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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Jacket, Darby English, "1971: A Year in the Life of Color" (University of Chicago Press)


I couldn't face all those talks at the annual conference of the College Art Association this year, but as the conference was held in Manhattan, I did mosey on down to the New York Hilton to enjoy the Smithsonian's reception for its alumni and to look at the CAA's book exhibits.   As with the art world as a whole, postmodernism and identity politics for the most part upstaged esthetics, both in the choice of subjects for books and in the way that these subjects were dealt with, but still I found a handful of tomes that interested me and that I would have bought had I a) the money b) the space to put them in and c) the time to do them justice by reading them carefully and all the way through.




One book that I wouldn't have bought but that I glanced at because it deals with maybe my most favorite subject was "Cézanne's Gravity" by Carol Armstrong, at the booth of Yale University Press (she also teaches at Yale)  Alas, to my jaundiced eye there appeared to be something fundamentally wrong-headed about this book.


It is billed as "a transformative study, freeing the artist from outdated art historical narratives and revealing his work as newly strange again." This may or may not mean that Armstrong considers Cézanne closer to the space-time continuum of Einstein than Picasso ever was, but (to judge from the literature surrounding this book on the web) it is most certainly designed to liberate him from the "modernist teleologies" that see Cézanne as having paved the way toward abstraction (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Kasimir Malevich!) 


The literature at the Yale booth further indicates that this book deals with "the ways in which space and time act on…the schizophrenic mind."  Does this mean Armstrong wishes to set up Cézanne as some kind of candidate for a lunatic asylum? 


Thumbing through the book, I see a reference to "Freud's faux-scientism"!  Boy is this ever the pot calling the kettle black! My first response to this was: where was Prof. Armstrong around 1890?  Was she even born? And what does she know about the science of that day? 


If you look up Sigmund on the web, you will find a very interesting article by D. Galbis-Reig in the Internet Journal of Neurology for 2003 outlining the nearly twenty years prior to Freud's invention of psychoanalysis around 2000 during which he was a practicing neurologist, with many scholarly articles to his credit (and a couple of situations in which he anticipated later neurological discoveries).


 It was only because Freud regretfully concluded that neurology, as it existed in the late 19th century, was inadequate to explain humanity's mental ills that he turned to "the talking cure."  


This does not mean that he gave up neurology without regret, or without confidence that one day his psychoanalytic findings would be substantiated by neurology.  Indeed, the first work in James Strachey's 24-volume English-language translation of Freud's collected psychoanalytic works is his "Project for a Scientific Psychology" (1895).


In this, as nearly as I could tell, Freud for the last time attempted to resolve psychology with neurology (it was not published during his lifetime).  And in his later psychoanalytic writings, he continued to demonstrate his keen powers of observation and rationalization – true scientific traits that had been honed in his neurological career.


I get so fed up with art historians who can't see Freud (and only a little less irked by those who would adapt his findings to justify postmodernist positions and work).  But I do think that in his heyday (roughly from the 1930s to the mid-1960s) his ideas were often given credit for more being more successful than they actually were. 


Specifically, the brand of Freud to which I was exposed from 1950, when I first started psychoanalysis, to 1969, when I abruptly quit it, placed enormous responsibility on the individual and her or his capacity to "adjust" to society. 


If you couldn't fit in, and make society work to your advantage, this was the fault of your neurosis, and once your neurosis was cured (or whatever the correct term may be), you would be able to realize your dreams…..


In the analysis I underwent, between 1956 and 1969, as a young person working at Time, I would describe on the couch how my various dates and other relationships with men had come to grief, and as far as the analyst was concerned, it was almost always me and my neuroses at fault (I can remember only one exception where he conceded that the man in the situation might be "neurotic").


This idyllic argument –that if one could only adjust, one would be happy -- ran into trouble in the 1960s, and specifically with the conflict in Vietnam.   Here an entire generation was presented with a situation where society was confronted with a problem of how to end a war that Our Side was losing – without admitting that such a loss was taking place.


Anna Freud¸ Sigmund's daughter and a distinguished child psychoanalyst herself put her finger on it in a story published by Time in 1968.  "Young people now are not interested in man's struggle against himself," she said.  "They see that what psychoanalysis may lead to is adaptation to society. That's the last thing they have in mind." 


In a word, in the 60s it was society that was at fault, and needed changing – a position that echoed that of Marx, not Freud -- and this is the position that even art historians who should know better still espouse, that society is responsible for whatever an artist creates and how it is received and God forbid the individual should be given credit or held responsible to the fullest.


I'm not saying that Carol Armstrong espouses this position – I haven't read her book in its entirety.  But I do know that her reference to Freud's "faux-scientism" caused me to lose interest in it rather fast.


(I will add that since that time I have taken something from Freud's critics.  In the "novel" I wrote in London in the early 1970s, after I'd left analysis and my job at Time, I reviewed my romantic history and concluded that my failures to find a mate had not been entirely the fault of my neuroses – that on some, maybe many occasions there  had been social factors beyond my control. 


I also think in general, some kind of balance must exist between the responsibility of the individual and the responsibility of society. Marx isn't all wet, just (still) a bit overrated at present. But enough of that….)


Moving on to a more agreeable topic, I saw that Yale is also co-producing "Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown."   This is the catalogue of the show seen last summer at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and due to be seen in a revised and expanded version at the Parrish Art Museum in the Hamptons this coming summer. 


The show is devoted to two of this illustrious painter's most productive periods, the first being when she as a very young woman studied briefly in 1950 with Hans Hofmann at his summer school in Provincetown and the second being those years starting in 1958 and lasting throughout most of the 60s when she was married to Robert Motherwell  and summering with him on the Cape. 


I'm not going to comment on the catalogue at this point, as I expect to see and review the show this coming August, and will be discussing the catalogue if it seems relevant in that context.


I do have two observations to make however, the first being that the show was originally organized by Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Lise Motherwell, daughter of Robert and hence for a number of years stepdaughter of Helen. Now in her 60s and a licensed psychologist, Motherwell has retained her interest in art and is Board President of PAAM (her older sister, Jeannie, is a practicing artist). 


Apparently, it is now an accepted practice to call on the offspring of famous abstract expressionists to celebrate their memories, for Lise Motherwell was not the only child of a famous one to be featured on the display counters of Yale University Press.


Also on view was "Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out," which is by Christopher Rothko, the artist's younger child and only son. To be sure, he was only six when his father committed suicide in early 1970.  His mother died within six months after his father, and he was raised by a maternal aunt and uncle in Ohio. 


Next, he spent the early part of his adult life practicing as a psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI.  However, around the turn of the century, he stopped taking new patients and transitioned into a life of helping his older sister, Kate Rothko Prizel, maintain their father's legacy – cooperating with curators staging exhibitions of his work and authors writing books about him, as well as supervising the sales and donations of works still in the estate.


This book, as I understand if (from a 2015 interview about it by Randy Kennedy  in the New  York Times) is an attempt to make his father appear less "irascible"  and "titanic" and more "humanistic" (dare I say "approachable")? 


Anyway, this argument is certainly worthy of study if Mark Rothko is your cup of tea. I gather the book does have its share of anecdotes though I think it likely that more than a few come from third parties, rather than Christopher's own recollections – not only because he was only six when his father died, but also because his parents' marriage had been in trouble for some time and they had in fact separated shortly before the artist's death. Anyway, enough of that sad story!


The other reason I have so cleverly introduced the presence of the Frankenthaler catalogue is that not only will I be reviewing this show at the Parrish, but I will be visiting it on the day either before or after I myself become a NEWS ITEM: Specifically, I will be delivering a talk of my own at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs on Sunday, August 18 in the late afternoon on the subject of "Jack & Life & Helen & Time." 


This talk is going to consider two articles in particular that appeared in the mass media but dealt with very sophisticated subject matter that turned out to be way, way over the heads of a sizeable majority of their readership.


The first, of course, is the famous piece on Jackson Pollock that appeared in Life magazine in August 1949.  A great deal has already been written about this piece, but I think I may still be able to add a bit – if only because I am one of the very few observers who can see the article from the vantage-point of a member (or former member) of the major media – whereas nearly every other commentator has represented the art-world insider point of view.  


The second article I will discuss is the long one that I myself wrote for Time on Helen Frankenthaler in March 1969.  It hasn't been much written about, but on one notable occasion it has been plagiarized from and it did get described as "snarky" from another recent scholar whose name escapes me at the moment. 


Anyway, there's a lot more to be said about it, not only because the artist herself liked it very much, and  ensured that it was listed under "personal statements by the artist" in the two major books written about her in her lifetime, but also as it didn't follow the usual Time path to print.


Nor do I intend to neglect this article's relationship to at least one member of the third generation of abstract expressionists, who read it in the laundry room of a ski resort in Colorado, a year after it was published!


So, dear readers, if any of you want to come out to the Hamptons in order to see the Frankenthaler show at the Parrish, may I dare to hope that you will make it on the weekend of August 18, and come to my talk as well? Considering that I will likely have nice things to say about Clement Greenberg, I will need all the moral support I can get.




I stopped by the Oxford University Press booth because on previous occasions I have found refreshing fare there, and found one book that furnished a sad commentary on the current scene, plus another that looked like very interesting reading. 


The sad commentary was the latest volume of what seems to be an annual compendium of "outstanding" critical articles ostensibly on art and/or art history.  In the dozen or so articles in this compendium, every school of interpretation that one might wish for appeared to be represented – one article dealing with economics, another with the environment, a third with some abstruse application of Freud – but no title that suggested a reader might want to LOOK at the art under discussion, and consider its visual properties.


The closest I could find was an article under the heading "visual culture" but even that didn't discuss any art that I considered of interest…..


Almost equally remote from the visual arts – although not entirely – was a book that looked very interesting nonetheless. This was "The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke," by Jeffrey C. Stewart. 


I first came across Locke's name and his concept of "The New Negro" last fall, when I was writing about the twin exhibitions of Charles W. White.  White's whole career had been galvanized by Locke's concept of "the New Negro" as a figure of stature and beauty and dignity. 


This extensive biography of the Howard University professor known as "the father of the Harlem Renaissance" won the 2018 National Book Award for Nonfiction and looked like it was well worth buying and reading.




The Getty Research Institute, as my most loyal readers know, contains the lion's share of the papers of Clement Greenberg. However, not content with that, it also houses the papers of one of his rivals, Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990), the British critic who in the 1950s was the first to spot proto-pop in England, and, after the movement spread to the U.S., to cross the ocean and coin the word, "pop" to describe the new movement.


Therefore, it should not have surprised me to see "Lawrence Alloway: Critic and Curator," a collection of essays about him edited by Lucy Bradnock, Courtney J. Martin & Rebecca Peabody,  offered at the booth of Getty Publications. 


Rather more surprising was the focus of the volume itself, with most if not all of the included essays devoted to Alloway's later writings on subjects like the movies and earthworks – areas where his contributions were at best of secondary importance.


Considerably fresher and (as I see it) more desirable was "Hans Hofmann: The Artist's Materials" by Dawn V. Rogala.  Abundantly illustrated with top-quality close-up reproductions of Hofmann's splendid late-career paintings, it is the fourth in the Getty Conservation Institute's Artist's Materials Series. 


After a terse but good general introduction, outlining Hofmann's early life and accomplishments, it gets down to an impressively  detailed analysis of the artist's materials and technique and explores the whole relationship between the artist's mature palette, his shifts in style and the aging characteristics of his painting.


Indeed it is said to conclude with advice on the conservation of modernist paintings generally, particularly those that incorporate both traditional and modern media. 


Written by a paintings conservator in the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian Institution in Suitland, MD, this slender (160-page) volume is said to be of especial interest to conservators and art historians, but I think it might also be of interest to modernist painters.




 Criticism also appears to be in vogue at the University of Chicago Press, which is inaugurating a five-volume series of the critical and art-historical writing of yet another of Clement Greenberg's rivals: Leo Steinberg (1920-2011).


The first two volumes are already on sale, the first being devoted to the sculpture of Michelangelo, and the second to his paintings. It seems that they plan to get around to his contemporary criticism with Volume Five. 


Ay me!  I can remember when I was in grad school in the 70s being told that Steinberg's "Other Criteria" was to the 70s what "Art and Criticism" had been to the 60s. How soon they forget. 


Meanwhile, God bless the University of Chicago Press: all four volumes of "Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism" remain in print (though not displayed at their CAA booth). On display, though, was "Aesthetics at Large -- Volume 1: Art, Ethics, Politics," by Thierry de Duve, the Belgian-born professor of modern and contemporary art theory who at last reports was teaching at Hunter College. 


De Duve's last book was about Greenberg, but I have never read it.  I did sneak a peek at this one and found passages where de Duve was apparently arguing with Greenberg's notions of Kantian taste and the universality of art. 


De Duve appeared to disagree with Greenberg, as nearly as I could tell, but the whole discussion was being conducted in a such a chatty, civilized tone of voice that it would have seemed rude of me to complain (short of me arguing with him, which I am not equipped to do – never having read Kant myself).


The book in this booth that I really fell for, though, was "1971: A Year in the Life of Color," by Darby English, a professor at the University of Chicago.  On the cover is a photograph of an ovals-period Larry Poons wrapped in plastic and being held by two 70s-hirsute young men – one of Caucasian descent and one African-American. 


You open the book up and here are a couple of photographs of Greenberg in a Stetson, grinning broadly and clowning around with Peter Bradley & Kenneth Noland, both also looking young and spry


The whole first part of the book discusses "The Deluxe Show," an exhibition held in a renovated theater in a Houston ghetto in 1971. As curated by Bradley, it has got to be one of the most thoroughly integrated art shows of its day -- and possibly even since.  Among African Americans included were Al Loving, Ed Clark, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and Bradley himself; among Caucasians were Poons, Noland, Anthony Caro, Darby Bannard, & Jules Olitski. It must have been quite a show.


If this description of it rings a bell with some of my readers with long memories, I have written about this show before – when I heard English himself talk about it at a symposium organized by two graduate students up at Harvard in 2009 in honor of Greenberg's hundredth birthday.


And, if I am reading my review of that symposium correctly, English said that he was working on a book and hoped to make this show into one chapter of it. In its final form, this show is half of the book –the other half being devoted to a much more conventional show held at the Whitney in that same year. 


Although I understand that English tries to argue that both shows were about "color" in two senses, one being related to race and the other to abstract painting, he may well have had a harder time with the Whitney show, since a) it included only African-American artists, and b) it included some representational artists as well as abstract ones. 


But it wouldn't surprise me a whole heck of a lot if most reviewers dumped on the first part of the book and praised the second half only.  This is the world we live in.

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