George Grosz, The Painter of the Hole, 1948, Oil on canvas, 30 x 22 inches
In 1947 George Grosz made a watercolor called Painter of the Hole, which was refined into a painting on canvas the following year. In the second version an artist (Grosz himself?) stares blankly at a canvas that is either depicting or literally marred by a large craterlike hole. At his feet is a pile of other such attempts at creation/destruction along with sketches of holes to guide him. In fact holes echo everywhere: in the walls around him, in the tattered white blanket (or flag) hanging over his head, even in the body of the hollowed-out artist himself. The artist inhabits a post-apocalyptic world where people and objects are empty and degraded. Every volume is a void.
At the time, Grosz was 55 years old and had a lifetime of ideas stored in his hands. To me, a painter who loves drawing more than any other art form, the best art is done in a partial state of not knowing, of allowing one’s hand to move undirected, confident that neural patterns engraved over the years will yield something interesting and true.
George Grosz, The Painter of the Hole, 1947, Watercolor on paper, 25 5/8 x 19 inches
Seeing the works side by side, one realizes the watercolor must have been done quickly and with great confidence. Most of its elements are transferred in their exact positions into the painting. Only a hand running on autopilot could be so precise on the first shot. This is not the painting of a 25-year-old. (Could a 25-year-old even conceive of this painting?) The mastery of drawing and composition suggests a lifetime of practice.
When I saw the watercolor last year in the inaugural show at the new Whitney, I felt a slight shock run down my spine, usually a sign that I’ve encountered something I thoroughly connect with and happily don’t understand. When I look at a painting I am overjoyed when I can feel one way and equally just the opposite. It could be a sloppy monochromatic painting that’s also about precision and color, or a painting about clown noses that’s also about atomic bombs. In any case the circling moth of ambiguity is the thing I love most.
What motivated an oldish George Grosz to make this odd picture? Is he saying that his life as a painter is a futile waste? Of course these craterlike holes are an extremely rich metaphor for an artist who lived through two world wars and the collapse of German society. But to look at these two works only in the context of Grosz’s own life is to miss the point.
His later paintings are often criticized for being too much like illustration. But he’s not illustrating here, not using his considerable craft to describe something he knows. There’s no hint of recognition in the eyes of the hollow artist as he stares at his canvas. Grosz is giving us something much more universal, more open and generous, and best of all more uncertain.
He may be talking about the daunting futility of human life, and doing so with morbid humor. It’s a heavy load, but the painting itself is beautiful and full of invention. He takes time to articulate with loving care the various surfaces within. His painter is somehow both a stick figure and a hollowed-out shell. Although his legs are as thin as rails, they are crammed with details and textures that make them look bandaged and worn. His head is simultaneously concave and convex, complete with a tiny broken-chain collar around his neck and a bulging eyeball that mirrors the painted hole staring dumbly back at it.
This painting has so many things going for it: rich layering of narrative and symbolism, intricate geometry and a strong presence of the artist’s touch on every depicted surface. It is remarkable that a painting which takes such a dim view of humanity can so affirmatively underscore the hope of painting. When painting is at its best, it moves us as both an object and an illusion. It critiques the paradoxes that exist in its own nature and, by acknowledging the futility of its creation, somehow overcomes it.
James Esber, Boy With Five Legs, 2016, Acrylic on PVC panel, 52 x 44 inches
James Esber is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His current show, Dewey Defeats Truman, can be seen at Pierogi (155 Suffolk Street) in the lower east side of Manhattan through June 19. www.jamesesber.com