Category Archives: RIP

Remembering Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland, 'And Half' (1959)

It’s sad to learn, as I did here, that Kenneth Noland died at his home in Maine on 5 January, at the age of 85 years.

For those who like reading the labels before scanning the pictures — and also, perhaps more to the point, for the substantial majority of readers who’ve doubtless never heard of him — perhaps I’d better explain that Noland was one of the last surviving giants of colour field painting, a major figure surviving from the age in which the United States produced some of the greatest art it’s ever likely to produce.

Yet if Noland’s critical reputation has, over the past few decades, suffered from the mainstream conviction that, in order for the Next Big Thing to be any good at all, whole categories of older things must be deemed to be dated and silly, if not downright malign — a sloppy way to construct art history, admittedly, yet so much less risky than taking the time to look at individual works and evaluate them both with honesty and a degree of humility — well, then, this surely says more about the blind-spots of present-day connoisseurship than it does about Noland’s paintings. Deceptively simple, their surprising conjunction of incandescent Magna colour with cool-headed formal rigour ensured that they always added up to considerably more than wan illustrations of someone else’s theory or whim, spectacularly illuminated now and then by the blaze of critical cross-fire, in the same way that they always felt like more than potential historical relics, flat surfaces tinged with thinned-down nostalgia for yesterday’s more hard-edged hegemonic certainties.

Or so, anyway, it seems to me today, prompted by the news of Noland’s death to recall my single moment of real contact with the artist’s work.

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Remembering Mark Glazebrook

It’s a sad thing to learn that Britain’s stable of art writers no longer can boast that marvellous if slightly erratic thoroughbred, Mark Glazebrook, who died earlier this month, aged 73 years.

Glazebrook’s career spanned most possible art-related pursuits. Having hoped to become a major painter, he had instead to make do with serving as director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1969-71), selling pictures at Colnaghi & Co (1972-75) and the Albemarle Gallery (1986-93), writing various exhibition catalogues and monographs, as well as producing criticism for, among other publications, Modern Painters, the Evening Standard, and the Spectator.

I’ll miss his writing. His prose was humane, literate, generally quite funny, always conversational. It slipped down easily — so much so, that only in retrospect does one stop to consider how much knowledge, not only of British art itself but of quite a lot else besides, actually informed it.

Glazebrook’s life, at least as detailed in a rather good Times obituary, seems to have been full of ups and downs. Did this contribute to the distinctive tenor of his arts journalism? Certainly, his criticism never hardened into predictability — and what higher praise for a critic is there than that?

Some of Glazebrook’s Spectator writing is, happily, still available online, e.g. here.

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Remembering Ian Wilder

For quite a number of our local councillors, the business of representing a local community boils down to one of two things —  a particularly rotten and unreliable rung on the way up the ladder of their chosen party-political cursus honorum, to be skipped across swiftly, sustaining as little damage as possible in the process — or, conversely, a sort of subsidised long-stay car-park for the local association’s more troublesome old bangers, offering just enough polish and maintenance while keeping them out of the way of those younger, faster models, revving through quickly, leaving an odd smell of opportunism in their wake.

The career of Cllr Ian Wilder, who died this week at the age of 62, reminds us that local representation can be a sort of quasi-sacred vocation, as opposed to a burden or safe berth.

A chartered accountant, Cllr Wilder represented the West End ward — Mayfair, Chinatown and Soho — on Westminster Council from 2002 onwards, having represented Baker Street 1994-2002. He sat as a Conservative. In truth, though, more often than not he surmounted faction through a highly individual combination of charm, unfailing energy and an absolutely passionate commitment to his locality. Continue reading

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A few thoughts about John Updike

John Updike is dead.

Here in Britain, reaction has been minimal, at least in comparison with the supersized literary obsequies laid on for e.g. the late Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. But then the sort of lower-middlebrow British person who ‘loves books’ — less, it must be said, as minor distraction from real things than as an undemanding, ersatz substitute for any more rigorous belief-structure — was always going to have problems with Updike, who was neither a brash, publicity-seeking, intelligently mouthy New York Jew, a bibulous, sexually debauched and mentally unstable Southerner, nor indeed an insular, complacent, semi-moronic Mid-Westerner, and hence remained almost unplaceable atop the mental map of America with which the lower-middlebrow British imagination has long been issued by its superiors.

For me, however, Updike’s passing speeds the end of an era — not my own era, but that of my parents, born 1925 and 1930 respectively, and their contemporaries. Probably, I read more Updike before I turned 18 than I ever have thereafter. The point about Updike, for a bookish child growing up in the South in the 1970s, was that his writing had the reputation of being dangerously, enticingly risqué. Continue reading

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One hundred years of Clement Greenberg

Clement Greenberg (Photo by Hans Namuth, 1951)

Clement Greenberg (Photo by Hans Namuth, 1951)

Unless I am doing my sums wrong, today is the 100 year anniversary of Clement Greenberg‘s birth. This notorious figure, surely as transformative of the art world in own his way as Lessing, Ruskin or Baudelaire were in theirs, died in 1994. And indeed his criticism, like theirs, lives on.

If the ability to ruffle feathers, start fights, occasionally to open eyes as much as minds, even years after one’s own death, is in any way an index of greatness, Greenberg was a very great critic indeed. Continue reading

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Flashman and The Unmentionable Memoir

George MacDonald Fraser died this week. On the evidence of his published obituaries, Fraser’s sole claim to fame was his creation of the Flashman novels, a dozen of them in all, published between 1969 and 2005.

There was, needless to say, more to Fraser than Flashman, although one can see why the broadsheets and BBC might find themselves implying otherwise. For one thing, the minority who still read newspapers might reasonably be suspected of having encountered Fraser’s endearing antihero, too. And then there’s the opportunity to engage in some lazy, reflexive, unfunny anti-Americanism. Let’s award this week’s Hugh Trevor-Roper prize for notably attractive British journalistic humility [sic] here again, shall we? Finally, there’s the sloppy equation of huge, enduring importance with huge, recurring royalty cheques. Most journalists would like to have written a book that anyone remembered a fortnight after publication; to have written the sort of series that makes people think you’ve left the UK and moved to the Isle of Man for tax reasons is, more than any of Flashman’s own escapades, the stuff of memorable legend. Continue reading

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Farewell then, 2007

All, all of a piece throughout:
Thy chase had no beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

— John Dryden, The Secular Masque (1700)

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