#47. Robin Greenwood writes on Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, "Ace", 1962

Robert Rauschenberg, “Ace”, 1962

This isn’t going to be a review of the Tate’s Rauschenberg show. I’m more than a little disappointed that it includes so few of his “Combine” works from the fifties. I was hoping for many more in order to justify my long-held belief that Rauschenberg possessed a genuine visual talent, a “good eye”, which I had hoped seeing more of his best paintings would confirm. I think he had a natural gift for putting all sorts of stuff together that shouldn’t really go together, in a manner that challenged some of the orthodoxies of abstract painting, making things that looked good and worked in concert. Despite all the oddball stuff he got up to both before and after the “Combine” period, I’ve held on to this opinion for a long time, based upon things of his I’ve occasionally seen around, but also upon reproductions. And of course I was hoping that the Tate show would afford the opportunity to confirm my view in front of the real things. Some chance, and the fact that it doesn’t is indicative of the low priority all things visual get these days. Tate gives equal weighting to all the different phases of Rauschenberg’s career, which might be thought of as only reasonable and objective, were it not for the fact that most stuff before and after the “Combines” is poor, and mostly non-visual; so that, in fact, a more objective appraisal would necessarily have privileged the “Combines”. Obviously it would be out of the question for Tate curators to make such a call on their judgement.

Here’s a selection of some Rauschenbergs from the fifties that are NOT in the show (click to enlarge):

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#46. Nick Moore writes on Frank Avray Wilson at Whitford Fine Art, London

Frank Avray Wilson installation at Whitford Fine Art

Frank Avray Wilson installation at Whitford Fine Art

“Anyone involved with the search for the Abstract would know that it was not a stunt. It was far too demanding, and powerful, for that.”  Frank Avray Wilson, ‘Thinking About Painting’ 1990

This exhibition covers the work of Frank Avray Wilson from 1948 to 1962 and includes examples of his early experiments with formlessness, such as ‘Tropical Sea’ c1948, followed by tussles with cubism and geometry as in ‘Harbour’ 1952, and ‘Configuration’ 1953-7, before developing his ‘dream-like crystalline’ approach for which he became known, which makes up the main body of the show.

Born in Mauritius, Avray Wilson studied Biology at Cambridge University between 1932-5 and it was while involved in this scientific research in 1935, making a painting of a cell structure from under a microscope, that he had his ‘eureka’ moment;

“I drew some of the cells, colouring them with fast running watercolours, overrunning with Chinese ink. The result astounded me. Instead of dead replicas, the forms were bursting with life, looking more living than the cells when alive. From that day my attitude to painting changed… how could a drawing be experienced as more living than life? FAW, 1990.

In his writing “Reminiscences” from 1913, Kandinsky talks about the insubstantiality of the atom and the melting of reality: “one of the main obstacles [on the path to abstraction] was swept away by a scientific event. This was the further division of the atom. The disintegration of the atom was, to my mind, analogous to the entire world. Suddenly the thickest walls collapsed. Everything became insecure… I wouldn’t have been surprised if a stone had melted in mid-air before my eyes and grown invisible.”

Before this it was thought that the world was made of solid things, and the basic building blocks, atoms, were thought to be solid too. Following on from Einstein’s theories of particles and relativity in 1905, the unsettling discovery in 1911, made by Rutherford, was that the atom consisted of mainly empty space… then in the 1950s atomic scientist Oppenheimer declared: ‘The world that is revealed to our senses is only a world of appearances. The world of realty is hidden under the surface of things and this real world can be reached both by the mystic and the scientist, [and I would add, the abstract artist] each in his own way: the mystic by introspection and the denial of his senses and the scientist by mathematics and inductive reasoning [and the artist through intuition and experience].’

In the late forties, the world was being shaped anew, and populations were having to come to terms with the obscene destruction of two World Wars; artists had to work out where they stood and how they could proceed in this wasteland. Many turned to abstraction as a way of trying to make sense of an indeterminate world that had disintegrated on many levels.

It is no coincidence that a common resonance seen to be running through lyrical/informal/expressionist abstract painting in Europe from the ’30s to the ’50s is an intuitive vision of the microcosmic or atomic structure of the world; not just illustrated, but imbued with energy and a bursting vitality, in opposition to the more mathematical approach of geometric abstraction.

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#45. Ms. Ellen Knee writes on Twombly’s Sculptures; Strategies for Painting; Rauschenberg; Imperfect Reverse; Peter Hide; Heribert Heindl/ Richard Ward.

Cy Twombly, Victory, 2005

Cy Twombly, Victory, 2005

Cy Twombly Foundation Gifts 5 Sculptures to the Philadelphia Museum of Art

‘Timothy Rub, director and CEO of the museum, said, “Like the artist’s ‘Fifty Days at Iliam,’ this remarkable group of sculptures evokes the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War and offers a profound meditation on both classical history and the nature of modernity.” He added, “They represent an enormously important addition to our holdings of work by this great artist, who is a key figure in the history of contemporary art.”’

They obviously think very highly of Twombly at the Philadelphia Museum, as they seemingly do in museums all around the world, but as Carl Kandutsch recently asserted on Twitter, he is a vastly overrated artist. And how exactly, one might reasonably ask, do these dull sculptures evoke “the timeless themes sounded in Homer’s account of the Trojan War”? Is it a case similar to the politically wishfull thinking behind Motherwell’s Elegies, only with far worse work?

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#44. Nick Moore writes on Robert Motherwell, “Abstract Expressionism” at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

Robert Motherwell, installation at Jacobson Gallery

‘Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence save as a consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience – intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic.’ Robert Motherwell, ‘What Abstract Art Means to Me’.

After the cramped hang and the waves of people flooding the RA show, this exhibition is an oasis. It includes a taste of all the facets of Motherwell’s work, from the earliest collage Pierrot’s Hat, 1943 and drawing Untitled 1944, it encompasses large canvasses and small works on paper up to his last collage Blue Guitar, 1991; it is a spacious hang in quiet place, filled with vibrant power.

Motherwell was the youngest of the so-called Abstract Expressionists and in some ways the outsider; and indeed still is – he was not honoured with a room of his own at the current RA survey, his name doesn’t appear on the publicity, and ‘Plato’s Cave’ was squashed into a corner, an error not mitigated by the fact that the massive ‘Elegy For The Spanish Republic No 126’ was given a whole wall.

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#43. Alan Gouk writes on Abstract Expressionism at the RA

Jackson Pollock, "Mural", 1943

Jackson Pollock, “Mural”, 1943

The prevailing trend in London to mount such exhibitions in gloomy half-light may serve to enhance Rothko, but it casts a pall of premature burial over many of the rooms, the first especially. However sensible this may be from a conservationist perspective, one wants to see these pictures survive in the light in which they were painted, and not in a reverential aura of profundity seeking historicism. The excessive use of the dimmer switch means that one is in the dark in one room, in half-light the next, and only in daylight for the “late works”.

This piece should be read as a pendant to my Letter from New York, 2011, on abstractcritical, which discusses many of these painters, and David Smith from the collection of MOMA, NY. in 2010, which was shown in daylight, and led to quite a different impression.

There is really only a little to add to the earlier piece. The more examples of Still’s work one sees, the more suspect the claims made for him become. These grandiloquent canyons of black endeavour to overawe by sheer size, sheer height. They are artistically somewhat inert, inexpressive, their handling cack-handed at worst, habitually clumsy and over emphatic, devoid of any of the subtleties of touch one would expect of a major sensibility. The sensibility, such as it is, is adamantine in a negative way, (in contrast to Mondrian’s positive). The only picture in his Black and Tan abstract vein which has some subtly artistic qualities is the smallest and earliest in that mode (1946?).

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#42. Robin Greenwood writes on Alternative Narratives to Ab-Ex at the RA – plus a Review of the Reviews.

Hans Hofmann, "In Sober Ecstasy", 1965

Hans Hofmann, “In Sober Ecstasy”, 1965

“In Sober Ecstasy”…  I was, I was.

Not drunk, but pretty high. But not until the very last room of the show, having been bored and annoyed, as usual, by the uninteresting posturings of Still, Rothko and especially Newman; and somewhat underwhelmed by David Anfam’s selection of de Kooning and Pollock. Finally, here was a so-called Abstract Expressionist painting, “In Sombre Ecstasy” by (to quote Matt Dennis from his comment on the Motherwell post) “the criminally under-represented” Hans Hofmann (1965, from the Audrey and David Mirvish collection, Toronto) that was not only properly abstract, but also truly expressive. I think this is a really good painting, possible a great one. I think it might hold its own against a decent Cezanne or Matisse; I’d love to see it in the company of a good Tintoretto or Constable. I’d love to see it in good company, full stop.

I’ve seen it before, at the Hofmann show that Hoyland put together at Tate in 1988. I don’t recall being quite so taken with it then, but there was a lot to digest in that show – the whole oeuvre of Hofmann’s later works, and it was all new to me.

It’s the best Hofmann that I can now recall seeing, which must also make it one of the best abstract paintings I’ve seen. In my opinion it is a very integrated work, including the big rectangles, my frequent stumbling blocks (pun intended) with Hofmann, especially when they take over most or all of the painting. In this instance they are much more fully integrated with all of the other content – the powerful but unspecified movements which course both diagonally across, and back and forth through depth. The other general factor in this particular painting’s favour, compared with much other abstract painting, including far too many Hofmanns, is its completeness; it has been carried right through to a resolution, rather than left off at an early stage in a half-painted, half-bare-canvas state. Hofmanns are on the whole all the better for being fully worked up, and this one certainly is.

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#41. John Bunker writes on Robert Motherwell at Jacobson

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

Installation, Robert Motherwell at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London

“Robert Motherwell: Abstract Expressionism” is at Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, 16th september – 26th November 2016.

It’s a hard task to corral 40 odd years of painting history into a modest if well proportioned gallery space – especially if it’s the career history of an artist like Robert Motherwell. But what is lacking in breadth, here at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, is more than made up for in focus. One is, of course, also very aware that this gallery is attempting to shine a bright light on Motherwell in the somewhat long shadows cast from across the road by the Royal Academy’s dizzying ‘Abstract Expressionism’ show. Here we have the likes of the portentous Clifford Still dominating the proceedings. It’s funny how so much verbal fire and brimstone can turn so quickly to miserly one-upmanship and tawdry painterly theatrics. But that’s Abstract Expressionism for you – well, a certain kind of it anyway – one that to my mind, Robert Motherwell, with his graphic flair and visceral clarity, has quietly eclipsed – a rogue moon leaving the orbit of a dying star.

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#40. Harry Hay writes on Philip Guston, Henri Matisse and the Politics of the Idle.

Philip Guston, "Stranger", 1964

Philip Guston, “Stranger”, 1964

“Why am I like this?” Oblomov asked himself almost with tears, hiding his head under the blanket again. “Why?”

After seeking in vain for the hostile source that prevented him from living as he should, as the ‘others’ lived, he sighed, closed his eyes, and a few minutes later drowsiness began once again to benumb his senses… He was passing from agitation to his normal state of calm and apathy… So he never arrived at the cause, after all; his tongue and lips stopped in the middle of the sentence and remained half open. Instead of a word, another sigh was heard, followed by the sound of the even snoring of a man who was peacefully asleep.

From Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, first published 1859.

When David McKee gallery closed its doors in 2015, representation of Philip Guston’s estate was passed over to Hauser & Wirth, who celebrated this coup with an exhibition of his abstract work from 1957-67 at their gallery in New York, which is where I saw it in June this year. I want to make it very clear that this is not a review. The moment has passed and I have no particular desire to pick apart this grouping of works, which was mainly comprised of greyscales, floating ‘heads’ and the pure drawings he made in Florida while having some sort of an artistic crisis. The whole exhibition seemed to be accompanied by something of a concession that this is not really Guston’s best work, and that it is simply interesting to see the hints and suggestions at what would come later, what we are all yearning for, the return to figuration. This is really problematic on so many levels, not least the assumption that the late figurative works are any good, but that it also seems that the only way an artist’s voice can be ‘heard’ is by having something to ‘say’, and that the only way to ‘speak’ in art is to deal in recognisable imagery. But as fascinating as Hieroglyphics are, they are not paintings, and I question the extent to which any painting reveals itself through the conventions of language. Sure, it is subject to certain rules and conventions, but it is we who use language to understand what those conventions and meanings are. We interpret, but the painting imparts nothing directly. This is what Guston seems to struggle with in his later work, however open-ended the narrative connotations of his imagery may be. His frustration with abstract painting is well documented, “The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, then going into a frustrated fury about everything, and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue? I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid… Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.” [i] I have some sympathy for this frustration, and yet many a painter before Guston has lived through equally tumultuous times, and yet still managed to remain committed to achieving their aims most appropriate to the chosen discipline.

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#39. John Bunker writes in anticipation of “Abstract Expressionism” at the RA

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6x487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

Lee Krasner, “The Eye is the First Circle”, 1960, oil on canvas, 235.6×487.4cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York. © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016 Photo Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York.

“… Like a Tongue to a Loosening Tooth.”

Thoughts in anticipation of the upcoming Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy, 24th September 2016 – 2nd January 2017.

“…It seems that I cannot quite abandon the equation of Art with lyric. Or rather – to shift from an expression of personal preference to a proposal about history – I do not believe that modernism can ever quite escape from such an equation. By “lyric” I mean the illusion in an art work of a singular voice or viewpoint, uninterrupted, absolute, laying claim to a world of its own. I mean those metaphors of agency, mastery, and self-centredness that enforce our acceptance of the work as the expression of a single subject. This impulse is ineradicable, alas, however hard one strand of modernism may have worked, time after time, to undo or make fun of it. Lyric can not be expunged from modernism, only repressed.

Which is to say that I have sympathy with the wish to do the expunging. For lyric is deeply ludicrous. The deep ludicrousness of lyric is Abstract Expressionism’s subject, to which it returns like a tongue to a loosening tooth.”

TJ Clark, “In Defence of Abstract Expressionism,” Farewell to an Idea.

The RA blockbuster autumn extravaganza promises to seduce us with its knock-out line up of Abstract Expressionist paintings in its lofty neoclassical halls. But scrape beneath the veneer of showtime spectacle and the history of this movement is a battleground of interpretation. It is littered with the burnt out wreckage of a thousand blood-thirsty intellectual engagements between titans of art history from the Left and the Right. By comparison, art making now seems to operate in the uncanny silence that has descended on an ideological no-mans land. But first, please forgive a digression…

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#38. Charley Peters writes on Mary Heilmann at the Whitechapel Gallery

“Maricopa Highway”, 2014, oil on canvas, 106.6x106.6x3.1cm, ©Mary Heilmann; Photo credit: Marie Catalano, Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

“Maricopa Highway”, 2014, oil on canvas, 106.6×106.6×3.1cm, ©Mary Heilmann; Photo credit: Marie Catalano, Courtesy of the artist, 303 Gallery, New York, and Hauser & Wirth

Mary Heilmann, ‘Looking at Pictures’ is at the Whitechapel Gallery 8 June – 21 August 2016

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/mary-heilmann-looking-at-pictures/

Among the paintings that conclude Mary Heilmann’s ‘Looking at Pictures’ at Whitechapel Gallery is ‘Maricopa Highway’ (2014). One of Heilmann’s most recent works, it is evocative of driving at night along scenic highways and the familiar narratives of road movies and video games. ‘Maricopa Highway’s’ nocturnal palette is uncharacteristically naturalistic and subdued, Heilmann’s vibrant choice of colour having been quickly established in her shift from ceramics and sculpture to painting in the early 1970s. In many ways this, like the other paintings of roads and oceans in the final section of the exhibition, feels like Heilmann making a definitive move into more overtly representational painting; diagonal stripes suggest perspective recession and more literally, road markings illuminated by a car’s headlights. The real Maricopa Highway is a little-travelled state highway in Southern California and the route taken by Heilmann’s parents as they drove from San Francisco to LA during her childhood. This describes well the way in which Heilmann makes paintings in which a personal narrative is alluded to through her choice of title, for example, ‘311 Castro Street’ (2001), which was her grandmother’s address, ‘Our Lady of the Flowers’ (1989), the title of a book by Jean Genet, of whom Heilmann says she is a fan. This personal connection to her own work is consistent through titles that denote significant memories, friendships, places and songs. Heilmann herself assumes a self-referential position in her 1999 memoir The All Night Movie, in which she wrote, ‘Each of my paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker’. ‘Looking at Pictures’ makes much of Heilmann as an artist who paints her own life – the exhibition title itself is taken from a section of her aforementioned biography – but there is nothing pure or definitive about Heilmann’s approach to painting. Where she embraces abstraction as a referent for personal experience, she also denotes its more formal concerns, albeit with a casual and knowing imperfection. In ‘Maricopa Highway’ the duality of Heilmann’s methodology is well illustrated. She presents not just a scene of driving at night towards a distant vanishing point but a fractured reality of two different viewing positions placed consecutively. The diagonal lines are both road markings and a reduced abstract form composed on a shaped geometric canvas. Her application of paint is in part dense and almost flat, in part a translucent gestural wash. Throughout ‘Looking at Pictures’ Heilmann’s paintings reveal an adjacency of formalism and narrative, simultaneously telling stories of the proximity of herself to the work and also her objective distance while working towards an established language of abstract motifs.

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