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.

Fred Valentine on Joan Mitchell

Plowed_FieldJoan Mitchell, Plowed Field, 1971, Oil on canvas (triptych), 112 x 213 inches
© Estate of Joan Mitchell, Image courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me- and remembered feelings of them, which of course becomes transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”      - Joan Mitchell

There was a reproduction of El Greco’s View of Toledo hanging in the lobby of my Catholic elementary school in Columbus Ohio. I looked at and drifted off into its sweet green hills and stormy sky for years. It was something to go to, a mind trip while standing in line and a short respite from the crushing, frustrated tyranny of the Sisters of Notre Dame. It was the only image in a sea of images that surrounded me at St. Agnes church and school that was not a constant reminder that art was there to feed our need for suffering and sacrifice. That was pretty much my impression of what the fine arts were. They were well painted and sculpted images of oppression, pain, suffering, sacrifice and plenty of spilt blood.

Years later I traveled to Toledo Ohio in 1972 (I hitchhiked back a second time) as a 21 year old art student to see an exhibit of three painters. I was excited to finally visit the place that I’d romanticized for so long. I would walk its hills and drink from its waters so to speak. Upon arriving in Toledo I was confused and confounded. I had a sinking feeling that “View of Toledo” was quite possibly not a painting of Toledo Ohio at all. And probably not painted by a painter from the Buckeye State. I share this embarrassing little anecdote only to illustrate my working class cluelessness of art and its possibilities. This was only the second museum that I had ever visited. I don’t think I knew what an art gallery was at this point. I had some catching up to do and things were about to change.

The title of the exhibit was “Fresh Air School”; Sam Francis, Walasse Ting and Joan Mitchell at the Toledo Museum. I remember the Sam Francis paintings as being stingy and washy, and the Walasse Ting paintings as being nothing but straight-from-the-bottle dyes of uninspired drips and splashes. And then there was Joan.

I am a painter because of Joan, and there are no two ways about it. It was these paintings and Plowed Field in particular that did it. I was an Illustration and Advertising major, but soon found myself teetering and peeking over the edge for something much larger and expressive. I was used to making art sitting down at a table using my knuckles and wrists. Here was an artist painting from her elbows, shoulders and knees and with a poetry that I felt deep inside my gut, heart and thumpin’ bumpin’ brain.

Each and every painting in the exhibit of hers knocked my socks off. But Plowed Field plowed into me like a steamroller flattening Wile E Coyote. And when I popped back into shape I saw the light. And that is the flat out truth. Hallelujah!

It was a triptych but unlike the ones I’d known while on my knees at mass. Those were oppressive, preachy, bloody and cruel. This was freedom and liberation and it was huge–over 9 ft. high and 17 ft. wide. What in hell or heaven was this? Its left and right panels were like arms wide open, pulling me in. It was a stage, an arena, a platform for expression and creativity. I had never seen anything like it before. There was control and a kind of loose grid and paint that at times looked as if it just landed there. It was physical. It was a workout. I knew that it couldn’t be a literal depiction of a plowed field. If it was, it was a lousy, sloppy painting of a bird’s eye view soaring over an autumn landscape. It was also not a painting that drew me in to its distant horizon like View of Toledo. How can a painting that spends its time so blatantly on the surface take me deep inside of its mojo with its dizzying slop of yellows, blues and magentas?

It was poetry and possibility weeding through all of the mea culpas and clutter of this viewer’s past. It was hope and it was beauty and it was a game changer. Any good painting or poem asks to be revisited. Whatever harvest was there was soon to be replaced with a new crop and another harvest and another crop and so on. It was generous in its scope of interpretation, invention and humanity. Some paintings are a confrontation; others are an invitation. This was both. I will say it again. I am a painter because of Joan Mitchell. Cheers Joan!

DSCN5329 (2)Fred Valentine, Mr Easter, 2000, Oil on canvas, Center panel of a triptych, 42 x 50 inches


Joseph Santore on Vincent van Gogh

Van_Gogh_The_Night_CafeVincent van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888, Oil on canvas, 28.5 × 36.3 inches

I must have been eight or nine years old when my older brother brought home a small Skira book on Van Gogh. I was fascinated by the book and remembered flipping through it over and over. Someone had given me an oil painting set for Christmas and for some reason I decided to copy the portrait of Eugene Bok. I canʼt remember why I chose that painting over all the other paintings in the book, but if I were to guess it would probably be because of the starry night sky behind the head. It certainly isnʼt my favorite Van Gogh and I canʼt say that Iʼve thought about it much over the years except to remember finishing it and that it was my first oil painting. A year or two later I saw the Movie Lust for Life staring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. The movie was directed by Vincent Minnelli and the story adapted from the book by Irving Stone. This was my introduction into the life of Van Gogh. The movie was filmed in vivid color and Kirk Douglas resembled Van Gogh and did a convincing job of portraying a tortured artist. I remember him sticking his bandaged head out the second floor window of the yellow house and screaming hysterically at the people below who were tormenting him.

Van_Gogh_Portrait_Eugene_BochVincent van Gogh, Eugène Boch, 1888, Oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

It must have been in an art history class where I saw the poolroom painting by Van Gogh, The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine, for the first time. Everything about it grabbed me–the color; blocks of yellow, red and green, the swirling lights, the billiard table with a stick and three balls laying on the cloth, the clock over the doorway to the back room set at just passed midnight, the large mirror on the wall and the customers at the tables, some passed out in folded arms. But most of all it was the man in the white suit standing by the billiard table under the phosphorescent lights, staring straight ahead and seeming totally at ease in his world, a saint or sinner with his thumbs casually hooked in his front pockets. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the cafe in a letter dated August 6th 1888:

“Today I am probably going to start on the interior of the cafe where I stay, by gas- lighting, in the evening. It is what they call here a ʻcafe de nuitʼ (they are fairly common here), staying open all night. Night prowlers can take refuge there when they have no money to pay for lodging or are too tight to be taken in”.

A month later he wrote to Theo reporting that he had stayed up for three nights running, sleeping only during the day to paint the night cafe.

“I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green. The room is blood red and dark yellow with a green billiard table in the middle; there are four citron yellow lamps with a glow of orange and green. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most disparate reds and greens in the figures of little sleeping hooligans, in the empty, dreary room, in violet and blue. The blood red and the yellow-green of the billiard table, for instance, contrast with the soft tender Louis XV green of the counter, on which there is a pink nosegay. The white coat of the landlord, awake in the corner of that furnace, turns citron yellow, or pale luminous green. I am making a drawing of it with tones in watercolor to send to you tomorrow to give you some idea of it.”

I spent a lot of time in corner hangouts and poolrooms when I was a kid in South Philadelphia, so the painting really hit home. I later graduated to the larger and older poolrooms, the classy and cavernous places where the great shooters gathered to
hustle their game. I knew all the nighttime hangouts, the “after hours” clubs and “bust out” joints, the all-night diners, all-night movie houses, the storefront speakeasies, and the institutions like “Horn and Hardartʼs” and “Lintonʼs”. These places were filled with lonely people, drunks and dreamers, junkies, perverts, insomniacs, somnambulists’, hustlers, hookers, and lunatics. Van Gogh also said:

“I have tried to express the idea that the cafe is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime.”

The biggest surprise at Yale was discovering that Van Goghʼs The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine was part of the permanent collection in the Yale Museum right across the street from the Art and Architecture building. I visited often but somehow could not get used to how small it was compared to the size of a projected slide in a lecture hall. I was also kind of shocked by how roughly it was painted, as if he was carving into space with color. I remember Al Held saying that Van Goghʼs paintings never quite settled in on the walls of museums and that there was a strange awkwardness about the way they related to the other works around them. He said that Gauguinʼs work, as great as it was, looked much more comfortable in a museum setting.

In 1984 I saw the large retrospective at the Met of Van Goghʼs work at Arles. The Night Cafe was hanging right next to a doorway so I could see it from several rooms away. At that time I began getting tickets for these blockbuster shows for late in the afternoon. I would speed through the show then backtrack to the first room and wait for the guards to begin clearing the room. I would linger as long as possible and in this way was able to see all the paintings pretty much alone. I did the same thing in every room.
 I remember that afternoon mostly because of The Night Cafe. I had
spent over two years in New Haven and probably looked at that painting a hundred
times or more, but I never really saw it the way I saw it that afternoon when I stood on my toes a few rooms away to look over the heads of the crowd. The painting lit up like a hallucination with the light swirling so intensely that I thought I would begin to levitate from the excitement running through my whole body. I donʼt think any other painting ever affected me the same way.

I ran into William Bailey recently and we were talking about the Yale Museum and inevitably the subject of The Night Cafe  came up. He told me about his battle with the museum over the way they had reframed the painting and how the modern black frame made it look like a slide. Eventually, after enough people complained, they gave in and reframed it with the original frame.

“How did he do it?” Bill asked, “How did he paint all those great paintings in such a short time? He seemed genuinely perplexed.

“It was really just a few years,” I added. “The first seven or so were warm ups.”

“It doesn’t seem possible,” Bill said. I had nothing to add because people have been asking that same question for more than a century.

SONY DSCJoseph Santore, Titorelli’s Studio, 1990-93, Oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 22 feet

James Siena on Albrecht Dürer

Durer_1497Albrecht Dürer , Self-Portrait, 1498, Oil on wood panel, 20 1/2 x 16 inches

Known primarily for his nearly unparalleled work in engraving and woodcut (and I say unparalleled because it is equal in every way to any painting or drawing), Albrecht Dürer managed to establish a mastery making paintings that, in spite of their relative scarcity, put him at the highest rank of painters, full stop.  It’s no coincidence that this particular self-portrait (the middle one of three he painted in his younger years) sits in the Prado.  We tend to identify the Prado as the repository of the great Spanish painters such as Goya, Velasquez, Zurbaran, El Greco.  But surely the royals who put this collection together were equally zealous about Cranach and Bosch, who are represented by masterworks of the highest quality, and indeed by Dürer, whose small scale portrait practically warps the space around it with its psychedelic, synapse-enhancing power.

Psychedelic means, literally, “mind evident”, and surely this work is as revealing about the psyche of the artist as any other.  What is so significant about this particular painting is that it may be the first true self-portrait, one that examines the mind and the ambition of the young artist.   Painted after his first trip to Italy in 1494-5, the influence of Italian Portraiture is obvious, yet the work is utterly Northern European.  The inclusion of the hands (the hands dressed in the finest deerskin gloves, but more on that later), the architectural setting with a brilliant landscape, which includes farmland, a waterway, and snowy mountains, and the bold stripes of the sleeves and neckline of the jacket, repeated in the soft leather hat with tassels (and repeated again in the braided cord that holds the cape over his left shoulder), are all visual devices of Italian invention. But Dürer, in his execution of the textures and weights of the materials of the clothing, in the finishes on the window frame and walls, in the nearly perfectly rendered and teased out cascading hair, wants to say, yeah, I went to Italy, and I can do this–but I can do it better.  He is saying this not out of arrogance, but out of ambition, and a very healthy ambition at that.  He wants those who see this painting to know how he feels about himself as an artist, and as a person who is to be respected for his vision and his skills.

This goldsmith’s son wants to show his father (among many others) that his life’s work is worthy of respect, and he does this in the most audacious way:  he commissions his own portrait as a gentleman.  Here are his own words, written in 1506 in a letter from Venice:  “How I shall freeze after this Sun!  Here I am a Gentleman, at home only a parasite.”  Look at the finery he clothes himself in, the tunic crested by golden lacework.  The deerskin gloves, a typical sign of status in Nuremberg at the time.  But look, most of all, at the seriousness of his gaze, both haughty and humble, and note the irregularity of his rendering of his own eyes, one leveled at the viewer, just behind the nose, and the other, open a bit wider, and looking just over our own left shoulder.  He’s telling us something; I’m not entirely sure what, probably something about things having two meanings.  This remarkable painting is about a mind manifesting, supremely confident, but it’s also about a mind scrutinizing itself.  This is, after all, what all artists do, to this day.  Dürer was one of the first, and still, one of the best.

The inscription reads:  Das malt ich nach meiner gestalt/Ich war sex und zwanzig jor alt.  (I painted this from my own appearance; I was twenty-six years old).

Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminus, 29 x 22 3:4 inchesJames Siena, Heliopolis, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 29 x 22 3/4 inches, Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Scott Greene on Winslow Homer

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Herring_NetWinslow Homer,The Herring Net, 1885, Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 48 3/8 inches

I’m not sure when I first saw Winslow Homer’s “The Herring Net,” but the piece bobs up and down in my imagination, weathering trends, taste and time. I consider Romanticism to be an affliction, one I cannot seem to shake. The more I search this painting’s subtle and complex alchemy, the further I’m set adrift.

For all its outward simplicity, it represents a synthesis of Homer’s experience as an illustrator, painter, adventurer, storyteller and social commentator. The sheer impact of the work, his forceful command over both subject and craft, transcends my threshold for suspending disbelief.

Like most great traditional paintings, “The Herring Net” is a bundle of contradictions. The sensuous, lapping applications of paint are loose and free, yet bound by observation and specificity. The jagged naturalistic mountains of water soften and shimmer through sfumato like a fading dream. Foreshortening compresses volume, creating a bold, graphic quality and expanding the sense of scale. An intimate glimpse surrounded by vast emptiness suggests isolation and vulnerability. Color values and hues are so close in places that, like a Morandi still-life, distinction between man and boat dissolves.

Everything is wet, slippery, moving. Homer’s expertise with watercolors, like J.M.W. Turner’s, informs his unique understanding of color and its vibrant light from within. The shifting sea is dark, warm and green in the foreground, and lighter, cooler and bluer in the far distance. The sky reflects its muted, grayish purples across the glassy water, defining angles and features like countless mirrors changing positions and directions. Pure and tertiary colors are placed next to each other to create ocular vibrations, and diaphanous layers of glazing allow the eye to penetrate the surface, integrating the image as a whole.

Meanwhile, edge quality indicates space and transitions. Take the sharp sweeping curve of the boat gunwale becoming vague as it moves into atmosphere; it cuts in front of the larger fisherman’s less focused contours, making him recede. And the sharpest point of contrast slices along the hat brim of the smaller fisherman hanging from the boat. Its glistening highlight is part of a flickering field of activity across the composition as it verges on breaking the picture plane.

Homer’s observational skills and use of iconography express a precarious state of human affairs. He worked as an illustrator for Harper’s magazine, “nose to the litho stone,” and his eye for documentation is obvious here. His job was to translate photographs back when photographers were learning to frame by co-opting visual language from paintings. Hence he rendered countless compositions with influences and subjects that harken back to the Renaissance while often referencing secular current events.

Here two fishermen plumb the depths for survival, bound by necessity in a risky and carefully choreographed venture. The bigger man threatens to capsize the boat as he tugs his fishing net, while his partner acts as ballast against an ebbing wave. The two fuse together into a monumental structure, their tableaux framed and backlit in a devotional manner reminiscent of Raphael or da Vinci.

Diagonal elements pointing toward the looming central figure create a pyramidal structure with his head at the apex, and heart dead-center on the canvas. He appears to rise from the vessel, head lowered prayerfully. A set of symbolic wooden oars, forming a cross behind him, comes into view from the atomized light. As in William Blake’s “Ancient Of Days,” the fisherman is God-like, exerting his will on the powerless below.

“The Herring Net” as a title suggests a shift from human drama to the plight of fish, but it’s a metaphor for the ephemeral. A wave of a different sort crashes over and into the boat—a net full of herring, eyes to the sky and bloody membranes showing under their gills. Blue-pink halation flashes off their scales, resembling highly polished ingots of sunken treasure. Specks of blood on the fishermen’s hands, clothes and boat glow from within the darker values. The men go about their business indifferently.

A traditional interpretation of “The Herring Net” might imply that no matter how things change, they remain the same. Renaissance principles of composition still have impact, people still struggle and die, the ocean is still dangerous. What has changed is the uniqueness of the moment. This painting is an eloquent and emotional piece of reportage, documenting a high watermark (so to speak) in the health of our planet. Homer’s painting represents a time before industrialization and wholesale degradation of the environment.

Unlike the orange buoy in the foreground, marking the limits for safe passage, we’re now drifting like a boat without an anchor—weathering global warming, as vulnerable as an offshore oil rig in the eye of a hurricane.

This painting would be impossible to paint now. I imagine the great swell of debris pushed out to sea over the past 130 years since Homer finished his painting, the sort of trove a net would gather from the flotsam and jetsam purged by waves up and down our coasts. What would the catch look like now?

Greene_Scott_La_Bajada_BluffScott Greene, La Bajada Bluff, 2013, Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

Camilla Fallon on Édouard Manet

A14920.jpgÉdouard Manet, The Dead Toreador, 1864, Oil on canvas, 29 7/8 x 60 3/8 inches

The giant horizontal body seemed to be floating in black space, as if levitating. There was a profound stillness about it. I remember inspecting the body for a clue as to the cause of this stillness and my eyes lit on the spate of red about the mouth, which seemed such a tiny thing. Then, I imagined the charging bull.  As a young adult I made frequent visits to the National Gallery of Art and found myself returning over and over again to Manet’s “The Dead Toreador,” astonished and humbled by its power and monumental scale. There’s no action in the painting, no brilliant hues, yet, I imagined that I heard and felt the shocked silence of an unseen audience.

The figure cuts a powerful diagonal within the rectangle’s frame. The beautiful, exquisitely dressed corpse floats before us for our inspection. We see hardly a crease in the clothes, or a mark on the body.  The silent wide fact of it is a shock. Only the head is dramatically off axis. The young man is dead but just a trickle of red near his shoulder and smudge about the mouth indicates blood. Red is echoed throughout, notably in the pink satin muleta resting on the floor, emphasizing the ground plane, fixing the eye level, and leading us into the space that his body occupies. The tiny red flecks of blood on his hand and pink sash are another hint as the mottled sash bisects his body. Stretched out and motionless, this beautiful giant’s pink cummerbund conveys volume and whispers to our perceptions of stamina and virility.  The head’s counter-diagonal position relays the idea that the man is dead. But Manet holds back, creating drama not by indicating action but by using extremes of light and dark, with the blackest black and the whitest white inhabiting the same color space.

Originally titled “Incident at a Bullfight”, the first version of the painting included a bullfighting ring on its upper portion.   Manet created the image in his studio using Goya’s series “Tauromaquia”, possibly Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs and “A Dead Soldier”, (anonymous Neapolitan) in The National Gallery, London as source material. (Early National Gallery catalogues presented the painting as ‘by’ and ‘attributed to’ Velázquez.) Manet wrote in a letter to Henri Fantin-Latour in 1865 about Velázquez: “He is the painter of painters. He has astonished me, he has ravished me.” After critics found it spatially distorted, Manet cut the painting into fragments and eliminated all of the forms behind the matador on the bottom section.  The top section “The Bullfight” is in The Frick Collection.

The BullfightÉdouard Manet, Incident at a Bullfight, 1864, Oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches

After gazing at and becoming familiar with the painting over time, and then reading a short monograph on it, I was stunned to learn how many steps he took to realize this image. It seems to be painted and conceived as one thought. After Manet cut the painting there was no longer any spectacle to consider, only the dead man. And that is where its power lies: he creates drama through its subtle structure, allowing the viewer to participate in the realization that the matador is dead and that this death was indeed violent. These extreme revisions changed the very nature and power of the piece; it had once been a narrative image but is now powerfully iconic.

Manet speaks to my contemporaries and me partly because he altered, manipulated, cut, and added to paintings as he worked. Manet was a studio painter, conceptual in his approach, and was intrigued by paint and its substance. He handled paint in a way that was palpable, direct and sensuous to the eye and brought energy to paint and the handling of it that was new.  He moved huge chunks and painted forms in and out, and through his process brought a bold new approach to painting.

My Face  84 x 60 oil on canvas 2012Camilla Fallon, My Face, 2012, Oil on canvas , 84 x 60 inches

Tony Robbin on Claude Monet

Claude_Monet_-_The_Water_Lilies_-_The_Clouds_1920-1926Claude Monet, The Water Lilies – The Clouds, 1920-1926, Oil on canvas, 78 3/4 x 502 inches

It is rare, and always impressive, when an older artist turns a winter’s passion into a new body of work. If we knew Michelangelo Buonarroti only from his work after 74 years of age, he still would be considered a great artist, or rather a great architect: the final plan and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome are his design. Henri Matisse began his paper cutout series at age 78 when he was too ill to get out of bed. Again, if we knew only this more graphic style, and the books, interior design, stained-glass windows, and textiles that the cutouts engendered, we would still consider Matisse a great artist with a major influence on the art and design that followed. But, in a way, the last works of both Michelangelo and Matisse can be seen as a continuation of the aesthetic philosophy developed throughout their lives. Monet does something more daring. Monet’s choice is to turn Impressionism on its head; the paintings change from the specific to the general; he takes on the avant-garde and becomes an abstract artist.

A Change in Aesthetic Goals

This evolution of Monet’s last style can be told as a story about edges. As the series of Rouen cathedral paintings progresses, the edges of the architecture dissolve. It just happens that there is a recognizable building: it is not drawn and filled in. By 1892 (the orange-lit Rouen façade in the Marmottan) the painting is cropped so that the edges of the building are outside of the canvas. This is clearly willful, as the artist, seated in the same spot, previously pictured the edge of the facade to be in the painting. As the light plays across the architecture, different features, such as the tympanum, advance and recede; the stone dematerializes into light. Architectural ornament becomes gestures of brush and paint.

After 1906, another type of edge is discarded. In painting the water lilies, Monet moves the bank of the pond, which is effectively the horizon line, up the canvas until finally it is off the painting. The view tips up. This is not flatness; rather, there is a volume on top of and also behind the canvas, as in Glycines (1919–20). Now the edge of the canvas itself disappears, as the paintings become more horizontal, encompassing our peripheral vision, even to the extent of being continuous ovals.

Finally in Roses (1925–26), the surface of the canvas as the plane through which we see is discarded. The blue that is both sky and ground is slapped on top of the reds and oranges of the roses. What is figurative is almost completely lost in what is paint.

Painters draw edges and fill in; Monet escaped from that. The paintings flicker between subject and object, between figure and gesture. No longer an observation of the hour of the day, they become a meditation on the passing of time. And in so doing, as an old man, Monet made the break, the terrifying break, with reality, cut painting off the world, made it pure sensation, made it abstract.

Art Historicity

In the 1950s, art history was psychoanalytical: artist so-and-so did what he did because he was a repressed homosexual, the Agony and the Ecstasy, and so on. The 1960s rejected so romantic an approach for the formalist: an artist inherited a tradition of making a work of art and structuring the response of the viewer, and then played with that tradition. The artist’s life experiences and personality were largely irrelevant. In the 1970s, Linda Henderson, myself, and others argued for a more contextual approach: artists exist in a culture whose members all have the same opportunities and limitations of consciousness. It is our human destiny to expand our awareness. In a way, everybody (artists, mathematicians, scientists, jurists) is working on the same problem. Unfortunately, “context” has often been seen as another way to focus on identity politics, and there is less understanding of the broader movement of consciousness. Now perhaps it is time to return to the life experiences of the artist.

Bodies, minds, brains change and age. People make art and people are changed by circumstance. If art history cannot know that, then what can it know?

A Face in the Clouds

face detail_1The Water Lilies – The Clouds (Detail)

I have described Monet’s last paintings in formal terms, as a story of edges. I have also mentioned the aesthetic context and Monet’s desire to compete with younger artists and their new painting of the abstract. But what of Monet himself? Such an absorption in self, to be the center of a vortex of sensation that includes no companions, speaks of a degree of misanthropy, or at least feelings of isolation. There were deaths: his second wife Alice in 1911 and his eldest, closest son in 1914. And Monet had more and more trouble with cataracts; he surely knew about Degas’s blindness. Monet’s delight was in seeing the world; he must have felt that world closing in on him. I may be seeing things, but is there a face in the painting called Les Nuages at the Orangerie? If so, then the forehead, closed eyes, nose, mouth, ear, and beard are all in their right places. And if so, it is a portrait of the artist as an old man.

Tony Robbin, 2013-O-12, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 70 inTony Robbin, 2013-O-12, 2013, Oil on Canvas, 65 x 70 inches 

A longer version of this essay was first published on