Thursday, Carol and I got back from a short run down to Paris.

The latest updates to my Adobe and music applications, after repeated warnings, have decided they can no longer tolerate working conditions inside my hoary Lenovo laptop; and (this being France, after all) they have decided to go on strike. So Tamsyn kindly volunteered to give back the Dell that I gave her a couple years ago, now that she’s using a work-supplied machine. Accordingly, we headed down to the City of Light to retrieve it.

And also to play a bit, naturally, because Paris.

Even after four years, I still haven’t gotten quite used to saying, in a nonchalant sort of way, “Carol and I went down to Paris last week.” It feels kind of like saying, “Rafael Nadal and I were having a volley the other day,” or “The Bentley was in the shop on Tuesday, so I had to take the Maserati.” The city is such an icon for so many around the world, the belle idéale of elegant living, while I’m so… me.

But when you live within driving distance of the place — and I say this as a huge, huge fan of Paris — it quickly becomes a lot like many other cities: a go-to spot for culture, specialty retail, and good health care; but also crowded, a bit scruffy and smelly ’round the edges, and a finishing school for property thieves. And I’ve still never had a particularly good meal there.


I snapped the photo below in the Louvre courtyard on Thursday, when Carol and I were playing tourist there. To me it’s almost a perfect metaphor for Paris: larger than life, high-fashion, young, and benignly surreal. And, like most big cities, on the move.

Because of course it’s Ryan Gosling, pushing an overloaded trolley of Gucci luggage through the surf. On the wall of the Louvre. Why the hell not?

We decided ahead of time that our major play activity in the city this time around would be, as it so often is, focused on art — and we really hit the lotto. Fondation Louis Vuitton, an eye-popping museum designed by genius architect Frank Gehry, was hosting an exhibition comparing the late work of Claude Monet with the oeuvre of Joan Mitchell (photo gallery). Considering that the Impressionists, including Monet, are hands-down Carol’s favorite painters, and the Abstract Expressionists (Mitchell’s contemporaries) are mine, this show had yes, please written all over it for the two of us.

And it did not disappoint.

If you ask the average writer where is their favorite place in the world, most of them will tell you (with a hint of piousness) “a bookstore” or “a library.”

Not this guy. Give me an art museum anytime. Art, especially the non-representational kind, takes me to a place where no written words can go. It speaks of mystery and timelessness, and tears down the barrier between conscious and subconscious thought in fascinating ways.

Also, art patrons are the most shamelessly pretentious people on earth — somehow even more so than bibliophiles — and I am absolutely there for it. The most entertaining generally fall into one of three categories:

  • the peacocks, dressed in their mid-thigh leather boots, Hermes scarves and authentic Bolivian bombins, as if they’re expecting Tracy Emin to suddenly appear;
  • the steampunks, in black denim and goggles, smelling of roll-your-own fags and revolution; and
  • the waifs, unironically dressed as agrarian orphans or Welsh fisherfolk, lurking in the corners like fugitives from the rievers.

It’s kind of like an ongoing Halloween party without the candy corn. Really, the only turds in the punchbowl are the boorish types in fashion-resistant tourist togs, who insist on droning on, sotto voce, about styles and influences and provenance to their long-suffering spouses.

Oh wait, that’s me.

Anyway, this isn’t an art blog, because I don’t want to smoke cigarettes and drink vermouth cocktails. (There are rules.) So I won’t go into great depth about the show itself, other than to give you a taste.

Most readers of this blog will already be familiar with Monet. Joan Mitchell is a bit more obscure — undeservedly so, given the power of her work. Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell studied at the Art Institute under one of Monet’s American disciples. Thereafter, she shuttled back and forth between New York and Paris, before settling and working in Vétheuil, just a stone’s throw from Monet’s longtime home of Giverny. A look at some of her early work shows pretty clear affinities with the first generation of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning, as well as abstract currents in Europe:

Joan Mitchell, Untitled. 1955

Even here in 1955 you get some hint of the slashing, assured brushwork and the bold palette that will knock the socks right off your feet in her later work.

The show at Fondation Louis Vuitton explored the long-running controversy over whether and how Mitchell’s work may have been influenced by Monet’s. Which is the kind of pointless rubbish art historians get up to in order to get grant funding and write dissertations. (But I digress.) The real reason to see this exhibition is to get a full immersion into the work of two painters with an extraordinary gift for expressing and interpreting the feelings with which nature inspired them:

Claude Monet, Les Agapanthes (detail). 1916-19
Joan Mitchell, Un Jardin Pour Audrey (diptych). 1975

C’mon, how luscious is that? The color harmonies in Monet’s Agapanthes, as in so much of his later work (water lilies, etc.) are just breathtaking. And those amazing brush strokes that just melt away into nothing when you get close, and then re-materialize again when you back away? That shit is straight-up magic.

But the real revelation for me in this show was Mitchell. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of her before this exhibition, and yet she is clearly one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism (or, as later incarnations of the style were sometimes called, Abstract Impressionism). In painting after painting, you see this amazing tension between slashing, monochrome brushstrokes that keep your eye nailed to the picture plane — and lyrical, swirling depths of color that make you feel you’re falling through the painting, hurtling headlong through the foliage of a sunlit forest:

These make up just the slightest sample of the delights from the Louis Vuitton show, of course. If you’d like to see more, as well as some snaps of our two-day wander around the city, make sure to click through to the photo gallery. On the other hand, if you don’t geek out to 20th Century art (or my meager photographic skills), no worries — I get it.

I’ve thought a lot about why I love modern and postmodern art of the last century so much, and I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on that; but I think part of it is that a painting like Un Jardin Pour Audrey, Mitchell’s painting pictured above, is serenely indifferent to my engagement with it. To me, it is beautiful and profound precisely because it stands apart, enigmatic and ultimately unknowable, in the way of a prehistoric cave painting or a Neolithic standing stone. And like those things, it is very much an artifact of its time.

For art (and artists) of all kinds here in the 21st Century, engagement is the essential and indispensable currency. Eyeballs. Likes. Follows. Increasingly, if a body of work doesn’t come packaged with a readily-exploited army of followers, the gatekeepers of cultural success — agents, publishers, galleries, academies — won’t give it a second look; because for them, the more efficiently they can bootstrap their marketing efforts off an existing follower base, the more quickly they can monetize the product.

It’s not personal, it’s just business.

As a writer, I see this every day. The #WritingCommunity in the Twitterverse is mostly thousands of aspiring authors, not discussing writing in any real way, but instead tweeting puerile clickbait like: “What’s the best movie/song/band of all time?” or “What kind of dessert does your MC [main character] like best?” Because those tweets get clicks and replies — engagement — and engagement gets followers. Get lucky with a few viral, empty-Internet-calorie tweets, and you can suddenly find yourself with thousands of followers — and a potential foot in the door to getting published.

What earthly correlation exists between social media savvy and the quality of one’s artistic output? I have no idea. But I’m assured the situation is analogous for painters, sculptors, videographers, and artists of all other stripes.

It wasn’t always thus. Great critics and tastemakers of the 20th Century, like Clem Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and Peggy Guggenheim, purposely searched out the unknown, undiscovered talents who made art on their own terms and didn’t come pre-packaged with an audience of thousands. Artists who pushed convention in controversial and not always popular ways.

Like other Abstract Expressionist paintings, Un Jardin Pour Audrey doesn’t beg for your engagement. It doesn’t have a Like button; it is the anti-Twitter. It challenges you to look at it — or not — and figure out on your own how it fits into your thought life. If you interrogate it for meaning, it will tell you in a Staten Island accent that meaning is for suckers, a crutch for people who are bad at constructing their own.

Jackson Pollock, the first and greatest of the Abstract Expressionists, once said “Abstract painting is abstract. It confronts you. There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was. It was a fine compliment.”

It was indeed.

Published by Ronald Crittenden

American SciFi writer in France. Amateur historian of art and war. Tea not coffee, s'il vous plait, and don't forget to say hi to your dog for me.

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