I can't resist sharing my admiration and ambivalence for Chuck Close, with a few excerpts from a review of his retrospective a few years back, since I think it's one of the best reviews I've done. If I may, I'd like also to commend you to a defense of Richter and to a discussion of another blurry portrait, by Rembrandt centuries before.
It also gets at several issues that you guys are just going to have to stop wishing away. Ok, so some theorists dismissed art's authenticity after photography, in our "age of mechanical reproduction." And your response: shout down the artists who work through it to new creative directions. No wonder the art can be dismissed "on philosophical grounds." It might question the cozy little realm of academic painting we're trying to salvage.
Above the fold, I'll just offer my review's epigraph:
But modern portraits by English painters, what of them? Surely they are like the people they pretend to represent.
Quite so. They are so like them that a hundred years from now no one will believe in them.
— Oscar Wilde
Chuck Close is deceptive. I do not mean just how well his portraits deceive the eye. I mean his range of influences and his increasingly wild, painterly style. How easily they disguise what interests me most, his fixity of purpose. Close dares to stake his humanity on his art, his art on mechanical reproduction, and its reproducibility on his fallible humanity.
He starts with large photos, all head shots, of his friends and himself. They almost all face dead front, but they hardly trouble to make eye contact. I imagine them unsure whether to pose as friends, icons, or just themselves. They never quite pull any of these off, either. True friends, much less media celebrities, might comb their hair from time to time.
Guided solely by his eye, Close transfers their images to enormous canvases. Over three decades now, he has created an entire personal world, almost lifelike and just as weirdly rigid. It is a small world, and he never varies from it. He might use the same photograph more than once, even decades apart. Only Close himself is permitted to age.
Close has ties to all sorts of trends, if mostly from the 1970s, but going back to his own role in the birth of Soho. One thinks of photorealism, but just for starters. From abstraction he takes the gigantic scale and an art at least one step away from seeing. Josef Albers supplies the grid, Andy Warhol his elevation of the media icon, Wayne Thibaud his coolness. But Close is his own movement, one that reflects on all of these.
Close elevates the "age of mechanical reproduction" as enthusiastically as any postmodern artist. If all modern art came as a response to early photography, no one else worries so much and so long about how to respond. If human identity begins with what Jacques Lacan calls a mirror stage, no one has spent longer in front of the mirror. If originality and humanity are illusions created by superhuman forces, no one else puts the illusion through quite so many paces.
Sadly, Close lost almost all physical mobility about a decade ago. It seemed certain that he would never paint again. If tradition compares recovery from illness to a miracle, it uses the same metaphor for representation. Close's career testifies to disbelief in miracles, but he keeps creating them. He even takes advantage of his physical limitations, to continue his growth toward wilder, sneakier constructions. The grid enlarges to squares nearly an inch high, and strokes may span three or four. I feel the same tension as in John Coplan's bleak photographs of his aging hands.
Through all those permutations, Close is up to one thing. His portraits imitate the photograph, hoping to understand it and yet out to trump it. He keeps trying harder and harder to fail, and he succeeds. He sticks to the formal, modernist vocabulary with which he began. Like a printer or a factory, he reproduces it endlessly. Yet he trusts only to his eye and hand.
Close has set the bar higher even for photographers, such as Thomas Struth. Yet his very first black-and-white paintings were hardly all that precise. Paradoxically, he depends on the photograph for their hand-made look. The sketchiness of an ear, say, coincides with the blurring due to a narrow depth of field.
Close is fascinated by how reality at a third remove can seem so real. He is in love with a photograph's lack of authenticity and yet determined to control it. Year after year he repeats his formal gesture, like Freud's child tossing a ball over and over to confront a sense of loss. He has lost the comfort of art's humanity and his own claim to genius, and again and again he replaces it with his outsize talent.
The narrowness, though, is precisely what I like about him. It puts his subject's humanity and artistic genius through the wringer, and they emerge on the other side of a work of art. Remember those magazine columns of "mathematical diversions"? In a parody, Veronica Geng wrote that "the trick is ridiculously easy to understand once it's understood." Apparently not for Close. He is the magician who tired his audience long ago but can never get over his own amazement.
In the myths about genius, a creative individual stands for more than a person, like another icon on the desktop of virtual reality. But it is a myth, and one can sketch its contours precisely.
Close helps penetrate those myths, but only because he needs them so desperately. He has become like the Apple ad, snatching geniuses who will never endorse a computer, long after the art world has turned appropriated images inside out. Meanwhile art's magic has moved on to video, interactivity, and digital manipulation, as for Bill Viola, only to raise again the difference between the magician and the charlatan.
Close has the stubborn custom on belief, along with the insight to disbelieve again the next day. Those old-fashioned ways of approaching his art explain why not everyone finds him still provocative. He is the controlling artist, decades after installation art stopped trying to control it all. And yet you, too, will want to go through his show twice.
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"You know it's been such a wide array of influences that have inspired me. The whole era of the Early Renaissance to Baroque is simply amazing. Some of my favorites are Bronzino and Caravaggio. I also used to manage a Japanese animation/comic/toy store before college, so I couldn't help but to be inspired by some of those artists...Katsuya Terada, Yasushi Nirasawa, Yoshitaka Amano are some of my favorites from Japan. I also love the old woodblock printers from there as well...like Hokusai, Hioroshige and Yoshitoshi. There's also a great gallery scene going on in the US with very cool painters like Joe Sorren, Mark Ryden, and Glenn Barr that are all extremely inspirational to me."
"It is hard to find words to describe how enamored I am of the work of Tara McPherson. It is absolutely dreamy…. There’s something so ethereal and yet substantial about her vision, whether when considering her soft-focus paintings or the sharper lines of her poster-prints. That rather dreamlike quality extends even to the characters that populate her work, cartoonish creatures and well-drawn guys and gals situated in bizarre or abstracted surroundings. What ends up grounding the work and giving it impact is the implied narrative context—heartbreak, relationship woes, personal turmoil. As whimsical as her work may first appear, each piece seems to hold its own dark corner or bit of dramatic reality....."To me, Tara appears to me to be a unique, yet Bruegelesque, painter, creating "illustrational" art about how peculiar and yet enchanting the behaviour of our fellow humans can be. Tara's images unite various opposites in a very human fashion: "girlishness" with aggression, sweetness with horror, Neue Sachlichkeit with fantasy, "ligne claire" with punk, abstraction with cartoonish representation, and others. Smoking teddy bears, decapitated robots, cute vampires, balloon-headed flowers, bloody, missing hearts. Her images, most of all her characters themselves, seem to possess a knowledge of life gained from some serious hard knocks, yet with a refusal to give up their fundamental innocent buoyancy. McPherson creates art that is both pleasurable and disquieting, much like many human relationships.
In another thread, started by Mark, Shark defends two serious assaults on the very viability of art after Modernism—or, to put more accurately, to art after a particularly conservative view of Modernism. This one sees formalism as estheticism. Thirty years ago, Hilton Kramer found that embodied not in Pollock or de Kooning, whom he despised, but in Marsden Hartley. It amounted to the politicization of contemporary art as a mirror of the culture wars that conservatives keep fighting, long after most culture no longer cares. Shark singles out for praise two recent rear-guard fighters, Jed Perl and Roger Kimball. The first has the advantage of actually knowing something about and liking art, as well as keeping his own views on politics largely to himself.
Books from conservatives on how ideology (presumably not their ideology) have led to the decline and fall of civilization extend well beyond the arts, but I usually feel compelled to review the ones that do fall in my field. It is like one of those video games or Bop a Mole, where you kill them but they keep popping back.
Here's what I have, for example, about Kimball, Perl, and a Times article several months ago, and I have a several part attack on a new one by John Carey in progress, with a second installment today. Because Shark raises the book, let me excerpt just a bit from my review on Kimball's The Rape of the Masters. I argue for a special kind of political art, in which the political really is the personal, as part of a personal direction important elsewhere in contemporary art as well.
. . .
I am not a political columnist. I shall merely state my own conviction that I write, just days after the November 2004 election, in the wake of yet another disaster that art failed to prevent.
Can art do better? Must it? Anna Somers Cocks seems to think so. "Why," she demands, "is art not reflecting world events?" Her article, from The Independent for June 17, 2004, sees "no artistic engagement with the big, threatening issues that hang over us." It looks even better in print journalism's headline font.
If Cocks cannot find political protest anywhere, Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, sees it everywhere. "Increasingly," he claims, "art history is pressed into battle—a battle against racism, say, or the plight of women or on behalf of social justice. Whatever." His new book, The Rape of the Masters, denounces a supposed cabal of leftists that has taken over art history and driven out the art. "What," he wants to know, "has happened to the main event?"
Surely both cannot be right. They beg one to choose sides in a crucial debate, a debate as familiar from politics as from art. The debate concerns the very possibility of art at the intersection between personal expression and the public sphere.
In politics, the left wants the excluded to speak, while its proclivity for self-consuming debate can easily make any speech inadequate. On the right, the rhetoric of McCarthyism has translated effortlessly into a world without even a Red menace: a powerful enemy still lurks and still determines every response. As in politics, too, the dissemination of Kimball's new book, through articles, excerpts, and interviews in his own and other publications, reflects the cool efficiency of the conservative media machine. And, just as in politics, all too many people tune out the whole thing.
Naturally art and politics often have some of the same dynamics. Postmodern and feminist assaults have done well to hit art institutions hard. That includes not just museums, but the styles and personalities associated with representation and Modernism alike. Meanwhile, one after another backward-looking introduction to art promises a respite from the culture wars, in the simple comforts of Romantic expression, pleasure, and plain old good taste—which I myself have been trying in vain to lose for years. And all the same, the art market grows, museums expand, audiences follow suit, and it takes a determined mind to care about disputes at the edges. A site like this one can hardly avoid tracking all those issues month after month.
And that, I want to argue, is exactly how art does choose sides—by getting down to work, work that no critic can honestly disentangle from the world. For all their differences, Cocks and Kimball share a curiously literal and sadly conservative view of art and ideas. Both see politics and ideas as necessarily remote from personal passions. Both see politics as about choosing sides and art as about seeing both sides of the story, and both find those incompatible. One writer wants to recover the connection between politics and art, and one wants to sever it. They should ask instead whether artists in this world can ever avoid it.
. . . and I hope you'll read more!
"The whole art world is a fraud." One can always count on that theme to sell a few books or magazines.
It appeals to a public unease with art since Modernism, even while people pack the modern museum. It appeals to qualms about soaring prices, even as auctions only add to a work's aura and the public's reverence. It appeals to a phony right-wing populism that still plays politically, directed perversely at artists, scholars, and others on the outside of real wealth and power. No wonder it appeals, too, to The New York Times.
Twice in about a week, the paper reports on a painting that may or may not pass for the work of a great American artist. Teri Horton, whom I quoted at the outset, bought it for five bucks at a California thrift shop, and she has been trying to validate it ever since.
Her story pits a gutsy woman against art historians, who dismiss it as worthless. It also makes her the star of a new movie, Who the $#%& is Jackson Pollock? The film neatly aligns her contest with another, between "the connoisseurs, who insist that a refined eye is the ultimate judge of authenticity," and "the scientific side." Thomas Hoving, former director of the Met, stands in for the former, while the forensic evidence comes from fingerprints.
The director, Harry Moses, leaves no doubts where his sympathies lie, and The Times obviously shares them. I can see a case for them, too. In a newspaper thumbnail, the paint looks far too flat, dense, even, close the canvas edge, matte, and simply boring for Pollock's. An unsigned drip painting does not yield its secrets easily, however, and prints may sound convincing. According to a Canadian investigator, they match those on a Pollock in Berlin and others from Pollock's Long Island studio. Still, alarms should be sounding loud and clear.
As in politics, one should be questioning the populism alone. The Times would not be covering this twice in one week unless a bigger business than the art world were promoting a movie. Ironically, too, Hoving made his reputation, both as New York parks commissioner and at the Met, by opening Central Park and the museum alike to a larger public. Not surprisingly, then, the film's scenario sounds like a market-tested formula. Both a woman and a former truck driver with an eighth-grade education—one who hated the "ugly" mess at first and could not give it away? One can hear audiences cheering already.
Michael Moore at least takes on real private interests. No one else's Pollock drops in price if this one sells. Conversely, the movie depends on buying into the worth of a Pollock, and by denigrating visual examination it effectively detaches that worth from anything like, well, meaning.
One also wonders about the credentials of the investigator, about how he obtained the prints, and about whether any museum lab got a look. Real science is open and replicable, and anyway art forgers often begin by scraping away a canvas from the right time and place.
Finally, just who neatly aligned those two conflicts? Art attribution always relies on scientific examination, because inspection, knowledge, and understanding go together: they are about developing an informed eye and a receptive mind.
A museum like Hoving's would be testing the pigments against Pollock's, using microscopes, radiography, and maybe even fractal analysis to compare the density and weave of paint. It would also be researching how a painting worth a fortune would have left Lee Krasner's estate, crossed the United States, and landed in a thrift store—a narrative that historians call the painting's provenance. And when all that examination does pay off, in what I see and know, it may not have anyone cheering.
November 14, 2006
Goya Painting Stolen on Way to Guggenheim
By FELICIA R. LEE
A painting by Goya was stolen on its way from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to a major exhibition that opens on Friday at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the two institutions announced yesterday.
The museums said in a statement that the 1778 painting, “Children With a Cart,” was stolen in the vicinity of Scranton, Pa., while in the care of a professional art transporter. They said the theft was discovered last week but refused to provide additional details on the crime. Officials at both museums said the F.B.I. was investigating the case and had warned them that releasing additional information might jeopardize the inquiry.
"Excuse me, The Shark doesn’t hate -he simply dines on what is weak. And it just so happens perhaps as mere coincidence, that what is weak in the Chicago Art World happens to be much of what could be described as the official, institutionally sanctioned version of what takes place here. An egregious and slanted version of events, of which, Hamza is an apologist and, proponent.
Its all about context. Do you accept the official version of what is important here, and what kind of art you should make to address these same concerns as career opportunity, or, as an artist, do you create your own context, based upon what you feel is legitimate and important."