Now my days alone have a certain shape to them – I wake about nine, turn on the symphony and have juice, fruit and a pot of black coffee. Read a bit (still Gide’s Journal), talk on the phone – to Richard [Miller], or Frank [O’Hara] – sometimes Mike [Goldberg], or others. The three or four, sometimes five hours on this canvas – it hasn’t begun to come yet, but I keep thinking of things to do.
Then a few d0mestic chores for myself, a cold shower, a cold hard boiled egg and one or two rums with Rose’s lime, more reading, more records. Tonight I meet Frank at the Cedar for dinner, then to the late showing of “East of Eden”.
The Journals of Grace Hartigan, July 1st 1955
I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.
It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?
Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.
Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …
Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.
I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.
It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.
And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.
I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).
But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.
Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.
And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot …
‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin
the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes
sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing
in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
tight within a frame
within a frame
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea
you throw up your arm
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound
the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve
your waking breath
It’s difficult, visiting the current exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the White Cube, Bermondsey, not to be overwhelmed. It’s not just that the individual pieces – sculptures, paintings, assemblages, vitrines – are, in themselves, large and powerful (the power to some extent deriving from their size) it’s the way in which Walhalla takes over the gallery more or less in its entirety. Step past the woman handing out the obligatory Health & Safety guide lines – If you accidentally touch the works, it is recommended that you wash your hands thoroughly … Small children must have their hands held as a number of works have hard, rough edges at a potentially dangerous height – and immersion begins.
The central piece, from which the exhibition takes its name, runs the length of the central corridor, bare bulbs overhanging rows of folding beds, empty save for heavy sheets of crumpled lead. The aftermath of a disaster, a terrorist attack? Are we in Aleppo? Mosul? World War Two or is it Three? An institutional dormitory, the gallery notes suggest, military sleeping quarters or battlefield hospital. As we weave cautiously in and out, damp and already somewhat depressed by the foul weather outside, I catch myself thinking, not too flippantly, of some not-too-distant outpost of the NHS.
At the far end of the corridor a much enlarged black and white photograph shows a single figure walking away into a barren winter landscape. The artist, making a break for freedom, free to give us his interpretation of the world? The hero of some dystopian novel, the last man left standing? Perhaps both …Keen as ever to gouge out the horrors of his country’s history, Keifer’s paintings yoke together Nazi architecture and Norse mythology, portray vast landscapes in which towering buildings are being eclipsed by flowering clusters of blueish grey, corrosive and beautiful.
One room is given over to a single piece, a spiral staircase rising up into the roof, discarded clothing and strips of film hanging from its railings; its primary inspiration, according to the gallery notes, the ascent of Valkyries as they lead those killed in battle to Valhalla; to me, the Holocaust, genocide of European Jews in World War Two.Step into one room given over to a single installation and it is like stepping into Kiefer’s storeroom –as the title says, his arsenal: trays and boxes of paper, paintings, a myriad of things; old broken prams, machinery; strips of film that hang everywhere, film rendered, like so much else, into lead; a safe containing papers that have been burned and all but destroyed, another that remains locked and impossible to open; a version of Thor’s anvil that is displayed in another room. All of this, Kiefer seems to be saying in this exhibition, all of history, memory, mythology, is my life, my work … your world. The exhibition continues at the White Cube, Bermondsey, until 12th February.
Still zinging a little from the variety and brilliance of the Rauschenberg show at Tate Modern and planning a quick return (or two), I just came across a reproduction of Rebus, one of his early combines, made from attaching objects to a painted surface, often ‘stuff’ he found laying around his studio in Lower Manhattan.
This particular piece comprising … Oil, synthetic polymer paint, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers, and fabric on canvas mounted and stapled to fabric, three panels.
A daft title to this piece, when exhibitions like the retrospective of Saul Leiter’s work at The Photographers’ Gallery early in the year make all too clear the extent to which photography – some photography – successfully aspires to the qualities and conditions of visual art, of painting, thus making the distinction unnecessary. Leiter, of course, became a photographer almost by default as his family disapproved of his initial ambition to be a painter. Also excellent were Alec Soth’s photographs under the title Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum’s Media Space, Paul Strand’s photographs and films at the V&A, and, perhaps best of all, William Eggleston’s Portraits at, not surprisingly, the National Portrait Gallery.
The two most compelling – and rewarding – art exhibitions for me were Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern (conceptual art to admire the look and construction of as well as to think about) and the Frank Auerbach retrospective, continuing from the previous year, at Tate Britain. The Georg Baselitz show, We’re Off, at the White Cube, Bermondsey was quite powerful and Georgia O’Keefe at Tate Modern was well-curated and therefore interesting, though I found it hard to warm to much of the actual work. The survey of Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy gave over its central rooms to some magnificent pieces by Jackson Pollock – quite staggering in their rhythm, their use of colour, their complexity and their unity – as well as lovely, compelling work by Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis and Phillip Guston – and they’re just my personal favourites. But why only one work by Helen Frankenthaler and that far from her best?
The last show I got to see before the year’s end was the excellent Rauschenberg retrospective at Tate Modern. It was seeing the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964 that first got me interested in post-war American art – in twentieth century art at all, really – an enthusiasm that has only strengthened over the intervening years. What is perhaps most striking – most enjoyable – about the Tate show is the effective way in which is demonstrates Rauschenberg’s range – combines, collages, performance pieces, sculptures, photographs, drawings, paintings, collaborations with Merce Cunningham, with John Cage and Jasper Johns – the variety and exuberance of his work, almost right to the end of his life, is astounding.
Following on from my last blog post about the current Royal Academy exhibition devoted to Abstract Expressionism, I thought I’d draw the attention of interested parties to a piece by Peter de Bolla, which has just appeared in the current (15th December) issue of London Review of Books.
What, asks de Bolla, if painters resolutely turned their backs on representation, and, in its stead, embraced the concept of abstraction, were they actually going to paint? A question which, for most of the American artists showing at the RA, required some kind of negotiation with Cubism, Surrealism and the European avant-garde.
The artists who, for de Bolla, came up with the most effective answers were, predictably enough, Pollock, Rothko and Clifford Still, and he is excellent, I think, in his analysis of their practice and its results. More surprisingly, and, for me, pleasingly, is his conclusion, in which he singles out Joan Mitchell’s Mandres, as the late flowering apotheosis of the genre.
In Mandres (1961-62) Joan Mitchell created as astonishing summation of the various answers that had been proposed to the question of what the hell to paint.This is Abstract Expressionism’s greatest late work. Form, structure and content are interrogated and transformed by so vast a repertoire of techniques of pigment application that you lose count …
… There is no painting I know like it. I doubt there could ever be one.
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.”
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.
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.
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.