Wednesday, November 27, 2013

At Sotheby's a few weeks ago I saw paintings by Norman Rockwell, in the flesh, maybe for the first time, tucked in a corner a few yards away from a much larger, and very large, Warhol.  Silver Car Crash [Double Disaster], from 1963, had a room to itself.  Even estimated as among the more valuable things on offer the Rockwells were treated with a touch of embarrassment, but along with the Warhol they've stuck in my head more than anything else there. The Warhol went for $105M at the Evening Contemporary auction on Nov 12th,  and the Rockwell is estimated at $20M, going under the hammer on Dec 4th, as American Art. [It sold for $46M]

Since I'd never stood in front of a Rockwell before I had no idea how they were made; I'd seen them only as images, in reproduction. And that's why they're famous. But their power is in the handling of material. I was surprised and embarrassed that I hadn't wanted to look before. I wasn't prepared for their physicality because I'd never thought of them as paintings.

Dumbo and Fantasia are major artworks of the 20th century, and Capra and Spielberg are given at least grudging respect, why wouldn't Saying Grace deserve a look?  Films are moving images, ephemeral, and the ephemeral nature of film helps to explain why literary critics in the age of film have made good film critics, but not good art critics. A painting in reproduction is like a novel in translation, and then only for events and plot, without even the approximation of the descriptive language. Rockwell's as images never interested me. And they still don't. But he was a compelling craftsman, and the craft gives the works' sense of empathy a depth and irony, a bite, that reproduction flattens out. Warhol's work both as objects and reproductions, but Rockwell is the opposite of Fantin-Latour, whose works are physically mundane but gain a depth and darkness, a Seurat-like mechanical melancholy, when photographed and printed on glossy paper.  Fantin-Latour is (almost) better as an imaginary late 19th century Parisian painter than a real one. And Rockwell was a very good painter, maybe even a brilliant one, hiding in plain sight behind the job of magazine illustrator.

I stopped reading Dave Hickey before he started defending Rockwell. I linked it to his fanboy praise of Ed Ruscha. And he's a music and literary critic who writes about art, so my comments above apply. But he's smart. 

I remember reading Alexander Cockburn's review of Robert Hughes' American Visions. I've always wanted to call it, telegraph it, the best piece I ever read on art in The Nation, but it may not have been there.  Cockburn describes Hughes as struggling to extol the greatness of American art but that clearly his heart isn't in it. The greatness of Anglophone and thus American culture is narrative and linguistic not physical. Cockburn chides Hughes by describing the Mississippi panorama of John Banvard, saying Hughes had missed the chance to write a richer book, among other things on the origins of Hollywood. I'd never heard of Banvard, and I'd since forgotten his name, but I never forgot the story.

Christgau on Hickey.
And as a Perry Mason fan who boasts in this very essay that he helped convince Warner Bros. to sign Funkadelic, he must understand that strange and wondrous things sometimes happen to the hugely successful. Designed for mass consumption, Roots and Roseanne, E.T. and Superman III would feel altogether more commonplace if they weren't. Megasales didn't normalize Prince, whom he seems to like, and never playing to fewer than 3000 spectators defined Led Zeppelin's music, which he probably considers inferior to Aerosmith's. Well, too bad for him. 
But all this is simply to afford myself the opportunity of arguing with a rather large kindred spirit, which Hickey rightly identifies as one of the signal pleasures of democracy. His book survives this divagation, and indeed takes up a variant on the looky-loo argument in a more convincing finale called "Frivolity and Unction" before embarking upon an obscure envoi about a fictional Spaniard with whom Hickey discusses bean counting while attempting to collect a gambling debt. I wish I believed the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is quaking in its boots--it ought to be. Given how he feels about therapeutic institutions, do you think Hickey would turn down a National Book Award? My guess is that this old freelancer would cash the check. Here's hoping we get the chance to find out.
Robert Boynton in the New Yorker on Hughes, and Cockburn
When he wasn’t in the kitchen, Hughes was often riding his Honda CB-750, showing up at openings out-fitted in leather. At other times, he would have a macaw perched on his shoulder-“my Long John Silver period”-or display outrageous plumage of his own. The writer Alexander Cockburn recalls the time when he and Hughes pledged to finally pay their taxes. “Jason Epstein told us to see The New York Review of Books’ accountant,” Cockburn says. “When I met Bob with my shopping bags full of crumpled receipts, he was dressed in this incredibly dashing velvet suit.” As the pair approached the accountant’s desk, he eyed them warily and asked, “Will you be filing separately or jointly?”

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