Rachel Cohen

9. Turner Looking

Frederick Project: Abstraction and Retrospect

Frederick Project Abstraction and Retrospect

J.M.W. Turner, A River Seen from a Hill, ca. 1840-45, Tate Museum, oil on canvas, 31 x 31.2 inches, detail photos Rachel Cohen.

I am interested in the time layers of paintings.

I always go back to J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), painter of hundreds of oils (radical landscapes, history paintings, the abolitionist Slave Ship, scenes from his teeming imagination), of thousands of watercolors (a lingering soft touch, delicate effects of light, hundreds of studies of Venice, an inspiration to the Impressionists), and artist of some 30,000 works on paper (wonderful sketchbooks, studies in history, architecture, travel.)

Turner died, impoverished and strange, in London in 1851 and a huge bequest went to what is now the Tate Museum in London; when you are there, you can, almost always, go look at Turner paintings, Turner watercolors. I love them, and have made a number of visits, and seen a couple of Turner exhibitions, and Slave Ship is at the MFA in Boston, where I used to live, and I spent a lot of time with it, and all of this now blurs together, hundreds of Turner impressions.

We were in London in 2016. On the day of the Brexit vote, I went to the Tate to see the Turners. I was in luck. The Tate had on display some of the paintings that interest me most, the late oils that are like the watercolors. I loved this, probably unfinished, square one.

I did not think the Brexit vote was the beginning of a historical era. The polls suggested that the result would be remain. Still, it was a nervous, agitated day.

The late oils are extremely abstract, almost like studies in paint, unbelievably radical for the 1840s, long before Impressionism took hold in Paris. In the 1840s, most of the trained painters in the European capitals were working at highly-finished, realistic history paintings that now look like propaganda for capitalism and empire. Turners look like paint.

Watercolor is a medium that necessitates quickness, decision. You may make it in layers, returning to it over many days, but everything you lay down remains. I believe that most of Turner’s watercolors were made in one impression. He called them “colour beginnings.” Here is one from the same period on a similar theme:

J.M.W. Turner, The Moselle Bridge, Coblenz, ca. 1842, Yale Center for British Art, watercolor, 19.13 x 24.25 inches, public domain.

He used watercolor to study transient effects of light. But I think he found in the watercolors unities of understanding that then interested him to consider in paint, which had been, sometimes still is, a much slower medium, built up over weeks, scrubbed out and done again. Here you can see how it resembles watercolor, but still has the scrapes of paint:

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The wall text for A River Seen from a Hill says that it might be an Italian landscape.

Turner loved Italy, the most of all the places he traveled to, and made several extended trips there. The first, in 1802, came when the Peace of Amiens made European travel possible for British artists. He stored up impressions, perhaps knowing that the peace might not last. The Napoleonic Wars returned; it would be seventeen years before he could return to Italy. In the meantime, as I have been reading this morning, he studied up on Italy, and when he did return, in 1819, he had imaginary, classical ideas of Italian cities and landscapes – these ideas then continued next to, and clashed interestingly with, and had to be revised to accomodate – what he also painted, the complex, impoverished places which he was actually visiting.

He went again ten years later. When he painted A River Seen from a Hill, ca. 1840-5, it had been some fifteen years since he had been in Italy.

If you think of an abstraction as something that allows you to hold two far apart things on a kind of common ground, then history is one of our most radical abstractions, across time.

Part of what astonishes in this painting, is that, when you first see it, on the wall, in its frame, there is clearly a bridge in the center. But when you get up close, the bridge begins to dissolve.

The painting resolves at a certain distance. You can only get perspective on it, as I can only begin to see what the day of the Brexit vote meant, from some ways away.

But, you also have to look close. Because you would assume you know how a bridge is made out of paint, but you don’t. When you really look close you see that what makes a structure that stands over time is quite different than you thought:

Looking at a photo taken by one person looking in England, of a painting of places another person looked at and remembered in Italy, layers of places that at some periods in history we can go to, and at other periods we can’t, you can feel contemplation changing. Retrospect, the holding layers of time in odd proximity, makes memories that learn from water.

Abstraction and Eyes

One of the unusual aspects of Beauford Delaney’s work as an abstract painter was that even late in his career, when he lived in Paris and had moved very fully into abstraction, he also painted very specific and characterful portraits.  These two kinds of paintings were shown together during his lifetime – at, for example, the Galerie Lambert on the Île St. Louis in 1964 – and have been shown so since his death – in particular at the Levis Gallery in Chelsea last year, an exhibition, that, regrettably, I was not in New York to see. [Here are Dr. Ahmed Bioud, 1968, and an untitled work from ca. 1958-9.]

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From accounts I’ve read, this alternating display of persons and abstractions asks something very particular of the viewer.  I caught a suggestion of the experience from watching a video of the opening at the Levis Gallery – it might interest the reader to look at it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0ZJcvenRpw

One thing that clearly holds the two approaches together is something essential about the paint itself, its handling.  Responding to the 1964 show, the French art critic Jean Guichard-Meili felt that, in the end, the two kinds of works “do not differ… Background, clothing, hands, faces, are the pretext for autonomous harmonies.”  Guichard-Meili describes the paint itself as having “movements of internal convection,” and says that the one experiences “the vibrations of underlying design.”  [This account appeared in the journal Arts and is quoted in David Leeming’s wonderfully gentle biography of Delaney, Amazing Grace, p165.]

A similar idea – that the patterning and movement of the paint is common to both the portraits and the abstractions – is to be found in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts catalog of its Delaney retrospective of 2004-2005.  Here is Delaney’s The Sage Black (James Baldwin) of 1967.  [Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.]

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The catalog says that, “Delaney superimposed a calligraphic outline on the abstract composition of reds, greens, yellows and blues.  Filled with all the colors of a flame, this incendiary, combustible background peers through Baldwin’s form…” This language seems to me to greatly simplify what I can tell even from reproductions of the work, which is that the colors shift dramatically between the ground and the figure, that the background does not merely “peer through,” but is transformed, condensed, reconstituted in and by the person.  I find it hard to understand the eyes in this painting.

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In Paris, Monique Y. Wells maintains a wonderful website called Les Amis du Beauford Delaney, an important resource, and she has two entries on Delaney’s portraits of his friend James Baldwin.  This was one of the most significant friendships of either man’s life.  On the site, the art historian Catherine St. John offered comments on another portrait of Baldwin, this one backed in Delaney’s signature yellow.

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St. John writes two things that seem to me exactly to the point.  The first is her description of how to consider Delaney’s yellow: “His tactile surfaces of brilliant colors are prime carriers of light and space and it is in his use of yellow - ochre, cadmium, lemon - that we discover the substance of light in relation to spirit.”  She goes on to suggest a way of thinking about this relationship, of light to spirit, in terms of the figure.  “The isolated, self-contained image of Baldwin is the special intersection of the world of light and the subjective consciousness that Beauford Delaney brought to his portraits. It is a supremely expressive portrait in which the eyes, the most intimate and powerful feature of the face, act like magnets.”

This is a deeper understanding of the relation between abstraction and the figure in Delaney’s work and near to something Delaney himself said in trying to explain the single project that lay behind what seemed two divergent methods.  David Leeming says that “Beauford explained to friends that both approaches were studies in light revealed—the light that gave meaning to the individuals depicted in the large volumes of color in the portraits and the light considered directly as contained in the juxtaposition of minute and closely packed bits of blue, red, and especially yellow in the abstract paintings.” [Leeming, p164.]

There is much to be said, and much has been said, on the metaphysics of inward light in Delaney (and in Baldwin) but here I want to confine myself to one observation, which is that the eyes, in some important way, do not have it.  They seem in their dark opacity, or even in their dark brilliance, to reflect on light rather than to be lit.  Like magnets, they also have darkness, and draw us by an absorbing force that pulls inward.  And this seems very precisely understood.  For the eyes would have to be the very site of inversion, the very place where the abstract meets the formed person, the lens across which the inner and outer worlds interpret one another.    



Passages: Dewey



Here are two passages I've been struck by recently in reading John Dewey's Art as Experience.  

(Perigree Trade Paperbacks, Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin, originally published 1934, edition August 2005 p84, p98.)

Throughout the book, Dewey argues that esthetic experience is a heightening of every day experience, that all experience has, immanently, the possibilities of order and understanding that are reached in esthetic experience.  This continuity used to be more commonly felt and understood when many people were engaged in crafts, and when the arts had not become specialized, cordoned-off areas.  Dewey argues for re-establishing the sense of continuity between life and art:

The problem of conferring esthetic quality upon all modes of production is a serious problem.  But it is a human problem for human solution; not a problem incapable of solution because it is set by some unpassable gulf in human nature or in the nature of things.  In an imperfect society -- and no society will ever be perfect -- fine art will be to some extent an escape from, or an adventitious decoration of, the main activities of living.  But in a better-ordered society than that in which we live, an infinitely greater happiness than is now the case would attend all modes of production.  We live in a world in which there is an immense amount of organization, but it is an external organization, not one of the ordering of a growing experience, one that involves, moreover, the whole of the live creature, toward a fulfilling conclusion.  Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life.  But they are also marvelous aids in the creation of such a life.  The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to the artist and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work.  In the degree in which art exercises its offfice, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity.  

In the fifth chapter, "The Expressive Object," Dewey presents a very helpful set of ideas about how the act of expression involved in making art and the esthetic experience of perceiving that art are related to the art that he calls "the expressive object."  In one nice passage he points out that "expressivity" by no means excludes abstraction:

Art does not, in short, cease to be expressive because it renders in visible forms relations of things, without any more indication of the particulars that have the relations than is necessary to compose a whole.  Every work of art "abstracts" in some degree from the particular traits of objects expressed.  Otherwise, it would only, by means of exact imitation, create an illusion of the presence of the things themselves.  The ultimate subject matter of a still life painting is highly "realistic" -- napery, pans, apples, bowls.  But a still life by Chardin or Cezanne presents these materials in terms of relations of lines, planes and colors inherently enjoyed in perception.  This re-ordering could not occur without some measure of "abstraction" from physical existence.  Indeed, the very attempt to present three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane demands abstraction from the usual conditions that exist.  There is no a priori rule to decide how far abstraction may be carried.... There are still-lifes of Cezanne in which one of the objects is actually levitated.  Yet the expressiveness of the whole to an observer with esthetic vision is enhanced not lowered.  It carries further a trait which every one takes for granted in looking at a picture; namely, that no object in the picture is physically supported by any other.  The support they give to one another lies in their respective contributions to the perceptual experience.  Expression of the readiness of objects to move, although temporarily sustained in equilivrium, is intensified by abstraction from conditions that are physically and externally possible.

I especially like "Expression of the readiness of objects to move."