Peter Malone on Rogier Van der Weyden

VDWRogeir Van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, 1530, Oil on panel,
71 x 73 3/8 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was on a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 that I first encountered what is now my favorite riddle. Standing before Rogier Van der Weyden’s c. 1530 Crucifixion, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the two red drapes were meant to be read as the same drape. I don’t mean the artist merely painted the same drape twice. I mean the drapes seemed to mark only one place and only one moment, repeated metaphorically to indicate sympathy between the Virgin and the crucified Christ so extreme that their experience was synchronous in both time and space.

The idea came directly from my having seen Barnett Newman’s c. 1958-66 Stations of the Cross just the day before in the National Gallery of Art. The Stations are a series of fourteen abstract canvases of identical dimensions, painted in spare divisions of either black or white paint on unprimed canvas, with the placement of these divisions based on two lines repeated in each panel. In a statement written for the work’s inaugural exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1966, Newman instructed the viewer that the story of the passion was for him an expression of a single idea—the existential complaint implied by the question, “My God… why have you forsaken me?”, that Jesus quotes from Isaiah. Newman insisted the panels were not to be read in their traditionally episodic manner, but as fourteen expressions of that same human cry.

StationsBarnett Newman, Third Station, 1960, Oil on canvas, 78 1/8 x 60 inches
Barnett Newman, Eighth Station, 1964, Oil on canvas, 78 1/8 x 60 inches

What struck me about the Stations that day in Washington—and what informs my reading of the Van der Weyden piece to this day—was how Newman seemed to transform the viewer’s experience into something like Mircea Eliade’s idea of an eternal return: a circular rather than linear sense of time, created in this case by the repetitive positioning of the vertical elements in each panel. To stand, for instance, before the Eighth Station was to return to the place experienced in the Third Station, but in a slightly altered mental state. Each canvas brought you back to the same conceptual location, but with your sense of place abstractly adjusted by subtle changes. The effect is that of an inner expanding moment, an abstract narrative that returns again and again to the same event.

The focus of the Philadelphia Crucifixion is on the Virgin’s swoon, a rendering of the moment Christ’s expiration causes his mother to faint, tying both figures in a synchronistic loss of consciousness—one of actual death (though theologically temporary), the other of profound empathy. Van der Weyden had addressed this subject before in the Prado Deposition. Placing the two figures in separate panels, as the Philadelphia Crucifixion does, reiterates the synchronicity of the Prado piece, while giving greater emphasis to their physical separation, thus generating the riddle of the drapes. Why two? Why not one drape extending from the left to the right panel as the ground and the wall do? A single red drape was occasionally employed by Flemish painters as a theatrical backdrop for a passion scene. Van der Weyden himself made use of one in the Escorial Crucifixion, also featuring the Virgin and St. John.

The answer I feel lies in how the artist portrayed both Virgin and Christ as suspended in a specific moment of suffering. Each is physically hanging: the crucified Christ on the grotesque apparatus of the cross itself, the Virgin in the arms of St. John. Both imply a center of gravity delineated by the central axis of each drape. So the drapes are not just an occasion to introduce a symbolic field of color, but are hanging, suspended elements that echo the simultaneous collapse of the two principal figures. Separate yet identical drapes imply that the Virgin and Jesus are sharing a single moment in a single space, that their suffering is one and the same, even though they are physically discreet figures. It is an idea uniquely suited to the pair’s prenatal history and it seems no more illogical than other aspects of Roman Catholic mythology.

To test my theory, I began drawing lines over the image in search of a hidden structure. After several attempts, one set of lines settled neatly into the composition. Drawing two parallels from the lower corners of the drape on the right panel, across the painting to the lower corners of the left panel, and repeating the same lines in the other direction (estimating the position of the hidden lower corners based on those in the opposite panel) the intersecting lines formed—no surprise here—a cross. But not so easily dismissed is how these parallels follow many subtle elements in the picture’s spatial and figural arrangement.

VDW2Author’s analysis of interrelationship between panels, drapes and figural elements

For instance, the lines emanating from the crucifixion (right) panel emphasize the subtle turn of the figure toward the center of the painting, or perhaps toward the Virgin, while the lines emanating from the other panel appear as if they were guides used in structuring the figure of the Virgin herself. Moreover, the inner line from the right panel seems to mark the edge along which her gown breaks from its vertical fall from her knees to its horizontal spread across the ground, while the second line defines the rift mentioned earlier: the break in the ground that passes from one panel to the other and to which there may be drawn (in reference to the earth’s “rending”) a connection to the narrative itself. Other intriguing details follow: the skull and bone remaining outside the delineated cross; how the edge of the earth rising up toward the left panel’s drape outlines the earth itself as it runs along the base of the wall; how the lines from the left panel imply the grade of the earth on which St John stands, holding the Virgin in place.

Admittedly, speculation like this begs for more documentation than I’ve provided, and in that regard I hope someone of more substantial ability will someday follow through. As to the immediate matter of painters commenting on paintings, my wish was to illustrate that an artist’s intuition regarding a historical work requires neither logic nor conclusive proof to hold significance for that artist. I remain firmly invested in how these two works connect across four hundred years. I am as captivated as ever by the link between them, regardless of any historical impertinence. Frankly, I would be disappointed if I were to discover one day that a scholar proved definitively that I was wrong about the drapes. And yet I would not be discouraged. That it could have been possible would still have significance for me.

MalonePeter Malone, Lois: Portrait of Lois Dodd, 2014, Oil on linen, 35 x 35 inches

Sharon Horvath on Badal Mahal of Bundi Palace

use this onePainted ceiling of Badal Mahal, Bundi Palace, Bundi, India, circe 1605

I would rather look at the painted ceiling of Badal Mahal in Bundi Palace than just about anything else I can imagine. I immediately think: this is Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel. Suddenly my trip to India divides itself in two–before and after Bundi.

Badal Mahal is an interior hall within Cloud Palace, itself a miniature palace within the empty, sprawling, Bundi Palace. The hall feels like a discovery, purposely hidden. The stairway leading up to it is narrow, the doorway so small; was its purpose to prevent easy access or escape? I believe this room was a Zenana, a place of women, a private harem of Rao Bhoj, and that the women didn’t have access to the outside world except for what they could see through the carved latticed windows. I wonder if they lived in a sort of captivity here, slaves to the art of beauty. I feel bitterness for them but also wonderment. I imagine them lying here on their backs, serving their rulers, gazing up at this masterpiece. I am dwarfed by the unfathomable history of India as it presents itself to me here, condensed into this glowing inner sanctum.

I enter the hall through the single door, go to the middle of the room and look up at the ceiling. In the center, a silver disk of moon holds a white, sanguine-edged lotus, surrounded by the heads of nine deities. They are all there–Shiva, Brahma and the rest–playing their polytheistic mischief. The nearness of this painted moon above pulls me like a tide. The mirror neurons inside my head are buzzing. I become strangely aware that my eyeballs are spherical and that the top of my skull is round and white like the moon. I get an itchy feeling in my painting fingers. This giant moon-blossom zings a beam straight into my forehead, lasering a third eye that I didn’t know I had before.

The origin of every image in the room seems to be that lotus moon, raining down its petal points, shape-changing into a garland of dancers, palm fronds, and peacock feathers full of eyes. The first ring out: Krishna and the gopis, crooked elbows linked together, dancing the visible world into existence. Their sky is red. I notice how delicately the interlaced fingers of Krishna and the gopis touch each other as if they are playing the strings of a veena, or lute. Six blue-faced Krishnas and six gopis, are paired off, each gopi gazing into the eyes of her own Krishna: as the story goes, each believes she is alone with him. That’s Krishna’s trick, to multiply himself, perhaps making a philosophical point about multiplicity and unity. Now I am reminded of myself as a traveler in this country of a billion people, imagining my one body among billions. I see myself tiny, among vast waves of human bodies all over the subcontinent. Is this a vision from Krishna? But here in this room I can count the sixteen dancing feet, see their clogs, bangles and fancy tights. The legs and feet look like they are propelled by some kind of sorcery, a percussion section keeping the beat. Clothing, garlands and jewels swing around in a fantastic invention of curls. It is a round, round world.

I am under an umbrella of sensual geometry, where the round moon marries the rectangle of the room: concentric energy radiates a kaleidoscope of scissoring diamonds and triangular arches. Each kite shape holds an image gem of the story-in-pieces, and they touch each other delicately at their angular tips.

Scenes of rescue and romance from the Ramayana swirl around in the sky. An army of monkeys and their king, dragons, geese, hawks, and pigeons accompany the gods and their avatars. Further down the wall at eye level is a Ragamala series, (Garland of Melodies) depicting nuanced emotional states in the love life of Shiva and Parvati. Celestial musicians are pictured, mirroring the once living musicians of the court who played here. Music seems to animate the architecture. I wonder if the singular rooster painted up there, weirdly out of place, indicates that we should imagine his earthly cock-a-doodle-do added to the music of the spheres.

Presumably these stories of the gods are stand-ins for the narrative that the ruler uses to represent himself and his court, celebrating the victories of love and conquest as his own. But how is it possible that this is what a ruler chose to do with his power? How is it that what was certainly a brutal form of power could be represented in such an intensely delightful way?   There is a childlike playfulness permeating this place that reflects something about the attitudes of the Mughal Court. Could they compartmentalize to such a degree, intensifying pleasure and beauty at the expense of lower castes living down the hill with the actual monkeys and boars and their muck? As so often happens in India, these contrasts make my heart ache.

Who painted this heaven and when? From what I can gather, they were three painters, around 1605, at play with small brushes, on the brink of an artistic breakthrough, set loose to cover an entire room with pictures despite the fact that they were probably only experienced at making lap-sized paintings. They were from Chunar, from the imperial Mughal court, a gift from Akbar to the rulers of Bundi, in return for their obedience. But this is certain: they were inventing a new form; they improvised the composition; they made manifest the exquisite joy and physical exuberance of humans and other animals together in an imagined space.

The sky of my childhood was a dome-like shell, painted light blue or black at night, like a fresco. If you could get up there somehow you could poke your finger through the sky, to the other side, to nothingness. Out there was the invisible, the un-manifest. I understand the sky of Badal Mahal is the same metaphor as my childhood sky: the skin of painting is where the invisible takes form. In that sky, I need Krishna to keep dancing the Rasa lila, celebrating the love between the human and the divine through the night of a billion years, and the three painters from Chunar to hold it up, until the heavens fall on Bundi.

20140904_173831_resized_1Sharon Horvath, Cosmicomic, 2014, Pigment, polymer, paper on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

 

Robin Williams on Sylvia Sleigh

SLEIGH_Annunciation_1975-588x1024Sylvia Sleigh, Annunciation: Paul Rosano, 1975, Oil on canvas, 90 x 52 inches

I was first introduced to Sylvia Sleigh’s work during an art fair. Her painting, Annunciation, of a doe-eyed male figure standing in a blossoming garden, wearing a crown of lustrous curls and cropped denim shorts, felt refreshingly out of place. Unlike anything else I’d seen at the fair, the piece was welcoming. I asked the dealer for the name of the artist, and later familiarized myself with her work.

Looking through more of Sleigh’s images, I was first struck by her somewhat naive approach to painting. She fixated on details, roving over a scene telescopically, describing textiles, hair follicles, or flower peddles with equal intensity. Surfaces seemed fetishized or eroticized, but playfully so. Perspectives were sometimes skewed or slightly flattened, revealing her desire to focus on parts rather than the whole. I noticed how this “naive” perspective, instead of invalidating the work, lent it a tranquil sense of painterly equanimity. Her pieces seemed indifferent to the visual hierarchy that defines space, distance, or remove. Sleigh’s eyes were an equalizing force and connected her with her subjects in a way that felt personal and political. In Annunciation, she observed the overflowing garden, the character of specific types of body hair and the minute flecks of light that unified the day. Each represented element seemed to be made from the same molecular makeup, striving to exist on the same plane. Sleigh’s approach also pointed to the fact that painter and muse were made of the same atoms and molecules, which she emphasized by often portraying herself in the act of painting alongside her subjects. Earlier pieces (sometimes self-portraits) were painted into the backgrounds of newer works, further compressing the distance between artist and muse. Rather than emphasizing the otherness of those she painted (whether male or female), Sleigh drew them closer into herself, looking for common ground, collapsing space and making desire a shared experience. For me, this seemed like more than just a feminist political statement. It felt like a shift in the trajectory of figurative painting. Painting people is an endeavor full of pitfalls and insidious false signifiers. Sleigh managed to mine something fresh out of painting’s most well traveled tropes, while expressing her point-of-view deftly and conceptually. Her work still feels radical to me today.

Art with the nerve to claim a female point of view, or identify as feminine, is all too often considered less serious (naive) or else desperately political, shunted to the margins. Sleigh’s piece at the art fair was bohemian, folksy, nostalgic, and unapologetically pretty. This is why, unfortunately, it does not surprise me that I was familiar with many of Sleigh’s realist male contemporaries, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and Alfred Leslie, before I found her work.

As a female artist with a male celebrity’s name, I often register people’s subtle surprise when they learn my paintings were made by a woman. In spite of having a comedian’s name, I wonder if I am sometimes afforded a moments more serious consideration because I am first assumed to be a man. Although grateful that my name acts as an equalizer at times, it’s disappointing that I should benefit from the misconception. I aspire for my work to act as the equalizer, rather than my name. The impulse to assign genius, authority, or influence based on gender (or more specifically the designation of femininity or masculinity) is strong and worth rooting out. Sylvia Sleigh took a painting tradition born of these impulses and transformed it with a gentle hand. She didn’t conquer, or subdue it. She looked carefully at it, and she coaxed it into something else.

Sylvia Sleigh had her tender yet pointed gaze but she also referenced the influence of her well established art critic/curator husband, Lawrence Alloway, to root her in the contemporary conversation. It helped that she applied her naive style to subjects like her husband and their artist/intellectual friends, posing them in modern furniture by notable designers. Sleigh asked the viewer to reconsider their judgments of her painting approach by proving she was not ignorant or out of touch. She was in fact, in the company of great minds. Sleigh had to emphasize that her equalizing gaze was intentional and considered, and every bit as legitimate as her male contemporaries. Unlike Pearlstein, she didn’t transform people into still lives, or purify lifestyle into form like Katz, both of whom were praised for detaching their figurative work from the figure. Sleigh had her own realism, and it wasn’t based on detachment anymore than it was on guilelessness or some sort of feminine frivolity. It seemed born out of the concept of connectedness, an idea that is all to often branded as feminine, rather than universal.

If she had strictly painted her beautiful anonymous male muses in gardens, I’m not sure she would have achieved the same recognition. However, it is with those anonymous figures that I believe she does her best work. With them, she is equally in love with paint, floral landscapes and male body hair, treating everything and everyone with matching zest. Maybe there is a sense of idealism in Sleigh’s paintings that has been overshadowed by more fashionable works based on irony. That’s why finding her piece at an art fair made it feel like a jewel among the gilded. There is something sacred in these types of encounters with paintings, with men, with nature. I think Sleigh gets to that in Annunciation. She wasn’t afraid to unabashedly seek connectedness.

1407860973227Robin Williams, Mr. X, 2014, Oil on panel, 40 x 30 inches

 

Fay Ku on Jules Bastien-Lepage

joan_of_arc-largeJules Bastien-Lepage, Joan of Arc, 1879, Oil on canvas, 100 x 110 inches

It was the intensity of her expression that arrested me: wild wide eyes absorbed by some otherworldly sight or sound.  One arm awkward and outstretched (is she blind? I wondered), feet grasping the earth, she is caught between being propelled forward and fixed to the spot.

Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc is my favorite painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the work I return to most often anywhere.  Years after the initial coup de foudre, I find the painting now no less striking. However, as I proceeded from student to professional artist, both my attitude towards and assessment of the work altered.  I have, after twenty years, become intimate with Joan.  We have a relationship.  Each experience of looking carries with it the memory of first discovery, which affects the next viewing, and the next, up to the most recent.  The work is a compendium of memories of seeing, a compilation of my different selves that stood before it.  It has also become a personal record of failure­: what I see now is what I failed to notice the times before.

For years, I saw nothing beyond the figure of Joan.  Only when a friend declared her mutual admiration for the painting, but founded upon the wildness of the natural world matching the wildness of Joan’s expression, did I remember the figure of Joan had a context.  When I next looked, in atonement, I concentrated on the lush wildlife threatening to spill out of the frame. Its fecundity, the slightly blurred rendering and even the disarray hinted at by the loosened bodice: the physical world is erotic.  The tree limb above echoes the curve of her arm extending to fingers, while the sweep of her head follows the curve of the branching trunk. The colors of her clothes align her with teeming nature as though she is some overgrown shoot no different than the other vegetation planted in the garden.

In graduate school I absorbed the necessary vocabulary to negotiate with the final elements of the painting I hitherto ignored.  I learned to understand painting as construction and I returned to Joan of Arc to attack critically. The cottage presents its face flat like a cutout and abstract. The wall’s sharp right edge shines like a blade and demarcates the canvas into two halves. The sharp vertical cuts through the out-of-focus quality of feathery foliage and plants.  Hovering before the brilliant sunlit wall, the transparent figures of Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine materialize, barely perceptible.  St. Michael’s glinting armor is camouflaged against the wall as he raises his sword; Joan’s gleaming bare arm lifts in response to his call to arms and continues the line of his sword. With feet rooted into the earth and torso yearning forward, she meets the line of the tree behind her to form an “X.” She is at a crossroads, historically and psychologically.  Face feverish, Joan hears the call, but her body is reluctant to leave the physical world.

In the past, I ignored the presence of the saints but now I cannot help but be distracted by their appearance. They seem too insubstantial, certainly not the source of her ecstasy though she leans towards their voices; but by decoding the narrative I understand intellectually who they are. As I shift from the immediacy of purely experiencing the work to reading the work, I am taken out of directly sharing Joan’s rapture. The painting functions for me now as a metaphor for vision. Joan tilts her head as though to catch their voices but she cannot see the saints. I see the saints but also all the other elements that now crowd into the painting. The original painting is not lost: I remember my feelings at its first discovery; I remember who I was. Yet I no longer experience the work as I once did. I no longer experience any work the same way. The process that took place over a period of years with Joan of Arc is, for any other work appearing before my eyes, time-lapsed to days, even hours. I cannot help but immediately deconstruct what I am seeing.

I do not regret having become more rigorous in thinking critically about art. However, I find, when I return to the painting (and I do return often still), that I try to conjure the Joan of Arc of my inarticulate, unseeing youth. But then I remember that the voices eventually leave Joan too.

13_ghostbirds2Fay Ku, Ghost Birds II, 2004,  Graphite and ink on gray folio paper, 38 x 50 inches

Judy Glantzman on Dawn Clements

Clements_Peonies_2014_watercolor_69x93in._Susan_Alzner_photocredit-adjusted_croppedDawn Clements, Peonies, 2014, Watercolor on paper, 69 x 93 inches
Photo credit: Susan Alzner, Courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery

Dawn Clements’ giant watercolor on paper, capturing dying peonies, is achingly beautiful. Her touch is light, her eye, and hand in a lock step; the drawing is a placeholder for where the peonies once were. The power is Dawn’s intense scrutiny, the quiet power of an unnamable truth.

She inches her way across the forms, recording each petal and leaf. I love to linger on the top center; the white closed peony with the red ribbon leans toward the redder petal below, a hand reaching out for the next dance.

The peonies stand like two, heroic giants, “Before” and” After”, “Front” and “Back” as if their once beautiful bodies sag with battle wounds. The drawing is quixotic, the melancholic impossibility of containing an ephemeral life force. The paper’s folds make an irregular grid, a trellis for the writhing peonies. Gaps and overlays, paper cut out and replaced, we experience the many facets of time at the same time as we experience the drawing as one instant.

At the bottom right of the watercolor, painted in a faint wash, a hand colored, black and white photo of a woman from the nineteen thirties looks out. She may be a movie star, or someone’s grandmother. She looks above or beyond the viewer, existing in a different space, like the Greek chorus of the drawing, its consciousness, where the past is frozen in a perfection that never existed. She accentuates the artificial construct of the drawing endeavor, in the face of the “realistic” rendering of the flowers.

Behind the peonies, a vermillion triangle and 2-sided rectangle come into focus as a milk carton and other domestic objects described in Morandi-like simplicity. Dawn told me that these are actually a painting hanging at the same level as the woman’s photo, but it can read as breakfast leftovers: from the heroic to the domestic. An ochre table line is the anchor of the work, an equal sign, and a baseline. Small orange brush marks, like koi, at the mid bottom of the drawing triangulate with the woman and the milk carton. The outside edges of the peonies create a giant upside down triangle that continues to converge to a point outside the bottom of the drawing. The drawing is in continual flux.

The passage of time. The flowers bloom and die. The marks attach and unhinge from the paper, like notations on a giant calendar, with space for us, the viewer, to fill in. The drawing encompasses present, past, and, as the tender image of the 1930’s woman looks forward, the future.

In the watercolor, as in the course of a lifetime, discreet incidents accumulate and, in retrospect, become one singular thread.

Twisted_2013_mixed_media_40_X39.75__JG13825

Judy Glantzman, Puppetry, 2013, Mixed media, 40 x 39 3/4inches
Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

 

Deborah Oropallo on Marcel Duchamp

5a90b9b72ce917e689b55d32e511c646Marcel Duchamp, Network of Stoppages, 1914, Oil and pencil on canvas, 58 5/8″ x 78 inches

Growing up in New Jersey with no art in my life, I thought a painting was a sunset or a basic landscape until I was fifteen. Yet I loved etch-a-sketch, spin art and paint by numbers. (First conceptual kid art really.) They each provided a given set of parameters you had to work within as both a conduit and chance.

The first “real” painting that stopped me cold was at MOMA in NYC. It was Network of Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp, 1914, and was the first painting I had ever seen that wasn’t based on representation, abstraction or observation. It was the very first conceptual painting I had ever encountered, and it engaged an entirely different thought process that I had never considered before but felt immediately drawn to. His process involved a more systematic approach to painting yet with an element of chance and irreverence to it. All of those ways of working interest me to this day.

In 1964 Duchamp explained, “This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance. At the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity [as] the meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight edge as being the shortest route from one point to another.” Duchamp said the work had been crucial: “… it opened the way–the way to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art. …For me the Three Standard Stoppages was a first gesture liberating me from the past.”

What I discovered viewing that piece at 15 is that the experience of standing in front of great art always does the same thing to me: stops me in my tracks, points out my own limitations as to what I thought was possible in Art. These viewing moments make me reconsider emotion, or they make me uncomfortable, inspired, in awe. They change me. The first time I saw Piero Della Francesca, Philip Guston, Josef Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Ross Bleckner, Rebecca Horn, Mathew Barney, Jeff Wall, etc., I remember each experiential encounter– where I was standing, how old I was and in what solo museum show. Powerful work leaves a lasting impression, stored in your memory bank, of every work of art you have ever laid eyes on, and these particular moments almost always made me reconsider and question my own work.

As an artist you want to push yourself beyond what you know. For me it involves the combination of hand and mind, computer and camera, to find or rethink something, to make us see differently, explore materials or new orders and find a new path of imagery making. Using a computer I am able to play with a systematic approach by layering up multiple images and then randomly turning off layers, or asking the computer to numerically remove a percentage of color, then see what is left behind. I always look for ways to make the process itself more random, less destination and more encounter: the chance Duchamp spoke of. The element of surprise, like a magician’s puff of smoke, is a great thing in art and I love it every time I feel it.

DUCHAMP MEDeborah Oropallo, Bullseye, 2014, Pigment print and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 58 inches

Robert Berlind on Sigmar Polke

alice_in_wonderlandSigmar Polke, Alice in Wonderland, 1971, Mixed media on patterned fabric, 118 x 114 inches

It is one of the most cohesive compositions in Alibis, MoMA’s chaotic and often confounding Polke retrospective. What emerges first in Alice in Wonderland (1971, a bit over 10’ by 9’) is a symmetrical arrangement of printed fabrics. A central vertical rectangle with white ovals on black is flanked right and left by green, red, yellow and white repeated vignettes of a soccer game seen from above. These are within a grid leaning rightward, as though in isometric perspective. A horizontal base of white ovals on dark blue runs across the painting’s bottom and also above the central rectangle. The patterned fabrics are oddly paired, with no coordination or harmony of palette or genre. A single visual connection between the soccer ball and the abstract white discs is plausible but may well be incidental. The store-bought fabrics on which Polke painted are generally cheap, domestic decorations designed for popular, perhaps proletarian tastes, nothing that a designer would choose or combine. (Think of the interiors in his near-contemporary, Fassbinder’s films.) The white-oval pattern recalls the hand painted rasters that became a Polke staple beginning with his 1963 drawing of Lee Harvey Oswald. The soccer field fabric, unlike this abstraction, depicts the popular sport. Here it was intended for domestic consumption.

These commercial cloths, one abstract, one descriptive, serve as substrates for the white drawing that floats dreamlike over the patterned ground. It appears only secondarily: a hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting on a mushroom cap, young Alice standing on the ground behind it, looking up. The caterpillar’s body is whitish and the top of his mushroom seat is brushed with red, as are the two Amanitas below him. A few flowers are touched with yellow. Polke has projected and copied the famous illustration by John Tenniel who, with Lewis Carroll, surely intended the scene and much else in the story as psychedelic phenomena, a central theme in much of Polke’s oeuvre. On the right panel a whitish, silhouetted basketball player, also borrowed from somewhere, makes a jump shot. Athletics connects the soccer theme to the basketball player. Whatever can be the connection between the psychedelic subject, crucial to Polke’s work at this time, and popular sports?

Polke’s piling-on of low-end materials, by the way, does not feel like collage. It has nothing to do with the lucid, fugal juxtapositions of Braque’s and Picasso’s Cubism. “Mash-up” may be a better term for his method. Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, all no doubt influential, followed the procedures they devised in a consistent manner; by comparison they are classic modernists (or post-modernists if you prefer). Polke’s refusal of stylistic coherence is, but for his influence on younger artists, sui generis. His juxtaposing, superimposing, and sewing together patterns and images, his plethora of incompatible visual fields, styles, references, materials, and codes amounts to an assault on bourgeois culture. Has anyone pushed the attitude of anti-art so relentlessly? Beyond attacking notions of esthetic unities and good taste, he seems to intentionally abjure coherent communication. The Alibis exhibition’s dense arrangement amplified the spirit of distraction characterizing many of the individual works. Staying focused amid closely hung works of contrasting mediums, along with cacophonous, overlapping tracks of aggressive music, becomes a test of a viewer’s determination. The high noise-to-message ratio made viewing as irritating and engaging as confronting the chaos of urban life, attentions scattered as though in drug-induced confusion.

Polke is the only painter of his stature who, in my opinion, shows so few traditional studio skills but nonetheless makes compelling paintings, sculpture, prints, and other objects by the strength and confidence of his ideas. He simply makes one thing after another without second-guessing. Apart from such considerations, so much of his work eludes interpretation. But there is nothing, to my eye, adolescent in his rejection of traditional or contemporary aesthetic attitudes. Adorno’s thinking is certainly relevant: “Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter…. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Catalog essays and reviews have understandably focused on Polke’s biography and the devastating social/historical circumstances in which he grew up and worked. It follows that critical discussion of his art is content-based rather than aesthetic.

So much of his work runs counter to my personal taste and my own penchant as an artist for self-judgment that I am struck by its grip on me. Having been back several times for extended viewings, it was this discomfort that displaced my earlier intention to write on one of those much loved paintings that for years has been encoded in my aesthetic DNA.

And Alice in Wonderland is far from being the only terrific painting in the show, which in its disconcerting entirety is sure to challenge many.

Ginkaku-ji Coins #1_56318Robert Berlind, Ginkaku-ji Coins #1, 2012, Oil on linen, 54 x 60 inches
One of a series of paintings resulting from a five month stay in Kyoto in 2011.