Robert Motherwell

Loneliness by Chris Hall

Vincent van Gogh,  Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate , 1890.

Vincent van Gogh, Old Man Sorrowing - At Eternity's Gate, 1890.

“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”  Vincent van Gogh 

Sometimes being an artist can be quite lonely.  There are the hours spent alone in the studio working.  Working, because you love it and because you feel compelled to do it, true, but this work also comes with the sacrifice of not spending time with family and friends.  A true friend will stick by you, but fair weather friends will forget about you after a while.  There is also the whole being misunderstood thing (cliché as it might sound, it is still a hard fact that can lead to feelings of isolation from society).  If the conditions are right, inevitably loneliness will set in, and if you are particularly susceptible to darker moods, such as Van Gogh, or myself even, depression might take hold.

Being misunderstood and marginalized by society is the worse of the two.  It can lead to ugliness and bitter feelings.  Consider Van Gogh's words, though:

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

How did he do it?  How did he not fall into bitterness and avoid misanthropy?  Many people, including myself, would be tempted to boycott beauty, to purposefully make a bad art, but not Van Gogh.  Instead, Van Gogh redoubled his efforts into producing beautiful art.  How unimaginable that is to me.  Van Gogh had the remarkable patience of a Saint!

I've read Melville's Moby Dick more times than any other book in my life.  It has had a huge impact on my art, and on other artist's work as well.  Robert Motherwell championed it, as did Jackson Pollock.  Laurie Anderson called it “the Expressionist's Bible.”  In Moby Dick, Melville, who was himself no stranger to darker moods, writes the following:  

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.  And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.  And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar. 

Wise words.

Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler by Chris Hall

Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell.jpg

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) was a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of a dermatologist and a poet.  She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA (1947) and her MFA (1950), respectively.  After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she had wanted to study at Han Hofmann's school, but after attending only one class she left, declaring, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified."  With a $2,000 travel fellowship, she also studied in Paris and Provence, France, where she would spend much of her later life.

In 1949, Mitchell married the American publisher Barney Rosset, in Paris.  Rosset is, perhaps, best known as the man who published the controversial and sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  Mitchell and Rosset soon divorced in 1952.  Mitchell would remain active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950's New York, despite the increasing amount of time she would spend traveling and working in France.  In 1955, Mitchell severed her ties to America, and moved to France to join the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have a long, tumultuous relationship (1955 to 1979).  They would maintain separate homes and studios, but would meet everyday for dinner and drinks.

Joan Mitchell,  No Birds , 1987 - 1988

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Wassily Kandinsky, and later by the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.  Mitchell's work, like that of her Abstact Expressionist peers, are expansive, and usually made up of two panels.  The landscape was a primary influence on her subject matter.  Like fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell would sometimes paint on unprimed canvas, but with gestural and sometimes violent brushwork.  She has described painting as, “an organism that turns in space.”

Beginning in the early 1980's, Mitchell's health began to fail, and it impacted her work significantly.  In 1984, She was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and was she was advised to have jaw completely removed.  After a second opinion, radiation therapy was pursued, and her jaw was saved (although it would leave her jawbone dead).  Her health continued to fail, however, and she fell into a crippling depression complicated with anxiety.  While Mitchell had quit smoking, but she would remain a heavy drinker for the rest of her life.  With the help of a psychoanalyst, Mitchell returned to painting.  Long an admirer of Vincent van Gogh's work, Mitchell began to look at what is perhaps his final painting, his Wheatfield with Crows (1890) as a kind of suicide note, filled with hopelessness, despair, and death.  Mitchell made a painting entitled No Birds (1988) as a response and homage.  Like Van Gogh, Mitchell also began to investigate the subject of sunflowers, saying she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.”

Mitchell was also a great admirer of Henri Matisse, favoring his vivid use of color and the vivacity of his line.  She once claimed that, “If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.”  In October of 1992, Mitchell flew to New York to visit a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Mitchell returned to France on October 22, and entered the American Hospital of Paris.  Mitchell died on the morning of October 30, 1992.

Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was a “Second Generation” American Abstract Expressionist painter.  She began exhibiting her large-scale paintings in galleries and museums in the early 1950's and is also labeled as being a Color Field Post-Painterly Abstraction artist.  Frankenthaler was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg.  Post-Painterly artists generally set themselves apart from the “First Generation” of Abstract Expressionists by eliminating the emotional, mythic, and religious content from their work and for eliminating the highly personal, gestural, and painterly application of paint.

Growing up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a progressive Jewish family under privileged circumstances (her father Alfred Frankenthaler was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge), the Frankenthaler family encouraged Helen in her pursuit of art.  Frankenthaler found herself influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings, and by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Frankenthaler studied art at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo, and also at Bennington College in Vermont.  Upon graduation, she continued taking private studies with Hans Hofmann, in 1950, who she met through Clement Greenberg (with whom she would have a five year relationship).  Also in 1950, Frankenthaler saw Pollock's paintings for the first time (Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 and Number One - Lavender Mist, 1950) at Betty Parsons Gallery.  Of the works, Frankenthaler said, “It was all there.  I waned to live in this land.  I had to live there, and master the language.”  In 1958, Frankenthaler married “First Generation” Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, though they would divorce in 1971.  Because both Frankenthaler and Motherwell were both born to wealthy parents, and were known to host lavish parties, the pair became known as “the golden couple.”  Frankenthaler never considered herself a feminist, saying “For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue.  I don't resent being a female painter.  I don't exploit it.  I paint.”

Frankenthaler, like her Abstract Expressionist peers, is known for her large scale paintings with simplified abstract compositions emphasizing spontaneity, which she would make by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.  She once stated that, “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once.”  Although she painted in many different abstract styles and used a variety of techniques over her 60 year career, she is best known for her color field painting using a “soak stain” technique, where she would heavily dilute her oil paint in turpentine which she would us to soak and stain her unprimed canvas.   While the technique produces a beautiful result, resembling the translucent application of watercolor, the major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

During the course of her life, Frankenthaler would be a faculty member of Hunter College and, in 1989, would be one of the few women artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

A common criticism of Frankenthaler's work, along with that her “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist peers, was that it was “merely beautiful,” and without much substance, aping the style pioneered by “First Generation.”  But we do need beautiful things in the world, to give us pause in our lives.  Beauty is good medicine, good for the soul.  It heals.  Asclepius had five daughters who helped him in his practice of medicine:  Hygieia (Hygiene),  Iaso (Recuperation), Aceso (Healing), Panacea (Universal Remedy), and Aglaea (Beauty).  “Art,” Picasso reminds us, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career thus:
“Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."

Jackson Pollock Part Two by Chris Hall

From Triumph to Tragedy

When the WPA closed in 1943, Pollock was forced to take work as a custodian for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum).  It was here that he met Peggy Guggenheim, who encouraged him to submit work to her gallery Art of This Century.  Pollock signed a gallery contract with Peggy Guggenheim in July 1943.  He received the commission to create Mural (1943), which measures roughly 8 feet tall by 20 feet long, for the entry to her new townhouse. At the suggestion of her friend and advisor Marcel Duchamp, Pollock painted the work on canvas, rather than the wall, so that it would be portable.  After seeing Mural, the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: "I took one look at it and I thought, 'Now that's great art,' and I knew Jackson was the greatest painter this country had produced."  Mural would prove important in Pollock's transition from a style shaped by murals, Native American art, and European modernism towards his mature drip technique. 

“I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them.”  Jackson Pollock.

In October 1945, Pollock married the American painter Lee Krasner.  In November they escaped from what Pollock called the “wear and tear” of New York City to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island.  With the help of a down-payment loaned by Peggy Guggenheim, they bought a wood-frame house and barn at 830 Springs Fireplace Road.  Pollock converted the barn into a studio.  Life was almost idyllic for Pollock and Krasner at Springs.  Pollock expanded his family to include a dog, Gyp, and a crow, Caw-Caw.  He was also able to quit drinking for two years, 1949-50, and he became very productive.  For example, in 1945 he painted only 20 canvases, but in 1949, when he was on the wagon, he painted twice as many.  In 1950, his most productive year, he painted nearly 50.  

In the studio at Springs, Pollock perfected his big "drip" technique of working with paint, with which he would become permanently identified.  In the following years his style became more boldly abstract still, and he produced works like Shimmering Substance (1946).  The following year he finally hit on the idea of flinging and pouring paint, and thus found the means to create the light, airy and apparently endless webs of color that he was reaching towards.  Masterpieces such as Full Fathom Five (1947) were the result. 

Drip paintings (1947- 1950)

“New needs need new techniques.  And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements . . . the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”  Jackson Pollock.

The famous 'drip paintings' that he began to produce in the late 1940s represent one of the most original bodies of work of the century.  At times they could suggest the life-force in nature itself, at others they could evoke man's entrapment - in the body, in the anxious mind, and in the newly frightening modern world.  Sometimes Pollock's work suggests the obliteration of the figure, the shattered and fragmented self as the modern condition.  At other times it suggests a peaceful destruction, as inner bleeds into outer, the self exploding into the universe, where there is unity, harmony, and wholeness.

Pollock first tried the drip technique in 1936, in a New York experimental art workshop run by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.  He also knew about the Surrealists’ experiments with spontaneously applied paint, and used it himself off and on throughout the early to mid 1940s.  He later used paint pouring as one of several techniques on canvases of the early 1940s, such as Male and Female, Composition with Pouring I and Composition with Pouring II.  By 1947 he had perfected the technique of pouring, flinging and spattering liquid paint, and could control its flow to achieve the effects he was after. 

Pollock started using synthetic resin-based paints called alkyd enamels, which, at that time, was a novel medium.  Pollock described this use of household paints, instead of artist’s paints, as "a natural growth out of a need.”  He used hardened brushes, sticks, and even basting syringes as paint applicators.  Pollock's technique of pouring and dripping paint is thought to be one of the origins of the term “Action Painting.”  The term “Action Painting” was coined by American art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952.  This style of painting focuses on art as a process rather than just a finished product.  The act of creation itself is the point and not just the painting alone.  By defying the convention of painting on an upright surface, Pollock added a new dimension by being able to view and apply paint to his canvases from all directions.  While painting this way, Pollock moved away from figurative representation and challenged the Western tradition of using easel and brush.  Pollock used the force of his whole body to paint, which was expressed on the large canvases.  In 1956, Time magazine dubbed Pollock "Jack the Dripper," due to his painting style.  

"My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.  When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well."
—Jackson Pollock, My Painting, 1956

James Joyce describes his work Finnegans Wake as being a “chaosmos.”  I think this description would be applicable to Jackson Pollock's paintings of 1947 to 1950 as well.  His drip works have no hierarchical organization, no figure ground relationships, no focal point, no perspective.  Everything is obliterated, everything but the All.  Pollock's art making process seems to me like he is channeling the forces of nature while working in a Shaman's ritual trance state.  Flinging, dripping, pouring, and spattering, he would move energetically around the canvas, almost as if in a dance, and would not stop until he saw what he wanted to see.  Pollock observed American Indian sand painting demonstrations in the early 1940s.  Referring to his style of painting on the floor, Pollock stated, “I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk round it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.  This is akin to the methods of the Indian sand painters of the West.”   

While it was a mixture of controllable and uncontrollable factors, Pollock denied reliance on "the accident"; he usually had an idea of how he wanted a particular piece to appear. His technique combined the movement of his body, over which he had control, the viscous flow of paint, the force of gravity, and the absorption of paint into the canvas.  

In the 21st century, the physicists Richard Taylor, Adam Micolich and David Jonas studied Pollock's works and technique. They determined that some works display the properties of mathematical fractals although this could not be replicated by others.  They assert that the works expressed more fractal qualities as Pollock progressed in his career.  The authors speculate that Pollock may have had an intuition of the nature of chaotic motion, and tried to express mathematical chaos, more than ten years before "Chaos Theory" was proposed.  Their work was used in trying to evaluate the authenticity of some works that were represented as Pollock's. 

Pollock's most famous paintings were made during the "drip period" between 1947 and 1950.  He rocketed to fame following an August 8, 1949 four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"  In 1950, he had a successful solo exhibition, and, along with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, was selected by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., for the Venice Biennale.  Pollock also signed the open letter protesting The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition American Painting Today – 1950, for its exclusion of Abstract Expressionist artists.  The 18 signers became known as “The Irascibles” and Life magazine published an article of the affair along with the now famous photograph of the group, which included artists Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, and Robert Motherwell.

The Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg Film

In 1950, Pollock was at the pinnacle of his career, but by the end of the year he was drinking again.  In July 1950, Hans Namuth approached Pollock and asked to photograph the artist working in his studio.  Encouraged by his wife, Lee Krasner, who was aware of the importance of media coverage, Pollock agreed.  Not satisfied with black and white stills, Namuth wanted to create a color film that managed to focus on Pollock and his painting at the same time, partially because he found more interest in Pollock's image than in his art.  His solution was to have Pollock paint on a large sheet of glass as Namuth filmed from underneath the work.  As Namuth could not afford professional lighting, the film was shot outside Pollock's Long Island home.  This documentary (co-produced with Paul Falkenberg) is considered one of the most influential documentary films on an artist ever made. 

 

In November 1950, Namuth and Pollock's relationship came to an abrupt conclusion.  Jeffrey Potter, a close friend of Pollock's, described Namuth as commanding, frequently telling Pollock when to start and stop painting.  According to Potter, Pollock "felt what was happening was phony."  Namuth himself describes Pollock as being "very nervous and very self-conscious" of the filming at the time.  After coming in from the cold-weather shoot of the glass painting, Pollock, who had been in treatment since 1938 for alcoholism, poured himself a tumbler of bourbon whiskey after having been sober for two years.  An argument between Namuth and Pollock ensued with each calling the other a "phony,” culminating in Pollock overturning a table of food and dinnerware in front of several guests.  From then on, Pollock reverted to a more figure-oriented style of painting, leading some to say that Namuth's sessions robbed Pollock of his rawness.  Some have argued that Namuth made Pollock feel disingenuous about his drip technique, which he had previously done spontaneously, but in the film seemed coerced. 

During his time with Pollock, Hans Namuth had created two films and captured more than 500 photographs of the artist.  These photos have also allowed art historians to dissect the details of Pollock's method.  For example, art historian Pepe Karmel found that Pollock's painting in Namuth's first black-and-white film began with several careful drippings forming two humanoid figures and a wolf before being covered beneath several layers of paint. 

The Late Works (1951 - 1956)

“I'm very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time.  But when you're painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”  Jackson Pollock.

At the peak of his fame, Pollock abruptly abandoned the drip style.  After a brief period of producing dark, monochromatic works, he returned to using color and reintroduced figurative elements.  The new paintings were badly received when Pollock first exhibited them, but he continued to work on them right through 1953, his last productive year of work.  During this period, Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice and Pollock's gallery, Art of This Century had closed.  Gallery owner Betty Parsons had taken over his contract.  There was great demand for his work from collectors, but critics were giving him bad reviews for returning to more figurative art.  In response to this pressure, along with personal frustration, his alcoholism deepened.   

His personal troubles only increased in his later years.  He left Betty Parsons Gallery, and, as his reputation preceded him, he struggled to find another gallery.  He painted little in 1954, claiming that he had nothing left to say.  In 1955, Pollock painted Scent and Search, his last two paintings.  He did not paint at all in 1956, but was making sculptures at Tony Smith’s home: constructions of wire, gauze, and plaster.  Shaped by sand-casting, they have heavily textured surfaces similar to what Pollock often created in his paintings.  In the summer of 1956, Krasner took a trip to Europe to get some distance from Pollock, and soon after the painter began a relationship with 25 year old art-star groupie Ruth Kligman, who he had met at the Cedar Bar.  On August 11, 1956, at 10:15 pm, Pollock, age 44, died in a single-car crash in his green 1950 Oldsmobile convertible while driving under the influence of alcohol.  Pollock lost control of the car on a curve and he plunged into the woods at 60 or 70 miles an hour.  One of the passengers, Edith Metzger, was also killed in the accident, which occurred less than a mile from Pollock's home.  The other passenger, Ruth Kligman, miraculously survived. 

For the rest of her life, Pollock's widow Lee Krasner managed his estate and ensured that Pollock's reputation remained strong despite changing art world trends.  Lee Krasner died in 1984.  They are buried in Green River Cemetery in Springs with a large boulder marking his grave and a smaller one marking hers. 

Revisiting the Moby Dick Paintings by Chris Hall

Between 1997 and 1998, and again in 2006, I made several paintings illustrating Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  I had just read Moby Dick for the first time in 1997, after reading that it was a favorite among the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Pollock and Motherwell.  Moby Dick had a dramatic effect on me, and it remains one of my all-time favorite books.  These are some behind the scenes commentary on the creation and meaning of some of the work:

1.  In the first one, Tashtego (2007), I discovered the whale and bird (which the character Tashtego nails to the mast of the sinking Pequod in the closing scene) by accident.  It was part of my Divination Series, a series of 16 collages where I tore up pieces of paper, photocopies of pages from a book on Marc Chagall, actually, and glued the pieces down randomly in order to discover subject matter and composition.  

2.  Confrontation (2007) came next.  It is pretty much a straight forward symbolist piece.  Like Tashtego, and many of my other works from this time, my subject matter and composition was not pre-determined.  Once again, I discovered the whale by accident.  I was painting the ground of the composition for the skinned horse to walk on, and somehow it transformed itself into the specter of the whale.  It is one of my many visionary pieces from this time, and the meaning of this work is an enigma, even to me.

3.  The portrait of Ahab (1998) follows. Ahab is presented as a contorted and painful figure, with the ever-present eye of the whale figuring behind him.  In my hot-blooded youthful ignorance, I had come to identify somewhat with Ahab and his madness.  After some meditation I realized that this was unhealthy.  If you identify with an archetype, your fate becomes a self fulfilled prophecy.  I would later decide that I did not want to go down like Ahab.

4.  The Whale (1998) is a straight up Expressionist painting.  It is a bloody revenge fantasy, from the point of view of Ahab, who wanted to revisit violence on the world for its evils and for mankind’s suffering, revenge on that nameless thing that the White Whale had come to symbolize for him.  On the tail of the whale, the Pequod makes its appearance, and foreshadowing the Pequod’s demise, the whale’s flipper transforms itself into a tombstone.  

5.  The Whale Hunt (1998) closes out the Moby Dick paintings of 1997-1998.  If The Whale is hot with subjective energy, the point of view of Ahab, then The Whale Hunt is the outsider, universal perspective.  The turbulent white sea brings forth notions of the universe as sublime, indifferent nihilism.  The churning sea is filled with seman (sperm and egg feature in the composition), milk, and blood . . . it is the source of life, and in the case of the Pequod’s crew, the source of death.  The Pequod makes its appearance in the upper left, and opposite the Pequod is the Sun (which doubles as the previously mentioned egg).  The Pequod is sinking; it is being consumed by the sea and the indifferent all devouring universe.  No one gets out alive.  But where is the whale?  The whale is there, because the whale symbolizes the universe, it makes up the entire painting.  The Sun/Egg serves as the all seeing eye of the whale.  

6.  For Ahab Monomaniac (2006) I thought I would once again revisit Ahab, from a more sober, mature perspective.  Somehow I lost my way, and the result is a bit of humor.  It is critical of Ahab (and by extension, my youthful self).  At the time I was learning how to deal with suffering and pain with a sense of humor.  If Ahab had developed a sense of humor, Moby Dick would have ended very differently.  

7.  Ocean #9 (2006) is another sober, mature look at the subject. I had wanted to illustrate Moby Dick, without illustrating its narrative elements.  What I decided on was to do a series of works illustrating the moods of some of the chapters, and have this reflected in psychological seascapes.  The composition of each of the works was pretty similar, the point of view forward from the masthead of the vast and open sea.