“Frank Auerbach: The Sitters”

[NICOLA BENSLEY, FRANK AUERBACH: A MORNING IN THE STUDIO, 2015, Eight silver gelatin prints, 50.8 × 40.6 cm / 20 × 16 in (sheet), edition of 25. Copyright Nicola Bensley,]

A substantial exhibition of paintings by School of London painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is now reaching its last days. (23 September-16 December 2022, Piano Nobile, 96/129 Portland Road, London, W11 4LW, www.piano-nobile.com.) This review is from the catalogue only.

Auerbach was born in Berlin and arrived in England in 1939. He studied painting at Borough Polytechnic by David Bomberg (1947-53, alongside Leon Kossoff), St Martin’s Art School (1948-52) and the Royal College of Art (1952-5). He became friends with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj who became the nucleus of the School of London, which upheld the engagement with traditional painting techniques, figuration and the primacy of the human body (especially in the form of portraiture) as the prime subject of art.

[Frank Auerbach, HEAD OF CATHERINE LAMPERT II, 1978-79, Charcoal and black chalk on paper, 57.4 × 77 cm / 221⁄8 × 30 ¼ in. Copyright Frank Auerbach.]

Like other painters in the London School, Auerbach left many of his sitters unnamed. As with other artists, in their last years and posthumously, identities and biographical details emerge about the sitters. This comes with the process of historical, biographical and archive research that accompanies the elevation of the art to the status of classic. Also, as sitters die, pictures they owned enter the secondary market. Researchers make a point of asking for memoirs by and interviews with sitters. Biographers also seek out primary information from sitters.

Auerbach’s approach is to create a picture over multiple sessions from life, sometimes reworking the entire painting or drawing each time. He would often scrap a panel clean of paint and work from scratch in a following session. Over 40 or so sessions, a sheet of paper might be erased of its charcoal or graphite marks so often that is becomes rubbed right through, then patched be before the drawing is finished. The sprezzatura finish to the paintings belies the concentration put into each over a prolonged period, although the visible surface paint maybe indeed have been applied in one session. The impasto is so thick that it takes months to dry to state in which it can be hung vertically without slipping. An oil painting sometimes takes many years to dry, sometimes taking on a shrivelled appearance. A more schematic approach using encaustic wax would eliminate paint shrinkage, but Auerbach is not that type of painter.

The notes here relate to known portraits subjects of Auerbach, whether or not their pictures are among the exhibits at Piano Nobile. Some – such as Kossoff and Freud – are famous; others – such as curator and author Catherine Lampert – are known associates of the artist. Other initials reappear in exhibition listings over years without viewers knowing the identities. Julia is Auerbach’s wife and E.O.W. is Stella West, one of Auerbach’s lovers. Is usual, the reason artist’s conceal the identities of sitters and models is because exposure brings to light the tangled skein of personal affairs, failings in fidelity and awkward chronology. Is it any wonder that artists prefer to keep such information concealed for as long as possible. Auerbach’s determination is also shown in his loyalty to sitters; he has worked with some for decades.      

[Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W., 1972, Oil on board, 27.9 × 35.6 cm / 11 × 14 in. Copyright Frank Auerbach]

Another sitter was Sandra Fisher, artist, muse and wife of Kitaj. Kitaj produced a memorable pastel of Sandra and Auerbach seated at a table (illustrated here). Sandra also sat to Auerbach, here in one drawing and one painting. Naturally, Auerbach’s sitters have been taken from individuals in the art world. Stephen Finer and Laurie Owen are painter colleagues; James Kirkman was an art dealer; David Landau is an art collector. Michael Podro the painter met before he began his career as an art historian, when they were both art students. Podro and his wife Charlotte collected Auerbach and were painted and drawn by him; Podro wrote about Auerbach – the essay is reprinted here. There is are discussions of the Podro-Auerbach friendship by Natasha Podro, Michael’s daughter, and by Luke Farey. The introductory material is a short foreword, a brief essay by art critic and portrait subject William Feaver and an interview with the artist by Martin Gayford; the latter are both old pieces (dating from 2009 and 2001 respectively), although the interview includes unpublished parts. There are commentaries that accompany the 41 paintings and drawings by Auerbach. There are new comments and information about sitters and their experiences of posing for Auerbach.

There also are eight photographs of Auerbach in his studio, shot by Nicola Bensley in one morning in 2015. The studio is famously small and spartan, situated in the Mornington Crescent (near Euston) and was previously occupied by (consecutively) Kossoff, Gustav Metzger and Frances Hodgkins. Auerbach’s studio is not as famous as Bacon or Freud’s but is an important part of the creation process. He has worked in the studio almost every day since moving there in 1954. As with Freud, sitters mention the powerful impression the studio makes upon them. The small, paint-encrusted cell is the site of most of his painting. Like Freud, Auerbach wrestles with paintings, displaying signs of frustration and tension as the image (usually) fails to cohere.

What of new art? There is a self-portrait drawing from 2020 – very light in touch and tonality – and we are promised further unpublished works in an updating of Feaver’s catalogue raisonné of Auerbach’s paintings, published this year. There is also a new head, which is daring; the black calligraphy seems quite detached to the slurred yellow brushwork below. The self-portrait drawings have a degree of liberation and dignity, as if the artist had freed himself of his previous penchant for Rembrandtian gloom and dramatic chiaroscuro.

[Frank Auerbach, S E L F – P O R T R A I T, 2 0 2 0, Graphite, white chalk and Indian ink on paper, 75.8 × 58.4 cm / 297⁄8 × 23 in. Copyright Frank Auerbach]

The book gives a good overview of the artist’s achievements, presenting new information and publishing unseen art. It provides thorough provenances and exhibition/literature history for each piece; a chronology is also included. The production quality is very high. Getting the full intensity of the colour range is often tricky with Auerbach and this catalogue gets commendably close to the originals. Although the price of this book is high, it will become a coveted treasure for Auerbach connoisseurs.

William Feaver, Martin Gayford, Luke Farey, et al., Frank Auerbach: The Sitters, Piano Nobile Publications, 2022, cloth hardback with paper-band wrapper, 176pp, fully illus., £100, ISBN 978 1901192629

“Sunken Island”: First photographs of new book

First photographs of the new anthology “Sunken Island” have been released. The book presents my verse and illustrations and was edited by me. Here are details:

“As Great Britain emerges from pandemic lockdown and enters the post-Brexit era, British culture finds itself at a crossroads. On topics such as governance national independence, community, migration and the preservation of cultural heritage, profound questions are being asked with renewed urgency.

“This anthology of new poems brings together established and newly emerging poets in a rich collection. Using a variety of styles, the poets explore modern life, the recent experiences of lockdown and rioting and the changing faces of our cities and countryside. Verse here also delves into deep history, by addressing primordial themes of nature, the seasons and the struggle for life.

“Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry contains new unpublished verse by Nicholas Murray, A Robert Lee, Alexander Adams, S D Wickett, Daniel Gustafson, Benjamin Afer, Columba and Rahul Gupta.

“Edited and illustrated by Alexander Adams, with a foreword by William Clouston, Sunken Island reaffirms that poetry can play an important role in illuminating essential subjects with wit, passion and erudition, formulating propositions about our existence in ways that are deeply personal as well as universal.”

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry, The Bournbrook Press, 2022, 60pp, mono illus., paperback, £12.50. The book is available for pre-order today here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/press

If you would like to order previous books of verse by me, you can order from the same page. These other books are On Dead Mountain (2015), On Art (2018), On Art II (2020) and After/Apres Francis Bacon (2022). Each features unique poems and illustrations.

Women and British Modernism

James Scott’s new book The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain looks at key figures in the Modernist movement in Great Britain over the Twentieth Century. These include Helen Sutherland (collector), Winifred Nicholson (artist), Lucy Wertheim (collector, dealer), Nicolete Gray (curator, scholar, collector), Myfanwy Piper (critic, editor), Margaret Gardiner (collector), Barbara Hepworth (artist), Peggy Guggenheim (collector, dealer), Erica Brausen (dealer) and Helen Lessore (dealer). The lives and works of these individuals sometimes intertwined, as Scott recounts. The author does not neglect the men whose art and activities bound them together. Scott wisely decides not to separate the characters, instead combining them into a single continuous narrative, with some chapters focusing on individuals or movements. This review will not discuss each figure individually, as some of them are already well known.

Helen Sutherland (1881-1965) was an heiress who followed the family tradition of collecting art. Her father’s preference was for Pre-Raphaelite drawings, hers was Modernism. She bought Seurat, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Winifred Nicholson, starting in the early 1920s, many purchases coming via the Beaux Arts and Mayor galleries. The Nicholsons’ combination of daintiness, flatness and unobtrusive subject matter made their Modernism more austere and refined than the paintings of the Bloomsbury Group. Sutherland knew writer James (Jim) Ede and poet-artist David Jones.  

Lucy Wertheim (1882-1971) was a collector and dealer based in Manchester. She had married a Belgian shipping magnate, which meant she travelled to Belgium and France frequently, which was how she met Walter Sickert. As well as buying his paintings, she worked closely with Frances Hodgkin. By 1929, she was also collecting sculptures by Henry Moore and Hepworth. She was also a collector and dealer of Wood’s before his suicide.

Nicolete Gray (née Binyon) (1911-1997) was the daughter of poet and art critic Laurence Binyon. She read history at Oxford University, which was where she met David Jones and became romantically involved with him. Jones, an unworldly loner, was an unsuitable match and Nicolete married another man in 1933. She was friends with another Oxford undergraduate Myfanwy Piper (née Evans; 1911-1997), who would marry John Piper, a leading Neo-Romantic painter. Myfanwy would be the editor of the leading inter-war journal promoting abstract art. Axis: a quarterly review of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture, which ran eight issues from 1935 to 1937, was a showcase for new British abstract art. It would also be a key link between avant-garde artists in Britain and the Continent. Abstraction had trouble gaining credibility, prominence and patronage in Britain, in contrast to the situation in Europe. Gray organised the 1936 Abstract and Concrete exhibition which brought together abstract art by Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, Miró, Mondrian and Jean Hélion next to pieces by Piper, Moore, Ben Nicholson and Hepworth for the first time in Britain, at a venue in Oxford.

Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) became a collector and friend of Hepworth, Nicholson and John Skeaping. Gardiner and Sutherland became entangled in the messy affair between Nicholson and Hepworth, which was made all the more difficult because of their respect Winifred. Gardiner paid for life-saving medical treatment for Hepworth’s daughter. The formation of the Unit One group and the subsequent exhibition cemented the seriousness of British abstract artists and indicated an alternative to Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and social realism as non-academic schools of painting for British artists. These artists and their patrons would be a support network for Mondrian, Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo and other avant-garde artists and architects (many associated with the Bauhaus, which was closed by the Nazi government in August 1933) who fled to London from the rising shadow of the Nazis. Other refugees included Kokoschka, Schwitters and Heartfield.

Erica Brausen (1908-1992) is best known today as the first dedicated dealer of Francis Bacon. Scott notes that Brausen had a similar origin to Lea Bondi Jaray, Annely Juda and Ala Story, in that they were all female European emigrées who went into the art trade in the 1930s and 1940s. Jaray, Juda and Story were Jewish, while Brausen was not, although she did assist Jews seeking to escape Europe. Many in the fine arts were involved in the war effort. Some served in the military or worked for the government. Others raised money through auctions, exhibitions and publications.

Scott’s narrative sets out an alternative to Bloomsbury – the Hampstead/St Ives set – as a complicated network of intellectual, artistic, personal and romantic connections between members of the avant-garde in inter-war Britain. Scott makes a lively guide, well-informed and always seeking to draw meaning from intersections of group members. Scott has particular thesis regarding the unique qualities and conditions of women, which comes as something of a relief. He uses the stories and documentation of women’s actions within this network as a way to take a fresh perspective on the development of inter-war British Modernism, centred on London. This works well, as the author is not forced to fit observations into a polemical framework and he allows the subjects to be as various as they were, without drawing forced comparisons between them. Readers will find the index invaluable for finding references to specific individuals in such a complicated narrative.

There are many excellent illustrations of art that was made and bought by the women discussed here. Disappointingly, there are no locations given for the art works, making it impossible (using this book alone) to trace the subsequent provenance of art that passed through the hands of the collectors discussed in this entertaining book.

James Scott, Frances Spalding (foreword), The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain, Unicorn, 2021, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 191 349 1871

To read my ideas on the relationship between women and the arts, check out my book “Women & Art: A Post-Feminist View”, details here: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2022/07/28/new-publication-women-art-a-post-feminist-view/

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Russian vanguardists: Nadezhda Dobychina & Klavdia Mikhailova

During the heyday of Modernism, one of the centres was Russia. Artists from St Petersburg and Moscow travelled to Western Europe, especially Paris, and encountered Modernism first hand as it was produced and exhibited. Until the outbreak of war on 1 August 1914, Russian artists could travel fairly freely to the West, and word of Western Modernism was circulating in the small groups of vanguardist connoisseurs and creators in Russia. The Golden Fleece salons and Jack of Diamonds exhibitions gave Russian creators an opportunity to exhibit their own Modernism, sometimes alongside foreign pioneers. The October Revolution of 1917 further isolated Russian artists and severely limited importation of international art.

The authors note that although Berthe Weill is noted as the first prominent female gallerist who promoted Modernism, there were two other female dealers working in the 1910s. Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova are two other pioneers who deserve consideration. It seems that their later obscurity is mainly due to the rejection and suppression of Russian Modernism under Stalinism in the USSR. This book covers their lives and work and the reception of Modernism in Russia of the 1910s.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, private commercial art galleries were still a novelty in Russia. Collectors and art lovers acquired fine art at auctions, in antique shops, at the exhibitions organised by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and by various art societies or directly from the artists’ studios.” Dobychina and Mikhailova would contribute to the expansion of the public platforms for new art.

In this period we see thr

Klavdia Ivanovna Mikhailova (née Suvirova) (1875-1942) was from a wealthy Muscovite merchant family, who studied art at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, from 1891 to 1896. She trained as a painter in the school of the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), which combined Symbolism and social realism. Klavdia met her husband Ivan Mikhailov at art school. While Ivan came to realise his future was in promoting and selling – rather than making – art, Klavdia remained a full-time painter until 1912. She exhibited widely in group exhibitions, sold work and was well reviewed. (An extract from a laudatory review is reprinted.) By this time, she was producing landscapes in a Post-Impressionist style, using metallic paints. Her sister Olga followed a similar career path through the same art school but was stricken by mental health conditions which left her increasingly unable to function normally. In 1907, Mikhailova met Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, when she exhibited with them. This would set her in good stead to act as a promoter of their art.

Nadezhda Evseevna Dobychina (born Ginda-Neka Seyevna Fishman; 1884-1950) was from a poor Jewish family. She moved to St Petersburg to study biology, changing her name to evade social prejudice and legal restrictions faced by Jews. She met her future husband Petr at university. She also met Nikolay Kulbin, an artist and vigorous promoter of Russian Modernism. Kulbin founded Triangle: The Art and Psychology Group, which functioned between 1907 and 1910, exhibiting Symbolist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Russians. Dobychina was the secretary of the group, doing much of the business and organisational work for Triangle. The assertive primitivism of the art and presentation (on walls covered by sackcloth) of their Moscow exhibition drew critical derision and considerable crowds, as well as garnering around 50 sales.

Dobychina and Mikhailova opened their businesses (independently) in 1912. Dobychina’s Art Bureau (in St Petersburg, centre of court and politics) and Mikhailova’s Art Salon (in Moscow, centre of commerce) took advantage of the wave of Russian Modernism. This included art in the styles of Cubism, Futurism, Rayism, Primitivism, as well as the last vestiges of Symbolism. Dobychina’s Art Bureau broke with the smartness of the French-style salon – French culture, emulated and transmitted by the Romanov court, dominated high culture in Russia – and instead put forward a more Modernist attitude and aesthetic. She hosted displays of Futurist art, musical recitals and readings of avant-garde writings, including by Mayakovsky, in her house in a poor part of the city. Dobychina did this due to personal commitment rather than income and was very poor at this time. In 1913, a windfall allowed her to move to a larger house in a more central location.

In contrast, Mikhailova used an inheritance from her father to open her Art Salon in a rented premises located in a prestigious street in Moscow. This was a thoroughly commercial affair – requiring paid entry – that she ran while continuing to produce pictures as a painter. The luxuriously appointed gallery was designed as an art-display space and had skylight illumination, electricity, a telephone and separate male and female lavatories. It would be a hub of commerce and aesthetic vanguardism until it was confiscated and nationalised by the Soviet authorities in 1918.

An early exhibition by Mikhailova was a memorial display (1912-3) of the nationalist allegories of the hugely popular and respected Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910). Vrubel was considered a nationalist hero but also a technical precursor to High Modernism, with his use of flattened planes in composition and his defiance of academic convention. As such, Vrubel could be presented as a pioneer of Russian Modernism but one that conservatives could appreciate as a patriot. It was a canny choice and one planned to coincide with a large retrospective of Vrubel’s art held by the New Society of Artists in St Petersburg. The subject of Mikhailova’s exhibition were studies for The Dream Princess (1896), a giant mural which had proved controversial when first exhibited, and therefore a subject that had some recognisability for the general public.  

A subsequent exhibition of Parisian Modernism (including van Dongen, Dufy, Friesz, Gris, Léger, Marquet, Matisse, Picasso and Vallotton) was a popular success, despite – as the authors note – Mikhailova apparently never travelling to Paris nor having direct contact with the artists. The intermediary she used is unknown. The popularity seems to have been due to those who had read about these artists but never seen examples and came to absorb or mock. The critical reception was negative, recommending viewers to seek out the degeneracy and lunacy on display before fashion changed and swept it into obscurity.

When Larionov rented her gallery to mount the provocative Target exhibition of the so-called Donkey’s Tail group, the event attracted widespread criticism. The exhibition featured radical paintings by Larionov, Goncharova, Niko Pirosmani, Aleksandr Shevchenko, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. Larionov declared that the exhibition would inaugurate a new art style called Rayism, which was a form of Futurism with invented rays of light forming linear/crystalline designs on a flattened picture surface.

[Image: Natalia Goncharova, Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow, 1913, oil on canvas, 85 x 85 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.]

The parallel presentation of the naïve figuration of Pirosmani is interpreted here as an effort by Larionov to link untutored native talent with new avant-garde styles in a move to take the initiative from Paris. In effect, Larionov used the exhibition at Mikhailova’s gallery as an opportunity to assert Russian supremacy (and independence) in the vanguard of Modernism.

Dobychina turned to exhibiting woodcuts and photographs, featuring the minor arts, which educated visitors even if the exhibitions did prove very profitable. The memorial exhibition of Ian Tsioglinski (1858-1913), the Polish Impressionist, had a substantial catalogue and was a commercial success. The fame and income from this exhibition of more conservative art would be parlayed into backing for avant-garde art. Mikhailova’s solo exhibition for Goncharova, which was a major retrospective of 761 works, with a catalogue and running from September and November 1913, was a hit. The exhibition (reduced in scale) transferred to Dobychina’s gallery in St Petersburg, where pictures with religious subjects were briefly confiscated by the police, on grounds of blasphemy. The two gallerists apparently never interacted directly, with the artist and Larionov doing the curation and organisation.    

The war cut off the dealers from advanced art in Paris and (understandably) curtailed plans to exhibit German art. The disruption to internal transport, blockage to supplies and the relocation of artists impaired cultural life in Russia. A number of artists (including Larionov, Shevchenko and Malevich) were drafted for military service. Dobychina held an exhibition to raise money for an infirmary for artists injured during the hostilities. She also looked eastward, organising an exhibition of art, including printmaking. When she displayed Chagall, whose art she bought for her private collection, the critics criticised his romantic scenes and paintings of village life as too detached from the harsh reality of life. Chagall was condemned as being an escapist and therefore socially irresponsible. In the middle of the war, Dobychina was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone.

The greatest achievement of Dobychina was 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings was held in her Art Bureau in newly renamed Petrograd, between December 1915 to January 1916. It hosted a ground-breaking exhibition of art by Vladimir Tatlin, Malevich, Ivan Kliun, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavkaia, Natan Altman, Marie Vassilieff and others. Kliun and Tatlin exhibited multi-media abstract reliefs. The most remarkable aspect was the extensive display of Suprematist abstract paintings by Malevich. In fact, that dominance antagonised other exhibitors, who considered Malevich presumptuous. Rozanova claimed that she (not Malevich) had invented Suprematism.   

The October 1917 Revolution was the last in a sequence of upheavals stretching back to 1905. When it became clear that the Bolsheviks would implement socialism, artists and art dealers, like all citizens, had to decide how to respond. Dobychina indicated that she would not oppose the politics of the Bolsheviks in her Art Bureau. Mikhailova did not oppose (or at least prevent) political slogans appearing on the walls of her Art Salon during the last Jack of Diamonds exhibition at the end of 1917, after the ascendence of the Bolsheviks.

The nationalisation of much private property and cultural production extinguished much of the commercial side of the avant-garde – or rather creators transferred to serve communes, local institutions or the local and national authorities. Initially, it looked to the avant-garde that they now had the ear of those in power and a direct line to funds and venues. They would be commissioned to decorate new social housing, carve the statues for stadia and produce posters to inspire workers to contribute their labour to common lot. What happened initially was civil war, social disruption, soaring inflation and the closure of many cultural institutions for the next two years.

However, when attention returned to culture, it would be the creators of art who would be the tools of the state and the state would dictate the content and style of art, severely limiting the scope of artistic expression. Then, in the era of Stalinism, artists could fall from favour for political, personal or stylistic reasons. Some, like Aleksandr Drevin (1889-1938), who exhibited with Dobychina, were liquidated during Stalin’s purges. Drevin was one of the prominent Latvians killed in the anti-Latvian purge of 1937-8. Mikhailova herself, deprived of her gallery, returned to the profession of painting. Without the chance of exhibiting Symbolist paintings of fairy stories, Mikhailova painted in the prescribed Socialist Realist style. This apparently left her bitter and demoralised, reliant on old colleagues to petition authorities on her behalf. Dobychina lost her Art Bureau. So both businesses started in 1912 and were closed in 1918. Dobychina would become head of exhibitions at the House of Arts, Petrograd, then moved to the Society of Encouragement of the Arts and later the State Russian Museum. Other administrative jobs in the museum and film-production sector followed, where her early achievements in the avant-garde were overlooked or dismissed. It may also that during the era of Socialist Realism, she may have downplayed her commitment to art that was graded as bourgeois and Formalist. She died in 1950.   

The authors – both experts on Russian art – have woven together the story of these two serious promoters of Russian Modernism into an enlightening and engaging book with many illustrations. The illustration of individual artists, collectors and intellectuals, and of some of the art exhibited, makes the account even more vivid. The book has been supported by the Kroll Family Trust, which extends a long-standing family interest in art, especially in Russian Modernism. The investment has been well rewarded with this book, which will be welcomed by anyone interested in Russian Modernism and women’s roles in the arts of the twentieth century.

Natalia Budanova, Natalia Murray, Two Women of the Russian Avant-Garde: Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova, Unicorn/Kroll Family Trust, 2022, hardback, 230pp + x, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 913491 27 7

To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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

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