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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