An artist never has no reason not to wait. One has to let the work emerge and why rush it? Time in the ordinary sense, as something to be measured, has no meaning in art, and the value of activity isn’t clear. As George Eliot says: “Receptiveness is a rare and massive power, like fortitude.” Negative capacity is always greater than skill, although that’s no justification for the dilettante. So things don’t have to get done—in fact nothing actually has to get done. Delay, procrastination, caution, doubt, evasion, waiting, patience, expectation, indifference to deadlines, wool gathering, grammatical convolutions, daydreams, excuses, conversation, holidays, planning, second thoughts, third thoughts, pentimenti—all in the tool box. What will get done will. Just don’t apply that method to ordinary life. I know some artists who try, and it never works out.

VSGaitonde, Untitled 1977

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More Complex Form

One couldn’t come up with an artist further from the concerns of modern day, formalist inclined abstraction than George Eliot—her novels are all about moral challenges. I can hardly express my esteem for what she did, and who she was. You have a feeling of enormous natural power and presence, and that’s not damaged in any way by her constant moralizing. So…the validity of any aesthetic position is proven by its capacity for contradiction. But one thing that always struck me is the diversity of her works. No two are really alike. I’ve been reading Daniel Deronda, her last novel. One part of it is about the titular hero, brought up as an English gentleman, who gradually realizes he is Jewish. The other part is the story of young Gwendolen Harleth, and her disastrous choice of a husband. The two characters do meet, and their interaction is central to the author’s designs on us, but one can not avoid the impression that the book is jammed together from different and unrelated parts. In addition, though important scenes are dramatized, in the best novelistic way, others are passed right over, and others are presented as flashbacks. I don’t think it’s really improvised, but it appears to be written as the author thought and not really crafted. Again, it doesn’t much suffer for all of that. That an artist would take such a chance probably means that she felt herself the equal of Shakespeare, or that she was at least trying for the same naturalness beyond nature and beyond art. The biggest challenge faced by abstraction is to become more capacious of possibilities, and less unified. Even George Eliot can be an inspiration.

Photograph of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

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Plants and Animals

If some readers are not convinced by my description, in the previous post, of Krasner’s work as ruled by a plant metaphor, I submit these two works, which have titles and colours to match that theme. But it’s interesting that for Krasner the earth mother Gaea is not so green. She’s a lot more of a sexual being than a passive plant.

Lee Krasner, Gaea 1966

But that’s how she should be. Krasner’s typical globes, eggs, faces, genitals (of both sexes), lips, eyes—all curving and rounded shapes—give Gaea an identity as the generator of life, and of forms. At the right hand side I see an allusion to a figure from Cézanne’s large bathers in London’s National Gallery, placed in the same position in that picture.

Paul Cézanne, Large Bathers c. 1900

Krasner has given her a de Kooning like mouth—it looks pasted on. But the connection with the great theme of bathers in a landscape, or water nymphs, is really interesting.

Lee Krasner, Portrait in Green 1966

Her work grows as the gestures move, and as it grows it generates the mythological content—which is not really myth but more like the depths of reality, the truth that myth depicts. As for all true animists, her plants are not just alive, but alive as beings we can interact with. She’s a figure painter whose figures have no boundaries.

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Crisis Moment

Krasner’s unique style is made of strongly drawn circles, arcs and ellipses. She has a kind of compulsion to go around with her arm. In her case it’s not a limitation and more than a habit—it’s an expressive language that she develops a long way. The normal problems of how to fill the surface, imagery, association, colour and line, value, adding and linking of parts etc. are there, but she has a place to start to address all of them, namely her typical rounded gesture. I think it’s a very rich practice, full of possibilities. It hasn’t usually been seen so. I remember telling Arthur Danto that a big piece of hers in the Whitney was the best thing I had seen on a recent visit, and he just snorted in scorn. But people like Arthur Danto stick pretty close to the consensus. Her titles bear consideration, and these two have a certain relation to each other. Plant imagery is a banality in some kinds of abstraction, but important to realize is that the real cornucopia is of invention—an overflow of ideas and a feeling of creative abundance. The theme might be an old Dutch still life, but it’s realized as a swarming tangled vinous life, and that’s her mode.

Lee Krasner, Cornucopia 1958

First thing to notice about the second image is that the crisis didn’t last a moment—the picture took eight years. And if the work is the resolution of a crisis, the form it took is a plant-like exfoliation or growth—but not only that. The driving diagonal energy makes a cross or X that breaks the globular forms apart. And the globular forms are distinctly testicular in appearance, so the picture is both a sexual eruption and a castration. I’m trying to say that her manner is based on growth, specifically a plant like growth that can deliver unexpected kinds of fruit, but there is more of society and human emotion in it than that formula might at first suggest. For Krasner, the life of plants is not serene. 

Lee Krasner, Crisis Moment 1972-80

What the crisis was I don’t know, but interesting that parts of this piece are actually collage. Krasner is an exponent of collage as violence, difficulty and disunity—with a very different feel from Rozanova and the other Russians—a tough job for an artist whose work is so strongly unified by the plant metaphor.

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Lee Krasner

As I said in an earlier post, Lee Krasner gave Pollock’s Easter and the Totem to the MoMA, and I think that was a measure of her regard for that work, which otherwise is not much celebrated. The conventional wisdom is not up to the standard of Pollock’s later work. In any case, I think this work by Krasner shows a clear influence of that piece.

Lee Krasner, Birth 1956

The title indicates its importance for her, and it’s kind of equivalent to Pollock’s habit of using the title Number 1. It also contains some recollections of Pollock’s early mythological pieces in the way the paint is applied, the way the lines work with the colour and the imagery. But I hope we can get past the problem of seeing Krasner’s identity as Mrs. Pollock as a problem. She was an excellent artist, but as it happened, as for everyone else of her generation, Pollock’s work was a force she had to acknowledge. Her best work came in the late fifties through the seventies, and I want to make posts on certain examples.

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Easter and The Totem

I don’t think I can explain why I like this piece. It’s an example of Pollock’s late figurative work, coming after the Black Paintings and after Convergence and Blue Poles, contemporary with The Deep and Portrait and a Dream. I love it. I think it’s a culminating work, and not just because it comes late. It scoops up his early mythological works, the black paintings and abstraction, but the main attraction is its enigma. What is it exactly? Can’t tell. And, of course, it is beautiful and beautifully painted. It also contains some response to Wifredo Lam, who we know Pollock admired. It must have been important for Lee Krasner, for it shows up—to my eyes at least—in her work of the sixties and seventies. She evidently thought it important when she gave it to MoMA, but they don’t show it. Pollock didn’t really work in series. Each piece stands alone, especially the late works, which to me makes them the most interesting. Future topics.

Jackson Pollock, Easter and The Totem 1953

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Recently read a great article by Boris Groys on Kojève. Never read Kojève myself but I know that he taught Hegel to the surrealists, and I learned a lot about that from a very good book about surrealist objects by my old friend Steve Harris. In any case, Boris is always enlightening. But more than that, I always feel that he sees into my art, even though he’s not talking about it specifically. And what he sees is always at least a little disturbing. Kojève understood art as an expression of emptiness; he also knew about art as repetition, meaning repetition of an empty original. But what most came to me from this account were thoughts about fame and recognition. Does the enormous size of our still growing culture incline one to seek distinction, or to be satisfied with what Kojève calls mere animal life? Back in the day there wasn’t so much competition. But then opportunities were fewer. But then if you got a chance it was more likely to lead somewhere. Who knows if it’s harder to rise today? Certainly there’s more money at the top, but money just means animal life, and for Kojève genuine ambition is not for that. It’s one of the great modern fictions that ordinary life, free from ambition, is as good as art. I think Somerset Maugham, in his novel Of Human Bondage, was one of the best exponents of this charming dream. Kojève thought that the age of striving and ambition was over, and that all we have now is consumption. Look around and it doesn’t seem that way, but what he means is that striving to express emptiness, yet again, is hardly on the level of the highest achievements of the past.

Alexandre Kojève

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Outside the Border Fence

Following from the previous post, I think it helps a lot to travel, and not just to Miami or Basel. I talk about this in my book. But though you can take your body to different places, it’s hard to get outside one’s habits of mind, meaning inability to see. I mean it really is hard, it’s not a personal failing. I doubt it comes naturally to anyone, especially in an overcrowded and overproducing art world. You also need to know people who have different perspectives. This is why I value certain of my friends, like Francesco Pellizzi and Andreas Neufert. They always remind me of the largeness of the world.

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Berger’s Choices

A recent article by Ben Davis about the death of John Berger demanded a reply—sadly comments were not possible. Davis made the point that some of the artists Berger admired were obscure, non-canonical. My answer would be why does Ben Davis, like everyone else, cling to the consensus? We had Barry Schwabsky admit that he missed Carmen Herrera, shouldn’t we just accept that our perspective is always narrower than the reality of art? And if a critic, make an effort to see. To say that Berger’s choices are eccentric or weird is complacency pure and simple. Surrender to the tacit agreement, the conventions of the present. I can go a long way with Neizvestny, who is like a character in a science fiction novel of the nineteen thirties.

Ernst Neizvestny, a modernist Rodin

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Repeating Patterns

As in all improvisation, patterns tend to recur. In fact, the more open and free the improv, the more subject it is to repetition. This is something I’ve learned from music, and this is why preparation helps a lot. Art doesn’t come out of nothing. Or say the new never comes out of nothing. Stella’s prints, as you might expect, have recurring patterns. This is a nice, complex piece.

Frank Stella, Fanattia 1995

White network/lattice type forms mark the two upper corners, like two horns. But they really help define the top half of the design as a rectangle, with the green and red curved shapes taking the bottom corners. Then a more rounded agglomeration spills out of that rectangle into the bottom half of the picture. Or you could start at the yellow in the bottom right corner and rectangulate your way through the other bright colors, turning sharp corners and ending up at the red upper right, and say that lower case “n” shape holds the bottom and top together. Color, design, value all working well here to make a complex multi-layered whole. The optional or multi-plex aspect of how the forms join together is what might make it “abstract.” But it’s not hard to see this arrangement repeat to some degree in the next piece.

Frank Stella, Juam 1997

In this case three corners are marked by the same battered beach ball, tipped at a different angle in each case. The three imply four, and make a symmetrical, balanced configuration, but of course Stella messes up the symmetry. The bright red shapes look like they are spinning out of the middle, and the rings on a dark background are spilling into the bottom left corner. The frame within the frame calls for the top corners to be acknowledged, and then he finds two different ways to get to the bottom. Or that’s one way to see it, which doesn’t exhaust the possibilities.

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Abstract Order

Following on from the previous post, Stella’s manner in the late prints especially, but also in many of his reliefs, is to be vivid, crazy, overloaded and loud. That’s what puts a lot of viewers off. It’s a style and a feel hard for many to take. I think it’s an attempt to outshout the clamor we have to put up with all the time anyway, certainly in the art world. Can’t blame him for that, since so many other artists do the same. He just found a way to do it with painting, and so embarrasses more timid competitors. But the more I look at the works and the more I’m forced to justify my choices on this blog, the clearer and more straightforward they seem. The first impression is something to see through, but we have to face the truth that in abstraction today there are no standard patterns, or there shouldn’t be, and so the number of possible configurations is very great.

Frank stella, The Pacific 1985-88

All the Wave series of prints have a consistent pattern, which works as a consciously chosen limitation and a support for the viewer. There is the base layer of a Chinese lattice, either rectangular or circular, and that’s placed on a ground more or less worked up. In this case the ground is attractively scuffed and stained off-white paper. Then the other shapes do a dance behind, through and in front of open and broken frames. All the prints have marbling, but here it’s confined to the lattice and the foreground wave/whale shape. There, not so complex is it? In fact it’s quite beautiful. The devices I mentioned are interesting, and appeal to our need for formal matter to get some clarity on what we are looking at. A direct appeal to feeling never works, there has to be something objective and describable to work with. As I mentioned before, the same devices appear in the Moby-Dick Engravings and Domes, though there the lattices are all circular.

Frank Stella, Giufa e la Beretta Rosa 1989

This piece is a little more difficult. It is associated with the Cones and Pillars, some of Stella’s most challenging and in-your-face works. The straight line or stick that runs up at bottom right, and joins with the oval blue-grey shape below to make something that looks like a musical note, is parallel to the edge of a grey shape to its left, and also dances with a similar thin straight section in the top half of the print. The blue-grey oval at bottom brackets the whole composition with a white arc decorated with ovals at the top, and a striped disc sits in between. The blue area on the right joins visually with the blue grey “note” to make a bent shape that fits in very nicely with the arcs and ovals. There are a lot of symmetries and repetitions, but they don’t jump at us right away because the overall busyness distracts. The piece is not as arbitrary or chaotic as it looks at first glance. Or let’s say that it’s not just the color that’s unified and logical, the whole thing is, but it’s not pre-planned. Good arrangements arrived at through improvisation.

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Formal Principle

I’ve been trying to work out exactly what kind of order Stella is aiming for, looking at the prints and late paintings. I think that to avoid an ordering principle is probably, for Stella, a kind of abstraction. The topic becomes compelling to me as I move into large collages. Right now I work with large clear areas, which may overlap, and which dominate smaller areas with lots of detail.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 2016

Stella goes for overload, filling the piece with different kinds of detail to the extent that the main configuration is hard to detect. Maybe not so hard, but it takes sustained attention to find it.

Frank Stella, Libertinia 1995

This print is easier to read than most. The stretched out horizontal proportions demand a sequential or side by side arrangement, or suggest such a thing, and personally I like that. It looks like two rounded off shapes with a transitional area between, but you can also follow the orange diagonal at the right side over and into the middle and see it expand and veer upwards to the left and merge with the left hand group. The punched out red and white area is background. But there’s no real hierarchy of forms, and that’s likely what he considers “abstract.”

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Time and Change

Many of the things I say on this blog are widely recognized. They are not always expressed the same way. Actually, I don’t know if “widely recognized” is the right phrase—it might be more like conventional wisdom of the past. What was conventional once is now so far beyond the fence that it seems new. But you can’t repeat the past. What was once true and is again has to be rediscovered, reinvented in fact.

Robert Linsley, Gulf 1999

But all freshness comes from art. When it’s right you don’t think about the precedents. Those kind of thoughts are charmed away.

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Olga Rozanova

Been looking at great collages by Rozanova. They have that beautiful freshness of beginnings. For her, abstraction was an open future, so she had no idea how to value work like this. It was all an experiment. We can decide which experiments were worthwhile and which ones weren’t, at least for us. For now. And our job is to keep that open ended future open, even if not for us. So this could also be art of our time.

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #5 1915

What attracts me are elements that I use myself—tissue paper, cut-out lines working with patches, mixing drawing with collage, diagonals. This mode of art has a built in comedy, as  suggested in an earlier post, and that may be because of its lightness. Comic always means contemporary, and ordinary, and social. It is figurative, because it has an origin in cubism. But remember, Picasso’s work has a monstrous aspect on occasion, so that must be in here somewhere too, or at least the possibility. Perhaps today we can make something with both sides—the comic/light/optimistic and the monstrous/dark/critical.

Olga Rozanova, Non-Objective Composition #6 1915

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Art for the Age of Trump

Thinking about constructivist collage—in other words, art of a revolutionary period—makes one wonder what kind of art is right for today. Does my Collage #10 really measure up, or is to too much Kutesy-Klee and Kandinsky-Kute? Are the animal/organic and dark collages better? Probably. This might be a time for the monstrous. The monstrous was always present in abstract expressionism, and for that matter in surrealism, but it reads differently in different periods. Sometimes it just seems ridiculous. Maybe not now. I think of it as an expansion of the resources of figuration. Social monstrosities—like Trump’s cabinet—are not the ones I’m interested in. Zombies and vampires don’t really cut it, in my estimation. Human doctors and genetic engineers can make new monsters, but they will always be trivial. What art can channel is the monstrous form of beings before they actually acquired form. And that could be an art of a revolutionary time.

Robert Linsley, Inside Passage 2008

Monstrous figuration has always been part of what I do. Better than rinky-dink lines and patches. This one is a head, among other things. By the way, if anyone cares, I love Collage #10—just keep staring at it, though have no idea why.

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Collage at the Beginning

Years ago, in her book on abstraction, Briony Fer suggested that collage was at the origin of the practice. I didn’t know what importance to attach to that idea, but I liked it. Her examples were collages by the Russian avant-gardist Olga Rozanova, so she was talking about a germinal moment in the history of abstraction, and the resemblance of those coloured patches to the planes of Malevich was striking.

Olga Rozanova, from the series Universal War

Today the great collage artist is Frank Stella, and his work has very many filiations with early abstraction—something for an art historian to deal with. But what’s interesting to think about is how certain paintings might as well be collages—and it would also be interesting to try to define exactly which kinds they are. My own approach is experimental not theoretical—shifting back and forth between painting and collage is the way I think about it.

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Two of a Kind

From Wodehouse’s Joy in the Morning:

‘By an unfortunate coincidence, his lordship will in a few moments from now be proceeding to the potting shed to confer with Mr. Chichester Clam.’
‘Chichester Clam?’
‘Yes, sir.’
I shook the head.
‘I think the strain to which I have just been subjected must have affected my hearing. You sound to me as if you were saying Chichester Clam.’
‘Yes, sir. Mr. J. Chichester Clam, managing director of the Clam Line.’
‘What on earth’s a clam line?’
‘The shipping line, sir, which, if you remember, is on the eve of being merged with his lordship’s Pink Funnel.’

We all know Duchamp’s schoolboy humour. Maybe schoolboy humour is the best kind anyway.


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Another Russian Philosopher

I’m always grateful to Boris Groys, who has opened so many horizons with his wit and penetration. He has also brought attention to lesser known Russian thinkers, and there are a lot of them worth looking into. One that attracted me was Lev Shestov. What makes so many of them likable is that they are not ruled by any sense of decorum or correctness. In intellectual life today there is always a social pressure to take the whole package. For example, if one has a left position on the economy, then one is expected to be pro-abortion, and of course take it for granted that trans-sexualism is a civil rights issue, although the connection between any of these matters is hard to make, and they all deserve careful and very particular thought. It’s probably because every exponent of a single position knows they need allies, and doubts they’ll get them. The rainbow coalition has an element of coercion, although today, with the widespread opposition to Trump, it appears to be coming together in a different way. The Russians seem like free thinkers in contrast, and pleasantly, perversely unassimilable to our categories. Now along comes Alexander Dugin, called “the most dangerous philosopher in the world.” He is undoubtedly a pig, but still says some things worth hearing:

“What he proposes is that there have been three leading political theories that impacted the world in the relatively recent past – liberal capitalism or ‘liberalism’, communism and fascism. According to Dugin, the United States is the world’s leader of liberalism, which offers individual liberty, a rationalist approach and market competition.

Even though liberalism has been the winning ideology so far, triumphing over fascism in 1945, and communism in 1991 (when the Soviet Union dissolved), Dugin thinks that it is now also experiencing a fatal crisis. He believes liberals themselves would the first to claim that. Dugin regards liberalism nearing a dead end, mired currently in a ‘nihilistic post-modern stage’ because it is trying to liberate itself from rational thought and the oppression of the brain, which to a liberal is ‘something fascist in itself’. Dugin takes this a step further, describing liberalism as now trying to free the organs of the body from the brain’s control, alluding to its acceptance of the LGBT community.”

Liberation from the brain? Wow…besides me, who espouses that? (kidding) He certainly sees something not evident to our political commentators. But further, this time a direct quote from what appears to be his own English:

“The liberalism insists on the freedom and liberation from any form of collective identity. That is the very essence of the liberalism. The liberals have liberated the human being from national identity, religious identity and so on. The last kind of collective identity is gender. So there is time to abolish it making it arbitrary and optional.”

The paradox is that “identity” is collective, as mentioned in an earlier post. Dugin is saying that in the west we are trying to break away from collective identities, the opposite of what identity politics claims. Actually identity politics celebrates a diversity of identities or “communities.” That neo-liberalism is beginning to collapse is clear, and at this moment Dugin’s words remind us of what we haven’t until now dared to say to ourselves—that identity politics will never build a new society. The customized elective identity is a symptom of the dying order.

Alexander Dugin in the Ukraine

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Collage #10

This largish (48×48″) collage follows the same pattern as #s 5&8—it has a rectangle within the rectangle, a plane within the plane, a picture within the picture. It’s over an old painting in enamel on wood, and I was afraid the glue wouldn’t stick, so I took the paper off and replaced it with either oil or enamel, depending on what was in the studio. It has a dance of straight lines, flat coloured patches, and, in the in-between areas, the kind of scumbling variation of colour and surface you can get with oil paint. Overall inconsistency.

Robert Linsley, Collage #10 2017 (oil and enamel on wood)

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Progressive Critique

The following comes from a piece by McKenzie Wark:

“Contemporary art…loves three strategies that portray nothing so much as the forms of accumulation its current or emerging patrons enjoy. Firstly, there is outsourcing, where the art is made by somebody else. Secondly, there in ‘in-sourcing’, where the art is made by its own audience. Here the artwork just furnishes the chatroom and collects the rent. Thirdly, the art disappears entirely into the concept, and the concept disappears entirely into the exchange. The artist is a purveyor of intangible values. Thus the three kinds of art mirror the three kinds of capital: either someone else makes it, we make it for ourselves and still pay for it, or nothing gets made but we pay for it anyway.”

Here a progressive thinker is making a pretty devastating critique of art that usually considers itself progressive. That calls itself progressive. It’s one of the greatest ironies of our time that in the art world painting always takes the blame for collaboration with the 1%. From the same article:

“Contemporary art mimics the form of its key patrons, that fraction of the rentier class that lives off finance capital. Both financial ‘products’ and these contemporary products of the art economy have no purpose in life other than to valorize themselves. They say nothing, do nothing, make nothing of the excess of the world present.”

But saying nothing and doing nothing are not so bad in themselves. The idea is to be something, not say something. If people like Wark got a wider hearing it might remove some of the smugness of the little Buchlovians, but abstraction will still be criticized for not saying anything to disturb or instruct its patrons. It has more important things to do.

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolour collage 2016

This collage looks back to my earlier remake of Klee’s famous angel.

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Size and Importance

Further on from the previous post—if Stella was part of a larger, more general response to abstract expressionism, I think the generally accepted understanding of that response has been too limited. We usually hear that it was a reaction against the emotionalism, intensity, anxiety and doubt of the older generation. I see it as a reaction against the limitations of the lyric or subjective mode. An abstract expressionist picture is an enlarged moment. Historically the moment by moment movement of the artist’s mind took the form of a series or succession of small works—think Klee, or even Picasso’s cubist still lifes. To expand the size was a claim for the social importance and value of individual creativity; that was fine, but the content was still slight. And the reaction—the systematic, deliberate, planned work of Judd, Stella, Kelly etc.—didn’t actually do the job. Uninflected surfaces, regular forms and all at once reception were good things, but they kept the singleness of idea and experience of the older art. There was certainly an ethical aspect to that, but it was also just contemporary taste. Everyone was habituated to the artwork as the embodiment of one idea. A large Ellsworth Kelly fundamentally offers the same kind of experience as a small Morandi—thoughtful, deliberated, condensed, hinging on sensibility. One could say that some large scale American painting is just a way to allow intimist work to survive in the post-war consumer environment, which is bigger, busier, blander, more distracted than before, and to find a market for it among people who don’t incline to reflect or meditate or live with art. Against this perspective, Stella’s later work is really something more, and a real expansion of art.

Frank Stella, la Vecchia dell’Orto 1986

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Bigger and Better

In some quarters one hears the claim that bigger means more serious or more ambitious. Not necessarily, because bigger doesn’t necessarily mean more. It’s one way to get attention in the world, and maybe does indicate a desire to get that attention, so from a dealer’s perspective a sign of something. But small works can be very strong in crowded contexts—think of Nasreen Mohamedi, Agnes Martin, Giorgio Morandi, Gunther Gerzso—so the quality that matters is not necessarily sheer size. What I want to see is abundance, and the all-over composition now canonical in abstraction gives more of the same, so not so generous. The problem with abstraction is its default recourse to the lyric, or personal. Abstract paintings usually look like the eruption of one idea, one sensation, one feeling, one discovery. They don’t seem to build or go anywhere after the initial impulse. But even the most facile and skilled artists used to practice a lot of preparation. Picasso would fuss about with painted bits of paper to try out compositions, yet he was capable of just whipping one up whenever he felt like it. Most abstract artists today seem to be content with Alan Ginsburg’s “first thought, best thought.” The purpose of planning is get the thing to go farther—to make it better. This might be why I think Stella’s later work is his best. His method remained as systematic as it was with the Black Paintings, but added more stages and made room for more elements. Many confuse system, order, planning with unemotional rationality. It’s actually an enabling device—it enlarges the working space and makes more room for emotion, as well as more perspective on the world.

Frank Stella, Jungli Kowa 1978

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Wooster’s Version

I hope my readers will excuse this long quote from one of the Jeeves and Wooster books:

The effect the apparition had on me was to make me start violently, and we all know what happens when you start violently while holding a full cup of tea. The contents of mine flew through the air and came to rest on the trousers of Aubrey Upjohn, M.A., moistening them to no little extent. Indeed, it would scarcely be distorting the facts to say that he was now not so much wearing trousers as wearing tea.

I could see the unfortunate man felt his position deeply, and I was surprised that he contented himself with a mere “Ouch!” But I suppose these solid citizens have to learn to curb the tongue. Creates a bad impression, I mean, if they start blinding and stiffing as those more happily placed would do.

But words are not always needed. In the look he now shot at me I seemed to read a hundred unspoken expletives. It was the sort of look the bucko mate of a tramp steamer would have given an able-bodied seaman who for one reason or other had incurred his displeasure.

“I see you have not changed since you were with me at Malvern House,” he said in an extremely nasty voice, dabbing at the trousers with a handkerchief. “Bungling Wooster we used to call him,” he went on, addressing his remarks to Bobbie and evidently trying to enlist her sympathy. “He could not perform the simplest action such as holding a cup without spreading ruin and disaster on all sides. It was an axiom at Malvern House that if there was a chair in any room in which he happened to be, Wooster would trip over it. The child,” said Aubrey Upjohn, “is the father of the man.”

“Frightfully sorry,” I said.

“Too late to be sorry now. A new pair of trousers ruined. It is doubtful that anything can remove the stain of tea from white flannel. Still, one must hope for the best.”

Whether I was right or wrong at this point in patting him on the shoulder and saying “That’s the spirit!” I find it difficult to decide. Wrong, probably, for it did not seem to soothe. He gave me another of those looks and strode off, smelling strongly of tea.

“Shall I tell you something, Bertie?” said Bobbie, following him with a thoughtful eye. “That walking tour Upjohn was going to invite you to take with him is off. You will get no Christmas present from him this year, and don’t expect him to come and tuck you up in bed tonight.”

I upset the milk jug with an imperious wave of the hand.

The joke, of course, is that we see what happened but we also see that Bertie doesn’t really see, even though he’s our source. Or he’s deliberately ironic, since the man on whom he spilled the tea is his old headmaster, feared and loathed. There’s a lot of this kind of thing in literature, but can it ever be done in art? In the eighties a few artists tried, but the work depended on the assumption that any work of art is a subjective expression. The critical discourse then pounded that work into dust by going on and on about a critique of that same subjectivity, which was nothing but a social convention anyway. The irony was forced into service, instead of left to vibrate with amusement. Abstraction has rebounded as an objective practice, thankfully, but I still want it to achieve the same level of self reflection and consequent comedy as literature. It may or may not be impossible.

Jiri Georg Dokoupil The Studio 1984

Jiri Georg Dokoupil, The Studio 1984

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Simplicity and Strangeness

Personally, I don’t find much value in thought. I had some experience of it when I was young, but for most of my life I’ve been more concerned with something else that I’m not sure how to name. There are a number of inadequate labels—perception might be one, insight another, or just plain seeing, because one doesn’t see only with the eyes. What one sees might be complex, or it might be very simple; it might be a pattern or it might be a rounded off self contained thing. Whatever labour one has to undertake to “see” anything, it happens better if it doesn’t happen as thought. Lately I’ve been looking at people as creatures, bodies with a brain and mind. Just looking. The simple strangeness of it all is certain to have some pay off in enlightenment, and it’s connected with an ability to see the strangeness and simplicity of abstract art, always threatened by too much knowledge. The new emerges pretty easily from that.

Liubov Popova, Spatial Force Construction 1921

Liubov Popova, Spatial Force Construction 1921

With a work like this, the title provides some kind of rationale, or deceives us into thinking there is one, and so betrays the possibilities promised. But we can see them if we wish.

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Jonathan Lasker

Back in the day (can’t remember how long ago) Jonathan Lasker’s paintings seemed inevitable. Maybe not so now. But they had a beautiful objectivity, with their squirming lines that looked like they came out of cake decorator’s tool. Looking back today I don’t think they would have been possible without the example of Stella’s Exotic Birds.

Jonathan Lasker, When dreams work 1992

To keep those lines clear and distinct with oil paint is an achievement, and the ability to put them on without correction is admirable. But in recent years the cartoony cutesy aspect of his work has become more obvious, or maybe just more annoying.

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Color and Mark

I used to think that Stella’s Exotic Birds were not his best works. I could appreciate them as a necessary breakthrough, but bad works nevertheless. I never liked the template approach, that the forms were ready-made and just decorated with paint. Maybe I was guilty of something I criticize in others—being too systematic, too stuck on my principles. Today I’m more and more impressed by the variety, expressiveness and intelligence of Stella’s color choices in these works. I’d also like to dispense with one shibboleth of criticism in the 80s, and even the 70s—that Stella’s brushstrokes, like Richter’s, are “quotations” of abstract expressionist brush strokes. I call variety of mark objectivity and find it inspiring and liberating.

Frank Stella, Bonin Night Heron 1976

Frank Stella, Eskimo Curlew 1976

Also interesting is the consistent presence of planes within planes, and frames within frames. Pictures within pictures—spaces for the forms to move in and out of.

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Somehow Both

Further to the Marisa Merz work in the previous post, and to the discussion about story telling in abstraction—we are familiar with the common object decontextualized to the degree that it becomes “abstract,” and also with the evocative shape or form that has no definite or intended meaning; together they make a pretty large area to work in.

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

Frank Stella, Fedallah (IRS-4 1.875X) 1988

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Forms of Realism

The best part of Facebook, in fact the only good part, is some of the people one can meet. Recently I connected with a young writer called Joobin Bekhrad, of Iranian extraction but living in Toronto, who loves to post interesting material about the Middle East. Through him I learned about the Turkish writer Yasar Kemal, and I’m reading one of his books now, The Undying Grass. A really good book—beautifully constructed, and with a great honesty about everything bodily, including sex. A good corrective to common ideas about the cultures of the middle east. It’s also at a place where realism, magic realism and folklore are indistinguishable. That may seem impossible, but it’s not. Does that have anything to do with abstraction? I think so, for two reasons. Firstly, I have a theory about the realist origin of abstraction, and I think that too much emphasis has been put on the other origin, on “spiritual” or religious traditions. The Hilma af Klimt – Mondrian axis is, in many ways, the dominant one, but I prefer the materialist/realist axis – from Cézanne to Stella (however improbable that genealogy might seem), with stops at Picasso, Malevich, Pollock, Kelly, Barré and many others. To understand realism in art one has to understand it in literature, so my second reason is that anything that expands my own perspective is useful. Who could say what magic realism, or proletarian fiction, or folklore and fairy tales might have to do with abstract art? Why set limits beforehand?

Marisa Merz, Scarpette

Marisa Merz, Scarpette

Marisa Merz’s fairy slippers, that danced with the moon. A kind of abstraction.

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Once Again New

It’s been pointed out, most cogently by Nietzsche, that what stirs us most in what we read is what we already know. He means philosophy or any kind of wisdom writing, not political screeds on the internet. But we still have to confront the problem that is blocking contemporary political discourse, namely that if you only find what you want to find in what you read then perhaps you don’t really read. The same would go for art. It’s a disease of painters—to be stuck, stuck, stuck, as Tracey Emin put it—but not only painters. Pleasure has to involve some repetition, that’s the link between art and sex after all, but repetition is contrary to the spirit of modern art. Or at least some of it. I guess some accommodation has to be made; better to be realistic than idealistic. But as it happens, the worst idealists are those who believe in the eternal value of art. Repetition should be the point of departure, not the goal. Then art enters the flow of time.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 2016 (enamel, watercolour, watercolour pencil, acrylic, spray paint, collage on wood)

I’ve torn this collage down and rebuilt it more than once but now it’s done. In many ways it repeats the previous big one. Was thinking of throwing it out, but it’s easy to forget how painful, even agonizing it was to make some of the earlier ones in the series. Whoever promised it would be easy? It’s not a technical difficulty, it’s the need to dig deep, not to work on autopilot. To make it real. I don’t really know what to say, it’s all a matter of feeling, and you know you’re on the right path when it feels hopeless. And looking back over the series they are getting better. Lest anyone think I’m making too much fuss about nothing, I’ll just say that everything that gets done to the picture is objective; it’s not “self-expression.” As I said before, the problem is how large shapes relate to small details. Since this is the biggest collage so far, 60×48″, that problem takes on a different character. At the beginning I thought the large black shape had something to do with the Trump election—took a while to make it more than that, which meant giving it a stronger identity as a shape. Actually more than one shape. The other task was to make some straight lines dance among the curves.

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The Artwork in Our Time

Miklos Legrady, an artist in Toronto who has a penchant for polemic, has just published on e-flux conversations what he thinks of as a rebuttal to Benjamin’s famous artwork essay. It takes the form of a close reading with commentary. A worthy effort, but I think it misses the point. For a long time I was saying that the artwork essay, which has been read by every art student in the last forty years at least, was Benjamin’s worst effort. Certainly it’s full of questionable assertions, and the best critique of it, definitive in my opinion, was by Robert Hullot-Kentor. All Hullot-Kentor had to point out was that every time a piece of music is played on the piano is an example of mechanical reproduction, as auratic as anything could be. Artists and art students would never think of that, because they’re fixated on photography and digital media, but it’s a big mistake to use Benjamin’s essay as a guide to practice. I think worse than any failings in the text is the literalist reception it’s had. If I had control of an art education syllabus, I would remove the artwork essay and replace it with Benjamin’s graduate dissertation, called “The Concept of Romantic Criticism.” That would certainly try the attention spans of art students, but it has more to teach about modern art and how it works than anything else they are usually given to read. But I went back to the artwork essay recently and was very impressed. It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong, and I find it disappointing that an artist would care about that at all. It’s full of ideas, literally overflowing with creativity and imagination. On that level, mere truth or accuracy is pretty much irrelevant.

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