Deep inside every great painting is the question of what it means to paint. Certain paintings reach so far down into the generative process that “the givens” of their tradition themselves can be changed. Reconfigurations made to the substructures of painting — often marking cultural tipping points — become new supports for other planes of thinking and acting. The iterative rearrangement of painting’s fundamentals in the search of ultimate completion is the most salient feature of Cheim & Read’s current exhibition of works by Serge Poliakoff (1900–69).
Curated by artist and critic Joe Fyfe, the gouache-on-paper and oil-on-canvas paintings by the Russian-born, French painter are the first stateside retrospective of his work in 30 years. He’d been neglected in France until the the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris surveyed his work three years ago. This is surprising, given that he was a leading figure of French abstraction, along with Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages, so successful in his lifetime that he dressed like a dandy and drove a Rolls Royce. “I’ll be staking my money on Poliakoff in [the] future of painting,” Kandinsky said. This more famous Russian painter’s bet was prescient (if not financially rewarding). Poliakoff’s work was indeed the future of painting.
In the gallery’s entrance is a 15-by-8-inch vertical gouache painting made of stacked horizontal bands in rainbow colors. It’s the signature, and date of 1937, that let you know it’s not a painting Ellsworth Kelly might have made three decades later. Beyond it in the next room is “Composition Abstraite” (1957), an oil on panel over four feet tall. Like a sideways sunset, it could be mistaken as an experiment by Mark Grotjahn. The horizontal piece “Bleu Rouge” (1951) in the largest room, with two colors interlocked in stalemate, would be comfortable alongside any Andrew Masullo.
Fyfe grounds Poliakoff’s work in the present by quoting in his catalogue essay several artists’ reflections on the forgotten Russian. Shirley Jaffe: “I used to see him sitting at the Deux Magots. He had a real air of authority. … [His paintings] were not developed for the sake of beauty, and they were not gestural, which was much of what French painting was at the time.” Brice Marden: “I liked Poliakoff. I knew of him and his work when I was in Paris in the early 1960s. His paintings were beautifully handled, delicate.” Jonathan Lasker: “His work anticipates color field, but also artists such as Tom Nozkowski and myself.”
Why the artist fell of the map isn’t as clear as why he’s getting put back on it. Poliakoff’s ability to fracture and mend space, illuminate flat planes, and structure abstract forms into a figural unity is as instructive to contemporary painting as it is awakening to witness. The works sustain a restless equilibrium. “Composition Abstraite” (1958), for example, is split symmetrically along a vertical axis which is intersected at the seam of two differently-sized red shapes, above the halfway mark. A horizontal axis placed there would touch the top edge of a white trapezoidal shape on the right, demarcating an “above” and “below”; the canvas is divided into quadrants. And above the central intersection is a radial center out of which an explosion of brush marks bursts and cascades down the painting. The work is a transposition of the Christian cross.
Poliakoff was not the first pioneering abstractionist to employ the cruciform as a structuring device, as he does in most of the works in this show from after 1950. Piet Mondrian’s transitional pieces such as “The Grey Tree” (1911), “The Flowering Apple Tree” (1912), and “Composition No. 10 Pier and Ocean” (1915) employ a cross-based heuristic in their translations of nature, becoming preludes to the more purified verticals and horizontals of his mature style. Kazimir Malevich deployed the Russian Orthodox crucifix, sometimes with the angled footrest (or suppedaneum), as he does in “Mystic Suprematism (Black Cross on Red Oval)” (1920). Poliakoff saw Malevich’s work for the first time in 1952 — his “White on White” (1918) on loan from the Museum of Modern Art — and found more confirmation in the encounter than inspiration; he liked the “vibration of the materials” but not so much the hard geometries. Poliakoff preferred to struggle with the negotiation of boundaries, as if each place of contact between shapes was of its own importance.
Like shapes, works of art throughout history connect themselves to each other in their own ways. Literary critic George Steiner takes this up in his book Real Presences, which Fyfe uses in the catalogue as a theoretical frame. Steiner’s hypothetical scenario in Real Presences is of a city where art criticism does not exist. Art writing that is parasitic or secondary to primary acts of artistic creation is prohibited, which reveals that all worthwhile critical commentary of art is already within art itself as part of its lifeblood. “All serious art, music and literature is a critical act,” Steiner wrote.
Steiner’s core thesis in the book (which Fyfe leaves unexplored) is that within the continuity of art’s interior language, its critique and its transference of meaning, is “the assumption of God’s presence” and a “wager on transcendence.” Steiner’s view would be welcomed by Poliakoff, given that the artist was raised Russian Orthodox and said once of painting, “the picture should bespeak the love of God, even if you don’t believe in God … if you want to get the big music in.”
This statement by Poliakoff might account for his unique manner of achieving “iconicity.” His crosses are embodied, featuring a cranial area, a place where there is typically some form of pictorial event above the central intersection, which is absent in the cruciform works by other painters. In “Composition Abstraite” (1958), mentioned above, it’s the top red shape and outward flowering of brush strokes. In other paintings that space is more subtly articulated. Yet in a template sketch of Poliakoff’s (at left), the angled line, darkened above the center, marks the spot.
Steiner wrote in a later book, Grammars of Creation, that there “are correlations between the eclipse of the messianic and the ‘recession into empty phrasing’ of ‘God’ on the one hand and the evolution of non-representational and aleatory art forms on the other.” This fits Malevich’s “empty” icons. Ad Reinhardt’s darkened crosses and Mark Rothko’s liminal fields come to mind too.
It’s evident in this show that although Poliakoff was eclipsed for decades, he had nonetheless mapped out the next 60 years of abstract painting, at least large portions of it. He took the past — its meanings, symbols, and “the givens” — and renewed it for his time, and now ours. Cheim & Read, with 26 pieces of all scales in five separate rooms, got the big music in.
Serge Poliakoffcontinues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 30.
I am grateful for your article and the photographs of the work, which I will not be able to see for myself. But you have selected a very narrow perspective on Poliakoff. The idea of “the big music” is a tempting one, but these works seem to me to burst right out of such a constraint. They are beautiful, on their own, and for that reason they predict whole fields of abstract work. The work itself is the thing. These paintings, like abstract art to come after them, do not represent or call to mind any one “form,” no matter how grand the reverberations might be for saying so.
Thank you for the article. I always remembered Kandinsky’s strong compliment to Poliakoff partly because I thought it over the top. Personally I find him a very good painter – not great though. Followers or people who take some influence from great painters almost always look weaker. But I find Jaffe and Nozkowski far more compelling than Poliakoff. (Lasker being equal or greater to Poliakoff’s frigidity). Despite the articles attempt at showing religious or spiritual resonance to the work I don’t see that come through in the work. Actually I find it’s weakness in that it’s vision is rather blunt and not particularly rich or layered. As I said, the two previously mentioned painters present a far more rich, nuanced vision.
And one could more accurately say that Mondrian had “mapped out” the last 60 years of painting; and with more seemingly limited means but with far more intensity etc.
Billy, nice observations there. Poliakoff is not a Kandinsky or Mondrian, but neither are any of the (second) School of Paris painters. They are coming back, however; the Art Newspaper calls the OFAs (old French artists) the new YBAs. The “religious” resonance of Poliakoff’s work is stronger in some pieces than others. And all of the work is different in person, of course. It was Matt Connors’ and Patricia Treib’s emphasis on this, in the catalog, that compelled me return to the gallery for a much longer look. The work unfolded over the course of an hour or more. The reason I say Poliakoff “mapped out” 60 years of painting, rather than Mondrian or someone else, is his wider range of work. Mondrian, I agree, is seemingly limited but more intense.
Thank you for the nice article and conversation.
His art is getting most likely “rediscovered” because ABSTRACT art is back in vogue. Abstract art is the perfect art for the “Politically Correct” era we live in.
Abstract art offends no one and no one can question whether it is good or bad. Abstract art is the favorite wall art of corporations and organizations that are in the public eye….because abstract art is very safe – colorful, uncontroversial wall art candy- there will be no complaints from groups pushing an agenda or the media questioning the meaning behind the art.
No one gets fired if the art selected for the halls of the business offends no groups.
Nude art must go in hiding. Figurative art must go in hiding – too sexist, too racist, too religious, too something…bring in a painting with lots of bright colors in an abstract design!
Thank you for accepting this post. Really, I am serious. We do need to have all viewpoints accepted even when they are as uninformed as this.
To Mr. Kaufman. I sorta doubt you will accept my overture, but, if you will keep your mind and eyes open there is a vast visual treasure you might avail yourself of which you seem shut off from at the moment.
Thank you for taking the time to read my post and reply.
You are quite welcome.
You’re not that off- A reason that Boston Expression (aka figurative expression) was outshined by the NY vanguard was that it was dealing with unpleasant realities.
It is a pleasure to see reproductions of Poliakoff’s good, mostly color-field paintings. It is less salutary to see the customary over-inflated claims and art theoretical readings of paintings.
Chiefly, many artists “predicted” the art of the next 60 years. Poliakoff’s work could and probably should have been discussed as standing directly on the shoulders of numerous artists of European modernism — not just Kandinsky, but clearly, Klee, The Blaue Reiter artists, Cubists, Purists, Suprematists, Constructivists, etc., etc. On this continent, 1920’s and 30’s were rife with such future “predictions” — take American Abstract Artists, and Societe Anonyme artists as an example… .
The author’s emphasis on the shape and the significance of the cross in interpreting the artist’s intentions, seems also overblown. From the reproductions of the paintings in this exhibition on the gallery website, many appear simply to be based on the concept of the centralized figure. While suffering and the cross might be deeply in the Russian character, the work in this show does not seem to support the grimmer interpretations; it seems more in the direction of the French gaiety — more Delaunays than Kirchner.
Lastly, I hesitate to point this out, but I generally find Hyperallergic blog posts more tightly edited and proofread. For instance, it seems unlikely Kandinsky praised Poliakoff from beyond his grave: his quote at the opening of this article is dated as 1945, while Kandinsky had reportedly died the previous year. Also, the titles of Poliakoff’s paintings could be consistently quoted in either French OR English, rather than alternating for the same paintings. But let’s not quibble over technicalities, when the larger points do not add up… .
Philip, thank you for pointing out the inconsistencies. I’m sure they’ll get fixed soon.
As for Poliakoff’s direct influences, they would start with Robert Delaunay as the largest. He did not care for Kandinsky’s “scientific” approach to painting. But my article is not about his direct influences.
The emphasis on the cross and even the “embodied” cross is the result of extended looking at the work and confirmation through sketches and more reading. The cruciform is actually a pretty commonly used device. Gary Stephan’s recent show at Susan Inglett was mostly cross-based. Most of Nathlie Provosty’s paintings on view now, at Nathalie Karg gallery, is cruciformal – all but one of the smaller works is. If you are interested in how the cross has been used as a structuring device in modern and contemporary art, I recommend Joseph Masheck’s “cruciformality” articles written for Artforum between 1977-79.
I appreciate your answer and clarification, Rob.
I understand that the main argument of the article, as per its headline, is how Poliakoff “predicted” a good swath of art that followed him. The reason that I mentioned Poliakoff’s evident prior influences, is that very similar claims can be made for so many of the artists that both preceded him and influenced him (we could take the same Paul Klee and look at e.g. interlocking color forms in Poliakoff’s reproduced paintings…). This, to me, is what makes his direct influences directly relevant to bring up, and what broadens this line of argument to too many artists.
As for the cruciform shapes as organizational devices here, I’ve 2 points to add. Broadly, many an artwork that uses prominent vertical and horizontal line and shape arrangement, can be analyzed in just those terms. This is where the rigorously formalist analysis had gone overboard, IMHO. It thrived right around the time you mention, late 1970’s give or take, and was exemplified by the often exhaustingly rarefied writing specifically in Artforum. Having been thoroughly trained in this analysis, I find it on the whole often suspect as to the relevancy to the actual artworks, let alone to the artists’ intentions. When Kandinsky’s semi-hidden imagery of 1910’s was analyzed, it was a significant contribution; when Gorky’s Calendars imagery was identified, it gave a lot of insight into the artist… . In this case though, for this exhibition, I struggled to see its persuasiveness for the one painting to which the “cruciformality” analysis was applied (“Composition Abstraite” 1958). It appears perhaps rather irrelevant to the other works in this exhibition, doesn’t it.
I appreciate though your looking at Poliakoff’s work so closely and bringing it to all of our attention, and hope to catch in person this obviously interesting show.
Philip, my piece was about Poliakoff’s relationship to contemporary art (and “iconicity”), not about other artists. I have written on Klee, as you mention, in a similar capacity; see my 10/28/15 review of “Paul Klee” at Underdonk.
I agree formal analyses can run off the rails. My way of not doing this is invoking something like Karl Popper’s “falsifiability criterion” where hypotheses are made subject to falsification within their formulation. Mine, for Poliakoff, is each painting will have a specific set of trajectories, across the board, that must be there. All of the works after 1950 have it (save one late work, like a lobster claw, lacking anything cranial). I included “Blue Rouge” (1951) above because its cranial mark and space are there, but the hardest to find.
Stephan and Provosty I mentioned use the cruciform; I don’t ascribe any “intentions” to that. Some of Provosty’s works have a cranial area (a circle), but since she’s given no indications of religiosity (outside Theosophy), as Poliakoff did, I don’t make anything of them outside their formality. Stephan had a work with the Star of David superimposed over a cross’ intersection, called “David Rising” (2015), which is interesting. But still, he’s not gone Poliakoff on us with “love of God” stuff.
OK, that’s all for now. Thanks for reading!
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