Tag Archives: Philip Guston

Wonder and Estrangement: Reflections on Three Caves, part 3 of 3

This is the continuation of an earlier piece from July 28th

*St. Francis in the Desert

June 9th of this year was an exceptionally hot day in New York. I don’t have air conditioning yet in my new home so I passed the day cooling off in three of New York’s miraculous caves filled with painted and sculpted images–the Frick Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

My triple-decker museum day began when I found myself passing by the Frick Museum: I remembered that Giovanni Bellini‘s 1480 painting St. Francis in the Desert  was going on special view so I went in to cool off and to see how the special installation, “In a New Light: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert,” might change one’s view of a familiar work.

I had just seen Werner Herzog‘s Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Paleolithic cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave in France and I had been thinking of the 1946 Russian children’s movie The Stone Flower which made an indelible impression on me when I saw it as a small child, so I had rock faces and caves on my mind and there in the familiar painting was a man standing alone on a stone ledge, in front of a  cliff face very similar to the location of the Chauvet Cave. The man’s modest hut,  an open lean-to, frames a dark entrance into the rock face. On a rough wooden reading desk there is a book and on a little shelf, which infrared reflectogram analysis now tells us was a last minute addition by the artist, is placed the vanitas of a human skull, not unlike the one bear skull seemingly placed by a human hand on a rock in the Chauvet cave.

This is the the third cave I want to write about, the one that you cannot enter, whose entrance you can barely see, the dark portal into the stone cliff in front of which St. Francis receives the stigmata from an unseen blast of divine light.

In the museum’s brochure and in the many appreciations of the painting by art critics Holland Cotter (a very thorough and informative article), Peter Schjeldahl, Blake Gopnik, and Jerry Saltz, no mention is made of this cave entrance, everyone refers only to the hut or simple shelter in front of it.

Yet in a painting where every detail is present in order to advance a religious narrative, the cave portal must have significance.

But before I propose what I think might have been Bellini’s meaning for this iconographic element, let me turn to First Impressions, Judith Thurman’s 2008 New Yorker essay about the paleolithic cave paintings in the Chauvet and other Southern European caves, an essay which Herzog credits with inspiring him to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Thurman is careful to warn against any contemporary explanation of the meaning of these paintings for the men that did them (though even her own assertions demonstrate how hard it is to escape supposition and speculation), but all her information is suggestive and inspiring. She lays out the time frame of the paintings, noting that based on the geological time frame of mineral deposits on the cave walls, in some cases 5000 years may separate one layer of paintings from another without any significant alteration in style of drawing. This is due to what Thurman refers to a “stable” culture:

A new age in the science of prehistory had begun in 1949, when radiocarbon dating was invented by Willard Libby, a chemist from Chicago. One of Libby’s first experiments was on a piece of charcoal from Lascaux. Breuil had, incorrectly, it turns out, classified the cave as Perigordian. (It is Magdalenian.) He had also made the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive, and Leroi-Gourhan worked on the same premise. In that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, [Gregory] Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

In today’s willfully amnesiac ahistorical media environment, such millennial cultural continuity is indeed unimaginable, which is part of the deep appeal of these works. Notions of continuity and tradition are constantly overridden by the impulse for progress or at least speed, change, and novelty. Forget about 5000 years, even 60 are too much.

In this regard, I began my summer reading with the e-flux journal’s small book, What is Contemporary Art?–an interesting collection of texts whose answer to the title’s question is that actually that the question is Where is  Contemporary Art? placing its location beyond the boundaries and histories of Western art more than addressing, for example, what it might look like or consist of, though it is implicit that it does not likely consist of any media associated with modernism, especially painting. My reading however proceeded down the streets of the old art center of New York, as I  read a number of books about the New York School, including Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, David Kaufmann’s Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works , and Morton Feldman’s wonderful essays collected in Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Not surprisingly, given my upbringing in the New York artworld of that period and tradition, I found much commonality with ideas from that period about painting and about the creative experience itself. In a millennial frame, thinking of the cave painters’ 5000 years or more “stable” culture, it should stand to reason that ideas that go back only 60 years (albeit with a century-long back story) would still have something left in them for a contemporary artist to work out or work from,  but I know that there are many contemporary artists and theorists who feel that these ideas are dead or, if they aren’t, should be.

Nevertheless, here I am in front of a painting made 500 years ago, and our culture since its creation has been stable enough that the story of St. Francis of Assisi and the story of Christ remain in our collective history enough that one can  put forward a reasonable supposition about Bellini’s incorporation of this topographic detail. Can it be anything else than the cave from which no living man can return, except, that is, for Jesus? The darkened entrance to a tomb set into the natural sepulcher of a cave in a stone cliff, such as the sepulcher of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, foretelling his own resurrection from the confines of a similar cave wall tomb chamber. In Roman Judea, this was the Jewish burial ritual:

The Jews of Early Roman Palestine had a long tradition of prompt burial of the dead. Most funerals took place as soon as possible after death, and almost always on the same day.  As soon as death occurred, preparations began: the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments, its bodily orifices were stopped, and strips of cloth were wrapped tightly around the body–binding the jaw closed, holding the hand to the sides, and tying the feet together. Thus prepared, the corpse was placed on a bier or in a coffin and carried out of town in a procession to the family tomb, usually a small rock-cut cave entered through a narrow opening that could be covered with a stone. [source]

There are other ways in which this work reflects cultural stability.

Even though the Renaissance was a period of intense intellectual and technological growth, and even though this painting was produced with the then new technique of oil paint, it was so well crafted that it has endured in excellent physical condition for 500 years: technical manuals from the period, such as Cennino Cennini‘s 15th century The Craftsman’s Handbook, give an idea of the labor and craft involved in every aspect of panel painting, from weathering wood panels for a couple of years to eliminate any chance of warping (St. Francis is painted on three joined poplar wood panels) to purifying gesso “a whole month by being soaked in a bucket.”

One can imagine that the painting may survive 500 more years if given half a chance, and even if found buried under the ruins of the Frick Museum at some future moment of archeological exploration and excavation, it might still be intelligible, so long as there are still men, trees, rocks, and bunny rabbits left on earth [something that cannot be said for the kind of flickering images one sees in contemporary museums, video installations and digital projections that may well be impossible to view in the passage of a single generation, if that–I have plenty of diskettes from the early 2000s, but no reader with which to look at them, how about you?]

The painting reflects a stable culture in another way. Not only was the painting so well made in terms of material support and surface that it has survived in good condition for over 500 years, but it is composed like a tank! This is an astonishingly stable and balanced composition, with an strongly established foreground balanced by a sharply delineated background.  The painting is disconcertingly close to, though not exactly, a square, a close ratio that has the effect of locking the viewer into a perspective that recedes into space yet guarantee a frontal focus. It is an unusual ratio, avoiding the Gothic narrow vertical and the wider Renaissance rectangle. The nearly square format divides into roughly four near squares in such a way that each area is imbricated, though at the same time the top left quadrant which represents the distant background of field and hill towns is so sharply etched as a bold overall square shape with a different overall coloration from the rest of the painting, that you could carve it out of the composition like  a block of stone.

In one of my Google image searches for jpegs of St. Francis I came upon a bizarre but strangely apt comparison, of Piet Mondrian‘s Broadway Boogie Woogie and Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert.

Google Image search result for Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert, July 31, 2011, screen capture

When I tried to refind this unexplained combination to see what the original point of it was, I couldn’t find it but the momentary conjunction made a kind of strange sense to me: the geometry of Bellini’s composition and the odd way in which it undermines the programmatic illusion of spatial depth place it in a line that can be drawn forward to Mondrian’s painting, which, in turn, could stand as a diagrammatic analysis of the earlier work.

Even St. Francis himself is an exceptionally stable figure: not only does his monk’s robe retain the effect of sculptural mass of early figures in the paintings of Giotto, but in doing a number of sketches of him this summer trying to imagine the outline of his body under the robes, I came to the conclusion that he is planted firmly on his feet even if his soul is reeling.

So this is a painting of a man in some state of transcendence, ecstasy, or surrender, it is a landscape painting with an illusionistic representation of deep perspectival space, it is a painting which evinces a profound confidence in a natural order, yet it is also a painting in which a medieval or Northern Renaissance overlay of a carpet of exquisite and endearing vignettes of flowers, rabbits, birds, blades of grass creates a overall field almost like the field of one of the Unicorn tapestries.

Here, in a manner similar to Herzog’s use of 3D to heighten the movie viewer’s experience of the Chauvet cave painting, the intervention of new technological advances in imaging reveals more of the painting than meets the naked eye. As part of its recent hi-tech inspection, the ink underpainting has been studied and documented via infrared analysis and the 500 year old oil on three wood panels painting has been found to be in excellent condition. And, in addition to scanning the physical depth of the painting to reveal the very complete underpainting, its surface has also been scanned. The Frick’s St. Francis in the Desert was recently chosen to be one of the first world masterpieces to be scanned for the Google Art Project and the museum has set up computer viewing screens in a small room off the main conservatory where you can inspect the painting in astounding detail: you can get close enough to see details that you cannot see even if you are right in front of the painting, close enough to see traces of fingerprints of whoever smoothed on the gesso ground by hand, or the single tiny flick of white glaze in St. Francis eye.

The painting combines the newly developed representation of deep space with a more medieval or northern, Flemish, attention to detail, narrative and decorative. The dominant bold elements of the overall composition combined with the carpet effect of flowers, birds, leaves of grass, every thing represented with fine detail and delicate brushstrokes all across the surface of the panel somehow have the effect of making the painting seem astonishingly flat, for all that it has an ambitious spatial program with the theatrical staging of the desert set against a civilization of fields and walled, turreted villages going back miles and miles in to the vanishing blue perspectival space.

But not even the magnifying powers of the Google Art Project can take you inside that flat darkness of the the interior of the cave.

You could just look at all of this online of course, without ever going to the Museum, but the wonderment is in running back and forth between the macro imaging and the painting itself, to find the details you had not seen before, a kind of wonderment of closeness and of distantiation at the same time. If anything, this technological intervention, when, down the hall from the computer screen, the painting is present in front of you with all of its strangeness of proportion and religious faith combined with Renaissance fidelity to perception, its deep perspective but strong sense of compositional and surface unity, gives you an inkling of how hard it is to really see a painting, how complex painting is, especially a painting that in a sense is perfect.

The dark entrance to the cave is a cut into that perfection, not a flaw exactly, but a crucial imperfection in the picture plane, a hole in the surprisingly modernist flatness of the very stable composition, despite the mastery of illusion of deep space. The black door into a flat nothing that we can see or enter both refers back in time to a knowledge from our close millennial past–the two stone Sepulchers of the story of Jesus– and calls up modernist ideas about the essential flatness of painting, because the flatness of the black space of the cave entrance only calls attention to the flatness of the representational painting that frames it.

This black door into the flatness of the painting field appears in other earlier Italian paintings, when representation’s movement towards full spatial verisimilitude pushes up against the vestigial flat gold ground of Byzantine and medieval art, while weirdly prefiguring modernist painting’s declaration of its essence as flatness. In Duccio’s 1308 The Road to Emmaus  the figures gesture towards a shorthand for architecture, the door nevertheless still a hole in the flat gold leaf ground, a Hofmannesque floating rectangle, a door to the city, and a door into the unknown.

Duccio, The Road to Emmaus, tempera on wood panel, back of the Maesta, 1308-1311, from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena


Despite Thurman’s cautions against any interpretation of the cave paintings because of the temptation to overlay contemporary concerns and histories on a culture we have no knowledge of except for these visual manifestations and a few artifacts, the temptation is great to project one’s ideas and dreams onto the cave painters and the time they lived in.

Philip Guston spoke often of the cave painter. The cave painter first arose as a theme in a 1965 conversation with art critic Harold Rosenberg.

Philip Guston: It’s a strange thing to be immersed in the culture of painting and to wish to be like the first painter.

Harold Rosenberg: Many an artist today wants to be the last painter.

PG: I imagine wanting to paint like a caveman would, when nothing has existed before. But at the same time one knows a great deal about the culture of painting and one is conscious of that culture.

HR: You know Mallarmé’s formula for the poet? He calls him “un civilisé édénique,” a civilized first man.”

PG: That’s marvelous. Exactly what I mean. I should like to paint like a man who has never seen a painting, but this man, myself, lives in the world museum.”

Guston recalled this conversation many times in later years, the allusion to Mallarmé’s term reappears in talks and interviews up to the last published in the collection, from 1980. In a 1969 talk, he responds to an audience question about what motivated the cave painters:

There are a lot of conflicting theories about that. You’re aware of that? The anthropologists have written many things about it. You make these marks and you do these bulls and bisons, because it had to do with hunting and so on. And that may be true. I don’t know about that so much. But I also think that for man from the beginning, who made the line of this bull, it was a catharsis, a joy, an ecstasy, to make this line. And it had nothing necessarily had to do with hunting, you know? I mean, why, to the scientists, would it be impossible that a man would enjoy making a curved line that became a bull? But he’s an anthropologist, so he has to have a motivation for the guy making the bull. Like you read social art historians who talk about modern art, psychological motivations and endless reasons for it. A psychiatrist, for example, who gets involved with why these men do this funny stuff. But the part they miss is that there’s material, there’s you and there’s this feeling, an inchoate feeling, a raw feeling. And what they miss is that you may want to take up these charred bones or colored mud and make some….I’m not a scholar. You all paint, you know there’s this feeling. So just because I want to be civilisé édénique, why does that exclude my connection to this man in the cave twenty-five thousand years ago? We’re no different. We’re different in other ways; we don’t have to go into that. But on this basis, that impulse is the same.

In a 1980 interview, Guston returned again to his identification with the first painter:

I feel directly in line with a tribal colony, so-called primitives. They are not primitives. Who are the men in that prehistoric cave? The men in the Lascaux caves who didn’t go on the hunt and used charred bones to draw on the cave walls? What kind of a neurotic was he to make these beautiful bulls? I don’t think art has changed very much. it’s a very archaic form.

Recently in “Life Studies,” Adam Gopnik’s June 27, 2011 New Yorker article about drawing from nature, Gopnik turns to the example of the Chauvet and Lascaux cave paintings to buttress the point of view that life drawing is an atavistic human activity,

less an acquired instrument of slow-crawling craft, and more just something back there that we delve deep to find again. This may in turn explain the enduring mystery of why the oldest of all human representations, the cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet, are expertly rendered as shaded, three-dimensional life-drawings, full of persuasive highlight and shadow. The caveman in us still draws what he sees, until the Egyptian in us interferes.” To back this up, Gopnik goes even further, referencing “psychologist Nicholas Humphrey…[who] has argued that the existence of the perfectly modulated cave paintings suggests that the people who made them didn’t yet know how to talk.

Humphrey had compared the cave paintings to the drawings of an autistic girl who could not speak but who drew animals in a lively manner reminiscent of the cave painting, in order to suggest that if a contemporary human without language could draw animals so well therefore it was possible or even likely that the humans who had painted the cave paintings also had no language. I can’t comment on the veracity of Humphrey’s example or the logic of his assertion, but it is hard to believe that the level of craft that went into the creation of the cave paintings– including discovering how to process natural materials to making the pigments, bringing in man-made sources of light, building scaffolds, in some cases scrapping the cave wall to get a lighter ground for their images, incising drawn forms, and then rubbing pigments prepared for this purpose to create the final drawing–could be the result of the activities of pre-verbal ape-like creatures, rather of the strapping men that Thurman describes, who were “as tall as the average Southern European of today, and well nourished on the teeming game and fish they hunted with flint weapons. … genetically, our direct ancestors.”

Such preparation would have required the kind of cooperation and transmission of knowledge among human beings and the kind of conceptualization and memory that are all reliant on language. If they had the concept of a horse, they had a word for it too. Guston’s projection of his own angsty image of the neurotic artist onto a kind of Joe Ur-Painter may be fanciful but it is certain that the cave paintings were no more painted by painter UGH and painter UGGH jumping around and grunting than was St. Francis in the Desert.

At the same time, like Guston, I feel that without having any theory or interpretation of what the cave painters thought or rather knew they were doing, without any ability to enter their conceptual universe, I can have some understanding in the body of how the painter felt, or thought/felt, applying charcoal to a ridged line on a prepared ground. I’ve done that, I can feel that, I can trust that something at the level of making is shared underneath the changing languages of meaning and intent.


A friend of mine told me last week that he wanted to see how I would pull together the diverse threads of the first two parts of “Wonder and Estrangement: Reflection on Three Caves.” I’m not sure if I’ve now tied up every loose end in a satisfying or logical manner. I do know that the kind of non-polemic, discursive, and associative thinking in these texts takes me time to develop and may not fit into artworld schedules–in this instance I’m the last art writer to weigh in on St. Francis, since the special exhibition closes at the end of next week. I discussed this aspect of writing in my other series of posts this summer, on conditions of contemporary art writing).  I’m more likely to have time for this kind of thinking in the summer. But now the summer is ending. The dream is over.

Mira Schor, Drawing fragment: Dreaming Sleeper, ink and gesso on tracing paper, 2011


St. Francis in the Desert is usually on view in the collection of the Frick Museum and I assume that within a reasonable amount of time it will be returned to its usual residence, in the back room to the left of the grand hall at the museum, but it is wonderful and interesting to see it as it is currently on display, alone in a centrally located skylit room, set into a huge specially constructed easel which brings it into the present space of a viewer in a new way. If you’re in New York and you haven’t yet done so, go see it. The current special installation closes August 28.




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