Abstract Expressionism at the R.A.

In his introductory essay to the catalogue of the Royal Academy’s current exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, of which he was one of the two principal curators, David Anfam suggests that while it has proved difficult to pin down a clear definition of abstract expressionist style, there has long existed a consensus as to the major figures involved: start with Pollock and Rothko and add two or three more. Men,that is.

In 2010, as Anfam notes, the U.S. Postal Service issued ten stamps commemorating Abstract Expressionist painters: Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hoffman, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. And the name that jumps out, of course, is Mitchell’s. An artist who has been largely absent from most considerations of the AbEx canon; or if not absent, someone who was seen to be existing somewhere on the periphery. No call to query the reason why. As Anfam says, “she lingered on the margins for being a woman.”

He goes on to point out that in the 1,269 pages of his collected criticism, the intellectual champion of Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, mentions Mitchell just once and then in passing. And yet her work had been included in major exhibitions of American Painting in New York and Chicago from 1951 onwards and in international touring shows organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1956 and 57. She had solo shows in New York from 1952 through the 50s and in both Milan and Paris in 1960. To quote Anfan again: “A brilliant critic, everything Greenberg wrote nevertheless expressed his considerable ideological biases.”

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Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée III

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Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée XVI

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Joan Mitchell: Le Chemin des Ecoliers

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Joan Mitchell: Sunflowers

A choice here then for the curators of this show: to follow the established canon, while acknowledging the elements of bias inherent in it, or, without presenting a false picture, take steps to ensure a fairer balance, one which acknowledges the important work produced during the period in question by artists such as Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and others.

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Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler & Grace Hartigan at the opening of an exhibition of Frankenthaler’s paintings.

Guess …

Of the 12 rooms at the Royal Academy, five feature a mixture of work, five are given over to the heavyweights of the genre – Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Clifford Still, one is shared between Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, one between Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov and Robert Motherwell.  A lot of guys.There are just two works by Joan Mitchell in the exhibition, the strong and strikingly beautiful Mandres in the room named Gesture as Colour – a setting she shares happily with the likes of Philip Guston and Sam Francis – and a magnificent four panel work, Salut Tom, from 1979, in the final room, Late Works. Lee Krasner does rather better, with four pieces, including the imposing The Eye is the First Circle, painted as a tribute to her husband, Jackson Pollock, and displayed in the double room devoted to him. Helen Frankenthaler – a major figure, if not the major figure, in the colour-field subset – is represented by only one painting and not an especially good one at that. Thinking back to the exhibition of her work at Turner Contemporary in Margate in 2014, it’s clear how well, and how brilliantly, her large and vibrant canvasses would have shown here. As for Grace Hartigan, although she is referenced five times in the catalogue, not a single piece of hers is included.

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Helen Frankenthaler with some of her paintings

Okay, moan over. Point, possibly, taken. What about the show as it exists? Well, it’s good, of course. Very much worth seeing. With so much good work, so many good pieces collected together, how could it fail to be? The space given over to Pollock, with canvasses ranging from his first epic canvas, Mural, painted in 1943 for one of walls in Peggy Guggenheim’s New York townhouse, through Summertime: Number 9A (1948) to the magnificent Blue Poles ((1952) – one of the few truly great paintings it’s been my good fortune to see in person – is fully deserved. And, depending on personal taste, there’s much else besides: two late de Koonings that seem to breath the same air as Richard Diebenkorn; Franz Kline’s Requiem, a belligerent doom-laden sky with apocalyptic overtones which seem to hark back to John Martin and forward to Anselm Kiefer; Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral – Moon Garden + One, a wall sculpture made up of boxes and assorted shapes, bits and pieces of  machinery, of ‘stuff’, a three dimensional collage that somehow aspires to painting at the same time as seeming to refer to the free-standing, airy sculptures of David Smith, which are placed at the centre of almost every room, as if demanding a presence for something more real, more of the world than canvas and paint.

Finally, what about Rothko, I hear you say? Well, with the Rothkos there’s a serious problem, and that’s the choice of room in which most of them are displayed. You can see, I think, why that choice was made. The room is circular in shape, under a sort of rotunda, and, as such, it has echoes of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, a place for quiet, almost religious contemplation, time to let the paintings work on you in the way that, given time and space, they should. But this space is at the very cross-roads of the exhibition, with the result that people are forever passing to and fro, leaving little room or time to simply stand and stare. Certainly not sit, as, with all that movement, any benches, however necessary, would simply have got in the way.

The Abstract Expressionism exhibition is at the Royal Academy in London until January 2nd, 2017. The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective is at Tate Modern until April 2nd, and America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, is at the R.A’s Sackler Galleries from February 25th till June 4th.

iPod Shuffle December 2016

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  • Ko-Ko : Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (1940)
  • Edgar Bergen : Joe Henry from Scar
  • Feeling Blue : James P. Johnson (1929)
  • So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines w. Otis Spann & Big Walter Horton (1966)
  • They Say (Alternate Take) : Teddy Wilson & His Orchestra with Billie Holiday, vocal refrain (1939)
  • The First Time I Ran Away : M. Ward
  • From Hank to Hendrix : Neil Young from Neil Young Unplugged
  • Your Song : Elton John from Tumbleweed Connection
  • Summertime : Miles Davis from Porgy & Bess
  • Railroad Bill : Billy Bragg & Joe Henry from Shine a Light
  • How Could We Dare To be Wrong : Colin Blunstone
  • Crepuscule with Nelly  : Thelonious Monk from The Complete 1961 Amsterdam Concert71flw7fvjdl-_sx425_

Resnick on Radio, Stage & TV

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David Fleeshman as Charlie Resnick & Simone Saunders as Catherine Njoroge in the Nottingham Playhouse/New Perspectives production of “Darkness, Darkness”

DARKNESS, DARKNESS
Act 2, Scene 15

CREMATORIUM. FADE DOWN ORGAN MUSIC AS RESNICK WALKS AWAY FROM THE CHAPEL INTO THE GARDEN, CATHERINE, PATCH OVER ONE EYE, COMING TO JOIN HIM.

CATHERINE: God, Charlie! I hate funerals. Hate them more and more.

RESNICK: You’ll come to mine, all the same?

CATHERINE: You, Charlie? You’ll be here forever.

RESNICK: I doubt that.

THEY WALK ON.

I don’t know about forever, but the old boy does keeping popping up, this week especially.

First there was the realisation [they never let you know in advance!] that my three-part dramatisation for radio of the third Resnick novel, Cutting Edge, was being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra.

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Originally broadcast on Radio 4 in 1996, Cutting Edge features Tom Georgeson as Resnick. Tom Wilkinson had played him on radio the preceding year, in my adaptation of Wasted Years, which, like Cutting Edge and, in fact, all of the radio Resnicks, was produced and directed by  David Hunter. In doing so, Wilkinson, of course, was reprising the role he’d earlier played on television, in the versions of the first two novels in the series, Lonely Hearts and Rough Treatment, both produced by Colin Rogers for Deco Films & Television and the BBC.

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Come the time to record Cutting Edge, he was otherwise engaged, so Georgeson, who had appeared on the other side of the law as a burglar in Rough Treatment, stepped into the Inspector’s shoes, bringing the residue of a Scouse lilt with him as he did so.

Resnick’s most recent incarnation, in the stage version of Darkness, Darkness directed by Jack McNamara for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives, saw him being tellingly brought to life by David Fleeshman.

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David Fleeshman getting in some Resnick Research in Nottingham

Now, Claudia Ferlisi of New Perspectives has assembled an absorbing “storify”, in which the history of the production is traced through a selection of photographs, video, blog extracts, tweets and so on. You can – and should – look at it here …

Delving further back, Colin Rogers  alerted me to a review on the Letterboxd site of the 1992 television adaptation of Lonely Hearts, starring, as has been said, Tom Wilkinson, and directed by Bruce MacDonald. Quite why the review, by Mark C., has appeared now, when no official DVD of the programme is available, I’m not sure. A DVD was advertised as forthcoming on Amazon.com some time ago, but since then there has been no news as to when – indeed, if – it might actually become available. What’s holding things up, I have no idea. Nor do I know which copy Mark is reviewing … but what he has to say, is, I thought, really interesting. Here’s a sample …

It helps of course that the author himself, John Harvey, adapted the novels for TV. But crucially the director of Lonely Hearts, Bruce MacDonald, understands the material beautifully and gives us something unique that still stands out as a distinctive piece of drama some twenty-four years later. Crucially MacDonald’s style, combined with his knowledge and understanding of Harvey occasionally somewhat fragmentary writing style, works in close harmony to deliver an deeply atmospheric piece. Like the jazz beloved of our central character, Harvey’s writing often strays from the narrative through line to provide quirky and unusual flourishes or glimpses of other themes. This is best exemplified in the way that we see the team at Nottingham CID (which includes a youngish David Neilsen before he headed to the cobbles of Coronation Street, looking rather different with short hair and a military moustache, and actor/writer William Ivory as a scene-stealing leery, neanderthal cop who despite his blunt methods gets the job done in a way we cannot help but admire) involve themselves in other secondary cases or how we catch references to their home lives. All of these instances help lend a sense of multi-dimensionality and authenticity to the proceedings.

You can read the review in its entirety here …

W Eugene Smith & the Jazz Loft Project

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W. Eugene Smith: Dream Street, Pittsburg 1955

This was the photograph, seen on a postcard I suppose, that first brought Eugene Smith to my attention. The late 70s it would have been, possibly early 80s; I was living in Nottingham and working sporadically towards a Ph D thesis on post-war America, film noir and noir fiction. It barely got started, never mind finished. But if it had and if the published version had needed a cover, then this would surely have been a contender. Extremes of black and white, car titled at an angle in a narrow lane, Freudian analysis of dreams, the letter that never came or perhaps it did, the postman who rang twice. How much more noir can you get?

What I didn’t know at the time was that this was just one of 13,000 photographs Smith took in the course of the two years he spent documenting the city of Pittsburg for an assignment that was meant to take three weeks. There followed another two years in which he sought to print and lay out the resulting work. Not a man to do things by halves. Neither a man to suffer the needs and admonitions of picture editors at magazines like Life gladly. They wanted him to hand over the negatives, take his pay cheque and move on to the next job; he wanted to supervise – if not undertake himself – every step of the process, printing, lay out, everything.

The other thing I didn’t know, before seeing Sara Fishko’s recent documentary, was the extent to which Smith worked on images during the printing process; those bright white horizontals along the car’s bumper, for instance, the flare over the offside wheel, almost certainly the result of a skilful application of ferricyanide bleach.

Fishko’s film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which I saw as part of the London Jazz Festival, spends sufficient time on Smith’s earlier work – photo essays for Life magazine, including the remarkable photographs from his time with American forces in the South Pacific (where he was seriously wounded) towards the end of World War Two – for it to be clear why he was considered one of the masters of his field.

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W Eugene Smith: Wounded, Dying Infant found by American soldiers in Saipan mountains, June 1944

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W Eugene Smith: Three Generations of Welsh Miners, 1950

But Smith’s battles with those who sought to publish his work never seemed to become easier and his own perfectionism ensured that each new venture took longer and longer, expanding to the point where publication was all but impossible. Joining the Magnum Photo Agency doesn’t seem to have helped a great deal and earning a living to help support his family – he and his wife had four children – became more and more difficult. In 1957, he left them (to fend somehow for themselves apparently, the film isn’t clear about this) to live in a dilapidated loft high in a run down building in New York’s Flower District and there he stayed for seven years, sharing the premises with the composer and arranger Hall Overton and the artist David X. Young.

This was – this became – the Jazz Loft. Musicians would come by after work – which often meant around three in the morning – and jam. Beboppers, Dixielanders, Mainstreamers; Zoot Sims, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk et cetera. And Smith, more obsessive than ever, recorded everything. Recorded on film: 20,000 photographs taken inside the loft, 20,000 more looking down onto the street from the fourth floor window. Recorded on tape: close to 2,000 reel-to-reel tapes capturing not just the music that was played, but concerts from the radio, conversations, telephone calls.

Beautifully put together, Fishko’s film uses a succession of images and sounds, interlaced with recent interviews with those who were involved, to create a sense of creativity emerging from chaos, and never more clearly than in the section dealing with the collaboration between Monk and Overton which led to the successful concert at New York’s Town Hall on February,28th, 1959. We see Overton, whose students including a young Steve Reich, listening to Monk playing one of his compositions – Little Rootie Tootie – on the piano, then copying down the idiosyncratic voicings and intervals before scoring them for an orchestra comprising trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, three saxophones, bass and drums. Not easy to do; not easy to play. The musicians involved, including the alto player, Phil Woods, made it clear how difficult the music was to play, how much rehearsal time was needed – three weeks of rehearsing from three in the morning till early morning, and this, as Woods said, with musicians who hardly ever rehearsed at all.

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W Eugene Smith: Thelonious Monk Orchestra in rehearsal, New York, 1959. Monk at the piano, Overton standing alongside doorway.

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There’s more information about the movie here …

I’m not at all sure where it might be seen theatrically, but it seems to be available for streaming online. See it if you can.

 

Robert Frank & The Americans

It was nothing more than happenstance that I saw documentary films about two renowned American photographers on successive days: Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink – Robert Frank in its run at the ICA and Sara Fishko’s Jazz Loft Project – According to W. Eugene Smith which was showing at Barbican as part of the London jazz Festival.

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Frank is probably still best known for his photo book, The Americans, which resulted from a Guggenheim-funded road trip he made around the United States in 1955/56. Initially published in France, it didn’t come out in America until 1959, when Grove  Press published it with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.

That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field.

Well, he was. But not straight off. The reviewer in Popular Photography characterised the work thus: meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposure, drunken horizons and general sloppiness. Elsewhere he was taken to task for the picture of American and Americans the book presented: this is not the real America and whoever thinks so must hate America, this is not the way we live. Kerouac, not surprisingly, disagreed.

As American a picture – the faces don’t editorialise or criticise or say anything but “This is the way we are in real life and if you don’t like it I don’t know anything about it ’cause I’m living my own life my way and may God bless us all, mebbe” … “if we deserve it” …

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Robert Frank : Bute,Montana

There’s a clear relationship in the photographs, I think, to some of the images that Dorothea Lange and others shot during the Depression, except that they were more studied – more consciously ‘artistic’, I suppose, and, as we now know, some of them were less spontaneous than they were made to appear – whereas, as Israel’s film makes clear, Frank was more likely to seize the moment, shoot on the fly. Look at them now, and aside from thinking, yes, how great they are, it’s hard to reach back and see what the negative fuss was about – that’s how used we’ve become, through street photography and the rest, to the kind of photography of which Robert Frank was one of the pioneers.

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Robert Frank: Car Accident – U.S. 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona

It’s not clear from what Frank has to say in the film if it was the negative reaction to The Americans that caused him to move away from photography into film making, or if he thought, okay, that’s it, that’s my statement, that’s my work, now I need to get on to something new. [He had previously taken two series of photographs in the UK, not published until the 1970s, one in the City of London and the other – quite superb, these – in a mining village in South Wales.]

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Robert Frank: Three Welsh Miners

The first film in which he was involved, which also involved Kerouac, was Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats that he co-directed with Alfred Leslie. He has carried on with film and video ever since – he’s now 92 and not showing much sign of lying down – most famously Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones on tour, of which Mick Jagger said: It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed into the country again.

Much of Israel’s film was shot in and around the converted fisherman’s shack on the coast of Mabou, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, to which Frank moved with his second wife, the sculptor, June Leaf, in the early 70s. The reclusive life seems to suit him, though he does also spend some time in a loft on Bleecker Street in Manhattan, and although he has gone back to photography alongside film and video, it’s a long way from The Americans. These images are manipulated, collaged, yoked together, written on, the negatives scratched and scumbled, highly personalised. As if he’s saying that was then – those people – and this is now, my life, mine and June’s, me.

For more details of Don’t Blink – Robert Frank, including screenings, check out …

It’s showing at the ICA, just off Trafalgar Square, for the rest of this week

I’ll turn my attentions to W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project in a few days’ time.

 

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry, Shining a Light, Keeping Track …

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It wasn’t a bad night [though that came, and with a vengeance, later]. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry at the Union Chapel in north London, the second night of the UK leg of their Shine a  Light tour, which began in Nashville, Tennessee and will finish, after appropriate breaks, in Melbourne, Australia. A tour about a tour.

It began in back in March when the two musicians, plus a little recording equipment, plus guitars, boarded a train in Chicago and began a journey that would take them south and then west across the United States, stopping at St. Louis, Poplar Bluff, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson on the way. Some 2,728 miles of track. And here and there along the way, they would find a waiting room or similar space in which to record a song. A song that, in one way or another, was inspired by the rails, boxcars, the iron horse, the lonely whistle of a freight train passing through the night. Train songs, folk songs, Leadbelly songs.

Two men with a couple of guitars each and an upright piano standing off stage right. Henry’s voice is the higher, distinctive, slightly nasal; Bragg’s, a deeper baritone, takes on an American tone. [An American tune.] Two of the first three songs – Railroad Bill & John Henry – I know well from my own fledgling skiffle group days,  as, it transpires, does my companion for the evening – jazz aficionado and crime writing critic and commentator [I like to refer to him as the thinking man’s Barry Forshaw – sorry, Barry!] – Bob Cornwell. Bob shared with me, as I discovered in the interval, the distinction of having played single string tea chest bass in a youthful, enthusiastic and, by the sound of it,not overly successful skiffle group in our teenage years. Both of our initial public appearances seem to have ended precipitously with a request to pack up our things and leave the building. No matter, those songs brought it all back in its dubious glory – as, later on, did The Midnight Special and, of course, Rock Island Line.

While we were talking about this that Bob raised the name of Lonnie Donegan, not quite the first but certainly the most famous British skiffler, saying that he thought Donegan had never quite got his due. It was a point taken up strongly by Bragg during the second half, when he mentioned a book he has just finished writing which marks Donegan’s recording of Rock Island Line – the first record to top the UK charts featuring someone singing and playing guitar – as the major turning point in popular music; where previously it had been, to a greater or lesser degree, based on or around jazz and jazz instrumentation, from hereon it, it would be about guitars.

In addition to the songs they performed together, each man played a short solo set, Henry taking to the piano for a Randy Newman-influenced This Was My Country [painfully prophetic in the light of what was to come through the early hours of the morning, but leavened by hope nonetheless] and finishing with a beautiful and deeply felt version of Alain Toussaint’s Freedom For The Stallion. Unsurprisingly, Bragg, digging into his back list for  Accident Waiting to Happen and There is Power in a Union, voice reverting to its London twang, was the more directly political, pointing up the links between Brexit and what was happening politically in America, and drawing a clear connection, via Woody Guthrie, between the treatment meted out to the Okies when they left the dustbowl in the 30s and headed out to California looking for work and a better life for their children and what was being done to refugees in various parts of Europe on our behalf.

We stepped out into the night knowing we’d experienced something special. The UK leg of the tour takes a break two-thirds of the way through November, picks up again in January. You can find the details here …

If they come near you, try not to miss out.

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iPod Shuffle, November 2016

 

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  • Trouble in the Fields, Nanci Griffith
  • Wooly Bully, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs
  • At Long Last Love, Frank Sinatra
  • Respect, Aretha Franklin
  • When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, Roy Harper
  • I Can’t Get Started, Billie Holiday
  • Thirteen, Kathryn Williams
  • The Glow Worm, The Mills Brothers
  • No Name Blues, Johnny Shines
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan [Take 1, Alternate Take]
  • Brilliant Mistake, Elvis Costello
  • Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Billy Bragg & Wilco

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