Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Buying pictures iv: The searing hue

Saul Leiter's famous portrait of the
shopping figure, receding from focus
and shape by the viewer's nearer dis-
traction, upper left, has about it a
swastika-like distribution of concen-
tration of pure black. It's difficult
when something spontaneous achieves
such eloquence and enigma in a single
shutter release; this represents, of
course, the gold standard of imagery.
It burns, to grasp it. The shopper,
unaware she is refracted, raises our
awareness of empanelment in seeing. 

The sulfurous qualities of the mi-
gration to black, in Smith's so-
cial-realist portrait of a steel-
worker, in the same period, wrest-
ling a cauldron of coke beside a
blast furnace in America, summon
remembrances of hideous hazards,
replaced by manufacture's extinc-
tion, by fossil fuels' condemna-
tion, by social marginalization.
This is the taint of the hour,
as all disdain the filthy ape.

But if this is an election fa-
voring the ambiguities, it will
come as a shock to the odds. We
see in this late masterpiece by
Mark Rothko an extraordinarily
sulfurous vitality in contra-
distinction with an almost ap-
pealingly emphatic black. Roth-
ko differs with Leiter, in re-
jecting the dark as an element
of style, and with Smith, as
an element of conditionality.

It is the stain of a certitude;
and it is laid upon that can-
vas for those who know it well,
over strokes more defiant than
pathetic, of violet, earth, per-
iwinkle, sand, and persistently
impertinent green. This is not
a portrait of processed cheese.

Even vitality can fail, as the
panels threaten. Even vitality
will be singed. We hear, that a
resistance to the dark is to be
mounted as an Edith Wharton dis-
dain to comment. Will no one of-
fer that candidate a visit to a
corner on Fifth Avenue, where a
Century of ferment has its home,
youth flock, all day, to feast;
and struggle shines from every
offset sight against complacency;

I never saw a branding fail more
effêtely, than the present jest,
fighting for us. Can no one re-
fer that candidate to the prepo-
sition of respect, that 4-letter
word, anathema to condescension;

Aversion to with is dark, already.
What on earth did they pay, to be
boasting of usurping our own cause,
as if indentured to their destiny?

Saul Leiter
ca 1953
Greenberg Gallery
New York

W. Eugene Smith
Dance of the Flaming Coke
Collection unknown

Mark Rothko
Untitled (Black on Grey Series)
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation

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