Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell
January 24, 1915 – July 16, 1991
AbEx movement
Coined the name for the 'New York School' group of artists, writers and thinkers in the 50s and 60s.

I've always loved Abstract Expressionism. When I was younger, I was heavy into surrealism, and I still love it, but more and more I've been moving in the direction of the AbExers. I associate them with the Beats, but more materialistic. They dealt with the subconscious the way the surrealists did, but in a more hard, conceptual way. It's not literal, which is good, because the existential angst that produced the work isn't literal either, except to say, perhaps, that its a universal. And I resonate with them in all their steamy, brilliant, bawdiness.

Because Motherwell is so closely linked to the AbEx clique, my first inclination is to size him up against the other three big wigs: Pollock, Rothko and De Kooning.
If I had to create some completely arbitrary binary opposing categories to put these men in, I'd put Rothko and Motherwell together.

The main reason for this is Motherwell's pieces, particularly his famous Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, don't have the rhythm that I feel from Pollock and De Kooning's work.

Motherwell was a student of philosophy, so there's certainly a world-weariness about his ink blots. His elegy pieces look like Rorschach test specimens, which actually fits in perfectly with the kind of subconscious angst that the AbEx artists handled so beautifully. The blots work like suspended orbs.

This Motherwell piece caught my eye immediately:

'Red and the Black #14' (1987)

Firstly, I'm a sucker for collage. Always have been, always will be.
The use of musical scales in the collage adds a kind of rhythm to this piece that his others lack, but the rectangles recall the arrhythmic but still gorgeously intellectual Bauhaus school. The non-descriptive shapes appear as if they're all facing the written music, like an audience watching a symphony. Only, this isn't a classical symphony; the time period, energy, abstraction, color choice and minimalism of the painting fits the mold of Palais Schaumburg, not Beethoven.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Three Bob Dylan paintings

I just saw this posted on ArtInfo's website. It's from Bob Dylan's recent 'Favela Villa Broncos' exhibition. Below are three of his Brazilian-inspired paintings.

First off, I'd like to say that I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan's music and have been for years, but I'm not too crazy about these paintings. They do recall Matisse and maybe a little Gauguin, but they read pretty dull and uninspired, like they'd best be fit for a wall in a hotel lobby, a cafe, or a doctor's waiting room. I've never been to Brazil myself, I'm sure it's beautiful, but Dylan's representation of the countryside looks like an afterthought.


The faces of the men and women in the vineyard are done in an almost Fauvist abstraction, but they don't really read as anything. They don't look weary, or menacing, or even tired. As a whole, the vineyard workers look curious as to why the painter was there in the first place. The Joe Pesci line from Goodfellas, "Hey, what do you want from me" in reference to his mother's dog painting comes to mind here. The colors are also pretty drab, it's hard to tell that the grapes are grapes, because he didn't channel the color saturation that the fauvists nailed.


With this piece, too many things blend in and are difficult to access. The tree in the center looks awkwardly shaped because the branches and leaves are blending in with the shrubbery in the background. Powerlines seem to go in all different directions, the clothesline looks like it's hooked on to a metal pipe and strung in between two poles, and what are the white bars on the bottom right?
Overall, it's a mess.


This last one is the only one I can say I kind of like of the three. I like the juxtaposition of showing an abandoned, urban street with parked cars in the background and a car in the foreground, presumably there to pick up the streetwalker on the left. The fact that no one is on the street except for a streetwalker and two working class street sweepers (one of which looks like a farmer, for some reason) gives the painting a socio-political slant and I'm normally a sucker for those.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Paul McCarthy - intro and 'Painter' analysis

Paul McCarthy is one of those artists who I love for reasons that are overall a mystery to me.
Do I like him like I secretly like the obnoxious indie kid in a class who wears revolutionary t-shirts but shows up with Starbucks? Or do I like him as I do the mad scientist who challenges convention and comes up with something brilliant after others deemed him insane?

I’ve seen a few of his works in person, but I’ve only watched his performances via the glory of the internet.
To date, I’ve seen ‘Painter’, ‘Sauce’, ‘Class Fool’, ‘Family Tyranny’ and ‘Cultural Soup’, in that order.

McCarthy represents his video subject in a childish but still controlled way. It’s the duality that makes it so difficult to ignore his work and so easy to like it. The fact that he is based in Los Angeles, a city known for surgically-enhanced perfection and superficiality, adds an extra layer of satire to his work. He discusses themes like child abuse (Family Tyranny) and the consumerist art world (Painter), in a way that is ruthlessly absurd and campy, but brilliant.

He very often uses ketchup, mayonnaise and chocolate in his works. Using edible and accessible materials in place of the bodily fluids (blood, semen, and feces) they stand for also lends a slightly kitschy accessibility to his work. It’s light/non-threatening and serious at the same time.

There is so much more to say about his pieces, I’ll really have to go into a few one by one to give a full scope. He’s a cool cat, so I’ll definitely be revisiting him.

For now, I’ll comment on ‘Painter.' This probably won't be a complete review, just the start of one, there are many, many layers to it and I'd like to give them all justice.
Here’s a link to the video:
Yes, it’s about an hour long, but if you can dedicate the time to it, please do. It really is a fantastic piece of work.

Among the things McCarthy, donning a curly blonde wig, prosthetic nose, and large, fake hands does in the video:
- Spins in a circle while chanting ‘De Kooning’ over and over.
- Sings “Pop Goes the Weasel” while attempting to move a canvas.
- Chops off one of his giant fingers with a machete and mixes in his blood with the paint.
- Rants and raves about the money he is owed.
- Sit in on a TV broadcast featuring an interview with two posh European collectors of well-known contemporary artists like Martin Kippenberger.
- Attempts to teach his audience about painting, diving into lessons about brush techniques and then ranting “I’m fucking painting, I’m fucking painting, I’m fucking painting.”
- Gets his ass sniffed by a critic at the end of the video. The critic approves, and the video ends.

One review online referred to the prosthetic as a “bulbous drinker’s nose”, if this is so, is it a nod to the AbEx artists affinity for getting drunk and rowdy?
Everyone in the video has the same fake nose, are they all just under disguise because they live within a marginal, niche reality? Or is McCarthy just trying to imply that they’re all liars?
At one point in the video, McCarthy also urinates in a potted plant, a learned nod at an infamous incident where a drunken Jackson Pollock urinated in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace.

I first watched this video in December, probably on Christmas Eve, if I recall. I had only recently become aware of McCarthy, so I hadn’t become all that familiar with his work, but I was very taken by this video. It moved me initially because I saw it as an exploration of artistic struggles to produce while still staying true to their work and not going insane over dealing with elitist collectors and gallerists. Now that I know more and am still learning more about him, AbEx artists, conceptual artists and the Viennese Actionism that inspired his work, the meaning I find in it changes. The more I learn the more brilliant I think it is.

The film can be seen in a variety of ways – a parody of the Abstract Expressionists, an exploration of the struggles of an artist, a scathing critique of an art world concerned only with dollar signs. I don’t have the answer, but as usual, the work speaks for itself.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Paintings about Painting

From the left: 'Untitled 1957' - Robert Ryman
Casein and graphite on primed and sized unstretched cotton canvas on manila paper folder on glass on plywood. 9 5/8 x 8 3/8 inches.

'What is Painting' - John Baldessari (1966-1968)
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas 67 3/4 x 56 3/4 inches.

These are paintings about painting which make no solid outside references. They reference themselves,one in form and technique, the other in form and technique.
Different mediums, but the same medium.
Painted lettering upon a canvas; painted canvas.
Strikingly different, but holistically similar.
Both ruggedly modern, wearily self-aware, and a bit posh.

Office irony

Ryman's piece partially uses what we would consider office supplies, pencils and a manila folder.His materials barely hint, he deliberately didn’t title his pieces or, if he did, he would title them a brand of paint or pencil.No outside cues here, what you see is what you get.
Baldessari's is just words, like an office Rolodex, but quotable words like the sign-off at the end of an email.The message is delivered to you, like a phone call or an email, but beyond that, it slinks with it's back against the wall - snarling at its cheekiness and winking at passerby when they aren’t looking.
At least, that’s what I’d be doing.

More about 'What is Painting'

'What is Painting' – is written in all in caps like cue cards, presumably read by the artist, or the critic that comes after.

The words are self-explanatory.In fact, Baldessari was trying to give the public what they already know. It's just words, but they are painted on a canvas. Is it a painting? Of course it is.
The canvas itself was not stretched or primed by Baldessari, the words were painted by a professional sign painter, not the artist, and the text wasn't original - it was found.
The message the painting gives seems like common knowledge, but ironically so, because undoubtedly people will question whether the work is a painting and thus, whether it is art.
They questioned it when it was created and they'll still question it, even though it hangs in MoMa, one of the most well-known art museums in the world.
Baldessari said he always marveled at the audacity and/or ignorance of people who claim to say what a painting is.


Both paintings want to make the public scream - what is this about?
But they already have the answer. The answer is: you’re looking at it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Simon Evans, 'Dear Diary' (2008)

If this piece were a person, I'd probably make awkward sexual advances at it and eventually muster up the courage to ask it out for coffee.

This is just another example of art I wish I had made, or a poem I wish I had written.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

YouTube video: Pablo Picasso's Guernica


Here's a link a friend sent me earlier this week, the video is very well done.
Although it refers mainly to Guernica, the makers of the video paid homage to Van Gogh, Dali, and MC Escher. Using a Duran Duran song ('The Chauffeur', in this case)is an easy way to sell me on something but luckily the content is as smart as the music choice.

Walking through the video, our cubist hero wakes up in Van Gogh's 'Bedroom in Arles', proceeds to the desert in Dali's 'The Persistence of Memory' and winds up in an Escher endless staircase. I can see a small Duchamp nod in this scene as well, referring to his 'Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2' work.

I may come back to this and elaborate on Guernica, but for now - check out the video.

'Why so Panicky?' - Sean Landers (2004)

Here's an intriguing piece by Sean Landers, one of my favorite (and in my humble opinion, one of the best) contemporary American artists.

If ever I thought I might suffer from Stendhal Syndrome, I definitely feel it when looking at this painting. This seems fitting, given the title and the subject matter.

It doesn't take itself seriously, this is a good thing. Words are overlapped and repeated, but particular color choices keep it from being literal - "Trust" is done in yellow, a color of cowardice, "Money" is represented as black and blue - melancholy colors reminiscent of bruising. You can follow along and create your own sentences out of the words, "Respect, support immortality" or "Recognition changed excellence" - the meaning changes depending on where you look. It's constantly evolving, never boring, this is what makes it great art. It's self-generating genius.
Landers talks to his audience as a comedian like Jim Gaffigan talks to his audience - in jokey asides. Note the "Art making is narcissism... yes, that's what my videos were about," in the far right portion of the painting.
He may be deliberately making fun of the viewing public, or people like me who ironically dissect his work, but that's neither here nor there.

Samuel Beckett said, "Words are all we have."


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I love to read about linguistics, behavioral economics, theory and philosophy. I listen to music some might call outdated, write satirical and high testosterone plays, consume too much caffeine and ruthlessly defend modern and contemporary art.