Thursday, 8 December 2011

BBC4: The Art of America - parts 2 & 3

Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1992 (at Bilbao) - isn't he cute?!
More great telly from Andrew Graham-Dixon, who must have had a blast barreling along the Nevada and California highways in his convertible. Having managed to keep a straight face for most of the first two parts, he finally broke down in the third, when he was shown standing on the hilltop above the Hollywood sign, chuckling at the hilarity of it all. Here he was, an art critic known for his subtle, serious, passionate analysis of paintings, in Tinseltown!

There was an irony here, one of several that added a fascinating undercurrent to the show. If there is an Art of America it probably isn't the painted canvas but the motion picture, yet Hollywood was presented as one of the more amusing components of the incomprehensible, unserious sprawl of Los Angeles - a city in which (as AGD rightly pointed out) the buildings themselves are works of art. They are also, he might have added, covered in art, as LA's vast expanses of cement have attracted mural painters for decades.

Edward Hopper, Night Hawks, 1942
But what was the man supposed to do? Given three hours and whatever budget the cash-strapped BBC has for this sort of programming, he set himself the task of weaving the story of American art into the broader history of a huge, diverse country.

In general he proved adept at combining the broad sweep - The Depression, The Sixties - with detailed examination of particular artworks. I was absolutely gripped by his discussion of 'White Flag', Jasper Johns' painting of 1955, which was nicely set in the context of the McCarthy Era. Similarly, his detailed examination of Edward Hopper's legendary 'Night Hawks' allowed us to contemplate the picture as we might in a gallery, with an intelligent guide. We were introduced to Norman Rockwell, one of the most genuinely popular American painters of the last century, and given new insight into the political pressures that influenced the way he painted African-Americans.

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955
Most of the greats had their moment in the spotlight: Rothko & Pollock, Johns & Warhol. Factory acolyte Billy Name had an entertaining walk-on part, sporting a marvellous ZZ Top beard. Curious that in AGD's anxiety-ridden, urban America, most of his interviewees lived in leafy suburbia!

Inevitably, given the scale of the operation, there were artists who perhaps should have been included but weren't. Having spent a lot of time in New Mexico, I was hoping for a glimpse of Georgia O'Keeffe, who was both brilliantly original AND popular. The lack of any detailed examination of her work was part of a wider problem: although the series talked a lot about the diversity of American culture, the artists featured were not especially diverse. With the odd exception (eg Nan Goldin), most were white men. Was the Harlem Renaissance discussed (I would double-check but Part 2 no longer available)? Were we introduced to Jackson Pollock's wife, the talented Lee Krasner? Did we see work by Dorothea Lange or Diane Arbus?

Andy Warhol - anyone for soup?
I was reminded of the brilliantly eccentric BBC4 series 'British Masters', which featured (if I remember correctly) no women artists at all. I'm not waving the flag of political correctness, just noting an anomaly.

Anyway, we at least had the treat of Mr Graham-Dixon interviewing one of my favourite artistic mavericks, Jeff Koons. I was a big fan of the King of Kitsch back when his giant floral Westie seemed a wonderful riposte to the solemnity of the Josef Beuys school. Like Ed Burra, Koons is a very dangerous artist to take seriously and AGD was wonderfully circumspect, allowing Koons to chirp cheerfully about the knick-knacks and mass-produced pictures of his childhood while a gang of workers put the finishing touches to a series of massive paintings.

Georgia on my mind...
Ever articulate, Koons talked winningly about 'acceptance': it's OK, he said, to love the ornaments of your childhood; it's OK to adore Michael & Bubbles; making love with Ilona Staller is OK too - though he must look at those pictures of his younger self enjoying intercourse with the legendary Italian porn star & MP (who was his wife at the time), and wonder what on earth he'd been thinking...

A curious journey then, from the first drawings of Native Americans to billboard-sized paintings of inflatable dolphins. Great fun to watch, and extremely informative, although I would add a proviso: this was (for the most part) liberal, secular, urban America - intellectual, doubting & ironic. Much of the country is, by contrast, conservative and devout; while the sculptor at the end was busy making a clever piece depicting man's evolution, untold numbers of schoolchildren are being taught Creationism - not as religious doctrine but as science.


  1. James - Sorry to miss your Blackwells talk - and I agree with what you say in that post about independent bookshops. I also missed most of The Art of America, but I saw the one concentrating on Hopper and Rockwell and thought that was fascinating in the way that it forced you to examine the aesthetics of the two artists, and realise that essentially the only difference was that one was too-gloomy and the other too-positive. As for Koons - on holiday on the island of Hydra in Greece two years ago I saw a fantastic vision of a billionaire's yacht painted like a psychedelic version of a WWI Dazzle Ship - it turned out to have been decorated by Koons. The name of the ship is The Guilty. I took a wonderful photo of it with the shape of the hill behind echoing the ship - would have sent it to Koons if I had his email!

  2. Hi Neil - I'll be out and about again next year so will keep you posted. Interesting point about Hopper & Rockwell, which is a connection I would never have made before watching the show.

    I looked up the Koons yacht - my heavens! If they tried to moor up in Salcombe they'd be repelled with boathooks... I meant to say in this post, and forgot, that Koons has more in common with PT Barnum than with Rothko or Pollock: the spectacle is his thing, more than anything else.

    Good to hear from you

  3. Not everyone in Hydra was very happy about The Guilty! But I liked it: spectacular in every sense. I meant to say that Andrew Graham Dixon has an absolutely fantastic website - you may know it, but I only discovered it recently. It has a huge amount of text, images, and information - really the best single-person website I have come across. Just, so not hard to find.

  4. There were some marvellous moments in this series, when AGD's commentary and the capabilities of television came together – the analysis of the White Flag combined with close and more distant shots; the shot of the page-turning of the Audubon folio combined with the scrutiny of specific plates; the juxtapositions going on when he was talking to Koons (was he giving Koons enough rope to hang himself? I'm not sure...). He was really flying, I think, in these bits. I believe he could have got more out of Rothko and Grant Wood though; and if he'd had the budget for a couple more programmes we could have had O'Keefe and Arbus and Basquiat (and maybe some sculpturee too). One day.

  5. Neil - AGD's website is monumental! A one-man art history wikipedia, only better written. Thanks

    Philip - Agreed - you could see where he was really enjoying the subject. I still think that leaving O'Keeffe out was a mistake: she might not have the academic stature of Rothko et al, but in terms of influence and popularity she's up there with Rockwell & Hopper.

    I wonder how many people watched the series - I didn't feel there was a buzz about it, as there was about 'British Masters', which is a shame. But maybe I don't read the right newspapers!