Ten Great Figurative Paintings…
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Ten Great Figurative Paintings…
Most of these can be enlarged on your browser by clicking.
“Take a giant step…” as the great Taj Mahal once sang… or was it the Monkees: “Take a giant step outside you mind”?
In April 1969, as a young art student at Wimbledon School of Art in London, I went to see a big show of abstract art at Tate Gallery: “The Art of the Real; An Aspect of American Painting and Sculpture 1948 -1968”. This was very new and exciting to me back then, and in its way, as I will explain, it still is.
The show originated and was shown in 1968 in MOMA, New York, where it was devised and directed by E. C. Goossen, and subsequently presented with the help of the Arts Council of Great Britain to the Tate Gallery, London. Here is the opening to Goossen’s introduction:
“To propose that some art is more “real” than other art may be foolhardy. Yet many American artists over the last few years have made this proposal by the nature of their work. They have taken a stance that leaves little doubt about their desire to confront the experiences and objects we encounter every day with an exact equivalence in art. That they are shaping this equivalence by modifying forms inherited from the history of modern abstraction may or may not be an accident. Certainly there seems to be a growing distrust of idealism and its unfulfilled promises. The “real” of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with metaphor, or symbolism, or any kind of metaphysics. It is not the ideal Hegelian essence that Hans Hofmann was invoking several decades ago in his essay, “The Search for the Real”. It does not wish to convey the notion that reality is somewhere else. Neither is it related to the symbolic reality Malevich thought he had discovered when, in 1913, he first isolated his black square on a white field. Malevich indeed had produced a real square, but he employed it as an element in the construction of a precariously balanced, ideal order with which he proposed to bring forth a “new world of feeling”. Today’s “real”, on the contrary, makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift. Indeed, it seems to have no desire at all to justify itself, but instead offers itself for whatever its uniqueness is worth – in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.”
The essay concludes five pages later, thus:
“The gradual divorce of the physical means of art from expressionistic associations has been accompanied by a distinct change in attitude towards what art should attempt. Expressionism, even at its most abstract, continued many aspects of representational art, and constructivism, despite its purist look, was basically nostalgic in its search for meaning through traditional methods of composition. The new attitude has been turning art inside out: instead of perceptual experience being accepted as the means to an end, it has become the end in itself. The Renaissance artist laboured over perspective in order to create an illusion of space within which he could make believable the religious and philosophical ideals of his time; the contemporary artist labours to make art itself believable. Consequently the very means of art have been isolated and exposed, forcing the spectator to perceive himself in the process of perception. The spectator is not given symbols, but facts, to make of them what he can. They do not direct his mind nor call up trusted cores of experience, but lead him to the point where he must evaluate his own peculiar responses. Thus, what was once concealed within art – the technical devices employed by the artist – is now overtly revealed; and what was once the outside – the meaning of its forms – has been turned inside. The new work of art is very much like a chunk of nature, a rock, a tree, a cloud, and possesses much the same hermetic “otherness”. Whether this kind of confrontation with the actual can be sustained, whether it can remain vital and satisfying, it is not yet possible to tell.”
This, I think even in retrospect, was pretty good, and was the start of something important for me about how to make “abstract” art, and how to make it “real”. I had by then already abandoned any connections with figurative painting and sculpture of any kind.
Towards a New Sculpture
As one arrives at old age, it becomes more and more apparent that what is of one’s time is – of one’s time; and that what is of the present is – of the present. If one asks what is new, original and fresh in the art of sculpture, the one belies much of the other, and never the twain shall meet! Of the thousands of new sculptures being made by hundreds of artists everywhere, what genuinely shows any spark of new meaning and new purpose? If one bypasses what Clement Greenberg called ‘Novelty Art’, the labelling as ‘sculpture’ of art objects whose prime function is devoted to a social, philosophical, political, amusing, sensational, literary or phenomenological intent, amongst many more; then what was previously understood as constituting ‘sculptural intent’ is deemed to be no longer relevant.
Of course, there are still today many practitioners in the age-old function of sculptural expression, depicting the vagaries of the human body. Sadly, none have matched the grand finale of that domain as exemplified by Rodin, Degas and Matisse. For better or for worse non-figuration of varying intensities has led the way to a ‘modern’ sculptural art form.
Art survives through patronage and great art requires great patronage. Today’s patronage is from the museum curator/gallery dealers and their clients, the collectors. The one is subject to financial restraint and both to the vagaries of fashion and, most importantly, journalism and media publicity. ‘Sculpture’ is now a label for trendiness and fashion, not of an art form dedicated to those values previously understood to be axiomatic.
The price of an unwanted dedication to old values has to be marginalisation. The confrontation of that with an all-pervading worship of the popularisation of art as entertainment, from which stems the verdict of that same dedication being out-of-date, and dismissed as irrelevant, is inimical to upholding those values that are seen as qualitatively necessary to retain from sculpture’s past by a small minority of practitioners in order to innovate.
What, then, is the prime motivation for continuing to attempt to move the history-based ‘classical’ line of ‘modern’ sculpture forward from the positions and achievements reached by the end of the twentieth century?
Anni Albers at Tate Modern until 27 January 2019. https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/anni-albers?gclid=Cj0KCQjwr4beBRDNARIsAGZaZ5eeerCTKiGTovocSOD-R_VC7YPB3oqrIYNmYEhM0vdBaykfFHx9AKwaAl3aEALw_wcB
The story of Anni Albers’ career is now well told and there are currently plenty of opportunities to read about her development at the Bauhaus, Black Mountain College and beyond. She is now receiving the plaudits that are appropriate for the decades of innovative work that is displayed at Tate Modern, and so I see no point in repeating the broader story on Abcrit. In fact, I find some of the back-story tedious. What I want to try and do here is make an attempt at the value of her work as an abstract artist, and how it corresponds to or differs from more general discussions about abstract painting; And beyond that, how we might attempt to consider her oeuvre in the light of the long history of weaving and textile art generally. These issues are not easily unpicked due to ignorance and prejudice, not least my own, and I’m by no means an expert. However, having read a few reviews and texts after the show, mostly based on the rather prosaic standpoint of her life and career, what I miss, including from the writers of the Tate’s own catalogue, is not so much the issues related to art made by women and its devaluation, which is now being correctly and collectively re-evaluated; Nor do I miss Albers’ own significant labours to change the preconceptions of the so-called “decorative and applied arts” and the insensitivities of seeing these efforts as the poor relation to fine art; But no, what I find more annoyingly absent is a closer reading of the best of her individual works as abstract art in its own right. And let’s state the case early – weaving has a very long history of very great art, both abstract and figurative, and Albers joins with, and adds to, that history. As the catalogue rightly says, “Weaving is not painting. A wall-hanging is not a picture.” No, it is not, but it can be seen to be, on occasion, at least as meaningful and magnificent as painting, and sometimes more so. What is important is to recognise the differences and the values that dissimilar art offers, and in the case of weaving, not much has been said in acknowledgement of its very special case. There is a complex materiality to weaving which has its own particular interactions of space and depth, and with that comes a degree of partial three-dimensionality, to be experienced in-the-full, and not pictorially. This needs to be witnessed in front of the work itself, and explained, and felt in its special kind of wholeness and its own particular reality. This is true even when one cannot directly access the inverse side of the work, something Albers herself often prohibited. No matter, because you still get the feel of the bigger achievement. The physical encounter-in-depth with good weaving is rarely if ever to be experienced in the same way as painting, and a number of the works in this show would be greatly undervalued by being interpreted or appraised as “pictures”. I love painting, I love sculpture, and I love weaving and textiles too; they are all different.
Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, 26 September 2018 – 27 January 2019
Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019
Ribera: Art of Violence is the first show of work in the UK by the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), and includes four significant large-scale paintings, plus numerous drawings and other works.
If you know anything of the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s significant permanent collection (not all of which is at any one time on view), you might be as surprised as I was, half way through the Ribera exhibition, where the parallel permanent collection rooms are glimpsed through a doorway, to find that one’s opinion of the latter works are strangely recast, as if all have been slighted, changed into second-rate and timid mannerisms. This cuts across expectations and is an odd and unnerving experience. Ribera, of course, has wrung these changes to one’s perceptions by the compelling brute-force of his extraordinary vision. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, not even in the works of Caravaggio, whose outstanding realism was instrumental to the development of Ribera’s mature style. Maybe in the history of art only Tintoretto exceeds him in the lavishness of his imagination. As to whether you can truly like these paintings, or stomach the subject-matter, each must judge accord to their own sensitivity; a more interesting question for me, concerning the inventiveness of his painterly organisations, is whether there is mileage in what at first seems a rather bizarre comparison with recent abstract art. Personally, I find such an evaluation hard to make, hard to take, yet difficult to resist, and ultimately exciting in its threat to what we call modern.
Albert Frey, 1903-1998, was a Swiss-born architect who lived and worked mostly in California, where he had a long career designing modernist houses and various commercial developments. He started out as a young man in Paris in 1928 on a kind of internship in the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, a period he regarded as highly significant to the development of his own architectural practice. He worked on parts of the design for the Villa Savoy and other projects, but didn’t stay long and soon applied for an American visa. By 1930 he was in the New York office of A. Lawrence Kocher, and together they designed Frey’s first major work, Aluminaire (1930-31), originally sited in Syosset, Long Island, a prefabricated and idealistic structure of the first order, with influences from the Villa Savoy project, but also recognised at the time as having some true originality of concept. It established Frey’s reputation as an innovator, but a serious career supported by architectural commissions had to wait until 1934 and the design, again with Kosher, of the Kosher-Samson Building in Palm Springs. In between those two projects was the extraordinary and beautiful Kosher Canvas Weekend House, of which more later. By 1940 Frey was designing his own house in Palm Springs, Frey House I, in a semi-desert environment, where the integration of the spectacular Californian landscape with the paired-down structures of modernism became perhaps the most significant characteristic of his work, as exemplified by Frey House II.
Patrick Heron is at Tate St Ives, 19 May – 30 September 2018
If you owned a few Herons how would you display them in your house? If you had over forty in your dream collection, and a mansion sized amount of wall space, you might mix things up a bit. In a retrospective at a major, award winning, art gallery the conventional approach would lead to a chronological hang. Not so for Patrick Heron at Tate St. Ives.
I was both enthralled and fascinated with the display and tweeted that the show was “mind blowing”. Intuitively, I attached ‘1-3 September: 1996’. The Tate exhibition guide who had showed a group of us around told me later that she had initially found the display “disorientating”, but her enthusiasm for the work was unaffected nonetheless. She was completely relaxed about it now. My own habit for exhibition viewing is to follow the order from start to finish and then to return to somewhere near the beginning and pick out the works that commanded my attention the most. On the return leg there is a certain degree of arbitrary stopping and starting as individual works that I initially passed too quickly make their presence known.
In this situation I was immediately thrown into a third form of viewing behaviour that was alien to me. The experience was not so much mind-blowing (social media loves hyperbole) as invigorating. For a moment I was a child in a sweet shop wanting everything, such was the temptation to taste, and visually touch, it all. ‘Square Green with Orange, Violet and Lemon: 1969’, selected from Heron’s wobbly-hard edge period, has the colour-flavour of Jelly Babies and a surface excitement and frisson that transforms the senses of texture as indivisible from the visual.
Heron’s work is often distinguished by its example of colour-shape dexterity and glorious visuality and a chronological display may not have accommodated or extended the potential impact of his achievements. The visual dynamism of the paintings, from all phases of Heron’s career, contextualised the display. All was equal, big or small, early, mid or late career. But it is mixed in a carefully curated way, as none of the sequencing looked arbitrary, but evincing a sense of purpose – if only to revitalise the viewing experience. There was a sense of freedom in allowing oneself to travel in any direction, including from one end of a wall to examine a row of works, or to diagonally cross a space under the magnetic pull of another canvas.
A Road Not Taken: Eleven abstract painters exploring painting and the metaphor of the journey is at the Crypt, St. Marylebone Parish Church, London, 16 June – 6 September 2018
A journey, even a short one, can be harrowing. The five-minute walk from Baker Street underground station to St. Marylebone Parish Church at the wrong time of day obliges a stop-start, half-gyrating weave through the throngs of tourists queuing (and not queuing) to get into Madame Tussauds™. So it was with relief that I arrived intact in the Crypt in the lower church. I half expected a musty, dark basement but was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a warm and bright environment. Ample lighting and white-painted walls created the ambience of the modern gallery, albeit with some additional Christian iconography displayed on pillars in the centre of the space. The quiet was not so surprising of course and this created a meditative space in which to consider the twenty paintings on display. Co-curator Stephen Buckeridge pitched the exhibition to Contemporary British Painting (a broad church) some two years ago and revived the idea with Terry Greene more recently. The support and infrastructure of this organisation is to be welcomed for many painters working on the periphery of the gallery system.
Some of the exhibitors in A Road Not Taken will be well known to Abcrit readers, others not so. The decision not to label the works obliges the viewer to consider the work in itself, without influence of favour based on personal interest or preference (though an illustrated list of works is available). In addition to their own work, the curators have selected paintings by nine others. Greene has written:
“The Road not Taken is a ‘journey’ of encounters that explores the idea that art offers us abstractions of experiences. By considering the physical act of painting in terms of a journey, the art object describes or embodies the inner territory through which the artists navigate. The art object functions as evidence for a ‘place’ visited, seen and experienced.”
This is a fascinating statement. The “inner territory” implicates notions of a metaphysical space and the paintings, I assume, act as outpourings from the ‘self’ (of the artist). The paintings also embody the notion of a map, much more than a diagram, of itself with no obvious or specific external reference points, places or personas. The ‘physical act’ is a given really, and we can see that the physical is constituted both in the medium specificity of the paint and from the process of application, in various ways, in the works on display. The paintings are also records of a certain kind of thought process, generally unplanned and improvised. Such practice is most likely supported by habit and pull of future projects, however tenuous.
In my earlier article on Space in Painting and Sculpture, I wrote about a studio reflection on what I was trying to get out of colour, and I proposed that the space that can be achieved in a painting is related to the size of the work, but is not in any way compromised by it. A small painting which is good is as valid as a big painting which is good – the experience would be the ‘same’. In short, don’t go looking for pictorial illusions, but deal with the space you have available to you and maximise that. Let the space develop accordingly – illusions will occur with colour and do not need the added choreography behind them. I felt that the remark about the size of the painting could have been misconstrued as relating to a “quantifiable’ sort of space, when what I was trying to get at was the principle of bearing down on every moment in a work, making every bit of the painting equally significant. The problem painters have is that paint colour when united with its support will often lend itself to suggestions of landscape, buildings, objects or figures in ways that can often be beyond our control. This kind of suggestion was something discussed in a Brancaster forum on my own work – people commenting could see a torso in one of my paintings. To this day I cannot myself but I took the point that the colour was doing this and whether I intended it or not was irrelevant. It is a human trait to seek a logic in a pattern or configuration and many artists will play on this with evocative effects and an ambiguity of forms. My painting was probably not good enough and it “leaked” into suggestion or rather allowed itself to leak by not doing enough in itself, which is the same end. My conclusion was the same: I hadn’t worked the colour enough, which was quite frustrating with hindsight, as I worked for months on that damn thing.
In his five-star Grauniad review of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, curated by Grayson Perry, Jonathan Jones – the Ernie Wise to Adrian Searle’s Eric Morecambe – writes:
“This year, getting selected is not such an honour. For Perry has filled the summer show with crap. I mean actual garbage: talentless, throwaway rubbish, a lot of it apparently made by jokers after getting home from the pub….
…There’s something odd happening in art, and Perry has caught the moment. Boundaries of age and style, cool and uncool no longer seem to have anything to do with art’s future. Perhaps its future lies in the past. Or vice versa. I don’t know where I am after this crazy show. This is the most liberating exhibition of new art I’ve seen for ages, because it obliterates definitions of what’s good or bad, archaic or modern, and invites us to sample all the ways people can use a thing called “art” to express feelings and ideas.”
Something odd, by god, but it still gets five stars – because it “liberates”! It “obliterates”! Worn out, tired old definitions of good and bad are passé. Is it the crap, or the curation of crap, to the point of no return, that liberates? Have we reached critical mess? Things seem really bad, but probably not. No… this will just go on and on. Things will get worse and worse. Things were so much better back in the sixties, don’t you think? So much deeper and more thoughtful, more serious and profound. We didn’t, back then, have much of an idea about how to “use” art so shamelessly to “express feelings and ideas”. We tried, but we could never manage such profound levels of shallowness.