Dick French: On The Town – November 2016

Well done Fabienne Jenny Jacquet for her Easel Words in the last issue. She writes very clearly, which is rare for an artist. She is concerned with artists and their dealers’ demands for a neat visual package and a personal ‘brand’. I liked her piece very much. I don’t bother with dealers these days. If anyone is interested in my work I’m quite easy to find. Just ask in Bradley’s Spanish Bar or you could try and see my agent Gregorio who has an office next door … but be warned he’s a very busy man. Madame Jacquet’s paintings look quite interesting. They seem to be knifed on. I must try to get to see them properly. Sock it to the spivs madame. I deeply resent handing over half my hard-earned to some wide boy who runs an art shop.

To Fortnum and Mason’s to purchase some Gentleman’s Relish. I’m running low and Christmas is coming. On the way I met Dirty Harry in The Chequers. He reminded me that there was a big art show going on in Fortnum’s, the collection of ‘Saatchi of the North’ Frank Cohen, so we popped in. The door was opened by a friendly Irishman in a top hat who explained that the collection was distributed throughout the store on all floors. It was an interesting but puzzling display, but then I’m always saying that.

How can someone who has bought Edward Burra with his idiosyncratic draughtsmanship, wit and mischief possibly be interested in the feeble, self-important gesturings of Howard Hodgkin? There’s also a creature called Charming Baker extensively represented, whose sculptures must be made for middle-eastern clients – they’ll look good on the dashboard. The ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptors are also here in force, Armitage, Chadwick, etc.. They seemed to blend into the background.

The best things were the Burras, especially a magnificent gloomy pub scene from 1946. You can feel the damp and foggy chill and a bit of reeking warmth from the gas stove. Burra himself seems to be standing at the bar as a flame-like ghost floats off towards the left, probably one of those ‘free gifts’ he’s turned to advantage. I’m sure it’s a self-portrait although the nose suggests otherwise.

I’m also totally baffled by the inclusion of Marc Quinn and his ludicrous travesty of Degas’s ballet dancer. I can only assume that Cohen has a team of advisors, as there is no indication of a personal ‘eye’. It’s a bit of a rag bag really, or, as Edward Burra would say: “It’s all a proper cunt and no mistake dearie.”

I managed to find the Gentleman’s Relish but these days it comes in a lovely blue porcelain pot at £16.50 a go, and it’s now called Fortnum’s Relish. I wonder if they still do it in Sainsbury’s.

There were also three paintings by William Roberts that were worth looking at. A chap I once knew who had a small collection of W. Roberts used to say of him, “poor fellow, the world’s passed him by”. He also had a hideous late Picasso hanging over the mantlepiece. It was a cavalier smoking a pipe about five feet by four. I advised him to flog it off while it was still worth something. I’ve not been asked back. Picasso has been highly regarded and sought after for over a hundred years. It can’t go on forever. The tedious old clown will surely be rumbled soon. Don’t forget what happened to Lord Leighton. “But Lord Leighton had a revival” I hear you say. He also had a romantic sensibility and a true appreciation of form.

To the Royal Academy to see the Abstract Expressionist show. Pride of place is given over to the murderous, shirtlifting old cowpoke Jackson Pollock. I was surprised by the condition of Blue Poles. The last time I saw it was in his retrospective at the Tate 20 years ago and it looked dreadful, the colours not so much faded as intensified in crudity. The colours are paradoxically much more agreeable now. It must have been restored, some task I imagine, or maybe it’s the Aussie air. The cheap cotton duck had yellowed and cracked.

There was an enormous oriental fellow in a heavy black overcoat and a homburg hat, his arms extended towards it, palms to the painting. I just had to see him from the front. His eyes were tightly shut and he resembled Odd Job in the James Bond film, the chap with the lethal bladed hat brim. I’ll never forget that. It was a perfect example of how people can become deluded by reputation. “It was the vibes man, the vibes.” Oh shut up.

Blue Poles (opposite), now highly regarded, was considered a failure by Pollock, a retrograde step from what many considered the groundbreaking black and white paintings of his previous series. It was a collaboration. He called in Barnett Newman and an Irishman called Tony Smith. The ‘poles’ were applied by a six-foot length of four by two. Apparently he was anxious not to waste the expensive Belgian linen. Well it doesn’t look like Belgian linen to me. Using oil-based household paint on raw cotton duck, as he invariably did, it’s a wonder they haven’t rotted and fallen apart.

Most of these pioneering, free-spirited artists were in thrall to Clement Greenberg. This is odd because Greenberg’s qualifications as an art guru were very slight – a summer session at the Art Student’s League and a few lectures at the Hoffman Institute. Previously he had worked on the Partisan Review, trying to make a name for himself in the literary world, in which he was regarded as pompous and intellectually mediocre. He was a posturing fraud but they hung on to his every word. It is said that he’d walk into an artist’s studio, look at a painting and declare “You can’t do that!” And they actually stopped doing it!

He it was, who conferred the mantle of “greatness” from time to time, on this one or that one. At first Pollock was the man, but his time on the sunlit uplands was surprisingly brief. After a couple of years they all turned against him. That article in Time magazine put everybody’s back up. He became a ghastly bore from whom everyone wanted to escape. Poor man. Whatever you think of his work or his behaviour he was deeply serious.

There’s a story that all his life he urinated in the sitting position, like most women, and another story about how he pissed into the fieplace at a swanky art party. I hope he didn’t do that sitting down.

Numbering the paintings was also a Greenberg idea, the problem being that the numbers were not consecutive but picked at random. Then Greenberg changed his mind and proposed titles. Hence Lavender Mist … (‘Sorry about last night darling I must have been a bit lavender.’)

Greenberg was a Marxist with a belief in the historical inevitability of artistic progress, or was he just flying a kite? Maybe a bit of both, but a sly boots if ever there was one. Someone described his approach as ‘puritanical nonsense applied with Talmudic intensity’. It was all to do with the ‘integrity of the picture plane’ you see.

There are seven paintings by Rothko in the rotunda and although I didn’t have an epiphany I liked three of them very much, the dark, close-toned ones with the glowing bass lines. Rothko was another one of those ghastly bores who became shunned.

A stellar bit of hyperbole in the catalogue about Clyfford Still … “The upright living being and spiritual transcendence. Its nemeses are the yawning abysses – by turns molten and glacial which interlock with his upthrusts. An almost Manichean play of luminosity and darkness heightens this dramaturgy, intensified by Still’s scabrous surfaces.” Nice. I like that ‘upthrusts’.

De Kooning’s paintings have something which sets them apart from the others. You sense a compositional ability and draughtsmanship, particularly in his ‘Women’ series, although the best of these are not included. They’re very strong but he went off badly in the 1960s becoming pale and wishy-washy, chalky abstract landscapes with no tonality.

There’s a sense of ‘The All American Boy’ about this period and almost everything that came afterwards. An inability to draw was elevated to a virtue along with scorn for the sensuous application of paint. But look back fifty years to George Bellows and the Ashcan School of New York painters and they could draw beautifully and paint as well as any European. What came after this was, of course, Rauschenberg, Johns and Pop Art. That’s historical inevitability for you.

It’s also interesting that the fashion for ‘tough guy’ artists crossed the Atlantic. We don’t have cowboys in England but at the Royal College of Art in the ’60s there was a fashion for behaving like an East End gangster. Elective mutism or self-imposed thickness was common, along with the sophistry that led to conceptualism.

Dick French
The Jackdaw Nov/Dec 2016