David Lynch: Digital Nudes

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

The close-up of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, the zoom into the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the zoom into a hole in a wall of a police interrogation room in Twin Peaks Series 2, the close-ups of characters in Mulholland Drive – and many others – all of these are evidence of David Lynch’s fascination with making the familiar strange through extreme close-up. Lynch’s sense of the beauty, strangeness and danger being ever present and lying latent below the surface of daily life and appearances, is a constant in his film work and (to a lesser extent) his photography. It does not, however, occur in the paintings, drawings and prints. Taking a tiny fragment of a real object and making a painting of that is time consuming and the result is often unsatisfactory, with the art appearing semi-abstract or unrealised. In photography, the extreme close-up has been a staple of art photography since the Surrealism of Man Ray and Brassaï.

Lynch is an accomplished photographer and has been taking photographs for his own pleasure since his time as an art student. They have been exhibited and published occasionally since then, but they should be seen as more than a side project. The majority of Lynch’s creative energy in the last two decades has gone into art and photography.

The book David Lynch: Digital Nudes includes photographs of female nudes. Most are close-ups of female bodies nude, in undefined setting, light in harsh artificial light and surrounded by dark. The photographs are (almost all) in colour, but muted or washed out. The subjects are all pale-skinned white women, with no tan-lines, tattoos or piercings. This stymies a spectator’s tendency to seek out identifiable models/subjects. Lynch wants to confront us with visions, not to get to know his subjects as people. In these nude photographs, Lynch wants to detach us from the notion of body-as-person and immerse us in body-as-place.   

The body as landscape is a common analogy. In the case of these photographs, it is a case of a foreign landscape. The cropping, angles and inversions mean we are often disoriented by what we see, even after we have cognitively processed exactly what we are seeing. This slipping back into unfamiliarity is due to the instability of cognitive grip when under the influence of uncertainty. The artificiality of framing and lighting and the incompleteness of the body make it alien, notwithstanding our cognitive processing of what we are witnessing. Lynch never intends to fool us; we are never completely baffled. The failure to retain comprehension, despite knowledge and attention, is what Lynch intends.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

We find such effective means of destabilising our secure knowledge in Lynch’s discovery of mystery in the everyday, akin to Magritte’s. A heap of dirt (Fire Walk With Me) becomes an element with ritual power and creamed (sweet)corn (Fire Walk With Me) becomes invested with power as a symbol of pain and suffering. The intimation that what we see is not all there is – the intimation of a realm of magic or unseen power – is what makes Lynch’s cinema carry a potency beyond matters of plot, themes, character and so forth.  

Choosing a harsh single light source – artificial and directed – allows Lynch to sculpt with light. It is also a way of drawing in ink, with dark shades blocking us information about part of a form. Shadow is a vital component of Lynch’s aesthetics. It is the dark of the universe which is ever present. Darkness is the default normal. We cannot expect or demand otherwise; confronting shadows is to made aware of our existence as primitive, incomplete, fearful beings in the presence of the sublime.

The fact that Lynch chooses not to photograph the face makes empathetic response and humanisation of the object (as in the viewer as subject and viewed as object) more difficult. Lynch does not want us to distinguish one body from another. He has no ethnographic or psychological intent; biography does not come into it. There seems (from the outside) little by way of intimacy or chemistry between Lynch and his subjects, who are not identified. These photographs deny intimacy.

Are these photographs erotic? Lynch has produced erotic sequences in his films and there is an undercurrent of sexual passion in his work. However, these photographs have distinctly non-erotic qualities. The lighting is unremitting. Although one could say the figures of the subjects are healthy, young and shapely, with clean skin and good proportions, they seem uninviting. The unearthliness of them precludes any sense of ownership or intimacy in an imagined encounter. They are indifferent to the eye and – by inference – the touch. There is no rosy glow of stimulated skin or flushing of erogenous zones, no sweat. The poses and cropping are not salacious or even flattering. One might describe the handling of the photographer as clinical, definitely it is detached. There is nothing wayward or impulsive in the photograph’s creation of these images, which works against any presumption of erotic impulse.  

There are some photographs of whole single figures (perhaps one model in one session) on a curving Modernist couch. They are time-lapse multiple exposures, with the limbs and head moving and the trunk remaining relatively prone. This gives them a disturbing quality – like watching an animal in pain or a beast thrashing on a leash. These are close to Francis Bacon’s paintings of figures in the 1960s. Lynch has admitted Bacon as an influence on his art. The sense of movement (which Bacon partly got from Futurism) and confinement suggest us to fleshy, labile, discontented creatures – tangentially human. They are repellent and repelling.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

By making the inexplicable mystery and power of the startling vision, Lynch’s nudes suggest that we should reconsider the world around us – look harder, think more clearly, reject the preconceived notion. This may be considered related to Lynch’s long-term commitment to transcendental meditation. In Lynch’s outlook, his meditative practices and his cinema and photography, we find this enchantment with mystery. This is not whimsical mystery or casual dreaminess, this is a willingness to open up the mind to experiences that may be unpleasant, shocking, even sanity altering. Consider the confrontations with evil that change or shock his characters. Lynch (like the Surrealists, whom he so admired as an art student) seems to suggest that a hidden reality is awaiting discovery by those brave enough to leave behind convention and received ideas, although some of the discoveries may be distressing or even dangerous to a seeker.

The dark core is more personal to Lynch than his other interests and tastes. This book is far from a coffee-table book of titillating images; it is closer to a thesis statement of the power of detachment and meditation in the face of the mysteries of the world.    

This article is related to (but is not a review of) David Lynch: Digital Nudes, Fondation Cartier, 2017, information here. Images used by kind permission of Fondation Cartier.

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

William Burroughs, “Blade Runner: A Movie”

Source of disappointment and confusion for two generations of fans of Ridley Scott’s eponymous sci-fi movie, William Burroughs’s unrelated book Blade Runner: A Movie is republished by Tangerine Press. The short text – which is comprised of a series of prose scenes or routines – was originally published in 1979. It appears here in a new edition, with a frontispiece photograph of the author and an introduction written by Burroughs expert Professor Oliver Harris.

In the introduction, Harris explains the indirect, accretion-evolution of Blade Runner. Burroughs read Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner (1974) soon after its publication and by 1976 (newly arrived in New York, roughly three decades since his departure) had embarked on writing his version. It was nominally a movie treatment, nothing close to a conventional script. Burroughs had been stimulated by the lifting of many restrictions on pornographic cinema in the early 1970s, which he had seen on visits to New York prior to his move there in 1974. Completed in 1977, Burroughs realistically accepted that his text was not suitable for even the most outré of independent cinéastes of the era. Burroughs then repurposed the treatment as a novella-length book.  

It was Nourse’s novel about medical smuggling in a sci-fi future that provided the name for Burroughs. It was from Burroughs that Hampton Fancher took the title for his film script adaptation of Philip K. Dicks’s novel Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep?, that would become Scott’s 1982 film. As it happened, neither Burroughs or Nourse’s books influenced the content of that script, beyond the title.

So, what of Blade Runner itself? It bears little resemblance to Nourse’s novel. Burroughs gives us the rollicking foul-mouthed satire of the excesses of the politico-medical complex in the near future. Burroughs’s text is both Modernist and Post-Modernist. It is Modernist in that it is deliberately dense, self-aware, assertively artificial, alienating and politically provocative; it is Post-Modernist in that is ironical, destabilising, self-negating.

It opens with an unnamed narrator pitching the Blade Runner film to a studio executive. “Now B.J. you are asking me to tell you in one sentence what this film is about? I’m telling you it is too big for one sentence – even a life sentence. For starters it’s about the National Health Insurance we don’t got.” The film will be a satire of the crippling medical insurance/services racket in the USA and the social collapse resulting from a system of exploitation growing to epic levels. The critique could appeal to both the big-state socialist and low-tax conservative through its depiction of a dysfunctional system that fails to provide adequately to the average-income man while taxing him exorbitantly. “This film is about overpopulation and the growth of vast service bureaucracies. The FDA and AMA and the big drug companies are like an octopus on the citizen.”

In reaction to the insane costs and bureaucratic resistance, the population of Manhattan has turned to underground medicine – the smuggling of medical supplies – a rare direct link to Nourse’s novel in Burroughs’ narrative. Societal collapse gives rise to a nightmare New York. The subway is reduced to a sluggish partial service. “Hand-propelled and steam-driven cars transport produce, the stations have been converted into markets. The lower tunnels are flooded, giving rise to an underground Venice. The upper reaches of derelict skyscrapers, without elevator service since the riots […] Buildings are joined by suspension bridges, a maze of platforms, catwalks, slides, lifts.”

Protagonist Billy will save humanity from a deadly virus. His story is told in a series of impressionistic scenarios described in Burroughsian poetic-satirical eroticism, generating a flickering delirium of a montage of scratched silent footage or jumbled phantograms.

In many ways, Blade Runner is a recapitulation of Burroughs’ greatest hits. The comic routines here are from Burroughs’s pre-existing roster of scientifically-shrewd dystopian medical science and anarchic exploits in doctoring – half prophecy, half silent comedy. There are glimpses of a failing metropolis that resembles strike-ridden impoverished London and riot-scarred New York on the verge of bankruptcy. Both were cities with which Burroughs had deep familiarity. Touches of archaic technology being used to replace broken modern systems will remind some readers of steampunk. Escape from New York (1981), Robocop (1987) and the Deathwish vigilante films are also handy comparators for this failed and feral metropolis.   

Burroughs presents us the racial conflicts of tribalisation in Balkanised city, the dream of post-racialism impossibly distant. Considering the race riots in the USA of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burroughs was as much re-presenting a pre-existing reality to his readers, as he was using his powers of imagination. It is difficult to tell if the legalisation of heroin is satire, considering the methadone programs of various local and national public health systems. In another scene, a taxpayer complains of being forced to fund “Queer sex orgies and injections of marijuana”.

The people work to combat the forces of the medico-military complex, using their ingenuity and improvised weapons. Life-lengthening drugs have caused dysgenic deterioration of the population in a manner predicted by social Darwinists. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has rendered the population of Western cities as vulnerable as “the Indians and South Sea Islanders on first contact with the whites.” An ancient virus is released by a scientist to combat an accelerated form of cancer. All the while, the population is deprived of basic medication and access to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone treatment. (Burroughs was a supporter of fringe medical figure Reich, who was hounded for his quasi-spiritual theories and whose writings were destroyed by the American government. This also comes up in the original manuscript of his first published novel, Junkie (1953).)

Blade Runner includes scenes of homosexual sex and gun action, as well as social commentary and comedy, making it typical of Burroughs’s writing. With Burroughs, we cannot be sure he is not relishing depravities even as he mocks them. Burroughs is the most complex of all writers because of the interleaving levels of ethical and artistic contradiction present in his life and writing. Burroughs can be legitimately interpreted as Stoic, Buddhist, moral patriarch, Modernist, Post-Modernist, decadent, individualist, communitarian, post-humanist, conservationist, reactionary and libertarian.

Burroughs advocates for affordable healthcare as he delights in describing scenes of mayhem, wherein elaborate boobytraps are deployed against soldiers. Not that these points are necessarily in contradiction – and Burroughs should not be read as anything less than primarily a writer of the freewheeling imagination and comic paradox – but it makes constructing a settled, coherent, moral narrative from Burroughs’s fiction nearly impossible. One might draw absolutely multiple opposing interpretations from a Burroughs text and all be valid.   

Overall, Blade Runner is a short, accessible romp, lacking involved plot and differentiated characters. For fans of Naked Lunch (1959) and Interzone (1989), this book is an ideal addition, with its own tone and content. Although Burroughs is in the habit of recycling material, collaging and overlayering it in hectic fashion, the distinct setting and common threads make Blade Runner more memorable than some of the other Burroughs books of the 1970s. Recommended for enthusiasts and those wishing to sample classic Burroughs for the first time.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (intro.), Blade Runner: A Movie, Tangerine Press, (second printing) 2022, paperback, 96pp, 1 mono illus., £9, ISBN 978 1 910 69 1908

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


“Hockney’s California Love Life in his Early Sketches”

David Hockney, Love Life, Drawings 1963 to 1977 (Holburne Museum, Bath, ends 18 September 2022) collects drawings from the beginning of the stellar career of David Hockney (b. 1937). In the 1960s, Hockney was the ultimate art star of the British Pop Art movement. His shock of blonde hair and colourful-rim spectacles became a familiar sight in newspaper colour supplements and television interviews.

“This exhibition brings out the tender, private side of Hockney in 37 drawings. We follow him from Swinging London, to California, across France and to Egypt and Morocco. Hockney went straight from graduating from a fine-art course in the Royal College of Art (in 1962) to the international art world. He sold enough prints to pay for a year of hedonism and hard work in California. Hockney’s escalating prices and fame gave him the artistic and personal freedom he craved…”

Read the full review free in whynow here: https://whynow.co.uk/read/hockneys-california-love-life-in-his-early-sketches-1963-77

Two anthologies on Aesthetics

These two newly issued anthologies collect important texts on the subject of aesthetics by salient authors. These anthologies contain texts by the following authors, with some of the selected extracts or essays are used in both collections:

Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Paul Oskar Kristeller, James O. Young, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, J.-J. Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard Hanslick, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Bullough, Clive Bell, R.G. Collingwood, John Dewey, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Berys Gaut, Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Amie L. Thomasson, Frank Sibley, Kendall L. Walton, George Dickie, Alan H. Goldman, Malcolm Budd, Mary Mothersill, Jenefer Robinson, Noël Carroll, Alexander Nehamas, Eileen John, Peter Livy, Mary Devereaux, A.W. Eaton, Yuriko Saito, Carolyn Korsmeyer, with texts by the editors. Editors Steven M. Cahn (City University, New York), Stephanie Ross (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Sandra Shapshay (City University, New York).

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – Danto, Dickie, Monroe C. Beardsley, Denis Dutton, Dominic McIver Lopes, Catharine Abell, Levinson, Julian Dodd, Aaron Ridley, Thomassen, Sibley, Walton, Nick Zangwill, Robert Hopkins, Carroll, Torsten Pettersson, Stephen Davies, Jack W. Meiland, Malcolm Budd, Gaut, Eileen John, Eaton, Jerome Stolnitz, Cynthia A. Freedland, Eileen John, John Searle, Richard Moran, Tamar Szabó Gendler, Stacie Friend, Wollheim, Abell, David Davies, Roger Scruton, Dawn M. Phillips, Paisley Livingston, Katherine J. Thomson-Jones, Jenefer M. Robinson, Peter Kivy, Jeanette Bicknall, Aaron Meskin, Matthew Kieran, Allen Carlson, Patricia Matthews, Emily Brady, Yuriko Saito, Sherri Irvin, with texts by the editors. Editors Peter Lamarque (University of York) and Stein Haugom Olsen (Bilkent University, Ankara).

The volumes overlap to a degree, with Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology a more comprehensive collection, starting early and taking a general view of aesthetics from the ancients to the modern day. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art has a more modern selection and has primary focus on visual fine art. Of the two, the latter covers Critical Theory, New Criticism and Post-Modernism. Themed sections are: identifying art, ontology of art, aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience, intention and interpretation, values of art, art and knowledge, fictionality and imagination, pictorial art, photography and film, literature, music, popular arts, aesthetics of nature and everyday aesthetics. Older texts are more extracts from longer treatises; newer texts are often complete essays; the former tend not have authorial footnotes and sources, the latter do have footnotes and sources, given here. Both books have introductory essays, bibliographies and indices.

The two books are valuable compendiums of influential short essays, extracts of classics and selections of newer texts that are harder to find. The translations selected favour modern publications over early translations and that generally serves the readers well. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology has summaries written by experts which outline the importance of various thinkers and concepts, grouped by subject or period. Each text has a brief biographic introduction, suggesting the context of the text.

Overall the selections in both anthology are thoughtfully chosen. The translations preferred are modern ones, meaning they largely supersede the old translations of pre-modern texts which are out of copyright. Although every expert will have his own preferences and there may be quibbles of selections but there is no doubting the value of the extracts for the areas covered. The richness of thought is enlightening and stimulating, especially in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. The production quality of both volumes is good, the spines are suitably sturdy and the margins generous for marginalia.  

Both volumes are highly recommended for students and tutors of aesthetics, philosophy of aesthetics and history of art. If one needed an essential source book on aesthetics, either volume would be suitable, although many would prefer Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology because it starts with the ancients and runs unbroken through the modern day.

Peter Lamarque, Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition. An Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2018, paperback, 744pp, £32.99, ISBN 978 1 119 22244 6

Steven M. Cahn, Stephanie Ross, Sandra Shapshay (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2020, paperback, 848pp, £34.99, ISBN 978 1 118 94832 3

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: “After/Après Francis Bacon”

Book

Alexander Adams, Peggy Pacini (trans.), After/Après Francis Bacon, Golconda Fine Art Books, February 2022, first edition, 60pp, 1 col. illus., English/French, 140gsm cream paper, one-colour cover, A5 size, ISBN 978-1-9999614-2-8, 250 copies, 50 signed and numbered, £10 + £5 p&p (UK and worldwide)

After/Après Francis Bacon is a suite of 21 poems by Alexander Adams based on the life and art of Anglo-Irish painter Francis Bacon. It follows his story from childhood to death, including key parts of his life, evoking his art, milieu and residences. Partly set in Paris and Monaco, the entire sequence has been translated into French by Mme Peggy Pacini. The English original text and French translation are set out on parallel pages. It includes one colour illustration by the author.

The author and publisher wish to gratefully acknowledge the generous contribution to this publication made by The Alessandra Wilson Fund and a private donor.

Purchasing

This book may be purchased directly from me (via this page https://www.alexanderadams.art/contact) or via Amazon (UK residents only). Payments are £15 per book or £5 p&p + £10 per book for multiple orders. Payments can be received by bank transfer, cheque, cash and PayPal.

Sam Francis, “Light on Fire”

Sam Francis (1923-1994) was one of the titans of Abstract Expressionism. No survey of the movement is complete without the inclusion of Francis’s distinctive, watery abstracts and expansive surfaces. Yet, Francis is also an outsider. A West Coast painter, with no ties to New York, Francis’s life is not integrated into the New York School scene and thus has been summarily described and is not well known by even enthusiasts of the movement. Now, Gabrielle Selz’s biography corrects that omission by painting a vivid picture of the difficult and unexpected life of this important Late Modernist painter. Selz’s father was Peter Selz, an important curator and administrator in the American post-war art scene, who was a supporter of Francis. Consequently, the author knew the artist and his work from a young age.

Outdoor life was an important part of Francis’s youth. Raised in the Depression in San Mateo (near San Francisco) California and Nova Scotia, Francis took a keen interest in nature. This would first stimulate his study of biology and later art. In 1936, young Francis was involved in a tragic accident. He had been handed a loaded gun by a student in the boys toilets. The students believed the pistol was defective or in some way disabled. When Francis pulled the trigger, none of the three students expected it to fire. Francis shot a fellow student, killing the boy. Although the family of the boy (who had found he pistol in the family home) absolved Francis of the killing, the death left a lasting mark on him, as did the death of his mother at the age of 44. 

Inspired by religion, mysticism, experiences of nature and romantic literature, Francis strove for to embrace the most powerful and ineffable. Russian mystic P.D. Ouspensky captured the young man’s attention. “Like Sam [Francis], Ouspensky had lost a parent as a child and then embarked on a quest for secrets and hidden teachings that might lift the veil between the visible realm and the existence of something beyond.” Ouspensky’s ideas enlivened Francis’s imagination and liberated his conception of space and matter.   

Francis opted for biology at University of California, Berkeley and was intent on a career as a doctor. He had enrolled in the navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the USA declared war, he was called up. He switched to the air force and was transferred to various airbases across the country during his training period. Francis chose to specialise in reconnaissance flying – a dangerous branch. As it happened, he would never see military action.

Injured during training accidents in late 1943 – which, at this time, were common and frequently fatal in a rapidly expanding air corps – Francis’s spine became degeneratively impaired. Stricken with pain that doctors could not diagnose – and actually described as psychosomatic – Francis was in a grave condition by the time spinal tuberculosis was detected. He underwent surgery in a military hospital in Denver, followed by immobilisation in a body cast while fixed to a bed frame. Dosed on morphine, Francis drifted in and out of consciousness, hallucinating about strange visitors. In one vision, colours on the walls bled. Close to death and almost written off by medical staff, Francis received newly discovered antibiotics, which saved his life. As part of his recovery, he was given a set of watercolours, which he could paint with suspended over the paper.  

“With the gift of the watercolors, Sam started to paint and draw. He copied from art books, cartoons, postcards, magazines, movie posters […] Eventually he began painting remembered landscapes from his childhood. Soon he was working on his art sixteen hours a day. […] He hung his finished work around him, transforming his room into a studio and his nurses and aides into assistants.”

At the end of the two years of his illness (which left him immobilised for many months), Francis had a vision. “He was awake when a great orb of light like an enormous electric current appeared at the foot of his bed. It seemed to have come out of the wall, yet he could see the wall behind it. Slowly, the swirling, brilliant, transparent ball of energy moved toward him. Then the current was inside him, and it travelled through his entire body. One week later, Sam claimed, his doctor said to him he was almost cured. Whether or not he was cured so suddenly, Sam believed that the transparent orb he’d seen completely altered him. Trapped in the darkness of his cage, he had beheld a light. “It was a gift,” Sam said. From then on, he determined to move toward this apparition, toward the current.” This had a great impact on the imagery of Francis’s mature art and his visionary approach to painting.

In January 1947, Francis was discharged from hospital; the following month he married Vera, his childhood sweetheart. However, it turned out that they were sexually incompatible but they attempted to reach a harmonious modus vivendi. That attempt ended in 1949, in separation.

Francis re-enrolled in University of California, Berkeley, this time to study fine art on the GI Bill, earning his BA in 1949 and his MA in 1950. By this time, he was working in an abstract style, with soft biomorphic forms in a single colour tessellating the grounds. These evoked misty or watery forms placed in undetermined space, although painted in an unambiguous and painterly manner. Apparently, Francis rarely attended classes and – distanced by age and disability – was viewed as distant and aloof, even arrogant. Francis was closely studying the art of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and Edward Corbett, which influenced his direction. At Berkeley, Francis studied with Corbett, who was working on paintings of Bay Area misty landscapes.

Francis departed for Paris in 1950. Paris had been the birth place of Modernism, but by 1950 Paris was much reduced in stature in the art world. American painters were seen as leaders of the avant-garde, not least for going beyond what the École de Paris had done. Francis received GI Bill stipend of $75 per month only if enrolled at a college. He signed up to Atelier Fernand Léger but did not see eye to eye with the master and it seems they hardly interacted. He visited the Les Trois Marroniers café, where Georges Duthuit and his wife Marguerite Matisse held court, and spent time with Jean Paul Riopelle. He drew his greatest inspiration from Monet’s panoramic canvases of waterlilies. This was a highly productive period, and one in which Francis’s originality was recognised by French and American observers. In Lovely Blueness (No. 1) (1955-7) was a massive canvas, which played with ultramarine, flecked with yellow, flanked by patches of orange, pink and red – reflecting the influence of Byzantine mosaics. Selz conveys the excitement of this period with brio.

In 1953, Francis married long-term girlfriend, Muriel Goodwin. It was another open marriage, which led to turbulent emotions and separations, some due to financial struggles. In 1954, Francis went to New York, where he was treated as a peculiarity – an American painter who had made his name and found his form in France. He was generally well received by the New York painters and a few dealers courted him. However, when his first solo exhibition in the USA opened (in February 1956) it was met by reasonable sales but biting reviews. Francis departed for France disillusioned. His second marriage foundered. “By now, there was a pattern in Sam’s relationships with women, especially during his outward-turning moments. He’d find a younger woman, usually an aspiring artist who was good, just not too competitive with him, and run off with her. He’d left the hospital with Vera, he’d left Vera and America with Muriel, he’d split with Muriel and gone off to Mexico with [Carol] Haerer. The pattern would continue throughout much of his life.”

In 1957 Francis went to undertake an artist residency in Tokyo, to paint a mural Sōgetsu school. In the following years, he would be feted as a great American and world painter, invited to paint and exhibit globally. Selz describes the sequence of affairs, children, exhibitions, prizes and landmark paintings. In 1959, Francis set up home in New York City with his third wife, who was expecting their child, only to uproot all three of them in 1960, due to his wanderlust and appetite for experiences.  

Selz puts the case of Francis as a counter-culture figure. She notes the shift around 1955-60, when abstract art went from being oppositional and liberated to being commodities for millionaires and geopolitical tools for Western governments. Non-conformist to the core, Francis prioritised freedom and expression above all else, so it is unsurprising that he sympathised with anarchistic and revolutionary aims of youthful protestors in the 1960s. He was troubled by the escalating prices of his art and spent compulsively. He experimented with performance art as a way of removing the price element of art production. He also collaborated in mixed media projects, which challenged expectations of fine art. One was a sky painting in coloured smoke released from a helicopter, executed above Tokyo in 1966.

In 1961 Francis experienced a recurrence of tuberculosis, which threatened his life and left him once again hospitalised, this time in Switzerland. As previously, he painted in watercolour from his hospital bed. The painted series of Blue Balls (1961-3) was a reference to the tubercular infection of Francis’s genitals, as well as a reference back to Pollock’s landmark Blue Poles (1952). Selz backs the idea that Francis’s Blue Balls were a bridging of introspective, existential Abstract Expressionism and cool, detached Pop Art. Feeling unmoored – he had separated from his third wife – Francis decided to settle back in California (this time Southern California, Santa Monica), while all the time maintaining studios in New York, Paris and Zurich.

In Santa Monica, Francis took up printmaking at Tamarind Workshop, Los Angeles, finding colour lithography congenial. He formed friendships with local artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and James Turrell. Francis was also critical in shaping the nascent Los Angeles art scene, which lagged far behind other major American cities. A large sailmaker’s workshop gave him enough space to paint huge canvases flat on the floor. (Canvases with edges as long as 215”/5.46 m.) At this time, Francis began his Edge or ma paintings; ma means space or gap in Japanese. The Edge paintings confine mark making to the edges of the canvases, with blank space at the centre. One of which was Berlin Red (1969-70), the world’s largest painting on canvas. Francis would spend time considering preparatory material and doing menial tasks to settle himself, before launching into extended periods of painting, walking over the surface, usually in his underwear alone. The work was so absorbing that he did not feel his back pain.

Such large projects demanded assistants. They also acted as packers and hangers of his huge canvases. One of them studied paint technology and developed paints using vivid pigments and of special viscosity and transparency. Selz is particularly good on the personal dynamics of Francis’s interactions with studio assistants. Francis was apparently generous, loyal, engaging and personable. He also had another side. “But Sam could also be capricious and manipulative. […] He was frequently fickle, giving one set of instructions to one assistant and contradictory instructions to another. He fostered divisions as a way to maintain control, and he expected the assistants who lived in the guesthouse to be available at any hour of the day or night. He was moody and arrogant.”

Wealth facilitated Francis’s access to indulgence. “Sam had many compulsions, especially women and food. By the 1980s, he was addicted to vitamins and healers. Ill health continued to plague him. He traveled with a suitcase packed with nutritional and mineral supplements. If there was a pseudoscientist in the vicinity – someone who practiced with crystals, magnets, beet juice, or hands-on magic touches; someone who drove up in a Rolls-Royce and charged exorbitant fees – Sam employed them.”

Francis’s painting was constantly evolving. It is entirely to his credit (albeit, compatible with his nature) that he never remained complacent. He developed a new system, of applying water with wetting agents in lattices, then applying acrylic paint so that it was bleed and spread within these wet areas. However, detached from the restrictions of limited materials, space and market for his art, Francis’s ego would expand to fill spaces his status afforded him. He created the biggest painting in the world, used the world’s largest printing press, had a canvas made for him that was a fifth of a mile long. Francis’s technique allowed giant areas to be covered, but this was not necessarily a wise or effective deployment of his creativity. Too much of his late work tended towards emptiness and even bombast.

In 1989, Francis was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Delays caused by Francis and his unwillingness to undergo treatment that would leave him impotent, his condition declined. After conventional medication worked, Francis switched to alternative medicine. His cancer grew and metastasised. The account of Francis’s last months presents a chaotic circus of “up to thirty  caregivers from around the world thronged the house”. He died on 4 November 1994, aged 71. His estate was valued at over $79 million and became the subject of a multi-party legal struggle.

Francis’s status is muddied by huge overproduction and unwillingness to edit his output. Painting was his life and a compulsive activity; especially in his last years, Francis carried on painting regardless of quality. At his best, Francis is a great painter, but he was not often at his best. The catalogue raisonné of oil paintings tacitly acknowledged this problem, by issuing a partial printed catalogue and a full catalogue on an accompanying disc. A full printed catalogue raisonné of oil paintings would have diluted esteem and lowered values of his paintings. In fairness, it seems unwise to assess Francis’s painting as a whole because this diminishes his standing. Any artist wants to be remembered at his best.

Selz obviously admires Francis’s skill as an artist and his zest for life but is honest enough not to conceal the artist’s frequent selfishness (regarding relationships) and arrogance (regarding his artistic status). Light on Fire is a biographical portrait that is as rich and contradictory as its subject. Definitely recommended for fans of Francis, Abstract Expressionism and American Modernism.

Gabrielle Selz, Light on Fire: The Art and Life of Sam Francis, University of California Press, October 2021, hardback, 392pp, mono/11 col. illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 520 31071 1

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art


Review: “Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future”

Artivism (political and social activism using the forms and language of art) is set to become the predominant art movement of the early 21st Century. For both supporters and critics (both large groups that are growing), it is necessary to understand the movement, in order to promote or oppose it. Artivism tends to come from the left of political spectrum, though it remains to be seen if this holds true long term. After all, anti-migrant artivism is as viable as pro-migrant artivism and (judging from public surveys) the former would engender more popular support.

Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future is written by Carlos Garrido Castellano, a Hispano-Lusophone specialist in the intersection of culture and politics in Central and South America and Africa. This book looks at artivism as a branch of “anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial struggles”.[i] The use of Western avant-garde art forms – the installation, conceptual art, land art, performance, street art and other approaches – are ripe for non-Western practitioners to use (or appropriate) to advance their interests. “[…] through excavating “postcolonial” art histories, it becomes impossible to identify socially engaged art as a recent phenomenon, and the idea of this kind of art as an outcome of Western art histories is also called into question.”[ii]

The opening paragraph sets out the racialised identity-politics beliefs of the author. “Following Cedric Robinson’s incisive observation that capitalism is always racial capitalism, and that social inequalities are shaped by (and shape in turn) racial categorizations, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future maintains that art activists and socially engaged artists are equipped with a decades-long experience of challenging the reasoning that lies behind neoliberal capitalism.”[iii] Garrido Castellano notes characteristics of socially engaged art are anti-commodification, pro-collaboration and anti-aestheticism.

The decision to take as a subject art biennales is by no means an obvious one. The author writes, “[…] biennials [are] the main space where art becomes global, where local and transnational art interactions are negotiated.”[iv] Yet the only people who pay attention to biennales are top-level curators and collectors. Most gallerists, artists, collectors, museum visitors, academics and historians ignore them. However, biennales have permitted political curators to showcase their arguments over recent decades, although the only people who notice are other post-colonial activists. “Three central elements can be deduced from here. First, biennials are not the new, nor is the kind of art they promote. Second, the impact of that kind of art goes far beyond the space and time of the biennial itself, directly conditioning what Jones calls “the global work of art” and having an impact on taste, tourism, and consumption. Finally, and this is crucial, the aesthetic resulting from biennials will not be determined so much by the objects as by experience.”[v] The chapter suffers from the excess of perhaps-this-perhaps-that, with the author quoting post-colonial theorists contradicting each other on the subject of biennales.

Garrido Castellano discusses the theoretical foundations of post-colonialism, looking closely at African nationalist Amílcar Cabral and Trinidadian historian-essayist C.L.R. James. These figures are considered as post-colonial thinkers, as they have no connection to art. The author chose Cabral as a case study because he had no cultural hinterland. He was – according to the quotes here from his biographer – a Machiavellian man of action, lacking any ideological encumbrances, dedicated to national unity under rule of a black citizenry. He was a collectivist, materialist and technocrat. “Cabral’s mistrust of individualism in cultural matters remains invaluable as part of a genealogy of socially committed cultural production. For Cabral, culture constituted a perfect and necessary platform for turning his idea of emancipatory and political practice into reality.”[vi] He had a utilitarian, materialist approach to culture. He criticised the bourgeois black Cape Verdeans and Bissau-Guineans for preferring Western Modernism in the visual arts over the collectivist socially functional production of the black proletariat, that Cabral favoured as socially valuable. Cabral, like other post-colonial leaders, advocated an outright rejection of Western taste and thinking. In the following chapter, Garrido Castellano seeks to place James as a key precursor to socially-engaged cultural production.

Ugandan projects Lilian Mary Nabulime’s HIV/AIDS “social sculpture” and the Disability Art Project Uganda are described. The author then considers reactions of writers to the wave of “do-good activism” in Africa, considering if the urge to benefit local people conflicts with a duty to critique a social system or socio-political economy that (supposedly) produced the imbalance in need of correction. Artivist groups Taring Padi, Ruangrupa and Kunci Cultural Studies Center are presented as critical voices negotiating the complex political situation in Indonesia during the 1990s and 2000s. The establishment of democracy after the departure of President Suharto in 1998 and the struggle between regional separatists, Islamists and the national military forces was a time of political and civil turbulence. The heterogenous and conflicting interests of ethnic, regional and religious groups were suppressed by the government until 1998; in the era immediately after Suharto Taring Padi made public street art that raised the possibility of a non-authoritarian society (along the idealistic lines of Western humanism), it is one which actually supports sectarian identification whilst proposing an idealist multiculturalism to contain anyone acting according to that sectarian identification.   

Temporary Art Platform, Beirut is “a curatorial and interventionist collective that focuses on producing and researching public art projects. TAP facilitates site-specific art interventions and mediates between artists and private and public powers. Seeking to understand how public art can become more context-sensitive, the platform also conducts research on legal and practical aspects surrounding existing and ongoing initiatives. Finally, TAP has recently started lobbying for production budgets for public art.”[viii] The organisation published a handbook for artivists, explaining the law in layman’s terms and detailing how to acquire permits and funding from public bodies. It was published in Arabic and English. Garrido Castellano outlines the difficulties facing activists in Lebanon in the post-civil war period (after 1990).

“Ensayos is a nomadic educational and research platform located in the southernmost part of Chile. Ensayos was initiated in 2010 through the collaboration of curator Camila Marambio and the scientists and conservationists working at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Karukinka Natural Park in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego.”[ix] Two topics of Marambio were local sovereignty and the impact of introduced species. One problem of deconstruction is that the issue of utility becomes immediately locked into competing claims and definitions. If colonial and post-colonial/indigenous priorities define utility, where does sex, sexuality, religion and age come into the equation? What about trans-species rights, especially pertinent to projects centring on conservation? However rigorous the language of discussion, intersectionality (and standpoint theory) cannot help but nakedly foreground the priorities of speaker’s preferred metric or group allegiance.

Regrettably, Garrido Castellano misuses the term “alt right” to refer to populist movements in the UK, USA and Brazil. In October 2017 in Lisbon a statue of Padre António Vieira was the centre of a protest by left-wing activists and conservatives and rightists, this is compared to the events of Charlottesville, in 2017, “where the alt-right protestors impeded any approach to the statue, gathering in a circle around it in order to “protect” it from defacement.”[x] The protestors were not exclusively alt right; they also included conservatives, traditionalists and local residents. Preventing vandalism or iconoclasm is protection; there is no need for the scare quotes. Whether one approves of defacement or not, protection is protection. “[…] the attitude of the persons supposedly “protecting” the sculpture of Vieira was only the result of a more widespread defensive nationalism that despite the articulation of new iterations of portugalidade remains alive and well in broader segments of present-day Portuguese society.”[xi] One only has to look at the violence and defacement of colonial statuary common during this period in the USA and Europe to understand that those who wished to preserve their physical culture from attack were justified in being highly concerned. As the author of the book Iconoclasm, I can attest to this, having thoroughly researched the subject.

There is ambiguity in the political impact of activism through art. In what respect is agitation for Western liberalist values of egalitarianism, universal suffrage, state-provided healthcare, parliamentary democracy and freedom of conscience actually rooted in native cultures and to what degree is it imported by NGOs, activists and academics? Does a Lebanese agitator for collectivism have to drop the tenet of religious superiority ingrained in his people’s culture? Is he permitted to pick and choose between native beliefs and enmities? What if an Indonesian artivist wished to lobby for reinstatement of royalty, sharia, a strict caste system or expulsion of a tribe historically in competition with his tribe? As with the question of agency, the question of legitimacy of native causes is very much a case of post-colonial theorists being highly selective about what they consider authentic and appropriate. What if a local population wanted individualistic laissez-faire capitalism as route to independence, provision of healthcare and material comfort? It is often the case that such aspirations are dismissed by post-colonialists, temperamentally opposed to capitalism and individualism. We hit again the Neo-Marxist dismissal of the proletariat’s attachment to capitalism as “false consciousness”, that term used to discredit its opponents.

How much of post-colonial theory is simply taking away the role of gatekeeping from governments, museums and local leaders (colonial and decolonised) and giving it to artists, curators, critics and academics, as arbitrators of agency and commitment? After all, it is this latter group that designates itself as assessors of self-determined artistic activism carried out in the field, applying (often abstruse) theoretical measures without recourse to dialogue with local people.

One suspects that much of post-colonial theory is post facto justification for the occupation of spaces and use of resources by political actors. After all, as Marxists and Neo-Marxists admit, theory is nothing if not backed by power and their theory is almost solely concerned with power. Engaging with the post-colonial theory could be viewed as beside the point, as the theory is never the proximate cause – or even the explanation – for a tactical seizure of space, be that space academic, artistic, financial, civic, economic or any other category.

This book is a useful demonstration of that. Post-colonial artivism cannot remain at the theoretical level; it cannot be framed by a Western perspective; it must be applied or it is useless; it must be taught to students as a tool for liberation and agency. These positions are not so much Garrido Castellano’s, as the sources he quotes; he seeks to set out these positions in Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future. The book includes thorough endnotes, a bibliography and index. Unreliable as the author is on iconoclasm and contemporary politics, Garrido Castellano knows his field well and has read the latest literature in depth. He seeks to avoid jargon where possible but some passages will mean more to academics and students in his field than to the general reader. Overall, this is a stimulating and serious study of the reception and understanding of post-colonial artivism in non-Western settings.

The artivism discussed in this book offers a template for indigenous populations across the world; there is no reason it should be restricted to those in the political Global South. Nativist causes, self-determination and freedom from globalist interference provide counter-narratives opposed to international capital – all of these are causes of the political right in the West. It remains to be seen if progressivist positions will dominate the field of artivism wholly.

Carlos Garrido Castellano, Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, 2021, 338pp + x, 24 mono illus., hardback, $95, ISBN 978 1 4384 85737

Alexander Adams’s book Artivism will be published by Imprint Academic in 2022. Details here.

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

[i] Back cover

[ii] P. 56

[iii] P. 1

[iv] P. 27

[v] P. 33

[vi] P. 98

[vii] P. 193

[viii] P. 199

[ix] P. 223

[x] P. 243

[xi] P. 243

Wyndham Lewis’s “The Art of Being Ruled” and Elite Theory

In 1926 the British artist-author Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) published The Art of Being Ruled. This treatise of social and political issues was an unusual book in a number of respects. It argued that democracy was not the crowning achievement of Western civilisation but rather a means of suppressing the true wants and needs of the populace. Contrary to liberal intellectuals and supporters of socialism, Lewis argued that mankind in West neither wanted or benefited from democracy. It made no concessions to Lewis’s social milieu, which was predominantly Fabian and Marxist in outlook. A reprint of a selection of Lewis’s prose includes lengthy passages from The Art of Being Ruled, therefore a summary of its arguments is timely.

Lewis, Sorel and reactionary thought

During the early 1900s, Lewis was living in Paris and took an interest in politics as well as the arts. By 1906, Lewis knew of the writing of political theorist and advocate of syndicalism, Georges Sorel – “the key to all contemporary political thought”.[i] Sorel was translated by another Man of 1914, T.E. Hulme, who shared Lewis’s reactionary outlook. Sorel, a late convert to Leninism, may seem a curious hero for Lewis, unless we realise the overlap – or ambiguous adjacency – of Sorel’s traditional and reactionary views. Sorel admired Marxist analyses but conceded, “[Marx] did not understand that the feeling for socialism (as he conceived it) was extremely artificial.”[ii] Socialism is something that is imposed from above, not yearned for from below.

What attracted Lewis was precisely the anti-Modern, illiberal confinement that syndicalism imposed. “[…] the more you specialize people, the more power you can obtain over them, the more helpless and in consequence the more obedient they are. To shut people up in a water-tight, syndicalized, occupational unit is like shutting them up on an island.”[iii] Freedom from specialisation is to bar a working man from community; it robs him of purpose and solidarity. “The chief thing to remember in such a discussion is that no one wants to be ‘free’ in that sense.”[iv]

In his own book, Lewis took as his starting point Sorel, Spengler and Nietzsche. He first discounted the idea that social change is necessarily progress. He then critiqued democracy as a device not of liberation but of containment. “Bound up with the idea of progress in the democratic conception of social unification. It is this idea of unification inseparable from ‘democracy’ that Sorel, the syndicalist, is principally concerned to attack and if possible destroy. Democracy has for its principal object (both according to the revolutionary school to which Sorel belonged, and equally according to Leninism) the disappearance of the class feeling. The idea is to mix all the citizens of a given society into one whole, in which the most intelligent would automatically ‘better themselves’ and rise, by their talents, into the higher ranks. Such social climbing would be of the essence of this democratic society.”[v]

The delusion of democracy

Lewis identifies the functions of democracy as the undermining caste legitimacy and class stability, noting the mechanism of social climbing, analogous to the phenomenon that Pareto had previously described as “circulation of elites”. “For this up and down, this higher and lower, this betterment of ‘progress’ and democratic snobbery, with its necessary unification into a whole, suppressing of differences and substituting for them an arbitrary sale of values, with the salon at the top […]”[vi] Lewis states that syndicalism – considered a branch of Marxist class theory – implicitly accepts an anti-democratic principle of resistance to class mobility in favour of class solidarity for the advancement of that class or tradesman/artisan group.

There is a critique of the mass man – “crushed by debt and threatened with every form of danger, without and within”[vii] – being bombarded by mass media, closely followed by a discussion of education. The main functions of state education are to keep man placid and to direct his trust towards democratic institutions. “His support for everything that he has been taught to support can be practically guaranteed. Hence, of course, the vote of the free citizen is a farce: education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through press and other publicity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effective than subjugation by physical conquest. […] So what we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state.”[viii]

Lewis writes of class privilege substituting race privilege in terms of social status. As he would later write on this matter, Lewis was not a biological essentialist but rather a cultural essentialist and in a time before modern mass migration, he could – with the explicit exception of the USA – equate ethnicity of people with the societies of particular countries. He presents the idea of the English and Scots warring within decades should their public education values diverge and if old enmities were stirred by belligerent elites. He renames What the Public Wants to What the Puppets Want. Class division is as natural as division between species. What is unnatural is the claim by the aristocrats that there is no class division, something that the middle classes and the working man know to be the case.  

Lewis disagreed with Communism but he found the nakedly direct actions of the USSR elites refreshing. In a section entitled “The misuse of intellect”, Lewis describes how Soviet authorities curb the misuses of science and art as entertainment or diversion. By restricting the fields of science and art, the elite reinstate their essential qualities as mystery or craft. “They have taken in this respect the wisest and sanest step where both art and science are concerned, in curtailing the impossible freedom of art, and discouraging the people from gaping incessantly for new and disturbing novelties of science.”[ix] The freedom (real or apparent) afforded people in the Nineteenth Century was anomalous and unnatural. He suggests great books should be reserved for great people. “[A great book] should only be placed in the hands of those who are in a position to understand it. The people who read such books, after all, should be the rulers.”[x] It is worth noting that Lewis was opposed to abstraction in art, despite being the British artist who came close to pure abstraction in the 1910s.  

Ten years after The Art of Being Ruled was published, Lewis wrote, “Ninety per cent of men long at all times for a leader. They are on the look-out, whether they know it or not, for someone who will take all responsibility off their shoulders and tell them what to do.”[xi] For Lewis, the burden of choice for the average man with many concerns, was onerous and one which he would happily pass up, should the cost not be onerous. By extension, the cost demands of having to choose between political platforms of parties and then having the responsibility for being culpable through complicity with the results of endorsing a ruling party’s programme, are also unwelcome. In order to reach these conclusions, Lewis does not have to assume here that democracy actually functions as it is supposed to.

Lewis sees the promulgators of freedom are modern-day aristocrats, who have their own motives. “What is happening in reality in the West is that a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of. The rich are always the first ‘revolutionaries’. They also mix up together the instincts, opportunities, and desires of the ruler and the ruled. They have the apple and eat it plan in full operation in their behaviour. It is they who have evolved the secondary, heterodox, quite impracticable notion of ‘liberty’ […] This type of freedom, synonymous with irresponsibility, and yet impregnated with privilege as well, is a very strange growth indeed. It will be found on examination to be the most utopian type of all.”[xii]

Later, there is a cutting disparagement of the notion of individuals being encouraged to “express their personality”. “Generally speaking, it can be said that people wish to escape from themselves (this by no means excluding the crudest selfishness). When people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to believe that they wish ‘to express their personality’, the question at once arises as to what their personality is. For the most part, if investigated, it would be rapidly found that they had none. So what would it be that they would eventually ‘express’? and why have they been asked to express it? If they were subsequently watched in the act of ‘expressing’ their personality, it would be found that it was somebody else’s personality they were expressing. If a hundred of them were observed ‘expressing their personality’ all together and at the same time, it would be found that they all ‘expressed’ this inalienable, mysterious ‘personality’ in the same way. In short, it would be patent at once that they had only one personality between them to ‘express’ – some ‘expressing’ it with a little more virtuosity, some a little less. It would be a group personality they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of education and the hypnotism of cinema, wireless and press. Each one would, however, be firmly persuaded that it was ‘his own’ personality that he was ‘expressing’: just as when he voted he would be persuaded that it was the vote of a free man that was being cast, replete with the independence and free-will which was the birthright of a member of a truly democratic community.”[xiii]

People wish to be automata”

When we today are encouraged to express our personality, we are given a set range of options to choose from. It is a matter of selecting our favourite musical artist, mass-market (or arthouse) film, holiday destination or tattoo. The acceptable options are not rejection of materialist comforts or allegiance to the causes of holy war, racial purity or nationalistic superiority. Merely thinking such things is essentially criminal and saying the beliefs aloud is actually criminal. Lewis is describing a culture of conformity and expression through consumption which has come to pass. To Orwell, such social transgression was described in 1984 as “thoughtcrime”. “Lewis anticipated Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” when he stated [in 1936]: “I mean independence in the real sense – not in the Alice in Wonderland sense of contemporary political jargon – where ‘Peace’ means War, ‘Neutrality’ means Intervention, and ‘Independence’ means Economic Servitude.””[xiv] Lewis is describing the modern type of the real-life NPC (non-player character in a video game), who has no interior monologue and repeats information from the mass media. Asking such a person to express his personality is little more than running a programme in order to check the output is as expected. It is a test or inspection, not any expression of individuality.  

“For in the mass[,] people wish to be automata: they wish to be conventional: they hate you teaching them or forcing them into ‘freedom’: they wish to be obedient, hard-working machines, as near dead as possible – as near dead (feelingless and thoughtless) as they can get, without actually dying.”[xv] Lewis detects in people a desire to be numb, to escape oneself, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and place. He dissects the modern state’s drive to dismantle the family, most particularly in the socialist state. He describes the state as becoming the breadwinner. Lewis is critical of feminism and female influence and foresees the rise of welfare state in a feminist era. “Since the great masses of the people are not likely to be in a position to prolong the family arrangement based on an individual ‘home’ (marriage and the family circle to which the European is accustomed), it will be abolished. That is the economic fact at the bottom of ‘feminism’.”[xvi]  

With mankind on the threshold of world government, what powers would authorities need and exercise? “People no doubt could be persuaded that they did not see the sun and moon […]” Consider how that applies to academia, mass media and social media of today and the way that impossibilities are advanced as unarguable truths.

The Art of Being Ruled is a remarkable book – remarkably prescient and remarkably brave. This reprinted edited version will make the ideas known to more. Let us hope that a press decides to issue an unedited republication. For now, alongside extracts of Lewis’s other social and philosophical writings, this version is a fascinating addition to any library of counter-liberal thought.

Wyndham Lewis, E.W.F. Tomlin (ed.), Volume 3: An Anthology of His Prose, Routledge Library Editions, 1969/2021, hardback, 397pp + ix, mono illus., £80, ISBN 978 1 03 211914 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] Prose, p. 122

[ii] Sorel, quoted Prose, p. 124

[iii] Prose, p. 153

[iv] Prose, p. 153

[v] Prose, p. 98

[vi] Prose, p. 99

[vii] Prose, p. 107

[viii] Prose, p. 108

[ix] Prose, p. 115

[x] Prose, p. 114

[xi] Quoted from Left Wings over Europe (1936), 296p Meyers

[xii] Prose, p. 136

[xiii] Prose, pp. 150-1

[xiv] Prose, p. 296

[xv] Prose, p. 153

[xvi] Prose, p. 185

Arthur Conan Doyle: Playing with Fire

Reception of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional output has been unbalanced by the huge success of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. Mike Ashley, editor of this selection of Doyle’s stories of the uncanny and incredible, notes that Doyle’s horror and supernatural stories outnumber his Holmes stories. Playing with Fire brings together his best stories, as well as the essay “Stranger Than Fiction” (1915), in which Doyle addresses his experiences in spiritualism and inexplicable (or highly improbable coincidence). He spent a night in a haunted house and was awoken by a fearful hammering coming from inside the house. He found no person or other cause was found; the doors and windows were bolted and locked.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a devoted reader and teller of strange tales. The morbid and uncanny often intrude into the Holmes stories and sometimes form the basis of them. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” both play on the reader’s innate repulsion towards the unnatural. Doyle’s first submission to a professional story magazine (at the age of 18 or 19) was a horror story to Blackwood’s. They declined; the manuscript was discovered and published in 2000. He was published soon after that initial rejection. During his years as a medical student he published stories occasionally, along with some medical papers. In addition to his detective stories and weird tales, Doyle wrote historical novels and science-fiction stories.  

Doyle’s attachment to rationality, science and logic warred with his fixation – even obsession – with the macabre and supernatural. Fascinated by telepathy and parapsychology, Doyle was in contact with the Society for Psychical Research during the late 1880s and joined the organisation in 1893. He exposed hoaxes, as well as considering some experiences potentially authentic. Doyle treated seriously the quest to communicate with souls and spirits, considering such activity as an extension of science rather than a contradiction of it. This took on a painfully personal aspect when Doyle’s son died during service in the Great War. He was caught out by the 1920 Cottingley Fairies hoax, which damaged his credibility. The editor notes, “Doyle’s ability to convince himself of what others saw as fakery was the same ability with which he could create living and breathing characters in his fiction, and powerful and memorable imagery.”

“The Captain of the ‘Polestar’” (1883) is inspired Doyle’s voyage on board a Scottish whaler in the Arctic. His narrator writes a diary of a whaler steaming ever deeper into the ice floes, commanded by a captain blind with ambition that seems irrational. They risk being frozen in and their ship being crushed to matchwood by the power of the ice. The captain seems gripped by madness, while the crew see visions of a ghostly apparition on the sea ice. The narrator is a man of science, sceptical, attempting to ward off his disquiet with rationalisation. It is powerfully atmospheric tale, that should have been longer. As is common with Doyle, he tended to end his stories before the mystery was wrung out of them.  

“The Winning Shot” (1883) is a tale about a mysterious Swedish sailor whom a couple meet on Dartmoor. The sailor is invited to stay in the family home and he develops an infatuation with the female narrator. When he is rejected he wreaks his revenge. “John Barrington Cowles” (1884) is about a beautiful femme fatale who destroys the men who fall in love with her. Her powers may come from the Orient, though the exact connection is left for readers to infer. Other stories are “De Profundis”, “The Parasite”, “The Story of the Brown Hand”, “Playing with Fire”, “The Leather Funnel”, “The Terror of Blue John Gap”, “How it Happened”, “The Horror of the Heights” and “The Bully of Brocas Court”, which deal with ghosts, visions, mesmerism, spirit communication, monsters and mental imbalance.

Most could be called stories of mystery or the weird, a few (especially “The Leather Funnel” and “The Terror of Blue John Gap”) fall into the category of the horror story. The stories have the characteristic brisk pacing, broad well-judged vocabulary and crime story format of the author’s Sherlock Holmes tales. As was a common trope, many of the stories are framed as diary extracts or dialogues between fictional characters. Although some work better than others – the aerial dogfight with a gelatinous monster is as fun as it is silly – all are diverting and worth becoming reacquainted with. All the stories have been collected in different volumes; seeing them together in one volume themed on the supernatural is very welcome. They work very well as a group, building a feeling of unease. It is an ideal companion for long winter nights.  

The only fault in this book is a notice apologising for any offence taken by readers upset by racial stereotyping or outmoded idioms. “We acknowledge therefore that some elements in the stories selected for reprinting may continue to make uncomfortable reading for some of our audience.” This is unnecessary. The publishing arm of a national library should not be apologising for reproducing the work of classic authors loved and respected by generations of readers.     

Arthur Conan Doyle, Playing with Fire: The Weird Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, The British Library, 2021, hardback, 288pp, £14.99, ISBN  978 0 7123 5425 7

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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