Design and Designer

“…H&M has enlisted American figurative artist Alex Katz, known his brightly colored portraiture, as the latest to design a capsule collection. Katz’s signature style will be woven into clothing for men and women as well as homewares. “The partnership with H&M surpassed my expectations,” Katz told Vogue. “It is exciting for me to work with H&M to make my art more accessible to more people.” “As Alex Katz Teams Up With H&M Are Artist Collabs the New Fast Fashion Trend?” Kyle Munzenrieder, W Magazine.

Alex Katz Wildflowers 1 (MD), 2010 Oil on linen 40 x 50 inches
Alex Katz, Wildflowers 1 (MD), 2010, Oil on linen, 40 x 50 inches

Continuing on from yesterday’s questions about commerce and an artist’s involvement in that commerce….

Today we have Alex Katz working his magic for H&M. Now what the firm means by his “signature style” I can’t say. How would this translate into clothing? Maybe the flattened, toned color, the abstracted line, and the red lipsticks will be featured. Maybe these clothes will radiate a kind of mid-50s to early 60s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” feel, the same feeling that pervades Katz’s figurative work. Maybe the signature style is about colorful, well dressed, contented Preppies enjoying the fruits of the American Empire. Alright, that’s a bit OTT, but so what? I’m not really keen on Katz’s portraiture which to my eye comes across like American Anime, but his landscape work on the other hand is beautiful – decorative, assured and visual at once. Maybe these bucolic paintings will be made into pattern which could easily be done. There aren’t any photos of the clothing line yet, so I’m talking from an uninformed place – which has never stopped me before….

But all that aside – I have to ask again – why would successful and well-regarded artists do this sort of thing? Is it the money? Is it the chance to reach out to a wider audience – as so many artists like to claim? Yesterday, I discussed my questions about Barbara Kruger designing a label for a winery, because her work, or my interpretation of her work, IS critiquing Consumer Culture, using its very own advertising tools to have a go at it. The work is political, social, anti-consumerist in its stance. So seeing her work on a bottle of wine rang my bell. Again, I don’t know the context of her involvement so I may be shooting my mouth off while stuffing in all ten toes at the same time. I kinda hope that’s the case. Then I can remove my feet, apologize for my ignorance, and put her book back on my library shelf. I’ve always been very impressed with the snarky stridency of Ms. Kruger’s work.

Alex Katz on the other hand, well, I’m not so sure that this kind of work is outside of commerce, or better yet, it’s not critiquing commerce or society or politics or much of anything, really. His work documents, glorifies and beautifies a certain kind of lifestyle in America. There’s nothing much to argue about in these images. His work does indeed have a “signature style”. His color is wonderful, and there’s a quirky flatness that makes the paintings feel contemporary. There isn’t a lick of tension to be seen anywhere. His subject matter and painting style is profoundly bourgeois, and his work continues the 19th Century “Belle Epoque” painting tradition. I would like to think that Mr. Katz is a most contented human being and a gracious man to be around – but then what do I know? He might very well be Satan making serene paintings to pull us over to the dark side. In any case I believe that he’s managed to perfect his own version of Matisse’s armchair…

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

And if I think about it – I guess this kind of thing would be perfect for a clothing line.

Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation

It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.
But there is another world outside. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago – that then festered and mutated – but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury. Piercing though the wall of our fake world.”

A fantastic documentary on power, politics, and vision.

Link to the full HyperNormalisation here.

Commerce and Commercialism

“She created the image “Taste” exclusively for Bedell Cellars, suggesting the notion that taste can influence what we love, how we live, and who we think we are.”

“Much of Kruger’s work pairs found photographs with pithy and assertive text that challenges the viewer. She develops her ideas on a computer, later transferring the results (often billboard-sized) images. Examples of her instantly recognizable slogans read “I shop therefore I am,” and “Your body is a battleground,” appearing in her trademark white letters against a red background. Much of her text calls attention to ideas such as feminism, consumerism, and individual autonomy and desire, frequently appropriating images from mainstream magazines and using her bold phrases to frame them in a new context.” Wikipedia entry for Barbara Kruger.

I recently visited some friends who live in Long Island. I don’t do such things very often, and I thought this short trip might enable me to have a laconic suburban experience. Instead I was introduced to a fast-paced throng-filled world of viniculture and farm-to-table gastronomy. It seems that Long Island agribusinesses have made themselves into a thriving service industry aimed at the deep pocketbooks of well-heeled weekend home owners. The best way to describe this cavalcade of epicurean pleasure seeking is that it’s modeled after the highly successful tourist-friendly Napa Valley – a Faux-Napa, if you will. My friends and I headed out for the wine tastings on offer only to find that the back roads and blue highways were jam-packed with hundreds of other gastro-nauts turning what should have been an ordinary twenty minute drive into an hours long commute.

What’s immediately apparent is that the gentrification going on in this farm country is astounding to witness. Homes are being bought up by wealthy city dwellers looking for weekend get aways, and the locals are cashing out and leaving. It seems that NYC is exporting more and more of its economic theoretics. Bloombergism is flooding through the tunnels. Anyway, my first taste of ex-urban second-home living left me a bit uneasy and riddled with lots of questions I just wasn’t prepared to engage. I sat with my friends, whom I love, at the Bedell winery enjoying a conversation about life, incomprehensible traffic, the pros and cons of antipasto, and contemporary art when I suddenly realized that the labels on the wine bottles were designed by Chuck Close, Eric Fischl and Barbara Kruger. As it turned out the Barbara Kruger wine was actually extremely good – in addition to being extremely expensive.

Considering the moment- good friends, lovely wine, good conversation – I was bothered by what I thought these labels might mean. I found these artists’ involvement in this particular commercial enterprise just a bit off putting. But why should this be so? I’ve never had a problem with artists making money from their work. I mean it’s just a gig after all, right? One has to work for a living. Make money when you can. Put a roof over your head and food on the table. Maybe these artists hang out at this particular winery. I know that I would, especially for that Kruger Red – delicious. Maybe they drink, run up a tab, and this is how they pay it off. Artists have been doing that kind of thing for centuries. But these are successful artists. Their works sell for tens of thousands of dollars and resell for millions. Surely a bar tab is an easy nut for them to crack.

Which brings me back to my unease. It stems from what Robert Hughes was talking about in his Mona Lisa Curse – the annoying unanswered question in our Neo-Liberal era. What is the purpose of Art? If one uses one’s ideas, one’s style, for purely commercial purposes does this invite parody, insincerity, bad faith? I really had no idea what was going on here or how this artists’ label series came about. For all I know there’s a perfectly noble reason for this kind of commercialization – like charity or something. I mean why would successful artists package a bottle of wine or for that matter endorse a consumer product with their serious work? Especially in the case of an artist like Barbara Kruger. Her entire critique depends on satire and irony, appropriation and exaggeration. The work’s centered on “feminism, consumerism and individual autonomy and desire”, and yet, here the same imagery is used for packaging a bottle of wine, a high end consumer product priced to sell at 70 bucks a bottle. What exactly does Barbara mean by “Taste”?

Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am),1987.

To be fair to Barbara Kruger making a label for a wine bottle may not have been a difficult decision. Her work has been used in commercial ways before. She comes from advertising, has worked and prospered in that world. Like most Postmodernists who like to play on all sides, Kruger seems to like to do so as well. Context is everything! But still I was bothered. So I began to think about and question consumerism and contemporary artists relationship to that consumerism. When does an artist turn their work into a product for sale rather than an art work for sale? IS there a difference? Do we still make distinctions  between unique works of art and consumer products? Should we? And if so what is that distinction here in the Neo-Liberal world where everything has an economic purpose? What is an artist’s ethical duty to their work – is there one? Should there be one? What, exactly, is a Postmodern avant-garde provocation and where is its focus? And why would an artist whose work is committed to a critique of consumer culture and its impact on society use their work to sell consumer products? Does it matter?