German or French? Part I

Modernism came to the US wrapped up in the theoretics of the School of Paris. Our understanding of painting and our tastes for certain kinds of painting arrived here fully formed and deeply connected to that history. America never had a visual culture connected to painting, so our artists looked elsewhere and that’s a theme we keep repeating. Our contributions to the history of painting don’t go very deep after all – and we run out of precedent very quickly. Our visual culture began in the 19th Century – mostly – through photography. We certainly did not have a rich painting culture of note – a few go-to stars – Homer, Eakins, Sargeant, Whistler (both lived in England) and Cassatt (who lived in Paris).

Yeah, we had a few standouts over time, very good painters, but nothing exceptionally avant-garde and nothing very grand. Our early Modernist painters were by and large from the 291 group led by Stieglitz which presented a kind of arms length Modernism connected to issues of traditional American painting, OR we had American painters directly cribbing from the latest trends fresh from the Parisian Galleries. The fact is American Modernism before the war looked highly – provincial. After the Second World War Greenberg became the champion and tour guide for a more expansive and international feeling Franco-American influenced Modernism, and because the rest of world was in tatters we inherited – or according to Serge Guilbaut – we stole – Modern Art. The rest is, as they say, history….

Polke & Richter in the Tub – 1966

Doesn’t much matter, really. We know what happened. The AbEx painters took off – and they took off all around the world. Our government seemed to be interested in presenting a culturally advanced face to the world that they were now leading. So American painting began a non-stop global tour showing off our best and brightest. Nothing new about that kind of publicity campaign either. Look America is good at polishing its brass, and this kind of promotion has been done by our government many times before. In fact it’s still being done and it will continue to be done into the future. But at that time for the countries in Europe trying to rebuild their cities and societies this cultural outreach was a big attraction. It wasn’t just the AbEx crew that was being seen and discussed. American Popists and Minimalists were aso benefitting and making their way into European collections. And in a huge controversy of the time – Rauschenberg actually won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1964 – an American for chrissakes. All of this cross cultural exchange was having an immediate effect on young artists in Europe – especially those in Germany.

“In the sixties, their figurative paintings challenged the primacy of abstraction. Baselitz painted heroes torn asunder. Polke and Richter unmasked the absurdity and emptiness of the consumption that beckoned from all sides. Kiefer exposed the historical roots of the so-called “Third Reich”. It is a stroke of luck to have the opportunity to unite works by the four masters in a single exhibition, and thus to shed light on this important phase in German history.” BASELITZ – RICHTER – POLKE – KIEFER THE EARLY YEARS OF THE OLD MASTERS – Press Release 2019

Sigmar Polke Girlfriends 1965-66

“Polke’s work seemed very different from that of his German contemporaries, many of whom were extremely painterly like Baselitz, Kiefer, Fetting and Hödicke, all of whom were in the New Spirit show. I felt much more connected to Polke because of his use of popular imagery in a kind of witty irreverent way, and that he was prepared to use all types of visual language in his own work, unlike Richter who would be painting paintings that looked like photographs. Polke would make use of other people’s drawings or would reference amateur works. Also, his take on popular culture was not always about things that were recognisable. They were more quirky, idiosyncratic things that he discovered for himself and that he seemed to find personally amusing.” Peter Doig in conversation with Mark Godfrey.

After all that Modernist painting success – surprisingly – artists in NYC found themselves facing a crisis in the late sixties and seventies. For these painters it was High Times Hard Times. Painting had been declared dead and artists were asking – what’s next? How to begin again? So they began actively looking for other solutions, other pathways, other interpretations of Modern Art rather than blindly following the worn out solutions promised by Clement Greenberg’s theoretics of Modern Art. Painters wanted to do more, to make their work about the world around them, and they were fed up with paintings meant for Eyesight Alone. Painters wanted a future!

Gerhard Richter Onkel Rudi 1965

R: Yes. Because I know for a fact that painting is not ineffectual. I would only like it to accomplish more.
B: In other words the simultaneity of the opposing strategies of representational function and self-reflexion has nothing to do with a reciprocal transcendence of them? It’s rather an attempt to realize this demand upon painting with different means?
R: Yes, roughly.
B: So you saw yourself at the beginning of the 1960s not as the heir to a historically divided and fragmented situation, in which there was no pictorial strategy that still had real validity . . . ?
R: And I see myself as the heir to an enormous, great, rich culture of painting, and of art in general, which we have lost, but which nevertheless obligates us. In such a situation it’s difficult not to want to restore that culture, or, what would be just as bad, simply to give up, to degenerate. Gerhard Richter in conversation with Benjamin Buchloh

Accomplish more. But how? Where do you go when there are no pathways? Or again as Adam Curtis made clear – when there is no vision of the future – no picture of what might be – how does one progress? The other part of Gerhard’s discussion is the loss and yearning for something once there, a birthright to culture that had been taken away, stopped short, and the obligation that this loss had created for a generation of German Modernists. He didn’t want to “restore” the past he wanted to transform it. To change what it might mean, what it might do. And for both Polke and RIchter it was the American painters that helped liberate them – Rauschenberg, Warhol, Rosenquist all come to mind straight away. But unlike those Americans – all of whom were luxuriating in their own culture – the Germans used the American examples to understand and transform their own cultural history. Onkel Rudi – smiling for the camera – was he beloved? This blood relation – someone who was there for Sunday dinner – was he cheerful and fun with his young nephew? Why would he be wearing that uniform? What was going on? And so the image blurs, becomes something that’s not quite what it should be, not quite what was promised. This is a very hard painting, and it’s a theme that RIchter would revisit throughout his career.

It seems just as High Times Hard Times came for American Painting there were different ideas coming from Europe about what painting might be able to accomplish. New images of the future, you might say. Damned right that kind of painting changed the conversation about what could done here in the US.

…utter contempt for painting

I want to assassinate painting,” Joan Miró is reported to have said, in 1927. Four years later, the Catalan modern master elaborated, in an interview: “I intend to destroy, destroy everything that exists in painting. I have utter contempt for painting.” Peter Schjeldahl on Joan Miro

Throughout his long life Miró pushed the boundaries of what a painting might look like. So much of his surrealist work featuring the cartoony alien creatures are fun, but his experimentations with ground, process, and the idea of painting as a thing are the most exciting parts of his work. This physical experimentation was more DaDa inspired and pushed painting’s histories into weird and strange contortions. The late burned paintings are case in point. They were first completed as High Modern paintings – authentic Miró paintings – and then attacked as contemptuous objects and left to exist as a physical challenge to Miró’s own economic value, the work’s aesthetic meaning as well as a critique of the history of painting itself. I have a cherished image of old Miró stepping back after torching each painting, taking a long hard look – then side spitting and wiping his mouth on his sleeve – ¡Vete a la mierda!

Joan Miró Burnt Canvas I 1973

“In his catalog essay, William Jeffett relates Miró’s process of creating these canvases. “First the canvases were cut with a knife and punctured with sharp objects; paint was then applied and petrol was poured over them and ignited. Further paint was applied and again burned with considerable care; a wet mop was used for control and a blowtorch for concentration on specific areas.”  While Jeffett claims the inspiration for these canvases rests in the shattered facades and street chaos of the youth protests of the late 1960s, he also admits that they represent an “attack on art itself…on the bourgeois reduction of art to elite culture or economic commodity.”   
In an interview, Miró made clear the intentions behind these works: “I have burned these canvases on the level of form and profession, and as another way of saying shit to all of those people who say that these canvases are worth a fortune. The “Burnt Canvases” anchor a fundamental quality of Miró’s later works, where his confrontations with Fascist Spain were intertwined with his critiques of an international art market that he saw as powerfully corrupting in its own right.” James Polchin on Joan Miro

Joan Miró “Burnt Canvas V 1973

Many of us are still trying to be Modern, or rather we believe in the Modern, which makes us Modernists, true acolytes. In the last post Adam Curtis made the point that our societies continue to look backward because we haven’t the imagination to see ahead – to paraphrase – we have no picture of the future. What we Modern believers fail to understand is that actually Modernism ended. The job was done by the mid 50s. Artists had cleared the way for the future burning out centuries of tired ideas about art and leaving us with a clean slate. It was up to us to move on from the Modern Era and begin again. The sixties and seventies can be forgiven in that regard. Those artists were trying to transition into the next century. But we who followed never got past the idea of the “End of History.” We elided Modernism with Capitalism. We equated artists with entrepreneurs. We began to talk about art like it was business. And we began to use the Modern era as an official state culture. From the 1980s on art became, for like of a better description, an industry. Today all the rebellion and danger of Modernism has been worn smooth and made palatable and profitable for the e-commerce era.

Joan Miró Burnt canvas IV 1973

MIró’s art capitalist provocations seem innocent and a bit naive these days while our rapacious art economy revs up for a post-pandemic feeding frenzy. Works like the burnt paintings have become brand name experiences for the buying public. Miró’s authentic gestures of defiance are used as pitch points to sell the work for a premium to a hermetic market place. Our love affair with Modernism has groomed us to actively engage with the aesthetics of destruction and we in turn have created a market that hungers for products of “authentic rebellion”. We love the shabby chic, the classic ruin, the “bad painting” and the interestingly-aged vintage object – especially when it’s presented to us through the aesthetics of Modernist Capitalism.

Questions arise – if we expect the assassination of painting and we welcome and encourage the assassination is the artist really a criminal of culture or is the artist complicit in our expectations of culture? Is there such a thing as a “bad (meaning culturally or socially challenging) artist culture” any longer – are we shocked or flummoxed by art these days? How does a desperate act become just another quotidian artistic process or gambit? Is it possible – here at the end of history – to make “bad painting” or an avant-garde action when every kind and type of art is immediately priced, branded and marketed? Can we burn this “art” down or would that action and that object become “sellable”? What does artistic rebellion look like these days? And finally and maybe most important, what would Miró have us do?

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.” https://apnews.com/article/technology-environment-us-news-coronavirus-pandemic-health-cbcafe70b4724a7605d56d40fa294027

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.” https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/04/nft-future-of-money.html?utm_campaign=nym&utm_source=tw&utm_medium=s1

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.” https://artreview.com/why-the-artworld-loves-to-hate-nft-art-beeple-christies-grimes/

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.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/opinion/biden-economy-culture.html

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. https://hyperallergic.com/622792/artists-quarantine-with-their-art-collections-20/

Time

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!

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