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.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
“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.