Saturday, June 19, 2010


#501 by Pants

I'm not sure if this post is going to publish. Don't you just hate living in an uncertain world? I'll keep it short.

Today, in between attempting to sort out my dongle problems (Barney will you shut the fuck up and take your damn pill), I created this homage to the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. In tribute to Mark Rothko, I've given it only a number. I'm fresh out of names today.

The Rothko Room in London's Tate Modern has always been one of my favourite places. Rothko is on my mind lately because I'm reading the Taschen edition devoted to his work authored by Jacob Baal-Teshuva. The Taschen series gets the balance of reproduction and biography about right most of the time. The commentary is intelligent without being pompous. It's mercifully lean and the quality of the prints is exquisite. Colour matters enormously with Rothko and the attention to true likeness can only be described as loving.

Rothko had quite a lot to say about art, most of which is readily accessible so I won't bore you with it here. I was very interested in what he had to say about his and his colleagues' collective artistic response to World War 2. The European Diaspora of artists who predominated in the New York School and the dealers and buyers (not least of all Peggy Guggenheim) who provided the other two legs of the stool, were overwhelmingly Jewish. New York must have been a kind of artistic periscope for what was going on across the Atlantic.

The Axis taste for Imperial visual and musical symbolism was countered with freedom-loving pop culture by the Allies, whose iconography came to be dominated by American 'brands'. The stern Goddess Diana faced in cultural combat the chirpy Goddess Betty Grable and The Glenn Miller Orchestra pitched up to swing Stars and Stripes Forever just in case anyone waylaid by the Valkyries needed a signpost to the free world. It seemed a very clear distinction between old world and new.

Perhaps it was not so simple an analogy for the New York exiles. The Ancients were a part of their artistic heritage, and one they were not willing to hand over to the fascists without a fight. Rothko, together with Adolph Gottlieb embarked on a series of works inspired by ancient mythology in the early 1940s as a direct response to the brutality taking place in Europe. Of this endeavour he says,
'Those who believe that the world today is less brutal and ungrateful than in these myths, with their overwhelming primeval passions, are either unaware of reality or they do not want to see it in art.' (The Portrait and the Modern Artist)

I find it fascinating that an artist like Rothko, who was depressive by nature, found explanation, even solace in the classics powerful enough to go up against the madness that was devouring Europe. And it's especially interesting considering the post-World War I tradition from which this movement largely evolved. I think of the gruesome paintings of George Grosz and Otto Dix in which the dead are depicted as skeletons and the living only one step up from skeletons.

It seems there is no golden thread. I often wonder why the wars and genocides of my generation - Viet Nam, Cambodia, East Timor, El Salvador, Chile, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Gulfs 1 & 2, Afghanistan - to name just the most prominent in my memory, haven't sparked a coherent response in painting. Perhaps painting has been usurped by more immediate platforms. Protest songs for Viet Nam. Literature for El Salvador and Chile. Feature films for Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Gulf 1. Blogs and Youtube posts for everything post-9/11.

Well, I'm still living in an uncertain world, at least dongle-wise (Barney, I will not tell you again. Please bring me my vodkamisu now, and none of your lip on the side). It only remains for me to publish, or be thoroughly pissed off...