The Spoils

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality (Pallant House, 11 March-11 June 2017)

I can claim no great knowledge of art aside from what I’ve looked at and then thought about, and maybe then read about. Victor Pasmore was filed in a mental box of British abstract, with if I recall a couple of paintings at Brighton that have caught my eye a couple of times.

It was odd to go into the first room of this Pallant House retrospective and think, French. There was an air of Paris in the domestic interiors and the drinkers in cafés and objects on tables. That almost-out-of-focus feel. It reminded me of a room in one of the Bergen galleries that I nearly skipped when I had this feeling, only to realise it was very early and thus atypical Edvard Munch.

Mother and Florence (1928) can be the typical one, the faces impossible to pick out, the focus on the sewing machine. It turns out he was influenced by French Postimpressionism, the Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard. Having worked in admin for the London County Council, he studied part time at the Central School of Art and then he went onto be a founder with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers of the Euston Road School, who focused on objective observation and naturalism in art — this was to win him accolades from Kenneth Clark of Civilisation.

It’s all a little dull.

He was a conscientious objector to the Second World War, although he was refused this status at first and served a prison sentence. Living in Hammersmith and Chiswick, he began painting landscapes that tended more to the abstract and resisted being picturesque.

There’s certainly the influence of Whistler — although they are not as impressive as his Thames pictures — and the abstract tendency of Turner.

But apparently he saw his own turn to the abstract as a new beginning rather than a continuation of a tendency, and there was was some Ben Nicholson in the mix. The greyed out landscapes with coloured shapes gave way to coloured shapes on a neutral field and titles which were revised to remove references to seasons, times or locations.

I’m presuming I first saw Triangular Motif in Pink and Yellow (1949) the best part of thirty years ago at the Ferens, and it and the other collages are the works that I prefer. But I have to say I can see the influence of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, and I prefer the originals.

Perhaps echoing Nicholson’s reliefs, he moves into three dimensions, mounting slats of materials on black backed glass or squares of wood, sometimes off centred. By then he was teaching at Newcastle and got a job for Richard Hamilton, and I do wonder if he was responsible for Kurt Schwitters’s extraordinary Merzbarn Wall going to Newcastle. I like the spirals and mazes and contour map shapes, but I wasn’t blown away. Sometimes I could see how the spirals turned a painting into a response to Van Gogh, but I think he’d refute such a reading.

The Pallant has a great record of shows of artists I’ve always wanted to see or artists I hadn’t realised I should see, but this time it didn’t press my buttons.

Blue is Beautiful, Blue is Best

Yves Klein (Tate Liverpool, 21 October 2016-5 March 2017)

In the photos of Yves Klein I sort began to do a double-take for Buster Keaton. He has a sort of deadpan look, aided by the wearing of a smart suit or a waistcoat and shirt, which is at odds with the performance of his art — he’s somewhere between a clown and a ringmaster.

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More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.

Bridget Courbevoie

Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (Courtauld Art Gallery, 17 September 2015–17 January 2016)

I tried to find the bridge (Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87)) on Google maps but failed — the river Seine, the bridge, a distant factory, trees, fisher men, walkers. Georges Seurat’s brand of Post-Impressionism, pointillism, made up from coloured dots, half way between colour printing and cathode ray tubes. In another place, Roy Lichtenstein was to enlarge dots and make pop art of comics.

Copying is original.

Deliberately, if annoyingly, the copy and original hang either side of the doorway, challenging you to find a viewpoint from which they can be compared. You carry the memory of one to the other.
photo (2)

Bridget Riley may have seen the painting at the Courtauld – I presume it was at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square in 1959, having recently moved from Portman Square? — but instead it struck her in R.H. Wilenski’s book on Seurat and she then decoded to paint her own version. It’s bigger, of course, but then the book may not have been clear how big the original was. I think she knew, really, so decided to make the dots larger, and so the intensity of the original is pushed even further from photorealism. The sky is curiously yellow, matching the colour in the water and the grass. He creates light from colour and that seems to be what fascinated Riley.

If the colours become abstract, then so do the shapes — triangles, poles, lozenges, anticipating Riley’s move from stripes into something more… foliated. The Lagoon paintings, for example.

sketch

And then, on an opposite wall, Pink Landscape (1960), the shimmer of summer heat in Sienna represented by dots of red and green and pink and orange and blue, and a child’s farmhouse of white walls and a red roof. The shapes of the fields form lozenges.

Wilenski writes of Bridge that “The little man in the bowler hat has missed his train back to Paris and will be scolded by his wife; the child will be late for tea and spanked, maybe, by its mother.”

Heigho.

But we would lose the narrative in Riley as the pinstripes become stripes.

Here we’re offered variants on stripes — Late Morning I (1967) with green and red and white and blue stripes insisting on length and direction, the vertical, Vapour (1970) with white, brown, purple, green stripes overlapping, question the plane and Ecclesia (1985), thicker stripes, taking on volume.

But Tremor (1962) draws the eye — black and white triables that also form curves and ribbons and you swear the painting rotates in front of you.

A painting approximates reality through strokes, dots, stripes and the pointillist returns it to dots. Riley’s insight was to occupy the geometry, to chase the relation of shape, in canvases that move both optically and emotionally, to create luminence.

Bibliography

  • Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (London: The Courtauld Gallery/Ridinghouse, 2015)
  • Wilenski, R. H., Seurat (London: Faber & Faber, 1949)

Manifest Pollocks

Blind Spots: Jackson Pollock (Tate Liverpool, 1 July 2015-17 October 2015)

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, but grew up in Arizona and California. Having gone to art school (and been expelled), he became an artist for the Federal Work Program. His big stylistic breakthrough was the all-over drip painting, although pouring might be a better word. The whole canvas is covered by oil or thinned enamel paint dripped from brushes or syringes; in most cases the paint over lies and is overlain with other paint, in some cases the canvas is visible.

Pollock was slotted into the abstract expressionism category — abstract because it wasn’t figurative, expressionist because he was expressing his feelings and emotions on the canvas. This wasn’t necessarily a term he liked and I will come back to it. Pollock was an alcoholic and went through Jungian psychoanalysis to attempt to cure this — the assumption is that his art can be understood in Jungian terms, presumably expressing a nonindividuated ego and archetypes. Early paintings had Greek mythic titles and he is also assumed to be drawing in an interest in Native American art.

I hope to return to this but I’m troubled — action painting gives access to the unconscious and more primitive stares of mind, such as that of the Native American.

Koffs.

Really?

In 1951, after a less successful exhibition of the kind of paintings we know Pollock for, he took a change in direction: the black paintings. These were largely blank canvases with thinned black enamel dribbled on them — sometimes calligraphy, sometimes faces, sometimes scribbles — and it is this set of paintings that becomes central to Blind Spots, the current exhibition. Whilst they’ve never been entirely ignored, they have been downplayed.

Pollock wasn’t the first to paint in black — Malevich’s black squares have been seen at at least two British shows in the last year, at Tate Modern and the Whitechapel. Willem de Kooning had a black and white painting, coincidentally also in the Tate at the moment. But Pollock painted just in black.

I was worried — I prefer twentieth to pre-twentieth-century art, but I don’t like all abstract art. I was worried that I’d be wasting my time seeing this, even though I prepared by reading three or four books on Pollock. Pollock is the epitome of the “My six year old can paint like that” school of art criticism; it’s said of Picasso, too. And bollocks. But I wasn’t sure I’d get it.

I don’t pretend this to be profound, but it struck me that there is an opposition between figurative and abstract, figure and ground, paint and canvas and so on. Paint is applied in layers — in three dimensions, however trivially, as new paint obscures old.

If abstract expressionism gives us access to the unconscious, how do we know it’s the artist’s unconscious rather than our own? Does that matter?

Of course, schooled in deconstruction, you’d expect me to pick away at the oppositions.

There are specks rather than spots in this exhibition — but blind spots are the part of your eye where the nerve and exits and lacks rods and cones, there the bit that wing mirrors can’t pick out (Pollock died in a car crash) and blind spots are the things critucs overlook. But there was for me a misprison — I thought of Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, the blind spot of a text or of the critic’s reading of it.

Hmmm.

At the start of the exhibition is a found collotype of a mother and child, mostly obscured in black ink.

Obscure vs. reveal. Mask vs. unmask.

The mother and child is a key trope — archetype of — of the history of art. The Madonna and Child. This is clearly a pop art version, but we need to keep an eye out for this in the exhibition. Pollock’s mother and Pollock? Maybe. Is the black ink covering them up or revealing them? It certainly draws attention — you look harder.

The idea of looking is set up for us in the first picture of the show. It is the keynote.

(To be continued…)

Abstract Goes the Easel

A Marriage of Styles: Pop to Abstraction (Mascalls Gallery, Paddock Wood, Kent, 28 March-6 June 2015)

This is, ish, very ish, the fiftieth anniversary of the second wave of British Pop Art and the University of Kent, and so Pop Art has decided to mark this by having three universities.

Ah, sorry, my mistake, the University of Kent have three exhibitions – one on campus, which I presume they didn’t feel the need to tell anyone about as I missed it, one on Paolozzi and Tony Ray-Jones, which I’ve written about for Foundation, and A Marriage of Styles at Mascalls Gallery. This gallery has a rather good exhibition policy, but it is a l-o-n-g mile’s walk from Paddock Wood station (thankfully on the flat) and is at a school, so I’ve not been as often as I’ve wanted to. I caught this show on the penultimate day and I’m so glad I did. I should note, also, that there are current two rooms at Tate Modern specifically devoted to Pop Art, even though you’d think that would be at Britain?

So what is Pop Art? Well, the word Pop was used in a slide by Eduardo Paolozzi at his presentation Bunk! at the inaugural meeting of the Independent Group in 1952 and Lawrence Alloway in 1958 was to apply it to art that drew on the visual language of advertising, comic books and everyday life, breaking down boundaries between high and low art. In the US, you’d put Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who clearly pointed the way for the next generation of British artists, who were mostly at art college in the early 1960s. But if Pop Art constructs a reality through actual or implied collage, these artists were also influenced by more abstract, non-representational, images.

The Paddock Wood show had eleven paintings – I’m guessing one for each member of the the 1966 English worldcup football team – in its two rooms, mostly one to a wall. I’m going to talk about them one by one, mostly from my notes scribbled in the gallery. Continue reading →