Dennis!

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.

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.