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Max Beckmann, John Ashbery: A Look Back on Boston and New York

Max Beckmann (German, Leipzig 1884–1950 New York), "Falling Man" (1950). Oil on canvas 55 1/2 × 35 in. (141 × 88.9 cm) Frame: 62 1/4 × 41 1/4 × 2 3/4 in. (158.1 × 104.8 × 7 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Max Beckmann SL.9.2016.13.1 © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

On the occasion of “Max Beckmann in New York” at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art
October 19th, 2016 – February 20th, 2017

By JILL CONNER, SEPT. 2016

It became the stuff of legend, from the Spring of 1948. In the wake of America’s World War II victory, one of Europe’s top three Modern Masters had arrived at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on Saturday, March 13 th to deliver a groundbreaking lecture. Max Beckmann took a seat within a packed auditorium full of students, faculty and admirers while his wife, Mathilde Quappi Beckmann, stood at the podium and read the artist’s written composition titled, “Three Letters to a Woman Painter.” The title of this speech sounded ironic since the majority of artists were men and many were military veterans whose attendance had been made possible by the G.I. Bill of 1944.

Thus Beckmann’s utilization of woman as a motif served as a place holder for each man’s attention as he urged young artists to face their own experiences through paint, by moving colors into form without falling flat into a space of disengagement: “There you stand not knowing your way in or out. Abstract things bore you just as much as academic perfections, and ruefully you let your eyes fall on the violet red of your nail polish as if it were the last reality that remained to you!”* The artist proceeded to eloquently, and even charismatically, engage in speaking to a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair whose future was uncertain.

Although Max Beckmann had aimed his critique at a group of young men who had more interest in making works of art that appeared to be more like passive, disengaging objects with a strict focus on color, much of the artist’s reflexive critique soon became history and long forgotten after his sudden death on December 27th, 1950. Few recollections of the 1948 lecture in Boston remain aside from Ellsworth Kelly’s particular memory of that day, when Max Beckmann’s physical presence was the most remarkable. “He was invited by our painting instructor Karl Zerbe,” Kelly wrote. “Several of my pictures at that time were inspired by Beckmann.**

Cy Twombly had also been enrolled at the museum’s art school since 1947 and most likely attended Beckmann’s lecture before relocating to New York City in 1950 to study at the Art Students League. Twombly’s thickly-textured paintings from this time, soon followed by the large scribbled canvases and hand-scrawled references to Greek and Roman heroes, indeed reflected the bridge to an asymmetrical viscerality that Beckmann had extended throughout “Three Letters to a Woman Painter.” According to Peter Selz, Max Beckmann’s art was then so popular in America that many artists would have undoubtedly been very influenced by his work.*** This paradox opens the door.

In 1949 the poet John Ashbery completed his studies at Harvard College and was soon living and working in New York City where he eventually received his M.A. from Columbia University in 1951, the year after Beckmann had died. Although Ashbery’s award-winning poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” was not published until 1975, it can be suggested that this poem is an orderly response to the challenges that Beckmann posed throughout “Three Letters to a Woman Painter.”**** Even though Ashbery begins “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” as a response to Parmagianino’s 16th-century painting of the same name, the poem eventually appears to become the missing part of a long dialogue with Beckmann’s presentation. When read from beginning to end, both compositions pose the challenge and answer to finding and preserving the expression of individual identity through art.

Max Beckmann:

“To be sure it is an imperfect, not to say foolish, undertaking to try to put into words ideas about art in general, because, whether you like it or not, every man is bound to speak for himself and for his own soul. Consequently, objectivity or fairness in discussing art is impossible. Moreover, there are certain definite ideas that may only be expressed by Art. Otherwise, what would be the need for painting, poetry or music? So, in the last analysis there remains only a faith, that belief in the individual personality which, with more or less energy or intelligence, puts forward its own convictions.”

John Ashbery:

“As Parmagianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises...
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.”

Max Beckmann:

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love for the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls.”

John Ashbery:

“The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.”

Max Beckmann,"Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket" (1950). Oil on canvas 55 1/8 × 36 in. (140 × 91.4 cm) Framed: 66 15/16 in. × 48 in. × 3 3/16 in. (170 × 121.9 × 8.1 cm) Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May SL.9.2016.24.1 © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Max Beckmann:

“One must have the deepest respect for what the eye sees and for its representation on the area of the picture in height, width and depth. We must observe what may be called the law of surface, and this law was never to be broken by using the false technique of illusion. Perhaps then we can find ourselves, see ourselves in the work of art.”

John Ashbery:

“But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.”

Max Beckmann:

“Because ultimately, all seeking and aspiration ends in finding yourself, your real self of which your present self is only a weak reflection. There is no doubt that this is the ultimate, the most difficult exertion that we poor men can perform. So, with all this work before you, your beauty culture and your devotion to the external pleasures of life must suffer. But take consolation in this: you still will have ample opportunity to experience agreeable and beautiful things, but those experiences will be more intense and alive if you yourself remain apart from the senseless tumult and bitter laughter of stereotyped mankind.”

John Ashbery:

“I think of the friends
Who came to see me, of what yesterday
Was like. A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on
In the form of memories deposited in irregular
Clumps of crystal.”

Max Beckmann:

“You have built yourself a house of ice crystals and you have wanted to forge three corners or four corners into a circle. But you cannot get rid of that little ‘point’ that gnaws in your brain, that little ‘point’ which means ‘the other one’. Under the cold ice the passion still gnaws, that longing to be loved by another, even if it should be on a different plane than the hell of animal desire. The cold ice burns exactly like the hot fire. And uneasy you walk alone through your palace of ice. Because you still do not want to give up the world of delusion, that little ‘point’ still burns within you – the other one! And for that reason you are an artist, my poor child!”

John Ashbery:

“Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looks the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the ‘poetic,’ straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
It’s darkening opposite – is this
Some figment of ‘art,’ not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.”

Max Beckmann:

“Don’t forget nature through which Cézanne, as he said, wanted to achieve the classical. Take long walks and take them often, and try your utmost to avoid the stultifying motor car which robs you of your vision just as the movies do nor the numerous motley newspapers.”

John Ashbery:

“Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong.)
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own which we were hoping to keep hidden.”

Max Beckmann:

“Learn the forms of nature by heart so you can use them like the musical notes of a composition.
That’s what these forms are for. Nature is wonderful chaos to be put into order and completed.”

John Ashbery:

“We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? Certainly the leisure to
Indulge stately pastimes doesn’t,
Any more. Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance,
Indistinguishable.”

Max Beckmann:

“Let others wander about, entangled and color blind in old geometry books or in problems of higher mathematics. We will enjoy ourselves with the forms that were given us: a human face, a hand, the breast of a woman or the body of a man, a glad or sorrowful expression; the infinite seas, the wild rocks, the melancholy language of the black trees in the snow, the wild strength of spring flowers and the heavy lethargy of a hot summer day when Pan, our old friend, sleeps and the ghosts of midday whisper.”

John Ashbery:

“‘Play’ is something else;
It exists, in a society specifically
Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.”

Max Beckmann:

“This alone is enough to make us forget the grief of the world, or to give it form. In any case, the will to form carries in itself one part of the salvation for which you are seeking. The way is hard and the goal is unattainable; but it is a way.”

John Ashbery:

“It seems like a very hostile universe
But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself.”

Max Beckmann:

“Nothing is further from my mind than to suggest to you that you thoughtlessly imitate nature. The impression nature makes upon you in its every form must always become an expression of your own joy or grief, and consequently in your formation of it, it must contain that transformation which only then makes art a real abstraction.”

John Ashbery:

“It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To come into being.”

Max Beckmann:

“But don’t overstep the mark. Just as soon as you fail to be careful you will get tired, and though you still want to create, you will slip off either into thoughtless imitation of nature, or into sterile abstractions which will hardly reach the level of decent decorative art.”

John Ashbery:

“Parmagianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
‘Not-being- us’ is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.”

Max Beckmann:

“Enough for today, my dear friend. I think much of you and your work, and from my heart wish you power and strength to find and follow the good way. It is very hard with its pitfalls left and right. I know that.”

John Ashbery:

“This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside of him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.”

Max Beckmann:

“We are all tightrope walkers. With them it is the same as with artists, and so with all mankind. As the Chinese philosopher Laotse says, we have ‘the desire to achieve balance, and to keep it.’”

John Ashbery:

“Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.” WM

Endnotes:

*Max Beckmann. Lecture by Max Beckmann at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Saturday, March 13, 1948. Artist’s typed script. Records of the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Brooklyn Museum.

**Ellsworth Kelly. Email message to author. May 2011.

***Peter Selz. Phone interview with author. August 2011.

****John Ashbery. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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