Sunday, 31 May 2009


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 Obama's 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


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


"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