DAVID COHEN every Friday at artcritical.com
April 20, 2001
A New and Noble School
York: "The School of London and Their Friends: The Collection of
Elaine and Melvin Merians" at the Neuberger Museum of Art, to May
My favorite taxi story: a man hails a cab at the Rockefeller Center and says, "Take me to Piccadilly Circus". No problem, says the driver, and shoots downtown to South Ferry and boards the QE2, which five days later docks at Southampton, then it's up the M3 to London and he drops his fare at his destination. Another passenger runs up and says "Kew Gardens?" "No", snaps the driver, "I don't go to Queens!"
New Yorkers will go to great lengths to see British Art, but sometimes it seems less arduous to cross the Atlantic than to make it to the outer boroughs or the 'burbs. Of course, plenty made it to the Brooklyn Museum a couple of years ago for the Sensation exhibit. If only the same numbers could be persuaded to make the modest trek to the Neuberger Museum at Purchase, just beyond White Plains on the Harlem Line. "The School of London and their Friends: The Collection of Elaine and Melvin Merians" makes a spectacular case for expressive figurative painting as the most vibrant and vital strand in current British art. School of London is a contested term, having come to mean something less inclusive, more stylistically focused than R.B. Kitaj first meant when in 1976 he coined the phrase. The Merians's collection nestles between the macro definition of anything happening in London that Kitaj might think cool and the micro definition of Francis Bacon's ménage of protégés: Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and Michael Andrews. For sure, however, at the core of this collection are superb examples of the kind of existentialist-absurdist paint dramas evoked in all our minds by that magic mantra, School of London. Somehow the tight, cramped, awkward, sweaty desperado of Lucian Freud and the exhilaratingly obsessive exactitude of Euan Uglow come to make sense of one another.
To state an art historical fact plainly: there is no private collection
in England that surpasses the breadth and quality of the Merians' holdings
of School of London painting, and precious few public ones either. There
are two seriously fabulous mid-sized 1990s Freuds, three important Kitajs
from his controversial mid-career period, as well as drawings, really
good examples of recentish Kossoff and Auerbach, a couple of fine examples
from Michael Andrews, a sparse producer, plenty of recent (post-Pop) Peter
Blake, smatterings of Hockney and in-depth coverage of John Wonnacott
and Euan Uglow. Plus Paula Rego, Craigie Aitchison, Tony Bevan, Peter
Doig and others. It's a personal collection, for sure, with taste out-ruling
comprehensiveness. Wonnacott is solely represented by group figure works,
for instance, to the exclusion of his landscapes, and there is no Bacon
because Mrs. M. can't bear the sight of him (good for her!). This degree
of truth and particularity in collecting this way seems to mirror the
ethics of the painters themselves, with their existential doggedness and
true-grit determination to be "authentic".
Their extensive Kitaj holdings include one of his seminal images. Germania (The Tunnel) exemplifies what Kitaj's fans and notoriously furious dissemblers alike find so striking about him: the tragi-comic chutzpah with which he conflates the personal, the aesthetic, and the historical. Within a single image, willfully confused, are musings on the artist's own mortality and a heavy-duty symbolic evocation of "that epochal murder", the Holocaust, formally and symbolic enmeshed within an appropriated Van Gogh drawing - writ large - which reference that artist's confinement at St. Rémy. This is the Kitaj gestalt at work!
Intimacy with the old masters is a hallmark of School of London painting. Freud often plays high jinks with Ingres, Courbet, Watteau, while Kossoff and Auerbach have drawn and re-drawn their favorites from the National Gallery as obsessively as the grubby north London landmarks or long-suffering sitters familiar to the student of their oeuvres. But actually, in this collection cannibalization is confined to Kitaj and Peter Blake, whose Pietro Longhi rip-off, Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice, 1996, based on a 1751 canvas of the same title, dates from his year as artist in residence at the National Gallery. He manages to introduce a reference to his own earlier work, Good Morning Mr. Hockney, set appropriately in Venice Beach, California, which in turn, of course, was a transcription of Good Morning Monsieur Courbet!
What is so unique about Euan Uglow is the fusion he achieves of idealism and empiricism. His art is mortgaged to fidelity to what he has seen and what, in some meaningful, sustaining, convincing way, can be measured. The existential stakes are as intense as they are with Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff, with his mentor William Coldstream, and with the mentor of all these men, Alberto Giacometti (not to mention Cézanne). But with all these artists, except Uglow, authenticity is won at the price of sometime excruciating awkwardness. Indeed, awkwardness is displayed almost as a trophy, in Freud for instance, a signifier of authenticity and struggle. To Freud's Delacroix Uglow is Ingres. His genius lies in an ability to glide from distortion to credibility effortlessly in the way a good singer bridges the gap between registers. Amazing liberties are taken with form, and yet not at the service of expressiveness but of grace. The color, the evidence of perceptual measurement, the emphatic contouring, all underline the synthetic nature of his construction, but he achieves within his work an equivalent of the life force he observes, and of the energy inherent in the act of observation. I must confess, I used to hold in a certain suspicion the "litter" in his paintings of little plumb-line memoranda which seem to signify, a little too earnestly, effort and measure. But I've not only learned to live with them, but to love them a little, too. To expect him to remove them when the painting is "finished" as if he were a workman taking away his scaffolding is completely to misunderstand the nature of his project, the high-wire act of reconciling the perceived and the constructed. But furthermore, these "grace notes" are absorbed into the texture of the image as surely as a brushmark or a chance drip of paint.
The Merians' search for younger artists to complement their School of London masters have lead them to some bold personal discoveries, but I would like to suggest a couple of currently exhibiting Brits who are less codas to the School of London than true extenders of the tradition to which the older guys belong. One show is in London, the other New York, but you can always take a taxi!
At Agnews, Jock McFadyen has a show of new landscapes and urban scenes. This London-based Scotsman, now fifty, acknowledges Sickert, Lowry and Michael Andrews as the mentors of his more recent work, though the influence of all three is subdued within his highly individual style. He made his mark in the 1980s with fiercely Hogarthian depictions of urban squalor and the grittiness of life on the margins. In the last decade, however, the figure has all but disappeared, although his "portraits" of buildings - decaying deco cinemas, graffitied street corners, suburban supermarkets - are as phrenologically intense as his macabre faces ever were. McFadyen always manages to combine a sumptuous, almost solipsistic involvement in the inherently abstract quality of the painterly process with an acute sense of the human presence, the reality, the particularity of his scene. His way of working from photography, both retaining and disguising the distance that photographs entail, gives to his work a poignant twist.
Graham Nickson Departure: Gulls 1989-2001
Graham Nickson was a pupil of Uglow's at Camberwell. For most of his career, however, Nickson has been a New Yorker. He has works in the Metropolitan Museum and for over a decade has been Dean of the New York Studio School, an institution where School of London-ish virtues of personal authenticity and perceptual investigation reign supreme thanks to Nickson's stewardship. His new show at Salander-O'Reilly is elegantly restrained. Just five large canvases have in the two magesterial second floor galleries. The color is as funky as ever, but somehow more rooted in experience than the high octane synthetic colors from earlier in his career, and there is greater painterly freedom and range than has been usual in the past. These enhancements derive, I suspect, from lessons learned in another medium: watercolor.
Beyond the intense introversion of his figures, there is little by way of formal debt to Uglow in Nickson, in contrast to the dozens of slavish imitators Uglow spawned at the Slade. The yoga-like pose of Uglow's Wave may bring to mind the odd calisthenics of Nickson's bathers, although this aspect of Nickson's work predates the same in Uglow. But Nickson does extend Uglow's aesthetic at a profound level which has to do with an almost yin-yang balance of the perceptual and the synthetic. Nickson's art is deeply rooted in observation, whether of the physical facts or the psychological meanings underlying them. He gets anatomy, but he gets body language, too. In this he goes beyond the perverse still-life-like aspect of Uglow's figuration to produce something more humane if less aesthetically refined. Also, treatment of the isolated nude is rare in Nickson, whose figures are invariably clad in beachwear. The relationship is not so focused on viewer-figure as upon figure-ground and figure-group. But there is an entirely comparable tension between compulsion and alienation on the viewer's part in these different relationships. Nickson offers fabulous proof that high classicism without irony or campness is still possible. Just.