When the new is exhausted or bankrupt what do we have left?

Copy of Rembrandt's Elephant, by William Eaton, 2018

Watercolor after Morandi oil still life, by William Eaton, 2017William Rose, an English painter who lives in Italy, e-mailed that at one time he regarded Giorgio Morandi’s paintings “as ‘the end of the line’; in other words one could go no further with painting.”

I begin to hear more and more comments of this nature. For instance, the other day in New York I was touring the latest Whitney Biennial with an art historian, and she said she felt sorry for contemporary artists because everything had been done; there was nothing left to do. In my own drawing practice, I have felt that with Picasso—after such compulsive inventiveness—inventiveness, inevitably, began to burn out. This is hardly a criticism of Picasso, Morandi, the Abstract Expressionists, Pop and Conceptual artists . . . or of the contemporary artists whose work has been on view at the Whitney. It is simply that we have arrived at some place new, and we are a long ways from figuring out what it’s like and what will be its art.

Après Luca Signorelli, Nursing Madonna, oil pastel by William Eaton, 2018I would pause here to underscore the politico-economic connection. The art of the Industrial and Information revolutions served as propaganda for those phenomena; the new and different was good; the stuff and ideas of the previous generation had to be discarded or ignored in favor of this new work, these new things, which—precisely because they were newer, precisely because they rejected the old—were superior. And fated, in their turn, to be superseded by the next generation’s marvels.

But now all this compulsive energy—and what might be called a hoping against hope—has been exhausted. And this even if Silicon Valley or venture capital or even the world’s great newspapers have yet to get the news. Those who still have faith in technology are behind the times. (See D.H. Lawrence from 90 years ago, the opening sentences of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, . . . The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, . . . [T]here is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles.”)

Those who think the new will save them from the terms of existence now have opportunities to glimpse what the term “terms of existence” means. We come, too, to terms with what it means to be destroying the world around us, to be exhausting our resources, and to have privileged money and consumer goods over emotional and spiritual “goods.” (Allow me to add—a note for some future text?—artists and museums are now being called upon to promote—with multinational artists merging different cultural traditions in their work—the wonder that is globalization. This merging of all financial, consumer and labor markets into one is a development which is, above all, in the interest of capital, and it includes, among its several misfortunes, the wreckage that is twenty-first century tourism.)

After Kauerndes Mädchen (crouching girl) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, watercolor by William Eaton, 2017When the new is exhausted or bankrupt what do we have left? The ruins of the old or the wonders of the old. Like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, we search among the scraps of the past to try to reconnect with what we hope were better times.

And thus—grabbing wildly at a wide range of artists—we have Wendy Artin painting watercolors of Roman ruins or of naked twenty-first century models as if they were sculptural remains. We have painters like Balthus using Renaissance techniques, and, in the case, say, of John Currin, doing pastiches of Renaissance works. In the works of artists as diverse as Mark Tansey, Kara Walker, and the Indian artist Indian artist K.P. Reji we have a renewed interest in history painting. At the Biennial we even had young American artists quoting not so ancient predecessors such as Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha.

To close, I return—for fun, let’s call it—to the embittered D.H. Lawrence, now to his “Climbing down Pisgah.” It might be said that he saw the matter somewhat differently from how I have presented it above.

The Pisgah-top of spiritual oneness looks down upon a hopeless squalor of industrialism, the huge cemetery of human hopes. This is our Promised Land . . . The aeroplane descends and lays her eggshells of empty tin-cans on the top of Everest, . . . all over the North Pole; not to speak of tractors waddling across the inviolate Sahara . . . , laying the same addled eggs of our civilization . . . in every camp-nest.

— Text, drawings and paintings by William Eaton


Copy of Rembrandt's Elephant, by William Eaton, 2018[1] The text above is a slightly revised excerpt from one of the sections of an essay drafted at the request of William Balthazar Rose. The longer text is (or was?) to accompany several exhibits of his work.

[2] The drawings and paintings reproduced here are all by me, William Eaton, however, the first (at the top) is after Morandi, the second after Luca Signorelli, the third Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the fourth (the elephant), Rembrandt.

[3] Those who wish to read more of my writing about Morandi are urged to see Morandi, Relationships, Fascism, Still Life and Morandi, Bonnard and Silences Within. There’s a little more on Wendy Artin’s work at The New Shadows, Judd, Artin. Paris, Madrid, Florence, New York—Novel Collage includes a discussion of Robert Rauschenberg’s Express, 1963.

[4] For bringing me back (after 50 years!) to D.H. Lawrence, all thanks to Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780-1950; first published by Chatto & Windus, 1958. And for bringing me back to Williams’s book, thanks to Robert Slifkin, an art historian currently teaching at NYU. Lawrence was a big reader of the Bible, and thus Mount Pisgah, from Deuteronomy 34, where the Lord says to Moses: “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

[5] And as for modern tourism, this could also bring one back to poor Lawrence, dying too young, and Lady Chatterly, in chapter 17 vacationing in Venice:

This was a holiday-place of all holiday-places. The Lido, with its acres of sun-pinked or pyjamaed bodies, was like a strand with an endless heap of seals come up for mating. Too many people in the piazza, too many limbs and trunks of humanity on the Lido, too many gondolas, too many motor-launches, too many steamers, too many pigeons, too many ices, too many cocktails, too many menservants wanting tips, too many languages rattling, too much, too much sun, too much smell of Venice, too many cargoes of strawberries, too many silk shawls, too many huge, raw-beef slices of watermelon on stalls: too much enjoyment, altogether far too much enjoyment!

[6] For more on the current Biennial and globalization, see my pastiche N’importe quoi.

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