Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Pure Painting": pictures following Roberta Smith's eye, from Howard Hodgkin back to J.M.W. Turner

In a short review of Howard Hodgkin's show now at the Gagosian Gallery, Roberta Smith says that the work is "surprising" and "risky" (The New York Times, December 16, 2011, "Art In Review" section).  But there is only a black-and-white photograph of one work -- not the one that interested me as I read the short essay by Smith. She mentions one work by Hodgkins in the show and proceeds to link it back to the "pure painting" of previous generations of painters. So I looked up the chain she mentions. Smith traces a line, first, from Hodgkin's "Breakfast" at the Gagosian:

back to an 1880 work by Manet. Manet had painted a bunch of asparagus for a collector and had expected 800 francs.  The collector sent him 1000 francs, and Manet, delighted, sent him back a small single painted asparagus, saying, "there was one missing from your bunch."  Here is "Asparagus":

Smith calls these examples of "pure painting" and gives us other names, like J.M.W. Turner. My choice for him is this "Snowstorm," from 1842:

I love Turner ... his landscapes, seas and clouds are filled with movement and allow us to perceive the world through abstract methods -- long before there was such a thing as abstract work.  Smith also mentions Vuillard, someone whose work I do not know very well, so it was really fun for me to look through his work and find one that seemed to fit this "pure painting" idea. It is "Album," from 1895:

The figures meld into the wallpaper, creating a figure-ground movement, back and forth between the two.  This makes it possible to gaze at the work for long periods of time -- this would be a likely way to define "pure painting," I would guess.  Last, Roberta Smith mentions the Abstract Expressionists in this category, and of the first-generation painters, I would choose Kline as my "pure"-brushstroke man. Here is his "Untitled," from 1957:

This lovely small work is in the Philips Collection.  People often think of Kline's work as only black and white, so I am deliberately picking this one to show you a work you might not have seen before.

That ends my tracing-through of Roberta Smith's examples; I have "illustrated" the article she wrote, just to see what all these paintings would look like together.  Only two of the works, the Hodgkin and the Kline, are by painters considered to be fully abstract; the Turner, Manet and Vuillard are "abstract" only if we look at the brush-work.  What links these five pieces as "pure paintings" is exactly that -- the tracings of movement by the artist's hand.  (I have written about this "hors-catégorie" linking of Jasper Johns back to his "tribe" here on November 28).

"Pure painting" here is demonstrably the brushstroke. It makes us want to "see," to look harder,  to touch the original (which, of course, we can't do!!) or at least trace the line of the brush a few inches away in the air.  Sometimes seeing a painting "live" for the first time is something of a shock.  I had seen Picassos, for example, here and there in museums, but when I first went to the Picasso Museum in Paris, in 1989, seeing room after room of his work, the thing that surprised me was the relative flatness of his work, the absence, in so many cases, of obvious brushstrokes, and the way the painting tended to fade out towards its edges.  I think that surprise was one of the origins for my "Odalisque" works -- imagining a more lively, brushed, colorful background for Picasso's 1907 "Demoiselles d'Avignon."  Here is my "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon Pick Wildflowers" from 2010, where I take them out of Picasso's studio and give them some air:

So, as I am working now on the next few paintings in the series, I will be thinking of "pure painting."


  1. Lovely shading art these creation are really magical.

  2. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the post!