Color, Light & Space – Expanded

We are about to expand our discussion on Color, Light and Space with other artists (of all kind,) theorists, and writers. Tomorrow, we will begin this broader discussion with a fantastic essay by Alan Kirby. He is a cultural theorist and author of the book Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture. The Postmodern “problem” we all have inherited is laid out succinctly in the introduction to his book:

“My sense is that, whatever its current relevance in other fields, postmodernism’s insistence on locating an absolute break in all human experience between the disappeared past and the stranded present has lost all plausibility. The last third of the twentieth century was marked by a discourse of endings, of the “post-” prefix and the “no longer” structure, an aftershock of 1960s’ radicalism and a sort of intellectual millenarianism which seems to have had its day. Like Habermas, my feeling is that, ever more crisis-ridden, modernity continued throughout this period as an “unfinished project”. Although the imponderable evils of the 1930s and 40s could only trigger a breakdown of faith in inherited cultural and historical world-views such as the Enlightenment, the nature and scale of this reaction were overstated by some writers. In so far as it exists, “digimodernity” is, then, another stage within modernity, a shift from one phase of its history into another.”

Alan makes the case that Postmodernism has reached an end, and he speculates on new directions that our culture may take. We recommend you take a look.

You can read more of Alan’s take on culture at his blog Digimodernism.

Alpha & Omega

To think, that in one day, I would read these alpha and omega stories which bring into sharp contrast the disparities of the art world. The alpha world points to the fact that the trillion plus dollar government stimulus plan has averted a financial catastrophe for those wealthy enough to live lavishly from their investment portfolios. Collectors, everywhere, are feeling flush again, and the art world is busy looking to loosen up some of that stimulus loot.

“For better or for worse, much of the art world is feeling flush again. Since the recent auctions did better than anybody expected, Nick Acquavella of Basel Miami star Acquavella Galleries says he’s bringing pieces ranging from $45,000 (a Lucian Freud etching) to an $8.5 million Picasso. In June, when the Art Basel fair is held in Switzerland, sales were strong. “We believe the art market is coming back,” says Basel Miami co-director Annette Schönholzer.”

But the question remains – coming back as what? The same old “same old”; more of the New New from the tired bag of tricks continuously hoisted on us by the same gang of POMO Players? Look, I understand that investments in certain artists making certain kinds of work have been made. I understand the “value” of a collection is derived from its exchange value. I also understand that that “value” has to be protected. But does that mean that we, as “artists,” no longer have to question what we are doing? Is it our responsibility to ensure the “value” of the art in some collector’s treasure trove? Must we remake what has already been remade – updating and customizing in order to be considered “collectible?” For those lucky enough to be in that system this very well may be the case. For those of us who don’t particularly find a resonance with these collections, well I guess we will have to read about ourselves in the omega story.

The omega just goes to show that market success for an artist is a very, very rare thing. If you read the actual report that is discussed in the article you’ll find some eye opening facts about our “profession.”

“Most artists have relatively low incomes, even though the majority (62%) are college graduates and hold at least one additional paying job. Two- thirds reported their total 2008 income was less than $40,000, including nearly one-third who earned less than $20,000. Artists tend to earn very little of their income from their art work or almost all of it. Unexpectedly, artists who spend more than 80% of their time on their art work have the highest income levels, while artists who rely on cobbling together an income from a mix of sources are most likely to earn under $20,000 a year. Years as an artist and time spent working on art each week also positively influence the percentage of income earned from art.”

It was the 1980s when the art world drank the institutional Koolaid. Art began to be described as a profession like any other, complete with the proviso that artist professionals should be paid accordingly. Rene Ricard’s famous essay, a beautiful and poetic tribute to the artist’s struggle, helped to define an artist’s “right” to be recognized as a valuable member of society. Unfortunately, the meaning within his poetry was perverted. He was talking about poetry, not professionalization. Artists came to expect their due, and in doing so, we sacrificed the poetry in order to get it. As is made clear in the report, most of us don’t make ANY real money from what we do even as we sacrifice the poetry in order to do so. Our deal with the devil has left us with both the old struggle and the new Postmodern conformity.

You’ll hear many an artist yearn to be in that group of artists that spend more than 80% of their time on their art work. But what isn’t detailed in the report is the fact that most of that 80% is spent networking and looking for the next gig. For anyone in the arts it’s always the next gig that one is worrying about. Continuity is the secret to professional success. And it is that sort of continuity that always make me hesitate. Regardless of what you may have read, what you may believe, art as a profession will NEVER make poetry. Poetry and the few poets that make it need something more than the 9 to 5 grind. This doesn’t mean they don’t work hard and long, it just means that they haven’t dedicated their lives to a fictitious professionalism defined by a quantifiable 80%. When one sacrifices what one loves in order to be a professional one becomes a whore. (yes that’s strong, but necessary.)

I came across this NY Times blog post by Glenn Branca. The downtown musical impresario is leveling many of these same complaints about Postmodernism and its links to the larger economic culture:

“For more than half a century we’ve seen incredible advances in sound technology but very little if any advance in the quality of music. In this case the paradigm shift may not be a shift but a dead stop. Is it that people just don’t want to hear anything new? Or is it that composers and musicians have simply swallowed the pomo line that nothing else new can be done, which ironically is really just the “old, old story.”” (italics & bold are mine)

And in Fluff Chance’s wonderful blog on the fashion industry written in this post by Brooksie:

“The editors of mainstream fashion mags seem to get stuck in a rut of encouraging young designers to make the same things over and over again, but trying to pass it off as “new” to the public. Some of us have longer memories than this. Where are the real critiques in fashion today and why are they lacking?” (bold is mine)

The wonderful Charlie Finch in his recent column on Artnet:

“What has been built on the Warhol plinth is an inverted pyramid of static, plutocratic branding that crushes the hope of any further development in artistic innovation. Everything is a rerun. Until the walls of the wealthy are destroyed, there is no hope for art.”

And finally, Dave Hickey in his recent Art in America column breaks it down for us:

“When the goal of making a profit is replaced by the goal of making an enormous profit, the vision of the artist, high or low, is replaced by the dream of a franchise that can be perpetually reconstituted, a Pirates of the Caribbean that can please almost everybody but no one in particular.” AIA November 2009

It is the lockstep conformity and the lack of questioning ourselves that drives our current alpha market. We accept and believe what we are are told and we marvel at the price tag and the salary.  We see this alpha market in the current controversy at the NuMu. We see it at the art fairs, auction houses and galleries. We see it in the institutions, academies and studios. We see it in our reliance on the computer screen, the program and the lens.

As more voices are raising questions, maybe we can finally say that we are approaching a tipping point, that new and different ideas will be sought out and heard. However, before we reach the tipping point, it’s going to take a bit of a reality check in our omega world. We have to do some real soul searching so that we can shovel out the alpha world along with its 80% bullshit. Real change comes from the bottom up. It always has and it always will. It’s up to us to change first.


OK. I was urged by Henri & Co. to weigh in on this issue as it is still being batted around the cage. These days I’m hesitant to open my big mouth because I’ve gotten tired of hopping on one foot. I worry that all this blather about money begins to sound like a loop with a drum machine workin’ the beat. But alright Henri, I’ll speak, er write.

First the NuMu is what it is. When it moved to it’s new location and pumped a TON of money into its fug ugly Euro-themed warehouse, it OWED a lot of very monied and art world powerful folks A LOT of ROI (Return on Investment.) The board is stacked FULL of collectors and their foundations so that the NuMu would not only have access to their vast Postmodern collections but access to their very deep pockets as well. The old NuMu, which very few people EVER went to – I remember going to a Carroll Dunham show and being the only one in the entire place for an hour or so before being joined by two German tourists – struggled and lurched through the High POMO era. Marsha Tucker was part of the scene, she was downtown, an artist in her own right, and with a bit of grit and determination, managed to make that kunsthalle work. But it was only able to reach a limited audience of art insiders and collectors. Like Baron Munchausen her vision for the NuMu could not go very far on “hot air and fantasy.”

In the NuMu’s new incarnation, Lisa Phillips, a former big wig with the Whitney, was brought  in to create a destination museum and to create a new “brand.” Her connections in the art world are impeccable (especially in the movers and shakers department.) She was married at one time to the artist Meyer Vaisman (this is a cartoon of her in one of his more famous POMO works.) Her father is Warren H. Phillips former CEO of Dow Jones and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal. She is probably one of the top 10 most influential and powerful museum directors in the world, and she embodies the marriage between high finance and art. She is the closest thing to perfect in this new age of TARP, TALF and TBTF. Those are the realities of our age, the corporatization of the art world, the new art market mentality, and the institutionalization of Postmodernism as the language and code of this vast enterprise. Could Jeff Koons, Murakami, Hirst, and now, Fischer make the kind of work they do without the financing behind it? NEVER. And this is the reality that the NuMu accepts. MOMA is about Modernism, the Whitney about, well, fuck all, I don’t know what they’re about (maybe the Biennial?), the Guggy is Surrealism, and the NuMu is about the flowering and decline of Postmodern Financial Art from the last 10 years or so.

The LBO of the NuMu is exactly as it should be for this institution, and this recent financial controversy has allowed us to see where allegiances lie. The most surprising revelation for me has been Jerry Saltz, whose NuMu posts are quoted everywhere. He has taken a post-moral stance while he has gotten into bed with the long legs and ample bosoms of the NuMu’s generous donors. Really, this is another case of a man in his middle years making a fool of himself for a younger lover. Aside from the obvious hypocrisies to his critiques of corporatism and institutionalism in the art world, you have to wonder if Jerry is running a bit scared. Most all of the artists shown in the NuMu so far have been lauded by Jerry at one time or another. Even the recent iffy curatorial shows at the NuMu have been sufficiently gilded in his soft criticisms. I think this defense of the NuMu has something to do with his legacy, because if these artists get tarred with the gooey brush of insider dealing, suddenly they all may begin to look to the Art-World-in-general like Vasaris, Salieris or Ron Howards. Artists are a fickle bunch, and they tend to want to believe that talent and hard work win the day. But here we are confronted with a different agenda, and to most of us, it doesn’t feel quite right. All I can say is that when the art world was done with Greenberg, they left him, his ideas and his artists nearly overnight. Jerry may well be protecting his critical legacy as well as his connections – if he can’t have us, well at least he’s connected.

I know how the art world works. I’ve seen it first hand. Dave Hickey laid it out fairly succinctly in his recent speech at SVA – “care is control.” Warhol said it best, “being good at business is the best art.” And that defines the larger art world outside of our studios. The NuMu will weather this storm, like most corporations, they are untouchable. They are insulated with money and power. And the first time a show appears that everyone rushes to see and gush about, all will be forgiven. Like I said we are a fickle bunch.

Addendum: Charlie Finch writes one of the best bits on this issue here. Fantastic!

“The basic problem with an opaque, exclusionary policy of catering to the rich, mirrored, after all, by the disgraceful bailouts of Wall Street by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Treasury Departments, is that true innovation, revolution even, is deliberately strangled in the cradle.”

Color: Simulation

…Eugene Delacroix, occupied one day in painting yellow drapery, tried in vain to give it the desired brilliancy and said to himself: “How did Rubens and Veronese find such brilliant and beautiful yellows?” He resolved to go to the Louvre, and ordered a carriage. It was in 1830, when there were in Paris many cabs painted canary color; one of these was brought to him. About to step into it, Delacroix stopped short, observing to his great surprise that the yellow of the carriage produced violet in the shadows, He dismissed the coachman, entered his studio full of emotion, and applied at once the law he had just discovered, that is, that the shadow is always slightly tinged with the complement of the color, a phenomenon that becomes apparent when the light of the sun is not too strong, and “our eyes,” as Goethe says “rest upon a fitting background to bring out the complementary color.”
Charles Blanc, The Grammar of Painting, and Engraving, translated by Kate N. Doggett, Chicago, 1889.

When artists started using paint straight from the can in the 1960s and early ’70s, they forfeited their personal take on color and gave themselves over to the dictates of the mass market…With the arrival of fast-drying acrylics and other mass-produced paints heavily marketed to a nation of do-it-yourselfers, art began to resemble a ready-made commodity, taking its hues from packaging, billboards, magazines and comic strips.
Paint By Numbers, Li Edelkoort

“Well then, my friend,” said he, “to begin with, the earth when seen from above is said to look like those balls that are covered with twelve pieces of leather; it is divided into patches of various colors, of which the colors which we see here may be regarded as samples, such as painters use. But there the whole earth is of such colors, and they are much brighter and purer than ours…
Plato, Phaedo

In the above quotes we begin to understand the difference between vision and optics, between the color wheel and the color chart. For Delacroix color brilliance can be found through the complimentaries and values of shadows, in the vision of experience. In our Postmodern age we find our color in the hues of commerce, through the optics of desire. The first is sloppy, fleshy, messy, natural – color found in life and in memory. The second is clear, clean, manufactured, ‘real’ – color found through a collective and through programs.  And finally, there is the surprising Platonic idea that runs beneath our electronic world of light speed and light screens – heavenly color – color unimaginable – brighter, purer, seen from above. You’ll find that sort of color on your flatscreen – pulsating and irradiating into your eyes. It is hyperactivated color, direct color, color better than that in the can, color of light and speed.

The other day as I looked from my window onto Times Square, projected color was slashing around from the mirrored buildings and electronic light screens onto everything and everyone in the area creating a spectacle of Socratic godly hue. And all of it, ALL OF IT, was the brilliant color of advertising. ADVERTISING! These jewel-like colors, floating in the air, this vast sensate factory of hyper-activated optical hue, is nothing more than advertising by corporations done to stoke one’s desire to consume something. I am transfixed by it, I’ll admit, but I can not get past the feeling that Socrates’ idea of celestial color seen from above is a sham – nothing more than a come on for Toshiba or Coca-Cola. It’s here that chromophilia becomes chromophobia – the meaning of color, the need of color, is reduced to buying and selling – pure electronic color IS pure commerce. I recognize this as the legacy of Postmodernism and the 1960s. “As good as it is in the can…” was revolutionary and radical then – today, it is institutional, mannered and expected – something that one purchases.

Bronzino, the Florentine Mannerist, loved his jewel tones and dressed his subjects in Neo-Platonic other-wordly hues. He would lay these colors against dark grounds and glaze them over grisaille forms, building up the layers of hue until the painting really began to hum with optical clarity and deep-set values. This sort of color is like our flatscreen color, but it’s still tied to the reflective, the materiality of paint, glaze and varnish. Today our paints are saturated with hue, bound in new chemicals that don’t dilute the optical kick. The paint in the can is nearly pure color, and it binds to every surface, every structure without a loss of intensity. The paint can be glossy or dull, bright or dark, translucent or opaque and each of these tonalities gives the color a different luster. You name it, the applied color and the application surface become one and the same thing, and because of this, one need not develop relationships of color – the hue remains independent of other hue. We do not look to the shadows for luminosity or brilliance. The optical independence of one color from another creates a sustainable brilliance and independent sheen – every hue remains differentiated, self-contained – a readymade. That brilliance comes right out of the can, and more tellingly, it comes right out of our flatscreens. Color as readymade, color as color chart, color as pure light – this is the final outcome of Modernism’s colorist legacy of emotion and spirituality. This is Postmodernism’s endgame – color divorced from physical meaning. POMO color is chosen for its optical impact, but mostly, it is used to create a simulacrum, a real unreality of hue.

Color when used like this derails meaning, connection, or visual understanding. Now in my severe misreading of David Batchelor’s wonderfully brilliant book Chromophobia, I’ve come to understand that POMO color is anti-color. It is color used as a camouflage or cosmetic to disengage or discount the meaning and visual force of color. To put it simply we have replaced natural color, the color we encounter in our physical natures with the color of the simulacra, the color of the “real.”

“Chromophobia manifests itself in the many and varied attempts to purge colour from culture, to devalue colour, to diminish its significance, to deny its complexity. More specifically: this purging of color is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body – usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Color is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.” (italics are mine)

Postmodernism’s use of color, however, encompasses both of these forms of chromophobia in order to drain the force of meaning from our encounter with color. We’ve discussed this in the examples of Richter, Heilmann, and Yuskavage. In their works we are swamped with color, but it is color that goes no further than the surface. This color is part of the critique of Modernist color, the critique of visual meaning. It does not emote or inspire – it is there to entice, to show, to consume, while it remains wholly on the surface. It doesn’t move beyond the optical, it remains a product, straight out of the can, self contained and isolated. This color is about design, customization, decoration. It is the readymade found on the color chart. This is how Postmodern color differs from Modernist color. In Modernism color was about an emotional or spiritual connection, color was chosen specifically to appeal not just to a sense of design, but to a deeper experience of visual interaction, one tied to meaning. The Postmodern world is about context, about the impossibility of meaning or narrative, and so, the color remains inscrutable. It develops discontinuities rather than relationships.

Postmodernists, like Peter Halley, instinctively understand this idea. In his work Halley has tried to reconnect abstraction to meaning, and he has done so through a post-structural critique of meaning derived from signs, plans, flowcharts, and simple schematic structures. His abstract imagery, a turn away from Postmodernism’s critique, contains a subtext of the fear, conformity and isolation that happens in these grids. His geometric allusions, the cell and the conduit, refer to the endless self-referencing that are the products of these graphs and flows. But even as he tries to reinvest meaning into the Modernist paradigm of geometric abstraction, he uses color in the accepted, expected Postmodern way – the customizing chart rather than the flowing wheel – straight out of the can. Color plays a major role in Halley’s work, but it remains a cosmetic color, a consumerist color of application, as series after series of the same abstract structures arrive on the wall in every color, for every taste (like choosing color chips in Home Depot’s paint department) – sucking the meaning out of the abstract structures of the paintings. In these paintings “color is either dangerous or trivial or it is both.” This is Postmodern consumerist color at its zenith. It is the intense, brilliant, wonderful color of a true Chromophobe indulging in optical hue, and it keeps Halley trapped in the simulacra of  the Postmodern tradition.

Both Bronzino and Halley approach meaning and color in the same way – both are Mannerists. They are involved in the artificiality of experience, the unreal in Bronzino’s time and the hyper-real in Halley’s. The artificial defines the expected reality, and in turn, the simulacra replaces the natural. Reality is constantly in flux, it is redefined through our culture. We accept reality or change it as we go along. The natural, on the other hand, remains tied to our bodies and our physicality. I find this point to be imperative as we struggle to understand a new idea of color – it is the idea that the natural has been, will always be, replaced by the “real.” This is where I start my painting in the studio. What part of my natural experience, my physical experience can I impart through the “real” of culture? We live in the world of the flat screen and the color chart. Color is everywhere but it is no longer specific to our physical natures, it exists outside of our experiences. Unlike Pollock, I can not claim to be nature, that is no longer the case, and I can’t live for color in his way. But neither am I a machine, like Warhol, and I can not replicate the color of the lens/machine world. I do not believe the Postmodern ‘reality’ of the replicating lens, nor can I fully engage the natural color of Modernism. When I pick up my brush I must always find a way between the two.

So I leave you with this from David Batchelor’s book –

“Colour is both a fall into nature, which may in turn be a fall from grace or a fall into grace, and against nature, which may result in a corruption of nature or freedom from its corrupting forces. Colour is a lapse into decadence and a recovery of innocence, a false addition to a surface and the truth beneath that surface. Colour is disorder and liberty; it is a drug, but a drug that can intoxicate, poison or cure. Colour is all of these things, and more besides, but very rarely is colour just neutral.”

This states the idea that color is not neutral, that color can be meaningful, and for me, this is the sand in the oyster.

Color will continue…

Hell and Other Things

The other day as I was loitering around the exit ramp of Hell – as you do – I happened to glance downward just in time to see a snowball roll right up to my shoes. Wow! How did that happen? Later that same day as I was reading the Times on my way back from my pointless work day in the putrid pits of damnation I came across this story – “Art Awards and Irony at the Guggenheim.”  The article begins with “Is the art world ready for its Oscar moment?” Then it goes into detail about a so-called ironic awards event that gives out “best of” categories much like every horrific awards show we’ve ever seen on TV. I wasn’t there so I probably missed the red carpet entrances and the Joan Rivers (or an unreasonable Art World Facsimile)  interviews – “OOH! Who are you wearing?.” Now maybe this event would have been more ironic if it had not been done at the Guggy which traffics in these sorts of populist entertainments. Maybe it would have been ironic if no one showed, but they did, in droves. Maybe it would have been ironic if there weren’t acceptance speeches, but there were, “…tearfully thanked his parents, his creative partner Lizzie Fitch and his “more than just a dealer” Elizabeth Dee.” We could go on but why? The real irony is how little irony there seems to be when curators, artists, critics, gallerists and galleries that specialize in blue chip status symbols throw themselves a party at a major art institution, award themselves “Best Of” accolades and pronounce that it’s all done in good fun. I don’t care if Jimi Hendrix’s impressive plaster casted penis wins best in show, it doesn’t even approach the size of the balls it took to throw this thing.

Kind of like the MTV awards, which were intended to be ironic when first inaugurated, this event threatens to become a real Annual Event, which will more than likely criss cross the globe and be presented in various marketable venues – timed, of course, to coincide with Art Fairs or Biennials. Once the powers-that-be figure out how to make money from this thing, it will become an irony free zone with any hint of archness on total lockdown. This goofy idea is a career maker for the Conceptual Artist that conceived it – his name is Rob Pruitt. And all I can say is he better copyright the entire function and partner up with some moneyed institution or else it will be the Last Annual Award Show with his name on it.

And on that note – We at Henri award the Annual Art Douche Bag of the Year Award to any and all who attended and participated in this glittering event!