New York

Leon Kossoff, Demolition of YMCA Building No. 2, 1970, charcoal on paper, 23 1⁄4 × 33 1⁄8".

Leon Kossoff, Demolition of YMCA Building No. 2, 1970, charcoal on paper, 23 1⁄4 × 33 1⁄8".

Leon Kossoff

Leon Kossoff’s London—where he was born in 1926 and still lives—is depressing, unwholesome, grim; indeed, a kind of hell. Cimmerian charcoal drawings, such as City Rooftops, 1957, and Railway Bridge Mornington Crescent, 1952, made the place feel as though it was suffocating under toxic ash. More pointedly, it was a metropolis haunted by death, as Demolition of YMCA Building No. 2, 1970, suggested. The work reminded one of the buildings destroyed by German bombers in World War II during the blitz, while King’s Cross Building Site Early Days, 2003, made one think of the city’s hesitant renewal after the lethal terrorist attack there. Even the titular structure of Christ Church, 1992, was a barren, isolated, skeletal construction of black—no longer a home of prayer but a site of despair, an empty shell haunted by the ghosts of imperial England. 

Kossoff’s drawings are uncanny: One can read them as premonitions of the decline and fall—or, perhaps more accurately, of the self-destruction—of (the formerly) Great Britain, now hastened by the conflicts surrounding Brexit. The idea is implicit in the relentless storm of lines that fall like satanic rain across almost every place that the artist pictures. And signs of life are scant. The few people who actually appear in Kossoff’s drawings are reduced to scrawls, ciphers—the dregs of humanity in an inhuman world. One can’t help but think of William Blake, and the first few lines of his 1794 poem “London”: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

There are, however, moments of mild respite: Two of the fifteen drawings on display here, both titled Arnold Circus, 2008–10, were informed by daylight—sparingly in one image (which depicted a bandstand near some denuded trees) and more generously in the other (a rendering of a bend in the road with sturdy-looking buildings and a more sprightly tree). These works are based on the council houses Kossoff grew up in during the 1930s. (Arnold Circus opened in 1896 as part of a larger plan by the British government, known as the Boundary Estate, to create dwellings for the poor.) Kossoff’s parents, Jews who fled Russia in the early part of the twentieth century to escape the country’s pogroms, settled there. And at that time, the flats surrounding Arnold Circus were considered a sanctuary for London’s Jewish community.

Admittedly, this pair of drawings are anomalous. Kossoff’s work is rarely luminous or nostalgic. The artist’s paintings often seem as though they were dredged out of the mud, exhumed from a grave. I suggest that the air of bitterness and misery that informs his oeuvre—and that likewise colored this show—indicates that Kossoff unconsciously feels as persecuted and depressed in London as his mother and father consciously felt when they came to it to save themselves from persecution. The result is a familiar intergenerational passing of emotional pain: The anguish of the parents lives on in the children. Kossoff is using his art to work through the trauma of their transition to a foreign land, inhospitable and alien psychically as well as socially. Any therapeutic result is not successful, I think, for the jarring, insistent gloominess of the drawings suggests that misery continues to overwhelm him. The city is viewed through a dark glass of suffering.