Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Downes Show Debate!

Here we have a response (in yellow) from Daniel Kany to my rebuttal, and my response (in blue) to Mr. Kany's letter in kind. Make of it what you will:

I read your comment about the Downes review with interest and appreciation - it's nice to be taken seriously.

Have you ever read my criticism? I stand by painting and even people like Robert Solotaire. I love landscapes and plein air painting every bit as much as contemporary art.

I think most people don't understand how incredibly radical the Impressionists were. Not just for their technique, but even their painting of contemporary life and even industrial landscapes. That was radical. And it was absolutely noticed at the time.

Downes writes and talks about them and Cezanne and other 19th century greats. They are his target and I believe they are his context now.

Downes used to hire people, for example, to walk back and forth as models for his city scenes - just like Monet used his wife even multiple times in a scene. For example, there is a 1873 painting of his wife and daughter seen twice in the same poppy field in Argenteuil.

I think what you might be missing is that I think Impressionism was THE most radical moment in Modernism. Following Manet's lead, they set the process of modernism to chipping away at the very foundations of painting as a cultural practice.

I believe Downes and I agree on that point and that he has been trying to get past them but doesn't feel he has quite done so. Some of his defining points underscore this - including his long, labored time at the canvas and his arbitrary swoop.

Who else introduced subtle shifts of the time of day other than Monet? Think of his haystacks and the Cathedral at Rouen. Monet also invented the series and when you think in this light, the 6 sided barn and the 4 razor panels make sense more than anything else as a direct response to Monet.

The issues of perspective have been used by many artists for interesting personal effect - I even referenced Van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage of 1434 that makes an incredible deviation from perspective. But for artists from de Chirico to Gregory Gillespie and so many others, this is hardly an issue that belongs to Downes along.

I make it clear Downes is brilliant, intellectually engaged and can paint incredibly well.

I appreciate your comments but I stand in this case by what I wrote.

And my response:

Thank you for responding in kind. I have not ever openly questioned a published critique, so if my tone was anything other than academic, I apologize. My reasons are far from personal. I have no personal connection to Downes, nor does an artist of his stature need any defense from me. After all, he is a well-established critic himself. 

I don't doubt that you stand by painting. I find your emphatic fascination with the importance of Impressionism to be well-warranted; it was indeed a huge leap for painting as a herald for Modernism. And I don't underestimate this movement, either. If you read my comparative essay regarding Vincent Desiderio and John Currin (click to read), you'll see that I give Manet full marks as the progenitor of modern painting.

Believe me, I know well all of what Downes does in order to achieve his pictures. I've seen his journals and sketchbooks at the Aldrich alongside "Under the West Side Highway." It's quite an undertaking. And I wouldn't call the perspectival tropes that Downes employs an "arbitrary swoop." His essay, "Turning the Head In Empirical Space," shows that this is anything but arbitrary. He's explicated his processes regarding this topic in numerous lectures.

I think this is where I need to cite the more important reasons for my response. I don't wish to bandy our art history knowledge about like a tennis ball. I am not an historian, anyway - I am a painter, so that is not really my purview. A contention of mine is that I found your review was, on the whole, sorely negative -- unnecessarily so. I understand that you felt beleaguered by a "cold intellectualism" that you derived from his work. Your opinion is your own, of course. However, your opinion remained rather unexamined and far too empirical in tone. Many of your compliments were backhanded and/or tempered by dismissiveness. You tell me Downes is an incredible painter, yet also "workaday"? What's more important to me - in fact, MOST important - is that this is a major show of an important painter here at our little PMA. Anyone who reads your article will be left with the impression that if they decide to see this show, it will leave them cold, unimpressed and perhaps depressed by intimations of apparent bleakness. Consider this: At a wine tasting, a server pours someone a red and says, "This medium-bodied Tempranillo is redolent of black cherries and earth, with a hint of mild vanilla in the finish." If the taster knows little about wine, they will think they are tasting those basic descriptors (whether the pourer knows what they're saying or not). The power of suggestion is very strong. Why saddle a very worthy show with such joyless opinion?

For that's all I could read in your article. And I have to take issue with that - especially since you heralded the publication with a Tweet that you were "taking a great one to task." Really? And did you? As I'd said earlier, your opinion is your own, and you can certainly stand by it, good or bad. But that can't be all there is in a critical essay; there is no critical rigor to be found there. And those who can't tell the difference will read your review and think that Downes is not worth their time. This is a great disservice to the reader, the Museum and the artist.

You have written what you have written, and I understand that. However, I hope you might come around to enjoy what Downes is REALLY trying to do in his work. I highly recommend his essays in "In Relation to the Whole" (it's in the MLA of my essay on Downes). I found it very edifying as a painter, but also historically fascinating, as each of the three essays encompass three distinct decades of Downes' career. I'm more than hopeful that you will eventually come around, for I can cite your very essay: You found Downes' work to be "gritty and workaday," and so, too did the French public initially find the work of the Impressionists "gritty and ugly." 

And they came around, didn't they?

There may be more to come - who knows?

[edit: 2/15/11 - Mr. Kany and I came to an agreement to disagree via private emails. Frankly, he was fairly intractable and "didn't care" about Downes' acceptance within the contemporary. I find it fascinating and heartening on the other hand. Should that color one's view? I think it's case-by-case. In the case of, say, Damien Hirst, it's clear that the art is more about gaming contemporary critical systems. With Downes, it's much more about effort and diligence, making it far more sincere and, in my eyes, far more laudable.]

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