Tag Archives: Jack Tworkov

A Remembrance: Sarah Wells (June 6, 1950-June 6, 1998)

This post is inspired by two aspects of the life of the artist.

First, friendships are very important to artists, perhaps because the nature of being an artist often includes necessary aloneness in the making, the thinking, or the ideological position, within an atmosphere of bracing but sometimes corrosive competitiveness so that it is essential to survival as a practicing artist and as a human being to have a core of friends who know and understand your work from its roots and who can suspend their tendencies towards competition enough to support and advise you.

As a teacher, I see my students start their professional lives in little clusters: graduating classes of MFA students or Skowhegan participants from a particular year move into neighborhoods together, share studios, curate each others’ work into shows, get each other jobs, support each others’ achievements. After a while career paths, changing ideologies, and private lives sever some of these bonds, but some continue to sustain for a lifetime and are one of the most precious resources one can have. One may strive for historical importance but at the bottom line one’s practice rests on the shoulders of a few friends who know, understand, and believe.

Second, many of my friends are, like me, not only artists themselves but they are the children and sometimes also the parents of artists: we are all responsible not just for our own work, which is work enough, but also their work, their memory, their reputation. If running your own career is difficult, maintaining the career of a dead artist is even harder, whether the artist was famous or not. For us, there is an ironic tension, a valiant sense of quixotic absurdity, between the necessity we feel to produce our work (I don’t mean the commercial necessity, I mean the creative necessity) and our unique awareness of the burden that any artist’s productivity imposes on the maker and those who end up responsible for it–perhaps contemporary artists currently engaged in post-medium, post-object social practices will leave behind a minimum of stuff but even very successful artists who are lucky enough to sell the majority of their work still often leave their heirs with very problematic estates.

Among my friends, while working on their own art work: in the past decade Mimi Gross has led the development of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, while Susan Bee has exhibited  her mother Miriam Laufer’s work, packed up her father Sigmund Laufer‘s work in printmaking, and supervised two exhibitions of the photography, and the publication of books and catalogs of her daughter Emma Bee Bernstein‘s photography and writing. Since 2001, I edited The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, a project long nurtured by his daughters Helen Tworkov and Hermine Ford, I’ve begun archiving my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor‘s artwork, made The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor, a video documentary about their art produced for the conference “The Lure of the Detail,” in honor of my late sister Naomi Schor‘s signal 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, which with the help of many of my sister’s friends I was able to have brought back into print in 2007, all this while working on my own painting and writing as well as archiving it in order to create a comprehensive website.

I think also about all my parents’ friends in art school in Warsaw in the 1930s, a whole fertile world which perished, how my parents lost that initial loving context, and how much my mother tried to keep their names alive so that now I am the only one who remembers anything about them.

Art students at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and friends, Warsaw c.1936: far left, a friend at whose house the group often gathered, last name Mackover (spelling uncertain); third from left with the burning blue eyes, Fishel Zylberberg (known also as Fiszel Zber, 1903-c.1942-43), a wood-engraver and from all accounts and appearance a magnetic and brilliant man. They all perished in the Shoa except for my father Ilya Schor, far right, leaning on the easel.

Young artists have fun in every generation, and perhaps young artists can imagine what it would mean if they suddenly lost those with whom they now share such companionship and joy. I think the artist Wermus is in the middle, bottom row but right this minute I'm not sure.

Etching from the 1930s by a friend of my parents, last name Wermus, Polish artist, killed in Russia before WWII

When I was packing this fall for my recent move, I found an etching upon which, sometime in the past for when I would find it in just this way, my mother had scrawled, “Wermus our best friend in Warsaw perished in Stalins cleaning of Jews in 1938-39 in Moscow.”  So there was once a Polish printmaker called Wermus who went to Russia to work with a master engraver and who perished in Stalin’s purges just before the beginning of the Second World War. As far as I know he and his wife, who also died, had no children, and perhaps now I am the one living being who knows he once lived. The least I can do is make a tiny place for the memory of this  artist here in the present.

I have unpacked every box that was moved from my loft on Lispenard Street and at the moment it looks like everything made it intact except for one group of, as luck would have it, absolutely crucial, irreplaceable archival material that for the present seems to have vanished, including all the black and white documentation of my work up until the 1990s, among which were many many photos and negatives by the sculptor and photographer Sarah Wells. I had scanned some of the pictures but that’s not the same as having her original prints and the negatives.

Sarah took this picture of me in 1993 at my studio at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Studios, then in Tribeca, with in the background some of my work, a segment of War Frieze in the wall, top,and some of my punctuation mark paintings.

The editors of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Susan Bee and Mira Schor, 1991, photo: Sarah Wells

Sarah was a dear friend, a lovely person, a very talented artist, and she made her living as an excellent photographer of other artists’ work. She has been much on my mind these past few weeks because of my realization that this material is, I hope only temporarily, lost, and especially today: we were born the same year, 6 days apart, and often celebrated our birthdays together. Her tragic early death from cancer came thirteen years ago today, on her 48th birthday.

In another instance of trying to celebrate the work of an artist, Sarah’s friends, among them Medrie MacPhee and Judd Tully published Sarah Wells, a catalog for a retrospective exhibition of her work held at the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York in 2000. I wrote the following essay for the catalog. Indicative of the special problems in maintaining histories in the digital age, I can’t find my Word files from that period so I have scanned my essay and a few reproductions from the catalog. I hope the text is legible enough.

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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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Looking for art to love, day two: uptown

Uptown, at the Met, April 22

I arrived at the Met late in the afternoon, having stopped first at Acquavella Gallery to see Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection. I feel like I knew the Sculls personally because I show Emile de Antonio’s 1973 great documentary film Painters Painting whenever I teach about the New York School, which means often. The Scull’s appearance is a highlight of a film full of highlights: I love the scene where Ethel, with a vivacious enthusiasm that seems at once genuinely innocent and rapaciously disingenuous, describes Andy Warhol, armed with bags of coins, creating her portrait by taking her to Times Square to have her picture taken in photobooths in a tacky arcade. So it is great to see the painting in the show:

Andy Warhol, detail, "Ethel Scull 36 Times," 1963, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 100"x144"

I also feel like I know the Sculls because of Jack Tworkov’s description of them in a diary entry + note scribbled on the back of an American Airlines ticket envelope, returning from a trip to Buffalo for the opening of a new wing at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery:

Friday, January 19, 1962

Took plane with Leo for Buffalo. Sat with Sculls. New People, like cheap bright aluminum pots. For whom is “Avant-Garde” art intended, for them obviously. They never say art without the prefix Avant-Garde.

*Vulgar people—I don’t mean not nice people. They can even be pleasant—nevertheless they can be embarrassing. They are unsure still of their accent, their reading matter, their pleasures, their vacation places. They use all these things for self-improvement which is itself vulgar and I speak as one who has suffered all the self-improvement I can stand. They [are] embarrassed with their own status, eager to acquire through culture what has been denied to them because of family background, race, religion or the unaccustomed uses of recently acquired wealth. Since they are fundamentally embarrassed people they are essentially unaware and make little use of their fundamental strength—what is peculiarly their own (as the elite knows so well how to do) and make a great show of borrowing clothing of what is after all mere social disguises. These people are really new people as new as an aluminum pot. It is for them essentially that avant-art is made. They are the mass market for what chic initiates.

(The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, 130)

All the more amusing then that the show is installed in such elegant upper East side mansion style rooms with ornate moldings, parquet floors, French windows, and gilt-framed mirrors. Nouveau Riche meets Edith Wharton New York. Two excellent early Rosenquist paintings were a nice surprise, both very restrained in color, both working from the photographic but not yet based on commodity or military spectacle: the flat color and use of disappearance and deletion within the appropriated photographic image in Untitled (Blue Sky), 1962, reminded me of much more recent works by John Baldessari . Another surprise: Jasper Johns did paint some bad paintings back in the day! Johns’ Double Flag from 1962 is in my opinion a rare stinker from that period, I’m not sure whether this is because of the particularly pedestrian use of realistic color in this work or the rather slack paint surface quality (the gallery web site perhaps wisely does not include an image of this work).

James Rosenquist, "Untitled (Blue Sky)," oil on canvas, 84"x72," 1962

At the Met, with only forty-five minutes before closing time, I decided to just look at the The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry. An amazing show which required more time than I could give it since each miniature painting necessitates careful examination with one of the magnifying glasses supplied by the museum in order to fully experience its monumentality, but the surprise for me were a group of astounding and curious sculptures I encountered unexpectedly in passing as I was speeding back through the Medieval Sculpture Hall towards The Art of Illumination, which is in the Lehman Wing: in the center of the hall, on a simple platform, stands an eerie procession of thirty-six small alabaster figurines, lined up two by two, led by two even smaller figures. These are The Mourners, Tomb Sculptures carved by Jean de La Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier between 1443 and 1456 to adorn the tomb of Duke John the Fearless and Margaret of Bavaria. They’re usually set into Gothic architectural niches so this exhibition offers an unusual opportunity to see them in the round.

I have a weakness for representations of drapery in painting and sculpture. Here the style of representation is realistic though with a trace of Gothic elegance, caught in time between the massive sculptural rendering of drapery on many figures in the work of Giotto of the early fourteenth century and that of Zurbaran’s more naturalistic and yet also more dramatic depiction of similarly garbed and hooded monks, from the early to mid-1600s. These figures were once polychrome: this and much more historical context for these figures can be found in a recent book review by Anthony Grafton of The Mourners and the catalogue of The Art of Illumination.

Mourner with drawn hood, alabaster, 16 1/2"x 6 1/8" x 5 1/8," Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier, 1443-1456

There is a weird resemblance to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the exquisitely rendered drapery of the monks’ robes with cowls often completely obscuring their faces (though if one peers into the shadow of the cowl, their features are as delicately carved as the most expensive nineteeth-century porcelain doll): of course the train of influence runs in the other direction but you can’t help but think of Star Wars for a minute, until you experience the specific features and accoutrements of each mourner. Because of the dominance of drapery these sculptures are as abstract as they are figurative, and as monumental as they are doll-like. They are really fascinating little figures, mourners but poker-faced. Despite the drama of their depicted grief, they have a precise kind of calm in their form.

Mourner, Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier, 1443-1456

Mira Schor, sketch of what I think is the figure above, seen from the side

I was particularly interested in the figures holding open books, since this is an image I have recently been working with, a figure — myself — who, among other things, is a mourner reading the book of the past while walking into the future. Despite the fact that I am in fact drawing such figures in my work, I was irritated that photography was not permitted at the Met (and annoyed at the vigor which the guard applied to her enforcement of this rule) so that I had to make do with some quick sketches, which proved particularly ineffective: usually my sketches of artworks recall the work in a more vivid and embodied way for me than any pictures I take at the same time, but even when looking at the special website for this exhibition, which allows you to rotate the figures 360 degrees and look at them from three vantage points (from above, eye level, and from below), I still can’t be sure I recognize one of the figures I drew, attracted by the Gothic elegance of a slightly slouching slim pose.

I feel there is something very useful to me about these sculptures, individually and their grouping, here particularly the idea of the isolation and privacy of individual mourning in relation to the rituals of collective mourning. Because they’re resonant of some aspects of work I am doing, they suggest something about what I might do, as yet unknown to me .

Mourner with drawn hood, reading a book, Jean de la Huerta and Antoine Le Moiturier, 1443-1456

Mira Schor, 38th spread, Grey Summer Notebook, ink and gesso on paper, 9 7/8”x14”, 2009

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