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.

F*#K ALL

Art is just about the furthest thing from mind these days. Looking at painting – usually a favorite thing to do – has become a task rather than a joy. When looking at the torrents of art online – it becomes quickly apparent that artists continue to employ the strategies, ideas and outcomes of the past – in different hands, by different means and in different languages – to be sure – yet it feels like just more of the samo-samo. Could be the lockdown, the social distancing and/or the daily infernal sameness of time and space weighing into the mix – or it may just be the end of something. Have yet to decide. Still there have been a few bright spots in this moment – a bit of fun and life showing up.

Everyone online was hyped up by Amy Sillman’s show and this show was indeed a lot of fun. Amy’s work is wonderfully off-kilter and distinctly painterly – lots of refined clumsy drawing (a most attractive thing at the moment) – but in truth there was nothing in the show that would change your mind about her work – or for that matter – contemporary painting in general. Look, it’s difficult for painting in this century – and I get that. In the last one – the 20th – painting set itself a grand task which was to break down the histories and theoretics of our understanding of Art. No small thing that – and much of that work was bold, brash, controversial and always weird and frightening – even to the practitioners of the art. But that’s all over now. 21st century paintings are more like apps – they are programmed to work with Modernism’s operating system – or as my old man used to say – we’re just polishing the brass.
I’ve always admired painters willing to risk being seriously and thoughtfully silly – and Amy’s work fits that bill. The just released book of her collected writings is filled with that kind of humor (like her paintings) – one of the favorites – a letter to her friend Jackie explaining why she broke up with abstraction. “I kicked A out of my studio this summer, and afterwards I felt really good. I had this amazing fling, don’t tell anyone, but I had this fling with this face, and I don’t know, that was the straw that tipped the iceberg and I just went with it.” [Amy Sillman Faux Pas 2020] – a straw and an iceberg – wonderful.

Good friends Mike Zahn and Paul Corio made their presence known during this COVID autumn as well. Paul’s show was at McKenzie Fine Arts – and because it was an “in person” show – viewing restrictions were involved. And those restrictions seemed to play up Paul’s work – systems working within systems to combat something fucked up. The AbOp structures are classic (stretching back to the Roman Empire) and his color feels decadent and surreal – like DeChirico. The painting “Pecan Pattie” (in the photo above on the right) nicely disturbs one’s expectations with its subtle and strange color variations, slightly clunky illusionistic patterning and the way the ground shifts from top to bottom. This image never settles in – the same way the pandemic keeps changing and morphing before our eyes.
James Kalm has a nice video walk through and commentary of Paul’s show which you might find interesting!
James describes this shifting of expectations in Paul’s work – “I think one of the the interesting things about the way that Paul went for one of his compositional ideas (of using the horse racing [system]) is that when you’re working with [a] pretty strict geometric system… if you don’t somehow introduce some kind of chance or spontaneous something in there… it can get pretty boring, pretty fast.” Sounds like a sound bit of whiskey philosophy…

Mike Zahn Todo y Nada, (Detail), 2020 SHRINE

Mike did an online exhibition which is not only timely, but extremely smart. It was perceptively reviewed by Seph Rodney – “The show is both meta and melancholy. I could be there. And so sadly looking at the life I might have, someone could ask me what’s wrong. “Nothing,” I would say, reflexively, to stave off my own grief. Zahn projects these images to outsource his own desolation. “No. I’m not crying,” he seems to say. “You’re crying.”” Mike bypasses our expectations of art and painting – value judgments such as good or bad – what’s real – what isn’t. The captured image within the image of an empty gallery which traffics in images undermines the codes and constructs of not only the images presented, but the conveyors of these images – the electronic and economic systems set up to present those images, the critiques engendered by those presentations as well as the social expectations and implications built into these systems. Everything is shifting – up for grabs… We see this existential drama unfolding all throughout the art world these days – from the auction houses right through to the artists’ studios. Once we disappear the scene, the system, the city and the reason that those things exist – what’s left? Mike’s contemplating the answer as he prepares a text – everything – nothing.

Matthew Collings Instagram Nov. 2020

Another thing that has been extremely enjoyable has been Matthew Collings intimate and semi-fictional art history drawings on Instagram. These drawings have been brilliant – to say the least – and in the time of lockdown a welcome distraction from the everyday grind. There are so many things to love about these images – the cartoonish satire, the formal elements, the portraiture, and particularly, the clouds of filterless cigarette smoke – it’s hard to pin down exactly why they’re good – and that’s probably why they are good. He’s managed to be both engaging and inventive in presenting our art history favorites as they engage in hubris and anxiety, love and hate, and the requisite sex, drugs and rock & roll. I highly recommend you check these out – and if you have the cash – these drawings are on sale through the #artistsupportpledge. Wonderful Matthew!

Mike Zahn – Todo y Nada @ Shrine Online

Mike Zahn Todo y Nada (Detail) 2020 Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) 4000 × 2793 RGB Preview (Default)

Check out Shrine’s online presentation of Mike Zahn’s new work!

Todo y Nada, which translates as ‘everything and nothing’, is a notional work of art created by Mike Zahn. It focuses upon five digital pictures of an empty gallery, presented within the same space but from different vantages. The pictures of a gallery presenting itself subtly twist a non-exhibition into an exhibition, and the photos stage an encounter suspended between two realms – that of the physical gallery, shown in its barest state with empty white walls, and a new electronic realm, where the artwork, its documentation, and the exhibition are all one and the same. [Michael Zahn @ Shrine Gallery Online]

Nightmare Scenarios II

Nazis marched into Paris on June 14, 1941.

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, ooh
When you knocked upon my door
And I said “hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go” [Robert Johnson Me and the Devil]

“When World War II began, Picasso chose to stick it out in his studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins. He was not allowed to exhibit, but he managed to have paintings sold, some of which were bought by Germans, and he lived far more comfortably than most people did. Hitler had declared him to be a ”degenerate” artist, and according to one document the German authorities ordered Picasso to report for a physical examination, a prelude to deportation to a labor camp. Although the document may have been a hoax, the evidence suggests that Picasso may well have believed it anyway.” [Michael Kimmelman on Picasso’s days in Paris during the war]

Many artists had left the city during the great exodus if they could. Others were not so lucky, they didn’t have the means or the connections to get out, and they had to survive any way that they could. For Picasso it was a bit different. He could have escaped and been welcomed anywhere, but he chose to stay. The most famous artist in the world had choices. Make no mistake – he must have understood the chance he was taking – any person with half a brain would. Fame may protect you for a while, but when you’ve been labeled as a “degenerate” by the leaders of a conquering army things might go sideways fast. Picasso remained and continued to work through this time, continued to be present in the Parisian art world, and when he could, tried to help his friends and colleagues.

Pablo Picasso Nature Morte à la Chaise et aux Glaïeuls 1942

“But not all of Picasso’s visitors were welcome ones. The Germans, of course, had forbidden anyone to exhibit his painting. In their eyes, he was a “degenerate” artist and, worse still, an enemy of the Franco government. They were always looking for pretexts to make more trouble for him. Every week or two a group of uniformed Germans would come and with an ominous air ask, “This is where Monsieur Lipchitz lives, isn’t it?”“Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?”
“No,” Sabartés would say.
“Oh, no. We know it’s Monsieur Lipchitz’s apartment.”
“But, no,” Sabartés would insist. “This is Monsieur Picasso.”
“Monsieur Picasso isn’t a Jew, by any chance?”
“Of course not,” said Sabartés. And since one’s Aryan or non-Aryan status was established on the basis of one’s grandparents’ baptismal certificates, no one could say Picasso was Jewish. But they used to come, anyway, and say they were looking for the sculptor Lipchitz, knowing very well that he was in America at that moment, and that he had never lived there in the first place. But they would pretend they had to satisfy themselves that he wasn’t there, so they’d say, “We want to be sure. We’re coming in to search for papers.” Three or four of them would come in, with an extremely polite officer who spoke French. The disorder everywhere was an invitation to them and they would look around and behind everything.”” [Francois Gilot discussing Pablo during Occupied Paris]

Picasso, like Gide, was protected by fame from much danger of harassment. He and other anti-Nazis such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would never have dined with Germans. They formed a social circle around Paris’s Café de Flore. The world’s most famous artist told his companion, Françoise Gilot: “Oh, I am not looking for risks to take, but in a sort of passive way I do not care to yield to either force or terror. I want to stay here because I am here. The only kind of force that could make me leave would be the desire to leave. Staying on is not really a manifestation of courage; it is just a form of inertia.” [Max Hastings reviews “The Shameful Peace”]

Picasso’s work in occupied Paris became more and more about interiors, still lifes and portraits. The Return to Order was over – the classical past and the light and color of the Mediterranean were gone. The war time images come from his quotidian existence in locked down Paris – the clashes of personality with Dora Maar, life under curfew and Martial law, shortages of food, supplies, money and time, the constant surveillance and danger to his friends and family. His prodigious output wasn’t really diminished – he just had to refocus, use what was available – especially for sculptures. But it’s the paintings that show the collapse of his relationship with Dora. The crying, the arguing, the recriminations, and the pain of this break up – all of it happened under the pressures of the occupation.

Pablo Picasso Buste de femme au chapeau a fleurs 1942

How we confront misfortune is something we all will experience at some point in our lives. When faced with the horrible choice how will we react? Can art give us courage? Will it make us better? Can art save us in the face of cruelty, violence and death? These were some of the unsolvable conundrums that artists in Paris had to risk. The German occupation tore through any illusions artists may have had about themselves.
Can you imagine having armed soldiers coming to your home and studio on a regular basis? What would you say, how would you feel as these enforcers went through your things or openly menaced you or your friends? I’m sure Picasso had a few German fans come by to meet the famous master, but they were not invited. They came as occupiers intent on using their power to indulge their whims. Every visit – whether from unexpected fans or foes – would have been a violation and a provocation.
This seems like a fucking nightmare – No?
So, how would you have handled this – could you have handled this?

Nightmare Scenarios I

Just walk right up to the dude and shoot. No formalities, no announcements, nothing. Just get the fucking job done. This violent imagery is devastating. The same goes for the painting as a thing in itself. Apparently, it was discovered in a bad state after Manet died. Pieces of it had been cut away because of some storage issues – maybe canvas rot or paint damage. Léon Leenhoff (the paternity of this unfortunate young man was never disclosed and rumors run rampant) cut up the remaining bits and sold those separately. Degas, Manet’s good friend, later managed to track down and buy up those pieces in order to keep them together.

Edgar Degas Monsieur et Madame Edouard Manet 1868-69

“DEGAS was partial, in his paintings, to the “cutoff.” His dancers on stage or in the wings and his jockeys on horseback at the races often find themselves – as in a snapshot – intercepted by the frame. In fact, this canny artist used the cutoff as a device to suggest spontaneity and movement. All the same, the painting of a husband and wife shown here, lent from Japan to the recent major exhibition of Degas’ work in Paris, Ottawa, and New York, was somewhat surprising. It has a startling cutoff that was not part of Degas’ intention at all. Even he would never have gone so far as to slice off the front half of one of the figures in a double portrait. That severe act was performed by the elegant, languid man sprawling on the sofa.
According to Degas, as reported in a conversation with Ambroise Vollard at the turn of the century, this man – the painter Edouard Manet – “thought that something about Mme. Manet wasn’t right” in the picture and painted over it.
When, visiting Manet’s house, Degas saw what his friend had done, he was so shocked that (as he told Vollard LINK HERE FOR THE STORY): “I left without saying goodbye, taking my picture with me. When I got home, I took down a little still life he had given me.” “Monsieur,” I wrote, “I am returning your Plums.” [Christopher Andreae on Degas and Manet]

It seems that Manet had a history of cut up paintings. (See the Incident at a Bullfight and Les Gitanos) But why Edouard would severely edit a gift from his friend Edgar is not easy to ascertain. There are many artists who would find this kind of revisionist behavior reprehensible (see a more contemporary exchange here.) Granted Degas and Manet made up in time, but it’s interesting that Edgar would choose to be the one to chase after this particular cut up painting. It couldn’t have been an easy or inexpensive task for Degas, and this quest speaks of his love and respect for his friend. How many of us would save a friend’s work in just this way if we had the time and the means? This kind of behavior doesn’t seem to fit what we know of Degas. Over the last 30 years or so we’ve come to see him as a selfish right-wing douche bag (and rightly so,) but just maybe, life – against our expectations – is wonderfully complicated…

After Edgar passed away the National Gallery in London acquired these fragments in a posthumous auction of his collections. The fragments were displayed separately until 1992 (the story is here) when the National decided to puzzle piece this thing back together on linen making the painting into an almost perfect Postmodern Provisional Painting. Never mind – the composition of the image is so strong that it almost makes it past the annoying contemporary backdrop, but the collage never does get past the clash of centuries – conservation headaches, presentation ideologies, masterpiece restorations and institutional conceits all play a role in the confusion of Manet’s imagery, Degas’ reconstitution, and ultimately, our mis-reading of this work.

Rail: In addition to the fact that it’s been cut into pieces, therefore creating this false aura of fragmentation that has been so much a part of our built-in heritage since cubism.
Elderfield: I agree. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well this is a wonderful picture because it is so modern.’ But the truth is, it’s modern by accident. A related example: in the Mondrian show in ’94, remember how beautiful those Pier and Ocean works on paper were? I walked around the show with a well-known artist, who pointed out how the white marks so prominently stood out against the muted background of the paper, and I said, “Well, actually, that’s because the paper has darkened over the years; the white wouldn’t have been visible originally.” And he said, “Oh, nonsense. This is part of the beauty.” And I said, “Yes, it is part of the beauty, but it’s accidental. [Phong Bui and John Elderfield on Manet’s Maximilian]

Paul Corio @ McKenzie Fine Art

Paul Corio is opening a show of new paintings on the 9th at McKenzie Fine Arts. Here in the pandemic city painting goes on! Unfortunately, there will not be an opening, but there will be smaller events over the course of the show – check with the gallery for event updates.

“What Kind of Fool Am I?” will be on view from 9/9/20 until 10/25/20. McKenzie Fine Art is located at 55 Orchard St. between Hester and Grand St. in Manhattan, and the gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday 11:00 – 6:00 and Sunday 12:00 – 6:00.  Masks are required and the maximum number of visitors at a given time is six.  Appointments are recommended but not required; call 212-989-5467 or e-mail info@mckenziefineart.com.

Notebook X

“There is only one image my eyes remember…her mouth against mine, long, bare legs, hair against my cheek. And that scent! How I wish I could preserve every precious second of a love affair…the atmosphere, the colors, the dimensions and the perfume.” – Jacques Henri Lartigue

Imagery is memory, and in many ways abstraction – especially the socially driven kind of abstraction – tries to do away with this problematic idea. Abstraction wants to create a more direct experience of art by removing the annoyance of an author and the author’s memory. What’s most important are the processes of composition and construction, the relationships of color, the predominance of the surface, and the banishment of illusion. These are puzzle pieces for the eye – a clear unimpeded experience of the qualities of this specific medium. It is your vision, your understanding, that’s important. Maybe you’ll have a religious experience or maybe you’ll weep in front of it, or perhaps you’ll play the game and solve the puzzle, or you’ll just meditate and admire the zen of the process. Perhaps there will be nothing at all and you’ll just like how the thing looks – another thing in the world – like a rock, a tree, an ocean or a lamp. Modernism does away with the need to depict reality, to remember – rather it is reality. And with that imagery and memory and the intimacy engendered by those experiences are no longer necessary in order to paint.

“This was not to say, however, that she did not long, at times, for some even greater variation, that she did not pass through those abnormal hours in which one thirsts for something different from what one has, when those people who, through lack of energy or imagination, are unable to generate any motive power in themselves, cry out, as the clock strikes or the postman knocks, in their eagerness for news (even if it be bad news), for some emotion (even that of grief); when the heartstrings, which prosperity has silenced, like a harp laid by, yearn to be plucked and sounded again by some hand, even a brutal hand, even if it shall break them; when the will, which has with such difficulty brought itself to subdue its impulse, to renounce its right to abandon itself to its own uncontrolled desires, and consequent sufferings, would fain cast its guiding reins into the hands of circumstances, coercive and, it may be, cruel.” [Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past Volume One, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, p. 174, (1922)]

In the Classical South – after the war – there was a resurgence of imagery pushing back against Modernist iconoclasm. Every well worn tenet of art, politics, society, and religion was being questioned. DaDa, Surrealism and the “return to order” all made it clear that many artists who began the Modern enterprise were thinking that something had been left out. The imperfect memory of a place, a person, a moment in time began to re-emerge in Modern art – Picabia’s cinema-inspired overlays – Miro’s surreal abstract figuration – Matisse’s Orientalism – Picasso’s classicism. And along with these newly image besotted painters came the love-drunk photographers, like Lartigue, capturing their own personal and undeniable moments, indulging in the life and love of leisure and desire, and finding the moments that slip away without us noticing. Images and memories came rushing back to the surface of things-in-the-world, because what Modern artists were looking for in the South was intimacy.

Jacques Henri Lartigue Picasso, Cannes, août 1955

“What’s so incredibly amusing with photography is that while seemingly an art of the surface, it catches things I haven’t even noticed. And it pains me not to have seen things in all their depth.” Jacques Henri Lartigue

Notebook IX

Pablo Picasso 1972 Picasso Museum Antibes

“In 1946, Picasso, who was living nearby in Golfe-Juan with Françoise Gilot, accepted curator Dor de la Souchère’s offer to set up his studio in the Castle. Picasso worked from mid September through mid November of 1946, creating many works, sketches and paintings, including Les Clés d’Antibes (The Keys of Antibes), covering an entire wall surface. When the artist decided to move back to Paris, he left 23 paintings and 44 sketches in the Castle’s custody.” [Picasso Museum Antibes]

It ain’t easy to like Picasso – the man, that is. Horror Douche would be the best description. But Picasso the artist, well, that’s another story. There are wonderful works all through his career – so many innovations – so many wonderful works – but for me – it’s the late works – those that came after the war when Picasso moved South – especially those in his last decade. These paintings still resonate. No one was ready to see them, especially the abstract painters working feverishly to finalize the Modern era as an abstract one. These jolie-laide figurative works were filled with classical references, old master dialogues and an eccentric and personal kind of deconstructive expressionism. Picasso leaned heavily on his early Demoiselles for substance and style and tore through that period of experimentation with both art historical and personal references. In the South in that last decade or so – Picasso came to terms with his own biography – innovating Modern painting one last time.

Everyone goes on about the beauty, color and light of the South. Painters from the north who went there to work had to find new color combinations to express this difference, and for the most part it was yellow and violet that painters added to their palettes. These colors – for Impressionists like Monet and Renoir – helped to define the exotic and beautiful Cote d’Azur. But in Picasso’s last paintings these colors feel more like a form of infection. The yellow and violet invade one’s life – even the banality of smoking a pipe. In “Buste d’homme” Pablo’s swashbuckling doppelganger is having a quiet moment of reverie and self-recrimination. One eye is looking out to this world. The other shocked eye is looking within. Picasso is at the end of the Modern era and the focus and intention of painting has changed. As Matisse said about his own work in the South – “beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension.

“There’s a story I sometimes tell, something that was very important for me, determining for my attitude. My father and I were at a bullfight in Nîmes or Arles, and it was El Cordobés, the bullfighter, who had a very unacademic way of bullfighting. So after the bullfight my father and I always had these big discussions dissecting what had happened in the ring, and I was complaining that El Cordobés was always doing strange things and that he didn’t kill the bull properly and wasn’t fighting in the proper way. So my father said, “What are you saying? You should like him. He’s a Beatle.” Like the Beatles! [laughter] And then he said, “What would ever have happened if I’d painted like Delacroix?” So you know, “Pfft.” And I thought, yeah, right, okay. Okay, it’s important to take another risk.” [Claude Picasso in conversation with John Richardson on Pablo]

Notebook VIII

In 1925 Picabia moved South to Mougins on the Cote d’Azur. For the next couple of decades he would experiment with different kinds of painting, abstraction, pop culture, movies and found imagery. This work is acerbic, seductive and surprising, because none of it is what it seems to be, none of the imagery fits into our expectations. What constitutes “art”? What is a viable subject or process for “great” painting? How far can one push until someone gets offended? And that’s pretty much how Picabia approached his life – pushing against anything, any idea, any convention until it made someone squirm.

“Picabia spent most of the thirties on the Riviera, living with a mistress and designing the décor for fancy-dress galas. During the war, still in the South of France, he perpetrated his statuesque nudes, simpering lovers, and coarse enigmas, including “Hanged Pierrot,” circa 1941, in which a woman appears to lament a dead clown. Picabia told Gertrude Stein that he could turn out one such picture a day. Stein was a close friend, who, though Jewish, had powerful protectors and, like Picabia, fell under the shadow of collaboration with the Vichy regime. Unlike Stein, he was formally accused, but cleared for lack of evidence. Finally, until he died, in 1953, Picabia painted abstractions—such as colored dots embedded in black grounds—that presaged the generic feel of paintings about painting, rife in Chelsea galleries in the past few years, of what the painter and critic Walter Robinson has termed “zombie formalism.”” [Peter Schjeldahl on Francis Picabia]

Picabia came to the South for the freedom and the beauty that it promised, but by the time he arrived on the Riviera it had become “the destination” for the upper crust vacationer. This reality must have emboldened Francis – all those socialites and well-to-do douche bags discussing the wonderful art in their collections. How many dinner parties? How many afternoon events in luxe gardens? How many half-soused “experts” of art did Francis have to run into while he lived his outre life? How far could he push their attitudes and expectations about what Art was, or for that matter, what life could be while they relaxed and indulged in their insulated vacation lifestyles? Challenge accepted!

“The exhibition… follows the artist through all his phases, including the chocolate-box Spanish dancers with kiss curls and combs in their hair, the willfully monstrous parodies of sentimental postcards (couples with four mouths and eight eyes kissing by moonlight). The latter, painted with crude industrial colors, would subsequently be parodied in the “Smoky Stover” comic strip as an embodiment of “modern art.” Next came a series of paintings superimposing faces and nude bodies, and finally, in the ’40s, when Picabia lived in the south of France, female nudes laboriously copied from girlie magazines.
Picabia obviously had a lifelong agenda, commanded by a rejection of the frivolous socialite concept of painting as a massage for the eye and responding to the general mood of self-destructive nihilism that infected Europe at the time.
Picabia was hell-bent to break out of that closure and, with his bull-like temperament, never stopped charging till the end. This desperate consistency alone invites a measure of respect and friendly acceptance. [Michael Gibson on Picabia]

Notebook VII

“Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and my very self, on this coast where Renoir lived. We have tried to overcome the spirit of destruction that dominates the time; we decorated the surfaces that men dreamed to demolish. Perhaps, the love of our work will protect them against bombs.” [Jean Cocteau]

The South was the place Modern artists went to experience and create new ideas about painting. This innovative wanderlust began with Cezanne and the Post-Impressionists and continued right up until Picasso’s passing in the early seventies. After WWI more Modern artists made their way south to find solace, to recover and to reinvent themselves and their art. They came for the light, the space, the color and the beauty of the sea and the countryside. In this place and in this climate Modernism became less abstract and more… “exotic.”
It was called the “Return to Order,” but that’s a misnomer. In actuality artists were looking for humanity and individuality after the violent onslaughts of the mechanized 20th Century. Of course for the priests, penitents and purists of Modernism this neo-classical counterculture was anathema. The “clergy of the convinced” thought this art looked decadent and weak, backward looking and filled with nostalgia – hardly the art of a grand culture or of “great” painting in the 20th Century. It indulged in all the wrong things.

And yet…

“Above the fireplace, he painted a full-face black, gold and yellow image of the sun god Apollo, flanked by two giant Priests of the Sun, modelled by fishermen from nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little fishing town he had first discovered in 1924, at the time of Le Train Bleu. Inspired, he went on to decorate the entire house, including the furniture. “He said that he found the silence of the walls terrible,” recalled Weisweiller’s daughter Carole. “He learned from Matisse that once you paint one wall, the other three look bare.” The work took six months. Later he remarked, “At Santo-Sospir, I’m most myself, and the walls speak for me.” [The French Riviera and Its Artists John Baxter]

This kind of “decadent” Modernism continued to seduce artists throughout the early Postmodern years. The most notable example would be the artist, Cy Twombly, an American expat living in Rome. The combination of the Old World and the New, the rediscovery of the under-recognized strange forms of Modernism from the 20s and 30s, and the institutionalization of American Post War abstraction created a golden moment for ambitious artists to explore new ideas and unknown pathways through the Modern era. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long – the experimentation began in the 1970s and was over by 1989. Decadent Modernism was put aside in favor of sexy new tech, cool media culture and ever-expanding economic gain, and it’s been this way for the last 30 years.
Over this COVID summer these ignored forms, ideas, images, and processes have been persistent. Matisse in Vence, Picasso in Antibes, Cezanne in Aix, Vincent in Arles, Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Picabia in Mougin – all of these artists created some of the most daring, challenging and beautiful works of their careers – and they are still misunderstood. And for most of these artists their time in the South was the last go round with the demons of Modernism. We could learn a few things from this Southern experience. And maybe when we are through with the worst of this moment the walls will begin to speak for us as well.