Jack Kerouac as Artist

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Kerouac: Beat Painting is the catalogue for an exhibition held at Museo MAGA, Gallarate (2 December 2017-22 April 2018) of the art of Jack Kerouac (1922-1968). Jack Kerouac was one of the founders of – and most famous member of – the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early 1960s. He was elevated to fame and notoriety by the success of On The Road (1957) and series of popular semi-autobiographical novels published thereafter. The seminal On The Road established many of the staples of Beat counter culture: Buddhism and Oriental spirituality, jazz, black culture, drugs, drink, sexual freedom and the lure of the road.

Kerouac was an amateur artist, something that he mentioned in his writings. The examples exhibited in Gallarate included drawings and paintings on paper and canvas. Subjects are portraits, symbolic tableaux, isolated figures, abstracts, religious imagery, scenes of everyday life, a handful of landscapes and doodles. There are palimpsests within which overall pattern and figural forms interact. There is one scene of boats on shore. There is a pencil drawing of a sea view from the roof terrace of Burroughs’ Tangiers residence, Hotel El Muniria. Kerouac visited his friend in 1957 and (being a skilled and speedy typist) he typed up the manuscript of Naked Lunch – until it gave him nightmares.

The portraits are symbolic portraits, portraits of famous personalities (including Truman Capote and Joan Crawford) and some generic figures. There are a few recognisable portraits of people Kerouac knew, including his father, lover Dody Muller and a powerful profile of William Burroughs.

There are images which depict memories of family scenes from Kerouac’s childhood, reframed as religious scene. His strongly Catholic upbringing coloured his outlook – no more obviously than in his conception of his family life. The death of his brother Gerard was treated by Kerouac as nothing less than the death of saint or a holy innocent. There are drawings of crucifixion crosses without Christ figures. There is a painting of a sacred heart which has a touch of Guston to it – although made before Guston’s celebrated return to figuration in 1968-9. Other images are related to mandalas, cosmic forms and over-layered figures (referring to reincarnation?) which are connected to Buddhism. Much of Kerouac’s thoughts about spirituality revolved around developing a syncretic synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism.

During 1958-1960 Kerouac had an affair with Dody Muller, a painter who introduced him to abstract art first hand. The art of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists impressed Kerouac and influenced his own art. He was friends with Franz Kline and worked alongside his neighbour in Northport, NY painter Stanley Twardowicz. Some of Kerouac’s art could be described as Abstract Expressionist. His abstracts include brushed and puddled paint, also finger painting. The art is roughly and lightly worked, with much of the ground showing through. A pastel of blurred forms is vaporous, contrasting with the visceral impasto and strong forms of paintings, some with metallic paint – an aspect of Pollock’s painting that he may have picked up from artist friends. Kerouac spent time in San Francisco, which had a vigorous abstract art scene, which he would have known about.

Kerouac wrote “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY without drawing; without long pause or delay; without erasing… pile it on.” This accords to the principle of automatism of the Abstract Expressionists which had been taken the concept from Surrealism. “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” That refers to writing but equally apply to Kerouac’s art.

In some respects this lack of revision accords with the Beat idea of creativity untrammelled, in a version of stream-of-consciousness monologue. Likewise, the directness of application was in line with Kerouac’s aesthetic of personal directness, which differed from Burroughs’ aesthetic of using mechanical means to process pre-existing material, as we find in the Cut-Ups.

The Beats often debated art, especially Cézanne, Van Gogh, the ideas of Artaud and the example of William Blake, an eccentric visionary poet who also made art. There are obvious links between be-bop jazz, Charlie Parker, Action Painting, improvisation and Kerouac’s creative output, which is briefly covered in catalogue texts.

There are certain characteristics common to amateur artists that we can discern in Kerouac’s art: frequent changes of idioms, experimental use of materials which are widely divergent, a lack of sustained effort to forge a consistent style, a wide variety of genre and subjects, inconsistent palette, modest size, cheap craft materials. The majority of pictures are on paper, with some sheets from a spiral-bound sketchbook.

It is clear from these examples that Kerouac is classifiable as an amateur. The art manifests an absence of skill which contrasts with the ingrained care and flair for language abundant in his writing. One of the essential points of amateur artists is that their production does not have a core – it is episodic not serial in nature. This results in not an erratic artist but effectively a dozen artists existing in one creator, most unrelated to each other.

Almost none of the sheets are dated. One question that is not resolved in the catalogue texts is how representative of his output as a whole this selection is. With the work of an unknown/little-known artist it is fundamental to use early publications to outline the extent of the corpus. This information fundamentally shapes our view of what we are seeing and is a basis for later studies.

How Beat are these pictures? Probably more Beat in approach and tone rather than content. What does Beat mean in terms of content? The life of the Beats and people following the ostensible Beat lifestyle; art encapsulating the Beat worldview; the subjects of Beat writings, namely refuseniks and the refused, junkies and drifters, radiant rent boys and beatific whores, truth-seekers and vision-chasers, petty criminals and cracked prophets. It is hard to find much of this in terms of imagery in Kerouac’s art.

This raises the question, is everything that Kerouac produced Beat? That is, is everything creative that Kerouac produced during maturity necessarily congruent with Beat ideas? Do the most idiosyncratic fusions of personal memories and religious associations function publically in a Beat manner at all? And why should they? It could be asserted that the Beat movement had little by way of aesthetic programme; its principle of freeing the individual from group-enforced convention covers the free expression of Beat creators and Beat followers. That should include Kerouac’s art, which we could call “Beat enabled” if not “Beat directed”.

How serious was Kerouac as an artist? It is hard to tell. In some respects his art is similar to that of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, both in approach and style. Although Kerouac was emotionally attached to art making and often mentioned that in his letters, judging his art – albeit on this limited selection and in ignorance of the composition of his visual corpus – suggests that he did not convert that affiliation into a sustained effort.

Catalogue texts discuss Kerouac’s contacts with artists, links between his writing and art, his use of religious symbolism and his improvisation in art and writing. All works are reproduced in colour. Generally these are high quality but a few photographs of art are not adequately focused. That should not detract from the pleasure readers will have discerning links between the author’s writings and his art.

 

Sandrina Bandera, Alessandro Castiglioni, Emma Zanella (eds.), Kerouac: Beat Painting, Skira/MAGA, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 87 col. illus., $39.95/C$50/£30/€34, ISBN 978 88 572 37794

© Alexander Adams

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Willem de Kooning

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This new book in a series on Modernist artists approaches the art of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997). This small book consists of two short essays, a chronology and a selection of quotes from the artist. The author Corinna Thierolf is the Chief Curator of the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich and this book presents her heavily German-centred perspective on de Kooning. Thierolf suggests that Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc are previously unrecognised influences upon the Dutch-born American Abstract Expressionist. Thierolf draws analogies between the scatterings of hard-edge planes in Marc’s quasi-Cubist paintings and the fractured planes of de Kooning’s Women series and abstract paintings of the 1940s. The paintings of this period were heavily worked and revised frequently, producing paintings with dense layers of impasto and visible revision – very dissimilar to Marc’s animal paintings. In character, appearance and tone, the painting of Marc and de Kooning are very different.

The second essay centres on de Kooning’s last paintings and links to Marc and Kandinsky. In the 1970s de Kooning’s paintings tessellations of vivid blue, white, yellow and alizarin in liquid form exist between colliding lines, with plentiful spatterings and drips. As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a noticeable simplification to de Kooning’s paintings became apparent. New paintings had less pentimenti, were less heavily worked and had fewer colours. Lines became less energetic. The paint was less messy and drips disappear. The last paintings seem unfinished, dominated by white. The artist at the time was in the early stages of dementia. It was revealed that assistants used transparencies from old paintings to draw outlines on to blank canvases to start the artist. De Kooning would paint over these drawings, sometimes changing and elaborating as he went along. In the last years, there were fewer changes; the paintings were reduced to calm flowing lines and few colours. These comprise de Kooning’s Ribbon series.

Mondrian is mentioned in relation to these late pieces. This seems a viable connection. Like de Kooning, the Dutch abstract artist also worked in New York in the 1940s. The clarity of colour and emphatic division using colour lines could legitimately be seen as an analogue of de Kooning’s Ribbon paintings.

There are two drives to reassess de Kooning’s late work: academic and commercial. Academics are looking for new work to do and new territory to survey. De Kooning’s late paintings were ignored, not exhibited and not discussed seriously until relatively recently. The art trade initially dismissed the late work and the de Kooning family did not permit the sale or exhibition of late works while the artist was alive. Only now are academics finding the late art accessible and are pioneering research on the late work, allowing such studies as this one.

The second motive is more questionable. There is a quantity of unsold late paintings in the de Kooning Estate and dealers are keen to raise the profile (and price) of these paintings via academic and critical discussion and wider exhibition of this art. There is a tendency to treat late paintings seriously because this increases the value of material resources in which the artist’s estate, dealers and auction houses all have vested interests. There are real doubts that the Ribbon paintings are comparable to the early works in terms of accomplishment, energy, complexity and originality. There is a further doubt about the value of these works as fully “of de Kooning” on two grounds: firstly, the involvement of assistants and, secondly, the fact that de Kooning was less himself as dementia slowly robbed him of his faculties. Thierolf does not approach either of these issues.

The emphasis on Der Blaue Reiter/Blauer Vier artists is less persuasive than the link with Mondrian. De Kooning was most influenced by Matisse, Picasso, Ingres and Rubens from the previous eras, in addition to looking closely at contemporary American art, especially Kline, Pollock, Gorky, Graham and others. If there is a German influence, Thierolf perhaps could have turned her gaze towards Max Beckmann, who was a figure who had direct influence and prominence in the US art scene in the late 1940s. He taught and exhibited in the USA from 1947 onwards, his work was widely reproduced in earlier years. When he died in late 1950 in New York, there was a burst of publicity regarding Beckmann. There are stylistic links between Beckmann’s figures and de Kooning’s Women series, which started in 1950. (For a fuller discussion about links between Beckmann and de Kooning, see my review of the MoMA retrospective of de Kooning, The Jackdaw, no. 100, December 2011.)

While the suggested connections are technically plausible, it seems farfetched and to a degree more derived from Thierolf’s familiarity with the paintings by Marc and Kandinsky in the collection of Pinakothek der Moderne than with any established link between their art and de Kooning. De Kooning’s first and strongest known affinities were for Ingres and Rubens. We should be cautious about yoking de Kooning with other artists because his greatest influence was always his own art. In the very last paintings clearly his older paintings were a literal starting point, transcribed by assistants. The idea that just as de Kooning’s grasp on reality was loosening he was reaching for an entirely new influence in the forms of Marc and Kandinsky is an improbable proposition. Readers are invited to judge Thierolf’s thesis for themselves.

Corinna Thierolf, Willem de Kooning, Hirmer, 2018, 72pp, 51 illus., hardback, £9.95/$13, ISBN 978 3 7774 3073 7

© 2018 Alexander Adams

Precisionism 

 

[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.

Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.

Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour;  a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.

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shot in studio master

[Image: Paul Strand, “Wall Street, New York,” 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2. Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.

Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931

[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.

OKeeffe City Night 1926

[Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, “City Night,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.0 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, The Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription, 80.28. © 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.

Cunningham Fageol Ventilators 1934

[Image: Imogen Cunningham, “Fageol Ventilators,” 1934. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 9 in. (17.9 x 22.7 cm). Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1934-2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.

Gerald Murphy_Watch_1925

[Image: Gerald Murphy, “Watch,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 78 ½ x 78 1/2 in. (199.4 x 200.4 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Gift of the artist, 1963.75.FA. Photograph by Brad Flowers © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.

The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]

Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.

Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.

 

Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022

© 2018 Alexander Adams

 

Art of the Canadian Relief Camps: Alan Caswell Collier

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[Image: (c) UBC Press]

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, many ordinary people found themselves out of work. At the time, unemployment relief was limited or unavailable. The existing system had not been expected to cope with the vast numbers of men unable to support themselves and their families. In Canada the relief project to combat unemployment and save workers from destitution was a work programme established by the Department of National Defence. Although nominally a civilian organisation for labour, it operated with military austerity and discipline, administered by former military personnel and organised along military lines. Basic shelter and food was provided and men cut timber, dug, built and laboured for 20¢ per day. The scheme was partly to provide subsistence living for the unemployed, curb vagrancy and crime and to combat a rising tide of Communism.

One of the men who arrived at relief camp 506, Big Bend, British Columbia in September of 1934 was Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990). Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia collects Collier’s letters to his fiancée while he was working in one of these camps. (A “relief stiff” is an unemployed man on government relief.”) Collier had trained as a painter at Ontario College of Art between 1929 and 1933. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Brown (1910-1993). The couple courted and intended to marry but by the time Collier graduated, the Depression was in its trough. Unable to secure a job, Collier went to work at a relief camp in the rural interior of British Columbia.

Peter Neary, professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, has compiled this reading edition of 120,000 words from a transcript of 281,000 words. He not only edited down the text but also made minor changes to increase the consistency and readability of the text, which is an intelligent decision. Neary explains the background and the context of the DND “royal twenty centers”, as the relief workers were called. He writes: “Readers of excerpts I have chosen will encounter in passing the language of racism, homophobia, ableism, nativism, anti-Semitism, sectarianism, and intolerance.” To which concern I am bound to reply that his readers are doubtless robust and adult enough to detach themselves when they encounter language and views they do not personally endorse. No warning was necessary.

The artist intended to document his time through art and letters, primarily to Ruth. He was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do. Collier took paints and paper with him and produced (according to his own records) 61 pictures during his time in the camps. He painted landscapes and portraits, oil on board. His landscapes are largely in the school of the Group of Seven, a prominent association of Canadian painters who depicted the rural landscapes of Canada in a Post-Impressionist manner. He also added to his letters sketches (many humorous) of life in the camps and the characters he knew. Photographs of the camps and men add to our immersion in the milieu.

As an artist, Collier judged his postings by the landscape as a sketching subject. He would go out to draw or paint the landscape most Sundays, painting oil on board. He drew caricatures of the men and painted portraits too, some of which he sold to the subjects for $1. Some portraits he kept for himself.

The camps where Collier worked constructed roads in inland British Columbia. The men were a mixture of working class and middle class, some skilled tradesmen and professionals, along with piece workers. Most of the men were young; some of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. There were many recent immigrants. “Out of forty in camp, 37.5% are Canadian born; 35% were born in the British Isles; and 20% are Scandinavians.” Some, such as explosives experts were employed for their expertise, others moved between jobs in the camps as needed. The men worked five and a half days a week (a half day on Saturday, Sunday off). There was no sick pay but free healthcare. Collier started as a labourer before moving to the less physically arduous but intellectually taxing position of storeman, where he issued, ordered and monitored clothing and equipment.

From these letters we learn about his daily routine, his reading and views on current events, especially relating to the economic situation. There is much talk of food, grumbling about the rations – daily expenditure on food was 23.34¢ per man – and the competence of the cook. Clothes were issued monthly. Collier sold his tobacco ration to earn an extra 50¢ a month.

Like soldiers on deployment, separated from friends and families, the relief-camp workers killed free-time with letter-reading and -writing, playing horseshoes, gambling, washing their own clothes by hand and sleeping. There are stories of fist fights, drunken escapades, strikes and petty pilfering. The writer does not shy away from the seedier aspects of life in the camps. He comments how locals had low opinions of camp workers, most of the times they encountered works them was when they came to town on payday to drink, fight and cause a rumpus.

He atmospherically describes life in the snowbound camp. “That train that was buried at Three Valley was completely buried, and part of it is still in there. There was forty feet of snow on top of the mail car and engine.” At another camp, an avalanche killed three camp workers. Workers at Camp 376, Tappen envied the workers at camps located near towns. Those workers could earn up to 40¢ per hour snow shovelling – quite an improvement on 20¢ per day.

Discontent with the economic situation and lack of security provided the resentment that allowed Communist ideas to flourish. While sympathetic to limited social change in areas, Collier was critical of Communism. He took a leading part in a camp strike when a foreman abused his authority and refused to listen to workers’ grievances but he was opposed to general strikes to further Communist-aligned goals. Relief Camp Worker, a Communist newspaper, incited strikes and disruption. Collier quoted an article discussing individuals killed in an accident. “’We do not regret the accident. We suggest that they represented the type which will have to be exterminated before a perfect society can be realized. This type is an obstacle to world sanity.’ […] Statements like that show what kind of men run the Red organization.”

The camp system was riven with inefficiency, profiteering, corruption and theft and Collier struggled to do right by the system and the men. He attempted to curb wastage and balance the books. He tried to protect hardworking amiable men and to retain the best cooks.

In the summer of 1935, Collier left camp, toured the USA and continued his art education in New York, joined by Ruth.

In these letters young artist comes across as serious, intelligent and independent. He seems – on the basis of these letters – a shrewd judge of character and sceptical of political ideology, fundamentally a pragmatist. His few casual slurs are typical of the time and – given the tough conditions – he seems free of malice or bitterness. He displays empathy and patience. His love of the landscape shines through in his descriptions of sketching trips.

The book contains an introduction, which sets out the methodology of the editorial process and explains the artist’s early life. The index is a useful addition and the footnotes are mostly informative and well judged. An afterword covers Alan and Ruth Collier’s subsequent lives and Alan’s art. During 1940s he painted photograph-derived montage-style paintings in a dry naturalistic style, produced art in mines and became a specialist in landscape painting. Each summer, from the 1950s until the end of his life, Alan and Ruth and their son Ian, toured Canada in a mobile home, Alan working on landscape paintings. He achieved considerable success in Canada and the USA as an artist, while Ruth chose to concentrate on home and family, ably supporting her husband’s career.

This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.

 

Alan Caswell Collier and Peter Neary (ed.), Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia, March 2018, hardback, UBC Press, 368pp, 89 mono illus., C$45, ISBN 978 0 7748 3498 8

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.

Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.

The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.

Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.

In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.

In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.

After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.

Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging.  Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)

There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.

In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.

The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.

The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.

After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.

William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.

 

William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2

Basquiat versus Banksy

“On the eve of the opening of a new exhibition of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in London, Banksy revealed two painted homages to his American predecessor. The contrast between the most famous exponents of two different generations of street art from opposite sides of the Atlantic could not be greater.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is widely considered the founder of the street art movement, which is the crossover of, on one side, graffiti art, mural painting and inscribed poetry and, on the other, the fine arts of museums and galleries. In theory, street art could be simply graffiti or posters from non-gallery settings relocated into museums and galleries, but in practice this is rarely the case. More often, creators who began by making graffiti start working on more portable supports (like the traditional artist’s canvas or board) when there is a commercial imperative. They also make prints or multiples with professional assistants.

“‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London; closes 28 January) collects a wide range of Basquiat’s art made over the whole of his short career. Visitors can judge for themselves Basquiat’s stellar status in the art world. (This year a painting by him sold at auction for $110million.) The art was made in a mixture of fine-art materials and ordinary materials from drugstores and discount stores. Paint, oil sticks, spraypaint, pencil and marker were used on canvas and board but also on more unusual supports such as foam rubber, doors, plates, a refrigerator and even a football helmet. Subjects include street life, modern life, racism, sports, music, popular culture, ancient history, the Western canon, anatomy and mortality. All manner of seemingly random fragments of history surface in Basquiat’s paintings. Simple icons, lists of words, graphic symbols, colourful abstract painting and meandering grids occupy a variety of surfaces…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 2 October 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/basquiat-versus-banksy/20383#.WdJ0X1uPLIU

The Liquidation of History

“One day after a bloody clash between white supremacists and a mixture of non-violent, anti-fascist marchers and violent Antifa activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of activists destroyed a Confederate war statue in Durham, North Carolina. Fearing more violent action, authorities are concealing or removing potentially controversial public monuments nationwide. Far from easing tensions, this is likely to worsen the situation.

“From South Africa to Ukraine, statues have become proxy targets for political violence. Statues are soft targets. Often unprotected, easy to deface or destroy and unable to retaliate, they make ideal symbolic targets for those unwilling to endanger themselves. In an age when groups can be quickly mobilised via social-media postings and attacks can be livestreamed around the world, such assaults on cultural property are liable to become more common. Police rarely intervene, prosecutions for these attacks are uncommon and punishment light.

“Now the Culture Wars in the US are being fought on the streets between left-wing and right-wing activists. Civil War statues and memorials are flashpoints for this conflict…”

Read the full article online on Spiked 21 August 2017 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-liquidation-of-history/20226#.WZrPc1V97IU

The Poet who Vanished

 

“Anyone who picked up a new copy of the New Republic from his or her local newsstand on the morning of 18 July 1955 could have opened it to read an article called ‘How to be happy: installment 1053’. What they couldn’t have guessed is that the author would, in all probability, choose to extinguish his life mere hours later. With a flourish sour, sardonic and elegant, the author would disappear. His name was Weldon Kees.

“Kees had the knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. As a writer-artist, Kees had been in all the best cultural hotspots of the period. He was in New York in 1943-48 during the early Abstract Expressionist boom, but left before the market took off. He had also been in artists’ haven Provincetown, but had sold relatively little work. In 1950, he arrived in San Francisco. Somehow he had managed to be in these places and failed to make critical breakthroughs. He (and his wife Ann) had quit places without getting the most out of them. He seemed to have turned missing opportunities into his greatest art form.

“Admired for his talents as a poet, storywriter, critic, musician, composer, painter, film-maker and photographer, Kees never broke through in any one field despite his talent…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 26 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/weldon-kees-the-poet-who-vanished/19874#.WShlYGkrLIU

America after the Fall

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

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

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

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