Sunday, September 27, 2009


I find myself in a strange kind of melancholy mood today. I was looking at some of the old realist/visionary paintings I did, and never showed, because I suppose I always thought they were "commercial", "illustration", not up to "fine arts" par.... all those derogatory words that got heaped on us in grad school. I occasionally wonder if I ever actually recovered from all of that!

I've made the mistake, perhaps, of reading Tom Wolfe and THE PAINTED WORD recently.........he will always be a great wit! In his famous 1970's book, he argued that contemporary art had become far too much a creation of art critics and the phenomenon of marketing and media. And, I reflect, there is still some truth to his cleverness. Who does create "value" and "aesthetic", if not the cultural backdrop or paradigm that the artist operates within?

I went to the National Museum recently, and stood in long communion with old friends......... two of Monet's vibrating Cathedral series, Manet's wonderful "slice of life" moments in a long ago French countryside, in the very flesh, some of Gauguin's dark Tahitian goddesses, Van Gogh's face looking out at me in all its tormented energy, Degas dancers forever suspended en pointe, Toulouse Lautrec's ladies of the Moulin Rouge forever drunk and sadly vulnerable.........oh, what a delight!

Claude Monet
Rouen Cathedral, West Fa├žade, Sunlight, 1894

And John Singer Sargent's portraits, so close I could touch their textured surfaces, if I wasn't sure the guard would then throw me out. How incredibly Sargent was able to not only capture the "remains of the day", the colors of light at bay windows, endless New England summers, the feel of silk skirts and a still uneaten peach in a painted bowl.........but most of all, the way he could capture, with true sympathy, the soul of his subjects. A society woman peers at her audience with spirit and humor, a child laughs with intelligent eyes, Madame X scandalizes with the cool, elegant sensuality that oozes from her bare shoulders and her sheer essence. And Whistler, fluent in all his arrogant mastery, whistles effortlessly from 30 years of exploring color and shape at viewers from across generations, pulling you into his world. Robert Henri and company paint the fierce struggle of life in New York tenements and hopeful immigrants at the turn of the century, while his colleagues further upstate paint peaceful scenes of the gorgeous Hudson River valley.

John Singer Sargent
Nonchaloir (Repose), 1911

And then you cross a long, very impressive hallway, into the new, Contemporary Art section of the National Gallery. Well, I here comes some heresy. C'est la difference!

Frank Stella
Sacramento Mall Proposal #4, 1978

A huge, vast, cavernous first floor ........some interesting large mounds of black rocks outside the glass windows (I liked them because they reminded me, naturally, of prehistoric Irish Cairns, but the artist called them something else) , a Max Ernst bronze with a Minotaur, a colorful Caldor mobile, and a large intentionally rusty thing by Richard Serra that looked like a piece of the side of a shipwrecked battle ship sticking upright in the sand (he called it Five Plates, Two Poles).
A few abstract paintings with stripes (Stella) , and one entire (vast) wall with about 10 canvases climbing it at different levels. The canvases were each about 4 feet square, and were each painted a different color - by this I mean, they were flat squares of yellow, magenta, teal green, red, and I think some black and white as well. They looked pretty much like latex house paint, no need for brush strokes or Liquitex there, by golly. They were "Untitled". Yeah, I guess if the artist is so unimaginative he (or she) couldn't come up with anything better to do with such expensive canvases as to pull out left over house paint and a paint roller and cover the offending white, why should he be expected to come up with a creative name?

But, and I have to ask, why? After emerging from the rich, vibrant, complex mastery of the impressionists, the post-impressionists, the portraiture of the past century............I don't care what anyone says, this piece at least certainly shows distinctly less imagination!

Don't get me wrong. There is much abstract art I love (especially Kandinsky, who wrote the wonderful "Concerning the Spiritual in Art". ). Within Modernism, I especially enjoy Jackson Pollock. I can look at the dapples cast by the sun on pavement and see beauty in the patterns and texture, and in the same way, I can look at Pollock's canvases and see color and texture, the same random patterning at artful play. I also feel what a lot of fun he must have had in creating them. His paintings are all about process, and the vitality within that process. Still, I can't resist quoting the man who had so much to do with marketing, if not publicly creating, the phenomenon that was Jackson Pollock. Harold Rosenberg was THE influential art critic of his day. His quest was for some kind of "pure" aesthetics, which he imagined and celebrated with the emerging Abstract Expressionist movement. As Rosenberg wrote in 1952,
"The turning point of Abstract Expressionism occurred when its artists abandoned trying to paint Art (Cubism, Post-Impressionism), and decided to paint - just PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from Value - political, aesthetic, moral."
But, to liberate art from aesthetic or moral value is to render it meaningless. It becomes thus an intellectual exercise, an objective endeavor isolated from any larger context, like ethics, meaning, cultural mythos, etc. I don't know, from my point of view, if such a thing is even possibly, no matter how heroically the artists in Soho tried to imagine such a thing. Artists are generally human beings, and thus firmly embedded within their cultures and social constructs/contexts, at least, as long as they speak a language, and have mothers. I also pause at that old, tiresome argument from the long ago days............"Does art have to mean anything?"

Well, ultimately I suppose not. What's the "meaning" of a rose, or a dragonfly? We impose those meanings upon the inherant mystery and beauty of nature. But, returning to the peculiarly human environment of a museum or art gallery, maybe the question can have a bit of relevance, as a viewer, tour guide in hand, stands before a canvas. If the art, being part of a long cultural discourse that began somewhere in the Renaissance, aggressively doesn't "mean" anything, then it's "meaning" is still a rebellion against meaning, context and aesthetics.............and we're right back at the chicken and egg proposition. I can't believe I'm still doing this!

Jackson Pollock
Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950

Anyway, I quickly retreated back across the corridor, into the sweet, familiar landscape of the Impressionists. I know the aesthetic of the Post Modern Era is harsh, and I'm feeling quite lonely these days (being in a strange city), so, I even lingered to have tea beneath the graceful, corny 19th century nymph eternally cradling a marble art nouveau water lily.

Regarding my Peace Corps application, here's something completely unrelated to the above rant. An extraordinary person to know about. Muriel just turned 85, and she is into her first year as a PC volunteer in Morocco. Read about her at her blog "Muriel in Morocco" . What an amazing woman!

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