Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mark Rothko's Last Judgement

The story of the mural commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York is among the most famous in the lore of Mark Rothko.  It formed the plot of John Logan's 2009 play about Rothko titled Red.  In 1958, Mark Rothko was commissioned to make a set of large murals for the walls of the soon-to-be-open Four Seasons Restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building, a masterpiece of architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe; a building that I've described as the Parthenon of glass skyscrapers.  After a lot of work and a trip to Europe that would inspire even more work on the commission, Rothko completed 40 large panels and numerous studies.  In 1959, Rothko and his wife Mell dined in the newly completed Four Seasons in a room temporarily decorated with Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles in anticipation of the permanent installation of Rothko's new work.  Rothko declared that he did not like the kind of clientele the place attracted, and that he did not like the idea of people dining casually in front of his work.  He cancelled the commission, and returned every penny of the cash downpayment on what would have been a $135,000 commission (!).
Wow!  A son of Russian Jewish immigrants who spent most of his life in poverty walks out on a $135,000 commission!  What chutzpah!  As temperamental artists' episodes go, this one takes the prize outclassing every brawl Jackson Pollock ever started.

The Four Seasons was no corner diner, it was the most lavish celebrity adorned expensive eatery in New York from its opening in 1959 to its closing in 2016.  I knew a young man years ago who worked as a maitre'd there; a poor boy from Trinidad, Colorado who ended up dating the future Lord Balfour, and knew all the celebrity regulars.  Rothko certainly knew what kind of restaurant this place was.  From the beginning, he had no intention of enhancing the diners' experience there.  "I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who eats in that room," he said to John Fischer, the editor of Harper's Magazine in 1959.  "If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment.  But they won't. People can stand anything these days."
My!  Why such churlishness in the face of such a golden opportunity?  Rothko spent his youth in Portland, Oregon, then a hotbed or radical labor activity.  He spent his formative years among the rank and file of the IWW.  He heard Emma Goldman and Bill Haywood speak.  From the beginning, he intended his dining room murals to be intimations of a justly deserved hell for the wealthy class enemies who frequented the place.

Reds, blacks, umbers, maroons -- infernal colors -- dominate all 40 panels of the series.  Brilliant fiery scarlets glow hot against backgrounds of stygian darkness.  Profoundly black shapes emerge out of fields of dark maroon and burgundy.  These paintings are amazingly beautiful.  Their hollow squares form one of the very few departures from the format of stacked rectangles of color of Rothko's final mature work.  Conventional wisdom associates this kind of darkness with the paintings of Rothko's last years.  In fact, he had been working in a darker key since the mid 1950s.

I love these paintings, though I've never seen any of them in person.  I think this series is one of the high points of mid 20th century painting, and testimony to the deathless romantic impulse.  These are great Romantic paintings, heirs to Friedrich, Turner, Blake, Cole, Ryder, and others.

I'm puzzled why Rothko accepted this commission in the first place.  Lucrative as it was, he didn't really need the money.  He was about five years into financial security as an artist with international fame, and a permanent teaching post at Brooklyn College.  I've done commissions myself from time to time.  They can be easy money at worst and opportunities to shine at best.  I can't imagine any Rothko painting forming the background music to fine dining, beautiful as they are.  Even without any imagery or narrative, these are powerful and frightening paintings.  Rothko always said that he aimed for the "tragic and timeless" in his art, and he succeeded.  Rothko's interviews and essays seem so embarrassingly grandiloquent fifty years after his death.  Rothko was a skilled writer and an experienced public speaker, but reading him now is like listening to Wagner after spending a week playing The Velvet Underground.  It can be cringe-worthy sometimes.  But we feel no such embarrassment looking at his paintings.  Sadly, some of them are fading with time, but perhaps they mean more to us now than they did when they were painted and first exhibited.  Rothko worked on these paintings at the zenith of American imperial glory in the years that followed the Second World War.  We live past its twilight in the midst of its collapse in ignominy.  "Tragic" is not the empty cliché that it was for the young of 50 years ago when Rothko committed suicide.  For us living through epidemic, economic collapse, climate change, terrorism, global migrations, resurgent fascism, "tragedy" is all too real and concrete.  That pain and horror that Rothko poured into his reds and blacks speaks to us anew.

Rothko kept the paintings from the Four Seasons commission until 1968 when he gave the bulk of them to the Tate Gallery after long complicated negotiations.  The remainder is divided between the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the Kanamura Memorial Museum in Japan.
Above, a couple look a two of the panels in the National Gallery of Art.

The Four Seasons photographed not long after it opened.

A photo I took a few years ago of the Seagram Building.

Mark Rothko in 1959

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bonnard at Home

The Palm, 1926, Le Cannet

These days, I spend most of my time at home. I am not alone as millions around the world find themselves under house arrest to try to stop the spread of a highly contagious and dangerous virus.  Home for me is a very small Brooklyn railroad flat; four rooms and a small bath all in a row like railroad cars, and facing the Brooklyn Queens Expressway out the front, and a hackberry tree in the back.  I share that small space with my partner Michael and two cats, Bonkers and Mickey.  It's not exactly a domestic paradise, but it is comfortable with light coming in from two ends, unusual for a New York apartment.  Under terms of the state shelter-in-place order, the building housing my studio on the Lower East Side is closed, and so my usual workspace is inaccessible.  So now, I paint at home on the kitchen table in acrylics on canvas panels.  I feel very grateful every morning now to wake up feeling well in a decent if small home.  I'm grateful to still have employment, and to be able to work from home  (I must teach painting through "remote learning," trying to make it work as I go along).  I'm very mindful of those who have none of those things at this time of great hardship (including a lot of my students).

Pierre Bonnard is much on my mind lately, an artist who after 1900 until his death in 1947 spent most of his time at home.  He made domestic pleasure his main subject.  Bonnard set his paintings in the kitchen, bedroom, bath, and garden of a comfortable semi-rural middle class French home of the early 20th century.  He painted the intimate pleasures that take place in such a home; good company, good food, pleasant weather, comfortable rooms filled with sunlight, and sex.  A lot of other artists at the time painted domestic subject matter from the grand domestic paradises of Matisse to the haunted dramatic rooms of the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi.  Bonnard's paintings of his home differ considerably in form and spirit from both of those painters.  Matisse's great paintings of palatial grande bourgeois homes or grand bourgeois hotel suites remain firmly rooted in monumental French Classicism.  Matisse presents the interior of a luxury hotel suite in Nice with the concentration and completion of a Poussin.  Bonnard seems to poke his head into a room, look up from a seat, or look across a table at whoever or what ever is there.

Bonnard turned to domestic subject matter after 1900.  Instead of the flat decorative form of his earlier work that he learned from Japanese art and Gauguin , Bonnard revived and adapted the Impressionist chromatic palette and brushstroke to reconstruct the fleeting ephemera of household pleasure in his mature work.  Bonnard's rooms are pleasures (though not uncomplicated ones) and nothing like the haunted interiors of Hammershøi.  Unlike the Impressionist painters, Bonnard rarely worked from life.  His paintings are reconstructions of remembered experience.  He uses the Impressionist chromatic palette, but almost never naturalistically.  The play of warm and cool colors becomes a drama of its own as they remake remembered contrasts of light and dark.

Palms in the Phillips Collection in Washington DC above has always been among my favorite paintings by Bonnard.  A young girl in the foreground in the very center offers us an open pomegranate.  We look beyond her to the red tile rooftops of hillside houses beyond the terrace where we are standing.  The blue distance of the town of Le Cannet recedes until we come to the arch of palm fronds at the top that bring us back to the girl standing beneath.  Bonnard's seemingly casual compositions guide us to see exactly what he wants us to see and in the order he wants us to see things.  Warm sunlight pokes through cool shade throughout the painting.  Remarkably, Bonnard retains a strong light dark contrast without sacrificing any intensity of color.  Brilliant cool greens, blues, and lavenders come up against equally intense oranges and yellows.  None of this is quite how we see and experience things as in a painting by Claude Monet (a personal friend of Bonnard).  It is not likely that this ever happened, that any girl offered a pomegranate, or that this is any particular place in Le Cannet.  The painting reconstructs many memories adding up to the experience of the place.  In the end, the image memory conjures up forms the stage upon which brilliant colors play out their dramatic contrasts for their own purposes beyond describing anything.

I've always loved these dramatic plays of brilliant color in Bonnard's mature work that become less tied to visual experience and glow with their own light as he gets older. My one complaint about his work is that I find his drawing to be a little wobbly.  There are times when I wish that play of colors had a sturdier support of form, especially in his figures.  However, the last thing I would ever do is call any work by Bonnard crude or weak.  The compositions may be informal, fragmentary, and intimate, but they are very sophisticated.

The Open Window, 1921, Vernonnet

This painting made a big impact on the work of Richard Diebenkorn who saw it in the Phillips Collection while on a visit to Washington DC.  And I can see why.  Bonnard takes actual experience and turns it into abstract form.  The window frames and even the shade echo the framing edges of the canvas. Bonnard never really forgot the lessons of Gauguin and Japanese art, transforming imagery into flat decorative form. The contrast and transition between indoor and outdoor fascinated Bonnard as it would fascinate Diebenkorn.  The intense warm oranges of the indoors contrasts with the brilliant cool blues and lavenders of the outdoors.  That contrast of light and color between indoor and outdoor is the real drama of this work.
Bonnard skirts the outer edges of abstraction in his work, but never wants to completely depart from the experience that inspired the painting.  The brilliant warm sunshine streaming through a window that sets off these color contrasts retains its form and character.  The last thing we notice in this painting is a small human and animal presence in the lower right hand corner.  A small cat tries to get the attention of a woman sleeping in a lounge chair.  We see only her head, and she in no way dominates this painting.  Discovering her is a small surprise.  She is one more incident in the whole scene.  Bonnard very cleverly controls what we see and when we see it.

Interior, 1913, Vernonnet

We glimpse Marthe trimming her nails in the mirror.  Bonnard, like a lot of movie directors, gave mirrors a kind of revelatory power, showing the activity in an apparently empty room.  Light spills in from the left from an unseen window.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Vernonnet

A famous and magnificent painting that takes us across a table, through the door, and far out into the distance while still keeping us on the painting surface dazzled by the play of brilliant colors.  We travel in a circle from the table to the chair to Marthe at the window to the outdoors and then back through the door to the flowers in a small pitcher on a sideboard.  As we travel we pass through color transitions of cool to warm to cool again and back to warm.  The primary drama in this and so much of Bonnard's work is the outdoor light coming indoors.

These paintings show rooms in Bonnard's home at Vernonnet, not far from Monet's Giverny north of Paris.  Monet's home and gardens at Giverny are now a museum.  Bonnard's home at Vernonnet remains a private residence, though the owners have done much to preserve the the original appearance of the house when Bonnard lived there.

Bonnard's home at Vernonnet, Ma Roulotte, the first country home that he bought in 1912.  He lived and painted there until 1939.

Pierre Bonnard with Marthe de Meligny at Vernonnet in 1912 shortly after he bought the house.
Bonnard and Marthe lived together until her death in 1942.  They married in 1925 after living together for 30 years.  It's likely that they married so late because Bonnard's family objected. Also, Bonnard continued to have affairs even while he lived with Marthe, but he always came back to her.  Marthe came from a lower class background and apparently had a past.  When they met, Bonnard was 26, and she told him that she was 16.  In fact, she was 24.  Her original name was not Marthe de Meligny, but Maria Boursin.  She was from a small town near Bourges.  Marthe broke off all contact with her family for reasons that remain unknown when she left home.  She had just arrived in Paris when she met Bonnard in 1893. Bonnard was the affluent son of a successful lawyer when he met Marthe.   Marthe worked in a shop sewing artificial flowers for funeral wreaths to scratch a bare living.

Marthe de Meligny with her cat.

One of many photos that Bonnard took of Marthe nude for future paintings.  
He took this one in Paris about 1899 - 1900.

Marthe remained Bonnard's muse and companion for 49 years until her death in 1942.  She remains a mysterious character who concealed much about herself.  She did not tell Bonnard that she had changed her name until after they were married in 1925.  Friends and neighbors described Marthe as almost silent and withdrawn, always on the periphery of any conversation.  As she aged, she became more neurotic, spending much of her time bathing and taking her husband on trips to various spas so she could bathe some more. She did not suffer her husband's infidelities quietly.  She demanded that he destroy any paintings of women, especially nude women, that were not her.  Some of those survive.  One such model and mistress Renée Monchaty committed suicide in 1925 shortly after Bonnard and Marthe married.  Bonnard was devastated and kept at least one painting he made of her all his life.

The Provencal Carafe, 1912 - 1915, Vernonnet

Marthe seen across the table with their dachshund Poucette.  Marthe never looks toward us or the artist in Bonnard's many paintings of her.  She always averts her gaze.

Nude in an Interior, 1935, Vernonnet

A painting that comes very close to abstraction.  Marthe slips into the picture behind a door frame to keep it back in the realm of the perceptual.  The field of blue green at the bottom turns back into a counter-top.   The other quadrilaterals of color become walls, wall paper, a curtain, floors, and rugs again.

Marthe spent much time bathing, and Bonnard painted her many times doing that in a basin and in a tub.  He painted her nude for the entire span of her life.  She almost always appears young in his paintings, even when she was in her 70s.

Nude Before the Daylight, 1908, Paris.  Marthe is 39 in this painting.

Marthe applies perfume in this beautiful painting of her standing after a bath in a light filled room.  She looks to my eye to be in her twenties, but in fact she was almost 40.

La Source,  1917, Vernonnet.  Marthe is 48.

Photo by Bonnard of Marthe posing in the bath room for a painting, 1912, Vernonnet

The tub today in Le Bosquet, the Bonnard home at Le Cannet

I don't know if this is the original bath or a reconstruction in the house at Le Cannet.

In the Bath, 1925, Vernonnet.  

This is among the first of Bonnard's paintings of Marthe in the bath tub. Though she looks like she's in her 20s, she was 56 years old.

The Large Bath, 1939, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 70

As the bathtub paintings progressed over the years, that modest little tiled bathroom became a glittering jeweled paradise of brilliant colors.  Marthe becomes a disembodied floating field of rose.  Even the dachshund Poucette plays a role as the dark foil anchoring all that sparkling color in place.

Nude in the Bathtub, 1940, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 72.

In these last paintings that sparkle and shine with their own interior light, Marthe looks ageless even though she was an old woman near the end of her life.

Crouching Nude, 1940, Le Cannet.  Marthe is 72.

Dark Nude, 1942, Le Cannet.  Bonnard's last painting of Marthe.  She was 73.

Bonnard and Marthe divided the year between their home in Vernonnet and a house in the south of France near the Mediterranean coast in the Alpes Maritimes, in Le Cannet, a house called Le Bosquet.  They spent their summers in Vernonnet and wintered in Le Cannet.  When the Second World War broke out in 1939, they sold their home in Vernonnet and moved into their home in Le Cannet permanently.

When World War II began, Bonnard was an old man in his 70s. He decided, perhaps wisely, that there wasn’t much that an aging artist in declining health could do about the War. So, he decided to stay out of its way, and by great good luck managed to avoid the air raids, the fighting, and the Gestapo. The Vichy government tried unsuccessfully to persuade Bonnard to paint a portrait of Marshall Petain, the leader of the collaborationist regime. Bonnard wanted as little to do with the Vichy government as possible.

The Bonnard Home Le Bosquet, Le Cannet

This house forms part of a museum devoted to Bonnard and his work, and is open for public tours.  I have no idea if the interior furnishings are original or reconstructions.

Bonnard with his dachshund Poucette in 1941 at Le Cannet

By the last years of his life, Bonnard made that cousin of the Impressionist brushstroke into something more than a shorthand record of a passing moment. The brushstrokes in his last paintings become shorter and larger. The colors come unmoored from perceptual reality and become more imaginative. While Bonnard’s paintings were always filled with light, toward the end of his life, they glowed with their own light. The kitchen, the bedroom, the garden, and especially the bath began to take on a radiant almost other-worldly quality. I doubt that there is anything religious or even spiritual in these works. I think these paintings show the intensity of experience of someone who knows that his time is limited and that soon he shall never pass this way again.

Vase of Flowers, 1945, Le Cannet

The Red Cupboard, 1939, Le Cannet

The Bonnard Garden at Le Bosquet, Le Cannet.

Bonnard's gardens were never very formal or organized, and the same is true of his paintings of them.

The Garden at Midday, 1943, Le Cannet

This is his last and perhaps greatest painting of his garden.

The Almond Tree, 1946 - 1947, Le Cannet

One of Bonnard's last paintings.

Starting sometime in the mid 1930s, Bonnard painted a series of undated self portraits in his bathroom mirror.  For an alleged painter of pleasure, these are unexpected and disturbing images.  Brightly lit as they are, they are not brightly colored.  They all have a lonely anxious quality.
I can only imagine that Bonnard did what a lot of people do in the bathroom mirror in old age, consider the past course of life and see signs of its anticipated end.

Bonnard died in 1947 at age 79.

Bonnard's reputation as an artist went in and out of the critical doghouse in his lifetime and still today 73 years after his death.  Picasso famously hated Bonnard's work:
He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn't know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it's a little pink too, so there's no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can't be done that way. Painting isn't a question of sensibility: it's a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice ... that's what I hold against Bonnard. I don't want to be moved by him. He's not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn't transcend it.
Like so many of Picasso's comments about other artists, he reveals much about himself as he upbraids Bonnard's work.  He faults Bonnard for not being Picasso.
Matisse on the other hand loved Bonnard's work, publicly praising it and defending him in the face of hostile critics.  Indeed, Bonnard's work is much closer in spirit to Matisse.

Bonnard's work always split the critics.  His posthumous reputation reminds me of a favorite line in Cocteau's Orpheus:  "But the public loves me."  "The public is alone."
Bonnard was long a darling of collectors who donated his paintings to museums only reluctantly, so unwilling were they to part with them.  A lot of my painting professors admired his work enthusiastically and recommended it to us their students.
Avant-garde critics always dismissed Bonnard.  In his lifetime, they considered him to be a modernist drop-out retreating from the demands of the age for the safety of the "juste milieu." Those same critics said the same thing about Matisse after 1917.  Even now, there are hostile critics who consider his work to be so much consumerist fluff.  Sons and daughters of the grande-bourgeoisie in tenure-track university positions call him a "bourgeois," a designation that would have surprised Bonnard's truly bourgeois neighbors scandalized by the goings-on in his house.

Like Matisse at the end of his life, Bonnard in his maturity influenced American painters.  I've already mentioned Diebenkorn's epiphany before a Bonnard painting in the Phillips Collection.  Bonnard's work opened the road for American color field painting, and artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.

Bonnard's palette

Edouard Vuillard, Portrait of Bonnard, ca. 1930 -35

Edouard Vuillard was a close friend of Bonnard since their days together as students at the Academie Julian.  Vuillard too specialized in domestic interiors.  Vuillard mostly painted other people's homes.  Bonnard painted his own exclusively.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

New York City in Shades of Black

Andreas Feininger

Living in New York in the epicenter of the worst pandemic the world has seen in more than a century is sorrowful, tense, and frightening.  Even now, as things get "better," the death toll today is 84, below 100 per day for the first time since March.  In April sometimes 800 people died in a day.  We could hear the wail of ambulance sirens near and far, day and night for days.
While the press focuses so much attention on the non-stop freak show in Washington DC, people in New York City and elsewhere die like flies.

Daily on my Facebook page every morning, I proclaim my solidarity with this great cosmopolitan city in its dark days of disease and death.  I claim the designation "cosmopolitan" proudly in a world riven by tribal conflicts and gone mad with vindictive hatred and bigotry.  This city of abounding and irrepressible life is having a long paralyzing seizure.  It stands stopped.  Streets and avenues normally packed with traffic proceeding at a crawl are empty.  Great public places are empty of people.  For the first time that I can remember since moving here almost 30 years ago, I can hear birds singing over the traffic noise.  I've endured terrorist attacks, black-outs, and a hurricane in New York, but I've never seen anything like this.

New York will emerge from this profoundly changed -- into what is anyone's guess.  It will certainly be much poorer.  Bereaved, grief-stricken, and traumatized people fill the city -- thousands upon thousands -- whose suffering is yet to be acknowledged publicly and officially.  Who knows if people will ever get a chance to mourn their dead.  Right now, our rulers want nothing more than to sweep all the corpses under the rug, pretend this never happened, and go back to making money.

In the absence of any meaningful leadership, people are left to their own resources.  The disillusionment with government and corporate indifference grows into a quiet rage.  There's anger at the deluded and selfish people who claim that this is all a hoax.  Conviction grows that the city was abandoned, that the great white daddies in charge saw a way to get rid of minorities and other inconvenient populations without getting their hands dirty.  Like AIDS, this is another deliberate abandonment of unwanted people to disease and death -- genocide by epidemic.  Anger grows over all the cruelties, injustices, and sharp divisions of class and caste exposed by the epidemic.  A virus mocks the hypocrisy of our claims to "Liberty and Justice for All."

I always post a photo of New York, usually by noted photographers of the past; and there are a lot of them.  My favorite ones that speak most to me are the stark architectural vistas of the 1930s and '40s from the depths of the Great Depression, and at the summit of one of the city's greatest building booms.  Their views are dramas of light and dark that are inspiring and yet haunted and strangely sepulchral.  The great buildings take on a monstrous and thrilling quality in their photographs.  The mighty city of the early 20th century rose on hope and ambition, but also cruelty and brutality.  A combination of exhilaration, remorse, and loneliness fills these photographs.

Irving Browning

The new and still mostly empty Empire State Building in about 1932.

A view from a window in the empty Empire State Building, about 1931.

Berenice Abbott

The New York Stock Exchange views from the great bronze statue of George Washington 
on the steps of the Federal Hall Memorial, Wall Street and Nassau, 1936

Pike and Henry Streets, 1936

Samuel Gottscho

The Empire State Building and Downtown Manhattan 
viewed from the Lincoln Building on 42nd Street, 1933.

Rockefeller Center at Night, 1933

Ilse Bing

The Empire State Building, 1930s

Manhattan from the stern of the Staten Island Ferry, 1930s

Alfred Stieglitz

Rockefeller Center

A view toward the 59th Street Bridge

Andreas Feininger

The Brooklyn Bridge in fog

The Empire State Building and Lower Manhattan during wartime "dim-out," 1942