bacon’s artistic detritus seems far more revealing and infinitely more intriguing than, say, Tracey Emin’s bedclothes. Even more, the contrast between the deep layers of creative chaos and the almost austere living space opposite recalls once more Van Gogh, the stark disparity between his bare rooms in Arles and St. Remy he lived in and the exploding light and colour of the landscapes he captured on canvas.

Van Gogh by Bacon performs an amazing feat: by bringing all this together, by finally returning Bacon’s works to their context, it allows us to sharpen our focus on both artists. Which certainly was the point when Bacon was painting so feverishly 45 years ago.

Friday, 12 September 2008

THE GENERAL MEETS THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING: MATTHEW HART'S THE IRISH GAME

If you're interested in the tale of Vermeer's 'Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid', stolen twice from Bessborough House in Ireland, you can read my review of Matthew Hart's 'The Irish Game' at Irresisitible Targets, linked here.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

A FREER ART BASED ON FEELING: SIGNAC EN PROVENCE, 2006

SIGNAC EN PROVENCE
an exhibition at the Musee Angladon
Avignon, Summer 2006

Paul Signac loved sailing—and his boat L'Olympia gave him the freedom to prowl the coastline of France. He was one of the first of the Paris artists to travel to the south of France, most memorably visiting the hospitalised Van Gogh in Arles in 1889. But it was only after the death of Georges Seurat that he put his sailboat into port at St Tropez, and made his first attempts at painting in watercolours. He wrote his friend Camille Pissarro that watercolours weren't 'working' for him, but he felt they were a 'valuable means of collecting information'. Yet within two years, in 1894, Signac had not only resolved to spend his summers in the South, but had rejected the Impressionist idea of painting with oils in the open air. Thus, for most of the year he would live in the Midi, travel in his boat, working in watercolours and pen and ink sketches. Then he would return to his Paris studio for the winter, and turn that 'information' into the oils we associate with the pointillism of Neo-Impressionism.

The somewhat sad beauty of this exhibition ‘Signac in Provence’ lies in the way it illustrates how radical the dichotomy of Signac's working life actually was. His sketches and watercolours teem with life and motion, the use of colour is bold and improvisational, the ink lines often play sharply with the watercolour itself. They are polar opposites to the restraint of his oils, where the subject matter becomes merely a framework for an exercise in the play of light and colour. The relaxed confines of the Musee Angladon, home of the collection of the industrialist Jacques Doucet, add to the impact of the show. The Avignon setting makes much of the work inside seem already familiar. The Angladon also reminds one of the comfortable bourgeois setting of the French art world of the time, which reinforce the many paradoxes which arise from the contradictions in Signac's life and work.

He was born in 1863 in Paris; his family were saddlers to French society. After his father's death in 1880, the 16 year old Signac quit his architectural studies to join the bohemian art world of Monmartre. But with family support; how many struggling teenage artists could buy their first Cezanne before selling a painting of their own? Teaching himself by studying artists he admired, particularly Delacroix and Monet, at 19 Signac had his own studio and was already summering on the coast in Normandy.

His family had moved to Asnieres, outside Paris. In 1884, he joined the Societe des Artistes Independents, and at their first salon met Georges Seurat, who was exhibiting ‘Bathers at Asnieres‘ there. They became close friends and collaborators in pointillism. In 1885 he met Pissarro, who with his customary enthusiasm grabbed pointillism and integrated it into his own Impressionism. Through Pissarro, Signac exhibited at the last Impressionist exhibition, in 1886; it was then that Felix Feneon coined the term 'Neo-Impressionism'. In a work like 'Boulevard de Clichy (1886—not in this exhibition) you can see Pissarro's influence combining with Seurat's, but it was Seurat's whose ideas would become more profound for Signac, perhaps to his detriment.

Ebullient and gregarious, like Pissarro, Signac was an odd match for the taciturn, withdrawn Seurat, but he took on the task of creating an aesthetic to turn Seurat's work into a movement. Signac preferred the term 'divisionism' for what he and Seurat were doing; his view was that of a modernist concerned with reducing art to its elements. He also seemed torn between painting itself and theorising about it. Indeed, Seurat's essay, ‘From Delacroix to Neo Impressionism’ (1899) not only lays bare his own influences but was one of the major critical works of the period. He became obsessed with new scientific theories on the physics of light and our senses' physical reactions to colour. Seurat’s concern with working out these effects on canvas meant his subject matter increasingly became a formality.

This played to another paradox: the bourgeois Signac was, again like Pissarro, a committed anarchist. He saw divisionism as a political engagement, confirming the importance of the art itself over the subject matter. In another sense, his choice of the Midi was a way of suggesting that a more natural order existed outside urban society. That these concepts might contradict seems to have bothered him no more than the transformation of the bubbling improvisation of his summer’s work into the colder, more distant and formal finished product of his studios. Others could feel the conflict. At one point Pissarro even urged his friend to reconsider his artistic temperament, and 'evolve toward a freer art more based on feeling', in effect, the opposite of Seurat's scientific approach.

The conclusion this exhibition suggests is that Signac did exactly what Pissaros suggested, but for most part in private, in the Mediterranean, in his summer's gathering of ideas, to be transformed into the templates of his more formal Parisian oils. But one can see the influence of his sketching on the very first oils one encounters in the exhibition: the blue and yellow shimmering effect of sunlight in St. Tropez: Sunset Over The Town (1892) is stunning, while in St. Tropez: After the Storm, both the scale and the mix of orange and yellow seem audaciously unusual for Signac. He would move to a more mosaic patterned pointillism, which is reflected magnificently in the melding of leaves and mountains in Juan les Pins (1914), and his oils would become more abstracted, as in the white on white effect of Vieux Port, Marseilles (1906). But his later watercolours, while incorporating the mosaic colour techniques, become, if anything, more dynamic, sometimes, as with Funeral at Bourg St Andeol (1926) suggesting the humour of a Daumier.

Thus Signac's studies are often more interesting than the finished works. He appears to have realised this himself; he exhibited three watercolour 'annotations' at the first Neo-Impressionist exhibition, and argued at the Vienna Sezession of 1900 that there were no grounds for the avant-garde to 'differentiate between oil-based and water-based art.' As he grew older, Signac produced fewer and fewer oils, but grew more prolific in watercolour. He painted along coastlines from Rotterdam to Constantinople, but always returned to the South of France. The vibrancy of the work he produced there argues that Signac may have been more compelling, if less theoretically important, had he not held the reins so tightly while working in oil. The Angladon should be congratulated for reminding us of this.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

WHEN ART ISN'T THE BEST REVENGE: MAKING IT NEW WITH GERALD AND SARA MURPHY

When, as the story goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald sighed that the 'rich were not like us', Ernest Hemingway replied 'that's right, they have more money'. Since Hemingway was telling the story, it's not surprising he gets the better line, but 'the rich' about whom both writers were talking were Gerald and Sara Murphy, and indeed the glamorous trendsetters for the Lost Generation were not like Scott or Ernest.

Sadly, the Murphys are remembered primarily in the sense of what we now call 'celebrities', with all the diminishing that term implies. Their image remains glossy, as you'd expect for a couple immortalised as Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Their image as celebrities was enhanced when it was filtered through Calvin Trillin's famous memoir, LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Yet even if considered only as proto-celebrities, Gerald and Sara are sadly under-appreciated. After all, they invented summer on the Riviera, with a life-style imported from the beaches of the Hamptons in New York. They attracted a circle which included, apart from Scott, Zelda, and Hemingway, Picasso (who idolised Sara), Leger, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Cole Porter as well as American writers as diverse as John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and many more of the key figures of the 'Lost Generation'. Man Ray took their family portraits. The Europeans were captivated by their seemingly effortless style, the Americans by their patrician grace. Gerald's striped sailor shirts, knitted caps, and espadrilles remain as fashionable now as they were when he first threw them together as a Mediterranean beach outfit. Picasso painted Sara's unique way of wearing her long string of pearls down her back at the beach, 'to give them air'. He made Gerald the figure standing primly next to the piper in his painting 'The Pipes Of Pan', a painting that now seems to reveal more than it might have been seen to at the time. Photos of Picasso, and his mother, cavorting at fancy dress parties in the sand at Antibes capture the Murphys' infectious flair for revelling in the moment. At every turn, you sense their liberating energy. It was Sara who liked to say that champagne should always be drunk looking upwards, at the sky.

The sheer weight of accomplishment of those drawn to befriend the Murphys has led history to pigeon-hole them as 'society bohemians', possessing a slumming sort of dilettante-ish noblesse oblige. This view lends itself to belittlement, as Hemingway did infamously in his brilliant, if sour, recollection, A MOVEABLE FEAST, the book with which he settled scores with all those who had helped him along the way.

But the Murphys are far more pivotal, and their story more fascinating, than that. It is told brilliantly in Making It New, an exhibition curated by Deborah Rothschild, which opened last summer at the Williams College Museum of Art, and now is about to close in Dallas after its third showing. This is one of those rare gallery shows whose story can be followed room to room, like a play in three acts. In Act One the viewer gets charmed by the Murphys, seduced by the atmosphere they created around themselves, in both Paris and the Riviera, which attracted and in many cases nurtured, creative talent. In Act Two, the exhibition convinces you of Gerald's undoubted talent as an artist. Finally, in Act Three, tragedy strikes, and not only does Gerald's urge to paint get set aside, but the very essence of 'living well' changes too.

Both Murphys grew up wealthy. Sara Wiborg's father, son of Norwegian immigrants, made a fortune in printing, and married into a prominent family. One of her uncles was Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, another was Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. She and her two sisters were sensations, quintessential Gibson girls, when they debuted in London; they traveled regularly around Europe, where their mother longed to find a 'suitable' marriage to some sort of nobleman. By contrast, Gerald's father Patrick, son of Irish immigrants, worked his way up to ownership of the Mark Cross company, then prominent Boston saddlers. Strangely enough, the French painter Signac, whom they would meet on the Riviera, came from a family with a similar background in saddlery. Anticipating the era of the automobile, Patrick moved the company to New York and into luxury consumer items, what his son would later brand 'a monument to the non-essential'.

Gerald and Sara met on the beaches of the Hamptons, where they summered, but it was not until Gerald, five years younger, was at Yale that the relationship blossomed. They married against the wishes of both families: Sara's mother thought she was marrying beneath herself, while Gerald's father thought him too irresponsible to marry. From the start, they showed an exuberant capacity to see life as a form of art: Gerald's tiny letter-within-a-letter, written for his infant daughter when he was serving in the Army during World War I, is a touching hint at what was to come.

Subsuming their life in what might now be called performance art came naturally to Gerald, whose hidden sexuality is one of this exhibition's main themes. From his schooldays, he believed he suffered from a 'defect', which he needed both to keep secret and to overcome. He did that by making himself immensely popular. At both posh Hotchkiss school and at Yale he was voted 'best dressed, and wittiest'; at Yale he was considered such a 'thorough gent' he was 'tapped' for the secret society Skull & Bones, which has included three generations of Bushes among its influential members. From the start of his relationship with Sara, he was able to indulge her desire to be a free spirit, in return she nurtured him and indulged the roles he played. There is an interesting parallel with Hemingway, to whom Sara would remain extremely close, but whose later antipathy for Gerald had it roots in the Paris studio Gerald lent him, and in which he created his early, brilliant prose. Hemingway had a way of estranging himself from those who’d helped his career, as if not wanting to be reminded he wasn’t a totally self-made man. He had also sought Gerald's advice about leaving his first wife, Hadley, for Pauline Pfeiffer. Like Sara, Hadley was older than her husband, a nurturing figure, yet Gerald encouraged Hemingway to leave the marriage in order to 'protect' his art. As Hemingway bounded between wives he came to blame Gerald for deliberately misleading him, and perhaps attributed this 'betrayal' to Gerald's sexuality.

But if Sara were the emotional anchor, Gerald’s talent and his demons were the eye-catchers. His work forms the centre of this show. Soon after the Murphys moved to Paris in 1921, where Sara's trust fund and Gerald's stock market investments could stretch incredibly far, he walked past Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery in the Rue la Boetie, and was stopped in his tracks by the Cubist works offered in a liquidation sale: Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain. 'If that's painting,' he told Sara, 'that's the kind of painting I would like to do.' He began studying with Natalia Goncharova, and through her met Diaghilev. Soon he and Sara were decorating sets for the Ballets Russes, while Gerard pursued his painting. He began working on large scale canvases. Sadly, of the 14 paintings he is known to have completed between then and 1929, only seven survive.

None of the works he displayed at the 1923 Salon des Independents are among those seven survivors, though photographs of 'Turbines' and 'Engine Room' convey their power; cubist constructs of the modern mechanical age. In the 1924 Salon, Gerald's 'Boatdeck' was a sensation. Eighteen feet by twelve, its depiction of a an ocean liner's smokestacks and funnels captures the essence of the new place of people within the modern world, and anticipates work by artists like Charles Sheeler. Even now, the black and white copy of the painting, taken from a contemporary photograph, dominates its exhibition room completely, just as it did at the Salon.

Exciting as his painting is, the details of a ballet Gerald was commissioned to write and design are even more astounding. The commission came from Diaghilev's arch-rival, Rolf de Mare of the Ballet Suedois. Working with his Yale glee club colleague, Cole Porter, on the score, Murphy came up with 'Within The Quota', the story of a young Swedish immigrant who arrives in America and meets the American stereotypes Europeans believe they will find there: the Heiress (a subject close to home for Murphy), the Jazz Baby, the Cowboy, and the Sweetheart of the World, each modelled on images from the movies. A newsreel cameraman stands on stage, taking the story down. And behind the stage is a backdrop, a giant newspaper front-page, with headlines like 'Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic'. Readers of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy will hardly miss the influence, in the newsreel format and headlines which mark that classic tale of the contradictory drives and repressions of Jazz Age America.

Murphy's most famous painting is 'Razor' (1924), which features a pen, a razor, and box of matches. Its simplicity remains powerful today; it exudes modernity even though safety razors, fountain pens, and matches have all been bypassed by technology.
Other items that might be sold at Mark Cross crop up in his paintings, the shaker in 'Cocktail' (1927), and the watch whose intricacies are painted in striking detail in 'Watch (1925)', as if he were deconstructing the mechanisms of the life he had abandoned in America. Some of his paintings hint at surrealism: certainly one gets the impression of the subconscious welling its way up, particularly in the aggressive sexuality of 'Wasp and Pear' (1929) the last of his surviving works.

Then he simply stopped painting. One might think he had gone as far in self-examination as he dared, but the practical reasons are more compelling. The stock market crash of 1929 forced the Murphys, for the first time, to consider economies. At the same time, and more importantly, their younger son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved to Switzerland to be near him in the sanitarium. Gerald never took up a brush again. His energies were devoted totally to helping Patrick recover and making his life bearable until he did. Both Murphys' creativity focused on their son, who despite his youth was already an accomplished artist. The high point of this part of their life was Patrick's recovery, for a final voyage on their yacht Weatherbird, in the summer of 1934.

They returned to America later that year. The luxury goods offered by Mark Cross had less appeal in the Depression, and the business was failing. Gerald now devoted himself to saving the family firm, which he did effectively until he retired. Patrick's tuberculosis got worse, and he took another cure, at Saranac Lake. But in early 1935, the Murphys robust elder son, Baoth, was striken by measles at his boarding school. Within a week, he was dead of meningitis. That fall, Leger visited Patrick, and they did portraits of each other which make a touching pair. Patrick's version of Leger catches both the strength and sensitivity of the artist; Leger's drawing shows Patrick almost literally fading away beneath his sweaters and blankets. Patrick died in 1937, and rarely can an event related through displays in glass cases and pictures hung on walls seem as moving as this one does to the viewer of this exhibition. Whose life would not unravel in the face of such loss?

Earlier in the 1930s, Gerald had written to Archibald MacLeish, explaining his 'resentment' of his 'defects', and saying that his life had been 'a process of concealment of the personal realities, at which I have been all too adept'. He would make only one more effort to return to the artistic world: working on the ballet 'Ghost Town' with the choreographer Marc Platt. Perhaps influenced by his losses, he appears to have at least made efforts to come to terms with his sexuality, though the marriage to Sara remained strong and their life together pursued with a scaled down version of their French glamour. But tellingly, he recounted that he had never been as happy as when he was painting, and that he had never been totally happy since he stopped.

Gerald Murphy was 'rediscovered' in a 1960 exhibition of neglected American artists at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, which makes its return to Dallas, nearly half a century later, particularly apt. Trillin's New Yorker profile, the basis of his book, appeared in 1962. Three years later, Gerald Murphy died. Sara lived until 1975, dying aged 95. The Murphys lived well, but you might well argue life took a good measure of revenge on them, rather than the other way around. But they continued within their private world of style, albeit in different circumstances it served more as shelter than avant garde. They might be as good an illustration of Hemingway's ideal of 'grace under pressure' as we've ever been presented. The effect of their lives, as this wonderful exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue) make clear, remain with us, still vibrant, today.

Making It New: The Art & Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy
At the Dallas Museum of Art through September 14 ,2008, previously at the Williams College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery
Catalogue, edited by Deborah Rothschild, 238pp University of California Press /Wiliams College Museum of Art, ISBN 9780520253400

Monday, 1 September 2008

CAUGHT BETWEEN WORLDS: GUY PENE DU BOIS

In the introduction to this impressive book, Betsy Fahlman reproduces a photograph of Robert Henri’s 1903-04 Afternoon Life Class at the New York School of Art. What a fascinating group that must have been! Although the absence of a key makes identification difficult, Henri’s students included the painters Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows: a major slice of American art history in the first half of the twentieth century. Also present is the poet Vachel Lindsay, and, unmistakably louche, lounging against a cabinet in the very back of the room, the future actor Clifton Webb. Henri, resembling somewhat photographs of the frontier marshal Wyatt Earp, sits front row centre, and next to him, turned toward his teacher, is Guy Pene Du Bois.

Today DuBois is remembered primarily for his life-long friendship with Hopper; although his works are held in collections all over America, he is largely forgotten. Yet for much of his career, DuBois would have been envied by his classmates; he achieved relative success at an early age, and, in the dual position of artist and critic, had a strong influence on New York’s artistic world between the wars. His antipathy to the rise of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists may explain partly why he fell from fashion, but asking ourselves why others like Hopper have endured and Du Bois has not is an excellent approach toward understanding his work.

Guy, named after du Maupassant, was the son of Henri Pene du Bois, a successful if dilettantish New York journalist of Creole extraction. He began his studies at the New York School under William Merritt Chase, but soon found himself drawn to Henri’s more modernist approach, whereby artistic technique was seen as a tool toward a realistic portrayal of life in the new century. In 1905 he went to Paris with his father, who had been assigned to report on art for the New York American. He enrolled in art classes, and prowled the city, absorbing influences and experiences.

Du Bois’ early work mixes Henri’s very American outlook with the influence of the French painters who surrounded him. ‘A Night At The Opera‘ (1905), is reminiscent of the Degas of ‘Café Concert des Ambassadors’ (1876-77). It also might be compared to, among others, Walter Sickert, who in Britain was mixing modern French influences with a dedication to realism. Du Bois’s impressive Paris sketches of 1905 also show the influence of Daumier. They may be rooted in cliche, but they have real feeling: in ‘Artist’s Studio’ the artist slumps in his chair while his model tries to console him; ‘Rue des Ecoles’ illustrates a revolutionary rising. The sketches which led to his painting ‘Lady In Bed’ (1905) are delicate and sensual. The finished oil has dark and dingy colouring, like Sickert‘s, but Du Bois’stronger brush strokes make a simpler, almost abstract background that contrasts with the touching, affectionate quiet evident in the artist’s portrayal of the sleeping woman, whose face is almost haloed in white.

The faces in these early paintings have none of the detail we see in his drawings, as if to avoid taking the focus away from their settings, yet DuBois conveys much with just a few touches, from the contentment of that sleeping lady to the bonhomie of the man and woman seated in ‘Café d‘Harcourt‘ (1906). In 1906, Du Bois’ father became seriously ill; he died before Guy’s ship reached New York. Needing to support himself, he followed his father into journalism, reporting the police beat for The American. New York’s demi-monde was harsher than the one he’d left behind in Paris. New York's society was far more reproving of artists who patronised its pleasures. By now, DuBois was hob-nobbing with the belle-monde, writing music criticism, and the contrast between his two worlds served to forge his mature style as painter. Here Daumier’s influence becomes paramount.

Where DuBois’ paintings of women in the Tenderloin are full of affection, his drawings and paintings portraying New York society are laced with vicious criticism. The drawings often were accompanied by satirical dialogue or ironic titles. In the paintings politicians and lawyers are grotesquely fat or venially greedy; their women invariably bored or distracted. Paintings with titles like ‘The Doll and the Monster’ (1914) or ‘Behind The Scenes’ (1915) show gentlemen in evening dress pursuing younger women. The women’s faces hide emotions; the men’s, still blank, have none; they are literally empty suits, animated only by their avarice. ‘The Confidence Man’ (1919) tells a subtle story with remarkable succinctness: the downturned face of the matron being taken by the goateed sharp is full of conflicting emotions, conveyed by just a few strong strokes of the brush. 'The Lawyers' (1919) compares well with George Grosz. These works are still powerful today.

So why is DuBois forgotten? The answer may lie in the conflicting impulses of his art. He was, at his peak, a favourite of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and began exhibiting at the Whitney Studio in 1917. A firmer entree into high scoiety could not be imagined. But Fahlman notes the paradox that his living depended on selling to the very people his pictures excoriated. He could get away with this because of his position at the very centre of New York’s art world, but it had its price. Where a painter like Reginald Marsh seems to celebrate the demi-monde he paints, DuBois, while portraying his slumming socialites harshly, also appears to have adopted their viewpoint: you sense palpably his feeling that he too is slumming, that he takes no enjoyment from the world that so entranced him in Paris.

Then, in 1924, aged 40, he gave up his artistic status in New York society, his teaching and writing, sold his house in suburban Westport, Connecticut and returned to Paris. But he was no longer the same painter who had immersed himself in the bohemian world. He now had an expensive household to maintain. His work becomes more stylised, his social comment ever more pointed and bitter, and his commissions dried up. No wonder.

‘Americans in Paris’ (1927) depicts four women, instantly recognisable and as identical as Ryder Cup wives, striding purposefully into tourism around an anonymous Rive Gauche. ’Bal des Quatre Arts’ (1929) has a disturbing, ’They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ feel, from the naked man costumed as an ape to the intoxicated woman trying to jump from the stage to meet him. Unable to support his family with such work, he returned to the US in 1930. With the Depression in full swing it was a bad time to try to resuscitate his career.

From this point, Du Bois’ story is one of struggle. He returned to writing and teaching, chased commissions for murals from the Works Progress Administration. Fahlman details his constant search for money, and it is reflected in a decline in the intensity of his work. Ever more stylised, most of these later paintings lack the bite which made his earlier pictures so captivating. Times were changing, and the wealthy were less interested in seeing themselves examined critically. Again, there is a paradox: when DuBois paints portraits, he can evoke the sitter’s personality in just a few strokes of the brush, and, particularly with women, can be extremely sympathetic. But too often his other paintings, despite or maybe because of the additional detail, lack bite.

Remembering ‘A Night At The Opera’ leads us to Edward Hopper, whose 1919 portrait of DuBois catches, early on, something of the sadness in his friend. Hopper returned to similar theatre scenes throughout his career. He also specialised in awkward bodies and incomplete faces placed in modern settings. But Hopper’s settings and characters remain ambiguous enough to make them intriguing to a modern audience. DuBois’ dramatic flair worked best in its context of sharp social comment; taken out of that context, which became redundant during the depression, he is as stuck in time as modern artists whose work will disappear when the background to their ironic titling is forgotten. The two men attending an opening in ‘The Art Lovers’ (1922) are obviously anything but. They might be figures out of Hopper, but in this context we already sense that, perhaps like Grosz, DuBois was trapped in his time, providing irony about an era that had passed.

Strangely, although a number of DuBois’ later works have an impressive, more abstract quality, as a critic he championed realism against the onslaught of Abstract expressionism. His last painting, ‘Café de Flore’ (1954) is rich in strong black brush strokes, but its figures seem oblivious to their setting, filled with regret and longing for memory.

The picture of DuBois which Fahlman builds is incomplete; a full biography would be welcomed. One can read between the lines, but many questions remain unanswered. For example, the success of his children: William as an illustrator and Raoul as a successful designer and art director on Broadway and in Hollywood. The urge to know more suggests Fahlman has done us great service by bringing DuBois back into the public eye.

GUY PENE DU BOIS: Painter of Modern Life
Betsy Fahlman
Norton/Quantuck Lane Press
176pp, £29.95 ISBN 159372005X

Saturday, 30 August 2008

PHOTOJOURNALISM AS FINE ART, 1999

MASTERS OF PHOTOJOURNALISM
at Apex Fine Art, Los Angeles

Note: I wrote this piece in February 1999, after returning from LA, and sold it to the FT.But it missed its scheduled slot, and by the time they got around to revisiting it, the exhibition was nearly over and in LA anyway, and so on and so on and scooby-dooby dooby. So it appears here for the first time, too late, but really, I feel as if I'd just seen the exhibition, and the photos of course are timeless....

With the recent death of Andreas Feininger, the last of the generation of photojournalists who shaped our view of the world in the first half of this century is gone. Feininger died, ironically, the same day this major exhibtion, primarily work from Life Magazine, opened in Los Angeles. The outstanding selection of his work, along with those of Life’s most famous contributors, Alfred Eisenstadt and Margaret Bourke-White, and others like Nina Leen, Carl Mydans, and Leonard McComb displays images that are now so familiar as to be iconic. But at a time when many argue that photography replaced painting as the major source of representational views of the world, and thus accelerated painting’s move to greater abstraction, it emphasizes a deeper, cross-pollinating effect between painting and photography.

Both Eisenstadt and Bourke-White started in industrial and architectural photography. Bourke-White joined Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine in 1929, the same year Eisenstadt turned professional. Eisenstadt’s early work on display includes the amazing “First Lesson at Treumpy Ballet School, Berlin” (1930), a Degas painting captured from life. His “Premiere At LaScala” is impressionist, “Ice Skating, Winter St Moritz” almost surreal. Eisenstadt fled to the US in 1935, and almost immediately was taken with the sweep and energy of the new world. The aggressive angles of “Future Ballerinas of the American Ballet Theatre” (1937) contrast markedly with the Treumpy photo. By 1943, in “An American Block, Hamilton Ohio” he produced the photographic equivalent of Norman Rockwell’s pastorals.

Meanwhile, Luce started Life Magazine to showcase Bourke-White’s work. “The images she created for Fortune were so incredible, Luce decided to make a magazine devoted to them,” says Apex’s David Barenholtz, who worked with Eisenstadt late in his career in New York. “He couldn’t have chosen a more remarkable combination of photographer and journalist than Bourke-White. She did the Life’s first cover, and Eisenstadt did the second.”
Starting with her amazing industrial abstracts, such as “Welding Tire Rims” (1933) or “Oxford Paper Company” (1932), or her famous 1931 Chrysler Building series, Bourke-White helped create a modern style which painters like Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler also achieved using photography as a tool. Her “Elliptical Stairway, Supreme Court Building” (1935) literally takes the breath away.

But it was as a war correspondent Bourke-White found her metier. Stalin invited her personally to be the only westerner reporting the siege of Moscow. “Moscow Bombing” (1941) uses the Nazi flares to create a brilliant, abstract beauty alongside raw destructive power. Bourke-White crossed the Rhein alongside Patton when the 5th Army liberated Buchenwald, the only death camp in Germany. Many of those shots are horrifyingly familiar now, but “Buchenwald Prisoners” (1945) on display at Apex, is unusual for the lighting which she uses to give the prisoners the dramatic pose of actors, elevating them from mere victims into active protagonists.

Carl Mydans’ war photography on show (“MacArthur Landing at Luzon” and “Japanese Surrender on USS Missouri”) is justly famous, but Life’s changes after the war set the tone for its time. Bourke-White continued with photo-essays, of Gandhi and India’s partition, of South Africa at the start of the apartheid era, of the Korean War with South Korean soldiers, before the onset of Parkinson’s disease in 1952 slowed her career.

Meanwhile Life moved Eisenstadt on to celebrity portraits, with marvellous results. Represented here are an impish Churchill (1951), a fragile, sexual Marilyn Monroe (1953), and an earthy, exuberant Sophia Loren (1961). Feininger, meanwhile, as befits one who studied at the Bauhaus his father had founded, was always taken with the architecture and the life of his adopted city.

Using lenses he developed himself, he had already captured the essence of the city in “42nd St. Viewed from Weekhawken” (1942), with the powerful rise of the skyscrapers made mythical by smoke and fog from the Hudson River. Apex features “Brooklyn Bridge at Night” (1948) and the Reginald Marsh-like “Coney Island July 4, 1949” from his most prolific period. The recent Picasso exhibition at the Barbican showed his famous “painting” with lights photographed in a dark room. Feininger managed to do the same thing, earlier, using lamps of the ends of a helicopter’s rotor to create one of the world’s outstanding abstract images (“Navy Helicopter at Night”, 1949).

Feininger’s “Queen Elizabeth in NY Harbour” (1958) marks the end of the steamship era, which was the beginning of the end of Life’s era as well, as television began to dominate the visual currency, and the weekly picture magazine went the way of the weekly newsreels. The Apex exhibtion ends with Feininger’s Hopper-esque “Route 66, Arizona” (1953--see the column header) and Eisenstadt’s wonderful “Central Park After Snowstorm” (1959), which seems to turn New York City into a quiet wonderland, which would have been taken for granted in that year. Given its sad timing, this show serves as a monument to Feininger, but it also shows off some of the greatest art America has yet engendered, from an era when that art was taken for granted, while on canvas Abstract Expressionism was conquering the world.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

CY TWOMBLY: CYCLES AND SEASONS

The best art exhibitions are those which open your eyes to something you haven't seen before, and Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons, at the Tate Modern through 14 September is one of those. It forced me to re-think and come to a whole new appreciation of Twombly's art, which was never as strong for me as, with hindsight, I can see it probably should have been, given his background at Black Mountain College, and his close association with so many people whose work I have found centrally important.

Part of this is context. The single Twombly encountered in a gallery may seem pleasant, but often gives off an unfinished, almost fragile, quality. A single Franz Kline can overwhelm you. But seeing Twombly's works in groups, in rough chronological order, and watching what he does with the elements of squiggles and words, with colour and with the physicality of brush and pen strokes, reveals the powerful emotion which becomes more explicit in some of his later works, particularly the two Four Seasons sets on display.

It's easy to see in Twombly's work the theoretical foundation of Black Mountain poetry, as articulated by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, that 'form is never more than an extension of content' (which I've always taken to mean 'should never be more'), and that 'one perception should lead immediately to another'. Although his pencil stokes are often seen as subverting Pollack's calligraphic gestures, some of the paintings in the exhibition's first room, notably 'Tiznit' (1953) suggest something halfway between Creeley and Kline, with whom Twombly studied at with Black Mountain. The heavy whites and blacks give way to seeming doodles, as if Creeley had stopped by to write a short poem on a Kline canvas. By 1955's 'Criticism' the marks actually do seem like writing. 'Poems To The Sea' (1959) carries this even further, and I found myself again thinking of Kline, this time crossing his work with Olson's more epic writing.Kline worked in black and white for most of his career, and there's sense here in which Twombly seems wary of colour, as if not trusting, at this stage, its intense, uncontrollable emotionalism.

By the start of the 1960s 'Crimes Of Passion' and 'Murder Of Passion' move in a different direction, discarding the pencil-strokes for smears of paint which suggest both passion and anxiety, and not a little eroticism, expressed in hints in representational painting, reminding me of DeKooning. Perhaps it was a reflection of Twombly's move to Italy, set free of American context, and confronted with the heat of Italian summer in Rome. Within this, references to classical works, like 'School Of Athens' homage to Rafael, suggest an elegance that somehow doesn't seem to fit. When 'Ferragosto' (1961) adds a rusty red to his palette, it seems more than thousands of miles removed from the effects of pencil lines around strong blacks and whites. All these elements begin to merge in his 1969 paintings, made in Italy, whose calculations reflect his experience as a cryptographer in the 1950s, while celebrating the moon landings. It's a mix of American pragmatism and European classicism, and it works brilliantly. There are graphs, diagrams, geometric forms, but there is still an overarching asceticism which suggests someone learning from the past while being overcome with the future.

There is an element of challenge involved here too. Twombly's was the generation immediately following the abstract expressionists. Their emotionalism was replaced by the cool stylings of pop art, and have evolved into the heavily ironic commentaries of the modern world. Twombly, in sense, reminds me of Richard Diebenkorn, convinced the concerns of the artists he grew up with were valid, and looking for new means of executing them.

But the real fulcrum of the show comes with the next two series, starting with 1970's 'Treatise On The Veil'. It is minimalist, a grid structure of repeating rectangles, adorned with measurements; one in black and the other, opposite, in gray. It suggests the music of Philip Glass, and apparently were influenced by Muybridge's photos of a bride in motion. But looking at the shades of gray and black, and the strong brushstrokes, I was reminded of late Rothko, and it struck me that these slabs on their ends were like drawings for a Rothko mural, and that they may have been inspired, or influenced, by Rothko's suicide. Certainly they carry the same kind of quiet impact of the Tate's Rothko room, which at the moment is closed while the major Rothko retrospective is being prepared.

My feeling of elegy continued and was amplified in the next room, which contains 'Nini's Paintings', a response to the death of his Roman dealer's wife. Their mood takes the melancholy of the 'Treatise On The Veil' and transforms it to a sense of frustrated rage, like someone scribbling lines that make no sense because there is nothing useful to say. There is nothing minimalist or repetetive about them, there are no sombre grays or blacks. The brush strokes that were backgrounded in the Treatise, creating a deep atmosphere, are now in the foreground, like chaos released.

If I find those works a peak in Twombly's career, it's also evident that his work progressed on both the intellectual and emotional levels, and his white sculptures of found material seem almost like a relief. 'Two Squares' recalls Joseph Albers, another leading light of Black Mountain, and when the exhibition returns to painting, there is a greater exuberance, a more daring sense of control. By now living on the Tyrrhenian sea at Gaeta,his work begins to engage heavily with the sea, both in 'Hero and Leandro' where the waves become ever-increasingly harsh strokes of the paintbrush, and 'The Wilder Shores Of Love', whose sea effects in gray Turner might even admire.

Although the nine paintings of 'Untitled' were done for the Italian pavilion at the 1988 Biennale, and reflect 18th century Venice, they mark a progression from light to dark, in which again I find echoes of the Treatise, almost an allegory of life. Something that makes sense in light of the two versions of 'The Four Seasons' which move from the energy of Spring to the gathering darkness and pale light of Winter. Oddly, all the reproductions at the Tate are of the later version (1993-95), but I found the earlier one (1993) more powerful, particularly in the dying bursts of yellow that drop through the blacks on one side of 'Inverno' (Winter). (It's the later version of 'Inverno' which is pictured at the header of this essay).

The exhibition's end, Bacchus (2005) with its estatic vermillion ooze, came as a sort of winking coda to this, confirmation that the viewer had completed the kind of emotional journey those late paintings describe. It's a journey that reflects the progress of Twombly's art; an art concerned with perception and expression. Twombly's work, seen as a progression, takes on a modest, intellectual sort of power, unmistakably a searching for the right way to give emotional power to his apprehension of the world around him. It's a brilliant show, from a painter who's now the last,and maybe just being recognised as one of the greatest, of a crucial American generation.

Footnote: A couple of days after seeing this exhibition, I sat in as the analyst on Channel Five's Major League Baseball show. I mention this because Cy Twombly's father, also named Cy, was a pitcher in the major leagues, probably the second-best ever named Cy. The best, Cy Young, lends his name to the award for baseball's best pitcher. Baseball was surprisingly important to the people at Black Mountain, see Fielding Dawson's writing, particularly 'A Great Day For A Ballgame' (he also wrote 'An Emotional Memoir Of Franz Kline'). The abstract expressionists were always trying to prove they were red-blooded Americans, not longhaired eggheads or effete artistes. Moving to Italy was certainly a way for Twombly to get away from that need, perhaps from his own legacy. My own expat experience has been the opposite, as I always keep getting drawn back to sport as a profession, or part of it. As it is, moving from Cy Twombly to Cy Young doesn't seem unusual, their coexistence doesn't strike me as unnatural, though lots of people out there still think it should be!