Friday, May 31, 2013

The Courtauld Gallery, London

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565

In all the years I have spent in and around London, I have never been to the Courtauld Gallery. I went on Saturday to see one painting, Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565, the small, exquisite panel that was stolen in 1982. I was surprised that while the gallery everywhere draws attention to Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bégères, and iconic images such as van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear (1889), were well signposted, Christ and the woman taken in Adultery hangs quietly in a corner, drawing little attention to itself, and for those not aware of its uniqueness in the history of art, it could be easily missed. 

Detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1565
The tiny oil painting on a wood panel is apparently meant to be viewed in private. How curious that so public a story, so profound a moral lesson be intended for personal or private consumption. The understatement of its size and grey hues are like the secret that will be revealed in private, when up close to this delicate depiction. Like so many paintings from the Renaissance onwards that are executed in grey, Bruegel’s becomes pink as we get closer. The clothes, the ground on which Christ writes in Dutch that “whosoever among you who has not sinned must cast the first stone” at the adulterous woman is also a soft smokey pink. The pink, together with the brilliance of oil on wood means that, yet again, the grey is anything but somber and dull. This is a gentle and very quietly perfect painting that radiates in a corner, as if resisting its overshadow by larger, chromatic works. 
detail of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Flight into Egypt, 1563
The neighboring Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, also by Bruegel from 1563, two years earlier, is larger, brighter in colour, with Mary’s red dress as she moves through the constantly changing landscape drawing all the attention. Nevertheless, this painting is just as fine as its grey neighbour, just as detailed, exquisite in the quietness and serenity of the characters. Indeed, it is the intricacy of the landscape and the figures in motion through that landscape that draw us up close. When I look at these paintings, the centuries between me and Bruegel evaporate, all the mundanities of my daily life subside, and I feel the calm of the painter putting colour on a canvas. Like Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery this is a resolutely public historical, or rather, biblical painting that asks us to move up close and experience it in private. The details of the trees, every painted flourish of Mary’s cape, the figures, the birds in the trees, all of them are so delicately formed, awaiting our most focused attention. One asped that I love about Bruegel’s paintings from this period is that the figures are never looking, they are always busy doing something. It is as though the peasants from the bigger paintings are transported into biblical settings, and put to work.  For me, these two tender images were the highlight of the galleries.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid and Psyche, 1789
Even though the collection is not large, it is vast because it spans Western painting from the medieval to the second world war. As always with historical collections that are arranged chronologically, the expanse is overwhelming and difficult to take in. I have never been good at synthesizing hundreds of years and hundreds of works of art. That said, after spending time with the Bruegels, I wandered and discovered another work that I loved: Joshua Reynolds' Cupid and Psyche, 1789. As the mortal Psyche discovers her heavenly lover, the secrecy of their tryst is held tightly in a pool of light. They are held in a space that is closed by the brilliance of the light ostensibly emanating from the candle Psyche holds to Cupid’s sleeping, eroticized body. Next to his languid pose, her tense, outstretched hand expresses a surprise so striking that we feel her experience. The moon outside the window also makes this painting cinematic: in the darkened and secret internal space, it is necessary to see with a torch. There are traces of Georges de la Tour from over one hundred years earlier: the faces are not so important, but rather, it is the world opened up by the light and the secrets revealed therein that carry all meaning for this painting.
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-82
And then there is Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82). No matter how well I assume to know a painting, there is nothing like seeing it in the flesh. Always, everything is revealed when face to face with the colour, with paint on a canvas and the details that no photographic reproduction can approach. My first response to this iconic image  was, no wonder it has fascinated photographers since the day it was painted. The unsettling use of reflection, the curious appearance of the acrobat’s legs along the top of the painting, the distorted reflections of the man and the woman through the use of a mirror image, all of it is as wonderous in the flesh as it is familiar on the page of a book. And then there is the intense melancholy that overwhelms the painting, the roughness of the crowd, and the same mottled grey counter on which the woman leans that might be transposed directly to a painting by Jasper Johns. All of a sudden, I could see so clearly why this painting still stands as one of the great late nineteenth-century masterpieces. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A date at the Tate Britain

The Main Hall, Tate Britain

Arriving at the Tate Britain with water squelching in my shoes, my coat completely sodden, my clothes drenched, I wasn't in the best shape to "Meet British Art". Therefore, it may be that I am not the best judge of the new hanging of the permanent collection at the Tate Britain. But I found it exhausting and confusing and I had a lot of difficulty focussing on individual works of art. This is primarily because of the chronological order of the new hanging, a curatorial decision that ignores all context, places second rate works by the greats of British art next to intriguing small works by unknown artists, and spans from the 1500s to today. 

James McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green:
Miss Linly Alexander 1872-74

I tried to remember the last time I had walked through a permanent collection of one of the world's great art museums, and it occurred to me that this is actually not something I do, ever. I think of my visits to the Louvre or the Centre Pompidou in Paris and I always pop in to see one or two works of art in the permanent collection, and usually, only if I happen to be nearby or there already seeing a temporary exhibition. I never walk through from beginning to end.

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887

All out of sorts with my wet clothes and what felt like the endless narrative of British art through the ages, I decided not to “Meet British Art”, as the new hanging is titled, and to simply enjoy the one or two paintings I had gone there to see, and to discover another. And my discovery of the day was John Atkinson Grimshaw’s luminescent Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887. It is an atmospheric late 19th century painting of Liverpool by the docks with a sky that could be taken straight from a German Romantic landscape and streets that glow with the night lights of the modern city. This lonely, cold grey street at dusk so perfectly captures the mood of this mysterious time of night. The thinly painted sky nevertheless fills the air with the density that tells of the rain recently ended.

The figures on the street are also curious: as if in an attempt to underline the light emanating from the stores onto the wet sidewalk, the figures are transparent. Their black silhouettes allow the light to pass through them so as not to interrupt the light falling through the windows. It is as though they are ghosts or figures in an animation film. Even though the painting still has all the characteristics of a late nineteenth century realist cityscape, the growing force photography is clearly influencing the perspectival composition, the path lit by the shop windows, the transparency of the human silhouettes.

In addition to Grimshaw’s painting, one of my favorite moments of the day was the lighting of the all but empty main hall of the Tate Britain. The hall is filled with a heavy chiaroscuro lighting that surrounds an unsettling, fragmented and vertiginous video of the hall itself with PatrickKeiller’s installation of a year ago in place. The significance of the video was not clear to me, but the hall itself felt as though it had been transformed into a cathedral to the modern, a cathedral to British art. I couldn’t decide of I was troubled by the suggested demand for reverence of British art, or if this demand was undercut by the disconcerting experience of the video. Whichever was the intended response, I was not convinced that the two, video and architectural manipulation through lighting, worked.

Monday, May 27, 2013

How to talk about Grey? Gerhard Richter's Cage I-VI. Again

After a lazy afternoon overlooking the Thames, discussing everything from Michael Haneke’s films through the dire state of the academic institution in Britain, to life and love, my dear friend James and I ventured inside the Tate Modern to spend some time together with six of my favorite paintings: Cage I-VI. I have seen these six paintings many times, and I have written about them more than once. Similarly, James and I had seen them together on the occasion of the Panorama retrospective in October 2011. We went back, because I wanted to be with them, experience them together once again with him. I wanted to see what came out of the three-way conversation, a conversation between James, myself and Cage I-VI. And James was keen to see them again having lived with a poster reproduction of Cage V for some months: how would the colours compare?

Mark Rothko, The Seagram Murals, 1958
The first thing we discussed was the exhibition of the Richter paintings and Rothko’s The Seagram Murals. While other works in the current hanging of the permanent collection are thematized: apparently to reflect abstract connections such as “Poetry and Dream,” “Energy and Process” and the like, Cage I-VI and The Seagram Murals have their own rooms. I couldn’t help comparing the display of the two series. The dimmed lighting, the single entrance, the placement of a bench in the middle of the room, all of it creates, or rather, imposes a temple-like environment for Rothko's paintings. Richter’s Cage paintings however, are filled with light coming in from above, from the entrances on either side of the room, and because there is no seat in the middle, our own motion around the room. The openness and volume of the canvases asks us to look upwards and outwards as we move to see them from different perspectives, together, singularly, up close and at a distance. In distinction from the demand of The Seagram Murals that we look inwards and remain silent and static, Cage I-VI fill us with energy and motion.

Philip Guston, Head I, 1965
As we arrived at Level 3, "Transformed Visions," James asked me, “so what is grey”? A question I should be able to answer by now. But all I could do was agree with his reflection that "I have never really known what grey is, and I have never known how to spell it." In Room 2, we stopped before Philip Guston's Head I, 1965. The plate accompanying the painting quotes Guston: “I use white pigment and black pigment. The white pigment is used to erase the black I don’t want and so becomes grey. Working with these restricted means as I do now, other things open up which are unpredictable, such as atmosphere, light, illusion — elements which do seem relevant to the image but have nothing to do with colour.” What’s so striking about all of the grey paintings in this room, and later with the Richters, is that grey is about so much more than Guston claims. Similarly, it is about so much more than we would expect. For Guston in Head I, grey is about light and energy, it's about illusion and reality, especially as it gives depth to the head in the title. Grey is also about uncertainty and whether the grey is in relief or perhaps it is receding, leaving the black in the foreground? The freedom of the grey brushstrokes — that are, it is worth mentioning, mixed in with red and blue — warm, generous, and they create a painted surface in flux, glowing.

With all these contradictions left hanging through the presence of grey on the canvas, James had of course, announced the central problem addressed by my forthcoming book, “The Truth is Always Grey” when he said, "I have never really known what grey is, and I have never known how to spell it". This, of course, is my attraction to grey.

So what is grey doing in Cage I-VI? We discussed together that grey is everywhere and nowhere in these paintings. James noticed that grey was impossible to comprehend. While other colours, yellow, red, blue, green, are quantifiable, or rather, can be qualified, seen, understood in their verticality, in their horizontality, in their definitiveness. Grey is more difficult. Yellow is yellow, red is red, blue is blue, but grey is a whole spectrum of ever shifting tones, temperatures, densities. Is it the background or the foreground? Is it horizontal or vertical? Does it erase, or is it erased?

And then as we contemplated these questions, we recognized that the opposite is also true. The vivacity of this contradiction is what makes Richter great and grey indispensible to his greatness. Because grey is the one thing, the one colour that remains the same. While blue becomes yellow which takes over from green, grey, at least within each painting is consistent. It exists. Up close, each of the six Cage paintings changes, shifts from what it was at a distance. Red becomes magenta, it becomes orange, and then in places, it is pink and even purple. Red is anything but stable in these paintings.

It is this ambiguity, this uncertainty and continuing contradiction that makes grey the most exciting of all colours for Richter. Grey is lush, it is playful, filled with light, with air, with possibility and infinity. Grey on the canvases of Cage I-VI is what opens them upwards and outwards, lifting the viewer to a belief in the possibility of painting. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

George Bellows. 1882-1925 Modern American Life @ Royal Academy London

George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey's, 1909

Hailed by the Metropolitan Museum installation of this exhibition, George Bellows was one of “America’s greatest artists when he died, at the age of forty-two from a ruptured appendix.” While I wouldn’t know to argue with the Metropolitan, when I read this very big claim, the first thought that goes through my mind and no doubt that of many visitors to the current exhibition at the Royal Academy must be: Edward Hopper. Bellows and Hopper were contemporaries and apparently studied together under Robert Henri in New York. And for my money, there’s no question as to who was the greater artist.

George Bellows, Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907
The exhibition at the Royal Academy is small compared to its installation in New York and so it’s difficult to know whether or not Bellows was more consistent than the examples represented here indicate. Or perhaps he was on the way to greatness, but he never quite found his style due to his premature death. The answers to such questions would be clearer if there was more of Bellows’ work on display. My first disappointment was with the limited size of the exhibition.

George Bellows, New York, 1911
That said, there are some lovely paintings interspersed throughout the exhibition, particularly, those that show the marginal life of New York City in Bellows’: the boxing paintings of Sharkey’s, a well-known joint hosting illegal activity at the time. Also impressive were the paintings that depicted empty spaces in New York such as the foundation hole in the ground that would become Penn Station, the Pennsylvania Excavation, 1907. What I loved about these New York paintings was their depiction of something that did not exist, the space, the emptiness, the void of a world still to come. New York of this period is always depicted as a marvel of modernist invention: skyscrapers, elevated subways, icons such as the Woolworth Building, and the teeming turn of the century streets. But Bellows represents the emptiness of the ground before all of this is built. Even when he shows views along the Hudson and the East Rivers, it’s not the buildings in the background that capture his eye, it’s the light on the water, the reflections, the space of the river.

George Bellows, Men of the Docks, 1912
In paintings such as Men of the Docks, 1912, Bellows interest in light at various times of day, its reflections, its refractions reminds me of Monet – he wants to capture the light as it reflects on the water, the night lights as they illuminate the pit that will become Penn Station. In these particular works, like those of the French impressionists, but with a much looser brush and a more dense use of paint, Bellows primary interest is in light, in color, in paint. He is less interested in the daily life of New York City. And so in the images of New York we see Bellows lean in towards being a significant modernist painter: an interest in form, in colour, in paint, light, and the simultaneous departure from a fixation on figuration. But this promise is never realized. As Bellows’ career progresses he becomes concerned with subject matter, and seems to leave behind the fascination with questions of aesthetics. Similarly, he stays squarely within the frame of representation, of traditional narrative painting. He never reaches into the uncertain territories of abstraction. When we remember that these works were being painted at the exact same time as Picasso was breaking apart the picture plane, and completely abstracting the human body, Bellows becomes less interesting and more derivative.

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924
The other works that stand out in this exhibition are those for which Bellows is celebrated: the boxing works. In Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, or Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, the boxers occupy the empty space at the centre of the painting, illuminated as it is by color as light, in a reflection of the light of the performance. Again, in these paintings Bellows shows great promise in his fascination with light, with form, with paint. The entwined bodies are also interesting because they create a movement across the canvas that again gestures towards something original, but doesn’t seem to get fully realized in the oeuvre as it is presented here.

This is work that is derivative all the way. It’s work that lacks the uncertainty and the ambiguity that plagues and moves forward the development of modern art. In addition, Bellows is not inventing anything new, nothing we haven’t seen done earlier, usually in the late nineteenth century. Ultimately this makes his work unsatisfying and not so impressive.