Three Blue Paintings from the early 1980s
Not Jazz, Kesslering’s Retreat and Haub Goes to Rome use blue in similar ways in relation to movement and that is why I put them together here. They are all small paintings. Blue is differently powerful in small paintings than in big ones. In big ones it envelopes, obviously, as well as being deep (because it’s blue.) In small ones it automatically maximizes weightlessness so that the painting can seek to float off the wall. The only person in art who ever actually controlled blue, as opposed to more or less keeping up with it, was Vermeer.
Not Jazz (82) is called that because it isn’t a direct reference to either jazz or Matisse but then again it is an indirect one. So it may not be Matisse’s painting or meant to be seen as coordinated in regard to a jazz tempo or whatever sort, you can’t get Matisse or jazz out of there either and saying it’s not in that sense makes you see even more how it is—and not quite in the way that Derrida said that ‘ant-fascism’ still has fascism at its center, because it isn’t opposed to what it is and is not and does not seek to be an alternative. In all three of these paintings there’s a general movement upwards (with counter-movements down) but in Not Jazz movement is faster in the middle than at the top or bottom of the sides, and I think it is an art deco collection of movements in all. Hilton Kramer, while editor of the New York Times, disparaged my painting by saying (sometime in the seventies) that they were like thirties paintings but bigger. I don’t think they are but also don’t mind the comparison at all. The thirties is the Chrysler Building and the beginning of plastic, amongst much else beyond which the West as a whole is kidding itself if it thinks that isn’t still with us as an active aspect of the contemporary.
Kesselring was the General in charge of the German retreat from Italy and everyone agrees he was brilliant, the task of holding an army together while withdrawing being held in high regard by those who think about this sort of thing—Bonapart from Russia and Lee from Gettysburg and essentially for the rest of the war being the most often cited. The campaign involved a lot of hilly country, and the movements in it are up and down in reference to that to some extent. Paintings of mine that have titles that are of battles use atmosphere and immediate landscape qualities taken from the place referred to—in Teutoburg the hard to see space of the forest and of darkness, in Masurian Lakes the sandy and swampy open countryside of east Prussia, and in Kesslering’s Retreat (1981) the idea of the terrain being mountainous but filled with Adriatic that is also Alpine light.
I have two stories that go with the painting, one from each of the two sides. Kesslering’s Retreat was in my show at Richard Hine’s gallery in Seattle in 1981, and a German guy came up to me who had been part of the retreat. Having been in it and not a senior officer who know what was going on overall, he had not seen it at the time quite as unambiguously as have military historians but was and had been at the time nonetheless conscious of it as intricate and a success. He liked the painting and had no difficulty seeing the relationship of what happened in the retreat to what happens in it, importantly seeing that it is not a map pf anything, but rather a general movement made of forces and digressions from lower left to top right that act out the theme of movement through evasions which include responses while having an unmistakable direction from which there is little divergence.
My other story is from the British side. One of my old high school literature teachers (to both of whom I dedicated a book of my essays) was in the Signals Corps during the war and attached to an infantry company during the Italian campaign. He wrote a shorty memoir that tells a nice story of the British sort, the sort that makes one wonder how we won. He says that almost the height of any action he saw was when they were failing to make any progress and he called in air support to attack a target that could not budge or destroy. Hours passed and a single ‘plane appeared, fired a rocket at the target (such ‘planes carried only one,) missed wildly and flew home. Calling Headquarters produced—eventually—the message that that was all they were going to get by way of air support today, the Royal Air Force was busy. He enjoyed Italy a great deal and met his future wife there.
Chris Haub is a great painter and one of my closest friends and in 1983 he got a year at the American Academy in Rome. I painted Haub Goes to Rome (1983) to celebrate. Unlike me, Chris loves and knows the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and I put a lot of the color and space that I see in the paintings he likes into this one. Seeing it now also brings to my mind something about my relationship to Poussin. There are movements paralleling one another while leading generally upwards, while simultaneously there are big differences between what happens in different places. The proportion too may ring a bell.