Robin Greenwood

#110. Robin Greenwood writes about “The Art of the Real”, Then and Now

1968 MOMA installation of “The Art of the Real”

“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.”

E.C.G.

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.

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#108. Robin Greenwood writes on Anni Albers at Tate Modern: A Short Speculation on Greatness in Perspective

Anni Albers, untitled, 1941, rayon, cotton, linen, wood and jute, 56 x 116 cm

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.
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#107. Robin Greenwood writes on Ribera: Art of Violence at Dulwich Picture Gallery; and Mantegna & Bellini at the National Gallery

Jusepe de Ribera, “Inquisition Scene”, late 1630’s 

Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, 26 September 2018 – 27 January 2019

https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2018/september/ribera-art-of-violence/

Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery, London, 1 October 2018 – 27 January 2019

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/mantegna-and-bellini

 

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.

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#106. Robin Greenwood writes on Albert Frey, the Seductions of Mid-Century Desert Modernism and the Disambiguation of Sculptural Spaces.

“Frey House II”, Palm Springs, 1963-64

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.

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#102. Robin Greenwood writes on Critical Mess

Grayson Perry in front of his Summer Exhibition. Photograph Neil Hall EPA

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.

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#100. Robin Greenwood writes on Katherine Gili at Felix and Spear; and Testing 1>2 at Empson Street

Installation of Katherine Gili show at Felix and Spear, “Kyanite” in the foreground

Katherine Gili: Discovered in the Making is at Felix and Spear, Ealing, 5 May -2 June 2018

https://www.felixandspear.com/

Five years ago I drafted an article for abstractcritical focussing on the works by Anthony Caro and Katherine Gili in the 2013 RA Summer Exhibition, neither of which I liked. The Gili, a sculpture of complicated forged parts that circulated a central void, with big alien feet and a prop to one side to steady it all, was called “Ripoll”. I had previously shown this work in Poussin Gallery in 2011, though I think Gili amended it slightly before it got to the RA, where it won the Jack Goldhill Award for Sculpture. In the essay I described it as having a banal configuration, to which Katherine took great exception (though I stand by it) and our previously close relations were, and remain, soured, despite my withdrawing the essay prior to publication.

Why bring this up now? In Robert Persey’s interesting catalogue essay for Katherine’s new show at Felix and Spear, which has work far superior to “Ripoll”, and which I will address shortly, he writes:

“Katherine’s ambition for her sculpture is predicated on a search for full three dimensionality, beyond the creation of a simple shape or form, beyond rotundity or intimidating spread across space.”

These sentiments I agree with completely, and they are obviously incompatible with banal configurations, and possibly with any configurations at all, though that’s up for discussion. Does the new sculpture match these ambitions? When I rewrote the said essay and expunged all reference to “Ripoll”, and indeed Gili, I concentrated on a critique of Caro. The revised version (published here: https://abstractcritical.com/article/anthony-caro-at-gagosian-some-problems-of-sculpture/index.html) started thus:

“Three-dimensionality is the elephant in the room marked “abstract” in the house of sculpture. It’s a difficult subject for discussion, and a difficult condition for sculptors to address. So why bother with it? Caro doesn’t worry; sometimes he uses it sparingly, sometimes not at all. I think it is the biggest issue in sculpture right now… because in directly addressing it the abstract artist is forced to abandon the narrow and dated (and admittedly often languidly beautiful) two-dimensional planar aesthetics of high modernism, whilst simultaneously rejecting the pratfalls of post-modernist subjective clap-trap. It provides potential and impetus for a new and true way forward. So important do I regard this issue that I frankly think there is no alternative other than to directly confront it – a notion for which I may well be considered narrow-minded. Yet, could we even begin to crack open this particular nut, I’m disposed to think that abstract art would broaden out considerably from its currently unambitious and unoriginal ruts and furrows. Almost anything that one can do that addresses this issue seems to point inexorably toward exciting uncharted waters.”

If anything, I now think that understates the case. But questions remain: What do we mean by three-dimensionality in sculpture? Do I mean the same as Robert Persey when we both write those words? And what does that “full” mean, before “three-dimensionality? All objects, sculptures or not, are three-dimensional, so are we both talking about something more than the quotidian three-dimensionality of any-thing and every-thing? And is work that references the figure/body able to achieve three-dimensionality in the fullest sense that we can now begin to comprehend it?

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#97. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and its Discontents.

Paul Cézanne, “L’Estaque, View Through the Pines”, 1883

“To be ‘new’ a painting doesn’t have to have been painted in 2018, or even by a living painter. What this survey and the comments show is that time, discernment and taste has not yet caught up with many of the paintings on display. A painting is ‘new’ if it opens up untapped resources for others that have been lying fallow or unnoticed, or if it reasserts the fundamental eloquence of the means, the simple elements of colour, line, plane, area-shape, facture, in a surprising way — (confined surprise, as Greenberg called it, not literal theatrical surprise -Seminar 8).”   Comment by Alan Gouk on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2, 11.3.18.

“For something to be “new” in this sense, not only does it not have to be painted in 2018 or by a living painter, but it doesn’t have to be either modernist or abstract. Just saying.”   Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.

“…a number of the Tintorettos were new to us, and what’s more, were exciting and up-to the-minute. The experience of such art is often not only a ‘new’ thing, but also a ‘now’ thing, a revelation of the moment, even if we have seen it before. With art as good as this it is never just a matter for art history. And there is more originality and immediacy in a few Tintorettos than in a dozen FIACs.” [FIAC is a Parisian Contemporary Art Fair].    From a Poussin Gallery catalogue essay, “New to Sight”, by RG, January 2010.

“Hitchens spoke once again of how he felt torn between the inspiration he got from direct contact with nature and the increasing desire to let the picture have a life of its own – to deal with it purely in terms of its own internal requirements.” Ivon Hitchens, quoted by Pete Hoida in a comment on Key Paintings of the 20th Century, a ‘Musée Imaginaire’, Part 2., 21.3.18.

Neither way, thank you. Comment by RG in reply, 12.3.18.

Speaking personally, I would be hard-pressed to put more than a handful of non-figurative modernist works into my own Musée Imaginaire of favourite paintings. More specifically, of all the many great paintings that I have stood in front of (rather than looked at as images – a crucial distinction, I think), I find that very few, if any, are “abstractions”; unless, that is, you would make the case that all art is an abstraction. In which case, “new” abstract art, as I would define it, would be the only sort of art that I would judge to have not been “abstracted” from anything at all, but discovered as a new thing by means of the articulation of invented abstract content. Miros, Gottliebs, Rothkos and Nolands have made little impression on me when I’ve seen them up close. Images of blobs, grids, rectangles (geometric or fuzzy) and stripes may look tight and sexy when miniaturised on screen, but a fifteen-foot beige-striped matt-stained Noland, or a six-foot splodge of Gottlieb, are not as much fun in real life; and late Rothko is absolutely no fun at all. I see a contrived formalism (often rather insalubriously combined with hints at a portentous subject-matter) in much of 20th Century abstraction and I don’t much like it. I like art that is perceived as far as possible as content, not as vehicle.  That’s a problem for abstraction.

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#83. Alan Gouk and Robin Greenwood write on Cézanne, Matisse and Soutine

Paul Cézanne,  “The Artist’s Father, Reading ‘L’Événement'”, 1866

https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/cezanne-portraits/exhibition/

https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/matisse-in-the-studio?gclid=CjwKCAjw7frPBRBVEiwAuDf_Lb_-693ATRKTZ5V4_kzjHg3FPEiBYPrb3zNk6qoCB9IAYJtAtasviBoCDy4QAvD_BwE

http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/soutine?gclid=Cj0KCQiArYDQBRDoARIsAMR8s_RteHDtE_LvRwq4RJj3NmODlMj5NWB2cYwbxHMh69r22vmcbC-w2y4aArBoEALw_wcB

Alan Gouk: Some Notes on Three Exhibitions in London.  Cezanne, Matisse, Soutine.

The show of Cézanne portraits at the NPG is so overwhelming that I’m obliged to confine my response to just three or four pictures. As with the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in 2015 one feels that everything that could possibly be said has already been said, and yet nothing has been said that comes near to conveying the qualities of original vision and formal power of these masters, and the formidable (in the French pronunciation) humanity of their affirmation of painting’s capacity to “take the impress of spirit” in the words of Roger Fry. Painting will never be “dead” as long as one can take sustenance from pictures like these.

The resounding “bass vibrato” of the young Cézanne’s temperamental brutalism is struck by the first painting one sees on entry, the large vertical The Artist’s Father 1866. The volumetric relief of this seated man is astonishing, his legs and feet jutting forcefully into the foreground space, swollen like an elephant’s, rendered clumsily in a smoothly succulent and absolute grey, with emphatic shadows that are consistently maintained throughout on the heavy throne-like chair which is modelled with the same fluent clumsiness as the figure of the father, who looks more like a labourer than a banker, his podgy hands clutching L’Événement newspaper, hewn with much scrapings in white/grey/black like a Mosaic tablet. Whether this brutalism was intended as a rebuke to, or an assault on the seamless trompe-l’oeil finesses of Salon favourites, or whether it was the best that Cézanne could manage at this juncture, is no matter, and what it says about his relationship with his father must remain forever prurient speculation. To me if anything it seems to heroicise him. After all it was his father’s largesse that enabled Cézanne to dedicate his life to a sustained concentration on painting that was denied to most of his companions.

The buttery fat palette knifing sculpting the father’s face and hands is echoed in many portraits to follow, of Uncle Dominique and others, which in spite of this limited means, manage an extraordinary salience of volumetric form reduced to the extremes of light and dark (black hat and white gloves placed near the painting to serve as the outer limits of the pendular swing of their tonal language.) The solidity and succulence of paint application in this painting would be subject to transmutation with a thousand nuances over the years, near glazes replacing impasto, in which the watercolours are a crucial accompaniment, re-emerging in the very late portraits with a renewed if symphonic solidity.

But The Artist’s Father has further indices of the inherent tendency of Cézanne’s art, in the dense chocolate brown plane and the sienna wall plane that backs up the chair, with a still-life painting in a style influenced by Monticelli, who was also a palette knifer, hanging behind the head, parallel to the picture plane; in all of which Cezanne seems to want to outdo Manet in “bold impasto” and the emphatic assertion of the planarity of the picture design.

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#82. Robin Greenwood writes on Alexander Calder and Jed Perl’s new biography

“Calder: The Conquest of Time”, The Early Years: 1898-1940, by Jed Perl.

http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/CalderHypermobility

The American sculptor Alexander Calder has two claims to fame: in the first half of his career he invented the “mobile”, so-named by his Parisian friend Marcel Duchamp in 1931, though the term originally referred to Calder’s motor-driven assemblages rather than the arrangement of hanging shapes now a familiar sight in every nursery; and in later career he pioneered the placement of large-scale abstract sculptures in the public arena, mostly “stabiles”, a term coined by another friend, Jean Arp, perhaps in rather ironic riposte. Jed Perl’s new book, the somewhat hubristically titled “Calder: The Conquest of Time”, deals with the former period, up to 1940. The second volume, we are led to believe, is out in a couple of years and is to be called “The Conquest of Space”. Onward and upward!

There is a big push on at the moment to heighten the reputation and profile of Calder, to move him up from blue-chip to gilt-edged status, and it’s all emanating from the artist’s Foundation in the US, headed up by the artist’s grandson and rather rakish President, Alexander S. C. Rower. Linked to this is the release of Jed Perl’s part 1 biography. The Tate showed his work last year, the Whitney this year. Rower and Perl, an odd couple, are out and about, talking at various venues, promoting the book. And Calder is, according to the PR, now “America’s Most Beloved Sculptor”. Wow; a sculptor, “beloved”! Maybe it has a different nuance in the states. Do we have a “beloved” UK sculptor? Certainly Caro wasn’t, nor even Henry Moore. Gormley? Yes, perhaps Gormley. But even he divides opinion, and I can’t imagine anyone ever hating the work of Calder in quite the same way that many – myself included – hate Gormley’s, whose Crosby Beach figures I’d be happy to stamp upon until ten feet below the tide. By contrast, Calder ticks the minimalist/modernist design boxes that people these days are hooked into (and that even I am occasionally partial to, design-wise if not art-wise), so it’s hard to imagine anything from this artist that would fail to please or amuse, never mind cause actual offence (perhaps some of the later, monster-sized plaza sculptures?). And it’s ever so easy to be charmed by some of the little mobiles and stabiles: https://twitter.com/calderfdn/status/911336348237406209.

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#57. Robin Greenwood writes on the Disconnect of Meaning in Public Sculpture

Installation at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road, London SE1

The following is an extended version of a short talk given at the Royal College of Art on 23rd March 2017 on the occasion of the “What’s That Thing?” Awards, organised by @elliswoodman of the Architecture Foundation and @igortoronyi of the Spectator, with the winner announced by Stephen Bayley.

The Difference Between How a Thing Looks and What It Means.

I moved to Bermondsey Street, South London, about 22 years ago, when it was pretty much of a white working-class enclave and commercial area. These days it is a hipster hangout and restaurant destination, so it was a surprise when a couple of years ago this decidedly unhip installation appeared on a newly-laid bit of pavement at the junction of Bermondsey Street and Tower Bridge Road. Not being much of a fan of public sculpture, being as how it has such an appalling track record, I tried for a while to ignore it. I thought too that it would make a good candidate for Igor’s “What’s That Thing?” Awards; and it annoyed me. Why and what was this horrid thing at the end of my road, ruining the streetscape?

But it is in fact a war memorial, and you can’t say much against, or deny a place to, a war memorial, even if the execution is execrable – as in my opinion, this is.

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