The weird turn pro…

“The term comes from a rather interesting guy [Alexei Yurchak] who wrote about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the middle of the 1980s when the Soviet Union was collapsing. Because there wasn’t really any protest at the time. What he pointed out is that everyone knew that everything was not right. They knew that those in control had no control. They knew that those running the economy were not in control, that everything was corrupt and often completely fake because the leaders were pretending they were in control. Everybody knew this and the leaders knew that everybody knew this, but nobody did anything about it because there was nothing else. It was normal. And he coined the phrase ‘Hypernormalisation’ to describe this. Somehow, you knew that everything was a bit odd, and a bit unreal, and often fake, but because there was no other picture of the world, and you were so within this system you accepted it as normal and just went on…” Adam Curtis on Hypernormalisation.

Adam goes on to describe the rise of our economic world and its managerial tendencies. From Homo sapien to Homo economicus in less than 100 years. The marriage of the electronic world with corporate economic machinery has created a society driven by a deep need for endless profitability, stability and stasis instead of experiment and change. When the world turns weird…

Bernini Proserpina 1621-22

“I’ve been trying for quite a while to use film to invent a different kind of journalism—to do essays which tell stories, but their real function is to make people pull back and look at their time and to say: Look—in this age of the individual, where you are told that you are the center of the world, power hasn’t gone away. It’s just mutated and morphed into all sorts of different forms, some of which are good, some of which are bad, some of which have grave consequences.” Adam Curtis on filmmaking.

My new obsession involves the skill and observation that some old master sculptors used in creating their work. Most of us don’t really care about such things these days – we have machines and programs that do this kind of work in seconds. Additionally, Neo-Modernists plying their old school abstractions on the market still rail against such verisimilitude as if old masters’ art making is any less a “process.” This sort of reasoning is passé and part of the legacy which the acolytes of Modernism continue to invoke like evangelists at a tent revival. What once were avant-garde provocations for abstraction are now used to describe institutionally approved interior decoration. We have been deskilled by our beliefs, and we believe what we are told. So why not – when looking for inspiration – look elsewhere for something that… isn’t what we know or expect or even want. We only really learn, we only really question, when we find something unexpected – some thing to learn about.

Grim view of global future offered in intelligence report
“The document focuses heavily on the impact of the pandemic, calling it the “most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.”

Carpeaux Ugolino and His Sons1865–67

The problem of our time is this . . . how do you run a world of millions of individuals, millions of little squealing piglets — how do you herd them together? There is an argument that says it’s not the politicians’ fault that we got this desiccated managerialism — it was just a way of desperately trying to deal with us millions of little squealing piglets. We are little monsters. Seriously, we are. Adam Curtis in conversation with Miles Ellingham.

Even in the most ridiculous of art works one can find moments of pure genius and promise. Carpeaux’s Ugolino is horrendous – overwrought, over composed, over done and over the top (and not necessarily in a good way.) The sculpture doesn’t have an expansive Hellenism, though it sure uses all the classical clichés to try to get there. Instead this work is hampered by its 19th Century Salon theatricality and overwrought hysteria. It’s a product of its time. But if you move in to the thing you can still see bits of genius. This photograph has excised the overwrought narrative from the piece and created a more mysterious moment. What’s going on here? Why the tortured grip, the yielding flesh? This mystery hasn’t any direct answers and allows us a more open experience of the wonderful sculptural illusions in the picture. Sometimes it pays to isolate and concentrate on details.

What Is the Meaning of All This Money?
“In the absence of a hegemonic answer to the question of what money is to us, strangeness reigns. Even as money has been injected with new political vitality, its actual life has become more baroque. NFTs and meme stocks and cryptocivilizations aren’t just the products of new technologies run amok or old financial dynamics dressed up in new clothes; they are the morbid symptoms of an interregnum during which the role and identity of money in our lives and politics are shifting.”

Giambologna Sabine Women 1579-1583

We are living through strange days across Britain, Europe and America. Societies have become split and polarized, not just in politics, but across the whole culture. There is anger at the inequality and the ever-growing corruption and a widespread distrust of the elites. But at the same time there is a paralysis, a sense that no one knows how to escape from this. Even in America where there is now hope with the new president – there are also fears that despite the growing crisis that the system will just return to normal. Adam Curtis interviewed by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode.

Giambologna’s column of heavy flesh sits high up on a pedestal in the Piazza della Signoria. True, this sculpture is also a bit overwrought, but somehow it’s not as off-putting as the Carpeaux. The figures in the piece retain some of the generosity of Southern Classicism. Our viewpoint of this action and the sculptural illusions of the figures keep us moving around the thing. Every angle creates a new vision and experience. Watching people look at the work is like a sport – they round it, their heads are thrown back, moving left and right – trying to see up through those angles. The work demands our presence – we must BE there – and that also feels ancient in a way. This idea of presence is something that we no longer demand of culture. From shopping to sex to war we’ve discovered that we can minimize culpability and accountability – nothing is physically demanding – and our consumer culture absolutely loves this idea. Money created from nothing but money – our world exists only through an electric connection and our unquestioning belief that the content on our screens is real.

Why the Artworld Loves to Hate NFT Art
“Yet contemporary art has, unlike many other subcultures, also developed an often-contradictory relationship with the oligarchical rich, and with the exclusivity and elitism that comes with it. One of the paradoxes of this is that while art has tended to align itself against mass and populist culture, it is a ‘subculture’ that has nevertheless become the culture of the elite. In recent years, the artworld’s otherwise privileged institutional world has taken to heart issues of social justice and environmental and ethical responsibility that characterise ‘progressive’ culture – a position that often pits it against the interests and values of the less-privileged sections of mainstream society, from the ‘squeezed middle’, disenfranchised working-class voters and others whose cultural perspectives differ sharply from these preoccupations.”

Michelangelo David 1501-04

We have no other picture of the future. That’s the problem. And the engineering system of the internet does not supply it. It’s beautiful in other ways, and it is great organizing people, but we need a picture of the future somehow. Engineering systems seek stability, that’s the whole idea if you’re an engineer. You build a bridge. You don’t want it to change. You don’t want it to fall down. You want it to hold together. So all the stresses and strains balance each other out. It is the same with skyscrapers. That’s how engineering works.
And the same is true of the Internet. What it’s seeking all the time is to find out what you’re like, find out who is like you and then find out what they want. They give you what they like so that everyone is happy.  And it begins to segment you into all these little groups that are like you, and then feed you the same stuff. That’s because it’s an engineering system, and it really likes doing it and it does it beautifully. What it can’t do – if you have a system that is constantly trying to manage the world by reading data from your behavior in the past – what it can’t imagine is the kind of future that’s never existed before. Because it’s always reinforcing you from what it knows you are and when, as I quote someone in the film saying, it’s actually a cartoon model of you, because all these systems online simplify you, and then they feed you more of that. But the main thing is it cannot imagine another future because it always has to look into the past. If you’re trying to change the world, of course you look back into the past, learn from it, but what you also have to do is make a leap of faith into something new. That’s what the Internet – I think – is a beautiful information processing and distribution system  -never does and to do it we’re going to have to transcend it somehow use it but transcend it.” Adam Curtis Top Quotes

After Michele every sculptor that we venerate through art history had to find a way to include and get past his genius. There are precious few artists like this in our history. Il Divino set the stage for centuries and our systems, our academies, created and maintained the idea of his divine contributions. The 20th Century was the breaking point – sculpture became something else because artists had had enough of what was. They wanted to get over the past and find new ways to create. Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Duchamp, Miro, Calder, Smith, Caro, Andre, Judd and Nauman, among others, challenged our history and broached new forms and ideas of sculpture. Tools and materials, abstraction and conceptualism were used to move beyond Il Divino’s tyrannical hold on our imaginations. And yet – that hand, Michele’s hand, from centuries ago – can still break your heart.

The Biden Boom Is Already Wild
“But watching the bizarre things happening in the worlds of art and finance, I thought of something I read in William J. Bernstein’s recent book, “The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups.” He wrote that one of the defining features of a bubble is that “financial speculation begins to dominate all but the most mundane social interactions,” and “stocks and real estate” become primary topics of conversation.”

Hazy Days

George Hofmann posted some older things on instagram a while ago – a series of paintings from 2010. Hadn’t seen these before – mysterious, late evening paintings – abstractions harkening back to the Spain of the late 18th & early 19th Century. This particular painting entitled “Shades” took my attention. The smokey gray brush strokes fill the shallow space, defining and occluding the picture plane. George is purposely using a Modernist gambit, a spatial ruse, a play of brush and surface to lock us in to the image and make us aware of those two delicate strokes, hanging like laundry just beneath the ashy field. Like Matisse’s Côte d’Azur balcony, we can not be sure of anything here – not the principles and values of 20th Century Modernism, not the expressionist field and not even the abstraction itself. All of that history is fading into the scraped atmosphere, awash in the wake of this shallow space.

Joe Packer’s Instagram is a dream – so many wonderful paintings. He manages to combine still life or landscape imagery into a laconic expressionism. His un-natural world is filled with strangely beautiful imagery – paintings overflowing with emotive atmosphere and unexpected light. The processes and the layering of the imagery over the structured surface in Joe’s “Blue Tree Study II” is masterful. We’re pulled along that chunky surface until we’re pushed back into the shallow natural space. But Joe’s complex textures and painted illusions never reveal the game – in this space nothing will ever be sure – we must accept and get used to ambiguity. What really attracted me to this work was the feel of early Modern influences – Corot, Cezanne, Gauguin, Vincent and Matisse – that era of French painting when process, imagery and reality mixed with abstraction to create strange and wonderful confluences of meaning.

When money and power are on the line anything goes – these days the wolves are loose and hungry. But here in the pandemic world – no one seems to be minding the flock. After the riot in DC and the war of narratives that has followed – everything feels compromised and weak in some way. American politics, in fact politics anywhere – is a dirty, filthy, duplicitous game no matter which side you choose.
Oh, Dear – Adam Curtis critiques our global ambitions, economies and political constructs back in 2014. And frighteningly, this critique still makes perfect sense at this particular moment in time. Tracked by machines, communicating through compromised and surveilled networks, constantly barraged with fearful information, and held in place by nebulous and indirect threats to our health and safety – the ruling classes continue to tweak this script in order to remain all powerful and rich.
After binge watching a few of Mr. Curtis’ long form movies I was left feeling used, useless, faceless and desperate. But you may survive these hard and heavy ideas differently – recommend that you give them a watch – especially the latest – “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”.

Finally, this small Cezanne painting in the National Gallery has stayed with me for many years now. If it were possible – would have nicked it in a heartbeat. And that painting would be sitting on the wall over my desk to this very day. Would never part with the thing – not for love or money. There are so many wonderful things going on in this painting (and you can read about it at the link to the NG,) but the thing that always stands out is the one golden eye looking right out at us. What a ballsy thing for a lowly painter to say to the world – “I see right through you!”

Paul wasn’t aiming his work at the corporate classes. Instead he was speaking directly to us, those who would carry on, and he did that on an intimate scale. Artistic ambition needn’t be about Neo-Liberalism’s fixation on size, grandeur and economics. From inside our quarantined studios those very things make our art world look a silly mess and Paul’s little paintings more – real.

Which brings me to this last observation – one of the great things about artists working during the pandemic is that many have re-discovered that innovation and beauty can be and probably should be, hand-held and pocket sized. Just look at the wonderful intimate work being made and sold (inexpensively) through the #artistsupportpledge. What a fantastic idea for artists this has been during this really difficult moment.

Mike Zahn – Quarantine Art

Mike Zahn writes a sensitive and beautiful tribute to Jackie Saccoccio and a wonderful painting that she gifted him a few years ago. The article by Stephen Maine in Hyperallergic is about artists living with their collections during quarantine. Highly Recommended.


Pinned on the wall in front of my desk is a postcard of Matisse’s Bay of Nice. It’s a surprising image, because it initially looks like what it is – an artist creating a postcard image of a lovely seascape – but soon enough – you begin to realize that there’s something else going on here. Nothing in this image is constant, nothing is settled or comforting – everything is change and process. Henri rebuilds that hotel balcony – a few times – right before our eyes. He’s scratched it out, wiped it away, scraped it right down to the canvas and then built it back into being.
So much indecision makes it hard for us to easily accept the reality within the image. But by pushing us to see through his impossible adjustments we begin to experience this particular moment in time.
Matisse abstracts the real, because his memory is unsure and imperfect. He can’t remember exactly what he’s seen even as he’s seeing it. The act of painting recreates his uncertainty. It’s almost as if the balcony – the object Matisse is fighting with – was having trouble presenting itself to be seen. As the balcony creates its own reality it’s also forming itself on the surface of the painting. For Henri the real exists through the collaboration of forming objects and gathers itself into being just slightly behind the present moment.
“Génération perdue…”

Picasso Homme Au Chapeau Assis 1972

The other postcard haunting the studio desk is by Picasso. He painted it the year that he died. It’s a Mousquetaire, and it has all the things you’d expect of those amazing late paintings. But it’s very different than Matisse’s image. Where Matisse paints his doubt Picasso is always moving toward surety, even as he over paints and revises the image – wet into wet – the image is fast and available. What’s great is that this figure sits off-center – it pushes left, and Picasso fixes that improvised clumsiness with the weird slippery geometry on the right. He hasn’t time to make the image perfect – his vision arrives too quickly. Pablo’s idée fixe, the surety of his memory, makes every decision on that canvas real, every image true. He creates this moment.
I have a vision of shirtless Pablo in his loin cloth shorts and sandals, a thuggish Mediterranean primitive, using and abusing the mythology of the Côte d’Azur. This particular Mousquetaire with his ridiculous hat and those massive heavy hands sits waiting for something – waiting to do something. He looks out at us – unblinking – certain and hard – fixing us squarely within the swirling reality of the image. Pablo doesn’t allow us a moment for doubt or reflection – we know exactly what’s about to happen. Time has run out. For our Picasso painting is reality abstracted from a million stolen images.
À la recherche du temps perdu“….


Dennis Bellone Untitled 2010

The other night walked past the Jane Street Tavern and had a very specific memory of having dinner and drinks with some good friends many years ago. That evening was particularly rowdy and filled with talk of art, life and “all that shit”. These kinds of memories happen at times, especially now that we’re all a bit more – how to put this nicely – broken in. It can make one wistful – and in this particular moment – very much missed being able to see our friend, Dennis.

The first thing you should know about Dennis Bellone is that he could talk your ear off – and his knowledge of Art was deep and expansive. He also listened – deeply – to what you might say in order to understand where his ideas might connect with your views. He loved constructive discussions and confluential experiences. He used a lot of shorthand when he talked about art – and after a few beers – the conversation could become difficult to follow – but that was just fine with us – we all speak “whiskey shorthand” anyway. Dennis assumed you had the same depth of knowledge and experience – all he wanted was to make connections and see the pathways.

The second thing you should know is that Dennis didn’t edit very much or very often – not his paintings, his writings or his life. Everything was done all at once for the most part. That also goes for his blog – he just let it fly like he was talking to us in the bar or the café. He knew we would catch on. Truth is he was writing for us – wanting to see what we might say, what we might ask. His writing wasn’t necessarily done for the larger art community – though he would be chuffed to know that others might be reading and looking and finding their own interpretations of his words and his paintings. Below are a couple of things that are especially good and indicative of his work. Pulled these from Immaterial Culture.

Dennis Bellone Klaus Kinsky 2012

In That Dirty Old Bastard – Dennis is discussing Picasso (the dirty old bastard) and what he found to be alive in Pablo’s paintings. He also compares this older kind of Modernism to what was going on at the time. Dennis was adamant about what was lacking in much of the art that we encountered in the galleries. He felt that our generation had been over-schooled – victims of meta-painting and institutional theoretical systems. He often bemoaned the fact that many of the so-called “rule breakers” of this era were just following predetermined pathways – upgrading rather than innovating. He felt that we were missing something that the older masters had access to – their art was done in the first person and it came from lived experiences. Yes, the past must be acknowledged, but for him, it’s also something to overcome, remove and discard from one’s work – just as Dennis’ heroes had done. In the other article – On Motif – he was discussing his own work experiences and what he hoped would come across to us. (The text below has been edited a bit.)

Dennis Bellone Untitled 2010

“The problem with Picasso – or Miró for that matter – is that they don’t fit into convenient categories of modernist art production, nor does Duchamp…. The American version of Modernism has Clem Greenberg’s shadow still haunting it, at least for someone of my age and generation, because we or I, was over-steeped in it from schooling.  The conceptual and minimal works that came out of it owe more than a passing debt to Clem, even if as [a] reaction.  Not surprising too because painting as an “avant-garde” practice was pretty much exhausted by 1920 and the rest since, [are] mining familiar territories.”

“The problem with theory is that it takes place in words. Don’t get me wrong I love words – look ma, I’m using them now – but the best wordsmiths and the best painters, artists, etc., know [that] they are having fun with their media [when] trying to expand the field of expression – [it’s] not for the accolades, but because they or we are trying to find the best way to relay or transmit this weird feeling or idea that we have about the world to someone else.
We don’t make art to fit the academy or the school, October or Artforum, MoMA or the New Museum.  That is where art goes to die, stuffed and on the wall.” Dennis Bellone – That Dirty Old Bastard

Dennis Bellone Untitled (Grud) 2012

“To make a painting means something. Watching the Richter film was akin to that. I was happy to hear that how he feels about his work, in process, is similar if not exactly like how I feel. Painting is a visual language that is independent but somewhat subscribed to verbal language. I am lucky in that I have a few artists who I can have the most seemingly hermetic conversations one could imagine – having about the most arcane minutia one could imagine.  

I made a conscious decision given when I was more active in the “art world” to make a kind of gestural abstraction, I still do. This was in the early 90’s. Not one that was related to David Reed or Stephen Ellis but one that was even more raw, disgusting and primeval. Arthur Danto remarked once upon seeing two of my works that they were like the paintings a cave man would make if he made abstract art. He said this in the pejorative and with David Reed by his side. [Dennis took great pride in this mis-understanding of his art.]

Mark making means something, the marks that we make add up to something and the image that these marks make are the first and primary form of access. These marks and the image they make are questioned by the viewers as to what is being said, what is being propositioned.” [Dennis Bellone Immaterial Culture On Motif]

For more on our friend Dennis LINK HERE

Excitable Boy…

I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians too
I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers guns and money
Dad get me out of this (ha)
I’m the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes I’m down on my luck
Well I’m down on my luck
And I’m hiding in Honduras
I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers guns and money
The shit has hit the fan
Send lawyers guns and money (ugh)
Send lawyers guns and money (hit it)
Send lawyers guns and money (ooh… hey uh) (hey uh… yeah)
“Lawyers Guns and Money” Warren Zevon

Was sitting in my favorite restaurant during NYC’s recent indoor dining experiment when their playlist slipped in this song. It was like running into an old friend who has been gone for a time. In walked a tipsy Warren, sprawled himself on the banquette and whispered a few truths about life. Don’t know of anyone making music like this these days – sardonic, biting, acerbic, surprising, and ultimately, difficult. His songs feel like cruel sea chanties – something working sailors would sing to ease the tedium of unfurling the sails and hauling the anchors. But for Warren – these songs ain’t about working for the man – they’re about the expectations, failures and understanding of one’s life. Couldn’t help it – thought that maybe his work should have a voice in our Pandemic – gift us a chanty for the blistering work to be done – call and response – as we beg Big Daddy to send us lawyers, guns and money in order to make our third world bad behavior go away. What an impossible fucking mess we have become…

The phone don’t ring
And the sun refused to shine
Never thought I’d have to pay so dearly
For what was already mine
For such a long, long time
We made mad love
Shadow love
Random love
And abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder
The days slide by
Should have done, should have done, we all sigh
Never thought I’d ever be so lonely
After such a long, long time
Time out of mind
We made mad love
Shadow love
Random love
And abandoned love
Accidentally like a martyr
The hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder
“Accidentally Like a Martyr” Warren Zevon

Over the last couple of weeks of 2020 – a few gallery shows, a few calls to friends and family, and a look ahead to what awaits in 2021. Suddenly there is another Warren song on the playlist that seems just right for the moment. Three hundred thousand deaths and counting caused by this virus, and we are still arguing over the value of a mask. How broken have we become? Warren says that we look for, give and make love that is mad, random or concealed. We crave the kick, the bite, and the hurt even as that love abandons us. And in that moment we become accidental martyrs – destroyed by our desires rather than our beliefs – and when this happens – the hurt gets worse and the heart gets harder. The day of our Pandemic reckoning is near, and we have no one else to blame for the fallout but ourselves. The bills are coming due, the rent must be paid, the bailout will stop and the jobs will be gone – all because we didn’t do what we should have done. All because we did not see the value of a mask and the need for patience, kindness and fortitude. “Never thought I’d have to pay so dearly for what was already mine” – Excitable Boy indeed…

Stay well. Be kind. Wear your mask.

Louise Fishman @ Karma

For many years painters like Amy Sillman, Sue Williams, Jackie Saccoccio, and in this show at Karma, Louise Fishman, have been questioning the expectations and boundaries of an exhausted Abstract Expressionism. What’s surprising about this is that these painters have found that AbEx has something more to say. That these works may be a little more circumspect, a little less bellicose than original AbEx, takes nothing away from the way these painters have found new pathways to beauty, power and depth in the style.

By the 1970s AbEx was being critiqued through the the thick black curtain of Postmodernist irony. And most of that kind of painting used self-referential commentaries to create a kind of Meta-Painting – painting about painting. But today – there is something else at work below the surface of AbEx painting. Gone is the arms-length discussion of the past. Artists want to have a more direct experience of this out-dated genre – to have skin in the game – so to speak. These Neo-AbEx paintings reach out into the wider world – to speak to us of personal things and direct experiences.

Clear, Unruffled and Calm, 2019, oil on linen, 40 x 40 inches; 101.6 x 101.6 cm
Louis Fishman Clear, Unruffled and Calm, 2019

Ok – you may make the claim that we’re nostalgic for grandeur or gravitas, or a familiar beauty for that matter, and you may be right. But more likely – we are experiencing a reset moment – a moment when we look at those strengths in the style as building blocks rather than impediments to great painting. Artists are pushing against the fin de siècle and ignoring the expected POMO critiques in order to squeeze out those last drops of beauty and hope promised by the possibilities inherent in AbEx painting. How can we use this form, see and experience this form – Now? Today?

“The artist utilizes the robust gestures of Abstract Expressionism not in spite of its masculine roots, but, in part, because of them. Through paintings such as Mondrian’s Grave, Fishman subverts what Helen Molesworth has called the “field of gendered language” that has often been used to historicize abstraction. Splatters, sfumato, impasto, and scratches—Fishman’s canvases are troweled, scraped, and peeled, exuding a forceful physicality.” [Press Release]

In Louise Fishman’s show of drawings and paintings at Karma’s two locations – we experience something ineffable. We are moved out of the Pandemic and into a different place and time – familiar and yet changed – an alternate reality – something slightly unsettling. There’s really nothing new going on in the work – no new technique or application or critique, and the processes of mark-making are familiar and comforting. Yet, there’s something here that’s direct and real – something we don’t see or feel very often in the ice cold critiques of much recent painting. The grounds are open and alive, the brushed color creates Modernist geometries, and the meaning behind these processes begins to emerge as we untangle and interpret the varied surfaces. Some of these strokes are wet, sliding through shallow space – many are dry, tripping over and breaking across the weave of the canvas. Some are turned back and away as they clash into other processes, and others smear through the sludges of sticky paint or gooey patterned transfers. Your eye is always moving – sometimes slow, sometimes fast – held back by clotted material barriers and then freed to move lightly across the open surfaces. We follow the wake of the brushes and the morphing colors as they define structure and form, rhythm, pace, repetition and rest. This is classic mid-century American formalism at its best though it’s been stripped of its clumsy peevishness.

This is not Classic work, it’s too late for that. This is work that believes in that Classicism and it’s power to transcend and confront this moment in time. These paintings are full of faith and beauty. They have an earned elegance, a depth of experience and a kind of lived-in grace. And they feel strong and right at this particular moment in the early 21st Century.

Louise Fishman
Ballin’ the Jack
November 5—December 20, 2020
188 E 2nd St & 172 E 2nd St
New York, NY 10009

Nightmare Scenarios III

You have to put this moment into context. It’s America – and from 1918 through to 1921 – three years time – there was the end of the First World War, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and a punishing Economic downturn. The country was in sad shape – panic mode. American Puritanism – social, economic and political – came rushing to the surface – right-leaning, god-fearing, immigrant-bashing and ethnic-cleansing groups – demanded some kind of stability, some kind of security. And these well organized groups began to draw lines around anything that didn’t fit into their narratives – most notably – New York City Bohemia.
The avant-garde that lived this bohemian life was extremely small, insular, suspect and considered Red – Commie fear and loathing was everywhere – and if you were an artist – particularly an artist looking to Europe for new ideas – you would have checked ALL of the boxes on the government investigators check list – and that puts you in a short line for all kinds of formal and informal nastiness. But even in this repressive social environment New York Bohemia continued to find ways to erase the lines drawn around their personal existences. Among the creative classes in NYC sex, drugs and rock & roll (though it was Jazz in that era) were indulged openly and practiced freely much to the shock and consternation of polite society.

Georgia O’Keeffe Series I, No. 12, 1920

February 7, 1921. A show of photographs opened that evening at the Anderson Gallery. It was meant to be a retrospective of Alfred Stieglitz’s career – a show of his life’s work celebrating a career of groundbreaking photographic innovations and arresting images. But it wasn’t the retrospective that took the town by storm. The show would have passed as just another gallery experience. But it was in the last room of the show where a group of unknown and unseen photographs – entitled A Demonstration of Portraiture – changed all the rules.

Alfred Stieglitz Georgia O’Keeffe 1918

Stieglitz was among the first to use photography differently – a kind of photographic formalism – allowing the medium, the process, to determine the image – as a way to abstraction. He abstracted the figure by approaching it as form by specifically cropping the image in camera and moving the lens close. “I am at last photographing again. . . . It is straight. No tricks of any kind. — No humbug.— No sentimentalism. — Not old nor new. — It is so sharp that you can see the [pores] in a face — and yet it is abstract. . . . It is a series of about 100 pictures of one person — heads and ears — toes — hands — torsos — It is the doing of something I had in mind for very many years.” [Alfred Steiglitz on his portraits] This series of photos is filled with radical close ups – defining a subject through its parts, through the things never thought of as defining, important or expressive in their ways. Alfred also had to be close – very close – to the subject in order to accomplish this. But there’s a strange dichotomy in the images -this closeness and cropping creates a kind of visual intimacy even as it abstracts the subject. The photographer limits and simplifies in order to more completely define a moment, a sliding emotion, or a “slipping glimpse.”

“To be sure, a photographic portrait made with a large 8 × 10-inch camera, with its cumbersome set-up, use of umbrellas to reflect the light, and a long exposure time, requires a different kind of collaboration from painting or sculpture. A subtle change of expression, a slight movement in posture, even a shift of the eyes can alter the result. Obviously, O’Keeffe willingly held the poses and the expressions, and especially in the early years of their relationship, as she later stated, she was not only “flattered” by his attention, but deeply in love with him and as supportive of his art as he was of hers. Yet, in later years she distanced herself from the photographs. In 1978, she wrote, “when I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who the person is.” Noting that “Stieglitz had a very sharp eye for what he wanted to say with the camera,” she continued, “I was asked to move my hands in many different ways—also my head—and I had to turn this way and that. There were nudes that might have been of several different people—sitting—standing—even standing on a radiator against the window.” With her dry wit, she added, “That was difficult—radiators don’t intend you to stand on them!” When asked if she collaborated with Stieglitz, she replied, “You had to collaborate . . . You had to sit there and you had to do what you were told.” And, when asked specifically if the creation of this massive composite portrait, which totaled 331 photographs by the time it was completed in the 1930s, was something she wanted to do, O’Keeffe emphatically replied, “It was something he wanted to do.” [Sarah Greenough The Key Set: 1918–1937]

Alfred Stieglitz Georgia O’Keeffe Hands 1919-20

“When crowds at the gallery gathered in front of a particular nude, O’Keeffe may have thought that they shared her belief in its spiritual significance. While she was perhaps naïve about the awed response to the nude pictures of herself, she could not have anticipated the rhetoric of those critics who had been primed by Stieglitz to discuss these pictures in his own language….
It was one thing to regard photographs of oneself as art objects and quite another to learn that the revelation of one’s body would be taken as evidence of the photographer’s “love of the world.” Coming from months of solitude at the lake, where she had reflected on relationships in her Apple Family series, O’Keeffe felt exposed once this kind of language began appearing in print. Becoming a newspaper personality (as McBride would write) not for her own work but because of the scandal ignited by Alfred’s was not the kind of attention she desired. And she must have felt doubly betrayed once she understood that Alfred had orchestrated publicity for the show in terms guaranteed to kindle the prurient interest of the public.” [Carolyn Burke Foursome]

The Anderson show became an infamous sensation in New York, and all manner of gossip and opprobrium followed – even among those of New York Bohemia. Everything changed for both Alfred and Georgia. In our contemporary terms – they became art stars – practically overnight. And Stieglitz who had orchestrated the media production for the show was extremely pleased with its outcome – consequences be damned. Not only had their reputations been enhanced – their fortunes had been made. But for Georgia there was something wrong – something off about this show – something unsettling about the public exposure of her private life and their intimate relationship. And artists – for both good and bad – began to court this kind of personality-fueled succès de scandale in order to promote their own careers. Here in the 21st Century careers thrive on this kind of Sexual Modernism, and we see similar scenarios of private relationships becoming public all through our Media and all over our electronic devices. It even has its own economy. But in 1921 this world did not exist.
The deal we make with the devil might bring us our dreams, but it also comes with a steep price – and sometimes – that price is paid for with our own blood. The changes can come on all at once – or they might arrange themselves in slow motion – but either way once the deal has been struck – there’s no going back. What brings artists to success – the things their lives had been about – the relationships built and cherished – the emotional lives they lived – their own image of who they were – begins to change – for good or ill. And so it was for Georgia and Alfred.