22 November, 2013 – By Michael Zahn

Tonight in Brooklyn I glance at a wonderful little painting above my desk by Jackie Saccoccio before closing my MacBook Pro, a comprehensively powerful machine featuring the crisp resolution of its fifteen-inch retina display, having tracked an order of Old Holland Classic Colours immediately after streaming David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don Delillo’s novella Cosmopolis. I peel a clementine. My package has left the shipper’s facility. The film, an appropriately nasty slice of glacial pococurantism, was pegged by financier Eric Packer’s blank remove in the back of a white stretch limousine, a long ride cloaking him from the creative destruction his ilk have sown. This seems as accurate a take onto today’s vista as any I’ve seen, a pas de trois of the still, the silent, and the social as exquisitely choreographed as any picture of flowers, fruit, and fabric, where the subject is expunged, values abolished, and narrative deleted.

The imperative to ‘make it new’ isn’t exhausted. The impulse to commodify novelty is. The cubist adventure showed us as much. Using an ostensible depiction of cafe ambience as its armature it fashioned a thing that would have subsumed history in favor of a new content, an art for art’s sake, this coming on the heels of the sale of the Peau d’Or and its conspicuous validation of the avant garde. Given the conditions shaping contemporary abstraction, the issues on the table are papered over by emphases on syntactic declension most pointedly limned by increasingly ubiquitous dematerialization, in itself a significant abridgment of experience and coeval with that which makes everything seem so ‘abstract’. Yet the questions raised here apropos of the artwork are simple. How may our conception of the nexus that constitutes the standards of art– its practice, verity, and status; its relation to the viewer, to its place and to its inventions; its iconicity, legibility, and historicity– draft a vision of the world or provoke an affective response to it? Are artworks still capable of doing so? Have they ceded these tasks to other disciplines? It was with these questions and the imagination of a mutable picture of the sensible status quo that I went uptown on the Lexington Avenue IRT yesterday to see the Donald Judd show at Mnuchin and the Christopher Wool retrospective at the Guggenheim. Made a quick stop between the two, but more on that detour in a bit.

Judd’s Stacks are variations on a rectangular modular volume, executed in metal or in metal and plexiglas. There were ten installed on two floors of the townhouse gallery on East 78th Street. The first, in stainless steel and amber plexiglas, was fabricated for the artist by the Bernstein Brothers in 1968. The last, dated 1990, in anodized aluminum, black lacquer, and clear plexiglas, was also a product of the Queens workshop. They’re at turns manic and subtle, severe and voluptuous, imposing and ethereal, yet so replete in presence and far too rigorous in manufacture to be truly prized in the way most iconic artworks are. This is genius, as the logic they embody ultimately made the everyday rarity of Judd’s life into his art through ways that resist evaluation using the measured instrumental terms of modernity. No real number can be assigned to that matter, unless 101 Spring Street is suddenly listed on the market as is, with its furniture and tools and artworks intact, all impeccably housed in the building’s restored cast-iron splendor. Although this seems unlikely it might not be entirely implausible, considering Christopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now brought $26.4 million at the fall auctions Tuesday, followed by Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) at $104.5 million Wednesday.

Andy’s reasoning continues to loom. This seems obvious, but in many ways still is not and so stands repeating. The prescient complexity of Warhol’s work unspools as time passes, and is possessed of a consciousness that psychically calibrates the plurality of the present beyond trite peans to fame that make up the common gloss on his corpus. This morning upon opening email from a friend that linked to a YouTube clip of the conspiratorial ‘Profiles in Cowardice’ rant from the 1991 indie cult film Slacker, something struck me. Although he screened the numerous veiled ‘Jackie’ images in numbed reaction to JFK’s funeral, Warhol immediately repressed his experience of the actual assassination. Unlike his fascination with the gruesome iconography of the Death and Disaster series, the artist obstructed any view onto the violent deed itself by tampering with the evidence and producing the great assembled mass of Brillo Boxes, eighty of them cranked out in six weeks with the helping hand of the trusty Gerard Malanga. This was accomplished at the original silver Factory, commencing in December 1963 and wrapping in April 1964, just in time for Warhol’s first exhibition at the Stable Gallery. Poor Eleanor Ward hated, hated, hated the boxes. They didn’t look like art.

Appearances aside, Wool is quite like Warhol in that he retains a ludic character and has a facile synthetic touch. He’s emerged from this recent confluence of attention an ironic dark horse symbolic of a vast class gulf. Suddenly, Wool’s a superstar. With the imprimatur of this survey he seems poised to assume the mantle of the American pop-minimal tradition if not that of the entire postwar New York School, its beatnik lit and no-wave punk lending an attendant poetics to his aesthetic accomplishment. While first and foremost a painter and in many respects a quintessential artist’s artist (his craft is immaculate), there’s a theatrical asperity to Wool’s relentlessly frontal address which rivals that of the orthodox minimalists, the qualifying difference being this painter is not averse to the implications of metaphor, image, or past. A key suite on paper hangs at the museum, an insolent chorus of graphic avatars stamped with direct nonchalance that reads spokesman, insomniac, comedian, informant, paranoiac, absurdist, prankster, pessimist, terrorist, hypocrite, mercenary, anarchist, assassin, chameleon, assistant, extremist, adversary, celebrity, each composed in the artist’s trademark grid of stenciled and staggered letterforms. The retinue is cast in a blunt opus of endgame drama and deconstructed roleplay, a tough picture of tragedy and farce in one insouciant package. These exegetic figures were collected for Wool’s Black Book, an oversized folio produced at the tumultuous end of the last century, arriving as it did with early surprise in Berlin, the apotheosis of that described by painter Carroll Dunham as when everything cracked open and with all happening since the critical elaboration of a significant cultural moment.

In hindsight, that decade may be understood as marked by passage to what was dimly understood as a ‘postindustrial’ regime, where the general management of telematic information would allegedly supersede the production of actual objects, with the artwork as a nugatory type of mise-en-abyme where agency is elided. But if indeed the syllogistics of extant pictorialism were shaped by that occasion, then their standing now is one where concerns aren’t those of form as much as of scale and its corresponding value. By the end of the 1970s, the substantive line that tethered the concrete image to the fact of its making had been severed from within– call it bad painting, new image, transavangardia, neo-expressionism, pictures– and reinscribed on a free-floating plane subject to manipulation from without. These tendencies, seen as antagonistic to the objective postminimal discourses they usurped and as a withering parody of the vagaries of subjective judgement, sketched a prescient move towards an organized synergy where artworks were assigned variable worth similar to the way in which a fiat currency decoupled from fixed standards functions in a statist economy, or more to the point, how speculative interest colors perception of any commodity at a given time. This was a collusive activity, and is as accurate a summary as any of how works of whatever medium are regarded in the contemporary art world, a fellowship with its roots in the transnational neoliberalism that’s spread to the globe.

As the 1980s unfolded, painting such as Wool’s freed itself from an appreciable deadlock by adopting serial formats. This was done with an eye not towards furthering competence and entrenching conventions, calls incipient in Clement Greenberg’s prescription for the medium, but with one that hastened an abnegating drive towards integration with installation as a primary means of exhibition. Ultimately it mattered little if a work was good or bad, since what became important was its place within the sequences it diagrammed in a performative demonstration of its constituent arc. This paradigmatic shift, nascent in the provocative soixante-huitard insurrection of BMPT and bolstered by a range of later activity loosely termed simulationist, was codified with the presentation of Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings at Metro Pictures in 1991. In one adroit move Shaw adjusted the analysis of the medium from the focus on a unique surface to explicating the connotations implicit in its larger support, accepted as the structuring of taste, expertise, and evaluation upon which appraisal of any artifact is founded. Perhaps not surprisingly this shift also saw the rise of video as a favored tool and its projection by the early 2000s as the technical medium par excellence, presenting not necessarily a picture of the world as it was but the reflection of a neo-essentialist mien that perfectly mirrored the free market triumphalism of the post-Soviet bust and the burgeoning dot- com boom. The democratization of video in the years since, in which producers and their audiences commingle while formats and platforms are streamlined as bandwidth expands, carries with it the puzzles of overproduction and access rife today, and which are glaringly apparent at the Guggenheim now. As always, the issues are those of nomination, parity, and legitimacy. Is this art? What makes this art? Who decides so?

The professionalization of the arts that began in the 1950s has reached a tipping point. We’re now witness to a pervasive determinism within the institution at large, where works in question more often than not serve an agenda towards which they’re ambivalent at best. The degree of specialization that privileges abstract concepts over direct experience and interprets intent as divorced from the milieu that gives it rise only girds hierarchies, even as claims are made to subvert them in the name of openness, tolerance, and plurality. This is the true legacy of postmodernism, especially as understood in relation to the present technocratic state. The sovereignty of the incorporated organization as governing body, following the personalized independence emblematic of the postwar neo-avant gardes, is apparent everywhere. So are the obvious faults appearing in the authority which constitutes a foundational claim on which the enterprise rests, one which disregards hypothetical imperatives in pursuit of the infinite expansion of its leveraged prerogative.

Wool’s practice has always seemed preternaturally attuned to bold claims. This is apparent in the topmost tower gallery at the Guggenheim, which presents a concise tableau of the painter’s thematics scattered across a battery of panels hung in tight, unflinching proximity. The room is a stunner. As such, it’s a comprehensive show-within-a-show slyly presented as a picture of its specific moment, and is a gesture that flirts with degraded trompe l’oeil devices and the tenets of second-order observation which comprise a primary underpinning of systems theory. This ken is underscored by judicious moves to be espied in a walk down the museum’s ramp. There are superficial visual parallels in Wool’s oeuvre to be found among his cohort, in the paintings of Donald Baechler, Albert Oehlen, and Phillip Taaffe, in those of Jacqueline Humphries, Jonathan Lasker, and Rudolf Stingel, but most profoundly, at a corporeal level, in the schizophrenic detritus of the Republic laid bare by sculptor Cady Noland. Likewise, phantoms haunt East Broadway Breakdown, Wool’s grim flash on a depopulated nocturnal downtown which feels like a lugubrious appendix to Peter Hujar’s westside rambles, and is the sole instance at the museum in which anything resembling context is afforded its place in the reception of that at hand. With abstraction understood less as a term of positive value and more as one sign among many, or susceptible to analysis as the fundamental contradiction which models dualistic meta-economic goals, the differential pressure brought to bear upon how art is pictured forms the crux of our contemporary aporia and how it’s educed. I wished for more of this at the Guggenheim, but there’s a brief glimpse of it, or perhaps its facsimile, to be had a few doors down Fifth Avenue in the Exposition de Groupe staged by Olivier Mosset at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.*

Upon arrival in New York City in 1977, Mosset grappled with painting’s relevance as it faced challenges wrought by flourishing new media and dubious critical fortunes. With Marcia Hafif he became a co-founder of radical painting, a union which counted Joseph Marioni, Phil Sims, and Gunter Umberg among its members. In selecting a word from the Latin as a moniker under which to operate, with ‘radical’ derived from radix, the root, point of origin, or base system of number, it’s possible those involved were aware they were administering to that widely thought to be a dead language, all the while living in a city increasingly gripped by darkness, decline, and default. The monochrome again became an emblem, albeit one serving as a desublimating index which redirected any claims of meaning back to its dumb ubeity. Ever since, Mosset’s ‘failed paintings’ have been proffered as sites of indifference and entropy, with the diminished expectations that signaled the end of modernism a clear part of the work’s purported deficiency. This is a regulating ideal Mosset shares with Wool, among others.

The influence Mosset has exerted on artists preoccupied with the social reading of media shouldn’t be underestimated. If he insists upon his art as something singular, Mosset has repeatedly discovered means to position his work in thoughtful relation to the world as it is. This is the painter’s great ongoing project, one so simple and reticent to be almost overlooked. His celebrated kinship with the aforementioned Noland, with John Armleder, with the late Steven Parrino, with Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler, and with many others here and abroad attest to Mosset’s engagement with the ethics of networked community, now emerging in its current digital guise, as the plain basis of our diurnal reality. The monochromes on view at the Embassy are sprayed with a repellent urethane coating, their outsourced improvisation neatly recalling Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Paintings of the 1920s and Alexander Lieberman’s Circle Paintings of the 1950s, both harbingers of that yet to come. Mosset’s lot of white squares is guarded by four baleful steeds, a louche gang of customized motorcycles fashioned by Jeffrey Schad and Vincent Szarek with a polished gleam evocative of the lacquered brilliance that so unnerved Judd’s peers when applied to his constructions in galvanized iron, or in tandem with light copper, red brass, and the other metals of commerce.

Let’s not mistake these things mentioned above for impossible objects, simply the volatile products of an improbable marketplace wherein the manipulation of risk is disaffiliated from the decent, the commonplace, the gray day-to-day. In each instance, they warrant recalling the traces of head space and hand work gone into their making. However, when finance shapes art from within, as it routinely does, theories of labor and exchange are transformed. Digitalization streamlines the velocity of trade and speed of thought, making it terribly efficient. Likewise, with pertinent implication here, it exacerbates deskilling by inventing tools that minimize the hand’s inflection. Yet its technical processes never actually banish thought or gesture, and put a supernumerary ipseity at the service of a haptic visuality that ideally doesn’t acquiesce to the limits of various programs required for output, that is, metaphoric rendering accomplished in a typically object-oriented understanding. This metonymic displacement is related to the transdisciplinary order of cybernetics, likely the true refuge of the avant garde. In this respect, paraphrasing Leo Steinberg, the hand, in addition to the eye, finally becomes a part of the mind. Computation makes physical conundrums explicit, with the contrivances of its morphology relative to the substrate of binary notation, and integrates the distinction between nature and culture Steinberg made in describing the flatbed picture. Respective correlates are found in hybrid surfaces that may or may not be ‘painted’, as it were, with practices of the medium dispersed up, down, and along the xyz axes of the neutral band that structures the algorithmic sign in general.

This reference to liminality, a concept of space not as a container or ground but as just that neutral band, a threshold, or in this instance where the sensibilities of habit cross the cultus of ritual, becomes evident when considering arbitrary correspondences amongst the temporal aspects of the peripatetic mobility of images, brevatim et seriatim, equivalences of objects that are none. They pass before us like the days, bright into shade. As Jean Baudrillard wrote of Mosset, and of some, all this is not nothingness. An object that’s not an object isn’t nothing. It’s a pure object which doesn’t cease to obsess us with its own immanence, its empty material presence. I’d offer the opinion that what this always hazards is the suggestion of a false ontology where viewer and viewed parley in a myopic obsession with one another, with the subject mistaking the profile of the object for the object itself, and the profile, represented as such, creating the fallacy of a subject for its own self- satisfaction.

 

Michael Zahn
22 November 2013


*Olivier Mosset’s Expostion de Groupe is on view in an expanded format at The Kitchen in Chelsea.

Untethered – Not Process and Frank Stella – Continuation…

Since the conversation about Stella was getting long on the post for Untethered – Not Process, I thought we’d expand a bit. So this is a continuation of that discussion, and please forgive the editing – this comment was originally done on the fly and with a very sharp tone – which I regret… My apologies for my petulance – I do tend to pop off at times.

 

Frank Stella "Gobba Zoppa Collotorto" 1985 Art Institute of Chicago
Frank Stella “Gobba Zoppa Collotorto” 1985 Art Institute of Chicago

 

Hi Martin,

This comment will be all over the map…

Yes, I do understand the importance of the individual, and I agree that Stella does not approach this concept in the usual ways. But I think this is a failure of Postmodern abstraction itself. If you’ve read his book, Working Space, you get a sense of the ambition that he has for painting, and he chooses Rubens as one of his starting points. Now Rubens is a complex character in the history of painting. First because of the breadth of his output and second because of the torrential shifts in tone between his public work, which always moves toward outright spectacle, and the private work, which is full of delicate intimacies and private secrets. At one time these kinds of private works could express the complexity of the individual. But today with the all-pervasive online world this is no longer the case. (See the last post on Not Process.)

Stella has never made “private” work – at least not that I’ve come across. He has scaled down his public works in order to piece out his ideas or to sell less expensive work to collectors (I’m sorry, but those smaller stripe paintings are just cute and ridiculous all at once.) I’m not saying that these works lack “individuality” because that’s just outright wrong. They are unique to Stella. But they are not private, never private, and they reveal hardly anything about the master. But when you have corporate executives saying things like this: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” he said. “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” – the idea of the “private individual” has become something else. The closest things that Stella has made that comes close to something we might have at one time termed “private” art are the raw (pre-scanned) smoke ring photographs on the small wall – abstracted Self Portraits. Who knows? Maybe Stella is like the rock star Prince and he’s keeping a secret vault of thousands of these kinds of “private” art works waiting to be discovered after he is gone. We’ll gasp in awe when we find drawings, photos and paintings of assignations, lovers and family. Then the generations that follow will have to reevaluate his story…. Not likely….

Peter Paul Rubens "Rubens, Helena and Frans" 1635 Metropolitan Museum of Art
Peter Paul Rubens “Rubens, Helena and Frans” 1635 Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The transition from signs that dissimulate something to signs that dissimulate that there is nothing marks a decisive turning point. The first reflects a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates the era of simulacra and of simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgment to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance. Jean Baudrillard  “Simulacra and Simulation”

Just as Rubens’ major commissions were about Power so is much of Stella’s work. And especially in the later work from the 80s forward, everything Stella has made is aimed at the Corporate World, the Global Economic Community. In some of those wall constructions he actually used the same manufacturer of European currency printing plates to make his collage elements. (Can you imagine going to the EU Bank and asking to use their plate factory?) As an American abstractionist he can not create the painterly illusions that Rubens was so wonderful with, nor can he turn to a late abstract figuration because he is so tied to Clem’s Neo-Modern dictums of process, purity and abstraction. His solution to volume, form, illusion and caricature from the start of his career was to turn to the pure logic of industrial manufacture, to the processes of Fordist production which he then later used in his sculptural architectures. Sculpture, as we know, is already in the round, already volumetric and in our space. The Gordian knot had been cut and illusion, the thing Stella hammers on about in Working Space, is beside the point – clever that.

Paint in these works is used as a “decoration” – to create patterns or “flows” like the graffiti work that inspired his thinking in Working Space – his painting never describes or creates the illusion of caricature as it once did on Roman and Greek statutes. Instead it vandalizes the volumes, becomes transgressive, fights the sculptural forms pushing them towards flatness and abstraction. In these painted wall works the visual power comes from the hermetic spaces within the work itself. The contrived forms, made more aggressive with color or cut, push outward into our space, the space of the gallery – or as Nechvatal’s “open letter” states – it pokes you in the eye. This aggression of form, the positing of an alternate theoretical visual reality, is something Stella delineates over and over again in Working Space. It’s always been Frank’s intention to make visual, to make “real,” the abstract – even in those early Black works.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTduy7Qkvk8?start=2&end=48

 

Abstraction allows for this kind of visual aggression because it carries none of the “figure,” none of the vulnerability of human existence in it – at least not in the Postmodern era. Our kind of abstraction is fashioned like a disaster of war, an economic meltdown or a car crash – an aggressive event entirely of our own making, a glitch in our conceptual reality that must be pieced back together at all costs. This is how Empires work, how they are formed – in the moments of break down when the abstraction becomes fails into violence. And whether we wish to acknowledge it or not the American Empire began just so with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 followed by one abstract crisis after another. It was about this time that Stella’s wall constructions really began to push out into the spaces of the galleries. And it was also at this time that a new kind of abstract realism began to be felt in his constructions. Stella had made the jump…

Peter Paul Rubens "The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles"
Peter Paul Rubens “The Landing of Marie de Médicis at Marseilles” 1623-25 Louvre Museum 

Private or Public

What constitutes the individual in a world where there can not be private moments? What does that individual look like? To get back to Rubens – when middle aged Peter paints his young family out for a stroll in the arcadian garden what is he saying about his life? When Rubens paints those giant swirling Medici cycle paintings for the French Royals what is he saying about their lives? How does one inform the other? Does Peter’s individual life matter to those whose power Rubens’ celebrates? One thing comes clear when confronted with his Public work – the individual Paul could never exist in Rubens’ branded abstraction of power. What is that difference? Well I’ll leave that up to you…

 

 

Individuality as a Fad?

I can not attack Stella for the lack of an “individual” viewpoint. The individual no longer exists in the Empire of the Corporate Spectacle. Since the late sixties and early seventies his work has been in service to other, “grander” things. His paintings solve problems – problems of scale, composition, space, etc. while providing “difference” – much like Rem Koolhaus and Frank Gehry who create “individual” forms of architecture through a brand name experience. These Postmoderns make allusions to traditions of art, literary, musical, and visual art, but they do so outside of the cult of the “individual.” They do it through the systems and operations of “critique.” And my apologies to those who know Frank (who seems like a lovely person,) but his works are aesthetically ruthless, hungry, terrible and awesome in ways most abstractionists today can not understand and do not “see.” Most abstractionists are either lost in nostalgia or they are too busy covering up their imagery with sheets of paint or skeins of overlaid images confusing the issues of what they are painting and what they are trying to express. Stella on the other hand makes no bones about it. He is straight forward, creating powerful images that twist a room to their own ends.

 

Jason Frago "Passive Abstraction to riotous Baroque" October, 29 2015 The Guardian - Photo By Justin Lane
Jason Frago “Passive Abstraction to riotous Baroque” October, 29 2015 The Guardian – Photo By Justin Lane

 

In that back room those 3 wall sculptures do just that. Like the Rubens painting of the arriving Medici princessa there is absolutely no room, no space big enough to hold those impossibly morphing things. There is no room for us! You’re not going to be able to back away, to find space, to catch things one at time. Those images are going to roll over you, just like American foreign policy, just like Moby attacking the Pequod. And just like Rubens’ Queen the world explodes on arrival. In fact for Rubens this moment is so powerful and auspicious that even the mythological realm intrudes in the form of group of water nymphs coming to pay tribute and celebrate a new overpowering reality. Is Stella’s White Whale, are his aesthetic choices, any different? It’s the same kind of “poke in the eye” if you ask me.

Untethered – NOT Process

chain

 

Abstractionists, both for and against, just can’t seem to quit Mr. Greenberg – even at this late date. However, these days Clem’s Neo-Modern legacy is used more for practical concerns than theoretical ones. In other words, if a painter wanted to make a beautiful, sellable, marketable abstraction how would she go about it? The Modernist formal recipe is a fairly simple enterprise – abstraction happens in the application of materials – From A to B so to speak. Unfold swaths of canvas, use industrial amounts of whatever medium is handy, and if really daring, apply those materials over some kind of schematic map or grid. Viola! A lovely decorative object full of Modernist Process and Material Purity. Out of this Fordist formula have come recent market investment favorites like the Zombies and the Provisionals and whatever other abstraction that looks suitably manufactured for a High Net Worth Individual.

These newly minted objects do not work like Old-School Formalists’ productions. Those lyrical color-fields would unfold like academic landscape painting rather than “antiqued” countertop surfaces. They included vast meadows of clotted hues, hazy stretches of flat skies, splashes of watery mediums, occasional itchy-scratchy lines or a lazy geometric shape floating in the ambiguous acreage. All of this Neo-Modern formalism was bound up with an evangelic reverence for the purity of material color and surface flatness – a mixture of Modern strictures and Transcendentalist romanticism. These artists wanted to maintain a connection to historical precedent while doing away with the need for image making, and what was sought was mindful, meditative, abstract landscapes.

POMO Formalism

Today’s Formalism has done away with that Old School acolyte fervor in favor of pure Postmodern studio productions. Rather than explicate the banal realities and theoretics of how the thing is made the POMO formalist will simply “feature” those processes. Process (as manufacture) and purity (as material and/or medium,) Clem’s formal contingencies, are front and center. The economic art world over the last few years has become filled with these kind of niche productions – from the classic types like painting, sculpture and photography, all the way to conceptual video installation and one-night-only performance pieces. What is important for these works is the documenting of the processes surrounding and supporting the making, displaying and selling of the piece. The event supplants the final outcome. And this creates a strange relationship to the work itself, makes it into a kind of theatrical prop. The final work in this case is like a MacGuffin“a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place, or person; other, more abstract types include money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”  This is how abstractions of abstraction happen in our NeoLiberal society.

Expenditure Capital

Production, manufacture and the business associated with those processes have fascinated American artists since the mid 1800s. Our early Modernists – artists like Stieglitz, Demuth, Davis, and Sheeler – were mesmerized by industrial America. The AbExers adopted new kinds of studio production in order to create formal abstraction. The desire to “end the easel picture” was on everyone’s lips. In the late 50s and early 60s the hum of machined perfection and a new kind of abstract production drew artists like Stella, Judd and Andre. The slickness and ubiquity of mechanical media was also the focus in the work of Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein. As the meaning of Process changed, as new means for Process became available it changed the structures and outcomes of Clem’s Neo-Modernism. And it was done quickly and decisively.

Our culture today is not only created on machines, but it is disseminated and received through them as well. Our world is flooded with mechanically created process imagery – videos of high-tech programmed rockets going down chimney stacks, slo-mo car accident footage, POV pornography and reality DIY television. We can’t get enough of these working programmable machines focusing on the endless explications of technique. So why wouldn’t these interactions translate into art, into our “advanced” culture, especially when it’s the focus of so much of our everyday existence? In fact we have reached the point where artists can say without irony that the process, the making of the thing, has actually made the thing in itself redundant.

 

 

Studio Incorporated

It was fun watching the Gerhard Richter movie a couple of years back. We got to see the master hard at work in his astounding studio making a series of new works. I could have done without the annoying atonal soundscapes playing in the background. But I guess there was a need for some transcendent flavor to tart up the banality of it all. (Why? – for goodness sake…) What I did find interesting in the film was that Richter started these paintings as formalist abstract landscapes and then proceeded to wipe them out with layer upon layer of viscous oil paint applied with larger and ever larger, what? – squeegees, scrapers, I don’t know, application tools. Whatever they’re called the old man struggled at times with these clumsy things pushing the thick goop up and down, left and right, buffing those surfaces into a luscious oily sheen. Then he would go back in to antique the shimmery finishes, scraping away the icing layer that he had labored to apply. I was a bit horrified by all of this, I have to say. So much waste to create that handmade distressed surface of clotted color…. But there was also a deeper and more significant symbolism at “work” here. The “abstract” picture or the “abstract” image must be wiped out, buried under the process and materiality of paint. Even as the culture at large is swamped in images, even as abstraction has claimed every image that we see, the answer to our world of abstracted images is to engage in a retrograde iconoclasm.

However you feel about Richter’s paintings you have to admit that this movie is his “Jackson Pollock” moment. Most of us have seen Hans Namuth’s famous film about Jackson painting (with similar annoying atonal music, by the way.) This particular film also has the distinction of being infamous – an Icarus myth-in-the-making if there ever has been one. After the day of filming Jackson got lethally hammered starting his painful slide into oblivion. But thankfully, Richter’s movie certifies and celebrates this legendary painter in a different Neo-Liberal economic way. We get to see the systems, the economics, the machines and programs in detail which have created the master we all know and love. This kind of documentary has become ubiquitous in today’s Economic Art World. Videos of artists working in their studios are something of a right of passage. And in fact our fascination and celebration of process through process, abstraction through abstraction, has become a means of dramatizing the banality of making art itself.

In the recent “Mr. Turner” we get to see all the drama of Turner working his magic during the famous Summer Exhibition. The dramatic art competition, the furious painting performance, the overwrought plays of personality heighten the historical theatrical inaccuracies. The film creates a retroactive art historical legend – “Harry Potter and the Wizard of the Royal Academy.” I also like that this particular DVD “extra” clip is actually a DIY reality show that describes the complicated process about making a dead artist’s studio process “real” for a contemporary film. Two for one so to speak.

(I’ve clipped the vid to the first couple of minutes – click on the vid to watch the whole thing in youtube if you like. Or better yet rent or buy the thing…)

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgT535AhtLo?start=7&end=143

 

NeoModernism and Economics

Clem’s ideas about how an advanced culture works were very straight forward. In AG&K there is a brief but frank discussion about its constituents and how they should function. Clem understood that High Culture isn’t created for the average citizen. No. The rank and file, the hoi polloi, prefer the prepackaged products manufactured by the economic markets – the easily sellable entertainments of Popular Culture. Clem, instead, makes the case for an advanced culture produced for the cultivated spectator – a person of wealth and refinement who has achieved a “high” level of success, ease, education and sophistication. This person would be able to invest and protect this advanced work, create a situation for the avant-garde artist to make a living from her work and prosper, make advanced culture viable and available within the much wider and more popular lower forms of culture. And in this particular case Clem set himself up to be the gate keeper for access to that advanced culture. Clever sod.

At the time Clem wrote AG&K there was very little of this kind of interest and investment in speculative advanced Art going on in the US, especially for American painters. Most of the moneyed collectors, the “cultivated spectators,” were still going to Europe for their avant-garde purchases. The mainstays of these cultivated collectors were Impressionism, early Modernism, and for the daring collector a bit of louche Surrealism. Very little money was being spent on the 8th Street painters. As it turned out, Clem, in addition to being a great theorist was also a practical businessman. And he was great at creating a market and a network for the New York Art World.

Clem was instrumental in manufacturing the American avant-garde art world into a vibrant business model – almost from scratch. Yes, that’s hyperbole, there were many others pushing in this direction as well, but Clem was the American Avant-garde’s CEO. Thanks to him by the end of the 1950s the Rockefellers were collecting abstract work in a big way for their corporate and government interests. (The Empire State Plaza Art Collection looks like it has Clem Greenberg’s imprints all over it.) And money began to flow into this new economy in a big way. By the time the Sculls (who began collecting in the mid ’50s) sold there collection in the early 70s, a 1958 Rauschenberg purchased for 900 bucks was auctioned for 85,000 frickin’ dollars. Bucks to dollars in about 15 years time – making the Avant-garde a gold standard investment.

 

Empire State Plaza Art Collection Paintings

 

Cyclical Proce$$

We must not be deceived by superficial phenomena and local successes. Picasso’s shows still draw crowds, and T. S. Eliot is taught in the universities; the dealers in modernist art are still in business, and the publishers still publish some “difficult” poetry. But the avant-garde itself, already sensing the danger, is becoming more and more timid every day that passes. Academicism and commercialism are appearing in the strangest places. This can mean only one thing: that the avant-garde is becoming unsure of the audience it depends on — the rich and the cultivated…. Prior to this the only market for formal culture, as distinguished from folk culture, had been among those who, in addition to being able to read and write, could command the leisure and comfort that always goes hand in hand with cultivation of some sort. This until then had been inextricably associated with literacy. But with the introduction of universal literacy, the ability to read and write became almost a minor skill like driving a car, and it no longer served to distinguish an individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes. Clement Greenberg “Avant Garde and Kitsch” 1939.

 

Unlike Clem’s monetary dilemma in the 30s the “avant-garde” today is not unsure of the audience it depends upon. The rich and the cultivated flock to art fairs, gallery openings, biennials and trade shows by the Learjet load. And once there they hand over billions of dollars each year to the Art Economy. Our infrastructure – museums, galleries, auction houses and media – celebrates these collectors and mythologizes their largess in embarrassing shows of fawning supplication. Our “avant-garde” produces work strictly for these “cultivated collectors” in special limited editions, in designer private-label series, so that each collector class will be able to buy their own version of the exact same thing. (And be assured that these series are purposely “limited” so that future demand can outstrip supply.) Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs, Cattelan’s Hanging Horses, Nauman’s Neons, Warhol’s Poppies, Stella’s Constructions, whatever the art is, it’s being done in marketable, publicized, certified and documented series. Even if these products are handmade one-of-a-kind objects they are done with the market and the collecting economy in mind.

Most all the gallery shows (at least here in NYC) are made up of works that are of the same “collectible” size, all on the same theme and in many cases, all done with similar compositions and color schemes – not exact copies but close enough to be recognizable as part of a specific period, a branded style, an “important” moment of “revelation.” This economic mania for the “series” may harken back to the “production” precedent set by Modern artists like Cezanne who spent a lifetime hanging his chunky brushstrokes all over that little blue mountain in the South of France. But for Paul making a “series” of work was humanely different. He wasn’t producing work for the next show or the next collector or the market, because there wasn’t one – at least not for his work. We are all taught in our MFA schools, encouraged by our gallerists and indoctrinated by other successful artists that THIS current Career Process, this market process, is the correct one. This is how it’s done. This is our model to maintain a thriving avant-garde and a successful career.

 

 

Coda

“It is a visual, and therefore, a visceral betrayal.”

Modernism began with a critique of not only culture, but society, politics and economics. For decades the Modern program was to build a new kind of society, a new kind of economy and a new kind of vision to define that society. But those theoretical intentions didn’t really flourish until the mid-Century when Modernism and Capital came together in Clem’s Neo-Modernism. And we can not dismiss the fact that when Clem wrote AG&K in 1939 he was a Marxist, but by the 1960s he had changed his tune a bit to become a more profit minded Socialist. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Cold War ended in 1991 Fukuyama declared the American Empire the defacto “winner” bringing into power the NeoLiberal Economic Era. Since that moment the world has become fully capitalized, privatized and corporatized. Our Global Economy exists and thinks in terms of Capital. Our only solutions to humanity’s problems, every solution to every global issue, is Corporatization, privatization, capitalization – from art to science, war to peace, housing to healthcare, urban planning to farming, global warming to energy exploration, and in our tiny art world, high and low culture – you name it, whatever the problem, or in the parlance of NeoLiberalism, whatever “opportunity” presents itself, the solution involves a profit making Process of one kind or another. This is the purity of process and Postmodern contextual replacement – an abstraction of an abstraction that creates an economic opportunity.

There has never been a more abstract society, a more abstract culture than we have today. And whether we agree with Clem or not he was right on the money (so to speak) about the “avant-garde” and their supporters. What doesn’t exist any longer in our avant-garde is the “float” of innovation and rebellion that used to exist between “reality” and what used to be called “abstraction.” Today it is one and same. Process and purity may have driven the Neo-Modern era, but Postmodernism emptied that out. Process and purity no longer describe an aesthetic, they have no meaning for vision, no meaning for an avant-garde that uses them as a selling point for the cultivated collector. As I’m swiping and touching, capturing and uploading, checking my bank balance and paying my credit cards, purchasing all kinds of goods and services with apps of every kind and type – process exists independently of intention – it exists without existence – it functions without history – without input – without involvement…. And in the midst all of this Abstract Process we can no longer hold onto the hollow idea that Abstraction could or should be considered subversive or innovative. Especially in this age where the Abstract is Real.