Friday, 29 June 2018

Drawn in the USA:Joining up America's dots with Waldemar Januszczak.

"Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, tidewater 4109. Tell the folks back home 'this is the promised land calling and the poor boy is on the line'" - Promised Land, Chuck Berry

The spirit of a place, they say, is always in the art and in Waldemar Januszczak's fantastic recent series Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art:Made in the USA he makes a very good case for proving that to be particularly true of the art of the United States of America.

Robert Smithson - Spiral Jetty (1970)

In the case of Robert Smithson's huge piece of land art, Spiral Jetty, out in the Utah salt lake that's literally true but it's been true, too, for much longer than that. Big Sky is divided up into three parts focusing on the country, the city, and small town America and we begin in some of the most iconic, and awesome, parts of the USA with the art of one Thomas Moran who arrived in the States from Bolton, Lancashire via Liverpool docks at the age of seven in 1844.

Before the 1870s, and the advent of the Trans-Continental Railway, the Wild West was still pretty much a mystery, an almost mythical realm which would soon come to be populated by gamblers, bandits, gold diggers, and, with them, artists like Moran. Moran had seen the works of JMW Turner in illustrated books and was soon to emulate the master but with even more grandiose scenery his muse. The Green River of Wyoming, waterfalls in Idaho, canyons in Utah, and, of course, the Grand Canyon itself.

Thomas Moran - Green River of Wyoming (1878)

Thomas Moran - Yellowstone (1893)

Thomas Moran - Grand Canyon (1872)

Using a colour palette borrowed from Turner it looks, on the surface, as if Moran was making precise geological and geographical surveys of these regions but, in truth, he was consciously leaving out the railways and the settlers and replacing them with invented Indians. He was, like so many artists that would follow him, not illustrating America as it was but reinventing America in his own image. It found favour in high places. His 1893 painting of Yellowstone was bought by the government for a significant fee and was instrumental in Ulysses S Grant's decision to make Yellowstone America's first, and the world's first, National Park.

A New York Times critic described his Grand Canyon as "the most diabolical scene man has ever looked upon" and if it's difficult to ascertain if that's a criticism or a compliment it seems that both Clyfford Still and Jackson Pollock took it as the latter. Their later sublime and sprawling canvases echo Moran's work while paring it down to an abstraction that would mark perhaps the cleanest break between the American and European art traditions. 

Other Western art focused on the inhabitants more than the almost biblical landscape. Frederick Remington came from New York state and he did as much as Moran to invent the imagery we now associate with the West. His sculptures did as much as anything to set the image of what a cowboy looks like, how a cowboy dresses, in our minds. He took the title, Coming Through The Rye, from a Rabbie Burns poem and it was later modified to great success by J.D.Salinger. Januszczak describes Remington's sculptures as as ambitious as anything created during the Renaissance.

Frederick Remington - Coming Through The Rye (1902)

The Birthing Rock

Paul Jackson Pollock, unlike Moran or Remington, was actually born in the West. In the small town of Cody, Wyoming. His dad worked in Buffalo Bill's Irma Hotel and there the young Pollock got a taste for the mythology of the Old West. He also took huge interest in ancient native American rock art, petroglyphs, and pictographs. The Birthing Rock near Moab, Utah was a particular influence on Pollock just as it was on Adolph Gottlieb and Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

The Pollock family ended up in Los Angeles where young Paul Jackson and his fellow pupil, and along with Pollock a mainstay in this programme, Philip Goldstein (soon to be Guston) were soon expelled from Manual Arts High School. But not before a teacher had introduced them to Blavatskian theosophy. All the pioneers of American abstract art were fascinated by theosophy as were Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and John Lennon. They all heard Jiddu Krishnamurti speak and they all (were supposed to) read the works of Madame Blavatsky. It's dropped so far out of fashion now it's hardly mentioned but Januszczak was keen to underline just how vital theosophy was in the development of American art. Theosophy said that there are patterns that lie below reality, deeper realities. This was catnip to artists and gave them carte blanche to experiment with wildly different results

Diego Rivera - Ministry of Education Mural (1923-1928)

Diego Rivera - The Burning of the Judases (1923)

Other influences came from south of the border but showed clear parallels with America's, and the Wild West's, love of showmanship. The Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (now more famous as Frida Kahlo's other half but in his lifetime much the bigger name - and bigger person, he was not a slender man) was inspired by the revolutionary general Pancho Villa who it was said would delay his battles so Hollywood crews could film him.

The Ministry of Education murals in Mexico City are said to be the Sistine Chapel of the Americas. The two hundred and thirty five fresco panels were like a Communist riff on the work of Giotto and the Florentine artists. Rivera mocked America and he mocked the rich but both America and the rich of America kept buying, and commissioning, his work. In 1928's Wall Street Banquet the JP Morgans and the Rockerfellers can be seen tucking into gold ticker tape. So bloated and pompous and so in awe of money they'd even try to eat. It foreshadowed Guston's ceaseless attacks on the morally bankrupt Richard Nixon that cropped up through this series with all the regularity of a bent politican on the hustings. 

Diego Rivera - Wall Street Banquet (1928)

Philip Guston - Nixon (1971)

Between being a painter of cowboys and using the influences of sand art, native American art, and theosophy to develop his own very unique form of abstraction and becoming Jack the Dripper, Jackson Pollock had fallen under the spell of Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton and his modernist depictions of rural Americana. Benton had been influenced by Rivera and the other Mexican muralists not only in his style of art but in his admirable penchant for punching up and not down.

The Source of Country Music shows all the elements that went in to the creation of that, on the surface, all American sound. Religion, railways, church singing, traditional European folk music, a black banjo player, and the huge steamboats that bought both the Europeans and their music and the black slaves and their music to America 

The murals in the Missouri State Capital building show both the fun and the horror in working class American life. Benton doesn't shy away from his truth. Men and women are put to task on backbreaking menial chores as smoke floats skywards from agricultural machinery and industrial buildings. Elsewhere people play cards, dance, or relax with newspapers. When Benton painted America Today he wasn't paid with money - but with eggs.

Thomas Hart Benton - The Source of Country Music (1975)

Thomas Hart Benton - Missouri State Capital Mural (1936)

Thomas Hart Benton - America Today (1930-1931)

Pollock, the master's young student, even crops up as an extra in some of Benton's work. He'd arrived in NYC, aged 19 and dressed like Wyatt Earp, in 1930. Pollock and Benton lived together on 8th Street and Pollock developed a crush on Benton's wife, Rita as well as developing a life long, and ultimately life destroying, alcohol dependency. 

He was never able to quit the booze and died aged just 44 in a car crash in the Hamptons but during attempts to come to grips with his demons he spent four years in psychotherapy during which his Jungian shrink told him to get in touch with his subconscious. Boy, did he do that! Benton's work often started with abstraction before being worked up into recognisable figures but Pollock reversed that process and headed out to the metaphorical Wild West of pure abstraction, and, for the first time, a purely American abstraction.

Jackson Pollock - Mural (1943)

Jackson Pollock - Lavender Mist (1950)

With the support of the wealthy socialite and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock moved out to Long Island and started 'dripping'. With memories of sand art in his mind and jazz blaring out day and night Pollock splashed his paint on to the canvas from above, never applying it with anything as passe as a brush. The images were fantastic, beautiful, iconic, and, no doubt, sneered at by many a traditionalist. But this mentally disturbed boozehound from small town Wyoming had done what nobody in the whole of America had done before and successfully cut the apron strings from mother Europe. 

This was an American art for an American century and, like the landscape, it seemed as if it could stretch out infinitely in any given direction. A manifest destiny of the mind. An explosion of inchoate infinity that would later result in huge land art projects like Smithson's Spiral Jetty (which due to salt lake levels disappeared for thirty years but is now revealing itself again), Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (also in Utah) which allow the visitor to be awestruck by nature and art at the same time, and Michael Heizer's Double Negative (in Nevada), an artwork so large you can take a four wheel drive vehicle through it.

Michael Heizer - Double Negative (1969)

Nancy Holt - The Sun Tunnels (1976)

"I have never felt salvation in nature. I love cities above all" - Michelangelo.

Michelangelo, clearly, had never been to New York but he had, in fact, created a false dichotomy with his seemingly provocative statement. The city and nature compliment and complement each other, in many ways they rhyme with each other. It's not immediately apparent but Januszczak presents a compelling case that begins, of course, in the Big Apple during the 1930s during the construction of the city's two most iconic, and then tallest (they're still both in the top ten), buildings. The Empire State Building and The Chrysler Building.

Pulsating, futuristic, thrusting. American cities appear darker and darker as art interprets and reinterprets them. Documentary photographer Margaret Bourke-White not only had her studio in The Chrysler Building but even lived there. When it was built it replaced the Eiffel Tower as the world's tallest building (though it was soon replaced, less than eleven months later, by The Empire State Building just eight streets away).

Both buildings are examples of Art Deco at its very finest but if The Empire State Building is the taller of the two The Chrysler is the more beautiful. Parts of the building were based on hood ornaments and hub caps from Chrysler cars and a flying mermaid was copied from a radiator cap on a Plymouth Coupe. This was America proclaiming its wealth by building into the sky whilst also bowing down to the dominance of the motor car that would let Americans discover the awesome wilderness of their country. City and country were combined in unity briefly. At least until the Great Depression.

Margaret Bourke-White - Chrysler Building (c.1930)

Joseph Stella - The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1922)

Which had already begun by the time these skyscrapers were completed. The Brooklyn Bridge, spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, had been completed in 1883. Then the world's longest suspension bridge with arches based on a French gothic cathedral and still one of the must see sights of the city.

But look how differently Joseph Stella and O Louis Guglielmi interpreted it. Stella had moved to New York from near Naples in Italy where he'd worked with the Italian futurists and had depicted the bridge in a polyptych, like a Renaissance altarpiece suggesting that progress and industry were the new religion.

That was painted before the Great Depression. Sixteen years later when Guglielmi turned his attention to it the Depression was in full flow, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath would follow the next year and Woody Guthrie would pen This Land Is Your Land in 1940. It's recognisably the same bridge but it's a very different take. Modernity is still in the air but on the ground there is only brutality and suffering. The bridge is buckling as if broken by the injustice all around it.

O Louis Guglielmi - Mental Geography (1938)

George Bellows - Club Night (1907)

There was brutality in life and there was brutality as a leisure pursuit. Even though boxing was illegal in the USA at the time that didn't stop it happening in private clubs. George Bellows was the greatest painter of boxing, or indeed any 'sport', in all America and probably in all of the world. He painted the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, and all his boxers were muscular, taut, sinewy, their flesh as raw and exposed as later portraits by the likes of Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.

But Ohio born Bellows didn't just paint pugilists. He looked into some of the seamier sides of city life and saw people forced to live like troglodytes, stuffed in to tiny rooms with barely room to breathe. Bellows, like Guston, saw the debasement, disaster, and death in modern life and he wasn't afraid to shove it in our faces.

George Bellows - Stag at Sharkey's (1909)

George Bellows - Cliff Dwellers (1913)

Philip Guston - Satirical Drawing of Nixon (1971)

But it never felt like a morality lesson. You didn't get the impression you were having a finger wagged in front of you and that's likely because many American artists (Bellows, Guston, and Benton to name but three) had begun their careers as cartoonists. They were used to using humour to make their points and this humour fed into their art in a way that seldom happened with the stuffy old Europeans they were replacing. Even Ad Reinhardt, he of the purely black paintings, came from this background.

Ad Reinhardt - Black Paintings (1963)

Reginald Marsh - Wonderland Circus (1930)

Not every painter wanted to portray the misery, the wantonness, or the absolute darkness of the human condition though. The characters in Reginald Marsh's Wonderland Circus are very likely from the same parts of New York as those in Bellows's Cliff Dwellers but in Marsh's painting they're on a beano. They've gone to Coney Island for the day and they're sure gonna have some fun before they return to their rat infested tenement blocks.

Reginald Marsh - High Yaller (1934)

Edward Hopper - Office at Night (1940)

Marsh's art is a celebration of working class culture and, in High Yaller, black American culture. His paintings are wonderful and he was an artist I'd been completely unaware of, one of many on this show, until Januszczak showed me the light. If a wealthy white artist looking at poor black people at play seems a tad voyeuristic that's as nothing compared to one of the all time great American art heroes, Edward Hopper.

The L Train from Eighth Avenue to Rockaway Beach afforded passengers the chance to pry into people's bedrooms, peep into their lives, and the keen commuter Hopper took great advantage of this. Although there's an obvious sexual frisson in many of his paintings, what's about to happen in that office at night? why don't those ladies have any clothes on?, there is also in Hopper both a quietude and a disquiet, a solitude more than a loneliness, but, most of all, his is an art that notices and draws upon the unbridgeable gap between people. 

Edward Hopper - AM (1926)

Edward Hopper - Woman in the Sun (1961)

Edward Hopper - Automat (1927)

The orange cloche hat and expensive looking seaweed green coat with its fur trim worn by the young lady in Automat suggest a wealthy and fashionable girl about town but the expression on her face tells a completely different story. Youth, beauty, and money. None of these can save you from the emotional trauma of living. It's a heartbreaking painting and one that hits me at a level deeper than almost any I've seen in all my many years of looking at art.

Hopper understood the alienation of city living better than anyone and he was from New York. Imagine what it was like for the foreigners once they'd been processed through Ellis Island. Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian came from the Netherlands, Mark Rothko from modern day Latvia, and Arshile Gorky was an Armenian from an near Lake Van that is now part of Turkey.

These immigrants, from Thomas Moran onwards, were making America great again in a way that Donald Trump could never, and would never want to, understand. Gorky had begun his career aping Cezanne's still lives before going through a Picasso phase and a spell painting murals before he found his own voice

Arshile Gorky - The Artist and his Mother (1936)

Arshile Gorky - The Liver is the Cock's Comb (1944)

Gorky, like Mondrian and Pollock, was also into Blavatskian theosophy, and his abstracts hoped to show not what we could see but what was there and we couldn't see. In the case of Gorky his art also reflected the series of tragic events that eventually left him dead before his 45th birthday.

Blavatsky's ideas also impacted upon the building of New York's Solomon R Guggenheim museum. Guggenheim had made his money in Alaskan gold and his portraitist Hilla von Rebay (another immigrant, this time from Strasbourg) advised him on what art to buy for his new philanthropic museum. 

Hilla von Rebay had been born into an aristocratic German family in Alsace-Lorraine and as a child had sneaked out of the castle she lived in to study theosophy. She believed modern, or non-objective, art had the power to save the world. She loved Kandinsky and she hung his, and other, paintings, at weird heights and blasted out the likes of Bach and Chopin to the museum's early visitors.

The museum's architect, the great if controversial Frank Lloyd Wright, also had theosophist leanings but his plan to paint the building red was overruled by von Rebay and her superior knowledge of theosophy. Theosophists saw red as a materialistic colour and she wanted a spiral of light that climbs towards the heavens and for the building to be painted in pure white. She got her wish.

James Turrell - Roden Crater (1979-2011)

Mark Rothko - Rothko Chapel (1971)

Stillness was the move for von Rebay and artists like James Turrell but for Mark Rothko stillness was a destination he traveled towards. The Jewish emigre's immense canvases are now famously seen as meditative and pseudo religious but they were the result of a long and painful journey that started with the esoteric school of thought and discipline Kabbalah, passed through the psychoanalytic techniques of Sigmund Freud, and dabbled with what seemed like any old voyage into self-discovery before finding his own powerful, and hugely positively appraised, art. 

"There's only one good use for a small town. You hate it and you'll know you have to leave". - Smalltown, Lou Reed & John Cale.

The Rothko Chapel is in Houston, Texas. Houston is the fourth most populous city in the USA and is most definitely not the kind of small town that Lou Reed and John Cale haughtily, and incorrectly we're informed by Januszczak, dismissed on 1990's Songs for Drella album.  

Orr. C. Fischer - The Corn Parade (1941)

Do people in small towns have small minds? Does everyone who live in small towns want to move to the city or to remote, and beautiful, countryside? Certainly I used to think so. But I came to the realisation quite some time ago that that's clearly not the case and as both good and bad people can be found in both the city and the small town so can good and bad art.

The Post Office, it turns out, seems to have an influence on American art that's up there with Madame Blavatsky. In 1941 Franklin D Roosevelt launched an initiative to fill post offices with murals. 1,400 post offices were painted in joyous and glorious colour in the following years. FDR was giving impetus to reviving the economy by finding work for artists and one of the most remarkable examples can be found in the post office of Mount Ayr, Iowa (population 1,691. Mount Ayr, as you may've guessed, is in the corn belt and Orr C Fischer's slightly surreal mural made this abundantly clear.

The Great Depression, and the dustbowl, had changed American art but it hadn't destroyed it. Necessity breeds invention and so it came to pass in the shape of Henry Ford's multi million selling Model A automobile and the new trend towards pared down, and uber fashionable by today's standards, Shaker furniture.

Charles Sheeler - Home Sweet Home (1931)

Charles Sheeler - Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford Plant (1927)

Charles Sheeler's Home Sweet Home (seen recently in the wonderful American art show at Oxford's Ashmolean) co-opted Shaker furniture to create a modernist grid but Sheeler became more famous for the work he made in a belt very different from the corn one. The rust belt, now Trumptown, but once what they used to call 'the industrial heartland of America'.

The Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan was the world's largest and most progressive factory in its day. There were more than one hundred miles of railway track in the complex alone. No wonder Henry Ford, much like Joseph Stella, saw technology as 'the new messiah'. 

Sheeler's photography, see Criss-Crossed Conveyors (above), showed the factories as they really are, vast, dehumanising, and polluting, but when he set to representing them with paint he went for a more idealised version and one almost completely devoid of humans. Both Classic Landscape and American Landscape could be Lowrys with all life redacted. They're strangely beautiful but they're also a little eerie. 

Charles Sheeler - Classic Landscape (1931)

Charles Sheeler - American Landscape (1930)

Diego Rivera - Detroit Industry Murals (1933)

Again, the most realistic depictions of America were being made by immigrants, many of whom would've been tasked with carrying out the most dangerous and repetitive jobs whilst receiving the least remuneration. Diego Rivera managed to lose 100lbs when he painted 27 murals in eight months for Henry Ford's son Edsel in Detroit. Edsel, an art lover, commissioned these melanges of fantasy and reality that at least showed the human labour behind this industrial miracle.

As before the Mexicans and the Americans were crossing borders freely and to the benefit of both. Guston and his friend Reuben Kadish visited Morelia in central Mexico where they made the, now sadly fading, Inquisition. The fact it was originally titled The Struggle Against Fascism made it very clear where, with the spectre of Nazism rising its head in Europe, Guston and Kadish stood.

The Inquisition has torture, death, abuse, the KKK, and swastikas just like the fascism it sought to denounce. Oddly enough the KKK, much like cowboys and the myth of the West itself, owed a lot of their power to Hollywood. The hooded outfits they famously wore (and are now proudly wearing again thanks to the current POTUS) first appeared in D.W.Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 epic silent film that was the first film ever shown in the White House. It's tempting to make a joke about Trump watching it now but as it's over three hours long it'd be three hours to long for his attention span to take in.

You could mail order KKK outfits at the time but anyone who'd taken one look at Joe Jones's powerful, and disturbing, American Justice would surely have realised that blatant rasism was pure evil and could only end in one place. Death.

Philip Guston & Reuben Kadish - The Inquisition (1935)

Joe Jones - American Justice (1933)

Philip Guston - The Studio (1969)

Racists dressed up in white sheets and burning crosses, clearly, were never going to make anything better but times were pretty fucking difficult even without them. Jerry Bywaters' depictions of the dustbowl show new ploughing techniques designed to make the most of the meagre land that share croppers owned and the hard bitten face of the share cropper himself tells a story as old as time. Poor people suffering to get by.

Jerry Bywaters - Farmersville Post Office Mural Soil Conservation in Collin County (1941)

Jerry Bywaters - Share Cropper (1937)

Bywaters was Reginald Marsh in comparison with Alexandre Hogue from Missouri. Scarred landscapes, dead cows, rusting machinery, and a scarecrow as a stand in for Jesus who's forgotten about the poor and now serves only the rich populate Hogue's apocalyptic work. Hogue particularly had it in for tractors and ploughs as he felt these modern devices were responsible for plunging the poor working man and his family into penury. You can often see industrial plant lurking guiltily on the fringes of his canvases.

Alexandre Hogue - Drought Survivors (1936)

Alexandre Hogue - The Erosion Series (c.1936)

Alexandre Hogue - Crucified Land (1939)

Alexandre Hogue - Erosion No 2:Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936)

Grant Wood was another artist who was trying to warn the American people of impending disaster. Wood lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and, unlike your typical city slicker, he could do things with his hands. He was 'handy'. He made jewellery, furniture, and prints. He also liked to strip bollock naked in the open air and pour buckets of cold water over himself but that's a whole different story.

If the stars of his iconic American Gothic are, infamously, inscrutable then the message in, and indeed the tile of, Death on the Ridge Road is much less so. A car heads up a hill unaware that a huge red lorry, driving Coca-Cola for Xmas I think, is coming straight for him. This isn't Spielberg's Duel but an omen that America was heading for a crash. The telegraph pole in the foreground has assumed the shape of a crude Christian cross ready to mark the imminent death of both the motorist and the American dream.

Grant Wood - American Gothic (1930)

Grant Wood - Death on the Ridge Road (1935)

Grant Wood - Sultry Night (1939)

O.Winston Link - Ghost Train (1955)

O.Winston Link - Steam Train (c.1935)

By using cars to tell his story Wood was using a language that Americans were fully au fait with. O Link Watson used another equally iconic form of American transport. The train. Specifically how the train interacted with small town America as it passed through giving the small town dwellers a brief taste of the outside world. Watson fell in love with night trains and to capture his marvellous photographs he had to employ a frankly ludicrous number of lights. He also had just one chance to get his photo so he needed to be on top of his game. Luckily for us he was.

Watson captured brilliantly the final art of America's origin myth and he also underlined the fact, one that had long been nascent if not fully explicit, that Americans didn't see machinery and technology as separate from art but very much part of it. Could Salvador Dali change a puncture? Probably not but American artists had sump oil in their veins. It seems highly unlikely a European artist would have ever painted a picture like Edward Hopper's Gas and very probable that it would've been dismissed as a subject unsuitable for the art gallery. Hopper, Link, and David Smith changed all this forever. 

Edward Hopper - Gas (1940)

David Smith - Hudson River Landscape (1951)

Smith, from Decatur, Indiana, has assembled Studebakers as a student, he could weld and rivet before he learned to draw, and in World War II he worked on tanks and planes. He was a thickset, swarthy, outdoorsy type who was as far away from the image of the artist as fey, pallid, and wispy as it was possible to be.

Yet his work is divine. From old tractor seats and boilers he made abstract expressionist sculptures that looked like nothing that had came before or since. He placed them in his garden and on calm evenings he'd sit among them reflecting on his life, his art, and, no doubt, the state of America.

His work was a microcosm for all that is good about America in that he took the old and weary and created something new and fresh. His death too was all American as he, just like Jackson Pollock, perished in a car crash. In many many ways Americans create the monsters that one day turn upon them. Along the way they've also created much beauty and told a story that is endlessly fascinating and, hopefully, still far from over.

David Smith - Song of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-1950)

David Smith - Star Cage (1950)

This was an excellent show that used the art of modern America to tell the story of modern America, that was full of humour and emotion, and showed that America the country and America the concept can be radically different things while at the same time being almost impossible to pull apart. It also shows that an open America always works better than a closed America and for that reason it's a necessary corrective to all the horseshit being peddled by the far right in the US and elsewhere at the moment. For that, and many other things, I take my hat off to Basingstoke's Waldemar Januszczak and his team. 

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