Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lucien Freud's Studio Couches

Spelling is not necessarily an intelligence indicator.  Herman Melville was so lousy at it that his wife, then Ralph Waldo Emerson, had to go through various manuscripts and make words out of the messes he provided them.  But. . .what words!  Anybody who can write like that doesn't need to do anything but tap into whatever teeming well he is privy to and let her rip.  Let the literary technicians come back and clean everything up.

However, non-geniuses ought to look at the letters they often, rather casually, spill across the page.  It seems like a great many of them have either just learned of Lucien Freud's existence or have Melville's eye for letter sequence, but lack his protean gifts for expression.

If I've seen Lucien spelled "Lucian" once, I've seen it five times.  Get the name right, people!  It's your last bloody chance.

And so I segue into a fully expected turnaround in the life and art of our times.  Yes, Lucien Freud, another protean voice, has died and is reaping the rewards, in well-ordered prose and infantile sputtering, he richly deserves.  He almost singlehandedly brought figure painting back into the consciousness of art-lovers who were not only steering clear of human flesh, but of human incident and reality of any kind.  Freud - who is a grandson of the Grand Master of the Unconscious - is now considered the gold standard by which other painters of the figure are measured.  And, as such, it ain't a bad one.

Of course, there were deniers all along.  When the big show at the Metropolitan Museum introduced America to the breadth of Freud's genius, the curators were reluctant to call him a realist - as if realism were the baddest of bad words and no self-respecting curator might traffic in such language and retain the esteem of his or her fellows.

Art is long, but the art world moves slowly.

Yet Freud - a famously reclusive fellow - thrived in his work from the very beginning.

After studying at Cedric Morris' East Anglian School Of Painting and Drawing, he broke off into a surprising direction - as an egg tempera artist whose strangely biomorphic distortions made Francis Bacon's head, for example, look even bigger than it actually was.  Other victims of Freud's obsessive brush don't come off any better.  As Andrew Wyeth came of age through his father and the oil paint he was instructed to utilize, so Freud came into his own inside of a medium that was essentially hostile to his gifts.

But no matter.  It was important for him to get started.  And get started he did.

After having discovered oil, he quickly came into his own personality: the sooty palette of his tempera years came back, but it was slathered with texture.  The people were there, but they had a context: a bed, chair, or empty room.  Once Freud settled upon these very simple ingredients, he never looked back.  If anything, Freud looked fiercely forward.  And worked as hard as the guys who were carrying hods down the road.  No, harder: he could've quit anytime he wanted to.  Nor did he have any taskmaster besides himself.  Yet he could spend months on a single painting and realize that it was done only after it started to look like somebody else's.

Over the next fifty years, he amassed a body of work like no other - a oeuvre that fed on his reclusive energy, which addressed the conundrums and comforts of solitude.  Some might say he accumulated a freak's gallery of people and personalities.  And, to an extent, they're right.  His people are often scary-looking.  Who sits in a chair like that?  Somebody Freud summoned to his studio and said: "Don't move!"  Unlike Diane Arbus, who wanted to photograph freaks, Freud took a pop eye or withered flesh and distilled their humanity.  He wasn't afraid of what he might discover inside of a person as he or she sat and waited.  Or drifted off to sleep.  Or daydreamed audibly.

He managed to get at the soul's captivity inside of a body that has grown out of proportion and become a smothering presence.  He presumed to suggest that people need each other in spite of how difficult relationships can be.  He looked deeply within, but was also able to create a dazzling color-scape that was not gratuitously postmodern.  The bumps, bruises, and sores of the flesh have, in Freud, a formal counterpart.  He pushes the paint into wavy channels that dive into the hollows and perch defiantly on the raised areas, which has a tactile presence even in reproduction.

Much has been made of the 33.6 million sale.  I'm glad such a monstrously delightful thing happened during Freud's lifetime.  It lays to rest the notion that poor artists toil - without reumneration - in solitude.  Freud was most certainly alone, but he chose to be - and he was paid bloody well for it, thank you very much.

I'm not saying that Freud got all of this money.  Perhaps he got very little of it.  But he was very much alive when the sale occurred, and nobody will ever take that away from him.  Or from the rest of us, who do a fair amount of unremunerative toiling, but are no more fatalistic about it than we ought to be.

I have not seen Freud's work since 1994, when the Met brought him here while cautioning us against liking him for what he was.  Not a realist?  What was he then?  Were his figures just an excuse for a great backwash of formal proclivities?  If so, why didn't he just eliminate the figure and go with what the brush might do on its own?  Why was Freud insistent upon a human context when the market for his work was vigorous enough to snatch up everything he did?  When he was commissioned to paint Queen Elizabeth, it didn't really matter what he made of her - though what eventually became The Official Portrait disappointed almost everyone.  She was old, ugly, without royal gravitas, the works.  But what did people expect?  Did they think that Freud would actually do an official portrait?  Hadn't they ever looked at his work?

I don't think the portrait's much good.  It's uncharacteristically flat, psychologically neutral, and dullish in color, in spite of the queenly gewgaws that make a Van Dyck or Velasquez sing.  (On the other hand, it is a Lucien Freud and possesses many of his virtues - though they seem to be cut in half.)  Freud needed to pick his own models while staying out of the public spotlight.  He apparently had several studios, to which he would commute surreptitiously.  He had a phone somewhere, but not in any of these places.  Or only in one at a time.  If he wanted somebody to find him, he or she would.  Otherwise, the man kept to himself in order to achieve perfection-in-solitude - or as much perfection as any mortal creature has ever dared to want.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cy Twombly Is Dead - and So Will We All Be

Cy Twombly, who passed away this week, is the last lion (if you wish to lionize him) in the dynastic succession of abstract painting from squiggles, smears, and the monster-exegeses that legitimized them, to the deeply personal shorthand that was, as it were, his signature.

Of course, I want to pooh-pooh the man.  I find today, and have always found, Abstract Expressionism to be oxymoronic.  In my view, the least you attempt to express in a painting, while remaining faithful to a vision or aesthetic approach, the more "expression" is likely to get in there.  To name an entire school after something that may well the end result of a creative process, but shouldn't (again, in my view) be consciously attempted, is hubris in the extreme.  In fact, I think we should capitalize Hubris here.  That begs the question, however: when shouldn't it be in caps?

I will let my miniscule readership wrestle with that question.

Twombly was, in the context of Abstract Expressionism, something of a pioneer.  After meeting Kline et al at Black Mountain, he went to New York and, I would imagine, hung out at the Cedar Bar.  But then: he vamoosed.  Let me credit him with a sort of aloof independence.  He could have battened on the half-baked theorizing of his colleagues almost indefinitely, but chose not to.  If he did it at all, he did it from across the pond, where all the words got scrambled - not unlike the words in his paintings.

In Rome, he began to "paint" graffiti-esque canvases that drew upon street painting, classic literature and mythology, a sexuality that dared not speak its name (at least in the U. S.), and all sorts of other things that moved him.  In these early works, he deviated from the Abstract Expressionist playbook and named names.  Scrawling themes and titles across a canvas not only earned him points for bravery, but purisitic condemnation.  I tend to be of the latter camp.  Tell me a joke, but don't tell me you've told it.

From then on, his work morphed into a kind of ecstatic randomness, though it was always tied to a theme-presumptive, though I would like to suggest that you can call a doughnut an aircraft carrier.  That doesn't mean it's so.  That just means that you have a certain audacity.  So, when Twombly chose his themes and matched them up with a smear or something that would pass for one, he insited that we regard this smear as relating to, explicating, or enriching his title.  Just because he launched his small craft into the water doesn't mean that it had to float.  But it does provoke discussion and that is largely what Twombly and his Abstract Expressionist colleagues are about.

In fact, nonobjective painting - even when the "painter" admits to a theme or possible imagery - is ambiguous enough to light the fires of innumerable interpretations.  It's why all those rough-tough guys who splattered paint on unstretched canvases had to pink-slip themselves at five in the afternoon and rush over to the bar.  As their buckets had spilled paint, their mouths needed to spew interpretive jitterbugs.

This is not to say that other painters are silent.  But I will have to say that none of them talk as much as that Cedar Bar crowd did.  Or need to.

And so Twombly evolved.  At first, a lot of critics didn't like him.  But most eventually caved in.  I'm sure he was regarded initially as a turncoat.  How dare he forsake the nerve center of painting and high-tail it to dead-as-a-doornail Rome?  Well, he did and it was probably the smartest thing he ever did.  Removing oneself is the first step to myth-creation.  If you're not in a room, people will talk about you.  Failure to show up ad infinitum will induce forgetfulness - or a stronger pull than ever.  Twombly was somehow able to excite the latter reaction.

Yet I still can't see much to rave about in his work.  He'll throw a forkball, but he'll telegraph it.  Where's the mystery in that?  He can co-opt an authority symbol - in his case, a blackboard - and scrawl all sorts of gibberish on it, but does it really challenge that authority?  (Furthermore, is challenging authority what painting is supposed to be about?)  Seems to me that, rather than tearing authority down, Twombly's canvases became a kind of authority unto themselves.  Standing before one of his blackboard paintings, I'm sure naive collectors have consulted it, as their Greek counterparts once consulted the Oracle at Delphi.  ("How much will you be worth in 2050?  And could you please tell me: why don't you scribble something I can read?  I'll admit that it sometimes makes me crazy.")

Once image-making relinquishes its original premises, as it did with the Abstract Expressionists, one can make a case for almost anything so long as he or she obeys the tenets of the New Painting he or she wishes to both honor and corrupt.  John Mitchell's oeuvre is a case in point.  Much of it is nothing more than whiffs of pure color dashed across a white surface, but she and her critics have tied them in with Monet.  So they have their cake (gravitas) and they eat it too (first, and even second, tier Abstract Expressionist have made a lot of money.  And don't preach to me about Pollock.  He just didn't live long enough to be box-office boffo.  If he'd hung on for another ten years, he would have had been able to match estates with anybody in Southamptom.)

I think I've adequately acknowledged Twombly's personal contribution to the Abstract - or, rather, Post Abstract - Expressionist canon.  But let's go onto other things.

Painting today, while it can be stodgy and self-referential, is getting back to where it came from.  Painters are looking AT things again and thereby getting to who, or whom, they are.  They are inspecting old-timey realities and finding them good.  Most are making cliches, but those who are not have re-invented painting and that's all the to the good.  Twombly represents, I hope, the final gasp in self-laudation disguised as loyalty to First Causes.  He grabs a few things from the past, says that's what his paintings are about, and mows down any sort of critical appreciation of the how and why.  He just does it, people say.  That's his genius.  If Twombly had a genius, it was for co-opting a possible last gasp in an aesthetic paroxysm that could never sustain itself.  Nobody except certain painters, certain critics, and certain arts professionals likes Abstract Expressionism.  The person who will mostly likely respond to a painting of Something rejects the overpowering narcissism of a painting that's about Itself.  "I can do that," says the person.  And whether he can or not, he's getting at something that gripes the hell out of him.  He wants to be spoken to.  He wants for art - or even Art - to reveal its meaning as it illuminates something deeply personal.  He wants to walk hand in hand with it rather than study it from the vast remove of a museum setting and think he's been hornswaggled.  He wants the same thing he generally gets from a movie or sporting event.  Transcendence.  An understanding of limitless possibilities.  A way into a world that seems utterly bewildering even as it flashes moments of grace. 

This is not to say that we need a populist art.  We know the road that goes down and I'd, for one, wish to pull it up and make a jogging-trail out of it.  But we should attempt to re-examine what art is about.  I'm going to throw my hat in the ring and say it should be about communicating universal experiences in a formal vocabulary that is sharp and vigorous, but not so goddamned arcane that it requires reams of explication for us to "get it."

Twombly was of the ilk that plays to the critics - who eventually adopted him; the curators, who put together his shows; the collectors, who were daunted by his "energy" or whatever; and the museums, which always follow the money. 

Goodbye, old fellow.  I'm sure I would have enjoyed sitting down with you and gazing wistfully over the Tiber as you waxed nostalgic about your native Virginia.  A lot of people are likeable outside of their workplaces - or even in them.  But that doesn't mean I'm going to cheer for the result. 

Yes, goodbye old man.  May you be the last in your line.