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



Stuart Davis – always look on the bright side…?!

Stuart Davis (Dec. 1892 – July 1964, 71).

Always look on the bright side…?!

Rowed his own canoe! The keen Left wing bon vivant’s distinctive, ebullient modernism stayed oblivious to Capitalism’s greatest crisis! But richer for it?


FEATURED IMAGE: 1912 Self portrait, 81.9 x 66.7 cm, Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas



  • Distinctive! His eventual style of flat, frantic, realistic faux-abstraction – colorful, calligraphical and Hard-Edged – was his alone.
  • Precocious early Expressionist realist paintings doorstepped his abrupt modernist style shift.
  • But then he was never abstract. Realism threading his complete oeuvre, start to finish. Yes from c1921 (around 30) his art flipped, harnessed Cubist inspired quasi-abstraction but never crossed over to abstraction, remained rooted in reality.
  • So his modernism adapted color, calligraphy and Cubist exploration to reflect the energetic drama of modern American life.
  • But not polemically. Thus curious indeed – extraordinary even – is how his avowedly Left wing politics never spilled over into polemical assault on the Capitalist beast, and despite him living through the Depression and two world wars!
  • Thus he jarred with the Social Realists like TH Benton (1889-1975), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and George Bellows (1882-1925), let alone the affronted turbocharged German satirists!
  • Rather his purpose remained narratory and even aesthetic: his colorful, turbulent, jazz inspired confetti of cut outs and letters saluted the headlong dynamism of the modern economy and society.
  • But curious too, for a people person he painted no.. people! No portraits, genre groups.
  • How good was he? Very. His style trod water for the final couple of decades, but his original contribution – content and execution – was striking.
  • And maybe ultimately he was cleverer for remaining buoyant, not succumbing to rage against the then troubled zeitgeist.



  • Realism threads Davis’ art from woe to go.
  • Early on (from c1912, age 20) – precisely when the avant-garde in Europe was diving into pure abstraction – he precociously explored Expressionist realism, leaving some striking images, especially his tense, psychological 1912 Self portrait, also his bold Expressionist Self portrait of 1919, and various gritty cityscapes recalling the NY Ash Can realist school, and even a few landscapes, which hint of Munch and Van Gogh.
  • His bright start earned him inclusion in the historic Armory Show of modern European art (International Exhibition of Modern Art, he included 5 watercolours), in New York early in 1913 (aged just over 20), which show also understandably shook his appreciation of modern art.
  • But not before c1921 did his style finally shift abruptly, lurch towards modernism (eg Lucky Strike (1921), The tree and the urn (1921), Still life (red) (1922), and Landscape Gloucester (1922)). In his own Synthetic Cubist take he adapted, tapped Cubism, applied it to modern American material life, dwelt on banal but real material items like cigarette papers and garages and egg beaters. Thus while he therefore leaned toward abstraction he stayed “real”.
  • But his Modernist progression or development was not linear. His 1918 trip to Havana he recorded in colourful representational works on paper, some of which recall the German-American Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), also a distinctive accomplished illustrator. Then not before the late 1920s, near 40, did he settled into coarse textured Hard-edge Color Field (HE-CF) faux-abstraction, particularly in the Eggbeater Presciently, his paintings of mundane consumer goods clearly presaged the Pop Art of the 60s, about 40 years hence.
  • But visiting Paris in 1928 he felt compelled to stay more representational in recording post card-like street scenes. And also more obviously realistic was his famous Hopper-esque House and street (1931).
  • Then in the late 1930s – especially starting with the large (4.4 x 2.2m) Swing landscape (1938, stemming from the Williamsburg Housing Project commission and based on the Gloucester (Mass.) waterfront) – he found his now familiar later style: still flat and colourful, but now busier “all over” HE-CF, which style he stayed with more or less for the next 25 years.
  • This style, still born of the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, now drank from Matisse, Léger and Miro, artists he met partly through additional important exhibitions in New York? Some of these images levered off natural scenes (eg Arboretum by Flashbulb, 1942), but mostly they drew on urban life and settings.
  • These images look disordered or spontaneous, but apparently were not, rather were products of “protracted gestation”.
  • About 10-20 years older than the main Abstract Expressionist (AE) painters he is not counted as an Abstract Expressionist painter though his flat bright colour affiliates with the CF pole of AE, and the busy scrambled content of paintings like Swing Landscape (1938) and The Mellow Pad (1945-51) points loosely to Pollock’s “gesturalism”.
  • But in some ways he is as interesting, for how the content of his semi-abstract work remained rooted in reality, fastened to the present material world, especially responding directly to the energy, vibrancy, change, and conflict of [American] contemporary life…. the upheaval of the city, the tranquility of the seaside, industry and the automobile, cafe society, sports, consumer packaging, tobacco, appliances, and jazz music and its lingo.”(Met,NY). And also, like the eminent Dutch refugee abstractionist, Piet Mondrian, who had arrived NY 1940, Davis was mad about jazz, which also fed his images
  • He was also political, avowedly and actively Left (eg in campaigning for artists rights), but oddly this did not sour his appetite for depicting modern life in an apparently buoyant energetic descriptive manner. He did not polemically malign or satirise the Capitalist beast about him, even though he lived through its greatest crisis. For him there was no hint of the forthright Daumier or Grosz. “A hedonist to the core” writes Robert Storr (New York Review of Books, August 2016).
  • Interestingly Storr also rightly wonders whether some work of the immigrant Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky responded to Davis’ Cubist recipes.
  • And others (Karen Sullivan and Delores McBroome, Art and Antiques magazine, December 1989) wonder if the composition of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was not inspired by Davis’ 1932 mural (nicknamed Men without women) for the Men’s Lounge of Radio City Music Hall, which work by Davis was well publicised.
  • Perhaps striking is that Davis, clearly a people person, painted no people paintings. No portraits or genre groups. Not even in his early realist phase. A few self portraits is all, and good too.


Current major exhibition

“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is at the  Whitney Museum of American Art through September 25. It will continue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from November 20, 2016 through March 5, 2017, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from April 8 through August 6, 2017, and at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas from September 16, 2017 through January 8, 2018


Highlighted works by Stuart Davis….



1912, Tenement Scene, oil on canvas, 73.99 x w: 91.77 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin



1913, Ebb Tide – Provincetown, oil on canvas, 96.52 x 76.2 cm



Street Scene with Cathedral, Havana 1920 watercolor on paper 35.56 x w: 50.8 cm


1921, Lucky Strike,  84.46 x 45.72 cm, MOMA.



1922, Landscape, Gloucester, oil on canvas, 30.48 x w: 40.97 cm



  1. Eggbeater No 1, gouache on board, 36.2 x 45.42 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art



Matches No. 1, 1927, gouache on cardboard, 31.75 x 24.76 cm



Rue Descartes 1929 gouache, ink, and pencil on paper 32.08 x 47.32 cm



1928, Egg Beater No. 4, gouache on illustration board, 33.66 x 47.32 cm, The Phillips Collection



1931, House and Street, 66.4 × 107 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York,



Artist in Search of a Model 1931 gouache on paper 27.3 x 46.99 cm



1938, Swing Landscape, Oil on canvas, 220.34 x 439.75 cm. COMMENT: a LARGE WPA Brooklyn mural, made for a government-funded housing project in Brooklyn. Hard-edge “Color-Field” abstract develops. But with figurative motifs.




1945-51, The Mellow Pad, oil on canvas, 66.7 x 107 cm, Brooklyn Museum of Art. COMMENT: painted over six years



 1932/1942–1954, American Painting, 101.6 x 127.64 cm, University of Nebraska at Omaha



1954, Colonial Cubism, oil on canvas, 114.63 x 153.04 cm, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis



1956, Stele, oil on canvas, 132.72 x 101.93 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum


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.




Peggy Guggenheim: One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life

Peggy Guggenheim

Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim (b. Philadelphia, 1898, d. Padua, 1979, 81)

Peggy Guggenheim, c.1930, Paris, photograph Rogi André

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, Paris, quai Saint Michel, spring 1914. A front rank artist missing from her collection.


One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life


Unlikely confluence of odd circumstances. The insecure lady from a rich NY family (but she is not wealthy) meets in Europe the Surrealist phase of the ongoing modern art revolution… meets WW2… meets NY in a victorious post war America… meets postwar Venice.

But after half a life in indulgent passivity she takes her breaks, makes it work.

Her achievement in presciently promoting across the tracks modern art (and as a woman) outweighs the gossip.

       Before 1937..  


                   and after…                                                             


Summary: a doer who capitalised on her odd assignation with history.

  • Peggy Guggenheim comes as one package. We cannot have one without the other.
  • Her insecurity propelled impulsion to “shock” contributed to, drove her signature achievements in promoting then unfashionable contemporary art?
  • But it gave us too her “colourful” private life – a well-publicised sex-life, her poor judgement in men, and her dogs – which perhaps clouds full appreciation of her important achievement in art?
  • Her insecurity was reinforced by a demanding family context, which she never escaped: the early loss of her father, a distant mother, then losing both sisters as adults. This probably then contributed to her dysfunctional selection of men, which then undermined efforts to build her own family, but to which she was temperamentally unsuited anyway?
  • But her pathbreaking career appetite for “shocking” art (and the dogs!) helped compensate for the family trouble.
  • 1937 was her Rubicon year, when her mother died and left her money, a second inheritance. Not a fortune but enough to allow her to take the initiative and after half a life of cruising, to do something, and art it was. Her subsequent achievement in promoting then unpopular contemporary art was substantial:
    • She opened and ran two important galleries,
    • She capitalised on unexpected opportunities, especially the implications of WW2: the outbreak of war, then the displacement of European ”intellectual art capital” to New York.
    • Presciently, she collected and promoted then unfashionable contemporary art which has since rocketed in reputation.
    • She was hands on and effective, yes she took advice (mostly male but they were the main protagonists), but took good advice and cleverly, like her selection jury at Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery.
    • And, despite her Guggenheim pedigree, she built her businesses without vast funds.
    • Also, to her credit, and art’s, her passion for art was not just about money? Thus she was generous to artists and the art world. And this magnanimity (which may be less likely in a man?) helped art, like in her enlightened timely support of Pollock, like gifting his famous Mural (1943-44) to the University of Iowa.
    • And she did it all as a woman, and Jewish to boot.
  • An intriguing counter-factual is that but for Peggy Guggenheim, and WW2, we would have heard much less of Jackson Pollock? Peggy Guggenheim’s support was meaningful and at a crucial time, allowing him money and space to paint the big boys.
  • And WW2 fortuitously dumped Peggy Guggenheim and a flock of front rank European modern artists in New York at precisely the right time! And many of these artists were in-vogue Surrealists to boot, the major modern art school which above all was influencing Pollock and the other emerging Abstract Expressionists, per contra the Cubists.
  • Thus did Pollock’s art then take off in the main cultural city of the main victor nation of the war, a large wealthy country then riding a wave of patriotic / nationalistic sentiment, in turn fanned by Life magazine’s promotion, and by highbrow art criticism.
  • How much did she know of art? And wasn’t she just relying on (male) advice? Thus John Richardson sounds the patronising old fogey in the film, downplaying her contribution. “She was just like a little girl”. But at least, as Lee Krasner said: “SHE DID IT… no matter what her motivations were, she did it.” And perhaps more for example than Mr Richardson, living off biographies of Picasso?


Why bother Peggy Guggenheim?

She is again topical, thanks to a new (documentary) film, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, and book, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by Francine Prose.

She leaves a rare story, a woman making a special impact in the art world.

And she leaves questions without clear answers, with different answers depending on the interrogator and their context.


Family: a troubled context

Peggy Guggenheim’s personality is an important part of the story. She was an insecure, unsure person, reinforced by a difficult childhood, losing her rich father Benjamin in 1912 (famously on the Titanic, but only after missing an earlier boat! Then on the night refusing assistance to leave the ship!?) when she was only 13, and without an empathetic mother (Florette Seligman, from a banking family, who died 1937). Both her parents were Jewish of Ashkenazi descent. A number of her mother’s relatives were eccentric.

Then later sadly she failed to build her own family, partly because of her poor judgement in men. In 1922, aged only 23, she married in haste soon after arriving in Paris in 1921 to the alluring writer and artist Laurance Vail (1891-1968), her “King of Bohemia” (and“The first man I knew who never wore a hat..”), whom she had met in New York. They had two children but a troubled relationship. He was obviously good company but liked a drink, and patronised and physically abused her. So they divorced 1928, after 7 years, but to their credit apparently remained cordial thereafter. Thus in 1942 she showed his art in New York.

In 1928 she met and fell for another (putative) writer, Englishman John Ferrar Holms, apparently the “love of her life” but who was no better, another drinker, belittler and abuser. Also, as was the custom, he refused to divorce his wife, and (cf the new film) she apparently had 7 (seven?!) abortions, mostly by him. For a while they lived together in England in Hayford Hall (“Hangover Hall”!) till he died unexpectedly in 1934 from complications after an accident, aged only 37. Thereafter she lived with English publisher and infatuated Leftist, “Communist” Douglas Garman, till that failed in 1937 when he departed for another lady.

She had two sisters, and was close to both as children (partly because their parents failed them?) but she then lost both. Benita died in childbirth, and Hazel lost control, lost her kids off a hotel roof in Paris, maybe to spite her husband? Then she “lost” her own children, if partly through own neglect? Her son Sindbad went off with his father, and they never related well? And her daughter Pegeen had “problems”, never settled, married poorly and committed suicide in Paris at 42 (c1967), after a tentative art career.

A sad and sorry tale.

Being Jewish she also attracted her share of anti-Semitism.

But offsetting, compensating for, this family-reinforced insecurity, her sustained unhappy family circumstances, were her active passion for art in particular, her sex life (launched in decadent 1920s Paris), a few friends (mainly other women? And the gay writer Edmund White?), and her dogs.

Yes she was from a famous and wealthy American family, the Guggenheims, but she was not rich, comfortable, but not rich. Aged 21 (1919) she inherited ($450k) from her father’s estate, and about the same again 1937, from her mother.


Her private life: “colourful”

Her “colourful” private life, especially her busy sex life, has in some way clouded a full and proper appreciation of her achievements in promoting unpopular contemporary art?

And in line with her core life theme of The Shock she was not backward in cloaking the details, so her publication in 1946 of her memoir “Out of the Century” deliberately contributed to popular comprehension of her private life, though some critics do accord this book some literary merit.

Does it matter? How relevant is it to her art?

Not a lot? Although perhaps the attention her private life attracted may then have strayed to the art she saluted? Maybe even this was a rational business-minded part of her motives for not discouraging controversy?


Peggy and art? Well she did it!

Did she really know what she was about with modern art? Or was mainly an expression of her insecurity? Especially in pursuing art “shocking” contemporary art. So was she again just seeking to “shock” the establishment? And, in doing so, relying mainly on a bevy of male advisors.

Or was she bright and perceptive enough to develop her own meaningful views?

In the new film the somewhat pompous John Richardson (Englishman, Picasso’s major biographer) makes a couple of patronising remarks, like (paraphrasing), oh she did well for someone who knew little about it. And, oh she was just being a little girl again.

Well wherever the truth lies the facts are (as Lee Krasner declared) she did it, she collected well and ran a successful business. While the uncharitable might say Mr Richardson just fed off Picasso’s life and work. Thus whatever the motives her keen and sustained activity in the field had an unexpectedly constructive outcome, for most concerned!

In her life – amid an historically pivotal art revolution and an unexpected world war – she was presented with extraordinary circumstances, and took active advantage of them. She is another example of right place, right time.

Important too is that end of the day, art and the artists were basically more important to her than just the money. Thus she made a point of helping artists (famously Mr Pollock) and she also later gave away a lot of art, especially like Pollock’s famous six metre long Mural (1943/44), the painting which electrified the important supportive critic Clement Greenberg. Consequently too “she deplored the commodification of art” (F. Raphael, WSJ 30th October 2015).

Maybe this constructive wider agenda for her art activities was a female thing? There were few other women in the art game? But some, like Gertrude Stein in Paris, who she met, and also (outside the scope of the film) especially Betty Parsons in New York, who became main Abstract Expressionist gallery promoter after Peggy Guggenheim headed to Venice in 1947.


Paris: the libertine but enlightening life

Her introduction to the contemporary cultural world in New York came via her cousin Harold Loeb through whom she worked in a bookshop on 44th focussing on modern writers. Also she was first exposed to new art through meeting Alfred Steiglitz at his 291 Gallery on 5th Avenue, where she saw works by no less than Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. She also met Georgia O’Keefe. And writer Laurance Vail.

She arrived Paris 1921 where she relished the freewheeling “decadent” postwar life in the art capital. And inevitably in Paris she soon met artists. And plenty, like Man Ray (another American expat), and especially the important Marcel Duchamp who in time became a key advisor, “teacher”, and who would later join her in New York. And Gertrude Stein. And she met writers, like Pound, Joyce, and later Beckett (on Boxing Day 1938).


London (& Paris), to the war: starts her own business

1937 changed her life, when her de facto relationship with Douglas Garman broke up, and her mother died and left her around US$450k, her second tranche of inheritance. Encouraged by the important Surrealist exhibition in London 1936, and specifically by friend Peggy Waldheim , she decided to capitalise on her cumulative experience in Paris and use her new funds to open an art gallery in London.

Visits to the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Picasso’s Guernica was showing, had furthered her education. Also, in particular, Samuel Beckett (8 years younger), during their brief intense affair in Paris at end 1938 apparently urged her to actively support modern art. Finally it probably helped that the new gallery irritated her uncle in New York.

So, with some expert counsel from Duchamp, the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery opened at 33 Cork St, in London’s West End from January 1938 and without a lot of money. Artists she showed included Cocteau (her first show, curated by Duchamp), Yves Tanguy (who was “adorable”) and the ambitious Kandinsky (her second show), who asked quietly if her (rich) uncle (Solomon) might like to buy one of his paintings. His advisor “Baroness” Hilla Rebay scoffed at the idea and panned her, but Peggy replied courteously, along the lines “I know what I’m doing”. And she did.

After a brace of important exhibitions she decided to close the gallery in 1939 because it was losing money, and instead conceived the idea of a contemporary art museum in London, probably influenced by her uncle Solomon launching his New York foundation in 1937, and his Museum of Non-objective Painting in 1939. She used Englishman Herbert Read, then editing Burlington Magazine, as her chief advisor (though his eye for modern art was opaque. He spotted David Bomberg early but did not follow up), and also Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg (artist Theo’s wife). They carefully crafted a shopping list of artists and she headed to Paris in mid1939 (?!) as war loomed, where famously she vacuumed up a trove of modern art treasures, taking advantage of the hostilities, and also of the growing antagonism towards the Jews (ie including many artists and also dealers), and apparently spending only about $40,000.

At bargain prices in Paris, starting with Jean Arp’s “Head and Shell”, she bought works off and / or by Leger, Ernst, Miró, Picabia, Braque, Brancusi (sex didn’t lower the price!), Giacommeti, Magritte, Klee, Dali, and Picasso? Who was aware and wary of her brash mission. “Madame, lingerie is on second floor,” he said when she called.

But a sadness and distaste overshadows in these transactions too, her taking financial advantage of the predicament of the authors of these works?

As the war approached the Louvre refused to store the new collection – not worth it! – so she hurriedly arranged to ship the works to New York as “household goods”, apparently again using sex to grease the wheels. She also helped some artists escape, like Max Ernst, Andre Breton etc, via Varian Fry and his network out of Marseilles, herself departing July 1941 by plane from Lisbon.


New York: resumes her art business in the new global art capital, fortuitously then enriched by refugee European artists

Guggenheim’s timing, arriving back in New York Oct 1941, was again serendipitously apt, for she was joined by a swag of front rank European artists, especially Surrealists, who were also refugees from WW2 in Europe, and many of whom she knew well from Paris in the 1920s.

She “[bullied].. the broke and miserable”, and attractive, Max Ernst into marriage December 1941, but her money helped him, and he took off before long for a young beauty, though they did not divorce till 1946.

More important she resumed her art promotion career and opened the pioneering Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery, Oct 1942 on West 57th, again taking (male) advice, and despite active opposition from uncle Solomon’s boisterous spiteful aide, the “Baroness”, who later during the war came unstuck when she picked another fight and was caught stockpiling rationed food! Important was the American art expert Howard Putzel (1898-1945) who had lived in Paris 1938-40 where he met and helped Peggy, especially with her art purchase campaign there. He returned New York summer 1940 then reacquainted with Peggy when she returned too. Artists helped too, especially again the legendary Marcel Duchamp (eg arguably too the founding inspiration of Pop Art), and others, eg on her selection jury at AOTC Gallery.

To help market the new art architect Fred Kiesler designed her eye-catching gallery, emphatically, purposely, seeking a “radical presentation of art”.

The gallery became an important and influential backer of new art. She showed works by many leading contemporary European artists, across most major movements (except the Fauves and Expressionists?), and also by women (“Exhibition by 31 Women” in Jan. 1943), but then – apparently encouraged by Howard Putzel, and an argument with (the argumentative) André Breton – she turned to showing unknown young American painters, like Robert Motherwell (“intellectual.. lots of lectures”), William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel (who influenced Pollock?), David Hare, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Styl, Robert de Niro Sr, and of course Jackson Pollock, ie emphasizing the merging Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. These American painters loosely associated as the Uptown Group, referring to her gallery’s location.

Surrealism was an important influence on the young American AE painters and the AOTC Gallery – and the arrival in New York of major European Surrealists like Dali, Ernst and Andre Masson – much facilitated this transmission.

And thus it was another famous refugee painter Piet Mondrian, also on her staff, who in early 1943 famously backed Jackson Pollock (then only 31) for her spring 1943 show, after Peggy was unsure!

Pretty awful, isn’t it? That’s not painting, is it?” she said.

“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“, replied Mondrian after some deliberation.

But Duchamp then agreed, and the rest is history. So in Nov. 1943 she then mounted Pollock’s first solo show, which was also her first solo show for an American painter.

Backing Pollock, his “wild and frightening” painting, was important, for both of them, and even if she took advice she did it, and stuck to it!

It was very important for Pollock, the stipend, her commissioning the big mural for her apartment, a signature Pollock work, and then especially assisting him buying and moving (late 1945) to the farm house on Long Island with wife, painter Lee Krasner. Thus she gave Pollock the space and opportunity to create many of his famous large later works, like Full Fathom Five (1947. 129.2 x 76.5 cm), Number 5 (1948, 2.44 m x 1.22 m), Number 19 (1948, 78.4 x 58.1 cm), No 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950, 221 x 300 cm), No 31 (1950, 270 x 531cm), and Blue Poles (1952, 4.87 x 2.1 m)

For which help it seems the troubled Pollock was not all that grateful?


We are allowed two paintings from the Collection:


Vasily Kandinsky, Empor (Upward), Oct. 1929 (?!), oil on cardboard,70 x 49 cm. This is an unusual Kandinsky less cluttered, less peppered by geometric confetti, and offering a figurative clue.            


Jean Metszinger, Au Vélodrome, 1912, oil, sand and collage on canvas, 130.4 × 97.1 cm. Samuel Beckett cycled and perhaps she filed this during their Paris sojourn.

And two more, because some rules can stand breaking:


Giorgio de Chirico, The Gentle Afternoon (Le Doux Après-midi), 1916, Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 58.3 cm. A good example from de Chirico’s purple patch during WW1.


Paul Klee, Portrait of Mrs P. in the South (Bildnis der Frau P. im Süden), 1924, watercolor and oil transfer drawing on paper, bordered with grey gouache on the pulpboard mount, 37.6 x 27.4 cm. A rare figurative excursion by Mr Klee.

Venice: another great career decision.

After things had died down in Europe, to where Peggy remained attracted, choosing Venice in 1947 as her base back there was another timing masterstroke. Thus in an Italy impoverished by the second war in a generation she bought (1948) her Palazzo Venier ei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, at the right time, much like her art “raid” in 1940 wartime Paris.

But then she helped Venice, loaning her collection to the 1948 Venice Biennale, which gesture was apparently negotiated with help of John Richardson and Douglas Cooper, the well off Australian art afficionado (one of the Cooper Park Coopers in Sydney) who knew Picasso well, who backed the Cubists, but who also wrote a condescending and ill-informed article about her. This 1948 show gave Europe its first public show of the important new New York AE School, like exposure to Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

And 1949 saw Pollock’s balloon finally take off when Life magazine ran their now famous spread, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”, in August that year, drawing especially on Clement Greenberg, whose new intellectual praise of abstraction in turn drew much on his response as a Jew to the horror of WW2.

Her Palazzo collection opened to the public in 1951.

In 1969 her collection showed in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, at their invitation, and it was then she agreed to donate the collection to the Guggenheim Foundation on her passing. Thus finally it “went home” at least in proprietorship.

The Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris showed The Art of the 20th Century, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, Nov. 1974 / March 1975 closing another loop too.

 Wse, 29 dec 2015 to 1 jan 2016

And two more, because there’s room:

Dinamismo di un ciclista GM5

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista), 1913, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm. Not from the original collection. But a major quasi-abstract work from an Italian Futurist painter, and it’s another cyclist so must make sense.


Salvador Dali, Birth of Liquid Desires (La naissance des désirs liquides), 1931-32, oil and collage on canvas, 96.1 x 112.3 cm. This is a cracker, an archetypal Dali painting, the painstaking detailed execution of a complex personal iconographical treatment of part of his life, here again problems with his father, for which he liked the William Tell tale.

Audrey Flack – 3 for 1: a rare lady in the front ranks of postwar American art

  • A pioneering, intriguing, industrious and singular artist.
  • A long career in three distinct phases: one of abstraction (early 1950s), then two of extravagant opulent realism.
  • So she leaves a long trail of clues, provoking images.
  • Her career repeatedly acknowledges her gender, but in her own way, confidently not stridently.
  • Her sculptures (phase the 3rd) assert, remind us of, the age-fold female principle, and why not.

tues 23rd june 2015


Audrey Flack is a rare lady operating in the first division of an American art world dominated by men.

And she is still there, not out, after a working career now exceeding six decades.

It would be hard to find another major modern artist who has worked in a sequence of career phases of such contrasting content.

Ms Flack is an original, a creative force, evidenced by her pioneering reaction in the mid 1960s to the prominence achieved by Abstract Expressionism (AE) in the 1950s, when she abandoned it -dramatically, diametrically – for Photorealism, then shifting abruptly a second time, to sculpture, in the mid 1980s.

She is an intriguing, engaged intelligent artist, energetically responding to, reflecting, commenting on the world around her. She is therefore polemical, but not stridently.

She is also Jewish, but whether this matters, bears on her work in any way, is unclear?

Much of her later work, in phases 2 and 3, responded emphatically to her gender, the careful Photorealist still life assemblages, then especially the sculptures of phase 3, among which there are no men.

Thus Ms Flack obviously brings a clear female dimension to her Photorealism and her sculpture. It is the predominant theme.

And legitimately because it is an important dimension, and can only come from a woman?

But Ms Flack resists the “Feminist” label, perhaps because it comes with baggage? She prefers to work as Audrey Flack the person, the artist, in her own distinctive way, rather than formally associating with any movement?

The Photorealist images are more intimate, personal, while the sculpture, especially the public commissions, are deliberately speaking to a wider audience, asserting the age-old female principle and reminding us not to forget it, in a world still largely run by men, applying their generally aggressive “over the top” life template.

She was obviously reminded of this early on. Notwithstanding the presence of a few women, the New York AE scene was obviously dominated by men. And one of the leaders, now the most famous, reminded her one night of a dark aspect of the male pre-eminence when under the influence (as he often was) he tried clumsily to seduce her.

It was a reason to move on, to find her own art space. But not the main reason? She was too bright, too inquisitive, to spend the rest of her working life flogging the same horse, especially abstraction, like many of her prominent male contemporaries did, like the interesting Canadian, Jean-Paul Riopelle. Or the more famous Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman? Or, dare one say, Franz Kline. Or Richard Diebenkorn? Or even fellow ladies Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell! As a result her total oeuvre is far more interesting than otherwise.


Abstraction phase

As an artist born 1931 into a middle class Jewish family, raised and partly trained in New York and commencing her journey in the late 1940s when Abstract Expressionism was on fire there it’s not surprising she jumped on board, and created many works around 1950 and the next few years which sit confidently among works by the leading “gestural” AE painters. The main difference is simply that her paintings were mostly not quite so big.

But you could argue that her 1950s “AE” oeuvre, despite her youth (1949-53, ie aged only 17-23?!) as a totality offers a far more interesting range of content – in its variations in style of abstraction – than many of her famous contemporaries.

We see coarse, lyrical, calligraphical abstraction, including ”the homage to Franz Kline”, and denser “gestural” lattice abstraction, after Pollock.

And early on (1952) she lobs in a more than valid figurative semi-abstract self portrait.

Notice too she gives all these images descriptive titles, whereas many AE painters retreated to numbers. And in some images which prima facie appear wholly abstract she alludes – with apparent contradiction- to the inspiring representation, like “ abstract landscape with clouds” or “daybreak”.

She compares very well with the few other ladies in the AE space? Though officially she rates very low on the Google search scale. Four come to mind, Janet Sobel (1893-1968, an undersung pioneer), Lee Krasner (1908-84, Pollock’s wife), Elaine de Kooning (1918-89, de Kooning’s wife!), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-92) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). And some I did not know, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978, African American), Ethel Schwabacher (1903–1984), and Hedda Sterne (1910-2011, died at 100! Only lady among the 1950 Irascibles).


The crazy art market

The art market is about art but it is also a lot about fashion, the Madness of Crowds, marketing efforts by artists and their financial supporters (ie especially galleries, but also collectors), and the collective economic, social and political circumstances which bring all these together.

High prices for some artists are easier to comprehend – like for the leading Old Masters (though very few of these appear in say the top 100 results), and for leading early Modernists (like Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso) – than others.

But the stratospheric prices paid for the post WW2 US sale room stars – especially the Abstract Expressionists and the POP artists – obviously reflect a degree of collective patriotic fervour among the buyers, the world’s richest economy patronising home grown painters.

But here the market is fickle too. Thus below we see the top selling paintings by Pollock (US$148m) and Franz Kline (US$48m), alongside Ms Flack’s wholly admirable and valid contemporary images, but on sale recently in NY for a small fraction of the main men, eg US$250,000 for the main work (Homage to Franz Kline), and only US$25-50,000 for each of the rest!!

But Ms Flack is near unknown as an AE painter, because she was young (and a woman?), and especially because way back then in the 1950s for whatever reason her art was not pitched commercially.



Flack: “As the only woman artist in the groundbreaking Photorealist movement, I broke the unwritten code of acceptable subject matter. Photorealists painted cars, motorcycles and empty street scenes. Cool, unemotional and banal were the terms used to describe the movement. My work, however, was humanist, emotional and filled with referential symbolic imagery. ….. These works were attacked and berated for their feminist content but this very same type of subject matter has found its way into the mainstream. Vision has changed.

Ms Flack’s sudden pioneering plunge into Photorealism (alongside Chuck Close, Richard Estes and many others) in the 1960s was partly influenced by her formal training in the Old Masters, including exposure to master-realist artists like the Flemish Hans Memling, the late Gothic German firebrand Grunewald, and the late 15th C late Gothic Italian realist Carlo Crivelli (eg well offered by the National Gallery London), and the 17th C Dutch realists, particularly painters of moralising detailed still lives.

Following her gender she also took an interest in two 17th C female artists among the Old Masters’s realists, from both sides of the Baroque spectrum, the sculptor Louisa Roldan from Catholic Spain, and the successful Dutch painter Maria van Oosterwyck who left us many still lives with flowers and some Vanitas images.

At Yale she trained with prominent European emigre abstract painter Josef Albers, who encouraged her shift to “realism”?

But her Photorealism also mirrored the emergence of POP Art, which also turned its back abruptly on the abstruse indulgence of abstraction to focus instead on the world under their nose, in POP’s case, modern consumerism.

Two of Ms Flack’s early Photorealist images are now among her mostly highly rated. The Kennedy Motorcade (1964), based on a photo, is one of the earliest such images, oozing foreboding atmosphere, the shadow across Kennedy and man front seat looking at us from eyes hidden by his hat. The Farb portrait, painted from a photo she took, was commissioned and the assemblage also invites scrutiny, including the boy holding a camera to us and the painted frame.

Later, in the 1970s she painted many elaborate detailed hyper-realist still lives, carefully contrived compositions, most from photos, most reflecting a feminine perspective (like Marilyn, also Chanel and Pretty Woman), all thoughtful and all referring back to realism from old Europe, including 3 paintings in the 1970s collectively labelled “Vanitas” (Marilyn, the Wheel of Fortune, and World War 2), applying the popular old Dutch Vanitas template to our world, like the careful iconography displayed in the allegorical World War 2, down to a butterfly (she read how butterflies populated Auschwitz afterwards).

NY Times’ Hilton Kramer was not enthused: “kitschy still-lifes based on blow-ups of gaudy color photographs.”. Which does not mean they are not art. And mostly they were not kitsch. After the 1960s you’d think he’d have known better. Important expat UK critic Lawrence Alloway understood, “credited Flack with the reinvention of the still life”, would the man credited with labelling POP Art.

Some say her “ironic kitsch” images influenced Jeff Koons, like Strawberry Tart Supreme? Only Koons then made the crucial creative breakthrough of making the subject BIGGER (like Pollock and the AE boys), and in 3 DIMENSIONS!

But “kitsch” fits Koons’ work much better than that of Ms Flack?

Among these dense images she suddenly in 1974 (age 43) parachuted in a large (realist) thoughtful Self Portrait of the pensive artist, and her brush hand? Another followed at age 50, but now we see the right hand and a parrot.

In1966 she became the first photorealist painter to be “collected” by MOMA.



Flack (c2010): “For the past 25 years, I have been creating monumental statues of female deities. .. sited in cities all over the United States. Tired of Generals on horseback wielding swords, I feel these images of powerful, intelligent females will present the female principle and restore balance to a male dominated world.”        

From the mid 1980s Audrey Flack loosed the second dramatic creative shift in her long career as an artist, now almost completely abandoning painting for sculpture, though the theme, the thread of staunch realism was maintained.

She warmed up with smaller scale works then began receiving a series of much larger scale public commissions, starting with the1988 project commissioned by Rock Hill, South Carolina for 4 x 20’ high statues, called“Civitas”.

Her statues, mostly in metal, are all striking and realistic and colourful, in an extravagant decorated style where some critics see the influence of 17th C Baroque sculpture, like Rome’s prodigious giant Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and also of her Spanish lady sculptor.

But her figures, while colourful, are too restrained and formal to really speak of Baroque? However we do see association with say fin de siecle Art Nouveau?

The subjects typically reference female goddesses or other mythical female figures, including Athena and Medusa from the old Greeks.

An amusing if frustrating experience was the fate of her winning a prize to sculpt the Portuguese wife of England’s Charles II, another lady, to stand 5 stories high by East River! But it was spiked by her husband sailing too close to the slave trade.

Robert C Morgan (2010): “She has taken the signs of indulgence, beauty, and excess and transformed them into deeply moving symbols of desire, futility, and emancipation.” Now you know!

Ms Flack’s immediate artistic response to the assault on NY’s WTC Twin Towers on 9th September 2001 was a series of simple watercolors, offering a scene of sunny watery East coast calm, in utter contrast to the appalling events. Which might be seen as escapist? Or reaffirming civilised ways?

Herewith illustrations…………….

ah-art FLACK audrey wse precis

POP I have GOT….

POP Art (PA) holds a mirror to the Contemporary World (CW), witty, humorous. Polemical or otherwise.

It started narrowly (aimed at Consumerism), but like the beanstalk grew and grew, swallowing everything/anything.

It melted any boundaries between Art and the CW.

BUT the idea is NOT original, is the logical implication of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’, circa 1918.

Thus the Universe is to Big Bang as PA is to Duchamp’s Fountain et al.


(SEE the current show at Art Gallery NSW. Excellent. Ends 1ST March 2015)

Anyone can POP……..

14 12 07sun 1627pm plugger 8297 sm

PS: who is the artist far right?


  1. Essence

First, it is not original, rather the logical outcome, implication of Marcel Duchamp (MD)’s “readymades” circa WW1, like the Bicycle Wheel erected in his studio 1913, his Bottle Rack of 1914, LHOOQ (Mona Lisa con moustache) of 1919 and OF COURSE his Fountain (aka Urinal) of 1917, signed R Mutt. Interesting metaphors too?

MD the Cuban (cigar) addicted Supernova of creativity.

Thus MD seeded 60s High POP as did Giotto seed the High Renaissance.

Though Duchamp’s Anti-art motivation was quite different to POP’s diverse polemics.

Second, POP holds a witty mirror to the Contemporary World (CW), polemical or otherwise. It started in England with a take on Consumerism, but grew, exploded in the US, the Mother Country, and grew to comment widely, diversely.

Third, in terms of physical art expression anything goes. PA melted, erased the boundaries between Art, the Art establishment and the CW.

Thus fourth, it gained wide appeal because the art related directly, blatantly to the world inhabited by viewers / consumers / clients.

Fifth, history. The style was born in England early/mid 1950s, but it took off, erupted in the US in the early 60s, ie in the large buoyant turbulent beating heart of the CW, giving us High POP.

And just as US wealth ardently fuelled demand for the Abstract Expressionists a decade earlier so it powered demand for Pop Art. Irony there, the beast they poked and often berated fed them, sometimes “obscenely”!

And still does. Half a century later we remain in its pervasive grip, in now what we can call Post POP, epitomised say by Jeff Koons.

  1. The evolution of POP Art?

In some serious arm waving we can see M Duchamp during WW1 seeding 1960s High POP, about 40 years later, as did Giotto around 1300 seed the High Renaissance two centuries later (after an entertaining relapse following the Black Death)?

And maybe now the Post POP of say Jeff Koons is to High POP as was the Baroque to the High Renaissance (HR)?!

Thus the Baroque was the HR adapted / harnessed to a Cause, a Mission – ie the post-Reformation Catholic Church resurgent – but with feeling, emotion, though there was also a ‘secular’ component, more in northern Europe.

And the Cause that is Jeff Koons (JK)? HIMSELF?! Narcissism, decadent, self-indulgent? Gone are the anguished polemics, now it’s just for Fun and Jeff .

Thus JK content is: (1) LARGE, (2) garish, gaudy, flash, Kitsch, attention craving, (3) swallows some celebrities, like Michael Jackson (as of course did Warhol, shamelessly), (4) not obviously polemical or message-laden? It is what it is.

  1. POP Art and Abstract Expressionism

Was POP Art (PA) a reaction to Abstract Expressionism (AE)?

Not necessarily? It was just art moving on.

AE is what it is, vigorous abstraction born in the confusion after the devastation of WW2 – the SECOND catastrophe in a generation – and drawing for many of the artists on Surrealist roots.

PA was spawned by its own and different contemporary context, ie a focus not on the afterglow of a catastrophe but now on the ubiquitous results of the (largely unexpected?) sustained post WW2 rapid economic growth, spawning historically unparalleled affluence, mass consumerism etc. And then beyond economics it soon responded to wider social and political symptoms, like the sexual revolution, and then the Vietnam War.

So PA was not a conscious or deliberate reaction to AE? However its clear comprehensible visual image content was obviously a refreshing change from whatever the inherently subjective “intellectual”, obscure AE images meant. A fertile contrast.

  1. Subjects

Its ambit started narrow, aimed at popular consumer culture.. images from advertising, comics.

But it soon grew to encompass the whole Contemporary World, everything / anything: economic, social, political. Eg Christopher Allen’s nub (“The Australian”, 22nd November 2014): “What pop reveals is the nightmare of cultural noise that fills the head of modern men and women: images of consumer products, advertising slogans, insidious sociopolitical programming, the kitsch of mass music and films… reveals a deadening alienation from nature… consumer society intoxicated with the power of technology and convinced the good life can be bought..” Boy. I need a strong Belgian beer.

Yes it became overtly political, polemical. Chasing Causes! Initially the consumer society, but then the full panoply of Evils of Capitalism. Including the environment, hence no doubt, CC, Climate Change.

The pathologies of contemporary consumer capitalism!? And then the Vietnam War.

But is this not selective indignation by the “Left”? Not one brushstroke, one spray can for.. the 45 years of repression of East Europe by the Soviets in the name of the Socialist Ideal. Or North Korea? OR Mao’s appalling toll in the PR of China! No only fashionable “Left” causes need apply.


The subjects. (1) mass consumer goods, the banal, everyday, ‘readymade’ goods, referring back to Dada and Duchamp; (2) media promotion of goods, esp advertising TV / films.; (3) consumption of all media! First films, then add TV, now add the internet and delivery via Smart phones; (4) hectic intense pace of life, queues / waiting, commuting! (5) detachment / alienation from man’s traditional archaic daily life; (6) focus / commodification of celebrities! Eg especially Warhol with Monroe and Presley! (7) politics! Esp Viet War.


  1. Method

The art object.

The means of physical artistic expression broadened far beyond Oil on Canvas, so that ultimately art images / objects dissolved any boundaries between Art and the MW, dissolved boundaries between High and Low art?

Toilet seat to puppy dog to spaceship.

Main Street invaded the galleries. Anything goes…. “paintings” (now all kinds supports and all kinds of color application), collages, assemblages, sculptures, objects of any kind. An innovation was use of screen printing, versus traditional painting. Eg Warhol’s silk screens.

So anything, any expression of the MW, could be “art”.

Art as Arthur C Danto wrote is whatever you want it to be.

So the idea, the intention, the message…. is more important than the art work itself. So technical skill in implementing the art work is not an issue.


Expressing the artist’s goal.

The best art needs an angle, a twist, a hook to snare the customer.

Artists used irony, parody, satire, humour, wit, Kitsch.


  1. Goal / aim?

Two poles:

  1. Nothing! Beyond the image, the object. It is what it is.
  2. Polemical indignation, a blunt unsubtle message. From Anti-Capitalism to breastfeeding to plight of the honey bee.
  1. Reception?

PA mystified many, most? As did all the other Modern movements when they arrived?

And it divided critics too? Eg Harold Rosenberg. For example PA was “scorned for its low brow focus”. But the problem for these critics was that many had invested strong critical acclaim in the sharply different Abstract Expressionist (AE) movement.

But it took root, mainly because it WORKED, because it said something the viewers easily understood, especially PA’s clear strident umbilical connection with the world they all lived in. This was not some invitation to reflect upon abstruse abstraction.

  1. Chronology / evolution / faces (work in progress)

“Proto-Pop” started well before WW2, especially with Duchamp’s “readymades”, and Kurt Schwitters collages! Then sometimes the Surrealists, eg Magritte and Dali (cf Mae West, Lips sofa, Lobster).

However Duchamp’s purpose was Anti-art, offering a rude gesture to Establishment Art in the context of a calamitous breakdown in the civilisation which spawned it.

Also signs emerged in the US in the 1920s among the “Realists”, like Charles Demuth and Stuart Davis, even Edward Hopper. Mundane realism, using daily objects.

And like Pop this art was more accessible compared to Cubism.

The specific origins were in Europe, early as c 1950, reacting to US led consumerism, esp Eduardo Paolozzi (P), I was a Rich Man’s Plaything of 1947!! Shown in London 1952 as part of the Independent Group (IG) show. EP created a series of collages, “found objects”, called Bunk! Which he created Paris 1947-49! And a clear precursor to Pop. John McHale used the term “pop art” in 1954? Or was it Lawrence Alloway? Thence the Second Session of IG in 1955. Richard Hamilton’s collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is famous, shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s “This is Tomorrow” in 1956,vwhich Alloway helped organise. He wrote an important relevant essay in a 1958 issue of Architectural Digest, speaking of “mass popular art”. The 1961 Young Contemporaries Exhibition in the UK was important. David Hockney emerged (and 1963 he was off to the US, met Warhol), also Billy Apple, (Sir) Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Allen Jones, (American) RB Kitaj, Derek Boshier and Peter Phillips. In 1964 the New Generation show was held at Whitechapel Gallery.

UK PA was ‘less brash, kitschy, more romantic, nostalgic’? More cerebral?

But PA really took off in US in the early 1960s, ie in the Mother Country, the vanguard of Western Capitalism. In US this art was generally bolder, ‘hard edged’, vigorous.

Perhaps too the US exponents were more competitive, “nationalistic”, saw the US as the natural home for this art?

In US it was led by Jasper Johns (flags, targets and numbers, first one man show 1958, in New York), and R Rauschenberg’s collages from around 1955, through the late 1950s, called “neo-Dada” by some. And Ray Johnson.

Apparently some/many of the US PA artists cited Abstract Expressionist de Kooning as an important influence?

But the BIG take off was in the early 60s US, East and West Coasts, at shows 1960 and 1961. Then came the famous 31st Oct 1962 NY show at the Sidney Janis Gallery (“International Exhibition of the New Realists”), de Kooning’s agent. At drinks afterwards de Kooning was given the flick! Later Rothko, R Motherwell, A Gottlieb, and Philip Guston all left! But SJ gained a bunch of the new guys. And West Coast, also autumn 1962, at Pasadena saw “The New Painting of Common Objects”. Then came the Dec 1962 “Symposium on PA” at MOMA, and the big 1963 Guggenheim show in NY, curated by Alloway, and the big 1968 show “Sao Paulo 9 Exhibition etc”. Private galleries also keenly promoted it.

Among the artists there is great variety, diversity.

Artists included Jim Dine (eg NeoDada, collages, readymades, happenings), Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol. Also Robert Indiana (aka John Clark!), who used words in pictures, eg Love!? Alan Katz. Ed Ruscha. Tom Wesselmann. Roy Fox Lichtenstein, especially comic images using parody, humour. Andy Warhol was more direct, in your face.

Claes Oldenburg included performances, “happenings”. Large replicas of everyday things. Burgers, ice creams.

Elsewhere. Also in Spain, Japan, Italy. Belg. Neth. Called Nouvelle Realisme in Europe. France (eg Yves Klein).

And then from 1990s Neo-POP spawned Jeff Koons as one man industry.

And assiduous self-promotion was not uncommon, eg Warhol. Now Koons. But that was nothing new, cf Dali between wars!

The curious peregrinations of the modern art market………

30th November 2014

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

On the face of it these were not technically difficult images to create and the visual content is simple, even very simple. Passable reproductions of the images seems within the capacity of most adults with the right brushes and paint (and masking tape?), and the time and the will. As such for a viewer peering through “empiricist” Lockean spectacles – “what you see is what you get” – the values conferred on the paintings by the current art market seem extraordinary.

Obviously this is far from a luminously original observation but given the money involved it’s hard not to return to the matter.

Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was an intriguing artist. Born in Manhattan, New York City, of immigrant Polish Jewish parents (who had left then Russian Poland) he trained in art early and in 1931 started teaching art, as a substitute teacher. Apparently he also started painting in the 1930s but nothing survives. His earliest surviving work dates from 1944 (now age 38) by when he was deep into the NY art scene. Friends included (now) famous painters Rothko, Sill, and Pollock. He met important gallery owner Betty Parsons in 1945. He was busy painting, he helped organise shows, and he was also a keen writer, like art reviews and forwards for catalogues. He was lively, gregarious and opinionated. Thus in 1938 he organised a protest exhibition of art works after “failing” official art exams, a gambit from which of course the French Impressionists famously benefited. By the late 1940s he was painting prolifically and from 1947 quit teaching to paint full time, supported by his wife “for the next 17 years” (cf Barnett Newman Foundation), a brave and – with hindsight – profoundly prescient uxorial commitment.

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

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

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

Barnett Newman had plenty to say, not least about art and his work, and was avowedly polemical, intending to carve an ambitious intellectual edifice to support his corpus of apparently simple art. Given the simple stark abstraction in his work it is perhaps unsurprising that his writings were mostly oblique or allegorical or even vague and elusive. But paradoxically his keen if mercurial and grandiloquent utterances may be an important reason his paintings now sell so dearly. We are buying the package.

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

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

And in ‘The Sublime is Now’, in “The Ides of Art, Six Opinions on What is Sublime in Art?”, Tiger’s Eye (New York), No.6 (15 December 1948), pp. 52-53, he argued for his own back yard: The failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to this blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation….. I believe that here in America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are finding the answer, by completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty and where to find it… We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or “life,” we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings….. without the nostalgic glasses of history.

Grand visions indeed, and notwithstanding that abstraction was not unknown in European art! Even stark unambiguous between-the eyes abstraction like Malevich’s square from 1915 and Mondrian hammering away for about two decades at his own singular take, the colourful grids, from about 1920.

But what does any of it have to do with Barnett Newman’s specific paintings other than he was the author of both?

Dare one say it disciples of Mr Newman’s work would seem to be approaching their task with a quasi-religious mindset.

Postwar Europe (and also Canada) as well as post war New York was busy with abstract painters, of which large overall category the now famous New York Abstract Expressionists (diverse a group as they are) – as anointed by the commercial art market – are a subset. And just as artists after World War 1 reacted strongly, extravagantly to that numbing catastrophe (ie Dada and beyond) so was this total group after World War 2 coming to grips with the shattering improbable reality of a second catastrophe within a generation of the first.

But the images content of the famous few (other than that it is generally larger scale) is not drastically different from that pertaining to many names known only to afficionados and art market professionals.

And no logical reason there is why Mr Newman’s musings should apply only to his work and not to the output of other abstract painters.

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

ah-art newman 1948 onement 1 Camera 360

ah-art newman 1968 barnett newman Anna s light1953 Onement VI oil on canvas 259.1 x 304.8 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; 1963 Black Fire I oil on canvas 289.5 x 213.4 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation – Artists Right Society (ARS), New York;  and 1968 Anna’s Light acrylic on canvas 275 x 610.5 cm © 2013 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York


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

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