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December 30, 2001
The Same Hue of Blue, again and again
New York City, November 1998. The Whitney Museum have a major Mark Rothko retrospective. Thumbnail verdict: el crapola.
Rothko had a great idea: anti-art. Anti-representation. He looked over centuries of slow development in technique and subject matter in painting, and then went in the opposite direction.
No more fruit in a bowl, no more sunflowers, no more curvaceous Dutch women. Just a huge canvas covered in the same hue of blue.
What's it supposed to be? Nothing. What's it supposed to mean? Nothing.
It could just be me, but I think this is a great idea for a painting.
But it's a great idea for one painting.
Which isn't what Rothko thought. He found that he could sell Big Blue Paintings, so he did more of them. A lot more of them. Eventually he tinkered with them a little bit and added Big Black Paintings to his output, and, even more daringly, Big Black Paintings With One Horizontal Splotch Of Red Somewhere In The Middle.
In other words, all Rothko ever did was sequels. Lots of sequels. And the Whitney had collected a vast number of them, and so many that they needed two entire floors of the gallery to display them. I spent a few moments looking at the first one, and, if you'll excuse the expression, got the picture.
I walked over to look at the next one, and it was the same thing, apart from being ever so slightly taller. Yawn. I started walking quicker and quicker. By the time I headed for the exit, I was running. Too many other things to do.
One of which was the Jackson Pollock retrospective at MOMA. This was great, in part because they had collected everything he'd done, including all the early, tentative work. (And by "tentative" what I mean is "awful.") The first two rooms were early Jackson Pollock, filled with his attempts to paint things like animals and people. All of these were embarrassingly bad: in any conventional sense, Pollock couldn't paint. But, to the benefit of the exhibition as a whole, all of this stuff was on display.
So when you arrive in the third room, it all changes. You can see that Pollock has realised his limitations and has decided to try something else. Like Rothko, he ditched any attempt at representation (wise move) and struggled to find a form that worked for him. So we see him trying to figure out how to evoke the painted equivalent of motion, energy, ritual. They're not the best paintings ever, but compared to what you've just seen, they're going somewhere.
And in the room after that are two small paintings. They're his first attempts at the drip painting style. They explode with colour and energy. And compared to what you've just seen, they're simply incredible.
As soon as Pollock dripped paint on a canvas, it worked. And what he did from then on was experiment, and in ever wilder ways. The last few rooms of the exhibition were taken up with these paintings, and they were all different, and all fascinating. Someone described these as "energy made visible," and that seems exactly right. I was also very pleased to see, as an Australian, that one of the best paintings of all was Blue Poles, bought by the Whitlam Government for a vast sum of money in the early seventies.
The upshot of all is this is that you get a feeling of someone who knew he had a talent, but who had to search to find it, and who got very little guidance along the way. And the exhibition was fascinating, because it allowed you to follow the journey that Pollock went on: where he started, where he ended up, where his ideas took him. And unlike Rothko, there were no damn sequels, earning Pollock a much higher score on my Respect-O-Meter.
I guess I just hate sequels.
A later discovery, and something to try for yourself
The next time you're in the National Gallery in Canberra, try this. Stand in front of Blue Poles, and let your eyes relax. Ignore the people around you. Keep looking at the painting, but don't focus on any one part of it. Eventually you will start to discern another pattern: a 3D image of Gough Whitlam.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 04:23 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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