Notes – 19 SIXTY

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

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

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

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

Too Dubai

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice. Paul Krugman NY TImes Editorial

Look, I value the constructive criticism and healthy debate that is a foundation of American democracy. I don’t think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that good ideas are the province of any party. The American people know that our challenges are great. They’re not expecting Democratic solutions or Republican solutions – they want American solutions. And I have said that to those who have criticized the plan.
But what I have also said is – don’t come to table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped create this crisis.
We’re not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that in eight short years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin. We can’t embrace the losing formula that offers more tax cuts as the only answer to every problem we face, while ignoring critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, the soaring cost of health care, failing schools and crumbling bridges, roads and levees. I don’t care whether you’re driving a hybrid or an SUV – if you’re headed for a cliff, you have to change direction. President Barak Obama

The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more. Holland Cotter The Boom is Over Long Live the Art

Right now, what’s going to work is something their customer doesn’t have in her closet and that has a real intrinsic sense of value. …Because to be honest there’s been too much product, too much copy-catting, and, probably too much consumerism. I think a sense of clarity, a sense leveling off and a sense of reality is needed. Anna Wintour

These quotes from players in the economic, political and cultural worlds let us know that something big is happening. Many of us are beginning to realize that the times are definitely a-changin’. Doesn’t matter what part of culture you reside in these days its all about coming up with something to fix the mess. I guess we are heralding in the era of the big idea. Unfortunately in our Art World there hasn’t been an idea, a really new idea, in decades. At least not one that changed anything about art, and the thought that a big idea is needed is starting to scare the pants off of those without a clue. Change can be a scary mother, man. Let’s face it – after we accepted the security of a corporatized art world we signed away any rights for real change. In order to fit in to the economic mix our art market became very adept at appearing to be legit to the equestrian investor classes. “Art as an investment” has been the mantra for so long that we actually began to believe our own hype. Christ, there are still art blogs and web sites offering feel good lessons on how to market your work, what your slide portfolio, web sight, business card and go-to-meetin’ attire should look like. These business hucksters are even advising artists on how to ingratiate themselves to the powers that be. But that sort of Barnes and Noble “self-help” crap just doesn’t cut it anymore. You won’t find any ideas coming out of a consultant’s mouth, least of all, an idea that might challenge the entrenched. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is stable at the moment and all those fixed ideas about markets, careers and “success” are all in flux. The so-called power brokers don’t have much power any longer, if they ever did. In fact they only had the power we gave them. In any case, the old ways, the actions that brought us to this moment just won’t cut it any longer – “don’t come to table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped create this crisis” indeed!

But sometimes you just gotta love a POMO. Leave it to Anna Wintour to nail down this particular moment with this simple and devastating phrase – “I don’t think anyone is going to want to look overly flashy, overly glitzy, too Dubai, whatever you want to call it.” At least not in the institutional old ways – we will make our own flash!

Existenz – 19 SIXTY

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

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

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

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

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

19 Sixty will continue…

POMO Empire – 19 SIXTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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