Monthly Archives: October 2010

Confessions of a Yellow Dog Democrat

These are not the most positive feeling days, as we contemplate the possibility of an imminent Republican/Tea Party take-over of Congress.

But I can understand why many Obama voters are disappointed. I am too. I think he would have been much more successful with what are now termed/tarred as “liberal” policies. I was depressed that in his October 27 appearance on The Daily Show, he came across dry as dust, he seemed to have forgotten who his target audience was in that context. If this was the chance to energize the youth vote, they may have gone to sleep the earliest since grade school. Not one political comment on how stupid it would be to vote back into power the “folks” most responsible for getting us into this mess (and by the way, Mr. President, PLEASE retire the word “folks,” it was a Bushie expression, time to reinstate “people” as the word to talk about people). And since September 11 in particular I’ve continually been annoyed at how much Democrats have been running scared.

But I’m what’s called a “Yellow Dog Democrat.” In a nutshell, that means I’d vote for a yellow dog before I’d vote for a Republican (see contrast to so-called “Blue Dog Democrats,” officials elected as Democrats but who support policies that are increasingly in line with Republican ideology even as Republicans are being pushed further to the right by the minute — if you check the Wikipedia definition of the “Blue Dogs” scroll down enough to see the link to the Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats who blocked Civil Rights legislation in the ’40s and ’50s).

In recent years my primary contact with people in their twenties and thirties has been as a teacher of MFA students. I’ve grappled with their seeming disaffection from politics, except for the blip of excitement over the election of Barack Obama. Gradually it’s occurred to me that the kind of interest that I have in politics may be as hard for them to relate to, having bought into the idea of the failed 1960s revolutionary left and seeing more and more of the cowardice of the so-called left and the Democratic Party, as it is for them as artists to really be able to inhabit the meaning and languages of painting when they are relentlessly exposed to and told they are in an irreversibly post-medium and trans-disciplinary world. Meanwhile the entropy of too much information (as in art the entropy of too many choices of potential styles and media) has affected their ability to filter and trust sources or dedicate themselves to one belief position. It would seem that my yellow dog views are as quaint as my love of painting.

Some background on my Yellow Dog Politics: my first political memories go back to the Army McCarthy Hearings. We didn’t have a TV so my parents borrowed one in order to watch the hearings. (Refugee parents who had seen what ordinary political repression and fascism could lead to, who cared about history and politics, with family friends affected by the black list). For more on this time period, see Emile de Antonio‘s news-footage only documentary Point of Order, (1964), (available here) and also Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s excellent movie on this time period, seen through the lens of the courage of Edward R Murrow. One of my first sharp political memories is from the beginning of the 1960 campaign: watching TV at the home of a neighbor, a sharply witty lady, elegant, well-mannered. When Richard Nixon appeared on the screen, she hissed at the screen image, “I hate you.” That got my attention.

The summer I was fourteen, I watched both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party conventions, gavel to gavel. Republicans: white guys, boring yet scary, racist, super anti-Communist: Barry Goldwater’s campaign Motto: In your heart you know he’s right.” Democratic comeback, “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Democrats: fascinating characters, the Shakespearean tragedy of Robert F. Kennedy’s tribute to his brother, and down and dirty confrontation about civil rights between racist Southern Democrats and civil rights pioneers, including Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony before the Credentials Committee , a riveting moment of poignant political courage.

Other childhood memories included the reverence that my parents’ generation held for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Wikipedia isn’t enough to get a sense of the incredible accomplishments and scope of Roosevelt’s career. Wonderful sources of information about Franklin and Elanor Roosevelt are Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor: The Years Alone, by Joseph Lash and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933 and Vol 2. The Defining Years: 1933-1938, by Blanche Wiesen Cook, as well as the excellent PBS American Experience documentary, F.D.R. When people voice the need in our time for someone like F.D.R., these sources give you an idea of what that means.

When you listen to F.D.R.’s fireside chats (text only for subject of each one) or his famous speeches, you can’t help but ask, Why can’t this guy be President? What we need now, and for my younger friends, one of the reasons why when I got the chance to vote I registered as a Democrat and proud of it. Please listen and don’t think about this as the past, but as inspiration for the present.
FDR on his foes: “I Welcome Their Hatred”: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Isn’t this what we’ve wanted to hear Obama say to his enemies and to Wall Street? The election would be a breeze for him and Democrats if he had. Alas, to explain to my friends who are valiantly unwilling to listen to the slightest criticism of Obama, it is against the ground of F.D.R.’s clear, lucid, simply instructive, and yet upbeat voice, that I myself find Barack Obama surprisingly underwhelming as a communicator and as an educator, which would be so important right now. And even in this wacko atmosphere we’re in, I think such a voice could still be effective. It is the change that we so desired.

The F.D.R. clip is one of a group of political speeches that have been as important to my development as a person in the world, therefore not just to my party politics, but to my work and my approach to writing, as any art work.In recent months, I’ve been collecting links to some of these moments of bravery, clarity, and eloquence in the sphere of American politics. There are many more.

For example, as an antidote to today’s most disgusting idiocies, I really recommend listening to Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year exactly before his assassination. It is brilliant, intellectual, historic, piercing.

& Hubert Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic Party Convention in support of Civil Rights. One should never let the turmoil and tragedy of the 1968 Presidential election obscure Humphrey’s fundamental decency and immense accomplishments for the public good.

Or listen to JFK’s September 12, 1960 Speech on Religion and Politics Part 1: Separation of Church and State .

Or more extraordinary, Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. The most extraordinary thing about this speech, other than the precarious modesty and danger of the physical situation, as well as Kennedy’s courage and presence of mind in a hauntingly shocking moment, comes at the end:

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget/falls drop by drop upon the heart,/until, in our own despair,/against our will,/comes wisdom/through the awful grace of God.”…. Let us dedicate to ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

What politician today would either be able to quote Aeschylus or would respect their (inner-city African-American) audience enough to think they could appreciate and respond to poetry? It is frequently noted that Indianapolis was one of the few cities in the US that did not experience rioting that night.

And Teddy, let ’em have it, on Healthcare in 1978 and in 2008. “UNIVERSAL COMPREHENSIVE COVERAGE”

And it’s not only historical figures in the good old days:  Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) on Health Reform, in 2009

So I’m still for the party of FDR, JFK, RFK, LBJ, of Ted Kennedy, and also of Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Sam Ervin, and Barbara Jordan. All dead you say? Well then I’m for the party of Senators Al Franken, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and of Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (fingers crossed he wins on Tuesday). I asked my Facebook friends to name some current Democratic Senators, Representatives, or candidates that they admire or that they just think are decent and doing as good a job as they can, and I am grateful for their responses which so far include Senator Feingold, and also Senators Bernie Sanders (OK, Independent but votes with the Democratic Caucus) and Patrick Leahy, both of Vermont, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Representatives Ed Markey of the 7th District of Massachusetts, John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District, Georgia, and 1st District CT Congressman John Larson. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they are pretty damn decent, are more likely to vote for civil rights and for the interests of the middle class and poor than for corporations despite the necessicity of corporate money, they are even occasionally courageous, and generally not bats#!t crazy. Even if I say that I think Obama was as dry as dust on The Daily Show given the audience he was trying to reach, I’ll still take dry as dust, intelligent, thoughtful, professorial about policy and committed to some concept of political cooperation and politeness even to the point of timidity any day over lying, race-baiting, drown the government in a bathtub, super-money fueled bats#!t crazy (see incredible rogues’ gallery of Republican Tea Party candidates).

I hope you will take a look at my recent posts here and on Huffington Post, Lowering the Bar on Activism and Corroding Infrastructure 2010/Robert Smithson’s Writings on Entropy, 1966-67.

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Corroded infrastructure 2010/Robert Smithson’s Writings on Entropy, 1966-67

(Based on a Note that I posted earlier today on Facebook)

Today my graduate seminar students (at Parsons Fine Arts MFA) and I had a great discussion leading from Robert Smithson’s writings on entropy to issues of pessimism about social change and what might be the point of human intervention towards ideals of progressive social activism in an entropically irreversible situation: interesting in this light to read Bob Herbert Op-Ed piece in today’s (October 26, 2010) New York Times, “The Corrosion of America”: do we just go along “haplessly”/hopelessly with the flow of entropy and the corrosion and ruin of our infrastructure (a ruin which is in a sense “always already” from before its inception, in Smithson’s example of “The Monuments of Passaic”) creating or suggesting an art which does not try to impose an idealist order or moral value to an entropic situation of urban and suburban decay, or do we believe enough in human labor despite ultimate futility or mortality to make the investment in our near futures by fixing the infrastructure? Translate that to art: “Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” (Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, 1954)

Sinkhole, Portland, Oregon, 2006, image illustrating "America is Falling Apart," by Michael Walden on http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2008/06/part_one_america_is_falling_ap.html June 29, 2008

Michael Heizer, North, East, South, West, 1967/2002. Dia Art Foundation; gift of Lannan Foundation. Photo: Tom Vinetz. from DIA Beacon website

Robert Smithson, Gravel Mirrors with Cracks and Dust, 1968. Lannan Foundation; long-term loan. Photo: Florian Holzherr. DIA Beacon website

Some excerpts from Smithson:

“A Utopia minus a bottom, a place where the machines are idle, and the sun has turned to glass, and a place where the Passaic Concrete Plant (253 River Drive) does a good business in STONE, BITUMINOUS, SAND, and CEMENT. Passaic seems full of “holes” compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures.” (from “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” 1967)

“…the entropic devil is more Manichean in that you really can’t tell the good from the bad, there’s no clear cut distinction.” (from “Entropy Made Visible” (1973): Interview with Alison Sky)

For further reading:

Essays and interviews can be found in the book: Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press,Ltd., London, England, 1996

Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, “Entropy,” Formless: A User’s Guide, New York City: Zone Books and, MIT Press, 1997 (see aaaaarg.org to download PDF of this out of print book as well as of Smithson’s essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” originally published as “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum, December 1967. FYI you have to register for aaaaarg.org but it’s free and an amazing research and teaching resource).

& Thank you to a new Facebook friend just brought to my attention Rudolf Arnheim’s essay Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order

Since this discussion is in the context of next week mid-term elections of which one theme is apathy towards political activism,  see also my recent Huffington Post piece, “Lowering the Bar on Activism”

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The fault is not in our stars, but in our brand: Abstract Expressionism at MoMA

The necessity of being perceived as having a brand at first glance seems to be specific to our time: in politics you’ll hear that President Obama can’t do such and such because it would go against “The Brand.” Brand Obama or Brand Brad Pitt can’t be altered without entering into a Bermuda triangle of non-recognition by the media. A few years ago the New School University advertised a symposium called “The Brand Called You,” highlighting the current necessity of self-cultivating the contemporary version of the Homeric epithet, the one high concept identity feature which defines you and to which all your actions and products must conform to, since the audience, political and cultural, cannot appreciate contradiction, variety, subtlety or change. [And see where that has gotten us.]

This has always existed, by any other name, for does not Cassius ask in Julius Caesar:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:(145)
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus, and Caesar: what should be in that Caesar?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;(150)

To have a “fair name” has always involved a recognizable style (+ some kind of compelling persona – being a self-destructive alcoholic or drug-addict is way up there in that department). But “Brand” suggests a more comprehensive and more restrictive commodity, whether applied to a politician or an artist.

Abstract Expressionism/the New York School is a movement whose history and ideologies began to self-consciously and deliberately create a canon to define it in contradiction to European art, and this canon has become canonical and has acquired generations of canonical texts and institutions, of which MoMA is central. Because it was for decades the canon that dominated art discourse and education, it’s also a movement whose beliefs have been seriously challenged from many subsequent ideological positions which, in some parts of the art world and academia today even make referring to this period in teaching seem like contraband (dead white men, America, New York, painting, aura).

But like all canons, it has also proven impervious to major revision, particularly to the reinsertion or reappraisal of artists considered lesser at the time because of gender or certain aesthetic characteristics. Nevertheless established reputations have risen and fallen over time.

Abstract Expressionist New York at MoMA doesn’t do much to alter one’s understanding of the canon, its canon, significantly in terms of including in the master narrative so-called “minor” participants: I’ve just assigned a group of students the transcript of Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 as the script of a play in which each person will take on the roles of two or three of the artists who attended those historic sessions, and now they must also experience vicariously something they may well experience in their own lives as artists: the vagaries of inclusion and exclusion from a movement of which you are an active participant; the reduction of a vibrant cultural field to a few branded individuals and images; the continuation of critical and institutional favoritisms that extend long past the life of the original participants.

[Note: several of the artists who participated in the Studio 35 sessions are sculptors, including Louise Bourgeois, David Hare, Herbert Ferber, and Richard Lippold, whose work is included in a subsidiary exhibition at MoMA, Abstract Expressionist New York: Rock, Paper, Scissors. This is in itself a curatorial decision that maintains the canon rather than transforming it by recreating the complexity of an art movement: the artists around the table at Studio 35 questioned whether they were in fact part of a community, and there was an uncomfortable silence around the dominance of painting, but sculptors and painters, as well as future stars and so-called “minor artists,” before history had fixed that determination, were around the table. Now they have been separated—on what ground we can’t know, since one sculptor at least, David Smith, is in the main show (though that show significantly is subtitled “The Big Picture”). If one, why not others?

For a much livelier, intimate, and challenging revision of the New York School, look to Action Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976, the excellent catalogue of an excellent show, held at the Jewish Museum in 2008, curated by Norman Kleeblatt where the aesthetic programs and critical approaches of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg were used to frame the intellectual and aesthetic ferment of a period and a place. In an appropriately more intimate space were great examples of many of the same artists now in the two MoMA exhibitions, sculpture and painting together, with ephemera presented with greater moment, and critical text, so important to the period, used as the fulcrum]

What the MoMA exhibition does do is engage in some significant acts of what looks like retribution: as I walked through the show I couldn’t help but take notice not just of who was in it, but how each artist was placed and represented.

This led me to think about the work through the lens of the Brand. At first this seems to contradict approaches to art-making that are characteristic of the period, such as the picture plane as the arena of existential search. But of course most of the artists in the first two generations of Abstract Expressionism became known for a particular stylistic brand: drip (Pollock), zip (Newman), stroke (de Kooning), chroma (Rothko).

Here then are some major case histories from the main exhibition.

Case History I: Barnett Newman
The most glorious room in the exhibition devoted to an individual artist contains the paintings of Barnett Newman. At the threshold you are confronted with Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51), a huge painting seen, as I think it should be, on a wall that does not dwarf it but rather allows the viewer to experience her own scale. Newman wrote: “I don’t manipulate or play with space. I declare it,” and “One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there. And one of the nicest things that anybody ever said about my work is…that standing in front of my paintings [you] had sense of your own scale.” To enhance this experience the Museum has placed The Wild (1950) on the next wall, to the right of Vir. One isolated vertical paint stroke, only one and half inch wide but the same height as Vir, The Wild is the opposite of all-over painting as espoused by one of Newman’s champions, Clement Greenberg: it is sculptural, it is even theatrical, but the two works create a pincer movement that assert or challenge the viewer’s sense of proportion, dimensionality, and measure just as Newman wished.

Barnett Newman, Vir Heroicus Sublimis and The Wild, Installation view, MoMA

Newman’s work is well served by the proportions of the room, which are as close to perfect in relation to the scale of the work and the experience of the viewer, not too big, not too small. For Newman’s 1951 show at Betty Parsons Gallery, in which Vir Heroicus Sublimis was first exhibited, Newman tacked the following statement to the wall,

“There is a tendency to look at large paintings from a distance.
The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.”

This statement is significant because as the show progresses, the proportions of the rooms lose cohesion and the viewing experience takes on a more alienating sense of wandering through vast cold halls filled with works with sometimes uncertain, sometimes overdetermined relations to each other, and less authentic or effective relation to the scale of the viewer. But more on that later.

Barnett Newman, Onement III and Onement I (right), MoMA installation view

The best part of the Newman room though is visible when you turn your back to Vir and see Onement III and Onement I (1948) framing the doorway. Newman spoke often of Onement I and much has been written about it, and I highly recommend all of it: Yve-Alain Bois’s essay “Perceiving Newman” in Painting as Model is a terrific account of Newman’s discourse on figure/ground with one paragraph in it in particular one of the best I’ve ever read on a single painting, on how it achieves what the artist wished to achieve, but himself had to take time to understand that he had achieved. And in what turned out to be his last interview, filmed two months before his death, by Emile de Antonio for his essential art documentary, Painters Painting, Newman spoke of the meaning of his first Onement.

“I recall my first painting –that is, where I felt that I had moved into an area for myself that was completely me—I painted on my birthday in 1948 [young artists today take note, Newman was then 43 years old].  It’s a small red painting, and I put a piece of tape in the middle and I put my so called “zip.” Actually it’s not a stripe. Now, the thing that I would like to say about that is that I did not decide, either in ’48 or ’47 or ’46 or whatever it was, “I’m going to paint stripes.” I did not make an arbitrary, abstract decision. … I was filling the canvas in order to make that thing very, very viable. And in that sense I was emptying the painting by assuming the thing empty, and suddenly in this particular painting, Onement, I realized that I had filled the surface, it was full, and from then on those other things looked to me atmosphere. … I feel that my zip does not divide my paintings…it does the exact opposite,: it unites the thing. It creates a totality.” (from Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews)

Barnett Newman, Onement I (1948), detail, oil on canvas and oil on masking tape, painting dimensions 27 1/4″x 16 1/4″

Given so much language surrounding it, so many claims for its importance to the history of painting, Onement I offers an important lesson. A work that the artist and art history recognized as a major gesture in the debate over figure/ground is in the flesh a small, intimate, almost touchingly modest work, according to my definition of modest painting (in my essay of the same name in A Decade of Negative Thinking) as not necessarily painting that is small (although Onement I is small) but which is ambitious for painting itself, beyond the ego ambition of the individual artist. By the standard established by Pollock and by Newman in works like Vir, and even in comparison to Onement III, it’s tiny, its surface is fragile, the orange zip dry and crackled with time. It could not be a more contingent work. The work that established the Newman brand itself is itself unbranded, it has the freshness and tenderness of a first dance as much as it is, and was intended to be, an aesthetic manifesto.

I assume Newman would despise the idea that his manifesto, his conceptual and physical gesture in the history of art, embodied in the “zip” might ever be seen as a brand, but the paintings hold together and hold forth. They retain their difficulty yet exude a minimalist beauty they have helped to teach us to appreciate. Brand Newman worked for him as a metaphysical stance and it still works.

Case History II: Mark Rothko
Rothko’s floating rectangles are as identifiable as Newman’s “zips” or Pollock’s “drips.” And in this exhibition the paintings that make up the Rothko brand are given a big room but in it the more familiar “Rothkos” are overwhelmed by a huge, gloriously colored painting, No. 1 (Untitled) (1948), one I had never seen exhibited at MoMA before, an expanse of glowing yellows, salmon, with relational marks in some cases almost like bits of color tape, with a free-flowing composition and less didactically reduced visual program than what we know as “Rothko.” In the light of the dark depressing minimalist black and grey late Rothko hung at the end of one of the later rooms in the show, [Untitled, (1969-1970)] you can begin to get the idea of how having a brand can be a lethal prison for the artist and for the audience too.

Mark Rothko, No. 1 (Untitled), (1948), oil on canvas, 8′ 10 3/8″x9′ 9 1/4″

Mark Rothko, No.1 (Untitled), (1948), detail

I bet we don’t get to see this lovely off-brand, pre-brand painting again for a long time.

Jack Tworkov (represented in the exhibition by The Wheel, 1953) spoke in an interview about Rothko, for whom he had great respect and personal compassion: “Rothko, in one conversation, said that it was a very great struggle for him to find himself as a painter and that he risked something in developing this new form that he had. And when he had it and finally an identity and it was his, he just couldn’t let it go. And towards the end he admitted tremendous boredom. He was bored and yet did not know how to make a change. And change might have meant a kind of impairment of his identity. And he was going to hold on to that…for the Rothko image. […] He did. In some way, it’s admirable and another it’s kind of tragic.” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov)

It’s always dangerous to fall into the biographical fallacy but seeing the last Rothko in the show, it’s hard not to wonder about chicken vs. egg: did Rothko paint depressing, formally and chromatically evacuated paintings because he was suicidally depressed, or was he suicidally depressed because he had painted himself into a dead end for his painting? No.1 (Untitled) (1948) is undoubtedly a “transitional work”  but scrolling back to that work and scrolling forward to the final paintings, you begin to wonder what other stories might have been possible.

Cast History III: Willem de Kooning.
At the opening I felt that de Kooning had been utterly screwed by the show, given neither a room of his own, nor a grouping of work. Woman I (1950-52) is given a wall, but the spot it occupies in the narrative marks the point in the show where the installation becomes confusing, loses concentration,and where large rooms turn into vast halls where even great works seem like orphans (the scale of the David Smith and Franz Kline room does these artists a disservice as the temperature drops and the corporate quality rises although the same works in another context would feel very different).

Considering that de Kooning was one of the dominant figures of the period, he is surprisingly marginalized. His richly surfaced yet austere black and white oil and enamel abstraction Painting (1948) is tucked in next to a great big elegant programmatic Bradley Walker Tomlin. Valentine (1947), a tender small painting is nestled near Arshile Gorki’s large mounted work on paper,  Summation (1947), marking Gorki and the Master, as perhaps he was, leading his younger friends towards serious art practice and abstraction in the early years. Nevertheless…

Arshile Gorki, Summation and Willem de Kooning, Valentine (both, 1947), MoMA installation

It turns out that MoMA just doesn’t own that many major works by de Kooning –in her New York Times review Roberta Smith refers to “the institutional bias against de Kooning.” They may own the brand: for better or worse, de Kooning’s brand is Woman I more than any other painting. Reams of text will tell you why and MoMA’s imprimatur is part of the story, it creates Brand. But, although it had never occurred to me before, maybe de Kooning doesn’t really have a brand, you can’t say zip, drip, floating colored rectangle, black on black. Sticking a cut-out smile on a semi-figurative expressionist painting is not the same as a brand. What makes de Kooning such a great artist may be something far more subtle, far more interior to painting itself and perhaps expressed best in his earlier works, those that are, again, often described as transitional, from figurative works of the early 40s to even abstractions such as Painting, Attic, or Excavation. But the judgment of the market makes even de Kooning’s biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, seem to subscribe to the idea that de Kooning’s earlier work including his “men” series and his early 40s portraits of women were in some way transitional, therefore, subtly, lesser. Yet that’s what I have always loved about these paintings, that you can see classical representation being wiped away and then, in the early abstractions, expressionism contained by a deeply felt sense of formal discipline. But interiority and brand don’t mix.

In order to see a better representation of de Kooning as a painter, with a greater range from the figurative to the classically abstract, as in Attic (1949) to large scale brushwork abstraction, visit the Metropolitan’s collection: for one thing the Met did not discriminate against de Kooning’s earlier more traditionally representational paintings.

Case history IV: Jackson Pollock
Pollock’s work is perhaps the most famous brand of the Abstract Expressionist movement (here include the whole package: the work itself, so absolutely uniquely recognizable, and so consistent with the ideology of both major critics of the period, and the man–rough-hewn inarticulate Westerner, tormented Orphean drunkard).

Hans Hofmann, Spring (1944-45), oil on wood, 11 1/4 x 14 1/8″, proving that one man’s brand is another’s one-off experiment [see also the work of Janet Sobel

Pollock has his own room with a chronological range of work but something feels wrong with the room: it is too vast, so that One: Number 31, 1950 (1950) is placed to the far right of a very long wall. Its magical and magisterial effect is best achieved if treated like Vir Heroicus Sublimis, on a wall that just accommodates it and places the viewer’s body in direct confrontation and meditation. It’s not that this painting isn’t beautiful no matter what, but even a very large and great painting can turn into a postage stamp in the wrong circumstances. Here it is subtly undermined, seemingly in order to accommodate the sight-line pairing of Pollock’s smaller but bold and rough Number 7, 1950 (1950),  hung unusually high on the wall, with David Smith’s linear steel sculpture Australia (1951). Also in the room are post-“drip” works such as Easter and the Totem(1953) that are generally seen as problematic, the point where Pollock seemed not to know what to do next. Though bold graphic works, they are off-brand.

But so is the first painting you see in the show, Pollock’s She-Wolf (1943), a strong Picasso-influenced painting although Picasso would most likely have defined the animal with a strong black outline which in the Pollock is obscured by a turbulent painterliness which prefigures Pollock’s last works, which are also seen as off-brand (tragically so, instead of, as in She-Wolf, developmentally), although it suggests a move towards materiality, mass, and perhaps even an atavistic need to return to some form of representation, in a way which Guston was able to pursue, when he became dissatisfied with abstraction.

Case History V: Guston
You reach the Guston paintings either by drifting past the truly awful Frankenthaler–it’s so bad I’m beginning to think it might be the most contemporary work in the show! You can also arrive at the group of Gustons just after you’ve hit rock bottom in terms of the loss of concentration of the installation, having passed classic period Ad Reinhardt (he is not rock bottom, don’t get me wrong, but he would spit at being hung without his own space and to have de Kooning’s big, blue splashy, broad-stroked landscape-based abstraction, A Tree in Naples and his own Abstract Painting (Blue), (1952) visible together in a sight-line no doubt chosen for the occurrence of blue in both works. Reinhardt made no secret of his contempt for de Kooning’s expressionism and one of the best bits of ephemera in the MoMA show (see obscure positioning of ephemera on 4th floor stairway landing) is a letter he wrote to MoMA curator Dorothy Miller about how he’s OK with being included in one of her group “Americans” exhibitions so long as “the show is free of Greenberg’s “Heroic-Pop-Artists-Pioneers” of “Abst.Exp.” or Hess’s “Swell-Fellows-&-Old-Masters” and “free of all the “KootzandJanis-Kids” now in their fifties and sixties, seventies and eighties,” i.e. pretty much everybody except himself and especially not de Kooning), and Rothko’s dark end of the soul.

Ad Reinhardt, Letter to Dorothy Miller, 1963

Willem de Kooning, A Tree in Naples (196o) and Ad Reinhard, Abstract Painting (Blue), 1952, MoMA installation sight line

The exhibition includes two beauties from Guston’s Ab Ex period, Painting (1954) with its close knit, highly sculptural web of glowing salmon and pink small strokes, and The Clock 1956-57) where the similar strokes, in darker tones, gathering into a central area, leaving the all-over and beginning to congeal into the suggestion of form. Guston’s Edge of Town 1969) may represent what now is known as the Guston brand, crudely outlined, cartoon-influenced figures and still-life objects, but what makes Guston so meaningful to contemporary painters is that he didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. He believed in painting more than he believed in Abstract Expressionism or even than in his own beautiful contributions to that movement. He ditched Brand Guston I, but he held on to paint, reached back to the past of his early interest in political representation to paint in the present of contemporary politics and to apply the meaning that oil paint could create to the humble details of daily life, a nail, a book, a shoe.

Philip Guston, “Painting” (1954), oil on canvas, 63 1/4 x 60 1/8″

Philip Guston, “Painting” (1954), detail: when a guard noticed me taking close-up pictures of this painting he approached me and instead of telling me to step back, he said, “this is the best.”

Philip Guston, Edge of Town (1969), detail (painting: oil on canvas, 6′ 5 1/8″x 9′ 2 1/2″)

The problem with looking at artwork through the fulcrum of Brand, is that you aren’t really looking at the artwork itself. The specificity of an individual artwork holds visual and intellectual information and each such work should define the artist, rather the brand ending up masking the work, stifling the artist’s progress, and potentially killing the artist’s soul as well as the soul of the viewer who is truly looking.

Barnett Newman, The Voice (1950), egg tempera and enamel on canvas, 8′ 1/8″x 8′ 9 1/2,” with viewer, MOMA

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