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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Realist Masquerade

When the post about Ian Wallace’s Poverty went up on Facebook, there were comments from Ydessa Hendeles. She is a very interesting artist and has been an important figure in Toronto for many years. She remembers when the Poverty series was first shown there, and recounts that there were criticisms of the content. I know well the moralism of the Canadian art scene, which leads to all kinds of prohibitions. The most commonly heard attitude is that Wallace has no right to represent the experiences of others, the more so that his picture shows his friends acting the roles of derelicts or homeless people—supposedly he is belittling the lives of the poor. Actually, the reception of Wallace’s work, in Canada at least, has never gone beyond the art world, so the criticism itself is in bad faith, but it also distracts from the many interesting features of the work, which do have some relevance to abstraction.

As pointed out by Hendeles, the entire work has a formal, or formalist, level on which the content of the image doesn’t really matter. But looking closer, the image does matter, as does its referent, namely poverty itself. Suffice to go back to Baudelaire, who said that there were two kinds of aristocrats—those with inherited property and family name, and aristocrats of the spirit, namely artists, who might actually be broke but have a social superiority anyway. An artist can take any role, and usually whatever role they take is in the nature of a sales pitch or appeal for support, a performance. Baudelaire’s claim to an aristocracy more legitimate than the “real” one is partly performance for the benefit of the aristocratic patron, partly a compensation for the shame of his real poverty, but it also belongs to a time in which aristocratic identities were crumbling. No social identity or role is stable anymore, but in the early days of that modern condition artists took the freedom to masquerade as they chose, along with con artists, frauds and sharpies of all kinds. A noble legacy, and one to be proud of (or some might say it was until the Trump victory). But since this is art, we have to recognize that social masquerade has a tradition, going back to Watteau at least, and I would say even to the mythologies of Titian and Veronese.

Antoine Watteau, Les Champs Elysées 1717

Wallace’s kind of abstraction, with its monochrome rectangles, is the idealist branch that goes through Mondrian. I’m more interested in the realist branch of abstraction, but that might draw a blank with most people, since it’s only been traced by me. The point is that poverty is real, but the poverty that matters is that of the artist, which is not only a lack of money. The artist sees him or herself in the poor, but poverty is also allegorical—a poverty of imagination, of artistic means and possibilities, of sensibility, of a totally impoverished even though wealthy culture. Reality is revealed in the masquerade of poverty, and the masquerade is the art that keeps culture alive. This post has gone on long enough, but I think it proves that we should not have too narrow a concept of abstraction.

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Abstraction from Life

This blog is about abstract art, and I think it offers some interesting and novel ideas. It also has some unconventional ideas, and makes no apology for that. The recent post on Ian Wallace’s work is, for me, a bit of filler. I love the work and the ideas it gives me, but it’s not in the main line of what I’m doing. In fact, when I got into abstraction, so many years ago, I saw it as a break away from the Vancouver context—a healthy thing for me. So I’m not exactly happy that the post provoked comment, since there are better things to talk about, namely any other post. But now I can see that Ian’s work could be a good example of a point I make in the book. According to the artist the works in the Poverty series, and everything he’s done since, stage an irreconcilable opposition between the ideals of modernism—represented by the monochrome—and social content—represented by the documentary photograph. These are two kinds of artistic practice, with two different politics, and Wallace saw both as valid at the time. The important point is that the concept is completely formalist. The particulars of the photo don’t matter so much, it just has to stand for a certain kind of documentary; the precise color and form of the monochrome area is not so important, it just has to stand for a certain possibility in art. This is an “abstract” attitude; the contingent details of life are not eliminated, but they’re minimized and subordinated to an overall abstract concept. So today (and Wallace is not the only example) abstract art might include imagery and even photography. That pushes us toward a new definition of abstraction.

Ian Wallace, from Poverty, 1987

However, in Wallace’s work the particular photos do matter and that’s where the fun begins. For another post.

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An Opportunity, or A Christmas Message

Stella teaches something every artist should know, or does know but normally forgets—that art is not a problem, it’s an opportunity, an invitation, a promise. What it is for society I have no idea, but that’s what it is for me—an invitation to realize the great possibilities that are there. The much derided formalism is all about that, and that’s why it’s still valid. There’s no reason to single out any particular artist as the best, but true greatness is simply openness to the potentials, which are as objectively variable as they are objective. Nor does the work have to be absolutely new or unprecedented, just moving with life. I wish I had more material abundance in my life, but creative abundance is what keeps me alive, and that abundance is always available—it just takes an artist to manifest it.

Frank Stella, Merry Christmas (S—5, 3X 2D version) 1987

Today it seems like everything is going crazy in the world—conflicts are spiraling ever faster, anger is rising, panic and despair are setting in, lies and conscious deception feed ignorance and blind delusion—it really is a new period we will have to call the age of Trump. It’s so important to keep focused on art as the realm of possibility. And in that way a source of joy.

Robert Linsley, Sphere #8 2013

Robert Linsley, Untitled watercolour 2013

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Aristocrat of the Spirit

You have to know that you are right. But if no one else agrees then you’re a poor sap anyway. Indifference to shame helps. The shame of poverty, for example. Baudelaire turned poverty into “poverty.” Shamelessness fosters conviction.

biography-of-charles-baudelaire

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Wallace’s Poverty

Ian Wallace’s Poverty is a fiction. Can someone who is really poor take an interest in that? You’d have to be indifferent to wealth to begin with to appreciate both rich and poor as roles, to take them as art. For that, an upbringing in the middle class or higher is probably necessary.

Ian Wallace, Poverty (one panel) 1980 – ongoing

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Arbitrary Beginnings, Well Known Ends

Further on in the Richter film, starting at 54 minutes, there’s a conversation between the artist and Benjamin Buchloh. They hit on all the points I make in the book, and the conclusion is as I described it. Richter knows he’s finished a work when he feels it’s “right,” and what feels right has been pre-determined long ago. This is what I cannot abide, and why I find Richter’s work so disappointing. And moral alibis for the destruction of all those possibilities by the squeegee is just mannerism; call it critical mannerism or empty talk that always takes a negative position in order to affirm the status quo.

The finishing wipe, from Gerhard Richter, Painting, a 2011 film by Corinna Belz

The finishing wipe, from Gerhard Richter, Painting, a 2011 film by Corinna Belz

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Decisions, Maybe Bad Ones

This video of Gerhard Richter in his studio shows him painting a couple of largish abstracts, with three big pots of paint—yellow, red and blue—and a wide brush. The sequence in question is from 12-23 minutes. It’s a pleasure to watch someone with so many years of experience and accumulated skill swing a brush, and he has a great method—just straight forward wet into wet, building structures, dragging the paint or lifting the brush as he feels his way. At the end he admits he’s been enjoying himself, and it shows.

Unfortunately. at the moment one can only see a trailer

Since I watched the film it’s been taken off Youtube and now I think one has to pay to view. Here are a couple of links to the film for those who want to follow up.
https://www.fandor.com/films/gerhard_richter_painting

He says he should “find a way to make them just as fast, just as fancy free, but would leave them finished too. And good.” But wait a minute—of course that’s the right goal, but lots of artists have reached it. Picasso managed to turn out several thousand improvisations that stand as perfectly finished and resolved works. For that matter, there’s plenty of “fancy free” in Poussin, of all people, in the skies and landscapes. My Island paintings manage the same thing. Richter says, “it’s so much fun and they look good—for two hours.” Okay, so they’re not finished, first effort doesn’t get the result—de Kooning knew what to do about that, and Richter’s pictures look a lot like early stage de Koonings. But Richter’s idea of “finish” is to obliterate them with his squeegee and make an all-over single thing, with no incident, no form, no decisions showing. That last move, the same move every time, happens at 39 minutes to about 47. I talk about his method in my book, but just for now, it seems as if Richter has a day job, in his case making decorative abstractions for millionaire’s apartments, so he can buy time to paint for the pleasure of it—just like many of us. But he doesn’t keep the paintings he makes for pleasure. Sounds kind of avant-garde.

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Illusions of Identity

A couple of months ago I read about the American writer Lionel Shriver and the scandal she caused at a writer’s festival in Brisbane. At the time I was sympathetic but passed on. Recently a follow up article showed that the whole imbroglio is more interesting and more important than it seemed at the time. Or maybe the times have changed. Some people think that the Trump victory has emboldened critics of “political correctness,” assuming that such critics are reactionary to begin with. I think it’s rather that the Trump victory has exposed the utter failure of neo-liberalism, and so of identity politics as well. Looking back I can’t believe that I didn’t single out these comments from Shriver: “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.” That’s pretty strong, and also rings true. But then what is an “identity” anyway? The definition of the word means a “sameness.” If two things are identical they are the same. In the way that many use the term, it means group solidarity or group identity, that each member is at one with the group. The sense that Shriver seems to give it—meaning what it should or really does mean for her—is really “self-identity.” That may be confusing at first, but the “self-identical” is what is whole, integrated, unified and autonomous. Apply that to a person and it means that all of the parts of that person belong entirely to him or herself, that they are a complete self-directed individual. Personally, when I admit how permeable and porous I am, how the outside world pours through me all the time, and how much that flood fills my mind and influences what I do, I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be fully autonomous. Autonomy is an ideal, but it’s an ideal worth striving for, because only autonomous individuals can have relationships with others. A relationship between autonomous individuals is the definition of democracy. It’s also the western concept of marriage. So there it is, politics and sexual politics all at once, both dependent on an ideal type that may not completely exist in any particular example. But I share Shriver’s impatience with the followers of identity politics, because they lack the strength, or courage, or whatever it takes, to try for autonomy. They want to surrender to an external authority. 

Doug Cranmer, Untitled painting (abstraction) 1982

As an artist I can’t come up with a theoretical position on any of this, and why should I? I just want my work to be “non-identical,” meaning completely other from myself. And that usually means it will entail some conflict with community, family, the art world, any group that demands allegiance. In my book there is a chapter on this, about Doug Cranmer, an aboriginal abstractionist.

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Colour in Sculpture

Stella’s Town-Ho’s Story is made of cast and poured aluminum, steel, and some ready-made bits and pieces. It’s not all scrap, in fact mostly fabricated. However, the colour of the piece leans heavily on the untreated color of the different kinds of metal. There is some spray paint here and there, on the mesh or lattice pieces, but the only applied colour, meaning brushed on like most of the Moby Dick series, is tucked away inside folded or bent pieces. It’s as if it’s been deliberately hidden. You have to look for it, and so it’s like the piece as a whole—unity and conscious arrangement are certainly there, but it’s up to you to see them. That’s how abstraction in our time has to work.

this wave/whale shape looks like it's been rolled around to put the painted side inside

this wave/whale shape looks like it’s been rolled around to put the painted side inside

Just to add another layer of appreciation, Stella’s sculpture owes a lot to John Chamberlain’s painterly efforts, including this very treatment of colour.

John Chamberlain, Untitled 2009

John Chamberlain, Untitled 2009

John Chamberlain

another, older John Chamberlain

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Stories in Stories

Stella’s large sculpture, The Town-Ho’s Story, is, among other things, a collection of smaller pieces. I’ve mentioned this before, but as I suggested in the previous post, parts of the main body of the work could also be seen separately, like characters in a story. The notion of an abstract work as populated by interacting parts rather than as a single integrated thing is pretty interesting, as it opens abstraction to art history—meaning the painted drama and painted narratives of the past. Stella’s method is collage, and his sculpture is similar to his prints in that respect. And since this is abstraction, the implied narrative is built out of a dialogue with other works, such as the prints for example. The wire mesh wrapped around the upper regions of The Town-Ho’s Story resembles the computer generated schematics of Stella’s smoke ring photos, used in many of his prints and paintings. Lightness and airiness are again the keywords.

side view of "The Town-Ho's Story" showing the Chinese lattice and wave/whale grouping that could be detached as a separate Moby-Dick piece and the wire mesh at the top

side view of The Town-Ho’s Story showing the Chinese lattice and wave/whale grouping that could be detached as a separate Moby-Dick piece and the wire mesh at the top

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch 1993

Frank Stella, The Whale-Watch 1993

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A Story

In Moby-Dick the chapter is called “The Town-Ho’s Story,” and the story is of an encounter with the white whale. In Stella’s piece the ship is heeling over, and from the side it looks like it’s taken a hit. Jammed into the honeycomb aluminum side is what looks like a normal Moby Dick work, composed of the usual Chinese lattice and a bent and folded wave/whale shapeThis configuration seems to push through the 

Side view of "The Town-Ho's Story"

Side view of “The Town-Ho’s Story”

wall, bulging into the “hold” of the ship and compressing the contents. Stella’s sculpture is violently dramatic—nothing static about this pile of metal.

a whale(?) pushing through the honeycomb wall of the ship

a whale(?) pushing through the honeycomb wall of the ship

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A Heap of Scrap Metal

On a train passing a scrap yard the piles of twisted shiny metal pieces remind me of Stella’s sculpture in Chicago. You might call the pile a piece of abstract art, in the “all over” mode, but Stella’s work is to organize the pile and make something more like an old master composition than a normal piece of contemporary abstraction. There’s more to say about that. I saw the piece, from the Moby Dick series, a few months ago. I’ve mentioned it on this blog but never had a chance to find out what it’s really like. Spent two hours, and it got better all the time. You could say that Stella is an artist who moves from high point to high point—there are a lot of high points and this is one of them.

Frank Stella,The Town-Ho's Story 1993

Frank Stella,The Town-Ho’s Story 1993

This front view shows the strong figurative aspect of Stella’s abstractions—you can see the ship heeling over to the left. The photo is a good one, but it doesn’t convey how the height of the thing works in a closed space—in person you can’t get a complete view of the upper layers, so there is the impression of a towering mass, and it’s possible to feel that piled on top are sails and clouds—light and airy things rendered in metal.

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The Day Is Long

More from the mind of Bertie Wooster:

“If there’s one thing I like it’s a quiet life. I’m not one of those fellows who get all restless and depressed if things aren’t happening to them all the time. You can’t make it too placid for me. Give me regular meals, a good show with decent music every now and then, and one or two pals to totter round with, and I ask no more.”

“It was one of those things that want doing quickly or not at all. I shut my eyes and pushed. Something seemed to give. There was a scrambling sound, a kind of yelp, a scream in the offing, and a splash. And so the long day wore on, so to speak.”

Robert Linsley, Collage #9, 2nd. state

Robert Linsley, Collage #9, stage 2

This collage hasn’t moved much since the first stop, and I’m getting impatient—not with the collage of course.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3a

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3a

So now it’s moving, but looking much worse.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3b

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 stage 3b

Later the same day. Even worse.

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Abstraction in Iran

My facebook friend from Vancouver, Mohammad Salemy, has written a piece about the modernist art collection in Tehran. It’s worth a read. The collection is very rich, but right now I’m interested in the abstraction. Stella spent time there in the sixties, and drew inspiration for his Protractor series. He is also friends with Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, a very interesting artist I will discuss here one day. She was married to a senior diplomat—part of the establishment you might say, so I’m sure there’s some good Stella in the collection, but I know for certain there’s a major Pollock. The topic of modernist abstraction in Iran really draws me—maybe because I know some great Iranian artists—and part of the story is certainly the influence and role of this collection. Mohammad says that Iranian artists don’t want it to travel because they fear the works will be seized by self-proclaimed former owners and sold. In other words, Iranian artists value cosmopolitan modernism, and don’t see it as antagonistic to their own culture.

Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red ground 1950

Jackson Pollock, Mural on Indian Red Ground 1950

My position on this has two sides. First of all, the meaning and value of abstract art has yet to be determined, and presumably different contexts will have different proposals to make. We need those perspectives. Corollary is that no one can set a limit as to what use Iranians, or anyone else for that matter, can make of modern art. Secondly, I don’t believe that the global culture is western culture, and certainly does not belong to western elites. The global culture is made of refugees, expats, diasporas, students, adventurers—just take a look, it is not western and not white. So it’s wrong to claim that abstraction, with it’s universalizing tendency, is an instrument of colonialism. This is my view from here, peering through the fog of identity politics, surfing the confusion. The Iranian view is what I want to know.

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Shame

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anton Ehrenzweig’s idea that artists are shameless, that art is a kind of self exposure that demonstrates a courageous defiance of social norms—of guilt in fact. I’ve discussed it before on this blog. But even though it is a theory of expression, it’s not about subjectivity as we understand it today, about the artist’s “identity.”

The artist’s self-display necessarily has a sexual component, but today there are no erotic shocks. Too many people have learned from modern art not to pay any attention to the proprieties—even to believe that defiance of the proprieties has a moral value. And in the age of Trump the high standard of shamelessness observed by the ruling class makes the merely erotic kind seem paltry. The famous 1% are truly a class with no class.

In the face of these difficulties I have to admire those artists who have still managed to take a real risk—and make it real; mentioned on this blog have been Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons and Carolee Schneeman, all great in different ways. Of the three I have most respect and admiration for Fraser. But what they all prove is that it’s not enough to take off your clothes, in fact it’s not enough to present explicit sex, it is absolutely crucial where, when and how those things are done—as in all art. Society is still there, and the human monkey is still subject to society’s greatest weapon—shame, an emotion that can kill. Who can defend against mockery? Well, evidently lots of people today, but an artist still has to find the intolerable spot, where the monkey either laughs or throws a rock because it can’t help itself—and then internal form and external context (meaning the art world) have to be rightly arranged to silence the monkey.

I come from a pretty nervous place, and used to be very sensitive to shame. It’s taken many years to grow a thicker skin, and I would say it’s come entirely from inside—no one else’s example ever helped me. One turning point happened a few years ago. “Embarrassing” photos were taken, and sent. But even though I looked very undignified, was surprised to realize that I just didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed, and just to register that fact at the time was a milestone. But, though I think the whole story is quite amusing, and I would happily tell it to some people, I won’t reveal it on this blog. The reason is that the sexual component is not shocking, but there were other aspects that would be sure to bring on the abuse. I don’t want to be jeered by any other monkey, who would? And even though I was missing some of my clothes, the photos were not erotic. But that’s a bit disingenuous. All images are erotic, and the erotic may be more strongly present when the image is deliberately low key, undemonstrative. When I saw the famous “ordinary women” Dove ads in Berlin about ten years ago, I found them very striking and incredibly sexy.

img_0495

I can hear the obvious criticism—that I’ve just performed a sleight of hand and substituted the female body for my own. But the modes of self display are different for men and women, and for male and female artists. Another post for that.

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Wooster and the Reality Principle

Wodehouse’s books are light, and lightness is one of the qualities I esteem in any art. But they are not any less concerned with reality as it is lived. Here is Bertie Wooster’s favourite aunt, regaling him with some affectionate badinage:

‘I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing,’ she said, drinking me in once more. ‘To look at you, one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot – certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.’

All I can say is slapstick is highest form of art, and the lowest, and to join those two limits is the right way.

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

Vassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension 1923

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The Mystery of Jeeves

The genius of P.G.Wodehouse has been well recognized. And so it should be. His books are so funny and give so much pleasure that they make life more bearable. But he was also a very intelligent and sophisticated artist, the more so that his books are entirely made from conventions and stock characters, and basically tell the same story over and over again. That’s not to say that there is no development. In the early stories there are clues to the character of Jeeves—he has his moods and preferences. Later on he goes to another plane, something astral maybe. He becomes mysterious, spectral, a figure of the imagination, vivid but insubstantial:

“Presently I was aware that Jeeves was with me. I hadn’t heard him come in, but you often don’t with Jeeves. He just streams silently from spot A to spot B, like some gas.”

Wooster always describes him as “shimmering” in and out. I think he’s an emanation of Wooster, and that’s so funny because he is supposed to be much more intelligent than Wooster; but then the levels of irony in Wooster’s self presentation may be as yet uncounted. Wodehouse’s evolution is toward the more abstract—but completely in and through convention. Perhaps the two are synonymous anyway.

P.G.Wodehouse

P.G.Wodehouse

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Invention and Labour

I read recently about Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic, an allegorical/historical cycle of gigantic paintings, some actually as much as 20 feet high.

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor

Alphonse Mujcha, The Coronation of the Serbian Tsar Stefan Dušan as East Roman Emperor (early 20th. century)

I’d like to see them, but even before doing so I’m getting tired. Too much work! Mucha is clearly a modern artist, and in fact well known for his Art Nouveau posters, but he was not a modernist. Those conservative souls who bemoan the disappearance of technique in modern art would probably love his work, but they are missing the important point put forward by the modernists—that one moment of invention is worth a thousand hours of labour. This is why a small Klee, or a small Picasso still life (which might contain several moments of invention) is better, more inspiring, and offers more to enjoy than a grand museum filling cycle.

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

Pablo Picasso, Still life with stone, 1924

And this is why I’ve always felt that later modernism, in which one moment of creative freedom might be extended over an entire cycle of large pictures, is a kind of failure—a failure to maintain the energy of invention.

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Mark Rothko, No. 61 1953

Some are happy to see art enslaved by nationalistic nonsense, others prefer the cosmopolitan modernism of the auction room, but in the age of Trump and the neo-liberals, it’s the underlying sameness of these two models that matters—and the recognition that there is another way.

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This World or Another

At the time of writing, a couple of weeks before publication, the Trump election is everyone’s topic of discussion, and the content of that discussion can get pretty intense—intensely apocalyptic in some cases. I’ve been putting in my own opinion on Facebook, and I’m as involved in communal life as anyone, but I’m also on a binge of reading P.G.Wodehouse, the Jeeves and Wooster books. Is that escapism? Maybe, but it’s an escape to something more fundamental than political hysteria. Wodehouse is clever, funny, and very artful; on occasion he also offers a more or less profound truth. Take this passage:

“I had seen this man before only in the decent habiliments suitable to the metropolis, and I confess that even in the predicament in which I found myself I was able to shudder at the spectacle he presented in the country. It is, of course, an axiom, as I have heard Jeeves call it, that the smaller the man the louder the check suit, and old Bassett’s apparel was in keeping with his lack of inches. Prismatic is the only word for those frightful tweeds and, oddly enough, the spectacle of them had the effect of steadying my nerves. They gave me the feeling that nothing mattered.”

But he’s just finished proving that many things matter—clothes, colour, taste, style. That final sentence is striking but also easy to pass over, even to miss. What does it mean anyway? I think I’ve had that experience, in a moment of stress. Or felt that if only I could win through the struggle of life I could allow small things to matter again. Anomie, indifference as the highest stage of aestheticism—the political arguments against a life in art, especially abstraction, are already in place. But the place where “nothing matters” is also the place of freedom, and not only for art. It’s not that nothing matters, it’s just that the available choices don’t make any difference—like the choice between Clinton and Trump. Once you see that, new possibilities for action arise.

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 (first state)

Robert Linsley, Collage #9 (first state)

In the first stage of this new collage, the biggest yet at 60×48″, a black space breaks through the frame. It’s a lot like #7, also in vertical format.

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Music in the Studio

A lot of artists like to play music while they work. I think it’s a dangerous thing to do. The problem is that the feelings of the music possess you and then you start to believe that your own work has the same feeling. If you feel the music a lot you can enter a delusional state and imagine that your work is great, when really you haven’t given it a chance. Actually, having said that, I realize it might be too generous to my colleagues, most of whom probably use music as background noise, as it is in many workplaces. As such it can be a tool of concentration, a way of distracting oneself away from the normal background noise in one’s head. But once the flow is happening, it becomes an obstacle to concentration, a distraction. At some point, it has to be turned off.

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel collage on canvas

Robert Linsley, Collage #7 2016, watercolor, watercolor pencil, silkscreen, acrylic, enamel collage on canvas

But then listening to Das Lied von der Erde in the studio while working on this collage, I found the music joyful, despite it’s apparent seriousness. The joy is in the composer’s exercise of artistic capacities, skills, knowledge—the ability to put things together, also the pay off from my own efforts. So which way does the influence go? Does the music cast a glow over the work, or does the act of working open me up to the music?

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Another Kind of Artist

I find this woman‘s work fascinating. Over a period of many years Isabelle Mège persuaded prominent photographers to shoot her portrait. Now she is regarded as the artist. The feminist side of what she is doing is obvious and the bouleversement of the model/artist relationship is also something familiar, but the idea of the artist making their work by controlling other artists from a distance is novel, daring and almost shocking. It may be typical of contemporary work in many respects, but still proves that there is always another way. Human invention is unlimited.

Constant Anée, Untitled 2000

Constant Anée, Untitled 2000

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