Myths of the South

Matisse The Parakeet and the Mermaid 1952

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to get to Nice and the hill towns all around it you immediately understand why a Northerner, especially one so enamored of color and light, would head South and stay there. Matisse made many trips south over the years until he finally gave in, left Paris behind and took up residence in the hills. The mild weather, the lush landscapes, the beautiful colors, and the promise of a different kind of painting all worked on Henri’s mind. When Matisse finally settled in he lived those decades in something close to a paradise. Not Italian, but French – slower, less vitriolic, but still thick with physical emotions and grand personal imagery.

Matisse Henri – Reclining Nude (The Painter and his Model) 1935

But let’s not forget that during the decades between the wars Matisse was indulgent and spent his time creating a Hollywood studio idea of a Harem, painting and drawing one odalisque after another while enjoying himself immensely one might assume. Picasso was merciless about this period in Henri’s life, and kept prodding the aging hipster to get back to serious work. The pot calling the kettle black, really. But these were the years between the wars. The Lost Generation was finding a different kind of Modernism and changing the game. Meanwhile our two middle aged southern gents were trying desperately to remain relevant while also enjoying the fruits of their earlier successes. Never a good thing in my opinion. This period was called the “return to order” by art historians, which to my mind, misses the point. It really wasn’t order that these artists were looking for.

Matisse’s studio Hotel Regina 1953

To this day painters still try to emulate the old man and his late southern work. They take his color, his space, his haphazard compositions which fall into place with offhand precision. But what they all lack is his sensuality. These painters don’t have the same desire for opulence, nor have they the decades of emotional excess in the heat of the sun. They didn’t experience the heightened color or understand the vibrancy of living along the Blue Coast. Matisse’s late work is about the mutability of mythology – the old stories, the human dramas. Geography changes a person, makes them over into something different. In the South Matisse found brilliant color and haphazard line and open sensuality. He didn’t just strip off on the beach, burn his skin and bugger off back home with photographs and tourist encounters. He lived, looked, experienced and recreated himself.

Edisto Souvenir

Jasper Johns Fools House 1962

I have always admired the touch and feel in Jasper’s work. He managed to heighten his processes into a thick painted reality – something few painters really achieve. The brush stroke slathers through the image. The image actually becomes a thing. The thing once again reveals the process. Then the thing is nearly lost again, and that’s when the image and the process must be underwritten, revealed, and pointed out to the world by the artist himself, because even he may have forgotten it. What the thing was. How it felt. What it meant. Take a thing, etc. Every image comes from a dream or a memory, something slippery and real in one’s mind. Painting like this is a Fool’s House. But this painted thing is true, and it’s true in a way that Neo-Platonic Geometry and Endgame Aesthetics refuse to be true. This sort of thing is Southern and it unfolds in its own time.

Jasper Johns Souvenir 1964

Down South one’s image is everything. One might be a cad, a derelict, a gentle person and a fool all in the same moment, but one might also be forgiven for such emotional and declarative outbursts as long as one’s “truth” remains sacrosanct. The image of the ignorant, roaring redneck is undeniably a Southern truism, but it’s been my experience that there are all kinds of deeply affecting Southerners. And that’s probably why the South has produced great writers and great painters, and in many cases great friends. And when I’m lonely and tired I find that Jasper Johns’ work – always immaculately conceived – is a touchstone for a lived reality and a very old truth. These paintings are my souvenir – a token of remembrance and regard. And all one has to do is turn on the light to return to red, blue and yellow. Even at this moment when Jasper’s work feels like something from the Ancien Regime and my regard for that work seems to be nothing more than my own pure nostalgia, I am still taken by their shifty honesty.

Jasper Johns Between the Clock and the Bed 1982-83

As one grows older one’s image begins to slip and one reveals oneself without knowing. If you’ve ever read an interview or seen Jasper on camera – this language may sound slightly stiff and familiar. It is a gambit, a way to speak of real things without revealing real things. If one is between the clock and the bed it would seem we are talking about one’s own appointment with oblivion. And these paintings about death and life are among Jasper’s most abstracted works. Funny that. A nearly pure abstract painting done to confront one’s own mortality. This work is, of course, based on a Northerner’s painting of his confrontation with mortality. In that painting we see an old man standing between a grandfather clock and a bed covered with a quilt of cross hatched splendor. But in this painting Edvard’s image has been subsumed by Jasper’s process creating yet another very different kind of image. Decades of drawing and painting have covered over the old man with this final abstraction of a new old man. This painting is now our souvenir – of what exactly? Life, death, sex, impotence, time and painting? More? Joy, regret, fear, understanding and acceptance? The black and white world has won. But there in the lower right are a few small memories of red, yellow and blue. More southern souvenirs.

Traveling South

I’ve always thought that Southern European painting has a more life affirming feel than Northern painting. Same subjects different “feel.” What I find distressing at times is that the US has always been more comfortable embracing the feel of Northern European Art. We fetishize the Modern cleanliness, the geometric coolness and the certainty of mathematical outcomes. As Americans Clem’s admonishment for reductive purity and decorative expression still rush through our thoughts – especially in the market place. Even Andy’s repetitions are tastefully aesthetic, the slight variations adding charm and nuance to the perfection of the minimalist rectangle. Nothing too open or sexy or impulsive let’s say. This may have something to do with the fact that the US is still enamored with “plain” values – at least in public practice. But like all humans – we’re very different and very much the same behind closed doors.

Picasso Nude on a Pillow 1967

Which brings us to Late Picasso who was anything but “plain”. His reputation in the 1960s was in tatters. Everyone thought he was mad – that these painting were made by a senile old man. So the art world moved on. Here in the US at the very same time that Picasso painted this “nude” it was High Times Hard Times in SoHo. Abstract Mannerism was just beginning to take hold of the painters who were desperate to get out from under the yoke of Greenberg’s formalism. Meanwhile in the south of France Picasso was painting a world of work which still creates problems for people. An old man, a raging erotic impulse in the face of death, and a careless attitude towards formal issues and processes seems worlds away from Greenberg’s button down Neo-Modernism or Abstract Mannerism’s thoughtful endgame.

Picasso Self Portrait

Images. Abstraction’s continuing problem. What to do with images, especially in a world awash in them. What’s instructive about the old man is how natural and how matter-of-fact his imagery is. Not like a Coke bottle, but like a conversation one has with another. These images are about the furtive glances, the moments of recognition, and the feel of life going on. And that “other” in his painting has nothing to do with the “viewer,” the gallery goer, or the collector. These works are after all intimate, personal, revealing – Southern. One of my favorite things at the Picasso Museum in Antibes was this Self Portrait. The stubbly beard, the hollow eyes, the funky hat and that weird sea creature in a shell somehow crawling through his ear and infesting his brain. It stuck with me. The picture was also hung on a wall down a little corridor between two bigger, grander galleries. It was intimate. What I really like about the painting is that if you look long enough you’ll discover that this image is nothing but honest. And it can’t get any better than that.

Text and Image are the Same

Michael Riedel Powerpoint Untitled 2013

“Is it, I asked Riedel, a commentary on the human condition? Are we all just information addicts, churning out bad Xeroxes of something we once saw or heard? Or is the redoubled emptiness a more personal expression: the result of looking inside his own personal artistic soul and finding, well, nothing? … There’s no content being produced, because I’m in the first generation that grew up digital,” Riedel replied, “we are just transferring all the time: tape, CDs and now the clouds.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “The self-reference is because I am the system. The technique is mainly carrying something from here to there, sometimes with a car, sometimes by making a recording. . . .” And sometimes, as with the new HTML paintings, with the click of a mouse.” Adam Fisher on Michael Riedel, May 1, 2012.

“I am the system.” This is a long way from “I am nature.” We’ve known for a very long time now that the artist’s hand, the old ideas of abstraction, drawing and painting, can no longer exist as avant-garde forms. We are either critics or acolytes, and we’ve remained tied to our Modernist past through an end-of-history nostalgia. And that may be why there’s so much “expressionist” abstraction, provisional painting and zombie formalism clogging up the instagram algorithms. It’s difficult to believe any longer that we are “nature” and that what we paint is “natural” – especially when what we’re doing is a learned activity rather than one which we created – especially as we fling and pour and slather exactly like Jackson or Bill or Helen once did. But what does it mean to be the system? What does it mean to transfer all the time? What happens when the media we use is all the same code – one as good as another?

Michael Riedel Untitled Powerpoint 2013

“Riedel has long used extant texts as material for his projects. For Frieze (CMYK)(2007) he reprinted the May 2007 issue of the titular art magazine in each of four standard printing colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). The four reproductions became limited-edition artist books, and were exhibited with related postcards and posters. Audio book (Meckert) (2010) is a recording of a text printed in another one of Riedel’s artist books, with every word rearranged alphabetically and spit back out in a computerized robot voice. “Text and image are the same to me,” he explained during a lecture at Zwirner on Feb. 2, “because both are made with a recording machine.” Leigh Ann Miller on Michael Riedel February 4, 2011.

40 Year Rule

“And so in a Darwinian system, and certainly the art world is a Darwinian system, one can not replicate standard practice, one can not replicate standard canon. In other words if it [the artwork] does it disappears. So everything has to deviate.Everything that you make has to deviate from standard canon or standard practice. And the easiest way to do this I would recommend and Rauschenberg would recommend, is to change the canon. Go back about 40 years and find somebody that you really like and steal shit from them. Because they’re history now and you can steal shit from them. This is a process that I have followed and certainly Rauschenberg followed and its called going back to the moment right before it started sucking.” Dave Hickey The God Ennui 2009.

DeKooning & Brown @ Pivot Art Gallery 2015

“I was in art school at the Slade around 1989, and I distinctly remember looking at a catalogue of de Kooning’s work with some friends. Our game was to cover up the whole painting and look at just a detail, and marvel over the fact that even a detail would be an extraordinary painting. I don’t want to do the work a disservice in saying that every detail could be a painting, because they are incredibly well thought out. It was just realizing that every square inch of the canvas had a life, an energy and a strength. It was exhilarating to see somebody use paint in a way that appeared to be free, but obviously there was this great measure of control. Looking at him so closely, I feel like a student again in that I realize what I’ve been after is to combine a similar level of freedom with the incredible control that results in such tight, amazing paintings.” Cecily Brown on DeKooning 2012.

“When the new season of “Mad Men” began, just a few weeks ago, it carried with it an argument about whether the spell it casts is largely a product of its beautifully detailed early-sixties setting or whether, as Matthew Weiner, its creator, insisted, it’s not backward-looking at all but a product of character, story line, and theme. So it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)” Adam Gopnik, Forty Year Itch.

Joy in Repetition

Andy Warhol Shadows Installation Bilbao 2016
“I like things to be exactly the same over and over again” —Andy Warhol

Up on the mic repeating two words
over and over again
Was this woman he had never noticed before
he lost himself in the
Articulated manner in which she said them.
These two words, a little bit behind the beat.
I mean just enough to turn you on.
For every time she said the words another one of his doubts were gone…
She only said the words again
and it started to rain
Two words falling between the drops
and the moans of his condition
Holding someone is truly believing
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
There’s joy in repetition.
She said
love me
love me,
What she say?
She say
love me,
love me.
Prince – Joy in Repetition, 1990

Donald Judd Untitled 1992

“For [Donald Judd] there was no mythology about the beauty of the stroke that came from the hand of the artist. This work, like all of Judd’s work from this time, was made by a fabricator in a shop. Art was a matter-of-fact thing. It wasn’t going to tell you anything about Donald Judd’s soul.
The idea of repetition goes hand in hand with that. If you have one unit used again and again and again that goes against the idea of Romantic expression, or personal subjective sentiment. In fact, for Judd what mattered was the placement of these pieces, very deliberately sandwiched between walls, floor and ceiling. There is nothing inherently magical about any of these units. This is one of the very important contributions that Judd’s art makes. Its really about space as much as it is about object.” Anne Temkin on Donald Judd, MOMA.

Hollis Frampton, #3 (Painting Getty Tomb) 1958-62

In the US repetition is truth. And truth is found through repetition. It’s the circular logic of American understanding. It doesn’t really matter what the original premise might be. It’s the repetition that makes that original premise true. You can hear it in your minister’s exhortations. You can see it on CNBC’s OCTOBOX. You can order it from the Applebees menu. If one can reach the same conclusions each and every time – it’s proof positive that the thing repeated is true, the thing repeated is real. Truth is Fordism, a thousand points of light, and weapons of mass destruction. We repeat and repeat and repeat until the erotics of certainty gives birth to the real.

Glaser: Another problem. If you make so many canvases alike, how much can the eye be stimulated by so much repetition?
Stella: That really is a relative problem because obviously it strikes people different ways. I find, say, Milton Resnick as repetitive as I am, if not more so. The change in any given artist’s work from picture to picture isn’t that great. Take a Pollock show. You may have a span of 10 years, but you could break it down to three or four things he’s done. In any given period of an artist, when he’s working on a particular interest or problem, the paintings tend to look a lot alike. It’s hard to find anyone who isn’t like that. It seems to be the natural situation. And everyone finds some things more boring to look at than others.
Frank Stella in conversation with Bruce Glaser and Don Judd, 1966.

Upper Lower Class

Richard Prince Millionaire Nurse 2002

Nostalgia unfolds with an elaborate and secret eroticism. As Fran Leibowitz has said, the past always seemed better because we were younger. And being young we were discovering the things that thrilled us and drove us. For nearly all Americans Pop Culture Imagery has defined our lives – through the internet, movies, television, magazines, but mostly, through advertising. Andy Warhol lived through 1940s pop glamour culture – Coca Cola and Movie Stars. For Richard Prince it’s 1950s and 60s Americana counter culture – pulp fiction and American loners. His nurse is hidden beneath a shallow Modernist painting. She emerges from the Rothko field a masked and caped hero who is, mysteriously, a millionaire. And in one fell swoop we have become nostalgic for the clever mashup of passé Cold War American sub-cultural brands – economic superiority, theatrical spirituality and super hero eroticism.

Repetition and first time: this is perhaps the question of the event as question of the ghost. What is a ghost? What is the effectivity or the presence of a specter, that is, of what seems to remain as ineffective, virtual, insubstantial as a simulacrum? Is there there, between the thing itself and its simulacrum, an opposition that holds up? Repetition and first time, but also repetition and last time, since the singularity of any first time, makes of it also a last time. Each time it is the event itself, a first time is a last time. Altogether other. Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology. This logic of haunting would not be merely larger and more powerful than an ontology or a thinking of Being (of the“to be,” assuming that it is a matter of Being in the “to be or not to be,” but nothing is less certain). It would harbor within itself, but like circumscribed places or particular effects, eschatology and teleology themselves. It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly. How to comprehend in fact the discourse of the end or the discourse about the end? Can the extremity of the extreme ever be comprehended? And the opposition between “to be” and“not to be”? Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again. Jacques Derrida Spectres of Marx 1994.

A Billion Unique Yous

There’s a Coke for He. And She. And Her. And Me. And Them. There’s a different Coke for all of us. Especially one for Him. No feet have wandered where you’ve walked, No eyes saw what you’ve seen. No one’s lived the life you live. No head has held your dreams. To act the same would be mundane – what a boring thing to do! That’s why there is just one me and a billion unique yous. We all have different looks and loves, likes and dislikes, too – But there’s a Coke for we and us, and there’s a Coke for you. Coca Cola “Wonder of Us” 2017.

Andy Warhol Coca Cola [2] 1961

“The retail industry’s aim is to form brand awareness and ultimately produce sales. Warhol learned these tools quickly and well, honing skills that would underpin his career. This carried over into his fine art career in interesting ways: For instance, the mass production of goods—their sameness—has to be offset by a note of specialness for individual customers. Consider, in that light, the slight variations in the silkscreens Warhol would make beginning in the early 1960s, featuring repetitions of the same image, with slight differences between them. Another trade standard is the use of balance in visual displays to convey a sense of order, calm, or pleasure on the eye—three, or exponentials of it, is the prime number for decorative objects—in a glassware display, room setting, or, say, a gallery wall. It is exemplified in Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] (1963)… Warhol would employ such strategies throughout his life.” Darren Jones on the Warhol Retrospective, November 2018.

Andy Warhol Coca Coal [3] 1962

“… Warhol canvassed sophisticated friends in the fields of both art and commerce for ideas. After one suggested money, Warhol duly painted dollar bills. He asked others, in 1961, to vote on two paintings that he had made of a Coca-Cola bottle, the first in an expressively brushy style and the second shockingly stark, as if machine-made. They smartly plumped for the latter. Warhol’s notion of picturing subjects serially—not one Coke but row upon row of Cokes, every variety of Campbell’s soup, all but innumerable Marilyn Monroes—was his own, keyed to an emerging economy of brands that extended to celebrities. His indelible conception of fifteen-minute fame expressed the insight that the right manner of regarding things and people could generate effects of charisma. He adapted the dynamic of the New York School’s monumental paintings: monochromatic expanses, occasioning awe, like those of Barnett Newman, overlaid with moodily imperfect silk-screened photography of grisly car crashes, say, or the preternaturally beautiful face of Elizabeth Taylor, each fearsome in a peculiar way.” Peter Schjeldahl on Warhol, November 2018.

Memory Alone

Joe Bradley Installation at Gavin Brown July 1st, 2013

“Well, technology is a glittering lure. But, there is the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product. My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is “new“. [It] creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion. But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device [slide projector] isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Don Draper, Mad Men, Kodak Carousel Pitch by Matthew Weiner.

The Art World is awash in Nostalgia. On this I think we can all agree. It feeds our manias for Mannerist Abstraction, for Provisional Painting, for Zombie Formalism, and especially for Expressionism of all kinds. Our history fuels our imaginations, our desires, and ultimately our economies. But Contemporary Art isn’t alone in this mania for the past. It’s no different for the rest of our culture. One can easily travel through long gone ages and eras as if they exist all at once, always-already in the here and now. We live through our screens in loops of time. We exist in the moment before as our world becomes more and more – programable, malleable, technological and electronic. So why are we so – nostalgic?

Jean-Paul Riopelle Gitksan 1958 & Joan Mitchell Untitled 1958

… Marx himself inherits from the Hegelian remark on the repetition of history, whether one is talking about great events, revolutions, or heroes (the remark is well known: first tragedy, then farce). Victor Hugo was also attentive, as we have seen, to the revolutionary repetition. A revolution repeats, and it even repeats the revolution against the revolution. The Eighteenth Brumaire concludes from this that men make their own history, that is the condition of inheritance. Appropriation in general, we would say, is in the condition of the other and of the dead other, of more than one dead, a generation of the dead. What is said about appropriation is also valid for freedom, liberation, or emancipation. Derrida Specters of Marx 1994.

The point of all this past-leveraging, from Spotify’s perspective, is to realize the vague-but-also-urgent goal shared by many social networks and services: user engagement. “For almost everyone,” Sung says, a nostalgia-focused Spotify story “usually triggers some sort of strong emotion. Sometimes it’s, ‘Wow, I totally forgot that song. Thanks so much for reminding me of it.’ Other times, it’s more like, ‘Yeah, I remember music was pretty bad when I was young.’” (Case in point? “One of the stories I got was ‘Britney Spears was big when you were young,’” Sung says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, I totally remember that, and I don’t need to remember it again.’”)… Either way, though: engagement. And an experience of the past that is customized—if not to a person, individually, then to that person’s generational demographic. Spotify’s interpretation of nostalgia, in that sense, is pretty much the opposite of The LEGO® Movie’s or Mad Men‘s or that of Kraft-by-way-of-the-Ninja Turtles-by-way-of-Vanilla Ice. It’s not aimed at a broad public. It’s not enforced at the level of the mass culture. Instead, it’s aimed directly at the user.Megan Garber on Internet Nostalgia, February 20, 2014.

Protest Production

Wade Guyton Studio 2014

“One young artist determined to control his market is Wade Guyton, the American painter who produces canvases on inkjet printers. Last month, protesting an enormous price asked for one of his paintings at auction, he made copies of the 2005 image from the original disk and posted them on Instagram. (Prices for his paintings were stronger than ever anyway, with one bringing nearly $6 million.) Undeterred, for Art Basel he gave each of the five dealers he works with — Frederich Petzel from New York, Gió Marconi in Milan, Galerie Gisela Capitain from Cologne, Galerie Francesca Pia from Zurich and Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris — a black painting, all the same size and all made from the same disk. They each had a $350,000 price tag, and all of them sold either on Tuesday or before…”

“…In an email, Mr. Guyton explained that he instructed the dealers to hang his paintings at identical heights, “so each time you walk up to one, you would have a similar physical encounter.” He added: “On the one hand, it is a way to satisfy all my galleries simultaneously and fairly. It’s also a way of talking about the repetitive experience of seeing similar artworks throughout a fair and embracing that aggressively by showing almost identical works.Carol Vogel on Wade Guyton, June 19, 2014.

Wade Guyton Deflationary Policy 2014

“Guyton has openly questioned the strategies of valuation of the art market, in a recent online spat with Loic Gouzer the curator of Christie’s “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday” auction. The issue started with the valuation of Guyton’s “Untitled (Fire, Red/Black U)” piece, which was estimated to sell for $3.5 million dollars. Unhappy with what he considered inflated prices of his paintings, Guyton posted online a picture of reproductions of Untitled (Fire, Red/Black U) printed on the same Epson printer and using the same file. His intention was to show the collectors that the “original” auctioned by Christie’s would be of no value in the face of his ability to create virtually unlimited originals. The throwaway Instagram account was aptly named burningbridges38. The stunt proved pointless, [why?] the painting sold for $3.525 million dollars. Furthermore, Guyton’s prices have remained stable, many of his auction results hover [at] the one to three million mark. Jesse Siegel on Wade Guyton, May 27, 2017.

In our digital world – What is an original? What is unique? How are these things defined? How is something valued both by an artist and the wider collecting world? If Guyton’s mass production to deflate the “value” of his painting doesn’t change the market for or the value of his “original” image – then how is value (both aesthetically and monetarily) determined? Why would an artist be involved in such issues in the first place? Does it matter how many images of a thing there are? Shouldn’t things just look good? Or are there always other issues at play?

Wade Guyton Burning Bridges 2014

“Yesterday afternoon at Christie’s, however, I saw collectors, sellers, and auction-house swains and dames actually sweating, worrying about something that might have been undermining their cash machine’s operation. On Instagram! Wade Guyton’s smallish but beautiful black, blue, and red Untitled is estimated to sell for between $2.5 and $3.5 million tonight, and rumor has it that there’s a guarantee of $4 million. Guyton makes his art on inkjet printers and photocopiers, and last week, he began printing scores of new paintings from the same 2005 file that produced this one, perhaps an attempt to erase the singularity of this painting and torpedo its price. He took pictures of this process and posted them on Instagram. You can go to his account (@burningbridges38) and see copies of the painting rolling out of his printer and spread out all over his studio floor. These images have gone viral. Suddenly the piece at Christie’s is identical to dozens of others. The uniqueness has gone away.” Jerry Saltz on Wade Guyton May 12, 2014.