In his engaging memoir, A Sweeper Up After Artists, the American critic Irving Sandler recalls a conversation he had at a dinner honouring the very eminent Sir Ernst Gombrich. The subject of modern art, specifically Duchamp, came up, a tactic thought by Sandler to have been used by his eminence to vilify all of modern art. Reading this account puts me in mind of a tennis match. Duchamp comes over the net only for Klee (the only modernist tolerated by Gombrich) to be sent back over, then Sandler blasts Mondrian at Gombrich who races to the art historical baseline to volley Botticelli back at the alert American who aces his European opponent with the smash: "If anybody living today painted as skillfully as Botticelli, would you accept him?" "Probably not," concedes a stubborn Gombrich. Game, set and match to Sandler, I think.
As a spectator at this art historical match I know who I'm rooting for, and no it's not Gombrich despite my renaissance credentials- it's Sandler. I suspect that Sandler despite being an expert on modern art, would keep an open mind when looking at the art of the renaissance, hence his remark about Botticelli's skill. Many renaissance scholars have zero-tolerance when it comes to modern art. I recall an AAH annual conference organized around modern art; despite the conference's organizer's plea for them to engage with it, the renaissance scholars hit the road; I stayed on and chaired a panel on Walter Benjamin, a lonely convert to the importance of modern art and modernism for earlier periods. Although I've had this attitude in the past, the blinkers really fell from my eyes when I saw the abstract expressionist Philip Guston's marvelous retrospective in London in 2004, which brings me back to Sandler.
One of Sandler's heroes, pictured with the author on the cover, is Guston, one of a number of artists and friends who recognized the value of renaissance art for their own practice. Sandler recounts an all-night session during which Guston kept the author and his wife enthralled with copies after Piero della Francesca's frescos at Arezzo, which the painter knew thoroughly. Turning aside from what he saw as self-indulgent explorations of the void, Guston opened a conversation with renaissance masters like Piero, for him one of the first painters to seek abstraction in a composition. For another critic, Dore Ashton, Guston's pared-down, schematic drawings of the 1960s evoked the idea of the 'first morning of the world in Piero's Baptism. Here Ashton through looking carefully at Guston's art saw theological ideas as derived from the picture-making of Piero which she accordingly matched with Guston's increasingly theological turn of phrase. As Guston sunk deeper and deeper into a morass of self-doubt about his art, he resorted to a language of theology to articulate his concerns about how the anxieties of artistic creation were inextricably bound up with more profound issues such as the location of man in the evolutionary scheme of things. But Guston would not have been able to develop his ideas on faith and painting without recourse to past artists: each new borrowing from an old master not only helped to define Guston artistically but also spiritually; the art of the past was a testing-ground for working out problems about faith in a hostile universe, just as much as a way of dealing with the thorny abstraction v figuration debate hanging over New York art circles.
There's a section in Sandler's memoir on another recusant from abstract expressionist authority, Al Held. Jewish like Guston, Held trod a similar path, although his art doesn't seem be so weighed down by the tragic quality that much of Guston's painting bears. Inspired by depth and illusion, not flatness, Held studied renaissance perspective in order to create beguiling geometric forms dancing in space. There is an optimistic current running through Held's art. As Sandler puts it:
"Al found inspiration in the Christian humanism of Renaissance old masters and their vision of a heavenly paradise, particularly after he spent six months in Rome in 1981. He kept the humanistic and futuristic vision, and dropped the Christian component."
As Sandler says, Held modernized renaissance art. Imagine Giovanni Belli's humanist dreamland of the late 1490s shorn of all its Christian aspects; it could have been conceived by a surrealist abstractionist like Giorgio di Chirico who in his turn encouraged both Held and Guston to journey back to renaissance art to discover for themselves how to escape from the tyranny of modernist authority. The renaissance liberated these artists- that's why it's significant for debates about modern art. I still don't think I could convince my renaissance colleagues to go to modern art conferences and sessions though.
Philip Guston, Pantheon, 1973, Private Coll., NY.
Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, 1450s, NG., London.
Al Held, Pachinko, 1989, Private Coll.
Giovanni Bellini, Sacred Allegory, 1490-1500, Uffizi.