Invective Against Swans
High Line highlights

A sunny day in New York last week, exploring the Chelsea galleries. I have a folk memory of Chelsea (from my undergraduate excursions to far-flung diners and cavernous night clubs) as the unchartered periphery of the city, rubbing up against the Hudson River, a hinterland of piers and warehouses. It still has that rough and seedy feel (despite the incursions of high end designers like Comme des Garçons and Balenciaga); the galleries mixing with garages and light manufacturing units, happily ignoring the other in the jostle, but still borrowing from their industrial neighbours a certain aesthetic: all concrete and brick, unadorned, no-nonsense.

So once inside the vast empty space of Ameringer McEnery Yohe, Suzanne Caporael’s small and delicate collages might have been lost. But they had a powerful cumulative effect. As I approach, I realise there is something familiar about the paper they are on, until I’m even closer and realise from the reassuring greyish white that they are pages from The New York Times, identifiable, as some still contain snippets of text or the date. The title of each piece is taken from the particular location in small-town America where it was created, where the out-of-town artist took solace in finding the familiar paper, a daily ritual. The collages are all about ritual, tracking time (there even in the paper’s name, not just ‘time’ but the ‘times’ in which we live) recording place, each the same size. I like the suggestion of important news about to be imparted, instead replaced (or obscured) by these Matisse-like blocks of colour. The New York Times has a particular madeleine-like resonance for me as my parents’ paper of choice, the symbol of accurate information and correct politics to me as a child (my mother, although four years in London, still reads it every morning online). So I understand Caporael’s use of the paper as a base for her collages: newspapers mark not only ritual, but the beginning of the day, waking to what is happening in the world over orange juice and coffee. As a displaced east coast American, I can understand what it is like to find the Times, like an old friend, somewhere far from home (I have the same feeling now when I seek out the Guardian on foreign newsstands).

Her work chimes for me with the drawings of Anne Truitt, on show at Matthew Marks. Truitt was a sculptor, who’s experience as a nurse’s aide in the 1940s made her acutely aware of the human body (she made her first-year art students draw a skeleton and read Vesalius). She said ‘the true space you are living in is inside yourself, not on the outside .’ Interesting, then, that her drawings seem to be about architecture – geometrical constructions that explore three dimensions in two, unlike the flat planes in Caporael’s collages. However, what Truitt and Caporael have in common is in their attempt to understand special relationships through colour. After discovering the paintings of Barnett Newman, Truitt felt that ‘color rose up and towered over me and advanced towards me.’ Truitt talks about ‘metaphorical color’ the sense of ‘color having meaning’, and I know what she’s on about. If you put blue on the page, you are stating all the associations of blue – with melancholy or sadness, or truth or fidelity. So the drawings are about spaces, not actual physical spaces, more like mental states, planes of discovery, moments where things become lucid, make sense through seeing (and seeing brings awareness).

Here is Truitt, writing in 1950, about the experience of driving 270 miles through the night on a Texas road from San Antonio to Midland:

The road was absolutely straight in front of me, and had broken lines, or yellow lines, which helped. There was a big space on either side of the road, which was a Macadam road, and then space on either side, and beyond the space there were fences and behind the fences there was tumbleweed. It was very beautiful really. And every now and then I’d see those little eyes, these little eyes of rabbits in the headlights. And I’d just drive. Sometimes I’d drive for five, ten, fifteen minutes without seeing a living thing, or even any lights. And then I would see way off in the distance, I’d see one light. Which meant somebody was alive out there. The rest was completely flat, like being a pea on a skating rink. Above me was this huge arch of sky. My whole concept of space changed during those hours. Luckily I was alone. There was no radio. I wouldn’t have played it if there was one. Complete silence, and the wind, and this wonderful space. One of the happiest memories I have. Hard to get enough space in life. So that changed my life.

I think of the lines and planes of roads as I come away from those drawings, back into the street, and then up, on to the High Line; a place that didn’t exist (well, at least not in its current form) the last time I was in the city. The High Line was built in the 30s as an elevated track to move freight trains. Joel Sternfeld took beautiful photos of the derelict line in the 80s, an eerie, abandoned place, already a park of sorts, but not an official one. Now it is beautiful again, in a different way, with ornamental grasses and flowers growing in between the tracks. Rus in urbe. From here, you see the city differently than from street level; not so high you can’t see pedestrians below, but high enough to give perspective. A whole block is laid out before you, the city’s grid exposed along four corners. At one point suspended over the road you can sit on a bench and watch the traffic on Tenth Street passing beneath. True, it is calmer than street level, but the city rumbles on, as ever, on below.

Dark Blue Square

 

St Ives remains with me even now I’ve returned to the urban hub of Stockwell – the hard beauty of the landscape matched by the clarity of the artists who depicted it. So with the landscape still very present, I was saddened to read of the passing on Sunday of Breon O’Casey, one of the last of the generation of St Ives artists apprenticed to Hepworth at Trewyn. It is of particular interest to me that O’Casey came from a literary background – his father was the playwright Sean O’Casey, a contemporary of Yeats. It is perhaps too easy then to say that his paintings have the feeling of small moments arrested in time: birds captured mid-flight, landscapes reduced to the elemental (a field in spring, a group of circles resembling a cairn or pagan stones, a constellation suspended in a night time sky). There is the exuberance of the French painters he loved, Braque and Matisse, but in the restrained and earthy palette of the Penwith School.

It was only a few months ago that I went to a show of his work at Somerset House. I didn’t actually know it was on; I’d just come from the Courtauld where there was a show of Cezanne’s sketches for The Card Players (an interesting transition, as it happens). It was a bleak winter day, flat grey and featureless; the sort of day you get in London in January and February, when one day blends into the next and seems to go on forever, and you are just waiting for a small sign of spring. And O’Casey cheered me, with his simple birds and flat squares of pure colour – the sort of painting that looks simple enough (well, maybe to those who can’t paint) but which is pared down and spare and studied, like a poem by Charles Simic. Difficult to accomplish without being twee or shallow. But O’Casey’s work is resonant, meaningful.

Take for example this painting, one of his many stylised depictions of birds, the title of which is Dark Blue Square. In that title there is a statement about proportion, measurement; I think of the way the sky is viewed from the ground, slivered between buildings or trees. It is a portion of sky, like the painter’s own patch. But then it appears in the bottom left of the picture, not at the top as we’d expect, so maybe our bird is swooping over a lake or reservoir. There is a paler shade of blue just touching its body – a shadow, a memory of light. The two brown columns that hold it are like tree trunks, or legs. A simple juxtaposition of shapes and colours, the colours simplified to brown, white, blue. But it’s the blue O’Casey wants us to focus on, bright and vital against the dark brown, the bird just passing through.

It’s like the last soldiers of the Great War, all those artists of that generation passing. They brought us modernism, which might feel like old hat now, but they were pioneers then (with Hepworth cracking the whip). And the work still feels valid and exciting.