Camp – 19 SIXTY

In the 1950s the Abstract Expressionists were known for their machismo. There was a feeling that an artist, especially an American one, had to take on the world, had to fight the good fight. When the ABEXers weren’t busy telling you to fuck off as they junk punched you in your man-business, they were busy trying to find a drink, a dame or a drama.

“He [Pollock] had this way of sizing up new people very quickly. We’d be sitting at a table and some young fellow would come in. Pollock wouldn’t even look at him, he’d just nod his head-like a cowboy-as if to say, “fuck-off.” That was his favorite expression-“Fuck-off.” It was really funny, he wouldn’t even look at him. He had that cowboy style. It’s an American quality with artists and writers. They feel that they have to be very manly.” Bill DeKooning – Collected Writings

IN the Wild Wild West Art was not for sissies or fools. In fact any kind of foolishness, if practiced at all, was rarely bald-faced, never out, so to speak, in the ABEX community. A light touch was immediately held suspect. Rothko made statements that great art was about tragedy, Pollock was claiming to be nature while bare-knuckle fighting in alleyways, DeKooning was swept up in a Freudian battle of wills with the eternal female, and Newman’s big red painting was named Vir Heroicus Sublimis which translates to “Man, heroic and sublime.” Johns would take the mickey out of this bunch a little later – “Painting with 2 Balls” indeed. Art in ABEX America was made by two fisted, hairy chested painters, and they had something to prove. However, the art world, no matter what country it’s in, isn’t only about balls and balkanization. A different approach to art was beginning to take hold in the swinging sixties, and it emerged from ABEX’s closet with a flourish.

In Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes post about Robert Rauschenberg’s passing he notes: “I also think it’s important to place Rauschenberg within the context of one of the great under-examined migrations in American history: That of gays and lesbians from rural America to cities in the decade after World War II, and the immense changes in American culture that migration helped kick off. Furthermore: While many obits mentioned that John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Johns, and Rauschenberg partnered to re-create whole disciplines, few mentioned that all four were gay, and how that commonality informed and enabled their practices and their friendship.” Tyler is absolutely correct. The rising American culture class that was forming in New York and other cities across the US was attracting an eager and ambitious group of artists from out of the hinterlands. And with this new class of creatives came a different take on what American culture might become.

A sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about; but there are special reasons why Camp, in particular, has never been discussed. It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques.” Susan Sontag – Notes on Camp

In American Pop Culture Camp is a familiar experience. What was once an underground happening cultivated for a select group is now mainstream entertainment. Why? Recent studies show that Americans spend most of their formative childhood years watching TV, and let’s face it, just about EVERYTHING we see on TV is infused with Camp. We can track an historical line that stretches from Milton Berle in drag all the way to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, and right up to last night’s “reality” programming – Camp has been and remains a huge component of our media experience. It is the steady critical undercurrent electrifying our Postmodern era. And because of its pervasiveness it drives our hyperaesthetic sensibilities and artistic expectations in every cultural discipline practiced today. Television as a delivery system, and Camp as critique, are made for one another – both are purveyors of artifice, incongruity and stylization – and when combined they form a kind of OTT electronic Mannerism. We are immersed in campy programming at least 151 hours on average every month – and that my friends, equates to about 5 hours of TV watching a day. Which means that our sensibilities have been forged in the waters of Camp, and we, like millions of tiny Achilles, have been dunked headfirst into its aesthetic pools.

SEX and the City

“The Pop [culture] very, very much intersects, I think, with being a fag. Pop culture, historically, has been an arena through which I could actually more easily negotiate as an artist as opposed to negotiating through the history of Modernism – which tends to exclude my type of investigation. That was clear with Andy Warhol, anyway, that Pop Culture was a place where he could navigate more freely than [through] the history of Modernism, and I think, navigate more freely as a fag, quite honestly. It’s that type of voice, that type of over the top, gorgeously annoying, a lot of those, maybe, Rococo sensibilities [that] do still have a problem playing themselves out in Puritan Culture.” Lari Pittman “Art City A Ruling Passion”

Art has always had it’s Campy adherents and very strong artists. Italian Art in the 16th Century, late Baroque art, Rococo, Neo-Classical art, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Surrealists are some of the many Campy art forms. But today Camp is an institution of the highest order. From Andy Warhol’s Marilyns to Murakami’s latte rope skipping booby queen, from Jeff Koons’ Cicciolina photo/sculpture/paintings to Richard Prince’s customized auto Camp rules the Pop Culture critique. It also rules abstraction as well – from Gene Davis’s stripes (thanks to Michael Zahn for his email leading me to a wonderful essay on Davis’ work) to Ross Bleckner’s Stripes, from Andy Warhol’s shadows to Christopher Wool’s graffitti. It is the special relationship with Pop Culture that has allowed Camp to flourish in the Postmodern world. It is a quick and easy way to subvert expectations, to challenge hierarchies and norms and it is an indirect way of establishing new contextual relationships between Art and Pop Culture itself. Lari Pittman is correct – there is MORE freedom to move, to engage, to critique outside of Modernism. For Postmodernism Pop Culture is Camp sensibility in drag.

Pan-Aesthetic Sensuality

“I suppose Davis’s taste for the color was really not so very odd — some of the most interesting straight men of the postwar period put butchness to the test by dressing it in pastels. Like Frank Sinatra in a peppermint cardigan, like Kojak sucking on a lollipop, Gene Davis found candy colors delicious, and he had the guts to use them. Davis did delight in the contrast, however, and would sometimes comment upon his visual confections with a wink and a tongue slightly in cheek. Talking about his canvas Moondog of 1966, for example, Davis once startled a critic by bragging about his “boudoir painting of candy-box pretty colors.”…I like to think that Davis’s cute, cliche colors were part of a similar mission to camp up abstraction with connotations of the popular. I shouldn’t exaggerate, of course. Despite the phobia of pink from which some artists suffered, there was a substantial modernist tradition for that color from which Davis could draw.” Sarah K. Rich “Gene Davis: 1960s Stripe Paintings

The campy quality of Gene Davis’ stripes contrasts with Ross Bleckner’s knowing use of those stripes. Both artists discuss the optical, Davis plays it straight to create Camp, Bleckner Camps it up to play it straight. It is the difference between sensibility and critique. Either way Camp plays a major role in how we view these works – Davis for the structure of color, the optical play of the stripes and the absence of idea in the abstraction itself and Bleckner for the idea of contrived illusion, painting techniques and the critique of a failed “ism.” This “reversal” of approach to Camp has been a feature of the last 40 years. Camp is built into the work rather than an after effect of the work. Even though there is so much passive aggressive machismo in the history of abstraction – especially in today’s “Ecole de Gran Pastiche – Blanc et Noir” – the work still comes across like a Jean Genet tough guy – pugilism before assignation. But we remain at a theoretical crossroads here in the early 21st Century. Must we continue to pretend that Postmodernism is not the dominant institutional philosophy, that Modernism is the evil dictator of aesthetic values? Must we continue to fight Modernism in these same ways when Modernism as a discipline no longer exists? Artists have been camping it up in endless permutations of Postmodern Mannerism since 19 Sixty, but why have artists not engaged with the pervasiveness of Camp in Postmodern Art? Why has this POMO critique not been turned on itself? Why have we not questioned the validity and viability of our recent cultural theoretics in this new century?

PS I just saw this on Ed’s blog! Fantastic!

Hyperaesthetics – 19 Sixty

“So, after abstraction, the monochromatism of, say, Yves Klein and the advent of imageless painting, when nothing more can get to us, really touch us, you no longer expect some brainwave of genius, the surprise of originality, but merely the accident, the catastrophe of finality.”
Paul Virilio
“Expect the Unexpected”
Art As Far As The Eye Can See

By 1960 Abstract Expressionism was done. Pollock was dead. Most of the artists of that movement were sliding quickly into alcoholism, depression and decadence, or worse, mannerism and academicism. But by 1960 a new art world was forming, one that would be determined by the onslaught of the electronic world. In quick succession Art moved from paintings to objects, from ideas to concepts, from abstraction to images, from the avant garde to the in-crowd and from the material to the immaterial. The old visual world was now irrelevant. Speed would determine the outcomes and influences in our culture. Speed which would be documented by the camera and the program. And with that, we get the installation, the cibachrome, the video and the transformed object. All of these new art products are the outcomes of not an aesthetic dialect, but instead, an aesthetization of the culture of speed, the documentation of violent transformation. By 19 Sixty we had entered the age of Hyperaesthetics.

Throughout the 1950s the “advanced” nations were spending huge amounts of capital to find a new viewpoint. The race to space was predicated on two things, the divisions of the world after WWII into Cold War states, and the need to find a global delivery system for the atomic bomb. All through the rise of AbEx painting, Cold War nations were hard at work increasing the velocity of their cultures, particularly in aeronautics and communications. The earlier advances in film and radio simply could not supply enough information, they were too slow – both were still grounded in human interactions, storytelling and mythologizing, and both were limited by their delivery. What was needed was another delivery system of images and words, one that could be instantaneous and far reaching. Lens based television quickly filled the bill. But still these televisual studio perspectives were not enough, they were still grounded. For the Cold War to be understood the new instantaneous image would have to be from above, a birds eye view of the world below, able to parse and parcel huge amounts of optical information up close and in detail. In order to accomplish this new aeronautical and astronomical vantage point the sound barrier first had to be broken. “…Chuck Yeager was credited with being the first man to break that sound barrier in level flight on 14 October 1947, flying at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13.7 km).” Level flight meant that an engine had been developed that was powerful enough and fast enough to project an airplane beyond the speed of sound without using earth’s gravity to create a dive of death. Speed freed us of Newtonian physics. Soon these new velocities would take the lens outside of earth’s boundaries providing new perspectives on human interactions.

The lens followed and recorded every movement, every advance of this new culture in real time. Every new speed record, every step into space, and finally, the plethera of images and information beaming into our living rooms, have been dictated for and documented by the lens and the program. This new velocity was also working its way into our physical selves. We began to accelerate and pump our bodies and minds with new pharmacological potions designed to take us along with this new velocity of life, change our basic human structures, in order to play a part in this hyperactivated culture. The first drugs were designed to control our sleep, alter our thinking patterns and change our relationship to pain. And with the pharmacological hyper-activization, we began remaking our physical selves so that we might exist for this lens culture. Optical reassignments or “lens ready” images have created a proliferation of new plastic surgery techniques and medical innovations that have changed our bodies inside and out. We no longer look in the mirror, we must appear on camera. As we have progressed from 19 Sixty these changes have quickly eroded our connections to Pollock’s natural man, and have created a new kind of artist, one plugged into Warhol’s machine.

“It is a sense of being in communion with powers greater than yourself and intelligence which far outstrips the human mind and energies which are very ancient. You have a sense of being brought in to God’s workshop and that the veil is pulled away and for the first time you see how things really are.” Timothy Leary

The faster our culture speeds along the more we vanish into “God’s workshop.” Artists now leave digital trails of ephemeral happenings, theatre sets that held performances and ghosts mirrored in optical glass. But with our disappearance we remain in stasis, caught in an endless loop of repetition and ennui. For example – the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” is a 1960s prototype for what would become a vast cultural imperative. In the video we see performance art, a theater set piece, camera trickery, quick cutting, overlays and montage. It predates all of the televisual editing tricks and installation techniques that are the hallmarks of Postmodern lens culture. In this culture we must become hypnagogic in front of our screens, and like Salvador Dali, remain awake to encounter the hallucinogenic visions playing in our brains. We are somnambulists and voyeurs, lost in the hallucinatory world of light-speed and lenses. We are no longer grounded. We float in the digital subjective, our voices not quite our own, because we have merged into the great electronic collective. We’ve tuned in, turned on and dropped out. We have found that it is only through our absence that we are allowed to become transparent, and with that transparency, we can be “seen” by everyone. We lack depth and heft. We are light as a feather on the breeze – a world of Forrest Gumps. Artists don’t make things anymore, we find things. We capture images rather than draw them. We scan rather than read. We signify rather than converse. We develop games rather than create poetics. We program applications rather than create mythologies. Our vision determines nothing in the free floating vacuum of space.

Happiness Is a Warm Gun

After the bullet – we find our bliss. The ironies unfold into infinity. Speed, violence, and disappearance all converge in our consciousness, and then, we find our happiness. Once we are gone all that remains are the endless loops of lens captures and empty rooms. It’s not death – no, that is physical. We “move to another level,” we are “no longer in pain,” and “we’ve gone to a better place.” That was the feeling I had in the recent show at the New Museum. It was all about art that had “gone on to a better place.” Jerry Saltz was correct in his estimation, that the sublime has become us…”These young artists show us that the sublime has moved into us, that we are the sublime; life, not art, has become so real that it’s almost unreal.” Life attains this unreality when we see it from the other side, when we are no longer “alive.” We crave the warm gun, and fashion its likeness into our electronic devices, each one delivering us to that other side. From that vantage point it all becomes clear, transparent. We can dream of our physical lives in bliss, we luxuriate in the nostalgia of a fleshy yesterday now that we are free of the struggle of gravity and flesh. We have attained the sublime. “We see how things really are.” We are happy.

Media – 19 SIXTY

“Perhaps the great revolution produced by photograph was in the traditional arts. The painter could no longer depict a world that had been much photographed. He turned, instead, to reveal the inner process of creativity in expressionism and in abstract art. Likewise, the novelist could no longer describe objects or happenings for readers who already knew what was happening by photo, press, film and radio. The poet and novelist turned to those inward gestures of the mind by which we achieve insight and by which we make ourselves and our world. Thus art moved from outer matching to inner making. Instead of depicting a world that matched the world we already knew, the artists turned to presenting the creative process for public participation.” Marshall McLuhan

BY the end of the 1950s Modernist painting had run its course. “American type painting,” the last modernist practice, built on the cubist and surrealist legacy and created a new form of materialistic expressionistic abstraction. But after its hard won success, ABEX quickly faded in the bright light of a new decade and a new electric generation. It quickly settled into an uncomfortable and contentious academic life. A new culture was beginning to take hold driven by the proliferation of lens based imagery and instantaneous information. Television became the new communal fire, the new town square, where stories, histories and myths would be communicated and folded into the collective psyche. Television was the new codex and transmitter of the way we would understand our culture, our history and our selves. A new form, a new type of art would have to begin to define the power structures that were taking hold, and by doing so, create a new type of art and artist.

Marshall McLuhan detailed the rise of this electronic media and how it would change the way we would understand and communicate with one another. The immediate effect of this cultural change in the Art World was heralded by the work of the new POP artists. Warhol, Lichtenstein and many others were busy grabbing hold of the techniques of reproduction and iconic assimilation and creating a different sort of art. Andy Warhol was the defacto face of POP, and his pronouncements helped define the discussion around it. We’ve posted about Andy’s machine in Overheads and Screenshots and this “machine” would rule the aesthetic discourse into our present day. Electronic lens based reproduction ended the visual age, and with it, the tradition of painting as it was known. Today we are watching the final implosions of these visual theoretics, cultural imperatives and political power structures. We are morphing into a new age driven by our media extensions, and it is once again changing the way we make and understand Art. But what will remain of this postmodern, postpop, posthistorical ground and what are we to make from what remains, what continues?

Shifting Grounds and Percolating Subjectivity

A good example of how the sliding electronic ground of instant total awareness is changing the visual world yet again is to be found in the current fiscal crisis facing the print newspaper industry. Since the inception of the online world the readership and subscribers to printed newspapers has plummeted. A new form of interactive news content has begun to proliferate our culture. Internet generated news can be immediately commented upon through blogs, pundits and the general net-surfing public. In fact this commentary is read, followed and critiqued far more than the actual event reported. News today features the opinions of the mass public about a shared event. For instance, the recent historic spectacle of the first African American president addressing congress about a bold new initiative to reorder American economic structures was quickly overtaken by the fact that many of the lawmakers in the audience were busy “twittering” their passing thoughts. The news of the event and the dialectic being proposed were quickly made redundant by the deluge of commentary that those “tweets” engendered. Additionally, there was the live broadcasting of the event, complete with other news scrolling along the bottom of the screen, digital network graphics and reaction shots of the audience turning the speech into a television program, a reality show. Immediately following the speech we were deluged by network pundits’ commentaries, email reactions from viewers and interviews with focus groups. The shifting ground of the electronic world slid from beneath the rising subject of this event. Printed newspapers can not compete with this instantaneous deluge of personal opinion, flowing entertainment and subjective commentary. The structures of printed news are designed to report events in a dispassionate dialectical manner from a distanced perspective. The print news, most usually, is “old” – at least a day away. One reads the news in order to distill the event, to reason its implications. However this means that a critical distance must be maintained, something the immediate deluge of online subjectivity can not maintain. Further, the opinions about the printed news events on the op-ed pages are separated from the reporting, and as such, they too remain distanced, systematic and visual in nature – they are never confused with the event itself. There is no audience participation in the event other than receptivity – the print reader receives news, the internet participant gets the news. Today it is the commentary that we search for rather than the unfolding dialectical nature of the event – we seek to participate in the programming around the event. Further we do not look for meaning in the event, but we use the event to identify and confirm our subjective interpretations. It is the commentary that has become the news. In electronic culture the event is merely a catalyst for the ground to rise into view. This is the Postmodern condition.

In art practices a similar cultural change regarding commentary and participation has taken place. In Matthew Collings’ recent column in Modern Painters states that conceptual art is the art of today, “We want art to be alert to change, tuned in to how we live now. The whole conceptual tradition, including Pierre Huyghe, offers exactly that. It’s not that Matisse and Gorky, etc., can tell us only about 1917 or 1939. They offer magnificent lookatability, not just beauty but beauty full of mind and feeling — emotion that transcends its own moment. But we are frankly baffled by the tradition of aestheticism that Matisse represents. At least, we can only appreciate it from a distance. We can’t join in. We can’t do it anymore. Society just isn’t set up in the same way. In terms of immediate everydayness, such heights of art have become meaningless. Conceptual art hits the spot instead. (There’s something sad about it. It’s about new freedom, but it’s also basically about giving credence to impotence.) We have this itch for the present that conceptual art answers. It doesn’t have anything worth looking at. Plus its “think-about-it” content isn’t worth thinking about for long.” The in-depth participation of electronic culture has attuned us to the way conceptual practice immerses the audience in an art of immediate accessibility and audience responsiveness. This idea of in-depth participation translates throughout the art world no matter which art form one practices. Concepts are far more user-friendly than the actual physical embodiment of those concepts. The art object is no longer the focus of either the artist’s or audience’s attention, it’s no longer a thing-in-itself but a thing-for-others. That is what we, as both participants and audience, experience in electronic reality – a simulated world of personalized data, information and context – the flow of integral subjective concepts.

Conceptual art was designed for the realm of unfettered consciousness, the Platonic world of Anamnesis and perfect forms. “What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.” The photograph, the collage, the combine, the photoshopped image, the painted photograph, the found object, the manufactured incident, the video setup are all aftereffects of the conceptual interrogatory and the reclamation of memory. This is a Socratic form of art that wants to reveal some perfected “truth.” Allan Kaprow’s states in his 1966 Manifesto, “Now as art becomes less art, it takes on philosophy’s early role as critique of life. Even if its beauty can be refuted, it remains astonishingly thoughtful. Precisely because art can be confused with life, it forces attention upon the aim of its ambiguities, to “reveal” experience.” This confusion between art and life and the critique it engenders is where nostalgia for Art emerges, the memory of what Art was. The interrogatory is a way for the audience to remember, to re-connect with the idea of Art. Instead of an encounter with the visual, the conceptual practice unfolds the already understood, the remembered history or the renegotiated memory. For instance, Bruce Nauman posed a question about studio life in Mapping the Studio in 2001, letting his cameras roll through the night. He then projected on the walls of galleries the outcome – a night in the studio space spent documenting the nocturnal life of small animals, a hunting cat, insects and time. What is interesting is not the “live” events in the studio, but the idea of the surveillance that the video of the event engenders. Is it art without the artist? Is it art without framing? Is it art without editing, without choice? Are the images produced interesting in themselves or is it the idea of passing images that is interesting? There are many questions surrounding the nature of the event, the “life” it critiques, and how the work is presented rather than what meaning we might attribute to the images themselves. Again we don’t interact with the images, we interact with the interrogatory, we comment, we conceive. The “piece” is the tool to retrieve the memory of Art. To the Conceptual midwife we are all Anamnesiacs.

A different idea of visual participation is something that visual art, particularly painting, is going to have to redesign in order to grow with the new culture. Don’t get me wrong there are a number of conceptual painters steeped in the idea of audience participation at work today, but their work barely exists as painting. Those paintings are designed to be encountered as things with paint on them. The painting has to mind its manners, and act like yet another thing in our world, like a sculpture, an object or that annoying person driving the Subaru in front of us. We will not give up our commentary, our control or our sureness about what we understand and encounter. We’ve lost our capacity to see, to enjoy how we see and to indulge in that vision. I think Collings gets it right when he says that we can’t join in. We just don’t understand how Matisse’s mind works, how he uses his eyes, because we don’t see in that manner any longer. McLuhan discussed this in depth as well. He detailed how tribal societies could not distinguish what was in a picture – they had no way to understand a one point perspective. Their vision was more inclusive, less specialized. And McLuhan gets it right as well when he says that we have become more like the tribal man through our electronic extensions. But for some of us it’s not enough to continually drown in pools of connectivity or the contexts of installations. We want something more visually exciting and challenging.

to be continued….

Notes – 19 SIXTY

As I’ve been doing my research for the 19 SIXTY series I’ve been comparing a lot of pop culture to POP art and finding some really fun connections. That period in the mid to late fifties when Johns and Rauschenberg were working out their ideas is still a fertile place to begin. Especially with Jasper. But to backtrack a bit further, I’ve had many thoughts about the idea that in the 20th century paintings moved away from being pictures to being things – and as they became more thing-like the images became more about games, and by games I mean games of optics and games of language. This is Duchampian in nature and begins with Nude Descending a Staircase. Duchamp was depicting an action rather than a nude and with the depiction of the action he was really describing the way he depicted that action. It was a double bluff – as are most of Duchamp’s works. We weren’t meant to look at the nude, nor the action of the nude but the sequence of painting from top left to bottom right. The descent or “dissent” was actually the painter refusing to depict, to create a picture. He was painting time – a “history painting” if you will. Oh well – make your own punning references, I get a bit tired whilst punning.

Anyway, I was on youtube looking through a lot of euro-popular videos – because Postmodernism in Europe is a bit different than it is here in the US. I think this has something to do with the visual and theoretical history of Western thought. OK as an example – Cities feel thicker somehow – and I know that seems like a cop out when trying to explain something. But I guess it boils down to this – you’re walking through the streets of Rome. Down every little street there are centuries old buildings that have been renovated to suit modern tastes while somehow managing to retain the look of the past – open floor plans, flat screens, cutting edge technologies crammed into a 17th century semi-detached. The juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary exist at once. Thick. We don’t experience this sort of relationship with the past in the US. So our Postmodernism is different.

0thru9Yesterday I was thinking about Jasper’s 0-9 painting. It’s one of my POMO favorites because of the nature of the gaming going on in the work. There are the optical games – the colors, the brush strokes, the overlaying of numbers, the collapsing of space. There are the language games, the counting, the fact that we start with zero and work our way to nine, and then the cyclical nature of the numbers themselves – that as we count as far as we can we then find ourselves back at zero – once we’re at our peak we find ourselves emptied again. We move in circles, always renewed by being emptied. Then I remembered seeing this video while I was staying in Venezia. I had returned from a long and happy day of walking the churches. I had eaten a huge meal and finished a bottle of fantastic wine. Needless to say – I was happily soused, and when I’m happy things tend to stick with me.

So as I was thinking about Johns’ 0-9 this video came to mind. The clever thing in this video is the counting, the layering as we count, and all of it done to a catchy beat! Like Johns’ work in this video you build the optical, the space collapses, the subjects emerge one from the other to the surface and fall away. And as the song ends your game is packed with Kylies. You empty it out by hitting the replay button. The one thing that is missing in the video and Jasper’s painting is the beginning – for Kylie it’s the first missing package and for Jasper it’s the first missing brush stroke in the upper right corner. It allows us into the sequence. Both the painting and the video are perfect POMO machines.

Existenz – 19 SIXTY

The bestiality of World War II and the onset of the cold war was bringing a dark-but also exciting-pessimism into intellectual life. The social optimism of Marxist intellectuals, eroded by harsh realities of history, could no longer attract strong minds. However, many now turned inward and celebrated the individual who had the courage to face without fear a terminally absurd and corrupt society. The heroes were no longer Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, but rather Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Neitsche and Freud, the great voices of isolation and the inner life. In particular, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who raised nihilism and a sense of absurdity about human matters to the first principle of modern life, attracted attention…As [Harold] Rosenberg wrote, artists did not speak as a group, as they often did in the thirties, but were making “an individual, sensual, psychic, and intellectual effort to live actively in the present.” Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan de Kooning An American Master

Here in Rosenberg’s quote about the individual artist is the first indication of what the contemporary Postmodern art world might come to look like. His statement seems to be one of unifying principles, but it is the beginning of the eventual fracturing of art theoretics and practice. The idea behind it is peculiarly American in its use, reaching all the way back to Emerson and the American Trancendentalists. In this philosophy the individual chooses what his life will be, and it is the choice that is imperative. This is also a predominant theme in the mid-century philosophy of Existentialism which was often quoted and used by the ABEX school. The connections between these two schools of thought, Existentialism and American Transcendentalism, is best summed up with Emerson’s quote, “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.” In Existentialism this idea of responsibility was taken to new heights by Sartre as he roped the unfettered consciousness of the 19th century philosophers back into its 20th century human skin. For Sartre consciousness was part and parcel of being, and the fact that it could not slip those bonds, that consciousness could never get free of physical limitations, brought a new idea of humanism and responsibility into focus. In its most simplistic state, consciousness is manifest in and through the being in-itself. There is nothing beyond being and being is what you choose to be. This idea of choice sets up the anguish of responsibility, the anguish of freedom all leading back to what you make of yourself. “Once freedom explodes in the human soul God can do nothing against man. God can do nothing against this pillar of granite, this irresistible column, man’s freedom.”

The ABEX painters in the years following the war took these ideas up and made them manifest in their work. Harold Rosenberg asserted, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act — rather than as a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyse or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.” What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event, a confrontation of choices. This ensured that the Modernist ground would become more than a physical surface to hold a picture. The flat stretch of ground had become the focus of the artist’s attention. Visual meaning, understanding what one was seeing in this instance would have to change dramatically. Vision itself had to become more attuned to the tactile. This way of seeing and understanding a painting in its simplicity as both surface and materiality, would necessarily shift the predominant senses. In order to understand the ABEX painting one had to use one’s eyes as if one were “feeling” the surface, the color, the gesture, the image. One was not looking at the painting or even the surface of the painting, one was experiencing the physicality of the artist, and it’s this difference between seeing and experiencing that defines the end of Modernism. “The painter no longer approached his easel with an image in his mind; he went up to it with material in his hand to do something to that other piece of material in front of him. The image would be the result of this encounter.” In this sentence are the major ideas that govern the end of Modernism and provide a basis for our Postmodern age.

First, the idea that the art work would not be a representation of an image. Now this may seem counterintuitive to an age inundated with representational images, but we Postmoderns do not make our images, nor do we create our images – we find them, we rework them and we appropriate them, we treat them like things, physical evidence. Our images flow through the media, they come full-blown, fully realized through the lens. The implication is that when we find an image we encounter it, we grapple with it, we fold our existence into it. Second, the idea of materiality, that the stuff, the physicality of the process is the engine that drives the work’s creation. The material is the element that documents and recreates the encounter. This sets up the idea that the painting of the image in itself is of secondary importance to the actual “performance” or conception of the work. How you “handle” the image is of more importance than the meaning of the image – in other words presentation or context is the focus and the locus of understanding. Both of these concepts of art will become important in setting up the idea of context in the Postmodern sense. The arena, the surface, the showing space becomes the important thing – the painting, the image, the picture is only of secondary interest. In this idea it becomes apparent that the ground will take precedence and the rising subject will be subsumed by it. Additionally, the idea of documentation is expanded and proliferated in our lens based electronic culture. Delivery systems, how the image arrives, how it is packaged become more important than what is packaged.

But for the ABEX painter working to connect, the artist still grapples with the history of painting, the anxiety of influence, and his need to find an “expression” through the materials. The documentation of this struggle is the painting itself. What we see are the outcomes of the encounter, and through that experience we come to understand the thing in itself and the choices made. We begin to find meaning in that struggle. But the truly difficult idea beneath this encounter is not drawn out immediately in Rosenberg’s famous assertion about the “arena.” What we come to learn later is that the artist does make moral distinctions in the choices he makes even as he tries to move beyond them. It comes down to the moment of determining one’s existence in the act of painting, of creating something new and beautiful out of a physical gesture, out of painterly ugliness that asserts the artist’s humanity and existence. For the ABEX painter these actions determine the philosophic stance of being, the freedom of the painter. “The big moment came when it was decided to paint . . . just to PAINT. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value — political, aesthetic, moral…On the one hand, a desperate recognition of moral and intellectual exhaustion; on the other, the exhilaration of an adventure over depths in which he might find reflected the true image of his identity.” The ABEX painter creates himself as he creates the work. By the time the sixties rolled around these heavy ideas that held painting in stasis, and the uninspired academic ABEX works made by a younger generation did not fit. The world had changed, and art would have to change with it. For those artists who had struggled through the Depression and the War, the ABEX credo was the real deal, but the academy it inspired looked simply like every other style of institutional painting. Painters by 1960 were no longer living that philosophy. Life was not that harsh and studios no longer contained the drama of Being or Nothingness. The Postmoderns understood this and pilloried the pretensions of the old school.

19 Sixty will continue…

POMO Empire – 19 SIXTY

Debate 1960
Debate 1960
Postmodernism continues to hold the theoretical/visual art world in its grip. There has not been any serious challenges to its intellectual, perceptual or aesthetic implications since its inception. There have been many attempts at reactionary critiques and nostalgic returns, but that gets us nowhere. We wind up treading down the same visual pathways, seeing the same old ideas dressed up in contemporary garb. A new century demands new ideas, but unfortunately, the art world continues to experience its endlessly repeating “Ground Hog Day.” It’s time to for us to confront where we went wrong, where we began to circle, where we got lost, in order to find our way to an uncertain future. WE want imagination and adventure in our art, and in order to do that, POMO and what it stands for must go. We will begin our next series with the splintering of Modernism, the exhaustion and repudiation of existentialism and the end of visual reasoning. We will follow the leads all the way to 2008 with POMO suffering an equally ignominious and long overdue demise.

They called it the “Swinging Sixities” – Yeah Baby!

IN 1960 John Kennedy was elected president of the United States. It was a culminating moment and a new beginning for a country that was now the preeminent western power.

Debate 1960
Debate 1960
A perfect storm of world rattling events had finally come to a close. It seemed to begin with the stock market’s Black Monday in October 1929 which caused an economic collapse of immense proportions. The Great Depression lasted over a decade and plunged the world into economic misery. The 1930’s, reeling from poverty and collapsing governments, became ripe for political pillaging. The ever fearful bourgeoisie succumbed to the false promises of despots and fascists. Inevitably, what followed was a firestorm of clashing ideologies in the 1940s. World War II rearranged the power players of the world by finally destroying the 19th Century militaristic legacies that had been quickly regenerated in the desperate years following the first “great war.” 45 years of the 20th Century had been burned away settling old scores. America emerged from these catastrophes as the leader of the ravished western democracies, quickly setting up new boundaries of domination and engaging in a protracted “Cold War” with the Communist world. The generation that inherited this new world order, the Camelot Generation, was eager to begin to use the economic/political/cultural power of the new American Republic to redefine the world in its own image. And it all began with the first-ever televised political debate on September 26, 1960.

“…In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy’s smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.”

Keep in mind the idea of perception. How we perceive things is how we understand them. In the new lens based critique, the “culture of signs”, the “age of reproduction”, context is KING. Here is the first instance of the power of the cool image, the cypher, the avatar. Jack Kennedy was so open and easy that he could become anything to anyone given a certain context. He was the loving young father, the intellectual author, the handsome husband, the war hero, the world leader, the strong military strategist, the corporate point man and the civil rights champion. And he did it all without breaking a sweat.

Postmodernism, a newly ascendant theoretical model, was heralded and exemplified by Jack Kennedy’s televised appearance, his coolness, his youth and glamour. Postmodernism’s first public appearance riveted a nation hungry for a new type of leader, a new idea of power and a new acceptance of privilege. The art world began looking for art that could impart these qualities, and they found it in POP. Pop was urbane, camp, ironic and slick. It was an art of confidence, surety and splendor. Suddenly everything that had come before looked out of place, hard, uneasy, imperfect and OLD. The surviving ABEX painters were now deep into haggard middle age and tied to a corrupt European intellectual and visual heritage. Their work spoke of a different America, one consumed with the problems and dark philosophies of the Old World, an America fighting to survive. The new artists, on the other hand, were as light as the airwaves, as deep as a magazine article and as glamourous as movie stars. They were the Postmoderns, and they were programmed for our entertainment. A tidal wave of new art, new attitudes about art, and most importantly, a new academy of art came flooding into our world. This was the beginning of the POMO Empire.

IN this series we’ll be discussing the legacy of the Postmodern 1960s. We’ll discuss the culture that came before, how POMO has re-shaped the art world, and why we continue to exist in its shadow. But more importantly, we’ll be exploring solutions, new ideas and visual provocations for the 21st Century. It is a new age and we demand a new Art! Stay Tuned!