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Post #1170 • May 1, 2008, 9:51 AM • 93 Comments

Since seeing the Met's Courbet show and Designed for Pleasure at the Asia Society, I have been wondering about masterpieces. Specifically, how to make one.

Gustave Courbet: Sleep, 1866, oil on canvas; 53 1/8 x 78 3/4 inches, Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Black Carp, ca. 1847, color woodcut, 37.5 x 12.7 cm, Geoffrey Oliver, photo: John Deane

I go back and forth between wondering whether I've been thinking about this question too much or not enough. My preoccupation with the problem of masterpieces comes up simultaneously with dry spells in the studio. Self-criticism has a constant presence in my system, and causes symptoms of perfectionism and self-doubt to flare up when my defenses are down from lack of studio time. This will correct itself soon - the school year ends this week and I have a show in Edmonton in late August, so I will have the combined gifts of time and motivation. I will get back into a routine in the studio, spend a couple of weeks making total crap, and then I'll get into a new onslaught of production that will finally expend itself, resulting in another dry spell. Unfortunately, knowing that this is coming is not going to stop me from making myself crazy about it. (Only hard exercise and meditation mitigates the crazy-making. My brain, by itself, will spin until it blows a gasket.)

Catfish once said on this blog that all masterpieces are exceptions. I can't agree with this more. Looking at a roomful of Courbets or a couple of generations of Utagawas confirms it - in a collection of masterful works that want nothing for technique or composition or much of anything else, certain works just hit you in the head, inducing an "Mm!" sound followed by a slack jaw and an expasperated exhale.

But exceptions to what? Exceptions to the production of competent works that come out of a healthy studio practice. It parallels Zen. Aspirants seek enlightenment, but practice moment-to-moment awareness. It turns out that you can't do much of anything else. If you sit down and try to will yourself into revelatory experiences, you figure out pretty quickly that it isn't going to work. Instead, you set off in the direction of enlightenment, and when you fall short, you neither kid yourself about it nor kill yourself over it. You get up, re-orient, and set off again. Dogen finally says that practice is enlightenment. What a useful attitude! Before he died, the Buddha said, "Be a lamp unto yourself." Shine the light into yourself and look.

Likewise, you set off in the direction of masterpieces, but you practice making. When you fall short, you get up, re-orient, and set off again. Sitting with awareness moves in the direction of enlightenment. Making with self-criticism moves in the direction of masterpieces. Mature practice in both disciplines involves long stretches where nothing of note seems to be happening. Mature practitioners in both disciplines harbor a studied uncertainty about what they're doing even after obvious, confirmed signs of success. Re-orientation in both disciplines means a hard, honest look at one's actions followed by further action. Both disciplines require study and occasional rest.

I wonder if masterpieces have a common nature. (I realize that a lot of people in the art world regard the category as a sham. They can stop reading and return to kidding themselves.) I said a long time ago that good art aligns materials, technique, composition, and feeling. I think masterpieces align these supremely and mysteriously. I think we can at most set out to align them well and hope for the best.




May 1, 2008, 10:59 AM

Thinking "masterpiece" is like "looking for enlightenment". It is too catagorical. Just get better and see what finds you.



May 1, 2008, 11:23 AM

I have to disagree, opie. Masterpieces are rare works where everything comes together in an almost prefect way. But you yourself seem to recognize this when you say "see what finds you". The masterpiece indeed finds you, there is no way you can consistently cause them to happen.



May 1, 2008, 11:34 AM

Franklin, doing one's best is the best one can do. That should be the focus, not whether or not it's a masterpiece. That's not really for the artist to judge, anyhow. It's hard enough to make, or find, work that's simply good enough.



May 1, 2008, 12:04 PM

My thoughts about this topic are based entirely on my experiences making art. The really good paintings or drawings that I make (I won't dare call them masterpieces) surprised me. I didn't set out to make something that was better than the other stuff I made nefore or after it. Most of the time I finish something and I feel contented that I worked hard and produced something out of nothing, but I don't feel that thrilled with the end result. On occasion I am actually thrilled with the end result. Did I try harder that time? Probably not. It is a confluence of actions. So in order for this to happen more often throughout my life I will have to keep as busy as possible, making as much as possible, and trying hard each time I set off to work.



May 1, 2008, 12:42 PM

Catfish, I was actually referring to the obsessive "thinking masterpiece" rather than to the location and assessment of actual masterpieces, which are rare but of course findable, at least when you are not living in a cultural backwater.



May 1, 2008, 1:03 PM

One thing I know for sure: There is no masterpiece with a good settled concept in advance, but the concept must give enough freedom, to let happen the masterpiece. Franklin, what about to avoid any crap in the first weeks of your season, but start with a masterpiece right away ? The concept of first making crap, seems to become a bad routine...

Best regards, Hans



May 1, 2008, 2:00 PM

There's a sort of faith involved in this way of thinking. One has to believe that something COULD happen, then one just starts making things and see where they end up.vorcing out "great" work produces turds.



May 1, 2008, 2:06 PM

That should be "Forcing" not "vorcing".

Always ALWAYS preview...



May 1, 2008, 2:22 PM

'nefore' should read as 'before' in my comment.

Picasso was able to make a masterpiece when he wanted to do so. Of course we could argue about whether or not Demoiselles d'Avignon is a masterpiece. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were able to do this as well. The list is very short though.



May 1, 2008, 3:57 PM

This is a great post and I can relate to every thought.
In my view practice opens the floodgates for paintings that arrive on their own, like gifts--and all others. Allowing oneself to make crap (simply allowing) is important. Only then can one get used to not knowing what one is doing in a way. The challenge of absorbing masterpieces is to forget them in your practice while retaining their value in your own. In any case the process is always different than one thinks it will be.



May 1, 2008, 7:25 PM

This is technically off-topic, Franklin, but it may interest you to know that Kuniyoshi was exceedingly fond of cats.



May 1, 2008, 7:50 PM

As much as I wish it otherwise, my own studio practice is hardly a reliable testing ground for masterpiece how-to. And not only because (as Jack notes) it's not up to me to name my own (theoretical) masterpieces, but because for a piece to qualify as a masterpiece it must (at a bare minimum) aesthetically exceed nearly everything that comes before or after it in the artist's production (not to mention other masterartists' masterworks). Sufficient time (how much I'm not sure) must elapse.



May 1, 2008, 7:56 PM

11. I know it looks like a 'cat'fish, Jack, but did you perchance make another, GASP, typo and mean "Kuniyoshi was exceedingly fond of *carps*".



May 1, 2008, 8:11 PM

ahab:you may know more about the peaks in your production than you are saying. If you are reluctant to call them "masterpieces", that's fine. But I think you know when one really hits, no matter what everyone else thinks. Sometimes, in my own stuff, the hits make me quite nervous at first, but eventually it settles out and I know what I have. It is usually a matter of weeks, at most, not years.



May 1, 2008, 8:19 PM

Catfish, - this'll be an aside to the topic but may give me a hint of how you measure your own work - do you allow those peak pieces, the hits, to be put up for sale? Or do you perhaps guard them jealously against acquisition?


Chris Rywalt

May 1, 2008, 8:52 PM

Does it say anything about anything that I don't consider either of your illustrations for this post to be masterpieces? I was disappointed in both the Courbet show and the show at the Asia Society.

I'm probably just a bad person.



May 1, 2008, 9:14 PM

ahab: I'll sell anything, but not necessarily "cheap". I tend to hang onto the good ones, but am quite willing to place them where they might make a difference.I don't guard anything.



May 2, 2008, 5:26 AM

No, Ahab, I meant cats. Carp are nice to look at, but they're pretty slippery and don't really like to be petted much, I expect.



May 2, 2008, 6:57 AM

"... willing to place them where they might make a difference."

Like where?



May 2, 2008, 7:38 AM

By the way, Ahab, I made the cat comment because Franklin's a cat person. I'm not. I mean, I have nothing against cats, except that they're not like dogs.



May 2, 2008, 7:40 AM

Off topic: anyone who thinks the Greenberg/Rosenberg syndrome is a dead issue should read the NY Times today.



May 2, 2008, 7:51 AM

Opie, I just put a comment (and link) to that on Franklin's Roundup...


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 7:52 AM

I'm reading Rosenberg right now. Could you be more specific about what part of the Times we should be reading? It's not like I've got the paper in front of me. Although that could be an excuse to go to Starbucks, and I haven't done the Times crossword in a long time....



May 2, 2008, 7:55 AM

It's just another one of Roberta Smith's diary entries on her own professional jealousy, Chris...


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 8:05 AM

Thanks for the link on the other post, MC.

That show looks totally incredibly awesome, though, doesn't it? Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, Rothko, Still, Gorky, Hofmann, Frankenthaler, Oldenburg, Stella -- all in one show! I mean, I'm not a huge fan of most of these guys, but to have them all in one place is really something.

I didn't get the sense that Roberta was professionally jealous, though. What gives you that idea? It sounds like she respects Rosenberg, at least, very highly.



May 2, 2008, 8:11 AM

You're right, Chris... she doesn't sound jealous of Rosenberg... Clearly, it is Greenberg whom she feels threatened by.

My guess would be that she, as a reviewer, thinks she is a critic of the level of stature of Greenberg, and the fact that Greenberg mostly wrote for piddly-little magazines, and here she is, THE CRITiC for the NYT, well, clearly, she is the master... except, of course, for Roberta's nagging realization that no students will ever study her writing, she will never name a major movement, she will never by "mythologized" like Clem. So, she vents her ego by her petty, snide asides, "personifying the arrogant critic...", but without the brilliance.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 8:18 AM

I guess I'm weird, because I wouldn't think that "personifying the arrogant critic" is pejorative.

Roberta definitely sounds like she didn't like where Greenberg went in the 1960s and after.



May 2, 2008, 8:22 AM

How very convenient for Roberta. You "review" a show and, instead of coming up with something new and/or worthwhile to say about the actual work on view, you simply resort to an increasingly tired (and tiresome) crutch: rehashing the official litany about former figures who did have something to say about the work on view.

Thanks, babe. Thanks for nothing. What do they pay you for again?



May 2, 2008, 8:26 AM

"Roberta definitely sounds like she didn't like where Greenberg went in the 1960s and after."

Here's Roberta writing on the "Color as Field" show:

"This was the lighter-than-air abstract style, with its emphasis on stain painting and visual gorgeousness introduced by Helen Frankenthaler followed by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski."

Now, here she is writing on Abstract/Action:

"Greenberg more or less squandered his reputation in his relentless promotion of Color Field painting and related sculpture, giving formalism a bad name while writing less and less. His blinkered view is represented by the homogeneity of Helen Frankenthaler’s breakthrough stain painting “Mountains and Sea,” of 1952, as well as works by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro and Anne Truitt."



May 2, 2008, 8:28 AM

Personally, I hate it when I get blinkered by homogeneous gorgeousness...



May 2, 2008, 8:30 AM

Pejorative: having negative connotations; especially : tending to disparage or belittle : depreciatory

Arrogant : exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one's own worth or importance often by an overbearing manner

I guess you're weird, too, Chris!



May 2, 2008, 8:32 AM

What do you call it when someone exaggerates someone else's arrogance?



May 2, 2008, 8:35 AM

Try jealousy.



May 2, 2008, 8:36 AM

Or insecurity.



May 2, 2008, 8:36 AM

Or ineptitude.



May 2, 2008, 8:37 AM

That's what I thought... thanks, Jack.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 8:38 AM

I guess I've been called arrogant so often I've decided it's a good thing.

I don't see the connection between whether Roberta thinks Color Field painting is any good or not and how she thinks Greenberg squandered his reputation by focusing on it exclusively. The two aren't mutually exclusive at all. Roberta can respect and enjoy Color Field art while thinking that Greenberg was blinkered by it; and also she can love Frankenthaler while thinking that her breakthrough painting is homogeneous. I see no contradiction here.



May 2, 2008, 8:41 AM

I try not to attribute motives to people and Smith deserves the same respect however compromised her critical judgment. She may have perfectly honest reasons for her problems with Greenberg. Of course, that makes her no more correct in her estimations.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 8:41 AM

Jack says:
Thanks, babe. Thanks for nothing. What do they pay you for again?

Well, come on, be serious: What could Roberta possibly say about these guys that hasn't been said before, and better? At some point you have to just say, okay, this field has been trampled -- no point in trying to leave my own footprints.



May 2, 2008, 8:53 AM

In certain circumstances, Chris, I'm sure being called arrogant might be a good thing. Like in this case in point, it can be an indicator that you might be touching a nerve, and you've left your opponent with nothing left to rely on in their rebuttals but personal attacks. But that's an entirely different thing to actually being arrogant, which I'm sure you'll agree is a bad thing.

Roberta can respect and enjoy Color Field art while thinking that Greenberg was blinkered by it..."

Yeah, blinkered by the colour-field painting of Anthony Caro, he was... that's how they tell it in the NYT, so it must be true... yeesh.

"Well, come on, be serious: What could Roberta possibly say about these guys that hasn't been said before, and better?"

Indeed... and by whom, I wonder?...

(Franklin, thank goodness you didn't try writing about Courbet or Kuniyoshi.)

"At some point you have to just say, okay, this field has been trampled -- no point in trying to leave my own footprints."

Exactly, which is why Ms. Smith should advisedly, as they say in the vernacular, 'step the fuck off'.



May 2, 2008, 9:10 AM

Chris, I was being quite serious. Are you actually saying that, after a certain point, nobody should venture a personal, individual opinion or take on certain work, however idiosyncratic it might be, because the floor has been permanently closed to discussion and there's absolutely nothing else to be said? Are you serious?

If the best this Roberta dame can do is to recite, yet again, the currently sanctioned catechism on Greenberg, etc., she's not fit for her job. Of course, reports that the NYT is a guarantee of anything (except smug self-satisfaction) have been greatly exaggerated.



May 2, 2008, 9:10 AM

"I try not to attribute motives to people and Smith deserves the same respect however compromised her critical judgment. "

Hey, normally, I'm with ya... but, this is prose we're talking about, and Roberta practically lays bare her thought process in the first, rather personal, words of the piece:

"Art is long, art criticism is often very, very brief, its Internet afterlife notwithstanding. Its viability relies on a mixture of prose style, sound-bite concepts, timing and its ability to clarify visual experience."

She is speaking about her vocation, here: her lifework, as well as that of the 'bergs. So, I think an intimate reading of her thinking, if not demanded by her own words, can at least be indulged in for the sake of discussion.

Her first line reads to me as a wistful lament on the ephemeral nature of her craft. This, of course, lies in stark contrast to what the 'bergs have done. Can we not assume that Roberta might not wonder, In comparison, what her legacy might be?..."When will there be a show of the artists I championed and praised? Who will write books about me when I'm gone?"

Her next sentence presents the distillation of Smith's critical formula, and what a recipe it is! I'm glad she remembered to throw in a slash of clarified visual experience in, but when it came time to serve up this half baked article, she forgot this ingredient herself. Oops!



May 2, 2008, 9:19 AM

You got it, MC. But I'm sure it was, you know, an honest oversight. Assuming, of course, the woman has any real sight to begin with.



May 2, 2008, 9:26 AM

the masterpiece topic could go in so many directions. i am surprised that it has not led to more discussion. as ahab notes, masterpieces would usually seem to have to occur in relation to other lesser work or can they exist in a vacuum?

in regards to the times article, she seems to suggest that after frankenthaler, jules, noland and louis greenberg no longer looked at art. his writing definitely slowed way down , but was he still active in looking for great art? opie, catfish please? how was he spending his time in those last 20 or so years?



May 2, 2008, 9:29 AM

Of course he looked, but the massive onslaught of crap and bunk was hardly an incentive to keep at it. I mean, how many ways can you say "This really sucks"?



May 2, 2008, 9:38 AM

I swear, Clement Greenberg must be the only person in the world to be born in the first decade of the 20th century, and stand perenially accused of not having an active-enough career after the late seventies...


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 9:40 AM

Jack says:
Are you actually saying that, after a certain point, nobody should venture a personal, individual opinion or take on certain work, however idiosyncratic it might be, because the floor has been permanently closed to discussion and there's absolutely nothing else to be said?

Well, no, of course not. It's just that, as a professional critic, I'm imagining Roberta thinking, "I've written about all these guys before, everyone else has, too, and this is a retrospective kind of show based on Rosenberg versus Greenberg, so I might as well leave the work out of it and just concentrate on the critics and their frameworks."

At some point you just keep quiet unless you really have something new to say. Roberta, it seems to me, doesn't have anything new to add regarding Pollock and so forth. I mean, by now it's possible to just say, "Hey, there's a show with all these painters from the 1950s. If that's your thing, you'll enjoy it." They've been adequately covered.



May 2, 2008, 9:44 AM

I am not, repeat not, casting myself in the role of Greenberg, but I will say, for what it's worth, that after repeated, consistent, prolonged and predictable disappointment with what the current art scene has to offer (certainly in Miami), I've pretty much "retired." I was once exceedingly tuned in to it and would go see practically anything, anywhere, with an almost religious zeal, but I discovered I was not a true masochist and, therefore, had to stop the pain. I suspect something along those lines may have happened to Greenberg.



May 2, 2008, 9:48 AM

Greenberg came to Edmonton, Jack, and found things to look at. Maybe you should give it a try....



May 2, 2008, 9:49 AM

Chris, if you're satisfied with what Smith is offering as the art critic for the New York Times, that's your business. I'm not. It won't cut it. If it's the best she can do, I have neither use nor time for her. Simple as that.



May 2, 2008, 10:00 AM

Yes, Marc, maybe I should. Assuming they don't stop me at the border for misspelling Gretzky.



May 2, 2008, 10:14 AM

Just make sure, if you drive here, Jack, you pay attention to the road signs...



May 2, 2008, 10:20 AM

Hey, I'm glad I mentioned the review so we can get back to venting

MC, yes, I, too, hate it when I get blinkered by homogeneous gorgeousness. Terrible feeling. I recall mentioning here a couple weeks ago that being pinned down by too much "greatness" always bothers me a lot, especially when other people are suffering with it.

Don't overlook that besides Caro that total color field fanatic Anne Truitt was also mentioned

What Gberg did in his 70s and 80s was drink, talk, look at art (all the time) and encourage artists (particularly the many excellent artists like Olitski who were getting minimal recognition) and generally relax. How can he ever be forgiven for that? And for looking at Pop and Minimal and seeing most of it was pure crap? His name should be purged from the public record!

Franklin I am as down on giving motives as anyone, but let's face it, Roberta Smith has a SERIOUS problem with you know who. Ya don't need to be a shrink.



May 2, 2008, 10:31 AM

Franklin I am as down on giving motives as anyone, but let's face it, Roberta Smith has a SERIOUS problem with you know who.

Well, that's for damn sure. I just felt uncomfortable about suspecting her of jealousy, in particular, because people come here not infrequently and accuse me of the same. My point is that there's plenty wrong with what she's saying and I don't mind describing what. Why she's saying it, I don't claim to know.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 10:32 AM

I wouldn't call myself satisfied with Roberta, since I've read just about nothing she's written. Hard to be satisfied with something you don't really care about. I was just thinking that the criticisms being leveled here were possibly unfair.

I think maybe you're confusing types of critics. I doubt that anyone, Roberta included, thinks she's a critic the way either of the 'bergs were critics. (Rosenberg claimed he wasn't an art critic anyhow.) There are critics who help steer the thinking of both practitioners and their audience; and there are critics who just let you know if a show is worth seeing or not. Popular critics, I guess you could call them.

I don't know of any critics currently working at the 'bergian level, but then I'm ignorant. I suspect those kind of critics are rare, though.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 10:33 AM

In fact, you might say there are masterpieces of criticism, too....



May 2, 2008, 10:35 AM

Chris, not thinking either of these pieces are masterpieces doesn't make you a bad person by any means. I think perhaps that you may have soured on the whole Courbet show in a way that slights some of the individual pieces, though, am I right?


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 10:50 AM

Certainly there was an element of seeing all of those Courbets in one place that sort of made me see them each in a different light. But also no individual painting really did anything for me. A couple of years ago I might have liked them a lot -- Sleep sure is pretty -- but today I see them as being technically proficient -- astronomically technically proficient, in fact -- while being spiritually dead. Well, maybe not dead, but certainly not vibrant. Sleep is a perfect example, actually: It's gorgeous in purely concrete terms, but it didn't excite me. It's really, really skilled taxidermy. I should want to fuck that painting, and I just don't. Courbet's work is like a good toupee: If you're looking at it and thinking it's a good toupee, it isn't actually good.



May 2, 2008, 11:02 AM

Roberta Smith on Greenberg: "Writing with a clear Olympian style that nonetheless had intonations of a sportscaster calling a horse race ..." That describes Ken Moffett pretty well, I think, much better than it describes Greenberg.

Convergence isn't that hot a picture. Nor is Gotham News. But Twilight Sounds? What's that doing in there??? And Lee Bontecou gets a JPEG and David Smith does not?????? Contrary to R Smith's assertion, sculpture in the 50s was not "behind" painting, thanks solely to David Smith. Of course, it would be difficult to romanticize about his work as "action sculpture" and retain any credibility. Not that "action painting" has any, as a description of what went on, either.

Barnett Newman is starting to look a little too "ultimate", where theory/ideals/whatever get in the way of letting the picture make itself. They are good compositions, though.



May 2, 2008, 11:13 AM

#53 and #54: Rather than speculate about jealousy and Roberta Smith, I'd say she is practicing me-tooism. She is just saying what "everyone" says and "knows" to be true. She should be invited to be on the faculty of that fancy new grad school in Miami.

Opie answered 1's question in #44 very well, with #53. I can only add that Clem did a whole lot of his looking in the studios of artists, as opposed to the showrooms of dealers, though he did some of that too.



May 2, 2008, 11:15 AM

Franklin, what do you feel the experience of an artwork shares with contemplative practice? I am inferring you are a regular meditator and was just wondering what you felt specifically about any common ground there.



May 2, 2008, 11:23 AM

'Barnett Newman is starting to look a little too "ultimate", where theory/ideals/whatever get in the way of letting the picture make itself.'

That's a great Barney Newman crit.



May 2, 2008, 11:29 AM

Roygbiv, if by "experience of art" you mean looking at it, the common ground is giving your attention over to the thing without mentally adding to it or subtracting from it. Just seeing what it is. The difference between the artistic eye and the contemplative eye is that the former exercises judgment and the latter does not.

I may be talking through my hat here.

I called Newman's work "illustrations of purity" at one point, which is in line with Catfish's remark.



May 2, 2008, 11:36 AM

The trouble with purity is when it becomes sterility.



May 2, 2008, 11:53 AM

No, Chris (55), I'm not confused. That's part of my "problem." I know exactly what I want and expect. Smith is the art critic for the high-and-mighty New York Times. It is not OK to be lazy and/or safe and/or a carbon copy of every other critic if you are in that presumably exalted position. She's not up to it.


Chris Rywalt

May 2, 2008, 12:03 PM

Aha. You assume the New York Times to be exalted. I assume it to be geared to the popular level, much the same way it's written at a fourth-grade reading level.

Where did the 'bergs publish when they were active? Rosenberg was with the New Yorker, and that was when the New Yorker meant something. (These days -- as much as I like it -- the New Yorker caters to a small readership. I mean, I can't even find the damned thing most of the time.) Where did Greenberg publish? MC called them "piddly-little magazines".

Where would you expect to find serious criticism these days? You seem to think the New York Times, which I think is a mistake. Where else? I have no idea. I guess I take the New Yorker vaguely seriously, although most of the time that just makes me very, very sad.



May 2, 2008, 12:28 PM

i think it is pretty tough crowd that would be throwing barnet newman under the bus with everything else that is out there. the guy has painted some very great pictures that i would call materpieces. sure at times it can sometimes come of as grandiose (greenberg would probably call it "grand manner" or something similar if i remember correctly) or he can be a little cold with a lack of color or going hard minimal, but a huge jump from an elsworth kelly or stricter lesser minimal artists.

but i have to add that frankenthaler's "mountains and sea" while very good and historically important, does not blow me away. i prefer newman's Vir Heroicus Sumblimus.



May 2, 2008, 12:31 PM

I said presumably exalted. It certainly is in its own estimation, and that of many who take reputations (however inflated) at face value. I am not of their number, but my point stands. If you want the rep and the status, I expect you to deliver the goods. At least in the review in question here, she's more or less "reviewing" by proxy (and, of course, spouting the expected pieties). And by the way, do we know for a fact that this show was deliberately set up as a Greenberg vs. Rosenberg thing, or was that just what she made of it?



May 2, 2008, 12:34 PM

among other periodicals,greenberg wrote for "commentary" which had a different name prior. terry teachout, who has been mentioned here before, writes for them now and did an article last year that concerned greenberg in this magazine as well.



May 2, 2008, 12:54 PM

Just went to the Jewish Museum website. The show was set up with a Greenberg vs. Rosenberg underpinning, which makes "sense" given the venue and the fact they were both Jewish. This partially exonerates Smith, in this instance, though not in the Color Field show review.

She is still indulging in fashionable and self-serving Greenberg-bashing, and she is not putting her own, personal thoughts about the work (if she has them) sufficiently front and center, regardless of the 'bergs and what the show's curators had in mind.

In other words, she's playing it very safe and simply going with the curatorial flow, which she is not required to do. But again, in this case, her approach is more justified than in the Color Field show review, which was fairly ridiculous.



May 2, 2008, 2:57 PM

looking more at frankenthaler's "mountain and sea" has been good for me.

while it and can be argued that hofmann leans mostly on matisse for his inspiration, matisse can also be seen in frankenthaler. frankenthaler staining comes directly out of the light touch and stain like surfaces that matisse executed so adeptly. hohmann took more from matisse in terms of using straight color to make a picture.

but "mountains and sea" is closer to hofmann than anyone i can think of. and i am talking hofmann, both before and after "mountains and sea". and if "mountiains and sea" were a hofmann, it would be good, but average, for hofmann. although hofmann is more closely associated with heavy opaque style painting, he often used a staining like technique as well. or just a thin layer of paint ala matisse if you want to get technical. sure "mountains and sea" while something somewhat new at the time, it shows evidence of other influences in addition to hofmann, including all the big names from the 40's and some earlier(gorky, dekooning, stamos, pollock,kadinsky, etc.) i remember reading that "mountains and sea" came from pollock, but the way i see it, hofmann is the much closer link and inspiration. he did numerous pictures 10 or so years earlier that are eerily similar after looking a little deeper. in the late 50's to the end, hofmann was pumpimg out pictures that eclipse his earlier work and "mountains and sea" daily, both in the thin layer stain like technique and the opaque variety.



May 2, 2008, 5:17 PM

That's a tough one, 1. She was of course influenced by both. There is definitely Pollock in Mtns & Sea - the linear parts, painting on the floor and the way it "rolls out" is much more Pollock than Hofmann. The staining may well have come directly from Hofmann, as well as the strong colors, the varying piece size and the extensive empty space. And I agree that many of Hofmann's later paintings do stand up better.



May 2, 2008, 5:55 PM

Hans Hofmann rules!


Jack (Derrida)

May 2, 2008, 7:11 PM

It's just anachronistic formalist decoration, Eric. No content to speak of. No issues. I mean, please, what can you do with it except look at it? We've now evolved beyond looking. We're much more about writing and talking, you know, thinking really, really hard. Nobody wants mere pleasure from art anymore. We want work that's difficult, uncomfortable and disturbing. Challenging and stuff. We're very challenged. Am I there yet, or do I need to read more French theory?



May 2, 2008, 8:01 PM

I'm trying to pick my favorite quote from that NYT article... is it:

1. "...his work continues to inspire study, debate and denunciation."

I wonder: is she intentionally delineating the two sides of the 'debate'? Those who study Greenberg v. those who denounce him?


2: "Greenberg more or less squandered his reputation in his relentless promotion of Color Field painting and related sculpture, giving formalism a bad name while writing less and less."

So, somehow, promoting colour-field painters (and "related sculpture") was a "squandering" of his reputation? How is that, exactly? I mean, Smith agrees the work stands up, so what gives? Shouldn't she be arguing for the rehabilitation of his reputation, instead? Talk about logically inconsistent.

And, as for "giving formalism a bad name", I thought formalism WAS a bad name...



May 2, 2008, 8:35 PM

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference on both sides of the Atlantic.” —Jacques Derrida



May 2, 2008, 8:39 PM

Hans Hofmann:

"Painters must speak through paint, not through words."

"Through a painting we can see the whole world."

"The art of pictorial creation is so complicated – it is so astronomical in its possibilities of relation and combination that it would take an act of super-human concentration to explain the final realization."



May 3, 2008, 4:31 AM

MC, she is dealing unsuccessfully with demons within herself which take the shape of Greenberg when they get out in her writing. Bad art writing is almost always not really about the subject it is dealing with but uses it to express unrelated inner urges.

Greenberg, on the other hand, wrote about the art. For whatever reason, that drives people nuts.



May 3, 2008, 7:21 AM

Opie, you have taught writing about art, as have I. The writing improves when it is focused on the art instead of "issues". Granted, from an absolute pint of view, it is not "good", but it does get "better".

What is interesting about the "pros" is that they seldom use this obvious method of getting better. And since they start out with a well developed facility with the language, better for them might conceivably get them to "good".



Chris Rywalt

May 3, 2008, 7:43 AM

Why should Roberta want to get better? Her paychecks don't bounce.



May 3, 2008, 9:25 AM

opie, let's say "mountains and sea -mas-" was just discovered recently and h. frankenthaler never existed. without knowing the date of the piece, who would you guess had painted that picture? i would say hofmann or dzubas. louis would be a distant third, i think if i am remembering some of his earlier stuff correctly. could be wrong here though. if i was told the date of the piece i would go with hofmann (the size of the piece being unknown). pollock would briefly come to mind for the splattering and all-overness "roll out", but i could never say that he could have painted this picture.

the linear parts to me seem more closely aligned with hofmann than pollock. these linear aspects, especially the drawing, relate strongly to hofmann. hofmann's over drawing, while often it cut up the picture or made some homage to (synthetic)cubism, could also be more free flowing like in "mas". this over drawing was a big part of hofmann's picture making from as early as the late 30's and continued in earnest through the mid to late 50's. gradually his drawing became less pronounced or blatant, yet more free, and continued to the end.

the splattering in "mas", which at times seems to coordinate with drawing, less so than say, straight dripping here, also forms a srtonger connection for to hofmann than pollock in it's nature and execution.

the general composition is also hofmann to me, more so than pollock. many of hofmann's smaller, less published 40's works have so much in common on many levels including composition and "roll-out". so do numerous later pics, but it should be noted that he was doing this picture quite often before 1952.

"mas" could be included in the book hans hofmann "poems & paintings on paper" and it would not be considered out of place for a second.

color and application. not even close, hofmann over anyone else.

the picture to me just bleeds hofmann.

very good, but not a Great hofmann.



May 3, 2008, 9:25 AM

You're quite correct there, Chris. It's not just that the NYT, which is obviously not run by art people, is just fine with her work, but that the ostensible art people who read her stuff would also seem to be satisfied with it. She's got no real practical need or incentive to do any better, and the same is true of a lot of other so-called critics.



May 3, 2008, 9:58 AM

"Painters must speak through paint, not through words."

Paint or go home.

"Through a painting we can see the whole world."

It ain't a thing but a chicken wing.

"The art of pictorial creation is so complicated – it is so astronomical in its possibilities of relation and combination that it would take an act of super-human concentration to explain the final realization."

Painting will never die.



May 3, 2008, 1:44 PM

Well 1, (#81), if Mountains and Sea was "discovered" under the circumstances you describe, as a singular piece of unknown origin, say, in someone's attic or garage, I doubt if anyone would pay attention to it.

What eventually gets recognized as important art is the result of a complex process. A single work detached from that process, no matter how good in itself, will be disregarded.



May 3, 2008, 4:28 PM

Actually, 1, if you really look hard at the painting you would have to say she was thinking more of Gorky than Pollock & Hofmann.



May 3, 2008, 8:06 PM

So then, is M&S a masterpiece? If so, is it just one Frankenthaler masterpiece or Frankenthaler's only masterpiece?



May 3, 2008, 8:49 PM

I doubt that M&S is a "masterpiece". It may be part of a "breakthrough" series, but I don't know the history well enough to say for sure. Its importance seems to be the fact it changed how Louis and Noland painted.



May 4, 2008, 9:42 AM

i just wrote a long response out and i thought i hit post and nothing. ugh! so here is the short version.

sorry catfish for not putting more meat on the bones in my intro to limit our options to painters of significance before 1952. and i agree with your #87.

next, opie you will see in an earlier post that after saying that "mas" was closer to hofmann than anybody, i did list gorky first as a possibility or influence.

still, although frankenthaler may have been thinking gorky and it shows with the feeling, organic nature and composition, hofmann still would remain as my first choice for the likely maker of this picture. after taking everything in to account and especially the splatters, the color and application trump that overall organic feel which i still could not even completely conceed to gorky. maybe i will change my mind in the future.

thinking gorky, looks like hofmann?



May 4, 2008, 12:16 PM

Hey 1, here is an interpretation of M&S as feminized cubism . How do you supposed the profound Danto would see M&S if he found it in my garage, instead of the National Gallery? Gorky was a boy, right?



May 4, 2008, 12:25 PM

I will take Gorky, Hofmann, and Frankenthaler over Schultz, Currin, and Schnabel any day, even if they did not paint any masterpieces.



May 4, 2008, 12:41 PM

I dunno, Catfish. That "brush discharging its delicate load" sounds rather masculine to me, but then Danto is so stunningly profound we never know when we are really getting it, do we?

Your "who would have painted it" spin on the Frankenthaler is interesting, 1. Lemme think about it. I still think Gorky, in an absent-minded mood.



May 4, 2008, 3:25 PM

catfish, i have never seen your garage so i am not sure how he would feel.



May 4, 2008, 8:08 PM

"The string of drips in the upper right corner, for example, allow an archipelago of vibrant dots to form, the brush having discharged its delicate load and then, perhaps, descended to make the streak of pale blue in which the archipelago reappears, faintly, as a dot and then another paler dot. That is as beautiful as painting gets."

Opie, I believe, in the business, this is called a "money-shot"...



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