by Terrington Calas
New Orleans Art Review, March/April 1996
Few artists are willing to expose their souls on the very surface of their work. It takes extraordinary courage. Painter Robert Gordy (1933-1986), in the last years if his life, after a 30-year career ushered chiefly by a beautiful but emotionally harnessed style, had that courage. He also had the skill and intelligence to wield such a personal enterprise into something that would daunt no one, all the while ringing with authenticity. The consequence was a new unfettered posture and a new series of works – mostly portrait heads and mostly monotypes.
The pictures, startling in their sense of primal candor, constituted a singular emotional art for the 1980s, one that was keenly at variance with the neo-expressionist impulse of the day. While the national scene was dominated by an ersatz and glibly Wagnerian expressionism, Gordy was creating the real thing – an art about profound psychological anxiety. It was, for him, the moment of ultimate aesthetic subjectivity; he was facing his own imminent death. He had AIDS.
Forty-one paintings and monotypes from this late series were exhibited in February and March at the Arthur Roger Gallery. The show was dramatic, handsomely installed and, in the end, unsettling. It clarified, better than anything before it, the enormous loss Gordy’s death represents. And equally, it made us feel, perhaps too convincingly, the terrifying reality he had to contemplate while he developed and completed these pictures. This notion of his suffering had always been an intellectual one, a distant one, until now. The artworks made it an actuality. Gordy’s ordeal became ours. That is the sad evidence of his artistic success.
It is also the fact that should move us to look at all expressionist art more discerningly. A show like this one is a reminder that a truly affecting art about extreme mental states is close to impossible without a matching experience. Even then, the risks are enormous. The corollary images can seem overwrought, inordinately circumscribed. They can seem obscure, even to an amenable audience. The art history of our time makes this clear. Despite the earnestness of many Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, what we typically see in their work is a desperate offering of internal conflicts rendered in oblique (that is to say, non-representational) terms. Granted, those terms are often pictorially gratifying. It is difficult, for instance, to resist the vague, fleeting luminosity of a characteristic Mark Rothko or a William Baziotes; or, in another way, to remain unmoved by the halting melodrama of a Clifford Still. And yet, the proclaimed “large, tragic” human themes of such works can be elusive, to say the least. They require a certain measure of pre-established faith. For some of us on the edge of that faith, an artist like Rothko is a genius who failed thrillingly. We see him as a genius who attempted the impossible, but whose actual effort was so palpable that nothing else matters. We come to relish his obliqueness. We come to see his failure as noble.
But Rothko, Baziotes, and Still are only three of many who attempted to use pure abstraction to convey ideas associated with human passions. On the whole, what they really conveyed was calculated visual incident, and any revelation of emotion remains dubious. The marked exception is Willem de Kooning, an artist linked to the Abstract Expressionists, but who was usually not abstract at all. His slashing depictions of women and of landscape – at least those from the 1950s and early 1960s – are seemingly emotional.
To be sure, de Kooning’s figurative expressionism is one source of Gordy’s late work. But all of his sources come into play. And they are many. He was a probing student of culture, both visual and literary – the primitives, the Asians, the classic moderns, the cubist-inspired Americans. All of them, combined with his personal drama, created a synthesis that now seems absolutely original.
Certain antecedents to his late style are especially telling. They sit squarely in early modern Europe. Gordy was deeply interested in French Symbolism – both the painters and the poets – in Matisse and, it would seem, in the Northerns. His expressive figures from early in his career, as well as a few done in the 1980s, immediately evoke Toulouse-Lautrec’s Symbolist moment – those rapt, troubled nightclub dancers. And, of course, there are Matisse’s Fauvist portraits; in these we can see something of Gordy’s crude yet elegant forms. And, on rare occasions, Gordy adopts the aggressive, discordant color that Matisse used in these early heads.
Most conspicuous, however, is the link to German Expressionist forebear Edvard Munch. Here, too, was an artist whose psychological paintings originated in his own intense experiences. By evidence of the Arthur Roger exhibition, one can reasonably posit Gordy as a postmodern incarnation of the great Norwegian – the Norwegian who was, at once, an incendiary expressionist and a lover of French art. This ostensible paradox can be seen in the work of both artists. Munch operated from the vantage point of Germanic angst, the dark tradition traceable to Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s philosophies. This is obvious in his archly impassioned subjects. But he was consistently taken with the “cuisine” of French modernism. Gordy’s final series also exhibits this uncommon hybrid ethos.
In both artists there is the odd but comfortable marriage of anguished imagery and ornamental elements. Two years before his death, Munch painted a self-portrait that is probably his most affecting, most integral work. In it, the figure stands – victim-like, solemn, with a quizzically morose expression – in the middle of a cluttered bedroom where he is flanked by a tall sinister clock on one side and, on the other, a bed draped in a cheerful, carefully patterned print. The symbolic contrast is striking. It is a picture about age and despair, and it is painfully persuasive. But Munch left room for a single bright pictorial moment.
In certain monumental and powerfully aggressive paintings, like Yellow Queen and Male Head (1984), Gordy similarly tempers a distressed expression with sheer, deliberate style. At first, the spectacle of these faces seems grandiose, hyperbolic. But he manages it. His mitigating vehicle is line. The heads and features in such works are edged in black contours that could easily read as rhythmic arabesques from some exotic, or Matissean, textile. The effect is strangely beautiful. As a result, we can confront a horrific visage, feel its extreme force, but feel no need to turn away repelled.
The fervent northern temper seems nearly to pervade Gordy’s final works, but there were intimations of it earlier in his career. A penchant for emotional release was apparently always there. Even in his “aesthetic” phase, in the mid- to late 1970s, this was true. At this time his attitude was poised on the border of the northern and French traditions, but with eyes on the French. The paintings from those years were a refined nod to Cubism, Surrealism and, most notably, the purple reveries of Symbolism. But there were errant northern, or German, moments. One felt a kinship to Egon Schiele and, perhaps, to Otto Dix. It was there in the confining rigidity of Gordy’s forms, in the occasional fierce, if lyricized, face. In the 1980s, he was still on that European border, but now with eyes north, where he would find inspiration to release more and fiercer faces – this time far less lyricized.
At that pivotal time, it seems clear, he needed to engage utter truth more than he needed to refine and, effectively, veil it. As I noted above, in some grand, sweeping paintings he tossed amazingly forceful images at us and, cunningly, controlled them. In a few pieces, however, he was less cautious. These are the most disturbing works from the period; they absolutely sink us into Gordy’s personal terror. They are small monotypes in which the immediacy of the medium appears to have impeded his fluid, mitigating line, made it coarse, and underscored the most subtle, but certainly the most excruciating, of human expressions. Despite their size, these pictures tend to overwhelm.
Two Male Heads from 1986, the year of Gordy’s death, are cases in point. In one, the eyes are widened, but less in terror than wonderment; and the mouth barely opened. The intimation is of a lost race, a lost soul – the intolerable condition of uncertainty. In the other monotype, the head is seen in three-quarter view and bent slightly downward, its cartoon-like eyes seeming to stare into the low distance. It is almost expressionless, but there is a vague quiver about the mouth, and the color – there is no actual color, only muddied greys, somber browns. This is a portrait of resignation. A quiet, awful finality.
This was, of course, a grave exhibition and, for some viewers, a depressing one. That is what it had to be. Overtly expressionist art is rarely a prudent idea, but sometimes it is imperative. In such cases, when it can be carried out effectively, forthrightly, it will unveil a soul. There really is no art more profound.