I first encountered Jenny Saville’s work, alongside that of Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and others, when she was included in the newsworthy, even notorious, Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. More recently, two of her canvases were shown at Tate Britain as part of All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of Painting Life. One linked her with that loose agglomeration of mainly young and controversial artists short-handed as YBAs; the other positioned her within the broader tradition of representational painters of the human figure – the body. Only with the survey that forms the major part of the current NOW show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) in Edinburgh, did I have the opportunity to see as broad a selection of her work in one place – seventeen pieces ranging from the 1992 “Propped” to “Aleppo” from 2017/18.
The effect is to be – let’s step aside from any art speak here – gob-smacked, slapped into consciousness. First it’s the size – these are big canvasses and in this perfectly hung exhibition they are granted the space they deserve; then its the paint – the thickness, richness of the paint – and the flesh, the flesh of female bodies, faces – flesh that is almost overwhelming, overwhelmingly real, faces that are torn yet tender.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Saville studied anatomy, that she has or had a particular interest in plastic surgery, that the many images she has collected range from those illustrating war wounds to the physical abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Pain manifests itself in some of these paintings, cruelty even. And yet there is a tenderness here – call it love, even – sympathy, affection.
I came to see the material of paint as a kind of liquid flesh I could mould in my hands.
Astonishing, that’s what these paintings are, astonishingly real. Look, look away, look again; look up close at the sworls and gouges of paint, paint dragged across the surface of the canvas, the surface of the body. Women’s bodies.
The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness.
NOW is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until September 16th.
Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.
The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.
Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.
Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.
The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.
American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]
Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …
Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
The excellent little exhibition of American painting now showing upstairs at the Royal Academy in The Sackler Wing begins, chronologically, in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and ends in 1941, the year that Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States entered the war. From the beginning of the Great Depression to what would lead, at the war’s end, to a period of relatively wide-spread prosperity. Nothing like a good war, as the US was discovering, to perk up the economy.
Not surprisingly, it was a period of great upheaval, marked on one hand by the devastation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent western migration and on the other by the opening of the Empire State Building and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. The art on display – much of it emanating from the Art Institute of Chicago – echoes this disparity, riven between nostalgia for the past and visions of the future that are themselves divided between optimism and dread, between realism and modernism.
If only for the presence here – liberated from Chicago for the first time – of his famously enigmatic American Gothic (the stoicism of the rural past admired or ironised?), Grant Wood is a key figure here, the rolling golden hills of plenty of his early work giving way to the impending disaster of Death on the Ridge Road, where the telegraph poles evoke not only Christian cross but, to my mind at least, the use to which such crosses were put by the Ku Klux Klan, and the devastating portrait of conservative white supremacism evoked so chillingly in his Daughters of Revolution.
Hopper is represented here, of course, and – though only in one example – Georgia O’Keefe, and there are markers laid down for the explosion of Abstract Expressionism that was to follow the war’s end: both Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston with paintings that were clearly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, which had been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1939, the museum itself having opened ten years earlier.
Of all the works on display there were four that excited me most and which have engraved themselves most strongly into my memory. William H. Johnson’s vibrant Street Life, Harlem, with, for me, pre-echoes of Spike Lee and friend strutting his stuff in the latter’s Malcolm X.
Charles Demuth’s … And the Home of the Brave, which seems to take one of Charles Sheeler’s architecturally correct representational images and flatten it against the picture plane – my eye being drawn back constantly to the top left hand corner.
And finally, thrillingly, two works by an artist I was sadly ignorant of before, Arthur Dove, one of which can be seen below: Abstract Expression here we come.
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.