Heroes of New York


An unmissable exhibition at Imma brings us face to face with some of the luminaries of the New York School – a rare opportunity to see the work of Rothko, Pollock and many others right here in Dublin

YOU MAY or may not have heard of Morton Feldman, the avant garde American composer, but chances are you will have heard of the painters Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Work by them, and other illustrious artists, is included in an exhibition just opened at Imma, Vertical Thoughts: Morton Feldman and the Visual Arts. So even if you’re not that curious about Feldman’s relationship to the visual arts, the exhibition is a great chance to go and see at first-hand works by Pollock, Rothko and many more.

The spring-board was an exhibition Feldman curated in Houston, Texas, in 1967. It was titled Six Painters and it featured works by Pollock and Rothko, plus four others: Piet Mondrian, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Franz Kline. Mondrian was the great Dutch abstract painter who refined his visual language into rigorously disciplined right-angled compositions. Using vertical and horizontal axes, he applied flat colours – just black and white and the primaries. He showed how you can be endlessly inventive within the bounds of strict, well-defined rules – not a unique feat for an artist in any form or medium, but Mondrian is one of those painters who pushed it towards an extreme.

Mondrian died in 1944. He’d spent the war years in New York, not as a reluctant exile, but enthusiastically. He saw the grid pattern of the streets and avenues, and the colours of the city by night, as related to and inspiring of his work. Two late masterpieces, Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie, indicate how important New York, and jazz, were to him.

The remaining five artists in Feldman’s 1967 show were all luminaries of American Abstract Expressionism, less prescriptively known as the New York School. They had an enormous impact but it’s fair to say, by 1967, their work no longer represented the cutting edge of contemporary art, even though several of them were very much alive and two went on to achieve great things subsequently.

Pollock died violently in a car crash in 1956. Franz Kline, who painted in a bold, graphic manner on a large scale, his brushstrokes making structures that looked as if they were built from steel girders, died from a heart-related illness in 1962.

Rothko didn’t last that much longer after 1967. Increasingly unhappy and depressed, he killed himself in 1970. Guston, prone to being sullen and ill-tempered, experienced something of a rebirth as an artist around 1970. He was firmly established as one of the finest abstract painters in America – which he was, as evidenced by the work on view in the Imma show – when he turned back to his early mode of figuration. It wasn’t just figuration, it was a self-consciously crude, cartoonish idiom of painting, its humour jaundiced and satirical.

Yet what he termed the “impurity” of his art, his interest in the sheer nastiness and messiness of the world, marked him out as a hero to a younger generation, members of which were trying to find a way of engaging with life rather than with art about art. De Kooning went on to make a magnificent series of abstract paintings in the 1970s, plus much sculpture, before gradually falling victim to Alzheimer’s disease, eventually dying in 1997. But largely because he had, controversially, opted to introduce the human figure into the discourse of abstract painting from the late 1940s onwards, he too was recognised as a precursor of Neo-Expressionism and subsequent developments in representational painting.

Feldman knew many of the artists whose work he included in Six Painters. He was a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1926, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who were in the clothing trade – which is how Feldman made his living for many years when he grew up. Musically gifted from his earliest years, he learned piano and went on to study musical composition. As it happened, his teachers were quite radical in their interest in the music of Anton Schoenberg and Anton Webern.

The story goes that he met fellow composer John Cage by chance when they were both leaving a concert after hearing a piece by Webern, in order to avoid the next, late romantic work in the programme.

Cage, some years Feldman’s senior, had studied with Schoenberg. He had a distinctive, Zen-like approach to the whole question of musical composition, most famously illustrated by his composition 4’33”, meaning four minutes and 33 seconds, indicating the duration of the piece. It can incorporate any number and combination of instruments and performers, but it consists of complete silence apart from whatever ambient noises happen to occur. Cage was also closely involved in art outside the boundaries of music. In fact he knew many visual artists and over time he became one of a group of individuals – himself, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – who were to be hugely influential in the development of the contemporary arts.

Cage befriended Feldman and he introduced him to a wide circle of composers and visual artists. He also influenced his musical development and Feldman began to look at radical new ways to write music and make sounds, using arbitrary rules and elements of chance that seem very much in keeping with Cage’s sensibility. He wasn’t alone in this. In fact the group of composers, including Earle Brown and Christian Wolff, with whom he became associated, were also known – along with the painters – as the New York School.

They applied Cage’s principle of “indeterminacy” to composition in various ways. Feldman devised new ways of scoring, using graphic schemes rather than conventional musical notation and structure. As is true of the more extreme manifestations of what has been loosely termed atonal music, this abandonment of the rules has its advantages, and its drawbacks. The excitement of discovery and creative freedom number among the former; populist and commercial limitations feature among the latter. There are, however, recordings of Feldman’s music in print, even later works – he died in 1987, by which time his compositional strategy had moved into a new phase.

He’d become increasingly preoccupied with quiet sounds and extremely slow, even hardly perceptible, processes of development within individual, often very long, pieces – his String Quartet II from 1983 extends to over six hours. In its thinking, his music might be related to the paintings of Rothko. Rothko was concerned, one could say, with progressively covering over successive layers of paint to achieve a final uninflected mood of meditative calm. Feldman, too, spoke of cancelling underlying layers of structure and sound and leaving something close to silence.

It’s not fanciful to say his music could relate to Rothko. He was fairly explicit about it himself, seeing direct links between how the artists coped with the problem of devising abstract visual structures and how he made abstract aural structures. His Rothko Chapel, written in 1971, was directly inspired by Rothko’s paintings, commissioned by the de Menil family for a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas.

Vertical Thoughts was curated by Juan Manuel Bonet, who has a particular interest in the links between visual art and music. In working from Feldman’s Six Painters, he has expanded the interdisciplinary conversation in many ways. One takes the form of an adventurous, fascinating publication with several original and pre-existing texts, including Feldman’s writings and Brian O’Doherty’s first-hand account of the vibrant artistic life in 1960s New York. And Bunita Marcus contributes a thoughtful, particularly rewarding piece on the influence of Oriental rugs on Feldman’s work. Composer Kevin Volans, himself influenced by Feldman, offers insights into his music.

Besides that, Bonet has cast the net wider than the original Six Painters. Apart from exhibiting other works by the original six, he has drawn in works by other visual artists who also overlapped with Feldman. The result is a tremendous visual treat.

The artists include Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, but also Barnett Newman, Alex Katz, Cy Twombly, Sonja Sekula and more. A concert programme includes Hugh Tinney performing the Irish premiere of a 90-minute work, Triadic Memories on April 17th, and Crash Ensemble performing Rothko Chapel and Words and Music by Samuel Beckett on May 30th. It all makes for a stimulating, unmissable event.

Vertical Thoughts: Morton Feldman and the Visual Arts at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Royal Hospital, Kilmainham until June 27th. Tel 01-6129900; imma.ie