A Man of Sensibility and Taste

The fact is, there is no avoiding Mr. Simchowitz, however much I disagree with his choices. He knows how to talk. This is what he says about Oscar Murillo: “…with Oscar, there is no collusion—his collectors are an evenly distributed group of people who love the work, and who collect it on their own accord all over the world. That’s interesting. That’s real culture, that’s real distribution, that’s a real market.” The claim is strong, and convincing to any collector, but it can’t be proven. But he has hit on exactly the dilemma of taste, though dilemma might not be the exact word—maybe the capacity of taste or something like that. When educated, knowledgeable people all over the world come to the same decision at the same time then we must have reached the forward edge of contemporary art, the real next thing that answers to the need no one exactly knew they had. But at the same time, if everyone recognizes it that must be because it resembles what everyone already knows and has accepted. There are two sides to the moment, one facing forward and one facing back, and no way to decide which is operative in any case. But one can feel it. Simchowitz says “A lot of it is instinct, and it’s difficult to explain, to be honest with you. I can just feel it. When I saw Oscar Murillo’s work it was immediate. No one else saw it at the beginning. I can’t explain it… I can just see it. I can feel it.” That’s exactly what I would say, so how can Simchowitz be so wrong? Actually, he’s right, but not right enough—right enough for the current market, but not quite up to speed with art itself. That would explain why we get different results with the same method. Still, how can you criticize someone who so obviously enjoys what he does? He does no harm. And he is right that low primary market prices help drive the secondary market, a useful insight.

Stefan Simchowitz

Stefan Simchowitz

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My favorite blog writer, Alfredo Triff, has recently picked up on the article about Stefan Simchowitz that was going around a while ago. He makes his usual great analysis. But what strikes me is that just because a lot of celebrities listen to Simchowitz (a fact of which he brags) doesn’t mean he’s right. He tries to justify himself as part of a new Internet-centered paradigm, but to me it looks like ignorance leading ignorance. What qualifies him? I know much better which art counts, and in addition can exercise the artist’s Right of Self-Election, which extends to evaluation of other art. But then how can my position ever be proven? Will history come through with the right measures and corrections? And who is history? Internet or not, Simchowitz and everyone like him will have to deal with academic art historians, the final line of evaluation. Sadly, they are a sorry bunch. But coming down from those elevated levels of the market we find certain concrete problems in daily practice, I think well laid out by Jerry Saltz in a recent article. The looking-the-sameness of so much recent abstraction is a practical studio problem, which we all have to deal with, but Saltz is no better than any other American critic at seeing that it lies in the standard historical narrative. He criticizes artists for lack of originality, and conformism to the discourse of art school, but doesn’t take any exception to the all-over composition for example, or throw Gerhard Richter into the crowd, where he belongs. To say that contemporary abstraction needs to be different from the past accomplishes nothing—different in what way? Different from what? It’s up to artists to make those decisions, and up to gallerists and consultants and critics to listen to them.

Lucien Smith, A Simple Twist of Fate 6 2012

Lucien Smith, A Simple Twist of Fate 6 2012

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Democracy of Taste

Contrary to what it might seem from the previous post, I am not critical of Oscar Murillo. He’s an ordinary artist, fighting the same struggles as all of us and facing the same temptations—above all the temptation to just accept a work that looks like ordinary art, to compromise with himself. He’s not good enough to be really bad, like Rothko or Richter, and he doesn’t give a shock to anyone’s taste or sensibility, so he’s not bad enough to be really good. He’s easy for any artist to identify with, in fact, because most of us are in exactly the same place, most of the time. But he brings to mind certain self-evident truths about artist’s rights—such as the inalienable Right of Self-Election. The self-elected artists recognize each other, and other parties will not necessarily accept their status, and nor should they. As far as I can see neither David Zwirner nor the Rubells have the qualifications to decide which artists matter. I do.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

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Illustration and Abstraction

wildsmith1I’ve been enjoying the work of the great British illustrator Brian Wildsmith. He started in the early sixties and it’s not hard to see some influence from Alan Davie, as well as from those perennial undergraduate favorites Klimt and Hundertwasser. Arbitrary gestures, like the dotted line moving through the flowers; abrupt jumps between different orders of representation such as the hare’s forcefully drawn schematic eye, which doesn’t go with the naturalism of his fur; the obviously non-naturalistic red background—all moments of

wildsmith3abstraction that make a more interesting picture. There’s something to see and think about if one extracts parts from the book, as I’m doing here, and so for a moment this picture looks interesting—a generic over-all “field” of marks that could be the kind of clean,

wildsmith2 conventional, well made and tasteful but completely boring abstraction that one can find everywhere on the lower level of the market, in furniture showrooms and hotel rooms, but now augmented with words that gain suggestiveness removed from the story. From here we can forecast a popularization and normalization of conceptual art, which will turn up in poster shops soon, namely an “abstract” image with a few words attached to make an automatic poetry. But wait! It already exists….Oscar Murillo!

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The Invisible Greater Part

In ordinary life one doesn’t have to see or know exactly how things relate in order to do something useful with them. For one obvious example, a cook doesn’t have to understand what is going on chemically in the oven to bake a cake; for another, in sex the interaction of pheromones with hormones doesn’t have to observed and measured to get a good result. Likewise in art the visible relations between forms are only an opportunity to feel others present but not necessarily visible. Poussin and Cézanne prove the point. My lodestars. Close your eyes and feel your way.

Paul Cezanne, Mt. St. Victorie, 1882-85

Paul Cezanne, Mt. St. Victorie, 1882-85

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Parts and Wholes Again (As Always)

I’m going to include an unusually long quotation in this post, from scientist and philosopher Abner Shimony.

“…collective behavior in macro physical systems and in biological cells can often be explained in great detail in terms of the properties and interactions of the parts…An ontology in which individual human beings have a fundamental mode of existence, while societies, institutions, cultures, etc. have only a derivative existence [emphasis added] should suffice for the social sciences. The reasonableness of this claim is reinforced by reflecting on the actual and potential richness of the psychological states of individual human beings: an entire culture, with its language, literature, rituals, etc. can be internalized within one human psyche. That human beings are biologically social animals does not imply that the society has a more fundamental ontological status than individual human beings, or even an independent status. DNA is a ‘social molecule,’ functioning as a template for the construction of RNA, which in turn guides the construction of the proteins needed in the life of the cell; but the social nature of DNA does not endow the cell with a holistic ontological status. At least, there is no need to do so for the purposes of understanding causal sequences in the cell. The more precisely causal sequences are understood in the social sciences, I believe, the more clearly will the ontological primacy of individual human beings be evident.”

As an admirer of Adorno I can’t help but admit that thoughts like these would make him roll over in his grave, at least to the extent that they justify atomized American life, which the social sciences do, especially when they bear down on immediate experience – what Shimony calls particular “causal sequences.” But Shimony is not a positivist. Take Adorno’s formula “only the whole is true, but the whole is false” as the true critical attitude, and Shimony makes the cut. This will be one of the themes of my book, that a lot of contemporary art mistakenly takes social abstractions for realities, or just cynically plays by that assumption as a way of smoothing its path through the world.

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Old Matisse a Master

My reservations about T.J.Clark have been expressed on this blog, but I still like to read him, because he’s a rare art historian who actually gets it, who can feel art from the inside, not just shuffle it between theoretical boxes. Actually it’s the necessity to constantly move in and out, from the theoretical frame to the art experience, with the historical data making other complications on the way, that he suffers as the conditions of his occupation. I am under no obligation to turn those twists myself, and glad of it. Anyway, his recent review of Matisse’s cut-outs in the LRB is pretty good. But then the conclusion that it’s all about salvaging art while living its destruction is kind of anti-climactic; it’s hardly news after all. But his reading of this piece is good enough to prove that the old trope still works.

Henri Matisse, Decorative Composition with Masks 1953

Henri Matisse, Large Decoration with Masks 1953

At least it gets you where it feels.

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A Sensibility

I’m acquiring more affection for the work of Martin Barré, especially the later ones. From 1986, this piece has the feel of its moment – it verges on 80s parodic modernism, like a

Martin Barré, 86-87-120x120-D 1986-87

Martin Barré, 86-87-120×120-D 1986-87

cartoon Mondrian, although I’m quite aware that Barré was grounded in something very different. His sensibility, that of a true artist, could hardly avoid responding to the changing atmosphere.

Martin Barre, 86-87-120x120-F  1986-87

Martin Barré, 86-87-120×120-F 1986-87

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Frankenthaler’s Forms


Helen Frankenthaler's studio circa 1987

Helen Frankenthaler’s studio circa 1987

Just picked up a catalog of Frankenthaler from the late eighties, a big stretch for my taste. Recently there were conflicting assessments of her work on abstract critical. Her admirers are very enthusiastic. Presumably the expressiveness of her works lies in their syntax – the way a smear over here relates to a line over there or a stain in the background. But if that’s the way to look at abstraction there’s a lot of scope to articulate those relations further. Imagine a continuum from indistinct forms in tight arrangements to very sharp and definite forms in loose and arbitrary configurations; abstract art can continue for a long time trying to find out how many places there are in between. Distinct forms in tight arrangements is too boring and academic; characterless and undefined forms in casual groups without obvious necessity is the conventional way, particularly in American art, and it’s not clear whether that is also the permanent avant-garde or just the infancy of abstraction. On the good side it’s a leap in the dark; on the bad side it leads to unfortunate questions of evaluation and meaning that have stuck us with conceptual art. It might also be too easy.

Helen Frankenthaler, Scarlatti 1987

Helen Frankenthaler, Scarlatti 1987

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Chin P’ing Mei

Chin P’ing Mei is an incredibly rich and detailed account of all the details of life in historical China, from food to clothes to architecture, and all the goings on between people, the ways they fill the passing time. It must be a great source book for many kinds of scholars. Whether it describes more accurately the Ming period when it was written, or the earlier Song Dynasty when the story takes place, I do not know, but it’s definitely compendious. One Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance says that if there’s any meaning or moral to be extracted it’s by accident, but then that would be a remarkable aesthetic achievement. Chinese today have been too long badgered by tendentious communism – a moral is widely believed to be an absolute necessity for any art – but enlightening perspectives are not so easily reduced and encapsulated, nor should they be. I think it’s more cunningly constructed than it seems, and I wonder if the Scoffing Scholar of Lan-ling, whoever he or she was, was reincarnated as Marcel Proust. I find it puts my mind in some new places, and one thought it gives me is that as far as material culture is concerned, human society hit its peak a long time ago, in fact a long, LONG time ago. Every new thing we’ve invented over the last hundred or so years is just a response to and effect of increased population. There is no sense in which we lead a better life today than the Chinese of five hundred years ago. The much vaunted advances that have increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality and, more recently, multiplied food production, are nothing but the causes of the current disaster of overpopulation, the root of every crisis today. If more children died in infancy, and if more people died from disease and accident, the entire planet would be better off – and I say that knowing that I certainly would have been an early casualty. But sadly, science and medicine have been long enslaved by dubious Christian pieties about the sanctity of life, meaning human life only. It’s also clear that as a species we’ve lived off the fat of the land for a long time; nature has been mild and beneficent. But a few thousand years of beneficence is nothing but pure luck. These might seem like pretty elevated reflections to get off a work of literature, but there is no limit to how perspectival any perspective might be. I’ll come to ground with Chin P’ing Mei in a later post. 


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Light and Abstract Form

My normal and somewhat unreflective view of this early Leger has always been that there is an unresolved conflict between the imagery – the obvious chair, side table, cup, folded

Fernand Leger, Woman in Blue 1912

Fernand Leger, Woman in Blue 1912


fingers – and the large abstract white and black arrangement. But maybe that objection is more a measure of my limitations—my too ready to categorize habits of mind (shared by everyone else of course). Looking closer I see how the blue plane upper middle casts a light on the forms around it – that blue seeps out of the plane. This bit of Impressionist business seems like the most unusual and forward looking feature, both for Cubism and abstraction.

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New Show

Here’s a couple of images of my just opened show at CSA Space in Vancouver.


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Two Big Attack Painters

Recently came across two dedicated and serious practitioners of abstract art – Dona Nelson and Jackie Saccoccio. I like their work, both of them, but my objection to it is what they have in common – they are both “big attack” painters. Greenberg’s idea of the “big attack” is not a bad one, in fact today it’s a kind of standard, and both of these artists have what that approach gives, namely strength, ambition, a sense of wholeness and completion – in a word, whatever competent and optimistic abstract painting feels like. All that I have no problem with, and how could I? What I don’t like is the reduction of automatic techniques like pouring and staining to an overall professional effect, though both these artists are more interesting than Richter or any of his epigones like Lucien Smith or Jacob Kassay. Actually, they both do work back into their pours to make some of the details count more, so I’m not sure if the problem is the amount of arbitrariness or the way it’s handled. Maybe my taste is starting to shift more into the American mainstream—a different and bigger problem. It’s the conventional that makes me twitch.

Jackie Saccoccio, Mountain 2011

Jackie Sacoccio, Mountain 2011

Nelson shows both front and back of her pictures, so her work connects with the tradition


Dona Nelson, Two Days in July (front)


Dona Nelson, Two Days in July (back)

of two-sided painting discussed on this blog. But they’re really not two-sided, more just front and back. I can’t help feeling that the way she shows the wrap around of the canvas indicates that the method is not quite resolved, but could be wrong. A Louis could be hung that way, to show the back, and it is interesting to do that, so maybe Nelson’s work is an art historically inspired type of self reveal.

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The Sky and The World

A quote from Adorno
“A man gazing peacefully at the sky may at times be closer to truth than another who accurately follows the ‘Eroica.’”
How could someone who would say this ever be called an elitist? Maybe because the advocates of mass culture have no interest in skies, blue or otherwise.


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A Book of Drawings

Eli Bornowsky sent me a small book of drawings, and I find them very interesting and even inspiring. When some lines cross others with apparently no regard for the

Eli1 configurations already in place, then we have the impression of simultaneous independent levels. I think this is really a good departure. Abstract drawings can be both too easy to do and too difficult to get a result worth long contemplation. I think of a set of Cold Mountain ink drawings by Brice Marden I once saw at the Whitney, maybe drawn with a stick. Bornowsky’s look like marker drawings, but they have possibilities to work with – a new formal invention. It takes a bit of effort to keep the different levels in view.


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A Show of Abstractions

The arbitrariness of abstract form is a permanent condition, and artists can be judged as to how they work with that fact. For myself, I’m on the side of invention, which means I like the way that forms can come out of nothing, and much less interested in staging and packaging arbitrariness as design, à la Richter. It has something to do with belief, or faith maybe, but since arbitrariness is the condition, faith without hope. Or is it hope without faith? Whatever. Patrick Howlett‘s recent show in London Ontario has enough diversity that it seems to take the same position. I was attracted to works like this one, 

Patrick Howlett, Board Painting 2014

Patrick Howlett, Board Painting 2014

which makes me ask – why these colors? why do the shapes touch the edge just where they do? why do they lie at this angle rather than another? why are their edges a little ragged and not exactly ruled? I don’t want answers to these utterly banal questions, reminiscent of a so-called “crit,” just to contemplate the way things are. Conscious arbitrariness is a very different thing from either randomness or lack of control. Patrick and I were talking about Anselm Reyle, and he confirmed my own reaction, mentioned earlier. The amazing thing is how precise a feeling can be produced by abstract art, despite its constituting arbitrariness. For example, other works in Patrick’s show evidently offer a conundrum – we can tell there is some system there, even if we don’t recognize what it is, and that is a recognizable difference from the usual art that just asks to be judged aesthetically.

Patrick Howlett, installation of "Number Paintings" 2014

Patrick Howlett, installation of “Number Paintings” 2014

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Philosophy of an Artist II

From a recent interview with Ai Weiwei comes the following:

“My answer may sound like a cliché. I think you only live once. A life is like a fortune that is owned by every one of us. “

Actually it’s not so banal because he has found a new way to express that insight, one that gives a fresh perspective on money. Then he goes on:

“However, this life is going to be taken away from us. All the possibilities will be gone at the end. Therefore, I hate any power or system that deprives people of their most basic natural rights and their happiness. I am an artist….I think that the right to express oneself is the essence of life. Without it, life has no form. This is what I came to believe after going through many troubles and difficulties.”

Fair enough. All the suffering and limitation in the world is caused by human beings, it’s not a given condition of human life. Some of it is mental, and that we have control over as individuals. But most interesting is the potential resemblance of the form of an artwork and the form of a life.


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A Journey by Train

prose-of-the-trans-siberian-and-of-little-jehanne-of-france-1913Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsiberien, featured in a number of recent catalogs, including Inventing Abstraction, is pretty interesting. I love the shapes, and of course I love the idea of an abstract book. This one is better than Kandinsky’s Klange. The Eiffel Tower is visible at the bottom, and as one moves up pastoral landscape vistas, forests, deserts and mountains are all there, ending with the dark blue Pacific at top. So I guess the narrative of the poem from top to bottom is a journey on the Trans-Siberian beginning in Asia and ending at Paris. All this becomes much clearer through comparison with the studies.

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Cézanne at an Angle

Many of Cézanne’s compositions lean. They have a tilt. The desire to rectify, or straighten out, or balance when a tilt appears is so strong. Learn from Cézanne to go with the lean, and not correct it.

Paul Cézanne, Jas de Bouffan 1885-87

Paul Cézanne, Jas de Bouffan 1885-87

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Hans Arp, Forest

Hans Arp, Forest 1917

Arp’s blobby shapes are good, and so are Lissitzky’s ruled ones. The artist who comes to mind as most successfully combining the two is late Stella, from Moby Dick or Had Gadya onwards, because the geometry appears as an image rather than a principle. Either approach could be ground for the other.

El Lissitzky, Gravediggers 1923

El Lissitzky, Gravediggers 1923

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The Sameness of Abstraction

Recently I came across a review of the Nada art fair in The Art Newspaper, which amounted to the observation that abstract painting was everywhere and that it all looked the same. Actually the reviewer was warning that it will likely come to be that way. I’m more critical because I see no reason to qualify. So many young abstractionists are visible, yet there is so little that stands out. Blog readers will know that I like Lauren Luloff, but the most successful of the new wave, such as Jacob Kassay and Lucien Smith, are really missing it, in my opinion. Everywhere I see the baleful influence of Gerhard Richter. Now, if my readers can put up with my constant returns to Frank Stella, I ask them to ponder the close reading I gave one of his prints in an earlier post. Abstraction starts out arbitrary, arbitrariness is genetic for the mode, part of its deep constitution, and that’s one of the reasons we like it. Openness, freedom – whatever value you want to give to that condition – is what makes the arbitrariness of abstraction socially valid. Richter at least has a sense of this anyway. The point, as I see it in Stella, and in my own work, is to keep the overall arbitrariness but work with the parts. In my case more than Stella the parts make organic patterns that grow like nature, though that might be an unimportant distinction.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolor 2014

Every little fragment and mark is chosen and placed, but still within the overall arbitrariness and freedom, which makes itself felt right down to the atom. I feel that the results are good – they make paintings, or any work, that one can live with and look at for a long time. The Richter mode, so widely adopted today, is to give the arbitrary a clean, polished presentation - the result an overall field of many small incidents, none of which particularly matter. It’s full of details, which don’t actually count for anything in themselves; they could all be changed or moved or made different, and the picture would be essentially the same. Where Stella makes the better method most explicit is in the large paintings of the Kleist series, discussed in older posts. Will viewers and artists one day debate the relative merits of the Kleist paintings and the Had Gadya prints? The approach I describe should give easily recognizable results, but today it’s hard to see anything.

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Gouk on Steel

To all my blog readers I would like to recommend the two articles by Alan Gouk on sculpture in steel recently featured on abstract critical—especially the first one, though part 2 has its interest. Thanks to Gouk I have discovered William Tucker’s great book The Language of Sculpture, a very distinguished example of an artist’s ruminations on work that has inspired his own career—also highly recommended. In fact, I would rank Tucker’s book as among the very best of its type, up with Smithson’s Collected Writings and Stella’s Working Space. So now I’m looking at a lot of abstract sculpture. Gouk’s analysis of Caro’s career is pretty insightful, and explains well why succeeding generations have departed from his example, but I find I like Caro all the more. The suggestion that this piece is in dialogue with the paintings of Olitski gives entirely new dimensions to Caro’s famous pictorialism.

Anthony Caro, Tundra 1975

Anthony Caro, Tundra 1975

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A Muddy Spring

Among the Picabias mentioned in an earlier post is one called The Spring, so presumably lacking the dancing figures. The writer in the Inventing Abstraction catalog observes

Francis Picabia, La Source (The Spring) 1912

Francis Picabia, La Source (The Spring) 1912

that this spring looks pretty muddy, that the colors of the picture might have more to do with shit (cows and horses?) than clear, sparkling water. I find the idea of a befouled spring very interesting, because the subject of “La Source” lies in a long tradition, going back to artists such as Poussin, who painted river gods dozing over amphorae out of which water endlessly flows. The relation between material human bodies and the limpid stream of inspiration has been a great unexamined topic for a long time, and  it occurs to me that Picabia has just invented it – it’s been there but not realized.  Picasso’s Three Women at the Fountain is pretty earthy too, and remembering his friendship with Picabia it might owe something to the earlier work. The figures are more easily seen in

Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring I 1912

Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring I 1912

the Philadelphia version than in the one I posted previously, and it seems not the classical three – it appears to be two women in an intimate dance, if I may make such an improbable suggestion. They remind me of a couple of dancers in Botticelli’s Primavera, so the parodic element is strong, as we might suspect with Picabia. What a genius he was. But the point is that we can barely see the figures in Dances II, and they really only come into view through comparison with Dances I, so the fact that they’re not labeled in La Source doesn’t mean they’re not there.

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The Feeling of a Moment

Robert Musil‘s novel The Man Without Qualities should be required reading – for somebody. I read it years ago in the first English translation, and kept turning down pages to mark the mind expanding moments I wanted to return to. A true example of “wisdom literature.” I felt then that it was genuinely psychedelic in the sense that my mind was stretched all out of shape, enlarged, and today still have vivid memories of certain parts. Musil knew, as we all do, that every time, every period, has it’s feel, it’s characteristic ambience, atmosphere, style. But the hardest thing to do is reflect on the feel of one’s own moment. That’s why his book is a historical novel, reconnecting with the lost pre-WWI world. But somehow he can use that standard method to leverage a perspective on his own time, which is also ours in important ways. Do all the great historical novelists do that? How about the history painters? Maybe, but few are able to bring the present to philosophical reflection, if it can be called that. The key is always to feel and go with the feeling, in Musil’s case, to think about it and comment.


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Had Gadya Again

Just for the pleasure of it I want to make another Stella print/study comparison. The Had Gadya works reward the effort. From the first resolved version of this piece to the final, the scribbly bits are quite changed. The scribbles of yellow over the ochre are different,

Early resolved version

Early resolved version

Frank Stella, Then Came a Fire and Burnt the Stick, #5 from Had Gadya 1982-84

Frank Stella, Then Came a Fire and Burnt the Stick, #5 from Had Gadya 1982-84

 the black scribble on the necktie shape that curves down the front of the upside down cone is different, but most interestingly, the animated shape on its own plane at the left is quite different. The red lines are the same, but the black outline is very different, and in specific conversation with the shape it frames. Is it too hard to see that every bend and break of that black line is deliberate and that the second version is better related to the red lines? As I said before, the “scribbles” are not scribbles. Imagine how they are made. A sheet of mylar is laid over the proof, Stella draws on it and it’s taken away and photographically made into a plate for printing, either a litho plate or a screen. Some of those plates are kept and used at each stage but others are done over again, and we wonder why. The answer is in the method, because each time he draws over an area he becomes more familiar with it and can make the overdrawing fit better.

matpic9Meanwhile, the twisted, floppy figurative doodle is strongly reminiscent of something from Matisse’s Jazz.

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A Book

Long before my recent enthusiasm for the work of Frank Stella, I made a number of small books which are pretty busy and figurative. I’ve had them stuck away for a while because they have a small binding problem not yet solved, and I haven’t followed through on plans for more in different bindings. There are holes cut in the pages so you can see through/past to another level of image.


The idea of the abstract book is very interesting, and lately I’ve come across many historical examples – many more than I thought existed. I thought it was an amusing opposite of conceptual art – instead of showing work that can’t be sold, I made something that could be sold but not shown.

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Fallible Ai

While I wasn’t looking, Alfredo Triff, on his very good blog miami bourbaki, has made a pretty comprehensive analysis of the Ai Weiwei – Maximo Caminero imbroglio, so I interrupt my usual progression of posts to mention it. I agree with him all the way, and find it disappointing that Ai doesn’t really get what’s going on, even in his own work. Or maybe he does and doesn’t want to open the door to constant pot breaking. In other words, iconoclasm has to stop at a certain point to keep it as an image, as art in other words. But we keep taking art literally, and can hardly help doing so, because as an image iconoclasm means something – it allegorizes another kind of breaking, of a political kind. The biggest problem is that the existing powers are destructive too, in fact destruction has become a normal feature of life in capitalism, and money is license to destroy. If Basel Miami is a festival, maybe only Triff can see it as a festival of destruction.

Miami Artist Smashes  Million Vase

Posted in Abstraction and Society, Asian Abstraction, Conceptualism and Painting, Ethics of Abstraction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Space of an Artist

Blog reader Naomi Schlinke has posted a comment that she has a less than positive experience with Stella’s work, particularly its space. That’s a good thing for me, a Stella fan, because it forces me to clarify what I feel about the work. Writing the response is less pleasurable and less interesting, but might be worth the trouble.

In a catalog of his prints that I recently acquired, Stella had this to say about pictorial space: “Space is part of the spirit of the thing, but it’s secondary…The question of space is an inherent one, not the subject matter.”
This is like the view of Ehrenzweig, who believed that a feeling of space is the mark of genuine art, but that it can’t be consciously planned or contrived. I have had the same experience – that if I start a work with the intention of building a space, and/or if I have that space clear in my mind, the results are always bad. Normal modernist flatness is a good starting position, and if space appears then good, but it can’t be forced. Fred Pollock said something similar. Stella’s work does not perfectly match what he said in Working Space, and that’s probably a good example of the problems that can arise when an artist writes speculatively or thinks forward about their work, but that activity should not be discouraged. And I think the whole thing has to do with Stella’s perceptive comments about space in Kandinsky’s work. He endorsed it as a necessary moment in the evolution of abstraction, but I don’t know….I find it too easy, too conscious, almost a trap, exactly the kind of space to avoid. Stella particularly mentioned the large piece in the Guggenheim with diagonal stripes, which interfere with Kandinsky’s normally scaleless, empty space,

Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition LX 1936

Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition LX 1936

and I also find that an interesting piece, though don’t really know why. At least it was

Robert Linsley, A Geomorphic Fantasy, Fifth Aeon 2002-2007

Robert Linsley, A Geomorphic Fantasy, Fifth Aeon 2002-2007

interesting enough that I borrowed the technique for one of my own works. In the end, Stella’s work always has a dash of literalism, and he goes for real planes in real space over illusionist planes in fictive space, but not always and not always with thoroughgoing consistency. Except in the prints, where the space starts out virtual and then gets the realist treatment with embossing and so on.

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Wood Nymphs

Leger’s work is very odd. This piece, a kind of a breakthrough for him, is really

Fernand Leger, Nudes in a Wood 1909-11

Fernand Leger, Nudes in a Wood 1909-11

bizarre. While contemplating the craziness of this work, I find in the MOMA Invention of Abstraction catalog two large cubist Picabias I had never heard of, but if I look back in the literature I see they are not completely unknown, just not much noticed. Clearly very important works. The one that attracts my attention is called Dances at the Spring, and

Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring II

Francis Picabia, Dances at the Spring II 1912

another, less fragmented piece with the same title in Philadelphia proves that it means dancers at a spring, in other words, female nudes outdoors in nature. It’s very hard to see the figures, but they are there. Roberto Calasso said some interesting things about water and the imagination, and about the nymphs – female nature spirits – as personifications of a creative force. When Titian or Veronese painted nymphs they were women with the common attractiveness of their period, and so were those of Courbet and Renoir, but starting with Cézanne (the large female bathers) they become grotesque and cubism took that even further. Picabia’s are Naiads, or water nymphs, Leger’s are Dryads, or wood nymphs, also tree spirits. They are certainly drier, no pun intended. Important is to realize that though they may be grotesque in appearance, their erotic energy is independent of that. I think the moderns make a more accurate, more realist picture of these beings than the old masters did.

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Island Thought

The pieces discussed in an earlier post are part of an effort going on since I started the Island pictures – to have more than one level, as in Arp’s reliefs, but not as sculpture. This piece was very early, and I loved making it, but felt that coordinating multiple levels in the image was too complex a problem. Now I don’t see it that way.

Robert Linsley, Island Thought 1998

Robert Linsley, Island Thought 1998


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