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Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

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So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

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Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

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Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

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Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

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To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara

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Irving Sandler, 1925–2018

Irving Sandler, the pioneering, on-the-scene art critic whose lively early histories of abstract expressionism were written from within the artists’ New York studios, and who later expanded his interests to the anti-modern tendencies of the next generation, died on June 2 in Manhattan from complications related to lung cancer. He was 92.

In the more than 75 books, catalogs, interviews, and contributions to publications he wrote since 1956, when he got his start as a reviewer for ArtNews magazine, Sandler wrote from the perspective of an insider whose close ties to artists such as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Joan Mitchell, among many others, enriched his criticism with a sense of personal investment.

“At the time,” he wrote in 1996, “the American art-conscious public was still hostile to abstract expressionism. In response I wrote as an embattled partisan, from within the movement, as it were.” Yet unlike the polemicists of the day — Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg chief among them — Sandler took a bird’s-eye view of the scene as a whole, setting aside stern judgments in favor of firsthand description. “Back in the Fifties, I thought that my mission (and I was not alone in this) was to educate the public about avant-garde art,” he told the Brooklyn Rail in 2006. “That was what we really tried to do. I think we succeeded.”

Sandler was born on July 22, 1925, in New York City to Jewish refugees from Ukraine who fled the Russian Revolution. His childhood was spent in Philadelphia. At 17, he joined the U.S. Marines and served three years during the Second World War. By the mid-1950s, an interest in abstract art led to a job as manager of the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street, an artist-run cooperative through which he forged many early connections. In 1958, he married his second wife, Lucy Freeman, a historian of medieval art to whom he dedicated many books and essays.

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Sandler’s first major publication, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism (1970), chronicled the rise of New York as the center of modern art in the postwar period through the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others. The book eventually became the first of a four-volume epic of twentieth-century art history, which included The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties (1978), American Art of the 1960s (1988), and  Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (1996).

Each book was written with an eye toward the unity and diversity of American art — and, increasingly, with an awareness that critics must doubt their crafts. “Art history is not transparent,” Sandler wrote in the preface to Art of the Postmodern Era. “It is written by individuals, who bring to it their own personal baggage of appetites, psychological makeups, ethnic identities, social positions, political and religious persuasions, and so on. Claims to objectivity notwithstanding, the historian’s idiosyncrasies shape art history.”

What made Sandler so remarkable was the flexibility of his taste. As pop art and minimalism began to eclipse abstract expressionism in the 1960s, Sandler opened his mind to these radically combative movements, which replaced the passions of painterly abstraction with cool, detached aesthetics. “I must admit that at first I was antagonistic,” Sandler later said. “In time, my attitude changed.”

 

Maureen McFadden, Irving Sandler, and Helene Winer (from left) at Artists Space, September 23, 1977:

What allowed him to absorb these later styles was his deep sense of responsibility to artists. In 1972, he was among the co-founders of Artists Space, a nonprofit gallery devoted to supporting young artists working in a variety of ways. Graffiti was the subject of a show in 1975; two years later, the critic Douglas Crimp organized the radical “Pictures” show, from which the Pictures Generation emerged, and which set a tone radically different from that of de Kooning or Pollock. At the opening, Sandler was photographed smiling with Helene Winer, who later opened the Metro Pictures gallery in 1980.

Yet Sandler, who was so open to changes of direction, later voiced some concerns about the direction of art criticism, which increasingly turned away from art and artists and toward theory and speculation. “I find it objectionable,” Sandler said in 2006 of critics who celebrated their own minds instead of attending to the work at hand. “They are guilty of the deadly sin of envy. It’s artists who create, not art critics or theorists.”

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But through it all, a spirit of generosity remained. Last July, Sandler and Lucy invited me over for a glass of scotch — their beverage of choice — and entertained me with stories about old New York. The decor of their home — which was handsomely packed with paintings and gifts of art from friends — spoke to how widely they are admired. On one wall, there was a portrait by Philip Pearlstein of a young Sandler; another had a text painting by Glenn Ligon that borrowed phrasing from The Triumph of American Painting. It was a gift from the artist.

Nearby, there was a large abstract painting by Joan Mitchell from the late 1950s. Sandler had seen it in progress and admired the work, but Mitchell was displeased with it. One day, she called to say she was about to destroy it. He tried to persuade her otherwise. “She told me, ‘Look, if you can get here in a half-hour, it’s yours,’” he explained to me. So he rushed down to her studio and saved the picture — and that’s just one of the many ways Irving Sandler helped preserve history.

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An Element of Chance: A Celebration of John Perreault

Village Voice art critic R.C. Baker recently spoke at the opening of a survey exhibition of the work of John Perreault (1937–2015), “It’s Only Art,” on view at Marquee Projects. Perreault was an artist, critic, poet, and teacher, as well as the chief art critic at the Voice from 1966 to 1974.

On John Perreault, at the exhibition “It’s Only Art,” Marquee Projects, June 23, 2017:

I’m going to keep this short and hopefully on point, because that’s how John wrote some of his greatest reviews. Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that: In 1970, Philip Guston exhibited his magisterial cartoon figures for the first time, paintings influenced by Renaissance masters from 500 years earlier. Within a decade it would become apparent that Guston’s own masterpieces would join that pantheon and similarly influence serious painters for all time. Back in 1970, though, most critics — and too many artists — gave Guston terrible reviews. These first cartoon paintings were almost universally reviled. But one critic, writing in the Village Voice, saw something that almost no one else appreciated in those works. I’ll quote a few excerpts from John Perreault’s two-paragraph review:

“Guston’s new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving….It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart….It’s all in the service of a tragicomedy of errors or terrors. It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.”

If that is all I said about John tonight — that in those brief sentences he got right what almost no one else did, except Willem de Kooning; John and de Kooning got it right — if that was all I said, it would cement John’s legacy as an extraordinarily insightful critic. But how could John have had such insight when nearly everyone else missed the beginnings of one the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century?

One clue might come from the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith, who wrote in a groundbreaking essay in the late 1960s, “In [America] the blind go to the movies.” What he was charging was that film critics didn’t understand the medium because “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”

The gallery at Marquee Projects

And so, as we look around these galleries, we begin to understand why John Perreault got Guston right, or why he saw in a young student named Ana Mendieta such astounding promise — we see why right here on these walls and on these floors. Because John was not uneasy with visual phenomenon. In fact, he reveled in it. Because John created his own visual phenomena — he was an artist.

For instance, what do we see in the painting Don’t? At first glance, those two elongated red globules might be twins, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that they are doing very different things. One stretches exactly from the top to the bottom of the canvas; the other comes up a bit short. This is visual poetry. This is the full stop of a period on one side, the pause of a comma — or perhaps the clean break of an em-dash — on the other. This is the rhythm of stanzas, the charming echo of assonance.

Perreault’s “Don’t” (2014)

And then we have those two red wheelbarrows. I’m not sure the children should be allowed to see them in their rough embrace. These are found volumes — we know that wheelbarrows are designed to trundle around heaps of dirt or compost or what have you. John has destroyed this utility while creating a comical narrative that in its brawniness — to my eye, at least — brings the sheer physicality of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers into a garden on the South Shore of Long Island.

Or how about those yellow, right-angle drips in the painting around the corner there, which is called Three. This might be a modern dance, the troupe moving first in one direction, then all pivoting gracefully to another. Abstract, yes, but also a physical record of force and weight and velocity. And how much would John appreciate the way in which this painting is displayed in this gallery at this moment? How serendipitous is it that in a painting that is all about right angles and gravity, that in this charming — but old — building, it was necessary to put a small wedge under one corner to keep this piece level, something absolutely crucial to its concept.

But as John often said, “It’s only art.”

That statement is a wonderful, worldly wise view of this thing called art, one that John shared with Gulley Jimson, the main character in Joyce Cary’s great 1941 novel, The Horse’s Mouth, and perhaps fiction’s greatest evocation of the earthy, humorous, and at times fatalistic view of life I believe all truly great artists possess. I think John and Gulley Jimson would have shared a laugh at the way one of Gulley’s cardinal rules has been broken here: In the novel, Gulley says, “When I had my canvas up, it was two foot off the floor, which just suited me. I like to keep my pictures above dog level.”

“Three” (2013)

Which brings me to what John once wrote of Andy Warhol’s — well, let’s use the polite name, Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” John said, “Shower queens will rejoice and others will be simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What could be better?”

And so, with this inherently human contradiction, we arrive at a discussion of alternative mediums. I mean, are you kidding me — toothpaste? Oil-soaked beach sand? Coffee?

When I first saw John’s coffee drawings I thought of an amazing show at the Drawing Center in the late 1990s, by another writer who was also an artist — Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s drawings, like his novels, are Romantic, gothic, overblown, and thrilling — castles in mist, a murder of crows surrounding a hanged man, a menacing octopus, and ultimately completely abstract vistas. One of Hugo’s friends said of his methods: “Any means would do for him — the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper. The dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” There is a wonderful sense of play implied in this mucking about in the dregs of the world.

And that is what you feel here, in John’s work—the world. Not just the art world, but this vast combination of things, of ideas, of culture past and present — of coffee grounds and toothpaste and polluted sand — everything was grist for John’s work. Or, as Hugo once said, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance.”

In a painting such as City, we are startled by the way chance and insightful skill and decision-making combine into a powerful, glowing composition. This is drips as architecture, a matrix of light and dark, civilization as abstraction. And to me, it is so beautiful how John, having made a life and a career for himself in the labyrinth of New York City — something that is not easy to do, as so many of us here tonight understand — John (along with his husband Jeff Weinstein, of course) then made a home out here on Long Island. And I think these two worlds are combined in this painting, both literally — grids blotted and ground down by sand — and also formally, in a way that borders on the spiritual. Because, as much as we are all denizens of civilization — of this vast network that makes art and culture possible — we are, before that, children of the edge, of that place where land and sea meet. This painting captures something so very much larger than what it represents.

So, ultimately, this is serious business, this thing called art and culture. But it means nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and John, through his writing, his poetry, and, yes, look all around here, through his art, through all the stuff that made up this singular, wonderfully expansive life, John left the world — and I’m not talking about the art world, understand, but the real world — John left it better than he found it.

 

“It’s Only Art”
Marquee Projects
14 Bellport Lane
Bellport, New York
631-803-2511
marqueeprojects.org
Through July 16

 

 

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Nicola Samori’s Rereadings of Old Master Oils are a Revelation

Gazing at Italian painter Nicola Samori’s new work might bring to mind Auden’s famous opening from “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong, the Old Masters.”

Think of Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Last Judgment fresco — a rubbery visage staring blankly out from drooping, flayed flesh, representative of the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. Painters from time immemorial have felt a kinship with the human body, particularly when working in oil, which dries like skin and seals the viscera of their compositions underneath. (You can see an exaggerated version of this effect when a flexible scab develops over the liquid contents of an old can of house paint.)

Samori bases much of his work on Renaissance imagery and brings classical aplomb to his figures. But having been born in 1977, he is separated from that world by the revolutions and revelations of modernism. The camera took away the necessity for painting to represent human beings and their events, and soon thereafter abstract art liberated raw color and form from any narrative demands. Yet no less a paragon of abstraction than Willem de Kooning declared, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” because painters know that their medium, lithe and organic, can never be completely divorced from the meat of existence.

So study the face in Samori’s D’Oria (2014), an oil painting on wood based on a 16th-century portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo of the celebrated Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. In his updated version, Samori allowed the top layer of paint to congeal over the viscous layers beneath and then gently tugged, perhaps with a flat hand, upon that painted face, creating in the surface actual ripples that eerily echo wrinkles in the depiction of Doria’s neck.

For the original portrait of Doria, Sebastiano appropriated Michelangelo’s showstopping gesture of God’s finger extended toward Adam and took it a step further by rotating the hand outward, as if the esteemed admiral had some essential spark to impart to the viewer. A half-millennium later, Samori has zeroed in on that divinely inspired digit and destroyed the illusion of his own painted representation by having Doria’s finger drag a blue furrow through the picture plane, with labia of red pigment erupting on either side. Samori has said, “Before a new painting comes into being, an old one has to die”; here he plays the role of creator by transmuting a dark, staid portrait into a haunting, conceptual hybrid.

A pair of smaller works hanging side by side traverses the life of Jesus in veils of pigment. In Orrery, Christ’s deposed body is engulfed in a halo of what might be clear plastic, a modern evocation of a being who entered humanity’s consciousness when he (briefly) lost his own. Even more impassioned is The Golden Child, in which the Madonna is riven with gray blotches and white scratches, and the future Lord incarnated as gouts of gray and yellow paint. “It is amazing,” Samori has explained, “how strong the feeling is that an intact form triggers the instant it is shattered. It happens with our body, it happens with objects, and it also happens with the history of art.”

Francis Bacon, who worked during a time when abstract painting was even more dominant than it is today, once said that his paintings were “an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.”

Similarly, Samori brings to paint what martyrdom supposedly affords the faithful: On the far shore of injury, suffering, and death comes something thrillingly beautiful.

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The Best NYC Art Shows of 2011

OK, folks—here you go. The top NYC art shows that happened
in 2011, selected by three of our
ever-discerning art writers.

R.C. BAKER

“De Kooning: A Retrospective” (Museum of Modern Art). The way we talk about Masaccio or Velázquez or Cézanne today is the way they will talk about Willem de Kooning in the year 2525. This comprehensive retrospective is up until January 8—go see what all the noise will be about.

“Sigmar Polke: Photoworks
1964–2000”
(Leo Koenig, Inc.). Slopped with chemicals and smudged with massive fingerprints, these black-and-white prints fused conceptual wit—abstraction supplied by shots of the artist’s own abstract drawings—with a loopy netherworld of overexposed figures in enigmatic settings. Polke (1941–2010) consistently nailed the alchemical sweet spot of materials, application, and content that makes painting such a potent medium. Damned if he couldn’t do it in the darkroom, too.

Jack Smith: “Thanks for Explaining Me” (Gladstone Gallery). Smith (1932–1989) celebrated the body’s desires with lush tableaux that gave equal visual weight to cascading beads, pendulous breasts, billowing drapes, and dangling scrotums—everything was gorgeous. While the dazzling new prints struck for the show felt a tad precious—Smith’s almost morbid disregard for archival niceties was evinced here through a wall of marvelous performance fliers slathered with Wite-Out—the rich colors, dizzying textures, and lotus-eating abandon of his films and photographs expose why aesthetes in the know always crave their next Jack Smith fix.

“Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images From Socialist Yugoslavia 1966–1976” (Stephan Stoyanov Gallery). These short films made for the most heartening exhibition of the year, transporting viewers to a mirror-world of the ’60s.
Accompanied by a familiar capitalist soundtrack—the Stones, Pink Floyd—images such as disembodied business suits swaying above roiling fields of flowers or sexy youths frolicking on jagged rocks conveyed a reckless determination to transcend moribund communist aesthetics. Although their audiences were severely limited by government censorship, these artists aimed their films at the ages, and their time has
finally come.

B. Wurtz: “Works 1970–2011” (Metro Pictures). The aesthetics of detritus revealed themselves in Wurtz’s sculptures, inducing a romantic buzz from essentially nothing—plastic bags, shoelaces, yogurt caps. Whether a pyramid of wood scraps or an abstract mural cobbled together from colored binders, Wurtz distills beauty from the everyday.

ROBERT SHUSTER

“Crafting Genre: Kathryn Bigelow”
(Museum of Modern Art). This intriguing survey of filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow’s career—which includes The Hurt Locker and Near Dark—traced her fascination with dramatizing brutality. Storyboards, set-design sketches, personal works on paper, and an early student film all demonstrated careful considerations of structure, composition, and texture—efforts that have made Bigelow’s scenes of terror (sniper fire, the deaths of vampires) so artful and so unbearably tense.

Helen Frankenthaler: “East and
Beyond”
(Knoedler & Company). Showcasing Frankenthaler’s abiding interest in an Eastern sensibility, the exquisite abstractions here invited prolonged meditation. The paintings, with those gorgeous blends of thinned-out colors, often suggested lush Chinese landscapes, while the complex woodcuts were dream-state visions, their rich imagery blurred behind the prominent scrim-like grain. Sadly, the exhibit marked the last year of this venerable institution, which decided—surprising everyone—to call it quits.

Jean-Pierre Gauthier: “Recent Work” (Jack Shainman Gallery). An experimenter in the mechanical production of sound, Gauthier assembled a delightful menagerie of ragtag robots that, struggling to move their parts, did nothing but wheeze, whistle, roar, and squeak. But like newborns eager to engage the world, these odd, useless creatures—exposed tangles of wire, motors, and tubes—reminded us of something fundamental: the joy of simply being alive.

“German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” (Museum of Modern Art). The woodcuts and lithographs were almost a century old, but their bold, jagged forms and their focus on plights of the soul (sex, death, hunger, terror) felt entirely modern and relevant. In particular, Otto Dix’s Der Krieg (1924)—a series of beautifully textured etchings depicting stark, battlefield agonies—still stands among the most powerful indictments of war ever produced.

“Under Destruction I, II, and III” (Swiss Institute). A Dada-esque carnival of ruin and waste, the contraptions and videotaped performances in this three-part group show pointedly mocked the excesses of ubiquitous violence and mass-production. The marvelous absurdity included a machine that dropped jelly-smeared slices of bread on the floor, a martyred refrigerator suffering a public stoning, and a wrecking ball that smashed the gallery wall at your command.

CHRISTIAN VIVEROS-FAUNÉ

“After the Goldrush: Contemporary
Photographs From the Collection”

(Metropolitan Museum of Art). An uptown hit that got the jump on downtown politics, this group show became the first museum outing to take on, in the curator’s words, “the recent tumult at home and abroad.” Deftly and ecumenically organized, the exhibition’s 25 images—by 15 artists, among them oil and water shutterbugs Hans Haacke and Philip-Lorca diCorcia—punched way above their weight.

Francis Alÿs: “A Story of Deception” (Metropolitan Museum of Art). An overdue display of the museum’s holdings of the vaunted global conceptualist, this show celebrated the artist’s unique mash-up of politics and poetics. Consisting largely of visual parables that marry art and social issues, the exhibition featured a videotaped allegory in which 500 volunteers spaded a sand dune forward two inches. Who said faith can’t move mountains?

William Powhida: “Derivatives*”
(Postmasters Gallery). Love him or hate him (either way, he’s on everyone’s mind),
Powhida has cornered the market on sidesplitting snark—especially the hand-biting kind. His recent show featured drawn letters, lists, and maps tracing financial and artistic influence (yours truly is mentioned, obviously erroneously). But if you believe his work just deals in tales from the art crypt, think again. It’s about the deep-throating of money—everywhere, by everyone, all the time, with venal gusto.

James Siena (Pace Gallery). Featuring work created over the past three years with the use of “visual algorithms”—self-imposed rules that turn obsessive doodling into bright enamel paintings—Siena’s abstractions usually evoke ADD prodigies and scientists with Einstein hair. Antic groupings of zigzags, loops, interlocking sequences, and the odd nasty bit, his latest efforts also recalled diagrams of chaos crossed with the Book of Kells.

Lisa Yuskavage (David Zwirner). A display of “testicular virility” (to quote Rod Blagojevich) rarely seen among living paint-pushers, this show embarrassed both comparisons to younger imitators and, also, the usual pukewarm pieties. Cinematic in scope, disturbingly psychological in character, and radioactively gorgeous in facture, Yuskavage’s realist perversions grew in both scale and maturity. Her latest Sexy Sadies own their confidence and vulnerability like they do their double D cups.

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De Kooning Is De King at MOMA

Even after the carnage of World War II, Europe still looked down on their boisterous American savior as culturally backward. But Abstract Expressionism demolished that notion, and even in today’s fragmented art world, New York remains a painter’s town. With a major retrospective of Willem de Kooning (1904–97) colonizing the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth floor, Voice critics Martha Schwendener and R.C. Baker discuss why this Dutch immigrant—who once said, “Art never seems to make me peaceful or pure”—still matters.

Schwendener: Most obviously, de Kooning is the original painter’s painter in America. Even at the beginning of the New York School, they all knew: This was the guy. De Kooning said Pollock “broke the ice”—which meant either that he showed where painting could go from there or that he was the first American painter of international renown—but everyone in New York knew that de Kooning had already been in his studio for 15 years—

Baker: Slugging it out.

Schwendener: Yeah. De Kooning biographer Mark Stevens said something along the lines that de Kooning was the most famous painter who threw everything away in the ’40s.

Baker: Exactly—to find something new in painting by expanding Europe’s classical, figurative space into abstraction and creating something meatier than the Cubists did. And you can say Pollock was great, but his work is sort of a painterly dead end—his dancing around the canvas ultimately became performance art. Same with Rothko leading to color-field painting, another dead end, or Johns to a dry conceptualism. But de Kooning is an open door that painters as disparate as Amy Sillman, Mary Heilmann, Terry Winters, and Joyce Pensato have all walked through looking for new painting.

Schwendener: And if you look at the history of painting as a narrative, it’s de Kooning who bridges America and Europe. In the MOMA catalog, they show the progression from a Poussin bacchanal through a version by Picasso that’s looser to de Kooning’s Attic [1949].

Baker: De Kooning shatters Poussin’s crowd of figures into a large-scale, corporeal abstraction.

Schwendener: But although it’s true that Americans were looking for the big car and long canvas, de Kooning never felt the need to blow things up to mural size like Barnett Newman or Pollock.

Baker: Because of his supreme confidence. It’s like you said—he’s in his studio in the early ’40s consciously working toward a breakthrough way down the road. I picture a football team grinding it out on the ground until they make that spectacular pass into the end zone.

Schwendener: De Kooning has his first show when he’s 43 in 1948, and there’s a maturity and sophistication there. In a sense, he has been test-driving painting. He has really put it through its paces.

Baker: Those are the black-and-white paintings, and they are technical tours de force. He creates contours simply by varying viscosities of paint—mixing enamel and oil paint—and it’s like he’s pouring light. I’ve never seen so much patience and contemplation applied to something that comes across as so fast and furious.

Schwendener: It’s athleticism. You train and train, and then you can do the perfect golf stroke, say.

Baker: Sure—muscle memory. You don’t think, because if you think while you’re doing the stroke, it’s too late. So he would sit in a chair and study the canvas, and then after he saw the move he wanted to make, it would involve his whole body, from his toes up through his torso and shoulder down to the fingers holding the brush—and when he makes those sweeping gestures, the viewer feels it. But he wasn’t thinking in an “action painter” sort of way, more: How do I walk this tightrope between representation and abstraction? Rothko was off in his luminous contemplation of the Void, Newman was running for mayor of New York, Pollock was creating an alternate nature, but de Kooning was still based in our real, visceral world. Maybe that’s why he caused such uproar with his “Woman” paintings—that famous “melodrama of vulgarity.”

Schwendener: I grew up as an undergraduate, reading Carol Duncan’s MOMA’s Hot Mamas, but as I get older, de Kooning seems a response to the way women were being commodified by the culture, like movie promotions and advertisements—you’re being attacked everywhere, in every public space, by beautiful women. You have this European transplanted to New York, awash in all this imagery, and you get Carole Lombard [a small 1947 painting of a curvaceous gray blob rising against a black background]. It might be the first moment where painters actually have to compete with this onslaught of really seductive imagery. And the human figure was a problem in general: Are you going to be a figurative painter, or are you going to get on board with Clement Greenberg’s abstraction? MOMA curator John Elderfield seems to say that he’s painting the women figuratively, but I think the women are a perverse solution to combining figure and abstraction—he’s using an old art-historical trope, the female nude (although I wouldn’t say his “Women” are categorically nudes), and trying to tease out a way to do both.

Baker: It gave him the visual grit to push his abstractions. It’s why I can never find the offense in those paintings—they’re formal devices.

Schwendener: But women might not want to be formal devices. Today, with John Currin or Richard Prince, because they’re trying specifically to be politically incorrect and take that as an artistic stance, that’s more problematic.

Baker: That’s frat-boy thinking, and although Currin can certainly paint, Prince’s beaver-shot knockoffs of de Kooning are just overblown titillations.

Schwendener: By opening with two figure paintings—one of them is Seated Figure (Classic Male) [1941/43]—MOMA is making the argument that this is very much a figurative painter. Wouldn’t it be better to open with one of those alongside something more Attic-like? Plus, this show is definitely overhung. If there’s an argument for painting, it’s that we want to slow down and look at it, but the walls are crowded.

Baker: I would definitely have liked to see one of those early enamel-on-white-paper paintings—which are all about figure and ground relationships—paired with one of the very late paintings, where he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. The last works have the contours and gradations that we’re used to, but he carves those initial broad brushstrokes down with flat white paint. It’s as if he’s taking the blank canvas that every painter has to face and pulling it up from the depths, making it the subject—it’s becoming everything, as if he’s consciously taking a step into the light. It’s where the gut is every bit as intelligent as the brain.

Schwendener: Exactly. And that’s what painting is about.

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Fall Arts: Art Picks

‘De Kooning: A Retrospective’
September 18, 2011–January 9, 2012

The wise elder of the Abstract Expressionists, Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) used classical European training to warp figure and ground as profoundly as Einstein did space and time. The Dutchman’s seminal 1948 black-and-white paintings and 1950s “Woman” series set standards that MFAs still reckon with, but here you’ll also encounter Atlantic light in the work he did after moving to Long Island. Lastly, marvel at the muscle memory and sheer physical strength that propelled his poignantly spare 1980s canvases beyond an Alzheimer’s-veiled brain.

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street, moma.org

‘Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures’
September 21, 2011–January 29, 2012

On loan from collections around the world and spanning eight centuries, this gathering of masterpieces ranges from strikingly naturalistic to evocatively abstract renderings of pre-colonial African leaders. Wrought from clay, wood, and other materials, the sculptures capture the likenesses of rulers otherwise known only from ancient oral traditions. An exquisite ivory-and-copper pendant depicts the mother of a 16th-century king of Benin; her penetrating gaze set in a countenance of ghostly white elephant ivory conveys why she was a trusted advisor to her powerful son.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org

Trudy Benson
October 13–November 12

With titles such as Radiation Spill, Red Dwarf, and New Ninth Planet, it’s no surprise that Benson’s abstractions are large (six to seven feet on a side) and imbued with a striking luminescence that’s equal parts laboratory fluorescents and petrochemical haze. Boldly brushed and colorful, they might at first read as decorative, but this isn’t lobby art—unless it’s destined for one of those orbiting multinationals in William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Mike Weiss
520 West 24th Street, mikeweissgallery.com

Jim Lambie
October 27–December 17

Whether covering gallery floors with Technicolor tape or a using a blocky bird sculpture to weigh down spray-paint cans—causing each to send out a plume of undiluted color—Lambie can be counted on to find the rainbow, even if it’s underfoot. But don’t let the candy coatings fool you: Beyond pretty, his work possesses cloaked edges. You might discover that rainbows can cast deep shadows.

Anton Kern
532 West 20th Street, antonkerngallery.com

Andrea Bowers
October 29–December 17

Through photorealist drawings of people committing acts of civil disobedience, video documentation of a young man who bid on gas leases he had no intention of paying for to keep them away from oil companies, or a hand-drawn copy of a poignant statement written by a woman facing deportation, Bowers brings the tilt-a-whirl of the news cycle to a sudden halt.

Andrew Kreps
525 West 22nd Street, andrewkreps.com

Maurizio Cattelan
November 4, 2011–January 22, 2012

Cattelan (born 1960, in Padua, Italy) is probably most famous for his realistic sculpture of Pope John Paul II squashed under a meteorite or perhaps his taxidermied horse, its head plunged into a high wall, legs and tail limply dangling. The Guggenheim’s airy rotunda, with its off-kilter bays and slightly disorienting spiral, might finally meet its match when it’s filled with more than 130 works delineating this sardonic jokester’s entire career.

Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue, guggenheim.org

John Chiara
November 17, 2011–January 7, 2012

Chiara’s large photographs are achieved through a laborious process involving a huge, trailer-mounted camera and gallons of old-school photo chemicals, which leave abstract splatters across his bewitchingly bleak California landscapes. Recently, he has photographed hulking public sculptures on negative transparencies, shifting the denatured colors of his earlier work into a gaudy realm of truly ungainly beauty. Literally and metaphorically, Chiara’s photos are one of a kind.

Von Lintel
520 West 23rd Street, vonlintel.com

Jim Richard
November 17–December 23

Garish, but slyly gorgeous, Richard’s collages begin with vaguely modernist interiors—dig that sunken living room carpeted in ultramarine shag!—that form grounds for abstract runnels of paint. Objets d’art fill these upscale dwellings, reversing the lowbrow theme embodied by the ads cluttering Richard Hamilton’s seminal 1950s pop imagery while channeling the same sense of anxiety about what, exactly, constitutes art, once all the rules are in flux.

Jeff Bailey
625 West 27th Street, baileygallery.com

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Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

“I actually had a kind of house rule,” Robert Rauschenberg said of the period in the 1950s when he was living in a ratty building in downtown New York and working on his found-object “Combine” paintings. “If I walked completely around the block and didn’t find enough to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction — but that was it. The works had to look at least as interesting as anything that was going on outside the window.”

This reliance on serendipity and litterers to provide materials for his vibrant hybrids of sculpture and painting was typical of the optimism and insight of this rangy ex-sailor from Port Arthur, Texas. In 1949, at age 24, he arrived in a city dominated by the macho romance of abstract expressionism, but soon discovered that he wanted to move beyond America’s house style. First came paintings made with dirt and growing grass, followed by monochrome black and white canvases. Then, in 1953, the little-known Rauschenberg, a big admirer of Willem de Kooning’s roiling abstractions, knocked on the Dutchman’s studio door. After some drinking and small talk, Rauschenberg asked if he could have a drawing, throwing in that he wanted to erase it.

De Kooning knew of the younger artist’s monochromes, but also saw the audacious Oedipal challenge. “I want to give you one that I’ll miss,” the older artist finally replied. By his own reckoning, it took Rauschenberg three weeks to eradicate that dense, mixed-media image, but the ghostly palimpsest of Erased de Kooning Drawing signaled an artist who understood the power of such Dada stunts as a way to break through to new art forms.

Robert Rauschenberg, Décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976.

Working as stage manager for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe, Rauschenberg created flats from swatches of bright fabric splattered with paint drips, around which colorfully garbed dancers moved — an action painting come to life. The stage set provided an impetus for taking his work into three dimensions. In the Combines — collages of comic strips, printed fabrics, news photos, signboards, and cast-off sundries, bound together with thick ropes of paint — he mined beauty from the slag heap of American culture. Jeff Koons, an artist who knows his kitsch, has said, “I can’t think of an image that has more power than Canyon” — Rauschenberg’s 1959 Combine starring a stuffed bald eagle salvaged from the dingy apartment of a recently deceased member of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. The wing-flared raptor juts forbiddingly from the bottom of the canvas, perched above a rumpled pillow suspended from a frayed cord. Among the many collage elements, the canvas includes a photo of distant galaxies below a rusty, flattened steel drum, and a print of the Statue of Liberty, which is mimicked by the waving arm of a toddler (Rauschenberg’s son from a short marriage to a fellow student at Black Mountain College). These literal and metaphorical gulfs — flight and gravity, cosmic forges and industrial detritus, national ideals and uncomprehending citizen — conjure a multifaceted America that, while scarred and sagging far short of its promise, remains wonderfully weird and exhilarating.

That same year, Monogram shocked many viewers, with its stuffed Angora goat, the head slathered with paint, squeezed through an automobile tire. At the close of the conformist Eisenhower years, the love that dare not speak its name was still best communicated through such visual conundrums: The Combines used pictures as words and objects as pictures to create poetries of form and meaning.

Like his onetime lover Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg often revisited motifs in his art, and did it with a gusto few could match. An untitled work from 1955 features a toy parachute flattened out in the lower corner of the canvas, listless cords drooping below the frame’s edge. Most of the canvas is thinly painted, a beige expanse as desolately beautiful as a desert, with scattered oases — a wrinkled sock, a wan photo of grazing cows — for the eye to wander among. Set this next to the 1963 performance Pelican: Rauschenberg on roller skates, careering about to a score he collaged from radio, music, and television sounds, a huge parachute stretched over wooden slats radiating from his back. Pelican was one of numerous pieces the artist choreographed as he pushed beyond the success of the Combines into an exuberant realm previously reserved for dancers and athletes.

As with Icarus, though, there came a crash. In the seven-foot-high 1964 silkscreen Retroactive I, the largest image is one of JFK stabbing a finger at two figures derived from a photo parody of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and cropped to resemble Massacio’s Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden. In an upper corner, an astronaut descends by parachute, a forlorn messenger too late to halt America’s latest loss of innocence. When Rauschenberg’s series of silkscreen paintings won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale that year, he called an assistant in New York and told him to burn the screens; there were to be no cushy landings for this continuously searching artist.

In the ’70s came a series created with flattened cardboard boxes, which lacked the earlier rough magic. The ’80s brought a quixotic quest, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, in which he collaborated with local artists in countries such as Mexico, Chile, and the USSR, an endeavor idealistically conceived and roundly panned, and that Rauschenberg wryly conceded had not led to “any excess of world peace.” To be sure, there are gems among the later work, but they sometimes seemed more prose than poetry.

In his last years, despite a crippling stroke, and with the help of his longtime companion Darryl Pottorf, Rauschenberg continued to send assistants out to shoot photos for massive collages, such as spare juxtapositions of ancient marble columns against plastic drinking straws. His primary instruction, to those who lacked his gift for discovering beauty in banality, could also be the artist’s epitaph: “If you think something would be a bad shot, take it.”

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Back to New York School Time

There won’t be a quiz, but you can still cram for New York School 101 all over town this fall.

Stephen Pace (b. 1918) is part of a generation of American painters that, as the critic Thomas Hess noted in 1955, followed “the applause and catcalls which have greeted Abstract-Expressionism since 1940.” A bit younger than his friends Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline, Pace shared their European influences—Picasso, Braque, surrealism, and such refugee mentors as Hans Hofmann and Arshile Gorky. It’s instructive to watch Pace, between 1952 and ’62, searching for his own style in the shadow of his New York School elders’ towering achievements. At the Katharina Rich Perlow gallery, a beautiful watercolor from 1954 features drippy black bands of roiling luminosity, while purple and ochre islands keep the work firmly in nature’s realm. Four years later, the bright-orange, calligraphic squiggles underlying Untitled 58-26 form fireworks that torque a writhing abstract space. (41 E 57th, 212-644-7171, through November 3.) Two floors below (at David Findlay Jr., 212-486-7660), you’ll find Byron Browne (1907–1961), who shared many of the same colleagues but never made as full a break from European influences. Instead, this brilliant designer pushed and pulled at surrealism and cubism to create vibrant figures in utterly charming netherworlds. Study for Sculpture (1936) is a deft, graphic re-imagining of Miró’s bulbous figures. Warrior Woman II and III, both watercolors from 1942, star a cubistic Amazon flattened by black outlines; splattery blots hint at the nascent abstraction of advanced American art. In 1959’sMemories of Malaga, Browne lets go, with three ranged figures in gray, white, and black that float across an ochre ground like one of Motherwell’s elegies to the Spanish Republic. A short stroll will bring you to the gossamer acrylic stylings of
Helen Frankenthaler, born in 1928 (Ameringer & Yohe, 20 W 57th, 212-445-0051, through November 17). At roughly 9 x 21 feet, The Sound of the Bassoon (1974) evokes broad desert canyons; a brackish green rectangle—squeegee’d front and center with Hofmannesque brusqueness—provides the mournful note of the title. Water droplets splattered through a lighter-green wash create textured weather, a theme also present in the enveloping chromatic mist of 1966’s Central Park. Next up: three shows that reveal a heavyweight of the action painters’ arena as he leaves his influences on the mat. Opening October 30 (Allan Stone, 113 E 90th, 212-987-4997, through December 22), an exhibit of drawings by
Willem de Kooning (1904–1997) runs the gamut from a 1923 Munch-like kiss through the classical modeling of his 1941 pencil Portrait of Elaine, right up to his ’70s charcoal studies of wavery women digging clams. Two current shows of his late paintings go even farther, portraying a leviathan in winter. At L&M Arts (45 E 78th, 212-861-0020, through November 14), works range from 1981 to ’86, the earlier canvases still displaying de Kooning’s protean physical verve; by 1986’s Untitled XV, the painter is incapable of the grand, sweeping brushstrokes that long gave life to his abstract figures. Still, these labored curves and arcs fascinate, reaching back to de Kooning’s early, Gorky-inspired biomorphic shapes, clunky visitations from the days when he was creating a new form of painting. Although there is much debate as to how much help his assistants provided the artist in his last working years, when Alzheimer’s was blunt-ing his brain, there’s no denying the heartbreaking power of some of these large canvases. At Gagosian (522 W 21st, 212-741-1717, through October 27), do not miss 1980’s Untitled II—here is an invented nature, orange patches surrounded by white figures delineated by purple contours, everything crashing together to form livid brown welts. Or No Title (1984), in which de Kooning laid down white fields separated by an inch or so of orange ground, that gap a stand-in for the lithe contours of his youth. Even so, his still-strong 80-year-old body can be felt in a charcoal stroke through the wet, white paint, like a bullfighter’s flowing veronica.


‘Art and Psyche: The Freudian Legacy’

Get your inner Woody Allen on at this engaging group show on the theme of psychoanalysis. Start with Freud’s own drawing of the nerves that connect the eardrum to the brain (he started his practice by probing the causes of aphasia). Nearby is a small painting by Eric Fischl (2000), in which a white easy chair has been slashed with meat-y wet-into-wet strokes of red, a passage with more sexual charge than the bland man and woman pictured elsewhere in this bedroom scene. A 1938 view of Freud’s writing desk, taken shortly before he fled the Nazi overlords of Vienna for London, was shot as if from the master’s own chair—it takes in a row of Egyptian statues lined along the desk edge, ancient gods who watched over the composition of such books as The Interpretation of Dreams. A small 1935 etching by Marcel Jean (who later edited The Autobiography of Surrealism) offers a gloomy dream-scape of long shadows, a reclining nude, and a jacket that seems made from flayed flesh, which hangs upon an enormous key. Freud unlocked the unconscious more than a hundred years ago, and artists have been gleefully rummaging through the mind’s attic ever since. CDS, 76 E 79th, 212-772-9555. Through November 24.


Laurie Simmons

Just down the block, you can wander smack into the dreamy spaces that Laurie Simmons has conjured by placing Japanese-designed “Teenette” dolls (tall American girls wearing tight skirts and cable-knit sweaters) in front of pro-jected ideal-home interiors. Taking her cue from a 1940s interior-design book that warns “Misused, color will mock all your efforts,” Simmons matched the hues of the solidly colored plastic dolls, manufac-tured in Japan during the early ’60s, with ac-cents from the photographs; hence, the dusky-green girl standing in that ’70s-ish kitchen with the avocado-tinted fixtures. All of the images date from 1983, but they feel like Technicolor studio films, the rear-projected sets utterly phony even as the carefully placed dolls and integrated lighting coalesce into definite, if unknowable, narratives. Skarstedt, 20 E 79th, 212-737-2060. Through October 27.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Beef Stew

I hear it said all the time: Why paint today, when ever-new forms of interactive technologies compete for our attention? How instrumental can painting be in a world that’s changing faster than we can measure? Sure, we can bring it forward, revise histories, finesse attitudes. But cover new ground? There’s room for doubt.

This discursive rumble is most audible in Chelsea, where it is rare to encounter art that is not almost exclusively of the moment. Anything produced before postmodernism gets bumped up to midtown, with the result that big questions about painting and the relevancy of art are staged in a partial vacuum. That said, as galleries have become increasingly large, with the clout and the budget to mount ambitious, museum-quality exhibitions, new models are emerging that challenge the status quo of “all contemporary, all the time.” New art is beginning to rub shoulders with modernist art, downtown, in ways that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Mix it up, and the rewards can be huge. There’s no better example than “The New Landscape/The New Still Life: Soutine and Modern Art.” This is the kind of show you dream about but rarely see—especially in the summer, especially in Chelsea. It includes 17 still-life and landscape paintings by Soutine, produced primarily between 1918 and 1927, his “brilliant” period. Drenched in paint and pathos, images of dead animals—rabbits, pheasant, chickens, pictured midway between the field and the frying pan—are brutal, gory, and beautiful. Equally mesmerizing, his trance-like visions of the Mediterranean village of Ceret verge on orgiastic. These rarely seen paintings are captivating—you can’t stop looking at them. But that’s only half the story. Soutine’s energized canvases are grouped with works by 21 artists who have been influenced, directly and indirectly, by the Belarusian expressionist who is known as a preeminent “painter’s painter.”

The curators draw a wide circle of influence from mid-century to the present. They have a bone to pick with MOMA for recently de-accessioning one of Soutine’s finest canvases and for currently failing to display any of his work. Art-historical disputes aside, they invite the viewer not only to reflect on the idea of artistic influence but also to develop a connoisseur’s eye for detail by exploring the rich affinities between Soutine and some of the most notable artists of these and past times. Paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jack Tworkov, and Bill Jensen, together with (surprise!) a little suspended sculpture by Joel Shapiro, are grouped with Soutine’s monumental Carcass of Beef, and immediately begin to talk to one another. Multiple common denominators spring to action, and we’re inspired to compare gestures, compositional structures, shifts in scale, ruptures, palettes, and many other qualities that beckon to one another in ways that are nothing short of thrilling.

The affinity between de Kooning and Soutine is especially strong—most notably the speed and Dionysian density of their paint and the sense of rapture they are able to generate. But it is no less astounding to see what happens when Joan Mitchell’s abstractions are matched with Soutine’s near-liquid paintings of the French countryside. Together they achieve full-blown lyricism. When a pathetic yellow turkey by Alice Neel is hung alongside a pair of bloody pigeons by Soutine, we see their shared penchant for exploring a nauseating edge that locates life and death, familiarity and disgust, in uncomfortably close proximity. A threesome staged in the rear gallery introduces Soutine’s dead pheasants to two of Georg Baselitz’s creatures—an eagle and a dog, both upside down—and Louise Bourgeois’s suspended bronze sculpture The Quartered One. In this explosive union, no one gets out alive.

What is the relevancy of painting today? If the chemistry of Soutine and the 21 artists exhibited (all acknowledge and comment on his influence in the accompanying catalog) is any indication, the point is that we can see more, feel more, and intuit more. How critical these humanistic skills are today, in a world not unlike Soutine’s during World War II, in which empathy is in such short supply.