Friday, December 10, 2010

Modern art, does it reflect our society?

For the past years I have given slide and powerpoint talks on the works of Clay Spohn, 1898-1977, one of the innovative and prominent artists of the 20th century. As an abstract expressionist, admired by his contemporaries, he was the first to break through into pure feeling on the canvas, but unlike his friends of the New York School, he died impoverished and his works are neglected. 

My book Understanding Modern Art; the Boundless Spirit of Clay Edgar Spohn with 18 pages of his paintings in color tried to remedy this neglect but it is in vain. At the last venue in Palm Beach, Florida, no one appeared at my lecture—possibly because it was not well promoted by the museum but probably because no one recognized his name and the populace, including the art students and staff, lacked the intelligent curiosity that people used to have, even just a few years before , when I gave several lectures in Florida that were well attended. Has the anti-aesthetic, conceptual art that followed after the high-point of abstract expressionism turned the public against modern art? 

In my book on the art curator Douglas MacAgy I quoted a critic: “Much of the art practised today is, in its shallowness, the direct consequences of the producer-consumer orientation, and it is experienced and assessed from much the same viewpoint. When this viewpoint is still further undermined  by the trivialized perception and mental processing of a public created by mass media, false values are inevitable…. Indiscriminate visual or perceptual infantilism, together with a lack of aural sensitivity, prevails for the overwhelming majority of people who are already illiterate as readers through sparse education, or because the activity of reading has been undermined by the assault of easier and swifter alternatives…. Eventually a mindless vacuum could be attained, undisturbed by the slightest emotional, intellectual or retinal challenge but confirmed from time to time by the reassurance of nostalgic clich├ęs.” 

It appears from the present panic over education in our schools that the critic has been proven right. Spohn, above all, emphasized the importance of emotion in art. It is time that educators became interested in his work and absorbed his ideas. 

I invite comments, particularly on the emotionally sterile conceptual art of today.


  1. I must correct a mistake I made in my Understanding Modern Art; the Boundless Spirit of Clay Edgar Spohn. On page 31, I pasted a painting in black and white entitled "Parent and Child" and on page 30 I wrote that it was by Spohn and reflected on the relationship between himself and his mother. The relationship was true but the painting was by Helen Lundeberg, a California artist, and the painting was entitled "Double Portrait of the Artist in Time". I had sought in vain for any one of the hundreds of paintings Clay had done in San Francisco in the 1920s and 30s. Among his slides of paintings was this one hung between two smaller abstract paintings that he had done in the 1960s. I enquired at various sources as to the title of the painting but no one could identify it until I gave a slide lecture on Spohn's work at the Laguna (Ca) Art Museum when someone recognized it as by Lundeberg. The book was printed and sold—too late to make the correction. This was in 1999, the year that Helen Lundeberg died so that she would not have known of it. I had debated whether to include it and allowed my zeal for some representation of Spohn's work from the missing period to overcome my better judgment. I apologize to the ghost of Ms Lundeberg, but at least her painting enabled me to illustrate one facet of the relationship between Spohn and his mother.

  2. Now, August 2011, there is an exhibit of paintings by the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School at the Art Gallery of Ontario [AGO] in Toronto, Ontario. I have not seen it; I understand it comes from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it has paintings by Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnet Newman, Jackson Pollock, and others whose names are famous because they banded together in a school [most were not from New York and owed their arrival at abstraction to knowledge of the American Indian myths]. They were smart politically and made money. They owed their start in many cases to the Canadian curator, Douglas MacAgy, who promoted them originally [see my book about him]. It has been generally conceded that they painted into a dead-end. An artist known to them all and respected by them all as one of the truly greats, was Clay Spohn, who disliked politicking and the group promotion idea. He followed his own path, which he called subjective realism, which was indeed abstract and expressionism but different. He was not painting into a dead-end and if he had lived to paint a series he had planned at his death, he would have found a way beyond what the others had done. This would have continued an appreciation for aestheticism and relegated pop art, op art, and the present domination of anti-aesthetic conceptual art to a minor role. Of course, Clay Spohn's painting are not represented at the AGO.
    If MacAgy had curated the show, he might have contrasted the New York School to the Painters Eleven of Toronto whose paintings would have added significance.