René Magritte’s Bad Paintings

René Magritte, “Forethought” (1943), oil on canvas, Koons Collection (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, all images courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)

In his posthumously published book Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein proposes that we can better understand how everyday language functions by considering what he calls language-games.

Imagine, for example, that one person names objects and another person then points to them. Or suppose that someone piles up blocks and the second person reports how many are in each pile. There are many such language-games. Wittgenstein lists play-acting, guessing riddles, making a joke, thanking, greeting, praying, and numerous other examples.

Once we recognize the multiplicity and variety of these language-games, he says, then we will be less likely to adapt oversimplified accounts of language. His goal is to understand language as “an activity, or […] a form of life” in which many diverse language-games are at play.

Inspired by this famous account, let us construct an analogy with visual thinking. There are many visual-games associated with representation. And painting is an activity, a form of life if you will, that employs these games.

This analogy between written and visual languages will help us to understand the paintings exhibited in the recently closed René Magritte: The Fifth Season (May 19–October 28, 2018, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Consider, first, some visual-games presented in Magritte’s best-known works. He puts objects of radically different sizes within one picture. “Personal Values” (1952) shows a comb, bed, and glass, all roughly the same size. He represents objects that aren’t flammable on fire, as in “The Discovery of Fire” (1959), which shows a tuba on fire. In “The Human Condition” (1933) he sets a landscape painting on an easel in front of a window that is overlookin that very scene. And he represents distinct temporal moments in one picture. “The Dominion of Light” 1950) has a daylight sky and a darkened nighttime street scene — a motif of he revisited in numerous versions.

René Magritte, “The Dominion of Light” (1950), oil on canvas(© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

All of these various visual-games teach the same general lesson. A representation of something doesn’t have the same properties as that thing. In a picture, real things of diverse sizes can be presented as of the same size; objects that don’t burn can be depicted as burning; two times of day can be shown; and images can be set in front of pictures of the scenes they depict.

These philosophical ideas about representation are banal. In one of his best-known pictures, Magritte set an image of a pipe above the label, ‘This is not a pipe” — “The Treachery of Images” (1929), a work that fascinated Michel Foucault. (One version of that painting is in this show: a 1952 drawing also called “The Treachery of Images,” which contains a label in French, “ceci continue de ne pas étre une pipe.”)

We all know that a representation is not identical with what it represents and that representations and what they represent therefore have different properties. But while these ideas are simple, or, if you will, even dumb, Magritte’s pictures employing them are visually compelling. He thus demonstrates that being a successful philosopher-painter doesn’t require abstruse philosophical concepts. Simple ideas about representation suffice to make great pictures. When early in his career Jasper Johns painted American flags and targets, making flat images of things that are themselves flat, he showed that this idea had legs.

René Magritte, “Personal Values” (1952), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In the late 1920s and 1930s, René Magritte (1898-1967) became famous. Associated, somewhat uneasily, with the Surrealists, he created many of his best-known images at this time. Then in middle age, during World War II, when Belgium was occupied by Germany, he undertook a bold experiment, producing two related bodies of works, which have mostly been heartily disliked even by his champions.

The San Francisco exhibition of 77 paintings, gouaches, and drawings was the first large show to focus on his so-called sunlit surrealist and vache periods. (‘Vache’ describes a fat woman or a lazy person; ‘peau de vache’ means cow-skin; and so ‘vache things’ are vulgar or coarse.) These are two related but distinctly different bodies of deliberately alienating works, the first rendered in the style of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the second, featuring images based on popular cartoons, painted with gestural brushstrokes.

Thus “The Fifth Season” (1943), which provided the title for the show, depicts men in bowler hats carrying paintings in gold gilt frames under their arms, rendered in Renoir’s style. “The Harvest” (1943) shows a reclining female nude with different parts of her body painted in blue, purple, red, and orange. “Forethought” (1943) is of a flowering tree, also done in this painterly style. “Famine” (1948) shows a group of heads apparently eating each other. And because there was a shortage of art materials during the war, Magritte painted “Night Sky with Bird” (1945) on a wine bottle.

René Magritte, “The Fifth Season” (1943), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Magritte called his wartime images an exercise in visual hedonism. He believed that the Soviet victory over the Nazi invasion would lead to an era of social and artistic revolution, which would require a radical transformation of Surrealism. And so he called his art “a counter-offensive.”

These statements hardly seem an adequate explanation of this dramatic change in his personal style. If he really thought that these wartime pictures would give pleasure, then he was radically mistaken. It’s not obvious how sunlit surrealist or vache painting was an effective response to the wartime era, when Magritte remained in his native country or, even, to the changed postwar political life, when he briefly joined the Belgian Communist Party. Indeed it is hard to relate any of his personal statements to this art.

If we look to their appearance, then this body of sunlit surrealist and vache works marks a radical stylistic break with the more familiar, canonical Magrittes. But if we think of them as presenting various representation-games, then we may understand them as extending his prior strategies of art making.

With these works, instead of demonstrating the relationship between things and their representations, he turns to investigate one traditional style of representation. What would happen, Magritte seems to ask, if rather than the deadpan, neutral style of his best-known works , he were to paint like Renoir? And what is the result, he asks, if he borrows the caricaturist’s style for the vache paintings? Perhaps if he had continued in this vein, these works would have been better understood. And then maybe real continuity in Magritte’s career would have been apparent.

René Magritte, “Seasickness (1948), oil on canvas (© Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In fact, however, because sunlight surrealism and the vache pictures were so unpopular, Magritte did not continue to experiment in this fashion. Like Giorgio de Chirico, whom he admired, and Francis Picabia, Magritte created what became fashionably known in the 1970s as bad painting.

Deliberately inept painting, a visual form of camp, certainly has its pleasures. And so now that this particular art historical moment has become relatively distant, it’s unsurprising that a major museum is devoting so much attention to least admired period of a much appreciated painter.

But I cannot see that these ‘bad’ Magrittes change how we judge his full achievement. They really are dreadful paintings. If they had not been made by the same painter who created his canonical works, no one would give them a second glance. At this exhibition, I really felt that I was missing something.

Author’s Note: The suggestion that there is some parallel between the concerns of Magritte and Wittgenstein is not my invention; in her Magritte (1985), Suzi Gablik develops this idea, with reference to Magritte’s own writings about the word-image problem. But I understand the parallel differently.

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When an Art Fair Becomes a Place for Discovery and Unexpected Pairings

Edward S. Curtis, “Kutenai Duck Hunter” (1910) Portfolio Plate 246, copper photogravure printing plate, approximately 12 x 17 ½ inches at Bruce Kapson Gallery (image courtesy Bruce Capson Gallery)

Typically, when I’ve visited TEFAF (short for the European Fine Art Fair) in the past, I’ve been most attentive to the paintings, but this time, objects that had been on my periphery came into clear view.

The first set of objects that mesmerized me were the copper photogravure printing plates of Edward S. Curtis presented by the Bruce Kapson Gallery. I understand that Curtis is a contested figure. He was an ethnographic photographer whose massively comprehensive project, The North American Indian, documented about 82 Indigenous American tribes in images that established for outsiders blinkered and stereotypical understandings of Native Americans. But I had never seen the plates up close. They are set within pristinely clear acrylic fields that mimic fine art photo matting with an outer frame of gleaming copper that mirrors the plates. The figures in the plates seem etched with graphite, dark against the sanguine backdrop in extravagant detail. Hair pulled into winged buns, birch bark, and still water all seem carved out of the world with a devious knife. I would rather look at the plates than the photo images made from them just about any day.

Yokoyama Kazan, A pair of six-fold screens with a hundred terrapins, a mingame and a frog on a silver ground (ca. Edo period 18th and 19th centuries) Japan; in the foreground left to right: Yasumi Nakajima, “Mebae (Sprouting Shoots)” (20th Century, Showa period) Japan; Shugoro Hasuda “Hojo (Fruitfulness)” (20th Century, Showa period) Japan; Shugoro Hasuda “Koma (Spinning Top)” (20th Century) Japan (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted) at Gregg Baker gallery

Other objects that I have glimpsed elsewhere but never paid attention to included the illuminated manuscripts in the booth of Heribert Tenschert, a Swiss collector of antiquities. The history of the particular books they had on display is fascinating: one designed by Geoffroy Tory introduced a type design that did not mimic handwriting and purportedly initiated the art of book design in France. It is also one of only three existing books that are known to have been printed on vellum. The associate of the gallery confirmed that the pages consist of Latin and explained that the particular tome is a book of hours, a religious guide that contained prayers and psalms a follower would refer to throughout the day. At another gallery, Mireille Mosler, I saw a lovely portrait of two nuns, and the older one holds what might well be a book of hours.

S. du Bois and Geoffrey Tory, Horae BMV (1527) book of hours, Paris, at Heribert Tenschert
Elisabeth Sonrel, “Les Rameaux (Palm Sunday)” (1897) watercolor on laid paper; 20 3/4 by 35 3/4 inches (53 by 91 cm.) signed and dated, at Mireille Mosler

Another non-painting highlight was an El Anatsui draped tapestry, presented close to an ancient Egyptian head of a pharaoh (ca. 589–570 BCE), at the Axel Vervoordt gallery. This display scheme strikes me as a strange homology since El Anatsui is Ghanaian working primarily in Nigeria, and in the 21st century, no less, while the Egyptian artifact is both geographically and chronologically distal. Another gallery, Colnaghi, featured a long display table of Central and South American mace heads, which displayed this manner — on a table without any contextualizing information as they would be at a bazaar — suggested that they might be purchased as tchotchkes for someone’s home office, a paper weight with an intriguing back story.

El Anatsui, “Reconstitution” (2016) aluminium, bottle tops, roofing sheets and copper wire, 200 x 797 cm, at Axel Vervoordt gallery
Head of Pharaoh—probably “Apries” Egypt (Late period, 26th Dynasty, ca. 589-570 BCE) Granodiorite, at Axel Vervoordt gallery

TEFAF, which proclaims itself to be a fair of fine and decorative art from antiquity to 1920, offers a manageable and even fun experience for me, because I just ignore all the jewelry and ornamental schtick and look for the unexpected art. Inevitably, I did find some paintings that were quirky and surprising like the Pietro Annigoni portrait of what looks like an inert man on the edge of a couch, with his head collapsed against a dressing screen. The title gives the game away though: “A Mannequin in a Studio” (1947). Lastly, there is the Heinrich Campendonk portrait “Mother with Child and Deer” (ca. 1913) which looks like a lavish fusion of Surrealism, Cubism, squeezed through the palette of Franz Marc of the Blue Rider Group. It’s in those pieces when the TEFAF becomes much more than a bazaar for the decorative: It becomes a place of discovery.

Edward S. Curtis, “Assiniboin Mother and Child” Portfolio Plate 632, (1926) copper photogravure printing plate, approximately 14 x 17 ½ inches, at Bruce Kapson Gallery
Edward S. Curtis, “Pulini and Koyami – Walpi” Volume 12 (1921) copper photogravure printing plate, 9 x 6 inches unframed, at Bruce Kapson Gallery
Lombard School, “A Set of Eight Profile Portraits of Roman Emperors” (ca. 1500) tempera on panel 56.5 x 42 cm, at Tomasso Brothers Fine Art
A collection of Central and South American mace heads at Colnaghi
Alessandro Magnasco, “Monks Warming Themselves at the Fire” (ca 1167–1749) oil on canvas 76.5 x 54 cm at Rob Smeets gallery
Jankel Adler, “The Artist” (1927) oil on canvas, 100.4 x 65 cm, at French and Company
William Degouve de Nuncques, “The Servants of Death (Nocturne)” (circa 1897) pastel on wove paper, 48 by 94.5 cm at Mireille Mosler
Pietro Annigoni, “A Mannequin in a Studio” (1947) at Agnews gallery
Heinrich Campendonk, “Mother with Child and Deer” (ca. 1913) at Richard Nagy Ltd

TEFAF continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 31.

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Thick Strokes of Paint Create Featureless Portraits in Abstracted Paintings by Joseph Lee

Los Angeles-based artist and actor Joseph Lee paints thickly layered portraits that mask the details and expressions of his subjects’ faces. His abstracted profiles sometimes reveal a subtle hint of an eye, nose, or ear between multi-colored brushstrokes, and are set against matte backgrounds to make each painting pop. Although the facial expressions are often hidden, the self-taught artist intends to bring emotions to each face through the turn of the head or the line of a jaw. You can see more of his impasto portraits on his website and Instagram.

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The Spiraling Logic of Paul Mogensen’s Paintings

Installation view, Paul Mogensen at Karma, New York (all images courtesy Karma)

In every interview with Paul Mogensen that I have read, he never fails to mention two biographical facts. The first is that he learned about artists such as Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin from the book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863 1922 (1962) by Camilla Gray; he goes on to explain that while he was attracted by what Rodchenko and Tatlin were up to, he was not interested in Kasimir Malevich. The second is that, growing up in Los Angeles, close to aircraft factories, he had a very strong math-science education.

I think Mogensen mentions these facts primarily because he wants to set his work apart from Minimalism and geometric abstraction, and establish that what he got from Russian Constructivism is different than what his peers got. The steps that he took in his work toward reduction, his elimination of what he felt was unnecessary, set him on a trajectory that shares little with the reductive impulses we associate with Minimalism and geometric abstraction. The most obvious difference is that he neither employs a grid in his paintings nor makes monochrome paintings on a single plane. His primary interest is not in reiterating the plane, but in activating it.

Installation view, Paul Mogensen at Karma, New York

These methods help account for a distinctive body of work that has never quite gotten the attention it merits. Perhaps the exhibition, Paul Mogensen, at Karma will confirm that what separates his work from that of his peers deserves to be more closely considered.

Mogensen does not make it easy for those with a historical bent to locate what he has done. He does not title, sign, or date his paintings. Instead, the work in the exhibition can be divided into three formal groups. In each, the placement of abstract shapes — rectangles and stripes — is generated by a system; a system is also used to determine the sequence of color used in paintings that had more than two hues.

Paul Mogensen, untitled (N.D.), oil on panel, 11 1/4 × 11 1/4 inches

One thing that all these systems share is a tendency toward movement: they encourage the eye to move around the canvas, sometimes in a spiral starting in the painting’s lower right-hand corner and following the painting’s edge in clockwise fashion until one reaches the largest shape in the composition. Or, you might start with the largest shape and your eye will go counter clockwise around the painting’s edge, until you arrive at the smallest shape tucked in the painting’s right-hand corner.

In the other groups of work, one’s attention moves from the painting’s left edge to its right one, as well as from the top edge to the bottom one. These actions are akin to scanning a flat area or screen to detect something, to find a pattern or a disruption.

Installation view, Paul Mogensen at Karma, New York

Three paintings in the exhibition, done in acrylic, measure 20 by 28 inches; a larger one, done in oil, measures 39 ½ by 56 ½ inches. The dimensions of the three smaller ones suggest a book that has been opened and laid flat, an association that is strengthened by the line segments of varying lengths spanning the paintings from the left to the right edge, recalling dots and dashes. In two of the smaller paintings, all the stripes are the same color, while in the third they are different colors.

Paul Mogensen, untitled (N.D.), oil on panel, 12 1/2 × 12 inches

In the two smaller paintings, seeing and reading are brought into close proximity. I was reminded of the artist’s book Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance) by Marcel Broodthaers, which was published in 1969. In that book, Broodthaers took Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of the same name, published in 1914, and replaced all the words with black stripes that corresponded exactly with the poem’s unusual typographic layout.

What is clear about Mallarmé’s poem, which Broodthaers further clarifies, is that no one knows how to read the poem. Something similar happens in these paintings. I felt like I was reading something that could not be read, and that it did not matter because the pleasure of looking superseded the act of deciphering.

Installation view, Paul Mogensen at Karma, New York

The initial realization that the painting is guided by a system leads to further curiosity. You begin trying to tease out the system or, if you cannot, you begin noticing the relationship between repetition and disruption. Kenneth Noland wanted to make paintings that you comprehend in an instant. Mogensen uses systems to explore different ways of seeing and looking. His interest in a spiral — something that closes in on itself as well as expands outward — reminds us that what can be seen exists beyond what we see.

At the same time, the colors he uses — which always come directly from the tube and are never mixed — do different things, depending on various factors. In a square red painting populated by a spiral of blue squares increasing in size, from the outer edge in, the effect is optical. Something different happens when he begins with a small red square in the upper right quadrant of a black painting, and proportionally increases their size as he articulates a row of four of them down the right side, along the bottom, defining a square made of 16 squares within a square. It is hard not to conclude that infinity is being invoked. At the same time, the use of mathematics suggests that infinity is not chaos. And still something else happens when the squares are pink and the ground is orange.

Paul Mogensen, untitled (N.D.), oil on canvas, 72 × 72 inches

Mogensen’s interest in forms such as the spiral and equations such as the Golden Section has led him into a territory that is recognizably his. An interest in light, movement, and mathematics are all part of his approach. By getting viewers to engage with the painting’s structure — to see how it is put together — he invites us to recognize that the world is made of interconnected structures, not surfaces.

Paul Mogensen continues at Karma (188 East 2nd Street, Manhattan) through November 4.

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Painting’s Patriarchal Spirit

Installation view, A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981–2018 at Almine Rech Gallery, London (image courtesy Almine Rech Gallery)

LONDON — In 1981, the Royal Academy of Arts in London put on an exhibition of 20th-century painting that changed the art world. A New Spirit in Painting was “a manifesto,” the accompanying catalogue said; it showcased a set of contemporary, mostly European painters, whose work possessed qualities — figurative, narrative, emotional, personal — that were being undervalued by the western art world the time. There were 38 artists from three generations on display: the grandfathers, such as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Roberto Matta, and Willem de Kooning; the fathers, including Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, and Lucian Freud; and the sons, who were less familiar names at the time, such as Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and Gerhard Richter.

Nearly 40 years later, one of the original curators, Norman Rosenthal, has revisited this seminal exhibition with A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981–2018, a two-part show spread across two of the Almine Rech Gallery’s spaces. Earlier this year a few paintings from the 1981 exhibition were on view in New York, comprising the Then portion. In London, currently, are more recent works (Now) made by the same artists.

Julian Schnabel, “Ascension IV” (2015) (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by Argenis Apolinario)

Some of the best paintings in the London show appear in the first room. Howard Hodgkin’s unassuming diptych “Hello and Goodbye” (2014–15) features two small wood panels joined side by side. On the left, a black arc — made from three thick, rough brushstrokes piled almost on top of each other — is painted on bare wood. On the right panel, which is slightly shorter in length, the arc is wider and green, and sits on a black background. With just a few lines and colors, Hodgkin suggests the sun rising and setting, or, perhaps, a timid greeting when you first meet someone, followed by a more heartfelt goodbye after getting to know them. (Rosenthal explained to me at the opening that he put Hodgkin in the Now show in London — instead of the Then show in New York — because he thinks that “Hodgkin’s greatest paintings are his last ones”.)

Francesco Clemente, “Tower of Song” (2017), oil on canvas (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by John Berens)

“Hello and Goodbye” hangs cleverly next to works that also focus on line-making. The shoulders, torso, knees, and head in Frank Auerbach’s portrait, “David Landau Seated” (2013–15), emerge with dark, angled brushstrokes from a sludge of pastel-colored paint. Haunting, hollow eyes and an expressionless face match the mask-like figure in Picasso’s “L’Homme au chapeau de paille” (1964), one of the exhibition’s only paintings not created in the past couple of decades, but included for its influence on the others. Picasso’s dashes and dots denote stubble on the man’s face and texture in his straw hat. His upper body is formed from bone shapes, as if we’re seeing through to his skeleton. A. R. Penck takes this pictographic style further in “Plato, Sokrates und Aristoteles – 6” (1996), which is made up of Keith Haring-esque bold black lines on an off-white background. Penck creates a compelling labyrinth of human bodies, faces, and eyes, along with circles, stars, and triangles. A huge figure, for example, slumps down the left-hand side of the canvas, with its legs stretching along the bottom; inside, are the silhouettes of three smaller bodies, all in the same position, sprouting eerily from each other. Less evocative among this group of paintings is “Vision des Poussin” (2012), a rural landscape by Markus Lüpertz; yet it has the same sunken eyes (here, they appear on the head of a Renaissance statue, positioned incongruously beneath the canopy of a tree), and swirling pencil lines peek out from under blocks of bright color.

Susan Rothenberg, “Pink Raven” (2012), oil on canvas, 62 3/4 x 48 inches (image courtesy the artist and Almine Rech Gallery, photo by James Hart)

A large black and brown painting by Georg Baselitz dominates the second room. Unlike his signature upside-down figurative work, “Wo ist die Haselnuß?,” completed in early 2018, is a chaotic mass of built-up and thinly-spread paint, contoured across the canvas with a wide palette knife. In a 1995 Artforum interview, Baselitz said that his art is informed by having been brought up in Germany after the Second World War: “I was born into a destroyed order, a destroyed landscape, a destroyed people, a destroyed society. And I didn’t want to re-establish an order: I had seen enough of so-called order. I was forced to question everything.” He takes this sentiment to an extreme in this new painting.

Biblical stories and the supernatural guide many of the other works in this room. “Ascension IV” (2015), an inkjet print modified with ink and spray paint by Julian Schnabel, is an aerial view — perhaps of the earth, the moon or a rock — obscured slightly by a purple haze; the result is like something out of a science-fiction film. Susan Rothenberg’s “Pink Raven” (2012) could be an illustration for Edgar Allan Poe. The scrawny, pinkish bird balances precariously on a green wire; one foot hooks on, while the other looks ready to lash out. Rothenberg has left faint marks next to the raven’s back, as though it is blurred in movement. And in “Samson” (1983), Maria Lassnig inverts the strength of her subject — clad in armor, pushing over an ionic column — by using a light-hearted palette of pale blues, pinks, yellows, and greens. Cartoon clouds and a V-shaped bird float in the left corner.

Installation view, A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981–2018 at Almine Rech Gallery, London (image courtesy Almine Rech Gallery)

Rothenberg and Lassnig are the only female artists in this show and none were included in the 1981 exhibition. “I did go to Lassnig’s studio back then,” Rosenthal admits, “but thought her work was too crude.” The art world “was white, male, small,” he says, adding, “We were all prisoners of this.” As I walked through the exhibition, however, I found myself wondering why, with this new perspective on female painters, Rosenthal didn’t take the opportunity to add in more — and to rewrite the history of painting, as he did 37 years ago. A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981–2018 is, nonetheless, a fascinating relic of a distant time.

A New Spirit Then, A New Spirit Now, 1981-2018, curated by Norman Rosenthal, continues at Almine Rech Gallery (Grosvenor Hill, Broadbent House, W1K 3JH, London, UK)  through November 17.

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