Category: Art

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A black and white photo of Piet Modrian set against one of his colorful yet lesser-known paintings eschewing parallel lines.

Transcendental Interviews: Piet Mondrian on Higher Beings & Inner Fascists

ETHAN PINCH: Some people find your artistic statements a little bewildering.

PIET MONDRIAN: Such as?

PINCH: Well, in 1943 you wrote: ‘Only now I become conscious that my work [sic] has been merely drawing in oil colour. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression. In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the colour planes; but the limitations of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value’.

MONDRIAN: And what’s the problem with that?

PINCH: Well, you’re using terms that are extremely narrow.

MONDRIAN: Perhaps, but the relationships I’m talking about are concrete. I’m pointing out that an apparently confined set of visual propositions is actually doing something.

PINCH: But it doesn’t seem very helpful in the way you’d expect of a normal artist’s statement. […]

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Three side-by-side self-portraits by Jean Siméon Chardin

On Chardin: Greatness in Mediocrity

There’s hardly enough love and understanding for Chardin. It’s not a look that screams ‘genius’ or ‘radicality’. Such might be held against him—his lack of glamour. His ill-preparedness for survival.

Yet Chardin hasn’t been without his share of admirers. The encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, wrote prolifically on his work. Manet, Braque and Matisse all cite Chardin as a major influence. And Cezanne, in his own typical way, praised him in a letter as an ‘artful devil’.

In life, Chardin was a time-tenured salon academician and businessman, with a permanent residence at the Louvre and a state pension. But he was also, for all his sophistication and studio-training, a functional illiterate who rarely left the city of Paris. There’s little evidence to suggest that he was any kind of intellectual or possessed a coherent aesthetic programme. It would simply appear that he painted what he thought would sell, and what could best showcase his talents. […]

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A stylized image of American Jewish painter Gladys Goldstein working on an art collage.

Feminine Touch: on Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s “Touching the Art”

To be a woman in the modern world is to be an acrobat of social expectations. In contemporary times, gender is such an eager subject that some cultures reveal the biological formations of flesh while the forthcoming infant is still in the womb. Women do have wombs, but a woman is more than her womb. When a woman wills herself to be more than her womb, she runs directly into her culture’s social expectations. For those who were born women, these social expectations are inculcated from the first gulp of air when they are gendered. The processes by which little girls are educated in their gender roles extends beyond dolls versus cars. Recent conversations about readily recalled moments of their girlhood from adult women include an attention to their hair not given to brothers (the pincurl for Christmas), required domestic tasks (Mom and I cleaned, the boys went outside), the presence of dresses and other diminutive replications of gender-specific adult costuming. This is so entrenched in our social expectations that we are surprised at any scrutiny of them.

When a woman wants to be more than a womb, she will bump up against these social expectations, these invisible Rules. Some of the interaction with the Rules will be external—her healthcare institutions, educational institutions, and geography will do much to influence how she moves about in the physical world. Her rights as a sentient being, as a citizen, will include these external interactions. If a woman thinks she can be someplace, it is because she was educated to do so, she was permitted to do so, or she fought to do so. Contemporary culture has stories galore of the first woman to do something, and how now many women can and how girls can aspire. […]

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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. […]