Category Archives: Uncategorized

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For . . .

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THE SCREAM, Edvard Munch 1892, via Popular Science

. . . THE SCREAM!

This painting was revolutionary.  Munch, a Norwegian, went to Paris and got the spirit of a nascent modernism.  He became the father of Expressionism.

Influenced by Nietzsche, early Freud, and a society sopping wet with the thought of Darwin, THE SCREAM was the result:  the first major artistic expression of the sheer terror we all experience every morning when we wake up.

Why terror?  Why Valium and Xanax and Prozac and wine?

Freud took away certainty of mind and made our live-in devil, the unconscious, our master.  Darwin proved that we are elevated and self-important toads and monkeys, thereby killing God.  Nietzsche did the burial by telling us, the toads, that we were each gods, even though we did not know our own minds.

It didn’t help that Munch’s sister and mother died before his very eyes when he was a young child.  It didn’t help that his father was a religious zealot.  It didn’t help that Munch himself was very often seriously ill both mentally and physically.

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AT THE DEATHBED, Edvard Munch 1895, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

It is unfortunate that someone obsessed with anxiety and death lived to a ripe old 80.  He died in 1944.

A similar artist, the Belgian James Ensor, made it to over 90 years of age, and he lived when Munch did.  Ensor was just as obsessed with death as Munch, but there is a sense in his work that he enjoyed the subject rather than dreaded it.  Witness:

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SKELETONS FIGHTING OVER A PICKLED HERRING, James Ensor 1891, via The Royal Academy of Arts

Skeletons, masks, emaciated and diseased figures, pockmarked faces, distorted features – Ensor painted a carnival of the grotesque.  Like “Twin Peaks”, he believed that evil is fully embedded in this life.  The grotesque faces us every day.  Sometimes that can be humorous.

You have to realize how progressive and out-of-place these paintings by Ensor and Munch were.  Not just when they were completed (and I mean completed for the first time, because both Ensor and Munch fiddled with completed works and made many versions of many works), but until well after the men passed into what most intrigued and horrified them.

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ROBERT MOTHERWELL In The Studio

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This brief memoir of the equally brief time that author/artist/designer/builder John Scofield spent with abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell as his studio assistant in Connecticut is similar to the Salinger books that I looked at previously.  It comes at its subject indirectly, mildly, sideways, and is as much about the author as it is about the author’s subject.

Scofield is maddeningly “protestant” is how he only hints at potentially hot subjects.  Was Motherwell an alcoholic?  Did he partake of the marijuana that his friend, sculptor David Smith, apparently favored as an aid in getting through the long Adirondack winters?

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THE HOMELY PROTESTANT, Robert Motherwell 1948 via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

We get the idea that Motherwell was worse for wear in the years 1975 – 1978, when Scofield was one of his studio assistants.  About 60, just out of heart surgery, he needed Scofield, and we see a little bit here, a little bit there of Motherwell that we hadn’t seen before.

Like the Salinger books, this is for real Motherwell fans.  I’m one of them.  The most intellectual of the abstract expressionists – Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and so on – his work is cooler than that of many other painters of his generation.  His images are the most abstract of all, and while you can easily read the lyricism of a Pollock drip painting or the manic writing/rewriting of a de Kooning, a Motherwell takes more imagination.

When you see a Pollock, you can feel how “in the groove” he was.  When you see one of de Kooning’s classic women, on “bicycles” or otherwise, you can feel how ambivalent he was about women.

But what of Motherwell’s THE HOMELY PROTESTANT above?  That’s tough to crack.

His colleagues and rivals not-so-secretly thought that he was a lightweight, not very talented, and shielded by trust funds.  History says otherwise.

But then you see:

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in beige with charcoal, Robert Motherwell 1973, via Minimal Exposition

We are left with many, many questions.  Even more, I think, than with my own sort-of-similar painting below, PISTON:

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PISTON is an abstract notion of an engine piston.  But what is an “in beige with charcoal”?

Motherwell insisted that his art always had a subject.  I think there’s one there, and I think that Motherwell – and Scofield – respect that viewers can dig out meaning, even if the meaning varies from viewer to viewer and from time to time.

Two on Salinger

current reading –

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J. D. SALINGER:  The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The book that Streitfeld has edited isn’t really full of interviews of J. D. Salinger, because Salinger never willingly gave interviews.

Some of these pieces are encounters milked out of him when he felt wronged and wanted to set the record straight.  Some touch on legal matters, as in his deposition when he was suing to have a biography aborted.  Some came from reporters both savvy and sane, and some from reporters and writers who were having . . . issues.  Issues that came from being obsessed with Salinger and his remarkable works.

The book is interesting if you, too, are obsessed with J. D. Salinger and his writing and life.

You have to be even more obsessed with Salinger to read

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J. D. SALINGER:  The Escape Artist

Beller has written an odd one.  And a self-indulgent one.  It’s not a biography, but a random walk through Salinger’s life.  That could be interesting, if only the reader was Thomas Beller and not me or you.

The problem is that J. D. Salinger’s work feels like it’s uniquely yours.  It belongs to you, the reader.  Your relationship to Holden or Franny is special.  Beller can’t speak for you.  No one can.  Not even Salinger would.

So the book is kind of voyeuristic.  Beller is a fine writer – he is a Tulane professor and has worked at Salinger’s old haunt, The New Yorker.  It’s not an essential read.

Unless you’re a Salinger obsessive.  You know who you are.