Monday, October 4, 2010

Juan Gris Opens The Door To The Future

          A few days ago I came across a Graham Green quotation from The Power And The Glory (a novel I liked better when I reread it two summers ago than I did the first time through in high school), which apparently appears frequently in “wise thoughts” lists.

          It reads: "There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in."

 Juan Gris

          I wouldn't presume to speak for other people in this regard, but the statement definitely applies to me.  In my case, the moment occurred in the fall of 1968, when I pulled the book Juan Gris by James Thrall Soby from the library shelf at The Gunnery in Washington, Connecticut.  I have no idea why I decided to look at the book and I definitely hadn't planned on the encounter.  Probably, I was just taking a study break and wandering around in the stacks.

          But from the moment I began to look at the picture plates in the book and then to read Soby's text, things began to come into focus for me in ways they hadn’t previously.

Juan Gris, Portrait of Picasso, 1912

          I began to consider Cubist painting (which I was aware of but hadn't previously thought about a lot) very seriously, from its beginnings through the development of the Analytical and Synthetic phases.  Its multi-valent visual and textural viewpoints and rich and appealing subject matter (to a young teenager, studio and café life seemed unbelievably appealing; descriptions of Cubist subjects as “restricted” seem as false to me now as they did then) made the world seem to me strong, logical, and lively -- a place of infinite possibility.

Juan Gris, The Open Window, 1921

          Quickly and sequentially I made entrée into artistic movements related and unrelated to Cubism: contemporary ones like Cubist poetry (Apollinaire, Reverdy, Jacob) and successor ones like Dada, Surrealism (especially Marcel Duchamp's work), opening out into the rest of 20th century avant-garde visual art, music and dance. In fairly short order, I thought it was crucial to learn all about world art history from the beginning of recorded time to the present and what might be imagined beyond that.

Juan Gris, Jar, Bottle and Glass, 1911

          Duchamp’s disciple John Cage taught me (in his writings) Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's maxim “the function of Art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation”, which I adopted as a mental and aesthetic touchstone. That and Cage's “silent” piano composition  4’3", as well as Duchamp’s deceptive “career disappearing act” all provided an aesthetic viewpoint implying that art was both a physically “present” thing and event and a transcendent experience and that it was better for artists to be modest and as invisible as possible in their work.

John Cage, 4'33", 1952


          This came to mind again this week when a friend posed the question whether it was possible “to express the absence of affect” in a work of art. 

          Trying to cope and deal with such an abstract thought (I’m a lawyer, not a philosopher), initially I found I needed to decide:

               a)  what, if any, difference there might be between “affectless”, which by all dictionary definitions suggests a psychological disorder, and the “absence of affect”;

               b)  how to recognize or at least give examples of the “invisible” quality I just alluded to; and

               c)  whether or not the simple volitional action of “expressing” something nullified the logical possibility of achieving “an absence of affect”. 

          (Thank heavens I am doing this outside an academic and/or commercial publishing context where I’m sure I’d be eviscerated for sloppy thinking, magical thinking, using incorrect terminology or all of the above, undoubtedly in violation of some political canon or social interdiction I’ve somehow missed or neglected to observe.)

          All of which brought me back to Juan Gris, the pseudonym adopted by Jose Vittoriano Gonzales (1887-1927), the Spanish painter who along with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque is rightly considered one of the three greatest masters of Cubism.  One of the things that immediately  attracted me to Gris (apart from the fact that he is clearly a painter of genius) is his absence of affect.  I see this quality in each of the works posted here and it is not a quality, incidentally, that I see in the work of his great friend Picasso, whose work, brilliant and rigorous as it can be, is much “hotter” and more gestural and expressionistic. Personally, I tended to gravitate toward the sort of cerebral quality I found in Gris, whose invented name, which translates as “John Grey” (reminding me of Henry Vincent Yorke’s similar adoption of the very plain “Henry Green” as a nom-de-plume) emphasizes that
 “non-affect” effect.

Juan Gris, Tablero de Ajedrez, 1917

          Going backwards and forward in time, I detect and am attracted to this quality, which I tend to associate with honesty and piercing intelligence, in works by the Netherlandish  painter Hans Memling (1430-94),  the Spanish master Francisco Goya (1746-1828), the great French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), the Dutch Neo-Plasticist, the brilliant surrealist Yves Tanguy (1900-55), and surprisingly (some would probably say), in the more recent art (especially the portraiture) of Andy Warhol (1928-87).

Hans Memling, Portrait of A Man, 1470

Francisco Goya, Self-Portrait In Studio, 1795

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, La Brioche, 1763

          Naturally,  as I developed,  learned new things and saw more art, my so-called “focus” waxed and waned and things alternately made more and less sense depending on myriad factors.   As my ability to look closely, and possibly see deeply, increased (I had some professional training; I spent time on this and made a real commitment for a while), I began increasingly to notice definite gestural, expressionist aspects in the “absence of affect” works I liked so much and thought were my favorites, as well as moments of intense focus and cerebral stillness in works that formerly seemed seemed wildly active.

Yves Tanguy, The Ribbon of Excess, 1932

Fernand Leger, The City, 1919

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. 1, 1938-9 

           Consequently, what had previously been black-and-white antonyms adopted shades of gray coloring and I fell in love with all kinds of art my original aesthetic lens didn’t allow me to appreciate sufficiently, including the brilliant art of two of Gris' great friends, the unclassifiable (to me) Fernand Leger (1881-1955) and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), who from his earliest Fauvist days was hardly “gris” in his approach.
           I relate all this because the Graham Greene quote that opened the piece really affected me when I re-encountered it and made me recall the moment when my personal door to the future opened.  I wound up doing something professionally very different for a living than I ever thought I would, but I think I am still roughly the same person who was formed out of  Juan Gris by James Thrall Soby.

Thank you for listening

Andy Warhol, Portrait of Tina Chow, 1985

Andy Warhol, Screen Test (Mary Woronov), 1966

Juan Gris, Pierrot, 1921

Juan Gris by James Thrall Soby (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1958)


  1. This is lovely, o uncraven ACraven. It is the opposite of a door that I've thought much more about recently, the door that lets the past in. The problem of "affect" will never go away, because the job of the artist is to express his or her unique vision. There will always be a risk of getting in one's own way.

  2. Thanks very much for sending this and for your kind words. I suppose these doors swing both ways pretty regularly. As for the one that lets the past in, I'm currently in a phase of trying to keep it pretty firmly closed, but as with affect(and what you say about its relation to expression), I'm constantly getting in own way. Curtis

  3. I witnessed, and remember, each step M. Cravan describes undertaking: Gris, other Cubists, Gleizes & Metzinger (who when he mentioned them I assumed constituted one person with the German-sounding first name Glizon), "Cubist" French poetry, Duchamp, Cage, Coomarasway, the New York and Tulsa poets. And much, much more.

    It was near impossible for his wannabe peers to keep up with all this, so rapidly and deeply did Mr. C. absorb these subjects. And despite, or because of, being mentorless, he just as quickly, with an infallible instinct, branched into precisely the most interesting and promising and expansive intersections presented -- e.g. moving in a few steps from from Gris to Duchamp, as opposed to from Gris to Picasso. This meant that even as you tried to catch up to where you thought he was, he had already moved on.

    Though plodding more slowly, I was infected with most of his enthusiasms and remain so -- for those he mentions and many others. But I also felt a competitive obligation to come up with some of my own. In the course of trying to explore what little terrain Mr. C. had left untilled, I found modern expressionist painters: especially Ensor and Klee, whom I fell hard for. Then, satsfied I was still an independent ego, I felt free, more tentatively than Mr. C. at first, to follow him through the doors he had opened into Duchamp, Frank O'Hara, John Cage.

    In terms of sheer energetic relentless growth I can only compare Mr. C.'s spurt to the day my infant son woke up determined to master rolling over, with a focused will that looked like, and was, a force of nature.

    I will quibble with one thing. I want to say it was the Fall of 1969 not 1968. But I could be wrong.

  4. Thank you very much. I would italicize or bold the "very", but Blogger will not allow that. I decided to republish this piece because it meant a lot to me and I'm a little more skilled making these posts look more attractive than I was when I first published it. The things you wrote interested me a lot and you may be correct about the date. It's amazing the things one remembers and forgets. I expect you have had the feeling of looking through a file and seeing a long legal letter you once composed -- something that must have taken a lot of time and gone through many revisions -- and not remembering a thing about it. The first time that happened to me is now a long time ago. Scary then, scary now. I am feeling kind of energetic today and I'm going around muttering cliched slogans like "happiness is a choice." I think today will be ok and tomorrow too. I've heard from Jane in England pretty regularly and that's been great. The Greenwich Observatory really bowled her over, as I expected it would. I originally asked her to send a sentence a day, which she did, thinking it humorous to do so. I then (nicely) asked for two (I mean, I was the one who asked for one originally) and then they started tumbling out, albeit in modern internet kid spelling. Anyway, it should be a good weekend. Curtis

  5. just linked this article on my Facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

    Juan Gris Paintings

  6. Thanks for writing, for linking and for the link. I'm very glad you liked this. Writing it was a sort of labor of love and surprising re-connection and re-discovery, so it's great to learn that the piece "reached" someone, especially someone who seems to be in Chennai. Could that be true? I have a dear friend in Bangalore with whom I correspond every day. Please let me know. Regards, Curtis