Thursday, May 28, 2009
Francis Bacon, The Centenary Retrospective currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains the largest collection of the painter’s work amassed for exhibit in twenty years. The exhibit, arranged chronologically throughout ten galleries, is epic in scale and presentation, with nearly all of the work presented in gilt frames. Codified by images of distorted and bestial figures; screaming Popes; rabid animals, and carcasses of beef arranged on cage-like platforms, the brutal, existential world Bacon painted is revealed through sources and depicted in images, themes and formats he repeated incessantly.
The first work one encounters is Study for Three Figures at Base of Crucifixion, 1944. A triptych, the work declared Bacon’s painting career when exhibited in London in 1945. Bacon employed triptychs throughout his career as an allegorical, non-narrative device. Historically, the figures represented at the base of the crucifix were: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary, the mother of St. James, and Mary Magdalene. Here the isolated figures, each depicted on an acidic orange ground, are anthropomorphized only through their gaping, tooth-filled mouths. The monstrous remains reflect man’s inhumanity in the wake of horrors of war still experienced in Europe. What is seminal about this work is the foreshadowing of several key components in Bacon’s work: the triptych; the gaping mouth; the bestial or distorted figures and the stages on which they exist.
The second gallery is devoted to heads, another insistent subject in Bacon’s work. Here one first encounters his source material of earlier painted masterworks, films, photographs and the sequential, figurative photography of Eadward Muybridge. The work Painting, 1946, depicts a tweed-clad figure, an umbrella, and flayed carcasses of meat. The painting also introduces the restrictive platform so frequently articulated in Bacon’s work. This device may be drawn from Bacon’s experience as a furniture designer whose wares were often displayed in vignette on raised platforms. What is inescapable is Bacon’s essential “Englishness”. The restrictive platform reflects the nature of British society as emblemized by the omnipresent umbrella and tweed. The carcasses signify man’s inhumanity given the bleak environs of post blitz London. In a later series, Men in Blue, 1953-1955, the quiet desperation of the Englishman is revealed complete with paradoxical notions of power, anonymity and frailty.
Bacon moves from the universal to the particular as he opens up his world on the canvas. The work Triptych, 1967, is inspired by the T.S. Elliot poem Sweeney Agonistes. Three acts are depicted in allegorical tradition: birth, messy and blood-filled; copulation, two figures indistinguishable from one another; and finally death, a tale told after-the-fact and evidenced by a figure, an unemotional herald, placing a phone call.
Bacon’s late works demonstrate his movement from editorialist to observer and the experience of a life lived. The early works reacting to the human condition in violent color and distortion are now framed by subtler, lighter colors. The figures, still distorted, depict the frailty and patina of an aging life as evidenced in Triptych, 1991. Unsympathetic to these figures, Bacon casts a clinical eye upon them. One senses he knows them intimately, perhaps autobiographically. It is in his late work that Bacon has resolved man’s inhumanity with his humanness.
What the Centenary Retrospective most successfully describes is the life of a painter in the latter half of the twentieth century. The artist’s point of view, at first angry and grim, becomes resolute, almost defeated. Formally, it is a consistent investigation of an artist’s craft within repetition of subject and form. Bacon’s hermetic practice remained uninfluenced by movements in art taking place in the United States. This exhibition positions Bacon as a Master, elevating him beyond his accepted status as an important British figurative painter.
Monday, May 25, 2009
Yesterday, I happened to be in Greenpoint, Brooklyn as their Memorial Day parade was taking place. Though multi-ethnic, Greenpoint is populated predominantly by Polish and Latino residents. It is also home to many artists.
This small parade was particularly poignant. As is tradition, the honor guard was composed of one member from each branch of the U.S. armed services, and walking with them was an Army Chaplain and an Afghani family. This was unexpected and I started to cry. That was also unexpected.
Following the honor guard were marching formations from the Army, Navy, Marines and National Guard. As is the case whenever I see members of the armed services, their youth and ethnicity struck me. Interwoven with these marching contingents were roving Veterans of past wars. The Veterans wore their regimental insignia with great pride and I was again struck, this time by the age and dwindling number of those from WWII, which seems the last time an enemy was so clearly defined in our collective conscience.
I think Memorial Day is hard for artists. It is a holiday upon which we recognize that we are inextricable from the times in which we live. Fundamentally opposed to war, I enjoy the editorial luxury of my craft, while there are those who have pledged to defend that luxury. So on this Memorial Day, I would like to recognize those artists who have served their country.
Some of them are:
Monday, May 18, 2009
Rodeo, Aaron Copeland
Music for Airports, Brian Eno
Morning Music, David Sampson
Colchester Fantasy, Eric Ewazen
Country Life, Roxy Music
All titles, Mat Lombardi
The End of the Art World, Robert C. Morgan
The Poetry of Wallace Stevens
the smell of hot tar
wet leaves stuck to wet black pavement
the smell of a library
brown craft paper
blue blazers with brass buttons
split pea soup
smelly tree near the Washington Subway stop
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Today I am reflecting on the reality of art and culture in a single subject, my friend Kate. Kate and I have been good, close friends since 1973. In fact, she remains one of my three closest girlfriends. She is 48 today.
Kate is definitely a Kate, not a Kathy, not a Kat, not even a Katherine, which is her given name. Kate was the girl who melted Barbie-doll heads in a saucepan, then stuck the saucepan in the freezer to hide the evidence. Kate was the girl almost sent home for bare arms in eighth grade. A borrowed white cardigan came to the rescue. Kate was the girl who voluntarily took a trip down the laundry chute at one of her now legendary parties in Lake Forest. I so wish I had a picture of her legs hanging out into the kitchen. Kate was the girl who would make you a custom Gingerbread man in the likeness of the boy you least wanted to remember. Kate was the girl whose Halloween costumes contained the least amount of fabric. Kate was also the girl who didn’t miss class, and regularly achieved good grades.
Adult life has not spared her adult sadness. Too early, she lost her sister, best friend and confidante, Megan. Kate herself narrowly escaped death two years ago when, during a storm, a large tree crushed the car she and her daughter were sitting in. It remains one of the few occasions on which I am grateful for large, gas-guzzling vehicles. Kate was one of the earliest friends to see and express concern about a darker road I was once on.
Kate is a wonderful wife to a wonderful husband, with whom she is raising four happy, funny, inquisitive children. She is one of the few people I know that reads the newspaper, in print form, in entirety, every day. She reads books voraciously, loves music, loves art and loves fun. Considering the uncertain times in which we live, there is a consistency about Kate that I have come to rely on. She is a touchstone.
The balancing act of life is an Art. I admire Kate’s ability to navigate it with tenacity and pluck. Happy Birthday!