Robin Greenwood

#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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#61. Harry Hay writes on Brancaster Chronicles at the Heritage Gallery, Greenwich

Brancaster discussion in progress, 10th April 2017. Photo John Pollard. Film of the discussions will be made available to view on the Brancaster Chronicles website (Branchron.com) shortly.

Brancaster Chronicles at Greenwich, at the Heritage Gallery is open 11, 12, 13 and 18, 19, 20 April 2017, 10am-6pm. https://branchron.com/news/

I paid my first visit to Maritime Greenwich in 2010. I was in my first year of art school, aspiring towards figuration and rather disinclined to pay much attention to abstract art at all. Turner was my favourite artist, and so I was rather drawn towards seeing some of the world he depicted. The uniform that Nelson died in after his wounding at Trafalgar is particularly resonant in my mind. It is hard to reflect, almost impossible in some ways, on how we get to where we are. How many moments are there along the way that lead us to change course so drastically, for we hardly seem to notice it as it happens. Some may say that the divide between Turner and abstract art is not such a huge leap. Well it certainly feels so in reflection. If we fast forward seven years, my reason for returning to Greenwich couldn’t really feel more disparate.

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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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#55. Robin Greenwood writes on Victor Pasmore at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Victor Pasmore, “Model for the Apollo Pavillion”, Peterlee, 1967

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 11 June 2017 (and previously shown at the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts).

http://pallant.org.uk/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/main-galleries/victor-pasmore/victor-pasmore

In 1861, the 80m tall spire and tower of Chichester Cathedral calamitously collapsed under its own weight from a structural failure of the piers, depositing as it did 6,000 tons of rubble into the nave below (6,000 tons! The Eiffel Tower, well over three times the height, weighs in at only 7,300 tons. You get a lot more height for your heft with steel – but I digress). You would think, to read the account of Victor Pasmore’s controversial conversion in 1948/9 from lyrical landscapist and Euston Road “Objective Realist” to abstract painter, collager and relief-builder, that the scale of disaster for the reactionary English art establishment who had thus far supported him was equally cataclysmic. Pasmore, prior to his apostasy, seems to have been the apple of many a well-connected eye, leading a rather charmed existence: working alongside William Coldstream and Claude Rogers to set up the Euston Road School in 1937; being supported and patronised by the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark from 1935 up to 1948. Then, having gone abstract, gaining the support and encouragement of Ben Nicholson; showing regularly at the Redfern Gallery, through all phases of work, until taken up by Marlborough in 1960; and being appointed Master of Painting at King’s College, Durham/Newcastle , in 1954, where he taught alongside Lawrence Gowing. Throughout his life, he seems to have been well in with everyone that mattered.

In retrospect, the transition from figurative to abstract looks rather harmless and parochial. In this exemplary show at Pallant House Gallery, excellently and unobtrusively curated by Anne Goodchild of the Djangoly Gallery, Nottingham, Pasmore’s evolution is set out chronologically (I love chronology! How different from the Vanessa Bell show now at Dulwich, which destroys all semblance of developmental logic by its intrusive theming), from his first talented efforts as a gifted young painter, taking us coherently through all his wildly different phases, up until the late sixties and his excellent design for the Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, 1967, which is where the show ends. After which, Pasmore retreated to his house in Malta for thirty or so years, producing the ubiquitous and rather repetitive biomorphic paintings and prints that you now see all over galleries and art fairs. He died in Malta in 1998, aged 90.

So, what to make of this man who is described by Anne Goodchild in her catalogue essay as possibly “the patron saint of the committed Sunday painter”? Not a very flattering description, to say the least, but I think I know what she means. The exhibition moves very fast between the phases of his work, and as I walked around I jotted down the most visible and, to me, obvious of his influences, as follows: Cézanne; Vuillard; Degas; Manet; Corot; Matthew Smith; Morandi; de Staël; Klee; Schwitters; Seurat; Bruegel; Turner; Whistler; Mondrian; Gottlieb; van Gogh; Rodchenko/Tatlin constructivism; Nicholson; Le Corbusier; Miro; Arp. Bonnard and Kandinsky are also cited, but I couldn’t see them.

I repeat, these are just the obvious ones that I could point to. I have never been to Pallant House Gallery before; I have never been to Chichester before; and I’ve never known an artist to have such a long list of clear and present influences. Was the man really such a dilettante?

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#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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#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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#36. Tim Scott and Robin Greenwood discuss Abstract Sculpture

Tim Scott, "Bridge of Echoes I", 2014

Tim Scott, “Bridge of Echoes I”, 2014, laminated paper (for plywood)

The following is taken from a recent exchange of emails.

Tim Scott: Dear Robin, I thought you might like to read this by Clement Greenberg, re Abcrit discussions on “abstract content”:

“….The quality of a work of art inheres in its “content”, and vice versa. Quality is “content”, you know that a work of art has content because of its effect. The more direct denotation of effect is “quality”. Why bother to say that a Velasquez has “more content” than Salvador Rosa when you can say more simply and with direct reference to the experience you are talking about, that the Velasquez is “better” than the Salvador Rosa? You cannot say anything truly relevant about the content of either picture, but you can be specific, and relevant about the difference in their effect on you. “Effect” like “Quality” is “content”, and the closer reference to actual experience of the first two terms makes “content “virtually useless for criticism………indulge in that kind of talk about “content” myself. If I do not do so any longer is because it came to me, dismayingly, some years ago that I could always assert the opposite of whatever it was I did say about “content” and not get found out; that I could say almost anything I pleased about “content” and sound plausible……”

Robin Greenwood: Thanks Tim. We all define these things a bit differently, don’t we, but I’ve found the idea of “abstract content” quite useful recently. Time will tell if I’ve got it right or wrong.

Tim Scott: I’m interested. Are you saying that “abstract content” is different to any other sort of content? (Clem says it’s all the same but should be called “quality”; he doesn’t use the word “value”, as in value judgement.) Another point he doesn’t touch on is whether there is any difference between “sculpture content” and “painting content” in terms of definition.

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#32. Robin Greenwood writes on Content and Continuity

Pieter Janssens Elinga, "La Balayeuse", 1668-1672

Pieter Janssens Elinga, “La Balayeuse”, 1668-1672

“Shakespeare’s pre-eminence is of course due to his extraordinary originality; but to begin to understand his originality, we have to interpret the word correctly. It does not mean that he invented a kind of drama that was quite different from that to which his age was accustomed, or that he invented new ideas for his dramatic subjects. It means that as part of his poetic talent and his imaginative intensity he possessed an unusual critical power. This, too, must be properly defined. He left no assessments of his own or of anybody else’s work, but a great imaginative writer must use criticism to test the vitality of the literary forms of his age. He tests them, rather than invents new ones… [in order to be] continuous with the imaginative expression that nourished him…”

 “In all these plays Shakespeare is not rejecting the accepted forms of theatrical tradition; he is revitalizing them by bringing them into relationship with the actualities of real experience.”

C.Gillie, Longman Companion to English Literature; The Great Age: 1590-1620; Longman.

Lucky Shakespeare, to have lived at such a time, when forms and precedents and high, ambitious, competitive achievement were strong, and the artform in question could thus properly express the deepest feelings of the age. I’m not sure in visual art we are in the midst of anything like such interesting times, but nor do I believe that we are in an age of shallow feeling that must be mirrored in the contemporary art we make. But it strikes me as something of a dilemma; we might need on the one hand to overturn all precedent in abstract art so far; yet we can’t presume to make painting or sculpture without thought or structure, about any old thing and from garbage; and so, on the other hand, sympathising with all the achievements of abstract art to date, even if we consider them only minor, we might wish to continue to attempt to make something of their precedent – but yet more real, more intense… better.

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#23. Robin Greenwood writes on Flatness at Pace and Plastic Space

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro and Noland.

Installation shot at Pace London, works by Caro (Stainless Piece C, 1974/5) and Noland.

Hoyland, Caro, Noland at Pace Gallery, London.

In the mid-20th Century shared unreality that was ‘Caroland’ it was somehow viable, with intentions that were quite probably on the right side of honest, to make a sculpture – in this case, Stainless Piece C, 1974/5 – that sat flat on the floor and rose up no more than a couple of inches, so you looked down upon it like a relief laid horizontally (I made a few like this myself); and to make it out of a few scattered (or were they artfully composed?) pieces of stainless steel plate and other bits and pieces (David Smith’s steel?) that had been scoured with an angle-grinder to give an optical illusion of depth to its surface when it had none at all to its structure (again, like Smith?). In the Pace Gallery, London, this work is shown on a plinth that is a good three inches taller than the sculpture itself (didn’t Caro do away with plinths? Did the gallery decide the work’s lack of status required one?), making a combined height, sculpture and plinth, of oh… all of eight inches or so. And because it’s by Caro, and because he’s now dead (R.I.P.), and because it’s a piece of art history merchandising already, and because it’s the prestigious Pace Gallery; because of all this and more, and for no reason due to its inherent value, since it transparently has none, unless you view it through a thick haze of sentimental regret for simpler and more certain times in abstract art; this pathetic little piece of twaddle has become a luxury commodity, imbued with all the myths of modernism, reflecting back at us our own ‘good-housekeeping-modern-but-weren’t-we-ever-so-radical-back-in-the-sixties’ taste.

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