Much of my reading time this year has been spent working my way through a two-volume edition of D. H.Lawrence’s Complete (?) Letters. Currently, I’m up to page 945, November 1926. 301 pages and four years to go. Other large works that have happily taken my time are Thomas McGuane’s Collected and New Stories, Cloudbursts, weighing in a 556 pages and two books about Abstract Expressionism and the art world of New York in the middle of the last century – de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan and Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, which concentrates on five women artists who kept their heads above water in an otherwise all-male tide: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Pretty much the subject matter of the PhD thesis I never got around to writing, in fact, save that I would have concentrated more on the work and less on the biography. I think.
I was pleased that Robin Robertson’s noirish The Long Take won the Goldsmiths’ Prize for fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. As far as I can see it’s a long poem sequence hemmed together with occasional sections of prose: a poem in the form of a novel – new possibilities, indeed. Also short-listed for the Goldsmiths’ was Gabriel Josipovici’s enigmatic and beautifully written The Cemetery in Barnes – at a fraction over 100 pages more (less?) a novella than a novel and, in these days of overblown fiction, all the better for it. The Long Take was also on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which was won by Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I found oddly compulsive in parts – chilling and funny – but by my take overly repetitive and just, yes, too long. I haven’t yet read the Daisy Johnson, but intend to as I very much enjoyed her short story collection, Fen. After greatly admiring Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking, I began Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither with considerable anticipation which the first section, Spill, did nothing to allay – quite superb, in fact – but after that … oh, dear, what a falling away …
Amongst the crime fiction I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed new novels by Eva Dolan, Kjell Ola-Dahl, Mick Herron, Attica Locke, Garry Disher and John Lincoln (Williams), as well as rereading Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and Jamie Harrison’s delightful The Edge of the Crazies. Best of all, Ross Thomas’ 1984 novel, Briarpatch. So good I read it twice.
And, overall, the book that impressed me most this year – and one that I went back to with no little trepidation – was Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Even better than I’d remembered.
If you’re in North London and looking for something to do of an artistic nature – looking rather than making, though making happens there as well – Camden Arts Centre on the corner of Arkwright and Finchley Roads is a good bet. Even if whatever’s showing doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the good little café with an adjacent two-tier garden. And, more often than not, the work in display is, at the very least, interesting. Sometimes, a lot more than that, with the bonus of discovering artists whose work you weren’t previously aware of, even if you should have been.
Such was the case when I came along with my daughter, Molly, last year and we were introduced to the work of the 90-year-old Romanian artist, Geta Bratescu – 90 and still working. And so it was this week, when my partner, Sarah, and I went to see Landline, an exhibition by the American artist, Amy Sillman. Enthralled. Delighted. Excited. “Wow!” from one room to another.”Wow!’ Just, I mean, “Wow! Look at that!”.
With the help of a zine [The OG. Fall-Winter 2018-19] put together by Sillman especially for this show [she’s into zines in a big way] and an Arts Centre File Note, edited by Gina Buenfeld & Martin Clark, our responses did become a little more articulate.
Aside from a large and rather beautiful animation based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, showing on video in the central space between the galleries, Sillman’s work here divides into two main categories: paintings, oil and/or acrylic on canvas, and acrylic, ink and silkscreen works on paper. The former, mostly quite large – 190.5 x 167.5 cm, around there – seem more considered and while individual, wear their abstract expressionist legacy with ease. There’s Guston there, clearly – those heavy lines – [Guston in the works on paper, too] – a notion of de Kooning, perhaps – and in one piece, Avec, the greens and rectangular shapes have a hint of Diebenkorn. One of the articles we browsed in the Reading Room suggested Joan Mitchell as an influence, but I didn’t see it myself. [I’d have plumped for Grace Hartigan.] And besides – what does it matter, all this naming? Hints of this person, that person. [It’s the curse of once having done a History of Art course at Birkbeck.] Sillman is who she is.
The paintings are striking – and the hang gives them room to be so – striking in their immediate overall impression, and then again when you give them time, standing with them, moving close, standing still, moving away, interesting in a more complex way. It’s useful what the File Note has to say …
All of her paintings are long and often arduous exercises in accumulation and excavation, aggregation and erasure, coalescence and collapse. Over many weeks and months, surfaces are work and reworked, abandoned and returned to, scraped back and covered over.
So that what we see in the final painting is a sum of all the images, the marks that have been there before and partly obscured, painted over, nudged, shifted, changed. Change, that seems to be the key word for Sillman. As if, even though she has had, finally, to accept that a work is finished, it’s only finished against her wishes. Against her aesthetic.
We’re committed to something scrappy but good, earnest but smart, ironic and not cynical, a strange FORM! … We haven’t figured it out but we love art that offers change above all: insistent, unremitting change that won’t resolve into finality or finesse. We want to know what happened before and after. We can’t stand the knowingness, the smugness, of a goddamn good painting.
Amy Sillman. The OG#11. Metamorphoses. 2017
In an slightly earlier sequence of drawings shown here – the Pink Drawings from 2015-16, using acrylic, charcoal and ink on paper – a large display of them spread along one wall – the pleasure comes from the vitality of the colour, the vigour of movement, the swiftness of the marks, the solidity of the black.
The most recent of the works on paper are more instant, direct and disturbing – one series was started in response to Trump’s election. In some there is a single figure on his or her knees, vomiting, shouting, screaming …
… in others there is a swift overworking of line and colour not dissimilar to the technique used in the paintings.
The powerful double-sided pieces that comprise Dub Stamp in its entirety hang in a line across Gallery 3, the more immediate, predominantly black and white figures along one side – the one that presents itself first – shifting on the reverse to a mixture of brightly coloured abstraction and strongly inked irregular shapes and lines.
As you walk round, the images cluster against one another, coalesce for a moment and then divide. There’s an ugliness here and a hint of beauty: faced with the horror that underlies much of modern life, how might an artist respond? You can’t pin the answer down, it’s always shifting, changing. Try covering up the ugliness, the truth, and it will still show through.
Let me say again, this is a terrific show and it continues until January, 2019.
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.
Out of nowhere just the other day I started thinking about this movie in which a bearded Alan Bates plays an abstract painter, enjoying a painterly affair with Jill Clayburgh; I remember liking it at the time, even though part of me said perhaps it was a load of old technicolour tosh. Admitting to having not just enjoyed it, but seen it twice, certainly marked me down in the estimation of the one of my American Studies lecturers I most wanted to impress.
But back then I was more than a little in love with New York, with big, bold abstract canvasses, and, yes, of course, with Ms Clayburgh herself.
So here’s an old poem for National Poetry Day.
It was snowing in New York but that was Easter;
we walked past the rink where Clayburgh skated
in An Unmarried Woman, ate hot pretzels
and stood in line for pasta and clam sauce.
(can you still taste that?)
I can’t recall what I wanted for dessert
except the waiter said, “That’s disgusting!”
and refused to take my order.
Later we cruised the Village, hands
punched down into our pockets,
Kevin and I browsing the schedules
at the Bleecker Street Cinema
while you went next door into
the Magic Shoe Store and bought
a pair of bright scarlet boots
yes (you say) oh, yes
– from Out of Silence: New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstop) 2014
Until Saturday 6th September, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill is hosting a small but impressive Bridget Riley retrospective: The Curve Paintings 1961 – 2014. Turn the first corner of the gallery and you come face to face with three of the black and white OpArt pieces from the 60s with which Riley first made her name – the work which, if Jonathan James is to be believed [and occasionally, beneath all that manufactured bluster and bad grace he does strike the truth] makes her, along with Howard Hodgkin, an artist of a very different abstraction, one of the two most important British artists of the modern age. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/11/messing-with-your-mind-bridget-riley-at-the-de-la-warr-pavilion
These pieces are extraordinary. [“Awesome!” as the small boy managed to shout before his parents dragged him back out in search of something else fattening to eat.] Let your eye for one minute engage and they will not let you go. They move. They do. You shift your eyeline, change your position, and still they move. Stare at them long enough and your eyes begin to ache; any longer and the floor beneath you seems to lurch, uncertain.
Well, she couldn’t carry on doing that forever.
What this show majors on are the larger, brightly coloured paintings of more recent years … no longer black and white but full, startling colour, which I thought must be done in acrylic, but no, it’s oil on linen; and curves which overlap and inter-connect. Most of the pieces large enough, bright enough to command the eye. I found them pleasurable, beautifully made, but little more than grandly decorative and though the pleasure they give is real, for me it was no longer lasting than the excellent Italian ice cream from the Di Paulo Café across the road.
Back in London, I made my third visit to the exhibition of Agnes Martin’s paintings at Tate Modern. Although she and Riley are both working within the field of what could loosely be called geometric abstraction, the work could scarcely be more different. Martin makes little attempt to stop you in your tracks, to claim your eye – should you choose to, and, sadly, people, too many people, do, you can stroll on by with hardly a second glance. There is no shout, no clamour; these paintings whisper, shift small degrees in an unseen breeze.
Somewhere between her early days sharing Manhattan studio space and coffee with the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and her time living in a self-built adobe outside Taos, New Mexico, Martin turned her back on the curve in favour of the grid. Square canvasses, lines crossing the left to right, hand-drawn, at differing widths; bands of pale pastel colours, rose pink and blue grey – so pale sometimes it’s as if she begrudged them being colours at all. Something glimpsed in the first light of dawn, perhaps, or the last light of the sun. If people are content to stand and stare at clouds, Martin says, or the shifting patterns of waves on the sea, they should look at my paintings in the same way. Stand long enough, give yourself and the work time enough and the surface starts gradually to move, as do the sea or the sky. Not the violent, challenging movement of a Bridget Riley, but something smaller, calmer; a small vibration as the paint moves in and out of focus, as the minute breaks in the hand-drawn lines appear then disappear.
My paintings have neither objects nor space nor time nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form.
Agnes Martin, 1966
My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way.
Agnes Martin: Writings, 1991
Most memorable is an installation of twelve large paintings, “The Islands”, which with its contemplative atmosphere is comparable to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. When you first enter the room, all twelve pieces seem to be the same square, ghostly white, lacking definition, lacking difference; stand a while and details begin to emerge, taking on shifting shape and form like islands that appear gradually, in and out of the mist; a wavering line here, a differing shade there – blues, greys and yellows – Martin’s colours – that seem to shimmer their way through the over-riding white and then just as strangely disappear.
Agnes Martin is at Tate Modern until October 11th.