Georges Barque went South in 1905 under Matisse’s influence. And he painted many wonderful works full of light and color in the prescribed Fauvist manner. All good things come to an end though, and ambitious Georges changed his allegiances to hook up with Picasso leaving behind a sore and unhappy Matisse. At some point in 1907 (probably late in that year) Pablo showed Braque and a few other close friends his Demoiselles. No one knew what to make of it, but that painting really rattled Braque’s cage. In the south color is taken for granted – it’s everywhere – the endless blue sky, the reflective sea and beautiful green landscapes – all of it electrified by the magnificent light. But what isn’t really understood about that light is that it also changes the way one sees things- changes one’s relationship to space, form and structure. Picasso was Southern – through and through – and instinctively understood this kind of visual abstraction. Braque, a Northerner, had to come to an understanding of this kind of vision through Cezanne’s example and Picasso’s techniques. Over the summer of 1908 in Estaque Georges made a series of radical new paintings, and in November of that same year he showed this work with Kahnweiler – Cubism had officially begun.
“EXPOSITION BRAQUE Chez Kahn Weiler, 28, rue Vignon. — M- Braque est un jeune homme fort audacieux. L’exemple déroutant de Picasso et de Derain l’a enhardi. Peut-être aussi le style de Cézanne et les ressouvenirs de l’art statique des Egyptiens l’obsèdent-ils outre mesure. Il construit des bonshommes métalliques et déformés et qui sont d’une simplification terrible. Il méprise la forme, réduit tout, sites et figures et maisons, à des schémas géométrique à des cubes. Ne le raillons point, puisqu’il est de bonne foi. Et attendons. Louis Vauxcelles” [Review of Georges Braque’s Exhibit 11-14-1908]
Matisse’s years between the wars was spent in Nice. He was a Northerner, but found the South to be liberating – the glorious light and color suited his intentions for an exotic form of Modernism. Many thought he was simply lost in the Orientalism of the 19th Century Salon – creating and painting his own version of an Ottoman era seraglio – but he was actually painting his way through the French Masters. Using artists like Ingres, Delacroix, Gérôme and Chassériau, among many others – Henri found his way into a different kind of Modernism with bright color, expressionistic techniques and a surreal Mediterranean classicism. This lesson about how to see the past was not lost on Picasso who used Matisse’s examination of the past in his own late works. It is difficult in our times to see what’s worthy in these paintings – instead we move straight to the late work – the cutouts – and back again to his High Modern moments. But there is something in these paintings that persists, that demands that we reconsider this work. “Look at these odalisques carefully: the sun’s brightness reigns in a triumphal blaze, appropriating colors and forms. Now, the Oriental decors of the interiors, all the hangings and rugs, the lavish costumes, the sensuality of heavy, slumbering flesh, the blissful torpor of the faces awaiting pleasure, this whole ceremony of siesta brought to maximum intensity in the arabesque and the color must not deceive us: I have always rejected anecdote for its own sake. In this ambience of languid relaxation, beneath the sun-drenched torpor that bathes things and people, a great tension smolders, a specifically pictorial tension.”
It’s the fin de siecle in the 19th Century and this painterly mess appears on the walls – “oh, Putain!” Paul, I’m sure, had quite the rep around town in Aix. Can you imagine the loneliness of his life? How many locals would understand or care about what he was doing, the struggle in which he was involved? So in order to connect, to talk, to meet other artists he wrote them letters and imported them from Paris. Paul must have been extremely convincing about the magic of the place, because they came south to see and experience the color and the light, the landscape and sea. Renoir and Pissarro are the best known of his painting guests – and for each of them – the South and Cezanne’s understanding of it – changed their understanding of Modernist painting. This started a flood of painters headed toward the Mediterranean, and once there, these artists found not only the exotic light and color, but the structures and forms of the Classical past. This was the beginning of 20th Century Modernism.
I’m a bit biased – the color and attitude in Jackie Saccoccio’s Source Concave is right where my head is at these days. This image feels Southern, Mediterranean, Classical and full of light. It’s filled with lyrical beauty. And that wonderful lyricism is also the problem for abstraction of this kind – at this particular time. So in order to be relevant, to NOT be purely decorative – this kind of abstraction has to have an edge – a place for real thought and play within the painterly vision – and Jackie is a master of subtle visual manipulation, of “edge.” It happens in the way she uses these traditional AbEx/Color Field processes – pours, drips, runs, etc. Jackie is always revealing and concealing these processes, setting one against the other, playing hide and seek – in the same way that Penn and Teller reveal and conceal their “magic.” We are pushed to think about the illusion and where that illusion resides – how it works. There are always unexpected twists and turns of color and process across the surface. These effects are subtle and can be overlooked in the overall image, but when you drill down into them you can see that they build structure and form into the painting. The dabs of light gray-green moving through the almost muddy puddle in the middle, that subtle horizontal red/pink line just before the bottom of the canvas, the runs of brushed color seen just below the surface – all these small combinations of technique and color building into and out of the pours create an illusion of structured time and space. It’s a sleight of hand, a trick of the eye – a clever interpretation of precedent leading us to a different kind of conclusion about the way classical American abstraction can work – Johns rather than Frankenthaler, Seurat rather than Monet.
George Hofmann posted this image of new work on instagram recently. Been thinking about it ever since. The influence of the Post Impressionists in the work is palpable. The geometries on the left, the short broken strokes on the right – like Cezanne’s water color landscapes disappearing from view as they break into pieces. Everything in this painting is cracking, splitting in two or fading out of view. It’s suffused with light burnishing away the edges, the brush strokes, and the “history” and imagery within it. The scraped black area at the top anchors the piece in the here and now. The predominant blues (all types) thread through the image giving it structure and rhythm – yellows light up, lift the composition – and that pop of red (a coda, a finality) – all play with the idea of a broken and forgotten Modernism (who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue?) Struck by the Southern return in the painting, a feeling of loss, like a found relic from the Modern Era.
After years of “pure” abstraction, media inflected Pop Art and the rarified conceptualism of the 60s painters found that they needed something different – a different idea of painting and imagery. American artists were looking back to ignored or discarded forms of Modernism – Post Impressionism, DaDa and Surrealism – rather than the prescribed pathways of Impressionism and Cubism. This reexamination of Modernism brought a different conceptual critical approach to both imagery and abstraction. It also allowed narrative structures (both critical and personal) into the processes of painting. Artists like Miro, Picabia, Dali, Beckmann, de Chirico – the experimentation of the Return to Order during the 20s and 30s – Brecht, Artaud and Beckett – Benjamin, Adorno and Arendt – all were rediscovered and valued. For European artists all of this was natural – a continuation of their history. For the entrenched American institutions – this reformulation of painting history, the new influx of European philosophy and the rise of Postmodernism were seen as a rebuke and a betrayal of America’s Exceptionalism.
Painters in the seventies had it tough. There was little interest in painting. In fact – it seemed there was little interest in art. But all through the seventies all kinds of American Artists were looking at European art – Neorealism & the French New Wave in cinema, Surrealism and Expressionism in theatre and painting, critical theory from the Frankfurt school and the French Poststructuralism – all of it heady, unknown, decadent and dark in its way. New ideas and old provocations began to make their way into the American cultural imagination, and we began to reinterpret our histories.
Once the eighties arrived America had chosen a different societal path – away from depression era economics, Cold War diplomacy and Marxist influenced theoretics. And money, big money, global money, began to pour into the art world. This influx of capital would change our relationships to art, theory and culture by reflecting the history of the Modern avant garde through the funhouse mirror of money. Many of us still protest this fact, but in truth we were the ones creating this Neo-Liberal art world. The art world looks as it does today, because we wanted it that way – success changes everything and warps one’s idea of the past. It’s easy to forget the High Times Hard Times and the radical experimentation of the seventies. We tend to see that decade as transitory, ineffectual, and defeated. In truth it wasn’t any of those things. Instead it produced America’s last radical and expansive avant garde of the 20th Century.
“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those who were left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.” [Joan Didion Slouching Towards Bethlehem 1967]
Outside in the streets, Arnett saw Russian-made trucks rolling through the city “loaded with young North Vietnamese in battle garb, their green pith helmets tilted back as they peer in wonder at the tall buildings they are passing, probably the first they’d ever seen,” as he recalled in his new book, Saigon Has Fallen. He watched a separate set of soldiers, from the South Vietnamese military, strip off their uniforms and discard their weapons as they scampered away. “I couldn’t comprehend it,” Arnett told me. “That I was seeing, I was seeing, this happening in a city that, to me—it had been inviolate forever. But when you consider the kind of effort that was put in to maintain the independence, this wasn’t a place that was just thrown away. I mean right at the end, there was an enormous effort.” “And yet,” he said of the communists, “here they were.” Arnett recalled locals standing around him, “mouths agape.” He went back to the office. “I was just, I was sort of almost overwhelmed with feeling. … And I’d never felt that way in my life before. … But I was able to actually, you know, shout out to George Esper, our wonderful bureau chief, ‘Saigon has fallen. Call New York.’” [Kathy Gilsinan on the Fall of Saigon]
Dean: All right, after rejecting that, they said, “We still need something,” so I was told to look around for somebody that could go over to 1701 and do this. And that’s when I came up with Gordon Liddy, who– they needed a lawyer. Gordon had an intelligence back- ground from his FBI service. I was aware of the fact that he had done some extremely sensitive things for the White House while he’d been at the White House, and he had apparently done them well. Uh, going out into Ellsberg’s doctor’s office… President: Oh, yeah. Dean: … and things like this. He’d worked with leaks. He’d, you know, tracked these things down. Uh, and (coughs) so the report that I got from Krogh was that he was a hell of a good man and, and not only that, a good lawyer, uh, and could set up a proper operation. So we talked to Liddy. Liddy was interested in doing it. Took, uh, Liddy over to meet Mitchell. Mitchell thought highly of him because, apparently, Mitchell was partially involved in his ev–coming to the White House to work for, for Krogh. Uh, Liddy had been at Treasury before that. Then Liddy was told to put together his plan, you know, how he would run an intelligence operation. And this was after he was hired over there at the, uh, the Committee. Magruder called me in January and said, “I’d like to have you come over and see Liddy’s plan. President: January of ’72? Dean: January of ’72. (Background noises) Like, “You come over to Mitchell’s office and sit in on a meeting where Liddy is going to lay his plan out.” I said, “Well, I don’t really know as I’m the man, but if you want me there I’ll be happy to.” (Clears throat) So, I came over and Liddy laid out a million dollar plan that was the most incredible thing I have ever laid my eyes on. All in codes, and involved black bag operations, kidnapping, providing prostitutes, uh, to weaken the opposition, bugging, uh, mugging teams. It was just an incredible thing. [Nixon Tapes Transcript March 21, 1973]
“They have arrived like a new immigrant wave in male America. They may be cops, judges, military officers, telephone linemen, cab drivers, pipefitters, editors, business executives — or mothers and housewives, but not quite the same subordinate creatures they were before. Across the broad range of American life, from suburban tract houses to state legislatures, from church pulpits to Army barracks, women’s lives are profoundly changing, and with them, the traditional relationships between the sexes. …1975 was not so much the Year of the Woman as the Year of the Women — an immense variety of women altering their lives, entering new fields, functioning with a new sense of identity, integrity and confidence. It is difficult to locate the exact moment when the psychological change occurred. A cumulative process, it owes much to the formal feminist movement—the Friedans and Steinems and Abzugs. Yet feminism has transcended the feminist movement. In 1975 the women’s drive penetrated every layer of society, matured beyond ideology to a new status of general—and sometimes unconscious—acceptance.” [Time Magazine Women of the Year 1976]
So what are the schematics for abstraction? How many sketch books by abstract artists have little 2″ x 2″ hand drawn thumbnails of geometric forms arranged on a plane – tiny representations of possible paintings to be machined into 6′ x 6′ productions. Most of these abstractionists erase their hand from the final work, and the wresting with the ideas inherent in the quick sketch is perfected. But what if it wasn’t? What if all that geometry, all that flat even surface, all those 90 degree corners are better when they are imperfect, wonky things formed in the translation from the mind to the hand? What if these small dashed-off ideas are in fact the things that should be made just as they have been drawn? What if an artist finds a landscape in the closet?
‘That distinct lack of preciousness and a delight in elements of randomness and chance is what makes Heilmann and her work so charming. Nothing is precise, either in form or application of paint; and you get the sense that she’s not a woman who would make you take your shoes off when you walk in the door. The show opens with two canvases, The First Vent from 1972 and 1973’s Little 9 x9 which were both created through primitive, messy finger painting. “I was working with kids at the time,” she explains. “We were spending a lot of time at Max’s Kansas City [a New York bar and venue] in the evenings, getting drunk and people would get into fights, but in the day I was teaching children. It comes from everywhere, my ideas.”’ [Emily Gosling on Mary Heilmann]
“My vision of what it was to be an artist,” Mary Heilmann writes, “was to be quietly moving around the studio all alone, energetically fabricating assemblage-type sculptures, or smoothly streaming brushes across canvas panels leaning against the wall of a rough barn. My identity was that of a solitary person, shielded from the world. Because of that, I moved to Long Island. At the time of the move to Bridgehampton, however, my identity began to evolve from silent loner to someone energetically engaged in the discourse surrounding the practice of art.” [Dia Art on Mary Heilmann]
After finishing her graduate work in sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley, Heilmann moved to New York City in 1968. Soon after her arrival, she was eager to engage with the artists occupying the Minimal and Postminimal art scene. As Heilmann describes in her memoir, The All Night Movie, it was difficult to break into the scene at that moment, and her status as both a woman and an outsider did not help in her quest to become a recognized artist. Disappointed at being excluded from several important exhibitions (including Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 1969), Heilmann made the decision to turn her focus to painting. Within the context of the time, her decision can be described as provocative, contrary, or, in her own word, “rebellious,” turning to a critically maligned practice as a means of stridently defining herself and her work against the norm. [Dia Art on Mary Heilmann]
“The image and the style of painting are simple—it is the layering of the paint, the textures along two thickly painted strokes, and the gradual fading away of the stroke at the end of the canvas when the paint runs out, which are interesting. For example, a stroke finished off at the top left hand corner of a painting looks more as if it was improperly silk-screened (like the under-inking of Warhol) than painted robustly with a wide brush. As in Warhol, the “mistake” takes on the quality of the handmade, the human, the fallible. Heilmann’s strongest point is her craft—doing things with materials which repudiate the impersonal and machine-made. Again, this brings us back to the last painting style which was founded upon the notion of the individual “touch,” Abstract Expressionism.” [Jeff Perrone on Mary Heilmann – December 1976]
Most of the abstractionists that I know – those who are pure and those who are not so pure – all have great respect for Mary Heilmann’s work. These paintings seem easy enough – bright, abstract, beautiful. There’s the connectivity to past greats – Ellsworth, Piet and Barney. She also earns props for mixing it up with the towering douche bag contemporaries of the time. She went looking for trouble at Max’s and jousted with Smithson, Marden and Serra. Mary Heilmann was taking no prisoners. But there’s one connection a bit further back that I like – Matisse – and one bad ass “painting” in particular – “The Snail“… In fact much of Mary’s painting has the flavor of Matisse’s late work – the same kind of hand-edged color and an insouciant disregard for style and form. But her works have a different energy and play. They are ironic and knowing, cheeky and subversive while being extremely open and attractive. In fact most times after seeing her work I’m left with a very pleasant memory, like a wonderful holiday romance on the Cote d’Azur. Until it begins to dawn on me… my clothes are not on the chair, the money’s gone, the plans have been stolen, and I’ve been seduced and left to settle the bill for my uptight Modernist expectations … “Yes – Isn’t she wonderful!“
You’ve managed to find your way. Your work has been collected in depth by all the right people, all the right institutions. You could easily ride through to the end – making the same work, making money, collecting accolades – following the same pathways. And yet, you’ve seen something in the mirror. You’ve caught a glimpse of some other thing that you had left aside long ago. Now that thing is staring you down, demanding your attention and it’s in your face – everyday. What do you do?
“This was the last period in American culture when the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow still pertained, when writers and painters and theater people still wanted to be (or were willing to be) ‘‘martyrs to art.’’ This was the last moment when a novelist or poet might withdraw a book that had already been accepted for publication and continue to fiddle with it for the next two or three years. This was the last time when a New York poet was reluctant to introduce to his arty friends someone who was a Hollywood film director, for fear the movies would be considered too low-status.” [Edmund White on 1970s New York City Culture]
Philip Guston: For the most part, they said I was finished, I was through. The New York Times attacked the show – the headline was, I think, ‘From Mandarin to Stumblebum.’ Since then, Dore Ashton has written a book about me,* and a few others have written sympathetically. There seems to be about an eight–to ten—year lag. For a while I was with no gallery, but that made me feel good. Freedom is a marvelous thing. You know that old chestnut, that people are afraid to be free – well, it’s true. When I had my first show in the new figurative style in about 1970, the people at the opening seemed shocked. Some painters of the abstract movement – my colleagues, friends, contemporaries – refused to talk to me. It was as if we’d worked so hard to establish the canons of a church and here I go upsetting it, forgetting that that’s what good artists should do. At the opening only two painters, David Hare and Bill de Kooning, acted differently. It wasn’t necessarily that they liked it. De Kooning said something else. He said, ‘Why are they all complaining about you making political art, all this talk? You know what your real subject is, it’s about freedom, to be free, the artist’s first duty.’ [Philip Guston in conversation with Mark Stevens]
Painters were turning away from Modernism. Not like Philistines. It was just done, it was over. It had reduced everything away – no space, no light, no illusion, no images. That’s OK, but many painters desperately wanted to speak, to tell stories, and find new ways to examine their lives AFTER the endgame. The seventies was about discovering the old forms, the older world of painting and art. Could those things find their way back into the world of painting? Could imagery be just as affecting and real as a box on the floor or a rectangle on the wall? What would a painting look life if it wasn’t Modern?
“I live out of town, and driving down to New York City I go down the West Side Highvvay. There are all these buildings that look as if they are marching. You know, by painting things they start to look strange and dopey. Also there was a desire, a powerful desire though an impossibility, to paint things as if one had never seen them before, as if one had come from another planet. How would you paint them; how would you realize them? It was really a tremendous period for me. I couldn’t produce enough. I couldn’t go to New York, to openings of friends of mine like Rothko, de Kooning, Newman. I would telephone Western Union with all kinds of lies such as that my teeth were falling out, or that I was sick. It was such a relief not to have anything to do with modern art. It felt as if a big boulder had been taken off my shoulders.” [Philip Guston Talking]
All through the 70s painting had been struggling. However in the middle of the decade something began to happen. Younger artists had been making their way to New York – and they came with a different attitude toward imagery, Modernism and Art History. These artists had no intention of continuing the endgame of Modernism, and they felt that everything, absolutely everything, was up for grabs. No one wanted painting anyway, so why not paint anything in any way one wanted? There was absolutely nothing to lose, because absolutely no one thought painting could be any good.
“I went to the Venice Biennale of 1978. I wasn’t in it. I was a nobody just looking, just another tourist. There was a heavy cloud of enthusiasm and national pride hovering above the heads of the Italian artists. They were all wearing white linen suits with Campari stains. There was a sense of historical endowment around these participants. Being an unknown, I could see the double standard for known and unknown artists. There was a lot of posturing in the Piazza San Marco by curators, art dealers and small-time art politicos, culture lobbyists who were lobbying a partisan parochial doctrine that out of fear rejected any kind of work that didn’t look like, or fit into, the particular time capsule of the generations that was occupying its own glorious moment. Maybe I would have had a different attitude if they were patting me on the back. I don’t know.” [Julian Schnabel CVJ 2015 ed.]
After the reductionist 60s and endgame abstraction of the 70s – Julian Schnabel’s painting’s must have been a real shock for the New York art community at the end of the seventies. A young, brash artist who was interested in a kind of historicism and painting that was at odds with everything that everyone expected – unthinkable… All that refined geometric abstraction sitting politely on the walls – asking you, the viewer, to find the art history, connect the dots, maybe have a prescribed experience of this history and your esoteric understanding of that history. But suddenly, out of nowhere it seemed, there was a small gallery on West Broadway filled with giant, imagistic, Jolie Laide painting which was joyfully poking a hole in the ultra-refined abstraction of the time.
“Prejudice based on decades has created an unnatural distance between artists of different generations. The reasons are almost extraneous to the act itself. … The fear of being replaced is a product of believing in the art world. This belief destroys the natural dialogue between generations. It is healthier for the older artist to be curious even if it’s for the selfish reason of finding a young person to talk to. Good conversation is scarce and there are so few people who know how to make art. An older artist can nurture and make something bloom in a younger one. It’s more interesting than trying to erase everybody with a glint of talent, so that you imagine you have no competition, that way being a very lonely and miserly way of living in the world. If you are worried about losing your place to somebody who might be more talented than you are, they you have already lost it.” [Julian Schnabel CVJ 2015 ed.]
Julian is an artist whose personality is so large and confident that anything that he experiences in life becomes a subjective narrative force in the work (read a few of the titles for a bit of understanding – you won’t find “Number 245”, “#333” or “Untitled”.) In the seventies he wasn’t abstracting his existence into geometries, he was lionizing his experience in imagery. Everything he used was found, antiqued, handmade, wonderfully, willfully amateur and full of lived experience. When these paintings work, they’re marvelous. If not – then there’s a lot to criticize. But this is the curse of the home run hitter – either it’s out of the park or just out. There’s nothing cold or reserved about Julian’s work, and because of this heat, his paintings stood out. His work began to fill the art world with an uncomfortable and unfamiliar experience of painting, and this set off a vehement debate about its value and its place in the Modern canon. We’re still having that debate.