Willem de Kooning: The Cat’s Meow

Edward Hopper: Hotel Window.

There’s a tendency to make Hopper into something quaint and kindly and to ignore the times when he’s not. He’s not allowed a trace of Europeanness. Documentaries smother him in big band jazz. But some of his pictures have an eerie side to them and the gaze, while I’d never say it wasn’t often compassionate, hardly strikes one as benign when it peers into glary rooms and contracts big geometric spaces into tunnels. Hotel Window is a good example of what I mean. A hotel room that feels as big as Grand Central Station but a Grand Central Station that somehow feels claustrophobic. All that spaciousness comes to point at the woman, who looks away as if there were anyone else in the room that could be the object of attention. And being lit like that, she must wish she were out in the anonymous dark.

Office at Night.

In Office at Night, the light again seems over-bright, like stage lighting. The unpleasantness is not just a function of the light, though, or of the not-quite-right angles; it has something to do with the guilelessness of the people spied on. It’s an embarrassment to be found serving time so innocently and in so exposed a place, to have been caught in the act of doing nothing much again. These two couldn’t have an affair if their lives depended on it. They couldn’t shut a door or window, couldn’t turn off a light.

Eleven AM.

Similarly affectless, the woman in Eleven AM, naked but for her shoes. Some people might see this as a touch of humour on Hopper’s part, but as she, like many of Hopper’s people, stares dreamily out the window (they’re often oversize, as if to show people for cowards), there seems something more pathetic about it. Is that as close as she could get to going out?

Night Windows.

Pisanello: Portrait of a Princess.

This is one of those paintings whose every detail looks to have been chiseled into stone. I don’t find it a cold painting at all, but there’s not a hint of improvisation to be found, and nothing really moves except the odd butterfly, perhaps. The intricate flowers and the embroidery of the over-gown could be from Netherlandish painting of the period, and the ribbons in the princess’ hair and the lines in her garment - they’ve been painted with a carefulness and patience that heightens the impression the woman is already giving off, as she stares distractedly at nothing, of langourous chastity. The woman’s head and the dark bushes behind it form an intense contrast - I find my attention always gravitating toward those hard contours of her profile. But there’s also a contrast between stoniness and leafiness; despite its controlled arrangement of forms, there’s something about that bush and all the impossibly varried flowers growing out of it that makes it look as if it had a life of its own. And it’s possible to start to see the princess, whose gaze is inward if it isn’t blank, as the true negative space, the static center of all that growth, as if we’re looking at a cutaway of a woman overgrown, left to go privately and elaborately to seed.

Compare and Contrast (14)

1. Titian: Man with a Quilted Sleeve (detail).
2. Philip Guston: Sleeping.

This is another big stretch but, I’m telling you, I can’t look at that sleeve in the Titian and not think of Philip Guston. I may not even have the best Guston to illustrate the comparison, but there’s something about the strokes on that sleeve…

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.

Google’s Art Project

This is a detail view of part of the bed in Van Gogh’s The Bedroom. I got it from Google’s new Art Project, a site where, apparently, those hoarders everyone feels ambivalent about plan to archive high resolution renderings of the world’s artworks like they’ve archived everything else. But after having spent a good hour on the site, I can’t say it’s not an awesome tool for art lovers. There’s a whole luscious side to artworks that you’re missing if you’re not able to see them close up, and for those of us who can’t jet around the globe whenever it strikes us, this offers a pretty reasonable substitute for the experience you’re going to get in a museum, that is, with your face pressed to the protective glass.

I’ve thought a lot about the experience of art via jpeg, or through reproduction in general (since this is how I take most of it in) versus the direct gallery experience. The only conclusion I can come to is that both are absolutely valid art experiences, and there’s nothing saying the humbler means can’t afford the richer experience. All experiences of art, after all, are imperfect; you take what you can from it however you can get it. And since so much of any significant encounter with art comes down to factors such as your receptivity to it and capacity for appreciating it, the network of experiences that lead up to your seeing it, and, say, whether your tired back or the kid mounted on it is distracting you, there’s nothing saying that even when face to face with a masterpiece you’d be the right person and it the right work of art or the time right. 

I remember the day that I finally “got” Francis Bacon. For a long time I had no feeling for his paintings at all and then one day, after looking through a couple of monographs in a book store - I ended up buying both of them - and spending the whole day looking at them, I had something like a road to damascus moment if I’ve ever had one. Would I have gotten even more out of the paintings if I’d seen them in a gallery? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have felt anything at all. I’ve still only seen a few Bacons up close but I don’t have any reservations about calling him one of my favorite artists. 

Bacon had his own experience like this with a Velasquez, the Pope that obsessed him for a good part of his life and became the inspiration for many of his own paintings. In fact, he liked it so much in reproduction that he eschewed the direct experience, even when he could easily have gone and seen it while in Madrid, and instead, apparently buying book after book with it in, collected reproductions of it. 

But there is a lot to be said for seeing a painting close up. It’s a different thing, and it’s less easy, looking at them this way, to forget the aesthetic dimension, the How of the painting, the side of art appreciation that entails running your eyes over a paint surface in grateful participation, retracing the brushwork that made it, when you have both the tactile level and the overview and you can track back and forth between them. Roberta Smith, writing about the Art Project a couple of days ago, says it’s “a mesmerizing, world-expanding tool for self-education.” I think that “self-education” part gets it right. It’s not a replacement for looking at art in museums. It’s a reference, and next to seeing it in the raw, a pretty useful second.

A close-up of Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry (right). And you can get much much closer still…

Willem de Kooning: Asheville

Caspar David Friedrich: Sea of Ice

Matisse: The Moroccans.

Among life’s defining choices - Beatles or Stones, beer or wine, etc. - art lovers might put to themselves an additional set of questions: Michaelangelo or Raphael, Joyce or Proust, Picasso or Matisse, for example. As for this last division, I’ve generally been a Picasso person. But the more Matisse I look at, the more ground he gains (in this subjective little rivalry they have inside my head).

I love two things particularly in The Moroccans. I love those oranges on the trellis (or whatever that is), the curving black outlines, the way that pink patch abruptly meets the green, and all that tweaking of the green and yellow, the rough, worked quality that kind of de-beautifies it and makes it feel sturdier, and, as it does that, beatifies it all the more. I also like the two Moroccans on the right, almost camouflaged out of existence there, especially the guy holding the binoculars. The black paint got the better of the figure and what’s left is an all-but-unreadable remnant. There needed to be more black to offset all those bright pink, beige, and yellow tones, I guess, and you can imagine Matisse spotting that rhyme starting to form between the two arm-like shapes in the middle of the painting, too. I love this: seeing the way it’s been worked out. The moroccans were only a starting point. Everything we see there, for that matter, was just an excuse to get the color moving on the canvas.

(Okay, Ms. Spurling, I guess I’m finally game for your thousand page bio now.)

Compare and Contrast (10)

1. Rogier van der Weyden: The Crucifixion, c. 1460.
2. Francis Bacon: right panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962.
3. Francis Bacon: Figure in Movement, 1985.
4. Francis Bacon: center panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, Second Version, 1944.

Francis Bacon’s sense of color and the framing devices he used - perhaps the two most distinctive elements of his style apart from the figures themselves - both seem to come out of thin air. His biggest influence was Picasso but I don’t see much trace of either the peculiar color juxtaposition or the monumental centeredness there. If not out of thin air, I’m tempted to think they might have come from earlier religious painting such as this diptych by Rogier van der Weyden in which the orange cloth, acting as a frame within a frame, is similar to framing devices Bacon used over and over again (not to mention the orange which is signature Bacon as well). Bacon’s proclivity for diptychs and triptychs had to have come from looking at old religious works (since there isn’t a secular tradition for such a thing); who knows that the same paintings didn’t also influence his choice of subjects: Bacon painted several Crucifixions - far less reverent ones, to put it mildly.

Bacon mentions, in several interviews, Cimabue’s Crucifix, and in the Sylverster interviews he cites it as the source for the third panel of Three Studies for a Crucifixion (above), where he inverts it. In the Archimbaud interviews, he says he likes “not only [the Italian primitives]; primitives in general” but a little later when asked about “the German and Flemish painters, Holbein, Bruegel,” he says “They mean nothing to me.” Is van der Weyden a primitive or a Flemish painter? I guess if Holbein and Bruegel are the Flemish painters, van der Weyden is, to Bacon, probably more a “primitive” than a “Flemish” painter. (You always wish they’d gotten deeper into it but, alas, they jump from this to Rembrandt. I’m sure there are other interviews where Bacon talks more about those “primitives,” whoever they are - I just haven’t seen them.) Looking at the above diptych, I imagine van der Weyden might have been a primitive who meant something to him.

R.B. Kitaj: The Ohio Gang.

Gerhard Richter: “Sinbad” series

When I came home from the bookstore and started combing the net for the Nine Objects (see below), I ended up finding this mind-blowing series of paintings (lacquer under glass) from a couple of years ago, each painting a feverish lava-flow of saturated, neapolitan ice cream color. The note of psychedelia seems inescapable - HAIR anyone? - but I prefer to take the title’s cue instead and imagine myself drowning ecstatically in this intoxicating swell of gloop (if that’s any distinction from the former, perhaps it’s a fine one). Richter has always been an amazing colorist (when he’s not being an amazing monochromist), but these paintings are wowing for their jangly juxtapositions (though he did already set a precedent for this kind of thing - see below). 

It’s a large set - forty-nine in all, I think. But one feels as if Richter could have made hundreds - like Pollock’s drip paintings there’s the obviousness to this series of an experiment waiting to happen, the obviousness of pure color play. Who, after Richter, after Fischli & Weiss, is going to make work like this, the kind that anyone could make?

It’s hard to chose which pictures to post - I’m tempted to put them all on here. But you can see the rest of them, in larger sizes, at the Marian Goodman gallery site

Rubens: Honeysuckle Bower.

If ever there was an image of contentment, self-satisfied health and wealth, Arcadian tranquility and humanistic confidence, this is it. The two figures are immensely robust, filling up most of the available space (one only has to subtract them from the background to see how big a presence they are - see below), but their tremendous energy also has something to do with the way they seem to protrude from the picture plane, specifically the way they seem to protrude all at once. We expect his knees or her skirted legs to protrude, but then when you ask yourself where anything is in relation to anything else, her hat brim to their hands, say, or his head to hers, all sense of relative depth gets a little confused. It’s not that it’s flat; just the opposite: it all bulges voluptuously.

There’s another extraordinary trick here: the figures being as colossal as they are, there’s actually very little honeysuckle bower in Honeysuckle Bower. Somehow though, with some choice foliage detailing and the rich costuming itself lending to the atmosphere, it’s enough to convince us we’re in this lush garden paradise. Mentally subtracting the figures, you still don’t realize (at least I didn’t) how big their presence is, and how small the bower…

(There might be one or two little windows between the two figures that I’ve missed, but they are small and, anyway, we read it as part of the figure mass.)

Rubens hadn’t yet been to Italy, was still very much a Flemish artist, which may explain what I see as some perspectival funny business - all to the good - with the figures; it also accounts for the sensuous textural detailing in the clothing. Essentially, Rubens, his wife, and their finery are the bower.

Edward Hopper: Rooms by the Sea.

Compare and Contrast (7)

1. Caravaggio: The Entombment of Christ.
2. Rubens: copy of The Entombment of Christ.

It’s instructive to look at paintings through another artist’s eyes. Most of us would look at the above Caravaggio and think the woman standing arms raised at the apex of the fan motion there was indispensable, compositionally. But for Rubens, the interest of the painting was obviously elsewhere - in the person of Nicodemus maybe, in the chiaroscuro, or, more generally, in the little motifs, the parcels of energy that are, to the people who look at paintings just as much as to those who read books or watch films, the true content of a work of art. Look at how closely he mimics the folds in the cloth falling from Christ’s body - that was important, as was the bone and muscle in Jesus’ thigh, the precise angle at which the other Mary’s head rests on her hand, or the way Nicodemus clasps his hands and juts his elbow, and yet the Mary at the back, doing everything she can to draw attention, wasn’t.

Why, I wonder. Maybe Rubens just saw that there wasn’t any room for a third Mary on that slab of stone. The people in the Caravaggio are impossibly cramped (three of them look as if they could all be standing on the same pair of legs), an effect that David Hockney thinks might have arisen from the use of camera obscura - each model might have been placed and painted separately. Overcoming laws of physics was hardly a task too great for painters like Rubens though, so I doubt this would have been the decisive reason for excluding her. Maybe - and I’m aggressively substituting my own feelings for Rubens’ now - he was put off by something overdramatic about Mary’s drunken lament, a little at odds with the moving realism of the scene. Maybe - and I wish this were true even though it’s pretty doubtful - he just didn’t have time, what with affairs of state and running a business, to finish it.

Rubens continued to copy the older masters long after he had become an old master himself. This is one of the most endearing things about him. He was thoroughly a student of art, humble before Titian particularly, even late in life. Perhaps it is in his many copies that you can see the artist most truly, when there was nothing but pleasure to gain by retracing and updating his predecessors.

Saint Passionate


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