Post #1121 • February 5, 2008, 12:59 PM • 40 Comments
Ever since seeing The Birth of the Cool, I've been thinking about the California Modern painters, especially John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley. McLaughlin lived here in beautiful Dana Point, painting minimal abstractions that Clement Greenberg characterized as "oddly Oriental." The quote comes from a McLaughlin catalogue for a 1996 show at the Laguna Art Museum, via Susan C. Larsen, who writes:
Clement Greenberg, chief architect of much of the critical discourse on abstract art at mid-century, once stood before a group of John McLaughlin's paintings in the company of Nicholas Wilder, the artist's long-time friend and dealer. "There is something oddly Oriental at work here," Greenberg remarked, according to Wilder. This intuitive reading of McLaughlin's art was correct, but Greenberg did not greet this revelation as a positve validation. It signaled for Greenberg the presence of something extraneous, perhaps ready to displace his own vision of advanced abstract painting, which even then he was projecting onto a new generation of American painters. Greenberg had indeed recognized McLaughlin's aesthetic sensibility as it was played out in the sophisticated language of his quite personal abstraction. However, being committed to his own critical program, the perceptive Greenberg saw McLauglin as an oddity, or even perhaps as a threat, and would not extend to his art the kind of critical support he gave so willingly to artists working within his carefully tended domain.
I can't separate Greenberg's feelings about McLaughlin's work from Larsen's Clembashing, and it sickens me a little that the bald attributions of motive, statements that presuppose Larsen's ability to read the minds of the dead, pass as serious art history. But whether Greenberg meant the remark as a compliment, there is something oddly Oriental about them. Wonderfully so, in my opinion. I recognized McLaughlin's desire to do something modern and simple with the exquisite order of ukiyo-e, because I had attempted it myself.
I'd like to say that I rushed home from Birth of the Cool and made a bunch of new works in my flat style. Instead I spent three months making occasional and failed attempts at new works in my flat style, punctuated with ruminations about what I was trying to do. In doing so I violated the rule that I've long been telling students: do your thinking on paper, not in your head. I may have that tattooed on my forearm for future reference.
Speaking of which, it turned out that unlike for the 2006 works, I needed to shoot some reference. Once in the computer, I traced some of the shots in Illustrator and recombined the paths, altering colors on along the way. A new painting is in progress.
And when a new painting is in progress, especially after a long unproductive break, I have few thoughts on the wretched state of the art world. It melts away like a dream in the daylight. I do this just to do this. I think of Zeami Motokiyo: "Now what is called 'art,' because it appeases the minds of all people and arouses the emotion in the great and humble alike, could be the starting point of increased longevity and happiness, a way of prolonging life." Who cares if he's right; in the act of mixing a grassy green, life is happy and long right now.