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.

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.

Art Chronicles : Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)

When I visited the Helen Frankenthaler exhibition, Imagining Landscapes, at the Gagosian Grosvenor Hill recently, it was just a few days short of the anniversary of the death of the poet Lee Harwood, and he was very much on my mind. In particular, I remembered a conversation we had back in 2009, when I had not long begun a course in History of Art at Birkbeck College and was in the process of writing an essay about Frankenthaler. Lee recalled visiting her studio in the mid-60s with fellow poet and art critic John Ashbery and seeing Frankenthaler working on a canvas held on a low frame close to the ground, pouring paint directly onto the canvas from a number of cans that might have been old coffee tins.

As Eleanor Munro further described in Originals: American Women Artists

She tacked a seven-by-ten foot piece of unsized, unprimed cotton duck to the floor and, working with oil paint thinned nearly to the consistency of watercolour, poured and pushed it in its meanderings. By this method, she … gained what watercolorists have always had – freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness.

It seems that she controlled and shaped the flow of the paint to some degree, using squeegees or sponges, so that the resulting painting was a mixture of accident and design, resulting, as another New York poet and art critic, James Schuyler, put it, “chanced beauty”.

As Frankenthaler herself said, “I think most of my accidents are predetermined accidents.”

The exhibition at the Gagosian – beautifully and spaciously displayed – has thirteen works, ranging from the early 1950s to 1970s and illustrating the artist’s progression from paintings which included some figuration to a purer abstraction – but an abstraction which never quite leaves behind a suggestion of landscape.

Helen Frankenthaler : Red Travels, 1971
Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976 (detail)

Art Chronicles: Hedda Sterne

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.

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Photo by Nina Leen for Life Magazine

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.

 

Victoria Miro 1

Victoria Miro 2

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.

Horizon #VII - detail
Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VII – Detail

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.

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Hedda Sterne : Horizon #VI – Detail

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.”

Untitled 1966 Mixzed Media on Paper
Hedda Sterne : Untitled, 1966. Mixed media on paper.

  • 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.
  • Exhibition photographs : Molly Ernestine Boiling

 

In a True Light

 

Light 2

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.

Light 1

 

 

 

 

 

Books of the Year, 2018

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.

 

Art Chronicles: Amy Sillman

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!”.

Back of a Horwse Costume
Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume, 2015-16

The Lie Down
Amy Sillman : Back of a Horse Costume [detail] 2015-16
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.

What the Axe Knows 1
Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows, 2018

What the Axe Knows 2
Amy Sillman : What the Axe Knows [detail) 2018
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.

Pink Drawings 2
Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

Pink Drawings 1
Amy Sillman : Pink Drawings, 2015-16

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 …

Rebus for Camden
Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018 

… in others there is a swift overworking of line and colour not dissimilar to the technique used in the paintings.

Dub Stamp 2
Amy Sillman, Dub Stamp, 2018

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.

Dub Stamp 4
Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

Dub Stamp 3
Amy Sillman : Dub Stamp, 2018

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.

 

Art & Photography 2016

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Saul Leiter: Barbershop 75

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?

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Joan Mitchell: Mandres

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.

 

 

 

AbEx at the RA – a post script

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.

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Joan Mitchell: Mandres

Abstract Expressionism at the R.A.

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.”

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Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée III

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Joan Mitchell: La Grande Vallée XVI

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Joan Mitchell: Le Chemin des Ecoliers

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Joan Mitchell: Sunflowers

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.

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Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler & Grace Hartigan at the opening of an exhibition of Frankenthaler’s paintings.

Guess …

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.

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Helen Frankenthaler with some of her paintings

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.

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