Listening to Jazz – 2

 

 

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.

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.

Glenn Ligon: Encounters & Collisions

It’s not often you get to see, within the same time frame, two exhibitions that so successfully engage your attention as someone who derives considerable pleasure from visual art, while simultaneously engaging in a serious and challenging way with the social and political issues of the world beyond the gallery walls. One such, Marlene Dumas’ Image as Burden has just closed at Tate Modern, and I’ve written about it here … ; the other, Glenn Ligon’s Encounters and Collisions, is at Nottingham Contemporary until the 14th June, after which it transfers to Tate Liverpool from 30th June till the 18th October.

Encounters and Collisions is a great show. Great in its variety, its ambition, in the individual works on display. There’s a Pollock, for instance, a rather magnificent Franz Kline, some Warhol, a small de Kooning, photographs by Eggleston and Bruce Davidson; there are pieces by artists you might not have come across before – Beauford Delaney, for instance, or Martin Wong – that bring you up short (the Wong it’s hard not to go back to again and again) thinking why have I not come across this person’s work before. [“My bad,” as my daughter might say.]

But what makes it a great show, as I say, is its ambition, an ambition which is Ligon’s own. Rather than predominantly featuring his own work, he has chosen to embed it within a selection of works by artists who have influenced him at various stages of his development and from which (whom?) his own artistic practice – and its concerns with race, gender and sexuality – has sprung.

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Glenn Ligon: Malcolm X

 

Take the first room, which starts with one of Ligon’s own pieces and one of his best known, a portrait of Malcolm X, in which all colour has been drained from the face, save for the lipstick and the spots of rouge on his cheeks. A Malcolm X who has been feminised and stripped of his most defining feature, his blackness. [The idea came to him, Ligon has said, from working with pre-school children from different backgrounds, using colouring books featuring famous African American figures the children were too young to recognise.] And is the Malcolm X we see here emasculated or assimilated? Without his blackness, what remains? Has he, with time, become integrated beyond the point of threat, of danger? Beyond colour? Is such a thing – in the USA especially – in any meaningful sense possible? As Ligon pointed out, Malcolm X used to be one of the most feared men in America and now you can go into a post office and buy a stamp with his head on it.

Facing this piece, on the opposite wall, hang two of Warhol’s brightly coloured portraits of another revolutionary figure, Chairman Mao, raised to the status of celebrity and famous for his image rather than his radical ideas. Further down the same wall are two paintings by Beauford Delaney, one a full length portrait of James Baldwin against an almost Fauvist background – one gay black man in Paris painting another gay black man in Paris – the other a predominantly yellow, slithering abstract; the pair of them oscillating between figuration and abstraction in a manner that Ligon sees as similar to the tension  between text and abstraction in his own work.

Turn about and you are face to face with Ligon’s Stranger #23, a large rectangle, predominantly black but not overwhelmingly so; look a little longer and you see there are lines of text running left to right all the way down across and showing through, once your eyes have acclimatised, in pale shapes that still resist being read, letters that are covered in coal dust, dust through which at intervals – as you move, as your eyes move, as the canvas seems to move – sparkle with brilliant microscopic notes that shine from the dust. What is this?  A refusal to be silent? Words that can’t be heard? The stubborn persistence of light in the darkness? The denial, through black, of black as a solid, immovable and unchanging colour: the denial of black itself?

These are themes that can be traced through the exhibition, room to room, work to work: the importance and persistence of language; the nature of black.

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Franz Kline: Meryon, 1960-1961

 

Ligon talks about the relevance, early on in his development as an artist, of the black on white paintings of Franz Kline, and there one is – Meryon – prominent on the far wall of the first gallery, the first thing, the first image you see as you enter: a black, not quite abstract construction, heavy and unmoving against its white background, insistent upon its solidity, its colour. Its blackness. As is often the case with Kline, the imagery makes me think of bridges, Brooklyn Bridge above all, but when we step back into the gallery for the second time, having taken in so much else on display, my friend, Irving, says what it brings to his mind is no longer a bridge but a gallows.

In another, smaller, gallery, one of Jackson Pollock’s mostly black paintings, Yellow Islands, (yellow, like the glitter amidst the coal dust, shining through) is displayed close to one of Robert Morris’ untitled felt works, which hangs off the wall, like a a Kline or a Pollock brought to life, like one of Kline’s solid images of black given fluidity and movement and a kind of stubborn grace.

Untitled 1967-8, remade 2008 Robert Morris born 1931 Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02852

Untitled 1967-8, remade 2008 Robert Morris born 1931 Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L02852

Go from here to Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting No 5, a square of seemingly solid black, which, when you step away from it, is less than solid through and through, which, in part and in certain light shines blue. Or to Jennie C. Jones trio of sculptures, Shhh #12, #14 and #15, made from professional noise cancelling cable and, like Morris’ felt, hanging down from the walls, thin and black and partly coiled like whips – instruments of control used to deny protest, language, speech.

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Jennie C. Jones: Shhh

 

You see how it works; I don’t need to go on. Even though I’ve only scratched the surface. Do go to the show if you can, if not in Nottingham, then Liverpool. Or both.

For much of my (partial) understanding of how the exhibition works, I am grateful to Mark Rawlinson, Head of the Department of History of Art at the University of Nottingham, whose Gallery Talk I was fortunate enough to attend.

And you can find Glenn Ligon’s recent evening session at Nottingham Contemporary, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he talks about the exhibition and his work, here …