Category: Art

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A stylized set of portraits of R.B. Kitaj, who is being re-appraised by English painter Ethan Pinch.

Critical Mass: The Case Against R.B. Kitaj

To revisit the work of American artist R.B. Kitaj is to revisit the scene of a ritual murder. He is, after all, a painter noteworthy for being ‘assassinated’ by his critics—a grievous mantle which, though Kitaj has been dead for over fifteen years, has thankfully found no indisputable successor. What stands today as a classic fable of yellow press journalism is the account of a London Tate retrospective so viciously panned that it is now held to be the catalyst for Kitaj’s eventual suicide along with the tragically premature death of his wife, Sandra, from a stroke.

Kitaj had been, for most of his career, a sort of enfant terrible—so it follows that he should have been accustomed to some negative criticism, or at least journalistic vulgarity. Yet the ’94 Tate retrospective, an event intended to finally confirm his critical legacy, instead gave rise to one of the most vicious pile-ons in the history of broadsheet criticism. A ‘cyclone of abuse ‘. A ‘lynch mob‘.

But what’s the real substance behind all this tabloid melodrama? Could it just be another case of critical caprice? Of obstinance and snobbery? Or was it, as Kitaj loudly alleged, a case of antisemitic blood libel: of gentiles bashing and scapegoating an expatriate Jewish artist for the crime of merely existing? […]

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A stylized set of portraits of painter Lee Krasner, in standard color, blue, then green, in front of a painting.

Lee Krasner: A Critical Portrait

For this article I’m going to be looking at a number of paintings by the Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner in an attempt to give an overview and critical portrait of her career. With that said, the difficulty in re-describing Krasner’s development as an artist arises from a personal resistance to many of the tropes popularized by contemporary feminist criticism. Is it possible, after all, to write an article about Krasner that doesn’t devolve into some sort of homily about gender and patriarchy?

Now let’s be serious – we’ve all seen the Ed Harris biopic. Jackson Pollock pulling a James Dean and wrapping his muscle car around a tree. Krasner alternating between muse, mother-figure and martyr in equal measure. Peggy Guggenheim lugging her Pomeranian up several flights of stairs. If you’re into mid century modernism then this sort of trivia should be second nature. (On a sidenote: why did they choose to represent de Kooning as a grinning idiot?) […]

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Gerhard Richter – Self Portrait, 1996

On Gerhard Richter: Art’s Sacred Kuh (Sacred Cow)

Gerhard Richter has been an art superstar since the sixties, with a resumé and bank account to prove it. He gets good press. Huge retrospectives. Critics and dealers comfortably refer to him in the same breath as old-timey masters like Vermeer or Titian and no one gets upset or annoyed with this. But why? Why do people go crazy for Richter’s coldly scientific paintings? You could say they were radical, although you’d have a hard job of explaining why. However, since no one is likely to challenge you, the problem won’t arise.

It’s hard to make painting seem radical because really it’s not. Yet people keep making paintings, selling and exhibiting. We might say painting is dead because it seems, in a Hegelian sense, incapable of maintaining its historical themes and social importance. But still, painting hangs around – in an undead state – like a vampire or zombie. […]

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Henri Matisse on horseback in Morocco, where he would paint the classic Les Marocains (The Moroccans) in 1916.

Black Sunshine: Matisse in Morocco (Les Marocains, 1916)

Matisse had a miserable time in Morocco. In fact there was rarely a moment in Matisse’s life where he wasn’t miserable. During a 1941 interview he talked about seeing everything (in) “black”; his chronic insomnia, his depression and fear of failure. Common stock when it comes to creative types, but generally not the sort of things most people would associate with Matisse or his paintings. Tellingly, he would later prohibit publication of this interview citing editorial disagreements. It seems that he preferred to be seen as cute and cuddly rather than dark and brooding.

For Matisse, life was a series of disappointing (and occasionally spooky) vacations. Reading his biography puts one in mind of the horror writer MR James, for whom Matisse would make the ideal protagonist—stentorian, standoffish, and constantly menaced by the notion of ‘presence’. What a letdown Tangiers must have been: nothing at all like the hipster fantasy of French literature. He arrived in the city halfway through a month-long rainstorm. Most of the time, he told the poet Gertrude Stein, he stayed in his room. […]

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A stylized double-portrait of John Constable, painter of "The Vale of Dedham".

John Constable’s “The Vale of Dedham” – The Greatest Painting Ever?

Why paint pictures? Some materials for an answer can be derived from the scenarios presented in preceding essays. It should also be stressed that the culture of painting has never been as distant from contemporary critical practice as it currently stands now. The possibility for some (modern) form of re-engagement with the high forms of art is a fascination or fantasy that continually accompanies the provisional enterprises of an art world which believes it can confront the culture of painting in ways that are conceptually and practically oblique.

It’s a conventional assumption of criticism that what is felt in front of a painting is what is expressed by it, and that this expressive content is somehow traceable to the psychology or soul of an artist. Surely this is because we are culturally and psychologically ‘predisposed’ to idealize an artist as a sort of actor—one who is sincerely moved by the reading of his own lines. The task of criticism then is to distinguish and characterise the mechanisms of production whose effects and meanings we ourselves have caused and produced, for in describing these we do no more than simply reproduce our culture and ourselves as its clients. This is to say that an adequate reading of a work of art will need to be reflexive as well as merely descriptive. The mechanisms of reading will have to be considered as they bear on the language of description. […]

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Stylized photos of Georges Braque back-to-back in grayscale, bluescale, and a darker version of the same image.

Through A Studio, Darkly: On Late Braque

Georges Braque’s late ‘studio’ work was perhaps the greatest of his career—his grande finale. Painting’s essential exploratory function is brought to bear on these eight or so pictures of the master’s workshop, wherein pictorial tradition and pure creative daring achieve a natural and seemingly spontaneous co-existence.

It would seem that Braque began his studio paintings more or less simultaneously, moving from one painting to another and then back again, perhaps within the space of a few moments. As such, the paintings have a very similar character. The compositions are derived from complexly interlocking outlines, or profiles, sometimes transparent, sometimes opaque. There are vestiges of the early cubist work in the overlapping planes but the outline drawing, which marks contours, separate and subdivide the forms in connection with colour. The lines are often white, brown or black. Each object consists solely of one of these outlines filled in with a single plane of colour—or not filled in, leaving the object transparent. There’s very little evidence of natural modelling. Everything consists of interwoven silhouettes. […]

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A few stylized paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

Giorgio de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Strange

It’s the minor greats who tend to reward more casual spectators of art. Attempting to dip a toe into a topic as overwhelmingly protean as Matisse or Picasso could be an open invitation to critical piranhas. But Giorgio de Chirico’s work, on the other hand, is all charm and free fancy. His early paintings from the 1910s were a catalyst for the Paris surrealists. He was a favourite of Sylvia Plath. The list goes on. Simply throw a dart and you’re bound to hit one of his disciples – whether it’s Feuillade or Cocteau or Hitchcock, Bunūel, Dali, Robbe-Grillet, Edward Hopper, John Ashbery or Rene Magritte. Could we really imagine any of them without de Chirico’s empty cities and enigmatic objects?

A Greco-Italian, Giorgio de Chirico worked in a style termed pittura metafisica – technically an offshoot of Italian Cubo-Futurism. Romantic-symbolist in their subject matter, his paintings often have an allegorical, dream-like atmosphere. Images recur of a ghost-town, comprised of looming towers and classical boulevards reminiscent of the sinister mezzanines in David Lynch horror films or the ‘backrooms’ of Tiktokism.

There’s an early work called ‘The Poet Returns’, which is admittedly a personal favourite of mine. For almost five years it’s been the very first thing I can see upon waking and the last as I fall asleep; a disintegrating colour reproduction torn from a primer on Dada to decorate bedroom walls. But this personal affection confirms its (modest) power. No, it’s not the best nor the most iconic de Chirico painting, but it’s a perfectly serviceable example of his style, nonetheless. Hopefully, in describing it, I can say something useful or succinct about Giorgio de Chirico’s aesthetic – a manner that continues to perplex and beguile even today. […]

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A sepia portrait of Agnes Martin next to her canvases.

Forcing Quiet: Notes on the Painting of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin was one of the lesser-known abstract painters of the second New York School. This is largely because she was a woman working in a male-dominated field. It’s also because her paintings didn’t really look like other AbEx paintings so people didn’t know what to make of them. It wasn’t until after the minimalist craze of the sixties that people started really taking her seriously and calling her a pioneer and a feminist icon and such.

Martin’s compositions are invariably rectilinear and orthogonal. She started off with pencilled grids but towards the end of her career (the period I am most interested in) she settled on horizontal and vertical pinstripes. Her colours are muted pales and pastels. The scale—middling. Not large. Not small.

Agnes Martin uses paint in thin, transparent washes with traces of the underdrawing still visible. No bravura or technical virtuosity. Just cool, quiet regularity without being too evidently adroit. The reiteration is mechanical but not mechanically reiterative. There are exquisitely subtle modulations but whether they are unconscious or staged is impossible to say. […]