Thursday, July 21, 2011

Artist-Writers Part II

"One Up", Farm west of Saskatoon, 2011

I've recently run into some very impressive artist-writers
so I thought I'd pay tribute to their paintings
and cogitate their ideas.

Terry Fenton (b. 1940)
makes me love a landscape
in cold, flat, dreary Canada
that I'm never going to visit.

His paintings are like plays with two actors,
the prairie and the sky,
and remind me of the Jeff Aeling paintings
I've seen here in Chicago.

Interestingly enough,
he has also had a 25 year career
as a Canadian art museum director :

1993-97 Director, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
1972-87 Director, The Edmonton Art Gallery, Edmonton, Alberta.


But despite that pedigree,
and even if he's the best living landscape painter in the world,
he will never be displayed in a Chicago museum
(at least in my life time)
because of the same categorical exclusion
triumphantly espoused
by Fenton's hero,
Clement Greenberg,
for whom Fenton has organized
a very handy website


Five years ago, I sent a letter to James Cuno,
the incoming director of the Art Institute of Chicago,
asking him why "you don’t expand your notion of the “encyclopedic museum” up to contemporary times – and attempt to present the diversity of today’s cultures – including our own – in which contemporary landscape, wildlife, and portrait painting seems to be categorically excluded from display at the A.I.C."

He replied that this work "was not of our time",
an explanation that could have been lifted directly
from "Avant Garde and Kitsch"
reflecting that :

"superior consciousness of history -- more precisely, the appearance of a new kind of criticism of society, an historical criticism"

(i.e. Marxism)
that distinguished the "high level" avant garde culture
with its "imitation of imitating" from the"vicarious experience and faked sensations" of the"debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture"where the half-educated peasant
"recognizes and sees things in the way in which he recognizes and sees things outside of pictures -- there is no discontinuity between art and life"

a distinction that was re-affirmed
21 years later in his essay, "Modernist Painting"
with the presentation of the notion of "purity":

"It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium. The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered "pure," and in its "purity" find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. "Purity" meant self-definition, and the enterprise of self-criticism in the arts became one of self-definition with a vengeance."

"Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used art to call attention to art"

23 years later,
in a lecture about "taste"
Greenberg would remind us that he was using scare quotes around the word "purity"
and he was only noting it as the report of a journalist
rather than as his own, critical ideal.

Indeed, there is much to be admired in that
entire discussion of "true taste":

"True taste, genuine taste, develops, expands, grows. It changes only insofar as it corrects itself, true taste."

So now he is the wise sage of traditional aesthetics, rather than the firebrand prophet of the avant garde; but it's nothing more than the shallow, self-serving rant of a careerist responding to a different situation.

"datedness is not a valid aesthetic judgment. It doesn't say whether art is good or bad. Dated art can be as good as up-to-date art. (There are qualifications there; but I won't go into them.) You can't dismiss a work of art because it's derivative. There may be a certain degree beyond which derivativeness does hurt art, but derivativeness as such, doesn't, isn't crucial to the quality of a work."

Do you hear that, James Cuno?

No, of course not, because by 1983 Greenberg was no longer a prophet who was calling the winners,
he was just a nice old codger covering the tracks
that led right into the disaster that is the contemporary artworld.

"Where do I want to see art go? I want to see art go back to the kind of realism that a minor Impressionist, like Caillebotte practiced or that Fantin Latour practiced in his still lifes, not in his figure compositions. But it's very unlikely it will go that way, but I'd be overjoyed to see major art go that way. And I'm talking about major art."

Doesn't that sound good ?

But alas, he's as phony now as he was in 1939 when he first turned his then fashionable, left-wing critical writing over to topics in art.

If he really wanted to " see art go back to the kind of realism that a minor Impressionist, like Caillebotte practiced", why didn't he actually promote and review it?

But, Terry Fenton has written about
many other topics as well,
including Giovanni Bellini, "St. Francis in Ecstasy" ,
one of my favorite paintings of all time.

As Fenton concludes "Within a complex landscape, bathed with morning light, St. Francis steps forth to greet "Brother Sun" and a new day rendered in loving detail by a very great artist. At once naturalistic and visionary, this is one of the world's perfect pictures."

(BTW - Here's what Norris Kelly Smith had to say:

The old balance between self and world depended in good part upon the conviction that all things, human and nonhuman alike, are God’s creations, a conviction we see most beautifully expressed in Giovanni Bellini’s painting The Stigmatization (or Ecstasy) of St. Francis now housed in the Frick, in which the artist avows that St. Francis, Moses, and the rocky bluffs of Mt. Laverna have all been created by the same hand and in the same style.)

Fenton also has some interesting things to say
about the "disequilibrium" of one of my favorite sculptors, Tilman Riemenschneider


That's usually how I feel!

(especially while writing this post)

so maybe that is why I love him so.


And finally, you should take a look here
at Fenton's web museum of fellow Canadian landscape painters.

They almost make me wish
I had sought asylum across the border
back when Selective Service
was on my heels.


Blogger marlyat2 said...

Here is an artist-writer and grist for the Miller mill:

Love those last two, and never saw the last one before... Shall be back later. Still under the deadline whip. Oomph.

July 21, 2011  
Blogger chris miller said...

"The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn't need to be read." (Kenneth Goldsmith)

Thanks for the link, Marly, although the best thing about it is that it doesn't need to be followed.

Which makes the next-best-thing hardly any good at all.

July 22, 2011  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Yes, I thought that line very funny. Or not. Yep, you don't have to bother to see his work or his interview to talk about him...

Do you get "American Arts Quarterly"? You ought to--right down your alley, and it is free for the asking if you tell them about your art (or your blog, for that matter.)

I have been meaning to ask you whether you can think of any Depression Era paintings (or paintings of that era) with steam locomotives and with or without figures/hobos. I've looked at Hart Benton and Hopper, and they do have a few pieces that are interesting, but not quite right. I was contemplating LeConte Stewart's "Private Car," which has a pretty clear narrative and interesting light.

September 02, 2011  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

Oh, of course you see AAQ because I see you have the blog on your roll! Ditz-moi.

September 03, 2011  

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