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!
Where to start to describe a first visit to New York? Hard to avoid the cliches…the Empire State, Staten Island Ferry, Central Park…the Met, Moma and Chelsea. This last reached by the High Line from the upper part of Greenwich Village…a walk worth taking. Oh and standing on the very spot that Dylan and Sara were photographed for the ‘Freewheelin’ album cover on Jones St. Just a block or so from our hotel.
So cliches (but what cliches) apart then what else? The art then. Les Demoiselles so much more than even those pictures of it…the textures and the audacity of the handling especially. The Red Studio almost matching it for audaciousness but with a velvety elegance to match. And Moma was so crowded at five on a Friday afternoon during the weekly four hour free slot…that strangely made the experience all the more exciting.
Our first stop in Chelsea had been Hauser & Wirth, a huge splendid, almost Museum like venue that housed a show from an exceptional private collection. On entering the first space I encounter a first class Clyfford Still, a massive blue picture that is amongst his very best. It is flanked on one side by an even bigger Morris Louis Veil and on the other by Ariel, the big Barney Newman picture on the cover of a Tate publication I’ve cherished for thirty years or more. Somehow these paintings seem immediately to throw down a substantial challenge…so much abstraction now is conducted on a polite drawing room scale and whilst that’s fine as regards certain aspects of the engagement with painting now there are still some big questions about materiality on the large-scale. This comes up a few blocks on where Ross Bleckner is showing new work for the first time in five years. I’m really pleased to have dropped on for this one…after all Bleckner has substantially mined some subject matter I’ve been interested in of late and I am an admirer of long standing. These new canvases reprise a number of his themes over the years and do so with considerable panache and a deal of painterly craft.
The show sits pretty much next door to a show by Jeff Elrod. Elrod has pushed hard up against the advent of the digital, and he has been down another track that I’ve dabbled with. In a number of works a digitized image of a doodle and/ or collage (of indeterminate size) has been stretched up and a very modest painterly intervention offered up. In the pieces I made I was interested in playing off the reiterative processing of the marks and the juxtaposition of photographic material with paint, real and reproduced. Elrod was doing something of the same although his interventions were very sketchy and provisional…hesitant and ill considered perhaps, if one were being cruel.
I’m skirting around much of what we saw, especially the work that sits outside painting. A good deal of it (especially by established big hitters) seemed overblown and over produced, a kind of toys for Russian oligarchs really. It is also increasingly clear that the contemporary art market is now utterly captivated by commercial considerations…I’m not naively saying this (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the topic forty years back looking back on five hundred years of the same) but its a matter of degree. And I can’t help feeling that a dealer like Sonnabend (currently being honoured with a retrospective at Moma) really wouldn’t dare follow her instincts in the way she did back in the 60’s and 70’s nor make much of a living if she did.
One of the highlights of the trip, artwise, was the utterly extraordinary The Rufusal of Time by William Kentridge that is on display at the Met. To be a standout feature of the Met is in itself a tall order, after all the place is exhausingly crammed with the most exceptional artefacts…far more than we could deal with in a single visit. But Kentridge continues to delight, in this work with a tableaux that seems effortless but obviously took a great deal of conceptual genius and no mean co-ordination as well as his trademark graphic excellence. However the event that stands out above all others is the simply stunning display of four small devotional paintings by Piero Della Francesca that sit embedded in the centre of the European galleries. The focus of this jewel of a show is a restored picture – Saint Jerome and A Supplicant. The careful and painstaking restoration reveals much of the sublety of the work that must have been evident at the time the artist painted it and the ensemble of works in the room repay much looking…and the publication is a good indicator of the value of the enterprise. There was more one could talk about but for now I’m still a little jet lagged and having to pinch myself that I was ever there at all!