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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."



"London's New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s," by Lisa Tickner (published in London in 2020 by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, distributed in the U.S. by Yale University Press)


This year, as always, the College Art Association held a Book & Trade Fair during its annual conference in February – but of course this year it was all different, i.e. everything was virtual.   Convention "goers" simply paid their entrance fees and zoomed into the book-and-trade-fair display at the CAA website on their computers. Companies with products to sell to artists and art historians set up separate "booths" and displayed their wares – or at least (in the case of artists' materials suppliers, like Golden Artist Colors) mainly reminded convention "goers" of their existence.


Trade publishers like Random House or even Oxford couldn't be bothered to participate, either, but quite a number of university presses and other non-profits like the Getty complex of entities weighed in, so in all I counted 42 "booths" where mostly books were displayed. 


The convention mechanism was very ingeniously set up: not only was printed information about  the displays available, but in some cases, you could tap into recorded statements by editors (telling prospective authors what kinds of books they were looking for), access excerpts from the books themselves, and/or initiate an email "chat" with an exhibitor. As I saw nothing that I should try to fit into my already over-crowded bookshelves, I didn't initiate any chats myself.


Moreover, I was unable to examine any actual book.  This deprived me of my favorite tool for determining whether or not I might have any use for such a book. This tool of mine involves turning to a book's index and looking up the references to subjects on which I consider myself knowledgeable. 


I can, for example, tell quite a lot about any book on American art since 1945 by looking up the references to "Greenberg, Clement."  Just as I can tell a bit about a book dealing with 20th century American journalism (or politics) by looking up "Time magazine" or "Luce, Henry."


Deprived of this favorite tool, I was for the most part forced to fall back on the books' descriptions provided by the publishers, either at the CAA "booth" or on the jacket.  All of this literature is of course designed to sell the book, so it focuses on what the publishers considers its most desirable features. 


In other words, these are the same variety of literature as your basic press release, and I've been looking at press releases now for more than 60 years.  Such is my vanity that I consider myself something of a connoisseur of press releases – or to be more modest, merely a student.


At any rate, in today's world, I am abundantly grateful for the press releases I receive from museums and university presses.  They have provided me with much very valuable and reliable information.  Especially since I am running a one-person operation – I don't know what I would do without them. 


But museums and university presses are non-profit operations, and the press officers who work for them I regard as the aristocrats of the profession.  The press releases put out by commercial galleries, on the other hand, can and occasionally do take me back to my youth as a junior researcher in Time's Business section. 


At that time, I was often assigned to research and fact-check a regular column called "Goods & Services."  It consisted of short items on new products and services just going on the market. Invariably involved was a press release claiming that the product or service under consideration was "the first" or "the only" or "the biggest" or some such superlative.


My task would involve going across the hall to "the morgue" (in those days an essential element in any newsgathering operation which has since been superseded by the web).  In the morgue I could find a forest of old press releases and other corporate documents which very often told me that the supposedly new product or service was not the first, the biggest, or the only. 


In which case, naturally, it was of no interest to Time magazine.


Anyway, despite my native (or acquired) caution, I located a handful of books in the "booths"  of CAA's Book & Trade Fair that looked (as nearly as I could tell) to be of interest to this column's readers. 


Two were at the Yale University Press booth, two were at the booth of the University of Chicago Press, two were at the Getty booth, and one (or two) could be seen at the Princeton University Press. I also paused at the booths of the UC Press (University of California), the University of Washington Press, and the Texas University Press, but didn't see anything that cried out for inclusion.



At Yale University Press


1)    "London's New Scene: Art and Culture in the 1960s," by Lisa Tickner, an emerita professor of art history, Middlesex University. 


Admittedly, I'm more obsessed with "Swinging London" than any of my readers.  But additionally this book contains a whole chapter on "Kas" Kasmin, the London dealer who was a good friend of Clement Greenberg and exhibited so many of the American color-field painters whom we all swear by (as well as such Brits as Richard Smith and David Hockney).


I was able to read excerpts from this book online, and this chapter (as best I understand my notes) is said to tell how Mary Quant clothes were photographed at the Kasmin gallery. MGM borrowed it for a reception for Frank Zappa. Antonioni came to openings while filming "Blow-Up" and Jimi Hendrix and 'the Beatle crowd' would hang around. Swinging London, indeed! 


Still, the most likeable thing about it for me was the sympathetic way that Tickner deals with Kas and his admiration for color-field. (Though this book is distributed in the U.S. by the Yale University Press, it was published in London by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.)


2)    "Goya's Graphic Imagination," by Mark McDonald, with contributions by Mercedes Ceron-Pena, Francisco J. R. Chaparro, and Jesusa Vega.


This  is the catalogue of the fine exhibition of the prints and drawings of Francisco Goya that was staged earlier this year by the Metropolitan Museum  of  Art; Mark McDonald is curator of prints and drawings at the Met. 


I reviewed this show at length when it was up (see earlier post), so I didn't do any further research on the catalogue.  From what I can remember, though, the rest of the printed material accompanying the show focused on the work on view, as opposed to the personality of the artist.


At Getty Publications


1)     "Clyfford Still: The Artist's Materials," by Susan F. Lake and Barbara A. Ramsay, scheduled for publication by the Getty Conservation Institute  in August, 2021. 


This is part of a series on the materials and methods of famous artists. I reported a year or so ago on the volume in this series dealing with Hofmann. It looked pretty dry and technical, though I thought some working artists might still be interested. 


The present study may be of more general interest. During his lifetime, Still (1904-1980) was known, it seems, for being difficult to deal with.


In the later 1970s, when I started looking around for a dissertation topic, I considered him. I wanted a first generation abstract expressionist and Columbia had a rule that you couldn't do a second dissertation on anybody as recent as an abstract expressionist.


Still was the only major member of the first generation who hadn't yet been done, but before approaching him, I asked Greenberg about him.  "He will control you," Greenberg said.  Or maybe it was "He will try to control you." Anyway, it turned me off.


It also seems to have turned off nearly every other writer.  According to the blurb accompanying this new volume, Still has long been among "the least studied" of the greats of the first generation.


It goes on to tell how he "severed ties with the commercial art world in the early 1950s" so that at his death, he left some 3,125 artworks to his estate, "including more than 800 paintings that were all but unknown to the art world."


Fortunately, the authors of this new book, both of whom are professional conservators, were granted access.to the Clyfford Still and Patricia A. Still Estate.  They were also granted access to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver (where all of the art left to the estate is housed). 


Moreover, they were able to study Still's correspondence, studio records and personal library as well as his paints and other working materials. Out of this has come a book which promises to be less dry than the Hofmann book.


In addition to "the first detailed account of the artist's materials, working methods and techniques," the Getty is also promising "initial chapters" which provide "an engaging and erudite overview of Still's life." 


These chapters could be either good or bad.  How skillfully will the man and his art be brought together? How intelligently will they be integrated into the time in which he lived, and the milieu in which he worked? 


How will the authors deal with a personality which seems to have been at least mildly eccentric – in other words, will we get biography or only hagiography?  Then again, perhaps I am asking for more than a few introductory chapters can be expected to provide.


2)     "William Blake: Visionary" is an exhibition catalogue for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles


The exhibition itself of this complex & fascinating British artist was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but was cancelled  because of the pandemic.   It is now rescheduled for 2023.  Nevertheless, this catalogue went on sale in August 2020. 


The authors are listed as Edina Adam and Julian Brooks, both curators of drawings at the Getty, with an essay by Matthew Hargraves, who was at the time chief curator of art collections at the Yale Center for British Art. 


Billed as "a richly illustrated, comprehensive introduction," this catalogue features over 130 color images which bring together "many of Blake's most iconic works." 


The list of topics to be covered in the text of the catalogue sounds stimulating, too, but since both the catalogue and presumably also the show are billed as "an introduction," I am loathe to speculate on how ground-breaking either may be.


All I can say is that a) at the moment I seem to be discussing an unusually large number of gallery exhibitions of drawings, and an unusually large number of museum exhibitions organized by curators of drawings and b) I'd love to have been able to eyeball this show, as Blake – both as a poet and as an artist – has moved and intrigued me for many years.


University of Chicago Press


1)    "Artist as Author: Action and Intent in Late Modernist American Painting, by Christa Noel Robbins


This is the first book by an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.  From the photograph at her University of Virginia website, she looks young, and indeed she only started her job there in 2015, having before then been a post-doctoral instructor at Caltech.


Moreover, this is a book on a concept or intellectual subject area, as opposed to a single artist.   As such, it must have been much more daring and difficult to write. The subject is something called "authorship," and the book is billed as "the first extended study of authorship in mid-20th century abstract painting in the U.S." 


Glancing through what comes up when I google "authorship" (the present-day equivalent of visiting the morgue on Time) I see that "authorship" in the context of the visual arts has been the subject of many online references. Without looking them all up, and spending additional days in the stacks of a good university library – I have no way of knowing whether or not the claim of "first" made on behalf of this book by its publisher is true.


Still, the list of artists that Robbins deals with made me curious to see the book itself.  They are: Arshile Gorky, Jack Tworkov, Helen Frankenthaler,  Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam,  and Agnes Martin.  


At least three of these artists I would consider worthy of further study (though I am of a divided mind about Gilliam, the possible fourth – I like his paintings when they're on stretched canvases, but his floppy ones strike me as more dadaist than modernist). 


Moreover, the photograph of Frankenthaler (painting on the floor like Pollock) that graces the cover of this book is rotated by 90 degrees, so it looks like she is crawling up a wall.


True, I am underwhelmed by the critics mentioned – Harold Rosenberg and Rosalind Krauss -- but if I can get by my antipathy  to them, it might be interesting to see how the artists I do admire have been integrated into a larger portrait of the period—instead of being left out in the cold


2)    "Matisse: The Books" by Louise Rogers Lalaurie.


This book, by an English writer and translator based in France, deals with yet another subject in graphics:  eight "artist's books" by Henri Matisse, one of the greatest artists to work in this medium.


It begins with "Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé" created in 1931-32 and ends with "Jazz" created between 1941 and 1947 – a controversial period during which the artist suffered from miserable health and the invasion of France by the Nazis.


According to the publisher's description, Lalaurie discusses many topics that may (or may not) be of interest to lovers of artists in the modern tradition, ranging from the artist's "deep engagement with questions of beauty and truth" to his relationships with his critics and the women in his life.


Not only does this luxurious 320-page book have 350 color plates. Lalaurie also takes on the foul slanders by postmodernist art historians who accuse Matisse of having been a collaborationist during World War II, by arguing that instead "his wartime books reveal a body of work that stands as a deeply personal statement of resistance."


(Co-published with Thames & Hudson in London.)


Princeton University Press


1)    "Goya: A Portrait of the Artist," by Janis A. Tomlinson


  Introduced by its publisher as "the first major English-language biography of Francisco Goya y Lucientes, who ushered in  the modern era," this book is by a scholar who has written many other books dealing with Goya's artistic output and Spanish painting in general from1550 to 1828  (i.e. from El Greco to Goya).


Most recently, she has been associated with the University of Delaware, first as director of its museums, and more recently in a complex of positions relating also to its library. In her youth, however, from 1987 to 1995, she taught at my alma mater, Columbia University – since I took my degree, and also while Columbia was hiring Rosalind Krauss away from CUNY.  (Goodness only knows what students at Columbia are being taught today.)


In this biography, Tomlinson (still according to her publisher) "challenges the popular image of the artist as an isolated figure obsessed with darkness and death, showing how Goya's likeability and ambition contributed to his success at court, and offering new perspectives on his youth, rich family life, extensive travels and lifelong friendships." 


In short, it sounds to me like we are being asked to trade in our mental portrait of Goya as a moody, individualistic 19th century kind of Rothko-figure for a more up-to-date, more sociable and more ingratiating 19th century kind of Warhol-figure.  I hasten to add, though, that I can't be positive of this, as I haven't read the book itself.


2)    The last book I'll mention is "Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch," by Svetlana Alpers


Alpers I've been hearing about since I was at grad school. From 1962 to 1996, she taught at UC-Berkeley, having been named an emerita there in 1994.  Frequently (to the best of my recollection) she gave talks at CAA conferences, though none I could ever fit into my schedule because her field was the Dutch Golden Age (plus allied painters from Bruegel to Tiepolo) and I always seemed to have to attend other talks closer to my own claims to expertise.


Now at the tender age of 85 Alpers has published a book on a subject I feel more familiar with: the photography of Walker Evans. 


Moreover, the way she treats him -- according to her publisher's summary -- seems sympathetic.  The summary begins on a formal note, saying that "Alpers demonstrates that Evans's practice relied on his camera choices and willingness to edit multiple versions of a shot, as well as his keen eye and his distant straight-on view of visual objects." 


Then it continues that "She brings his techniques into dialogue with the work of a global cast of important artists – from Flaubert and Baudelaire to Elizabeth Bishop and William Faulkner – underscoring how Evans's travels abroad in such places as France and Cuba, along with his expansive literary and artistic tastes, informed his quintessentially American photographic style."


Sounds interesting, n'est-ce pas?

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