By STEVE LIGHT, November 2019
When I was a beginning graduate student at U.C. Berkeley, the French philosopher and art critic, Yves Michaud (professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne, Hume scholar, director of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for 6 years, editor for some years of the art review, Les cahiers du musee national d'art moderne, and author of a number of books of art criticism and art theory, The Crisis of Contemporary Art, Art in a Gaseous State, Art and its Commissars, etc.) was a visiting professor. Although I did not share his empiricist and anti-French philosophical itinerary (it is why the philosophy department, which never invited French philosophers, had invited him to fill in for their Hume scholar who was on sabbatical that year) and found unpleasant his center-right and neoliberal politics (in his own mind he mistakenly conceived of himself as a "center-left" "rebel" fighting "leftist" and "center-left” orthodoxy), nonetheless his itinerary in art intrigued me. So I sought him out during his office hour. His manner was receptive and he appreciated that I was going to write a doctoral dissertation on the French philosopher, Vladimir Jankelevitch. Hence, our differences aside, we were able to meet and converse on a number of occasions.
One day I invited him to the studio of a painter whom I knew, Alan Silver, a brilliant talent whose sparkling and ever surprising and consequential works I greatly admired. Indeed, I already considered him to be one of the very best painters of our epoch. And I was not alone in my judgment because Thomas Albright, the very sagacious art and jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, had greeted Silver's first shows with the utmost enthusiasm. I should add that no one has ever practiced both art and jazz criticism with the equal virtuosity Albright gave to them just as no one has practiced literary, film, and jazz criticism with the equal virtuosity Howard Eiland gives to them. Alas, Albright passed away but midway upon life's journey and could not witness the increasingly magnificent works that Silver has ever after been producing, works Albright would certainly have celebrated and championed. We do have Albright's splendid posthumous work, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, and had Albright lived to write a sequel, doubtless, Alan Silver would be a very central and celebrated figure in the book.
Silver lived in the first floor apartment of a duplex built on a hill. It was on Vallejo Street between Montgomery and Sansome streets in North Beach. And behind this duplex, across a very small courtyard was another (second floor) apartment unit (connected by a set of stairs to the aforementioned duplex) below which was a storage area which Silver used as a studio. This area had not been finished and consisted essentially of the raw rock onto which the apartment structure had been built and a jerry-built floor of planks nailed to raw beams. It was not a big space, dark except for one smoky window and a ceiling light bulb, and allowed Silver to stretch canvasses no larger than 3 1/2 feet by 6 feet and allowed a viewer to stand back not more than 10 feet from the painting. Rough, yes. But very inexpensive. Silver was able to rent this space for almost nothing, a space but 20 steps from the back entrance of his apartment. Doubtless, it was not the cinquieme etage overlooking the Luxembourg or the Seine, but it was a space in which to work. Of course, to get to this space one had to ascend a rickety set of stairs and then balance on a couple of beams before arriving at the raw floor in question. Forbidding, perhaps, for some, but all things considered, satisfactory.
Although I knew that Michaud had been friends with Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, and Willem de Kooning, among others, and thus was primarily a partisan of abstraction, and that he was also a partisan of Hantai and gimmicks of such nature, I still had hopes that he would take to the art of Silver and would, therefore, be able to champion Silver's work when back home in Paris. However, he did not. The paintings were too "literary" for him, or so he said to me the next day in Berkeley. On the previous day, during the visit, he had said very little, indeed he said nothing all. He was silent. And it was evident then to me and to Silver that our distinguished guest had not been taken by the paintings which Silver had shown him that day such as Elegy For A Fettered Muse, Parasite Of Our Memories, Hats Off To Contented Birds, Out Of Nowhere, Simulacrum Of Living, Cudgel For The King Of Dizziness, and When Men Love Machines, paintings unlike any other works being done in that period, paintings which showed the boldness, profundity, and encompassing and expansive vision that Thomas Albright had so quickly recognized in Silver’s work.
But Michaud’s silence lacked grace, indeed, even a minimal courtesy and it extended all the way through the dinner (pork chops and fantastic potato latkes, a specialty of Silver's!) which Silver had prepared. If he didn't like the paintings he should have summoned the bearing to say at least, i.e. "I'm sorry, but I'm just not enthusiastic about these." Something. Because otherwise it is a clear indication of the lack of even a minimal savoir-faire vis-a-vis ethical and ethico-intersubjective comportment and, what is more, comportment in relation to the realm of art and artists.
"Too literary" he said to me the next day at the university or rather added this as a "correction". Because he was still rather laconic and it was I, almost as a way of lessening the discomfort he seemed to evince vis-a-vis speaking of the paintings, who said: “...the paintings were too figurative for you...". But I also meant it as an investigative foray (it is why I substituted "figuration" for "literary", knowing already his recourse to the latter term in relation to other painters of whom we had previously spoken), a foray meant to find out to what degree he subscribed willingly and happily to an orthodoxy about abstraction and figuration, an orthodoxy which had long ago been supplanted by other orthodoxies, themselves just as dogmatic and restricted. I thought he might understand the implication, but he did not. But then he volunteered this: "You know, I do not think your painter wants to succeed. After all, look at the place in which he works, all closed up and cut off from the world. He does not want to reach a public." [my italics]
Should I have been surprised by the socio-psychological and socio-existential constrictions and self-enclosures of his statement, indeed by the flat out absurdity of it? Probably not, given what I knew about him, but nevertheless I was astonished. But I did keep my equanimity. And being too polite in this instance I did not bother to ask him to resolve a little puzzle his statement created for me. Because it seemed to me that he merely expressed his own discomfort here. But which discomfort? Did his statement merely try to rationalize to himself and sugarcoat for me the fact that he did not like the paintings of a painter of whom I was a partisan , a painter whom I had hoped he would help, or, very likely, did he betray here his discomfort at having had to enter a space far more forbidding, doubtless, then the splendid studios and country villas of Mitchell, de Kooning, Francis, Marden, etc. whose exceedingly comfortable dwellings, studios, and hospitality he had enjoyed and recounted with self-satisfaction?
But the puzzle was not really a puzzle. Clearly this Gallic supporter of the generalized socio-politics and socio-economics of neo-liberalism, etc. was discomfited by having to enter an artist’s studio that would not be the subject of a photo-spread in Paris Match or the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was in the order of things. However, the lack of insight, suppleness, and socio-cultural and socio-economic understanding evident in the clumsy and ludicrous psychologism he had applied to Alan Silver and his working conditions was, alas, not out of keeping with that of an art-world stalwart. Doubtless, I could also hear him saying things such as, i.e. "..and he paints too small; his canvasses are too small for the kinds of tableaus he creates."
And this episode and Michaud’s utterance about the scale of Silver’s paintings, so fundamental in so many ways, came back to me when I was viewing an exhibition of the enormous works of Anselm Kiefer. And it came back to me when I read an essay of Arthur Danto in which Danto touched upon the question of size and monumentality in painting. The remarkable thing (from one point of view, but not at all from another, which is, of course, the whole point...) was that Danto took as a given two things which are not given at all: 1) that one has a free choice in the size one gives one's paintings and 2) that the rhetoric of size is entirely unproblematic.
Here some very banal facts are pertinent, i.e. that the largest, the most outsized paintings are invariably done only by those who are at the top of the art world’s regime of visibility and inclusion and who, thereby, have achieved super-commercial and super-monetary success. Because otherwise one's work space or studio if one is lucky enough to have one will not be big enough. In this regard: in an article and photo-spread in the New York Times Sunday Magazine Brice Marden spoke as if it were entirely normal to have four grand, luxurious, and in instances sun-light filled studios in various locations. Quod erat demonstrandum. And this is to say, simply, that the freedom and means to paint in monumental size is not universally available to artists in the way, for example, that in the literary arts a writer can choose size irrespective of success, visibility, and economic standing.
But speaking of the literary arts brings to mind another fact, namely, that vis-a-vis a literary work the size of the work is not absolutely constituent of the form, or, put another way, is not inextricably wound up in, is not entirely subsumed by its form. And this means that an aesthetic judgment of the work can the more easily constitute a judgment independent of size, the status of which remains that of a secondary characteristic. But in the case of visual arts this is not the case. Simply put, one can write a longer or a shorter epic or a longer or shorter novel or a longer or shorter poem without mediating the genre, the form, in question. But the outsized painting is by its very outsized nature already on its way to a kind of separate status--effectively and affectively. In the latter case there is neither material nor analytical difference. And we are, thereby, led to the following question: if one cannot separate size from form, if one cannot abstract the one from the other, is not the aesthetic judgment of the work in question already partially formed, indeed pre-formed by virtue of the inevitable impress of size? And, banal fact, if not even platitude again, isn't that the reason (or at least one omnipresent reason, if for all that--and just because of that--scarcely admitted) why the outsized has been chosen in the first place?
So, then, is it choice or, rather, is it not in fact a question of calculation or, for those who would quibble, a calculated choice? One chooses the outsized because one has the space in which to do it (and not everyone can knock down the walls in their apartment...) and because one believes the outsized will impress and, impressing, will pay. Yes, alas, the simple truths, the inescapable "basic banalities", i.e. that all these outsized canvasses can carry an outsized purchase price or are the product of outsized commissions bestowed only upon those already ensconced in the highest reaches of the art world’s regime of visibility, sanction, and reward.
Indeed, an exhibition in 2018 at the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum demonstrated these truths in very explicit manners. It was a question of 24 x 24 foot paintings by Julian Schnabel commissioned for the museum's courtyard by the outgoing director and curator, Max Hollein (headed for New York's Metropolitan). Everything in relation to inflation, ploy, gimmick, etc. comes together here because no matter what trajectory of generosity one might try to summon there is nothing good to say about these works. The works consist of pieces of tarpaulin previously used as covers of market stalls in Mexico which Schnabel purchased on a trip there and subsequently used to form the "canvas" covering stretcher bars. The tarpaulins were of a predominantly lavender hue produced by countless hours in the sun and Schnabel let the color remain as is since, according to him, some colors cannot be created. But for some of the works he added greys, reds, pinks, and whites and upon the fabric Schnabel then dashed off a big brush scrawl or two or three (this is what has characterized much of his painting for the past decades) lacking even a minimal level of verve and the vibrant attributes of aesthetic, calligraphic, or aesthetico-existential substance and resonance so that one is left with vapid and listless automatism. And the empty posture of these works is immediately increased because of their size.
Again, one could merely shrug if the works were smaller since this is the stuff of a portion of the standard inventories and displays of galleries and museums of contemporary art, but the "monumentalism" established by Schnabel highlights all the more not just the insipidity of the works but also a truly illicit expenditure of funds and time on the part of the museum and a disregard of the ethical and ethico-existential parameters involved in the museum's relation to its public. There is no reason at all for these works to sit in the museum's courtyard outside of Schnabel's celebrity and Hollein's willful and satisfied self-enclosure within the celebrity canon (this is a common attribute of the curatorial class).
Hollein says: "Since 1978, Julian Schnabel has transformed what painting is, what a painting can be, and how paintings can be done." That Hollein's aesthetic judgment of Schnabel's work is a very positive one is merely an empirical fact related to the variability of judgment and taste which, however, is mediated by all sorts of socio-existential and socio-institutional factors, but Hollein's art-historical judgment is of another order because it demonstrates a significant misunderstanding of and ignorance about the forms and parameters of painting and art since the beginning of the 20th Century. And in this sense what he says is a perfect duplication of the inflation of the courtyard works themselves.
It is true that "what a painting can be and how paintings can be done" are statements that can be applied to various painters, but not "since 1978". The expansion and transformation of the forms and practices of painting certainly constitute the skein of modern art, but it is a question here of a historical moment that took place in the first thirty years of the 20th Century.
By the 1930s the historical trajectory of transformations, de-structurations, dismantlings, negations, reductions, expansions, eliminations, reconfigurations, transgressions, etc. etc. had reached a qualitative morphological, ontological, and ontologico-historical completion, and certainly by the 1970s at the very latest whatever elasticity remained in these form-transformations was broken, the skein of modern and avant-garde art’s transformation having reached an ultimate historico-formal saturation and limit point, which is to say that the river's waters had definitively reached their oceanic inundation.
After the 1930s it could only be a question of various already established modes--historico-aesthetic possible-necessaries--that could be enacted in one variation or another within one's own particular idiosyncratic and generational modality. Doubtless, since then various modes of the possible-necessary have been taken up by painters of verve and talent, but Schnabel has never been one of these.
Yet, Hollein can say of the courtyard works: "Placed around the Neoclassical-style colonnade, they are paintings as well as architectural objects. They transform the space that surrounds them and create an emotionally charged and poetic environment for the viewers.” Transform the space? They clutter it, but even more they are simply ponderous, they detract rather than enhance. But to say that they create an "emotionally charged and poetic environment" is merely to utilize a received phrase that has been repeated to such an extent in every single site specific installation that it can no longer even qualify as an empty ideologism. And the same goes for the completely overused and misused notion of the "architectural".
The fact is that the courtyard is lovely in and of itself. The site specific in contemporary art has long been overvalued, indeed, all too often carries an ontological--and ethical--falsity. Because--all the institutional and corporate entanglements, significations, and constrictions aside--it is not very often that works in this genre enhance. More often they are merely impediments, unhappy reminders of our present culture's inability to cherish quiet not just in the auditory sense but in the spatial as well.
Make no mistake, there is no pleasure in saying any of this, no solace, not even the seeming zest to be obtained from polemical pronouncements and criticisms. No, it is simply disheartening to see this waste and void and to be confronted with the pall of these works and the aesthetico-ethical bad faith they and their curatorial invitation carry and exude.
Symbols of Actual Life is the title Schnabel gave these works, but there is nothing vivifying here, no enchantment, no encompassment, no affection, no sparkle, no splendor--no zest!—and nothing at all of any kind of signifying life and living significance, none of that.
And all this is immediately relevant because the Hollein/Schnabel Legion of Honor show did not consist solely of the courtyard works. Hollein also commissioned Schnabel for works in the museum's three Rodin exhibition rooms as part of a continuing series in contemporary interactive works. Exhibitions by Sarah Lucas and Urs Fischer had previously taken place. And for the Rodin rooms Schnabel has recourse to his habitual practice of using prefabricated material and images upon which he dashes off a scrawl. Schnabel presents eight paintings from three different series and also three sculptures. One series is entitled Jane Birkin. While in Egypt Schnabel purchased felucca-shaped sails from sailors whose ship was named Jane. And so he chose as a title the name of the actress in question. The felucca-shaped sails were stretched to form canvasses on stretcher bars and Schnabel then added his gesso scrawl. These works are smaller versions of the outdoor works. A second series utilizes reproduced 19th Century French Dufour wallpaper to which Schnabel has added reproduced photographs of a stuffed goat (which he purchased in a shop in New York) atop which a reproduced photographic image of a toy rabbit is affixed. And upon these Schnabel has quickly scrawled his "mark", given that we could wryly say that it could be likened to a kind of marking of "territory". The title for this series is The Sky of Illimitableness. No matter, it is the same practice and same tiresome result.
Of the monumental, Hollein says: "People comment on the size of his work and say it’s grandiose or monumental, but I never felt that way. I always thought the paintings have a proper size for what he’s trying to achieve, which is a very powerful relationship between the viewer and the canvas, with the painting really becoming an object or architectural element.” Once again and always, this is tautological evasion. Of course 24 x 24 foot paintings have an impact. But the question is what kind of an impact and moreover how are we to characterize and speak of the works themselves? What are they? What do they do? What do they give themselves? What do they give us?
Tellingly, virtually every critic who wrote about the show spoke almost exclusively about what materials Schnabel used and where and how he obtained them, because trying to find ways to "praise" all this slap-dash vacuity is not an easy task. But let us understand: 99+ percent of the world's artists do not have the means to travel to this or that exotic destination and to buy and then ship such materials across oceans and continents. But this obviously leaves Hollein unpeturbed and unembarrassed because without a moment of self reflection and self-awareness he declares: “Julian’s paintings already have a history. He doesn’t paint on cheap white canvas. He paints by selecting the surface, and that surface is already charged with history or symbols of actual life of its own.” Cheap white canvas? Hollein needs to be reminded that for those painters who are outside the art world’s canons and privileged regimes, canvas in even discount art supply stores is not inexpensive at all and even less so “cheap”. And the “history” and “symbols of actual life” that Hollein (and Schnabel) impute to the materials and works in question are nothing at all outside monetary privilege, self-promotion, empty imputation, and empty tautology (yes, objects in the world whether “cheap white canvas” or market stall covers and felucca sails exist in time and in particular circumstances).
Of course, and tellingly once again, none of the critics and commentators seemed to have any desire at all to speak in the negative of the works, the show, and the curatorial initiative itself. And these same critics, unable to speak of the works themselves in aesthetic and critical-evaluative terms, were in unison in their utilization of a figure that simply cannot avoid being characterized as an empty automaticity itself, because they all spoke of the ways in which Schnabel's works meshed with and enhanced the Rodin rooms, but without ever presenting a discursive demonstration of why or how this might be so. In other words, the interactive initiative’s curatorial intention of creating dialogues between the sculptures and paintings in the Rodin rooms and the contemporary works positioned there is simply presupposed as successfully accomplished.
But I think a very good case could be made that the supposed dialogues are but the introduction of noise and racket and I think this could be said not only of the Schnabel exhibition but even more of the previously staged Lucas and Fischer exhibitions. In this sense the presuppositions of success on the part of critics simply duplicated the automaticities of Schnabel's works. Yet, Schnabel's Rodin Room works are less intrusive and less discordant and, therefore, introduce less noise and racket (but noise and racket nonetheless) than did the unfortunate works of Lucas and Fischer. But this comparison does not in any way save Schnabel’s works, rather it is simply one more indication of the nature of the “contemporary” within the art world’s dismal regime of visibility.
Charles Desmarais, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote: "The installation is stunning. Not in the literal sense, but in an air-kiss, don’t-you-look-fabulous way. That’s catty, but the works’ seemingly offhand yet calculated stylishness invites such a response." Does this say anything or is this merely a parody which does not know itself as such? Presumably, his second sentence tries to qualify the immediate superlative he presents, but the qualification's abstruse nature leaves the superlative, i.e. "stunning", and thereby the praise (and acquiescence) in place and in fact doubles it by adding a second superlative, "fabulous". And these two sentences together with a third which presents one more superlative, "stylishness", represent both the starting point and the arrival point of his analysis.
Sadly, Desmarais abdicates here the necessary critical function and task and thereby his article does not evince the kind of respect which I think a readership and a public ought to receive. Desmarais continues: "I was most interested in the French wallpaper that patterns the background, however, I couldn’t help but think it was Schnabel’s inside joke on the relationship between mural-size abstract painting and wall decor." Desmarais misunderstands. Self-deprecation is not one of Schnabel's strong suits. But here again a critic avoids speaking of the works and merely speaks of the materials. But Desmarais concludes with this: "For all the guff he has taken — and he is far from the only artist guilty of inflating modest ideas to enormous size —he gets to have an opinion."
Schnabel has taken no guff at all. Schnabel's public posture has willfully sought out controversy, which is, of course, a transparent strategy of self-promotion, and, thereby and necessarily, from time to time negative appraisals ensue, but on the whole the art world has been completely taken in by his strategy and he has been greatly remunerated for it. Schnabel very early on in his career reached the top 1% in art world visibility and in art world riches. This is not guff. This is the stuff of pink palaces in New York (which he was able to build for himself) and travel all over the world. It is not just financial security, but opulent security. But should that entitle him "to an opinion"? From where other than the configuration of illegitimate and irrational canon and gallery-curatorial-market conformities and reflexes could any justification at all be derived for this statement by Desmarais and this curatorial choice by Hollein? 99+ percent of the world's artists never reach any kind of audience and in this sense they get to have "an opinion", but not a public one. Do Schnabel's scrawls entitle him to anything? Not if even a minimal standard of aesthetic judgment is applied.
Decades ago Schnabel remarked that he "paid his dues". It is an unfortunate remark. When you reach the opulent summits of art world recognition and monetary success and do so in your 20s it means automatically and by definition that you have always been completely dispensed from paying any dues at all. Paula Rego and Mary Heilman did reach the summits also, but not till they were in their 50s. Paula Rego is a great painter, but I would not say the same for Mary Heilman. The mechanisms constituting the contemporary art world’s regime of visibility, canon, and reward operate on the basis of accumulated irrationalities and nothing more. But in any event, did Rego and Heilman "pay their dues"?
Again and again: 99+ percent of artists--and I mean very good artists, great artists--never reach the summits, indeed, never reach even that kind of success where at least they could gain a livelihood from their art work so that they need not work in bookstores or wait tables, etc. etc. Indeed, in relation to the latter, those artists who have teaching positions in universities or at colleges should be considered privileged, and in that sense they pay much less dues. But the vast majority of very talented artists pay dues all life long. All life long.
But this episode opened up by Hollein and Schnabel has as a result that I can arrive at the notional conclusion of my opening narrative in an even more enhanced way. Because I can easily say that Alan Silver would be very happy to have a chance to reach the public of the Museum of the Legion of Honor. And I believe the public would be much--much!--happier and truly enriched if it were the canvasses of Silver that would greet them at the museum in question.
Silver and Schnabel have followed paths in all ways at complete antipodes one from the other. Alan Silver is one of the greatest painters of our time, a painter whose personal and painterly integrities constitute the most beautiful and admirable of models, whereas Schnabel has trouble even arriving at painterly facticity.
Furthermore, Alan Silver is both a great civic painter and a great lyrical painter, similar in this to poets such as, for example, Anna Akhmatova, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Wanda Coleman who were all both great civic and great lyrical poets. Silver’s is a painting of the most moving of depths, affections, and intelligence, which is to say also the most moving of encompassments, a painting always of readiness and adventure and, thereby, of the most essential as well as of the sallies, soarings, and sensitivities of music, of song.
Jazz is Silver’s foundational influence and inspiration and the thrilling rhapsody, verve, and improvisation which we find in Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Wardell Grey, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus (to name just some of the musicians Silver esteems the most) are the very attributes of Silver’s paintings, among them, as but a specific indicator in this particular vein, his marvelous tributes to Mingus, Powell, Coltrane, Armstrong, and Monk in his canvasses East-Coasting (Mingus’ album West-Coasting being the referent), Dance Of The Infidels, Ascension, East End Blues (as per Armstrong’s signature West-End Blues), and The Moon Over Thelonious (being also a tribute to Monk’s rendition of the Japanese composer, Rentaro Taki’s composition, Moon Over A Castle’s Ruins). Indeed, Silver’s paintings in their symphonic force, intricacies, and durations are perfectly in keeping with the proliferating, spiraling, and intensifying crescendos to be found in the tumultuous and exquisitely wise and beautiful musics of Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler—and Duke Ellington too, among so many others.
Certainly the public would be much happier with and enriched by the ever invigorating brilliance and sagacity of Alan Silver's works rather than with the slap-dash emptiness and paucities of Schnabel. On Alan Silver's website he has posted a statement which in its gracious and incisive wisdom, in its wry and charming humor, cadence, and modesty, in its brevity and in its absolute absence of any kind of pretentiousness--and thereby, in its admirable existential and ethical bearing--is, doubtless, the best artist statement one could ever hope to read, indeed it is the best I have ever read.
And his works are the perfect companions, the perfect outcomes, the perfect expressions of this wisdom, generosity, and bearing where a painterly imaginary and vision of the most sparkling, sui generis, and expansive kind ever and always find the most consequential and captivating compositional, choreographic, motivic, and chromatic outcomes--and humor too which is a constituent element of many of his paintings, their pith and patina at once variegated and various, as for example the marvelously wry and playful humor in, Man Staring Down His Own Irrelevance, Love Potion #8, Darwin’s Dream, Serendipitous Splendidum, Something About Puppets, Homo Digitus, My Blue Poles, Post Cynical Semblance Poem, Frans Hals At The Met, Saturn And His Children, Portrait Of A Critical Theorist, and Francis Bacon and the more ribald and mischievous humor in Woody Harrelson, Portrait Of Gerhard Richter With Fowl, The Widow, etc. But in a certain sense there is an element of humor in all his work and it is one more reason why his works are so rich, sparkle so, and sound the depths of our existence and our socio-existential and historico-psychological being.
Yes, Silver's paintings, his art, give us worlds and, what is more, unlike the vast majority of contemporary figurative painters, Silver's paintings are not derivations and immediate reflexes and reflections from and of mass media machines and assemblies of circulated and re-circulated image and inundation, but rather the always compelling gift of surprise and the vibratos and shimmering pleasures of the uncanny, the unexpected, and the existential and socio-existential most important.
And had Silver been chosen for the commission one could have foregone the expenditure, doubtless not inconsequential, of funds to ship Schnabel's works all the way from New York. Am I saying that this commission should have gone to a local Bay Area painter or artist? That should always be a consideration, but certainly it should not be a mandatory one. Had Hollein chosen a painter or artist from let us say Mozambique or Mongolia, Cambodia or Costa Rica, Haiti or Benin, Albania or New Zealand, etc. etc. and the works were of great verve and substantiality, well and good. But Schnabel's works? No.
Furthermore, while the San Francisco Bay Area’s political, literary, social, and cultural modernities have certainly since WWII and in ways before that too clearly been at the forefront of any and all of our modernities, its painterly modernity has been very much underappreciated. And it is a lacuna of the first order in our socio-political and socio-cultural registers and discourses. But with the presence of Alan Silver (and the Japanese abstractionist Naoko Haruta, another of the very greatest painters of our time), the San Francisco Bay Area’s painterly eminence need not take secondary position to any other locale, not to New York, nor Los Angeles, nor Berlin, nor Beijing, etc. Indeed with the presence of Silver and Haruta, whom I consider to be the supreme painters and painterly intelligences of our epoch, I would place the San Francisco Bay Area’s painterly situation and consequentiality in the very first position.
So, just as Yves Michaud was mistaken to think Silver did not wish to reach a public, so was Hollein mistaken in not taking a look around his own neighborhood first. Hollein swept into town and was oblivious to the town. He didn’t do his homework. Alan Silver is not native to the San Francisco Bay Area. But he is a distinguished graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), studying there with and winning great praise, admiration, and friendship from significant San Francisco Bay Area painters and faculty members at the institution, Sam Tchakalian and Franklin Williams.
Subsequently Silver obtained an MFA degree from U. C. Berkeley where he studied with the painters Joan Brown and Elmer Bischoff and again with Sam Tchakalian who was a visiting professor at that time. Bischoff was one of the featured painters in Thomas Albright’s aforementioned Art of the San Francisco Bay Area Art, 1945-1980. And Brown, Tchakalian, and Williams are all venerated artists and all of them said upon visits to Alan Silver’s studio that they considered him not as a student but as a peer. I would stipulate that Silver’s work was already in this period of greater weight and bearing than that of his teachers and it is one among many reasons why I am certain Albright, had he lived, would have continued to celebrate with ever increasing enthusiasm the work of Silver, and, had he written a sequel to his book, would have featured Silver (and Haruta) at its very center.
But Hollein is not the only one who failed to do his homework. Charles Desmarais, who was the president of SFAI prior to becoming the principal art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle (although president well after Silver’s graduation), has been neglectful of Silver and also of Naoko Haruta.
In any event, had Hollein ventured to the studio of Alan Silver, a different one now than the one Michaud encountered, a bit more sedate, a bit larger, though still very modest and rudimentary, he would have encountered painting after painting that quicken, enliven, enhance, and give the warmest kind of sustenance to the heart and mind and to one’s aesthetic, intellectual, and existential joy! In short he would have been in the presence of the very best and most consequential kind of painting and in the presence of the very best and most scintillating things which painting and art can do.
I should also add that Silver is a splendid colorist, one of the most outstanding in the now long skein of modern painting. But because in almost all of his works he creates and uses muted and mixed tones and hues, reproduced images do not provide the exquisite richness and resonance—and moods!--of his canvasses. But seen in person, the originality and beauty of his colors capture all our fancies, all our fervor, all our festivity!
When Alan Silver sent me an image of his painting, Blue Nocturne, it caused me to immediately jump up in exhilaration and exultation! And even more so when I subsequently saw it in his studio. It is all at once astonishing and enchanting. The light-blue of the bands dazzles and the motif reverberates with immediate and lasting force a shimmering I-know-not-what at once visual, ideational, and affective.
Lighthouse at the End of a Dream: what a superb title for a painting, as are so many other titles of his paintings, because the dream, wondrous and winsome, is but the beginning, the beginning of the realms and reaches that his paintings give us in their singularities and in their assembling concatenations and expressions. And how fittingly and happily named is his, The Divine Comedy, since Silver’s painting and paintings, like the poet in question, in tenderness and in force—this most difficult of unions in literature and art--enfold the energies, the awakenings, in cheer and in laughter, in tears and in tumult, in our being here, in our now and then ever, and, thereby, and all at once his and our tragic, comic, and tragicomic senses of life. Indeed, Silver among all painters of our epoch was precisely elected to paint such a work and to render the multi-facets and multiplicities of life and its various expressivities.
And then too and in keeping with all this, The World as it Does Not Appear and We Imagine What We Cannot Dream, given as we are to see in Silver’s paintings what we could scarcely have anticipated and which then become the most delightful of enactments and in this ever and always the beginning of all that his paintings will reveal to us, will bestow upon us, as gift and as gratitude, the greatest art always being the greatest gratitude, a gratitude that becomes our’s in circuits, sequences, and marvelous embraces. The Legion of Honor is a lovely museum in a lovely location. And with Silver's works it would be even lovelier still. WM
1. See Yves Michaud, L'artiste et les commissaires, quatre essais non pas sur l'art contemporain mais sur ceux qui s'en occupent (Paris: Jacqueline Chambon, 1989); La crise de l'art contemporain - Utopie, démocratie et comédie (Paris: P.U.F., 1997); Critères esthétiques et jugement de goût (Paris: Jacqueline Chambon, 1999); L'art à l'état gazeux, essai sur le triomphe de l'esthétique (Paris: Stock, 2003).
2. See Howard Eiland, Notes on Literature, Film, and Jazz (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2018).
3. Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
4. Hollein becomes the tenth director in the history of the Metropolitan and the tenth director who is male and who is not a person of color. His appointment elicited widespread criticism primarily for these reasons but in some instances for others as well.
5. Hollein quoted in Museum of Palace of Legion of Honor exhibition announcement [https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/press-room/west-coast-premiere-julian-schnabel-s-monumental-transformative-paintings].
6. Hollein quoted in Sarah Cascone, "American Museums Ignored Him for Two Decades. Now, Julian Schnabel Is Back—and Bigger Than Ever", Art Net, 5-11-2018 [https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/julian-schnabel-comeback-legion-of-honor-1237100].
7. Hollein quoted in Sarah Cascone, ibid.
8. Hollein quoted in Meredith Mendelson, “Everyone Has An Opinion About Julian Schnabel. But Do We Really Know His Work?” Artsy, May 8, 2018 [artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-opinion-julian-schnabel-work].
9. Charles Desmarais, “Julian Schnabel’s Fashionable Legion Debut”, San Francisco Chronicle, April 10, 2018.
12. I speak of Silver and Haruta in the afterword to: “Macarthur Grants, Regimes of Visibility, and Meritocratic Orders” (http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/macarthur-grants-regimes-visibility-meritocratic-orders/) as well as in, “Of Art, Race, and Jazz: A Reply to Barry Schwabsky” and in, “Museum Curators and Their Public” [(http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/art-race-jazz-reply-barry-schwab-sky/ (http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/museum-curators-public/). And I speak of Naoko Haruta in an essay on her magnificent series of 103 paintings, entitled Trees (http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/naoko-haruta-and-the-arboreal-imagination/)].
Steve Light is a philosopher and poet. His most recent books are The Emergence of Happiness (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Against Middle Passages (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2017). He is also the translator of Jean Grenier’s, Islands: Lyrical Essays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005) and his writings and translations have appeared in many countries.view all articles from this author