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.
“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?