PRINT April 1968

Poetry of Vision

A TEN DAY TRIP THROUGH IRELAND left the impression of something like visual understatement on the part of her inhabitants. They seem reluctant to adorn either their dwellings or themselves. The effect even of Dublin’s famed Georgian architecture, reflection though it is of Anglicizing tastes, is of a pared elegance, or else of discreetness amid pomp. The ruined castles and abbeys that strew the beautiful countryside are gray and dim. The ordinary house in small town or village tends to be low, flat-fronted and undecorated; often it is whitewashed. But this does not take away from the effect of plainness. (In some localities the white was broken by house fronts in pastel greens, ochers, pinks, blues, or even reds—in response, I was told, to the suggestion of the Irish Tourist Board that the view be touched up for the benefit of tourists.) The people themselves don’t dress up. Maybe that is the Celtic way, maybe not—the Highland Scots go in for costumes. Maybe it’s the contrast with the English, who do dress up, that makes the Irish appearance seem so subdued.

Yet the Irish devise wonderful textile patterns and colors. And there are their splendid Early Medieval illuminated manuscripts, stone carvings, and ornamented objects. To deny that the Irish have a “visual sense,” as so many cultivated Irishmen themselves do, seems a wrong way of putting it. The Irish fondness for self criticism may be misplaced here. My definite impression is that they do have a “sense” for sculpture—or, to use an up to date term, “object-hood”—even if it has remained latent since the Middle Ages. That they have produced little in the way of significant art since then has to be explained by other factors than the absence of an innate gift.

There is a modest wealth of pictorial art to be seen in Ireland, even though most of it is imported. The National Gallery in Dublin has one of the very best middle-sized collections of Old Master paintings and drawings I have seen; and it is constantly being added to. The Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in the same city contains, thanks to its share of Sir Hugh Lane’s bequest, one of the supreme Manets, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens of 1862, a Degas of the 1870s, On the Beach, that is in the same class, three or four superb Corots, and more than a few other works of the 19th century that deserve lingering over. I am informed that the Art Gallery in Belfast, too, contains some important paintings. All told, this amounts to a lot of high pictorial art of the past for a population of hardly four million (taking the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland together).

But very little important contemporary art gets seen in Ireland; in this respect it has been an isolated country. Now a move, a spectacular move, has been made to break this isolation. Thanks to the efforts of a group of Irish art lovers a large show of very recent painting, all of it from abroad, was mounted in Dublin this past fall and early winter. (A committee chaired by an eminent architect, Michael Scott, who is something of a painter himself, set up the machinery; the costs were borne by W. R. Grace & Co., in association with the Arts Council of Ireland and four government agencies: the Airlines, the Tourist Board, the Transport Authority, and Radio and Television.) The show itself was put together by a jury composed of Jean Leymarie of France, Willem Sandberg of Holland, and James Johnson Sweeney of the U.S.A. (the last acting as chairman). They had been asked to “choose 50 painters of the international scene, and from these to select from 2 to 5 paintings executed in the last four years.”

The jury was also asked to choose a supplementary exhibition of Irish art from prehistoric times to the 12th century, and some sixty examples of such art were gathered together and shown in the National Museum in Dublin. The contemporary section was installed in the Royal Dublin Society building, a large place otherwise used for horse shows, fairs, expositions, and the like. A good looking painstakingly scholarly and extremely efficient catalog reproducing every item in both sections was issued.

The entire show was given a name: “Rosc,” which in Irish Gaelic means “the poetry of vision.” (So Mr. Scott writes in his introduction to the catalog. But I was told that Rosc also means an “exultant cry such as is uttered in battle”; how the two meanings connect was left unexplained by my informant, who knew Gaelic better than he did art.) Rosc is to be repeated every four years with different jurors, and perhaps even with different programs. In other words, it will be an international quadrennial without prizes.

Rosc of 1967 opened on November 13 and was scheduled to close on December 30, but in answer to popular demand it was extended another ten days. The total attendance was a phenomenal 80,000. People came from all over Ireland. The largest proportion of them were young, as I was told and also could see for myself on my two visits. The rising generation in Ireland is apparently hungry for modernity and, as elsewhere, sees a quintessential expression or token of it in advanced art. I found myself wondering what they made of the 146 works at the Royal Dublin Society. There were many, many dismal things among them. Did the visitors take these on faith? Probably. What else could they do? What else do most of the people do who throng exhibitions of contemporary art in Chicago or Tokyo, in New York or Paris? And is a discriminating public so necessary to art in this time? Apparently not. An enthusiastic public seems to be enough.

Going from the contemporary show to the ancient Irish art displayed at the National Museum, I was struck by how unnervous the latter seemed by comparison. The ancient art included the marvelous Book of Kells, carved or incised stones from the Neolithic period to the 8th century A.D., and all sorts of articles of use, wear, ceremony, or devotion, in gold, silver, iron, bronze, or wood, dating from as far back as the second millennium B.C. to the 12th century A.D. Even the objects that quivered with the Celtic interlace had a kind of stolidity to them for an eye fresh from the contemporary section of Rosc. And that stolidity came as a relief after all the febrile uncertainties in which the contemporary section abounded.

Rosc 1967 could have been ever so much better chosen. That certain artists were not represented only because works by them were unobtainable does not excuse—is not enough to excuse—the inclusion of nearly half of those who were represented. The show had a nineteen-fiftyish cast to it, an unnecessary tiredness. This was due to the nature of the Continental European representation, which accounted for over two-thirds of the show. The failed fifties, not the still living fifties, seemed to be the theme the jurors were harping on there. It was as though they had set out, moreover, to demonstrate that nothing fresh had appeared in Continental painting since art informel; and the dirty colors of that kind of art cast a gray-brown pall over the entire exhibition.

The American and English sections did not do very much to relieve this pall. A de Kooning, a Rauschenberg, a Lester Johnson, or even a Bontecou can look as muddy as the muddiest Cobra artist, or as chromatically tired as a Soulages, a Zao Wou-ki, a Lataster, or a late Picasso. A Davie can look as patched together as a Millares or a recent Dubuffet. Nevertheless, the very best paintings in Rosc 1967, which were also the most luminous ones, did come from the hands of three Americans and one Englishman. Tobey’s tall Composition of 1963, with its flutter of pinks, stood out radiantly; it was the finest (as well as largest) picture by this artist that I have ever seen—finer even than his Tundra of twenty years ago. Tobey wears better and better in general; his truth seems to be enhanced by the contrast with it made by the “impact” art of the sixties. The only other work in the show that could hold its own, and maybe more than its own, with his big painting was Noland’s equilateral diamond of 1964, Swing. (I am aware that I shall be accused of personal prejudice as well as chauvinism when I say this; but I owe it to myself, not to Noland, to put my reaction to this particular picture on record.) Paintings by Newman and Nicholson also stood out; together with those by Tobey and Noland, they formed a class apart at this show.

One of the surprises was how good the three paintings by Alechinsky looked; I had always before found Alechinsky too pat and set. Tapies, too, looked good, but that was no surprise; and he did not look good enough to be more than minor. Another good minor artist, Vasarély, could have been better represented than he was. That Dine’s painting-with-sculpture, A. R. at Oberlin No. 5 was another among the better works was only a half surprise: I knew that Dine had a gift, but only rarely do his “ideas“ fail to get in its way; here his “idea” did not altogether obliterate the effect of a beautifully mottled blue canvas. An Appel of 1967, Femme, was the first new painting of his I have seen in fifteen years that struck me as having at least a little bit to say. And Latham’s bas relief construction of 1965, Manningtree, was the first thing of his I had ever seen that transcended mere tastefulness; as if to atone, his other piece in Rosc, a clutch of books in drooping canvas, managed to be in bad taste without exactly failing to be tasteful. Two Indianas of 1966 were plausible and maybe more than that. Two of the four Francises here, dating from 1963 and 1965, were no more than that, and showed him as not half the artist he once was. Joseph Sima’s modest and quasi-figurative Métamorphose of 1966 persuaded me more with every succeeding look. There were other modest but “true” paintings by Jorn, Gea Panter, Pasmore, Sonderborg, Tal Coat, and Bram van Velde. Poliakoff, as always, was “true”—but also awkward; whether the passage of time will convert this awkwardness into something else remains to be seen, but I continue to think that he, along with Hosiasson and Mathieu (neither of whom was represented in Rosc), is one of those who redeem French abstract painting over the last decade. The two Picassos present had character; neither quite succeeded, nor would they have added much to art if they had, but only a great hand could have produced them. The three Mirós were dead, but the same applies to them—as it does not, alas, to the two Lams, which were among the thinnest works in Dublin.

Bacon was represented by two fair sized paintings of 1967 that had the impact of “big” art, and on my first walk through the show they came forward in a way that put most things around them in the shade. But they somehow began to wilt when directly contemplated. The discrepancy between impact and substance in Bacon does not altogether compromise his art—at least not yet—but it does make him something less than the major artist he presents himself as being. (The same discrepancy has the same effect in the art of Frank Stella—who is another artist who should have been represented in Rosc 1967, but was not.)

There were four de Koonings in Dublin, all of them in his latest, dissolved-Fragonard manner. I had something of the same trouble getting them into focus as I have had with many other de Koonings done over the last fifteen years or so, but nevertheless I was touched by them—especially Woman of 1965—just as I was by four or five similar paintings in de Kooning’s recent show at Knoedler’s in New York. A pictorially, or artistically, valid pathos lay in the contradiction between their frantic brushing and the tenuous felicity of the results. Having abandoned all effort to knock the viewer’s eye out with a “big attack,” the artist finally and openly reveals—and in revealing turns to genuine account—his peculiar inability to finish or round off an ambitious statement. The best de Koonings I know of since the late 1940s are small paintings, often not fully painted paintings, works conceived as fragmentary—or casual—but not so in the result. (One such is Woman Ocher of circa 1952, now in the University of Arizona Art Gallery.) These latest paintings are, on the other hand, fragments intended to be finished yet remaining fragmentary. None of them is nearly as good as Woman Ocher, but they do gain a new interest, and a quality, from the frankness with which this contradiction, among several others, is displayed. The four de Koonings were among the less vapid works I saw at Rosc.

For all its sins of inclusion and omission, Rosc turned out to contain a good deal of information about the present state of painting, even for someone familiar with the New York scene. It offered another valuable opportunity to survey and compare. And maybe it was just as well that Ireland’s first introduction to contemporary advanced art on a broad front did include so much of the fatigue of the fifties, and the fatigue of painting on the Continent. At this point all the novelty and razzmatazz of the sixties might have been too bewildering. Let that be saved for Rosc 1971. By then time may have done some winnowing—enough winnowing, I hope, to force the next jury’s hand more than the 1967 jury’s was.

Clement Greenberg