Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paintings I Like, pt. 74

Willem de Kooning, Untitled V, 1982. Oil on canvas, 80" x 70."

I'm a little late to the party, I know, but I wanted to get in a few posts about the fabulous de Kooning retrospective at MoMA before it comes down on January 9th. Even if you're a hardcore painting-is-dead partisan, I think it would be pretty difficult to walk out of this show without feeling a at least a twinge of doubt about those convictions - the exhibition was dazzling and protean, and more than made up for the paucity of de Kooning canvases in the otherwise magnificent Ab Ex NY show at MoMA a year ago.

For a while now, I've felt that the crisis in painting (or the series of crises) since the late sixties has been something of a fiction. The real crisis as I see it was centered not in painting itself, but in the literature on painting. Fewer and fewer people had anything particularly penetrating to offer on the subject in print, and this was interpreted as a failing in the medium itself as opposed to the literature. The focus of art writing then shifted away from the visual and towards subject matter, often political or critique-driven - topics which exist much more naturally in essay form. As I've said many times, it's hard to come up with 1,000 compelling words about blue. But really, does this mean blue is dead?

I know it may seem that I'm digressing a bit from de Kooning, but give me a minute. The real problems painting faced after Ab Ex and Color Field were the same problems that painting has faced for about 700 years, the same problems face by the Ab Ex painters. Periodically, you have to change the way you do it - you can't go on painting the way that the previous generation painted. Paradoxically, the way that many painters have found a way forward was to look back; Manet found his patron saint in Velazquez and didn't try and hide it, yet he was able to build a truly modern style based on this precedent. The Ab Ex painters had a similar relationship to Picasso even as they sought to supersede him.

Clement Greenberg was dismissive of de Kooning because the latter refused to embrace pure abstraction; CG interpreted this as the same kind of conservatism displayed by Picasso when he turned away from Cubism and returned to the figure. At the time, this argument mattered, because abstract painting was fighting for an identity distinct from 19th century beaux-arts representational painting. But fast forward sixty or so years to now, and the idea of pure abstraction doesn't matter much, and now one can get a good look at de Koonings without the issues of his day muddying the the water. de Kooning, from an interview in 1951:

"I'm not interested in 'abstracting' or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space."

De Kooning understood the ideas that were in the air at the time. He chose the ones that were useful to him and rejected the ones he had no use for. He mixed these together with his influences from the the recent and distant past, and most importantly added the force of an intensely personal vision of how one should paint. I think that the contemporary painter, trying to figure out how to proceed in the impossibly complex art scene of the early twenty-first century, could learn a lot from this approach.

Plus, I like an abstract artist who isn't afraid to paint a horse. Look for a few more de Kooning posts before the show comes down.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Paintings I Like, pt. 73

Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace at Vernonnet, 1939. Oil on canvas, 58" x 77"

Bonnard never tried his hand at abstraction, but helped himself to the motifs one might find in European abstract painting after Cubism and Mondrian. Look at the grid structure of this picture, built with blocks of complementary yellow and violet. I've seen this picture at the Met a hundred times and never tire of it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paintings I Like, pt. 72

Top: James Rosenquist, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (Painting 2), 1997. Oil on canvas, 138" x 48.' Bottom: Robert Ryman, Surface Veil II, 1970. Oil and blue chalk on canvas, 12' x 12."

This is a real odd couple, I know. But as I've said all along, the Paintings I Like series has no aspirations toward cohesion or grand narrative - the only hard rule is that I have to have seen the pictures live (not just in reproduction).

I recently found myself in the upper 80's by Central Park with a few hours to kill and did something I haven't done for years - went in to the Guggenheim. As I was circling the unbelievably stupid Maurizio Cattelan retrospective I quickly remembered why I'd sworn the place off. Awful building, motorcycles, Armani, Norman Rockwell, and now, soap-on-a-rope.

I was trying to think of a convincing reason to ask for my $18 back, but then I wandered in to some of the side galleries. Oh yes, I recalled, there was a time when you could go see art at this place, and they still had some pretty wonderful examples off to the sides.

A small exhibition called "Pop Icons" prominently featured the gigantic 48' Rosenquist pictured above, painted well after the Pop era. The conversation about Pop tends to be ruled by Warhol and Lichtenstein, but in my estimation Rosenquist is looking bigger and taller with each passing year. Like W. and L., he dealt with issues of beauty in banality and the banality of commercialism and commercial notions of beauty and any other combinations you might want to come up with. He added the big scale of advertising, not surprisingly, because he cut his teeth painting big scale ads in Time Square.

But for all his bright colors and big size, he brought a slyness and subtlty that I just don't find in Brillo boxes and comic book panels. In the Rosenquist, there's all kinds of painting stuff to enjoy as I slowly ingest whatever messages there are to be ingested about the nature of commercial imagery. And this sugar-coating is hardly besides the point, indeed, that's the way that real popular imagery works - the punchline with the latter being that you're supposed to buy something you don't need. Contrast this to the full-frontal didacticism of many Warhols and virtually all Lichtensteins.

Another special exhibition which was dedicated to monochromes included the Ryman pictured above (along with another from the same series). I have to say that Robert Ryman is an artist I find endlessly dull and never imagined including in P.IL. - I mean, I haven't gotten to Rembrandt or Vermeer yet. But I call 'em as I see 'em, and this picture kind of knocked me out. It was among the first Rymans I've encountered that was actually a painting as opposed to some kind of comment/critique/meditation on the subject.

It has a soft, atmospheric space, like a painterly version of Malevich' White on White and an exquisitely subtle framing element that gives it just enough structure and wholeness - it feels expansive and expanding, but at the same time complete within its boundaries. I consider Rothko to be the master of that last bit, but this Ryman can easily compete. I may be hard-headed and opinionated, but I really love it when a painting can change my opinion about a particular artist.

I also had a chance to catch up with some Cezanne and Manet pictures from the Guggenheim's permanent collection that I haven't seen since I stopped going. All in all, well worth $18 even if I had to corkscrew around hanging gardens of foolishness in order to see it.