Sunday, 22 January 2017

ARTHUR RUSSELL'S 'TOWER OF MEANING' (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)



In his too-short life, perhaps Arthur Russell's greatest proclivity was for pulling together apparently unreconcilable musical genres. In the almost tribal New York scene of the Eighties he worked as music director for experimental venue the Kitchen, but also frequented disco clubs like the Gallery or punk places such as CBGBs. Perfectionist and somewhat fractious, forever starting new projects and rarely finishing old ones, little of his music was released during his life. And he was still almost entirely unknown when becoming a victim to AIDS in 1992, when only Forty. 'Tower of Meaning' was one of those few releases, but in an edition of 320 copies.

Happily, our times are less hamstrung by genre and things seem to be changing, with not only the UK premiere of this piece but a Guardian retrospective written to accompany the concert.

If Russell is known for one thing, it's finding common ground between minimalist music and disco. Ironic then that, not using the repetitive phrases of Reich or Glass, 'Tower of Meaning' seems less related to disco than minimalism in general! Brass-dominated and composed of long, slow melodic lines, instruments dropping out and re-joining give it a sense of momentum, even though there's nothing you could call musical progression. In a way it's more installation piece than composition. (It was originally conceived of as a soundtrack.)

There's an almost stately feel to it that makes it strangely calming, like a kind of second cousin to Bryan's 'Sinking of The Titanic', making for ideal Sunday night fare, arriving after the business of the week was done. (The tempo on the original recording was achieved by artificially slowing the session tape, meaning for live versions it needed to be re-transcribed.) There's an underlying assumption that it doesn't need to travel anywhere, that it's precisely where it wants to be, and so can just trace elegant circles – regatta rather than journey.


Slightly eccentrically, the running order of the supporting programme wasn't written up anywhere. I just about guessed that none was by Russell himself, and that the opening solo cello piece was yer actual classical. (It turned out to be Bach.) A string quartet was later revealed to be by Mica Levi (of whom the record shows Lucid Frenzy to be a fan), 'You Belong To Me'. the violins constantly pulling ahead while the cello acts as a brake.

But my favourite from the first half was 'Wolff Tone E-Tude' by Mary Jane Leach, a composer previously unknown to me. Her work, it says here, “reveals a fascination with the physicality of sound, its acoustic properties and how they interact with space”. A description which, perhaps against the odds, her piece lived up to. It built up steadily from a drone, with each instrument slowly and steadily finding it's own voice, yet rather than breaking away still contributing to the whole. Certainly a name to look out for.

Two longstanding collaborators of Russell's, Bill Ruye and Peter Zummo, stood out against the much younger London Contemporary Orchestra and Oliver Coates of the recent Deep Minimalism mini-festival. The audience alike were overwhelmingly young, plus plentiful, despite this being an overspill from a sold out Saturday night. In fact, performed in the round while punters sat or laid casually around, it had a much similar feel to Deep Minimalism. Further evidence a thriving scene is building around this music.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY IS STILL IN SUSSEX

...specifically visiting Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne in it's insatiable search for art galleries. As ever, full set over on Flickr.







Saturday, 7 January 2017

'WIFREDO LAM'

(Yes, finishing tomorrow. Rush, my pretties, rush...)

”I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
- Wilfredo Lam


Though almost always known through the shorthand term 'the Cuban Surrealist', Wifredo Lam's talent was incubated in Europe. He was painting before leaving Cuba, but the work was conventional. It was initially Madrid which introduced him to both artistic and political radicalism, after he won a scholarship to study in Spain in 1931.

He became not merely pro-Republican but Marxist, closely associating political change with artistic innovation, not just creating agitational art but working in a munitions factory (till the chemicals took a toll on his health). While, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the early Malevich, his paintings cycled through copies of Modernist styles. For example 'Composition I' (1930, below) is an accomplished but somewhat generic exercise in tick-list Surrealism – the moonlight dreamscape, the sexually charged Hollywood blonde, the mannequin figures, the long shadows, the highly symbolic body of water.


The most successful element is the tugging perspective, the tilted-back head of the main figure leading to the steps and the jetty, pulling the viewer into the composition as if it's aim is to leave you dangling at the end of that jetty. There's also a neat touch where her hair becomes linked to the curtain draping the right half of the picture.

And if that doesn't seem generic enough, the later 'Composition II' (1933) features a giant Terry Gilliam foot. I'd always thought that was an image people retrospectively assigned to Surrealism, in the same way they imagine it was obsessed with fish. While other works are as influenced by Matisse, such as 'Self-Portrait II'</> (1938). Had he continued in this vein, he would have been but a footnote in Modernism's history.

The Awakening African (Putting The Black Back)

But from hereon emerges a pattern where historical upset bouncing him around the map like a pinball, but always galvanising his art. Fleeing fascist advance in May 1938, he escaped to Paris clutching a letter of introduction to Picasso. Something which might seem like one of those cursed magic objects of folk tales, for the norm is for artists to either become trapped within Picasso's orbit or escape it. Yet for Lam he seems to have been an enabling figure, introducing him around and even exhibiting with him.

It even seems to be Picasso who suggested that Lam explore his African heritage in his art. One variant of the story claims that he saw an African mask for the first time in Picasso's studio, and did not initially know where it was from. In the vidclip below, his son Eskil claims Picasso used the phrase “you should be proud of this”. The show also mentions his becoming a visitor at the Musee de l'Homme. (Though Cuba had been a Spanish colony, with it's different empire France would have had a bigger hoard of African art.)

Notably, in his new African-influenced style he created a self portrait, 'Self-Portrait II' (1938); the show underlines the point by hanging it next to the Matisse-dervied 'Self-Portrait II'. But a stronger and more significant work might be the almost audaciously reductive 'Young Woman on a Light Green Background' (1938, below).


With the figure herself a pale sandy yellow, barely distinguishable from that background, it's the thick black lines of the features which are pushed forward. The figure's deliberately codified, broken down. A horizontal line serves for an eye, three lines for a mouth, and two parallel diagonals for shoulder blades. It's only their arrangement that gives them their significance. It's as if Lam was no longer chasing the latest thing in art, but instead tugging at it's roots.

Despite Picasso's comment it is effectively impossible to reconstruct how much Lam was responding to African art as a Modernist, taking inspiration from primitive styles, and how much as a black man taking up his heritage. We should remember he first saw African mark quite literally through Modernism's eyes. But there do seem to be elements of both in the art.


'Figure' (1939, above) gives us an almost identical silhouette to 'Young Woman'. But everything is transposed, the background a roughly painted off-white while the figure itself becomes a window onto coloured symbols and motifs. Once more, the figure looks female. And Lam had been influenced by Surrealism, where female figures are often totems for the id. Lam's Africa is not accoutrements, not hangings on the wall, it's placed on the inside.


But stronger still is 'The Awakening' (1938, below). Despite the title only one of the two figures is waking. And, as in the title, she seems caught in that act - eyes still closed slits, hands at her face as if her features were a new thing. The grid patterns of the roof and floor suggest confinement, particularly when compared to the non-backgrounds of the previous works, and throws the figures' nakedness into relief. While not necessarily specifically a painting about slavery, the work does suggest an emerging black consciousness.

African influences were of course widespread in Modernism. Even by this point, some thought the influence played out and had started looking to more remote points on the map for inspiration. Romantic as it sounds, there may be something about Lam's heritage which allowed him to wholeheartedly take up the influence and come up with something more original from it.

Nevertheless, history would push Lam two more times before his mature style would emerge...

Horns and Hybrids

Again fleeing the advance of fascism, Lam was caught in Marseilles in June 1940 – including Andrew Breton and many of the prominent Surrealists. The show presents this period as a kind of incubation chamber. Like unattended house guests, with little else to do they occupied their own time - drawing together, often collectively. The situation was doubtless fraught. Lam wrote at the time of “another day of anguish and disgust”. Yet his Marseilles Notebooks, as they came to be called, came to be significant.


The show wisely includes some of these (sample page above), and even gives over a small room to his general drawings. They're full of linear and often flat drawings of women and animal hybrids, much of which sticks in his art. But describing them as “a new pictorial zodiac of creatures” suggests they were some kind of preparatory aid. Whereas his drawings cannot really be separated from his main body of work, for reasons we'll come onto.


These hybrid figures emerge in an important (if transitional) work, 'Portrait of HH' (1943, above). The thick, geometric black lines have now been softened and curved, the bold colours gradated. Despite being adorned with horns the face is sympathetic, with the torso contoured into the shape of the chair. The subject,Helena Holzer, was in a relationship with Lam at the time. Yet the mixture of strength and softness gives off a highly maternal feel.

While the Surrealists were mostly able to escape to America, Lam was briefly interned before – in August 1941 – returning to Cuba. His work came to be influenced by the Yoruba religion, which can be regarded as related to Voodoo. The main product of this was 'The Jungle' (1943), generally regarded as Lam's finest work. Unfortunately, created on paper, it's now considered too delicate to travel, so is not part of this show.


However, this show does have 'The Sombre Malembo, Gods of the Crossroads' (1943, above), which is perhaps not just Lam's second-greatest work but a variant on the theme. The colour scheme, dominated by deep but mottled greens, is entirely new. Though outlined in black, and at points highlighted in purple, the figures seem to blend into one another (as with his hybrid drawings) and to be half-emerging from, half fading into the background. 

Though you initially see a forest setting, there's really a print-like pattern of leaf forms and mere suggestions of sectioned bamboo-like trunks. This effect is most likely because the figures themselves look so plant-like, with their tuber-like heads, flowing hair and rooted feet. Their features are as impassive and inscrutable as the African faces earlier.

Rather than a realised work, a window onto a scene, it looks like a portal, a doorway into some other kind of space. These aren't semi-camouflaged figures hiding out in the jungle, like fairies living at the bottom of the garden in children's stories. Nor are they symbolic lords over it, like Cuban Oberons. These are more animist works, both apparition and nature scene, where Lam is conveying the spirit of the jungle.

Andre Breton said of Lam's work of this period: “This aspect of the human issued from the idol, still half-entangled in the legendary treasure of humanity... the architecture of the head sinks onto the scaffolding of totemic animals which are believed to have been driven off, but which return.”

The show makes much of Lam employing the secret symbols of tribal religion, used to counter suppression. Yet it's important to note that he wasn't interested in the Yoruba equivalent of Bible illustration. Though figures and motifs recur, he's principally using Yoruba as a repository of images and themes. He commented “I have never created my pictures on terms of a symbolic tradition, but always on the basis of a poetic execution”.

Take the horns, now moved from the portrait of HH to these bulbous heads. Significantly Elegua, the messenger of the Gods, had a horned head. But according to Western tradition so did the cuckold. And Lam was in a sense cuckolded by history, himself a hybrid creature. This was a time when 'mulattos' (a pejorative term for mixed race akin to 'half-caste') often suffered increased discrimination. It's inaccurate to see Lam as a primitive artist, channelling his Third World roots onto the canvas, someone to be stuck in a box marked 'ethnic'.

It doesn't seem conceivable he could have created these works if he'd simply stayed in Cuba. Not only did his art develop through encountering Modernism in Europe, he needed to return to Cuba to see, as the show puts it, “the country with new eyes”. (While his estate's website refers to his “exile to the native land”.)

Moreover, Cuba was itself a hybrid culture. Lam's antecedents had been but one group of Africans to move, or be moved, there. And Yoruba was itself heterodox, like Voodoo borrowing from Catholicism. Lam himself said: “When I came back to Cuba, I was taken aback by its nature, by the traditions of the Blacks, and by the transculturation of its African and Catholic religions”.

And this was seem in microcosm within Lam's family. His life did not become polyglot the day he moved to Spain. His godmother had been a Santeira princess, his father Chinese. His son says, again in the vidclip below, he considered himself a citizen of the world. And it's in not concealing but bringing all these traditions together, in seeking to unite past traditions with the present, that Lam was a Modernist. Here he paints the Gods of the Crrossroads. And like them he was not just on but of those crossroads.

”But Which Returns” (The Shadow Scenes)


Like most, knowing Lam's career only through the highlights, I was surprised to discover how brief this period was. 'The Eternal Present' (1944, above) comes only a year later, but is already heading for pastures new. There are compositional similarities, an arrangement of hybrid figures around a darkened centre, horns raised at the apex of the picture. But those verdant colours soon become quite sombre, with this work in monochrome brown. In fact the colour looks strangely absent, as if faded away. And the background, while it still has some sense of a dark recess to it, also incorporates a wrapping curtain. It's less a hazy apparition, more of a tableau.

But mostly, what's unmissable is the Surrealist saturation of art with sexualised violence. Two naked projecting bums bookend the work, while vulvas and penises project everywhere. In the upper centre a head of corn protrudes from a vulva-like ear, while another vulva adorns a tail at lower right. Of two prominent knives, the one at lower right seems to sprout a bird head for a handle. The horned head on the platter and the two-headed spear are motifs which will recur throughout this work.

This develops into works featuring, as the show puts it, “bright foreground bodies shrouded by dark forms in the shallow space.” Indeed it becomes challenging to frame the figures as they bend off in myriad directions, often snaking right across the canvas, unconstrained by the normally alloyed number of limbs. The influence of those earlier Surrealist automatist drawings is here, you can't imagine these compositions being composed so much as being created impulsively. And it seems clear enough why the figures should be unclear, as they soon start to lose their differentiation from one another.

'The Jungle' and 'The Sombre Malembo' could be said to be sinister works. Their spirits don't look the insipid New Agey sort, there to fill the heads of Western visitors with feelgood wisdom. But they're strangely inviting, connecting one world with another, metaphorically as well as literally colourful. While what follows is unmistakably savage. As art critic Marco Valsecchi commented “Lam alerts us to the existence of a disquieting state of being”.

The show presents three large paintings, first show together in a New York exhibition of 1948, all characterised by a kind of anti-symmetrical parallelism. Let's focus on the first two, which feature two figures trapped in a kind of symbiotic adversity. In both cases they look respectively male and female, telegraphed by the first being titled 'The Wedding' (1947, below).


The side figures 'rhyme' one another, the right one with a long tapered leg suggesting femininity. While it has a tail and finishes in a hoof, the male figure is shadowed by some animal creature. (I suspect these shadow forms mean something between spirit, second self and true nature.) A central figure is in an inverse crucifixion form. A horn-like ribcage, horns above and wheel below grant the figure something close to symmetry. Yet he holds out different objects, a sword and a candelabra, to the others.

The show suggests this figure is Maldoror from Lautremont's epic poem, whose opposition to religious morality made him a significant figure for the Surrealists. One of literature's most irreligious figures is given the role of the marrying priest. These elements may be opposed but their existence is predicated on that opposition, they could never be extricated from one another. The work's character is ritualised, perhaps even ceremonial, yet simultaneously savage, suggesting some primal civil war which locks us into it's patterns of violence. (And if another picture in the trilogy is called 'Nativity', you can probably draw your own conclusions...)


And this paralleling is echoed in the next picture, 'Belial, Emperor of the Flies' (1948, above). Though there's a bizarre echo in the right-hand leg, generally the genders of the figures look reversed, the left figure composed of curves and the right angles, with a rather testes-like Adam's apple . Unusually for Lam in this era, the darkest point isn't the centre of the frame but taken by the right-hand figure. His malevolent grin seems to dominate. There's something like the upside-down central figure of 'The Wedding', though pushed to the right and perhaps incorporated with the dark male.

The image seems to seethe with barely sublimated conflict. She stands solidly on all (yes, really) four legs, a knife held (concealed?) behind her while he pushes to the centre of the frame. The pointed arrow at the top of the frame seems to counter his thrusting hand, while also echoed by the two feet set toe-to-toe against one another. At the same time as this barely checked violence there's birth imagery, with the egg to the right, while the head held aloft on the platter could be read as a foetus.

Belial is a demon from the Hebrew Bible, while Emperor of the Flies sounds close enough to the Lord of the Flies, aka the Devil. Yet the show suggests he's also Chango (the Youruba deity of Thunder), and Mars against her Venus. Venus and Mars were often depicted in Classical art as lovers, often with an implicit “make love not war” message where she was able to sooth his lust for battle, for example in Botticelli's' Mars and Venus' (c. 1483). Whereas with Lam it's very much Venus being dragged into Mars' world.

Cruel Geometries

The Fifties saw the wild, loose-limbed figures give way to more geometric forms, almost like animate symbols, while the colours become bolder. Sometimes these could be literally made into painted totem poles of motifs and symbols, such as 'Totem To the Moon' (1955) and 'Totem For the Moon' (1957). (They also saw him once more upset by events, having to flee the imposition of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1952. From there he lived variously in Italy, Switzerland, and back in Spain, Paris and Cuba. However, the change in his art seems to come first and now, with the main elements of his style complete, his work becomes less informed by outside events.)


'The Threshold' (1950, above), for example is sharper in an almost literal sense, and with it crueller - dominated by a triple diamond formation. Symmetry is associated with power art, and here they seem to be descending like a portcullis on a limbless and already broken figure beneath. The only humanised features belong to the one mute witness, shadowed in the lower left. (The expression is of shock, but the horns would seem to implicate it.) We've gone from the primacy of violence to the primacy of sacrifice. Notably, as with the earlier trilogy, the more you look at the work the more the symmetry starts to break down. The forms inside the diamonds vary considerably, particularly in their lower half.


If not quite giving due attention to Lam's drawings, the show does present his prints. There's often a paradox to them. They can give the figures a fluidity, a sense of motion beyond the paintings, their stretches and contortions virtually wrenching the eye across the frame. Yet they can feel a bit too fixed, too visible, too in plain view. There's a sense in the paintings of the figures never quite being capturable, while the prints shine on them a spotlight which denudes them of their mystery. The best are in the 'Apostrap' Apocalypse' series (1964/6, example above), created with the Romanian poet Gherasim Luca. These are looser, more plasticated, splattered with tints and tones. Bird forms come to predominate.


'The Soulless Children' (1964, above), though a decade and a half later, recalls 'The Wedding' both in it's use of multiplied elongated forms and paralleling of a male and female figure. But this time there seems more of a scene, actually looking quite domesticated. The male figure seems to be examining a horned dome-head like some sort of specimen, while the female has countless morphing figures on her lap. The space between them, which seems to double as third figure and cabinet, is a tumult. Children are presented as some sort of infestation, with no likeness between them and their parents.


While 'At the End of the Night' (1969, above) brings back the diamond forms of 'The Threshold', but again in an entirely different way. They now light the work in clusters of soft colours, like the lights of a distant city. Two figures, composed of less geometrically perfect triangular forms float towards this, their limbs already linked to it by a series of intersections. It's about as Jungian as the earlier works were Freudian. It looks like an image of the soul reaching the afterlife, so much so it's surprising to discover Lam lived until 1982.


Coming in the New Year! Assuming Dickhead the First doesn't kill us all as soon as inaugurated, more of the same. More visual arts reviews and gig-going adventures, for at least the next two to three months. The mini-series on abstract and semi-abstract art might even pick up again at some point. Then maybe time to dip back into that science fiction business…

Saturday, 31 December 2016

PHILIP GLASS' TRIBUTE TO DAVID BOWIE/ BORIS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


GLASS' 'LOW' + 'HEROES' SYMPHONIES (A TRIBUTE TO DAVID BOWIE)
De La Warr Pavilon, Bexhill, Wed 14th Dec


As an avowed fan of both Philip Glass and David Bowie, this looked likely to appeal to me.

Admittedly symphonic reworkings of popular songs don't always have the greatest track record. However, as mentioned after Steve Reich reworked Radiohead numbers three years ago, minimalism from the start saw the divide between 'serious' and 'popular' music as an encumbrance, a barrier that needed breaking down. True, in it's heyday this was more by implication. It was only with post-minimalism, when it became less bound by it's own structures, where it was able to formally deliver on it's promise.

And even here Glass effectively meets Bowie half-way. 'Low' and 'Heroes' were two of his least poppy albums. As the venue's website puts it: “During that period David and Brian [Eno] were attempting to extend the normal definition of pop and rock and roll. In a series of innovative recordings in which influences of world music, experimental ‘avant-garde’ are felt, they were re-defining the language of music in ways that can be heard even today.” (Asked on the release of 'Low' whether it might have less chart potential than earlier releases, he replied cheerily “no shit, Sherlock”.)

Plus, all but three of the nine tracks Glass uses are Krautrock-inspired instrumentals, with two choices rather audaciously not even on the original albums. ('Some Are' and 'Abdulmajid' respectively.) It's quite a different prospect to Stravinski filching folk tunes.

Though the De La Warr's stage isn't small, it still has trouble encompassing the forty-two piece orchestra. I could only see the front end of the piano, so had to assume there was a player attached to it somewhere. Most instruments come in duos, trios or even quartets. (Except for the violins who are arranged in two quartets.) And each mini-ensemble plays the same line in unision, resulting in a rich and vibrant sound.

For the most part the brass take on the bass role, underpinning the strings. At points the two get uncoupled, and the brass players murmer to one another in the background, like the below-water section of an elegant liner. The result of all of which is pretty much win-win-win. It's as tuneful as pop music, as hypnotic as minimalism and as dynamic as classical music.

It perhaps should be noted that this era marked Bowie at his most sombre. Whereas, once transformed into Glass's mini-symphonies, it becomes rhapsodic. (And, for two albums from the acclaimed Berlin trilogy, quite American-sounding, at points almost bordering on Aaron Copland.) Some I suppose might not take to that.

However, for fairly obvious reasons, now seems a good time to celebrate Bowie's music. Plus the downbeat nature of those albums is often overstated, and was already being worked out by the second one. The song 'Heroes' is in itself triumphalist in it's will to overcome adversity. And as conductor Charles Hazelwood says “it makes perfect sense” to play them back-to-back as “one great symphonic journey. From the Low symphony's dark beginnings to the white-hot finale of Heroes.” This hadn't been Glass' original intention, having written his 'Low' four years before 'Heroes', in 1992. But then Bowie hadn't been planning out a trilogy either. It works perfectly, however accidentally.

Performed and partly televised at this summer's Glastonbury festival, the symphonies became a bit of a media event. Which is again fitting. Bowie had a talent for bringing fringe things to the mainstream. And while some purists deride him for that, he mostly managed to keep the essence of the original in place. So a tribute which doesn't consist of some 'X Factor' historically warbling their way through 'Heroes' seems fitting indeed.

Some snippets from Glastonbury...


BORIS
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 20th Dec


Now coming up to their quarter-decade, Boris have taken on a bewildering range of sounds from sludge metal to J-pop, and collaborated with everyone from fellow Japanese noisemonger Merzbow to (yes, really) Ian Astbury.

This time round they're revisiting 'Pink', an album a mere eleven years old. From what little I know of the band's extensive and confusing history, this was seen at the time as something of a breakthrough. While extensive research reveals it wasn't their first release to be divided into individual tracks, rather than expansive side-spanning dronefests, earlier albums had tended to be called things like 'Amplifier Worship' and 'Feedbacker'.

From reputation I'd thought it's sound to be a combination of hardcore punk, metal and noise rock – all short, sharp shocks. And indeed there are tracks with piledriver drums and soaring guitars. But there's many other pieces which belong to their more commonly employed heavy riffing/ doom drone sound, reminding us they took their name from a Melvins song.

In fact these tracks are so different I first imagined they must be bringing in extra material from different eras. But it seems almost everything did come from 'Pink'. Yet the feeling of watching two different bands is enhanced by on-stage behaviour. For the punkier songs they start to move around and engage with the audience, even encouraging a clapalong. (Well, if Low can have one...) While for the longer numbers they lapse into the standard shoegazer stance, even wrapped in dry ice.


But then they play the whole thing as one long set. Rather than pause between tracks they'd link them with instrumental interludes. (Sometimes quite abstract, sometimes even ambient.) Which made the set one ever-morphing organism. Rather than act as a human jukebox serving up a known album, the gig became something almost impossible to predict.

In fact, for all my normal complaints about gigs dedicated to albums, I may have even preferred this to the previous time I saw them, some four years ago. Then there was something of the sense they'd settled into a sound they'd grown comfortable with. Here they were more volatile, like they were willing themselves do everything at once and refusing all parameters.

At one point, to a wall of feedback guitar, drummer Atuso stepped forward, crowdsurfed the length of the venue, got carried all the way back and placed back on stage to an uproarious cheer. Only for us to discover, that wasn't even the finale!

This tour, it seems, had a trailer. (Do tours have trailers now?)


...while this is from Glasgow, but the same tour...

Friday, 23 December 2016

'ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM' 2 – JUST HOW ABSTRACT WAS THEIR EXPRESSIONISM?

The second in a two-part look at the 'Abstract Expressionism' exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, (first part here) which doubles as another entry in the series on abstract and semi-abstract art.


”We favour the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal the truth.”
- Newman, Gottleib and Rothko, letter to the New York Times, 1943

Just Abstract Enough

So... those Abstract Expressionists, just how abstract were they really? Or for that matter, why feel the pull of abstraction at all? As covered in the first part, abstraction seemed to offer universalism in art – a pan-language of non-specifity. And not having to choose whether to represent involved not having to choose what to represent.

In this era America meant the wide open spaces, the Cinemascope of the Western, but also the skyscraping city. Rightly or wrongly, New York was seen as the arch-metropolis, the epitome of modernity, quite literally towering over other towns. The 1962 film 'How the West Was Won' ended with a montage sequence between the Western trail and a modern multi-lane highway. But montage is a movie trick. How could a visual artist convey this? By not being stuck with literally depicting either, Ab Ex were able to suggest both at once. The artists themselves often moved between urban and rural bases during their careers, most famously Pollock setting up studio in a Long Island farmhouse.

Plus, if counter-intuitively, there's their Surrealist influence. As mentioned last time, their main interest in Surrealism was automatism. Yet to the Surrealists this was an end, a creative way to surrender to the subconscious, while to the Ab Exers it was but a means. So the Surrealists moved towards symbols, but stopped there. They tended to blow up symbols, with Dalian hyper-realism, or codify them like Miro. But Kandinsky's codifying of those symbols until they became essentially abstract didn't happen for Miro. While, for good or for ill, the Ab Exers lacked this limit.

However, though this show is often keen to wax lyrical over, for example, Rothko “finally pulveris[ing] the figurative residues in his art”, the clue is not so easily found in the name. Despite such talk, despite all the ideological fervour and shock reaction which surrounded the movement, the answer is often 'just abstract enough'. If Kandinsky, himself a major influence, never truly burnt his boats to representation then much of the time neither did they.


I don't intend saying too much about Gorky here, who isn't necessarily well served by the works shown. But let's start with a look at 'Waters of the Flowery Mill' (1944, above). The show comments he “had a memorable knack for camouflaging forms that they hover between objectivity and the organic or convulsive”. And indeed, peer into it a bit and it looks like a more representative work overpainted, with sections of the original still poking through. And in fact Gorky had started out depicting a ruined mill in Connecticut.

But if that explains half the title the coloured overpainting seems to resemble the 'waters'. Gorky had thinned his oils with turpentine, so they run and smear more like watercolours. It looks like an occluded front of colour, like the most psychedelic storm ever had been unleashed on that mill. It's Kandinsky influenced yet with none of his cosmic elegance. There seems something wild, enticingly out of control to it. It almost looks ahead to the 'bad trip' sequences of Sixties cinema. Yet at the same time still pinning it to that mill is important.


Similarly, David Smith's 'Hudson River Landscape' (1951, above) doesn't represent a landscape directly.But it's undulations continue to suggest serpentine river shapes. Marina Vaizey of the Arts Desk describes his sculpture as “hovering between representation, abstraction and three-dimensional doodling”. Smith's own picture of it places it before a landscape.

My Wife & Other Monsters (De Kooning)

With Willem de Kooning, however, the show talks of a “lifelong oscillation between figuration and abstraction”. And while at times he seems a little confused about the whole business, calling a work 'Abstraction' (1949/50) despite such clear representational elements as ladders and skulls, his oscillating rather finding a midpoint seems to cover it. And what's interesting is that it's not just the figurative works that work, but it's the figuration that makes them. (Some of the large abstracts frankly verge on the self-parodic.) De Kooning said “flesh was the reason paint was invented”, and in fact seems less interested in than fixated on the subject.


For example, 'Pink Angels' (1945, above) is based on the classical genre of the nude. (Anfam believes he has found the Titian it is based on.) And the tradition of the nude was of course static and contemplative. De Kooning plays with this, giving us what looks like a parked posterior in the lower right, but turning giving the rest of the composition over to a twisting tumult of forms. Is the main torso attached to that potato head which seems to be looking back at it? Or is another figure sticking it's neck in? Whose eye is that in the lower left?

And there seems something provisional, almost sketch-booky, about those criss-crossing black lines. Some forms look to be sketched out but then abandoned. Are the certainties of earlier eras being reduced to their delineations of the human body, and then parodied with these grotesque forms?

And yet there remains something sumptuous and eroticised about all that piggy-pink, bordered by those sinuous curves. De Kooning often based elements of his women portraits on cut-outs from glamour magazines. Francis Bacon was painting similarly fractured human forms in England around this time, sometimes based on classical works, sometimes bisected by linear frames, sometimes against lurid backgrounds. But his images were more nakedly disturbing, without this note of eroticisation.


‘Woman I’, (1949/50) was, as the name might suggest, the first in an important series for de Kooning. The famous story is that he kept reworking it over some eighteen months, before giving up. Then when the art historian Meyer Schapiro saw it, with accounts often suggesting a chance encounter, he was encouraged to take it up again. The series stemmed from there.

But what's significant is that the paintings aren’t the result of that long process, the answer de Kooning came to after all that working out. The paintings are instead a record of that working out. The unerased charcoal lines of 'Pink Angels' have now become oil scrawls, and there's little if any of it's vivid blocks of colour under those occluded daubs. The thing looks messy, convulsive, less unfinished than inherently unstable. The canvas doesn't capture the expression but the struggle to express.

Norbert Lynton described this series as the “the daughters of 'Demoselles d'Avignon'”, and it's hard not to think of Picasso. Once Cubism started to depict living rather than inanimate objects, it’s analytically divisive eye started to take on a monstrous aspect, however unintended. It’s like dissecting a frog in science class, the teacher describes the spread out innards as part of a mechanism but the child still faints away. This is partly true for Picasso himself, as some of the Cubist planes found their way into later portraits, such as 'Weeping Woman' (1937).

But there's more... Some have suggested that the reason for Picasso's frequent switching of styles was his frequent switching of lovers. As his heart would swing almost with each beat, he'd paint his latest beau lovingly, shortly to be followed by his loathing. Whatever the truth of this, with 'Woman I' it's like the contradictions in 'Pink Angels' aren't resolved but heightened, and de Kooning 's contradictory feelings are fighting for control of the same canvas. It’s “she loves me, she loves me not”, only all at once. It’s trying to depict someone and trying to rub them out trapped in conflict with one another. (Unlike the philandering Picasso, de Kooning had one long but tempestuous marriage. Make of that what you want.)


'Woman as Landscape' (1965/6), with a title either brilliant or infamous, is perhaps the most grotesque of the bunch. The ‘firm flesh’ of classical sculpture, as bound by rules of proportion as is geometry, flies out of control, multiplying itself like cancer cells, bulbously erupting, oozing around the canvas. It’s simultaneously comic and horrific, the very definition of grotesque.

These portraits share a child-like quality. We know the woman in 'Women I' to be a woman not from anything in her features but her exaggerated breasts and her women's clothes. (If those are her shoes and she doesn't just have hooves for feet.) But more, it's as if he's trying faithfully to depict the likeness of a subject but unconsciously unloading his psychological baggage concerning it. And this makes the savagery, the feeling of attack to the mark-making, still more striking.

On first being shown, they generated a debate over whether they were misogynistic or not. It doesn't seem clear why we needed one, the answer stares you in the face. They certainly mark a good point to reflect how few female artists there are in this show. But they’re interestingly misogynistic, they offer insight into the misogynistic mind. The contradictory roles which patriarchal society thrusts onto women, normally made into a woman’s problem, here collide and attempt to overwrite one another.

Up Abstraction Alley

Regular readers might concur that I can take to art or music which might not appeal to the majority. I like to indulgently imagine that, through writing this stuff, every now and then I'll manage to convey to someone else just what I see in something. But ironically, every now and again I'll have pretty much the majority reaction. And in particular my reaction to the artists here runs the gamut, from absolute awe to total indifference.

For example, Franz Klein's furious stabs with painter's brushes just look to me like something Tony Hancock would throw up to briefly become the toast of Paris. True, they look expressive. But they only look expressive. Yes, you can see them as a frozen record of a gesture. But so what? It seems doubly perplexing that Klein has such a name when others in the show, such as Pousette-Dart, Smith or Tobey are less-known.

Yet even Klein stands above Barnet Newman and Ad Reinhart. The only achievement I could find in their blocks, squares and stripes of colour was that they were able to drive themselves further down the blind alley where Mondrian seemed to have already hit the back wall, an achievement of sorts even if only of obstinacy. (And yet Reinhardt's cartoons could be fabulous! Go figure.)

In their case I just looked across the walls, shrugged and pretty much passed on to the next room. There seems nothing expressive to these abstracts at all. It might be bizarre to have such wide-ranging responses to a show given over to a single movement, in the case of de Kooning to different pictures by the same artist. But perhaps, due to their afore-mentioned fixation with individualism, it's inevitable. And it's also, in it's way, appealing. It suggests there's no schema to be relied on, that the whole thing's wide open, that each individual work must be looked at and assessed on its own merits. This may be more true of visual art than other art forms, and if so it's to be welcomed.


A much-heralded hexagonal room, literally the centrepiece of the exhibition, is given over to Mark Rothko's colour fields – for example 'No. 4 (Yellow, Black, Orange on Yellow/ Untitled)' (1953, above). Being in this room was, I'll concede, the closest I've come to liking Rothko. (Though it may have been achieved by comparison to what went before.) The works seem to shimmer, almost to hover. There are paintings which come out at you, and paintings which draw you in – like portals to some other space. Rothko draws you in. And the feeling is somehow multiplied by multiple paintings - facing each other, like a room of doors.

This room was described by Laura Cumming in the Guardian as “a quasi-chapel”, and there is an association with the coloured light of stained glass windows. Yet his 'Gethsemane' (1944), placed earlier in the show, looks like a Surrealist work with the irreligion taken out. While these colour fields can look like religious works with the religion taken out, like some New Age guru emitting meaningful-sounding stuff. Notably the guide, which has up till now said entirely sensible things, starts on stuff like “his art should in a sense 'defeat' the walls with his plenitude”. Yeah, deep...

Arguably it's Rothko's very accomplishment which makes him seductive, and therefore more dangerous than inferior artists such as Klein. Rothko's the Pied Piper who can lead you lost. It leaves you thinking Walter Benjamin was right after all, that art escaped religion when it beached against modernity and Rothko was left decorating the empty hulk as everyone else settled in the new land.

Which seems to link to the famous story of his withdrawing his work from the Seagram building after finding out it was to be hung in the restaurant. Leading to the inevitable response - get over it! Rothko may mark Abstract Expressionism at it's most extreme. He faithfully reproduced many of Expressionism's self-romanticisations, such as the depiction of the artist as being beyond society and in touch with more eternal concerns, and his art thereby being above and beyond mere commerce.

So many, in fact, that all Pop Art had to do was to duplicate Dada's withering critique. (Well, with populism replacing the communism.) Suddenly it was squaresville to have seriousness of purpose or heroic ambition, to sit in your studio contemplating a shade of blue. Suddenly it was de rigeur to be flip and ironic. You didn’t make art by contemplating the depths of your soul, but by taking surface features of the world around you and recombining them, in short by finding virtues in what Ab Ex had seen as problems.

And it was a similar story with Conceptualism. How to fill those vast shoes Ab Ex had left us? Don't bother, just kick them away! If they made gargantuan, aura-emitting canvases we respond with works which are in themselves incidental – or quite possibly entirely absent. If their art was to do with the psyche of the individual artist, with art as therapy, we'll make art as a cultural product, which make it's points calmly and clearly with none of that self-important tomfoolery. In the recent Tate show 'Conceptual Art in Britain', we saw how critic and Ab Ex champion Clement Greenberg was a target.

And besides, even what was positive about Rothko was later supplanted by works such as Carlos Cruz-Diez’s instillation 'Chromosaturation' (2010), part of the Haywards' 'Light Show', in which three connected rooms were saturated with the three primary colours. If Rothko offered us a door into a colour field, Cruz-Diez opened it and pulled us through.

Expressionism Goes Fractal (Pollock)

But if this seems to be shaping up into an overarching rule, where too much abstraction is just too bad, it's time to come to the grand exceptions. Let's remember the image on my visual art blog page, the one picked to sum up the art that I like, is a Pollock. (Not one in this show, but still a Pollock.)

This show was pre-announced with the news that his 'Mural' and 'Number 11, 1952', better known and henceforth referred to as 'Blue Poles', were “to be united for the first and probably only time”. And it not only dedicates it's largest room to them but hangs them on facing walls, inviting us to compare them.

Certainly, both are affecting works. I'll often notice other gallery-goers spending more time reading the indicia than looking at the works. They'll quickly glance over the thing they nominally came to see, and they're off. Yet with the Pollocks people knew to linger, trying to take in the immensity of the thing. We are, however, better off contrasting them...


'Mural' was painted in 1943, when Pollock was commissioned by Peggy Guggenheim to cover a wall of her Manhattan townhouse. It remained his largest work, and in the words of curator David Anfam “jump-started abstract expressionism”. It is a great work. And yet placed in this context, when we can see what comes ahead, what's most noticeable is how rooted in representation it is. Another work is called 'Enchanted Forest' (1947), and like it this is a forest. You can see the canopy at the top of the picture, the accumulated debris of the ground at the base, the black thrusts of the tree trunks and branches taking up the centre. The colour scheme is verdant greens and autumnal yellows.


And there are ways in which 'Blue Poles' (1952, above) is similar, thick black lines running over and connecting swirls of colour. The 'poles' were even made by applying planks of wood. And yet now the forest is truly gone...

Formally the change is that this is one of Pollock’s drip works, where he'd flick the brush above the canvas without directly touching it. These works have sometimes been called Fractal Expressionism, an evocative name as one effect is that you never know when to stop looking. Bald canvas is visible at the edges. Yet there still seems to be no back to the picture, no canvas wall for your eye to come to rest against, just further fractal-like recessions. And the harder you look, the foreground seems to move out, into the room with you, in almost a 3D effect.

Lou Reed once said that with 'Metal Machine Music' he wanted to create a long composition not based around repeated beats but which never stood still - “like the universe”. And the poles, the most immediately striking part of the painting, grow nodes at intervals - like the lines which join up the bright stars in maps of constellations. (Those long central strokes appear in other works, for example 'Phosphoresence', 1947.) But then, if a clear night, as you keep watching the sky the once-dark background behind those constellations becomes richer and richer. With Anselm Kiefler, as he left the earth behind and grew more cosmic, he left me behind. But with Pollock it's the exact opposite. His heart belonged out there in the stars.

Except that 'Blue Poles' isn't depicting the universe, even in part, the way 'Mural' is in part depicting a forest. Note in the Lou Reed quote he says “like” the universe, and similarly with Pollock this is merely an analogy. Pollock is painting the cosmic in the other, broader sense of the word – the immensity and irresolvable complexity of everything, the way we struggle to comprehend what's inside an atom and at the same time look hopefully up at the sky. Pollock was more like Mark Tobey than he was Gorky or de Kooning, his desire was to describe the indescribable and abstraction was his chosen means. He could take abstraction and make it work.

And there's another point which seems associated. People hear of his drip painting method and imagine a kind of rock’n’roll painter, throwing up works in some state of absolute abandon while swigging from a bottle of JD, outside of and against any artistic tradition. ’Time’ magazine’s nickname for him, Jack the Dripper, best conveys this. The fact that he died in 1956, when rock’n’roll was still starting up, should tell us how accurate any of that was.

In fact Pollock was a deliberative painter, who tried out his drip technique before he’d exhibit any of the works, ensuring he’d mastered it like a neophyte labours to master a brush. (And this was precisely his innovation. Ernst had already dripped paint onto works, but used it as a random element he could then paint around.) And, having invested all that time and energy, he did not always take kindly to the suggestion he just chucked paint about for a living, barking back “no chaos damn it!” A page on the Tate’s website specifically debunks Pollock myths, including “probably the most absurd and easily refutable fantasy… that he… created his best works while drinking.”

And in fact we need to refute all this from an earlier point. When you hear Harold Rosenberg coined the term 'action painting' the same year as 'Blue Poles', it might seem auspicious. Yet when the Telegraph describes it in terms of “spiralling skeins of paint that recorded the physical reach of [Pollock’s] body and arm” they're reciting the received wisdom. We’ve been trained to see those arcs of paint like the motion lines in comic strips.

But in fact, unlike 'Mural', rather than picture it being flung into life you can't really conceive of 'Blue Poles' being painted at all. I know full well how it was done, there's abundant film of him at work. (While almost any art book can be guaranteed to have a still of him.) But I can't stand before the painting and apply the knowledge, I can't visualise it in the process of happening. Rather than see the expressive gestures you do in Klein, or the ceaseless overpainting of de Kooning, it seems almost impossible to trace it back to the hand of the artist who made it. There's no unpicking it like a jumper. It's too intricate, too endlessly layered. Even the human touch of the signature, in the lower left, looks slightly incongruous. The thing looks just there, impossible to trace back to it’s construction.

Above all, and contrary to the stereotype of An Ex angst, 'Blue Poles’ is not melancholic but rhapsodic. To quote Norbert Lynton it's “graceful rather than violent or wild, rhythmic rather than random, balletic and mystical in effect”. True, every word.

Cosmic and Visceral (Clyfford Still)

If Pollock has the largest room of the show and Rothko the centrepiece, Clyfford Still is given the next size up. Plus it's a piece of a Still, 'PH-950' (1950) making up one version of the poster (see up top). He seems to be the the third of the show's self-styled hits. It's an audacious move to so big up an artist most won't have even heard of. But it's one which delivers. A great favourite of mine was 'PH-150' (1950), detail below.


Still seems to have been an individualist among individualists, a maverick even compared to mavericks. In 1961, keen to distance himself from the art market, he moved from New York and spent the rest of his life on a Maryland farm. While his conditions for showing his work were so exacting they pretty much guaranteed it wasn't shown at all. Happily, things seem to be changing with a dedicated Still museum existing in Denver since 2004. (From which the works on show here were loaned.)

If Pollock's signature mark was the fleck, Still's was the tear. To the point where I initially assumed he'd been influenced by the look of torn wallpaper and peeling paint. (Perhaps influenced by a photo in the previous room, Minor White's 'Resurrection (Peeled Paint on Window, Jackson Street, Produce Area, SanFrancisco', 1951.) The idea of blown-up images of something everyday set against Pollock's cosmic macroscopes seemed appealing. And in fact something still clings to it in my mind, even if it's an official wrong answer.

In fact, they seem intended as something more geological. (Which of course still offers a complementary opposite to Pollock, just of a different sort.) The show describes them as “by turn visceral and cosmic”, and they seem redolent of the way the geography we treat as facts on the ground is in fact the result of rupturous violence, mountain ranges thrusting themselves into being. The show speaks of “verticality being Still's enduring leitmotif”, representing “spiritual transcendence”, navigating”yawning abysses” like seismographs of soul journeys.

Despite such talk, despite their vast size, they don't seem at all ostentatious and self-important. In fact, in another comparison with Pollock, it's hard to imagine them being composed. They look too immediate to be deliberated. The best works are those where the colour is applied flatly, without a 'painter's touch'. They all have those alphanumeric titles, as if just named after catalogue numbers. Like all great artists, Still can make the whole thing look easy.

Time was when I saw American Abstract Expressionism as a load of self-important, man-paining flim-flam designed to impress art critics, with Pollock and de Kooning as the exceptions that proved the rule. True, I had already gone past that not altogether nuanced view. But one advantage of this group show is that it brings to the fore some of the lesser-known names. Some of which have cropped up here. Others were more deservedly forgotten, but that's life.

But putting on a show now also creates a direct comparison between our era and theirs. And times have long since shifted from the days when Ab Ex occupied the cutting edge, championed by critics and often derided by a bemused public. The two have effectively swapped sides, almost as much as they have over Impressionism. And these works are so at odds with today’s post-modern art market they confirm the old adage about the past being another country. Which makes now a very good time to look at them again.

Once Ab Ex seemed to have trounced all criticism, been given it's head and gone off the deep end, and Pop Art seemed a necessary corrective. But for us it’s the reverse. And the surprising thing is that many reviews did seem to acknowledge that. To quote the Telegraph again: “At a time when the virtual world has rendered most aspects of life slightly ersatz and people crave authenticity, the art here has all the realness and rawness anybody could possibly want.” Yup.

Waldemar Januszczak on the show...


...an exhibition video on Pollock...


...and on Still...