May 24, 2012
One of the more surprising and unusual works in the new American Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is an early ceramic bowl by Jackson Pollock, decorated in black and fierce fiery red, which was acquired in 2010 by the museum. The MFA describes the bowl as influenced by El Greco, which is not entirely wrong, since Pollock made pencil copies after paintings by El Greco around this time. But I’d like to propose that it’s possible to pin down its source more precisely. I believe it’s inspired by a work by a now largely forgotten painter of the 1930s, Ross Braught—in fact, based on Braught’s most ambitious painting, a mural in the Kansas City Music Hall. Identifying this source opens up a whole new set of questions and speculations.
Pollock’s interest in ceramics was inspired by the work of his teacher, Thomas Hart Benton, who had discovered during his impoverished years in New York that it was easier to sell decorated ceramics than paintings.
Pollock’s surviving ceramics seem to have been made at two times.He made one group during four successive summers, 1934-1937, while staying on Martha’s Vineyard with Benton and his wife, Rita. The Bentons kept quite a few of these ceramics and eventually donated them to various museums. The others were made in 1939 while Pollock was being treated for alcoholism at the Bloomingdale Hospital. Just two of these pieces survive, but they’re Pollock’s most impressive early ceramics: Flight of Man, the piece now in Boston, which he gave to his psychiatrist, James H. Wall, and The Story of My Life, which he made at the same time and sold to a gentleman named Thomas Dillon in Larchmont, New York. The whereabouts of this last piece are unknown. At the time Pollock made these two pieces, he had just returned from a visit to the Bentons in Kansas City, the only time he visited there.
The Story of My Life contains a series of scenes: an archer shooting an arrow at some horses in the sky; a sleeping woman; a child in fetal position; and a boat sailing on restless seas. Pollock’s biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, have described it as “an impenetrable allegory”; in fact, its meaning is easy to construe once we recognize its source, an illustrated book, Phaeton, published by Braught in 1939. Phaeton was the son of Apollo and obtained permission from him to drive the chariot of the sun. But since he was unable to control the horses, the chariot plunged down close to earth, scorching the planet. To prevent further destruction, Apollo was forced to shoot his son down from the sky. The two most significant images on Pollock’s bowl, the archer and the sleeping woman are both derived from Braught’s book. The third, the boat on restless seas, relates to paintings that Pollock had made earlier on Martha’s Vineyard, of the boat of Benton’s son, T.P., sailing on Menemsha Pond. Clearly Pollock saw Phaeton’s story as parallel to his own life as an artist. At one moment he was soaring to great heights, at the next crashing to earth.
If we accept this source, it’s not surprising to discover that Pollock’s second painted bowl, the one in Boston, was also based on a work by Braught. Its imagery resembles that of the most ambitious painting of Braught’s career, a 27-feet-high mural, Mnemosyne and the Four Muses, which he created for the Kansas City Music Hall. As the title indicates, the swirling composition shows Mnemosyne, or Memory, who was the mother of the muses, and four muses, who are emerging from clouds that float over a landscape of the badlands of South Dakota. Braught also made a painting of the landscape at the bottom, which he titled Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (1936; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). This was the last piece that Tchaikovsky wrote before he died—as some believe, by committing suicide. Perhaps that’s the music we’re meant to imagine when we look at the painting.
To be sure, Pollock didn’t follow his source very closely. What he took was Braught’s general formula: a central floating figure with outstretched arms, suffused with mysterious light, surrounded by other figures and cloud-like forms that fill the surrounding space. I suspect that close study would reveal prototypes for many of Pollock’s figures. For example, the over-scaled figure on the right-hand side loosely relates to a painting he had made shortly before, Naked Man with Knife (c. 1938; Tate, London). Compared with Braught’s design, Pollock’s is somewhat crude, with figures of differing scales, which often fill their spaces somewhat awkwardly. But it was precisely Pollock’s departures from traditional ideas of correct proportion or well-resolved design that led to his wildly expressive later work.
Who was Ross Braught? Why was Pollock interested in him?
Braught just preceded Benton as the head of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. An eccentric figure, he bore a striking resemblance to Boris Karloff. He generally wore a black cape, and sometimes brought a skeleton with him on the streetcar, so that he could draw it at home. His work had a mystical, visionary cast. It clearly held strong appeal for Pollock at a time when he was going through intense emotional turmoil, and was also attempting to move beyond the influence of Benton.
Pollock surely met Braught in 1939, just before he made the bowl, when he visited the Bentons in Kansas City in January of that year. At the time, Pollock also socialized with Ted Wahl, the printer of Braught’s lithographs for Phaeton. While not well known today, Braught was getting a good deal of press coverage at the time, both for his painting for the Kansas City Music Hall, which was praised in Art Digest, and for his lithograph Mako Sica, which received a first prize at the Mid-Western Exhibit at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935 (and became the subject of articles questioning its merit shortly afterward in the Print Collector’s Quarterly).
Sadly, Braught’s career faded at this point, perhaps in part because he was so unworldly and impractical. After leaving Kansas City in 1936, he lived for most of the next decade in the tropics, where he made drawings and paintings of dense jungle foliage. From 1946 to 1962, he returned to teach at the Kansas City Art Institute, but in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism was in vogue, he was fired because his style was considered too old-fashioned. The figure who had inspired Jackson Pollock was no longer good enough to matter. Braught spent the last 20 years of his life living in extreme poverty in Philadelphia, no one knows exactly where.
There’s been only one exhibition of Braught’s work since his death, a show at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York in March-April 2000, accompanied by an excellent, hard-to-find catalog written by David Cleveland. Both the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia have paintings by him in their collections.
For two reasons, Pollock’s interest in Braught is worth noting. One is that when we identify Pollock’s sources, his creative process is illuminated and we can see the step-by-step process by which he moved toward being an original artist. In some ways it’s a bit deflating. Pollock clearly started off as a copyist. Nonetheless, while Pollock’s bowl is in some ways quite derivative, you can already sense his emerging artistic personality.
Second, perhaps Pollock’s interest in Braught will encourage a modest revival of interest in Braught. Braught’s output is so scarce that he’ll surely never be regarded as a major figure, but it is well worth a visit to see his work at the Kansas City Music Hall, one of the greatest Art Deco interiors anywhere, which also houses some good paintings made around the same time by Walter Bailley.
Braught’s Mnemosyne and the Four Muses is surely one of the weirdest and most unusual wall paintings in this country. As you stand in front of it, you wonder why Pollock chose it as a model for his own work and what to make of his artistic taste. Was he misguided? Or right to be inspired by an artist who’s now so thoroughly forgotten?
There’s a copy of Ross Braught’s book Phaeton in the library of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Some early ceramics by Jackson Pollock reside in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and in a few private hands.
April 24, 2012
In 2014 the Guggenheim Museum in New York will open the biggest exhibition ever held on the Italian Futurists; the event has been foreshadowed by an article in Smithsonian, accompanied by an online photo gallery of Futurist masterpieces. It’s a good moment to reflect a bit on what Futurism represents, how it happened and how it has transformed the world we live in.
Today we think of Futurism as a visual style—a sort of animated Cubism that endows images and objects with a feeling of windblown movement. Remarkably, however, the movement began with a manifesto, and a series of “happenings,” before the artists associated with it had developed a new style.
The movement was first trumpeted in a manifesto by the poet Filippo Marinetti,which was published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. The intention of the movement, Marinetti explained, was to smash anything old, sentimental or conventional and create a new manly culture based on machines, speed and modernity. Hailing the “beauty of speed,” he argued that museums libraries, academies and “venerated” cities had to be destroyed, since they represented the culture of the past, and were stale and reactionary, as were “morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.” In a famous phrase, Marinetti declared that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace” (a reference to the second century Greek sculpture of the goddess Victory). Proud of their ability to irritate the public, the Futurists staged performances in Turin, Naples, Milan and other cities, at which they recited poetry and declaimed their manifestos while the audience responded by showering them with rotten fruit and vegetables and other objects.
Developing a Futurists style was clearly a necessary next step. In a later manifesto of April 11, 1910, the Futurists argued that “the construction of pictures is stupidly traditional,” but finding an appropriate visual language for their iconoclastic ideas about modern life was not easy. The early works of the Futurists used the techniques of divisionism, which created patterns with colored dots, and Post-Impressionism, which employed bold, decorative shapes. But they seemed to have quickly sensed that they needed to do something more visually exciting.
Gino Severini, who lived in Paris, was the first of the group to come into contact with Cubism, and after a visit to Paris in 1911, several of the other Futurist paintings also began to adopt a Cubist visual vocabulary. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque, however, was a strangely hermetic, inward-looking style, which focused obsessively on a small number of objects, such as pipes, newspapers, wine glasses and guitars, and seldom cast its gaze on anything outside the painter’s studio. The Futurists, on the other hand, were interested in life outside the studio: the world of cars, trains and other objects of modern life—particularly when they carried connotations of speed, modernity and movement.
In their hands, the language of Cubism took on new meanings. While the Cubists used fractured forms as a way of analyzing the object, the Futurists used fracturing to indicate “lines of force,” which marked patterns of energy rather than an actual physical object. What’s more, whereas Cubism was generally drab in its coloration, apparently deliberately so, the Futurists, in keeping with their Post-Impressionist antecedents, employed brilliant, electrifying, prismatic colors. The Futurists created a style that was bolder and brasher in its visual impact than Cubism, and also forged a new connection between the compulsive innovation of new styles in painting and the innovative world of new machines and inventions outside the painter’s studio.
On February 5, 1912, the Futurists staged an exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris, showcasing their new style and accompanied by a new manifesto by Marinetti. The result was a sensation. “We are beginning a new epoch in painting,” Marinetti declared, and then went on to describe the Futurists greatest visual innovation—the “lines of force.”
The manifesto, Gertrude Stein noted, “made a great deal of noise.” She wrote, “Everybody was excited, and this show being given in a well known gallery everybody went.” By this time, the Futurist painters had devised a style as memorable as Marinetti’s stirring words.
As a movement, Futurism did not last long, since it quickly degenerated in squabbles between its major artists. What’s more, many of the key Futurist artists were sucked into Fascist politics, and into positions that most art-lovers would hardly endorse today, such as love of war and violence, bigotry toward minority groups and contempt for women. What’s fascinating, however, is that through some strange aesthetic magic these unfavorable aspects of Futurism have faded away from our memories. As is often the case, history is as much a process of writing out some parts of what happened as writing up other parts that did. We’ve all been seduced by the Futurists. What has survived is the excitement and the dynamism of what they produced. We’ve conveniently forgotten the unsavory side of their activities. Futurism is still a language used in modern design—and a century after it was introduced it still looks modern.
November 29, 2011
What’s the best new work of art in the world? Good question. The most interesting and mind-bending new artwork that I’ve encountered is a remarkable garden in Paris titled Who to Believe?, recently designed and assembled by Francois Abelanet. We’re accustomed to the idea that paint can form an illusion. But it’s a bit startling to find this effect created with grass and trees. Yet this is the conceit of Abelanet’s work, made from 3,500 square feet of turf and many truckloads of dirt and straw and assembled with the help of about 90 carefully supervised gardeners. Here’s a pretty good video of it:
When you stare down at it from the steps of the City Hall in Paris, Abelanet’s carefully designed garden resembles a terrestrial globe. It’s a nearly perfect sphere, with neat lines marking latitude and longitude and two trees growing out of the top. It looks like one of those planets sketched by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince.
But move a little and its appearance changes. From any other angle, it’s an irregular crazy-quilt of shapes—a weirdly configured, Alice-In-Wonderland world. Abelanet has brought together two seemingly divergent artistic traditions—the French garden and Anamorphosis.
Gardens are one of the most notable accomplishments of French culture and reached their height in the work of André Le Notre (1613-1700), chief gardener for King Louis XIV (1638-1715), most notably at the Palace of Versailles. The distinguishing trait of French gardens is their geometric logic and mastery of vistas. From a vantage point at the center of the great terrace at Versailles, the eye is directed down grand avenues in which lines of trees, and strategically placed lakes, fountains and statues, lead the eye seemingly to infinity. Happiest when working on a grand scale, Le Notre sometimes moved entire villages to create the strictly regulated vistas that he wanted.
Notably, Le Notre was also interested in the dramatic impact of surprising effects which can be discerned from only one place. There’s an effect of this sort at the garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte, for example, created just before Versailles for the Minister of Finance, Nicholas Fouquet. Stand before the statue of the Gallic Hercules, which marks the end of the Grand Avenue, and look back at the Chateau: The reflection of the distant building floats, seemingly miraculously, on the surface of a body of water that’s very close to you. Visually, it seems impossible, although in fact it’s simply a careful application of an optical principle that had recently been enunciated by Descartes—“the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In other words, if we carefully choose the right vantage point, we can see the world in a way possible nowhere else.
This concept of a unique, privileged vantage point provides the basis for Abelanet’s garden. But unlike Le Notre’s work, it discloses a world which is not predictable and logical, or under our control, but topsy-turvy and unpredictable. In essence, he has combined the techniques of Le Notre with an approach to representation normally found only in painting.
Anamorphosis. The word, which is Greek, refers to an image that needs to be seen from a special angle to be seen without distortion. It’s a kind of zany extrapolation of the principles of perspective, and it developed early in the Renaissance, very soon after vanishing-point perspective was developed. The masterpiece of the genre is arguably a large and imposing painting by Hans Holbein in the National Gallery in London, The Ambassadors.
An ingenious visual puzzle, executed around 1533, The Ambassadors shows two nearly life-size figures who have been identified as Jean de Dintevile, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII and George de Sleve, Bishop of Lavaur. Behind them are a two-tiered table on which are piled a selection of books, globes (one terrestrial, one celestial) and scientific instruments, including a quadrant, an astrolabe and a sundial. There’s also a lute with a broken string, next to a hymnbook in Martin Luther’s translation. Scholars have long argued about what these objects signify. Presumably the instruments are saying something about the world of knowledge, or about the celestial and terrestrial world. The hymnbook and lute seem to allude to strife between scholar’s and clergy.
But the oddest thing in The Ambassadors is a strangely distorted shape in the lower center, which when viewed from the painting’s right (or the viewer’s left) takes the form of a skull. Surely this alludes to the fact that death is always present, but we only see it if we look at reality from a particular angle.
Holbein’s painting alerts us to the fact that Anamorphosis is a device that can not only amuse us with its strange visual distortions, but can provide a metaphor. Part of the wit of Abelanet’s marvelous garden is that it functions in a way that carries metaphorical and metaphysical punch. Probably no form on government on earth is so famously centralized and bureaucratic as that of France. Decisions made at the top are carried out rigorously to the lowest level. It’s been said that if you enter any schoolroom in France you’ll find that the students are studying the same page in the same book as in every other schoolroom in the realm. But how do the people at the top make their decisions? What do they see from their vantage point?
Abelanet’s garden reminds us that the view from City Hall can be quite different from everywhere else—that, in fact, the seeming logic of its view of things can be nonsensical. To fully grasp reality we need to see how it looks from more than one place (politicians, take note). Like much of the world’s best art, Abelanet’s creation is at once silly and profound.
Is this the world’s best new work of art? I’d welcome other suggestions.
November 17, 2011
It’s enough to make you want to start doing the Charleston: A masterpiece of earthenware, a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, has been newly acquired and newly displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In my view, the Jazz Bowl —several dozen of which were produced—has emerged in the last decade as not only the single finest example of American Art Deco, but as an icon of a new mode of American cultural identity.
Viktor was just 25 years old when he made the first piece at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, in 1930. One day at the studio’s office when he didn’t have an assignment, as the story goes, he pulled a letter out of a hopper. A woman in New York wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme.
Viktor started by making a plaster mold of the shape—a bold parabolic form. The next challenge was to decorate it. A few months before, he had spent Christmas Eve in New York City, where he was impressed by the skyscrapers, went to Radio City where an organ rose up out of the floor, and took in the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He sketched all these images in a jazzy style. One of the last things he put in was a drum head with the word “Jazz,” which ended up providing a name for the piece.
To achieve his desired effect he developed a novel technique. First he covered the bowl with black engobe—watery clay mixed with glaze. He then scratched out the design, in a pattern of black and white; fired it; then covered the whole bowl with a glaze of “Egyptian Blue”—a sort of radiant turquoise, similar to that of some beads found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He then fired it again. The result was richly decorative, since the irregular scratching of the design created a kind of glow, almost like stained glass. And the Egyptian Blue evoked a feeling he was trying to capture—his recollection of the strange blue light of New York at night.
When it was done, Guy Cowan sent the piece to New York—and promptly heard back that the woman who had commissioned it wanted two more. Only then did Viktor learn that the woman was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Viktor produced the Jazz Bowls for Roosevelt, Cowan Pottery put it into production. But the company folded in 1931, done in by the Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Jazz Bowls were made, but probably about 50 large ones similar to the original and perhaps as many as 25 of a different design that was less expensive to make, sometimes known as “The Poor Man’s Bowl.” Since the decoration was scratched out by hand the large bowls all differ a good deal in execution. It’s not known what happened to the bowls that were made for Eleanor, although her role in providing the commission is documented in newspaper articles from the 1930s, so I believe that the story is true.
The son of a potter, Viktor Schreckengost was born in Sebring, Ohio, and died in 2008 at the age of 101. (Two of his brothers, Don and Paul, were also major figures in ceramic design.) Viktor was one of the founding figures of modern industrial design in the United States. His credits include the first modern mass-produced American dinnerware, the first cab-over-engine truck, the first inexpensive children’s pedal cars and the first bicycle welded in a single step in an electric brazing chamber—an innovation that cut production cost by 50 percent and was used in some 50 million bicylces. He also designed costumes, stage sets, lighting fixtures and lawn furniture; produced watercolors and oil paintings, many of which won prizes in museum exhibitions, and monumental sculpture, for the Cleveland Zoo and the high school in Lakewood, Ohio; and founded the industrial design program of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over 50 years. Among Viktor’s students were the designer of the Ford Mustang. (A museum dedicated to Viktor’s work was scheduled to open in Cleveland this past June, but the debut has been delayed.)
Artworks derive meaning not only from the thought and feeling that the artist put into them, but from where they are placed. There’s poignancy to having a Jazz Bowl in Birmingham, which as everyone knows was the site of one of the most ghastly atrocities of the Civil Rights era, when the Klu Klux Klan placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young African-American girls. But Birmingham is also a city that has gone to great lengths to atone. The art museum has built up an important collection of works by African-American artists, and it’s not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame are located.
In this context, Viktor’s Jazz Bowl has a special resonance. Viktor’s central goal in creating Jazz Bowl was to find a visual analogue to black jazz music. Indeed, he himself was something of a musician (he played the clarinet) and a personal friend of such jazz greats as Art Tatum. Let’s not pretend that this sort of cross-over can be achieved in an absolutely perfect way, based on perfect understanding, or entirely liberated from the cultural norms of a period. Nonetheless, Jazz Bowl marks a significant turning point in American culture, when a white artist could look to black jazz music as a paradigm of great artistic achievement—as something to ardently celebrate, a model for what he hoped to achieve in the visual arts.
In short, Jazz Bowl marks step toward a new kind of cultural conversation—one that needs to be continued further. What’s more, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s something not to be missed.