Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Entry - 11.18.14

I turned 55 on my last birthday.  Birthdays generally are not a big deal for me, at least in the sense that I don’t get anxious or depressed about growing a year older.  Believe it or not, turning 20 was difficult for me because I felt that I was leaving childhood behind and embarking on a new life filled with adult responsibilities.  And based on my experiences, I can say that I was quite justified in being dismayed.  Being an adult is no bed of roses.  After that, it’s been pretty clear sailing until 55, a milestone year for me because, where I work, early retirement becomes a possibility at that age.   For many years now, I’ve looked ahead to the day when I would qualify for retirement, fully intending to immediately tender my resignation and begin a new life focused on creating art.  It appears that financial considerations are not going to let that happen… at least, not yet, but just confronting the possibility of retirement has gotten me thinking about a slew of issues.

I wonder what kind of shape I will be in when I eventually leave my job.  Right now, I feel that I’m in pretty good condition.  There’s a little gray in my beard, and I sometimes get frustrated at not being able to pull out of my head a commonly used word or a familiar name; but I remain relatively fit, able still to cross country ski or hike for hours in challenging terrain.  I would say, on the whole, I’m doing okay.

Considering my artistic production over my career, I would have to admit that I’ve never fully tapped into my potential.  There have been times in the past, particularly during my schooling, when I’ve worked my artistic “muscle” so thoroughly and consistently that significant progress was made nearly unconsciously.  I’ve recognized that, if I’d made such considerable headway while still addressing academic requirements and working part-time to pay for my schooling, having an extended period of pure artistic focus would certainly lead to some incredible results.  Whatever slow progress I’ve made in recent years is the result of sheer tenacity and the determined application of intellect (rather than intuition).  So I’m rather anxious to see if this anticipated late blossoming comes to fruition.

Luckily for me (and the world), I don’t want to be a professional athlete or a rock star, careers reserved for the very young.  Without a doubt, most artists produce their most important and challenging work while still relatively young.  The rule of thumb, I would say, is: the twenties are for erratic experimentation, the thirties see the mature results of that experimentation, the forties succumb to facile (and profitable) regurgitation of the achievements of the thirties and the fifties bear witness to an inevitable decline in abilities.  Not a very optimistic forecast for someone hoping to produce his best work post-55.  Is it realistic of me to expect that given favorable circumstances I will rise to the occasion?  Or will my skills and intellect so erode that even with steady, applied labor and focus I will be unable to accomplish much of anything?  This set my mind to thinking about how age impacted the careers of many successful artists.  How did other artist fare?

In my opinion, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of the most talented artists of the 20th century.  His mature work embodies the technical innovations of the Fauves while asserting a worldview in revolt against the conventions and morality of his age.  There is a depth, a seriousness, to his work.  I would say his approach was intuitive, and seldom did his intuitions fail him.  Matisse’s art is about art; Kirchner’s is about the world.

Mature Work - Kirchner - Marzella - 1909/10
Kirchner and his fellow Die Brücke members were most active and influential in the early 1900’s.  Even before the start of World War I, which was a cataclysmic event for them, this tightknit brotherhood of expressionist artists was already fracturing.  Kirchner was working more independently in Berlin, where he developed a crippling morphine addiction.  Being drafted into the army at the start of the war led to a complete breakdown, a military discharge, a stay in a sanitarium and, eventually, self-imposed exile in Switzerland.

During the last phase of his life, Kirchner became obsessed with his reputation, his standing in the art world, in his historic legacy.  He understood that Picasso and Matisse were universally accepted as the two giants of modernism and hungered for the recognition he felt he too deserved.  He changed the dates on his youthful work to make it seem that his innovations had come earlier.  To make his art appear more radical, he over-painted paintings completed decades ago, thereby, in my opinion, ruining them.  Under the pseudonym, Louis de Marsalle, he reviewed his own wok, providing the attention and praise that the critics were withholding.

Seeking to embrace the most contemporary vocabulary, he developed a cubist-inspired, abstract style that was ill-suited for his personal predilections and abilities.  The resulting paintings were unintuitive, cartoony, clumsy and plodding, having none of the spontaneous energy and innate grace of his mature work.  At the same time, the Nazis had declared his art “degenerate”, his work being removed from museums and confiscated from private collections.  What couldn’t be sold abroad was destroyed.  By 1938, Kirchner felt isolated and abandoned by the intellectual community; on his 58th birthday, he received not a single congratulatory communication, at that time a noteworthy break from protocol within German-speaking art circles.  That same year he committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart.

Late Work - Kirchner - Cafe in Davos - 1928

Late Work - Kirchner - The Rider - 1932
Artists regularly reevaluate their mature accomplishments later in life, often with disastrous consequences.  Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for instance, began to doubt the impressionist approach after seeing the classic work of great masters from the past while traveling in Italy in 1881.  Nearly a decade was devoted to painting in a style inspired, in particular, by the works of Raphael, Velazquez and Rubens, a mode or representation that stressed the precise outlines of forms and rejected the feathery brushwork that characterized his earlier work.  These paintings are awkward and cloying, poised uncomfortably between classicism and impressionism, lacking the restraint and austerity of his classical models while continuing to embrace the bright, saccharine palette preferred by the impressionists.

Mature Work - Renoir - La Promenade - 1870

Mature Work - Renoir - Path Through the High Grass - 1876/77

Late Work - Renoir - The Umbrellas - 1883

Late Work - Renoir - The Large Bathers - 1884/87

Renoir subsequently recognized that he was moving in the wrong direction and returned in his last years to an impressionist mode of painting.

Otto Dix, an influential member of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, wasn’t so lucky.  Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, a movement that reacted to the horrors of the First World War, rejected the optimism and utopianism that often characterized German Expressionism.  Dix and similarly minded artists like Christian Schad and George Grosz wanted to dissect their society and reveal the hypocrisy, depravity and greed that discredited the apparent comfort and security offered by social norms and long established institutions.  Dix painted capitalists, war cripples and prostitutes in a painstakingly detailed style that necessitated the application of paint to the canvas in numerous thin layers called glazes.  While reminiscent of the work of early northern artists like Van Eyck and Holbein, Dix’s paintings did not strive to present a convincing illusion of reality but relied on distortion and exaggeration to suggest a kind of hyper-realism, exposing more than just surface features.

Mature Work - Dix - Self-Portrait - 1912

Mature Work - Dix - Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden - 1926
Like Kirchner, Dix witnessed his work being labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis.  In 1939, he was even arrested and held for questioning for possible involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler in Munich.  But because his realist style seemed to be in accord with Nazi standards, Dix was permitted to continue painting.  Under the cloud of government supervision, Dix chose to withdraw inwardly, painting mainly landscapes, a subject matter not explored previously and one sure to prove acceptable to the censors.  These landscapes are magnificent, embodying a pervasive mood of melancholic nostalgia.

Mature Work - Dix - Randegg in the Snow with Ravens - 1935
After the war, Dix, free of restrictions, rejected his mature technique and embraced an expressionist mode of painting.  As he stated, “The painting has become more spontaneous, the lousy care one had to take with the constant application of the various coats of translucent paint is gone.”  Regrettably, Dix was not temperamentally suited to be a spontaneous expressionist, and the paintings of his last years are nearly all failures, coloristically unpleasant, straddling illusionist and expressionist approaches, never fully committing to a break with realism.

Late Work - Dix - Self-Portrait as a Prisoner of War - 1947

Late Work - Dix - The Resurrection - 1949
While Willem de Kooning never broke with an expressionist style of painting, his work did go through a radical change at the end of his life.  De Kooning lived to be nearly 93 years old and, throughout my youth and early adulthood, had represented for me a resilient relic of the glory days of abstract expressionism.  Other giants of the movement didn’t experience nearly comparable longevity.  His talent seemed limitless, and his work was just dazzling.  But, over the years, he imperceptibly withdrew from the art scene, and, by the 1980’s, one didn’t hear a lot about him anymore.  Then in early 1997, MOMA planned a de Kooning show featuring “The Late Paintings, The 1980’s”, which stirred up controversy since it was becoming known that advanced age and years of alcoholism had diminished the artist cognitively to the point of dementia.  I’m not sure how one measures such things, but it was generally accepted that 1987 was the cutoff year, the point at which his mental lapses became so acute as to impair his abilities.  The show presented work from 1981 through 1987, and the big question was: recognizing that de Kooning’s mature work was selling at record prices, were family and patrons attempting to reap great profit by foisting on the public the output of an artist clearly compromised, proposing that it represented a late flowering, one last stylistic innovation by an artist known for innovation?

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1984

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - 1985

Late Work - de Kooning - Untitled - ?
Being greatly interested in de Kooning’s work, I had looked forward to seeing this show, not knowing what to expect but sure that the painting s would be worth viewing.  Upon seeing the collection, I was disappointed.  The artist was clearly simplifying, most images being composed of a series of sweeping strokes of paint on bare white ground.  Most were constructed using only primary colors, making them bright and cheerful.  There’s no doubt in my mind that de Kooning had been considering Matisse’s last cut-outs, work that was produced when the artist triumphed over physical limitations to create an innovative and elemental new style.  While it’s evident from Matisse’s cut-outs that he is fully engaged and tapping into a lifetime of experience, the late work of de Kooning confirms the artist’s inevitable decline.  The brushwork is flat and unvaried, exhibiting none of the energy and spontaneity of his earlier work.  There is little nuance to these lines.  They are opaque and seldom vary in thickness.  There is no accidental splattering, dripping or smearing of paint, the hallmarks of action painting.  Each stroke has hard, defined edges, beginning with and ending in blunt stubs or tapered and onion-domed tips.  The lines fill voids on the canvas, often mechanically echoing the path of a preexisting line a foot or so away on the canvas.  I suspect that much of de Kooning’s mature abstract work started out similarly.  It appears to me that de Kooning didn’t make a choice not to take these further but instead found himself unable to chart a passage beyond these skeletal beginnings.  De Kooning died while the MOMA show was still on exhibit.

We’ve explored the work of artists either clearly experiencing physical decline in ability or undergoing late-in-life reevaluations of their mature oeuvres.  Particularly in artists who’ve enjoyed uncommon longevity, it’s probably more customary to see a gradual erosion of skills without a radical stylistic break with the work of the past.  For instance, Balthus continued in his later years to explore erotic themes, focused primarily on the female nude.  His mature work was usually composed of multiple layers of encrusted paint that reflected am organic construction – which continued with his later work, though the layering appears to be more mechanical and often obscures and conflicts with the imagery.  It’s not that the later work failed completely; it simply didn’t exhibit the conviction and purposefulness of his earlier work.  I should add that Balthus lived to be nearly 93 years old.

Mature Work - Balthus - Children - 1937

Late Work - Balthus - The Moth - 1960

Late Work - Balthus - The Cat in the Mirror - 1978
Lucian Freud, an artist I respect greatly, for many years showed no diminishment in his abilities as he aged.  After visiting a show of his latest paintings, I would walk away in awe of his mental acuity and unfathomable technical skills.  His work resulted from intense observation and hours of painstaking labor, far exceeding anything that I, his junior by half a century, could hope to match.  Visiting one of his late shows became akin to attending a boxing match featuring reigning champion, Lucian Freud, versus the able challenger, Age.  Every time you were sure he would retreat to his corner for good, Freud would leap to his feet at the sound of the bell, gloves up and ready to go on.  Into his eighties, the artist continued to produce paintings that matched the best of his mature work.  It was only in his last exhibition or two that I sadly noticed any weakening of his powers, the paintings becoming more generalized, no longer exhibiting the unfathomable focus and superhuman effort of his earlier work.  Don’t get me wrong.  I would still gladly hang in my home any work included in those last shows and unquestionably study it and learn from it years into the future, but it was evident that Freud had turned a corner.

Late Work - Freud - After Breakfast - 2001

Late Work - Freud - Irish Woman on a Bed - 2003/04

Late Work - Freud - Naked Portrait - 2004/05
Permit me to digress a moment to tell a story.  Back in 1975, when I was still in high school, an 85 year old artist in Kansas City was completing work on a commission that was awarded him a year before.  The artist had tackled this commission with energy and enthusiasm, creating a mural six by ten feet filled with over a dozen figures.  Before beginning, he made countless sketches and oil studies and created a plasticine model of the whole composition.  He used friends of his daughter and other local acquaintances as models for many of the figures and even traveled to the Ozarks to find authentic musicians willing to be portrayed in the final painting.  Exhaustively researching his imagery, he collected photographs of the specific train he felt would be appropriate to his motif.  Even for a young man this commission would have been a challenge, but this 85 year old had thrown himself totally into the project, completing the mural ahead of his anticipated schedule.  He had put his last strokes on the canvas the day before but was as yet unsure as to whether the painting would require a few final adjustments.  On January 19th, 1975, after having his dinner, he went out to his studio, informing his wife of his intention to sign the painting if he found that he was satisfied with it.  When he didn’t return to the house by 8:30 pm, his wife went out to the studio to see what had become of him.  She found him on the floor of the studio, immediately in front of his work.  He had died of a massive heart attack.  The painting remained unsigned.

Late Work - Benton - The Sources of Country Music - 1975
The artist was Thomas Hart Benton and the mural was The Sources of Country Music, in my estimation one of the artist’s finest works.  I have always appreciated this work for its complex, energetic composition unified by rhythms of strong diagonals and an overall sweeping, circular vortex of activity.  It seems a perfect summing up of many of the themes which Benton addressed throughout his life.  Every now and then I would use The Sources of Country Music as my work computer’s background, long before I knew the story behind its creation.  After learning how Benton had passed away upon completing one last great work, I couldn’t help but feel a little envious of him.  I mean are there any among us who wouldn’t want to go like that?

Rembrandt didn’t live to be particularly old.  He died when he was 63 years old.  In his youth, he had experienced great professional success, but his last years were defined by personal tragedy and financial instability.  By the time he was in his late 30’s, Rembrandt had seen three of his four children die in infancy and his wife, Saskia, succumb to tuberculosis.  Poor investments and living beyond his means led ultimately to serious financial hardship.  At 50, he was forced to sell off his own paintings and his collection of antiquities; four years later, his house and printing press were lost.  A relationship with his surviving son’s nurse ended poorly with Rembrandt being charged with breach of promise and forced to pay alimony.  A second relationship with his maid could never be legitimized or Rembrandt would lose control of a trust set up for his son.  Throughout these turbulent years, Rembrandt’s professional reputation was pretty solid and his paintings and etchings continued to sell.

Considering the quality and innovation inherent in his mature work, Rembrandt would have been remembered as a unique and influential artist regardless of his last decade of production.  But, amazingly, during his last ten years, despite suffering so many hardships, Rembrandt painted his most important works, a series of reflective self-portraits which changed the way the individual was represented in art.  Stylistically, Rembrandt had developed a more painterly approach, color being applied to the canvas loosely with individual strokes asserting their autonomy, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to infer the transitions.  These works are masterful, representing an artist at the height of his powers.  Rembrandt has pared down his approach to the minimum, ignoring distracting detail, only devoting attention to those areas most necessary to convey meaning.  And light is critical in these works.  For Rembrandt, light is a liquid substance which he pours over his subjects.  Unlike his earlier self-portraits in which he strives to flaunt his wealth and success, these late works present the artist as he was.  These works are dark and gloomy, usually illuminated by a hazy, atmospheric glow.  The artist wears dark clothing which melds with the shadows that envelope his figure.  The mass of his kinky, graying hair swirls around his broad, swollen face like a cluster of storm clouds.  His face, lined and pitted with age, covets the faint, glimmering light.  These portraits present a disillusioned man, sober and stoic, suffering the outrages and debasements of old age yet retaining a piercing mental sharpness undiminished by infirmity.  But rather than express self pity, his eyes seem to project empathy with his viewers, the countless generations of future centuries who will reexperience this cycle of growth and decline.  These late self-portraits truly represent the peak of Rembrandt’s career.  Quite an achievement for an aging man who has experienced professional setbacks and crushing personal losses.  My supposition is that during his last years it was solely his art that sustained him.

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1659

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1660

Late Work - Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - 1669
In conclusion, I must ask myself what my abbreviated survey has taught me.  It would be easy and reasonable to state that the results are too diverse to draw any justifiable conclusions, but, on the contrary, there are a few broad observations to be gleaned from my efforts.  For instance, substance abuse severely diminishes an artist’s chances of having a productive and impressive late career.  And, it’s a dangerous though enticing game to reevaluate a life’s work in one’s golden years, thereafter choosing a totally new path to follow.  A long life doesn’t necessarily ordain decline, but extreme longevity almost inevitably leads to a diminishment in skills and focus.  Genetics definitely play a big role here.  And that, let’s face it, is just a crap shoot.  There are a few shining examples of artists whose career paths have remained stable in their later years or even followed a trajectory of continued ascent, but that, without a doubt, doesn’t appear to be the norm.  So, considering my intention to devote my latter years to fully maturing as an artist, I would have to say that the odds are definitely not in my favor.  But I really have no choice but to give it a serious try.  And should I fail the alternative is not that horrific.  With my AARP card securely tucked away in my wallet, I foresee a rosy future of discount matinee movie showings and early-bird blue-plate specials at the local Red Lobster.

As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  I’d be particularly interested to hear of any other artists who enjoyed extremely long careers and whose output seemed to peak at the end.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at gerardwickham@gmail.com.

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