byline:Tim Maul is an artist and critic living in New York City.
caption: Studio item – photograph of Francis Bacon by John Deakin; collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane; ©2009 The Estate of Francis Bacon; courtesy Hugh Lane
I find it difficult not to watch the crowds file solemnly through Francis Bacon – a centenary retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. What must they take away from this crash course in carnality and grief? The text panels throughout this exhibition of 66 paintings provide the standard biographical information, acknowledge Bacon’s sources (Muybridge, Velazquez and Eisenstein) and include gossip on the artist’s disastrous relationships with lovers and muses. Whispering audio guides dangle the back-story of the artist in front each painting and the art, the narrative, and the Met make for a great fit. Here is a tale of exorcism, an expulsion of one’s demons onto canvas in a performative manner befitting such torment -culminating in the suicide of his partner George Dyer which extends itself over the three operatic canvases of Triptych ’73.
Local critical resistance to Bacon stems from the artist’s dismissal of our abstract-expressionist dream-team in favor of a continued restaging of the figure-a hybrid of Futurism’s cinematic overlays rendered in greasy surrealist trompe l’oeil. America, once the dream factory of the world, could never embrace the surreal when it already had Busby Berkeley. Secular in our art, the overt symbolism favored by Bacon was rare beyond ‘outsider’ movements, beatnik mysticism, and the hiccup of kitschy ’80s ‘East Village’ expressionism. No longer – kid stuff rules now, the dark pagan language of youth culture is a ubiquitous gallery presence tolerated with parental patience. Banished and adrift in the European capitals of the 1920s, Francis Bacon was no one’s child. His fan base where I teach (School of Visual Arts) is overwhelmingly male and searching for authenticity in these wavering times. Along with other post adolescent infatuations (weird bands and cult novelists), attraction to Bacon was something one grew out of and rarely acknowledged.
Bacon’s long representation by Marlboro Gallery contributed to the aura of affluence attending perception of his art, by that gallery’s plush midtown location and stable of bluechip artists which included hardcore bohemian Larry Rivers, another mainly figurative painter that history does not know what to do with. New York critics generally dismissed Bacon as expensive ‘feel bad’ art mired in the transitional period between chic surrealism and abstract expressionism. Skepticism was fueled by the belief that collectors overlooked such atrocious content because it ‘went’ with the furniture – frequently the ‘French provincial’ style favored by ’60s decorators, which employed mirrors to extend the illusion of space. Bacon insisted on gold frames and floated a layer of glass between the viewer and the festering surface of the canvas, ‘delaying’ reception and suspending our own reflection in a Dorian Gray moment of self-recognition. Isolated from other surroundings by a gleaming frame, this act of optic entrapment may be this art’s most salient feature. Each frame functions as signifier to the connoisseur and as ornate sealant, bracketing an airless dead zone that briefly includes us.
American ignorance toward British postwar painting developed out of ego and lack of reportage; the craft, ‘technique’, and populist content found in the art that did manage to cross the Atlantic signaled the provincial – a venial sin NY critic’s would also level at art from ’60s Los Angeles or twenty first century China. A derisive tag of ‘slickness’ could be hung on a figure as important as Richard Hamilton, while applauded in Jeff Koon’s sour monuments to childhood. Halfway through the Met exhibition, a dim room, perhaps to preserve the delicate prints, displays a small selection of photography by John Deakin and other grimy source material from Bacon’s picturesque ruin of a studio – an art supply graveyard/ laboratory where the artist gathered his powers, animating the living and reanimating the dead. Holding the artist’s ‘ashes’, vitrines double for reliquaries, suggesting an unsanitary parallel version of the exhibition. The Hugh Lane website describes that studio’s repatriation to Irish soil as an “excavation” by “archeologists,” giving this controversial action occult connotations; especially to those familiar with the conditions necessary to reinvigorate Bram Stoker’s fictive Count.
The photograph held for Bacon talismanic access to the revival of memories, and like smelling salts held under a boxer’s nose it aroused him and got him back in the ring. Here Bacon is important, intersecting with other painter archivists Gerhard Richter, Richard Prince, and Andy Warhol. Although years apart in age, our Warhol and your Bacon have some intriguing parallels; both were homosexuals and began careers in the decorative arts. Bacon lived through Art Deco while Warhol collected it – which could also be said for pornography. Both slowed people down in their art. Both artists were messy,Warhol in his infantile ‘piss’ canvases and Bacon in terms of his personal life and studio regimen. Wounded by a violent act and ‘resurrected’ from near death, Warhol the practicing Catholic and ‘Pope of Pop’ heavily retouched, on request of the sitter, commissioned portraits while Bacon’s brush magnified human flaws like a funhouse mirror. If debauched, Bacon wasn’t a freak; one could only imagine Warhol’s physical appearance if he had lived into the present – at the time of his death in middle age he was already dependent on cosmetic surgeries, collagen injections, and other beauty treatments to compensate for crippling insecurities.
A touchstone for Bacon, the photography of Edward Muybridge (of which there are only four examples at the Met) confined humans and animals in a grid of a single repeated space. Purported to investigate the mysteries of propulsion, Muybridge’s mildly sadistic proto-cinema was admired by the futurists and later by minimal and ‘body’ artists for the clinical documentation of mundane action. In Bacon’s late work seriality allowed for the playing out of literal ‘kitchen sink’ narratives and lugubrious portraiture. Bacon held on to Futurist simultaneity, which grew out of, among other things, excitement for the new medium of moving pictures. What Bacon derived from his scrutiny of still images was the thing you did not see – the blur, a trace of a motion’s history upon a receptive surface. Originating in the fluid of the eye and later in the chemistry of the darkroom, the blur is almost nearly liquid. Purposely blurring an image, transforming an original, unfixed mark into another, is an act of negation followed by nostalgia for whatever was first there. Bacon’s people are often initially read as convulsive, but their actual rendering is, upon close inspection, laborious. An artist of all that is viscous, Bacon lavished attention on liquids, puddles, and the scabrous – luring us close. Modernism drained the visceral from the canvas – the color pink could be ‘fleshy’ but was forbidden to stand in for flesh itself; Bacon’s deft handling of oils with its purposeful detailing of gesture – no ‘happy accidents’ marooned him outside the Modern conversation anywhere but Europe. His influence fell on few beyond a small appreciative circle; Ralph Steadman took a frenzied Baconian approach in his popular illustrations for the chemically fueled ‘gonzo’ journalism of Hunter S Thompson.
caption:Francis Bacon: Untitled ( man at washbasin),1953; ©2009 The Estate of Francis Bacon; courtesy Hugh Lane
Bacon as scenarist and conductor of sequential delirium may have contributed to his following among film directors; stylists including Bernardo Bertolucci, whose grieving Marlon Brando in Last tango in Paris (1973) suggested to that director a Bacon subject, David Cronenberg’s genetic mishap of The fly (1986), David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Ken Russell. Lynch’s The Elephant man(1981) centers on the Victorian Joseph Merrick, whose deformities could be seen as an embodiment of any Bacon figure – a living blur. The oranges, inky blacks, and liturgical purples used by Bacon recall the lurid covers of classic comicbook art with heroes and villains locked in apocalyptic showdowns. Burton’s grotesque Batman(1981) introduced many to Bacon’s art, specificallyFigure with meat(1954), through a scene where the disfigured Joker (Jack Nicholson) and his band of droogies pass up vandalizing that painting during an invasion of the Gotham City Museum. This scene has contributed to numerous internet inquiries about the art and artist. Much earlier, director Nicolas Roeg nailed the atmosphere of Bacon’s milieu inPerformance(1970), a London tale of criminality, decadent withdrawal, and drug-induced psychic collapse. Mick Jagger’s sneering performance of his songMemo from Turnershould be You Tubed for anyone wondering how a sensibility resembling Bacon’s would translate to the screen. James Fox, playing an East End criminal fleeing the police who stumbles into Turner/ Jagger’s hermetic Yellow book world, could have stepped out from a Bacon ‘men in suit’ painting like Man in a Box (1954) included at the Met.
The original YBAs channeled into Manhattan’s Soho through the Gagosian Gallery in the early ’90s were a game-changer, toppling New York as an art capital that produced the novelty necessary to fuel an art boom. Deep pocketed production values married to the thrills, chills, and eroticism of the wax museum attracted diverse, carnivalesque crowds, making the average New York gallery opening look effete and repressed. These artists, with the exception of Damien Hirst, came and went like music industry ‘one hit wonders’-grabbing some cash along with a page in the history books. Bacon’s episodic re-enactments of Victorian sensation, where an unseen curtain rises and falls on each individual painting, once frustrated placement of his work in the genealogy of western art history. No more. A familial term of ‘grandfather’ may be finally conferred upon Francis Bacon.