Thursday, February 07, 2019

Traipsing Through The Arts-All 20th Century Art Is About Sex-Forget That Stuff You Learned In Art Class About The Sublime-Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock Unchained- In The Midnight Hour Gliding Through “Number 31” (1950) Without Wings

Traipsing Through The Arts-All 20th Century Art Is About Sex-Forget That Stuff You Learned In Art Class About The Sublime-Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock Unchained- In The Midnight Hour Gliding Through “Number 31” (1950) Without Wings

By Laura Perkins

Mercifully Sam Lowell has my back. The merciful part first. Recently I, with Sam as my sparring partner then, made my first big group of enemies at this publication when I had the audacity to suggest that late 19th painter John Singer Sargent’s Madame X’s birdlike nose was maybe a sign of profession beauty in her day but was strictly Bride of Frankenstein these days (with no disrespect to Mary Shelley and her divine fictional creation Frankenstein which we paid homage to on the 200th anniversary of its publication in 2018). I added a few off-hand remarks that professional beauties, and Madame X was no exception, in French high society then, maybe now too, slept their way to the top. That in turn was Sam’s central thesis which I thought was a little rough on the much- maligned woman. 

Then Sam, who has spent his career as a film review editor and writer and thus keen to find the back story, told me about the memoir of Madame X’s personal maid who gave details about her role as the one who let the “guests” up the back stairway, sometimes when her husband was down below. The maid had originally no ax to grind, would probably not have “told all” except Monsieur LeBlanc, Sargent’s paint supplier in Paris (and who would sent the paints over to London when  Sargent fled there since the finicky artist could find nobody else who could mix blacks, browns and greys like him) had been much maligned when he let on that he had shared Madame’s bed when she was “slumming” among the plebeians and Parisian high society bared their daggers at such impertinence and she wanted to set the record straight. So Sam at least was not far off in his understanding of this, his term modern day Whore of Babylon although I would have held back on her personal life since she took enough of a beating from that same self-satisfied Parisian crowd.                 

I, we, on that occasion went hammer and tong on the substance of John White Alexander’s (another three- name guy which I have noted elsewhere is so bourgeois, started out of some need to distinguish themselves from the two-name Joe Jones common man or to show their descent from some Mayflower stowaways or more likely to cover up their tracks around questions about their births) Isabella and the Pot of Basil (so-called) which was merely a cover for a kinky drug-induced (opium) erotic severed head cult which goes back to antiquity. As it turned out we were right, or I should say Sam a 1960s Summer of Love veteran and an Army veteran as well so very well-versed in the drug milieu while I choke the first time I even whiffed marijuana was right, that the pot contained the crucial poppies needed for the opium dreams. Sam the minute we entered the Museum of Fine Arts room in Boston where the painting hung sensed even before he went close to the painting that the basil, so-called symbol of love or something was the normal Victorian hogwash covering up not only Isabella’s, or rather the model who posed for Alexander, junkie drug addiction but the artist’s as well. Again, back story Sam pointed out that you never saw Alexander in short sleeves even on the hottest days the better to cover up the tell-tale tracks on his arms. Moreover along the way we found out that there had been an international modern-day crack-down on the devotees of this bizarre cult and even the Italian authorities back in the Renaissance were on Isabella trail once they got suspicious of all the well-bred young women who were hanging around when the well-paid executioners were doing their work.

I won’t even go into the hell broth we suffered from yahoos and high-brows alike when we exposed Whistler’s The White Girl as essentially an ad for a modern day Whore of Babylon (which I agree with Sam is what is true here although I still differ on that characterization for Madame X), the key being the symbolic wolf’s head and fur the model is standing on. This woman was allegedly four-name Whistler’s girlfriend, mistress, paramour so it makes sense, high Victorian hypocritical sense that he would not just put a big “A” or something on her head but something more symbolic but also making it clear she was “available.” Nice guy “pimping” his girlfriend just ti prove he could do art for art’s sake. Yes, Whistler was hard, very hard on his women. The high brows defending their own, in this case a three-named guy Doyle who was in deep denial about the real stuff going on among his forebears. Worse though and even Sam who always says he is beyond surprises at his age is that strangely, or maybe not given the times we live in we got most of our deep-freeze blasts from troll evangelicals worried about their kids maybe reading about sex and eroticism in art. Yes, I know, weird. We have already kicked that around and the good folk seem to have backed off once we got to 20th century art which to them must have seemed a cesspool of filth and vulgar sex but no self-respecting kid would be caught dead reading some old fogey take on the meaning of modern art. Yes, weird indeed.

Those storms passed by and Sam and I took the whole experience as the overhead of doing something a little on the tangent side, a little off-beat but well with the parameters of art work analysis even if we are not as Doyle thought was his biggest contention professional art critics. What solidified us though was our firm contention that all serious 20th century art all the way up to Pop and Op Art are centrally about sex, eroticism and sensuality. (We both agree the jury is still out on 21st art especially Minimalism although I have noted that Matty Gove’s works reek of pure sex, rough sex to boot and that Dan Blake’s later works are nothing but almost pornographic depictions of various sexual acts. Matty when he read the piece sent me a message mentioning how perceptive I was to see that his signature paint, Three Intertwined Shapes, was his homage to S&M culture.)

As with many of our joint projects we are solid on the central point and disagree over particulars. (Sam has been an advisor to me since the first Singer piece although in the background where he remains since he refused to take the on-going self-selected art works assignment when first offered by site manager Greg Green.) That was the case when we put our first painting, the famous one by Edward Hopper from 1942 Nighthawks under the microscope. I basically took that narrative as a busted romance which tottered on the woman being ticked off at her guy for being drunk (note the glassy unfocused distracted eyes of the classic midnight drunk) and not bed-ready. See my take was that Hopper was pissed off at his wife Jo who was the female model for not letting him use a younger woman he had contacted (and was sexually interested in and very interested in painting in the nude except JO nixed that idea, a non-starter as long as she still breathed). Sam I thought was crasser in his narrative that this scene was a classic late-night diner prostitute pick-up spot and the guy was a John deciding whether to go for paradise or not. Sam finally agreed with my contention that Hopper was pissed off at his wife for being a prude but as usual had a little back story to lay on me that the young thing he was interested in painting he was seeing her and painting her nude. She would be the young model in the roadside whorehouse painting where she was sunning herself while the old madame was counting the nightly take. So you see we have different takes on occasion within the context of the broader thesis.

I hope nobody laughs but I almost wish those troll evangelicals were still yapping at my heels. Reason: one Clarence Dewar, art critic for Art Today who somehow saw that Hopper piece and flipped out. Naturally Mr. Dewar had to sharpen his knife with the fact that I am not an art critic (and neither by extension is Sam Lowell). I have repeatedly mentioned that hard fact which is a great deal of the reason that Greg Green gave me the project and has supported my work all along against all-comers. A fresh quirky look is what he has called it and has said so to his various fellow editor drinking buddies when they question the wisdom of letting a quirky dame run amuck with the crazies and the paid professionals hugging their respective turfs.

Here is the dagger through the heart though-the so-called fatal blow. The one that will send me back to the cheap seats. Mr. Dewar is of the theory that since the Impressionists, and that grouping is an important divide in modern art all art has been a search for the, get this, sublime. His argument is that with the invention of the camera artists have moved away from representational art, away from the line, color combo that drove most previous art. Apparently the further away from line-color coordination the purer the art form and hence the closer to the, get this, sublime. So where Sam and I saw a classic 20th century sex scene one way or another Mr. Dewar sees Hopper say as making a big splash statement about the isolation of modern society and the decline of the individual. Individuals being afloat in a lost world which I guess can be cured by looking at some painting not with lust in their hearts but seeing a “terrible beauty is born” as the poet Yeats would have. To place that search in some midnight Joe and Nemo’s diner with a bunch of besotted drunks and a rum-dum short order cook who overcooked the hamburgers and recycled the coffee beans for the fifth time that evening is the epitome of, get this, sublime.         
Sam and I had a good laugh about that one although Sam says we have not heard the last of Mr. Dewar since he carries some weight, no what did Sam call it, some water, in art circles in New York and in the old days he was a student of Clement Greenberg who practically invented that silly sublime theory that has kept more lame art curators, art collectors, art directors, and so-called high-toned gallery owners looking in the wrong places than you can shake a stick at, maybe a brush too. One night Sam and I did get into a discussion about the place of the sublime in art history and how it has choked off more serious discussion than it has provoked. After a couple of hours, we were worn out by the place where the discussion was heading and reaffirmed our commitment to our own thesis about sex and sensuality (read eroticism, okay) as the driving force in modern art (and don’t forget maybe post-modern art too).

A couple of days later we saw Jackson Pollock’s Number 31 done in the late 1940s when he was the max daddy of what Greenberg called action painters and more generally the key figure to boost Abstract Expressionism, the so-called Greenberg search for the perfect break from line to pure form. Almost at the same time we both blurred out (to the annoyance of a couple of matronly art devotees at the next painting) “the thing reeks of sex” and I think I said primordial sex, trying to be polite with those old biddies present. Originally Sam and I were going to play off each other insights about Pollock’s place in the great sex and sensuality search presented by his drip paintings (although a serious argument can be made that during the early 1940s Jackson went amuck with the brush and in an earlier age would have been stoned to death by the sex police or at a minimum has his works burned at the stake).

Since then through internal meetings with Greg Green we have decided to give Sam an upcoming “unchained” space to run off his mouth about the genesis of his various takes on art before we put him back in the bottle. Basically I agree with Sam that Pollock was doing some very weird sexual things out there in Long Island in that shed, with or without Lee Krasner around. That recent testing has found some foreign materials which are not paint, which are some kind of human fluids, mixed into the brew. I will leave it there for now and let Sam give his, own take which will only confirm what those old biddies didn’t want to hear- Sublime terrible beauty sublime not old Dewar’s silly sublime but earthy tones down in the human grind and mud sublime.      

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