Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.

card_catalog_2I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.

“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”

As a matter of fact, you are absolutely correct, ma’am. I am being grossly unfair. Although the tropes that I’ve mentioned are common enough to have birthed the stereotype of the cowboy-hatted men and big-haired women that make up such a large part of the country music image, they are by no means the whole story. Isn’t it possible to loathe Porter Wagoner but love Willie Nelson? What do Jerry Jeff Walker and the Dixie Chicks really have in common except their Texas origins? Is Patsy Cline “country”? Is Kenny Rogers? Celine Dion has that breast-beating, sobbing delivery down to a science, but would anybody really put her on the same shelf as Tammy Wynette? Why is “Blue Bayou” a rock-n-roll ballad for Roy Orbison, a pop song when Linda Ronstadt sings it, but country when Martina McBride takes it on?

Elaine de Kooning once recalled a party where she and another painter, Joan Mitchell, were asked, “What do you WOMEN artists think … ?” Mitchell interrupted, “Elaine, let’s get the hell out of here.” Mitchell, de Kooning, and other female artists of their generation suffered mightily under that characterization by gender, which made it so easy for the male-dominated world of critics and collectors to dismiss them en masse, classifying them as nothing but muses or bedmates of the “real” artists: which is to say, of course, the men. Labels. Categories. Fences made of words.

In a previous life, I lived in Dallas, Texas, where there was, for some years, a Tower Records, where I could drop in and pick up a handful of CDs a couple of times a month. The store was carefully organized by genre: Country, World Music, Jazz, Pop/Rock, Classical (in the basement), Soundtracks, Children’s Music, and so on.

Even a casual perusal of the arrangement, however, betrayed serious shortcomings.

Take, for instance, the classic 1964 album Getz/Gilberto, with Philly native Stan Getz, Brazilian bossanova greats Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and vocals in both Portuguese and English by Gilberto’s German/Brazilian wife Astrud. Where did this music belong? Was this “Jazz”? Getz was, after all, a well-known tenor sax player in the New York jazz scene, and the album was recorded on Verve, a jazz-oriented label, in that city. Or was it “World Music”, as Gilberto and Jobim were already becoming legends in Brazil? Or maybe it was “Latin”, a category that embraced everything from mariachi to Andean flutes to Italian pop songs recorded in Madrid? All of the above? None?

According to music licensing service ASCAP, the most-recorded song in the history of copyrighted music is the aria “Summertime”, which appears a couple of times in Gershwin’s opera. ASCAP lists more than 25,000 different recordings of “Summertime”, by artists ranging from Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke to Janis Joplin and The Fun Boy Three. Operatic aria? Jazz standard? Pop classic? What difference, really, does it make?

Here’s another one for you: The first opera ever written by and about Americans was Porgy and Bess, with music by Jewish New Yorker George Gershwin and text by his brother Ira and poet DuBose Heyward. The work deals with love and death in Catfish Row, a dockside tenement in South Carolina; the characters are the children and grandchildren of slaves, and the style of the music is drawn from black worksongs, gospel, and other mostly African-American music forms. Critics for decades have wrestled with finding a convenient niche for this work: do we lump it in with The Barber of Seville and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, or do we call it jazz and stick it on the shelf between Ella Fitzgerald and Herbie Hancock? Is the music black, white, New York, South Carolina, jazz, pop, classical, lowbrow, highbrow … where the hell does it go?

Categories are the darlings of marketers, but the bane of creators. Nobel laureate Doris Lessing‘s five-volume Canopus in Argos: Archives is a vast and detailed analysis of a series of different social structures on several different planets, viewed over a span of millennia – nothing at all like her intimate, semi-autobiographical novels about life in mid-twentieth-century South Africa. Neither fish nor fowl, Lessing is impossible to place in any one category, but equally impossible to ignore. Charles Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll, the author of the immortal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, was also the author of an comic poetry epic, a textbook on an abstruse branch of mathematical logic, and of a satire of Victorian English society disguised as a story about fairies. Is he a children’s book author, a poet, a mathematician, or a social commentator? Where do we put him, for crying out loud?

* * *

Let’s go back to the statement I began this essay with: “I don’t like country music.”

What I’m really saying is that because I don’t like certain music or musicians that happen to be classified within a certain (completely arbitrary) category, I can justify throwing out everybody else who might happen to end up in that same category without bothering to listen to them first. Since I don’t care for Travis Tritt, I can walk past that entire section of the record store without so much as glancing at what else is being offered. It’s like staying away from New York City because you once had a bad meal at a Greek restaurant in the East Village.

We like organizing things, sorting everything – and everybody – into structures that allow us to rely on generalizations to determine our attitudes and our behavior, without requiring us to examine the component parts on their own individual merits. “Country”, “Jazz”, “Classical”, “Grunge”, “Rap” … With a single word we can accept or dismiss vast swathes of creative effort. No muss, no fuss; no need to invest a lot of time listening to anything unfamiliar.

Why not take this a step further, and add a few more labels to our shelves: “Abstract”, “Impressionist”, “Minimalist”, “Pop”? Or how about “Mystery”, “Poetry”, “Sci-fi”, “Thriller”? Or maybe still a few more: “Liberal”, “Trumpster”, “Intellectual”, “Evangelical”? Neat little drawers, each with its own label. So convenient.

The attractions of this approach are undeniable. Everything is so simple when you can reduce the entire messy, random circus of human existence to just a few convenient tags, and walk right by the awkward bits without even turning your head.

 

Bonfire of the Vanities

Just can't have anything nice around here ...

Just can’t have anything nice with you around here …

During my survey of the art news this week I happened upon a provocative headline from the Daily Beast: Why Artist Gerhard Richter Destroys His Own Art. The title of the article is a bit misleading: the writer asks the question but she does not actually attempt to answer it; instead she merely elaborates on the fact that Mr Richter has destroyed a considerable number of his own paintings over the years. She did, however, get me thinking about artists and their emotional relationship to the products of their craft — because I, too, often feel the desire to haul a big load of my artwork out into the yard and set it on fire.

Although most Americans know the phrase “Bonfire of the Vanities” as the title of a 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe, it actually comes to us originally from an event in 1497, when the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola and his followers collected books, art, musical instruments — anything that might tempt the faithful to the sin of vanity — and burned them in the the town square of Florence, Italy. A passionate reformer, Savonarola alienated everyone from the Pope to the powerful de Medici family and eventually ended as the star attraction at yet another bonfire, when he was hanged and his body burned in that same town square.

For me, personally, the urge to destroy has nothing to do with what I think of the quality of the work. It encompasses good pieces, bad pieces, even pieces I love: any product of my hands and mind can suddenly cry out to be included in the autoda. Instead, it has more to do with the way the products of creative effort can slowly accumulate into a kind of crust, cutting off air and light, stifling new ideas.

* * *

William Faulkner once advised his fellow writers to “Kill your darlings”. The Nobel laureate was speaking about the risks of becoming so emotionally invested in certain characters or situations that the work as a whole becomes nothing more than a tribute to those “darlings”, devoid of interest to anyone outside the author’s own head and heart. (After all, listening to someone singing the praises of his own offspring, while endearing in small doses, can pale rapidly when no other topic is ever permitted to intrude.) This can apply to a visual artist as well: the artist finds a technique or a subject that works well, that gets the results that she craves, and then slowly allows everything else to atrophy. Innovation, risk, and experimentation are lost, and after everyone has become sated with the confections she’s been providing, she realizes to her dismay that she’s forgotten how to do anything else.

As with so much in art, there are no hard and fast rules. Some artists have repeated themselves endlessly, and yet remained endlessly fresh and relevant. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Degas’ dancers, Modigliani’s mistresses, the collages of Hannah Höch or the little theatres of Joseph Cornell: all of these tap into a vein of creativity that could not be exhausted in a year, a decade, or even a lifetime. Others, like Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, having successfully made important statements about art and life, then proceeded to repeat those same pronouncements ad nauseam, until only death could save their bedraggled artistic reputations.

Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Nicolas de Staël, upon reaching a level of success that most artists can only dream of, each woke up one day to realize that he had become little more than a machine for turning out lucrative and popular Pollocks, Rothkos, and de Staëls. The creative landscape is littered with the corpses of careers that died a slow and ugly death as artists found themselves paralyzed by a moment of success, the reports of their activities gradually moving from ARTnews, the NY Times Review of Books, or Variety to the supermarket tabloids and the police scanner.

In 1950 Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning, after decades of poverty and obscurity, produced a painting titled “Excavation“, that catapulted him overnight to the pinnacle of the New York art scene. Influential critic Clement Greenberg praised “Excavation” as one of the greatest paintings ever produced in America; collectors began snatching up works that a year before they wouldn’t have accepted as gifts. The artist had arrived.

De Kooning never produced another painting even remotely akin to “Excavation”; in fact, he turned away from abstraction completely and began working on “Woman I“, the first of what would become a series of savage and terrifying explorations of the female form. A horrified Greenberg condemned the new work, and de Kooning once again slid — for a time, at least — back into the shadows. In retrospect, we can see what a courageous act this was: with “Excavation” de Kooning achieved fame, but then, rather than allowing that moment of success to define him forever, he simply descended back into the mines for dig for new treasures.

Like de Kooning, Richter has been both acclaimed and ridiculed, but he has never allowed himself the luxury of becoming “the man who paints Richters”. Instead, he continually reinvents himself, a strategy that has allowed him to become financially and critically successful while still remaining artistically relevant. Occasionally destroying valuable artwork is part of that process of reinvention.

Richter himself has expressed mixed emotions about his periodic pogroms. He speaks of some of the lost works with regret, yet he does not question the need for the cull. His ruminations evoke the Hindu tradition of Shiva, the Destroyer, who destroys not out of malice but impersonally, arbitrarily, to make room for the ongoing work of Brahma, the Creator: push and pull, constant movement between the two poles.

* * *

The market value of the works that Richter is known to have obliterated is estimated at somewhere around $65 million. My bonfire of the vanities would encompass little more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of paint and plywood. Still, it is strangely comforting to know that sometimes the cat and the king may both warm themselves at the same blaze.

 

Seeing it all in black and white.

zebraFor much of my childhood (up through, I believe, about 1970) all of my family’s television viewing was on an RCA portable of late 1950s vintage, a clunky plastic thing with an extensible antenna on top and a wood-grain panel on the front decorated with dials and knobs that read “On/Off”, “VHF”, “UHF”, and “Fine Tune”. Inside the unit’s scorched yellowy-beige backside brooded a clutch of humming, glowing vacuum tubes, and its strangely convex twelve-inch screen delivered the Kennedy funeral and I Love Lucy reruns alike in a palette consisting entirely of gentle, hazy grays.

Later on, of course, with shows like Star Trek and Batman, color — or its absence — became more significant, but for the first half of the sixties much of the available programming was only broadcast in black-and-white. Color technology was new, color televisions were big and expensive, and The Addams Family and The Donna Reed Show didn’t use it anyway — why spend all that money for a new TV if the only things happening in color were Clairol commercials and the second half of The Wizard of Oz? The fifties B-grade horror/sci-fi flicks to which I had been addicted from the time I could work the dials had all been produced in monochrome, and the antics of Bugs Bunny and Huckleberry Hound were no less funny in shades of gray.

Color was pretty, but it was just the red/green/blue icing on the black-and-white cake.

 *  *  *

I don’t like the word “abstract” with regard to art: it has been used and abused to such a degree over the last seventy years or so that it no longer means anything at all. I prefer the term “non-figurative”, meaning that the forms you see in such a painting are not images of some objective external object or scene — a bowl of fruit, a swimming pool, a nude woman — but purely vehicles for the artist’s ideas or processes.

Over a period of two or three years, between 1946 and 1949, New York painter Willem de Kooning created a series of non-figurative (see sidebar) canvases in black and white. To me, these are among de Kooning’s most interesting and appealing works: he began with drawings, rough sketches painted on newspaper — scenes of women, the studio, the street — which he then transferred to canvas by the simple expedient of mashing the paper onto the prepared surface while the paint was still wet, and then peeling it off. Into these fragmented and often illegible frameworks he would slather the syrupy sign-painter’s enamel, creating messy, multi-layered masterpieces.

Some art historians have speculated that de Kooning fell back on the unconventional materials because he was so impoverished that he simply could not afford expensive artists’ oil paints. This makes an appealing story, but in fact many of the artists of his circle were experimenting with black and white, including his friends and rivals Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock. Limiting color is a way of emphasizing form, and these artists were all exploring new formal territory, looking for ways to depict what was going on in their heads or on their canvases independently of real-world objects and images.

For artists like Kline or Motherwell, the limited palette was a considered choice, a means to focus attention on the forms and rhythms of their pictures without the distraction of color, but for de Kooning the monochrome works were a way to explore new ideas during a period of stress or creative block, stripping the artistic process down to its bare essentials and rebuilding it from the ground up.

* * *

Anyone who knows me is painfully aware that, for me, conversation is not a gentle give and take, happening in some quiet shared space, but is more like a door thrown open to a hurricane. The door can be slammed and bolted, but as long as it’s open, the blast coming through it can only occur at the intensity of the storm itself. Hurricanes don’t have “low”, “medium” and “fan only” settings.

I exist in a perpetual cyclone, anchored inside my own skull only by the weight of the information that I accumulate like chunks of storm debris blown up against a wall, tree branches and roofing metal and items of pool furniture that chip at the bricks and mortar when they strike, but then help protect the wall against subsequent turbulence as they pile up. I have no quiet center, no place from which I can look out and meditate on sunlight through leaves, the gloss on an apple, or the expression on the face of a friend. It isn’t possible for me to readily zero in on a visual experience and say: “This is my model, my muse, my meaningful thing.”

This means I can’t always access the external universe — the “real” world — for my subject matter. I have to build a new vocabulary with each project, a new visual syntax. The more limited the vocabulary, the simpler the goals, the more manageable the undertaking.

I think this is why I find black and white art so appealing: the rules are simpler, the goals more easily defined. In black and white, structure becomes clearer; light and shadow take on more meaning. Detail can become clinical, precise, or it can dissolve into mere texture, like the fabric of a tapestry when the colors have faded away. Removing the colors renders much of the hurricane’s airborne debris less visible, allowing other factors to clarify: movement, temperature, the response of people and things to the wind’s force.

*  *  *

When I’m tired or stressed, I scour YouTube for movies with titles like Night of the Demon, or House on Haunted Hill, or The Gorgon, old black-and-white films where Dana Andrews or Vincent Price or Peter Cushing pursue evil through big, airy rooms in bright, indirect light. Underlying themes are clear, villains are always doomed by their own excesses, and everyone speaks in complete sentences. These were the films of my childhood, first viewed on that tiny B&W portable, and they still quiet the noise like nothing else can.

Likewise, when I feel the wellsprings of creativity running low, I turn back to the basics: black ink on a gray or white surface; tiny marks, no finer than a hair, accumulating one by one until they depict a leaf, a stone, a house, an idea. No color, just structure, line, light and dark — a moment of quiet in a turbulent universe of color.

 

 

Nothing if not critical …

"The Art Critic", by Normal Rockwell

“The Art Critic”, by Normal Rockwell

The death of writer and television personality Robert Hughes in 2012 was an event that did not exactly shake western civilization to its roots. His television shows “The Shock of the New” (1980) and “American Visions” (1997) had brought him some fame in the rarefied air of the BBC/PBS universe, but despite a long and wide-ranging career – he penned an  overview of the early European colonization of his native Australia, he contributed to an array of newspapers and magazines, and he even hosted (for one week, before being replaced by Hugh Downs) the ABC television news magazine “20/20” – to most people outside the art world he was almost unknown at the time of his death.

With or without fame, in his views on art Robert Hughes was passionate, pompous, often obnoxious, but he was also unfailingly erudite and articulate, and he left us more aware and better-informed than he found us. Continue reading

What looks nice over naugahyde …?

Vincent van Gogh, "The Night Cafe", 1888

Some eateries need all the help they can get.Vincent van Gogh, “The Night Cafe”, 1888

 

At the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, our local temple of culture, an odious sculpture from the generally delightful Claes Oldenburg was replaced over the holidays by a delightful sculpture from the generally odious Jeff Koons.

Oldenburg, a icon of the sixties and seventies, has always been champion of a kind of oversized, over-the-top whimsy, taking such commonplace items as badminton birdies and clothespins and blowing them up to the size of Atlas rockets: the piece at Crystal Bridges, “Alphabet/Good Humor”, is a giant popsicle composed of letters of the alphabet melting together like fatty entrails, all painted a horribly suggestive band-aid beige.

Jeff Koons, a glib former Wall Street commodities broker, cheerfully admits that he takes no part in the actual production of any of the art that bears his name — even the concepts behind his works are appropriations of existing photographs, artworks, or consumer products. The Koons work that replaced Oldenburg’s popsicle is a giant beribboned heart, a somewhat trite Christmas tree ornament blown up to epic size, made of stainless steel and given an old-gold mirror finish.

Oldenburg’s piece was clearly not meant simply as decor. Especially in a restaurant setting, its gooey flesh-toned bulbousness is a bit disturbing; we’re supposed to respond to the idea as much as the image. Koons’ heart, on the other hand, is obviously nothing but decor. Like Mila Kunis or Channing Tatum, it’s there to be looked at:  no great ideas, no deep meanings, nothing to challenge the spectator to question his or her own expectations and assumptions. Even the basic idea, that of the trivial household item grown gigantic, is simply Oldenburg’s signature concept picked up by Koons and given a high polish and an even higher price tag.

A famous bit of Picasso lore has it that he was once approached by a woman in a restaurant who asked him to create a picture for her. With his usual panache, the artist grabbed a pen and executed a quick sketch on a napkin, which he then offered to sell the woman for a considerable sum of money. Shocked, the woman exclaimed, “But it only took you five minutes to draw that!” “Madam,” Picasso replied, “it took me forty years.”

Art as restaurant decor is certainly no new idea: Paris is littered with minor masterpieces by French artists of the last two hundred years that were tendered in payment for food and liquor in places like Le Chat Noir or Café de la Rotonde; Mark Rothko’s suicide is thought to have been at least partly triggered by his horror at the thought of a crowd of “rich bastards” sitting around in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan chowing down on caviare and filet mignon under several dozen square yards of signature Rothko canvas. I myself paid a few tabs during my salad days by sketching portraits of waitresses and bartenders in Birmingham, Alabama.

The line between Art and art, between high-concept high culture and something nice to hang over the sofa, is a fine one, more of a suggestion than a barricade. Much of the work hanging in places like the Louvre, the Tate, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art spent at least part of its history as a component of someone’s interior design scheme. After all, most of the people who buy art are not decking the halls of a museum: they’re buying something they like to look at, or that they think will be worth more some day than they’ve just paid for it, or — let’s face it — they needed to fill up a space over the sofa. Will the art of today be the Art of tomorrow? Who knows?

In art, as in politics, there are two final arbiters: money and history. Jeff Koons’ work brings in big bucks; whether it has any real significance as Art remains to be seen. Oldenburg’s floppy food and giant household items have been around for several decades now, and although they’ve lost some of their glamor as the goofiness of Pop Art has faded into the drug-addled mists of the nineteen-sixties, they still have a place in the art books, museums, and public parks of America. Arguably, Koons’ monumental balloon dogs and kitschy polyester statuary tableaux would not exist had Oldenburg not paved the way; at the same time, Oldenburg may retain some of his old-master status because of his role as precursor to more recent big-dollar snake-oil impresarios like Koons.

What will replace Koons’ “Hanging Heart” when the museum restaurant crowd gets bored with it? Since Damien Hirst is not American but British, we can assume that we won’t be treated to a pickled shark in a tank of formaldehyde or half a sheep under glass, but if history is any guide, the options are still limitless.

And that’s how it should be.

Journal: Friday, January 18

I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.

The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.

The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.

Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?