On Josephine Halvorson

 

Several weeks ago, I first noticed the approach of winter in New York. It had to do with the solar ecliptic drifting to the south, and the impression that the cold November sun was emitting a constant pipsqueak warble of photons through 93 million miles of vacant space, and that the light and warmth of summer were suddenly somewhere far beyond the Battery and the Verazzano Narrows bridge, beyond the countless cold ripples of the North Atlantic, and off the coast of the Canary Islands, far away. The blue canyons of the financial district were like glacial ravines, and the shadow cast by the limestone finger of the Woolworth Building toward Tribeca stained the limestone and asphalt blocks to the north with a deep and icy cyanosis.

 

Sure, I thought of the skating rink of smooth white ice below the gilded Prometheus, and the odor of burning hazelnuts sold in glassy aluminum carts, and the entire cellophane aesthetic of Christmas in the city, but I also thought about St. John of the Cross, and the Dark Night of the Soul, and John Donne’s impeccable image of the year’s midnight:

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

the world’s whole sap is sunk…

And yes, it gets depressing to think of the long nights ahead, of slush and curbside dunes of blackened snow, of cold fluorescent-lit concrete subway platforms in Union Square, of freezing rain and leafless mornings spent mostly in bed. Time to look for the grave of Alexander Hamilton in the Trinity Churchyard, or immerse myself in the comforting walnut paneling of the library, or even ruminate on the passage of time on the trail around the reservoir in Central Park, with its blonde and scarlet ring of trees surrounding a fallen cloudless sky. No. Scratch that. The first cold Saturday in New York is the perfect time to head to the gallery circuit in Chelsea.

One imagines spread copies of Art News strewn on the Noguchi tables of Gramercy or Riverside, morning plans made on yellow post-its while coffee brews in the Bodum Santos on the granite kitchen counters of whomever else might have actually thought of doing this today. In this journey, you are never alone. Think of the Art Review section of The New York Times, of the ancient litany of listings leading back through the decades, through galleries in the cast-iron buildings of Soho, through Damien Hirsch, Basquiat, and Julian Schnabel, to some lost Saturday in the early Seventies, when others drifted into a Richard Diebenkorn exhibition, or into the spiraling Rothko retrospective at the Guggenheim, where the only route descends, as if to death.

It’s odd, when you think of it, that on any given weekend, we’re only given a snapshot of contemporary art in its continuous unfolding present, and that the ‘new’ has been around for a very long time. Sure, the micronarratives of Jean-François Lyotard abound, but principally on the placards—whether woven from reeds, or suspended from monofilament fishing line, or projected from the lens of a digital projector, the works of art inevitably seem to find themselves in the unfortunate condition of being somehow new. Most seem to quietly slip into a type of oblivion: on the walls of the Hamptons, in storage at the Whitney, or reproduced in half-tone on eggshell in an anthology. Ubi sunt qui anti nos in mundo fuere?

Vadite ad superos, Transite in inferos, Hos si vis videre. On my way to West Nineteenth, I stopped at El Quijote below the Hotel Chelsea, and thought of Dylan Thomas, returning from the White Horse Tavern in November, 1953 to expire somewhere within the red brick and cast iron reaches of the building above. Entering El Quijote is like entering 1949, on some night when the cries of taxis floated above the streets like the single predawn clarinet in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Seriously. You can feel the weight of time. Below the Muzak, beneath the yellow awning and ancient neon sign, between the expressive earthtone murals of windmills and faux-adobe walls, plaster statues of Don Quixote and burnt sienna booths, with artificial foliage everywhere, the passage of years exerts its own inexplicable gravity. From the deep burgundy gloom of a booth, I ordered a dry Manhattan. My eyes fell on the worn cordovan leather menu. It was impressed with a shallow silhouette of Quixote on Rocinante, worn by the passage of a thousand hands, Camarones Diablo, oh that sounds good. I wondered who else had ordered from a similar menu slipped into the same leather fold. Jean-Paul Sartre once lived upstairs. So did Sid Vicious.

Señor?

The Manhattan was perfect. I plucked the nauseating maraschino from the sepia drink by its loathsome stem, and folded it into a napkin, out of sight.

-Um, thank you…the um, camarones…the uh, shrimp, this one. Salad. Yes. Potato. Um, baked. Yes. Thank you.

The dance of hours, the crowned and skeletal death drawn in charcoal by Albrecht Dürer in 1505 with the spindly motto Memento Mei, the opening paragraph in Panofsky in which Dr. Johnson expressed an indignant and flustered suprise at Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. I could almost imagine junior-level hedge-fund managers fresh from the memory-foam comfort of a Jean Nouvel-designed apartment building standing like perplexed shepherds over a similar inscription somewhere beneath the High Line: I once dwelt in Chelsea. Really, these reminders are scattered everywhere, throughout the city: the bas-relief of Cass Gilbert holding a model of his skyscraper, the brass memorial strips of past ticker-tape parades on Broadway, the ceramic North American beavers at the Astor Place subway station in memory of John Jacob Astor, the entire forgotten Halicarnassus of Grant’s Tomb. Throughout the city, it’s not difficult to notice countless attempts to etch some conceit of self-importance or another into the sedimentary strata of concrete and granite that have accumulated over the decades, largely bypassed and ignored by the strident tides of life and commerce that wash through Manhattan every day. The shrimp arrive, on a cast-iron platter, arranged like a calendar of crescent moons, still smoking from the grill. What will we remember? What will consider valuable enough to save?

On the concrete median at 22nd and Eighth, I saw a pug in a forest-green coat almost get squashed by a passing Town Car, as it blithely extended its collapsible leash, before its wealthy young owner pulled it back just in time to escape an unfortunate fate. She picked it up, pulled it into the embrace of her arms while deftly maneuvering her Gucci handbag for balance, and kissed it on the tip of its furrowed head.

-Oh Simba, oh you stupid thing, why did you do that?

Completely oblivious, the pug looked up at her with its naturally bleary eyes, and wriggled from the pure joy of receiving such unexpected attention. What will we save? The first gallery I stopped by, just beneath the High Line, featured a single cast-aluminum Viking leg. In the Hasted-Kraeutler Gallery I saw a series of paintings that juxtaposed Colt automatics and kittens, replete with references to the cinema of Quentin Tarantino, cleverly composed in the exhausted slide-projector photorealism first popularized by Gerhard Richter. Although these exhibitions might have impressed others, I found them supremely boring. I’ve grown tired of having my supposed Nassau County sensibilities shocked, tired of the Superflat Movement, tired of Murakami, tired of the heroic kitsch of Jeff Koons, tired of graffiti, tired of technique, weary of Jeff Wall, and I’ve become completely disenchanted with the primacy of the concept, with the product, the aim, the end. But similarly, I’m still quite disenchanted with the counterfeit populism of Tom Wolfe, and his dated criticism of Helen Frankenthaler, or Morris Louis: I still love the Frankenthaler, and the autumnal dripwork paintings of Jackson Pollock, the feathered calligraphic edges of Franz Kline paintings, so like branches in snow, anything that reveals the painterly process, the quiet passage of a squeegee or brush, the slide of shadows, the broken tube. In the Gagosian gallery, viewers wandered within the torus-shaped Cor-Ten sculptures of Richard Serra, enjoying the labyrinth of rust and space he has offered to the world.

In 23 BCE, Quintus Horatius Flaccus probably completed books I-III of his Carmina, of which III.30 was his sphragis, his insignia and final statement on a finished work: Exegi monumentum aere perennius, “I have raised a monument more lasting than bronze”. To be sure, he was far from the first to think of poetry as immune to the ravages of devouring time (think of the barbed and terrifying grasshopper atop the Corpus Clock on Trumpington Street, and notice Horace’s use of edax later in the poem). I remember that Simonides used something similar, in his dirge on the dead at Thermopylae. But then, Simonides is a fragment, and the poem of Horace has indeed remained intact, through Codex Bernensis 363 (sandwiched between Bede and Ovid), Ambrosianus 136, Harleianus 2725 and others. By the time Aldo Manuzio printed his first elegant octavo edition of the Odes in 1501 (even this was not the princeps), the survival of Horace was fairly secure. I would imagine that even Lucretius, embedded in two Carolignian manuscripts, oblongus (O) and quadratus (Q) might have survived even if Poggio Bracciolini had not made a transcript of (P) in the spring of 1418. And many Roman bronzes have perished. In Stanford, this summer, I wandered through another Serra sculpture, set on a gravel bed outdoors where the wind brings the faint scent of woodchips and eucalyptus trees. It seemed as durable as anything our species has ever created, yet a sign instructed us not to touch the massive curving slabs of raw steel, as the mere passage of our fingertips might corrode the surface, and destroy the work.

In the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery on West 22nd Street, just two blue and sunless afternoon blocks from the titanic Serra sculptures at Gagosian, the young Brooklyn-based painter Josephine Halvorson has created an exhibition that seemed to capture a perfect note, especially given the silent approach of winter, and my afternoon thoughts on the passage of time. She has painted a beautiful, restrained and quintessentially American cycle of modestly-scaled oils, on linen, depicting pressed-tin ceilings, wooden doors, metal walls, shelved metal grippers, steam valves and furnaces, in a muted pallete of greys, rust and rustoleum, olive drab, Nantucket Red, indeed, any color weathered, stained by falling water, bleached by stark and curtainless light. The compositions seem strangely cropped, as if you are granted a glance, the passage of an instance, to notice the pathos that forgotten things evoke, before you look away, occupied with some other task. Pressed stones, broken bits of glass, blind windows: the objects depicted are tangible, and seem to occupy space, yet they are never rendered in the academic realism of (for instance) Edward Hopper: Halvorson’s brushes are lush, uncertain and raw, reminding me more of late-phase Philip Guston than anyone else. This technique manages to blur the boundaries between the abstract and figurative, between the representations of the objects she has painted (on site), and the triangles, diamonds and trapezoids formed from planes of layered paint. Jasper Johns managed to do this as well, with his target and American flag, but these were already wighted with iconographic significance, and immediately recognizable (concentric circles of paint surrounding the bull’s-eye, a field of stars on blue, stripes of either red or white): Halvorson’s are not. You have to approach them, and look at them for the soft geometry of paint to swim into meaning.

Other reviewers have compared Halvorson’s current exhibition to the still life compositions of Giorgio Morandi, and his nearly monochromatic lyricism of familiar things. William Nicholson and his bowl of mushrooms at the Tate have probably been mentioned as well, together with Georgia O’Keefe (which I don’t see), and a cluster of contemporaries, with whom she has little in common: her method is to travel to Shoreham England, or Canaan, New York, or California, and paint improvisationally, before the objects themselves. The results read less like the sterile still-life paintings of the twentieth century than the Vanitas paintings of Pieter Claesz or the still life paintings of Pieter van Anraedt (for instance): the vespine-waisted hourglass filled with fine white quartz sand, the skull placed on vellum-bound books, random lutes and scattered dice, letters and quills; or conversely, the plenitude of life: blue-on-white Delftware, pewter flagons capped with clear glass, raspberries, grapevines and snail-shells, halved oysters and spilled Cavendish tobacco; lemons peeled with a single yellow ribbon peel; rinds, layered herring, cantaloupes, walnut shells, and all the empty abundance of pleasure and life. The point is the same, as E. H. Gombrich (if I remember correctly) once pointed out. Pliny seemed to realize this, as well, if we remember the story of Zeuxis from Pliny, Historia Naturalis, XXXV.36: descendisse hic in certamen cum zeuxide traditur et, cum ille detulisset uvas pictas tanto successu, ut in scaenam aves advolarent, ipse detulisse linteum pictum ita veritate repraesentata, ut zeuxis altium iudicio tumens flagitaret tandem remoto linteo ostendi picturam atque intellecto errore concederet palmam ingenuo pudore, quoniam ipse volucres fefellisset, parrhasius autem se artificiem.

And think of the starlings and sparrows scraping their adorable little beaks on frescoed plaster grapes that can never be plucked from their painted stems and eaten, the countless bouquets of striped white tulips that cannot be touched, the American trompe l’oeil of William Harnett, and his inverted rabbits, mallards and quail casting artificial shadows on an illusory wall. Perhaps closest to Halvorson are the leather-banded letter racks, or better yet, the Reverse side of a Painting composed around 1670 by Cornelius Gijsbrechts, at the Staten Museum fur Kunst in Cophenhagen. Although the illusions of slabs of rusting metal and weathered wood on the walls of the gallery are ephemeral to our eyes, the poignant weight of the lost moment remains. I think of faded Kodachrome snapshots of Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas morning, the wedding reception, New Year’s Eve, collected in albums and placed in drawers: although we might remember, we cannot return.