The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.
Finished the Sebastian Smee book The Art of Rivalry (highly recommended) and one payoff of reading top-notch art books is that you are almost certain to find a work that you did not know that matters a bunch.
Now, with Francis Bacon (another subject in the book, paired with Lucian Freud) I’ve had an interesting evolution. He was dissed in John Berger’s The Art of Seeing in part because Berger claimed Bacon painted the way he did because his limited drawing skills left him no choice. When I read Berger 40 years ago I thought he maybe had a point — I had seen only reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. But about 20 years later I saw an actual Bacon retrospective and Berger was fried. The Irishman’s[*] paintings are shattering, harrowing, stupefying and intoxicating to look at. I agree with Berger it would be tough to have one in your dining room, but not because they are insincere, grotesque cartoons. It matters not a whit that Bacon “had” to paint the way he did.
It does make a difference that Jackson Pollock, even more technically challenged than Bacon, finally found an outlet all his own despite his limitations. I can’t get past the surface of almost all of his stuff I’ve seen — not because it’s “decorative” or whatever, but because it’s simply a chronicle of skittering mental chaos. This is not as dismissive as it might seem — every painting is a portrait of the artist’s mental state. But there’s no way into Pollock for me. Doesn’t help that Smee confirms how obnoxious, hateful, violent and deranged he was too much of the time. I’ve never bought the argument that you have to be a wild person to make wild art. (I do accept the weird rituals and routines of the ’30s-’50s art world in New York that Smee describes.)
But behold — suddenly in the midst of this, I am directed to a Pollock that is just a flicker before his breakthrough into his fame-gaining style. And I can read it emotionally. This work — not in his most famous action-drip mode — conveys torment and confusion with one’s own mind that moves me. It’s called “Stenographic Figure”:
There’s actually two figures, of course, but their postures, distortions, and above all the racket of forms scattered in front and behind and everywhere on the canvass feels exactly right to me. In this one, Jackson Pollock made you sense what he had to deal with every day, and even merge with it.
- Reading more about Bacon I smacked my forehead as I reminded myself that, while he was born in Dublin, both his parents were English.
Another point is that only one artist can do the counterfeit-bills-are-art routine, or at least only one artist can make it his primary bit and become quasi-famous. Boggs lived at the right time to make this work. And, hell, I think his art did provoke interesting questions. But I bet a lot of the time him using his artworks as money got him called a motherbucker.
Quite the extravagant career(s). (And life, really.) Ending up making a living at his first passion is quite a satisfying turn. (I vaguely knew he became a painter, but had forgotten.) In an era that doesn’t even bother with copy-editors, it’s a remarkable reminder of how much clout a visionary editor could have.
Of course, the downside is all that gossiping and the constant pecking-order adjustments. Clubs and cabals and cults — I miss the literary power I grew up with, but I don’t miss that aspect of it at all.
A terrific model for how to write critical essays driven by clear, powerful, whole thoughts and observations. Ways of Seeing will get all the attention, but right after that I would push for About Looking.
Which provoked lively internal discussion as I read — the zoo-animal-and-people parallels are a bit off, but provocative; I don’t buy the Rodin arguments; but the Giacometti chapter is brilliant. And so on. Timeless stuff.
Couldn’t get into his fiction at all.
Excellent piece on one of my all-time favorite artists, Francis Picabia — the Dada-est of the Dadaists.
Picabia is soulless.
This is all too true. Explains how an artist can be a favorite without being loved.There’s this guy Andy Warhol.
This is my favorite collection by the late, wondrous collage-and-more artist:
Comic book fans HAVE to see the “Tricky Cad” items. I think a clear influence on early, experimental Art Spiegelman. Probably not an ideal introduction to Jess — my pick for that would be Jess — A Grand Collage 1951-1993 (crap — I see it’s now an out-of-print rarity).