Thursday, August 17, 2017

Helen Frankenthaler. After Abstract Expressionism @ Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1959-60
I wonder how differently history would look upon Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings if they had been made by a man. Every piece in this extraordinary body of work from a leading American postwar artist is luscious and brilliant. But they are also a relatively little-known, relative that is to the oeuvres of Rothko, Pollock, DeKoonig, Kline, her husband Robert Motherwell, and all the other men whose paintings define the history of modern American art. My guess is that if Frankenthaler had been a man, her paintings would have been revered to the same, if not greater degree as those of her male counterparts. In many ways, her work is more intellectually interesting, more lyrical and sensuous than that of any of the men in her world.
Helen Frankenthaler, First Creatures, 1959
In his catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s landmark exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1960, Frank O’Hara, then curator at MoMA, wrote that her painting was filled with courage. Even in this small exhibition at Gagosian, it is possible to walk around and see the risks that she took. Something in the paintings looks like the visualization of an artist following her instinct at a time when formalism was on its way in and expressionism on its way out. That has to take courage. Like the other Abstract Expressionists (and the visual resemblance to De Koonig’s work is clear here) she painted from her instinct and intuition, in the search for a place to find freedom. The instantaneity is so present in these paintings that we witness her come alive on the canvas. Thus, the movement of her brush or fingers around the canvas is visible in the colour fields, and lines that occupy surprisingly busy canvases.
Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian
However, the paintings are also highly calculated. I was intrigued to see that the pools of colour on a number of the paintings began and ended very precisely, with no two colours touching each other. This precision is not the work of someone who is working solely through improvization and chance. The colours touch, and are always in conversation, but without overlapping, or drowning each other out. This has to reflect the control of a painter who uses enormous judgment in the architecture and organization of the painted canvas. Also, in keeping with this marriage of intuition and intellectual precision, I saw the works as somehow following the rhythms and patterns of dance. Not only because of the visibility of the body in motion, but because of the abstraction, the lines floating and cutting across empty swathes of canvas to suggest a body or a bird in flight. These trajectories are not mapped out by emotion or instinct, but again, are very consciously designed.

Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian,
Italian Beach, 1960 on RHS
The film in the upstairs gallery is enlightening and should not be missed. There are conversations around a table with the who’s who of the New York art world—including Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler’s boyfriend at the time. Then the film moves to show her at work. Alone in her studio, or together with an assistant, we see her manipulating colour—often the same colour—to extract its multiple effects. The same colour can be dense and opaque, filled with light and iridescent, shadowy or confident. I want to say that she pulls these often conflicting characteristics out of each colour. Then we see her using different tools: fingers, sponges, spatulas, brushes, and squeegees of various kinds. We also see her working over a canvas from above, in Pollock style, but thinking and controlling in a way that Pollock’s process did not allow him to do. As one critic acknowledges, Frankenthaler’s work is great because she does the impossible: she takes Pollock’s style and process, and does something different. I would say that what results from her process enables the paintings to sit between pouring and smearing, between random and carefully measured reflections on paint and its expression of our relationship to the world.

Helen Frankenthaler, The Red Sea, 1959
Some of my favorites were the landscapes, reminding me of Clyfford Still's representations of the desert. But unlike Still’s paintings, the colours move from vivid primary colours to more muted tones, from the beaches to untitled landscapes. And reminiscent of some of Twombly’s greatest work, there is often as much unpainted canvas as there is colour. Again, like Twombly, every single area without paint is filled with something, whether it is the drip of colour escaping the instrument of application as it was carried across the canvas, or a consciously unfinished moment, there is no place on Frankenthaler’s canvases where nothing happens.


Images courtesy Gagosian

Monday, July 31, 2017

David Hockney @ Centre Pompidou

David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986

I have never been a big fan of David Hockney’s art. I first encountered his work in London in the 1980s, when as a young Australian on my five year world odyssey ,I saw everything and anything. In among my discovery of great masters and awe-inspiring museums, I was excited by Hockney's photo-montages. I enjoyed them because of what they did and said about photography; but even then, I wondered what he was doing that Picasso and the Analytical Cubists hadn’t already done. While I recognized this kind of fragmentation of the image as breaking apart the world that made all things less certain and less predictable, I wasn’t convinced there was much behind Hockney’s photo-montages. At the time, no one else was doing this kind of thing with photography, but in my eyes, Hockney's efforts weren't ever substantial enough to make the work radical.
David Hockney, We Two Boys Together (clinging), 1961
Then over the years, I have seen the odd Hockney exhibition, but his work has never interested me again to the degree that the photo-montage works did. And I would hazard a guess that this is because he’s not a great painter, and he’s not a great intellectual. His work is interesting for its exploration of space, multiple perspectives, its challenges to the two-dimensionality of the image, and with this, its eventual unsettling of the viewer as the central concern of the late works. However, to me, all of these concerns are being explored at the level of the conceptual —rather than through a manipulation of the medium of paint. And I can’t help feeling as though once you have seen one, you've got the point, and don't need to keep looking.

Image result for david hockney the four seasons
David Hockney, Summer. The Four Seasons,  2010
That said, I did appreciate the early works on display at the Pompidou Centre’s retrospective, particularly, the drawings and those that reference the Dubuffet style. I was interested by the marriage of Hockney's search for sexuality, and simultaneously, in the same images, the search for representational principles. In the early works, we see him looking for meaning, gradually starting to interrogate the parameters of the image as he will do over the course of his career. We also see the recurrent frame of blank canvas around the painted image, the frequent swathes without paint in the centre of the canvas, and the search for eroticism and desire at the end of the paint brush or stylus.
David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972
I enjoyed the late works for their baroque aesthetic—lurid blues, greens, oranges and purples; perspectives in which the influence of virtual reality is clearly inspiring Hockney, and consequently, pushing the possibilities of two dimensional representation. Of course, I have to admit that these works are all about paint because it couldn’t be done in any other two dimensional medium, but it is not about the gentle pushing and pulling of paint around a canvas. I enjoyed Hockney's venture into film–which I previously didn’t know he had done—in The Four Seasons, for the feeling of queeziness as I stood before the installation. I felt as though I was indeed travelling the path together with the camera that is being carved out in the snow, in between the trees and covered in leaves in autumn and spring, and dappled in sunlight in summer.
David Hockney, Garden with Blue Terrace, 2015
However, I also felt alienated by the paintings. In the same way that the figures in the double portraits do not look at each other, in fact, they have very little to no interaction at all, or in the same way that it is always a single swimmer in a pool creating ripples on the water, I felt completely alone before Hockney’s paintings. There is nothing about them that would make me want to be inside their worlds, and nothing to pull me into any kind of relationship with them. Rather, I was standing looking at desire as it is painted on and in the behavior of water, the landscape. I felt placed as an observer to Hockney’s own desire as a painter, as a gay man. For this reason, I didn’t come away from the exhibition feeling as though my world had expanded, or as though I had been transported to places I had not previously been. 
David Hockney, My Parents, 1972
It is an interesting exhibition, and the display of the late works in particular is lovely and maintains their integrity. But so much of what Hockney is doing feels like pastiche, superficial and insubstantial. It is an exhibition that is drawing crowds, primarily because  the works are representational; there is a lot to look at and people who appreciate color, design and commercial art will be interested in the brightness and composition. In addition, when I went the exhibition was filled with young gay couples—in numbers I have never seen them at a Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud exhibition—all of whom no doubt connect to Hockney’s lifetime search to articulate his own identity as an artist and a gay man. If this is what it takes to get the public into an exhibition, that would make the Hockney exhibition an occasion to applaud.