Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Painters, Painting and the Idea of Home

Matisse's studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem L'Invitation au Voyage:

"Furniture gleaming with the sheen of years would grace our bedroom; the rarest flowers, mingling their odours with vague whiffs of amber, the painted ceilings, the fathomless mirrors, the splendour of the East ... all of that would speak, in secret, to our souls, in its gentle language. There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure."

Within Modernism, there has been a counterstrain to avant-gardism; I used to sit in a course for graduate students titled "Tactics" where famous New York artists would come down and speak and so many graduate and undergraduate students would try to get something from them in the way of attention - and strategy, and connections - and when first hearing the name of this course I remembered Baudelaire said he was against the term avant-garde and any military terms for art.

The first image below is from the apartment my former husband and I found in Paris on rue de cherche-midi in the Sixth Arrondisement, not far from the Jardin de Luxembourg where I could go everyday and stroll, which is what the French do in their parks. The reproduction is not very clear but in this 17th or 18th C building we had a studio apartment with a small kitchen and bathroom attached to it, with plaster walls, thick wood beams, and this shelving niche in one corner, where I gave pride of place to Matisse's book Jazz that I bought in the first bookstore I worked for right after it came out in its early eighties new and technically state of the art reproduction.

That I had gotten reinterested in interiors through my husband from first meeting him as a boyfriend is absolutely true, as his mother had actually had her rented Edwardian house in Chillum, a medieval village in England, decorated so spectacularly in the traditional style that it was featured in the British House & Garden; and that his father (they had been divorced and started new families long ago) was a full steam ahead enthusiast for Memphis design and all Italian and other hip design of the time and put together a house that reflected that; this meant that wherever my husband and I lived it would be something we worked on together from alot of Mexican, some Japanese, some Indian , some modernism, and a considered bohemian thrift store mix. He was a painter with two parents practically obsessed with Interior Design, we were both painters that enjoyed this making and painting furniture and decorating our homes. There was a lot of DIY preparation even including scraping wallpaper and plastering and repainting and work house and sign painting that prepared me quite well for coming up here to the DIY loftspace I have been in now for over twelve years and its reconfigurations. painting projects, replastering and all manner of upkeep. (And a contract for housepainting I did by myself for Coco Fusco and some housepainting work with a loftmate who had her own business for awhile, in the early years.)

As a girl child it was suggested I study Interior Design, which was confused in some minds with Interior Decoration, but as a maker and builder of things including a girl's fort and puppet stages for puppets and furniture and props for backyard fairs I made from 3rd grade on I wasn't confused, just liked drawing and painting things so much more. However I was fascinated by my father's girlfriend's apartment in DC in 1968 or so with its Eero Saarinen tulip table and chairs on a black and white Op Art shag rug and the Op textiles on canvas stretchers around the place - I wanted my Dad to marry her so that we could have her cool stereo and record collection and furniture, and he did - it went well with, and enlivened all the Scan furniture and his minimalist acquisitions to fill the split level he acquired when getting custody of us.

The Baudelaire quote speaks to my earliest memories of a house and a home. When my parents remarried my mother had brought back Persian miniatures and Persian rugs and leather ottomans and all kinds of Middle Eastern things from having lived in Ankara in Turkey, and some Mediterranean objects from close to a year in Cannes in France, and they had gone all out to have a large house and prepare the way for my brother coming into the world. Then they divorced again and moved into a tiny apartment and a little townhouse - which in my mother's case had her garden statue of Aphrodite in all her over six feet of glory right in full view on first entering the little living room. My mother's house was always Baudelairean, and the kitchens Matissean, even in tiny apartment and townhouse complexes, and little rancher or bungalow suburban structures ever after.

The topic I wanted to discuss, with the image above. I was leafing through the January issue of Elle Decor at the newsstand when his painting popped out of the picture at me - right in the middle of a living room over the proverbial sofa.

A fellow graduate student at Tyler showed me a woman undergraduate's assemblage painting in the school catalogue, a monster of paint and tire halves and the largest artificial flowers saying admiringly "that could never go over anyone's sofa.' Given the above autobiography, it would be difficult to buy into this canard in the first place, but also I have a very real inability to hear received ideas as anything but such - any phrase I even hear twice may be suspect. As a dreamy but also very astute peruser of Mairie Claire Maison and World of Interiors and the much missed eighties and nineties House & Garden, I rolodexed up the feature on Dennis Hopper's Frank Gehry house and slotted that painting into an imitator's of that aesthetic's starter collection, right over the much less expensive version of the same couch. I was envisioning this just as Steve had instantly triggered this unconscious exercise by saying this, but said nothing. I don't like dampening other's enthusiasm with these thoughts, just store them away for the right moment to try and collect them into an essay on an idea, as in now.

The idea is painting's place in people's homes - as Matisse famously put it, he wanted to make paintings that would be like an armchair for a tired businessman. What a lovely way to think of someone who might potentially buy one of your paintings, might I add, the counterstrain in Modernism to wanting to shock the bourgeoisie. Matisse was stating his case fairly alone in these times of desired revolution and reform following in the spirit of the protoCommunist Saint Simon after the second half of the nineteenth century's incubation and infancy period of all these notions, introducing this essay above, when Saint Simon was already nearly ninety years ago at the cusp of High Modernism.

It actually is an imperative for discussion, at this time, and Dan Christensen the perfect symbol of this, as someone who was the earliest artist to suffer from something now called flipping in the auction houses and secondary markets but at the time it happened to Dan Christensen was an unconscious mechanism of the auction houses' very new rise in position in the contemporary markets forming in the sixties.

This is from page 18 of Anthony Haden-Guest's Book True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World, in the first chapter describing the first auction devoted to a contemporary collection of Art, the 1973 selection from the collection of Robert C. Scull at the newly acquired Parke-Bernet by Sotheby's:

"Another painter whose work did well from the sale was Dan Christensen, a leader of a movement called Lyrical Abstraction. They were seen as a third wave - after Abstract Expressionism and Color Field - and doughty competitors to the dour Minimalists. Christensen described the effects on his sale as 'catastrophic.' Collectors who had bought his pieces for a few hundred dollars quickly popped them into salesrooms, creating a glut. "The prices started dropping. I suddenly started having a very bad time," he says.

The first time in history is serious and the second time is farce, according to Marx - the first time is serious and returns with redoubled force, according to Hegel. The economic crisis to Marxians (who many think rhymes with Martians by now) may seem a necessary farce. I suppose I am part Marxian or Martian myself, as I have been following the economic trajectory of this country quite closely since moving back in 1991, especially reading a book on executive pay packages and golden parachutes by Graef Crystal in 1992 or so titled In Search of Excess, and reading the Times business pages first even before this recession started.

I would say for all the mature painters I know the recession is very very hard at the moment - we should all be so lucky to not be part of some big warehousing for possible future flipping that has now ground to another art market halt (the third, fourth and fifth return were not something newly historical 19th C. followers of Hegel were able to foresee enough to have any commentary on - in Hegel's world there was supposed to be some kind of progress through thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; in David Brooks frightening article in the Times Op Ed pages this country has been manic from near the beginnings and stay that way ad infinitum without worrying ever about temporary setbacks like recessions. He cites such a list of American entrepeneurs and Horatio Alger stories, and figures like Andrew Carnegie as fonts of wisdom supporting his thesis that everywhere the seeds of America's new enormous upswing are already sprouting, but as Crystal pointed out on the first pages of his book by way of introduction, Carnegie stated that the president of a company should never get more than 32 times the amount of the lowest paid employee. This was no legal idea for Carnegie, it was a solid fiscal ratio. (And he was called a Robber Baron?)

Some kind of collective national capitalist mania followed by financial recessions could synthesize into fiscal reflection, responsibility and maturity, if it were to take the steps towards recognizing this is not mental nor fiscal health with the diagnostic terms so clinical - for example, Mr. Brooks, if we put the capital and philanthropy back into capitalism? And most importantly disbelieve the notion that Wall Street wags this old dog of a US nation?

In the meantime, any of us who are in the homes of any solid, really hardworking, communally spirited, tired bourgeois types - the ones that are left - and in some pride of place on their walls, - and making them still believe in the world's strength, intelligence, and beauty, we should think of Matisse and his wise newly created adage at the absolute beginning days of High Modernism and consider ourselves lucky. No, let's change the terms completely - we all would be doing better if we considered ourselves fortunate rather than lucky.


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