Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts on Maurizio Cattelan

Upon entering the Rotunda floor and looking up at Cattelan’s work hanging from the ceiling I found myself with a feeling of amusement and thinking, this might not be so bad.

I made my way to the top and walked down and this feeling of amusement disappeared, replaced by nothing. Usually when one comes across contemporary work a feeling of either interest and joy or disgust and contempt occurs but literally I felt nothing.

So suffice to say, I will not write a screed against this exhibition as that would be validating it or giving it import that it has not earned.

I received in the post the other day “Other Criteria -Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art” by Leo Steinberg. The first essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public” dates from 1962 and is pertinent to my thoughts. To summarize, the essay addresses the shock of discomfort that one feels when confronted with an unfamiliar style and from there using his own, Steinberg's awakening to the value of Jasper Johns work, from discomfort to a more profound understanding of it he makes a case for new work. I highly recommend that you get this book, outstanding writing and essays that are still pertinent.

But what I find with Cattelan’s work is a feeling or lack, in direct contradiction with the essay mentioned.

The press release for Cattelan informs us, “Hailed simultaneously as a provcateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art.” oh if that were true.

So without further ado- my thoughts or questions

Do a series of jokes told en mass become a work of art?

Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Does the conglomeration make the new entity a whole?

Would these works stand up individually in situ?

Museum as circus- Barnum and Bailey

Art Povera or poverty art?

If this work were to go up in flames like Courbet’s Stonecutters in Dresden would it be missed?

Museum as reflection of petite bourgeoisie?

Art as funhouse, museum funhouse.

Cattelan, art spectacle as death?

Looking up from the floor it looks great but then wouldn’t anything hung in such a way?

I kept waiting for the sound of a snare drum after each punchline.

To view these in a traditional way of sculpture would be a mistake for there is no weight to them, the traditional thinking of mass and volume do not apply. The tableaus, as that is what they really are, are nothing more than physical representations of visual ideas that one could easily imagine seeing in a magazine, in fact I suspect the reproduction aspect is more important than the actual work itself.

This is an art made for the art industry and Cattelan plays his part perfectly to the crowd, the errant bad boy and despite the so called making fun of the art world, I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too.

The Roberto Benigni of contemporary Italian Art.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts on Abstraction or How Did I Get Here.

I don’t know about you but after I see work that gets me going, that says yes, I find I have to somehow tackle it in my studio or at the very least in sketchbooks. I have found though over the 27 years of being an ‘artist’, that my tastes are more far ranging than most of the artists I’ve come across.

Most artists "likes" I have found stick to the particulars of their own stylistic inclinations, if you paint in abstract gestural way then the tendency is to like that kind of work, if you like minimalistic work the same and if you like figural work, the tendency is to like only figural work, the figurists tend in my observations to be very conservative and orthodox in their tastes. This is not a hard and fast rule by any means, as I said, just an observation. Another oddity I’ve noticed over the years is that figural artists tend to be morning people and abstractionists, night people.

For myself however I can look at something very reductive like Ad Reinhardt and then jump to something opposite as Sigmar Polke, which is just what I did back in 92 when both shows were held concurrently, the first at MoMA and the later in Brooklyn. I went at least five times to both shows.

With Reinhardt I could look at the black paintings and actually see the subtleties between them, the slight variation of color, believe it or not would come through if you spent the necessary time to allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness of the works. Also of interest was that some, despite the reductive motif worked better than others. This was really fascinating to me, that motif didn’t matter as it were, they were all the same damn painting upon initial contact but in taking the time to look the variations were different. How and why was this ‘thing’ working and not this one?

With Polke I was floored, having come out of my own reductive strategies in trying to figure out painting shortly after leaving school I had become a kind of post-minimalist but seeing the gregarious riffing on art and content that Polke did opened my eyes and allowed me to acknowledge my own voracious needs to eat more than was given on the table.

To this date I can look at Mondrian or Malevich and the artists I consider their descendants like Imi Knobel or other reducitivists like Reinhardt, Newman, Kelly, Palermo et al and feel really satisfied and satiated. At the very same time I can absorb De Kooning, Guston, or Polke, Richter, Oehlen, the occasional Schnabel or Salle and a host of others and feel the same. I can then look at Ingres or Bruegel, Giotto, Roman wall painting, Egyptian, etc and then walk away excited with anticipation to get into the studio. Alice Neel, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz do it and Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, Rauschenberg and Rosenquist too. Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” in Philly always gets me.

This leaves me with the question, why does the motif seem inconsequential to me in these cases? Why is abstraction my preferred form of practice? Where do I go from here?

One thing I realized in writing these thoughts down was that, I’ll never find all the words, phrases, sentences, conceptualizations to incorporate it all into a unified theory, fun as it is to try. When I look at an artwork that works, that lives up to its claim to be Art the question is answered and rephrased as another question and that is what excites me to get into the studio.

to be continued...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


It was a pleasure to be linked to Painters-Table and have mentions by the generous Paul Corio and Henri Art Mag blog. From the Painters Table I bounced over to Tom Ferrara’s “A Way of Seeing” where I found some reassuring words. Mr. Ferrara was one of De Kooning's assistants for those of you who might not know.

As a painter I find my greatest reassurance looking at art, good art doesn’t make me want to drop my brushes, it makes me want to get into the studio as fast as possible. It’s the most pleasant infectious disease that says "Yes, do it, go for it!"

But then the real world as you leave the gallery or museum or the street where you see something by happenstance that moves you, kicks in and brings you back with a thundering crash to the ground. That is where other artists support, comments or sayings can be a touchstone back to that ineffable thing that you wrestle with trying to make present in the studio.

In my conversation with my friend who I am letting share a wall in my studio, we talked about this thing. Too much art that I see and it has always been the case, is about the thing they want to be but don’t become or be the thing.

What I found of particular interest in Tom Ferrara’s commentary about De Kooning was “more than anything he wanted to be surprised.”

I had a studio visit with an important museum director from Europe in the mid-90’s who waxed poetic about one half of the paintings I was making, calling me a genius but the other half he went ballistic over, saying “You cannot do this.” I tried to calmly tell him that I had to do both in the studio and that the paintings he loved I could do in my sleep and the ones he hated were challenging and exciting for me.

I might have blown it career wise at that time because a lot of artists responded favorably to that more accessible work and one even said it was suicide to pursue the other. But I couldn’t. I need to be surprised, intrigued and bewildered. If I were to make what I could make in my sleep and have a ‘career’ (maybe and only maybe) I would be nothing than a pricey cobbler filling orders and I need the freedom to make and explore what I find difficult and interesting, otherwise what’s the point?

Return to the Studio

I always find it hard the first few days getting back into the studio after seeing certain shows, you know the memorable ones, I felt this after seeing Palermo at the Hirschorn and now De Kooning at MoMA.

Sometimes it is easier to look at really old masters and keep it in check although it sure would be something to paint with the conviction of Carravaggio and I mean in the sense of having a belief in his subject matter, which for the most part was the Christian narrative.

When I wander in to the studio and am confronted with a blank canvas or more recent work of my own, the first thought usually is what the (insert your favorite expletive here)!

What does it mean to put brush to canvas? Why this thing called paint? What is this image or motif? Does this have any meaning? Should I have listened to my parents and gotten a real career? What the hell am I doing?

The first inclination is to wrestle with the thought of tackling what is on ones mind. I personally find that I have to destroy things; that I have to push it to ugly. This is my personal thing, not a prescription at all for anyone else. I have a very good artist friend who has his shit down before he goes to work. He works on it, adjusts it, wipes them out, destroys them and starts again but he doesn’t struggle with motif as I do because he has it down. I admire the ability to work like that, to think like that. Me? I just can’t although I have tried. For me when I start working with his kind of mindset I have to stop and get messy, wipe it out, stain it, defile it and then some because I just don’t have the faith and belief in images like that. But that said, he admires that I tackle my things without a safety net, we're like polar opposites who envy each others commitment and approach, not to mention each others final results.

That might sound like a strange thing. De Kooning was possibly the last of the “old fashioned painters.” Figure, ground, people, landscape. For visually voracious people like myself and my generation that might not be so easy, especially if your mind and brush somehow wander into abstraction or non-objectivity as your theme. And what exactly is this thing called a theme to begin with?

In a little over ten years from the beginnings of analytic cubism the various forms of visual vocabulary were defined for 20th century Modernism. You had Mondrian and de stijl, Malevich, Rodchenko, Kandinsky…. But a monochrome by Rodenchko is different than one by Blinky Palermo, not only in paint application and behind each one is the history of previous painting and what art means for that particular time and place, in short the cultural conditions are there to be discovered in the context of time and place.

At least that is how I see it and it makes it hard sometimes. Because what I am trying to do is somehow recognize these voices and work through them. Influence is such a dirty word now but it’s a necessary part of ones education and then trying to unify what seem like contradictory impulses, for De Kooning it was to paint like Ingres and Soutine. Ouch.

Anyway, found myself deciding to take a ‘failed’ canvas today, one that was buried in the rack and work on it. I was in a very sour mood, not wanting to talk or see anyone. A friend was working in my studio today, letting him work on his things in my space; I’m like that for some reason. Wasn’t too happy to see him but squeezed out a large clump of white, mixed it up and started to wipe out and then redraw this damn ugly mess. No intention, no idea, just rambling mess. Took out a few small primed canvases and started to paint on them, ugly paintings based on Styrofoam blocks from computers and tech gear lying around that I’ve kept for just this purpose. To play and let loose. I ended up making four of these small ones and then going back into the 5 foot by roughly 5 foot monstrosity relaxed. The small ones look like they could have been shown in Berlin about 25 years ago, garish and harsh, and the large one? Like some ugly African cubist mask but based on this Styrofoam packing bit floating in the middle field and the residue of the past incarnations of the painting providing my ambivalent ground.

By that time I was happy my friend was there and we started to talk our art lingo, laugh about silly ideas we had for work that despite how ‘silly’ they are we'll explore. Because that is what the studio is for me in a way, a research and development laboratory for deadly serious play and the final irony, if you can call it that is these things that I call ugly are what my friends call beautiful.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


So what does all of this mean, this quasi-formal analysis and the time taken to write it down? For me, it forces me to think about an activity of engaged viewing, of a kind of voyeurism that has a visceral physical effect that takes place beyond words. Finding these words nonetheless to somehow dance around the subject as close as possible, to somehow inhabit that optical experience through another sensory one, one that involves touch in scribbling it all down, one that uses the voice of language and mental gymnastics to come to grips with the“metaphysical hydra” as it were, allows me to retain and grasp the somewhat ineffable qualities and absorb them.

De Kooning’s work in some way mimics this function or one can think of it as a metaphor in this regard. De Kooning’s brush floats around the figures space and presence, implying the figures presence through the manipulation of paint effects much like I try to with words to describe this thing, this thing that makes me have little choice but to wrestle with it in the studio or here on the digital page.

I think this is the kind of feeling that only artists feel, a love and fascination of this thing that drives us to great lengths and sometimes profound depression or economic failure in an attempt to consume this thing or be part of it. It is to outsiders a strange and peculiar condition or profession.

I found myself getting depressed when I was looking at the 70’s paintings that really left a profound impression upon me. Works like Untitled XI owned by the Art Institute of Chicago from 1975 or Untitled from 1977 that is in my post De Kooning three cont, Untitled VIII from that same year owned by Bettina and Donald L. Bryant, Jr. and Untitled I from 77 too. But then I realized that De Kooning was in his early 70’s and I am not quite 50. I went back to the room to see where De Kooning was at my age and I felt more reassured. It perhaps is a mark of great ego to compare oneself to such a master but I do. I wrestle with Picasso, Matisse, De Kooning, Polke and a long list of artists and I firmly believe De Kooning’s statement that art is a big bowl of soup, you get to take some of it and if you are lucky you get to put something back in.

What is the point otherwise? Why do this activity without dealing with ones ancestors who move you? Why not attempt to live up to their commitment and dedication? Why not try at least to pick up the banner and carry it forth for future generations? I’ve been lucky to have some good and wise friends who have been supportive and understand my perverse dedication, who have mentioned names like Matisse and Picasso in written words about my own works. It is an achievement and recognition that helps me make it through the financial difficulties.

The past year was a financial disaster as many artists of my age who haven’t made it are finding a difficult time to find even occasional work. But seeing De Kooning and knowing his personal history of financial difficulties and personal problems and yet still forging ahead with a determination to do whatever he wanted to do despite the commercial pressures to maintain a certain style and not giving a damn about various artists or critics disgust with the Women paintings, etc was fortifying.

The stylelessness of De Kooning has often been mentioned; the same goes for Picasso, Matisse, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. I think it is necessary to always ask the question, to push the envelope and to see where one can go and most importantly allow oneself the freedom to investigate these ideas and personal visions that drive us. Damn the marketplace.

I decided this year to focus on the good parts of what it is to create art, to be an artist. I’m heading this year to my first half century and I could bemoan the professional frustrations with and of the art world. I most certainly will on this blog still bitch but more I want to spend my remaining years making art because I need to, because it is the one thing I am really good at and I really love.

Last week I was driving into New York City with my son, twenty minutes before as we stopped on the expressway I remarked at the colors of the sky as the sun was setting. The clouds were a beautiful creamy butter yellow against the blue sky and then as the minutes passed turned into a beautiful peach color in contrast to the darkening sky. As we drove over the Pulaski towards the Holland Tunnel the twilight was now fast upon us, the city skyline with the gray buildings just barely visible against the evening and the twinkling of the cities lights made the city look like the most wonderful jewel and I mean it was fantastic, it was so beautiful.

There is too much art made without love or feeling, made with a cultural cynicism and lack of humanity and there is a great market for it because today it is more advantageous to be hip with irony instead of being simply human.

Because at the end of the day, that is all there is, our humanity. I don’t believe in god or an afterlife. This is it. The universe will die and all of our achievements and grunts will be dust. I don’t find this to be depressing knowing this, knowing the futility. I find it invigorating that somehow we’ve managed to be self aware and can take pleasure in life, in having a need for beauty and to share through words or music or in my case painting, this wonder of life. That we exist is a marvel. So I will try to add to the soup and if I’m lucky I'll be allowed to.

Final Visit to de Kooning at MoMA

The 70's revisited
What’s great about the 70’s paintings at MoMA is that by this time the audience has been weeded out and you can actually see some work.

I have to revisit Two Figures in a Landscape owned by the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. This work is a damn ugly sloppy mess and I love it. The ground once again has these ghostly vestiges of images that are scrapped and sanded and the paint that remains or has been added is this goopy mess literally sliding down the canvas. The fleshy colored paint is puckered and sagging like a road smear of skin and the overall coloration is garish in local areas with sky blue against orange, a smudgy yellow white green, scumbled brown, olive green, bright yellow and then this flesh outlined in areas with orange. It probably was a seated woman splayed out on a lawn chair but that’s a guess or a couple in coitus. I found myself staring at this painting trying to take it all in simultaneously and then scanning over it, my eyes darting back and forth; repeat, wash and rinse. These works are carnal, paint as flesh.

I felt this way also looking at the following works, oh never mind they’re all Untitled with a number after it. It was all too easy to get sucked into looking at these pictures and looking and looking, they are inexhaustible.

The 80’s
It is hard to categorize this decade (maybe the entire oeuvre) save for the move away from the gooey safflower texture, possibly because a conservator told De Kooning about the inherent instability of his mixture (see Willem De Kooning The Artists Materials by Susan F. Lake) incidentally coinciding with a serious binge, not surprising. If I found out that 5 years of exceptional painting was potentially unstable I myself would become unstable.

Untitled V from 1980 is the beginning of drawing with the tapers knife, gone are the puckering and explosive brushwork, now bands of green close to a thalo mixed with what looks like paynes gray along with subtle shades of white, pale greens and somewhat hidden underpainting reveal a different spatial configuration. This is no longer the body rendered through paint as flesh but neither is it non-objective. This particular work for me is reminiscent of Gorky whose memory comes through in works that post-date this and for me seems to have a feeling of landscape and not because of the green but the spatial feel.

As we move to the final room we are confronted with Pirate from 1981. I remember vividly the first time I saw this painting and was thunderstruck. Again this density of effect pervades the painting, the red at the left having been sanded and scarred so that the yellow comes through and then overpainted with a wash of white, wow and then the thin blues lines again reminiscent of Gorky and then a smallish yellow patch of moving brushwork to the right of the billowing white and WOW once again.

With Pirate and Untitled III from 1981, the one to the left of Pirate if you managed to see the exhibit now have a frontality of shallow surface space that was hinted at by Untitled V from 1980.

By 1982 the works, Untitled V, XIII (all 1982) are shifting from this frontality to a more cubist space reminiscent of the black and white works from the late 40’s and even shadows of the biomorphic images of the mid 40’s such as Pink Angels only in these later works it is the space around these biomorphic shapes that are hinted at, implied not explicit. De Kooning at this time was 77 and alcoholism had taken a huge toll from the artist, along with the onset of mental deterioration. My great grandfather use to recycle the same stories when he sat at the dinner table, something I’ve noticed with elderly people, life is reflected on and relived, De Kooning it seems is doing the same.

Untitled II from 1983 has white shapes floating in a sea of an older underpainting of primaries, this particular one opens up a visual field in my eyes of Pollock and definitely runs over territory of the black and white paintings. We see more slippage as the year progresses, slippage in the painterly sense not age, the work Untitled V from 83 has a broad expanse of yellow surrounded by ribbons of primary colors. Untitled XIX evokes Gorky again with yellow forming the runs in the top third of the canvas.

1984 brings us to the rather sparse work of No Title to the left in the above photo. A painting which to my eye creates a space akin to a dancer moving slowly across the surface, not unlike the wispiness of what I imagine Duchamp’s bride wafting across the top of the large glass as she is stripped bare.

1985 gives us another No Title work with a really stripped down palette of blue and black, along with works like Rider, which is a very bizarre painting with hints of Gorky ruminating in the dutchman’s mind.

1986 and 87 bring us the final works which are cartoonie, to my eye it is obvious that old drawings of figures are the source for these works but the spatial qualities of each are unique and not unified. This is problematic for many in the art cognoscenti but it doesn’t bother me. Perhaps it is the influence of dementia but to my mind the idea floats that subconsciously as the knowledge comes of impending mental death become imminent, I would want to touch on several key ideas of importance that are varied and not hammer one point repeatedly, a sort of greatest visual ideas being touched upon. Pure conjecture on my part but these last works still confuse me and in a good way, they pervade my mental landscape and need to be dealt with. At the end of the day not many painters alive today despite their youth paint such oddities with this kind of import.

Minor Postscript
I spent up to a half hour on many paintings staring at them and letting them sink in, eyes locked to them and afterwards walked through the show again, doing the same and ended up with a headache from eyestrain. Not that I minded though.
So where do we go from here? More in the Final Postscript and thoughts on what De Kooning means to me, back to art and the purpose and function it has personally and to the larger cultural contexts along with a greatest hits of works that have meaning to me akin to Mr. Paul Corio’s Paintings I Like via his blog, No Hassle at the Castle and kudos to him for highlighting my thoughts.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

De Kooning three contd or four, who's counting?

De Kooning Three contd
The drawings of the 60’s like Woman in a Rowboat, Reclining Nude and Woman are amazing, all charcoal on paper/vellum. The line goes from thin and hard to smudged but it is the articulation of the figure that is amazing. De Kooning manages to get away from Picasso like dislocation in a unique way, it is beholden to Picasso but not imatative. Picasso’s synthetic cubist works of women have struck me for a very long time as being the various perpectives that one would have of a woman laying in bed next to the artist. When you lay with your lover the view of the various body parts is varied in the act of love making and perspective in the traditional western view is diminished, De Kooning still maintains a physical distance from the woman as if they are standing, sitting or laying before him but the body is twisted apart and the mark making notational.

The paintings of this period Sag Harbor, The Visit, Woman and Child and the absolutely amazing Two Figures in Landscape are just knockout. This is the period when De Kooning was mixing safflower oil, water and benzene into his paint. My feeling having seen one of the door paintings at the Hirshorn when I traveled down to D.C. with one of my closest artist friends to see Blinky Palermo was that he was trying to get the consistency, fluidity and tactility of enamel paint along with the body of same. Just speculation on my part as I have not actually tried it myself but the sheen of the paint and the way it flows reminds me of enamels tactile qualities.

The spatial qualities of these paintings are complex and basically you can’t quite get a handle on it, except in glimpes, which were De Kooning’s literal words. Unlike much art made at that time, I am thinking of Stella, Andre, Judd, Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc, the two poles of art born out of ab ex, De Kooning’s work doesn’t hold to any orthodoxy. Not that the mentioned artists necessarily did but their work is basically given immediately in totality, you get it immediately in one look. However there are subtleties for sure that often times necessitate prolonged looking and sometimes not too.

The Sculptures
These show, at least to me De Kooning’s preoccupation with the figure in space, it is always the case I suspect. De Kooning is never a pure abstractionist like the non-objective painting that Greenberg espoused. De Kooning, using his words again is “an old fashioned painter” concerned with the figure. The sculptures demonstrate the figure in a fluid cubist crushing, swerving and twisting in space. They also have the totemic quality of Joseph Beuy’s work but I don’t believe there was ever any cross fertilization between the two. It is what one calls in scientific terms, convergent evolution.

The works managed to cross the line from looking like malformed clay (which is what they were modeled in) to having just enough human handling and presence to give them a perverse aura.

The 70’s
Watching people view these paintings is kind of interesting, people in general look puzzled and confused as if there is no handle to grab onto. The colors are bright, saturated, sometimes garish, electric and hot despite them being sometimes brought into the pastel range by mixing white. The space being articulated is a shallow one, the paint rests on the surface of the canvas but the space is fast, slippery with erasures and scrappings just visible below the surface creating the ground, again there is nothing to grab onto. Small bits could be blown up and be contemporary Richter’s or a host of other lesser known artists. Of all the artists who wielded the brush in a gestural manner De Kooning is by far in my opinion the master of it and so much so, he almost closes the door behind him in regards to this particular approach to painting.

Untitled, 1977 has what looks like a red high heeled shoe in the bottom left. Dore Ashton wrote in “A Fable of Modern Art” about Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” as an embodiement of various atttitudes of modern art, struggling to express the inexpressible, to make concrete the abstract. I don’t want to waste word space rehashing Ashton or Balzac’s tale but suffice to say there are enough paintings of De Kooning’s where a foot is present in the bottom half of the canvas to make one think of Frenhofer.

In the next few day’s I’ll address the 80’s and the final works and then an additional postscript. The show closes tomorrow and if you happen to be at MoMA and see one particular person staring at paintings for an inordinate amount of time, well it might just be me.