PRINT September 2004


Eric Banks on Frank Sinatra’s paintings

[Adolph Gottlieb] is Byron to Greenberg’s George Eliot—the most vulgar-minded genius that ever produced a great effect in oils. A Mantovani or a Lawrence Welk. Charlie Parker playing insolent variations on the theme of “I’d Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China”—feeling for a way to retrieve, and make properly unbearable, the pop song’s contempt for the masses it aims to please.
—T.J. Clark, “In Defense of Abstract Expressionism” (1994)

HAS THERE EVER BEEN a less classy adjective than “classy”? The word squirms in its anachronistic embarrassment: Dames are classy, joints are classy, wheels are classy. In addition to this archaic element one might note the word’s utter instability, as it conjoins at once senses of “to the highest standard” and “ostentatiously slick.” One day the cultural history of the word “classy” will be written, and it will no doubt of necessity consider the uneasy relation the word bears with its dictionary neighbors “class” and “classic.” Suffice it to observe here that “classy” seems to partake of “class” in the sense of both “rank” and “socioeconomic position”––with all the attendant anxieties of class aspiration, of the déclassé, etc., in tow.

Has there ever been a classier act than Frank Sinatra? Like the adjective, the Chairman played it both ways: high and low rolled into one, Rat Pack fabulous meets torchbearer of American pop standards. It’s hard to imagine that Cole Porter would have ever sounded as de-lightful had Sinatra not existed; how is it that we now imagine the Hoboken-raised ambassador of booze, broads, and bada-bing, in all the glory of his blue-eyed ding-dong thuggery, at once standing for fulsome excess and a touch of class? Might both conditions in fact be seen as two sides of the same classy coin?

Some answer is provided, strangely enough, in the surely classy paintings Sinatra executed that were recently displayed in—surprise—Las Vegas, at the Godt-Cleary Gallery. It was with some relief, the kind of relief that you guiltily bathe in if you indulge in the nostalgia for what museum-going was supposedly like in the halcyon days of Kline, Rothko, Newman, et al., that I entered the unapologetically white cube on the second floor of the Mandalay Bay promenade and saw Sinatra’s canvases in the raw. Blue Eyes took his Sunday painting seriously. I knew that he’d made mostly high-minded, highly keyed works that evince his appreciation of the many exhibitions he apparently saw. Hard-edged stuff, mostly, that showed he was thinking about what a classy painting looked like––and it appears the answer he found, interestingly enough, was a sort of Standard American Postwar Painting before Pop.

Several canvases show bold fields of color—bright greens, rich purple, cerise—bisected and trisected by attenuated lines of offsetting tones. A strange Kelly-ish horizontal black canvas features a diamond-shaped white void on its extreme right side. (The Chairman seemed to care more about size than scale; had he found a Greenberg in Sammy or Dean, he undoubtedly would have hacked off the left end.) Hints of Rothko are apparent in the magnificent Untitled (Orange & Blue), 1989, while the bands of color in Untitled (Orange & Purple), 1986, and Untitled (Red, Yellow, & Black), 1991, seem to acknowledge Noland’s stripe paintings while simultaneously toying with both the decorative and the landscape. The best work in the show, Strangers in the Night, 1990, is also perhaps the least open in its painterly borrowings, although sources can be found in Saul Bass’s graphic design and even Allan D’Arcangelo’s Pop-ish roadways at night.

Had I traveled all the way across the country to discover that Sinatra was in fact an appropriationist, a Philip Taaffe gone Palm Springs? The gallery’s cheeky display of a pair of tuxedo shoes in a glass vitrine à la Sherrie Levine all but suggests such a reading. (Sadly, the green, red, and white golf shoes also originally in the case had been sold and removed before I saw the show.) There are, of course, other answers to the question. Like de Kooning’s late work, Sinatra’s canvases were executed at a time (the late ’80s and early ’90s) when the performer’s mental capacity had perhaps already begun to decline. Could there be a connection between his “mature style” and the simultaneous refusal to adhere to a single, unique style? More likely Sinatra had no “single” style. He looked at art, saw what he liked, and aped the classiest canvases America ever produced, the geometrically smart, unabashedly decorative paintings featuring flat fields of vibrant color. You can call that work “vulgar,” but in its strange brew of high and low I think “classy” nails it nicely.

It’s a paradox: Sinatra’s work—at least in its heyday—is lowbrow, his leisure weirdly highbrow. Did he understand the dialectical relation of high and low, of leisure and work? We know from other sources that Sinatra had his valet spray-paint the bald spot on his head daily. Can we get a sense of the connection between the bodily and the painterly in his mimicking of Color Field, so frequently executed with the most common cans of house paint and aerosol spray? Odds are, given the paucity of earlier work and the fact that Sinatra pursued painting as a private endeavor, we’ll never know the answers to these questions. As the man says, What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum.