Unreal Nature

October 6, 2015

Memory of that Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light or to draw it around us like a coat — or a skin.

Continuing through Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at The Museum of Modern Art, edited by John Elderfield (2004). This book uses extracts from other books to comment on the featured artists (I’m extracting from those extracts… ) If that text does not refer specifically to the MoMA art that is shown in the parent book, I may choose to use some other work by the artist to illustrate my post. Today’s first is from The Meanings of Art by John Russell (1981):

deKooning_Painting1948_02
Willem de Kooning, Painting, 1948

… They were not so much painted as laid on; and they related to the signs which had been devised by [Jean] Arp and [Joan] Miró to echo the human body without actually naming it. “Even abstract shapes must have a likeness,” de Kooning once said. And in pictures like his Painting, 1948, every shape has its likeness: its familiar companion, which stays within hailing distance but does not come forward to be identified.

As [Thomas] Hess has remarked, the black and white paintings are “packed to bursting with shapes metamorphosed from drawings of women which have been cut apart, transposed, intermixed until they were abstract, but always with a ‘likeness’ and a memory of that source and its emotive charge.”

The following is from Mark Rothko by Peter Selz (1961):

… Holding tenaciously to humanist values, he paints pictures which are in fact related to man’s scale and his measure. But whereas in Renaissance painting man was the measure of space, in Rothko’s painting space, i.e. the picture, is the measure of man.

This is perhaps the essential nature of the viewer’s response to Rothko’s work: he contemplates these large surfaces, but his vision is not obstructed by the means of painting; he does not get involved in the by-ways of an intriguing surface; these pictures do not remind us of peeling walls or torn canvases. The artist has abandoned the illusions of three-dimensional recession; there is not even the space between various overlaid brush-strokes. The surface texture is as neutral as possible. Seen close up and in a penumbra, as these paintings are meant to be seen, they absorb, they envelop the viewer. We no longer look at a painting as we did in the nineteenth century; we are meant to enter it, to sink into its atmosphere of mist and light or to draw it around us like a coat — or a skin.

But, to repeat, they also measure the spectator, gauge him. These silent paintings with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with him.

… They are paintings whose reds are oppressive, evoking a mood of foreboding and death; there are reds suggesting light, flame, or blood. There are pictures with veil-like blues and whites, and blues suggesting empty chambers and endless halls. At times the color has been gayer, with greens and yellows reminiscent of spring in its buoyant, almost exultant delight.

Rothko_no3no13_1949
Mark Rothko, No.3 / No. 13, 1949

My most recent previous post from Elderfield’s book is here.

-Julie

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