It’s startling, disconcerting even, to come across a painter I don’t know who fits into a historical period—Modern Art ( as TJ Clark defines it)—but in her own way.
(A similar thing happened several years ago, when I first saw Norman Lewis’ work—just a few pieces in a group show and I was like, “WTF?” Not just a follower of abstract expressionism, but a major figure who expanded the definition of Ab Ex—he made it swing.)
To start with, Wine Decanter and Garlic, I realized, is not really a still life, it’s an interior, as is most of Harvey’s work in one way and another. And even to say “one way and another” is apt because Harvey is experimental in the extreme. The subject/ground shift in this drawing was the first startling thing I came across in the show. (Unfortunately, it flattens in this picture because of the reflections on the glass.) Initially I didn’t realize that the paper is black because it’s used so positively. I got lost in the deep space, attracted by the wine decanters and the wine in the decanters, and then the foreground with its swirly casual precise strokes (I know I’m contradicting myself) rushed towards me.
It all seemed so unfamiliar until I thought of Vuillard and, though he uses different means, my eye gets lost in the dark and light flowers, in the sleeve, the red flower and struggles to recapture the picture as a whole.
Though knowing little of music, because I have no other way to describe it, I thought of counterpoint and looked it up in Wikipedia and found:
“It is hard to write a beautiful song. It is harder to write several individually beautiful songs that, when sung simultaneously, sound as a more beautiful polyphonic whole. The internal structures that create each of the voices separately must contribute to the emergent structure of the polyphony, which in turn must reinforce and comment on the structures of the individual voices. The way that is accomplished in detail is…’counterpoint’.” John Rahn
And it’s funny, most of Modern and Contemporary painting also, writes a single song; nothing wrong with a beautiful song, but similarly to the way Lewis increased the range of Ab Ex, Harvey added an intricacy to Modernism.
At first glance a landscape, I go with the eddying flow down the river, and even in the movement of the water Harvey is slowing down Time, my personal enemy, and slowly the green water becomes a reflection of the trees on the other side of the river, the blue, the sky. The large tree is a shadow on the water (maybe), I only see the top of the real tree, I am rising above the tree and where am I? I am inside, looking out the window.
Thinking of other masters of the interior and the interior stream of consciousness, I think of Joyce, I think of Wolfe, and then of Nathalie Sarraute. From “Planetarium”:
“. . . a real surprise, a piece of luck . . . an exquisite combination, that velvet curtain, made of very heavy velvet, the best quality wool velvet, in a deep green, quiet and unobtrusive . . . And at the same time, a warm luminous shade . . . Marvelous against the gold glints of the beige wall . . . And the wall itself . . . How effective . . . You’d think it was skin . . . It’s as soft as chamois . . . One should always insist on that extremely fine stenciling, the tiny dots give a texture like down . . . But how dangerous, how mad, really, to choose from samples…”*
A moment later, she’s in the depth of despair, nothing of her exquisite decoration is left—in her mind that is—all is ashes. I don’t think Harvey is like that in mood; the way she compares to Sarraute is more in the ability to flip the gestalt. It’s a pity that “glass half full/half empty” became only a moral imperative to feel grateful; it’s the way we see—when we allow ourselves to see.
I did try to find something of Harvey’s personality in her paintings and fixed on Fireplace as a kind of metaphor of her interior life, possibly in a somewhat silly way that the painter and the picture don’t deserve. The useful teakettle, seriously observed, the frivolous witty fun-lover in society across the top—and oh, the banked, glowing coals!—all expressed in the way they are painted, too. —CNQ
*Anne Harvey did not date her work, so I wasn’t able in my usual pedantic way to run around figuring out the progression, which was kinda restful.
*The excerpt from “Planetarium” came from “Narrative Magazine”. Now I subscribe:
Jon Yau’s review of Anne Harvey’s show that also tells something of her very interesting biography, can be read on Hyperallergic: