R. Crumb Meets His Match

(This is, also, my NoteWorthy Show for January, 2017.)

I’ve been looking at R. Crumb for a very long time. At least 20 years. Of course, his work predates that by a further 35 years, and today I still find all of it compelling. Unfortunately, the chances to see a number of original works by R. Crumb remains all too rare. The chance to see the Artist himself, rarer still. So rare, I never have. I tried in vain to find out if he would be appearing at the opening for the show co-starring his wife of FORTY YEARS (in 2018), Aline Kominsky-Crumb, “Drawn Together,” on January 12, then decided to take a chance and swing by David Zwirner Gallery (most recently the scene of “William Eggleston- The Democratic Forest,” which pretty much turned my entire life upside down, launching my free-fall into a bottomless pit of research into Contemporary Photography. In fact, If I’m not careful, this will become a Photography Blog very soon!) and have a look see, anyway. I’m not one to attend Art Openings unless an Artist I’m interested in is making an appearance.

The Nighthawk At The Opening (Artist’s conception, cause I generally don’t attend them). Adapted from The New Yorker’s March 13, 2017 cover called “Opening Night.” I couldn’t resist. My Apologies to Artist Carter Goodrich, and the great editor Francoise Mouly (a friend of R. & Aline Crumb).

R. Crumb’s work occupies a unique place somewhere between what’s been traditionally the so-called “low-brow” world of comics and “Fine Art,” that’s been hard won. Bursting on the world’s awareness like a supernova in 1967, when he was there are the genesis (sorry) of what would come to be called “Underground Comics,” a genre of which he soon became the de-facto figurehead of, and, for many, it’s most important Artist. Over the years, his work has begun to be more fully appreciated beyond the world of Comics. The late Art Critic Robert Hughes called him “the Brueghel of our time.” Even that lofty observation barely scratches the surface of R. Crumb’s impact and influence. While I was walking the streets of Chelsea to the opening of this show, admittedly with Crumb on my mind, I found it quite hard not to see his influence in the work of a number of shows I passed by Artists who’s work has nothing to do with comics or graphic novels and even in the flared pants snd chunky shoes women seem fond of these days. While Crumb’s work remains under-appreciated by the Fine Art world, in my opinion1, his influence has barely begun to be seriously considered2.

Arriving, I walked in to a good sized crowd…and live music. As I made my way through the gallery to the rear, large room. Low and behold…

R. Crumb, himself.

Art, and Artist. R. Crumb on left-handed mandolin(!), appropriately on the far left, performing with the East River String Band, at the Opening, David Zwirner Gallery, West 19th Street, January 12, 2017.

…looking just like a comic of R. Crumb, himself. He was seated wearing a cap and playing a mandolin with a group, the “East River String Band,” who’s blonde singer and one of the musicians I immediately recognized from covers R. has drawn for the band’s albums. The music was lively and pleasant, but, frankly, it went right past me. I couldn’t get over the fact that here he was, a few feet in front of me. Every little move he made fascinated me- he plays left handed!? (he writes & draws lefty, too), how he interacted with the other musicians (he seemed to mostly follow), how he held his instrument, how he sat while playing it (slightly folding himself around it)…Partly, the former Musician in me was interested. Mostly, it was because R. is someone who seems to do everything he does deliberately, so this might reveal some small key to the Artist.

The set ended, and I moved a bit closer as the equipment was torn down. R., his instrument put away, remained in his chair. Carefully approached by a few (the legend of his not being a fan of his fans well-known to his, um, fans), only one, who he appeared to know, actually dared speak to him. He presented a book. It may have been one they collaborated on.

Alone in a crowd. R. Crumb after the set.

I watched the Artist reach into his inside jacket pocket and produce a white pen to sign it. I immediately recognized it as a Rapidograph pen, the pen he’s made famous, at least for me, because they are what he’s drawn with for lord knows how long now. I had never heard of them until I found out he used them a decade ago, and immediately bought a set for like 120 bucks. Then, I realized that drawing in ink is not for those squeamish at the site of their own blood. So? Back to graphite and my trusty eraser it was for me, leaving ink to Master Draughtsmen, like R. Crumb. To this day, It’s always funn to look at a Crumb original and see if there is any use of White Out Correction Fluid on it or not. He will do the most intricate cross hatching and there will be no White Out to be seen, anywhere. I don’t think I’ve drawn in ink since.

Happy Early 40th R. & Aline! HOW did you do it?? Maybe the gent in the back is wondering, too.

He looked a bit older than the last time I’d seen him on video, a bit frailer, perhaps, then he stood up, and with Aline alongside, made his way through the throng to the gallery’s offices, not to be seen again (at least while I was there). Due to the Opening Night crowd, I returned a number of other times to see the actual show.

What I saw was shocking.

As shocked as those at the opening may have been by the unannounced (as far as I know) appearance by the Artist, more may have been shocked by the excellence of the “other Artist” who shared the bill with R. Crumb, his wife of 40 years (next year. Sorry. I can’t stop saying that because it blows my mind), Aline Kominsky-Crumb.

Yes, excellence.

Anyone who can go toe to toe (not to mention parts more intimate, but no less appropriate to this show), with R. Crumb over the course of most of a show (and ALL those years of marriage) is someone who deserves an award. Well, at least recognition. It’s high time Aline Kominsky-Crumb be acknowledged, and accepted, and her considerable body of work be appreciated. “Drawn Together” made the case for that as well as it’s likely to be made.

The standard “knock” against her has to do with her draughtsmanship. Even she mentions it in a panel here. There are many cartoonists, graphic novelists, even Artists hanging in The Met, who’s draughtsmanship is “suspect,” (to be kind). It’s missing the point. The point of Art is to express and communicate, (even if the latter is “only” a byproduct). Those just happen to be Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s strongest suits.

But, yes, there are masterpieces by the Master of Underground Comics to be seen here, too. The ten page story, “Walkin’ The Streets,” wherein we witness a conversation between R. and his late brother, Charles, strikes me as one of his great(est) works.

R. Crumb’s “Walking The Streets,” with his dear brother, Charles.

Charles(left)? I was just saying the same thing, here, a few weeks back.

In fact, on the subject of draughtsmanship, it’s actually arguable who among the three Crumb Brothers, was/is the greatest. R. has spoke glowingly of Charles’ talents. He passed at age 50 from an OD of his prescribed drugs.

A page from an extremely rare surviving sketchbook by Charles Crumb reveals his obsession with “Long John Silver.” See Terry Zwigoff’s superb documentary “Crumb” for more, and seldom seen video of Charles and Maxon.

The other brother, Maxon’s, work is ingeniously intricate, and brilliantly executed, though both of those are matched by his penchance for obfuscation and symbolism. If you can fight through that, you will find an Artist who doesn’t fit into the “comic book,” or even graphic novel genre, but an Artist, who’s path is closer to that of a Fine Artist. While R.’s originals sell for up to six figures (before the decimal point), Maxon’s drawings sell for hundreds, maybe a thousand dollars, his scarcer paintings for maybe 10 to 15 grand. In my opinion, he is very unfairly overlooked, (a bit like Charles Pollock is to his brother, Jackson Pollock.) Look at this-

Maxon Crumb’s “Take Thy Beak From Out My Heart,” Ink. The intricacy of this work is just staggering. (This was not in the show).

Speaking of being overlooked, R. Crumb has been ever so gradually finding acceptance as a Fine Artist on his way to being recognized as a “great Artist.” Beyond his draftsmanship, the honesty in his work is something that might seem common now, in this age of so-called “reality” shows. R. Crumb is the original reality star in the sense of honesty depicting himself- “good,” and “bad.” This turned off many, and it, too, hasn’t “mellowed” much over time. Though things like his sexual preferences (and appetites) remain controversial, and retain the ability to shock, as does how nakedly he discusses his inner feelings and thoughts. His wife is no shrinking violet, either. She never hides what she’s thinking or feeling, about herself, or anyone else, either. As a result, she is, perhaps, the ideal collaborator and foil for R..

R. & Aline Crumb, “Should Oddball Types…,” ink. Just one example.

The results present countless fascinating insights into their lives and their long standing open marriage. Making it a family affair, daughter Sophie, now an adult Artist with children of her own, makes an appearance, too. Want to hear what the Crumbs think about having kids? How Aline knows that R. hasn’t left her? (Hint- It has to do with vinyl.) How much R.’s “Book of Genesis” was sold for by Zwirner? How sobriety has been going for Aline? The joys of owning a “vintage” refrigerator,” or, you just want to watch R & A get “50 Shades”-style kinky? It’s all here. In fact, what’s here, and unspoken, is that the two of them have quietly amassed a major body of work. Appearing, variously, under titles including “Self-Loathing Comics,” or “Dirty Laundry Comics” (what could be more appropriate?) it’s now, finally, collected in the 184 page catalog for the Cartoonmuseum Basel version of this show, entitled “Drawn Together.”

R., Aline & Sophie Crumb, “Dirty Laundry” Cover Art, Ink.

R. & Aline Crumb, “Self-Loathing Comics,” Cover. Ink. After the age of “superheroes,” R. ushered in the “reality” based Artist as anti-hero age, we’re still in the midst of. And, Aline will keep drawing her hair to prove it!

Highlights? For me? Aline’s “My Very Own Dream House,” which takes up almost the entire front gallery, and holds rapt attention over 33 pages.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s “My Own Dream House,” Ink, beginning.

Installation view of (almost) all of it.

Her “Goldie in Fanatic Female Frustration” in the main room, in a different drawing style, is sparser, but none the less engrossing.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s “Goldie,” ink. Even at a distance, the unique style of this terrific work grabs you, and perfectly conveys the fanatic frustration within.

Along with these, we get a case of R.’s classic underground comics, ranging from “Zap” #0 to “Fritz The Cat” to “Weirdo,” a case of early drawings and sketchbooks, including the very rare sketchbook of Charles’ shown above, and a collection of family photos.3

A Hall of Fame of Underground Comic Classics.

If Aline was the star of this show, if not a revelation for me, R.’s star now shines all over the world, as we see in their collaboration about their visit to Belgrade, where they were treated like “superstars,” Aline writes. At Zwirner, the range of folks coming in to see this show was striking. It was, literally, every kind of person imaginable. Young, old, male, female, black, white, hipster, hippie, businessman, writers, photographers and yes, Artists.

One thing that surprised me was how many of them took the time to read the works. It’s one thing to read a comic book or graphic novel in a book, it’s another to read a 10 or 20 page story hanging on a wall, especially when half of it is hung higher than eye level. Yet, I watched person after person read each panel before moving a foot to their right to read the next. Since comic Art or Graphic Novels aren’t often seen in galleries or museums, I found this an unusual, interesting and refreshing thing. Most people seem to spend 1/4 the amount of time in front of paintings.

Crumb shows are way too infrequent. The last NYC show, “The Book of Genesis,” was also at Zwirner in 2010! While I expect, and welcome, future Crumb gallery shows, the time has come for a Crumb show in an NYC Museum.

Any bets on who will be the first to step up? My guess is MoMA. I think it’s a matter of when, not if. It’s hard to imagine it not being a blockbuster show.

It would be nice if it happened while he’s still around to see it. That is, IF he decides to actually show up to see it.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Ball and Chain,” as recorded by Janis Joplin and Big Brother & The Holding Company (what else?), as recorded on “Cheap Thrills,” 1968(! FIFTY years ago next August), with an R. Crumb cover, one of the most classic album covers ever done, which might have made him as famous as anything else, and written by Big Mama Thornton.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. Though collectors paid large sums paid for his work at auction last fall.
  2. I have wondered if even the great Philip Guston’s late work may have been…?
  3. For those so inclined, The Strand somehow STILL has signed copies of Aline’s gorgeous, unique Autobiography/ScrapBook/Graphic Novel entitled “Need More Love,” which has long been out of print for all of TEN DOLLARS! Word.

NYC Art Shows 2016- Sheena Wagstaff Rules The Waves

This year past, Manhattan Art was largely dominated by two themes. There was a seemingly continual string of shows by many of the bigger names in Abstract Expressionism (i.e. AbEx), one after the other, and I wrote about every one of them, beginning with Jackson Pollock @MoMA, Lee Krasner, Philip Guston (two- here and here), Richard Pousette-Dart, Joan Mitchell and Mark Rothko, along with a few excellent satellite compilation shows, each in a different venue, which, apparently is continuing into 2017 with Jackson Pollock set to open at the Guggenheim, completing the circle, for now. It was also a year of Women Artists getting important shows. Patti Smith, Nasreen Mohamedi, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Marilyn Minter1, June Leaf, Carmen Herrera, Nan Goldin, Mary Bauermeister, Carrie Mae Weems, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Krasner and Mitchell were only some of the highlights. Still? Artists weren’t the only women making a big impact on the NYC Art Scene in 2016. In fact, for my money, the biggest impact of all was made by another woman, The Met’s Chairwoman of Modern & Contemporary (M&C) Art, Sheena Wagstaff.

As far as I’m concerned, no other single person had the impact on NYC Art, all year long, that Ms. Wagstaff and her department did.

Sheena Wagstaff was named Chairwoman of TM’s M&C Department on January 20, 2012. Four years later, her 2016 began with putting finishing touches on TM’s new “branch Museum,” The Met Breuer (TMB), the first “branch” The Met has opened since The Cloisters in 1926! No pressure there. As it was about to open, ostensibly as the showcase for The Met’s “new” M&C Art iniatative, The Times’ Roberta Smith put the situation perfectly into perspective, speaking about the task Ms. Wagstaff faced/faces-

“But the Met is huge and old, with a history of treating contemporary art as an afterthought. Getting it to change is like turning around an ocean liner.” Roberta Smith, NYT, March 3, 2016.

It sailed into it’s mid- March opening with 2 shows- “Unifnished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a veritable Museum in itself covering 2 full floors (the third and fourth), and, easy to overlook, tucked away on the second floor, “Nasreen Mohamedi,” the first American Retrospective of the Indian woman artist who passed away in 1990, aged 53. Wait…Who? Yeah. Me, too.

Met Breuer, Opening Lineup, March 8, 2016. 11 months on? The 5th Floor is now gallery space, the 1st Floor Gallery is now the Gift Shop. Those 2 shows? They live on, indelibly. Notice that for all of Art History that’s represented in “Unfinished,” the signature image chosen is by Alice Neel, a woman, of “James Hunter Black Draftee”

Vijay Iyer (piano, left) performs with his trio. Met Breuer, Member’s Opening Day, March 8, 2016.

The first members of the public get to see “Unfinished” on March 8, 2016. That tiny drawing on the far opposite wall is by Michelangelo.

After over 15 visits later, to my eyes, “Nasreen Mohamedi” was nothing less than 1) an epiphany. Here was an Artist who was a Major figure in Art in the 20th Century who’s name exists in not one Art History survey that I know of.

I now haunt these galleries, in my memory.

2) Therefore, it was easily one of the best shows of the year, and 3) the more I think about it, for many reasons, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.

Most Memorable Art Work of the Year. Nasreen Mohamedi “Untitled,” circa 1970. When I first saw it, I thought it was a piece of fabric. Nope. This is a DRAWING.

Detail (about 10″ x 6″). Two amazing things about this- 1- The superhuman focus & manual skill on display. 2- The disease that would kill her would take these incomparable motor skills first, and shortly.

The subtlety, uniqueness and micro/macro impact of Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings is seemingly without precedent. They speak to the “grand design” of the universe, while also giving the feeling that they are somehow familiar, though they are not.

 

Some call this work “The Seven Planes of Existence.” All her works were left untitled and undated, only 5 here were signed. Many were given to friends as gifts. She created most while dealing with an illness that would kill her family members, then rob her of her skills, and eventually kill her, as well.

Also an accomplished photographer, I find her photos every bit as wondrous as her work in other mediums. Each “Untitled,” ca. 1970

Closeup of the photo on the right. What exactly are we looking at?

I spent an hour sitting right next to Sheena Wagstaff at a “Nasreen Mohamedi Symposium,” at The Met 5th Avenue in June. After it was over, I had the chance to speak to her. All I could say to her was “Thank you,” for Nasreen Mohamedi, which gave me the chance to discover her. Then, I told her she had made “the perfect choice” to begin M&C Art at TMB.

Sheena Wagstaff, right, Met curator Brinda Kumar, center, and an Artist who’s name I didn’t get, left, at the Nasreen Mohamedi Symposium, June 3 at The Met. Ms. Wagstaff then sat down immediately to my right.

Six month later, I stand by those words.

Think about how much guts it took to make that call. How daring it was. TMB famously costs The Met 15 million dollars a year to operate. The Met, reportedly, ran a deficiet in 2016, costing jobs.  To say “a lot” was, and is, riding on the success of TMB would be an understatement. Not to mention TM’s world leading prestige. “Nasreen Mohamedi” was followed by “diane arbus: in the beginning.” Perhaps it would have been “safer” to have run Diane Arbus first. Maybe. Probably. I’m glad it was Sheena Wagstaff’s call (along with the rest of TM’s powers that be), and they chose Nasreen Mohamedi.

A page from one of her diaries. She blotted out much of what she had written. I wonder why. They left these patterns, reminiscent of her drawings.

The show was, apparently, a labor of love for Ms. Wagstaff. Hidden away in the very last gallery, in an iPad on the tables where visitors could peruse the now out of print and rare catalog, were some of the few extant photos from Ms. Mohamedi’s life. One of the last photos was a photo of Nasreen Mohamedi’s unmarked grave. I marvelled that someone had found it and photographed it. I looked for the credit to see who the photographer was. Sheena Wagstaff.

“Nasreen Mohamedi” was more than a terrific show. It was a statement. What was as easy to miss as the show itself was, as visitors made a bee line to see the copious treasures upstairs, it was more. It was the “answer” to the question about where Ms. Wagstaff was likely to steer The Met’s “new M&C initiative” going forward. As such, it was a shot over the bow of the future.

The future of M&C Art at The Met, and The Met Breuer, appears to be international, and inclusive. I expect more of the unexpected, more of the unknown and under-known. Bring it on. MoMA is running on all cylinders, putting on shows that are spectacular. It’s good for them, the Whitney, The Guggenhim, et al, to have some competition in M&C Art from The Met, and for us.

While “Nasreen Mohamedi” was blowing my mind on the 2nd floor, upstairs on 3 & 4, “Unfinished” was blowing everyone’s who saw it. Right off the elevator on 3, you make a right and in a small gallery you’re confronted by Leonardo da Vinci AND Michelangelo (all too rarely seen together in this hemisphere), AND Jan Van Eyck, and a few other works I can’t even remember because my mind was already overloaded. Oh yeah, some guy named Durer did one. This was TM “showing off,” as I read Ms. Wagstaff say in an interview. Boy, did they. The rest of the show had a roster that would make 90% of all other whole Museums in the USA jealous.

For a New York Minute, Michelangelo, left, and two Leonardos were on display in “Unfinished,” as the show opened. The triumvirate was soon broken up, no doubt due to the fragility of the works.

So? Ok. This was a “fail safe” show. Ms. Wagstaff was by no means finished.

Rembrandt & Velazquez- the two greatest Painters who ever lived, according to many, very rarely seen side by side.

After Nasreen closed, “diane arbus: in the beginning” came in on 2, with an installation unique in art & photography shows in my experience. Every piece got it’s own wall. Yup. You read that right. Over 100 pieces. Over 100 walls. Amazing. No beginning. No ending. The point being that it was all her beginning.

A rare shot of Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Arrow of Time,” on view in TMB’s first floor gallery. The only show to take place there before it became the gift shop.

After “Unfinished,” the year at TMB ended with another blockbuster success- “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.” This is the kind of show that makes you wonder WHY it took so long for Mr. Marshall to be so recognized. He’s been creating at a very high level for a long time. It was only 3 years ago that he was showing at the always excellent Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. But? Not everyone was sleeping on KJM. Walking through this show it’s a sad feeling for a New Yorker to read the tags and see great work after great work that belongs to Chicago or Los Angeles. Not even MoMA has stepped up to a large degree with Kerry James Marshall. TM FINALLY got a major work of his last year.

The beginning of “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry.” In many ways, this was the show of the year.

Now? It’s probably too late.

This, unfortunately, highlights one area where much work remains to be done. The Met’s collection is sorely lacking the work of M&C Masters. As I recently pointed out, as far as I know, they own no work by Ai Weiwei. no work by Nasreen Mohamedi, and only one work (albeit a very, very good one) by Kerry James Marshall (and this was only acquired in 2015), to name but 3 cases. Frankly? I find this shameful. TM recently elected three new trustees, two of which are M&C specialists, so hope springs eternal for a little more wind to be added to those sails.

New York had until January 29 to enjoy seeing a lot of KJM in one place. (My piece is coming soon.) Now? It’s going to be a long wait. Los Angeles? You get your chance beginning March 12.

So? By my scorecard, that’s 4 shows in 9 months that will be remembered and talked about for a very long time, including no less than TWO that were major breakthroughs for the Artists- Nasreen Mohamedi and Kerry James Marshall2, putting both in the pantheon of the Artists who belong in our greatest Museums.

But? Ms. Wagstaff, who struck me as having so much energy, downtown NYC could have used her during the Hurricane Sandy Blackout, still wasn’t finished. Over at 1000 Fifth Avenue…(remember The Met’s Main Building?), she and her staff have also rehung TM’s M&C Galleries there, and done an amazing job.

While at sea, mind the lighthouse! Edward Hopper’s iconic “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” 1929, receives pride of place in TM’s newly rehung M&C Galleries. Which reminds me- Sheena Wagstaff edited the Tate’s 2004 Edward Hopper Show catalog.

Works have come out of storage that haven’t been seen there in…?, and some, thankfully, have gone there in their stead. The arrangements are new, too. Themes take the place of chronological arrangements in many rooms, while the AbEx Galleries still remain largely together, but subtly ammended. We get to see, what I consider to be, a major work by Philip Guston that I never knew TM owned! Other works are given new prominence, notably Edward Hopper’s famous “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,” and Richard Pousette- Dart’s “Symphony No. 1- The Transcendental,” (photo, here, further down the page.)

In this one gallery, I was shocked to discover works by Pousette-Dart (“Path of the Hero,” 1950, right) and Philip Guston (left, and below) that I didn’t even know The Met owned because they haven’t shown them!

Philip Guston, “Performers,” 1947. WHERE has this been? With one foot in his past, and one in his future, for my money, this is one of the most important periods of Guston’s career, and very few works from it exist, after he destroyed most. A major Guston.

The result is a veritable breath, no, wind of fresh air throughout. More wind for the sails of that S.S. Met Roberta Smith wrote about.

Sheena Wagstaff had a great year, in my book. Here’s to her. May the wind be at her back. That sound you heard in January was my giving a major sigh of relief at the news that we didn’t lose her when the Tate Museums chose a new Director (Ms. Wagstaff was Chief Curator at Tate Modern before she joined The Met).

P H E W…

Elsewhere, in the big City…

Other Museums and Galleries, of course, put on shows that linger in the memory, and I would be remiss in not including them. In addition to Nasreen Mohamedi’s, another Retrospective tried to make the case for it’s Artist’s place in the canon on 20th Century Art History, and wildly succeeded, in my opinion- “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” @ MoMA  Though he spent some time early in his career in NYC3, he, and his work, were rarely seen here after, and as a result, seeing this broad & in-depth look at his accomplishment over a mind-bending number of mediums was nothing less than a bombshell in it’s impact on myself, and I suspect many other New Yorkers. The depth, the staggering detail in the work (most famously in his films, but we see here it was carried over in most of his other work in other genres.), the mediums he probably invented, (like the music video), techniques he created or mastered, and on and on. This show was a capstone on a great year for shows at MoMA. “Picasso Sculpture,” “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” were must see/won’t soon forget in their own right. Bravo, MoMA. Now? About that building and the new one on the way…

Picasso, “Owl,” seen in “Picasso Sculpture.” One sure way to make this list? Include an Owl in your show. ; – )

In the galleries, what lingers with me were Ai Weiwei’s return to NYC at long last with 4 concurrent shows, “Mark Rothko: Dark Passage,” “Patti Smith: 18 Stations,“Philip Guston: Laughter in the Dark,” “Stuart Davis: In Full Swing,” at the Whitney, and “William Eggleston: The Democratic Forest” (mostly for the chance to study his work at length, which only made me want to look again). And, I always enjoy the chance to be captivated by someone I previously didn’t know, like the amazing Sydney Cash at Heller Gallery, or the up and coming Robert Currie at Bryce Walkowitz- both of who share a fascinating ability to make you see things that aren’t really there.

Sydney Cash’s “Split Selfie,” 2016, oversees two of his other works that no photo can “capture,” at Heller Gallery. See them better here. When you watch, remember all that’s happening is the viewer moves slightly side to side.

And finally, personally, the chance to meet Patti Smith and Sheena Wagstaff, or run into Chuck Close, were things that remain rich, as much for the opportunity to speak with them as for what I learned from each encounter.

All of these experiences reminds me that in the final analysis? Art is personal. For every one of us.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Andy Warhol” by David Bowie (who we lost this year, and who is Ms. Wagstaff’s fellow countryman, and an Art collector), from his classic album “Hunky Dory.”

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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

  1. in 3 shows- 2 in Manhattan, 1 at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of their “Reimagining Feminism” Series
  2. It must be noted that “KJM: Mastry” is a show organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A. the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and The Met.
  3. when legend has it he was denied entrance to MoMA for the opening of a show that included one of his works.

Having It Out With Philip Guston

I had mixed feelings when I heard about “Philip Guston Painter 1957-67,” on view from April 29 to July 29 at Hauser & Wirth’s temporary Gallery in the former Roxy Nightclub space. On the one hand, large Guston shows are a rarity, on the other hand, I have long struggled with his works of this period. So, it was with a desire to have it out with them in a battle to the death, over the very generous 3 months it was up, and either, finally, “get” them, or not that I climbed their candy-cane striped stairs to enter a space I had known in it’s previous incarnation.

dsc_0434pnh

This space had a “colorful” past, in a different way. One that involved roller skates.

I am happy to report that July 30th dawned to find me still among the living.

The show is focused on paintings from 1957-1965, 8 of Guston’s most “abstract” years , and drawings dated from 1967-69, at the beginning of his return to “figurative” work.  The 1957-65 period of Guston’s paintings is, perhaps, his least known, possibly least loved, (according to one owner- Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer’s, experiences when guests have seen it) 1, and least seen works by this Artist, who Hauser & Wirth calls “the preeminent 20th century American Artist” in their press release.

Really? I am very interested in his work, and have a lot of respect for him, but “the preeminent?” Hmmm…Comparing Artists qualitatively is against my religion, though some other candidates are here2. Still, a group of 35 of these is unheard of, and seems unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

While his early abstractions from 1950-55 are seen regularly and much admired, the works of his next period are very different. Gone were the luminous colors and shimmering qualities of the earlier works replaced by a darkness that feels to be continually encroaching as these 8 years progress.

What came before... "Painting," 1954, on view at Moma

What came before… “Painting,” 1954, on view at Moma

“What shall I paint but the enigma?”

A revealing quote from Philip Guston in 19693? Possibly. Guston, apparently, mis-translates, or misquotes a translation of the inscription on a “Self Portrait,” from 1911, by Giorgio de Chirico, a major lifelong influence, who he was speaking about when he uttered it. It’s de Chirico’s motto. The original reads- “Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?” Most of the translations I’ve seen of it are- ‘What shall I love if not the enigma?’ Maybe it’s Guston’s interpretation of it?

It would, also, seem to be a fitting motto for this show.

This show begins. "Fable II," 1957,

The show begins… “Fable II,” 1957,

Guston came to abstraction very gradually, the end result of a period of consternation over his direction during which his work was gradually leaving figuration behind. In late 1948 he took a break from painting and armed with a Prix de Rome and a grant from the American Academy of Art and Letters, made a trip to Italy to see the works of his early Reinassance heroes, Piero della Francesca and Masaccio. To that point, the dissolution of the figure in his work can be traced through “If This Be Not I,” 1945 (perhaps my favorite work of his), to “The Porch I & II,” 1947, and especially in “The Tormentors,” 1947-48, his last work his trip to Italy. Upon his return, his “Red Painting,”1950, and “White Painting,” 1951, begin his “non-figurative” periods, from which the works on view eventually followed. He said,“The 1950-55 paintings, (see “Painting,” 1954, above), in general, were very diffuse lyrical pictures. About 1956 I began to become very dissatisfied. I began to feel a need for a more solid painting. I began to look at my earliest work with a kind of renewed interest, the solidity of that. I found it a terrific challenging problem, in my own terms, to create forms.” 4

"Traveler III," 1959-60

“Traveler III,” 1959-60

Then, in 1956, right on the cusp of the period in question, he told writer and friend, Dore Ashton, “I’m in love with painting.5” Looking around this show, that was the first thing that struck me- how painterly these paintings are. Guston’s brushwork has never been so nakedly at the forefront, even in the abstractions from 1950-55, as they are in every work here. It feels like it would be possible to follow each and every one in some of these works.

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“Position 1,” 1965, Detail.

They have a freedom, a rawness, an energy that strikes me as being completely opposite from his earlier abstractions, someone dubbed “abstract impressionism,” a term he hated, works that are calm, subtle, delicate.These seem almost defiantly, perhaps reactionarily, different. They all contain shapes. At first, a mass of them, later individual shapes, and finally one shape, on a murky grey/blue with pink background. After all the depth of field has gone out, which began in his mid 1940’s work, completed from 1950, after the variety of color has gone out. The enigma remains.

"Turn," 1959

“Turn,” 1959

“There can be no adequate understanding of Guston’s life work unless we are prepared to go back over the whole road,” Dore Ashton wrote in 1990 6. In the earlier work, the enigma was different. It came with, and in the guise of persons, places and things. Guston’s work begins, as far as public collections go, in 1930. And? Talk about starting with a bang!

Guston was a lifelong creature of habit. Some of those, possibly, led to his early death at 66 in 1980. As a child, he retreated from the world to his closet, where he would read, and even paint, by the light of a single light bulb. He painted hooded KKK guys7, who he actually saw break up strikes. At age 13 he discovered his father, hanging, having committed suicide.(!) At age SEVENTEEN, he created this-

"Drawing for Conspirators," 1930, Whitney Museum

Drawing for “Conspirators,” 1930, at the Whitney Museum

There’s so much going on in this. First, note the figure hanging in the background. Then, the figure in the foreground handling rope. In the 1970’s when these hooded figures8 returned to his work, he said they were self-portraits9 Is this Guston pondering guilt over his father? Look at the abstraction of space- everything is enclosed in a very narrow area, which would reappear in the 1940’s, and again in the late work. The faceless head shapes, the narrow stage, and the brick wall are reminiscent of de Chirico. The angled cross from Piero della Francesca. Many of these elements, along with the single light bulb, his fascination with shoes, as well as many of the lessons he had picked up from his beloved early Renaissance Masters and, de Chirico, we see in the late work of the 1970’s. Also seen in the late work is Guston’s early love of comics. He reacted strongly when someone mentioned this to him, yet, I think it’s undeniable. As I wrote, I wonder what influence R. Crumb may have had on him. Though most of these are not readily apparent in the work in this show, they set me wondering how far away he ever got from them. After returning from Italy, his work shows an ever gradual reduction of elements, especially in his work from 1956-65, until he even stopped painting. Such was the effects of the admitted despair he was in, again, in 1966, as he was stuck before his next direction, which led to the outpouring of his final decade.

"Accord I," 1962

“Accord I,” 1962

Meanwhile, I was in the middle of my struggle with these works. It was on my 3rd visit, sitting in the nicely cavernous space that a key question hit me-

“Exactly HOW ‘abstract’ are these works?”

Look at the titles. “Painter,” “Actor,” “Alchemist,” “Vessel,” and “Portrait I,” among them. Guston commented that the titles were added after the piece had been completed. It’s rare for abstract works of the “New York School” Artists of this period to have such blatantly suggestive titles such as these. They make it impossible to give one’s imagination the completely free reign the usual “Untitled” does. In fact, they force one to attempt to “see” what the title “means” in the work. This brings you back to the way you experience figurative painting. Once this happened to me, I was never able to go back to seeing them as completely abstract again. I began to “suspect” the other works. More titles- “Rite,” “Traveler III,” “Turnabout,” “”The Room,” “Garden of M.” and “Inhabiter.” Without trying very hard, that’s 11 titles of the 36 paintings. Hmmm…

 

"Inhabiter," 1965

“Inhabiter,” 1965

“I think a painter has two choices: he paints the world or himself. And I think the best painting that’s done here is when he paints himself, and by himself I mean himself in this environment, in this total situation.’– Guston said in 1960.

The evolution during this period can be seen in this next photo. Note the differences between the works on the left, and those on the right. Color has largely gone out, forms have been reduced. The overall feeling becomes one of darkness and isolation.

Left- 2 works from 1960. Right- one from 1964, one from 1965

Left- 2 works from 1960. Right- two from 1965

This reduction would continue through 1965, until he was left with one dark form against a murky blue/grey over pink background, with (see “Portrait I,” 1965, below), now, the white of the naked canvas encroaches. After these, painting itself, went out. In 1967, he would start all over by drawing. But, he’d quickly come to see that this new direction offered insufficient room to grow. These zen-like drawings (see the 3 photos following “Cabal,” below) were their own end game. Shortly after, he would make yet another new start. Now, pieces of his past were everywhere to be plainly seen.  This would see him create his long misunderstood, now quite popular and influential final works, like “Cabal,” below.

"Cabal," 1977, The Met

“Cabal,” 1977, at The Met

While the “figure” went out of his work from 1950-1965 in works that are called “abstract” (a term he loathed), there is much in his work before, and after that is, also, “abstract”- even in his late work, where people and objects return. After all, isn’t this late work, which is called “figurative,” really “abstract?”

When you look closer at this hooded head in the foreground of “Conspirators,” above, with it’s two black eye holes in the white bedsheet, which somehow manage to be quite expressive. I couldn’t help but think about that when I saw this, “Untitled” drawing among those on the final wall at Hauser & Wirth.

"Untitled," 1968. Drawing.

“Untitled,” 1968. Drawing.

Then, again? With an “Untitled” work, the mind is free to go where it may, right?

Revisiting his subsequent later work while looking at the show of the Small Oils Guston did from 1969-73, that was up at the McKee Gallery in 2009, and you can see here, in addition to the hoods, shoes, single light bulb and other elements from his past, cigarettes, books, the modern city, and his wife, Musa, from his present, I suddenly see other connections (hindsight being 20/20). The same murky grey over pink backgrounds appear in a number of his smaller oils (“Cabal” has a dark background, too.). Some of these also have strange forms alone against this background. All of a sudden they don’t look like they were created by an entirely different Artist than the one who created the works in this show. Well, Philip Guston was a different Artist than the one he was in 1957-65, but he’s still Philip Guston. Since there is much that is common between his early and his late works, it makes me wonder about all of his work. That was my initial question before seeing this show- Would what came before, and after be evident here? Using hindsight you can see connections. How he didn’t completely forget this period. Parts of it remained in his work until the end of his life.

"Untitled," 1968 Drawing

Starting over, again, from the beginning. Abstract or figurative? A pencil? A line? A tightly sealed mouth? “Untitled,” 1968 Drawing

Guston was not considered a founding member of the Abstract Expressionists, nor does he appear in the famous “Irascibles” photo which defined the movement’s members for many. The Met now lists him among the 14 Artists they group in the first group, along with Lee Krasner (the circle is now complete)! I think that part of the reason he wasn’t initially considered part of the group was that he was moving in that direction slowly from 1945 to 1950 which made him miss the first round of fanfare these works received, and which subsequently “grouped” them as “Abstract Expressionists,” a term Guston loathed10. Rothko, himself had called it “their enterprise 11.” Philip Guston, eternally, followed his own star. Though Jackson Pollock was his closest childhood acquaintance and the two were expelled from Manual Artis High School12 together for calling out the fact that more money was being spent on sports than on the “Arts,” and someone who remained in his life until his death in 1956, Guston was his own man, who’s Art owed more to the early Italian Renaissance and Giorgio de Chirico than it did to Pollock, or Rothko, who he was on friendly terms with.

Zen Master. 48 "Untitled" Drawings, 1967-69.

Zen Master. 48 “Untitled” Drawings, 1967-69.

Philip Guston was never a painter of “realism.” It now appears to me that though the end results look different as his style changed and evolved, he was continually bluring the lines between figuration and abstraction all through his career, in the service of painting images that expressed himself as he evolved in his times and in his environment. It’s obvious that he never forgot his past, or the past masters who’s work he loved. The more I look at his work, from all periods, the more I see the impact of, perhaps, his biggest influence, Piero della Francesca, in it. Piero’s figures have the most inscrutable, almost deadpan expressions. Their faces, often, reveal little to nothing of what they are feeling. They take that crutch of reading a whole image from the face away from us. That feeling stays in my mind when I approach a work of Guston’s now, no matter if there are “figures” or objects in the work or not. (Many, even most, of his figures are hooded, or masked, anyway). “Reading” a Guston is a little like to trying to “read” a Piero (or de Chirico). It’s not the expression on the face, it’s the whole thing- the figure in it’s environment, to paraphrase Guston’s quote, above (in Piero’s case, each one is placed with utmost mathematical precision as part of the whole). Guston’s masks are akin to Piero’s inscrutables. We can’t read the expressions or the feelings of these figures. This makes them “abstract,” in another sense, too. I wonder about them. Since they are hooded, or masked, or a black form in his “Portrait I,” 1965, we’ll never know what they are feeling- like in Piero.

"Portrait I," 1965

“Portrait I,” 1965. As if hooded(?), in his environment.

It’s not only his 1957-65 paintings that mystify us.

“You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.” “Philip Guston Talking” 1978, two years before he passed away.

Yet, he has left clues, along with the enigma.

(This is the third, and final, installment in my cycle of Posts on the recent, concurrent shows of Jackson Pollock, Lee Kranser & Guston- three Artists who’s lives are eternally intertwined, personally, and Artistically.)
*-Soundtrack for this Post is “For Philip Guston,” by his close friend, the brilliant composer Morton Feldman. If you have 4 hours to spare, check this out.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. Musa Mayer, “Night Studio,” Da Capo Press, P.102
  2. Hopper, Stuart Davis, Pollock, Rothko, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler, Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, insert your own.
  3. Guston, “Collected Writings,” University of California Press, P.125
  4. Schimmel, Exhibition Catalog for this show, P.15
  5. Dore Ashton, “Philip Guston,” Grove Press, Inc.,1960 P.49
  6. Ashton, “A Critical Study of Philip Guston,” University of California Press, 1990,  P.9
  7. Ashton points out “At the time Guston was working on this painting it was estimated that there were more than 4.5 million members of the Klan in the United States, a great many of them residing right in Los Angeles, where they burned crosses and raised hell all during Guston’s childhood and youth.” Ashton, “A Critical Study,” P.7
  8. Ashton points out that hooded figures “not only recalling the Ku Kluxers of his early paintings but also the artists in the scriptoria of the medieval plague years who donned hooded gowns in the vain hope of avoiding the plague Ashton, A Critical Study, 1990, P.156
  9. Guston- “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself being behind a hood. In the new series of “hoods,” my intention is not really to illustrate, to do pictures of the KKK as I had done earlier. The idea of evil fascinated me… Guston, “Collected Writings,” P.282
  10. Schimmel, Show catalog, P.9
  11. Ashton, “Critical Study,” P.79
  12. Mayer, “Night Studio,” P.13

Unfinished. Auspicious.

“Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she acts and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But, she’s not there.”*

"Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento," 1794, by Mengs

“Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento,” 1794, by Mengs

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Van Eyck, Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Manet, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Mondrian, Basquiat, Whistler, Alice Neel, Lucian Freud, Klimt, Munch, Whistler, Robert Smithson, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, and on and on. “Unfinished” is a mimi-Museum unto itself that probably rivals quite a few entire Museums. “Unfinished,” along with the “Nasreen Mohamedi” Retrospective, were the inaugural exhibitions at The Met Breuer (TMB), the first shows of two new eras- The Met’s new 8 year Breuer Building Lease (at a reported $17 million a year 1), and Sheena Wagstaff’s tenure as Chairwoman of The Met’s Modern & Contemporary (M&C) Department. No pressure there. It’s a show that leaves you wondering “Why didn’t anyone think of this before,” before you’ve even gotten to it’s second floor.

Opening Day of The Met Breuer. Member's Preview, March 8, 2016

Welcome to the future! Opening Day of The Met Breuer. Member’s Preview, March 8, 2016

Well, for one thing, though many of the works here come from other sources, not a lot of places have the resources The Met has, so yes, a part of this is “showing off.” They’ve chosen to install this in a brand new branch that previously held the entirety of one of the other “Big Three” Manhattan Museums, before the Guggenheim made it the “Big Four.”

If that’s not showing off? I don’t know what is.

The rest is the pure joy of discovery, of seeing a curtain lifted and getting an all too rare chance to see some of what goes into making a masterpiece, a work of Art. And? The hits just keep on coming. The big names, that is, if not the most well-known work by any of those names. 197 works in all filling the 3rd & 4th Floors. While nothing here is “famous,” even in their, supposedly, incomplete state (either left unfinished on purpose, or not, in the case of Lucian Freud’s “Portrait of the Hound,” which was left as we see it on his easel when he died), these works hold up just as they are, making this a show jam packed with excellent, even important pieces. Yes, curating a show of “unfinished” work THIS well is also showing off The Met’s superb staff. Along with the pleasure of looking, they also provide fascinating, voyeuristic, even unique, insights into the Artist’s process- both working and thought. Some, as in Alice Neel’s “James Hunter Black Draftee’, 1965, are, perhaps, more evocative than it might have been had it been “finished.” Mr. Hunter never returned for additional sittings. We are left to wonder why not.

"James Hunter Black Draftee," 1965, by Alice Neel

“James Hunter Black Draftee,” 1965, by Alice Neel

The whole question of “When is a work of Art, finished?” comes front and center here as well, and no less than Rembrandt chimes in on it.

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Highlights? I’ll list those that come to mind quickly because there are so many. For me, Jan Van Eyck was the very first Artist who truly captivated me as a kid. Shortly after getting my driver’s license, I drove the almost 6 hours each way just to see his “Annunciation” in Washington’s National Gallery, then drove right back. Seeing his underdrawing for his unfinished St. Barbara was just breathtaking. It’s truly unbelievable to think that something like this lies underneath his finished masterpieces, like The Ghent Altarpiece! While he is legendary for the extraordinary and exquisite detail of his painting, which has held me in disbelief for all these decades, apparently, he could also draw every bit as well2

Small wonder. "Saint Barbara," 1437, Jan Van Eyck. Barely 12 inches tall.

Small wonder. “Saint Barbara,” 1437, Jan Van Eyck. Barely 12 inches tall.

Just astounding. Oh, and sitting a few feet away was a da Vinci portrait profile that was positively otherworldly. When the show opened (along with the Met Breuer) in March, it was flanked by Leonardo’s “Sketches for the Virgin Adoring the Christ Child” and Michelangelo’s “Study for the Libyan Sibyl.” Since “Unfinished” was up for a very generous four and a half months, the later two were replaced after a while, no doubt due to their fragility. It seemed to me they may have been there in honor of TMB’s opening. Both works are in TM’s permanent collection. More showing off? (Slight smile)

Blink, and you missed it. Briefly on view, Leonardo, center and left, Michelangelo, right.

For a New York Minute, the two greatest figures in Western Art were on view together. Leonardo, center and right. Michelangelo, left. Has so much hunan genius ever been side by side than when work of these two are shown together? March 8, 2016.

Oh, all of this is in the 2nd room. In the first room, upon getting off the elevator on the 3rd Floor, at the show’s beginning, you’re immediately faced with 2 large, powerful Titians that are guaranteed to stop you for a good long while, and a Jacopo Bassano.

This view once the elevator doors opened on 3 is one I'll long remember.

The opening salvo. This is the first thing many visitors to TMB saw after the elevator deposited them on 3. Bassano, left, with 2 Titians.

Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew, a whole room of Turners, a beautifully selected print gallery, a very “different” Degas of a horse race, a Van Gogh who’s color filled the entire room, a stunning Munch self portrait…all on the 3rd floor, wowed me.

"Street in Auvers-sur-Oise," 1890. In the year he died, no dark clouds in this sky.

Life affirming. “Street in Auvers-sur-Oise,” 1890. The year he died, no dark clouds in this sky. I am among those who believe Van Gogh did not commit suicide.

Finished, or Un? "Lucretia," 1642, by Guido Reni. Magnificent.

Finished, or Un? “Lucretia,” 1642, by Guido Reni. Magnificent.

On the 4th Floor, getting off the elevator was no less dramatic. No less than 4 amazing Picassos greet you, one of which is “the Charnel House,” the work which bookends (with “Guernica”) his WW2 years. While “Guernica,” rightfully, is seen as one of the landmarks of 20th Century Art (and one I’m eternally thankful I got to see in person at Moma’s Picasso Retrospective in 1980 before it was moved to Spain as Picasso’s will required), here is a work that I think deserves more attention. It’s surrounded by 3 other pieces, in 3 other styles (in addition to 2 others in the next gallery, and a few more on the 3rd floor), that show Picasso in the process of thinking through the problems inherent in each work- each one in a different style. After the 1921 “Portrait of Olga,” right, below, he was inventing each of these styles. It’s akin to inventing a new language. There was no one else to help him or guide him. Some artists, like Jackson Pollock, have done this once. Picasso? There’s three in this one gallery, and it doesn’t even include Cubism.

Pick a style-any style. 4th Floor Lobby/Galley 1. Picasso 1921, '29, '31, '45.

Pick a style-any style. 4th Floor Lobby/Galley 1. Picasso 1921, ’29, ’31, ’45.

There was quite a bit of fanfare paid to The Met’s announcement of The Met Breuer as a “Contemporary Outpost,” especially during the years when the 5th Avenue Modern & Contemporary Galleries were to be undergoing the reconstruction they had also announced. Yet, in this co-inaugural show, we get quite a bit of what The Met is famous for, along with about two thirds of the 4th floor of more recent works. The size of many of these newer works seems to cut down on the number of pieces, however, making the show feel skewed towards older Artists. Of the 197 works in the show, I counted 74 works by Artists born after 1900, 12 by Artists born after 1950. (The youngest Artist represented is Urs Fischer, who was born in 1973, and who’s mysterious cast bronze “2,” from 2014 is also the newest work here by my reckoning.)

The day after at the NighhawkNYC offices? No. "2," 2014, by Urs Fischer.

The day after at the NighthawkNYC offices? I’ll never tell. Actually, this is “2,” 2014, by Urs Fischer.

“But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there”*

Yet, even among the M&C pieces here on the 4th floor, there are memorable pieces. In additon to Urs Fischer’s “2”, the unfinished Mondrian struck me as a revelation. Yayoi Kusama’s genre defying paintings of consecutive numbers gave pause for thought, as did Sol LeWitt’s amazing tour de force  “Incomplete Open Cubes” nearby  and, Kerry James Marshal’s “Untitled,” 2009, was a nice appetizer for his much anticipated “Mastry” show opening at TMB October 25. The show concludes with a wonderful selection of sculpture, including haunting works by Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled (No.2), 1996, and Alina Szapocznikow’s work about her own battle with breast cancer, “Turmors Personified,” 1971, in dialogue alongside 3 Rodins. The final gallery consisted of only one work- a series of 6 pieces by Cy Twombly, entitled “Untitled I-VI (Green Paintings), 1986, which provided a meditative, cleansing experience I found especially memorable.

The Cy Twombly Gallery closes the show seen in panorama.

Water works? It’s hard not to feel a sense of water in movement in this gallery of 6 Cy Twomblys, which closes the show, seen in panorama.

Overall, what I took from this show as a whole was a possible template for what The Met plans to do going forward, the kinds of Artists they may include in their “new initiative.” It’s something I plan to watch closely as it unfurls. I should say that I have been in the minority regarding The Met and M&C Art. I liked that they were taking their time and allowing time to give some perspective on Contemporary Art before jumping in. It’s always been an honor to be in The Met- they have the best of the the best across all cultures and all times. Yet, given the unprecedented popularity of M&C Art today, they have opted to move more fully into it. Ms. Wagstaff, who I met in June, seems to have a great sense for all of this, and if anything, “Unfinished,” is a show that consists of work across at least a few Met Departments. Being able to work, apparently, so well with the other Met Departments augers well for the future. After all, The Met has 2,000,000 items in it’s collection. Showing M&C Art along side of selected objects in their collection is something I am all for.

Floor beach. As close as I got to a real beach this summer.

Floor beach. “Mirrors and Shelly Sand,” 1970, by Robert Smithson. As close as I got to a real beach this summer. I shot this wearing shades.

For me? That’s what this show says- Here are (unfinished) works by many of the greats. This is where we are starting from. Let’s see how other work that may, or may not, have been influenced by them, looks alongside these. The show may be seen as a number of conversations between Artists they are displayed alongside- Leonardo with Michelangelo. Van Eyck and Durer, Rembrandt with Velazquez(!). Degas and Manet. Van Gogh and Whistler(!). Picasso and Cezanne. Pollock and Kusama. Smithson and Fischer. Marshall and Warhol. Szapocznikow and Rodin. Rauschenberg and Mondrian. And, Picasso, also…with himself, among them. I say bring it on!

Still, there’s no denying that The Met Breuer is a HUGE gamble. Who knows how long Contemporary Art will stay as “hot” as it is? For that matter, who knows how much longer record number of viewers will go to see Art, as they have these past few years? The Met is locked into this for 8 years, and they have already announced a budget deficit that caused them to put off the previously announced reconstruction of the Modern & Contemporary Galleries, and, more sadly, even forced an unknown number of lay offs.

When they return to better times, IF they decide to move forward with those reconstruction plans, they will, most likely, need additional space for the temporary display of their Modern & Contemporary holdings, and Special Exhibitions. What will they do? Extending the lease on the Breuer will be VERY expensive. So far? I have yet to see it’s galleries very crowded. The “Diane Arbus; In The Beginning” Show, which recently opened on the 2nd floor, seems to be drawing pretty well, and “Unfinished” was fairly crowded during it’s last weeks. Yet? They’ve already closed the 5th Floor Cafe & Bookstore and remodeled it as additional Gallery space, which indicates that they want to have more going on there for visitors to see, and their basement restaurant is scheduled to open in about a month, which will be open during some hours The Museum is not. Obviously, this is all new, and still in flux. The Met seems to be reacting fairly quickly, which is a good sign. They did away with late Thursday nights, which I seemed to be among the very few that went to, and changed to late Friday & Saturday nights, like TM, 5th Avenue.

"Tumors Personified," 1971, by ALina Szapocznikow.

Survivor. “Tumors Personified,” 1971, by Alina Szapocznikow.

So far, on very little evidence, I like the direction TM is going at TMB, and with M&C Art. “Nasreen Mohamedi” was a revelation that struck me as the “perfect choice” to be the first M&C Show. “Unfinished” was an unexpected blockbuster the likes of which has never been seen before, which is somewhat startling given how long there have been painting shows. The Diane Arbus show is fascinating and features a ground breaking installation. Also, not to be lost is the reconfiguration of the M&C Galleries at TM on 5th Avenue- I love what they’ve done. The Art has been imaginatively rehung in fascinating new combinations, with some pieces given new prominence, like Edward Hopper’s majestic “The Lighthouse at Two Lights,”1929, and other pieces shown that have long been in storage. Along with this, Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” Mural appears to have now been permanently housed, at the center of supporting works and works that enter into interesting dialogue with it nearby. Other galleries are arranged by theme, instead of chronology.

So? There’s been a lot of action coming from new M&C Chairwoman Sheena Wagstaff and her Department. There’s a long way to go, but so far? It’s hard for me to give her less than an “A” for what she and they have accomplished.

Haunting, and then some.

Haunting, and then some. “The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edniburgh,” 1870, James Drummond.

Most of the Artists in “Unfinished” won’t get the chance to finish what they started. The Met will.

Stay tuned.

*-Soundtrack for this post is “She’s Not There,” by Rod Argent, recorded by The Zombies, and published by Marquis Songs, USA.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
Click the white box on the upper right for the archives, to search, or to subscribe.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/05/arts/design/breuer-building-expands-the-imagination-and-the-budget-of-the-met.html?_r=1
  2. Yes, I saw “A New Look at a Van Eyck Masterpiece” at TM proper, which featured a drawing of the Crucifixion from Rotterdam that may, or may not be, by Van Eyck. I came away VERY impressed by it to be sure, but remaining to be entirely convinced.

Lee Krasner- Surviving Jackson Pollock, And An Oscar

Recently, the Art Show Scheduling Gods smiled, and? Voila! A rare chance to see shows of three Artists with an intriguing connection (almost) side by side. I bowed to give them thanks for concurrent shows of Jackson Pollock (at Moma), Lee Krasner (at Robert Miller Gallery) and Philip Guston (at Hauser & Wirth Gallery). The common thread being Pollock. One was married to him for 11 of the 14 years they knew each other. The other considered him his closest boyhood acquaintance. Pollock’s sudden death on August 11, 1956- 60 years ago this week as I write, left a personal and professional void in the lives of both. Then there was the “shadow” of Pollock’s legend they lived under the rest of their lives, which delayed full understanding and appreciation of their own accomplishment and importance. Delayed. Thankfully, not cancelled. Having already written about the Pollock show, this Post is about the Lee Krasner show, and a Post about the Philip Guston show follows.

Lee Krasner @ Robert Miller Gallery.

Lee Krasner @ Robert Miller Gallery. Click any photo in this Blog to see a larger image.

First, consider Lee Krasner’s Short “Curriculum vitae,” i.e.- some of what she had to overcome-

  • -Being an “Artist’s wife,” while married to Jackson Pollock from 1945-1956, a man she would remain devoted to from when they met in 1942, on.
    -Pollock’s rise from barely known to sudden fame in August, 1949. A fame he never adjusted to placing immense burden on her.
    -His death in a car crash (beside another woman, who later wrote a book about she and Pollock) while Krasner was away in Europe. She never remarried.
    -Pollock’s legend, gowing larger in death, helped in no small part by her own efforts, and it’s impact on her own career
    -Working as a Painter for 50 years- before, during and after him, in a somewhat similar realm
    -Knowing personally, and working among, many of the greatest “first generation Abstract Expressionists,” from which she was unfairly excluded.
    -Being a woman in a man’s field.

Sounds like a character in a movie. Lee Krasner had to overcome all of that, and yes…the movie. The movie being 2000’s “Pollock,” featuring Marsha Gay Harden’s Oscar winning portrayal of herself, which Krasner’s biographer, Gail Levin, summed up saying “Inaccuracy about Krasner’s life” was “endemic in the film.” 1 As I wrote about the recent Miles Davis film, and while I am al for artistic license and freedom in the Arts, not nearly enough respect gets paid to the lasting impact to historical persons in so-called “bio-dramas.” The effect of the damage these films do is real and long lasting. It makes me wonder what “good” they do. Most often, the subject is dead and can no longer do anything to defend themselves. Digging out from the wake of Jackson Pollock (who’s work she said first hit her “like an explosion”),  the man, the legend, and the shadow, has been a long, arduous and thorny road. It’s a jumble that is still being traversed, and reversed, as we speak.

"The Eye Is The First Circle," 1960, 70 x 109"

“The Eye Is The First Circle,” 1960, 70 x 109 inches.

In spite of having been an Artist before she met Pollock in 1942, and for the better part of 30 years after his passing, it must be made clear that Lee Krasner was in no small way responsible for his shadow having grown so large 2. She did more than anyone to further Jackson Pollock’s career and his Art, during and after his life, and, as a result, and with the assistance of many others holding her back, her own Art has had as hard a road to acceptance as almost any other Artist in the 20th Century. Much more so than even Pollock’s, who was considered the “ultimate outsider.”

Ever so slowly, but surely, her Art has grown in stature over time. Unfortunately, she died just months before Moma gave her a retrospective in 1984, making her (still) one of the few women to have gotten one. In 2011, Gail Levin released the first full-length biography of her mentioned above. The auction market has been increasingly responsive to her work, as well. First, the Cleveland Museum bought “Celebration,” from 1960, for 1.9 million, then in May, 2008, her “Polar Stampede” sold for 3.1 million3. Based on how much the work of the other first group of Abstract Expressionists sells for, I think her market still has a ways to go. Beyond transactions involving Museums, I care not about how much anyone else pays for Art- it’s meaningless, IMHO, since individuals buy Art for personal or investment purposes, to discussions about “Art.” In Lee Krasner’s case, I merely point it out to show another wall coming down.

"Sundial," 1972

“Sundial,” 1972

In spite of all of this, I believe that Lee Krasner is, still, under appreciated- for her impact on the world of Art, as well as for her Art, which finally can be seen on it’s own, as it is here.

So, with all this in mind, my path still freshly worn, and my shoes, apparently, retaining their muscle memory of the way from the baker’s dozen visits I had just made to Robert Miller Gallery for “Patti Smith-18 Stations,” which had ended the week before, I returned to darken the doorway of this all too familiar space yet again. I will admit- it was a strange feeling to turn that corner half way down the gallery and not see Patti Smith’s chair & table (let alone, Ms. Smith, herself!) from Cafe ‘Ino and “M Train,” and not to see the handwritten pencil notations she’d written on the eastern wall (did they paint over them? Or are they possibly now hidden but protected behind a fake outer wall, like Leonardo Da Vinci’s long lost “Battle of Anghiari” may be?).

The room where Patti Smith's Table & Chair stood 1 week before. "Equilibrium," 1950, center

The room where Patti Smith’s Table & Chair stood 1 week before. “Equilibrium,” 1950, center, with “Lava,” 1949, left and “Untitled,” 1949, which seems to anticipate Jasper Johns, right Ms. Smith’s pencil inscriptions were to the right of the left rear corner pillar.

Yet, Ms. Smith was not entirely absent from this show. Even before the Moma Retrospective, Lee Krasner’s influence had been felt by other artists, especially women artists- including Patti Smith, who wrote of her influence in the introduction to the show’s catalog-

“In 1967 I came to New York City, at twenty years old, with the knowledge of her reputation in tow. I sensed her strength of purpose and aspired to be like her one day. I also hoped, as she, to meet a fellow artist and work with him side by side. It would take, as attested by her choices, much personal strength to commit to the dual sacrifices required by art and love, yet it was my greatest wish.”

Completing the circle, a portrait of Lee Krasner by none other than Robert Mapplethorpe was also included in the catalog.

The show, simply titled, “Lee Krasner,” consists of 33 paintings, drawings and collages the Artist created over the FIFTY Years between 1931 and 1981. What struck me most was the dazzling array of styles it contained, beginning with a realistic Self Portrait, painted at about age 25 (1931-33). She seemed to be trying on painting styles the way other women try on fashion styles. Another interesting thing was that while some works were bursting with color, others were monochrome.  “Color, for me, is a very mysterious thing,” she told Barbaralee Diamonstein in 1978.

DSC_1843NEFPNH

“Lavender,” dated 1942, which is the year she met Pollock.

But what about that “shadow?” When asked about Pollock’s influence on her, here’s what she said (in two different interviews) in my transcriptions-

In one, she told Dorothy Seckler– ” Certainly a great deal happened to me when I saw the Pollocks. Now Pollock saw my work too – I couldn’t measure what effect it had on him. We didn’t talk art – we didn’t have that kind of a relationship at all. In fact, we talked art talk only in a shop sense, but never in terms of discussions about art, so to speak. For one thing, Pollock really felt about it. When he did talk it was extremely pointed and meaningful and I understood what he meant. Naturally he was seeing my work as I certainly saw his.”4

"Equilibrium," 1950. Right in the middle of her marriage to Pollock. Pretty hard to see him in this.

“Equilibrium,” 1950. Right in the middle of her marriage to Pollock. Pretty hard to see his style of the time in this.

While some of the works had elements of Pollock’s techniques, many others did not. Interestingly for me, except for “Lava” dated 1949 when they were married and living together in the Springs, Long Island, the works that had a bit of Pollock in them were from the 1960’s, well after Pollock’s passing. In fact, and most surprising, while I don’t see any works here that scream “Pollock,” there were works that were blatantly in the style of other Artists, including Mondrian, who she knew, and, perhaps most of all, Matisse, who she revered.

Mondrian? No! Krasner's "Untitled," c. 1939-40

Mondrian? No! Krasner’s “Untitled,” c. 1939-40

"Rose Red," 1958. Something of the feel of Matisse's recent Cut-outs.

“Rose Red,” 1958. Something of the feel of Matisse’s recent Cut-outs in this for me.

In the second interview, Barbaralee Diamondstein asked her directly in 1978- “What did you learn from Pollock’s work?”

“I don’t know. I just re…Let me put it this way. Other than what I’ve said before that the transition was as great…Let’s see. If we think of the Renaissance’s concept of space. …Where you are the artist up here, and whatever it is you are using perspective as your means. And you are making you, whatever you are doing with it…And if we go from that concept into cubism the thing is still there in the same sense. Nature is there. I am here as the artist. I observe the only thing is frontal now and that much has taken place. Now, in Pollock, once more there’s another transition. I can’t define it for you, sorry. It’s not my job.”

Lee Krasner's "Brown print variant," Lithograph, 1970

Lee Krasner’s “Brown print variant,” Lithograph, 1970

From what I’ve read, they worked separately. Krasner in a bedroom turned studio and Pollock out in back of the house in the amazing barn with the huge window on one side. I dont’ get the sense there was any collaboration. They would look at each other’s work, when asked to, but there was no direct “teaching” or anything like that. When asked (by Diamondsteen in the same interview)- “There are many who thought that all the while you were nurturing his career- you were not working. What were you doing during that period?” She said, again in my transcription- “I was working all the time. I doubt our relationship would have existed at all if I wasn’t working. In therms of what other people think, I can’t do anything about that. As long as I was able to work, I went about my business.”

"Bird Image," 1963

“Bird Image,” 1963

For me, at least, all of this puts this “shadow” myth to rest, once and for all. Here is an Artist that was left out of the first rank of Abstract Expressionists, many of who appeared in that infamous Life Magazine picture titled “The Irascibles,” which should have included her. She was there in the beginning, knew many of them (even introducing Pollock to de Kooning), and her work was known and respected by them, and, shown with theirs.

So, why did she change her style so often? What was she seeking?

She told Dorothy Seckler- “Well, I do find that I swing from the lyric, to the dramatic and it doesn’t – you know, I have no way of knowing which phase is going to take over.”

And-

“I think my painting is so autobiographical if anyone can take the trouble to read it.” 5.

"Self Portrait," 1931-33

“Self Portrait,” 1931-33

Hmmm…Based on the evidence at Miller, it’s very hard to read her work. Take “Rose Red,” dated 1958, 2 years after the death of her husband. It certainly doesn’t look it. It looks more like Matisse’s late cut-outs, full of life, joy, happiness and spring colors, interspersed with the titular red. Earlier and later works seems to be dialogues with other Artists- Mondrian, Matisse, as I said, maybe Paul Klee. (Untitled, 1949), but yes, there are elements of style that remind of Jackson Pollock, too. Yet, there are works that look ahead, as well. “Untitled,” 1949, as well as her “Hieroglyphic” works and “Little Paintings” of the same period now look like precursors of Jasper Johns. Her later collages, where she uses cut up, or torn pieces of figure study drawings (“Murdered,” she told Diamondstein) she had done in the 1930’s, casting them in a startling, unprecedented way, in a sort of new take on cubism, that also speaks to the amazing capabilities of her eye, first in seeing which drawings to reject, and then seeing this other possibility in them. Amazing.

Finally, there was this quote- “The one constant in life is change 6

Lee Krasner was a unique Artist, who was capable of as many styles as almost any other Artist. For me, the most amazing thing about the Miller show was that every single work, no matter it’s style, holds up as a composition, something I feel is the hardest thing to do in so-called “abstract” (a term she didn’t like) Art, or in any work of Art. Part of this may be because she destroyed the works that didn’t hold up, leaving only 499 works in her Catalog Raisonne, a very small number considering her 50 year career- 10 a year! What does this tell me? She has one HELL of a good eye, which, in the end, is what I admire most about her work, and her. Along with John Graham, and others, she was among the first to “see” Pollock, after all- something I rarely see acknowledged. Seeing this show, with it’s amazing range of styles, it’s clear that she dabbled with influences but all the while stayed on her own path, following her own star, and relentlessly digging deep inside herself. From watching and reading her interviews, it quickly becomes apparent that she had a “strong personality”7. No doubt, she also had a very strong character, which served her in good stead in the company of all the other great artists of strong personalities, like Pollock, she was surrounded with most of her life. I doubt she’d have survived and gotten to where she got in her life, and where she is now, without that inner strength.

"Past Conditional," 1976, A collage of older drawings she rejected..

“Past Conditional,” 1976, A collage of older drawings she rejected..

As I mentioned, Lee Krasner’s legacy lives on, additionally to her Art, through the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (which, since 1985, has awarded over 4,100 grants totaling over 65 million dollars to artists in 77 countries) and the Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center (their former home and studio), which I visited in 1999. It was, truly, an experience I will never forget, and one every Art lover should have on their bucket list. I was surprised how being in their environment gave me a completely new understanding of the Art they created there, which, all of a sudden, didn’t seem nearly as “abstract.”

In addition to this, there is the incalculable debt the world owes her for her generosity. A visit to the Moma website revealed 49 works by Pollock alone that she gifted to them (making her the “unsung star” of their recent Pollock show, as I mentioned in my Pollock Post), a visit to The Met’s site yields about the same number, but who knows what the real total number of works of art that bear the source, “Gift of Lee Krasner Pollock” really is? Overlooked is that we are also increasingly indebted to her for giving her own work.

Taken in total, the shadow SHE now casts looms larger every day. As for the work? As she, herself, said, “I think the process of re-interpretation will continue and that many things will now be re-evaluated. I’m sharply aware of my own re-evaluation.8” This, also, applies to Philip Guston.

"Untitled" (Study for a Mural), 1941. her cubist beginnings echo.

“Untitled” (Study for a Mural), 1941. Echoes of her cubist beginnings.

On the 5th Floor of Moma, her “Untitled,” 1949, hangs on a wall adjacent to “One: Number 31, 1950,” one of her husband’s most well known (and largest) masterpieces. On the wall on the other side of the door next to it hangs Mark Rothko’s “No. 3/No. 13,” 1949, another masterpiece. Facing them is Philip Guston’s “Painting,” from 1954, a shimmering masterpiece from his early “abstract” years.

Krasner, left, and Pollock

Krasner, left, and Pollock, at Moma.

At The Met right now, another Krasner hangs right next to another early 1950’s Guston. Both works directly face another huge Pollock masterpiece, “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30),” 1950.

Lee Krasner, "Untitled," 1948, left with Philip Guston's, "Painting," 1952

Lee Krasner, “Untitled,” 1948, left with Philip Guston’s, “Painting,” 1952,  at The Met.

Detail, Lee Krasner, "Untitled"

Detail of Lee Krasner’s, “Untitled,” 1948.

For me? That is the ultimate test of any work of Art- Hang it next to some masterpieces and let’s see how it does.

To be hung within inches of masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock is about as hard as a test gets for American “abstract” Art of this period.

Lee Krasner has found her place.

At last.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Dream of Life,” by Patti Smith and Fred “Sonic” Smith.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
Please send comments, thoughts, feedback or propositions to denizen at nighthawknyc.com.
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  1. Gail Levin, “Lee Krasner,” P.1
  2. Levin, P.269, etc
  3. Levin “Lee Krasner” P.4
  4.  Oral history interview with Lee Krasner, 1964 Nov. 2-1968 Apr. 11, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
  5. Levin, “Lee Krasner” P.11 Levin continues- “A few years later, she said, “I suppose everything is autobiographical in that sense, all experience is, but that doesn’t mean it’s naturalistic reading necessarily. I am sure that all events affect one…but I don’t think it means using a camera and snapping events.”
  6. Interview, 1977
  7. Longtime associate B.H. Friedman in his “Intimate Introduction” to Robert Hobbs’ “Lee Krasner” P.25
  8. Levin, “Lee Krasner,” P12

How Jackson Became “POLLOCK” 

Jackson Pollock’s most famous works are so well known that many people think he painted using what’s (inaccurately) known as his “drip technique” his whole career. It seems there is always one of these radical, unprecedented works he created between 1947 through 1952 on display in about every large American Museum, works that garner as strong a reaction today as they did in the 1950’s. More recently, many probably came to him from the 2000 film, “POLLOCK”(all CAPS in red) with Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, a personal labor of love for Mr. Harris that is quite well done, though it won’t give you a real sense of the road Jackson Pollock’s work traversed on the way to becoming “POLLOCK,” the one-name Icon the film takes for granted you know going in is JACKSON Pollock. The film’s poster (an homage to Hans Nemuth’s and Martha Holmes’ classic photos of the real Jackson Pollock at work in those later years) so memorably depicts the Artist hard at work, revolutionarily, on the floor and not at an easel, possibly in the act of creating one of those famous later works, that I often hear referred to as “Pollocks.” If you think that “Pollock” was “Jack The Dripper,” as Life Magazine called him, like most labels applied to Artists, it doesn’t tell the whole story about even those works, let alone what came before, and after.

A Postcard from the film's release. From my collection.

A Postcard from the film’s release shows it’s poster. From my collection.

To see beyond the Icon, at Moma’s “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-54,” up through May 1, one is able to follow the outline, if not the detail, of his development in the space of only 3 galleries1, and see illuminating works before he achieved worldwide fame when Life Magazine famously asked- “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” on August 8, 1949.

He began out west, hanging around with and taking classes with another late 20th Century American Master, Philip Guston2. After Pollock’s brother, Charles, also an aspiring Artist (and later an accomplished Artist in his own right), came to NYC and was studying at the New York Art Student’s League, still on West 57th Street, with no less than Thomas Hart Benton, he told Jackson about it which led to his moving here and joining him with Benton3 at the ripe age of 18.

Untitled (Western Scene), 1930-33. It almost could be by Benton.

Untitled (Western Scene), 1930-33. It almost could be by Benton.

Breaking out. "Untitled," 1938-41. Still don't think he could draw?

Breaking out. “Untitled,” 1938-41. Still don’t think he could draw?

Benton went from being a fairly well known artist during his life to being eclipsed for most of the past 40 years or so (as was realism in Art in the age of Abstraction and Pop, thanks, in part, to his former student). Recently, Benton seems to be enjoying increased attention, helped by the return to view of his New School Murals after their donation to The Met, where they are now beautifully on display.

Yes, It's 18 year old Jackson Pollock posing for his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton's mural, "America Today," now at The Met.

Yes, it’s 18 year old Jackson Pollock posing for his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton’s mural, “America Today,” in 1930, now at The Met.

Benton was a resolutely figurative painter (I have seen one or two “abstractions” he did that may have been studies, and there are definitely elements of his “stretching” forms the way El Greco did that border on the fantastic if not the abstract. Some of these elements can be seen in the early Pollocks on display here). Pollock became, perhaps, the furthest thing from a Realist, Abstraction being the polar opposite of Realism4. Yet, early on, you can see fascinating traces of Benton’s influence in the developing student as he experiments with both mainstream and  “fantastic” elements of Benton’s work. The two share an interest in the West (JP was born in Cody, Wyoming) and Midwest, themes which occupy many of the early work seen here in the first room. Contrary, also, to the “Pollock myth,” Jackson Pollock was not always a New York City Proto-Beat (if he ever was one) dreamer/visionary. Gradually, the “known world” disintegrates and the figure soon follows. By the time of “The She Wolf,” from 1943, the last piece in the first room, “representational” Art is on the run to point that very close looking is required to see her.

IMG_3371PNH

“The She Wolf,” 1943.

What’s apparent to me, even early on, is that Pollock had the most amazing, even with Picasso notwithstanding, unprecedented freedom in his approach, and this skill(?), vision(?) became the center of all his future developments. As he broke free from the influence of Benton, he learned to trust his gut more and more, and this extended to virtually reinventing the technique of painting, sometimes from work to work, as he needed to, culminating in the sublime works from 1947-52, where he dripped paint from the can along with a wide range of other techniques- whatever it took to get his desired end.

“Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid”*

Having made so many trips to the New Whitney Museum, I’ve been face to face with the incalculably large debt Art lovers owe to, at least, two women there- founder (and overlooked Sculptor) Mrs. Gertrude V. Whitney, of course, and to Josephine Hopper, Edward’s spouse and widow, who facilitated her husband’s wish that his archives go to the Whitney (she also included hers of her own work). Here, at Moma, I’m struck, again, by a similar feeling- look closely at the tags and you’ll see that many of the works here are “The Gift of,” or from the “Bequest of” another woman, spouse and widow- Lee Krasner.

Her day better be coming.

Thank you, Lee Krasner. Your day better be coming.

All 3 women were artists in their own right. Jo Hopper and to a large extent, Lee Krasner put their own creative lives on hold for their husband’s. Oddly, a wonderful Krasner is on view UPSTAIRS on 5. It’s from 1949, right in the time period of  many of these works.

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Lee Krasner, “Untitled,” 1949. NOT in this show! It’s on view on the 5th Floor. I’m putting it where it belongs.

So? Why isn’t it in this show? Possibly because of space, but they might have mentioned it being on view. At least it hasn’t suffered the fate of (possibly) all of Josephine Hopper’s work that she gave to the Whitney, with Edward’s estate- It was discarded BY THE WHITNEY as being subpar!5 A search for her on the Whitney’s website turns up none of her Art. That’s an incalculably stupid move! Gone is the chance to gain the insights into their relationship they may hold, let alone any ongoing appreciation of her own accomplishment! That’s gratitude for you. Coincidentally, there is a biography of Krasner by Hopper’s biographer, Gail Levin.

I bring this all up because I feel that Lee Krasner is the hidden star of the show. In addition to all the work that’s here largely because of her, it’s tempting to see the effect of Jackson Pollock’s having met her (in 1942) in his work. Turning the corner into Room 2 of the show you see something surprising, even shocking, yet apparent, at least to me- joy, light, happiness, even, even though Pollock’s work has become fully abstract. It’s Pollock’s “Shimmering Substance” from 1946-

 

IMG_3377PNH

“I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours
She knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds
And she said
“Go to him, stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”*

After they married in 1945 the two moved to Springs, near East Hampton, Long Island, to get away from the City. Having visited Pollock’s house and studio (an indelible experience) while walking the grounds, I was taken by something I’ve never heard mentioned regarding 1947-1952 Pollock, the so-called “drip” years. When you walk down along the water there and look at the sand, you’ll see the seaweed that’s been washed up on the shore form these black lines. Against the yellow/golden sand, they look uncannily like the “black poles” you see in many of these pieces. And when you walk through the tall grasses in the area, all sorts of seeds, bugs, dust, and who knows what gets disturbed and becomes airborne. To this day, I can’t look at these classic Pollocks and not see something very similar- all those dots and spots in the works so remind me of that experience and what it really looked like.

IMG_3339Pm

Being in that studio, about 50 year later, was an experience I can only characterize as spiritual. Oh! And there’s a Lee Krasner sighting! (At the show’s entrance)

What does that remind you of? It's Pollock's Studio Floor, as it appeared when I was there in 1999. They provided these bootoes, but there was no way I was going to walk on it- it's sacred.

What does this remind you of? It’s Pollock’s Studio Floor, as it appeared when I was there in 1999. They provided these plastic booties, but there was no way I was going to walk on it- it’s a work of Art unto itself. Even in this picture (from a postcard I bought there), I think you can feel the aura of the place.

The King In HIs Domain. From a Moma Postcard I got at the big Pollock Show at Moma in 1998.

Jackson Pollock, looking Iconic, in his Studio by Arnold Newman, 1949. From a Postcard I got at the big Pollock Retrospective at Moma in 1998, the excellent website for  which is still up..

“I remember that time you told me you said
“Love is touching souls”
Surely you touched mine
‘Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
I would still be on my feet”*

So, for me at least, these Jackson Pollock classics have more of a sense of “realism” than they may for some.

IMG_3462P2NH

“One: Number 31, 1950”

“Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”*

Unfortunately, the happiness and tranquility of their new life together wasn’t destined to last. Whatever the demons were (and they will probably be argued about for as long as Van Gogh’s have been), they manifested in his life, and in his work. Selden Rodman is quoted in the Pollock Anthology, “Such Desperate Joy,” talking about this period and the Artist’s struggles- “He had been trying to freshen up or diversify his style by reintroducing figures, or at least figurative patterns, in the maze of paint.6.” Though represented here with only a few pieces, it seems to me that Pollock “lost his fastball” after 1952. While the most common reaction to his classic period was famously “My 5 year old can do that,” (Really? Try it. It’s not THAT easy), after 1952, even Jackson Pollock seemed not to be able to do them any more. Or? He wanted to move on…but to what?

"Easter And The Totem," 1953

“Easter And The Totem,” 1953. Yes, this is also by Jackson Pollock.

Yes, his life ended tragically and far too early. I’m not interested in a tell-all about his demons, or scandals or the nights drinking at the Cedar Tavern, where I’ve spent a few myself. I’m interested in that incredible freedom you can see in almost all of his work. How was he able to make a composition hold together while continually creating new styles and using new techniques? Where did that come from?

“Oh but you are in my blood
You’re my holy wine
You’re so bitter, bitter and so sweet

Oh, I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet”*

In the end, Jackson Pollock strikes me as one of the “most” American of painters in the 20th Century, if not ever. I’m not speaking of patriotism or anything nationalistic. I’m speaking about organically American. His work was born in the freedom of the wide open spaces of the west and midwest, but most importantly speaks to the freedom each of us has…

DSC04095PPNH

if we choose not to repress it, but to acknowledge it, nurture it, develop it and use it.

Interesting timing for such a show.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Case of You,” by Joni Mitchell, (who is also an Artist- FOR 69 YEARS, according to her website!), from her timeless album, “Blue,” 1971. Published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

  1. Moma owns many more Pollocks not on view here.
  2. Their adventures are chronicled in Guston’s daughter’s, the Breast Cancer Activist, Musa Meyer’s book, “Night Studio.”
  3. For more on Charles & Jackson’s relationship and to see some of Charles’ work, check out “American Letters: 1927-47” a collections of letters among the Pollock family. It’s a revealing document of trying to survive as an Artist in the Depression and on.
  4. Which reminds me that I heard Richard Estes say at MAD that “in abstract art there are no mistakes”
  5. “They arranged for some of her paintings to be given away; they simply discarded the rest.” “Edward Hopper; An Intimate Biography” by Gail Levin p. xvi
  6. p. 49