Sunday, October 28, 2012


As I have often said and sometimes written, the history of art extends from Anonymous to Untitled, from when only the work mattered to where only the name in the signature does.

What reminds me of this is a reproduction in the New York Times (10/16/12) of an untitled painting by Franz Kline, which, at the forthcoming auction, “is expected to bring $20 million to $30 million” and make me sick to my stomach. I recall a time, long ago, when Kline yelled at me at a party, “You are full of shit!”, and I replied, “Maybe, but at least I don’t smear it on canvas and peddle it as art.”

Art today is the result of a tacit conspiracy among artists, art historians, art critics, art dealers, nabobs who don’t know what to do with their money, and all the people who don’t know anything about art. And why shouldn’t it fetch that much when the article about the Kline painting notes that one by Clyfford Still, resonantly entitled “1949-A-No. 1” went for $61.7 million? Even Clyfford with a Y should raise a cautionary eyebrow.

I have always had my problems with abstract, or nonrepresentational, art, though realizing that when Tom Wolfe published The Painted Word he was, and still is, reviled as a philistine. The Still painting, not to be confused with a still life, is described as “a canvas of thick, jagged brushstrokes in deep reds and black,” perhaps indicating that nonsense in two colors is worth twice as much as another, like the Kline, in just one.

It ought to be evident that when painting was solely representational, even if skewed by an eccentric point of view or offering a dream vision of fantasy beings, or indulging in grotesque caricature, it still had some bearing on reality.

But the moment that art becomes pure abstraction—the honorific by which daubs, drippings, squiggles, gallimaufries are tendentiously labeled—what standards can apply? Preponderant difference, i.e., novelty. So it is that with the arrival of new mediums such as excrement and urine joining the more conventional (not to say outmoded) ones of oil, watercolor, tempera, charcoal and such, my retort to Franz Kline would have lost its sting.

Yet there is something unsettling about “new” becoming a synonym for “good,” and “different” tantamount to “worthy.” Of course, differences differ in degree of what, for lack of a better word, may be termed legitimacy. A Pontuormo differs from a Titian, a Cezanne differs from a Goya, and a Rothko differs from a Kline—though in that particular case I wouldn’t give two cents for either. Still, a cunning art critic could read something out of or into a Rothko that even he or she couldn’t honorably out of a Kline.

The problem for most arts is that so very much has already been done in them, propelling more recent practitioners into horrible distortions, obscure byways, or downright dead ends. This is true also in music, otherwise we would have been spared Stockhausen, Cage, Glass and their likes. This despite the fact that major talents can still find their own valid ways without lapsing into cacophony. I suspect that Thomas Adรจs can do it, though I haven’t heard enough of his work.

But back to the fine arts. Architecture, arguably one of them, still leaves room for justifiable novelty. In painting, however, the road is all but closed also by extensive, easily available reproductions by photography and widely diffused magazines and books with decent illustrations. The time when the only way to experience a painting was to seek it out for yourself in person is long gone. And once seen in good reproduction it remains, if worthy, duly remembered.

Then what about literature, which still has abundant openings left? Memory has much to do with it. Unlike a painting or statue, a work of literature, other than some poems, does not stay in clear recollection. A novel we read in college, say, will stick in general outline, but not in the details of style, hence seeming novelty can thrive. The devil in the details replicated escapes detection.

And then there is the matter of what words, uniquely, can do. They can be resurrected, recombined and reinterpreted in new ways more readily than your paintings. Thus even a book read some years ago will strike us in many ways different in the rereading. And a current novel, unless a manifest imitation, even more so. Whereas any clear echo of a Schiele landscape or a Modigliani nude will be readily recognized as old hat.

So where does this leave us in the fine arts? In a pretty pickle for the most part. But still (not Still), the best will be able to affect us as new. Even the abstractions may find ways in which some shapes and shades, some juxtapositions or eliminations may significantly impress us. The only monkey wrench is that, whereas almost everyone will agree that a Botticelli woman is beautiful, even a near-consensus about a Picasso is unreachable, unless there is large-scale dishonesty or self-delusion. Which, unfortunately, there is.

One thing, though, I am fairly sure of. Be very wary of anything called “Untitled” or “1949-A-No. 1.” Unless you can sustain a lifelong lie to yourself and others, it bodes no good.


  1. Willem de Kooning's EXCAVATION thrills me like few other paintings. Don't feel I'm victimized by a tacit conspiracy or suckered by the shock of the new but that the immediate experience of viewing it is just as powerful, in a very different way, as reading the the end of THE SOUND AND THE FURY or listening to Schoenberg's STRING QUARTET NO. 4. I don't find the abstract any less human than the concrete. I don't spend any time seeking to understand my reaction to any work of art. Nor do I place any special value on "beauty" - but then I'm not a critic.

  2. I really enjoyed the "bite" of this post, but I still believe that there is beauty to be found in abstraction. It is hard to explain exactly why Robert Motherwell's work always sings out to me as real art, while so many pieces of work by his contemporaries do not. It is hard to explain why I always recognize (and enjoy) Henry Moore's work, even when seeing it from afar for the first time.

    Consider yourself luck to still have hope for architecture. I have "experienced" some truly rotten architecture that some people consider art. Antoine Predock is one architect that I feel is given far too much credit for his "vision," when many of his buildings are impressive (read "ugly"), expensive, and impractical.

    There is an impressive amount of new music that I prefer to your above list of "usual suspects." It's just that most of the composers are in the "never heard of him (or her) category." New music composers tend to use the abstractions pioneered and exploited by 20th-century composers as part of their "toolbox."

    @ Joe Carlson: I don't find Schoenberg's 4th Quartet abstract at all. It is brilliant, bold, unusual, and challenging, but everything about the piece is carefully organized. Sure, there's no tune, but there are motives, and there is, of course, the row.

  3. I think that Nicholas de Stael, Hans Hofffmann, and Howard Hodgkin are abstract painters who convey genuine beauty and sensuality. Hodgkin apparently uses Indian miniature paintings for sources. Thank you John for the insightful comments. Tom Parker, Washington DC

  4. Be very wary of anything called “Untitled” or “1949-A-No. 1.”

    Some of these new-fangled titles seem suited more for labels on cans of housepaint at a hardware store.

  5. Mr. Simon wrote:

    "It ought to be evident that when painting was solely representational, even if skewed by an eccentric point of view or offering a dream vision of fantasy beings, or indulging in grotesque caricature, it still had some bearing on reality.

    "But the moment that art becomes pure abstraction—the honorific by which daubs, drippings, squiggles, gallimaufries are tendentiously labeled—what standards can apply?"

    Interestingly, Islamic art is supposed to strictly avoid all representation of living things which, out in the desert, doesn't leave much else to work with (I can imagine a modern Western abstract artist creating a painting he calls Sand, depicting -- and probably painted with -- nothing but sand).

    However, Islamic art is also very regimental, resulting in a visually dizzying repetition of shapes and colors, which can have a hypnotic (if not hypnogogic) effect, eerily similar to the geometric patterns of "fractals" discovered by physicists. Islamic art is essentially just Design, often on a grandiosely complex scale, as when it adorns the walls, floors and patios of mosques, or in Persian carpets, or Indonesian batik art. As far as I know, you never see any "experimental" Islamic art where this geometrically complex gridwork aspect varies or lurches off into uncharted territory. Aside from being Design, it also has in its regimentation an aura of military array -- literally a martial art.


    Above link goes to an interview of Mr. Simon by Mike Wallace, from 1978!

  7. Occidentals are too much in their head - move the consciousness downwards - but don’t bang your head on the floor :)