Surrealism

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. 

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Pablo Picasso Part Two by Chris Hall

“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence transform a yellow spot into a sun.” Pablo Picasso.

Referencing Picasso's earlier Proto-Cubist work, the Surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton declared in a 1925 article that Picasso was “one of ours.”  Picasso had largely sublimated eroticism and psychically charged ideas in his art since 1909, when he moved on to Cubism and Neoclassic art.  After things began to go sour with his wife Olga, these themes started to return to his work.  Although he retained the spacial relationships of Cubism, he seems to have rediscovered the primitivism and eroticism of his earlier works.  Picasso's work during the last half of his career did not vary in style as drastically as it did during the first half.  Still, there are subtle differences to be found.  Picasso's work during the second half of his life is often categorized by the woman he happened to be in love with at the time . . . and there were a lot of women.

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”  Pablo Picasso.

“The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' sense.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marie-Therese Walter

Perhaps this new found primitivism and eroticism was due to the influence of Picasso's new mistress, the blond and athletic Marie-Therese Walter.  Pablo Picasso met Marie in 1927, as she lived across the street from the Picasso family.  Their relationship began when she was 17; Picasso was 45.  Marie, with her telling blond hair, became a model for many of Picasso's paintings.  Picasso managed to keep his affair with Marie a secret from his wife Olga until 1935, when someone informed Olga that Picasso had gotten Marie pregnant.  Olga and Picasso separated.  He refused to divorce Olga, to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, and they remained legally married until her death in 1955.  Meanwhile, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.  Picasso, not wanting to settle down with a family, moved on from Marie in 1936.

 "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician . . .? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help but be shaped by it . . . No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

Guernica

In January of 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain for a mural to be displayed at the World's Fair in Paris.  By this time, there was already a Nationalist Fascist uprising being led by General Francisco Franco, which threatened to collapse the democratically elected Republican government.  On the 26th of April, 1937, Hitler showed his support of Franco by sending his Condor Legion of Luftwaffe warplanes to bomb and strafe the Basque town of Guernica.  The bombing is considered the first raid on a civilian population by a modern air-force.  

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso had already started working on his commissioned mural, but on learning the news of Guernica, he scrapped his original plan and began work on a new painting.  The completed work, Guernica, would become a Modern Art masterpiece, and is often heralded as one of the best anti-war works of art ever created.  For many people, Picasso's Guernica is to art what Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to music.  Following the World's Fair in Paris, Guernica embarked on a world tour, fostering international awareness for the plight of Spanish refugees following the Fascist Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War.  Guernica was eventually entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Picasso stipulated that Guernica was not to return to Spain until liberty and democracy had been restored.  While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War, one German officer, upon looking at a photograph of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, allegedly asked him, “Did you do that?”  Picasso replied, “No, you did.”  Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Guernica was returned to Spain in 1981.  

Dora Maar

Like Spain, Picasso's personal life while creating Guernica was also in disorder.  His mistress Marie-Therese Walter had given birth to their daughter, Maya  Widmaier-Picasso, but Picasso had already moved on to his next mistress, the photographer and painter Dora Maar.  Dora had met Picasso in 1936, and was documenting his painting of Guernica.  Marie became jealous when Picasso fell in love with Dora.  Marie and Dora once accidentally met in Picasso's studio while he was painting Guernica.  When asked about it later in life, Picasso said that the two women demanded that he choose between them.  He told Marie and Dora that they had to fight it out amongst themselves, at which point the two women began to wrestle.  Picasso described it “as one of his choicest memories.”  Picasso left Marie for Dora, though he continued to support Marie and their daughter, Maya, for the rest of his life.  In 1977, Marie chose to end her life by hanging.  With Marie out of the way, Dora became Picasso's constant companion, and the subject of many of his paintings.  While Marie is often shown as blond and bright, Dora is often shown as being sad, dark, and in pain.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Pablo Picasso.

“It takes a long time to become young.”  Pablo Picasso.

Dora Maar stayed with Picasso for the nine years.  She wanted to have children with Picasso, but was often sad because she was sterile.  Dora was introspective, and Picasso called her his “private muse.”  She was his “woman in tears.”  Nevertheless, the always restless Picasso found a new mistress in 1943, Francoise Gilot.  When the relationship was revealed in 1944, the long suffering Dora entered treatment with the famous psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan.  Dora would return to art after Picasso, painting, taking photographs, and writing poetry, though she would die a recluse, poor and alone.   

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Pablo Picasso.

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”  Pablo Picasso.

Francoise Gilot

Picasso met the young art student Francoise Gilot in 1943.  She was 21, Picasso 62.  They would spend ten years together.  Francoise wrote in her diary that Picasso once took her to see an old woman, Germaine Pichot.  Germaine was Picasso's love interest in 1901, and the girl who had earlier spurned Picasso's best friend, Carlos Casagemas, leading to his suicide.  Picasso said to Francoise, “I want you to learn about life . . . That woman's name is Germaine Pichot.  She is old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now.  But when she was young, she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide . . . She turned a lot of heads.  Now look at her.” 

Picasso would have two children with Francoise, Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949.  During this time, Francoise reported that she was frequently harassed by Picasso's legal wife (he was still married), Olga Khokhlova.   Francoise grew tired of Picasso's many infidelities, and left him in 1953.  Eleven years later, Francoise published her book, “Life with Picasso.”  Picasso tried to stop the book from being published, unsuccessfully.  The book was printed in over a dozen languages and sold over a million copies.  Afterward, Picasso would refuse to see his children by her, Claude and Paloma, ever again.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.”  Pablo Picasso.

“There are only two types of women - goddesses and doormats.”  Pablo Picasso.

Genevieve Laporte

Picasso began seeing the 24 year old Genevieve Laporte while still in a relationship with Francoise Gilot, in 1951.  Genevieve was a former French resistance fighter, writer, and model, and had met Picasso for the first time at age 17 in 1944, while conducting an interview for a school newspaper.  Picasso would dedicate some of his paintings to Genevieve, and when Francoise Gilot left Picasso in 1953, he asked her to move in with him.  Genevieve, aware of Picasso's reputation, refused, and shortly afterward, also left him.

“Every positive value has its price in negative terms... the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.”  Pablo Picasso.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  Pablo Picasso.

Jacqueline Roque

1953 found Picasso dejected and alone for the first time in many years.  And while his work was still in high demand, the art world's attention had shifted away from Paris and Picasso, and toward New York and the Abstract Expressionists.  The ever optimistic Picasso soon rebounded, however, and later that year he met Jacqueline Roque, at the pottery where he created his ceramics.  She was 27, he was 72.  

Picasso romanced Jacqueline by drawing a dove on her house in chalk, and by bringing her a single rose everyday until she agreed to date him, six months later.  When Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova died of cancer in 1955, he was free to marry.  Picasso and Jacqueline married in March of 1961.  He would paint over 400 portraits of her (160 of which were created in 1963 alone), more than any of his other loves.  She is recognized by her elongated neck, high cheekbones, and classical features.  They were together for 20 years, until Picasso's death in 1973.  Jacqueline prevented Claude and Paloma, Picasso's children by Francoise Gilot, from attending the funeral, and she entered legal entanglements with Francoise Gilot concerning the distribution of Picasso's estate.  In 1986, at age 59, Jacqueline Picasso killed herself by gunshot. 

“It means nothing to me.  I have no opinion about it, and I don't care.”  Pablo Picasso on what he thought about the first moon landing, quoted in The New York Times, (7/21/1969).

Toward the end of his life, Picasso's relevance had waned.  Some critics thought his later work was not as strong as his earlier work.  Many thought his style had changed little since the 1930's, while others detected subtle differences in his work each time he fell in love with another woman.  Late in his career, however, he began making interpretations of paintings by other famous artists.  These later works are now seen as being more expressionistic than his earlier surrealistic work, prefiguring the Neo-Expressionist wave of the 1980's.  Once again, Picasso was ahead of the curve.   

It seems so strange that Picasso, perhaps the 20th century's best known and greatest artist, can wreck such havoc on the lives of the many women whom he loved.  It is an irony that he was so cruel and insensitive to all those around him, yet he could produce such loving, and, at times, even sensitive art.  Picasso might have been a bastard in life to those around him, but he did great things for art and because of that, I believe it is alright to celebrate Picasso today.  Pioneers are the first to explore new territory, and Picasso was a pioneer.  Picasso was also a master, producing some of the 20th century's best known art.  After all he has done for art, how can we begrudge Picasso for his personal life problems?  We can't, we must take it all together in stride.  Certainly, we shouldn't gloss it over, but we should accept Picasso as a flawed human being and an artist.  

“Others have seen what is and asked why.  I have seen what could be and asked why not.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marc Chagall by Chris Hall

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) was a Russian-French artist and a pioneer of modernism.  Chagall was born near Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present day Belarus) in a poor Hasidic Jewish family.  Memories of his life growing up in Vitbsk would color much of future art.  Between 1906 and 1910, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  He frequently visited his home, Vitebsk, where he meet his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.  In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."  Completing his studies, in 1910, the ambitious Chagall moved on to Paris.  

In Paris he created his own style of modern art based on his childhood experience of Eastern European Jewish folk culture.  The Paris avant-garde was dominated by cubism at the time, and many viewed Chagall's colorful, dreamlike paintings as a curiosity.  In 1914, a Berlin art dealer, however, found promise in Chagall's paintings, and invited him back to Berlin to exhibit there.  Chagall accepted the invitation, thinking he would pass through Berlin on his way Vitebsk, where he intended to marry Bella.  His plan was to stay just long enough for the exhibition and the wedding, and then return to Paris, but World War I intervened, and the Russian borders closed.  Chagall spent the war years in Belarus and in 1915 married his beloved Bella.  

When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Chagall found himself in a dangerous situation, but also one with opportunity. As an artist, Chagall was respected in Russia, and he accepted a job to be Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.  This would result in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College.  Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of diversity at his school, with artists working in a variety of different styles.  This fell apart, however, when several key faculty members began pushing Suprematist art, a minimalist aesthetic focusing on squares and circles, disapproving Chagall's “bourgeois individualism.”  Chagall resigned his post and moved to Moscow to work as a stage designer.  Moscow was not a good place to be during this time, as famine hit the city hard after the war.  When the Russian borders finally opened back up, Chagall, with Bella by his side, was determined to move back to Paris. 

Chagall moved back to the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1923.  On his way back to France he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. With all of his earliest work now gone, Chagall tried to recreate new ones from his memories of the past.  Paris between the wars was modernism's “golden age,” with the Montparnasse district being ground zero for the world's intellectual elite.  In this Parisian crucible, Chagall synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism to create his own unique style.  He had some success abroad, with his first show in the United States, featuring about 100 works, in 1926.  He finally began to receive some attention in France, when in 1927 art critic Maurice Raynal included him in his book, Modern French Painters.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.  Anti-Semitic laws were being passed and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established.  Almost immediately, the Nazis began to a campaign against Modern Art.  Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and Surrealist, along with anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or just plain difficult to understand was targeted for removal, to be replaced by more accessible, realist work, especially heavy with German and patriotic themes.  Chagall was declared an Entartete Kunst, a “Degenerate Artist,” and his work was included in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, 1937.

When Germany invaded France, the Chagalls naively moved to the unoccupied south, in Vichy France.  They were unaware that the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans to send French Jews to German concentration camps.  Chagall woke up to reality in October of 1940, when the Vichy government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to approve anti-Semetic laws, and French Jews were removed from public and academic positions.  By then, however, they were trapped.  America could be their only refuge, but they could not afford the ticket to New York, let alone the large bond that each immigrant had to pay upon entry to ensure that they would not be burden on the state.

Some circles in America, however, were sympathetic to the situation in France.  France had capitulated quickly, faster than Poland only the year before.  Paris was thought to be the center of civilization, and many were astonished to see it fall into Hitler's hands.  Chagall was not the only Russian or Jewish artist trapped in France; Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, and Max Beckmann all sought to escape.  With help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was added to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate.  A rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas was started.  Chagall was one of over 2,000 people rescued by this operation and together with his family, he left France in May of 1941, when it was almost too late.

Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize in the United States in 1939, but he had no idea what kind of reception he would have stepping foot in America for the first time.  He found out that he was somewhat famous in the art world, and that his work was more appreciated in the United States than in France.  Chagall felt uncomfortable in his new role as artist-celebrity, in a foreign country where he could not even speak the language.  He felt lost at first, exiled in a strange place and time.  He spent a lot of time in Jewish communities, especially the Lower East Side, where he found familiar food and was able to read the newspapers printed in Yiddish.  Soon, however, he found that New York was full of artists, writers, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions.  For the first time in his life, Chagall began to express interest in current events, and started painting the Crucifixion and scenes of war.  When he learned that the Germans had destroyed Vitebsk, the town where he was raised, he became greatly distressed.  He had also learned about the Nazi concentration camps.  During a speech in February 1944, he summed up his feelings:

Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.

On September 2nd, 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife, Bella, due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortages of medicine.  Chagall's heart was broken, and he stopped painting for many months, and when he did resume painting, his first pictures were all concerned with preserving Bella's memory.  Chagall tried to fight bitter feelings.  He considered the possibility that their exile from Europe may have sapped her will to live, and that her death was just one of the millions of Jewish deaths that Germany was responsible for.  A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from the Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a letter “To the Paris Artists,” which was published in a Paris weekly paper.  In it he writes:

In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.

By 1946, Chagall's art was becoming more widely recognized.  The Museum of Modern Art gave Chagall a retrospective, will work culled from his 40 year career as an artist.  America had welcomed Chagall with open arms, but France was his real home, and he began making plans to return to Paris at the first practical opportunity.  The Europe he returned to was a very different place from what he had left behind.  Paris was no longer the center of the art world; thanks in part to the influx of European immigrants during the war, New York was now the art capital.  But perhaps the most disturbing to Chagall was the fate of Vitebsk, his hometown in Belarus.  Vitebsk always had a sizable Jewish population.  According to the Russian census of 1897, out of the total 65,900 population, Jews accounted for 34,400, roughly 52%.  By the Second World War, Vitebsk's population had swelled to 240,000.  When the Nazis occupied the city in July 1941, they quickly established a Jewish ghetto, and from the 8th of October to the 11th, they massacred all of Vitbsk's Jewish inhabitants.  Later, much of  the city was obliterated in the ensuing battles between the Germans and the Red Army soldiers.  Of Vitebsk's 240,000 pre-war population, only 118 survived.  All Chagall had left of his past were his memories and his paintings. 

Chagall chose to retreat from Parisian public life and settled in the Cote d' Azur, south of France.  Matisse and Picasso also lived nearby.  Although they were close in proximity to each other, and they sometimes collaborated, their work was different enough that they viewed each other as rivals.  They never became long-term friends.  Picasso, however, did respect Chagall's work.  Sometime in the 1950's, he said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

Chagall's post-war years were fruitful.  Through his daughter, Ida, he met Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background.  She became his secretary, but after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall would marry her.  The marriage took place in July of 1952.  Chagall's art practice also expanded to include sculpture and ceramics, as well as many large scale, public commissions for murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th century building and national monument.  Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Culture, wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist.  This choice would become a public controversy, as many disliked the idea of having the ceiling of the historic building painted by a modern artist, while the xenophobes objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument.  Magazines published condescending articles about Chagall.  Chagall commented to one writer that:

They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

Despite the scathing criticism, the 77 year old Chagall continued to work on the project, which took him a year to complete.  The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint.  The work paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, and Ravel.  Chagall was pleased with the work, and when it was unveiled in 1964, he felt vindicated when the press declared the new work to a great contribution to French culture.  Chagall had finally won over France.

Chagall would continue to paint until his death in 1985, age 97.  He was the last survivor of the first generation of European avante-garde artists, outliving Picasso, Matisse, and Miro.  The subjects that interested him most continued to be his memories of Vitebsk, musicians, lovers, the circus, Biblical subjects, and Jewish themes, always a colorful celebration of life and a defiant stance against the tragedies of the 20th century.  Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that Chagall was:

a pioneer of modern art and one of its greatest figurative painters... On his canvases we read the triumph of modernism, the breakthrough in art to an expression of inner life that ... is one of the last century's signal legacies. At the same time Chagall was personally swept up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions. In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond.

In his own way, then, it could be argued that Chagall was just as effective at combating darkness as some of the more politically motivated artists of his time.

Henri Rousseau by Chris Hall

Henri Rousseau,  Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp , 1900.

Henri Rousseau, Self Portrait of the Artist with a Lamp, 1900.

Henri Rousseau was a French Post Impressionist painter who worked in the so called “Naive” or “Primitive” style (I don't care for these terms, as they imply a negative connotation to me).  Rousseau was known by his nickname, “Le Douanier,” meaning “the Customs Officer,” for his occupation as a toll collector for the government.  Rousseau always aspired, in vain, to win the recognition of the conventional, Academic Art establishment.  For his efforts he was ridiculed in the press and by critics, who were prejudiced toward him because of his lack of a formal arts education.  Toward the end of his life, his work was appreciated by fellow art outsiders Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, and would be held in high esteem by future generations of avant-garde artists, most notably the young Pablo Picasso.

Rousseau was a late bloomer and picked up the paint brush for the first time around the age of 40.  He was encouraged in his painting by his neighbor, the artist Felix Clement, who managed to obtain a license for Rousseau to make copies of art at the Louvre and other galleries.  In 1884 Rousseau submitted his work to the official Salon, but was rejected.  They found his paintings to be childlike and naive, lacking perspective and proportion.  But this would be only the first rejection, in a long career of many rejections from the traditional art establishment.

In 1886, Rousseau submitted work to the first Salon des Independants.  Rousseau would participate in the Salon des Independants every year between 1886 and 1910, except the ones in 1899 and 1900.  Anyone could participate in the Salon des Independants, as long as they paid the exhibition fee, and it quickly became a refuge for revolutionary and under-appreciated artists.  Rousseau's work would hang along side many other struggling artists, namely Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent Van Gogh.

In 1888, Rousseau's first wife, Clemence, died at the young age of 37, of tuberculosis.  The memory of her would figure greatly in much of his future work.  In Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain, which he finished in 1890, Clemence is seen alone in the woods where they once liked to go on Sunday walks.  Her hand covers her heart, signifying passion or love, and the branch above her head, which is conspicuously cut off, might signify death.  Clemence is looking back with longing, but she must go on alone, leaving behind Rousseau and the children.  Promenade in the Forest of Saint-Germain was shown at the Salon des Independant, but because of its special meaning, it was not listed for sale.

Henri Rousseau often painted exotic jungle scenes populated with strange plants and animals.  While Rousseau did serve in the Army during the French incursion in Mexico, he was left stateside during the affair.  In fact, Rousseau never left France during his entire life; he was inspired to make his jungle paintings from his frequent visits to the Paris Zoo and the botanical gardens.  In 1890's there was a growing interest within the European public for exotic scenes from the tropics.  The late 19th century was the height of colonialist imperialism, and people were curious about the overseas territories that they felt belonged to them.  The darker aspects of colonialism, its exploitation of people and resources, was then unknown to most people back home.

Rousseau's first jungle landscape, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) was exhibited in 1891 in the Salon des Independants, and found a small, receptive audience.  Simultaneously, Paul Gauguin was making art in Tahiti, and British author Rudyard Kipling was publishing the first of many stories and poems about India.  Despite the public's new interest in exotic subject matter, the critics were particularly savage, and once again ridiculed his work for what they perceived as an amateurish style.  In response, he would abandon the jungle landscape genre for some time.

In 1893, Rousseau asked for permission to retire early from the Customs House to paint full-time.  He was 49.  Rousseau's superiors and fellow workers had long supported him in his pursuit of painting, giving him the lighter work and  allowing him to paint while on the job.  His resignation was accepted and Rousseau moved with his family to the Montparnasse district in Paris, where he quickly established a studio.  Montparnasse, with its cheap rents and bohemian culture, would soon become famous for its population of young, struggling artists from around the world.

During all of the 1890's Rousseau continued to seek official patronage.  In 1893 he wrote a letter to the President of the Republic seeking assistance, and was rejected.  In 1898 he offered his painting, The Sleeping Gypsy, to the mayor of Laval for a considerable sum of money.  His offer was rejected.  In the same year, he submitted his plans for the decoration of the Vincennes Town Hall, and was rejected.  Two years later, in 1900, Rousseau offered to paint the Asnieres Town Hall, but was once again, rejected.

Rejected by the official art establishment and continually rebuffed in his attempts to find patronage and public commissions, Rousseau soon began to run into financial problems and he accumulated debts.  To make ends meet, he took up work as a part-time salesman for the Le Petit Journal, offered drawing lessons, and occasionally worked as a street musician.  Rousseau was a talented violinist and even managed to have a waltz he wrote for his first wife, Clemence, published by the Literary and Musical Academy of France. 

One day in 1908, a young Pablo Picasso was out shopping at the Père Soulier when he came across a stack of canvases being sold as work to be repainted over.  One of the paintings was a work by Henri Rousseau.  Picasso loved the painting and bought the canvas for five francs.  He did not see the work as amateurish and childlike, he saw it as charmingly nonconformist, as something unsullied by academia.  Rousseau had always tried to establish himself as a traditional painter, yet it was Picasso and the avant-garde artists, those rebelling against the academic tradition, who ended up championing his work.

Picasso tracked Rousseau down and introduced him to his social circle.  Some in his circle thought the untrained Rousseau a joke, a bumbling, old, naive curiosity, but Picasso and his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, held genuine affection for him and his work.  Later that year, Picasso even hosted banquet for him in his honor.  Rousseau had always considered himself to be a traditional painter, not an avant-garde iconoclast.  Despite the constant rejection and ridicule, he tried hard to impress himself into academic and bourgeois society.  Still, Rousseau was happy that someone, finally, appreciated his work.  Rousseau would die shortly thereafter, in 1910, but his work would live on to become influential to several generations of avant-garde artists, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, the Surrealists, and the poets Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo by Chris Hall

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593) was an Italian Renaissance painter from the city of Milan, best known for creating imaginative portraits made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.  At a distance, his art appears as normal portraits, but on closer inspection, one can see that the objects encompassing the portraits actually overlap to make the various anatomical facial features.  Often the objects assembled in his portraits are befitting for their subject matter, such as the books used to make up his portrait study of The Librarian.

Arcimboldo's work is such an aberration from Renaissance norms that many modern critics have wondered aloud whether or not the artist was in some way deranged or mentally unbalanced.  Most critics weigh in on Arcimboldo being sane, however, and that he catered to the Renaissance's fascination with puzzles, riddles, and the bizarre, as during his time, his work was greatly admired.  Arcimboldo's work fell out of favor some time after his death, but Surrealist movement brought back a renewed fascination for his strange, imaginative portraits.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

Frida Kahlo by Chris Hall

I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.  Frida Kahlo


I’ve always found inspiration in Frida Kahlo’s art and life and have admired for her work for its raw, uncompromising vision.  She had many an opportunity to give in to life’s cruelty, but she continued to fight for what she believed in, and became her own hero.  Kahlo was born in Mexico City on July 6th, 1907.  In later life Kahlo would give her actual birth date as July 7th, 1910, to correlate with the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.  Her mother would usher Kahlo and her sisters into the house as gunfire would echo in the streets.  Through out her life she would champion indigenous Mexican culture and revolutionary political ideals, both of which she references in her artwork.  

On September 17th, 1925, young Kahlo was riding in a bus which collided with a trolley car.  She suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident, including a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder.  In addition to all of this, her body was pieced by an iron handrail, which would leave her unable to bear children.  Through out the remainder of her life she would be in extreme pain and would require a total of 35 operations.  Because of the accident, she was often confined to a hospital or bedridden for months at a time.  Recovering from her injuries isolated her from other people.  This isolation was the genesis of Kahlo’s art practice, which would include 55 self portraits.  Of the self-portraits Kahlo would say, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Kahlo was influenced by indigenous Mexican culture, which is apparent in her use of bright colors, dramatic symbolism, and primitive aesthetic.  She admired the work of muralist Diego Rivera.  In 1927 Kahlo approached Rivera seeking advice and confirmation of her own work.  Rivera recognized her talent and the two began a relationship which culminated with their marriage in 1929.  Their marriage was volatile from the start.  Both Kahlo and Rivera were known for their irritable temperaments, which was only complicated by their both having numerous extramarital affairs.  Diego would have affairs with other women, including Kahlo’s younger sister, Christina.  Kahlo would have affairs with both men and women, including Soviet exile Leon Trotsky, artist Isamu Noguchi, and actress and activist Josephine Baker.  The two would divorce in 1939, but would later remarry again in 1940, although their second marriage would be just as troubled as the first.

In 1938 Kahlo was courted by Andre Breton for the Surrealist movement.  Breton would describe her art as a “ribbon around a bomb.”  She would reject the Surrealist label because she believed her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.  Of the Surrealists she would say, “They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore . . . I’d rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris.”  

Kahlo died on July 13, 1954 at the age of 47.  The official cause of death was given as a pulmonary embolism, but some suspect that she died from an overdose which may or may not have been accidental.  In his autobiography, Diego Rivera would write that the day Kahlo died was the most the most tragic day of his life, adding that he realized too late that the most wonderful part of his life was loving her.

Critical Paranoia and Artistic Vision by Chris Hall

I came to assist as a spectator at the birth of all my works.  Max Ernst.

You need both a bit of mind and a bit of mindlessness to make a painting. It's a play between control and surrender. Paul deMarrais

Let the painting tell you what it needs. Charles Reid

Painting is stronger than I am. It can make me do whatever it wants. Pablo Picasso

Painting is much like fishing. Sometimes we get hits and sometimes we get a glimpse of the phantom of the deep. Sometimes we sit adrift. But sooner or later, we get a keeper. Paul Allen Taylor

I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.  Arthur Rimbaud

Christopher Hall, The Perfect Muse, from the "Divination Series," 1997

Many a great artist has relinquished control in their art making process in order to become a seer and discover psychic truths.  Art can become a doorway and a bridge to the subjective interior psyche, the collective unconscious, as well as objective reality.  By approaching the art making process without any premeditation for the results, you can discover unknown truths, subject matter (archetypal content), and composition.  The Surrealists used this process to great effect.  But this new way of seeing isn’t really new at all.  Leonardo da Vinci would instruct his students to use a perception technique where they would look into the stains and cracks of a plaster wall, or the patterns found on river rocks, and discover landscapes, battles, clouds, faces, and new attitudes, new meaning out of chaos.  This alternative form of observation is akin to divination, rolling bones, and shamanic vision techniques that go back to the dawn of mankind.  Max Ernst would call it “Regarde Irrite,” Dali, "Critical Paranoia.”

I did not need the Surrealists to introduce me to Critical Paranoia, I was already sensitive to the art of Looking/Seeing and I discovered the technique on my own.  Even as a boy I would use my active imagination to transform shapes on a wall into birds, clouds, and human faces.  My real breakthrough in using Critical Paranoia in art came in 1997 with my “Divination Series.”  For this series, consisting of 16 works, I would tear up photocopied pages from a book on Marc Chagall’s art and randomly glue down the pieces on to a prepared panel.  I would turn my Paranoiac Critical eye to the gaps and creases between the torn pieces of paper and seek out images, subject matter, and composition, which I would then develop with crushed and diluted oil pastels.  

Soon afterward I would turn this new process of perception into direct painting.  I would go into the undergraduate studio at night, when it was quiet and free from distraction, and, with the aid of alcohol (only just enough to loosen the brain) I could escape rational thought, shake off notions of reason, taste, and morals.  I could enter into a meditative, trancelike, hallucinatory state of being.  This was my ecstatic working process, my tools necessary for the disruption of the everyday tyranny of the banal.  I would begin by making fluid, random marks onto a canvas or panel.  After the first brush stroke, the canvas began to assume a life of its own and I became both governor and spectator to my own event.  I would look into these marks and begin to see things from deep within my subconscious, and, if I was lucky, deeper still into the collective unconscious.  In the words of Gordon Onslow-Ford, I was a “pioneer artist (who) becomes a SEER with insight into the vast expanses of the inner worlds and their correspondences to the nature of the universe.”  

In my writing from the time I would compare myself to a deep sea diver into the sea of the unconscious, Theseus finding a way through the dark labyrinth (hoping to not lose the string that would guide me back home), an explorer of subterranean worlds, pulling the manhole cover over my head, or a artist-hunter entering the dark woods in search of truths to bring back to civilization.  It takes fortitude to keep painting like this.  I discovered many monsters lurking in the back channels of my mind.  I burned out sometime around 2000 and began to look for other modes of expression.  Around this time I began painting flowers from direct observation.  But that is another story to write about.  I still work, from time to time, using the Critical Paranoia technique, but I no longer use it exclusively.  

On "Teen Paranormal Romance," an Exhibit at the ACAC by Chris Hall

Kathryn Andrews,  Friends and Lovers , 2010, part of "Teen Paranormal Romance" on display at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Kathryn Andrews, Friends and Lovers, 2010, part of "Teen Paranormal Romance" on display at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

Young adult fiction, as typified by books such as “Twillight,” “Divergent,” “Hunger Games,” and the Harry Potter series, is a fantasy genre populated with wizards, werewolves, vampires, and super humans. While marketed toward teens, it is also widely consumed by adults looking for a cheap escapist fix.  Industry analysts estimate that over a half of its readers are over 18.  Because of its expanded fan base, the genre has become very profitable for book publishers, who seem to churn out the books at ever increasing rate.  Mindful of these profits, many of the books have been translated into blockbuster films.  Like it or not, it seems YA fiction has entered our popular culture zeitgeist and shows no sign of waning.  I have no problem with teens reading Young Adult fiction, but adults should consider growing up and reading something more challenging, more to their level, or better yet, get out of their escapist fantasy space and do something better for the community. “Teen Paranormal Romance” does make this critique, in its own way, by making a critique of consumerism within the genre and by distancing itself from all things within the realm of the unconscious, which exhibit curator Hamza Walker defines in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the essay accompanying the show, as “an internal psychic space . . . a derelict playground where there are no children, only weeds.”  But it is a real shame that many artists today have abandoned the unconscious, a real well-spring for the imagination and a source for psychic truths, and the only reference to it in our cultural zeitgeist is a superficial escapist preoccupation within young adult fiction.  Instead many of today’s contemporary artists opt for a different set of aesthetics, in the case of the artists in “Teen Paranormal Romance,” that would be the machine like, empty language of consumerism and popular culture.  For the most part, all the work in “Teen Paranormal Romance” have abandoned any kind of psychic inquires or emotional pathos.   In this way, “Teen Paranormal Romance” is typical of the cold, cerebral investigations in contemporary postmodern art practices today.  

I will not take the time here to describe to you the works within the exhibition.  If you are interested in learning more about the work within “Teen Paranormal Romance,” you can read Jacquelyn OCallaghan’s excellent review of it for burnaway.org here:  Parsing the Psychosexual in "Teen Paranormal Romance" at the ACAC.