Joan Altabe: Francis Bacon and the Death of Art

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Photograph: © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

How important is Bacon? Think over how much art today reflects on the voltaic and cybernetic—movies, magazines, television. And think over how shades of meaning get lost in the electronic glare. Conditioned by this exposure, too many artists work like photoelectric sorters, scrambling for new images as fast as video programs roll over, 20-plexes change their lineup and newsstands restack. Sealed off from the rich air of actual life, their images are sterile—like all things vacuum-packed. Bacon’s pictures are a relief for mass-media-sore eyes. What you see is not what you get. What you get is beyond seeing: a state of mind—timeless and placeless.

Wait, there’s more: Bacon’s originality. Remember that one-of-a-kind thing that art used to be, when artists told us how they felt about what they saw, when Mike Bidlo wasn’t copying Picassos out of art books and Richard Pettibone wasn’t copying Stella and Warhol and Elaine Sturtevant wasn’t copying Liechtenstein, Oldenburg and Segal and Sherrie Levine wasn’t copying Malevich and Schiele and Julian Schnabel wasn’t copying Rodchenko? Bacon didn’t copy anybody. He daydreamed, he said. “Pictures drop in like slides. The way I see them is not necessarily related to the way I paint them.”

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