When the Devil is due
He’ll come to collect
What you do
No tears or regrets.
He comes just for you.
It’s time my dear.
just for you
He’s come to collect
Mae West sang this to me in a dream – a “Lost Generation” torch song. I woke in my dark morning room not knowing where I was. How very strange one’s mind can be – Dec. 2012.
There in the Met at the end of the Matisse exhibit that’s searching for “true painting,” we emerge into yet another spending kiosk of expensive knick knacks and tchochkes. On the left of this “tourist kill box” are some left over galleries sponsored by wealthy patrons. And on the wall as you enter on the right is a late Picasso. A small blue and black painting of one of his goateed Musketeers cradling the breast of a young nude beauty in his left hand, and in his right, he offers a ring or a flower or a hybrid of the two. In this painting you can see life playing through his brush strokes and palette, the depth of his ideas of painting’s history and the complexity of his relationship with Art. He was having fun with his brush, circling and scrubbing into the drawing. The Musketeer’s curly hair, the beauty’s curly hair, the spaces curling between them, the sky curled around her head, the curl of the promise of fidelity, the rounded ring with unfolding petals, the curl of her toes, the curl of the shaded brushwork on her lavender thigh. And after Matisse’s show of revealed working secrets documented with pompously framed reproductions, I kept thinking of his arabesque, the line that denotes life and love for that Master. In Picasso’s hands this line had become something more, especially in his last years; something that could form and broaden one’s vision before it came time to pay the bad man. Even the quick curling line of her belly button hints at the reality of flesh, the contour around that line thickens the being before us. It is an abstraction, seen and unseen at once, a plush visual understanding of volume, shade, hue and value coming through the theoretical schematics of Modernism. This line has a deeper history and a more complicated relationship to other Masters – Velazquez, Goya, Rubens. There is nothing finer, nothing more real for me to see at this time. I stood with this painting for a while, and when I was ready, I left without a look through the rest of the gallery. I didn’t want to see anything else for the moment.
Later in the cold white gallery at the back of the Met, I sat in front of a wall of contemporary work. On the left a Terry Winters, the middle a Pat Steir, then a Julian Lethbridge, and finally on the right, a Susan Rothenberg. All handsome works, all exemplary of this time. Yet I couldn’t feel anything for these abstractions. I looked for quite a while sitting on the bench opposite, searching for something in them, in me, something to see. But the works were all about the surfaces and the materials. The dreaded “skeins” of line work, the flows and drips both controlled and accidental, the clotted grounds of scumbles, scrapes, slathers and scratches – the Postmodern skrim, the overload of studied production. This is mannered Abstraction, self consciously referring to its making and the larger history of 20th century making. Surface, material, support, facture (a very popular word at the moment, and one I am now leaving behind.) And beneath these facades a narrative of Postmodern context – the biologic universal, the torrent of life, the forest of regret and the found abject object. These half finished stories wait for us to fill in the blank surfaces with our own experiences right their on the ever-assertive grounds of Postmodern knowing. These surfaces don’t move us, they are there as a backdrop for something else – for the life in front of them, not the life within them. I so want to engage, and I do, finally, with the Rothenberg. I see the thing she’s painted forging it’s way out of the leveling ground only to lose it again in the red sludge of the flattening surface. I want the thing as she does, but we are both denied. The ground submerges all of it. Susan can not let it be, can not see it through the beautiful surface. She is of our time, and I respect her effort.
So different than the room of Degas’ bathers – a dark gold light overhead, drawings lining the wall. Everything feels close, contained. The surfaces are filled with crosshatches and heavy pastels. The beautiful bathers emerge through the lens and then find a thicker reality in Degas’ line, the flesh formed with each stroke of color, the line tracing the reality in front of us. These visions are not mine, and I’m not supposed to fill in the blanks, there are none to choose. I am supposed to look, to see something that’s not me. I am there with Degas, experiencing an entropic moment, understanding that this drawing is both image and being at once, a hybrid of visual existence. This moment of temporal traversal becomes something deeper, something that connects this moment in front of this image, the reality of the image without my presence, and Degas himself to the Venetians with their languorous Venuses, to the bathing nymphs frescoed on Roman Villas, to the wading Nile Goddesses on a Pyramid wall. But here, as she dries, her wet auburn hair pulled round her shoulder, the line of her back, arm and towel forms a negative abstraction. It’s a perfection of pink, off white, red, blue and yellow, all process and work, and all of it a challenge picked up by a later de Kooning.
This drawing teaches us something about abstract things. They can and must form space from their being. These images push us to see that the surface, that the ground is no such thing. That the image/being exerts its life into the vision, the ground is formed not of itself but out of being. In order to see in this way it’s not context, never context. It’s being.
I left the Met pulling on my coat and heading down that steep set of stairs to the street. I don’t do it often, but I thought…”what the hell, I’ll splurge,” and climbed into a cab. I kept thinking about those tight circles in Picasso’s painting, the endless curls, the curving lines and the spaces formed out of those two people, those two silly faces, that strange warping of size, structure and time. It seemed visually compelling to me in ways that the contemporary abstractions could not. The cab eased down the avenue toward home. Later that afternoon as I looked out of my studio window I remembered the song in my dream – so vivid – sung to me by a face no less silly, temporal and real than the ones in Picasso’s Musketeer painting. Curls and curves, thighs and skies, rings and toes, all treated the same way with the fidelity of a circular visual promise. And there I was brush in one hand, rag in the other – a 21st Century anachronism circling back on the past. Picasso had come to collect his due.
1:39 AM – my black dogs barking…
Among the official legal documents of early 17th century Rome there’s an innocuous one filed by Caravaggio’s landlady complaining that he had broken a hole in the ceiling of his rented studio. Such a senseless act, letting the weather in like that. And like any sensible landlady she wanted to be paid for the damage, and just maybe, the courts might provide relief. But unfortunately for her, Michele had already buggered off south trying to avoid being rubbed out. She would never see that cash, so she’d just confiscate a few of the worthless things he left behind – a glass and a mirror among them. Of course we might understand why there was a hole in the ceiling from our vantage point. That dark box with the closed wooden shutters had to be filled with an overhead raking light – great for drama, fantastic for the glass and mirror he used to capture his directed beings, his composed images – great for forming flesh. M was after the thing, the image of reality as he saw it, and that hole in the ceiling was a way to challenge the prevailing Mannerist art of this age. And here as my dogs howl in the night I begin the usual litany of questions. What if we Postmoderns were to break a hole into the ceiling and let the light into the closed box? What if we were willing to paint things through the glass and the mirror, but never with them? What if we could be abstractionists without the strictures of Modernism, without the expectations of Postmodernism?