‘The Child Must Banish the Father’: Mark Rothko and Intergenerational Strife

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958

‘Movement is everything. Movement is life. The second we’re born we squall, we writhe, we squirm. To live is to move.’

There’s a splendid production of the 2009 play ‘Red’ by John Logan running at the Wyndham Theatre in London (until 28 July).

It is 1958-59. Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the glamorous Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. In his paint-splattered Bowery studio he creates his work surrounded by whisky bottles, canvases, turpentine and brushes; in low light; to the sounds of Schubert and Mozart.

Rothko strives to convey raw truth, real feeling and pure thought - in maroon, dark red and black. His luminous paintings pulse with introspection, intensity and intellectual energy. He approaches his craft with high seriousness.

‘People like me… My contemporaries, my colleagues…Those painters who came up with me. We all had one thing in common…We understood the importance of seriousness.’

Rothko explains to his young assistant that he and his fellow Abstract Expressionists achieved their dominance of the post-war art scene by sweeping aside the previous generation.

‘We destroyed Cubism, de Kooning and me and Pollock and Barnett Newman and all the others. We stomped it to death. Nobody can paint a cubist picture now…The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.’

Rothko’s assistant, however, is a fan of the emergent Pop Art movement; of artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He challenges Rothko’s worldview.

‘Not everything needs to be so goddamn important all the time. Not every painting needs to rip your guts out and expose your soul. Not everyone wants art that actually hurts. Sometimes you just want a fucking still life or soup can or comic book!’

Rothko is unimpressed.

‘You know the problem with those painters? It’s exactly what you said: they are painting for this moment, right now. And that’s all. It’s nothing but zeitgeist art. Completely temporal, completely disposable, like Kleenex.’

Rothko’s frustration with Pop Art extends to the culture that has created and celebrated it. He rages against the triviality of modern life.

‘‘Pretty.’ ’Beautiful.’ ’Nice.’ ’Fine.’ That’s our life now! Everything’s ‘fine’. We put on the funny nose and glasses and slip on the banana peel and the TV makes everything happy and everyone’s laughing all the time, it’s all so goddamn funny. It’s our constitutional right to be amused all the time, isn’t it? We’re a smirking nation living under the tyranny of ‘fine’. How are you? Fine. How was your day? Fine. How did you like the painting? Fine. Want some dinner? Fine…Well, let me tell you, everything is not fine!...How are you?...How was your day? How are you feeling? Conflicted. Nuanced. Troubled. Diseased. Doomed. I am not fine. We are not fine.’

The argument gets personal. Rothko’s assistant points out that the artist’s seriousness and self-importance don’t sit well with his latest commission.

‘The High Priest of Modern Art is painting a wall in the Temple of Consumption.’

For me these bitter exchanges resonate with the intergenerational strife that we often encounter today in work and broader society. Each age cohort seems eager to celebrate its own triumphs, but reluctant to recognize the virtues of the cohort beneath them.

My own generation, born in the ‘60s, rejoices in punk’s destruction of ‘70s lethargy and hippy self-indulgence. We lionize our mix-tapes, style tribes, GTIs and political engagement. We rejoice in our hedonistic teens and our industrious twenties.

Yet, we moan about Millennials and make sarcastic remarks about Snowflakes. We complain about young people’s technology addiction and attention deficit disorders; their narcissism, impatience and indifference; the artisanal gins and avocado on toast; no-platforming and eating on public transport.

The younger generation can quite rightly retort with ‘80s materialism, sexism and sartorial blunders; the environmental apathy and the plain good fortune of the property market. They can coin their own labels: Centrist Dads and Gammons and so forth.

This intergenerational squabbling gets us nowhere. It betrays an inability to see life through anything other than the prism of our own experience.

Surely each generation is equal but different. One generation dances with their feet; the other dances with their hands. One wears white socks at the gym; the other wears black. One watches TV together; the other watches phones together.

I have been in awe of modern youth’s ability to diminish the gap between thought and action; their entrepreneurial spirit and technical facility; their comfort with diversity and their capacity to keep life and work in balance. They’re just as political, but they care about different issues. They’re just as stylish, but in skinnier jeans.

OK. Their music is not as good…

In the field of commerce the businesses that thrive are those that truly trust and enable the younger generation; that integrate old and new skills; that recognise the imperative of change. Because if a company fails to embrace generational difference, then eventually 'the child will banish the father.’ And the mother too.

Towards the end of ‘Red’ Rothko has a change of heart. After a dispiriting trip to the Four Seasons restaurant, he backs out of the lucrative commission. And he dismisses his assistant with something approaching good grace.

‘Listen, kid, you don’t need to spend any more time with me. You need to find your contemporaries and make your own world, your own life…You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off… Make something new.’

No. 183

 

Basquiat Watching Telly: You Need Input If You’re Going To Create Output

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

The artist in 1983 at his studio on Crosby Street.Roland Hagenberg

‘I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1967 a seven-year-old Brooklyn kid was playing stickball in the street when he was hit by a car. Confined to hospital to recover from his injuries, his mother gave him a copy of the textbook ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ to amuse him.

Years later when Jean-Michel Basquiat was an artist, the imagery that he had absorbed from that book repeatedly made its way onto his canvases - as skulls, spines and skeletons; as cross-sections, labels and anatomical diagrams. Basquiat had a special skill for translating his personal experiences into his work.

‘I never went to an art school. I failed at the art courses I did take at school. I just looked at a lot of things, and that’s where I think I learned about art.’

Basquiat, whose parents were Haitian and Puerto Rican, grew up with an instinctive love of art. As a child his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as a teenager he regularly visited galleries with his mates.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits, 1982

After leaving school at 17, Basquiat joined the vibrant post-punk creative scene that congregated around the run-down streets of lower Manhattan. With a friend he began spraying surreal, witty, provocative graffiti-poetry, under the SAMO© tag, all over SoHo and the Lower East Side. With another friend he created collage-based post cards and sold them on the street for a dollar or two. (His customers included his hero Andy Warhol.) He formed a band named Gray after the book that had made such an impression on him as a kid. He DJed at clubs and parties; acted in an art-house movie; hung out with members of the burgeoning hip-hop scene. And when eventually he turned to painting, he sold his first picture to the musician Debbie Harry.

Basquiat was an artistic autodidact. He saw no boundaries between media and he thrived within a networked creative community.

Basquiat was also a sponge for knowledge, inspiration and stimulus. His paintings are filled with references to his love of music (from bebop to hip hop); to his passion for sport (Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis); to the art history books he read (Da Vinci, Titian, Manet, Picasso, Duchamp); to his interest in the African American experience. All these elements are mixed in with the planes, automobiles and skyscrapers of his native city; with birds, masks and demons; with crowns, hats and halos; with icons of popular culture; with the enigmatic political poetry that he had first expressed in his graffiti.

‘I’m usually in front of the television. I have to have some source material around me to work off.’

There’s some fascinating film footage of Basquiat in 1985 sketching and making notes in front of the telly. He was clearly processing the material from one medium directly onto another; allowing himself to respond freely and intuitively, loosely and spontaneously. Across his work there are references to the cartoons, sci-fi shows and movies he had been watching – to Popeye and Felix the Cat; to ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’

‘It’s sort of on automatic most of the time.’

Untitled 1982

Untitled 1982

Basquiat was special. He synthesized low and high culture; words, images and symbols; personal memories and public knowledge; the present and the past. He orchestrated his responses to the world, channeled and filtered them into one compelling, magical brew. And he seems to have captured something about what it is to live in these super-fast, over-choiced, hyper-connected, ethically-conflicted times.

Sadly in 1988 Basquiat died from a heroin overdose. He was 27.

So often the marketing and communications business is insular, introverted, isolated. For inspiration we consider adjacent markets, sectors, campaigns and brands; we examine our competitors and Cannes winners, popular ads and award books. But we rarely look beyond our own orbit.

Basquiat teaches us some simple lessons: that true creativity knows no boundaries; that it thrives within a Bohemian culture; that it needs constant stimulus, provocation and experience to sustain it; that if we want to make interesting work, we should seek catalysts from beyond our immediate environment.

You need input if you’re going to create output.

 

Basquiat: Boom for Real’ is at the Barbican in London until 28 January 2018.

No. 164

 

 

Nile Rodgers and The Guitar That Wouldn’t Play: Is Your Team Out of Tune?

Nile Rodgers is one of those people you’d just like to thank: for Chic and Sister Sledge; for combining uptown style with downtown rhythms; for swooning strings and relentless ‘chucking’ guitar patterns; for ‘High Society,’ ‘My Forbidden Lover’ and ‘Get Lucky’; for the renaissance of Diana Ross; for the pause in ‘I Want Your Love’; for the chassis to ‘Rapper’s Delight’; for getting ‘lost in music, caught in a trap, no turning back’; for sheer rapture on the dance floor; for the ‘Good Times.’

‘If you left it up to me,
Every day would be Saturday.
People party through the week,
They’d be laughing.

I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.
I just can’t wait ‘til Saturday.’

Saturday,’ Norma Jean (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Bobby Carter)

Rodgers’ excellent autobiography ‘Le Freak’ is a rollercoaster ride of joy and pain, of triumph over adversity; a story told with wisdom, warmth and good humour. He grew up amongst bohemians and drug users in New York and LA. He suffered insomnia and chronic asthma. His early life involved encounters with Thelonius Monk, Timothy Leary and assorted Black Panthers; with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix and Sesame Street. Eventually he met Bernard Edwards, formed Chic, and together they created the blueprint for sophisticated modern dance music. He went on to confer his distinctive production dazzle on the likes of David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna. This is a life fully lived.

Rodgers’ natural musical gift was first expressed through the clarinet he was taught at school. At 15 he convinced his mother and stepfather to buy him a guitar. He set about learning his new instrument from his clarinet etudes and a Beatles songbook. But, however hard he tried, he couldn’t coax anything approaching a proper melody from the guitar. How frustrating! One day his stepfather came across him practising and took the instrument in his hands: ’Wow, this is way out of tune.’ The young Nile hadn’t been aware of the need to tune the guitar.

‘Sir Edmond Hillary, reaching the summit of Mount Everest, must have felt something similar to what I felt at that moment. This was more blissful than anything I’d ever experienced. I played the next chord and it sounded like the right chord in the progression. I started the song again. With utter confidence I sang, ‘I read the news today, oh boy,’ then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh, ‘About a lucky man who made the grade.’ There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like.’

I was touched by this story. It spoke of joy unconfined, pure youthful creative liberation.

In a completely different context, Nile Rodgers’ out-of-tune guitar made me wonder about the commercial world. How often does a business have the right strings, on the right instrument, being plucked in exactly the right way, without producing any meaningful music? How often is a business ill at ease with itself, out of tune, with no sense of where the problem lies?

We may think of leaders nowadays as people who hire and fire, replace and reconfigure. But the truest test of good leaders is their ability to realise the potential of the talent already at their disposal. Can they allocate roles and responsibilities, tasks and objectives in such a way as to create a genuine sense of collective purpose? Can they galvanise disparate skills and personalities into a supportive, happy team? Can they motivate them, direct them, inspire them to play in tune, to sing in harmony?

‘Everyone can see we’re together,
As we walk on by.
And we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie.

We are family
I got all my sisters with me.’

‘We Are Family,’ Sister Sledge (Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers)

Great leaders set the rhythm of a business, get it dancing in step, as one. I’ve witnessed this kind of leadership. It’s a rare instinctive thing, a wonder to behold. It requires humility and empathy; charisma and vision, in equal measure. It requires a positive engagement with people, life and circumstances.

These are qualities that I’m sure Rodgers himself has in abundance. At the start of his book, he quotes an old saying:

‘Life isn’t about surviving the storm; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’

No. 132

 

 

‘Today Is Their Creator’: Creative Lessons from Robert Rauschenberg

I recently attended a retrospective of the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. (Tate Modern until 2 April). Blimey. I can’t claim to have had an emotional connection with his work. So much cardboard, cartoons and cut-outs; so much repurposed refuse and random bits and bobs. I suspect my tastes are too conservative. But walking from room to room, through a chaptered narrative of the artist’s career, I could achieve some kind of rational connection. I found myself admiring him. And I certainly felt there was a great deal that commercial creatives could learn from this mercurial talent.

 

1. Be Restless

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 into a fundamentalist Christian household in Port Arthur, Texas. Having served in the Navy during World War II, he took advantage of the GI Bill to travel abroad and he briefly attended art school in Paris. He subsequently studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an institution that encouraged experimentation across a whole host of media. There he learned to do ‘exactly the reverse’ of what he was taught.

Rauschenberg was a restless spirit. The breadth of his output was breathtaking. In the course of his career he explored the possibilities of print making and paper making; photography and collage; pop art and abstraction. He painted in stark black and white monochrome, and in bright vivid colours. He designed costumes and stage sets; worked with found objects and images; experimented in kinetic and interactive art. He collaborated with other artists, with dancers, musicians, scientists and engineers. He choreographed performance pieces and co-created the first Happenings.

Rauschenberg never settled on any one style or form of expression. With his appetite for the untried and untested, he remained resolutely in the present.

‘It is completely irrelevant that I am making them - Today is their creator.’

Rauschenberg was blessed, and perhaps cursed, by what one critic called ‘a perceptual machine.’ He just kept seeing, feeling and thinking different things.

Rauschenberg’s impact on the broader creative culture of his day and on subsequent artistic movements was phenomenal. Most obviously to me the Britartists of the 1990s seemed to be in his debt: way back in the 1950s he created a piece out of his own bedding; he designed a work around a stuffed angora goat; he took a drawing by the established artist Willem de Kooning and erased it…

I guess all of us in the world of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: Are our own ‘perceptual machines’ functioning and well oiled? Can we sustain an appetite for the new as we grow old? Are we, like Rauschenberg, truly, relentlessly, restless spirits?

 

2. Explore ‘The Gap Between’

‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.’

In 1954 Rauschenberg began to integrate objects he’d found on local New York streets within his canvases. Wallpaper, windows, wheels and ‘one way’ signs; Coke bottles, brollies, light bulbs and stuffed birds. They all found their way into his Combines, as they were called. It was an approach that brought together painting and sculpture in a new and compelling way.

‘A picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world.’

Monogram

Monogram

Rauschenberg seemed fascinated in art that more intimately embraced reality; that broke out of the boundaries that had been set for it; that explored the liminal spaces, betwixt and between.

‘Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)’

I was struck by this idea of exploring ‘the gap between.’ So often in the commercial sector we impose our own constraints on creative expression, or we accept the constraints of convention. But in an ever-changing world there’s always interest to be had in the borderlands between collapsing categories; on the frontiers of technology; at the cusp of change.

In my own time at BBH some of our best work inhabited the threshold between different channels, practices and technologies: press ads that behaved like posters; posters that behaved like films; films that played backwards; shorter timelengths, longer timelengths; longer copy, no copy at all; reflective still images, special builds, interactive posters, POV camerawork; films that focused on real people, real events, real experiments; Chinese takeaway lids. So often the opportunities occurred at the margins of standard practice, on the edge of the frame.

Are we as alert as we should be to the creative potential in collaboration, combination, co-ordination? Do we remember sometimes to make the medium the message? Are we eager to explore the ‘gap in between?’

Retroactive II

Retroactive II

 

3. Be Ruthless

‘I’m not interested in doing what I know or what I think I can do.’

By all reports Rauschenberg was charming, gregarious and fun. A smile was never far from his lips. But he was ruthless with ideas, both his own and those of others. He knew that you cannot progress if you still have your feet in the past.

When Rauschenberg arrived in New York as a young man in 1949 the dominant creative movement was Abstract Expressionism. But he was determined from the outset to make a clean break.

‘You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist. And I think I always considered that a waste.’

In 1962, around the same time as Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg began experimenting with silkscreens. He reproduced and artfully arranged found images that were historic and contemporary; political and cultural; mundane and arresting. These silkscreens brought him substantial recognition and, in 1964, they won him a prize at the Venice Biennale. He immediately called home and instructed his assistant to destroy any silkscreens left in the studio. He was alert to the insidious seductions of success.

Are we in the commercial sector as willing to dismiss established practice and break for the new? Are we as decisive as Rauschenberg? Can we claim to be as ruthless with our own success?

 

4. Let’s Get Lost

As I was about to depart the exhibition, I returned to a piece called Mud Muse. In 1968 Rauschenberg filled a large metal tank with 1000 gallons of bentonite clay and collaborated with technicians to animate this clay with bubbles that responded to the sounds around it. The result was an art exhibit that gurgles, slurps and plops. I watched a party of young school kids consider it. They were at once amazed and amused. And they demonstrated the emotional connection that I had failed to make.

Mud Muse

Mud Muse

‘I still have an innocent curiosity about how things go…All I’m trying to do is get everybody off the highway and, if anybody follows my lead, they’ll soon be lost too.’

Perhaps this is Rauschenberg’s best lesson. I’m sure sometimes we over-think our engagement with ideas. Sometimes we should let go and embrace a little innocent curiosity. Sometimes we should just take a turn off life’s highway. Come on, let’s get lost.

‘Let's get lost
Lost in each other's arms
Let's get lost
Let them send out alarms


And though they'll think us rather rude
Let's tell the world we're in that crazy mood.


Let's defrost in a romantic mist
Let's get crossed off everybody's list
To celebrate this night we've found each other
Mm, let's get lost.’

Chet Baker/ Let’s Get Lost: Frank Loesser, Jimmy Mchugh

No. 116