In 1925 Picabia moved South to Mougins on the Cote d’Azur. For the next couple of decades he would experiment with different kinds of painting, abstraction, pop culture, movies and found imagery. This work is acerbic, seductive and surprising, because none of it is what it seems to be, none of the imagery fits into our expectations. What constitutes “art”? What is a viable subject or process for “great” painting? How far can one push until someone gets offended? And that’s pretty much how Picabia approached his life – pushing against anything, any idea, any convention until it made someone squirm.
“Picabia spent most of the thirties on the Riviera, living with a mistress and designing the décor for fancy-dress galas. During the war, still in the South of France, he perpetrated his statuesque nudes, simpering lovers, and coarse enigmas, including “Hanged Pierrot,” circa 1941, in which a woman appears to lament a dead clown. Picabia told Gertrude Stein that he could turn out one such picture a day. Stein was a close friend, who, though Jewish, had powerful protectors and, like Picabia, fell under the shadow of collaboration with the Vichy regime. Unlike Stein, he was formally accused, but cleared for lack of evidence. Finally, until he died, in 1953, Picabia painted abstractions—such as colored dots embedded in black grounds—that presaged the generic feel of paintings about painting, rife in Chelsea galleries in the past few years, of what the painter and critic Walter Robinson has termed “zombie formalism.”” [Peter Schjeldahl on Francis Picabia]
Picabia came to the South for the freedom and the beauty that it promised, but by the time he arrived on the Riviera it had become “the destination” for the upper crust vacationer. This reality must have emboldened Francis – all those socialites and well-to-do douche bags discussing the wonderful art in their collections. How many dinner parties? How many afternoon events in luxe gardens? How many half-soused “experts” of art did Francis have to run into while he lived his outre life? How far could he push their attitudes and expectations about what Art was, or for that matter, what life could be while they relaxed and indulged in their insulated vacation lifestyles? Challenge accepted!
“The exhibition… follows the artist through all his phases, including the chocolate-box Spanish dancers with kiss curls and combs in their hair, the willfully monstrous parodies of sentimental postcards(couples with four mouths and eight eyes kissing by moonlight). The latter, painted with crude industrial colors, would subsequently be parodied in the “Smoky Stover” comic strip as an embodiment of “modern art.” Next came a series of paintings superimposing faces and nude bodies, and finally, in the ’40s, when Picabia lived in the south of France, female nudes laboriously copied from girlie magazines. Picabia obviously had a lifelong agenda, commanded by a rejection of the frivolous socialite concept of painting as a massage for the eye and responding to the general mood of self-destructive nihilism that infected Europe at the time. Picabia was hell-bent to break out of that closure and, with his bull-like temperament, never stopped charging till the end. This desperate consistency alone invites a measure of respect and friendly acceptance. [Michael Gibson on Picabia]
The South was the place Modern artists went to experience and create new ideas about painting. This innovative wanderlust began with Cezanne and the Post-Impressionists and continued right up until Picasso’s passing in the early seventies. After WWI more Modern artists made their way south to find solace, to recover and to reinvent themselves and their art. They came for the light, the space, the color and the beauty of the sea and the countryside. In this place and in this climate Modernism became less abstract and more… “exotic.” It was called the “Return to Order,” but that’s a misnomer. In actuality artists were looking for humanity and individuality after the violent onslaughts of the mechanized 20th Century. Of course for the priests, penitents and purists of Modernism this neo-classical counterculture was anathema. The “clergy of the convinced” thought this art looked decadent and weak, backward looking and filled with nostalgia – hardly the art of a grand culture or of “great” painting in the 20th Century. It indulged in all the wrong things.
“Above the fireplace, he painted a full-face black, gold and yellow image of the sun god Apollo, flanked by two giant Priests of the Sun, modelled by fishermen from nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer, the little fishing town he had first discovered in 1924, at the time of Le Train Bleu. Inspired, he went on to decorate the entire house, including the furniture. “He said that he found the silence of the walls terrible,” recalled Weisweiller’s daughter Carole. “He learned from Matisse that once you paint one wall, the other three look bare.” The work took six months. Later he remarked, “At Santo-Sospir, I’m most myself, and the walls speak for me.” [The French Riviera and Its Artists John Baxter]
This kind of “decadent” Modernism continued to seduce artists throughout the early Postmodern years. The most notable example would be the artist, Cy Twombly, an American expat living in Rome. The combination of the Old World and the New, the rediscovery of the under-recognized strange forms of Modernism from the 20s and 30s, and the institutionalization of American Post War abstraction created a golden moment for ambitious artists to explore new ideas and unknown pathways through the Modern era. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long – the experimentation began in the 1970s and was over by 1989. Decadent Modernism was put aside in favor of sexy new tech, cool media culture and ever-expanding economic gain, and it’s been this way for the last 30 years. Over this COVID summer these ignored forms, ideas, images, and processes have been persistent. Matisse in Vence, Picasso in Antibes, Cezanne in Aix, Vincent in Arles, Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and Picabia in Mougin – all of these artists created some of the most daring, challenging and beautiful works of their careers – and they are still misunderstood. And for most of these artists their time in the South was the last go round with the demons of Modernism. We could learn a few things from this Southern experience. And maybe when we are through with the worst of this moment the walls will begin to speak for us as well.
The NYT ran a story this week on Van Gogh’s painting (the last one done according to the researchers.) As we’re traveling through the South these days – thought this note from George Hofmann would be a wonderful addition to the Notebook.
Mark, The picture in today’s NY Times of Van Gogh’s “Tree Roots” is so clearly a forerunner to Pollock that I couldn’t resist writing. I know one can make a case for almost anything, but this is an example, to me, of the underground river of painting. For Pollock tributaries came in from Monet’s Waterlilies and from Miro – now neglected as a source of Abstract Expressionism – but, probably unconsciously, these were the waters feeding his painting. It seems like a miracle that that could happen, but if one works from the feeling sense of things – and, isolated as he was, he was thrown on himself – it is not so difficult to understand how a painter could come to working as he did, feel pretty much good about it, and only get rattled when it later gets blown out of proportion, and he likely felt – how could he live up to all this?
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]