Cézanne’s Tree

These are strange times. It feels like that at any minute our world could shatter into a million pieces. Every day there is news of ancient barbarisms inflicted on contemporary lives, threats of a cataclysmic violence and a world conflict, and the rise of disgusting facist ideals and policies. Running beneath this tenuous moment one can feel the vileness and ugliness of the 20th century manifesting its horror shows upon us once again. This geopolitical shit show shouldn’t be such a surprise really. Our contemporary culture has blindly venerated and cultivated this Modern era hauntology for over 20 years now. And with 20/20 hindsight the consequences of this moment seem – inevitable.

Paul Cézanne Study of Trees 1904

Cézanne would walk away from things that frustrated his vision. He’d abandon them unfinished or unrealized. The hardest to realize of his difficult paintings would come flying out of the studio window and land in the garden trees. The problems were always the same – a failure to execute, a half formed idea, or the spiteful outcome of a pernicious self loathing. Paul’s anger would build as he watched the image break into pieces. He was looking for a complete vision, an unseen reality – but he was always – always – on the brink of failing and tearing his broken images to pieces. What Paul couldn’t understand, never did, was that the failure, the fracture, was actually his gift and vision.

Had lunch with George and Michael after seeing their recent great show A precedes B. We were talking about the unmaking of Modern abstraction here in the 21st Century. We also discussed how Greenberg had lead us all down Cézanne’s garden path – A precedes B – Cézanne precedes Picasso and Matisse, etc., you know the historic script…. But as Clem gave us the tour he deliberately overlooked many strange and troubling plants and weeds – particularly the broken paintings flowering in Paul’s trees. Instead he pointed the way to ocular clarity, Modern purity and eyesight alone.

In the late 60s and all through the 70s artists, particularly German artists, began to come across other strange and wonderful flora growing just off the well-worn garden path – things that had been planted by Miro, Beckman and Picabia among many others. These Fluers du mal changed the course of Modernism for many late century painters – until of course electronic programming put us right back on that garden path. But George had unexpectedly caught a glimpse of something that somehow had been overlooked in that garden – the tree. As many of you know he wrote a short and concise essay detailing discussions he had with Tom Barron and Arthur Yanoff implying that Modernism, including the Postmodern endgame, had been made redundant by a new electronic vision, and this new vision had fractured our understanding of Modern era painting. There was something surprising in this especially since the programming behind this visual fracture posited a constant flow of the past as the present. This essay is not a really a critique of the Modern or the Postmodern for that matter. It’s something more basic and factual. It’s a recognition of the pictorial turn. George began to rethink his painting.

No one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world. The use of the past perfect tense is important here, for it is a matter of a retrospective sentiment, of a rereading of our history. I am not saying that we are entering a new era; on the contrary we no longer have to continue the headlong flight of the post-post-postmodernists; we are no longer obliged to cling to the avant­ garde of the avant-garde; we no longer seek to be even cleverer, even more critical, even deeper into the ‘era of suspicion’. No, instead we discover that we have never begun to enter the modern era.” [Bruno Latour – We Have Never Been Modern]

Standing in front of George’s new paintings one can see and feel the fracture in the image. There are things in these works that seem to give us comfort. They look somewhat familiar, and we expect to understand them. Yet something breaks our certainty making the space and images feel off-kilter, unfamiliar and unsettling. These images are broken by older programs running beneath the slick upgrades and the shiny surfaces of our current pictorial world. The images do not unfold or flow. They crack and burst and push us further away from Modernist certainties and Postmodern critiques. They confront us with something that’s a bit barbaric.

We finished our long lunch and our bottle of wine – smiles were a bit easier now. We teased one another, had a few laughs, talked a bit more about this moment, and then just like that, we had to say goodbye. Walking back home in that cold afternoon things felt a bit more hopeful. But that feeling wouldn’t last. It never does. Still… there are comforting constants. Cézanne and his grand failures will always be the father of of us all. A does not have to precede B if you leave the garden path. And finally, even though George lived through and fondly remembers Clem’s years as the gardener, his fractured images are not and will never be – Modern.

“Oh deaf-and-dumb machine, harm-breeding fool
World sucking leech, yet salutary tool!
Have you not seen your beauties blanch to pass
Before their own reflection in the glass?”
[Charles Baudelaire XXV Les Fluers du mal]

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