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Charles Seliger-Small Is Beautiful

October 10, 2009

Seliger-The Mayor (1945)


Charles Seliger, whose small-scale, jewel-like paintings of imaginary natural forms made him the most idiosyncratic of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, died in Manhattan on Oct. 1. He was 83 and lived in Westchester County, N.Y.

The cause was a stroke, said his son Robert.

While fellow artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning created high drama with drips and bravura brushwork on billboard-size canvases, Mr. Seliger conjured up his own private worlds on canvases, and later Masonite boards, that rarely exceeded the dimensions of a cafeteria tray.

Strongly influenced by the Surrealists and the idea of automatism — the belief that the artist’s undirected hand could reach deep into the unconscious — he layered skeins of fine, interlaced lines and overlapping luminous forms that suggested microscopic views of human tissue or plant specimens, land masses seen from an airplane or undiscovered worlds exploding into being.

These poetic explorations, increasingly complex and refined, carried him through a career that lasted more than 60 years.

“He was the last link to the Abstract Expressionist movement,” said the art historian Francis V. O’Connor, the author of “Charles Seliger: Redefining Abstract Expressionism” (2003). “He was the last artist fully committed to the methodology of Surrealism and psychic automatism, which he developed in a carefully thought-out way.”

Charles Marvin Zekowski was born on June 3, 1926, in Manhattan. His parents divorced when he was 2, and at 14 he adopted his mother’s maiden name. His childhood was chaotic, as he and his mother, destitute, hopped from one residence to another in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

He began painting and drawing as a child and, after moving to Jersey City in 1940 and discovering a copy of Amédée Ozenfant’s “Foundations of Modern Art,” experimented with the styles of Aubrey Beardsley, Persian miniatures and Cubism. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and found work tinting photographs at a studio in Manhattan.

In 1943 he met Jimmy Ernst, the son of the Surrealist artist Max Ernst, and through him began meeting and showing with the dominant figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement at the 67 Gallery and later at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery, which gave him his first one-man show in 1945, when he was still in his teens.

His painting “Cerebral Landscape” was included in an influential traveling exhibition of Abstract Expressionists that originated at the David Porter Gallery in Washington in 1945.

In an artistic statement for the exhibition, Mr. Seliger wrote: “I want to apostrophize micro-reality. I want to tear the skin from life, and, peering closely, paint what I see. I want my brain to become a magnifying lens for the infinite minutiae forming reality. Growth is the poetry of all art.”

Mr. Seliger got off to a fast start. In 1946 the Museum of Modern Art bought “Natural History: Form Within Rock” for its permanent collection, and in 1948 he was given his first important museum exhibition, at the De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. A year later he joined the prestigious Willard Gallery, where his fellow artists included Mark Tobey and Lyonel Feininger.

In 1948 he married Ruth Lewin, who died in 1975. In addition to his son Robert, of Winchester, Mass., he is survived by his wife, the former Lenore Klebanow; another son, Mark, of Auburn, Mass.; and two grandchildren.

For the next six decades Mr. Seliger worked steadily and slowly, producing no more than 10 paintings a year but always showing and always represented by major dealers, most recently the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery on 57th Street, where he had a solo show last fall. At the same time he maintained a full-time job at Commercial Decal, a china company in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he started out as a decal artist and retired in 1993 as executive vice president.

Mr. Seliger’s earliest paintings, often depicting botanical forms and insects, fused small areas of color in a manner suggestive of stained-glass windows. Later he intensified his focus, concentrating on all-over compositions of intricate tracery and linked patches of color. Often he drew spidery lines and dots with a Leroy pen, normally used for blueprints, which he filled with thinned paint, and applied paint with a single-hair brush.

He read voraciously, and it showed. “He was extraordinarily erudite,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Apart from Motherwell, the Abstract Expressionists only knew themselves and their own art, but he knew history, literature, art and even science. One of his first works was an homage to Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles.”

In 1986 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which owns more than 20 works by Mr. Seliger, presented a retrospective exhibition of his work. In 2003 he received the Pollock-Krasner Foundation’s Lee Krasner Award.

Beginning in 1952 Mr. Seliger recorded, in a minute hand, his observations about the art world, his thoughts on painting and the technical details of his works in progress in slim notebooks. In 2005 he donated all 148 volumes of his journals to the Morgan Library & Museum.


Actually, come to think of it, art and artists should provide a wealth of inspiration, so let’s have villanelles on Art and/or Artists.

  1. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 10, 2009 11:37 PM

    Apart from Motherwell? What’s that about? Surely not the Scotch town/football team?

  2. mishari permalink*
    October 11, 2009 2:44 AM

    Yes, in the world of 40’s and 50’s Abstract Expressionist art, the Motherwell football team were a force to be reckoned with. Donchoononuffink, mate?

  3. pinkroom permalink
    October 11, 2009 9:45 AM

    nothing compared to the Richard Hamilton Academicals

  4. October 11, 2009 10:00 AM

    Jimmy Ernst sounds like he could have played for Motherwell.

  5. pinkroom permalink
    October 11, 2009 10:57 AM

    I looked him up; ex p.o.w. Played, mostly left-half, for Rangers 48-53 enraging Celtic fans on several occasions with his unashamed Hanoverian sympathies.

  6. October 11, 2009 11:28 AM

    Plus his kills at frottage inherited from his dad would try the patience of any centre half.

    Lovely picture Mishari – I though it was a photo to begin with. It doesn’t need to look like something to have its worth but it’s interesting the associations it throws up.

  7. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 11, 2009 11:33 AM

    Apart from Essex, seventies pop stars were only interested in sex, drugs and alcohol.

  8. mishari permalink*
    October 11, 2009 12:04 PM

    Yes, it’s a mysterious amalgamation of the organic and the mechanical (to my eye). It’s titled ‘The Mayor’, so maybe that was Seliger’s intention–NYC being famous for ‘machine’ politicians…

    BTW, I’ve decided that Art and Artists should provide adequate inspiration for some villanelles. Aahh, stop yer goddamn moaning…it’s good excercise.

  9. InvisibleJack permalink
    October 11, 2009 1:07 PM

    Their grey herds

    In their grey herds the dust-mites congregate
    on the backs of cupboards, wardrobe, press.
    Meanwhile, the distant stars determine fate.

    Woodlice asleep in the hinge of the gate
    are crushed by a child untroubled by loss.
    In their grey herds the dust-mites congregate.

    Happy Birthday says the cake from the plate
    as grandfather’s heart congeals with stress;
    for the distant stars will determine fate.

    Go to sleep, go to sleep, you’re up too late,
    and the children sway to the Nightmare’s force.
    In their grey herds the dust-mites congregate.

    You fear the rats scratching behind the grate,
    account in your diary for every loss.
    Meanwhile, the distant stars determine fate.

    The lampshade dims light to a gentle state;
    suns incinerate space without a fuss.
    In their grey herds the dust-mites congregate,
    and the distant stars determine fate.

    Jack Brae Curtingstall

  10. InvisibleJack permalink
    October 11, 2009 1:11 PM

    Hi Mish,

    Mine illustrates the piece of art above, not about art in general, hope that counts…

    Jack Brae

  11. mishari permalink*
    October 11, 2009 1:15 PM

    Jesus, you’re quick, Jack. While I’m gnawing on a pencil, staring out the window and wondering if it isn’t time for another trip to somewhere sunnier, you’re delivering.

    Excellent piece by Frank Rich in today’s NYT. Should be required reading for the cretins and chancers we call our ‘political class’ here in the UK, the ones who keep mendaciously drooling on about ‘victory in Afghanistan’.

  12. pinkroom permalink
    October 11, 2009 5:22 PM

    The footballing artists of Motherwell, Hamilton
    and similar places.

    Scots footballers were artists once
    skilful, calm with foot on ball.
    Such footballers were envied once,

    moved to England for mucho bunce,
    answering its siren call.
    From pit to pitch, mercenaries once;

    scouts picked out the best of bunch.
    Every year they’d make their trawl
    like Scottish fish, they were as plentiful once.

    Wee tanner ball players would slyly hunch
    behind full forwards tall,
    patterning, stroking their passes once

    a space appeared for killer punch;
    one, two, bang, the goal would fall.
    Scots colourists were ruthless once

    but now their day has long gone crunch,
    Scots youth will seldom play at all,
    computer games, junk-food they’ll munch
    but Scots footballers?
    Artists once.

  13. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 11, 2009 11:56 PM

    Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole
    (J Richman)

    Hell of an artist, Pablo Picasso,
    he painted some truly fabulous pix,
    though he could be a bit of an arsehole.

    Look how he treated poor Francoise Gilot,
    and quite a number of other chix.
    Hell of an artist, Pablo Picasso,

    a major genius in the studio,
    a top performer with the mahl sticks,
    though he could be a bit of an arsehole:

    when his country called he didn’t enroll,
    let the other suckers take his licks.
    Hell of an artist, Pablo Picasso,

    communist owner of several chateaux,
    the grinning turner of magical tricks,
    though he could be a bit of an arsehole,

    fully intent on the Romantic role,
    prince of the paintbrush and king of the pricks,
    hell of an artist, Pablo Picasso,
    though he could be a bit of an arsehole.

  14. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 11, 2009 11:59 PM

    It’s quite difficult to make it work biographically. For me, anyway.

  15. mishari permalink*
    October 12, 2009 3:15 AM

    At any one time, there are an estimated 1,000 unidentified bodies lying in the country’s mortuaries and hospitals. Many have been there for years – unknown, unclaimed citizens.-The Independent, 11.10.09

    For Chaim Soutine

    It can’t be cured with talk and pills;
    This malady is hard to treat:
    The flesh is heir to many ills.

    In slashed paint, Soutine distills;
    Man’s fate displayed: dead, red meat.
    It can’t be cured with talk and pills.

    Shorn of all its fancy frills
    Of all the lies and all deceit:
    The flesh is heir to many ills.

    And all the learning, all the skills
    Won’t give a carcase life and heat:
    It can’t be cured with talk and pills.

    You cannot hide in hole or hills
    This is a foe you cannot beat:
    The flesh is heir to many ills.

    Life is that which always kills;
    The comedy is now complete:
    It can’t be cured with talk and pills,
    The flesh is heir to many ills.

  16. mishari permalink*
    October 12, 2009 4:22 AM

    …and let Robert Fisk have the last word on Obama’s Nobel Prize.

  17. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 12, 2009 9:17 AM

    A pedant writes:

    Excellent poem, but shouldn’t the final quatrain be ABAA?

  18. mishari permalink*
    October 12, 2009 10:41 AM

    Quite right. Fixed now. 3 AM sort of slip.

  19. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    October 12, 2009 1:25 PM

    *You Can’t Find The Staff Nowadays*

    mardy scrote
    fishing boat
    owner’s ship
    priming coat

    liked the quote
    gravy boat
    penman’s ship
    mardy scrote

    come to gloat
    picket boat
    workman’s ship
    second coat

    need a float?
    packet boat
    seaman’s ship
    mardy scrote

    got my goat
    rowing boat
    brinkman’s ship
    finish coat

    punched his throat
    pleasure boat
    gamesman’s ship
    mardy scrote’s
    sheepskin coat

  20. October 12, 2009 5:59 PM

    Did Celier know
    Where he wanted to go?
    Brush on paper wavering here and there
    Enticing images from thin air,
    Deft brushing and delight in accident
    Who needs to worry what he “meant”?
    Paintings stand alone like a stag on a hill
    Instructions? Make of them what you will.
    For some this approach is an omission
    Idea without intent, nuclear without fission.
    Others may find this criticism pathetic
    Why approach art with a ready-made aesthetic?
    Seliger saw it as his duty
    Spontaneity brings forth beauty.

  21. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 10:54 AM

    In the room the women come and go,
    the men are mainly standing still,
    talking of Michelangelo;

    didn’t he play for Lazio?
    I think it might have been Brazil.

    In the room the women come and go,

    Lovely drop of amaretto,
    any chance of a refill?
    Talking of Michelangelo,

    wasn’t he a bit of a homo?
    I think he fancied Jack or Jill.

    In the room the women come and go,

    the chaps are getting slurred and slow,
    the feeling is they’ve had their fill,
    talking of Michelangelo.

    Wasn’t his David Jewish, so…
    why not sharpen his pencil?

    The women say it’s time to go,
    enough of Michelangelo.

  22. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 11:07 AM

    Seem to have acquired a space betwixt Jack and Jill and the next line, Ed. Can you remove?

    Struggled with this fucker for hours. Initial idea looked good, execution a total bastard.

    I see those TSG knobs picked up one of your countrymen. Anyone you know?

  23. mishari permalink*
    October 13, 2009 11:54 AM

    I dunno what you mean…space? What space? Looks alright to me. Ditto, TSG…went right by me. What’s TSG?

  24. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 12:47 PM

    Should be:

    wasn’t he a bit of a homo?
    I think he fancied Jack or Jill.
    In the room the women come and go,

    Police officers racially abused teenagers in van, court hears. Whistleblower alleges youths were dragged into police van and verbally ‘laid into’

    Haroon Siddique and agencies, Monday 12 October 2009 16.48 BST Article history

    Three teenagers were racially abused by two Metropolitan police riot officers in the back of a police van, a court heard today.

    One officer told a youth, who said he was from Kuwait, that he was “robbing people while British soldiers are getting killed in Iraq,” and then walked on the back of another teenager as he lay handcuffed on the floor, whistleblower PC Amechi Onwugbonu said.

    Onwugbonu was driving a marked van carrying six other Territorial Support Group officers when the incident happened in Paddington in west London in June 2007. Six officers are on trial at Kingston crown court. All deny any wrongdoing.

    The van was travelling south from Paddington Green police station to Lambeth during the evening rush-hour on 1 June.

    One of Onwugbonu’s colleagues told him to stop the van because some young men had mouthed obscenities at the vehicle, he said, and he pulled over.

    Three of the teenagers were taken into the van one by one and taunted, Onwugbonu said.

    He said PC Mark Jones began to verbally “lay into” Omar Mohidin, who was 16 at the time.

    “He said something like ‘you think we are fucking pussies’, he called him the c-word,” Onwugbonu told the court.

    The PC said Jones was “nose-to-nose” with Mohidin and asked him where he was from, to which Mohidin replied “Kuwait”.

    “He said something like ‘you’re fucking here robbing people, while British soldiers are getting killed in Iraq’,” said Onwugbonu.

    Jones left the van midway through searching the teenager to deal with a disturbance outside involving the other officers.

    Ahmed Hegazy was then “dragged” into the van, the court heard. Onwugbonu said Jones told Mohidin “It’s your lucky day” and then kicked him out of the vehicle.

    Hegazy was lying handcuffed on the floor of the van and Jones walked over his back, said Onwugbonu.

    He alleged that PC Neil Brown then took off his protective gear and called on Hegazy for a fight.

    “He leaned over and shouted ‘come on then, I’m not a police officer now’,” he said.

    Before the police van continued on its journey, Sergeant William Wilson called out to PC Steven White, who was driving, to stop, and another teenager, 16-year-old Basil Khan, was brought into the van, the court heard.

    “Police Sergeant Wilson appeared very angry,” said Onwugbonu.

    “He swore at him and said ‘you fucking cunt. If you say one more thing I will fucking kill you,’ and then he slapped him on the face.”

    Jones, 42, is accused of racially aggravated assault against Mohidin and Khan, as well as misfeasance in public office. Brown, 33, faces charges of racially aggravated threatening behaviour against Ahmed Hegazy and misfeasance in public office. Wilson, 52, White, 31, PC Giles Kitchener, 31, and PC Simon Prout, 33, are charged with misfeasance in public office.

    The case continues.

  25. mishari permalink*
    October 13, 2009 12:57 PM

    Honestly..maybe I’m dim, but I still don’t get you. You say it should be:

    wasn’t he a bit of a homo?
    I think he fancied Jack or Jill.
    In the room the women come and go,

    …but, MM, that’s what it does read. Do you mean you don’t want the first two lines of the tercet italicized?

    Yours Faithfully, Baffled in London…

    (mind you, I’ve not slept for a couple of nights so perhaps I’m missing something glaringly obvious)

    The youths involved certainly don’t bear Kuwaiti names. Pakistani names, I should imagine. A Kuwaiti named ‘Khan’ or ‘Mohidin’ would be as likely as an Irishman named Fujimoto or Suzuki. Very common Pakistani/Bengali names however…

  26. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 2:07 PM

    Sorry, I didn’t realise you were suffering. Forget about it.

    Quite a worry having vanloads of those lunatics driving round London.

  27. mishari permalink*
    October 13, 2009 3:57 PM

    No, no…I insist you clarify. I know how goddamn annoying it can be to see ones work (through error or neglect) mangled. Just tell me (pretend that you’re speaking to a rather backward 5 year-old….)

  28. October 13, 2009 4:58 PM

    One of my brothers, politically to the right of Enoch Powell joined the London Met in the 70’s.

    The racism and fitting up of West Indians and ( especially ) the Irish was so rife and the methods used to frame them were so corrupt that even he had to leave in disgust.

    The detectives routinely carried around lumps of hash that they could plant on whoever they pleased and drunk Irish were picked up off the streets as they tottered home and were beaten up in the back of the vans. I think atf suffered from this behaviour and certainly another one of my brothers got beaten up by the SAS and charged with assault for biting the finger of an officer who was throttling him.

  29. InvisibleJack permalink
    October 13, 2009 6:59 PM

    Hidden Beneath The Paint Since 1892

    Too much arsenic just made him cough
    so he gave it up to syphilis:
    the spirit of the dead keeps watch.

    The Spirit Of The Dead Keeps Watch,
    painted 1892; piss
    poor in his straw bed, itching crotch,

    crabs eating the root of his cock,
    his brain tuning a static hiss:
    The spirit of the dead keeps watch.

    The Spirit Of The Dead Keeps Watch:

    His thirteen-year-old bride pissing
    herself in fear, sheets in the catch

    of her fist. In the final watch
    that’s how he found her, mumbling fits
    into her mattress. A demon squats

    in the darkness. Death cuts a notch
    and Gauguin’s fever enters bliss.
    The spirit of the dead keeps watch.

    Gauguin: stark genius and arch
    paedophile. His rank masterpiece:
    The Spirit Of The Dead Keeps Watch.

    Jack Brae Curtingstall

  30. InvisibleJack permalink
    October 13, 2009 7:10 PM

    Hi Mish

    I don’t know if this will help with the sense of this one, but I wonder if you’d mind turning the capitaised refrains into italics (ie, only in the refrains of: verse 2, line 1; verse 4, line 1; and verse 7, line 3.) In these particular refrains the phrase refers to the title of Guaguin’s painting (hence the capitals). Hope this makes sense.

    Jack Brae

  31. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 9:37 PM

    I hope you’re asleep by now. Maybe it’s just my browser, but what I see on screen is:

    wasn’t he a bit of a homo?
    I think he fancied Jack or Jill.
    In the room the women come and go,

    (dots inserted by me – imagine they aren’t there) How it ought to be is:

    wasn’t he a bit of a homo?
    I think he fancied Jack or Jill.
    In the room the women come and go,

    I’m sounding a little obsessive. Really, this substandard verse is not worth the effort.

    Interesting data on your brother, Al. Behaviour like the TSG’s was more or less expected in the 70s, but I thought things had changed a bit, if only because the perps must be aware they are quite likely to get caught. Coppers aren’t that stupid, are they? Maybe they are. You can’t mean the SAS, surely? SPG?

  32. mishari permalink*
    October 13, 2009 9:44 PM

    Ah…I see..or rather, I don’t. In my browser, there is no space and the tercet is formatted exactly the way you want it. Hence my confusion and baffled response to your talk of ‘a space’. I thought my IQ was dropping by the second or something. I kept re-reading the verse, trying to work out what the hell you were on about.

    You should have switched to Firefox years ago. The Ad Block add-on alone makes it worth it, rendering sites like the Grauniad almost tolerable (no adverts). Pity one can’t say the same for actually reading the damn thing.

    BTW, Al, I sent off “9” today so you should have it in a day or two…

  33. October 13, 2009 10:23 PM

    MM It was the SAS at the time of some intense IRA activity in London – mid 70’s. He was at an office Xmas party that got out of hand with another Xmas office party in a restaurant and he actually called the cops. The first to respond were an SAS unit sent in to boost the local police force in their lookout for dissident behaviour on the streets. They came in and over-reacted. He was thrown down the stairs before having someone pin him down and throttle him. Afterwards they tried to force him to sign a statement which had nothing written on it.

    Coincidentally one of his workmates was a woman married to an ex-SAS-er and she recognised some of the moves that the officers make – quite distinctive from yer usual plods apparently It took him a long time to get over that.

    I didn’t understand your request either and thought I too was missing some micro-punctuation nuance.

    Thanks Mishari and sleep well.

  34. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 13, 2009 10:52 PM

    Glad we sorted that out. Get yer head down.

    I didn’t know the SAS had been used for civvy policing, Al. What an exceptionally poor idea, unless you don’t mind a few people dying for dropping some litter. Sorry to hear about your brother. The welt around the head with a torch I got for thinking I was ‘a fucking comedian’ hardly registers.

  35. mishari permalink*
    October 13, 2009 11:07 PM

    Bed it is. G’night all…

  36. InvisibleJack permalink
    October 14, 2009 12:18 AM

    Get some sleep, Mish.
    I’m sleep deprived myself, and you don’t want to end up like me..

    And thanks for the edits on the poem.

    Jack Brae

  37. freep permalink
    October 14, 2009 11:54 AM

    Devoid of inspiration for villanelles, I offer you instead a dead wombat

  38. MeltonMowbray permalink
    October 16, 2009 7:02 PM

    What happened to the dogg picture, freep? Is the Guardian concerned about browsing canophiles?

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