Review – The language of painting, says John Berger, “is capable of expressing spiritual experience but always within a concrete setting, always circumscribed by a certain materiality.” He is talking about representation, and says much more than the quotation I have picked which, out of context as it is, might just as well say “painting needs to be painted”. That is worth saying. Painting, however obviously this is, does need to be painted: to lock a spiritual experience into a form of some kind does seem to be the constant goal of the 500 years of Western painting which includes Rita Ackermann’s latest offering, “Fire by Days”.
Ackermann has spent much of her career trying to dodge association with anything longer than a New York minute. This was certainly the backdrop to her 2 May 2012 New York Times interview (Rita Ackermann gets interviews in the New York Times, in the Fashion section. She sits on a stool in Williamsburg, says the interview’s opening. I take all of this as wonderfully indicative). But the interview stressed she doesn’t do that anymore: “But that was then. These days Ms. Ackermann, 44, is bent (so she says) on distancing herself from the scenesters, hipsters and rabid fashionistas who helped put her on the map. “I don’t need that kind of attention anymore,” she said brusquely. “I don’t feel that it takes my work anywhere. Fashion is not the world I’m striving for.””
“But these days, there is nothing overtly seductive or chic about her work, which hovers unsettlingly between the figurative and the abstract, not much for style-struck fans to hold on to. Not that she would want them to. “In fashion,” she said, “everything has to be so well packaged and pretty. It gives the artist less chance to experiment.”” Ackermann is thinking, and seemingly attempting to elongate the time she is new for. Earlier in 2012 she showed at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery, New York, had a major exhibition in Budapest and a mid-career retrospective in Miami. And now this, at Hauser and Wirth Piccadilly I’m not sure whether I can really say that “fashion” is the opposite of “spiritual experience”, as I think that depends on the individual Fashion Week goer, but Ackermann, now in what is officially called “mid-career”, seems to be wanting something more in the line of spiritual experience: as the poem that gives the exhibition its title says: “The bird of pale air/Flies/In a swift white line/On black space/A brushstroke/Signifying absence”, which isn’t a very good poem but certainly seems more mystical-artsy than her breakout pseudo-paedophillic shock-artsy past.
The 500 years of Western painting including Rita Ackermann is so easily summed up as “spiritual experience: entrapped” because the phrase “spiritual experience” can cover a great many things. Rita Ackermann’s is about momentary freedom from rules that comes during an accident, specifically spilling paint all over her floor and mopping it up using a “Hungarian fire safety poster.” (Ackermann is Hungarian-American. I didn’t expect her to cart loads of Hungarian stuff around with her all the time even if it does make for a wonderfully cohesive press release,) nevertheless the spiritual experience is translated to something material, in this first case the repeat actions you use to mop up a spillage and the rearranging of paint that occurs. Ackermann then explains
I wanted to then duplicate the pure power of the accident and through this image, multiply its freedom. By repeating the elements of the raw creation of a “disaster” and failing to keep it from unintentional “learned” gestures, I succeeded at arriving something that violently pushed itself between figuration and abstraction, pushing through to make itself completely free.
There is a kind of tension between the violence of the accident and the pacifying that action with the largely ritualised act of painting. All this seems quite incarnatory, and I suppose it is, but the interesting thing here is the “learned gestures”, which are apparently peace-making and rationalising.
Those gestures are still what most people expect to get out of certain art schools, and certainly what older pupils wanted from their ateliers. The general nature/nurture debate seems to have been settled by saying “it’s a bit of both” and now science is trying to work out in what ratio for what particular action, but it seems logical that the history of western painting is based around a hierarchy of “who made the best gestures”. Why does this portrait glimmer while that one doesn’t? Why does so-and-so catch the curve of a throat better than such-and-such? These things are not a question of technique but one of spark, which is largely a religious question and one that some people seem to come off badly from for no apparent reason other than that they always have, like poor Andrea del Sarto. One curve is nicer than another curve, but no one can really say why.
The example of Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II is a good one, though about colour. For years, the original hung in the Uffizi, Florence. Then, in 1970 opinion changed. Now the version in the National Gallery London bears the spark of Raphael that signals it out as the original. I was once told that you can tell the original (the person was talking from the perspective that the London version was it) by the subtle difference in colour harmony.
Now the idea of “learned gestures” comes up here, and has great relevance to Ackermann. If we assume the original is better because it is by Raphael, then we also have to assume that Raphael had something so refined in his complete gesture (the painting of Pope Julius II) that it taps into something that we suppose to be instinctual and common to all humans’ perception (…because Raphael is an amazing painter: there is a certain tautology about this. However they are different forms of an identical painting, and one seems to strike people more than the other, whether by Raphael or not. Although perhaps this preference is about more than just the paintings themselves). This kind of mystic essentialism seems to have been the catalyst for a whole range of abstract painters, certainly the Abstract Expressionists (a group which Ackermann seems to be a granddaughter and late part of) and their English equivalents in St. Ives: that pure colour and form was more immediately emotive than trapping form and colour in figurative/representational-making boundaries.
So if this “spark” that is visible to all humans everywhere, and is universally appealing when it arises, actually exists, what does this mean for Ackermann’s rationalising peacekeeping gestures? The question is, after all this, how refined are Ackermann’s gestures in suddenly producing spark? How learned are her instinctual gestures (or how instinctual are her learned gestures)? And, also, how can the use of these gestures possibly work for her ends (freedom and accident), given that they are “learned”, and thus have a 500 year precedent (or if these gestures have been refined over the evolution of human sight and hand-eye coordination: since human’s arrived) and therefore are almost intrinsically derivative? Perhaps the history of art isn’t a hierarchy of gestures, but a ranking of people’s skill at the same gesture. And, if this is so, perhaps this means human perception of beauty (or any emotion) is stronger and more vivid the closer it tends towards distilled cliché. (Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, the final graveside scene in Saving Private Ryan, and Yeats’ When You Are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep are all different takes on the same, moving cliché).
Ackermann’s line we have certainly seen before, because we have enjoyed it before. Presumably so has she. It may be somewhere in Manet, but is most obviously and clearly in Matisse’s drypoint-on-paper (significantly most of which concentrate on the female nude form), and then in my eyes is nearly identical to Roger Hilton’s work of the 60s and 70s, like e.g. “Oi Yoi Yoi” and “Dancing Woman”, where he puts this line to work with a kind of visceral scratchiness. I can also see something like it in the drawing of Simba on a rock by the wise baboon in Disney’s “Lion King”, and the red shade might help with that too, which takes us back to the idea of the primordial line, or at least a modern imagining of it. Colour-wise, it’s Jasper Johns and Sandra Blow (I wonder if those two have been put together before…), and “Fire By Days” II and III especially have that red line running around the edge of the canvas, plus the blue Ackermann uses, that was Sandra Blow’s late trademark to the extent that she had strips of these colours painted around the edge of the front of her semi-detached house in St. Ives. I have also seen the kind of sand-like texture used by Blow as well. Her line is made from a spray can rather than drypoint or oils, which means speed to the viewer (although it needn’t necessarily be any faster than anything else). Ackermann has many many precedents.
Which is probably a good thing- it helps to have guidelines when you start from accident and mess. Occasionally this beginning in mess shows in some of the “Fire by Days” ones, and you just get a splat or a mess about which you get the feeling Ackermann didn’t quite have the verve for the really honest self-criticism that would have dis-included it. But starting from a mess is a new idea. Common conception of painting is that you start with a blank canvas, which is a white void onto which you impose structure with line and colour. Roger Hilton used to speak of “space-creating pictures”- space would be engendered ex nihilo from the blankness by the act of painting. Ackermann starts with everything, with a chaos full of noises, and tries to rope it into some semblance of order through “an affair of instinct and intuition” (Hilton’s words) manifested in training (Ackermann’s). But in this ordering and “pacifying” process I’m not really sure what the main event is- line, colour, form; they don’t seem to interlock in the way an abstract painting really should, even after post-structuralism etc., because painting is all abstract painting has and it still important to do a good job of that no matter what you want to say about it afterwards.
The promising thing in Ackermann is that all three elements are definitely there to amaze. “Fire by Days XV” has the most intense and captivating red in it, infinitely depthful. Form-wise there is just enough in it to suggest a female body, occasionally voluptuous, occasionally not, but not really enough for you to have any grounds in saying why. Number III has something of the Turin Shroud about it. Ackermann’s skill at the art-gesture- the curve that each great artist has managed to make a personal, distinctive modification to- is there as well, though not quite developed into her own. Through the learned gesture she has walked out of fashion and smack bang into tradition. These paintings are promising, but aren’t quite serious enough about being serious to win in the terms set out for them. Painting is an elephant, fashion is a goldfish.
*** 3 Stars Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Rita Ackermann, Hauser and Wirth Piccadilly, 18th Sept- 3rd Nov 2012