In We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South, the current exhibition at Turner Contemporary, Margate, curators Hannah Collins and Paul Goodwin have brought together a fascinating collection of assemblages, paintings and quilts made during the 50s & 60s by African American artists from Alabama and surrounding states.
This selection of images gives some sense, I hope, of the vibrancy and invention on display.
The exhibition runs till May 3rd and is recommended in the strongest possible terms.
See it if you can.
There’s a photograph, quite famous in Art circles, known as The Irascibles, or, to give it its full title, the Irascible Group of Advanced Artists, which shows 15 from a group of 28 artists who had signed an open letter to the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, complaining that the exhibition, American Painting Today – 1950 was unrepresentative of what was currently happening in truly advanced contemporary circles.
There they are – Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt prominent amongst them. The guys. As formally dressed as if ready for the office – or a funeral – and looking anything but angry or dangerous, and little resembling the popular image of the bohemian artist. And at the back, the sole woman in the group – imposingly positioned, one assumes, by the photographer – is the artist, Hedda Sterne.
Only two other women had signed the letter, the sculptors Mary Callery and Louise Bourgeois, and one might wonder why so few? Where was Elaine de Kooning when the letter went round? Where, Lee Krasner? Helen Frankenthaler? And how come Hedda Sterne? One explanation is that the gallery owner Betty Parsons, who represented Sterne in addition to a number of the male artists present, had used her influence. What’s certain is that Sterne hadn’t just happened to wander in off the street as the session was in progress – not dressed as smartly as that.
Whatever the reason, from Sterne’s point of view it did her, professionally, little good. As she later said, “In terms of my career (it was) probably the worst thing that happened to me.” … “I am known more for that darn photo than for eighty years of work.” Nor had she felt welcome at the time. The men “were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.”
When Sterne first emigrated from Romania to New York she was befriended by Peggy Guggenheim, who, in turn, introduced her to Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp, and her work was included in the 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. Exposed to the artistic zeitgeist of the day, her painting became less a product of European surrealism and increasingly influenced by American abstraction, although she never identified herself wholly with the Abstract Expressionist movement and, throughout her working life, would move between abstraction and figuration as her imagination demanded.
I believe … that isms and other classifications are misleading and diminishing. What interests me in art is what cannot be entrapped in words.
This refusal to be pinned down or labelled is perhaps one of the reasons why she is less well known than some of her contemporaries – that together with her dislike of the social scene revolving around such figures as the poet Frank O’Hara, which, to some extent, helped foster the careers of painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan. No O’Hara poems would be written for her with titles like Poem Read at Hedda Sterne’s or For Hedda, After a Party. And there can be no doubting, in retrospect, the low opinion she held of her fellow female artists …
Most women were Uncle Toms and would rather be loved and accepted than admired and feared.
The exhibition of paintings and drawings on display at Victoria Miro, Mayfair until March 21st, represents Hedda Sterne’s first solo show in this country. In addition to seven drawings, there are eight paintings from two series, Horizon and Vertical-Horizontal, all from the early 1960s and the result of eighteen months spent in Venice on a Fulbright fellowship.
As Eleanor Nairne says in her essay in the catalogue …
Hedda Sterne’s paintings feel quietly alive. The bands of subdued colour – cream, grey, ochre. brown – emerge from and dissolve back into one another, with a glint here and there like the last light thrown up one the sun dips below the horizon.
Sky, sea, land; sea, sky; shifts and changes of light, of colour. Time and again looking at these paintings, I was reminded of the quiet minimalist abstractions of Agnes Martin, no longer held in place by the architecture of the grid, but rolling down in loose lines even as they spread across. Sky, sea, water, land.
Let the artist herself have the last words …
“I get enormous pleasure out of very small contrasts. I don’t know to what extent it is an emotional experience or an intellectual pleasure. You know there are knife-edge contrasts in my Vertical-Horizontal pieces. This is what I enjoy – these very, very subtle distinctions in values.”
Victoria Miro have published a beautifully produced catalogue, designed by Joe Hales, with excellent reproductions of both the paintings and drawings, and an essay by Eleanor Nairne.
Born into a Palestinian family in Beirut and living in London and Berlin, Mona Hatoum makes work – installations, sculpture – that confronts the world. Directly; indirectly. Sometimes more so, sometimes less.
Remains to be Seen, The first piece in her current show at the White Cube in Bermondsey, takes up most of the space in which it is displayed. Pieces of concrete attached to steel hawsers: the skeleton of a building. The kind we are used to seeing on news reports from Syria and the Middle East, except that those buildings have been so torn and twisted, damaged to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine them as they once were. Here everything is arranged in perfect formation, so that we are asked to see both the original and the aftermath simultaneously. As Hatoum has said of her work, it is about conflict and contradiction, both evident within the object itself.
I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.
The other installation which struck me most forcefully was Remains of the Day, which was originally created for the 10th Hiroshima Art Prize exhibition. Less room for ambivalence here. Charred remnants of a home are arranged around the sides of a room: chairs on which people have sat down to dinner; a child’s cot; a toy truck; a life burned to cinders and ash.
Of the various things Molly and I wanted to do and see in Vienna, two were triggered by movies: the Ferris Wheel from Carol Reed’s The Third Man of course, in one of the cabins of which Orson Welles defends his illegal sale of penicillin on the black market to Joseph Cotton and makes his famous speech about Switzerland and the cuckoo clock; and the Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, so central to Jem Cohen’s excellent 2012 film, Museum Hours.
The Ferris Wheel, as it turned out, was a disappointment, standing as it does on the edge of the Prater Amusement Park, half-hidden amidst a loud and garish collection of roundabouts and rides and fast food outlets, and, thus, sadly devoid of atmosphere.
Gallery X on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Musuem, however, with its collection of eleven of Bruegel’s paintings, more than lived up to expectations. The paintings themselves – which include ‘The Tower of Babel’ and the marvellous ‘Hunters in the Snow’ [but not ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, which is in Brussels] – bristle with life, a kaleidoscope of activity shot through, here and there, with humour, with small moments of scatological delight. And all so true to Cohen’s film – he is basically a documentary film maker after all – that we found ourselves looking round, if not for the museum guard as portrayed by Bobby Sommer in the movie, then, at the very least, to work out where he would have been sitting.
We saw Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial on the first day. A large, solid construction, it stands at the centre of Judenplatz, a square of grand houses [like so many in Vienna] which would have been home to Jewish intellectuals and members of the professional classes.
Also known as the Nameless Library, its walls are cast from library shelves facing outwards and filled with identical books that face inward, untitled and unreadable. It is a testament both to the loss of knowledge and the nameless lives of those who died in the Holocaust.
On the base of the Memorial, in front of heavy concrete doors that will never open, is a brief text in German, Hebrew and English with a Star of David at its centre … In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945 … and the names of the many concentration camps are engraved at the rear of the plinth and along the sides. But it is the solid weight of the building that impresses most, forcing you to walk around it, stare at its bulk, its walls of forbidden books, a metaphor in concrete that it is hard to ignore or deny. A work of public art with great significance and purpose.
I spent an interesting hour yesterday in the offices of the Royal National Institute of Blind People, talking ‘down the line’ to half a dozen or so members of a group of blind or partially sighted people about my work as a writer. Most had some awareness of my books through various audio or large print versions, others from radio and – going back a little – from television. Fay, now in her early 80s and a retired probation officer, had read only one – In a True Light – and found it compulsive. She liked the way the different parts of the story commented on one another [it moves between New York and London in the late-50s and the present] and she liked the style. Laconic, that was how she described it. Laconic. Well, I can live with that.
They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday.
That’s how it begins.
First published in 2001, and a break from the sequence of 10 Resnick novels that began with Lonely Hearts in 1989 and finished [for good and all, I thought at the time] with Last Rites in 1998, In a True Light sought to move away from Nottingham and the police procedural [though it does feature two New York cops – Catherine Vargas & John Cherry – of whom I’m very fond] to new locations and a broader range of subject matter. I’d been interested for some little time in the abstract expressionist paintings of such artists as Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, who first came to prominence in the 50s, and this, I thought, would give me the opportunity to explore that interest further. The list of works consulted was far longer than previously; longer than it would be until, years later, I researched the Miners’ Strike for the 12th and final Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.
The story of In a True Light is straightforward enough. When Sloane, a painter, is released from prison in London, where he has been serving time for forgery, he goes to New York in search of the daughter, Connie, a jazz singer, from whom he has become estranged [sound familiar?] and who is involved with a violent man – Delaney – whom the police suspect of murder. One back in New York, he remembers being there as a struggling young artist and the brief but fiery affair he had with an established painter, Jane Graham, who he learns is slowly dying.
To be honest, I’ve never been totally convinced how well the book ‘works’, how effectively (believably?) those sections dealing with Delaney, his violence and his connections with the Mob, merge with the rest. But some readers don’t seem to have that problem; like Fay they like it a lot.
As did Michael Connelly …
In In a True Light he is at his very best. It’s a crime story, sure, but it’s also a larger story about redemption and consequences set to the beat of the human heart.
And this comes from the reviewer (Marcel Berlins?) in The Times …
At one level this is the story of Sloane’s attempt to save his daughter from the criminal world in which she has become trapped. It is also a sensitive and moving study of ambivalent fatherhood, an unsparing portrait of an artist, and an atmospheric look at the bohemian New York of the late Fifties.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be some hard on myself, hard on the book?
One of my favourite passages is a description of Thelonious Monk playing piano at the Five Spot, which I refashioned as a poem and was recently published in Aslant, so I won’t repeat it here.
Instead, here’s the young Sloane calling, unannounced, at Jane Graham’s studio, and being allowed to watch her work …
“OK,’ she said, stepping back. ‘Come in. Come in and sit over there.’ Pointing to the far side of the room. ‘Sit there and don’t say a word,’
So Sloane sat for almost two hours, shifting his weight from side to side, from one buttock to the other, slowly stretching his legs. then drawing them up to his chest, as Jane, blanking him out, worked on her painting, moving, moving, rarely still, pacing, walking back and forth, in then out, close and away. The wide canvas stretched across its heavy wooden frame and stapled fast, covered then with white paint applied in broad strokes, a white, stippled ground upon which she was adding blocks of colour, gradations of alternating blue and yellow shading down to mauve and orange, their edges blurred and softened with a swab of cloth soaked in turpentine, each balanced in relation to what was immediately above and below, and to the painting as a whole.
Jane darting quickly forward now, a fast sweep of brush from right to left, a slash of darkling, curving red; and then another, finer, ending in a filigree of scarlet flecks like tracks in snow.
And Sloane, watching, in thrall, as the painting grew, took on a life, each element held in tension with the rest but all, somehow, and this the real art, the artistry, in harmony. Something he would rarely, if ever, himself achieve. Not like this. Beautiful. Thrilling. The act, the thing, the thing itself.
From several interviews in the later years of her life it seems clear that Lee Krasner was – in terminology she would almost certainly have appreciated and understood – a tough old broad. And just as well. A female painter in what was predominantly – we’re talking New York in the years following WW2 – a man’s world, she had to push and struggle to be acknowledged and for her work to be seen. As she said when comparing her situation with that of the Abstract Expressionist women painters who came to prominence in her wake …
… the next generation, [Grace] Hartigan, [Joan] Mitchell, [Helen] Frankenthaler had an easier time of it. Galleries existed, dealers. We didn’t have that. We had to create all this. The next generation had an open door. This has all happened in a short passage of time.
Krasner wasn’t given her first retrospective until 1965, and then in London – at the Whitechapel Gallery – and not New York – and she would have to wait another ten years for a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The current Barbican exhibition, curated by Eleanor Nairne and designed by David Chipperfield Architects, brings together some 100 pieces, sufficient to give full rein to the range of Krasner’s work and, hopefully, help to ensure that she can no longer be dismissed as the wife of Jackson Pollock and a footnote in the history of Abstract Expressionism.
Born in 1908, the youngest of the six children of Jewish Russian parents who had left Europe for the United States and settled in Brooklyn, Krasner had decided at the age of 14 that she wanted to be an artist and, until her death in 1984 at the age of 76, that’s what she was. Beginning as an orthodox figure painter – and there are some well-executed examples here – she was introduced to cubism by her teacher at the time, Hans Hofmann.
Hofmann aside, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian were her early influences and, to a greater or lesser extent, remained so for the rest of her life. And – a bonus – when Mondrian came to New York and she got to know him, they discovered a mutual love of jazz …
We were both mad for jazz and we used to go to jazz spots together … We used to go to a Café Uptown or Café Downtown and dance. … I was a fairly good dancer, that is to say I can follow easily, but the complexity of Mondrian’s rhythm was not simple in any sense … I nearly went mad trying to follow this man’s rhythm.
But soon there was another set of influences to respond to, and – in a quite different, more intimately physical sense – another man. She first met Jackson Pollock in the early 40s, when they were working on a project for the WPA.
I resisted at first, but I must admit, I didn’t resist very long. I was terribly drawn to Jackson, and I fell in love with him – physically, mentally – in every sense of the word. I had a conviction when I met Jackson that he had something important to say. When we began going together, my own work became irrelevant. He was the important thing. I couldn’t do enough for him.
Convinced, as she was, of Pollock’s ‘genius’, Krasner readily took on the task of promoting his work – not least, as she thought it had a better chance of selling than her own and money was always a problem. But accepting a secondary role in the relationship did not mean she was willing to step away altogether from her own work as an artist.
For me, it was quite enough to continue working, and his success, once he began to sell, gave us an income of sorts and made me ever so grateful because, unlike wives of other artists who had to go out and support them, I could continue painting myself.
I couldn’t run out and do a one-woman job on the sexist aspect of the art world, continue my painting and stay in the role I was in as Mrs. Pollock. I just couldn’t do that much. What I considered important was that I was able to work and other things would have to make their turn. Now rightly or wrongly, I made my decisions.
The relationship with Pollock became less and less easy, threatened as it was by his increasing dependence on alcohol, his womanising, and his occasionally violent temper. It was against this background that Krasner began working on the painting later called Prophecy, which is placed in a central position in the Barbican show, and represents a turning away (or moving on) from collage and the lingering influence of Mondrian to something looser and fleshier – pink limbs and body parts outlined in heavy black – abstraction now with more than a hint of figuration. Echoes of Picasso, perhaps, and Matisse, as well as Pollock himself. Hints of de Kooning.
The canvas took Krasner herself by surprise. “The painting disturbed me enormously and I called Jackson to look at it. He assured me it was a good painting, and said not to think about it, just continue … do another … ” In time, she would do three more, all on display here, but right then it was left on the easel when Krasner, hoping to clear some ground perhaps between Pollock and herself, took a trip to Paris alone. It was when she was there that she received the news that Pollock was dead: drunk, he had crashed the car he had insisted on driving into a tree, killing himself and the friend of the woman with whom he had been having an affair, who was herself the only one to survive.
Krasner could have fallen apart: instead she continued to work. She moved from her smaller studio to the barn where Pollock had done his vast ‘drip’ paintings, and, with that extra space, her own paintings became bigger, more akin in some respects to Pollock’s own work, its movement and patterning, its repetitions. The first group of paintings she made were dark, tortured exercises in umber, swirling circles and slashing lines; reflections, it’s reasonable to assume, of her state of mind. But this passed and soon she was luxuriating in colour, a bright crimson that suggested life much as umber had suggested death. And when she fell and broke her right arm, she simply learned to paint with her left. Tough old broad, indeed!
Lee Krasner: Living Colour is at the Barbican Art Gallery until September 1st, after which it tours to Frankfurt, Switzerland and Spain.
I’ve written before on this blog about Aslant, the small but beautifully formed collection of my poems and Molly Boiling’s photographs published by Shoestring Press earlier in the year, but the arrival of an interesting, quite detailed review by Thomas Ovans in the online magazine London Grip gives me the opportunity to do so again.
This is how it begins …
As I begin to write this review it strikes me that one’s reading of a book can initially be influenced by what one had previously been reading. I came to this collection having just enjoyed another book that robustly and self-confidently expressed irreverent and sceptical attitudes that I broadly agreed with. Aslant, by contrast, is a much more provisional, reflective and tender work and represented a refreshing change of tone that I hadn’t known I was more than ready for.
Aslant places John Harvey’s poems alongside evocative photographs by Molly Boiling which provide sharp-edged images of steps, shadows, girders and corners of high buildings. These pictures often suggest entrances and exits or incidental glimpses alongside the telling of a story. Hence they combine well with Harvey’s poems which usually have a strong narrative and reminiscent thread.
“A sense of mortality seems to hover over much of this collection,” Ovans writes; “a recurring sense of wistful consolation after loss.”
Of the pieces in the central section which take jazz and jazz musicians as their subject – Lester Young, Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk – Ovans writes, “This is wonderfully evocative writing which, I would maintain, conveys something authentic even to a reader who is not a jazz aficionado.”
And he concludes his review thus …
… this is no ordinary book: the well-chosen images and the way they complement some consistently satisfying high-quality poems make it, in my view, well worth a tenner of anybody’s money.
And if you don’t already have a copy and feel like following this advice and splashing out said tenner, Aslant can be ordered directly from firstname.lastname@example.org. or from any bookstore – including those worthy souls at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop – email@example.com. You can even buy it on Amazon.
Here’s a list, for those who like lists, of the movies, music, books and exhibitions that have given me the most pleasure in the first half of the year; given me pleasure and, more often than not, stopped me in my tracks.
BOOKS An American Marriage : Tayari Jones Long Bright River : Liz Moore (proof copy – pub Jan 2020)
FILMS Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz Dirty God : Sacha Polak [mainly for the extraordinary performance by Vicky Knight]
Blues & Roots Ensemble w. Alice Zawadzki : Pizza Express Jazz Club
Viktoria Mullova : unaccompanied Bach on violin : Sage, Gateshead
Two CDs by writer Willy Vlautin’s band, The Delines Colfax (2014) The Imperial (2019)
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottm.
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle Luigi Ghirri – Cartes et Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris