Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Mind-Blowing Yurrup

I cared a great deal about painting in the '60s, when Warhol and Lichtenstein and particularly the less well-remembered Tom Wesselmann helped me clarify many of my growing suspicions about pop on the one hand, art on the other, and under what conditions the twain could or should meet. Under the tutelage of my painter friend and mentor Bob Stanley, I looked back at the abstract expressionists, read me some seductively magisterial Rosenberg and arrogantly self-serving Greenberg, and met a lot of artists. But prophetically openminded though Bob was about movies and rock and roll and Pop Art itself, he had no use for certain celebrity artists. Picasso and Pollock, sure. But with Andrew Wyeth or Grandma Moses or God knows Norman Rockwell, he shared his NYC colleagues' disdain. And that disdain extended to Salvador Dalí. With Rockwell I've happily gone along with the recent reassessment spearheaded by Dave Hickey, but the only reason I found myself thinking about Dalí is that my family passed through his stomping grounds on the Costa Brava on a European trip that began and ended in Barcelona and then settled down in Toulouse before returning.

So on our way from one city to another we stopped to visit the Dalí museum in Figueres, at my daughter's request although I was down. It was Tuesday around lunchtime, and what a mob scene--the place was teeming with tourists, including plenty of younger ones, which was not the demographic case at the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi three days later. The viewing situation was so hectic we only lasted an hour or so. But I was knocked out by the endless bedazzlement of the man's technique. The enormous trompe l'oiels, the sculptures in burnished bronze and even gold, the surrealist car that brought to mind another Hickey fave, the highly recommended Liberace Museum in Vegas. There are a lot of supposed major works in Figueres, and I sure thought The Spectre of Sex-Appeal was swell. But it was really the spectacle that got me, big crowd included. Well, that plus the three portraits of his wife Gala at the very beginning--a famous one with bared breast from 1945 flanked by the calm ingenue of 1931 and the beautiful 75-year-old of 1969. And the puckish Picasso and Matisse parodies soon after. The man could really paint, and he knew how to put on a show. Not as deep or wiggy as he pretended, I agree. But why is a good sense of humor so rarely taken seriously? Did De Kooning have one? Mightn't he have been better off if he did?

It's clear to me in retrospect that one reason Dalí didn't get respect was that he knew how to put on a show, starting with his enthusiastic public portrayal of the Nutty Artist. As if Pollock and DeKooning didn't also play at being artists; as if Gorky had any choice. Are art critics smarter about this stuff now? The whole playing field has changed so much in the unique object business that I have no idea. But I'm struck by how well Dalí has survived ye olde test of time--with the fortune he made while he was alive surely helping.

I don't expect to get back to the Costa Brava soon, but I'll definitely carve out more time for Dalí if I do; his seaside village of Cadaqués is also worth another trip, and I see where Gala has her own museum. Toulouse-Lautrec was a washout by comparison, and that's a painter on the pop cusp who gets my continued respect and his critical due. But should you get to Albi, don't skip the cathedral even if you think you've had enough of God's glory obliterating humanity's paltry sins at all the other monuments of papist power you've visited. I never would have believed how mind-blowing I found the level of abstraction in the painted backgrounds of whatever those side galleries are called (at First Pres we might have said transept, but I'm sure there's a more specific term). And the "rood screen" the guidebook mentions? A death metal cover waiting to happen--which since I know as little about death metal as I do about rood screens, it may have already.

Articles, Oct. 12, 2010


Words to Work By Jim Malec, Meet Jackson Blake