PRINT January 1976

European Painting in LA: A Grab Bag of Well-worn Issues

I concluded that, as in America, most of the talented figures in their twenties and thirties are seemingly attracted to extra-painting media, especially video/photography/performance. Given the limitations of exhibition space, it was decided to focus on work that less resembles U.S. art. (Maurice Tuchman, European Painting in the Seventies: New Work by Sixteen Artists)

ELSEWHERE IN THIS CATALOGUE and in the mysteriously euphoric press coverage (Los Angeles Times, Time magazine), there befalls the notion that the show is somehow defending painting per se, as well as being a sampling of the European brand of it—disregarded by museums in this country for twenty years. “European Painting” started out, in fact, as a broader idea embracing Americans and Europeans, young and old, great and unknown. Along the way, an impressive list of artists who’d gone unshown in Los Angeles for five years or more was compiled.1 Tuchman finally realized that most of his tentative choices were Europeans and that was that. Almost. A dearth of young painters (and, apparently, women) narrowed the exhibition’s roster to painters in, as they say, mid-career.

As one of at least a hundred people thanked and/or quoted in the catalogue, I hark wistfully back to my marginal contribution (ten or eleven names) and to that wonderfully risky, oddball original premise: the all-inclusive but still selective painting exhibition, which, with extraordinary imagists and unheard-of abstractionists outside the nitty-gritty monochrome mainstream, would prove there’s life in the old Muse yet. It might have been an unmitigated disaster, but it just might have been an incredible stunner, too. The show that did trickle down is neither: a mildly eccentric, homely polyglot, leaning heavily in the direction of irrelevance (to anything save two or three twists to that well-trod path-of-least-resistance, “expressionistic” figurative painting).

Nevertheless, “European Painting” is a challenge, if only for the healthy tingle of doubt it insinuates in my taste. I ask if I’m that much a child of Castelli? Have I been conditioned to expect expanses of cotton duck, out-front one-coat paint applications, metronomic or nonrelational layouts, four-inch thick white pine stretchers, visible staples, and the residue-of-loft smell as prerequisites to significant painting? Could it be that too many visits to Nick Wilder and Ace have reinforced American heavy-handedness at the expense of appreciating the smaller, more delicate, more narrative, more preciously packaged continental finesse? Indeed, it could be. So it’s unnerving to find myself making a sixth tour before Avigdor Arikha, certain, like the philistine convinced that a donkey’s tail could slap out a Pollock, that I know at least a half-dozen undergraduates who can achieve those same constricted scumblings (and throw in straight stretchers, to boot).

Compounding the problem is the show’s erratic approach (which could have been charming, even scintillating, had the original scope obtained). “Any show needs a cohesive agent,” Tuchman admits, “or else the work in it invariably declines in significance.” As for cohesion, the curator finds himself attracted to artists whose careers, while not rendering them exactly loners, place them outside the protective boosterism of group think/art crit. From the catalogue’s texts and my own inferences drawn from the paintings, it appears these artists are subsumed for a panoply of ridiculous and sublime reasons: Francis Bacon for his “reinvention” of figurative appearance, Jean Dubuffet for the formal cleverness of painting-reliefs, Jean Hélion for the tenacity of his career, Joan Miró for playfully going tribal, Peter Blake for nuances belying “illustration,” David Hockney for clarity and wit, R. B. Kitaj for a complex “ransacking“ of modern art history, Lucien Freud for the quasi-kinky intensity of his portraiture, Frank Auerbach for gutty ambivalence, Jean-Olivier Hucleux for the same old “fascination for the reproductive mechanics of the camera” always credited to photo-Realism, Valerio Adami for intimations of mystery, Pierre Alechinsky for romantic automatism, Avigdor Arikha for resuscitating traditional values, Eduardo Arroyo for satire and politics, Antonio Segui for an odd style disclosing photographic conditioning, and Anton Heyboer, it seems, for his lifestyle. (Balthus and Asger Jorn were eliminated from the contingent of “senior” painters because Balthus’s one-painting production of the last eight years was understandably unavailable, and because Jorn died in 1973.)

Further delineation of a “cohesive agent” for 16 such disparate painters is a monumental task, and the catalogue, unfortunately, isn’t up to even an ordinary one. Sporting telltale signs of insubstantiality (awkward, gimmicky box packaging of loose brochures—belying any supposed “cohesion”), the introduction is irretrievably thin. Tuchman commits himself to hardly anything, choosing instead to rope in everyone within wordshot and to quote lengthy passages from, for example, Arroyo, Auerbach, and Hélion, although the individual folders contain, in most cases, artists’ statements. While my suspicion that Tuchman is smoothly bailing out on a show without a center is a little wild, I think it’s fair to conclude that he—for all the honest labor, travel, research, and politicking that went into “European Painting”—can’t quite get a handle on it, either.

A first impression: decadent, deliberate, knowledgeable, epicene wrinkles on early modernism; the lobby of a summer hotel in liberated France; cool ladies in seven or eight yards of Dior “New Look” taffeta stepping back with delighted smiles and whispering, “Shocking!”

The installation concedes as much: right up front—boom!—as you come through the entrance is a red-hot Bacon, Two Figures with a Monkey; for a minute or two, groping your way by the Adamis, the potency clings. Bacon is one of the world’s greatest painters and the only artist who, no questions asked, stands right up to American postwar painting, to a supposed “death of painting,” to the lure of performance/video and such, and out from the relative tepidity of European painting. Tuchman knows that and hopes to take your breath away at the door, for the duration. But after Bacon, the Major Master, it’s mostly lukewarm rehash. Hockney is a near-great, but Kitaj, Dubuffet (here at least), and Alechinsky are only O.K. Segui, Hucleux, Freud, Auerbach, Blake, Adami, and even Miró (here at least) are weakly borderline, especially in this airfreight bracket. And Arroyo, the venerable Hélion, Heyboer, and Arikha (although a capable black-and-white drawer) are expendable. That severe? I think so, even at the considerable pain of upstarting grand old guys who’ve got more paint under their little fingernails than I may have on my whole left arm, even at the dull dread of becoming persona non grata at our only big-time museum.

Los Angeles’s indigenous schizophrenia is exacerbated by a dearth of serious museum activity (whether through bush-ness, nouveau-ness, dollar poverty, sloth, or trustee neglect, it amounts to the same). We didn’t get the Bacon retrospective, we didn’t see the Mire exhibition at the Guggenheim; we did get an ersatz Roman villa with a parking lot underneath, a rehanging of LACMA’s contemporary collection resembling nothing so much as a penny arcade, and a spit shine on the Pasadena. Thus, even such a grab bag as “European Painting” contains revelations for us.

Bacon, for instance, seems like the delayed, nightmare blossoming of some fungus latent in the clefts of Art Nouveau. It could be he simply exploits easily “awful” color schemes, unfriendly scrubbing of paint into linen, smeared faces, and antiformalist shallow arcs, but there’s more: an uncorny dare of broken press-type, a sudden unbuttressed blob of white paint or green circle, and, most amazing, an extrapolation of film imagery that’s better—more lasting and powerful—than the original. Hockney, a minor master in the same vein as Dine or Thiebaud, must be the wittiest painter alive. Beneath the quasi-Pop, he performs small structural miracles; the reflective surface of a glass table in Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott is accomplished with kitsch hieroglyphics (diagonal lines), but where Lichtenstein makes a joke on painting, Hockney manages to make such jests fit within a painty painting. Since the ground rules for painting are so well known (and since, like baseball, they don’t need many changes, whereas the post-Minimal equivalents of Rollerball and World Team Tennis need constant, almost comic, overhaul), the mode flourishes on big and little “bits of business” like these. “European Painting” would be a decent show if, in supporting these two English artists, there were additional pleasant surprises. The level, however, quickly descends to tolerable.

Kitaj is “interesting” (as relentlessly as if he set out to be “interesting”) because he’s tricky, ambiguous and complex. Bill at Sunset, with its idiot cowboy and stained sunset, edges courageously in on profound “bad“ painting, and Still (The Other Woman), a loony, late late late Cubist take with nary a compromise in it, is nothing if not tough. Kitaj could illustrate John Barth, even Pynchon; his reassembled “ransackings” match theirs . . . up to a point. Kitaj doesn’t do much more than embellish narrative enigmas with graphic deftness; his work—unlike Bacon’s—doesn’t move you or scare you as painting. Dubuffet, on the other hand, is one of the heavyweights—although he’s had to traverse from art brut to art slic to stay decreasingly ahead of the game. Here, we get a couple of those tile-looking Hourloupes: tight, right, light, and utterly inoffensive. Alechinsky’s work is the same thing, on the facile side of the coin. (Dubuffet’s catalogue statement, incidentally, consists of a letter to his Basel dealer championing the right to author paintings untouched by the artist’s hand. Like the social issues raised in Mary Worth—living in sin, etc.—nobody’s given much of a shit about them for ten years. There’s a sad, indeed pathetic, leitmotif running through the artists’ pronunciamentos. Miró rips off a young artist’s wall hangings and says—in 1969!—“Let’s start together at once; we are going to break traditional molds.” Alechinsky gets all excited about acrylics, and Hucleux reveals that working from a photograph is a “discipline.” The argument to be made for painting’s health is by nature an argument against the idea of quick-succession “advances” in modern art; it’s counterproductive—not to say embarrassing—to bolster the position with a bunch of daubers doing battle with issues crucial only to seaside landscape classes.

Almost half the roster, seven artists, strikes me as marginal. Where Tuchman follows his own inclinations (that is, not going with certified museum material), the results are at best questionable. Segui pins everything on the third-cheapest art world commodity, enigma (the first two are quantity and size): low-to-the-ground, charcoal renderings of bulldogs, with a Baconesque touch or two, and little mysteriosos like black triangular windows and bright green (on an otherwise colorless painting) stenciled letters. His small, superficial acrylics are the giveaways; Rolling Stone covers go as deep. Hucleux, admittedly, really gets it, right down to the last fleck on the niche on the grain of the tombstone, and the two cemetery paintings are, in a way, impressive. One picture even toys with an out-of-focus lady and a transparent watering pitcher. But the two photo-as-crutch-to-sentimentality portraits (Etienne Martin and the artist) are just elevated Laguna Beach painting. For a second or two, against even the bland modernism of the rest of “European Painting,” Hucleux flickers as a beacon of the painter’s craft; but in any context of other realists (my mind’s quick inventory: Porter, Estes, Bechtle, Gertsch, Pearlstein, Catherine Murphy, Katz, Hendler), he’s expedient and sterile. LACMA’s installation caters to that, too, with built-in special bases and hooks for his paintings, marking Hucleux as the second-most expensive artist in the show. Freud seems all right at first, a modest warts-and-all portraitist with a little more intimacy (in size, at least) and less meat-locker formalism than Pearlstein. His paintings are rife, however, with planted “subtle” kinks—fetal position, “naked” in the title instead of “nude,” and studied hints of repulsiveness (the kind Warhol wears) in Ali. Surely there must be stronger “straight” figure painters.

Many of the works in “European Painting” are overpackaged—mats, glass, frames—and it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a matter of conservation, prestige, or mannerism. Behind the liner behind the glass behind the frame, it would appear that Auerbach practices a rich, concentrated, theatrical version of a rather common form of neophyte painting (students do it, but that alone is no invalidation): impasto masses which, from a viewing distance of a few feet, coalesce into faces, figures. Trouble is, it should strike you the other way, i.e. that Auerbach’s sonority pushes the image (whose face and why paint it?) to such extremes. When the subject isn’t as easily “closed” as a face, like the landscape in Spring Morning—Primrose Hill Study, the picture completely falls apart. (Auerbach’s case is only one of several prompting a recurrence of “European Painting” ’s main emanation: puzzlement.

You want to be free of “mainstream” shackles, you want to believe that the pictures are small masterpieces/quiet poems, you want to feel that the surfaces themselves—without the aid of fancy wrapping—exude beauties both particular and universal. You want to make allowances for artists in sticky political straits, for elder geniuses playing around, for geographical representation, and for rescuing twenty years’ void. But an inescapable conclusion keeps leaking through: the work is erratic, rétarditaire, eclectic, safe, and, for the most part, mediocre. Cold doubt keeps surfacing: is this the best that two years’ preparation, several trips to Europe, and informed contacts on the other side could do?

My own, unkind answer is, “Hardly.” And so on: Blake is simply a good illustrator, a little too arty to go as far lowbrow as Warhol’s Liz and Marilyn, and a little too hip to stay away from rock musicians and wrestlers; Adami is a decorator’s compromise between Lichtenstein and Patrick Caufield (and he draws just like the old New Yorker cartoonist George Price, who has that same slanty, Cubified penmanship line—only so much less pretentious) given to bowdlerizing primary colors; and the wonderful Miró simply should not have shown these works in this context. (There is, of course, no context for Miró, especially “European Painting,” in which every other artist deals with distorted figuration; it’s a plain case of celebrity-mongering.)

The exhibition descends still further. Arroyo says: “I will never be a triumphant painter, a painter-painter. I cannot breathe without irony. For me, painting is not a pretty gesture, an ensemble of little sensitive touches; no, it’s a unified mass, a strong and irrevocable decision to make.” But he paints in as many “ensembles of sensitive touches” as he paints paintings, and his “irrevocable decisions” are puffs like a front/back diptych of Hélion with the subject’s face in the subject’s style, or exposing “vain and abrasive [English] painters, without principles, delinquents in a certain sense” by covering their hands and faces with palette splotches of bright color. (Fearless chap, you know, lashing out against the Royal College.) Arroyo’s best gambit—painting a framed flash photo of a cocker spaniel in the corner of an oozingly ingratiating portrait of Adami—is nothing but a “little sensitive touch.”)

Heyboer’s stuff simply looks fake—schematic figures on almost blank canvases, sometimes propped up with color patches Guston wouldn’t have sneezed at. What’s supposed to distinguish it from a Dutch version of Montparnasse street-hawker art is, I suppose, the artist’s personal history/circumstances, given big play in the catalogue. (While Heyboer’s ménages-à-trois are dutifully chronicled, not a word is mentioned about homosexuality, certainly a catalytic agent in Bacon and Hockney, if not others.) It looks to me as if his life is and has been too fucked up to get any serious painting done, or to think any deeper about the social role of art than the Rod McKuenism, “The fact that some people find beauty in my signs I love; the fact that they want to give money in exchange for them makes it possible for me to live my own abnormal life in freedom.”

The height of intellectual fatuousness, and the near nadir of painting quality reached by “European Painting,” is exemplified by Hélion, a bona fide pioneer. And again my eyes, brain, and heart (for I do have mawkish feelings for painting and painters) are staggered: can it be this bad? Hélion’s Marketplace Triptych is one of those grandiose, sweet (a color scheme of classroom-correct large areas of blue and grey and small, “balanced” shots of hot reds), return-to-the-simple-values paintings which have been washed, rinsed, and dried in tubs of isms, then fluffed back to recognizability. The intersecting arcs, the arbitrary but in-key color shifts, and “bold” outlining are intended to provide enough structural integrity to neutralize the nostalgia. It comes vaguely close with pumpkins, candles, seated old men, and it might seem slightly poignant cloistered in small canvases, but it’s downright hilarious with power lawnmowers in mural proportions. Perhaps (and there’s more than a chance) I’ve just got it wrong; perhaps there are subtleties not salient to the blunted American eye; perhaps the artist explains it all in the catalogue. (What follows demonstrates, I think, the terrible flaw of the show; if the exhibition is an accurate sampling, it could be the hole-in-the-head of European painting in general. I only wish it weren’t as cavernously sad as it is wrenchingly funny.)

Hélion: You cite the word “taste” just in time. Personally, I have no taste. I don’t like taste. If the most beautiful picture is in good taste, it is not that which is good in the picture. In essence, the Mona Lisa is of very poor taste after a certain time.

arTitudes (a European magazine): She is indecent, the Mona Lisa!

JH: Indecent, That’s good. That means: “Brave.” Indecency is a word of virtue, it seems to me. It means that one exposes what one usually arbitrarily conceals. Long live indecency. But that was not my intent; I sought only to be true. If, being true, I am indecent, thank you. You have given me the finest compliment I could wish.

On it goes. Gully Jimson at least had a sense of humor. (There is a last artist in the show, Arikha; the disbelief began with him, let it rest at his feet.)

Certainly these 16 painters cannot delineate “what’s going on now” in European painting, yet Tuchman and LACMA (in spite of carefully deposited disclaimers—why isn’t the first word of the title “some”?) say they can. Surely this oddly shaped show cannot begin to constitute either a “defense” of painting, or a testimonial dinner to a venerable medium, yet we’re told—mostly by implication—that it does. But “European Painting” takes no cognizance of the first inevitable question: just what’s so prime and profound about painting to make it something more than a mechanism (like, say, cloisonné) whose obsolescence has finally arrived?

Say what you will about MOMA’s “Eight Artists” star-making propensities. Marden, Rockburne, and Ryman had something to say on that account. And what of the second inevitable question: hasn’t painting’s narrative effectiveness been severely outflanked by film, video, performance, and even sculpture—to the point where its storytelling, pointmaking abilities are discernible only to a few diehards? As to the former, Walter Hopps’s casual, old-boy network “Current Concerns, Part I,” trucked up from Venice in a couple of days to LAICA, was much better looking and prompted, I suspect, more succinct dialogue on the future of painting. As to the latter, the question is so pertinent, so cathartic, so obvious, and so available, it obviously couldn’t have made the grade as exhibition material at LACMA. I keep fantasizing that Tuchman received Kitaj’s statement in the early going, before the shipping papers were signed, and that he realized “European Painting’s” ambivalence evaporates before the only real question:

Our twin masters, art for the few and art for art’s sake, are so old-fashioned, so retrograde, so weak now that their terminal clasp on our western societies has to give way to more enriching alliances. It is fascinating to me that the road ahead is blocked among us by so many failures of imagination. I know very few artists who can even imagine the possibility of an art which is both good and more widely social, let alone what such an art might look like. My own problem is that I am haunted by our art having become so hopelessly alienated from everyone else. (R. B. Kitaj, 1975).

Now, that would have been a show.

Peter Plagens



1. Francis Bacon, Jo Baer, Balthus, Chuck Close, Gene Davis, Willem de Kooning, Jim Dine, Oyvind Fahlstrom, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Nancy Graves, Richard Hamilton, Al Held, David Hockney, Al Jensen, R. B. Kitaj, Robert Mangold, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O’Keefe, Jules Olitski, Nathan Oliviera, Philip Pearlstein, Joseph Rafael, Gerhard Richter, Paul Sarkesian, Cy Twombly and William T. Wiley.

(The list is interesting because it explains everything, and nothing. It’s never explained—as long as Tuchman brings them up—why artists like Richter aren’t included in the show. And if you’re wondering about an artist who’s not included in even the preliminaries, Tuchman tells us there are another 20 artists he’s not mentioning. He also neglects to mention—by way of inclusion—Germany, the Scandinavian countries, or the Socialist Bloc as being a par of Europe. At least four of the bigger names—Bacon, Dubuffet, Hélion, and Arikha—have had recent exhibitions at the Centre national de l’art contemporain, and several others—Alechinsky, Adami, Segue, Arroyo—work in Paris, so the show has a decidedly Eiffel Tower flavor).