Robert Henri Snow in Winter (1902)
Nicholas de Stael The Football Players (1952)
Atsuko Tanaka Drawing for Electric Dress (1956)
George Segal The Old Woman at the Window (1965)
Jim Rosenquist A Lot to Like (1962)
It’s been a strange month, mostly because I spent the bulk of it chasing the dangling carrot of artistic legitimacy. Then my birthday came, and I woke to the realization that I was halfway to eighty-four. That’s a lot of trips around the sun, not enough to make me feel old, but definitely enough to have a strong sense of who I am. I realized that the powers that be (the ones dangling the carrot) were asking me to become a cookie cutter version of myself. When I finally balked at at their wishes – when I put my foot down and said I’m not writing that! – I was informed that my stance was “anti-establishment”. Anti-establishment? I rolled the word around in my mind for a moment. Yes. That seemed exactly right.
In this spirit of insurgence I found myself looking at Robert Henri’s Snow in New York (1902). I love this painting because it feels like a street I have walked. I love how the sky hangs low, and how you can feel the cold, damp air. It may be warm inside those row houses, but it’s hard to tell. The people inside work hard with very little guarantees. The only thing we know for certain is that it is a grey day in a messy world. This is the world that I live in, and I appreciate Henri because he didn’t choose to cover it up with a blue sky, or dress it up with a snazzier neighborhood. Modern Art in America begins right here with Henri’s unfettered realism. Raised in Nebraska, the son of an accused murderer, Henri (who had to change his name from Cozad due to his infamous father), rejected the French academic style that was in vogue. He had no interest in painting figures that resembled Greek gods, nor did he care to idealize the world around him. Fed up with the art establishment, Henri created urban paintings that depicted un-glamorized portraits of real life in gritty cities, filled with immigrants and struggling poor. Conservative in style, his paintings were revolutionary in content. He began to teach in New York, and developed a loyal following of students that included Edward Hopper and George Bellows. The establishment hated the realism of his work, as well as that of his students, and critics came to call it “Ashcan”. Instead of bowing to pressure to change the content, Henri organized a show featuring rejected Ashcan work. Much to the shock of all the dealers, the show was a big success and people began buying. Henri and his fellow Ashcan painters revived a much needed insurgent mood.
World Cup is upon us and my English better half is of course pulling for his home country, but my daughter is pulling for Portugal because she loves Ronaldo. We were killing time down at MOCA, debating the importance of national pride over good looks, when we stumbled upon Nicholas De Stael’s The Football Players (1952). I learned that de Stael spent all of 1952 painting footballers. He was like the Nick Hornby of his day, and this was his Fever Pitch. The idea behind the footballer series was to break down the shapes of the players without loosing the emotion and passion. De Stael wanted to suggest the essence of form and movement, without literally depicting it. I don’t love this work aesthetically but I appreciate what it represents. De Stael spent most of his life seeking approval and legitimacy from the art establishment. He finally got it in 1953, and promptly killed himself. I’m not sure what to make of that really.
Atsuko Tanaka’s Drawing for Electric Dress (1956) was created during a period in Japan after WWII, when the country was consumed with modernization. After the war, female students were allowed to attend art school. Formally trained, Tanaka ultimately rejected traditional notions of art and went in search of the “unknown beauty” as she called it. She found a home with the Gutai Art Association, the first experimental art movement in Japan. Known for their conceptual performance pieces, their collective work always featured objects from everyday life like textiles, doorbells, and light bulbs. In this sense, it’seasy to think of them as a pre-cursor to Pop Art.
At first glance, Tanaka’s crayon drawing seems nonsensical, and haphazardly drawn. But Tanaka used the diagram to create an actual dress, which she wore to Gutai performances. Risking electrocution, she would literally insert herself into the work of art. A far cry from the Zen restraint that had typified Japanese art for centuries, and not what you might expect from a nice girl from Osaka.
My mother was a grad student at NYU in the early 70s, and George Segal’s work was something I grew up seeing in and around Greenwich Village. Segal’s figures were considered revolutionary back then, but feel sort of old hat to me now. When I spotted The Old Woman at the Window (1965), I brushed by her without much notice. But as I passed in front of her window, I glanced over quickly, and caught a glimpse of my own reflection. Suddenly, the piece took on new meaning. I always thought the idea of the sculpture was that the viewer was supposed to look at the woman and make all sorts of assumptions; she is old, lonely, tired, frail. On this day, I realized it’s also about the woman looking at me. I wondered what assumptions I brought forth. Maybe she was thinking, Look at that woman, halfway to eighty-four… What she doesn’t know, is a lot. This is the genius of George Segal.
In 1999, he won the National Medal of Arts but thirty years earlier, his sculptures were rejected by the rarefied world of the 57th Street dealers. They were only interested in art that was academic, conservative or elegant. Segal grew up on a poultry farm, and decided early on that elegant topics weren’t for him. He was part of the working people, and wanted to speak to that. He continued to toil away at his art, teaching high school to make ends meet. Finally, in the late 60s, he joined the Tenth Street Co-Op, which was comprised of ‘rejected’ artists looking for other outlets for their work. They pooled their resources together and rented space in galleries on East 10th Street. Each month they would host shows, all on the same night, so that the artists and the public could mingle together on the sidewalk. These ‘happenings’ became incredibly popular, and ultimately led to the legitimacy of many of the participating artists (including Segal).
There’s a lot to like about James Rosenquist’s A Lot To Like. It’s a stunning painting to behold. You can literally stand in front of it for a good long while just observing all the every day objects. I guess he reminds me of O’Keeffe in the sense that he paints things really big, so that you can really see them. Before he achieved acclaim for his work, Rosenquist painted billboards and hung out with race car drivers. In fact, my son used to play at the home of a race car driver who owned a Rosenquist, and my mantra to him prior to all playdates was always, “Don’t touch the Rosenquist!”
Rosenquist likes to think of himself as a billboard artist, but the rest of the world considers him a Pop artist. He doesn’t like the label, which is fair enough. But his reasoning is based on the fact that he never met Warhol. I don’t see the logic. You didn’t have to meet Monet to be an impressionist. Rosenquist takes everyday objects and paints them BIG. If that’s not Pop Art, I don’t know what is. James should just calm down and enjoy the fact that he’s in so many major museums…
Ultimately, the thing I love about all of these artists is that they didn’t waste emotional energy trying to plug themselves into someone else’s diagram. They trusted their own voices – they were inventive and daring. They disturbed, upset, enlightened and ultimately opened ways for better understanding. Robert Henri always said a painter should only paint what is real to him. I think this goes for all of us in the artistic world. At the end of the day, you have to do what’s right for you. You have to have the courage to be yourself, even if that means you can’t have the proverbial carrot.
If that’s ‘anti-establishment’ count me in. Anybody else out there with me?