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.

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