30 April 2013

Something beyond the void


In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space holds fourteen "black" paintings created for the chapel by the artist that feel by turns funereal, reverent, mystical. "People have always cried at [Rothko's] paintings," Elkins reports, a phenomenon the artist regarded as quite reasonable. "The people who weep before my pictures," Rothko said, "are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them." There was a spiritual element to much of modernist abstraction, a sacredness that chafed constantly against the movement's existential doubt and postwar formalism. Most of the juicy metaphysical tension was drained out of modern painting by the Sixties, though there remains activity among artists from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Pacific to revive it—even some in this country, on the fringes. The essay appeared in the Playbill for the production of Red, the John Logan play about Mark Rothko, at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, New York, 19 April to 19 May, 2013.  

A Communication About the World
The Art of Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko may be the last great artist of passion any of us will see in our lifetimes. The brooding Abstract Expressionist stands in the lineage of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, and van Gogh, artists for whom our most powerful human emotions—ardor, ecstasy, suffering, despair—were both the subject and motive of their work.  Whether Rothko’s shimmering and somber rectangles of color will achieve the immortality of the masters before him, time will tell. Like those earlier artists, he sought the essence of what it means to be human, and expressed it with a sublime and awesome presence unimaginable in our current age of irony.

There is a moment in Red in which Rothko rages after seeing an exhibition of the artists who followed him, including Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. “They’re trying to kill me!” he declares. “Superficial, meaningless sewage!” The scene is not literally accurate—Andy Warhol did not produce the paintings for which he is famous until a few years after the time frame of the play—but it is emotionally true nonetheless. Warhol and the rest of the innovators of Pop Art (it was called the “New Realism” when it first appeared) were indeed out to discredit, dethrone, and ultimately dismantle what Rothko stood for. And they succeeded, openly mocking their elders’ claims of existential and spiritual purity with an aloof, acidic irreverence and jaded cynicism that embraced the materialism, consumerism, celebrity, flash, and trash of modern culture, an ethos we have inherited. In real life, Rothko was introduced to Warhol on a Greenwich Village sidewalk; he turned and walked away without a word. If we were filming the scene today, where would we point the camera? On the expression of the older master as he composed himself in the throes of contempt, or on the young upstart, watching the old man disappear?

Rothko struggled for his success, experimenting through more than twenty years of successive genres and forms, from grim social narrative to mythic surrealism, before finding his mature style in 1949. His best paintings are triumphs of beauty and intensity, two or three blocks of glowing, soft-edged color stacked in a vertical field. He was widely considered America’s greatest living painter at the time he accepted the commission to paint the Four Seasons murals in 1958. He turned the canvas sideways, creating haunting friezes that seem at once shrouds, portals, and free-floating auras. 

The painter once, only half ironically, offered a “recipe” for his art. The ingredients included “intimations of mortality,” “sensuality,” “tension,” “wit and play,” and “the ephemeral and chance.” Rothko often denied his paintings were “abstract,” by which he meant they were neither purely intellectual nor non-representational. Indeed, he most likely viewed his works as utterly literal renderings of the non-material but entirely real psychological awareness he depicted. Painting a picture, he once said, “is a communication about the world.” The last item in his recipe was hope. “Ten percent to make the tragic more endurable.”

Ultimately, the tragic became unendurable for the artist himself. “One day the black will swallow the red,” Rothko laments in the play. Despair, decline, and death overtook the chromatic splendor of life, and Rothko committed suicide in 1970 at age 66. The next year saw the opening of what the artist considered his greatest creation, the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The chapel holds fourteen paintings in an octagonal museum-cum-mediation center, each of them black, though to say so is somewhat misleading. Embedded in the darkness is an immanence of other hues—brick red, chestnut-brown, plum. mauve—that give the works depth, movement, mystery. Even as the color drained out, Rothko sensed something beyond the void.

Albany has its own Rothko, one of the gems of the Empire State Plaza Art Collection. The untitled 1967 work, on display in the concourse level of the Corning Tower, features a bright blue ground with a large, teal-green square floating above a charcoal rectangle. Like the blacks in the Rothko Chapel, the grey of the Albany Rothko is hardly static. Study it slowly. As your eyes grow used to the dark, the lower rectangle sheds its gloom and feels lit from within. There is no irony in the passionate eloquence of this effect. 





Romano Cagnoni, Rothko Chapel, Houston, 1967
Henry Elkan, Mark Rothko in his 53rd Street studio, c 1953


15 February 2013

Everywhere, a mood of change

Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn and make an end of you. — Charles Dickens, Hard Times

In 1997, as staff art critic for an upstate New York newspaper, I went to a museum exhibition of works from the 1970s through the 1990s called "Is It Art?"—a coyly provocative question with the clear answer, "Yes, whether you like it or not." The exhibit was an adjunct to a book (not the other way around) titled Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art's Meaning in Contemporary Society, that sought to explain and endorse the work of thirty-seven of our age's most highly regarded artists, including Joseph Beuys, Sophie Calle, Gilbert and George, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Gerhard Richter. In the book, each artist was chosen for his or her explorations of a culturally relevant concept or theme; hence, the idea of "Data Collecting" was illustrated by the pixelated pointillism of painter Chuck Close; of "A Chicano Woman" with the icon-crowded installations of Amalia Mesa-Bains; of "Self-Sanctification" by the multiple videotaped plastic surgeries and phials of fat tissue of French artist Orlan; and so on in this manner. The subject "Urine" was personified by Andres Serrano, who in the early 1990s became a lightning rod of the "culture wars" for his photograph Piss Christ, which, with the work of other politically, sexually, and religiously controversial artists, had been assailed by right-wing politicians in a scorched-earth campaign against contemporary art and government funding. For much of the '90s, detractors from Sen. Jesse Helms to the television journalist Morley Safer prosecuted a case against the very same aesthetic that "Is It Art?" was mounted to defend.

Although my job at the paper was to act somewhat as an expert, I was at the time largely self-taught, with limited exposure to the postmodern avant-garde or its controlling philosophy, expressed by Linda Weintraub, author-curator of the book-exhibit, as "deviation." Today, a decade and a half later, the fashionable word is "transgression," but the project is the same: to challenge cultural norms and dispute accepted ideas of order.  I was stymied and shaken by the exhibit's mood of perpetual indignation, belligerent irony, and zealous embrace of chaos. Its implications bewildered me, to say nothing of my own half-recognized responses. Despite my confusion, the exhibit had its intended effect, setting in motion an engagement with contemporary art that continues to this day, though one, I allow, generally closer to an interrogation than a love-in. Indeed, the show was a turning point of my thought-process and my career. But that's another story. 

I recalled all this while listening to Edi Rama speak about the ways beauty improved the civic life of Tirana, Albania, where he was mayor from 2000 to 2011. I should put the term in the uppercase—Beauty—for as Mr. Rama's TED talk reveals, it was not simply the presence of pleasing color that enhanced his city, but the ideal of order and integrity that beauty represented. Beauty was conspicuous in its absence in Ms. Weintraub's book and exhibit (in truth, in the book it was not at all absent, but explicitly nullified in an afterword by postmodern apologist Thomas McEvilley)—one could not help but observe that the art on display was starkly un-beautiful, as each artist adopted a stance, from banality to shock to sheer ugliness, to undermine all hope of visual pleasure. The effect was quite obviously purposeful, like there was a movement afoot. How long had this been going on? In fact, since the 1960s an anti-aesthetic ideology had grown up in artist studios and art departments that rejected beauty as a humanist virtue and considered it, far from Keatsean truth, an insidious lie. Toiling far from urban galleries and academia, I had not connected the dots on the new paradigm. Till then, I had regarded beauty more or less like oxygen, something we could all agree on. The fact that certain works were not beautiful had never struck me as an assault on the idea of beauty, any more than a rhombus negates a sphere. In the exhibit in question, though, the lack of all elegance, grace, proportion, balance, fineness, or any other quality appealing to the senses, was plainly a call to arms.

This call brought me face to face with my own unexamined assumptions about beauty. I've never been a push-over on the subject. I don't swoon in front of every Impressionist painting on the wall. But I knew that the aesthetic intention of "Is It Art?" was to make me feel shitty, and I was not so suspicious of my instincts as to welcome its hermeneutical defoliation. What self-respecting person suffers a churl, or worse, a roomful of them? Weighing the question of aesthetics, immediately, almost instinctively, it was clear to me that as an ideal Beauty is not simply a matter of pleasure, delight, awe—it has a moral component as well. I could not at the time have defended this impulse, but it was and remains self-evident to me that to live in contact with beauty is immeasurably healthier to the spirit than living amidst ugliness, whether that ugliness be the blight of an urban slum, the brutal classlessness of a communist tract, or the drab uniformity of a suburban subdivision.  Those forces that deny great swaths of the population access to the sensual and spiritual influence of beauty—whether out of indifference, bigotry, ideology, or greed—commit a kind of mass soul murder. When artists, our chief orators of beauty, deny its importance as well, they make themselves complicit in the violence.


Once sensitized to the subject, I quickly learned a backlash reconsideration of beauty was in full swing by critics and philosophers. This counter-reformation reached a height in Elaine Scary's 1999 book, On Beauty and Being Just. "Beauty assists us in our attention to justice," Scarry wrote, a truth Edi Rama learned from experience. Upon being elected mayor of Tirana, Rama embarked on a project of beautifying his city, by clearing rubble, tearing down illegal buildings, and constructing green public spaces. He set in motion an initiative to paint public buildings, including housing projects, in bright primary colors, and otherwise improved the aesthetic atmosphere of the neighborhoods. "It was a force of political action," declares Rama. "When colors came out everywhere, a mood of change started."

That change, Rama asserts in his talk, manifested itself in increased civic pride and social cohesion, and in a reduction of crime. "Beauty was acting as a guardsman," Rama told his TED audience in Thessaloniki, Greece. "Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected." He tells the story of a shopkeeper he met in the act of replacing the metal grate on her storefront with a large display window. "How is it—?" he asked. Look around, the merchant returned; since the neighborhood was painted there have been fewer thefts, fewer crimes, the people feel more secure. "It's beautiful. It's safe."

This is slight anecdotal evidence, but it points the way. Cosmetic upgrades obviously could not solve all of Tirana's ills (they had no effect on the city's decrepit water and sewage system, for instance). Beauty cannot redeem the world on its own . But we are wired to adapt to our surroundings and take our cues from the unspoken values the environment imposes and fosters. A view that supports beauty's emotional and ethical necessity can conceive of humane solutions to a myriad of challenges. Dickens' entreaties for the aesthetic needs of the poor applies to us all. As a value, Beauty has been freighted with numerous and not entirely unreasonable doubts for so long it will not be restored to some former, unambiguous glory. And yet, without it we are lost. This era we are in, this time of post-postmodernism, metamodernism, neoclassical romantic baroque modernism, call it what you will, urges us to seek latent energies in the old virtues, to go back and look again for overlooked possibilities. Is it beyond reason to expect artists, as a kind of minimal job description, to grasp these imperatives? Before becoming a politician, Edi Rama was a painter.




Something beyond the void

In his book  Pictures and Tears , James Elkins describes the charged silence that fills the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The space ...