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John Perreault's Art Diary

Monday, May 2, 2005


    My East Village

    Not that I want to give any secrets away, but I live in the East Village. To be even more specific, our tenement digs - in light-hearted moments we call it our jewel-box pied-a-terre - is in the heart of a small and growing smaller Ukrainian enclave. This Little Ukraine is also, judging by my building, peppered with Poles, and at least one half-Pole, namely John Urzendowski Perreault.

    Nevertheless, this storied Ukrainian neighborhood can also be seen as one big N.Y.U. dormitory or Generation Zero launching pad. This is Manhattan, this is New York. 500 square foot walk-ups now go for a few thousand a month; youths huddle in them in multiples, unconsciously imitating the familial nesting of immigrants from Kiev and Bialystok, who were trying to escape the Cossacks, the Commissars, or just plain poverty. Now youth in Prada comes to the East Village, not to escape Pravda, but to escape boredom, or merely parental oppression. Some actually hang out in a bar called KGB.

    Then, of course, there is the street fair twice a year, catering to suburbanized, bridge-and-tunnel Ukrainians and everyone else in the market for kielbasi, stuffed-cabbage, and Ukrainian Easter eggs. The stuffed-cabbage always calls out to me. John Urzendowski Perreault, we call to you; eat; get indigestion. Your Slavic roots call out. And although, of course, these are not as good as Polish stuffed cabbage - too sweet! - I gobble them up from a paper plate twice a year, feeling guilty of some sort of ethnic betrayal.

    Fortunately, on these special street-fare days everyone is Ukrainian in much the same way that on St. Patrick's Day everyone is Irish. On March 17th, the jocks and their jock-bunnies line up to get into McSorley's Old Ale House (est. 1854) across from the  1976 St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church. Neighborhood's are not exclusive; neighborhoods are layered.


    East of McSorley's is Village Mingula Burmese Cuisine; and west is Surma, The Ukrainian Shop where you can buy all the Ukrainian Easter eggs and embroidered shirts you want. Elsewhere there's the Ukrainian Home and various Ukrainian restaurants; not the least of which, having passed into the realm of poets and actors, is the 24-hour Veselka on Second Avenue and 10th. While eating your pirogis or your BLT, you can play the game of trying to guess who is the poet, who is the actor, as if someone couldn't be both.


    Ukrainian Museum

    Not A 50 Pound Easter Egg

    But the good news is this: now we have the Ukrainian Museum (222 East 6th Street, between 2nd and The Bowery), the next block over from the Ukrainian Church. One of those N.Y. "mystery streets"  joins 7th and 6th: Taras Shevhenko Place, named after the Ukrainian national poet. N. Y. U., the University that owns the East Village, wanted the name changed; N. Y. U. lost.

    Just in time to celebrate the new, non-puppet regime in Ukraine we have the possibility of an up-to-date take on that beleaguered nation's long-threatened culture. The Ukrainian Museum, formerly hidden away in plain sight on Second Avenue, is now in  a brand-new building on the site of a former wholesale meat butchering establishment on 6th Street.

    Here is a partial list of storefront shops still in place on East 6th Street between 2nd Avenue and The Bowery:

    DecaDance (records), VIP Unisex (hair), Ruby (hair), Martin (dresses), fumi (dresses); and since everything seems to come in pairs: Finyl Vinyl (records), There is, however, only one Laundrobot and only one museum. I  switched to Laundroama around the corner on the Crazy Green of Second Avenue (the title of a book of poems by Frank O'Hara) after many lost socks at what I began to call Laundroboot.

    The Bowery, The Bronx, The Ukraine. A Japanese student once stopped me on Astor Place to ask where Bowery Street was. I pointed him to St. Marks Place where Third Avenue turns into The Bowery, but could not have explained why it is The Bowery and not Bowery Street or Avenue or Place or Lane. Where does that funny The come from? Does it signify an area not quite codified, definitely uncivilized, wild and untrampled like the outback, the veld?

    The Ukraine?

    We are now encouraged to say Ukraine, although aside from two brief moments this nation without a country did not become independent until 1991. In ancient times,  there were the Sythian hordes swarming through; then the Rus, who were invited in to keep order and  were actually Scandinavian. Then this flat and fertile land was tossed back and forth between its European neighbor to the West, Poland, and it's runaway, out-of-control daughter, Russia, to the East. But  am I forgetting the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Hitler's occupation? Ukraine according to journalist Anna Reid's horrific Borderland  (Westview Press) means just that. But border between what and what? Not just between Poland and Russia. Between bad karma and the K.G.B.?

    And, by the way, what is a nation? Is it defined by place or language? Or culture? Is it a people? Borders are unstable. Identity is unstable.

    But in the flatlands, the suffering went on and on until Viktor Yushchenko's recent Orange Revolution, during which I knew my neighborhood was still Ukrainian because of the orange ribbons tied to every tree, parking meter, and lamp post. Handsome Yushchenko had been poisoned, his face forever pocked. Orange, of course, means something very different to the Irish who used to be in attendance at McSorley's before women were allowed.

    Now Ukraine under Yushchenko's orange leadership looks firmly to Europe, turning away from Stalin's purges and his artificial famine that killed 7 million farmers who were resisting "collectivization."  Away from the Cossack massacres of Jews.  Away from pogroms.  Away from the Chernobyl disaster ( by the way, only fifty miles from Kiev). Away from the past.

    The new building housing the Ukrainian Museum is open, welcoming, clean-cut, straight-forward. It seems almost Scandinavian in its use of wood and light. Is this a veiled reference to the little-known Viking heritage of Ukrainians?

    At last there is something really topnotch to represent Ukrainian culture other than the street fair. It's as if previously all we were allowed  to know about Italian culture were filtered through the San Gennaro street fair in Little Italy.

    And what is the first exhibition at the Ukrainian Museum at its sparkling new site?
    Easter Eggs? Embroidered shirts? No.

    Alexander Archipenko!

    Archipenko, Woman Combing Her Hair, 1915

    Torsos in Space; Plexiglas and Bakelite, Too

    Archipenko (1887-1964) made amazing and very early contributions to Cubism. Who does not know, at least from textbook pictures, his sculpture, the 1915 Woman Combing Her Hair?  Here we are treated to a rare and informative survey of this Ukrainian-born artist's entire career (through September 4). The reliefs and free-standing sculptures are serenely displayed and lit in perfectly designed galleries. The wall texts are in both English and Ukrainian, a language we rarely see.

    Much of Archipenko's early work has been lost; so for the reliefs we have to make do with his  bronze and varicolored variously patinated re-makes of the pioneering mixed-media pieces. Then there's Juggler (1912-1914) and Dancer (1913-1914), inspired by the Parisian Cirque Médrano.  Dancer, although in the Guggenheim collection, was too fragile to move, and is represented by a projected computerized rendering, showing the sculptures moving arm. Archipenko, it seems, was a bit of a Futurist too. His Changeable Display Apparatus or, as patented, his Archipentura painting machine of 1927 is here represented by graphics; apparently slats could be manipulated to create a variety of configurations.

    Archipentura, 1927 (lost?)

    In the late '40s after he had moved to the U.S., Archipenko, every enamored of materials,  experimented with Plexiglas, inventing a special device to carve blocks of the stuff. Several of the innovative Plexi sculptures, with his specially designed light-bases, are included here.

    Cubist painting translates three dimensions - and some maintained four dimensions - into two-dimensions, utilizing multiple points of view. Does it really make sense then to translate the translations back into three-dimensions? This is the built-in paradox of Cubist sculpture.

    Archipenko attempted  translate Picasso's Cubism  into three-dimensions: first on the wall, then off the wall. And then, with a touch of genius, he put holes in his figures. Faces are depicted by voids. Or as he proclaimed: "It is not exactly the presence of a thing but rather the absence of it that becomes the cause and impulse for creative innovation."

    These signature voids,  I take to signify three things: an update of the Greco-Roman headless statue construed as essentialization of the body; loss of identity because of mass culture and the facelessness of radical urbanization;  and/or how we see ourselves without benefit of mirrors or photography. In terms of the latter, I  may see all other parts of the front of my body but I cannot see my own face.

    The metaphysics of art starts with the physical. Who the body belongs to and where it is, in space and time, is particularly important for sculpture. The body, not just the eyes, looks at art.

    You can evaluate an artist by how he or she adds to or subtracts from the past or, as is true with Archipenko, his present. Archipenko added voids to Cubist sculpture. You can also place some value on influence, for good or even for Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth have never been among my favorites, but one cannot help think they got the holes in their sculptures from Archipenko's holes. I could call this the banality of influence.

    Then I noticed all of Archipenko's sculptures, even the Plexiglas ones,  are frontal. They have fronts and backs. Good sides and bad sides. They "face" forward. They may be seen, fittingly, as reliefs in the round. Is this because Archipenko's sculptures developed out of his reliefs  or because he remained throughout his career committed to the body as a subject?

    In terms of sculptural values (truly modernist ones), the figure in any shape or forms or degree of abstraction is a betrayal, not because of the sin of representation but because of the unavoidable frontality that the figure imposes. One side or another is always favored. Thus - if you can deal with these apparent paradoxes - a table or a stool is more modern than a chair or a desk. A vase is more modern than a dress, a shirt, or a coat. Flagpoles, obelisks, pyramids but not houses are extremely or fully three-dimensional.

    Torso, 1936. Terra cotta.

    There are other revelations. It turns out that Archipenko's best works after Woman Combing Her Hair are his several Torso in Space sculptures. Three are included here on the 2nd floor of the Museum; Torso in Space (1935) is bronze with a rich green patina; another Torso in Space of the same year in cast aluminum; and the best and largest of all, Torso in Space (1936)  made of terra cotta "metalized with bronze". The headless, almost-but-not-quite-totally-abstract "figures" recline and float ina a way you can feel with your entire body. These great works should be in every sculpture textbook; every history of modern art along with  Woman Combing Her Hair. And then there are the late reliefs too. My favorite is Cleopatra (1957), made of wood, Bakelite (!), beads, a found bracelet, and paint too. Oh, that Archipenko, he certainly had a way with materials.

    How have I managed never to have seen these Bakelite reliefs before? Where were they hiding? Where was I hiding?

    Cleopatra, 1957

    The Future of Ukrainian Futurism 

    Now that the Ukrainian Museum is up and running,  what will be forthcoming? Can we ever expect a survey of the Ukrainian/Jewish-American Janet Sobel, born in Kiev, who showed  drip-paintings at Peggy Guggenheim's Art-of-This-Century gallery before Jackson Pollock became famous for his? Does Malevich, who was born just outside Kiev, count as Ukrainian?

    And I'd really like to see an exhibition of Ukrainian Futurism and  Panfuturism, ("The liquidation of art is our art!")lead by the sensational, relentless and fearless poet Mykhail' Semenko (1892-1937), martyred by one of Stalin's firing squads.

    In the Ukrainian Museum's gift shop, I purchased Oleh Ilnytzkyj's Urkrainian Futurism (Harvard University Press, 1997) and found hidden history, information, analysis, and therein some illustrative Semenko fragments:

    The All-Ukrainian
    It's coming - it's coming at us
    Shame and disgrace -
    (eyes bulging)
    not a moron
    but a poet -
    businessman, ---
    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
    "Give us [...]
    your ideas!"
          Mouth foaming
          legs wobbling
          And the snout of a pig [...]
    The all-Ukrainian gut
    its toothless gullet...

    Or from the late twenties:

    Subway, Metro, Untergrund, Underground -
    what wonderous monsters---plus a thousand-tone crane!
    This is not just urbanism, but some kind of industrial hysterics
                        meant for our Soviet yokels.

    Or in 1925:

    Moscow, Moscow,
    you spilled blood
    and you sucked blood,
    not once nor twice.

    Since the East Village, because of the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church, is the poetry neighborhood as well as the Ukrainian neighborhood, wouldn't it be fitting to arrange for some bi-lingual readings of Semenko's futurist poems: his rants and cable-poems? He even invented poem-paintings and poem-posters and the first readymade poem ever, consisting of the names for the days of the week.





    posted by Perreault @ 10:07 am | Permanent link
Sunday, April 24, 2005


    Last week, a well-attended memorial for Leon Golub (1922-2004) was held at Cooper-Union's Great Hall (where Lincoln spoke). Personal talks and reminiscences were offered by Nancy Spero, the artist's wife and a fine artist herself, as well as by Kiki Smith, the poet Clayton Eshleman, and many others. I was reminded of an appreciation I wrote for N.Y. Arts magazine in June of 2001 on the occasion of the artist's retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. I couldn't find it online, so I thought I would insert it here, with only a few changes in tense.


    Leon Golub: Interrogation I, 1981


    Mercenaries and Mad Dogs

    Can we look at the paintings of Leon Golub with fresh eyes?  Forget the kind of seeing that has to do with the postage-stamp reproductions in books and magazines. There's an idea: Golub U.S. First Class stamps! When that day comes, rest assured it will have to be when war is over, when police states have been eliminated; when torture and terrorism have been abolished; when racism is no more.

    But even if the reproductions of Golub's masterpieces take up the whole page, you can't get the sweep of his gargantuan paintings. Only in the biggest lecture halls or in an old-fashioned movie theater could you get slide projections anywhere near the size of something like Vietnam II, 1973, which is 40 feet wide. This is Cinemascope, or even Cinerama. This is the way movies used to be; this is the way of the Rivera or Orozco or Siquiros mural---bigger than any Pollock drip painting, bigger than Guernica (and I use these latter examples for a reason) and bigger than life.

    In regard to my reference to Pollock and Picasso, any comparison to the former is a strange one, for Golub's work, be that as it may, has no delicacy or mysticism, and his anger and angst is in your face; Pollock's agony now seems to exist primarily in his biography and in sentences written by Tom Hess or Harold Rosenberg. One might be better off comparing Golub's Vietnam paintings to Picasso's Guernica. They have that kind of wrath.

    And, as with the print replicas, something just as crucial as scale would be lost: texture. You can't talk about the classic Golubs without remarking that they are on unstretched canvas hung on the wall, like circus banners, or that he scraped away at the paint with a meat cleaver. What you may not have thought of is that the lengths of unstretched canvas convey a sense of emergency that is compounded of urgency and despair. The Soldier of Fortune imagery is bad enough; the reality of the presentation and the execution is visceral. The empty zones in some of the big Mercenaries or Interrogation paintings, depending upon the pigments used, are fresh blood or dried blood. The jagged cutouts along some edges and even the irregularities of the elongated rectangles of these anti-flags further underline the sense of improvisation motivated by outrage at atrocities and abuses of power.

    Prometheus II, 1998

    I Am the Hero; I Am the Law

    The exhibition of Golub's work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (2001) was one of those rare shows that anyone passionate about art could not afford to miss. The ambition, sadly lacking in much art, was there to behold: from his myth-inspired, paint-encrusted  works done in Chicago early in his career, through his Greco-Roman period when he and Nancy Spero were expatriates living in Paris, through the Vietnam paintings begun when they moved to New York, and on down to the present.

    Golub used the sign system of heroic art to make violently antiheroic paintings. He  traveled from Greek tragedy to the tragedy of the banality of violence; from Oedipus to the ordinary Joe as both bound and gagged victim and assassin holding a gun to someone's head. He, as we shall see, moved from the Sphinx and back. But up until the paintings of the last decade, everywhere there lurks the obscene suspicion that notions of the heroic are the root cause of a whole lot of trouble: I am the hero; I am the law; I kill and torture for a higher truth. But then one also thinks: My gun is for hire.
    Can we see these works without readings? Try. Forget the Golub  Brooklyn Museum retrospective catalogue quotes, e.g. "If I had to give a description of my work I would say it's a definition of how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown."

    Forget the thorough catalogue essay by curator Jon Bird, e.g., "To look and to be seen are not only issues of position and visibility, but historical and psychic processes embedded within social structures which contribute significantly to our cultural perceptions and evaluations."

    Forget the fey subtitle of the exhibition: "Echos of the Real." In fact, before going to the exhibition, I gave myself the assignment of forgetting everything I have ever written about Golub. I am not sure I succeeded. When you write something--perhaps even when you read something--it seems to form a channel or a pathway that doesn't go away. Let's face it, there is no such thing as the naked eye.  

    Even Golub played with cultural and media memory: his image sources were ripped from "special" magazines and the headlines that have made us numb. In the mid-'70s he even perpetuated a whole series of political portraits: small head-shot paintings of Franco, Pinochet, Kissinger.

    Nevertheless, during my first walk-through, when the preview hordes, black-clad and mostly gray-haired, had not yet swarmed into the official exhibition reception, I tried to imagine what a 20-something from Williamsburg might think. Given the state of art education and the lack of textbooks, no doubt he or she would not even have heard of Golub.

    In several places there were comment books, a sure sign that someone is expecting negative reactions - and of course its better to let the yahoos blow off steam. As a curator, I have used this trick myself, only to realize that it encourages stupidity and/or sentimentality. I took a deep breath and leafed through one of the books. Gottcha. Someone had just written something like: Mr. Golub haven't you ever had a nice, happy day even once in your life? And this was a expert-selected preview audience!

    No, my imagined Williamsburgian would not have written that or even thought such a thing. I think he or she would think...War, death, anger. But where's the irony?
    Fortunately, there is not one ounce of irony in anything that Golub has ever painted, and this is one of the characteristics that makes him a great artist. He is our Goya, and if there isn't much of a market for deeply felt, deeply articulated protest art, then we had better stop thinking about the market.

    The level of passion in Golub's work is high and, oddly enough, although there is no irony, there is certainly ambiguity. I would even risk saying that the level of ambiguity is existential. No amount of analysis or deconstruction will get rid of this level of fear and rage. He throws a monkey wrench into the art-historical machinery. He is not a Greenbergian formalist, but that kind of formalism is long gone and, at best, is a generator of intense looking at what is at hand; at worst, it's a kind of art fascism. More to the point, Golub did not participate in the modernism/postmodernism false dichotomy; he had no tricks up his sleeve.

    The Blue Tattoo (detail), 1998

    Getting Old Sucks

    And now we come to the works of the last decade. Golub, in his seventies, hadn't stopped. In fact, one might say he had come up with an entirely new body of work, on the surface more personal. The chapter in the catalogue that treats this work with great insight is aptly titled "Beware of Dog." Dogs play a large part in Golub's late vocabulary: snarling, vicious dogs. And then there are lions and skulls, and certain Greek myths are out in the open again.

    Clearly, as Bird points out, Golub seems to have been influenced a bit by his wife Nancy Spero's use of archaic imagery and words. There is even an acrobat figure that is a direct quote. Nevertheless, the vision is all his: Apocalypse Now. It is not just that death is on his mind. That would not be new. The snarling dogs and the tattoos exhibit anger, yes, but a rage that is more personal than political. But perhaps in previous works the political was always personal, and that was what caused the shock.

    Bird quotes Theodor Adorno at the head of the "Beware of Dog"  chapter. Adorno, a leading light of the Frankfurt School and, some think, an important player in Continental Philosophy, shall always in my book be remembered as the man who totally misunderstood jazz and trashed it with a vengeance, favoring twelve-tone music instead.

    Here he is quoted from his essay on late Beethoven: "In the history of art late works are catastrophes." Of course, when Adorno wrote this, Matisse had not yet arrived at his late, great style. But Adorno probably would not have even noticed.
    I assume that Adorno was being ironic or rhetorical. At least I hope so, for it is generally conceded that Beethoven's last works are some of his best.
    Golub's late paintings are magnificent and scary and, I firmly believe, will also eventually be seen as some of his best. The dogs are mad dogs. The death's heads and the tattoos not only recall motorcycle regalia. but point to what lies beneath these cult insignias. The Sphinx has reappeared and is as always the embodiment of mystery, riddles and doom -- but also of the interstitial. Prometheus is back, and there's a roaring lion that holds a sign lettered with the words: "getting old sucks."
     In Strut, complete with a trio of buxom babes, one can make out "color and death" in Spanish but in larger, more visible red and white lettering is "ANNOUNCING the End of the World." Who could ask for anything more?

     Just remember that any theory of art, any critical methodology, any overview of contemporary art that doesn't have room for Golub is not worth having.

    (c)John Perreault 2001




    posted by Perreault @ 10:21 pm | Permanent link
Sunday, April 17, 2005


    Max Ernst: The Blessed Virgin Chastizes the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses, 1926

    Why Surrealisms Now?

    Three exhibitions prompt this question: "Dalí" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (to May 15), "Max Ernst: A Retrospective" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, to July 10) and "Surrealism USA" at the National Academy of Design (1083 Fifth Avenue, to May 8).

    I would not accuse the Metropolitan and certainly not the National Academy of Art (see below) of pandering to the public in pursuit of box-office bucks. And one should never wave a cautionary finger at the Philadelphia Museum of Art just because it has instigated or attempted to instigate one annual, crowd-pleasing blockbuster after another.

    Museums are expensive to run. Blockbusters bring in new members and sorely needed cash, or so it is claimed. It depends on accounting.

    Nevertheless, one wonders why there's this sudden interest in Surrealism, that most academically despised branch of modernism? Could we have run out of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism packaging ideas? "Manet, Monet and the Café"? "Cézanne vs. Cézanne"? Or is it just that the safe modernist masters are now just too costly to ship and insure?

    I am afraid to say that by all accounts the Salvador Dalí show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art  has proved a success. The Max Ernst is not packing them in, and neither is "Surrealism USA," although in the latter venue, even a handful of people on a Tuesday afternoon is probably a plus.

    So somewhere soon we will be treated to "Dalí vs. Delvaux,"  "Dalí's Dalís,"  "Dalí and the Seashore," "Dalí and Hollywood," "Dalí and the Christ."

    "Dalí" also has the virtue of inspiring full-service gift-shop offerings, whereas "Max Ernst" inspires: books about Ernst and maybe an excellent book of poems by his wife Dorothea Tanning. Ernst's paintings are really too creepy to inspire note cards, pillows, sofas, paperweights, key chains, ties, scarves, potholders, shopping bags, place mats, telephones, et al. You could get away selling lobster-flavored macaroni in honor of Dalí's lobster telephone, but it would be hard to get away with selling nightingale-flavored macaroni in honor of Ernst's much more surreal Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924).

    Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, 1936

    Goodbye, Dalí

    When I went to see the Dalí show a few weeks ago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art was jammed, booked solid on a Saturday. You had to have reservations, but even so there were too many people. Those audio tours make people cluster around certain paintings. I looked at eyes. Most people were listening, not looking, which was just as well. The paintings - even the early ones that I was prepared to like - have not worn very well.

    Dalí's crowd-pleasing photo-Surrealism so influenced bad illustration that his works now look even worse than the commercial art he influenced. Although I still think the PMA's Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonitions of War), 1936, is one of his best works, in general I enjoyed the gift shop offerings more than the paintings.

    That's it! Dalí was the best commercial artist of his time. I prefer his Mae West lips sofa to his soft watch and his stage sets to his paintings of imaginary stage sets. I prefer his film collaborations with Luis Buńuel and his sequence for Hitchcock's Spellbound to his ghastly variations on the pseudo-theme of William Tell. His shenanigans were better than his paintings: throwing himself though the window of a department store was more important than the paintings he left. We love the blather of his autobiography and, of course, his mustache. He may have been the first artist to try to use media as an art form, but since the media used him to confirm middle-class definitions of the nutty artist, his fate in art history should be a lesson to all new art-world superstars. All the world loves a clown, for about 10 seconds.

    But Dalí is great. Dalí is liberating. Dalí is endlessly fascinating. Dalí is a good antidote to Impressionism, to Cubism, to Abstract Expressionism ... if you are 14.

    I have nothing against being 14. I loved Dalí when I was 14. There is a part of me, thank goodness, that is still 14. But when I look at Dalí now I think: Why did anyone ever think that someone who was pro-Franco could be taken seriously? And his latter-day mixtures of Catholicism and physics? Let's not even bother with that.

    The Surrealists who were in bed with the Soviet Communists at least knew enough to move from Stalin to Trotsky and then out. Their hearts were in the right places; it's just their brains that were wrong, for awhile. Dalí had a dollar sign for a heart, and as the paintings prove over and over again, not much of a brain.


    Max Ernst: Surrealism and Painting, 1942

    Was Jackson Pollock a Surrealist?

    The three exhibitions currently on view bring up anew the question of Surrealism's validity.
    Limited formalism, now long past, promoted the idea that Surrealism was primarily literary. Since according to these lights the arts were best when separate and ideally self-referring, Surrealism was not sufficiently modern. Even MoMA modernism didn't buy that. Too many collectors would have had to throw out their Ernst errors, their Dalí dalliances, their Magritte mistakes.

    But we shouldn't complain too loudly. Some Surrealism, no matter how flawed,  is better than none. At least we are reminded that you may take Surrealism out of modernism, but it just won't go away. Why? There simply no better way to express, or at least emblemize, anger and fear.

    A variant of MoMA modernism, apparently the invention of curator William Rubin, held that there were two kinds of Surrealisms: illusionistic and abstract. The abstract form was fine since it could be shown that Miró and Masson were the probable sources of a certain splashiness that came to be favored in New York art.

    At the Metropolitan, we could look now to a specific painting by the otherwise questionable Max Ernst -- who, like his illustrious predecessor Georgio de Chirico, was generally more on the side of poetry than form -- for further confirmation of how clever Jackson Pollock was at appropriation. The specific work is Surrealism in Painting, 1938. In it, a canvas is being painted by one of Ernst's strangest of creatures (a kind of polymorphous blob), but what is important, as pointed out by the adjacent wall text, is that the painting-within-the-painting was created by what the artist himself called "oscillation." After pouring paint into a can with a hole punched in its bottom, he swung the can from a string, creating flung lines. Pollock saw this painting in 1942.

    But we could also look to a 1941 three-way collaboration now revealed for the first time by "Surrealism U.S.A."  William Baziotes had the idea of dripping and throwing white paint on a small canvas, and Pollock and Gerome Kamrowski joined in. It's a gem. Kamrowski's 1945 Part I -- The Great Invisibles, by the way, is also worth looking at. Are there more where these came from? Knud Merrild, with his "flux" paintings, is another discovery: paint poured on a surface and then manipulated without a brush.

    But there is also that famous Navajo sand-painting demonstration at the Museum of Modern Art that Pollock certainly must have heard about. And then there is that late-starter Janet Sobel, who, coming out of nowhere at the age of 52, showed dripped and splashed paintings at Peggy Guggenheim's The Art of this Century in 1946. Clement Greenberg, Pollock's promoter, says that Pollock knew her work.


    Frecerico Castellon: The Return of the Prodigal, c. late '30s

    The Score: See Them All

    The Dalí exhibition is predictably abysmal, and the Ernst is predictably marvelous. "The marvelous" is a technical term within the annals of Surrealism, meaning something like glorious, weird, never-before-seen, fabulous (as in fable). A waking dream. Something that unifies the conscious and the unconscious. Ernst started in Dada and then was the most adventurous of the surrealists. Even his often criticized American paintings have moments of great terror and joy.

    Although there are some antireligious paintings (The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses, 1926) and one or two anti-Fascist ones, it will not do to try to see personal expression in Ernst's artworks and then, of course, to bemoan its lack. That is not what Surrealism was about. You might be able to read into the paintings your own personal feelings, but Surrealism was an attempt to be objective.

    "Surrealism USA" at the National Academy -- in spite of mylar in the hallway, dress-shop dummies, and the Duchampian string installation in the last room -- is refreshing. It is at long last a serious exhibition at this weird, but historically interesting, venue. I take it back; the recent Edwin Dickinson show was also serious. But in terms of the current survey, all of these almost-interesting American Surrealist paintings needed to be flushed out, once and for all. The exhibition shows why we really needed Abstract Expressionism. And fast. Sometimes the bad guys, meaning the formalists, were right. Or half right. Or right for the wrong reasons.

    American versions of representational Surrealism was inconsequential or barely worth saving. I, of course, would buy any work like this I found at a yard sale. It is all very interesting historically, if not artistically. But Peter Blume and Louis Gugliemi? One can agree with their left-wing politics without approving of their paintings. The Los Angeles Post-Surrealists? Helen Lundeberg's Double Portrait of the Artist in Time from 1935, which one may have been intrigued by when represented by a reproduction in an art-book survey, here pales when placed in the context of other Post-Surrealist efforts. Even Adolph Gottlieb's 1939 Picnic is weak.

    American Surrealism, as catalogued here, is boring not because it is representational or because it aped a far grander original, but because it was mawkish; because it offered fantasy rather than the fantastic; because, alas, it was illustration and not revelation.

    Max Ernst: Ubu Imperator, 1923

    The Poet's Dream
    When I was thinking about Surrealism and whether or not I should write something, I had a dream. Wearing my poet's hat (no two sides of which are alike), I was being interviewed. The Interviewer, who was unknown to me, asked, "Has Surrealism influenced you as a poet?" He must have known that a few of my poems were once published in an anthology of British and American Surrealism.

    My answer was this: "Not in its results, but in its one idea."

    Even in the dream, I pondered the meaning of this answer. What was that one idea?

    I woke up wondering what I had meant and came up with "the idea that it is possible to experience other realities, other levels of reality, other worlds." I immediately wrote this down in my notebook. My notebooks are a bit odd. In one direction I write poems; upside down, from front to back, I jot down dreams, ideas, phrases for Artopia, plans for artworks. So now I look at my notebook and see that I continued:

    Interviewer: So you are interest in Surrealism as mediumship?

    JP: No, I am interested in poetry as mediumship.

    But I interrupt myself because the dream of a few nights ago started up again.

    Interviewer: You said you were interested in Surrealism's one idea. What is that idea?

    JP: That it is possible to create other realities.



    posted by Perreault @ 11:28 am | Permanent link


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About John Perreault
I have written about art for a number of years, specializing in first-person art criticism as art critic of the Village Voice... More

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