Art Writing Etc.

While things have been out of sorts here at Henri for the last few weeks I’ve been trying to stay connected to the art writers I really appreciate. Lately, I’ve been reading Charlie Finch’s work on artnet with both reverence and concern. Charlie’s writing in the last few months has been superlative. He gave an amazing critique of Dana Schutz’s new paintings which was both tough and tender. He’s been incisively commenting on photography – a show at MOMA and a heartfelt crit of Berkeley’s recent work. What is superlative in these recent posts is that Charlie has found a re-newed sharpness in his vision, and it’s coming through in his writing. My concern though is for the depth of Charlie’s angst about the state of art – which has been extremely poignant of late. In the last few posts there is no hope, no redemption and a great feeling of loss and ennui –

“For months, I have been meaning to write a piece called “The Death of Fine Art,” but couldn’t quite compel myself to believe it. After touring “Younger than Jesus,” I believe it. I have never seen a show like it before. It is antiseptic, safe, death to hierarchies of taste and distinctions of talent, and yet determined to neutralize our eyes with an overload of useless information. Apparently the 50 artists in the show were chosen from 500 finalists, any 50 of whom could be exchanged with the others.” That is from his assessment of the Jesus Gang.
In Charlie’s last post he finds America’s soul best exemplified in our obsessions for Sports and Porn and he asks, “…Is that all there is?”

This would read as misanthropic and bleak if Charlie’s writing wasn’t as sharp as it is. That being said I don’t always agree with Charlie, and that too is the point of good art writing. I like a strong opinion and a very strong writer, just as I like a strong artist. I find Charlie’s toughness and sharpness always challenging and inspirational whether it suits me or not. I HIGHLY recommend you check out Charlie’s latest posts if you get a chance. They are challenging, spiteful, truthful and masterful.

Incidentally while things are not quite back on an even keel here at Henri we should have more on tap soon. Stay tuned!

The Conundrum – Style Vs Brand

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”
Kipling The Conundrum of the Workshops

These days most everything done in the Art World is very, very pretty and it’s always promoted as Art. I thought of this as I stumbled through the MOMA show of Martin Kippenberger’s work the other day. Meandering into the galleries and looking at these works gives one the feeling that the well worn theoretical tracks of anxious objects and offhand throwaways are now decorously tasteful and bourgeois in their ways, and yes, a lot of that Art is very, very pretty. Today most all of the institutional usual suspects have been re-discovering – yet again – that “anti-beauty” is pretty. It’s the natural order of things – the malevalent dog ages into the family pet, the revolutionary becomes the bureaucrat. Maybe Kippenberger would enjoy this idea, maybe not. After looking at his paintings for a while I also found that his theoretics weren’t above the concept of beauty – in fact in many of these works he courted beauty at arm’s length, keeping a respectful distance. How do I know this? Kippenberger’s color is lovely and very German through and through. There is that foresty green that is never acidic, the chartreuse that looks so sour, the red that is dirt rich, the yellows that burnish into golds and the blues that fade quickly in the pasty whites. Beautiful. And Art. What is apparent straight away is that he painted even though he was neither a natural painter nor even an interesting one. His paintings are all half realized. It’s also visually apparent that the idea that started the painting was much faster and more fulfilling than the realization it demanded. Alternatively, if he had worked the paint maybe the idea would have become dull and thin. Bill DeKooning once said that painters usually don’t have very good ideas – and he was right. It’s all in how you handle it. Either way, Kippenberger didn’t want or need to master the craft or even worry about how using a certain craft might convey an idea. He was on to other things. Once one removes oneself from the game one isn’t judged by its rules. If one doesn’t develop a style one can be anything to anyone. In the end the painting really didn’t matter – Kippy was way too busy producing Art. What was the Devil whispering in his ear?

MOMA has also included a great many of the artful objects he concocted using the now academic ham-handed-spit-and-wire technique. These urbane sort of primitive objects are displayed at MOMA like we have been transported to a demented IKEA showroom (and the museum’s architecture doesn’t dissuade one from thinking this.) Of course this is part of his point. These retrofitted objects are art-like consumer goods. As Roberta Smith wrote in her 1987 review of the then 34 year old Kippenberger’s work: “Anything goes with Mr. Kippenberger, and nothing is sacred. He means to question many of the basic assumptions about sculpture: the importance of craft, of beautiful or costly materials, of visual logic itself. His objects often seem incompetently built, capriciously structured and arbitrarily titled. Their modest materials and occasional found objects are devoid of esthetic value; their crowded installation defies vision, challenging the viewer to see any one of them as sculpture per se.” This description of Kippenberger’s objects from the 80s could also be written about many of the installations and objects we see in the galleries, art fairs, institutions and studios of today. But for Kippenberger this Neo-Dada approach to consumer detritus is about making distinctions between Art and Art-as-product. I also want to point out a further distinction about a new form of an “art consumer” that was arriving on the scene at that moment. Artists were expanding the insular Postmodern critique that had focused on its own peculiar history to encompass a more ambitious critique that included the political, social and economic justifications behind that history – bringing in new customers. Here in Kippenberger’s works is the start of the first truly Global Art Movement. It not only questioned the art object, it began to address our contemporary conundrum – Style Vs Brand?

Art or Art Product

In the 30s, 40s and 50s there was a lot of talk of art being folded into the culture, making art a less specialized activity. A lot of this critique and theorizing was brought about by the combined forces of the economic depression, two world wars and the unsolvable problems inherent in capitalist doctrines. For many critics Capital-A Art should be a more “democratic” everyday experience practiced by the average working class citizen. The problem confronting those artists and theorists is that Capital-A Art is a discipline practiced by an intellectual group that is usually antagonistic to and set apart from working class sensibilities. It was the worry and hope of Modernists everywhere that Art as practiced would, should and could become a part of the everyday experience of the population at large. Art must be ingrained in the Every Man – as easy to come upon as a Model T or cup of Maxwell House coffee. Its former pretensions as something separate and higher would no longer be a point of contention between the classes. In this way Modernism hoped to level Capital-A Art by creating cultures of higher ideals readymade for the inhabitants of a new century. In other words – they wanted to swap “high” for “low.” You can see the desire for expanded higher cultures in Matisse’s idea that paintings would comfort like an easy chair for the tired business man, the Bauhaus and the Neoplastics intention to provide better design and living for the everyman, and even the Surrealists’ invasions and interpretations of the dreams and nightmares of “civilized” humans. However this idealism faded quickly at the dawn of the Post-industrial society. A new Postmodern Art was being folded into the mass culture just as the early 20th Century theorists had planned, but not in a way or with the outcome they had foreseen.

Consumer Culture did what Avant Garde Art could not do.

Over the last 40 years much has been made of the change to our economy. We moved from an industrial based economy to one based on services. The rise of the Global Corporations, the proliferation of private ownership – from copyrights to water – and the consolidation of power and capital have all been major trends during this time. In these Post-Industrial Societies goods and services have proliferated at an exponential pace. These goods and services are not necessarily based on innovations, but are actually recombinations and upgrades of ideas, goods and services already in use. These sorts of retrofitting theoretical principles are entrenched in Postmodern thought. For artists it has meant that innovation isn’t the goal of Art. For the Postmodernist style and innovation no longer drive the dialectic of art. Capital-A Art as a practice or as a dialectic is already defined as a professional doctrine. It does not exist as an actuality or a possibility. Art, then, is received and studied like a program and tweaked or upgraded to expand the capabilities of the program. These upgrades are mainly concerned with customization, personalization and identification. Identification allows one to subsume one’s personality attributes to the program itself. Personalization then takes place allowing the program user to define how the program represents one’s interests. Finally customization allows the user to make various choices already latent within the program itself. In the art world a similar process of assimilation has taken place. First there was academization and professionalization of Modernism in the 1960s. This was followed by the proliferation and mass institutionalization of art as a corporatized culture/business in the 1980s. And finally, art was seamlessly folded into the global economies of the early 21st century (the aughties) as a specialized consumer good. Art is no longer an activity of the avant garde looking to advance ideas and principles, a specialized activity of non-conformists or revolutionaries, but another profession that produces goods and services for consumption and investment. Art is now a business.

And with any business that sells products, objects, there is a way to go about it. “A brand is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity.” In the art world brands have become ubiquitous. Brand names are synonymous with a type of product and a kind of value. Brands determine this value. Brands also determine a certain social pecking order, just as they do in other segments of the economy. Blue chip stocks, couture fashions, Hollywood movie stars and now certain types of art are all seen as representing a certain kind of individual. The fact that these brands become cultural displays places the consumer in that certain social group, certain monetary class and certain “cutting-edge” niche of society. Brands are not necessarily there to define the maker of the goods, they are there to define the consumer of the goods. They are made FOR a certain strata of consumer society. Brands, like markets, demand stability in order for them to work. Innovation is confined to slight tweaks of the products without altering the underlying appeal and stability of the brand. Synergies are the sought after outcomes. For instance let’s look to Murakami’s involvement with the fashion brand Louis Vuitton. Murakami, a branded artist, merged his designs with LV to create new products incorporating both his stylized art and LV’s iconic objects thus creating a new consumer product and a new art product – all the while defining a renewed consumer desire for both Murakami and LV. This type of cross pollination with “legit” business is becoming more common in the art world as more artists are designing art products that mesh easily in the common culture.

The point is that with the ascendancy of branding in the art world the idea of style has taken a back seat. Brands are conceptual in nature. Brands are all about the transparency of perception, and with that transparency, comes confidence. Confidence in one’s choice and confidence in one’s associations. Branding is not about the personal, branding is about the public, branding is about cultural perceptions. That’s why brands are marketed and advertised as a known quantity, a known product. Precedent is extremely important to their upkeep. One thing leads to another, but wherever we may go, we are always referred back to the brand’s original intent. And at the beginnings of today’s institutionalized art this idea of continuity became extremely important – especially at the end of Modernism and the avant garde and the rise of the post-industrialist collector. At the Museum of Modern Art William Rubin’s groupings and legacies of Modernist art, seen as a series of inevitable progressions, leads one, finally, to the Museum itself. In other words, without the history of Modernism the MOMA would not exist, and without MOMA, Modernism would fade in the public consciousness. Modernism became a Branded enterprise so that the museum would exist to service it. One brand synergies with another creating a service economy for the Brand itself – Modernism TM and MOMA Inc. As institutions grow and become known so does the confidence in the brands they service. Brand is ultimately about issues of power and control. Whoever controls the institution controls the Brand. One feeds into the other creating synergies. Brands may have style, but the concept behind the brand is not about style, it is about control. And that control of the brand and all of its implications, products and objects is finally about confidence. For art and many other products Brands will shush the whispering devil of doubt and solve the conundrum. Brands imply immortality, precedence, continuity, power and incidentally beauty. Brands have made just about everything that we see in the galleries, museums and institutions pretty and Art. One has confidence when one invests in a brand. One knows that all the doubt can just go to the devil.

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree – and new as the new-cut tooth –
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art ?”

The Old Guy

Roberta Smith reviews the fantastic show at Gagosian gallery of Picasso’s late works. She says it’s…
“One of the best shows to be seen in New York since the turn of the century, it proves that contrary to decades of received opinion, Picasso didn’t skitter irretrievably into an abyss of kitsch, incoherence or irrelevance after this or that high-water mark.” And it is! I have loved Picasso’s late paintings for quite some time, and they have been a steady beacon for my ideas about painting and my own work. I have seen the show twice now and each time it’s been a dream! What surprised me most is how intimate that late work really is, how it unfolds like a conversation. We get to involve ourselves with one of the greatest painters ever as he lets it all go and leaves nothing on the table. The play of vision in these works is amazing, robust, intelligent and filled with complex emotions. Many folks I’ve talked with who aren’t convinced try to fob off these works as late expressionism. But that isn’t the case. These paintings reveal a complicated visual discourse that reaches back into painting’s history. Picasso was busy finding new means of moving and defining his surfaces while expanding the importance of form, the rising subject, within those surfaces. It was a late great phase of youthful innovation, and a legacy for those of us working outside the Postmodern academies. For a deeper discussion of Picasso’s late works you might enjoy reading the first of our Figuring It Out series. But in Roberta’s review she also slyly alludes to the fact that these works might renew an interest in vision and innovation, and that is really refreshing to read! “Anything this charged and unforgettable is bound to nourish anyone who sees it, but especially artists, regardless of affiliations of style or medium. It reveals one of their greatest going all out, providing a breathtaking reminder that art can be anything an artist wants it to be, as long as it is driven by inner necessity, ruthless self-scrutiny and a determination to make every attempt not to repeat the past.” Both praise and challenge!

Getting It…Maybe

Jerry’s new post in NY Mag gives me a little bit of hope. Here he reviews the new show at the New Museum entitled Younger Than Jesus – could there be a better corporate marketing bullshit title for a show? But the show is about young artists who are trying to forge something new in a world of institutional playmasters. It’s a tough gig for those who take it. And a lot of the art, unfortunately, will not out last its youth – A lot of it walks the institutional line. But there are a few nice works that step up and I think Jerry gets it right. We can equate this youthful surge of Art with rock and roll, ballet dancers, romantic poets or Olympic athletes. This sort of energy is a youngsters’ game that doesn’t always grow old gracefully, but it’s wonderful while it lasts. When you’re Older than Jesus you have to be a bit smarter about your choices. Hey, some art ages well and some doesn’t – it just depends on what kind of artist you are. For many of the artists in this show – they are blooming right now and that is great! The show is looking in the right direction for new thought, new ideas and new visions. Jerry starts his piece with a quick run down of the last 10 years which leads us to hope that our little rant in a recent post may have contributed to loosening Jerry’s bullets…

“In the last years of the boom, numerous artists came to the fore who have their aesthetic heads up the aesthetic asses of Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Richard Prince, Cady Noland, and Christopher Wool. They make punkish black-and-white art and ad hoc arrangements of disheveled stuff, architectural fragments, and Xeroxed photos. This art deals in received ideas about appropriation, conceptualism, and institutional critique. It’s a cool school, admired by jargon-wielding academics who write barely readable rhetoric explaining why looking at next to nothing is good for you. Many of these artists have sold a lot of work, and most will be part of a lost generation. They thought they were playing the system; it turned out that they were themselves being played.”

Jerry is describing the monolithic pile of schiesse that we ALL have been trying to shovel through, and we at Henri, have been railing against. For painters, especially, these are difficult times. Innovation is rare and new visual experiences are even harder to find amongst the painting set. Most of the artists in the New Museum show don’t even consider Painting, which is both an opportunity and a condemnation for those of us who love it. Painters need to step up or give up! This is a defining moment in the game, and if we continue to play these same cards we will go bust – no doubt about it. That ain’t about youth, but about smarts and vision!

I think it’s great that young artists are being featured in this innaugural tri-ennial. But more than the marketing gimmick of rebellious youth – what we’re looking for is young ideas! Hell there’s been plenty of hype about the “young” making the same old fogey stuff for years. But for now, I agree with Jerry’s summation – ““Younger Than Jesus” indicates that the alchemical essence known as the sublime, the primal buzz of it all, is no longer in God or nature or abstraction. These young artists show us that the sublime has moved into us, that we are the sublime; life, not art, has become so real that it’s almost unreal. Art is being reanimated by a sense of necessity, free of ideology or the compulsion to illustrate theory. Art is breaking free.” I’m not so convinced of a Kantian need for the sublime, but still, let’s hope so! Be sure to have a look at Jerry’s video and the accompanying slide show. And by all means make it a perogative to see the exhibit!

I just saw this in the NYT. The fabulous Holland Cotter also reviews the show and reaches many of the same conclusions, but he too remains unconvinced by the show’s theme. I await Mario Naves’ take on the show, but his wonderful posts have been sporadic lately. – H & M

Qwik and Cheap

The past few weeks have been aggressively horrendous so I’ve had to put things on hold. Hopefully I’ll have new posts on 19 Sixty and Style vs Brand shortly. But for now I’ll just point you to a couple of things. Gagosian Gallery is having a show of late Picasso works and judging from the online repros there will be at least three wonderful paintings to love in the show, and I’m very excited to see them! The painter Michael Zahn is in a group show at Janet Kurnatowski’s space in Brooklyn. And Michael was kind enough to forward a really interesting blog written by Paul Corio.