Leon Kossoff: From the Early Years - 1957-1967
Mitchell-Innes & Nash February 17 – March 28, 2009
The School of London has always posed a problem on this side of the Atlantic. The term was coined by the American ex-pat R.B. Kitaj for the 48 artists he included in a show called The Human Clay at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. Today we associate the term primarily with Kitaj, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff. Of these artists, Bacon and Freud are of course the best known in the United States. Kitaj has hovered at the margins, a kind of literary curiosity that no one quite knows what to make of, while Auerbach and Kossoff have remained comparatively obscure. A major critical stumbling block has been the group’s inborn conservatism—having coalesced, as it were, at the moment the coffin lid was slamming shut on the art object in general and painting in particular. Kitaj’s criterion that the work in The Human Clay be exclusively “pictures representing people” was, for a Greenbergian, as intellectually bankrupt as a premise could get.
And yet, here we are, still thinking about them, debating the merits of Bacon’s sometimes-cartoonish angst or Freud’s dour prurience, because whatever their strengths or weaknesses, their art arises out of a complexity of experience, rife with extra-visual baggage that is as problematic as it is transcendent. The School of London’s unabashed impurity raises questions that are still unanswered, if not unanswerable, about the place of psychology, literature, biography, tradition, and history in modern pictorial art. We see the same issues at work in the Leipzig School, with equally nettlesome results. But the Londoners were there first, in a much more hostile critical environment, and through their clangorous diversity they launched a more comprehensive set of arguments regarding the validity of representational painting as it headed into the 21st century.
Leon Kossoff, who was born in 1926, is among the most celebrated of living British painters (the Tate owns 118 of his works, more than Bacon and Freud combined), and so his apparent invisibility here is particularly striking. An online search reveals that the Museum of Modern Art owns exactly one piece, a drawing from 1988. I might conjecture that the absence of physical objects by Kossoff is a deficit that feeds on itself, because, from the evidence of this show, his work does not carry—at all—in reproduction. While paintings by Bacon, Freud, Kitaj and Auerbach often bustle with graphic zing, Kossoff’s muted light/dark contrasts tend to congeal into an anti-photogenic murk, with slathered surfaces and shredded subjects (portraits, nudes, and cityscapes) that come off as unremittingly unpleasant, like de Kooning drained of sensuality or Soutine sans sanguineness. Before I walked into the show at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, I expected that Kossoff’s work would be an untranslatable local phenomenon, a drag to look at, and laden with insufferable self-importance.
None of these presumptions held up for a minute under Kossoff’s turbid relentlessness. The paintings, all oil on board, look dredged from a riverbed, the edges encrusted more than an inch thick. Their surfaces are not so much painted as carved, with gravity-defying topographies of hillocks, cliffs, and furrows. The images are subsumed into the paint to such a degree that I had to step back about six feet to apprehend the features of “Head of Mother” (1965), which otherwise looked like a clotted Anselm Kiefer landscape. The exhibition was primarily of portraits, with one urban scene, “City Building Site” (1961), and a female nude, “Seated Nude no. 1” (1963), whose mossy swirl of brushstrokes spirals inward toward the womb. Poised between pregnancy and putrescence, the portrayal might be something Lucian Freud would paint if he could shed his academicism and honestly embrace his revulsion of the flesh.
The portraits are no less intense in their gravity and despair, but the paradox of these paintings is that they are also light-filled, radically coloristic, and inexplicably funny. Bilious swatches of vein-like whites, blues, and grays bump up against hatches of burgundy and flecks of lemon yellow. A delicate splat of blue-green enlivens an earth-bound stretch of raw sienna. And ribbons of Mars red trace their intricate trajectory over a field of golden ochre. The compositional architecture, for all of its aleatory fury, is classically solid, and the portraits’ hapless-looking subjects seem to have fallen out of a comic strip for the terminally depressed, erasing the line between pathos and hilarity. The artist I thought of the most while looking at Kossoff was Milton Resnick, whose similarly built-up surfaces can only be experienced firsthand. But while Resnick emptied his work of everything but paint, Kossoff seems to struggle with every stimulation that crosses his optical path. The work in this show predates The Human Clay, but its title fits like a mud-soaked glove. Resnick’s purity may coax us toward a vision of spiritual ecstasy, but Kossoff’s adulterated, quotidian muck leaves us feeling simultaneously damned and exhilarated, which is to say, unquestionably alive.