My Father Is the Late Monet – Barnett Newman

My father is the late Monet and you don’t have one in the Museum of Modern Art Collection. *

Barnett Newman had said that at a meeting organized by Alfred Barr at MoMA in 1949, which Newman told to Henry Geldzahler later (In Geldzahler’s Making It New, 1994)). 

Better Late, or Never? is an essay by Sam Smiles (Tate etc , Summer 2012). In this eloquent piece he traced the history, the ebb and flow of admiration for artists’ late work, from Vasari’s negative comments on late Titian to Ruskin’s falling out with Turner’s late pictures. The opinion then was that those works indicated the “imbecility of old age.”

The tide began to turn, according to Smiles, in the middle of the 19th century when late Beethoven and Goethe, and later Turner were re-evaluated. It was then too that an ‘old age’ style had entered critical writing and that aging artists were capable of ‘radical invention’ as a result of

The distillation of creativity, where profound meditation on the world is expressed…No longer needing to serve the market… The art they produce in these circumstances is intransigent, refusing to compromise with the conventions of the day and escaping the understanding of most contemporary witnesses.

A sort of transcendence—and many duly followed to honor artists’ late work.

But doubts persist with regard to many late works, including those of de Kooning, with his radically simplified and abstracted forms when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. De Kooning’s late work I find very interesting. I detect many brush strokes and squiggles that are almost identical to some in his very early work – the gesture is still there – a sort of muscle (implicit) memory, largely unconscious. And the abstracted forms and compositions remain graceful but no longer with any discernible trace of the figurative. I believe abstraction has to do with the exclusion of details from the central macula vision on the retina and also from explicit memory (naming things) in the thinking brain.** 

Ellsworth Kelly, whose art is basically a consistent visual study of this abstraction possibility says: If you look with your mind turned off, everything becomes abstract.

The Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto says: The body does not lie, the mind does.

In the end, Smiles is charitable:

Irrespective of the physical decay associated with  ageing or disease, some gifted artists are vouchsafed a final vision and the means to overcome the limitations that might impede their articulation of it. The late work, in the last analysis, speaks of redemption, and also of grace.

So maybe all is not lost – there’s still something (muscle memory?) inside the artist that defies age, something that he himself is not aware of. Monet’s late paintings, especially those between 1918 and 1922, were probably not what he intended as his work—from the fact that he had tried to destroy them and also that he returned to his signature shimmering impressionist work after his eyesight was restored by the removal of a cataract in 1923. (See my post on Monet’s eyesight).

But are those works of no value other than as historical record? Apparently not. 

Geldzahler agreed with Newman and said that Monet’s late work, with its all over heavy colors and  indistinct shapes, also inspired other Color Field artists like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still even though it was not very good art and needed to be re-evaluated.

Here, different from de Kooning, Monet had his intention intact but missing the correct visual feedback to guide his color application, rendering wrong color judgments. He had told of trying to remember the pigment tubes and labels that he had used all his life in applying his paint but the results were not what he intended. However it is obvious that both Monet and de Kooning had kept their gestures, their muscle memory from a lifetime of practice.

While de Kooning’s late art may be a good place for neuroscientists to study the brain workings of Alzheimer’s, that of Monet is more interesting in that besides being a good subject for the study of vision and the brain, it also unwittingly inspired a generation of abstract Color Field artists. And these were works Monet did not intend to be his art.  


 *  MoMA did, not long after,  a very ‘excellent’ representative late Monet: the Japanese Footbridge (1920-1922)

**  In the photographs taken by a legally blind photographer with advanced macula degeneration,  I have seen surprisingly  beautiful compositions.  Since only her peripheral vision is still intact, it must be responsible for such compositions, a kind of abstraction without the distraction of tedious details. It’s like defocusing your eyes when you look. Also see my essay Information = Knowledge? about implicit vs explicit memory.

A note: the image of anything we see is really not the exact external object, like a photograph, but rather a construct of it in our brain’s electrical circuits, combining information from the retina of the eyes with that from our memory, conscious or not. 

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