Learning from Las Vegas: Eric Banks on Frank Sinatra's Paintings

By Banks, Eric | Artforum International, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Learning from Las Vegas: Eric Banks on Frank Sinatra's Paintings


Banks, Eric, Artforum International


[Adolph Gottlieb] is Byron to Greenberg's George Eliot--the most
vulgar-minded genius that ever produced a great effect in oils. A
Mantovani or a Lawrence Welk. Charlie Parker playing insolent variations
on the theme of "I'd Like to Get You on a Slow Boat to China"-feeling
for a way to retrieve, and make properly unbearable, the pop song's
contempt for the masses it aims to please.
--T.J. Clark, "In Defense of Abstract Expressionism" (1994)

HAS THERE EVER BEEN a less classy adjective than "classy"? The word squirms in its anachronistic embarrassment: Dames are classy, joints are classy, wheels are classy. In addition to this archaic element one might note the word's utter instability, as it conjoins at once senses of "to the highest standard" and "ostentatiously slick." One day the cultural history of the word "classy" will be written, and it will no doubt of necessity consider the uneasy relation the word bears with its dictionary neighbors "class" and "classic." Suffice it to observe here that "classy" seems to partake of "class" in the sense of both "rank" and "socioeconomic position"--with all the attendant anxieties of class aspiration, of the declasse, etc., in tow.

Has there ever been a classier act than Frank Sinatra? Like the adjective, the Chairman played it both ways: high and low rolled into one, Rat Pack fabulous meets torchbearer of American pop standards. It's hard to imagine that Cole Porter would have ever sounded as de-lightful had Sinatra not existed; how is it that we now imagine the Hoboken-raised ambassador of booze, broads, and bada-bing, in all the glory of his blue-eyed ding-dong thuggery, at once standing for fulsome excess and a touch of class? Might both conditions in fact be seen as two sides of the same classy coin?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Some answer is provided, strangely enough, in the surely classy paintings Sinatra executed that were recently displayed in--surprise--Las Vegas, at the Godt-Cleary Gallery. It was with some relief, the kind of relief that you guiltily bathe in if you indulge in the nostalgia for what museumgoing was supposedly like in the halcyon days of Kline, Rothko, Newman, et al., that I entered the unapologetically white cube on the second floor of the Mandalay Bay promenade and saw Sinatra's canvases in the raw. Blue Eyes took his Sunday painting seriously. I knew that he'd made mostly high-minded, highly keyed works that evince his appreciation of the many exhibitions he apparently saw. Hard-edged stuff, mostly, that showed he was thinking about what a classy painting looked like--and it appears the answer he found, interestingly enough, was a sort of Standard American Postwar Painting before Pop.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Several canvases show bold fields of color--bright greens, rich purple, cerise--bisected and trisected by attenuated lines of offsetting tones. …

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