Norman Wilfred Lewis: Driven to abstraction!

Norman Wilfred Lewis (1909 – 1979, 70)

Driven to abstraction! The discomfiting overlooked outsider who found a freedom in abstraction.

Slavery’s long shadow: authentic front rank NY School Abstract Expressionist painter bypassed one way and another because of his colour.

American art took path of least resistance, tip toed round a leading black painter, discomfited by race and his art.

Ironically his colour stimulated his work, likely encouraged his embrace of abstraction?

 

FEATURED IMAGE….

1936, Fantasy, Oil and ink on canvas, 80 x 102 cm, Courtesy of Leslie Lewis and Christina Lewis Halpern.

COMMENT: How unlikely. Yes there seem allusions here to Kandinsky and perhaps also Paul Klee. But nonetheless here is a striking image from the young (27 year old) painter, just after studying with Augusta Savage and at Columbia University in New York.

 

Overlooked.

  • Norman Lewis’ contribution to American art from just before WW2 though to the 1970s has been profoundly underappreciated, underrated.
  • Lewis has been largely ignored by the mainstream art establishment (critics, museums and the market), in the US and elsewhere, then and until recently (1).
  • But from c1946 he was a front rank New York School Abstract Expressionist (AE) painter. Detached appraisal suggests the substance of his sustained abstraction oeuvre – its distinctive originality and constructive variety – bears comparison with the popularly feted AE big guns.
  • The only obvious material differences were firstly, scale (Lewis did not paint large look-at-me wall fillers, partly because he couldn’t afford the studio space), and, secondly, he did not settle on a catchy marketable artistic device – a signature stylistic template – and pursue it mercilessly, like Pollock’s intense “drip”, Rothko’s Color Field ethereal floating rectangles, Newman’s “zip”, Still’s geological shards, and de Kooning’s coarse Expressionist quasi-figuration.
  • Lewis’ total abstraction oeuvre was striking in variety and its originality, distinctive in a number of aspects: 1/ his calligraphic”, “neural” or “string-bag” abstraction; 2/ his fine linear abstraction, using angular fragments or “shards; 3/ his quasi-figurative, miniature, pictographic “little figures” abstraction; and 4/ his powerful pared black and white / red and white quasi-abstraction.
  • This equivocal mainstream reaction is ironic given the influence of “primitive” African art on modern Western art, and also the recent rapturous art market response to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was also NY based.

 

Why overlooked? Race.

  • Why was he overlooked, despite the objective quality of his work? The variety of his work is an issue. His very range was a mouthful, though to discerning critics this should be constructive.
  • It’s hard to avoid simply that color, being black, was the issue. His race and his art discomfited the art market, inhibited engagement and detached appreciation.
  • This not necessarily reflected overt racism as much as the path of least resistance (for both the mainstream and “black” art worlds), ie to avoid having to confront the matter of race (inherently controversial in the US because of the sustained injustice, across two centuries), and then Lewis’s particular case, ie first as the only black Abstract Expressionist and second as a painter who personally uttered on the matter, in a number of powerful works.
  • But though Lewis saw himself as a painter first (below) he could hardly avoid not commenting through his work, coinciding as he did with the historic Civil Rights movement which finally in the early 1960s brought remedial historic reform.
  • Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

Painter of distinction, ironically in part because of race.

  • Lewis is a painter of distinction, interesting especially because of questions posed by his colour, a predicament not of his choosing.
  • It was a dilemma he could never escape or resolve.
  • Thus as a black painter in the USA he could hardly overlook his people’s mistreatment. But to the extent he responded politically through his art he risked devaluing or compromising his status as a painter, and, more concretely, hurting his income.
  • The real irony was that this dilemma was exacerbated precisely because he was not just a painter but a mainstream painter, the only African-American in the post WW2 New York School. So on the one hand he was under that much more pressure to publically support his people, but on the other had that much more to lose.
  • But near a century after the Civil War African-Americans in the USA still suffered systematic discrimination: comparative electoral disenfranchisement and widespread segregation laws. So as an informed and educated black painter in the USA, and a leading one, he did respond, across his whole adult life, in his personal life and especially through some of his art, through many polemical works, some searing, in both his early Social Realist career and later abstraction.
  • But as a painter, especially as a prominent full-time career painter, he was also concerned to be judged as a generic painter, not to be trapped or devalued by his identity as a “black painter”. Thus he was conscious of art’s aesthetic as well as polemical purpose.
  • But he couldn’t win. If he didn’t protest he let his people down. If he did it cost him. So he did protest and it did cost him, his polemical activity discouraging the commercial interest in, appetite for his work.

 

 

Lewis’ abstraction: encouraged by his colour?

  • As a thoughtful career artist Lewis was obviously aware of abstraction and indeed executed such a work early as 1936. But ironically it seems likely the difficult matter for him of colour was a reason for him finally embracing abstraction, suddenly and for good c1945, as Abstract Expressionism was arriving. It allowed him greater creative freedom, to further a career as a painter, not just a black painter.
  • But again ironically, while abstraction gave him more room to move it also arguably powerfully augmented his political statements, particularly the quasi-representational works in the early 1960s, an historic period of Civil Rights protest and reform.
  • Unlike many or most of the main 20th C abstract painters, Lewis’s abstraction was not ‘spiritual’, rather was motivated by his life experience, particularly music and Harlem city life, but also nature, and politics.

 

Notes.  1/ Lewis’ first large scale full retrospective show did not arrive till 2016, 38 years after he died. Then one of his works (and an important one) did hang in the late 2016 comprehensive Abstract Expressionist exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, the first such comprehensive show in London in over 50 years, since 1959. In the catalogue editor David Anfam rightly flags Lewis, mentions Elaine de Kooning’s support in the wake of his 1949 solo hanging at the Willard Gallery.

 

 

2

Twilight Sounds, 1947. Oil on canvas, 60 x 71 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum. COMMENT: Inspired by music. Recalls Joan Miro?

 

  3

  1. American Totem, Oil on canvas, 191 x 114cm. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

 

4

1964, Processional, 94 x 48.3cm, oil on canvas,

COMMENT: Two gripping political images from the tense early 1960s period in the US when Civil Rights protest and (finally) reform was coming to a head. The first refers to an art device used by some native peoples. The second shows what might be a march, white and black people walking together. Through the night of the struggle, daylight ahead?

5

C1960, Alabama, oil on canvas, 122 x 184cm.  COMMENT: This striking work recalls Jackson Pollock’s important late work, The Deep (1953). It was a response to a sit-in at Alabama State University in 1960.

 

6

1962 Evening Rendezvous, oil on linen, 127.7 x 163.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

COMMENT: A dark political work employing Lewis’s trademark miniaturised stick-figure quasi-abstraction, apparently depicting a nocturnal Klan gathering around a fire. The red white and blue scheme obviously parodies the colours on America’s national flag.

 

7

1962 Bonfire, Oil on canvas, 163 x 127cm, The Studio Museum in Harlem.

COMMENT: Another enigmatic political painting from the same tense early 1960s period

 

8

LEFT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950 (organized by de Kooning and Kline)

Left to right: Seymour Lipton, Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst, Peter Grippe, Adolf Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Barr (glasses far end, left), Robert Motherwell, Richard Lippold, Willem de Kooning, Ibram Lassaw, James Brooks, Ad Reinhardt, Richard Poussette-Dart.

9

RIGHT: Artists’ sessions at Studio 35, April 1950

Left to right: David Smith, Seymour Lipton, ??? (behind), Norman Lewis, Jimmy Ernst.

Photos by Aaron Siskind. Courtesy the Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

 

  10

An undated portrait of Norman Lewis. Credit Willard Gallery Archives.

COMMENT: Circa late 1940s? His important Metropolitan Crowd (1946), hangs to left of the artist.

 

11

Portrait c1975.

COMMENT: great photo

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat: ‘Mind-blowing’ art? Well certainly a mind-blowing commercial transaction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

 

Untitled” (1982), acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm, just sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction on Thursday 18th May in New York, bought by a Japanese fan, Yusaku Maezawa , a fashion entrepeneur.

It’s mind-blowing,” said “collector” Mr. Larry Warsh.

Yes clearly a “mind-blowing” commercial transaction.

But “mind-blowing”art?

Well certainly it’s art, but it’s also fashion.

And as they say, money – and fashion – do funny things to people, and the more the money the funnier.

Like the sustained hyberbolic, hagiographical overdrive in Sotheby’s on-line write up of the art work, which dare one say does not come with an obvious disclaimer, ie their vested financial interest in this auction outcome, and in any relevant auctions in the future.

This self-serving commercial market phenomenon – involving dealers, auction houses, museums and collectors – applies to many other artists, usually dead but sometimes still alive. The late Cy Twombly is another prime example.

Yes Mr Basquiat’s work is eye-catching, distinctive.

And this seeds initial interest. But once he is “discovered”, and prices start to move up, the self-perpetuating promotion process takes hold and prices rise ever higher, a virtuous-circle, the process fuelled by its own exhaust.

Thus compare the painting of the moment with five broadly similar works for sale now though Sotheby’s in Paris in June 2017, all in a colourful animated neo-expressionist style, but estimated to sell for between only 10,000 and 200,000 Euros (US$11.2-224k), or 0.01-0.2% of Untitled (1982).

But Untitled (1982) is bigger – and scarier! – so say its art is “worth” 400,000 Euros, then that’s 0.4% art and 96.4% fashion.

On the other hand if Untitled (1982) is worth that much maybe Mr Appel et al are cheap?

Interestingly much the same commercial outcome has happened with the New York Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. Works of the main protagonists were executed soon after WW2 and some have sold for US$50-100m or more. A Pollock sold for US$140m in 2006.

But abstraction was alive and well in Europe at the same time, but these works sell for a tiny fraction of the priciest AE works.

The role of fashion in the matter is highlighted or emphasized by the AE school comprising markedly different abstraction styles, eg compare a Pollock gestural “drip” classic with Barnet Newman’s main works, in a stark simple geometric style. Thus what matters now is not so much the style and content of the painting as the now collectively celebrated specific historic early postwar artistic and commercial experience it was part of.

Compare …………

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) 1982, Untitled,  acrylic, spray paint and oilstick on canvas, 183.2 by 173 cm,  SOLD FOR US$110.5 million, 18 May 2017, Sotheby’s New York.

 And five similar works for sale in Europe …………..

     2

Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958, UNTITLED, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm;                 ESTIMATE 40,000 — 60,000 E

3

Karel Appel (1921 – 2006). 1958. BATAILLE D’ANIMAUX , oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm;  ESTIMATE 150,000 — 200,000 E

    4

Robert Combas (born 1957), 1989. UNTITLED. acrylic on canvas, 122 x 136,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 15,000 — 20,000 E

5

Toshimitsu Imaï (1928 – 2002), 1963, SOLEIL oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm. ESTIMATE 30,000 — 50,000 E

6

Carl-Henning Pedersen (1913 – 2007), 1975, THE BLUE EYE AND RED FACE. oil on canvas, 101,2 x 83,5 cm;  ESTIMATE 10,000 — 15,000 E

Jackson Pollock: the Drip helped, but mostly right place, right time.

Paul Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist, but owes his reputation mostly to specific historic circumstances?

  • The Main Man (generically) of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE)?

  • However Abstract Expressionism was not an art movement, having a coherent artistic common theme (eg compare Pollock and Barnett Newman), as much as an historic happening, a specific collective commercial art historic experience centred on a keen and diverse group of painters in immediate post WW2 New York, the cultural capital of America.

  • So the crazy prices for Pollock’s distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect the eventual commercial success of AE, driven by powerful vested interests, and underwritten by the large US economy.

  • Thus another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, French Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), who favoured impasto over the drip, sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York?

  • There is also the curious case of abstractionist American painter Janet Sobel (1894-1968), who painted “all-over” and whose work Pollock saw in 1944, but who quickly vanished into marriage and the suburbs.

  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems rightly to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious energetic creativity (especially his trademark intense “drip” paintings), and also the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of final works, poignant and personal, his going away declaration, as alcohol sadly swallowed his life, and he knew it?

1

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The Deep, 1953, 150.7 cm × 220.4 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: For its imagery and timing this is perhaps Pollock’s single most intriguing painting? More even than his then recent (1952) and now feted Blue Poles?

It shows a dramatic shift in style from the prolific “drip” phase, striking for its abstraction content quite unlike any other of his paintings.

Here he also returned to assigning a narrative title not another antiseptic number.

It was also among the last few works he would paint.

It means whatever it means to each viewer, but the title – and the timing – certainly suggest it did mean something to the artist. Thus we know in 1953 he was sliding personally, and terminally, having resumed drinking late 1950. A life apparently always near the edge was now surrendering to alcohol, and he obviously knew it. Knew too this time the surrender would likely be terminal.

So it seems deeply personal, poignant.

One obvious reading of the image is of eternity swallowing the “dark” drivers of his life.

SUMMARY

  • Clearly Jackson Pollock is the Main Man of Abstract Expressionism (AE), the best known and the priciest in the art market (though de Kooning and Rothko come close).
  • He is now famous for his expressive Gestural / Action / All-over abstract, ”automatist” “drip” paintings, many large and all executed approximately over the 6 year period 1947-53.
  • This art is claimed by many as “radical” and as distinctly “American”, enthusiastically by some, but mainly by parties with vested interests in the success (price) of this art, like critics, dealers, and collectors (including museums).
  • In reality, objectively, his art was not especially radical, or obviously “American” (other than geographically, ie was executed there), rather it continued the (Western) abstract art revolution which commenced in West Europe just before WW1, and was influenced by the subsequent (post WW1) intervening rise of Surrealism. So these artists simply pushed known approaches / techniques further.
  • Pollock’s competitive angles were, firstly (like most of his colleagues), painting large images, and, secondly, in particular his distinctive abstraction approach, ie particularly the “drip”, intensifying the detailed abstraction content by aggressively applying the drip (and pour) technique.
  • However the stratospheric prices now paid for works by the main AE NY School artists (ie Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko, plus Motherwell, Newman and Still) are driven not so much by their (largely) abstract art being especially different as by the specific historic commercial and artistic circumstances of their early postwar collective artistic experience in New York, by the fact they were Americans (though some were first generation, like Gorky and Rothko) working in New York soon after WW2 (which America had “won”, though helped hugely by Soviet Russia), backed by American money and American dealers and American critics.
  • Meanwhile, as is well known, abstraction was also alive and well in early postwar Europe, Paris and elsewhere.
  • Oddly the New York AE phenomenon benefited greatly from the influx into NY of a bevy of front rank modern European artists (like Duchamp, Masson, Mondrian, Matta) as refugees from the outbreak of WW2, bringing deep experience in abstraction and the two major art movements of Cubism and Surrealism, and their offspring.
  • Pollock was fortuitously helped by another refugee from WW2 Europe, the curious Peggy Guggenheim, another American, who in London just before WW2 launched herself as a keen and successful dealer in modern art. In NY she provided crucial early support for Pollock (mid 1943 – mid 1947).
  • Other ladies were important too, especially wife and fellow artist Lenore (“Lee”) Krasner (1908-84), and major art dealer Betty Parsons, who took up Pollock’s cause after Peggy decamped to Venice mid 1947, ie just as he settled into his signature “drip” phase.
  • Also, as for some other modern cultural “icons” (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis?) Pollock’s flame was fanned by his short life, marred by tragedy. After having largely stopped serious painting about 3 years earlier, and wracked by alcohol addiction, finally in August 1956 he killed himself at age only 44, in a car he crashed and which – even more sadly – also killed a lady passenger. He had battled alcohol most of his adult life but made periodic progress. However November 25th 1950, after a gap of about 2 years, he resumed drinking and for good.
  • Who knows what this art means?! Especially the later dense drip abstraction. He gave no clues in most of the titles, deliberately, and added nothing much with specific meaning in any other comment.
  • However, while taste in art, let alone abstract art, is subjective, Pollock seems to emerge as the pre-eminent AE exponent, for his obvious creativity (like his trademark intense “drip” painting), and the twists in his artistic journey, especially his clutch of powerful poignant final works, 1952 and 1953, as he sadly succumbed, surrendered to alcohol.
  • Also he mostly let his hands do the talking? He had words to offer too but resisted the wordy self-promotion of some of the AE school, which in some cases reached even unto pretentious babble.
  • Curiously too he was “all American”, born and raised in the West, not settling in New York till he was 34 (1934), and never travelling outside the US.

 

ART / WORK

  • Pollock’s work before 1938 shows the influence of contemporary Regionalist realist Thomas Hart Benton (who taught him in NY 1930), the older Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), and the Mexican muralists, especially JC Orozco, eg Pollocks’ early The Flame (c1934-38). Also “in a workshop in 1936, the Mexican painter David Siqueiros had encouraged Pollock to fling, pour, and spatter paint.” (MOMA 1988 Pollock exhibition).
  • In 1938 Pollock’s drinking took him to hospital for 4 months for psychiatric treatment, including Jungian psychiatric advice from Dr Joseph Henderson who had him make therapeutic drawings, sparking an interest in “symbolism and Native American art”, reinforced in late 1939 by a Picasso show Pollock saw at MOMA.
  • Also around 1938 he renewed his interest in Mexican artists, like Jose Orozco, Diego Rivera, especially the “epic scale of their murals”. But he “avoided social content of the Mexicans”.
  • And he also showed interest in paintings by El Greco and Max Beckmann?
  • Pollock around 1938 met important well informed Russian-émigré artist–polemicist John Graham (1888-1961) who had arrived New York 1920, after meeting the Parisian avant-garde, including Picasso. In 1937 Graham published “Primitive Art and Picasso” (article, April) and a book, Systems and Dialectics of Art: Re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious.. with the primordial racial past..”, both influential in NY. The book “.. introduces two of Graham’s preoccupations: a mystical connection with his subject and the role of line in expressing sensations”.
  • Pollock’s early 1940s works are symbolic / Surrealist quasi-abstracts, influenced especially by 1/ Picasso; 2/ Surrealism, through interest in Native American art, mythic motifs, part inspired (along with Gorky, M Rothko and de Kooning) by John Graham, and by Jung’s psychoanalysis theories, also favoured by Graham.
  • The interest Surrealism (eg Meditation on an oak leaf 1942, and Pasiphae, 1943) was reinforced by meeting émigré Surrealists from Europe, like Andre Masson (1896-1987) (arrived NY 1941), his . „calligraphic autom line drawings…. swirling lines.. dark colors.. abstract imagery.. poetic titles..“ (Anna Mosynska).
    • Through Lee Krasner around mid 1942 he met William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell and especially Chilean-born Roberto Matta, who arrived New York 1941 from Europe where he was struck by Andre Masson et al.
    • Andre Masson’s style emphasized flatness, but Matta (influenced by Duchamp?) used “spatial ambiguity… whiplash line… large scale canvases”, eg Onyx of Electra (1944), which all influenced the younger artists. “his studio on 9th. a meeting place for Pollock, Motherwell, A Gorky…” (cf Anna Mosynska). Thus Matta became a close friend of A Gorky, R. Motherwell and W. Baziotes.
    • Then Motherwell and Baziotes “went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hoffmann.. Peggy Guggenheim.. said that she would put on a show… so I [Motherwell] went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody..”
    • Pollock also used “bright hues of American Indian art”? Pollock 1944: “Their colour is essentially Western, their vision has the basic universality of all real art. Some people find references to American Indian Art and calligraphy in parts of my pictures. That wasn’t intentional; probably was the result of early memories and enthusiasm.”
  • After 1945 motifs become more naturalistic? Partly influenced by his move to Long Island? “I am nature” he once said.
  • Pollock began “pouring” paint by 1943 (cf Composition with Pouring I and II), before his late 1945 move to Long Island, and the famous “drip” arrives fully around 1947, eg especially Full Fathom Five and Phosphorescence, ie formless, all-over, “intense gestural application”, lasting till 1953. Pollock’s “drip” style is a subset of Action Painting.
  • Precise origins of the Drip are debated. He may have seen Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros use painting-pouring in 1936 at a NY workshop. It may have been influenced by his contact with Masson, Matta etc, especially per Surrealist automatism. He may have heard of Max Ernst (Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, then in NY) trying to paint from a swinging can. He may have seen the same method in 1946 used in paintings by Janet Sobel (1894-1968) (born Jennie Lechovsky, in Ukraine), at a Peggy Guggenheim show in a visit with critic Clement Greenberg. And by Indian sand painting he saw in the 1940s.
  • Sounds in the Grass was a series of 7 relatively small paintings over the winter of 1946-47 (ie after moving to Long Island), partly preparation for a Jan 1947 show at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery. It included Eyes in the Heat, an important lead into the Drip phase.
  • For about 4 years, from 1948 through 1952, he switched to not naming his paintings, assigning them numbers.
  • The Drip phase, during which “a doctor…allayed his drinking with tranquillizers..” largely ended 1951 when he resumed drinking.
  • Then 1951-52 his preferred style changed abruptly when in a series sometimes called “black pourings” he mainly painted in black enamel on unprimed canvas and he revived earlier interest in calligraphical, “glyphic” quasi-abstraction, ie with some “representational elements”.
  • But two final emphatic twists remained.
  • In 1952 he completed two important large all-over “drip” abstracts, especially Blue Poles, also 10, Convergence.
  • And in 1953 followed four different important paintings, especially The Deep, a mighty and intriguing suddenly different abstract work, then Easter and the Totem, and Ocean Greyness, both of which recall much earlier (late 1930s/early 1940s) Pollock abstraction.
  • 1953’s Portrait and a Dream, is another extraordinary final – and again personal? – work, where a (self?) portrait creeps in, alongside a quasi-abstract “reclining female figure”.
  • He painted only two works after 1953 (age 41), one painting (another ‘drip” work) in 1954?
  • Most of Pollock’s earlier works were small? He discovered size through the Mexican muralists, and his first large image was the 1943 Mural.

 

LIFE

  • He was born Wyoming, one of five boys to Stella, nee McClure, and was almost never out of trouble. His family moved about the West. Pollock’s abusive alcoholic father (nee McCoy, Scottish-Irish descent, adopted by Mr and Mrs Pollock) left home in 1920 leaving his older brother Charles, an artist, in charge. Pollock briefly studied art in LA until expelled for fighting.
  • In late 1930, aged only 18, he moved to New York, lived with brother Charles in Greenwich Village and, importantly, studied under Charles’ teacher, well known Regionalist Realist painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) for about 3 years at the Art Student’s League, becoming close to Benton and his family, like sharing summer holidays.
  • Pollock was upset by his father’s death in 1933 and, drunk, started a fight with his brother Charles’ wife, axing one of his brother’s paintings. From 1934 to 1942 he lived with other brother Sanford.
  • He travelled the US widely in the 1930s, settled in NY from 1934. Here importantly he met some prominent Mexican muralist painters, José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) (later, 1940, Pollock saw him paint a mural at MOMA) and David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) (Pollock met him in Los Angeles 1932 and worked in his NY workshop, 1936, observed “experiments with nontraditional materials such as enamel paint, and with unconventional techniques of paint application: dripping, pouring, and airbrushing”).
  • The US Government’s Depression alleviating WPA program (cf Krasner, de Kooning, Rothko etc) paid some money from 1937-1943.
  • In 1938 he was 4 months in hospital for his alcoholism.
  • He briefly met Lee Krasner (1908-84) Xmas 1936, then again August 1942, marrying her Oct.1945. She became a key supporter, thus introduced him to her teacher, important refugee German abstract painter Hans Hoffman (1880-1966), also to Herbert Matter.
  • 1941 Pollock saw a Miró retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
  • His first NY show Jan 1942 was part of the McMillen Gallery’s American and French Painting, selected by John Graham, and alongside de Kooning, Krasner, Stuart Davis and some from Europe: Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Bonnard and Modigliani.
  • Spring 1942, “.. [Herbert] Matter invites James Johnson Sweeney to visit Pollock’s studio. Sweeney tells Peggy Guggenheim that Pollock is “doing interesting work” … suggests she visit the studio.”
  • Autumn 1942, Roberto Matta (1911-2002), with Motherwell’s support, wants to break with Breton’s Surrealists, and form their own “automatist artists” group. Pollock dines with them at Matta’s apartment on 12th but “becomes frustrated with the group”.
  • 1942 / Jan. 1943 the Met. Museum Of Art shows his The Flame (c1934-38) in Artists for Victory.
  • Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) becomes a major supporter. She opens her Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery Oct 1942. She meets Pollock early 1943 at the (Solomon) Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (where JP is working from May, as a “carpenter”?), shows his work in a group show (Spring Salon for Young Artists) at AOTC, May/June 1943, especially on the advice of older famous refugee abstract painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) (“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“).
  • On the advice of writer/dealer Howard Putzel (1898–1945) she visits his studio 23rd June 1943, but resists a solo show until 20th C art legend Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) visits and recommends it. Pollock’s first solo show (15 oils plus other works), hangs at AOTC in November 1943. It is the first solo show there by an American artist.
  • From July 1943 she paid JP a stipend for output, and she also commissioned what would become a famous mural for her NY town house on East 61st, executed Dec.1943 / Jan.1944.
  • Following the November 1943 solo show, on the advice of Duchamp, also Matta etc she then hung him as part of her AOTC show, Natural, Insane, Surrealist Art, with Calder, Klee, Masson, Motherwell etc.
  • PG held his second solo show March / April 1945, the third April 1946, the fourth Jan./Feb.1947.
  • She also helped he and Krasner buy a farmhouse on Long Island by Nov. 1945, heralding the “drip period” from 1947 through 1950, also now using alkyd enamel house paints.
  • May 1944 MOMA bought The She-Wolf (1943), recommended by Soby and Sidney Janis (1896-1989) (Head Acquisitions Committee) to Alfred C Barr.
  • In 1944 Pollock showed in Abstract and Surrealist Art in America (1944), organized by Sidney Janis (who published a book of same title) at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, NY.
  • March 1945 he showed at the Arts Club of Chicago, then March/April at NY AOTC, drawing strong critical support from Clement Greenberg (1909-94).
  • 1946 / Jan. 1947, he showed for the first time in “the Whitney Annual”, the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at Whitney Museum of American Art.
  • 1947, April/May, Mural was shown by MOMA.
  • Peggy Guggenheim closed AOTC May 1947,
  • May / Sep. 1948 he was hung at 23rd Venice Biennale.
  • Peggy Guggenheim mounted Pollock’s first solo European show in July / Aug. 1950, in Venice. Thence he showed in Florence and Rome.
  • His “drip” paintings were first shown in Jan. 1948, 17 paintings at Betty Parson (1900-82)’s NY gallery (his 5th one man show in NY, the same year as de Kooning’s first show), to a quiet reaction, but “favourable reviews”.
  • His second Betty Parsons show was Jan./Feb.1949, a big show, including 26 works from 1948. “Critical response is varied”. And third solo show followed Nov./Dec 1949, with 35 works.
  • A famous 4-page spread on Pollock appeared in Life magazine, 9th1949, (“Is he the greatest living painter in the United States”) brought overnight success and changed their lives. In 1950 he was chosen by MOMA’s Alfred H Barr Jr for the US pavilion at 25th Venice Biennale (with Gorky and de Kooning).
  • Summer 1950 he was interviewed by William Wright for a radio program.
  • 1950, May, he signed a joint letter initiated by Barnett Newman attacking The Metropolitan Museum of Art for “contempt for modern painting. . . .”. Oct./Nov. 1950 he was hung in a group show (Young Painters in U.S. & France) by the Sidney Janis Gallery (opened 1948), and Nov./Dec. in a 4th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • October 1950 he appeared in an influential Life magazine article on modern art, “along with Picasso, Miró, Georges Rouault, Matisse, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, William Baziotes, and Theodoros Stamos”.
  • 1951, January, Life published a photo of him among the Irascibles, 14 artists protesting the Met museum’s views on “contemporary” art. Nov./ Dec. saw a 5th solo show at Betty Parsons.
  • His first show in Paris was part of the 1952, Un Art Autre, catalogue by Tachisme writer Michel Tapie. April / July he appeared in a MOMA show.
  • Unhappy with sales at Betty Parsons Gallery in mid 1952 he moved “across the hall” to Sidney Janis, who mounted a solo show Nov. 1952. A 2nd followed Feb. 1954, and a 3rd/ Dec. 1955, though he was producing little new art then.
  • 1953, from April he appears in an American contemporary art show in Paris, thence 5 other cities.
  • But he did not handle growing fame well, and (November 25th 1950) resumed drinking, and stayed back. He also mostly (but not entirely, cf Blue Poles later in 1952) gave up the “drip”, retreating to mostly black and white paintings.
  • He also he mostly gave up name titles for his paintings, using numbers and dates.
  • Lee Krasner’s career was gaining traction (eg show by BP late 1951 etc) but in attending to the ailing Pollock she stopped painting and also asked his mother for help.
  • By 1956 he had stopped painting, kept drinking, and was seeing other women. Krasner took a break in Paris. And 11 August a drunk Pollock crashed his car a mile from home, killing himself and a lady passenger.
  • Krasner returned to the US to bury him. She also carefully managed his estate, the disposal of his remaining art, set up the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and finally returned to her own art.
  • MOMA’s planned mid-career show for JP became an impromptu retrospective, Dec 1956 / Feb.1957.

 

QUOTES

  • “It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”
  • “The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art.”
  • My paintings do not have a center, but depend on the same amount of interest throughout.”
  • “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”
  • When I’m painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a get acquainted period that I see what I’ve been about. I’ve no fears about making changes for the painting has a life of its own.”

APPENDICES

 Abstract Expressionism: not a coherent art movement, rather a specific historic collective art experience

 Abstract Expressionism was NOT an art movement in the sense of having a coherent artistic common there, a distinct artistic style and purpose.

About its only common theme was, simply, abstraction.

Its specific content comprised two „schools“ of abstraction styles:

1/ Expressive, Gestural.

Two subsets were i/ Intense „Automatiste“ Action Painting, like Pollock;

and ii/ broad coarse motifed abstration, like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning (who also often included figuration), Robert Motherwell, and Clifford Still.

2/ Flat colour patch

Two subsets were i/ Color Field abstraction, like Mark Rothko;

and ii/ sharp-edged geometric abstraction, like Barnett Newman.

Rather the only useful definition of Abstract Expressionism is as a specific historic collective art experience or context, by a keen and diverse group of painters in New York soon after WW2, the first main images emerging in second half of the 1940s.

After a slow start it eventually became very successful commercially mainly because of keen support from dealers / galleries, museums and critics, underwritten by the large buoyant American economy. Once substantial success emerged – by the late 1950s? – then the mutual vested interests worked hard to sustain it, build on the momentum.

The diverse artistic content was essentially not radical, rather it derived and evolved from, capitalised on the crucial pioneering period for abstract art just before / during ww1, around 1910-1915, ie about 30years earlier.

But it was eye-catching, and therefore marketable. It was often large and striking in imagery, perhaps epitomised by Pollock’s densely intricate „drip“ paintings, and by Rothko’s atmospheric color patch works, at opposite ends of a spectrum.

EUROPEAN early postwar abstraction movements: paralleling New York Abstract Expressionism

All the labels below seem to overlap, to a greater or lesser degree. Though there is some contradiction? Most of these artists acknowledged important roots in Surrealism, but some (eg COBRA) rejected Surrealism?

All these movements clearly overlap with (American) Abstract Expressionism in terms of:

  1. time period, ie mid 40s to mid 50s, ie reflecting the aftermath of the macro-violence of WW2.
  2. image content
  3. image purpose

Thus many of these European “AE” images appear close to many from the “authentic” New York AE school, but they were European not US images.

They have been accorded far less market attention because of a vastly different commercial context in Europe after WW2.

  • Informalism? / Art Informel? / Tachisme / Abstraction lyrique? Art Informel was a term coined by important French art critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book, Un Art Autre (“Art of Another Kind”) which strongly promoted modern art and especially then in France, Tachisme, a French term (from “tache” = stain) first used ~ 1951 by two French critics. It is also referred to as the School of Paris but in reality was very similar to AE? Spontaneous but meaningful “non form” abstract works, including calligraphy / dripping, in part a reaction to Cubism?
  • Important painters included: “Wols (1913-51), Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, the Catalan Antoni Tapies, the Italian Alberto Burri, George Mathieu, Nicholas De Stael, Serge Poliakoff, Hans Hartung, and Pierre Soulages.
  • And abstractionist Jean-Paul Riopelle who arrived Paris 1947 from Montreal, Canada, where he was part of Bordhaus’ important Les Automatistes.
  • This “warm” Expressive purposeful abstraction was in opposition to “cold” Geometric Abstraction, eg that stemming in particular from Mondrian, van Doesburg etc from Netherlands.
  • However Tapié’s book also served to simultaneously help promote American AE in Europe, and Tapie also helped prepare the catalogue for J Pollock’s first Paris show, in 1952.
  • There were relevant abstract art movements at the same time in England (St Ives), Germany and Italy.
  • Lyrical Abstraction / Abstraction Lyrique? Confusing term? Used mainly France, Europe? Makes sense only as opposite of “cold” superficial unthinking Geometric Abstraction?
  • CoBrA? (Copenhagen / Brussels/ Amsterdam). Movement formed by 5 artists in a Paris café 8 Nov 1948! Defined by: “complete freedom of colour and form… antipathy to Surrealism…. Spontaneity and experiment… [draw on] ..children’s drawings.. primitive art forms.. work of Klee and Miro..”. Like AE they favoured expressive immediacy of the gesture“!
  • They were opposed to Geometric Abstraction and (French) Social Realism. And they were more “political” than French abstraction? The group disbanded 1951. It included Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky.

   WORKS by Jean-Paul Riopelle

2

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). 1951, Espagne, huile sur toile, 150 x 232 cm, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Québec, Canada

3

Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923 – 2002). Abstraction (Orange), 1952 Oil on canvas; 99 x 197.5 cm, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisboa, Portugal

COMMENT: Museum, This work by Jean-Paul Riopelle belongs to the period of the so-called Grandes mosaïques, which occurred roughly between 1950 and 1960. The painted works – produced with palette knife and spatula – are made up of multi-coloured elements of notable thickness, superimposed and animated with extensive, vigorous lines. Large shapes dominate. It can be said that these ‘mosaics’ are undoubtedly inspired by those of St. Mark’s Basilica, which made a big impression on Riopelle during a trip to Venice in 1947. Very different from Pollock’s ‘dripping’ works, Riopelle paints on a canvas placed vertically on the easel; there is nothing ‘gestural’ about his work. Despite the given title (also referred to as untitled), this kind of painting is, for Riopelle, a means to express and share his strong relationship with nature. AC

 

SELECTED WORKS by Jackson Pollock

   4

Going West, 1934. Important early work, influence of TH Benton and Surrealism?

5

The Flame, c1934-38, Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 51.1 x 76.2 cm, MOMA

 

6

1942, Stenographic Figure, Oil on linen, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 40 x 56 in

 

8

Mural, 1943, 247 x 605 cm, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim, 1959. University of Iowa Museum of Art.      COMMENT: Commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim for her NY townhouse. This is an important transitional work, towards all-over abstraction. Notice it is large, his first big painting? Part influenced by Mexican realist painters?

 10

1947. Full Fathom Five, 2 x 76.5 cm, MOMA.COMMENT: One of the first full bore “drip” paintings, but notice it is still relatively small.

11

Janet SOBEL (1894-1968). Untitled, 1946, 45.5 x 35.5 cm. COMMENT: Pollock saw Sobel’s work at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1944, “where it was seen and admired by both Pollock and Clement Greenberg, who later cited it as the first instance of ”all-over” painting he had seen. Sidney Janis wrote the catalogue preface for her solo show at Guggenheim’s gallery in 1946, noting her ”self-invented method for applying paint.””, ‘Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2002.

12

1948, Number 5, 244 x 122cm, private. COMMENT: One of Pollock’s major early Drip paintings. Sold for US140$m in 2006. Being larger helped.

13

  1. 1950. One: No 31, 270 x 531cm (8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″), MOMA.COMMENT: One of Pollock’s largest paintings. He retitled it „One“ because he felt one with it!? A large signature Drip painting.

14

 

1952, Blue Poles (No. 11), oil on canvas, 4.87 x 2.1 m, National Gallery of Australia Canberra. COMMENT: Originally titled, Number 11. The picture is important for departing from the pure all-over abstraction approach, by now introducing forms, structure, through “poles”. Whatever they might mean.

15

Ocean Greyness, 1953, 146.7 x 229 cm Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao. COMMENT: Like Easter and the totem here the very late Pollock, in one of his final paintings, returns to the coarse textured, “glyphic” Surrealist like abstraction of his early years? Even going back to “The Flame” of 1934-38?

16

Portrait and a Dream, 1953, 342.2 x 148.5 cm. Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. COMMENT: a very personal painting.

‘Blue Poles’ shelters.. a red rider on a yellow horse!

Blue Poles (1952) shelters.. a red rider on a yellow horse!

 

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

 

FEATURED: 1952, Blue Poles, (DETAIL, far right), 212.1 cm × 488.9 cm; enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

 

The Yellow Horse!

Le Cheval Jaune!

Gelb Pferd!

 

A red rider!

Un cavalier rouge!

Ein rot fahrer!

 

Surely these eyes are not the first to notice, but unmistakeably there they are far right, nuzzling the Eighth Pole, a yellow horse partnering a red rider.

No doubt it as not intentional.

But who knows.

And, if not, who knows if he didn’t perhaps notice it afterwards, which might have appealed to his earlier occasional Surrealist dabblings.

Anyway it’s an image redolent of metaphorical possibilities.

And speaking of yellow horses Franz Marc (1880-1916, who also found a dark end in this dimension) immediately raises a ghostly hand.

Ah ha, a portent!

2

Franz Marc (1880-1916, 36), 1912, Little yellow horses, oil, 104 x 66cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

 

5

1952, Blue Poles (formerly Number 11, 1952), and details. Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 cm × 488.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, 44)

The Main Man of Abstract Expressionism, but owes his reputation mainly to specific historic circumstances.

  • The Main Man of post WW2 New York Abstract Expressionism (AE).
  • But the crazy prices for his distinctive large-scale full bore Gestural action abstract paintings mostly reflect specific historic circumstances, the collective commercial and artistic circumstances of the New York School, the Abstract Expressionism art movement in the cultural capital of postwar America, soon after W2, rather than any intrinsic value?
  • So another large-scale Gesturalist at the same time, Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) sells for peanuts because he chose Paris over New York.

Though there’s no doubt Pollock’s distinctive intense “drip” painting method fans his appeal.       

John Marin. More derivative than a driver? And played within a small sandpit?

 

John Marin (1870-1953, 82)

More derivative than a driver? And narrow: played within a small sandpit?

Big time in own time but not now: eclipsed by his US peers!

 

(Featured image: 1922, The Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge, watercolor with opaque watercolor, scraping, and wiping, and fabricated charcoal with stumping, on thick, rough-textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), 542 x 665 mm. Art Institute of Chicago)

 

  • Important American modernist painter who had his moments
  • He fed off the European pioneers. But:
    • He did not innovate? More derivative than a driver?
    • He was narrowly focussed, monotonous, in subject and style.
    • And stayed there, marked time across near 40 years?
  • Despite closely overlapping a revolution in Modernist art!
  • Always representational, strayed near abstraction but was never abstract.
  • But only ever painted outdoors. No figurative work.
  • Why was he popular in his time? Because he remained generally accessible, and painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life.
  • And why forgotten? Eclipsed, ironically, by his barnstorming US peers!

 

SUMMARY

John Marin had his moments

Images which catch include some among the Weehawkin series of pocket-sized oils (early, c1910-16, painted fresh from Europe), like some other early watercolours (Red sun, Brooklyn Bridge, 1915), and later watercolours (Cape Split, Maine, 1941), and some of his later energetic, vigorous expressive seascape oils (like Gray sea, 1938, Two boats and sea, Cape Split, 1941, and Sea and boat fantasy, 1944). Nudes in Sea (1940) is striking too for its figures!?

 But overall he played within a small sandpit?

He was basically a side player? In particular he did not really innovate, remained more derivative than a driver?

And his realist art was narrowly focussed in subject and style, remained broadly within a narrow ambit across about 40 years.

…. a late starter

His known work did not emerge till he was around 40, c1910, with the Weehawkin series (named for the town where he was raised by two aunts, or maternal grandparents?), about 100 small oil sketches completed c1910-16.

But watercolours predominated until when in the 1930s (now in his 60s) he turned also to larger scale oil paintings, though still generally small.

…narrow in subjects.

Thus he only ever painted outdoors, especially landscapes (especially the sea and coasts, especially in Maine) and some cityspaces, especially New York.

He was always representational, like Picasso never abstract, though obviously straying towards, near abstraction in some of his landscapes.

There is virtually no figurative work, even in his urban paintings. No genre paintings, no interiors, still lives and in particular no portraits.

In terms of image content he never painted Modern Life.

… and style.

His art style, in both watercolours and oils, from woe to go remained narrowly constrained: variations on ragged, loose-limbed generally colourful Cubist-hued quasi-abstraction, and later, to an extent, on expressionism.

His early Weehawkin series clearly reflects his pre WW1 exposure to the radical currents in Europe – the bold Fauvist colouring and the dissonant Cubist fragmentation – and some of his later oils recall Expressionism, in brush strokes if not color.

After a burst of color in the Weehawkin series his palate later was generally more muted, less exuberant.

Despite his life overlapping dramatic, radical change in visual art.

His life span, from 1870 to the early 1950s, closely overlapped a revolution in visual art, which moreover he saw first hand when he visited Europe for about 5 years (1905-10, age 35-40) during a dramatic period in modern art.

So his whole career was backdropped by ongoing restless experiment and change in Modernist art: the pre WW1 birth and development of abstraction, the post WW1 eruption of Surrealism.

Marin and Abstract Expressionism?

Through the 1940s his art seems to have interacted with the emerging Abstract Expressionists (AE). Marin in his 70s and well known was no doubt familiar to the emerging younger artists but it’s unclear how much he influenced Pollock et al? Like through his quasi-abstract “Expressionist” landscapes? But he in turn may have fed off the younger artists? Eg his Landscape (1951).

In this AE context however one observation comes to mind, namely the horizontal bands of sky colour Marin uses in at least two modest size watercolours on paper (not oils), from 1940 (Nudes in Sea) and 1941(Cape Split, Maine) clearly resonate with Rothko’s similar later famous Color Field bands.

Once was famous.

Marin is now not well known to the lay public, outside the museums and galleries, but his acclaim grew steadily in his time so by later in his career he was among the most esteemed living artists in America.

Thus in 1942, critic Clement Greenberg enthused: “it is quite possible that he is the greatest living American painter.” And “In 1948 a Look magazine poll of museum directors and critics had him as American’s foremost artist. And in 1950 he was the most prominently featured artist in Alfred Barr’s selection of seven painters — including Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock — for the American pavilion of the 25th Venice Biennale.” (Ken Johnson, New York Times, August 2011)

Why was he so popular in his lifetime?

Probably because through his landscapes he remained generally accessible, because his style was fashionably “modern” but not radical. Thus he did not succumb to abstraction.

But also his oeuvre definitely leans toward an aesthetic purpose and not towards any uncomfortable polemical or didactic mission.

Unlike some other modern realist painters – like David Bomberg, Stuart Davis, Fernand Leger – he never painted, engaged with Modern Life, except for a passing reference to skyscrapers in New York.

Thus generally he painted appealing distractions from the turmoil and press of modern life, did not comment on it.

And why no longer popular?

Because he was overtaken, eclipsed by fashionable new twists in the rollicking onward journey of modern art, and (ironically) especially by events in his US homeland, by the post WW2 rush for Abstract Expressionism (the New York School, their success partly driven by the buoyant “victorious” relatively prosperous US), thence by Pop and beyond.

 LIFE

John Marin was born and raised in New Jersey, early worked as an architectural draughtsman, then 1899 to 1901 studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He called at the Art Students League in NY in 1905 before that year travelling to Europe for 5 years (visiting Paris, Holland, Belgium, England, Italy, and Austrian Tyrol in 1910), returning permanently to NY in 1911.

Alfred Stieglitz staged his first one man show in 1909 at his Gallery 291 in New York, and the pair worked together 40 years (as he also supported O’Keefe and Arthur Dove). In 1913 he exhibited in the famous Armory Show.

He strongly preferred landscapes, usually wintered in New Jersey, then often summered in northeastern rural locations, especially coastal Maine.

His first retrospective was in 1920, in NY. Early 1926 collector Duncan Phillips bought his first Marin, and became a big supporter. 1936 MOMA held a retrospective, one of the first for an American artist.

Beyond Maine, Marin visited Europe (though only once), New England, New Mexico (around Taos) and the Hudson River Valley.

 

 Select Works……………

              aa1                         

c1916. Weehawken sequence No. 30, oil on canvas board, 11 3/4 x 9 in, Phillips Collection

 

aa3

1925. Back of Bear Mountain, watercolor and charcoal, 43 x 51cm (17 x 20 in.), Phillips Collection

 

aa4

1938. Grey Sea, oil on canvas, 55.9 x 71.1cm, National Gallery, Washington

aa5

1940. Nudes in Sea, Watercolor with blotting, wiping, and scraping, and black crayon, with brown colored pencil, on heavyweight, moderately textured, ivory wove paper (all edges trimmed), in original frame, 39.1 x 53.3cm; Art Institute of Chicago

aa7

_16, 10/15/10, 2:49 PM, 8C, 4790×5887 (246+602), 88%, Custom, 1/60 s, R116.1, G89.6, B85.8

  1.  Sea and boat fantasy. Oil on canvas, 71 x 87cm (28 × 34 1/4 in.). Private?

 

aa8

  1. Hurricane. Oil on canvas, 64 cm × 76 cm (25 x 30 in.), Indianapolis Museum of Art.

 

 aa10

  1.  Landscape, collection?

 

Saint Cy (Twombly)? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money

 

Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly

(April 25th, 1928 – July 5th, 2011, 83 years)

 

Saint Cy? Why the in crowd love him: “religion” and money.

 

Adored by some heavy critics, seduced by the package of prolific idiosyncratic abstraction and Classical allusions.

But for the vested interests the plaudits are fuelled by money.

And the sustained rummaging of the long ago for subjects can be superficial attention-seeking pretence?

 

CY TWOMBLY: apposite and revealing case study for the high end commercial contemporary art market?   Thus his record market price is US$70m for 4 sq metres of monotone scribble on a “blackboard”.

 

SUMMARY

1/ Overbaked?

A sceptic’s view: yes he hooks interest but hard to overlook the assiduous pretence?

  • Arguably in his quest for a novel path Mr Twombly’s relentless resort to Classical and historical subjects for many of his abstract / quasi-abstract images cultivated a faux-gravitas, a superficial profundity, and seems pretentious, in seeking to lever off, capitalise on the caché of this august iconic heritage.
  • Objectively the relationship between the often obscure titles of many images and their visual content seems tenuous at best, problematic, elusive, obscure. Except of course those labelled “Untitled”.
  • Beyond digging up long ago history for subjects / titles the artist developed two distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices – scratchy textual adornment, and repetitive cursive scribbling – which, together with the quirky titles, became his artistic “thing”, and therefore handy for his market promoters.
  • The effusive wordy approbation roused in many art critics by Mr Twombly’s art seems more a matter of faith than evidence, of hagiography over balanced analysis, a triumph of hope over experience, of wishful thinking over reality since their opinions resist meaningful objective verification.
  • And then there’s the money as a propelling motive. “Vested interests”. Laudatory hyperbole by promoters warms up potential customers. And they don’t mind popular controversy over someone stumping up $70 million for “blackboard” scribble if it helps sell their man.
  • Objectively one might argue that many of Mr Twombly’s images seem to lack any particular aesthetic attraction or allure or original distinction? In terms of color, composition, abstraction motifs and style.
  • Oddly enough perhaps his last decade or so – into his 70s – was his purple patch? This valedictory period may harbour his most interesting works? Like the Lepanto, Seosostris, and Paphos series (each dancing obscurely, distinctively with the figurative), like the big bold colourful cursive “lasso” images (eg the Bacchus and Camino Real series), and like his big bold colourful floral motif works (like the Peony and Rose images).
  • Though this is one viewer’s opinion, and largely subjective, given the near completely abstract oeuvre.

 

2/ Why they rave

So WHY do many critics, market professionals rave? “Religion” and money.

Saint Cy? His art a seductive labyrinth? An enticing brew of intellectual even quasi-spiritual nourishment?

And it sells.

Good question.

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and also by him remaining inscrutable, keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.

This mutually reinforcing quartet of characteristics – especially anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds.

This tickles the art patrons’ palates, high and low, and the thirst for intellectual nourishment disables objective scrutiny, leads cultural pilgrims into quasi- spiritual paddocks.

For some it’s the divine blush of an Alpine sunset, or dietary supplements. For others it’s Saint Cy’s enchanting visual brew.

And then there’s the money. When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million dollar units the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.

 

3/ The menu

The oeuvre: prolific, near all abstract, but above all distinctive.

  • Mr Twombly was prolific, across a long career, but notwithstanding the abundance of images, arguably he restricted himself to a relatively narrow range of painterly styles? His oeuvre is near all abstract, adding some calligraphical, cursive content, with only small recourse to the figurative, the representative. No portraits or landscapes or cityscapes or genre scenes. Even quasi-abstract. His painting journey was relatively steady, with shifts but nothing too abrupt, staying within a relatively narrow band.
  • Largely eschewing the figurative is a valid career choice, but it does restrict artistic / aesthetic achievement possibilities?
  • The oeuvre. After following the New York Abstract Expressionist crowd around 1950 with coarse “glyphic” abstraction Twombly found his mojo circa 1955 with fine diaphanous scratchy abstracts, non-geometric scribbling, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. From around 1960 he shifted to colourful, splash, scratch, splodge and scribble. Bolder and more colourful, like the Ferragosto series of 1961, and Nine discourses on Commodus of 1963.
  • Then from 1966 through circa 1971 he shifted abruptly to the “blackboard” paintings, to monotone cursive abstract.
  • Distinctively too, starting in the late 1950s, he added scratchy untidy text to many images, especially from later in the 1970s. This was trademark Twombly.
  • Through the 1970s to 1990s the abstraction becomes more varied, exploratory: denser and more colourful, more conventionally expressive (ie dense, coarse, bold and colourful), sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs, still adding informal untidy text and figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).
  • In 2005 he unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, thence large reddish circular floral daubs, and finally (around age 80) he returned to crude colourful figurative abstraction, and ropey colourful cursive scribbling.

 

CY AND THE CURSIVE – two recent sales

 

1/ Two 1968 paintings from Cy’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’….

b1

  1. Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 173 x 229 cm (NOTE: sold at Sotheby’s NY for US$70.5m Nov. 2015, a record auction price for the artist).

b2

1968 Untitled (New YorkCity), oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 152.4 x 173 cm. (NOTE: sold Sotheby’s NY 11th May 2016 for US$36.7m. Interesting, suggests a “softening” in the market?)

 

2/ Is it Art? Sure.

Yes, applying a broad definition.

Ostensibly it looks like repetitive monotone scribbling on a canvas, one white, one blue.

But it becomes art when to a viewer it in some ways means more than that, for whatever reason.

Yes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

 

3/ But it’s also a business.

These works are commercially traded. And for a lot of money. The painting on the left sold for a record US$70m November 2015.  And on the right for around US$37m May 2016.

Yes it’s a business, so opinions, judgements on a work come with powerful vested interests. No harm in that provided we keep that condition in mind.

Thus the relevant Catalogue Note for the May 2016 auction for Untitled (New YorkCity (1968) is a feat of sustained, superheated, hyperventilating, take-no-prisoners, hyperbolic prose, a Force 10 panegyric (edited with emphasis added):

 “Cy Twombly’s majestic Untitled (New York City) of 1968 is the enduring material triumph of a simply unrepeatable moment in the history of art…. An unparalleled exemplar of the artist’s most hallowed series of ‘Blackboard’ paintings…  the phenomenal vestige of an exceptional epoch. ..  Twombly forges a new visual language and ultimately achieves a visual poetry that is beyond sublimeUntitled (New York City) stands as tangible testimony to Twombly’s staggering innovation and inimitable abstract aesthetic …. It is, in short, the very pure manifestation of Cy Twombly’s indisputable genius…….. seemingly frenzied dispersion of graphic mark-making is in fact the result of finely-honed technical precision: the progressive march of elliptical repetitions is expertly rendered to achieve an irresistibly hypnotic urgency. .. The variegated tonal architecture of grisaille hues functions like geological strata…. the sheer force of this painting’s dynamic energy marks it apart from all contemporaneous examples of the grand cycle, and results in a panoramic expanse pulsating with the expansions and contractions of a certain organized chaos… Despite a residual yearning to decipher these written marks as an inherently human need, Twombly’s visual language has neither syntax nor logic…… and function as a compulsory sensual and intellectual catharsis that is both universal and particular to the individual… .. The six magnificent horizontal bands of loops increase in volume and expressive abandon, as the artist progresses down the length of the canvas.. …..At moments, the line is tight and dense; at others, Twombly loses control and his cursive energy drives off course, a high-speed choreography in which individual events of personal expression are sublimated into a greater whole of dense accumulations. Within this dichotomy lies the very brilliance of Twombly’s painting: reveling in the contradictions between the systematic and the irregular, the unruly and the cerebral, the premeditated and the intuitive, Twombly achieves a balletic complexity unsurpassed by any of his contemporaries…. In the lattice of tiered lateral ovals scoring the canvas, Twombly’s own gestural abandon erupts from the structural balance of the composition; while more precise and mathematical than the automatism of the Surrealists or the impulse of the Abstract Expressionists, Twombly’s subjectivity seeps through what appears to be mechanical labor. .. Twombly’s loops … bely in subtle disobedience a totally objective geometric precision. With the rigid syntax and rudimentary forms of the grey-ground paintings, Twombly appears to deny the insouciance of personality; however, the tremulous inflections of each parabolic rise and fall inevitably give way to the signature intensity of the artist’s own hand..”  (Sotheby’s catalogue for auction 11th May 2106, New York).

This is all possible. But objectively it can still look like “graffiti”? Still look “childlike”? Whatever the intention. Whatever the critical opinions.

A wry coda to the matter of money here is the fight which erupted over the substantial estate! Now that would be worth a painting? Arthur Boyd would have salivated at the prospect.

But for many people it may remain curious repetitive scribbling on a “blackboard”.

 

4/ The “Blackboard” images and Twombly’s Cursive.

Cy Twombly’s first “Blackboard” painting seems to be Cold Stream executed Rome, 1966, not New York. It’s very similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings of 1968 but a bit bigger. All three feature 6 horizontal lines of repetitive cursive lasso scrawl.

 

b3

1966, Cold Stream, Rome, oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm.

b4

1966 Untitled, Rome. Industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm.

Then two other paintings from Rome in 1966 are broadly similar, both of similar size, but with different markings, both with square box-like cursive scrawl (Night Watch, distemper and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, and Untitled, industrial paint and crayon on canvas, 190 x 200 cm, see above).

A number of other similar images followed, Untitled (1968, oil-based house paint and crayon on canvas, 173 x 216cm, MOMA), Untitled (1968, oil, chalk and tempera on cloth, 172.7 x 215.9 cm), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm), Untitled (Rome) (1970, 155.5 x 190 cm, sold by Christie’s November 2014 for $69m, similar to the two Sotheby’s paintings, but only 4 lines of cursive scrawl. See below), Untitled (1970, distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm, ie larger, four lines of less regular cursive scrawl, see below), and Untitled (1971, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm).

So the two Sotheby’s paintings have some company.

b5

1970, Untitled (Rome), Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 155.5 x 190 cm (NOTE: sold for cUS$60m October 2014);

b6

1970, Untitled, Rome? Distemper and chalk on canvas, 345.5 x 495.3 cm

b7

1970, Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 70.5 x 100 cm.

b8

1971 Untitled, distemper and chalk on canvas, 198 x 348 cm.

But the cursive visual device stayed with Twombly, now and then.

It returned in 1982 with Suma (oil, crayon etc,143 x 128cm) and Untitled (oil stick etc, 100 x 70cm), both red whorls.

And in 2005 with Notes from Salalah, now dripping bold white scrawl on black, and especially with the important Bacchus series, now big (panels over 3m by near 5m) bold red tangled loops.

Finally it returns in two late works, Untitled of 2008, three unusual panels (all c265 x 145cm) of ragged white loops on royal blue, and then his very last series, five colourful epressive panels of Camino Real, all thick dripping loops of red and orange against a middle green, a world away from the flimsy monotone of over 40 years earlier.

 

              b9

1982 Suma, Oil paint, crayon, gouache, graphite, and color pencil on paper, 142,5 x 127,5 cm

b10

1982 Untitled, oil stick, pencil, colour pencil on paper, 100 x 70 cm.

b11

2005 Untitled IV, (Bacchus).  Acrylic on canvas

b12

2005-07, III Notes from Salalah, Note III, Acrylic on wood panel, 243.8 x 365.8 cm

b14

  1. Camino Real (III). Acrylic on plywood, 252.4 x 185.1 cm


HARD TO VERIFY

1/ Pretentious?

Cy Twombly is nothing if not controversial, one of the more controversial of prominent recent (post ww2) artists, especially because his work is near all abstract, subjective, technically easy to execute (“child’s play”!): all scribble, splash, smear and rub, and now sells for plenty. Much of his work also comes bearing florid elaborate Classical references and the total package is lauded by many Serious Critics, the art establishment.

But stepping back it is hard not to read Twombly as determinedly pretentious. Even fustian! ”Pompous, pretentious”. Even if he was likely not consciously focussed in this.

This is especially because of how he sought to invest, load so much of his work with faux-gravitas, profound import, by summoning up references to classical or historical characters and events, through the image titles, then reinforced in many cases by incorporating relevant jottings of text.

This thematic career mission was in turn reinforced not least by him moving to Italy in 1957 (ie at 29), and, barring intermittent travel, for good, the next 56 years, living in Rome and later at Gaeta, on the Italian coast, south, between Naples and Rome.

Also Twombly’s comparative silence, his studious insouciance, reluctance to intervene with his own commentary to assist any understanding by his viewing public, only stoked curiosity.

Rather his comment might just polish his association with history’s achievers. So one time he over egged the pudding by associating himself with Poussin. “I would’ve liked to have been Poussin, if I’d had a choice, in another time.” Why stop there? Why not Rembrandt? Though the gap between Mr Twombly and Nicolas Poussin seems like from Earth to Pluto, other than that they both aimed to paint or interpret Classical subjects.

 b15

Three takes on “scribbling”: Rembrandt van Rijn, Self portrait, engraving 1630, and Cy Twombly  1957

 

b17

1957 Blue Room, Oil based house paint, wax crayon and pencil on canvas, 143 x 182cm.

 

2/ Empirical day dreaming. A taste test. Would Twombly  pass a blind tasting?

Take almost any Twombly work blind, anonymously, stripped of its obscure title, its full context, including its authorship, and ask, What does it really tell you?

Then add back the title, and ask, does it tell us any more?

Thus take Nine Discourses on Commodus (1963). One critic writes: “It would take many years for the true impact of the Commodus paintings to become apparent. Today.. [soon after they were received controversially on gallery debut in 1964] …. the strength of Twombly’s painting is no longer obscured by such polemics. The Commodus paintings – previously seen as peripheral …. now clearly occupy a unique and central position in the history of postwar painting.” (Nicholas Cullinan, 2009).

Really? That is hard- impossible? –  to evidentially justify, other than tautologically, by referencing other approbatory opinion?

Would the images mean any more even to historians informed about the Emperor Commodus? If at a blind tasting you asked these historians which Roman Emperor might the images pertain to, would any choose correctly?

Some critics associate the work with the darkening mood of the early 1960s, which witnessed the Cuban Missile crisis [Oct. 1962] and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [Nov. 1963]” (Carmen Giménez, 2008).

Except the works date from winter 1963 and therefore pre-date JFK’s death.

But this draws a long bow? Even if it’s difficult to relate the images to the life of Commodus, one wonders what contemporary 20th C relevance attaches to the career of this largely unimportant 2nd C AD Emperor, incompetent if colourful, self-absorbed and dissolute.

Or take the Coronation of Sesostris (2000, 10 large panels, each ~ 2 x 1.5 metres)? Sesostris, from writings by Herodotus was even more obscure, to the point of being semi-fictional, musing that this putative pharaoh led his soldiers north as far as Asia Minor and Greece! But here apparently the series is about “an ancient Egyptian myth of the sun’s journey from morning to night”, if extravagantly – pretentiously? – labelled. The critic continues: “the sequence begins with a big image of the sun that looks as if it was drawn by a 4-year-old with a red crayon…. the sun acquires wheels and is then carried by a boat… The sixth panel presents a poem about the departure of the gods by Patricia Waters….  the program closes with words from a classical poem: ”Eros weaver of myth, Eros sweet and bitter, Eros bringer of pain.”. Mr. Twombly’s quasi-scholarly erudition and calculated faux-primitivism can seem off-puttingly mannered; there is a certain Romantic grandiosity.. Still, the panoramic narrative as a whole is persuasive. Vigorously raw in some places, luminously beautiful in others, it offers a fine combination of emotive urgency and decorative elegance(Ken Johnson, NY Times, 2001). That gives Mr Twombly the benefit of the doubt!

Or take the later Bacchus series? One large (most over 3 x 4 metres) cursive red scribble / scrawl / drip drapeau upon another. The Tate (2008) remarks: The exhibition also explores how Twombly is influenced by antiquity, myth and the Mediterranean, for example the violent red swirls in the Bacchus 2005 paintings which bring to mind the drunken god of wine.” Really!? Or the melee of a battle? Or Alexander lost in Makran, by the Persian coast?

 

3/  The problem: verifiability? Twombly’ s worth is unprovable, mostly a matter of faith?

The ultimate challenge for the earnest applause for Twombly’s work, straying into the hagiographical, is that like religion it cannot be verified or falsified. It’s largely a matter of faith. For the converts it’s true because it’s true.

Thus Wikipedia writes: Writing and language also served as major conceptual foundations for Twombly’s mostly abstract art. In addition to the written word – in the form of poems, myths, and histories – he also focused on the process of writing, both by sketching unidentifiable doodles and splotches or words directly onto the canvas and by creating line-based compositions, often inspired by handwriting. Through these methods, he was often able to suggest subtle narratives that lay beneath the surfaces of his paintings.”

What “subtle narratives”?

 

HIS APPEAL

 

1/ The appeal of Cy Twombly? Religion and money.The mind (the thirst for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment), and the pocket (money)?

Why is he so popular with many serious critics? The professional art establishment leaders?

Two reasons?

First, the wondering Man’s instinctive appetite for intellectual cum spiritual nourishment, which propels wide-eyed intelligent observers into quasi-religious submission?

And second, more prosaically, money. Means to feed the cat.

 

2/  ……. The product

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

First, there’s plenty to play with. He was industrious, over a working span of around 60 years.

Second, though the output is near all abstract or quasi-abstract, there is enough variety (including a dash of the figurative) to be interesting. And many works (especially later) are fashionably large, and grouped in series.

But, third, and most importantly, his oeuvre is cleverly distinctive. Mr Twombly cultivated his “thing”, his angle, and stayed with it for decades, through a lethal combination of four factors:

  • First, his oeuvre is near all abstract, but with a tempting and constructive occasional flavour of the figurative.
  • Second, he developed an idiosyncratic informal, scratchy, scribbly style, including the repetitive cursive calligraphical device;
  • Third, and more important, he frequently resorted to informal allusive text additions;
  • Fourth, and also important, he relentlessly indulged recourse to the past for subjects, especially to the Greco-Roman classics, the learned atmosphere reinforced by the artist being based in Italy much of his working life, and by him keeping his own counsel on whatever his work might mean.

 

3/  ……. The market: the mind

Man is predisposed, wired to seek “spiritual enlightenment”, refreshment, nourishment, diversion, distraction.

Some choose the specifically, doctrinally religious, ranging from old fashioned Christianity to more recent man-made help yourself creations like Scientology.

Other stay secular but vulnerable to uncritical quasi-religious loyalty.

Man, the conscious curious Man, yearns for a greater understanding of his Total Predicament, given awareness of his mortality, evident since Adam, and, more recently, the revelations of hard working empirical science, ie that we are one species on one planet in one solar system in one of perhaps 170 billion galaxies, in this universe, which may not be the only one.

Thus he is is vulnerable to gullibility, to manifold cultural offerings which press the right buttons, which pander to, rouse and feed his “spiritual” desire.

And the total Twombly experience – his life and total oeuvre – is one such appealing package.

Twombly‘s long journey (recalling Odysseus! Who he left unremarked?) delivers a relentless, singular, carefree, diverse, detailed, and prolific opacity, an impenetrable obscurity, his “candid flailing”, Une Mystere Enveloppant, which keep him forever appealing and timeless!

His “best works are permanently embroiled in the present tense of their making” (Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 2005).

He becomes a seductive labyrinth? Something there for everyone? And once inside the oeuvre it is like the Minoan construct, hard to escape, especially for art critics soaked in art history. They cannot get enough of him. He turbocharges their pens unto a torrent of articulate convoluted engagement.

Surrendering to Twombly’s best art entails an odd transaction: confessing fundamental bewilderment in return for being granted a flare of exaltation…

As a type of artist, Twombly most closely approximates the classic dandy: provoking and impenetrable. (“He wants to produce an effect, but at the same time he couldn’t care less,” Barthes says.). Yet his manipulative aestheticism is prone to all manner of breakdowns, in shifting ratios of self-absorption and empty rhetoric…” (Peter Schjeldahl op.cit.).

 

Mr Twombly’s mutually reinforcing quartet of visual characteristics – his visual fingerprint – becomes a powerfully attractive cocktail for receptive minds, especially as anchored by the plenitude of allusions to the past, the Classics.

This tickles the art patrons palates, high and low, thirsty for intellectual nourishment, but beyond even unto the spiritual paddocks?

 

But if it works for these people who’s to say it’s any less valid for that. So long as we understand the wider context.

 

So it’s like many films, or operas, or just about any cultural work? Check your disbelief (and firearms) at the cloakroom before entering upon the relevant arena, the cinema or museum.

 

4/   ……. The market: the money

Many commentators are professionals conflicted through earning income from their engagement, bringing a vested interest. The art establishment – dealers, galleries and museums – have a big vested interest in promoting Mr Twombly, in fanning his reputation. And his controversy!

So their often enthusiastic judgements are not independent.

When a few square metres of scratch and scribble on canvas can fetch north of 50 million George Washingtons the quills of the complicit will relax a little.

And here Mr Twombly’s trademark idiosyncrasies work to fan the market, when they make it easy even for the uninitiated to know, yes that’s a Twombly.

So they like the controversy stoked by “..  his huge faux-naïve paintings” (Edmund White, 2015). It’s good for business. They like to play to the layman’s caution, the layman’s scorn for the “scribble”, the trite “kids could do this” So Twombly becomes a convenient cue to try to “help” explain why it really is art, that while his art might look simple this belies profound thought, complexity and insight if only you know how to detect and decipher it. Thus supporters stress it’s not childish scribble, rather it’s really really profound interaction with the past, his classical surroundings in Italy.

Twombly tried to differentiate himself too: Graffiti is linear and it’s done with a pencil, and it’s like writing on walls. But in my paintings it’s more lyrical…. My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake… to get that quality you need to project yourself into the child’s line. It has to be felt.”

 

THE OEUVRE

 

The total oeuvre: resolutely abstract, but incorporating the calligraphic and a small but important figurative component.

Cy Twombly’s output over a career of near 60 years (c1950-2010) was almost totally abstract, but more than some calligraphical elaboration, including text, and a small but important component of the figurative.

So his painterly range in terms of styles and subjects remained relatively narrow.

 

A chronology

He began in the early 50s with coarse abstract pictographic “glyphic” images, much like some of the (other) Abstract Expressionists, then he switched abruptly in 1955 (with Academy, Panorama etc) to a fine scribbling calligraphical style, largely colorless, monotone, through to Poems to the Sea of 1959. Restrained but distinctive!

Finding his own way. This was – and remains – important for any ambitious artist, the satisfaction of revealing an original contribution, but also striving to be noticed, not least to sell the product.

Color crept in after c1960 and in the first half of the 1960s he broadened to a more colourful busy abstraction, splodgy, scratchy, usually filling the canvas, like the Ferragosto series of 1961. The important 9 panel series in 1963 (Nine Discourses on Commodus) was simpler, retreated mostly to pairs of colorful whorls, some dripping.

From 1966 he shifted abruptly to images of monotone cursive calligraphical abstract, through to about 1971, the “blackboard”paintings.

Distinctively too, starting about the late 1950s, he added scratchy untidy informal text to many images, especially from later in the 1970s.

In the 1970s he returned to scratchy colourful abstraction, less ordered, using more and bolder scratchy text, with some figurative motifs, like in 50 Days at Iliam (1978).

Through the 1980s and 1990s (the artist now 50-70 years) the abstraction approach becomes generally more colourful and expressive: coarse, bold and colourful, sometimes using ragged floral-like motifs (eg varous Untitled), still adding informal untidy text and using some loose figurative references, eg the important series, Coronation of Sesostris of 2000 (10 panels) and Lepanto of 2001 (12 panels).

In 2005 with the Bacchus series he returned to the cursive with gusto, unleashed large panels of thick red cursive scribbling, which recall his monotone repetitive cursive scribbling starting 1966, from c40 years earlier.  Then 2007-08 he abruptly switched to large colourful (mostly red) circular floral daubs.

Finally (now 81) his 2009 Paphos series saw a return to crude figurative abstraction, but more colourful, and his final major series Camino Real, in 2010, returned to ropey colourful scribbling.

 

Aspects

The subject range is narrow.

There are no portraits, no landscapes, no town or urbanscapes, no genre scenes, no still lives?

Color mostly came later? We see signs by about 1960, gathering speed in 1963 with Commodus et al, but not before the 1990s did it show much boldness.

His output was prolific, in part, practically speaking, because his images were not technically difficult to execute?

And it includes a number of “blockbuster” series (eg Sesostris etc, Iliam etc, Lepanto etc, and Bacchus)

Many of his images are LARGE! In common with many of his early Abstract Expressionist brethren. So – especially if stitched into series – he can easily fill a room, make a statement, become an anchoring attraction at an exhibition.

Only in a few images are relevant sketchy figurative elements in evidence (eg Lepanto) so near all his work is abstract and therefore even more subjective, mostly splash and dash, scratch and scribble and daub and splodge, so any specific relationship of the image content to the appended elaborate titles is usually abstruse, obscure, in the eye of the beholder.

But the figurative / representational content is important, and perhaps more potent because its use is rationed.

 

His “thing”: the scratchy text, cursive scrawl, and the august subject allusions.

Like many contemporary artists Mr Twombly developed his “thing”, his differentiating angle.

Visually he did this above all by disordered scratchy textual adornment, and by repetitive cursive scribbling, both of which became distinctive, trademark expressive visual devices for Twombly.

A third important distinguishing angle was frequent recourse to the distant past for subjects and titles, to history and to the Greco-Roman Classics.

In particular, though many images are Untitled, in most images he inhabited, inveigled, exploited, tapped, mined, ransacked, cloaked his career and much of his work with ….. classical and other historical references, some iconic: eg 50 Days at Iliam (1978, 10 panels), Bacchus (2005); some obscure: eg Coronation of Sesostris (10 panels, 2001, from old Egypt, from a story by Herodotus of mysterious Egyptian Pharoah who ventured north into Asia Minor), and Nine discourses on Commodus (1963) (whose failed Roman emperorship started the 3rd C Time of Troubles); and some just history, like the Lepanto series (2001), re the famous 1571 sea battle between the Ottomans and some European countries.

And he also dared to dance with JMW Turner (Temeraire), and to embellish images by tapping literature, eg quoting Mallarme, Rilke, and Keats.

Not accidentally the textual additions reinforce the profound Classical allusions of the subjects. So in many of Twombly’s images the classical reference is emphasized, clarified by added text, more or less, scratchy and untidy, in “his ecstatic response to history, literature and other art, and the raw emotionalism that his mark making conveyed.” (Roberta Smith, 2011).

In seeking to make his mark – be noticed, recognised (especially in the commercial art market) through cultivating a distinctive visual thumbprint – he was not alone, cf Matisse, Picasso, Pollock. His “thing” is readily appreciated by the interested layperson, the voting public, so it remains vitally helpful for art professonals keen to promote the artist.

 

But not alone

But in craving meaning and gravitas for his abstract works by (in his case) adopting intriguing obscure titles tapping the Classics he was not alone.

Around 1950 in New York a number of his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters used the same tack. Thus Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman both campaigned hard to fashion Meaning from and for their ostensibly relatively simple abstract utterances.

 

Critics: many cannot get enough. In Heaven

Katharina Schmidt (2011, catalogue Dulwich exhibition): “Cy Twombly’s work can be understood as one vast engagement with cultural memory……His special medium is writing. Starting out from purely graphic marks, he developed a kind of meta-script in which abbreviated signs, hatchings, loops, numbers and the simplest of pictographs spread throughout the picture plane in a process of incessant movement, repeatedly subverted by erasures. Eventually, this metamorphosed into script itself…

And 1994 article by Kirk Varnedoe, rebuffed criticism that “This is just scribbles – my kid could do it”. “the art lies not so much in the finesse of the individual mark, but in the orchestration of a previously uncodified set of personal “rules” about where to act and where not, how far to go and when to stop, in such a way as the cumulative courtship of seeming chaos defines an original, hybrid kind of order, which in turn illuminates a complex sense of human experience not voiced or left marginal in previous art.

And Roberta Smith (NY Times. 2011), in an article reporting Twomb;y’s death, writes of the work “Panorama” (1955, ~ 2.6 x 3.4m) “in which he clearly had one eye on Jackson Pollock’s skeins of dripped paint, Mr. Twombly’s scattered, skittering thatches of chalk lines seemed like extensions of his own nervous system. Accruing randomly, like isolated thoughts or asides, they refused to imply any grand scheme or overreaching rhythm, which contributed to their psychological intimacy.” She concludes: ”His art revealed an enthralling calligraphic and diagrammatic universe teeming with meaning. His ultimate subject was nothing less than the human longing to communicate — to make meaning that others could apprehend and expand. It is an ancient loop, but in nearly everything he did Mr. Twombly exposed its wiring with a new clarity and exultant intensity. Few 20th-century artists corroborated as insistently Schiller’s assertion that “all art is dedicated to joy.””

And to the list we can add the relevant Sotheby’s catalogue authors (eg above).

 

LIFE NOTES

A life: some moments.

Born Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly Jr in Lexington, Virginia, April 25th 1928, CT was raised by a supportive family, at age 12 taking lessons with the Catalan modern master Pierre Daura. And he was well educated, studying Boston (1948-49), and at university in Lexington, Virginia (1949-50). Then 1950 to 1951 he studied at Art Students League of NY, where he met Rauschenberg, who encouraged him to Black Mountain College, N Carolina, where 1951-52 he studied with Kline and Motherwell. There the Rector of the College Charles Olson had a great influence on him.

Early influences were Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, and especially Kurt Schwitters’ collages? Later came Kline and Klee?

Through Robert Motherwell his first solo exhibition was held at Sam Kootz Gallery NY 1951.

In 1952 on a grant he travelled to North Africa (Morocco, with Paul Bowles), Spain, Italy, and France. Mostly with Rauschenberg.

1954, he served in the U.S. Army as a cryptographer in Washington, D.C, travelling to New York during periods of leave.

1955 through 1956, he taught in Virginia, vacationing in NY.

1957, Twombly moved to Rome, met the Italian artist Baroness Tatiana Franchetti – sister of his patron Baron Giorgio Franchetti and 1959 they married in NewYork. In 1959 they bought a palazzo on the Via di Monserrato in Rome. They lived too at a 17th-century villa in Bassano in Teverina, north of Rome. A son, Cyrus Alessandro Twombly was born 1959.

In 1964, Twombly met Nicola Del Roscio of Gaeta, who became his longtime companion. They bought a house and rented a studio in Gaeta in the early 1990s.

He died Rome 5th July 2011.

 

A taste…. of the oeuvre……….. Top 13

bb1

1951, Zyig, 41 x 51.5 cm;

 

bb2

1957 Blue Room Oil based house paint, wax crayon and pencil on canvas, 143 x 182cm.

 

                bb3

1961 Ferragosto IV, Rome.  Oil paint, wax crayon, and lead pencil on canvas, 165.5 x 204 cm

 

bb4

  1. Cold Stream, Rome, Oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 200 x 252 cm

 

bb5

1978. Fifty days at Iliam, Illians in battle, panel 8; Oil, oil crayon, and graphite on canvas, 299.7 x 379.7 cm

       

bb6

1989, Untitled.

 

 bb7

           1990, Liri, oil stick, pencil, color pencil

 

bb8

1993-95 Quattro Stagioni Primavera, Acrylic, oil, crayon, and pencil on canvas support, 313.22 x 189.5 cm, Tate Modern

 

bb9

2000 Coronation of Sesostris, panel 5, Acrylic, crayon, and pencil on canvas, 206 x 156.5 cm

 

bb10 Untitled VII 2005 (Bacchus). Acrylic on canvas, 317.5 x 468.6 cm

 

TWOMBLY - Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

TWOMBLY – Untitled [from Blooming. A Scattering of Blossoms and Other Things] (2007)

2007 Untitled, (Peony Blossom Paintings), Acrylic, wax crayon, pencil on wood, 252 x 551.9 cm (From blooming, a scattering of blossoms and other things)                                

 

 bb12

  1. The Rose (IV). Acrylic on plywood, 252 x 740 cm

 

bb13

           Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves (V). Acrylic on canvas, 267.4 x 212.3 cm.

 

 

 

Barnett (“Spruiker”) Newman – The curious peregrinations of the modern art market………

Black Fire I (below), a painting by Barnett Newman completed in 1963, sold for US$84.1 million, sorry $84.2 million, in May 2014 in New York. And apparently the much larger Anna’s Light (1968) changed hands in October 2013 for a record price for the artist of US$105.7 million. Onement VI (1953) sold May 2013 for US$43.8 million.

Camera 360

 

On the face of it these were not technically difficult images to create and the visual content is simple, even very simple. Passable reproductions of the images seem within the capacity of most adults with the right brushes and paint (and masking tape?), and the time and the will.

As such for a viewer peering through detached “empiricist” Lockean spectacles – “what you see is what you get” – the values conferred on the paintings by the current art market seem extraordinary.

This is far from a luminously original observation but given the money and images involved it’s hard not to ponder the matter.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was an intriguing artist.

Born in Manhattan, New York City, of immigrant Polish Jewish parents (who had left then Russian Poland) he trained in art early and in 1931 started teaching art, as a substitute teacher. Apparently he also started painting in the 1930s but nothing survives. His earliest surviving work dates from 1944 (at age 38) by when he was deep into the NY art scene. Friends included (now) famous painters Rothko, Sill, and Pollock. And in 1945 he met important gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1945.

He was busy painting, he helped organise shows, and he was also a keen writer, like art reviews and forwards for catalogues. He was lively, gregarious and opinionated. Thus in 1938 he organised a protest exhibition of art works after “failing” official art exams, a gambit from which of course the French Impressionists famously benefited. By the late 1940s he was painting prolifically and from 1947, in a bold move, he quit teaching to paint full time, supported by his wife “for the next 17 years” (cf Barnett Newman Foundation). Yes a brave move, but, with hindsight, a profoundly prescient uxorial commitment.

His entire (surviving) work, his complete oeuvre – apart from a few early “gestural” abstract pictures – features his trademark Color Field / “zip” style paintings – ie areas of usually uniform colour separated by one or more thin vertical lines he called “zips”. This style started to emerge in 1946 (eg oil painting, Moment) and arrived 1948 with Onement I, a small (69 x 41cm) oil painting. Variations on this approach was pretty much it for his remaining 22 years.

He is usually described as an “Abstract Expressionist” painter but this term is very confusing because it includes two quite distinct approaches to abstract images, one being the dense expressive crowded “gestural”, “action” images typified by Pollock and de Kooning (who, in another complication, included figurative components), and the second being the quieter, cleaner, geometric, flat coloured area images typified by Rothko and also Newman, the so-called Color Field style, using large areas of generally uniform color.

Though his signature images began in the late 1940s, alongside the famous names like Pollock and Rothko, critical approval came slowly for Newman and for three years (1952-55) he even withdrew from showing in galleries altogether. It was not until the early 1960s, over a decade later, that he began to get traction, by which time the contemporary art scene had moved on, but ironically had moved on in part to the simpler colourful geometric abstraction with which Newman’s work easily affiliates.

Barnett Newman had plenty to say, not least about art and his work, and was avowedly polemical, if abstruse, seeking to carve an ambitious intellectual edifice to support, justify his corpus of apparently simple art.

However given the simple stark abstraction in his work it is perhaps unsurprising that his writings were mostly oblique or allegorical or even vague and elusive. But paradoxically his earnest if mercurial and grandiloquent utterances may be an important reason his paintings now sell so dearly. We are buying the package.

Thus in “the Plasmic Image” (1943-1945, as quoted in “Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics”, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrahams Publishers, New York 1990) he wrote:

“The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into metaphysical secrets. To that extend his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life which is its sense of tragedy.”
The present painter can be said to work with chaos not only in the sense that he is handling the chaos of the blank picture plane, but also in that he is handling the chaos of form. In trying to go beyond the visible and the known world he is working with forms that are unknown even to him. He is therefore engaged in a true act of discovery in the creation of new forms and symbols that will have the living quality of creation.”
“ …it can be said that the artist like a true creator is delving into chaos. It is precisely this that makes him an artist for the Creator in creating the world began with the same material, for the artist tries to wrest truth from the void….”
The new painter is therefore the true revolutionary, the real leader who is placing the artist’s function on its rightful plane of the philosopher and the pure scientist who is exploring the world of ideas, not the world of the senses… …so the artist is today giving us a vision of the world of truth in terms of visual symbols…”

And in ‘The Sublime is Now’, in “The Ides of Art, Six Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?”, Tiger’s Eye (New York), No.6 (15 December 1948), pp. 52-53, he argued for his own back yard:

The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation….. I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it… We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings….. without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Grand visions indeed from the florid spruiker!

And notwithstanding that abstraction was not then unknown in earlier “European art”!

Even stark unambiguous between-the eyes abstraction not inconsistent with the “sublime”, like Malevich’s square from 1915 and Mondrian hammering away singularly for a couple of decades after 1920 with his colourful grids.

And what specifically does any of what he writes have to do with Barnett Newman’s paintings, other than he was the author of both? Mr Newman’s musings could easily apply to the output of other abstract painters.

Dare one say it approving disciples of Mr Newman’s work seem to be approaching their task with an uncritical self-serving quasi-religious mindset.

Postwar Europe (and also Canada) as well as post war New York was busy with abstract painters, of which category the now famous New York Abstract Expressionists (diverse a group as they are), anointed royally by the commercial art market, are a subset.

Just as artists after World War 1 reacted strongly, extravagantly to that numbing catastrophe (ie Dada and beyond) so was this total group after World War 2 apparently coming to grips with the shattering improbable reality of a second catastrophe within a generation.

Which is far fetched. Be interesting to run “blind tastings” of all this early post WW2 art and see how many viewers smell global combat catastrophe there.

And intriguing too is that the images content of the famous few like Pollock is not drastically different from that pertaining to work by any artists known only to afficionados and art market professionals, except that the images of the famous few are generally larger.

But of course now given the disproportionate values bestowed by the commercial art market on a small coterie of abstract painters (and also to a handful of the later Pop Art practitioners), there are relevant vested interests vigorously defending these dramatic market values.

Meanwhile…..?!

Behold the “abstraction” / “quasi-abstraction” one can whip up one afternoon with a simple digital camera and associated image-fiddling software, all slotting somewhere between the poles of “Color Field” and “Gestural expressive”.

Wse, Sunday 30th November 2014, and Saturday 3rd Jan. 2016