Keith Mayerson


The Irascibles


From the famous Nina Leen photograph, taken for LIFE, November 24, 1950. Front row: Theodoros Stamos, Jimmy Ernst, Barnett Newman, James Brooks, Mark Rothko; middle row: Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Bradley Walker Tomlin; back row: Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, Hedda Sterne.

Hopefully there is something political about creating a figurative painting of these Abstract Expressionist artists (and this iconic photo, taken by a woman who was famous for her animal photography!), who devised part of the New York School of painting! I've been wanting to paint this for years, and listened to all of Mary Gabrielle's incredible book "Nine Street Women" while composing it, along with jazz greats from the Pollock Krasner record collection. It's true that without Elaine de Kooning and the other dynamic women that were all part of the movement, these men couldn't have achieved what they did—sad that only Hedda Sterne was allowed to sign the infamous letter to the Met that engendered the resulting image that came to define the group (as great as she is!). More women, including Louise Bourgeois were part of the "Studio 35" symposium (and clubs and groups) that banded together in a three day symposium trying to define the Abstractionists and the Expressionists to come up with a title for their ultimate collaboration, and at the end decided to write a letter opposing the more traditional curation of the forthcoming giant Met exhibition of contemporary art. But you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and these artists, back in a time of the very conservative 40's and 50's, recovering psychologically from the war and the bombing of Japan, and the McCarthy era, wanted and succeeded to change art, by creating abstract images, generated from their subconscious, emotions, and a need to express themselves in a manner that figurative painting seemed incapable of expressing. I love abstract painting, too, and in our moment sometimes it feels analogous to this period, although being able to frame feeling and synaesthetic content on narrative seems also necessary for our time, I respect these heroes, despite their, in some cases, very un PC way of life and thinking. They rose up, as a community of artists, working for years isolated in their ideology, and without public recognition or institution and market validation, making art in the most "pure" way, an energy that we can't forget, collaborating as a community to make "art that mattered," and a real American art that, although influenced by Europe and the East, rose as its own vitality that still resonates deeply.. Painting this as part of my residency at the Elaine de Kooning House, I realized that Elaine, and many of the others "had their cake and ate it, too" in that they created both figurative works and abstract works, with the figurative paintings falling into abstraction, and the abstract works conjuring iconic figures from their unconscious. I have long sought to do the same, influenced by the work of these masters (and being a son of a psychoanalyst!), and in context with my figurative works heroizing Elaine, Krasner, and the other women, hope that this work capturing the spirit of these ultimately flawed men (Hedda Sterne and the women really are the strong protagonists of the group) both brings attention to their corporeal limitations and that of their ideology, while at the same time creating a history painting of a group of artists that took on the world and the establishment and won, pathing the way for all artists of all genders and orientations, to hopefully follow.