In May 1981, painter Edith Schloss, who was a staff critic at the International Herald Tribune, published a review of the exhibition New York / New Wave at P.S. 1 (currently MoMA PS1). The review was the first mention ever of a rising young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Later that decade, Schloss penned a letter to Basquiat. She confesses her love for his work and offers him advice. And in a rambling, hyper-critical critique of the art scene in New York, she discusses the work of Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Nell Blaine, Bill King, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Kenny Scharf, Susan Rothenberg, Eric Fischl, Donald Baechler, Jennifer Bartlett, Elizabeth Murray, Francesco Clemente, and others, as well as galleries, including Exit Art, Anina Nosei, and the East Village. This is that letter.
* * *
Letter to Jean-Michel Before It’s Too Late, or New York Art Now
When I saw your first work at P.S. 1 in 1981, I did something bad: on the bricks next to your drawings on typewriter paper I wrote with pencil: “I love these.”
Later, when I called up for more particulars, your manager, and the manager of the whole P.S.1 show, offered me your drawings for one hundred dollars each. But I said I was in the art selling business, not in the art buying business, and in this way I added another item to the long list of lost opportunities in my life. But je ne regrette rien, as my namesake sang.
Before I go any further, dear Jean-Michel, I must explain that I’m a painter, but as a hobby I write art reviews, and once I lived in New York and now I live in Europe.
Then I saw your big scrawly wiry things at the Whitney Biennial 1983.
So penetrating, gay and sad. You were there yourself, dreadlocks and all, jammed into a corner of the staircase by a blonde groupie or two and I told you, “I really like your work.” A foolish non-sequitur, for what can you reply to a thing like that? You stared at me for a moment.
Another time I saw you on another stairs, as you came down with a girl and baby from a one-man show of yours here in Rome. It was at the Diacono Gallery with a painting, which I’m sorry to say was your weakest: someone leading a cow. And Diacono, Italian intellectual that he is, wrote a long schmerbis explaining it all in great philosophical sociological political detail. This painting you had made in the hick town of Modena, the rich little provincial center up river, up the Po, where they invited you to have your first one man show ever. (Rauschenberg also had his first one man show here in Italy, in Rome, but that is neither here nor there.)
And later I saw those anatomical things at Anina Nosei’s in Soho and then the three stunners at the graffiti art show in Bologna last year. That to me was worth going to Bologna for a rainy weekend (besides the marvelous bolognese pasta, I must admit.)
Just now in New York I saw you at Mary Boone’s. Even if most of the paintings weren’t as good as they used to be, except for the small one on the wooden slats, yours was one of the two best shows in New York in April 1985.
The other good show was of [Philip] Guston’s late work — a bleeding finger, a shoe, a hooded face; my god, as simple as a road sign. Go look at Guston, Jean-Michel, as you grow older, look at that punch.
Every time I mentioned that show to anyone they would say one of two things: Either: “I liked the abstract Guston before better,” or: “The late Guston is the real Guston.”
Elliott Carter said: “But the late Gustons are like cartoons.” When I told this to Connie Fox while we were looking at these Gustons again (flesh pink skyscrapers? Canvases looking at you like eyes?) she said: “Of course they are like cartoons.” You too are like cartoons. So I am, I hope, like cartoons.
Then there was this Anselm Kiefer show, great pictures, dramatic pictures. But also what scheming, what melodrama, what Walpurgisnacht (Beuys, Wagner — all that old German Mumbo Jumbo). I, who don’t like big pictures, liked his big pictures best, all that grey grimy lead, the bloody straw, hanging ribbons with staples on them still. He has a beautiful grasp of materials, but when it comes to his smaller pictures, it all gets too ornamental, too figured out. They’re like Doré prints, like old Victorian mirrors.
Then, in the same building, I saw something completely different from this, or from you, or from me: pleasant flower pieces for pleasant homes by old Nell Blaine. She was my pal, or rather my guru, in Bebop times — she took me with her gang to listen to Pres, to Bird, to Dizzy.
You would not believe she ever did intense grey and black intelligent abstractions in the forties before you were born, if you just saw this flowery stuff now. Nevertheless, her color is good. And something of the old days lurked in some lavender and pale gray shadows thrown by — of things — a geranium.
Still in another gallery in the same building were some pieces, not in a show, by Bill King. Here’s another great American. His sculptures are thin, lanky, and flat pieces of metal. They have a quick elegant pull. Bill loves American folk art and it shows. His stuff is uncanny — it looks simple and fluid — but there’s a lot of wit behind it. As you should look at Guston, so you should look at him.
In Bill’s gallery there were some works by Arthur Dove., He’s one of the earliest abstract artists in America. He looked at the heart of flowers, tree trunks, stones. He listened to them and then he extracted their essence, so to speak. It was an abstraction derived from mystic romantic experience.
I also saw paintings by Marsden Hartley from roughly the same period (the twenties) in America. Marsden did landscapes and seascapes like no one else. Steel blue skies over rusty mountains and snow-white clods of clouds, tree trunks like the spikes on a fence. These leaning splintery beams of people, these lighthouses, this blood blue sea could only be North America, Maine. (It makes [Paul] Resika downtown look even more fuzzy and unspecific, his Rockport Cape Anne could be the South of France, and his South of France could be Rockport.)
Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley were loners. They weren’t part of a movement, or an art set or of a trade union of art in a big center. This independence is good and also bad. There is something uneven in their development, something spotty and awkward. They were pioneers, but they went here and there and lacked a little flow.
Dove and Hartley have something to do with a show I saw at the Exit Gallery and with some of the shows at the Miller Gallery.
“The Exit gallery is where it’s at,” I told two traveling Italian painters, who thought your show was the freshest of all. They had been befuddled and repelled by the Whitney Biennial (except for Kenny Scharf which they and I thought was hilarious).
Did you open the door near the beribboned but working telephone booth in the corner between the decorated lady’s and men’s rooms? I did! I thought: in there, in the broom closet, was the funny heart of the show. In it were all the brushes which Kenny had used to day-glow everything.
The curators usually only look at the obvious and are usually behind the times, only selecting “new” trends when they are practically over. I ask you: what’s new about [Elizabeth] Murray making holes in doors and giving them funny names, and all those blinking on and off constructions like small town department store window dressings? Yes, there was a bit of good painting in [Susan] Rothenberg and [Eric] Fischl (although their subject matter was like illustration).
But now I’m coming to the girl who paints those huge seedpods, at the Exit Gallery show called “Surplus.” This was where it was at, never mind the Whitney. Afterwards they said 400 people came to the opening. Could be — there were 33 artists and each brought friends and relations. This was real painting — painting with a vengeance. Everything was by brush, by hand, more or less gutsy, hit or miss. Nothing was exceptionally good, but there was energy, and a pushing for freedom. For real freedom even though no one was very mature.
What predominates is the gnarly new abstraction; something that comes remotely from Arthur Dove. A kind of romanticism, a back to nature, but guarded, perhaps subconsciously influenced by close-up photos in nature magazines. Some, especially women, paint a heart, a womb, a symmetric shape. There are shapes whizzing around like spinning tops. The colors are there, but dark and subdued. Purples, blood reds, greens, not pretty but muddy. All this isn’t quite straight. This crusty romanticism is somehow held in — it’s just not cool to be outright about it.
Another direction in this show is a kind of roughness derived from you and graffiti art. It’s gawky, would-be unschooled, and its ugliness in biting yellows, dirty beiges, and dusty blacks has real punch. It’s nasty figures, a bit of pop art background, strange birds and animals and humans. This “graffitism” is less developed than the first trend, more tentative and with fewer exponents.
The third trend is a newfound clean abstraction with line and geometric figures. It’s energetic and neat, as if other hard edge, older abstraction had never existed. It is sometimes based on charcoal line, or line scratched into paint, and tries to be dynamic. And there is an abstraction of good plain fields of glowing color, with a few curvy flourishes, close to romanticism again. There’s Rochelle Feinstein, and I have seen other abstractions like this by Katherine Koch, who lives in Virginia.
So there’s gnarly nature abstraction, graffitism, and a new kind of straight abstraction — roughly.
What we don’t need is Jennifer Bartlett. It’s hard to believe that such a lot of people go for this sort of thing. When they said bitchily in the Village Voice that it’s yuppie art, by God they were right. This woman does big paintings of beaches with striped cabins on them, with boats in the wishy-washy water in front of them. In fact, everything is a little wishy-washy. Each canvas is sort of unfinished on one side, so the next could take up the theme and leave it dangling for the next and so on. A row of landscapes left unfinished on purpose? She can’t paint landscapes anyway, a successful landscape painter pal of hers from Yale told me. All these nicely fragmentary paintings are not committed to real painting but form a tableau together with the real wooden boats and real wooden striped cabins on the gallery floor before them. She can’t miss — she pleases the last admirers of concept art and pleases the first admirers of new figurative art. The whole chic display is nice and friendly for people in the suburbs and collectors in the sticks to have nice big set-ups to prove they are with it.
There is someone else who is even more with it than Bartlett, in a visceral way, who appeals to the guts of spoiled inner city New Yorkers who believe they are so sophisticated. He has also had a bad show, nay three shows.
I knew [Francesco] Clemente years ago in Rome. Dressed in black even then, hanging around the scene in Campo Dei Fiori and in the right galleries, never saying anything to give himself away (like all Italians in this country that have always been overrun by rapacious invaders and held tight by corrupt priests and corrupt politicians, you don’t let anyone know about your affairs, your worth, your intentions, who you have associated with. It doesn’t pay to be frank). Clemente’s squiggles on graph paper in conceptual times didn’t say anything either. You could call them enigmatic at best, or stingy with news or simply dull. I didn’t even think there was enough there for me to write about. But after that he was groomed for the Transavanguardia and now he lets his peculiar little secrets hang out for all to see: penises in unheard-of places, fig-shape pussies. All kinds of cutely upside down sexual fruit make intriguing tableaux for people who only want to be tickled by art, or have their jaded tastes stirred. But I must admit these little semi-porn drawings are more amusing than a stuffy New Yorker cartoon.
Naughty, naughty, Francesco. But you are even naughtier in your watercolors. Who said if they gave you a set of watercolor paints, some brushes and some water you could just make watercolors? You don’t have a clue what watercolors are about. It takes years to learn that. And yours are so unfresh, so tired already. The big paintings, acrylics or whatever, look like theater backdrops, in black and blue and purple. They have big stains here and there or are livened up with little manikins, death heads, more sex symbols, sugary self-portraits. The most interesting thing about these big stretches of cloth with paint on them is that they weren’t even painted by you, Francesco. Here in Italy the word is that you flew your little helpers to New York and let them mess around prettily, put in a figure or two, and that was that. There’s something laughingly smart-alecky about all this, but it’s sickly and tired.
What’s in the East Village is sick too. Everyone seems to be proud of having no go, no oomph, keeping everything as ugly and banal as possible. It’s not naïve or primitive (which is not knowing any better but still full of joy) it’s just sullen. These are hard, ugly times — why should anyone try? let’s do ugly non-art pictures, let’s not be good. Let’s not learn from others. No talent is the talent.
But somewhere in the East Village, I saw something good, not in a gallery. In his tiny studio that shakes every twenty minutes as the IRT passes under, Jeffrey Isaac is another kettle of fish. An outsider to Catholicism, he likes the idea of saints, and transposes them and wildlife somewhere in New York streets and other unlikely places. Some, with their colors and old landscapes in hunting lodges with their lions and eagles, have the odd look of old oleographs. In one oil, from the shelves of a Turkish cloth shop, lined entirely with bolts of cloth in all the colors and patterns comes zooming out of a hawk or an owl, like a new hatched moth. In another picture of a Soho street there’s a trashcan with a holy glow as if a saint would flame up any minute. Isaac makes the supernatural – a naked saint with one leg walking through a crowd, Marilyn Monroe on a zebra – into natural everyday occurrences without batting an eyelash.
In another studio I saw Marthe Keller’s angular abstractions. They were dark and of great poise; straight lines and shapes with steps, the shadows of ziggurats or pyramids. There is grandeur about it all. Marthe’s work is good and positive, done in relative obscurity.
Then I saw Edward Dugmore. I had dinner with this old abstract expressionist, bitter, loud, cussing, disgusted with getting old, but with a fire in his eye under his grey curls. I thought, here’s another old timer grinding out his old abstractions, beige big things with slashes here or there, looking like giant figures but not meant to.
I went upstairs to the loft in which he lives with his wife Eadie, who is the only photographer I like. She makes photographs of ponds and barns and windows in Maine that are as sweet and real as when you see the thing at first sight. They are like a real smelly summer day with its reflections right before you, and there’s a wry wit and sadness in them too. This dirty old loft was chock full of collections of things, with the usual big bed, and the usual big table loaded with books and announcements, and the usual stacks of huge canvases facing the wall. I was afraid that when Dug would turn one of these around I would have to mouth the usual polite compliments and inside I would be quite bored with the same old stuff. But it wasn’t like that.
He revealed a very large squareish canvas and I was left breathless. A big field of subtle colors, a small impulse, a pulse here, a directional lash there. It was bright and glowing. It added up to a wonderful, moving experience. It went through and through.
Here’s a mature painter, a master who knows what to do with his craft and his troubles. No wonder he is in this great hard rage, when his work should be shown and isn’t, and terrible stuff chokes the galleries instead. This was painting the way painting should be. Abstract yes, but abstraction of feelings of experience turned into brushings and color and marks which speak to you. I also saw a kinship with Twombly in it — but didn’t tell him so, because at dinner he had almost spit in my eye when I mentioned Cy. Another painting with darker patches, brushed with steady emotion, was in homage to his lifelong friend Ernie Briggs, who died last year. Man, here is someone who won’t compromise. Here is someone not afraid to give away everything.
I also saw the silk screens and pastels of a very young artist [Tom Burckhardt] whose parents are both artists and to whom I am somehow related. He had always made little clay monsters, and once he had liked a watercolor of mine with a row of vases filled with flowers which he thought were monsters with eyes, and we made a trade. (He gave me a cardboard owl for it which is still on my wall.) Now he makes brash, straightforward portraits of truck drivers, and of cars crashing into trees. There’s a bit of [Red] Grooms in them, of [Alex] Katz, of [Richard] Bosman, all of whom he knows personally. But about it all is something of his own, funny and uninhibited, and he knows exactly what he is doing.
Guston’s cartoons are tragic. Your cartoons, Jean-Michel, have a sense of the inevitable behind them too, of suffering in the streets and ghetto. But Tom looks at the world as just too blunt and comic. His father said let’s hope he keeps this openness; he means this staring the world as it is in the eye, as if it was beginner’s luck. I don’t think it is. When Tom came to my show he smiled, guffawed and looked serious in turn in front of each picture, and I have a hunch he was the only one in New York who really understood.
Here’s something easy to describe: a woman cuts into Styrofoam — a material so abrasive and hot to the touch, so incongruously light — and covers the giant chunks by squeezing acrylics on them with a cake icing syringe. So the surfaces of the huge pie slices are sometimes fleeced with fat gobs, sometimes only stippled with paint by brush. These hunks like nougat or sections of insects are then mounted on long thin black iron rods so they look like candy or sexless bugs on stilts.
Her face is pretty, her speech gentle, and she serves strawberries. But the hard angles of her jaw betray her. At a dinner party, some nights earlier, she and some of her women friends who were also artists put everyone down; saying things like, “this one ‘does business’ in Europe” instead of saying he has shows there. They were negative about you, me, Guston, Twombly, everyone before them. I wanted to hear their opinion about the current Caravaggio show, or the show of the Matisse drawings with the strange bias towards his stiffest, most labored work, or about the Egyptian section of the Met which had just seen – but nothing doing.
Most of the older painters, and some of the younger ones I know, talk about technique, paints, and other painters. True, some of the older ones, who are not able to get into the tightly closed shop of the fancy operators, get by teaching, and are bitter that they do not get the fair recognition they deserve. But they are interested in the past, and the present too, besides being interested in “where it’s at.” But these women were like bloodhounds, sniffing after the spoor of quick success, interested in nothing but that, and gossip.
I listened to them until suddenly I heard myself say: “You are so aggressive, you don’t talk like artists, there’s nothing poetic about you.” Upon which the woman who works with Styrofoam snapped: “We’re into survival. We can’t all be ladylike like you!” She meant: (a) You seem to get along somehow and don’t need to fight for income, or (b) You are too old to understand us young people. But survival is a serious word, sister, and I know a lot of young people who, thank God, think the way I do.
In the studio she showed me slides (everyone subjects you to the slide torture in New York, even if the original work is all around you). They are in up-to-date colors, orange, green, purple, black, big hunks of material of indeterminate weight, on iron rods, toylike, displaylike and puppyish, bland. Yes, above all, inoffensive and bland.
She mentions several times she has an assistant, as if she were proud of it. “She’s this girl from upstate New York. She’s a sculpture student at some college, and working as an intern she gets some points. But she’s out of it, she doesn’t understand anything. Her own work is these tiny pieces. She still works in wood and in marble, stuff like that. She doesn’t look at my work, she doesn’t look around.” She sighs, “she has no interest in New-York-Now.”
And what precisely is “New-York-Now”?
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the artist Jeffrey Isaac as “Geoffrey Isaacs.” It has been corrected.