Archive for February, 2010

Blackpaint 68

February 14, 2010

Arshile Gorky

So, after reviewing the (Sewell) review, I’ve now seen the show.  There are 12 rooms, so I’ll take them one by one.  Room 1, I made no notes, but remember an imitation of a Cezanne still life. 

Room 2 showed how AG had “abstracted” a Picasso-like portrait of “Woman with a Palette” several times over the years. 

Room 3 displayes some fine drawings, obviously influenced by Picasso. 

Room 4 continues this with a number of paintings which are Picasso imitations, using a lot of white. 

In room 5, still unoriginal, I have made the following notes: “awful colours; fluffy whites; putty effect of painted background.  Drawings, however, are delicate and subtle.”

In room 6, the influence of Miro is very apparent – although the first painting recognisable as a Gorky appears, dated 1943, with the characteristic leaf/butterfly/biomorph shapes, circled and linked by the thin black lines.

Then, oddly,  Room 7 takes you back in time; portraits of AG with mother, and sister and friends.  The portrait of AG with his mother has been reproduced in all the reviews of the show, I think – and I don’t understand the interest.  They would have been of huge significance to Gorky himself, of course, and should be in the show – but why here, half way round?

Room 8, smallish drawings, from a distance look like people grouped on ice or by a lake, with pastel “washes” of colour.

Room 9, and “Waterfall”, and at last the famous Gorky.  There are several waterfalls, in fact, one of them named; the notes I have made are; “thin paint, sometimes running.  Pirate 1 resembles a Graham Sutherland!”

Room 10, Landscape.  I’ve noted two; “From a high place – looks like a picnic!” and “Apple Orchard”, with an orange background that is a blend of yellow, reds and greens close up.  The thin black lines are much in evidence and the shapes are reminiscent of Matta, Masson maybe – some of them also remind me of the late de Koonings, the same deadness and emptiness, but only sometimes.

Room 11, “Betrothals”, the bad luck room – the fire and the cancer.  What I noted was that there are three versions of “Betrothal” and in each, the figures are identical (although the colours are different).  This seems to be his way of working; compose in a sketch and develop by trying out different colours.  So again, a painter whose work can appear spontaneous and who is associated with a movement which prizes and promotes spontaneity, turns out to work in a formal, considered and wholly traditional way.

The final room is called “the Limit”, the title of one of the paintings.  The other bad luck room; the car crash and the suicide.  Again, there are four studies of a work called “Agony”, although this time the final version contains some changes.  One, the Black Monk(?), called Last Painting – the equivalent of Van Gogh’s crows over the cornfield, maybe; the “suicide” painting.

So, some beautiful works and a lot of mediocre ones.  It strikes me that his importance was perhaps more as an influence on de Kooning, Pollock and the others, rather than as a painter himself.  His thin paint surfaces are never as rich and interesting as de K, Pollock or Joan Mitchell; sometimes you get “dead areas”.  He brings to mind Matta and sometimes Kandinsky, with his little entities fluttering around.  But I think the historical significance justifies the exhibition.

Was Sewell right?  Yes, about the drawing – it is very skilful and does sometimes resemble etching.  Yes, about the Picasso and Miro imitation.  And yes, about his significance to the Ab Exes (although they acknowledged that themselves).  I think he is wrong in his assertion that Gorky was ignorantly copying others  and did not know what he was doing – he may not be a de Kooning or a Pollock but he has an instantly recognisable style, from 1943 onwards.  And for a painter who “abdicates formal responsibility”, he spends a lot of time doing drafts and sketches of his major works before producing the final version.  I felt a little cheated by this, as by Kline and Hartung before – I like my AbExes to give birth in a trance-like creative frenzy, improvising and composing as they go; I don’t want them doing formal sketches first!



Blackpaint 67

February 13, 2010

Sewell on Gorky

As promised,  Brian Sewell’s review of Tate Modern show, in Thursday’s Evening Standard: writing of de Kooning and Pollock, he says they “served to bolster Gorky’s reputation as the stud who sired their rough and ready kind of gestural Abstract Expressionism.  We should blame him for the scribbles of Cy Twombly too”.  De Kooning and Pollock acknowledged Gorky as a prime influence or inspiration – why Twombly, though? 

“Rough and ready” as a description of Pollock is only partly fair – “Full fathom five” incorporated fag ends and keys, which I suppose is pretty rough and ready; but “Cathedral” and “Lavender Mist” are delicate, intricate, many-layered… As for de Kooning – well, the surfaces are often rough, paint runs down, it’s scored and scratched, the paint blears from one colour into another, the brush dries in mid-streak, so yes, rough and ready.  But the effect of this is a matter of taste; I find his surfaces a source of immediate pleasure; deep, rich colours, movement, texture – how do you explain why you think they are good to someone with different eyes?  

It strikes me that Sewell despises the whole “project” of Abstract Expressionism and is suspicious of spontaneity in the creative process altogether.  he describes how Gorky, in his later works, “the images scribbled, doodled, smudged and the colour scrubbed onto the canvas….was released from all formal responsibilities.”  Looking approvingly at Gorky’s drawings, he describes how Gorky’s “drawn line…lends order to the chaos of surreal forms, often Dali-like, in a fantasy of hubbub and disorder.” 

From these observations, one can see that Sewell’s aversion is to “hubbub and disorder”, and to release from “formal responsibility”.  He approves of Gorky to the extent that he shows technical skill at drawing.  All the other stuff is pretty much rubbish.  Clement Greenberg, who promoted him, was “jabberwocky-driven” (presumably harried by a phantom of his own mind) in describing him as “a painter of more than national importance”; this, Sewell says, “is to assume that he knew what he was doing.  He did not.”

Given Sewell’s stance, it is difficult to see how he would approve of, or derive pleasure from any Abstract Expressionist “works” or those works associated with the movement.  That’s fair enough as a position, of course; but it’s not a useful review if you like this sort of stuff.

By way of contrast, Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph says the later paintings summon “a sense of spontaneity and freedom that is nothing short of ravishing.”  There’s nothing for it – I’ll have to go myself. 


In Sewell’s review the adjective “desuetudinous” appeared – not a commonly employed word.  Then it popped up again, this time used by Pat Kane on BBC2’s Review Show.  I’m glad I know what it means.

Regarding Blackpaint 64 and 65, should have mentioned that there is a film of “the Horse’s Mouth”, with Alec Guinness as Gulley Jimson.

Listening to “I ain’t superstitious” by Howling Wolf;

“You know I ain’t superstitious, but a black cat just crossed my trail (*2)

Don’t sweep me with no broom; I just might get put in jail.”



Blackpaint 66

February 13, 2010

Art and Pain

Very short tonight.  Couldn’t sleep last night – Achilles tendon problem, like someone stabbing me in the back of the ankle every 90 seconds, tends to wake you up.  About 3.30am, sent me downstairs and half unconscious, started to paint – and the pain stopped immediately.  Painted black and chromium yellow, Prussian blue, white and grey, chucking great gouts of the colours on and squirling them about, then scratching and scoring with the edge of a card, scooping off excess paint like butter and splatching it down and scraping it in some other place.

After maybe 2 hours of this, the canvas was covered and I crawled upstairs again – and the stabbing in my left ankle started again.  or maybe fire, or electric shock – jerks my leg around.

So, no sleep; to life drawing and torture when not actually scrawling with charcoal (or white chalk on black paper, like today.  so the physical process of painting or drawing actually stops the pain; pity it doesn’t guarantee the results are any good. 

Sewell in the Standard

Brian Sewell reviewed the Gorky in the Standard yesterday – clear that he’s not keen on Pollock or de Kooning (looke to Gorky as a mentor) – he describes them as “rough and ready”.  More comment tomorrow, if the burning stops.

Listened to BBC4, the Old Grey Whistle Test, 1977, Ry Cooder with Flaco Jimenez on accordian, Bobby and Eldridge King and Terry Evans on “backing vocals” – just the best live non – classical music I’ve heard for…..

“If you aint got the do re mi friend, if you aint got the do re mi,

You better go back to beautiful Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee-

California’s a Garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see,

But believe it or not, you won’t find it so hot,

If you aint got the do re mi”.  (Woody Guthrie – of course).


Saturday night (late)

Blackpaint 65

February 11, 2010

Art in Fiction

First in an occasional series, has to be “The Horse’s Mouth” by Joyce Cary.  Published in 1944, it is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read – not because the events are so outlandish or surreal, but because of the dialogue and the characters.  They speak a strange mixture of slang and poetry but to my ears, like nothing I’ve come across, except maybe a little like cinema cockney of the period.  Perhaps its because Cary was an Irishman and as an outsider in South London heard things that natives would miss.  I found it sort of lumpy and difficult to read, but now remember more of it than many other novels I have read.

Briefly, its hero is Gulley Jimson (odd name for a start), who is an elderly, unscrupulous, poverty-stricken, “ex-jailbait” reprobate of a painter, who also happens to be a brilliant, uncompromising, visionary artist.  The descriptions he gives of his work – bearing in mind that he is an unreliable narrator – sound rather like Stanley Spencer.  here’s the poening paragraph, as a taste:  “I was walking by the Thames.  Half-past morning on an autumn day.  Sun in a mist.  Like an orange in a fried fish shop.  All bright below.  low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken-boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud.  Like a viper swimming in skim milk.  The old serpent, symbol of nature and love.”

Jimson lies, drinks, chisels and blags his way through life, remaining true only to his art.  The book ends very darkly indeed and it is difficult to pinpoint its tone.  the blurb on the back of the Penguin – Ivor Brown in the Observer – describes it as a “lively parade of gross and roaring Bohemian humours …… a nailer and a knockout”.

Listening to The Sun is Shining by Elmore James:

“The sun is shining, but you know its raining in my heart (*2)

You know I love you darlin’, but the best of friends must part”. 



Blackpaint 64

February 10, 2010

Films about Art

I’ve not been to any galleries or read any arty stuff today, so I thought I’d go through my top ten arty films.  Here goes:

Love is the Devil, by John Maybury  about Francis Bacon.  Derek Jacobi as Bacon,   Daniel Craig as George Dyer, everyone in it brilliant, Miss Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, Farson, Deakin, the Colony.

Andrei Rublev, by Tarkovsky.  I’ve written about this at length in Blackpaint 43.  incomprehensible without a plot summary from Wikipedia, but staggering images and haunting theme (cliche, but it is).

La Belle Noiseuse, by Jacques Rivette.  lots of tiresome French angst, but Michel Piccoli always good and Emmanuelle Beart excellent as the woman who poses nude for him to complete his long-unfinished masterpiece.  They don’t take a fornication break, which was a surprise to me, the film being French.  This was a disappointment, but there is an attraction in the long drawing and painting sequences, in which the hands shown are those of Bernard Dufour, a well-known French artist.  Best art on film in fiction (I hadn’t forgotten the Pollock film by Namuth and the one on Matisse).

The Rebel, by Robert Day. Starring Tony Hancock, of course, inspired piss- take, including the unforgettably stupendous “Aphrodite at the Water Hole”.  See it at once.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, by Paul Tickell.  This version of a BS Johnson novel never got released because it had terrorist scenes and happened to coincide with 9/11.  Great visuals and soundtrack and cut aways to artists in Renaissance period (for some reason I forget – but glorious visuals).  Gratuitous sex and violence, fortunately.

Pollock, by Ed Harris and starring same.  Drunken, brawling, sensitive,  bombastic, promiscuous, selfish – all the things that an Abstract Expressionist  should be proficient at – he also pisses in Betty Guggenheim’s fireplace.  Some stuff about painting too.

Lust for Life, by Vincente Minelli.  Much derided, but I like it – you have too make allowances for the 50s cliches.  The paintings are quite good (well, staggering, of course).  And Kirk Douglas does look like him, doesn’t he? 

Frida, by Julie Taymor.  Selma Hayek as Kahlo,  Albert Molina as Diego, great story, great paintings (no,. let’s be honest, I hate them – but the film is a good biopic).

A Bucket of Blood, by Roger Corman.  A talentless waiter who wants to be a sculptor starts murdering people and smothering their bodies in wax or clay,  or something.  He’s immediately successful of course, but one day, at his exhibition, it’s rather warm…   Asks serious questions about the creative experience and what constitutes a work of art.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Peter Webber.  Don’t really like this film- bit worthy I thought, too much hype.  I remember some stuff about mixing colours…  Has to go in though, because I only had nine without it.

Listening to Parchment Farm by Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, live at the Flamingo:

“I’m puttin’ that cotton in a ‘leven foot sack (*2)

Well I’m puttin that cotton in a ‘leven foot sack, with a 12 guage shotgun at my back…”

Tomorrow, arty books (fiction).



Blackpaint 63

February 9, 2010

Roni Horn

I was thinking that what the Van Doesburg exhibition lacked, apart from green, was a serene, white, minimalist show across the way that you could rest your eyes in, after all those loud primary colours.  When the Constructivist show was on a while ago, Rodchenko and  Popova and all those triangles, there was the Roni Horn performing that function – as well as provoking thought, visual pleasure, etc., of course!  That Icelandic girl’s face, repeated over and over (I know with slight changes, but the repetition is what stayed with me), the water surfaces and the small drawings on white walls just what was needed.  And vice versa, I suppose, if you did the Horn first.

Reading that paragraph over, I am rather ashamed of it – it reads like Alan Bennett without the humour: “it’s always nice to see some lovely white walls and attractive faces after all that loud colour”.  But there is some truth in it.   If you Google images for,say, Gillian Ayres or even more, Asger Jorn or Appel, you find that they are too much en masse; too much colour, too busy – they give you indigestion of the eyes. One at a time, though –  fantastic.

Actually, looking round the room, I’m getting the same from my stuff – too many colours and shapes, too promiscuous.  I need to do some cool, clean blacks, whites, browns, greys, something classy that I can put in a steel frame.  Bit of the old rain-soaked, cold, misty British restraint needed.

Listening to Special Agent by Sleepy John Estes;

“Special agent, special agent, put me off close to some town (*2)

I got to do some recordin’, and I ought to be recordin’ right now”.



Blackpaint 62

February 8, 2010

Little shop near the Tate Modern

Don’t know what it’s called – its opposite that huge brown, metallic thing that looks like the spaceship in “Alien”.  they sell old catalogues from Christies etc. for £1 and £2 and I got some beautiful repros dead cheap in this way.  Amongst them were pictures of the following works, which you should Google and wonder at:

Karel Appel, Les Enfants 1951; Euan Uglow, Jane, Clapham Common 1951; Peter Kinley, Studio Interior No 115 1959, Sandra Blow, Composition 1958 (oil, sand and grit on board!), Peter Lanyon, Gusting 1961 and Fly Away 1961; Asger Jorn, Lac dans la petite foret and Black Lac Blues (no dates given).  There is also a Franz Kline in black, red and a sharp emerald green, entitled – Untitled.

This last illustrates the annoying thing about artists who call things “Untitled” or “Composition II, no.143”.  It may preserve their integrity, avoiding, as it does, the implication that a painting must look like something or have reference to some place or particular time – but its really hard to differentiate them, if you’ve done 200 “Untitled”s.

Anyway, I hope there are images on the net, or you’ll just have to enjoy the evocative names.


Having real trouble with latest figurative stuff – trying to combine “fractured surface” experiments with figures.  It’s funny, I thought it would be easy to “combine” abstract and figurative (a contradiction, of course, but what the hell), but its not.  “One or the other; you can’t have both”, they seem to be saying to me.  Better have another whiskey and see what they say then.

Listening to “I’ll be seeing you” by Frank Sinatra and the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, Sept. 1942

“I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places…”



Blackpaint 61

February 7, 2010


Reading about the above after the Van Doesburg et al exhibition yesterday, I find that, for a period around 1929, he was cutting his black dividing lines off just before they reached the edge – so as not to foster the notion of their continuance into the Beyond (i.e. beyond the canvas).  Unfortunately, the illustration in the Taschen “Abstract Art”, of Mondrian’s “Composition No II.  Composition with Blue and Red”, must be badly cropped since the black lines definitely do reach the edges.  You would have thought they’d check – still the repros are beautiful for about seven quid.


I may have given the impression by my ceaseless and tiresome habit of irony that I disapprove of the sort of fanatical zeal shown by Mondrian in support of the four-square against the diagonal tilt.  This is not the case; art movements should be fanatical.  They should produce fierce manifestos, making grandiose and sweeping statements; they should have rows and splits, refuse to speak for years, occasionally, perhaps, visit violence upon one another.  They should be prepared to provoke  fury, ridicule and incomprehension.  That’s what moves art forward and that’s what provides the bedrock range of work that predatory individuals can sieze on and “adapt” (cannibalize) for their own ends – unlike myself, of course.

Last word on Mondrian and Van Doesburg – it should have been the absence of green, not the ubiquity of white, that I looked for yesterday.  Mondrian famously avoided using it because it wasn’t a primary colour – but, apart from the very earliest paintings, VD’s “Cow”, and the little collages of Rinsema and, I think, Schwitters – and the stained glass – not a lot of green about.

Listening to “Hey Hey”, by Big Bill Broonzy

“Hey hey, lost your good man now (*2)

You had me fooled but I found it out somehow”.

Rudimentary words, but the most driving guitar accompaniment in the history of recording (apart, maybe, from some Reinhardt).

Blackpaint 60

February 6, 2010

Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde

Got to this this afternoon at the Tate Modern.  It’s massive; 11 rooms, some subdivided into three sections – took about an hour to go round.  some highlights to look out for as follows: in room 2, little pictures by Marthe Donas, particularly “Child with Boat”. 

In room 3, what I call the “blip” paintings by Bart van der Leck – look like genetic coding to me – and VD’s cow; I thought it was a house at first.  Also Georges Vantongerloo, great squares, great name. 

Room 6 is the Dada/ Bonset room – definition on wall by VD: “Outlook on life opposed to anything we imagine to be of vital importance”.   A few beautiful, Picabia -like fantasy machines in singing blue and rhubarb colours by Jean Crotti; also in this room, some tiny, lovely collages in yellow and red by Thijs Rinsema.

In room 7a, the perfect  model “Kiosk” by the Hungarian artist  Lajos Kassak.  In 8, two lovely red based squares by Peter Keler called De Stijl Flat Compositions, I think, and a sharply defined yellow diamond shape by Karl Peter Rohl.

Then there’s room 9, architecture, with Rietveld’s great Schroder House – love to live in that – and the Sophie Tauber-Arp squares.  The last couple of rooms have several of VD’s diagonals as well as Mondrian’s squares – as if glaring at each other, shouting “Square!” “No, diagonal!” like Big Enders and Little Enders in Gulliver.

I got an idea that only VD did a squares painting with no white, looking at Counter Composition X (grey, red, dim glowing yellow), so went back through – there were actually only about four “squares” paintings with no white.  then of course, I discovered that one of Mondrian’s most famous paintings has no white, so another theory blown.

All in all, a brilliant exhibition; just, after an hour – too many squares and triangles!  wanted a nice, big, splatty, drippy CoBrA or Joan Mitchell or de Kooning to mess it up a little.

Listening to Dallas, by Johnny Winter –

“You know that I ain’t evil,

I’m  just having fun,

So much shit in Texas, Lord, bound to step in some –

Goin’ back to Dallas, take my razor and my gun;

Anybody lookin’ for trouble, oo-hoo,

Sure gonna give ’em some”.

I think he would be a diagonals man.



Blackpaint 59

February 5, 2010

Penguin New Classics

Can’t write much today, no time, so here’s some of the book covers from the 60s and 70s I was on about yesterday.  Please excuse the crap camera work.

And here’s what I’ve been doing with the edge of a bit of card

Listening to Leroy Carr, Hurry Down Sunshine.

“My home ain’t here, it’s way out in the west (*2)

Way out in the Smokey Mountains,

Where the eagle builds its nest”.

More good stuff tomorrow


Friday night