“Vermeer’s work is very uneven.”
—Albert Barnes, “The Art in Painting,” 1925
Ladies, gentlemen, may I have your attention? I am about to speak of Vermeer and Clyfford Still and give a recipe for a baked chicken. The first two items do have a logical connection—or at least they have a connection—while the third will come out of the blue.
Albert Barnes, I must admit, gives me a thrill. He wrote of Da Vinci’s “Annunciation” in the Uffizi that “the surface has the quality of ordinary fence painting,” and that Jacques-Louis David furnishes “a conclusive demonstration of the futility of mere talent in a painter.” I wish Barnes wrote for Artforum today.
Although I find Vermeer’s work to be extremely even, Barnes says “Little Street” and “View of Delft” are in the highest ranges of art. Of “Cook,” “Girl Reading a Letter,” and “Girl with a Pearl Necklace” he writes, “Plastically, these consist of little more than an obvious, isolated pattern of light which shines upon color and cheapens it…The result is a photographic reproduction of subject matter with the adventitious appeal of womanhood.”
I made my way to the Met, where Vermeer and the Delft School is running through May 27, mostly in hope of seeing one of these “bad” Vermeers. None of them are in the show, alas, but “Little Street” is there, and after fighting my way through the mob, I glimpsed it. When remembering Vermeer’s work, I do sometimes ask myself: Is it too photographic? Too pretty? Corny, even? Doubt falls away before the paintings; they are so fresh and tender and delicately observed. Standing on tiptoe behind a group seven deep in front of “Girl with a Red Hat,” I thought, “My God, how beautiful!”
For relief from the teeming multitudes—and here’s the “logical” connection I promised—one might wander down the hall to the Still collection. People don’t crowd there—the view is completely unimpeded. The paintings are huge and grim. The largest one, “Untitled 1950,” is mostly covered with vertical red brush strokes that don’t compare favorably to ordinary fence painting. The notion of this being a mountain down which a jagged river flows is subverted by a black slot and a shitty brown strip on the left-hand side of the painting.
Most of the works do start to evoke landscapes or caves with stalactites and stalagmites. One reminds me of a golden cavern painted by Church but Still destroys that with a red streak and a yellow blob, as if to say, “Oh no you don’t, no allusions or illusions here!” The strongest statement in his work is the effort to destroy pictorial illusion, and it does seem effortful. In his “Statement, 1959” for a show at the Albright-Knox, Still wrote, “I held it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which would aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct and totally free vision could be achieved, and an idea revealed with clarity.”
Still cited Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Monet (to name only the painters) as examples of Western European decadence. I wish I could print the whole statement: I can’t decide whether it reminds me more of a New England preacher threatening damnation or a proponent of a grim 1950s ideology. The only flexibility Still shows is in accepting the paradox of showing his work in an institution he reviles.
Can Still and Vermeer be compared profitably? From an art historian’s or a critic’s standpoint, probably not, but a painter might have a different view. That the Vermeer show is full of people and the Still works barely receive glances doesn’t prove that Vermeer is better, but it doesn’t prove the reverse either, as the forces of cultural elitism would have us believe. In the Vermeer show, I heard a spectator say, “He finds so much beauty in ordinary life.” I wonder if ordinary life in our time has a findable beauty. There are other important questions as well—about a painting’s relative size, whether it is made only for museums, and whether paintings are primarily vehicles for intellectual ideas. However, after busting his head for a while, man must eat (I’m using “man” and “his” here to denote both sexes), and it’s hard to argue with a baked chicken.
Buy an organic chicken if you can because they do taste better. Wash it thoroughly with water, removing innards, and dry it with paper towels inside and out. Make small slits in the skin of the breasts and inner thighs and insert slivers of garlic. Rub a small amount of olive oil onto your chicken. Throw a couple of cloves of garlic inside as well, along with pepper and some sage or rosemary. Cut up some carrots, potatoes, onions, and celery and put them in the pan with the chicken. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the vegetables. Bake in a 350 degree oven for an hour or a little more, basting occasionally and turning the vegetables. It is done when the skin is brown and crispy and the legs are a little loose. Overdone is better than underdone. Ask a couple of people over, they can bring the wine. If the subject of Vermeer and Still comes up, would you write and tell me what happens?
ContributorCathy Nan Quinlan