Interpreting #Art, trying to figuring out what it means, is no one’s business but yours – the viewer, not the art critic, not the historian. Even the #Artist’s intent is beside the point. After a work is made, it has its own life. So it follows that even if artists shouldn’t dictate what their work means, certainly an auction house tasked with selling it shouldn’t. And that goes double when an artist is known for his reluctance to discuss his work. So when Sotheby’s put Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline’s painting “Elizabeth” on the block last month and offered an elaborate decoding of what it supposed to be about in its sales catalog, it struck this column as unabashed hucksterism.
Making stuff up
If you know Kline’s works at all, you know they’re painted with slashes of black paint in vertical, horizontal and diagonal swaths that can sometimes conjure up Japanese calligraphy or maybe some construction girders or pylons, or whatever the configurations suggest to you. The only thing we know for sure about “Elizabeth” is that it was painted in 1961, a year before he died. Otherwise, what you see is up to you. That’s what he wanted. Sotheby’s doesn’t seem to know that and got very specific in its sale catalog, calling the painting a “portrait of intimacy.” As if that wasn’t explicit enough, the auction house added that “Elizabeth” was Kline’s wife, Elizabeth Parsons, a ballet dancer who suffered schizophrenia. You have to wonder why Sotheby’s felt the need to mention Ms. Parsons’ mental health unless it was an attempt to juice up the back story of the painting to boost sales. You might say that it worked. “Elizabeth” sold for $7.978 million.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine Kline appreciating Sotheby’s attempt to speak for him. Incredibly, the auctioneers went still further, saying unequivocally that Kline’s black swaths impart a “unique affection and moving tenderness.” The sales catalog notes also gave rein to art-speak about how the painting shows “unadulterated coloristic counterpoints in conjunction with absolute subjectivity and personal experience.” Translation: The painting has meaning for Kline. Duh. One expects that all paintings have meaning for all artists.
Playing to the crowd
All this, mind you, even though Kline didn’t like talk like this, once pointing out that his painting he called “Dalia” has nothing to do with a dahlia. Not all artists shy from interpretation. British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has written that Kline was not like other Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who explicitly described the ambitions that lay behind their canvases and added that such descriptions likely added dollar value to their work. Certainly they added inducements. At this point, you might say that this column comes pretty close to making interpretation of artists’ work. I like to think, though, that the suggestions shy from the kind of specificity in which Sotheby’s indulges. #Buzz