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 Duchamp’s coolness has been replaced by the heat of creation.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

 
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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

Standing in the presence of The Goat

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Robert Rauschenberg – Monogram

Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, Bankside,  London SE1
Been away from the blog for a while – back now!

At Tate Modern to see the Robert Rauschenberg blockbuster on Friday evening. Tend to prefer it then – it’s usually quiet, but this time it’s packed. To me Robert Rauschenberg’s work has meant the triumph of creativity over ideology, of form over doctrine, of playfulness over conformity and I’m very excited to see this show, and clearly I am not alone.

In the first room it hits you straight away – you are in the presence of an artist who can draw from any idiom and use it to his advantage. Just in the first couple of rooms he offers us suprematist abstraction, gestural body painting, conceptual, kinetic and painterly work. And that is before we get to the printmaking, the Combines (Rauschenberg’s own word for his paintings that featured real things as part of them), the performances and the installations. The room is titled Experimentation but it represents more than that – it has a hunger, and a consuming energy that simultaneously sucks the marrow out of its sources and creates new avenues for development.

RR1Robert Rauschenberg –  Automobile Tire Print

Automobile Tire Print of 1953 stands out – a work I didn’t know – that seems to have the spontaneity of a watercolour together with an amazing conceptual and performance element but which ends up looking as striking as anything by Barnett Newman or Jackdon Pollock. It has that tension between the final image and our knowledge of that which created it – a simple almost commonplace insight about an everyday thing, stunningly rendered.  Next to it hangs the original of another extraordinary work – The Erased de Kooning Drawing from the same year. Another groundbreaking moment as one artist makes work by the subtraction of another’s.

He flirted with absolutes – white paintings, gold paintings, dirt paintings but moved on quickly. Working intuitively with out a manifesto or a destination. His approach reminds me more than anything of Dada – a quintessentially European movement, and RR is surely a quintessentially American artist. Everything about the work screams Dada though – the dynamic, off centre energy of the work, the heterodox approach to the fusion of materials breaking apart traditional (and contemporary) forms, and an underlying (and perhaps not completely focused) critique of authority.

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Robert Rauschenberg – Gift for Apollo 1959

By the time we get to the Combines in room 3 we are already travelling at the speed of light toward the heart of the creative act. That is when we meet the goat. Standing smack in the middle of room 3 we confront Monogram. For me this is a work like no other. The Goat – an actual stuffed goat – with a tyre around its middle stands atop a collagy abstact canvas on the floor. The Goat remains enigmatic – is it enduring its place in art history with dignity or is it a wiling sacrifice annointed with the paint untidly daubed on its nose? The Goat stands as if at the gatetway of something vital – the ability to create, the tyre around its middle suggesting that random element of inspiration,somehow symbolising – probably the wrong word – embodying – life force, animus in collision with society. It is imprisoned by the detritus but somehow also rising above it. In pictures you see the installation view – complete, detached. But what it is to get up close and look it in the eye! It is a gripping piece of work.

 

Bed (1955,  also in a ludicrous perspex box) on the adjoining wall is almost sidelined. Yet that too combined the elements of the real and the hand of the artist in a hitherto unimaginable way. Looking at Bed and Monogram it should be perfectly obvious to anyone that Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin did nothing. Their attempts at this theme some fifty years after these trailblazing originals seem like a dumbed down GCSE version of it for really thick people who need to be battered over the head with something before they can see it. Here RR takes ideas but plays with them and adorns them with formal touches – his fecundity a massive two fingers to ascetic Duchampian conceptual constipation.

 

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Rauschenberg – Retroactive 1

Following this the transfer paintings and silkscreens represent the flowering of his mature work. They are extraordinary images of the post war American world. They use techniques of reproduction through the transfer of photographic imagery and printing but they are also paintings with compostion, balance of colour and touch. The choice of imagery too is not merely a reflction of what is around him but chosen juxtapostions of power against sensuality and of armaments against art history that draw from surrealism and collage. The askew compostions and awkward looking brushwork come together with the photograpic elements to make a startlingly dynamic whole. It is a heady fusion of almost everything that the Twentieth Cenrty had to offer at that point.

Then almost as suddenly as it came, this extraordinary efflorescense of creativity is over.  The notes tell us that after winning the painting prize at theVenice Biennale in 1964 (amazingly the first American to do so) he called his assistant and ‘asked him to destroy any silkscreens remaining in his studio’. I then lose sight of him in a bewildering array of avant garde performances and other (very Dadaist) happening-style works. No doubt these were equally pioneering but to me they are impenetrable, the cold records available to us are dead echoes. When he does re-emerge in the 1970s he has lost the fire. Harder edge artists (it’s all in New York baby!) like Frank Stella and Andy Warhol  had seized the initiative – but they are much more didactic monocultural artists who lack Raushcenberg’s diversity and wide eyed creative approach. It’s our loss.

The works from the later years seem pointless bloated in scale and lacking in bite – now the marks seem arbitrary  where they once seemed free. Trying to recapture that skein of inspiration that he clearly took for granted as his birthright. It may be that moving to his studio complex in Florida he lost touch with the inspiration of New York which was clearly a big part of his best work. But for me there is nothing in the last forty years of his career to match the first fifteen. But then again the first fifteen contain some of the most amazing artworks of the last century so nothing to complain about really. Nothing except the brainless way these exhibitions are organised – a plodding, linear assembly of a few works from this ‘phase’, and then a few from the next ‘phase’ and so on. It is the approach of a dull archivist – putting everything in its labelled box. Mind you, if that goat was loose it could take over the world…

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Wolf in Torus. Accidental riposte to Monogram I created at work yesterday.

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part three)

Jasper Johns Target with Four Faces 1955

Jasper Johns: Target with Four Faces 1955

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the final part of that electronic conversation – you can read part two here.

Richard: It’s a fine line. But I think Cornell is so involved with the process he discovered that the work comes across as warm, genuine and generous. He’s working hard at making poetic images. The evidence is in the work. Everything is considered.  To me, Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953 looks like an embryonic Louise Bourgouis work. I wonder how much of an influence Cornell was on her. There are other works that remind me of other artists. Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace) 1950 is strongly reminiscent of Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces, 1955  (and we know he was aware of Cornell’s work, because he is a lender to this exhibition), and there was at least one work that made me think of Julian Schnabel’s monumental paintings. Do you think Cornell’s work has had influence beyond the art world (And become a “standard” in the way Sinatra made standards of particular songs)?

David: In my professional area I think Cornell has been massively influential, or has at least become iconic. If you Google ‘Cornell Box’ you will see it is a name for a test rendering environment for global illumination and radiosity (diffuse interreflection) environments. Which is to say computer lighting that plausibly imitates real world lighting behaviour by bouncing light rather than just direct illumination. The set up of these (usually just cubes or spheres) objects in a plain white box allows the usually unobserved interplay of surface and light to be seen is a good way to evaluate the behaviour of a render engine with certain known values (of reflection, refraction etc). This is one I made in my favourite renderer, Arnold.

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

Cornell Box, Rendered in Arnold

I find the comparison with Schnabel a bit beyond me though – his work seems so opposite to Cornell’s. Loud extroverted exhortations to the art world to notice him – Cornell’s quiet poetry is a million miles away, a flower growing unobserved in a shady wood. I think I see a connection with the broken surface of the plates to the world within a world of the boxes – but it really seems a loss of innocence, because I believe Cornell’s motivation was pure (I know that sounds laughable) and I am certain Schnabel s a cynical charlatan.

I really like the idea of art ‘standards’. Although they get so mangled it’s only the crazy old Jazzers who can recognise them half the time. That’s us in a couple of years!

Richard: There was one work (quite a small one), which unfortunately I can’t remember the name of – it featured a painted abstract shape that was reminiscent of Schnabel’s brushwork and the way he constructs some of his big abstracts. We’ll have to disagree over Schnabel – I think there’s poetry there – it’s Beat poetry, but it’s there (and perhaps I’m naive, but from interviews I’ve seen and read with him he’s anything but cynical).

Ha, yes! Hope I make it to be an old jazzer. I love it that Cornell’s influence has become part of the greater culture – I’ve just thought of another example: William Gibson’s 1984 novel, Neuromancer (a seminal work in the cyberpunk genre) has Cornell’s work at its heart.

Neuromancer

It’s interesting that the idea of Cornell’s work has had as much influence as its form. I like it that playing with Arnold or reading Gibson’s book might lead to someone discovering Cornell’s work. Cultural feedback – perhaps something that does not happen with Schnabel…

David: I am not sure that most good artists would like their followers; just as well that they usually come posthumously. Yet it is inevitable where someone has a really strong style like Cornell that some people who are short of ideas or short of ability to put their ideas into form will pinch the superficial aspects of it. In a way that how your style becomes A Standard, (or a cliché possibly) but it can’t help but water down the impact of the original.

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Tetsumi Kudo at Hauser and Werth

I saw the Tetsumi Kudo show at Hauser and Wirth the other day and this piece seemed to me an insult to Cornell, probably unfairly, but it is surely a tribute to Cornell that I thought of him first and not what I was actually looking at. Like using subject matter that is a bit overpowering, a strong influence can overshadow a work sometimes. None of us can avoid them but we need to mix them up carefully, a bit like seasoning food!

Richard: Yes, this looks blunt and obvious in comparison with a Cornell box. One last thing I’d like to say about Cornell’s work is that it creates its own time. The Kudo work seems to contain a “blink and you’ll miss it” concept, whereas Cornell’s work seems to exist outside the normal pace of life – his boxes draw you in and hold your attention in some kind of suspended space/ time, while the world carries on around you.

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part two)

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. This is the second part of that electronic conversation – you can read part one here.

Richard: Except in a broad sense, I don’t see autobiography in Cornell’s work. He did not travel much outside Flushing, New York – he was a carer for his brother and mother, and a lot of biogs refer to his reclusiveness. So, I think a lot of the boxes are products of isolation – they spring from a yearning to escape the day-to-day routine. Although some titles refer to specific events or people, I don’t think Cornell had any connection with many of them beyond fantasy. For example, I Googled Tilly Losch – she was also known as Ottilie Ethel Leopoldine Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon (she was a dancer, choreographer, actress and painter).

In Untitled (Tilly Losch), I wonder whether he is projecting his idea of what Tilly’s life could feel like. There is a lightness, a buoyancy to the image – the (puppet theatre) figure (who bears no resemblance to Tilly Losch) is held aloft by the strings of an unseen hot air balloon, floating above a barren mountain landscape, and seemingly anchored to  her spatial coordinates by a small, compositionally perfect, red bead. Could it be Cornell’s equivalent of Heat magazine? There, I’ve done it – gone and ruined a work…

David: Not ruined… but it does rather make Cornell’s work (and a lot of other art) a sort of fascinating by-product of unhealthy emotional conditions, like a geological specimen or mutant plant that occurred only because of a freak circumstance. It is not degenerate art, neither does being emotionally unbalanced make you creative. Sometimes though, a combination of a creative person and severe emotional repression results in the creation of works that can contain and embody that displaced love and energy. This does make the work quite escapist: inside the box you are in a wondrous place. If you don’t completely escape with Cornell into the box though, you are left outside it dissecting a bunch of obscure images and objects that may have no connection other than the aesthetic.

Falls the Shadow...lighting in the gallery

Falls the Shadow…lighting in the gallery

Although some of the works did draw me in, some of them left me out in the cold and I wonder whether that might have been to do with the way that they were displayed. The very clinical mounting of the boxes inside display cases made them feel very dead and the hard top lighting was also unsympathetic, with the top of the box frame often casting a very hard shadow over the contents and detracting from the composition. Do you think they might have benefitted from different staging? The show could have boldly remade the gallery as an archaic apartment or some other non-artworld place rather than the standard paint it white and put it all in order approach, which was what we got here.

Richard: Yes, interesting idea. I’m not sure the white cube was the standard exhibition design when Cornell was making the bulk of these works, so I wonder what he would make of such stark, harshly lit surroundings. A hard shadow changes the reading of delicate compositions like these quite significantly. And there’s a distinct lack of playfulness in the RA display. The work suggests Cornell liked to play: both visually and with ideas – I wonder where he thought the boxes would eventually reside? I’m guessing the private home as a Surreal surprise amongst the ornaments (and where the lighting would be softer and more conducive to dreaming). The actor Tony Curtis was a big collector of Cornell’s work; I wonder how he displayed the work…

There are works that don’t work at all for me either – and I’m not sure if it’s just the lighting. Could the images and materials Cornell used be too far removed in time and cultural association to chime with us in the twenty-first century?

David: I’m not sure they are too far removed in time, but it may be sometimes that the objects are a bit too curious in themselves. It could be that those things like clay pipes, jars of gold pigment and butterfly wings etc may have been more commonplace back in the middle of the last century but I doubt it. These objects were not part of the common vernacular like a Brillo box or can of soup. They belong to a world that is a deliberate illusion, looking back at those theatrical magicians of the past – the alchemists whose biggest secret was that they had no secret. The objects seem very deliberately chosen to evoke this world. Pharmacy(1943) seems clearly to reference this tradition. The danger is that these objects are very loaded and can overpower a lot of the more subtle formal elements in the work. This is not a problem unique to Cornell, and he does seem to have been aware of it and often eschews the more outlandish curios in favour of a more restrained palette of objects.

In Toward the Blue Peninsula: for Emily Dickinson, c. 1953. Cornell manages to evoke a very intense emotional space with just a few relatively abstract forms. I think the more image based objects are a bit of a smokescreen and for a long time put me off his work to tell you the truth, but he clearly is superior to those artists who are just making endless montages of found objects.

Toward the Blue Peninsula - for Emily Dickinson

Toward the Blue Peninsula – for Emily Dickinson

Joseph Cornell: a conversation (part one)

On 5th September 2015, Richard Guest and I visited the Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We continued to talk about the show via email for a number of weeks. Here is the result of that electronic conversation.

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

Joseph Cornell: Naples, 1942

David: This show was a show that we were both very keen to see, and I don’t think either of us was disappointed. I wouldn’t say that I loved every piece, but the ones that caught my eye were intriguing, atmospheric and formally perfect. You would need to look at them for a very long time to really appreciate all their qualities.

You had a much better idea of his work than I did before we went – I was eager to go based on his reputation. And Cornell’s reputation is very strong among contemporary art audiences …I am curious about why that is. He is much more highly regarded at the moment than say Picabia or even Max Ernst and yet he seems to have been a one-off artist producing work in a slightly insular style. Some of the work in the show was from Jasper Johns’ collection and I think that might be a clue. Although I loathe the expression, is he an artist’s artist?

Richard: To American artists, I think he offers a link back to the European artists of pre-WWII – his work was included in Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at MoMA New York in 1936 and he was friends with Marcel Duchamp, who (according to the RA’s exhibition leaflet) considered him one of the best American artists of the day.

I can sort of see why he might be more highly regarded than Picabia and Ernst at the moment – his work is, to a certain extent, hands off – Cornell doesn’t create the images or objects he uses, and it’s all about creating meaning and effects through juxtaposition. (So his work is not tied to a particular genre or movement and perhaps by being a one-off his work has a greater appeal, because he’s not so easily categorised. A lot of contemporary art has its roots in Duchamp’s readymades or Pop Art and Cornell’s work speaks a similar, although distinct, language. I can see him being an artist’s artist (and in one piece in particular an ancestor to Julian Schnabel’s painting), but I think he has a pretty broad appeal; the constituent parts of his works are easy to identify, what he’s doing is not baffling, but the magic he weaves is.

Shall we talk about Object (Soap Bubble Set)?

Joseph Cornell Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941 Box construction, 46.4 x 31.4 x 9.5 cm The Robert Lehrman Art Trust, Courtesy of Aimee and Robert Lehrman (c) The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2015 Photo: Quicksilver Photographers, LLC. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Press use is considered to be moderate use of images to report a current event or to illustrate a review or criticism of the work, as defined by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter 48 Section 30 Subsections (1) - (3). Reproductions which comply with the above do not need to be licensed. Reproductions for all non-press uses or for press uses where the above criteria do not apply (e.g. covers and feature articles) must be licensed before publication. Further information can be obtained at www.dacs.org.uk or by contacting DACS licensing on +44 207 336 8811. Due to UK copyright law only applying to UK publications, any articles or press uses which are published outside of the UK and include reproductions of these images will need to have sought authorisation with the relevant copyright society of that country. Please also ensure that all works that are provided are shown in full, with no overprinting or manipulation.

Joseph Cornell:   Object (Soap Bubble Set), 1941

David: Well when I look at Object (Soap Bubble Set), quite a lot of things are happening at once – I see the overall object on the wall, I can identify particular ‘real world’ objects (the pipe here), I can perceive that some things are not real world objects but images (the shells), I get the reference in the arrangement of them to smoke rising from the pipe, I enjoy the subtle interplay of colours and enjoy the illusion of a frozen moment – movement seems to be stilled here. But there is more…the nocturnal, contemplative atmosphere is beguiling and there is also the strong and unique fascination of the box – which allows all this to come to life, but which we can never enter.

Cornell certainly had a strong sense of how to use colour. The limited palette of this piece is stunning.  The brown wood of the box and the pipe shaft with the warm whites of the ceramic and the cooler ones of the shells are simply very beautiful against the pure black. I think you’re right that juxtaposition is fundamental in Cornell’s work. And I was struck by how his work seemed to emerge from Surrealism – can’t think of any other American artist who got so much from that movement. ‘As beautiful as the chance encounter of the sewing machine and the umbrella on the operating table’ – the only working definition of Surrealism for me – gives me a way in to Object (Soap Bubble Set), but that isn’t the whole story. How do you see it?

Richard: Cornell took from the Surrealists, but not much of his work (if any) is concerned with eroticism, fetishism or the abject, so there’s a difference in tone – as you say, contemplative. He’s not out to shock. He’s out to seduce and I think Object (Soap Bubble Set) is a very seductive work – it draws you into Cornell’s world. It’s a nice place to start and it was one of the first boxes in the exhibition. Apart from anything else, it’s beautifully composed – and presents itself as a peculiar, frozen moment. I wonder what significance each of the elements has for him, and want to decode the box (even though doing so would probably ruin the work). Does he want us to decode it?

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Tilly Losch), c. 1935-38

David: I think Cornell uses very suggestive objects and images that while not perhaps fetishistic in a literal sense imply subconscious associations that can never be decoded by conscious thought. But I could be completely wrong about that because I know so little about him. I’m not good at decoding anyway. It reduces the power of art in the guise of demystification so that people ignorant of the actual practice and meaning of art (whether critics or art historians) can assume power over it in defiance of established social hierarchies.

Or something like that.

Perhaps it’s more ‘what sort of question could this be the answer to?’ His work does come from the golden age of psychoanalysis. Some of the works seem to me have a sort of theatrical Doll’s House Asylum quality – stages where puppets of the id and the ego could enact dreamlike fantasies or play out roles trapped in an eternal silence. I am looking at Untitled (Tilly Losch), The inspiration for this could have been an event or a person in his life – I don’t know. What remains in the work is a mute mask like figure, intriguing but distant. How do you see his use of the figure?

(end of part one – read part two here.)