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."
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
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)