John Ashbery, Jane Freilicher and “In a True Light”

Waiting to meet my friend, the writer Woody Haut, for coffee the other week, I passed the time (though more than that) browsing through this neat little David Zwirner Books edition of the poet John Ashbery’s later writings about art, interleaved with a selection of his poems and some intriguing lists of the music he would have been listening to during the same period, roughly 1998 – 2004. Music that would mostly come under the broad term,  modernism, I suppose – John Cage, Morton Feldman, Gavin Bryars – with some Brian Eno and Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo’ for good measure.]

Growing up, Ashbery had wanted to be a painter, only changing direction when he went to Harvard, though his early interest in surrealism and collage would underpin much of his poetry. That he started to write art criticism was, apparently, an economic decision. “I felt I was never really qualified to be an art critic.The only reason I did it is because I needed to earn some money … It was obviously pretty easy to write about abstract expressionist painting, since it was brand new and nobody knew anything about it, so what you had to say was as valid as what anyone else might. Also, it’s not unlike the poetic process in its being a record of its own coming into being.” That last sentence pretty interesting, I think, not to say crucial.

But be that as it may, art criticsim remained an intergral part of Ashbery’s life. Along with fellow poets, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, he wrote for ARTnews in New York; living in Paris between 1960 and 1965, he was art crtic for the New York Herald Tribune (just typing those words brings vividly to mind Jean Seberg in A Bout de Souffle), and, back in New York, he was an executive editor of ARTnews and a critic for New York magazine and  Newsweek.

Perhaps it’s the sense that he wasn’t ‘really qualified’ to be an art critic that makes him such a good one – it helps him to eschew what might be termed ‘art speak’ and permits an openness of approach. Important also, I think, was the proximity he felt between his own practice and that of the artists whose work he wrote about (see 2 paras above) – artists who in many cases he knew personally and who were an integral part of the New York scene – Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Joe Brainard, Jane Freilicher. 

I first became aware of Jane Freilicher through the poems of Frank O’Hara, in which she appears again and again as muse and companion – ‘Interior (with Jane)’; ‘A Sonnet for Jane Freilicher’; ‘Jane Awake’; ‘Chez Jane’; ‘To Jane; and in Imitation of Coleridge’ – after which she seems to have been usurped by Grace Hartigan and, to a lesser exent, Joan Mitchell.

Once I got to know Freilicher’s work a little, I began to marvel at her persistence of vision; her determination to continue following her chosen course – a personal version of realism that she adhered to as if the explosion of abstract expressionism wasn’t happening all around her. Her subject matter scarcely varied – the views from her studio windows in Greenwich Village and Water Mill, Long Island, and many many still lives, most often a simple portrait, decepetively simple – yet without a glimmer of trickery – of beautiful flowers in equally beautiful vases.  

‘Marigolds II’ Jane Freilicher, 2000, oil on linen

 Why doesn’t this sameness result in a dulling over-familiararity? Boredom even? Not another bloody bunch of marigolds!

This, in part, is Ashbery’s answer  …

The same fields, bouquets, slants of light, views out over water or streets and buildings seem to recur, but it is the tremendous difference in them from picture to picture that entraps and enthralls the viewer. This is because she is able to half-forget the subject at hand and concentrate on the sheer pleasure of moving paint around.” 

And as she said herself in an interview with James Schuyler …

“I’m interested in landscape, but there’s a paradox: it’s depressing to get that realistic look: ‘Why, that’s just the way it looks!’ or ‘I know that time of day’  … Of course a landscape goes on forever but a picture doesn’t. So very soon it has a composition or a form of its own.”  

‘September Moment’ Jane Freilicher, 1998/99 oil on linen

This is Ashbery writing about a small pastel, Flowers on a Table

“The colours are low-keyed and matte, the surface dry and scumbled. The flowers look tangled with burrs like the coat of an old sheepdog.” 

‘Flowers on a Table’ Jane Freilicher 1998 pastel on linen

I was thinking of her use of colour, her use of light when I was preparing my novel, In a True Light, partly set in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, Monk at the Five Spot and Frank O’Hara and company in the audience. 

Through an intermediary – the poet William Corbett – I asked Jane Freilicher if I could use a statement she’d once made about her work as an epigraph to the novel …  “I suppose I think more in terms of colour than of line.”

I was hoping, I think, that it might in some respects be appicable to the writing, the organisation of the book. Heavy on atmosphere, with a story line that shifted, sometimes surprisingly between place and time.  A scumbled narrative, you might say.

You might. In the event, I think I lacked the courage of my convictions: added a less than necessary secondary crime plot to the basic story of a British painter in search of the daughter he had previously never known existed, the result of his brief and heady relationship with an American abstract expressionist painter decades earlier. 

Even so, it’s a novel I’m fond of – fond in the way, perhaps, one might be fond of errant children. There are scenes, moments, I can still go back to with pleasure rather than embarasment or regret. And there are readers who, amongst my books, place it as one of their favourites. Readers with the abiity to see what I could never quite see myself.

A Few Days in Nottingham, Part 2

Early – not too early – the following morning, Saturday, we made our way back towards the city centre, in search of coffee and something tasty but not overwhelmingly substantial to eat. During Covid we frequently ordered coffee from Cartwheel Coffee Roasters, partly to help keep them afloat during hard times and partly because their beans – roasted in Sneinton – are pretty damned good. So it was that we found our way to their café on Upper Parliament Street (there’s another in Beeston), found a table, browsed the menu, mushrooms on toast. And not any old mushrooms on toast. Delicious. And quite enough for Sarah and I to share.

Not being people to look gift kitchens in the mouth, or however the laboured saying goes, we returned the next morning. Result … Vegetarian special … again shared.

But back to Saturday. After breakfast, Sarah went off to Hopkinson’s – Nottingham’s treasure trove of second hand finery, while I stepped along the alley to the Five Leaves Bookshop, where I was lucky enough to encounter it’s manager and owner, the redoubtable Ross Bradshaw.

The bulk of the afternoon, from lunch onwards, was pleasantly spent in West Bridgford, in the company of friends first encountered when I was studying for an MA in American Studies at the University – the old one- and from there we returned to our room in the Premier Inn close to the University – the new one – and readied ourselves for watching the World Cup, England versus France. Comment would be superfluous.

Mid-morning on Sunday, after the excellent breakfast described above, we visited the current exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary – ‘Hollow Earth: Art, Caves & The Subterranean Imaginary’. An hour and perhaps a little more were never going to be enough to do it justice, but most of what we did see was fascinating.

Caragh Thuring : Inferno, 2018
Goshka Macuga : Cave, 1999/2022
Chioma Ebinama, 2022

Just time after this for dim sum at The Mandarin Restaurant in Hockley and thence to the station: despite having to change trains at Grantham, we were back at London, Kings Cross in just two hours. Exceptional in these troubled railway times.

A Few Days in Nottingham – Part 1

Some weeks back, my partner Sarah and I went with our friend Duncan to the Oxford Tavern – a short walk away in Kentish Town – to hear the Paul Edis Trio. Paul at the piano, Adam King on double bass and Joel Barford on drums. The missing link between Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau and Debussy suggested the Oxford, while being rooted in the straight-ahead swinging tradition. Not sure about the Debussy, but otherwise accurate as far as it goes. Clearly a busy and active composer, a good number of the pieces they played were Paul’s compositions – a refreshing change to the more usual diet of standards and 12 bar blues, though neither were ignored.

It was a good evening, good enough for me to look up his list of forthcoming gigs the next day, and there, to my pleasant surprise, was Peggy’s Skylight, Nottingham, Friday December 9th. Perfect. I had never been to said venue, though my son, Tom, who lives in Nottingham, had been there, I know, a number of times. And any excuse to spend time in Nottingham is a good one, even though it would mean being there on a weekend when Notts County were not playing at home.

One can’t have everything.

Despite some small confusion over seat reservations, our train journey from St. Pancras to Nottingham was straightforward; as was the tram (God! I do love a good tram!) that took us from the station to the Premier Inn in the midst of the many buildings that make up Nottingham Trent University.

Time to rest and unpack before setting out on foot, up the slow hill towards the back of the Royal Concert Hall and the Theatre Royal, then down towards the crowds in the Old Market Square, which, at first sight, seemed to have been turned into a giant building site. But no, it’s a large, temporary, skating rink – by the shrieks of panic or laughter, used to capacity – and sharing the square with a giant ferris wheel, the obligatory Christmas tree and the overflow of stalls from the Christmas market, the Council House a distinguished purple in the background.

Making our way through the crowds, we soon arrived in the café-bar at Broadway (Nottingham’s excellent independent cinema), where we were to meet Tom and his partner, Karen, and our friends Graham and Helen, tempted for the occasion to venture forth from the by-ways of Lincolnshire. Suitably fortified, we walked the short distance to the club, where we had booked a table close to the band.

Jazz Club – Bar – Kitchen reads the strap line on the Skylight’s web site – live Jazz with a Middle Eastern inspired menu. All true. The club has an excellent sound system, the food was very good indeed, but – and there’s a big but coming – it suffers from the curse of venues that must, to a significant extent, rely on takings from the bar. Why one would choose to spend the evening drinking copiously and therefore talking loudly somewhere that the majority of people had gone primarily to listen to music, is, to me, a mystery. Mostly, but not always, and thanks to the aforementioned sound system, the music won out, but the overloud conversations and laughter from the back of the room left me feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

Thankfully, as I say, the music won out. On this occasion Paul Edis was accompanied by Jihad Darwish on bass and Andrew Wood – a Nottingham local – on drums. Both excellent. And the trio was fronted for most of the evening by the vocalist Jo Harrop, another name new to me – I obviously haven’t been getting out much – possessed of a strong and flexible voice, particularly effective in its lower register. Most of the material – if I was listening correctly – came from Jo’s solo album and a recent album she and Paul have made together – many of the songs written by Paul and his wife, Kate. A fine set, crowned, for me, by the encore, a storming version of Billie Holiday’s Fine and Mellow.

One sad note to finish on. I learned from Andrew Wood that the bass player Geoff Pearson, with whom I’d read in a number of Notts jazz ensembles over several decades, and who I knew had been unwell, had died. A fine musician and a lovely, generous man.

Art Chronicles: Milton Avery at the R.A.

Heading for the survey show of Milton Avery’s paintings at the Royal Academy earlier this week, I was uncertain what to expect. Milton Avery : American Colourist, suggested an artist attached to the Colour Field school of American second generation abstractionists – Frank Stella, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and (sometimes) Helen Frankenthaler – but when, before leaving, I turned to Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975, it was to find Avery present only among the biographies of other artists and none of his own work included.

The first of three rooms at the RA begins with several small landscapes, the earliest painted in 1918, when he was still living in Hartford, Connecticut, and, as the first canvas below suggests, very much under the early influence of Cezanne.

Milton Avery ‘Blossoming’ 1918

‘Setting Sun’, painted in the same year – and quite beautiful, I think – seems to show him beginning to move away from a rigid form of naturalistic representation towards a looser, more scumbled surface which allows him to delight in richness of colour and the effects of light.

Milton Avery ‘Setting Sun’ 1918

Later landscapes, rather than building more directly upon this, show a growing interest in contour and line, the colour flattened rather than mingled and enriched, and suggesting some of the ways in which his work will change when he makes the move to New York City in 1925. Here he begins to find his way amongst the artistic community, taking classes at the Art Students League and, in 1928, being selected to show alongside Mark Rothko, eighteen years his junior, at a new gallery established to promote emerging artists’ work.

Back to those back pages of Color as Field. This is from the biographical notes on Mark Rothko …

During this period (late 1920s into the ’50s) he became one of a small group of artists including Adolph Gottlieb, John Graham and Barnett Newman, who gathered around the painter Milton Avery. The group socialised and vacationed together and enjoyed animated conversations about every aspect of art.”

So there is Avery, the focal point, it seems, of this powerful and distinctive group of artists and their concerns with abstraction and the primacy of colour on canvas – the ways in which it can be made to ‘live and breath’ on the surface – what does he do? He flattens his colour instead of employing techniques to make it vibrate, and, without moving away totally from abstraction (Clement Greenberg must, by now, have been screaming from the sidelines) places the human figure – angular, geometric, largely faceless, but the human figure, nonetheless – at the centre of the canvas.

We’re in the second and central room, the one which holds Avery’s most distinctive and, for me, most rewarding work.

Milton Avery ‘Husband and Wife” 1945

The use of colour is bold and distinctive, the contours clearly delineated, the composition as a whole deeply satisfying, both for its balance and for what it suggests about the relationship depicted. And if ‘Husband and Wife’ isn’t my favourite piece in the whole show, then it has to be the ‘portrait’ of his daughter, March, below. How he loved those shades of brown!

Milton Avery ‘March in Brown’ 1954

Abstraction, however, seems to have won out in the end. The figure was banished and the canvases grew larger and larger; the work from the last decade of his life is good to look at and easy to enjoy, but, I think, less distinctive. The very best work had been done.

Milton Avery ‘Boathouse by the Sea” 1959

Milton Avery: Colourist continues at the Royal Academy until October 16th.

New York, New York …

Sometime back in the early ’80s, and by then well into my 40s, I took my first ever trip in a plane: Transatlantic, London to New York. The reason, to link up again with my friend, Kevin – Kevin McDermott – whom I’d met when we were both studying for an MA in American Studies at the University of Nottingham.

At that time Kevin had a small – just how small, I was to discover – apartment in Midtown Manhattan. East 49th Street. Home at various times, the street not the apartment, to Frank O’Hara, Stephen Sondheim and Katherine Hepburn. Rumour had it – more than rumour – that Kate, if you’ll excuse the familiarity, still lived there and could be seen, by patient onlookers, entering or exiting her front door.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay?” I must have said.
Kevin, then as now – he and his wife, Mish, recently hosted our daughter, Molly Ernestine, on her first visit to the city – was generously welcoming.

My bed on those early visits – a decade later Kevin moved to a larger apartment on the upper East Side – was perched narrowly high above what I think must have been some kind of closet; comfortable enough once I’d recovered from the fear of turning over and crashing to the ground. Pigeons congregated noisily outside the small window opposite. Warm evenings we went up and sat on the roof. It was like living inside a Drifters’ hit record from 1964.

Days, I would wander sometimes on my own, drawn, perhaps inevitably, to Greenwich Village and the astonishment of finding myself following in Frank O’Hara’s footsteps …

The rain is falling,
lightly
the way it did for Frank
when he stepped out onto the sidewalk
that would take him to St. Mark’s Place;
Camels, two packs, in his pockets,
a notebook; nothing more on his mind
than a quick espresso on Bleecker or MacDougal,
meeting maybe Grace or Jane …
*

Together, Kevin and I watched old black and white movies in repertory cinemas, walked around Chinatown and Little Italy – I still have a card from Osteria Romana on Grand Street – listened to live music at the Lone Star Café. Kevin remembers seeing Asleep at the Wheel; I recall a splinter group from The Band. And, perhaps most memorable for both of us, a memorial evening for Gram Parsons, from which Kevin, he told me recently, vividly remembers an unaccompanied performance by Tracy Nelson of ‘Down So Low’, that still gives him chills.

It seems, in retrospect, that almost wherever we went, the evening ended with a long, slow walk back to Midtown, the city still busy around us. Perhaps some of that is captured in the title poem from The Old Postcard Trick, a Slow Dancer pamphlet subtitled Poems & Photographs, New York, 1984.

  • from Poem (In Imitation of Frank O’Hara) in Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014.

Lost & Found …

Some little while ago, pre-Covid, I posted a piece outlining what was, for me then, a normal morning, one which began reading the newspaper over coffee at the small café attached to the Parliament Hill Lido, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, before walking some three to five miles around the Heath itself then returning home.

Events have changed that, primarily the pandemic, during the worst of which I scarcely went out at all, and, more recently the quite dramatic fall that resulted in fractures to various parts of the body, mostly now healed save for one that still necessitates me wearing a cumbersome neck brace and which seems, somehow, to have taken the wind out of me in a possibly permanent way.

So, instead of walking fifteen minutes to the Lido Café, I simply pick up the paper from where it was delivered and walk, a tad warily, around the corner to Cinnamon Village, a friendly neighbourhood café, where the Turkish staff greet me as “Uncle” and are fulfilling my unspoken order as I walk through the door.

After that, I might progress to the Heath, depending on the weather – rain, other than torrential is fine, but no temperatures over 21 or 22 – with this collar tight to my neck it quickly becomes less than comfortable, and my walk can be deferred until the relative coolness of late afternoon – as it will be today.

Indoors, then, and wishing to do something useful, I figured it was time to do a little reorganising of the library shelves, particularly those given over to art books and catalogues in the main, but holding also roughly half of mine and Sarah’s vinyl albums and the stereo on which they get played. An exercise which inevitably turns up one or two items you’d forgotten you owned. In this instance a volume of McSweeney’s Quarterly, no. 39, and two lps by Doc Watson and his son, Merle.

I’m immediately engaged by the reference to Elmore Leonard and Karen Cisco, a character who appeared in his novel, Out of Sight, and who was later played – to great effect – by Jennifer Lopez in the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name. I must, I think, have read this story – “Chick Killer” – before, whenever I first took it home, but when I turn to the appropriate page my eye is taken by the insert of eight postcard size colour photographs set within the pages (and repeated further along). They’re the work of Tabitha Soren, someone I’ve not come across before, but quickly use the internet to track down. She’s been a professional photographer for over 25 years, her work displayed widely in the United States, but only once, as far as I can see, in the UK – at The Photographers’ Gallery in Central London, a show I must somehow have missed.

Photo: Tabitha Soren

The Leonard story is slight – a mere six pages long – and consists of a conversation between Karen and her dad, in which she recounts a face-to-face encounter with a dangerous criminal. Six pages but worth however many pennies they cost. Leonard is often at his best, I think when he is at his most relaxed, as he is here. Without forcing it, he makes the relationship between father and daughter real and does this without losing the danger of the confrontation. This is how it begins …

Karen Sisco was telling her dad, “This guy wearing cowboy boots walks into the bar … “
Her dad said, “I’ve heard it.”
‘I’m serious,” Karen said. “Yesterday afternoon, my last day as a federal marshal after six and a half years. In less than an hour I’ll hand in my star.” She paused, watching her dad. “And Bob Ray Harris, high, on the Five Most Wanted list, walks into the bar. O’Shea’s on Clematis, on the street from the courthouse …. “

While I’m reading this I’m half-listening to the first of the Doc & Merle Watson albums, Then & Now, which I note I bought in February, 1974 – the other, Lonesome Road, in December, ’77. When I put the story down, I listen more attentively. It’s bluegrass, basically – Doc Watson on guitar and harmonica, son, Merle, on guitar and banjo. There are other, supporting, musicians playing, variously, dobro, fiddle, steel guitar, bass and “drums & leg”. The standard of playing is high – a bunch of guys enjoying themselves but in a highly professional way – and the vocals – mostly Doc’s, I think – are relaxed and easy. I was lucky enough to see Doc Watson live on a visit to the States, driving out with my good friends, Patrick and Sarah, from Washington D.C. to the Birchmere, in Alexandria. That may have been the occasion it was snowing quite heavily when setting out and still snowing as we returned, I’m not sure. His son wasn’t there: he had died in a tractor accident in 1985.

Doc Watson’s hands
Merle Watson’s hands

Art Chronicles: Bice Lazzari at the Estorick

As I mentioned in an earlier post, back in October, the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in north London, is one of my favourite galleries to visit. Located in a restored and expanded Grade II Georgian town house in Canonbury, it has six small galleries on three floors, a neat, well-stocked shop and an excellent little café that opens out onto a courtyard in the right seasons. And I can get there easily and reasonably safely in these Covid times on London Overground, just half a dozen or so stops, thus avoiding the Tube; or, should I choose to sign up for a lengthy tour of Finsbury Park and Holloway, by the number 4 bus.

The heart of the permanent collection is from the first half of the last century: de Chirico, Morandi, Modigliani and a host of Italian Futurists. The two ground floor spaces are currently given over to a fascinating exhibition devoted to the work of the Italian artist Bice Lazzari – Bice Lazzari Modernist Pioneer – following her development as she progressed through various modes of abstraction that finally took her, via the Movimento Arte Concreta and the influence of Piet Mondrian, towards a minimalist abstraction that calls to mind Agnes Martin – though, perhaps, with a stronger use of colour.

Bice Lazzari: Untitled, 1970. Graphite & Pastel on paper
Bice Lazzari: Acrylic No. 5, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

It’s interesting that the first piece on display here, Abstraction on a Line, No 2, from 1925, created with pencil and pastel on paper, seems, with hindsight, to be marking out, in perhaps a tentative manner, the direction Lazzari’s work will take several decades later.

Bice Lazzari: Abstraction on a Line, No. 2, 1925. Pencil & pastel on paper.

Before that could happen, there was a living to be earned … “when my father died in 1928 I had to face life on a practical level and so, rather than walking around with a painting under my arm, I took a loom and started making applied art (fabrics, scarves, bags, belts, carpets) in order to continue living in the climate I so adored – namely, freedom.”

Bice Lazzari: Handwoven Bag & Belt, 1929
Bice Lazzari: Cushion, Hand-sewn fabric, 1930

In addition to similar woven items, Lazzari worked with architects, making decorative panels and designing mosaics, often working closely with the Ernesto Lapadula studio in Rome; she designed jewellery and the decoration of the renovated Pizzeria Capri. She did what an artist has to do to make a living.

But now, perhaps, one more late piece to finish …

Bice Lazzari: White Sequence – Acrylic No. 4, 1975. Acrylic on canvas

Look, go if you can, if you think you might be interested; it’s on till April 24th. And there’s always the café ….

Best of 2021

FILMS

After Love : Aleem Khan
Copilot : Anne Zohra Berrached
Limbo : Ben Sharrock
Never Gonna Snow Again : Małgorzata Szumowska
Nomadland : Chloe Zhao
Petite Maman : Celine Sciamma
Power of the Dog : Jane Campion

BOOKS :

A Ghost in the Throat : Doireann Ni Ghriofa
Fidelity : Susan Glaspell (First published, 1915)
Jack : Marilynne Robinson
Lean. Fall. Stand. : Jon McGregor
That Old Country Music : Kevin Barry
The Night Always Comes : Willy Vlautin
The Night Watchman : Louise Erdrich
Real Estate : Deborah Levy
Scratched – A Memoir of Perfectionism : Elizabeth Tallent
The Vanishing Half : Brit Bennett

POETRY :

Magnetic Field – The Marsden Poems : Simon Armitage
Country Music : Will Burns
Learning to Sleep : John Burnside
New Hunger : Ella Duffy
If You Want Thunder : Ruth Valentine
The Last Dinosaur in Doncaster : Sarah Wimbush

ART :

Mohamed Bourouissa : Goldsmiths CCA
Helen FrankenthalerImagining Landscapes : Gagosian Grosvenor Hill
Helen FrankenthalerRadical Beauty : Dulwich Picture Gallery
Margaret Mellis Modernist Constructs : Towner Eastbourne
John Nash : The Landscape of Love & Solace : Towner Eastbourne
Ben NicholsonFrom the Studio : Pallant House
Wim WendersPhotographing Ground Zero : IWM
Breaking the MouldSculpture by Women since 1945 : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham


Art Chronicles: Margaret Mellis & Melissa Gordon … & Janet Sobel.

Back down to Eastbourne yesterday to visit the Towner Gallery and get a good whiff of sea air. The weather was glorious, the ever-changing skies viewed from the train were breathtaking, and the gallery – some fifteen minutes walk from the station – was, from the exterior, its usual colourful, crazy self. In supposedly sedate Eastbourne of all places!

The artist whose work had brought us there was Margaret Mellis, whom we knew from her connections with St. Ives. It was there that she came under the influence of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo …

Ben had been saying to me, “Do a collage, do a collage.” so I started in July [1940] and became completely obsessed with them.

The influence of Gabo especially, is evident, I think, in this piece from 1942, which is one of the early works in the exhibition.

Margaret Mellis : Collage with Red Oval, 1942

The majority of the work on show consists of a series of painterly constructions made from the driftwood picked up near Mellis’ home on the Suffolk coast, to which she’d moved in 1950 with her second husband, the painter Francis Davison. Once settled there she seems to have moved away from collage and back to her original love, painting – large landscapes and smaller studies of flowers – and it was only after Davison’s death in 1984 that she began making her constructions, prizing the driftwood for its texture, its jagged edges, its lingering elements of colour.

Margaret Mellis: Green Heart, 2002
Margaret Mellis: In the Night, 1993

Melissa Gordon’s work is displayed on roughly painted walls or on wire mesh and sections of chain link fencing. The inner space of the gallery is divided by tall strips of metal, framework for something waiting to be built. The resulting experience is like walking round a version of Gordon’s studio, busy, throbbing with ideas – large scale collages rich in colour, many referencing overlooked or excluded women artists. Elements of art history re-examined from a feminist viewpoint.

Melissa Gordon –Liquid Gestures, gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures – gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures; gallery view

One of the artists that Gordon chooses to highlight is Janet Sobel, who was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen. Married just two years later, she raised a family of five children, and it wasn’t, it seems, until she was in her mid-forties that she began to paint, progressing from figurative work into abstraction. She seems to have met with some early acceptance and recognition, exhibiting in a group show, The Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery in New York in 1945 and having a solo show there the following year. She was one of the first artists to apply paint to the canvas with what might be called a drip technique, achieved by pouring or blowing paint through a glass pipette – a technique that, perhaps unsurprisingly, drew the attention of Jackson Pollock and the eminence grise of post-45 American art criticism, Clement Greenberg.

And yet … and yet … she seems to have been largely forgotten, erased from the abstract expressionist landscape. Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan – those are the names we know, whose work is still frequently exhibited, and rightly so. But Sobel … it’s as if having admitted the bright few into the male-dominated club, enough was enough.*

Janet Sobel : Untitled, 1946-48
  • She is included, along with many others, greater and less-well known, in Women of Abstract Expressionism, edited by Joan Marter [Denver Art Museum & Yale University, 2016, from which I have taken some of the details above.
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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life