Archives for posts with tag: Art History

In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: It’s time we went upstairs, I think. The Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is a generous refurbishment of a sumptuous town house in Dover Street in Mayfair – one of the most expensive areas in the world. But we are swimming in space as we go up the double staircase. There is a ‘sparse hang’ along the corridor of a few multiples and drawings, with the white walls and the oak floors it all feels very much as it should do – the works have plenty of space, but you can still get close. Then we arrive at the end room…

Richard: Having seen Feldbett (Campaign Bed), 1982 on the ground floor, which has a quiet but authoritative power (and that familiar sense of commemoration that accompanies a lot of Beuys works), I was expecting something good for the last room of the show. The Library Gallery – the main room on the first floor of the gallery contained five works: Tisch mit Aggregat (Table with Aggregate), 1958-1985, Hirsch (Stag), 1958/1982,  Boothia Felix, 1958/1982, Ziege (Goat), 1958/1982 and Urtiere (Primordial Animals), 1958/1982. Taken in isolation I’m sure these sculptures have the power to enthral, to drag you into their strange world/ mind-set shared with Beuys’ best work. For me the arrangement of the works – dotted around the floor in close proximity to each other dissipated the works’ energy – their individual meanings seeming to bleed into and cancel each other out. The collected works did not work as an artistic siphonophore, despite their uniformity of appearance. The room was difficult to look at, and digest in any meaningful way and I think it was a missed opportunity. At Tate Modern the placement of the works in the Beuys room seems to work to the individual works’ advantage rather than against them (major works are given room to breathe). What did you think of the final room?

David: For me the last room upstairs was a curatorial misstep. I was baffled, almost as if I suddenly couldn’t understand a language I knew well. It made me aware of how any exhibition depends on tension between the exhibits – but if they actually mix and fight each other then the net result is a nullification. A bit like mixing colours in a painting…if you mix them too much all you get is a grey mess. And I speak from experience! I wonder if that kind of separation was why Beuys himself was so fond of vitrines? They are almost like mini-installations.

Richard: Yes, the vitrines are like a discreet closed world – the box frames the objects inviting the viewer to consider their function and their relationship to each other. The final room of this exhibition does the opposite – it presents a chaotic jumble of objects – and reminds me of sightseeing in the Louvre – you get to half-glimpse the Mona Lisa in a sea of people – not so much an art experience as a box ticking exercise. Utopia at the Stag Monuments: yep, seen that.

David: Maybe the arrangement of objects is shamanistic magic. Unless you are a member of the Shaman’s Guild, an arrangement of objects is just…objects.
If you are a bona fide shaman, however, you can make the objects talk to one another and open doors in reality through which we glimpse meaning. Or endow them with a kind of residual charge by using them in a certain way – so that they become an art battery where creative power is stored. When this happens it is as if Beuys’ strange rituals and fetishes can connect the present to the past. I don’t think of Beuys as New Age in any way, but he certainly was able to take advantage of interest in atavistic spirituality to draw punters in to his circle. The spiritual void of our modern tribe is so huge and we feel it keenly; yet we are so close, not only to our ancestors, but also to the energy of the Earth and many other eternal things. This for me is Beuys’ legacy now that his charismatic presence is gone.

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In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

Richard: One of the things that makes his work so magnetic is the fusion of the commonplace with the spiritual and intellectual – as if every object he touched was a means of deep psychological and material exploration for him and (possibly as a byproduct) a way to awaken curiosity about the physical world in the viewer. There’s a roughness and vitality to the drawings that makes them very difficult to co-opt for commercial purposes. How much do you think Beuys’ aesthetic/ anti-aesthetic has entered the vocabulary of advertising and media (I remember in the mid-Eighties Green from Scritti Politti citing Beuys as an influence on his record cover design)?

David: I’m not sure if Scritti Politti album covers form part of the advertising mainstream…but I think Beuys did a whisky commercial in Japan once? Or was that a myth? I don’t think that his style – if you want to call it that – could ever really work in advertising because he is not glorifying or glamourising his subjects. He is sort of Beuysifying them – the object is somehow turned into a stand-in for the physical properties of its construction, or its essence. He uses objects to translate his vision for us mere mortals, who cannot apprehend the scope of his abstract vision otherwise. Hidden from view but revealed to us by a Shaman (Beuys) through the change wrought to familiar objects – he has reinvented the role of priest and intercessionary between us and the divine. It’s not quite in the same vein as Jasper Johns who seems to borrow familiar objects as much for their formal aesthetic qualities as their familiarity. I would argue that advertising creatives have almost a diametrically opposing function – also reinventing priesthood in their own image, but very much in the pre Reformation sense of a priesthood that offers you the chance to buy indulgences – which is what they were really called – which gave you forgiveness and entry to paradise. Beuys is a modern day Luther ranting desperately against this lazy tyranny of materialism. Do you think his work has been absorbed into the commercial mainstream?

Richard: Nothing can be forgotten on the internet (if this is genuine): https://youtu.be/ARS3TO9r_z4 Completely agree with you about advertising creatives.  And think that maybe his use of objects is impossible for the mainstream to co-opt without creating some kind of weak pastiche. The aesthetic operation is what I think Green used.

For all the reasons you listed I think maybe Beuys is inimitable – I can’t think of a single other artist who makes work like him and he doesn’t seem to have any followers. I wonder if remaking yourself as a shamanic figure has this effect. There is a point in the show where Beuys’ work seems to change from being fairly straight representations of the earth goddess, stags etc to looking like he has been channelling some kind of outside force to create the work, inhabiting or being inhabited by pagan forces. I wonder whether Beuys considered this an artistic breakthrough or just another step in his creative evolution. Once he starts making non-objective work (i.e. not picturing something) Beuys seems very present in everything  he makes. Is everything from this point on a performance/ action or a by-product of one?

David: Looking at the Scritti Politti cover, it does remind me of Beuys’ work, at least superficially. The black rubber stamp in particular suggests more than an accidental resemblance. That may be as far as the similarity goes though…

As I recall they chose their name just because they liked the way it sounded, rather than what it actually meant. This might be the same story?

From my understanding of shamanism (looking at Beuys’ work and watching the Mighty Boosh), that is exactly what it is – a progressively closer identification with an object of fascination and power until the Shaman’s own identity is changed. You start by wearing the clothes as a costume but they eventually become your skin. Beuys’ actions are part of this process, but I would characterise them as rituals more than performances. I’m not sure they need an audience. If you saw one of Rauschenberg’s performances, you would feel as if you had seen a theatrical show, but if you had seen one of Beuys’ you might feel like a traveller in a remote region, stumbling across the priest of an obscure cult.

There have been one or two brave souls who have tried to follow Beuys down this kind of path to make Art, but without the conviction or aesthetics, and they disappear without trace. Richard Wilson is probably the only one I can think of who comes close, but he is so English – and (successfully) theatrical in his performances.

To Be Continued…

In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: This show was like a refresher course in Beuys for me. I think we have both been big fans of Joseph Beuys for a long time – we became interested in him when he was still alive and making work. He was such a charismatic, individual artist with such a radical program. I sometimes try to explain his work to people who don’t know it, and it’s not easy! The first thing that I saw of his was Plight at the d’Offay gallery back in 1985 – one of the most powerful art experiences I have had. If I had seen the works in this show first though, I might have been a bit confused. Do you remember seeing his work for the first time? Would this show have been a good place to start?

Richard: The first Beuys works I saw were at Tate Britain when it was the Tate Gallery in the mid-80s – a couple of vitrines and a felt suit hanging on the wall – the objects weren’t that spectacular in themselves, but I think that’s what ignited my interest – they didn’t look like art. I bought a poster of one of Beuys’ sludgy green paintings and read any books about him I could get my hands on. I’m still excited to see his work. But I wouldn’t introduce someone to his work with this show – unless I got them to stay downstairs! Shall we talk about the drawings?

David: Beuys’ drawings are his fundamental tool. They translate experience in a completely individual way. And they have such a unique range of feel, they seem to be the work of many different artists. Some of them seem to be diagrams of the impossible drawn by an insane mind, or an alien.  Some of them are so faint it’s almost impossible to see them, others are just plain slabs of oily floor paint on paper. One thing I love about them is their museum standard frames that Beuys insisted on. The frames unify these disparate, often scrappy excrescences into a body of work and force you to appreciate them as the product of one mind and one hand. Their breadth of subject is extraordinary. It is as if he has considered everything in a para-scientific way. He uses art to describe the world – not just its surface appearance, but its history, natural forces seen and unseen, and the structures of human society – reinventing not only art but also science in a sort of philosophical slap around the face. Which is more fun than it sounds.

I once showed a book of Beuys drawings to someone who only drew from life, but was very open minded. He took a look, scratched his head, then took another look and said: “Well, he certainly has great taste…” The drawings certainly do have huge and sophisticated aesthetic appeal which is easy to overlook when you get caught up in the showmanship of the performances and installations, yet for me underpins Beuys’ whole vision – his crazy (or not so crazy) agenda for putting art at the centre of society. Knowing your preference for the awkward and the unbeautiful, do you find them, er…nice to look at?

Richard: Yes, I do! Beuys seems unconcerned with aesthetics (I think they’re more about getting something down on paper directly and without too much intervention), and because of that they are very liberating to look at in that you don’t have to appreciate their craftsmanship. I’m a big fan of the stains and smudges he made. Several of the drawings in this exhibition suggest ideas or representations, but don’t  deliver a “finished” view, leaving room for the viewer to complete the picture. Which makes the drawings very democratic (and in keeping with the idea of putting art at the centre of society). And I think you’re right about them being at the core of Beuys’ practice – this is the quiet, intimate space where he worked things out, whether in a thoughtful, representational way or as the vehicle for the mark. Are the drawings rehearsals for his other work?

David:
I don’t think the drawings are rehearsals so much as explanations. Beuys was very dedicated to teaching and the drawings often have the quality of diagrams or notes. But I don’t think you can hope to understand them in a rational way, any more than you can make a working battery out of an orange. There is some kind of aesthetic alchemy going on which attempts to connect different areas of human thought – e.g. the spiritual and the political – through art. A lot of this is driven by the use of materials to effectively represent themselves – floorpaint, beeswax, blood, felt and copper all have their place. I can’t think of another artist for whom the diversity of physical materials (and the uses to which they can be put in the real world) has been so critical – and it carries across from the drawing into the sculpture. In fact I am not entirely sure that Beuys himself would have really distinguished between the different forms.

To Be Continued…

Herbert Read Herbert Read Herbert Herbert Herbert Read (II), 2016Herbert Read, Herbert Read, Herbert, Herbert, Herbert Read (II)

Acrylic on canvas

2016

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I are engaged in a conversation in pictures called Between Scarlett and Guest. Check it out.

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And David Cook and I are reviewing each other’s record collections one disc at at time. Check out Zzzounds!

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5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s the third and final part…

Richard: Ha, just about. The comparison with the Rothko room is interesting. To me, where the Rothko room has an under-lit chapel-like atmosphere, MCM’s rooms at the Serpentine are in-your-face oppressive, like being trapped in a car showroom with an over-energetic salesman. Not so much of the transcendence. And I think that’s part of the point. MCM makes you engage with the work and the objects he depicts by force. These are aggressively ugly colour combinations – they’re pugnacious.

It’s interesting that some of the objects depicted have fallen out of use or had their design overhauled. Here we have Cassette, 2002. By 2002 cassettes had pretty much been superceded by CDs, DVDs and digital files as storage devices. To anyone born after 1997 this is probably a pretty obscure object. Is his intention to memorialise it? If so, why?

Michael Craig-Martin; Cassette, 2002; Acrylic on canvas; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

Michael Craig-Martin; Cassette, 2002; Acrylic on canvas; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

David: In a way it mocks the transience of these ubiquitous but ephemeral things. There is a memento mori quality to the cassette. It is doomed, already in the past: a repository of information that soon will degrade or no-one will have the equipment to read. All the objects are depicted through the same style prism – memorialised if you like – but not respectfully. They are robbed of everything but form. It is as if Craig-Martin is saying to designers: ‘my art will endure…but your products won’t.’  He is saying to Jonathan Ive “You might be selling 100 million iPods a year, but in a while they will be junk. But my paintings will be the same, and they will still be valuable, they will function as well as the day they were made.”

The bottom line is that we have allowed our consumer objects to supplant us at the centre of our art. Not only does the earth go around the sun but art no longer revolves around us either, but around our obsolcesent consumer durables.

The whole aspect of the show is sardonic. And to me, dripping with Warhol influences. I sometimes doubt the greatness of Warhol, but his influence is right here on the wall in the wall paper, in the acceptance of the everyday as a subject and behind the scenes in the creation of art celebrity which MCM has vicariously dabbled in at Goldsmiths. Warhol – who had made a lot of the running in including vernacular objects in ‘higher’ forms of art clearly was behind the initial choice of subjects and the mechanical look. But these are still very much hand made works: the artist in him was too strong. The distributed and reproduced element does not feel integral in the way it does with Warhol’s work. The dissemination of prints and internet works feels very much more like the reproduction of traditional 2d forms than Warhol’s mechanised and hands-off methodology. We get a very self denying art that almost can’t bear to be looked at: you couldn’t look at any painting here for as long as a Rembrandt or a Cézanne. It is not comfortable with itself in the same way. Its chosen idiom fights with the subject matter. This creates an arresting tension, but it is an uncomfortable one.

Warhol installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. I’m afraid the exhibition is over. Anyway, here’s part two…

David: Instead of the old Paul Klee adage of ‘going for a walk with a line’, Craig-Martin’s version might be ‘going to the gym with a line’ – what you end up with is very strong but robotic, and yet the paintings and the wall drawings still have the human hand in them. They aspire to the condition of machine-made things – a very Modernist conceit – but they are not. They are fascinatingly three dimensional when you view the paintings from a glancing angle – they reminded me of the Nazca lines in Peru. They are slight vertical disturbances on an otherwise flat surface and they have a circuit like quality – they are not lines that are easily interrupted or changed.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

 

Nazca Lines, Peru

Nazca Lines, Peru

When I first saw the show though it was on a very damp rainy day and the humidity in the gallery caused some of the black acrylic tape in the wall drawing (in the last pic) to peel off. A gallery assistant in surgical gloves was reverently smoothing it back. This might have been supposed to remain hidden, this sort of performance aspect, but it was revealing of the human qualities of the line and its scale and how the hand had made it. It caused me also to look much more closely at the lines. The tape is very flexible but it does have trouble with some of the tight corners MCM asks of it, bunching  up and slightly lifting off the surface and there are places where the hand of the gallery assistant did not quite join the supposedly continuous line exactly so that it reminded me of a medieval engraving.

The show’s title is Transience – and some interviews suggest it is just about evolution of electronic product design. This is surely disingenuous. In the interview I read Craig-Martin pretends to be amazed at the obsolescence of the items in his work. He must have been aware of it even though he could’t predict the future, but is his choice of subject matter simply a case of him painting the first things he saw or are other factors in play?

Richard: I don’t think the objects are just the first things he saw – there is no kitsch – everything depicted is in some way functional. And in some way  everyday. These are the objects that surround us in our daily lives. I think it’s also important to MCM that what he paints is contemporary at the time of painting; these are all things that (for MCM) were in the “now”. One of the things I get from looking at these works is a sense that MCM is examining the objects, interrogating them almost – trying to show us the mystery at their heart. Their oddness, their alien nature. The blanker the object, the stronger the effect for me – the credit card being a good example.

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

David: The credit card is a great example and an inspired choice of subject because our relationship with it is so abstract. Although we handle it, its value is defined by the abstract concept of money. We know how to use it, but it is somehow not of our world. Almost in a religious sense. I don’t think Craig-Martin is suggesting that we should worship money or material things but perhaps he is suggesting we do, and the shift into unnatural colour in his paintings strips away the connection we normally take for granted and we can see the idol of materialism as just so many ephemeral plastic shapes. It is clever to use colour in this way, but I think there is a price to pay – it makes the paintings very hard on the eye!

Yes, the colour is striking. Really like being hit in the face almost. The central room is painted in a vivid Teal (see pic)

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience, installation view by David Cook

a colour Craig-Martin seems to like a lot. The predominant colour scheme is secondary colours and black with few primaries. Where present they will be clashing, as in the red and pink of the credit card. There are one or two moodier olive and maroon combinations that veer toward the tertiary spectrum. But basically he is using the colours of anoraks – orange, teal, cerise – it was like walking round Snow & Rock to be honest. They are commercial colours that have not been big in the history of art, partly because they feel very synthetic. I am pretty sure that orange teal and magenta do not occur together in nature and the flat unmodulated nature of his paintings accentuates this plastic quality.

I was unsure also about extending the colour onto the walls as well as the paintings. Should art end at the edge of the canvas? Or in MCM’s case aluminium mounted on a small frame whose dimensions imitate a canvas? It was intruding on the headspace of the viewer. It was not a setting for the painting- it felt immersive, almost church like and slightly oppressive. In that way it was almost like the Rothko room at the Tate. If you spend long enough in it your eyes will see the complementary colour.  Have your eyes recovered?

To be continued…

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. The exhibition ends today.

David: I was extremely keen to see this show, but my expectations of it were uncertain: I was familiar with Michael Craig-Martin’s work but I had never seen a large body of it together. To some extent I am still ambivalent, but I am glad to have something solid to be ambivalent about. I was very impressed with a wall drawing of a coffee cup that was in the R.A. summer show, but I have also been less impressed by some things he has said and slightly put off by his role as the midwife of Goldsmiths’ YBA talent factory. Did you have any preconceptions about the show?

Richard: Yes, I was really glad you suggested this show, because I didn’t have a fixed idea of Michael Craig-Martin. I knew about his 1973 work , An Oak Tree, and the fact it is acknowledged as an important conceptual work. It’s a glass of water on a wall-mounted glass shelf accompanied by a short text; for more information go here: https://offthewalls.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/an-oak-tree-michael-craig-martin/. Apart from that I had seen a few of his wall drawings, sat in front of him at a showing of a Bruce Nauman clown video at D’Offay’s (he laughed all the way through), and read an interview with him and Damien Hirst at the height of the YBA frenzy. So I came to this show wanting to find out more. At the moment, I feel irritated by the show, which is often a good sign for me…

The first image in the exhibition is Untitled (xbox control), 2014. What do you think it tells us about Michael Craig Martin?

Michael Craig-Martin; Untitled (xbox control), 2014; Acrylic on aluminium; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery; Photo: Mike Bruce

Michael Craig-Martin; Untitled (xbox control), 2014; Acrylic on aluminium; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery; Photo: Mike Bruce

David: It is held together by its own contradictions. It is such a considered image, it is almost hard to react to it or to deduce anything about the artist from it. Some artists go to great trouble to try to remove themselves from their art. And yet it is a painting. I don’t know the detail of the process, but it was made by a skilled hand rather than by a machine.

It seems to take the term ‘plastic arts’ very literally: it is an image of a mass market consumer object, a plastic object rendered in a plastic paint. So I could hardly call it conceptual. But his reputation suggests that he is from a place that distrusts objects, especially art objects. This is a post-Warholian, post-Duchampian art object. It distrusts itself in order to sell itself. The more Craig-Martin believes in it, the more one suspects he is undercutting something else. It is the undercutting that he believes in.

The view chosen is full frontal, the object is divorced from its context but still ultimately recognisable. Perspective is absent, it’s like an orthographic or a design view. Centred in frame, depicted on a plain background in flat colour – all that remains is the shapes. All this give is an iconic, devotional quality.

The shapes are very strong – uniquely of our time. Craig-Martin clearly has a great sensitivity to the power of line. He once said dismissively that drawing was ‘a trick with a pencil’. I read this remark out of context and thought it was infuriating but now his work seems to me like drawing in its purest form. Would you agree with that?

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Richard: Yes, I would. And drawing is fundamental to every work in the show. The paintings and wall drawings are diagrammatic – each one lays bare the outlines of an object’s most important features – what we see is a pared-down, instantly recognisable outline of an everyday object. They remind me of the first page you see in an instruction manual. They are removed from context in the same way. And I think your iconic statement is spot-on. At first I thought the “objects” were removed from context so that we could more easily contemplate them, but MCM’s use of colour causes interference. These are not straightforward representations, because the colour puts a spin on them. And the lines are not as perfect as they first appear…so are we supposed to infer some kind of message from them?

 To be continued…

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This post is dedicated to George Weaver. She was a wonder. I will miss her.

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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Part two of my conversation with David Cook…

London Eyeball

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38 Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the second part of that electronic conversation – you can read part one here.

Richard: Except in a broad sense, I don’t see autobiography in Cornell’s work. He did not travel much outside Flushing, New York – he was a carer for his brother and mother, and a lot of biogs refer to his reclusiveness. So, I think a lot of the boxes are products of isolation – they spring from a yearning to escape the day-to-day routine. Although some titles refer to specific events or people, I don’t think Cornell had any connection with many of them beyond fantasy. For example, I Googled Tilly Losch – she was also known as…

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22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s the third and final part…

David: I am not sure I can really work the historical links out – his work has caused some of the slender threads that hold my conception of art history in place to unravel. And I’m not sorry about that. One of the things that I dislike about art history is its predilection for a style based taxonomy. That goes for people who think they can identify a genuine Rembrandt based on a few brush marks or for more modern critics (including Greenberg and Rosenberg) who seek to define movements based on superficial similarities of style. Although I admire Greenberg in particular for his advocacy of what was at that stage controversial art, ultimately his intellectual underpinning has stuck his guys to a particular piece of turf. Diebenkorn has eluded that limitation by including some other influences in his work. And in the end I think he will be seen as a greater artist than many of the Abstract Expressionists who were in the end limited by their own innovation.

Curiously I think it is the European content of his work that has meant Diebenkorn is less well known here than Jackson Pollock for example. We want our American artists to be Pure American, and Diebenkorn confounds that. Similarly I think Michael Andrews has less exposure than he deserves because his work feels international. I mean why not depict the West Coast of the U.S. as the South of France? Or the urban architecture of California as London or Paris?

Richard: Yes, I think that’s true – by not fitting the Abstract Expressionist profile, or being part of that particular marketing package, Diebenkorn slips through one of art history’s cracks. I’m guessing he is more widely known in the States. He reminds me of Peter Lanyon – (particularly because Lanyon used the Cornish landscape as an imaginative jumping off point for some wildly abstract works) a British painter who, like Michael Andrews, is difficult to pigeonhole. I don’t know, but I imagine Lanyon is not that well known outside the UK, although he was part of the St. Ives set. They are all three very interesting painters, possibly easier to appreciate now that the notion of relentless forward motion in art history seems to have been derailed. (I wonder if the idea of movements and groups in art were partly a device for giving the audience an “in” – categorisation allows an easier mastery of the knowledge and some firm land to stand on while surveying the choppy, chaotic waters of artistic production).

Let’s talk about Cityscape #1.

Richard Diebenkorn Cityscape #1

Cityscape #1, 1963
Oil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cm
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.
Zellerbach
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn FoundationOil on canvas, 153 x 128.3 cmSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchased with funds from Trustees and friends in memory of Hector Escobosa, Brayton Wilbur, and J.D.ZellerbachCopyright 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation 

David: What strikes me first about Cityscape #1 is that it is a painting about light and the way that light moves across the landscape. So it has its roots in Impressionism, but it’s clearly an American picture. There is that openness about it, and the dense planarity of the architecture and the shadows on the left of the picture place it firmly in the Twentieth Century. The absence of people too is interesting. It seems a very different vision of California from that of David Hockney which was only a few years later (this was painted in 1963). Diebenkorn’s painting knows the land, is of the land. Hockney’s is an outsider’s vision capturing the superficial ephemera of peoples’ lives at a particular moment. It is a European’s vision of America…timely, but intentionally lacking in depth. It glorifies America’s perceived lack of history and connection to European tradition, whereas Diebenkorn is reminding us that actually there is quite a lot of it there!

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler 1967

David Hockney, A Lawn Sprinkler (1967). Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Toyko

Richard: Yes, I think Diebenkorn brings a sense of physicality and (emotional) experience to Cityscape #1, which comes from living in California from the age of two, a connection with the landscape Hockney could never have. There’s no sense of (ironic) detachment in Diebenkorn’s version – just an acknowledgement, an acceptance of the facts of the landscape, and a struggle to convey them in paint.

According to various reviews of this exhibition, Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series (in excess of 140 paintings bearing the title), was very popular in the UK in the 1990s – there were posters everywhere, (to the extent that a print appeared as part of the set dressing in episodes of Brookside (now defunct UK soap opera)). Apparently, this huge popularity attracted snobbery in the 1990s. The paintings appear to be unthreatening, and easily explainable as aerial views of the neighbourhood around Diebenkorn’s studio. But there’s an appealing hesitancy left on show in the final images – ghosts of marks past, washed out, sun-bleached palimpsests. A very human geometry. A Ballardian unease that’s less easy to digest.

The series was almost Diebenkorn’s final word on painting (and, of course, the second room we walked into).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #27

Ocean Park #27, 1970
Oil on canvas, 254 x 203.2 cm
Brooklyn Museum. Gift of The Roebling Society and Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Blatt and Mr. and Mrs. William K. Jacobs, Jr., 72.4
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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22nd May 2015, David Cook and I visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s part two…

Richard Diebenkorn, Berkeley #5, 1953

Berkeley #5, 1953
Oil on canvas, 134.6 x 134.6 cm
Private collection
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard: That’s a very interesting point. Diebenkorn titles his paintings with version numbers indicating he doesn’t consider he can deliver a definitive take on a given subject. Which reinforces the idea that he is not interested in making grand statements, but in taking a more reflective, objective, distanced approach to his subjects – and perhaps, in turn, commenting on the act of painting itself.

Berkeley #5 looks like a loose landscape with suggestions of body parts creeping in and a lush, sweet use of gesture and colour that could only exist in painting. Berkeley #5 is at once surface and subject, each causing signal interference with the other. The games it plays are not straightforward. It’s almost a Conceptual approach to painting.

David: This conversation has highlighted for me that I am not open minded enough when I look at art, indeed you can never be open minded enough.

I was going along with the notion that Diebenkorn was An-Abstract-Expressionist-who-Painted-Figuratively. We have seen traces of European influence, of Matisse and Dufy, we can see his abstract credentials clearly. You have identified a conceptual approach and I was about to compare Girl On a Terrace, 1956 to School of London artists R B Kitaj and Michael Andrews. Truth be told Diebenkorn went his own way, and I should be ashamed that I have such a historically biased taxonomic approach to what is one of the freest modes of individual self expression.

Richard Diebenkorn, Girl On A Terrace, 1956

Girl On a Terrace, 1956
Oil on canvas, 179.07 x 166.05 x 2.54 cm
Collection Neuberger Museum of Art
Purchase College, State University of New York. Gift of Roy R. Neuberger
© 2014 The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Is it possible that Diebenkorn was perpetually in at least two minds about the marks he was making? Sometimes they seem very ambiguous. In Girl On a Terrace, 1956 there is space around the figure to the left, but to the right it flattens out. In some places the underpainting is allowed to show through, elsewhere it’s totally covered. Some marks are descriptive, some abstract. And it all seems very spontaneous, as if the painting could have veered towards or away from the figure, or from abstraction. Not only that but he is keen for us to see the evidence of his deliberations in the final pictures.

Richard: Yes, I get the feeling every brushstroke was considered. They’re very deliberate marks and I think Diebenkorn’s enjoyment in constructing the painting is plain to see. It’s like a subtle balancing act – there’s an image there and it’s perpetually on the point of collapse. He’s toying with himself and the imagined viewer. The image in Girl on a Terrace, 1956 is enigmatic and the paintwork is sumptuous and involving – it’s a great cocktail. This painting in particular also reminds me of Michael Andrews – there were several in the exhibition that got us talking about him. And I think this painting shares the slow tension at the heart of Andrews’ work – one that leads to contemplation rather than quick thrills.

I think we should talk more about the art history Dienbenkorn seems to contain – the paintings are fascinating to me in that sense – it’s as if the whole of modern painting is churning away inside him and different elements come out to play at odd times. A bit of cubism here, Matisse there, De Kooning etc. I wonder how aware Diebenkorn was of deconstructionism…

To be continued…

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Ashley Lily Scarlett and I have started a new blog together. It’s a conversation in pictures and it’s called Between Scarlett and Guest

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