Thursday, June 11, 2015

Hats Off to Picasso (and Noguchi)

It's easy to mistake the intensions of certain "edgy" artists for obnoxiousness. But keep looking and thinking, and what at first seems like a childish flip-off to aesthetic conventions gradually reveals itself as deeper than that - so deep in some cases as to approach the universal.

To the casual eye much modern and contemporary work looks like a cheap shot - apparently unskilled, unnecessarily cryptic, or smugly inexpressive. But once you wrap your head around the idea at its heart,  it becomes perfectly clear that such works simply dispense with the comforts of traditional representation in search of something more authentic, more pared down: The "shocking" and ungainly modes of expression that arose with 20th century modernism were and continue to be about the search for authenticity.

Some of the best artists of our time are trying to go beyond convention to somewhere prior to the slickness and sophistication of post-Renaissance Western art.

Don't get them wrong - mostly they aren't flouting convention just to be shocking or different - their works are meant to be visceral, profoundly "human," as universal as paleolithic sculpture and cave paintings - full of the rarely encountered, raw, hand-hewn sense of something real, carved from the bedrock of human reality.

Pablo Picasso, Blue Nude, 1902

Pablo Picasso painted "Blue Nude" in 1902 after close friend's suicide, which is pointed to as the psychological motivation for what's known as the painter's "blue period." Mortality literally colored all of Picasso's painting at the time; his blue period paintings view a basic, common humanity through an essentialist lens of deepest emotion expressed through gesture and mood, an emphatic and pointedly bare and unpretentious line, and of course that stony, cool, melancholy and nearly monochrome color. Although these are among his most popular works today, at the time nobody wanted to buy the pictures, and Picasso became as nearly poor as the "street people" he was painting. 

In "Blue Nude," everything is stripped to essentials - the isolated figure, the dispensing with conventions of Western representation such as modeling, realistic color, and figure and ground. This masterpiece has the splendidly rude (in the word's original sense of uncultivated - in Anglo-Saxon, rudus literally meant "broken stone"), elemental character of a universal summary of humanness scratched into a rock wall with a charred stone tool. What could be more "real?"

Isamu Noguchi, Gray Sun, marble, 1967

Speaking of rocks and stone, Japanese American Isamu Noguchi is considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American abstract sculptor of the 20th century.

In "Grey Sun," the large gray marble minimalist work above, Noguchi "made visible the basic forms and forces of nature, using natural materials and fundamental shapes," as critic Miranda McClintic aptly writes. "Noguchi frequently used the circle as a timeless, universal symbol, related to the sun, origin of life, and basis of numerical systems." "Gray Sun" engages sculpture in a very primal, foundational sort of way - this to me looks like something an isolated, primitive tribe might craft in honor of some god or goddess responsible for the cyclical nature of the universe. 

Isamu Noguchi, Mother and Child, onyx, 1944-1947
Human emotion radiates from the smaller yet beautiful "Mother and Child." A mother tenderly presses her child against her forehead, elevating the child to her care-worn gaze; in counterpoint, the simple circle denoting the child's face suggests its blank-slate innocence and openness to existence. This tender object has a simple, yet mysterious elegance, much like the neolithic pre-Greek "Cycladic" figurines or the paleolithic figures of archaeology. It seems at once ancient and modern, abstract and timeless. Both works "read" like haiku - lyrical and subtle meditations on universal humanness.

Moving into the present, engagement with basic humanness lies at the heart of the best contemporary sculpture and painting, for example in the work of Richard Serra and Cecily Brown.

There's a great short summary of Cecily Brown on this blog.Here's most of it: 

"Cecily Brown  (b. 1969, London) holds a place of honour among contemporary artists who work with painting, contributing to its continuous rebirth and experimentation.... Brown is an extremely expressive painter whose work is characterised by an intense chromatic language, mid-way between abstraction and figuration. Dialoguing with the history of painting, the English artist creates tangled compositions where distinctly identifiable and loosely outlined human figures sink and emerge from a chaotic, physical background."

Painting by Cecily Brown
"The distorted naked bodies with their fleeting nature and the overall structures reveal the influence of several artistic experiences, from Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon to Willem de KooningEl Greco or the Impressionists, giving life to a piercing, gestural and layered painting. Brown’s wild, animal-like dimension is both suffering and joyful, there is no space for romanticism, while sexuality and eroticism prevail in most of her works. Sex and death are connected in acts of orgiastic pleasure, carnivals where rude and sharp emotions seem to carry on and enhance the “de Kooningesque” rule of paint as flesh." (de Kooning famously said flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.)

Cecily Brown, The Fugitive Kind
"The Fugitive Kind," the painting above, represents a pretty tame yet brilliantly abstract example, and here's what Saatchi Online has to say about it: "Taking its title from Tennessee Williams’s play, Cecily Brown’s The Fugitive Kind is as seductive as southern gossip. Brown uses the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism to convey not only raw emotion, but a corporeal sense of connection between painting, idea and viewer. Cecily Brown capitalizes on the fleshiness of her medium: paint’s ability to replicate physical sensation: and the dramatic illusion of motion. Within her voluptuous surfaces, epic fantasies spontaneously unfold, as if each brush stroke contains a dark secret: opulent, gritty and tainted with sin."

The title also refers to how oblique the sexual references are - many of her other works riff on pornography explicitly ("radically pornographic images put through an Osterizer of pink and red flesh tones, a transgression that is deliciously, stridently vulgar," one critic enthused)

Cecily Brown, The Quarrel, 2004
More recently, she's dialogued with the grandfathers of English painting, Poussin, Rubens, and other Old Masters. Her best work is summarized by another critic who connects the dots and succinctly hits it spot on: "turbulent brushwork fusing naked flesh with fecund nature."

de Kooning had reunited abstraction with Western figural painting in his "Woman" series of the 1950s. These paintings mirror the human soul's "wild, animal-like dimension," where sex and death (yeah, the Big Themes!) merge and emerge through expressive gestural painting.  

For his part, de Kooning wanted an art that would "comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Why? Because, as he said (in 1950 in a lecture at Studio 35 on Eighth Street in New York City): "Insofar as we understand the universe - if it can be understood - our doings must have some desire for order in them; but from the point of view of the universe, they must be very grotesque." Search your heart - you know it's true!

Cecily Brown, The Girl Who Had Everything, 1988. I know, how rude!

Brown managed to push even further than de Kooning or Bacon into the Heart of Darkness. As a female painter mindful of the uncomfortable truths of Bacon and de Kooning, where do you go? Viewing Brown's work will tell you. In Thomas Hess's words about de Kooning in 1959, "There is no place where you could say, 'this is in between.' . . . Backgrounds and foregrounds still exist, but they are consistently interchangeable. There is a Gordian fugue of ambiguities." It's pretty obvious to me which of the two painters has taken up the theme of the encounter of humanity with the world and composed a more complex, inextricable "Gordian fugue." It's not pretty - but it's real. In fact, it's raw, unflinching, uncomfortably close to the bedrock of human reality.

So, do you have to engage the "grotesque" to be great? Apparently a lot of contemporary painters think so (just do a Google image search for contemporary figurative painting). For relief, let us turn to the massive steel sculptures of Richard Serra. 

Exploiting the three-dimensional nature of the medium, Richard Serra sculpts interactive space. He began as a Minimalist artist during the 1960s who explored unconventional, industrial materials and accentuated the physical properties of their art. Since then he has pushed further than any sculptor in history into the mediation of human beings and lived space; the work is about the engagement between viewer, site, and work

Richard Serra, Sequence, 2006
This is art that engages being directly, from the inside. His sculptures always imply interactive human space, even when, as in the work below, they deny it.

Richard Serra, East-West/West-East (2014)
In his latest work, “East-West/West-East” (2014), he has assembled four steel plates that will oxidize in the salty, wind-blown, sandy air of Qatar and go from gray to orange to brown, until they turn a dark amber. I think Serra is commenting brilliantly on humanity's habitation of the earth. From the killingly arid and empty desert rise massive steel monoliths arranged in a mysterious procession across the void. The raw, closed, Euclidian, slabs appear industrial, obviously and monumentally manmade; they stand, like homo erectus, in vertical opposition to nature's horizontality. At the same time, as they rapidly weather, they seem somehow vulnerable, almost desperate even. To interface with this work is to contemplate the "nature" of human existence in a completely experiential, visceral way. This is epic minimalism and wholly new territory for sculpture. 

Richard Serra, East-West/West-East (2014)
Thankfully, Serra evidently couldn't care less about the political or sociological situation in the Middle East. When asked by a critic writing for the New Yorker, he just said, "You know, I come here and work. That’s what I do." Obviously the work goes to a much deeper, more universal, more mysterious place - the place where great art goes.


  1. As said our professor of modern art: : Art is already dead. Though the idea is born". Contemporary art is not just the visual expression but it's more idea, the attempt to show others your feelings and minds, your view of this world.

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