Following on from my last but one post Matthew Morrison Macaulay asks where did you first see an abstract expressionist’s painting, and what was your impressions of the photography that came from America of the artists studios or the artists at work in their studios? First I want to be ‘picky’ (probably the weather…) but I don’t like the term really and much prefer ‘the New York School’ (though of course that has as many contradictions too).
Goodness its a hard question. I do recall going to the Tate in 1969 (aged 17) to see the Art of the Real…by this time my wonderful art teacher the late Peter Thursby had introduced us by way of his personal copies of Studio International and Artforum (that with typical generosity circulated freely around the classroom) to artists such as O’Keefe, Kelly & Louis but it was the more minimalist works that had been included in this exhibition that really challenged me. The Stella’s, in particular Turkish Mambo a good example of the ‘black’ period and Six Mile Bottom, of the following metallics, were a knock out and had a profound influence on what I decided right then would be my touchstones once I got to college). In my head I think there were one or two more ‘black’ paintings in the show (I have an image of three of them in a row in mind) but the catalogue (link above) of the original MOMA show suggests not. And on that visit the Tate had recently acquired the first of the Seagram mural pictures but I suspect that, with Norman Reid in the process of sending the maquette of the room hang for the lot (probably around the time of my visit!) to Rothko, the ‘Rothko Room’ was not yet a reality. But that show did have a Rothko (see above), a Still, Reinhardt and a couple Newman’s in it…so they likely were my first encounters.
A year later I’m back in London first at the ICA for When Attitudes Become Form – an even more challenging show for an art student about to embark on their Diploma studies (about which I may write in future and glory be the whole catalogue is available here). And I think the Rothko room had been installed by then at the Tate? I do know that the following year they did a sensational Barnett Newman show. That catalogue contains some lovely ‘Barney in his studio’ shots but by then one of my prize possessions was a Reinhardt catalogue with those absolutely amazing photos of his NYC studio – pictures that cemented my idea of being the heroic New York loft artist as the pinnacle of desire!
It’s always gratifying when you plan something out and it pretty much comes together in the way you hoped. There was a plan of sorts that emerged over several months, starting with an almost whimsical experiment utilising torn pieces of failed works on paper collaged onto larger sheets, and then very gradually coalescing into a group of pictures around the loose idea of woodlands egged on by a careful reading of Simon Schama’s Wood section from his Landscape & Memory book from 1995. The form is a tight grouping of images – something I’ve done a lot of over the past few years – and here it reflects the notion of ancient woodlands as dark and enclosed spaces of the kind that have all but disappeared from the contemporary landscape. Installing them was easier that I’d imagined, in the main down to the hard work of my wife who did most of the heavy labour, and they pretty much fit the space as I’d intended. Ideally they would be viewable from a greater distance though that would dissipate the density idea so I’ll go along with Barnett Newman‘s initial rationale for Vir Heroicus Sublimis at Betty Parsons – its meant to be that way!
It sits on the long wall at Harrington Mill (where I’m showing till October 2nd) and faces off against several paintings from my Very Like Jazz series that have evolved over roughly the same period. How can I make such different pictures? Well its just the way I roll – I don’t have a specific style, brand if you like, never have and never will. For me very different subjects require very different treatments out of a creative mind that can think very differently at different sessions. The critique of this includes the accusation of dilettantism to which I’ll happily plead guilty as charged.
Take for example the Cornish Coast series, reworked from the small ten centimetre blocks, to a bigger format of 30 x 30 cm. by 7.8 cm. deep. These are quieter, more straightjacketed pictures operating within a constrained format where only colour operates loudly. But for me it is important that the experiences of the specific locations are enabled through the surface modulations and the colour juxtapositions, both sympathetic and jarring.
Another wall features a selection of paintings from yet another sequence, ongoing for two or three years now, entitled Wonky Geometry. These operate pretty much exclusively within the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction whereby a predetermined open structure is put through its paces by the intuitive operation of gesture and colour within it. In my mind its a kind of Mondriaan on acid(not that I take acid nor have any delusions that I’m in the same ball park as Piet)…I simply operate in the same manner!
Anyway all these paintings can be seen at the Mill from 2pm on Sunday till Sunday 2nd October. It’s best to check on access – better still get in touch on 07808 938349 – to be sure of viewing. But I’ll be in attendance from 2 to 4pm.on Tuesday 13th Sept., Friday 30th and Saturday 1st Oct. if you want to come along and see the work and have a chat about it.
So what else did we see in New York this time around? Well our first move was a trip out to DIA:Beacon. Most impressive but it all seemed a little quaint now…the whole ‘greed is good’ ,over the top, size of it all, of the 70’s and 80’s…massive industrial halls in which singular (and to my mind intimate) ideas are stretched thin across oceans of space. As Ad said memorably “less is more” and here that’s definitely the case for me. So I’ll pass over Heizer, Le Witt, Sandback and, even Serra (though admittedly his use of the space to sculpt it has real menace) in favour of Agnes Martin and…Blinky Palermo. Who, for an artist who died nearly forty years back, is making a real splash in NY right now with strong showing in MOMA and a big event at David Zwirner’s gallery in Chelsea.
There’s a suite of three rooms devoted to Agnes and consequently an opportunity to look at her output in depth. The best of them sing off the walls in a quiet modulation but equally quite a few others, to my eyes, just don’t take off and in those cases the minimalist touch and form runs the real risk of inertia. Again maybe the sheer volume here is the culprit…I could have found six or eight amongst the group that if shown together in a single setting would have been spellbinding.
The Palermo showing is fascinating. There were two rooms one with an early piece – a kind of painted “object” and the other larger room dedicated to the suite of paintings on aluminium (everybody’s at it!) ‘To The People of New York City’. These relatively modest scale paintings on aluminium riff off of the German flag and a host of other sources, I immediately thought of Barnett Newman’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow & Blue‘ pictures and those early Brice Marden panels…but there are plenty more.
Yet wherever Palermo plundered the work as a whole (forty pieces arranged in fifteen groups) the fact is they pull off that almost impossible feat of being strangely entirely their own thing despite the wealth of evident sources. Who knows where the artist may have gone had his life not been tragically cut short at 34? But whatever might have happened subsequently this body of work raises endless questions and possibilities for abstraction right up to the present and, I suspect, well into the future.
It’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Our week away in New York was plotted on the back of my desire to go see the current painting show at MOMA (The Forever Now). A flimsy excuse perhaps but as such surveys are a rather rare occurrence it seemed worthwhile and provided the alibi I was looking for to get back there). The exhibition has come in for a fair bit of stick but what it did offer was a take on some of what is about currently. It’s thesis, of course, didn’t particularly match up to the selection. After all Amy Silman cut her chops a ways back before digitisation and has pretty much consistently ploughed her own furrow since…and rather good it is too. It was a shrewd move to more or less give her a room of sorts to herself. She’s a good painter, what Matthew Collings might call an ‘authentic’, and sat rather oddly with the rest of the show.
There were plenty of others included who one might uncharitably describe as being a wee bit too clever by half. This may be the flip side of the coin…after all if we are now in an atemporal age then some of us will want to parade all that knowledge (though maybe its more just information…) in every canvas we make. I’d judge that Mark Grotjahn was riffing Picasso primitivism through an abstract expressionist/tachiste/school of paris circa 55 schtick and whilst the results were amongst the more decent pictures on display they didn’t for me resolve themselves fully enough to be really excellent paintings.
Matt Connors take on the minimal, by way of Colourfield, with exaggerated Barney Newman ‘tears’ thrown in for good measure was another example of being too knowing and maybe not spending enough time actually looking at what you are making. Even less of that, for me being an old fashioned fuddy duddy, seemed to be going on with Joe Bradley‘s crude drawings on canvas installation that was fore grounded in the display…presumably in a super cool, hey we are ‘epatter le bourgeois’ except that we all know what’s going on here so its cool anyway kinda way.
Oscar Murillo is a hot ticket right now…with his canvases going on the market for stratospheric figures…but its hard to see exactly why. There’s a calculated rawness in these part third gen abstract expressionist (what Clem disparagingly called ‘the tenth street touch’) and part eighties graffiti pieces that looks superficially attractive with so much cool self referentiality around but ultimately they too just looked a bit slapdash and unresolved to me. It was a nice touch however to leave a bunch of the not so good ones around the floor so we could play with them…of course my Facebook friends know this is something I can’t resist! Richard Aldrich gave me a few laughs…for me at least he was less po-faced about the whole mash up idea. I loved the silly take on a kind of Jasper Johns riff illuminating a slide of an old painting within a painterly framing field.
Goodness knows what Julie Mehretu was up to here. I’ve previously admired her beautifully crafted drawn and painted architectural multi layered works. But here she seems to have taken up a kind of sub Twombly scribble as if to say hey I can do a gestural, loose and poetic scramble except that – well – and I hate to be unkind – the result is a boring and visually unattractive set of canvases that simply didn’t hold this viewers interest at all. She’s one of several artists who seem to have ‘bottled’ their ‘MOMA moment’ that would certainly include Laura Owens, Rashid Johnson and Michael Williams, all of whom, to my way of seeing, have made much better pictures in the past.
For what it’s worth my two (relative) newcomers that got me at least interested enough to spend a good deal of time pondering were Nicole Eisenman and Mary Weatherford. I put the parentheses there as neither artist is a newcomer to making and exhibiting – both have been about for quite a while – but this is probably the first time they have ’emerged’ into the big arena. Eisenman has moved into a curious and quite wacky space of portraiture about which it’s difficult to talk sensibly…the pictures are undoubtedly a bit ‘dumb’ in the very best way possible. Weatherford, on the other hand, seems positively quaint with her sensitive colourfield abstraction offset by subtly wonky lines of neon and its attendant cabling disrupting the delicate colour washes. Neither seemed, to me at least, to be using the sledgehammer to crack the ‘atemporal’ walnut in the exhibition title’s metaphor.
There were others here too…Kerstin Bratsch, Michaela Eichwald, Charline von Heyl, Dianna Molzan, and Josh Smith but to be honest none seemed to be making much that enthralled and several seemed to be using very limited, and rather weary, tropes to say very little that hasn’t been said before – and some time before – the ‘atemporal times’ the curator suggests is the time in which this work has been created. So all in all a flawed yet interesting and eclectic selection of what’s out there now. There are of course oodles of artists who might have made the thesis more concrete and I’d offer recent works by Julian Schnabel, Jeff Elrod and Avery K. Singer as but three such..but then I’d imagine just about every dealer across all five continents could do the same…
I can’t believe I haven’t posted something in over a fortnight! However my excuse is reasonably decent…I’ve just completed the move of studio from Harrington Mill back to my home. With work stored there going back into the 80’s and all the bits and pieces we accumulate over the years )I’ve been there since 2008) it was the equivalent of moving a small home!
I’m grateful to Jackie who tipped us off with regard to Liam – a no nonsense ‘Man With A Van’ who gets jobs done quickly, efficiently and cheaply – so that the bulk of the big stuff was back here swiftly. However I still made six trips in the car to get the job done. It’s taken two days and I’m feeling pretty knackered but of course its not the physical side of it that is difficult but the emotional.
Barnett Newman once said ‘Studio Is Sanctuary’ and whilst moving back home is practical its not entirely satisfactory spiritually. There’s something deeply satisfying about going off to a studio, like going to work and seeing the making of art as a job. There’s the camaraderie of a group environment and the opportunity to programme a space, animate it and see it come alive with work. How I’ll fare with the home environment again will be interesting…there is the comfort aspect and the cost saving and that welcome ability to go and take a peek at how its going at any moment one chooses. So ups and downs I guess – we’ll have to see how it goes.
Before the move we had the pleasure of an all too brief getaway in Cornwall. It gave me some time to scope the joint for the fortnight’s residency at Brisons Veor next autumn as well as allowing us the opportunity to experience first hand the switch on of the Mousehole Harbour Lights. As always weather in Cornwall is fascinating – one day glorious summer and the next a real ‘black cat’ wet and dark.
Yesterday my wife suggested I link my blog up to the other social media I use…I knew this was possible but as with many aspects of the new technology I often fail to get beyond the basics of these things for quite a time. But I had a few moments and of course its only a moment’s engagement to deal with. One consequence of doing this that I’m sure others have experienced is the exponential growth in responses…in my case from a very small handful of regular readers to, well, a slightly bigger armful. And yet already it is apparent what an amazing variety of quality creative activity and commentary is out there. So much so that it feels as if it might overwhelm my capacity to cope with it. So this is an apology to all those lovely people that responded to my last post…that I shan’t be able to give all your blogs anywhere enough time that they deserve.
But at least I can say that Otto‘s blog contains a wealth of sound and insightful ideas and advice on photographic practice today and that Fiona is writing equally fascinatingly on Spanish Cinema. That John and Claudia are talented and prolific painters whilst Patricia is making some terrific sculptural pieces that deserve wider exposure and that there are others out there that I know already and still others that I don’t doing exceptional creative things and recording and reporting them through this medium…and that I’d need many, many parallel lifetimes to do them all justice! So for now I’m simply saying both to my regular friends (both those I know in ‘analogue’ and those online) and those who dropped by – thank you.
Today was a good day…many years back I bought a catalogue at a show of Barnett Newman’s work at the Tate (yes it was that far back that there was only the one…) and I wrote in big black marker pen inside the cover…’Studio is Sanctuary’ – a quote from the artist from the text. Never a truer three words!