Eye on Art – 2018

My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express


Tennessee Williams, Troubled Genius


Sunday will be the 35th anniversary of the death, in 1983, of Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams, one of America’s greatest 20th century dramatists. His career is being celebrated in a revealing exhibition, “Tennessee Williams: No Refuge but Writing,” on view through May 13 at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan. It takes its title from a 1981 statement by the author, who wrote almost compulsively, as if it protected him from his demons. “I try to work every day,” he said, “because you have no refuge but writing.”

Tennessee Williams, Self-Portrait, undated (ca.1939). Oil on canvas. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Used with permission of George Borchardt, Inc.

In addition to his full-length and one-act plays, Williams wrote short stories, poetry, essays, screenplays, novels and a memoir, and kept a journal that he mined for ideas. As the exhibition shows, he often re-worked material, transferring characters and situations from one genre to another. He was also a visual artist, though his oil paintings and watercolors are, to put it generously, not up to the level of his writing, as you can see in his self-portrait from about 1939. The following year, his first staged production, “Battle of Angels,” closed in Boston after being panned by the critics. Four years later, however, “The Glass Menagerie,” with characters based on Williams’ controlling mother and schizophrenic sister, won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the season and his career was launched. For the next 20 years his plays dominated Broadway, earning him rave reviews, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Tony Award.

The show focuses on several of Williams’ most famous theatrical works, but it ranges widely across the literary and personal history of a complicated, driven, self-destructive genius whose own conflicts supplied his dramatic material. While he denied using specific autobiographical events, he acknowledged that his work reflected his emotional currents. Elia Kazan, who directed several of his plays, once remarked that “everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”

Here’s an example close to home. In 1957 Williams visited Larry Rivers in Southampton, and they went out to dinner at the Tucker Mill Inn, the former Claflin mansion on what is now the Stony Brook Southampton campus. The windmill on the grounds was used as a guesthouse, and Williams decided to rent it for the summer. While there, he began work on a one-act play, “The Day On Which A Man Dies,” loosely based on the character of Jackson Pollock, whom he knew from summers in Provincetown in the early 1940s. Pollock—another troubled, self-destructive genius—had died in a car crash the previous summer, and Williams, who had once tried to kill himself that way, considered the artist’s death to be a suicide. Using his own experience and psychic state as springboards, he eventually created a highly stylized drama about a suicidal painter, based on Noh form, a tradition to which he was introduced on a trip to Japan in 1959.

The play was set aside and remained unknown for decades, though Williams adapted some of the material for his 1969 production, “In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel,” which flopped on Broadway. After his death it was discovered among his literary effects, and was first staged in Chicago in 2008, after which the Pollock-Krasner House presented it at the Ross School, in conjunction with our 2009 Japanese Gutai exhibition. Its action, which includes full-body painting and the penetration of a paper wall, echoes the Gutai practices that were illustrated in the exhibition.

But “The Day On Which A Man Dies” is not one of the Williams works featured in the Morgan show, so why am I writing about it? The reason is the current production of “Pollock,” a one-acter by the French playwright Fabrice Melquiot, on through Sunday at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center. Having seen “Pollock” immediately after the Morgan show, I couldn’t help but compare it to Williams’ daring experimental drama, which supplements incisive dialogue with creatively manipulated color and movement to explore complex emotional territory. “Pollock,” on the other hand, is a cliché-ridden, one-dimensional portrait of his marriage to Lee Krasner, ninety minutes of foul-mouthed conflict with no nuances or ultimate resolution. Entire sections of dialogue are lifted almost verbatim, and without credit, from Naifeh and Smith’s Pollock biography. To sum it up, as a playwright Melquiot is to Williams as Williams the self-portrait painter is to Rembrandt.


David Hockney’s Progress           


To say that David Hockney has been around is putting it mildly. His peripatetic life and personal experiences in Europe, Asia, and the United States, where he has lived on an off for half a century, have been the sum and substance of his work since his days at London’s Royal College of Art. The chronicles of those public and private journeys are now on display in “David Hockney,” an exhibition that commemorates the artist’s 80th birthday, on view through February 25 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Misleadingly described in the Met’s media release as a major retrospective, the exhibition is far from a complete survey of Hockney’s long and illustrious career. It neglects his illustrated books and prints, such as A Rake’s Progress, his suite of 16 autobiographical etchings inspired by William Hogarth, which made a great stir in the early 1960s with its faux naïve style and explicit homoerotic content. It also ignores his theater décor. Nevertheless, it spans the full six decades of his work, from 1960-2017, and shows both his versatility and his virtuosity as a painter, draftsman, photographer and experimenter with visual technology.

David Hockney, A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 96″ (shaped). © David Hockney

Looking at Hockney’s colorful, decorative canvases of the past 20 years, especially his homages to the lush tropical garden and brightly painted woodwork of his home in the Hollywood Hills, it’s easy to forget how transgressive his early work was. The first gallery offers a sampling of paintings from his student days that illustrate his precocious sophistication. They include motifs from popular culture—proto Pop art, if you like—and graffiti, expressed in an idiom that synthesizes gestural abstraction and cartoon-like stylization. Witty renderings of consumer products, from a packet of his mum’s favorite Ty-Phoo tea, incongruously inhabited by a nude male figure, to Colgate toothpaste tubes as phallic symbols, the imaginative flights of fancy delve deep into the artist’s gay psyche. Homosexuality was not decriminalized in Britain until 1967, so such imagery was daring, not to say shocking, outside the hidden world of the gay subculture.

Hockney’s frank depictions of homosexual themes were to some degree made more palatable by the deliberately primitive way he rendered them. Simplified forms, flattened perspective and a crude drawing style made them seem somehow guileless, like the honesty of a child blurting out uncomfortable truths in public. In his California paintings from the following decade, for example, this approach gives his pictures of naked men showering or displaying themselves provocatively an emotional distance, a coolness that blunts their eroticism. Many of the later 1960s and ’70s canvases further explore this idea of detachment, especially the double portraits of intimates, who seem more apart than together. Others are literally composed of detached motifs, like Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians, a montage of images—or maybe imaginings is a better term—inspired by trips to the American Southwest and Switzerland.

If anyone thinks that Hockney’s reductive draftsmanship indicates a lack of skill, a wall of his drawings dispels that notion. He could draw like Ingres if he chose to, as we see in his sensitive character studies from life, including W.H. Auden, Andy Warhol, John Kasmin and the artist’s parents. Three of the drawings were made in 1999 with the aid of a camera lucida, an apparatus that reflects an image onto the surface on which the artist works. Hockney’s fascination with mechanical visual aids is well known. His admirable open-mindedness and curiosity has led to interesting experiments with various devices, such as the Polaroid camera and the iPad, both of which are represented here by successful examples. The camera lucida drawings, however, are failures, lacking the vitality and immediacy of his earlier, more spontaneous works on paper.

Unlike the titular character in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, Hockney has gone from strength to strength. From his early success as a leader of the generation of British artists whose brash irreverence was the visual-art counterpart of the Beatles, to his recent iPad drawings, shown as a three-panel animation that channels Matisse in the digital age, his powers of invention and adaptation seem inexhaustible. If some of his detours, like the silly so-called “V.N.” paintings and garish 1990s landscapes, have led him off course, he quickly gets back on track by returning to the California of his dreams and his reality. Yes, it’s eye candy, but how sweet it is.