Monday, November 28, 2011

Out of the Usual Categories ... "hors-catégorie" ... Cubist, Impressionist... and Into... Brushstrokes

Continuing with Barbara Rose on Jasper Johns ... in Artforum in March 1970, she wrote that Johns's "single images did not depend on Cubist 'rhyming' for their structure ... they were understood first as holistic gestalts .... [and because of the small-sized] brushstrokes" which were "methodically applied with equal pressure over the entire canvas surface," Rose says that Johns's work is "reminiscent of mature Impressionism" ("The Graphic Work of Jasper Johns, Part I," p. 39).

Okay, so let's unpack that for a second ... the front-and-back-and-all-sides images present in Cubist work were not Johns's aim, she argues. Instead, there is an all-over "whole," which is intended to be visible at first glance, and to remain visible as the viewer continues to "see" the work.  So, he is not exactly Cubist, and his steady, all-encompassing brushstrokes identify him with late Impressionist work.  Rose is persuasive. But this is a really interesting angle of attack. If Johns isn't Cubist, can he really be an heir to the Impressionists? Does that place him up against, say, Van Gogh?

I started to think that perhaps at least some artists burst free of categories, and that Johns is one of them.  None of the movements I have seen him tied to fit him, exactly. Yes, there are the bronzed beer cans, but they shift into a painting like "Decoy," from 1971, and then (see yesterday's post), he goes from "The Seasons" straight to Cézanne.  The Tour de France has developed a term for the mountains too towering to be classified, the most demanding for the riders; the term for these is hors-catégorie. There must be artists like Johns that are hors-catégorie, beyond the normal reach of art-historical labels. Where can we find Jasper Johns's peers, his lines of inquiry and influence?

Start with the basics. I like to see, as I argued yesterday, traces of the artist's hand -- in paintings, this is the brushstroke.  So, since that's a famous trait of Johns's work (think of the cross-hatch paintings), let's set up some artists whose strokes are, in Rose's words, "methodically applied with equal pressure over the entire canvas surface" and see what we get. We'll go chronologically, starting in 1870.

I have a new admiration for Camille Pissarro, having seen him at the Legion of Honor recently (see November 7th post) and think his "The Stagecoach at Louveciennes" is a good place to begin:

The clouds, the water on the path, the horses, the tree limbs -- they are not offering us the sort of brush-free illusion we see in a Vermeer.  If we take just a corner of the piece, the lower left:

This shows us -- not quite as clearly as I'd like -- what we could see if we were before the actual work.

Now look at the surface of Vincent Van Gogh's  "In the Cafe: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin" from 1887:

This is not the Van Gogh we tend to think of ... pointillism and grand distortions are for other paintings. But this is an energetically painted work.  Now look at Braque's "The Portuguese," from 1911:

We aren't looking at subject matter here ... but at the application of paint. Again, we are seeing, I think,  brushstrokes applied with "equal pressure over the entire canvas surface."   Here comes a sketch from John Singer Sargent, "A Mountain Stream, Tyrol," from 1914:

You can feel Sargent painting here. Now, for Monet, one of the "mature Impressionists" that Rose was likely thinking about. This is "Nympheas," from 1916-1919:
And, yes, there are a few brushstrokes here!  On to the man of the hour, Jasper Johns, and his "Canvas," from 1956:

There is a lot of Monet here ... and now to Joan Mitchell, who has been called Monet's heir, with "Row Row" from 1982:

If you take away the brilliance of the colors, for just a second, (perhaps imagine some grays?) this energy and application is very close to that of Jasper Johns.  I have one more person to bring in. In an interview, Gerhard Richter is asked about his mark-making. The implication is that the application of paint is "quasi-mechanical or anonymous," but Richter responds: "A brush is a brush, whether it's five millimetres wide or fifty centimetres." And he goes on to say that the two yellow brushstrokes under discussion "only look like two strokes of a giant brush. In reality they were painted with a lot of little strokes .... it's all genuine, so to speak" (interview with Benjamin Buchloch, 1986, from Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and Interviews, 1962-1993, pp. 161-66).  I could not find the two-brushstroke work, but here is a 2009 painting by Richter, called "Vienna":

I think if you scroll back over these, you will see another way of looking at these works, the way of the brushstroke, something that unites them across their named movements. This is Johns's tribe.

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