Jed Perl

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jed Perl

Ob­ses­sion: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Pi­casso from the Scofield Thayer Col­lec­tion an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer, New York City

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Sabine Re­wald and James Dempsey

The Psy­chol­ogy of an Art Writer by Ver­non Lee

Ob­ses­sion:

Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Pi­casso from the Scofield

Thayer Col­lec­tion an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer,

New York City, July 3–Oc­to­ber 7, 2018. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by

Sabine Re­wald and James Dempsey. Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art,

132 pp., $25.00

(dis­trib­uted by Yale Uni­ver­sity Press)

The Psy­chol­ogy of an Art Writer by Ver­non Lee.

David Zwirner, 135 pp., $12.95 (pa­per)

The English writer Clive Bell called it “sig­nif­i­cant form.” Later gen­er­a­tions of artists, crit­ics, and his­to­ri­ans, re­ject­ing Bell’s el­e­gant coinage, fa­vored “for­mal­ism,” a more clin­i­cal term for more clin­i­cal times. What­ever the nomen­cla­ture, a con­vic­tion that the power of the visual arts is grounded in lines, shapes, col­ors, and com­po­si­tions rather than in rep­re­sen­ta­tions, sym­bols, and nar­ra­tives held sway for more than a hun­dred years, be­gin­ning in the days of Wal­ter Pater and Os­car Wilde. By the time the critic Cle­ment Green­berg’s rep­u­ta­tion was at its zenith in the 1960s, for­mal­ism was seen by many as an ide­o­log­i­cal fortress; at times it might be em­bat­tled but ul­ti­mately it was im­preg­nable. If for­mal­ism was si­lenced in Stalin’s Rus­sia, it would be re­newed in the anti-Stal­in­ist avant-garde cir­cles of New York. But fortresses, even ide­o­log­i­cal fortresses, only last so long.

For­mal­ism be­gan as an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of fun­da­men­tal artis­tic and even ar­ti­sanal prin­ci­ples; its pro­po­nents be­lieved it would ul­ti­mately bridge classes, cul­tures, and cen­turies. The time has come to re­visit the old for­mal­ist faith. We can glimpse bits and pieces of that open-ended and gen­er­ous-hearted spirit in a new book and a new ex­hi­bi­tion. The Psy­chol­ogy of an Art Writer is a small col­lec­tion of writ­ings by the English fin-de-siè­cle es­say­ist Ver­non Lee, who spent most of her life in Italy and thought deeply about the for­mal­ist the­o­ries then evolv­ing all over Europe. “Ob­ses­sion: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Pi­casso from the Scofield Thayer Col­lec­tion,” an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer or­ga­nized by Sabine Re­wald, pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity both to linger over some un­abashedly erotic works by three modern masters and to ex­plore the life and thought of Scofield Thayer. He was a wealthy Amer­i­can who— along with his part­ner, James Si­b­ley Wat­son Jr.—not only bankrolled but also guided the great days of The Dial, a mag­a­zine that was a bea­con of mod­ernist ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, with Mar­i­anne Moore for a time the edi­tor and Ezra Pound a sig­nif­i­cant ad­viser.

There is a para­dox at the heart of for­mal­ism, one that we must con­front be­fore we can even be­gin to con­sider its rich and var­ied his­tory. All visual art, even art that sets out to defy or con­found the ex­pe­ri­ence of the eye, is fun­da­men­tally a mat­ter of form. Mar­cel Duchamp, who early in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury be­gan to des­ig­nate cer­tain com­mer­cially made ob­jects as Ready­mades, must have known that he was launch­ing an as­sault on good old­fash­ioned aes­theti­cism when he forced artists and crit­ics to ad­mit that even an­tifor­mal­ism was a kind of for­mal­ism. Al­though Duchamp said that he had ini­tially se­lected his Ready­mades—a bi­cy­cle wheel, a bot­tle rack, a uri­nal, a snow shovel—for their “visual in­dif­fer­ence,” soon enough they were be­ing re­garded as forms that were any­thing but plain and sim­ple. In 1951 the painter Robert Mother­well went so far as to de­clare Duchamp’s Bot­tle Rack “a more beau­ti­ful form than al­most any­thing made, in 1914, as sculp­ture.”

But if visual in­dif­fer­ence can in­spire visual de­light, then where does that leave for­mal val­ues? Duchamp was among the very first peo­ple to ask that ques­tion. By now, it seems ev­ery­body is ask­ing. In our any­thing goes era, some ar­gue that for­mal val­ues are what­ever any­body says they are. The col­lapse of dis­tinc­tions makes it all the more im­por­tant to es­tab­lish what the dis­tinc­tions were in the first place.

Many pow­er­ful voices in the con­tem­po­rary art world have re­jected art-as-art, an old ral­ly­ing cry that some avant-gardists saw as a bul­wark against philis­tin­ism, in fa­vor of ar­tas-pol­i­tics, an­other old idea, but one that has fresh ur­gency in the Age of

Trump. Like all visual art, po­lit­i­cal art has its forms, even if they some­times amount to lit­tle more than forms of de­liv­ery. Adrian Piper, whose so­cially and po­lit­i­cally ori­ented work was the sub­ject of a re­cent ret­ro­spec­tive at the Mu­seum of Modern Art,* was join­ing this tan­gled con­ver­sa­tion way back in 1971, when she an­nounced, “I can no longer see dis­crete forms or ob­jects in art as vi­able re­flec­tions or ex­pres­sions of what seems to me to be go­ing on in this so­ci­ety.”

In Piper’s work—much of it textdriven, pho­to­graphic, and monochro­matic—what many have re­garded as art’s pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity to fill the eye is re­jected in fa­vor of art as some­thing like an X-ray ma­chine gen­er­at­ing reams of so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal data. There is no ques­tion that Piper’s work has its forms. Like a num­ber of widely ad­mired con­tem­po­rary artists—Bruce Nau­man and Isa Gen­zken come to mind—Piper is for­mally pro­mis­cu­ous. She has pro­duced paint­ings, draw­ings, pho­to­graphs, type­scripts, col­lages, screen­prints, per­for­mances, videos, and in­stal­la­tions. What some may de­scribe as her style­less­ness, others will em­brace as a new kind of stylis­tic het­ero­gene­ity.

Piper turns for­mal mat­ters into util­i­tar­ian mat­ters. That may well be her in­ten­tion. She is cer­tainly not alone. The dan­ger here, as I see it, is that for­mal­ism be­comes noth­ing more than a means

*“Adrian Piper: A Syn­the­sis of In­tu­itions, 1965–2016,” March 31–July 22, 2018; cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Christophe Cherix, Cor­nelia But­ler, and David Platzker (Mu­seum of Modern Art, 2018). of visual de­liv­ery—a ques­tion of how to il­lus­trate, pro­mote, or brand some par­tic­u­lar story or idea. What is get­ting lost is the sense that for­mal val­ues have an in­her­ent emo­tional, sym­bolic, or moral weight. A per­fectly nat­u­ral hu­man ap­petite for fresh sub­ject mat­ter—it can be po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, or sex­ual—can all too eas­ily over­whelm a sen­si­tiv­ity to the nu­ances of for­mal ex­pe­ri­ence that is wo­ven into the fab­ric of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, not only in modern times but in all times. The il­lus­tra­tions in Clive Bell’s book Art, first pub­lished in 1913, in­clude a pray­ing fig­ure from fifth-cen­tury China, a pos­si­bly eleventh-cen­tury Per­sian dish, and a sixth-cen­tury Byzan­tine mo­saic from Ravenna, all of which Bell re­garded as ex­am­ples of “sig­nif­i­cant form.” Bell’s idea—which was rad­i­cal then and re­mains rad­i­cal to­day—was that the sub­ject didn’t mat­ter. What mat­tered was how shapes, col­ors, and com­po­si­tions were joined to ex­press in­ef­fa­ble feel­ing. The ar­gu­ment that for­mal val­ues are time­less, uni­ver­sal val­ues is rooted in the same tra­di­tions of philo­soph­i­cal ide­al­ism that cel­e­brate free­dom as a uni­ver­sal value. If for­mal­ism is em­bat­tled to­day it is in part be­cause uni­ver­sal­ism is more gen­er­ally be­ing ques­tioned, by thinkers on the left as well as the right. Con­sid­er­a­tions of the arts are gripped by the same strug­gles be­tween the de­mands of the uni­ver­sal and the par­tic­u­lar that pre­oc­cupy any­body in­volved with se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions of race, gen­der, im­mi­gra­tion, and any num­ber of other topics. How­ever amor­phous uni­ver­sal val­ues may some­times seem, to jet­ti­son them risks turn­ing par­tic­u­lars into predilec­tions or, worse, mere prej­u­dices. Both Ver­non Lee and Scofield Thayer were prod­ucts of a time when uni­ver­sal val­ues re­mained a bul­wark.

The

Psy­chol­ogy of an Art Writer is a small book that gives only the tini­est frag­ment of the enor­mous body of work that Ver­non Lee—the pen name of Vi­o­let Paget—pro­duced in the packed decades of a life that spanned coun­tries and cen­turies; she was seventy-eight when she died in 1935. She grew up in a some­what bo­hemian and itin­er­ant English fam­ily; her mother, twice mar­ried, set­tled near Florence with Vi­o­let and her half-brother, Eu­gene, in a house Vi­o­let lived in for the rest of her life. She took an in­ter­est in the mu­si­cal as well as the visual arts and pro­duced fic­tion as well as non­fic­tion that ranged from travel writ­ings to aes­thetic the­ory. She was a les­bian, with a num­ber of pas­sion­ate at­tach­ments and a fol­low­ing among a group of young women. Her friends in the ex­pa­tri­ate world of the late nine­teenth and early twen­ti­eth

cen­turies in­cluded at one time or an­other Wal­ter Pater, Henry James, and Bernard Beren­son. In 1881 John Singer Sar­gent—whom she knew from child­hood, when their fam­i­lies were fairly close—painted an in­vig­o­rat­ing por­trait of her. You feel a sharp, alert en­ergy in her flash­ing eyes, partly open lips, and short, ca­su­ally cropped hair.

The Psy­chol­ogy of an Art Writer con­sists of an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal text in which Lee ex­plores the ba­sis of her view of aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence, fol­lowed by a se­ries of very spe­cific re­flec­tions on paint­ings and sculp­tures. What oc­cu­pies her at­ten­tion as she moves through the Uf­fizi in Florence and the Capi­to­line and Vat­i­can mu­se­ums in Rome are works of an­cient and Re­nais­sance art, many well known. What’s strik­ing about Lee’s writ­ing here is the open­ness and what one might al­most de­scribe as the naked­ness with which she em­braces the mul­ti­ply­ing sen­sa­tions and ap­pre­hen­sions that shape her ex­pe­ri­ence. We are far from the schematic dis­cus­sions of the re­la­tions be­tween form and con­tent that be­came pop­u­lar in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury and that the art his­to­rian Yve-Alain Bois has char­ac­ter­ized as “the old meta­phys­i­cal op­po­si­tion.”

For Lee the ex­pe­ri­ence of a work of art is al­ways dy­namic. What counts is not only “the di­rect per­cept of a form as such,” but also “its interpretation in terms of what it’s meant to rep­re­sent” and “emo­tional qual­i­ties in­her­ent in per­ceiv­ing the form or tied to it by as­so­ci­a­tion.” For Lee, for­mal val­ues— al­though they don’t eclipse all others, as they will for some later crit­ics— def­i­nitely de­mand spe­cial at­ten­tion. She ex­plains that “the long and short of all this is that nor­mally, when we look at a pic­ture or statue, we think the sub­ject, and feel the form, and ex­press the first in rich and var­ied lan­guage in­tel­li­gi­ble to every­one, while we only in­di­cate the ef­fect of the other on us in vague terms not much more than trans­la­tions of ges­tures.” She wants to deepen our un­der­stand­ing of those feel­ings while avoid­ing cut-and-dried pre­scrip­tions.

Lee owes much to Pater, who in his ex­tra­or­di­nary es­says on Leonardo, Gior­gione, and other Re­nais­sance masters tends to down­play older con­cerns with nar­ra­tive and sym­bolic con­tent in fa­vor of a vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence gen­er­ated by his re­sponses to lines, forms, col­ors, and the way the artist, through the work­ing of hand and eye, forges a po­etic whole. What makes Lee’s writ­ings es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing for us now is that un­like Pater, who pro­duces a sen­su­ous lit­er­ary ef­fect so seam­less as to con­found dis­sec­tion, Lee in­vites us to linger over her own con­flict­ing im­pulses and im­pres­sions. She is by no means inat­ten­tive to sub­ject mat­ter and the “pa­rade of as­so­ci­a­tions” it gen­er­ates. She won­ders, look­ing at a sculp­ture by the neo­clas­si­cal mas­ter Canova, why “works of art that re­pro­duce ex­cep­tion­ally per­fect anatom­i­cal forms...can still seem banal and even triv­ial.” She grap­ples with the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of dis­lik­ing the sub­ject of a painting but nev­er­the­less find­ing her­self caught up in the painting’s po­etry. The vis­ceral, phys­i­cal re­ac­tions gen­er­ated by works of art are one of Lee’s great in­ter­ests. She com­ments on how in a clas­si­cal Greek fig­ure sculp­ture “the ar­range­ment of planes” has an im­pact that acts “in­de­pen­dently of its anatom­i­cal struc­ture.” And of an un­fin­ished Leonardo, she ob­serves that the fig­ures “bal­ance each other like the lines of a Gothic win­dow” and “the to­tal ef­fect is very Gothic: ex­cit­ing, lu­cid, in­ter­est­ing and yet hold­ing one,” cre­at­ing “a com­plex whole.” She is fas­ci­nated and some­times even be­wil­dered by the psy­cho­log­i­cal power of cer­tain works of art. She sug­gests that a visual im­pres­sion—the sense of move­ment in a work of art, for ex­am­ple—can trig­ger an al­most phys­i­cal re­sponse, per­haps a tight­en­ing or flex­ing of the mus­cles, which in turn moves the mind in un­ex­pected di­rec­tions.

What stands out, read­ing Ver­non Lee more than a hun­dred years af­ter she wrote these words, is how rest­lessly she ne­go­ti­ated what she ob­vi­ously be­lieved to be the fluid bound­aries be­tween form and con­tent. The work of art en­gages ev­ery part of her, in ways that re­main un­pre­dictable, sub­ject to con­stant change. She is cer­tainly not alone in this quest­ing, ques­tion­ing spirit; her think­ing owes much to Kant and the Ger­man Ro­man­tics and the sculp­tor Adolf von Hilde­brand’s The Prob­lem of Form in Painting and Sculp­ture, first pub­lished in 1893. For me the im­por­tance of her voice is as a re­minder of how por­ous mod­ernist think­ing re­ally was in its early decades and gen­er­a­tions.

Scofield Thayer, whose col­lec­tion of erotic draw­ings is only part of a large be­quest he left to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, made his mark as an im­pre­sario of mod­ernism in the years just af­ter

World War I, when Ver­non Lee’s star had al­ready faded. Al­yse Gre­gory, who was for a time the man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Dial and a friend and per­haps a lover, de­scribed Thayer as “slen­der of build, swift of move­ment, al­ways strik­ingly pale, with coal-black hair, black eyes veiled and flash­ing, and lips that curved like those of Lord Byron.” He was a pas­sion­ate man whose pur­suit of art and lit­er­a­ture was matched by his erotic ad­ven­tures. He was also a trou­bled spirit who un­der­went psy­cho­anal­y­sis with Freud in the early 1920s but in the mid-1920s had a break­down from which he never re­cov­ered. When he died in 1982 at the age of ninety-two, he had been out of the pub­lic eye and in and out of men­tal in­sti­tu­tions for more than half a cen­tury. Pur­chased for what now seem ex­traor­di­nar­ily small sums of money on some rather fran­tic visits to gal­leries in Europe, the draw­ings now at the Met Breuer re­flect the in­ter­ests of a sen­su­al­ist whose pri­vate pa­pers in­clude a pho­to­graph of a naked Louise Bryant, who had been mar­ried to the Com­mu­nist John Reed and in 1920, the year Reed died, had an af­fair with Thayer.

The sev­eral dozen draw­ings of the fe­male nude that Thayer left to the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art range from some of Gus­tav Klimt’s and Egon Schiele’s reck­lessly erotic stud­ies to a group of Pi­cas­sos in which the neo­clas­si­cal line sug­gests not cool­ness but banked heat. These draw­ings, es­pe­cially the Klimts and Schieles, are works that it would be ridicu­lous to even at­tempt to treat as if form could be de­tached from con­tent. When a male artist gives this kind of un­di­vided at­ten­tion to a fe­male model’s gen­i­talia, crit­ics who speak of the qual­ity of the line risk turn­ing con­nois­seur­ship into a joke. But it must be said that what makes it pos­si­ble, at least some of the time, for Klimt and Schiele to avoid porno­graphic sen­ti­men­tal­ism or sen­sa­tion­al­ism is pre­cisely the blunt, even knock­about el­e­gance of their lines. The line is what pow­ers these of­ten un­nerv­ingly forth­right sex­ual im­ages. Klimt and Schiele per­form graphic high-wire acts, which leave me feel­ing that the artist is, if not any­where near as ex­posed as the model, ex­posed none­the­less. Some sim­i­lar process is at work in the sin­gle painting in the show, Pi­casso’s early Erotic Scene (1902–1903). Here the young artist is get­ting a blow job from a long-haired young woman, and the rough­hewn painterly in­for­mal­ity turns a sub­ject out of an old porno­graphic post­card into an un­for­get­table im­age of youth­ful self-re­al­iza­tion. Thayer re­mains an elu­sive fig­ure, de­spite an ad­mirable bi­og­ra­phy, The Tor­tured Life of Scofield Thayer, by James Dempsey (who also con­trib­uted to the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log). He pub­lished a few dozen rather strik­ing poems (Dempsey quotes from them ex­ten­sively in his bi­og­ra­phy) and there is a con­sid­er­able cor­re­spon­dence, much if not most of it in­volv­ing fi­nan­cial mat­ters that range from pur­chases of art to the op­er­a­tions of The Dial. When Thayer wrote about aes­thetic mat­ters in The Dial, my im­pres­sion is that his fo­cus was gen­er­ally on the lit­er­ary rather than the visual arts; he was among those who be­lieved that Joyce was a stronger writer in Dublin­ers than in the later elab­o­ra­tions of Ulysses.

Thayer nur­tured a skep­ti­cism about in­sti­tu­tions not un­ex­pected in an avant-gardist of his time; he once wrote that “mu­se­ums like Mino­taurs de­vour the fairest of mankind.” Art in­volved ex­pe­ri­ences that were too com­plex and elu­sive to be mea­sured by any sin­gle stan­dard. “Beauty is not in the eye of the be­holder,” Thayer wrote. “Nei­ther is it in the work of art—these are but the flint and tin­der, which, be­ing brought to­gether, give the spark called beauty. As there is no sound when a tree falls if there be not present an ear, so there is not beauty un­less some soul ob­serve the ob­ject.” Beauty, Thayer seems to be ar­gu­ing, isn’t en­tirely ob­jec­tive, but it isn’t en­tirely sub­jec­tive, ei­ther. The sig­nif­i­cance of sig­nif­i­cant form lies some­where be­tween the two; the form of the ob­ject is the tin­der that sparks the ex­pe­ri­ence.

In con­sid­er­ing Thayer’s sen­si­bil­ity, it may be use­ful to look at some of Ezra Pound’s thoughts about for­mal val­ues, for the two of them were in di­a­logue in the years af­ter World War I when The Dial was in its hey­day. Writ­ing in the mag­a­zine The New Age about a por­trait of three women by Matisse, Pound ar­gued that “the con­tender for ‘pure form’ and for ‘forms in re­la­tion’” ought not be “stumped” by what in this in­stance was a rel­a­tively nat­u­ral­is­tic and there­fore (at least by Matisse’s avant-garde stan­dards) tra­di­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tional work. Pound was es­pe­cially at­ten­tive to the women’s eyes in the painting. Al­though “the geo­met­ric means” weren’t com­pli­cated, he ar­gued that “like all sim­ple means used by an artist, the artis­tic depth, as in con­trast to the math­e­mat­i­cal plain­ness, is due to great sub­tlety in the use, ergo, to great sen­si­tive­ness in the user; and, in the end, sen­si­tive­ness plus ex­pe­ri­ence and per­se­ver­ance is great knowl­edge.” Pound em­pha­sized the ele­men­tal form of the eyes Matisse painted: “the geo­met­ric means is no more than the re­la­tion of a disc to the two con­cave curves above and be­low it, tan­gent or al­most tan­gent to the disc.” But the “sim­ple means” gen­er­ated “great sub­tlety” and “artis­tic depth”—and thus a psy­cho­log­i­cal power. There was a rich­ness, maybe even a messi­ness, about aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence as it was de­scribed by a con­sid­er­able va­ri­ety of writ­ers in the years when mod­ernism was still young. All too much of that was lost as for­mal­ism hard­ened into the­ory.

Writ­ing to Ver­non Lee in 1885 about her novel Miss Brown, Henry James said, “Cool first—write af­ter­wards. Moral­ity is hot—but art is icy!” Miss Brown is by most es­ti­mates not a great suc­cess, and James, to whom it was ded­i­cated, had waited some time be­fore writ­ing to Lee about what he felt to be her ex­ag­ger­ated car­i­ca­ture of the bo­hemian art world of late-nine­teen­th­cen­tury Lon­don. But his re­mark, though not ad­dressed to Lee’s writ­ings on aes­thet­ics, seems to me to res­onate pow­er­fully in our present mo­ment,

when for­mal­ism is in re­treat if not in mor­tal peril.

In the arts there is a grow­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with what James would have re­garded as the hot topics: mat­ters of moral­ity and moral jus­tice. In the mu­se­ums and the me­dia we hear more than ever be­fore about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the mu­seum and the wider com­mu­nity and the need to ad­e­quately rep­re­sent the var­ied in­ter­ests and pri­or­i­ties of a plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety. By ti­tling the ex­hi­bi­tion of Thayer’s draw­ings “Ob­ses­sion,” the cu­ra­tors at the Met Breuer have made it clear that they have a hot topic on their hands. Here we have draw­ing af­ter draw­ing in which the artist, who is a man, gazes at the most pri­vate places of a woman’s body. But there is also a good deal of what James would call ice in the draw­ings of Klimt, Schiele, and Pi­casso. I am re­fer­ring to the ice of style and styl­iza­tion, of for­mal val­ues. Some mu­se­um­go­ers will find that the ice gives these draw­ings their stay­ing power. Others will ar­gue that the ice of art is noth­ing more than an ob­fus­ca­tion, an elab­o­rate guise de­signed to dis­tract us from the degra­da­tion of these women.

All too of­ten now, for­mal val­ues are re­garded as noth­ing more than the chilly pack­ag­ing, some­thing to be torn away so we can get to the hot stuff. Some see an in­her­ently con­ser­va­tive or even re­ac­tionary as­pect to for­mal val­ues, which they be­lieve muf­fle or de­fang con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects. When Hol­land Cot­ter of The New York Times re­viewed the Adrian Piper ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Modern Art, he set up a num­ber of op­po­si­tions be­tween what he saw as the pri­or­i­ties of the mu­seum, which has for much of its nearly ninety-year his­tory been known for its de­fense of for­mal­ism and for­mal val­ues, and the work of an artist who of­ten deals with ques­tions of gen­der and race. Cot­ter wrote that the show “makes the mu­seum feel like a more life-en­gaged in­sti­tu­tion than the for­mally pol­ished one we’re ac­cus­tomed to.” He found that the “fiery is­sues of the present—racism, misog­yny, xeno­pho­bia” were now “burn­ing in MoMA’s pris­tine gal­leries.” And he con­cluded that “his­tor­i­cally, in­sti­tu­tion­ally MoMA has fa­vored smooth­ness and sym­me­try, white­ness. It has tended to shave off the awk­ward cor­ners of art, sand its sharpest edges down.”

It isn’t easy to dis­en­tan­gle what amounted to Cot­ter’s broad-brush at­tack on the Mu­seum of Modern Art. I won­der whether, when he wrote that the mu­seum fa­vored “white­ness” (and iso­lated and thereby al­most ital­i­cized the word), he meant to sug­gest that MoMA’s iconic white-painted gal­leries re­flect some sort of racial pref­er­ence or prejudice. How­ever one chooses to read Cot­ter’s words, what is clear is his un­der­ly­ing as­sump­tion, namely that an em­brace of for­mal val­ues is al­most by def­i­ni­tion a re­jec­tion of so­cial val­ues and many other kinds of val­ues. Noth­ing could be far­ther from the truth. MoMA’s his­tory proves the point. Few in­sti­tu­tions have done more than the Mu­seum of Modern Art to demon­strate that for­mal val­ues can live on easy terms with other val­ues. Has Cot­ter for­got­ten that Pi­casso’s Guer­nica, the twen­ti­eth cen­tury’s most rad­i­cal visual cri­tique of fas­cism, was on dis­play at MoMA for a gen­er­a­tion? When Al­fred H. Barr, Jr., a great ad­vo­cate of for­mal val­ues, was the in­sti­tu­tion’s guid­ing spirit, there was a not in­signif­i­cant amount of sup­port for the work of African-Amer­i­can artists, women artists, and what are now re­ferred to as out­sider artists. For­mal val­ues are equal op­por­tu­nity val­ues. From the very be­gin­ning that was the mes­sage of the Mu­seum of Modern Art.

There is no ques­tion that when for­mal­ism was at the height of its in­flu­ence some of the move­ment’s most vol­u­ble sup­port­ers de­manded a the­o­ret­i­cal pu­rity that has proven self-lim­it­ing if not self-de­feat­ing. In ret­ro­spect, Cle­ment Green­berg’s 1961 es­say “Mod­ernist Painting,” once re­garded as a quin­tes­sen­tial state­ment of for­mal­ist prin­ci­ples, sug­gests ide­o­log­i­cal au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Green­berg be­lieved that mod­ernism de­pended on “the use of char­ac­ter­is­tic meth­ods of a dis­ci­pline to crit­i­cize the dis­ci­pline it­self.” Though he was any­thing but a Marx­ist by the time he wrote “Mod­ernist Painting,” he nev­er­the­less ap­proached his­tor­i­cal ques­tions in a di­alec­ti­cal spirit. Modern artists, he ar­gued, were us­ing their paints and brushes to de­con­struct the nat­u­ral­is­tic il­lu­sions that ear­lier artists had used their own paints and brushes to con­struct. What mod­ernism amounted to was a cri­tique. If that kind of self-re­flex­ive think­ing is what for­mal­ism is all about, then cer­tainly too much of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence has been over­looked.

Many of Green­berg’s con­tem­po­raries were mak­ing that point more than a gen­er­a­tion ago; they re­ferred to him iron­i­cally as the Pope of Mod­ernism and were im­pa­tient with his re­jec­tion of the hot­ter el­e­ments in Pi­casso and Matisse and any num­ber of other artists. But the prob­lems didn’t be­gin with Green­berg. The nov­el­ist Wil­liam Plomer, who moved in the Blooms­bury world, re­calls in his me­moirs hear­ing jokes about Clive Bell’s in­sis­tence, dur­ing a lec­ture at the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don, on re­fer­ring to the fig­ure of God the Fa­ther in one painting as “this im­por­tant mass.” That brand of bel­liger­ent aes­theti­cism was bound to spark a re­ac­tion. But the re­ac­tion has gone way too far.

For any­body old enough to re­mem­ber the vig­or­ous con­ver­sa­tions that were the lifeblood of the arts thirty years ago, there can be some­thing a lit­tle eerie about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, when for­mal mat­ters are rarely dis­cussed. I do not think it would be amiss to speak of the si­lenc­ing of for­mal­ism. When Yve-Alain Bois and Ros­alind Krauss, art his­to­ri­ans and crit­ics both once as­so­ci­ated with Green­berg, em­braced the ideas of the rene­gade French Sur­re­al­ist Ge­orges Bataille in an ex­hi­bi­tion and book that they ti­tled Form­less: A User’s Guide, they dis­cussed Green­berg only in pass­ing, al­though the en­tire project was a re­jec­tion of his ideas. A page had been turned. There was no more to say.

What is per­haps the most ex­pan­sive se­ries of stud­ies of modern art cur­rently be­ing pub­lished—Doc­u­ments of Con­tem­po­rary Art, a project of the Whitechapel Gallery in Lon­don—now con­tains nearly four dozen vol­umes in­clud­ing ones ti­tled De­struc­tion, Bore­dom, Painting, Queer, Craft, Ru­ins, but noth­ing on Form or For­mal­ism. The vol­ume en­ti­tled Ab­strac­tion does in­clude a sec­tion on “For­mal Ab­strac­tion,” but here for­mal­ism is de­scribed re­duc­tively as a “self-re­flex­ive and ide­al­is­tic en­quiry into art and its func­tion.” This hardly does jus­tice to the in­ter­ests and pri­or­i­ties of the early mod­ernists. As for Green­berg, I think it is sig­nif­i­cant that he is not even among the writ­ers whose work is an­thol­o­gized in Ab­strac­tion.

What was quite clear to artists and writ­ers in the early years of the modern move­ment was that all visual art is a process of ab­strac­tion, in­clud­ing the most nat­u­ral­is­tic art. Some­thing— whether an im­age or an idea—is given con­crete form. The ques­tion that fas­ci­nated Ver­non Lee was how form con­veyed feel­ing. But if the artists and writ­ers of her gen­er­a­tion ap­proached these ques­tions with a new an­a­lyt­i­cal spirit, the fun­da­men­tal ques­tions are an­cient ones. For­mal­ism, un­der­stood in the broad­est sense, is about the build­ing blocks of the visual arts. In this sense it’s any­thing but time­bound, cer­tainly not merely “modern.” We see it in the me­dieval ar­chi­tect Vil­lard de Hon­necourt’s note­book, where he il­lus­trates the geo­met­ric forms (tri­an­gles and so forth) that he be­lieved might be mod­els for hu­man and an­i­mal forms. We see it in Leonardo’s dis­cus­sions in his note­books about meth­ods of gen­er­at­ing com­po­si­tions from the shapes of the stains on a wall or the clouds in the sky. We see it in Poussin’s ar­gu­ment that paint­ings with dif­fer­ent rhyth­mic struc­tures pre­cip­i­tate dif­fer­ent moods and emo­tions. Artists were con­cerned with the af­fec­tive power of form long be­fore Bell wrote about “sig­nif­i­cant form.”

What an artist is say­ing can never be sep­a­rated from the way the artist says it. This state­ment, which I once imag­ined was self-ev­i­dent, is now in need of de­fense. In our mo­ment of height­ened so­cial, sex­ual, and po­lit­i­cal aware­ness, there are many mu­se­um­go­ers who are weary of art that stands apart from life. But what is art if it is not un­like life? If Schiele’s draw­ings of the fe­male body are any­thing more than oc­ca­sions for a de­bate about the bat­tle be­tween the sexes, it’s be­cause art, which is all about form, has been brought to bear on the raw ma­te­rial of life. Such ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween art and life are the sub­ject of Ver­non Lee’s chal­leng­ing writ­ings. She knew that moral­ity in art was dif­fer­ent from moral­ity in life. She also knew that the dif­fer­ence wasn’t al­ways easy to grasp, much less ex­plain. That the dif­fer­ence now de­mands a de­fense is one among the many chal­lenges we face in these be­wil­der­ing times.

Pablo Pi­casso: Three Bathers by the Shore, 1920

Ver­non Lee; painting by John Singer Sar­gent, 1881

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