Robert Frank: The Americans, 2

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Robert Frank: Crosses on the site of a road accident. U.S> 91. Idaho.

Crosses on the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91. Idaho

It started when I told Jerry not to take the wheel. Look at you, I said; he was so close to falling-down drunk, if it hadn’t been for the way he was bouncing off the walls, he’d have been eyeballing the floor. Will you get a look at the state you’re in? Well, of course, it was the last thing I should have said. I mean, whatever else he was, sober or drunk, that Jerry always was the world’s most cussed son of a bitch. Besides, by then we’d already hit on these two girls, dark-skinned, like maybe they had some blood in them, you know what I’m saying, and the way they was swallowing down shot after shot, barely stopping to wipe their mouths across the backs of their hands – Hot! Jerry grins at me when we’re out to take a piss. Hot and not a day past fifteen. He was wrong about that. The taller one, Marcie, she was sixteen years, three months, so it turned out; Sheryl, she would have been seventeen three weeks this Labor Day. Anyway, Marcie and me climbed right in the back, Sheryl up front with Jerry, real close, one of her legs hooked over his knee. We had this pack of Coors swimming in a bucket of day-old ice down by my feet. Petey, Jerry said, swinging round his head, pop me one of those. I saw his face, just for that moment, bright in the headlights, Jerry having the time of his life, smiling his cock-eyed smile.

When they rolled the truck back over and reached inside, mine were the only arms that reached back.

from Bluer Than This (Smith/Doorstop, 1998)

Robert Frank: The Americans, 1

I’ve just spent an enjoyable week at the Courtauld Gallery Summer School, following, along with a small group of other students, a programme devised and taught by Tim Satterthwaite, Living Cities: The photography of Urban Life in Europe and America, 1920-1989. Modernism to street photography; art photography to social documentary. Fascinating stuff – and centrally placed, Robert Frank’s 1958 book, The Americans.

Not least for its fine and freewheeling introduction by Jack Kerouac, The Americans has long been one of my favourite books of photographs, three of the images – Ranch Market, Hollywood: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina & Crosses at the Site of a Road Accident. U.S. 91, Idaho – the subject of a short sequence of pieces which appeared in my 1998 Smith/Doorstop collection, Bluer Than This.

Here’s one …

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Robert Frank: Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina

Nanny. Charleston, South Carolina.

They don’t want me to hold this child. All them righteous brothers with the anger and their shades. Sisters, too. Wave placards in my face and shout and spit and sound their horns. One of them come right up to me, sanding here with this precious boy in my arms, and says, “Sister, can’t you see that’s the Devil’s child?” Well, I ain’t his sister, nor about to be, ain’t got no sister ‘cept Merilee, and she passed on having her third. No, if there’s anything I am, it’s this child’s mother, near as can be, doing everything for him his own mother don’t do. ‘Sides, you just have to look in this sweet baby’s face to know he ain’t no Devil. See that sweet little angel mouth, way that skin shine so white and flawless like a doll’s; and his eyes, how they stare out at you, never looking away, not blinking, like they already owned the world.

 

Art Chronicles: Philip Guston

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Philip Guston: Dial, 1956

Philip Guston’s work as a painter is interesting in that it seems to divide quite startlingly into two disparate styles: first he was an abstract expressionist and then he was not.

I find his earlier, abstract paintings quite beautiful, if difficult to analyse or describe. Well, he was, at this time in his career, an abstractionist after all and that’s part of the point. Perhaps it’s easier to begin with what they were not. Not for him the aggressive, flung down marks that distinguish Pollock, not the formal, slowly reverberating heaviness of Rothko; not the cosying up to landscape of Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler. If there’s a comparison at all, maybe it’s with the geomorphic canvasses of Sam Francis. [Though my daughter has just wandered into the room, glanced at the above image on the screen, and said, “That looks like an angry Joan Mitchell,” so what do I know?]

What you do find in Guston’s paintings at this time – as in “Dial”, above – is a clustering of colour towards the centre, clumps and blotches of orange and red, the surrounding canvas fading into pinks and greys and blues. Is that the sky? Is that the sea?

In October, 1970, with an exhibition of new work at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, it all changed. Farewell, abstraction; hello, figuration. But this was the figuration of comic books, of Robert Crumb, of German artists like Max Beckmann; this was vulgar, grotesque, confrontational. The critics hated it; accused Guston of betrayal. Below is the famous self-portrait from this period, the artist as a member of the Ku Kluk Klan.

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Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969

This was art in the age of Kissinger and Nixon, the continuing war in Vietnam. “What kind of a man was I,” Guston said, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going into frustrated fury about everything and them going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

Among Guston’s responses to the political situation was a series of some 80 cartoons under the title “Poor Richard”, which caricatured Nixon along with his close confederates  Spiro Agnew and Henry Kissinger – the later shown merely as a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles. Nixon himself is shown as a sweaty self-publicist, with thick stubble and a phallic nose, elongating in Pinocchio fashion with each successive lie.

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Originally intended for publication in 1971, the drawings were only published finally in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press. Until 29th July they are on show at the Hauser and Wirth Gallery in London, along with works from The Phlebitis Series of 1975 and the magnificent and coruscating painting, “San Clemente”, showing Nixon dragging his sorely affected leg along the beach in extreme pain.

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Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975

Art Chronicles: Howard Hodgkin – Absent Friends

I’ve always taken with a slight pinch of salt, Hodgkin’s assertion that his are not abstract paintings, but representations; representations, if I’ve understood him correctly, of place, people and emotions. Sometimes this works, it seems to me, sometimes it doesn’t.

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Howard Hodgkin: Going For a Walk With Andrew 1995-98

In the case of Going For a Walk With Andrew its easy enough to see the green infused orangey yellow as the land being walked and the varied shades of blue as the sky above. What of the figures (?) in red and pink bending forward slightly at one side? The artist and Andrew?  Objects in the landscape? Ephemera? Trees?  Emanations from the spirit world? If this is representational painting, it is so at its more basic; if it is abstraction, it is abstraction as fused with landscape painting as in the work of Helen Frankenthaler or Joan Mitchell.

In its current exhibition, Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends (till June 18th) the National Portrait Gallery seems only too aware of the need to hedge its bets. Portraits? Mmm, maybe. On the day I was there, there were quite a lot of confused people walking round the gallery, looking, some of them I suspect, for something that isn’t there. The exhibition, the NPG says in the very attractively produced handout, explores Hodgkin’s development of a personal visual language of portraiture, which challenges traditional forms of representation. Quite. And one would have to say that, as paintings, as works of art, the stronger that challenge, the more successful, more rewarding they are.

The early pieces on display here, painted between 1960 and 67, and under the influence, in part, of pop art, strike me as clumsy, almost self-consciously ugly. Unsurprisingly, the more mature the work, the finer the result, and there are, I think, some of Hodgkin’s very best paintings here, ones in which he has found a way of marrying representation and abstraction with a richness and complexity and a brilliant use of colour that repays repeated and prolonged viewing.

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Howard Hodgkin: Patrick in Italy 1991-93

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Howard Hodgkin: Portrait of the Artist 1984-87

The ambiguity that exists in the work, as the wall text in the gallery suggests, is one of its strengths, combining, as it does, (and I’m paraphrasing here) literal description with metaphor, within a situation that is not immediately recognisable. This is sensuous art and should be enjoyed as such: don’t strain for meaning, let the meaning, the emotion, come to you.

Near the end of the show there’s one of my favourite pieces, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it.

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Howard Hodgkin: Blue Portrait 2011-12

 

 

 

 

At Monk’s House …

Virginia, that is, not Thelonious. I’ve showed these photos on the blog before, but seeing Patti Smith’s black and white photographs of Monk’s House at Dulwich Picture Gallery yesterday, along with others – Sylvia Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, for instance – which she took in the course of a literary tour, or tours, of the country, I was prompted to post them again.

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling
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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

 

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

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Monk’s House © Molly Ernestine Boiling

On Reading … & Walking …

Ever since I learned to read, I’ve had a book on the go – one after another – an unbroken chain from Winnie-the-Poo to Salman Rushdie. There are so many left behind here in my grandmother’s bungalow; publication dates to span her entire life. Every evening after I’ve eaten, I make myself open one and read, for a while, and then lay the book down spine up on the sofa cushions at the page where I stopped.
The trick to keeping going is break going into bursts: to stop, and otherwise occupy my brain for a spell, and then start going again. Nowadays I apply this to my whole day long. Each is a succession of shallow occupations, enforced intervals. Even my sleep is only ankle deep, interrupted.
Sarah Baume : A Line Made by Walking, William Heinemann 2017

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Richard Long : A Line Made By Walking, 1967

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Art Chronicles: America After the Fall

The excellent little exhibition of American painting now showing upstairs at the Royal Academy in The Sackler Wing begins, chronologically, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and ends in 1941, the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States entered the war. From the beginning of the Great Depression to what would lead, at the war’s end, to a period of relatively wide-spread prosperity. Nothing like a good war, as the US was discovering, to perk up the economy.

Not surprisingly, it was a period of great upheaval, marked on one hand by the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent western migration and on the other by the opening of the Empire State Building and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The art on display – much of it emanating from the Art Institute of Chicago – echoes this disparity, riven between nostalgia for the past and visions of the future that are themselves divided between optimism and dread, between realism and modernism.

If only for the presence here – liberated from Chicago for the first time – of his famously enigmatic American Gothic (the stoicism of the rural past admired or ironised?), Grant Wood is a key figure here, the rolling golden hills of plenty of his early work giving way to the impending disaster of Death on the Ridge Road, where the telegraph poles evoke not only Christian cross but, to my mind at least, the use to which such crosses were put by the Ku Klux Klan, and the devastating portrait of conservative white supremacism evoked so chillingly in his Daughters of Revolution.

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“Death on the Ridge Road” Grant Wood

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“Daughters of Revolution” Grant Wood

Hopper is represented here, of course, and – though only in one example – Georgia O’Keefe, and there are markers laid down for the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that was to follow the war’s end: both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston with paintings that were clearly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the museum itself having opened ten years earlier.

Of all the works on display there were four that excited me most and which have engraved themselves most strongly into my memory. William H. Johnson’s vibrant Street Life, Harlem, with, for me, pre-echoes of Spike Lee and friend strutting his stuff in the latter’s Malcolm X.

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Charles Demuth’s … And the Home of the Brave, which seems to take one of Charles Sheeler’s architecturally correct representational images and flatten it against the picture plane – my eye being drawn back constantly to the top left hand corner.

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And finally, thrillingly, two works by an artist I was sadly ignorant of before, Arthur Dove, one of which can be seen below: Abstract Expression here we come.

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“Swing Music (Louis Armstrong)” Arthur Dove