The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

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OCT 2018 Issue

Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet

Claude Monet, Les Nymphéas, Musée de l’Orangerie. Photo © Musée de l’Orangerie, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Crépy Boegly.

On View
Musée de L’Orangerie
April 13 – August 20, 2018

The Musée de l’Orangerie’s temporary galleries rarely have occasion to acknowledge Claude Monet’s storied murals installed in the sky-lit upper level of the museum, but with The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet, Orangerie’s Director, Cécile Debray, puts these expansive panels and seven smaller late Monets in inspired dialogue with twelve American Abstract Expressionist painters. Following up on the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s Monet in the 20th Century (1998), the results raise issues with 21st century implications.

Monet initiated The Waterlilies in 1914 as the German artillery fired in the distance; he then donated the works to France after the 1918 armistice but continued working on them until his death in 1926. Restored after they were damaged in World War II, these works, once condemned as monotonous and without structure, suddenly found an audience of young American abstract painters taken by their radiant, horizonless cycles of sunrise and sunset attuned to the expansive mood of postwar America. In 1952, Ellsworth Kelly, a young American just discovering French art, saw some of the large panels still mounted on movable easels in Monet’s abandoned studio at Giverny. When he returned to his own studio, he painted the small monochrome Tableau Vert (1952), which is exhibited at the entrance to the great elliptical galleries. Animated by dense layers of blue and green that suggest submerged grasses, it’s an innocent and uninhibited dive into color. That leap into color is examined more fully in the exhibition itself.

As tourists crowd Monet’s restored gardens, and the Water Lilies are reproduced on screen-cleaning cloths in the gift shop, Impressionism maintains a sway comparable to that of Abstract Expressionism in the American psyche. Juxtaposing a 1915 film of Monet painting in his garden to Hans Namuth’s 1951 film of Jackson Pollock dripping paint, the show unites two mythic figures: Monet, the archetypal Impressionist, whose Impression, Sunrise (1868) gave the movement its name, and Jackson Pollock, whose floor paintings evoke Native American rituals and the Transcendentalism of Whitman and Thoreau. Pollock encourages a myth of autochthony, as though his art arose from America’s vast landscape, while Monet mingles European and Japanese traditions, based in a garden of his own construction. Pushing Impressionism to its limits—both optically and physically—his works intrigued Americans driven by inchoate ambitions, and impatient with the constructed forms of Cézanne and Cubism.

“Late Monet” can seem more an elusive dream, a contested critical territory, than a subject for art historical study. But it is important to remember, the American interest in Monet emerged against the grim background of the Depression and World War II, and served as an escape from the urban context of modernism. Debray might have done more to establish that context, building on American Art of the 1930s (2016-17), a well-received collaboration between the Orangerie and the Chicago Art Institute, that placed American modernism in a broad economic and cultural frame. Critic Harold Rosenberg’s “Action Painting,” associated with the gritty, cubist-inspired abstraction of Willem de Kooning, reflects those origins in its focus on existential crisis, on dense gestural marks rather than fields of color.

Ellsworth Kelly, Tableau Vert, 1952. Oil on wood, 74.3 x 99.7 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of the artist, 2009. Photo courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

It was Clement Greenberg who bridged the gap between Pollock and Monet, linking Pollock’s dissolution of sculptural forms to Monet’s luminous, overall compositions, to define “American-Type Painting” and secure its formal foundation in the European tradition. In the process, he brought together artists who hadn’t been directly influenced by Monet but whose work suited his agenda. Debray herself follows the lead of Michael Leja, who surveyed the shifting response to Monet more broadly in his essay for Monet in the 20th Century (1998) at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, by extending her range beyond Greenberg’s to include artists associated with “Abstract Impressionism.” It’s defined by art historian William Seitz, whose emphasis on the spirituality of Monet’s relation to nature pulls him under the broad umbrella of American Transcendentalism, and by artist/critics Elaine de Kooning and Louis Finkelstein, who open connections to landscapes evoked by feelings and memories, like those of Joan Mitchell and Philip Guston. Leja sees a “suburbanization” of Abstract Expressionism in this appeal to broader popular taste, much as Rosenberg saw commercialization in Greenberg’s formalist agenda. Debray stays above these debates. If Greenberg predominates in wall texts and videos, his narrative of all-over composition leading to dematerialized fields of color accounts for only some of the works on view, which suggest alternatives. Does painting’s crisis resolve itself in flat fields of color? Does Monet lead us into the transcendental mysticism evoked by Finkelstein, or leave us mired in inchoate layers of crusty pigment?

The show includes one “precursor,” Mark Tobey, who developed his calligraphic “white writing” on travels in Europe in the 1930s. Its delicate veils foreshadow the all-over dissolution of sculptural forms that Greenberg celebrates in Pollock’s “powdery mists.” Greenberg also sees in Monet’s late development an increasing focus on the foregrounds of his landscapes, a flattening which demanded larger scale, and which taught him that “paint on canvas had to breathe; and that when it did breathe, it exhaled color first and foremost—color in fields and areas rather than in shapes.” (The Later Monet, 1956). Colors, as in Clifford Still’s vertical slabs, assume a confrontational interaction with the viewer. Mark Rothko’s paintings exemplify color fields “solicited from the surface” (Greenberg’s emphasis); here, two tentative canvases with irregular puddles of paint seem embryonic precursors of the hovering rectangles of the larger, more severe Blue and Grey (1962). Greenberg supported the increasingly dematerialized stain paintings of younger artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, who are each represented here by two large works. The trajectory might well have culminated in Jules Olitski’s spray-painted clouds of color.

On a video monitor, Barnett Newman reinforces Greenberg’s argument for the elimination of Cubist structure by deriding Cézanne’s strongly modelled apples as “cannonballs.” Although the show lacks a large Newman, it’s difficult to look at the vertical trees that punctuate the forty-foot expanse of Morning with Willows (1916-26) without thinking of his “zips.” His own lightly brushed, modest canvas is Japanese in simplicity; it evokes an aquatic environment, and its title, The Beginning (1946), alludes to water as a primordial source, linked to the avant-garde search for a tabula rasa.

Philip Guston, Dial, 1956. Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 194 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Whitney Museum, N.Y. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Of the Monets included in the exhibition, however, only one features the horizontal surface of the pond, Nymphéas bleus (1916-19), whose heavy, concentrated hues counterbalance the thinly poured expanse of Frankenthaler’s Riverhead (1963). A vertical Weeping Willow (1920-22) creates the sort of shallow space Joan Mitchell constructs with her slashing gestures, but its lush, curling strokes are more naturalistic, related to Monet’s informal, calligraphic drawings included in a large sketchbook. Alfred H. Barr Jr. appreciated a similar looseness in the first late Monet the Museum of Modern Art acquired in 1955. After its loss in a fire, it was replaced by a larger, denser work, more like the paintings here of the Japanese Bridge at Giverny, which recall Rosenberg’s emphasis on existential anxiety. Painter/critic Andrew Forge, writing in 1983 about one of the four Japanese Bridges included here (1918-24), remarks on Monet’s psychological and visual struggles - encumbered with cataracts, he sometimes could only distinguish his colors by the labels on the tubes. Is that why one bridge is predominantly blue-gray and another enlivened with exaggerated reds and yellows? It’s ironic that, for a painter so indebted to direct perception, we can only guess what he was really seeing. Cataracts could account for this strange luminosity, but the physical weight of these unique works, as opposed to the dissolving surfaces of the ponds, is also striking. Far from “soliciting” colors, Monet seems tortured by them. Forge notes that the painterly spaces seem “dug with his fingernails,” burrowing into a “terrible yellow wall.” Milton Resnick, mentioned in a wall text, would have been welcome here, with his obsessive efforts to “paint himself out of the picture” and eliminate “air.” His dense, virtually monochromatic fields are similar to, but much heavier than Kelly’s Tableau vert. Monet’s immediate heir, however, is Pierre Bonnard, who was his friend and neighbor for the last sixteen years of his life, and who developed Monet’s color orchestration and compositional innovations without resorting to abstraction - the pool replaced by the bathtub, its colorful tiles, and the floating figure of his wife, that has influenced contemporary water fantasies like Katherine Bradford’s.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas bleus, 1916-1919. Oil on canvas, 204 x 200 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt.

The curators would no doubt have welcomed a large Pollock like Autumn Rhythm (1951), documented in Namuth’s film, but Untitled (circa 1949), a smaller work that’s included, relates in physical substance to the late Monets and to Rosenberg’s emphasis on struggle. Its skeins of drips seem bundled up and constricted, overly confined by the frame. When Pollock alluded to water, it was usually the sea, and The Deep (1953) offers less a reflective surface than a looming abyss; it finds in liquids a metaphor for the existential crisis Rosenberg saw at the core of modern painting. Indeed, it came as Pollock urgently sought new direction, after Greenberg shifted his allegiance to Frankenthaler and Louis, whose diaphanous stains evoke Monet’s surface luminosity without the tortured, material weight. Pollock’s vulnerability contrasts with the masculine stance of fellow action painter Willem de Kooning, who is also represented here by a looser, pastoral painting, Villa Borghese (1960), made after his move to Long Island.

Joan Mitchell’s somber Peinture (1956-57), takes a more aggressive approach, with propulsive marks that could be wind-blown ripples. Even though she lived for years on Monet’s former property in Vétheuil, Mitchell considered him less of an influence than Cézanne and van Gogh, working more from memory and subjective associations to landscape. Once dismissed by Greenberg as a “gestural horror,” she’s accorded pride of place here, on a long wall marking the entrance to the exhibition, where her airy, four-panel painting, The Good-bye Door (1980) evokes the Japanese screens Monet admired. Its sustained gestural energy supplies a welcome visual élan to the show as a whole. Linked to the tachistes, Mitchell is more judicious than Jean-Paul Riopelle, who creates muscular mosaics of impasto, but more aggressive than Sam Francis, whose loosely arranged patches of blue and green in Round the World (1958-59) float freely over mysterious, darker colors in a generous fullness. Francis, like Kelly, was directly inspired by an early experience of Monet’s murals, and his works unite the influences of his teacher Clyfford Still, Japanese Buddhism, and Pollock’s poured paint.

Philip Guston, Painting, 1954. Oil on canvas, 160.6 x 152.7 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Philip Johnson Fund, 1956. Photo: 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence. © The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

While Philip Guston professed a preference for Monet’s more precise earlier style, his slow accumulations of marks evoke the late paintings’ liquid surfaces. Dial (1956) suggests floating leaves, while the looming mass in Untitled (1964), Narcissus-like, suggests a head, as though incubating his later dystopian images. Like The Deep, Guston’s work testifies to the crisis Rosenberg saw persisting in post-war painting, and his grim later vision embraces the weight of despair concealed under Monet’s well-tended pond—

Ah! la poudre des saules qu’une aile secoue!

Les roses des roseaux dès longtemps dévorées!
Mon canot, toujours fixe; et sa chaîne tirée
au fond de cet œil d’eau sans bords,—à quelle boue?

(Ah! Dust of the willows shaken by a wing!
The roses of the reeds devoured long ago!
My boat still stationary; and its chain caught
in the bottom of this rimless eye of water,—in what mud?)

–Arthur Rimbaud, Mémoire, 1872-3 (translated by Wallace Fowlie)

If the revived interest in the stain paintings of Vivian Springford and other Color Field abstractionists attests to the endurance of Greenberg’s vision, Abstract Impressionism has encouraged more varied responses to Monet. Andrew Forge—whose own abstract, pointillist “landscapes” could have enriched the show, as could perceptually-based works by Elaine de Kooning or Louis Finkelstein—notes how Monet’s “single-minded” devotion to “making pictures from looking” has inspired painting’s ongoing self-critique. As Leja noted, revived interest in nature has also inspired engagement with environmental issues. Painter Rackstraw Downes, who rejected abstraction in the mid-1960s, still applies a radical opticality to everyday landscapes, where nature intersects with human activity—unlike Monet in style but with the all-encompassing visual appetite of an early Impressionist. His curvilinear perspective and panoramic compositions evoke Monet’s elliptical enclosures.

The Orangerie is not finished with their evaluation of Monet. Acknowledging the open-endedness of Water Lilies, the museum has planned a series of shows devoted to individual artists which will explore Monet’s legacy with respect to today’s culture of “expanded painting”, including American Richard Jackson, whose wall paintings relate both to California Funk and French “Supports et Surfaces” (and to the French taste for American Pop excess). An immersive color installation by Belgian multi-media artist Ann-Veronica Janssens will be followed next spring by Alex Katz’s Homage to Monet (2012) a series of paintings of a lily-pond near his summer home in Maine, strongly influenced by Japanese prints. Katz might resist the “Abstract Impressionist” label, but his large paintings reach for the sort of environmental unbinding of the easel picture introduced by Pollock. He approaches abstraction, like Monet, by simply increasing scale and focusing in, and speaks, like Greenberg, of “bringing color forward.”

In a 1999 essay, Rosalind Krauss elaborates upon the “optical third dimension” Greenberg observed in Pollock’s dissolving forms, suggesting that the appeal of late Monet has yet to be exhausted. It reminds us that Monet’s vision extended to his paintings’ architectural installation. The abstract possibilities Greenberg envisioned in Newman and Rothko led to “Stations of the Cross” and Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, while the expansive monochromes of Ellsworth Kelly—who fell into the orbit of John Cage rather than Greenberg—culminate in “Austin,” his own light-infused chapel at the Blanton Museum of Art. The Orangerie’s commemoration of Kelly’s death in 2015 at age 92 neglects to mention this final embrace of the dream of larger order embodied in Monet—the “old master who remains resolutely avant-garde.” (Thomas Hess, 1956).


Hearne Pardee

Hearne Pardee is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2018

All Issues