Compelling Scenarios Part 3

In the art world, it’s the narratives that define the assets. The cleaner and more enticing they are, the better for artist, gallerist, and curator alike. Because the client base is no longer full of connoisseurs, and their intentions for artwork are no longer restricted to unraveling transcendent mysteries. Knowledge isn’t power in this realm – it’s money. The quicker the suppliers can provide the former, the quicker the consumers will provide the latter, and the larger the market can grow. Narratives Make the Art World Go ‘Round, Schneider, The Gray Market, January 30, 2014.

Clem was sure that the artist had to turn away from the “subject matter of common experience.” But in practice this never happened. Instead as art became more “abstract” the need for explanation became more imperative. Why is this particular work of interest? Why is it important? What is being said? None of these questions can be readily answered through process abstraction itself. It turns out that Modernist Art driven by subjectivity absolutely needs context. And so we turn our attention to the artist. If we know more about the artist, about how they live, what they think, how they produce, then maybe meaning, narrative, can be overlaid upon the work, make it accessible, make it valuable. The truth is Modernist Art, all of Modernist Art, more than any other kind of art, depends upon this kind of advertising. And it starts with Jackson.


Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock painting, 1950.

“I’m not a phony! You’re a phony!”

There he was, lean and sinewy, cigarette hung on the lower lip, clad in black jeans and tee, worn work boots soaked in paint. He looked the part of an American Genius. The war was over, America was now the Super Power. Aside from our military and economy, what did we have to offer, culturally, besides Hollywood? Enter the Rebel hard at work. Pollock was an icon of cool making hot paintings for cold collectors who were on the make for the next big thing. Jackson’s legend began to grow. There he was fist fighting at the Cedars (and not very successfully) or relieving himself in Peggy’s fireplace (very successfully.) There he was in Life Magazine hailed as the next big thing? His paintings photographed by Cecil Beaton wound up in Vogue, backdrops for upscale fashionistas. This narrative was entrancing, the paintings lovely. True or false it didn’t matter. Over the years we’ve embellished these stories, made a movie about them, turned Jackson’s abstractions into cultural touchstones. The common experience makes the process relevant.

It was Namuth’s images more than Pollock’s paintings that grabbed the public’s imagination, Ms. Rose wrote in ”Pollock Painting.” A rhetoric developed around them, a language of trances and rituals, boxing and dancing, rhythm and randomness. Even the critics based their theories on the photos. Harold Rosenberg’s famous 1952 essay in Art News, ”The American Action Painters,” was not about painting at all, Ms. Rose suggests. Rosenberg ”was describing Namuth’s photographs of Pollock.” Critics Notebook; The Photos That Changed Pollock’s Life, NYT, Sarah Boxer December 15, 1998.


Hollis Frampton, Frank Stella Painting, 1958-1962.

You see what you see…

Since Pollock we’ve seen these kinds of narratives develop around all manner of painting and all manner of artists. One after another stories have been applied over the processes of the studio and aimed directly at the market. They are advertising, marketing, packaging. Frank Stella’s career is instructive in this. From the very beginning he was involved in documenting his rising career, creating a narrative for the punters. Here is a fortunate photo of one of Frank’s famous Black Paintings, Getty Tomb, in process. We are witnesses to the creation of one of the very first and now very famous Minimalist Abstractions. At the time of this photo Frank was just 23 years old, ambitious and already savvy about the Modernist market. Look at the simplicity of this narrative framed by Hollis Frampton. Frank makes an abstraction by instruction, like a paint by numbers schematic. There’s nothing special about this process, not really. It’s just enamel paint, hardware store materials, a pattern and some elbow grease. The photo implies that he’s manufacturing an abstract just as Ford builds cars or Clorox makes bleach. The image is intended to make the abstraction legible, to give it context and precedent.

This is how the world turns an unknown abstraction, an unknown artist into an asset. And it was Clem’s bad faith pitch about the renunciation of “common experience” which moved that focus onto the artist. Pollock understood this and it proved his undoing. It was Stella’s generation that adopted and modified Clem’s Modernist directives while by-passing the historical proving ground. And anyone who has watched or seen Namuth’s images about Jackson at work knows their power. So these younger artists created their own narratives, their own common experiences and entered the market system. And in all honesty this need to comply to the compelling scenario hasn’t stopped. This Modernist Process, this contextual explication of abstraction, still plays out today on sites all over the internet – just like this one….

Whether it’s Barnett Newman, Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst we need their stories in order to form a consensus about the work. That said, how real does this narrative, this common experience have to be? Can we find consensus even if the narrative is made up, if it’s a pose or a provocation? Damien Hirst’s recent fantasy show in Venice answered these questions. “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” created abstraction through a “documented” 10 year antiquing process while advertising the worth and value of the work on view. But there’s really nothing new about this Branum factor either. Only the size and scale has changed. Franks’ photo op was a staged event. And this documentation was absolutely part of the studio process, intended to elucidate the moment. Does this photo of this particular painting at this particular time make the painting that much more valuable to us, to the collectors, to the institutions and by extension to the markets? What context does it provide to make the work legible? What does this photo actually say about the importance and singularity of the Modernist Process and by extension the value of and the need for abstraction and context? And at this point we have to ask – which is more important – the studio or the common experience?

Compelling Scenarios Part 4 to come…

3 thoughts on “Compelling Scenarios Part 3

  1. The eponymous owner of the Paul Rodgers Gallery in Chelsea(may be closed)who specialized in Hantai and Marioni follows my blog and sent me his self-published take on Modernism.Dedicates a chapter to Newman and another to Pollock whom he thinks are the greatest due to their metaphysical aspirations.The citations about Newman’s life seemed a little hyped so I took notice when you grouped him in with Stella and Pollock et alia.I will now take Rodgers’ words on Newman with some suspicion.
    This all reeks of Bernays.

  2. Looking forward to seeing where this is going. The relation between art production and the art market is a little hazy for me, especially as it seems a fundamental mistake at the onset, if the goal were to explore and discover new visual, imaginative terrain.

    I’ve has some similar observations about Pollock, and how the pictures of hm in Life magazine were more important than the pictures he made. You might find my article on that amusing:

    I think I will be notified when past 4 emerges, as I checked the little box below.

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