Brian Sewell: I don’t care what Clement Greenberg thinks about Arshile Gorky

In an article for today’s London Evening Standard titled Mother’s Boy art reviewer Brian Sewell discusses the new show at the Tate Modern, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. In a review that reveals far more about Sewell’s artistic preferences than the contents of the show, he states that Gorky, who escaped the Aremenian genocide as a young man by fleeing to New York, “was neither well-taught in the technical sense nor exposed to long traditions and established stimuli that could convert him from provincial fumlber into metropolitan genius.”

Basically, if you weren’t part of the European aristocracy, why bother? Stating that Gorky was “aware of Picasso, presumably from illustrated magazines rather than direct experience” shows the height of Sewell’s ignorance, as European modern art was frequently shown in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929, and private galleries were regularly showing cubist work during this era. I have a hard time believing a young painter living in the city at that time would not have sought out a single Picasso painting by the mid 1930s.  By 1937 a major show of twenty years worth of his paintings was on view at Jacques Seligman & Co., and in 1939 MoMA mounted a large retrospective of his work.

Sewell also goes to great lengths to criticise Gorky’s work as being derivative, going as far as calling his earlier canvases “dim-witted imitations.” I think the same could probably be said of the early work of many painters, and for a man his early twenties at the time I don’t think it’s unreasonable for his work to show the influence of the great painters of the day.

The review condescendingly goes on to say of his experience being promoted to mentor at the Grand Central School of Art “I suspect the school was less grand than its name suggests.” The school was an artists’ cooporative, and was run out of New York’s Grand Central Station for twenty years starting in 1924. Founded by John Singer Sargent (one of the finest portraitists of the early 20th century) and Daniel Chester French (sulptor of the Lincoln Memorial and designer of the Nobel Prize medal), students included as diverse a crowd as Norman Rockwell, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.

Gorky is given credit for his drawings in the review, but it certainly gets under Mr. Sewell’s skin that he is regarded as a painter in any way. In fact, he blantently says Gorky did not know what he was doing and credits his fame to the “jabberwocky-driven critic Clement Greenberg.” Sewell’s antagonism towards Greenberg leads him to dismiss the importance of the influence Gorky had on the art world of the 1940s and 1950s (including de Kooning and Jackson Pollack), which alone in itself makes Gorky’s work worthy of a major retrospective.

In his 1964 essay “The Myth of Originality in Contemporary Art”  in the Art Journal, David Hare writes:  “To my mind, Gorky became at the end of his life, far more original than the Abstract-Expressionists that followed him” and then goes on to say “Gorky’s was not as original as the work of Jackson Pollack, but much more interestingly so, since Gorky became original in the face of art history, which he loved.” This is key to understanding the importance of his work: he successfully negotiated his way out from under the weight of the baggage of pre-war art and created something that was almost unbelievably new. It is unfortunate that it took him a long time to do this, and that he departed from the world at the age of 44.

Arshile Gorky’s late work is amazing in the way it dissolves surrealist imagery into beautifully composed non-figurative gesture. I was transfixed by one of his finest works, “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” which I used to stare at on every visit to the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo where I grew up. I have no doubt you won’t regret that you “paid a tenner” (to use Mr. Sewell’s phrase) to see the show, I am very much looking forward to it myself.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb
The Liver is the Cock's Comb, by Arshile Gorky (1944); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY

The Work of Art in the Age of Outsourced Reproduction

On a recent trip to Montreal, the hotel room my wife and I booked was described as a “loft” and was likewise decorated with the requisite modern furniture and exposed brick walls. An offshoot of a very fine hotel located a few blocks away, our “loft” unit was comfortable and rather tastefully decorated. There were even original oil paintings on the walls, or so we initially thought.

After a few days in the room, something about the “artwork” didn’t sit quite right. It was all too homogeneous- the paintings in the bathroom (yes, above the toilet in a bathroom with no fan) and the ones above the bed and the desk all looked a bit too similar. We initially imagined that they had bought artwork from a local artist of limited creativity. My curiosity finally got the best of me, and I took one of the paintings off the wall and saw this:

Made in China hotel art, Model E-002
Made in China hotel art, Model E-002

Upon taking both the paintings in the bathroom off the wall, we discovered that they both held the same model number and were both “Made in China.” There was no artist’s signature, and they were clearly painted on a larger piece of canvas that was cut up and stretched over various wooden supports to create a number of smaller “artworks.”

The Artwork
The "Artwork"

I should not have been shocked. It’s not that I expect hotel rooms to have great art- they usually have some sort of sailboat or flower themed art above the beds that blends into the wallpaper. I think the shock in this particular example comes from the very fact that the hotel went to such great lengths to brand itself as hip, modern, and urban. By putting abstract oil paintings on thick stretcher bars in each room, it conveys the idea that it is some sort of “artist’s loft” that we had the good fortune to stay at for the week.

They got the image right, without actually having to spend time or money picking out the artwork. Similar to the “FCUK bodywash, Boconcept sofas, and Nespresso Citiz coffee machines” that Will Wiles mentions in his recent post titled Urbanism Sells, this mass-produced art tells guests that they are not staying at the Holiday Inn- they are having a hip and edgy time in a renovated loft.

When I returned home and started to look for this type of mass-produced art online, I quickly realized it was everywhere. You can easily by a large oil painting to hang over your sofa for $40 from places like Stock Oil Paintings, which is actually Shenzhen Fine Art Co., LTD. On the “about us” page they make no pretense of being a broker for Chinese artists, rather they describe themselves as “a professional manufacturer of oil paintings, sculptures, frames and other art crafts.” You can choose by style, color, or artist. Artist, of course, not meaning the person that actually painted it, but rather a knock-off of a famous artist. Want a copy (in oil) of a Modigliani for over your bathtub but you only have $52? You’re in luck.

As I scrolled through the various pieces of bargain-basement Chinese factory-made art, I came across an “Andy Warhol” for only $88! The irony of purchasing a copy of a copied painting made by one of Andy Warhol’s assistants in his original Factory that has been produced in an actual factory in China would not be lost on Warhol himself, I’m sure.

Factory Made Warhol
Factory Made Warhol

I really wanted to believe that there would always be a market for local artwork at places like boutique hotels- it seems we are told time and time again that the creative people are the ones who’s jobs can’t be outsourced-this is the type of theory advanced by Richard Florida in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class” (who’s also recently come under fire from the left in Toronto for being an elitist) and by many others who want to imagine we can ship all the unpleasant jobs off to China and keep the creative ones for ourselves.

The sad truth is that artwork, to most people, is something you hang on the wall that doesn’t clash with the furniture. The hotel’s interior designer saw no reason to buy oil paintings from working artists when a factory in China can crank them out for $40 or less each and they basically become disposable pieces of decor. You don’t have to actually be hip, or edgy, or an artist- not when you can buy into the image online for half the price of a week’s groceries.

William Kentridge, J. Mayer H., and Simon Ungers at SFMoMA

There is a lot going on at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art right now, here’s a brief synopsis of a few of the shows.

The William Kentridge show on the 4th floor was great, but I would probably have to budget most of a day to really see all of the work. Much of it is in video format and requires a substantial amount of time to watch. Unfortunately, his Drawings for Projection series were being shown in the smallest room with a very limited amount of seating. Had the accommodations been better, I probably would have watched the full cycle of these films during today’s visit. The large number of original drawings that accompanied all of the video work was well-presented and helped me to appreciate his process as I had only seen his work in video format in the past.

I was looking forward to J. Mayer H. architecture exhibition mostly because I hadn’t been to an architecture exhibit at SFMoMA in a while and I thought this was going to be a real show. Unfortunately, it was an installation that consisted of kiosks  with TV screens mounted in them showing a variety of patterns. I know, I know- Mayer is inspired by patterns (hence the show’s title “Patterns of Speculation”). There are also videos projected on the walls showing images of renderings (wait, can you have an “image of a rendering”?) and built work. There are no drawings, and there is no information telling you what you’re looking at, and there is nothing about the process of how patterns of numbers translate into buildings.  If you have no attention span and low expectations, you’ll be satisfied. After seeing the breadth of the Kentridge exhibit on the top floor it was a little hard to take this “show” seriously considering it would fit in my apartment with lots of room to spare. Maybe this is a sign that I’m too old-fashioned.

Simon Ungers, Silent Architecture (Library rendering), 2003-2004. Inkjet print on paper mounted on Fortex
Simon Ungers, Silent Architecture (Library rendering), 2003-2004. Inkjet print on paper mounted on Fortex, Photo from SFMoMA

The next room is filled with intriguing rusted steel models of theoretical projects (Library, Theater, Museum and Cathedral) by the late Simon Ungers. Apparently influenced by Ledoux and minimalist sculpture (think Donald Judd + Richard Serra), each model is for a particular building type  is made up of idealized forms. Each piece is on a custom wood base with an accompanying drawing on the wall behind it. While the work is a bit outside my normal architectural intersts, it’s an interesting show from a practitioner who built few buildings before an untimely death.

Topiary Dinosaurs & The Museum of Jurassic Technology

Santa Monica Topiary Dinosaurs, proudly guarding the Promenade.

Yes, even Los Angeles has dinosaurs. Of course, they are made out of shrubs and shoot water from their mouths while people casually eat frozen yogurt and shop at an outdoor mall. This is one of the many highlights of last weekend’s trip.

Museum of Jurassic TechnologyAnother highlight of the trip was visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I’m sure many of you have heard of it by now. It’s a museum that is really more of a conceptual art project. While it projects the trappings of an “official” museum, you never quite know whether the things on display are real or not. You also never really know why they are on display, as much of what’s in the museum looks either obscure, insignificant or both. Long story short, I can’t describe it well enough to do it justice. If you are passing through Culver City, give yourself at least an hour and a half to see the displays and more than that if you want to read everything (actually you would need a whole day for that).

Barking Man in a Dog's Head One of the displays featured this glass case with a dog’s head inside. Through a series of prisms, the image of a man fidgeting in a chair and barking is projected into space so that when you look into the case, he appears to be in the dog’s head. Then he starts barking. It’s priceless, and this one exhibit is worth the price of admission alone.

Timothy Hutchings @ i-20 & Richard Serra @ MoMA

Timothy Hutchings: The World's Largest Wargaming Table

Timothy Hutchings: The World’s Largest Wargaming Table – The World’s Largest Wargaming Table, June 27-August 11, 2007 (Photo:Cary Whittier, courtesy of

In response to my last post, Renu asked about the Richard Serra show in New York. I’ll get to that, but first I thought I’d mention another show that you probably haven’t heard about. Timothy Hutchings, better known for his film work, has an installation up at i-20 on West 23rd St. that fills the entire gallery.

Taking the idea of a wargame- a table game with clear rules played with miniature soldiers- to a ridiculous extreme (400 square feet) arranged as a seemingly never-ending playing surface, Hutchings’ installation creates a bizarre alternate universe where war has a clear trajectory and defined rules. The installation is installed so the the viewer is literally marginalized and at times has to walk in very narrow spaces created next to the walls.

serra installation

Richard Serra installation photo from

As for the Richard Serra show, the most accurate word to describe it is “BIG.” When I first saw the Torqued Ellipses in New York in the late 90s I was amazed at the size, and there were only a few pieces on display at the Gagosian Gallery.

While it was nice to see the variety in Serra’s output over the years (many older works were on the top floor), it was almost gratuitous to have all the new large-scale pieces on display together. Sequence, the one piece you literally could lost in, was great but the other ones (the toruses in particular) almost seemed boring in comparison. To see images of these works, there is a great online exhibit at MoMA’s site.

Natasha and I did not make it to the roof, as it started raining while we were there and the security guards all started freaking out and made everyone go inside. They also made everyone throw out their snacks that many people had just purchased minutes earlier (luckily we were almost done with our gelato). There was a Serra piece in the sculpture garden that we saw very briefly as we were being ushered back inside the building.

If you start at the bottom of the museum and work your way up, you end up seeing Serra’s oldest work last. It looked more fresh than much of the newer stuff- it is conceptually richer and less dependent on scale to make an impression. You can’t walk through it, but it definitely has the same weight.