Jackson Pollock

#98. Harry Hay writes on “The Cringe” and Australia’s Peculiar Relationship to Abstract Art

“Would you Pay $1.3m for this?”, Herald, 17th Dec, 1973.

Heavy, with the Weight of History

On the 27th March 2018, I contributed a comment to a long and smouldering debate on Abcrit, following the publication of Alan Gouk’s tremendous Key Paintings of the 20th Century: Part 2. The comment read as follows:

I’m in no way suggesting that we are yet to see an abstract painting. I’m saying that there is no appetite for that as an un-compromised artistic pursuit in our current prevailing culture. Rather paradoxically, we have a situation where there are more “abstract painters” than ever before, but just as so many of these painters are capable of pulling off some rather good paintings, many are just as capable of drawing a smiley face into one of them the very next day. This is because there doesn’t seem to be any sense that a critically engaged audience is watching. Casualism is to a great extent born out of a perception that no one actually cares. This is very different to the climate that gave oxygen to the painters in your survey, Alan [Gouk], and from what I can gather, quite different to the critically engaged times you yourself came up in, able as you were to exchange ideas and have your work seen by the likes of Greenberg and Fried. The tide may already have been turning then, but it is at its lowest ebb now. The fact that we have to resort to google to try and find new or interesting artists is a massive indictment on how far things have fallen, and how isolated we all are.

Actually, I made this comment on the 28th of March, because Australia is about eight or nine hours ahead of England, despite the general lament that we are ten to fifteen years behind in regards to everything else. Australia is no stranger to isolation. The illusive Southern Continent, that last piece of the imperial puzzle, a vast and sporadically populated landmass surrounded by endless sea. This is a place people were sent to so they would disappear. As Robert Hughes wrote in the Fatal Shore:

… transportation got rid of the dissenter without making a hero of him on the scaffold. He slipped off the map into a distant limbo, where his voice fell dead at his feet. There was nothing for his ideas to engage, if he were an intellectual; no machines to break or ricks to burn, if a labourer. He could preach sedition to the thieves and cockatoos, or to the wind. Nobody would care.

Eerily familiar. Barbarism aside, the most significant difference today, as I see it, is the repeated assurance that our voices matter and will be heard. The world has shrunk, so they say, and we’re all supposedly much more connected, and yet it feels as if we’re all just shouting over the top of each other, silencing ourselves in the process, creating a new breed of repression. In colonial Australia, repression was the local currency. We have always felt like this, and it contributes to the manifestation of The Cultural Cringe, that peculiar, archaic but ever present inferiority complex, the reverence for the ‘homeland’ suffered by post-colonial nations but particularly Australia. It’s a complex that has impeded our cultural development, devaluing everything we make here in favour of almost anything from Europe and America, because of our insecure and guilt ridden view of ourselves, born out of the knowledge that this isn’t really our country.

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#96. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century; a Musée Imaginaire, Part 2

Joan Miro, “Painting”, 1953, Guggenheim NY, © 2018 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

PART 2  

Notes Synthetiques ca. 1888  by Paul Gauguin: “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature whilst dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature”.

To Schuffeneker Aug. 1888: “Like music it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonious colours respond to the harmonies of sounds”.

And in Diverse Choses 1898: “ The impressionists… heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centres of thought”.

The sources of these ideas, which were to prove so fertile for the development of abstract painting, lay in the literature of early German Romanticism, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, the synaesthesic imagery taken up by Baudelaire, Schopenhauer’s views on music as reinterpreted by Wagner, and the cult of Richard Wagner in France, which influenced even the  young Cézanne, and the symbolist poets gathered around Mallarme (though some of these pronouncements of Gauguin antecede his friendship with the latter).

Wagner’s music, especially in The Ring, could be described as the triumph of bad literature over music, or the subjugation of music to the literary imagination. The idea that colour, like music, can express the “mysterious centres of thought” appeals to the literary minded, so it is not surprising to find it echoed in Baudelaire and Mallarme. (See the poem Les Phares by Baudelaire). It is for the most part foreign to the French line in painting stemming from Delacroix and finding its culmination in Matisse. Although Matisse echoes the Mallarmean aesthetic “to paint not the thing but the emotion that it arouses in the artist”, in practice his art remains wedded to the full lustre of the sensory world. The transpositions of colour, red for blue, black for azure, are less emotionally driven as arising from his discoveries in Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904/05, that degrees of saturation of hue can form the tonal structure, rather than oppositions of dark and light, just as simultaneous contrasts of colour create light rather than oppositions or gradations of warm and cool.

George Seurat and the theorist Charles Henry voiced similar ideas about the expressive role of line and colour in conveying emotion, on the analogy with music, independently of their function in representation. Chromoluminisme as practiced by Seurat and Divisionism as practiced by Paul Signac, endeavour to combine this emotive theory with the science of colour, a hyper-realism, the two sitting uneasily together, and with mixed results, Pissarro being one of the first to express disillusionment with both the pictorial outcome and the intellectual distancing inherent in the approach.

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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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#31. Ken Carpenter writes on Three New York Shows: Burri, Pollock, Stella

Alberto Burri, “Rosso plastica (Red plastic)”, 1962, plastic (PVC), acrylic and burns on black cloth, 65 x 100 cm, private collection, © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 / SIAE, Rome Photo: © Kunstsammlung NRW

Alberto Burri, “Rosso plastica (Red plastic)”, 1962, plastic (PVC), acrylic and burns on black cloth, 65 x 100 cm, private collection, © Fondazione PalazzoAlbizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016 / SIAE, Rome. Photo: © Kunstsammlung NRW

Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting was at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York from Oct. 9, 2015, to Jan. 6, 2016, and is at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf from March 5 to July 3, 2016.

Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1935-1954 is on at the Museum of Modern Art through May 1, 2016.

Frank Stella, A Retrospective was at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York from Oct. 30, 2015, to March 7, 2016. It will be at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas from Apr. 17 to Sept. 4 and the De Young Museum in San Francisco from Nov. 5 to Feb. 26, 201

NEW YORK: BURRI, POLLOCK, STELLA.

Alberto Burri was one of the giants of European matériel painting. The enormous exhibition, Alberti Burri, The Trauma of Painting, which at first occupied almost all of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and is now at the  Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, presented numerous works from not quite a dozen series in the artist’s richly varied career. The exhibition was accompanied by a thoroughly researched catalogue of 279 pages. It argues persuasively that Burri’s artistic vocabulary emerged directly from his life experience.

Take for instance the “laborious sewing… stitching” and folding of Burri’s Sacchi (sackcloth paintings). Burri lived in Città di Castello, a mere half-hour’s bike ride away from Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, with, as Burri’s friend Sandra Blow recalls, its “mobile folds” of drapery “scrunched and tucked by laces.” The artist’s extensive military experience in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia and Tunisia, much of it as a doctor in the medical corps, required him not only to suture battle wounds but also to sew repairs in his own uniform. The exhibition curator Emily Braun writes, “Burri undoubtedly had images of combat wounds seared into his mind, not to mention the muscle memory of suturing actions.”

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#18. David Sweet writes on “Palaces, Pollock and Pixar”.

Jackson Pollock, "Out of the Web", 1949

Jackson Pollock, “Out of the Web”, 1949

Palaces, Pollock and Pixar

Inside Out, the recent Pixar movie, contains a scene I found overwhelmingly, hysterically funny. The action is set mainly inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl, which is occupied by five figures personifying her emotions – ‘Joy’, ‘Anger’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Disgust’ and ‘Fear’. In the scene, two characters, Joy and Riley’s ‘Imaginary Friend’, take a short cut through a region called ‘Abstract Thought’, despite clear warnings that they are entering a dangerous zone. As they travel through it, the processes of visual abstraction transform them. First their anatomy is fragmented and re-organised in a non-naturalistic formation, they lose volume and depth, their outline is simplified, they become flatter and flatter. Just at the point of extinction they reach the exit and their figurative integrity is restored.

The scene is a highly edited and compressed account of pictorial abstraction’s evolution, familiar from university art history modules on the subject. What’s interesting is the panic that overtakes the two characters as they approach pure abstraction, and the relief they feel when they return to their familiar pixel-based environment. Even as an abstract painter, I felt it difficult not to share this sense of relief.

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#13. John Bunker writes on Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool

'Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots', on display at Tate Liverpool, © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

‘Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots’, on display at Tate Liverpool, © Tate Liverpool, Roger Sinek

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool, 30 June – 18 October 2015

‘I don’t paint nature, I am nature’ is only a couple of stops up the art historical track from ‘It’s art because I say it is’ and only a few more stops down from ‘Pollock blew the picture to hell’1. But what if we get off this particularly well ridden bandwagon of art-speak clichés? We are used to those grindingly repetitive narratives of courageous innovation leading to a numbing bubble of celebrity, crippling self doubt and full-blown self destruction. I was hoping this show might help in beating a new path toward fresh and original ways to apprehend Pollock’s later art.

Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool did not start with a painting but with a small photograph. We are told it’s an image of a mother and child. Areas of the two entwined bodies are blotted out by the artist with black ink. Other areas of the grainy creases of skin, limbs, hands and eyes are left exposed. The image has at once been destroyed and remade, obscured and revealed. And it is interesting that our ideas of Pollock, the person and the artist, are so utterly entwined with photographs and film. These famous images have indeed created peculiar ‘Blind Spots’ of their own. They introduced a wider public and fellow painters to a new and emphasised exploration of an artist’s processes and materials. They de-mystified the way the artist worked while at the same time re-enforcing the myth of ‘Jack the Dripper’. Pollock and his art were transformed into a series of consumable images and a lifestyle package (‘flawed genius’ having its own particularly enduring history).

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