Tag Archives: art criticism

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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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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Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester City Art Galleries)

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester Art Gallery)

On reflection, the venue for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait was nothing short of inspired. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, located just off the High Street in Lymington, a modestly pretty market town and port just south of the New Forest, is in essence that very necessary and worthwhile thing, a local history collection — augmented, in this case, with two large rooms turned over to temporary art exhibitions. What more suitable context, then, for this compact yet compelling exhibition, doomed by its subject-matter to operate in the dangerous no man’s land dividing ‘history’ from ‘art’?

The history of the Women’s Land Army is recounted clearly and succinctly, both in the exhibition itself, and in the excellent accompanying catalogue. Other than commending this achievement, however, I don’t propose to say much more here about history per se.

For what clearly fascinated the exhibition organisers is the way in which the work of the Women’s Land Army was portrayed, notably during the course of the Second World War, under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, what fascinates me is the present-day predicament of British war art — particularly of official British war art — which, for all its sometimes astonishingly high level of quality, is so rarely and grudgingly regarded as ‘proper’ art at all. Continue reading

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The picture unframed: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Right at the heart of Tate Britain’s current Francis Bacon retrospective, at the literal physical centre of the exhibition, there is a smallish room. Unlike every other room in the exhibition, this one isn’t lined with large and imposing oil paintings, virtually all of them hung in gilded frames: glazed, reflective, spectacular.

Instead, the room is filled with evidence for the way in which the paintings outside were made. There are pages ripped from art books, pictures on newsprint aged the colour of old jaundiced skin, photos of friends and rivals commissioned from John Deakin, lists in a sprawling generous hand, body-building magazines with homoerotic overtones, ink doodles, pictures of Bacon’s own pictures, photos ripped from current affairs magazines featuring wrestlers and famous Nazis and dead people, prints of film stills, the predictable Eadweard Muybridge sequences, the concrete remains of a less predictable interest in David Gower — all of it torn and battered by use, everything spattered with paint — fodder or perhaps rather compost for the painter’s imagination, the refuse of decades of imaginative consumption and elimination, leftovers of creation, the rich and pungent detritus of the studio floor.

It’s fitting, I think, that this room is at the centre of the exhibition, because it takes us right to the crux of at least the most immediate problems we face in confronting Bacon’s work. Should we be looking at the subject matter, or at the paint? Are we here for horror, about which we’ve all heard so much, or for beauty? Are we in fact doomed to stand staring at all the accumulated clutter, metaphorical as well as actual, of this most public of private lives, or is there any way of getting past it in order to reach the actual art itself — and what would we find if we did?

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Learning from Robert Hughes

Whatever else one might say about the durable, persistently combative art critic Robert Hughes, he certainly doesn’t need a blogger of unimpeachable, blue-chip obscurity to stand up for him. He really can fight his own fights by now. I do realise that. But, having just read a very silly article by Janet Street-Porter in today’s Independent in which she attacks Hughes for his recent dismissal of Damien Hirst, don’t think for a moment I’m going to let this realisation stop me from standing up, however unnecessarily, for Robert Hughes, a critic from whom I’ve learned perhaps more than any other.

Acccording to Ms Street-Porter, Hughes’ decision to comment on Hirst is purely a way of marketing his own forthcoming television programme, The Mona Lisa Curse. This, clearly, is a bad thing. (Did I mention that Ms Street-Porter’s seminal Life’s Too F***ing Short: A guide to getting what YOU want out of out of LIFE without wasting time, effort or money, is now out in paperback? And before you start, that typography is hers, not mine, starred-out swear-word included.)

Now, some might argue that, as a critic who can be trusted to produce a direct and pungent comment on pretty much anything, Hughes would, in the general scheme of things, both have been asked his view regarding an art-world event already gaining quite a lot of coverage even without his encouragement, and then to have denounced Hirst along the lines he eventually did. Hughes’ views on Hirst are well known, but perhaps marginally less familar than the journalistic convention whereby any truly edgy, transgressive piece of contemporary art must be ritually annointed with a smear of critical obloquy before taking its place in the canon or, for all I know, the auction room floor at Sotheby’s. For heaven’s sake, Hughes was just doing his job. The ‘crash! bang! pow!’ school of arts coverage doesn’t just write itself, you know.

As it turns out, however, being an art critic with the temerity to criticise art is the least of Hughes’ problems.

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