Saturday 31 December 2016


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...

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


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... exhibition video on Pollock...

...and on Still...

Saturday 17 December 2016


(The first in a two-part series)

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”
- Jackson Pollock

Advancing American Art
American Abstract Expressionism, it's a movement so wrapped up in mythologisation that it makes the Surrealists seem straightforward. It arose at a time when America had come to dominate the Western world, not just politically but through mass culture. A culture widely perceived abroad as crass and vulgar, junk food for the eyes and ears. After all, no previous Modernist movement had been American-based, surely that said it all.

And yet Ab Ex succeeded in turning the thing around until it seemed quintessentially American. The natural centre of new art became the New World. The art became notorious and celebrated, the artists celebrities. Like their near contemporaries the Method actors they seemed to bring a new seriousness, even an intensity to American painting - which had previously seemed a popular art form. As painting's James Dean, Jackson Pollock received an iconic 'Life' magazine photoshoot in 1949. Several artists, Pollock among them, died obligingly young.

It’s somehow remarked on sagely that this all-American art-form had so many European emigres involved; Rothko, Gorky and de Kooning. And of course such talk laces the American myth rather than undermines it - it’s supposed to be arriving on the expansive shores of the bold New World which allowed them to reinvent both their art and themselves. (In fact both Gorky and de Kooning were already painting before emigrating.)

These days, and much like Method acting, it seems clear enough that the opposite is true - the movement was based in European traditions. It’s supposed newness came from simple popular unfamiliarity with what had gone before. (Particularly domestically, where Modernism had not till then managed to lay many roots.) It’s like Sybil’s line in ‘Fawlty Towers’, that Freud might have started practising psychiatry in the 1880s but it’s only recently we’ve seen them on the television.

The show largely disregards such misapprehensions. It defines the movement as “the emotional intensity of German Expressionism and the formal aesthetic of European abstraction”. Certainly the name proved to have sticking power, despite their being European abstract expressionists more than two decades before. They concede a Surrealist influence too, largely through adopting automatism, but that just further underlines the point.

But if we're going to try and look past all that mythologisation, finding the roots isn't enough. You need to examine why it took up those roots, and how it branched from them. The show has this to say:

“The fledgeling Abstract Expressionists shared one common experience.... they lived during an age of extremes and catastrophes that encompassed two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, atomic devastation and the ensuing Cold War.”

Except the spread of those events papers over a break. The name Ab Ex was first coined by the critic Robert Coates in 1946, by which time all but the last two of the items were done and dusted. We had gone from direct, material threats like war or hunger to more remote concerns such as the Bomb – a mighty shadow hanging over you, but different to shells exploding in your face.

Admittedly, and inevitably, Ab Ex pre-existed it's own name. Richard Pousette-Dart's 'Undulation' (above) looks like a fully formed Ab Ex work, a large canvas of at most semi-representational shapes made up from thickly encrusted paint in a dark palette, despite being dated to 1941/2.

But America had not been occupied like France or bombed like Britain. Of course the soldiers who had fought in those conflicts were often profoundly affected by their experiences. But in a sense that confirms the shift, they then had to reconcile those experiences to their re-domesticated lives on their return home. The sheer extremity of what had happened, less the experience but the knowledge that Auschwitz and Hiroshima had occurred, didn't seem to fit in the world yet was unforgettable. And, as none of the prominent Ab Ex artists had seen service, they were in a sense ahead on that curve.

And that break cannot help but have an effect on the artwork, perhaps best encapsulated by Adorno’s famous comment “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. Virtually all forms of Modernism hitherto had some sense of “nowness”, precisely because it had lived through interesting times. But with those events either behind you or no longer immediate art came to be made with the high-minded desire to be transcendent of everyday concerns, to reach the universal. "I am not interested in illustrating my time,” commented Clyfford Still. “A man's 'time' limits him, it does not truly liberate him.” In his book 'Abstract Expressionism', (Thames & Hudson, 1990) curator David Anfam comments astutely how they “realised that timelessness is often a timely need”.

Yes, All Individuals

And yet, as paradoxical as it sounds, at the same time that it expanded their focus also fell inwards. William Seitz said the movement valued “the individual over society.” And this individualism, this sense that art exists primarily as a manifestation of the creator’s mind, is also key to Ab Ex. The art is about the artist. “Every good artist paints what he is”, Pollock insisted. In this way it’s almost a complete contrast to the public art of post-war Britain, whose tendency was to pure universalism.

This individualism led to the notion that Abstract Expressionism was all about angst, a simplification but not one entirely without merit. Within a relatively short period of time, art went from the Great Depression to your great depression. As Rothko put it “art sank into melancholy”. In general, the post-war period responded to the new existential threats with a growth of interest in... well, Existentialism, an interest often manifested in art. 

For example the Tate's 1993 show of post-war Parisian art was called 'Art and Existentialism'. While Sartre visited America in January 1946, to great acclaim. Notably there's a popular association of both Existentialism and Ab Ex with suicide, even if in the former case Camus specifically outruled it. Gorky and Rothko took their own lives, while Pollock's early death has been described as “quasi-suicidal” due to self-destructive habits.

If this is the first group show since '58, perhaps this individualism led them to divide themselves early into a set of solo exhibitors. With for example the original Expressionists, Munch didn’t paint much like Kirchner. A novice could distinguish the two. And yet no-one has the slightest trouble in seeing them both as Expressionist artists, as different branches sprouting from the same tree. And the same could be said about the original abstract artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich. While the association between the American Abstract Expressionists is much, much looser. (To the point where even that loose label doesn’t even hold. Something we’ll come onto in the second part.)

Curiously all this leaves out one aspect of the story which was uniquely American - the Federal Art Project of the pre-war era, whose willingness to commission artists to make large-scale public murals allowed them to earn a crust during the Depression while giving them a taste for the large scale. Most first generation Ab Exers had been involved with it, quite possibly it was only excepting Still. (Who doesn't seem to have joined anything much.)

This omission may be because of the widely held belief that the anti-subject matter of Ab Ex allowed artists to stay with the scale while abandoning the FPA's Socialist principles, something post-War America had quickly turned against. Motherwell's frequent titular salutations to the defeated Spanish Revolution linger like none-gone bygones, strangely unattached to the works they label.

It’s undoubtedly true that the CIA came to promote Ab Ex through the Propaganda Assets Inventory. As evidence America wasn’t merely Hollywood and hamburgers but could be highbrow, and as an exemplifier of its individualist values. It's also true that one of the reasons their involvement was kept so secret was to keep it from the artists themselves, who mostly retained their leftist or anarchist sympathies. And yet the link remains, it was that new approach to art which allowed them to be used. (In his book Anfam criticises the notion Ab Ex was “de-Marxified”.)

Unphotographable, That Awful Bigness

The works are famous for their grand scale, and the Academy makes the size of it's main galleries a selling point of the show. This scale is often associated with the artists' ambition, which then gets glibly associated with their American-ness. Which itself gets justified by references to the size of the American landscape. This isn't entirely baseless. Pollock spoke of “the vast horizontality of the land” and Still it's “awful bigness”, managing to sound remarkably like a character from a Western.

But above all it's a further example of how rooted Expressionism always was in Romanticism. Arguing American exceptionalism here would be to claim the Alps are just poky and parochial. Pollock's 'Portrait of H.M.' (1945, above) for example, is clearly rooted in Turner's vortices. There may even be the white triangle of a yacht sail in the centre of it, like one of Turner's many sea storms. But scale isn't the whole of the story. there's something more important afoot, more tied to the era...

In Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase on modern times “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Benjamin wrote in 1936, a few short years before the first Ab Ex works. Once, not long previously, seeing a painting involved going to see it. Gradually, innovations in photography and other forms of reproduction had chipped away at that. They were not as far along this path as us, where something like Munch's 'The Scream' is reproduced over and again on coffee mugs, tea towels and fridge magnets. But they were on that path. Art could already be disseminated, passed around like loose change.

To Benjamin, this was to be welcomed. To him “Mechanical reproduction... emancipates the work of art” - it could now be extracted from religious associations, which he saw as merely advanced forms of superstition. But the Ab Ex artists took precisely the opposite turn. Their response was to try and get that aura back, to return to the resplendence of the original work of art, by making art almost impossible to reproduce. To misquote Rodgers and Hart, their favourite works of art were unphotographable.

Huge scale, vast enough to engulf you, was one strategy. (Contrary to all the common advice, they’d sometimes suggest viewers stand as close to the paintings as they could.) These works are experiential in a way that, say, Dali's aren't. (And if there seems something quasi-religious here, a sense that art must have a 'Churchiness' to it, Richard Poussette-Dart said “my definition of religion amounts to art and my definition of art amounts to religion.” Watch this space for more on that sort of thing...)

It’s true that that all the well-known works are large-scale, that for example the smaller Pollocks don’t have the same impact as his better-known vast pieces. And yet Mark Tobey’s works are not sizeable, while David Smith’s sculptures might even be called small by the standards of the day. Scale was but one strategy among many. Paint could be so thickly encrusted the work virtually became a relief. Rothko would add powdered pigment to his colour fields, to sparkle and give them an added lustre. The defining quality behind all this is the experiential.

And perhaps inevitably they were pushed in this direction partly by the art they could themselves see in person. In their early years war prevented their visiting Europe. But viewable in New York galleries were both Picasso's 'Guernica' and Monet's 'Water Lillies', and the imposing shadows of both are cast right through this show. (And similar large-scale works were taken up in post-War Europe, if not to the same degree. Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio's 'Cavern of Anti-Matter', for example, was 145 metres long.)

As someone whose political sympathies are with Benjamin, and whose head is most likely to be found stuck in in reproductive art (comics, prints, film etc.) this should of course seem to me to be precisely the wrong direction to take. And perhaps that’s what fascinates me about it. But there's more. It's often said that new art forms can reinvigorate old ones, by throwing them back on themselves, forcing them to do what they're uniquely qualified to do. Perhaps there's a similar story for new means of perception.

This does mean that one of Modernism’s best-known movements was essentially anti-Modernist. But if it was successful on its own terms, those are perhaps the best terms to take. When you do stand in front of these original works, you are very often struck with the requisite awe. I saw Pollock's solo show at the Tate back in 1999 when I was only just starting to attend galleries, and was astonished by how unreproducible it was, how the apparent art snobbery of valuing the original work turned out to be valid. (I'll inevitably add some low-res thumbnails before I post this. They won't really tell you anything, but they'll help break up the text.)

The Limits of Language

Another key feature of Ab Ex was it's interest in symbolism. To generalise more than a little, previous painters had used objects primarily for their symbolic value. (We recognise some of the more standard symbols without thinking about them, a skull signifying death, an hourglass time and so on.) Whereas with Ab Ex they sought to cut out the middle man.

Whether Pollock's 'Male and Female' (1942/3, above) matches our current attitude to gender essentialism... that's too obvious to go into, really. Let's look more at how the painting works. Certainly, it's not Pollock as we think of him, his trademark swirls of paint only creeping into the corners. But even at this early stage we can see him cutting out the representational to go straight for the symbolic. Signs and symbols are prioritised over objects, the fleeting look of things discarded in an attempt to get at their essence.

The black columns represent the torsos of the titular two figures. They do (kind of) sprout heads and feet, but really function as magnetised rods gathering up representative symbols. Mathematic equations adorn the male figure and really the whole thing is a kind of equation, where the symbols add up to a result. Pollock even, and quite definitely, paints the 'and' from the title with those three diamonds. We're asked to see a union, a coming together, between male and female essences.

It also makes for quite a formalised work, the surface divided up quite rigidly into areas. Yet it's painted in a way which makes it look immediate. We're used to seeing symbols as neat geometric icons, the digital equivalent of roadsigns as we navigate websites and click on software. Pollock depicts them roughly and rawly, as rawly as anything from classic Expressionism. Or perhaps even as their contemporary Jean Dubuffet, with his Art Brut. Like Dubuffet, much Ab Ex is about the primacy of mark-making in art. That afore-mentioned ostensible contradiction between the eternal and the intensely personal is, at least aesthetically, surmounted.

But equations, aren't they closer to written language? Look to David Smith's welded steel sculpture 'The Letter' (1950, above). It's arranged in neat rows of shapes, arranged on lines like calligraphy which stray between semi-discernible letterforms (such as Y's and I's) and hieroglyphic symbols. They also stretch back into the third dimension, as if going behind the page. Ab Ex is popularly supposed to be about vast colour fields, yet these concerns with the borders of language keep coming back.

Take Williem De Kooning's 'Zot' (1949, above), which places it's (already meaningless) title in the lower left, then blurs, stretches and distorts letter forms across the rest of the canvas. It looks like language was left out in the rain. The word sounds like something from Russian Futurism's anti-language and, taking up where they left off, he depicts the limits of language - language being take about as far as it can and breaking under the strain.

Mark Tobey's 'Written Over the Plains' (1950, above) might initially seem similar to De Kooning ,with it's equally indecipherable letter forms. But there's no Dada in it. It sees inadequacy not in the language but in us.

It's title refers to hieroglyphic shapes found on ancient tablets, many of which remain unreadable to us. (A later work, from 1963, is called 'Parnassus', after the Ancient Greek home of poetry.) There are languages within the Western alphabet where I'm not sure I'd recognise an word of, for example Finnish. And yet when you take the familiarity of that Western alphabet way, what is left becomes mystifying at a more basic level. (At the British Museum show on the Hajj for example, I was taken by the aesthetics of Arabic script.) It's language turned back into pictures, which reduces us to the stupefied level of small children staring mutely at the pages of a book.

And I say “pictures” partly because we know that ancient languages were often hieroglyphic. Which might suggest they could reverse Semiotics' most basic conception, that language is inherently divisive - involving a separation between the signifier and the signified, the name and the named. Perhaps they were some ur-language, not just ancient but primal, not an abstract code through which we look at the world, but part of the world. 

Of course, linguistically or historically, we know this to be a non-starter. But place those ideas in an artwork and they take on a poetic force. Tobey, a Bahai who'd stayed in a Zen monastery, has a similar spiritualist sense to Malevich, where art can't frame the ineffable yet can use it's own inadequacy in order to point to it.

But perhaps at this point we should cycle back. There are, as seen, significant differences between these three paintings. But there are still more significant similarities. Tobey's “white writing” look, which soon became a term for his style, is also reminiscent of equations on a whiteboard, and it's roughness with graffiti, which leads us back to Pollock. All share an interest in signs and symbols over objects and scenes, a desire to create a graphic language not imitative of reality.

Coming soon! The Abstract Expressionists - just how abstract were they? (Which will also involve looking at the artists on a more individual level.)

Saturday 10 December 2016


St. George's Church, Brighton, Sat 3rd Dec

Now flying below the radar for something like twenty-three years, the constant core of Low is the couple of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (guitar and drums respectively). Their signature sound is sparse (Parker's drum kit barely breaking into the plural) and yet expansive. Despite being dubbed with the slowcore tag, they can fall so quiet you'd hear a pin drop but can also crank up the noise as soon as it it suits them.

Though there's post-rock and sometimes even minimalist elements to their sound, their strong melodic sense sense means even the extended numbers never quite give up on being songs. They're particularly effective at double vocals, perhaps suggesting there's harmonies and then there's husband-and-wife harmonies. None less than Robert Plant covered two of their tracks on his 'Band of Joy' album.

If they don't actually sound much like Slint, both have the sense that their element is moonlight, less at odds with the workaday world than belonging in some parallel reality to it. I was particularly pleased they were returning to St. George's Church, as they work best outside of regular rock venues.

Though I've now seen the band live a few times, there was always one piece of the puzzle which never seemed to fit. I am not, I hope you know, so blinkered as to not listen to music made by Christians. In fact this time last year I saw Josh T Pearson at a similar Church in Hove, singing Pentecostal hymns, and commented “what a great songbook the hymn book really is”.

But Sparhawk and Parker are Mormons. And, with no disrespect to their good selves, I cannot help but regard Mormonism as crankery. Yet their music seems a far cry from happy-clappy feelgood or proselyting platitudes. Their signature mood is sombre, their songs taking place in a strange and ultimately unknowable world. Sparhawk has said of them "It's about not having answers.” As Drowned in Sound's Euan McLean has commented, it’s “not what you’d expect from a band containing a pair of married Mormon parents.”

And what could bring all that to the fore more than a concert of Christmas songs? (Based on a 1999 EP. While their website sells limited edition Christmas socks. And no, I'm not making any of this up.) Over the years the Christmas show seems to have become a Low staple, though with not always even results. The interweb mentions a London show of some years back which was met with heckles. While the only Christmas song Humbug head here can normally cope with is the Pogues' 'Fairy Tale of New York', and only that because it speaks the word like a curse.

The set's a mixture of originals, covers (such as Elvis' 'Blue Christmas') and Christmas classics. Yes, genuine Christmas classics, such as 'Little Drummer Boy' and 'Silent Night'. Which, however unlikely that sounds, went down like mulled wine, and the songs I'd normally never ask to hear became a gig highlight! Their versions reminded me, of all things, of Jeffrey Lewis' album of Crass covers. (Well Crass themselves did a Christmas single so perhaps there's some sort of a link.) Both sing the songs their own way but with absolute conviction, without smartypants reworkings and not a note of hipster irony. Can christmas carols be as great as the hymn book, or is it just what Low bring to them? I don't suppose there's any telling.

Certainly they're kitted out for such material. They sing simply and undemonstratively, with little inflection, like all the vocal is there to do is to serve the song. An attitude which always reminds me of folk music, but perhaps religious music is similar in that way.

Strangely, rather than shackling the band to the theme the result was quite possibly the most varied set I've seen from them. Precisely one track went for undermining the Christmas spirit,'Santa’s Coming Over', infusing the line “will he see the cookies?” with more menace than most death metal bands manage in a career. (A great track, but not something you could sustain for a set.) One number was so full of Christmas cheer it prompts an audience clap-along, a first for any Low gig I've been to.

Actually from the gig (no really)...

The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 7th Dec

This young Irish four-piece are, as the name might suggest, an all male band. (In the tradition of Girl and Girls Against Boys. Though apparently one of the Theoretical Girls was genuinely a girl!)

The opening track sets out their stall, over almost insanely metronomic guitar sounds the singer screams a single line over and over - “Why they hide their bodies under my garage?” It seems simultaneously a nonsense mantra and buried trauma recalled through the power of primal scream. While the guitars don't sound much like guitars, yet never quite not like guitars. It sounds like the scarier side of techno, somehow transcribed onto rock instruments. (And I learn later it's a cover of the electronic dance outfit Blawan.)

Instruments can sound like they're howling and shrieking with mistreatment, or as abrasive as a key dragging down the paintwork. It's often the sheer audacious act of repeating them which turns the sounds into riffs. They'll hold to a line for near-absurd lengths, then suddenly blow it wide open. (There were no Christmas numbers that night. Unless they did a delayed encore of ’Rocking Around The Christmas Tree’ after I’d left the venue.) Yet there's just about enough melody to keep things this side of outright noise rock.

They have a style but never anything so predictable as a formula. Tracks can stretch, or deliver their blow and get out. One, which sounds like a rock version of gabba, is done in thirty seconds. Surprisingly, however good they are at internal dynamics, about their only weakness is endings – some songs just crash out.

As a rough and ready guide, imagine 'Idiot'-era Iggy, with it's recipe of rock-meets-electronic-dance. The vocals in particular have his mix of arch and frenzied. Yet instead of being produced by Bowie with proper musicians, imagine it was kicked into life in a Detroit basement by the original Stooges. It harnesses the relentlessness of dance music, while keeping the animal abandon of punk.

Phil Harrison wrote in the Quietus: “These are cranky, abstracted journeys through texture, noise and rhythm with howling, gibbering singer Dara Kiely as our unreliable spirit guide. At their best, Girl Band manage to locate a sweet spot between chaos and precision, poise and frenzy, hysteria and logic.” Which sums it up so well I don't know why I don't just pack up and leave things to the pros.

The venue's packed, with the audience raging from photogenic indie kids to other old codgers like me. Much like the original Stooges, there's no telling how much they're working by animal instinct and how much by smarts. Which makes it hard to predict how much longevity the band might have. But let's hope they can keep this thing up...

Not from an indoor venue in Brighton during the winter. You may have guessed that by yourself…