When David Shapiro asked me for a text for this issue of the Rail I was driven to finish a couple of responses to exhibitions that were abandoned for lack of time but that I also knew had been taking off on their own in more or less opinionated ways. This should account for a certain culture-critical indulgence here in the first of these texts, concerning a provocative cultural theme with which some paintings by Leon Kossoff that I have long admired in their own right are at least indirectly concerned. For I have always especially liked Kossoff’s paintings and drawings of classical architecture subjected to extreme expressive torque—including what long struck me as a quoted Poussinesque temple-front. But at Kossoff’s exhibition of paintings from the last two decades at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, in May and early June of 2011, it struck me for the first time that possibly all the paintings of this sort that I’ve ever admired are in actuality renderings, in different views from different angles, of the same Nicholas Hawksmoor, Christ Church, Spitalfields, in London, of 1714 – 29. Over and over again, apparently, Kossoff has painted this church in his somehow lyrically heavy, putty-like manner.
Asking myself why has led quite unexpectedly into a possible political iconography. A few years ago I, a former student, under Rudolf Wittkower, of just such British architecture as Hawksmoor, found myself standing in front of just this splendid building wondering, might there conceivably be a causal relation between its being said to have been lent for years to a Huguenot, i.e., Calvinist, congregation and its presenting itself, even after comprehensive restoration, in such a depressingly shabby state as I saw? (I now read on its website that the church had to be closed for structural deterioration in 1954 and was reopened in 1987 after a thorough restoration; but I could swear that I saw it after that locked up in unhappy condition.)
Then I recalled, some years back, my disappointment at finding François Mansart’s Church of the Visitation, 1632 – 34, in Paris—perhaps the best work by one of the very greatest of architects—padlocked in shocking and shameful disrepair. Contemplating this wonderful building from without, I noticed a sign explaining how it had been given over to the Huguenots, who obviously hadn’t used it for many, many years, nor even taken care of it. By then that would have included the fattest of fat cat capitalist bankers who, I recall, when François Mitterrand was elected with jubilation from the Left, sat him down in a smoke-filled room and told him what he would and wouldn’t be permitted to do.
All this came together thanks to something I had just seen that spring in London, a few days before seeing Kossoff’s exhibition. Near Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, I’d been standing beside Wren’s St. Nicholas Cole Hole Abbey, of 1678, which, after being wrecked in the Blitz, had been restored in 1961– 62. However, for about the past 25 years, local Calvinists were allowed to use it; and now, padlocked, it too looked shabby enough to need another extreme rehabilitation, surely not at the expense of the Calvinists who had borrowed it, either.
Well, then, isn’t it possible that Leon Kossoff, with his open series of paintings of just this particular Hawksmoor church in his home town, has possibly managed to put his finger on a certain hotspot in the political culture of the contemporary Calvino-capitalist world, namely the pseudo-ethical obligation to take advantage and exploit (often the term is “develop”), to which nobody seems to dare to point? There now, I’ve said it, provoked, at least to my eyes, by Kossloff’s art. But there will be no contradiction in my saying that even as the possible political implication of the motif comes to the fore, Kossoff’s various renditions under the title Christ Church, Spitalfields strike me as fully artistically engrossing as ever. The show had three impressive examples. The largest, Christchurch, Spitalfields (1999) I found really thrilling; with a skidding perspectival plunge along the church’s left flank.
I don’t see any reason to be disappointed if work I have long admired turns out also to have ideological implications with which I can at least concur, so long as I am not simply projecting. Obviously I have to wonder if my inference holds water; and I did find some secondary confirmation in this exhibition insofar as another category of paintings inter-hung with the “Christ Church” ones, concerned natural structural, though not architectural, decrepitude, using the motif of an old cherry tree in the artist’s garden, whose branches have come to require propping up, as if by walking canes. The partly parallel theme actually helped to avoid the possible aesthetic difficulty, once one was put in mind of the problem of building maintenance, of a thick, funky paint job being simply punningly equated with a broken-down building. For in their own right Kossoff’s thick smudgy stuccos of paint, memorably mauled in dirtied whites, are anything but decrepit. Perhaps they have something more reflective than merely reflexive to do with the generally decrepit state of the world’s dominant, if not quite sole, political economy.
Admittedly, Kossoff’s paintings may have stimulated my thinking inadvertently, though once we acknowledge that a painter is painting the very same motif so repeatedly, not to say obsessively, iconographical curiosity, to say the least, is definitely in order. Well, is even my favorite Christ Church, Spitalfields (1999) editorializing; and should that be okay? The painting is doing its job as a work of art by holding itself open to meaning, as we like to say so glibly when nothing much is at stake; and I as interpreter am permitted to risk projection so long as I account for myself.
I have to add that Leon Kossoff is the only significant painter I’m aware of for whom the literal weight, the sheer avoirdupois, of the painting might be noted immediately after its date, materials, and dimensions. The true bottom line is that he can get away with this because, thanks to a driving poetic idea, the sheer stuff of the thing, its gross materiality, its bulk, which so many Americans take as positive by definition, if not almost as absolutely good as money, never has the upper hand. But Kossoff’s hefty poundage of paint is thoroughly subsumed into a primarily aesthetic, but also maybe unexpectedly culturally political, magic effect.
Speculative Response To Latterday Förg
This last January-to-February I was too thoroughly preoccupied with other writing to respond to an exhibition by another major European painter, Günther Förg at the Greene Naftali Gallery. Twelve paintings from 2007 – 09 represented two categories of work, one of which engaged me more, at first, though both appealed to me by the intelligence of their different modes of evidently gracious ease—as sophisticated unalienated work as anything but all-American labor-intensive. Writing now from on-site but cryptic notes more than six months old, plus a few on-line photographs, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that there is a practical constraint on labor-intensive description.
The paintings that were so easy to fall for that I thought something might be wrong are large, pleasantly lyrical white fields sporting arrays of patches of unashamedly pretty colors. But somehow it would have seemed unfair to accuse these works of being conservative inversions, as it were, of the American “lyrical abstraction” of color-field painting, as if the spots of color were too European-reserved to bust out of the traditional role of contained motifs. But does everything have to be a pushy brass band? At least as elegantly as in American maxi-staining, Förg’s small patches of parallel strokes of one or two colors show themselves as micro-structurally articulate, rather than making a spectacle of ‘pushing’ the structural ‘envelope.’
If they are to be accused of traditionalism, however, let it be of a distinctly modern tradition. These works evoke a device important in Jasper Johns: the taches of pigment that build up into patches, which in Johns’s early work itself already evoked Cézanne; and the build-up of such into a textile-like patchwork. (How strange, today, to see serious artistic “influence” or allusion, which once entailed respect and homage, presumed to be a marketing ploy.) Förg also engages with the modernist legacy by spreading out a white field that manages to be no inert graphic ground but an expanse of Malevichian “cosmic” sky, in virtue of which his patches of color strokes float loosely without losing cohesion—Malevich might have said, as if in a magnetic field.
The easygoing grace of the result may threaten to trouble us Americans. In one unrepentantly lovely “Untitled” painting of 2007 the color patches trail like wisteria; and we can’t like Whistler and pretend we mustn’t like it. But if a certain languor generally holds sway, it seems less American-sentimentally nature-bound than, say, the loose twiggy arbors of mid-career Brice Marden. Other paintings show an intensity of intuitive color combination in their patches and then arrays of patches that seems intent to go beyond being quasi-floral spots. In fact, Förg shows a tendency, within his improvisational looseness, to go for a presumably incompatible color, sometimes but not necessarily the official “complementary.”
As soon as I try to generalize I notice something peculiar to a given work. Take another of the same year in which some patches coalesce, like clouds just convening, out of strings of patches of strokes, including some patches of black. A four-square block of four of these, three green (with two of one green and one of another) and one qualified rose (?), almost juxtapose with a raggy crayoned netting of black lines, the only lines besides a nearby signature. I am aware of having to push myself just to account for a few of the more structural incidents as well as the plays of color, with overlaps of kindred or opposed tones, which give the resultant “web” something like the consistency, percussively inflected, of modernist chamber music.
At the same time, the virtually gaseous looseness of these images puts me in mind of a difficulty with the ever so practical “empirical” worldview, namely, a presumptuous sense of “extension” that doesn’t extend well to liquids and gases but only to doltishly law-abiding solids. How can these open, easygoing images look at once soft and concrete? By somehow making hue as well as pigment seem physical. Even Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Colour”partakes of an especially British blundering over this distinction by constantly falling back on the term ‘color’ (die Farbe) without distinguishing hue and pigment—as when, over there, people speak of a “box of colors,” which to us might as well equate with speaking of a basket of smells. I once tried to tackle this problem, which must condition whatever the Austrian gentleman is saying; but assaying each use of the one word in both languages was fruitlessly tedious. I wish I’d thought to ask Förg about this at the opening, where I did have the pleasure of meeting him.
Besides the lyrical paintings, a few of the works shown were of a muddy blackish gray type too articulated, as with Reinhardt, to take as monochromes. Their fields are divided in various ways into rectilinear trellises too irregular to count as grids, whether by trailing a brush through wet paint or in seemingly overlapping, also brushy, rectangles. In their own right, as boldly smeared, as well as for the painter’s cultivation of two modalities side by side, they evoke Gerhard Richter. And as a group these variously distinct dark canvases of Förg, almost compensatorily somber compared with his lyrical type, look curiously photographic in a now technically obsolete and “archival” analog-materialist sense: especially like “experimental” double negative, direct deployments of light-darkened printing paper.
My notes are sparse, pretty sketchy; but I think I can testify that one “Untitled” work from 2009 seemed nearly and merely so. Others I found more engrossing, such as a big, loose structure whose thin light blackness allows for a play between “added dark” and what turned out light in the way an overloaded brush can wipe away more than it deposits; or a structurally tight one, comprised of an irregular grille of rectilinear bands possibly laid down with about an inch-and-a quarter brush, not so somber but no pushover either. These unrepentantly blackish paintings which aren’t so immediately appealing as the others have grown on me since seeing them. They even have me thinking that it ought to be interesting to see what happens to the often simplistic “materialist” cult of photography over and against painting, in the last generation, now that photography is completely independent of, not to say divorced from, material.
JOSEPH MASHECK is an art historian-critic whose most recent book is Texts on (Texts on) Art (Brooklyn Rail Press).