Saturday, April 23, 2011

My books: March 2011

This month’s edition is a little special, because it is as much about art as it is about literature and so I feel like giving a little personal introduction to the topic:

My love for modern art was born in front of a huge Robert Rauschenberg collage back in ca. 1990. During a school excursion to Düsseldorf we did a tour through the Art Collection NRW and the guide asked us what we were seeing in this picture. As you can imagine a bunch of bored teenagers was not the best audience for the poor lady, but I raised my hand although that was a slightly unpopular geek move.

I have no idea anymore what I exactly said about the collage, but I remember her starring at me asking if I had studied this kind of art before that I knew so much. Funny I enough I knew nothing at all. I had only told her what I saw. It was love at first sight and is love ever since. The New York School of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art is IT for me and Robert Rauschenberg is still my hero.

But before we go on let’s do a short praise on the Art Collection NRW in Düsseldorf, where it all happened and which is one of the best collections of modern art available in Europe. I was a lucky kid to get introduced to this kind of art at this special place. The history of the museum goes back to the year 1961 when the Federal State of Nordrhein-Westfalen (where I grew up) bought 88 works of Paul Klee, when steel industrialist G. David Thompson sold his magnificent art collection after his hometown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Yes, that one … again) had turned his wish down to get a dedicated museum. So Pittsburgh’s loss for Duesseldorf’s win (read more here).

As of today the Art Collection NRW has developed a couple of main focus areas like the work of Paul Klee, Picasso & Cubism, Surrealism, photo & video art, the work of Joseph Beuys, contemporary art and - most important in the context of this blog post - a very fine collection of American Art after WWII featuring the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly and many more.

Just in case you still have room for more visual impression after the visiting the Art Collection NRW you only need to cross the Rhine to find another fantastic museum which should not be forgotten here: Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

It is also focused on the art of the 20th century and contemporary art. The museum offers besides a lot of other fantastic stuff (like a great Bauhaus collection) a fine selection also of American Abstract Expressionism art works and an extremely nice collection of Pop Art with works of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg (I love his sculptures) and more.

You see – even before I first boarded a transatlantic airplane many years later to explore my two favorite art places - the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco - I had the chance to experience some really fine pieces from my favorite art movements.

But now let’s talk books

John Updike – Seek My Face


First of all … I would really like to know why the first 50 pages of an Updike novel are always so hard to read for me. It is definitely not the language, which is absolutely superb. It is definitely not a lack of precise descriptions to help the fantasy, because there is probably no other writer who offers more realistic descriptions than Updike, who can turn such a simple scene like an old lady preparing a tuna salad into a masterpiece of writing.
To find out what it could be and paying tribute of the complexity to “Seek My Face” I read some reviews about the book (what I usually and with full intention don’t do before writing the blogs posts) and one of the reviewers mentioned the cool distance Updike keeps often to his main characters and I guess that is right – at least it is something I can feel as well. I also usually find in every book a character or at least some parts of a character I can relate to (or wish I could relate to), where I can make a personal connection, but with Updike’s characters I usually have nothing or very little in common (and often do not even want to), which does not make things exactly easier. But the good news is - after the first 50 pages I usually adjust to this different way of reading and enjoy it a lot.
“Seek My Face” was released in 2002 and covers one single day in real time and several decades of American Art history in narrated time. It is a fictional interview with the elderly artist Hope Chafetz and Kathryn, a young journalist form New York. The topic of the interview is Hope’s life as an artist and even more important as the wife of two famous artists. Her first husband Zack McCoy is more or less an exact biographical copy of Abstract Expressionism mastermind Jackson Pollock. But where Pollock’s real wife, artist Lee Krasner, did not marry again and focused on her late husband’s work, Hope (of course – we talk about an Updike character here) got married two more times. Her second husband was Pop Art superstar Guy Holloway. Other than the close-to-the original McCoy Holloway is a hybrid of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. In both marriages Hope and her husbands are surrounded by lots of other famous artists of the time. In most of the cases Updike used fictional names, which were often quite close to the originals. His characters refer for example to Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko or Willem de Koning. You also meet Clem (Clement Greenberg) and Peggy (Peggy Guggenheim) barely hidden by using only the first names.

In a way reading all this is fun. It’s like playing the “guess the artwork / artist” game. Coming back from my US art marathon with visiting the Guggenheim Museum, MOMA, The Whitney Museum and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh my scores were pretty high, because I had seen most of the mentioned artworks only few weeks ago (LUCKY ME!).

I also liked a lot the Pollock part of the story because it feels more like sneak peak ‘behind the scene’, more personal and private than a regular biography usually does. It makes you feel that the paintings you look at in the biggest museums around the planet were made by an actual person – a very special, very energetic but also very haunted person. That’s a rare experience for a person my age since most of the relevant artists are already dead or at least so old now that they are no longer people of the regular public life.

The Pop Art part of the story is still very interesting and catches very well the totally different idea of art which is the driver behind this movement. And if possible the mentioned pieces of art are even more famous than in the Abstract Expressionism part of the book. Or maybe the more precise (obviously) phrase would be ‘more popular’. One of the basic ideas of Pop Art is that it is reproducible and made to be reproduced as often as you want. We all have for example seen Warhol’s Marilyns a million times – in the waiting room of your dentist or in the meeting room of my old company. But from the reader’s perspective I find the hybrid character of a “Warhol” with family and kids much more difficult to read because it feels like drifting back and forth between fiction and reality. I know that the Pollock part is often fictional as well, but it feels more stringent than the Pop Art part – at least for me.

More interesting for me is to follow Hope how she reflects about her own art and identity as a female artist in relation to her famous husbands. Hope herself is also a painter. She went to art school and worked with one of the most famous artists and art teachers of her time. But when she was married to Zack (Pollock) he did not really respect her art, told her she was either copying (him and others) or producing weak stuff. She was not strong enough to really stand up against the genius and more than busy playing the role of women at that time as a caring wife – a pretty difficult job with such a heavy drinking, self-destructive husband.

In her 2nd marriage was again not much room for her own art. Guy (Warhol & others) was much less complicated to live with, but in this relationship she played the other key role of a woman – the one of a mother raising hers and Guy’s three kids.

In her 3rd marriage finally she had a husband, whose ego would not have suffered from the talent of his wife because he loved art but was never an artist himself but an art collector. He supported her, built her a studio where she could work on her paintings, but looking back Hope realizes that she again tried first of all to please him with creating things she knew he would like instead of searching for her own identity as an artist.

Behind all the talk about art and their main protagonists we have additionally the typical Updike themes: the lifecycle of relationships in some variations (Hope had a long life and three husbands) and the difficult microcosm of a family with Hope’s homosexual daughter and her two sons, who both did not inherited the sense for art and design from their famous parents.

And we have another relationship: the one between Hope and her interviewer Kathryn. Hope very much sees her as an intruder (Updike repeats this almost too often), who seems to attack her more than interviewing her, although I think in some cases it is more Hope’s own mixed balance of her life than really the interview questions. And although Hope does not seem to like having her around she is so keen to tell the story from her perspective, to paint her own picture of the past, that she does not let Kathryn go before the whole story is told.

We also have two generation of women, young and old, answerer and interviewer, wife and fan. The last of those combinations is probably the most interesting one, because the two women kind of dueling about who loves Zack most. It is not a fair game and Kathryn will always win not although but BECAUSE she never met Zack. It is always more so much more easy to idolize and love a person from a geographical and temporally distance than to do it for real.

Uff … I can tell you – although both is worth every effort writing about this book is almost as uphill as reading it. I skip my usual list of little things I liked in the book although there are a lot, but this posting is very long even without it.

Ann Temkin - Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art


When I went to New York, my timing was very bad for many things … the weather was awful most of the time, I missed the Broadway premiere of my favorite play and some absolutely awesome events in Pittsburgh by a couple of days. But the art fan in me was lucky, because I could catch the exhibition Abstract Expressionist New York at the MOMA, which will end now at April 25th.  
The book by Ann Temkin was published by MOMA New York alongside the exhibition. And here you go with the official description:
“Beginning in the mid-1940s, works by then little-known American artists—including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko—became a part of the Museum’s collection. The achievements of this generation put New York City on the map as the center of the international art world. Abstract Expressionism at The Museum of Modern Art celebrates the Museum’s unrivaled holdings of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and photographs from this period in the history of art and the institution. Includes 147 illustrations.”

147 awesome illustrations … and all this for only 30$. It’s not that I am all about the money but illustrated art books usually ruin your budget and I was super happy to get this one for a very fair price. And it is the perfect book to flip through while reading “Seek My Face” … just in case you do not have the chance to read in on a bench at MOMA and just go around and look at all the art work mentioned.

The book gives lots of interesting stories about the artists and the whole art movement and the New York art scene in 50ies, 60ies and 70ies - again perfect to read along with “Seek My Face”.

Finally I'd like to give you my favorite quote from the book by Ann Temkin, because I think it is important:
“In a world that likes its culture fast, Abstract Expressionism works are uncompromisingly slow.”

That is so true. If you go to a museum to explore this kind of art, TAKE YOUR TIME. Look from distance and go close (not too close of course – you do not want to trigger the alarm) and look again. Give it time to impress you and please, please ... shut your ears to the stupid people passing a Pollock or a Rothko almost in running speed babbling super stupid stuff like “Look at that crap - even I could do that.” (My most hated museums visitors – sad enough you find a lot of them at popular places like the MOMAs).

The drippings on a Pollock may look random, but they are not. The opposite is the fact - Pollock was very precise and very aware of all steps in his working process.

A monochromatic Rothko may look simple, but it’s not. The colors were applied step by step, layer by layer to get their intensity.

Take your time, look closely and enjoy!

Thanks for your reading time today and stay tuned for more art postings! I visited the Museum Brandhorst - Munich’s finest and newest collection - yesterday and taking pictures was allowed!

Multimedia Section

Watch Jackson Pollock in action:

MOMA, New York (click to enlarge):

Jackson Pollock

Mark Rothko

Robert Rauschenberg

Jasper Johns

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