An old friend of mine generously provides me with clippings from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic because she knows I don’t subscribe to them but will want to have read parts of them. She also sends me links to articles from The New York Times for the same reason. I’m currently working my way through a thick sheaf of tangible clippings and, as choice would have it, just read two fascinating pieces about male painters. One article is about Balthasar Klossowski de Rosa (AKA Balthus) while the other speaks about the work of Henry Taylor. Balthus lived from 1908 until 2001 while Taylor is still painting at age 60. Balthus is white European while Taylor is American black. Because I found both long treatments of their paintings powerfully engaging, I want to talk about the cosmic differences in their art, differences stemming from their politics broadly defined.
Balthus was a confirmed aesthete, one of whose obsessions was with prepubescent female girls, one of whom is the subject of some of his most famous paintings. One canvas is simply entitled “Therese” and the other, even more famous, is called “Terese Dreaming.” (You may want to pause here and Google these titles so you can see what I’ll be speaking about.). Controversy has flourished around him and these paintings for years. Some call him a voyeur who sexualizes his subjects in the vein of Lewis Carroll and Sally Mann. Defenders argue that artists transcend their fixations even as they ask us viewers to move out of comfort zones to consider the complexities of our own psycho-sexual feelings.
What I always think about when I encounter someone, usually male, who is comfortable being seen as an aesthete is a story I first learned about many years ago in graduate school when I was reading works and looking at paintings by late Victorian/early 20th century writers who called themselves aesthetes. Walter Pater, a spokesperson for the group, recounts a story about how one such man bought a turtle into whose shell he carved out hollows. Into each he placed a different gemstone. He and his fellow artists would gather mid-afternoon at his dwelling and watch the clearly pained turtle move slowly across the man’s elaborate carpet. The aesthetic experience involved the play of sunlight on the turtle’s mutilated back and was much relished by the male artists in attendance. Though I no longer can bring up the artist’s name, I can feel again how sickened I felt upon first reading about this story. My teacher used it to impress upon us the theory of “art for art’s sake.” Clearly I was not supposed to grant the turtle any feelings at all; s/he was simply a platform upon which the “artist” installed something to give him and his pals sensory pleasure. Balthus’ defenders surely want me to do the same when I look at paintings of Terese. Like the turtle, she has been turned into an object upon whom Balthus has imposed his own strange and, for some of us, unhealthy, “take” on young girls on the cusp of womanhood but still entirely girls unless viewed through a lens that robs them of that fading childhood.
Henry Taylor is an entirely different story. He paints furiously and refuses genre classifications. His “canvases” are wonderfully varied–cereal boxes, suitcases, cigarette packs, furniture, traditional canvas. His subjects are as catholic as his media–celebrities, homeless people, friends, historical figures, himself, sports stars, politicians, and people he likes who appear in other people’s photographs. Many of his paintings feature black people and one in particular is a striking work showing Cecily Tyson and her lover Miles Davis in the foreground and the Obama White House in the background. In this painting, Taylor is working off a black-and-white papparazzi photograph of the couple at a society gala. By transporting them onto the White House lawn during the tenure of the country’s first black president and First Lady, however, Taylor changes the valence significantly. Suddenly something relatively frivolous (though the original photograph was taken at the 1968 premiere of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” in which Tyson had a supporting role) becomes fiercely political because of context.
If you were to ask Balthus what his politics were, he’d most likely disavow any connection to politics. Searching for the next moment that can give him aesthetic pleasure would be his stated preference. But I believe such a position is political because it assumes that such events are magically neutral in terms of realities like race, class, gender and other intersectional identities. If you were to ask Henry Taylor what his politics were, he’d just as likely spill out energetic words about how art can record, validate, question and alter those very realities. He’d also insist that art exists within a broader world in which it matters both to its creator and its audiences.
In the article about Henry Taylor’s life and work that I just read (July 30, 2018 issue of The New Yorker), the author Zadie Smith says “Other people look; Taylor sees.” Surely Balthus “looked” at young girls on the cusp of womanhood; just as surely Taylor “sees” his myriad subjects as individuals with agency and personhood. Since the personal is so often political, these two artists, put in my path on the same day, help me see what kinds of “art” I may acknowledge along formalistic lines but which I cannot embrace.