Thursday, April 12, 2012



The story of Pegeen Guggenheim Vail is like something out of a movie, and her work is something else all together. I have never been one to put facts before the experience of the work. We might have a cart full of interesting life story here, but it is the horse where my real interest lies, and the horse in this instance is not the person, but the work. And this work might be as challenging to write about as any work that I have ever written about before.


I haven't seen or read anything serious written about Pegeen's paintings(I am going to refer to Pegeen Guggenheim Vail as Pegeen because it is just easier, and frankly, nicer).
There are probably some very good reasons why not much has been written about her. Lots of them. Her mother was none other than Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most powerful and influential people in the art world. And Pegeen's work was nothing like anything that that powerful art world had in it. Yes, she was a serious painter in that she took her painting seriously. I don't know how or if anyone else besides her mother could have taken the work that seriously. It must have seemed like work only a mother could love. But the work didn't seem serious by its very nature. It was fun and childlike. Defenseless, like a little bird. And it looked like street art! Not to knock street art; art is free, it goes anywhere it wants, and can be just as likely found on the street as in a museum. I’m sure Pegeen believed that too.
Pegeen was said to be self-taught, as if anyone who grew up around as much art as she had could ever be considered self-taught. How artists really learn is a subject for another day, but any artist worth their salt, with even an ounce of authenticity, is of course self-taught, in that being an artist requires having a spirit of one's own, and you can't teach that(or art for that matter). So yes, of course she was self-taught; what she had was good company, and one can learn a lot from that!
Which gets me to what is so fascinating about these paintings. They demonstrate no training! No skill! No measurable degree of "good" painting. The stuff you can teach! They look like bad painting! Like illustrations for the Little Prince! They look like something you would find for sale in Paris along the Seine!

Sort of.
What does that make them? Remarkably pure! Pure of spirit, and this is rare in art. It is also prized! What does this mean; what does pure mean? Well if art is the single voice, the voice of one person in this world, the voice of the individual, the individual spirit, then pure means a clean vision, an untutored, unmaligned, untrampled, unadulterated, untrained and unmessed with vision of life. Pure! Outsider art is fussed over for just this reason. No academic makeover. Not even any handholding. Not the careful development of promise and talent. Just someone alone with their passion.
This work has been called Naive Painting. As though the work of the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim could have been naive. Well maybe it was. Maybe there was all of mother Peggy's world class art by all of these powerful artists, and then there was just Pegeen. Maybe more than maybe! So then what is really going on with this work!
Describing it won't get the job done. Yes, it is bright. Colorful. Figurative in a doll-like way. Flat. Linear. Decorative. Charming. Part carnival, part circus. Personal. Narrative. Tableau. Illustrative. Autobiographical. What serious art people call sentimental. None of that really puts a finger on it.

The work stands there. It gives a brave smile. It says here I am. This is my life. This is me, dancing as fast as I can. This is me making the best of things. This is me giving it everything I've got! This is me in a pretty dress! With a pretty parasol. With a pretty husband. With a pretty family. With a pretty life. This is what matters to me. This is what I love. This is the way I think of myself. This is the way I want you to think of me. This is the way I want to be remembered. This is my brave face! This is me dressed up and stripped naked at the same time! It says I am happy, and that being happy is what matters. It says that I am going to do everything I can to be happy, and to make everyone around me happy. Desperately happy. This is my life. This is my life on parade! This is what matters! Love. Loving the people you love. Love with flowers and music and candles and art and funny hats and shoes and parasols! This is it! This is my gift to you! Now live!
But there is more! The work might actually be deceptively complicated. Surprise! It has roots going back to cave painting. Back to the Egyptians. Back to the Etruscans. Back to the Middle Ages. Look at these paintings! They are modern day documents of where life has been. Mid-Twentieth Century Paris! Venice! The South of France! How easy it is to overlook this! In the drama of Modernism we can't see or hear Pegeen's drama. It gets drowned out by all of the grandiosity of raging, overcompensating male Modernist need, by a lot of self-important men with self-important ideas and self-important agendas.
Peggy Guggenheim showed her daughter's work. She must have recognized something significant about it. Something you couldn't put a finger on. The work is haunting in the way that aboriginal art, medieval art, children's art, haunts us. Something about sincerity, about devotion to what matters. Or an utter lack of artifice! Or contrivance! Or calculation. Or pretense! Or filter! Or filtering! That is why the work is so difficult to write about: sincerity. Sincerity is too damn difficult in this world! What do you do with it? Sincerity. Vulnerability. Innocence. We destroy these things! In so many ways this work is that simple, it is what you see is what you get. And it turns out, sadly, that in the end it is not Pegeen Guggenheim Vail's work that is so complicated or difficult after all, but us.
Addison Parks, Spring Hill

Pegeen Guggeheim Vail was born in 1925 in Ouchy, Switzerland, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and Laurence Vail. She was married twice and had four sons. She died in Paris in 1967 after an overdose of pills.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Painting in the Painting: Charles Seliger

We forget this.

This thing that can happen in painting. The happen that can happen in painting. It is almost addictive to painters. Finding the painting in the painting, through the painting, with the painting, by the painting. What this means is that the painting is something that happens through the very act of painting, and not the result of some preconceived image that through careful effort produces the desired result. What we are talking about is the painting that evolves, changes, even appears to the painter in the act of painting.

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about Charles Seliger, who was as addicted to this experience as any painter I can think of. At the end of a painting he had arrived somewhere that changed him. That is the addiction. To be changed by making a painting. To learn something, about the world, about art, about ourselves, about the universe.

Because Charles did that as much as anyone. He opened himself up to the universe and said come on in! Make my day! And of course it did! He painted, and he looked and he listened and he mused and he probably prayed in his way, the way that all painters pray, who are looking for redemption and transformation and sublimation and union through the act of painting. It is not because he thought he or the world needed another painting. It is because the act of painting was everything; absolution, affirmation, inspiration, divination, integration, revelation. Through painting Charles Seliger communed with the universe. And that only happens when you find the painting in the painting.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Forrest for the Trees: Forrest Bess Revisited, Rethought, and Refelt pt2

Having written about Forrest Bess over 30 years ago and wanting to know how my feelings might have changed after all that time because of the recent surge of interest in his work, I find that I need to rethink this complicated artist.

At the time I had immersed myself in everything I could get my hands on. I had Betty Parsons treasure trove of material in my possession, letters, photographs, etc., and some of the paintings themselves.

In retrospect I have to concede that I was probably in too deep, that I was too weirded out, and that I probably lost the forest for the trees. I almost lost my mind, to be honest, and as a result I lost perspective.

In retrospect I find now that I can feel lighter, and less weighed down by the intensity and passion of his quest. I think I failed to give the man as much respect as I gave the work 30 years ago. 30 years ago I was always trying to keep those things separate. Maybe out of respect, ironically, but now I have no interest in separating a person from his or her work. I don't think you can draw that line. A person is their work and vice versa. Richard Tuttle tried very hard to explain that to me just about 35 years ago. Wow!

Forrest Bess had ideas and dreams he wanted the time and space to explore, and Texas gave him that in a way that New York would never have; some artists can never turn off the city completely and just be and work. His paintings were the result of all of that time and space he found on the Gulf. This is a very pure kind of art. Bess was poet, philosopher, scientist, explorer, shaman, channel, vessel, and lone wolf howling at the moon. Visionary, yes, fisherman, yes, in every sense of the word. Primal and divine. Arms stretched out to the universe.

His paintings are inspirations, pictograms, ideograms, diagrams, documents, maps, clues, signs, plans. They take us through his door. And isn't that marvelous? Isn't art marvelous that way? Isn't life marvelous that way?We go through that door and we see life through our brother or sister, even after they've long vanished from the face of this earth. Thank you art. Thank you Forrest Bess.