Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Angela Gregory and Antoine Bourdelle in Paris

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A Dream and a Chisel is the memoirs of Angela Gregory (1903-1990), one of Louisiana’s leading artists and an honoured sculptor of public statues and busts. Gregory is a link to the past. She trained in the Paris atelier system developed in the Nineteenth Century. Born into an age of steam trains and telegraphs, Gregory trained in Paris before the Great Depression and died in an era of satellite television and computers.

This book is an amalgam of extracts from Gregory’s contemporaneous diaries and letters, augmented by many interviews with Nancy Penrose, which were conducted throughout the 1980s. Penrose and Gregory collaborated on the manuscript and finished it shortly before Gregory’s death in 1990. Gregory intended the memoir to centre on Bourdelle, the teacher she revered, hence the focus on her Paris years. The tone is lively, reflective and candid. We get a sense of her character, as well as her attitudes during the 1920s and her reflective perspective in old age. Extensive footnotes by Penrose identify many of the individual artists mentioned and supply biographical data.

This book describes the three years that Gregory spent in Paris, but there is sufficient commentary to explain the trajectory of her life. Gregory was born into a cultured middle-class family in New Orleans. Her father was a university professor and her mother was a successful artist who had stopped working to raise her children. Gregory was trained in art at Newcomb College, New Orleans. However, she wanted more. Despite the good reputation of Newcomb, Gregory was unsatisfied. She wanted to experience the most advanced art of the period first hand. She had her heart set on studying in the studio of Bourdelle. Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) was the leading sculptor of his generation. He was widely admired and considered to have taken on the mantle of Rodin, with whom he had studied. Bourdelle produced numerous large works, mostly modelled and cast in bronze. He was also viewed as a Modernist, who combined expressiveness with the influence of archaic art, which gave his sculpture added vitality. His giant studio in Paris was a hive of activity, with numerous assistants working on maquettes, carvings and giant models in plaster.

In 1925 Gregory was granted funds to travel to the Paris. She arrived in June 1925 and commenced attendance at the Paris branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (later Parsons School of Design). In the spring of 1926 she worked up enough courage to knock on the door of the master. A maid gave her his telephone number and she called to arrange a brief meeting. Meeting a young American woman who wanted to learn stone carving piqued the master’s interest and he agreed to take her on. This made Gregory the only American student to work in his private studio. Leaving Parsons, she worked in Bourdelle’s studio in tandem with instruction at Académie de la Grande Chaumière (where Bourdelle taught).

The memoirs include some of the standard staples of bohemian Paris. She saw Josephine Baker dance. “When I was in Bourdelle’s studio, however, and taking classes at the Grande Chaumière, I would occasionally run across to the [Café du] Dôme for a quick cup of coffee to get warm while the model was taking a break from posing.” She evocatively the experience of studying at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. “There was a concierge at the door from whom I bought several little aluminium admission tickets to the modeling and sketch classes. I walked into the classroom and found it filled with students of all nationalities. The cigarette smoke was so thick it was hard to see, but a strong spotlight was leveled at one of the best models I had seen in Paris.” The school was “open” and did not monitor attendance strictly and students kept their own hours (or failed to keep them). Students without masters brought their own materials and came for a place to work, access to models and the chance to have work corrected by established artists.

Bourdelle was only five feet four inches tall, bearded and dressed in clothes of his own design. He was modest in character and full of dignity, which impressed the young American. He described his students as confrères (colleagues) and refused to accept payment from Gregory. Gregory recalled Bourdelle’s critiques as incisive, considerate and marked by humour. He did not seek to mould artists in his own image but to bring out the character of the young artist. According to Gregory, Bourdelle described advice he got from Rodin. “’But you should exaggerate, exaggerate.’ But you cannot exaggerate until you know what you are exaggerating. ‘You cannot make a centaur until you can make a man.’”

Gregory was assisted by a Swiss instructor at Bourdelle’s studio, named Otto Bänninger. Bänninger would become the husband of Germaine Richier; when Gregory met him, he was friends with Alberto Giacometti. Gregory and Giacometti worked in Bourdelle’s studio at the same time but she never met him, something she regretted in years to come. A fellow student was Jeanne Bergson, the deaf daughter of philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson was impressed by the sculptor’s generosity towards Jeanne and Bourdelle’s ideas. Bergson arranged a meeting and the men became fast friends.

The book describes Bourdelle’s skills, methods and attitudes. Gregory characterises his approach as architectural and forceful, contrasted against Rodin’s art as naturalistic and sensual. Bourdelle emphasised feeling over talent, though he proffered constructive practical criticism. She writes that his fair direct comments prepared her for professional life dealing with committees. She describes the origins of his most famous statue – Hercules the Archer (1910). The model could only pose for ten hours so Bourdelle had to work fast on the maquette. The man was later killed in the Great War. It is a testament to the admiration Bourdelle generated that Gregory’s first thought when considering her memoirs was to memorialise her master rather than herself. Our admiration for both Bourdelle and Gregory increases as we read more. Evidence of Bourdelle’s respect for his student is apparent in his copying of an original portrait bust by Gregory. His version adds his qualities. Bourdelle was very supportive and arranged for exhibition opportunities and wrote a letter of warm recommendation. Bourdelle had no prejudice against female students. It is striking that when he was photographed at the Salon of 1928, the students around him are almost all women.

Gregory returned to New Orleans in 1928 while her art was on display at the Paris Salon. She embarked on a long a successful career. She made a speciality of portraying black subjects, treating them in a particularly sympathetic manner. She later ascribed some resistance to these pieces to a racially conditioned aversion to black portrait subjects. Some examples of those, and publicly commissioned decoration and monuments, are reproduced in the book. A check list of over 100 of Gregory’s sculptures is given in an appendix. In 1941, she was appointed state supervisor for the WPA Louisiana Art Project. Aside from her many commissions and exhibitions, she taught and was a participant in a number of organisations. She was inducted into the Chevalier de I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1982 and received other awards.

What about Gregory’s life as a woman artist? She was encouraged by her family. She admired her mother’s ability as a potter; she was taught by a female art teacher (whom she notes by name) and was inspired by a woman sculptor (whose name she did not remember but Penrose has discovered was Clyde Giltner Chandler (1879-1961)). Although professional women artists were uncommon, by her testimony, Gregory encountered disapproval and disappointment rather than hostility and opposition. She was accepted to study in the studios of Newcomb, Parsons and Bourdelle, France’s most prestigious sculptor. Nowhere in her narrative does she note that she was refused entry or service, dismissed or barred from acting like her male colleagues. Within her chosen field, she was considered a novelty because of her nationality and gender. While that patronisation might have been irksome it did not prevent her progress. On the contrary, she comments that some individuals offered her favourable treatment precisely because of her nationality and gender. In the USA, she won grants, commissions, awards and held exhibitions. She was entrusted a senior position in the WPA. One should not assume any of this was easy; Gregory was clearly an unusually determined and adept as a professional artist.

Overall, the book paints a vivid picture of Angela Gregory, Antoine Bourdelle and the Paris art world of the 1920s. Special commendation must go to the designers for the attractive and clear layout. The cloth cover is handsome. A Dream and a Chisel has the appearance fitting a classic book describing the excitement of an American artist at the epicentre of Parisian Modernism.

 

Angela Gregory, Nancy L. Penrose (ed.), A Dream and a Chisel: Louisiana Sculptor Angela Gregory in Paris, 1925-1928, University of South Carolina Press, 2019, cloth hb, 248pp, 25 mono illus., $39.99, ISBN 978 1 61117 977 4

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

Magritte and Dalí

 

[Images: LEFT: René Magritte, The Imp of the Perverse (1928), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 116 cm, inv. 7418, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography; RIGHT: Salvador Dalí, Fantasies Diurnes (1931), oil on canvas. 81.2 x 100.3 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018]

A current exhibition explores the links between the two most iconic artists of the Surrealist movement. René Magritte (1898-1967) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is on show at the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (15 December 2018-19 May 2019) and will tour to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, Brussels, home of Musée Magritte. Curator of the exhibition, Dr William Jeffet, has assembled a group of paintings, objects, graphics and photographs that demonstrate the associations between the art of these two. Often this comes in the form of pairings of pieces by the painters; in the catalogue the direct personal interactions of the artists are discussed. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The curation rests on the world’s two outstanding collections of these artists. The Dalí Museum has the world’s best collection of Dalí’s best paintings, better than even Dalí’s own museum in Figueras. The second venue on the tour, Musée Magritte, home of the world’s largest and best collection of the Belgian’s art, has loaned excellent paintings. There are some loans from other institutions and private collections. The selection is of top-drawer pieces from the classic periods of the two artists – all work is from 1925-48) and it is intelligently chosen and organised.

When Dalí became involved in Surrealism (in 1928), Magritte was already part of the Paris and Brussels groups. Although Magritte only moved to Paris in 1927, he was established as a serious painter among the followers of the new movement. Dalí knew of Magritte’s art and wrote about the Belgian’s painting in articles for the Spanish press before their first meeting in the late spring of 1929. Dalí was enthusiastic about Magritte’s painting in these early years and not slow to publicly praise his paintings.

They came to share the same dealer, Camille Goemans, who signed them both to contracts in 1929. A large part of Magritte’s decision to move to Paris (in September 1927) was that his Belgian dealer Goemans had relocated to Paris in April 1927. It was the failure of Goemans gallery (in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929) that caused Magritte to quit Paris and returning to Brussels, where he took up commercial work again, designing posters and adverts for the coming years. Dalí would stay on in Paris, though poor in his early years. There is one letter from Magritte to Dalí in the Teatro-Museo archives in Figueras. (Jeffet comments that Dalí’s correspondence is considerable but dispersed and only a minority of it has been published. Again, we find an absence – a book Dalí correspondence would be of great interest.)

René and Georgette Magritte would witness one of the key events in Dalí’s life. In August 1929, Goemans and the Magrittes went to visit Dalí in Cadaqués. This proved a fateful summer for Dalí. Gala and Paul Éluard joined the party. Gala and Dalí began an affair; come September Eluard left for Paris while his wife stayed on in Spain with her new lover Dalí. Gala was notorious for her many affairs and Éluard apparently expected her to return to him. He was distraught when she did not. She would go on to marry Dalí, while continuing extra-marital affairs even into old age. Magritte resented Dalí’s financial success and critical attention in the 1930s and 1940s. It was only in the 1950s that Magritte achieved a comfortable income from his sales to American collectors via Alexandre Iolas’s gallery in New York. It was in New York that Magritte and Dalí met in passing for the last time, when Magritte was there to attend his retrospective exhibition.

Jeffet and Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, write about the parallels and differences between the artists. Both Dalí and Magritte were well versed in art history and studied at highly regarded art schools in Brussels and Madrid. Both were part of the veristic or oneiric strand of Surrealism, which included realistic depictions of recognisable objects alongside the fantastic and impossible, as opposed to the automatist strand, which was developed by Ernst, Masson, Matta and Gorky, where forms were often abstract and generated by random factors. However, they differed in style. Magritte deployed a neutral and direct approach, akin to commercial illustration or the more stolid naturalism of Low Countries Realism of the Nineteenth Century. Dalí cultivated a virtuosic style, flamboyantly difficult derived from Italian Renaissance painting, with passages of microscopic detail and flashes of bravura brushwork, making a hyperreal but very personal style.

Various themes of the artists include dreams, the erotic, reality subverted, the symbolic portrait, the nostalgic ideal landscape, Surrealist still-lifes and the self-portrait. They drew on their home territories: the Ampurdan plain and bay of Port Lligat of Catalonia and the pastures and waterways of Brabant and suburbs of Brussels. They used a recurring set of images, which became associated with the artists. The artists developed repertoires of certain pictorial methods of achieving states of dislocation in viewers: change property (size, weight, strength, rigidity, flammability and so forth), transformation (bird into egg and so forth), replication, juxtaposition (including montage and actual collage), use of words, representation of unknown or impossible substances, titular contradiction and quotation of familiar Old Master art.

 

[Images: LEFT: Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1932, oil on canvas, 16.5 x 23.8 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018; RIGHT: René Magritte, The Unexpected Answer (1933), oil on canvas, 82 x 54.4 cm, inv. 7241, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography]

Magritte had pioneered the motif of the inflammable object on fire. His Discovery of Fire (1936) shows a tuba burning; Dalí next year drew people engaged in fine dining at night, illuminated by burning giraffes. (Magritte despised Dalí’s burning giraffes, finding them crass and comical.) Dalí also used another of Magritte’s signature motifs, the veiled form. This veiling of the face or body is often linked to the death of Magritte’s mother, whose face (it was claimed) was found shrouded by her nightdress. The sinister aspect of the veil as shroud is apparent in The Lovers (1928), where anonymous lovers kiss while their faces are hidden from the world – voluntarily or otherwise. In Dalí’s paintings of the early 1930s there are many fantastical, sinister and erotic forms concealed by sheets. The approach held psychosexual power and a nagging mystery for Dalí. Some of Dalí’s most effective compositions involve the theatricality and tactility of sheets partially revealing and concealing objects and figures. While Dalí was clearly the borrower, his uses of the motif differed from the originator’s usages.

Both artists engaged in the craze for object construction. While Dalí’s were assemblages of found and modified objects, Magritte’s were generally bottles or plaster casts painted.  There is the comparative display of the two artist’s variations of the Venus de Milo. Magritte’s is a colour painted plaster, while Dalí’s is a painted bronze including drawers with ermine-covered handles. Minor pieces but an appealing juxtaposition. Another point of exact intersection is the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869). While the Dalí Museum has a full set of the Spaniard’s etchings (1934) (apparently not executed by him but actually a master printmaker), it only has the title page of Magritte’s illustrations (1948, here dated “1934”). Could not examples of Magritte’s interior illustrations have been borrowed to expand this display? These illustrations aptly foreground Dalí’s immersion in his own fantasies to the detriment of the illustrative function of the prints, whereas Magritte’s showcase his flexibility and versatility, using images and technique nearly unique in his oeuvre.

They were political opposites, with Magritte a member of the Belgian Communist party and Dalí supporting the Fascists and Falangists, though for both these were sentimental attachments rather than ideological positions. There were tensions between the Belgian Surrealists and the Parisian group. In Paris, Magritte was decidedly a Walloon and both more subversive and more conventional than his Parisian colleagues. Magritte bridled at the domineering style of André Breton’s leadership, the cycles of tribunals and expulsions and the endless debates over the compatibility of self-determination and political commitment inherent in the Communist basis of Surrealist thought. In that respect Magritte and Dalí both distanced themselves from Louis Aragon’s demand that Surrealist’s adherence to Communist doctrine. Aragon specifically criticised an assemblage by Dalí which included a class of milk, asserting that glasses of milk must be given to the sickly children of workers rather than wasted in art. The exhibition includes a reconstruction of the very piece – Surrealist Object (1931/1973)) – that Aragon denounced. Dalí retorted that he was in the grip of his delirious unconscious and that he must follow its most extreme and inexplicable manifestations regardless of politics. This was a stance that led to his eventual expulsion from the group. While Magritte agreed with left-wing policies, he could never bring himself to follow the dictates of Socialist Realism or the incorporation of explicit political messages into art. Magritte also found himself frozen out of the official Paris group, having fallen out with Breton several times.

Both artists collaborated with their wives as models. Gala was celebrated as a muse for a number of artists and named as a subject in Dalí’s painting titles and public pronouncements. Gala Dalí appeared at events such as society balls, exhibition openings and audiences with prominent individuals. Georgette Magritte, however, appeared often in the paintings but is only occasionally named, mostly in private portraits. Her position as a model was not made explicit during Magritte’s lifetime, probably due to propriety and modesty. Gala was a cosmopolitan exhibitionist, whilst also being extremely private; Georgette was a middle-class Catholic Walloon. Georgette was a participant in her husband’s photographed japes and short films, but this seems in the spirit of play and mischief rather than fame-seeking, as these were not intended to be public.

The book includes two essays, a chronology for the two artists, illustrations of exhibited art (and related unexhibited art) and many photographs of the artists and their wives, colleagues and collaborators. There is much more to be said on this pair of artists, particularly on their sources. The pair drew on published sources and applied Surrealist ideas to work in the commercial sphere. There is a fruitful loop between commercial sources feeding fine art and fine-art ideas appearing in commercial art. There is little discussion of the artists’ separate correspondence, which is a shame. Magritte mentioned Dalí in passing a number of times, as quoted by Torczyner, and in this catalogue there are some quotes from Magritte’s letters in the Écrits complets. The references are cutting, denigrating Dalí for his sensationalism. The extent of Dalí’s letter-writing is unclear.

This is a fascinating and approachable book for anyone interested in Dalí, Magritte or Surrealism. The exhibition is sure to attract a lot of attention in Europe when it arrives in Brussels later this year.

 

William Jeffet, Michel Draguet, Magritte and Dalí, The Dalí Museum/Ludion, 2018, hardback, 144pp, 80 col./b&w illus., $19.95, ISBN 978 949 303 9001. Available from http://www.thedali.org

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

FBI surveillance of writers

“The remit of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) includes monitoring figures who potentially threaten national security. And the FBI has long included famous writers on that list. To them, writers pose a double menace: not only do they pose a potential threat themselves, they might also inspire large groups of people to undermine the status quo, which the FBI is charged with protecting. The perceived threat posed by novelists and essayists is laid bare in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, a new book comprising facsimiles of archived files on famous American authors.

“During the Cold War, when suspicion of writers and intellectuals was at its peak, the FBI was under the control of the domineering, aggressive and thin-skinned J Edgar Hoover. During his long career as FBI director, Hoover took an active personal interest in pursuing political and personal opponents. Writers Under Surveillance reveals all this in official memoranda, letters and reports, with redactions, mainly to conceal identities of informants and other intelligence agencies. The editors have selected the more complete documents….”

Read the full review on Spiked Online here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/12/17/writers-under-surveillance/

Bukowski: On Drinking

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drinking

for me

it was or

is

a manner of

dying

with boots on

and gun

smoking and a

symphony music

background. […]

For Bukowski drinking was heroic. It was humiliating, destructive and alienating. It was self-poisoning and an attempt to capture a fragment of the vastness of human potential in an infinite universe. It killed time; it killed sexual potency; it killed friendships; it killed friends. Drink killed Jane Cooney Baker, the great first love of Bukowski’s life. Drinking was ridiculous and a source of boundless pleasure. It freed him of his natural shyness and sensitivity; it intensified everything. It made him fat. The beer bottle became Bukowski’s personal attribute, the way Camus’s Gauloise and Burroughs’s fedora were theirs.

All of the central parts of Bukowski’s life were prominent in his writing: love (and sex), reading, writing and drinking. (Other parts which appear less often are the life of the writer, gambling, childhood experiences and his troubled relationship with his father.) In that respect, Bukowski was an autobiographical writer, using the experiences of daily life – and recalling (and transforming) anecdotes – in his writing. He did not shy away from the truth of his addiction. When asked if he was an alcoholic, he replied “Hell, yes”. “Drinking makes things happen.”

Bukowski’s early years were spent moving between major American cities. Later he returned to his native Los Angeles. Those days were filled with bar hopping, manual labour, black-market ad hoc work, drink driving, hanging out with winos and whores, participating in drinking contests and sleeping off hangovers in the drunk tank. In one column, Bukowski riffs on Chinaski (his alter ego) in the drunk tank demanding Alcoholic Liberation – freedom from cop oppression in a time of radical politics. Bukowski tells tales of dramatic fights but also confessed “That stuff gets old, gets stale – you get your eyes all cut, and your lips all puffed up, a tooth loose… There’s no glory in it. Usually, you’re too drunk to fight well, you’re starving, you know…”

Drinking almost killed the writer. In 1954 he suffered a grave internal haemorrhage. Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts (excerpted here) includes a description of his emergency hospitalisation which is stark and gruesome – though not humourless; Bukowski always has a wry take on matters, the more important the topic the more trenchant and dry the humour. He characterises the staff of the charity ward in LA as a mixture of cruelly indifferent and competently professional.

He resumed drinking but (either through luck or moderation) he never became as sick again. Over the years he switched between American and German beers, Riesling wine and whiskey.

By the time Bukowski wrote about drinking he was already deeply steeped in the cults of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas and Li Po. He knew the stories of heavy-drinking Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and other creative pioneers. He bellied up to the bar and squared up to his big-drinking dead colleagues, matching their ghostly legendary drinks with his own bottles of Schlitz or Miller. As a writer and a drinking man, he engaged in banter, sparring and intimate confidences with dead creators with whom he felt kinship. He did it through competitive writing, drinking and emulation. Yet, as an honest man and an honest writer, he knew the painful reality of a drinker’s life and included in his writings the humiliations and transgressions brave and selfish. He knew that drinking numbs loneliness. Although many of his stories involved barroom encounters and drunken couplings, Bukowski most often drank alone while writing and listening to symphony music on the radio, especially when he became a full-time writer in 1970. “Heavy drinking is a substitute for companionship and it’s a substitute for suicide,” he admitted. “Drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn.”

Drinking helped Bukowski cope with public readings. He began on the reading circuit in the 1970s, invited to universities by poet-professors who were friends-cum-rivals. To deal with stage fright (“I always vomit before a reading,”) and to take the boredom out of post-reading faculty parties Bukowski drank. As his reputation grew (mainly after the publication of his first novel, Post Office, in 1971 and the appearance in underground newspapers of his bawdy column), fans expected to see him drinking or drunk at readings. The proud and sensitive Bukowski realised that some people came to see a spectacle and despised this aspect (and his willingness to perform that role) but his response to the shame and anger that provoked only made him drink harder. Later on, he drank to take the edge off interviews.

The editorial approach to On Drinking conforms to the other books in the recent series from Ecco, edited by Bukowski expert Abel Debritto. It comprises chronologically arranged selection of poems, stories, columns and extracts from letters, novels and interviews. Although some pieces are familiar from previous books, a number have only appeared in periodicals and a few are hitherto unpublished. Bukowski himself approved of a mixture of verse and prose in books, including a collection called Run with the Hunted (1993) which is the best introduction to Bukowski’s writing. Illustrations are line drawings by the writer, photographs and facsimiles of manuscripts. Debritto has – where possible – used the original periodical text or the manuscript for the text of On Drinking. This avoids the corrupted texts published by Bukowski’s former editor, John Martin. (For discussion of the posthumous editing of Bukowski, see my article here.) Paradoxically, after years of having drinking posthumously neutered in publications, this shot of drunken Bukowski feels positively healthy.

Certain stories recur in variations over the years in stories, poems and newspaper columns. The book includes one of my favourite stories, “The Blinds”, in which Chinaski volunteers to wash filthy venetian blinds in a dive bar. After hours of work, all the regulars join in to finish the job. Chinaski takes his $5 pay and buys everyone a drink. The bartender pours the drinks then tells Chinaski he owes $3.15.

In a poem entitled “shit time” Bukowski turns a shared defecation at a beachside latrine into an event of melancholy camaraderie between drunks. Afterwards, the tightness of hangover adds contrast when he confronts the grand and indifferent view:

I looked at the ocean and the

ocean looked good, full of blues and

greens and sharks.

I walked back out of there

and down the street

determined to find my automobile.

 

Some of these pieces are barroom yarns, full of improbable and seemingly exaggerated incidents. “I came up from the floor with the punch. It was a perfect shot. He staggered back all the way across the room […]” Yeah. Maybe, maybe not. Many tales are very funny. (Any poem which ends with “pulling up my pants / I tried to explain.” beats every limerick ever written.) It is hard to tell what is meant to be the humorous telling of actual story and what is a comic vignette cooked up from nothing. Ultimately, it does not matter. The point of the story is the story. Anyone dissecting Bukowski looking for truth is bound to come away vexed. Anyone who reads Bukowski for anything else will come away satisfied.

 

Charles Bukowski, Abel Debritto (ed.), On Drinking, Ecco, February 2019, hardback, 272pp, mono illus., £20

© 2018 Alexander Adams. Edited 5 December 2018 to correct two dates.

See my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/

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

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.

shot in studio master
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.

2018_DEY_COTM_Install

[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.

2018_DEY_COTM_Install

[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