Unbalanced

A Kenneth Noland piece like this one opens up a space any abstractionist should find attractive to enter, best described in Noland’s own words:

Kenneth Noland, Acute 1977

Kenneth Noland, Acute 1977

“It’s been on my mind—what would something be like if it were unbalanced? It’s been a vexing question for a long time. But it took the experience of working with radical kinds of symmetry, not just a rectangle, but a diamond shape, as well as extreme extrusions of shapes, before I finally came to the idea of everything being unbalanced, nothing vertical, nothing horizontal, nothing parallel. I came to the fact that unbalancing has its own order. In a peculiar way it can still end up feeling symmetrical.”

Start with “nothing vertical, nothing horizontal, nothing parallel” and we have a pretty progressive ambition. I like it. That’s technique, and it’s always refreshing to find a new one. As it happens there’s a good dose of this kind of thing in Stella’s Polish Villages, a topic for another post. For me it fits right in with my aversion to grids and preference for diagonals, but in the context of geometric abstraction—the real kind with ruled lines and measured spaces—it amounts to an opening up from within, a way of letting more life into geometry.

That would be a good place to stop, or get into the studio, but the aesthetic problem is the vexation that comes when the unbalanced becomes yet another balance. Unbalance, dissonance, disunity, awkwardness—you can get ’em but you can’t keep ’em. I’m glad I’m not concerned with aesthetics, that would just be preoccupation with failure. Making the work is hard enough, but a lot more fun.

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Nicolas de Staël

Nicolas de Stael, Paysage Mediterranee 1954

Nicolas de Staël, Paysage Mediterranee 1954

A little while ago I was commenting on the great importance of Paul Klee for global modernism after WWII, a fact not much mentioned in the standard histories. Another artist who was very successful and widely admired and imitated in the fifties was Nicolas de Staël. In his case the silly term “seminal” is probably accurate, because he fathered an entire tribe of abstractionists—unto the umpteenth generation. De Staël’s manner is what we might call today a default—with no particular forms to render the artist falls back on rectangular blocks, often applied with a palette knife, and clustering around the middle of the canvas. It’s success might reduce to the formula of geometric abstraction without a ruled geometry, or a grid that hides behind soft forms and scratchy paint.

Nicolas de Stael, Composition sur Fond Rouge, 1951

Nicolas de Staël, Composition sur Fond Rouge, 1951

I’ve seen it a million times and always forget it. It’s the generic inevitability of the mode that makes it a paradigm for bad abstract art—but that’s not to say that a great artist couldn’t find a way to make it work. This is a topic to come back to—no matter how unpromising any approach may seem, you never know what’s possible. For more recent work in the same mode how about the distinguished British artist Alan Gouk?

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades 2013

Alan Gouk, Conspiratorial Shades 2013

I’m not making any claims for Gouk—compared to de Staël his scale is enormous, and that’s kind of interesting—but as with all art, the weakest element is always the one that offers the most potential. In this case it’s the blocks themselves. What makes them so dull in de Staël is that they’re derived from the rectangular support, so have no invention or formal energy. Entropic, as Smithson would say, kind of tired out. De Staël leaves me flat, though I hate to say it, for his suffering was real, as was his sincere effort. But the blocks are also what I called in an earlier post “characterless forms,” and can be used differently. It’s that unconsciously domineering grid that kills.

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Old Age

One of the most pleasantly surprising phenomena of the last year is the spontaneous and unqualified enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders among the young. Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are living proof that age doesn’t really count for much. But then that’s something of a cliché itself, and expressed in a pretty banal sentence too. Corbyn and Sanders are “progressive” politically, but their programs are a return to some common sense positions of New Deal social democracy. Are young people today actually very conservative? Naah, that’s a pointless paradox, they’re just realistic. I might be a Bernie Sanders of abstract art, but I really, really have no dreams of going back to anything.

Paul Cezanne, Vallier The Gardener c.1906

Paul Cézanne, Vallier The Gardener c.1906

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Life and Art

I’m only a little way into this second blog campaign and already beginning to get tired of myself. And no doubt readers will be tired of hearing about Motherwell or Klee. Maybe I’m just an old fogey out of touch with contemporary art. Except my own. Actually that’s not quite the case; life is always in the present but a living art is not always contemporary.

One of the funniest moments in my teaching career was when I told a class of eighty or ninety students that certain paintings by Cézanne were more alive than they were. You should have felt the shock wave in the lecture hall. Wonder why they took it so hard? It’s only true. If your existence is entirely possessed by mass culture norms and the conventional thoughts of the people around you then what’s the point? Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean you’re actually alive.

As it happens I’m getting tired of Klee. Too much cuteness.

Rodney Graham, City Self, Country Self

Rodney Graham, City Self, Country Self

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Black Rain

Thinking about Kandinsky’s disregard for any tight or comprehensive order, I realize that I don’t quite agree. I want an organic kind of closure, if you could call it that. Poussin after nature, as Cézanne described it. Geometry loose, but forms in the right place.

Robert Linsley, Collage #5 spray, watercolour, silkscreen, silkscreen ink, pencil, watercolour pencil, tissue paper collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #5 spray, watercolour, silkscreen, silkscreen ink, pencil, watercolour pencil, tissue paper collage on canvas

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Aesthetically Pleasing

The previous two posts on Kandinsky might draw the objection that his works do have an order, namely beauty or the indefinable feeling of aesthetic quality. That’s a hard point to argue with, but it doesn’t feel like that to me because there are no limits in these works. There could be more lines, or more circles, or more soft shapes or more hard ones. The figures could be grouped in any number of ways, and it wouldn’t really make any difference. This lack of limit or push back is the defining characteristic of the work. I think that beauty cannot be so described. Beauty is ultimately grounded in the human body—in human bodily beauty, or sexual beauty—so its main feature is a sense of rightness. It is nothing other than a limit, but one that we feel before we see or understand. Geometry has no intrinsic limits; beauty is limitation, but that never bothered anyone—except some abstractionists like Kandinsky.

Vassily Kandinsky, On White 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, On White 1923

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Play

Further to the delightful arbitrariness of Kandinsky’s work, this piece offers many small and exemplary decisions. The image looks like a door viewed at an oblique angle. Inside it are a number of what could be small circular doors that swing open onto a black void. The end point of each arc touches the corner of a coloured trapezoid or triangle, but there is no evident reason why—nothing happens to or with or because of the shapes and there is no order in their arrangement or relations. At first glance we might have the impression of an intelligently structured grouping, but a closer look gives us nothing. Kandinsky certainly was intelligent, but he didn’t let that interfere with his work.

Wassily Kandinsky, Development in Brown 1933

Wassily Kandinsky, Development in Brown 1933

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The Liteness of Kandinsky

I’ve always had problems with Kandinsky. One is his scaleless space, but more about that another time. Another, which I’ve only just began to clarify for myself, is the arbitrariness of his arrangements. There’s no reason why they have to be like they are rather than otherwise, and that starts with his early nature and landscape based abstractions. A lot of geometric abstraction—from Popova to Lissitsky to Moholy-Nagy to countless others—teeters on the same brink. It all looks equally good, and equally generic and arbitrary. But lately been looking closer and finding that I appreciate it a lot more.

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

The key is that it’s not just a conceptual arbitrariness, a property of circle, triangle and trapezoid, but the many small details are themselves without any overarching order. They don’t line up. In this piece some of the lines find the centres of the circles, but usually not. But then there’s no reason why they should. An open sided triangle is not really a triangle, because the important point seems to be the vertex. In a composition of circles wouldn’t one of the ends of a protractor have some logical relation to either a centre or an edge of a circle? That kind of relation does exist in this picture, but only just. Or couldn’t the lines be rays? Circles with rays or receding perspective lines are common in the cosmic imagery of early geometric abstraction. I can’t find any consistent relation between the lines and circles here, but there are some almost hits, or suggestions. The picture makes my need for order seem silly. But then as I search for some reason to the design I find myself enjoying more the lack of it. The heading here is Whim, discussed elsewhere on this blog.

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Work

Lately I’ve been making a series of collages, all roughly the same size—22×28″, sometimes a bit smaller or larger—and find it tough going. In abstract art the temptation is always to accept early results, and that question gets more complicated when the method is improvisational and the results organic, like mine. One has to persist until something new or unforseeable appears.

I think my Island paintings hit the perfect balance between stable, focused, complex composition and free, open improvisation, but I didn’t expect that balance to last forever. I can catch it again if the opportunity arises, but it was already beginning to move away around the sphere when I started pouring wet into wet. Right now circumstances limit me to collage, and I’m using it to find yet another balance. That means a lot of work changing, moving, painting, repainting, ripping up, reconsidering everything. No easy solutions. This one is a little more complex than the previous two, but it still has large, readable forms with strong identities. For that matter, the small details are not free—they have a place in the design, as I was lamenting earlier.

Robert Linsley, Collage #4 watercolour, spray, acrylic, pencil, chalk, silkscreen ink collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #4 watercolour, spray, acrylic, pencil, chalk, silkscreen ink collage on canvas

There are a few elements here I’m going to keep working with: the frame within the frame, figuration—as in the large black shape in the middle—and geometry, meaning straight lines—as in the lower left corner. Putting the figuration and the geometry together is what’s interesting.

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Snapshot

Two posts back I mentioned two concepts of the picture. The second one—broken, fugitive, moving, unstable—has a definite relation to the most profound idea in modern photography, the “decisive moment.” You could even connect it to street photography in particular, because it’s objects are always moving away, which is a metaphorical way of saying they are always changing. However, I don’t get it from photography, but from the temporally intense tradition in American painting—Pollock, Frankenthaler, Louis, Smithson. Motherwell is also a relevant figure, especially works like his Lyric Suite. Still, the photographic connection is very interesting.

The conflict is between the established powers of painting, which one would be foolish to oppose, and the modern new; between stable structures and slippery life. The question is whether, in the context of a work of visual art, that second position can be ever be anything other than a metaphor.

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile (collage) 1998 (detail right side)

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile (collage) 1998 (detail right side)

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Artist of Conflict, Artist of Repression

In our time the great artist of conflict is Frank Stella. His over busy and crowded compositions are nothing other than a battle of forms—and to say that doesn’t mean they are not also a dance of forms and a very intimate and loving mingling of forms as well. They behave exactly like the human monkey.

In my book I set up a match between Stella and Richter, although I didn’t actually come up with the idea that they are antagonists. Benjamin Buchloh has to take credit for that. Richter’s scraping technique represses all conflict; no wonder a right wing Jacobin like Buchloh admires his work. A fantasy of the end of all conflict is also a fantasy of absolute power, and something like the dreams of the 1%. No more bothersome monkeys.

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile, 1998, installation at the Whitney Museum, 2015

Frank Stella, The Earthquake in Chile, 1998, installation at the Whitney Museum, 2015

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So Goes the Battle

Life is all conflict, like it or not. Gone are the days when we had to face the world, now it’s always other people who give trouble. With the previous sentence readers may notice how my own need for sovereignty, or freedom, or security, helps to set wars in motion. Is the term war an exaggeration in this context? I’m not really worse than anyone else, but I think it’s useful and accurate to see my private struggles in the light of world politics. Wars are nothing other than petty emotions inflated into mass delusions. In my view art is a kind of enlightenment, meaning freedom from mass delusion. But however much it turns away from the unnecessary violence of the human monkey, art is not exactly a moment of release from conflict—it might seem that way, but it actually includes conflict, allegorized as form. Individual paintings are battles with a humane resolution.

I don’t do any fighting myself, that would be utter failure. In the case of my recent collages, the struggle is between two concepts of the picture. On one side is the stable, integrated whole, and when all the parts join hands they turn as one united organism and face the viewer. On the other side is a process in motion, traveling through the world, that just happens to enter the picture space at a moment when some transformation is underway. It’s heading off somewhere else so has turned or is turning its back. I’m like a referee; I try not to get in the way, and keep the game going until the winner is clear, but I have to admit that the former option is the stronger, and I wish it weren’t quite so. In this collage, and the earlier one, the big battalions have definitely won.

Robert Linsley, Collage #3 2016 watercolour, pencil, spray, enamel, tissue paper collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #3 2016 watercolour, pencil, spray, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel, tissue paper collage on canvas

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Oil Transfer

Seems I was a bit off in my description of Klee’s technique in the previous post. Don’t know where the information comes from, but here is a description from another blog:

“His ‘oil-transfer’ was essentially a home-made tracing system. A sheet of paper coated with black oil paint was, when dry to the touch, laid face down on what would be the host sheet for the image. On top of both was placed a drawing, the lines of which were retraced with an etching needle so as to press the oil paint onto the bottom sheet. The atmosphere of these ‘oil-transfer’ drawings is enhanced by the smudges of black paint pressed through by the drawing hand and which provides a resist to the superimposed coloured washes.”

This kind of thing is fascinating to me. So it was a form of monoprinting, but also resembled something else. Especially interesting is the suggestion that the watercolour was added later. Could have been before and/or after.

Paul Klee, Medicinal Flora 1924

Paul Klee, Medicinal Flora 1924

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Ubiquitous Klee

The narrative of post-war American art is by now pretty dull. It’s hard to say how many really believed it; certainly most artists have always had a broader view of the world. It was probably at base a marketing strategy to encourage more American buyers of American art, and it worked pretty well to open markets in Europe—defeated Europe. But though most readers of this blog would likely nod their heads, as would most knowledgable art worldlings, the reality might still come as a surprise. The most influential artist world wide in the post WWII period may have been Paul Klee.

In Latin America he’s in everyone from Xul Solar to Gego to Mira Schendel; Max Bill notwithstanding I think Klee had more influence on abstraction in Latin America, though it’s interesting that the two examples who come to mind first, Gego and Schendel, were both Central European emigres. In India the early work of Vasudeo Gaitonde was very beholden to Klee. The historical rhetoric talks about Indian miniatures, but the works themselves say Klee. Klee was widely admired in the US but the American juggernaut, meaning above all big, very physical pictures, overpowered his small scale visual thoughts. Everywhere else the concept of “taking a line for a walk” captivated artists with its simplicity and improvisational obviousness. That’s fine, but I’m more interested in one of his characteristic techniques—oil transfer drawing, which is basically monoprinting. He would draw with oil and brush on something, don’t know what, and transfer it onto the surface already prepared with watercolour or ink.

Paul Klee, In the Style of Bach 1919, oil transfer drawing and watercolour on primed linen on cardboard

Paul Klee, In the Style of Bach 1919, oil transfer drawing and watercolour on primed linen on cardboard

Whether the various fabrics and papers were mounted on other supports earlier or later in the process I don’t know.

Mira Schendel ran with this, making a great many monoprints in oil on rice paper. Very attractive nothings. I like them a lot better than her smudgy all over works with letraset, which are too obviously derived from Klee.

Mira Schendel, Monotypes on rice paper, publication by Hauser and Wirth

Mira Schendel, Monotypes on rice paper, publication by Hauser and Wirth

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Torn Paper and Paint

Lately have no money to buy watercolour paper, so have been tearing up some problematic pictures for collages. The process is a compromise between my natural simplicity and the pleasures of more. I think the balance is struck, in this piece at least. It’s not half as busy as a Frank Stella for example. But the collage method has one big advantage—you can try out a lot of things before the glue goes on. At first that may seem obvious, but the fatal weakness of collage is that it’s too easy. Working and reworking is the key to something that bears more than one look. So it’s really not the collage method that matters. After all, it’s common enough in every elementary school classroom.

Untitled, watercolour, silkscreen, pencil, acrylic, tissue paper, spray, collage on canvas 2016

Untitled, watercolour, silkscreen, pencil, acrylic, tissue paper, spray, collage on canvas 2016

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Putting Pieces Together

This is the kind of collage I like to see from Motherwell, though there aren’t many like it. Parts of it resemble Arp’s torn paper collages, discussed earlier on this blog. It doesn’t escape from the pattern of blocky figures lined up like a designer’s grid, but hides it effectively. And it does get away from the pattern of circle on top, boxes below which in Motherwell’s case always indicates a figure. Notice the shadow along the torn edge of heavy paper at the bottom. There are so many discrete spaces, so many zig-zags and small connections between parts that it offers a lot more to look at than his usual figures.

Robert Motherwell, Untitled (composition) 1947

Robert Motherwell, Untitled (composition) 1947

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Less Figure, Less Grid

Still worrying about Robert Motherwell. Why? For the same reason as any artist might come to mind—because of how bad he is, and how good, and because those qualities are more or less undecidable right now. He’s bothersome, and his bothersomeness comes from the feeling that we may be making the same decisions without knowing it. He was entitled not to know because that was his time. We can’t afford to be under the shadow of that time, we have our own to measure up to.

I find many of the collages too figurative—the figures are too easy for him, and they all fill the surface in more or less the same way. A few pasted sheets oriented to the grid, a couple of lines, a circle, and we’ve got another disassembled/under construction “post-cubist” figure. He does it so well, but once we see the pattern, the work shrinks a bit. I like better the ones that are more liquid, spready, torn, disintegrating—in other words more conventionally abstract by the standards of today. Ouch. What a confession.

Robert Motherwell, Collage in Yellow and White, With Torn Elements 1949

Robert Motherwell, Collage in Yellow and White, With Torn Elements 1949

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Other Figures

I’ve been looking at (and reading) a catalogue of Motherwell’s early collages. It has to be said that Motherwell is one of the important reference points for abstraction today. This is hardly a common view, but as a practitioner I have a different perspective than most critics or historians. His early collages open up some important questions about convention, the all-over composition, and the figure. I respond to them most strongly when they are less arrangements of blocks parallel to the picture plane. Funny how planarity, which was supposed to guarantee flatness, turns out to be the strongest link to cubism. Diagonals help to move things along, but only if they rule the whole arrangement, or at least influence it strongly, as here.

Robert Motherwell, Collage 1947

Robert Motherwell, Collage 1947

But the formula often works, and in this next piece there’s a complexity of overlapping rectangles that really demonstrates Motherwell’s intelligence and taste, not to mention his ability to work spontaneously and intuitively. It’s not quite a figure.

Robert Motherwell, Blue Air July 1946

Robert Motherwell, Blue Air July 1946

It’s that not-quiteness that matters. This next piece really falls apart. As such it’s more forward looking than most of the early collages, and today still at least a bit that way.

Robert Motherwell, In Grey and Tan 1948

Robert Motherwell, In Grey and Tan 1948

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Figure

This collage by Robert Motherwell is exceptional, in my opinion. It has a kind of cleanness and freshness that puts it over the top professionally, though those are not necessary qualities in any modern art, certainly not in collage, which has a normal messiness. But it is very intelligently organized. The orange head of the figure, with really nice red spider lines inside, is displaced and repeated differently in charcoal—very odd and interesting, although also kind of cubist. The ink blots on the body are very attractive—almost symmetrical, and the best break in the symmetry is the hard curved line on the bottom of middle blot which picks up the curved lines on the right. Enough formal analysis. Just notice the second figure up against the left edge—it could be a David Smith.

Robert Motherwell, Figure with Blots 1943

Robert Motherwell, Figure with Blots 1943

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Politics and Art of the Abstract Type

It’s been an interesting nine months. Like many I’ve been completely captivated by Bernie. Never in my life have I felt like giving money to a politician, but can’t anyway since I’m not American. For that matter, I’ve never heard a politician say the things he says—even though the words might be common, or getting more so. He’s the right person for the job, and we need him—though it doesn’t look like we’ll get him.

BernieSanders_s878x585
And for me the drama of the US election accompanies involvement with The New Centre for Research and Practice, a great new initiative, which I recommend to everyone.

The New Centre crowd would agree with me that there is no conflict between the kind of formal analysis I do on this blog and political engagement. Or if there is a conflict, it’s the right kind. As Shep Steiner points out, in a review of a Helen Frankenthaler show at Gagosian:

“Here we arrive at the unobtrusive nub of the problem of value: a symbolic question, a contradiction that is lived or, more succinctly, bodied forth in our encounters with art and easily glossed over by the critical gaze. The hard lesson to be learned is that the question of value cannot be tackled from an objective or distanced perspective either as assumed by [John] Elderfield’s formal account or by the critic who simply casts a cynical eye on the market, Gagosian, etc. With a long and dreary history of finger-wagging, the latter, which is the dominant paradigm of critical engagement today, suffers from the linguistic pathology that Roland Barthes diagnosed in the early 1960s as ‘asymbolie’, or the failure to acknowledge the symbolic nature of the literary work; the source of this failure is scientism and a belief in truth.

Common sense, which approaches socialism more and more today at least on this point, tells us that the surplus money squandered, invested and amassed by the banking industry should be redistributed. The same would seem to apply to the accumulating bubble of assets locked into the post-War and contemporary art market — given the money trail after the 2007—08 financial crisis it appears that a not insignificant amount was deposited in the ‘beautiful asset’.”

Steiner knows how to make the connection.

Helen Frankenthaler, Before the Caves 1958

Helen Frankenthaler, Before the Caves 1958

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New Beginning

The blog is starting up again, and it’s gratifying to know that readers I had before are happy to see it come back. The occasion is the imminent publication of my book, my first book. Artists don’t have to write books, in fact they don’t have to write anything. I don’t really know why I do it, it just comes naturally. Studio work opens up mental doors and one feels like talking about what comes through. The blog form is perfect—occasional thoughts, passing experiences, new enthusiasms all adapt easily to the short post, and I like to keep em short.

The book is an extended effort, and it wasn’t easy. The writing wasn’t so hard—I just started at the first page and wrote through unil I got to the end. Had no idea what I would say until it was said, which made the whole job a lot easier. The hard part was finishing, especially collecting the illustrations.

Beyond-Resemblance

I promise the book is a pleasure to read. It’s like the proverbial onion—an esoteric core surrounded by several layers of formal analysis and a skin of polemic. And now it’s done, let the blogging begin.

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Last Post, For Now

With three and a half years of this blog, I thought the new year might be a good time to take a rest. After hitting a high of 9500 unique visitors in one month, the readership has wobbled up and down, and recently dropped to just over 6000. I don’t know why, but it is possible that people are getting sick of the sound of my voice, that the posts are becoming repetitious. In any case, I’m getting sick of the sound of my own voice. The rate of posting—every second day—might be a bit too high. There is something coming up in the near future that could give the blog more momentum, and more readers, so it’s perhaps wise to regroup and enjoy some down time in anticipation of that day. I leave you with a thought from Harold Bloom:

“…the language of British and American poetry, from at least Wordsworth to the present, is overdetermined in its patternings, and so necessarily is underdetermined in its meanings.”

Make the move from literature to art and that says it for abstraction. Hope that while talking about art that speaks to me, I haven’t made the mistake of attributing meanings.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2010

Frank Stella, The Sermon (C-31, maquette) 1991

Frank Stella, The Sermon (C-31, maquette) 1991

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Katherine Gili

This 1974 work by Katherine Gili seems to meet many of the demands of the new English metal sculpture school, as laid out by Robin Greenwoood in his critique of Caro. It is planar, but has more than one flat side. But most attractive is way the negative spaces are activated, and that they are not closed off.

Gili74

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Table Pieces

Anthony Caro’s Table Pieces are really great, and as far as I can see they are all great, and there are literally hundreds.

Anthony Caro, Table Piece LXXXII 1969

Anthony Caro, Table Piece LXXXII 1969

Anthony Caro, Table Piece XCI 1969-70

Anthony Caro, Table Piece XCI 1969-70

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Mythological Images

Following on with Brigid Brophy’s thoughts about Tiepolo, I’m particularly struck by her implicit linking of eighteenth century rationalism with the “critical” sensibility of the present. In the last sentence of the quote in the earlier post she talks about painting succumbing to the “social age.” She suggests that renaissance mythology painting was a crucible for autonomous art, an idea I have been pondering for a long time. There might be good reasons for any abstractionist to look at Veronese and Tiepolo. This Veronese has an interesting resemblance, and emotional reversal, to the previous one that she cites. A thought provoking comparison to the male nudes by Rubens that I discussed earlier.

Paolo Veronese, Scorn, from the Allegory of Love ca. 1570

Paolo Veronese, Scorn, from the Allegory of Love ca. 1570

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Brophy on Tiepolo

This time a slightly longish quote from Brigid Brophy, but she reaches me by appreciating Tiepolo, something not so common in the sixties, or even now:

“The religious tradition in which painting grew up was always indulging in religion’s habit of breaking through the artistic conventions. The altarpiece propelled its demands through the dimensions of the picture and out into the congregation, insisting ‘The madonna depicted here really exists outside this frame and can be addressed’ or ‘The figure you see here being tortured to death really is suffering at this moment because of your sins’. The antique myths, on the other hand, could make no demands on real belief, only on imaginative belief; and so they provided a cul-de-sac into which the art of painting could retreat and there develop an aesthetic—criteria by which a painting could be judged in its own conventions and without extraneous intervention.
Antiquity as a repository of the imagination survived into the eighteenth century, when Giambattista Tiepolo was still peopling it, in the tradition of Veronese, with magnificent imagined personages and sophisticated, impossible magic. But culture had meanwhile turned round in its cul-de-sac and was prepared to spring out of the picture-frame again, armed now with a developed aesthetic in the shape of the Rules of Taste—one of which was to stab Tiepolo in the back and prefer, to his transcendent creations, the work of Mengs…The neo-classic movement to a large extent dropped ancient mythology in favor of ancient history, with all the trappings pedantically reconstructed—that is, not imagined, in the sense that Tiepolo imagined the trappings of his pictures, at all. Tiepolo was the last of the renaissance geniuses, the final exponent of a cultural tradition passed from one individual to another. When he fell into unpopularity, painting succumbed to the social age.”

Interesting that Brophy was married to Michael Levey, whose book on Tiepolo sits on my shelf. But her insights are more far-reaching. Strictly speaking, this image is not a mythology, but it connects with her Shakespearean associations in the earlier post.

Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra 1744

Giambattista Tiepolo, Banquet of Cleopatra 1744

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Brian Nation

This is from the blog of my old friend Brian Nation, a truly gifted writer—although he’s not a famous writer because, as he said at one point, he found it more enjoyable to act at being a writer than to actually be one. Spoken like a true artist. Anyway, in his perception:

“Capitalism hates art more than ever.”

These words deserve to be singled out. As counter intuitive as the current market makes them seem, they are absolutely true. Brian doesn’t make art or music, though he feels them both strongly. In another post he recounts what happened when, at the age of fourteen, a teacher introduced him to e.e.cummings:

“As he talked I read the lines and fires started in my toes and spread up through my groin, my belly, chest and finally my brain setting off a bomb of amazed excitement. My whole body shuddered, my eyes bugged out. It was as though I’d been sitting there in the back of that dark room for nine years, nauseated — half-asleep, and somebody opened a door and let in a blaze of sunlight.
I had no idea such poetry existed or was even possible. I couldn’t wait to get home and start writing. A world had opened up and I rushed in, leaving behind, or so I thought, the dark rooms forever. It affected everything I thought or did from that day on.”

Now that’s spoken like a true artist. Even taking into account his age and discounting e.e.cummings, he has the true motivation and displays the true signs. Today I very much doubt such responses are common. How many artists catch fire like that? Such people don’t go to art school—they instantly sense how far away from the real thing it is. Is art anymore the doorway to the possible? It must be, but despite the enormous growth of the art world, it still only matters to the same lucky few.

Photo of Brian Nation by Anna McGarrigle from 1966 or 67. Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal. As he says about it: "Contrary to appearances I was NOT a hippie. I was an artiste. Or as one landlord put it when he refused to rent his flat to me, 'pas d'existentialistes ici'".

Photo of Brian Nation by Anna McGarrigle from 1966 or 67, Ste. Catherine Street, Montreal. As he says about it: “Contrary to appearances I was NOT a hippie. I was an artiste. Or as one landlord put it when he refused to rent his flat to me, ‘pas d’existentialistes ici'”.

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Lifeline

In tough times go back to the work that helps you know yourself. The supportive aspect of authority, even though that authority is not indwelling, but granted by you..

Frank Stella, Brit (Q6) 1990

Frank Stella, Brit (Q6) 1990

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Conventional Discourse

I was probably inspired to start talking about authority as a principle active in art by Harold Bloom, who has a lot to say on the topic, usually with reference to the Freudian transference. It just occurred to me that his use of the concept is a brilliant swerve away from the discourse of power. You have to be of a certain age and to have lived through a certain history to be fed up with hearing about power, whether it’s feminist talk or the formulaic Foucauldian clichés that get passed around in the university. Art has nothing to do with social power, and has no responsibility for whatever people do to each other. It is not implicated, or complicit, or oppressive, or does anything to sustain or abet any evil at all. But it is constituted around authority, like all other aspects of the human monkey’s life. Another area of interest for Bloom is the authority of religious texts, certainly a relevant topic today, with the war of the Caliphate in the Middle East. Religious wars are fought on behalf of the authority of a poetic fiction. So am I wrong about the innocence of art? Absolutely not, because today all genuine art is blasphemy.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchus 1638-40

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchus 1638-40

As an image of male power, this picture is definitely comic—but no less serious for that—and comic especially in relation to the other male nudes by Rubens reproduced on this blog over the last year, all of which are abject and very narcissistic/erotic. One might say this nude is realist, and realistic about power, where the others are narcissistic fantasies. In the other three the genitals are covered by a little wisp of cloth, which gives a sense of how proportionately small they are in relation the massive muscled bodies. In the Bacchus that doesn’t seem to be the case, because it’s simply realist. In the other three the entire body is a phallus—the sexual organs shrink in depiction as they grow in fantasy, no pun intended. An aspect of art as sexual display, a recurring topic (cf. Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons, Carolee Schneeman), and maybe worth more thought under the heading of authority versus power.

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Brigid Brophy

Inveterate reader Jacob Wren turned me on to Brigid Brophy‘s book about myth and social psychosis, Black Ship to Hell. I agree with what she says, and mostly with how she says it, but despite the attractive title I don’t find that the book shocks and surprises me as much as Ehrenzweig does, as I was hoping it would. Here is an interesting quote. I take the painting very seriously, but am not absolutely sure that Brophy has it right. The association with Shakespeare is intriguing though.

“Venetian mythology pictures, with their strapping, glorious, mature gods and goddesses, seem to be suggesting to us what an adulthood men and women might have enjoyed if (though the criticism is only implied) Christianity had not imposed its embargoes on sensuality. Veronese’s marvellous Venus and Adonis, in the Prado, breathes the very high summer air of Anthony and Cleopatra: the nobleness of life, it asserts, is to do thus.”

Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis 1580

Paolo Veronese, Venus and Adonis 1580

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