So Much Blue by Percival Everett, is a novel in a clear-eyed modern tradition. The novel’s protagonist, an aging painter named Kevin Pace, reflects on his life while struggling to complete his “masterpiece,” a twenty-ft. by twenty-ft. canvas covered with different shades of blue, a tongue in cheek nod to the formal limits of abstract expressionism, besides Jay DeFeo’s Rose, Derek Jarman’s Blue, and of course Three or Four Shades of Blue, by Charles Mingus.
Percival Everett has published over thirty titles throughout the course of his career, and he is no stranger to the obsessive side of creative inquiry. His work engages with art obsessive blotting, and the resistible tendency to write over voices. So Much Blue offers another look at the “monumental” as a kind of writing and rewriting against erasure. In the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionist painter Jay DeFeo began ongoing experiments with process: And in 1959, she began her monumental painting: The Rose. From the website of the Whitney Museum: “Jay DeFeo began this monumental work simply as an “idea that had a center to it.” Initially, the painting measured approximately 9 x 7 feet and was called Deathrose, but in 1959, the artist transferred the work onto a larger canvas with the help of friends. She continued to work on The Rose for the next seven years, applying thick paint, then chiseling it away, inserting wooden dowels to help support the heavier areas of impasto. Now nearly eleven feet tall and weighing almost a ton, the work’s dense, multi-layered surface became, in DeFeo’s words, “a marriage between painting and sculpture.””
Moving away from the literal, painters in the 20th century emphasized process and practice. There’s a beautiful romanticism in oil painting. And the idea of being a painter is at once recognizable in its materials and rituals: canvas, pigments, linseed oil. In So Much Blue, Everett reinforces even as he challenges this mythology. In one of the core themes of the novel, the painter Kevin Pace loses touch as he struggles on his obscure canvas. Relations become frustrated, couples become distant. The painter turns from Alcoholics Anonymous to disappointment and self-harm. It’s a thoughtful book with enough dialogue to keep the pace a brisk clip. When the characters talk about painting, Everett captures the essential silliness of artistic inquiry. And as their lives do not match their imaginations, we see the performance of art as a consolation.
There are several plot lines that align the painter Kevin Pace absolutely with clichéd boomer romanticism: vague revolutionary politics, an affair with a much younger woman, and his painful coming to terms with his adult children. The biggest strength of So Much Blue has to do with the doleful boomer “we blew it, man,” aspect of modernism, and artistic inquiry in general, and the paradox of reiterating a commitment to the silly, and the superfluous, while also taking time to contextualize the baggage of bourgeois art. The idea of a monumental blue work is at once familiar, modern, and exhausting. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets has become essential. On Being Blue, by Wililam Gass, explores the philosophical and literary modes of the color. A blue painting by Yves Klein inspired Derek Jarman’s last film, Blue, with which Klein sought spiritual transcendence. This book is about blue as cool, as melancholy. It’s the noir blue of Blue Note records. And the way Americans say, “I’m feeling blue.”
Again returning again to Charles Mingus and Three or Four Shades of Blue, I’d like to share an anecdote. I read that during a recording session with Charles Mingus, Yussef Lateef was overly excited during one of his extended bass clarinet solos and Mingus, either as a direction or threat, drew the image of a coffin on a piece of paper and held it up to the glass as if to say either: “I am going to kill you”, or “play the coffin.” A bass clarinet solo that spirals outwards, a one-ton oil paint rose hanging in the Whitney, Three or Four Shades of Blue, So Much Blue is hung up on artistic process towards no certain end, and so are the rest of us.