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Rexroth and jazz at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957

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Kenneth Rexroth Feature:
Beatrice Farwell
Kenneth Rexroth:
Life at the Cultural Frontier

Gallery Notes to an exhibition of Rexroth’s Paintings, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1981, Volume VI, Number 1. (reprinted with permission of the Museum)

This piece is 1,800 words or about five printed pages long.

Kenneth Rexroth probably knows more than any two Renaissance men you care to name. His talents are multifarious. A major figure among living American poets, he is a dazzling essayist, a translator of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and a painter of distinction. In the current exhibition, visitors to the Museum are treated to a small retrospective sampling from the visual side of a lifetime spent at the frontier of culture.

Rexroth’s art is derivative of the same sense that all American vanguardists before World War II were derivative with respect to the art of Europe. The first generation of Americans to come in contact with French Cubism before World War I — Max Weber, Alfred Maurer, Marsden Hartley — embraced its principles and imitated its forms. In the second decade, assimilation of Cubism to the American subject matter evolved in the art of the Precisionists, Demuth, Stella, and Sheeler. In the early twenties, when the American art world was recoiling from the shock of modernism and the Armory Show and had begun to retreat into the realism and isolationism that reached extremes in the thirties, the youthful Rexroth, writing poetry in garrets and reading it at Wobbly cafes in Chicago, was also attending classes at the Chicago Art Institute. By the age of twenty he was producing abstractions like No. 1, a work displaying more features in common with Russian Constructivism than with his teachers at the Art Institute. How he got there is a story of creative intentions and the burning desire to be present at the cutting edge.

Rexroth came by his culture honestly. He was not a product of revolt. His parents were cultured Midwestern people of leftists sympathies, and they encouraged him in both writing and painting. Indeed, a brilliant career as artist and writer had been predicted for him as a child by his great-grandfather, and as a young man he was consumed with ambitions and hopes for the fulfilment of this prophecy. Having grown up in various parts of Indiana and Ohio, and in Chicago at times, Rexroth took up residence in that city, and began in earnest to paint and to write poetry. He regarded painting as his main creative effort in those years. In his autobiography Rexroth insists, “I did not seek refuge in the arts because I had acne, fell on my face when I tried to broad jump, or was unable to get little girls to go in the bushes. Nor, on the other hand, did I take to abstract art and free verse because my parents were small-town, middle-class puritans who washed my mouth out with American Family Soap when they caught me using four-letter words.” Though he doesn’t say exactly why he did go in this direction, it is clear that his adventuresome intelligence devoured voraciously everything he could get his hands on that would tell him what was going on in the world of art and letters that was new and exciting.

He read Arthur Jerome Eddy on Cubists and Post-Impressionists, and Jay Hambidge on dynamic symmetry (many of his abstract paintings are based on the logarithmic spiral, generator of the golden section championed by Hambidge). He subscribed to Broom, the most radical American journal of poetry and writing of the early twenties (it was edited in Europe by expatriate Americans), a review that also reproduced new art by Fernand Leger, Sonia Delaunay, El Lissitsky, Natalie Gontcharova, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Jacques Lipchitz, and other European vanguardists. During this same period the far more conservative Chicago-based literary magazine Dial was reproducing chiefly American art, and the non-Cubist drawings of Picasso and Matisse, the post-Fauve paintings of Andre Derain, the sculpture of Gaston Lachaise, and the formalist art criticism of Roger Fry. There weren’t any books then on the kinds of art that interested Rexroth, but he managed to become familiar with the most extreme developments in abstract art through reproductions. He also knew the scandalous creations of Marcel Duchamp, and greatly admired the Dada art of Francis Picabia. Wyndam Lew is had exerted considerable influence in Chicago, and was a major factor in Rexroth’s art for a certain time when figurative subjects replaced the compass and straight-edge art to which he was largely committed.

In the course of the twenties he became familiar with Mondrian, Klee, and George Grosz, who was not only reproduced in Broom, but whose work turned up in the hands of Chicago radicals such as Ben Hecht. It was when Rexroth saw Paul Klee that he had the intuition he himself would not be an artist of the top rank. He admired the art of Malevich and Rodchenko. It was a time when radicals watched as closely as they could whatever was going on in the new Soviet Union. Louis Lozowick was the American art world’s informant, as he read Russian and had visited the socialist country. Rexroth knew Lozowick, as he had also come to know Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and other New York artists encountered on visits to New York. Friendships with such men and with eastern literary talents as well were consolidated during longer stays when he also studied at the Art Students’ League. In those years artists and writers enjoyed closer communication than has been the rule in the post-World War II era. Rexroth’s artistic life has been an amalgam of the two forms of expression. He has observed that the young Ivor Winters was the analogue of Malevich and Rodchenko, and in the twenties Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons) seemed to him to be doing in literature what he himself was trying to do in painting.

No major American artists in the twenties were making totally abstract, non-objective paintings. Even earlier, during the first wave of modernism, the only fully abstract art was that of the Synchromists and a few scattered endeavors by otherwise figurative painters in the World War I period, and these were based in Cubism. The nucleus of painters who eventually formed the American Abstract Artists in 1937 only came to that mode in the early thirties (Burgoyne Diller, George L.K. Morris). Therefore it is of the greatest interest to find an American painter in the twenties totally enamored of a geometric abstraction more closely related to Mondrian and the Russian Contructivists than to Cubism and the School of Paris. Rexroth’s early political radicalism no doubt played a role in this preference, but he maintains that he came upon the possibilities of geometric abstraction before he knew of the Russian movement. Other Chicago radicals joined him in abstraction (he recalls chiefly Rudolph Weisenborn), but perhaps the study of dynamic symmetry was an influential as the reproductions in Broom.

In a more recent portion of his autobiography, Rexroth reports that he and his first wife, Andree, also a painter, carried on correspondence with Theo van Doesberg, Moholy-Nagy, and other European post-Cubist abstractionists. They also tried, without success, to engage Lissitsky and Rodchenko in correspondence. Though living in San Francisco, they had ambitions to take off for Germany and the Bauhaus, where Moholy-Nagy was then on the faculty of the famous art school. These hopes were of course dashed by the advent of Hitler.

Meanwhile, by 1929 Rexroth and his wife both began to move away from geometric abstraction and toward organic form. They had discovered Andre Masson, one of the founders of biomorphic abstraction, with whom they also corresponded, and with whom Andree Rexroth exchanged paintings. The change is quite evident in Mountaineers (No. 10), a work of 1935, which may in its content refer as much to the painter’s experiences as a western backpacker and mountaineer as to French Surrealist ideas about organic form.

A hiatus occurred during World War II when Rexroth was working in a mental hospital in San Francisco. No paintings survive from that time. After the war, Rexroth made two trips to Europe, and lived in Southern France for a time in the 1950s. New paintings such as Nos. 11, 12, and 13 reveal a sensibility akin to that of Mark Tobey, and though small in scale, to the Abstract Expressionist mode of “all-over” painting featuring an active, gestural brush stroke or mark quivering with movement — the triumphant indigenously American style developed during the 1940s by Pollock, De Kooning and others of the New York School. Some of Rexroth’s paintings of the fifties (No.11) recall the central motif of certain works of the late John Ferren who had studied painting with Rexroth many years before in San Francisco.

During the 1950s Rexroth began to relinquish his unusual matte painting medium of wax, silica, and varnish, for paste. All of the later works are executed in this delicate chalky medium in which he has spun a magical world seemingly abstract, but in which figures of man and animal sometimes lurk, or fish dart through simmering waters. This world is enlivened by light, or the illusion of light, which seems to increase toward the center of the work and to manifest the energy within it. The domination of light begins with Hommage a Tiepolo (No.13), a painting in tempera on paper of 1958 made in Venice, where palace ceilings by the great Venetian frescoist illuminate with their centers of glowing sky the fabulous rococo ornament of the architecture below them. Artificial light is suggested in Rue Git-le-Coeur (No. 17), penetrating the fog of a winter evening in Paris, while in “The Fish in the Waterfall (No. 16), the light is that of nature. In Thistles (No. 18), the subject itself emits a ghostly, phosphorescent light against its darker but still pale background.

At times the old geometry superimposes itself on the painterly field. At others, biomorphic shapes in variable-width line slither and writhe upon a checkerboard ground (No. 15). Some of these marks take on the look of a mysterious calligraphy, as though they are to be deciphered from an unknown language possibly originating in the Orient (No. 14). And finally, in the pastels, the hovering shapes or lines become enmeshed in the ground and all but disappear in a gossamer world of pastel threads (Nos. 16, 20, 21).

The ease with which these late works shift back and forth from figurative to abstract bears a relation to the earliest work, Annunciation (No. 1). There the austere geometry is nevertheless at the service of the most traditional of subject matter, and while Rexroth did go on to totally non-objective abstraction, perhaps this says something about even the most abstract styles. Surely they all deal in some way with life and its harmonies, tensions, and other shades of the relationship — no matter what the artist-theorist may say about their purity as art.

Rexroth has shown his work on numerous occasions, but he has not sought to make a living by the art of painting. He has kept a large number of his paintings and pastels with him, the best of them on the walls of his home — presences manifesting the life of feeling at many periods in his history, and mementoes of a life dedicated to art.

Beatrice Farwell Duncan was trained as an art historian at NYU (MA) and UCLA (PhD). Beatrice Farwell worked as a docent at New York’s Metropolitan Museum (1943–1965), then joined the faculty at University of California Santa Barbara, where she is Professor Emeritus. Her specialty is the Realist period in French 19th-century art; her major publications are Manet and the Nude (1981) and the 12-volume French Popular Lithographic Imagery 1815–1870 (1981-96).

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Photo, top: Kenneth Rexroth reading his work to a jazz accompaniment
at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.

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