America after the Fall

“America between the wars (and specifically between the Crash of 1929 and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack) was at a crossroads. The economic boom and expansion of American power following victory in the First World War had led to prosperity and optimism for many in the 1920s. The Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression and – in a way – a Great Retreat. America First, isolationism and a backlash against globalism and Modernism caused Americans to view modern and foreign influences with mistrust. A new exhibition, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy, explores American art at this crossroads.

“It includes pictures by some of the big names of American realist painting and includes an American icon: Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). Although it is seen as typical of American homespun simplicity and Puritan honesty, the male figure is Wood’s dentist dressed as a farmer. The picture is subtle, well-painted and tinged by irony; it deserves its iconic status not only because of its popular appeal but also because of its artistry.

“Wood was part of the Regionalist movement, a group of artists who sought to depict American life and landscapes in a realist manner, often with sentimental or nostalgic overtones…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 5 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/america-after-the-fall/19775#.WQxuoWkrLIU

Lucio Fontana, Constellations and Injured Bodies

IMG_6944

(Image: Lucio Fontana, Pillola (1961-5), polished and lacquered copper, 36 x 22 x 40cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, M&L Fine Art, 15 Old Bond Street, London W1 (7 March-12 May 2017). Catalogue available.

M&L Fine Art is a new London exhibition venue which is a joint project of two Italian galleries. The current exhibition, Lucio Fontana: From the Earth to the Cosmos, brings together work from different phases of the career of Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) as a sculptor. It starts with a maquette the Italian-Argentinian sculptor made for a public commission in Italy. The bronze cast of two rearing horses (1936, no. 1) shows Fontana’s directness, lack of artifice and ability to convey an impression of energy.

Polychrome ceramics of the 1940s and early 1950s display the theatrical and baroque side to Fontana, which may have been imbued through his training and the influence of his sculptor father. These glazed, vigorously moulded figures are speckled by highlights, which give them a strongly pictorial appearance. In the large plates or plaques embellished with high relief motifs and scorings we notice a demonstration of Fontana’s hypertactility. His works are unusually tactile in form, baroque in character, full of flowing energy. The scene of a bull fight (executed at the same time as the early Spatial Concept (Concetto spaziale) series) is a masterpiece of dynamic form.

SONY DSC

(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1954), terracotta, 25 x 32cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most typical works are Spatial Concept works, started in the early 1950s. Those in the exhibition are fired clay tablets which have been punctured and scored while wet. In the 1954 example, white glaze has been applied to the holes, giving the impression of stars radiating light. The impression is further confirmed by gouaches on paper on the subject of constellations which were made as illustrations for the volume of poems Il prato del silenzio by Lina Angioletti. In these simple pieces the black void is punctuated by white dots, dotted lines and slashes. These are Fontana’s meditations on cosmic energy and spatial orders. The drawing-paintings balance chromatic austerity and formal exuberance.

The more highly coloured ceramics (Concetto spaziale: Natura morta (1957, nos. 15 and 16)) are altogether less successful. Restrained coloured forms on white discs look like nothing so much as nouvelle cuisine in ceramic shorthand. The glare of the areas of white and strongly coloured motifs work against each other and strain the eye, not least because the relief forms are unclear. (A case of Bataille’s informe revolting the eye which seeks clarity and order.) The more chromatically restrained yet dynamically energetic reliefs on circular supports – with their slashes of high relief and spatters of glaze – are very satisfying (1956, nos. 13 and 14). They are brusque and elegant, energetic and circumscribed.

The brightly coloured lacquer-surface ovoid forms dominated by single straight slashes are the Pillolas (1961-5, no. 20, red version and white version). As well as being the sculptures that come closest to Fontana’s slashes in canvases, these pieces (designed to be produced as multiples in different colours) are homages to industrial manufacturing and scientific progress. (Apparently, Fontana was impressed by the social liberation that contraceptive pills provided.) These Pillolas are mounted on rods above bases, similar to scientific models, something reinforced by the perfection of the surfaces. Even the slashes are immaculate.

The Pillolas can be interpreted in different ways. They could be seen as stagings of incisions (the creation of objects designed to carry or hold incisions). They could be seen as meditations on exteriority and interiority of forms. The incisions reveal the interiors of the body (or hint at it, they are inscrutably dark) but by doing so they literally make the interior a concave exterior of a form which no longer has a hermetically sealed interior. That is what makes them paradoxical. By ostensibly showing us the interior of a body, the very displaying of that interior eliminates that interior by making the interior part of the exterior which just happens to be extremely concave and illegible.

One could also see the holes as motifs. They are paradoxical kinds of motifs in that their only presence resides in the concentrated instances of an absence of ground.

Fontana, concetto spaziale, 1960-65

(Image: Lucio Fontana, Concetto spaziale (1960-5), terracotta, 21 x 45 x 21 cm. Image (c) M&L Fine Art, London.)

The most surprising work in the exhibition is Concetto spaziale (1960-5, no. 19). The black, terracotta ovoid form (a kind of Euclidean and Platonic solid) is puckered by a line of gouges and a single curving incised line is very sensual. The tiniest of wrinkles on the surface resemble skin, or the processed skin of leather; an impression which is deepened by the delicate soft surface texture of the whole of the body. It is the most visually arresting of the works here.

The aesthetics of the cuts in the exhibited pieces is significant. There is the slit, the line, the hole, the wrinkled hole, the gouge, the puckered rip, the partially incomplete injury (the scratch, the scuff, the divot). It is hard to observe these markings as anything other than violent and anything other than corporeal. One is reminded of bodily injuries, surgical incisions, orifices, soft bodies afflicted by distortions. This is especially true of the forms in soft clay, less so for cuts in smooth hard surfaces, still less for slits in canvases, least of all for holes in paper. Fontana may have publicly discussed ideas of cosmology and atomic science, but the cuts and punctures in soft clay are often viewed of proxies for flesh. This does not seem an invalid response to the pieces. Our responses to seeing a hard object smashed or damaged by a blow is very different to how we see these pieces.

Our first response to all art is as viewers inhabiting human bodies, with bodily knowledge and concerns. We automatically relate material resembling flesh in terms of flesh, our own and that of others we have known.

When we view visibly and humanly manipulated material we understand how it feels to make such manipulations. We imagine making those marks. We mentally re-enact the manipulations and thus we experience a kind of theatre of the imagination where we participate in making the object before us. We imagine holding the stick and stabbing the clay tablet; we imagine holding the gouge and goring the perfect form; we imagine holding the knife and slashing the canvas. We are artist surrogates and the object is something we have – in our theatre of imagination – made. We take the art personally because we feel able to have done the act that made the art; we have imagined making it; we feel responsible for the art. Mentally, we run our hands over the surface, noticing the clamminess of the wet clay under our hands; we weigh the objects; we feel the tools in our hands. There is no mystery. It is our art. The only odd thing is that somehow the work we made in our theatre of the imagination happens to be on a plinth and happens to be venerated as art. Everything about it is fathomable and prosaic except that step of status elevation.

This well-chosen and carefully displayed exhibition reminds us of some of the fundamentals of what art is and how it operates.

26 April 2017

Edme Bouchardon Reappraised

“Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762) was a leading figure from the Generation of 1700 who was greatly admired by contemporaries and for some decades later, but his name gradually slipped from public recognition. Chardin is famed, while Bouchardon is obscure to even the most informed layperson. This neglect should be partly redressed by an exhibition catalogue, available in both an English and a French version, and a monograph on the artist’s drawings that have been published to mark the exhibition of Bouchardon held at the Louvre, Paris (closed December 2016) and at the Getty Center, Los Angeles (closes 2 April 2017).

Edme Bouchardon, Philipp von Stosch
1. Edme Bouchardon, Baron Philipp von Stosch, 1727,
marble 85×62×33cm., Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich-
Museums-Vereins, Skulpturensammlung und Museum
für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

(photo: bpk, Berlin / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY)

“Edme Bouchardon trained in Paris at his father’s workshop and, upon winning the Prix de Rome, moved to Rome to take up residency at the Académie Française, remaining there from 1723 to 1732. He initially attracted interest due to his marble and terracotta portrait busts, which follow the Roman tradition yet manage to be lively and (apparently) good likenesses and became influential in France…”

Read the full review online at £rd Dimension, 31 March 2017, website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2017-03-31-edme-bouchardon-reappraised

Review: Early Jean Dubuffet

Dubuffet Bousquet

Jean DUBUFFET (1901-1985), Joe Bousquet au lit (1947), oil on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, MoMA

Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, New York City (15 April-10 June 2016)

While I was a student there was a revival of interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet. Unfortunately, it was the late work. I took a look at the books and magazines and decided there was nothing much to see. Encountering the occasional illustration of an early work in a general reference book or magazine did not really inform me and – with so much other art to look at – I never got around to educating myself on Dubuffet.

The current exhibition in New York is the logical place for all of us to rediscover early Dubuffet. His success at exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York ensured he was a constant presence in the New York art scene and many of his early mature-period paintings entered American public and private collections. The current exhibition includes loans from those collections and features 51 outstanding examples of Dubuffet’s painting and sculpture, all dating from before 1962. Wisely, with a single exception in a small hallway space (the 52nd item), drawings are excluded from the display. The inclusion of graphics would have diluted the powerful impact of the bold and visceral paintings.

During the occupation of France in the Second World War, former art student and then-current wine merchant Jean Dubuffet took up painting again. He was essentially starting from nothing. Having rehearsed styles and subjects popular during the pre-War period, Dubuffet had never developed any definite attachments to a movement or technique. He had no style to speak of. The works he began in 1942 were childlike drawn figures with colouring. Subjects were people on the street and daily life. This exhibition surveys these early colourful paintings and the rawer, more brutish paintings that followed in the later 1940s and 1950s. Topics include figures, portraits, landscapes, animals and street scenes; approaches include painting, collages and objets trouvés sculpture.

The definition “mixed media” might have been coined to describe Dubuffet’s paintings. He spurned pure artist’s oil paint and instead concocted his own media, mixing pastes incorporating household and commercial paints to which he added sand, gravel, dirt, charcoal, resin, coal, straw and plaster. This would sometimes be applied over heavily textured surfaces built up in plaster or putty. (Dubuffet had been alerted to the potential of textured surfaces by seeing Jean Fautrier’s Hostage series when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1945.) All of this heavy material demanded strong supports such as wood or Masonite. The coloured paste was applied with trowels and furrowed with sticks. At times it seems that Dubuffet’s aversion to beaux-arts was almost more of an imperative than any other motivation. Contemporaneous with Pollock, Dubuffet was working his own horizontally oriented planes the way a farmer ploughs a field. Dubuffet thought of himself as closer to an artisan or a labourer than a practitioner of fine art. However inaccurate that belief, it was clearly a productive and sustaining one: Dubuffet’s art shows evidence of his sustained engagement and consideration throughout his career.

The vital, unruly and uncultured figures here are an expression of hope in humanity and humanism as a counterbalance to the horror and grinding inhumanity of genocide, war and nuclear annihilation. Their depictions exist within the Existential discourse within French culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Dubuffet knew and painted many of the leading thinkers of French world of art, literature and philosophy. Dubuffet’s figures are literally earthy: they are formed of coloured dirt, sand and pebbles. They are fertile as the soil – aggressively so – with their genitals roughly outlined. In Will to Power (1946), a portly man with body hair of gravel sports his sex organ like a club. These are uncouth men and women who can (and will) procreate, regardless of bourgeois anxiety.

A small selection of portraits shows how Dubuffet negotiated the issue of description within figure paintings. “For a portrait to be useful to me, I need the features of the figure not to be too fixed. Not at all outlined – to the contrary, more erased. Confidential, even. […] In portraits you need a lot of general, very little of specific. Usually there is too much specificity, always too much. Maast says that before the portrait of Monsieur Dubois can look like Monsieur Dubois it should begin, more than anything, by looking like a man. He says that in many portraits we are in the habit of seeing, an artist has forgotten to make a man, and to manage to give him life, before making him look like Monsieur Dubois.”[1]

The fierce and accurate likeness of Joë Bousquet (1947) is loaned from MoMA. In it the paraplegic writer is shown in his bed surrounded by his books and papers. It is like a sgraffito panel excavated from some primitive Pompeii. In this case, the painting-as-object has personality – almost a history and integrity in itself. This lends the object a certain authority, aside from its pictorial attributes. The painting as object in Dubuffet’s art would be a fruitful subject for study.

Other portraits shown here have great immediacy and directness which bypass more aesthetic depictions. It is a fictional sheen of authenticity of course: Dubuffet applies aesthetic criteria during the creation of his art objects as other artists do, the only difference being that Dubuffet’s affiliations are for outsider, naïve and children’s art.

The works exhibited demonstrate the artist’s mental dexterity and sensitivity. The abstract paintings rely on delicately patterned surfaces to build up an organic or mineral shimmer. The patinas can be sumptuous, with glazes puddles suspended on a surface of gold foil. One could compare Dubuffet’s abstracts to Asger Jorn’s decorative Luxury Paintings, in which the Pollock drip method has been neutered and applied as an all-over surface pattern, yet Dubuffet’s surfaces have stubborn substantiality. Dubuffet’s surfaces have geological and cartological aspects in that they both describe surfaces and exist as surfaces, complex, compacted and distressed. The collages including butterfly wings and tobacco leaves echo Surrealist experiments of the inter-war period: Ernst’s forests and devastated decalcomanie landscapes. Dubuffet must have known Klee’s paintings and drawings and one wonders how they might have influenced his collages. Perhaps all collages of vegetal matter and tessellated surfaces inevitably share certain characteristics with Klee’s herbarium-inspired drawings.

The most unexpected items in the exhibition are wooden statuettes composed of lightly modified pieces of driftwood. The eroded fragments have a richly striated surface like weathered skin and with a hole here and there and an astute combination Dubuffet summons golems he entitles The Old Man of the Beach and Long Face (both 1959). The Astonished Man (1959) is a rubbery faced figure who gawps at us in incredulity, unable to believe what he sees. His silver-foil surfaced form is alchemically unstable, part vegetable, part mineral. These are sculptures Arcimboldo might have made, yet with greater wit, elegance and intellectual litheness than that painter had. The sculptures are comic and grotesque, pathetic and sinister and really startle.

Cruelly crippled and clownish, these grotesques menace us but also seem to beseech. “We are no different from you”, their presence suggests, even though one feels these freaks should not exist and that their existence mocks our own. They are counterpoints to Giacometti’s gnarled slivers of humanity. These country personages seem in rude health (wizened yet energetic), full of spiteful humour and gleeful buffoonery, in contrast to Giacometti’s anguished, frail dwellers of plazas and streets. Dubuffet’s personages are like wild animals or crude peasants brought into the dining room. Brut et informel , knowing and caring nothing for etiquette, they pull faces, gawp, guffaw, belch and fart.

The intelligent selections and careful placement of works enhances one’s understanding of – and sympathy for – Dubuffet’s art. Seeing such excellent examples first hand in the tranquil setting of Acquavella’s belle-époque townhouse is the best possible way to re-discover Dubuffet’s early art. This is vintage Dubuffet.

Gallery website: http://www.acquavellagalleries.com/

Fondation Jean Dubuffet: http://www.dubuffetfondation.com/home.php?lang=en

30 April 2016

[1] pp. 68-9, Mark Rosenthal et al., Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, 2016, HB, 208pp, ISBN 0 8478 5851 4

Lost in New York

“New York City, home to great collections of art, is never short of key works by important artists to measure against one another. Autumn 2011, three displays have coincided to allow people to compare the skills of a modern master with those of a predecessor who influenced him. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) revered J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) for both his devotion to the human figure and technical skill (in drawing especially). De Kooning vowed he would never paint a tree and his art never strayed too far from the portrait or nude, even at its most abstracted. Likewise, Ingres never manifested much interest in landscape and still-life either. Both painters were noted by peers as being consummate painters of flesh, principally female.

“MoMA claim that De Kooning: A Retrospective (until 9 January) is the “first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning”. As the current survey includes work from 1983-7 not included in a much larger 1983 retrospective shown in Berlin and New York (the current show has 195 works, the earlier one had 280) the press release is technically accurate while being a touch grandiloquent.

“Filling the sixth floor of the new MoMA building for the first time, the retrospective provides some surprises and confirms some expectations…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, November 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=83

Rene Magritte, Post-Impressionism: Liverpool, 2011

“The effects of Liverpool’s time as City of Culture in 2008 are still becoming apparent as various building projects reach completion. Liverpool has many excellent museums, to which number the Museum of Liverpool is due to be added. My visit to Liverpool was before the museum’s opening on July 19th, so I made do with two significant shows which will run until the autumn: a survey of Magritte and a partial reconstruction of a pioneering exhibition of Post-Impressionist art held at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool in 1911. (The Bluecoat Gallery itself has recently been refurbished. The excellent diverse bookshop and the well-stocked art-materials store have both left and the gallery, which occasionally hosted worthwhile shows, now runs an exhibition programme of the driest and least engaging type. What was once a hub of artistic activity has been reduced to a deracinated husk. Best to bypass it entirely and visit the newly relocated Probe Records next door instead.)

“The 1910-11 display “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery, London is a celebrated landmark in British Modernism. What is less well-known is that the show (minus the Manets) travelled to Liverpool before the pictures were dispersed. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 (Walker Art Gallery, closes September 25th) is an investigation of the second display, which included local Liverpool artists alongside the French painters. The French artists included Denis, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Serusier, Signac, Vlaminck and others…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, September 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=81

Joan Miro: Brussels, 2011

“How often have we seen – of late – exhibitions of Modern masters with didactic subtitles? These subtitles tell us why we should visit this exhibition when we have seen so many on this particular artist before. It is the subtitle that gives us the curatorial slant. What happens is not that famous artists get “played out” but that curators and curatorial imperatives get played out. Museum directors and curators naturally want to show great artists but, unless inaccessible art is made available, there are really only two routes for monograph retrospectives: greatest hits or the hidden side of X. Recently we have seen a spate of the second approach; witness Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist.

“Two exhibitions of Joan Miró (1893-1983) in London and Brussels this summer take different approaches. The London display is subtitled “The Ladder of Escape” and aims to revise our view of the artist, while the Brussels display, one on a much smaller scale, is subtitled “Peintre Poète” and presents a more conventional view of the painter. The Brussels exhibition conceives of the artist as lyrical, straining to escape the boundaries of conventional restrictions and mores, whereas the London one purports to uncover an overlooked political dimension to Miró’s art. I visited the Brussels display in person but I am assessing the London one from the catalogue…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, June 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=78