Rosalyn Schwartz: The Gatekeepers
October 31 through December 12, 2020
By DONALD KUSPIT, November 2020
With a kind of frenzied abandon, using bits and pieces of old and tired avant-garde styles, often recklessly mixed in a kind of chaotic stew as though to renew and refresh them—graffiti-like gesture and atmospheric color field in Portrait (white eye) (2019), attenuated cubism and squiggly gesturalism in Portrait (Oral Delight) (2020), a nightmarishly surreal face caged in a crumbling grid in Whirligig (After Picasso) (2016), a luridly red photograph of a sexy female figure floating in a luminous mist in Trouble (2013)—Rosalyn Schwartz confronts us with herself. For all the female figures and faces are portraits of a self in crisis, marred and distorted by suffering, and all the abstract tours de force—among them the blazing white Green Gazer (2017) and the grim black Winter Wheat (2013), the white gestural scars on the blackness confirming its insistence—convey the depths of the crisis, even as they give it an aesthetic surface as though to anesthetize her pain. They are all in your face—they confront us with her face, sometimes banally conventional as in Portrait (Red-Eye Trancer) (2020), sometimes a ghostly shadow as in Portrait (Black Turtleneck) (2019), sometimes beautiful and glamorous, as in Conversation (2013), Mask (2013), and Wild Strawberries (2012), where Schwartz unconsciously identifies with the model and actress in the collaged photograph. There is a sense of raw aggression—menacing violence--in the handling in many works, confirming that they are instinctively driven. Wildly imaginative and compulsively repetitive, Schwartz’s nightmarish displays of her inner self—for most of the works have the quality of a bad dream, and even those with the pin-ups have the forlornness of a wistful daydream of a self that might have been, the superficial beauty of the pin-ups hiding the banality of their existences, not to say their emotional shallowness and inner emptiness--show an unhappy and unstable artist projecting her unhappiness and unstableness into a seemingly infinite number of self-representations, as though she might find happiness and stability in one of them—a lucky throw of the aesthetic dice.
Their “tumultuousness and uncertainty” have more to do with “personal losses” than with “world affairs.” In a confessional statement Schwartz links the two, but there is no sign of “world affairs” in the works (all 2019-2020), but many signs of—intense responses to--“personal losses,” especially Schwartz’s angry gestures and grotesquely distorted faces, a few all but blotted out, hardly recognizable as human, as in Ms. Portrait: Miss Clairvoyant (2020) and Blond-Looker (2020), a dehumanizing self-negation suggesting futility. “World affairs” are external (socio-political) reality, "personal losses” are internal (psychodynamic) reality: there is not the slightest hint of political reality in Schwartz’s Gatekeepers series, although the photo-realistic female figures seem to allude to social reality, but they are photographic illusions, doctored to glamorize their bodies and faces, and as such grossly unrealistic. Such impersonal—depersonalized--glamorous types have their own peculiar monstrousness. Soulless compared to the soul-full surreally expressive painted faces, they suggest a paragone between photography and painting, with the latter winning out, as the fact that the photograph is always inserted in a painting, as in Trouble and Wild Strawberries, and, perhaps more pointedly, that the eyes of the photographed model are blindfolded by paint, as in Mask (2013), suggesting that a photograph does not reveal and convey the inner life of a human being as convincingly as manically expressive paint does.
“Personal loss” means loss of attachment to some loved person, and with that loss of a “secure base,” necessary for survival, to allude to the psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s theory of attachment. The death of a loved one brings with it a threat of death to the self, for it brings with it the loss of their love, which is necessary for life. I suggest that Schwartz’s works are full of the sound and fury signaling the nothingness of death, more pointedly, they show her mortifying—and mocking--herself in a fit of rage in response to the death of a loved one. She’s 68, and facing her own death—she sometimes blots out her face as though she was already dead, as in Blond-Looker. More broadly, she is coming to terms with the so-called “feminine mystique,” as the photo-realist images indicate, suggesting it is a mirage that betrays woman, shows her to be all appearance with no underlying reality—unless the underlying reality is the rage implicit in the surreal ugliness of Schwartz’s faces and in the violence of her expressionism. Even when she shows us a calmly collected female face, as in Framed Head (2015), there is a sense of lurking menace, as its beady black eyes and skull-shaped head suggests. Schwartz’s oddly bleak Gatekeeper works are certainly a long aesthetic way from the elegance and beauty of her earlier Baroque paintings, full of wonder at nature and life.
It has been said that modern art is “creative destruction”—like modern capitalism. The question that Schwartz’s Gatekeeper series raises is whether her neo-avant-garde art is creative or destructive—whether to be destructive is to be creative, as her Gatekeeper series suggests, more particularly whether to be creative means that one has to destroy the thing one loves most, as Oscar Wilde says, namely oneself. Or does true creativity mean to celebrate the creative abundance of nature, as Schwartz does in her Baroque masterpieces. With great aesthetic subtlety, she conveys, as though in a revelation, the marvels of nature in Nocturne 2, 1994, Fantasia 2 and the V series, all 1995, Picturesque Scene 1 and 3, both 2004, Still Life with Blue Flowers, 2007. Candelabras, 2005 and Rococo Vases, 2008 are a sort of lesson in creativity, for they show ordinary objects transformed into extraordinary art, giving them a surplus aesthetic value that transcends and subsumes their everyday use value.
Why, having made such exquisite Neo-traditional paintings, has Schwartz made such unsightly Neo-avant-garde paintings? Why, having made such life and pleasure giving paintings—heavenly landscapes, earthly paradises—has Schwartz made such death-infected, pain-filled paintings--hellishly miserable faces of self-tormented women? Is it because the onset of old age brings with it the thought of death, and with it what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls “destruction anxiety,” already evident in what Picasso called Cézanne’s anxiety, a staple of avant-garde art in our modern Age of Anxiety? As the historian Eric Hobsbawm documents, there have been more deaths in war in the 20th century than in any other century. Why should living death—and incurable anxiety--not become a theme of art, as it is in Schwartz’s Gatekeeper series? Is it because Schwartz is past her prime, when she was primed to make paintings in which “ripeness is all,” when she was able to embrace the fullness of nature with her own full being?
A gatekeeper is in charge of a gate, which brings to mind Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” It seems that in the Neo-avant-garde Gatekeeper series Schwartz has entered the road that leads to destruction, that is, artistic hell, while in her Neo-Baroque traditional art she has taken the road that leads to life, that is, artistic heaven. To put this another way, the current Neo-avant-garde Gatekeeper works are hellish and tormented, the earlier Neo-Baroque landscapes are heavenly and serene. As Biblical interpreters of Matthew’s statement note, the narrow gate—dare one say the gate of traditional art, with its harmonious continuum of stable styles, each dialectically developing out of the other (all have been discredited by avant-gardism, falsifying creativity by conflating, even equating, it with destructiveness, and anxiety with inspiration)--is the gate to salvation. In sharp contrast, the broad gate—the gate of avant-gardism, with its numerous movements, each at odds with the others, each proclaiming it is more of the essence of art than the other, until there is no essence left, until art has become an empty idea, conceptualized away; each emphasizing disharmony rather than harmony, each more destructive and nihilistic than the other, the sum of destructions that is cubism dead-ending in the pseudo-intellectualism and anti-aestheticism that is conceptual art, the epitome of what has come to be called “deskilled art,” if one wants to call it art—is the gate to hell.
If this is so, if traditional art and avant-garde art are rooted in fundamentally different world outlooks and with that are ultimately irreconcilable however many attempts have been made to reconcile them—perhaps most intriguingly in German figurative expressionism--then Schwartz’s art is divided against itself, torn between her early heavenly works, with their hermetic beauty and timeless aura, and her current hellish works, which no doubt suit the times, with their universal suffering, as the apocalyptic pandemic indicates—however obliquely, they do have socio-political significance. Nonetheless, after a long optimistic fruitful creative season in the artistic heaven that is the “Great Tradition,” Schwartz has descended into a self-destructive rotten pessimistic season in avant-garde hell. Hopefully it is short-lived; hopefully she will recover her good spirits; regain her earlier outlook in a last surge of healthy creativity. As the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr writes, we tend to oscillate between the paranoid projection of destructive (bad) feelings—which is what the Gatekeeper works are--and the reparative projection of grateful (good) feelings—which is what the Neo-Baroque works are. There’s a rainbow after the storm of bad feelings as Peter Paul Rubens’ Baroque masterpiece The Rainbow Landscape, 1636 makes clear. Let us hope that Schwartz finds a rainbow after the storm of her bad feelings ends, and she recovers her mental health and with it her sense of beauty, her gift for aesthetic gratitude. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author