Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part three)

The third (and final) part of my chat with Richard Guest about Joseph Beuys…

The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: It’s time we went upstairs, I think. The Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is a generous refurbishment of a sumptuous town house in Dover Street in Mayfair – one of the most expensive areas in the world. But we are swimming in space as we go up the double staircase. There is a ‘sparse hang’ along the corridor of a few multiples and drawings, with the white walls and the oak floors it all feels very much as it should do – the works have plenty of space, but you can still get close. Then we arrive at the end room…

Richard: Having…

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Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part two)

The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

Richard: One of the things that makes his work so magnetic is the fusion of the commonplace with the spiritual and intellectual – as if every object he touched was a means of deep psychological and material exploration for him and (possibly as a byproduct) a way to awaken curiosity about the physical world in the viewer. There’s a roughness and vitality to the drawings that makes them very difficult to co-opt for commercial purposes. How much do you think Beuys’ aesthetic/ anti-aesthetic has entered the vocabulary of advertising and media (I remember in the mid-Eighties Green from Scritti Politti citing Beuys as…

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Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part one) — The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. David: This show was like a refresher course in […]

via Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part one) — The Future Is Papier Mâché

Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part three)

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Jasper Johns: ‘Fools House’ (1961-2)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
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Richard:
Those are great quotations; I think he’s being honest, and they explain the work’s strength and its durability – the paintings have no fixed meaning and Johns never sought to impose one. I like the idea that the artist paints, writes, draws, records etc in the way they are able, because they have to (get something out there).

Yes, I think the key to the work’s appeal is its sensual quality – the images are seductive, in part because of their texture, because the hand of the artist is visible. And the tension between the concept and Johns’ intuitive delivery are what grip us.

Can we talk about Fool’s House (1961-2)?
 
David:
Indeed! For me Fool’s House is ‘the one’ where it all comes together. I wasn’t really expecting it, unlike the flags and targets, but it brought a smile to both our faces (which is an amazing accomplishment). It was able to do that because – I think – it is so right. The balance between the conceptual and painterly elements is perfectly struck – there is a kind of rich counterpoint between them, a perfect tension between the real and the depicted, the word and the gesture, the planned and the spontaneous, the intention and the act. The action of the broom sweeping the paint in the arc is balanced against the frozen nature of paint, the hanging of the broom and cup on hooks that suggest they could swing…the writing on the canvas, naming the articles correctly – a slap in the face for Magritte – but there more. Johns revered Marcel Duchamp we are told, but this feels like a robust defence of painting, a giant leap beyond Duchamp’s barren late work. It feels like a more personal painting too, somehow. How did it strike you?

Richard:
Fool’s House was one of the biggest surprises for me – I’ve seen so many reproductions of it, but nothing prepares you for its raw, pugnacious, visceral effect. Duchamp’s coolness has been replaced by the heat of creation. It’s a dense work – conceptual, jokey, handmade and very much alive! A tangible object in the world and one that seems to be making a proposition: art can be this way (which would be taken up by lots of painters, particularly in the eighties); it doesn’t have to be purely conceptual or purely gestural.

The objects: broom, stretcher, towel, cup could all be found in the typical painter’s studio – is Johns referring to himself as a fool (the stencil used to title the painting is very similar to those used by removal firms to label wooden tea crates)? If so it’s a nice personal/ autobiographical byroad to go down and lends humour and tenderness to the work. The laconic labelling of the objects can be read in a couple of ways – this is a cup (a la Magritte) or the cup goes here. I like the second interpretation, because it suggests a fussiness about the arrangement of objects in a space.

There’s a lovely tension between the actual (the objects) and the world of the imagination (the paint marks). Gestural, suggestive paint marks allow the mind to wander, to create images in the murk. The area to the right of the broom records a lot of activity – maybe something was painted in and painted out again. I wonder if this prompted Johns to paint in the other grey areas, creating a composition he found pleasing on a purely visual level. Containing the whole in a frame emphasises the action of the mark making as well as the cup being simultaneously part of and outside the painting.

For me there’s a rawness to Fool’s House, it’s an open work: there’s space for the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture. And there’s a real tenderness there – an attempt at preserving a snapshot of a life? – casting about to save a few things as the ship goes down…painting as life raft…

David:
Fool’s House is at once a gathering of ideas and a spontaneous expressive moment from an artist’s life. It does remain open to interpretation in a way that some of his other work perhaps doesn’t – I have read conspiracy style theories about it online – that it contains a self portrait, that it contains rosicrucian style references to Raphael and Vermeer etc etc. Not very plausible mostly, but pointing to the the dualistic character of so much of Johns’ work: a cerebral practicality versus free expressive openness. He does not duck any of the hard questions about painting but he remains free to paint any way he wants. Quite an achievement.
 
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Jasper Johns: ‘Regrets’ (2013)

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Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part two)

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Jasper Johns  ‘Flag’ (1958)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result. 
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Richard:
I think the subjects are very specifically chosen – they have deep roots in the Western psyche – a target is for shooting at, so we think about the implications of that image; numbers underpin our lives and shadow our activities in all sorts of ways (data, economics etc), maps and flags signal ownership of land. These objects are all so much a part of everyday existence for so many people that they are taken for granted, but they hold fundamental meaning – road signs, logos, labels are ephemeral by comparison. So, I wonder whether Johns used the maps, flags, numbers and targets to stimulate some kind of intellectual/ tactile reverie in the viewer. If so, to what end? I don’t think his concerns were ever aligned with those of the Pop artists; he was looking beyond labels and design at deeper human experience.

David:
They certainly are very old and as near to universal as you could wish for. On the other hand he chose that particular flag (Stars and Stripes), and that particular map (of the U.S.A). As far as I know he stuck with them. Similarly he has never varied the typeface for 0 through 9 – it’s always the same typeface that is depicting the numbers. A font so old from the days of stencils it probably doesn’t even have a name. It’s almost as if what started as an unconsciously chosen symbol has evolved a deeper aspect and what we have ended up with is a series of portraits or views of a specific landscape – like Frank Auerbach painting the same models for fifty years or Cezanne or Hokusai revisiting the same landscape in different seasons or from different viewpoints. Is it possible he finds them somehow almost as real as people…in some way anticipating a kind of abstraction or virtualisation of our physical lives?  Johns’ work somehow embodies the moment the standard of living in the States was suddenly way better than anywhere else on the planet, but without depicting a refrigerator or a Lincoln Continental. When the materialist ephemera of our culture has long disappeared, it Johns’ work a fitting encapsulation of that moment, a monument to it even?

Richard:
Not a monument. Or an encapsulation. I think both terms are too static to capture the nature of the work. The work is simultaneously a part of and comment on the time – Johns is right in the thick of things – the US cultural debate – questioning his times and positing ideas for a future. His art lives and breathes still – its meaning changing with the political, social, cultural tides. This is another difference with Pop, which for the most part represents a fixed point in time in terms of what it’s saying. Johns’ work somehow embodies a complex representation of the American experience. On the one hand, it is complicit with capitalist values (the art market being a  model of the system in microcosm, and the soaring value of his work within it) and on the other it seems to undercut it, by pointing to objects that define everyday life and saying here are your rulers: discuss. The hand of the artist is in the service of these iconic/ monumental images, and is necessarily humble, which I think raises a question of scale.


David:
One thing for sure is that he himself never attempts to explain his work, its origins, its ideas at all. It’s not his job. He is the master of the unhelpful artist-on-the-subject-of-their-own-work quotation. Here are a few:
“One works without thinking how to work.”,
“I don’t know how to organise thoughts. I don’t know how to have thoughts.”
“I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business. He just paints paintings without a conscious reason.”
“I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter –- that would be my life.”

I don’t think he is being deliberately unhelpful here, (although bizarrely it made wonder how Marcel Duchamp would have fared on the Graham Norton Show), I just think his angle of attack is so oblique relative to almost any other artist it is very hard to explain it in simple terms. This is perhaps more revealing:
“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.”

This hints at the transcendent quality of the work. The borrowed starting point (the real thing – map, target, flag etc ) kick starts the work, before Johns takes it over and remakes it in art. The process through which the canvas is covered by the addition of paint is also a process of reduction – if the supplicant is honest and without ego. What remains has the essence, the life that the artist was seeking to put there.

It’s not cerebral – in the sense you need to think about it to understand it – but it HOLDS the mind. It is not a concept that has been merely executed, (a sense of the death of an idea there), but an idea that has been allowed to take flight – or to become manifested through – a (to me) surprisingly traditional and intuitive process of painting.
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Jasper Johns: ‘Painting With Two Balls’ (1960)

Jasper Johns: A Conversation

 
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Jasper Johns: ‘Target‘, 1961

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
* * * *

David:
When we arranged to visit this show, I confess that I was doing it out of a sense of duty rather than because I thought I would enjoy it. It was a show that I thought I ought to see: a definitive survey of a major artist. Johns is an iconic presence in the art of the last hundred years; but I thought his work was a bit dry, a bit ‘correct’ and he was not necessarily among my favorites. I certainly didn’t have that sense of rock star excitement I had when I was going to see Jackson Pollock, Picasso or Kiefer. I was so wrong! I don’t think I have ever been so pleasantly surprised by a show: after seeing it I would certainly put him up there with the very best. What were your expectations going in?

Richard:
If I’m honest, I thought it would be a box-ticking exercise; when you’ve seen so many of these works in reproduction, they seem really familiar, so I wasn’t expecting many surprises.  I certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional power of the works’ physical presence. And I was bowled over from the first. Reproductions could never do these works justice.
Shall we start at the beginning of the exhibition and talk about Target, 1961? The first thing that struck me was the size of the work; it filled more of my field of vision than I was expecting…

David:
Target was hanging in the first room, and we just walked straight at it! There was no preamble in this show, no juvenile works or historical context – it was just straight down to the big stuff. And that caught me off guard. Without the usual build up (and time to put up my mental barriers perhaps), it was as you say: the physical presence of the work was so much more powerful than I had bargained for. The intensity of the mark making and the density of the paint just don’t register in reproduction. And it is much bigger than I thought it was too – in a way bigger than the idea alone would require. The vigour and commitment of the painting was very strong; much more emphatic than someone just executing an idea. Or else he was just faking it very well, but I don’t think so. I felt he had a real fervour to paint, and it was very uplifting. More than that though – it suggested to me that my idea of Johns as a ‘cool’ painter concerned primarily with ideas and who used paint only to reference the History of Western Art was at least partially mistaken. To me it suggested that he was taking the vigour of Abstract Expressionism and fusing it with conceptual irony that came from a European tradition of Surrealism and Duchampian detachment. It was hanging in the octagonal room, and somehow that room always makes stuff look great!

Richard:
Yes, it was nice to skip the part where you squint at a load of tiny works on paper. No preamble needed, I guess!
I’ve started to think the idea is just a point of departure for Johns – it starts a purely tactile and visual exploration. You can see the hand of the artist, but it’s at the service of the exploration – Johns is not trying to show us it’s him painting. The marks look to me like evidence of a thorough absorption in the activity. Ha, yes I’ll never think of him as detached again! I like your fusion idea – it’s as if he liked the marks the Abstract Expressionists were making, but did not trust their stated aims. Even so, I think the way he manipulates materials have a similar effect for me – they record a human presence/ action and provoke an emotional response. I wonder what he feels when he’s staring at a finished work…

David:
Well, his aims are clearly divergent from Rothko, Pollock and co, who were deep in existentialism and Post-War trauma. Johns – obviously quite a bit younger – doesn’t suffer from this and is not turning has back on the material world. Completely the opposite in fact; his paintings are celebrating the American Moment. Not for Jasper the gloomy emotional self-lacerations of the Abstract Expressionists or the self-referential obviousness of Pop.  And yet he shares a surprising amount with both – from the physical involvement in the medium that he inherited from Abstract Expressionism on the one hand to the use – or misuse – of readily recognisable symbols and objects from everyday ‘real’ life which he shares with Pop and Dada on the other.

I think you are right to say the idea is the point of departure, but (to grind the analogy out a bit) the vehicle for the journey is that borrowed object from the real world – the target, flag or map that we all recognise immediately. Then he can take us wherever he may as the viewer gets immersed in the spiritual intensity of the mark making.  He clearly chose things with good abstract potential rather than figurative imagery which would have been harder for him to work with, but also things that were familiar enough to resonate with almost any viewer. Could he have chosen almost anything: road signs, logos, labels etc? Or would that have changed the feel of his work? He only seems to have worked with a handful of these motifs for decades.

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Jasper Johns: 0 through 9 , 1960

The Deal With Real

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Boom For Real Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican Jan 2018

There is nothing like instant success to polarise opinion about you – Jean-Michel Basquiat arrived at the pinnacle of the New York Art Pantheon almost overnight in 1983 and he has as many detractors as admirers. I was excited to see this show to judge for myself, as I had seen so few of his paintings for real. Wandering around the Barbican Art Gallery how does the work feel – vital and raw or superficial and fake? It’s really not easy to say. There is rawness, but also a very deliberate and grating false naivete that casts a long shadow over it.

Here I wanted to take a more measured view of the work, and try to disentangle it from the fame, the tragic early death, the myth and the identity politics. But I was not able to. There are questions we need to ask ourselves about Jean Michel Basquiat: about the man, his work, and our reaction to it.

‘Boom for Real’ was his catchphrase we are told. It implies that the real and the authentic in art were of primary importance to the young Basquiat. SAMO© – his (shared) graffiti persona that brought him attention of the downtown NY artworld was an invention, and the suspicion remains that his later work was also the product of an invented or assumed persona.

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1981 New York was boiling over, bankrupt and chaotic but creatively having some of its best times. Punk, New Wave, the twilight of Disco and the birth of Hip Hop were all happening at once. The streets were full of energy and graffiti was a big part of that of the aesthetic – dystopian – appeal of the city.

You can almost, even at forty years remove, hear sharp New York entrepreneurs thinking about bringing all that energy into the polite world of the gallery. There must be one artist, (they surely thought), one at least in this city, to lionise, to fete, to shock the bourgeois with. To build up like a pop star, and to exploit, you might also think.

Indeed it seems that Basquiat was initially discovered by the Impresario of the Mudd club – (in)famous downtown hangout of the time. He was the graffiti artist brought in from the street. Here we engage with the myth, the worst myth of all, but maybe there is no avoiding it. The Starving Artist myth: out there somewhere is a genius – unappreciated, and of course ludicrously undervalued. Americans in particular seem susceptible to this – just think how they love Van Gogh. Basquiat offered them the chance to get in on the ground floor of their own piece of a fine art history legend right there in New York. We – the audience for art – wanted him to be a genius, because it meant we had the sense and taste to appreciate genius in the raw.

Although that is obviously illogical and based on nothing, we basked in a kind of liberal reflected glory.

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Basquiat’s story is a Cinderella Romance, but unless we decide the meaning of art is indeed about celebrity, about individuals ‘making it’, the story alone is not enough. What is the work? There are some photographs of early graffitti and some panels carried in wholesale straight off the street. There are some paintings, not overlarge in scale, which vary in energy and premeditation. And an awful lot of background material – photos of people from ‘the scene’, books and records owned by Basquiat, films of people talking about him etc. Not all of this is bad – the graffiti covered fridge is awesome, but it takes the focus away from the paintings themselves. They have to stand alone or not at all.

Black identity expressed in music, we are used to. Black identity expressed in painting, not so much. I suspect Basquiat exploited this rarity somewhat knowingly at the beginning of his – brief – career, only to find himself trapped by it. Patronised and imprisoned in a caricature he had rapidly outgrown, he was tantalised by the prospect of what he might become – achieve – with his new status. But like all enfants terribles who suddenly find themselves pushing against nothing, there is nowhere to go after a while and they risk vitiating the impact that the original work had by repeating it to a tame audience. Basquiat was confronting this, but had not come out the other side.
Bewildered by fame, and no doubt riding the wave of the hedonistic NY scene, his paintings vividly capture a raw cultural mix. They are a picture of a mind in flight, but without anywhere to land.

Music – in the form of Jazz and early Hip Hop provides the touchstone for the paintings that worked for me- they feel quite animated and lively and their elements do have contrasting timbres: a jagged red shape against a smooth outline or spray painted element against a scrawled pencil word. It feels spontaneous, expressive, free. When other references to literature, philosophy and the history or art creep in it is not so convincing. Often literature is reduced in Basquiat’s painting to a lot of names written in that faux naif script (although his own handwriting was perfect). They are signifiers of ‘high’ culture; invocations of a magician speaking the words of a spell that he doesn’t quite understand, or the tags of a graffiti artist claiming a new territory for his own. Clearly he was stung by being represented as a crude caricature. This was one response. Another was to try to outdo the caricature, by portraying himself in his paintings as a ludicrously over-Africanised totem.

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Basquiat did not live long enough for us to know how these strategies of self representation would have played out. It is clear though that his struggle for his identity through  painting was genuine and personal, Although in death it has been hijacked by those who put identity politics ahead of self-expression and those with nostalgia for that New York scene, if we keep looking hard we can glimpse the real Basquiat fleetingly.

I will leave the last word to Deep Purple…

“Nobody knows who’s real and who’s faking
Everybody’s shouting out loud
It’s only the glittering shine that gets through…
Where’s my Robin Hood outfit?”  (Ian Gillan – No One Came 1971)

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Photo credit: Basquiat_Boom for Real_Barbican_Photo Tristan Fewings_Getty Images_The Estate of Jean Michel Basquiat_Artestar