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.
Cross Regent Street into Mayfair – having first fortified yourself with a short latté and cinnamon bun in the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square – and immediately you’re in a world of high rents, high fashion and ostentatious money. [If you’ve ever played Monopoly you’ll know what I mean.] And now, more than ever there’s art. That’s art with a hefty price sign and a capital A. There were always small and slightly exclusive galleries along Cork Street and its neighbours; and, of course, there’s the Royal Academy, recently much-expanded, to the south on Piccadilly. But in recent years the big movers and shakers in the art market have moved in with a vengeance. Hauser and Wirth – who have galleries in New York and L.A., Hong Kong, Zurich and Gstaad – and on a farm in Somerset – now have a double gallery on Saville Row, across from West End Central Police Station [and just a little way up from where my good friend, the late Tony Burns, laboured in the tailoring trade.] Gagosian, with galleries in Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, New York, San Francisco and Beverley Hills, have opened no great distance away, on Grosvenor Hill; and Victoria Miro, having previously been in Cork Street, returned to Mayfair in 2013 with a gallery on St. George Street, immediately behind Sotheby’s on Bond Street; this is in addition to a vast double gallery converted from a former piano factory between Hoxton and Islington in North-East London and an intimate canal-side location in Venice,
Our first stop on this particular morning is at Hauser and Wirth, where one gallery is currently showing work by Swiss artists from the 1930s to the present day, curated by Gianni Jetzer; the other has an exhibition of photographs by August Sander, Men Without Masks. My guide and companion, who has previously visited both, suggests we leave the Swiss for another day.
August Sander’s central ambition was to create a picture of Germany in the first half of the last century, doing so in the main through a vast number of portraits which ranged widely across class, occupation and gender. His basic method was to photograph his subject full-on, often against a neutral background, and in the majority of cases with the subject looking back directly into the lens. It suggests a kind of neutrality, removes any too obvious trace of the photographer himself, allows the subject, as it were, to own the picture, command the frame. This is me: this is who I am. Well, that’s the illusion, that’s the idea – Men Without Masks, indeed.
Almost all the examples of Sander’s work I’ve seen previously have been quite small in scale and what is exceptional about this show, which is on till July 28th, and makes it especially well worth visiting, is that these, in the main, are in a larger, full-scale format.
You don’t have to spend long with the work to be conscious of the influence Sander had on photographers who came after him; on Diane Arbus, on Walker Evans. Nor, looking a the portrait of the ‘peasant woman’ below is it hard to see the inffluence on Sander of artists like Cezanne.
Moving on, the current show at the Gagosian [till July 28th] is Howard Hodgkin’s Last Paintings, comprising the final six paintings he finished in India before his death in 2017, and twenty others not previously shown in Europe.
I remember – and how’s this for a brazen display of one-upmanship and name dropping? – a conversation I had about Hodgkin with Geoff Dyer some twenty years ago, when we were travelling by coach across Romania as part of a British Council delegation of writers. I’d been luxuriating in having an open ticket to the exhibition of Hodgkin’s work at the Hayward Gallery, making the point quite strongly that the more opportunities I had to see the paintings, stand in front of them and look at them properly, the more I liked them. Ah, said Geoff, well I think I feel precisely the opposite.
Which shouldn’t have been enough to make me revise my opinion, though I suspect that it did – or, at the very least, got me to consider the possibility of revising my opinion, which, in fact. I think I did in time, and might even have done so without Geoff’s prompting. I was certainly feeling pretty agnostic by the time of the Time & Place paintings shown at Modern Art Oxford in 2010, though my positivity was partly reclaimed by some of the later pieces in Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.
While remaining to some degree resistant to Hodgkin’s frequent assertion that his work is representational rather than abstract, there’s perhaps enough in a painting such as Patrick in Italy (above) to agree that it works on a level partly of metaphor, partly a gesture (well, several) towards a kind of representation. [Oh, Lordy! Is that what metaphor IS anyway? Discuss. Or, better, don’t.] And actually, I don’t too much care. I’m responding on a level outside the purely intellectual. Like most of Hodgkin’s best work, the painting’s appeal is overwhelmingly sensual. It’s about the paint and the way it’s applied. About colour. The richness of colour. [No wonder he was obsessed with India.] It’s the richness that wins one over; the sensuousness of the texture, the brilliance of the paint, the warmth, the – yes – the sexuality of it.
The other painting that stopped me in my tracks at the NPG was this …
One of my favourite pieces in the show and, as a portrait, for that’s clearly from the title what it claims to be, 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. Loved it then – sorry, Geoff – love it now. And the paintings that I most enjoyed at the Gagosian were of the same ilk, shared many of the same components: they were small, smaller than the rest, unfussy, simple – the richness that made pieces like Patrick in Italy so close to overwhelming, so irresistible, has been reduced to this. Urgent. Quick. Two compatible colours overlapping. Late work. Among the very last.
Which leaves the final destination on our tour of Mayfair: Victoria Miro. And first, another small back story. In 2016 my partner gave me as a birthday present [78th, since you ask] the catalogue for Women of Abstract Expressionism, a show organised by Denver Art Museum and due to travel from there to Charlotte, North Carolina, hence to Palm Springs and finally to the Whitechapel gallery in London in the summer of 2017. Oh, my God! Those painters – Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Krasner, de Kooning – whose work I have long loved and admired, all too often at a distance, along with more than a dozen others from the 1940s to the 60s. I could not believe it. And I was right not to. For whatever reasons – and when I asked, they played their cards politely close to their chest – the show would not come to the Whitechapel. Which made it all the more exciting when Victoria Miro advertised Surface Work – “a celebration of women artists who have shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expanse, the language and definition of abstract painting.” Perhaps this would fill the gap left by the missing show from Denver?
Sadly, no. For one thing, there was relatively little from the period when abstract expressionism was at its height [The curators should get some kind of award for sourcing the only Joan Mitchell that could be described as dull] and much of the work on display in the twinned galleries on Wharf Road was more recent, some of it contemporary, and to my eyes not very good at all. An argument, rather, in favour of the point of view that it is nigh on impossible to create something original and worthwhile in abstract expressionism now. That moment has gone. The only artist who claimed my attention favourably was Elizabeth Neel, with a piece of work created especially for the exhibition. I can’t show it here, but these images give an idea of her style …
So it was that I arrived at St. George Street with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Could they have been saving the best for last? Uh-huh.
There it is, smack in front of you as you enter. Not the rich, stained, echoes of landscape Frankenthaler, but energetic, darting – skating – quick and alive; unlike anyone else and so immediately recognisable. And she’s in smart company. To her right, a painting by Alma Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – though even then she had to wait until the age of 80 – and whose work was shown in London recently as part of the excellent Soul of a Nation show at Tate Modern. Thomas moved into abstraction relatively late in her career, and here are two examples, not from this show.
On the wall to Frankenthaler’s left is “End of Winter”, a strong, dark, swirling painting by Betty Parsons, better known for running the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which she did from 1946 to 1982, but clearly no mean artist herself.
And beside her and instantly, I think, recognisable for the brownish-orange colour palate and the heavy use of line, an oil and paper collage on canvas by Lee Krasner …
There’s more, and we look at it but fleetingly; this, I think, is a good place to stop. My companion assures me he knows where there’s a Pret large enough that we can be assured a seat even at what is now the busiest time of the day. And as we head out I’m already tossing up between the normally dependable, and relatively cheap, egg and cress or maybe the also dependable but more expensive chicken and avocado …
This is the second of the extracts from my writing dealing explicitly with jazz, chosen by Sascha Feinstein to accompany his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal of jazz and literature, Brilliant Corners.
Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’d been able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.
Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.
It comes from a stand alone crime novel, In a True Light, which was originally published by William Heinemann in 2001. Beginning with the release of its central character from prison …
They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday. Three years for deception, reduced on appeal to two; six months in Brixton, the remainder in Ford open prison.Naturally lean and wiry, Sloane walked out through the gates a fitter man than when he’d walked in.
A painter, the particular deception of which Sloane was found guilty was that of forgery; of late, he had found other people’s work, in his own exact interpretation, more saleable than his own. The novel works on two time frames, one in the present, following Sloane to New York in search of the daughter he never knew he had, the other tracing him back to the late 50s when he was a young, aspiring abstract expressionist painter in Greenwich Village – which is where and when he gets to listen to Monk.
In my opinion, it’s not a wholly successful novel – I’m not sure now well the different parts fuse together, the contemporary crime scenes in particular – but it does have some scenes of which I’m very fond and even, dare I say it, some writing of which I’m proud. And, of course, it gave me the opportunity to think and write about the art, jazz and poetry of New York during a period that has long held a strong fascination. Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Thelonious Monk.
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.
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.
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.
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.