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?



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.



  • 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.




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



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



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?


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.



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.



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



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.


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.



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.



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 …………..


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


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


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


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


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?


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.


  • 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.



  • 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.



  • 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.



  • “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.”


 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


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


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


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


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



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



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?


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.


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.


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.


  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.



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.


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?


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

Manierre Dawson: Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)

Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

  • Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
  • His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
  • But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
  • This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
  • Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
  • Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
  • But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.


FEATURED IMAGE:  1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum


1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California

COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.


1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.

COMMENT:  striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?

Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.


1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.

COMMENT:  another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.



Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.

Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.

This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.

First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.

Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?

Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.

So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.

Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.

Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.


Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.

But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.


Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?

Dawson will remain something of an enigma.

Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.

So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.

Interesting too  is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.


He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.



Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910

Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.

There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.

In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.

The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?

Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.


Why abstract for him?

Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.

This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.


Dawson on where his art comes from?

Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.

In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.

“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.

All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.

But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”

This doesn’t seem to say much?

Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?



As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.

Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.

And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.

He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.

So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.


Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?

Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.

So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.


But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?

There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.

Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.

Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.

Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.

The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.


Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.

But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.

Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.


Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.


Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.


What if?

The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?

Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.


His path:  the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.

Pre 1910

Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).

December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.

1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .


1910: abstraction

Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.


1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism

But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.

Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.

This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.

His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?

So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.

His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).

Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).

In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.


1912: more abstraction

Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.

Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.

Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky

Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.

And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.

Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.

And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).


1913: more abstraction

1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.

It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.

Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.

Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.

We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).

And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.

Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.


1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)

Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.

For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase.  Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.

Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.


Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:

Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.

Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.

But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.


1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.

1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.

Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.

Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.

The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.

Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.

Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.


After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.

His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.

Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.

Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.

He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”



Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.

He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.



Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.

Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.

Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.

Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.

Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969

A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981

Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.

Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.

Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.

Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.

Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.



Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.

Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”

Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.

But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.

In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.

Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914

Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.

April 1913 he left his architectural job.

In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).

The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections.

Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.

Mid 1914 he quit full time art.

He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..

Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.

In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).

some works………




1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum



1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC



1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans






1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”



1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum




1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”…  1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior….  We see a female looking out a window. …  a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’




1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum




Manierre Dawson, 1950s?

COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs

Otto Freundlich: between the cracks

Otto Freundlich (1878-1943, 64).

Between the cracks: pioneering German Modernist painter/sculptor, but now overlooked, eg, mystifyingly, by MOMA’s big 2013/14 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition.



Otto Freundlich is an odd fish, an apparently awkward outsider, of Jewish extraction, born and raised in Germany but whose career and life became enmeshed with France, who left a handful of front rank pioneering Modernist works, but who as a Jew was betrayed by French collaborators and gassed by the Nazis in 1943.

His overall oeuvre was narrow, succumbing to relentless geometric abstraction, his art motivated by a vague didactic utopian sensibility, but his few signature works, especially the large 1911 abstract painting, are memorable.

Curiously he is now largely forgotten, overlooked in conventional histories, to the extent that – strikingly – he was completely ignored by the MOMA’s comprehensive 2013/2014 exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925”. Not one mention.

But by any reckoning his iconic large (2 x 2m) 1911 oil painting, Composition (now hanging at Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) is an historically pioneering abstract work, given its date (alongside Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia and Delaunay), its size, and its distinctive abstraction motif. Also it was painted in the then heart of contemporary art, in Paris, alongside now famous other relevant artists.

Three factors have worked against his ex-post recognition?

First, his pioneering contribution was restricted to a handful of works (the 1911 painting and some sculptures). Then for some reason, beyond WW1, for over 20 years his painting retreated to variations on “mosaical” coloured geometric abstraction.

Second, though he was widely connected in the art world, in Germany and Paris, and keenly pursued his art, thought and wrote about art, he largely worked alone, operated mainly on the edge of the wider art community, did not engage readily. Thus he also generally struggled financially. However he was acknowledged by many well known artists, particularly later in France, like at the June 1938 Paris exhibtion.

Third, a significant portion of his output was lost, destroyed by the Nazis, some through bombing of Germany in WW2. Also, in Paris a large museum owned triptych was lost during WW2.

Sadly during WW2 he was gassed by the Nazis. After a difficult war in France as a Jew, undergoing periodic internment, in early 1943 he was denounced by collaborators, arrested and railed by complicit French authorities to a Nazi death camp in Poland, dying the day he arrived, 9 March 1943.


Abstraction was the heart of Freundlich’s art. But his painting oeuvre is oddly narrow.

In 1911 (age 33) he executed his striking large two metre square abstract Composition. He apparently thought about this work, basing it on “the curve”:Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.” The painting embodies a new “cosmic ethic”(Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

 Thereafter all his paintings were variations on colourful “mosaical”, patchwork geometric abstraction and generally small, none of them as large as the singular 1911 work.

Freundlich worked in various other media, especially sculpture (but only a handful of works), also mosaics, stained glass and carpets.

And he wrote a lot, publishing in various journals.

Coming from an actively Leftist political mindset, and actively engaged with many relevant contemporary art groups, Abtsraction-Creation, Freundlich intended his art to have constructive socio-political meaning and purpose and therefore no particular aesthetic relevance. But though he was well connected with the Left the purpose of his art for him – ie the ubiquitous abstraction – was not overtly political (as it was say for artists like Dix and Grosz ) but rather socio-spiritual, centred on promoting a quasi-religious future-oriented utopian communism, freed of “possessiveness” and people being “objects’.

Thus he was keen on Spinoza, was religious but not conventionally. “Religion has nothing at all to do with God. A man may be religious without believing in God .” He seems to have been influenced too by German mysticism, by Swedenborg.


He was born in then Prussia (in Stolp, today Slupsk in Poland, on the Baltic Coast of Eastern Pomerania), moved to Berlin, initially studied dentistry (!), then art. June-August 1905 he walked over the Alps to Florence, stayed till November, back to Munich January 1906, thence back to Florence October 1906 to January 1907.

He returned to Berlin, thence to Paris in 1908 (what a time), to Montmartre, to the famous artists’ boarding house there,, Bateau Lavoir, meeting Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain and Apollinaire etc.

July 1908 he returned to Munich, but was back to Paris 1909, to Montparnasse (settling there March 1913) and Montmartre (where the Clovis Sagot gallery organised a show).

1909 he attended an artist colony in Fleury-en-Bière in the forest of Fontainebleau, but returned Berlin January 1910, joined the Berlin Secession, returning Paris in autumn 1910.

In Berlin 1911 with the Neue Sezession group he met Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (founder of Die Brücke) and also the historian Wilhelm Niemeyer, the Hamburg art historian Rosa Schapire, and collector Josef Feinhals from Cologne.

1911 back in Paris he now met with sculptor Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, and Modigliani. November, he began work on his famous sculpture Der neue Mensch, acquired 1912 by Musee de Hambourg..   

1913 he participated in the famous Berlin exhibition of Der Sturm.

1914 he worked at Chartres Cathedral, helping to restore the north tower “For five months I was prisoner of the world at Chartres and I have emerged marked for ever…”.

War in 1914 forced a return to Germany. He became political after WW1, a member of the Left wing /socialist November Group (Novembergruppe) along with Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch etc).

During WW1 he worked in the health service but stayed active in art with friends like Raoul Hausmann (also in the anarchist artists group Kommune ), Hannah Höch and those in the Dadaist circles of Berlin.

November 1919 he organised a Dada show in Koln, with Max Ernst.

He gained patrons during the war, like Cologne businessman Joseph Feinhals whose collection was alas destroyed in WW2.

1922 showed with Artistes Progressistes de Düsseldorf.

1925 he returned to Paris, reacquainted with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Max Jacob. There he showed regularly at the Salon des Indépendants.

May 1928, he began his monumental sculpture, Ascension, finished in the summer of 1929 and showed at the Abstrakte Kunst und Surrealismus exhibition in Zurich.

1930 he joined the “Cercle et Carré” (Circle and Square) abstraction group in Paris, founded 1929 and which mounted a big exhibition April 1930 at Galerie 23. He then joined Abtsraction-Creation (eg with with Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Herbin, Moholy-Nagy, Wolfgang Paalen, Alfred Reth, and Kurt Seligmann), which absorbed Cercle et Carré.

These groups consciously differentiated from Surrealism and the post WW1 return to representational art, like Classicism.

1934 he participated in the Salon des Independants in Paris, began seeking French nationality with support including Georges Braque, but was unable to raise enough money and was denied.

The Nazis came to power January 1933 in Germany, later condemned his work which was included in the 1937“ Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) show.

In Paris he joined Union of Artistes Allemands (Union of German Artists, or Freier Künstlerbund, founded autumn 1937, with Max Ernst, Hans Hartung etc

In June 1938 Gallery owner Jeanne Bucher-Myrbor organized an important exhibition of his work just before his 60th birthday. Over 20 friends and artist colleagues (including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst) signed an appeal to the French government to purchase two works for the National Museum of Modern Art in order to support the destitute artist.

Until 1939 he worked in a ground-floor studio in a backyard of No. 38 Rue Denfert Rochereau (now Rue Barbusse), near the Luxembourg Gardens.

September 1939 as a German national he was interned in France, with fellow Germans, Max Ernst, Wols, and Springer. Numerous artists signed an appeal of support, including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst.

Between September 1939 and March 1942 he was detained in about 9 establishmnts.

On release in February 1940 he declined advice to emigrate to Switzerland and was detained again mid May 1940, released 20 June. Now he took refuge in the eastern Pyrenees at Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet. But foolishly attracted attention by protesting at having to register as a Jew. In 1942 he was hidden by a farm family in Saint-Martin-de-Fenouillet. He was betrayed and arrested on 23 February 1943. Railed via Drancy in Paris to Majdanek (Poland) on 4 March, he was murdered the day he arrived, 9th March 1943.

2017 Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism”, exhibition, February 18 – Mai 14, 2017; Mu­se­um Lud­wig, Cologne

Selected works………..


1911. Composition 200 x 200cm, Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) de la Ville de Paris.

COMMENT: This is a pioneering abstract image, using an unusual abstract style, by the artist’s own words based on the “curve”, “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”).

It was completed in the early days of the emergence of abstraction, alongside the now famous names like Mondrian and Kandinsky, and other pioneers like Delaunay and Kupka and Picabia, but executed by an artist very few know.

The abstraction patterning could be construed as organic or even mineralogical.

MAM (Paris): This early abstract painting by Otto Freundlich (1978-1943), painted in Paris in 1911…. contemporary with the paintings that established abstraction by Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay. Composition (1911), which is a perfect square, is a pivotal, large-scale work, typical of the passage from expressionism to the early phase of abstraction. In this painting… observation of nature is the point of departure for new “representations”. Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”.


1912 ‘Large Head’ / Großer Kopf (labelled The New Man / Der Neue Mensch by the Nazis), plaster, 1.39m high.

COMMENT: Owing to its provenance this became Freundlich’s most famous work. Thus it was included in the Nazis infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition and publicised by being featured on the cover of the catalogue.


1923, Head (Self Portrait)


1930, Composition, oil on canvas, Musées de Pontoise


1931, Composition, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal,


1933, Mein roter Himmel (My Red Heaven),


  1. 1941. Rosette II (La Rosace II), gouache on cardboard.


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”.



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’….


  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).


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.



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


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.


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


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


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


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.



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


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


2005 Untitled IV, (Bacchus).  Acrylic on canvas


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


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


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.


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



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”?




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 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.



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).



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


1951, Zyig, 41 x 51.5 cm;



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



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



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



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



1989, Untitled.



           1990, Liri, oil stick, pencil, color pencil



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



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)                                



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



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




Hieronymus BOSCH Nothing „modern“ here: „Be good or else!“

Hieronymus BOSCH

(c1450 born Jerome (Joen / Jheronimus) van Aken (from Aachen), died 9 August 1516, age c66. Born and died in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Duchy of Brabant, southern Netherlands)

 A skilled idiosyncratic artist on a relentless one man reactionary didactic Christian mission

  •  Bosch was devoutly orthodox, conservative, applying his consumate painterly skills and a unique vivid visionary figurative imagination relentlessly to his reactionary polemical moralising, scolding the fallen sinful Man
  • And also his tarnished Church?
  • Striking is that he painted not one „secular“ non-moralising painting. He was 100% business.
  • He was categorically NOT modern. Critics who argue this, like Rachel Campbell-Johnston and Waldemar Januszczak confuse his purpose and the content of his work.
  • Yes his extensive lurid fantastical imagery resonates with the modern world, with interest in psychology, Man’s inner world.
  • But so do Bronze Age Cycladic figurines of the 3rd millenium BC, and „primitive“ African art.
  • Ironically Bosch painted in the early 16th C on the brink of the seachanging Reformation, as the Renaissance gathered pace in Italy and northern Europe.
  • But his response to the winds of change –his mindset and his art purpose – was hard core Medieval and patently anti-modern, looking back not ahead.
  • However while his reactionary moralising was conventional his art style and content was not. It was different, unusual for his time, in his adaptation of the triptych for his visual sermons, in his elaborate distinctive iconography.
  • According to one source some of his iconographic epiction drew on the then popular pseudo-science of alchemy, but applying a Christian interpretation.


Bosch, c1489 St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (and detail,a beetle-rat)…………


Saint John the Baptist, by Jheronimus Bosch

Saint John the Baptist *oil on panel *48,5 x 40 cm *1489 or later

sir stanley spencer, 1939, christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies…….

ah-art spencer 1939 christ in the wilderness, consider the lilies

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (active near Strasbourg), c1440-50, Arrest of Christ…….. an astonishing image.

Master of the Karlsruhe Passion, c1440-50, Arrest of Christ




Bosch was one off, a skilled singular artist, marrying: 1/ a powerful pessimistic didactic / polemical mission or purpose; and 2/ great technical art skills, in drawing and painting; and 3/ a powerful well-read imaginative mind.

Man of mystery?

No. Bosch was above all a product of his times: applying his powerful if unusual visual methods to sustained polemical promotion of his reactionary Christian message.

 Bosch the mainstream hardcore Christian moralist

  • It is common to style Bosch as a man of mystery, about whose life little is known, and whose art is strange and obscure.
  • But confusion over the broad meaning of his art is misleading, if not disingeuous. There is valid debate over the details of the welter of intricate imagery, but there is little doubt about his overall work purpose.
  • Bosch was a devout staunch orthodox Christian, conservative and reactionary, and all his work was informed by a powerful didactic moralising mission, earnest moral lecturing deploying two major themes:
    • Warning feeble, gullible, sinful Fallen Man to behave, to be good or else! The stick.
    • But also, on the positive side, offering the carrot! So his art also depicted Man’s scope for redemptive progress, for salvation through emulation, through „living like Christ“ (eg popularied by Thomas a Kempis‘ popular „The Imitation of Christ“) and like the Saints.
  • Painted on the brink of the seachange that would be the Reformation, Bosch’s work strongly reflects his historic context, the political and religious disquiet. He lived and worked in a region well aware of the relevant keen intellectual debates. Thus Erasmus was partly educated in Bosch’s town.
  • But his response was sternly pessimistic and reactionary. He was loyal to his Church and the Papacy, though critical of its lapses, perhaps, like some others, favoring a Revolution in the sense of the Church going back to the apostolic roots.
  • Evidencing the relentless focus of Bosch’s mindset is that his oeuvre is totally religious and polemical. There is not a single secular portrait, unlike for the great preceding Flemish painters Jan Van Eyck (c1390-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464) in whose footsteps Bosch painted. Both these forebears were active 50-60 years earlier and both painted a number of non-religious portraits.
  • He painted some secular genre scenesCutting the stone (1475-80, Prado, now attributed to a follower), The Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam), and The Conjourer (1502, known only by a copy) – but all these carry a Christian moral message.
  • In the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” Director of the Het Noordbrabants Museum (which hosted the major 2016 exhibition) Dr Charles de Mooji suggests Bosch’s work shows a streak of humour? But this seems far fetched given that all Bosch’s output was “business”?
  • Bosch repeatedly stressed the fallen Man: human folly, Man as fallible, gullible (eg falling for magic), tempted by sin, evil, as depicted in the famous triptych, The Haywain, c1500-02, a later work, based on a Flemsh proverb: „The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can, set in rolling landscape showing Fallen Man, seduced by wealth (symbolised by hay), hapless in his material indulgence and promiscuity (the vase), unwitting, oblivious to his sinful condition, watched by an owl (the Devil’s associate), being towed by demons towards the halls of punishment. Hell! The warning!


But a one off artist: with singular technical skills and artistic imagination

  • But while his polemical purpose was mainstream Bosch was a singular, one off artist in his execution.
  • He was a uniquely idiosyncratic artist, marrying powerfully imaginative contentsupernatural, visionary – with consumate technical artistic skills, through outstanding draughtsmanship and painting.
  • For his day – for any day! – Bosch‘s visual imagery was uniquely imaginative, especially in the visionary, supernatural dream-like scenes: dramatic, fantastical, grotesque, and bizarre.
  • He also cleverly employed searing confronting realism in the detailed imagery, like the bloody footprint of the scourged Jesus in Ecce homo (c1475, Frankfurt), and the spiked blocks at his feet in Christ carrying the cross (> 1500, Vienna, which neatly pairs with an image of the child Jesus with a walking frame on the reverse side).
  • The triptych format – traditionally used to advertise specific religious (Biblical) narratives, especially in churches – Bosch adapted for his purposes, for his grand moral sermons.
  • While Bosch seems not to have travelled much, lived and worked in the same town, the extensive detail evident in his iconography presumably reflects wide reading, tapping many sources, thus taking advantage of the radical consequences of the printing press emerging in early 15th C, which helped fan intellectual debate.


Bosch was noticed in his time, and still is

  • Bosch became well known in his time an soon after. His works were copied and disseminated in prints, and he was collected keenly by the nobility, and the Hapsburg court, including Philip II of Spain.
  • However despite his popularity his life details are sketchy, not well known, other than he was well off and a well-placed committed member of the conservative Church establishment in his important home town of s-Hertogenbosch, in southern Netherlands.
  • But Bosch’s unusual work confused some observers closer to his time. Some in the 16th C saw the fantastical dream-like content of his work as superficial, “created merely to titillate and amuse, much like the “grotteschi” of the Renaissance, in contrast to traditional emphasis on “the physical world of everyday experience” Thus in 1560 the Spaniard Felipe de Guevera wrote Bosch was regarded merely as “the inventor of monsters and chimeras“. In the early 17th C the artist-biographer Karel von Mander “described Bosch’s work as comprising “wondrous and strange fantasies””.
  • And still does.
  • Thus, in particular, the meaning of Bosch’s most famous work, the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1490-1510, Prado) remains controversial. Many read it as Bosch again warning fallible Man to behave or else, but some (cf Laurinda Dixon) instead see the work fit within an alchemical framework, not least because the „sinners“ in the strange centre panel don’t appear like real sinners, seem like they are „pre-Fall“, still in paradise. The Medieval pseudo- or proto-science of alchemy reflects in other works, presumably its tenets can be interpreted as meshing with Christian thought.


Bosch and the Modern? Bosch a Renaissance painter? No, of course not. He was Medieval not proto-Modern.  

  • Bosch’s striking unique 15th C visual fantasies have intrigued modern observers.
  • Most scholars correctly see Bosch as a man of his turbulent times, see work reflecting “the orthodox religious belief systems of his age”, though debate remains over detailed interpretations of some images.
  • But Waldemar Januszczak (March 2016) provocatively labels Bosch “Modern, not medieval” in promoting his new BBC tv series, “The Renaissance Unchained”, in which he takes on the “jingoistic Florentine multi-tasker Giorgio Vasari” for his misleading emphasis on the Italians and frecoes and instead champions Northern Europe (and oil painting) as being far more influential on the Modern.
  • So he backsthe inventive artistic firebrandBosch as a Renaissance painterWithout him there would be no Goya, no Dali, no Magritte, no Beckmann, no Chapman brothers… no dark and violent envisionings of hell on earth””
  • But surely he misrepresents to sell his show. Yes Northern Europe certainly contributed to emergence of the Modern but not through Bosch. As we see here, while Bosch was (as Mr Januszczak notes) a close contemporary of Leonardo, he was clearly Medieval not “Modern”, as Mr Januszczak explains! His “art was intended as a pictorial sermon, warning us of the outcome of lust and sin… This is hardcore Christianity, so fierce and obvious..”.
  • Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the film “The Curious World of Hieronymous Bosch” joins Mr Januszczak, claims Bosch’s art “transcends his time” and looks ahead to Goya etc.
  • Both critics have the wrong end of the stick?
  • Rather, what has inspired the Modern is some of the visual content of Bosch’s method, not his mindset, his means of sermonising: his vivid, theatrical, unnatural fantasizing in his depiction of Christian concepts, especially Hell. So ironically the method of this distinctly un-Modern painter resonates well with the Modern, especially modern interest in psychology, Man’s inner world, the subconscious.
  • And this is far from unusual. The objective content of much traditional art, from many times and jurisdictions, has inspired Modern artists, though the artists responsible were in no way “modern”.
  • Look at the important influence of:
  • 1/ Japanese prints in the late 19th C; and
  • 2/ “primitive” African (and other) art, c 1905. And
  • 3/ the “unnatural” imagery of a number of other Medieval artists, especially the like-minded reactionary, conservative, orthodox painters from the so-called ‘International Gothic’ appeal to modern artists, eg the Sienese Giovani de Paolo (,c1403-82, St Nicholas of Tolentino saving wrecked ship (1455)), and even Bosch contemporaries like German painter Mathias Grunewald (1475-1528).
  • An interesting analogous case study concerns the important late 19th C American painter James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903). Despite painting alongside the unfolding Modern art revolution, Whistler basically remained a Neo-Romantic, reacting against the then erupting European economies and its profound impact on cities and country and working people, focussed almost entirely on his own aesthetic quest (in his case non-religious), “art for art’s sake”.
  • While the subject matter of his famous waterscape Nocturne images from around the 1870s was clearly traditional, their quasi-abstract style (influenced by the then fashion for Japanese prints) was prescient, unintentionally appealing to the Modern painters


Bosch’s oeuvre: controversy

  • Determining Bosch’s precise oeuvre has been a painstaking long winded exercise, and is ongoing.
  • The application of relevant new technologies (eg estimating the the age of wood panels via dendrochronology) in modern times has trimmed the number of paintings attributed to his hand to only around 25. The number of attributed drawings is now 20.
  • The major research project out of s-Hertogenbosch (Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) in connection with the major exhibition there February / May 2016, “Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a Genius”, ie 500 years since he died, ) has trimmed the list further, though added at least one too.



Context – regional history

  • Profound and disturbing change arrived in his home region soon after Bosch was born. The Duchy of Brabant became part of the Valois Duchy of Burgundy in 1430, ie part of the Burgundian Netherlands. The Burgundy Duchy then extended from east central France up into the Low Countries, and had been a great patron of culture for a century or more.
  • Firstly, fatefully, in 1477 Burgundy’s independence suddenly ended when the last Duke, Charles I (the Bold?!), was killed fighting in France but left no heir. The Hapsburgs Maximilian I quickly married Duke Charles‘ only child, Mary, then their son Philip the Fair then married Joanna of Castile in 1495, so Burgundy was swallowed by Hapsburg Spain.
  • Secondly across Europe there was trouble brewing in the Church, culminating in the momentous Reformation, which sundering process was inaugurated by Luther at Wittenberg in 1516.
  • Thirdly, the growing political and religious disquiet, and the looming of year 1500, stoked support for extremist apocalyptic ideas.


Context  – Hertogenbosch religious life

  • s-Hertogenbosch had a strong religious life, focussed on its major church, St John’s cathedral, including many religious orders, at least 50 monasteries and churches at or nearby, “a devotional abundance”.
  • The cathedral was “begun in the late fourteenth century on the site of an older structure and …completed in the sixteenth, it is a fine example of Brabantine Gothic, noteworthy for its wealth of carved decoration. Of particular interest are the rows of curious figures, monsters and workmen, sitting astride the buttresses supporting the roof, some of which bring to mind the fantastic creatures of Bosch.”
  • The town also hosted two houses of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, known as the Modern Devotion (Devotio moderna), a lay order founded by 14th C mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck (d. 1381), and influenced especially by Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, written in the early 15th century, proposing Man for his religious edification should be more hands on, trying to live a life more like Christ, all part of a growing Northern reformist movement inside the Church favouring a return to its Apostolic roots.


Context  – popularity of apocalyptic thought

  • A number of Bosh’s paintings refer directly to apocalyptic thought coming from Revelations, especially the two Last Judgement triptychs (Vienna, c1476, commissioned 1504 by Philip the Handsome, son of Maximilian I; and another at Bruges, c1480), plus two panels in Rotterdam (Flood and Devastation by Fire) and the four Afterlife Panels in Venice.
  • There was an outbreak of apocalyptic anxiety c1000D, and a number of times thereafter, partly enouraged by Joachim of Fiore’s 12th C prophesies. The world did not end 1260, as he expected, but then gullible believers rationalised this by saying his calculations were out! Thus the year 1500, about a millenium after the Church was established, brought on another irrational wave of fear.
  • Durer’s famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen (1498) was inspired by these circumstances.


Context  – Flemish, Netherlands and German art

  • Bosch’s main Flemish predecessors were Robert Campin (c1378-1444, worked out of Tournai), Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441, based Bruges), Rogier van der Weyden (c1400-1464, trained with Campin, worked Brussels), famous for smooth detailed oil paintings.
  • Important earlier near contemporaries were Dieric (Dirk) Bouts (1415-75) in Louvain, Hans Memling (1430-1494) in Bruges, and Hugo van der Goes (1440-82) in Ghent. Following him were Gerard David (1460-1523, mainly in Bruges), landscapist Joachim Patinir (1480-1524, in Antwerp)an especially Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c1525/30-69).
  • Flanders was wealthier than the Netherlands in the early /mid 15th C.
  • Later much Dutch art of this period (eg from Haarlem) was destroyed in Protestant iconoclastic riots of Reformation.
  • Bosch was an almost exact contemporary of Leonardo (1450- 1519) and some think Bosch may have visited north Italy c1505, including Venice (cf Craig Barbison), the influence of which seems apparent in some of Bosch’s later works, eg the well known striking Christ Carrying the Cross (c1510 or later, Ghent, now attributed to a follower), showing the calm beatific Christ’s head in the centre, eye of the storm, an island in the close-up press of heads of his tormentors, a grotesque tapestry of expressive lunatics, the physiognomic features for whom Bosch may have been inspired by drawings of Leonardo.
  • An important similar painting is Christ Crowned with Thorns (oil on wood, 73 x 59cm, National Gallery London). But its date of 1495-1500 seems inconsistent if Bosch did visit to Italy after this time, which visit appears to reflect in this painting as it does in the Ghent work. The work seems to relate closely to Durer’s Christ among the Doctors (oil on poplar panel, 65 x 80cm) of 1506, painted while Durer was visiting Venice.
  • Bosch’s work (like Durer) presents a bold close-up of heads and carefully composed interacting hands. It also uses a typical clear four part iconography, again with polemical purpose, whereby Christ’s tormentors are here represented by all 4 classes – ie no one is blameless – Pope (Julius II), Emperor (Maximillian I), merchant (whose crescent decoration suggests he trades with Turkish infidels?) and scholar/peasant (Jewish? Alluding to Julius borrowing from Jews?).
  • Some of Bosch’s scenes of Christ seem to also reflect late 15th C German painting, eg work by Martin Schongauer (c1430-91), Cspar Isenmann (c1430-80) and especially the Master of the Karlsruhe Passion (c1430-80), ie intense, dramatic, energetic crowded scenes which might presage 20th C German Expressionism.


Context  – alchemy interfacing with religion

  • Despite it being subsequently revealed as nonsense by the late 17th C, alchemy in Bosch’s time was still an important intellectual endeavour, especially because believers saw it interfacing, resonating with the Christian story. It became more popular in the 14th C, and later printing helped it spread. It was patronised, encouraged at the highest levels, by the Church and nobility, by the Dukes of Burgundy and the Hapsburg court.
  • Alchemy was based on transmutation, conversion of base to precious, by bringing the 4 elements into balance, thus creating a 5th, the so-called quintessence.
  • But this conception consciously mirrored the Christian story of Man’s sins being „cleansed“ by Christ’s resurrection, Man being redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and thus regaining the paradise lost by Adam and Eve. Thus alchemcal experiment was usually accompanied by Christian liturgical activity.
  • Some scholars think Bosch seemed to apply alchemical imagery through much of his art (cf extensive explanation by Laurinda Dixon in Bosch, Phaidon, 2003).
  • Case study: This is evident for example in the triptych of The Adoration of the Magi (1485-1500, Prado) without which alchemical references the work seems inexplicable (cf Laurinda Dixon). Typically the work alludes to the Christian Mass (ie when bread and wine are „mystically transformed through transubstantiation into the true body and blood of Christ“) and to Christ’s foretold Passion. The exterior of the closed three-panel work shows Gregory’s Mass. But the central panel is unusual, „the extraordinary presence of six menacing figures..“, which are explained alchemically as the „six contaminated metals“, within the Aristotelean „scientific“ hierarchy of planets and metals. They are the „six unclean metals awaiting transmutation through the grace of incarnate God“.
  • This „parallels“ the „cleansing of souls on the Day of Judgement“ and „a debased world redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice‘.
  • More importantly the panel also incorporates chemical laboratory apparatus, a distillation flask atop a furnace. This becomes a chemical metaphor whereby the equipment „houses“ the ingredients during their transmutation, much as Bethlehem „houses“ the ingredients for the Christian miraculous outcome, comparing the birth of Christ to the alchemical transmutating agent, the „philosopher’s stone“, the „lapis“. This connection was made by Petrus Bonus‘ New Pearl of Great Price, printed 1503. Thus the Magi in finding the baby Christ are also finding the „lapis“.
  • Case study: Likwise the elusive complex triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1470 or later) seems only to make sense via an alchemical interpretation. The painting was seen in 1517 in the Nassau court, then was later confiscated, looted, by the Duke of Alva in 1568 and taken to Spain.
  • Some today think the painting was viewed then as heretical, or a warning against immorality (eg because of the nudity), but this seems misguided?
  • And a traditional interpretation, trying to see it as Man being punished for his sins, does not quite fit. Thus the „sinners“ in the central panel don’t really look the part?
  • Again it seems that alchemical knowledge is woven into a complex pattern of imagery drawing on „Biblical, astrological, erotic, millenial and proverb“ sources, all harnessed to the alchemical goal of finding the „elixir of life“, ie enabling a return to Eden.
  • So the main themes of the work are creation, and salvation.
  • The ultimate alchemical allegory was to see the earth itself as the philosopher’s stone, which will be destroyed and reborn perfect and in paradise. Thus the work contains the four basic steps in the alchemical process: 1/ conjunction, ingredients are assembled for mixing (left interior scene, joining Adam and Eve in „alchemical marriage‘); 2/ „child’s play“step: slow cooking of the ingredients (in „riotous“ central panel); 3/ burning and „killing“of substances (in hell, right panel inside); 4/ cleansing / resurrection / transmutation (on triptych exterior).
  • This view explains the rampant but curiously „lust-less“ sexuality for the alchemical theory saw all components of the world in incessant copulation, and „all substances reproduce in a mystical marriage or conjunction of opposites..“
  • The dragon palm near Adam fits this iconographical scheme, a tree from Spain which exudes red sap, like Christ’s healing blood. Vines (cf Eucharistic wine) wrap the tree but growing wafers not grapes!? This alludes to the healing power of the Mass. The delicate pink fountain resembles a pelican vase, another lab item. The dark mound on which it rests contains gems, pearls, refers to alchemy’s prima materia (cf Roger Bacon, Hermes Trismegistus), the source material for all substances. Bottom right of the left panel is a primeval pond, oozing weird new life (one reading a book!). some of these creatures appear in the then popular Garden of Health. Top left is a rounded-furnace like building from which issue blackbirds, like unclean vapors which will be cleaned by the chemistry.
  • The central panel, billed „child’s play“, step 2, as the prima materia „joyfully couples“, an erotic visual extravaganza. As God said to Adam, Be fruitful and multiply. The marriage of opposites, like black and white. Cf mid 12th C translated (from Arabic) Turba philosophorum: „.. things contrary are commingled..“. And we see gymnastics! A chemical metaphor for the alchemical „turning upside down“, which reacting vapors do as they swirl. Why the shiny red cherries? But without stems? Because they are not cherries but the alchemists‘ „lapis“, eg described by George Ripley (court alchemist to Edward IV) in his Roll. And in the TP. See them here in lake above where four rivers of paradise arrive. Another alchemical reference: „The arrangement of the central panel.. resembles the frontispiece of.. Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation (1500).“ Explaining te dark blue fountain in the lake of paradise, which refers (again) to the alchemist’s pelican retort, the „marriage chamber“ where opposites „mate“. The TP mentions this device, drawn from the c1330 New Pearl of Great Price? We also see glass test tubes, centre and left.
  • So the central panel is a vision of paradise awaiting the Good Boys? The elect after the Day of Judgement explained in Revelations, thus fitting too the apocalyptic flavor of those times. Attainable through God’s salvation. And chiming with the alchemical goal of achieving paradise through the „transmuting eliir of life“.
  • The egg is another popular alhemical motif, as a „creation chamber“, thus alchemists liked egg shaped retorts. It is prominent also right in the „Hell“ panel. This panel shows sinners getting their comeuppance, especially for sins of „avarice, gluttony and lust“. But again the panel fits the overall alchemial scheme, the „putrefaction“ stage, thus refers to „Saturn, melancholia, chaos, hell and end of the world..“ And leprosy. Ingredients are „punished“ before being transmuted. The knives? Used to destroy, preparing for revival. One bearing the Greek letter Omega, last letter of the alphabet, and referring to Saturn.
  • The exterior panels also fit the alchemical scheme, showing a flask. God at the top and inscriptions: „He spoke and it was.“ And, „By his command they were created“.
  • This work was hung in the new Escorial in 1593, built by Philip II, a keen fan of alchemy, as was the Hapsburg empire generally, eg Rudolf II in Prague in the late 16th C. Under the Hapsburgs alchemy „flourished until closeof the 17th C“?!.



Work – oeuvre, attribution.

  • Unusually for his day, Bosch appears to have signed at least some (7?) of his attributed works?
  • For his age Bosch did not leave a big oeuvre? Only 25 definitely attributed? And this number is much lower than the „30 to 50“ attributed in the early/mid 20th C.
  • Attribution remains controversial. Thus in connection with the important Feb./May 2016 Bosch exhibition at his home town the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) since c2010 has been exhaustively reviewiing Bosch’s total oeuvre, demoting some images, promoting others, also restoring some.
  • Dendochronological analysis demoted the popular The Marriage at Cana to a follower of Bosch, dating it to c1560 earliest.
  • Bosch “produced at least sixteen triptychs, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments.”
  • Many were acquired by Spain’s Philip II, appealing to his religiously warped mind!? So about half his surviving ouvre is in Spain.


Work – patronage

  • The Brotherhood of Our Lady in ‚s-Hertogenbosch was important in securing commissions for Bosch, both directly and through patronage from important fellow members, like the Counts of Nassau, a Spanish nobleman Diego de Guevara who owned 6 of his paintings, and at least two wealthy business families.
  • The nobility were also keen sponsors, including from the Spanish royal familty.
  • An Italian Cardinal from Venice owned several works.


Work – reception, influence and interpretation 

  • After his death Bosch’s work soon became very popular, was widely copied. Thus over 20 copies were made of the St Anthony triptych. But in time interest faded until he was rediscovered in the 20th C, especially through excited Surrealist interest in Bosch’s extravaganza of detailed intricate dream-like visionary fantasy.
  • Bosch influenced Joachim Patinir and Pieter Bruegel, eg his Mad Meg (1562).
  • But modern interest in Bosch’s unusual offering has elicited much controversy.
  • Some modern observers suggest Bosch’s unusual imagery reflected heretical sympathies but this seems very unlikely considering Bosch‘s high social rank and apparent keen patronage of his work by the then aristocratic establishment.
  • Rather his work reflects a polemical moralising take on life – aimed at the daily life of clergy as well as common people – of a profoundly orthodox, mainstream religious late Mediaeval mindset, which approach also resonates with some contemporary literature. Like Adagia (1500), Common Proverbs (12 editions 1480 to 1500), and the sarcastic In Praise of Folly (1509) by Erasmus. Ship of Fools by Brant, 1494, best seller.
  • The persistent theme through near every painting was moral lecturing, in the triptychs, and in other less formal paintings, especially The seven deadly sins (c1500, now attributed his school), The conjourer and the stone operation, both condemning trickery / dishonesty and gullibility.
  • However his expression of orthodox ideas was certainly idiosyncratic and singular, vividly colorful and imaginative, and employing a complex and extensive pictorial iconography, but suited to times when literacy levels much lower.
  • Laurinda Dixon (Phaion, 2003) argues persuasively that alchemical references feature prominently in many of Bosch’s paintings, notably the Garden of Earthly Delights, and there interface with, support the Christian story. Though this is not accepted by all?
  • Ms Dixon also writes that Bosch, again in sympathy with his times, in some of his work also referred to apocalyptic themes, again popular, not least as the year 1500 approached.
  • Some modern observers also see irony and detachment in his work? And also even anti-Spanish nationalistic comment (Oliveira, Paulo Martins, Jheronimus Bosch, 2012)?


Work – meaning: The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things

  • The circular format of The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado. Recently demoted by BRCP) refers to the eye of God, as cited in a number of contemporary moralising religious texts, including Nicholas of Cusa’s Vision of God (De visione dei). It is also ntended as a mirror tohuman nature. Also Psalm 11:9 adds, „The wicked walk around in a circle“. To emphasize his point Bosch adds „Beware, beware, God sees“ beneath Christ in the pupil!
  • But in keeping with the new worldly Renaissance spirit Bosch illustrates his points with real scenes from contemporary Dutch life..
  • „the Four Last Things were also „a fixture in popular moralising treatises“. In the scene of Hell, the eternal torments allocated to perpetrators of each type of sin are carefully devised by Bosch to reflect the sin. Thus „Bosch devised a painful and unique punishment for sloth“, spanked forever by a devil with a hammer.
  • The common man would undertsand the images but the text is in Latin, aimed at the educated, literate.


Work – categories

  • Features of Northern Renaissance Ars nova (New style) painting (cf Ervin Panofsky), which Bosch absorbed, were
    • applying complex carefully devised iconography using symbols and allusions.
    • Using understated naturalistic worldly realism to depict traditional religious themes or subjects, both in the figures and in the locational settings, landscapes and towns and houses, eg Geertgen (Gerald) tot Sint Jans (c1465-c1495), who worked in Haarlem.
  • Bosch painted detailed landscapes but not in the league of Bruegel. Or Joachim Patinir.
  • Categories of Bosch’s work:
    • Moralising triptychs:
      • The Garden of Earthly Delights, c1470 or later, 1490-1510? Prado. This is the most famous of all Bosch’s paintings,
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1476 (Vienna),
      • The Last Judgment, c. 1480 (Bruges),
      • The Haywain, 1501-02 (Prado, read from left to right, each panel was essential to the meaning of the whole.eruption of fantasy, expressed in monstrous, apocalyptic scenes of chaos and nightmare that are contrasted and juxtaposed with idyllic portrayals of mankind in the age of innocence…. disconcerting mixture of fantasy and reality..”.The closed outer panel shows The path of life, or Wayfarer), parts of a sundered triptych, Ship of Fools etc.
      • Dispersed triptych. Another triptych was broken up, some of which survives, though not the central panel: left interior panel, Death of a miser (c1488 or later), right interior panel, Ship of fools (c1488 or later, alluding to  Sebastian Brant’s 1494 Ship of Fools, collection of poems, which satirised behaviour of clergy well as others), above Allegory of Intemperance (gluttony) (c1488 or later); exterior panel The Wayfarer (c1488 or later, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. The pilgrim on the road of life has a choice of roads, the good or the bad. Moralising detail includes the datskin on the back pack, the owl in the tree, the upturned jug on the roof apex, the pig’s trotter as an amulet).
      • Polyptych Visions of the Hereafter (c1490, Palazzo Ducale, Venice), comprising Ascent of the Blessed, Terrestrial Paradise, Fall of the Damned into Hell, and Hell)


  • Moralising secular set images.
    • The seven deadly sins and the Four Last Things, c1490 (Follower, Prado).
    • The conjourer , 1502 (Saint-Germain-en-Laye),
    • Stone operation (Follower, Prado, Madrid).
  • Setting a good example: the life of Christ.
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1468 (panel, NY),
    • Ecce Homo, > c1475 (Frankfurt),
    • Crucifiion with Donor, > c 1477 (panel, Brussels),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1479 (panel, London), Ecce Homo, 1490s? (Or follower? Indianapolis),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1492 (panel, Madrid),
    • Adoration of the Magi, > c 1493 (panel, Philadelphia),
    • Ecce Homo, 1496/1500? (Workshop of Bosch, Boston),
    • Adoration of the Magi, c 1500 (triptych, Madrid),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, > c 1500 (panel, Vienna) / reverse: Christ child and walking frame (sustentacula),
    • Christ carrying the Cross, c 1515 (panel, Ghent),
    • Christ crowned with thorns, > c 1527 (follower, panel, Escorial),
    • Marriage at Cana, > c 1555 (follower),  mid 15th C (follower, Philadelphia),
  • Setting a good example: „Sufferings of the Saints“ The „most peaceful and untroubled of Bosch’s mature works depict various saints in contemplation or repose..
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, > c 1462 (Follower? Panel, Prado);
    • Martyrdom of St Julia (?), triptych, c1491 Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • Hermit Saints, triptych, c1487 or later (Palazzo Ducale, Venice);
    • St John the Baptist, c1474, Madrid (Pairs with St John of Patmos, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch? In which case date is c1489. The pose of St John is very unusual);
    • St Christopher (1490-1500, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands);
    • St John of Patmos (c1500, Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Pairs with St John the Baptist, once part of altarpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in which case date is c1489.”Monster” lower right has face which may be self portrait of the artist?);
    • St Jerome (c1482, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, Belgium. St Jerome was popular with Bosch, as his namesake and as a dedicated Christian warrior);
    • The Temptation of St Anthony, c1501, triptych. Lisbon, . St Anthony, lived Egypt c251-356AD, a founder of monasticism, a popular subject for Bosch, and others (eg Schongauer and M Grunewald). And this work was popular, many copies being made. A popular saint, the cult of St Anthony, especially in 15th and 16th C, associated with unpleasant disease Holy Fire („ignis sacer“), ergotism, which hurt poor peasants, caused by mouldy rye grain. This grain heated produces a form of LSD! Antonite monasteries ran hospices for afflicted, esp by Holy Fire. They proliferated. And employed chemists (apothecaries) to make „cooling elixirs“, esp the „holy vintage‘, adminstered at Feast of the Ascension, ie 40 days before Easter, when the concoction wouldbe strained through bones of St Anthony to boost its power! But therefore problems with fake bones1 Thus „regulation of cures for holy fire was the subject of at least 3 papal bulls during Bosch’s life“!? St Anthony in visual depictions was intended as an example to emulate, identify with, and the saint’s sufferings in turn referred to Christs‘. The chemists brewed many „medicines“, many using the mandrake root, though perversely it only aggravated the hallucinatory symptoms of ergotism. Bosch includes much lab apparatus in his images, embedding some in the architectural fabric. Eg referring to Brunswyck’s Book of Distillation


  • Some observers see three phases in Bosch’s work, though this seems problematic given the loose dates for most of his work, apart from the debate over which works he did do:
    • 1/ Early 1474 to 1485, generally conventional?
    • 2/ Middle, C1485-1510.
    • 3/ C1510-1516. Later works were „..fundamentally different .. the scale changes radically, and, instead of meadows or hellish landscapes inhabited by hundreds of tiny beings, he painted dramatic close-ups, densely compacted groups of half-length figures pressed tight against the picture plane.”


  • Case study: St John the Baptist, (c1489, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid. It seems to have been a wing for an alterpiece for St. John’s Cathedral, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, paired with St John of Patmos), This shows the saint as a hermit holy chap in the wilderness (but in Holland not the parched petrine Egyptian deserts) reminding us of his role in preparing the way for Christ, here symbolised by the lamb. Bosch the ruminating saint as melancholic, here tapping the Renaissance humanist revival of Aristotle’s theory of personality whereby great thinkers, geniuses (thus for Christians, the prophets) were melancholic because „great intellectual effort produced a combustion of humours wthin the body, „a fire of inspiration“… „ which gave off vapors irritating the brain. The Renaissance revival of the Classics was harnessed by the Church to tell their story and thus in Bosch’s time Florentine physician/priest Marsilio Ficino wrote of Aristotle’s theory in his 1489 Three Books on Life. Melancholy was associated with Saturn and Bosch also alluded to melancholy and Saturn in his Wayfarer (c1488, Rotterdam). And Durer famously engraved Melencolia I in 1514. But apparently the idea of the melancholic saintly hermit was old, suffering „enthousiasme“, a fiery cerebral denouement born of „divine ravishment“ when gripped by intense prophetic inspiration. „Miscreants and earth-workers“ were also seen as „progeny of Saturn“.


Work – technique

  • Bosch’s oil painting style shifted significantly away from important predecessors like van Eyck. Bosch did not “apply.. colors laboriously in micro-layers.“ He did not „present the glossy gem-like appearance typical of mid 15th C Northern paintings
  • His style was sketchier, rougher, using some impasto, not so concealing of brushstrokes. He sketched on then painted irectly on white ground on panel.
  • Bosch used sketches to prepare for his paintings and he also often reworked images.



  • Details of Bosch’s life are scarce, but which is in accord with his times, when artists were generally regarded as craftsmen, carrying a lower status, though this attitude was soon to change, as part of the Renaissance, starting in Italy. He left no personal documents (unlike Durer who – about 20 years younger and who definitely travelled to Italy – was copious), so is known only from his art, and from local aministrative records, in three categories: city tax rolls, notarised legal records, and “factures”, the account books at Brotherhood of Our Lady.
  • Bosch was born Jerome Anthony van Aken, in ‚s-Hertogenbosch, in the north of the Duchy of Brabant, one of the seventeen Dutch or Netherlands provinces, in the south. So today ‚s-Hertogenbosch is in the Netherlands, close to the Belgium border. The Dutch Provinces were then part of the Duchy of Burgundy and ‚s-Hertogenbosch was one of the 4 largest cities in Brabant, along with Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain.
  • ‚s-Hertogenbosch was a thriving commercial and cultural city, which enjoyed good times during Bosch’s life, eg reported population growth from 17,280 to 25,000 from 1496 to 1500. It was quick to gain a printing press.
  • He was the grandson of Jan van Aachen (d.1454) who moved to Hertgenbosch from Aachen (also known as Aix-la-Chappelle), and was part of a family of painters, the son of artist Anthonius van Aken (d c1478), brother of Goessen, also a painter.
  • He first appears in the municipal record on 5 April 1474. He Latinised his first name and also replaced his family name in order to publicise his association with his important home town.
  • Bosch was a devout Christian, in a town where about one third of the population was affiliated with religious bodies.
  • Around 1488 he joined the Brotherhood of Our Lady (Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady), a conservative lay confranternity comprising about 50”sworn members”, senior members, of whom Bosch was one from c1488, and some 7,000 ‘outer-members’ from around Europe. It was established early in the 14th C and like an exclusive club it became “one of the most important confranternities in northern Europe”, membership drawn from senior people in the Church, nobility and the bourgeoisie. They held appropriate ceremonies and banquets (eg one of which Bosch hosted March 1510), and during Bosch’s life funded a late Gothic chapel inside the cathedral.
  • s-Hertogenbosch suffered a major fire 18 Nov 1421, in which c100k died? And Bosch himself probably witnessed a big fire in his home town in 1463? God’s wrath?!
  • Bosch was raised in a reasonably well off family (in 1462 his father bought a large house on the main square). He married into a well off family c1481, but one of similar social standing. In wealth terms Bosch was probably in the top 10% of the town’s inhabitants.
  • He may have visited northern Italy (refer above).
  • Exhibition Rotterdam, “Hieronymus Bosch and his World.”
  • Major exhibition, Visions of Genius, Noordbrabants Museum, ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, February 13–May 8, 20



Comment on the commentators: moths to a flame.                                                                                            16 august 2016 

Why is he such a popular subject?

1/ Because he was different, because his fantastical imagery was so intense and extreme, and there was lots of it;

2/ Because little is known about the artist let alone what the artist thought he was trying to say.

But we must be wary of some comment because, like all professional authors, they are conflicted, bring an agenda.

Their main mission is to sell books so there is always the temptation to lure customers by embellishing the story accordingly.