Robin Greenwood

#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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#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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#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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