Saturday, January 14, 2012

He Deserved It

Welcome to 2012. I haven't thought of any cool ideas to share with you yet, so I've been quiet. But I would like to draw your attention to this amusing news story:

"A 36-year-old woman is accused of causing $10,000 worth of damage to a $40 million painting after she punched, scratched and rubbed her behind against it before urinating on herself."

The painting in question was Clyfford Still's 1957-J No. 2. The museum was the new Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. Alcohol may have been involved in the incident. This is the painting:

This is the civic-minded young woman who tried to lift this curse from the world:

Carmen Tisch

Let me tell you something. I dislike a lot of painters, but I hate the holy fuck out of Clyfford Still. This is a fairly newly-minted hatred. It dates to February of last year, when I visited the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. The Hirshhorn has several Stills, and viewing them was an experience akin, for me, to torture. I actually took a few pictures at the time, because I was so furious I wanted to write a blog post explaining my feelings. I never got around to it, but here are a couple pictures:

1962-D, as if the title matters

1960-R, like I care

To explain my beef with Cyfford Still, let me take you back to Austin, Texas, in early 1996. At the time, I was writing for the entertainment section of The Daily Texan, the student newspaper of UT-Austin. One thing that's interesting about this paper is that Berke Breathed got his start there, and if you go down to "the morgue" and dig up the papers published when he was a student, you can see his pre-Bloom County work, when he was doing stuff even more similar to Doonesbury.

Milo Bloom

Mike Doonesbury

Be that as it may, every music person in the entertainment section was into one brand of rock or another. So when Philip Glass was coming to town with his musical accompaniment to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, I landed the interview by default. I didn't know didley about Philip Glass, so I listened to some of his albums and tried to think up some interesting questions. And he gave some interesting answers. I paraphrase, since I don't feel like digging up the dictaphone tapes:

"Mr. Glass, it seems that apart from the pure structural rigor of your music, there is also a kind of emotional rigor, where specific emotions are evoked in specific sequence and intensity."

"Yes, absolutely, it's quite easy to identify the emotions associated with particular notes and series of notes, and then to structure the presence and repetition of those series to induce an emotional composition in the listener."

Well, that's quite fascinating, que non? Philip Glass sketches out here the power of the formal elements of aesthetic systems. They are powerful not only because of their formal structuring of the work, but because they carry emotional implications. The skillful deployment of the formal elements allows the subliminal coordination of the viewer response.

As you can imagine, I would localize the link between element and emotion at the level of the interaction between stimulus and neurology. I don't know much music theory, but circling back to the visual arts, the fact of the matter is that we are wired to respond strongly to sharp-edged high contrast, for instance, and to saturated color. Every artist knows this and uses it. Consider John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo - go to Boston and consider it in person if you can:

El Jaleo, John Singer Sargent, 1882, oil on canvas, 93 3/8 x 138 1/2 in.

Sargent places his highest contrast and sharpest edges in the dancer's dress. Your eye leaps there first. But he also wants to convey motion. So he places his point of highest color saturation in the red dress of the woman on the far right. By means of this trick, he produces a second focal point far from the center of the composition. He manipulates your brain into dragging your eye back and forth from center to right, right to center - suddenly a static, centered composition awakens into vibrating off-balance motion. The elements of design themselves induce a sensation of the dance and motion Sargent is seeking to convey.

This is an example of the civilized use of the formal elements of a medium to support the meaning of a particular piece.

Clyfford Still, conversely, partakes of the kind of infantile poo-poo play which characterizes American art after World War II. This strikes me as a period when painters affected a kind of cosmic ignorance and went around saying, "Holy shit! Did you know that if you put some yellow on a canvas it makes you feel happy when you look at it?"

Well, as a matter of fact, I did know that. Your point?

What Clyfford Still made paintings out of was the elements of design stripped of all content. His mature work is nothing but high-contrast sharp edges and saturated color patches. Unlike, for instance, Helen Frankenthaler, he focused on the most jarring arrangements of the elements - the utterly crude black/white contrast, and the hard reds and yellows. These elements do not serve any purpose beyond inducing their predictable neuro-emotional effects in the viewer.

Do you see my problem here? All serious painters understand that the emotional implications of the elements of design are tools which serve some purpose beyond demonstration of their existence. Still, on the other hand, made a career out of what amounts to a neurological experiment proving the hypothesis, "If I arrange elements A and B as follows, I can evoke responses X and Y in the test subject." And Still's taste in A and B ran to the harsh and painful.

You know what, Clyfford? Art isn't a science experiment, I'm not a test subject, and I'm not going to hang out with elements A and B unless you give me a good reason to do it.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children, 1819-23:
a good reason to hang out with a violent combination of
high-contrast black, orange, red, and white

But ascribing to Still the honesty of a scientist does him too much credit. Because this strutting around, saying, "Didja know yellow makes people happy?" - it was all a pose. Nobody, not even Jackson Pollock, is so stupid that these kinds of completely obvious linkages come as a surprise. Still isn't actually discovering anything new with his work. He's really more of a dentist who gets off on hurting his patients. He is a sadist in a lab coat.

So when I say, "He deserved it," I mean that you could hardly find an artist more deserving of having his work defaced. And in truly Dantean let-the-punishment-poetically-mirror-the-crime style, it is deliciously appropriate that Carmen Tisch rubbed her ass on his painting.

But I can't really condone this sort of behavior, for the same reason that it's a good idea to abide by the Geneva Conventions when you capture a lawful enemy combatant. You don't do it because the guy doesn't deserve to get slapped around, but so that your lawful enemy will treat your guys decently when they get captured. As long as we've defined Clyfford Still as a lawful artist, by doing things like building him his own goddamn museum, we ought to keep our hands off his execrable work so that his partisans will refrain from pissing on Rembrandts.

As usual, take everything I say with a wheelbarrow of salt. I tend to believe you ought to be able to get artwork by looking at it, and I tend to dismiss the dimensions of artwork that require specialized knowledge - be the artwork allegory or abstract. I've never read a word of theory or criticism of Clyfford Still.

And, of course, my opinion is liable to joltingly change without notice.


Now, let's move on to something nicer: my friend Kevin Mizner, a wonderful blogger and talented painter, has given me something called the Liebster Award:

This is an award that bloggers give to other blogs that they like, which have fewer than 200 followers. It is given with the instruction that the award be paid forward - that the recipient pass the award along to blogs they, in turn, like. I think that's how it works, anyway.

So with much gratitude to Kevin Mizner, let me pass the award forward to a few blogs of which I am particularly fond:

Christmascraftproject: This is my wife's laconic and hilarious blog on her crafting endeavors, which turn out to have both diverting technical details and wider implications for the art of living well.

Museworthy: This is Claudia's fabulous blog on modeling and art, one of the key inspirations for this blog and a continuing treasure of new thoughts and images. She's probably got more than 200 followers, but Wordpress doesn't make this clear.

Drawing Life: This is Fred Hatt's lavishly illustrated diary of his art and thinking on it. Like me, Fred spends a lot of time thinking about art, and he shares his insights beautifully.

Confessions of a Recovering Critic: This is RC Speck's excellent and highly idiosyncratic blog of cultural criticism. He turns his eye on many subjects, and thinks deeply and originally about each of them.

There are many other artists who post blogs of work I admire, but I am focusing here on people who have a lot to say about the work, which is a specific capability of the blog format. Thank you all for the magnificent advantage you've taken of this format.


  1. Why don't you just say how you feel?

    Ha ha. Very well blogged, and food for thought.

  2. I am freaking DYING of laughter at this post! Your larger discussion is great, Daniel, truly. But right now I can't get over "infantile poo-poo play".

    Thanks also for the Museworthy mention. You are so kind.


  3. Casey - I know, my emotional reticence and strict diplomacy often render my meaning unclear. It's something I need to work on. Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed!

    And Claudia - I love it when my posts make you laugh! That's awesome! And you know I would nominate Museworthy for anything I could nominate it for. I would nominate it for a Purple Heart. I'd nominate it for the Edgar Allan Poe.

  4. Congrats on your award, it's how I found you. Wow, powerful post full of energy. Are you always like this? Though I have to say, I agree with you. Feel free to stop by and visit my blog. I'll be returning to see what you explode about next.

  5. Susan - Thank you! And if you found me through the award, I'm going to have to guess you're a friend of the estimable Kevin Mizner. Thanks for coming by here. I'm usually pretty intense about art, but I very, very rarely have an unkind word to share about any particular artist. Moreover, I try to speak ill only of the dead. Anyhow, I like your blog (that piracy issue is pretty sad though) and your sense of light and color!

  6. Wow. Although I typically avoid blog posts that contain photos of Janeane Garofalo, I have to say I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I love people who get funnier the more passionate they are about a topic. This was awesome.

  7. You, Ed, crack me up. And to think, if we hadn't mixed it up with that one anti-semitic asshole, we might never have met. I, for one, would like to thank the anti-semites.

  8. Thanks for the plug, Daniel!

    I figured by posting about Still you might be hoping to provoke someone to come to his defense. I have to admit I didn't know much about Still, but your post did cause me to Google him a bit. The following (three-part!) post was pretty enlightening:

    I wouldn't go along with attacking Still over his "lack of content" - he was playing with pure abstraction long before it was a fashionable M.O. But the guy was clearly filled with anger, and anger congealed into hatred. Apparently he was abused as a child. The linked story has lots of examples of his personality, his resentment of other artists' success, his bullying of people, his extremist political views. I think his paintings, which are mostly on a huge scale, can be appreciated as expressions of violence and rage. Or at least we can appreciate the fact that Still made paintings rather than bombing federal buildings or something.

  9. Wow what a great blog That's awesome! thanks for sharing.

  10. And Fred - I forgot I hadn't replied to you! I've just been over finally replying to your crayon/watercolor post and reasoning my way around to saying, "I dunno, do whatever but make sure to post it." Totally useless comment.

    I actually wasn't really hoping that anyone would defend Still - I have less reader response in mind when I write these than you might think. But I'm glad you did, because that article was really interesting; thanks for linking it.

    I'm not particularly buying your argument in the last paragraph, though. While the article reinforces a lot of my evaluation of his personality in the post (while implying that his outlook was less scientistic than I thought it was), I think "inventor of abex" is, at best, a fairly dubious distinction. I don't hand out points for being the first person to do something stupid; and I don't credit people for turning their hate-filled impulses into art rather than crime. For instance, Balthus and Carroll clearly get their pedophilia under partial or total control through their work, Dick and Artaud fight off schizophrenia by writing, and Darger gives every evidence of having narrowly chosen illustration over serial killing. So - great. If they hadn't all been good at it, then we wouldn't be calling their work meritorious except in the therapeutic sense. But their work *was* good, and though their deviant impulses provided the passion evident in it, the impulses alone certainly don't justify its existence from an artistic perspective. So in the case of Still, we have a unabomber type who subsumed it in ugly paintings. I guess it's good he wasn't blowing things up, but that doesn't make the paintings good. He was an asshole and the paintings are spiteful.