0Phillipe Halsman, “Clement Greenberg,” 1959.

At the moment there are questions going on in my circle about originality and quality – what those things are, what they entail, and if we are even able to recognize what those things might look like in a painting at this late date in the Postmodern era. Let’s face it. The old and by now VERY conservative ideas that drove the Modern movement, abstraction, flatness, process, materialism and “formalism,”  are the go-to painting tropes for our professional Modernists. In fact painters  have become more like curators, DJs, MCs, aficionados of taste, collaging and collapsing one well known style into another, looking for resonance and harmony among period pieces much like Baz Luhrmann does in his movie The Great Gatsby. We prefer to use “approved” artists’ works that have the correct kind of taste, the correct kind of presentation, the correct kind of look or feel rather than create something from scratch, something from our own existence. For instance Jerry Saltz recently wrote an article that discussed the sameness of many painters’ works and ideas even including illustrative slide shows of groupings of paintings done in similar styles. I thought this was eye opening.

“These artists are acting like industrious junior post­modernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction, deploying visual signals of Suprematism, color-field painting, minimalism, post-minimalism, Italian Arte Povera, Japanese Mono-ha, process art, modified action painting, all gesturing toward guys like Polke, Richter, Warhol, Wool, Prince, Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Wade Guyton, Rudolf Stingel, Sergej Jensen, and Michael Krebber.”

Jerry’s critique comes on the heels of Walter Robinson’s Zombie Formalism, which is a fun way to describe visual ideas whose “sell by” date has long since past.

“Formalism” because this art involves a straightforward, reductive, essentialist method of making a painting (yes, I admit it, I’m hung up on painting), and “Zombie” because it brings back to life the discarded aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, the man who championed Jackson PollockMorris Louis, and Frank Stella’s “black paintings,” among other things.”

And the assertion that Clement Greenberg is still an aesthetic force to be reckoned with is rather amazing at this late date. His theoretical preferences for painting, what it should do, what it should look like, still carries weight especially in our institutions. And I find that a bit strange, because unlike most of the innovators in 20th Century art Clem did not paint or sculpt. He did not “create” a style in painting, though admittedly, he did direct it. No other critic since the inception of Modern art is so connected with the creation and rise of a style of art-making. No other critic is considered a major component in the aesthetics of the movement itself. And Clem’s success, not merely as a taste maker, but as a non-practicing theoretical force, set a strange kind of precedent for artists and for critics as well. Critics became real “creative” forces and artists had to assume the role of cultural theoreticians. It’s been nearly 65 years since Avant-Garde and Kitsch became the defining essay for the direction of 20th Century art, and its importance can not be overlooked. Clem’s essay actually changed the direction of Modernism, began the Postmodern art world, and it still hangs over our contemporary art world, specifically painting, like a Sword of Damocles. Its continuing strictures keeps many of us in place.

Our stasis is connected to Clem’s discussions of originality and quality surrounding painting, two things that come up quickly and profoundly in AG&K. These are the issues that many abstract painters discuss on a loop. What does Clem mean by quality or uniqueness? Is that where the visual work of art becomes powerful, meaningful? Are these combined qualities or do they exist separately? Can something be unique and have no quality, can something have quality and not be unique? Where does the “new” come into play? If something is “new” does the work have quality and/or uniqueness? As you can see these are tail chasing thoughts, and I don’t know a painter that hasn’t considered them at one time or another. But rather than directly confront them in a definitive way most of us choose to ignore them, put them to the side and overlay another style or process on our canvas. Postmodernism, luckily, has provided us with a Clem Dispensation, a back door to the program, so to speak. What we tend to look for in our Zombie Formalism is individual “difference” and professional craftsmanship. We prefer the well-made painting by a recognizable “hand” in a digestible “style.” But as Jerry’s essay shows there’s very little individuality or uniqueness in those slight differences. Rather we get product, handsome things to sell that vary only in the upgrades. And the question has to be WHY?

I’m convinced that Adam Curtis is right, that our culture is soaked and sodden in its past, that there can not be originality in the way we approach cultural ideas when we do not question what those ideas actually mean or what those ideas actually do.

“Throughout the western world new systems have risen up whose job is to constantly record and monitor the present – and then compare that to the recorded past. The aim is to discover patterns, coincidences and correlations, and from that find ways of stopping change. Keeping things the same.

We can’t properly see what is happening because these systems are operating in very different areas – from consumerism, to the management of your own body, to predicting future crimes, and even trying to stabilise the global financial system – as well as in politics.

But taken together the cumulative effect is that of a giant refrigerator that freezes us, and those who govern us, into a state of immobility, perpetually repeating the past and terrified of change and the future.”

Also in the case of AG&K contemporary painters do not question the “either/or” endgame of Clem’s essay, its blatant nostalgia for a failed Modernism of purity and process, and its subsequent presentation of Kitsch as a more inclusive, more parasitic, and thus, more dangerous form of art. The Modern problem as outlined by Clem is paramount to understanding the workings of our culture in the latter half of the 20th Century. It turns out that Clem’s dreaded Kitsch, the possibilities for using Kitsch as aesthetic critique have been far more popular and radical than his ideas for a nostalgic, romantic Modernism. And that dichotomy of cultural power, of aesthetic insight, and even his defense of classist values of quality and taste are all used to make his point, to move Modernism into a very specific final phase. As we will discover there are so many interesting arguments to be made!

The artist/painter/theorist Paul Corio recently wrote to me about the issues of originality, uniqueness and newness. We had been discussing Greenberg and AG&K. And I think Paul shows us part of our current problem, part of our understanding of the current problem – that painting has always used its past, that painting has always gone back to go forward, and it would seem that Postmodern painting is trying to do the very same thing.

“I guess when I try and define originality for myself, it means something sufficiently original.  If Morandi were strictly copying Cezanne, or Bonnard were any closer to Matisse, it would block my enjoyment of the paintings.  But those parallels are still right there, the way that Velazquez was so obvious in early Manet.  And to reiterate an earlier point – paintings by Pollock, Caravaggio, Morandi, Bonnard, Manet, and Velazquez are now all old, as un-new as can be, but they’re still great.  

So what do I mean by quality in painting?  The seamless disposition of color, scale, composition, surface, texture, subject (if one goes that route), space, light, atmosphere.  Here it’s easy to brand me as a formalist, I know, but I’m not – I have no interest whatsoever in purity or distillation.  Especially the latter – the Baroque remains the height of painting for me, and it’s the polar opposite of distilled.”

Paul made some valid points. Each artist he mentioned managed to create a singular break with style in their work, managed to imprint their personality on that very past, managed to move that past into the artist’s present. And I think this has to do with other issues, with how we use our cultural tools, with how we see IN our time. And again I refer back to Jerry’s and Walter’s observations. Why does it feel as if there is nothing new going on when we see Zombie Formalism or Jerry’s slideshows? Why doesn’t this work seem to have built something on the ideas of the past? Why does this work seem static, of another time? What is it about this time, about us, that “keeps things the same,” that re-presents old ideas without the benefit of distance, of place? And why are content to do this? Why is this unlike the changes to style, to visual ideas that we see in Manet’s use of Velazquez or Morandi’s use of Cezanne?

These are all issues, especially those brought up in Greenberg’s AG&K, that we will examine in more depth in the final Untethered posts to come.