Saturday, October 16, 2010

Radical Invention

The Matisse Show at MOMA is subtitled “Radical Invention” and deals with the period after the painter’s return from Morocco to Paris in 1913 and before his leaving Paris for Nice in 1917. But one of the most significant paintings in the show, Still Life After Jan Davidsz de Heem’s "La Desserte," is based, as the title suggests, on a previous painting, which dates from 1640 and was rediscovered in 1893. Matisse had studied with Moreau, who encouraged him to copy the old masters. The proto-Cubist piece exhibits the confidence and originality that would be epitomized in Bathers by the River (l909-17), The Moroccans (1916) and The Piano Lesson (1916), where a shadow on the painter’s son’s face is represented by a triangle of darkness, shows the artist’s debt to the past. Two floors up, MOMA pays homage to the very movement the museum played such an important role in encouraging, in a show that seems to hearken back to Claudi Levi Strauss’s famous dichotomy between bricoleurs and ingénieurs (or inventors), highlighting the notion that the New York school really was the home of a radical break with Europe and the past. New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg pressed this point with his famous distinction between Coonskins and Redcoats, as he referred to American modernists and their European counterparts. But can one imagine Franz Kline without Velasquez? Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and de Kooning all have their separate rooms or walls. William Rubin refers to Arshile Gorky as “The Godfather” of the movement, and de Kooning is quoted as saying “flesh is the reason why paint was invented” on a wall plaque next to his angry rather than enigmatic Mona Lisa, Woman 1 (1950-2). The abstractionist photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are represented, as are the lesser known Grace Hartigan (Shinnecock Canal) and Joan Mitchell (Ladybug), along with Nevelson, Frankenthaler, Gottlieb (with his famous exploding red balls), Clyfford Still and Sam Francis. But let’s take two early Pollocks, The Flame (1934-8) and the Mask (1941), which have the mythic quality of a Picasso or even a Georgia O’Keefe. There’s something comfortable about a long-term relationship with its routines and its rituals, and in this case the subject is the artist’s relationship with his work. By the time Pollock paints Gothic (1944), the image is already being lost, and by 1946, in Shimmering Substance, the drip style has come into being. Large canvases like One: November 31, 1950 and the famed Autumn Rhythm, which hangs in the permanent collection of the Met, are the embodiment of the classic action painting depicted in Hans Namuth’s famous film of the artist at work. What is dramatic, however, is not the break with the past, but the constant nostalgia that even pulls at an artist as revolutionary as Pollock. In Echo: November 15, 1951, Pollock is already returning to the image. Images are the way that memory is conveyed. The picture of Pollock on the cover of Life, like the picture of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, may have augured the artistic version of the idea put forth forty years later in Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man, i.e., that the past is coming to an end. But the revolutionary innuendo is misleading. If there is one thing that the current show at MOMA demonstrates, it’s the fact that art is fundamentally more conservative than science, carrying as it does the burden of history. Abstract Expressionism was ultimately not as revolutionary an event as nuclear fusion. The past is evidenced in every brushstroke of the works on display in MOMA’s comprehensive homage.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.