Romanticism – Final Rites

“The media has replaced every institution. It’s the only authority. I mean, it seems to be an authority. It’s replaced all other institutions. When they first invented TV, people thought TV would be a failure. They thought that, if people could see around the screen, they wouldn’t be absorbed by it, because they would be distracted. They would see, like, the lamp and the sofa and they wouldn’t be absorbed by it….But no-one could have imagined what really happened, which is that the world went inside the television and became the world.” Fran Liebowitz Public Speaking

I’ve been looking for a way in, or better yet, a way through. All this past summer and into the fall, somewhere between my studio, the electronic world and my own world of flesh and blood failings, I’ve found myself without continuity, reality, or firmament to stand on. In the wider world outside our insular Art World there have been major upheavals playing in the media; the Middle East uprisings, the pull out from Iraq, the forecast of yet more economic depression, OWS and the slow motion death of the Euro. All of it fueled by and funneled through the electronic world. Some of these reality dramas have been “paid for” with physical violence, crushing uncertainty and violent death. Yet change, real change, has been illusive. Here in the 21st Century Postmodernism is still a fucking bitch. Its mechanisms and schemes, practices and theoretics, absorb and dissipate, remove the threat of new ideas by re-packaging them in media friendly episodes while enfolding them into the larger “critique”. Nothing is different, nothing has CHANGED, except that those who run the system, who code the program, have consolidated even more economic and political power. Don’t get me wrong there are moments when I pause, when individual moments of sacrifice and dissent somehow get through…. The example of that brave, brave woman who was dragged and beaten in Tahrir square by officially sanctioned jack booted thugs was one recent story that’s stuck with me. She said she did “not want her name revealed because of her shame at the way she was treated.” She was simply standing for her right to participate, to determine her future, to vote, to be counted. The shame isn’t hers. I haven’t words for this woman’s kind of bravery and sacrifice, and because I don’t, it changes how I see the world, how I feel about the world around me. I guess what I’m hoping for, the change that I’m seeking, has to be in me, and because of this understanding, I find I have to be larger than my many, many failings.

AH poverties, wincings, and sulky retreats!
Ah you foes that in conflict have overcome me!
(For what is my life, or any man’s life, but a conflict
with foes—the old, the incessant war?)
You degradations—you tussle with passions and appe-
tites;
You smarts from dissatisfied friendships, (ah wounds,
the sharpest of all;)
You toil of painful and choked articulations—you mean-
nesses;
You shallow tongue-talks at tables, (my tongue the
shallowest of any;)
You broken resolutions, you racking angers, you smoth-
er’d ennuis;
Ah, think not you finally triumph—My real self has yet
to come forth;
It shall yet march forth o’ermastering, till all lies be-
neath me;
It shall yet stand up the soldier of unquestion’d victory.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass

For me art should follow life, should be the result of experience. Art should begin with questions and end with even more questions. The Romantic experience will always push at the boundaries of one’s thought, adjusting one’s vision as one moves on through the years. The De Kooning show at MOMA was revelatory in this respect for a number of reasons. First, it showed that one must always push against one’s achievements no matter the cost. Careerists today don’t exhibit this kind of courage. Case in point is Damien Hirst who claimed that he was retiring certain “lines” of his work after the auction of 2008. He’ll be having a worldwide showing of one of those lines in the Gagosian Empire Galleries. Who knows, maybe it’ll be the-greatest-thing-ever-to-have-been-witnessed-in-the-history-of-painting-did-I-say-ever?-ok-then-ever! For the collecting oligarchs it probably will be just that. Second, De Kooning showed us that we, WE POSTMODERNS I mean, don’t EVER, NEVER EVER EVER, NEVER have to make painting like this or about this kind of vision EVER again. ABEX is an anachronism, just as seeing in the old ways is an anachronism. The show looked OLD, OLD MASTER OLD. And that says a lot about our contemporary failings, because this show made a whole lot of painters that followed in De Kooning’s wake, whether they were pro or con, look just ancient, lazy in ways he wasn’t and tired, worn out, and exhausted. Let’s face it ABEX has been critiqued, appropriated, reproduced and replicated in EVERY form possible, in every medium. At this point to paint in this style, to continue the replication of it, is nothing but Porn – an endless spectacle of mechanical procedures. Stop it! Please! Now! Third, this kind of life and approach to art, though it may be successful and fruitful, is a long, hard, lonely struggle. What I found really breathtaking about the show was that all through the years there were periods of real visual connection and then real visual disaffection, but always a questioning, a running dialectic of means. When he fell short I guess you could blame the drink, the personal problems, whatever, but his life, the ebb and flow of it, made the art, not the other way around. De Kooning, the last Romantic artist, was also the last great Amateur. The Professionals, with their even, work-a-day productions, followed in his wake.

Dissatisfaction

Just before the Biennale in June I determined that I would have to look deeper, to see further, to think around the screen. I wanted to test yet again my work and my thoughts about painting. These Final Rites began in Venice, surrounded and buoyed by the great painters I love. By chance, while there in my garden, I came across a reproduction of a drawing of Giambologna by Goltzius. Then I happened on a reference photo of the swimmer that Cezanne used to make his famous bather. I hadn’t seen this photo before, and I was absolutely stunned. Finally, I felt like I was getting nowhere with my own continuing contrarian struggle to find a way through late 20th Century abstraction, Postmodernism, and the thick, boring, institutional 21st Century art world of art fairs, chic galleries and elite luxury goods economies. Everywhere I went to see art, no matter where I went, I found that I experienced it through the airless sheen of a Corporate Art Experience. Seeing Christopher Wool’s work in Venice was also stunning, cold as ice, and everything that I am not. It is what I needed to push against, something to challenge. I’d really had enough. I felt there had to be an alternative, but how to explain, how does one change the temperature, explain the world outside the screen while being lost in it. Henri began to feel like it was no longer a tool, a platform for thought and ideas, but just another art blog, yet another ridiculous Art entertainment scheduled and broadcasted. And with that realization I found myself at a crossroads. I felt the need to travel, to see something old, to not know the language, to watch things unfamiliar, to experience WARMER art, and also, to immerse myself in the history of vision, to shed my American-ness, my “practicality”. So between airports and short-term apartment stays, cafes and metros, filterless cigarettes and smokey tasting bourbon, I found myself trying to clear my mind. And I found myself at a painting ancestor’s home…

The Garden

In Delacroix’s garden on the bench opposite there’s a couple having a bag lunch. Just in front of me is the studio with its huge window which allowed Delacroix to flood the red damasked room with a great deal of light. This place was a reward in the last decade or so of his life when he was already a master. It’s filled with the kind of ease you feel around someone who lives comfortably within themselves. He wasn’t interested in setting the world on fire any longer, those days were a memory. I thought of Manet’s visit to Delacroix which ended Eduard’s hero worship. Before he went Manet was warned by a friend that Delacroix was a cold fish. During the visit Delacroix blathered on and on about Rubens, and Manet found he had no time for it. Afterward he said to his friend, “Delacroix isn’t cold at all, but his doctrine is frozen. Anyway, we’ll copy the Barque. It is a fine piece.” Indeed it is, look at the splash of water running down the figure’s hip on the left and you’ll find Rubens. What strikes me about Manet’s quote is the idea of a frozen doctrine. Delacroix’s work is Romantic, hot, sexy, and alive. But he had reached the point when he stopped questioning, became stagnated. Romantics are great in their youth, but most burn out quickly their ideas in ashes. They have to work from some other place, from a physical need. It’s why we here in the 21st Century don’t trust them, and it’s why they won’t ever be, can’t be, professionals. They work from passion.

Delacroix’s great works are of course in great museums, but you’ll find a couple of intimate paintings left here at his last studio that smolder and smoke; a study of a foot, a portrait of a beauty, and a notebook of vicious drawings – wondrous, spectacular bits and pieces of a visual life connected intimately to understanding and feeling existence through one’s eyes. Even in these last days dictated by a frozen doctrine his vision could still smolder and burn. The couple got up and left, and I sat for a while listening to a televised soccer match commentary coming from an open window above. Something about a winger passing into the center and a missed opportunity – at least that’s what I could put together from my rudimentary French menu reading skills. Was this studio the icy tomb of a Romantic’s frozen doctrine or was there a lesson to learn, one that might open a way into our own day?
Would Eugene have enjoyed this as much as I was?

The 19th Century was radical in ways we don’t quite get here in the distance. Most of the 20th century and its vicious infamies began right there. Painting certainly wasn’t immune to these doctrines. For the most part naked vision was quickly being replaced by lenses and chemicals, and later, machines and programs. There were still wonderful works to make and see, but the idea of painting, the Grand Art of Painting, would never exist as it once had in the minds of artists. We would instead be Modern while we tore out our eyes. And of course this began a new discussion, a deeper involvement in the minds of artists about what Art could be, should be. The truth is – the proliferation of Photography changed EVERYTHING for those of us who love images. But there at the onset of this lens based Modernism Delacroix and Ingres had differing ideas about the future and importance of photography; one hot, the other cool. Delacroix thought it a great tool and used it as a reference point, a way to enhance his imagination and vision. Ingres railed against photography actually leading a cranky chorus of academics who claimed to be dead set against it. The irony is, as Hockney has pointed out, that Ingres and the others in his crew must have used a lens for many of their portrait drawings, actually tracing outlines just as a Postmodern Warhol would do. And this difference between Delacroix and Ingres became a cross roads where art history made a decision. And we, here in the distance, are not a part of the questions that were being asked. We forget the larger context, the other answers to those questions that may have been as valid and compelling, that may have made exciting art, exciting painting. As we all know History belongs to the winners, but what might we have forgotten about the fight? This is one of the many reasons that I love Hockney’s detective story. It opens up all kinds of questions that we assume to be answered. Hockney’s Secret Knowledge offers another thought about HOW WE SEE THINGS at this stage of the game…. It helps us see around the screen.

It began with a drawing:

This is a portrait of the Mannerist sculptor Giambologna done by Hendrick Goltzius in 1591. It was drawn right at the moment when Mannerism had begun to implode. In Northern Italy the Caracci were calling for a new realism in painting, and in Rome, Caravaggio had just begun to reformulate intimate lens images into grand theatrical visions. If one looks closely one can see that this drawing has all the earmarks of “tracing” just as Hockney explains. This is especially apparent if one looks to the lower part of the drawing with its quick descriptive lines and specific contours. I say this because once you know what to look for it really does become visually apparent when a lens reference has been used. Now I am mesmerized by this drawing – it looks to me like a contemporary vision, it feels like a reality that we know, a person we might see on the street. It remains doggedly naturalistic and familiar, never slipping into the hyper-real image programming that we are used to experiencing in our lens saturated age. Its vision, its familiarity is found in the movement of the line, the moment of its realization, the connection of the eye and the hand as they create an image. Its physical realization is also an internalization of the limitations, boundaries and specificities of the lens image – it’s natural perspective is a guide. Further it’s a sublimation, an humanization of the way a lens works. The portrait is fleshy, corporeal, and it speaks of a specific time and place – a long, unfolding moment. What’s missing for us in this drawing is our mechanical programs, the sheen of the airless code that distorts and modifies the lens captured image. This image is built up, hand hewn, SEEN in real time, fashioned with the understanding of the world around the lens. This drawing has the feel of being both worked and yet easy, tight and loose, real and abstract all at once. And what all of that adds up to is the idea of PROCESS – a truly Modernist material sensibility. This portrait FEELS contemporary, looks of the moment and yet encourages us to rethink how we accept our images on the screen in front of us. It has something that we don’t see much of in our electronic images – an unfolding of a hard won visual understanding in a single visual moment. It is hot, alive, compelling. And that for me is Romantic.

Then I had to reconsider some things:

One of the most influential paintings of a figure in the 20th Century was based on a photograph. Cezanne’s Bather broke a lot of rules with the redrawing of the figure’s head, the reworking of the figure’s outline. That hesitation, that re-figuring would unleash both Matisse and Picasso. Even more surprising is that the painting incorporated the natural flattening of the lens that Cezanne instinctively understood. Look at the lower right corner of the photo, the way it flattens into the blackness of the edge of the thing. The abstract pattern on the floor also provides a weird upended depth against the flat lower wall, a stiff line marks out the rigid back ground. The head is slightly distorted by the angle of the lens, either that or the guy in the photo’s head was HUGE. We see this effect nearly everyday in those Paparazzi photos from the red carpet – the photographer holds the camera over the head of the photographer in front, and aims and shoots downward at the starlet. We are used to that kind of skewing of vision, but for a Modernist in the 19th Century this was revelatory. All of those strange bits and pieces provided by the lens are translated into the painting in which Cezanne added some suggestions of his own passion for tromping through the countryside. For Cezanne this isn’t a just a “bather” but a giant striding over a flattened back drop. If we stretch a bit further we can also see that the treatment of this particular figure harkens back to the processes we see in the Goltzius portrait. The line work, the materiality of hatching. He’s seeing this figure through the lens and then reworking that image through his lived experience. Cezanne’s painting of this photo incorporates the world around and outside the photo, namely his memories, to enhance the experience of the lens with both lived time and his own existence. His painting becomes the emotional experience of the bather that Cezanne wants us to see – an everyman trying to step out of the ground, the Romantic individual, himself, the rising subject, us.

Finality

And so we come to an end of these Final Rites for Romanticism. Final because we no longer experience the same kind of ground, the same kind of visual need or visual acuity that is needed for a Romantic rebellion. An individual, an individual vision, can not, will not emerge. We are a society within the screen, we are constantly overwhelmed by the all encompassing electronic ground, in fact we are that ground, a hyper-reality made up of a sea of immaterial beings, bits of information. There are no longer individuals, we no longer have individual visions. We are nothing but connections, way points, collectives, pacts of constantly reforming and replicating information. We prefer the coolness of the ever expanding sea of electronic interaction, the endless flux of refining critique, the dematerialized vision. And it is that coolness of interaction which seduces us, keeps us in place while dispersing us all through the ethernet. We form ourselves for a moment, before the click, right there on the screen in front of us, and then we are gone, back into the ever-expanding ground. And because we now live there, we’ve forgotten about the world around the screen, we see it through our online experiences. Cezanne could not paint that Bather today. That figure is unfettered, individual, he rises out of the ground, he challenges us rather than placates us. Make no mistake, today there are very strong painters making wonderful Postmodern work, work that describes this very moment. But what we don’t see, and further, what we don’t want to see, is a strong challenge to that theoretical base. Something, an idea, a vision, that doesn’t become reactionary, but that is alive with the world when we emerge back into our fleshy selves, when we notice the world that isn’t broadcasted, that isn’t relayed through the lens, that isn’t programmed. That changed world and that different perspective may be where we can begin to discover a new Romantic critique.

“There are no more actors or spectators, everyone is immersed in the same reality, in the same revolving responsibility, in the same destiny, which is only the completion of a collective desire. Here again, we are not far from the Stockholm Syndrome: we are hostages of information, but we secretly acquiesce to our captivity.” Event and Non-Event By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Stuart Kendall

Romantic Vision – Opening Position

“For Nature, who abhors mannerism, has set her heart on breaking up all styles and tricks, and it is so much easier to do what one has done before than to do a new thing, that there is a perpetual tendency to a set mode.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson Nominalist and Realist


What you are looking at is David Reed’s painting from the 1970s entitled #90 – it’s somewhere after Pop/Minimalism and right at the beginning of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction (an amalgamation of 80’s Neo-Geo and 90’s Conceptual Abstraction.) In this work he’s commenting both on the ubiquitous material formalism of the period and the idea of the previous generation’s “signature” Action Painter’s brush stroke. His challenge incorporated both the Pop/Minimalist theoretics and media contingencies inherent in reproduction and replication AND the physical/material theoretics of institutional academic painting. He’s doing it by synthesizing these programs through the still viable (in the 70s) construct of a Postmodern critique. His solution to the painting conundrum is one of the most elegant reformulations of America’s dueling endgame painting movements of the 60s. It’s also the beginning of a new form of institutional Mannerism that quickly became THE WAY to approach the problem of endgame painting. His work has the look and feel of the lens-based image, but it is not. It is painting made to look like a reproduction. There has been a plethora of artists working in this same manner ever since, with hundreds, if not thousands of artists, coming to very similar conclusions about Postmodern painting, brush strokes and vision. In the meantime David has gone beyond this painting’s emphatic materialism to earn his place as  one of the foremost Mannerist imagist painters of the last thirty years. His works have explored nearly every incarnation of the brush stroke; what it does, what it means and how it exists in painting history. And he has done it by expanding and breaking the grounds of the Corporate Postmodern Billboard and collaging his “manufactured” painted images across the surfaces of an highly artificial spatial/temporal ground. David Reed is abstraction’s Bronzino.

The construct that delivered this idea of the brush stroke, the ongoing Postmodern critique of painting in general, is based on the complementary techniques of both replication and reproduction. Replication refers to imagery, reproduction to process. The second generation of this Neo-Abstractionist critique is of course embodied in the now very popular work of Christopher Wool. And it looks like this:

“The first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible.”
Oscar Wilde “Phrases And Philosophies For The Use Of  The Young”

This painting is not. For all of its technological impressiveness it is yet another clever and timely reiteration of Magritte’s pipe. With this kind of painting we have arrived at that point in the Postmodern critique where the image of paint has become the “paint”. We reference yet again what has been referenced, and we are doing so through yet another medium. Basically, this is a reproduction of a lens replication of a painting happenstance – the splotch, the drip, the remainder of the brush stroke. It’s a technique quite unlike Reed’s which examines painting as-if through a lens.  Its subject is the emptying ground, the media itself, swallowing up the disappearing reality of the act of painting, the act of anything, really. In Wool’s work we don’t encounter abstraction straight on any longer. Nor are we constructing or composing a painting in order to engage with it in a visual sense. Instead we have moved behind the lens and within the synchronous program in order to feature the workings of machine-made images themselves. All that is left to see on these overtly mannered, computer-collaged surfaces, is the idea and fabrication of the ground itself, or rather, an image of the ground – a secondary studio experience of some form of a former vibrant painted reality. As Raphael Rubenstein described it, this is how Provisional Painting works. For so many painters in this school, painting as a visual experience is something lost to the past, some former human condition, something that can not and probably should not be done any more. And because visual painting can no longer be engaged outside the mediated experience, what we are given instead are “painted” objects, things to encounter, things to purchase, stockpile and trade in the moment that we look up from our screens.

“Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.”
Susan Sontag “On Photography”

Advanced painting in the early 21st Century, especially abstract painting, leans heavily on Provisional visual techniques enhanced and disseminated through programmed replication. This kind of work made for a certain kind of optical engagement is described by Sontag’s above observation about dissociative seeing. And make no mistake, that dissociative viewing is the difference between optical painting and visual painting. In order to find meaning in the provisional we must see THROUGH the machine, the program. The object itself must also remain provisional, in other words, an art-like thing. And so there is a preference toward mannered actions or highly “theatrical” presentations of painting processes. It’s a new kind of action painting without any outright action taking place. The paintings employ “hand-made” fucked up grounds overlaid with machine-made reproductions of institutional studio techniques scattered upon the endless surfaces of  billboard junk space. This type of “painting” must then be  disseminated through lens based media, experienced online in photos and blog commentary or published in Taschen-style presentations. When we see and experience the object first hand, in the flesh so to speak, the actual physical encounter, more often than not, reveals that the object is shoddy, unmade, and indeed, provisional. It looks like a Hollywood Prop, something made specifically for the fracturing gloss of the lens/program, a suggestion of something that “appears” FOR the lens while it dematerializes before one’s eyes. In this regard the “real” experience of the work becomes the after-experience, the Post-game wrap-up, so to speak. The “painted” object finds its meaning not in its being, not as it’s revealed, or in its experience, but as it’s re-presented, contextualized through other media. This third generation of Postmodern Neo-Abstraction, can and does, reproduce painting-like products without addressing first person visual involvement with originality, talent, quality, beauty, ugliness, specificity, thought, critique or irony. All of these “qualities” of former Art have now been quantified and subsumed into the lens based programs preferred by this new institutional elite. Painters no longer have to be accomplished, practiced, eloquent or expert – our job has become to simply re-contextualize replications of paintings, or indeed, absolutely anything that has been uploaded. Once a context, any context, has been incorporated and disseminated about the work by the program, it can and does turn everything, even the most abject or overworked product, the most absurd or grand idea, into Art, and further, into Critique. We are no longer bounded and defined by the realities of our fleshy experiences, we no longer HAVE TO SEE anything in the first person, never confront our own limitations in order to participate as an Artist, Critic, Curator, Collector, Theorist, or even as a Culture Consumer. The seamless len based program replicates and reproduces “Art” by, for and of the masses.

“I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul.”
Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”

In the past it was the connection to Nature that was the catalyst for a new critique, a new vision. This is a large part of the Romantic attitude. It was the way to move from the strictures of an artificial existence and an artificial mode. All through Art History when an idea had reached a Mannered apex there would suddenly appear a new idea connected to fleshy vision, to an actual encounter with the world right in front of the artists’ eyes. When we’re looking at Manet’s picnic the world slips sideways. Why? Well it’s not only the critique of academic vision and institutional indoctrination that’s being presented, it’s Manet’s version of vision, his own understanding of his life in the painting. He’s describing nature through a changed vision. Temporal space collapses in this new Modern world and Manet SEES it, paints it. What makes the painting new, dramatic, disturbing is exactly this temporal shift to vision. He’s rebelling against the strictures of history and the artificiality of his own profession, his own time, and ultimately his own understanding of what he is seeing. However, our time is different. And I’m not so sure any longer that this sort of visual rebellion can happen – simply because we no longer connect to Nature, we no longer engage in it, no longer SEE it.

“I am Nature.”
Jackson Pollock

What I’m trying to understand, what I’ve been struggling with all this past summer, is the nature of Nature itself. What is it, how do we experience it, how do we interpret it, how do we express it, where do we find it? McLuhan made the assertion that once the first satellite rounded the globe, there was no longer Nature. We had contained our entire world through our media. Today, you can’t walk down the street without having your life documented, cataloged and used in some way by some device, some lens, some program. So I’ve looked inward to see if there might be anything close to “nature” existing there, and truthfully, I’ve been horrified by my own artificiality, the ease with which I participate in the program. Look, when I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that nearly every physical occurrence within our bodies can be modified and controlled by electronic, chemical, or surgical means. Christ we are, nearly all of us, cyborgs, mechanized humans (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…fact and fiction, Marko, keep it real, please.) I then turned to my emotions, surely something there? But even those personal experiences can be and have been controlled and focused through social mores, copious amounts of pharmaceutical concoctions (ritalin anyone?) and the “realities” of electronic existence. Everything, including our most intimate relationships, are defined by these new programs, by the ever present “realities” of programs, both analog and digital. So what is natural, what is real, in this environment, in us? What exists outside or in spite of the program? Does anything? And if so what does it look like? Can any of us, especially now at the beginning of the 21st Century, truly claim, as Jackson did, to be “Nature”?

The problem, as I see it, isn’t necessarily in discovering “truth” – what it means to be human etc. We are a new kind of animal, like it or not. Yes, truth may set one free, but as Postmodernism has shown us, EVERYTHING we encounter in the program, every thing swallowed up by the program, has a kind of “truth” (truthiness?) and that truth can be and always is manipulated. So in desperation we’ve turned our search toward Reality hoping that in our daily encounters we might find some moment that isn’t programmed, a moment outside of the program – what’s Real today? But this is problematic as well. For instance in NYC recently we experienced an earthquake and a hurricane within the same week. Unprecedented experiences to say the least. They would have seemed WAY out of the ordinary, scary even, just 10 years ago. But the speed and deftness with which the media encapsulated the physical realities of those fleshy occurrences was truly astonishing. Astonishing because the program made these once life defining moments into everyday events. In one grand moment a commentator was televised actually standing in foamy raw sewage in order to illustrate the “reality” of the narrative. And none of us thought that this programmed “reality” was out of the ordinary. Not even Nature, as we once knew it, once were in awe of it, once were slaves to it, interrupted or changed the course of the narrative formed through the constantly streaming media reality.

We can not, do not, acknowledge the reality of our own existences, our own natures, any longer. We can not see outside the program, can not remove ourselves from the artificial existence in which we exist. The rebellion is programmed, the Romantic inclination to question codified and incorporated like a virus. For me this describes the Postmodern Condition.

Which brings me back to my concerns for vision and painting. If our bodies are manipulated by our products and procedures, our minds overwhelmed by a streaming narrative, our vision blurred and refocused by lenses, then what is Real, what is Reality, and further, what is Natural, what is Nature? And then how do we see it, how do we paint it?

End of the first part…

 

Paul Corio – Pattern Logic

I called from the street and then made my way up a few flights of stairs. This old building in Brooklyn is a working place, stuffed with “small businesses” – Asian men and women sewing piece goods in a loud crowded room on one floor. Another floor chocked full of electric machine tools ready to be used for fuck all. And as always in NY you’ll find a few artists’ studios filled with old paintings and half finished projects. Paul Corio had invited Michael Zahn, Dennis Bellone and me over for a studio visit. As usual I was running late – always…. Paul had been pulling out his works and lining them against the painting wall. Michael and Dennis had just finished the first round on the six pack and were deep in discussion about the last painting they’d seen. Artists tend to take studio visits deadly seriously especially among friends… I was happy to be there and looked about for signs of Paul’s studio life before really having a look at the work (I enjoy seeing how artists incorporate their lives into their work.) On a few table tops and shelves there were stacks of jars of paints, mixed and labeled in sequence, hues and values morphing from light to dark, precise and orderly. Used painters’ tape was scrunched into balls discarded here and there. I thought it was wonderful – a working production studio filled with 21st Century electrically colored paintings contrasted by a bank of windows looking northward over a view of Brooklyn’s 19th and 20th Century manufacturing detritus. Glorious.

As I was looking at Paul’s paintings I kept thinking about his blog postings on No Hassle at the Castle and the post he did here on Henri about his painting processes and studio life. Numbers and patterns are extremely important to Paul. He is interested in the specific mathematics of horse racing and betting. Paul is also a jazz musician, a drummer to be precise, and for me all of these things come across in his work in a very specific way. His vision is connected to rhythms and time, color, space, pattern, movement. Paul has a real way of involving the viewer across the surfaces of his works using specific kinds of optical repetitions. The paintings become physical and direct through their temporal movements. Color fades in and out and then turns on a dime into its compliment. The geometries break into packets, keeping time in moments of explosive visual energy. He’s constantly building signatures through these algorithms, pushing the viewer along to his visual beat. Christ, you can feel your body start to move as you look – I caught myself bobbing my head to these back beats a couple of times. It’s hard not to feel time slip and slide in front of Paul’s paintings. But there’s more going on here than music. His imagery pushes into the ground, exaggerating the pulsing efficiency of his colors. What you begin to feel as you look and follow is your own subjectivity sliding into this time frame. The visual experience is sharp, electric and thorough.

Paul has pushed back the literal optical surfaces and mannered surfaces of the 1960s. He’s playing with the idea of a deeper illusion – taking these algorithms and floating them against and above the expanding ground. In the most successful works Paul reaches for something darker and more emotional in his patterns. Unlike the Postmodern appropriation critiques of the 80s and 90s based on geometric/op abstractions (for example like those found in the work of Bleckner or Armleder), Paul examines a more direct idea of a visual and transcendent painting unmoored from irony. Rather than critique a style, keeping us at a distance, his illusions push the geometric patterns further and deeper into our consciousness, involving us in the rhythms. These paintings represent a kind of faith in the constant flow of repetition and movement that defines our world. The visual impetus behind the work is more Modern than Postmodern. There are no pretty bows or glittering curtains of material painted on the surfaces to hold us back from a direct physical vision. Paul is demanding that we engage in these rhythms and patterns and feel how they move us in this particular moment. In some paintings he raises this geometric imagery just above the ground allowing the subject to float and pulse there before our eyes. We are uplifted, transported out of our material concerns. And this is where Paul breaks with the Postmodern. His work is not held to the ground. Paul is fucking with those surfaces, reaching over the optical billboard to grasp older ideas of visual conflict and consternation – those Modernist concerns related to pattern, decoration, and transcendence. What he’s getting at is the fragility of vision in the optical overload of our time.

What was truly impressive, what really stuck with me was the large black painting that Paul let rest against the wall. It kept drawing me back in. I had only seen it in reproduction, but in person it hums and vibrates in a very dark and moving way. I kept feeling a kind of landscape like one sees in Asian paintings – where the eye travels along the length or width of the painting. You watch the world fade into the light and mist and then reappear further back, like you’re moving along space through time. This dark painting plays on that kind of temporality as it keeps regenerating – top becomes bottom, bottom top. Paul’s rhythms catch and break, and that’s when he pulls the shifting ground out from beneath you. You begin to feel that you’re upside down, folded back on yourself. I thought of Jasper Johns’ paintings that push the words and images around the sides of his canvases making the viewer realize that he’s stepped into an endless loop, there’s no escape. Again, there isn’t a hint of irony, not a bit of “aside” or commentary. This is a first person experience, fast, slow, broken and whole.

Lately Paul’s work has taken on the corporate, the logo, the straightforward presentation of power. What’s really interesting in these “word” works is the way Paul has skewed the visual approach and impact. We don’t see the work straight on, it’s as if he’s moved the perspective to one side to show us the optical workings beneath the logo and the program. They fly past us, breaking into geometric codes as they do. The program is false in these works, and once we catch that fakery, we quickly find another vision within it. The works take us back into our own understanding of color, light, space and time outside of and through the programmatic corporate vision. For me these paintings are hopeful, joyful and alive. And in a new clever twist Paul re-presents this work within a work. He’s doubling down on his bet against Postmodern irony, appropriating his own work, his own studio into a painting within and about the studio and himself. He’s patterning the flows of both his creative experience and his work-a-day life, documenting and glorifying the temporal space of that studio. It’s a very clever 21st Century self portrait – like Matisse’s Red Studio – a painting of the studio as a doppleganger for the artist himself.

We no longer speak of transcendence with any seriousness here in the 21st century. Most artists are content to make a work that looks good, that says something passably intelligent. Usually it’s not that personal, or that deep, but it looks good, you know? We have tons of work that does just that, stacked to the rafters in the Chelsea galleries. But Paul is looking for something else. He wants to get at an experience of visual contact, communication, and in that way, he’s quintessentially American, wholly himself. He’s reaching back to a tradition of abstraction that begins with Cezanne and culminates with Rothko and Newman. His vision is connected to a more physical and literal visual experience of the geometric and abstract, emotion and vision. You get a similar feeling standing in Paul’s studio – the heady mixture of brilliant color and fast pattern, the clash of time and history going on out the window – it’s a sense of place, solid and ephemereal at once. Paul wants you to see, to feel, experience in a visceral way and in that, his work embodies our great American Romantic visual tradition.

For more about Paul Corio – website and No Hassle at the Castle.

NSFW – Courbet’s Origin and Romantic Engagement

The Origin of the World. Now before I go further I will apologize to the fainter of heart reader that may find this image unsettling. I did try to warn you with the title of the post. I’m not opening with this image to shock you or anger you, but I do hope to make a point, and that will be made clearer as we go. If you look past the blatant visual objectification of female “private parts” I believe this painting to be a radical exploration of a new way of seeing. I can hear you now…”cha-yeah, riiiight!” For the moment let’s leave the cultural concerns about this image to one side and concentrate on how the image is composed. There is absolutely nothing like it, there isn’t a composition similar to it in the painting lexicon at the time it was painted. This is Courbet’s open challenge to the WAY painters approached the composition of a figure painting. Sure there were tons of nude figures decorating the public and private salons of Paris, but none shook the visual hierarchies of academic compositional foundations like this. Not just because of the so-called prurient nature of the image, but because the composition radically alters the viewer’s engagement, position and perspective with the image itself. This very well may have started out as a lens based image of some kind – it is realistically painted. It certainly is cropped the way a camera would crop an image. But the revolutionary move it makes in the history of painting is to be seen in the way it abstracts and presents a kind of physical, tactile portraiture.

The Thing in the Field

Composition in painting had remained relatively static since the 15th Century. Even today Renaissance composition is still alive and well even in the most abstract of images. Now this compositional tactic was derived from the geometries of forms – triangles, circles and squares. They were used in figurative algorithms to create pleasing arrangements of things in scenes. Much later these geometric arrangements became the mathematical structures for many abstract paintings (rediscovery is painting’s strength). But it’s the viewing of these things, the way that we are meant to see these kinds of compositions that I find interesting. We’ve all heard about, and most of us have used, the old “looking-through-a-window” trope. This basically places the viewer at a fixed safe distance in order to create optimal visual contemplation of an image or scene. When this kind of composition is engaged directly it can and does create a form of intellectual desire in the viewer – desire for knowledge, desire for the experience of understanding through vision. One is led and moved from point to point in the scene in order to put together the narrative. This is basic visual thinking 101. Thus we get the portrait, the mythical or literary scene, or the documentation of a moment like a wedding or a devotion. This kind of viewing is sedate, contemplative, and allows for a certain kind of intellectual distance and physical coolness. There are literally thousands of these kinds of images in the history of art (and maybe millions more of them in the recent history of product advertising.) What we are talking about is a classic, dogmatic compositional decision – straightforward, specific and matter-of-fact.

There are many pleasures to be had when seeing in this way and it’s probably through this kind of composition that we arrived at the classic idea of beauty – the Golden Mean. By this I mean that this kind of composition relays an intellectual beauty, a mathematical beauty. The thing in the field exists strictly for our contemplation, and it exists almost in a Platonic form as an embodiment of thought. From the absolute airless beauty of Botticelli’s Venus all the way to Don Judd’s gleaming boxes, the thing in the field is something other, something inhuman if you like. We are not involved IN the vision but we are given the means to contemplate the scene wholly, unobtrusively. In this way we are given myths, godheads and perfections stacked to the rafters in pleasing groupings of three. We arrive at an appreciation and understanding of that rising subject simply by looking at it, engaging in its proportions and unfolding its meaning without actually being involved. This is akin to a stage production where the proscenium, the fourth wall are all at work. But what if the painter, the artist wants to make things less “theatrical” or “geometric”? How do we reinterpret and close the distance?

Changing Visual Relationships

Caravaggio revolutionized painting composition at the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the early 17th century. He actually broke down the polite distance between viewer and scene. This is an exciting, direct space that puts a different spin on the relationship of the viewer to the scene. Even though this relocation of the viewer is still tethered to the idea of someone looking at a thing in a field, our visual relationship to the reality of the scene has changed. We are now witnesses rather than voyeurs and this change in our understanding shifts our temporal involvement in the scene. We don’t have the luxury of a kind of visual timelessness, we don’t float over the scene any longer. Instead we are in time and involved in what is going on. I make this distinction for a purpose. The voyeur is unknown, apart from the scene. The witness is included, and in fact, is needed in order to complete the composition. Caravaggio keeps us at a slight distance. We are just across the room. We’re not quite so dispassionate, not quite so separated from the rising subject. What was instantly different in this composition of St Matthew was the unexpected emotional focus on the physicality of the rising subjects in the image. The illusions of space and light actually brings us, the viewers, into the scene in order to complete this unfolding action. The difficulty for the painter when attempting this kind of temporal compositional adjustment is making the understanding of that completion visually convincing, making it seem “real”. This doesn’t mean literally that we must be fooled by what we are looking at, only that we must be convinced of a kind of “reality” in the image itself. You’ve all heard of or maybe even have said about a painting at one time or other – “it works.” It works because the internal visual logic of the composition is strong enough to engage you, to pull you in, so to speak. It works because you understand and readily accept how that visual logic works.

Let’s take this a bit further. What happens to the image and the space it creates when we are IN the painted scene is similar to the way a lens crops an image of reality. The canvas only stretches so far after all, and the artist is pushing, visually, for a moment, a very specific moment in that “space”. Unlike the optical and temporal specificity inherent in lens cropping, visual painting involves our other senses unfolding over and through time. Normally when we see something in the flesh, our peripheral sight plays into our unconscious thought processes (which is why POV video games are so fucking annoying). We don’t engage these boundaries directly, we more often than not, FEEL the edges of our sight – it is an unconscious experience. That’s why we “know” something is behind us or to the side of us before we actually see the subject rising into view. What I am saying is that we feel space as well as see it. On the canvas not everything we see fits into that direct space provided by the stretcher. Things can and do begin to appear, have to appear, in places that we don’t expect and that don’t always make “real-world” sense. These “exaggerations” of temporality are direct choices made by the painter in order to compensate for the truncation of our visual peripheries. The painting must actually FEEL bigger than what we are seeing, as if that compositional “reality” is much fuller and larger than the physical world around us and the painted world we are looking at. We are breaking down the fourth wall, the imagined distance between the painted space and our own. If the composition can do this the artist is able to engage our peripheries, and once that happens, we gain access to a kind of simulation of our feeling vision enlarging the painted scene. The image seems to push at the edges of the canvas creating the feeling that the painted “reality” is encompassing our physical space. If the logic of the image is truly convincing, if one accepts the composition, the painting will also heighten one’s physical connection to what one is experiencing in the image. Colors, light, space, form, etc. will have “presence”, and suddenly, one’s own visual memories can and will engage directly into that painted reality. One knows how the cloth feels, knows how the room smells, one can taste the air in the light. The scene, the image, the painting, begins to make sense in one’s body as well as one’s eyes and mind. I am not talking about the processes of realism, naturalism or illusion designed to “fool the eye” though these are joyful visual experiences. I’m talking about accessing a physical emotional element in the work through the visual logic of the composition itself. Caravaggio managed this by readjusting Mannerist compositional theatricality with their kind of “billboard” collaged spaces into a seamless, continual temporal space. In doing so he pushed out the edges of his images, overlapping that visual logic onto our experienced reality. His work taps directly into our own memories, putting us into the scene and making us actually feel what we are seeing.

Modernist Vision

By the 19th Century the academy had fallen into a revival of high Renaissance compositional devices and classic storytelling techniques in order to produce very slick, theatrical history painting. However, there were things occurring in the avant garde that would revive the exploration of a more involving visual kind of composition. The first rediscovery was the Impressionists’ reinterpretation of color and light through revamped drawing and painting techniques. Painters began to re-think how to make a painting, how painterly techniques could affect the eye. The second was a new emphasis placed on dynamic compositional devices in order to optimize the visual effects of these rediscovered techniques. This new emphasis on compositional structures was developed through both the assimilation of Japanese prints (new and dynamic to the eyes of Western painters) and the beginning proliferation of lens based imagery. There are direct similarities between the way a camera works and the way a Japanese print works. Both flatten and frame in ways not seen in Western Art before, and painters were hooked from the start. For our purposes we’ll concentrate on the compositional framing that’s natural to the lens and the camera. It quickly became a tool used by many of the Impressionists to radically alter viewing perspectives and figure ground relationships in their paintings. The lens completely revamped one’s compositional choices quickly, efficiently and undeniably. This new composition also brought back Caravaggio’s radical pictorial logic and involving physical spaces. I would normally go for Manet at this point, but instead, I’ll use an example of another of my favorite paintings – Caillebotte’s Scrapers.

Calleboitte’s camera allowed the painter to re-discover a Baroque physical vision. We’re in the room with these floor scrapers, standing at the back. The composition has a similar feel to the way Caravaggio directed his works – in fact there are many qualities in this painting that harken back to his innovations – the temporal naturalism, the importance of light and surface, the tight defining spaces between the figures and encompassing ground. Now there are many Impressionist technical innovations still at work here, but in this painting our focus is not outside, not the landscape, but instead, the interior, the living space. In this slightly off kilter room the composition allows our eyes to “hear” the blades pushing across the surface of that wooden floor, the sound of metal on wood. You can see the oppressive heat on the sweating backs of those craftsmen. And in a very Baroque plot twist, you can also see something else – the window is shut – the workers are trapped to their tasks and though the light fills the room, it must also heat it up. We are witnessing the inevitable way things get done; difficult, exacting, backbreaking. Hard men stripped to the waste, stripping the hard floor, getting beneath the surface of things in order to resurface, begin anew (apologies, I like the metaphor). The grouping of the figures on the right – contained, chatting about something – is balanced and impacted by the left hand figure’s move to grab a sharp tool – there’s the threat of deliberate violence in this movement. (To my mind this painting brings up memories of another matter of fact scraping – Marsyas by Titian.) This figure’s reach leads us back into the conversation of the other two workers, pulls us across the room into that particular moment making it both real and alive. It’s similar to the way Caravaggio composed his inevitable moments of violence using a look or an outstretched arm to send us careening across the space of the scene. But we as viewers are still not totally a part of this moment – not voyeurs, but witnesses or overseers. We are still not totally implicated in the vision.

Radical Viewing

So what of Courbet’s Beginning? When you walk into Courbet’s room in the d’Orsay you’ll discover straight away that this painting really does project a kind of visual intimacy unlike anything else around it. Even among Courbet’s work it’s different. With Origin, we are not only in the scene, we are physically involved with the subject of that very image. This sort of compositional physicality in painting was unknown and unexplored at the time (1866 – eleven years before Caillebotte’s Scrapers). We are literally sitting between this woman’s leg’s. In fact we are so close to the image that we can not see all of it. The figure moves beyond the edges of the canvas, out of the field entirely, turning the figure into a landscape. The composition pushes at the peripheries of our vision just as it does the edges of the canvas. It activates our sense memories in a direct way, accentuating touch and emotion. We don’t have the luxury of a disconnected contemplation, the vision is immediate and brutal. Courbet’s realism further pushes us to form physical visual contact with the figure. There’s a pulse, a warmth to the skin, a sense of heat and closeness in the air.

Gustav has abstracted our reality through the way the subject is presented in the composition itself. He has broken the space and logic of the figure, made it sharp and thorough like Picasso and Braque would later do in Cubism. They explored temporal viewing from all points, through space. Gustav is not temporally disembodied in that way, but his composition goes straight through the space and pushes into ours. It’s raw just as Picasso’s space is raw. There is none of the wholeness or understanding of the thing in the field, there is only the rising subject and the emotional involvement of close viewing. We don’t know what else is about, we are concentrated on this particular moment of contact. We do not know who this image is of, we are not given a typical portrait. However we are implicated in knowing and understanding her physicality. We, the viewers, are needed to complete the composition because it is absurd and unexpected, a Black Swan. There is no backing away from the subject once you’ve seen it. Its encompassing visual logic has you as you look. Yes it’s sex, it’s basic, raw and unattenuated. It may even be pornographic, but the reality of its form and composition pushing the boundaries of the painted ground makes no apologies. It has you straight away and it demands your involvement. The composition says if you want to see, if you really want to see, then you must feel. You must get into this space, you must get right up to the reality of vision no matter what. We are not witnesses, we are not voyeurs, we are Courbet, we are with this woman. And again this for me is what Romanticism does best – it involves you totally, physically, emotionally. It rocks you on your heels.

Today the lens is ubiquitous and our understanding of and interaction in the world are funneled through its magic boundaries. Courbet’s Beginning is familiar to us in ways that he could never have seen in his own time. The lens was a new re-discovery, a formerly Secret Knowledge that was used to alter our perceptions and expectations in painting. I believe a radical understanding of our visual moment must begin with just such a painting as this one.

Here we are a decade into a new and exciting century and there hasn’t been a serious challenge to the Fin de Siecle Postmodern orthodoxy. Sure there are a number of artists taking that orthodoxy to the “next level”, but there are very few artists indeed that are proposing a different viewpoint, a change of composition, on our times. I think we must “aim Large”, go all out for something different, something that might makes us a bit uncomfortable, unstable. So we’ve begun with Courbet and we’ll continue to hone this Romantic critique, to move beyond both Modernism & Postmodernism in our next post.

Business and Romanticism

..but the pharmacist’s wife, she was nice,
she was tired of bombs under the pillow and hissing the Pope,
and she had a very nice figure, very good legs,
but I guess she felt as I: that the weakness was not Government
but Man, one at a time, that men were never as strong as
their ideas
and that ideas were governments turned into men;
and so it began on a couch with a spilled martini
and it ended in the bedroom: desire, revolution,
nonsense ended, and the shades rattled in the wind,
rattled like sabers, cracked like cannon,
and 30 dogs, 20 men on 20 horses chased one fox
across the fields under the sun,
and I got out of bed and yawned and scratched my belly
and knew that soon very soon I would have to get
very drunk again.

i wanted to overthrow the government but all i brought down was somebody’s wife Charles Bukowski

Most Postmodern artists like to take the view that the Romantics were a bunch of unbathed ne’er do wells out to rape and pillage innocents while self promoting the prowess of their genitalia. One has but to look at the press following the collapse of the (Media Romantic) 80s art stars to see this kind of anti-Romanticism at work. Even now, smug and content in our post-structural bubble, we still enjoy taking the occasional pot shot at Schnabel, the epitome of the POMO ROMO. When I was young Jules was a hero, and I still have a soft spot for his larger than life existence and hit-or-miss work – Palazzo Chupi or no. OK, I’ll concede that our widely held beliefs about Romantics bring up pictures of Jim Morrison, Prince or Joseph Beuys (go ahead insert your own wild eyed Modern Romantic.) But surely there has to be something redeeming about the idea of life that those personalities embody, something that we pedestrian Postmoderns might connect with?

Our fear (condecension?) for the Romantic brings to mind a scene in Mel Brooks’ movie Young Frankenstein, an OTT parody based on the very Romantic Mary Shelley’s classic tale of genius, morality and responsibility. At one point a local family hears that the Monster is running amok in the countryside once again. The resigned and frightened couple start to batten down the hatches. The husband, as he’s nailing a board across the window, says in a thick Germanic accent to his wife – “Ven monsters ist loose, boards must be tight!” And I think that line pretty much describes the art world at the moment. The whole fuckin’ place has been boarded up against rampaging Romantic Monsters in order to protect delicate POMO sensibilities from any threat of aesthetic carnage.

Fear, Stasis and Profit

There are many times these days when an artist’s life seems a bit skewed and out of whack, and this usually happens because money has somehow warped our daily realities. I understand that Art is just a job complete with its emails, phone calls, paperwork and contracts, but really, what could be more fucking stagnating when communing with the Muses? I also understand that few artists actually get to do these sort of “business-y” things while actually making a living from doing them. I mean, I know quite a number of artists that do these same things and haven’t made a frickin’ sou. Many of my friends who are still striving for success in the gallery business world try to fall in line with the moment. They keep their predilections to themselves, network proficiently, go to openings, glad hand with business cards and never, ever, EVER say anything untoward or critical of anyone who has a gallery connection. I understand this urge to hide one’s Monster. One must go along to get along – it’s called Politics. There are always mouths to feed. But after a while this kind of “professional” behavior takes it toll on any artist, makes that Monster growl a bit.

Most of us became artists because something didn’t fit. If we were good at “going along to get along” why the fuck would we have become artists in the first place? Seriously, did any of us truly believe that we could make a living at this very, very, very specialized “profession”. I was told in no uncertain terms by everyone that I came in contact with that I had the “professional” skills to make minimum wage. The stories of alienation and deprivation, the longing for acceptance that I still hear (after all this time) from my friends lead me to believe that many artists have learned the hard lessons about getting along and going along at the end of one mean-ass stick. Look, as we live through this strange and scary economic period, it sometimes feels as if the Monster isn’t outside, but looking back at us in the Mirror. You may ask – So what does all this have to do with the Romantic impulse Marko? Well I think it probably has more to do with that rainbow colored Monster in the Mirror – whether it’s green with envy, blue with melancholy, yellow with jealousy or red with rage – that Monster is getting harder to contain.

The other day as I was sitting in my studio – fiddling with the zipper on my neck, a score of half finished paintings waiting for me to make a decision – the absurdity of this moment became painfully apparent. Even if I finished these paintings I had absolutely no intention of showing them to anyone. Why? Well that’s complicated and personal, but my reticence at sharing has a lot to do with the fact that painting has become, at least for me, something very complicated and extremely personal.  I was trying to explain this reticence to Paul Corio while making a right mess of my reasoning, I’m sure. Paul was kind enough to want to know what I had been up to and patient enough to listen to my Monster make incomprehensible guttural grunts. It’s in those moments of fumbling inexactitude that one instantly realizes the bad faith involved in keeping the solitary studio. After all why the fuck paint if one does not make one’s visions available to share? And this leads to yet another problem that the Romantic Monster must come to terms with at this stage of our Postmodern development. Irony is now so ingrained in our relationships that absolutely no one takes anything seriously, not unless there’s money to be made or a gun planted in one’s face (though at this point I think money has more juice than a glock – look how the bankers on Wall Street gravely injured this country.) The question is do we take our Monsters seriously, or more precisely, should we take our Monsters seriously?

What artist shuns success, acceptance, a show at the Guggy, money from Brant? And if you as an artist do just that, what kind of artist does that make you, does it make you a Monster? With so many striving for professional acclaim it seems sacrilegious to not strive. It’s as if you’re not holding up your end of the market game, you’re not playing “fair”. It takes hundreds, maybe thousands of artists to fail in order that one may succeed – that is how the corporate system works – thousands for one. It’s the same on Wall Street, all that money for the select few comes from somewhere, all that “success” comes out of  the struggles of thousands, if not millions. And that brings us to our Bukowski moment. What happens when you’re part of the thousands, the millions? If Prince hadn’t been lucky as well as talented would he be working at the local college music department? If Joseph Beuys didn’t teach at a major university would he have had followers? If, if, if and if… it’s the lament of the Romantic, a melancholy melody that gently accompanies the wounded soul as it ascends into the golden light of heavenly acceptance. In the end I don’t think it’s the Romantic we disparage, it’s the failed Promise of the Romantic.

…men were never as strong as their ideas

Ah, this then is the double edged sword, or should I say the double edged pen? Nietzsche, the 19th Century’s version of the ball busting philosopher, was never as strong as his words, never as fierce as his ideas. He wound up seriously ill, insane and vilified as most great Romantic poets do. Byron, the rock star poet, would try to overthrow the Ottoman Empire, but instead, succumbed miserably to illness and bloodletting before the battle ever took place. Jim Morrison, off to Paris to write his unfinished Masterpiece, croaked in a bath tub, drugged, drunk, bearded and bloated. There’s always a huge gaping gap between the talk of what could be and the actualities of what is. Maybe in the end it’s the smaller victories that the Post-Postmodern Romantic should be looking for. Like Bukowski, maybe the post-historical rebellion is about the small moments when you can get your leg over. Maybe one can find a Romantic individuality through a small, dangerous, passionate connection. Maybe like the Monster, we go out and grab Madeline Kahn and have our way with her seven or eight times before boasting and bragging to the boys. Maybe the deep emotional involvement, the very personal physical action, should be about a kind of sharp interior dissent – a rebellious collusion between lovers so to speak. (Look what Picasso accomplished.) Maybe that is what we should be looking for both in our lives and in our studios. At least until the next text message…

I know that I’ve lost many of you at this point. There’s very little patience among polite company for such an elliptical discussion. There’s very little glory in talking down governments, institutions, markets, academies and “success” if the sum of one’s real world actions succeed only in bringing down a faceless somebody’s wife. But in Buchowski’s moment of nothingness there is the reality of his presence, the physicality of the moment, and the realization that the lost Romantic Monster will soldier on in spite of his weaknesses and failures. Maybe those weaknesses are the beginning of something larger and more powerful than men and their ideas. At least we can hope.

For more on the value of Romantic Monsters go here.
The nuts and bolts of of a new Romanticism to come…

Dennis Bellone – Broken Field

“We can now modify Constable’s dictum and propose that art seeks the pure apprehension of natural fact wherever natural fact, as registered by the senses, is regarded as meaningful reality. Where it is not so interpreted we shall find some form of anti-humanist distortion, of hieratic stylization or abstraction. But—and this is crucial—such abstraction will continue to apprehend and to express reality. Though it rejects the intimations of mere sense perception, it does not thereby cease to be representational. Only the matter that now calls for representation is drawn from a new order of reality.” Leo Steinberg “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind”

 

I walked around an old firehouse in Williamsburg looking at a row of paintings. Each was spare, fast and loose. They were pushing at the edges of what painting could do, what one could leave out and still have the goddammed thing hold together. I had the feeling that they were composed of the last bits of painting, visual painting, that Postmodernism had long ago discarded and forgotten.

The works were lined up almost chronologically, and with each painting, you could feel the artist daring himself to leave off this or that, scrub out this or blanche out that. There were moments of absolute brilliance; a beautiful faded crimson soaking into the canvas, a bloom of forest washed in “light”, an ultramarine scrub bounded by a weak and ineffectual grayish line. The paintings were all about hard moments, those moments when we have to decide what to do with the impossible endgame that we’ve all inherited. In each painting, no matter the visual cost, there is a rage for vision, to see clearly again, one more time, and this feeling runs through Dennis’ compositions. It’s there in the placement of imagery and the play of incidence. These works recall half forgotten histories and the ignored visual past of great painting. Let’s face it, we over-educated POMOs sure can rattle off the big names, but we have real trouble accessing and understanding the visions created by them, let alone, entering into a cogent dialogue with them. We can reproduce or replicate style or subject, but we can’t seem to live through them, can’t SEE them anymore. As Dennis pared away at our contemporary dementia something older and more urgent began to take shape before my eyes.

Raphael Rubenstein in his now famous essay “Provisional Painting” describes a similar optical process of reduction favored by many Postmodernists. Theirs is a zero sum game brought on by the dictates of reproduction and replication, business and economy. They are masters of the ground, the dictates of production and the logistics of the commodity. There is no past, no history or memory because those connections are constantly being erased, refurbished; their work is “always already”, always accessible as something “new”. For the Provisionals there is no longer “juice” in visual power. Instead they give us optical entertainments. These painters remain mired in Postmodern affectlessness, confident that they know that painting, realized before Warhol, has nothing to offer us, here, in the 21st Century. But in Dennis Bellone’s work there are none of these provisional endgames. He is striving for something different.

Using the scraps of memory that are left outside the Provisional contexts, he moves away from their zero sum game into a dialogue with a grander painterly tradition. He is intent on understanding these connections and the ingrained visual instincts that they retrieve. These paintings are all about memory, or better, the loss and persistence of “genetic” artistic vision in great painting. There is something torrid and raging about the emptiness and spareness in his work. Dennis dares to unmoor our vision while giving us something to connect with – something to pull us across and through the surface into his fractured spaces. Beauty or ugliness plays out in a lost passage and a found line. Emotion is whipped up with the speed of the work as he slices through his images. Color and line fade in or out, washed or solid, scratched through or smeared in bits and pieces. It’s as if past and future have collided and Dennis has located the moment before they disappear into nothingness. These works DEMAND and DEMAND and DEMAND: look and look again and then look harder, fucker, until you see, really see. It’s Dennis’ unwavering insistence on memory, visual memory, that is challenging, thrilling and solid – suddenly you’ll catch a link to Lorrain, Courbet, Corot, Manet, Monet and others, right here, at the end of painted experience.

I was startled, as I turned the corner at the back of the long wall, to see two paintings blazing with pure color right in front of me – paintings solid, vibrant and alive. It was enervating because Dennis had found something definitively new in these paintings. They are still spare, economical, but there is something physically visual happening. The spaces are surely defined, the composition declarative and the colors are focused and deliberate. Sometimes we artists are selfish about the work that we connect with and like. We can’t help ourselves, and that’s the way it should be. I immediately felt connected to these paintings. The works had mutated, clarified what was tested in the others, become something else, something that I recognized as different and new. I understood that Dennis had moved beyond the endgame of Postmodern experience.

 

2010.a02. The title of the painting is like a library call number, a place for a stored memory, the cataloging of a lived/painted moment. It’s a sharp visual critique of itself and its making; a sly tribute to the onanism of painting. For contemporary painters, especially for the POMO Provisionals, this work is a direct challenge. Why paint, after all, and what does it say about you if you do? Dennis begins with the AbEx artists and then slides further back into Miro and Kandinsky without relying on their Modernist conventions. The composition is a blow up, inherited from the all-pervasive isolating lens that guides our understanding of space these days. This is not a thing in a field, but the subject up close. The image takes the entire surface, plowing and cracking the ground, breaking the glass of the “window”. The cartoon hand grasps the phallic shape right in the middle of the image. It’s a visual pun about the painter, “brush” in hand, ready to connect to the canvas. He’s daring us to stand in his place, to dig right into the fucking ground and open up our view. The quickness of the image remains Modern in feel, more like a loose Matisse or Pollock’s later brushy works. Those fast lines, truncated, paraphrased, hint at something both ridiculous and real, something rude being unveiled on the surface of the POMO billboard. But it’s the color that brings this sketch to life. The warmer hues on the right, the cooler on the left. The painter says the artist must remain at a distance, must remain grounded in nature to find the pictorial space. The green above and below, the sky blue between the fingers, hint at both tradition and nature. Their application reverses the academic irony of the “stroke”. Process isn’t meaningless nor is it an arch enterprise – it is imperative. The color is blown through with the brush, scrubbed in like the early Modernists used to. On the right the streaked pink and orange feel like solid architectures. They are armatures to structure the fragmenting image and sliding spaces. They hold the ground at bay. In between nature and abstraction, sliding through the smear and the stroke, is the thin, fast red movement of Dennis’ brush pooling at the bottom of the canvas. There is a price to be paid for this kind of painting, for the need to connect to something older, and there it is, one’s own blood. This painting works between natural occurrence and forced intention, a cool visual diatribe aimed squarely at the shallowness and inconsequence of the Postmodern optical auteur.

“No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will and out of his sight he is necessitated by the air he breathes and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is.” “The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays.” 1st series [Vol. 2]

On my way home after the afternoon at the firehouse I thought of that painting and the break it indicated. Emerson says that we are all products of our times and we must work with the tools we are given. That is where the individual must begin. Like many of us Dennis inherited the Postmodern tradition, and like many of us, he wants to paint something else – he is after a different visual outcome. And for me, at this time, this is a Romantic urge. These paintings, as tough and real as they are, push us to re-imagine our painterly past just as they move ahead out of the visual conundrum we find ourselves in.

For more about Dennis Bellone click here or the link in the sidebar.

George Hofmann – Painting Life

During one of our alcohol fueled conversations on Romanticism, Paul Corio mentioned to me that his colleague, teacher and friend George Hofmann was an inspired Romantic painter and would probably have some insight into our discussions. I was anxious to get the perspective of someone who had seen and experienced the changes happening in the new Postmodern art world first hand. George came of age when the focus of painting began to shift. Something new and definitive was beginning to alter the ways that we approached painting and interpreted vision. George has been kind enough to give us a bit of his personal history, and also, a few of his thoughts about the challenges facing painting today. I find it interesting that a lot of painters from his generation – for instance Hockney and Stella – found something missing in their approaches to painting. It sent them looking for clues in the past – not in a nostalgic sense, but in order to find a way out of the conundrum – what is visual, what is optical and how do we experience what we see? It’s clear that George came to these realizations in his own studio through a lifetime of work, and he’s willing to impart some of his hard earned wisdom and experience our way. So without any further gilding of the lily – George Hofmann

This must start a ways back: I was introduced to the great world of art in high school in the middle to late 1950’s: at the High School of Music and Art in New York, we had teachers who actually were practicing artists in New York, and they expected us to be conversant with what was going on – so seeing what was happening at the 10th St. galleries was a given. A lot of bad Abstract Expressionist work is mostly my memory. I knew it even then.

Then, in a removal, I went to art school in Germany, starting in 1959. It was a shock in many ways to go from a sophisticated art environment to a desert – everyone of consequence and importance to art had fled Germany, or been killed, and what remained was provincial and arid. In school I was regarded as a freak – my teacher thought my approach was “amusing”. All around me, people were just beginning to see Picasso – I had to remember, often, that it was for the first time – but, on the other hand, there was a pristine quality to the first viewers, and of course, there was History, in a big way, all around.

A German artist pointed out an Olitski painting which had just won the Carnegie International, and, by sheer chance, when I came back to the US, I was hired by Olitski to teach at C. W. Post College on Long Island. I liked Olitski, I liked his work, and we became friends; when he went off to Bennington College to teach, I often visited him and his family there, driving up from New York with huge cans of Magna paint from Bocour in the back seat of my VW, and Clement Greenberg in the front seat.

This was indeed the great world – but it seemed like a natural one to me, although I was certainly aware of the stature of those around me. I met Ken Noland, at whose house I stayed, I met David Smith, I met Paul Feeley and Vincent Longo and a host of other painters and sculptors – eventually, Anthony Caro, and Isaac Witkin and Phillip King – the whole of the Color Field school and related artists.

Professionalism then was everything. It signified commitment and passion in those artists, and this is the world I wanted to live in.

As it happened tho, fired by a new administration at C. W. Post, I eventually ended up getting a job teaching at Hunter College, which was then the seat of Minimalism, where Tony Smith reigned over a coterie of ex-helpers and like minded artists, and Gene Goossen was the genial chair. This was the enemy, in a way – the art world as I knew it was split between the Color Field and the Minimalist painters and sculptors. The rest were downtown somewhere, doing something insignificant. And I was an odd man out at Hunter, being suspect, because of my associations.

Still, I was true to my beliefs, but it was a shock when, after my first big show at French and Co. in 1970 (a terrible show), Nancy Hoffman, who was then director there, left to open her own gallery and began showing more commercially directed work. That was my first realization that something was seriously wrong in the art world; looking back, that all probably had its origins in the early 1960s, but I was removed from it at the time, and anyway, it didn’t count for much, even later, in terms of what I thought was important in art.

Altho a lot was being rattled in the 1960s, to pay strict attention to art, this was a period of dislocation for me as an artist; I was friendly with Robert Moskowitz, who had glued a window shade to a canvas and who had shown at Castelli (this was far removed from what I knew) and even Bob was confused by what was arising in the art world, but being part of the downtown scene, he fit in much better than I did then.

Circumstances led me to do some good work in the 1970s, despite personal difficulties, and by the time of the ‘80s I was doing work that sold, and was admired. I was asked by a real estate developer, Francis Greenburger, to head a new foundation for under-recognized artists, and I worked hard to establish his credentials in the art world and to put the foundation on a footing that represented the highest levels of the art world: Clement Greenberg and Robert Motherwell were among the judges that first year out (1986), and there was some comfort for me in the fact that recognition, of a sort, of real value in art, was still alive.

Meanwhile, of course, Pop art dominated the scene, and many other movements, however minor, became prominent for a season at a time. I felt more and more an iconoclast as a painter however, and after a horrendous outing as director of Triangle Workshop (Tony Caro’s summer camp for art) in 1988, I withdrew to the country. I still taught at Hunter (and that place was demoralized after Tony Smith died), but I felt more and more isolated as an artist in the beliefs that I still held – especially as my roots were in Abstract Expressionism, which, I felt more and more, was under-recognized as the seminal movement of our times, but more importantly, one not completed.

Isolation was a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to face what I really believed in, and what my deepest convictions were. Therapy helped a lot: confronting fears and weird beliefs in life helped me to face fears and weird beliefs in art, and the two eventually became intertwined, in the sense that the one taught me the other.

I came to see Abstract Expressionism as a natural phenomenon – one that, as in nature, could be felled by a lightning strike, or from incomplete growth within. I still believe this. AE emerged from the hard confrontations of people who had been born before electric light – theirs was a pioneering effort, and one that required such a tremendous effort and took such a tremendous toll that, perhaps, it was unsustainable. Real feeling, which was the aim, was very, very hard, and still is. Real honesty was very hard, and still is.

It was easy to see how Pop could take over – smart-assness can trump real emotion publicly with éclat, and it was much easier to digest for the newly rich who bought paintings not to have to do the hard work of understanding what painters were trying to do.

And: many artists lost their way, or retreated.

At the same time, the great educational effort in the arts produced a certain intellectualism in artists – the artists now were more and more academically trained, and less the “seat of the pants” types (in Bill Rubin’s phrase) who were the mainstays before.

Is it any wonder that these influences conflated, to produce what we have now?
The wonder is that it has lasted so long.

But again, real feeling is difficult – hard for artists and public alike. We have no religion to base it all in, we are swamped by commercialism, and the lack of candor generally itself breeds contempt.

My own position as an artist can therefore said to be that of a Romantic – if by Romantic is meant the Nearly Obliterated, yearning for light; that yearning seems to me the hallmark of those who “emphasize the imagination and emotions”, who value “sensibility and the use of autobiographical material”, who “exalt in the primitive and the common man”, who “appreciate external nature”, and who have an interest in “the remote”. According to Webster’s.

Count me in.

Postscript:

I didn’t say much about my studio practice:

For a very long time, I worked “despite” in the studio. I mean that I felt hemmed in by the constraints imposed (or self-imposed) on me by the discipline, as I saw it, of the field. I took this very, very personally and it was a long, long struggle.

It had its moments: I realized, early on, that the painters I admired – Olitski, Noland, Louis and others – had opened the Field – that was what Color Field meant to me – and that it was opened for me. I wasn’t conceited about this, it simply felt very real, and a good thing. And I related this openness to the great works of the past which I had seen in Europe when I was a student. My father was born in Wurzburg, Germany, and when I was there, where my relatives still lived, I saw, and loved the Tiepolo frescos in the Treppenhaus in the palace there. That space deeply stayed with me, and I thought, every time I saw Olitski’s early Color Field paintings that this field that had been opened for me related directly to that extreme of pictorial space in Tiepolo.

But I took the self-criticizing that was built in to the rigor of professionalism to a point where, finally, my partner, Patty Kerr Ross, a woman with a great eye and great judgment told me that I had to get Clement Greenberg out of my studio.

This is where what I had learned in therapy began to help me in my work. Later, when I was whining to Paul Corio (who had been my student at Hunter) about the fact that you could not avoid the pictorial space in painting, even with all the rigor in the world, he famously said to me “why not embrace it?” The teacher learns from the student.

In a way, opening, and admitting, the pictorial space in my painting, and facing what happened in that space became One.

It also caused me to look more deeply at artists I hadn’t really “seen” before – Degas, for instance, and certainly Hans Hofmann. Indeed, I became more open to lots of painters I hadn’t admitted into my private pantheon – seeing many traits that were estimable in many artists I had only given short shrift to; my critical intelligence expanded, and while this often involved hard work and dilemmas, the realizations were great as well.

I also learned to look more closely, and more generously, at what was happening around me: much of what has happened in painting in the last few decades has been, in various ways, involved in the fracture of pictorial space, and although this is not the subject matter of most painting, fractured space has been a hallmark, one probably connected to digitalization, of art for a while now. I think, from a close study of this phenomenon, that what will emerge will be a new conceptualization – a new pictorial space; as in any organic process, old forms die, and new forms emerge from the fallen.

For myself, I’ve gone through many difficult and trying periods in the studio: one day, as I was standing with a power saw in front of a new “painting” I realized that the pictorial space that interested me wasn’t physical, and that meant that the space I was after had to really be pictorial, period; as I couldn’t be in another century, or in any place other than where I was, that I had to find a solution, my own solution, to this. I did it by leaning on the masters I knew, Tiepolo, Degas, maybe Hofmann, even Bonnard, and, of course, the greatest of the greats, Velasquez.

The stripped-downness of the painters of the early Renaissance is now very compelling to me – the Duccio Madonna in the Met is perhaps the most compelling picture I’ve seen in a long, long time, and has become a model for me.

At the same time, allowing myself not to be perfect in painting has become something difficult to really accept, and, as in a conundrum, ultimately the most rewarding of efforts. Learning from therapy, I’ve seen that you can’t change the past, but you can work with what you’ve got – change has become a deep part of the process to me; a friend, Richard Garrison (a conceptual artist) said the work is now more like “a recorded mess”. I like this, as that’s what life is, I think.

For more work by and about George Hofmann click the link here!

Romanticism – Gray Flannel Artists

What we are doing in this ongoing series on Romanticism is adjusting your vision. We’re not interested in the usual Postmodern discussion formats or the same institutional approaches to the same kind of painting. Nor are we interested in looking back to a golden age. We are simply trying to find and describe a new vision, a new approach that will take us beyond the limits of the 20th Century; Modernism and Postmodernism.

Since the emergence of the Postmodern “executive artists” in the 1960s the way art is made, experienced and perceived has changed dramatically. And as artists have become more invested in the Art Market we’ve seen them espousing philosophies and practices that parallel those cherished by the larger business community. This has brought about an International Style, a Global School, an Institutional economy, and a singular approach to the production, presentation and dissemination of Art. The Romantic artist can not exist as he or she once did, nor can today’s Romantic artist make art (especially painting) in the old ways with the old visions. We are beyond that, we can’t afford that sort of naivety. That being said our “executive artists” can not EVER reach for something higher and grander than the professional world of business art – the market for the Gray Flannel artist can not, will not move beyond the simplicity of advertising, the uniformity of production or the ubiquity of copyright. What has been lost in the age of our executive artists is VISION; personal, grand and thrilling. Something that incorporates both the high and the low, the ridiculous and the sublime, the life of the mind and the emotion of the heart. These have all become scary things to talk about or paint because they require revealing oneself, declaring what one is, what one does. This is anathema for any executive. Maintaining a fluid essence is paramount in a constantly changing economic environment. In business one must cultivate the appearance that one can be all things to all potential customers.

Another change to the making of art since 1960 involved a shift away from aesthetic innovation to legal confrontation. Appropriation is the preferred tool for re-contextualizing the endless torrent of cultural product that is produced in the hyper-replicating lens based programming industry. Everything, every image, every program, book, song or movie is available at anytime in any form or format for a price. The way we define original acts is no longer in their creation but in their re-creation. The problem therefore is not with a history of constant aesthetic innovation; we are in a Post-aesthetic era. The problem is institutional – legal – copyright. There may never be another real uproar over aesthetic change or “dangerous” thought – radical ideas are quickly applied, subsumed or rejected through economic potentialities. Cultural ideas are marketed and tested with the consumer through spectacle and entertainment. (That is part of the reason there are no REAL critics any longer – there are only art writers.) The success of “art” is determined in the market place not through visual power or argument. The cultural uproar over the works of Picasso, Matisse or Pollock, the legal problems that faced James Joyce and Henry Miller – these are now the tattered remnants of aesthetic arguments in the Modernist age. These problems existed because there was a separation between culture, economics and politics. However in the Postmodern age these elements of an advanced society have all been subsumed into a larger institution – Empire. Business determines all aspects of the production and innovation of cultural products. There are no distinctions made between the facets of Empire – one feeds into the other – it is a vast tautological economy designed around the production, distribution and sales of goods and services. The artist no longer works outside the system, no longer works in spite of the system. Everything is business, and therefore, the professional artist is regulated by the same economic, legal and political institutions as any other business professional. Today when an artist breaks the rules he is challenging regulation, legal precedent rather than historical aesthetic precedent. The civil action has become the final arbiter of artistic success. The artist is seen as a “defendant” and if he loses the action the art is sanctified as “illegal” by the court. Litigation has replaced innovation, and in a weird twist, the Courts now decide if a work is “avant grade”. Business is truly the best art in the Postmodern age, and the Gray Flannel Artist works to fulfill business precepts.

I’ve been pulling together some things that may illustrate these points. We are used to reading about and seeing painting about painting, art about art, art about media experience, the end of the personal, the pictures generation, relational aesthetics, extended fields, conceptual practices – you name it, we live in an age of art product. Art has become full of business philosophies about market economies, production practices and executive cultures thinly disguised as art philosophies. These are all things that we must understand if we are to do something else, SEE something else, if we are to make a difference on the “canvas”.

“About what Judd contemptuously called “the salient and most objectionable relics of European art,” he was nothing if not explicit: “It suits me fine,” he said in a radio interview in 1964, “if that’s all down the drain.” He clearly meant it, too, for what was needed, in his view, was an art that would radically occlude all connection not only with the great traditions of the distant past but also with the kind of latter day modernism that he had come to regard as the depleted remnants of a moribund culture. For Judd, art itself had become a utopian project.” Hilton Kramer “Does Abstract Art Have a Future?”

“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Grover Norquist

“With the Schmagoo paintings, I really wanted to be able to be careless … work on them for a while, crumple them up in a ball, throw them in the corner. It was a relief. I like the idea that someone could spill a glass of wine on one of these things and it would be no big deal.” Joe Bradley

“You have enough to worry about…a messy stain should not be one of them!” Oxyclean

“…No subject/No image/No taste/ No object/No beauty/No message/No talent/No technique…I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows…” John Cage on the occasion of a showing of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings.

“…practitioners of the shock doctrine tend to seek a blank slate on which to create their ideal free market economies, which inevitably requires a usually violent destruction of the existing economic order.” Wikipedia entry for the Shock Doctrine.

“The business of America is Business.” Calvin Coolidge

“Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” Andy Warhol

In a free-enterprise, private-property sys­tem, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct re­sponsibility to his employers. That responsi­bility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while con­forming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. Milton Friedman “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”

“This is about chaos. This is why it’s called Operation Chaos! It’s not called Operation Save Hillary. It’s not called Operation Nominate Obama. It’s called Operation Chaos! The dream end… I mean, if people say what’s your exit strategery, the dream end of this is that this keeps up to the convention and that we have a replay of Chicago 1968, with burning cars, protests, fires, literal riots, and all of that. That’s the objective here.” Rush Limbaugh “Why It’s Called Operation Chaos”

“Only conservatives believe that subversion is still being carried on in the arts and that society is being shaken by it. Advanced art today is no longer a cause /it contains no moral imperative. There is no virtue in clinging to principles and standards, no vice in selling or in selling out.” Harold Rosenberg “The Cultural Situation Today”

What would it look like not to repress the concept of the copy? What would it look like to produce a work that acted out the discourse of reproductions without originals, that discourse which could only operate in Mondrian’s work as the inevitable subversion of his purpose, the residue of representationality that he could not sufficiently purge from the domain of his paintings? The answer to this, or at least one answer, is that it would look like a certain kind of play with the notions of photographic reproduction that begins in the silkscreen canvases of Robert Rauschenberg…. Rosalind Kraus “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths”

“Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.” Nassim Taleb “The Black Swan”

Avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. And this is because its occult aims and uncertain future have been successfully translated into homely terms. For far-out modernism, we can now read ‘speculative growth stock’; for apparent quality, ‘market attractiveness’; and for adverse change of taste, ‘technical obsolesence’. A feat of language to absolve a change of attitude. Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria” 1968

In January the Paris-based A&F Markets launched the online Art Exchange — on which investors can buy and sell shares in individual art-works — to a mixed reception. “Can an online exchange turn artworks into liquid assets?” Judd Tully Art Info

Josh Smith wanted to create a show of paintings that looked like something else. The intention was to make “art without an art object” and to take the commodity out of the art. There is nothing in the exhibition to covet or to buy. The work is only to be looked at. He wanted to “bring painting down.””

“What makes painting “impossible”? What makes “great” painting impossible? Perhaps it is a sense of belatedness, a conviction that an earlier generation or artist has left only a few scraps to be cleaned up. Or maybe, at a particular moment, in a particular life and history, nothing could seem more presumptuous or inappropriate—maybe even obscene—than to set out to create a masterpiece. Impossibility can also be the result of the artist making excessive demands on the work, demands to which current practice has no reply. At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.” Raphael Rubenstein Provisional Painting

Prince testified that he has no interest in the original meaning of the photographs he uses. See RP Tr. at 338. Prince testified that he doesn’t really have a “message” he attempts to communicate when making art. RP Tr. at 45-46. In creating the Paintings, Prince did not intend to comment on any aspects of the original works or on the broader culture. Cariou v. Prince et al.

The Romantic artist no longer exists and the legacy of engagement, rebellion and innovation OUTSIDE the accepted structures of taste has been lost. These days I’m thinking that it has become time to paint and talk about art that is “presumptuous or inappropriate-maybe even obscene”. Ideas that wouldn’t be understood by the crowds accustomed to institutionally sanctioned critique. Ideas that would fly in the aesthetic face of global brand consciousness and business first attitudes in the Art World. Something that is one’s own, wrought with one’s own sweat and effort and sacrifice, expressing one’s own unique vision, one’s own will to be different, not for the sake of difference but because one is truly different.

Memory & the Real

Power, Corruption & Lies, released in March 1983 (by New Order), was a synthesizer-based outing and a dramatic change in sound from Joy Division and the preceding album, although the band had been hinting at the increased use of technology during the music-making process for a number of years then, including their work as Joy Division. Starting from what earlier singles had hinted, this was where the band had found their footing, mixing early techno music with their earlier guitar-based sound and showing the strong influence of acts like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder.”

Where do we find “reality” these days? When the virtual and the physical collide what happens to our vision? How do we “see” our lives, the things we love, the world of our memories? Is it all a little off kilter, slightly slanted through our own dematerialized electronic vision or are we seeing reality for what it is? Is there any objectivity to our subjective desires when can not “see” without our technological extensions? In Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” there’s that famous bit of “reality hunger” stretched across the bottom of the painting. It’s a weird unknown thing intruding into our vision. When you look at it from one point perspective the life of the time is there in front of you, a picture perfect lens representation of two very grand individuals and all of their worldly goods. Step to the side and suddenly the picture goes out of sync. What comes into focus is a Momento Mori, a skull rises up before you in crystal clear optical perfection – Death. Somewhere between the straight on picture perfection and the side-stepped optical play we are being chided by the artist to remember that even though we may find this vision of power and opulence desirous, it is ephemeral. A slight adjustment to one’s perspective and a new reality will intrude.

Rauschenberg uttered his famous tag line about the gap between art and life at the beginning of our Postmodern Age. The gap was, at first, used to cleanse Modernism of its visual past and open it to new interpretations. It was a step to the side. However, this facile answer to the Gordian challenge of the time was quickly institutionalized and used to carve out meaning from painting, history and memory. This process changed how we related to what Art could be, how we experienced it and how we made it. 60 years later, Rauschenberg’s gap, intended to create new critiques and new forms, is nothing but a factory tool used to manufacture art products for a consumer-directed, top down Art Investment Economy. In painting after painting we can see the workings of the well-worn shop tools of appropriation, deconstruction and dematerialization used to produce institutionally sanctioned product, i.e., the well-made art object. We’ve grown enamored with the reality engendered through this one point perspective in our Art, on our screens and in our lives. It turns out that we’ve grown comfortable submerged in the gap. We’re not interested in climbing out. Like the beautiful vision of power and opulence in Holbein’s piece we’ve grown accustomed to looking straight onto the picture plane. “What you see is what you see!”

I saw a work by Michael Zahn in a group show a few years ago and it stuck with me – it was the best thing in the show actually. It looked slightly off, not that it didn’t work in the show with the other abstractions – it did. It just didn’t fit comfortably with the other works – it was unique. The painting was very simple really. Four canvases stacked one on the other, done in a “minimal” style, using high keyed color, like the color projected from a video monitor. The “paintings” were representations of the “notes” program on a Mac. They were stacked, like they are in that program, blank, ready to be filled. I thought they were as bold as you please, out there on the wall. Stella and Halley came to mind immediately, but with a difference. They weren’t necessarily about systems, or about mathematics, or even about “minimalism” – but about memory. They stayed with me, troubling me, as I walked through Chelsea blowing in and out of the galleries. What notes? Why the insistent color? Why am I supposed to remember something? Why was the program now actually in my fucking space, or worse, maybe I was in the program? I was perplexed by the idea of the empty reminder – was I supposed to fill these stacked things with my thoughts, ideas, passing quandaries? I had a nagging feeling that I had forgotten something, something important, and the reminder, glaring right at me, was daring me to come up with the memory, to fill in the blanks. That painting was inscrutible, it didn’t declare anything. Michael wanted us to remember, to think, and all he gave us was this bright, colorful “nothing,” this painting, a thing that looked like a program. He had depicted the pure Neo-Platonic beauty humming beneath the program’s surface. The painting was neatly scrubbed clean through and presented as an airless electronic representation. This painting rematerialized on the other side of the program, and suddenly, I felt I had to step sideways to understand what I was looking at. Beautiful, distrubing.

In many of Michael’s works he reveals the mechanics of optical electronic images as they unfold in the virtual world. You can see the packets of information sterilized right on the surface of the Modernist grid. The painting freezes the download, cauterizes the process of appearance in the paint, subverts the Postmodern quotation. In his paintings we are given the mathematical precision of “reality” unfolding in equations. Michael then uses this blunt optical language of manufactured Minimalism to drop the processes of algorithmic imagery right into our laps. The stretcher bar is wide, at times, like Stella’s or Halley’s, pushing the image away from the wall, creating a thicker presentation surface. This tends to remove the image from the wall while it’s being disguised as an emphatic thing – a trope of Post-Minimal painting. But instead of the “thing” we are confronted with our very own Postmodern ground. The image doesn’t project into our space like an image on the screen. It insinuates itself into the space of the room. It’s both virtual image and physical reality, ground and thing. As we confront this unfolding download something changes in our perception. We are participating in a tangential optical PROCESS as it manifests the codes of the image in paint. Michael is wrenching information from the nebulous electronic ground and re-presenting it as reality. Something isn’t right any longer with the way we see these things. Our vision has been tainted by the “gap.” We’ve stepped sideways again.

It’s there that we begin to see that this electronic approximation of an image has warped our idea of what painting should do, of what a painting should be. The surety and fixity of the surfaces of Judd or Stella, the fictive systems of Halley, have all gone viral in Michael’s work. We can not submerge our vision into the ground or slide away on the surface. In the reality of the space of the gallery, our physical memories must become more important, more real – they cause a glitch in the program. It’s as if this approximation of “reality” forces us to side step away from our fixed point of view and the predetermined outcomes of the Postmodern program. Visual touch becomes imperative to understanding while we’re looking at this unsettling discursive reality. We have to fill in the blanks, manipulate the virtual while it unfolds in painted time. This is a different kind of painterliness, one that doesn’t drip down the surface in a false approximation of brand-like stylishness. We discover that our lives must provide these blank surfaces with our memories, provide a depth of focus to the blurred boundaries of these unfolding equations. The work’s stark, beautiful, unapologetic color tugs at our physical perceptions. It pushes us to move away from the single point perspective. We feel our fleshy existence edge forward against the program, and when we do, we come up against the idea of painting itself. The subject, our existence, comes into sharp, chrystalline focus against the god damned thing.

Michael used the image of New Order’s album cover from a jpeg found on the internet. Originally, the picture was a work by Fantin-Latour, a 19th Century academic realist, who probably used lenses and mathematics to make his works. The record cover, a reproduction of that painting, also included a coded color chart corresponding to information about the record. In Michael’s painting he has sought out and isolated part of this online image in pixels, and he has made the “coded” color chart different and more emphatic. The color chart changes its meaning as it intensifies and enlarges it’s colors. Nothing on the surface of Michael’s painting is quite as the original or the replication as presented – the painting, the album cover or the virtual image. But the feeling implicit in those images persists. In the blur and buzz of Michael’s painting we feel that maybe we’ve forgotten something important about what we are looking at.

Fantin-Latour’s painting is a Momento Mori. It’s a still life exploring the emphemeral nature of beauty, sex and death, depicted in a 19th century, academically sanctioned, lens-based image. The flowers are in full bloom just a day or two away from browning, wilting and dying. This moment of beauty lasts for a very short time, and it’s just time enough for us to step sideways, to relish that ephemeral moment in this painting. For a generation that was coming to age during the 1980s this image would prove to be prescient. The record cover based on the image commemorates and celebrates fragility – for the band New Order, the end of one time and the beginning of another. The connections to art history, academic still life painting, youthful rebellion, coded visual language, and beauty, sex and rock & roll open our memories to older art forms and new understanding. All of this is “pixelated” through Michael’s painting of the replication of the reproduction. But the download is not done for us. The grid remains unfilled and Michael dares us to fill it in – but with what? There is no Postmodern irony at work, no direct critique of the mediated experience. The painting demands a different encounter, one connected to our own memories. It’s here that my thoughts, my experience, begin to work with the image and with the “thing.” Rather than falling into the ground or skating over the surface I had to reach further inward to understand the vision. This for me is a Romantic encounter.

What is happening, for a few of us, is that we are looking to find something lost, something glossed over, something that was raw and imperative to painting, something that could speak to the relevance and history of vision in our own time. Memories of certain moments in our lives, certain spaces, sounds, and touch all come to play through that vision, through the way that we see. Those are moments that can be and have been lost to the cynical Postmodern sense of nostalgia. So much of painting these days is about nostalgia, about some former greatness of visual encounter. But in the gauzy, mediated experience of Provisional Painting this sort of nostalgia is false and absurd. It’s something thoughtful painters should guard against, something to react against. Painting isn’t precious. It’s should be tougher, more powerful than that. To engage VISUALLY one must remember. Memory is not the same thing as nostalgia. Memory is viscous, it’s alive and critical. It doesn’t create a glow of comfort or wonder. It doesn’t yearn for the better days or the promise of youth. Memory is subjective history, all good and bad at the same time. It points out our short comings and reveals our strengths – it is bittersweet. Michael understands this and uses it unflinchingly in his best works. The idea of the replication, of the empty ground, refers us back onto our own histories and Michael pushes us to remember – the vision, the image, the space, the passcode. His paintings don’t re-present the past with the glow of a warmed over present. He doesn’t gently nudge the confines of academic styles. Michael pushes us into our own memories through the downloading image. He demands that we engage with our humanity even as the technological sublime washes away our physical connections.

It’s an active visual engagement with persistent history that twists the replication into an older visual tradition, and for me, it echos and re-presents a true Romantic encounter in this mediated age. Romanticism as it manifested through the Modern Era always took us into the unexplored self of both the painter and the viewer. The great works bring us back to our visual touch, the physical memory inherent in vision, and the feeling we get when we REALLY see something through and through. That emotional connection is about our own humanity. That feeling comes from memory not some manufactured idea of reality, or some ad man’s idea of comfort, or some academic’s clever appropriation. It’s the part of us that makes each of us truly unique, truly human. I’ve stepped sideways in front a few of Michael’s paintings because they describe this moment, this time. They remind me that I’ve forgotten and they dare me to remember.

Romanticism in America – Part III

What you’re looking at is an old Romantic. De Kooning is at the end of his run, the last of his bunch. But it turned out he had one thing left to do. Throughout his career he had held on to his European painting heritage unlike the homegrown AbExers. It was a smart move. He had taken Cubism and Expressionism and made them more physical, more material, and in that way, more American – but those works were still rooted in the tradition of outwardly directed visual painting. De Kooning never confronted the optical spirituality and inner experience of his American painter colleagues. This optical experience in American painting is the beginning of what has become the predominant Postmodern subject matter – the all consuming ground. It’s the point where vision changed from seeing to experiencing, from visual thought to optical interaction. For the American Romantic it’s the ground, the “arena” where the deeper issues of experience begin to take place. In a funny way this is a post-existential stance where Hell is no longer the other because the subject, the other, has been submerged into the ground – there is no “other” only the “one.” What we are talking about is the dematerialization of the self into something larger, more powerful, and this kind of evangelical spiritual experience threads all through AbEx painting, and that’s its final, explicit subject matter. It’s in these last years, fighting age and dementia, that De Kooning finally dissolves his rising subject into the field of American Romantic painting.

Now I know for most of you, your eyes will be rolling about in your head at this moment. WTF ‘s up with this “spirituality?” To which I say, “Well for Christ sakes mate – have you read Rothko or Newman?” If somehow you’ve missed those heated tomes then you really haven’t a freakin’ clue as to why the new downtown crowd in 1950s NYC could only take so much of the AbEx moralizing – both in person and in paint. To put it succinctly, most of the best American painters sounded like Evangelicals, and whether we like it or not, this strain of American Romanticism certainly comes out of this country’s faith-based historicism and the never-ending struggle to match belief with reality.

Let me tell you all something straight out. AbEx truly drained the well dry of visual transcendence for the generations of thirsty, wild eyed artists that came after them. Since 1960 any declaration of deep experiential spirituality and otherworldly experience contained in one’s work will clear a room in 15 seconds flat. And by that I mean that any kind of OTT testifying, especially in Postmodern NYC, will mark you as unprofessional, and more possibly, a yokel from the sticks. To combat this perception and keep alive some semblance of the American Romantic tradition this evangelical strain of theoretics has been mitigated and professionalized among artists. Instead of heated rhetoric or purple prose about life and death, we use other coded words like “beauty,” “critique,” or “craft” to urge the viewer to rummage through a historical, experiential rolodex winding one back into the coded theoretics of the sublime. We have professionalized transcendence in order to make it palatable for a public looking for indulgent popular entertainments.

Look, in the late 40s the entire world was still recovering from the viciousness of industrialized warfare. A lot of American Artists had struggled through the Depression, the War, endless rejection and poverty, loneliness, and personal demons that you and I don’t have a clue about here in our fat, Postmodern comfort zone. They bathed less, sweated more, had bad teeth, fretted harder and got old and sick real fast. There wasn’t a lot of time for these painters to fuck around with the concept of professionalism when the moment, the opportunity, to succeed finally came. Paris lay in ruins, bereft of ideas, and Americans were in a great position to take the lead in the Art game. At first you could forgive a few good artists a bit of narcissism about their connections to larger than life issues. Something different was actually coming into being in the studios on 10th Street, and if these works were about the larger issues of life and death all the better. Like Newman said – a still life or a portrait just wouldn’t cut it anymore.

But the 1950s were a bit different and attitudes were beginning to change. Money was coming in, collectors were lining up, and worldly success was a REAL possibility. The career game was the goal for a new class of university trained professionals, and AbEx with its hard times and lean world view, began to look a bit dated, a bit too strident, and a bit too moralistic. New money wanted bigger entertainments, more clubbiness, more interaction with personable careerists. And like any newly powerful class they wanted to be lionized by the great artists of their day. For this American equestrian class, the new corporate elite, Pollock pissing in a fireplace was a happening entertainment. An artist was expected to be a bit different after all…But in this new economy and with these new captains of industry footing the bill there really wasn’t much room for preachers of any kind.

“The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”

“Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our dramas: art’s most profound moments express this frustration. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy. It became fond of the dark, and enveloped its objects in the nostalgic intimations of a half-lit world. For me the great achievements of the centuries in which the artist accepted the probable and familiar as his subjects were the pictures of the single human figure – alone in a moment of utter immobility.”

Both quotes from Rothko – “The Romantics Were Prompted.”

The American artists under discussion create a truly abstract world which can be discussed only in metaphysical terms. These artists are at home in the world of pure idea, in the meanings of abstract concepts, just as the European painter is at home in the world of cognitive objects and materials. And just as the European painter can transcend his objects to build a spiritual world, so the American transcends his abstract world to make that world real, rendering the epistemological implications of abstract concepts with sufficient conviction and understanding to give them body and expression.

They start with the chaos of pure fantasy and feeling, with nothing that has any known physical, visual or mathematical counterpart, and they bring out of this chaos of emotion images that give these intangibles reality. There is no struggle to go to the fantastic through the real to the abstract through the real. Instead the struggle is to bring out from the nonreal, from the chaos of ecstasy something that evokes a memory of the emotion of an experienced moment of total reality.

Both quotes from Newman – “Response to Clement Greenberg.”

In the 1950s this kind of proselytizing was hard stuff for many younger artists coming of age. It was even worse when the second wave of AbEx painters invoked the same philosophies and expectations to legitimate they’re academic knock offs. For the younger artists with different ideas that second generation was just hanging at The Club or the Cedar Bar, styling their works after the old men and faking the large issues. The new, hungry crowd weren’t having any of that posing. By 1960 brush strokes and grounds were simply optical experiences of “pure beauty” or coded language to be deconstructed. De Kooning had been “erased” by a young upstart and “sent up” with a couple of beer cans by another – Somebody told me that Bill de Kooning said that you could give that son-of-a-bitch (Castelli) two beer cans and he could sell them. I thought, what a wonderful idea for a sculpture.” – Japer Johns.

AbEx, the first real fine art of American culture, quickly took a back seat to a new generation of younger, hipper, and quite frankly, more American artists that were coming into view. They had different ideas about what Art should look like, how it should be produced and what it should be about. This was also the moment when the institutionalization of AbEx marked the aesthetic decline and intellectual bankruptcy of the AbEx generation. The ideas stopped, the progress stalled, and most of the remaining Masters fell victim to their own hubris.

De Kooning

The criticism through the Postmodern decades was fierce. De Kooning went out to Long Island and worked to reconnect to a larger history through his own life. So what was the difference for De Kooning in those later years? What happened in those late works that brought a new kind of “American-ness” to his painting? The big change is his willingness to jettison the visual need to put a “thing in a field” that so defines European painting. This used to be seen in the isolation of the subject, the connection of the subject to visual thought, but now, for Willem, it carries a difference. In these later works De Kooning has moved in on the rising subject, he has found the ground in the subject itself and stretched it across the surface of the painting. You are looking at both the thing on the wall and the visual confrontation with the subject, the other. This is not vision in the physical, fleshy sense. It is vision enhanced, enlarged and connected more to physical touch. In these works we have to confront the idea of the lens and the close up, we are moving into a more feeling vision a more grappling kind of subjectivity, one closer to the optical field and the experiential vision of the other AbEx painters. But unlike the American Romantic he never lets go, he never shuts out the world in front of him. He must react to the subject, carry the subject into his transcended painting. The ground rises up to swallow our vision but De Kooning pushes us back into that very subject again and again. We feel the limb, the torso, the movement of the thigh, but we can’t really “see” it as we do with Picasso or Matisse. This vision has been abstracted into the stroke, the smear, the scumble – we feel the vision through our enhanced encounter. Rothko’s late works were all about the ground rising up and swallowing us into their blackness where we are no longer able to see, where all that was left was the experience of color. But De Kooning fought against this optical urge to dematerialize and submerge into the ground. He still needs the outward viewpoint – he is not interested in submerging, he is interested in grappling with his own visual understanding, his memory, his own flesh.

This is the beginning of a different kind of Romantic encounter, both visual and optical at once – transcendent and physical. It’s different than Postmodernism because it’s steeped in memory, in real world encounters with human experience. These works aren’t about media or about critique. Nor are they appropriations of second hand experience. They don’t rely on the physicality of materials or the primacy of surface and side. These works are about the passing of life, time, memory and vision – an older form of Romanticism, one connected to the primacy of individuating visual experience. It is vision that puts us up against another. It pulls optical abstraction through the flesh, it connects us visually to one another in a way that the “transcended” AbEx painters never could. Late De Kooning, for me, is brave work from an old man furiously hanging on to his memories, his touch and mostly, his vision. It is in these works that he became the quintessential American Romantic.

We’ll continue Romanticism…