Artists in pictures: Sean Scully

Here’s Sean Scully with two of his gigantic paintings, a good abstract expressionist soldier back from battle, covered in the blood of his victims. You’d think this rather obsolete content would upstage the paintings, but it doesn’t (and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that content anyway). In fact, you get a real sense of the physicality of the paintings here, a sense you don’t really get, by the way, looking at them in reproduction. (Apparently the sides of Scully’s canvases are also painted; this too would add to their monolithic solidity.) The paintings, though they really do bear those old-fashioned qualities, sought and admired by the abstract expressionists but laughed out of town today, toughness and masculinity, come off pretty well, not nearly as cold, or as easily pigeonholed, as you’d expect given their ancestry. Scully himself looks somewhat more anachronistic than his paintings do. I feel like he may accidentally have gotten himself pressed into that mold in the photo.

In other photos, some in which Scully is seated, we see an artist applying paint not with a Herculean trowel, but carefully, with a relatively small brush - and check out that posture in the photo on the right: that’s a guy who has to be careful about his back if I ever saw one. There. Fine. But I still like the first photo, just like I do pictures of Jackson Pollock in his barn or, heck, Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Life Lessons, where no artist cliché is spared. As long as painting is an art and not a science, as long as painters start a painting not knowing what they’re after, there will always be some air of romance in it. And whatever the nature of the attraction to getting messily engrossed in useless work, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s feels it.

Artists in pictures: Kurt Schwitters

He’s very clean, isn’t he? This photo has occupied a talismanic place on my computer desktop for several years. I like Schwitters the artist - I think Schwitters the collagist was a virtuoso, but I’m just about obsessed with Schwitters the subject of portraits. There isn’t, among all the pictures I’ve seen of him, one that isn’t remarkable for some reason. I like this one the most - him showing everyone how sublimely, incongruously well-adjusted he was, totally comfortable with himself and totally at ease having his picture taken. I don’t think Schwitters had the easiest life; I sometimes wonder what made him such a good smiler (if it wasn’t just dada tomfoolery to him, posing for pictures): he had a sickly childhood and rough young adulthood, took a while to find come into his own as an artist, was chased around Europe during the war, his work always having to be abandoned, he suffered life-long poor health including epilepsy, strokes in later life, and temporary blindness, and ended up, after the war, in England’s Lake District, where, far away from all the artists he knew, he went ahead and tried to build again that thing he could never get built, his Merzbau. I wish I could have met him. I don’t usually feel that way about artists, but I’d like to have known Schwitters.

Artists in pictures: Flannery O’Connor

I read two essays that I can say I really loved this year. One was by Elif Batuman, about Tolstoy, Tolstoy scholars, and lots of other things along the way. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book it came from. The other was an old essay about peafowl (and lots of other things along the way) by Flannery O’Connor called The King of the Birds. I don’t know how or why, but there was something pretty close to sublimity in that apparently modest little piece.

Artists in pictures: Marcel Duchamp

To me, Duchamp is the most intimidatingly sophisticated artist there ever was. The implications of his work, what it destabilized and what it made accessible, are still unfolding, and taken individually, the works are as slippery and baffling now as ever. The Large Glass (aka The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), besides being pretty funny if you read the notes that go with it, is an experience somewhat akin to going to a ten-year-old violin prodigy’s concert. You feel as though you’re somehow getting both less and more than art, or that the art is bypassed, or that something a little bit alien is standing in its place, haunting the material, pushing it into the background. Duchamp made possible something outside of what we used to think art was that has some things in common with it, and that divide, between the two versions of “art,” is still being negotiated today, not always favorably for art. But Duchamp wouldn’t have cared, and I often think I should care less. What makes him so scary, in a way, is that freedom - there was nothing he let himself get too attached to, nothing he couldn’t give up - his home, his hand, the aesthetic, then even art itself. Except chess. The other games he quit playing.

Saint Passionate


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