After the Jack Bush retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada which ended just a few days ago, I decided to read the biography of the wife of his agent Clement Greenberg who was probably the single most influential art critic in the twentieth century. Although he is most closely associated with his support for Abstract Expressionism, and in particular Jackson Pollock, his views closely shaped the work of many other artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. His attention to the formal properties of art – color, line, space and so forth – his rigorous approach to criticism, and his understanding of the development of modern art – although they have all been challenged – have influenced generations of critics and historians. The book is written by Janice Van Horne, she is still alive living in New York, she’s 87.
The book is entitled a Complicated Marriage. In it Van Horne talks mostly about her life and Greenberg and their daughter are treated as an aside. She met Greenberg at a party, she was an Office girl and he picked her up and she simply fell in his bed. She was a follower, a hanger-on, that is pretty obvious from the beginning.
What is interesting is the description Van Horne gives of the wives of the great artists Greenberg represented and promoted. Van Horne did not like any of them and in most cases had difficult relations with them. The reason being she was an outsider and married Greenberg when he was already very much a well known impresario. She confesses she never liked Art much nor the Art scene, it bored her to tears, but she did not know what to do with her life so she hung around with the crowd her husband knew and loved. She was afraid of ending up like her Bennington College girlfriend living with some rich husband in Connecticut.
There were also several artists she did not like for various reasons, a very personal approach to it all. One who comes in for harsh criticism is Jackson Pollock, who killed himself driving his car drunk and also killed one of his passenger in 1956. His wife Lee Krasner protected the image of Pollock even after his death and despite the fact she was estranged from him at the time. Van Horne really disliked Krasner because she never felt included in any encounter Greenberg had with Pollock and Krasner who were close friends of his. Van Horne claims that Krasner invented the myth of Pollock the great artist. According to her he was not so great, just a boozer and self-destructive. Another couple she did not like was Willem de Kooning and his wife Elaine, they were to full of themselves and snooty.
What you see is as an outsider, she is angry that they did not include her but all these people were artists and created art, lived it, it was their world, not hers. You want to ask her, what did you do to integrate the world of Greenberg and these artists besides feeling sorry for yourself. The only artist she seems to have liked was the Canadian Jack Bush and his wife Mabel, she was not an artist just a housewife, Van Horne liked that there was no threat or exclusion.
The book is about how her and you learn little about Greenberg. All her life she was looking for who she wanted to become or could be, looking for happiness, fulfilment through countless affairs with other men and in various work projects so that she would not have to be with Greenberg and his artist friends all the time. There was much booze and drugs it was the sixties after all. At the end of the book I was wondering what she was trying to tell us and was it worth reading. Maybe for the gossip and the stories about the artists and their world in New York, it was a time period.
The other book I read or am still reading is the life of Donatien Alphonse François Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). No it is not what you might think on the contrary this is the book written by Gilbert Lely, first published in 1952 and in 1957 is an exhaustive research of the life of the Marquis de Sade. Lely read just about everything about the Marquis and his family, friends, and the complicated family life he had. Born in the circle of the Royal Family of France and raised with the Royal Children of the King, De Sade had a very privilege life surrounded by luxury.
He is described, because no portrait survives of him, as a short little man 5 foot 2, which is rather short, fat or plump, aquiline nose with dirty blond hair and blue eyes. He like all the Nobles at Court had a military career which was mostly made up of fine uniforms, medals and lots of parades. He was lazy, loved intrigues and from a very young age had a rather dissolute life of debauchery, which we are told was not uncommon amongst the powerful and wealthy who were bored at Court. He was married quickly by his father to another Noble family who were of inferior rank at Court but very wealthy, so their more modest rank in the complicated Court system of precedence and protocol could be overlooked because money talks. The author Gilbert Lely explains in detail what rank at Court meant and how very important it was to the Nobles who were constantly fighting , arguing and having intense discussions on who could do or not do this or that at Court depending on when their ancestors were elevated to a dignité by the King. Saint Simon who lived some decades before De Sade does speak of this in his memoirs. It is very tedious for modern readers but you do understand how deadly serious it was at the time. This sets the tone for the book and brings the reader into the world of the Court of France in the XVIIIth century.
Though De Sade became the most controversial writer of his time, most of his troubles came from the acrimonious relationship he had with his mother in law Madame la Présidente De Montreuil, her husband had been a Chief Magistrate (Président de la Cour du Roi). She came to hate him and to ensure her complete and cruel vengeance on him for disobeying her, neglecting his children and wife and for being a spendthrift used all of her influence at Court to destroy him.
De Sade in his writings simply made available to the common man the sexual practices of the Ancien Régime, most of which were often predatory on the common people who had no recourse and went largely unpunished. It was one thing to participate in orgies with people of your own class and to gossip about it or give parties where all manner of excesses where performed on commoners hired or tricked under the promise of favours or money for the event. It is known that Monsieur who was the brother of the Sun King Louis XIV was known for his penchant for very young Pages at Court or that Louis XV was a sexual pervert, that Voltaire had a long term incestuous affair with his young niece Marie-Louise Denis or that Montesquieu who wrote beautifully an enlighten text on the mistreatment of African slaves made his fortune on such trade or that Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote about the care of children abandoned his 5 children at birth, not giving them a second thought.
Le Marquis de Sade wrote about all this debauchery in graphic details and his books were published became very popular and are to this day. That was his crime, he committed the horrible crime of betraying his Class the Nobles and showing them for what they were to the people. That was inexcusable and his Mother in law knew how to exploit this to her advantage to save her name and that of her relatives the De Sade Family. The author Gilbert Lely also researched the psychological portrait of De Sade and much has been written in the 19th century about his psychological make-up. He obviously enjoyed violence and found great personal gratification. Despite the fact that his writings created much employment for writers, literary analyst, university thesis and psychologists, De Sade comes across as a deeply deranged man who French Society at times accepted and praised and then shunned and despised, politics, societal changes, taste and attitudes all played a part.
Le Marquis de Sade was freed by the French Revolution but imprisoned again because the Revolutionary found him a little too free in his thinking. He was let go yet again when Napoleon gained absolute power in a Coup d’Etat but not for long since even the Emperor thought De Sade’s morals a bad example on France. Needless to say that Napoleon and Josephine were not puritain and much documentation remains about their own sexual debauchery.
Seen in this light, I think that in our World today le Marquis de Sade would be on You Tube giving advice and invited on shows like Ellen or The View. One only has to think of the popularity amongst the Bourgeoisie in North America with the novel Fifty Shades of Grey to understand the hypocrisy of the World.
L’escarpolette by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)